Wednesday, January 15, 2014


TUTL Records ( –

Yölariis is a Swedish dialectical word referring to the laser-like sounds that ice makes as it is forming and breaking down.  If you’ve never heard it (what we might refer to as “ice yowling”), here’s an explanation: in a lake, as ice continues to freeze, it expands, stressing the structure of ice that has already formed, until it cracks.  These cracks take a moment to work their way down the sheet of ice, causing vibrations along the way.  The ice sheet rings with these vibrations, and the ring rises or falls in both pitch and volume quickly, as the frozen plates creating the tones get continually shorter.  The resulting sound is similar to that of the lasers in the movie Star Wars.  The process of ice “singing” through growth and change is a suitable metaphor for the nature of the band, as they present sounds and knowledge acquired on their continual journey as musicians.

Like water, a portion of the tunes on the Yolariis album flow from one into another, in a style reminiscent of the great progressive rock/art-rock concept albums from the 60’s and 70’s.

With other moments, such as the ethereal jam session at the end of “Blommorna På Marken,” it isn’t a stretch of the imagination to liken the diversity of their sound to Rush, King Crimson, or Yes in their heydays.

Aside from great organization and experimentalism, the instrumentation and composition of the songs shows wonderful execution and clever writing.  “Nakenbad” and “Sandhem,” two tunes based in three beats, mix both triplet and sixteenth-note feels, resulting in a tune that moves and builds in two different ways.  Apart from that, several songs include “flexions” in the note values (durations), rhythm, and/or the actual notes, giving the tune emotional nuances in places where simple repeats are common practice.  These small changes are not just an individual player’s articulations, but a function of the composition itself that everyone is playing.

The common form of much northwestern European folk music follows the structure of AABB: one melodic passage (A), then the repeat of that passage, followed by a different melodic passage (B), and its repeat.  However, Yolariis often makes modifications to the passages in their repeated portions.  For example, in “Nakenbad,” the first time A is played, one note is made natural, as indicated in the green notes:

First A Part
A Part Repeat

In the repeat of A, the first note is brought back into the key signature (first red note), and a subsequent note elevated to a different one within the scale (second red note).  The result is a change in feeling, with the former leaning towards confidence and ease, and the latter seeming more distressed.  Small changes like this exist in note values as well.  In “Sandhem’s” repeat of A:

First A Part
A part repeat

Although the actual tones that are played don’t change, their values do, yielding a different syncopated feel toward the end of the measure.  As a careful listen to some traditional polskas from Orsa or a Norwegian Springleik illustrates, syncopations like these are marks of the Scandinavian tradition.  These features of their writing indicate wise craftsmanship, giving the tunes a wider range of emotive character, as well as longevity for the listener.

Perhaps not as intensive and front-and-center as in past projects, Jens Ulvsand's playing on this album is still notably great in its variety.  His solo and lush open-stringed chords in “Sandhem,” plus his technique in “Brist Hjerta” are highlights of the album.  Ultimately, it’s his lighter-hearted tune, “April Dust,” that brings the album to a close.  The month of April is hardly harvesting time, but the tune makes a perfect sonic backdrop for a harvest, and is a bit of a relief after such a decent chunk of weighty (but wonderful) material.

Although his work here is not as pronounced as that of an Alla Fagra album, the essence of Dan Svensson’s playing is a reminder of an important and often forgotten aspect in percussion: texture.  From the sweeping of hands over the head of the drums that mimic the sound of the ocean, to the occasional ring of chimes, and in being highly-selective about what moments to accent with cymbals, Svensson’s work never lets the atmosphere stagnate or be too busy.  Although the album’s liner notes give no indication of the specific percussion instruments, it is apparent that he used no less than the Persian zarb/tombak, African udu, hang drum, congas, perhaps toms or djembe or cajón, as well as shakers, chimes, cymbals and bells.  All of those are aside from his playing of chordophones (cittern and tenor banjo) and aerophones (melodeon) on select tracks.  In a way similar to what Terje Isungset’s work does for Groupa, Yölariis wouldn’t have the mystique and range of sounds it does without Dan.

Per Knagg’s electric and acoustic bass work provides a bottom end to the music.  One doesn’t realize how much bass instrumentation is missed in Scandinavian folk ensembles until an album like Yölariis.  The bowed electric bass sound in “Brist Hjerta” gives Ulvsand’s racing bouzouki chops a sense of grounding, resulting in a pleasing mix of deep earthiness and movement.

His playing does more than just sustain a “bottom end,” and he often migrates between holding sustaining root tones, playing the main melody, and bringing out interesting harmonies.  Given the low register of the instrument, what he plays is easily audible and not invading of the space of other players.  His bass chords and melody sections in “Jordemor” give the tune a rich nature not common in Scandinavian folk, and prove that, when given the opportunity, the bass guitar can be just as emotive an instrument as any others.

Anna Elwing’s voice soars on top of the “Brist Hjerta’s” arrangement, breaking clear tones with glottal stops, much akin to the qualities of other folk singing styles around the world: Mongolian, Native American, the Kurdo-Persian tradition, or that of their own Scandinavian Sámi.  Aside from this world voice, she can evoke the angel, as in “Nakenbad,” and also stay true to the roots of Scandinavian folk singers.

There is a wonderful sense of balance in her singing.  She is not the over-projection that is common in singers of western classical tradition, where there is great loss of the character of one’s own unique voice through the emphasis of volume and tone.  Conversely, she is not the superlatively-faint, breathy, or frail-sounding trend of folk singers that occasionally emerges, where a listener might wish them to stop singing, and offer a glass of drinking water instead.  Her fiddle playing is lovely throughout; from the very faint, tight articulations during her lead in "Jordemor," to the psalm-like nature with which she simmers "Brist Hjerta's" energy down.

Elwing’s voice is not the only vocal highlight, however.  Great singing comes from all members of the band, most easily demonstrated in the beautiful confluence of timbres during the 4-part harmony in “Vår.”

When you’re coming from a largely rhythm-based folk music, such as American bluegrass, old-time, or Irish folk, a step into the nature of Scandinavian music is a breath of fresh air.  There is a freedom in the way a large number of Scandinavian tunes (traditional or modern) are composed: a story-telling quality where each moment of the tune is unique to itself.  More-western traditional music can have a tendency to keep a very consistent pulse throughout the course of the whole tune, seeming comparatively formulaic.  In addition to the actual tunes, YÖLARiiS has a range of musicianship and application that can make it appeal to a wide array of listeners, and in that way, it makes for a great “bridge” for those whom might otherwise find the idiosyncrasies of traditional Scandinavian music a bit off-putting at first.  In all these ways, YÖLARiiS is thoroughly great, and the album should prove to be a treasure for all who find their way to it.
-Seth Premo

For more information:

Anna Elwing’s work, check:
Dan Svensson’s work, search for his past and present projects: Alla Fagra, ODE, Tarabband
Per Knagg: Alla Fagra
Jens Ulvsand’s work, check: Trio Mio, Faerd, and Ulvsand & Hjetland