Photo of Wardruna by Tess Donohoe
Wardruna, From The Bogs of Aughiska
Queen Elizabeth’s Hall, London
24th October 2013
It’s safe to say that we at Louder Than War like Norwegian folk band Wardruna. In August we ran an interview between the band and our John Robb which ran a few months after our glowing review of their album, Yggdrasil. So when news broke that they were playing their first ever live show in the UK at the plush QEH, London last month we had to get a person down. Nick Holmes was suitably, and, perhaps, predictably blown away by the band. We also had a photographer (Tess Donohoe) on scene too whose photos were so amazing it seemed sensible to split them out onto another page so you can languish in their full glory. Check them out HERE. (However, if browsing to another page to see them is too much for you check them out in the photo gallery at the foot of this review).
A debut UK show is often likely to cause excitement, but there are gigs and there are experiences. A crowd that you would normally expect to see in a dark, sweaty club or basement of a pub were instead gathered in the genteel surroundings of the QEH at the Southbank Centre. A motley crew of long-hairs, beards and a good number wearing shirts with totally unreadable band logos were waiting to witness a collective who would peel back the layers of time.
First though was a curious clash of traditional and modern in the form of Irish duo From The Bogs Of Aughiska. After the original support artists cancelled because of illness they stood in at the last minute and their appearance was as startling as their sound. Not long ago the sight of two young men from Eire wearing balaclavas in public would have sparked panic and a major security alert. While one remained stationed at a MacBook the other provided echoey guitar drones to produce an unsettling atmosphere of foreboding. Hypnotic waves of soundscape washed over and it became clear there was a message within. Videos on a large screen showed black and white images of ruined churches and eerie graveyards with an appearance by iconic Irish storyteller Edmund Lenihan. There was also a quote from a speech made by Tory politician Lord George Bentinck during the Great Famine of 1847. The words were chilling, as images of tombstones passed by, “…never before was there an instance of a Christian government allowing so many people to perish without interfering.”
Unfortunately the set ended with a bit of a Spinal Tap moment. It became difficult to hear some of the words against squalls of feedback and when the pair stood silently to attention at the end their video stopped, leaving the Mac cursor screen on.
However, they had made their point and left the stage without a word. A little polishing and maybe subtitles to go with the dialogue would help in the future, but considering the late call upon them to play it was affecting and impressive. 7/10
Soon after a group which looked liked it had escaped from a Game of Thrones set assembled on the stage. Among them were two notable figures from the notorious Norwegian black metal scene, one which made international headlines twenty years ago for alleged devil worship, church burnings and murders. Wardruna’s chief of sorts, Einar “Kvitrafn” Selvik, and Kristian Espedal aka Gaahl, were both members of infamous Satanic act Gorgoroth. The latter had various run-ins with the law, including kidnapping and assault (he always claimed it was self-defence), but then shocked the heavy metal world by revealing he is gay. In recent years they have swapped ultimately destructive demonstrations against forces they oppose for educating anybody who may wish to listen about the richness of Nordic history and folklore.
Accompanied by third key member Lindy Fay Hella and supporting musicians, Kvitrafn and Gaahl have lovingly crafted an astonishing musical tapestry. Obviously nobody will ever really know what songs from the olden times sounded like. There was no way of recording back then except for early writing and carvings of poems and tales. Wardruna delves deep into the runes tradition and fuses it with instruments copying ancient forebears as closely as possible. The set included several tracks from the second in a trilogy of albums, “Runaljod – Yggdrasil”. The sound was incredible. Kvitrafn remained seated most of the time, eyes shut in concentration, and he mostly sang in a tenor style. The imposing, cloaked figure of Gaahl delivered the baritone level and Hella sometimes sounded blissful, but also unleashed truly alarming hollers and screams.
The tempo of the tracks ranged from a hypnotic swirl to the Nordic equivalents of jigs or war songs with thunderous drums and percussion. For just over an hour the all-seated audience was riveted by the experience. Introducing the final song, Helvegen (see below), Kvitrafn politely thanked them to huge applause before delivering a soundtrack worthy of the journey to Valhalla. Gaahl closed the night with a brief solo spot, which basically says in English that one day everything dies. It was a poignant and sombre note to end on. He simply said “Thank you” and left the stage head bowed. His colleagues stayed for an uproarious and thoroughly deserved standing ovation. 10/10
I have been to over 300 gigs and shows in the last two decades and rarely been so affected by a performance. The power of the whole thing is in the human voice and basic rhythms with minimal help from any sort of technology. The closest sort of thing possible to hear how the ancient ones would have made music. It also helps to learn more about the runes and what the songs actually mean. Warduna actively encourages this with extensive lyrics in the CD leaflets and a definitive book about the tradition available via the website. There is shopping and homework to be done!
The final album of three in this cycle is still to come and when it does it’s to be hoped that it will lead to more shows. The recordings are great, but the true might of Wardruna is best experienced live. Add it to your bucket list.
All words by Nick Holmes and all photos © Tess Donohoe. More of Nick’s writing on Louder Than War can be found here and you can see all of Tess’ photos from this show either in the photo gallery below or by clicking THIS LINK which will take you to a page where they’re laid out full size in all their glory. Find Tess’ website HERE.