, November 23rd, 2016 11:29
One of the most breathtaking voyages the British Isles has to offer is the three-hour drive from the mouth of the River Clyde to the Mull of Kintyre on Scotland’s west coast (don’t be put off by Paul McCartney’s tribute of guff, that place is fucking heavenly). The first hour of the journey treats you to the spectacular sights of Loch Lomond and its smaller siblings pooling in the glens that divide the region’s impressive array of Munro Mountains; for the final hour you get to marvel at the world-renowned beauty of the Scottish west coast – its turbulent waves and silent, rugged Isles. But the most jaw-dropping feature of the journey is just how smoothly the former landscape merges into the latter, its lochs and rivers expanding ever so subtly until the imposing mountains that loom either side of the road morph into towering islands scattered around the grey Atlantic.
Andy Marshall, the mind behind atmospheric Celtic metal outfit Saor, understands this unbroken elegance unique to Scotland’s rugged land better than most. Much like the music of peers Fen in East Anglia and Northern Oak in the Peak District, Saor’s material is drawn from the deep well of history, geography and culture from the environment in which it is conceived. Just as on preceding albums Roots and Aura, Guardians sees Marshall attempting to tap into something bigger than the soul of one man and mine the very bones of the Highlands. But this time round there’s a more pronounced sense of purpose in his thistle-strewn sprawl than ever before.
Combining folk and metal is so much old hat at this point. Skyclad ceased to be regarded as unique around a year after they started it in the early 90s, while the practise of incorporating Norwegian folklore into their music and lyrics by acts such as Satyricon and Windir became standard black metal practise some time ago. But while England, Ireland and Scandinavia boast a rich heritage of Celtic, druidic and Norse metal bands, this trend had been noticeably absent in the land of the brave until pre-Saor. In putting the traditional music of his homeland front and centre Marshall pulls of that rare feat of sounding instantly familiar while also whittling out an identity all of his own.
Fans of Saor’s previous work will know what to expect from the latest album: monstrous guitar riffs grappling with soaring fiddles and beefed-up bagpipes over unhurried tracks that seem to last a lifetime. But while its predecessors sounded very much like the work of a musician figuring out his sound, Guardians sounds fully formed and unapologetic. Its title track might rampage o’er hill and glen like an ungelded auroch, but it’s in the smooth orchestral transitions that its creator’s real talent becomes apparent. A clear example of the break from Saor’s former, less mature approach is the restriction of double bass pedal usage. Previously Marshall has been content to leave the rhythm section stuck on blastbeat mode. Though this might conjure up pleasing images of biker gangs hurtling full throttle down the Strath of Kildonan, over the course of his mammoth compositions this percussive assault can end up sounding oddly flat. Choosing to employ a drum style that better reflects the undulating rises and falls of the Caledonian landscape helps him sculpt Saor’s distinctive sound into a more coherent shape.
None of the subsequent tracks quite rival the opener for epic scale, but each in its own way manages to capture the harsh majesty of the Scottish wilderness. ‘The Declaration’ splits into two opposing halves. The first unleashes some cinematic pipe and guitar interplay, sounding not unlike a ceilidh band falling eternally into the abyss. But it’s the second half that really packs a punch when it takes a simple fiddle melody and fires it upwards into the heart of the sun. Guardians is packed full of these moments of consummate simplicity: the single flute on traditional air ‘Autumn Rain’ or the stripped down beat that underlines ‘Hearth’s jig-like rhythm. There’s a flint-like focus to this record that Aura’s more kitchen sink approach drowned. It brings to mind the similar craftsmanly approach of Winterfylleth, another act that plays to the core strength of being a one man metal band. Commanding creative control over an art form so fucking… geodynamic allows a sole prime mover to sculpt their music landscape into terrifying, beautiful forms. Bands as connected to their environment as Saor can truly channel the spirit of the land into their music, building up peaks and eroding valleys as naturally as the wind and the rain. The result is barely a collection of songs and more a travelogue expertly communicated via the gnarliest guitar tones this side of Stornoway.