Wednesday 13 December 2023

Skiltron - Bruadarach (2023)

Country: Argentina
Style: Folk/Power Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 1 Dec 2023
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I've been fascinated with how South America has fallen in love with Celtic music ever since hearing Tuatha de Danann. They're from Varginha in the southern Brazilian state of Minas Gerais, and this band are from Buenos Aires in Argentina, but Varginha is closer to there than it is to half the rest of Brazil. Well, I say Buenos Aires because that's where they started, as Century in 1997, shifting to Skiltron in 2004, but only two of the five current members are Argentinean. New vocalist Paolo Ribaldini is Italian and based in Finland nowadays, where drummer Joonas Nislin already was, playing for folk/melodic metal band Frosttide since its founding in 2009. That leaves Pereg Ar Bagol, a French piper who contributes tin whistle in addition to bagpipes.

This is Skiltron's sixth album, but also their first since 2016, which helps explain why I haven't heard them before. I like what I hear and it really does combine the two genres I listed above. It starts as folk metal, the intro kicking in with rhythmic acoustic guitar and growing into full on bagpipes, and much of it stays there, with songs about Rob Roy and Scottish independence, those pipes a pivotal part of the band's sound, even if Bagol used to be considered a session musician before joining the band as a full fledged member. However, Ribaldini sings power metal almost exclusively across the entire album and the instrumentation behind him sometimes follows suit.

Case in point: the first track proper, As We Fight. It opens with bagpipes, so it's no stretch to see it as folk metal. However, when Ribaldini opens his mouth and Bagol closes his, it's power metal and we start to wonder where they cross the boundary between the genres. In many ways, they don't, because it's never as simple as being folk metal when the bagpipes are playing and power metal when there are words to be delivered. There are plenty of moments when both are happening at the same time and we hear both genres simultaneously.

What's more, there are tracks that play far more overtly as one or the other. Where the Heart Is feels like power metal, even when the bagpipes start playing. It feels like the song was built from the ground up to be power metal and they're a folk decoration. On the other hand, the very next song, Proud to Defend, feels like folk metal from its very first drum beat, which arrives before the bagpipes show up, and it continues to feel like folk metal even when Ribaldini starts singing. He's anthemic on this one but in a timeless manner. The song and its lyric feel aged, as if it doesn't only predate this album but all of us and a few generations before us. It's just showing up again here in a new form.

What I found fascinating was how versatile the power metal is. The folk metal is always very much in the Celtic tradition, whether we look at it lyrically or instrumentally. However, the power metal varies depending on the song. Initially, it starts out in the European vein, perhaps unsurprisingly given that all the Celtic nations and regions are part of Europe. However, there are songs where it seems far more American and sometimes even dipping more into a commercial arena rock or glam metal vein, as on I Am What I Am, which is rather like a folk metal band covering Twisted Sister.

Most unusually, I heard the American sound in the verses of A Treasure Beyond Imagination, but a European one in the choruses. In the midsection, when it shifts into instrumental mode, it's purest folk metal, suggesting that we get up and dance a jig. It's a fascinating melding of genres and, for that reason, it's probably a good place to start for anyone who hasn't heard Skiltron before but is interested in finding out what they do. They do a lot and they sometimes do it all in the same song. What's important is that it works. Not one of these songs seems lesser for staying in one genre or for expanding into two or three.

If I had to call out favourites, though, I'd go with Proud to Defend, Rob Roy and Haste Ye Back. This suggests that I'm more on board with the folk metal than the power metal. The middle of those three is a pacy piece that, just as its title suggests, tells a historical story, a quintessential folk tale based, however loosely, on a real person. Its bookends both play out emphatically as Celtic folk metal, Haste Ye Back in particular featuring some wonderful pipes that shape the riff and set the whole song into motion. It's a ceilidh of a song.

And so the mystery deepens. Why has Celtic folk music made such a strong impact in South America? Answers on the back of a postcard to the usual address. In the meantime, I'm happy that it has.

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