Norse myth and legend brought vividly to life by the mighty Wardruna
Release Date: 22nd January 2021
Label: Sony Music / Columbia Germany
Formats: CD / LP / Digital
If you are thinking of entering Wardruna’s world, and that’s something I heartily recommend that you consider, prepare yourself for something very different. I’ll explain why shortly, but first, let’s get the basics established.
Wardruna hail from Bergen, Norway and specialize in bringing Norse myth and culture to musical life. Founding member Einar Selvik summarises the band’s mission as “Taking old thoughts that still carry relevance and creating something new with them.” The band’s sound is strongly influenced by their use of traditional Nordic instruments, but their sound is very far from classic Scandinavian folk, although the music is peppered with folk images and inspirations.
Wardruna are: Einar Selvik (vocals, lyre, taglharpa, flute, goat horn, lur, drums and percussion); Lindy-Fay Hella (vocals); Eilif Gundersen (lur, goat horn, flute and backing vocals); Arne Sandvoll (percussion and backing vocals); Hans Christian Dalgaard (drums, percussion and backing vocals) and John Stenersen (moraharpe and backing vocals). I’d imagine there are a lot of new instrument names there and a few words of explanation are probably in order…
A taglaharpa is a four-stringed bowed harp, a goat horn is, as you’ve probably guessed, a musical horn fashioned from the horn of a goat or a ram; a lur is a long (straight or curved – curved in the case of Wardruna’s instruments) horn without finger holes and a moraharpe is an early type of stringed instrument, similar to a violin. But that’s enough education. What really matters is what all these instruments sound like in the hands of Wardruna, and the answer to that question is: like nothing else on Earth!
The predominance of percussion within the band’s arsenal suggests that their sound may be pretty drum-heavy, and it is. Add to that the vocal chants, harmonies and strong lead vocals, and the binding cement of horns, harps and flutes and you can start to imagine the whole picture. One which is variously dramatic, fascinating, unsettling, challenging, dark and foreboding. The tunes are intense and evocative, conjuring images of unforgiving landscapes, soaring ravens and pagan rituals. I told you it was very different!
Wardruna came together in 2003. Kvitravn is their fifth album and follows 2018’s Skald. The band has achieved a steadily increasing international success since the release of their first album, Runaljod – Gap Var Ginnunga, the first of their Runaljod trilogy, in 2009. They’ve now established a substantial following in Canada, the USA and the UK and, COVID interruption notwithstanding, that’s a situation that this latest album looks set to extend. Einar has also established quite a personal reputation, not least because of his previous involvement with Gorgoroth, the notorious Norwegian black metal band, but perhaps more notably as a result of the music he provided for the Discovery Channel/Amazon Prime series Vikings . A series in which he also made a couple of fleeting personal appearances.
The album’s title, Kvitravn, translates as White Raven, coincidentally Einar’s declared ‘artists name,’ and, in common with much of Wardruna’s earlier work, the subject matter is inspired by Nordic oral traditions – Norse poetry in particular. The album comprises a complete, cohesive work and it makes best sense to listen to it from start to finish. The story it tells is fairly abstract, but the drama of the music draws the listener in and its imagery provides a vivid picture of events. Einar has indicated the importance of the lyrics, and I’m sure he’s right, but even with my complete absence of any knowledge of Norwegian, I was able to follow the story. The music’s imagery is that strong.
We open with Synkverv – chants and crashing drums over a persistent harp line – a piece that draws the traveler into the heart of the mountain and sets a level for the drama to come. Howling wind and the cries of a raven introduce Kvitravn, the title track, a cacophony of percussion, droning horns and relentless chanting that evokes an entry to and passage through a strange, unfamiliar and forbidding environment. The howling persists into Skugge, a word that translates as “shadow.” In the story, the Skugge shows that the answers being sought by the traveler are likely to lie within himself, just as, in the proverb, the shadow knows the evil that lurks within a man’s mind.
Next, we are introduced to Grá, the wolf, who issues a reminder that humans and creatures have always existed side-by-side in a mutual, yet often wary, relationship. A loud, intimate male voice (the voice of the wolf?) shatters a quiet, spacy introduction before male and female voices intertwine around a drone and a double-beat drum to deliver a message that is disquieting yet, at the same time, strangely reassuring. The wolflike spirit, Fylgjutal accompanies us on the next stage of the journey. It’s an atmospheric vocal piece that gives a distinct impression to the listener that the traveler is being implored to take care and be watchful.
The journey continues with Munin, a tune descriptive of one of Odin’s watchful ravens. The tune is the folkiest yet – the vocal, horns, harps and drums are remarkably restrained and the imagery is of soaring, desolate mountain peaks, circled by the watching raven and the effect is simultaneously graceful and barbaric. Kvit Hjort (white deer) is another folky tune, dominated by Einar’s and Eilif’s lurs, which this time seems to borrow phrases and create images that start on the Russian Steppes, pass over the Norwegian mountains and settle in the desert environment of a Spaghetti Western. The band go full-folk-throttle on Viseveiding, with all instruments and whooping vocals combining with a compulsive drumbeat to achieve a sinister dance rhythm.
The Gods are ritually invoked with Ni, a Celtic-sounding ballad that features some awesome harmony singing, and again, the imagery is strong – this time the scene is a mass of swaying bodies casting firelit shadows against a cave wall. Vindavarljod, an interplay of sound between the wind and the landscape, is evoked as taglaharpa and percussion build together and lyrics are delivered with strength and assurance, and then we move on to the culmination of the whole journey…
The journey ends with a plea to The Norns, or the Nine Horns, the female presences who regulate destiny. Opening with the sound of a thunderstorm, broken by a chiming bell, the music builds to give a picture of an army, gathering in numbers and starting to march. The marchers are halted by The Norns and the musical crescendo approaches as the marchers’ voices offer their desperate plea. Happily, the plea is heard and the journey, and this utterly fascinating album, ends in peace.
Kvitravn has been eagerly awaited. Its original release date was pegged for June 2020, but ongoing restrictions put paid to that aspiration. Instead, it appeared in January 2021, and has already met with considerable success. It has reached #1 in iTunes Global Album chart, as well as #3 in the UK’s equivalent chart. It has earned glowing reviews and one suspects that there are many more plaudits to come. Unfortunately, it looks like Wardruna’s scheduled 2021 tour is hanging in the balance, but look out for news on that one – these tunes would be awesome in the live environment.
Wardruna will celebrate the release of Kvitravn with a virtual release show entitled ‘First Flight Of The White Raven’ on 26th March. Tickets are on sale from 9:00GMT on Friday 5th February from this link.
The band also headline the Jorvik Viking Festival on 20th February through the Jorvik Viking Museum. This show is a solo show from Einar Selvik and tickets can be purchased here.
Th whet your appetite, watch the official video for Kvitravn, the album’s title track, here: