To commemorate how ridiculously cold it is right now, I thought I’d dredge up one of my own favourite pieces of non-food writing, concerning one of heavy metal’s most devoted bards of the ‘wintry mix’ (having penned such classics as “Call of the Wintermoon,” “Frozen by Icewinds,” “Cursed Realm of the Winterdemons,” “In My Kingdom Cold,” and, of course, “At the Heart of Winter”), Abbath Doom Occulta, erstwhile frontman of seminal Scandinavian black metal band Immortal. Probably one of the funnest shows I’ve ever been to.
Originally published in CULT MTL, August 10th, 2015.
Early in Nicolas Ray’s 1950 film noir In A Lonely Place, a coat-check girl effuses to Humphrey Bogart that the book she’s reading “will make a real dreamy picture . . . What I call an epic.” Asked to elaborate, she continues: “Well, you know – a picture that’s real long and has lots going on.” Bogart shrugs his shoulder, slugs his drinks, and does not – it is by the end of the film revealed (huge spoiler alert, sorry) – subsequently murder the woman.
“Epic” is a word out of which people get plenty of mileage these days, or at least they say it a lot, to I expect rapidly diminishing returns of effect. Coat-Check Girl, to her credit, really wasn’t that far off the original mark compared to current usage standards. Length, lots going on, and if we are going to hew to roots, we would want to add in some heroism and some adventure of great import on a mythic or nation-founding scale. Now, I am always at pains to resist coming off as a linguistic prescriptivist, as much as I certainly am a linguistic pedant. Language evolves, meanings mutate and perpetuate and sometimes pervert entirely. It’s a fun, exciting, creative part of the goalless drunken ambling of history. However, in the spirit of respecting the value of backward as well as forward (or sideward) movement, it is sometimes worth attempting to recover and insist upon earlier (if not strictly original) definitions and applications of the words we use – not to restrict their use, but to recover some of the richness and specificity that can be lost in the din of free-meaning, free-speaking truancy. I’d like to do this for ‘epic,’ if for no other reason than that Abbath’s set at Heavy Montreal this past weekend was fucking epic.
Here’s a rundown of some lyrical themes explored over the course of forty-five minutes of smoke, pyrotechnics, corpse paint and crab walks (a mere forty-five minutes may not on the face of it an epic make, but bear with me):
– being a warrior, warring
– riding down a mountainside
– riding across a blinding desert
– riding a wind of no return
– Fate (see also: a warrior’s desire)
– marching through gates of fire
– having one’s deeds enshrined in legend
– being the literal contemporary subjects of previous, aeons-old legends
– being mighty
– fire raining from the sky
– literal and figurative storms
– heeding the call to battle
– more marching
– dying in battle
– living to battle again!
– thrones (toppling and/or sitting upon, gilded)
– riding at the speed of light
– being cursed
– gods of ice and sand
– fire (it just being around)
– the end of the universe
– really, really strong winds
– mountains (of madness)
– mountains (of ice)
– more battle
– the North
– being cold.
Just compiling this list I feel all the more how impoverished our understanding of the epic has become if all it calls to mind is exaggeration. Banished is the poetry of the great oral traditions; divested of mythic drama, “epic” is reduced to an empty superlative. Sure, I appreciate an “epic fails” YouTube compilation as much as the next guy, but in that supercut I can’t help wondering, what of pathos? What of deeds, and of wolves?
For Abbath, the epic is so steeped in mythic and romantic grandeur that his command of the English language is often at pains to contain it (one lyric reads “In my kingdom cold, at the mountains of madness, unending grimness, on these mountains which I heart”). But for all the pretensions to icy violence and misanthropy, nothing about Abbath’s performance felt stuffy or portentous. In a genre that often slips into humourless, ludicrous self-seriousness, Abbath Doom Occulta (the stage name of 42-year-old Norwegian Olve Eikemo) is a dedicated entertainer: swaggering around the stage in his tights and spiked gauntlets, he is charming, confident, and surprisingly un-self-conscious for a man who is effectively dressed up as an evil playing card. In spite of early technical difficulties that made the usually blistering “The Storm I Ride” sound like so much buzzing and farting, the band barrelled on unperturbed through a selection of numbers drawn from the Immortal and I back-catalogues, including a truly crushing rendition of Sons of Northern Darkness’ mid-tempo banger “Tyrants,” which had the audience rapt, captivated, like children at their first magic show. Twenty-odd years on from the debut of Immortal’s Diabolical Fullmoon Mysticism (which featured a widely mocked video of the band cavorting through a forest mugging and fire-breathing), Abbath has ridden (probably on a flaming horse) right through self-parody and come out the other side, a genuine, consummate showman.