Northumbria Translate the Harshness of the Canadian Arctic into Instrumental Bliss
Watch the stunning new video for "Wonderstrands" and read bassist Dorian Williamson's thoughts on Canadian culture and instrumental expression
Canadian atmospheric metal duo Northumbria has a name which at once suggests something murkily medieval—in this case, the ancient British kingdom of the same name—and more immediate, namely its home in Northumberland County, Ontario, located some distance east along Lake Ontario's shore from Toronto. The band's most recent work similarly focuses on something at once closer to home and equally removed in time. Markland is the second in a three album series focusing on a still ultimately mysterious bit of history: the now thousand-year-old explorations by the Vikings of the North Atlantic coastal areas of what eventually became the Canadian nation.
"The title of the song, "Wonderstrands," is a reference to a beautiful part of Labrador," explained the band's bassist, Dorian Williamson. (For those unfamiliar with Canadian geography, Labrador is the name of the region to the northwest of Newfoundland; it's the closest part of the mainland to Greenland, which the Vikings first settled some years before their first tentative voyages further west.) "It's an area that they couldn't quite get close to, but could see from a distance and thought it was really beautiful."
In phone conversation from his home in the city of Cobourg, Williamson is quick and earnest, words almost tumbling over themselves at points on these and other matters. He and guitarist Jim Field have been performing together as Northumbria for almost six years at this point, creating a series of releases which resist easy genre terms like shoegaze, noise, post-rock, ambient, or whatever else you'd care to mention. Feedback drones mix with suddenly soaring guitar parts, while almost always there's a sense of vast space in their performances, an echoing into an unknown beyond. Point is, like many other acts who similarly disdain being boxed in, they're just simply very good.
The "Wonderstrands" video avoids any exact recreation of history, or even something as straightforward as documentary footage of the general area, in favor of a more suggestive, literally world-upside-down (and duplicated) vision that feels like something out of the end of Kubrick's 2001.
"It's created by someone we've collaborated with before, Dominic Marceau of Montreal," said Williamson. "He's created several videos for us, as well as the projections we use when we play live. He has a really interesting way of recombining found footage and creating these mandala-like, semi-abstract patterns. For this specific video, he wanted to use these images of water and ice, things that were evocative of Norse exploration but without being too literal. The goal was to create this hypnotic accompaniment to the music that would still allow you to have quite a subjective experience with regards to the song. There's just enough reference to nature so you know it's not completely abstract, but it combines to create an abstract image that we feel suits our music."
What information about these Norse expeditions that exists has always been fragmentary, a combination of oral tradition via the Icelandic sagas, various scattered artifacts, and, over the last few decades, a series of archaeological discoveries in Newfoundland in particular of small settlements. The only specifically known encounters appeared to take place over the course of some twenty-five years, apparently a mix of exploration, trade and exchange with First Nation peoples and, more than once, violent interaction as well. Whatever else exactly happened, and how long it may have continued after that twenty-five year stretch, still remains unknown.
In terms of Northumbria's aforementioned trilogy, each album is named after the three American locations first described by Norse sources, and whose exact identifications have been puzzled out since. The first album, Helluland, refers to a description often ascribed to Baffin Island—Canada's largest island, which reaches well beyond the Arctic Circle.
"They found it to be a very cold, inhospitable land," described Williamson, "and that album is very sparse, very spacious, not a lot happening. It has a somber tone. Markland, which translates roughly from Old Norse into 'land of forests,' opened up a few things for us creatively. Wood was a sorely needed commodity in Greenland at the time, but there's also a lot more danger and unknown in the forests as such. So the album has higher highs and lower lows!"
Given how much in the way of underground or experimental metal of all stripes in recent years has explored themes of identity on a societal or national level—the constant hybridization of black and folk metal alone reflects as much—Williamson's own take on why this subject reflects an alternate approach. He noted with a laugh that there's no direct Viking blood in him to his knowledge, mentioning Scottish and Irish ancestors instead. Similarly, he has no First Nation ancestry, though he spoke with passion about wanting to represent their perspective respectfully in the planned conclusion of the trilogy, Vinland.
"The real inspiration," Williamson went on to say, "comes from what the land was like. It's inspired by the actual physical land in Canada as it is by the historical connection. A lot of our music has been influenced by the Canadian landscape, and it seemed like an interesting conceptual point to take off with. The pristine nature of it too—that's something else we're really concerned about in Canada is the way that nature is being destroyed, in the Arctic and in remote areas which are considered expendable."
These discussions all very heady to contemplate, the more so because Northumbria's work is entirely instrumental, and whatever themes or reference points beyond the album or song titles are essentially unspoken. When asked about how to convey such meaning solely through sound, Williamson swiftly agreed that's not always easily possible, or even intended.
"We're trying to create an atmosphere that's evocative of that experience. For Jim and I, that's our starting point. But it's completely subjective, and we're not in any way trying to create a narrative. There are narrative elements in it, but it's not a story that follows a narrative theme, because it's very difficult to do without lyrical references. It's like an abstract painting inspired by the Canadian Arctic, but it's not a picture of a typical polar scene where the viewer is given reference points on which to base their experiences."
As he wrapped up the conversation with a reflection on Canadian art and identity as a whole—something which music ranging from Tanya Tagaq to the Tragically Hip and beyond has found multiple ways to consider—Williamson noted both the country's uniqueness as well as a surprising artistic advantage.
"Canadian art has always had an interesting position where we're somewhat connected to the United States but we're also connected to Europe and also on our own," he concluded. "That has allowed a lot of things to flourish outside of the mainstream that may have been difficult to get going in the past, thinking of bands like Skinny Puppy and filmmakers like David Cronenberg. In terms of identity, that seems to come up a lot in Canadian art. In this environment, which is brutally cold so much of the year, it forces people inside, to be more creative and to take more chances."
Ned Raggett is chilly on Twitter.