Metal these days is in an undeniable downswing. Right now very few bands are doing something new, fresh or innovative. Instead, we’re riding a wave of retro metal: retro Swedish death; retro power; retro ’80s; re-thrash. In all the bustle about the latest cult ’70s style doom record that making everyone hot in the britches, I’ve been getting the itch for something new. Unfortunately, with the exception of the occasional glimmer of hope, right now is also a time for those of us who can to turn our eyes backwards. With a backward glance we talk about records that really should not be forgotten, things that were and, given the retro craze, probably will be again. In this case, I am thinking of Lumsk‘s debut record Åsmund frægdegjevar. Hard to believe this record is 10 years old.
Folk metal has been a popular genre, generally speaking, since the early days of Isengard, Storm and Otyg. The Scandinavian melancholy and minor key, combined with the national romance that is rooted so deeply in the Norwegian subconscience (and also exists in Sweden, but is a little bit more shameful here), seems to have made the entire idea a foregone conclusion. Without getting too far into the history, a number of bands have done their own, fascinating takes on the genre but Lumsk might possibly be the best: the physical embodiment of folk metal. But don’t be fooled! Before you run off and buy the band’s whole discography, Lumsk only had one really good, dark folk metal record in them and that was Åsmund frægdegjevar, the later releases have neither Bjørnar Selsbak or Vibeke Arntzen, which changes their style dramatically and diminishes their power.
Åsmund frægdegjevar tells the tale of Åsmund, a Norwegian folk hero, who goes off to save a princess at the troll castle (Trollebotten). In the band’s interpretation of the tale, this is in Ireland and it’s a long, dangerous journey. Telling this tale through 13 tracks, Lumsk creates the kind of atmosphere that has never been matched before or since; Åsmmund Frægdegjevar is dark, haunting, brooding and melancholy, slow and tempered. From the opening strains of orchestrations in introduction “Det var Irlands kongi bold,” and the call to arms at the beginning of “Ormin lange” (“The Long Snake” – referencing the ship Åsmund sails in), the listener – even the listener who doesn’t speak Norwegian – gets drawn into the strong narrative built by the music.
Slowly, but surely, Åsmund frægdegjevar creeps forward, a bit like Ormin Lange on its way to Ireland, accompanied by Viking choirs like on “Skip under lide,” beautiful strings work in “I lytinne två” (and everywhere else) and even with organ with Vibeke Arntzen’s amazing vocals on “Der e ingin dag’e.” The album is long – almost a whole hour – but because the songwriting is so immersive one never loses the thread, instead feeling totally involved in the feel, sucked in by the mid-paced riffing and the beautiful clean vocal performances. There is an expressiveness and heaviness to Åsmund frægdegjevar that I can’t ever remember from a folk metal record of its sort; it’s deadly serious, hauntingly deep and insidious underneath the beautiful folky strains.
Åsmund frædegjevar is almost more folk than metal and certainly more “pure” than most of what gets called folk metal these days. The vocals never become extreme and there’s no nod towards black metal or death metal throughout, instead the lilting melancholy of Norwegian folk music layers over surprisingly groovy riffs. At times the band will break down into polska rhythms that turn the songs into folk music with heavy, downtuned chug (“Skip under lide” and “Trollehender”) and there are even moments when the guitars disappear – leaving only orchestrations and flutes with Vibeke’s silky, beautiful voice (like “Hår som spunnid guld” or “Olafs belti”).
Dark and stirring, Lumsk‘s Åsmund frægdegjevar is a folk metal must. When one talks about records that just have an “X Factor,” Åsmund frædegjevar is definitely one those. Every song is cool, but it’s not just every song or every riff or the vocal performances that make the album such a masterpiece. Instead, the whole album is like one magnificent, dark journey with epic melodies and riffs and an impossible to reproduce feel that will penetrate your defenses and set root. Over and over again Åsmund frædgegjevar will draw you back into the fold. This may be the best folk metal record ever.
Tracks to absolutely NOT miss: “Slep meg,” “Skip under lide,” “Kampen mot bergetrolli,” and “Olafs belti.” But the whole fucking record is gold.