Sunday, 19 April 2015

#375 Cruachan - Blood For the Blood God

Unless I have some sort of monumental epiphany in the future, I can safely say that the vast majority of folk-metal is strictly none of my business. For the most part, it's too nice, to saccharine, and too damn cheesy. With every rule, however, comes exceptions. Of late, Ireland's Cruachan haven't been nice, they haven't been saccharine, and in an interesting turn of events, they've ceased to be especially cheesy, having returned to their black-metal roots on "Blood on the Black Robe" from 2011. Consequently, I was thoroughly excited at the prospect of a new record, and, discovering that just such a record existed, have now predictably spend about four months slowly but surely getting around to listening to it. Finally, it's time.

First impressions are serious business. Blood For the Blood God make initial impressions with the drum sound, and not in a good way. I had no idea that typewriters were a traditional Irish folk instrument, but apparently are, going by how damn clicky the drum sound is on a lot of the record. It's really a push in the wrong direction, and it takes concious effort not to let it leave me poised against the rest of the content of the record. It's a shame, because the drumming itself works well, it fits the songs well and has plenty of energy... but dear god is it produced all kinds of wrong for the context it's in. It's something I wouldn't have picked up on half a decade ago, but now I can't turn a blind eye easily. Granted, the drums have to filter through thickly layered instruments; there's a lot going on in any Cruachan album... but there's really no need for the bass-drum sound that we get left with. Regardless, I don't want to dedicate an entire paragraph to one shortcoming. I did my best to separate it in my mind as a fault, from the rest of the record - and for what it's worth, just about everything else about Blood For the Blood God is actually very, very good. It's raw, angry and sincere, sure there are a few jaunty tracks and sections, but that's par for the course with Cruachan, and for the most part, the record is a scathing continuation of Blood on the Black Road. It continues to carve the dark and bloody road that the band had before them in their early years, you know... before all the fun. 

I'm willing to go further, in fact. Blood For the Blood God may well be the bands most aggressive record to date; the vocals rage and rampage their way through the songs, like roaring calls coming down from the mountains, and the engulfing guitar tone adds to the impact - likewise, the record flows well - not too much filler, and certainly not too excessive a running time; it's about as much Cruachan as you want in one serving, and it borders, shortcomings aside, on being one of the best servings of Cruachan - it all depends on how you feel about drum-sound. The folk-elements are, thankfully, quite wholesome and sincere - no sugar in this dark mug of coffee. For a lot of the record, in fact, the "folk" element of the bands identity is compositional, as opposed to relying on specifically "folk" instruments, which feels the most earnest way to conduct things. When they are deployed, however, they're a power for good, as they were on the previous record - demonstrating as ever, that the vast and angry landscape of bands like Cruachan and Primordial will always trump the mischievous beer-in-hand bollocks of the other half of the genre. It's powerful stuff, and avoids so many of the usual traps that folk-influenced bands can fall into.

All in all, Blood For the Blood God is a satisfying listen - tall enough in stature to overcome it's shortcomings - or rather, one specific short-coming... and hell, for most people it won't even be a problem; I'm just the resident drum-sound pedant. Regardless, the record is a powerful and enjoyable trip through the visceral and bloody side of what Cruachan do, and for my money, it's what the band do best of all.

This is an 8/10.

Cruachan Official Site
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Tuesday, 7 April 2015

#374 Enslaved - In Times

I started listening to Enslaved around the time that "Axioma Ethica Odini" was released, or perhaps a bit before. I don't entirely recall - I started off on "Below The Lights" and didn't pay attention to new material for a while. The crucial point is that that I did notice was that Axioma was not only eagerly anticipated, but was likewise very well received. How Enslaved albums were anticipated and received before that, I don't know, but since that record, the bands subsequent efforts have been some of the most hype-attracting announcements in metal as a whole, earning the band a reputation for quality which may well pre-date my experience. It wouldn't surprise me if it was always this way; the band have never been guilty of a legitimately bad album, and stylistically, the whole of their post-2000 output has been a thoughtful evolution of progressive black-metal. From personal experience, at least, "Riitiir" seemed to be lauded and adored. The build-up to "In Times" has been no different, albeit with even more to live up to. The game escalates with every round, and the question is, does the new record step up?

"In Times" does not take long to get into; it's unabashedly an Enslaved album from the get-go, and carries with it the momentum that the two records before it created, while, like those records, being sufficiently different to be fresh, whilst still hoisting the Enslaved banner high. It feels extremely accessible, but without compromising a recipe decades in the making. It's a rich and luxuriant album, well produced, well written, and revelling in its progressive-influence whilst weaving the dream-like sound which has been blossoming for years with every bit as much vivacity and inspiration as ever before. In Times feels a little humbler than Riitiir; lean and refined. Riitiir was a sprawling and enormous creature with a thousand tentacles, a million eyes - well crafted, yes; absolutely among my favourite Enslaved records... but also quite a handful. In Times flows clear and crisp, like a mountain stream; a little faster, a little shorter, and a little more contained within itself. The record doesn't threaten to spill out of itself, overflowing. Instead, it is a discreet and decidedly enjoyable capsule of inspiration, offering not too little, but neither does it offer too much. As far as run-time and so forth goes, it hits the nail on the head, accommodating long, ambitious tracks, but never outstaying their welcome.

A huge strength of In Times seems to be how memorable it is; Enslaved have honed and refined their chorus game to a very fine point on this one, and it shows. Almost every song is graced by well-executed and distinct clean-vocals reinforcing the cosmic and transcendental sounds the band have steadily embraced more and more. The riffs on the record are also razor-sharp, rendering proceedings more electric, more alive than some of the more "dry" Enslaved albums. Further honey-coated by the beautiful solos, particularly in the closing track, the album swaggers and writhes with a triumphant and sublime prowess which has seldom been so pronounced in the band. The record utterly stands on its own, and rightly so, as one of Enslaved's best. Contrastingly, In Times also feels nostalgic and reflexive, too - there are subtle call-backs to earlier days, all of which feel in place and appropriate, gifting the listener with wondrous moments of half-recognition. One of the riffs in "Daylight" reminisces to "Ethica Odini", while the opener, "Thurisaz Dreaming" offers up glimpses of the style the band opted for throughout the early-2000s records, particularly "Below the Lights". All in all, the old and the new collide to create something great in its own right.

Again and again, experience teaches that Enslaved are a band who can deliver, and In Times is another constellation in their great and wide musical sky. It is the first new record that I have been enthusiastic enough about to listen to multiple times in a day without tiring of it, and certainly one of very few records I currently feel enthusiastic enough about to listen to twice in a row without a pause. Predictably, and happily, In Times is magnificent stuff.

This is somewhere around the 9/10 mark.

Enslaved Official Site
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Enslaved on Metal Archives