April 15, 2023

Ragnarök ‘n’ roll

Like the Crimson King bursting forth from his dusty court fifty-odd years later, Wobbler main man Lars Fredrik Frøislie kicks off the epic opening track of his debut solo album Fire Fortellinger with a typically grandiose theme, commencing a journey that only loosens its grip when the last notes have drifted away 47 minutes later. Taking a step outside the Wobbler mothership, the Norwegian keyboard sorcerer produces an equally compelling platter steeped in the robust Scandinavian heritage and spellbinding sounds beloved since the dawn of the symphonic renaissance of the early 1990s. Wobbler, you may know, has been mining this territory for twenty years now. Their five albums to date have been met with acclaim from 70s prog nuts who love the swirling blend of influences like Yes, Gentle Giant, PFM, and Banco (as well as second wave groups like Änglagård and Landberk) and their penchant for dynamic large-scale works. Together with contemporaries like Tusmørke (who the busy Frøislie moonlights with) and Jordsjø, they are torchbearers for Norway’s retro-prog scene and architects of all things beautiful and captivating.

Photo by Thomas Kaldhol

As ever, this new release finds Frøislie merrily residing in his world of vintage keys (the album is positively drenched in them). Stirring melodies are crafted with mellotron, Minimoog, CP70, harpsichord, and Hammond organ, as Frøislie roots through his grand arsenal employing whatever instrument he sees fit to. In fact, he plays just about everything here himself, including drums, while bass duties are handled by Nikolai Hængsle (Elephant9, Needlepoint) who lays down fluid and fuzzed-out basslines that prove a vital component of each of the four compositions.

Frøislie went fully old-school with this recording too: no modern click tracks or MIDI technology or auto-tune, often using the spontaneity of a first take even if mistakes were made. This rough-around-the-edges approach lends the album a kind of earthy charm without detracting from the music in any way. And in true solo album spirit, the multi-talented artist – who even painted the evocative cover artwork himself – seizes the opportunity to sing in his native tongue, something he’s admittedly always wanted Wobbler to do. Though this may leave most English listeners in the dark as to the meanings of the songs, the resulting vocals blossom into an instrument of their own, freed from any lyrical confines.

Album opener Rytter av Dommedag (‘Horseman of Doomsday’) is themed around King Rakne of Norse legend, who is said to be buried in Raknehaugen at Romerike, an ancient burial mound that Frøislie visited numerous times and describes as ‘a magical place’. He brings this mythology to life with swelling mellotron that introduces the main theme before the song progresses through a series of musical motifs and moods. The story goes that the eternal rest of the king was disturbed, so he rose angrily from the nearby lake to summon the old gods and wreak havoc (‘Ragnarök ‘n’ roll’, quips Frøislie with impressive deadpan). The spine-tingling reprise of the main theme towards the end of the piece is a magnificent passage that rivals Wobbler’s own majestic works as well as those of their heroes. It was at this point that I already knew I was going to love this album… a mere quarter of the way through my first listen. Sometimes you just know.

Raknehaugen: Photo by Kai Krog Halse

The advance single Et Sted Under Himmelhvelvet (‘Somewhere Under the Firmament’) is built on a simpler arrangement, but overflowing with gorgeous melodies that recall the greats of the Italian scene of the 1970s. Frøislie has indicated that he also listened to a lot of medieval and Renaissance music leading up to this album, and it shows. The song is a tribute not only to Italian culture, but to the romance of travel, and the intriguing sense of déjà vu that can arise when visiting somewhere you’ve never been before. Hængsle’s driving, energetic Rickenbacker propels the track while Frøislie colours with mellotron flutes, Moog, and Hammond. The wistful passages are reminiscent of albums like PFM’s Per Un Amico, a hallmark of the genre being paid homage here.

Photo by Thomas Kaldhol

Fire Fortellinger has light moments sprinkled throughout, but those tend to be dwarfed by the darker themes not uncommon to Frøislie’s work (you’ll spot him among the personnel of certain black metal bands too). And so, into the deep forest we go in the third fable, Jærtegn (‘Characters’), which tells of a horse-drawn carriage that tragically crashes during a solar eclipse, its ghostly occupants then forever grasping in vain towards the sunlight as they try to escape the darkness. Fun stuff! The jumpy organ in the rocking first section gives way to a somber, reflective harpsichord and vocal movement which gradually expands into the soaring and oddly beautiful latter half of this macabre tale. A fantastic piece that exemplifies much of what Frøislie does so well, and a reminder that the album’s bookend epics have plenty of competition for favourite tracks from these two shorter songs in the middle.

Hængsle slides doomily around the fretboard in the towering finale Naturens Katedral (‘Nature’s Cathedral’). The piece also utilizes clavinet and stormy, menacing Hammond C3 stabs (through a Leslie cabinet) to conjure images of a harsh winter by the Norwegian mountains… with avalanches thrown in for good measure. While survival in such unforgiving elements is the bigger picture, Frøislie has said the song is ‘also a search for bygone times when life was more basic out in the wilderness’. Ostensibly the most Wobbler-like of the four, this dynamic opus exudes a deliciously ominous atmosphere, hopping between heavy and gentle sections until eventually taking on a surprisingly jaunty feel (with even a hint of jazzy swing!) that brings a sense of cautious hopefulness towards the end. It’s little whispers of warmth like this that coax surprised smiles and prevent the album from becoming perhaps too dark and dramatic… though some will say that’s impossible.

Overall, this little homegrown album from deepest Norway is a big winner. Fans of Frøislie’s moody compositions and lovers of old-school prog rock in general will not be disappointed; I expect to hear a wealth of well-earned praise beginning in June. And while Fire Fortellinger may slot comfortably into a well carved-out subgenre, there isn’t an ounce of compromise or a shred of insincerity here. Just an abundance of wondrous music that stirs the soul and leaves the listener exhilarated. We can and should be thankful for true musicians like this who traverse the choppy seas of modern music, bravely floating their rafts alongside the massive ships of artificiality. Intrigued? Position thy finger over the ‘Pre-order’ button, smash it with due haste… and Ragnarök ‘n’ roll!

Fire Fortellinger is released 2 June on vinyl, CD, and digital.