Midgardsblot is something special. It is far, far more than just a music festival. It is a unique, fully immersive, life affirming experience bringing together Nordic and metal cultures. Set in Southern Norway amongst the Viking burial mounds, the rich heritage of the region contributes just as much to the festival experience as the music.

The festival ticket not only gives access to the main festival area where the bands play but also to the Midgard Historisk Senter museum, seminars and guided tours of the burial mounds and surrounding area. Furthermore, there is a Viking village giving the opportunity to spend time with descendants of Vikings from the area. This group, the Borre Vikinglag, are keeping the traditions of their forefathers alive through teaching about Viking era history and perpetuating the traditional skills and handicrafts from that time. All of these can be seen and experienced in the Viking village, and the Borre Vikinglag are very happy to sit down and chat and share their knowledge.

Add in a ‘Viking playground’ where you can have a go at archery and axe throwing and take part in all sorts of other games of agility, strength and balance and there is plenty to keep you occupied – and bruised if you are foolhardy enough! It would be remiss of me to omit mentioning the battle re-enactments which also take place over the weekend, including in front of the main stage between bands.

Of course, the music remains key to the festival and although extreme metal remains at the heart of the bill, particularly on the main stage, there is a great array of music from numerous local and international artists including metal, folk, pagan and dark ambient across several unique stages.

This year sees Dimmu Borgir, Watain, Rotting Christ and Ensiferum topping arguably the strongest line up to date on the magnificent main stage. This area is flanked by tall trees on one side, and an imposing recreation of a Viking feasting hall (which was excavated at this site) on the other. During the evenings, the smell of the trees mixes with the smell of camp fires giving a perfect atmosphere for watching bands and sharing beer with friends (Did I mention the beer tasting sessions and craft beers on offer?).

The other stages are more humble but no less impressive, including one inside the dominant Gildehallen whose ornate norse carvings, and fire pit will take you back in time to epic feasts of days gone by. Once you are done for the day, you can return to the campsite amongst the woods of Borre Park, next to the beach and overlooking the fjord

Day 1 – Thursday

Unfortunately after sitting on a grounded plane for 2 hours my flight to Norway was eventually cancelled meaning that I didn’t arrive at the festival until 3am nearly 12 hours later than the originally scheduled time. This meant that I missed the first night including the opening blot with Folket Bortafor Nordavinden and performances from Mork, Abyssic, Bergtatt and Perturbator. I was really disappointed/annoyed at missing these bands and apologise that there is no review but for what it’s worth I heard good things.

Day 2 – Friday

My festival began with a lie in after the previous day’s calamities, before a walk along the fjord and amongst the burial mounds taking in the unrivalled setting and scenery. I had a quick walk around the festival site and noted that the biggest change from last year’s layout was that the second stage which was previously in a marquee had graduated to a fully fledged outdoor stage, “Kaupangr”.

This was great news as there were some great bands due to be making an appearance on this stage over the weekend. The Kaupangr stage area was surrounded by a metal market area with festival merch as well as other stall holders with vinyls, CDs and shirts and more traditional Viking attire and goods. I also took in the impressive Gildehallen which dominates the main stage area. Inside, carvings and a heady smell of wood create a perfect setting for some of the bands who would be playing over the weekend

The festival got underway on the Friday with Midgardsblot resident band Folket Bortafor Nordavinden. The familiar duo took to the stage with friends making up a five piece as their familiar chants and percussion washed over the Midgardsblot faithful with hypnotic effect. The male and female vocals combined well creating a ritualistic atmosphere setting the tone for the whole weekend.

Meanwhile folk act Jore were entrancing the crowd in the recreation Viking feasting hall, the Gildehallen. The father and daughter duo were wearing traditional Nordic dress as their musical offerings wove a rich tapestry over the respectful crowd.

The first act on the main stage was Acyl. I have to admit I was not familiar with this act prior to my festival research and having read that they are an Algerian experimental, ethnic metal band I wasn’t sure what to expect. However, I was completely blown away as they effectively combined traditional sounds, music and chants with a modern metal sound including growls, screams and bludgeoning guitar. Before too long the Vikings on the barrier were headbanging (that can’t be easy with a full metal helmet on!) to the groovy rhythms. As the set progressed, vocalist and Acyl mastermind Amine (I think someone likes chemistry!) taught the crowd how to do a traditional dance…..”Go left, Go right” and then demanded it was done for the next song. The band stood clapping while the crowd practised before a bellowed howl launched the track. The was an enthusiastic response from the crowd including a Viking moshpit with full armour before the set was brought to a close with “Creation Chapter 3: Autonomy” which saw a bizarre mix of headbanging, moshing and what can only be described as “freestyle” dancing in the crowd. I was impressed!

There was a change in intensity next as Nordic/Medieval Folk trio Kaunan took to the second stage in traditional attire and a selection of unusual instruments including (I believe – naming these is not my forte!) the kontrabasharpa, bouzouki, mandora and hurdy-gurdy. Their folk tunes and good humour were well received as heads nodded, feet tapped and full-on jigs opened up in the crowd.

Back on the main stage, Swedish tribe Apocalypse Orchestra were blending medieval sounds with brooding metal to great effect. They were clearly well known to a portion of the crowd who gave them a rapturous reception, and before long, a plague doctor had appeared in the security pit and was handing out phials of an unknown liquid to the die hards at the front. Their contemplative tomes created a dense atmosphere before they were joined by a fire breather who added another dimension to the visual spectacle. As the set progressed they took on a more anthemic feel and they really grew on me.

The aggression level stepped up as Icelandic horde Nexion stormed the Kaupangr stage and were a real contrast to the folk bands that had performed this stage previously. A large crowd had gathered and enthusiastically lapped up the abrasive black metal assault. The onslaught was relentless as their black metal scythed through the bright sunshine firmly winning Nexion plenty of new friends. They prompted my third trip to the merch stand of the day and it was still early!

Swedish folk-rock pioneers Garmana were next on the main stage and although they are a very well established and successful band (three time Swedish Grammy nominees) they aren’t a “household” name to many metalheads. Despite this the crowd quickly swelled as the traditional nordic beats took on a modern twist. The crowd were in a playful mood with large areas of jigs and dancing replacing the previous moshpits. Traditional ballads entwined with the more upbeat tracks, all in their native tongue which somehow added to the beguiling nature of their performance.

Nytt Land brought another change of ambience on the Kaupangr stage with their dark shamanic rituals as rhythmic percussion and throat singing combined effortlessly with more traditional instruments such as the taglharpa, flute and frame drums. Traditional dress and striking imagery added to the effect which was almost confrontational, challenging the crowd to listen and enter their world.

At the same time, Draugurinn were bewitching the Gildehallen. The hall was in near darkness as their rhythmic beats pulsated around the confines of the structure combining with the heady aroma of wood putting the throng into a trance as they succumbed to the ritual. I believe this is only her fourth live show in ten years and I cannot think of a better setting,

There was a palpable air of excitement building in readiness for Hellenic black metallers Rotting Christ. A long intro further built the fervour before the band exploded onto the stage for an absolutely devastating hour long set. Those in the front row headbanged furiously as the rest of the crowd sang along like zealots to a set list full of crowd favourites including the inevitable but no less stunning ‘Grandis Spiritus Diavolos’ while my personal highlight was a jaw dropping ‘In Yumen-Xibalba’. While some extreme metal bands are like being hit with sledge hammer, Rotting Christ are a far more precise instrument, incising deeply with their own brand of finesse. This was a simply stunning performance and the bar had been set very high for the bands that followed.

Although anticipation was building for Dimmu Borgir, there was another band on the Kaupangr stage first, namely Swedish project Grift. I had been listening to Grift for a while before they were announced for the festival and they were one of the bands I was really looking forward to. A microphone stand adorned with a goats skull appeared in the middle of the stage, setting the scene for the anguished howls which were soon drifting over a small but appreciative crowd. The band brought a sombre tone and created an apt melancholic atmosphere as the sun set and darkness took hold over the Midgardsblot site.

As I made my way to the photopit for headliners Dimmu Borgir, it struck me how large the crowd had become, certainly the biggest I think I have seen at Midgardsblot which is perhaps a testament to the draw of the symphonic black metal band, but also perhaps to the growing awareness and popularity of this unique, awesome festival.

Dimmu Borgir are perhaps the biggest black metal band around at the moment, and while purists may argue that they have strayed too far from the template to be considered black metal any more, there is no denying that their brand of epic symphonic extreme metal is a force to be reckoned with. From the outset, pyros singed the eyebrows of the photographers while a passionate and enthusiastic crowd lapped it all up. ‘The Unveiling’ led to ‘Interdimensional Summit’ for a pummelling opening of new material from the recent ‘Eonian’ release before we were given older tracks such as ‘The Serpentine Offering’, ‘Gateways’ and ‘Dimmu Borgir’ mid set. The stage set was impressive and combined well with flames and the usual over the top stage dress to create a stunning visual spectacle. A couple of newer tracks were given an airing before ‘Progenies of the Great Apocalypse’ and ‘Mourning Palace’ brought things to a close. While I would have preferred slightly more early material, it is difficult to fit it all into a relatively short set when there are so many tracks to choose from, and every song played was a classic in its own way.

Dimmu Borgir are a well oiled machine, effortlessly delivering epic anthems and the crowd lapped up every second. With the Gildehallen on one side and tall trees on the other, flood lit in subtle shades I cannot think of a better setting and as I stood beer in hand and singing along, I realised that I was grinning from ear to ear. Yes they have evolved away from their roots, but they are still an awesome band and a devastating live force.

At that point I called it a day exhausted but content having enjoyed a great variety of music culminating in two powerful headline sets by bands at the absolute peak of their powers. Bring on day 3.

Review and all photos Andy Pountney.