The history of Saor is a bit deceptive. If you’ve heard the name at all, you didn’t until last year, but the man behind it has been around for some time now. Before Scotland’s Andy Marshall chose this name for his solo project, he released Eternity as Askival in 2009. He was also a major factor in Where Distant Spirits Remain by Falloch in 2011. Neither of those albums stuck with me well enough for me to remember how they sound off the top of my head today, but I do have them. That tells me this is a musician with a good bit of experience, who managed to get his name out there well before he changed it to Saor. Aura is apparently his second release as Saor — he released Roots last year, and I’ll have to make a point to go check it out. If it sounds anything like Aura, it will be well worth the trouble.
Saor – Children of the Mist, from Aura
It does not take long for this five song, 57 minute album to convince you that it has something special going on. The opening track, “Children of the Mist”, erupts almost immediately into a graceful, distinctly Gaelic sweep of woodwind, layered atop well-mixed metal that lets the folk melody shine without much intrusion. The piano and string that follow seem to float in the air, painting a vivid landscape that seems to mirror the album’s cover art. The vibe is similar to Waylander of Northern Ireland, and it feels like it could drift on forever without losing any of its opening grandeur. Around 4:20, the metal briefly gives way to a beautiful cloud of strings and traditional drumming, soon to be met by blast beats that, much like on Kentucky by Panopticon, manage imbue the landscape with life rather than darkness. As the song continues on, you hear a wide variety of folk, pagan, and black metal techniques employed towards this same end of adding a feeling of life and spirit to the nature scenes that the traditional instrumentation invokes.
Saor – The Awakening, from Aura
This approach holds true throughout the grand bulk of the album. The melodies always arise from the folk instrumentation, with the metal serving a supplemental role of forcing you to feel directly engaged in the moment–a temporal witness to some eternal tranquility. It is a devout album, alive in reverence for the spirits of the land. From start to finish, it varies relatively little but never disappoints.
I suppose the terms “folk” and “pagan” can get thrown around rather haphazardly at times, without much of a clear distinction. One tends to conjure to mind lighter, “fun” bands like Korpiklaani and Alestorm, the other more serious bands such as Waylander and Drudkh. Sometimes this seriousness generates a sort of militarism or savagery, rendering bands like Arkona and Nokturnal Mortum far more intense than anything traditional black metal has produced on its own (and far too often, in Nokturnal Mortum’s case for instance, this gets vandalized by absurd notions of supremacy). But this does not always have to be the case. On Aura there is never a hint of desperation or brutality. The feeling is purely of peace and reverence boldly denying that the tradition it embraces has been in any way weakened by the modern world. “Folk” and “pagan” both denote music focused on ways of life that are no longer socially acceptable or possible in a modern, technologically advanced, monotheistic world. If folk suggests people, pagan suggests religion, and the religions of old were not based upon some highborn Greek notion of divinity. Their gods took hearth in wood and water and earth. Saor feels like pagan metal in that sort of sense to me. Its folk instrumentation paints the landscape, and the metal imbues it with supernatural life.
Aura is undeniably one of the most beautiful recordings of 2014. Don’t let it pass you by.