So when I covered Astronoid a week or so ago, I mentioned that in my exploration of black metal I tended to gravitate towards more of the atmospheric side and the stuff that was blending in sounds from other genres, adding a little more familiar colour and texture to ease me in. And in 2016, after a draining year where I had again not covered enough black metal and I desperately wanted to hear more, I found an album by an English band called Saor, where they were taking atmospheric black metal textures and blending them with Celtic folk…
And the rest is history. That album Guardians wound up as one of my favourites of 2016, a windswept, textured experience balancing out acoustics, strings, and even bagpipes against the surging tremolo guitar lines and guttural vocals for a wild, cacophonous experience rich with huge melodies, and absolutely keeping them as a band to watch going forward. And for me, it was those layered melodies that sealed the deal – almost a visceral, borderline power metal appeal at its root, it was a band striving to sound epic and they absolutely nailed it, so you can bet I was interesting in their newest project. Four massive songs, with Neige of Alcest contributing vocals to the title track, this was one of my most anticipated albums of 2019 – so what did Saor bring with Forgotten Paths?
So here’s the thing: if this review comes across a little more nitpicky than most of mine, the reason is fairly straightforward: Forgotten Paths by Saor follows so much of what made Guardians a fantastic release – and indeed, this will be one of the best metal albums of 2019, hands down – that in order to pinpoint why it’s not quite better than that project you have to get into the fine details. And indeed, Saor’s formula is so streamlined and effective in terms of delivering stunning and impeccably layered melodic compositions straight to the pleasure center of my brain that you kind of have to nitpick if you’re looking for any real criticisms! But yeah, if you want the short review, this album is goddamn amazing and may even be more accessible – which is saying something for a four song album when three of those four songs are ten minutes or over – but I’m still convinced that Saor has yet to peak and deliver a true 10/10 classic. Again, they’re on the cusp of it, but Forgotten Paths is not quite there.
And let’s start with the most obvious criticism: the closing acoustic instrumental ‘Exile’. A great tune, well-played and produced – the brittle but rich timbre that Saor brings to all of their acoustic passages is phenomenal, especially against the wind sounds around it – but it’s not matching the exhilarating finale of Guardians with ‘Tears Of A Nation’ and I think there might have been a stronger finale moment for the type of folk and black metal that Saor makes. And while I’m on that subject, there are criticisms of Guardians that do persist with Forgotten Paths – while the male clean singing is better integrated I’d still argue it’s a bit thin, and for as poetic as the lyrics can be in their wind-scorched mountains and abandoned trails and the lost remnants of humankind, nobody is really going to Saor for the songwriting. Kind of a shame, really, because the writing does match the mood and I’d argue ‘Bron’ actually sets a pretty bleak scene, with humanity sundered and vanished for nature’s thorns to reclaim the land, but if you’re not paying attention to the words you’re not going to be missing a lot either.
But that being said, there are absolutely improvements from Guardians as well, most of which are fine details that are only being tweaked and refined. The individual songs feel tighter in their transitions and overall flow, a little more frenetic and furious to make the best use of its time but still able to step back and breathe effectively, especially whenever the pianos come in to set the next melody. And the vocal layering of the guttural barks and screams is absolutely better – hell, when the female vocals come in from Sophie Rogers on ‘Bron’ they sound ethereal and amazing! And perhaps even moreso than Guardians there’s a confidence in the melodic blending of bagpipes and rich, sawing violins against the blast beats and roiling tremolo riffs that always keeps the melody at the forefront but also shows a degree of layering that’s genuinely impressive! At most points in the mix there are multiple melodies and harmonies interweaving with each other without sounding like a pileup or overarranged, and that’s before we factor in some of the stronger melodic grooves in the low end! I’ve always liked how Saor still has a borderline ramshackle tendency with the cacophonous drumwork and basslines, but there are points on songs like four and a half minutes into the title track where it’s carrying the main melody and it’s such a great contrast! On a purely compositional level Saor has a command of progressions and dynamics that’s genuinely astonishing, especially for how damn catchy they can make these passages. Go to moments like the climax about seven and a half minutes through the title track, any point of clean vocals and flute interplay on ‘Bron’ – hell, the bagpipe and guitar passages interweaving at about eight and a half minutes sounds incredible – or the juxtaposition of the smoky post-rock passages with a ton of crunchy guitars and a galloping finale on ‘Monadh’, which might have the most of my favourite moments on this album!
Now here’s the thing: I’ll freely admit I’m a huge mark for this album. I love this style of atmospheric black metal, and blending it with Celtic is just a bonus that’s flips a fundamental switch in my brain, the same part that unabashedly adores anything with the Rohirrim in Lord Of The Rings. That being said, with the formula as refined as it is right now, I think the next step for Saor will come in the writing or just some fine-tuning of structure – again, I’m convinced they have at least one classic album to come on composition alone, and while i’m onboard with this sound regardless, I can see some not hearing the same evolution. Again, we’ll see with that, but in the mean time this is pure, concentrated awesome, wild and unbridled in the wastes of a world torn asunder, but speaking to its primal beauty all the same. It is stirring, impressively vibrant music, beautifully layered, impeccably arranged, showing the sort of raw talent and craftsmanship that demands admiration. In other words it’s a 9/10 and the highest of my recommendations, but also keep in mind this is the sort of stuff that does speak to me on a fundamental level. But yeah, you’ll want to check it out regardless, see if it speaks too you too.