Live review : Myrkur + Jo Quail @ Gorilla, Manchester on December 19th 2018

My best mate is as musically obsessive as I am, but his aural drugs of choice are opera, folk and classical. Over the last ten years we have entered into a Faustian pact and have taken each other to shows. He has taken me to the Opera house at Covent Garden to see an astonishing production of Salome, to the Royal Festival Hall to see experimental symphonies and to a tiny folk club hidden in the back streets of London to witness an eighty year old man recite centuries old revolutionary ditties. On the other hand I have taken him to see Dying FoetusAlestorm and the mighty Slayer. I tell you all this as tonight’s show is the first time in the decade or so of this arrangement where our two distinct musical tastes have aligned in one single gig. You see Myrkur isn’t folk metal, she is a highly proficient folk act who also just so happens to play black metal.

However before we get to all of this we have the small matter of her touring cellist Jo Quail who plays a short opening set. Now a single solitary cellist on paper is probably not going to set the charred and darkened hearts of a Black Metal crowd alight, but Jo Quail is magnificence and very nearly steals the show from under her touring buddy’s nose. Each and every individual sound she makes on her cello is captured and looped back to create her backing track, meaning that every song is an ever building maelstrom of repeated sounds. With just one cello Jo manages to create ethereal and other worldly masterpieces that immerse the listener, my aforementioned friend is himself a highly competent cellist and he spends the entire set open-mouthed only managing to muster strength to whisper breathlessly “How the hell is she doing that with a Cello?”.

I can’t stress enough how incredible Jo Quail’s set is and there are two specific things that warm my heart, the first is the sheer joy of watching her create. She is doing something fundamentally different that she builds from scratch each and every time she plays and watching her construct each track piece by piece before my eyes is both a humbling and a joyful experience. The other thing that makes my heart leap is that the audience reaction she receives after each and every track is nothing short of rapturous. There are many times I have seen something I considered to be genius be greeted with tumble-weed and weak clapping, but the reaction to Jo Quail is euphoric and you can tell from her rather shocked emotionally honest response that she is both touched and a little over-awed by it.

Myrkur has a lot to live up to but tonight she is equally stunning. We get two concurrent sets, the first being her Nordic folk identity ‘Folkesange’. You see Amalie Bruun (as her mother knows her) is not just a Black Metal Chick (her description not mine), she is by day a preserver of ancient traditional Nordic folk songs and highly respected expert in that very same subject matter. As matches the environment that birthed it, Nordic Folk is dark, foreboding and deeply ethereal. This is folk as the manifestation of the real (crop failure, starvation, freezing to death) and imagined (trolls, imps, malignant elves) fears of the 18th and 19th century Norwegian peasant. Tonight Myrkur presents a selection of lovingly re-rendered tracks that she has discovered on her travels alongside a number of her own authentic compositions. They are all spine-tingling beautiful and breathtakingly wonderful, as is her use of traditional instrumentation carved from Elk bone. 

 And then the focus shifts, the stage darkens and we are into Black Metal territory. However this is not Black Metal in its malignant brooding evil form, this is Black Metal as a manifestation of fragility and beauty. The music is heavy and down-tuned, but over it remains Amalie’s beautiful heart-breaking vocals. And this juxtaposition is why her Black Metal compositions are as affecting and emotionally wrought as her folk material. You don’t usually think passion and soul when you think Black Metal, but tonight this incarnation of Myrkur is absolutely drenched in it. The audience is rapt as she pours out her fears and inner feelings, backed by a cacophony of sound that captures that true horrors of her nightmares. This is Black Metal divorced from mythical beings and Satanic overlords, this is all about a much more powerful enemy, the anxieties and insecurities created in own minds.

It may seem a cop out, but this is probably the most extraordinary show that I have witnessed this year (sorry Def Leppard you’ve been beaten to the crown), full of power, passion and conviction and as the lights rise there is a collective intake of breath as we all try to process what we have just experienced. Utterly utterly amazing.

Words by Stewart Lucas