The Norwegian black metal scene of the early 90s burned bright and fast. By the middle of that decade, many of its major members were imprisoned or dead, and the stark primitivism of a genre aimed at anti-commercialisation had been taken to radical extremes on records like Transilvanian Hunger and Nattens Madrigal. If the genre was going to stay alive heading into the new millennium, some rules were gonna have to be broken.
Dødheimsgard were amongst the most significant acts to answer that call. Starting as a more traditional second wave black metal act playing with black metal figureheads like Darkthrone's Fenriz, spearheaded by multi-instrumentalist Vicotnik they instead became one of the most revolutionary outfits on the new frontier of avant-garde black metal.
Their records now are like unicorns, producing roughly one per decade since that initial 90s birthing period, but with a deep amount of thought considering sonic and conceptual direction in tandem. Each release, still a major event for those who like their black metal to retain its ability to warp minds and open up bold new pathways.
As this project emerges out of hibernation again this side on the other side of a pandemic, this is the story of their sixth record Black Medium Current.
Dødheimsgard has become known for this 8-year cycle between projects where so much can happen in the wider musical sphere in that time but Dødheimsgard reappears in these different eras with something new to say. What is it about that method of working that has become so suited to Dødheimsgard and what does that time tend to consist of in regards to the production of the record?
Vicotnik - I think it’s a bit happenstance. At least the gap between 666 International and Supervillain Outcast had mainly to do with studio troubles and not having a vocalist and then getting Mat McNerney ready, him writing lyrics, and the years just flew by. By some odd coincidence we seem to have repeated that two more times. When we released A Umbra Omega the last record, we really saw ourselves making a new record within the next two years, but here we are.
For the first two years after the record we did a lot of shows promoting it and then the band kinda fell apart again, Aldrahn leaving. We went to the US in 2018 and after that took a break for a year deciding whether to continue or not, and then started back up right at the end of 2019 with a tour, and then going into 2020 we are then close to the pandemic. That became a good moment for me to just sit down and write music.
It’s not like I am opposed to repetition, but I do not want to be a re-enactment. There is an inner fear of losing the artistic focus and becoming part of a specific niche with external motivations as to what will spur popularity, and it takes a bit of time to invest in where we are going now. Any product should rest on a bed of ideas to begin with so you have to develop these ideas, and I am not only talking musical here but conceptually. If you look at one narrative here that goes from the first album until A Umbra Omega, there’s an increase of complexity to the records, and I was pretty sure quite early on I did not want to continue down that direction. I felt I had played that out and also thought it would not be fair to A Umbra Omega as a record because it’s kinda perfect the way it is, with all that chaotic energy and the lo-fi production adding to the complexity. I didn’t want to lessen that record by making A Umbra Omega 2.
The previous two Dødheimsgard records Supervillain Outcast and A Umbra Omega sit dramatically far apart in some ways, one of the most obvious being the song structures where Supervillain Outcast despite its extreme sonic experimentation has a lot of more graspable rock 4-5 minute structures, and then A Umbra Omega came along and absolutely shattered those ideas of songwriting. When you have both of those things as your precedents, how do you settle on a direction for something like Black Medium Current?
Vicotnik - That really was the confounding question to start with. I knew one thing, which is that the song Architect of Darkness from the previous record was kinda an avenue I further wanted to explore. For so long I had making this stick as many notes in and as many BPM as possible, and so it was time to make something more immersive and not that full force front to back, rather something that invites you in rather than pushing away the listener in having to spend a thousand hours on this record to even get to know me a little bit. The same elements are present with the beats, the synthesizers, the varied vocals, and some of the theatrics, but presented in a different manner.
It feels like there's a lot of tension between the ugliest most discordant passages and then these more chill and spacey parts this time, with songs like It Does Not Follow with its jazz club feel or the dynamics between the beginning and end of the opening track.
Vicotnik - Yes, and it translates into the evocative nature of the record. It has some similarities with some of A Umbra Omega’s parts, but I wanted to lift those parts of A Umbra Omega that were dealing with sadness and isolation. When you’re invested in being a person for so long, you go with this angst that is constant all the time that any parts of who you think you are will be challenged and it could crumble at any moment. Our existence at any moment can crumble, and not in the sense that we can die because then what do we care, but that some major event can really change your life or change your mindset. I wanted to take that kind of inner angst and use that as a conceptual tool to make atmospheres that correlate with that.
A lot of the ideas of this record deal with crises of questioning identity as you are saying, and trying to write music that reflects these periods of crisis. With Dødheimsgard being this consistently evolving band sonically, how does that slippery idea of identity intersect with what we were saying about the great leaps and divergences between records?
Vicotnik - It’s storytelling in a way. I didn’t know that at the beginning that this is what Dødheimsgard was going to end up being, but 30 years in, I see a story being told and anyone who wants to follow that can see these periods caught on record. That is why I said that I want to avoid re-enactment, because then you are stuck on the first chapter of the story and not paying attention to the things that do change, which are inadvertent facts of existence. We even come from change, with some star exploding somewhere, and all the atoms regrouping into something new which will eventually end up somewhere else. You mentioned It Does Not Follow, which is an interesting lyric but it’s a non sequitur, where the premise does not support the conclusion. You can read it both ways where in one sense it’s an ironic lyric where I am making all these claims which can’t be justified so it does not follow, but it can also be read as a person saying all these things because he can see through the lies and see that these are non sequiturs and is therefore sharing the truth. Who you are as a person and how you read it will depend on that.
With the sonic opposing ends of the record, there is a moment in the first song on the album when this quite depressive sounding 10 minute black metal track suddenly detours into these bright 80s style keyboards. Is this an album that has a real sense of release and discovery for you, in regards to those questions of doubt and turmoil it deals with?
Vicotnik - I guess that part for me represents relief and acceptance. This record also deals with a lot of determination versus free will, so this part when I relisten to it offers a relief there. You don’t expect that part to come, and yet it comes so effortlessly into the song, so you’re surprised by the part but you’re not really surprised that you have arrived there. That is a big difference in relation to A Umbra Omega, where there is not necessarily that much sense in which part follows which, whereas in this song the way you end up at places makes more sense and through the lens of free will and determination there is an acceptance there in the journey of the song and of the change itself.
A lot of people might look at these songs and have no idea of how they would approach constructing them outside of looking at them like math problems, but is something like that more emotionally driven in terms of where the concept of a song might take you sonically?
Vicotnik - I know nothing about music theory, and as a maths student I was not that prevalent. I think that’s how I have been working for my musical career, it being always emotionally driven, but the difference is from then is with time you learn how to be a more complex human being and how to be more honest about it. If you go back to the first record, you only kinda have one or two emotions to express and it’s frustration and it’s anger. The questions of why you are angry are more complicated than you have the understanding and experience to express. We were teenagers back then, and now you learn how to identify more complexities in human behaviour and my own behaviour and the commonalities that we share.
It's an entirely new band of musicians around you from A Umbra Omega with those eight years bringing new collaborators. You perform lead vocals on this one for the first time in a long time, so how different are these factors for you when that responsibility is placed upon you, or that ability to articulate yourself in that specific way?
Vicotnik - It wasn’t that unfamiliar to me because we’ve kinda been changing members all the way, while also taking breaks from Dødheimsgard and doing other things working with other people. I have built up that experience that I needed to approach this music and not be confused by the new situation but rather embrace it. I started out as a guitarist-vocalist, from my first bands when I was 13 and when starting my bands Ved Buens Ende and Dødheimsgard I had already been playing black metal for four or five years. I had that experiential backpack that I could now bring with me when the time was right for it. We had also on past records already tried things like having a second vocalist after Aldrahn, who is a staple in the black metal vocal hierarchy, with having Mat after him who has later go on to do very great things I think, but I thought we needed a different approach. The most natural thing to do now is just to do it myself. For years I have been thinking about releasing a record of some kind with my vocals not necessarily even in Dødheimsgard, and back in 2015 when Aldrahn came back I had actually been thinking of breaking up the project and making a spin-off like that. Now I get to do that with the band and it is not needed.
One element is the electronics which on particularly 666 International and Supervillain Outcast are these huge constantly prominent elements of the mix, where here they tend to just take over more in key dramatic moments such as in the song Interstellar Nexus. How have you approached using industrial and electronic parts of Dødheimsgard since the 90s when that was a very provocative concept in itself for extreme metal?
Vicotnik - I think when it was new we weren’t necessarily that critical to the parts, we just thought it sounded radical. In more than one sense, it was rad! It was extreme though in that you just didn’t do these things in the genre and we got a bit obsessed with those kind of things. Now that doesn’t really matter, and I can use it more cleverly in the sense that I can add more to it when it appears than if I leave it there all the time. You lose the dynamics and various colours to be used on the paintbrush if you set one kind of soundscape and let it run out from start to finish. I have probably a thousand parts on my computer here that are more electronics-fused, maybe similar to 666 International, but it’s the re-enactment thing again and I felt that those sounds were missing the point a bit atmospherically. I want Dødheimsgard to be a rock band or a black metal band at the bottom, which by rock I mean to have the normal set-up of bass, a couple of guitars, vocals and drums as the fundamentals. There is no limitation to where that can take you with the layers you put on top of that, but you still it base it in some fundamental force.
There have been lots of bands who have started in the worlds of black or extreme metal and then quickly or gradually become something else, but you have always maintained clear stylistic links to black metal in a way that has continually presented it to be a consistently challenging and radical kind of music.
Vicotnik - That’s what I want! If I change genre I probably won’t add something to that genre I transcend into. I am black metal, that’s why I am loyal to it. There was a space and a time and all these things happened with it but instead of it happening in Alaska where I am far removed from, it was in my neighbourhood and I was part of it. I was there and I ended up contributing to it as a whole, whether that is large or small I don’t really care, but that is why I am loyal to it. It gave me so much and I want to use my career giving back to it, and how I give back to it is I don’t give it up and I still try to broaden the understanding of what it can be both sonically and conceptually.
You did mention briefly your other band Ved Buens Ende who returned in 2019 just before being thrown off by the pandemic. You're playing shows in 2023 so where are we at with that band in terms of the plans in that camp?
Vicotnik - We are currently writing a record, that would be the most straight-forward way of saying it. We are very tentative in that we want it to be a Ved Buens Ende and so you have to reconnect with the things you did almost 30 years ago. It’s important if you revisit something that is cherished to that degree. My bands, Dødheimsgard and Ved Buens Ende, we may not have loads of fans but we have the best fans because they are so into it and they think about Ved Buens Ende releasing one record 30 years ago and still hold it as one of the staple releases of the genre, and that’s why I think it is important to be respectful towards that. We created that sound for this specific name, and we should build from there. Obviously it’s been really helpful in that sense to do the live shows and start from there, not releasing a record and then doing shows but starting with the shows so we can reconnect with the emotions and where your fingers are going to be on the neck of the guitar and get a real feel for it again. There is so much in those riffs and yet they are so simple, and I took that then along with me.
With the discussion we were having on your continued efforts to fiddle with the idea of what black metal is keeping it in those black metal foundations but broadening what that can mean, the leap on 666 International at the tail end of the 90s caused such a ripple that in a way opened us up to the world where you have continued to make these strange and radical alterations to the musical core of black metal, met with a dedicated fanbase. Do you think anything like that can be done with black metal again in terms of violating the perceptions that people have as to what black metal is and can be?
Vicotnik - No, not really. But maybe it is outside my understanding and I am bound to saying that because I cannot imagine what this is supposed to be. At the same time these revolutions are going on all the time in new genres. Whether I think they are good or not doesn’t matter, there are new youth revolutions going on culturally and artistically, and I don’t feel as an established genre now that we can ever go back into the basements and start telling the story from the beginning. We have arrived at the festivals and the professional studios, so I don’t know if there is much more room for something that would shake the core of the genre like that. People probably felt the same thing with stuff like punk or the blues even. How controversial rock and roll was with all the sexy dancing and women and men fraternising together, and onwards toward punk and having this political revolution in the centre of it. Black metal was maybe more a religious uprising against the things we had seen for a long time but didn’t feel we could connect with, even though they hit us over the head with it. It looked so disingenuous to us by this time, that by the 90s people were just skin-deep Christians, so it seemed extra revolting because it wasn’t even truthful anymore. Obviously now in the political environment there are new topics, like transgenderism where the left and the right are very polarised, and I’m sure there is being created art and music that is quite cutting edge in those arenas now. That doesn’t mean that we as black metal are dead though, because we can still refine the art. We can still bring that to a higher level, and that is what I think we should focus in on now. We also have the danger of becoming a stagnant genre. We have so many bands that are just about the re-enactment, and I don’t want to shame those bands or think it’s bad that they exist, I just also think it’s important to have those acts that still stretch the fabric.
Black Medium Current arrives April 14th via Peaceville on Digipak, Gatefold LP and digitally format. Pre-order the album - HERE