HE’S GRACED us with a very Northern European and delicious take on introspective folk since that trio of lovely albums, The Rye Bears A Poison, Daylight Saving and The Night Is Advancing as Appendix Out, beginning back in ’97; and it should come as no surprise that a man whose music arguably sounds best with the intimacy of a winter’s night, huddled around the fire and keeping the dreich and shadows at bay, should be releasing a new album, his nineteenth in all, with a collective of musicians from Norway, where folk also has that resonance of big, harsh landscapes and lives lived against such a canvas of the elements.
In January 2019, at the invitation of fiddler Hans Kjorstad, Alasdair departed Glasgow to travel to Oslo, where the two convened with another five additional Scandinavian musicians at Riksscenen, Oslo’s centre for Norwegian traditional arts and music. The group was named Völvur (The Seeresses), a reference to the ancient Icelandic apocalyptic text, Völuspá (The Prophecy of the Seeress) and with Alasdair, some fine folk was fused.
The sextet worked on songs, both self-penned and trad arr, that Alisdair had in his songbook, and performed then at that cultural centre and at ALICE, the Copenhagen “venue for adventurous music”, as well offshore on Fanø, facing the coastal town of Esbjerg. The whole experience was deemed a success and further musical investigations beckoned.
So it was last January that Völvur arranged a return visit, this time performing with Alasdair Roberts at Cecil Sharp House, London and at Platform, Glasgow. This time the group had new material – some new songs from the Scottish singer and several traditional Norwegian songs, sung by Marthe Lea; thus over a couple days in Hackney was recorded the album which is out this week as The Old Fabled River.
On this album Alasdair Roberts and Völvur meld worlds which have so many more climatic, cultural and folkloric correspondences, far more than they have differences: fiddle and vocal styles from the Norwegian valleys blend with clarinet, saxophone and metallic bowed guitar drones, all within the bounds of baroque folk arrangement. There’s three-part a cappella on the Robert Burns-written “Song Composed in August,” as suggested by Fredrik; a traditional Scots night-visiting air; two Norwegian tunes, sung by Marthe Lea, concerning the sun coming up and then it setting once more, and four originals from Alasdair, all love songs – of sorts.
Where else could be better to begin this journey than “Hymn of Welcome”, a song imagining the passing on of a candle-flame; one at life’s end offering a benediction to one at its beginning. The cycle of life, the ourobouros we’re engaged in from which we try to fashion linear sense. It seems to will itself into being from freeform skirl, the musicians playing an ocean of impressionistic sound that gradually solidifies into forward movement; and there atop it, that so-Scots voice, so emotive, thick with understanding, Alasdair, who sings us through with a vocal that somehow conveys the totality of it all, the living; the joy the sadness the time the love the loss.
“Orison of Union” is a love song – of sorts, we’re told, and would you expect anything else but it to be off-kilter? It has the the air of an air, if you will, to be played out on high day or holiday, maybe near the end of the eve when the shadows gather and thoughts turn to reflection. Once more there’s that life and death thing: Alasdair sings of “the rocking cradle and the open grave,” as Völvur serenade with a naked acoustic beauty, folk as played on a gallery, unadorned and all the more resonant for it.
“Nu rinner Solen opp” is a traditional Scandinavian tune on which Alasdair stands aside to let Völvur’s Marthe Lea lead. Written by the Dane Thomas King as long ago as 1674, this is tune from our collective northern European DNA, bursting with the suspense of string drone, Marthe singing out strong, the tune itself having that brilliantly emotive edge-of-collapse suspense of Dirty Three, as strings resonate, hum, pluck, squeak, weave and fall apart again. I now need to witness a Cornish sun-up with this playing. Brilliantly interstitial and evoking a moment of the genuinely everyday, at once traditional and leftfield, it’s a real highlight.
For “Song Composed In August” instruments are gently laid aside altogether for a three-part a cappella of the tune, written by Robert Burns, whose inclusion was suggested by Fredrik. As you’d expect, they steer clear of the pitfalls of an over-Hibernian twee, and it’s raw and great; Marthe, in particular, she’s a helluva singer. Their voices counterpoint and weave like a blackthorn thicket, so intricate. It both doffs a cap to a grand tradition and sounds as vivacious as could be.
The album came announced with an opening gambit, “The Green Chapel”, but unusually it wasn’t the album version, but a solo rendition from Alasdair which had the honour, sans Völvur; the full release version is sextet-adorned, plaintive; there’s such a chemistry between the two previously discrete artists you’d swear they’d been made for each other. It’s considered, detailed, and again there’s that cyclical leitmotif that’s whispered elsewhere: “I saw the sun rise and I saw the sun dwindle”, Alasdair sings. Conceptually it touches upon the Gaelic notion of “the three noble strains” of music: geantraí, goltraí and suantraí – respectively, joy, lamentation and sleep – “those three noble streams,” as mentioned in the song – the triple goddess from which the fabric of a music is woven. If you’d like to hear the solo version, pop yourself through this portal here.
“The Tender Hour” is another sort of love song, Alasdair hitting those keening notes that get you right there, as only he can, all the way through from Appendix Out; there’s the subtlest birdsong chittering beneath the opening verses and before Völvur begin to colour the song with string yearn.
“Sweet William’s Ghost” is a traditional night visiting song, or revenant ballad. Alasdair’s recorded it before, on 2005’s No Earthly Man; but sometimes the ghosts don’t leave, and so there arose a feeling to summon the song once more. And where the earlier version is up-close intimate and lachrymose, the expanded new take has a detached, ambient quality (check the original here); spectral, maybe best heard by candlelight, holding back from the one-to-one sorrow for more of a tale-in-the-round feel; a salutary tale to tell on a winter’s night more than an immediately related tragedy. Needless to say, both versions excel.
Marthe closes the album with the rousing, sombre out-folk of “Nu Solen Går Ned”, the second of two 17th-century Scandinavian lyrics on the album, the day closing in the words of the Norwegian Samuel Olsen Bruun. This track is so atmospheric, so fragmentary as to be close to Talk Talk in places; every note, every woodwind scour, counting and transporting. It touches upon dissonance instrumentally as Marthe both holds and glories in the centre of the song. Beautiful, and beautifully weird.
It’s been a funny old year-plus musically, as it has in the rest of society at large; there’s been a real scarcity, necessarily, of big rock and pop combo stuff, as people have withdrawn or been locked down, fashioning solo instrumental records, from solo piano and cello across to modular electronics; or retreating into tradition, gathering around the metaphorical hearth. I’d guess I’d say that Alasdair’s new album, og Völvur, has one foot firmly in that; but it plays outside that too, and particularly on the glorious pair of tracks that Marthe helms.
Pairs; correspondences; there’s a lot of that on this album too, twinned songs, themes, and twinned opposites; birth, death; the sun rises, the sun sets. It seems to have this structural rhythm, this schemata, underpinning. An almost literary balance. But such bookwormery aside, it’s also a very lovely folk album, at once deeply of a tradition and unafraid to push beyond. It very gently whispers a reminder that we’re all a part of the eternal, broader cycle of it all, as the times we’re living through have shown us in a starker reality than many of us have faced before.
Thoughtful, textural, nuanced, a record of depth, I for one hope Alasdair og Völvur is a collaboration that bears more earthy and earthly fruit.
Alasdair Roberts og Völvur’s The Old Fabled River will be released by Drag City on July 23rd digitally, on CD and on vinyl; and can be ordered in your preferred format here.