The Nordic noir genre of film and television has a striking aesthetic—minimalist, streamlined architectures mixed with dark, morally twisted stories, and snowbound arctic vistas. It’s a remarkably compelling genre that’s sparked a renewal of interest in Nordic culture. Today, in Nordic countries like Iceland, Denmark, Norway, and Sweden, artists are tapping into the dark roots of the Nordic traditions that fueled this aesthetic, and melding that with the streamlined modernism of 21st century Scandinavia. The ancient ballads are coming to life again, infused with a contemporary sense of style and fashion. Here are seven artists whose Nordic noir music will bring a cold shiver to your spine.
The tradition of rímur, or rhyming ballads, goes back many centuries, even millennia in Iceland, tapping into the deep Norse pagan roots of the country. Even when the church raged against these ancient ballads and their ties to the Norse gods and heroes, the Icelandic people held strong, and passed the rímur down in the oral tradition within their families and among friends. Steindór Andersen is one of the great rímur singers today, and dipping in the pop world, has notably collaborated with Icelandic indie stars Sigur Rós. One of his most accessible albums was made in collaboration with musician and composer Hilmar Örn Hilmarsson, who’s also the high priest of the Ásatrúarfélagið (the Ásatrú fellowship). The modern incarnation of the Norse pagan religion, the Ásatrú fellowship dates back to the ‘70s, but traces its roots to the furthest reaches of pagan history both in Scandinavia and abroad. On the album, Stafnbúi, Andersen sings some of his favorite old poetry, accompanied by the atmospheric and evocative compositional beds of Hilmarsson. Here, they interpret the poem “Haustid nálgast,” written by 19th century Icelandic poet Stefán frá Hvítadal. Though not an ancient source, the poem speaks to our natural world and living in harmony with it, a pagan principle of living that has survived since the old days in Iceland. Here is a tanslated excerpt:
Seek solace in the heavens you that cried,
the stars that shimmer are the rays of God
in the wintery night.
One of the most fascinating forms of Nordic music is the Sami joik. An improvised song akin to throat singing, it’s the hallmark of the Sami people, an indigenous, often nomadic people that live in the northern reaches of the regions. In a land of extremes, the raw-throated sounds of the joik stand out as perhaps a tie to the windswept vistas of the Arctic. Born in the far North of Norway, Torgeir Vassvik is one of the most intriguing Sami singers, and an innovative collaborator. He’s been touring recently with Norwegian hallingdans master and modern dancer Hallgrim Hansegård as Frikar. With Frikar, Vassvik’s innovative joik singing mixes with Hansegård’s athletic dance interpretations, much of which is based on the Norwegian hallingdans tradition in which dancers spin, twirl, and launch themselves to dizzying heights. Frikar’s an interesting fusion project, and there’s no denying the raw electricity of their performance together.
In this video Vassvik taps into the shamanism of Sami culture. The “wolf joik,” a song that was used in the olden days to frighten wolves away from the herds of reindeer that the Sami, was sung for survival and sustenance. Throat singing, whether done with overtones or without, is a common feature of the indigenous cultures of the Arctic, spreading all along the roof of the world.
Hailing from the desolately beautiful Faroe Islands, singer and songwriter Eivør Pálsdóttir has become something of a pop phenomenon in Europe and Scandinavia. Soon she should be breaking into American households with her involvement in the upcoming God of War videogame (she sings the main theme and the new installment of the game is set amidst Norse mythology). But throughout her rise, she’s stayed true to her roots in the Faroe Islands and to her love of Faroese culture. The Faroe Islands lie in the ocean between Norway and Iceland, but are a self-governed part of Denmark. A land of rugged beauty, the Faroe Islands also play host to cultural events like the seaside G! Festival. The traditions of the Faroe Islands focus on songs and ballads, often sung for dancers. Eivør grew up with ties to Faroese folk music, but also ties to classical singing. She often writes in English or Danish, but her 2015 album Slør was made up mostly of songs written by her in the Faroese language. The song featured here, “Salt,” was written by the renowned Faroese poet Marjun Syderbø Kjælnes. You can hear Eivør’s signature blend of dark electronic beats with ethereal Scandinavian vocals here.
Portraying perhaps a darker image of the Faroe Islands, the new folk rock band Hamradun was founded by the lead singer of the Faroese heavy metal band Týr. Known for their own particular brand of Viking metal, Týr are influenced by Norse mythology and heavy metal, but also by Faroese folk song. Hamradun was founded by Týr’s singer Pól Arni Holm to explore this heritage in a bit more depth, and without some of the more extreme trappings of his metal roots. Here, they’re interpreting the poem of 18th century Norwegian poet Edvard Storm. “Sinklars Vísa” depicts the somewhat obscure Battle of Kringen from 1612, in which Scottish mercenaries conscripted by the Swedish military (and Scottish pirates) were waylaid and massacred by Norwegian/Danish forces. This song is typically sung to round dancing on the Faroe Islands, an ancient tradition of danced ballads (you can hear the traditional version that’s often danced here).
The subjects of the old Nordic ballads were often quite dark. Take the traditional Danish ballad “Liden Karen.” Influenced by the moralism of Nordic Christianity, “Liden Karen” (Little Karen) tells the story of a young woman so beautiful that the king comes to desire her. She tells him repeatedly to stay away, since he is already married. He offers her gold, but she doesn’t want his love. He rapes her and throws her in jail, but she doesn’t give in. She gives birth to her son in jail and finally the king takes her and her son to a bed with silk blankets and pillows, but she still refuses his love.
I first heard this song from Danish singer Jullie Hjetland and the band Basco at the Folk Spot Denmark conference in Tønder. Hjetland has long been a shining light of the Danish Nordic roots scene, and has recently been recording folk-influenced electronic music as part of her project Lukkif. Born on the island of Funen in Denmark, she’s recorded in eight different Nordic languages. High-energy Danish roots band Basco is the perfect foil to her huge vocal range here, as she channels the ancient fury of Liden Karen.
A key element to the Nordic noir sound comes from the long, droning swirls of the Norwegian hardanger fiddle. A four-string violin with an additional four strings underneath that resonate in sympathy with the main strings, the hardanger fiddle, or hardangfele, was immortalized in the opening bars of Norwegian composer Edvard Grieg’s Peer Gynt Suite No. 1, where the four notes that mark the dawn of day are the same four notes that the hardangfele’s sympathetic strings are tuned to. Norwegian fiddler Anne Hytte is one of the best young hardangfele players, and her work has dived much deeper into the tradition than most. She’s brought up the old tunings of the hardangfele which used to have names based on colors like “light blue,” “grey lightening,” “half grey,” etc, and ties to certain times of the day that were best for playing. With her new work Draumsyn, she touches on the minimalism of medieval monophony or modern classical chamber music, drawing the drones and timbres of the hardangfele into new territories. Here’s her stark interpretation of “A Rune Tune.”
This Swedish trio of master musicians perfectly embodies the idea of Nordic noir. Organic instruments, old traditions, and stark minimalism combine in a kind of atmospheric folk world that sounds as windswept and cold as the land that first inspired it. For more than 20 years, they’ve been one of the best and most experimental Swedish roots bands, and their upcoming new album, Kind of folk shows them still at the top of their form. Mats Edén hails from the Värmland region of Sweden, and is one of the most renowned traditional fiddlers and also a noted tune composer. Percussionist and multi-instrumentalist Terje Isungset has been creating his own kind of “ice music” since the 1980s, working with natural elements like wood, stone, bone, and metal in his wildly creative percussive work. Flutist Jonas Simonson has also probed deep into the roots of the tradition as well, playing not only the Swedish wooden flute, but also the willow flute and the Härjedalspipa, a traditional Swedish end-blown flute. The result of these three masters coming together is a magical musical geography that uses the natural timbres of wood and stone to amplify a kind of organic sound as rooted in Sweden’s past as in its future. Their last album, Silent Folk, was a masterpiece, and the new album, due out later this month, promises to be an interesting fusion of ancient tradition and modern sensibilities.