It's rather stunning to realize that Swedish band Garmarna's last original full-length album, Hildegard von Bingen (devoted to reinterpretations of the Benedictine Abbess Hildegard's music) was released in 2001. The 1990s were a period of remarkable invention in Nordic music, and there seemed to be no end to the unusual, innovative sounds pouring from the northern lands. Garmarna were at the leading edge of all of it: evolving from a dense sound of acoustic fiddle, guitar, and hurdy-gurdy, the rock dynamics became increasingly edgier, and the dance beats crept around the edges of the band's music like the proverbial wolf at the door. By the time of 1999's glorious Vedergällningen (Vengeance), the electronica and dark ambiance had commingled with the traditional Swedish elements in what felt like an effortless fusion of different musical worlds. Garmarna's albums were cult-like, influential classics of modern Swedish folk music: but of course, life gets in the way, and families and new careers beckoned.
Which brings us to the release of 6, after a fifteen-year period of Garmarna's silence as a band. And there's a lot of quiet to be broken! The reunited group Emma Härdelin (vocals); Stefan Brisland Ferner (violin, hurdy-gurdy, synthesizers); Gotte Ringqvist (acoustic guitar); Rickard Westman (guitar, bass); and Jens Höglin (drums, percussion) sound rejuvenated, and Garmarna pick up where they left off in their experimentation. 6 is an album utterly in thrall with electronica and dance beats; the sound is crisply modern with an undeniable rock and pop sheen. Two of the tunes, Timmarna and Ett Dolt Begär, are out of the tradition; on the remainder, Brisland Ferner contributes to the writing, along with various combinations of the rest of the band.
Opener Över Gränsen is a protest song of sorts, and one that could even apply to those fed up with the 2016 election process in the U.S. Härdelin sings of escaping to Copenhagen, to leave the pressing modern world behind, as well as the murmur of meaningless politics; the song then veers off into dreams of idyllic nature, the clipped lyrical phrases offering glimpses of another world over the edge. Över Gränsen starts with a kind of hiccup, an electronic 'HA!' which occurs elsewhere on the album, and a stuttering element is added alongside the lyrics. And, to show that Garmarna are going full-on into current world music mashups, guest Maxida Märak drops in a rap startling, at first, but it all makes perfect sense. Nothing is off the table for Garmarna.
Väktaren is another appeal to the dancefloor, Härdelin sounding as assured as ever while the song cheerfully thumps and builds in a kind of percolating techno-explosion one finds in European discos. Öppet Hav (Open Sea) is a duet between Emma Härdelin and the Swedish rock musician Thåström. The song is about a mental and spiritual openness, casting off the past and sailing into the unknown, tinged by forbidding (Will our memories remain?). The music itself is remarkable: with squelching electronic beats, distorted guitar, grinding bass, and static, Öppet Hav is its own pop symphony, one that finally lets the vocalists drift away on a radio frequency.
Nåden is a dark electro cruncher highlighting just how versatile a voice Emma Härdelin has she can go from a whisper to a roar, crossing her traditional repertoire to the role of fierce diva. Labyrint likewise shows off Garmarna at their strengths. Incredibly catchy vocalizations, mirrored by a hurdy-gurdy line and trance-like layers of violin, join underlying touches of industrial detritus and reverberating bass to build to a squall and then subside into dust.
The traditional-based Timmarna starts at a slower pace, and the soundscape twinkles like a dreamland. For long-time fans, this piece would not have been out of place on 1996's Guds spelemän (Gods Musicians). Ett Dolt Begär begins quieter, but picks up its pace into a swirling mix of fiddle and choral electronics, a bit of echo on Härdelin's vocals adding to the enchantment. And there is a trademark Garmarna instrumental, Fönsterspöken, a lurching, thunderous interplay between electronics, hurdy-gurdy, and percussion that manages to conjure the same stalking menace of the massive Klevabergselden. The album closes with Gränser VI Glömt, a real beauty that teeters towards dance but which instead swells with melancholy.
At ten tracks, album 6 confidently announces the return of Garmarna. They emerge as a group with a lot to say, and on their terms: it's not so much that they are diving headfirst into club culture, but rather making elements of that culture their own by grafting it on to the DNA of Sweden's folk tradition. Never has Garmarna sounded so cohesive, driven, and optimistic, and there is nothing shy about their bid for the dancefloor. One hopes that more music is unleashed, and soon. Lee Blackstone
An interview with Stefan Brisland-Ferner and Olov Johansson