It's been a decent year for folk metal and here's a new one from one of the pioneers of the genre, Cruachan, from Dublin. They've been around since 1993 and this is their ninth studio album, which arrives five years after its predecessor, Nine Years of Blood. It's as if they've never been away on a sparkling opening instrumental, The Living, which feels like a celebration of life, everything we're expecting from folk metal. It has driving riffs and lively fiddle and just makes us bounce, as does a later instrumental, The Festival. These may well be my favourite pieces of music here.
Before you ask, yes, the other bookend at the tail of the album, is called The Dead, with a suitably opposite approach. Not only does it start and end with slow and sombre passages, but it's a vocal track, that midsection erupting into an extreme outpouring of emotion. Technically, its lyrics rail against the intruding Christian church in favour of an earlier pagan alternative, an abiding topic for Cruachan that surprisingly doesn't occupy the entire rest of the album, but it's easy for us to interpret it as anger and grief.
Lyrically, it mostly focuses on pagan subjects, but the epic that kicks off the vocal songs, The Queen, relates a historical character, Grace O'Malley, known as the Pirate Queen of Ireland, focusing especially on her interactions with Queen Elizabeth I on the mainland. This one lasts not far off seven minutes and there's a lot going on within it, beyond its long lyric sheet. To me, it highlights just how much the band is clearly enjoying being back in the studio and it introduces the first in a string of guest musicians to, well, grace the album.
This one boasts Geoffroy Dell'Aria of the French medieval/folk band Les Bâtards du Nord, playing bagpipes and a variety of whistles. He guests on seven of the twelve tracks on offer in some form or other. Also, Kim Dylla, an American singer likely best known for her work for the Canadian black metal band A Winter Lost, shows up on backing vocals on four tracks, starting with this one. She's good here, even finding an Irish lilt behind Keith Fay's lead vocal on The Crow. Jon Campling lends some backing vocals to a couple of songs too.
The most obvious guests are lead vocalists, because there are two here who get a song each. The impressive vocals on The Ghost are credited to Vreth, but that turns out to be Mathias Lillmåns, a veteran Finnish singer of ...and Oceans and Finntroll fame, singing more in the vein of the former but with a hint of the latter. In a completely different style, Nella, an Irish singer best known for a video game series, World of Warcraft's Legion, sings The Changeling. Both of them elevate their respective songs and bring a different angle to this album. The third big name guest is Stu Dixon, who delivers a solid guitar solo on The Witch. As Rage, he's been the lead guitarist in Venom since 2007.
All this talk of extreme metal bands suggests that this would be heavier than it is, but it's merely folk metal doused in plenty of Celtic flavour and delivered with a strong crunch. There's not a lot of black metal on show, but what there is shows up in the faster edge and more vicious bite than, say, the recent Adavänt album, which betrays a strong Cruachan influence. This is more Celtic, of course, especially through copious use of Audrey Trainor's violin, Fay's bodhrán and Irish bouzouki and a couple of guests playing tin whistles. I should probably mention here that The Witch mostly reminds me of Deep Purple, so it's not all extreme.
There is plenty of extremity in the vocals, but Fay, who has always been more comfortable with his harsh delivery than a clean one, has found a strong balance between the two. He feels natural in either mode nowadays and it feels like he splits his time between each approach about evenly. In another fashion, there's a tasty extreme side in some sections of songs that wouldn't be at all out of place in a thrash band's repertoire. The midsections of both The Ghost and The Crow have that heads down approach and ought to generate quite the response from the pit at gigs.
It's good to see Cruachan back. They've only broken up once, for a year in the late nineties, but the five years between albums seems long, even if it isn't unprecedeted, five years elapsing between their fifth and sixth albums too. I hope we won't have to wait as long for the next one. For now, we have this decent return to keep us occupied.