Review Summary: Andy Marshall strikes a bullseye on the vein of Scottish black metal, and with it the glory.
No one has quite the same grasp on contemporary atmospheric black metal that Andy Marshall does, but that knowledge took time to reveal itself. Roots
, released under former moniker Arsaidh, didn’t really do it, and perhaps little should be said of Falloch before it. But combined with the momentum of a name change to Saor, Marshall’s second effort Aura
was like tossing a flash bang grenade into an eight year old’s Chuck E. Cheese birthday party. The sweeping grandeur of the celtic folk influenced black metal was a light in the darkness, capturing scale, climactic emotion, and measured songwriting in equal doses. To date it takes colossal name drops like Moonsorrow’s Havitetty
or the self-titled Panopticon debut to convey the sheer quality of Saor’s magnum opus. Yet it’s an old, worn lesson not to count your eggs before they’ve hatched. Marshall spent a good chunk of the off time between Saor records developing a new project in Fuath, the tribute to both 90s second wave and modern lo fi black metal. However, it floundered somewhat in its celebration of its influences, and there was a realistic concern that perhaps Marshall only had one record of true brilliance in him. Guardians
is a triumphant declaration that this is not so.
It’s almost like someone flips a creative switch when Marshall returns to his acclaimed Scottish metal brainchild. A startling authenticity arises (Marshall is a born and bred Scotsman after all), as well as an ecstatic joy that becomes a natural part of the music, a single intrinsic thread woven into the greater tapestry. If there was one sense to be found on Aura
it was joyous triumph, the battle cry of the warrior Scot, celebratory tales of heroism told by fireside. That still reveals itself in Guardians
, but there’s a pensive, melancholy take as well courtesy of the more generous callbacks to Marshall’s roots in the post-y variants of black metal. In many ways it’s his most varied selection of songs yet. It’s not entirely wrong to say it encompasses a lot of his life’s work, you can pick details out from all his recordings (though in Fuath’s case that only works to point out that each album cover happens to be blue, but I digress), but that doesn’t serve to define the purpose of Guardians
. Like Aura
it’s a celebration of his homeland, at least partially, and along the way Marshall continues to define the breadth of atmospheric black metal.
was raw and uncouth in production and style, Guardians
is a smoother affair. Part of this is the absence of Austin Lunn’s (of Panopticon fame) famously raucous drumwork and sound, replaced by session musician Bryan Hamilton’s talents. His material here is fine, it’s hard to criticize it except in that it doesn’t happen to be the veritable Lunn’s, whose touch is nigh impossible to top in the realm of black metal. The guitars are considerably smoother as well, but not to the point that it steals any effect, sliding in alongside Marshall’s ever present strings, fiddles, and bagpipes effortlessly. That’s not to say they necessarily complement each other better than in the past, in fact the rawer instruments fit nicely next to those bagpipe melodies on Aura
in a strangely authentic way, feeling almost a part of Scottish history. But there’s a slightly more accessible slant, without losing even an iota of strength, that’s quite welcome.
The songs here stand up impeccably well next to Aura’s
to boot, even on just the first listen or two and after five or six they only stand to earn more admiration. The opening pair, and prerelease singles, “Guardians” and “The Declaration” are superb tracks in their own right. The curiously technical noodling in the middle of the former fits surprisingly well within the more traditional stylings of the track, while the mournful, vaguely primitive break (complete with a frickin’ Bodhran) near the end of the latter is lovely touch. But the three tracks comprising the rest of the album are stunners outright. “Autumn Rain” is a solemn beast, a tragedy full of swelling tremolos and wailing strings. By contrast, “Hearth” is the soundtrack to an epic warrior’s feast, beginning with bouncy, driving instruments and pursued by aggressive, distorted rhythms. Dashes of clean singing serve mostly to color the middle sections, not that they were in such dire need, but it’s another color to add to the palette. The acoustic build and final climax are one of Guardian’s
finest moments, replete with emotion and power enough that the record could’ve been closed on it with nary a word of protest. Yet after the final moments of “Tears of a Nation” close out the album, one begins to wonder how it could have ended any other way. In a record full of music that is so very Scottish in its flavor, “Tears of a Nation” is the culmination of that influence. The primal melody that carries that last five minutes of the song is striking, it hits at the very heart of what Marshal aimed to do with Saor. Mournful and triumphant, despair and joy in harmony. Unforgettable, and no other word need be spoken.
Andy Marshall strikes a bullseye on the vein of Scottish black metal here, simultaneously proving that he had more than one record of brilliance in him. Guardians
is an epic among epics just as Aura
was, each finding an intrinsic electricity that never fails to excite. Atmospheric black metal seems to set a new bar every other year, if not every year, but Marshall skipped a few feet here. There is a new benchmark now and with luck it won’t be so long before it’s exceeded. My say? It wouldn’t be so bad to just lie and rest here with it for a while.