Norse code: how Wardruna's runic trilogy transformed Norway's musical landscape
Fifteen intensive years in the making, Wardruna's esoteric trilogy has transformed Bergen's music scene, and the lives of many who have fallen under their spell
Built in the mid-13th century when all around was water, the vast and vaulting royal dining hall known as Håkonshallen, along with a nearby defensive tower, is all that remains of the Bergenhus Fortress. It’s survived various fires, occupations by pirates and Nazi armies, not to mention 120 tons of dynamite that exploded on a German-operated ship in the nearby harbour, destroying the roof but leaving the main structure intact. It abides. To walk into Håkonshallen’s restored interior – amongst the echoing acoustics, hung, sigil-bearing tapestries and, at the back, huge arched window, dining table and chairs, holding negative space as if for a dynasty of giants that will surely one day return – is to realise that history has a mass, to sense that time here circulates to a different and more serious pulse.
To be hosted here is an honour usually reserved for choirs, chamber music orchestras and dignitaries, but for two nights Warduna are going to take up residence. It’s a personal achievement for founder Einar Selvik and a culmination of 15 years’ worth of obsession, study and largely self-taught craftsmanship. His creation from scratch of a band whose hermetic approach to their art, impervious to the short-term demands of the modern music industry, and immersion in the esoteric lore of ancient Nordic culture, has taken them beyond mere esteem and into the rarefied realms of a cause.
For the fans who have travelled here to Bergen from across the world, and for the ever-growing legions elsewhere, Wardruna’s albums and live shows are a profound, even-life changing experience. A conjunction of the earthy, the organic and the ethereal, their runic-based rites inhabit a frequency that once heard have always seemed just adjacent to everyday consciousness. The mesmerising, retooled rhythms, haunting, interwoven voices – band nucleus Einar and Lindy-Fay Hella mediums for something otherworldly that sounds as though it’s trying to take form in this one – and flowing in of ancient instruments feel like lost fragments of consciousness returning to their source, to be held once again in perfect, gateway-opening equilibrium.
Wardruna fans seem to have developed a new level of reverence, both in the states of humbled trance you’ll witness at the band’s live shows and a renewed interest in Viking and other older, pagan cultures that taken hold in their wake, not to mention a host of new bands (see sidebar) taking to traditional instruments to weave something new. The Wardruna effect – amplified no doubt by their music scores for the History Channel’s hugely popular Vikings TV series – has taken on a life its own.
“It definitely has,” says Einar, seated next to Lindy-Fay amidst the stillness of the hall. “For me, it’s not about preaching, it’s not about claiming any ownership to truth, it’s about creating room, creating space that people can fall into. Take a concert for instance, I think for people who don’t go to church or to a mosque, they never experience that wholly solemn space where it’s not about your phone or the material stuff, it’s about your thoughts and emotions and the melting of that together with sound into a solemn atmosphere. I think a concert with us is about creating that solemn, sacred space where there is room for everybody. It’s not about what culture you come from, what social background, what age, there is space where you are invited into, and I think people instantly feel that also, because it’s not about rock’n’roll, it’s not a party onstage, it is serious.”
In a world where everyone is glued to five-inch screens, where technology can have the effect of making us more isolated and solipsistic, Wardruna feel like a necessary reminder to not lose touch with the world outside the frame.
“If you boil it down to one thing,” says Einar, “it makes people remember that we are a part of nature. Not us on top of nature. That is the sense it creates. It is very much about nature, different aspects of nature and human nature and human relations, and relating to something that is bigger than everything, but it is everything at the same time.
“People want to rediscover the old ways,” he continues, “not because there’s necessarily a romantic idea about it, but because making everything efficient, making your food into a powder that you can mix with hot water but there’s no nutrition in it, it’s full of stuff that fucks your body up over time, and you can put that metaphor into what we do. Things are supposed to take a longer time. You are supposed to put more effort into things, because no matter what you’re talking about, anything of any value comes at a price. It’s that simple: effort, work, and it tastes much better.”