Oh, I've been looking forward to this one! Very early in my redunking into the world of rock/metal here at Apocalypse Later Music, I discovered a great experimental Egyptian folk metal album by Ahl Sina and that prompted Mahmoud Nader to send me the debut album of his band, Riverwood, a progressive metal band also from Egypt. I loved both those albums, they both made my highly recommended list for 2018 and they helped to underline why the variety I need to explore here is not just in genre but in location. There's great music oozing out of the pores of the globe and it's often showing up in the countries you might least expect.
So here's a second album by Riverwood and it's another good one. It's also a long one, as not only do the band continue to write and play long songs—three here are longer than the longest on the prior album, Fairytale, which ran only a breath under ten minutes—but they're generous with the quantity of them too. There's an hour and a quarter of music here, spread over two discs. Perhaps the length, of both album and songs, helps it to become immersive. I started out planning to listen to the songs and see how they contributed to the album, but I lost that plot halfway through and I never really picked it back up.
The opener is an epic, even at a mere four minutes, with chanting and powerful strings. It's heavy, then it's folky, then it's both. In between that and the album's first long song, Blood and Wine, is one of a number of interludes, this one aptly titled A Haunting Lullaby. It's precisely what it says it is and it's a memorable piece, even at a mere minute, changing the mood before we leap into the twelve and a half minutes of Blood and Wine, which ably highlights how Riverwood are an extreme metal band even if they kind of forget that most of the time. This is folk music as often as it's folk metal or symphonic metal and, while some of that feels olde English, most of it is middle eastern.
Everything in Blood and Wine feels orchestrated and there are neat choral moments. Nader sings clean, though someone—maybe also him—adds a harsh voice here and there for contrast. Guitars are a constant highlight too, courtesy of Seif Elsokkary and Nader again, but the orchestral parts often take over from them. There are sections run through with crunchy guitar, then repeated as sections for bass. There's a lovely section almost midway where the heavy choral sound of Therion is turned on and off and on again over quiet guitar. There's a lot going on here and it's easy to get lost in the song.
And that's exactly what I did with the album. The Shadow is an odd interlude, but its ethnic winds lead well into Sands of Time, which begins like it's the real interlude. The ethnic winds are joined by ethnic drums and a clean and plaintive voice. I love these folk sections that endow everything with a sway and a timelessness. This one grows into a prog rock piece and, in time, prog metal, an occasional harsh voice showing up to add texture. The bass is often a highlight in this one, but so are the strings seven and a half minutes in. And...
Well, I realised at this point that I wasn't really paying attention to songs any more. I was merely immersed in the music and it didn't matter if Sands of Light rolls into Queen of the Dark or Dying Light gave way to Lustful Temptation. By this point, I was listening to Shadows and Flames like it's an pulsing ocean of waves or an undulating desert of dunes and I was content to let it carry me on to wherever it wanted to take me. Did I mention that I got almost Marillion vibes in instrumental sections of Lustful Temptation? Probably not. I don't think I wrote that down until after a third or fourth listen. How about Dying Light starting out very much like Therion, not just in choral vocals but in riffs? Yeah, probably the same.
Eventually I got round to taking notes again. There's some more glorious bass work in The Flame, from new fish Mohannad Ahmed, one of two members to join after the previous album, Abdallah Hesham on drums being the other. There's some lovely flute too, from guest Hüseyin Pulant, who seems to be on Sands of Time and Dying Light too but might not be. The closer, Solitude, is an odd piece, because it's gothic and doomladen and dominated by strings. At least they sound to me like strings but I don't see anyone credited, so maybe it's all done by Omar Salem on keyboards.
Mostly, though, I want to call out Babylon, one of those brief interludes, because it highlights just why I love folk metal so much. It does that quintessential Riverwood folk into folk metal shift, and it's a delight for its seventy or so seconds. This isn't inventing any wheel, it's merely doing what a folk metal song is supposed to do, but the very nature makes it wildly original. Every band in this genre has a different heritage to bring to proceedings and the variety you find when moving from Finland to Japan to Egypt is glorious. Riverwood probably think of themselves as symphonic metal nowadays and progressive metal after that, but the folk, with or without the metal suffix, is what truly drives its unique nature.
Now, how long do I need to wait for a third album?