A few years ago, Myrkur caused quite a stir in the black metal community. A project conceived of by a 20-something Danish runway model, Amalie Brunn, her ambient, folk-infused style seemingly caught on as her two albums, M and Mareridt, have both been well-received by large audiences. They came to the seldomly used venue, Konepajan Bruno, in Helsinki as part of the Folkesange Tour, which unlike her latest releases, were focused on folk music from Scandinavia, performed entirely live and acoustically.
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By conventional wisdom, one would imagine it to be a stretch for many metalheads to be interested in a full-on acoustic folk evening. However, a crowd consisting of mostly black metal fans did show up and, as implied by the aforementioned queue, were indeed anxious. Likewise, I was eager for just about anything Bruun would bring, especially having missed my chance to see Myrkur live at Tuska Open Air in 2016.
The ambiance in the room had been very subdued as Päivi Hirvonen came out to warm up the stage; it was just her with a violin. Her sound was very Finnish folk but the delivery was somewhat metal inspired. There was a lot of very deliberate dissonance in her chord choices. Indeed, the sound was very quiet but it wasn’t unclear, so perhaps I’m just too used to wearing earplugs to concerts.
Her first song, “Viinanpiru”, appeared to be of the evils of alcohol. It started out so slow and whispered that I almost didn’t realize the show had started. It quickly escalated as the playing and vocals both grew more intense. When she went for those high notes, she really brought it.
She then introduced herself in very broken English, in the vein of all those famous race car drivers such as Kimi Räikkönen. She played her second song on a traditional Finnish instrument, the jouhikko, a string instrument one plays with a bow. She said it’s quite difficult to keep in tune but that she would try anyway. The song was called “Enkö Mä Saisi Laulella?” [Am I Not Allowed to Sing?]. It was a much more dulcet, somber piece. Much like the first song, it also had a more intense section near the end.
She took up the violin again for the third song, which seemed more like an intermission than anything else. She went ahead and fiddled a little ditty, which gradually phased into another more powerful moment. At this point, the pattern of these songs had begun to emerge. It was called “Ruskatanssi”, which she herself translated as “The Dance of the Autumn Leaves.” This was then followed by her last song, “Ragnarök”, which is Norse mythology’s Armageddon. She prefaced it as being about what is left when everything is gone. It was once again performed with the jouhikko. Like many of the other songs, it had few to no lyrics per se, but relied on mood and melody.
Päivi Hirvonen was definitely interesting to see. She wasn’t the kind of artist I’d usually go out of my way for, so I’m glad I got to see it. The audience was noticeably enthused as they cheered more and more frantically after each song, and Hirvonen’s mighty high notes took everyone’s breath away.
As Myrkur came on stage, the crowd erupted into thunderous applause. She and her crew all took their places with the lady herself on the piano at the back of the stage. The guitarist sat on the right and with two backup singers to the left.
Myrkur said that they came to play some of their own songs as well as some traditional folk songs. The second one was a Swedish tune (I didn’t catch the name). She also said, “There will be a lot of tuning of instruments, as they are alive and do what they want,” (which is true, by the way). This was followed by a Norwegian folk song. They really got to showcase their three-part harmonies here. Their sound was very ethereal and authentic as the instruments were acoustic and live.
Päivi Hirvonen was then welcomed back to the stage. They said they’d never played together before so it was an experiment. Hirvonen played her jouhikko as Bruun took center stage with a shaman drum. She remained in this place for a few songs.
As they tuned up for the next traditional song, the guitarist said his tuning was, “Good enough for folk” – they all chuckled. It was a very short song, after which Bruun took up her nyckelharpa, which is another traditional string instrument with a bow; they played an original song, “Himlen Blev Sort.” The nyckelharpa’s haunting, almost grating sound gave the performance more of an edge even though the song itself was sort of a ballad.
The vocals ranged from cute and somber to glass shattering screeches depending on the song. All three singers were consistently flawless throughout the set. The powerful vocals seemed to impress the audience as much as they did myself, as they always garnered a lot of cheers.
After a while, as they prepared to do a Scottish ballad, the mic gave a huge feedback which Bruun responded to with a sly, “Guess the mic is on.” It fit the laid-back attitude of the evening like a glove. A folksy night should have a folksy feel. No one expected it to be absolutely immaculate anyway.
The venue itself was very cold, as it was an old industrial building, often used to host events. On the other hand, the chilly air was more than appropriate for these Nordic songs of woe and loss. The final song was about the death of a little girl. They painted a picture of barren landscapes of snowy tundra. One almost wished to see one’s breath hang in the air.
As cold as it was in the hall, it was nothing compared to how cold the ending was. They finished the sad child-death track only to get up, bow, and then exit the stage. The applause was huge but it felt very abrupt and sudden.
Going into this show, I didn’t really know what to expect. I have a good relationship with black metal but Scandinavian folk music isn’t something I’d normally rush out to see. Though I would’ve very much liked to see more of Myrkur’s own material, I could appreciate the artistry of this unique experience. Even the opening act, which had been completely unknown to me, was a rousing success. This was something different and it surely opened up some horizons for many of us in the audience. Myrkur will surely come back to do more black metal in the future and I’ll be looking forward to it. In the meantime, this had been a great appetizer.
Photos: Marco Manzi