Like the Riverwood album that I reviewed earlier in the week, this is a very welcome follow-up by a band whose debut I adored here at Apocalypse Later, in this instance an eight piece folk metal band from Cieszyn in Poland called Velesar. Dziwadła made it onto my highly recommended list in 2019 and the band were kind enough to mail me a physical CD, which was much appreciated. Unlike the Riverwood album, which was brand new in January, this one's from last October, so I'm playing catch-up. It came out right before my film festival and I had it slotted into my schedule, but ended up returning to reviews a week later. Apologies for the delay, folks!
There are a lot of reasons why I really dig Velesar. They play lively folk metal, for a start, which is a sort of Achilles' heel for me, and they do it very well indeed, but there's more to it than that. They clearly have a lot of fun playing this music, which is pretty crucial in folk metal, and I would love to experience what they do live. But they also nail a lot of balances. They're uplifting, especially with two violins and one flute in their line-up, but there's a darkness to what they do too, which lends a majority of these songs depth. Similarly, vocalist and band founder, Marcin Wieczorek has a harsh vocal style that adds plenty of texture to the band's sound but not so much to call this extreme.
And, best of all, they have a way of sharing the spotlight between so many members that they all have something to do and that something is exactly the right thing for the song. As with the prior album, I liked this from the outset, from a palate cleansing intro and the neat riff at the opening of Zmora, but it was the third song proper that truly sold me on the band once more and, as I had it replay for the third time, I realised how much of a showcase it is for every member of the band. It's Ognie Swaroga, which Google tells me translates to Swarog's Fires.
If Zmora was heavy and Swaćba was bouncy, Ognie Swaroga starts out a little thrashy then settles into a song of trade offs. It starts with guitar and drums soloing at once, then the flute flutters in to join the fray. Everything feels like movement, as if each section is a different set of musicians in a sort of face off against another set, before shifting again and finding a new face off. It's a dance of a song, not in the sense of Taniec diaboła from the debut (or indeed Szczodre Gody on this one) but in the sense of musicians approaching each other and whirling away again. It doesn't matter if its violins meeting drums or violins and flute surrounding the singer, or guitar duelling with violin, it's all a glorious dance.
And I think it's this approach that makes Velesar such an enticing band. They rarely drop down to a single instrument; even when Dawid Holona's lead guitar is soloing in the spotlight, there's one of the violins there with him, and they all hand over to another combination. Zmora grew on me with a second runthrough but Ognie Swaroga remains a highlight and Velesar don't let the album slide at any point after it. I think my favourite moments come late, when the violin leaps into a break in guitar early in Śpiew juraty (szanta bałtycka) and when the flute does the same thing on Modły. Then there's the closer, Radecznica, which has a wonderful first half and an even better second.
Another reason they're so enticing is that every song begins like it's going to be an instrumental and we lose ourselves in the music but, when Marcin Wieczorek arrives, as he always does, even if it's not for a while, he never gets in the way. I've enjoyed a few albums this past year that would have been improved by losing the vocals, but this isn't one. Not only because I don't understand Polish (even if I've just been translated into it for a Guy N. Smith book), I began to see Wieczorek's voice as just another instrument in the Velesar orchestra. Like everyone else, he does precisely what he needs to do, then steps back to hand over to his bandmates, always ready to step back in again at the right moment.
And, talking of those bandmates, I really need to highlight the violinists here. There are a pair of them, but the credits suggest that they never work as a pair. Either it's Iga Suchara, as it is on five of these songs, or it's Ewa Kozieł, on the other half dozen. They're both great but I don't know why they don't appear at once. It often feels like they do, but that must be illusion. The only song that features both of them is Szczodre Gody, but the violin there is Kozieł's while Suchara sings. I have to highlight Katarzyna Babilas on flute as well, even if she doesn't get as much opportunity as the violinists, and Dawid Holona, who delivers a host of excellent solos.
But I'm gushing again. It's going to take something truly special to knock the mighty Korpiklaani off their throne as my favourite folk metal band, not least because they've been doing what they do for either two or three decades, depending on how you count, and they have eleven albums to their name. Velesar only got together in 2018 and this is only their second album, so they have a long journey ahead of them, but they ought to have a glorious time as they do so, especially with COVID hopefully retreating and gigs opening back up. Now, I want to hear albums three, four and ten!