Release DetailsRELEASED ON 3/13/2013
Thrawsunblat has created something that can speak to all of us, whether we are from New England or Canada or Norway or even Arizona or Africa.
Thrawsunblat II: Wanderer on the Continent of Saplings
A lot of metal gets tagged as "folk" these days, and that music is becoming so diverse that the label is rapidly approaching uselessness. Does "folk" mean a humpty-polka band like Korpiklaani or an epic traditional ensemble like Dordeduh? Or perhaps it means a black metal band that uses some choir keyboards, like Cnoc An Tursa, who I recently reviewed. The one thing that folk metal seems to consistently promise is a difficult-to-pronounce band name, and Thrawsunblat meet that expectation with flying colours. In the wake of the untimely passing of David Gold, vocalist and guitarist Joel Violette has rebuilt his Canadian folk duo as a trio. We'll have to dive into Thrawsunblat II: Wanderer on the Continent of Saplings to figure out what elements of folk Joel and company have to offer us.
I'm going to just get this out of the way—album opener "Lifelore Revelation" is my least favorite track on the album, and set completely wrong expectations in my mind of what was coming next. The song opens with an uptempo piano ditty and then swings into one of those humpty-polka riffs I mentioned before. The guitars have great tone, a fiddle rips a great little jig, and Last Rites' own Rae Amitay thrashes the skins with get-up-and-dance energy. And while there is nothing inherently wrong with that style (I'm a big Finntroll fan, myself), it would be a mistake to view Thrawsunblat as that kind of band. But something about the production sounds hollow to me; like the instruments are all in their space, but there's just a void of emptiness between them. Not a Himilayan mountaintop space like on Blut Aus Nord's Memoria Vetusta albums—just an empty vacuum space. I attribute this slightly unsettling sound to two elements. First is the lack of reverb on the guitars, which have a dry sound that is, perhaps, too aggresively noise-gated. The second element that contributes to the void sound is the fact that Amitay's cymbals are low in the mix. Sure, you hear them on occasion, but they don't stick around long and leave an unsettling nothingness in their wake.
Fortunately, everything that I thought of as a complaint in the first track gets progressively better as the album goes on. In fact, each song improves upon the last one up to "Borea (Pyre of a Thousand Pine)" which has become my favorite track (and the last two tracks are nearly as strong). One thing that "Lifelore Revelation" does make abundantly clear from the beginning is Joel's strength as a vocalist and a lyricist. His dynamic delivery recalls such greats as Jakhelln and Nedland from Solefald or even Vintersorg (although without the Swedish accent). The fact that his vocals are easily intelligible is a bonus, because when you know what is being said, you can see what a coherent package this music is. Everything calls out to that folk sensibility of the Northern Appalachian and Atlantic region that I've spent my entire life in.
And that's the answer to "what kind of folk is this?" It's intensely personal folk, in a particularly Northeastern vein (this isn't a USA vs. Canada thing—I'm counting New England and all of Canada east of the Great Lakes in this region). There is sorrow and melancholy, but there is strength as well. This music calls out to bloodlines sunk deep into history and old salt sunk deep into wood. We call this music "folk" because it calls to the people, not just because it uses "old instruments" or "traditional melodies" (although it does both of those things). The penultimate "Song of the Nihilist" gets even closer to home, shining a ferociously bright light on the sorrow at the heart of modern Western society. In drawing on the theoretical image of "the hero," Thrawsunblat has created something that can speak to all of us, whether we are from New England or Canada or Norway or even Arizona or Africa.
The bass, played to great effect by Brendan Hayter, often provides a groove that recalls the older music that inspires Wanderer, even when the guitars' black metal stylings don't. It particularly stands out in songs like title-track "Wanderer on Continent of Saplings" and "Borea (Pyre of a Thousand Pine)." The guitars call to mind Beneath the Lights-era Enslaved, but with more of the free-ranging folk feeling of Solefald and lots of good old guitar solos, including some Randy Rhoads-style tapping. Hardly anyone taps anymore, and it put a great grin on my face to hear some here. And while I've already made complaint about the mix of the cymbals, the splashy snare has great presence. Just listen to the begining of "Borea" or "Bones in the Undertow" to see what I'm talking about. And Cnoc An Tursa should listen to Wanderer to realize why they need a real fiddler, as guest Jeff Mott demonstrates that a fiddle in the right hands can stand up to even an electric guitar.
Despite my early misgivings, I've found myself sucked more and more into Wanderer on the Continent of Saplings. While I may find myself occasionally frustrated with the mix, the powerful songwriting and excellent performances keep me coming back to re-experience this hour of music. We are all wanderers here.