Wednesday 17 February 2021

Wardruna - Kvitravn (2021)

Country: Norway
Style: Dark Folk
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 22 Jan 2021
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When Einar Selvik played drums for notorious Norwegian black metal band Gorgoroth, he was known as Kvitravn, or White Raven, so it's not too surprising to find his dark folk project, Wardruna, using it as the title of its fifth album. However, the project itself still seems surprising. Kvitravn drummed for Gorgoroth at their controversial Black Mass Krakow gig in 2004, with sheep heads on stakes, 80 litres of sheep blood and four hooded naked crucified models as a backdrop. It somehow seems odd for him to be embracing nature and traditional folk music in music videos such as Kvitravn.

But hey, it works. Selvik founded Wardruna in 2002, while he was still in Gorgoroth, and it's featured a number of different musicians since then, but at heart it's Selvik playing traditional instruments like the taglharpa, which is a bowed lyre; the bukkehorn and tungehorn, made from the horn of a ram and cow respectively; and the lur, a wind instrument as long as Selvik is tall. The music is spiritual, rooted in ancient Norse cultural traditions. The first three albums were based on individual runes.

I don't know precisely what any of this means and how it ties into Norse pagan belief systems, but it's hard not to feel some of the spirituality being explored. Most of Selvik's vocals are chanted, while his most frequent partner and only other real member of the band nowadays, Linda-Fay Hella vocalises in ways that remind of Dead Can Dance. The percussion sounds handheld, often with a simple main drum beat decorated by more complex drumming behind it. I closed my eyes a few times while I listened to this and often felt like I was in a forest clearing with a group of people dancing around a bonfire.

Synkverv is an excellent way to kick this album off, building as it does so well that the drums stop and the song carries on without them. However, it's the title track where we realise that we're listening to something special. It's a patient piece at six minutes and change. It starts with taglharpa, the core riff echoing through the piece like a hurdy gurdy. Selvik's vocal is a droning chant. The beat is simple and effective. Then other layers keep adding into the sound. A choir joins in. There's a crunchy percussion like boots stomping snow with an icy surface. Hella is a force of nature here, soaring through this like the white raven of the title soaring through sky and it builds so well that I didn't want it to end.

It feels odd to realise intellectually that some of these sounds, such as that crunching snow, are likely to be samples and some of the rhythmic passages probably use looping effects. Of course, we can also hear the album because it was recorded in a studio and mixed and mastered and all that jazz. But that seems odd because this is fundamentally spiritual music to connect us to nature. Technology ought to be anathema to this music, which ought best to be heard live outside in a small group, while barefoot and probably drunk on mead.

There's a lot here to absorb because it's folk music rather than folk songs. We don't sing along and I'd think we wouldn't to most of this even if we understood Norwegian and knew the material backwards. It feels primal, shamanic and meaningful, like Selvik and Hella are teaching us something important about ourselves and how we connect to the universe. I constantly had the feeling that, if I listened to this long enough, Hella's soaring voice, which rarely forms actual words, would suddenly tune into a deep truth.

There's also a lot here to absorb because there's a lot here. This album runs an almost an hour before the longest song, the ten minute Andvevarljod, kicks in to wrap things up. Some of it is instrumental and somewhat ambient because the instruments aren't restricted to Selvik's repertoire because there is discernible music conjured out of water and fire and thunder too. Some of it is simple and pure but that doesn't jar with what's complex and layered.

I'm still trying to figure out if that means that this works as an hour and change of ritual music for us to absorb or whether a good chunk of it is redundant, enjoyable filler that wouldn't hurt the message with its absence. Maybe after a few more listens through. I'm on my third right now and I can't tell if it's getting deeper or shallower. It's really kind of both, Flygjutal lessening but Munin growing, for instance. So it warrants a 7/10 for now with the potential for another point to be added later.

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