It’s quite common in ambient music to refer to nature as an inspiration. Artists take things they love about nature – its harmony, majesty and timelessness – and turn them into soundscapes. Music therefore serves as a way to appreciate. What if one day somebody took nature, but instead of admiring its beauty, wanted to tell a story of it? Canadian duo Northumbria chose this untrodden path on their album “Helluland”. The third album from Jim Field and Dorian Williamson is a story of harmony which, suddenly disrupted, turns into suffering.
“Helluland” is not just a random grim-sounding name. It actually puts the music into a context which is crucial to uncover the story of this album. Around one thousand years ago Vikings were the first Europeans in history to reach the island on the northern coast of Canada, today known as Baffin Island. They called this place Helluland – the land of flat rocks. The story on Northumbria’s album is however not being told from the Viking perspective – instead, as the cover art suggests, it is the island’s tale.
RELEASE DATE: 31 March 2015 LABEL: Cryo Chamber Records
The narrative begins long before the arrival of the Vikings – we get to know the foundations of Helluland – pristine harmony, stillness and unspoiled beauty. We hear the whispers of ageless pines and waves crashing against the shore. We can feel life waking up after a polar winter – flowers bloom, dew settles on the grass and animals emerge from their hideouts to see the first rays of sun. This is a beautiful world, yet cruel and indifferent. There is a place for beauty and there is a place for silent suffering which goes unnoticed. There is a place for a drop of dew on a grass stalk and there is a place for mighty winds and whirpools. Helluland is a place full of uncovered mysteries and dark secrets, where a perfect balance is created between fragile organisms and majestic trees. It is a cold and unfriendly land, a place unknown and undiscovered.
Then, a song can be heard coming from the sea. It is sung by strong and harsh voices – it is a song of death and destruction. Helluland cannot withhold the intruders. Nature is not powerful enough to stop the falling knife which soon pierces its body. Ageless pines are chopped down. Animals are hunted and the dew on the grass turns to tears. Vikings enslave the land and fill it with suffering. They destroy the order of things preserved since the beginning of times. The island screams and cries for help, but no help will ever come – Helluland is a witness to its own corruption. Finally, the intruders decide to leave – Helluland won because of its harshness and coldness. The knife had been pulled away from the body, but it left a deep wound which will take ages to heal.
Northumbria’s ability to tell a story using all the elements of an album – music, title and the cover art, is otherworldly. Minimal soundscapes which are created with guitars, electronics, strings and occasional field recordings present the tragic story of Helluland in a way that really makes the listener sense the collective pain and the wrath of the Viking invasion. It is not an easy listen – one really needs to submerge in the sounds and stay focused throughout the duration of the album. In return, the music rewards the listener with a narrative about a discovery which resulted in destruction and pain inflicted on the environment of Helluland.
It is amazing how a story had been told with the use of a single world – Helluland – which gave the context for interpretation. It is also amazing how the music managed to be the main storyteller and that it managed to fulfill its role so well that words were unnecessary. The sounds created by the Canadian duo feel as if the recording sessions were held somewhere around the Northern Pole. The music on “Helluland” is like frozen ground exposed to a winter sun – you can feel how the stiffness is affected by organic life, you can hear how alive yet inaccessible it is. There is a lot happening within what might seem like a wave of slightly shifting sound. Northumbria really do deserve praise for their ability to convey so many emotions and to create such a vivid world. All it takes is to close your eyes, open your mind and allow the music to take you to Helluland.