Pagan folklore has played a huge role in heavy metal throughout the years, but only since the explosion of Norwegian black metal has the combination of folklore and folk music really started to gel in the genre. Since then, it’s gotten to the point where “folk metal” is a legitimate subgenre, but while bands like Finntroll, Korpiklaani, Skyclad, and Turisas have adorned their sounds with such acoustic instruments as fiddle, accordion, and jouhikko, their music tends to primarily emphasize the fun of the sound as opposed to more overtly serious reverence. To balance the exhilarating, cathartic energy of the music with lyrics that speak eloquently about a band’s country’s heritage is not exactly easy for a metal band to pull off successfully, but there are a handful of acts that do so better than anyone. Two that instantly springs to mind are black metal-turned prog metal innovators Enslaved, and the lovable bunch of bearded Viking dudes Amon Amarth. Another, and quite possibly the very best of the lot, is Ireland’s own Primordial.
Although the Dublin quintet’s roots are primarily in the harsh sounds of black metal, over the years they’ve managed to streamline their music enough to sound surprisingly accessible, compromising neither the atmospherics nor the aggression that black metal requires. Blastbeats are minimal, but tremolo picking dominates, which in turn brilliantly complements the decidedly Celtic influence the band brings in, as the picking of guitarists Ciaran Macuilliam and Michal O’Floinn is almost always in time with the constant, thrumming 6/8 time signature that simultaneously conjures thoughts of the iciest of black metal strains and the unrelenting energy of Irish jigs. Throw the impassioned singing style of barrel-chested, leather-lunged vocalist A.A. Nemtheanga into the mix, and you’ve got the best Celtic hard rock/metal since Thin Lizzy released “Emerald”.
2005’s The Gathering Wilderness was a standout from that year, a new high-water mark by a veteran band that refused to show signs of aging, but their sixth album, To the Nameless Dead, sees Primordial besting themselves once again. All the same elements that made The Gathering Wilderness so winning are still present, but in direct contrast to the doom and gloom that hung heavily over that album like a black cloud over a foggy moor, the skies seem to have parted on the new record, and while the overall mood isn’t exactly happy, there’s a strong sense of hope and pride in the eight songs, performed with enough passion to make even the most cynical heart swell.
“Where is the fighting man? Am I he?” questions Nemtheanga on the rousing opening cut “Empire Falls”, the first of many tracks to express admiration for those who fought for whatever country they lived in, and wonder if that sense of nationalist pride will ever return as the global culture continues to shrink the world more and more. “As Rome Burns” builds on the theme in more direct fashion, as thinly veiled disdain towards the Americanization of foreign countries builds to blind rage (“What nation, what state, what land is this?”). Melodrama thrives in metal when performed convincingly, and the gorgeous warriors’ lament “Gallows Hymn” is as good as it gets, Nemtheanga selling his remorseless protagonist’s final words brilliantly.
Tribalism is another theme that works especially well in metal culture’s “us against them” mindset, and while bands like Manowar tend to ham it up with their “warriors of metal” shtick, Primordial’s “Heathen Tribes” is as much of a fist-pumper as any other anthem, but is both sincere and poetic in its delivery, rolling tom toms underscoring acoustic guitar as Nemtheanga delivers his full-throated lines with fervor: “We are born from the same womb / Hewn from the same stone”. In a surprising turn, “Traitors Gate” is a full-throttle exercise in classic ‘90s black metal in the vein of Darkthrone, drummer Simon O’Laoghaire finally escaping that 6/8 groove for some ferocious blasting, and the majestic closing track “No Nation on this Earth” has Nemtheanga employing a black metal growl to offset his usual roar.
In the words of Nemtheanga in the CD’s well-written liner notes, the album is “like Cuchulainn who climbs one last time to his feet and lashes himself to the rock with his own intestines to face his enemies.” In a genre where the “death or glory” ethos is played up constantly, it’s not every day that a band reaches heights as truly glorious as this album does.