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High and hardcore
First Spitsbergen Rock festival gives black metal a new latitude
Ketil Rønning, lead singer for the Longyearbyen band Schmeerenburgh, performs Saturday at Endalen during the first Spitsbergen Rock festival. Seven Norwegian bands performed at various locations during the four-day event.

For Heidi Merethe Lian, it was an evening of pleasant music and an opportunity to dig out the vintage wardrobe. Y'know, the spiked necklace, skull-and-crossbones accessories and ankle-length black denim coat with a black metal band moniker on back.

"Before, one or two years ago, I liked to dress like this every day," the 16-year-old Longyearbyen student said, her hair done up in a nice vertical frizz.

Lian and a few hundred fellow BMers gave their eardrums some long-awaited exercise during the first Spitsbergen Rock festival Thursday through Sunday.

Seven Norwegian bands spent the extended weekend pummeling instruments and speakers into submission, which Lian said was a much-needed addition to Longyearbyen's regular roster of jazz and blues festivals.

"It's amazing they got one," Lian said while waiting for the bus to a marathon of concerts Saturday at Endalen by Mine 5. "It's perfect that I'm here now."

Looking much more conventional in a simple blue nylon jacket and jeans was Lina Harnes, 23, an Asker resident visiting her dad for the weekend. While pristine settings and all that have their place, an evening of cultural music was nothing to pass up.

"I didn't know it was happening," she said, adding the only band she was familiar with was the Oslo-based Superfamily that headlined the event.

She said standing for hours in and around the chilly semi-open hall at Endalen wasn't a concern since "it's going to be sunny all night," she said. Besides, "that's why you wear a coat."

No, the evening wasn't Norwegian Wood, but premium-seat views for fans of The Pretenders were online – and still can be streamed at Meanwhile, the world's newest and northernmost rock festival had whale burgers (not remarkably different than beef cooked well-done, but tasty with garlic sauce) and shorter porta-potty lines. Plus the bands had a better chance of creating the most bizarre memories (applicable in this case to both musicians and listeners).

"Who can say no to Svalbard?" said Ronny Haugeland, lead singer for Figur Flint, explaining why he opted for an invitation to go bear-watching and do "the whole nature thing" instead of soaking up the masses in Oslo (for what it's worth, his group got a lot of mentions for most out-of-control act).

Jam session
Figur Flint performs a brief set Thursday at Svalbar during a free jam session on the opening night of Spitsbergen Rock.

He said he had no expectations about what the audience would be like, but they turned out to be as raucous as anywhere.

The festival might have been aimed at Svalbard's youth, but Arlid Hermansen, almost 60, was among those rocking among the rocks late into the night Saturday. He said he's no poseur – this really is the stuff he listens to at home.

"Not always, but sometimes," added Inger Marie Hegvik, who married Hermansen two weeks ago.

Hermansen, who's lived in Longyearbyen for ten years, said he's a regular at all of the local festivals and "I like this one just as much as any of them." The audience might not have packed every performance, but he predicts that will come in time.

"When they started the Svalbard blues festival it was low, but it got better all the time," he said. "I think that will happen here, too."

A year of planning went into the festival, including struggles to get permits to sell alcohol and put the porta-potties at a place where geological samples are being collected, and Festival Director Kristian Arnesen said organizers spent five days setting things up at Endalen.

"I'm still taking it down," he said a few days afterward.

Arnesen said he felt the festival went exceptional well, "especially at Endalen," and "we are 95 percent sure" there will be another Spitsbergen Rock next year,
"We already have two bands who said no this year who said they will come next year," he said, adding this year's bands also indicated they want to return.

Veronica Anderson (white shirt), finishes grilling a batch of whale burgers during the Spitsbergen Rock concerts Saturday.

About 350 to 400 tickets were sold for two days of paid events, making four concerts at two pubs on Friday well-attended but not quite sold out, Arnesen said. Free jam sessions on Thursday and Sunday were more lightly attended (and started one and three hours late, respectively), although the opening-night crowd was certainly boisterous. Arnesen said next year's festival will likely expand that to an all-day event while dropping the second session.

Fans said the thing they want most at future festivals is more bands.

"It would be great if they could get some of those big bands like AC/DC here," said Veronica Anderson, 28, who spent Saturday turning whale burgers at the grill. "I don't know if they could, but you never know."

Arnesen said the festival needs to improve its logistics planning and also figure out how to pay for next year's event.

"If you are paying 50,000 kroner out of your own pockets you have to think twice," he said, noting organizers weren't stuck with that kind of bill this year thanks to more than 15 sponsors, plus about 20 to 25 volunteers.

Haugeland, among those saying he definitely would like a return engagement, said his main advice for next year is set aside such doubts and think big.

"Just have a stupid amount of belief in yourself," he said.

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