Hugsjá – music for the ages

Poetic. Ancient. Masterful. Just three of many words that come to mind when I try to describe ‘Hugsjá’, this newest offering from modern-day Norwegian bards Einar Selvik of Wardruna and Ivar Bjørnson of Enslaved. Released on April the 20th of this year, it marks their second collaboration after their 2014 release, titled ‘Skuggsjá – A Piece For Mind And Mirror’, was commissioned by the Norwegian government to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the Norwegian Constitution.

This latest release is similar to their last only in the sense that they again combine traditional Norwegian instruments of the past with modern instrumentation. In sound it departs significantly from its predecessor and truly shines a dazzling light of its own. Fans of Einar Selvik have been waiting with bated breath for new material since his last release under Wardruna, and I doubt any would be disappointed.

Equally so, fans of Enslaved, who are fond of progressive heavy metal mixed with nordic folk (fair warning to Enslaved fans though: do not expect heavy metal, you won’t find any in this work) will hear complimentary echoes of Ivar’s full-time band within ‘Hugsjá’. For those looking for translations of the song titles, I have provided them alongside each track description.

Many listeners will not be able to understand the old Norwegian dialect used throughout these songs, but a translation of the lyrics is thoughtfully provided with the vinyl sleeve and CD booklet, complete with well-researched information on the origins of the naming of Norway, its peoples, and philosphy behind the choice of name for this awe-inspiring musical treasure.

The album begins with the title track and has a strong, evocative start. Using an array of old Norse instruments and minimal modern percussion (I think maybe there was a ride cymbal or two from a drumkit but little else), ‘Hugsjá’ (Mind-View) makes for a brilliant and welcoming opener.

The next track, ‘WulthuR’ (Radiance) starts with a haunting, lone horn meoldy that gives way to modern drums as the intensity of this piece is built with the assistance of a mixture of modern and ancient instruments. Eventually the song pulls back to leave a finish with the horn playing alone once again.

Throughout the album the music paints a picture to me of vastness from a long, long time ago. This is lended by the use of Norse mythology figures in the songs ‘Ni Døtre av Hav’ (Nine Daughters of the Sea) and ‘Ni Mødre av Sol’ (Nine Mothers of the Sun), which were clearly made to be be paired together as they are. The former song is complete with fitting sounds of flowing water, rhythm and time signature shifts that reflect the shifting behaviour of the sea, and comes to a calm finish in concert with lyrics that translate to the following:

“Over the deep halls of Ægir
Nine maidens play, freely
Swathing softly man and other
Take them to their soaking grave
To their soaking grave”

The latter, a much calmer yet equally masterful piece, paints a picture of tranquil sunlight with long, steady musical notes played by Hardanger-fiddle and supported by warm-sounding electronic synth and ends with words to live by:

“Each and every day
By the edge of the world
You are carried forth
In chilly sea
By the earth’s strength
Son of nine sisters
Son of nine mothers”

‘Fornjot’ begins with Einar alone providing vocals whilst playing the kravik-lyre, as the ensemble slowly moves into play to create the ominous atmosphere of this piece. Here is another song inspired by stories from Scandinavia’s pagan past, of Fornjót the giant, king of Gotland, Kænland and Finnland. A darker tone in this song than the others with a good balance of low, brooding tones with mid to high range instruments that stop abruptly to leave the kravik-lyre alone to end the song

‘Nattseglar’ (Night Sailor) has more modern instruments throughout it, showing once again that a careful balance can be achieved between old and new as the song is carried along by a more contemporary percussive rhythm. It stands out for its more modern feel but is in no way out of place for this.

‘Nytt Land’ (New Land) begins with distorted guitars and a more traditional rock band backing while the older instruments take the lead melodies and convey a feeling of mystery and adventure as the piece moves forward with some slight use of flowing water sounds, as if to encourage the listener to picture norse travelers taking in the scenery of unexplored territory as their ships approach this land that would perhaps become their home. This song feels like discovery, adventure, optimism and new beginnings.

‘Nordvegen’ (The North Way) continues the theme of the last song, adding an otherworldly and bright feel with just an acoustic guitar and ambient synth intro joined by Einar’s vocals and some very light percussion towards the end. It is a short piece, but atmospheric, effective and leaves the listener wanting more.

‘Utsyn’ (Vista) is very close to the modern Norwegian word ‘utsikten’ which translates to ‘scenery’. A somewhat sombre piece that starts with the sound of waves washing onto a shoreline and a pairing between the kravik-lyre and Taglharpa, interlaced with light drums and of course, Einar’s solitary, reverant singing. The song continues quietly until approximately the 4:30 mark where the full force of the ensemble comes in to drive home the theme of vastness once again, but this time in the form of a landscape revered by the people who now call it home. Like many of the others in this collection of songs, the musical barrage pulls away to masterful effect leaving vocals, guitar and kravik-lyre to bring the song to a steady finish.

This next song is a definite stand-out and one of my two favourites of the entire collection. ‘Oska’ (Ashes) starts strong, with a pulsating and hypnotic rhythm prominently backed by the modern rock instruments with the Hardanger-fiddle taking front-centre stage. Primal and energetic, you feel like you’ve been drawn into something otherworldly yet familiar as it brings out something animalistic in you. The music pulls back abruptly, leaving the guitars, kick drum and vocals as they sing, then chant the only lyrics of the entire piece:

“Or verda, or oska
Med ild, med skip”

“Of the world, of the ashes
By fire, by ship”

The full ensemble returns as one to play out the song as they fade away, leaving just the sound of a roaring fire.

The final song, ‘Um Heilage Fjell’ (Holy Mountains) makes me feel as if they saved the best until last with this hauntingly beautiful epic. It begins and ends with the sounds of mountanous wind blowing and fits wonderfully, with Einar’s gentle touch to the opening vocals, brilliantly executed with powerful melancholy. This piece chills me to the bone with the mournful feelings of loss it conveys. The ending lyrics are a perfect match for not only the end of the song, but the entire journey this album takes you on.

“Av vind er du komen
Til vind skal du bli”

“By wind you came
And wind you shall be”

Laden heavily with lament and mourning, I find myself more fond of this piece than any other on this masterpiece by Ivar & Einar.

Every part of this project feels carefully and skillfully prepared, and is an awe-inspiring homage to Norway’s cultural beginnings. A brilliant example of what can be achieved with a love of history and folklore, skilled musicians and songwriters, and an assortment of modern and ancient instruments all brought together in a truly harmonious way. I highly recommend this album to all lovers of music that entices with a story and invites you to seek out more.

Hugsjá can be purchased digitally at By Norse Music’s Bandcamp page

Physical copies can be ordered from most music retailers.

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