Swirling cold morning mists are punctured by stern trumpeting, and massed voices call out ‘TYR,’ the upward-arrow rune and Norse war god titling the opening track. Martial rhythms are thumped out, and a group of voices bellow a descending melody, evoking pagan ceremonies as well as their representation in Wagnerian opera. The scene is set for an excursion into ancient forests, cold battlegrounds and bitterly rigorous journeys, as Wardruna complete their Runaljod trilogy with new album Ragnarok.
There’s variety in the oaky, watery, breathy sounds: on ‘Isa,’ woodblock drip-drip-drip accompanies a haunting solo female voice, later joined by other voices in weary, stoic community with the slow melody. ‘UruR’ has sombre tree-clattering percussion and earthy horns peeping away mournfully through a slow build up. ‘Raido’ features a nice stringed melody, hinting at the future metal guitars that this album might imagine itself to be an ancient precursor to. There’s great mileage in the variety of the voices, too, with different styles, combinations and timbres put to use, even including children at the end of ‘Odal’. In the portentous low horn fanfare of the title track at the end of the album, there’s almost a suggestion of Strauss’ Also Sprach Zarathustra (incidentally, another piece of music with ancient-future allusions, due to its use in 2001: A Space Odyssey). All of Wardruna’s goat horns, ice percussion and willow flutes (really) are combined seamlessly to create an undeniably strong and unique musical vision, aided certainly by the ever present electronic drones that are subtle, half-hidden even, but creating an aura of continuity.
I mentioned to a friend that I would be reviewing this album, and he said he couldn’t imagine having to write about it as an album, since he’d watched the Viking TV series for which Wardruna’s musicians have provided the defining soundtrack. For him, the sound would be completely inextricable from the historical re-enactment drama of the show, and I was lucky, it seemed, to be free of that association. But to be honest, even without watching, the paradox of this album is that it has such a strong Authentic Recreation feel to it that it risks getting in the way of authentically feeling it as music. There may well be more here for those who understand the lyrics (at Wardruna’s Roadburn performance a couple years ago, the Norwegian contingent were chanting along with every word, in what was one of the most intensely serious audiences I’ve been in at that festival or anywhere else).
But understanding words should never be the test of whether music is any good. At times Runaljod maybe seems a bit too tidy, a bit too hermetic in the unity of the sonic world conveyed. The sounds (not to mention the accompanying photos in the press pack, which of course include forests, standing stones, tunics and so on) are relentlessly serious, almost to the point of daftness or trying too hard: the watery sounds on ‘MannaR-Drivande’ and the grunting beast (a wild pig or something?) that snorts and snuffles all the way through ‘UruR’ are pretty heavy-handed in signifying, well, wateriness and animals. While this might not be the strongest instalment, overall the now-completed Runaljod trilogy is a powerful body of work from a special and unusual musical project.
I’ve heard Einar Selvik discuss the issue of authenticity, articulately suggesting that it’s better to focus on remaking rituals for contemporary needs and contexts, rather than chase some mirage of a truthfully recreated ancient past. But this begs a tricky question- what sort of situation are we in right now, for there to be a strong call for, and response to, such a stone-facedly serious evocation of a mythic North European past that is so distant in time and knowledge?