Review Summary: now awake, I stand free.
It's difficult to believe anything good could come from a man responsible for one of the last few years' biggest blunders, Falloch. The trite and cringe-worthy mixture of post-rock and folk metal just came across as pure plagiarism of other bands without adding any worthwhile substance; all the while writing some of the worst lyrics in the genre with the obnoxiously clear vocals making the bad lyrics completely impossible to ignore. It was watered down to the point where I couldn't help but question if it was even water I was looking at any more. When it surfaced that Andy Marshall left and made a new album seemingly out of nowhere, the word apprehension was the biggest possible understatement.
But when the opening of Roots started to build it's impossible to not think that this was different. It was well constructed, well played and had the beginnings of a great atmosphere building up. It was easy to half-expect it to falter but the quality just kept climbing as the stringed-instruments graced the musical palette. It's an absolutely mesmerizing affair, the violin rising up with the momentum of the pounding drums and post-rock-tinged guitars, done in such a tasteful way that it was impossible to focus on anything else, attention towards the music unwavering. After a brief reprise of clean guitar the black metal onslaught came in and relentlessly kept pounding away until I was in shivers. This feeling stayed with me throughout the entire runtime of Roots.
Many bands try the same thing and always come up short with a sound that can only be described as monotonous but these tracks never lose momentum or focus. The sounds here are repetitious, yes, but rarely is a texture re-used when one movement has been replaced with another. These tracks move and shift and don't misuse repetition like countless others - it isn't a simple affair of repeating a previous phrase to attempt a sense of hypnosis, rather to intelligently flow onwards through the movements of the piece. The tasteful song-writing aside, the atmosphere created here is incredibly powerful for such a tried-and-true set of sounds, somehow finding a distinctive niche in an over-saturated genre. The meld of the blistering-pace black metal with the triumphant, melodic riffs to guide it is great but when mixed with the tin whistle and violin it takes it to a whole other level. It pulls off the huge, prideful sound without a hitch and doesn't wear its unique twists on its sleeve and instead uses it to heighten the sense of atmosphere rather than showing off. A bold move that more bands should do.
Delving deeper, the instrumentation on this album is very impressive all things considered. Where the drums don't go out to impress and could have seen improvements, sounding as if they're only barely reaching what they set out to do, it's difficult to question anything else. The performance on the tin whistle sounds brilliant when paired up with the fury and blistering pace of the black metal, never sounding gimmicky or as a crutch for the sake of atmosphere. The clean vocals are very, very sparingly used but are powerful when they are - the last few minutes of 'Carved in Stone' being one of the most memorable and striking moments on the album because of them. Though it's difficult to say the same for the rougher rasps, being a twist on the death metal growl but coming off as rather bland and gutless, they do the job and never disrupt the atmosphere; a blunder perhaps, but an easy to ignore one, and no one can deny the passion in them and the music itself. But when you consider that all the instruments were handled by one person it becomes very easy to forgive one very small flaw.
Roots is as triumphant as it is absolutely beautiful, all whilst retaining grace. It has been such a long time since folk metal has sounded fresh; but Ă€rsaidh nailed it effortlessly in a soul-stirring display of grandiose black metal pieces with beautiful yet subtle folk instrumentation. It breezes by so effortlessly and gives life to an arguably outdated formula with moving opus after moving opus, never losing focus on what makes music like this so brilliant. Absolutely nothing is used as a crutch or gimmick and everything sounds as if it was made to be an integral entity. Every track is filled to the brim with excellent riffs, wonderful folk interludes, emotionally powerful climaxes and builds and such an alluring, airy atmosphere. A truly superb debut from the humblest imaginable beginnings, and a true album of the year contender if ever there was one.