Plenty has been written about metal’s Machiavellian renaissance over the past 5 years, and with good reason: It is perhaps the least likely, most prolific, and best sustained musical movement since grunge (which, paradoxically enough, authored metal’s first extinction in the early 90s). As this coalition of disparate sub-genres has congealed and grown, however, a pattern—at least in listener-facing media—has emerged.
It is no longer enough to say that “metal” is back. Rather, a very specific kind of metal is—a sky-scraping, straight-faced bombast of internal and external cataclysm cross-bred into an unknown species and beset upon us like a plague of God. Metal of Import. Metal of Issues. Metal that doesn’t laugh nor smile nor realize that this whole spiraling vortex of darkness began 40 years ago with a couple of kids from an industrial shithole in the English Midlands messing around with tri-tones and B-horror iconography simply because scaring people amused them.
From the self-harming howls of Sunbather to Pallbearer’s plodding processions, the metal we anoint today finds catharsis not in that same beer-cracking, stack-rattling rapture, but instead in suffering and sorrow. Which is fine and necessary and often really fucking compelling. As more than just a passerby, however, I find myself—with each downcast modern classic—missing Priest, Dio, Motörhead, Megadeth, Obituary, and Immortal more and more. So it’s within that context—an extreme music police state where fun has been outlawed by those who believe it will overrun the scene with “gateway” and “dad” bands—that I, following one of single finest live experiences in recent memory, dredge this one up from a place of actual give-a-fuck:
THANK SATAN FOR KVELERTAK.
On Wednesday night, the Norwegian sextuplet rumbled into NYC for the first time in almost two years, with one mission in mind: To turn Irving Plaza into their own personal Ragnarök. Mars Volta-meets-Red Fang prog rockers, Wild Throne, jump started things like a car battery to the nipples, blasting through the manic of highlights of their 2014 debut over the course of an action-packed half hour. While a soft re-brand has dulled some of the good will earned by their stellar Blood Maker EP, watching the Washington power trio go to work is still one of the more musically humbling experiences one can hope witness and, on this occasion, provided a fitting overture for South Beach sludge kings, Torche, who followed soon after.
I’ve seen Torche a few times over the years, so I know that they are capable of the odd off-show, but on Wednesday, fueled by the upstart exuberance behind them and the city-flattening spectacle ahead, they logged an all-time performance. Chugging through a neon-drenched set punctuated by their career highwater mark, Harmonicraft, the bubblegum metal masters put in a tough shift to follow, but—as you can probably glean from all this huffing and puffing—as soon Kvelertak filed out from behind the curtain and picked up their (numerous) guitars, they grabbed the entire room by the throat.
With the lights dimmed and frontman Erlend Hjelvik’s shrieking from behind his trademark (and truly ridiculous) owl headdress, Kvelertak threw their collective carcasses into “Dendrofil for Yggdrasil”, the earth-scorching black metal blowtorch that opens their upcoming LP, Nattesferd in fittingly ruthless fashion. Over the course of the 90 sweat-soaked, riff-choked minutes that followed, Kvelertak roared past the rev-limiter, blew up the engine, and somehow kept speeding toward the unfinished highway overpass, with Kjelvk walking on heads, catching his own spit, and howling in every register available to man while the triple-axe attack blasted away behind him.
Plenty of old favorites—such as Meir highlight, “Braune Brenn”—were trotted out for boozy victory laps, but as the night wore on, it became that it belonged to Nattesferd. A transcendent neo rock n’ roll odyssey, that blurs the lines between metal and not in thrillingly unexpected and effective ways, the band’s third LP dominated proceedings, with the crowd ceasing their circle-pit revelry to listen as new cuts like “Berserkr”, “Heksebrann”, and “1985”—the downright breezy lead single that sounds like 38 Special if 38 Special spent the last 30 years freezing their asses off on some barren Baltic coastline—made their NYC debuts. Just shy of 11pm, the whole thing came rattling to a close with a celebratory rendition of the band’s titular, death’d-up version of a hockey arena fight song, “Kvelertak”, as I slipped out the side door and the band stepped off stage, ready to do the same thing all over again for the next 29 nights.
Now I have to admit, going into the show, I found myself approaching Nattesferd with raised eyebrows, especially in the wake of the aforementioned “1985”, but on Wednesday, Kvelertak singed them off with a set, quite frankly, for the gatekeepers. Sure, it wasn’t an afternoon at The Met, an evening in with Tolstoy, or even a Friday spent here, listening to me grandstand about the next record that’s supposed to change extreme-music-as-we-know-it. Instead it was just what this genre needs right now: Showmanship. Levity. Escapism. The experience of being sweated on, beat up, and shouted at all night in a language you don’t know but somehow understand every syllable of. And really, what could be more fun—or more cvlt—than that?
Nattesferd is out May 13th via Roadrunner.