Thursday, March 17, 2011

Review: Cruachan - Blood on the Black Robe (2011)

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Blood on the Black Robe

As founding members of the folk metal genre, Ireland's Cruachan is a band often used as a reference point when describing emerging artists that incorporate cultural instruments and melodies into their core sound - particularly those with a Celtic flavor. After 1995's Tuatha Na Gael, Cruachan released a series of albums that drifted from the blackened folk metal of their debut toward a more traditional heavy metal sound, though still heavily influenced by the legends, mythology, and music of their native land. As much as 2000's The Middle Kingdom was a shift away from Cruachan's origins, the band's latest release Blood on the Black Robe is a return to it. The tin whistle, bodhran, and bouzouki are still very much an integral part of the band's sound, but gone (mostly) are the female vocals and "classic" heavy metal elements.

Of the changes, the absence of Karen Gilligan's vocals is the most profound. Her throaty style and distinctive cadence served as a fitting contrast to mainman Keith Fay's incensed snarls and enhanced the mysticism of Cruachan's message. Though no longer an official member of the band, Gilligan does make a number of appearances on Blood on the Black Robe - all of which benefit the album. "An Bean Sidhe", a beautifully sorrowful track that builds from a lone tin whistle to cantankerous double-kick and frenzied tremolo riffing, is where Gilligan first appears on this album. Besides being a musical highlight, the song stands out for the familiar vocal interplay between Gilligan and Fay. Such complimentary vocals return on the title track, this time in the form of dual chanting atop some pummeling beats from drummer Colin Purcell. Gilligan's last appearance on the album comes during the very medieval sounding "The Voyage of Bran", where she delivers the lyrics in her characteristic storytelling style. Her vocal contributions being one of the aspects of Cruachan's music that set the band apart from many of the others who've hit the scene over the years, I'm hopeful that Fay will continue to include Gilligan (or another equally impressive female singer) on future releases.

Those familiar with the band will find Fay's harsh vocal style to be unchanged from previous releases. Only once, while chanting along with Gilligan on the title track, does he forgo the snarls. Unlike many extreme vocalists, Fay does a fine job enunciating the lyrics so that his tales of ancient Ireland - and more recent nationalist struggles - can be fully understood. Along with his vocals, Fay's grinding riffs combine with Purcell's furious double-kick to give Blood on the Black Robe that heightened sense of aggression that the band wanted to return to. "Primeval Odium", with its near-perfect blend of Irish melody and blackened hostility, stands as one of the most aggressive and memorable tracks on the album. For those who prefer more black metal and less folk metal, the swirling riffs of the aptly titled "Pagan Hate" will be quite a treat.

Although Fay has been very clear in the press about wanting to take Cruachan back toward the raw black metal of the debut album, it's the abundant use of Irish instruments and melodies that makes the band such a unique entity in the genre. The lilting pace of the tin whistle on "The Column", the traditional instrumentation of "The Nine Year War", the driving instrumental "Brian Boru's March", and even the Middle Eastern melodies of the fiddle and riffs on "Thy Kingdom Gone" are just a handful of the many highlights liberally sprinkled throughout Blood on the Black Robe. The bottom line with this release is that Cruachan have once again put together a solid Celtic folk metal album that can - and will - appeal to fans of the band's earliest recordings as well as those whose attention had been grabbed by albums like The Middle Kingdom and Pagan.

Track Listing
1To War2:04
2I Am Warrior6:28
3The Column8:21
4Thy Kingdom Gone5:35
5An Bean Sidhe6:59
6Blood on the Black Robe7:48
7Primeval Odium8:27
8The Voyage of Bran5:29
9Brian Boru's March4:38
10Pagan Hate6:21
11The Nine Year War8:30
Total Runtime1:10:40

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