If your music is subtle, so the people love you can be too – or why a Wardruna addict doesn’t like Kvitravn

photo: Arne Beck

I’m an absolute Wardruna megafan. I thought I loved, them, then I saw them live shortly after Yggdrasil came out, and realised my journey deep into fanboy territory was yet to reach a middle. There is something utterly magical about Einar Selvik’s music, to the extent even that bloody kids’ choir couldn’t ruin Ragnarok.

But I don’t like the new album Kvitravn. And at first, I couldn’t work out why, because on paper, it picks up exactly where Ragnarok‘s finest moments left off. Then I worked out why. And good grief, am I disappointed that such small changes have so completely cut me off emotionally from it.

Strap in, this one’s going to get nerdy.

While no one can quite agree on what Wardruna are – neo-folk, dark ambient, Viking/pagan-something-or-other, and even somewhere on the metal spectrum by Metal Archives – the broad range of people who’ve agreed they’re fucking awesome is huge.

Wardruna shows take in the metal fanbase of Einar and former band member Gaahl (both were in Gorgoroth together at one stage, back when Einar was principally thought of as the drummer known as, naturally, “Kvitrafn”). But they also take in plenty of music fans who’d rather slice off their own ears than make it all the way through a show by Enslaved, however many times Einar and Ivar work together on collaborative projects.

The Amazon/History Channel series Vikings thought they were so good, they included almost all of Runaljod – gap var Ginnunga and a lot of Yggdrasil on the soundtrack at one time or another, then got Einar in to work on original soundtrack (and provide cameos, with no hair changes needed). Assassin’s Creed – Valhalla has done similarly, and even my favourite game, Guild Wars 2, has clearly been listening when writing some sections of the soundtrack to current Norse-flavoured season of live updates, The Icebrood Saga.

Personally, I’ve always felt the trick to Wardruna being broad enough in appeal to reach all these people lay not just in the quality of the music they’ve composed and its authentic yet novel sound – although both are, of course, vital – but in the way in which it touches on conventions and techniques of the various pigeonholes people have tried to crowbar them into.

The dark-as-moonless-rain-drenched-night atmosphere and heavy, mesmeric repetition immediately plug into something metal fans (especially black metal fans) will instinctively love, even if they don’t know why; the drones, and the percussion so pulsing it quickly becomes something your brain doesn’t even need to pay attention to for it to continuously play on your emotions, are things the dark ambient nerd can latch onto straight away; those sumptuous folky textures give the neofolk fan an immediate way-in; and if you’re none of the above, those gorgeous melodies, so articulately sung by Einar and Lindy-Fay, are easy to absorb while your subconscious works out if it’s into everything else going on.

Why is this, however, of any relevance as to why I do not like the latest recording?

In answering, it’s important to understand that I don’t think Kvitravn is a pile of shite. We are so, so far out of HUMAN. ::II::NATURE. territory here, it’s not just the next fjord over, it’s the other side of the Arctic entirely. This is, categorically, not a case of groaning, or shouts of “wtf were you even thinking?” It is, simply, a lack of emotional reaction to music that superficially seems directly and completely related to everything the artist has done under their name (aside from Skald, obviously, which was supposed to be an aside, and is irrelevant to this discussion).

As far as I can tell, there are essentially two things slightly different – so “slightly” that it’s taken me loads of listens to spot them – that are causing it to fall flat. And while they might seem nitpicky, these aren’t pointing at a new car and complaining about one pixel being a bit dim on the sat nav, or the radio being stuck on Jazz FM. For my brain, to continue the analogy, the car won’t start. It doesn’t go. The thing that’s supposed to happen if everything works has failed, and we’re looking under the bonnet to find out why – and finding that the sparkplugs are missing. Small problems in a large machine, but sine qua non for my enjoyment.

The first issue is a subtle but critical change of production – the kind of small-but-critical thing that, if you don’t hear it, is going to have absolutely no effect on your experience, but if your brain spots it, can stop your enjoyment dead.

Take a listen to the drum pulse on ‘Bjarkan’ from gap var Ginnunga before we go any further. You don’t have to listen to the whole song, but really take in the drum sound. You may need good headphones/speakers and a reasonable volume for this. [Apologies for YT shares, but not everyone has Spotify.]

See how rich it is? How beautifully and perfectly recorded it is, how strong and deep the percuss itself is, and how the reverberation of the skin is picked up and allowed to come through? It’s a profoundly organic sound, and is a fantastic example of the enormous care taken to make sure the full sound of every component of a deeply textured record is captured to provide as great a sound as possible. And I pick this example because, for me, gap var Ginnunga is probably has the least good production of all of the Runaljod cycle of records; if I were to pick the sound of the ice percussion from Ragnarok, this would have been even more obvious, but that’s such an incredible sound that it’s not a direct comparison.

Now compare that drum pulse to the one from ‘Munin‘ from Kvitravn.

It doesn’t sound shit. Far from it, in fact. But that beautiful resonance? It’s not there. It sounds much more standard-studio-recorded drums. That rich, living quality is gone. And that drop-off from perfection, while small and subtle, is both present across many of the other components of the layered composition, and significant enough that my brain picked up on it even before my conscious mind caught up.

Further, listen to the mix in both those songs, and if you listen carefully, you may spot that the strings and vocals are rather more prominent in the mix than the other components in ‘Munin’ than in ‘Bjarkan‘; the same would have been true if I’d picked ‘Fehu‘ from Yggdrasil or ‘Tyr‘ from Ragnarok.

Why do either of these things matter?

Because the combined effect shifts the balance of the record subtly from being that beautifully poised centre, to being far, far more of a neofolk record. The emphasis is subtly but crucially less in the direction of the pulsing dark ambience, or of the elements that create that atmospheric-black-metal-esque repetition. Which, if your vocal ideas are as good as Einar Selvik’s, is not an unreasonable thing to do, and should not be taken as a criticism; I’m absolutely sure there are listeners whose experience is enhanced by this, rather than hindered. But I became a Wardruna megafan because of the mélange, not just the vocals, so for me, it’s lessening my connection.

These two small but subtle shifts in the production are reason one. Reason two is, almost unbelievably, an even nerdier reason.

Wardruna’s finest two songs, for me, are ‘UruR‘ and ‘Helvegen‘. Both build extremely slowly, starting in ambient noise, before subtly and slowly layering in elements that barely change throughout the song. Sometimes they might stop only to return later, sometimes they might change their pattern slightly, but the slow, inexorable build towards climax, before slowly fading away again, is so magnificently patient that the pay-off is appropriately exquisite.

In the case of ‘UruR‘, the build is so patient that it’s a full five minutes sixteen seconds before Einar’s first anguished vocal note comes in, and it’s another 98 seconds before the main vocal refrain enters, by which point, the clever bastard has you in such an ecstatic state of reverie that the bloke with the pipe from Hamlyn is emailing him asking for tips. Einar spends nearly seven minutes manipulating your brain into hypnotised peace just for three minutes of vocals. And it’s perfect.

Helvegen‘ gets to its main theme must quicker, but even then there’s about 45 seconds of Thor-is-angry noise from nature before the vocal solo begins. But what it does is then layer on a simple beginning, and the whole song bar the last few seconds is focused on this one structural section. Vocal-and-drum has the full chorus added to it, with a drone beneath it, and the harmonies become richer and more obvious as the refrain progresses. When the refrain recapitulates, the drumming become more complex, and other percussive instruments cut in, while the drone has harmonising drones added to it, giving the effect of chord changes – but it’s all basically expanding and varying the same idea, rather than moving on.

When the vocals disappear for ages, even then, it’s not signalling a progression to a new structural section, as the main theme eventually returns one final time, only to fade one last time, signalling all the other components to fade out, until we’re once more returned to the sound of the rain with just a drone and a drum. Then Gaahl, with only noise for company, transitions us from A to B for just the last few seconds, singing us out with a melody that speaks of brightness admits the gloom.

Both of these are such perfect studies in minimalism that I think even Philip Glass, an absolute master of the technique, might be impressed.

Kvitravn gets on with everything way quicker. Even the song on it I find myself responding to the most, ‘Skugge‘, doesn’t have anything like the patience when it comes to layering.

Sure, it might be patient in its structure by section, but listen to how the components join the song. We may start in familiar noise-with-drone territory, but when the next layer joins, it’s more of them in one go, as multiple vocal lines join with some harmonising string components and fleeting touches of subtle percussion all at once. Kvitravn does this many times: as patient as it may be to take a while to move through its sections – and it is – it gets its ideas out way faster than other releases, with individual songs containing the same number of anchoring refrains as two or three may have on prior releases. Einar seems absolutely full of creativity, and wants to show it to you, firing refrains and changes of rhythm or pace at you far more often.

Songs are way more likely to have a more traditional structure, where one section is followed by a second which is either different or, at the least, a more significant evolution of the first, than the previous records. And that isn’t bad – at all. That’s how shitloads of the best music ever written across an array of styles so broad neither you nor I are likely to have heard of most of it. It’s simply different to what Wardruna has done before.

It’s important to note this isn’t simply a case of unfamiliarity, or of expectations impacting enjoyment. Both are real, but are not what I’m talking about here.

The effect is, subtly but significantly, different. It changes, quite fundamentally, the mood of what you’re experiencing. The slow-build ambience of Wardruna’s songwriting up till now has, for me, impacted a quality of enormous peace and stillness, allowing everything to swell up and over you in rapture, like being caught in the middle of a rite of celebration and reverence you can’t quite join in with, but that you’re so in the midst of, you might as well be doing so.

The change in structure, however slight it may be, for me, lends Kvitravn a less participatory quality. I feel like I’m listening to it, rather than part of it; like it’s happening in front of me on a stage, not all around me; like it wants me to follow it, rather than be part of it. And while it doesn’t stop me liking some songs – including both the title track and ‘Skugge’ – it does prevent me going in as hard on them as I would have otherwise, and it stops me liking the album as a whole. I simply don’t have that strong emotional reaction to it.

The hard fact is that neither the production nor structural variations of this would bother me in a less subtle band. Iron Maiden can and have made far more dramatic changes to their modus operandi without coming close to changing what I love about them, and that’s without even mentioning the masters of the left turn, Enslaved, again.

But Wardruna’s magic was always based on subtlety, of very simple components layered together in a way that transformed them from ordinary to extraordinary. If they change that mixture ever so slightly, while you might not know why at first, you might not react in the same way. This happened to me.

It’s like adding just a little too much coriander leaf to your curry: It’s not likely to really fuck it up and make it inedible, but the slightly soapy taste you’re left with just won’t sit right, especially as it’s likely to obscure an aspect that was crucial to you enjoying it before.

If none of this bothers you, then none of this bothers you. You’re lucky. You get to enjoy Kvitravn as much as so many people clearly are. I’m the one missing out.

I am, however, for this record, out.

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