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"Songs of the Eternal Oak" is the debut professional effort by the Tatarstanic Russians under the name of Alkonost which, in Slavic mythology, is the goddess of the land of the dead. Alkonost has existed since the mid-90s, starting with some demos here and there and eventually ending with many full-lengths. At their homepage, one can see that they call their style "epic dark folk metal". It's indeed very dark folk metal, yet even such description doesn't actually cover the diversity of their material.
Starting out playing a mid-paced form of black metal with folksy guitar riffs, their sound has pretty much evolved and covered most other sub genres of heavy metal music while remaining faithful to the spirit of folk metal.
What's so special about Alkonost is that their entire sound is based on the traditional metal instruments, so the folk melodies are all created by their unique guitar sound and emphasized by their mesmerizing keyboard. At this point in time, Alkonost consisted of four musicians (later to be expanded with another rhythm guitarist and a female vocalist).
Arriving at the actual album, here, Alkonost has managed to create a black/folk metal masterpiece. Unfortunately, this album is underrated for the obvious reason of not being too well known if you hail from East Europe and/or if you're not on the roster of a "mainstream-seeking" label. Anyway, the songwriting here is excellent as clichés are never found here. One song starts with a guitar riff and another one starts with a very atmospheric synth. The song structure is dynamic so one can never feel bored. Once you may start to feel a bit "dragged on", a sudden catchy bass riff comes and wakes you up, so is the case with many synth breakdowns and extremely memorable vocals tracks. The production is very good as all instruments can be clearly heard, yet the dark atmosphere of black metal is reserved. If you think that folk metal is always cheery, you're wrong! Andrey "Elk" Losev plays folksy, repetitive, and almost "trance-like" melancholic riffs that tend to drag you to sorrow with the help of "one of the most beautiful synthesizer sounds I've ever experienced in my life". Oh, and the keyboardist Almira Fathullina does her job very well; she knows when to play and when to stop. Vocal duties are performed for the first time in the band's history by Alexey Solovyov, also known as Alex Nightbird, who was only the bassist in the past. He has also continued to be the bassist and the vocalist until recently when he left the band to form his own project (still awaiting news about this project), and by the bass guitar I mean a loud as hell bass guitar sound that doesn't always follow the guitar (huh? A revolutionary bassist?) and goes solo many times. The vocals are raspy and go well with the music. There are also clean chants here and there that are really memorable. The drums are also well played for the first and last time by Vladimir "VL" Lushin (later to be replaced by Anton Chepigin). There are no blast beats to be found here. On the contrary, many doom beats are found here and there.
A quick highlight of each song: "Years of Prophecy" is the band's trademark back in their early days (a video clip was also shot for such sake). It starts with a bit of a technical riff and out of nowhere, a loud bass guitar goes solo. "Sun Shine Our Land" starts with the keyboard this time and then the guitar takes the lead. Elk keeps repeating the same riff here over and over and believe me when I say that, it's never boring. The atmosphere of this song is strong with feelings of their native land as nationalism come to mind. "Song of Smith (Sledge Hammer!)" is probably the darkest song on the record with its dark synth and riffs. "War is Closed by Us" starts in the same vein as the first song with a solid clean guitar riffs and then the distorted guitar alternates with another clean, minimalist, and melancholic riff. "Holyday of Fathers" is the longest song on the album. It's progressive, starting with an enchanting synth and the bass guitar goes for another solo in here and ends with the longest clean chant passage with another synth outro. "Rain of Former Days" is a dark ambient piece with the "epic dark folk" keyboard and the sound of the rain.
The lyrics deal with the band's own religious values. They are delivered in a very "respectable" way since the band stands on non-political and anti-racist positions, and one can feel how "open minded" these members are. Being a non-Slavic person (non-European as well), I find the lyrics to be attractive and effective. Take the third song, "Song of Smith (Sledge Hammer!)", for example:
"To be the a blacksmith is as to be a priest
You need to consort with the spirits
Play 'em and guide and hold them in hands
Great new world, the world of steel"
Such words encourage me to learn about new cultures and to accept others, so thank you, Alkonost!
Now to be clear, this album is not perfect at all as the last song tends to drag a lot. If the short edition was used here, it would be way better. The other main problem of this album is the English language of the lyrics. I read somewhere that Alex Nightbird is the lyricist behind this album. Ok then, but I also read that he initially writes them in Russian to be translated later by another person, to clarify my point:
"Sun Shine Our Land" is supposed to be "the sunshine of our land" (see the later re-recorded Russian version of the album, Песни Вечного Древа). "War Is Closed by Us"? Come on, it was supposed to be something like "the war is ended by us". "Holyday of Fathers" is either "the holy day of fathers" or "holiday of fathers" (both expressions are spread all over the internet). Again, it is "the holy day of fathers", actually (again, see the Russian version of the album). Another example is to be found in the actual lyrical content, also in "Holyday of Fathers": The songs are singing! Do songs sing? I wish the band had dealt with a more professional English-Russian translator back then.
"Songs of the Eternal Oak" is a well-crafted album with a strong atmosphere that trigger lots of emotions and feelings about pride, native land, nature & back to the roots, nationalism, etc. This is highly recommended for any fan of dark folk (not the happy one, huh) metal and black metal as well. Alkonost has moved on with their sound after this album. The last album, "On the Wings of the Call", is their weakest effort to date, so I hope to hear new material in the near future from this excellent band.