'The drum needed a blood sacrifice': the rise of dark Nordic folk

Heilung jam with Siberian shamans and play with human bones, while Wardruna record songs submerged in rivers and on burial mounds. Now this vibrant undergound music scene is finding a wider audience

In 2002, holed up in an attic studio on the majestic Norwegian coast, Einar Selvik had a vision. He would create a trilogy of albums based on the 24 runes of the Elder Futhark, the world’s oldest runic alphabet. The multi-instrumentalist’s epiphany kicked off what is now one of the world’s most vibrant underground music scenes.

Calling on vocalists Lindy-Fay Hella and Gaahl, with whom Selvik had played in black metal band Gorgoroth, he created the band Wardruna and the first instalment of the trilogy arrived in 2009. It was called Runaljod: Gap Var Ginnunga (Sound of Runes: The Gap Was Vast) and had taken seven years to research, write and record. Each song told a story behind Nordic culture and traditions, via dark and ambient folk, played on ancient string and horn instruments, as well as animal hide drums.

The connection to nature is palpable: melodies are overlaid with the sounds of gurgling water, howling wind and crackling fire. When recording Laukr, named after the rune for water, Selvik delivered his vocals while standing submerged in a river. Meanwhile, the recording sessions for the band’s new album, Kvitravn (White Raven), took place in forests and on burial mounds.

Watch a video for White Raven

“You can almost call it method-recording or method-composing, where I’m the instrument and the themes are the composer,” says the frontman, who describes himself as animistic – a believer that all objects and living things possess their own spiritual essence. “It subtly promotes this idea that nature is something sacred. Something we are a part of, not the rulers of.”

His band’s music is getting ever more popular. The music press started waking up in 2013 with the arrival of Runaljod: Yggdrasil (named after a sacred tree), while Kvitravn reached the UK Top 50 earlier this month. But Wardruna already had a strong following, having ignited a fascination with Norse culture in 2013, when they sold out London’s Queen Elizabeth Hall in their first ever UK show.

It’s no surprise that this music has emerged from the frostbitten north. Ever since Norwegian bands including Mayhem, Emperor and Gorgoroth pioneered black metal in the early 1990s, stark, cold soundscapes have been part of the diet there. Selvik is quick to shoot down any association with metal, but the same brooding mood still shifts through Wardruna’s music.

Brooding mood … Wardruna. Photograph: Kim Öhrling

Soon, acts such as Heilung, Forndom and Danheim formed in their wake, each using the dark Nordic folk template Selvik had pioneered. But it was the success of History Channel drama Vikings that took the scene into mainstream culture, way beyond the consciousness of folk and metal aficionados. Selvik has contributed to the show’s soundtrack since season two began in 2014, and has appeared as an actor on the show, while later episodes have included music by Heilung and Danheim. It undeniably raised Wardruna’s profile, but Selvik is keen not to let that define the band. “I never use the word Viking in how I speak about my music,” he says. “The desire has never been to recreate music from any specific time period.”

Mainstream appeal … TV saga Vikings.
Mainstream appeal … TV saga Vikings. Photograph: History Channel/Everett Collection/Rex

Years of painstaking research and study have made Selvik an expert in Nordic tradition and ancient music. His work is often cited by leading academics in Norse studies and he has led lectures at Oxford University – but with Wardruna, he’s created something that seems transcendent. “I told Einar that I knew nothing about the runes so maybe I was not the right person to join,” says Wardruna singer Hella. “He said, ‘It does not matter – it is your energy I want in the music.’”

“There’s something about folk spirit – it’s primal, it’s honest, it’s unapologetic,” adds Amalie Bruun, the Danish singer of one-woman, ambient black-metal project Myrkur, who turned to the sagas of Denmark when recording her 2020 album, Folkesange (Darkness). “You can read all these sagas and they give you this echo inside. It’s like a memory you didn’t know you had.”

Myrkur’s video for the song Ella

If Wardruna are the forefathers of Nordic folk, then trio Heilung are the scene’s tearaway teenagers. The band – made up of leader and vocalist Kai Uwe Faust, antler-wearing vocalist Maria Franz and producer Christopher Juul – have become a phenomenon for their thrilling live shows, evoking arcane rituals with up to 22 people on the stage, brandishing spears and shields and drumming on human bones. Their debut performance, at 2017’s Castlefest in the Netherlands, has been viewed over five million times on YouTube. Given the title Lifa, or Life, the film has earned thousands of comments speaking to an emotional connection with the music.

“We aim to alter your conscious state of mind,” says Franz. “It’s a turbulent journey: you will feel scared and hurt, but when you reach the end you should feel a great relief.” Juul adds: “The first time we played in Russia, these Siberian shamans showed up in full gear, drumming along with us. They just got it.” How did they react? “We cried.”

Being in the crowd at a Heilung gig is intense – it feels a bit like manning the frontlines in the battle for Minas Tirith in Lord of the Rings. But it’s also like some sort of shamanic healing ceremony. Through a haze of smoke, drums pound out a trance-inducing rhythm over chanting and throat-singing. Why use human bones? “It has a ritualistic touch,” says Faust, adding that the aim is not to shock, but to pay respect to traditions dating back thousands of years. “In Tibetan ritual music, you have a drum that is made from two skull caps, you have a flute that is made from a human thigh bone. In Africa, a lot of instruments are made from human skin. For people from older cultures, it’s important for them to have good connections to their ancestors.”

“The bones get a lot of attention,” says Juul, “but we also play around with human blood. Our drum in the centre of the stage is called Blod, which means ‘blood’. That is painted with the blood of the three of us.”

“We have a good friend who is a nurse and she helped us professionally with extracting some,” adds Franz. “There’s huge energy in blood. We were strangers to the notion when Kai came and said the drum needed a blood sacrifice. But to paint something, and see your own DNA, was a very spiritual experience.”

Watch a clip of Heilung from their Castlefest show

Having closed off his runic trilogy with 2016’s Runaljod: Ragnarok, named after the Norse term for a series of natural disasters as well as the death of the gods, Selvik has been able to delve deeper into the relationship between humans and nature on Wardruna’s new album Kvitravn. Right now, he says, people are longing for a connection to their surroundings, be that to nature or tradition, although the album sidesteps the “romantic idea” that everything was better back in the day. “It’s about taking something old and making something new with it.” It’s a sentiment echoed by Juul, who points out that Heilung’s mission is to create “amplifed history”.

“What we’re doing here is trying to take a history book, put it into an amplifier and see what happens,” he explains. “We don’t try to draw a line to what is happening in the world today. People can use that knowledge as they wish. It’s not for us to dictate what to do with it.”

In the end, Selvik believes Wardruna’s music is intuitive. “Some of the themes we’re singing about go so far back, they’re in our DNA,” he says. “All culture is shaped by its surroundings. My music has this Norse wrapping around it but at its core, it’s timeless. Its universal. That’s why it speaks to people all over the world.”

• Kvitravn by Wardruna is out now on Sony Music/Columbia Records/MFN/By Norse Music. Folksange by Myrkur is available on Relapse Records. Heilung’s catalogue is available on Seasons of Mist.

Dannii Leivers

The GuardianTramp

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