The Norwegian alt-trad band Morgonrode has released its second album Du milde verden as a follow-up to their critically acclaimed self titled debut album from 2019. I haven’t heard that first one yet, but it received a nomination for best folk/traditional album at the Spellemann Awards (sort of like the American Grammys) and a nomination for best alternative album in the Norwegian Folk Music Awards at that year’s Folkelarm festival in Oslo.
Morgonrode is five musicians: Rasmus Kjorstad plays octave fiddle, fiddle, langeleik (a dulcimer-like zither), and mouth harp; Selma French Bolstad plays fiddles and nyckelharpe; Helga Myhr plays the Norwegian hardanger fiddle; Fredrik Luhr Dietrichson plays double bass and cello; and Andreas Skår Winther drums. All of them sing at times, though the two women do most of it.
Fans of traditional folk might or might not cotton to all of the music on Du milde verden (which means something like “the gentle world”). But I love traditional Norwegian music and I love contemporary jazz and some avant garde or modernist music, and Morgonrode combines those idioms in highly creative ways. I said Andreas pleays drums, but he’s more of a jazz or avant garde percussionist. His fanciful flights of skin-whacking are the main ingredient that gives a postmodern edge to Morgonrode’s music, although everyone’s playing, plus the creative production, and occasionally even the singing, contribute. I try not to throw terms like “postmodern” around with abandon, but postmodern folk music is a pretty good way to describe Du milde verden, if you can take it to mean the combination of modernist and traditional elements.
The track titled “Fangjen,” for instance, which is apparently a traditional fiddle tune from central Norway, named for a fiddler from around Mount Bispberget, one Kristen Fangje. The liner notes say Fangje played this tune as a funeral procession passed by, and when it drew near blood started to run out of the coffin, which apparently was a sign that the murderer of the deceased person was somewhere nearby. At any rate, Morgonrode’s arrangement begins as a traditional-sounding tune with — I’m guessing here — fiddle, octave fiddle and hardanger playing the tune more or less in unison for a couple of verses. Then the arco bass joins in and some dissonant elements outside of the melody from plucked strings on one or two of the fiddles. Finally the drums enter and both drums and bass seem to be playing a different rhythm than the standard 4/4 the fiddles are playing. From there some psychedelic elements are added, with reverb on the pizzicato octave fiddle that gets deeper and more distorted, and before it’s done it sounds something like the more outlandish parts of, say, The Beatles’ “Tomorrow Never Knows.”
Of the nine tracks, four are songs, and another features non-verbal vocalizing. It’s not always clear who’s singing, but it’s probably Selma singing lead on “Den store verden,” a song she wrote the words to with a traditional melody. This track is a suite of four tunes, including one composed by Fredrik, a complex fiddle line accompanied by splattering drums, and finally to an atmospheric tune featuring two fiddles playing slightly different and dissonant versions and singing along even more dissonantly. “Lilja uti dalen” or “Lily in the Valley” is a traditional-seeming song sung by a male and female voice in unison, backed by pizzicato fiddles; it transitions into a stuttering fiddle tune with very jazzy bass and drum accompaniment. “Veslegut,” a trad song based on an old knightly ballad, features the two women singing in unison, their hushed voices accompanied by spooky arco bass lines. One of the women sings “Princessen” in a lovely clear voice; this song about a princess and her serving boy is accompanied by a brushed snare tattoo and plucked bass, with a haunting two-fiddle line running through the instrumental breaks between the verses.
In addition to the beguiling “Fangjen” that I described above, a couple more of the tunes especially stand out. The album kicks off with the traditional “Huldresull,” with the langeleik and two fiddles playing the rather stately dance tune, the bass and another fiddle droning, and some mouth harp. Winter joins on drums about midway through and things get a little less trad-sounding, but nothing startling. The sound of the langeleik at the beginning might remind some listeners of the dulcimer that accompanied songs by Richard and Mimi Fariña some 50 years ago in the U.S.
“Arabaren” starts with a mystery-laden melody that transitions to a stop-start dance tune; Frederik was inspired to write this one by an old tale about a sailor whose clothes are stolen by an Arab while docked at Port Said in Egypt — and who is then mistaken for an Arab himself when he wraps himself up in some sailcloth. The album ends in a subtle but enchanting way with a cover of “Swedenborgske Rom” by Norwegian prog jazz band Jaga Jazzist. It begins with a pensive melody that eventually fades into a barely sketched skelelton of that tune plucked out on the bass. Then one by one the vocalists begin singing single notes wordlessly, and it finishes with four of them arpeggiating chords with their voices.
“Morgonrode” is an old Norwegian word for the red sun rising at dawn. That’s a pretty apt description of their approach to making folk music, a blend of traditional and fresh, new. My descriptions and explanations of it come from a mixture of the English one-sheet and Google translations of the Norwegian liner notes, so any mistakes are my own. Du milde verden is available on streaming platforms and on vinyl from Ta:lik or the band’s Facebook page.