Thursday 23 February 2023

Almach - Don't Look Back (2023)

Country: Afghanistan
Style: Atmospheric Black/Folk Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 22 Jan 2023
Sites: Bandcamp

After learning that FFOBR is a thing a couple of days ago, when reviewing Grandma's Ashes' debut album, I learned here that there's a thing in black metal where anonymous musicians using faked or borrowed photos falsely claim to be from Islamic countries. Mostly, they seem to choose Iraq, as Mulla, Janaza and Seeds of Iblis do, but تدنيس claims to be one Saudi Arabian woman and Almach claim to be from Afghanistan. Now, those others tend also to claim involvement with a movement called the Arabic Anti-Islamic Legion and may have ties to the NSBM community, but this one does not, as far as I can tell. So maybe Almach simply haven't been verified to be from Afghanistan and will be in due course.

Wherever they're from, this is drenched in middle eastern folk music, to the degree that whether they're playing these ethnic folk instruments and providing the varied folk voices or not may be a clincher on whether they're authentic or not. It could be that whoever's behind Almach is merely layering guitars, drums and vocals over the folk music of others and nobody's figured out any of the sources yet. Either way, it sounds fascinating, because it's not integrated in the way that folk metal tends to be, with pipers, fiddlers and hurdy-gurdists playing key roles in the band.

Here, the folk music is separate and, while it may overlap with the black metal, it always seems to be doing its own thing, making me wonder about if these musicians even know they're on a black metal album. Sometimes it's the only element there, as on the album's three minute intro, Path of the Night and a minute more into Wolf, the opening track proper. Then it launches confidently into black metal. The drums are furious but not hyperspeed, the guitars have a richer tone than I tend to hear in the genre and the vocals are fierce more than bleak, but it's clearly black metal. And then the folk music returns as the metal cools off.

And so we go. It's a tasty mix, the contrast in styles a fascinating one that's overt throughout the entire album, except when it shifts all the way over to one side, which happens surprisingly rarely. I'm always surprised by how black metal can merge with so many other wildly diverse genres, from ambient to bluegrass, while still maintaining its image as the anti-social family member hiding in the corner while everyone else pretends to get along. Check out Immortal Sun, for instance, when the folk side is ouds and flutes and lovely female vocals, but the guitar turns the theme into a riff and the drums speed up the tempo. This is the most integrated song on the album, I think, but it's still surely metal musicians playing over a recording. They just do it well here.

What surprised me most, after how much the initial sound relies on that musical contrast and how much folk music there is here, is how the black metal varies in intensity. It's fast, of course, but it's slow or mid-tempo for black metal. Only Three Steps Beyond the Horizon has frenetic blastbeats to help generate a wall of sound. It sounds great, but it feels extreme given the pace the guitars and drums take elsewhere on the album. Given that it provides an even greater contrast, I do wonder why Almach didn't take that approach more often.

While I keep questioning the authenticity of this, because it really does sound like I wandered into a public park and discovered a performance by Islamic folk musicians, only for a fully electric black metal band to start up under the next ramada over, with the two weirdly compatible and with one rarely drowning out the other, I like it a lot. The most obvious negative for me is the keyboards on early songs like Wolf, which sound simplistic and obvious, as if they'd taught me a three note motif and suddenly I'm in the band like Mr. Bean was in the London Symphony Orchestra at the Olympics in London. Hey, I completed a level on Guitar Hero yesterday. I'm a musician, right?

I should add that Ritual feels out of place. Everything here is middle eastern and Islamic, from the instrumentation to the melodies, except for Ritual, which mostly feels Celtic. It's driven by violin, soft piano and eventually harp, with soft female vocalisations that feel less like call to prayer and more like Enya covering Dead Can Dance. Or vice versa. It sounds pretty good, but it sounds like a song from another album, one recorded by a band who aren't from Afghanistan.

At the end of the day, it doesn't matter where Almach are from. I could imagine them turning out to be one white dude in a basement in Inverness creating something he feels sounds interesting, a thought I'd echo. I could also imagine this being one Afghani with a sizeable collection of folk CDs and a love for the local sounds of Kabul, releasing four albums in four years without ever leaving his house, plus a couple of EPs. Either way, it feels to me like it's one multi-instrumentalist and I'm impressed by his originality.

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