- "Swap" - Amigo AMCD 735
HEDNINGARNA - "Hippjokk" - Silence Records SRSCDD 4737
Swedish and Scandinavian music have had a hard time of it over the years. With the exception of the heady days of Eurovision and the new crop of wannabee pop bands the traditional musics of northern Europe with all those crazy time signatures and fiddle tuning are, well, just not quite catchy enough.
But like the rest of planet earth, Scandinavia is open to new influences that are shaping a music that is absorbing new elements into a strong tradition, groups like Vasen and the Finnish band Varttina have led the way, and these two releases are mature examples of this continuing process.
Swap feature the twin fiddle talents of Ola Backstrom and Carina Normansson along with the super-nova pairing of Ian Carr and Karen Tweed. This album is a heady brew of traditional tunes from Sweden, Ireland, France, Quebec and England intertwined with original compositions from the band members.
The album opens with two tunes from Ola Backstrom - "Molnbyggen", featuring the twin fiddles, that gently unwinds, developing into a keening siren call out across the landscape, and is followed by "Mobilen", reminiscent of an aural attack by a swarm of bees, that sets out the stall of what this group is all about; superbly played sets of diverse material that never seem to run out of ideas in terms of combining tunes and arrangements.
Third track in is a cracking combination of two more self penned tunes, "Meatballs, Whisky and Beer" that really swaggers with its enthusiasm and after a stark staccato guitar intro, "Pidellipom" is a superb composition that rises and swoons before resolving itself in eminently hummable fashion.
The basis of Swap's sound is to utilise the twin fiddles to carry the tunes whilst les Anglais pitch and roll with some tremendous rhythmic underplay. Then we have sublime moments where Ms Tweed is let loose to show us her mettle whilst the rest carry her along, notably on the "Khazi Waltz". There are also unique chances to hear tunes like Michel Bordeleau's "Le quartres sers en l'air", Jacky Molard's "La Valsounette", and the great "Strayaway Child" played with a Swedish accent.
The final track features the beautiful "Dream Waltz" by Cliff Stapleton, punctuated by possibly the highest sung note ever recorded in the western world by Ms Normansson, which won't be to everyone's taste, but adds perfect counterpoint to the overall feel of the piece, as the album slips away as gradually as it opens.
There is no doubt that this is potentially difficult music retuned for central European ears, but it's a fascinating blend of Scandocelt sensibilities played by excellent musicians from different traditions who gel perfectly. This is essentially a subtle album which gradually seeps into the grey matter and lingers for a very long time. File under classic.
Hedningarna ('The Heathens') are altogether a darker beast and "Hippjokk" marks a departure for this group, jettisoning two female singers for this project which leaves the three remaining members Anders Stake, Hallbus Totte Mattsson and Bjorn Tollin, and a smattering of guest musicians, to concentrate on a mostly instrumental set that encompasses traditional tunes, contemporary dance culture, and industrial rhythms, whilst retaining a wonderful organic feel throughout the whole recording.
This is very much a 'studio' album, the tracks have been created by multi-layering all the instrumental and vocal elements to weave an incredibly dense texture. But it never suffers from over-production and has an incredibly fresh feel throughout. This has been achieved by the choice of wholly indigenous instruments such as keyed fiddles, jew's harps, willow flutes, dulcimers, accordions and varied percussives and subtly adding some electronic spice into the mix.
The cornerstone track is 'Navdi / Fasa' an incredible amalgam of traditional Sami 'jojking' - a form of shamanistic chanting from Lapland - intermixed with a powerful melody led by the fiddle that swells and grows, turning on a simple time signature and buoyed up by a simple earthy bouncing rhythm. The Jojk is an enchanting and beguiling repeated vocal pattern which has comparisons with Aboriginal songlines and Gaelic waulking song and in this performance is incredibly emotive as Wimme Saari evokes, taunts and teases the spirit of the wolf.
There are many disparate elements stirred into the mix of tunes, old Swedish tunes with Arabic sounding phrases on "Forshyttan", bridal dances, Norwegian marching tunes, and a couple of bloody, gothic ballads thrown in for good measure, notably "Drafur och Gildur" which probably wouldn't sound out of place on a Metallica album.
This is wonderful stuff, which seamlessly manages to create a sound that is both completely traditional and totally contemporary at the same time. The band end up blissfully rocking out on a 'reel-groove' by the albums's close, reprising the first track and disappearing into the ether.
Both these albums are very highly recommended and definitely benefit from many repeated listenings. They are an important marker for the accessibility of Scandanavian music today and the vote of the Scottish jury is a very definite dix points.