Wardruna’s fifth full-length was due last June, but due to the pandemic, the Norwegian neo-prog-folk band bumped the release date of Kvitravn to this January. Though Wardruna were born out of Norway’s black-metal scene—two of the band’s three founders, Einar Selvik and Gaahl, are veterans of the influential Gorgoroth—they’re also inspired by Norse folk traditions, so their sound isn’t expressly metal. I wouldn’t say it’s not metal at all, though: the emotional scope of the music makes it feel like metal, but because it’s played on traditional Norse instruments, it also has an organic vibe that feels steeped in ancient history. That combination has resonated far beyond the underground metal scene: in 2014 the band worked with composer Trevor Morris on the score for the History Channel’s Vikings series (and Selvik also made on-screen appearances). The success of that project helped propel the band’s third album, 2016’s Runaljod–Ragnarok (the third chapter of a trilogy inspired by the 24 runes of pre-Germanic alphabet the Elder Futhark), to the number one spot on the Billboard world albums chart. Norse imagery, and Norse runes in particular, have been appropriated by fascists and white supremacists, but Norse mythology and culture don’t inherently carry any of those values. Of course, the Nazis borrowed lots of Norse symbolism when they aligned themselves with the delusional occult ideal of a master race, and since then it’s been abused by adherents of other far-right and extremist ideologies. “QAnon Shaman” Jacob Chansley (also known as Jake Angeli), for instance, whose face paint and horned headdress made him a poster boy of the January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, is covered in runic tattoos. This sort of appropriation is a huge problem in the Norse-based pagan community as well as in the metal scene, where the taint of fascism is still so strong that it’s become important for artists to stand up and make their positions clear. Selvik, who also gives lectures about pagan history and spirituality, has emphatically used his music to reclaim Nordic folk from the far right.
Kvitravn is an elaborate production that involves more than a dozen traditional instruments, a Norse vocal choir, and shamanic invocations to sacred animal spirits. (“Kvitravn” means “white raven,” a familiar spirit Selvik has often invoked.) The band play with the energy of metal, and even the album’s gentlest moments, such as “Munin” (“Memory,” and also the name of one of Odin’s ravens), have a stiff-spined, elegiac quality. “Kvit Hjort” (“White Deer”) opens with a reverent, tender sound like a hunter’s horn over soft drums (as close as Wardruna get to jazz), then turns into a soul-stirring chant. Kvitravn culminates in the nearly 11-minute “Andvevarljod” (“Song of the Spirit Weavers”), which unites the record’s themes—forest-based pagan spirituality, animism, and rising above and resisting political dominance, cultural theft, and religious imperialism—into the satisfying climax of what’s essentially been a ritual performance. This intense, unrestrained album has been held back for far too long, but now it can finally give listeners a spectacular, well-earned, primal release. v