Live Review: Wardruna at Royal Festival Hall, London (March 2022)

Image: Al Overdrive (@aloverdrive)

“It feels absurd to be here,” beams Wardruna frontman Einar Selvik, addressing the crowd near the end of this, the first show of the band’s extensive world tour, and their first outside of Norway since the pandemic. The feeling is almost euphoric. Selvik and his compatriots have just had to wait out a prolonged standing ovation that echoes around the grand space of the Royal Festival Hall. “Fuck that was a long wait,” he exclaims, “holy shit.” He’s referring to the procession of cheers that pick up every time he approaches the mic to speak, but could easily be talking about the wait to tour their latest album Kvitravn, now released over a year ago. Tonight’s show is centred around the album, but the setlist doesn’t dwell on it, also moving through a series of fan favourites from their earlier Runaljod trilogy and, in one enigmatic interlude, a track from their 2018 acoustic release Skald.

Kvitravn’s release show came in the form of an online stream (soon to be released as First Flight Of The White Raven), so there’s a sense of relief that the band are finally here, playing their biggest London headliner to date. Compared to the band’s past shows in the capital, at venues like the gothic Union Chapel and the Edwardian Shepherd’s Bush Empire, the distinctly modern architecture of the Royal Festival Hall would seemingly be at odds with Wardruna’s rustic music, itself conjured from an array of ancient string instruments, ceremonial horns, and animal-hide drums.

But for all ancestral instrumentation and the sense of authenticity this brings, Wardruna are part of a Nordic folk movement that’s very much current, making use of modern recording techniques and song structures despite a reverence for mythology and the old world. In frontman Einar Selvik’s own words, it’s taking something old that still carries meaning and creating something new with it. It “resonates with the contemporary”, he stresses. The band’s live show is perhaps where that blend of old and new is most prominent, with some enigmatic lighting that ranges from intense strobes to striking silhouettes cast across the stage’s feathery backdrop. Then there’s the band’s rustic stagewear, some bones and charms adorning Selvik’s microphone, and of course the ancient instruments themselves, from the unassuming tagelharpe to the lur, a ten-foot long horn raised high into the air by the band’s resident horn and flute expert Eilif Gundersen.

Image: Al Overdrive (@aloverdrive)

It’s intensely theatrical, and yet there’s something endearing about just how simple what Wardruna do is at its core. There’s no reliance on shock and awe at every turn, rather the band set up their aesthetic parameters and then work within them. The focus remains first and foremost on their imposing music, which fills a space more richly than any amount of pyrotechnics, stage props, or set pieces ever could. Indeed when they first emerge the band seem almost dwarfed by the grandness of the space, but they conquer it immediately once the arresting, stabbing strings of the Kvitravn title-track kick in.

Selvik is undoubtedly the star of the show, and the focal point of the band’s primal energy on more expansive pieces like the apocalyptic ‘Rotlaust Tre Fell’ or the haunting ‘Heimta Thurs’. Aside from the stripped-back melancholy of ‘Voluspa’, though, he doesn’t operate alone. The incantation-like choirs of ‘Lyfjaberg’, the swirling doom of ‘UruR’ and the rousing harmonies of ‘Helvegen’ are born out of a tight-knit interplay between various strings, horns and percussion, not to mention the soaring vocals of Lindy-Fay Hella and backup vocalist Katrine Stenbekk of fellow Nordic band Kalandra.

‘Helvegen’ is (ostensibly) the closer, a visceral culmination of what makes Wardruna’s music so powerful and, according to Selvik, the perfect distillation of what they’re about. After a silent, solemn hour and a half onstage, he addresses the crowd for the first time here to remind us that what the band do is not escapism, and it’s not about romanticising the past. “It’s not ‘ooh let’s be vikings’,” he tells us. Instead, the band give us an opportunity to learn from the past, and to rediscover forgotten ideas that still hold relevance – a reminder that we are a part of nature, not the rulers of it, and that we have in many ways abandoned the rich song tradition that was once such a vital aspect of cultures across Europe and beyond. As Selvik delicately delivers a brief solitary encore derived from the legendary saga of Ragnars saga loðbrókar, it’s clear that their music speaks to something timeless and universal.

First Flight Of The White Raven is out 22nd April. Order here.

Words: George Parr

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