Sognametal: The Legacy of Windir – Part 1
Fans of black metal know how massive the genre is. From the raw first wave of thrashy bands like early Bathory, to the furiously raw offerings of black/death “war metal” acts like Diocletian, and all the way to the byzantine structures of Deathspell Omega, black metal has branched in a myriad of fulfilling directions. This article will focus on the more melodic/folky avenues of the genre. One band in particular carved out a niche for itself that very, very few bands have explored.
Windir played a unique style of melodic black metal that drew heavily upon folk and, sometimes, classical influences. Starting off as a one man act, Valfar needed no time at all to find Windir’s melodic, synth and folk laden sound, blowing away the competition of the surrounding Norwegian acts. After two albums, Valfar recruited a full line-up to write and play shows, and released two more albums as a full band before tragedy struck. In 2004, Valfar set out on a walk to his parents house, but was unfortunately caught in a blizzard and died of hypothermia. With no warning, Windir was gone, leaving behind a legacy of four exceptional albums and a hole that nobody else could fill. The members of Windir, as well as other local musicians inspired by the band’s powerful music, forged onward to form bands that continue today to explore the path paved by the legendary band. Bands in this vein would begin to use the name Valfar used for his own music: Sognametal.
What is Sognametal? To call it its own genre might be an error because so few bands play within this ultra-specific style. Coined by Windir, the term is most often used to describe Windir, the bands that its members started after its end, and local musicians within the Sogn og Fjordane region of Norway who strive to recapture the magic that Windir conjured from 1994-2004. The sound itself is ultimately rooted in the 2nd wave of black metal, exploring classical and folk melodies through the lead guitar and backed by a trade off of furious but often gorgeous black and thrash riffs. The music rarely slows down, and is often accompanied by keyboards or electronic synths. The chord progressions are gut wrenchingly powerful and perfectly support the shrieked howls and beautifully harmonized Norwegian Sognamål singing. The lyrics are typically written in the Sognamål dialect of Norwegian, and avoid the typical satanic or anti-religious themes, instead choosing to explore historical events, battles, or emotions.
Of course, since Sognametal is a specific to the region in which Windir originated, sometimes the term is applied to a band that does not match the description I provided. Ultimately, the term belongs to the surviving members of Windir. No matter what anyone else says, they coined the term and can, ultimately, decide what is and is not Sognametal.
With words alone, it’s easy to imagine many bands with a similar sound. Unfortunately for anyone who is familiar with Sognametal bands, the amount of music that truly captures the feel of Sognametal are so few that you can count them on two hands. This article doubles as a primer on the style, as well as a selfish call for anyone who may know of a band I missed to provide me with more similar artists. To fully explore the sound, we will walk through Windir’s albums one by one, and then explore the bands that rose from the ashes of the giant.
Windir’s grand debut. Preceded by two demos, this album solidified Valfar’s vision for black metal. The most noticeable thing about this album is the stunning guitar tones (especially the lead guitar) as well as the incredible vocals, both the harmonized cleans and harsh. This album is a bit slower in pace than later material, and the melodies of the lead guitar seldom venture outside the chords used. Despite that, the music is still powerful and entrancing. Songs like “Det Som Var Haukereid” begin to explore some of the more classical elements exhibited in the organ-like keyboard, while “Mørket sin fyrste” explores folkish melodies in the lead guitar. “Likbør” is the standout track here, wrapping all the pros of this album into one epic track. The album closer and title track, “Soknardalr,” leaves us with a somberly arranged instrumental piece that perfectly ends our journey.
It’s an excellent debut, but it’s not without flaws. As I previously mentioned, the lead guitar seldom leaves the safety of the chords backing it, and the stampede of riffs that would accompany the rest of Windir’s career is not present here. There are simply not that many standout tracks that truly capture the soul like their later material does. With that said, this is still an excellent album that will be thoroughly enjoyed by fans of Bathory’s style of Viking/Black Metal.
Valfar’s songwriting amps up considerably on this album, easily defining Windir’s career and cementing Valfar as one of the greatest black metal musicians of all time. The production is a lot cleaner, allowing all the instruments to be easily heard and exhibiting the most expressive lead guitar tone of Windir’s discography. If Sóknardalr is the tip of the iceberg, Arntor is the huge, submerged mass. The keyboards and rhythm guitars provide a frozen, enchanting atmosphere that allows one to easily visualize ancient Norway (like the village and land depicted on the album’s cover). Unlike the last record, the lead guitar ventures far beyond the basic chord outlines, providing haunting and beautiful melodies that will stick in your head for years to come. The vocals, both harsh and clean, float superbly over the music.
Each song is easily identifiable and diverse in its own way without feeling out of place, and each flows easily into the next. We are treated to a keyboard and accordion intro that sets the mood of the album. Next up, the album kicks us off with its title track. Immediately, one can tell the stark contrast in composition from the first album. The bass runs on its own supportive lines around the rhtyhm guitar, while the lead provides the engaging melodic passages. The drums and lead evolve as the music progresses, providing an ever changing but consistent atmosphere. This can be said of every song to the very end. This song leads us into the somber “Kong Hydnes haug,” which contains some of the best vocal harmonies and chants on the album. The album immediately transitions into the first of two epics, “Svartesmeden og lundamyrstrollet.” As lame as it is, epic is really the best word to describe this track. It begins with a rhythm and drum pattern overshadowed by the awesome lead guitar, all combining to sound like a rampaging blizzard pummeling your ears. This track also demonstrates Valfar’s ability to construct flawless transitions and build-ups into the main riff/guitar melody. From there, we descend the lofty heights of the mountain that is “Svartesmeden og lundamyrstrollet” to journey into the earthy and folky “Kampen,” a fun, bouncy, but still serious track that serves as a break from the bombastic. The end of our journey draws near as we enter “Saknet,” a highly emotional trek that explores both sonically and lyrically the idea of longing. Closing out the album is the moody dagger of the aptly named “Ending.”
This album is flawless as far as I am concerned, and should be the starting point for anyone interested in listening to Windir for the first time.
Listen: Svartesmeden og lundamyrstrollet
Windir’s first album with a full roster, 1184 finds the band exploring a more traditional black metal approach to their iconic sound. Unfortunately, the inspiring lead guitar tones from Arntor are gone, but the keyboard and bass tones are much improved, as if to make up for the loss. Again, one can immediately notice another dynamic change in composition, further expanding Windir’s sound. The guitar, when not playing supportive wintery black metal riffs, is found playing counterpoint to the lead guitar and keyboard melodies. The rhythm also plays far more riff-heavy material. The keys have much more of a presence on this album, possibly due to the production separating the instruments into an even clearer production than ever before. The addition of layers of counterpoint between the guitars and bass, and even sometimes the keyboard/clean vocals, provides an engaging listen. Though not as catchy or sugary when it comes to melody, this album clearly represents a much more mature Windir.
Unlike the dramatic growth in sound of their previous albums, Likferd does not venture far from 1184. That’s not necessarily a fault. It’s still firmly rooted in Windir’s recent evolution into riff and counterpoint heavy compositions. As usual, Valfar’s harsh and clean vocals supply the musical backdrop with a chilly and often moody atmosphere. This is probably the most “mainstream” of Windir’s albums, considering that it takes a less ambitious approach than previous albums in most regards. While not bad by any means, the album often feels too reserved compared to Windir’s earlier, more ambitious work.
Listen: On the Mountain of Goats
This concludes Part 1 of our adventure into Sognametal. Next time we’ll explore bands that are closely related in sound to Windir, including Vreid, Cor Scorpii, Mistur, Feigd, and Sigtyr.
What is your favorite Windir song? What do you think of the term Sognametal? Did I miss any bands that have an extremely similar sound to Windir? Let me know in the comments below!