I’ve written a little bit about how complexity can make music more interesting and enjoyable. Such is the case with Tool. But in many cases, the best music is not complex at all, but is profoundly simple.
For me, Wardruna is not just another favorite band. They represent this kind of simplicity. Einar Selvik’s writing sits at the opposite end of the spectrum from Maynard James Keenan, in terms of composition style, and yet both of them create absolutely extraordinary music.
As an example of this simplicity, consider their song “Voluspa:”
By the modern American understanding of the term, Voluspa almost isn’t even a song. There is no chorus, there is no harmony, and it’s open to debate whether or not the musical sounds even constitute a proper “melody.” It’s the same three-tone, four-note repetition, over and over again, with one bit of variation every third repetition (perhaps only for timing). And yet, it is has an absolutely enchanting effect, in conveying the emotion and power of whatever it is that Einar is singing about.
But we need not let the content remain mysterious, just because it is foreign.
Silence I beg of all holy races
more and less, the sons of Heimdallr;
You want, Valföðr, that I tell well
old tales about men, the first one I remember.
The years flowed, there Ymir settled,
There were neither sand nor sea nor cool waves;
Neither earth nor sky,
But a gaping abyss, nowhere grass.
The sun grows dark, the world sinks into the sea,
Bright stars disappear from the sky;
fire and smoke rage,
the heat plays high with the sky itself.
Brothers will fight and kill each other,
cousins (sisters’ sons) will betray their kinship;
Standing, Yggdrasil’s ash shakes,
the ancient tree groans, a giant becomes loose.
Now Garm howls greatly before Gnipahellir,
the rope will break, Freki will run,
Of wisdom I know much, I see further ahead
Ragnarok of the gods of victory.
She sees rise up a second time
the green earth from the sea.
Waterfalls fall, the eagle flies above,
he who on the mountains catches fish.
She sees a room standing more beautiful than the sun,
covered in gold in Gimle.
There the faithful will dwell
and enjoy pleasures forever.
Then comes a mighty one into the ruler’s seat,
powerful from above, he who rules over all.
If it wasn’t obvious purely from the sound, the lyrics demonstrate the religious nature of Wardruna’s music. It is roughly equivalent to Christian artists who put bits of the psalms to a melody.
This particular verse, from the poetic Edda, tells of Ragnarok — the end of the world, but not the linear end (as in the Christian Revelation), but the end of the cycle. It is closely related to the Hindi “Kali Yuga,” the end of the ring, and also the beginning of the ring. As depicted, such a time is terrifying, tragic, full of powerful forces awakening and exerting themselves… and yet it is also a time of hope for the future, a reset, and a preparation to begin all things anew.
I remember listening to a radio program on NPR, probably over a decade back (when NPR was worth listening to), and they were discussing vodka with a Russian distiller. The Russian said that vodka was like a woman. Good vodka was like a beautiful woman: she looks great in clothes, but is also gorgeous naked. Good vodka, you can drink mixed or straight. Mediocre vodka, he continued, was like an ugly woman. You can dress her up and make her look presentable, but when you take all the clothes and makeup off, she’s not very attractive. Mediocre vodka is best taken mixed.
(How the times have changed for NPR…)
I think that perhaps music can be like vodka, or the fairer sex. If you have incredible and powerful emotive content that comes through in the lyrics, or even just in the singer’s voice (or if you’re Slash/Clapton/Buckethead, in how you play the guitar), then you don’t need layers of complexity to dress up the song. You can strip it down to its essence, and serve it naked, and it still shines.
In fact, simplicity makes the song shine all the brighter. If it still sounds good — and we should be clear, many simple songs don’t sound good — then it’s a sort of proof of quality. I suspect that this is why Bob Dylan, Simon and Garfunkel, Neil Young, and John Denver have stayed around, and likely will for decades, if not centuries, to come, while acts that outshone them in the moment (Beatles, Rolling Stones, etc) might actually fade away after only a generation or two. After all, it is mostly just nostalgia that’s keeping them alive.