Hugsjá by Ivar Bjørnson and Einar Selvik

Release date: April 20, 2018
Label: By Norse

Hugsjá is the newest collaboration between Ivar Bjørnson of progressive metallers Enslaved and Einar Selvik of folk metal band Wardruna. They first made Skuggsjá, which was commissioned for the 200th anniversary of the Norwegian Constitution and premiered in 2014. It was a celebration of Norwegian history and heritage, used traditional instruments in addition to metal guitars, and sounded like a melting pot of all you would expect in such a mix – Norse poetry, a folky celebration of Viking history and heavy riffs. Hugsjá is a big step beyond that. The two sound more comfortable in their new skin. They’ve strayed further from their respective bands’ distinctive sounds and created something unique.

Hugsjá was commissioned for the Bergen International Festival in 2017, as part a series of concerts named Nordvegen (“the northern road”). It sounds like the spirit of the north distilled into an hour. It has a very traditional flavour – an impression enhanced by the Viking imagery in the packaging, such as the longship on the cover – but also feels very welded to the present. The percussion in particular has a compelling earnestness that stops the whole thing sounding like a twee reproduction of sounds gone by. Instead it takes Norwegian musical history and heritage and makes it into something new. It is relevant to the present and has emotional depth, as great art should.

Title track ‘Hugsjá’ starts the album very strongly and is both catchy and emotionally uplifting. A strummed acoustic guitar melody carries the whole thing, with Ivar and Einar’s voices soaring over the top, underpinned by huge, measured drumbeats, like the drummer on a longship marking time for the rowers. The combination of modern and traditional is never better than on second track ‘WulthuR’, which starts with a mournful pipe call and then has a beat that sounds electronic (I may be wrong). Either way, it’s a thoroughly excellent melding of folk and forward-thinking progressive music.

Two songs, ‘Ni Mødre av Sol’ and closer ‘Um Heilage Fjell’, feature a choir along with the folk instrumentation, which again fits very well with the overall ambience of the album. Sometimes sombre, as on ‘Ni Mødre av Sol’, and sometimes fuller and more uplifting, as on ‘Fornjot’, Hugsjá hangs together as a cohesive piece of musical art that celebrates a particular history and heritage. Use of electronic sounds, as on ‘Nattseglar’, with its haunting vocal cry, is done with subtlety and never overshadows the theme or feel of the music. Sometimes it’s a million miles away from the protagonists’ other bands and projects – none more so than the entirely acoustic ‘Nordvegen’. That’s hardly a criticism. If you want to hear Enslaved, listen to Enslaved. Ditto Wardruna. The artistic scope of these two musicians is far greater than perceived genre boundaries. As a project Hugsjá meets its remit perfectly and in addition is a very listenable album that reveals more depth on every spin.

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