Wardruna – Jo Quail – Birmingham Symphony Hall – 21st March 2022
Wardruna is a Norwegian music constellation dedicated to creating musical renditions of ancient Norse and Nordic traditions. These performances were originally announced before lockdown, since then Wardruna have not been allowed to perform in front of an audience. Their founder Einar commented “It has been more than two years since we last gave a performance in front of an audience. Needless to say, this long and unwanted hibernation has made us very excited to finally be able to realistically plan our return to the stage.” The use of traditional instruments and language make Wardruna a unique and essential group of musicians. Fighting Boredom were in the audience for their night at the sumptuous Symphony Hall in Birmingham.
The photographer is about half a mile below me, this building is magnificent and the sound is perfect. Jo Quail sets up her cello, tunes it and begins to play mournful bass notes that resonate sadness and loss, an almost monstrous sound. She plucks notes then uses the bow to add a drone over the top. Using pedals she manipulates the sound and turns it into a reel for some kind of demonic wedding party. The emotion shifts and it becomes happier but there is still a huge depth of emotion in the sound. The notes echo over each other and loop around circling the empty space in the hall. Jo hits the strings and the loops make the noise echo and ricochet around the room to make a strangeness. Somehow she makes the cello sound like Jimi Hendrix freaking out but underneath the strange the slow solemn reel carries on.
She introduces herself, telling us that when she stood on the stage earlier she cried, emotional just for the chance of playing at the Symphony Hall. The next piece has a slow spacey feel, almost like charms. Jo taps a beat across the strings to make the sound of a heartbeat. It feels calm inside a wildness, like standing still on a mountain peak watching birds of prey wheel next to you. The music is smooth, languid and played for the sheer joy of it. It gets wilder and more ancient. The wind rises, the sun sparks away and the rain pours down, there’s almost a frantic note underneath the tune now. Then as suddenly it slows right back to a heartbeat and a slow tone.
Tiny sounds like wind blowing through leaves and a breathing, mournful over the top an austere and reverent sound. This is straight from Jo’s soul. It’s the moment when classical music reaches the Horned God. This is from the wide open purple heathered moors. Hare’s running and boxing bathed in the light of the moon. The blood dripping from a badgers jaw and the feel of the dew settling on a meadow. It’s a pagan, wild dance from the fields. The sound she makes with her cello are breathtaking. She is so into the heart of this sound that you are left wondering what could possibly come next.
The white raven fills the space behind the stage, projected as it kraas, Wardruna walk on and immediately the strings from Kvitravn fill the hall. I do mean fill the hall, the massive space is suddenly focused utterly on the stage. Einar’s voice begins and as the musicians join the sound gets even bigger and encompasses everything. The sound is all there is, I know there are hundreds of people here but it’s all narrowed down to the stage. This music is just massive, huge and old. Not in a classic Dad rock way old. No, it’s a lichen on stone, ancient pagan kind of old. It’s everything I want from music. To feel something and to care passionately about it. This is real. Steeped in history, ice, fire and blood.
The stage is bathed in lights with different shadows cast behind the players, a spotlight will land on Einar but more often it casts his shadow behind, huge and ominous the horned stand in front of him in stark relief against the curtain. It’s a magical feel. The music matches the shadows, it sounds pure, stark and transient. How can one man hitting a piece of wood with two other sticks of wood make you feel like this? How can a drum being hit on its own over and over stir you in this way. When they play the huge trumpet affairs how can your soul be stirred quite like that.
This is something ingrained, this music is reminding me of something I have long forgotten. The vocals are harmonising and singing around each other and the sound just seems to get bigger. It becomes mesmerising and open, the lights around the stage light up like sunrise in the forest down where the trees meet the sea. It moves back to the strings and bows and the sound goes dark, cold and lost, moving even more into emotion and loss. The music disorientates me and lost feels lost until a spotlight on Einar again brings everything back together.
Then a slow, dramatic sound builds up, seemingly made of nothing more than voices, the instruments join in and as the projection shows clouds banking up it overpowers me once more. It’s moving into the mist, as the God’s travel past us. The music is rich and never stays still, it washes over us and moves like rocks caught in the tide. The feeling I get is just how big this band of musicians are, it’s a massive event that many of these people have been waiting two years for. Wardruna are much larger than record sales or press, they are real in a way that I haven’t seen often. The crowd here is mixed both in age, cultures and sex. Wardruna have brought something here that I haven’t seen before. A historical folk music that has it’s own rules and God’s. It’s own nuances and emotions. My notes are, for the most part ineligible, the music captured me too much for me to concentrate on them but the night is a absolute marvel.
The music stops and the crowd cheer, and they don’t stop cheering as the band stand and watch, Einar has his hand in his heart and eventually tells us to settle down, ‘that’s enough of that.’ he says. He thanks us for the insanely warm welcome and acknowledges that we have been waiting for two years. He says that there used to be songs for everything, people just sang all the time. They would sing for the harvest, sing to send someone to the other side and that we should sing more, we should go home and sing more. He says they are going to sing one more song, about death and redemption, this is Helvegen. They play a sad, loss filled epic lit in red and led by the drum. It’s fragile and heartrending and absolutely gigantic. A fitting end to a brilliant night.
All pictures by Martin Ward, All words by Adrian Bloxham.