In the early 1990s, before Wikipedia and Metal-Archives destroyed knowledge by standardizing it, zine editors were like guerrilla truth-fighters. At their day jobs, they stood in front of copiers while a colleague nervously kept watch, running off thousands of sheets that they then stayed up until dawn stapling and preparing for mailing. Everyone who could be a fanatic took his or her turn firing off publications.
Heathen Call comes from that same spirit. Its goal is to write about heathen music, which is the intersection of folk and metal with sometimes ambient/soundtrack overtones that focuses on pagan/ancient topics and aesthetics. If the medievalism of Dead Can Dance or the Ren Faire seemed like fun, but with the vicious realist approach of metal, that would be the heathen underground. In this issue, Heathen Call covers long-running folk band Changes, black/folk metal band Gjhallarhorn from Ukraine, heavy metal band Akashah, and black metal band Grafvolluth. While this slants the content by weight toward the metal, the most interesting part is the Robert N. Taylor interview with Changes in which he discusses the challenges of staying realistic in a world dedicated to frivolous distraction to avoid seeing its inner emptiness. Changes formed in 1969 and in theory would have been included in the great folk music explosion, but they did not fit in with the flowers in the hair message of the age. Taylor brings forth not only forgotten history but more fully developed ideas on pagan, heathen and traditional culture than one normally hears.
This zine is spectacularly short and clean. The focus is clearly the content. With elegant but sparse graphics, black-on-white layouts designed for easy reading, and selective content of interviews with questions that get into the depth of purpose and motivation behind these artists, Heathen Call would not fit in with the “what amps do you use?” and “have there been many groupies this tour?” type writing that populist magazines aim for, nor the political dogma zombie recitation of the political magazines. As such, this is a rare animal. It would be interesting to see more interviews with people such as Robert N. Taylor and other thinkers in this area, and getting away from the also-ran black metal bands who are exploring a heathen area tangentially to being participants in the dead, bloated and off-gassing black metal scene, but as a content-based zine Heathen Call provides an interesting, quality read for those interested in this niche spanning multiple genres.
Akashah starts with Iron Maiden styled heavy metal and mixes in diverse influences ranging from the speed/death metal of Absu, the lengthy melodic passages of Dissection, the grandeur of viking-era Bathory, the odd grooves of 80s Gothic rock and the strange sad simple melodies of neofolk. Add to this choruses that are more infectious than Ebola on a bath house water fountain and you have the fundamental Akashah approach. Songs do not reach for unrealistic symmetry as bad music in the 1990s did, but find a catchy phrase and then expand upon it in a circular way that gratifies all of the emotional potential it has without delivery release.
The music that pours out as a result is sentimental like heavy metal but with the more advanced technique of putting energy into the riffs themselves and using them in a dramatic way. It approximates the narrative stream of newer death metal and black metal as a result, but the band clearly favors emotional moments — and this band is more outright and unconcealedly emotional than most bands on the heavier side of rock — and so goes back to a satisfying verse-chorus pair to hash that out, interrupting this loop to introduce tension with new riffs but not as frequently as might prevent a certain sense of being worn down by the listener. At times it resembles the black metal/heavy metal/doom metal hybrid of early Varathron in its riff phrasing. While the band writes excellent riffs both within known forms and of a nature entirely unique to themselves, songs follow the heavy metal format and so do not vary internal riffs as much, which leads to a loss of inertia on some of these longer songs; in addition, some melodies are too evenly balanced which creates overly-symmetrical phrases paired to repetitive vocal rhythms that are too obvious or too complete, giving the songs a jingle-like nature.
Inevitably, people will compared Akashah to Absu: the same speed metal infusion into heavy metal marks the heavier riffs on this album, as does the reliance on what feels like Celtic or central European melodies with insanely catchy choruses. Moments on Eagna an Marbh compare favorably with the best from black metal and heavy metal, but this album badly needs an edit to keep from feeling repetitive and to develop some of these ideas outside the chorus cycle. Nonetheless, there are riffs on this album that show up nowhere else and many moments of fine songwriting that, if properly channeled, could make for an A-level metal album.