Hedningarna - &
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Border Music, Sweden

Back in the 1990’s, there was a veritable storm of folk and folk-related releases from Sweden. Amongst the vanguard were Hedningarna (The Heathens), a group not afraid to revive, build, or otherwise alter traditional instruments. Hedningarna built their sound on drones and buzzes from hurdy-gurdy and fiddles, sometimes leaving the tunes in their minimalist grinding glory, or otherwise mixing their experimentation with older Swedish and Nordic pagan cultures into sonics that sometimes bordered on the electro-industrial (re-visit 1994’s astonishing Trä album). In those heady days, Hållbus Totte Mattson, Björn Tollin, and Anders Stake joined forces with two Finnish singers, Tellu Paulasto and Sanna Kurki-Suonio, with the women adding passionate incantations of Nordic spells and primal poetry. No one really sounded like Hedningarna, then or now.

Nine years on from a compilation release, Hedningarna have been reborn, sans the dual female vocalists. Hedningarna have returned to being a trio at its core, now comprised of Anders Norudde (violin, fiddles, moraharpa, bagpipes, flutes), Hållbus Totte Mattson (hurdy-gurdy, mandora, accordion, laptop), and Samuel Andersson (violin, fiddle, percussion of all kinds, more laptop manipulation). And on &, Valter Kinbom joins to add more percussion, along with Philemon Arthur & The Dung, an obscure Swedish duo who appear on one track.

It’s safe to say that & is not what one might have expected from prior Hedningarna outings, and while the departure might not be to everyone’s liking, I would argue the merits. There is none of the mysterious ritualism that accompanied Paulasto and Kurki-Suonio’s vocals (although the slow creepiness of “Bonden” is in the element). What has survived is a very clear devotion to investing old instruments with punk attitude. & is much more of a folkpunk-pop project, and makes a bid for Hedningarna’s sound-tests to go mainstream. The opening “Tjuren” (“Bull”) steams in, riding a wave of what sounds like the string of a bow being scraped over an electronic pulse and jaw harp. It’s a pure thrill-burst, and the lyrics are delivered with plenty of attitude as the song then drops into Hedningarna’s quirky take on stomping folk, coming up for air once again to burst in a combination of fiddles and noise. The instrumental “Morafjälls” comes in on a descending clatter of percussion and moaning, and Hedningarna provide their trademark dense hurdy-gurdy and fiddle interplay, harkening back to the Kaksi! (1992) project. There’s also a moment on the swirling instrumental “Hedna” (“Heathen”) where the music pauses, and an audible gasp of breath jumps out, much as on the instrumental “Chicago” from Kaksi!. And so it goes, each track offering something interesting, but cast into a kind of avant-pop/dancefloor crossover (“Vem är jag” reminding me of some of the Valkyrian Allstars’ acoustic Norwegian folkpop). If Joy Division ever secretly loved fiddles, you’d probably end up with a tune like “Soppen” (“Fungus,” in Norwegian); and, you can pogo to “Men va fanken” (“But what the hell”).

& is not, at first blush, as groundbreaking as earlier Hedningarna’s works; but, that said, I defy anyone to find a pop album that sounds like this. I’m reminded of the spirit of the group’s Hippjokk (1997) album, where connections were sought between the trance aspects of Nordic music and electronic rave culture. Throughout &, there is a giddy spirit (made quite explicit in the joyous sing-along at the end of “Mycket vill ha mera”). For the hardcore, Hedningarna are offering you an apple: fifteen tracks of earworm-ready candy, and it is worth taking the bite. – Lee Blackstone

The artists' web site: www.hedningarna.net

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