Listening to Annbjørg Lien’s latest modern folk effort, Baba Yaga, is much like giving over your autonomy and partaking of a rich musical journey. There’s no way you can just “listen” to the album. From the opening flutes and chanting of the first piece, “Loki,” you are snared and tossed upon the swirling seas of modern Norwegian folk, as envisioned by Lien.
Annbjørg Lien, according to the liner notes, is a former child prodigy—she’s certainly still a prodigy, just all grown up—and it shows in her playing. Her melodies are moody and powerful. From the descending anguish at the end of “Loki” to the lingering melancholy of “January,” there’s no mistaking her mastery. You’re heart will swell with anguish at her lightest touch, your feet will move when she bounces along the fiddle. Studied in both Norwegian folk and in classical, Lien’s playing reflects a comfortable synthesis of the two, as does the album as a whole.
Oft times a musician’s skills are sold short by the framework of the song they devise to showcase their talent. Not so here. The album’s songs are not excuses for Lien to show her stuff; indeed, the truth is that her playing melds perfectly with every track, never overpowering the atmosphere of the songs themselves. An example: “W.,” a lyrical masterpiece written in memory of Hans W. Brimi, another fiddler, melds fiddle, flute and strings into a moving, sorrowful dirge—but it’s more than this too. It is full of sorrow, to be sure, for this fiddler’s passing, but the instrumental is tinged by a celebration, a happiness, something that is hard to come by in most music. Annbjørg Lien conveys both the sorrow of his passing and the happiness of his memory with artful acuity.
The third track, “Astra,” in the liner notes accompanied only by the simple explanation “eternal light,” moved me to no end. I was up half the night with “Astra” playing over and over in my ears, inspired by the mournful vocals and the sad strength of Lien’s fiddle. Very few songs inspire me as “Astra” did, and still does.
The most interesting facet of Baba Yaga is how naturally the traditional melts into the modern. The phrasings and the melodies are mainly traditional folk, but on most tracks there’s a hint of modernity. “Baba Yaga,” inspired by Mussorgsky’s Pictures of an Exhibition, is a prime example. Backed by modern rock rhythm, Annbjørg Lien rages over the backdrop, her fiddle soaring high and low. Baba Yaga still manages to embrace a traditional vein, however, and it’s this happy middle ground that highlights the entire album.
What else can I say? If you like moody, sometimes dark, folk music, punctuated by beautiful musicianship and artistry, then you will find nothing to dislike here. I cannot recommend this album enough.