Wardruna‘s Yggdrasil continues from where their previous release, Gap Var Ginnunga, ended. Yggdrasil is the second part of the Runaljod trilogy and draws inspiration from old Runic mysteries, focusing on the 24-part Runic system called the Elder Futhark. Fittingly enough, this middle release is named after the great world tree of the Norse cosmology that stands as the Axis Mundi; a center of everything, holding the nine worlds together.
The record kicks off with the chant-like “Rotlaust tre Fell”. The rhythm and atmosphere of the song is energetic and extremely uplifting. Choirs and whispered vocals make way for a majestic, mysterious feeling. The drumming has an almost shamanic quality to it, with mighty and arcane undertones. As an opening track, Wardruna could not have done better — “Rotlaust tre Fell” introduces the listener to many of the creatures that are linked to the mythical world tree and works as a trigger, calling forth these forces forth in a way that seems to manifest them into the present, laying down a foundation for the beginning of this journey. The whole record leans strongly on complex percussive rhythms that often resemble the sound of a galloping horse — a further nod towards the myth of Yggdrasil working as a shamanic pathway to other worlds.
What Wardruna have undertaken with Yggdrasil is rather ambitious. The instruments they choose are primarily historical, such as deer-skin frame drums, harps and different types of horns. Additional ritualized sound effects are produced with torches, water, croaking ravens, running horses, or by producing sound by banging rocks together. This layer of the music has great potential in that it gives life to each track through breathing and airy atmospheres, especially when one takes into account that ritualistic approach that Wardruna seem to have adopted. Yggdrasil also plays host to guest appearances — the Icelandic composer Hilmar Örn Hilmarsson and Rímur singer Steindór Andersen. Wardruna definitely seems to live the way they preach, thriving in balancing on the thin line between ritual and music. The group’s founder and frontman, Einar Kvitrafn Selvik, spent days fasting prior to recording some of the songs in order to access a very specific mindset; wandering outside on a snowy mountain with very little clothing on in order to evoke the longing for NaudiR, that stands for a Rune of need — Fire — definitely an intense dedication towards one’s artistic goals. What often bothers me in releases that are inspired by Heathenism is a sort of pretentious and naive approach. Wardruna leaps over this pitfall with the ease of a deer, and the outcome is a highly enjoyable hour and six minutes.
The record covers eight runes in an order that differs from that of the Elder Futhark. Wardruna proceeds through their chosen secrets with the certainty that comes from understanding the principles of these forces. Some of the results are truly stellar, and Yggdrasil is at times spectacular with pieces such as “Fehu”, “Helvegen”, “Rotlaust tre Fell” and the elven-like “Solringen”, where Lindy-Fay Hella gives her strongest performance of the entire record. Her light voice sounds sweet throughout the song, and I must confess that the first time I heard this track, it was a little like falling in love. The sun’s warmth vibrates through “Solringen” with ease, giving it a very tender, moving quality. Yet all things have two sides to them, and a certain sadness or longing is present in this song as well — the Norns spin the faith of gods, and eventually the wolf will catch up with the sun.
On Yggdrasil, each song is an independent work in itself, but the group manages to avoid the difficulty of weaving these together rather well, ending up with a solid, well-composed outcome. Perhaps on a record like this that does lean so heavily on a primitive streak, I am only missing a little more organic grit in the sound, especially as the band says they sometimes record outdoors, and use such a variety of natural elements in their work that I think can be very tricky to control. Overall, this is a great release despite being perhaps a little too polished at times. One might benefit greatly from witnessing Yggdrasil performed in a live setting. With that said, I’ve to add that this release is certainly a more mature, intense and rich record than the trilogy’s first, and as I’m a sucker for choirs and drumming, I’ve little negative to say about it. The strongest points of Yggdrasil are at the beginning and at the end — some of the songs in the middle seem a little non-progressive (such as “Gibu”) or weak in comparison with the others. However, one has to keep in mind that this is not a record for entertainment purposes, but rather a reach towards old magical traditions of the North and Selvik’s personal attempt to express certain aspects of an ancient secret. Judging from a purely Heathen perspective, I daresay that Yggdrasil is an outstanding and much-longed for work of art.
It seems to me that the record illuminates the cycle of life, at first rising up the world tree, and ending with the solemn, gloomy and rain-filled funeral song “Helvegen” that for the last time lifts the listener on the back of a steed — though this time to a more dreamy, slow gallop that leads to the gates of death. The song ends in a famous quote from Havamál, reminding us of the importance of the deeds we perform in this life. Those whom are familiar with Norse mythology can understand and appreciate this dignified retreat into the underworld, and the forces that, in time, will rise up from Hel — it’s no great surprise that Ragnarök will be the name of the trilogy’s final, upcoming release.
Even if Yggdrasil is, in my opinion, clearly a magical record, I believe it is spirited and whole-hearted enough to touch also those with no interest towards runes or Heathenism. I find it difficult to pinpoint exactly just what kind of a record this is, as a technical description is hardly sufficient to outline the journey that is Yggdrasil. It begins as a mighty leap and in the end fades away into silence, leaving a solemn and pondering mood in its wake. A much-anticipated release, and one that had the hair on the back of my neck standing up when I first heard it.
01) Rotlaust tre Fell