Casting The Runes

A true labour of love – some might call it a labour of obsession – is the album Runaljod – Ragnarok (BY NORSE MUSIC BNM002CD), by the Norwegian music group Wardruna. It’s the third part in a lengthy project which began in 2003, where the aim is to create a musical expression of old Nordic runes; previous instalments of the grand plan were released in 2009 and 2013. The work is mostly driven by the ideas of Einar Selvik, who composes the music and plays most of the instruments, but he’s joined here by Eilif Gundersen, a trio of vocalists and two additional guest singers, plus the Skarvebarna Children’s Choir on one track.

In pursuit of authenticity and historical accuracy, Selvik plays antiquated and archaic instruments, such as the taglharpe, the kraviklyra, the goat horn, the tongue horn, the bronze lure and the birchbark lure; these are combined with lots of percussion – depressing martial drumming, mostly – and electronic music. Further, all the lyrics are written in Norwegian, Norse, and proto-Norse, there’s a Nordic rune printed on the front cover, and the record label is called By Norse Music. I’m intrigued to learn that they also managed to recruit the Icelandic composer Hilmar Örn Hilmarsson for their second album Yggdrasil, and the singer Steindór Andersen who sings in the “rimur” epic poem style.

As well as the studio projects, Wardruna have managed to create a performance band out of all this effort, and it’s probably safe to say they created quite a stir when they performed before the 1100-year-old Gokstad ship which you can see at the Viking Ship Museum in Norway. It’s good to see this determined effort taking place to preserve ancient Nordic culture, but while I’m certainly no expert in the field it’s also evident that Einar Selvik has a very personal, somewhat mystical, take on the subject. “In my songs it is not necessarily a goal for me to approach the respective rune from every conceivable angle, nor to cover or unravel all of the different aspects of it,” he writes in the enclosed booklet, alluding to the many scholarly views of this area where, I gather, the meaning, context and origins of the surviving runic evidence are much disputed. “My approach is both of runologic and mystic nature and my focus is on the core of each rune and the qualities that serve the whole concept and purpose of Wardruna best”, continues Selvik, affirming that his “vision” of the band-project always comes first, side-lining most academic interpretations.

While the whole genre of neofolk / pagan music (a milieu in which it might be convenient to situate this music, though the creators might not agree) is a closed shop to me, at least it’s clear that Wardruna are not dabbling in Viking history for some ill-informed white supremacy purpose, and the depth of Einar Selvok’s conviction and commitment to his task is self-evident. I just wish it wasn’t such a wearisome listen; pompous, solemn, relentless hammering drums, unvarying grim drones a-plenty, and shrill hymns sung in an ancient unknown tongue. From 12th October 2016.

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