Gjallarhorn: Sjofn

Kim Bates wrote this review for Green Man Review

There’s something great about a world where the didgeridoo, butt-kicking percussion, and some Indian-influenced vocals seems seem right at home on an album of Finnish-Swedish folk music. Actually there’s just something great about Sjofn, Gjallarhorn’s second offering. It’s got lush vocals, primal rhythms, richly textured instrumentals, haunting melody, all wrapped up into one of the most beautiful musical packages I’ve heard all year. World and Nordic music aficionados should not miss this disc.

Gjallarhorn are Jenny Willhelms on vocals, violin and hardanger fiddle; Christopher Öhman on viola, mandola, vocals and kalimba; Tommy Mansikka on aho, didgeridoo, mungiga, udu and djembe; and David Lillkvist on percussion and kaliba. Willhelms is an outstanding vocalist, with a soft soprano that is layered throughout Sjofn to create a sense of abandon that is oddly tender and never harsh. She sings in the traditional Scandinavian style, with occasional flourishes from Indian vocal traditions. Wherever it comes from, it’s phenomenal. Think Vartina without the shrill factor; after all, Willhelms doesn’t need to use her voice as percussion because she is supported by an awesome collections of percussive sounds and the drone of the djideridoo.

Sjofn has a nature-loving, almost pagan theme in celebrating the primal nature of northern spring, as personified by the goddess of love. This raw, celebratory element comes through in the spirited melodies that evoke times past, in the occasional use of nature sounds (without any wishy-washy elements), in some great fiddle playing, and wonderful arrangements: the perfect blend of technology and acoustic instruments. Willhelms’ vocals really carry the album, but the superior arrangements that support her singing create the sense of magic about this album. It’s not hard to see why the disc has won awards in Finland and the support of Finland’s Svenska folkmusicinstitut.

There are no weak songs on this album, although several deserve special mention. The opening track, “Suvetar,” sets the tone of the disc, placing Willhelms’ chanting vocals against the drone and African rhythms. This is one of those songs that comes back to you while paused in the elevator or walking down a crowded street; it’s infectious and lush. “Näcken och Junfrun,” about the attraction between a water sprite and a young woman, has a great balance of vocals, a hip, syncopated beat, and the drone of the didgeridoo. “Kom helge ande,” calling a holy spirit, brings in the most obvious Indian vocal influences and percussion, which creates a lovely, contemplative song. “Su Ru Ruskadirej” is the best vocal track on the album. Layers of Willhelms’ wonderful voice describe a suitor pursuing a miller’s daughter. It’s not easy to get this kind of vocal effect outside of the studio, with trained voices creating such precise vocal effects, but it is one I would very much like to hear live. There is also some great fiddling on this album, particularly on “Tuva och konungen” and the instr/pumental tracks, “Menuett från Jeppo/polska.”

Several numbers have a wild, yet mediaeval feel to them, particularly “Bergfäst” about the mountain folk calling a fair young man to the other side, and the instrumental, that follows, “Oravais minuet,” a stately number with lots of barely contained undercurrents. The last number trails off onto a walk on the beach, with their signature vocals and percussion creating a heady mix that slowly winds down over several minutes.

This CD is a “must acquire” item, one that will be difficult to pull out of the CD player. It is beautifully packaged with stunning photography from the band’s video to accompany “Suvetar.” If you doubt my word (but how could you?), check out the samples at this Web site, and poke around the band’s main page for more mdetails on their history, tours, and other projects at their Web site.

(Rana, 2000; Northside, 2000)

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