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THE NORTHMAN – Robin Carolan and Sebastian Gainsborough

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

One of the oldest stories in all of literature is that of a son avenging the death of a father. It has driven plots in cultures all across the world, and inspired some of the greatest pieces of art in history. One of the most famous of these is, of course, William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, but I would hazard a guess that most people did not realize that Hamlet was itself based on a much earlier story from Norse mythology – I certainly did not until after seeing The Northman. That earlier story is the tale of Amleth, a Viking prince who sets out on a quest to avenge the murder of his father, King Aurvandill War-Raven, by his uncle, Fjölnir. This very simple story of honor and revenge is the basis for The Northman, from director Robert Eggers. It’s an epic, bloody, gory, ultra-realistic, but sometimes fantastical and hallucinatory story of what happens when a desire for revenge becomes a man’s sole purpose for existing – what that will drive a man to do, and whether this singular black-and-white view of right and wrong is justified, especially when shades of grey, doubts and secrets are revealed as the story progresses. It’s a film caked in blood and mud and sweat and shit, which pulls no punches and gives the audience an unflinching look at Viking life and culture. The film stars Alexander Skarsgård as Amleth, Nicole Kidman as Amleth’s mother Queen Guðrun, Claes Bang as Fjölnir, Ethan Hawke as King Aurvandill, and a luminous Anya Taylor-Joy as Olga, a Slavic sorceress who is taken as a slave by Fjölnir and eventually becomes Amleth’s lover.

One of the most impressive things about The Northman is how deeply and authentically it delves into Norse mythology, religion, and life, and the culture of violence embedded into all of that. The look and tone of the film, and all of its visual depth, including the costumes to the production design, meticulously recreates life in medieval Scandinavia to an almost obsessive degree. Similarly, its depictions of religion and superstition bring the somewhat sanitized versions of Odin, Frigga, Thor, and the other Norse gods we know today back to how they were actually worshipped at the time – with all the intensity, sacrifice, and blood-lust that entailed. These Gods and their traditions and powers were completely real to the people of that time, and the on-screen depictions of Valkyries, Valhalla, and various mythological creatures, are treated with an impressive level of authenticity and magical realism. It’s a breathtaking, brutal, intense experience, aided enormously by its astonishing cinematography, which captures the harsh beauty of Iceland with gorgeous detail.

The score for The Northman is by two complete newcomers to film music, Robin Carolan and Sebastian Gainsborough. Carolan is a British composer and record producer who for many years ran Tri Angle Records, a New York-based alternative label which promoted an eclectic group of artists who specialized in dark electronica, notably The Haxan Cloak, aka Bobby Krlic, the composer of Midsommar. Gainsborough is another Englishman, also a composer and record producer, who has released several albums of experimental electronica under the stage name Vessel. Director Eggers has a particular sound he likes for his films; his previous films, The Witch and The Lighthouse, were both scored by composer Mark Korven with a combination of eerie, unsettling strings and intense electronic dissonance, and The Northman is cut very much from the same musical cloth. In interviews, Carolan has said that the director “wanted the world of The Northman to feel harsh and uncomfortable, and for everything to feel like it was caked in mud and dry blood, so it was crucial for the score to mirror that.”

However, the big difference on The Northman was the issue of authenticity, and the desire to replicate as accurately as possible the sound of the music Vikings could have realistically heard in the year 800. No-one really knows what Old Norse and Viking music sounds like in terms of melody, but there are instruments from the period that still exist today; to this end, Carolan and Gainsborough consulted with musician and ethnographer Poul Høxbro to discuss the history of Viking music, and ended up using traditional instruments including the tagelharpa (a four-stringed bowed lyre), the langspil (a traditional Icelandic drone zither), the kravik lyre, and the säckpipa, an early type of bagpipe. These instruments were then combined with a 40 piece string ensemble, and a bank of horns, plus a large array of percussion items and human vocal stylings, to create a score that sounds as primal and evocative as anything else in the film. It’s also very, very challenging from a listening point of view, almost to the extend that it will likely be entirely unpalatable to a large number of people reading this review.

The Northman is less concerned with themes and melodies than it is tone, texture, and raw raging power, but that doesn’t mean that the score is devoid of thematic content. There is a recurring main theme, first introduced in “The King,” a raw and harsh melody for traditional Norse instruments, relentless drums, and grating metallic percussion, which feels like a folk song plucked from the mists of time; it appears frequently throughout the score, receiving especially notable recapitulations later in the shanty-like “Storm at Sea/Yggdrasill,” as well as in the conclusive “Ættartré/End Credits”. There is also a quiet, intimate motif for the tagelharpa for Amleth’s mother “Guðrun,” and a more bucolic theme for Amleth’s relationship with Olga that appears in “Birch Woods” and “Bloð Inside/I Choose Both,” and is the closest the score comes to having anything approaching a love theme.

For the most part, though, Carolan and Gainsborough are concerned with simply creating a convincing sonic world that accurately conveys Amleth’s life. The string writing is heavily influenced by the works of György Ligeti and Krzysztof Penderecki, as per the director’s guidance, while the vocal ideas include everything from Tuvan throat singing, to sinister whispering and chattering, to full-on battle cry shrieking and shouting. The action music is mostly underpinned with an incessant heartbeat-like drum cadence, which then often explodes into furious orchestral chaos, the musical equivalent of a Viking berserker. Cues such as “Escape,” “The Land of the Rus,” and the heart-stopping “I Am Your Death,” raise the stakes and the tempo, while the music that underscores the fight with the skeletal undead “Mound Dweller” is occasionally reminiscent of the opening moments of Elliot Goldenthal’s Titus.

The scenes of mythical and religious fervor and devotion are similarly dissonant and challenging, often using instrumental drones and overtone singing combined with eerie musique concrete style sound effects to create a trance-like, hypnotic atmosphere; cues like “Entering the Temple,” “Last Teardrop,” “Blood Tree, Part 1,” “Seeress,” the unsettling “He-Witch,” and the imposing and hyper-masculine “Óðinn,” are especially effective in this regard.

Several other cues also stand out. The opening track, “Approaching Hrafnsey,” is a cacophony of brass heralding the return of King Aurvandill back to his home after a successful war campaign. “Strike, Brother” has a sense of tragedy underpinning the scene where the duplicitous Fjölnir murders Aurvandill and sets the entire plot in motion – the mournful vocal variation on the main theme here is especially impressive. The dirge-like “Iceland” is immediately evocative of the place. “Slave Work “and the two-part “Svið Night” are almost jaunty and upbeat, with a Morricone-esque tone to them via the prominent use of a jaw harp. “Follow the Vixen’s Tail” is curious and mysterious, with a prominent pennywhistle-like sound representing the arctic fox who guides Amleth on a journey to the mountains and a disturbing confrontation with the aforementioned He-Witch, who then presents him with “Draugr,” a mythical sword which can only be drawn at night and whose usage tends to be accompanied by a bank of male voices shouting the names of Viking gods.

Towards the end of the film Carolan and Gainsborough describe a scene “where someone spikes the soup and everyone is hallucinating, and we wanted the string ensemble to mimic this old archaic instrument called a bullroarer, which is basically a small wooden plank on a string that they would whirl around their heads and use in rituals and battle, and it makes this really odd roaring sound”. You can hear this ideaa prominently in “The Wolf Has Grown”.

The finale of the score, comprising the cues from “The Gates of Hel/Slain by Iron” through to the end of “Make Your Passage/Valhalla,” underscores the epic final duel between Amleth and Fjölnir in the shadow of an erupting volcano, and this music is perhaps the most conventional part of the score. All the archaic Norse instruments are present, as is the string orchestra, as are the enormous masculine chants related to the mythical sword Draugr, but rather than being a massive battle sequence, a lot of it is actually underpinned with regret, loss, and a sense of bitterness. There is violence and power, but mostly Amleth and Fjölnir both come to realize that a life lived in service to anger and revenge ultimately destroys everyone. The final moments of “Valhalla” are actually quite beautiful in contrast to the rest of the score.

I have read some discussion online about how some people are disappointed that The Northman didn’t contain a huge epic orchestral fantasy score, and how this was a missed opportunity for someone to write something like that for a new film. And, it’s true, there are visual and narrative similarities between The Northman and things like Conan the Barbarian, but I personally feel that a lavish score like the one Basil Poledouris wrote – as brilliant as it is, and as much as I love it – would have been wrong for this film. The Northman is a film which wants to immerse us in the reality of a time and place, conveying the drama and religious iconography of the setting with music that could conceivably have been played and heard at the time, and which also illustrates the raw emotions of the central character. Amleth is not a man of deep thought or nuance; he is a man driven by little more than blind rage, the need for revenge, and it is not until the very end of the film that he comes to realize that his singular purpose – while initially set in good intentions – possibly did more harm than good.

The avant garde textures and historical accuracy of Robin Carolan and Sebastian Gainsborough’s score fits in perfectly with Robert Eggers’s vision of how to convey that, and it works outstandingly well in context. As a listening experience; yeah, it’s harsh. There is melody and there is some thematic content, but it’s almost entirely subservient to the unremitting brutality of Amleth’s character, and if you struggle with dissonance and abstraction and severe (but historically accurate) folk music, then The Northman might leave you as cold as an Icelandic winter.

Buy the Northman soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Approaching Hrafnsey (1:40)
  • The King (1:57)
  • Entering the Temple (1:54)
  • Last Teardrop (3:35)
  • Blood Tree, Part 1 (1:33)
  • Strike, Brother (2:52)
  • Escape (2:19)
  • I Will Avenge You, Father (0:44)
  • The Land of the Rus (1:42)
  • A Burning Barn (1:24)
  • Seeress (3:24)
  • Raven’s Omen (2:22)
  • Storm at Sea/Yggdrasill (1:46)
  • Iceland (1:22)
  • I Will Save You, Mother (1:54)
  • Slave Work (0:56)
  • Guðrun (0:54)
  • Follow the Vixen’s Tail (1:42)
  • He-Witch (2:29)
  • Draugr (1:01)
  • Mound Dweller (2:55)
  • To the Games (0:42)
  • Birch Woods (1:54)
  • First of Many (1:21)
  • Trollish Sorcery (2:13)
  • Svið Night, Part 1 (1:32)
  • Svið Night, Part 2 (1:42)
  • I Am Your Death (0:56)
  • Come Morning (1:36)
  • I Am His Vengeance (1:19)
  • Óðinn (1:01)
  • Valkyrie (1:09)
  • Vestrahorn (0:39)
  • Hidden Valley (1:03)
  • Blood Tree, Part 2 (0:41)
  • Bloð Inside/I Choose Both (2:09)
  • A Maiden King (1:09)
  • The Wolf Has Grown (2:27)
  • The Gates of Hel/Slain by Iron (2:47)
  • Hekla (2:12)
  • Cut the Thread of Fate (1:13)
  • Make Your Passage/Valhalla (1:36)
  • Ættartré/End Credits (2:27)

Running Time: 74 minutes 11 seconds

Back Lot Music (2022)

Music composed by Robin Carolan and Sebastian Gainsborough. Conducted by Jessica Cottis. Orchestrations by Dave Foster. Recorded and mixed by Nick Wollage. Edited by Neil Stemp. Album produced by Robin Carolan and Sebastian Gainsborough.

  1. madtrombone
    May 3, 2022 at 10:45 am

    BINGO! As much as I would have loved a big epic fantasy score, this is one of the best and most satisfying picture-to-score matches I’ve heard in a good while.

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