Occasionally a band emerge with a style of music bearing scant resemblance to traditional metal, yet who are reverentially held by wide swaths of the metal community. Wardruna – Norway’s spellbinding pagan collective – enjoy just such status. Their raw, ethereal hymns draw deeply from ancient Norse poems and stories, weaving strands of folk, pagan and ambient music into enthralling soundscapes. Certainly, the inclusion of their music on the Vikings TV series raised Wardruna’s profile within the metal ranks and beyond, but so too have their consciousness-elevating live shows that have engendered a surging interest in pagan culture. But it’s the staggering emotional impact of their songs that places them at the forefront of the movement.
Kvitravn (‘White Raven’), Wardruna’s big label debut, further explores the wisdom, rituals and spirits that connect the present to the past. At the centre stands Einar Selvik, whose intensive studies of old Norse culture inspired him to take up the instruments of that era, like the goat-horn, Kravik-lyre and the deer hide frame drum. As such, Kvitravn features the same percussive spine and sombre drone of its predecessors, yet it marks a broad step forward, particularly from stripped-down outings Runaljod – Ragnarok (2016) and Skald (2018). Kvitravn’s production is more expansive than on previous works, but the increased potency leaves Wardruna’s primal edges intact.
The title track opens with a gust of wind and the squawk of a raven. One by one, strings, vocals and other instruments join, propelled by the stomp of a drum and the mournful thrum of a lyre as it builds to a euphoric cosmic crest. It’s worth noting that the videos for both Kvitravn and Grá offer stirring conceptions of Einar’s vision of humanity’s communion with the natural world.
Kvitravn mostly showcases a return to the expanded instrumentation of Runaljod – Yggdrasil, the midpoint of Wardruna’s Runaljod trilogy, with a heightened focus on the vocal harmonies of Einar and Linda Fay-Hella. Grá and Fylgjutal carry devastating emotional weight and the meditative-meets-rapt vocal interplay between the two taps into a wild, shamanic frequency that resonates somewhere beyond mental and material landscapes.
Unsurprisingly, elements of the trilogy abound. The invocational chant of Skugge (‘Shadow’) – a spare and savage affair infused with field recordings of wind, water and other natural elements – recalls the haunted intimacy of debut Runaljod - Gap Var Ginnunga. Yet where …Ginnunga revealed dark, almost malevolent undercurrents, Kvitravn offers thoroughly intoxicating tracks like Viseveiding. The mighty, 11-minute closer, Andvevarljod, features a guest turn by Kirsten Bråten Berg, one of Norway’s foremost traditional vocalists, and her daughter, Sigrid. This sort of creative partnership underscores the expanded vision that shines brightly through every track.
Kvitravn is best experienced in a long, uninterrupted listen. Throughout its 70 hypnotic minutes, the album considers the spiritual themes that dominated early Norse culture and through these raw, evocative tracks, brings them forward in a contemporary and intensely affecting way. Haunting, powerful and deeply immersive, it is an unmitigated triumph and a career high for Wardruna.