Sometimes, an album comes along when you least expect it, right when you need it the most. I still remember the first time I heard Kvelertak.
It was mid-way through 2010, and I was somewhere adrift in my early 20s. I was between jobs, and I had some downtime at home during the day. I mostly felt shitty and depressed about being unemployed, and so, because of this (not to mention having little to no money), I rarely left the house. My housemate was away for work, so I decided it would be the perfect time to chill on the couch, wallow in my self-pity, drink some beers, and waste some bots on Unreal Tournament 3.
Now, to tell the truth, I can’t quite remember exactly how I procured my copy of ‘Kvelertak,’ but what I do distinctly recall is that I had no real idea who they were or what to expect. Listening to this particular album, in this particular moment, was purely to have ‘background music’. Suffice to say, 11 songs and 49 minutes later, I was in complete awe. I forgot about being miserable and playing a mindless video game. Instead, I found myself transfixed by the riffs and the energy and the sheer sense of unbridled fun that spewed out of my stereo speakers. For the first time in weeks, I was smiling and air-drumming and head-banging with glee. And let me tell you, it felt great!
All it took was one listen, one single play-through. I was utterly captivated and immediately won over by the band’s heavy, catchy, and raucous sonic blitz: the icy tremolos and frantic blast beats of black metal titans Satyricon; the rollicking party thrash of rock’n’rollers like Turbonegro and Motorhead; the hardcore d-beat fury of Converge and Disfear; and the doomy psychedelic riffage of Black Sabbath. Where before I was merely a curious casual listener, now I was an unflinchingly devoted fan. And ten years later, a full decade on from that first listen, I remain a loyal disciple of the cult of Kvelertak.
Even before the release of their self-titled debut album, Kvelertak (taken from the Norwegian word for “Stranglehold” or “Chokehold”) were already destined for great things. Following the release of their 2007 demo ‘Westcoast Holocaust,’ the Stavanger act quickly tightened their grip on the local metal scene.
Off the back of an impressive live show and a groundswell of critical underground buzz, the band landed a slot on the legendary Danish Roskilde festival in 2009, where they performed in front of a packed crowd of 80,000 punters. And this is all before they had a label, or even a formal release to speak of!
In the early months of 2010, the band decamped to GodCity Studios in Massachusetts, to work with Converge guitarist, renowned engineer, and producer Kurt Ballou (Trap Them, Isis, Code Orange). On May 31st, 2010, Kvelertak released the album’s lead single ‘Mjød’ and its accompanying music video, which saw the band — Erlend Hjelvik (vocals), Vidar Landa (guitar), Bjarte Lund Rolland (guitar/piano), Maciek Ofstad (guitar), Marvin Nygaard (bass), and Kjetil Gjermundrød (drums) — performing amid a brawling, blood-splattered cage fight, acting as the perfect visual companion to their signature brand of aural chaos.
With Ballou mixing the record, Alan Douches on mastering duties, and Baroness frontman John Dyer Baizley providing some truly stunning, eye-catching, occult-themed artwork, Kvelertak released their self-titled debut album on June 21st, 2010 through Norwegian label Indie Recordings.
After my initial listen of ‘Kvelertak,’ I desperately sought out a copy of the album on vinyl — despite the fact that I didn’t own a record player at the time. And look, not to sound like some smug elitist or anything, but it’s still by far my preferred way to listen to this album. My own personal copy is an original press on 180g 2XLP vinyl, with a gatefold sleeve and printed inner sleeves. The album mix, courtesy of Ballou and Douches, sounds goddamn incredible: thick, heavy, and rich in detail. Meanwhile, the album layout from Marcelo HVC adds all of these glorious little extras to the auditory experience.
On the inner sleeve, each song receives individual credits, along with a short narrative description that helps to immerse the listener into the band’s own version of Norse mythology. And considering that vocalist Hjelvik sings entirely in a regional dialect of northern Norwegian, the lack of written lyrics helps the listener fill in the gaps with their own interpretation of each track’s mood and vibe.
Side A – ‘Ulvetid,’ ‘Mjød’ and ‘Fossegrim’
“The wolves Skoll and Hate [Hati] swallow the moon [Mani] and the sun [Sol]. The following fimbulwinter destroys the land and sets off Ragnarok. Odin kicks Suttung’s ass in order to steal his magical Mead and bestows it onto Kvelertak. The black magician of the forest, Fossegrim, teaches a young apprentice in the fine arts of el-guitarism. But not for free!”
The first minute of ‘Ulvetid’ is everything you need to know about ‘Kvelertak: Gjermundrød’s frosty blast beats, driving power chords from Landa, Lund Rolland and Ofstad, Hjelvik’s piercing, indecipherable banshee shriek, and a roaring chorus of gang vocals. The intro to ‘Mjød’ sounds like a blizzard dance party in an abandoned barn, before quickly descending into a full-blown hardcore rager. ‘Fossegrim’ starts off with Hjelvik’s war chant and booming tom rolls from Gjermundrød before little arpeggio synth bursts in the midsection make way for a blazing electric solo.
Side B – ‘Blodtørst,’ ‘Offernatt’ and ‘Sjøhyenar (Havets Herrer)’
“The snake king of Nifelheim feasts on the blood of dead men, while his army of snakes attempt to destroy the world-tree Yggdrasil. Screams echo through the forest. Knives have a thirst for blood. Thirteen men unleash the gates of Hell. Black beasts from the abyss with powers from hell eat men! Ugh!”
‘Blodtørst’ (‘Blood Thirsty’) sports a feral lead riff that cuts right through the mix, along with a guest vocal appearance by longtime friend, Ivar Nikolaisen (The Good, The Bad and The Zugly), who’d (spoilers!) later go on to become their lead vocalist after Hjelvik’s departure in 2018. There’s also a line in this track which, according to Google translate, Metalsucks, and confirmed by Hjelvik himself, goes something like: “So we’re going to fuck Odin’s widow while giving you awesome riffs.” Hell yeah! ‘
Offernatt’ (‘Sacrifice Night’) might just be my favourite Kvelertak song of all time, with phenomenal guitar interplay from six-string brethren from Landa, Lund Rolland and Ofstad, that carries into a glorious, duelling panned chug-fest as an outro. It also features the record’s only flirtation with English lyrics, as guest vocalist Ryan McKenney of Trap Them pops up to absolutely crush the mid-section with lines about bestial lust and demonic sacrifice. ‘Sjøhyenar (Havets Herrer)’ (‘Lord of the Sea’) swings wildly back forth between Nygaard’s pummeling bottom end, whiplash leads and Gjermundrød’s punchy kick accents.
Side C – ‘Sultans of Satan,’ ‘Nekroskop’ and ‘Liktorn’
“The Sultans of Satan ride their mighty steeds through earth, wind and fire hunting for Christ. An old book bound in Humanflesh summons an evil spirit that projects visions of madness and mayhem. Doom! The half-god Loki tricks Balder’s [Baldur] blind brother Hod [Hodr] into killing him. Balder is trapped in Helheim until the whole world mourns his death, which of course Loki refuses.”
Moving on to the second LP, this is where Kvelertak dispense with the pissed off, hardcore ragers and start getting doomy, weird, and psychedelic. ‘Sultans of Satan’ plays around with the band’s first sung chorus, which totally works, before ramping up into rolling hi-hats and a spliff-tastic change-up in the midsection that sounds like a ‘Master of Reality’ B-side. When the smoke-fuelled haze dissipates and the fuzz drains away, the band charge back in with an AC/DC lead riff for a super strong finale.
Elsewhere, ‘Nekroskop’ and ‘Liktorn’ are two cuts that push the five-minute mark, with intricate, harmonised lead flourishes, vivid atmospherics, and Hjelvik’s dynamic range on full display.
Side D – ‘Ordsmedar av Rang’ and ‘Utrydd Dei Svake’
“Tor [Thor], the god of lightning, chisels out lyrics with his mighty hammer (for Kvelertak) while beating up trolls. Everyone except for Kvelertak is sent to Helheim to swim in rivers of urine!”
‘Ordsmedar av Rang’ glides in majestically with one of ‘Kvelertak’s more serene, melodic moments, resting on a solid mid-tempo riff before opening up into an expansive instrumental passage. Closing with the record’s longest composition, the six-minute-plus ‘Utrydd dei Svake’ (‘Eradicate the Weak’) brings it all home with what Kvelertak do best: the speed and ferocity of black metal, the rapid-fire riffage and tempo changes of extreme metal, and the joyful exuberance of fist-pumping, beer-swilling punk rock. The track slows right down in the midsection, climbing back with patient steps over an infectious beat and plodding groove, before the band cheer at the top of their lungs, in resounding, triumphant unison: “Gooooo Kvelertak!”
Not many bands achieve a high-profile string of personal goals on their first record. Maybe Kvelertak just got lucky. Or maybe, they were just that good. As Ofstad recently told Metal Hammer via Louder Sound, “We were just kids! I was 22 years old, and I had no idea what to expect from this band. We released that album not knowing that it was gonna change the world of metal forever, you know?”
It’s kind of hard to overstate it, but in their native Norway, Kvelertak are a big deal and their debut album is undoubtedly what got them there. The band received regular radio airplay, supported major acts like Gojira and Mastodon, and played to 22,000 people at Oslo’s Telenor Arena as special guests to the Foo Fighters. After the show, rock’n’roll royalty himself, Dave Grohl, surprised the band with a gold record after they shifted more than 15,000 units of their debut album.
Additionally, Kvelertak received the honour of awards in the ‘Best Newcomer’ and ‘Best Rock’ categories at the 39th annual Spellemann awards (which is essentially the Norwegian equivalent to winning a Grammy). The band also won the Statoil grant, a cash prize which allows talented Norwegian bands on the cusp of international breakthrough to succeed overseas.
And while it took a little longer, eventually the international music press caught on to the band’s infectious metal mash-up. ‘Kvelertak’ landed at #6 on Kerrang’s Top 20 Albums of 2010, and held strong to take out #50 in their list for the 75 Best Albums of the 2010s, beating out other contenders like Slayer’s ‘Repentless’ (#61), The Gaslight Anthem’s ‘American Slang’ (#59), My Chemical Romance’s ‘Danger Days: The True Lives of the Fabulous Killjoys’ (#57), and even Foo Fighters’ ‘Wasting Light’ (#55). Elsewhere the band received accolades from Decibel magazine with a #22 position in their Top 40 Albums Of 2010, ahead of The Dillinger Escape Plan’s ‘Option Paralysis’ (#37) and Deftones’ ‘Diamond Eyes’ (#31), and garnered attention from Consequence of Sound with a #21 spot in their Top 25 Metal Albums of the 2010s, coming in above acts like Pallbearer, Zeal and Ardor and Megadeth.
Throughout the 2010s, Kvelertak would continue to refine and retool their unique brand of face-melting riff magic, most notably on 2013’s ‘Meir’ and 2016’s excellent, Heavy Metal inspired, sci-fi meets classic rock extravaganza ‘Nattesferd’. And even after Hjelvik’s much-publicised departure, Nikolaisen’s recruitment, and switching out Gjermundrød for new drummer Håvard Takle Ohr, 2020’s ‘Splid’ showed that the band have lost none of their own energy or creative spark. And, as Ofstad declares: “I think we’ll keep on doing this for 30 more years.”
Reliving the righteous glory of their debut album, I am certainly happy at the prospect of being a devoted fan and loyal disciple of the cult of Kvelertak well into my sixties.