Here’s a Norwegian rock opera about the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s 95 Theses and its effect on Scandinavia. It gets points for the high concept, and the music’s not half bad either. I began with the cheat sheet that lists the with lyrics (in Norwegian) and background info on all the songs. The antagonist here is Olav Engelbrektsson, a cleric contemporaneous with Luther but opposed to his religious reformations. Engelbrektsson promoted Catholicism and resisted Norwegian independence, and as was so often the case in history, religion and politics mixed to the misery and death of millions. There’s a mountainous layering of sound here, the arrangements and composition are symphonic and could easily back a Major Motion Picture. I’m unfamiliar with the band; but we have Torbjørn Sandvik on lead vocals. Behind him I hear what may be a church choir, or perhaps skilled electronic manipulation of a small vocal group. Either way, this music deserves audience in a proper cathedral. But I’m on an airplane listening with coach earbuds, and I’m still impressed.
Opening track “Olav Engelbrektsson” lays out the tension: Europe was universally Catholic and remote Norway was no different. Scandinavia was a military power; it had more and better steel than anyone. But like most of Europe small fiefdoms were more important than an over aching nation. Thus, Luther’s theology offered an excuse for revolution: If one could overthrow a pope, then taking out an earthly kingdom should be easier. But not everyone agreed, and the rebels black-marked Engelbrektsson as a collusionist. Here we have a timeless tension still floating around as new nationalisms arise in today’s Europe.
Each track provides a plot point and advancement. “Etter Stromn” offers a rousing march as it recalls Luther’s encounter with a violent thunder storm that lead him to the monastery and later to revolution. “Litvak” slows us down, it’s a ballad in the romantic style with an acoustic guitar and a male vocal. The title means “Wake”, and it explores the split between the synthetic attachment of Christian effigies to the old pagan ones. I can go on, but the point should be clear: this isn’t just any rock and roll, it’s a thoughtful and intricate look at a controversial but little-known crossing of theology and secular leadership. But it’s possible to overlook that, especially if your language skills are weak, and take this as a well-executed piece of semi-classical rock and roll, complete with a new arrangement of Luther’s “A Mighty Fortress is Our God.” And when’s the last time you head banged to THAT classic?