Nanna Barslev – Lysbærer: Album Review

Unsettling and atmospheric interpretations of Nordic folklore from renowned Dark Nordic Folk artist, Nanna Barslev.

Release Date:  18th March 2022

Label: By Norse

Formats: CD, Digital – Vinyl from 6th May

Unsettling; atmospheric; thought-provoking; tuneful; challenging; artful and satisfying.  They’re all words that I’d use to describe this new album from Danish Dark Nordic Folk artist, Nanna Barslev.  And I think that, on balance, those adjectives are all equally valid.  Nanna has invited her listeners to join her in a hidden world between dark and light – in both nature and human nature – to wander amidst misty underworld roots, to experience ancient mountain calls, to view scenic battlefields and to benefit from meditative healing spells and protective spells and words from Iceland’s medieval literary works.  And it’s a fascinating place.

Nanna Barslev has been around for quite some time – since the 1990s in fact.  You may be familiar with her as the former frontwoman of bands like Huldre, Gny, Ӕttir or Asynje – and now, she’s going it alone for her first full-length solo album.  Nanna’s reputation does, of course, go before her; she’s a renowned performer and composer in the Viking music genres and her instrumental talents are wide indeed.  On Lysbærer, she plays a collection of traditional Nordic instruments including moraharpa, tagelharpa and Islandsk langspil (all bowed instruments, varieties of Nordic harp) as well as bodhran and flute.  But it is, perhaps, her amazing voice that marks Nanna Barslev as a special performer – an incredible tonal range, a convincing variety of expressions that include fear, vulnerability, confidence and assertiveness and an instinctive ability to evoke the techniques of the Nordic traditions.  There is no doubt that such a talent merits the exposure of a solo album.

The album title, Lysbærer, translates to ‘Carrier Of Light‘ and is a reference to the celebration of the Sun and the Moon, lighting up the dark and changing seasons.  As Nanna explains: “Through the process of making this album, I’ve been diving into the melancholic roots and energies with a fire torch in my hand, searching in the dark for what could be healed.  I crossed all boundaries from what I thought I was capable of as an artist and put my feelings and soul in it.  My wish is that the listener can relate to the themes and feelings in this album and carefully be led through the misty fields and the sunny meadows.”

And the good news is that – yes – the listener can certainly be led in that way.  The music on Lysbærer is incredibly powerful. Powerful and evocative enough to take the listener on those journeys despite – in my case at least – a lack of understanding of what the emotional, often passionate, lyrics actually mean.  They’re delivered in Nordic tongues, but – fear not – the CD version of the album, and the forthcoming vinyl version both include lyric sheets with English translations, so the curious Anglophile listener will be able to follow these intriguing stories in the detail they so evidently deserve.

Lysbærer consists of nine pieces.  All are uniquely atmospheric.  Nanna’s selection of harps feature prominently throughout just about every song and their combined sound is something akin to a droning ensemble of crazed, maybe slightly distorted, violins.  The rigid rhythms are marked by the heavy beat, and occasionally the lively patterns, of Nanna’s bodhran and, to add a little extra spice, Dutch musician Lies Sommer pops in now and then with a touch of hurdy-gurdy and harp. 

The musical style is predominantly eerie, evocative of dark, cold places inhabited by fearsome warriors and mythical creatures but, within that framework, there’s quite a variety on offer for those who care to search.  For instance, opening track (and the album’s first single) Skjoldmø (Shield Maiden) has Middle Eastern flavours, as Nanna sings at her mesmeric best, Runebundet has a Celtic, almost danceable theme, particularly when Lies’ hurdy-gurdy joins the mix, Askr is swirling and majestic and Lysbærer, the album’s title track is plaintive and folky.  Elsewhere, the anthemic – almost apocalyptic – Rhimfaxe gallops along, driven by Nanna’s bodhran beat and Jagtmaker (the title means Hunting Grounds) is deeply unsettling, full of disembodied hunting horns, drones and Nanna’s vocal gymnastics – it all sounds almost as though the victims of the hunters have returned to haunt the fields where they met their fate.

Current single, Mod Vrede has a particularly interesting story.  The song’s title translates as “spell against anger” and it refers to a type of protection chant used to shield oneself from the anger of others.  Nanna composed the song on her moraharpa and recalls the circumstances under which the song came about: “I wanted to express the feeling of grounding and protection.  My home library is full of folklore books and I have been composing melodies for old spells for many years.  I am always careful what I send out.  Some spells are too strong to sing in public and sometimes I change the words to soften it.  I changed the anger spell so it’s not demanding, but more a feeling of standing grounded in a storm and not letting other energies shake you.  Like holding a shield in front of you for protection, asking that no-one should try to control you with any force.  In our modern society, and specifically here in the North, we are brought up to react with peace and harmony.  We often feel guilty when we are exposed to other people’s anger, or if we express anger ourselves.  But anger is a human instinct and, maybe, it’s not always healthy to keep it back or take it in…”  The song itself is, perhaps, the most typically Scandinavian folk-sounding piece on the album, dreamy and pleading, but retaining the dark undertones.

Lysbærer is brought to a close by the sad-sounding Sunna Sol, notable for the way in which the soaring chorus of voices links Nanna’s verses and, finally, the ghostly, disquieting Sten.  Altogether, this is a remarkable album from a talented, knowledgeable and highly accomplished artist.  If you have a taste for dark, Scandinavian adventures, folk with a Nordic twist or just something very, very different, Lysbærer could very well be the album for you.

Watch the Official video to Mod Vrede – the album’s current single – here:

Nanna Barslev Online: Facebook / Instagram / Bandcamp / YouTube

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