No doubt, if you’ve read my work on black metal in the popular music press, I am unashamedly a fan of many of the bands on Bergen, Norway’s Dark Essence record label. Besides featuring brilliant multi-instrumentalist Hoest and his act Taake, Dark Essence, has some boundary breaking artists that have taken Northern Europe by maelstrom. Aeternus, Sarkom, Orkan and ex-Carpathian Forest-infused The 3rd Attempt are just a smattering of the bands that continue to push black metal past the plain vanilla, tumblr-inspired North American blackgaze, shoegaze and Ray-Ban-gaze that has been passing as “black metal” for the past few years. As many American metal audiences listen to these domestic scene appropriators and contemplate their next opportunity to virtue signal on Twitter, a thriving realm continues in Bergen that stands firmly entrenched in Norwegian black metal tradition that never attempted to go commercial (and because you’re thinking it, Dimmu Borgir is based in Oslo and Myrkur is from Denmark). Helheim is a Dark Essence band that has existed for years in the Western Scandinavian scene but has finally made their first trip across the globally warmed pond to the United States after twenty plus years of existence.
Helheim, which features Taake live bassist V’gandr; H’grimnir and Noralf on guitars and Hyrmr on drums, does take some time to acclimate to – as does most Norwegian black metal. Unlike more traditional second wave bands such as Darkthrone, Helheim composes songs with complex structures and a generous use of traditional instruments you may not normally hear in metal – mouth harps and timpani for example – that give the listener an experience of multiple layers, and, at times, a slight disorientation. This disorientation, however, is not in the vein of a later Syd Barrett composition or Thurston Moore trying to wrap his head around the basics of the American political system (Hey Thurston – hint: Ronald Reagan was NOT a fascist), but rather a sonic atmosphere that takes the listener to another place and time. In most cases the place and time is pre-modern Norway and/or the Norse mythological realm. Their name, of course, comes from the Norwegian underworld, one of the nine mythological worlds and ruled by Hel, daughter of Loki and his wife Angrboda. Now, I’m sure Marvel comics will turn this all around soon and have Loki be revealed as a 19 year old Natalie Portman who ran away from the film industry after reading the script to Attack of the Clones and has been fooling the cinematic world with the use of a clone of her own in every starring role since… but that’s another article.
I will admit, I was late to the Helheim party. I didn’t experience Helheim live until 2013 in Oslo. I was familiar with their records since 2008’s Kaoskult, but didn’t know what to expect face to face. I went to see them at a small club called Bla and I was blown away by their musicianship, stage presence and relentless intensity. I got to see them again in Bergen at the Blekkmetal festival and they gave a thrilling performance that the crowd adored. Their latest release is the brilliant landawarijaR, which follows up 2015’s raunijaR. Both recordings are thought-provoking, complex and compelling. Sonically, the vocal exchanges between V’gandr and H’grmnir concurrently demonstrate a grimness and a wonder, similar to Norwegian winters that chill you to the bone yet provide majestic visuals you won’t find anywhere else.
One of the striking aspects of Helheim is their use of the music video. While many bands recently have broken through with intensely creative and well-crafted videos (see, for example, Misery Index’s “The Calling” directed by David Hall), Helheim gave us a number of majestic shorts that compliment their music incredibly well, with scenes and stories that play on the days of Vikings, self-determination, and Nordic naturescapes. “Ymr” and “Baklengs mot intet” are two clips that were released this past year and both raise the bar substantially for the genre. The highly-viewed “Dualitet og Ulver” off of 2010’s Asgards Fall, of course, set the stage for more substantial and endearing forays into the realm of the visual and you’ll quickly forget that you once had sit through Otep playing on the rebooted Headbanger’s Ball.
Yes, the lyrics are in Norwegian (though the latest record comes with translations in the liner notes), but even if you don’t know any Norwegian or Nordic languages at all, they still make much more sense than anything on Morbid Angel’s Illud Divinum Insanus or 95% of what’s posted on reddit. The thematic elements are much more Norse-centered than anything Judeo-Christian and unlike some of their contemporaries, there is little hostility towards the modern world but rather a yearning for the centuries of the past amid rather deep introspection.
landawarijaR is the release they’re supporting on their current venture to North America. Originally the Bergen quartet were going to be the second band on the Taake, Helheim and GosT tour, however, the United States Department of State played the role of Antifa this time around and shut the tour down by delaying visas for two members of Taake. There are still, however, four dates in Canada that are definitely on (without GosT). Helheim, meanwhile, was admitted into the United States and has been booking shows on a day to day basis in or near the cities they were originally scheduled to play. Do check them out if you get the chance. You absolutely will not regret it and, for many, this will be a rare glimpse into the artistic output of a long-standing metal scene nested the northern lands that experience 24 hours of darkness in the winter and over 200 days of rain during the year.