Týr, By the Light of the Northern Star (Napalm Records, 2009)

The Faroese metal band Týr have been very busy lately. In 2008 their album Land came out hard on the heels of the American release of their previous album Ragnarok. Now, less than a year after the release of Land, the Faroese quartet consisting of Heri Joensen (guirar, vocals), Terji Skibenæs (guitar), Gunnar H. Thomsen (bass), and Kári Streymoy are back yet again with a new album called By the Light of the Northern Star. Fortunately, Týr are as interesting and as entertaining as they are prolific.

Understanding the concept behind any of the Týr albums I've listened to requires some background knowledge, and By the Light of the Northern Star is certainly no exception. As the year 1000 A.D. approached, all of continental Europe had converted to Christianity. The descendants of the Vikings had generally embraced the languages, cultures, and customs of the lands they had settled in, and even Norway itself, under king Olaf Tryggvason, had abandoned the pagan religion and traditions. Only in the remote Faroe Islands did Viking mythology and folklore continue to hold prominence. This would not be allowed to last, though. The Færeyinga Saga, dating back to the 13th century, tells the story of Sigmundur Bretisson, usually referred to simply as Sigmund, who was ordered by Olaf to make the Faroe Islands a Christian colony of the kingdom of Norway. As the saga tells it, and as Joensen sings it in the song "By the Sword in My Hand," Sigmund made converts the old fashioned way -- by beheading those who resisted him. (Evidently he had skimmed over the gospel verses about loving your enemies and being merciful to others.) I'm not sure how highly or lowly the Faroese people in general have regarded Sigmund over the centuries, but in the eyes of the Islands' modern-day poets and singers he is unquestionably the villain.

By the Light of the Northern Star is based on the Færeyinga Saga, as Týr pay tribute to what essentially was the last stand of the Vikings against the encroachment of a Christian religion that, with some justification, they did not find sympathetic. "Hold the Heathen Hammer High," the album's opening song, could not be more self-explanatory. (The video is even less subtle, with a scene that would cause a lot of controversy if the band were more widely known.) As with previous albums, Joensen alternates between singing in English and Faroese. While the new album is mostly in English, in contrast to Land, the album's best song is a metal adaptation of the traditional Faroese ballad of "Tróndur í Gøtu." Tróndur í Gøtu was Sigmund's first "convert," whose decision to hold onto his head did not make him suddenly friendly with Sigmund or prevent him from obtaining a small degree of revenge later. The song which bears his name has the kind of insidiously infectious chorus that will have you singing along even if you have no clue what you're saying. The rest of the album follows a similar pattern to Týr's previous efforts. Many of the melodies and guitar riffs are based on the rhythmically complex Faroese folk tunes, with influences from Ireland and Scandinavia added to the mix as well. Týr are a heavy metal band first and foremost, however, and there's no shortage of loud, muscular guitars and pounding drums.

Still, there is more common ground between the music of Týr and traditional Nordic folk music than might be evident at face value. The musical traditions of the Vikings and their descendants are intertwined with their legends and sagas, and much of the music consequently has a dark, primal element with which heavy metal is actually quite compatible. During one of my many happy visits to Minneapolis for the Nordic Roots Festival, I got to interview a number of my fellow attendees for a magazine article. One of the persons I spoke with said she put a high premium on acts that put her "on the tundra." I don't know if putting people on the tundra is necessarily what Týr are aiming for, but if you're looking to be thrust into the middle of a great Norse saga then By the Light of the Northern Star will do quite nicely. By the time the album reaches the song "Ride," you just might find yourself looking for a suit of chain mail and a trusty steed.

Overall grade: A-

reviewed by Scott

"Hold the Heathen Hammer High"

No comments: