Wardruna’s wonderful performance at London’s Union Chapel was a heavy vision of their might and majesty. One unstoppable note became a potent portal, leading to other, northern realms brimming with the threat of fire and the glimmer of ice. Their performance was an almost transcendent experience rooted in Norse spiritualism and the elements of fire, water and earth. This wasn’t Norway (they played two nights here as part of their European tour), but it could’ve been. The music was somehow both ancient and contemporary, sculpted by sharp blades and fearsome weaponry. It was also equally founded in love: for music, for tradition, for culture, for people. It fed on its own history and drank from the cup of the present, standing partly in lost centuries and partly in new, fertile ground, and that came across with every ground-pounding thump of a deer-hide drum.
At first, a pair of gigantic horns flanked the stage, looking like great monuments that should be worshipped and respected, each one presenting a gate to be entered. One note can open everything, and the vocals soon lit up the space like a set of stark torches; together they carried a flame that burnt brightly. Harmonies came into being, with both Einar Selvik’s and Lindy Fay Hella’s all-encompassing vocals soaring to stratospheric levels and then diving deep into the earth. Materialising out of the earth was a dark kind of Nordic folk, but enriched with elements that were beyond classification. The music was full of power and passion, somehow older than everything else and yet incredibly fresh. At one point, faces were lit in the crimson of blood, like the prom scene from Carrie. The stringed instruments plucked out melodies composed of the lightest air, while other melodies flicked tongues of fire that tasted like copper and spewed out jets of molten flame. The lyrics glowed like warm flares against the Nordic night.
The heavy, marching drums were like the racing hooves of ten thousand horses, all honing in on a certain, key point. It was the sound of war, the sound of battle, with music being the weapon. The chilly and piercing sound of a goat horn punctured the air, and the red-blooded, thunderous drums wound themselves up again, ready to pump more energy into the steady pounding of a restless heart. Other genres use these rhythms a lot, too – rhythm is just as crucial in today’s modern-era of house and electronic music as it was a thousand years ago and even earlier – but sometimes other, additional rhythms were woven in, making them ornate, complex and deep. Rain and thunder became an ominous premonition in the sound, the horn slowly drowning under the weight of a rain-drenched harmony that was as black as the night. The lyrics were conductors of heat and protectors against the cold air. Robed shadows lit up the walls, and like a procession of spirits from the past they marched in place, absorbing into the swelling harmonies, the stark intervals and the intensely delivered lyrics. Nothing was held back, because music such as this can never be tamed. The only way to truly experience it is to fully unleash it, to have the hood that covers its skull pulled back, revealing its face.
The music reached an unstoppable, mighty crescendo before a scream that could tear flesh from bone shattered the air, but even among the more intense segments there were always moments of contemplation and relative peace – a period of change and calm – brought forth by a slower tempo or more of a sobering atmosphere. Something was always brewing, though. Strobing lights dazzled the audience and circular orbs of a softer light stretched their arms up to the heavens. Smoky, shrill horns and a steady, slow drum helped to shape a dense and ever-shifting atmosphere. This was the ultimate offering and another testimony to the power of music – songs of life and songs of death, songs of every experience, uniting everyone with their potency. It was an emotional performance that at times bordered on the euphoric.
The final song was one about death, but it was also about our place in this life. It wasn’t a solemn ending but a triumphant one, a reassurance that the spirit of the music will always live on and embrace come what may, even after the soul has departed. Wardruna have a warm love for London and the city responded in kind with a lengthy standing ovation which the music and the performing artistry fully deserved.
- Photos: Nick Sayers