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May 2, 2012

Steff Metal reviews Wardruna – gap var Ginnunga

Brutal Tunes

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I had an article all planned for today, but then a friend at work introduced me to Wardruna, and I cannot get the music out of my head.

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You could describe Wardruna as “Viking elevator music”, if you weren’t fussed about your head remaining attached to your body. Wardruna is a musical project from Kvitrafn (Einar Selvik) – a Norwegian musician who’s played for the likes of Jotonspur, Sahg and Gorgoroth – with vocal contributions from Lindy Fay Hella and Gaahl. This isn’t metal, but a darkly melodic ambient project played with traditional instruments. Wardruna utilize cultic musical language from ancient traditions to create soundscapes that invoke Norse history and ritual.

gap var Ginnunga – the first album of three conceived releases features 8 runes of the Eldar Futhark – Hagal, Bjarkan, Thurs, Jara, Laukr, Kauna, Algir, Dagr. I wrote an article for my Metal History column exploring runes last year, which explains a little about history of the writing system, but not about it’s relationship to spiritual practices. Kvitrafn writes about the runes:

“Ever since the first runemasters started to carve their ‘charged’ signs thousands of years ago, the runes has had a strong symbolic value and has also gone hand in hand with knowledge and insights of some sort, often esoteric. Besides being a writing system the Norse mythology speaks of the runes as knowledge of divine origin – reginkunnr. In Hávamál, Odin – the god of wisdom – tells how he sacrificed himself to himself, hung from the world tree Yggdrasil, while pierced by his own spear Gungnir for nine whole nights. In this death-transcending state of mind, at one with the great gap (Ginnungagap), he found the runes and learned their meanings. According to the mythology Odin shared his knowledge to both gods and humans, and thus the runes came to our ancestors use.”

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Recording the album, (photographer - Wardruna.com)

While viking imagery, mythology and spirituality has become a common theme in metal songs in recent years, it’s not often you hear the subject matter treated with a reverence and sensitivity shown on gap var Ginnunga. The music has a true resonance with the past, a deep-rooted connection with the history it invokes. The majority of the instruments were handmade, and much of the recording was done outside in areas specific to the runes being portrayed. You can see pictures of Kvitrafn creating his instruments and recording outdoors on the Wardruna website.

The pristine, natural tone of the instruments – drums made from deer hide, clove and hoof rattles, mouth harp, a bowed lyre and cow and deer horns – are further enhanced by natural sounds – knocking against trees, fire, the whoosh of wind and the trickle of water. The compositions have a darkness to them, but they’re more contemplative – not a war cry, but a lament, a spiritual awakening, a prayer and an offering. Vocals are sparse, but intrinsic – kvitrafn’s clean vocals a perfect complement to Gaahl’s characteristic rasp.

Kvitrafn says this about his interpretations of the rune cycle:

“Keeping in mind that there will always be a certain room for disagreement and discussion when working with the runes, I would like to emphasize that in my songs it is not necessarily a goal for me to approach the respective rune from every conceivable angle, nor to cover all of the different aspects of it. Rather, the focus is on the core of each rune and the qualities that serve the whole concept and purpose of Wardruna best: sowing and nurturing new seeds and strengthening old roots!”

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Wardruna, live at Vikingskipshuset (photo by Svein Erik Nomeland

Far from feeling overworked and gimmicky, gap var Ginnunga is pretty easy to love. There’s enough musical variation across the eight runes to hold your interest, even during the more minimal passages. The ritualistic element of the simple melodies and haunting drums makes this an ideal album for contemplation, “zoning out” or invoking a past age. Fans of neo-folk and ambient projects like Lord Wind will enjoy Wardruna, as will anyone with more than a passing interest in Norse paganism.

gap var Ginnunga is the first of three albums each dealing with eight of the Eldar Futhark runes. Wardruna performed their first concert in 2009 at the Vikingskipshuset (the Viking Ship Museum in Oslo). They were the first act ever to perform live at the museum. Having visited the museum and seen those remarkable ships firsthand, I think this would’ve been a remarkable event.

A little of the magic of Wardruna:

Wardruna – Hagall

Wardruna – Dagr

To learn more about Wardruna and hear gap var Ginnunga, check out the Wardruna webpage.