"Ymer" is grim and full of foreboding. "Vinterblot" is wild, frantic and perhaps just a bit silly. "Hrapnerdans," which begins with a raven's cry, sounds proud, perhaps an invocation before battle or a later telling of one's exploits on the field.
It's hard to say exactly what is going on, but Stiklur is an intriguing flashback to Old Scandinavia. Krauka, based in Denmark, presents a blend of traditional songs from Iceland, Denmark and Sweden, as well as original pieces that evoke the atmosphere of evening revels in a Viking hall. I wouldn't necessarily believe that the 16 tracks here are anything like the actual music heard in ancient days, but it has the root and feel of authenticity mixed in a modern wrapping. It's fun.
Unfortunately, the CD has a disheartening lack of explanatory text. If you want to know the origins of this music, you'll have to visit the band's website for a hint. Alas, a hint is all you'll find there; the background of these songs remains a mystery, and there is no translation of the lyrics to give listeners a hint of what might be going on.
According to the site, Krauka came together in 1999 to combine music and stories from the Viking age when Norse culture spread through much of the North Atlantic. Bandmates Gudjon Rudolf (lead vocals, jew's harp, percussion), Askel Striim (bowed lyre, shawm, flutes, percussion, vocals) and Jens Villy Pedersen (lyre, flutes, rebec, vocals) researched the music of the age and built their own instruments.
Besides period instruments and vocals, the album works a few sound effects into the mix: chants, the voices of warriors, the calls of a raven, a tolling bell, a ragged cry to Odin. Occasionally, the music sounds vaguely Middle Eastern, perhaps with a hint of klezmer here and there. Since the Vikings ranged far and wide, both as raiders and traders, it's quite possible their musical influences were equally far-ranging.
For all that there only three singers here, the vocals are very varied. There are even occasional glitches in the music, tiny errors that make it sound very real -- sort of like a community pageant that was performed to re-enact the period. I suppose it's safe to call the members of Krauka modern-day skalds, recreating an old tradition for modern audiences. Certainly the music makes me want to know more about the roots of these pieces; the band, as educators of an ancient style, should consider supplying further information on their craft!
When I imagine Vikings sitting in a great hall and singing, it's for their own entertainment, not some audience beyond the fourth wall. That's what this feels like, a group of musicians singing for their own pleasure, and if we enjoy it, fine -- and that helps me to enjoy it more.
The music is at times very pleasant, sometimes surprisingly relaxing -- perhaps evoking a casual evening in the great hall after a big battle. On other tracks it is frantic and bellicose, sometimes dissonant but never harsh. Is that one a funeral dirge? I wish I knew. Without a doubt, Stiklur is unlike anything I've heard before, a unique listening experience. I'd recommend that you give it a try.