Norwegian folklore has an image problem. The reason why was on display during the sacking of the US Capitol, in the tattoos emblazoned on the torso of the far-right activist in face paint and horned headgear whose pictures led the news coverage. These tattoos were of Norse symbols such as Thor’s hammer.
White nationalism is fuelled by a weaponised version of Norse mythology. It is the invented Aryan heritage that underpins racist fantasies of betrayal and revenge. With that in mind, the runic symbols on the cover of Wardruna’s new album Kvitravn, which means “white raven”, might seem to acquire a sinister connotation. But it is not intended by the Norwegian band — quite the opposite, in fact.
Formed in 2003, Wardruna want to reclaim Old Norse culture from white-power appropriation. In the words of their leader Einar Selvik, elements of Nordic tradition have been “tarnished by some rightwing racist idiots who have no business using them”. Wardruna’s music, performed on traditional instruments and with lyrics based on folklore and Skaldic poetry, is intended as a form of cultural archaeology, an act of salvage.
Paganism is a vital part of the scheme. The idea behind Wardruna and like-minded folk-rock acts — there are quite a few across northern Europe and Scandinavia — is to reactivate a pre-Christian culture that was dismantled at the start of the middle ages. Runes, myth, heathenism, oral storytelling: all these, in the view of today’s neo-pagans, were suppressed by the scribal character and bureaucratic structures of the Roman church. This hostility to Christianity was the impulse behind a series of arson attacks on churches by members of Norway’s notorious black metal movement in the 1990s.
Wardruna have roots in black metal: Selvik was a member of the scene before tiring of its limited sonic palette. His turn to a more traditional style of music marked a reboot for the antique Nordic imagery frequently deployed by black metal bands. Wardruna’s commission by the Norwegian government to compose a piece of music marking the nation’s 200th anniversary in 2014 was a measure of their success in rescuing such symbology from the far-right.
Kvitravn is their fifth album. The songs are stirring, solemn affairs, driven forward by hammered drums and chanted choral vocals. The instruments — goat horn, lyre, flute — point towards folk music, but the density and grandeur of the arrangements derive from symphonic heavy metal. Recordings of rain falling, fire crackling and wolves howling give the sense of a huge elemental drama with heroic human actors. It owes as much to the bombastic language of Hollywood blockbusters as actual Norse mythology, a cinematic soundtrack to widescreen shots of salt spray whipping into resolute Viking faces as the longboat pitches forward into surging waves.
Actual Viking music is a bit of a mystery. It certainly existed: some of Wardruna’s traditional instruments are bespoke creations for the band based on archaeological discoveries. But the lack of written records means no one really knows what it sounded like. Wardruna do not claim total authenticity. What they call “the wisdom of the past” is being given modern amplification. But the choice to amplify it so forcefully on Kvitravn — a reversion to type after the starker direction of 2018’s Skald — is a deliberate fabrication. It is a form of boosterism, impressively executed but lacking nuance, an idealised past.
‘Kvitravn’ is released by Music for Nations