When we catch up with Morten “Teloch” Iversen to chat about his latest album with Nidingr, The High Heat Licks Against Heaven, he’s in the midst of juggling his roles in two bands. It’s not exactly his fault: Nidingr’s first full-length in five years was supposed to arrive shortly after its completion last year, but scheduling conflicts delayed its release to earlier this month. The timing was terrible: Nidingr’s most epic and accessible effort to date hit shelves in the middle of an ongoing, highly-anticipated North American tour by Teloch’s other band, Mayhem, commemorating their classic 1994 album, De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas. Teloch’s been a part of that pioneering Norwegian black metal outfit since 2011, when he filled the vacancy opened by longstanding axeman Rune “Blasphemer” Eriksen.
The 47-year-old Norwegian multi-instrumentalist and producer spent his formative years amidst the country’s black metal renaissance in the ‘80s and ‘90s, and has been playing music in a host of groups for over a quarter-century. It started in his late teens, when he picked up the guitar and bass and began recording on his own, marking his formal entry into the musical dark arts. In 1992, he founded Audr, a one-man venture named for the Old Norse meaning “desolate” or “empty.” But this lone wolf was a pack animal at heart—and so, four years later, his gloomy solo project blossomed into a fearsome, full-bodied band with a new name, Nidingr, similarly plucked from the Vikings (it’s an Old Norse insult, typically lobbed at scoundrels and villains). Five albums and two decades later in 2017, he may be as well known for his work with Mayhem as he is for Nidingr, or his creative partnerships with Amalie “Myrkur” Bruun, the black metal dynamo whose mystery-enshrouded debut M Teloch co-produced alongside another leaden luminary, Ulver founder Kristoffer “Garm” Rygg.
Like most bands of their kind, Nidingr’s personnel is fluid—a rotating cast of leaden warriors. Besides Teloch—the group’s guitarist, bassist, producer, and sole creative constant—their lineup on The High Heat Licks Against Heaven consists of vocalist “Captain” Estrala Grasa, their primary lyricist since 2003 (his barked poetry focuses almost entirely on Norse myths), as well as bassist Stian “Sir” Kårstad and drummer Øyvind Myrvoll, of the since-disbanded black metal outfit God Seed.
Norwegian mythology forms the thematic heart of The High Heat Licks Against Heaven. Teloch and the Captain share a deep reverence for the pagan epics of their youth, passed down from generation to generation in Scandinavia for millennia—timeless tales of warring demigods, death-defying sorcery and bloodthirsty beasts which, unsurprisingly and inevitably, have come to embody the spirit of black metal writ large. “We grew up with this, in a way,” he explains. “Not really as a religion or anything, but we’ve always cared about the stories since we were kids. For us, it’s always been fascinating, and it still is kind of fascinating. To use it for metal is perfect.” (They first began exploring the theme on 2010’s Wolf-Father.)
“The Ballad of Hamther” recounts the story of two heroic brothers galloping down the warpath, dead-set on avenging their fallen sister, while “Ash Yggdrasil” finds Garm stepping in as raconteur to pay tribute to Yggdrasil, the holy ash tree which forms as the earthly threshold of the living and the dead—the center of the cosmos themselves. The album closes with the trumpets (or rather, blast beats) of war; On “Valkyries Assemble,” winged warriors arise and depart for the battlefield, followed shortly behind on the next track by “Naglfar,” a monster-filled vessel fashioned out of the fingernails and toenails of fallen soldiers. Teloch’s personal favorite on the album is “On Dead and Body Shore,” which he says is “the easiest song on the record to like; it’s kind of an atypical Nidingr song as well, but if you know the band, you can still like it.”
Teloch’s collaborations with Myrkur and Garm earlier in the decade provided the band with yet another creative wellspring, this time forged from the heart, as opposed to the sword. Though he’s pithy when it comes to discussing his creative work, he opens up a bit when asked about his compatriots. “I always have to take care of good musicians, and have them involved in whatever projects I have going on,” he gushes, going on to describe the album’s crossovers with the aforementioned figures as a “direct consequence” of their previous team-ups on M and later, as members of Myrkur’s touring band.
These group efforts don’t just reveal a rich, extensive creative network—they’re emblematic of Nidingr’s maturation, from one man’s sonic sapling to a branching body of work that’s almost as epic as old Yggdrasil itself. Teloch hints several times during our interview that The High Heat Licks Against Heaven, with its larger and more accessible sound, involved taking some risks, changing the group’s usual process. “The plan was to simplify everything,” he says. “I think we did that.” Those kinds of risks are the kind one can only take when one trusts and respects one’s cohort implicitly, with bonds strong as the power of the Aesir to order the cosmos. Any momentary conflicts, then, iike weighing the needs of two competing projects, seem eminently conquerable.