I think most of us can agree that 2016 was the wrong kind of weird. Just to add insult to injury, it’s been ages since your last infusion of Weird Metal, a bastion of sanity in times of woe I’m sure. What can I say? Really sorry about that. At least I’ve been busy – finishing my PhD thesis (I’m now Doctor Weird Metal guy) and writing about The Weird in drone music for a forthcoming essay collection, Sustain/Delay (more about this soon). I’ll try my darndest to dish out some super-Weird and super-regular content in 2017, promise.
For now, here’s Part One of a brief round-up of all the good stuff that I’ve been listening to in 2016, starting with one particular concert experience and related new album.
Thinking about this year, for me there’s one act that stands out so far above the rest: Wardruna. If you watch the epic saga of Ragnar Lothbrok that is the History channel’s Vikings, then you’ve heard (and partly seen) Wardruna. It’s a perfect pairing, but it still doesn’t do the latter justice. Wardruna are often described using terms like neo-pagan, neo-folk, world or traditional Scandinavian music. While some of these are helpful, they don’t do them justice. I know it’s a cliqué, but you’ve just got to hear them, or better yet catch them live, to truly get why I’m so excited.
Spearheaded by one man, Einar Selvik, Wardruna completed a three album conceptual cycle this year based on the Eldar Futhark, the oldest known runic alphabet, and all three installments – Runaljod – Gap Var Ginnunga (2009), Runaljod – Yggdrasil (2013), Runaljod – Ragnarok (2016) – are truly astonishing. The keening call of the bukke or goat horn, pugnacious march of deer-skin drum, eerie droning beauty of stallion-hare-bow on lyre, the unforgettably-odd springing of the mouth harp – all sounds rooted in deep antiquity yet still sounding fresh and resonant today. Crowning this is the combined voices of Einar and Lindy Fay Hella: the former’s a rich, melancholy tenor, the latter as versatile as it is enigmatic, as beautiful as it is terrifying.
One of the best things about Wardruna is their complete lack of pretense. This is not some part-time theatrical whim: Einar lives and breathes Wardruna. To hear him speak about his project – as he often does in workshops prior to big performances – it’s clear this is no reactionary longing to return to a coveted yet long-dead past. (He explains all this, checking the time on his smart phone.) Rather it’s a refusal to let the best aspects of tradition and heritage die, and keep something of the pagan spirit alive in contemporary society. And, of course, to make deeply affecting music.
I find myself trying and failing to describe to people the sheer magic – for there is no other word, even for a grumpy old atheist such as myself – of seeing them live, as I have been fortunate enough to do a handful of times. Their performance at Roadburn in 2015, featuring a full ensemble of musicians and choir, was probably the most sublime artistic experience of my life. (And trust me, I know a thing or two about live music, having as an undergraduate experienced a DJ set with Bodger and Badger no less.) From the very first second of music to the last Wardruna live is always utterly captivating – ask anyone who’s seen them and they’ll tell you the same thing, or you can have my record collection.*
A personal highlight of 2016 was seeing Wardruna perform Runaljod – Ragnarok and earlier tracks at the beautiful Union Chapel venue in Islington, surrounded by carved wood and stained glass (see above). If it felt slightly odd initially watching a decidedly pagan band perform in such a Christian setting to a crowd of metalheads sans alcohol, any such fripperies were dispelled immediately upon the start of the performance. The susurration of rain through leaves, peaceful and reassuring in its familiarity, is dramatically broken by the low war moan of two huge lur: beautiful S-shaped horns dating from Bronze Age Scandinavia. From here-on-in, the sense of atmosphere achieved by the venue perfectly complemented an all-round flawless hour-and-half performance, culminating in ‘Helvegen’, “a song about death, about crossing over, about letting go”. Try hearing that without surreptitiously shedding a tear into your tea and your Kit Kat.
Coming soon, I’ll publish Part Two – a round-up of other significant releases from this year, including Hexvessel, Blood Ceremony, Emma Ruth Rundle, and many more. Weird Metal Blog hopes you survived 2016 with some sense of optimism for the future intact. Whatever you do in 2017, go and listen to Wardruna, for Odin’s sake.
*in photographic form.