The Faroe Islands are located roughly halfway between Iceland and the northern tip of Scotland. Mostly autonomous, they are still formally considered part of the Kingdom of Denmark. Culturally speaking, the Faroese people are essentially Nordic (being descended primarily from the Vikings), and their language is very similar to Norwegian and Danish. The nearest land to the Faroe Islands are the Shetland Islands, though, and as a result there is a bit of a Celtic imprint on the Faroese culture and traditions as well. The economy revolves around fishing, but recently they have begun exporting something else entirely — heavy metal deeply rooted in Norse pagan mythology, most notably in the form of a quartet called Týr. Týr are led by Heri Joensen on vocals and guitar. Terji Skibenæs provides a second lead guitar, Gunnar H. Thomsen plays bass, and Kári Streymoy does the drumming. Their two most recent albums, Ragnarok from 2006 and Land from 2008, are both concept albums.
Týr describe their music as “folk metal.” They don’t incorporate folk instruments directly into their sound, but they use many traditional Faroese melodies and base some of their own compositions on the traditional style. While Faroese traditional music contains influences from the islands’ Celtic and Nordic neighbors, the Faroese synthesized these influences in a very distinct and peculiar way. Instead of keeping jigs, reels and polskas as separate tunes in their repertoire, Faroese tunesmiths sort of mashed these different styles together. The result is an assortment of tunes that sound familiar at first, but quickly shift into very complicated rhythms that will take several listens to pick up.
In Norse legend, Ragnarok is an apocalyptic battle that concludes a cascading civil war that involves all the Norse gods and humanity. No gods survive, and only two humans are left to start over. It’s a bleak topic to be sure, but not out of character for a heavy metal recording. At any rate, Týr present the story in a way that gives the myths some modern relevance.
Ragnarok the album begins with an overture, followed by an opening scene featuring the most famous of the Norse gods. Thor captures somebody who had snuck in and cut off his wife’s hair, but the intruder spares himself by offering Thor something he can’t refuse. “Out of the fire of freedom, and out of the forge of dwarves, to hold in your hand now and forever more, I give you the hammer of Thor.” Anybody with even a vague knowledge of Nordic mythology (from Tolkien, say, or perhaps just from playing Dungeons & Dragons) knows that you never thumb your nose at somebody offering you a weapon of the finest dwarven craftsmanship. And when the presentation of said weapon is accompanied by music that rocks, well hey, that’s an added bonus.
Predictably, things spiral out of control from there. Deceit leads to treachery, which leads to betrayal, which leads to revenge. The gods stop getting along, their human worshippers are forced to respond, and pretty soon all humanity becomes entangled in the conflict. The people persevere, unable to extricate themselves from the conflict, but fully cognizant that “this war will throw us corpses in a heap.”
While the metal clearly dominates the folk, the traditional musical elements that do get incorporated into Ragnarok help to make the album very interesting. On “Wings of Time,” a Faroese chant from a field recording is turned into a fiercely potent chorus. “Lord of Lies” is introduced with a traditional Faroese melody played on fiddles and recorder by a folk band, but then the melody becomes guitar riff that kicks in the main part of the song. It sounds like a very strange combination, yet Týr make it work.
The other compelling aspect of Ragnarok is that it is ultimately an anti-war album. For all the depictions of warriors and battles in the songs, Týr present the myth in a way that doesn’t glorify war at all. Rather, the band treats proponents of war with the same respect that you’d treat a shamelessly underhanded salesman. The album’s payoff comes in the epilogue “Valkyries Flight/Valhalla.” An inspired conversion of an Irish reel into a metal riff leads into an angry dismissal of people who “pretend they have the answers to all. In awe they’ll defend fictional visions of mist. I never believed in their stories, I never saw sense in their speech. All they ever taught me was hatred.” On one level, the song is definitely a critique of the role that established religion has played in warfare over the years, but taken generally the song and the album are aimed at anybody who manipulates people into acting in a way that is ultimately destructive.
The songs on Land relate tales of voyages across the sea. The album begins rather ominously, with a Faroese poem composed by the Islands’ most famous author, J. H. O. Djurhuus. The poem is actually a spell, cast by the sorceror Trond to protect the Faroe Islands and their pagan culture against Norse invaders intent on Christianizing the Islands. The leader of this force, a Faroese native named Sigmund, is an actual historical figure. The poem is recited over a traditional Faroese tune played not by the band, but by a string quartet. The band kicks in after the poem is done, turning the Faroese melody into a heavy metal riff that becomes the album’s dominant musical theme.
The album’s subsequent songs follow the lead of the opening piece. Voyagers from places such as Scotland and Norway, and from many different historical moments, cross paths with the Faroese people. Sometimes the voyages involve a confrontation, and sometimes the voyages involve an escape from hardship and the quest for a new life elsewhere. More songs on Land are sung in Faroese than there were on Ragnarok, which was sung mostly in English. The lyrics borrow heavily from Faroese poems and legends, and also from a Norwegian poem written by Edvard Storm in the 18th century called “Sinklars V’sa (The Ballad of Sinclair).” Featuring some excellent group vocals, this particular song recalls the brutal ambush of an army of Scottish mercenaries who were hired by the Danes to fight the Norwegians. The two songs mostly in English, “Ocean” and “Land,” are both epic pieces lasting over 10 minutes.
Land also contains a concert DVD filmed at a 2007 performance. The vocals weren’t quite as tight live as they were on record, but otherwise the DVD is a fun bonus.
I can’t really say I’m much of a metal fan, and the first time I played Ragnarok I really didn’t know what to make of it. By the third or fourth listen, though, I was totally digging it. People who simply don’t like any heavy metal won’t embrace Týr, but there’s something to be said for any record that rocks hard and has depth at the same time. While I don’t think the underlying concept was quite as effective on Land as it was on Ragnarok, the album is still solid. Joensen’s vocals are strong throughout, and the group harmonies were particularly well done. Týr’s instrumental prowess should not be overlooked, either. Coupling the complexities of their homeland’s traditional music with the volume and speed you’d expect from a heavy metal record is not an easy task. Týr are one of the most consistently fascinating bands that I’m aware of, and I look forward to hearing what they do next.