Modern-Day Thors Drop the Hammer: These Vikings Show Us How to Rock

Primal sounds transcend what you thought you knew about good music.

August 28, 2018 5:00 am
The Scandinavian alternative metal band Heilung performs a live concert at during the Norwegian metal festival Midgardsblot Festival 2017 in Borre. (Photo by: Gonzales Photo/PYMCA/Avalon/UIG via Getty Images)
The Scandinavian alternative metal band Heilung performs a live concert at during the Norwegian metal festival Midgardsblot Festival 2017 in Borre. (Photo by: Gonzales Photo/PYMCA/Avalon/UIG via Getty Images)

You are my friends, but you are also ignorant, almost arrogant, in your attachment to conventional idea of pop.

Regardless of whether you aurally fondle Gaga or Goatwhore, Billy Joel or Big Star, I bet you think you have a pretty good idea of what “music” is — even if you can’t put your finger on it. You take it for granted that “music” is synonymous with a fairly rigidly prescribed set of chords, harmonic formations, carefully delineated notes and traditions. What you call music now, well, you probably think that’s what music has always been.

So, you visualize the high sun and long sands of Egypt in the time of Ramesses the Great and the brave widow Hatshepsut, and in your head you hear the synchronized MGM horns of college football armies; you picture the tattooed alpine nomads marching across glaciers and snowfields two centuries before Christ, and you hear the chiming mandolins and punctured squeals of Led Zeppelin.

This is a mistake we all make, you see. We see things through the foggy (but sexy) glasses of our own cultural references.

Sometimes it takes modern-day vikings to remind us what we have lost.

I was recently in Iceland, where the bald earth rises to meet the sky, and the wet, white clouds reach down to touch the mountains. I was on the low and loud main drag, in a shop that sold Viking-themed souvenirs to us tourists who drive that countries’ fertile economy.

I heard a sound, almost literally breathing over the store’s stereo system.

It took me away from the grin of commerce and reached a place that did not have words, at least not ones I had used since I learned words, pee pee maw maw, a rock’n’roll that rocked and rolled long before there were any plugged-in Fab Archangels, or a pretty hillbilly tupelo Jesus.

But before I can enlighten you with the experience I gained, you must remember what you have lost.

You have forgotten what you knew when you were a child, when magical incantations were an everyday occurrence (pee pee maw maw, to cite the great Don DeLillo). But you were once in touch with the ancient, I promise you. See, there is something we all know, deep inside, even if we cannot name it: there is a magic within us that defies the churchly harmonies of our pop era. We have been told, over and over, to defy this instinct, to absolutely smother it in the rye bread and sauerkraut and Holy Swiss Cheese and Russian dressing of Mellencamp or Madonna, Eagles or Eagles of Death Metal. We have been taught to bury the primitive alchemy of rhythm and repetition, rams horn, bone flute and singing bowl.

But you have felt it sometimes, haven’t you? It has called to you, across a thousand years of harmonic fascism. No Taylor Swift can tushy-wiggle it out of your souls, it is there for eternity, and it is not a fictional land, just a lost continent. I have touched it, the roar of the land before learning, in Football chants (which I am certain are more Stonehenge then Sirius XM), the avant garde stun-scapes of Stuart Dempster, Sunn O))), or LaMonte Young, even the atom-age Juba hambone churn of Bo Diddley. These are entry points to the lost land inside of us.

And it is rock’n’roll.

Southern Greenland, Hvalsey, Remains Of Viking Settlement Church. (Wolfgang Kaehler/LightRocket via Getty Images)
Wolfgang Kaehler

To this ageless song our ancestors rolled rocks, in order to build pyramids and clear land for plantations; and they rolled and rocked their babies to sleep under a spray of stars smudged only by peat fires so long ago.

So when I heard that viking music, which was new, which is to say it had the gleam and depth of the MP3 era, it spoke to me with slow motion rumbling drums that sounded as deep and alive as the animals whose hides were peeled to make the skins on those drums; it had rams horns that sighed, whooped and saluted across miles, and touched the part of me that remembered standing in a damp, hot crowd to stare into the blinding gold of the Ark of the Covenant in the Old Temple; the music spangled with the perfect drone of throat music meeting gut string, just as it had been heard under the olive-colored shade of the Bodhi Tree and beneath the orange skies of Golgotha.

It turned out that I was listening to an artist named Danheim, modern holders of ancient magic. And in the weeks since, I have fallen deep in the thrall of this Nordic Folk/Viking Ambient/Viking Folkcore genre. And that is what I am here to talk to you about.  

I have especially been drawn to three acts: Danheim, Heilung, and Nytt Land.

Copenhagen-based Danheim, where this voyage of discovery began, craft very deep, spatial, sensory music of almost ASMR effect which sounds like the ambient accompaniment to some unspoken yet necessary rituals (these likely involve extinct furry animals and the godsperm mist of the Northern Lights). It reminds me of what I would hear when I was a kid taking a bath and I would put my head under the water and tap the sides of the tub, and/or what I would experience when I would go to Korean delis in Manhattan in the 1980s and stick my head in the beer fridge just to hear the drone — which would transport me to some cold world where the sighes of eight hundred gods sang songs of life and death that had no beginning or ending.

Danheim’s melodies, such as they are, are more like distant seismic groans or a slow-moving winter sky switching from ash-white to ash-gray. They feel like they unfold across continents, like a weather system, drawing you in. Fan-effing-tastic.

Or Maybe Danheim just sounds like Eno doing a soundtrack for Game of Thrones, while really, really slowed down Adam and the Ants drums play nearby.

Denmark’s Heilung have just two albums – a studio album and a live album, both of which essentially reproduce each other – but their records are whoppers. These are bursting with mesmeric, glacial spells of drones, charms, and prayers, pagan dreams, hopes, and fears turned into mantras. It often sounds like someone vari-speeding the memories you have that defy words, a strange warp and woof of cycling, revolving Mobius-Strip emotion, motion, tension, and beauty.

Like Danheim, Heilung summons strange and specific memories: For me, I remembered being a child in synagogue on the High Holy Days, and the shofar sounded, and I heard a second and a half of the reverb, which I wanted to hang on to forever, and swing from it like it was a monkey bar, living in that resonance forever. That’s what Heilung sounds like —combined with the thrashing nightmares of the hydrocephalic child.

Bizarrely, every time I play Heilung (I swear to God, every time) my dog gets really upset, and this has never happened ever before when I play music. What else do you need to know about this amazing construction of whispers and chants and echoing clangs and clanging echoes? It disturbs my dog. In her outstanding, tiny mind, Heilung evokes some ancient memory of being chased by furred hunter or fleet fox in a calendar-less land of glacier, moss, and lava.   

Nytt Land are literally from Siberia, and in some ways, they are the most “commercial” of these three bands (damn the dog is crying to this, too).

Their blend of rhythmic chants and female vocals make them sound like Natalie Merchant collaborating with particularly agitated Mongolian throat singers and a purely imaginary band of particularly arty church burners to cover the Residents’ Eskimo album inside a planetarium that showed not the stars but, from horizon to horizon, the blinding late-winter white of a Northern ice-desert. Got that? Because it may be awhile before you see a sentence like that.

Wait, did I say Nytt Land was commercial? It is, in a way, honestly commercial, especially if you dream of listening to the Cocteau Twins and some very, very angry Morris Dancers converting to Buddhism during Ragnarök.

Uh huh.

And even though there isn’t an electric guitar anywhere remotely near these records, the quietest of this stuff has an enormous weight, tension, wit, adventure and invention that feels like rock’n’roll. It reminds me that there are artists out there who know that the mysterious electric spider that is rock’n’roll is alive and well — very goddamn alive and well — even if they probably get really cold in the winter.

When I heard Danheim, Nytt Land, and Heilung, I felt like I did when I first heard PiL’s Flowers of Romance, The Raincoats’s Odyshape, (New York/London knit-noise band) Ut, or even Girl Band (insane Irish primitives who sound like the Jesus and Mary Chain trying to be the early Swans trying to ne Neu!).

These artists evoked a mystery and power that reached beyond and before our conscious memories of music, our conscious memory of anything. Each of them (and the neo-Vikings too) conjure something primeval, gorgeously mysterious, a mixture of instinctual and expert, astral and primitive. When I heard them, I become aware of memories I had before I could assign words to memory, I felt what music was before I was told what music had to be.

Just don’t play it when the dog is in the room.

The InsideHook Newsletter.

News, advice and insights for the most interesting person in the room.