Ragnarok and Roll: How RCL Critic Fell Hard for Nordic Ambient Music

Imagine Vikings around a fire with bone flutes, reindeer horns, and deer-skin drums.

March 19, 2019 5:00 am
Vintage engraving from 1882 of Ragnarok, the Last Battle. (Getty Images)
Vintage engraving from 1882 of Ragnarok, the Last Battle. (Getty Images)
Getty Images

I don’t want to just listen to music. I wish to be awed, amazed, and distracted! To be occupied, soul, heart, and body, by an electric elegiac rhythmic invading army! I want to be wined and dined, serenaded and chased!

I want to hear a roar, a whisper, a hum, a holler…and fall in tumbling, obsessive love, sad-eyed and pouty, horrified and hopeful, just like I did when I first heard “All the Day and All of the Night,” “Waiting for the Man,” “Dot Dash,” “Highway Star,” “Hallogallo” or “Rocket 88.”

Being alive – that is, spending a cosmic instant, an astral blink, in this thin skin of a human incarnation — we recognize that the first noble truth is suffering: Life, and all its pleasures and agonies, is temporary. But, friends, we also must recognize this: Every day of our life we have the potential to be astonished, to discover something beautiful, to encounter something new, to hear, see or feel something that will make us glad that nature and man make art and noise.

I never take these feelings for granted. I believe, every morning, that today is the day it is going to happen again, that I will discover music, old, new, and in-between, that will provide thrills, chills, and sources for new passions and preoccupations.

This is why it was an absolutely unexpected pleasure to find myself getting lost and found in the strange, star-lit, ash-dusted clearing in the piney woods that is Viking Ambient/Nordic Folk music (a genre which is also sometimes called ritual ambient, black folk, and other combinations of an adjective and a noun).

I have written about some of these bands before – Danheim, Nytt Land, and Viking-adjacent Anna von Hausswolff all appeared in my 2018 Top Ten list – but I keep on finding more. I remain convinced that Viking Ambient (the appellation I am most comfortable with) is here to stay.

Listen, if you have dreamed of artists that have the intensity and sensurround thurmmmmmm and holy hum of Sunn O))) or Earth, but also had the angel-pastels of Renaissance, Enya, or Hope Sandoval (while also rumbling and rattling the earth like St. Augustine’s Marching 100 rolling down Orleans Avenue in a Mardi Gras parade), well, Viking Ambient is for you. Seriously, babies: Perhaps my whole life I have looking for something that felt like Bo Diddley and smelt like Dimmu Borgir and flattened me like Glenn Branca and soared heavenwards like Kate Bush, and, well, kiddies, I am finding it in Viking Ambient.

Which is all to say: Imagine a mashup of Dark Side of the Moon and the Melvins’ Houdini played by Vikings sitting around a fire using only bone flutes, reindeer horns, and deer skin drums, and, that’s what we are looking at here.

Sounds really effing good, doesn’t it?

One of the reasons I’m writing this article is because I have just been turned on to a fantastic record in this genre, from a few years back, that I missed:

Uthuling Hyl, by Osi and the Jupiter, was released two years ago. Damn shame I missed that one, because if this wasn’t the best goddamn album of 2017, I’m not sure what was. I believe O & J is one fellow – Sean Deth – and he isn’t based in some fire-lit town under the Arctic Circle, but in Kent, Ohio. This is the second album Deth has released under the Osi and the Jupiter name (though he has done some outstanding work in the past with the post-metal/Swans-meets-Ragnarok apocalyptic folk outfit, Witchhelm).

Uthuling Hyl is astounding, from first to last. This collection of whispers, hums, rumbles, arpeggios, and weeping violins sounds like Hagrid’s funeral music, while at the same time evoking nightfall in Monument Valley under some violet star-sprayed sky where you swear you can hear Navajo spirits mourning and cursing.

Like the best of the Viking Ambient stuff, Uthuling Hyl reaches same modern/primeval place, conjuring black death and black metal, Skylab and Shtetl. Like “Bo Diddley,” “Ashokan Farewell,” or “Mná na hÉireann (Women of Ireland),” this aural landscape summons a thistle and thorn in our genes that we cannot name, but has been with us for a thousand years or more.

A few other prominent artists in this remarkable genre have very recently unveiled new music; so let me say a few words about these releases.

Nytt Land made one of my favorite albums of 2018, Odal. They have a new track out called “Pusel Ov Aki’s Song.” Like much of Nytt Land’s stuff, it is utterly compelling and sounds like Clannad having a gentle but urgent discussion with an ancient midwife under the low-hanging clouds of Siberia (which is where Nytt Land actually come from). Like a lot of Nytt Land’s stuff — heck, like a lot of stuff in this genre – it’s barely there; just vocal, droning violin (a two string native violin, I think) and a rich, cave-like ambient hum. Yet it sounds and feels totally complete, like a winter solstice prayer to some ancient god who steals the sun. In fact, I put on some Clannad right after listening to “Pusel Ov Aki’s Song,” and it was nearly seamless.

Danheim, a project helmed by Copenhagen-based producer Mike Olsen, have made some of my favorite sounds – it seems insufficient to call these objects records – of the last few years. In fact, it was Danheim who introduced me to this entire genre: an accidental encounter in a shop in Reykjavík with Danehim’s war drums-in-the-planetarium sound set me off on this whole voyage. Olsen/Danheim release a lot of music – seven (!) abums in just over two years – and the new one is called Hringras. It’s a bit subtler than the thumping hymns of 2018’s Herja (probably my Danehim go-to); it revels in the same hypno-repetition, but feels more personal, like laments of mourning soldiers around a campfire. Like Runatl (also released in 2018), Herja sounds like a movie without pictures, but we can still sense the cinematic fingers of flame and the sensation of unspoken words of fear and hope.

Danheim, Nytt Land, and Osi and the Jupiter are bringing us a new ethno-ambient psychedelia, informed by the shadowy moods of dark metal and the trancemanic state of krautrock. They are redefining environmental music, in a dramatic, vigorous, engaging way.

See…I want to hear new noise that is strange, yet also as natural as the hum of the highway heard from the crib! Is that too much to ask? I am searching for extremes of ambience and originality, melody and motion, moon and sun, ecstasy and emotion, just like I found when I listened to the Carpenters or Kraftwerk, Feelies or Fu Manchu, La Monte Young or Huey Piano Smith.

And this rather amazing wave of Viking Ambient music – and really, this is just the tip of the iceberg – makes me remember this: It is utter bullshit when people say “age is just a number,” or “50 is the new 40.” We grow old. We decay. Deal with it. But our capacity to be utterly occupied by art, love, tumbles of words or torrents of music, never goes away: That feeling, the way you felt when you first heard the trebly slobber of the Kinks, the sheetrock shudder of the Stooges, or the chime and mystery of R.E.M., man, you can unpack that every day!

So thank you, Osi and the Jupiter, and all your clay-painted brethren and sistren.

Om gate gate, mojo come to my house ya black cat bone, paragate, ugly ass mojo where ya bin, up your house and gone again, parasamgate bodhi svaha.

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