Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Acoustic Metal vs. the Unthank Sisters

Yeah! Wouldn't that be a sight to see! Hurdy gurdy, fiddle and gaida vs. minor vocal harmonies on depressing folk songs.

No really, I'm checking out the recent acoustic metal disc from my Swiss faves Eluveitie and have a little news to report (and comment on) from the Cedar's favorite pair of Geordie sisters.

Well, the first thing that comes to mind upon hearing the phrase "Acoustic Metal" is some really bad ballads. Remember in the early days of XM satellite radio they had a show called "Ballad Salad" which was plugged as something like "a tasty mix of ballads by your favorite hair metal bands." OK, and I am so running screaming from the room...

Eluveitie's new disc is none of that. Certainly nothing I would call a metal ballad. Even in their loud metal form they really had this Celt thing going, and Evocation 1: The Arcane Dominion is an unplugged extension of what they were doing with their previous disc, Slania. What you get is more of band leader Christian "Chrigel" Glanzmann's fascination with the ancient Helvitii tribe and the their Gaulish language. Most of the lyrics are in Gaulish, from the tiny bits of it that survive on artifacts. They don't give any translations, commenting that any translation would be probably somewhat inaccurate, but give us a few ideas about what's probably going on in order to set a mood.

The Helvetii won this battle over the Romans > > >

Does it work? More importantly does it rock?

Well, yes and no.

To anybody with a nodding aquaintance with Celtic folk music, some of the ground covered is pretty familiar. The arrangements are a little pedestrian, mostly in common time and major keys. The result is less dark and moody and more, say ... triumphant? That's not quite it either, hmmmm. On the positive side, fiddler Meri Tadic and hurdy player Anna Murphy do most of the singing, and they both have decent voices. The one time the guys try to sing in this acoustic setting it is just pretty painful. Of course on the one track where the gals try to get freaky vocally, it just sounds a little like Veruca Salt.

Here's the "Omnos" vid, in which Tadic and Murphy spend some time in around a cool graveyard.

I listened to a couple of my favorite "heavy folk" discs afterwords to see how this measures up. You know, nothing can really hold a candle to Hedningarna's classic Tra (if you follow this link, scroll down to "most helpful review" - it's a doozy), although Żywiołak's Nowa ex-Tradycja gives it a whole hearted attempt. These discs do use some electric instruments and effects in a mostly acoustic lineup, but they sure rock a lot harder! The arrangements are just so much more complex and interesting.

This is not to say that instrumental chops are not present on the disc. The guitar playing is plenty complex without all the usual metal amplification and effects, but it does make me wonder about some of the production choices. It's recorded in such a way that you can hear the cranking and clicking of the hurdy, the indrawn breath of the flute player and the guitarist's fingers sliding on the strings. I really wonder why would they do this. And why are the drums and bass so far down in all the mixes?

I'm making it sound worse than it is; tracks like "Brictom" and "Memento" are good, high energy fun and I think the live versions would work well, especially preceding a full metal set as they plan to do on their fall tour. No word yet if they are coming stateside. Plus they do get big concept points for doing a whole album in a dead language about a long vanished culture. Maybe the sound's just not what I wanted it to be, and therein lies the disappointment.

* * * * genre shift warning! * * * *

Now, here's what the Unthank gang has to tell us. Their press release is the white text, all the comments in red and highlighting are mine.
The Unthanks are preparing to risk it all with another audacious step sideways.

While the abbreviated name reflects the long-established reality that the band is co-fronted by Rachel Unthank's sister Becky Unthank, the real development sees an extended line-up that includes string quartet, brass, percussion, tuned percussion, bass, and The Unthank's producer Adrian McNally taking on piano responsibilities from Stef Conner who returns to a PHD. Winterset key member Niopha Keegan continues on violin. [NO way! A string quartet?? Brass? Percussion? Please don't overdo it! One of the best things about The Bairns is all the "white space."]

New album Here's The Tender Coming will be released in September, ahead of a 42 date UK tour that begins on October 10th, [There are really 42 different places to play just in England? Yes, smart ass, look at the schedule on their MySpace.] followed by overseas tours early next year. [Um, ahem, Main Figurehead.] The album title is taken from a track on the album, in which the tender coming is the boat coming to press men into war, but the title also serves as a metaphor for the shift in mood from The Unthanks.

Here's The Tender Coming is a calmer, melancholic, warmer colour of sad than the intense bleakness of its predecessor; The Bairns, [But I liked the intense bleakness!] nominated for the Uncut Music Prize and Mercury Music Prize as one of the top ten British albums of the year.

Here's The Tender Coming is a hugely different album to The Bairns, though hopefully no less intimate and minimal for all the extended arrangement ethic. It is the sound of a creative team with no interest in resting on the laurels of a critically and commercially successful formula. [Well then. If you say so. Can't wait for the stateside release!]
You know, this reprinting press releases and making comments to them thing could make blogging so easy...oh, wait, isn't that what the mainstream media is for?


Angel of Rock said...

"But I liked the intense bleakness!"

Me too. Let's hope those Unthanks know what they're doing.

Adrianix said...


I love playing guitars and I'm addicted to acoustic songs. I love hearing them. When I'm in good mood, they refreshes my mind.

Acoustic Songs said...

I must admit I've never heard of this genre, though it sounds like it would create an intriguing sound. I'll check it out, great post.