Hedningarna began as a Swedish instrumental folk trio in the late 80's. Anders Stake (now Anders Norudde) played a variety of mostly homemade fiddles, flutes, and bagpipes, Hållbus Totte Mattson played lute and hurdy-gurdy, and Björn Tollin played percussion. The group took the name Hedningarna, Swedish for "The Heathens," because a friend described their sound as having a very pagan feel to it. Their self-titled debut album came out in 1989, but shortly thereafter Hedningarna re-invented itself in two dramatic ways. First, the Swedish male musicians recruited two Finnish female singers, Sanna Kurki-Suonio and Tellu Paulasto (now Tellu Turkka). Then the band wholeheartedly and enthusiastically embraced electronics, creating a style which they describe as "folk rave." The resulting 1992 album Kaksi! broke much new musical ground, but only hinted at the potential of the sonic experiment which they were undertaking. This potential was fulfilled with the release of Trä in 1994. The mostly traditional songs dealt with subjects like witches' incantations, evocations of the Finnish wind god, werewolves and the women who love them, and werefoxes and the men who love them. Musically, Hedningarna plugged their fiddles, lutes, and hurdy-gurdies in and cranked the amps up to eleven, creating a sound that continues to defy categorization. Ten years later, Trä remains one of the essential albums of the 90's in any genre.
Shortly afterwards, the band started undergoing a series of personnel fluctuations which continue to the present. Tellu left, Sanna took a leave of absence for maternity reasons, and the core trio recorded a mostly instrumental album Hippjokk in 1996. On first listen, Hippjokk was a disappointment relative to Trä, but in hindsight this collection of galvanized, groove-oriented electronic folk tunes brilliantly showcases the creativity of the instrumental half of the band. With Sanna back in the fold, and Anita Lehtola from Loituma replacing Tellu, Hedningarna returned in 1999 with Karelia Visa, an album of songs inspired by folk traditions in the Russian part of Karelia which had remained largely hidden during the Soviet era. Despite being more acoustic and organic than its predecessors, Karelia Visa proved to be yet another solid effort.
The band has gone through even more flux recently, but seems to have emerged as buoyant and as vital as ever. First, the young violist Magnus Stinnerbom (also of Harv) joined the fold. Then Sanna left for good, to be replaced by Liisa Matveinen. Björn and Anita eventually took off as well, allowing Tellu to rejoin the band and Christian Svensson to take over on drums and percussion. Instead of releasing a full-length album of new material with the current lineup, though, Hedningarna chose 2003 to release a retrospective CD, with two new songs and sixteen additional recordings spanning their history. 1989-2003 captures many of the band's finest moments, although there were a handful of glaring omissions as well. Then again, one mark of a truly great band is that when the inevitable "best of" CD is compiled, there is ample room for disagreement over which recordings are truly the best. Such is the case with Hedningarna.
One non-trivial choice that always needs to be made when assembling a retrospective CD like 1989-2003 is whether to order the songs chronologically or, as was done here, to base the song order on more aesthetic considerations. I generally prefer the former, because I think compilations should clearly reflect how the sound of a performer or band has evolved over the years. In the particular case of Hedningarna, each of their albums has a distinctive character to it, and a listener unfamiliar with the band would get a good sense of what each album is like if two or three songs from it were strung together. For this reason, I would have also tried to represent each album equally, but that is not done here either. Only one track, "Bjornlåten," is drawn from the first album, and is relegated to the very end of this disc. I'd rate Karelia Visa a bit higher than Kaksi!, but Karelia Visa only has two songs here while Kaksi!, counting the remix of "Kruspolska," is represented six times.
Having said that, 1989-2003 does serve the primary purpose of any compilation album, in that it reveals to the listener what Hedningarna is all about. The disc opens with "Tuuli," from Trä. This song combines pagan imagery in the lyrics with an insistent electronic groove, strident and jarring vocals, and one blood-curdling scream. It also features joiking from Wimme Saari, a frequent guest on Hedningarna recordings. The new "Suet Ulvo" and the remix of "Kruspolska" reflect the band's interest in more mainstream dance music. "Vettoi," the other new song, is a great aggressive rocker that easily holds its own among the other songs in this collection. 1989-2003 succeeds the best, though, with its choice of instumentals. "Dolkaren" (from Hippjokk) remains immediately infectious, while "Návdi/Fasa" (also from Hippjokk) and "Vikktorin" (from Kaksi!) reveal the band at its most fiercely primal. The selection of songs was a bit puzzling at points, however. "Tina Vieri" is an essential inclusion from Trä, but there were five or six better songs off that disc than "Gorrlaus" which could have been used in its place. The most notable of these is the darkly erotic "Räven," the song which I would consider Hedningarna's best.
Despite its flaws, 1989-2003 ultimately gets a high recommendation. The quality, uniqueness, and ferocity with which Hedningarna plays Scandinavian folk music simply cannot be denied, even given a compilation which doesn't always present the band's very best material. If anything, people unfamiliar with Hedningarna who pick up this CD and are entranced by the sound should be strongly encouraged to purchase their other albums, because there is plenty more where that came from. Long-time fans would likely only care about the two new songs, but "Vettoi" in particular is more than good enough to justify the purchase of the whole CD. Hedningarna are one of the essential bands of the last fifteen years, and while 1989-2003 could have better, it does reflect enough of the band's many strengths to warrant a close inspection from any musically adventurous listener.