The crumbling bones of our ancestors may have long lain cold and still in the ground, but the illustrious legacy of ancient lore and legends they left behind remains one gloriously untouched by the ravages of time. And thanks to the meticulous labours of Forndom visionary Ludwig Swärd, these ancient, stirringly evocative vibrations have never felt so tangibly vivid and enthralling.
As far as compromising and, in some cases, utterly desecrating the authenticity of ancient myths, legends and even major historical events goes, popular culture certainly has a lot to answer for. Take, for instance, Walt Disney’s ruthless corporate butchering of original Germanic fairytales, Mel Gibson’s garbled excuse for a Scottish accent in Braveheart or the array of historical inaccuracies with which 2001 blockbuster Pearl Harbour is positively littered. And arguably by far the most frequently bastardised of these is Scandinavia’s rich cultural legacy of Norse mythology, a timeless and illustrious tradition that, since its inception many centuries ago, has suffered more than its share of cluelessly ill-informed and ham-fisted modern reworkings. Indeed, even within the sacred subcultural echelons of our beloved metal genre, it’s hard to deny its highly pervasive commercial dilution, with the tradition’s rich array of epic legends having been largely reduced to little more than a cheap and garish performance gimmick. For Forndom creator and Norse mythology buff Ludwig Swärd, such sloppy mishandling is, unsurprisingly, a source of frequent and considerable agitation.
“I’ve always been very critical of this mainstream take on old folklore, like this Vikings TV series,” the composer affirms with an exasperated sigh. “I mean, it’s great that it’s recognised and represented, but I feel like it’s a very British interpretation, taking something which is in fact very Scandinavian and making it more universal which, for me, doesn’t really make sense, particularly taking something that’s clearly Scandinavian in origin and filming it in Ireland. I just feel it’s utterly diluting the whole history and culture of the region. I’d much rather read an academic book that allows me to form my own ideas and impressions of how it was back then and also to associate it with the original landscape, the landscape I grew up with. For me it matters a lot, particularly because I am an academic in Norse religion now myself, but I feel when I read academics that are based in Australia and the US, for example, they don’t live in the place concerned which results in a wholly different understanding than the scholars who actually are from the area itself. Of course, the further you are from this culture itself, the harder you have to work to engage with it properly. I think it’s much easier if you actually are Swedish or Norwegian or possibly even Danish.”
While it’s easy to dismiss such remarks as the stuff of nit-picking academic pedantry, it’s precisely this careful and reverential handling of these treasured ancient traditions that proved so integral in bringing the gifted Swedish composer’s latest artistic vision to full and vividly realised fruition. Having initially kicked off his fledgling musical career with brief spell performing in a local black metal band, it wasn’t long before Swärd began craving infinitely more complex and introspective sonic territories and, in 2012, officially founded ambient solo project Forndom. Beginning life as a Tumblr blog used to display the artist’s various, visually stunning photographs of the ancient ancestral lands to which he feels such a stirringly spiritual and profound attachment, Swärd’s early musical compositions assumed a largely secondary role to the predominantly photographic focus and intent of the project. However, following the release of first EP ‘Flykt’ in 2015, its creator began to dedicate ever-increasing care and attention to the meticulous crafting of these eerily transcendental compositions, culminating in the release of debut album ‘Dauðra Dura’ just a year later.
Swärd recollects, “After the first album, I basically felt like I was fed up with this ambient style because it just felt a little hollow somehow and it didn’t really move me as the artist itself. I’ve always have made music purely for myself in the first place because it’s like a kind of expression of different thoughts and feelings that are very personal to me. But nonetheless, I felt that there was something missing within the sound and, at the same time, I’ve always listened to a lot of classical composers like film music and stuff, but also older classical music because my father’s a cellist so I’ve always carried that influence with me. So I played this kind of ambient style on the last record, but then I thought maybe I should try all these string instruments, try to learn them myself, so I basically spent a whole year just practising them and trying to learn them, and eventually I became good enough to record something. I wrote the whole piece in May 2018 during maybe two weeks, including the lyrics, so it was quite fast. Then I started to find the right instruments for this and I wanted to continue with the idea of more strings, more organic and kind of leave the ambient sound behind. But then, as I wrote the whole piece on piano, you have the whole register of tones initially, but then when I began to transfer it, I felt yet again that something was missing. So then I looked around and I found these professional sample libraries that were actually quite expensive, but I thought if it’s something that is used by professional film composers, then it might be something worth having. So I just tried it out, and that kind of laid a lot of the foundation for the pieces themselves. Of course, with these professional samples you can do pretty much anything and then to this I added the strings, so it would be like multiple layers to kind of add some kind of depth to it.”
With its luxuriantly unravelling lines of sumptuous orchestral strings, pounding primal beats and stirringly ritualistic verses that audibly abound with all the savage, windswept majesty of these ancient lands, follow-up album ‘Faþir’ comprises a hauntingly evocative breakthrough for its ever-ambitious creator. Thematically, too, it stems from a place of meticulously observed precision and attention to detail, sourcing inspiration from ancient yet timeless narratives of suffering, grief and subsequent enlightenment. With its title translating loosely as ‘father’ in traditional Norse, the classic metaphor of a creator both nurturing and destructive in nature formed the vital inspirational epicentre for the lyric-writing process that followed. Crucially for Ludwig too, it also provided the perfect vehicle by which to air and express his own deeply introspective musings on the curious, frequently confounding mysteries of the human condition.
“Since ‘Dauðra Dura’ I somehow became much more of a perfectionist somehow,” he reflects. “I don’t know if it was some kind of realisation I made, but all of a sudden I felt that everything had to be exactly as I’d imagined it to be. Nothing less was acceptable and it’s a torture to be like that, to be so hard on yourself, but also sometimes it’s 100 percent worth the hardship and the struggle. I also think that with this album being so personal, it made this perfectionist attitude I have even worse. The desire to channel those feelings and evoke them became so very important to me. Anyway, when I first started studying religion, I came across this figure called The Great Father and basically, in most pre-Christian cultures, you can find references to this Great Father and Great Mother. The Great Father in one respect can be really dark and punishing, but also very rewarding with it. So that concept felt really suitable with Odin, and if you go through a depression you sometimes think, what’s the reason behind this? You start to ask these different questions and somehow I could see myself in this old Icelandic saga where this person had a relationship with god or possibly a father and a son, and in these stories and I just felt that it was something I could really relate to - a relationship that could be very giving but also something that could really make you suffer. But of course this kind of suffering is also for a specific reason, to actually make the person grow and develop spiritually.”
“For example, there’s this legendary figure called Starkad. He’s described as being a giant - kind of Odin’s favourite - and he’s working as a bodyguard for the king. But then one day, Odin tell him that he has to kill the king, and if he kills the king he will be able to live eternally. But then another guard Thor hates him so he curses Starkad so that, if he does kill the king, he will live eternally, but will never be able to feel any kind of satisfaction or feel at peace, that he will always be hounded by dark thoughts. So in that respect it’s a lot like more modern stories of people selling their souls to Satan, it’s all about punishment and rewards. Then there’s the Icelandic poet Egil Skallagrimsson who writes about the death of his sons and curses Odin for being responsible for their deaths, how he once thought of him as a friend and couldn’t believe that he would do this. But then in the end, he also thanks him because without this severe sorrow he wouldn’t be able to write this poem, so it’s about being able to see what you are rewarded with even in the darkest of times.”
'Faþir' is out now via Nordvis