Huldufólk by SkáldRelease date: January 20, 2023
Label: Universal / DECCA
Within indigenous cultures, music can be one of the strongest tools available in maintaining language, story and history but the spread of that music can be just as telling. It reflects cultural influence on a macro scale, and thus you get musical traditions and motifs that, just like the stories that they tell, end up mixing and spreading wherever peoples meet. In a more contemporary context, you end up with artists like Skáld, a French folk collective who have gathered musicians from afar to continue the traditions of the skáld, the poets and record-keepers of Scandinavia. Their third full-length revolves around the tales of the huldufólk, or ‘hidden folk’, who continue to be revered and placated throughout Iceland and the Faroe Islands, as well as Norway, Sweden and Denmark, told with the drama and magic that they deserve.
One of the greatest strengths of this collective that permeates every aspect of their sound is the love and reverence for the tales behind it. Sung in their native tongues (Danish, Old Norse, Faroese, Swedish, Icelandic and Norwegian) and using traditional instrumentation, Skáld make an admirable job of capturing the spirits of the elves, gods and trolls in all their strange glory. The songs sparkle with an energy that can be mischievous or solemn, punctuated with violence, tragedy and bright humour that both embraces the rhythms and quirks of the aforementioned languages while relocating them in a contemporary context. Given that they have gathered quite the range of vocalists, it’s unsurprising the range that is demonstrated across these twelve songs; their use of throat singing to provide a deep, throbbing bass drone during solemn passages is undeniably effective, and on the boisterous ‘Ljósálfur’ harmonising and deft composition make for a stirring combo.
Perhaps one of Huldufólk’s truly great successes is that while it is a record with intent and spirit, there’s also something unashamedly accessible about all of this. Barely a minute passes without some hook or another worming its way into the brain. It could be the rumbling refrain of ‘Ríðum, Ríðum’, a shanty-like chant that begs you to stamp your feet along with it, or the almost Depeche Mode-like gloom and elegance of ‘Då Månen Sken’ but honestly, it’s all just pop perfection. The songs feel timeless, filled with an energy that’s both primal and contemporary, and if Skáld are truly trying to bring these ancient stories to a new audience, they are going about it in a truly savvy way.
While a slightly bizarre neo-folk take on Rammstein banger ‘Du Hast’ and a slightly more successful stab at The Cure’s ‘A Forest’ come the album’s close do feel iffy in the context of Huldufólk’s greater message, it’s relatively difficult to find fault on anything that’s been delivered here. Vocally and instrumentally, it’s a triumph of tradition and virtuosity. The record flows with a calm, measured elegance that demonstrates the time and consideration that has gone into every moment of its composition. Whether you’re looking for something to stir the soul or just to pour yourself into, letting yourself bask in the rhythms and lush melodies, Skáld will scratch all your itches.