March 22, 2022 — The darkfolk flair of Sweden’s Andreas Axelsson’s Nattramn project has time and time again taken inspiration from the poetry, language, and culture of the Nordic people, with most of his previous releases focusing on the characteristics of the mysteriously enthralling Elder Futhark runes.
“Nattramn has consistently excelled in both musicianship and capability to reinvent the ancient lore of Scandinavia, once again finding an (expanded) audience in modern enthusiasts and the darkfolk music scene.”
Nattramn’s new 6-track album, Sonatorrek, is an Old Norse poem from Egill’s saga known in English as “The Irreparable Loss of Sons”. Needless to say, it was inspired by Egill’s Saga, an Icelandic work that recounted the life of the poetry warrior-skald, Egill Skallagrímsson who lived around 910–990. Outside of his own notable and complex poetic work, more deeds of Egill can be found in the Icelandic literature of Snorri Sturluson written in the mid-1200s. The Sonatorrek poem tells of Egill’s inconsolable grief at the death of his two sons, Gunnar who died of a fever, and Böðvarr (Bjarki, cognate with Beowulf according to some), who drowned in a storm. Driven by sorrow to lock himself away in an attempt to starve himself to death, Egill’s daughter Thorgerdur instead convinced him to compose a saga as a memorial poem to his dead sons.
An Ode to Loss
The tale, once carved onto a rune-staff, has now been reformed as a 25-minute resonant dirge by Axelsson. Originally written to be a single song, and later reworked into six, subtly nuanced chapters, the album revolves around a consistent, core sound.
In practice, Nattramn’s echoing, throatful recital, coupled with eerie, nigh dungeon-synth keys, gives Sonatorrek a cavernous and emotive quality. Even without the weight of historical context, the artist manages to portray a convincing arc of loss and grief over the course of the release. As a recital (in part, as some stanzas are missing from the original manuscript ) Axelsson’s take on the poem comes across as a sprawling, lengthy release despite being made up of only 25 stanzas (in Norse poetry, a stanza is a poetic format consisting of two or more lines arranged as an often rhyming unit.)
The poem’s translation is less of a direct account of the deeds and experience of Egill and his sons, instead, it is a bleak account of a broken man, detailing the death of his sons and the role the gods have played in their undoing. The Nattramn-adapted lyrics, which depict despair, isolation, and Egill’s own belief he must have fallen from the favor of the gods to deserve his loss, are delivered with a respectfully composed yet grim tonality that seems to echo the pain of a man patiently — and willingly — waiting for death to come. This composure in Axelsson’s vocals leaves a sparse yet impactful percussion with slowly ebbing synthesizer sounds to do much of the emotional lifting.
Acting as a counterpoint to Sonnatorrek’s persistent feeling of oppressive darkness offered by the deep bass of Axelsson’s throat sung lyrics, these chiming keys move around the character of Egill who has given in to the fate he is convinced will inevitably take him too. On the whole, Nattramn’s six-tracker is a darkly powerful listen and one that remains potent through the timeless nature of grief.
Of Pitfalls and Potency
While there is much to praise in the craft and dedication that went into the production of this release, what there is to criticize is not through the fault of technique or execution. In what amounts to an extended single with a series of divided parts, Sonatorrek appears imprisoned by a lack of overt variety in tone. Tonally, the record is a heavy, dour listen; one that is stirring, but in the most heart-aching way. Ultimately this works in the context of the story Nattramn is aiming to tell, but as a listener, Sonatorrek takes a certain amount of focus by listeners to get through.
Balancing ambient tones with the reverberating depth of Axelsson’s vocals make for a mournful but meditative listen, and that is exactly how it is best consumed, without distractions or any presumptions about where the music will take fans. Though the minimal nature of the vocals and music on Sonatorrek works in its favor, folk purists may quibble with the apparent lack of traditional Nordic instruments. Clearly, Axelsson has taken a more modern approach to the release, with works in its favor as his choice to use synthesizer sounds is one that generates an eerie sense of space that may have been harder to capture had authenticity been of greater concern.
Out of 10
- Nattramn captures in painstaking detail the grief of Egill Skallagrímsson in powerful, moving vocals with minimal instrumentation
- The artist’s powerful performance is ambient, meditative, mournful, and bears the full attention of listeners.
- Lacks a wider range of traditional Norse instruments, with synth making up a significant portion of the release.
- The deep, emotional essence of darkfolk may not be for everyone’s taste.
Nattramn has consistently excelled in both musicianship and capability to reinvent the ancient lore of Scandinavia, once again finding an (expanded) audience in modern enthusiasts and the darkfolk music scene. Speaking recently to Kurgan Compass of his album Skáldskapr, Axelsson described his desire to capture the spirit of immersive storytelling from the past, which is an intrinsic part of this release — for good or ill. Sonatorrek is an exceptional release, but may not be for everyone’s palate.
Nattramn’s Sonatorrek LP is available to stream now on all digital platforms and we highly recommend it to be purchased directly on Axelsson’s Bandcamp page.