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Gjallarhorn - Sjofn CD (album) cover




Prog Folk

4.25 | 12 ratings

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4 stars There seems to me to be something about Swedish musicians (or in this case Swedish-speaking Finnish ones) that really demands attention. Maybe it’s because of my great-great-great grandfather Sven Peter’s bloodlines, not sure, but the attraction is very strong and persistent.

But some of the best folk-leaning music from that region also seems to have a tendency toward broad experimentation in instrumentation as well as both fanciful and regionally-traditional themes, all of which add to the appeal. Gjallarhorn are no exception. This album, though featuring only a quartet of musicians still manages to employ no less than two dozen instruments, many of them falling in the ‘world music’ category. There are of course regional traditional instruments such as the Norwegian (hardanger) fiddle, Celtic tenor mandola, viola and violin. But the band turns to both South America and Africa for their percussion, and this is where they manage to turn what might be otherwise unexceptional folk music into something vibrant and hypnotic. From Africa the band employs the sounds of a kalimba (thumb piano), bongos, djembe, kalimba hand piano, udu; from Arab lands the wooden-sounding darabuka; and from Brazil the surdo drum. The distinctive sounds of the Australian didgeridoo and slideridoo continue from the band’s first album, as does the mungiga (Jew’s harp), which I never noticed before but that instrument actually sounds a bit like a didgeridoo at times.

Lead vocalist Jenny Wilkhelms has a surprisingly soft and melodic vocal timbre, which I say only because most of my previous experience with Nordic female singers is that they seem to tend toward a certain level of shrillness, particularly in their native tongues. Gjallarhorn (and Wilkhelms in particular) have been compared to their countrymen (or is that countrywomen) Värttinä, only without the heavy trilling in the singing. Vocally I think that’s an accurate description, but musically Gjallarhorn are far more adventurous than Värttinä’s basically folk-infused pop music. Just a side observation, but worth noting. One other spurious observation: on “Dejelill och Lagerman” Wilkhelms’ chanting sounds strikingly like Kate Bush’s “Leave it Open” or maybe the title track from ‘The Dreaming’.

So back to the percussion, which really makes the music here stand out from other Nordic folk acts. Petter Berndalen is a classically trained percussionist who actually holds a university degree in Swedish folk music (who knew there was such a thing). When listening to these tracks I try to imagine them without the various drums, bells, whistles and shakers. Frankly they would end up being good music anyway since Wilkhelms is an accomplished writer and her vocals complement the strings quite well, but overall my impression is the songs would sound dated and rather pedestrian without Berndalen.

The vocals here are all (I assume) sung in Swedish; at least I know they’re not in English. The themes are fanciful (goddesses, water sprites, haunted mountains and fair kings), as well as with historical and cultural references. In several places Wilkhelms overdubs herself with her own vocal tracks, and this combined with what sounds like 16-track recording with several percussion tracks gives the impression there are a lot more musicians involved than there really are. It would seem that this album gestated for quite a while in the studio. The strings are also quite exceptional throughout, and especially because they manage to avoid that distinctly Nordic trap of sounding morbid and depressing. These folks get plenty of time in the sun and it shows in their music. The strings are at times languid, even sad, but never mournful and usually quite vibrant. A press photo of the band on their web site’s home page shows them standing in a sunny meadow instead of a dank, dark castle like so many other Nordic bands are cast, and the upbeat outlook also shows in their music.

I’m not sure there is a highlight on the album, but one other track worth noting is the instrumental “Berhfäst” which combines the Norwegian and traditional fiddles with a bit of viola into a really gorgeous string composition that seems altogether far shorter than the nearly eight minutes that it runs. I’ve played this several times over and can’t quite put my finger on what makes it special, but the effect of the strings is very hypnotic.

So I don’t know much about these guys beyond what’s on their web site and what I have read here and elsewhere, but I like their music and am already looking into the rest of their discography. This is an excellent, dynamic, upbeat and multi-layered modern folk album from a band with a bright future. Four stars without a doubt and very highly recommended to both folk and world music fans.


ClemofNazareth | 4/5 |


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