The booklet opens like this, “Scandinavia has a long tradition of musical innovation,” and the idea of innovation keeps cropping up after that, once even attributed to the Vikings. “Quite why Scandinavia has always been a hub of experimentalism is a stiff question for any sociologist. Perhaps it is due to a legacy of exploration left over by the fearsome Norse warriors of the late eighth to eleventh centuries,” which is a tenuous explanation for the sound of múm’s sweetiepies going pingly ping and Kimmo Pohjonen of Finland being remied in industrial layers with the Kronos Quartet and a joik. First there is a deep mechanical kick, then Kimmo’s accordion arrives in assertive jerks, then the joiking singer – if it is a joik, it could be a throat singer, but I think it’s sampled anyway – glides in with a drone, then the squeaking Quartet arrives, and everything is staggered so that each sound disturbs itself against the rest with the vocal drone alone retaining an imperturbable calm.
Innovation is the watchword here, specifically modern innovation, as tracks from the musicians’ latest albums are favoured. Old innovations need not apply, which is a pity, because evidence of older music might have shown us that the booklet knows what it’s talking about when it gestures with vague magnitude at these imagined centuries of experimental trial and error. Other Rough Guides have now and then managed to slip in a field recording or something professional but elderly in terms of recorded sound – eg. the 1970s – but Scandinavia‘s compiler has a clear idea of what he or she wants and it isn’t that. “There is an aesthetic of quiet minimalism instilled in each of the three Icelandic tracks on this album that befits the country’s remoteness well,” nods the booklet from its podium, but I wish it would tell us whether that minimalism is endemic to Icelandic music or is it only a reflection of the compiler’s feelings about the place? The addition of a traditional rímur might have given that argument some nuance but there is no rimur here in spite of its recent association with the innovative sigur rós, and one whole slot is wasted on that múm track, a weird inclusion since there is nothing usefully Icelandic about the song besides the fact that the musicians who play it were born there, and the notes we’ve been given don’t prompt us towards any influences we might have missed.
Should they? Does it matter? Scandinavia‘s approach robs us of three-dimensional context but context is a big ask when you’re trying to pack three mainland areas and multiple islands onto a single 17-track disc so let’s go with what we’ve got. These are nice picks. The Pohjonen track is a good elucidation of the musician’s dynamic restlessness, the Frigg track is a flood of sheer acoustic skill to measure against other bands’ folktronic adjustments, Valravn is a not-quite-new band that I’d heard of but never really listened to – with a singer from the Faroes, which pleases me because I was hoping those islands would get acknowledged here somehow. Meanwhile, Benedicte Marseuth and Annbjørg Lien approach Norwegian fiddles from two different directions – Marseuth with so much quiet minimalism that she will surely be reborn Icelandic – and “Halling IV” is a radical combination of pipe organ and nyckelharpa from Gunnar Idenstam and Johan Hedin. The pipe organ companions itself by association with the drones in the other tracks, both kinds of music sharing similar sustained reverberating notes, both of them dwelling inside a self-generated impression of immense intimidating size. Fiddles and drones are the two extremes here – an oceanic sound and a pointed one. I will attribute this to the warrior habits of the ancient Norse, who sailed across the water and had swords.