HELHEIM – A journey within & without time
20 years ago the mighty pagan metal force that is Helheim unleashed its debut album entitled "Jormundgand", which swept through the underground like a foul storm and pretty much showed all the weenies how proper Norwegian pagan metal ought to sound. Many nowadays consider the album a classic, myself included. So, what is it that makes this album so special, and why do I find it important to touch on its twentieth anniversary? For one thing, Helheim is still going strong, which is to say that the band is still out there touring, releasing great albums, and constantly progressing. While I do consider the last couple of releases to be their strongest yet, namely "raunijaR" (2015) and "Heiðindómr ok Mótgangr" (2011), I must admit that I have a soft spot in my coffee-soaked heart for the second demo entitled "Niðr ok Norðr liggr Helvegr" (1994) and the first proper album, "Jormundgand". While many black metal bands in general followed the path of Darkthrone, Mayhem, and Emperor, and chose to cover satanic and/or occult themes and subjects, the members of Helheim decided on something else entirely and went their own way, both musically and lyrically. Heheim had more in common with the so-called "Viking metal trilogy" spawned by the Swedish pioneers Bathory. Having said that, Helheim were clearly influenced by black metal, which is obvious when judging from a purely musical perspective. However, the music of Helheim was more progressive and adventurous compared to that of many of those raw and primitive bands that started popping up everywhere around the mid-nineties. The extremely harsh and desperate vocals that permeate "Jormundgand" are razor sharp and borderline unlistenable, but even though they are slightly uneasy on the ear from time to time they fit the song material perfectly, not to mention that they add a certain intensity and aggression to the album. I have often stumbled on comments suggesting that Burzum inspired bassist/vocalist V’gandr in terms of his style of vocals, but we shall get back to whether that is actually true or not later on. "Jormundgand" was recorded at Grieghallen back in 1995 and engineered/produced by Eirik "Pytten" Hundvin. As many of you undoubtedly know, Grieghallen was a bit of a hot-spot back then in terms of recording Norwegian black metal music in that legendary bands such as Emperor, Mayhem, Hades, Burzum, and the likes cut some of their best and most classic albums there with Pytten at the helm.
Helheim were a trio back in those murky times and consisted of V’gandr (bass, vocals), H’grimnir (guitar, vocals), and Hrymr (drums), but they had a small supporting cast with them when recording "Jormundgand", namely Knut "Futhark" (Jew’s harp), Thomas (trumpets), and Mailin (female vocals). The tracklist runs as follows:
- Vigrids Vård
- Nidr ok Nordr liggr Helvegr
- Gravlagt i Eljudne
- Svart Visdom
- Nattravnens Tokt
If you somehow get your filthy paws on the CD reissue by Dark Essence Records (2006) there is a bonus track included entitled "Galder", which is well worth checking out in my humble opinion. An overview of the different versions and reissues of the album that have seen the light of day over the years, primarily CD and LP versions, but also cassette tape, can be located here:
But come on, why listen to me rambling on about this album? Should we not talk to one of its creators instead? Right, that is what I figured. Therefore, without further ado, I present to you a conversation between V’gandr and myself (dating from mid-December 2015) in which we touched on old times in relation to "Jormundgand". Enjoy, my scummy readers.
When thinking about and reflecting on the mid-nineties, what images and memories come to mind?
V: A lot of awful band photos, ha-ha.
The question was somewhat broad in the sense that it pertains to both Helheim and "Jormundgand" as well as you as a person.
V: Well, in relation to Helheim and me as a person those mental images and memories do relate to many awful band photos, actually. However, Í recall a lot of enthusiasm. That is the keyword. We were incredibly hungry and wanted to achieve a lot, and we had just started to explore different concepts relating to Norse mythology. We found out and decided that we did not want to focus on Satanism or the occult, neither musically nor lyrically, as we did not feel at home with that stuff. In a way, there was a certain playfulness to the whole thing back then, because we were just kids, or teenagers, as it were. We were totally on top of things all the time back then. One thing that was very characteristic for Helheim in those days was that everything had to happen at once. We were so fucking pretentious that it was sickening. Following the release of the second demo, "Niðr ok Norðr liggr Helvegr", we said, "If we don’t land a record deal by means of this demo we will fucking quit", which is totally symptomatic of teenage angst, almost like "If this doesn’t work then nothing will". Luckily, we did land a record deal and then "Jormundgand" eventually came out. We were totally inexperienced. A bunch of brats who happened to be recording an album. We had no idea what we were doing, but the honesty is there. The album is very, very honest. It is very pure, but back then it was full speed ahead all the time. Not musically, as such, but in terms of how we were and how we did things. There was no slowing down. Nothing was to stand in our way. There were no boundaries and we did what we wanted to. "Jormundgand" is the result of that. We just did it. It was very primal.
Was it recorded live?
V: More or less. We recorded the trio live; we kept all the drums and more or less all the bass and guitars, but if we made a mistake in some places our producer, Pytten, would punch us in and then smoothen that out. In that sense, it was not recorded entirely live, but still, it was close. As close as possible, really. We did not use any click tracks. You can even detect the drumstick count-in here and there. A whole bunch of takes was recorded. All three of us were in the Grieghallen recording studio and placed in our own individual booths with these acoustic walls around us where we then played and recorded simultaneously. H’grimnir and I were facing each other and then Hrymr was situated behind us and blasting away on the drums. We then recorded the vocals afterwards. I guess that is partly why it sounds so live.
Exactly, it has a live feeling to it. It sounds very spontaneous and direct in a way. It does sound like a band playing together, but that only enhances the atmosphere and mood of the album in my opinion.
V: The album is terrible in terms of breaks and structures as well as how the different parts are connected. Rhythmically, we are totally off in some places and not all that precise and sharp, but again; at least the album is extremely honest. Before entering the studio, the three of us rehearsed constantly and then when we went into Grieghallen to record the album we felt as a ready as we possibly could have felt with our limited musical abilities. Only Hrymr, our drummer, took lessons. Then again, how good a drummer are you when you are in college? He was not exactly a trained musician as such, and H’grimnir and I sucked at playing our instruments…and we probably still do to this day, ha-ha. So, the question is this; how well could the album turn out when considering our limited capabilities and musical skills back then? Again, "Jormundgand" is extremely honest, but the whole musical delivery of it is below par. I am just being honest here.
I think the album sounds confident, and whether you like it or not it has become an underground black/pagan/viking metal classic. It has this youthful and aggressive charm to it.
V: Yes, I suppose you are right, and I am very honored that it has attained that status. I suddenly recalled a thing that we found quite cool back then. This magazine or zine had this poll or something where "Jormundgand" was voted the most extreme record of all time, which probably had something to do with the extreme vocals. We were very pleased with that and were like "Awesome, we have released the most extreme album ever". You had all that grindcore stuff and "Scum" by Napalm Death and all those other insane things, but then there we suddenly were and our album was voted the most extreme album of them all. It could be that it was voted the most extreme black metal record as opposed to the most extreme record of all time, but we were nevertheless quite honored by it. Stuff like that you never forget, and to me it serves as a fun-fact of sorts relating to that period.
The vocals were very desperate and almost hysterical. I actually wrote in these papers here before me that they are slightly uneasy on the ear and almost too extreme for their own good. Where did that extremity and insanity come from? Did Burzum inspire you?
V: That is a good question, and it is funny that you should ask that, because we had already done two demos before we cut "Jormundgand" and those extreme vocals had already crept in on that second demo. Whether I remember this correctly is up for debate. There is that thing about memories again, but as I recall we merely wanted to separate H’grimnir’s vocals and mine and keep them apart in a sense. Instead of them being similar or alike, we went the other way. I was also younger back then and guess you could say that I had my voice change or voice break around the time of recording "Jormundgand", which is weird, because I was 18-19 years old, so that voice mutation should have happened sooner, ha-ha. Although others did something similar in terms of vocals, they never influenced me. I hated Cradle of Filth. Ever since their first album, I have disliked their music, although I have never listened to their demo. Success does not always equal quality. Burzum I loved. The very first Burzum album is mind-blowing, and it was amazing that one guy could come up with something so dark and interesting. If I do remember correctly, I did not try to emulate Burzum at all. We just wanted to have a certain diversity and range on the album in terms of the vocals. My vocals served as a contrast to H’grimnir’s and so I just wailed and howled away on the album. That was how it came out, and everybody was like "Holy shit, this is insane".
That makes sense to me, the whole thing about them serving as a contrast to H’grimnir’s vocals. Many fans always compare them to Burzum on the forums and stuff like that.
V: It was never about emulating or imitating others. It was all about contrast. H’grimnir had a darker and slightly more laidback style while I just went insane and wailed away like a lunatic, but it worked. I do not mind that people compare them to Burzum, however. Not at all. I am totally okay with that. In addition, you have to remember that it was full speed ahead back then, and we were so full of ourselves, you know. It was like "We are Helheim, damn it! We do as we please". We wanted to be original and unique. We were ambitious and thought that we were the toughest fuckers out there, and the vocals simply turned out the way they did. While thought-out back then, at least to a certain degree, the vocals were not as thought-out as things are nowadays. They happened by coincidence in one sense. That is how I view them. But then again, discussing these things is almost like telling a story, almost like a memory of a memory.
Of course, you and I are sitting here and reflecting on things that happened 20 years ago.
V: Exactly, and it can be difficult to provide a straight answer to questions that relate to the past.
How was the response to the album back then? Do you remember what people wrote or said about it?
V: Partly. The response and feedback was both good and bad. The vocals were off-putting to some while others loved them, which is to say that some people liked the album while others disliked it due to the vocals. Some thought that it was difficult to get into. In a broader perspective, the story of Helheim has always been like that in the sense that people have either been totally into our music or downright disliked it and found it off-putting.
Did you distance yourself from the reviews or did you take them to heart, so to say?
V: I cannot remember. I have no idea. I wish I had the chance to read some of those reviews today, because maybe that would trigger some memories. That whole period was just so different and active compared to today. People were trading tapes, there were many underground zines, and you often replied to interviews by means of handwritten notes, and so on and so forth. It was an extreme period of time in a sense, and we were very much this either-or band…and we are still like that today. Maybe we have fallen into a trap with respect to that. However, I am actually quite pleased with being an either-or band.
I would totally prefer to listen to a band that provokes strong reactions in me, be they positive or negative. Fuck that middle-of-the-road mediocre bullshit.
V: I agree, totally. Mediocre things are the worst.
HELHEIM live @ Blekkmetall Event
(Photo: Andrea Chirulescu)
Recently, you re-visited the "Jormundgand" album in that you performed all the metal-tracks off it at the BlekkMetal event in Bergen. I know that you are not exactly overly sentimental or nostalgic by nature, but bringing that cursed old thing to the stage must have brought back a ton of memories for you.
V: Absolutely, it did.
Did those old songs provide you with something on a personal level when playing and performing them?
V: It was interesting, and I actually said to the other guys before taking the stage that I was quite nervous. I think that had to do with the whole notion of performing songs that were that old. Those songs are so distant and removed in a sense; they are no longer integrated in your system, and they do not reflect who you are as a person now. We wrote those tunes when we were below par musicians on some levels, but that does not necessarily make them easier to perform now. When we rehearsed them recently, Reichborn (ed. note: guitarist who joined Helheim in 2008) was there and played along, but in the old days we were just a trio, not a quartet. He thought that it was cool to learn those old tracks. For years, we have performed a couple of songs off that album live, namely "Nattravnens Tokt" and the title track, but we have not played any of the others for ages. It was difficult to re-create that feeling again.
It is almost like an aura that has to be evoked again, I suppose.
V: Indeed, and we have gained a few pounds since then and we are a lot older now. You can even spot grey hairs here and there, ha-ha, but it was still extremely cool to play those songs again at BlekkMetal. In recent years, I have often tried to compliment H’grimnir and Reichborn by playing darker stuff on the bass as opposed to when we were a trio where I was often playing these light and high tones. I rarely used the E string in the old days. Going back to that way of playing the bass was a strange experience, and I have to admit that I was nervous before the gig. I felt outside of my own comfort zone. We did not really talk about it internally beforehand as to how we felt about the whole thing and all that, but I told the others straight-up that I was nervous. The concert itself was a lot of fun and it gave me a lot. We played all the metal songs off the album as well as "Dualitet & Ulver" as well as a Bathory cover tune. Playing the old songs again made me realize that that is not where I want to be, because that is neither where I nor the band are these days, but do not get me wrong; it was a hell of a lot of fun playing that gig. It was very cool that the audience responded to those songs the way they did, because they actually knew them, and I guess I had not expected them to know all those songs. I was very relieved when I walked off the stage and felt happy that we had done it. I was very pleased with how it all turned out.
It sounds to me as if you were also thinking "been there, done that".
V: Absolutely. The material is very static in some ways. If you listen to the drumming on "Jormundgand" and "Av Norrøn Ætt" you can tell that Hrymr is playing above his ability, but listening to him performing those songs again recently was awe-inspiring. He is playing them now as they were supposed to be back then, and I am like "Hell, that is amazing". He did a lot of weird things on the drums back then, but it sounds brilliant when he does that stuff nowadays. We were so full of ourselves in the past, and he was like that as well, ha-ha.
V: Totally, that is the perfect way of summing it up. He totally had that, but when performing stuff from back then when 38 years old is something else entirely. He plays them so well, which only goes to show how great a drummer he really is. He really stole the show at BlekkMetal in my opinion. I am very proud of the fact that he gave it his all and put so much work into the rehearsals and the performance itself. As for myself, it was very difficult to go back to those extreme vocals, and it took me ages to attain that whole way of delivering vocals again. I barely managed it towards the end of the show.
I know that you are not particularly fond of live albums, especially black metal live albums, but is it unthinkable to release the BlekkMetal show, for instance on a limited edition LP?
V: There was a company present that night that captured the whole thing on camera, so who knows what will happen?
Would you agree that the identity and sound of Helheim was forged around the second demo, "Niðr ok Norðr liggr Helvegr"? The Norse themes as well as the progressive and experimental elements are all in place on that second demo. This is merely how I view things, mind you. "Jormundgand" was progressive and experimental too, but that second demo captures the early essence of Helheim perfectly in my opinion.
V: Yeah, I think you are right. As I mentioned before, we were so awfully cocky around the time of that second demo; we were passionate, arrogant, and full of energy. Full of testosterone! However, we did land a record contract. We then refined and filtered the musical and lyrical content of "Niðr ok Norðr liggr Helvegr" and re-arranged the song entitled "Gravlagt i Eljudne", thereby laying down the foundation for "Jormundgand". We took that one song and decided that that was to represent us. We then came up with an introduction and an album closer and the rest was just full-on aggressive black metal.
There is definitely a red thread running from the early days of the band until now. You can always identify a Helheim release, and with ease, I might add. That is unique in my opinion.
V: That is probably because we have never really wavered from our chosen path in the sense that the basic elements that have always constituted our sound and identity are still firmly in place.
Now that we are sitting here and discussing things that happened 20 years ago, would you say that you have a complicated relationship with "Jormundgand"? Do you ever encounter black metal goons at shows that are standing there like a bunch of morons screaming for strictly old songs? You know what I am talking about. Those true-die-hard-kvlt-fucks out there who look and act like diarrhea, the ones that stopped buying records in 1989.
V: We do not really have those types of fans and I have never really experienced anything like that at our shows. Maybe because we do not really have any fans, ha-ha. Nah, just kidding. I do see and read comments from people on the web who worship those old songs, but I have never really had any annoying experiences in relation to that in a live setting.
I have attended Alice Cooper shows where retarded morons were screaming "Poison" for two hours in a row.
V: I have heard people shout that they want more, but other than that, I have only heard our audience shout "Helheim, Helheim" and so on.
Well, I have experienced people shouting "Jernskogen" at your shows even though you are playing a whole bunch of other songs. My question was not that far-fetched, ha-ha.
V: Ha-ha, yeah, now that I think about it you are right about that one, but I am totally okay with people wanting to hear "Jernskogen".
Before wrapping this interview up we should discuss a couple of other releases that were released in 1995, the same year that "Jormundgand" came out.
V: Cool, I am totally up for that.
DISSECTION "Storm of the Light`s Bane":
V: When it was released, I did not really get into it or listen to it a whole lot, but it really grew on me later on and now I love it. Now, I truly enjoy listening to it. When it was released, I was not really into Dissection and that album, to be honest with you, but now I consider it a black metal milestone for sure.
IMMORTAL "Battles in the North":
V: That I remember. Listening to that felt like being raped and then blown away. I did not like it as much as "Pure Holocaust", but at the same time, I was amazed by how extreme it was. Today I consider it a very brutal album. It is so pure, and in many ways, it is one of the most ferocious black metal albums out there. Almost like a storm that just pulverizes you, or a force of nature that crushes you.
V: At first, I was disappointed in this album as I was used to listening to their previous releases, and I recall thinking that this was very Celtic Frost-inspired. I worship Celtic Frost, but I felt that this was a new direction for Darkthrone. However, the more I listened to it the more I fell in love with the vocals. It is almost as if Nocturno Culto is standing right beside you and screaming directly into your ears. This is one of those black metal albums that I truly appreciate. I was not into it when it was released, but it totally grew on me and "Panzerfaust" is definitely one of the ugliest black metal releases in existence in my opinion. Whether it is a black metal album is up for discussion, at least to some.
V: I encountered a few problems when trying to absorb this album back in the day. I was never really captivated or fascinated by it. To phrase it differently, it is a decent album, but not one for the history books in my opinion. If I put it on today, I can imagine that I would appreciate it more than I did back then. I was never really a big fan of their stuff in the old days, and, as I just mentioned, this album never captivated me. The electronic releases are much better and a whole lot more interesting.
GEHENNA "Seen Through the Veils of Darkness (The Second Spell)":
V: I like this album a lot. There is this drum-bit in the song "Second Death" on our "The Journeys and Experiences of Death" album that is totally similar to one by Gehenna, which is yet another little tribute to stuff that we love. H’grimnir came up with that idea, as he likes old Gehenna a lot. I have always liked Gehenna. Actually, one of my favorite albums by the band is "Murder". One of the most brutal death metal albums that I have ever heard. I told Sanrabb a while ago that on "Murder" they simply nailed it. Fuck me, that album is so awesome. A piece of Norwegian death metal history or at least it ought to be. It is definitely one of the best Norwegian death metal albums of all time.
Finally, could you perhaps characterize "Jormundgand" using only a handful of words and phrases?
V: Youthfulness, honesty, and recklessness, followed by the phrases "wants something", "has to do something", and "must do something".