Every week we tell you about an album we think you need to spend time with. This week’s album is Robin Carolan and Sebastian Gainsborough’s soundtrack for The Northman.
The films of director Robert Eggers have, in their margins, an almost fanatical devotion to verisimilitude. It was not enough to set his first feature, 2015’s The Witch, in colonial America; the house that comprises its set was made new for the production using only tools available in the era. It was not enough to set 2019’s The Lighthouse on an island where two lighthouse operators slowly lose their minds; the lighthouse had to be realistic to the era, and all the costumes only available to people of the period. His new feature, The Northman, is taken to a further extreme: all weapons, boats, clothes, prayer rituals and even the writing on the title cards are accurate to ninth- and 10th-century Vikings. Eggers’ philosophy is that if the accouterments to his films are accurate, it’s easier to believe for both the actors and the audience that the action depicted is something that actually happened.
It should come as no surprise that Robin Carolan and Sebastian Gainsborough’s soundtrack for the epic Northman is devoted to the same exacting historical accuracy. They started with removing the sustained horn noises that buoy every other sword-and-shield masterpiece (think The Gladiator or Conan the Barbarian), under the assumption that it’d be too ineffective for medieval horn players to coordinate playing all at once. The score was made with orchestras of mostly period and archaic instruments, and at one point was almost drumless, because historians disagree whether Vikings actually used drums (but it’s hard to be certain, since animal skin drum heads rot, and wouldn’t be fossilized).
The end result is one of the most radical, scary and intimidating soundtracks you can imagine. With the horns never quite lining up, they sound like drones of war cries; instead of a unified force, the armies conjured by the soundtrack sound vast and unyielding. “The Land of the Rus” soundtracks one of the film’s most intense sequences — a berserker raid on ancient Russia and Ukraine — and without seeing the film, you can tell its notes accompany a flood of blood. The churning drones of “Storm at Sea / Yggdrasill” capture the peril of riding some of the most inhospitable waters on earth.
When the film [slight spoiler alert] turns from being a violent, bloody exegesis on Viking culture into a more existential film examining how much of your fate is tied to decisions made by your parents, and whether believing in fate is worth it in the end, the score itself gets quieter, and in turn, more unsettling. “Hidden Valley” is as green and empty as the Icelandic countryside, and “A Maiden King” swoops with orchestration that can’t help but be ominous, despite its soaring vocalists. When the score and the film hit its final crescendo around “The Gates of Hel / Slain by Iron,” it’s impossible to not feel like you’ve been put through some ringer, smothered in the music and the crushing inevitably of the Northman’s fate. The Northman, the film and soundtrack, are unyielding, immense and the best way to get in touch with your inner Norseman this year.
Andrew Winistorfer is VMP’s Classics & Country Director, and a writer and editor of their books, 100 Albums You Need In Your Collection and The Best Record Stores In The United States. He’s written Listening Notes for more than 20 VMP releases, and co-produced the VMP Anthologies The Story of Philadelphia International Records, The Story of Quincy Jones, The Story of Impulse and the VMP Classics release of Nat Turner Rebellion's Laugh to Keep From Crying, and executive produced the VMP Anthology The Story of Vanguard. He lives in Saint Paul, Minnesota.
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