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Óðinn’s Skald

3,229 words

Through the 1990s, Ian Read’s band Fire & Ice articulated perhaps the clearest expression of pagan European sensibility yet achieved in musical form. Over the course of six albums, a dark Traditionalist view of Europe as a place of magical lore and warrior values emerged. The music was influenced by the folk idiom but also by certain pagan Gothic forms and by the wider neo-folk genre.

The lyrics, penned by Read, were a triumph of disciplined artistry: devoid of sentimentality, indeed of almost all humanistic concerns, yet deeply and powerfully beautiful. Read’s main interests, as expressed through his lyrics, consisted of: runelore; the pantheon of Norse gods; Germanic warriors; the importance of honor and courage; and the sanctity of land.

Prior to the formation of Fire & Ice Read had recorded with Current 93 and Death in June, most memorably providing the vocals for the title track of the latter’s Brown Book album. This song was a rendition of the Horst Wessel Lied, the anthem of the German National Socialists. In keeping with much of Death In June’s oeuvre, this performance has the air of artistic provocation rather than straightforward political homage, although the ambivalence is on a knife-edge.

Following this, Read worked with Tony Wakeford and Karl Blake on the early Sol Invictus albums. Read’s contribution to Sol, as evidenced on songs such as Against the Modern World, and Kneel to the Cross, betrayed an Evolian and strongly anti-Christian perspective. At this time, in the late 1980s, Sol Invictus were one of the bands along with Death in June and Current 93 whose music would become known as neo-folk.

Although those bands have all subsequently developed along divergent lines, the neo-folk genre has become highly influential, spawning hundreds of bands across the globe. The essential components of neo-folk are the dominance of the acoustic guitar sound, and pagan, nature-reverent lyrics. Often the lyrics articulate Radical Traditionalist ideas but this is by no means ubiquitous.

Rumors of a past involvement in far-right politics still surround Read.[1] Certainly, Wakeford was involved with the National Front in the 1980s, and the allegation is that Read was also a member. The “anti-fascist” Searchlight organization has also alleged that Read led a security team for a meeting connected with Michael Walker’s New Right Scorpion magazine. Whatever the facts about these rumors (and they might even be true despite their provenance), it is clear that Read’s real interests lie in a more esoteric field than political activism.

Read views his music as being a vehicle for certain arcane concepts, and as a means to communicate certain pre-rational apprehensions:

Magic is a lot to do with charisma, and controlling the environment to your own advantage. It is strongly my view that people who believe in you are giving you power. My way is to produce quality things. . . my songs do have a lot of power encoded in them. I never declare what that power is, or where it’s to be found. People have to discover it for themselves. Fire & Ice is an avenue for my magic.[2]

Fire & Ice was formed by Read some time after leaving Sol Invictus. The first album, Gilded by the Sun, is most notable for its title track, a wonderfully evocative song about Albion, the ancient name for the British Isles. Albion is evoked as a fertile, green place filled with trees and rivers. Metaphorically, she becomes a tree herself, one that is dying through a “wasting sickness.”

Albion, how fine your trees stand gilded by the sun
Across the land and in your fields
The tree-lined waters run
But in your hearts what light is there?
What grows and comes to flower?
Does mind grow cold do weakened hands let slip their ancient power?

Albion, how fine your trees stand gilded by the sun

Albion, I see you now once noble high and fair
Your greatness gone your wealth dispersed as empty as the air
What wasting sickness struck so at the flesh beneath the skin?
Took might and honour at a stroke and withered from within?

Albion, how fine your trees stand gilded by the sun

Albion, a sapling tall but one that dies not grows
The greater tree you left to fall but now your own sap slows
The winter comes to all that lives the ice that slays the root
If spring should ever shine again will you still bear a shoot?

Albion, how fine your trees stand gilded by the sun

Albion, if worth remain if ought is left to show
The smallest leaf the slightest bud from ancient bark do grow
The gain is worth the sacrifice the battle worth the slain
But will your spirit yet endure the healing stroke of pain?

Albion, how fine your trees stand gilded by the sun

The theme of a once great culture ruined by the weakness and sickness of modern society is one that Read would return to. Elsewhere on the album there are a couple of folk music standards and also Ljosalfar, a song about the light-elves of Norse mythology. “Blood on the Snow” is another impressive track, depicting Óðinn in his Yuletide role of hunter, and extolling the beauty of violence.

He stands alone in red and white, his eye a burning glow
In the winter forest this night are drops of blood on the snow

When compared to the later albums the music on Gilded by the Sun is slightly limited and unable to fully realize the ambition of the songs. There is also a reliance on keyboards that would disappear with the later works.

By the second album, Hollow Ways, the music had fully matured and had become the perfect vehicle for the words. This may be partly due to the participation of the guitarist Michael Cashmore who was a key figure in the musical development of several neo-folk bands. The song, “Seeker,” features the Óðinnic priestess Freya Aswynn on vocals. A violin, almost atonal in its eerie dirge, provides an austere musical backdrop to an invocation of the high god, Óðinn.

Father of All, hear my words, spoken from my heart
Feel the spirit’s rising flame, the keening words apart.

The folk song, “Rising of the Moon,” is performed as a stirring and melodic ballad. This song expresses the sense of duty that arises when the homeland is threatened.

All along the singing river that dark mass of men were seen
Far above their shining weapons hung their own beloved green
Death to every foe and traitor, forward strike the marching tune
And, huzzah, me boys for freedom, ‘tis the rising of the moon.

The song, “The Old Grey Widowmaker,” is a setting of the Rudyard Kipling poem, “Harp Song of the Dane Women,” from Puck of Pook’s Hill. It deals beautifully with the conflict a man feels between his love for a woman and his need for war. Interestingly, set as it is in the Viking age, this poem gives a good account of a time when heroic loyalty was more important than romantic love.

What is a woman that you forsake her,
And the hearth-fire and the home-acre,
To go with the old grey Widow-maker?

She has no house to lay a guest in—
But one chill bed for all to rest in,
That the pale suns and the stray bergs nest in.

She has no strong white arms to fold you,
But the ten-times-fingering weed to hold you—
Out on the rocks where the tide has rolled you.

Yet, when the signs of summer thicken,
And the ice breaks, and the birch-buds quicken,
Yearly you turn from our side, and sicken—

Sicken again for the shouts and the slaughters.
You steal away to the lapping waters,
And look at your ship in her winter-quarters.

You forget our mirth, and talk at the tables,
The kine in the shed and the horse in the stables—
To pitch her sides and go over her cables.

Then you drive out where the storm-clouds swallow,
And the sound of your oar-blades falling hollow
Is all we have left through the months to follow.

Ah, what is Woman that you forsake her,
And the hearth-fire and the home-acre,
To go with the old grey Widow-maker?

This theme continued on the next album, Midwinter Fires, with a version of the Irish song, “The Wind that Shakes the Barley.”

I sat within the valley green
I sat me with my true love
My sad heart strove the two between
The old love and the new love
The old for her, the new that made me think on my home dearly
While soft the wind blew down the glen
And shook the golden barley

T’was sad and woeful words to frame
To break the ties that bound us
But harder still to bear the shame
Of foreign chains around us

Obviously the sort of folk music performed by Fire & Ice has nothing in common with the folk tradition represented by musicians such as Ewan MacColl and Penny Seeger, a tradition utilised for the purpose of raising proletarian consciousness prior to a Marxist awakening. Fire & Ice are located in a different tradition of folk music, one more in keeping with the tone of Fairport Convention’s Liege and Lief (“Crazy Man Michael” from this album was covered by Fire & Ice).

Whereas MacColl and other Marxist folk musicians drew from the songs of men and women working in an industrial environment, the other tradition of folk music is more concerned with a pre-industrial world, drawing on the ballad tradition documented by collectors such as Francis James Child.[3] This older tradition treats subjects such as romanticism, the supernatural, the fact of death, and the virtue of heroism. It is from this latter tradition of folk music that the Radical Traditionalist is able to mine his gold.

The fourth album, Rûna, is of a slightly different character being, if anything, even more mystically inclined than the rest of Fire & Ice’s work. Rûna was Read’s masterwork for the Rune Gild, Edred Thorsson’s organization dedicated to the study of the Northern Mysteries. At the heart of Rûna is the long track “Weirdstaves.” For this track Read has rewritten the ancient rune poems found in Old English, Old Norse, and Old Icelandic versions. Like all of Fire & Ice’s work this is a contemporary manifestation of something ancient. The aim is not to preserve the ancient mysteries in an outmoded form, nor to create novel forms pertinent to modernity, but to absorb the truths (and paradoxes) of the past so as to live them in the world as it is. This is central to Read’s creative praxis.

The track, “Egil,” is a setting of a speech by Egil Skalagrimson, the eponymous hero of the Icelandic Egil’s Saga. “Holy Mead” concerns the transformative and inspirational power of mead, the authentic precursor of communion wine.

The sacred word alu which was carved into the tine
Reminded me and taught me of the power that was mine
If I called its spirit knowingly and treated it with care
When the Holy Mead was poured for the æðelings to share

Alu is the Old English word for “ale” and is also a runic magical formula. Edred Throsson states that: “A tine created with this formula will impart general protection, while providing wisdom, inspiration, magical power, and good health within a lawful life”.[4] Æðelings were the Anglo Saxon princes.

The next album, Seasons of Ice, was a collection of miscellaneous tracks and alternate versions not included on the earlier albums. The song, “Reyn Again,” once more calls upon ancient powers to animate modern struggles.

Put gold on the fountain, set guard on the stones
Watch the sun’s turning, place lords on their thrones
To keep the ancient lore alive that we may Reyn Again

Keep the ways of old alive, with the future’s tools of ease
Turn your face to the sacred signs, and the gods of war and peace
And walk in the shadow, and dance in the light, and Reyn Again

Hang corn from the branches, wear masks at the rites
Feel the moon’s pulling, call forth the old wights
To keep the ancient lore alive that we may Reyn Again

Keep the ways of old alive, with the future’s tools of ease
Turn your face to the sacred signs, and the gods of war and peace
And walk in the shadow, and dance in the light, and Reyn Again

Make wild in the forests, put truth to the fore
Tell the stories and even the score
To keep the ancient lore alive that we may Reyn Again

Keep the ways of old alive, with the future’s tools of ease
Turn your face to the sacred signs, and the gods of war and peace
And walk in the shadow, and dance in the light, and Reyn Again

The penultimate track, “Purity,” builds up a sense of martial discipline through keyboards and percussion before the lyrics are spoken. The words come from Nietzsche’s Anti-Christ.

What is good? – All that heightens the feeling of power, the will to power, power itself in man.

What is bad? – All that proceeds from weakness.

What is happiness? – The feeling that power increases – that a resistance is overcome.

Not contentment, but more power; not peace at all, but war; not virtue, but proficiency.

The weak and ill-constituted shall perish: first principle of our philanthropy. And one shall help them to do so.

What is more harmful than any vice? – Active sympathy for the ill-constituted and weak – Christianity.

The last album, Birdking, is a fitting conclusion containing some of Fire and Ice’s best work. The opening track, “Dragons in the Sunset,” is a poetic vignette of Read’s mystical quest, culminating in a direct encounter with the high god.

I heard the thunder and saw the flash
The stormy sky did speak
A voice whispered to my soul: “You are not of the meek
The ways of the Eastern stranger are not yours to bear
You have heard the raven speak and seen the eagle’s stare
Battle’s pain and skald’s words, horn of flowing mead,
Steps along the lonely path where waits the eight-legged steed.”

. . .

I have heard the valkyrie’s song
And I’ve touched Óðinn’s hand

“My Brother” is sung to an organ accompaniment and operates as a sort of heathen martial hymn. The influence of Kipling is evident in the lyrics, as is the spirit of many of the First World War poets.

When the seeds of strife are clearly sown
The poor his croft the King his throne
But my brother still stands close to me

When the lindens close together stand
The coward pulls away his hand
But my brother still stands close to me

When politics confounds the meek
Fortunes of war divide the weak
But my brother still stands close to me

When the rune-graved arrow calls the fyrd
And flaxen spearmen meet their wyrd
My brother still stands close to me

When the paths of war are fairly trod
Lesser men have naught but God
But my brother still stands close to me

When bloody combat lays me low
Pain and tears are all I know
My brother still stands close to me

So when the struggle has been won
Father turns again to son
And my brother still stands close to me

The closing track, “Where Have They Gone,” is amongst the best of Fire & Ice’s work. Another lament for lost greatness, it evokes the spirit of the Anglo Saxons and wonders where that spirit has disappeared to.

Where have they gone, those proudest of dreamers?
Their woods are all silenced and the bright halls stand free

Children sturdy and flaxen,
Gewisse, bold and free
As the land they were Saxon

Tall grass is waving over their barrows
Their pastures unmown and the meadows ghostly

Children sturdy and flaxen
Gewisse, bold and free
As the land they were Saxon

Shadows are whispering songs from the twilight
Their swords all shattered and the spears just trees

Children sturdy and flaxen
Gewisse, bold and free
As the land they were Saxon

Engle and Seaxe up becoman
Ofer brad brimu Brytene sohtan
Wlance wigsmiðas Wealas ofercoman
Earlas arhwate eard begeatan

Children sturdy and flaxen
Gewisse, bold and free
As the land they were Saxon

The chorus is adapted from the poem, “Saxons of Sussex,” by Vita Sackville-West:

Children sturdy and flaxen
Shouting in brotherly strife
Like the land they are Saxon

The Fire & Ice version is even more Saxon in character than the original, as Gewisse was an early term for the Saxons meaning “trustworthy.” The stanza in Old English is taken from The Battle of Brunanburh:

Angles and Saxons arrived
Over the broad oceans, sought Britain
Proud warriors, overcame the Welsh
Brave earls, begat the land.

“Sailing through the mists of time,” Fire & Ice belong to a chain of descent linking directly back to the Germanic poetic tradition. This tradition encompasses heroic and mythological verse, runic codes and charms, and also songs glorifying the great deeds of ancestors. The focus of Fire & Ice on these pre-Christian notions may seem somewhat marginal to the imperatives of the contemporary struggle but such concerns are in fact a distillation of the essence of what is required. Only from the modern, rather emasculated, perspective does it seem otherwise.

The development of European metaphysics has long been distorted by the moral duality of Christianity, a distortion that has succeeded in suppressing and demonizing some of the most vigorous aspects of the European soul. Tolkien touched on this theme in his influential essay, “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics,” in which he argued that the fantastical elements of Beowulf, the dragons and monsters, had been downplayed by critics because they were seen as an embarrassment to modern scholars.[5] Tolkien argued that it is with precisely these elements, deriving from ancient European mythology, that the strength of Beowulf lies. Such poetic, pre-Christian ideas are the ineradicable essence of the European ethos, and it is only through a reintegration with such ideas that a European rebirth will be possible.

This brief introduction to the music of Fire & Ice has only scratched the surface. Many noteworthy songs have not even been mentioned, to say nothing of Read’s editorship of some of the more important esoteric magazines of recent years. The interested reader is advised to seek out as much of Fire & Ice’s material as he can, and to immerse himself in a study of the mysteries alluded to therein. Perhaps a few will even discover some of the hidden power of Fire & Ice, and a way to “keep the ancient lore alive”.

Notes

1. See, e.g. Stewart Home, “Danger! Neo-folk ‘musician’ Tony Wakeford of Sol Invictus is still a fascist creep!” http://www.stewarthomesociety.org/wakeford.html and Christoph Fringeli, “From subculture to hegemony: transversal strategies of the New Right in neofolk and martial industrial,” http://datacide.c8.com/from-subculture-to-hegemony-transversal-strategies-of-the-new-right-in-neofolk-and-martial-industrial/.

2. Phil Hine, “An interview with Ian Read,” in Rebels & Devils: The Psychology of Liberation, ed. Christopher S. Hyatt (Arizona: New Falcon Publications, 1996), 199.

3. Francis James Child, ed., The English and Scottish Popular Ballads, 5 vols. (New York: Dover Publications, 1965).

4. Edred Thorsson, Futhark: A Handbook of Rune Magic (Maine: Samuel Weiser, 1984), 121-2.

5. J. R. R. Tolkien, “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics,” in Beowulf: A Verse Translation, translated by Seamus Heaney, ed Daniel Donoghue (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2002).

 

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One Comment

  1. Alaskan
    Posted October 17, 2011 at 2:58 pm | Permalink

    I own all of Ian’s CD’s and, having also met him and watched him perform live, I can honestly say that he is far more serious about preserving our Northern European heritage than most. His music, lyrics resonate with the listener. At least they do for me. I actually prefer Fire and Ice to most other Neo-Folk outfits. Many are simply trying to ride on his coat tail as far as I’m concerned. Remember, too, that Ian was also part of Sol Invictus as well, in addition to actually writing about the Northern mysteries. He is both musician and scholar, and is far more “elite” than 99% of the new breed of Euro nationalists.

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