It’s “Get out of your rut!” day here on Ear to the Ground, and I have a fun little review on Rimfaxe, an album by Gjallarhorn, a Nordic band bringing traditional Nordic folk to new ears. The whole thing started when I was speaking with a Norwegian artist friend and he brought up this group because rumor has it that they’ll have a new album out later this year. His initial attempt to introduce me to Gjallarhorn’s music lead to a bit of a mix-up, as there’s also a similarly-named group that puts traditional Nordic stories to heavy-metal music going by the name of Gjallarhorn Metal. I half Jokingly proposed the latest heavy metal album to Greg, and to my shock he said he trusted my judgment (never a good idea). Emboldened by that confidence-builder, I decided to go ahead and write this piece, because frankly we could all do with trying new music occasionally, right?
Gjallarhorn, or the “sounding horn,” was founded in the Swedish speaking areas of western Finland in 1994. They work in both Swedish and English at times, and both versions are touching. Really, the distinction between Gjallarhorn and Gjallarhorn Metal is the mode of delivery only. Both deal with different stories than we’re accustomed, both have a different (although similar) sound than we typically hear, and both are classed as “traditional Nordic folk” music. This really makes one ask a number of questions, like what the purpose of folk music is, what makes something “folk,” how one’s own identity influences their idea of folk, and more.
Gjallarhorn has a sound that brings to mind our concept of fairies and pastoral scenes, much more calm and earthy than Gjallarhorn Metal’s treatment of the same material. They almost sound close to Gaelic musicians like Loreena McKennit or the Chieftains. The instrumentation is variable, and can range from very simple fiddle, vocals, and pipes to intricate arrangements with some members trading off instruments during one song or otherwise calling upon more than one sound in close succession. Their music truly spins an enchantment as you listen.
Rimfaxe was the last album released before Gjallarhorn disappeared for a bit. Produced and recorded in the US with the help of Bruce Swedien. Swedien is recognizable in the US from his work with the likes of Michael Jackson, Quincy Jones, Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald and recently Jennifer Lopez. The title Rimfaxe comes from a magical horse that appears frequently in Norse mythology. The first and title track is variable in tone, and changes tempo through the song, vaguely like riding a horse from starting out to gallop to stop. Kokkovirsi dances and twirls as a bonfire or dancers circling a bonfire, more dark and dramatic than soft and light. Systrarna is a string-driven familiar song, and like any sisterly relationship has its harsher and softer moments, all weaving together a beautiful tapestry. Most versions of Blacken available on the web include an English introduction which tells one story of the magical horse, in this incarnation a king’s favorite battle steed. The driving back beat mimics horse hooves, while the haunting melody remind us of the magic that is woven into these and all myths. Hymn has a somber, prayerful tone, but with a foreign quality that feels more Marakesh market than Northern European. It’s a great reminder of connections we all share.
Breaking from this more serious tone to lighthearted Sylvklar (or Villfar og Slyvklar) and its almost dancing spirit seems as natural as a summer festival on a Sunday afternoon. Norafields has some similarities with our own mountain folk music- fiddle and pipe accompany human voice- although there’s more complexity than found in Appalachian folk music. Shrieking begins iVall, a word with no direct English translation and a song with no real US comparison. Digeridoo, drums, pipes highlight, and the song’s exotic urbane feel lead one to think of all the cultures that one has yet to experience. Taklax is one of the few instrumental songs on Rimfaxe, and sticks out for the intricacy of the playing that is required even for simple percussion instruments. This is, in my opinion, the most technically skilled of the tracks. Staffan has a lullaby quality to start, put picks up half way through. The more confident tone of the second half is spritely and uplifting, and has moments of near teasing sounds before fading out. The album ends with Graning and its accapella beginning. Jenny’s voice carries the song off perfectly until the winds take over a bit, and they trade and accompany each other into a wonderful ending to this world music gem.
Gjallarhorn had been lying low for a number of years, until their tour began in 2011 and continued through 2012. While the extended hiatus slowed their growth, there continues to be interest in Gjallarhorn both in their homeland and abroad. The recent tour seems to have renewed interest in them, as indicated by the number of their videos and covers posted on YouTube. They have toured successfully over the years across North America, Australia, Europe, and Japan thanks to their broad appeal and technical skill. If we’re lucky, the rumors of a new album will be true. In that case, 2013 will be quite an exciting year, but no matter what, there’s music available from this group on their website, on YouTube, MySpace, and for sale on Amazon. Go ahead, try some other folk’s folk, and treat your ear to a Nordic ballad or two. And check out Gjallarhorn Metal, as well, if you want to really change things up.
Personnel: Jenny Wilhelms (vocal), Adrian Jones (strings), Sebastian Aberg (percussion), Göran Månsson (winds), Martin Kantola (sound)
Tracks: Rimfaxe (Rimemane), Kokkovirsi (Bonfire Song), Systrarna (The Sisters), Blacken [Grey & Frost Club Mix], Hymn (Hymn), Sylvklar (Silverbright), Norafields (Mountain Poem), iVall (@ley), Taklax 1037, Taklax 1034, Staffan (Stephen), Graning (Dawn).
Discography: Ranarop (1997), Sjofin (2000), Grimborg (2002), Rimfaxe (2006)