Ivar Bjørnson & Einar Selvik at Islington Assembly HallSupport: No Support
January 29, 2019 at Islington Assembly Hall
“Singing is a medicine,” says Einar Selvik, before launching into the finale of tonight’s triumphant show, and you can’t hear this man sing without understanding exactly what he means. Songs like set-closer ‘Helvegen’ are infused with a poignant sense of longing and loss, yet also of hope and healing. “So go back to your homes tonight and sing.” Despite those in the crowd tonight who seem convinced they can sing as well as Einar, and have no problem doing so at considerable volume – bless them – his comment was not directed at them, a credit to Mr Selvik’s temperament. (I’ll continue that rant in a bit.) But such distractions cannot spoil the magic of tonight’s show. With no support, and an hour-and-a-half slot, we are treated to a long and varied set, featuring spoken interludes exploring the history and inspiration behind the songs – one which I feel deserves a similarly in-depth discussion.
It’s been a while since I first saw Einar perform with Wardruna at London’s South Bank Centre in 2013 – a pretty serious UK debut, yet it still feels like he’s come a long way since. Gaining attention as soundtrack to cult TV show Vikings, Wardruna – Einar’s Nordic ensemble – is now a touring band which always brings the roof down to wild, feverish applause. The other name on the bill tonight – Mr Ivar Bjørnson – scarcely needs introducing as composer/guitarist of Enslaved, Norway’s friendliest Viking black-metal band. The pair first collaborated in 2014 for Skuggsja, a piece bringing together members of Enslaved and Wardruna, originally commissioned for a concert marking the 200th anniversary of the Norwegian Constitution. Skuggsja became a touring band before releasing the album Skuggsja – a Piece for Mind and Mirror in 2016, melding Viking metal with Scandinavian neofolk into a work that made up for an occasional lack of integration in styles with the same remarkable and unique power that characterises all of Einar’s work. Similarly, their second collaboration Huggsja was first commissioned for the Bergen International Festival in 2017, with the artists drawing inspiration from stories told by people that they met along the Nordvegen (‘the northern road’), the shipping lane that gives Norway its name. Utilising a slightly different band, and adding an occasional contemporary, electronic feel to the mix, the self-titled album that followed in 2018 showed that they didn’t need to rely on the full metallic might of Enslaved to strike a unique atmosphere and evoke their country’s ancient past. By Norse, Einar’s “platform for Norwegian art, music, literature, film and culture,” serves as a hub for various related projects of his own and for his friends.
Alongside Einar and Ivar tonight, we have Silje Solberg on Hardanger-fiddle, Iver Sandøy on drums and percussion, and Håkon Vinje on keys – all singing backing-vocals too. Tonight may use the imagery from Huggsja but it’s billed as simply Einar and Ivar, meaning that the ensemble play from all of the aforementioned projects. Despite being quite stripped-down, ‘Hugsjá’ sounds rich and deep and, if I’m honest, making more immediate impact than ion the record. This has a lot to do with Håkon’s double-keyboard providing the bass frequencies, a set-up familiar from – you’ve guessed it – recent Enslaved gigs. ‘Ni Døtre av Hav’, the third track from the Hugsjá album, showcases the eerie-beauty of Silje’s Hardanger-fiddle, a lavishly-decorated, violin-like instrument with eight or nine strings.
Given that his work is about (re)connecting with the history and traditions of Norway and the Nordic regions, Einar is always keen to explain the meanings and motivations behind his music. If ‘Skuggsjá’ is about “trying to reflect on ourselves as humans, as people, as a species, through the eyes of history,” then the Hugsjá title track that follows is “dedicated to the various traditions and cultures along the coast of Norway that slowly merged to create something new.” It’s not often you hear a musician suggesting the benefits of cultural hybridity and multiculturalism on stage –especially one with such strong black-metal connections – and I hopefully don’t have to explain why that’s so welcome at the moment. “As old stories tell us,” Einar continues, “Christian stories say we come from the south. But one story we were told says we come from the north. The Finno-Ugric tradition. It’s a kind of forgotten story.”
Initially I thought that their rendition of ‘Kvervandi’ tonight was the highlight. “There are a lot of cycles in my music,” Einar explains, “you see this in the old myths” – receives goatskin floor tom – “in cycles of death and rebirth, love and war” – Puts down four-string Tagelharp – “This is a circular song from Sjuggsjá” – Picks up drumsticks, smiling sheepishly – “Time to bring out the old drumsticks.” Einar comes across as a very likeable guy, and you can’t help but warm to his slightly shy sense of humour and nervous stage-demeanour – especially when you recall that that’s him playing drums on the infamous Gorgoroth ‘Black Mass’ show in Poland, featuring live, nude crucifixion and impaled goat’s heads. Bless. ‘Kvervandi’ – now with added rhythm from Einar and extra distortion, courtesy of Mr Bjørnson – sounds every bit as epic as Wardruna. But there’s so much more to come.
The story behind ‘Fehu’, one of Wardruna’s songs based on the Elder Futhark, is about “measuring physical, earthly wealth.” While “being rich can be lovely, it causes strife between kin and nations.” Einar was inspired by an old “beautiful story” about a dragon that sleeps on a pile of money. “The more the money grows the bigger the dragon gets.” After seeing him perform this track maybe six or seven times now, I’ve never heard Einar sing ‘Fehu’ with anything less than the fibre of his being, and tonight is no exception, even though he still has to compete with certain members of the crowd who decide to wail it back at him with every off-key fibre of their drunkenness.
(Now look. Einar may have talent by the bucket-load, but he’s not a natural for the spotlight, and it’s awkward watching him try to articulate himself with so much shouting from the crowd, no matter how well-intentioned it may be. He’s never going to tell them to shut up, although he clearly wants to, so has to rely on people like the suitably-mugged-off guy to my left to do so for him. I’m not just getting old and crotchety – this happened at Wardruna last time too. And I swear the same mugged-off guy stepped in then too.)
I love watching Iver, the main rhythm man tonight, who – while his additions to the tracks might be subtle – thumps every skin and sings every part with a genuine smile or a pleasantly absorbed expression. His fine voice adds choral depth to ‘Nordvegen’, and the conch-like instrument he blows colours the tracks with deep droning, didgeridoo-esque layers. And if you squint hard, he looks just like the new drummer from Enslaved…
“Of course we had to do an Enslaved song too,” insists Einar, as they launch into ‘Return to Yggdrasil’ – his personal favourite from that band’s long and splendid back-catalogue and my favourite part of the night. What begun as a typically heavy, riff-driven song has been transformed by Einar and Ivar into a slow, brooding acoustic piece with an intricate chord progression that highlights Mr Bjørnson’s considerable skill as a composer. (I’m imagining a nice release for this, say on 7” vinyl…)
‘Um heilage fjell’, a song about death, holy mountains and reincarnation, is the ensemble at their most majestic and soaring, with all members going full tilt together on the choral parts. If you’ve watched the Vikings show then you know that – as soon as you hear Einar really going for it – then shit’s going to go down. Blood will be spilled, towns will be sacked, and vengeance will be sweet. I get the same feeling watching those moments as I do when Einar starts talking about death, because I know what’s coming…
“We’re going to play another song about death,” he says, “would you like to hear it?” (“Death-initely,” dad-jokes Ivar.) Now you know that ‘Helvegen’ – standard show closer – will be forthcoming. And every time I hear Einar begin describing it – “It’s for singing someone over to the other side, about crossing over and letting go” – I always get that same pesky fly in my eye…
So yes, singing heals. Ivar explains that, while their project of writing songs based on the cultures of specific regions may seem “very specific and microscopic”, it’s universal stories that they’re drawn to and that they intend to convey in their music. So clearly the fact that the popularity of their music continues to increase and widen should be considered an indictor of their success. The message from tonight’s show is that songs and stories are an integral part of human culture around the globe, that the shared themes and cycles of our lives are more important than our differences, and that singing from the soul truly is the medicine we need in these turbulent times. A memorable evening then? Deathinitely.