Listen: Garmarna

GarmarnaSince the band’s founding in 1990, Garmarna have been one of the most prominent names in Swedish folk music. Their modern take on traditional Swedish folk tunes and ballads led them to moderate success in Sweden throughout the ’90s. However, they — and the Scandinavian folk scene as a whole — have remained relatively unknown elsewhere in the world. I discovered Garmarna completely by accident, during one of my frequent escapades down the YouTube rabbit-hole. I’ve become a pretty big fan of their music since, and today I thought I’d do a little spotlight on three of their albums: VittradGuds Spelemän, and Vedergällningen.

Vittrad [Withered]

VittradYear: 1994 | Amazon | iTunes | Spotify

  1. “Straffad Moder & Dotter” – 5:04
  2. “Garmgny” – 3:33
  3. “Nämdemans-Ola” – 2:40
  4. “Kulleritova” – 0:55
  5. “Vittrad” – 4:00
  6. “Skallen” – 3:11
  7. “Flusspolska” – 1:11
  8. “Antiokia” – 3:03
  9. “Liten Kersti” – 5:24
  10. “Inte Sörja Vi…” – 2:53
  11. “Domschottis” – 3:46
  12. “Den Bortsålda” – 4:23
  13. “Styvmodern” – 2:50
  14. “Klevabergselden” – 4:58

Though not their first release (that would be the 1993 EP Garmarna), Vittrad was Garmarna’s first full-length album and the most folk-y of all the albums here, if you discount the U.S. bonus track, “Klevabergselden”. A great number of the songs are instrumental, driven mainly by the hurdy-gurdy, fiddle, and percussion, which is a shame because most if not all the vocal tracks are pretty good. I’m quite partial to the first track “Straffad Moder & Dotter” which has vocals so jarring that I’m not sure they belong to the usually clear-sounding lead singer Emma Härdelin. (If you have any information pertaining to this, please leave a comment! I couldn’t find any indication online as to this song’s lead.)

But the best track on Vittrad is almost indisputably “Den Bortsålda”. It’s a song that tells the story of a girl whose father sells her to a bunch of sailors. Here we get a full taste of Härdelin’s vocals which would get much more focus later on in Garmarna’s repertoire. In fact, I feel like “Den Bortsålda” belongs on a different album. The gimmick of sorts that makes this song special is this really frantic part that sounds like it should be in a cheap horror movie (at around 2:50 in the embedded video). It totally caught me off guard the first time I heard it and though it’s kind of comical if you think about it, it sets “Den Bortsålda” apart in what is a more traditional instrumental album.

Guds Spelemän [God’s Musicians]

Guds SpelemanYear: 1996 | Amazon | iTunes | Spotify

  1. “Herr Mannelig” – 6:22
  2. “Vänner och Fränder” – 5:11
  3. “Halling från Makedonien” – 2:45
  4. “Min Man” – 4:20
  5. “Varulven” – 4:55
  6. “Hilla Lilla” – 6:19
  7. “Drew Drusnaar/Idag som igår” – 2:46
  8. “Njaalkeme” – 5:05
  9. “Herr Holger” – 4:58
  10. “Guds Spelemän” – 5:27

Of all Garmarna’s albums, Guds Spelemän is the most successful, winning a Swedish Grammy Award upon release. As a whole, it’s probably my favourite, and if you’re looking for a good entry point, this is it. The focus has definitely shifted from the instrumentation to Emma Härdelin’s singing, and it’s for the better. The album kicks off strong with “Herr Mannelig”, a song about a female troll wooing a young man.  Although it’s a bit long and repetitive, the way the instrumentation slowly builds up to a climax and finally a conclusion is satisfying in a way I can’t really describe. “Vänner och Fränder”, which tells of a maiden running away from an arranged marriage, is one of the few songs here that aren’t about monsters, death, or despair. It almost feels like a party, in a weird, Garmarna sort of way.

Moving on, “Min Man” has a weird rhythm to it, like a sort of stilted dance. And “Varulven” and “Hilla Lilla” back-to-back, in my opinion, are the most impactful eleven minutes in the whole album, at least lyrically. From there the whole thing kind of tapers off but isn’t necessarily bad; “Njallkeme” is notable for being the only song here not in Swedish (it’s in Southern Sami), “Herr Holger” is really fast-paced and rock-oriented, and “Guds Spelemän” ends the album in a stoic, almost solemn manner.

Vedergällningen [Vengeance]

vedergallningenYear: 1999 | Amazon | iTunes | Spotify

  1. “Gamen” – 4:01
  2. “Euchari” – 4:21
  3. “Halling Jåron” – 3:03
  4. “Vedergällningen” – 4:55
  5. “Nio år” – 4:29
  6. “Sorgsen ton” – 4:47
  7. “Herr Holkin” – 5:17
  8. “Bläck” – 5:05
  9. “Polska” – 3:07
  10. “Brun” – 5:57

 

With this release, Garmarna started to move towards a more electronic and synthesised sound. This is prominent in the first two tracks. “Euchari” in particular doesn’t sound like a folk song at all and I’m not a huge fan of the shift. Luckily, Vedergällningen also offers some of the more stripped-down, haunting folk songs of the three albums. The title track features a repetitive melody accompanied by instrumentation that fades in and blips out rather unsettlingly. “Nio år” is plaintive and dragged-out in a way that makes it almost hypnotic. So far so good.

But then we get into the songs that really make up for the slow start. “Herr Holkin” starts off like many of the songs in Guds Spelemän and you expect the melodies to repeat like they do in the earlier album, but then there are weird electronic sounds that come in alongside this strange chanting section. And then “Bläck” comes in and it’s so unlike anything else before it, relying almost entirely on the lead vocals. It’s an simple love ballad rather than the usual convoluted tragic legends and it’s my favourite Garmarna song of all.

Finally there’s “Brun”, the very first Garmarna song I ran into on YouTube. It was my introduction to the band’s ability to tell a story through not only the lyrics but the instrumentation, intonation, and overall atmosphere. Here’s a lyric video to illustrate that.

And that’s that! Garmarna did release more albums after Vedergällningen, including one earlier this year, but I’m not too familiar with their newer work, so I’ll have to leave you here.

What do you think of Garmarna? What’s your favourite track? Tell us in the comments below!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *