It’s been just over two years since the first time I heard Skálmöld. While most of those in Reykjavik for Iceland Airwaves 2012 were at the big Sigur Rós show on Sunday night, we were hunkered down at Gamli Gaukurinn to see a few bands and close out the festival. Skálmöld was the first metal band my wife had ever seen live. And she loved it.
Skálmöld put out two releases in 2014. The first was a CD/DVD of a live show they did in Reykjavik’s opera house, Harpa, in November 2013, a two hour extravaganza that featured the band backed by a full orchestra and not one but two choirs, which, given their epic style of metal, was a perfect accompaniment. The other was their third full length album, the very recently released Með Vættum, which is so new that the record stores in Reykjavik only had it on CD when we first arrived in town for Airwaves last week, not getting stock of the vinyl until after the festival was already underway. I couldn’t wait and bought both CDs as soon as we arrived.
Skálmöld Og Sinfóniuhljómsveit Íslands
The whole heavy metal band playing in front of an orchestra thing has been done before, perhaps most famously by Metallica all the way back in 1999, so it’s nothing new. And while it’s certainly true that metal and classical music have WAY more in common that most fans would choose to admit (especially classical fans…), most metal bands aren’t as well suited for the orchestral treatment as Skálmöld. Their style is so perfectly epic, so rooted in classical Norse mythology, so deep in it’s fast and slow parts, that it’s like a Wagner opera. But, you know, with tattoos and mohawks.
I can’t say enough about how nearly flawless this performance is. The CD runs roughly 85 minutes and includes 11 tracks, three of which run over 11 minutes apiece. The DVD gives you the whole concert, all two hours, including the old orchestra conductor throwing the horns out to the crowd. My only complaint is that we don’t get all two hours on CD or digital download – you’d have to rip it from the DVD.
Björgvin Sigurðsson’s raspy, aggressive, powerful vocals drive Skálmöld, along with the ripping, soaring guitars and super-fast drums. But they can also pull it back a notch to give you something more folkishly Midieval, which is where keyboardist and oboe player Gunnar Ben comes into play. Not only does the band make sure to change pace at times to a slower vibe that brings Ben’s instruments to the forefront, his clean tenor voice with it’s perfect cadence can turn a song on a dime and take it to a different place. This is most noticeable on the opening two minutes of “Miðgarðsormur,” which might be my favorite segment of the entire performance. He also opens the show with an acapella song, with some backing vocals from a choir, as well – an incredibly powerful and amazing way to open a show. This is a band that knows what it’s about, and knows how to use the strengths of all of its members.
We’ve also got some impressive guest vocalists participating in this show. Aðalbjörn Tryggvason of Sólstafir joins the band for a song, while the seemingly impossibly-voiced female singer Edda Tegeder sings on another with her deep, gravely voice that sounds like molten metal itself as it starts to cool and harden (she also contributed vocals to Börn Loka). Unfortunately the Tryggvason track didn’t make the CD, but Tegeder’s did, and it stops me dead in my tracks every time I hear her voice, which is the perfect pairing with that of Sigurðsson. How that voice comes out of that woman, I’ll never know.
Skálmöld Og Sinfóniuhljómsveit Íslands is, simply put, an incredible metal performance. You owe it to yourself to check it out.
Með Vættum picks up right where Skálmöld left off with 2012’s Börn Loka – the band once again brings their soaring, shredding Viking metal to the shores of your brain where they will pillage and plunder, especially if you have the volume turned up. And this is the kind of music that begs you to turn it up to 11.
The album’s eight songs are broken down into four two-song segments – a pair of songs for each of the four points of the compass. And one of the two songs for each point is named for a season, the other for a beast – the bird, the dragon, the giant, and the bull. Not speaking Icelandic, I can’t tell you how it all fits together vocally, or exactly what story is being told. But whatever the story is, it involves pain and violence and steel and and battles and loneliness and rage. It’s the kind of music that makes you want to throw on some armor and a helmet, pick up your sword, axe, and shield, get on your horse, and invade northern Europe in search of booty and glory. Some people will undoubtedly get hurt. Bummer for them. And if you get killed and die a good death, you’ll get to go to Valhalla, so you’ve got that going for you. Which is nice. This is music that makes me want to seriously get after it.
Some of the more most Skálmöld-ish riffs are on “Að Hausti” and “Að Vetri,” a pair of sort of Celtic metal sounding tracks with powerful, structured, and relentless attacks. They also get doomy at times, most notably in the middle sections of “Með Jötnum” and “Með Drekum.” It’s interesting that the season songs seem like more in your face metal attacks while the animal/creature songs have interesting interludes in the middle of them. Coincidence? You be the judge.
And you really should be the judge, because there’s no reason to not add both of these albums to your metal library. Skálmöld is one of the best metal bands out there today, IMO, so if you’re like me and you like that more “classic” style of metal, check ’em out. Just try to resist the urge to invade anything except maybe the fridge for another beer while you’re rocking out.