Written By: Gemma
On the surface, Börn Loka, the second album from Iceland’s Skálmöld, is a high energy, beer-soaked celebration of Viking heritage. Sing-along choruses (if you speak Icelandic) overlay hooky riffs and power-metal leads in a combination that is readily accessible to mainstream audiences. (The band recently played an all-ages show in Reykjavík that was heavily attended by the under-10 set.) Fortunately, triple guitars and primary vocalist Björgvin’s sandblast roars keep the sound heavier than what you get from folksters like Korpiklaani, even when the atmosphere of Viking fraternity threatens to turn into an Alestorm-level schtick.
Look a little deeper, though, and Börn Loka is more than just a guilty pleasure. Like their first album, Baldur, it is a work of epic poetry. And by epic poetry, I mean that the lyrics by bassist Snæbjörn Ragnarsson [The cool thing about Icelanders is that they have kickass metal names from birth – AMG] form a long poetic composition, centered upon a hero, in which a series of great achievements is narrated in elevated style. In this case, the elevated style involves the strict rules of traditional Icelandic poetry worked into traditional folk melodies combined with modern, unorthodox choral arrangements. Metal traditions are also honored, especially in the riffage on “Loki” and in some blistering solos (the one in “Gleipnir” is a standout, but the one that starts at 4:17 in “Loki” may be even better).
Börn Lokais the story of a man named Hilmar who is chosen by Oðinn in the opening track to battle the children of the god Loki. In the course of his quest, which includes many adventures modified from the stories contained in the Eddas, there is a track devoted each of Loki’s six children. We meet Sleipnir first in a track that demands windmilling with its chugging riffs and driving beat. “Narfi” offers up a chorus as catchy as the clap, and “Váli” has a slow build that comes as close to restraint as Skálmöld care to go. With the exception of the sound-effect laden instrumental “Himinhróđur,” every track layers multiple guitar and vocal melodies. In less talented hands, so many elements would end up a hot mess, but Skálmöld manage to make it all sound simple.
One of the thing that makes Börn Loka stand out is the variety of vocal performances that litter it. With the vocals of guitarist Baldur, keyboardist Gunnar Ben and Edda – the vocalist from the death metal band Angist – Skálmöld rips through the story with a gusto. “Fenrisulfúr” impresses with a punkish ferocity and a ripping solo. “Miðgarðsormur” is cleanly sung/chanted by keyboardist and choirmaster, Gunnar Ben. Unsurprisingly, there is a lot of deep-voiced chorus on this one. And the concept takes the listener right to “Hel” herself. Edda voices Hel with growls and inhuman shrieks that convey genuine horror. When Björgvin comes back in and the two of them growl in opposition – well, I still get chills every time I hear it. It’s more than just the high point in the album; I think it’s some kind of metal history.
That Skálmöld has created a folk-metal album with plenty of appeal for folks who don’t usually go for folk-metal (or metal at all, for that matter) is impressive. That they do it without sacrificing chugging riffs, extreme vocals or noodly solos is a minor miracle. Whether you like your metal nerdy or just want something to listen to while you drink beer and headbutt your mates, you’ll probably want to check out Börn Loka.