Review by: B. B. Fultz
Album assigned by: A.A
Ragnarök is a Swedish band from the seventies. A number of sources list them as “progressive folk” in the vein of Jethro Tull. For me, this distinction is clear for Tull because I’m familiar with the textures of medieval English folk music, but I have little idea how Swedish folk/traditional music sounds, so I’ll have to take their word for it. From what I remember of Nordic mythology, Ragnarök roughly translates to “Twilight of the Gods” — the final war that heralds the end of the old gods and the old world. The album cover does indeed depict a Twilight sky, but no apocalyptic battles … just a shadowy figure on a bicycle riding down a winding country road toward an oncoming bus. I do not know who is riding the bike or who is driving the bus, and there is no clear indication whether the two will pass one another or collide head on, so the message is unclear. On the cover, the umlaut-dots in “Ragnarök” look like two more stars in the night sky. Who knows, maybe they are? In stark contrast to the name, the cover is very pastoral, almost idyllic. The looming black cloud seems to be the only hint that something ominous could be on the way.
The reason I’ve tried to decipher the album cover is because the music itself has no lyrics, so it doesn’t explain what any of this has to do with the end of the world. Maybe they just thought it would be a cool name for a band?
The music itself is essentially an acoustic tapestry of different moods and textures. The “progressive folk” label is misleading because it has none of the trademark elements of Prog. No futuristic sound effects or Keith Emerson synth solos here. In fact I don’t think there ARE any synthesizers on this album, and very little keyboards. About the only real connection to Prog is an occasional jazz influence on the guitar solos and some tricky drum syncopations. It’s a lot closer to Pink Floyd and Jethro Tull than it is to ELP or Yes. The song titles are in Swedish, but I listened to the songs before I deciphered the titles, to absorb the various moods neutrally. The album mostly follows a folk pattern, yet there are a variety of subtle nuances here.
Färval Köpenhamn (translated to “Father Choice in Dubai?” … I split up Farval syllabically, so I’m not sure of the accuracy here) begins the album on a simple folk pattern of interwoven acoustic guitars in the style of David Gilmour (both the early and latter days of Pink Floyd) crossed with something else I can’t recall. It’s wistful sounding in that way a good Gilmour acoustic track is. This Pink Floydish quality recurs in several songs, including the very next song, called Promenader (“Walks”) … a longer and more complex song with an attractive guitar melody and spacey/dreamy solos laid atop a mellow jazzy background. Stoner rock of sorts, but of very high quality.
Nybakat bröd (“Freshly Baked Bread”) shifts gears into a mid-tempo medieval ballad. As soon as I heard the opening notes, I thought Jethro Tull … amusingly, a few seconds later a flute made its first appearance on the album, and I had to smile (did I call it, or what?). If you heard this without knowing all of Tull’s back catalogue you could easily confuse it for one of Ian Anderson’s Elizabethan forays. Purposeful and meticulous minstrel-strumming with a sense of forward motion. Yet ere you climb on your steed and make haste, it is over, and we’re falling into the Dagarnas Skum (“Days of Foam”) and another Pink Floydian fugue state. The longest song on the album, it begins almost too softly to be heard, climbing out of the gloom in a way reminiscent of “Echoes.” It has some VERY Gilmour-sounding guitar playing, and all of these surreal little background chirps and chimes that make the whole thing sound somewhere halfway between dreaming and waking. When the flute comes in, it sounds so right it seems almost preordained. Soft sibilant percussion appears and intertwines with the rest, sometimes steadily, sometimes in convoluted little syncopations. The whole thing is amazing — if I didn’t know the band I would swear I was listening to early 70s Pink Floyd at the top of their game. I can only assume the Foam in the title is sea-foam … it’s a dreamy undersea world, like Echoes, where “everything is green and submarine.” The finale of Side One, beautiful and sad and deep, a song where everything flows together just so, like some fable that gets better with each retelling. Simply a great piece of music.
Side Two begins with a return to the land of Tull, and Ragnarök’s answer to Bouree’ … a super-short (44 seconds) flute solo called Polska fran Kalmar (“Polish From Kalmar”) and essentially the prelude Fabriksfunky (“Factory Funky?” Not sure on this one). Fabriksfunky is an interesting one, another smooth jazz-rocker reminiscent of Robin Trower. The rhythm section as well as the tone of the guitar solos all remind me of the Trower song “Somebody’s Calling” — one of his best, by the way. Then things slow down a little again with Tatanga mani (“Walking Buffalo” and the only non-Swedish title, apparently it’s borrowed from Amerindian dialects). This is the one that most reminds me of a Yes song, at least in the beginning. The tumbling acoustic runs are reminiscent of Steve Howe’s better moments. The first half of the song consists of these noodling little acoustic fingerings, almost like it’s looking for direction. Partway through it turns into something quite different, a kind of Flamenco lounge number on the acoustic with nifty little bass runs. Somehow they bring the flute into it toward the end. And somehow it works. Don’t ask me how though. It’s really more like “aimlessly wandering buffalo” or maybe “schizophrenic buffalo looking for its medication” because it never sounds like the same song for long. It gets a little disorienting at times, but at least it’s never dull.
The last few songs don’t cover much new ground — Fjottot (no idea what it means) brings us back to ELP. It has a bouncy circus-like sound with an almost hurdy-gurdy style background, like you caught Keith Emerson in a playful mood and then he realized you were there and abruptly stopped playing after a minute and a half of noodling around. It’s a little too short, but it’s fun while it lasts. Stiltje-uppbrott (“Lull Breakup”) returns to a solemn introspective mood, at least at first, then breaks into a rousing medieval-esque acoustic barrage complete with a very emphatic flute (back to Tull again). I’m guessing it’s about the lonely period after a romantic break-up (the “lull” between partners) where one is in a numb lethargy and then suddenly snaps out of it. The closing song Vattenpussar (“Water Kisses”) starts very softly with wistful sounding little chiming keyboard notes weaving with a lonely and bluesy electric guitar, building into a strange kind of jazz-rock-blues thing that I can’t exactly describe, with a horns section (at least they sound like horns) that verges on something from Frank Zappa’s Hot Rats album, or almost … then dwindles back to its soft beginnings … then ends. It was a good song to end the album on because somehow it just SOUNDS like a coda. But don’t ask me exactly how or why.
For an album where most of the songs follow a similar theme, I’m a little surprised this review turned out so long. These are all basically guitar-based folk songs, aside from the one flute solo (which was basically a prologue to a guitar song). But there’s so much going on, so many different moods and textures and shadings of meaning, that it seems impossible to do it justice with a brief review. George might be able to pull that off, but I don’t think I can. This music was nothing totally new or unique, not even back in 1976, and they seem to borrow from a lot of other, more famous bands. Yet they mix these elements in a novel way, making it all somehow greater than the sum of its parts. I have no idea what freshly-baked bread or sea foam or buffalos have to do with the end of the world, but even if I don’t understand it, I still feel like I “get” it. This is not an album of certainties, it’s an album of nuances. In fact it’s so nuanced I think adding lyrics would just have been a distraction. It’s an amazing rainbow of moods and emotions and whimseys, and an ideal example of what a few competent musicians are capable of when they stop trying to explain life and the world and everything, and simply concentrate on making good music. This is an album of contemporary folk rock and that’s about it, so I suppose it’s nothing special. But not being special is what makes it so special. Thumbs up, 4 or 5 stars, whatever … just go listen to it. This is an album that should be heard, and heard often.