Myrkur's 'Folkesange' Makes a Case for the Power of Traditional Songcraft
Neo-folk/black metal artist Myrkur bolsters her impressive discography with yet another distinctive and enthralling album that draws on other music while remaining uniquely her own.
20 March 2020
In 2018 I saw Myrkur — a full group iteration built around the solo work of Danish composer, vocalist, and musician Amalie Bruun — perform at local Bristol venue, The Fleece. The band's set divided strictly into a first act labeled "Folkesange", and then an overdriven rock set marked by a costume and lighting change with the bassist and guitarist donning sleeveless hoodies. While a little hokey, the separation didn't seem uncharacteristic of an artist whose music has always involved a musical combining and dividing with a range of forms spliced together into pop song-length compositions. Increasingly, however, there has been a line drawn between interests, for example, 2018's "Juniper'/'Bonden og Kragen" single with the former approaching rock ballad territory while the latter is a straight folk song. That has been matched by attempts to extend Myrkur's sonic palette: 2016's Mausoleum recast her songs as piano-led collaborations incorporating a youth choir.
Bruun's new album, Folkesange, is comprised entirely of the kind of material highlighted in that first set in Bristol therefore one's enjoyment will depend on an openness to folk. There might also be trepidation that what one is about to encounter is an equivalent of an MTV Unplugged performance — the kind of release used as an acoustically rendered space-filler rather than a fully realized experience in its own right. Such fears are unnecessary. Folkesange makes heavyweight use of its acoustic palette and has an evident kinship, in terms of compositional structures and vocal styling, with Bruun's other major statements. It also highlights folk music as the binding agent for the intriguing hybrid of black metal, pop, and folk she has invented and pioneered.
The relatively straightforward rhythm guitar on Myrkur releases makes a lot more sense in light of folk's use of stringed instruments as a surface layer to be painted over, than it does in the context of the fret-melting solos and spotlighted heroism present in western guitar worship. That connect is made explicit on something like "Fager som en Ros" where Myrkur takes acoustic instrumentation and pushes the sound into the red in a way that might please a Stooges fan. A sonorous bed of strings creak and groan, while the drums take their cue from the way George Foreman would thump a punching bag until it was beaten to a concave hollow. Similarly, "Harpens Kraft" sounds not a million miles away from a Led Zeppelin acoustic track given a shared lineage between that band's interest in the British folk tradition and the Nordic forms Bruun employs.
Myrkur has always made room around bass-drums-guitar for Icelandic fiddles, Hardanger fiddles, Swedish nyckelharpas, the talharpa, the stråkharpa. On Folkesange, Bruun makes traditional instrumentation the core but does so without ostentation. While moonlighting musicians might make a big point of such a shift ("now this is our piano song…Then we'll AMAZE people by using electronics on this one, wow man…") Bruun has a nearly two-decade-long career under her belt and remarkably deep credentials as a multi-instrumentalist.
On something like "Ella", she shows her self-assurance and deft control by using instruments as the delivery mechanism, rather than the focal point. Frame drums are a murmur under her vocal intro, then are gradually overwhelmed by an aching string section. A striking intervention is made by a plucked mandolin, which tinkles out a phrase delicate as the first rain on a tin roof. It's in these moments where ideas fly in out of the blue that one can see this is the work of a skilled composer operating way beyond sophomore square patterns of verse-chorus-verse.
Multi-octave belters in the Mariah Carey mode leave me cold just as Yngwie Malmsteen shredders can shower me with a million notes without once evoking a flicker of emotion within me. While Bruun certainly covers an impressive vocal range, she avoids mere theatrics because she's so visibly enthralled by the potential of the human voice, as shown on "Vinter" where she tucks herself away inside a full choir sound. Meanwhile, on "Ramund", a group hum underpins her precisely enunciated hymn. There are points where she sounds subdued by the folk song form; some major multitracking can't erase the cliché of medieval "hey nonny nonny" on "Svea". But elsewhere, she bosses the songs, forcing them to take shape around her voice as on the seven-minute-long "Tor i Helheim" where she moves from an ear-splitting introduction, to near spoken purr, then lets her voice fill the horizon like a dark shelf of storm clouds.
Myrkur record covers have a consistent aesthetic in which a lone woman is posed front and center. It's a visual language drawn more from the language of pop music, where everything is subordinated to a single iconic figure, rather than the shadowed fantasies and obscured visages of black metal. That has provided some with yet another excuse to sneer that Myrkur isn't "real" black metal — with the spoken or unspoken belief that Bruun is simply too female — to be considered part of that darkened realm. Horseshit. Bruun has soldered together her own musical form and created a back catalog almost entirely made up of highlights. It's because she's devoted sweat and labor to achieving mastery over composition, over conducting a band, over how best to use her voice and a wealth of instruments. If you believe a true artist is offering you an invitation to enter their world and follow them somewhere unexpected, then you'll find a lot to enjoy in Folkesange.