I’ve always felt the Norwegian Wood festival has been a venue for “dad rock” and its ilk. This rings especially true this year with Eric Clapton, Patti Smith, Ringo Starr and The Eagles as the biggest headliners. I acknowledge their contributions to rock history, but seriously, what have they done for me lately? Luckily, the festival has set aside one day for the heavy metal crowds. On Sunday they allowed three of the icons in contemporary metal onto the stage: Gojira, Enslaved, and Mastodon. It turned out to be a blast!
But, let’s take it from the beginning. I was a bit nervous about the weather as it had rained continuously for almost a week and news reports of floods and landslides were everywhere. But I didn’t have to worry—the sun returned on Sunday morning and even though the ground was muddy after the first three days of the festival, it felt great. The venue is a natural amphitheatre circled by big, lush trees and it gives a perfect view of the stage wherever you are.
On the main stage, the show was kicked off by Insense and their brand of groovy heavy metal. The frontman of In Flames, Anders Fridén, has turned out to be their biggest fan, and soon after their manager, and it’s easy to hear why. The two bands share a common musical landscape with dense, tight riffs supported by a infectious grooves. Singer Tommy Hjelm also has a similar look to Fridéns dreadlocks, so I probably wasn’t the only one seeing a young In Flames on stage. However, the Norwegians still have a quite a few steps left until they’re level with their Swedish mates. They were the first band out this warm Sunday afternoon, and it was clear that the crowd decided to chill at the top of the hill rather than venture down the muddy slope to see the band. But they didn’t care, as they kept playing a set full of good riffs and flirted with their audience.
Norwegian Wood is not only about the big bands on the big stage, though. The festival showcases a few young Norwegian bands each year. On Sunday, we were treated with three interesting new heavy bands: Kollwitz, Aristillus, and Wolves Like Us. The first band onto the Underwood stage was Kollwitz, who gave the audience an inspired run through their melancholy brand of post-metal. The bands on the small stage were only given 30 minute slots, but I felt that they easily could’ve done a full set of material considering the outstanding quality of their debut Like Iron I Rust.
The first time I heard Gojira, I was flabbergasted—their brillant epic “Flying Whales” completely floored me. Since then, I’ve been a huge fan of their records and live shows alike. The last time I saw the French band on stage, they supported In Flames on a club tour. Not much had changed, as they haven’t released a record since The Way Of All Flesh in ’08. But there’s no reason to fix something that’s not broken. Gojira has perfected their set and has turned it into one of the most impressive live acts on the European metal circuit. So this Sunday, in front of the second biggest crowd of the day, we were treated to a ”best of” set. “Ocean Planet” and “Backbone” delivered a crushing opening blow to the crowd, and they never let up. The audience went crazy as Gojira ran through inspired versions of “Flying Whales” and “The Heaviest Matter In The Universe”, so it was no real problem when Joe Duplantier’s guitars struck out towards the end of the set; he just replaced his brother Mario at the drum kit, making the drummer the band’s frontman for a few minutes, cheering the audience. They returned to their places as soon as the problem was fixed and soon after ended their set with “Vacuity” and, as a encore, the mighty “Where Dragons Dwell”.
Aristillus—a young screamo act—never stood a chance after the French sonic explosion. Their stage was too small and so was their sound. On record, they sound promising and full of potential, but this Sunday they sadly just felt like muzak. Let’s hope for a more spirited return in the near future.
Enslaved: risen from black metal cult heroes in the early nineties to their recent worldwide acclaim following in the wake of Axioma Ethica Odini. It’s a deserved honour that they were next to headliner Mastodon this warm Sunday afternoon, but the crowd in front of the stage was smaller than during Gojira’s set, and they struggled in getting the audience excited during the first couple of songs. However they excelled as they opened with the title cut of their recent record, “Ethica Odini”: a perfect opening salvo, showcasing all the strengths of the Norwegian band, fusing their darkened black metal with their more recent progressive soundscapes.
The setlist focused on their second phase, when today’s lineup was established. The four records they’ve released since then—starting with Isa—have all received Norwegian Grammys for ‘Best Metal Record’ in their respective years. On Sunday, they gave us songs like “Ground”, “Isa”, “Fusion Of Sense And Earth”, and “Ruun” from these records, with a few from their latest like “Raidho” and “Giants”. But they also included a few odd surprises. At the end of the set, they did a fantastic version of Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song” and a welcome return of their own “All Fadr Odhinn” off the Yggdrasil demo from 1992.
Frontman Grutle Kjellson took his work seriously—looking like a man possessed in song, and like your best friend next door enjoying the banter between songs (”Excuse me, but could you be a little more quiet?” he asked when everyone seemed enveloped in a catatonic state). The rest of band was also an amazing spectacle: Ice Dale erupted in glorious guitar solos, Herbrand Larsen was the band’s angelic alibi, Cato Bekkevold was a god of thunder behind his drum set and Ivar Bjørnson was the quiet mastermind letting loose riffs that drive the band onwards.
In the break between Enslaved and headliner Mastodon, Wolves Like Us had twenty minutes to showcase their angry indie rock. Sadly, even though the songs are great and the band had the best drummer on the small Underwood stage this Sunday, they’re demolished by the audience’s increased craving for beer and burgers. But Wolves Like Us did a decent job displaying their common ground with international acts like Against Me, Cancer Bats and The Ex. I’m looking forward to listen in on their debut which is released this summer.
During the other gigs this Sunday, the slope in front of the main stage were sadly unpopulated, due to the fact that it was reduced to wet and slippery mud after three days of rain and festival crowds. But as it came closer to Mastodon’s set, even the most muddy parts were filled up by the expectant crowd. The band had to cancel last year’s gig due to illness, but returned in force this Sunday to droves of welcoming fans. There would be no question—this was Mastodon’s night.
I expected a set not unlike the one recorded and released as Live At The Aragon earlier this year, focusing on their latest opus Crack The Skye. But I was soon proven wrong as Mastodon intended to give us a set of their classics, while focusing on their breakthrough albums Leviathan and Blood Mountain.
They opened the evening’s proceedings with the magnificent “Iron Tusk” and quickly followed this knockout with “March Of The Fire Ants” and “Where Strides The Behemoth” from their debut full-length, Remission. From then on, they had the crowd firmly in their grasp, not unlike the drumsticks-cum-wands of skinsman magician Brann Dailor. The increasingly impressive twin-guitar attack of Brent Hinds vs. Bill Kelliher matches the power of Iron Maiden or Slayer’s axemen any day, and they proved it time and again. They effortlessly switched roles and played off one another, laying the perfect foundation for the joker in the stack: Troy Sanders. His bass skills are sometimes shadowed by the rest of the band, but his brutal roar, stage presence and rock ’n’roll energy truly seals the giant Mastodon-ian package.
I love the fact that the band need neither pyrotechnics nor special effects to put together a show that will blow people’s minds. When they ended Sunday’s show with “Megalodon” and “Blood And Thunder”, they set the crowd ablaze with high-voltage sonic attack and good, honest fun. I think the crowd fell in love with the band on this crisp June night, and the band rightfully reciprocated, saluting them on several occasions during the 75-minute set. Troy Sanders told us a the end of the concert, ”Listen to me, I tell you now, you’re the greatest!”. It was no pillow talk—this is a one night stand that won’t be soon forgotten.
Mastodon’s setlitst @ Norwegian Wood:
March Of The Fire Ants
Where Strides The Behemoth
Circle Of Cysquatch
Crack The Skye
Ghost Of Karelia
The Wolf Is Loose
I Am Ahab
Colony Of Birchmen
Blood And Thunder