Per Ulf-Allmo and Styrbjorn Bergelt,
Svarta jordens sång
(Self-released, 1995)

. Now regular readers of GMR will know that many of us here appreciate Nordic music of the neo-traditional persuasion quite a bit. If you go to our indexes, you'll find a fine selection of CDs that have been reviewed by us including Steindór Andersen, Frifot, Hedningarna, Garmarna, Peter Puma Hedlund, Karelian Folk Music Ensemble, and far more than I can list here. Not all have good -- I personally find the more jazzy of the Nordic neo-traditional persuasion to be boring at best and downright awful at worst. So I'm always relieved when a CD comes in that really kicks ass as this one does.

Per Ulf-Allmo and Styrbjorn Bergelt's Svarta jordens sång is of the robust, let's drink down that ale persuasion of music that one suspects their ancient Viking ancestors would have tapped their feet to while holding a tankard of malt ale (Old English ealu, Old Norse öl) in one hand and fondling a comely friendly lass with the other. Now I don't speak much Swedish -- remember that I was playing fiddle tunes, not singing selections from the Child Ballads! -- so generally speaking a whole album of music like is on Svarta jordens sång without the slightest knowledge of just what is being said. Ok, so the voice in that case becomes merely another instrument. But in this case we have a lovely book -- yes, book -- in both Swedish and English. Good thing too as I learned more about Norse myth reading this book than I did from listening to any number of skalds tell the same stories as whoever wrote the extensive liner notes would have made a finer skald!

Yes, it's FHL (Faster Harder Louder), yes, it's really winterish in feel like most of the great Nordic neo-trad music is, and yes, there's that lovely weird mix of instruments that this genre of performers has adopted as their own over the past generation of playing music. Just take the first track, 'Forsfård (White-water voyage)', which according to the liner notes in the book has the sound of the rapids being simulated by a goat's horn by Anders Stake of Hedningarna fame, a lyre played by Per Ulf-Allmo, and a Turkish frame drum and small bells played rather nicely by Sune Spångberg. The album's name in English is elegantly 'Song of the Black Earth' which I'll explain later. Let me put it this way -- I played this album three times consecutively as it was that good!

As the website for the album notes, 'Musical instruments have been found in the black earth of Birka: a bone whirler, a two-holed bone whistle, an elk-horn bridge for five strings. Yet we know nought of how the music sounded: this Compact Disc is a musical interpretation based on instruments found, runes observed, texts read, pictures interpreted, studies in depth of older traditions and many more aspects of those legendary days. These slivers of sound from our Viking history may help us delve beyond what often prove to be quite prosaic descriptions.' Have you ever attended a play that brought some bit of history to life, say Shakespeare's Henry V or Goldman's The Lion in the Winter? This will do the same thing if you've got the liner notes by your side, a cold ale at hand, and a roaring fire going as it really does bring the Nordic myths to life.

We have stories Loke, the being we call Loki, who comes who a lot better here than in the telling by most skalds, a song about Røk, the oldest Runic text known to exist (and which was once part a parish tithe barn!), several tales from Edda, the great Nordic poem, a look at why Hugin & Munin, the twa corbies, sit on Odin's shoulders (hint -- Odin without them might will be empty of thought and memory), and my favourite which tells the tale of Thor's billy-goats. Very big billy-goats as they carried Thor's chariot threw the sky. Hmmm... Could this be the origin of 'The Three Billy Goats Gruff'? Perhaps so!

What we have here is a re-creation of what the music night have been like in the old Viking town of Birka over a thousand years ago. This album and book combination gives you a very cool acoustic and textual look at what might have been heard there, based on archaeological dig and the artifacts found there in the 'black earth' of Birka, supplemented by the contemporary (to that long ago era) texts. Instruments found in the dig included a bone whirler, a two-holed bone whistle, and an elk-horn bridge for five strings. Really cool!

You can order the album from here. I hope you enjoy it as much as I do!

[Jack Merry]