Brudenell Social Club, Leeds

21 January 2018

I had reservations about this gig. Not about the music, but because I wasn't sure about the venue or the audience.

A bit of background: Myrkur is a Danish black metal singer. I'm not a fan of black metal; to me it just seems to be screams and growls. But a couple of years ago, she released a live album (Mausoleum) of acoustic versions of her metal songs, recorded in a crypt in Norway with just a piano and a choir, and it sounds incredible, like nothing I've heard before, closer to sacred polyphony than any kind of metal. This is what tonight's gig was going to be (I hoped), and if the sound was anything like the Mausoleum album it would be worth a trip to Leeds.

Two reservations, then: first, the Brudenell Social Club probably wasn't going to sound like a stone crypt. You know the kind of venue this name conjures up: a soulless brick box, not purpose-built for music, with bad sound, a restless crowd, and a loud bar. Or so I thought. So, surprise #1: the Brudenell Social Club is nothing like that. It's a great venue, the sound remarkably clear and resonant, a great layout, high stage, raised area with excellent sight lines for short people, and bar safely tucked away in the back corner. Stage lighting was dim, but that may have been a deliberate choice for the music!

Reservation #2: the crowd. Who goes to see Scandinavian folk music by a black metal singer? If it's the "metal" fan base seeing her name and not realising what the concert is billed as, there could be a riot! If it's an old, grey, "folk" audience and she isn't traditional enough, there could be a worse riot! But in fact, this was one of the best crowds I've ever been in. Noisy crowds are one of the worst things about small club gigs, especially acoustic-style gigs, but this crowd was 100% attentive. Even the kids in Korn hoodies (who I thought might be in the wrong gig) stood in respectful silence through the two hours of cello music and folk music, and everybody in the remarkably diverse crowd seemed really into it.

That will teach me not to pre-judge people.

This is a lot of preamble without talking about the music, because to be honest I'm not sure I can adequately describe the music.

It was all stunningly beautiful.

The support act was Jo Quail, who I've never heard of before. She has an electric cello and a seemingly infinite number of loop pedals, and uses them to build layer upon layer of sound into incredibly complex compositions, ranging from beautiful harmonies to an intense, dissonant wall of noise. I don't know how to categorise it. I've heard contemporary classical composers that try, and fail, to be this clever. Simply amazing, and worth the trip for this half hour of music even if Myrkur is disappointing.

Myrkur is not disappointing.

Her set of acoustic Scandinavian folk music is exactly what I expected. Except better.

Sitting at a battered old upright piano (which almost immediately goes out of tune) and accompanied by a guy on guitar and mandolin and a "choir" of two women singing harmonies, Myrkur gives possibly the most impressive vocal performance I have ever heard live, quietly beautiful but with an extraordinary range. Her voice is certainly unusual, but there are no black metal screams and growls, just beautiful, beautiful singing and a haunting quality that's immediately put her among my favourite singers.

Some of the songs are her own, but most of the set is traditional Scandinavian folk—and you can't see the join, her own songs sound as traditional as anything when presented like this. Only two of the songs are in English, the rest are Swedish, Danish, and Norwegian, which is fine, you don't need to understand the words to appreciate the beauty of the voice. But her introductions are minimal so I don't really know anything about the songs, not even what most of them are called (she seems very hesitant, even nervous, when she speaks, which doesn't fit with the image of an aggressive metal vocalist).

On some songs she leaves the piano to play a large drum (a traditional-looking instrument, but I don't know what it's called) or guitar or nyckelharpa (traditional Swedish instrument), and on a couple of songs Jo Quail joins them on cello.

I can't tell you enough how extraordinary the whole thing was. An incredible set of songs that's the equal of any folk set I've heard, an incredible voice that's the equal of the best rock singers I've heard, and an amazing, unique sound that I've honestly never experienced before.


Best concert I've ever seen.