The metal scene is, in certain circles, notorious for its perceived elitism. Even within a genre that, to the uninitiated, might seem remarkably niche to begin with, various cliques, often clinging to particular subgenres, find themselves at each other’s throats trying to prove that their preferred application of a heavy riff is the right one. In the murky depths of metal’s underworld, though, can also be found a surprising amount of open-minded approaches to creating music. All manner of weird and wonderful genre-blending concoctions can be found in metal, and as more and more innovative music finds its way into the limelight, the notion of genre is becoming increasingly redundant, useful only for describing an artist’s sound to a potential new listener.
Perhaps this is why Nordic folk group Wardruna have been able to attain such attention from the metal world. Indeed, on paper, a band using traditional Norse instruments, many of which most will never have heard of (what the fuck is a tagelharpe?), without the addition of electric guitar, bass or growled vocals seem to have little in common with extreme metal. And yet, Einar Selvik’s folk project has weaved its way into the collective metal conscience, gaining widespread attention, not to mention praise, for their trilogy of albums based on ancient runes.
Look deeper, though, and it’s hardly surprising that such a group would find themselves adored by the metal scene. The band is, after all, born from it. Not only was ex-Gorgoroth frontman Gaahl a founding member, but sole remaining founding member Einar Selvik was once the black metal legends’ drummer and has performed with countless artists from the realm of underground metal. Most recently, in 2016, he collaborated with Enslaved’s Ivar Bjørnson for an album under the name Skuggsja. But Wardruna’s ties to the metal scene don’t end there – they actually seem to be a part of the metal scene, as if they were a metal band in their own right. Not only do the extreme metal underground’s ‘zines and blogs embrace the group, but the metal mainstream’s sites and magazines have also given them prominent coverage, despite them seemingly not being a fit.
Perhaps Wardruna’s music is seen, by many black metal fans, as a continuation of a trend within the scene. Indeed, Gaahl and Selvik were not the first from the scene to later foray into unconventionally arcane realms – Emperor’s Samoth has created ambient folk with Hagalaz’ Runedance, and Ihsahn had Hardingrock until they disbanded in 2007, to name a just a couple. Wardruna have, by most accounts, become a bigger name than any of these projects, though, perhaps due to the quality of their music, but undoubtedly also because something in recent years, be it the popularity of Game Of Thrones and The Hobbit trilogy or something far deeper – a yearning to escape the technology-focused humdrum of the modern age – has made historical and mythological themes, which would once have been dismissed as ‘nerdy’, somewhat fashionable.
Keeping with that line of thought, Wardruna’s rise to fame unmistakenly came, at least in part, as a result of their influential role in the soundtrack of the second season for the History Channel’s violent historical drama Vikings, which should tell you something about their acceptance in the metal scene, a place that refers to ‘Viking metal’ as a subgenre in its own right.
Metal has always had an infatuation with mythical aesthetics, but even the most well-read folk metal outfit is unable to compare to Wardruna’s heathen charm. The band’s desire to create music that remains faithful to Norse cultural traditions means their sound is unlike anything conjured by any from the metal world. Whether their sound is truly closer to that of the Norsemen than other folk acts is something we’ll never know, but the band’s earthy, ethereal tones certainly capture the modern perception of the Norse aesthetic well. Their sound is simply on another level, having removed the metal half of the folk metal genre and focusing solely on providing utterly enchanting and endlessly hypnotic tracks that surpass your average ethereal doom outfit or experimental extreme metallers.
This is the band’s greatest strength. Many fans of the metal underground clearly have a penchant for ethereal soundscapes, and Wardruna do this better than any. There may be a woeful lack of any crushing guitars, but this can actually be refreshing. The chance to listen purely to one of the most captivating styles of music there are without the interruption of bruising riffs is one that should not be passed up, even if it means admitting that what you’re listening to isn’t really metal, but traditional, historically-inclined folk.
Words: George Parr