Reflections of the Bards Sublime: Lumsk‘s Fremmede Toner (Part 1)


Ever since our ancestors saw themselves reflected in still waters, we’ve been using mirrors for myriad purposes: to see ourselves; to look where our eyes fail us; to communicate when our voices fall short. From the polished bronze of antiquity to modern-day chromium, they’ve evolved in form and function and become a part of everyday life. Like any technology, they’re capable of harm and help: they assist in navigation, but become the doom of narcissists. They send signals to search parties, but amplify the suffering of those feeling trapped in their bodies. A novel use for this ancient tool—that of a translator—is explored throughout Fremmede Toner (“Foreign Tones”), the latest album from Norwegian prog/folk/metal outfit Lumsk.

Fremmede Toner is a concept album of sorts, though it diverges from the continuous storylines oft associated with the style. Rather than following a single narrative, the album’s structure itself plays into the concept: the first 6 tracks are comprised of selections from the late André Bjerke’s own Fremmede Toner (published in 1947), in which he translated popular German and English poems for a Norwegian audience. These poems are then reflected back into their native tongues in the album’s latter half, albeit with their own unique soundscapes. Peer now into Lumsk’s looking glass, where foreign and familiar are not so far removed.

For each of these 6 poems, I’ll provide brief context on the author, as well as the narrative/themes of the text. I’ll then analyze the connections between the songs and their associated poems, and between the mirrored song counterparts. (Reflecting the track list, the Norwegian translations will precede the originals throughout.) Many thanks to our very own Potates in TovH Discord for their help in checking my understanding of the original German lyrics, and providing translations of their own: Hans, EvilHenchman, DarthWTF, and Zocktol. Danke!

Conrad Ferdinand Meyer
Det Døde Barn” // “Das Tote Kind” (1882)
(“The Dead Child”) 

Conrad Ferdinand Meyer was a Swiss author of historical novellas/ballads and a late-blooming poet, whose first collection of poems, simply titled Gedichte (Poems) was published when he was 57, just 16 years before his death in 1898. He was a man known to have “lived and experienced more deeply in memory than in the immediate present” (Bruns), a quality which can be seen through his fixation with the Middle Ages and other distant eras. His affinity for nature is also well-documented: “Everywhere there is apparent a love of nature interpreted with all the modern subtlety of feeling” (Bruns).

Both memory and natural imagery play central roles in his “Das Tote Kind“, a poem recounting the friendship between a young girl and an anthropomorphized garden. As fall turns to winter, both girl and garden pass into death. For the perennial flowers, this is merely a transitory state, a time of hibernation—upon waking in the spring, the garden wanders in search of its lost friend in the form of flowering vines and buzzing insects, asking when she’ll emerge from her house in summer clothing. For every pang of sadness, I’ve found that repeat readings unearth hidden qualities; it’s a tale of dread and innocence; haunting mystery and warm comfort; death and renewal.

Harder font than Nails will ever have, c. the 19th century.

These beautiful and eerie qualities are apparent from the first moments of “Det Døde Barn:” a ghostly wail rises from silence, but is soon joined by a bubbling, playful synth and Mari Klingen’s delicate singing. All mentions of death outside the poem’s title are referred to as sleeping: “De slumret begge inn…Og sov bak samme teppes hvite fred” (“They both dozed off…and slept behind the white peace of the same blanket”); together with Klingen’s mellow timbre and uplifting mellotron chords from keyboardist Espen W. Godø, it’s a mournful, yet peaceful moment—more an escape from suffering than a loss of life.

As the garden wakes in spring, the album’s first guitars surface: gentle, palm-muted riffs with a breezy melodicism. Throughout the song’s midsection, Meyer’s outlook on life can be heard in “a note of quiet calm…and through this calm the beat of a heart that felt joy and sorrow deeply” (Bruns). This heartbeat echoes through the distinctive thumping of the double-picked guitars, which grows in intensity as the garden continues the search for its missing friend.

A growing frustration can be heard in the garden’s tone, as questions of the girl’s whereabouts become demands: “Fortell oss jhvor du er” (“Tell us where you are”). In its mind, the girl acts as the flaky friend who always needs an extra hour to get ready when there’s playing to be done. There’s tragedy in this misunderstanding of her state, but also an endearing innocence as the song blooms into a crescendo of belted vocals and tangled guitar and synth leads.

If “Det Døde Barn” explores the serene qualities of the poem, “Das Tote Kind” represents an altogether darker interpretation. After a similarly spectral overture, Roar Grindheim and Eystein Garberg’s droning doom riffs lend a funereal weight that builds throughout the track.

A particularly eerie segment lies at the song’s heart: the garden asks “Wo steckst du?” (“Where are you?”) as the guitars fade, replaced by a buzzing synth that whines in the voice of insects. There’s a sensation of “der ganze Garten” (“the whole garden”) as a hive mind, physically searching for the girl in the shape of creeping vines of morning glory. This sense of movement is bolstered by Vidar Berg’s creative cymbal work, which conjures the patter of tiny feet; the whisper of disturbed leaves.

In another parallel to “Det Døde Barn”, the song ends with its heaviest moments, this time in the form of prog doom and Khemmisian harmonized leads. A gauzy filter lies over Klingen’s voice; the muffled tone evokes the dead child, as if listeners themselves are interred alongside her, hearing the garden speak while they’re “Gehüllt in eine Decke weiss und tief” (“wrapped in a blanket white and deep”).

These songs leave us with the garden’s timeless question: where is the girl? What awaits us all in the moment of death, and beyond this unknowable border?

Algernon Charles Swinburne
En Harmoni” // “A Match” (1866)

Algernon Charles Swinburne was an English Decadent poet and critic, best remembered for his provocative Poems and Ballads (1866), which inspired and appalled Victorian England in equal measure. In an era when an unguarded ankle was something akin to Goatse, his exploration of taboo subjects (lesbianism, sadomasochism, and anti-theism to name a few) was seen as a flagrant moral outrage: he was the “libidinous laureate of a pack of satyrs”, who sought to destroy “the current notions of decency and dignity and social duty” (Morley 147, 145). He was (as you would assume) immensely popular among the youth of the time; to a 16-year old Edmund Gosse, Algernon had “produced a sensation among lovers of poetry… which took the whole lettered youth of England by storm with its audacity and melody” (Gosse 160-161).

This audacity wasn’t reserved for ink and paper—Swinburne was, simply put, a risk-taker in life, who partied like a veritable Dionysus: “Stories were told of a naked Swinburne sliding down the bannister at Dante Rossetti’s Chelsea home while reciting Sordello forwards and backwards and of George Meredith grumbling that he could no longer work amidst such chaos” (Latham 1). He was also an openly gay man in a time when this was still a crime in England; it’s readily apparent he was willing to risk his stature, and possibly his health, to experience life on his own terms.

In “A Match“, his fondness for subversion, kink, and love poetry combined into a work that’s retained its edge nearly two centuries later. What begins as a sentimental ode to a lover, represented through innocuous pairings (roses and leaves; voices and melodies, etc.) soon shows a risqué underbelly. As the poem progresses, these pairs grow antagonistic: life and death, joy and sorrow, and pleasure and pain intermingle; by this point, we’re far beyond acceptable depictions of Victorian love. The final stanza would’ve been especially shocking—the lovers hunt down Cupid himself, plucking his feathers and placing a gag in his mouth in a blatant display of bondage.

Swinburne (4th from left) poses with half the members of his folk metal band ca. 1850s.

“En Harmoni” begins with a tonal clash between Siv Lena W. Laugtug’s somber violin and Klingen’s bright and lilting voice—a portent of storms approaching. The meandering, drunken guitars that follow bring to mind the infatuation of young romance; as this passion grows less prudish (with the pairing of life and death), shades of Deep Purple set in with stabs of distorted Hammond organ reminiscent of the driving rhythms of “Highway Star”. (I can’t help but here imagine a young couple hauling ass down a cobblestone road in a horse and buggy.)

The progressive structure of this track, with its frequent peaks and valleys of energy, is itself a depiction of love in all its “ømme blikk og latter” (“tender looks and laughter”) and “svik og gråt” (“betrayal and crying”). From dreary sludge chords to a blissful acoustic interlude (replete with Opethian clean leads), there’s an intoxicating fluidity to the song; a feverish haze that erodes genre borders. As the song reaches its incandescent climax, Cupid lies bound and gagged—our lovers have smothered the expectations of courtship and are free to explore each other in full.

Guest vocalist Matthias Samuelsen makes his debut in “A Match”; his breathy, world-weary tone (and the album’s first English lyrics) initially came as a shock, but he lends himself well to the song’s balladic quality. What begins as acoustic shoegaze quickly shifts to a rock tempo as Klingen joins in for a duet that ushers in the more transgressive stanzas. The song’s progression is simple when compared with “En Harmoni”: a slow burn that builds consistently with added layers of keys and blues licks; by the plateau of the final stanza, the song is unrecognizable in its aggression.

As the stanza’s “queen of pleasure”, Klingen’s sharp inhalations add an ecstatic note to her delivery, and Samuelsen’s “king of pain” manifests through the album’s most aggressive vocal work. (Long-gone is the timid narrator, replaced with a growling sadist that wouldn’t be out of place on a Vader album.) This call-and-response section is followed by a sludgy reprise from “En Harmoni”, albeit with additional instrumentation: violin pizzicato evokes the duo’s plucking of Cupid’s feathers.

Try not to worry too much about the fallen god of love—I’m sure they’ll make use of all of the pieces. Speaking of, they’re starting up some interesting stuff with those arrows, I think we’d better move on!

Join me for Part 2 on Wednesday (8/2)!

Works Cited:
Friedrich Bruns, ed., A Book of German Lyrics (Project Gutenberg).
Gosse, Edmund. The Life of Algernon Charles Swinburne. New York: Macmillan, 1917.
Latham, D. “‘Shadows Hot from Hell’: Swinburne’s Poethics (PDF).” Journal of Pre-Raphaelite Studies, ns 18 (Spring 2009): 5-15.
Morley, John. “Mr. Swinburne’s New Poems,” Saturday Review, 4 August 1866: 145-47.
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