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Apparently sensing that Scandinavian music was the Next Big Thing after the success of Värttinä, Sony Records bought the rights to release material from the first three albums by this Swedish and Finnish high-tech roots group. Sony put it all in a fiery red package with lots of blurry, atmospheric pictures, listed the group by their translated name "the Heathens," instead of by their Swedish name Hedningarna, and made a go of marketing them as Gothic music for the smart set. It seems not to have worked, because Hedningarna's later albums (and their earlier ones too) have been released in the U.S. by Northside, a label that specializes in Scandinavian music.

Too bad, because despite the inauthentic packaging, Fire is a hell of a good album. Hedningarna's shtick is for the three Swedish men to play old-style Swedish instruments (fiddles, bagpipes, hurdy-gurdy, etc.) while the two Finnish women wail away in that nation's distinctive style -- and then to tweak the product towards the modern with all sorts of studio manipulations: self-sampling, compression, drum machine, roaring electric guitar. It's like going back in a time machine and finding Viking hordes with cell phones. The compilation is almost seamless and provides a fascinating, if slightly ear-splitting, mix of material. Best is when the two Finnish singers are given free space to build up the tension of their chanted style, as on "Tina Vieri" and "Grodan/Widergrenen." The instruments are at their best when they're not over the top: pushing the raspy Swedish fiddles forward in the mix is fine, but making the drums fill all the acoustic space is too much. And the sound effects (chain-saws and werewolves) quickly become tiresome. Blemishes aside, if there's one album to have from this imaginative bunch, Fire is it.

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