Nordic folk seems to be the agreed umbrella term for the wave of artists currently putting out sonic facsimiles of pre-Christian pagan music. But genre tags aside, this style sure is getting lapped up by metalheads these days. Given metal’s affiliation with pagan spirituality and culture, along with its frequent appropriation of regional folk music traditions, its no wonder that many would attempt to shed the electronic instrumentation of metal altogether, thus dispensing with its anti-modern modernist heart once and for all.
But just as Bob Dylan was decried by the folk movement for picking up an electric guitar, the reverse could be true for Nordic folk. With anyone attempting to strike down this path being met with a maze of academic scrutiny and speculation as to the historical accuracy of one’s musical outpourings. A Sisyphean task by any measure. But even if – as is the case with Wardruna – one acknowledges the gaps in our knowledge of Nordic music history and shoots for the most accurate rendering of the music possible regardless, the result can often be a ghostly chimera of the old and new that sits dangerously free of temporal context at all. This poses the question as to whether it is even possible or desirable to set aside this academic toing and froing and assess the music on its own merits.
One argument in favour of doing this is simple practicality. To the layman, these discussions are tedious, or worse, meaningless. European paganism and its resurgence in post war countercultures was largely an aesthetic pursuit, with little regard for how pre-Christian Europe actually lived and breathed. Dressing up our love for Vikings in anything more intellectually weighty than “they were cool” begins to look disingenuous.
But more importantly, it’s simply not our job as music critics. We aren’t historians. We are here to assess artistic intent against actual outcome. Does Hielung’s music say something as art to a modern audience? My “take”, if there must be one, is that I would favour a Lord Wind over Warduna (a project arguably more serious and sincere than Heilung in their attempt to capture the spirit of pagan music). For all of early Lord Wind’s clumsy, synthetic, musical sparsity, Darken was closer to folk music in spirit. In the sense that it is amateurish, accessible, spontaneous, raw, these are attributes more closely tied to folk music, in that it is literally music for all folk. The heavily curated soundscapes of Heilung and Wardruna are certainly impressive and immersive, but they lack the intimate blue-collar spirit I imagine the pre-Christian communities of Northern Europe understood music through. The modern Nordic folk movement is certainly worthy of attention, but I always come away feeling somewhat hollowed out by the perfect, slick tapestries in many of its flagship works.
Perfunctory qualifications and subclauses aside, let’s call Heilung’s 2019 offering ‘Futha’ what it is, a very modern piece of music made in response to very modern preoccupations. In many ways it is another iteration of the post war pagan revival’s philosophy of being “out of time”. Everyone from the shitmunchers of Glastonbury to fans of TV’s “Vikings” displays an undercurrent of temporal angst, regardless of whether the time they ache for ever actually existed outside of collective imagination. Heilung offer metalheads a fresh new outlet for this yearning by stripping black metal of its rock instrumentation, adding tribal drums, a whole lot of atmospheric chanting, and way too much throaty spoken word.
The problem with this template is that it actually works, when all metrics of good taste tell us that it shouldn’t. Unlike other Nordic pagan outfits currently active, Heilung do everything wrong. ‘Futha’ is a big budget, summer blockbuster by any measure, it’s a goliath of the genre, an over-the-top spectacle. But there’s no denying that the moments of this album with actual substance – i.e., not the black metal freestyle poetry that I’m sure felt like a good idea at the time – offer an immersive, big, spacey, engaging sound. Maria Franz’s voice is powerful and diverse, here given a mastering job worthy of Lisa Gerrard’s “Gladiator” soundtrack. The percussion is rendered with plenty of powerful reverb and delay, oftentimes lending the beats a 90s techno feel as the rhythms gain momentum and the tempo picks up.
Compared to their contemporaries and antecedents, Heliung are surprisingly minimal. There’s not much going on musically besides the spiritual chanting, occasional horns, and the all important percussion. But in wielding these stripped back components they are able to craft an undeniably distinct vibe that sits somewhere between folk, ambient, and ceremonial music. But the fanfare, the weighty runtime, the overly zealous filler segments of directionless chanting and spoken word, all give the album a sense of being overly curated.
There’s real talent behind this album. Both in terms of raw musical ability, but also from the arrangement/production perspective. But it feels as if Heilung have become too caught up in these ancillary adornments to the point where their real abilities are misplaced. ‘Futha’ could have been a dark, compelling, immersive work of ritual ambient, but instead it’s a cumbersome, bulky, cluttered work of self-sabotage. Regardless of the commendable merits the album does hold, which really deserve to be celebrated, taken holistically, ‘Futha’ is an artefact of all too postmodern hubris.
Scanning the explosive demand for contemporary Nordic folk, and looking past the Danheims, Wardrunas and Heilungs of the world, one may be lucky enough to stumble on Byrdi from Norway. Plucking their second offering ‘Ansur: Urkraft’ (2017) off the shelf is akin to a refreshing locally brewed pale ale (cellar cooled mind) to Heilung’s elaborate, internationalist cocktail. Again, if we dispense with any discussion of historical authenticity, we found ourselves greeted by an energetic and vibrant work of modern folk music. All the usual calling cards are there in terms of instrumentation, from acoustic guitars, jaw harps, fiddles, and woodwind. But the chief engine of these songs – and they are songs – is the vocal ensemble.
This set up is closer to the immediacy of Ulver’s ‘Kveldssanger’ than it is the sweeping theatrics of modern popularist Nordic folk. That being said, Byrdi are able to touch on a fuller and richer array of human emotions than most black metal adjacent attempts in this arena. The dynamic vocal performance manages to inspire both reverence for nature and emotive self-reflection. The melodic lines are simple enough, but through this simplicity they find a deep resonance that burrows into the subconscious. The voices also have a notably dynamic relationship to the other instrumentation on here, trading call and responses with the fiddles and guitar lines.
This gives us multiple angles from which to view ‘Ansur: Urkraft’. In one sense these are campfire songs, offered into the expanse of nature by way of self-comfort or unbridled worship. But at times this feels more like music for the indoors, the pub, an intimate gathering of friends maybe. Many of the tunes are catchy and accessible, again bringing this closer to the original intent and purpose of folk music. And at yet other times – on the track ‘Celebrata’ for example – we are more in Heilung territory, with minimal percussion, repetitive chanting and soaring female vocals, all invoking the aesthetics of pagan ritual.
Although the momentum of the album slows as it progresses – from the jaunty lyricism and borderline cheerful folk songs that greet us initially, through to more tranquil, spiritual moods all the way to the darkness of ‘Ren’ – the actual styles that Byrdi reference are revisited in every iteration. The humble folk songs find a sombre recapitulation in the penultimate track ‘Graanande Ymir’, which directly mirrors the positively cheerful ‘Ansur’ towards the start of the album. Although subtle, this gives the album a clear beginning, middle, and end. A sense of entropy that is nevertheless tightly rendered throughout every moment of this efficiently arranged collection of songs.
So in one sense we could say that Byrdi take the opposite approach to Heilung but end up with a more complex and expansive sound as a result. Byrdi take the immediacy of folk instrumentation and styles to craft songs, the momentum of which is largely carried by the most immediate instrument there is, the human voice. Through these relatively humble tools they craft an ambitious, resonant, varied soundtrack to life, one that references the Nordic folk hallmarks of historicism and the natural world beyond humanity’s borders, but retains an appeal on a raw musical level that stretches well beyond these surface level aesthetics.
Heilung by contrast deploy every trick in the book in terms of arrangement and production, but end up with a relatively minimal piece of neofolk punctuated by moments of boundless cinematic sonic tapestries. It’s a classic case of overzealous curation. One needs to have something to express through a chosen medium before setting about one’s craft. Byrdi’s relatively modest approach is bursting with colour, life, and talking points from start to finish. ‘Futha’ by contrast is a sparse landscape of sonic suggestions, with brief reprieves of brilliance.
With all that being said it should come as no surprise that ‘Ansur: Urkraft’ is my pick of the week. This comes with one caveat however. Heilung are becoming one of the truly big phenomena to emerge from a (broadly speaking) metal perspective in recent years. Not only that, but they are finding a much wider audience outside of metal’s borders. Whenever that happens, true blue metalheads will invariably mine for reasons to dissent. To cry foul and lament that once again populism has won the day. Whilst that is often the case, Heilung are a worthy artist with few comparable contemporaries. There is a lot of room for improvement in terms of raw musical artefacts on an album like ‘Futha’ – I would start by cutting at least twenty minutes from the runtime and losing the pointless goblinoid spoken word segments – but this doesn’t negate the many moments of unvarnished brilliance to be found in this work.