Style: Atmospheric Folk/Black Metal
Release Date: 15 Feb 2019
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Now, this is interesting stuff. Yeah, it's atmospheric black metal with a pervasive folk influence, but it's much more than that suggests, rather in keeping with the band's name, as Saon is apparently Gaelic for "free" or "unconstrained". Their sound is very much their own and I'm not hearing constraints of any sort.
I say "band" but Saon is really a solo project of Andy Marshall, who has other solo projects to his credit too, such as Fuath and Askival, both of which have albums out. Each is still primarily the work of the one man, though there are guests on this album and the final track apparently has nothing to do with him, being written by two other people and performed by one of them.
I wonder what he was trying to do with this album. Both the title and the cover art from Atterigner suggest a number of different ways of thinking. Are the forgotten paths he aims to highlight physical paths, through the forests of Scotland, as depicted so well in the evocative artwork? Are we talking about spiritual paths, as suggested by the prominence of the big horned skull in the foreground right next to the title? Perhaps the point is cultural paths, given the growing acknowledgement that Scotland is not England and frankly never was, even if they're both important parts of the UK. I have no idea and can only guess.
I've mentioned Scotland twice and, had I not known that Marshall is based in Glasgow, I'd have assumed that this was Scottish music anyway from the because of the folk melodies woven throughout. The bagpipes don't appear until the second track and they're not there for the usual reasons, being used as texture rather than as an overwhelming solo instrument. There's a flute that floats over a good deal of the title track and it couldn't have come from anywhere else.
Forgotten Paths, like the other two long tracks here, invites us to sit back and interpret what Marshall is trying to tell us. There are sections performed at pace, with rapid black metal drums and an urgency that can't be denied, whether accompanied by vocals or not, though they tend to also feature overt melodies soaring above them; there are contemplative parts, which often drop down to solo piano or soft guitar over drums; and there are sections that fall anywhere in between, each with its own flavour.
The primary two tones here are pastoral and aggressive, which is a pretty good way to describe Scotland. Marshall conjures up a selection of vistas which remind of a rural landscape that's beautiful and unspoilt but also often bleak and windswept. It's an environment that looks inviting and frankly is but it's also an environment full of dangers and which will happily fight you.
And there's that undertone too. The vocals tend to be gruff and are half buried in the mix, making them sound rather like the massed war cries of an approaching army tantalisingly on the other side of a hill or valley, just out of our sight. Even when we hear voices, the instruments are on top of them driving the music forward.
Battle often seems imminent here, even when all is calm. It feels like the calm before or, more frequently, after the storm, as the participants take stock of what went down and think about where to go next.
For all the folk sounds, I didn't get a sense of community here. There's no dancing and feasting and singing along together; this is nowhere near the more personal Viking metal style. The folk element is countryside and heritage and tradition, even when it's the clean guest vocals of Sophie Rogers on Bròn. This isn't music to listen to by the fire with a glass of whisky. It's music to listen to on the slopes of the Highlands with the wind and the trees joining in.