Hanging With Kvelertak in Norway: New Singer, New Album, Same Attitude | Revolver

Hanging With Kvelertak in Norway: New Singer, New Album, Same Attitude

Blackened rock & roll party beasts are going through changes. We got an up-close and personal look.
kvelertak Anine Desire 2020, Anine Desire
photograph by Anine Desire

It's pissing rain in Oslo, Norway, the black-metal capital of the world. Winter rain in Oslo means it's snowing up in Holmenkollen, the mountaintop neighborhood that overlooks the city proper. In fact, it's straight whiteout conditions when Revolver makes the freezing, soaking-wet trek uphill to scope out Holmenkollen Chapel, a traditional stave church built in 1903 and famously burned down in '92 by three of Norwegian black metal's most notorious characters: Burzum's Varg Vikernes, Emperor's Bård "Faust" Eithun and Mayhem's Øystein "Euronymous" Aarseth. Rebuilt in '96, it stands as symbol of the Church of Norway's perseverance in the face of black metal's infamous early-Nineties crime wave. Or something like that.

Still, the chapel's history — and its position lording over the city — makes for an appropriate backdrop when we meet up with half of Kvelertak in the front bar of Parkteatret Scene, a café and venue in the Grünerløkka district of Oslo. After all, the six-piece Norwegian band might sound very different were it not for the music made by their pyromaniac predecessors.

Over the course of their first 10 years and three albums, Kvelertak earned international acclaim by fashioning a unique combination of black metal, punk and classic rock featuring a brilliantly harmonized three-guitar attack and all-Norwegian lyrics. Along the way, they won two Spellemannprisen Awards — not unlike an American Grammy — and toured with the likes of Metallica and Ghost.

It's the black-metal element of Kvelertak that some fans may have felt was at risk when vocalist Erlend Hjelvik split in 2018. "I think people on the outside identify the black-metal part with Erlend," guitarist and co-founder Vidar Landa concedes. "He also had a black-metal band, and that was his style. But musically, I think you'll find a lot of the same black-metal references on the new album as you would on the first one."

That new album is entitled Splid — Norwegian for "discord" — and it's the band's first with new vocalist Ivar Nikolaisen. A former member of the Norwegian glam-punk band Silver, Nikolaisan hails from Rogaland, the same part of Norway that most of Kvelertak grew up in. (Splid's leadoff track is called "Rogaland.") He also comes from a highly musical family: His brother and two sisters are musicians, as well, and his sister Elvira is a singer-songwriter who has had albums appear as high as No. 2 on the Norwegian charts. Nikolaisen himself goes back quite a ways with Kvelertak — he contributed guest vocals on the song "Blodtørsst" on the band's self-titled 2010 debut. "Silver toured with Kvelertak back in the days, as well," the singer explains. "They played support for us, which was pretty cool."

Though Nikolaisen's musical background is rooted firmly in punk — he still plays in a punk band called the Good, the Bad and the Zugly — he's no stranger to black metal. "Just for a few months, I played drums in a band with Maniac, the old singer of Mayhem," he reveals. "So I really like black metal, too. I'm a big Darkthrone fan. That's my favorite black-metal band. But punk has always been my identity — the Pistols, the Damned, the Adverts, Dead Boys — but also the Ramones, New York Dolls and that kind of stuff. And these guys like some of the same bands."

Kvelertak, (from left) Vidar Landa, Marvin Nygaard, Bjarte Lund Rolland, Ivar Nikolaisen, Maciek Ofstad and Håvard Takle Ohr

Tonight, Kvelertak will be playing a special intimate gig in Parkteatret's main room. First built as a cinema in 1907, the historic venue has a capacity of 500, which is significantly less than the nearly 2,000-cap room where Kvelertak were booked to play their "official" Oslo gig in late March (the band canceled due to the COVID-19 restrictions). Tonight's show is a warm-up of sorts, with assorted press and industry types peppered among fans lucky enough to snag tickets. It'll be Kvelertak's first show in support of Splid, and they'll play seven of the album's 11 songs tonight. "It feels really fresh because we have played the old songs so many times," heavily tattooed bassist Marvin Nygaard tells Revolver. "Someone will definitely fuck up tonight," he adds with a laugh. "It's going to happen."

Nygaard, Nikolaisen and Landa occupy a corner table in the front bar at Parkteatret as light Euro-disco is piped in through the house speakers. It's about 2:30 in the afternoon. Young locals and hipster types sip coffee and chat while others stare intently at laptops or smartphones. Nikolaisen nurses a beer and ponders his new position as Kvelertak's frontman. "It is a new chapter, and it is a new band," he says. "At least for me, it's a new start."

Whenever an established band brings in a new vocalist, there's bound to be some growing pains. If not within the group itself, then surely among the audience, who tend to identify bands most by their singers. "I was probably scared at some point about what was going to happen, because you don't know how your fans look at your band from the outside," Nygaard offers. "It's always a bit deeper than what everyone else is gonna think, too. It's a big change, and you have to get used to it."

According to the bassist, the biggest change wasn't Nikolaisen's punk pedigree so much as his actual singing ability, which introduced a new melodic sensibility to the band's music. "It wouldn't be possible to do this with Erlend, and I've heard so many people say they can actually hear the lyrics now — and I think that brings the whole thing to another level, as well," Nygaard enthuses. "I think if we were to find another black-metal guy with a beard and long hair who just screams, it would seem like we're trying to copy whatever we have. And now we're actually doing something different. Which is exactly what I think we needed to do. We're lucky in that way."

"It's not so safe, either," Nikolaisen points out. "We have a lot of different types of songs on this album." Case in point: single "Crack of Doom," which not only features guest vocals from Mastodon's Troy Sanders, but is one of the band's first songs with English lyrics. "We did it to get on the radio in the States," Landa says with a laugh. "But we also thought it would be easier than getting Troy to sing in Norwegian."

"We also wanted to test how it was going to sound," Nygaard chimes in. "And it felt like we had an opportunity to do that because we have a new singer who's written lyrics in English before."

"But the thing is, I only knew enough words to make two songs in English," says Nikolaisen, sending everyone at the table into fits of laughter. "So if people like the Norwegian stuff, they don't have to worry because that's all the words I know."

Truth is, Nikolaisen writes better English lyrics than many singers who actually speak English as their first language. One of his key lines in "Crack of Doom" is "Born with a lack of PMA, I got Judgment Day in my DNA." "I think some people are negative in general — like me," he explains. "Especially when it comes to songwriting. I don't do too much whining in interviews because I put all my whining into the lyrics instead."

Nikolaisen would be forgiven if he did any whining during the video shoot for "Crack of Doom." In the four-minute clip, he's hung upside down from a tree, plunged into an ice-cold lake and rides a horse shirtless through the snow — despite the fact that he'd never been on a horse in his life. But he also got to blow up a car, which might well have made up for everything else he had to endure. As it turns out, Nikolaisen was already acquainted with the clip's director, Stian Andersen — and not because Andersen had shot previous Kvelertak videos. "He actually took photos of my old band," the singer says. "In 2001."

Released shortly before "Crack of Doom," Splid's lead single "Bråtebrann" serves as both an unintentional nod to Norwegian metal's history of arson and a tribute to now-deceased childhood friend of Nikolaisen's. "He was always burning stuff when we were kids," the singer recalls. "He's dead now, but he was a really good friend of mine. At the same time, he was a fuck-up. He would even get blamed for fires he didn't start. One time there was a really big barn that burned down, and the whole village blamed him. They said, 'Oh, it's just Sven who did it.' But then after a while — a year later — they found out who did it. And it was two even younger kids that did it."

Not everything on Splid is doom and gloom and burning barns. Landa says the song "Uglas Hegemoni" is about how awesome Kvelertak is. "It's meant to be fun and kind of ironic," the guitarist explains. "But we do think we are awesome. There is a line in that song that says, 'We are Kvelertak, we suck Mammon's cock in broad daylight.' So instead of having people saying we are sellouts for singing in English, we are just laying it out there."

Whether their old vocalist would agree that Kvelertak are still awesome is less clear, and when asked if the band is friendly with Hjelvik, the response is measured. "There's no bad blood," Nygaard says. "I don't think we would get into a fight if we met, but we don't speak. It's like a friendship that turned out not to work."

"I knew Erlend, as well, and I was a big fan of his," Nikolaisen adds. "I am still. But I cannot copy what he did, so I have to do my own thing."

Whatever he's doing, it seems to be working. The band absolutely slays at Parkteatret, and Nikolaisen proves to be a formidable frontman. Even his between-song banter seems to hit the spot — though, sadly, Revolver can't understand a word of it.

The next day, we visit Neseblod Records, the world-famous heavy-metal record store that occupies part of the original location of Helvete, the legendary black-metal shop opened in Oslo by Mayhem's Euronymous in the early Nineties. Standing just above the dank basement where members of Mayhem, Emperor and Burzum blasted Venom records, hatched arson plots and spray-painted the words "Black Metal" on the wall, we meet two Kvelertak fans who came up from the south of Norway for last night's show.

"We got to meet Ivar afterward and he was so cool," one of them, named Johan, tells us. "You see him onstage and he's so aggressive, but he's the nicest guy when you meet him."

And the show?

"Fucking awesome."