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The Best Folk / Pagan / Viking Metal Album - Metal Storm Awards 2020





The second part of Árstíðir Lífsins's Saga Á Tveim Tungum is, like the first part, slow to fade in, long to stay, and overwhelming in the breadth of its journey, wearing a mantle of mysterious black metal as it trudges over glaciers and gazes into abyssal skies. The harsh, inscrutable maelstroms break for resonant chants and portentous intonations, sometimes joined by traditional instrumentation that effectuates dread-inducing chills; the bleak, Nordic atmosphere is like a naked blade resting on the nerves, wisely cognizant of the fickleness of nature and the dangers that walk unchecked in the expanse of the wilderness. The lyrics, based heavily in skaldic and Eddic poetry, are entirely in Old Icelandic, furthering the veil of ancient darkness obscuring the feral melodies. This album asks much endurance of its listener (and you could probably cross Iceland in the time it takes to listen to it [not really, but it's long]), but that endurance will be amply rewarded.

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When black metal and folk metal come into combination, it is usually the folk metal that becomes subordinated, but not so with At The Altar Of The Horned God, a one-man project that emerges from the shadows redolent with the heady miasma of history made intangible sensation. At The Altar Of The Horned God's mystical pagan style mixes electric and acoustic instrumentation for an intense, creeping atmosphere not unlike ritual drone; the sonorous bass chants have a monastic flavor, while the higher-pitched calls somewhat resemble an Islamic invitation to prayer, reflecting some of the history of the project's native Spain, but delving even deeper into time for ancient Iberian influences. At its most extreme, Through Doors Of Moonlight does indeed utilize black metal, but those layers of vocals persist underneath, so the whole album feels enveloped in some kind of congregation of voices. The hypnotic blend of vocals, percussion, and repetitive instrumental lines makes Through Doors Of Moonlight feel like a firelit ritual, the prelude to some demon entering the mortal realm.

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Gascony's Boisson Divine may be taking notes from fellow nominee Saurom, as well as more accessible hard rock bands like Volbeat; despite the inherent regionalism of folk music - especially when we take pains to identify Boisson Divine as not merely French but Gascogne - there is a great deal of potential for universal reception. Boisson Divine draws on every ounce of crossover appeal it can access, pouring heart and soul into cascades of upbeat, catchy choruses and high-energy performances; tradition yields its instruments and melodies, modernity offers its sleek production and poppy mindset, and Boisson Divine creates a perfect unity of the two that will endear itself to anyone in need of a little positive energy or just a fun collection of tunes.

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Folk metal of the atmospheric black-tinged type: a base involving black metal chords is built upon with strings, wind instruments, and keyboards to produce a beautifully melodic sound not too far from that of Summoning at their best. The arrayed vocal styles (female cleans, male cleans, black metal shrieks) trade off with each other to good effect, and the metal side is not overshadowed by the folk instrumentation, with some nice riffs and guitar solos featured. The combination of folk and black is a well-established one, but it's a hugely rewarding one when delivered in the manner that Dzö-nga manage on Thunder In The Mountains.

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Ensiferum might be the only people on planet Earth who exited 2020 even more alive than when they entered it. After a series of sluggish, bloated releases on which they struggled to keep their heads above water, Finland's famed folkish foursome decided to become the sea itself, adding keyboardist and vocalist Pekka Montin to rejuvenate their oft-imitated style. Thalassic isn't just Ensiferum playing Ensiferum better than they had since From Afar - it's Ensiferum bulwarking their strongest songwriting in a decade with a fresh voice and a fresh approach, now with enough regular power metal to ballast the extreme side and add some much-needed passion.

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"Every folk metal band by now has either fallen off, had a lukewarm phase, or they were never that big in the first place. Finntroll endured." This is what we said in our review of it, and though that's grossly over-simplifying things, Finntroll have never released any lukewarm records and Vredesvävd is no exception. Sounding a lot closer to Jakens Tid than anything they've done since, it amps up the groovy but grim, like the mischievous trolls they impersonate, and the seven-year space between the last album and this one seems to have given them some renewed vigor. It's to the point. It's fun. It will dance a jolly dance while it stomps your lifeless skull for trespassing in the wrong forest.

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The qualities of Nordic folk metal have become so heavily codified, so trope-laden, and so recursive that to reduce Havukruunu to such a label would be doing a disservice to the awe-inspiring passion of its immense vocal arrangements and blistering riffs. It's true that this Finnish trio is incredibly adept at recreating the style commonly labeled "Viking" or "pagan" (black) metal: cantering Bathory riffs at hyperspeed, bellowed vocals, folk- and heavy metal-inspired lead guitar work, epic choruses, etc. But even as the staggering horde of grandiose melodies invites comparison to titan after titan - Forefather, Moonsorrow, Windir, Vintersorg, anything you like - Havukruunu sounds so majestic and unrelenting, so fresh and shocking, that it's no small wonder why Uinuos Syömein Sota ranks among our highest-rated albums of 2020. The intensity and boldness of its riffing style and the fervor of its vocals become apparent as soon as the album opens with its spirited shouts to the open sky (anthems to the welkin at dusk indeed).

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Two years after appearing in our Clandestine Cuts series with their debut EP, Marrasmieli have progressed to releasing a full-length debut that realizes the potential demonstrated on that EP. A pagan black metal sound with folk sounds courtesy of acoustic guitar, keyboards, and other instruments offers up a healthy mix of aggression and melody that avoids going heavy on the cheese. The acoustic guitars are nicely arranged to fit in alongside the metal sections to the benefit of both, and Between Land And Sky generally demonstrates a maturity to Marrasmieli's songwriting that is seriously impressive coming from a debut album.

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Ruadh (which is not pronounced how it is spelled) is one of the latest projects to emerge from the generation of atmospheric, folk-inspired black metal bands taking root in the UK (which is pronounced how it is spelled). The Rock Of The Clyde translates into music the ancient experiences of its eponymous volcanic formation, which happens to be a giant mound of basalt, the location of a castle, and the erstwhile stronghold of a kingdom all by the proper name of Dumbarton; this feature that overlooks the River Clyde possesses special significance in Scottish history, and so this album adopts a number of emotional approaches and variations on the black/folk metal combination to recreate some of that history. Each song is like an entire album in itself, traversing eons through pitched battles of raw black metal, synth-backed interludes of relative peace, and more recognizably traditional passages of guitar-led melody and clean singing. Sometimes all three band together with flutes and strings, building into climactic blooms of melody that communicate the vast history of this little corner of Scotland. Not bad for another one-man project. Your move, Wales.

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Wholesome, clean, and strong is Saurom, the jolliest and most life-affirming band to grace our folk metal category. Oh, sure, they can be serious, but tracks like "Salta" and "El Queso Rodante" are where Saurom comes alive, giving a lively shout and picking away at folky riffs behind some straightforward, feel-good anthem rock. Truthfully, they would be equally at home in the heavy/melodic and power metal categories because of the unflappably bright hooks, simple and driving rhythms, and earnestly passionate vocals; the bagpipes, flutes, and banjo are all a necessary part of the venture, however, for a happy hobbit dance party is nothing without a bit of that old-fashioned earthiness.

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