“Some place for a concert,” ponders Kjetil Nordhus, half an hour up a long and winding road into the mountains of southern Norway. Pockets of sheep look slightly perturbed as this rare visitor disturbs their tranquil plodding, and eventually, as the view outside this van becomes ever more vast and impressive, we spot our destination: a massive wooden dam, looming from the hillside like some sinister base for the final battle in a wartime action thriller.
Apparently the Nåvatn-3 dam was actually a strategic point for the occupying axis forces in World War II, but tonight it makes its final bow as a gig venue. Since 2007 the dry side of this huge dyke has doubled up as one of the world’s most remote and remarkable concert sites, a distinctive opening night launchpad for the Eikerapen Festival that takes place at the bottom end of that mountain road. Nordhus was one of the chaps who came up with the concept of sticking a stage in this spot, and one of his bands, a revered prog-metal outfit called Green Carnation, played the first ever headline gig here. Fittingly, they’ve reformed to play the final one.
Clash’s presence in their vehicle is more random. I was heading to nearby Kristiansand on an entirely different tip, when Nordhus – who also does a lot of behind-the-scenes stuff for music in these parts – suggested I come a few days early to check out this extraordinary festival launch. Indeed, not only is it visually spectacular, but there’s a big dose of intrigue involved. It transpires that within the next couple of years this lovely old dam is due to be destroyed, which means that the glorious landscape underneath will disappear too.
While the soundchecks begin below I head up to a nearby hill, and there one of the production crew (trying to get a signal on his phone) pretty much insists that I wander across the dam itself: yes, yes, vertigo, but it’s not like I’ll ever get another chance. It’s certainly impressive – a huge lake on one side, then a hefty drop to the ant-like techs and roadies on the other, as I cling to the wet side for dear life. But the consequences of losing this barrier between the two worlds only really becomes apparent when I’m wandering back down, spot a mouse, and find myself mentally imparting the same advice a gruff copper once gave me after I’d been burgled by junkies: “If I were you, son, I’d be moving on.”
Gradually a fleet of coaches fills the surrounding paths, and as dusk falls these bewilderingly condemned lands are peppered with a curious array of gig-goers. Black-clad prog-metal devotees – many of whom have travelled from overseas – mingle with those who’ll be attending the more varied festival proper over the following few days, and they begin to bed in around this unique site, some parking in front of the stage, others perching on nearby hillocks, while in a special tent way back in the distance the VIPS are fed the least-appetising meal I’ve ever seen. Part of it seems to be tree bark. Good luck with that.
The stage itself, nestled in one of the dam’s nooks, looks pretty unimpressive in the daylight, but come darkness the lights kick in and the whole thing is really quite extraordinary. The headliners provide a suitably grandiose soundtrack, and Nordhus is an engaging frontman, metal but not mental, subtly cajoling their ardent followers into an awestruck reverie. But as the set progresses I find myself edging away from the stage, attempting to get as much of their awesome backdrop in sight as possible. Eventually I wind up back up that hill, unable to see the stage itself, with just the lights and sound emanating from that nook, akin to some glorious installation.
After a couple of hours it’s all over. Some local dignitaries make awkwardly lengthy speeches, as the crowds, coaches and cars embark on the slightly perilous descent towards regular civilisation. Nordhus and the rest of Green Carnation follow that same dark path to the regular festival site in the early hours, where they reportedly unwind by watching – of all things – a Johnny Cash tribute act. Meanwhile the stage, lights and other paraphernalia begin to be dismantled for the last time, finally leaving the usually untroubled local wildlife in peace. For a few months, at least.
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Words and photos: Si Hawkins