(Wil Cifer reviews Khram (“The Temple”), the new album by the Russian metal band Arkona, which was released by Napalm Records on January 19.)
The idea of folk metal is better than the application of it that often emerges in album form. Just when I think I have found folk metal I like, the smoke clears and it’s actually black metal. This band is almost a case study in this conundrum. At last a band who might dismiss the problems I have had with folk metal.
The majority of folk metal bands I have come across over the years play something closer to pirate drinking songs or have too much frolicking in the Shire. I play pen-and-paper Dungeons and Dragons twice a week and read tons of epic fantasy from, Glen Cook to Erickson, so I am the target audience for this kind of music.
But all of these frolicking shanties are too happy, and I need my metal as dark as possible. The ninth album from this Russian band delivers what I need when they do begin to gallop off into the sunset, with moments of majesty contrasted by more dark and heavy passages.
The album opens with chanting so creepy I kept finding myself turning around to see if there was a witch in my closet. They show up ready to do battle without overindulging the more LARP-like elements, and then comes the seventeen-minute second song. I tend not to keep many sprawling seventeen-minute songs in my iPod, as they would take up the entire car ride to pretty much anywhere I go. The song borders on being progressive and reaffirms their chops if you were unsure of them.
The twelve-minute song that follows begins with a tense strum of cleaner guitar, before more layers of guitar begin to come in. Mid-way into the song they break from the dark drone of the verse riff to bury you in a barrage of double-bass; it works because they have already offered a range of dynamic colors.
The harsh vocals are growled in a more throaty death metal voice. The drums and guitars display a well-balanced blend of technicality and angry metal emoting.
The title track has a darker throb and the album begins to remind me of Kampfar, though it eventually winds into something more Moonsorrow-like. The double-bass continue to keep things moving as the song works off a building drone. Rather than a shift in the arrangement, layers such as folk instrumentation and sung vocals float in and out. The payoff which you know is coming is a shift in tempo, when the thunder of drums sweeps up the song. This leads to a call-and-response between the growled vocals and the harmonized female vocals.
“V Pogonie Za Beloj Ten’yu” is more straightforward in its bold gallop; it makes it clear these guys are more black metal than folk metal. Mid-way, they give the song some breathing room with a dynamic shift into some ambience, delving into more electronic elements in this passage than I expected from them. This is what I want — for bands to do the unexpected. Hearing hundred of bands over the course of a month, you get tired of them sticking to the script. It would really be different if I weren’t sure that they were going to bust back into the double-bass. This of course happens in the song’s final two minutes.
The piano intro to ” V landonyah bogov” finds the guitar slowly fading into the picture, before fully breaking into the metal at the two-and-a-half-minute mark. The dry mid-range rasp of the harsh vocals is dominant, before the verse ebbs down into a melodic pondering. The more progressive flare in this song continues to find the band exceeding expectations before the shift into more of a groove that gives way to the inevitable blasting. I am fine with blast-beats on this album since it is not their only stock and trade. It never feels like they are just taking the easy way out.
The album closes with “Volchitsa”. The beginning of this song might fool you into thinking you are listening to Dead Can Dance until the guitars buzz in. Dark and melodic, the drummer proves he is brilliant even when playing along to something more smoldering and introspective.
If you want some black metal that is melodic, with folk elements, then this is the album for you.