[26 April 2011]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
“To those who did not dare to sing out of tune / Or sing a different song / To march to the beat of a different drum and speak the truths others fear / Just give me one thing to live or die for,” sings Alan “Nemtheanga” Averill on Primordial’s seventh album, Redemption at the Puritan’s Hand. Of all the lead singers in metal music today, Averill is one of the genre’s most riveting frontmen: not only does he possess a commanding stage presence, but he has a mighty bellow of a voice, he’s capable of some striking vocal melodies, he enunciates extremely well (a dying art in metal), and best of all, he’s as eloquent a lyricist as you’ll come across.
However, it’s taken Averill and Primordial a long time to get to the point where they are today. They’ve been steadily evolving over the years, and only recently has Primordial’s music started to attract attention, the first significant breakthrough being 2005’s The Gathering Wilderness, while 2007’s To the Nameless Dead followed suit with the strongest sales in the Dublin, Ireland band’s history. Because the band had toiled below the radar for so many years prior, the members all have to juggle music, work, and family, so Primordial can’t exactly hit the road for months on end like Amon Amarth to capitalize on their steadily growing popularity. In a way, though, those long waits between albums and the brief tours the band finds time to go on make the whole experience all the sweeter for the fans. When you get a chance to see Primordial live, when you finally get to hear new music, it’s something to be savored. You know you’re going to get a great show, a first-class album. And to no one’s surprise, their newest record turns out to be totally worth the three and a half year wait.
The interesting thing about Primordial is that its evolution over 20 years has been so gradual, subtly moving away from raw black metal roots to a truly unique blend of black metal atmospherics and Celtic influences, both in rhythm and melody. Ciáran MacUiliam and Micheál O’Floinn use tremelo picking to create a swirling maelstrom of guitars as drummer Simon O’Laoghaire provides sweeping, swinging 6/8 beats, toms used heavily for emphasis, the songs ranging from six to nine minutes in length. The end result is a dense wall of sound that, in addition to feeling absolutely bracing live, also provides a perfect backdrop for Averill’s inimitable stage persona. While it may seem there’s not much difference stylistically and structurally between Redemption at the Puritan’s Hand and the previous two records, songwriters MacUiliam, O’Floinn, and bassist Pól MacAmlaigh do subtly refine their approach, bringing in more classic heavy metal influences from time to time. Meanwhile, producer Chris Fielding creates a more spacious sound overall, which is all the better, as Averill no longer has to fight to be heard over the din.
As consistent as the songwriting always is, it’s Averill’s presence and charisma that catapults Primordial above its peers, and because of the slightly cleaner production, he has never sounded better on record. “O, Death where are your teeth / That gnaw on the bones of fabled men?” he sings on the thunderous opener “No Grave Deep Enough”, going on to meditate on the hold death has on humanity, from the faithful to the Godless: “Do you bring fear to the hearts of heathens / When your breath is upon their necks / And the Gods will not answer?”
An skilled wordsmith, orator, and storyteller, Averill touches on subjects on the new album both literary and historical, be it Herman Hesse’s Steppenwolf (“Lain With the Wolf”), William Butler Yeats’ fascination with Celtic occultism (“God’s Old Snake”), the poetry of Guillaume Apollinaire (“The Moth of Judas”), or the 1905 Latvian Rebellion (“The Black Hundred”). However, the record reaches truly powerful heights on the last two tracks. Much darker and menacing than anything else of the album, “The Puritan’s Hand” focuses on Averill’s fascination with mankind’s stubborn desire for redemption. “There is sickness in the soil / Nothing grows this side of Eden / Nor in the yearning abyss / That is all men’s hearts,” he writes vividly, adding later on, “Your confessions of worthless guilt are not your saving grace…Is the hell you find here not enough for you to find your redemption?”
Even more striking is “Death of the Gods”, a scathing condemnation of not only the bureaucrats who led Ireland to financial collapse, but the general public as well, whose apathy rather than righteous anger in the wake of the calamity disturbed Averill just as much. “We stood on the shoulders of giants / Like atlas with the burden of faith, “ he bellows before spitting, “This is the death of the Republic and make no mistake / The senate is lost and Zeus is laughing.” He implores his fellow countrymen to unite (“Heretics I call to you / Partisans stand as one / Rebels raise your voices / If not then all is lost”), lest the dreams of Nationalists Charles Stewart Parnell, Patrick Pearse, and Michael Collins will fade away, if they haven’t already. The song comes to a stirring climax as Averill recites lines from Pearse’s poem “The Rebel”:
Beware of the thing that is coming, beware of the risen people
Who shall take what ye would not give.
Did ye think to conquer the people, or that law is stronger than life,
And than men’s desire to be free?
No band in metal sounds anywhere like Primordial does, and the band is in prime form on Redemption at the Puritan’s Hand, arguably its most inspired record to date. Perpetual underdogs, the band will never equal the sales numbers of its peers, but the respect they get from the metal world is undeniable, and those who do listen to the Primordial’s albums will be thrilled by this one. As one song on the record goes, Primordial may be bloodied, but they’ll sure as hell never be unbowed.