Concert review: Wardruna in Toronto @ Danforth Music Hall on February 8th, 2018
In the midst of Winter, Toronto’s snow-framed streets are the vessel for a personal journey, unshackled from the urbanized modernity this ‘new’ city beholds. The wait is finally over. Einar Kvitrafn Selvik and Linda Fay Hella, better known as the folk/ambient duo Wardruna, board their Viking ship for their maiden tour around North America, their first appearances in Canada. With almost all the dates on this limited sojourn sold out in advance, this is an evening that must satiate vertiginous expectations.
Mainman Einar Kvitrafn Selvik has woven a trilogy of Norse rune-themed songs that have each met high acclaim. They are a far cry from the standard acoustic guitar strumming and novel-instruments-for-the-sake-of-novel-instruments detractors associate with the genre. Wardruna make use of authentic, Nordic and ancient instruments for sound with Norwegian, Old Norse and Proto-Norse languages for lyricism. The inclusion of Gorgoroth (whom Selvik used to drum for) mainman Gaahl as a vocalist at the time of the group’s inception has marketed Warduna to the metal macrocosm and this subculture composes the majority of attendees but there is no metal input in their sound. Appearances in the TV show Vikings introduced them to a fresh audience and catapulted them even further into the luminary they deserve.
The stage is backed by cascading lights appended to an almost camouflage -style netting to recreate a natural texture with the modernity you might find in a contemporary art display. It sets a tone more appropriate than meets the eye when one considers Wardruna, eschewing the more obvious decorations like animal bones and hides, wooden objects and runic iconography. The first song of the night is “Tyr” from the 2016 most recent Runaljod – Ragnarok installation of the trilogy. The opener is both musically and visually spectacular. A pair of lurs, a long curved horn, bellow out from the front centre of the stage while their silhouettes resemble grand antlers. The music is instantaneously grandiose and mystical; dreams of ancient Scandinavia astir. The sum of the vocals is almost choral, supported by profound evocative ambient soundscapes and ritualistic percussion. The folk devotion is actually perfect, espousing dutiful praise and infrequently punctuated by humble melodic fragments.
With six people on stage, there is a wealth of layers built up to produce such masterful atmospheres. An expert use of traditional instrumentation includes an inventory of deer skin drum, Hardanger fiddle, mouth harp, bukkehorn (goat horn), tagelharp, lur and lyre. Selvik’s vocals are of the pride-swollen Viking variety albeit more malleable and less stereotypical than you might have heard. His voice is delectably complemented by Linda Fay Hella and her broad range of mid-range, soprano and throat-shredding near-shriek voice.
Texture is key to Wardruna’s observations. Polyphonic layers, a reaching spectrum of emotion and forceful otherworldly arrangements and each musician oscillating between the foreground and background are of paramount importance. At times, their ambient passages are reminiscent of Arcana and the ethnic passion is not a thousand universes away from Dead Can Dance. “Heoimta Thurs” is a introspective and almost lonely song, endowed with an overpowering minimalism. “Raido” pursues a more conventional song’s composition, building towards a more theatrical and almost danceable second half. “Jara” follows a more seasonal and hopeful tone, with the mouth harp and fiddle creating a treasure of aural awe. “Isa”’ is an exploratory simplistic track, bearing frozen trinkets and gorgeous splendor.
It is only towards the end of the set when Slevik addresses the audience for the first time tonight, greeted by a standing ovation. He proclaims his adoration for the attendees for coming and indulges in some light-hearted stage banter. Later, he makes the point that Wardruna is not about nostalgia for a time you never lived in nor turning back the clock to recreate the Bronze Age. It is about harnessing inspiration from ancient traditions to engineer new songs for current times. He introduces “Helvegen” as a death song, sung at the funeral equivalent in Norse history to send someone over to the other side of life. He encourages the audience to think who will be there for them when the moment comes, resonating on an even more personal level.
The sense of finality in “Helvegen” would have been a flawless way to conclude the show and the standing ovation is interrupted with Selvik asking if they audience would like a final song. Predictably, the response is rapturous, and the spectators are entreated to “Snake Pit Poetry,” a song about the death of Viking Ragnar Lothbrok, popularized in the aforementioned TV show. This solemn dirge jars against the ecstatic and noisy praise that precedes it but unfurls unforgettable funerary majesty that completes the show tastefully.
This is no ordinary performance; those expecting an overdone version of Viking lionization (presumably the few voices who kept interrupting the concert with shouts of “Odin!”) are better suited for a Norse folk metal concert. Wardruna’s show occupies a kind of high art without falling into the pretentious or abstract, definitely the kind of event that anchors itself to the mind. Selvik stated that he would love to return to Canada and it’s safe to assume everyone in the Danforth Music Hall feels the same.
Future tour dates:
16/03/2018 – Slaktkyrkan, Stockholm (SWE) – Einar Selvik solo show
15/04/2018 – DR Koncerthuset, Copenhagen (DK)
29/04/2018 – Göteborgs Konserthus, Göteborg (SWE)
20-22/06/2018 – Tons of Rock Festival, Halden (NO)
11/08/2018 – Brutal Assault Festival, Josefov (CZ)
22/08/2018 – Bergen Live, Bergen (NO)