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It's now been seven years since I first heard Falconer's 2001 debut album; one of the albums that made me a metalhead in the first place. Falconer will always hold a special place in my heart, so this review might come off as slightly biased, but even with the strong metal offerings from every direction last year, I can't think of any other 2011 album that is better than this gleaming gem of honest, straight-from-the-heart power folk.
As far as the music itself, it sounds like there's a good bit more grit on the production and the instruments when it slides to the metal side of things, but really mellows when the slider goes back to folk. The pacing and flow of the songs is impeccable, drawing us in with its well-rounded peaks and valleys. Also, I've contended from the start that Stefan Weinerhall has the same mutant power that Green Day's Billie Joe Armstrong has; the power to compose nothing but hooks on the guitar. Seldom is a dull moment in the guitar tracks, their fast yet technically proficient riffs and solos keeping the energy level high to compliment the kickin' drum tracks, and the slow, acoustic parts paired with classical instruments mellow the tone out and keep things fresh before the next burst of power.
However, the most striking feature of this album is the fact that all the lyrics are in Swedish. Falconer have dabbled with occasional songs in their native tongue on previous releases, but this time they're sticking far closer to their homeland, which is actually making the album feel much more personal and heartfelt than anything they've done before. Even though I have to rely on lyric translations to understand them, it really feels like they're tapping into something they relate to, compared to historical fiction rock operas or more standard fantastical metal fare. This album was not intended for us foreigners; this one's dedicated to their Swedish brothers and sisters. But that's quite alright, as we're all more than able able to enjoy it. I also intently listened to the English-translated bonus tracks in case the language gap was clouding my judgement here, but the songs still felt like they carried the same momentous emotional weight.
Ever since day one, Falconer seemed to really get the idea of folk metal. Folk music, lesser-known folk especially, is more often than not fairly dark and sad fare, and melding these dour concepts with metal instruments gives musicians the chance to really punch that point home, to be taken seriously by both folk enthusiasts and metalheads. And while I was hooked from the first album, I don't think any of their previous albums could conceivably reach across the room to appeal to both sides. I think Armod definitely has that potential.
I've already paid full price for this album, but I'd gladly pay again...hell, I'd pay double...if an English version of this album were put out there, instead of the few bonus tracks I've scrounged up. With that said, this is still far and away my favorite album of 2011, and the current benchmark for both the band itself and for folk metal in general. This soul-bearing bombshell of integrity and power blows away all the other gimmicky, elves-and-trees metal bands, leaving their forests in smoky ruin. Everyone else has a lot of catching up to do.
I should probably preface this review by saying that Falconer is perhaps one of my three favourite metal bands of all time. From the first time I put on Grime vs. Grandeur and found my ears immersed in the deep, satisfying, crunchy bass riffing and the simple and accessible (if somewhat unorthodox) chord structures which are Falconer’s trademark, it felt like greeting an old friend. Though many fans of Falconer like to discount the Kris Göbel years as a needless aberrance from Falconer’s folksy, quasi-progressive style, I’ve actually felt that these basic, even conservative power-metallic conventions taken largely from classic heavy metal (which they kept mostly consistent from the self-titled album and Chapters from a Vale Forlorn through Among Beggars and Thieves) were the source of the consistent excellence of their music, and that either Blad’s vocals or Göbel’s could be made to work well with it (and indeed, we have The Sceptre of Deception to prove it!). So here in Armod, we have basically the anti-Grime: a release where Falconer is breaking away from its prior style in various ways to the point where you wonder whether it is the same band, even… but which, oddly enough, works! More than that, it should (if there is any justice in the universe) manage to elevate Falconer to a well-deserved place amongst the metal greats.
This Janus-faced album is at once folksier and more progressive, and at the same time more extreme, than anything which they’ve released prior to this (as Falconer, anyway… but I’ll get back to that). Armod has extensive acoustic, violin and flute passages which mirror very heavily Weinerhall’s self-professed Jethro Tull fandom (‘O, Tysta Ensamhet’, ‘Grimasch om Morgonen’, the intro to ‘Fru Silfver’), and then some absolutely brutal, breakneck blast beat-heavy drumming and tremolos (on ‘Griftefrid’ particularly) which smack much more of Weinerhall’s and Larsson’s previous work in Mithotyn. And then again, there are tracks which sound like nothing else so much as Unity-era Rage or their fellow Swedes Tad Morose (take a listen to Linhardt’s absolutely inspired thrashy bass riffing which opens up ‘Svarta Änkan’, for example, or the driving, grind-you-down beats of ‘Grimborg’, ‘Herr Peder och Hans Syster’ or even ‘Eklundapolskan’). The result is a deep, serious power metal album which busts several moulds wide open at once.
Oddly enough, on past albums where it was Weinerhall and Larsson who had the task of keeping things grounded for the listener, here that task falls squarely on Blad’s shoulders. ‘Griftefrid’, an incredibly ambitious track which attempts to find a synthesis between the blackened folk metal of In the Sign of the Ravens with the melodic, progressive bent of Among Beggars and Thieves, finds itself ultimately relying on the cornerstone of Mathias Blad’s masterful vocals (completely clean throughout, though aided by some effects on the choruses to give it an eerier, ‘blacker’ tinge) to keep it all together. Throwbacks to the age of Mithotyn are littered all throughout this album, actually: though a little less extreme than ‘Griftefrid’, a few of the chord progressions and drumming on ‘Vid Rosornas Grav’ and ‘Fru Silfver’ also manage to evoke King of the Distant Forest and In the Sign of the Ravens (particularly ‘Stories Carved in Stone’), and of course the backing vocals on this track (as on ‘Svarta Änkan’, ‘Dimmornas Drottning’ and ‘Herr Peder och Hans Syster’) are provided by Mathias Blad’s sister, Heléne (who was also a member of Mithotyn). Consider this album, then, the final synthesis, the logical result of the direction they took with Among Beggars and Thieves: the album signifying what Falconer should always have striven for – a return to the distant forest.
The folksier strands, prominent as they are, are worth a mention as well. Not only do the lyrical structures (all in Swedish; I had to rely on the translations) evoke a once-upon-a-time storytelling mode with a typically Scandinavian bittersweet melancholy even on the more powerful tracks, but the music manages more often than not to fit its mode, by turns mournful, wrathful, triumphant – unabashedly (as noted above) using acoustic instrumentation, fiddle and flute. Even the instrumental pieces, ‘Eklundapolskan’ and ‘Gammal Fäbodpsalm’ (pipe organ!), have an emotional, ‘narrative’ configuration in spite of not having any lyrics.
This album’s production is slightly grainier than on their previous releases (with mixing that favours the drums rather than the guitars), and I can understand why they did that. Not only does it not need to be as squeaky-clean as Chapters of a Vale Forlorn or Grime vs. Grandeur, it is actually the better served for not being so. This is not your standard power metal release, nor is it an overproduced, overdubbed At the Edge of Time. This is folk metal well near its edgiest; Falconer decided not to play it safe with this one, and we Falconer fans are absolutely the better for it!
20 / 20
Music with temerity and heart is hard to come by in these days of drive-thru trends and genres. No amount of AutoTune or studio gimmicks can produce a sensation of playing music for the fun of it, and all this youth-based, post-2005 nonsense possesses nothing within the hopes of Roadrunner-borne careers. And it’s with that in mind that we old timey, CD buying, patches-on-denim wearing REAL music folks should pay tribute to every god under the sun for styles like power metal, where even the second-tier wannabes put more in their performance and composition than your average Joe Emocore could ever hope to achieve.
I’d been ticking back and forth within the power metal world for the past few months, reminded of the style’s ability to awaken my own personal creative juices, and such an endeavor brought me to Falconer’s latest. So let’s see what they’re up to…
Now granted, I’d only known Falconer through word of mouth and a few milquetoast reviews, but I figured the time would come for me to see if they were as bad as they were made out to be. Plus, the seeming combination of power and folk metal seemed a little too appealing to pass up on. And while the end result of this crossbreeding isn’t as head-caving as I’m sure the band would like, it nevertheless got under my skin and kept my attention focused throughout each successive track. The folk melodies this time around seem more at the forefront, helpfully giving the album a naturalist feel on par with much of Vintersorg’s early work, just with MUCH better production. Said production is very clean and crisp, giving every instrument enough elbow room to be as effective as possible to send those tingling melodies and powerful riffs aflutter from speaker to speaker.
However, there isn’t really a sensation of raising one’s fist in cheesy triumph; this is power metal demanding to be taken seriously, quickly shifting from extreme guitars, potent harmonic leads and raging drums to soft, mesmerizing strings, stirring singing and straight-from-the-woods acoustic melodies, projecting a grand combination of serenity and ripping darkness. This works quite well when the band is on, and while doing so happens more often than not, there are moments where Falconer can’t help but sound a little confused and cluttered, as if they almost threw in a few extra impromptu moments in that don’t really fit the overall arrangements. Thankfully, this doesn’t happen very often, though when it does, I can’t help but take notice and mark a few points off my personal scorecard, but even then, the strong harmonies and immense songwriting heard on “Griftefrid”, “Vid Rosornas Grav” and “Fru Silfver” make up for what few shortcomings are present.
So in the end, I’m sorry I hadn’t gotten into the Falconer way of life sooner as their fusion of folk and power make for a nice, tasty combo meal. But then, musical preferences change and evolve over time, and I suppose that back many a year I wouldn’t’ve been mentally and emotionally able to partake in and enjoy their works. But better late than never, so horns up.
Falconer have already cemented themselves as one of the best power metal bands, if not the best, to come out of Sweden. If you've ever looked into the history of Falconer, you've probably also found band leader Stefan Weinerhall's previous band, Mithotyn. Mithotyn was heavily influenced by Viking Metal and Folk Metal and they put out some exceptional albums underneath the banner of those genres. When Stefan started up Falconer, a lot of that sound was morphed into the new band's riffing, but was nowhere near the forefront of the instrumentation.
With all that said, the new Falconer album, Armod, is a step back toward Stefan's days in Mithotyn, while still retaining the values that make the band Falconer. There is a much heavier folk influence to the music, similar to the track or two per album up to this point that have been sung in Swedish and incorporated more folk elements. If you're a fan of previous songs like Himmel Så Trind or Vargaskall, then there will be plentiful things about this album you'll enjoy.
However, not all things are folk-like when listening to Armod. Track 3, Griftefrid, features prolonged segments of blast beats, which Falconer have never used before up to this point. It's shocking to hear on first listen, but brings a new sound to the band that's surprisingly not out of place (Mithotyn had also used blast beats). Another new sound from the band comes on the seventh track, Herr Peder Och Hans Syster. This is the longest of the album, featuring a very old-school Viking Metal riffing style and a slow, trudging pace akin to Enslaved's now-classic song, Havenless. Again, this sound is new to Falconer, but not altogether outside of the band's ability and ends up being one of the strongest tracks of the album.
The vocals are exceptional from Mathias Blad, as usual. Even though all of the songs are sung in Swedish, you can hear great emotional impact to how different lines are sung and certain syllables enunciated differently. The overall effect is beautiful and fits perfectly with the sound of the album in general. I find the same kind of transfixing sound while listening to the very operatic tonality of Till Lindemann, from Rammstein. You don't know the words, but the way they are sung is so interesting that you can't help but love it.
Overall, I'd say this is one of Falconer's strongest efforts to date. It may not always be the power metal you've come to expect from them, but the package is full of great songs that will have you headbanging and playing air-guitar despite the change in pace. You will be hard-pressed to find a better folk metal release this year.
My only big gripe with this album are the bonus tracks. All four of them are simply songs from the album, repeated with English lyrics. Not only do I feel a little cheated, but the English vocals do not fit with the music at all. It's obvious that these songs were meant to be sung in their native language, so English does not sound right after you've heard the way they are sung in Swedish. I'm not basing my score on this, since it is bonus material, but it is definitely something to think about before purchasing a more expensive copy of the album for these four tracks.
Since I first got into power metal, Falconer has been a major player in my tastes, and remains one of my very favorite artists. Heck, I remember mopping floors to such epic backgrounds as “Upon The Grave Of Guilt” and “Mindtraveller”. I've now been following them diligently since the release of “Northwind”, and have been consistently pleased with their efforts since. After hearing about the direction that “Armod” would be taking, I pondered for the longest time about just what this new work would sound like, and I'd heard a number of rumors, including being entirely in Swedish, being less of a “metal” album, and relying far more on folk instrumentation. Well, it turns out that the first of these, other than the bonus tracks, is entirely accurate. However, while the vocals are 100% Swedish, this is definitely still a metal album, but it is definitely not your average Falconer album. While Falconer has long specialized in their special crafting of a bridge spanning power and folk metal, on “Armod” this bridge descends decidedly further within the borders of folk territory, tending more often to leave power metal behind. Much of the time, it almost feels like Mathias Blad is singing with a different backing band, but little reminders pop up now and again that this is indeed the same group of 12-year metal veterans.
So what's changed, and what separates “Armod” from thundering releases like “Chapters From A Vale Forlorn” and “Among Beggars And Thieves?” Well, it's still hard, that's for sure, but in general the compositions here are a bit less melodic in the traditionally western-accepted sense of the word. The guitar lines have more of a primal savagery to them in places, rather than the rough-edged, rustic charisma that listeners have come to know. The opening riff of “Svarta Änkan” (“Black Widow”) exemplifies the change in tonality and guitar riffing, as does the brutal instrumental introduction to “Griftefrid” (Blastbeats in Falconer? Now I've heard it all!). There are some songs where the classic vibe of the band is present (“Rosornas Grav”- “By The Rose's Grave”), but even here the influence of different elements, be they female backing vocals, alternate instrumentation, or a more melancholy tone, is evident.
For some, I would say that Falconer, on this album especially, can be compared to the mighty Týr (most especially in the case of the latter's most recent release). The bands have decidedly different sounds, but the similarity in meshing styles is clear. To Falconer's credit, they have a much more refined feel going, and Mathias Blad is, as always, a vocalist of the highest caliber. Few can equal his grace, and his smooth baritone has frequently been mentioned in the same breath with greats like Roy Khan in terms of pure talent. With “Armod” being sung in Swedish, Blad's vocals sound a bit more harsh and cold to native English-speaking ears, but the experience is very much the same.
In some ways, “Armod” is as distinctive as Falconer's previous work, and fans of the band will be able to recognize it immediately in ways other than Blad's voice. However, the template is so different that it will most undoubtedly split opinions- power metal fans will probably care for it less, while it will attract more attention from those predisposed to folk and extreme metal. Remember while you listen that the band was very open about what they wanted to do with “Armod” from the beginning, and that it was a very personal album that the band self-admittedly realized wouldn't appeal to their regular audience. So I accept this with good grace, and despite its differences it is no mediocre metal album, but still a competent and well-executed recording with a great deal of polish. I anticipate this will continue to grow on me.
Originally written for www.blackwindmetal.blogspot.com/
Falconer's previous album Among Beggars and Thieves was one of the most criminally unsung releases of 2008, a fantastic proof of concept that affirms all of the band's work to that point: the member changes, the songwriting, the struggle for identity. Finally, there was a folksy power metal band worth hearing, and I'd rank that release well above anything that its constituents had previously involved themselves in (including anything in Mithotyn catalog). Seeing that the band has held onto the same lineup and cover art aesthetic for the followup and 7th full-length Armod, I have been sitting in some anticipation to hear it, and now that I have, I can attest to some measure of satisfaction, even if this is not quite a timeless equal to its predecessor.
There are mild differences here, like the decision to place more of the lyrics directly in Swedish tongue, but otherwise its got the same careful balance of folkish elements with surging melodic power metal, gleaming leads and most importantly, Matthias Blad's clean and versatile pipes. Unlike many of their peers, Falconer's Jimmy Hedlund and Stefan Weinerhall pride themselves on notably complex song structures, not necessarily in terms of each individual riff, but the way the patterns fall together to create narrative variation, and the integration of the driving pagan black influence of Weinerhall's previous outlet Mithotyn. Tracks like "Griftefrid" and "Svarta Änka" explode in their execution, dire and cautionary streaks of notation that complement the use of choral or female backing vocals, without being disgustingly predictable like a lot of other frivolous folk metallers.
Speaking of the 'other F' word, there are quite a few tracks here that emphasize this element, and this alone, and though I often find myself yawning at the thought, Falconer succeeds in holding the interest through "Grimasch om morgonen" or the intro to "O, Tysta Ensamhet", each with somber fiddle affixed to the acoustic guitars. To be truthful, though, the metallic tracks do blow these entirely out of the water, and there a handful hidden in the depths here that are equivalent to much of the prior album: like the sailing and wailing, spacious "Grimborg" or the majestic plot of "Fru Silfver". There are some English translations included as bonus cuts, for "Black Widow (Svarta Änka)", "By the Rose's Grave (Rosornas Grav)" and "Grimborg", but I rather prefer to hear the material in Swedish, it feels more authentic, like watching a non-English foreign film with the proper subtitles.
Armod is certainly an enriched, professional experience with top of the line studio standards and musicianship, and you're very unlikely to hear anything else much like it. The one band that comes close is the Faroe Islands' Týr, but Blad's vocals are a little more natural and down to Earth and the Falconer music is busier. The riffs and vocal hooks here are never quite so heart stealing and distinct as the last album, but it's a solid enough offering that should quench the thirst of those starved for more of the same. Perhaps its a little closer in quality to Northwind than Amongst Beggars and Thieves, but I never felt burned or letdown in the slightest, just that a good handful of the chorus parts didn't cling to my lobes with the same, regal resin.