J. R. R. Tolkien would have been 126 today, so I thought I'd take a look at The Last Ship by Moongates Guardian, the latest album from a Tolkien-obsessed pair of black metal musicians from Kaliningrad, who are nothing if not prolific.
In addition to singles and splits and EPs and what have you, Moongates Guardian have issued eight albums in only six years, if we include their full length tribute to Summoning. Now add in the five albums that this pair released as Holdaar during that same period and another one in 2018 under the banner of Regnat Horrendum and we can't help but wonder about the quality. Who can release that much material in that short a timeframe without some of it being unworthy?
Well, one benefit Moongates Guardian have is that they don't have to write too many lyrics, as their approach is to take poems from the works of Tolkien and set them to original music. I believe everything here was sourced from Tom Bombadil, though titles do change somewhat, occasionally to reflect the first lines of these poems rather than their titles, so The Hoard becomes When the Moon Was New and The Mewlips becomes The Shadows Where the Mewlips Dwell.
For an odd approach like this, it's decent enough stuff, a lot bouncier and far more keyboard driven than I expected. Kaliningrad is a Russian exclave that looks over the Baltic at Sweden and Vällingby, a suburb of Stockholm, is a straight shot across the water. I bring that up because it was the home of Quorthon, of Bathory fame. While this is ostensibly black metal, which Quorthon arguably created, it's done in an epic martial style that's perhaps just as influenced by the Viking metal that Bathory moved into.
What's more, all the instrumentation is the product of one man, Skilar by name, just as later Bathory albums were all Quorthon, whatever the instrument. Skilar's partner in crime here and elsewhere is Alexey, who provides the vocals and I believe that he layers his vocals to meet the need just as Skilar layers his instruments. The black metal vocals, which are relatively subdued, are more effective than the clean parts, as English is clearly not Alexey's first language. Good intonation can be tricky! He does a pretty good job for the most part but shines most in the sections that sound very much like a choir.
Skilar digs a lot deeper than the traditional black metal toolbox. Many instrumental parts dig into folk tunes, orchestrations and even ambient elements such as flowing water. The drums are often the only reason why this doesn't sound more like a movie soundtrack, but they add to the folk phrasing. On the Southern Spurs only features choral vocals, so it's a sort of instrumental and the drumming is more in the style of handheld drums than a kit.
I quite liked this album and, because the lyrics are never particularly clear to the listener, it works even for those who don't care a whit for the Tolkien connection. Of course, given the prevalence of Tolkien character or place names in extreme metal, it may be that there's a built-in Tolkien fanbase aching for albums like this to explore deeper than just names and actually interpret that author's poetic material. Stranger things have happened!