If you think living without live music for the last year or so and relying on a handful of web-only events has been weird then take a moment to imagine what it’s like reviewing them. For me, and I imagine for many people, a live gig’s not just the time the band’s on stage but the journey to get there, physically and emotionally, as well as sharing that experience with other gig-goers.
Live music, at its very best, can be the equivalent of magic – it takes place in a ritualised space, it heightens awareness through sensory overload and it can change reality, if only the reality of the attendees. It’s that magical experience which is interesting for me to think and talk about, to not just be a passive observer but an involved participant in an event.
And webcasts, watched through a screen in my familiar living room, don’t quite have the same magic.
Although that’s not to say that they’re pointless. Far from it. In the same way that theatre is unlike film which in itself is unlike TV, live and “unlive” music are their own things and have their own place. Pre-recorded live performances have their limitations but they also have advantages over truly live music, advantages which come to the fore in situations like this virtual release show for Wardruna’s Kvitravn album.
Subtitled First Flight Of The White Raven, this event falls somewhere between promo and gig with the studio-based performance pre-recorded, rather than streamed live, but only available to watch over a single weekend. This is an interesting choice because although it does make the event more accessible, and allows multiple viewings over the available window, it negates both the exclusivity of a live (even streamed) gig and permanence of a promo, especially with tickets running at a not-inconsiderably £25.
Still, the music’s the thing and we’re here not to debate performance logistics but watch Wardruna play Kvitravn, their fifth album after the Runaljod trilogy and Skald, in full.
After a short interview with band-leader Einar ‘Kvitrafn’ Selvik, who readers not familiar with Wardruna may recognise from his skaldic performance in TV series Vikings or from his soundtrack to Assassin’s Creed Valhalla, we’re treated to album-opener Synkverv. Einar and vocalists Lindy Fay Hella, resplendent in a gown of black feathers, and Katrine Stenbekk are surrounded by bandmates who play their instruments with little movement, sometimes staring out like impassive draugr. The staging is stark, the effect is muted but curiously effective, with a theatrical sense of restrained power.
This is quickly followed by the title-track Kvitravn and a lurching, haunting melody from Selvik’s nyckelharpa is quickly joined by intertwining vocals, Hella’s expressive voice occasionally fluting in counterpoint. It’s disarmingly simple and very much classic Wardruna with its reliance on vocal emotion – an emotion that goes beyond lyrics – to carry the song.
The performance then moves into Skugge – a mournful, skirling chant that echoes its translation of ‘Shadow’ – and Grá, or ‘Grey’, which drops down into an even lower register and allows Hella to step forward and let her vocals soar over a barely-there hand drum rhythm. It’s these tracks that show Wardruna’s kinship with Dead Can Dance, a band I keep coming back to as a touchpoint for this kind of ensemble music that relies more on a drive, than it does the more common verse/chorus approach that even much extreme music still clings to.
A quick break from Kvitravn to a solo performance of Voluspá (‘Prophecy of the Seeress’, a track from Skald) only enhances this comparison as Selvik’s yearning voice, accompanied only by the plucked strings of a kraviklyre, echoes that of Brendan Perry.
Tracks like Fylgjutal (‘Speech of the Fetch’, a fetch being a doppelgänger that forewarns a coming death) and Viseveiding (‘Song-Hunting’) crank up the pace with drums, vocals and the band’s various instruments – the wail of a flute, the deep swell of longer herding horns – rolling over one another like waves against a Northern shore. The slow drone of Ni (‘Nine’) is a funereal elegy of call and response between Selvik and the rest of the band; a slow march of rattling bones and clinking coins with the flicker of ghosts beyond the firelight.
Eventually we reach the album’s finale, the majestic Andvevarljod (‘Song of the Spirit-weavers’). Weaving all the preceding elements into one whole, Andvevarljod is an epic that rises and falls in saw-tooth crescendo of choral voice and grinding bass. It’s here, perhaps, that the failings start to show in the pre-recorded setting; in a venue of any repute this would be booming over a PA, the stage lights whirling over a captivated audience. But it isn’t. It’s in my living room, with the dog snoring faintly in her basket.
One thing that both live and pre-recorded music have in common is that strange sense of vertigo when the lights come up, the credits start to roll. The magic can’t be held forever and, very probably, it shouldn’t be. It’s weird, though, that there’s no applause, no laughter, no scattered criticism or plaudits. No doors opening into the faintly disappointing real world.
I very much enjoyed watching First Flight Of The White Raven – Wardruna are a captivating band to watch – and Kvitravn itself is an excellent album, albeit one that plays to Wardruna’s strengths. I also think pre-recorded events certainly have a place in the future evolution of music performance and hope to see bands embrace the greater theatrics and experimentation that the safety net of a studio and editing software allows.
What I’m not sure about is whether shows like this should be treated, and more importantly priced, as equivalent to a live gig.
Scribed by: Daniel Pietersen