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Where to begin with a record like this? It’s difficult to detail any musical touchstones or lay any trails for anyone who hasn’t heard Bal-Sagoth’s work before, because they are a truly unique band. Their prior effort, “Starfire Burning…”, is a masterful melange of eeriness, splendour and brutality, and many rightly consider it to be their all-round best work. Yet it is “Battle Magic” that is often remembered most fondly, for its ability to win the heart of all but the most conservative metal fan despite the ludicrous flamboyance of its music and lyrics.
For this is the kind of record that a novitiate of metal might burst out laughing, on hearing. As the pixie-dust dulcimers of the opening bars give way to haughty, flatulent midi horns, you might be forgiven for wondering just what in the hell you have bought with your hard-earned money. But you have invested well, for “Battle Magic” is a thoroughly charming and memorable album whose music will stay with you for the rest of your life.
The arrangements on “Battle Magic”, even more so than on Bal-Sagoth’s other releases, have an air of English pomp to them that is simply unheard of anywhere else in metal. This is metal as a pith-helmeted, gin-soaked Boer War colonel would’ve written it, given the opportunity. The opening chords of “Naked Steel”, where the guitars and drums first introduce themselves, have a wonderfully amateurish quality to them – as if the band asked their drunken grandfather to sing them the most epic brass intro imaginable over a boozy Christmas lunch. It’s the same sort of wonderful musical naivete and gaucheness you might find in an old, epic film soundtrack. No fancy atmospheric stuff, thanks, just brass, brass and more brass! Bal-Sagoth wear their 1930s pulp fiction influences on their sleeve, and the retro quality of their arrangements lends itself perfectly to creating the sort of sword-and-sorcery atmosphere they’re going for on “Battle Magic”. You can even hear bits and pieces borrowed from Basil Poledouris’ “Conan the Barbarian” soundtrack woven into the ensemble. The likes of Manowar wish they could write music like this.
That’s not to say, however, that there isn’t also a wealth of great heavy metal musicianship on “Battle Magic”. The drums vary between power and extreme metal archetypes with great skill, and the guitars follow suit, with bits of crunching thrash thrown into the mix. “A Tale from the Deep Woods” is a fan favourite with good cause; the song showcases the band’s ability to mix styles within the confines of a relatively short and simple piece.
Of course, one of Bal-Sagoth’s most distinctive features is the vocal of Byron “Lord Byron” Roberts. I think the “Lord Byron” eponym is probably stretching it, lyrically, but Roberts’ unlikely style, one of breaking from black metal rasps to bloviate over the top of the music like a psychotic Latin teacher, is simply another layer of eccentric charm upon the Sagoth cake. The candour his efforts lend to even the most absurd lines is a thing of wonder. Nowhere else will you hear a man tell you with such purpose that he has “seen demons lick your ivory hands, and watched you ride naked upon the backs of fire dragons!”
While the content of most Bal-Sagoth records tends to revolve around Byron’s self-authored mythology, or bits and pieces of comic books and otherworldly fiction, at least four of the songs on “Battle Magic” deal at least tangentially with English history or mythology, and make reference to real places and events. This is apposite as idiosyncrasies go, as a part of me believes that only an English band could ever pull a record like this off. The whole effort has that very vaguely tongue-in-cheek quality to it - of being at once serious and absurd, an effort of proud and diligent artisanship, but also a thing of humour and subversion. Cradle of Filth is the only other metal act I know of that pulls this off, and it’s surely no coincidence that both bands are the products of a cynical 90s Britain that witnessed a cultural clash between a youthful and derisive iconoclasm and the pride of a country whose middle-class still saw itself as aloof and irreproachable. Bal-Sagoth takes great care in their art, but is clearly unconcerned with appealing to any preconceived notion of extreme metal rectitude and, though “Starfire…” was well-received by traditional metal circles, “Battle Magic” showcases their determination to flip the finger to conservative metal fans.
“Battle Magic” is wonderfully eccentric to the point of ridiculousness and back (listen to the main theme in the first half of “Blood Slakes the Sand…” and say “Ho, Ho, Ho, Merry Christmas!” over the top for a perfect fit if you don’t believe me). For people who like their metal straight down the middle, grim and frostbitten to the core, this album may not make a lot of sense. It may even offend you. I suspect that is, at least in part, the point - and that is why, to me, “Battle Magic” will always be a record I’m proud to own.
This was my introduction to Bal-Sagoth, and came after a friend of a friend who considers himself a bit of an expert on metal described them as "the only symphonic black metal band you'll ever need to hear." Without having read much about them, I'd expected something entirely different to this - perhaps not surprising, since while there's a black metal influence in Bal-Sagoth's music (particularly Byron's inimitable rasp), it's thoroughly hidden by this album. I'm told that some of their earlier work is blacker, and I certainly aim to find that out.
On first hearing, "Battle Magic" came across as a kind of in-joke. I could hear some highly proficient musicianship, some solid vocals and very interesting lyrics, all of which were good signs. Unfortunately, I just didn't quite "get" the band and the album. Perhaps this isn't surprising, since many of the events described here represent the middle of the stories that Byron's written, rather than the beginning. The effect is a bit like trying to read an epic like "Lord of the Rings" by starting with the second part of the trilogy - it just doesn't quite work.
I left the album for a week or two before coming back to it, and I'm glad I did. Having learned a bit more about what Bal-Sagoth is all about, and having discovered that a surprising amount of Byron's prose lyrics was stuck in my head, I was able to appreciate this album much more. Now, the musicianship, vocals and lyrics were being deployed in the service of a vision which I could begin to understand.
So, for the benefit of those like me who came in late, what precisely is Bal-Sagoth all about? Well, they exist largely to tell stories. On this album, they divide their stories between Byron's alternate universe and real historical happenings, such as the gladiators of Ancient Rome. The common thread, however, is epic battles with lots of blood being spilled.
Musically, the dominant instrument for most of this album is the keyboard. Apparently these keyboard arrangements take months to work out and record, which is perhaps not surprising, since they really do a great job of conveying the mood and the action of the stories. Don't be fooled by the lyrics here, incidentally. Not all of them are actually sung - a good 40% are essentially background prose, which just goes to show the completeness of the musical vision involved in all of this.
The other significant point to make here is about Byron's vocals. Simply put, I've never heard a vocalist remotely like him. His rasp - which I feel is underused on this album - is nothing overly spectacular, but it's his clean vocals which will either make or break this album for the listener. It's almost impossible to believe that these almost camp-sounding "Oxford Don" tones are being delivered by the same man who begins "A Tale from the Deep Woods" with the evil chant of "The ravens are on the wing!" but they are. If the charge that Bal-Sagoth are a very over-the-top band is made, these vocals would be Exhibit A without a doubt.
In conclusion, this is one of those very unusual albums the music world sometimes throws up. If you like Bal-Sagoth, you'll buy this one without a second thought - and probably without reading a single review anyway. If you've never heard them, this is probably as good a place as any to start. It mightn't be the kind of album which will win new fans for the band very easily, but I get the distinct impression that they're happy enough to make this sort of music regardless of who listens to it. It's bizarre, it's over-done, it's pretty camp, but there's a distinct level of quality to it.
The third offering from Bal-Sagoth, 1998’s “Battle Magic”, stands out as one of the best from their six album metal saga. The album features imagery of medieval and fantasy battle, and also hints at where Byron is going with the story lines for the next album “The Power Cosmic” (notably the lyrics on ‘Return to the presidium of Ys’).
The whole album has an intensely epic and highly synthesized sound (even for this band), and the songs follow a more regular structure than the usual skirmish of riffs and keyboards. The album might not be that simplistic, but it is certainly the most accessible Bal-Sagoth release.
The opening keyboard passages of the instrumental title track draw you right in; and it is the synths that really carry this album. The guitar work deserves merit as the hooks are spot on; the first track ‘Naked Steel – the warrior’s saga’ for example, is instantly catchy.
Vocals sit better in the mix than on the “Starfire burning upon the ice veiled throne of Ultima Thule” album, and the overall polished production gives a real cinematic effect. Byron’s narrative style married with his black metal rasping is also very effective and adds to the whole archaic feel.
This is dungeons and dragons metal for the escapists out there. For example take these lyrics from track 6 ‘The Dark Liege of Chaos…’:
‘Hearken, sons of the glorious Empire...
Here we stand upon the Field of Blood...
Though this day we may die,
Our legend shall live… forever!’
This could be interpreted as cheese, and to the average metal head this album might seem laughable on the first listen. You have to take it with a pinch of salt and hear it for what it is; an escapist romp through a fantasy world of Byron’s own creation. If you can do that, you will really enjoy this record. For fans of Turisas but perhaps not Rhapsody; don’t be deceived as this ‘cheese’ packs a big spiky punch.
Stand-out tracks: ‘A tale from the deep woods’ ‘Return to the presidium of Ys’ ‘The Dark Liege of Chaos is unleashed at the Ensorcelled Shrine of A'Zura Kai…’
And then there was a new Bal-Sagoth album, and the fanatical fans rejoiced! Again, mighty epics in atmospheric and bombastic music interwoven with the finest fantasy lyrics metal has to offer! But what was this? Some didn't quite enjoy it entirely. A good album, but there was a subtle shift in theme going on, and people were hoping for a Starfire Burning 2, instead of a Starfire Burning 1.5 and then something. The fantasy world had become a bit more fleshed out, and had become a fantasy universe. But there were infusions of British history and folklore no less! (People who were shocked at this were in for a heart-attack with the following album..)
Actually, I'm being slightly misleading. This is, again, a mighty fine album. Again, awesome lyrical sagas are wrought within the booklet, moreso than actually sung still. Again, the music accompanies this masterfully. When I first bought this album I was subsequently under the impression that good music should convey the atmosphere intended by the lyrics. Oh what sweet joy this album was for me.
But if you look at the history of Bal-Sagoth, there was at first this promising upstart death-black metal band, which carved out their own genre on the next album, and delivered a master-piece. Battle Magic however, isn't quite that. It's good, I mean I really love this album. But there's this underlieing sort of happy vibe. There a lot of energy in the music, but maybe this album is somehow too triumphant. Of special note is 'Blood slakes the sand at the Circus Maximus'. Never mind the regretfull historical error; this is a brilliant song. If you play this song to someone else however, he'll possibly say "This sounds like circus-music", and you know what? That's not that strange a reaction. If you however open up the booklet, and flick through the pages(!) to this song, you'll see that it's an entire epos, even though during the song only 6 or so lines are said. Now listening to the song, you can actually read along the text while the music plays, and depending on reading spead, the music changes to fit the text while you read! When I first discovered this, I creamed my pants. Of course, you might call me a fanboy, but this illustrates: Bal-Sagoth are a niche-band, but there is a reason it's fans get/got so excited about Bal-Sagoth (besides having the longest songtitles ever).
Not quite the same experience as Starfire Burning was, but man, it's still all good, even though the term cheese does pop up slightly with this album (cover-art for example). Guitars could be a bit stronger in the mix though..but in the end, it's still something I can love.
Bal-Sagoth! Everyone who is interested in fantastic metal should know about this band, and specially about this album. Why? So far, it's their best record (and if I'm correct, it's the most popular too). Don't worry, peasants, I will tell you why it's their best record, in my own humble opinion. The lyrics are excellent, and the music suits it well. The world where the action is happening is mysterious but also, strangely familiar. Some of the songs (which are actually stories) are talking of well-known characters of our History.
Still, there's some works to be done. No, I don't want to receive your rotten vegetables (which is all you got, ha!), peasants, but you know, the band isn't perfect.
Let's talk about the lyrics and the music of Battle Magic. The lyrics, as I told before, are about historical figures of the Antiquity, such as Boudicca (Boadicea for those who prefers Latin), and also about the world of Byron, the singer of Bal-Sagoth. We can see that Byron has plenty of imagination, because the description he gave can make us see the battle before our eyes. All you need is your weapon of choice, good armour, a helmet, and damn good reflexes (and if you like, a strong faith in a Celtic god, like Cerunnos) to fight the invaders. I swear! You will want to fight for the British crown! Okay, maybe not the British crown, but for something you believe in!
The music is good, generally. I don't like much keyboards, but they're not annoying in Battle Magic. The music is able to send us in the good atmosphere most of the time. However, I've begged for more, and unfortunately, my prayers haven't been heard. In other words, I would have preferred their music with more speed and heaviness in some moments. Still, a song is (in my opinion) perfect in the album: When rides the Scion of the Storms. The speed and heaviness are correct. The lyrics are pretty nifty (It talks about a man (British, probably) who is always raising from the dead after being killed), and the vocals are well done. What can I ask more? More songs like that.
So what about the vocals? Byron is a damn good singer, in my opinion. He got a clear and dark voice when talking smoothly, and his "harsh" voice is shrieking, actually. The songs are well balanced between the two voices.
So, what's wrong with the album? Well, I'm not a big fan of keyboards. I prefer a solo of drums than a solo of keyboards. What does that mean? Bal-Sagoth is doing "war" metal, according to a lot of people. Their songs on Battle Magic are mostly description of epic battles. If you do the math: War + battles = violence, you will agree that aggressiveness is the point to improve on this album. And what do you need to show violence in a song? Drums and electrical guitars!
And no, the word "fuck" isn't needed to make a violent song.
In conclusion, Battle Magic is a pretty good album. In my opinion, it's the best album of Bal-Sagoth so far. Buy it if you want to feel like a warrior killing invaders of your motherland (specially for British fans who want to fight with Bouddica). Don't buy it if you want something like Rhapsody, because it's not the same thing at all.