[*Warning: Mild spoilers below for VREID’s film Wild North West.]
On April 29th, the pioneering Norwegian Metal band VREID premiered a very special project internationally, streaming their Wild North West album film via Facebook and Youtube. The viewing marked the release of their album on April 30th via Season of Mist. The film project is an hour long and was made in conjunction with recording their new album over a period of only six months in their native region of Sogndal. Last autumn, VREID also debuted a unique project, doing a special concert outside in the Sogndal mountains and taking in the wild backdrop as an accompaniment to their music. The free concert (with donations encouraged) sparked plenty of attention, with over 140,000 viewers internationally. The success of that venture seems to have sparked further conversation for the band about how to spend their time during lockdown, and the idea of making an album film came to life.
The Wild North West concept album accompanies the film and acts as a soundtrack and as a narrative device, telling the story of the film which the viewer watches. The combination is not unlike a silent film with soundtrack, but the film itself is also embellished with some liveplay footage of the band performing the songs at the film’s shooting locations.
The premier of the film came with a significant introduction, first to the band’s native region and its medieval history, then to the history of the band itself, and finally band members talking about this new project. But the introduction also featured a wide range of well-wishers from the band’s local mayor to Metal musicians from other bands and others. A really smart inclusion was a video Q&A component where, via video, a wide swath of journalists from across the globe submitted questions to the band about the album and the film, and band members then responded to those questions. The result was very informative and also brought with it the feeling of an international film premier.
Some of the information that sprang to light during this session included the fact that they shot part of the film at an actual sanitarium, that the experience of making the movie has given the band inspiration for future projects, that David Lynch was a huge inspiration for their film, and that this is the first project they’ve made where the natural world doesn’t act as the full backdrop to their storytelling, but rather as a point of departure and return, with a more limited “closed” world of storytelling surrounded by a wild environment.
While all the band members took part in the event and in the film, Jarle Hvall Kvale provided some of the underpinings of the film project, sharing that “Storytelling is the essence of what we do”, from the band’s first demo onwards, culminating in this film. He has always been particularly impressed with David Lynch, too, from the “absurd universe” of Twin Peaks that he encountered as a kid, which “scared the shit out of him”, to Lynch’s various film soundtracks. He also expressed a love for documentaries and fantasy films as influences on Wild North West, including the work of Ivo Caprino.
The eight-chapter film corresponded to the eight songs on the new album, and each chapter was introduced with title cards and quotes to set the tone. Kvale has previously described the album as a “concept story about life itself and its eternal shadow: death” and that very clearly plays out in the film, but in a number of very interesting and entertaining ways. After the establishing images of a Reaper figure in the region, we follow a young man (wearing a Vreid backpatch, naturally) from his ancestral homestead in the mountains as he takes up a bag and hits the road whereupon adventures, mostly of a sinister nature, ensue. With Sogndal as a backdrop, the woods, mountains, historic fjord (the longest unfrozen fjord in Norway) and nearby rivers all set a fairly breathtaking and mythic atmosphere for the film.
Our protagonist’s first adventure (in Chapter 2) takes him via medieval history markers to rowing on the fjord where he encounters Sogndal’s dramatic history with the “Wolves at Sea”, the ghostly specters of struggle and destruction via Nazi Uboats during Norway’s invasion and occupation during WWII. Using a variety of film techniques that render the impressions of the past ghostly and overwhelming, the story leaves our hero possibly dead, but definitely washed up, on the shore.
An Alice Cooper quote, “Welcome to my nightmare”, introduces the quite extreme nightmares of Chapter 3, where the young man is taken to the local asylum, and accompanied by one of the most intense live play segments of the film due to the impressive edifice of the (very real) abandoned asylum behind the band for the song, “The Morning Red”. The blazing fire tripods around the keep the band from freezing while play also add to the epic feel of the segment. Several more chapters follow, all set at the asylum, exploring its terrors in various ways and, too all accounts, much of the detail in the film is built on real information and research that the band did into the inmates at the asylum. Each of the band members also plays an inmate during these chapters, living the horror of the narrative in their own ways, and with more than a few nods to Twin Peaks. You can’t get through these sequences without some watchful owls, for one thing.
Though the asylum sequences, like the rest of the film, work by suggestion rather than through gore, some of it is still not for the faint of heart, especially if you shy away from seeing sharp objects near eyeballs. But we also get some interesting ghoulish facepaint from the band during live play segments in Chapter 5, so it’s really worth braving the antique medical equipment, sadistic nurse, and eerily joyous young girls in white who skip around (played by Kvale’s two daughters).
While the asylum takes up the bulk of the story due to its dramatic weight and visual terrors, it’s Chapters 7 and 8 that are more chilling and relentless in some ways. It’s astonishing that our young hero survives these rigors to escape into the woods, but we should have guessed that he’s really just out of the frying pan and into the fire, because these are haunted and haunting landscapes he cannot escape from so easily. If you like silent films, you might be reminded of Murnau’s “land of ghosts and shadows” in Nosferatu as our protagonist moves through the snowy evergreen-clad mountainsides, with cut aways to the reaper figure and young girls pursuing him. Because the film already requires a suspension of disbelief and it’s hard to tell reality from hauntings, but the hero’s indefinite fate gives way to grisly flourishes in the very strong 8th chapter of the film.
We finally get some excellent footage of a medieval church with very eerie painted walls and ceilings, not to mention the pipe organ which features in the accompanying track. This feels like the finale that the film, and fans, deserve, when dealing with such gothic subjects. But wait, there’s also the custom made coffin, painted with a Vreid symbol, which cloaked figures (presumably the band members) carry back to Sogndal’s mountains. The procession gives viewers time to process the surroundings, the flurry of events, and most of all to absorb the sonorous music that concludes this Metal opera. Let’s also note a nod to the “Log Lady” in Twin Peaks.
The film’s conclusion urges that the universe “let the flame of Sognametal burn for eternity” and VREID have given many good reasons in their album and film for that to come true. They’ve always brought out the location’s intrinsically epic qualities (even as the band WINDIR previously) from it’s severe natural beauty to its multi-layered history, but the film also shows the ways in which the geography and traits of Sogndal can operate metaphorically in big, sweeping ways. The asylum’s location and history seems to have been a point of inspiration for conceiving of and creating the film, but really it was only the missing piece, that dramatic second and third act that helped pull together the different eras of history and, like in Twin Peaks, elucidate the menace that seems to wander in the woods without definite form but with lots of stories to tell.