This fascinating retrospective of the Nordic group Hedningarna is a real eye-opener. This innovative group has been together in for 14 years, mixing heavy rock with often dark- sounding Swedish and Finnish folk music, all propelled by swirling, relentless dance beats and trance programming. This collection provides a sample from each of their five albums, each one apparently another shifting incarnation in their continuing evolution. To say they've come up with a tremendously rich amalgam would be a failed description, as their music is just stunning. They're genuinely breaking new ground, and their sound is like nothing I have ever heard before. They're well known favorites on the rave circuit in the U.S. and abroad, and I can only wonder where have I been that I've never heard Hedningarna before this? Well, not ravin' with the Sámi, obviously, though now I somehow think I should have been.
Drones, gutsy fiddles, a keyed fiddle, hurdy gurdys, Swedish bagpipes, strange medieval instruments, snappy snares, frame drums, subsonic bass drum, Jew's harp, and crazed electric guitar are some of the instrumentation. The twin female voices carrying the melodies are sharp as glass and make good use the polyphonic Finnish Kareli, singing in close harmony. But even though I can recognize some of the elements, I can't easily describe the music and that's a rather humbling experience. Some critics label them as "modern Swedish folk music", which sounds rather too generic and tame for this group. There are times when Hedningarna come across with a brutal raw sound (their name means "Heathens, after all), especially when driven by vicious beats. That dark blood courses beneath a skin of complex and sophisticated arrangement. So it is a canny combination of the throbbing pulse and the surface beauty that causes a visceral reaction while engaging the sensibilities and head.
Arctic winds are brought to life by their Viking sounding horns. Their modal steps sometimes lend a menacing atmosphere to their music, but the rhythms are compelling. Hedningarna have dug deeply into the roots of Nordic folk music to reinvent it as something more than "drone-rock". They've come up with a higher development, more like art-rock. There are times the Sámi yoiks sound like the chants of Native American singers, the fiddles sometimes carry a reminder of Appalachia, and the bagpipes can be every bit as mesmerizing and affecting as the East Indian drone. The music is all built on the steadiest pyramid of melody, drone, and rhythm, but the imagination of Hedningarna (and the listener) soars from there.
When reading through a list of nearly unpronounceable titles like "Ukkonen" or "Gorrlaus", a prospective non-Nordic listener is better served just slipping in the disc. "Ukkonen" is a dark simple-sounding tune, carried by the beat of a deep echoing frame drum, twisting and twining female voices, a fluttering bamboo flute, and a keening Arabic-sounding flute. It matters not a whit the words are in (I guess) Finnish. The result is listening to a description of a completely different world, an echoing shifting mysterious view as seen from different eyes. I've since heard that many of Hedningarna's songs are written as stories told by wilderness creatures -- animals, wolves and horses, and the humans who live far apart from civilized society in a place where birds stare down from the skies.
You needn't understand the words to get into the groove of kicking dance music. "Viktorin" is carried by tabla-sounding drums and a fiddle (I'm guessing a droning moraharpa); the sonic background of sweeping echoey distortions that suddenly sharpen into knife-sharp clarity is where Swedish folk dance meets Philip Glass. An instrumental kicking dance tune "Dolkaren" is driven by the rhythm of a gutbucket fiddle and accordion and has the fast clip pace of a horse trotting quickly through the snow. A few snaps of a whip in the crispy air lend to that vision. Anyone will want to start drifting into movement when hearing "Höglrofen" maybe even edge a bit too far into trance dancing, spinning like a cat chasing its tail, faster and faster until you melt into a pool of butter. For a laid-back hipster groove, Hedningarna heads to "Chicago", a sprightly triad of mixed styles which moves from a beret-wearing jazzy flute trio sound into a rock and roll bounce that brings an image of the Mamas and Papas to mind before taking the next step in the musical evolution of rock, a long fuzzy electric slide guitar riff.
For less than $10, whether you're a folk music fan, world music fan, adventurous listener, or a raver, this 18-track career retrospective is worth the risk. I'm happy I had the chance to hear this splendid music. Hedningarna 1989-2003 is not for listening to during a car commute (unless you're pedal to the metal and want to leave Helsinki behind). But Hedningarna is better listened to on a cold evening when the stars are frozen in the sky -- when you're huddled with a group of friends all wearing bearskin mittens around a log fire, and the honeyed mead is served in elk horns.