History comes alive with the international trio's fifth full length.
Words by Ryan McCarthy:
In a genre that’s positively oversaturated with shameless copycats, cynics looking to make a quick buck, and people who are all too willing to jock a cultural, aesthetic, or religious system without truly taking the time to familiarize themselves with it, ÁRSTÍĐIR LÍFSINS is a breath of fresh, Scandinavian air. Every ÁRSTÍĐIR LÍFSINS record to date exudes immersive realism and carefully considered authenticity, and their fifth full length Saga á tveim tungum II: Eigi fjǫll né firðir is no exception. You don’t even really need to be aware of the musicians’ backgrounds to discern that these songs are something truly unique within the realm of black metal. Of course, familiarizing yourself with their background only strengthens their credibility.
According to a recent interview with Bardo Methodology, “German vocalist Marsél has a Magister Artium in Cultural Anthropology, Nordic Philology, and History from the Westfälische-Wilhelms-Universität in Münster, Germany [and] Icelandic drummer Árni has a BA in Composition from the Listaháskóli Íslands in Reykjavík, Iceland[…]” I mean, those credentials are about as legitimate as any band could possibly hope for. These men aren’t cosplaying as medieval Scandinavians and performing vaguely conceptualized stereotypes onstage. Rather, they’re bringing the Viking Age to life in a very real, thoughtful, and academic (literally) way. In a time when more and more bands are writing lyrics in English in an attempt to reach a global market, the lyrics for Saga II are written in Old Icelandic. For context, modern Icelandic only has about 300,000 native speakers globally, so naturally Old Icelandic has significantly fewer.
On a narrative level,
“[…] ‘Saga á tveim tungum’ is a two-sided story constructed around the later period of the Norwegian king and saint, Óláfr Haraldsson (995-1030). It roughly spans the period of his later power attempts in the years 995-1030. The albums [Saga a tveim tungum is a two-record series] depict the lives of two siblings and their individual experiences during the turbulent times in early eleventh-century Norway. Generally, ‘Saga á tveim tungum’ is without a doubt the most ambitious and complex story told by ÁRSTÍĐIR LÍFSINS to date. Much more based on Skaldic, and, partly, on Eddic poetry than any of the previous albums. Numerous hints towards historical battles and other happenings vividly described in select Kings’ sagas and other Old Norse sources are presented, and put in relation to the otherwise fictive main characters of the story.”
Making use of primary and secondary sources (and let’s be real, how many bands use sources at all when writing an album?), ÁRSTÍĐIR LÍFSINS continues to enact their vision of crafting a wonderfully authentic facsimile of life during the Viking age.
Not only do they have the cultural and historical bases covered, but their musical chops are brought fully to bear on Saga II as well. Drummer Árni Zoëga also handles viola, cello, organ, assorted percussion, and choir duties. Multi-instrumentalist Stefan Drechsler covers guitar, bass, piano, and vibraphone. These guys are no slouches - there are chamber orchestras that make use of fewer instruments than ÁRSTÍĐIR LÍFSINS does. The breadth and depth of their musical and compositional skill is especially evident on Saga II, with the album spanning 75 minutes and the final track alone reaching almost 18 minutes in length. In spite of the length and density of these tracks, nothing feels forced, unnecessary, or boring. Not a single one of these songs is long for the sake of being long, but rather because the story they’ve created necessitates it, plain and simple.
ÁRSTÍĐIR LÍFSINS splits this album fairly evenly between their two most prominent musical modes: a unique style of aggressive but melodic black metal and moody Northern European folk. There’s also a strong ambient presence on this record, especially on the second track Bróðir, var þat þín hǫnd, and the penultimate track Um nóttu, mér dreymir þursa þjóðar sjǫt brennandi, both of which feel more cinematic than explicitly musical. You don’t even hear any metal influence until the third track - a solid ten minutes into the album. But once it gets going, it’s clear that ÁRSTÍĐIR LÍFSINS is firmly rooted in the Scandinavian black metal tradition, despite their consistent and (if I may be a bit effusive) masterful incorporation of violin, spoken word parts, and other influences of a more acoustic and less modern nature. ÁRSTÍĐIR LÍFSINS is Viking metal in the sense that early ENSLAVED was Viking metal. That is, they’re a black metal band with Viking themes. ÁRSTÍĐIR LÍFSINS clearly shares very little in common with bands like AMON AMARTH who have taken “Viking metal” into its own niche (and, let’s be honest, often silly) sub-sub-genre.
The vocals are an especially integral element of this record. The black metal shrieks are powerful, high pitched, raspy, pained, vitriolic… in other words, straight out of the playbook. Of course, that isn’t to imply that they aren’t masterfully executed. But the real show-stealer on Saga II is the chanted, spoken, and sung vocal passages. These sections elevate the record to another level entirely and do a lot to conjure that authentic vibe that I keep harping on. It’s easy to close your eyes and imagine a hoary old sailor conveying his wisdom to a younger generation while huddled around a fire in a spruce-ridden valley somewhere. It may sound a bit silly, but it makes perfect sense when you hear it.
The authentic nature of this music really, truly sets it apart when measured against its peers. Every musician involved clearly takes this artistic project completely seriously, and it’s obvious they left very little to chance when creating this record. This is, hands down, the best record I’ve heard in 2020 thus far. ÁRSTÍĐIR LÍFSINS is a band that’s very dear to my heart, and every successive release only deepens that appreciation.
Saga á tveim tungum II: Eigi fjǫll né firðir is out May 22nd on Ván Records. Preorder your copy HERE in the coming days.