Words by Jelena Ćirić
What’s the recipe for stardom? Though the exact ingredients are greatly debated, most would agree that singing exclusively about Norse mythology, in old poetic forms, in a language spoken by a handful of people, would not be a good strategy for achieving fame. Yet for Icelandic heavy metal act Skálmöld, that’s the exact combination that catapulted them onto world stages and earned them thousands of adoring fans.
Skálmöld was founded almost a decade ago by Snæbjörn Ragnarsson (bass and vocals) and Björgvin Sigurðsson (lead vocals and guitar). Since 2009, the six-member, three-guitar outfit has released six albums and developed a devoted fan base. I met Gunnar Ben, the band’s keyboardist, and Þráinn Árni Baldvinsson, one of its guitarists, at Gaukurinn bar in downtown Reykjavík to learn more about their less-travelled road to fame.
While there may be other metal bands that flirt with the subject of Norse mythology, Skálmöld is unique in featuring lyrics in Icelandic using traditional poetic forms. While it may seem that would be off-putting to an international audience, Gunnar and Þráinn say the language and lyrics are often what foreign fans love most about their music.
“Most of the foreigners I meet abroad at concerts, they feel that’s the most important aspect of our music, that we’re singing in this sort of old Icelandic,” Þráinn says. Gunnar adds: “The form of the lyrics, the metre, makes them so rhythmic that I think it moves you even if you don’t understand them.” “Especially when it’s choral, then you experience it as an important part of the music: both the singing and the lyrics,” Þráinn adds.
While their lyrics and vocals contribute strongly to Skálmöld’s distinctive sound, Þráinn and Gunnar tell me they always write the music first. It’s a process that has gotten smoother over the ten years they’ve been working together.
“Someone could bring an idea that’s five minutes long, that they’ve thought through,” explains Gunnar. “And we just tear it apart. Sometimes we end up back at square one after trying all kinds of things. And that’s OK. We’ve gotten to the point where no one is upset if an idea gets changed. Of course there’s some ‘I think this is better,’ ‘No, I think that’s better.’ We definitely discuss it.”
“And disagree!” Þráinn interjects.
“But we all know it’s not personal, it’s for the music,” says Gunnar.
Skálmöld’s albums are all thematic, inspired by Norse mythology or Icelandic legend. Rather than retelling old stories, however, the band puts their own spin on their subject. The group’s latest album Sorgir, is no exception. Þráinn explains the concept: “There are eight songs. The first four are modelled after folktales, in which something terrible happens. Then the next four explain why it happened, and the reasons are even more disturbing than the events themselves.”
In this vein, the song Barnið describes the tragic scene of a baby’s death. Its partner song Mara tells the same story – from the perspective of the ghost who killed her. It’s a novel approach that makes the classic ghost stories still more unsettling. While wondering what sort of music fans would seek out such dark subjects, I find a powerful answer on the band’s Facebook page: a fan has left a comment describing how Mara touched him deeply after the death of his daughter. “We thank you for this song and are in thoughts with all who share such a fate with us,” it states.
The moving comment is one of many heartfelt messages fans have left on the band’s page. Many describe how Skálmöld’s music has helped them through a difficult experience. It’s clear the band’s music means a lot to their enthusiastic followers.
“On our last tour, a girl came to talk to me,” Þráinn says. “She gave me a necklace which her friend had owned who was a big fan of the band. And he had died. That gave me all kinds of feelings. I gave it to Björgvin, and he always wears it on tour.” Gunnar has another necklace with a similar story. “In Switzerland, a guy came to talk to us, and said ‘I’m learning metallurgy from my dad. This is the first thing I’ve made, and it means a lot to me. Here you go. Because your music helped me through hard times.’ I always perform with that necklace.”
Last year, the band played a series of concerts in Reykjavík with the Iceland Symphony Orchestra. Fans came from 37 countries to see it. “It was very humbling to go out after the concerts and hear ‘Hi. I came from Australia,’” Gunnar remarks. “You’re just like: ‘How much did that cost? How long did that take? How did it even occur to you to do that? Thank you for coming!’”
Few may have predicted this “epic Viking metal” would grace Iceland’s biggest stage with its premier symphony orchestra. Even the band’s members could hardly have predicted the success they enjoy today. Maybe one of the magic ingredients is genuine friendship. “When we tour with other bands, on days off, they often all split up and go in their own directions,” Gunnar says. “But we’re just always hanging out together.” “We even make sure we go out for dinner together regularly,” Þráinn adds.
Or maybe the secret to musical success is gratitude. Talking to Gunnar and Þráinn, it’s clear they don’t take their following for granted. While many of their fans are grateful for Skálmöld’s music, the band members are grateful as well. Maybe that’s the secret to keeping a band going for a decade, still recording, performing, and connecting with fans all over the world. Or maybe it’s simply because the band wrote the music they really believed in, trusting that a loyal audience would eventually find it. In any case, Skálmöld is certainly speaking a language their fans understand perfectly.
Skálmöld will play a few rare local shows at the Hard Rock Café in Reykjavík on April 5 and 6 and at Græni Hatturinn in Akureyri April 11 and 12.
This article is an excerpt. Read the full article in the latest issue of Iceland Review Magazine. Subscribe here to get the magazine delivered to your door.
Iceland Review is the longest-running English-language magazine presenting Iceland’s community, culture, and nature – since 1963.