REVIEW: SKÁLMÖLD – “Vögguvísur Yggdrasils”
Iceland’s Skálmöld are known for their use of Scandinavian folklore in their song writing, but what better subject for a viking metal concept album than the Nine Worlds of Norse mythology? With each track named after the respective worlds, it’s not difficult to follow Skálmöld on their journey through the great tree of life, Yggdrasil. Being their fourth full-length album, ‘Vögguvísur Yggdrasils’ (roughly translated to “Lullabies of Yggdrasil”) showcases the band’s musical progression. While stylistically similar to 2014’s ‘Með Vættum’, Skálmöld seem to have taken a more melodic route, adding another dimension to their heavy, robust sound. The calming yet empowering harmonies combined with Björgvin Sidgurðsson’s beastly chant create a wonderful dynamic, giving a sense of patience and foreboding as the listener adventures throughout the realms of the ancient gods.
Due the unfortunate circumstance of my being unable to understand Icelandic, the most I can do is to break down the Nine Worlds and the relation to their corresponding tracks, beginning with “Muspell”, which presumably describes Muspelheim, the world of fire. Opening with an almost black metal keyboard melody, it gives way to a thunderous rhythmic pulse of vocals and snare shots. A few dangerous sounding bars of 5/4 followed by a rather pleasing guitar solo winds itself into a climactic chanting chorus, inspiring images of an army marching through a volcano.
“Niflheimur”, the land of ice and fog, is one of the catchier aspects of ‘Vögguvísur Yggdrasils’, with a steady, heavy, rap-like growl, supported by those fantastic haunting backing vocals. The chugging guitars and drums keep the pace consistent, and for such a basic metal track, it has become one of my favourites of the album. The following track, “Niðavellir” (more commonly known as Svartalfheim, the land of the dwarves) provides a nice contrast, taking on a more folky timbre – and Gunnar Ben’s use of oboe certainly helps with that. The drums are also far more accented than in the previous two songs, which provides another level of personality. Recently, the lyrics were revealed for “Niðavellir” (the single for the album), along with this description via Skálmöld’s Facebook page: “NIÐAVELLIR is the home of the Dwarfs and the song tells the story of their clan lying down to rest in their cave. The floor is clean, plenty of space for everyone and Náinn sings for the rest of them. Niðavellir is a good place to spend your days, play, work and rest. The Dwarfs are happy.”
Next comes the home of the humans, “Midgardur”, followed by “Utgardur”, which is the world of the giants, often called Jotunheim. I liked the balance of these two tracks, going from simple and straightforward, complete with shredding guitar solo, to the triumphant and grandeur march of the giants, the chorus of which might not leave my head for several weeks. As if you were climbing a mountain and had finally conquered the summit, “Alfheimur” comes in with a jubilant guitar arrangement. Slower paced, with epically structured heaviness, the land of the elves is full of majesty without the cheese that ordinarily comes with magic in something like power metal. Being the home of the Aesir gods, “Asgardur” continues the flow of heroism and fearlessness, the musicianship growing ever stronger.
In case those songs are a bit too optimistic for you, “Helheimer” has a thrashier feel to it, reminiscent of a drunken, medieval version of Death – and I would expect nothing less in the realm of the dishonorable dead. Finally, onto the final and possibly best track, “Vanaheimur”, which is inhabited by the Vanir gods, associated with wisdom and magic. This is such a great closing to ‘Vögguvísur Yggdrasils’, proving a dangerous and definitive finality to the story. The way that everything comes together, the bond that all of the instruments create, makes this album stand out from other Norse-themed endeavours. Particularly during the keyboard break that builds with the guitars to form an inspiring, soaring feeling, and just after that, when the choir of vikings that I’ve come to love so much becomes the focal point.
Thicker in many ways than previous Skálmöld albums, ‘Vögguvísur Yggdrasils’ is a great tour guide through the worlds of Norse legend. It has an even sound that, thankfully, isn’t over-produced, and contains everything fans will expect and more. Memorable vocal melodies, catchy guitar riffage, and if that somehow doesn’t appeal to you, at least you might get an educational history lesson out of it.