Pagan metal is a tricky business so its always a surprise that, when so many bands fall so short of what is possible, bands like Gandreid can appear out of nowhere with the light from their blackened torches burning so brightly. The members, principally mastermind and vocalist Dáublódir and his brother (who seems to do more or less everything else), have not been involved in any previous bands that jumped out at me (Skygge and Svadifare being but two of those mentioned in the short release) and perhaps that helps make the whole thing sound relatively fresh. What they have produced here is a solid bit of pagan metal over-layered with the ritual pounding and icy heart of black metal. Nordens Skalder – ‘Nordic Bards’ – is a deeply atmospheric album for all those that like their pagan odes grim and frost-bitten. At times it sounds like ancestral prayers sung, growled and chanted around a blazing fire and at others like a rousing war cry screamed in the din of battle. Something like Árstíðir Lífsins is probably a reasonable comparison but with the rougher, darker sprit like a spectre from those early days of the scene’s inception. There’s a coarseness to the sound and at first it sounds as if it might be a little too loose for its own good. But it only takes a couple of repeats of the first track Efter Moerkets Frembrudd before the dark heart within begins to pulse louder and louder.
Where Gandreid and others strike so precisely, and what other bands which draw heavily on folk sounds fail to do, is that they seem so effortlessly to be able to draw in so many elements to help transport the sound to a totally different place. Rather than making the folk aspect centre stage it is just one element of the whole musical concept. Atmosphere is the name of the game but without allowing it to replace the need for musical wit. The choruses and battered drums sound like they were amplified by some prehistoric, dark-age power supply and the songs in parts sound so brutal and haphazard you wonder how such a ragged bunch of brutal Viking-age warriors managed to settle down for more than five minutes to produce any music at all. Then arrives the steadily building, rousing songs like Visjoner Om En Kvervet Storhetstid and Voyage Towards Redemption that each kick in just when you think the juice is about to run dry.
Some serious thought has gone into this piece of work from a band clearly not happy to join the ranks of the also-rans. Can I honestly say that the various part of this album don’t, in some way, sound familiar? Probably not. But, while not quite breaking away from the musical norms of the pagan metal scene, Gandreid are helping to create a new dark branch of the mythology. It is the deft conviction with which Norden Skalder is put together that is the true measure of its worth. Gandreid emphasise different elements of the sound as the album unfolds and even those familiar Viking stomps manage to shrug off any accusations of predictability and each time manage to evolve into something different. And with each familiar intro that you suspect might be a signal they’ve have settled back into painting-by-numbers (the final two tracks for example) the sound crystalises again into something altogether more black and coldly satisfying.
Norden Skalder is, as all good pagan black metal albums should be, a unified piece of work rather than a collection of it constituent parts. It’s an album that renders picking out specific tracks a little meaningless. It is what it is. Just a great bit of music drenched in atmosphere that is designed to provide warmth in a dark bleak landscape and to add to a deepening pagan metal mythology that, for the moment at least, just gets darker and sharper in focus all the time.
(8/10 Reverend Darkstanley)