Friday 1 February 2019

Riverwood - Fairytale (2018)

Country: Egypt
Style: Progressive Metal
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 31 Dec 2018
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Metal Archives

While my review of Galaxy Destruction Inc.'s Sacrifice for Rebirth has sparked the most hits thus far, I'm pretty sure that it'll be overtaken by the time Ahl Sina's Troops of Pain has been online as long. I really wasn't expecting Taiwan and Egypt to generate the most attention, but I'm happy for that. I'm all about bringing great music to new ears, wherever it comes from.

While Ahl Sina are international in nature, their base is in Cairo. Thanks to Riverwood vocalist Mahmoud Nader, here's a band from three hours to Ahl Sina's northwest, from Alexandria on the Mediterranean coast. A few comparisons are obvious: they're both progressive metal bands from Egypt with debut albums that run over an hour. They both explore a lot of territory in their releases too, meaning that you're going to want to give them your attention.

However, there are obvious differences too. Nader sings in English for a start and there's much less of a folk music influence here but a greater tendency to drop into progressive rock, which is where we start out. The album starts out instrumental, with an atmospheric keyboard-led piece that ends with what may be clashing swords and a pastoral intro to the first full song, Poisoned Love. Is that a clarinet that's echoed by intricate guitar? That sounds like an organ at the point where it shifts from rock to metal.

It's five minutes into the album when vocals show up and they're clean, as they mostly are throughout. However, there's a partially buried harsh growl floating behind the lead during parts of Poisoned Love that's delightful. Kudos to the mixing engineer as well as the band! There's a similarly buried female vocal at points, there for texture. That it gains its moment in the spotlight only at the very end of this eight minute track surely means something. The same happens with Möt Ditt Öde, as if there's a dynamic between characters and the woman gets the last word.

If other tracks walk in Poisoned Love's footprints, it's only in the sense that there's a very general formula. Most of them are long, five of them over seven minutes, partly because they kick off with intriguing instrumental introductions and ramp up as the full band kicks in. They gain focus with clean male vocals, which are textured by others, whether harsh male or clean female. They all grow instrumentally as they run on too, with some elegant soloing and neat touches here and there, like the hint of hurdy gurdy that ends Nightfall Overture and the atmospheric background throughout the longest track, Lost in Nature.

And then there's Marionette. I liked this album quickly though it took me a few listens through to really grasp what it was doing. Riverwood, as perhaps befits their name, are more laid back than Ahl Sina, so their album as a whole tends to be slower and less urgent. Marionette, however, punched me hard and refused to let me up until it was done.

It starts out softly with a delicate vocal melody over a guitar that's somewhat reminiscent of a babbling brook. We can hear the moisture in the air. However, after a minute and change, the world stops so glorious chaos can descend like a curtain of torrential rain, enveloping everything in its path. It's harsh vocal work, of course, but also a wall of sound that echoes and teases. Then it fades and we repeat with layers, eventually shifting into a neat keyboard solo.

The first half of this album is soft, not relaxing but patient and inviting of exploration. There are harder edges but we have to seek them out. Marionette puts the hard side right in our face and it's heartbreaking. The album is life and love and Marionette shows what happens when its stripped away from us, 'when the feeling dies'. It's harder after that, even if the title track is upbeat and affirming.

In between the two halves is the palate cleansing instrumental interlude that is Gates Below, a funky but very Egyptian piece of music, because another full song would have been utterly lost in the echo that Marionette left in its wake. We're still stunned at that point.

Yes, this is another Egyptian progressive metal album and that makes two grand ones out of two for me this year, but Riverwood are very different to Ahl Sina. Both albums are journeys, but they take us to very different places. Once I got what this was doing, I had to remind myself that Riverwood only formed in 2018. If they can turn out an album of this quality right off the bat, what the heck are they going to be doing after a few years? Watch this space.

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