It was a little more than two years ago that I came across Skálmöld when tasked with reviewing Vögguvísir Yggdraslis for this very station. It’s to safe to say I enjoyed the mix of viking metal and traditional Icelandic influences they produced, so I was happy to see that their latest offering, Sorgir, had wormed its way into our mailbox. Nothing has changed in the Skálmöld camp in the interim between these two albums (or indeed since their inception), with this being their fifth full length with their ever stable line up.
The concept surrounding Sorgir is an interesting one. The record is split into two, with half of the songs telling tales of woe from one perspective, and the other half telling the same story from a different point of view. I’ve always wanted to see a band try something like this, and this is the first time I have come across it (that I can recall at least). It certainly adds another layer of intrigue, although ultimately it will all be lost on me as the band sing in their native Icelandic tongue. Lyrics tend to matter less to me as time passes by, but in instances like this I’d have loved to have delved into Snæbjörn Ragnarsson’s words to see how they might tie into the musical contrast between the two separate narratives.
If only the music were as captivating as the concept. There’s many instances on Sorgir that find Skálmöld lacking focus, with songwriting slips far more frequent than they have been on prior records. There’s nothing that’s downright abominable, but I was left perplexed a few times as the group take a left turn too many (“Skotta”’s skittish tempo fluctuations) or kill momentum stone dead with needless interludes (the tranquil break in the otherwise superb “Mara”, an eight minute epic of melodic bliss). Elsewhere, the surging charge of “Brunin”, with it’s jerking chord changes and mid song, “Walk”-esque groove, is well on its way to victory until a choppy transition in the final moments sees the song collapse. The evocative “Sverdid”, carried by a wonderful folky melody and some excellent guitar interplay, is the only track that really come out truly unscathed.
Another thing that bothered me was the production. It really lacks the atmosphere of previous records. The guitar tone is rugged and works quite well on some of the more biting riffs (“Skotta”, “Gangari”) and blazing tremolo passages (“Barnid”), but it sounds quite cheap, and a lot of the time it takes you out of the vivid environment that Skálmöld are trying to craft. The rhythm section is quite hefty and modern sounding, which again exposes this weakness. The band are trying to paint these wonderful, natural pictures in your mind, but all the while you’re constantly reminded that it’s a group of musicians recording in a studio. Gunnar Ben’s instrumental work does its best to keep these fleeting interjections at bay, with some of his subtle keyboard lines in particular creating a sense of wonder and peril, with the lead work also being brilliant.
Sorgir is not a bad record, but I do think it’s the weakest that Skálmöld have produced so far. The spotty songwriting and middling production threatens to sink an otherwise steadfast ship, but there’s just enough here to salvage the vessel and allow it to sail on. Good for a couple of spins, but long term you’ll be better served with one of their other albums.
Highlights: “Sverdid”, “Mara”
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