UK Release: December 1st 2014
Roger Berzerk Fauske
Over to Iceland, a country much like the rest of Scandinavia packed with musical talent, and Skálmöld.
They have been around for a while now and from the start always had the intention of mixing Metal with the more traditional end of Icelandic music. These ambitions have been scaled back slightly (initially the plan was more of the traditional instrumentation but they have now settled on three guitars).
They cite bands such as Maiden, Metallica, Slayer and Anthrax as being musical influences, but also Jon Leifs, a classical Icelandic composer. Lyrically, subjects centred on Norse mythology and the Icelandic sagas provide a lot of inspiration and on top of all that Old Norse poetry forms are present. So, this is hardly your standard Metal band.
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The band have gone from strength to strength after signing with Napalm Records in 2011. Following the worldwide release of 'Baldur', the band got a much needed shot in the arm in the PR and popularity stakes and ended up playing events such as Wacken Open Air festival. 2012 saw the release of their second album 'Börn Loka', before a live album hit last year, interestingly recorded with the Iceland Symphony Orchestra accompanying the band.
So to 2014. If you wondered, the title in English is 'With Many Spirits' so time to see what the spirits are up to.
One of the first things you notice is the vocal – well, when I say vocal, I mean lots of them and they are in many ways different to each other in feel and tonally. It isn't a case of lead and backing vocals, more multiple lead on certain sections and it is a very powerful concept.
The other thing to hit you is something I have touched on earlier, the close Norse connection – as much as the likes of Leiv Eiriksson (while I am on the subject, yes he did discover America, so Columbus Day in the States really shouldn't happen. You were discovered by Vikings, get over it) most likely didn't have bards singing about his exploits in quite the same way, you can almost immediately feel the connection, the telling of sagas, albeit with a modern and definitely heavier subplot.
First up is 'Ad Vori' (Springtime) and after very throaty beginnings, there is a definite military, adventurer theme to the music and as I said above the vocals come at you from all directions and all with very different tone, in each case very well delivered. This track is probably the prime example of that on the album and it is a refreshing approach.
From a band with three guitars you would expect a little wizardry and they do not disappoint with the raucous, screaming solo, perfectly backed up by thunderous drums and raunchy bass.
'Med Fuglum' (With Birds) is next and powerful guitar boots it into gear for almost all of the first minute, and it is a menacing message with the guitar, before rhythm section kicks in, vocals following hard on its heels. The message on this one is a lot more hard hitting, less anthemic than the previous track and again delivered with no little gusto. The vocal contrast isn't so evident but more than made up for by the multi-layered feel to the song, shifting meter, shifting pattern and focus. Musically it meanders, well more torrent than meander, different styles and influences raising their heads.
'Ad Sumri' (Summertime) brings us back to echoes of the adventure theme, with deliberate, forceful vocals again with a more than interesting meter behind it, pulling it along, almost having that ¾ time signature feel to it, multiple vocals giving the military like chorus impetus. This goes off in a very interesting direction, Celtic mood and patterns taking over before it returns to its roots.
That switch may be unexpected but it is downright seamless and it comes back again during the solo, again filled with dextrous widdling, a great sounding solo. The whole feel of the song is superb, taking the tempo up a few notches (not that the previous songs were exactly laid back). A stormer of a track.
'Med Drekum' (With Dragons) is a little milder in beginnings, great riffery going back to the days of the classic variety, before it heavies up, growling coming in again. The guitaring between vocal patterns is reminiscent at times of those about as classic as you get fellas, Thin Lizzy. The anthemic section is a killer on this before it drops back to some more Lizzy-esque guitar.
That section, choral yet warlike vocals in effect, brings images of longboats ploughing their way through the waves, each pull of the oar a response to the chanting. A little more chaos ensues, drums beating their way to the inevitable conclusion (conclusion of the tale, not just the song) but it still has a way to go, guitar taking you there, melodic transformations fitting in perfectly.
The beauty of this is that even without the vocals, the music has more than enough gravitas and meaning to take you where you need to go and when you add the powerful vocal message into the mix and the result is an irresistible pull.
'Ad Hausti' (In the Autumn) is born with more classic riffery, drums piling in again, bass perfectly aligned off beat before the vocals add meat to the glorious birth. The contrasting vocals again stand out when they hit, broken up by the guitar with those catchy riffs, as they again are filled with more than a small amount of intrigue and purpose. All of the parts come together in glorious unison as the track bludgeons its way to conclusion, the added guitar impetus and quickening rhythm matching the vocals.
As much as there are so many vocal layers in many of their songs, there is never the perception of it being an overcrowded affair and that is no mean feat.
'Med Jotnum' (With Trolls) comes at you with all the force of a jet powered longboat (now there's a thought, any engineers feel free to get in touch about that one) and just to hammer down their rather impressive musical versatility, this one is pure old school rock from its inception, purer vocals, powering beat, melodic to the core and even as the vocals growl, the old school vibe is still there in abundance and vocally both formas works unequivocally and that is down to the songwriting – yeah, yeah I know I'm harping on about it again but it really is the foundation of anything musical and without it, everything around it crumbles and fades into insignificance.
Much like their Viking ancestors these guys know about what it takes to stick around. Back to the song in question and it is a bit of an epic coming in at just under ten minutes in length so it will be no surprise that there is a lot more than one level to it.
The lengthy and well-crafted mid-section (if you need an indicator, think classic keys era Helloween) not only breaks it up but adds to the atmospheric storytelling and that section in itself is multi-layered before leading into the climactic conclusion – you get the general drift. Ten minutes and at no time during it do you ever let you mind wander – in fact, it is that good you wish it went on for longer.
We are back to the heavier end vocally with 'Ad Vetri' (Wintertime), although as always the melody hasn't been sacrificed. In fact heavy though it is, the Celtic pattern vibe is back again amidst the growls, albeit more subtle this time, and the mix of the two is a definite treat for the ears – marauding and glorious, both in theme and music.
So to the closer, 'Med Gridungum' (With Bulls) and another lengthy one to wrap your ears around, just over nine minutes this time. Atmospheric beginnings, sea rushing, pensive bass just over the top of it before we go into a forest of cymbals leading to the beef. On this occasion, the main serving is a great mix of crunching guitar and forceful demanding vocals, speeding up as it regales and encourages, more screaming and powerful guitar over the top.
The vocal patterns on this as much as any before transport you to another place, another time – a time when the longboats ruled the waves. Mid-section chicanery again here, peppered with nifty guitar and vocals, an anthem in the making, (you can almost picture a nation's flag being raised to the sound of it) before the growls come in, but, and it is a very clever but, keeping the same pattern as before. As a closer it is good musically, poetically and as for the sagas that so influence the band, there seems a sense of closing but definitely not finality.
So there you have it and I have to say I am mightily impressed.
There are of course several aspects to these guys. Firstly, and I will get this bit out the way; the fact it concentrates on and is so reliant on their heritage is something that adds a lot more meaning to it from my perspective as a half Norwegian – their heritage is my heritage, or at least it is all very interwoven, and personally I am rather fond of my Viking ancestors, pillaging and all.
Naturally enough, others may not feel the same way but the music will still blow you away. I don't understand a word of Icelandic so lyrically, there is no obstacle to anyone. That is its brilliance, the vocal tone of course adds meaning, but the music on its own is a more than powerful enough weapon to get their message across and as we all know (well I would hope so anyway) music transcends any and all linguistic obstacles.
The songwriting is top drawer (don't panic, I won't go on about it again) and individually their musicianship is also top of the bill, as some Germans once said.
To some who like their music pigeonholed, they may be disappointed as Skálmöld cover about everything from classic rock through to thrash and death Metal, but that again is the brilliance of it. Why regurgitate the same song eight times when you can deliver this?
A note about the production – it is generally good but the one complaint is that on occasion one of the guitars does disappear into the mix, but as far as complaints go, that isn't exactly a killer.
So get it, see them, enjoy. This is Metal at its best and most persuasive.
The Vikings are coming back and you're all fooked, but in a very good way.
Baldur Ragnarsson - Guitar/Vocals
Björgvin Sigurðsson - Vocals/Guitar
Gunnar Ben - Keyboards/Vocals/Oboe
Jón Geir Jóhannsson - Drums/Vocals
Snæbjörn Ragnarsson - Bass/Vocals
Þráinn Árni Baldvinsson - Guitar/Vocals
A big thankyou to Helga Móeiður Arnardóttir for the translation of the song titles.