Interview: Zhrine and Svartidauði guitarist Nökkvi Gylfason

I’ve never made any secret of the fact that I think Iceland’s metal scene is absolutely fucking stellar. Probably half of my top 10 favourite bands hail from the tiny northern island, Zhrine among them. Formerly known as Gone Postal, they underwent an incredible metamorphosis, bursting onto the scene earlier this year with their debut album “Unortheta”, a dazzling and entrancing black and death metal concoction that succeeded – in my view – on nearly every level. Having reviewed the album not too long ago, I now bring you an interview with their guitarist Nökkvi Gylfason. He’s a guitarist and one of their key creative forces in ZHRINE, as well as in Svartidauði, arguably Iceland’s breakout extreme metal band. In this interview I wanted to talk about his more recent music with ZHRINE, particularly as their album means a lot to me. I want to thank Nökkvi again for taking the time to speak to me and for giving such thoughtful answers.

What reasons were behind your decision to change the musical direction and name of your band a few years ago?

There wasn’t a sit down where the four of us had the mutual agenda of changing the musical direction of the band. It just happened as we progressed and kept writing. I had been venturing on a darker musical approach with my work in Svartidauði, Ævar had been studying all kinds of different bass playing, the rest were all on the same page which ultimately resulted in a darker, more dismal music. Why not try to create something that hasn’t been created before?

There was already a darker approach to our music on the second Gone Postal promo so it was something that followed a natural progression. The name change kind of goes without saying. Gone Postal represented the old straight forward music and we never had the intention of releasing Unortheta under that moniker.

How do you feel about Unortheta’s reception? Have people understood the album in the way you intended?

Regarding the reception of the album I think it went exactly the way we had hoped for. I think this music is timeless for that matter. You wouldn’t listen to it and think; Here is something that reminds me of a certain era of extreme music. Maybe the future will prove otherwise. For the time being I feel extremely satisfied with everything regarding it’s release and from what I hear or read from people.

On the track ‘World’ the lyrics are simply one line: ‘The world’s inborn nature has been lost.’ Could you talk a little about the meaning behind that line?

The song “World” was initially our opening track when we played live but as things progressed we decided to use it as an opener to the second half of the album. It’s lyrical meaning is as simple as the words state. The way the world affairs stand today will only lead to the extermination of everything as we know it and from what I understand, it has surpassed the point of no return.

I’d also like to ask about the album title, ‘Unortheta’. Now I might be mixing things up here, but I seem to recall that was the working title even before you renamed from Gone Postal, right? It seems like the name means something quite important to you guys, would you be willing to talk a little about the meaning behind it?

The title “Unortheta” came to me when I was constantly arranging musical patterns in my mind seconds before I’d fall asleep. If I was lucky enough to remember what I was constructing the day after I’d take these patterns with me to rehearsal. After some research I gathered information about the various stages of deep meditation and that’s where I connected the dots. Unorthodox theta waves was something I could perfectly use to describe the music I was writing at that time so that’s how the title came to be. It was the working title of our album for a long time and for one show in Iceland we even presented the band name as Unortheta. For me the title is something of our own, not some borrowed words from a dictionary but a made up word that describes the core element of our music.

What do you hope listeners take away from your music?

My hope was always to get the listener to understand the album for what it truly is and hopefully have a bit more insight into the harsh living conditions one endures in Iceland as to what drove us to write this. Set aside the usual catharsis that spins most extreme metal writings and take a closer look to the environment that shaped it. I think individually the four of us that make up this album each have our own understanding of it and that’s exactly what I’d want from the individual listener as well. To experience our journey of melancholic catharsis with a touch of melody and sorrow. Interpret or comprehend the album the way you choose to.

It sounds like Iceland’s quite harsh environment shaped this album enormously, musically and lyrically. It reminds me a little of how Wolves in the Throne Room very explicitly aimed to channel their experience of the Pacific Northwest into their music. You can feel it in their music and hear it in the lyrics. Do you think that’s an accurate comparison on some level? Does that approach reflect something of your own approach with Zhrine, channeling something of Iceland’s bleak, harsh beauty?

I think that the environment definitely had a lot to do with the whole process of the album. The whole idea of creating bleak and cold music came from the natural surroundings that encompass us here in Iceland as well as the urge to create something totally unheard and never forget the darkness. The darkness here during winter inspires me to write dark music and the delirium of insomnia during summer has a strong impact as well. The comparison you speak of maybe true to a certain extent regarding the musical approach. Lyrically we went in a completely different direction. But that goes without saying.

When I listen to Unortheta, it often seems meditative, ritualistic, and almost improvised at times. Am I wide of the mark there? How was the album written?

I can proudly admit that some passages where improvised at the time of their writing which ensued that we’d continue to work on that exact passage until we thought to ourselves that we’d reached perfection. The album was written mostly whilst working together the four of us but some riffs or ideas where brought from the individual mind. I wouldn’t want it any other way. The dictatorship writing where one man holds his ideas above others while working on music, is something I don’t value highly although for some it may work, it is simply not the ideal musical writing process I prefer for my projects so far. In terms of the music being ritualistic at times I can tell you that for me every single rehearsal was a ritual.

It’s fascinating to hear about the improvisation and ritualistic side of things. One of my favourite videos on YouTube is the Zhrine rehearsal from 2013 (This one!). ‘Ritualistic’ and ‘meditative’ are both words I’d use to describe it. But I notice that that rehearsal had no vocals, so I’m curious if you only later decided on adding vocals, or if they just weren’t in that particular video. One of the things I love about Unortheta is that – as good as the vocals are – the music itself is so powerful and emotive that at times it almost leaves the vocals unnecessary: the music really does speak for itself. Were vocals always in the picture, or was there a time when you were considering going down an instrumental route?

We had every intention of having vocals on the album from the start. But we decided to do a kind of “less is more” approach. I often feel that vocals should carry a bit more weight than only words and therefore be used sparsely. Which is exactly what I felt we accomplished on Unortheta. The reason there’s no vocals in that rehearsal video is probably because at that time we hadn’t arranged much, if any vocals. The video even shows a bit of the improvisation element you mentioned earlier because the songs there are incomplete. I agree with your saying that the music speaks for itself. That was always my aim, but having a strong vocalist and an excellent guitar player in your project must be put to use.

I would also like to hear your thoughts on Iceland’s black metal scene in general. Personally I think it’s absolutely world-class, and there’s a lot of cross-pollination going on with musicians having multiple projects on the go, like yourself for instance. How are things on the ground? Are people excited about the future? And are there any other lesser-known Icelandic bands you think are worth keeping an eye on?

I think Icelandic black metal bands are definitely world class. A late bloomer for sure but there are extremely talented musicians living here making extraordinary music. Most are not afraid to go outside the box and experiment with something unheard. Wormlust for example is something worth looking into, although not lesser-known by any means. Vansköpun is something you should keep your eyes open for.

I think the future looks promising for Icelandic bands with more and more opportunities for abroad shows. Fifteen years ago there was nothing happening in the world of Icelandic extreme metal. Due to the small population of Iceland, there is only a limited market here for this type of music.

What does the future hold for ZHRINE? Any new music in the works?

Although I find myself extremely satisfied with the music I’ve been writing over the past few years there is always room for progression and I think Zhrine will progress even further. Expect something new from Zhrine in the future. I know it will be a difficult challenge to follow up Unortheta, but given the success of Unortheta and our natural surroundings, I think we won’t lack inspiration.