Indie Recordings/By Norse Music, 2018
The Norwegian band Wardruna’s latest album, Skald, is a tribute to Old Norse poetry containing ten acoustic ballads performed live by the band’s co-founder, Einar Selvik. The accompanying booklet contains the original lyrics (most are in Old Norse) and their respective English translations, as well as a short introduction to Old Norse skaldic poetry written by the Icelandic philologist Bergsveinn Birgisson (a skald was one who would write and recite poems about heroic deeds in ancient Scandinavia).
Selvik writes that Skald was “recorded live in the studio with the intention of capturing the uncompromising energy of a live performance rather than aiming for a flawless and polished expression” and that it “sets out to give voice to the ancient craft that once lay at the heart of the Norse oral traditions, presented as it takes shape in the hands of a humble contemporary skald today.”
The stark, minimalist soundscape of Skald marks a departure from Wardruna’s previous works. Selvik’s voice is accompanied by naught but a Kravik lyre for most of the album (a taglharpa also features in one song, and the first track opens with the strains of a bukkehorn). His vocal talent is on full display here. His voice is rich and resonant, and has great depth of emotion. It conjures up the image of hearing a grizzled Viking recount tales beside a bonfire.
The songs deal with a range of subjects: the death of loved ones, the gods and creation, and the role of the skald. The lyrics come from various sources, including a poem by Bragi Boddason, Völuspá, Ragnars saga loðbrókar (two stanzas describing Ragnar Lothbrok’s death in a snake pit), and a lament by Egill Skallagrímsson. Three songs in the album (“Helvegen,” “Fehu,” and “Voluspá”) are old Wardruna songs presented here in stripped-down, “skaldic” form. The lyrics for “Gravbakkjen” were composed by Selvik and are sung to the tune of a traditional funeral song.
The best songs on the album are “Ormagardskvedi,” “Ein sat hon uti,” and “Voluspá.” Also, “Sonatorrek,” written by Egill Skallagrímsson after the death of his son and here sung a cappella, is particularly haunting.
Völuspá is not a skaldic poem (it is the first poem of the Poetic Edda), but the booklet notes that “there may well be skalds behind Edda poetry just as there are with skaldic poetry, and especially behind visionary poems like Voluspá. The key difference is that these skalds are anonymous and not as personally present in their epic poems.”
The earliest known skald is the ninth-century court poet Bragi Boddason, whose Ragnarsdrápa is thought to be the oldest surviving Old Norse poem (though the booklet points out that poetic kennings had long been in use by then). Skaldic poetry is characterized by a complex meter, alliteration, internal rhymes, often surrealistic imagery, and an abundance of kennings. It usually takes the form of eulogies praising kings, lords, and so on; shield poems (describing the images on a shield); or funerary dirges. The role of music in its performance is unknown, but it may have been accompanied by the harp or lyre.
Birgisson writes of the skald:
The Old Norse skald was much more than a poet in the modern sense of the word. Words weighed heavily in the oral society where honour was paramount. The skald was a public voice, someone who was able to raise or demolish the reputation of others with their words. Libel-poetry was seen as being so powerful that it was punishable by death. The role of the skald was multi-faceted. A skald served the function of the genealogist, the news reporter, the historian, the glory-monger of war, the advisor and sage, the bearer of traditional myths and heroic legends, the psychologist, the lover, the trickster, the satirist and the diplomat, often simultaneously.
The Vikings saw poetry as a gift from the gods and a form of liquid wisdom, akin to the water from Mímir’s Well. Skalds were thought to have imbibed the Mead of Poetry, a magical substance created from the blood of Kvasir (a wise being born from the saliva of the Æsir and the Vanir). Upon its creation, the mead was hidden in the center of a mountain. One day, Odin decided to steal it; when he returned to Asgard to spit it out, some drops fell to Midgard (Earth) below. This was thought to be the source of all poetic inspiration. Bragi Boddason alludes to this in describing the skald as “Ygg’s ale-bearer” in the first song in this album.
Skald gives the listener an idea of how important poetry was to the Vikings. Poetry is now stereotyped as an unmanly pastime, but the Vikings saw it as a sacred endeavor and revered skalds as heroes. Skalds were described with kennings such as “slayer of the storm-sun,” “swallower of the sky-wheel,” and “ship-smith of Odin.” They often fought in battles and were praised for their deeds in sagas. For instance, Egil’s Saga narrates the life and exploits of Egill Skallagrímsson.
Despite the fact that Selvik once denounced “racism,” his music is strongly aligned with Rightist ideals. Wardruna shows a deep respect for Norse culture and heritage, and they are implicitly white in their sound and aesthetic. Their music strikes a chord within the Northern European psyche and has the power to rouse whites from their slumber.
Birgisson writes in the booklet:
In our own time, when the heroes of antiquity and Old Norse culture are becoming increasingly forgotten in a society that is mostly concerned with itself and the day-to-day, it has never been more important to revisit the words of our ancestors in order to get a sense of what what really is important, and retain one’s humanity.
May we honour the man who gives wings to the words of our ancestors.
Skald is a moving homage to the Old Norse skaldic tradition and Old Norse culture in general. It is different from Wardruna’s previous three albums, but possesses a similar raw primordial power. I recommend it to neofolk/“pagan folk” fans and to anyone interested in the Vikings and Old Norse poetry. If you’re new to Wardruna, check out their Runaljod trilogy as well. Einar Selvik’s two albums with Ivar Bjørnson (Skuggsjá and Hugsjá) are also well worth hearing.