[16 March 2011]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
If you want to find for a perfect example of the power of word of mouth in popular music circa 2010, look no further than Kvelertak, who emerged from Norway last spring and went on to become one of the biggest stories in metal that year. Only just formed in 2007, the sextet quickly built a reputation in Scandinavia as a potent live act, eventually signing with Indie Recordings, the excellent Norwedian metal label, and heading to the States to record their debut with the great Kurt Ballou. By May 2010, after they’d toured Europe with Ballou’s band Converge, the buzz coming from the continent, from both fans and the press, was through the roof. Before the album even dropped, the leaked version could be downloaded after five seconds of searching, so wide had the leak spread. By the time it did come out in Norway it debuted at number two on the album chart, and it would remain in the top 20 for months, but by then this band with the funny name (which translates as “stranglehold”) that sung in a language very few outside their country can understand had suddenly gone global.
Without a North American distribution deal, however, Kvelertak made little to no commercial impact on this side of the Atlantic, but that didn’t stop the effusive praise coming from the media over here, as such publications as Decibel and, yes, PopMatters, citing it as one of the best metal albums of the year. Remarkably, Kvelertak even placed a respectable #121 on the Village Voice Pazz & Jop critics’ poll. With the album selling like crazy in Europe, the only question that remained was when the hell would Kvelertak be made available domestically.
Finally, nearly ten months after its original release, the album has hit these shores courtesy The End (who have a knack for signing Scandinavian phenoms), and although releasing it here last fall would have more effectively struck while the iron is hot, the record is so damned good that it’s better late than never.
So after that big preamble, just what do these guys sound like, anyway, you ask? Well, what makes Kvelertak so refreshing is the odd, striking, yet totally compatible influences they draw from. On one side there’s black metal, primarily the punk-infused primitive black metal of Darkthrone. On another, the exuberance and audacity of sorely-missed Norwegian greats Turbonegro. And the kicker, a huge dose of the Stooges, from Iggy Pop’s posturing to the savage yet ridiculously catchy riffs of the late John Asheton. Rock ‘n’ roll, metal, and punk all collide to form an absolutely raucous first album that’s loud, confrontational, largely indecipherable, and most of all, huge, huge fun.
The band flaunts the Norwegian black metal influence on opener “Ulvetid”, tremolo picking and ultra-fast double-time beats cleverly creeping into an otherwise straightforward hard rocker, but it’s almost like a tease, as if they’re poking fun at the extreme music tradition of their homeland, for the rest of Kvelertak is a much more seamless blend of styles. It’s extreme metal that’s not afraid to smile, it’s punk that’s not afraid of guitar solos, it’s rock ‘n’ roll that’s not afraid to scream. “Fossegrim” leans heavily towards hardcore before tossing in a sly Queens of the Stone Age reference into the mix, “Blodtørst” tosses in a wicked dual guitar solo lifted straight from Foghat, while “Utrydd Dei Svake” gradually evolves from rampaging punk, to full-throttle garage rock, to an extended blues rock-driven jam, eventually dissolving into an acoustic outro, stripping the band’s music down to skeletal form. Ballou’s production should be noted as well; nobody captures distorted guitar on record quite like he does, and this album ranks among his very best studio work, balancing abrasiveness, raw power, and accessibility with mind-boggling ease.
Nothing, however, can compare to “Mjød”, the album’s first single and one of 2010’s finest tracks. With its fuzzed-out bass intro and swaggering main riff, Kvelertak is playing the Stooges card to a near-obnoxious degree, but it’s the manaiacal vocal delivery of Erleèd Hjelvik that sells this song. You don’t have to know Norwegian to figure out what the song’s about, but thanks to some industrious fans who went to the trouble to translate, we find out Hjelvik’s lyrics turn out to be even more over the top than expected: “Going to light up a joint, put on some black metal and enjoy it with my best friend…We’re going to fuck Odin’s widow while giving you awesome riffs.” Little did we know, but Hjelvik totally nails the vibe of this album in those two simple, hilarious lines.
In an attempt to sweeten the deal for North American fans after such a long wait, The End has tacked on six bonus tracks on to the North American version. We’re treated to four album tracks performed at a BBC session last year, which gives us a tremendous indication of just how explosive Kvelertak is in person. Additionally, there are two demo tracks, the best of which being “Ordsmedar Av Rang”, which shows the song’s blues influence a lot more clearly than the album version. It’s not as if anyone needed any more incentive to buy this splendid record, but extra tracks that are this strong certainly never hurt. All that’s left for Kvelertak is to conquer this continent, and you get the feeling that after 2011’s South By Southwest, Kvelertak’s word of mouth will grow even more exponentially. Not that they don’t deserve it.