Reviewed by: Lee Blackstone, Roots World
The longevity of a band depends on their ability to somehow remain together, but the relevance of a band depends on their ability to remain innovative. Gjallarhorn have been exploring the Swedish folk music of Finland, and the Nordic ethos more broadly, since 1994. Thirteen years on, Rimfaxe rethinks and retrenches the Gjallarhorn approach to folk music.
From the very start, Gjallarhorn stood out from the new wave of hard folk-rocking Swedish speaking bands. For one, their initial approach did not involve much by way of electronics or samplings. Instead, they pursued a path strewn with acoustic instruments and primal percussion. Second, Gjallarhorn also prominently featured a didgeridoo player. Not only did the sound of the didgeridoo add a trance element to the music, but it also opened up a growling sonic territory that made the acoustic music seem even more alien, frosty, and removed in time. Anchoring all of the forest tribalism was the glorious, crystalline voice of Jenny Wilhelms.
In fact, the only constant to the band’s lineup has been vocalist and hardangerfiddler Wilhelms. Adrian Jones, who plays fiddle and mandola, has been with Gjallarhorn since 2000; the other two members, Petter Berndalen (percussion) and Goran Mansson (flutes/recorder/sub-contrabass recorder) are relatively recent additions to the lineup. But let’s raise a glass to the new blood, and in particular, let’s consider the introduction of the sub-contrabass recorder to the band’s sound.
The didgeridoo is gone and, quite frankly, not missed. Over the 1990s, it seemed as if the use of didgeridoo in folk bands was a bit too trendy: exotic and exciting, for sure, but the necessity of the instrument in medieval European balladry could certainly be questioned. There is no question that Gjallarhorn were drawn to the didgeridoo to highlight the drone of the Swedish/Finnish folk tunes (other bands, such as Garmarna, rely on the hurdy-gurdy and electronics to produce that drone). The substitute now being Mansson’s sub-contrabass recorder, Gjallarhorn’s music sounds much more rooted in place; the low-end is wondrously deep, but the fit is much more natural. As an avid listener of music, I was always aware of the didgeridoo’s presence, but on the music of Rimfaxe, I can simply luxuriate in the dark undercurrent of the recorders. The tune “iVall (@Ley)” illustrates this nicely, a cow calling improvisation with beautiful vocalizations by Wilhelms before the band gets downright funky, skipping around the bass recorders. Gjallarhorn sounds unique, energized, and most of all, as if they are enjoying themselves.
Rimfaxe also sounds a lot different from other Gjallarhorn projects, and not solely because of the difference in the foundational drone. The album was recorded and produced by Martin Kantola, but there is another important credit: ‘Mixing and Sound Design by Bruce Swedien.’ Another distinguishing aspect of Gjallarhorn’s sonics was that they would often sound as if they were rocking on the sparest of bones: a lot of space would be left open, for the acoustic instruments to glisten; at other times, they threatened to become too muddy for the band’s good. The latest album skims away the murk. There is something different in the air, a sonic architecture and layering of sound that I can only attribute to Swedien. Admittedly, I am unclear as to what, exactly, ‘sound design’ entails, but I do know that Rimfaxe ends up sounding much different than the average folk recording.
As for experimentation, Gjallarhorn do not disappoint. The title track, “Rimfaxe,” is about the horse of the Norse goddess of night and dawn (in fact, Wilhelms appears on the album cover grasping onto a horse’s neck in the deep forest). The song begins with echoed vocals, and slowly the new elements creep out: spacey percussion, occasional electronic sparkles, and swelling strings courtesy of the St. Petersburg Chamber Philharmonic, before ending with the low thrum of the bass recorder. The second track, “Kokkovirsi [Bonfire Song],” reminded me a bit of Varttina in its urgency, with Wilhelms’ voice sounding incantatory (sonically treated with multi-tracking and echo, again), slinking and floating amongst whirling flute and the bass bottom of the recorder. “Blacken [Grey],” another song about a horse, literally gallops along on the percussion that mimics a horse’s hooves, and there is plenty of space in which the band crashes about. And “Silverbright,” a tale wherein a prince has to rescue his kidnapped sister Silverbright from a mermaid’s domain, is suitably immersive: the strings sweep in explosively, the fiddle plays upon the surface of the waters, and the dark recorder motions upwards.
Rimfaxe is, simply, a tremendous record and serves to extend Gjallarhorn’s legacy as a vital group. Gjallarhorn have found their magical horse, and they are out to ride her inspiration.