Icelandic viking metal band Skálmöld is set to release a new album, “Ýdalir,” on August 18. This six person ensemble, whose name translates to “Age of Swords”, was founded over ten years ago by Snæbjörn Ragnarsson and Björgvin Sigurðsson, and has previously produced five full studio albums. Their most recent “Sorgir” came out in 2018, prompting a review by Distorted Magazine pointed out that they churn out a new album “every two or three years, like clockwork” – well, this time it’s been almost five, so many fans are surely on their toes about “Ýdalir.”
The album itself is inspired by Icelandic folklore and Norse mythology – hence the name, “Ýdalir,” which in the Norse Poetic Edda is a land ruled over by the god Ullr. While this inspiration is certainly apparent in the lyrical content – like the title track, which tells a cautionary tale through the metaphor of a destructive dragon representing social stigma – stylistic inspiration from Norse poetry permeates through “Ýdalir” as well. Rather than building a thick wall of sound, it’s textured by layering a multiplicity of simple voices, each of which provides enough contrast to the last that a rich, dark flavour emerges. They use a lot of contrary motion between voices (e.g. as one goes up, the other goes down), which is actually to this day a principle of classical counterpoint. A great example is the opening guitar duet on the title track, “Yr.”
The album seems stylistically similar in form to alliterative Norse poetry as well: Each track is its own independent element, musically distinct from the last – as opposed to, say, the recent “Pain Remains” by Lorna Shore, or “Elegy” by Shadow of Intent, each of which had a high degree of musical elision between tracks, where the end of a track often sets up the tonal beginning of the next (or outright continues the story). This stylistic segmentation approach on “Ýdalir ” is reminiscent of Norse alliterative verse, which is a metered (structured) form of poetry consisting of segmented lines, stanzas, and couplets.
But the songs on “Ýdalir ” are still obviously ordered in a very intentional way, and I’d definitely recommend listening to the album in order, with the dark, tritone-rich, pummeling power of “Urður” (track 3) followed by “Ratatoskur”’s calmer melodic syncopation that one could almost dance to. “Ratatoskur” definitely has my favourite lyrical content, telling the story of a messenger squirrel that delivered messages between a serpent and a flock of eagles – but this might just be because the Wikipedia page about said squirrel contains the most delightful medieval illumination depicting him
“Ýdalir ” claims to be “blackened folk metal”, but I found myself searching for where the “blackened” elements were. Most of the vocals don’t have the typical high-pitched “black metal” spin – don’t get me wrong, the choral elements, clean vocals, and death growling on “Níðhöggur” are excellent, but I wouldn’t really classify them as “black metal” vocals. And the instrumental texture doesn’t really have that low-resolution “wall-of-sound” aesthetic characteristic of the subgenre. There are a couple exceptions, like in the aforementioned “Urður,” which features the classic black metal cascade of tritones and has some impressive highs in the beginning. Interestingly, this same track also features a melodic trope that sounds almost like a piece of Gregorian chant. Another exception is “Skuld” which, with its aggressive, cutting instrumentals overlaid with melodic chromaticism (and even a touch of organ), reminds me acutely of Carach Angren.
“Ýdalir” is an excellent piece of folk metal, with a lot of depth. Its thorough integration of Norse poetic elements allows the listener to go as deep as they like down the rabbit hole of analysis, ensuring that there’s always going to be some new musical or historical detail to discover.
Release Date: 18th August 2023
Label: Napalm Records