Myrkur / Jo Quail

The Dome, Camden

18 December 2018

I'm still trying to process what I just heard and say something coherent about it. I don't understand what the hell I just heard.

Let's start with: I went to this concert expecting not to like it. Myrkur is a "black metal" singer, a style I don't like and don't really understand. But she has another side to her music, which she calls folkesange (literally "folk song" in Danish, I think), in which she sings scandinavian folk music in the most beautiful, unearthly voice imaginable. It's this that I fell in love with, and I have no interest in the metal side of her music. And this concert is supposed to be her metal band. I shouldn't be here.

But... through simple curiosity, I felt I owed it to myself to go and see what this other side of her was like.

So, here I am at The Dome in Camden, with 2,000 mostly young (I swear I was the oldest person there) and mostly "stereotypical" metal fans, in hoodies and t-shirts sporting the names of scary-sounding bands I have never even heard of. I planted myself at the back, in case there was a mosh pit (or whatever the kids have these days) at the front and I got squashed. The stage was high enough that I had a good view from the back, and I probably got the best sound in the place.

For a start, I knew I would love the support act: Jo Quail, who I have seen twice this year already. With a solo cello and an infinite supply of loop pedals, she creates clever and complex compositions of layered sound; it's basically a flavour of contemporary classical music, which should be ridiculous in this environment, but she plays with so much power and energy that she completely wins over the Myrkur crowd. Extraordinary.

Then Myrkur comes on, and... she's not got a metal band with her, she's got an acoustic guitar player, and a violin, and Jo Quail on cello, and... and she plays folkesange. I'm not sure what's happening. It's not what I expected, but it's what I would have wanted, and I love it. She sings beautifully, the songs (folk music from Scandinavia, Poland, and England) are beautiful, the arrangements are beautiful. And the crowd... loves it. I can't understand it. She plays The House Carpenter, in a pretty straight arrangement, and you can't get much folkier than that, pure folk, not even what I would call folk rock, and the metal kids are lapping it up. Somehow, she's found a young audience that wants to hear folk music. No, she hasn't "found" them, she's brought them here with her, it's her metal audience and she's given them folk music. It's quite remarkable.

She does this for about 30 minutes, then leaves the stage, the intro tape music swells ominously while roadies run around the stage doing obscure things and the lights get tested, then she returns with two electric guitarists and a drummer and plays 45 minutes of metal.

It's not my thing, but I can't help being impressed. I still don't understand black metal, I don't understand what the fans look for in the genre, so I don't know if it's actually good or bad, but oh my god it's impressive. The guitars play a wall of distorted sound, I can't distinguish riffs or solos, it's just noise to me. The only instrument I can distinguish clearly is the drums, and the drummer is superb, fast, powerful, precise. To my ears, he's the only thing that gives the songs any semblance of stucture, he's basically the lead instrument. Is that how it's supposed to be or do I just not understand it? I don't know. And while I still don't exactly like the music, I still can't help being impressed by it.

And above it all, Myrkur's extraordinary voice, beautiful even while screaming over a wall of distortion, hitting unearthly notes that I think a classical soprano would think twice about. It's something that shouldn't work. It reminds me of the first time I heard Nightwish, and your first thought is, these are sounds that shouldn't go together, and your second thought is, oh my god this is genius. This band is like Nightwish taken to the ultimate extreme.

And then, she does the growling. One moment she's all "aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa" in the stratosphere, then she's all "wuuuuugggggghhhhhhhh" like something from The Exorcist, it's not a pleasant sound but I gather that's what black metal fans like, and again I'm still impressed at her vocal ability even while not really... liking it. Sort of. I have no idea how to explain this.

And I've got to mention the light show, which is undoubtedly the most powerful light show I've ever seen, there's a wall of light flowing off the stage in much the same way as the wall of sound is, and I'm as much blinded by the strobes as I am deafened by the amplification. And haloed in the light like an angel is Myrkur, beautiful and unearthly. And it is all about her, she dominates the stage as if she's the only one on it. The band is never introduced or acknowledged, the guitarists completely anonymous in black hoodies in the shadows at the edges of the stage, the drummer invisible behind the glare of lights and reflective screens. It's all her. And I am just so, so impressed at what she is able to do.

Would I go and see this again? Probably... not. Am I glad I saw it tonight? Yes, absolutely. (Am I annoyed at myself for using this stupid rhetorical device? Completely.)

You know what? I would go again. I came out of the gig humming Volvens Spadom, the vocal melody sticking in my mind despite the metal guitars. And writing about the concert has made me realise I wish I was back there still hearing it.

It might have been

It's difficult, because it was so hard to take in

But it might have been the best concert I've ever seen.

And that's just ridiculous.