Music by Tusen År Under Jord, Wagner Ödegård, Ulver and Land
“The spirit of Folk and the power it holds”
I’ve always perceived Folk as one of the more curiously innovative and often overlooked kinds of music out there, especially in modern times. On one hand, it is essentially catch-all umbrella term used to describe all sort of musical art forms stemming from the specific cultural background related to a country or region, something which makes it inherently diverse and heterogeneous. On the other hand, it is among the very few kinds of music that requires the composer to become completely absorbed in its original spirit in order to make justice to it and it seems I’m not the only one to think of it as one of the genre’s key strengths. Such aspect was the subject of the life-long study that legendary Hungarian composer and Folk Music fanatic Béla Bartók conducted on folk music, trying to understand it in order to figure out what makes it stand out. He argued that, in order to create something meaningful, musicians need to “acquire the spirit of folk music, if they wish to compose under its influence” and that the mere use of certain melodic or rhythmic formulas of folk music wouldn’t make much sense if that meant they came without a deep understanding of it. He talked about the subject by using the following words in an article dating back to 1920 in which he discussed the works of Stravinsky and Kodály:
“a deep comprehension of the spirit of the respective folk music, difficult to put into words, manifests itself in these works [by Kodály and by Stravinsky respectively]. This influence is therefore not limited to single works; the results of the respective composer’s entire creation are impregnated with this spirit”
Therefore, it could be said that, according to Bartók, the power of folk music resides in the spirit that the artist channels through their work and this perspective on the genre stuck with me for, essentially, as long as I can remember knowing about it. I would go as far as saying that it still affects me in the way I judge a piece of music that gets tagged as “folk”. In one way or the other, I always end up thinking to myself: “this sounds like folk, but does it feel like it?”. Therefore, I decided to come up with a concise, decidedly reductive, but nevertheless explicative list of records that I think are prime example of the spirit of folk music at work, starting with:
Tusen År Under Jord is Swedish for “a thousand years under the Earth”. They describe their work as “pale moon music” and their only album titled Sorgsendömets Fobos (the Grievendom of Phobos) is quite possibly the single best example of how unpredictable folk can be as a music genre. Originally released in 2013, the sound of this album is all over the place in that it transcends the boundaries of the traditional music genres.
On one hand, the approach is distinctly experimental, mixing synth tracks with heavy sampling work, but the atmosphere and the feeling that the listener is engulfed in for the whole listenig experience are as close to folk as one can possibly get. The result is a body of work divided into six parts ranging from a three to ten minutes during which a mix of orchestral samples and synthesizers will make anyone drift away under a coat of vinyl crackles and dust. On the other hand, Sorgsendömets Fobos makes for a musical experience that’s more spiritual than analytical, especially due to the sound of the actual recording being very “blurry” as a result of the samples being sourced from vinyl records and the recording itself being drenched in reverb. You can rarely tell which instrument is being played and that’s perfectly fine. The sole entity behind Tusen År Under Jord describes the purpose behind his body of work with the following words:
“The creative mélange behind Tusen År Under Jord is derived from thirty years of passionately listening to music as well as sifting through and ransacking thousands of hours of discarded and forgotten phonograms. To single something out is nearly impossible and would most likely miss the target more or less entirely.”
Words are not enough to describe the magick and the musical vision brought forth by Tusen År Under Jord. Even though they have not come out with anything else besides an EP released in 2017, it is more than enough to cement the project as one of the prime examples of the spirit of folk music being channeled through the works of an artist. A distant murmuring at the brink of dawn. Strange celestial callings. A humming of hollow orchestrals. Pale moon music. An aurora in statis.
Sorgsendömets Fobos was made widely available on CD by Trollmusic, so those who might be interested in getting a copy, either physical or digital, can check out their Bandcamp page at the link below.
If you liked the previous album, then you’ll probably find the same appreciation for this one too. Wagner Ödegård is the pseudonym of Swedish artist and musician Magnus Eriksson, who is also the main creative force behind two of Sweden’s current best Black Metal bands, Wulkanaz and Tomhet, as well as another handful of more experimental projects, my personal favourite ones being Semilanceata and this one right here, Wagner Ödegård (yeah, I’m copy-pasting that every time too).
Ur Törnedjupen was released in 2016 by Hibiskofon, the same label that was responsible for the original tape pressing of Tusen År Under Jord’s debut album years earlier, and you can tell that whoever was behind such a small label had a clear idea of what he was looking for in the music he release, or at least that’s what I think since the two albums are not too far off from each other in terms of sound and atmosphere. The way Ödegård approaches composition and recording is a perfect showcase of the artist’s very own style, spacing between dark ambient, experimental music and folk with a distinctly dark, ritualistic atmosphere that molds everything together and the atmosphere that’s generated as a result is minimalistic in effect, yet very grandiose and melancholic at the same time.
This feeling is further enhanced by the way Wagner approaches vocal sampling with the goal of creating a story of his own the fits the music, as the listener may notice that the entire recording is characterized by the scattered use of mysterious vocal chops, most likely sample from a vast array of old Swedish poetry LPs. Here’s a rough translation of the whole narration that the artist shared online. I recommend trying to read through it as you listen to the music:
“Soon the night will fall, over our poor Earth. The end of days are here. Here! Through space and eternity shall the universe open. Now it's night over the Earth When the sun's falling silent over lonely straws. As shadows, the stars are listening. Trembling star gleams. We sank down in green fragrant depths without end. Hidden in the dim forest. Yet lies the dew in the gravel. Forest of obscurity. Here, I want to die in honour. Dried wood of rustling branches. Hunt the wind. The trees of the trees grows the world tree itself. Will chaos bloom? Infinite essence, which will be eternal in the darkness. In the whole wide, wide universe. For eternity. Towards whiteness of space. Thousand of thousand years - and nothing more. Release me, cruel cloud of demons. Crooked in darkness they walk. We are rotting on the other side. Death! The fountain of strength is engulfed.”
Not exactly the most clear-cut or self-conscious narration, but is that really necessary in the case of such music?
Unlike Sorgsendömets Fobos, Ur Törnedjupen saw a handful of reissues over the years, as did Mr. Odegard’s entire discography to date. One label in particular, Swede’s Solstice Rex, took it up themselves to make the artist’s early works available as a CD collection for those who may be interested. You can get your copies by sending them an email. Otherwise, you can still buy the digital version of the album on the artist’s Bandcamp page at the link below:
Ulver are a Norwegian band whose most notorious characteristic is that of switching styles more often than some people change their underwear. They started as a Black Metal band in the 1990s, a decade during which they released their most known works to date, and after the turn of the new millennium they went on to experiment with all sorts of sounds and styles, from Trip Hop to Ambient, from Synth Pop à la Depeche Mode to Movie Sountracks. You never know what these guys are going to come up with next.
Kveldssanger is their second album and it is also the album that essentially exposed me to Folk music for the first time. Released in 1996 by Oslo-based record label Head Not Found, originally run by Slayer Magazine founder and author Jon ‘Metalion’ Kristiansen, it may also been seen as their very first attempt at branching out of Metal and incorporating different sounds into their own musical vision, something they had already hinted at on their debut album, Bergtatt, released in 1994. As a matter of fact, the title of that album translates to “Spellbound” and is often used in Norwegian folklore to refer to “people who wander off into the wilderness of the Norwegian forests, possibly by being lured in by trolls or other mythical creatures.” The lyrical content of the album also has to be accounted for, as it refers to a woman who does just that: she gets lured into the forest and gets killed by such creatures, therefore becoming one with the mountain. However, despite the fact that foundational idea of their debut is distinctly folk, the sound of the atmosphere is still largely Black Metal as it makes frequent use of scream vocals, blast beats, and tremolo guitars.
Kveldssanger is the continuation of such ideas and the band’s first attempt at translating their ideas into sound. In the words of vocalist Kristoffer Rygg, the album could be seen as the band’s first and possibly only attempt at making a classical album in which they decided to retain their lyrical content and modify their sound, which ends up being completely stripped of the elements that characterized it before. You won’t find any electric guitars or thunderous drumming on this recording. Instead, the band makes extensive use of acoustic guitars and instruments such as cellos and choral chants. The result is a piece of musical genius that may be Black Metal in its attitude, but decidedly Folk in its spirit.
Out of all the albums that I have decided to discuss in this issue of Outer Signals, this one is possibly the most obscure one out of them all. It cannot be found on Bandcamp as both the band and the label seem to have called it a day with music long ago. I only know about it because I happen to have had the chance to buy a copy of it on CD while mindlessly looking through crates of second-hand records being sold at a local flea market. To this day, I don’t regret taking time off my day to do that.
As a project, Land is just as obscure as the music released under its name. They’re a French Industrial Ambient project which released a handful of demo tapes and 10” EPs between the 1990s and the 2000s before vanishing into thin air without leaving a single trace and Opuscule is their only album. Released in 2002 by Marseille-based record label Divine Comedy Records, it is one of the single most sombre pieces of music that I know of and while the sound isn’t too distant from the one best exemplified by Ur Tornedjupen and Sorgsendömets Fobos, it still feels so decadent and droning that the whole listening experience doesn’t necessarily feel daunting, but decidedly meditative. This isn’t the kind of album you would listen to on a normal day.
The compositions are captivating and each track has a distinct atmosphere which makes for a perfect out-of-body experience. The listener is transported into another realm, forgotten and decrepit, where time seems to have stopped and the lives of the living are chained to a vortex of death and fear. The sampling work blends itself perfectly with the way synths are used and despite the fact that each track on the album has a standalone atmosphere, it doesn’t feel like a compilation of material that was haphazardly put together just for the sake of having it pressed and released to the public. This is a coherent work. Highly recommended.
Unfortunately, I can’t link you a Bandcamp page for this album. As I said previously, it is so old that the people behind Land may not even be aware of the fact that their work has spread so far that it reached some random guy’s Substack newsletter. You can still stream it on YouTube if you want though. Land also have a website which seems to have been updated at least up until 2021. Send them an e-mail if you want to. I’ll probably do so myself when I have the time. I’m not expecting a reply though, at least not a timely one.
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