Venturing beyond the horizon – both corporeally and in transcendent terms – sits at the heart of the music Canadian drone duo Northumbria create. The band’s latest full-length, Vinland, is the final album in a trilogy inspired by the Norse discovery of Canada over a thousand years ago. Northumbria began their epic saga with their 2015 album, Helluland. Last year saw the release of their haunting Markland. And Vinland concludes the tale with an evocative closing chapter.
The story Northumbria’s told over their last three albums has mirrored their music by also traversing the unknown. Vinland (like Helluland and Markland) is about adventure, not hiding behind our fears, and in many ways, that's exactly what Northumbria members Jim Field and Dorian Williamson have been doing since forming the band in 2011.
The duo's dark ambient music has always been daring and explorative. Whether heavyweight or ethereal, the vast and fathomless drones that Field and Williamson have carved out using bass and guitar have always been self-produced, improvised, and recorded live. That approach is clearly fraught with artistic risks. But Northumbria’s atmospheric suites have always felt full and complete – both conceptually and sonically.
Vinland feels very much the same. The album’s instrumental narrative conjures a sense of hard journeying under wide-open (as well as oppressive) skies. Northumbria's music evokes oceans, rivers, and depths of the darkest forests. And mighty gods are here too. As is life and sudden death. All are rendered in soul-stirring detail. Hewn from an entrancing world that Field and Williamson summon into being.
Lengthy tracks like “Where the Water Meets the Sky”, “Still Valley I”, and “Overwintering” tell dramatic tales without ever uttering a word. That is maximal minimalism (and clear talent) made incarnate, and within the poignant and often hypnotic depths of Vinland, other worlds and other histories come alive.
Mammoth tapestries of sound capture vivid landscapes on “New Lands, New Gods”, “Borderlands”, and on Vinland's epic title track. Every one of those songs highlights Northumbria’s innate ability to evoke such a strong sense of time and place. The band don’t forget that exploration can often lead to isolation, and that bitter realisation is made manifest on Vinland. Northumbria's meditative music mixes chasmic and low-frequency distortions with more serene sounds. But dread and horror are still here – see the bone-chilling splendour of “The Wìndjigò” for proof of that.
Vinland offers as many inward-looking sojourns as it does outwardly transcendent moments. And I’ve said before that Northumbria’s greatest skill is seamlessly fusing the firmamental with the celestial. Vinland exhibits that same expertise throughout, and songs like “The Nixe” and “Still Valley II” feel palpable and of the earth and yet, simultaneously, uncanny and other-worldly.
As they’ve done in the past, Northumbria strip away the superficial hustle/bustle of our busy lives on Vinland. The duo mine a creative vein, exposing more essential and elemental truths. And while Vinland is often as beautiful as it is unnerving, it's also ceaselessly involving. That’s a crucial point to note because slow-motion drones don't always hold everyone’s attention and Northumbria have a profound tale to tell.
Thankfully, Vinland took me on a stunning voyage where modernity was left far behind. But then, I’ve always found drone and ambient music to be immersive and often deeply moving. Obviously, not everyone finds drone so alluring. In fact, some might find Northumbria’s music to be too naked or too dark. And Vinland certainly isn’t an entry-level drone album by any means.
I also see ambient music’s starkness as a positive, but others clearly see it as a huge negative. The improvised nature of Northumbria’s music isn’t going to suit everyone’s tastes either. Although, I’d argue there’s something inherently thrilling about music that challenges not only the listener but also those who make it.
I’ve said it before, but it bears repeating: Northumbria make mythic music that explores mythic concepts. Vinland’s mesmeric pilgrimages feature sweeping panoramas of bygone worlds where gods walk the earth, and where fear, courage and wonder coil around each other in constant battle. Vinland reminds us of our commonalities. Especially when we recognise how small we are compared to nature’s colossal majesty.
Ultimately, Vinland is another breathtaking album from a drone duo who make intimate yet wholly immense art. Northumbria take us on journeys into the farthest hinterlands of instinctual music. Long may they continue to explore and enlighten us all.