@ Shepherd’s Bush Empire
22 November 2018
Review and Photography by Jo Moolenschot
Wardruna is clearly a project of profound passion for founder Einar Selvik and it shows in every way. The dedication to bringing the old folk Norse music into the present through incredible attention to detail is clear. The traditional instruments they use have been secured through great effort and expense, sometimes handmade by Einar himself such as the animal hide frame drums which he created using traditional methods. Their first three albums were based around the Elder Futhark runic writing system as well as extracts from the poetic Edda and often include sounds from nature that are associated with that rune or story such as wind, birds, sticks knocking on the wood of birch trees and so on. There is layer upon layer of carefully considered detail in every song and they have mastered how to bring this to listeners via both recorded albums and a phenomenal performance.
Warduna’s following has steadily grown here in the UK over the last few years especially as the Runaljod trilogy has been completed (Runaljod means “rune poem”). Having seen them play twice before with the release of Runaljod – Ragnarok I accurately predicted further success over this side of the North sea. I witnessed the standing ovation they received at Union Chapel in 2016 and the ecstatic cheering at the Coronet earlier that same year and I knew that would be just the beginning of a bigger following for them here. This month, Warduna returned to the UK to play a handful of major cities before arriving in London ready to perform to a sold out Shepherds Bush Empire in honour of newly released album Skald. It stands to reason I’m pleasantly unsurprised to see them sell out a bigger London venue.
Wardruna’s entrance couldn’t be more perfect. The first song “Tyr” begins with two band members blasting enormous bronze lur horns, the sound infiltrating the space of the Shepherds Bush Empire with tremendous force. It is a track only too fitting for the associated Norse god of war with beating drums, bellowing horns and ominous chanting. No support artist needed on this occasion it seems. “Tyr” is a powerful ice breaker and the audience loves it. They follow with the more joyful “Wunjo” (the name of the rune for joy) which is well received and then beautifully deliver three tracks in a row from their first album Runaljod – gap var Ginnunga (“Bjarkan”, “Heimta Thurs” and “Thurs”), which would surely satisfy the fans who have been following them since their inception.
In fact, Wardruna’s setlist is a perfectly balanced acknowledgement of all their material including the new acoustic skaldic style album so it would be hard to imagine anyone being anything but completely happy with the selection of tracks performed. It provides a satisfying journey across the different runes, their associated concepts and other Norse stories. Through this we are treated to a variety of different moods, sounds, melodies, rhythms and of course a wide spectrum of traditional instruments. Warduna have done an excellent job of translating the sounds of the traditional instruments such as the lur horns, a goat horn, hide drums, Kraviklyra, Jouhikko (two different kinds of Scandinavian lyre), mouth harp and wooden flutes to the stage for such a venue as the Empire. It can’t have been easy but they’ve done it and I was so happy the venue sound throughout the evening was excellent.
“Raido”, one of my favourite tracks, brings a more haunting and melodic moment to mid-set and I’m pleased to see it gets deserved appreciation from the crowd. It then leads neatly into a song from the new album in the form of “Völuspá” which shares it’s name with the best known poem of the poetic Edda. The skaldic version is simply Einar Selvik alone on stage, singing and playing the harp. Skald refers to the ancient craft of singing and poetry reciting from Norse times, a responsibility of the bards who passed down stories and knowledge through the years. It’s stripped back, raw and incredibly moving. This is a prime moment for listeners to fully experience the exceptional talent and skill of Einar’s vocal abilities in this way.
Speaking of which, I have to say one of my favourite aspects of Wardruna’s music and seeing them perform live is in fact Einar Selvik’s voice. The man not only has exceptional vocal range and control but also the ability to change his voice from melodic, clean vocals all the way through to traditional throat singing; whilst changing texture and tone depending on the song and the story being told through said song. Combine that with the haunting and spine tingling singing from the perfect Lindy Fay and you have yourself a vocal combination which will raise the hairs on the back of your neck in the best possible way.
We get to experience more of these exceptional vocals in the next two songs “Isa” and “UruR” before moving onto the hypnotic “Algir – Stien Klarnan” which is a favourite for me personally because it culminates in both the band and audience finishing with their arms in the air, making human shapes of the Algiz rune itself, as the last few lines of the song are being belted out. It’s a moment of connection between band and audience, a joining in spirit, and it’s electric.
After the beautiful, upbeat “DagR” we reach one of my all time favourite Wardruna songs in the form of “Rotlaust Tre Fell” which can be translated as “The Rootless Tree Falls”. It’s a truly rousing number featuring chanting, charged singing and mesmerising drumming. It’s a call to arms in a sense, a crying out to all beings on earth to join forces to save and nurture suffering Yggdrasil, the tree of life. Poignant and evocative, it’s a favourite with the crowd and rightfully so.
Following more from the album Runaljod – Yggdrasil (“Fehu” and “NaudiR”) we reach the exceptional and energising “Odal”. This song is difficult to top for it’s charged intensity and I would class it as one of the best tracks off the third album Runajold – Ragnarok. We finally reach the climax of the set with what I feel is arguably the most famous Wardruna song. One that even those new to the band will instantly recognise as the melancholy and unspeakably beautiful song “Helvegen”. It’s a song asking who will be there to sing to you when you are entering the death-sleep, who in the land of the living will be by your side singing to you as you make your journey into the afterlife.
There were some irritating moments with crowd chatter during the evening at times and after politely requesting a drunken chap next to me who was shouting jokes to his friend at the start of “Helvegen” to zip it we eventually reached the end of the gig and the whole venue erupted in applause. Einar Selvik finally addresses the crowd as he usually does at the end of a performance, extends sincere gratitude to the audience and offers to do a final encore to which the crowd responds in the affirmative. He, once more, performs a skaldic style song with “Snake Pit Poetry”, a solo project. Finally the audience is completely quiet. Not a breath is heard as he performs solo on stage again. Just him and the tagelharpa and it is an exquisite end to another incredible Wardruna performance.
Wardruna has steadily become one of those artists close to my heart, a band I will undoubtedly make every effort to watch when they visit this country regardless of how many times I have seen them before. Their music has a way of moving a person on a deeply primal level, appealing to those of us looking for a sense of communion around something more ancient than ourselves, to bear witness to the old stories being told new again and to rediscover their relevance in today’s world. The performance and music is intense, the attention to detail is astonishing, the experience is immersive and it amazes me every time without fail. Long may they continue and here’s to the Wardens of the Runes returning to our UK shores again in the near future.
Wardruna’s new album Skald is out now and available from every major retail online store as well as the band’s website. See below for further tour dates around Europe in 2019.
Tickets sales will start on December 4th, 10am CET; tickets for the Polish shows will be on sale on December 10th.
17.11.2019 Helsinki (FI) – House of Culture
19.11.2019 Gdansk (PL) – Shakespeare Theatre
21.11.2019 Warsaw (PL) – Warsaw Palladium
22.11.2019 Prague (CZ) – Great Hall of Lucerna
23.11.2019 Vienna (AT) – Museumsquartier
25.11.2019 Nürnberg (DE) – Löwensaal
26.11.2019 Paris (FR) – Olympia
27.11.2019 Utrecht (NL) – TivoliVredenburg, Grote Zaal
28.11.2019 Wuppertal (DE) – Historische Stadthalle
29.11.2019 Copenhagen (DK) – DR Koncerthuset
01.12.2019 Stockholm (SE) – Annexet