Folk Metal is a curious genre. Oftentimes it can be undeservingly treated with ridicule; when a pair of violins and a flute appear onstage alongside a BC Rich plenty of jeers can come the way of the performers. Sometimes the ridicule is fully deserved as the folk influence can become painfully twee affair: see Eluveitie or Turisas at times. On rare occasions, however, a traditional sway can produce truly beautiful results; see, in this case, SAOR.
You’d be forgiven for not imagining an eleven-minute title track would start galloping right out of the gates, but that’s exactly how Forgotten Paths (Avantgarde) kicks off. Straight in at seismic force, the album sweeps you off your feet and on a journey over the Highlands. There is a distinctly Gaelic feel to the album, particularly the use of powerfully bowed violin and breathy flute, that have a jaunty sing-along melody without ever straying into the unbearably twee. It’s a delicate balancing act that SAOR pulls off majestically.
The soft piano that introduces ‘Monadh’ feels bombastic and grandiose, as if a film or video game score rather than an album. It leads to a deeply emotional ten minutes that ebb and flow between jovial and moribund. It’s an insightful and stunning mix of melody and soulful intensity. When the vocals finally arrive, it’s the point of cathartic release in explosive fashion, as they tunefully roar overtop the masterful concerto being played beneath.
‘Bròn’ follows on in a far more starkly aggressive fashion. It is pummelling where there was delicacy, and ugly where there was beauty. It’s here that the Blackgaze – the insufficiently descriptive portmanteau of Shoegaze and Black Metal – really shows itself off in a flourish. The guitars become wider and give cause for more of Andy Marshall’s deep growling to fill out the spacey void. Around halfway through comes a heel turn as a refrain of soft singing takes the lead, but it feels like a crescendo to the heaviness rather than an about-face: genuinely brilliant songwriting on display.
‘Exile’ acts as the epilogue to the album’s journey. As the sound of waves lapping against rock undercuts the pizzicato strings, there’s a bittersweet melancholy about bidding the album farewell.
An album so densely packed with glorious ideas, so beautifully constructed and intricate, but with enough obvious melody to be accessible, it’s quite the wonder. One for fans of Alcest, Opeth and any intellectual music that conveys feeling.
8 / 10