A Viking ship crests a white-foamed wave. Warriors in dramatic furs raise their axes. A fjord twinkles in the gloom. And then a voice comes roaring through, like a swashbuckling hero swooshing by on a rope. “Oh-ho-oh /The echoes of eternity,” it goes. “Oh-ho-oh/Valhalla calling me.”
“Valhalla Calling tapped into something which I didn’t know was a thing at the moment, which is a huge culture around Vikings. People absolutely love Vikings,” says Gavin Dunne, the Cork-born musician who, as Miracle Of Sound, makes continent-quaking rock music. And whose life has been upended, in the best possible sense, by his 2020 viral hit Valhalla Calling.
“There are people in the States and Russia and Germany who are obsessed with Viking culture,” he continues. “They dress up in all the clothes. They build boats. That community found the song. Partially through myself. And partially through a really popular TikTokker covering it.”
Valhalla Calling is three minutes and 47 seconds of full-throttle buccaneering brio. The most epic music you will encounter this side of the score to Lord of the Rings or Game of Thrones, it sounds as if it was recorded by a cast of thousands on a mountain-top or at the edge of a volcano.
This explosive exercise in musical maximalism, in fact, came together in the spare room of a house in the Cork suburbs. Extraordinarily, it is largely just Dunne, a one-man rock symphony who has built an unlikely career out of paying tribute to his favourite video games and movies via the medium of heavy rock.
With 38 million views on YouTube alone, Valhalla Calling’s success verges on mind-blowing. One especially smitten fan has gone so far as stitch together a one-hour “mix” of Valhalla Calling, which has clocked up 163,000 views.
And, as Dunne says, Valhalla Calling gained a second lease of life when TikTok star Peyton Parrish covered it (his version suggests Metallica soundtracking Braveheart). Even if you couldn’t tell a longship from long division, it is an extraordinary achievement.
“It exploded and grew a life of its own. I barely feel like that song is mine anymore,” says Dunne, 41. “There are so many cover versions. So many remixes. There’s about 50 versions out there.”
Here is the story of how a former heavy metal singer from Cork city became one of the biggest sensations in online music. Buckle up, check the rigging and keep an eye out for sudden swells. This is a dark and stormy journey.
In his teens, attending Ashton School near Ballintemple, Dunne was an archetypal geek who loved video games. But when he discovered music he cultivated the persona of a cool outlaw rocker. It was a disguise he wore for the best part of 10 years fronting headbangers Lotus Lullaby.
“I was a very, very nerdy kid,” he says. “And for the first three years [in secondary school] I didn’t have many friends and was picked on. And then I discovered guitars after my father died. I cut my hair in a kind of weird, Mohawk 90s thing and started wearing metal T-shirts.”
Dunne’s father was the Waterford-born poet Seán Dunne, who worked at the Cork Examiner as a journalist. He passed away in August 1995 at the tragically young age of 39 from heart problems.
Gavin was just 15. As he says, one of his ways of dealing with the grief was to embrace the bad-boy rocker persona. Shredding on a guitar represented freedom from the tedium of school. It was also a place to put his heartache following the death of his father.
“I was suddenly one of the cool kids. It very much gave me a perspective early in life on how shallow social situations are. I fed that into Lotus Lullaby, putting on the image of ‘the cool guy’. ‘This band is all cool guys, we get all the girls’. Almost creating the myth around yourself that becomes true because you created it.”
Lotus Lullaby built a loyal following in Cork, playing venues such as Fred Zeppelin’s and An Bróg, and winning a National Student Music Awards and Murphy Live Award. A few famous shoulders were rubbed along the way: Lotus Lullaby supported Carl Barât, of The Libertines, and his group Dirty Pretty Things. And they once flew to Amsterdam to share a bill with UK “landfill indie” outfit The Automatic. And yet, as the years clipped by and it became clear real success was as far away as ever, the project petered out. Dunne had no idea what to do next.
“I was still making music. For me, my number one reason for making music always has been to make something that I wanted to listen to. So I never stopped. But I was very, very disillusioned and thinking, ‘wow…is this it? Am I a failed musician now, after all my dreams that I worked so hard on?’”
With his band defunct, Dunne dropped the rock star persona and, as a way to pass the time, began composing material inspired by his first love, video games. He cringes slightly recalling early Miracle Of Sound tracks such as 2011’s Gordon Freeman Saved My Life! – a Def Leppard-style slab of hair-metal inspired by the hero of Half Life. But he kept writing and the songs got better and less jokey.
His breakthrough came in 2014 with Wake the White Wolf, a valentine to The Witcher video games. There was, he discovered, a huge audience for music that earnestly captured the spirit of these great escapist fantasies. Since then, he has not looked back.
“Valhalla Calling was the perfect storm,” explains Dunne’s collaborator, Dutch-based sound engineer and producer Frank de Jong.
“For a few years some groups were already making these type of heavy, dark folk songs and were slowly getting some mainstream attention: Heilung and Wardruna are prime examples. However a lot of what was out there in that space was done in traditional languages, which I personally find satisfying but makes it a lot harder to sing along to, empathise with or introduce to a friend.
“Of course Vikings are crazy hot in popular media at the moment as well. Lots and lots of TV shows and games – both triple A and indie – are heavily milking Norse mythology and culture. Then the Assassin’s Creed Valhalla game was a big hit, which took the hype to yet another level.”
Valhalla Calling was further helped by the explosion of sea shanties on TikTok, says de Jong.
“What made the shanties so popular were the satisfying harmonies. Valhalla Calling is about Vikings, sung in English, has super dark heavy primal energy and ultra satisfying harmonies. And was released at the same time as Assassin’s Creed Valhalla. A perfect storm. Also it works in the gym, or so I have been told by people that go there!”
With his songs racking up millions of views, it dawned on Dunne that he could make a living from Miracle Of Sound.
“It’s about diversifying,” he says. “Use every source available. I wouldn’t, for example, recommend YouTube by itself as a full-time thing. When you combine YouTube with Spotify, with iTunes with Patreon [a content creator subscription service], with all the other avenues. Twitch [the video game livestream site] is another one. I have a company called Pretzel who gets me money any time my music is played on Twitch by live-streamers. All of that together is what makes it able to be a full-time job. I’m certainly not struggling.”
Game publishers have been paying attention, too. The industry now actively courts Dunne and invites him to immortalise their work in song. He’s just put out a tune inspired by new PS5 game, Horizon Forbidden West, featuring vocals by Scottish singer Karliene.
He has also looked beyond video games. Miracle Of Sound has released music drawing on Cú Chulainn and on Denis Villeneuve’s adaptation of Frank Herbert’s Dune.
Most moving of all. perhaps, is his 2021 ballad Perfect, based on Netflix TV series Arcane (itself a spin-off of the League Of Legends steampunk video game). It’s an ode to the character Jinx, whose struggles carry echoes of events in Dunne’s own life.
“It was a very inspiring story, as someone who’s lived with a sibling who had similar mental health issues to Jinx. It was a very personal song to write. Which is what I kind of try and do these days with the songs – put a little bit of something in it that everyone can relate to.”
“Gavin has a very specific source of inspiration, mainly gaming, and uses that in a very serious manner,” adds Frank de Jong. “He is acknowledging gaming as a legit world of art – full of great stories, music and visual art. Something that is still not fully understood by a lot of people. So for the people that are into that, it is an extra level of joy and feeling.”
- Miracle of Sound’s latest release is New Frontier, inspired by Horizon Forbidden West