Wardruna/ Einar Selvik
Column: Giving Voice to the Skalds – Einar Selvik and Assassin’s Creed
By Lyonel Perabo | August 7, 2020
... While I ultimately never really got into the series personally, the Assassin’s Creed games, published by Ubisoft Montréal and Ubisoft Québec, have become established as one of the largest video game franchises of all time, with over 140 million games sold in the last 13 years. This already-impressive number is likely to rise quite a bit with the release of the newest installment of the series, Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla, which will be launched on November 17.
Set in a semi-fictionalized version of Viking-Age England, the game is the first in the franchise to be set in the world of Norsemen and Anglo-Saxons. If the various trailers and livestreams that have been released in the past few weeks are anything to judge by, Valhalla promises to be just as successful as its predecessors.
Assassin's Creed Valhalla - Official Trailer
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The series has, in recent years, received increasingly high levels of praise for its depiction of historical events and cultures – the previous two games were set in ancient Egypt and classical Greece. One would expect that a lot of work was dedicated to making Valhalla as historically accurate as possible. Indeed, in the process of developing the game, Ubisoft made use of a number of researchers, authors, academics, and artists to help shape the identity of the game.
Among these people are a number of individuals who, as Pagans and Heathens, had a unique perspective on contributing to the game. One of these creators is none other than Einar Selvik, the man behind the Nordic folk ensemble Wardruna, one of the most famous musical outfits in the genre. When it was revealed that he was to be involved with the music of the game, alongside seasoned game music professionals Jesper Kyd and Sarah Schachner, The Wild Hunt just had to talk to him.
In the following interview, which took place on July 21, he talks about his contributions to the game, his working philosophy, artistic approach and what he thinks Viking music needs more of right now.
Einar Selvik in 2018 [Tuukka Koski and Koski Syväri]
The story of Einar Selvik starts in the eighties in rural west-Norway, a rugged land full of tales, legends, and mighty nature. “I was very much exposed to history, growing up. I was told lots of stories, when out on the countryside or on walks in nature. These histories of the ancient past created some sort of connection with me. I can remember very vividly that quite early in my teens, when I was reading about these old myths, I became very fascinated, first of all because I could not easily understand them. Things moved in circles, there was no black or white thinking. It was more like nature, and it gave me this drive to try to understand it all better, and it still does. ”
Over the years, Selvik became even more interested in the occult and esoteric aspects of religion and philosophy. He soon became heavily invested in the Norwegian Black Metal scene, a cultural microcosm that blended anti-Christianity, Heathenism, Satanism, shocking antics and extreme heavy metal.
For more than a decade, from the mid nineties to well into the two-thousands, Selvik, who by then had taken the name Kvitrafn (“white-raven”), was most commonly seen drumming for various extreme Metal bands from the Bergen region. This experience was instrumental in developing his artistic and philosophical affinities. “I was never into the satanic aspect of it, what interested me with Black Metal is that the thoughts behind the music were just as important, perhaps even more important, than the music itself. This is what I call the ‘nourishment’ behind the music itself, it gives it its energy and supports it. ”
Even though Selvik achieved more than most in his time within this scene, it ultimately left him wanting more. “At some point, black metal became more technique-based. It stopped being about the message, and more about how fast you could drum or play guitar. ”
Gradually, he dialed down his involvement in metal and started to focus more of his time fusing his age-old interest in the myths and legends of the Norse world with his musical activities. This process started to bear fruits in the late 2000s, when Wardruna, his folk-project, began making waves. In 2009, the band released its sophomore album, Runaljod – gap var Ginnunga, and attracted even more attention when they performed live at the Oslo viking ship museum, playing in front of a thousand year old longship.
In the following years, Selvik took his project to new heights, releasing three more albums, playing live at some of the largest music festivals around, and even licensing, then writing music for, and even starring in the History Channel series Vikings. The meteoric fame of the series introduced him and Wardruna to mainstream popular culture.
“They wanted this sort of hybrid mixture of modern distorted electronics versus authentic traditional instruments, ” he says. “Some tonalities and instruments can automatically take the listener back in time, and I think the music of the show could have focused more on these authentic sounds, but I was just a small part of the musical team. ”
Einar Selvik Vikings:
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In the years that followed, Selvik multiplied and diversified his work. He worked alongside fellow black metal veteran Ivar Bjørnson (of Enslaved) to produce a musical score celebrating the bicentennial of the Norwegian constitution, released a solo EP (Snake Pit Poetry), and was even invited to provide vocals for some gaming projects: Rend, whose score was penned by Neal Acree (Stargate SG-1, World of Warcraft, Starcraft), and League of Legends, on a track by Austin Wintory (Journey, Banner Saga). Then, in 2018, he was approached by Ubisoft to collaborate on their upcoming game, Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla.
“I had been asked to write game scores quite a few times at this point, for both Norwegian, and international companies, big and small. For some reason, it never happened, but it had been on the radar for some time. ” In the eyes of Selvik, collaborating for any kind of music project is not something to be undertaken lightly. “I am very picky with collaborations or projects. If it does not resonate, I don’t say yes. It needs to feel right on all fronts. ”
As far as this new Ubisoft-lead project was concerned, though, things could not have clicked better. Even though he had not actively played games for many years and only ever touched the first game in the series, his co-composers, chosen by Ubisoft fit the bill quite well. “I already knew about Jesper Kyd, I had heard his music before. Then, when I got the request from Ubisoft, I did a little bit of digging, to see what their soundtracks sounded like. ”
Upon delving into the works of Schachner and Kyd, he was confirmed in his initial impression that such a project could go on. “In general, I don’t really listen to music, because I work so much with it. After a long day in the studio, I don’t go back home and put on some music. But sometimes I do, and I enjoy listening to soundtracks, all in all. ”
When, following this initial first contact, it was time to discuss more specific matters, things seemed to fit just right. “We first met in late 2018, and spent several days discussing the concept, and what could be my role and my work. In the end, I am very happy to say that Ubisoft and myself had a very similar vision when it comes to the game’s music. It has been really great working with them. They let me go to the unpolished realm, try to use as historically accurate instruments and sounds as possible. They let me give voice to the skalds. ”
On July 17, the first musical morsel from Valhalla was released. It took the form of a digital EP titled Out of the North, containing seven tracks that are to be played in the game. Three each were composed by Kyd and Schachner, and one by Selvik.
“We primarily work separately, ” he notes. “I have my responsibilities and they have theirs. My work is very much based on the ‘ethnic’ aspect of the game. Some songs I pick and choose and they are edited to fit a game location, or a specific quest. Some of my stuff will be part of sound design as well, music you will hear in the game world, not just as background music. We did collaborate on something in the end, but this will be announced in early August. ”
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