[10 March 2010]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
No matter what bells, whistles, and fiddles you incorporate into extreme metal, folk metal is only as good as how well you marry the two styles. There has to be an even balance: lean too much toward the heavy side, and the acoustic instrumentation feels too tacked-on, but if you lean too far the other way, you’re just another cornball Renaissance Faire act. It’s a very fine line to walk, but when done capably, it can work extremely well. Switzerland’s Eluveitie is a perfect example of a folk metal band that knows exactly how to make that difficult blend of heavy and acoustic sound convincing. Already a seasoned studio and live act, the sextet made a splash in 2008 with the very well-received second album Slania, a record that brilliantly interweaved tight melodic death metal with lavish, Celtic-tinged arrangements that prominently featured hurdy-gurdy, violin, bagpipes, tin whistle, bodhràn, and mandolin atop some scorching arrangements reminiscent of early ‘90s greats At the Gates. As strong as that album was, it was the band’s live presence that cemented their status as one of the finest acts in the folk/pagan metal scene, bringing more of a joyous, ceilidh-like atmosphere to audiences more accustomed to clobbering each other in mosh pits.
As other bands like Finland’s Korpiklaani have shown, it is possible to rely on a set formula a little too much, and Eluveitie (an ancient Gaulish word meaning “the Helvetian”) smartly sidestepped predictability with the ambitious acoustic album Evocation I - The Arcane Dominion. Placing strong emphasis on the traditional acoustic sounds, especially the hypnotic drone of Anna Murphy’s hurdy-gurdy, and sung primarily in the dead language of the Gauls, it was an inspired creative turn, mysterious, accessible, and still capable of evoking the formidable tone of metal. If Slania attracted many first-time listeners, Evocation I proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that this band is legitimate.
Eluveitie’s third album in three years marks their return to their more aggressive side, and for the most part the loftily titled Everything Remains As It Never Was is a very worthy follow-up to Slania, darkening the overall tone a touch and sounding even more confident. The title track, which kicks off the album, just might be the most perfect encapsulation of Eluveitie’s oeuvre to date. The rhythm guitar riffs are muscular, reminiscent of the down-tuned sounds of In Flames’ Clayman album, Merlin Sutter’s remarkably fluid drumming adding a strong sense of groove that offset the moments of tight ferocity. Meanwhile, vocalist/multi-instrumentalist Chrigel Glanzmann, Murphy, violinist Meri Tadic, and piper Patrick Kistler create a misty mountain hop so vibrant and lively that you’ll be checking for hobbits at your feet. Glanzmann’s idea to have the young Murphy contribute lead vocals on the acoustic album was a masterstroke, and on this track she brings a wonderful, emotional counterpoint to the bandleader’s much more robust roar.
When the album carries along that similar path, it’s exceptional. “Thousandfold” is a rousing pagan anthem similar to the lovable Swedes Amon Amarth, Murphy and Tadic engaging in a mournful reel underneath the crunching riffs. Tin whistle spirals gracefully around the aggressive double-time fury of “Nil”, “Quoth the Raven” darkens the mood effectively, while the jigs on “Sempiternal Embers” are irresistible. For all its strengths, (instrumentals “Tsara” and “Setion” included), the album does stumble on a few tracks. “The Essence of the Ashes” builds to a chorus that feels unusually awkward coming from this fine band, Glanzmann’s limited clean vocal range taking over when the more dulcet-voiced Murphy would have been more suitable. The drab pop rock chord sequence of “Ugdonon” sounds uninspired compared to everything else, while “(Do)Minion” falls into that perilous folk metal trap, with too much emphasis on the guitars, and consequently feels like any other In Flames knock-off out there. However, three minor slip-ups cannot mar what is ultimately a bracing return to Eluveitie’s heavier sounds. And you know that as strong as this album’s best tracks are, they’re going to sound even better on tour.