October Music Series: Falkenbach – Heathen Foray

If there is one artist I have consistently returned to every October for the 15 or so years that I’ve had a clue what I’m talking about, it’s Vratyas Vakyas. I first discovered Falkenbach via Audiogalaxy–a long forgotten site that stood out back in the Napster days for a design which allowed users to easily explore non-mainstream genres. I had never heard anything remotely similar to Falkenbach at the time, and I fell in love with the plodding hymns that seemed to turn black metal on its head and generate a spirit of reverence rather than darkness.

Of course, in hindsight Falkenbach fits into a broader historical progression, but his sound is still entirely unmistakable. Vratyas Vakyas was one of the earliest artists to really latch on to the ‘viking metal’ ideal that Bathory began in the late 80s, before too many stylistic norms were standardized, and the sound he landed on has never ceased to captivate me. “Heathen Foray” is the opening track to his fourth studio album, Heralding – The Fireblade (2005), and it also makes an appearance in somewhat grimmer form on his second album, …Magni blandinn ok megintiri… (1998). How far back the basic idea of the song dates is hard to say; there is a ton of earlier demo material available going as far back as 1989. I could have chosen any of dozens of stand-out songs to showcase here without any reservations, but this one has been speaking to me lately. Enjoy!

October Music Series: Myrkgrav – Endetoner

Lars Jensen has been working on his solo project, Myrkgrav, since 2003, but his discography is pretty brief. Trollskau, skrømt og kølabrenning (2006) is his only full-length album, and it’s a pretty solid entry into the annals of pagan metal. The album is a bit brooding overall, with a lot of slower tempo black metal-infused hymns, but the optimistic closing track has always stood out to me the most.

“Endetoner” feels like a victory anthem–a celebration of Norse history and tradition that honors those old gods who always seem to make a brief return to Midgard around this time of the year.

October Music Series: Månegarm – Ur själslig död

If I asked a random metal fan to name ten folk/viking metal bands, chances are they wouldn’t drop Sweden’s Månegarm among the contenders. It’s a bit odd, considering they’ve been around since 1995. But besides having a name that isn’t entirely easy to reproduce on a standard keyboard, there’s no reason to leave “Månegarm” off the list. Their ability to fly under the radar is something I don’t really understand; this band has definitely drawn less attention than they deserve over the years.

I am guilty to an extent, with nothing prior to Vargstenen–their 2007 release–in my collection, but I was still a little surprised to realize I had never featured this band before let alone this song. Following a brief intro track, “Ur själslig död” kicks off Vargstenen with epic bombast and a creative progression that avoids the easy temptation to repeat the track’s catchy main melody in excess. One thing that always stood out to me on this song was the vocals. Erik Grawsiö demonstrates a level of diversity I’m more accustomed to out of Slavic metal bands than their Germanic counterparts, and I absolutely love how he transitions back and forth between guttural singing and atonal growls. I couldn’t resist the urge to belt out a death metal roar of my own at the 40 second mark when I was listening to this in my car earlier today. So much for not scaring the new neighbors. <_<

October Music Series: Agalloch – Dead Winter Days

Throughout the 2000s, Agalloch unleashed a series of albums that have influenced countless bands across the metal spectrum. Not only did Ashes Against the Grain (2006) play an enormous role in ushering in the era of post-black metal, but Pale Folklore (1999) pioneered the folk metal aesthetic for a nation whose traditional genres stood leagues apart from the metal scene. (It would be another decade before Austin Lunn nailed a metal interpritation of bluegrass.) Most American folk metal bands carry Agalloch’s stamp of influence with them, and why not? Pale Folklore perfectly captures a sense of melancholy mystery that reflects a land whose native sons were slaughtered, leaving their secrets only a faint whisper in the air.

October Music Series: Opeth – The Twilight is My Robe

If there’s one thing that will draw me back out of obscurity no matter how much work I’m bogged down with, it’s Horror season here on Shattered Lens. As a de facto film blog’s one author who pretty much never watches movies, I like to do my part by digging out a mix of tunes appropriate for the season.

This is always the time of year when I stop focusing on new releases and revisit a lot of my metal and folk favorites of old. From b-side Satanic cheese to authentic pagan anthems to the truly deranged, all the music I love most seems to find a home when that oppressive summer sun gives way to pleasant temperatures and dimming lights. It’s my favorite time of year, and my music collection rises to the occasion.

Opeth is pretty common fair in the textbooks of heavy metal these days, but Mikael Akerfeldt’s finest works came before the fame, in my opinion. Their 1995 debut, Orchid, ranks highest for me. While Akerfeldt’s trademark progressive rock experimentation was present from the get-go, those early albums had a sort of hollow, natural tone to them that lent the band a distinctly folk vibe. Orchid (and Morningrise) seem to drift through the crisp, foggy air surrounding a lake on the edge of a forest, the sun just beginning to rise over the horizon. I don’t wake up early when I can help it, but if a morning commute is necessary, Opeth always sees a spike in my play count. The vision that songs like “The Twilight is My Robe” paint is stunningly vivid, and surprisingly peaceful in contrast to Akerfeldt’s harsh vocals.

Review: Korpiklaani – Noita

Korpiklaani have been pretty heavily criticized over the years for what has been perceived as a highly “gimmicky” sound. That view has a faint shred of legitimacy, but it gets blown way out of proportion. With bands like Alestorm and Nekrogoblikon managing to pump out really impressive albums without the slightest hint that they take any of their music seriously, it is easy to falsely impose on the genre a spectrum ranging from hoax to serious. You’re either writing brutal pagan metal homages to Odin or you’re dressing up as a mutant snork and dancing a jig, right?

It doesn’t really work like that. Bands like Kalevala (Калевала) and Troll Bends Fir (Тролль Гнёт Ель) can come off as fun-loving boozers, but you can’t escape the impression that they have a deep respect for their cultural heritage. Finntroll sing about dim-witted fantasy monsters eating people, and they’re heavy as hell. Being light-hearted and fun certainly does not make a folk metal band “gimmicky”, as if all folk traditions are inherently morbid. Doing it for nine albums without showing much inclination towards anything but fun and relegating your only English language songs to tantrums about not having enough beer–well, that can tarnish an image. I do understand why people might see Korpiklaani as a having a one-track mind.

But it really shouldn’t, and they really don’t. Not if sounding the same means maintaining the quality that turned people to them in the first place while honing their musical talents along the way. Not when for every track devoid of lyrical content the listener writes off eight others as the same because they don’t speak Finnish. Korpiklaani were very well received when they first appeared with Spirit of the Forest back in 2003. Folk metal was still fairly new then, and Jonne Järvelä was a frontrunner, not a bandwagoner. He had contributed to Finntroll’s Jaktens Tid in 2001, and prior to changing his band’s name to Korpiklaani he had released folk metal under the monicker “Shaman” beginning in 1999. He was recording non-metal Finnish folk music earlier than that. As folk metal picked up steam, Korpiklaani’s pop-centric, lighter brand–characterized by very simplistic metal riffs underscoring catchy yolk vocals, accordion, violin, and an occasional whistle–came under fire. Why?

That’s an open question. I really don’t get it. My best guess is that people experienced Spirit of the Forest and Voice of Wilderness when folk metal was still a novelty. They didn’t really love the band; they just loved the direction that metal was heading in, and Korpiklaani were a prominent example of that. As the scene broadened and more variety became available, some people were quick to throw Korpiklaani under the bus because the band’s pop tendencies made them feel a little insecure in their metal manliness. Korven Kuningas (2008), Karkelo (2009), and Ukon Wacka (2011) got a lot of negative reviews. But to me, the band just kept getting better. Spirit of the Forest gave us “Pellonpeikko”, and “Wooden Pints” is certainly nostalgic, but the album had a lot of half-formed filler tracks too. It has all the feel of an early, less developed work in a band’s discography. They really started to nail the folk on Voice of Wilderness in 2005, and Jonne Järvelä’s distinctive yolk-style vocals–the band’s most unique traditional feature–really didn’t fully mature until Tales Along This Road (2006) and Tervaskanto (2007). Their next three albums took all the heat, but they were only guilty of not offering further development. They didn’t really need to. The band was in their prime.

Manala (2012) was the first and only Korpiklaani album that I had misgivings about. It was distinctly heavier, with folk instrumentation feeling subservient to metal guitar riffs rather than the other way around. For that, it actually got some positive feedback. Korpiklaani were abandoning that “folk gimmick” and getting back to their “metal roots”, or some nonsense like that, as if the band even had metal roots. My speculation was, I think, a bit more realistic: Long-tenured violinist Jaakko “Hittavainen” Lemmetty retired after Ukon Wacka. Short of digging the jewel case out from my basement, I can’t even find a clear answer as to who played violin when Manala was recorded in 2011. Teemu Eerola replaced Hittavainen on tour that year, and Tuomas Rounakari stepped in as the band’s permanent violinist shortly after. I have to believe that there is a direct correlation between Manala‘s lack of a strong folk component and the transitional state of the band’s lineup at the time.

Korpiklaani did not record another album for three years. That’s a long stretch by their standards, and in the meantime Juho Kauppinen, their accordionist since Tales Along This Road, left as well. Was the band doomed to drift ever further from their unique poppy folk sound into the cesspool of generic derivative heavy metal?

Not at all, as it turns out. Noita sounds strikingly successive, but in a way that works wonderfully. It takes Manala and drives it back into where the folk left off on Ukon Wacka. The first track, “Viinamäen Mies”, opens powerfully with a driving violin and a nice accordion accompaniment. Where the folk drifts out, the passages are brief enough to feel like a showcase of Jonne Järvelä’s vocals rather than a void in the content. The song is a total return to Korpiklaani’s poppy folk roots, and that feeling persists through the first two tracks.

Track: Lempo

The third song, “Lempo”, slows down the pace and stretches things out in a turn that is, for them at least, a bit on the heavy side. Unlike Manala though, the guitar is hardly alone in giving it an edge. The vocals are great, as always, and the folk instrumentation blends in and out of playing harmony to the plodding verses and busting out solos in really fluid form.

The rest of the album is a mix of these two approaches, and it is surprisingly the latter that comes out strongest. “Sahti” and “Luontoni” give us two more upbeat, fun songs that don’t feel remotely contrived, and then the album slows back down for the long haul. The violin on “Minä Näin Vedessä Neidon” is about as heavy metal as that instrument gets, and I was especially impressed on the closing track–“Sen Verran Minäkin Noita”–by how Tuomas Rounakari and Sami Perttula seem to have mastered improvisation over long, drawn out metal chords. Moreover, the rhythms on that song are way more diverse than we’re used to from Korpiklaani, tipping a hat to prog and viking metal. It’s one of the few songs in their catalog that don’t follow a standard verse-chorus-verse pattern. I can’t help but think “this is way too awesome to be Korpiklaani” when I listen to it. And I’m one of the people that never lost faith in the band.

It’s hard to imagine, listening to Noita, that Sami Perttula and Tuomas Rounakari were new to this band. Perttula totally gets their sound, and he brings a fiery spirit that wants to imbue anything and everything with rambling accordion harmonies. Rounakari offers much the same on violin, and also a great deal of thoughtfulness. In an English-language interview released by Nuclear Blast to promote the album, he explains each song quite articulately. He even points out cultural relevance in “Sahti”, a song that turns out to be about (surprise!) drinking. (It’s kind of funny, because Järvelä and Perttula’s bad English cater to every negative stereotype surrounding them. I write this song because I like get drunk!) If you didn’t know any better, you would think Korpiklaani had been Rounakari’s baby all along. Hittavainen was a hard man to replace, but I’m not complaining about who they found.

The album does have one very unfortunate, glaring flaw, and it’s called “Jouni Jouni”. “Jouni Jouni” is a cover of Billy Idol’s cover of Tommy James and the Shondells’ mind-numbingly stupid hit classic “Mony Mony”, and it appears right smack in the middle of the damn album. You know what makes even less sense? Noita has a “hidden” bonus track, “Antaja”, and that song sounds totally normal. Instead of putting “Antaja” in the main mix and relegating “Jouni Jouni” to the end of the line after a few minutes silence (or better yet, deleting all record of its existence), they cram it smack in the middle between “Minä Näin Vedessä Neidon” and “Kylästä Keväinen Kehto”. Bad Korpiklaani! Bad!

But this album is great. In fact, I think it’s their best. Yep. Noita: my new favorite Korpiklaani album. Pick up your copy via Nuclear Blast.

(Nuclear Blast is being a bit douchey about youtube samples, but if you want to check out some of the better tracks before you buy and can find them, I recommend “Kylästä Keväinen Kehto” and “Sen Verran Minäkin Noita”.)

Review: Panopticon – Roads to the North

Two years removed, Kentucky has left a unique long-term impression in my mind. For all of the excitement over an authentic and well-crafted mingling of traditional Appalachian folk and black metal–the term “blackgrass” got tossed around a lot–I honestly don’t remember how most of the songs went. This is because Kentucky‘s message managed to trump its sound. I remember the old man talking about organizing strikes against the coal company. I remember Sarah Ogan Gunning’s boldly defiant calls to overthrow capitalism. I think of settlers slaughtering Indians, mountains blown into dust, rivers running black with pollution, grim-faced miners broken in body but never in spirit, a modern generation abandoning everything their ancestors worked so hard to accomplish… That is my memory of Kentucky.

Chase the Grain

I can’t detach myself from Kentucky enough to appreciate Roads to the North as an independent entity. That’s probably fine. I had never heard of Panopticon before Austin Lunn nailed his bloody heart to his sleeve in 2012, and that identity will persist through my perception so long as it remains true. Roads to the North has no explicit message, no lyrics sheet, no spoken tracks or American folk covers. But it has Kentucky, and because of that every song takes on a deeper, more robust meaning than it might have otherwise.

It would be interesting to know what a folk/black metal fan unfamiliar with Panopticon takes from this album. Does the music alone stand far above and beyond the norm? I like to think it does. The album incorporates some entirely unexpected but highly effective melodic death metal moments, especially in the opening track “The Echoes of a Disharmonic Evensong”. This track also gives us perhaps Lunn’s best incorporation of fiddle directly into black metal to date. “The Long Road Part 2: Capricious Miles” transitions out with a long and enthralling jazzy progressive rock chill reminiscent of mid-era Opeth. The whistle in “Where Mountains Pierce the Sky” sounds nothing like what we’re used to out of the European scenes, harkening instead to a western indigenous sound I have only heard from some obscure Mexican folk metal bands. “The Long Road Part 1: One Last Fire” is an unconventional six minute acoustic bluegrass piece that feels more like something straight out of Lunn’s imagination than Appalachia.

The intensity hops around so suddenly that Roads to the North may feel disjointed at first, but the stark contrasts are never forced. Because you don’t always see them coming, they are striking rather than cliche. Lunn performs each of the album’s myriad instruments better than a lot of people who specialize in only one, and there aren’t many producers on the black metal market that can compare to Colin Marston. He has a knack for subtlety that is hard to come by in the scene. I absolutely love the way the tremolo emerges around 30 seconds into “Chase the Grain”, for instance. It’s so soft that you feel its effect on the song as a whole long before your brain consciously recognizes it.

Norwegian Nights

But I suppose I don’t really care about the finer musical details of Roads to the North, and that is why I found this album so difficult to review. This music is only a gateway. Like an engaging book, you never notice that it is well written. Roads to the North is not the guided tour we found on Kentucky. It leaves us be to explore where the feelings take us within the context of the world Lunn has already shown us. Those paths can be rocky. It’s not the glorified past of so many European pagan metallers. The should-be eternal is tainted. The land is marred. It’s the introspective melancholy Americana of Bob Dylan and Tom Waits, and your heart goes out to so many things that you can never hope to save.

Lie beneath a cold blanket and watch the mountains sleep. The train rolls by every hour, as I wake and dream. The woods and the hills–faces so dear to me. Frozen lakes, flatland snow, where I’m called I’ll go. Such still quiet, then the whistle echoes. My fragile sleep torn from me, as many other things will be.