There are a bunch of albums listed as the best of the year, in various genres, at Folk N Rock and I'm likely to review a couple more of them this month, but I ought to start with their Folk Metal Album of the Year. For 2021, that went rather predictably to Jylhä, because Korpiklaani happened to have an album out, but, for 2022, it went to a debut album by a Dutch band I'd never heard of, Vanaheim by name, and, even though I'm a huge Korpi fan and Jylhä was a good album, this is a far worthier choice as an Album of the Year.
Vanaheim play epic folk metal out of Tilburg and they've been doing it since 2015. They've put out a couple of EPs over the years but this is their debut at the full length and it's a peach. They're on the heavy side for the genre, with rough vocals from Zino van Leerdam that are melodic and well intonated but wouldn't be out of place on a melodic death metal album. The guitars are powerful and the drums fast but these six songs are just as unmistakably folk as they are metal, so much so that the four that also appear in "folkestral" versions do exactly the same job without the benefit of being plugged in, except for the keyboards.
Let's just say that I'd love to see this band live in a rock club and I'd love to see them perform at a renaissance festival. Now imagine the heaviest group that you've seen at the latter kicking off an album with a song that's a tasty combination of Viking metal, power metal, symphonic metal and melodeath. No, it wouldn't usually work, would it? It does here. This opener is Uit Steen Geslagan, or Knocked Out of Stone, and it runs for ten minutes as a magnificent introduction to what Vanaheim do. Not only is it really good, but it sets up the template that the band seem to like working from.
It's a bombastic epic sound that might be fast or might be slow but always heavy and in your face. It's easy to imagine the band leaning forward on stage, as if there's a storm raging between them and us and they have to turn up even further so we can hear them through the wind. It's a vibrant sound that we could take into battle, the vocals harsh and emphatic and the beat incessant. But there are respites. Every once in a while, they decide to let us all breathe, so drop into a quiet and folky section for a while before ramping right back up to speed through a seamless transition.
These folk sections vary immensely too. Uit Steen Geslagen has three of them and they're wildly different. The first is fiddle and hand drums, before a flute joins the fray. The second is a waterfall piano tinkling against a roaring fire. The third, almost at the end, is accordion and Jew's harp and a genial party of backing voices. They're all engaging and fun, they each bring something new to a song and they all keep an overarching melody moving along.
All the full on songs are long, but the next couple are a little shorter than this one, over and done in seven minutes and change. They're Onbevangen and Reuzenspraak and they're both strong too. I like the dropdown in the former, this time with whistles, but there's one in Reuzenspraak that's sheer joy. I think that's a harp or maybe some sort of lute, accompanied by handheld drums and a wave of keyboards that somehow doesn't feel anachronistic because this is epic metal and it's the way to add emotional swells. That's the symphonic side of Vanaheim, because van Leerdam is the only vocalist and no sopranos wander in from the wings.
The album wraps with the truest epic, Gevallen in de Nacht, the other two tracks being interludes. Well, maybe Verloren is a ballad, the sort that needs no translation to renaissance festival stage. The vocals are rough but heartfelt, both from the lead singer and the group who back him up. It's got a killer ending too, one that leaves our palate well cleansed before Gevallen in de Nacht kicks in with a dramatic intro. Once again, it's a strong song, because nothing lets this album down. It's excellent when it's quiet and introspective and we sit craving steaks on stakes. It's excellent when it's in your face and we want to get a pit going. It's just excellent, period.
If Vanaheim are this good on their debut, not to mention how powerful, versatile and mature they are doing what they do, how good are they going to be in a couple of albums time? This could well be the truest folk metal album I've heard in a long time and I'm going to be playing it a lot.