This article was contributed to Death Metal Underground by Ludvig Boysen.
A lot of music claims to be metal without actually being metal these days. This music placed on equal footing with the classic metal masterpieces generates hostile reactions. But what if no one claimed that it was metal? How would we think of the music then? Would it be mislabeled good music or mere crap? That is what I try to find out with this review of The Mantle by Agalloch. I had a neutral and open mind while listening to it, not concerning myself with anything but the music itself.
The terms bardic or minstrel metal have often been used to describe bands that usually sing in a clear voice and with anthemic overtones, often imitate medievalesque motifs and write lyrics in the manner of romanticized ancient legends. Generally, the metal subgenre most readily associated with bardic expression is power metal because they advertise themselves as modern-day minstrels and theirs is the kind of catchy and upbeat music most people can latch on to most easily. The bardic spirit along with the culture it transmits, however, requires a sturdier medium that is able to etch its runes indelibly without detracting from the importance of their message.
Power metal could be described as a blend of Judas Priest and Iron Maiden mixed with the energy of speed metal. The influence of Ritchie Blackmore cannot be overstated either. In time, they developed their own tropes and particular voices that set them apart from their Briton godfathers. Bands making music in this style are known for an overt expression and presentation that falls just a little short from that of the despicable glam metal. More often than not, these theatrical habits and indulgences overshadow both the content of the music and the words, both of which come close to becoming only an excuse for narcissistic expression. The persona takes precedence over the message.
A sensible division of terms would be advisable here since the words bard and minstrel actually denote two very similar but different traditions. The bard was said to be an itinerant poet who, with the help of music, kept traditions and values alive through stories and legends written in meter. The minstrel made its most significant appearances in courts. Its main job was to entertain the nobility. The latter job’s description often overlaps with that of a jester whose curriculum included clownish acts like juggling. Here is where we find the most apt description for bands like Helloween or Blind Guardian, who willingly and naively took the latter term for themselves.
In lieu of this minstrel metal, a bardic one, with enduring power to carry and transmit the word by giving it the place of honor, is needed. Firstly, any musical tradition with this aim must achieve an optimal balance between being both evocative and submerging yet enveloping the words so that these are propelled forward, emphasized, given contour and colour. Secondly, this is metal. And as proper metal, the riff must lead.
Commanded by Witchblood composer Megan Leo, Idis Örlög creates acoustic folk music with accompaniment by flutes, pipes and other indigenous European instruments, sounding very much like a better version of the Celtic and German pagan folk bands which show up at Renaissance Faires across the United States. What makes The Spiral Tide of Seasons stand out is its capacity for capturing a mood that is less influenced by popular music and more concerned with the timeless and original, expanding on its themes with a perspective that carries forward the eternalist thoughts of black metal into a new genre.
Songs feature guitar as the primary instrument but are guided by Leo’s voice, which is alternatingly soothing and harsh, and uses that variety more in the way a storyteller would than in the flattering methods of bands you hear in bars. Absent are excessively hookish choruses over decorative verses, and in their place songs find a gentle pace of narration which allows lyrics and sound to coexist much as they have in the bardic tradition for centuries. As each song develops, it achieves a different kind of intensity by melding and subtracting the different layers of voice and instrument, shaping not just an atmosphere but a relationship between the vocals and the individual human. Although an acoustic guitar features primarily in this process, the style of playing more resembles the selective picking of unique textures of black metal than the rote application of known crowd-pleaser patterns that you find with coffeehouse ballads. These songs find their own pace and their own destination, which allows the instruments and vocals to follow along like a descriptive chorus, instead of shoving “emotional” moments into our faces repetitively like the kumbaya rockers do.
While many of us are still scarred from the burst of popularity in the 1990s that brought us Jewel and other new age acoustic folk players, Idis Örlög takes a different pace which more resembles the tradition of sung poetry than the popular music tradition of self-based description. Its songwriter knows how to make a phrase not just infectious to the ear, but develop over time into an appreciation within the listener for it and its related musical ideas, crafting a varied and unfolding experience while detaching its audience from the mundanity of everyday existence and immersing them in a different world.
Norrønasongen Kosmopolis proves to be a fine album in a style only tangentially related to metal, but fails to rise to the point of making me want to listen to it again. Folk music can be comforting, sometimes interesting, but is usually known for being participatory, that is a group of people around a campfire singing as part of a ritual.
Solefald come to us from the entertainment fringe of folk, which here is a combination between the bands that play in the background at a Renaissance Faire and the kind of music that might be used in a low budget Romantic comedy to establish that the characters are indeed in Norway. Norrønasongen Kosmopolis features songs composed in layers, such that the band sets up a repeating pattern and then other instruments layer within that while vocals between male and female trade off, chanting lyrics of apparently great lutefisk significance.
Then it breaks into this with dinner theater style dramatic breaks where other vocalists join in abrupt transition to another pattern, like the scene has changed or perhaps the lyrics have referenced something terrifying, like a moose roaming free in the local churchyard. All of it is well-executed, with pleasant flutes and string instruments, and the vocals are elegant, but the artistic intention behind this is confused. It tries to organize itself around vocal events which do not work without visual cues, and it specializes in the kind of sing-song rhythms that work best with a “Little Vikings” playset or uncritical audience at the aforementioned Renaissance Faire. When metal guitars intrude, it is as a background instrument that makes the mix louder without adding much of musical note, which makes the vocals even louder.
At the local pub, these songs would be more fun to sing if their parts fit together in a method that allowed people to remember them and have fun experimenting within that known framework. Instead, we get a serial sequence of repetitive frameworks which change randomly for reasons unrelated to the music. That probably qualifies as “progressive” in the dissolved metal scene of today, but in reality, it is the kind of drama that attracts pretentious people looking for something mentally easy to digest. The result guarantees tedium for those who dare notice, and comfortable but random background music for the rest.
It is one thing to become acknowledged within your genre as a leader. It is still another to reach outside that genre, and become more than an artist, but a sage.
A sage is part explainer of the past, part philosopher and part artist who makes the future seem full of interest and beauty. No matter how long someone labors in popular music, they will eventually desire to become the village sage, because that is a position above entertainer. It is a trusted voice that is a guide for culture.
Steve von Till rose to fame with Neurosis, whose music he took far beyond hardcore into the realm of psychedelic and experimental music. With this re-issue of his solo album from 2000, we can hear his voice develop from rage and ambiguity to a desire to reform culture itself. This acoustic guitar album shapes itself from simple melodies and muttered, droning vocals melded into slow atmospheric songs.
As The Crow Flies attempts to create a folk music out of the postmodern time, having let the ashes of dystopia fall. These songs are sentimental and emotional, but not in the cloyingly insistent way that pop must be. Instead, like the music of Tom Waits or Dead Can Dance, songs try to nail the feeling of a particular time in life and galvanize us toward both clarity and an amorphous desire to surpass the past.
von Till carefully paces the album so that songs appear in a varied order, using additional instruments sparsely to differentiate themselves, such that mood is not broken but slowly changes like a banner twisting in a nearly-becalmed afternoon wind. These are songs both unexpected and familiar which wring out of our decaying age a new reason to believe in the emotional power of living, and that makes As The Crow Files a success of a different color.