When Kvelertak released their self-titled debut album in 2010, it was nothing more than another blackened thrash ‘n’ roll album out of Norway, a traditional mecca for this type of sound. They had a few key anchors, however, that enticed bloggers and reviewers in North America to take a chance on the newcomers: the legendary Kurt Ballou was listed as the producer and the sextet had tapped Baroness’ John Baizley for the artwork. Overnight, it seemed, everyone was talking about Kvelertak. Their self-titled debut won fans over across the world with their tight rhythms, classic rock and roll influences and balls out blackened thrash attitude. A more metallic and abrasive Every Time I Die, Kvelertak managed to combine their black metal, punk and rock and roll influences into a cohesive aesthetic that sounded like the soundtrack to an unhinged house party deep in the Norwegian winter landscape. Proud anthems, steeped in Norse mythology, rang clear on their debut and conjured images of horns of ale sloshed in the air and sodden beards chanting along to every breathless word.
It didn’t take long for the band to explode in North America. They re-released the album in North America via The End Records and became all but a household name among metal fans. Tours on this side of the ocean followed, including debuts at major festivals, like SXSW, and word of their fierce live show soon spread. Here were six gargantuan, sometimes shirtless, men howling and screaming in Norwegian; an unstoppable wall of sound that electrified insatiable audiences. Kvelertak struck a balance between the keg and the kvlt and managed to appeal to a large swathe of people while staying true to their roots.
“I wouldn’t believe it myself if you told me a couple of years ago,” laughs front man Erlend Hjelvik. “But, here we are.” “Here” is currently Washington, D.C., a stop on their North American tour supporting High on Fire. It’s an easy match between the two: while High on Fire are much sludgier than the frenetic Norwegians, both are able to transpose classic punk, metal and rock and roll influences from a variety of scenes and make a sound that is uniquely their own. The one-two punch can only be a deadly combination of sheer volume and whiplashed necks.
Between near-constant touring across the world, Kvelertak returned to the studio with Ballou in 2012 to record their sophomore album — the one that traditionally makes or breaks bands — the aptly titled Meir (Norwegian for “more”). With two years of performing under their belt, they set out to capture the band at the moment, not to reinvent the wheel. Indeed, Meir is just more Kvelertak, a refinement of their sound rather than any kind of marked progression or evolution. They even returned to Baizley for their art, maintaining thematic coherence across releases.
“The most important thing for me, personally,” Hjelvik begins, “was that I just wanted to show where the band was at the time, in 2012-2013. It was good to get some new material out. With only one album, the set list pretty much writes itself and we had been playing that for almost three years. It’s really good to get some new songs in the set list and show where the band is at.
“I’m super happy with where the band is at and I personally like the record better than the first one,” he continues. Meir does continue in the same vein as their self-titled debut, though many, including myself, were hoping to see a different side to the band. The 11 tracks on the album could have easily fit on their debut and all charge forward, twisting identifiable influences into charred party-starters. After such a strong debut, it’s hard not to be disappointed and see Meir as more of the same.
“I would say that like 90 per cent of the reviews for this album have been better than the first one,” he says. “But, I have noticed that our fans will argue about which album is best, which, for me, is a great sign that we have two good albums. If people have different opinions between the first and the second album, I see that as a good sign. It’s at least as good as the first one.
“I’m happy with my performance at this time,” he confirms. “The songs are more diverse and we’re pushing our own boundaries on this album… If this was the first album that we ever did, people would have been more blown away. But, we’re not a completely new band anymore. You have to expect that people are going to say that.”
If anything, Meir solidifies the Kvelertak sound and aesthetic. Though Hjelvik laughs at the notion that they are now considered mainstream in Norway, they retain a jagged rawness to their sound, seamlessly integrating three guitarists and a rhythm section into the assault. It would have been too easy, for instance, for them to polish up their sound in the studio with the additional resources a record deal and increased visibility afforded them, or to even record songs in English, packaged for simpler North American consumption.
“That’s one of the things that we’ve discovered about ourselves on our album: no matter what we play, it’s going to sound like Kvelertak… I credit our guitarist, Bjarte (Lund Rolland), he’s the main songwriter. He’s not a metal guy at all, he listens to everything. He manages to take all these elements and make it all sound pretty seamless. It doesn’t sound forced if we include a Southern rock part in a song, for example. That’s what I think is genius about him.”
Despite what critics are saying, it’s clear that Kvelerak have refined a winning formula. Their tours in North America keep getting better, they were recently invited to play on a Norwegian talk show in front of a largely unsuspecting studio audience and their fan base continues to grow. But that’s not enough for them. True to their word, Kvelertak are always going to be pushing for more.
Catch Kvelertak at the Starlite Room (Edmonton) on December 4 and at Republik (Calgary) on December 5.
By Sebastian Buzzalino
Photo: Stian Andersen