Ancient Estonian Vocal Music Gets an Addictive Fresh Makeover

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Give your ears a Christmas gift this week with the hypnotizing beauty that is "Songs of Olden Times: Estonian Folk Hymns and Runic Songs" from Estonian vocal group Heinavanker. New interpretations of Estonian sacred music will feel familiar, but at the same time fresh, unexpected and possibly addicting.

Beware: this music is catchy (in a sophisticated, minimalistic way) and you may want to sing along. Truly singing along, however, will take overtones, a lush wide-ranging voice, and, of course, Estonian. Listening to Estonian, unless you speak Estonian, is like listening to Bon Iver or Satyagraha. You have absolutely no idea what the singers are saying, so instead of trying to interpret the text and make meaning of it, you let the soothing, repetitive sounds wash over you like a grown-up lullaby.

Earthy solos are accompanied by harmonies that often include one layer of overtones, which gives the effect a rich, new and almost otherworldly dimension. Voices slip so seamlessly in and out of these overtones, it is sometimes hard to tell when it happens.

Drones and parallel motion layer upon each other during the chants, while the ensemble moves so well together, it's as if it were one mind controlling the various voices. 

The three Runic songs are a centerpiece of the album. Based on rather cryptic text, the songs touch on themes of sacrifice, ritual and the creation of the world. The poetic rhythms sway and repeat and will sing you to sleep if you're not careful.

Estonian composer Margo Kolar founded Heinavanker in 1996 with the purpose of preserving ancient Estonian music. What's exhibited on this album is just that and more, making contemporary music out of traditional tunes.

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