Across the open sea: Primordial and Mael Mórdha

A common question in metal circles regards new sungenres that took root in the 2000s. Subgenres with the solidity of thrash, death, or black metal that is. Folk metal, depending on your perspective, could strengthen or weaken the case for contemporary innovation in metal on a par with the 80s. It’s not entirely clear what the genre amounts to in terms of concrete ontology. Sure metal’s relationship to regional musical traditions had already been well established via the blossoming of black metal by the time the new century rolled around. Folk influences could also be noted in various forms of prog metal’s lineage all the way back to prog rock proper and its connections with the English folk revival of the 70s. But folk metal as a distinctive style only really came to fruition in the 2000s. But it’s not clear if this could be called a subgenre of metal in its own right. It’s just not nearly as easy to define as many metalheads are comfortable with.

The reason for this is simply that “folk” as a musical descriptor is about as broad as they come. And until recently its integration into metal has specifically referred to various Northern European traditions of folk music. As a result, folk metal has never birthed a distinctive set of playing techniques and standard music theory from within metal itself in the same way that thrash or death metal did. It distinguishes itself through the appropriation of traditional folk melodies, rhythms, or the application of traditional instrumentation (real or synthetic imitation) to a pre-existing metal style, usually black or doom metal, but also death metal, power metal, and traditional heavy metal. This baffling intersection of music history nevertheless makes sense in the listener’s mind as a distinctive style of metal when they are confronted with actual examples of the genre, but when seeking precise language to set it apart from other forms of metal it becomes surprisingly difficult to pin down beyond certain surface level features of the music. So here are two Irish artists that clearly sit within the folk umbrella, who approach the format from differing traditions of metal, but arguably achieve a purer example of what folk metal might sound like when compared to commonly regarded examples of the genre.

Primordial are perhaps the most internationally renowned metal band to come out of Ireland (unless you count Thin Lizzy). From roots in mournful black metal to an intriguing concoction of black, power, and heavy metal with distinctive Celtic influences, their evolution was a slow one. Thier fourth album, 2002’s ‘Storm Before the Calm’, is where we see the modern Primordial that most people recognise take shape. The previous release – 2000’s ‘Spirit the Earth Aflame’ – saw them adopt a mid-paced, epic folk style weaving in no small degree of prog metal leanings in the process, which sat nicely alongside the traditional black elements in their sound. But with ‘Storm Before the Calm’ we see them sharpen this formula up, adopting a rhythmic consistency deeply rooted in Celtic drum patterns, the layering of simple but atmospheric chord sequences compelling in their repetition, and Nemtheanga’s trademark vocal style, trading blows between black metal growling and epic heavy metal crooning.

In short, the Primordial formula is actually extremely simple. Rich, domineering guitars work their way through fairly standard black metal riffs styles, supplemented by subtle hints of Celtic folk melodies that inform their shape and phrasing. Drums follow the same mixed philosophy, switching from standard metal and punk techniques to danceable Celtic rhythms. This is topped off by a talented vocalist whose command of both clean and distorted vocals is one of the best in metal. And this latter point is really the secret of their success: it’s all about delivery.

‘Storm Before the Calm’ is relatively simple music, each track is built from two or three central components that don’t grow tired despite their bulky length and repetition, the riffs are nothing remarkable, with some being frankly flat. But it is the arrangements, the conviction, and flare of the playing that gives Primordial its magic, and has proved to be so hard for others to imitate or capture despite its relative simplicity and overt emotional manipulation. Individual guitar lines are sometimes difficult to pick out despite their simplicity, thanks to the meticulous and patient layering of the many guitar tracks recorded for each song. Listening to them painstakingly unfold a melodic core through this dance of simple arrangements is akin to watching the waves of a choppy sea rise and collapse, unfolding and consuming each other in turn; a hypnotic and repetitive dance based on variations of a theme.

What’s more remarkable is the fact that ‘Storm Before the Calm’ was the beginning of a strong six-album run that saw this basic framework change little, beyond minor tweaks at the boundaries of their signature sound. The riffs are simple yet intuitive, thus legitimatising their repetitious nature which in turn comes to define the structure of each track. They work subtle counterpoint and lead harmonies which – given the simplicity of the underlying structures – are granted greater impact and significance in this sparse musical landscape. And of course, it’s not just the power and conviction with which Nemtheanga bellows forth his lyrics, it’s the subject matter itself, which in part deals with the gross injustices served to Ireland over the years, largely at the hands of dear old England. A litany of oppression and betrayal is the sombre, beating heart of Primordial, one that nevertheless stands defiant and proud in the face of the hand that history has served this nation over the ages.

Mael Mórdha take a doomy approach to folk metal, rooted in the classic heavy metal iteration of this genre. Their first album – 2005’s ‘Cluain Tarḃ’ – is as good a place to start as any for this outfit. The tempos are slow, the riffs unfolding at their own pace in graceful waves of melody. But these are accented by an array of keyboards working their way through flutes, pianos, strings, harps, and a whole host of other instruments. The melodies may at times be bouncy, adopting the repeated refrains of small note clusters with minor variations on each repetition that defines a lot of Celtic folk music, but the tempo and overall gravitas of the music is kept slow and heavy, bringing this closer to an Irish My Dying Bride of sorts.

The production seems to crumble under the weight of conveying this epic doom metal replete with rich and diverse instrumentation. It’s not terrible by any measure, but feels more worthy of a rehearsal room demo than a polished final cut. The drums are clear but raw, with little treatment given to the snare, the double bass drum doing its best to thunder away beneath the mix, as if attempting to overcome its limited power. Guitars are again given little in the way of enhancement, opting for a fairly straightforward distortion and little reverb or any effects applied to the lead melodies. This ultimately means that when the keyboards do cut through – in whatever guise – they feel as though they belong to a different piece of music, having so little to integrate them into the rest of the mix and render this a cohesive whole. The same applies to the vocals, which are sung cleanly and stick to traditional folk patterns and cadences. No disrespect to Roibéard Ó Bogail, he can carry a melody, but his voice is a little on the weak side, and there has been no obvious attempt to enhance this in the mixing and mastering process.

Such trivialities as the anomie of mixing shouldn’t deter the faithful however, as the music has much to recommend it over and above its practical shortcomings. ‘Cluain Tarḃ’ essentially achieves what many power metal albums aim for without falling into the excessive carnival of that lamentable genre. These are in part epic battle hymns, part sombre prayer, part folk tales of times gone by. The guitars veer from melodic doom metal to jaunty folk licks, but are just as happy indulging in hints of atonal death metal in places. Their calling depends on the overall command of each track, as it swerves from reflective reckoning on the past, to galloping rhythms as the music accelerates the pacing of its narrative arc.

The guitars exchange punches with an array of keyboard instrumentation, which serves as an additional lead instrument in the frequent flute and piano lines that crop up. A welcome contrast to the usual use of keyboards as a mere textural device. The cheese is present but kept at bay, resulting in a work that – with only the smallest suspension of disbelief – is a rewardingly sober take on epic and ambitious folk metal. One that is not afraid to throw in a diverse array of heavy metal riff traditions to expand the expressive range of the music beyond raw intensity.  

In comparing these two albums it could be said that Mael Mórdha took a more obvious approach to folk metal. They weave the more surface level elements of Celtic instrumentation into a style of highly melodic heavy metal and let the compositions work themselves out from there. Primordial took the counter intuitive route of stripping the music right back, removing any but the most basic nods to folk playing styles. But in doing so managed to tap into a more unique and resonant style than did Mael Mórdha. One that arguably is truer to the spirit of folk metal as accessible, simple, artisanal, music for working people, For that reason our pick of the week is ‘Storm Before the Calm’. But it should be noted that as far as melodic doom metal with a healthy dose of heritage worked into it, ‘Cluain Tarḃ’ is worthy of a spin.

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