From the incessant beat of the bodhrán to the whirling dervish of isometric notes from tin whistle, fiddle, Uilleann Pipes, guitars, and voice, locked in reels of pain, rebellion, and uprising, Irish traditional music has existed as a means of survival and a source of power for its creators and listeners for decades. Ballads painted grim pictures of a nation’s suffering at the hands of bloodthirsty invaders, and these tales of destruction, the degradation of an island culture through oppression, but ultimately of survival, are set in stone through the legendary folk songwriting of the Chieftains, the Dubliners, Christy Moore, the Bothy Band, and many others.
The hypnotic pulse of Irish traditional music—often accompanied by a seanchaí’s earthly oration—is bred into the fabric of every Irish person. It’s also in the picturesque mountains and jagged, wave-beaten coastlines… it flows through Guinness and Irish whiskey… it’s etched into the history books, carved on greyed tombstones, and found in windswept fields of green. Therefore, it’s no surprise that such native sounds found their way into Irish heavy metal, fore-fathered by the almighty Thin Lizzy and still echoing through the barrage of blackened doom that comprises Primordial‘s call of the heathen tribes.
A darker, more sorrowful take on Irish storytelling mixed with the epic pagan bombast of Viking-era Bathory and the crestfallen doom of Candlemass may be a reductive description of Primordial’s music. However, it works when you consider highlights across the Dublin act’s discography, from 1998’s A Journey’s End and 2005’s The Gathering Wilderness to 2007’s To the Nameless Dead and 2014’s Where Greater Men Have Fallen.
Since their formation in 1992, Primordial have never released a poor album, though 2018’s Exile Amongst the Ruins did sound somewhat uncharacteristically performance-jaded and creatively motionless compared to their previous LPs. Thankfully, How It Ends, their tenth studio album, is a much more inspired affair overall.
A hopeful yet solemn harmonized clarion call opens the title track, followed by a tom roll/hi-hat combo and the kind of slow-build riffs that Primordial have made their identity. As the pace quickens, vocalist Alan “Nemtheanga” Averill enters, proselytizing a tale of end-times. Spirited and defiant musically, this opener is the Primordial fans have come to cherish. “See this world go up in flames,” proclaims Averill by way of a powerful decree, as he dramatically alludes to current world wrongdoings by relaying the same through universal themes that were just as applicable 100-plus years ago. It shows that nothing has changed fundamentally; corruption and power plays are part of modern living as they were in the Irish famine.
More tom-heavy tribal rhythms and interlocked guitars underpin “Ploughs to Rust, Swords to Dust”, and plenty of time is given to the instrumental in unfurling organically. The repetition has a purpose: setting up a double-bass blast as Averill’s stately vocals—his high range stands hairs on end here—take their forefront position. The guitar leads then flicker like flames and mirror the fire in Averill’s eyes as he performs his lines like an apocalyptic thespian.
Averill’s multi-headed delivery and imagery-laden lyricism harken back to that of the Irish folk rebels of yore. He also has excellent control over his instrument, from the aforementioned high wails to his guttural bellows and everything in between. The grit of his voice imparts sorrow, a resignation towards the inevitable downfall of humanity, especially during the dirge-like “Pilgrimage to the World’s End”. This doomy march is in contrast with “We Shall Not Serve”, which precedes it, both of which are separated by “Traidisiúnta” (meaning “traditional” in Gaelic), a Celtic folk-inspired instrumental acting as a reprieve between lengthy songs. “We Shall Not Serve” is a war-torn rabble-rouser. It’s powerfully rendered heavy metal with streaks of the band’s black metal lineage, particularly as the tempo shifts from an unbridled gallop to a sudden crawl. It’s like moving from light to total darkness, and the transition ratchets up tension before the ultimate release arrives.
Primordial’s music is painfully emotive. Musically, vocally, and thematically, they span nihilism, grief, anger, acceptance, regret, and more from song to downcast song. This approach goes back once again to their Irish trad influences who often did the same; a track for dancing would be played next to a baleful graveside lament or a fantastical ode inspired by myth and legend. Primordial also provide the latter on “Call to Cernunnos”, summoning the archaic horned deity through Celtic tribal ritualism. As such, like most Primordial releases, How It Ends is not for those of weakened resolve; it’s deadly serious, draining at times, but liberating in its own way.
Raised during the midpoint of Side B, “All Against All” stands out because it’s the most extreme track in this collection. With Dissection-esque anti-cosmic metal of death (Reinkaos era) and a hellacious post-punk stomp as its fiery foundation, Averill’s snarling vocals are a sinister focal point (for more of this, see his black metal band Verminous Serpent and their 2023 debut, The Malign Covenant). Like some ayahuasca trip in the Wicklow Mountains, it spirals further into chaos during its ending.
However, it’s closer, “Victory Has 1000 Fathers, Defeat Is an Orphan”, that takes the crown for How It Ends‘ highlight. A masterful folk metal anthem that bears a kinship with Thin Lizzy’s evergreen “The Emerald” in tone, style, and cadence, it will stir even the coldest of hearts. Primordial should lean further into this kind of rousing paean in the future, provided the album’s title does not indicate that they intend to leave this LP as their final testament.
Most Irish metal bands that incorporate Celtic trad tend to come across as gimmicky (especially the ones in battle dress). However, when it comes to Primordial, their music has a genuine spirit directly tied to Eire’s proud, tumultuous, bloody history. How It Ends ultimately speaks to this, a record that, according to Averill, is about “resisting the empires; the freedom fighters, the outlaws, the people who made suicidal stands for freedom of speech, or independence—or for the most important word in the English language: liberty”.