Norway's Kvelertak and Local Option's Voku Hila: Metal makes beer taste better

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This glass of Voku Hila is at Local Option, not at Bottom Lounge. Who takes pictures of beer at a Kvelertak show?
  • Alexi Front
  • This glass of Voku Hila is at Local Option, not at Bottom Lounge. Who takes pictures of beer at a Kvelertak show?
At last night's Kvelertak concert, the bar at Bottom Lounge tapped two kegs from Local Option Bierwerker: a "steam beer" or dampfbier called Dampf Loc and a maibock called Voku Hila. This was no coincidence: Local Option promoted the Kvelertak show heavily. A few weeks ago Local Option brand manager Alexi Front got in touch with the band's A&R rep at Roadrunner, his friend Dave Rath, so that the bar could put up gig posters around town (including several on its own walls) and give away tickets (including a few at an April 9 event featuring the only keg in existence of Ed Ploog's It Burns When IPA from Against the Grain).

"We believe firmly in the idea that quality beer and metal work hand in hand," says Front, "and we wanted to enhance the Kvelertak concert experience for patrons by having our beers available." All very well and good, but that's Alexi the brand manager talking—what about Alexi the metalhead? "At Local Option we've played Kvelertak pretty much daily for the last six months."

If you were wondering why a Chicago beer bar would work so hard to get people out to see a Norwegian black 'n' roll band playing in somebody else's club three miles away, right there's your answer.

Front is hardly the only devoted metalhead at Local Option, but he's the best connected. While still in high school in 2001, he founded a webzine called Pivotal Rage with a few friends, focusing on Swedish melodic death metal—not just up-and-coming bands but also the forerunners of the famous Gothenburg scene, such as In Flames and Dark Tranquillity. After a few years of covering this scene (and receiving close to 75 demos a month from Swedish bands) the zine crew started a label, Pivotal Rockordings, that debuted with Sonic Syndicate's Eden Fire and Blinded Colony's Bedtime Prayers. (Blinded Colony vocalist Johan Karl Schuster, aka Shellback, went on to become a regular collaborator of pop songwriter Max Martin, and together they've written hits for Usher, Pink, and Taylor Swift, among others.)

Front continues to travel to Sweden (and elsewhere in Europe) two or three times a year, and since the launch of Pivotal Rockordings in 2004 he's also managed a few bands, among them Marionette from Gothenburg and the Amenta from Australia. Plus he's partnered with Gothenburg venue Sticky Fingers to present a winter metal festival called Scorched Tundra, beginning in December 2011. (When I visited Local Option last Thursday, owner Tony Russomanno played me one of Front's Scorched Tundra bookings, Swedish band Zombie Krig, at a volume sufficient to encourage the departure of several patrons.)

Before Sunday's show Front hadn't met Kvelertak, but his work in the music business did help him get to know Rath, who became their A&R guy in January. So really this all makes perfect sense.

Kvelertak in Oslo on April 13. Call me naive, but I was hoping for pyro here too.
  • Marius Viken
  • Kvelertak in Oslo on April 13. Call me naive, but I was hoping for pyro here too.

The gentlemen in Kvelertak have established themselves as appreciators of fine beer—at a Vienna show in December 2011 they sold a 30-bottle run of Kvelerbräu, brewed for the band "out of honey and hate." So it certainly counts as a missed opportunity that Metal Injection's March interview of vocalist Erlend Hjelvik and guitarist Vidar Landa took the form of a taste test of low-budget American lagers, among them Pabst Blue Ribbon, Keystone Light, and Bud Ice. (Spoilers: The mike positioning makes for some disturbingly loud swallowing sounds.)

Alas, I wasn't able to corner anyone from the band after the show to ask whether they'd tried Voku Hila. I'm sure they're aware that Americans make lagers that don't taste like the condensation on the plumbing in a bus-station bathroom, but it would've been dandy to get a testimonial. As things stand, you'll have to settle for my opinion.

This isn't the first time I've reviewed a Local Option beer—for my very first Beer and Metal post, on October 1, 2012, I wrote about their barrel-aged La Petite Mort, a collaboration with Central Waters. (It's back on tap at the bar as of late last week, and my recommendation stands.)

Kvelertak at Bottom Lounge last night
Voku Hila is a strong spring lager, a hair over 6 percent alcohol, brewed with continental European pale malts and noble German hops. In German "vokuhila" means "mullet," but I'm afraid I can't confidently translate "business in front, party in the back." The beer is crystal clear and golden, with a pillowy, fine-grained ivory head that leaves behind thick, sticky lacing. Even after 15 minutes in the glass, a thin skin of foam remains on top—a good sign that you're not dealing with a lager that's like having sex in a canoe, as the old joke goes. (PS: "It's fucking near water.")

Voku Hila is the sort of beer you could drink fast, but instead I got intimate with it. This was our first time, so I took things slow. (Also, I am abandoning that metaphor, because I just grossed myself out.) Sweet, clean malts dominate its aroma. Honey and caramel come on so strong that it's hard to smell anything else, but with a little patience I can pick up something grassy and floral, like heather or clover, as well as faintly herbal notes in the neighborhood of spearmint or cumin.

The sweet malts open up in complexity when you taste the beer, but they stay light, with a pleasant yeastiness that's like lifting the dish towel off a ball of bread dough that's just finished rising. Bright, crisp noble hop bitterness acts as a strong backbone for the last half of the flavor profile, which also includes oak leaf, leather, white pepper, pine, and cedar, plus a bit of warm, fruity spice like cinnamon-raisin toast.

Each sip makes a strong quick sweep from sweet and bready to bitter and savory, with a quick release. Given that brief finish, the overall effect is of a pleasant jolt with no aftereffects. I can see why lager styles like this got so popular—though it's no easier to understand why their most widespread iterations are so bland.

When Voku Hila is bottled—with any luck in mid-June—the label will look something like this.
  • When Voku Hila is bottled—with any luck in mid-June—the label will look something like this.

Last night's Kvelertak crowd filled about three-quarters of the big room at Bottom Lounge, which I choose to attribute to the lure of lovely Sunday being-outside weather rather than to the poor taste of the Chicago concertgoing public.

Because this was a hell of a concert, even without the pyro the band busts out at hometown shows. Kvelertak lived up to their reputation as hell-raisers, though sadly they never led the audience into the middle of the street midsong (as they actually did in Singapore last year). Maybe their wireless guitar rigs just didn't have the range for it at Bottom Lounge.

Lots of clap-along parts at this show (fist in the air also acceptable)
  • Alexi Front (www.alexifront.com)
  • Lots of clap-along parts at this show (fist in the air also acceptable)
They did take advantage of those wireless rigs to run around onstage, climb onto the drum set, or throw their guitars 360 degrees around their bodies on their straps, all of which would've resulted in serious cable macrame had there been any cables. Hjelvik's favorite trick was to rear back, spit straight up, and then swipe his own gob out of the air with his free hand just as it paused at the top of its arc.

Fortified by a pint apiece of Voku Hila and Dampf Loc, for the last few songs (and the encore) I dove into the pit—the first time I've done that in ages. (I'm almost six in cat years, and thus no longer what you'd call a mosh maniac.) It was such a good-natured pit, though—a stranger would clap you on the shoulder, give you a big smile, and jump around with you like a maniac, instead of just trying to elbow you in the throat. If you absolutely, positively have to end your evening smelling as though a bunch of sweaty, beery dudes have been rubbing themselves all over you, a Kvelertak show is pretty much the best way to do it.

The best part came during the very last song, when everybody in the band with a hand free started pulling people out of the front rows and up onstage—all told they got maybe 12 or 15, all of them losing their shit right alongside the band. The guitarists took off their instruments and hung them around the necks of the nearest fans, which made for an amazingly out-of-key finale (pretty much only the drummer was still playing the right notes) but also a hilariously good time.

Come back soon, Kvelertak. And sorry about all the PBR on tour. If I may speak for America as a whole, we can do better than that. Just ask the Local Option guys.

Chicago! Gaze upon my tattooed bosoms and despair!
  • Alexi Front (www.alexifront.com)
  • "Chicago! Gaze upon my tattooed bosoms and despair!"

Kvelertak's second album, Meir, came out almost a month ago, but it's still streaming in its entirety at Stereogum. I recommend you open the stream in a new tab and start the music. Then reread this entire post and see how much more fun it is. And the same trick works with almost everything! That, ladies and gentlemen, is the magic of Kvelertak.

Philip Montoro writes about beer and metal, singly or in combination, every Monday.

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