[12 July 2005]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
When considering everything that goes into making the best metal music, it’s amazing how so many bands seem to lack a certain ingredient; those of us who love the genre learn to live with it, but it can be very frustrating for those who are new to this particular style of music: “Isis and Mastodon have put out two great, cutting-edge albums recently, but where are the vocal melodies? Nightwish and Sonata Arctica have great vocal melodies, but why is their form of metal so cheesy?” The past five years have seen major growth, both in metal’s artistic progression, as well as its popularity, but few releases have so impeccably encapsulated the power of the genre as Primordial’s fifth full length album has. The Irish band have simply nailed it, crafting an undeniably robust, yet surprisingly accessible record that embodies everything there is to love about heavy metal music.
The Gathering Wilderness is progressive, while still strongly indebted to the sounds of the past. These days, the lines between metal’s seemingly countless subgenres continue to blur, as bands challenge both their audience and themselves, and Primordial are no exception. Boasting a sound that is impossible to pin down, the band shifts moods and styles with astonishing ease. Guitarists Ciaran MacUiliam and Michael O’Floinn rely heavily on the same expansive, layered guitar sound that Isis and the Deftones use to great effect, but unlike those bands, the waves of guitars don’t overwhelm the music, as the band incorporates more traditional touches. At one point, you get hints of classic Norwegian black metal masters Mayhem (“The Golden Spiral”), a few minutes later, they’re in full metal gallop mode, strongly evoking Iron Maiden (“The Song of the Tomb”), and not long after that, they’ve slowed things down to a murky, Black Sabbath-like crawl (“Cities Carved in Stone”). If that wasn’t enough, a strong Celtic influence underscores every song on the album, as the band flaunt their Irish heritage, the lively guitar melodies and 6/8 drumming serving as a nod to the traditional music of their homeland.
The Gathering Wilderness is epic in scope. With seven tracks in just under an hour, the album takes its time, but unlike some bands’ attempts at lengthy musical excursions, it never feels like a minute is wasted on this CD. Songs slowly build to majestic, dramatic crescendos; as A.A. Nemtheanga’s vocals intertwine with the twin lead guitars, the disciplined duo of bassist Paul MacAmlaigh and drummer Simon O’Laoghaire hold the fort, keeping the music grounded, steadily moving towards its conclusion.
The Gathering Wilderness is about escapism, but also passion. Nemtheanga’s lyrics hearken back to the fun first-person scenarios at which bands like Iron Maiden and Iced Earth excelled, as he touches on themes of pagan religion (“The Golden Spiral”), the ever-changing world (“The Gathering Wilderness”, “Cities Carved in Stone”), portraits of warfare seen from a soldier’s eyes (“The Song of the Tomb”), and fantasy (“Tragedy’s Birth”). However, it’s the dignified “The Coffin Ships” that packs a massive emotional wallop, a moving depiction of the Irish potato famine of the mid-19th century, and the desire for many people to leave the country, which Nemtheanga says still lingers in his countrymen’s hearts to this day. As powerful a tribute to Ireland’s past as the Pogues’ “Thousands Are Sailing”, it eschews heavy-handed melodrama for pure, heartfelt anguish.
The Gathering Wilderness is accessible. The musicianship of MacUiliam and O’Floinn would usually be enough to draw listeners in, but it’s the stunning vocal work of Nemtheanga that grabs us. One of the most versatile singers in the genre, Nemtheanga shifts from a black metal screech, to a lower-register goth/doom croon, to moments of soaring vocal melodies that dare to rival Iron Maiden’s Bruce Dickinson. Best of all, he conveys emotion especially well, instead of howling melodramatically as bands like Iced earth and Dream Theater continue to do, something driven home on “The Coffin Ships”.
The Gathering Wilderness is dark, but absolutely magnificent. Possessing moments of both aggression and of stately beauty, it finds a perfect middle ground, never sounding too “rough” for non-metal listeners, yet not too “clean” for hardcore fans. While so many bands always tend to drift towards self-parody when combining melodies with heavy music, there’s a dignified air to The Gathering Wilderness that we rarely hear in a contemporary metal release. Melancholic, foreboding, and ultimately cathartic, this is one raging storm of heavy music that you can’t help but lose yourself in and let wash over you.