Rebirth of Nefast
by Niklas Göransson
Stephen Lockhart – the Irishman behind Rebirth of Nefast, Oration, and Studio Emissary – discusses his new festival venture, Ascension, and various other activities, as well as whatever influence they might have wrought upon the phenomenon of Icelandic black metal.
– Things are already in motion with REBIRTH OF NEFAST but I won’t be going into any specifics because – one, I can’t promise anything and, two, with “Tabernaculum” (2017) I’d like to think I learned my lesson that things can take a lot longer than initially planned. Shortly after the album’s completion I toyed with the idea of compiling new material which would be the polar opposite of the debut in terms of work-ethic, that I’d force myself to move along faster and not dwell on details no one would ever notice. I realise now that this was a nonsense idea; new works will take just as long as they need to. Every element will always be pushed to the point where it can no longer be improved. This in itself is quite possibly one of the defining traits that make REBIRTH OF NEFAST what it is: obsessive perfectionism.
My cursory impression is that “Tabernaculum” has flown somewhat under the radar, so to speak. In fact, I’ve come across multiple sentiments suggesting it’s been rather overlooked.
– This isn’t something I’ve given a great deal of thought, to be honest. I never felt the need to have my work validated – either through sales, reviews, or just general feedback – which might sound ungrateful to those who truly appreciate what I do but that’s not my intention. Still, my outlook remains unchanged: the moment you start altering your art due to someone else’s input, it becomes compromised and is no longer your own work.
Still, it must be rather vexing given the sheer insanity of time and effort involved?
– I never had any specific expectations regarding its reception. I’m fully aware of what I was presenting – sixty minutes of material comprised of six songs, with the shortest one clocking in over seven minutes. Not exactly the very definition of accessibility. Add to that the album’s depth and detail, most listeners aren’t going to be able to grasp something like this on their first or second listen. Then there are other elements to take into consideration, such as us rarely playing live and being, at best, reluctant to promote ourselves and join this ‘networking’ culture that’s so prevalent these days. All of this is no accident. Suffice to say, I don’t make a concerted effort to elevate REBIRTH OF NEFAST above any radars; it should be able to speak for itself. I don’t create art to boost either my ego or bank account but because I have to, pure and simple. I do give the notion of playing live more consistently some thought though, probably more so than ever now that the only band I perform live with is SLIDHR. That’s all it is for now though, a thought. There are no concrete plans for additional shows following the one at Ascension.
REBIRTH OF NEFAST’s fourth-ever live show will take place in June at Stephen’s new Icelandic festival, Ascension MMXIX. The previous three were performed at his past festival venture, Oration, the first of which took place in 2016 and last in 2018. Given the man’s seemingly maniacal adherence to perfection – as discussed in our 2017 conversation – combined with the complexity of REBIRTH OF NEFAST’s material, I imagine it must require quite a bit of rehearsing to attain an acceptable level of tightness.
– I don’t actually play an instrument live, I only do vocals, so the biggest challenge in getting ‘gig-ready’ is for the remaining musicians. I’m told the rehearsals that went into our past three Oration shows were quite traumatising for the poor souls I drafted in, but everyone survived and came away feeling as if the stress and hard work was all worth it!
Despite not every participating act being thus affiliated, the Oration festival started out primarily to showcase bands who’d recorded in Stephen’s Studio Emissary. His primary occupation is as a producer and studio engineer.
– In the beginning, our expectations were rather limited. Not to imply we held back in some way, but more so that our inexperience when starting out didn’t allow for us to see the sheer possibilities before us. Already with Oration, we raised the bar higher than any underground festival in Iceland had done previously. But this is not enough for us, we can always do more; everything could always be made even more immersive. We want to facilitate an experience from which people walk away shaken to their very core.
Once Oration had been buried, Ascension rose in its place. At first glance, the aesthetic and choice of artists are not wildly dissimilar so it begs the question if Stephen’s vision really was so different that he felt the need to rename rather than simply resurrect.
– Our vision for Ascension is quite different to that of Oration, though I can certainly understand why one might draw superficial comparisons. We consider it to be a different festival entirely. On the surface-level I can appreciate how one might regard the visual representation of Ascension as Oration IV, but after digging a little deeper it’s apparent how these are just our aesthetics – period. They are consistent in everything we do and have done for years, be it with Studio Emissary, Oration Records, REBIRTH OF NEFAST, or any other artistic endeavour for that matter. Add to that the influence of Joseph Deegan, an artist we’ve been in close collaboration with since 2008. He’s responsible for much of the art of both REBIRTH OF NEFAST and Oration. Also consider the video manifestations of Woda i Pustka; we’ve been working with him since Oration MMXVI and are always extremely pleased with how he represents our vision.
Speaking of these trailers, their soundtrack sounds quite a bit like something that could easily be taken for either hitherto unused or even new REBIRTH OF NEFAST material.
– I don’t want to say too much but, yes, let’s just say the trailer music is representative of music I’m currently working on – albeit somewhat ‘customised’ to fit alongside Woda i Pustka‘s visual expression. So, as you may notice, we have our own taste and aesthetics, our people we trust and whose work we admire. We have no interest in seeking out new collaborators purely for the sake of satisfying someone else’s interpretation of our festival.
Would you call Ascension a black metal festival?
– No, we wouldn’t – the simple reason being that classifications are far too restrictive. Having to pick and choose bands based on whether they’re appropriate to perform at a black metal festival doesn’t leave you with a lot of options when your event is held in Iceland. In order for us to keep the bands varied and not repeat Oration’s line-up beyond a decent level, we needed to think outside the black metal box. What’s of the utmost importance to us is the spirit and aesthetics we want to convey. We’re trying to create an experience that celebrates the dark arts in the most profound way imaginable.
These events seem to draw significant attention from abroad, which I imagine gives smaller domestic bands an international platform on their home soil.
– Absolutely. I can say without ego that Oration and now Ascension is the highlight of the year for most, if not all, black metal enthusiasts here in Iceland. Worth noting is how the scene, despite its proliferance, still consists of very few people. Hence, local shows here will rarely draw more than a hundred to 150 attendees. Oration and Ascension, on the other hand, draws an increasingly international crowd – pushing attendance ever-closer to the five-hundred mark. Though showcasing for Studio Emissary is no longer our main focal point, the studio still plays a vital role with no less than ten related acts performing this year. Whenever possible, we try to use our festivals as a means of introducing some of these bands; we’re also beginning to gain a reputation of ‘firsts’, having hosted the debut gigs of quite a few bands by now. This year, we’ll witness the first-ever shows from AKHLYS, AORATOS, KALEIKR, and VASTÍGR. In previous years we’ve debuted ALMYRKVI, WORMLUST, ABYSSAL, HAUD MUNDUS and, of course, REBIRTH OF NEFAST.
Studio Emissary has played a part in the shaping of what today is commonly referred to as Icelandic black metal. As such, I’m wondering what its emergence was like from a domestic perspective – if it was an overnight sensation or more of a gradual process?
– It was very much so a gradual thing. And that’s something to note in light of this discussion – the debut SVARTIDAUÐI and SINMARA albums were both released for some time before they began garnering serious attention. And though there were some things I wouldn’t have predicted such as, for example, that I’d start hosting annual festivals or playing live, there were some elements I had a very clear vision about from the get-go. By the time the recording of SVARTIDAUÐI‘s “Flesh Cathedral” was underway, I already had serious ambitions and grand plans for the future of Studio Emissary. As for my role in Icelandic black metal’s rise to notoriety, I don’t really feel it’s my place to comment on for the most part. But I can say, yes, I’ve done my part; I’ve produced a lot, if not the vast majority, of high-calibre black metal that’s come out of Iceland for the last decade or so.
Besides SVARTIDAUÐI and SINMARA, Stephen has also recorded and produced bands such as ZHRINE, ABOMINOR, KALEIKR, AUÐN and ALMYRKVI.
– While I never had a vision of where the scene would end up, I knew from the beginning that many of these bands were placing very special offerings in my hands to mould and manifest. I worked constantly, applying my sound and providing input when appreciated. After a time, I suppose this naturally resulted in a semi-coherent and somewhat collective sound. But again, that was never my intention; I just wanted to dedicate myself and participate in projects I deemed worthy. It’s odd to imagine where time went. It only feels like yesterday I announced to the world, in a most humble fashion, that we’d completed “Flesh Cathedral” and that it was one of the best black metal albums ever made. At that point only a select few people had heard it so most were, naturally, rather sceptical. Yet here we are, eight years later, still talking about it.
So the golden era of Icelandic black metal has not yet come to an end?
– Not in the slightest, at least not in any sense that’s of importance. Perhaps there’s a little less buzz about Icelandic black metal around these ‘flavour of the month’ type websites than there was a year or two ago but that’s of little significance. To my understanding, both the recently released SINMARA and SVARTIDAUÐI albums were tremendous successes; both in terms of sales and reception. In fact, SINMARA just returned from their first US tour with several sold out shows under their belts; one being New York’s Saint Vitus Bar, no less! There are some fantastic records just around the corner as well. From my own standpoint, I can hardly recall an Icelandic band I’ve worked with that hasn’t gone on to be signed by a highly respected label. I can also say that judging from Ascension’s ticket sales thus far – as compared to the previous Orations – there’s been anything but a decrease in interest. Seen from an artistic perspective, I view these bands as going from strength to strength. Obviously, I cannot speak for them with certainty but I feel I’m not wrong in saying many would agree that the kind of attention presently surrounding our scene has no bearing on what we do. We were at this before the attention started and we’ll be doing it after. If people continue to enjoy it, even better.
As not only a musician but also a promoter, producer, and label manager – one would have to assume Stephen to have a pretty broad perspective on black metal. Given his close proximity to the aforementioned Joseph Deegan of SLIDHR, who ruffled a few feathers with his musings on the state of things, I can imagine this is where one seeks rhetorical shelter.
– Joseph and I have been collaborating for close to fifteen years so, yes, it’s safe to say we share the same outlook on a great number of things. We also clash on other matters but that’s exactly how it should be – neither of us have any use for ‘yes men’. For me, black metal as a genre is and always has been a great conundrum. It is cripplingly self-aware and obsessed with adhering to some imaginary rulebook. No one can actually agree on what the rules of this mythical book are but it seems everyone has an opinion on how everyone else is breaking them. It always brings me to the same conclusion: form your own thoughts, make your own rules, and pay no heed to what anyone has to say about them.