Live @ London KOKO - 22nd March 2011

Story online since:  28.03.2011 / 19:27:42


I can honestly say that these days I only leave my recently found sunny retreat in southern Europe for truly special occasions, and this is one of them: the very first VIRUS gig, and my very first ULVER concert. What a sweet-tasting treat!
I get to the London venue feeling exhausted and hungry from the long journey but finding a blue wristband with ULVER hand-written on it around my wrist swiftly acts like a vitamin shot. I am affably escorted through the cavernous corridors of the old Camden Town theatre and into the heart of the action. Backstage I find a nice room kitted out with large black leather sofas; all I needed is a double pair of artists to sit comfortably on them and face my torrent of questions. Manager Chris shows me through to the stage, where Virus are about to sound-check. From there the theatre looks awesome: the cozy, rounded shape is rendered eerie and cocoon-like by the prevalent gothic color, a deep shade of blood-red. Koko is a great venue.

Making my way down to the main floor area, the first thing I notice is that Carl-Michael Eide is sitting on a swivel stool which looks dangerously familiar: I had to use something similar to help my posture during my recent recovery from a two-year long semi-paralysis of the upper torso/neck area. It is strange that Czral and I had to go through similar ordeals and feel proud we were both able to bounce back. To give emphasis to this little private celebration, the three songs Virus play sound mouth-wateringly good in the empty theatre…

Having been the only spectator so far, I am suddenly joined by the bear-like, unmistakable silhouette of the Wolf himself: carved out against the bright stage lights, the black-clad figure of Kristoffer Rygg makes one charismatic impression. I approach him swiftly, putting my hand on his shoulder: he turns around and those pitch-black eyes, stern but friendly enough, stare back.
Garm doesn’t make his dislike for interviews a secret and who can blame him: it’s part and parcel of exactly what he doesn’t like of the rock’n’roll circus he has now entered fully, with all the doubts and torment which come with that. Black leather sofa it is: his answers are focused and satisfying, but I am mindful of the short time allocated; this is indeed "rockstar realm” and neither of us are willing players. His bouts of nervous laughter punctuating the soft-spoken speech seem very fitting.

As brooding and dark as he naturally comes across, Garm has his counterpart sat right next to him: the yang to his yin, the light to his darkness, Jørn H. Sværen. You can tell they are blood brothers, two sides of the same coin: they are lucky to have each other. Looking and dressing like a model out of an arty-fashion magazine, Jørn’s Northern politeness and calm deep-blue eyes contrast with Garm’s, who seems like he is still dealing with dangerous inner fires, in spite of the older age (as he puts it). He reckons is getting more and more "superstitious” therefore, as I distinctively perceived during my first listen of the new material, Wars of the Roses is one big, unsettling/unsettled outpour of ominous premonitions. He indicates how the album name change was due to his worry that the current world events (both natural catastrophes and bloody uprisings across the globe) might have turned the old preliminary title Critical Geography into a bit of an exploitative situation. Capitalizing on album sales, sure, but not on wrecked human lives.

Einar Sjurso walks into the room with Carl-Michael and I let the two elusive Ulvers stroll unhappily to the next interviewer in line. The mood changes immediately: nice, friendly smiles are on the cards! Still relying on a pair of crutches, without his trademark sunglasses Czral looks like a happy, rosy-checked country boy: his blue eyes are sparkly and full of child-like excitement for the gig. As I pleasantly chat with him, Einar soon slips into a daze: tiredness is catching up after a very long day. I can just picture him on his sofa at home, fast-asleep with his beagles sprawled on his chest, snoring away in unison! My conscience makes me cut the interview short again to give them time to chill, and I make my way back into the arena, more than ready for the long promised 3 hours of splendid music.

ZWEIZZ is a one-man project by Svein Egil Hatlevik, ex Dødheimsgard: a harmless, smiley chap wearing a hippy hat when walking around the premises, but a real monster when performing. His set-up consists of a white toilet placed in front of a devilish apparatus from which he extracts the most excruciating, relentless noise I have ever heard. Throbbing Gristle? Einstruzende Neubauten armed with sledgehammers and electric saws? Nah, they don’t even come closer: Zweizz’s noise is as minimalistic as it is LOUD - and I mean Sunn o))) loud. The few people who dare approaching the stage are brave indeed, and by the end of the half-hour long ear-maiming set they are rewarded by his piece de résistance: a truly lacerating, screamed vox solo performed head-deep into the toilet. He comes very short of making himself sick, which was probably his aim, and then he just walks off without even closing the seat: naughty!

VIRUS take the stage and I plunge into the photographers’ pit for a few snaps. As much as I enjoy taking pics, it is always extremely distracting. While Czral hides behind the black lenses of his shades, Einar’s expression does not lie: the time has finally come, it’s all or bust! I am the first one to withdraw from the pit, as I really want to immerse myself into the music, which is flowing absolutely spot-on, as hypnotic and intense as I had hoped it would be. That unique, magic "groove” they possess spins back and forth from the stage onto the audience like a small tornado: the fans, a lot of them judging from the huge cheers, stand still in awe, taking in every single captivating, oblique note. I climb to one of the upstairs balconies on the right-hand side of the stage to enjoy the spectacle from above. I admire Czral’s unique guitar style, Einar’s composed but organic drumming, and the young bass-player’s skill; the core sound is lifted by the presence of another guitarist and a guitarist/keyboard player. This is wonderful stuff, and yet Virus is not at all the arty-farty band some want it to be: it is nothing less and nothing more than the representation of what its members are like in person - simple, modest guys with a great talent and a sincere enthusiasm for music. Contrary to myth, they are neither about intellectual conundrums nor ostentatious displays: the mesmerizing intricacy and hypnotizing meanderings of their sound is as pure as it is conceptually straightforward. As I watch them with satisfaction, I can hear Czral’s words coming back to me: "When I first heard Voivod I thought, wow, how can that be even possible?!” or "Before we started to rehearse for this gig I almost never picked up my guitar to practice or study: everything just comes out spontaneously”. Paradoxically, now that I know that Virus are as far removed as they could be from the avant-garde purism, I love them even more: may their true metal spirit live forever!
Their hour-long set ends with Carl-Michael releasing a huge breath of relief while raising his arms towards the theatre vaults: a rapturous applause that seems to last an eternity sends them off in glory.

ULVER introduce themselves with an atmospheric intro and once again I rush to the photographers’ pit. They kick off with a bang with the catchiest song on Wars of the Roses, album opener "February MMX”. Live it sounds absolutely grand and insanely beautiful, and Garm’s voice displays in full its wondrous, soul-melting tones for the first and, sadly, for the last time for tonight. Having announced that they will play the entire new album, which is still unknown to the vast majority of the audience, I wonder if I will be able to feel the deep connection that I was hoping to find at this long-awaited concert. Like with the album itself, the initial blustery energy starts to drop a few levels with each song performed, turning darker and tormented, but in a slightly uneasy way. It becomes even clear to me how this new work is a somber metaphor of Garm’s complex feelings about the whole "live” issue: he explained to me earlier that "February MMX” commemorates the life-changing time Ulver took the stage for the very first time, and it is kind of unsettling to feel how the initial enthusiasm and energy embodied in this song, turns slowly into something quietly lacerating, never once focused, let alone uplifting, with the rest of the compositions. For the rest of the gig, rather than Garm, it is Daniel O’Sullivan(tonight looking more quintessentially English than ever amongst the Norsemen) who takes central stage with his keyboards, voice, bass/guitar sounds and pointy bright-red boots. Some of the tracks are re-arranged and rendered more spacey by the plethora of synths, like for example "Providence”, which sees the presence of avant-garde jazz artist Alex Ward with his clarinet magic, a true privilege to see. He is also the star of the amazing "Stone Angel”, one of my favorites on the album (together with "England” and "Island”), a dark ambient/experimental, extremely lengthy piece rendered almost entirely instrumental for the occasion, which finally grabs me and takes me through the spell-binding, timeless, intimate journey I had sought out all night. I came for that magical Ulver-experience and although (like it often happens with the opening date of a tour) it did not feel as intense as I - and few other people I spoke to later on - had dearly hoped for, I still feel I have fulfilled a dream. Because it is exactly what, in this life, I have long elected to do: keeping my Music firmly onto the platonic plane of Purity and Beauty, for there is little else – if nothing at all - we can hold there forever… Of course it would have been empowering for us all if Ulver had fully stuck to their no-compromise stance, like CRASS once did in their own way, but people’s priorities change as they grow older and make families (food for thought). After the encore, "Hallways of Always”, Garm comes out to apologize to the audience fanatically screaming for more: "That’s all we have I’m afraid. Buy the album!”

(All photos and text by Mystery Flame MMXI)

Mystery Flame

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