Thursday 27 July 2023

Аркона - Kob' (2023)

Country: Russia
Style: Pagan Black/Folk Metal
Rating: 9/10
Release Date: 16 Jun 2023
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I'm no expert, but my understanding is that Arkona, or Аркона in their native Cyrillic, started out as a folk metal band with black metal elements but gradually swapped those elements around to turn into a black metal band with folk metal elements. That start was a couple of decades ago, in 2002 and, by this point, ten albums in, they've moved a little beyond both, to become something a little less classifiable. This could be easily called post-black metal or simply progressive metal with extreme elements.

As their albums tend to be, it's an hour long, so there's a lot of material to explore, but it's focused into a small number of long tracks. Kob', which I'm unable to translate, lasts for seven minutes and Razryvaya plot' ot bezyskhodnosti bytiya matches it, a name that translates into the almost Celtic Frostian Tearing the Flesh from the Hopelessness of Being. That's pretty black metal right there, I might suggest. Ugasaya, Mor and Na zakate bagrovogo solntsa surpass nine. I'm unsure what Mor means, but the others mean Fading Away, apparently common enough that it only needs one word in Cyrillic, and At the Setting of the Crimson Sun. Ydi, or Go, almost reaches twelve.

The bookends are neither folk nor black metal. They're dark ambient, brimming with atmosphere but half of it's whispered horror and the other half a visitation from Russian cyberpunk gods. It's a long intro, as well, over four minutes of it, to get us into a certain mood. The whispering continues throughout the album as a segue between each track. There's dark ambience within the tracks as well, often as what could e called interludes between parts but shouldn't be because they count as parts all on their own.

Part of this is because the keyboards that drive the more ambient sections are provided by Masha or Scream, the only founder member in the band, though both guitarist Sergei (Lazar) and bassist Ruslan (Kniaz) have played on all ten albums. She's the driving force in the band, because she's the songwriter and lyricist and she handles the lead vocals too, though it's hard to tell which they are, because she does so in a host of different styles, both clean and harsh, soft and strident, chanting and brutal. I'm guessing all the voices are hers except the most obvious male voice, which may be either Sergei or Vlad, who's provided many folk instruments since 2011.

I like the title track, which works through quite the dynamic range, but Ydi surpasses it effortlessly and only gets better with repeat listens. It begins with a soft guitar that's almost a brook babbling over the whispers. It escalates soon enough, with a strident vocal from Masha that's underpinned by neat melodies. It builds into a more epic black metal style, almost martial in its assault, like the band are playing this as they hurtle over a hill towards us, the drums galloping horses. Sergei adds a screaming guitar solo around the three minute mark and then it all turns into a threatening folk chant, like something from the Hu. There's so much here and we're still only four minutes or so in.

Much of what follows is made of black metal components, but it's misleading to suggest that it's a black metal song or indeed a black metal album. The drums are often very fast, but the guitars are rarely interested in simply generating a wall of sound. They're often sharp. Some of the voices are bleak, though others are far cleaner and folkier. It's often black metal, but it's approachable for it without becoming soft and it's approachable because of those folkier elements. I should note that Arkona don't toggle between the two approaches, rather combining them with fascinating effect, which often takes the form of chanting vocals floating over the hurtling drums.

The folk elements show up in other ways too, often without us expecting them. Late in Ugasaya, for example, there's a strong black metal section but it suddenly gets bouncy and, however versatile a subgenre it's proving to be, bouncy is not a typical black metal attribute. Then again, Ugasaya was almost synthwave as it opened. One of my favourite Russian musicians is a pop singer called Linda, who trawls folk elements into a more electronic style that's moved through a lot of genres. Masha isn't unlike Linda as this one starts out, though she moves a long way beyond her as it runs on. She gets there in Razryvaya plot' ot bezyskhodnosti bytiya too.

The dynamic play here is fascinating and the changes and shifts in emphasis are just as fascinating. That's why it's easy to think of this as progressive metal or at least post-black metal rather than a purer form, not that "pure" doesn't come with its own problematic impressions in this genre. The whole thing becomes problematic. Just don't think of this as black metal, even when it is. Think of it as prog metal because then, when it shifts off into synthwave or folk or whatever else, it's going to make a lot more sense. Sometimes, as with bands like Opeth, labels become unhelpful except as indicators of how varied an album truly is.

I like this a lot. It wasn't what I expected but it impressed me on a first listen and, as I delve deeper into these songs on repeat listens, it impresses me even more. For highlights, Ydi stands above all this but Ugasaya is stunning, Mor continues to grow on me, especially from its midsection onward, including some fascinating flutes, and, frankly, everything here is worthy. I feel like I should listen another half a dozen times before posting this, but I have other music to move onto. The curse of being a critic is that I can't spend long enough on any particular release. Here, I really want to. It's not a pool to dip into. It's an ocean to explore.

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