Getting Into: Skyforger
Pagan black metal, folk metal, neofolk
Skyforger - a Latvian pagan/black metal band. What else do we know about them? Are they more popular abroad or in their home country? I ask because the band plays more shows abroad than for the home crowd. It's not rare in metal for people to listen to bands that sing in their native languages (Finnish, Swedish, German, Norwegian and so on) without themselves knowing the language. This is a more crucial circumstance for Skyforger than for most such artists. Before this band starts recording an album, they research a historical theme about which to write that album. Maybe you can't glean historical facts from lyrics or translate one into the other, but they do. Each album is about a different Latvian historical period. They never repeat themselves, which is probably for the best, because ten albums about ancient Latvia, or Vikings, women, booze, pirates, or space, for that matter, would be so boring. Many bands these days should be live bands and stop writing new albums, but not this band; in some way, they are unique. To understand that uniqueness, that crucial trait of Skyforger, you need to know their language.
Note: Skyforger started out as Grindmaster Dead back in 1991. There is almost nothing known about that period of the band's history, not to me, since I was little child. These are their origins, but only a few people remember this older band, and they are more or less musicians or older-generation metalheads.
|Grindmaster Dead - Through The Vault Of Sadness (1993)
Typical demo, with the requisite poor quality and sound - the way in which many famous bands start out. It's death metal with a little touch of doom.
|Grindmaster Dead - Stronger Than Love (1994)
This is a death-doom release in the vein of old My Dying Bride, Draconian, Anathema - the usual old death-doom cast. The demo itself is the victim of poor studio work, but it has huge potential for a re-recording and professional release. Similar examples can be found in fellow Latvian bands Heaven Grey and Catalepsia (even though the latter only came on the scene in 2005).
|Semigalls' Warchant (Demo) (1997)
The first thing that comes to mind is that this is a quality demo with good studio work - weird for a Latvian band that had no metal experience at all back in 1997. Lyrically, it deals with old Latvia before the Crusaders came, but it seems doubtful that the band really knew which direction to take. Musically, it's black metal - or perhaps we should say pagan/black - with two neofolk songs, or, more accurately, contemporary Latvian folk. This could kick some Norwegian kvlt norsk black metal ass, but we all know how fan boys/fan girls like to overrate things.
It was re-released in 2005, but as a compilation with four extra tracks that make it well worth checking out.
Standout Tracks: "Virsaitis Nameisis," "Semigall's Warchant," "Akmeni Iekaltas Zimes"
|Kauja Pie Saules (1998)
In the case of all of Skyforger's albums, it is necessary to judge them on the basis of both music and lyrics. Musically it is simply pagan black metal of the highest level, with some folk songs like "Zviegtin' zvieda kara zirgi (Neighed The Battlehorses)" and some folk elements seeping into other songs as well. Still, it's not folk music or neofolk (even that doesn't fit here); this is a metal band, and the metal that they have to offer is just amazing. The pre-internet days were amazing; it was more difficult for bands to collect influences, but when they discovered an idea, they simply played it at the same level. This album put the band on the metal map, and put Latvia itself on the regular map even more than the Latvian national hockey, basketball, and football teams did in 2004. Lyrically, it's all about old Latvians (not what we now understand to be the nation, but the Baltic tribes of pre-Christian days and the days of the German crusaders' first arrival). Of course most lyrics are about local heroes, historical figures, and famous battles where locals crushed the Livonian Brothers of the Sword and the Livonian Order. Some such songs based on real events are "Viestarda cīņa pie Me?otnes. 1219 (Viestard's Fight At Mezotne. 1219)," "Kauja pie Saules. 1236 (The Battle Of Saule. 1236)," and "Kauja Garozas silā. 1287 (Battle At Garoza Forest. 1287)." Most important victories for the locals were against the German knights (as part of the Crusades, which were not limited to Jerusalem and Spain, but enveloped the Baltic region) or the Kurshi (Coronians), a local tribe similar to the Swedish Vikings that made raids into Scandinavia, Gotland and Denmark. Such lyrics are the most important component of what made this band work, and are the strongest key to the band's identity.
Standout Tracks: The whole album, really, but especially "Kauja Garozas silā. 1287 (The Battle Of Saule. 1236)," "Senču ozols (The Ancient Oak)," "Kur?i (Kurshi)"
|Latvie?u Strēlnieki (2000)
This album is once again black metal, but a little softer (just kidding). It's generally softer, in a way, if you know the language and are able to understand what the singer is actually saying; this is not always true, but compared to the very raw singing of the first demo, here you can get some words out. It's still good black metal at its best, but with some folky tunes (that is, if WWI songs can be classified as folk). "Latvie?u Strēlnieki (Latvian Riflemen)" is a classic WWI marching song, the predecessor to what you can hear today in US Navy running cadences ("Superman is a man of steel/But he ain't no match for a Navy SEAL"). The same folky elements can be found in "Kauja Pie Plakaniem, Kauja Pie Veisiem (Battle Of Plakani, Ballte Of Veisi)" and "1916. Gada Marts (The March Of 1916.)." The intro to "Tireļa Purvâ (In The Tirelis Swamp)" even has spoken words from veterans of WWI. This album musically fits to the sounds of WWI: cannons, rifles, machine guns, all manner of combat audio. It also resembles the post-debut thrash compositions of Bathory, but leaning into more blackened territory. This album describes the Latvian experience of World War One, with all songs taking inspiration from military songs composed during that era, and many recounting noteworthy battles on the Latvian front or individuals such as Colonel Briedis, one of the first Latvian commanders.
Standout Tracks: "Nāves Sala (Death Island)," "Se?as ārprāta Dienas (Six Days Of Madness)," "1916. Gada Marts (The March Of 1916)"
I must agree with the reviews - Pērkoņkalve is not black metal. Its style tends more towards folk metal, or perhaps blackened heavy/blackened folk. The folk undercurrent is strong, with many old Latvian songs mixed in: lyrics, melodies, and everything twisted by a modern metal touch. Plenty of bands undergo some kind of evolution and come out the worse for it, hardly able to produce anything redeemable; naught but a few bands can progress in their sound and kick ass with a new style. But this band can evolve smoothly along with their lyrical concepts. The vocals also are typically clean; a little harsher still sometimes, but the words are entirely intelligible. As for what those words are - if you like ''war'' metal and consider yourself a noble warrior, you will likely be disappointed. This album does not broach the subject at all, but instead covers ancient Latvian folklore, traditions, mythology, and the everyday lives of the people. The Northmen were a simple people, forged in ice and snow, and even though war was everyday life, "Vikings" were made In Hollywood; people traded, worked, farmed, made mead, prepared for winter, had festivals, and had fun. This unseen side is basically what this album is about.
Standout Tracks: "Kad Ūsiņs Jāj (When Usins Rides)," "Migla Migla, Rasa Rasa (Svetas Vedibas) [Oh Fog, Oh Dew]," "Čūsku Sieviete (The Woman Of Serpents)"
|Zobena Dziesma (2003)
What is neofolk? Apparently, it's acoustic folk music with metal lyrics - original words set to traditional songs. We have such a band in Ulver, who after two black metal albums released the neofolk work Kveldssanger. The German BM band (some say they are NS) Halgadom does the same - one album is BM, next one Neofolk, and it goes around like this. If you know those two bands you'll know what Skyforger is after - that same kind of semi-modern, semi-traditional music but with a Latvian touch, because, of course, it's all about old Latvian folk songs, the every day songs that people sung for every occasion. Just a window into the life of an average Latvian.
Kurbads outstrips its predecessor in terms of heaviness, returning to the blackened heavy style of older days. Some have found this quite disappointing, and of course it does not compare to the first two albums. I didn't like it when I heard it for the first time, thinking it was weak and somehow didn't fit into the BM family, but now I consider it an excellent album; it just requires some time to get used to and become absorbed in. Many people seem to like one genre or two and never look into others, but the many, vastly different styles of metal are what make it beautiful, and as the listener's taste and appreciation develop, so does the listener. Give a try and you'll like it. As far as the lyrics are concerned, my first thought was, "WTF, they're singing about the Latvian hockey team?" But, of course, it is actually about the Latvian hero Kurbads. Any heathen nation had its heroes; the Finns had Kalevala, the Germans had Siegfried, and the Scandinavians had Sigurd (same story). Latvia has two epic sagas: one is Lacplesis, the more popular of the two, and the other is this one. Why the band picked this one up I don't know, but perhaps they had the right idea - reuniting people with their old, forgotten heroes.
Standout Tracks: "Bewitched Forest," "In The Underworld"
At first, you probably won't like this album. "Better spin it again," you'll say, and after three or four more times you'll start to like it. I actually did like it at first, but the songs released online prior to the album, not so much; I am not man who judges songs, I judge an album in its entirety after a few runs through. This one takes another different direction, another journey, which I would describe it as similar to Newsted - fairly standard heavy metal, but with a more modern sound and a little thrash touch. It has fewer folk elements than typical Skyforger fare, being a rather heavier album and darker in its mood. It is as good an album as any they have done - a concept album, but somehow it worked out fine. Of course if you like black metal and want to hear something like Kauja Pie Saules or Latvie?u Strēlnieki, you will be disappointed, especially after five years of silence, but the band once said that if they sang only about old Latvian history, they would burn themselves out. I have to agree with deadone's review as far as this is concerned. The lyrics chronicle old Prussia, a third Baltic nation that died and whose language is forgotten. Now this territory is in Kaliningrad, but it was under Germany, Poland, and others previously and there are yet many things unknown about Prussia. Skyforger really did their research on the subject. It's about all Prussia, not just the medieval days or the 17th century, but basically all over the place. It is quite easy to follow the lyrics as a listener; perhaps they are not profoundly better than on any previous album, but they are easier than usual to grasp.
Standout Tracks: "Tagad Vai Nekad (Now Or Never)," "Rāmava (Romuve)," Lepnums Un Spīts (Pride And Defiance)"
Now we've established plainly that Skyforger have taken it upon themselves to recount Latvian history, and now I am wondering what the next album will be about - and what genre it might be. Maybe they will return to the raw BM era and record something in their old style. We can only wait, but I have a feeling that, at least lyrically, it will be as good as always.
Special thanks to ScreamingSteelUS for proofreading and help.
Guest article disclaimer:
This is a guest article, which means it does not necessarily represent the point of view of the MS Staff.
This is a guest article, which means it does not necessarily represent the point of view of the MS Staff.
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