(INDIE RECORDINGS; reissue, 2014; original release, 2009)
Let’s just get this out of the way upfront. It IS okay to play favorites when you’re a music writer. I wouldn’t believe ANYONE who says they like everything the same; we all have our favorites. And while anyone bold enough to write about music or art in a public forum better at least be open-minded, it is normal and human to be drawn to certain things more than others. A whole host of factors determine one’s personal aesthetic and predilections, and these generally change as you grow older. So I just wanted to say all this by way of explaining my delirious response to the Norwegian group Wardruna. I’m well known for loving Scandinavian music, especially what comes out of Norway and the rustic forests of Finland. I also tend to love anything that’s weird and unclassifiable, and I am an avowed ambient music fanatic. So, imagine how enthralling it must be for me to encounter this Norse trio, who are plenty weird, plenty ambient, and absolutely committed to their quest to conjure up a sound that evokes old Viking mythology, the darkness along ancient rocky shores, and the fiery passions of a people so tied to a beautiful, cold, mountainous land far away that nothing else matters except their homes, their families, their lifestyle and their surroundings. The sound of this recording is not “unearthly” per se, although some may call it such. What it IS, though, is wild, untamed, eerie, primal, awe-inspiring and deeply mysterious. Parts of it sound like bits of the score from the LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy (it’s well-known that composer Howard Shore drew from Norse mythology for some elements of LOTR), parts are reminiscent of Dead Can Dance (only superficially, though) and most of it is rich in the traditional folk stylings of Norway’s boundless musical past.
So, who is behind this spellbinding sound? Let’s meet them, shall we? The chief visionary is Einar Kvitrafn Selvik, who apparently writes everything and plays most of the instruments, along with his deep-register vocalizing. Lindy-Fay Hella is the woman in the group, and she contributes amazing, much needed female vocals. And Gaahl is credited on vocals and “conceptual contributions.” This GAP VAR GINNUNGA project is part one of a planned trilogy about runes. What’s that, you ask? Let’s just quote right from the group’s website here: “The ongoing RUNALJOD trilogy is a musical rendition of the 24 runes in what is often referred to as the Elder Futhark. Some of the recordings are done outdoors in places or under circumstances of significance to each rune. Wardruna primarily use old and historical instruments such as primitive deer-hide frame drums, kraviklyra, tagelharpe, mouth harp, goat horn, lur and more. Non-traditional instruments and other sources of sound like trees, rocks, water and torches are also used.” Are you better prepared now, listeners? Well, I doubt it, because no description is truly apt for the mighty, immersive, sonic grandeur this trio has forged. And lemme tell you, “forged” is a better word than something as bland as “recorded.” You don’t sit down and “record” stuff like this. You sculpt and chisel it out of the very foundation of your SOUL, using materials tied more to the earth than anything the average musician picks up. The vocal incantations, drones, ancient horns, percussive THUMPS and thoroughly mysterious other instruments take you to another time, another place, a dreamscape so far away from your normal reality that you can’t believe it exists out there. This is a history lesson without the names or events, a trip to an exotic place without having to drive, fly or sail, an experience in unbridled passion without having to touch or question the motivations of your partner. Wardruna are making living, breathing, stirring musical art that anyone with even mildly adventurous musical taste should revel in. It’s unforgettable, music that is at one with the ancient power of nature in a manner unattainable by most recordings.
And listen, picking out individual song titles is not particularly relevant in this case. It’s all of a piece, one track flowing into the next. The titles are in Norse anyway: “Hagal,” “Bjarkan,” “Jara,” “Laukr,” et cetera. Speaking of “Laukr,” by the time I got to that eighth track, I was already so deliriously grateful for what this group had laid down for us that I knew the kind of review I was going to write. This music renders most adjectives inadequate. Wardruna have power, majesty, the singular intent of all the best art, the confidence that what they are embarking on is more than worthy, and the musical skill to capture the organic ebb and flow common to the best listening experiences. This stuff isn’t for you if you only like pop or rock and roll. But if you liked being STIRRED, haunted and enthralled by music and the mysteries of life, check out Wardruna. You will NOT forget what you hear. Oh, and Norway? You keep raising the bar SO high for interesting aural creations, what are the rest of them out there gonna do? Not your problem, though… just keep on being beautiful, provocative and wildly yourself, dear. Some of us appreciate you a ton, and we’ll see to it that only the most DESERVING get to experience your secrets.