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Graveland's Thousand Swords is definitely the most difficult album in the band's discography to evaluate. On one hand, it is Graveland’s most innovative and ground breaking recording. It is here that Rob Darken invents a whole new style of playing black metal by integrating folk stylings into the guitar playing. Other bands had integrated folk melodies, acoustic guitar and folk percussion, but as far as I know, Rob is the first to actually strum the guitar in a folk style while keeping the distortion on and the pitch razor sharp. Thousand Swords is also the coming out party for many of the epic themes that were hinted at on the prior songs like “Return of the Funeral Winds” and “Witches Holocaust.” However, the album suffers from very poor production, as well as a few questionable decisions on Rob’s part.
Let's get the real bad news over with. The mix is awful; the guitars are too far in the background and the percussion is a little too loud. The guitars lack force, crippling the metallic dimension of the sound. The keys also lack power. Rob has shifted away from the massive organ sounds of prior albums and toward lusher, choir and symphony sounds. However, without some sonic muscle, the synths fail to get their profound point across; you can see what Rob is trying to do and often it’s quite amazing, but it just isn’t quite clear enough.
On the positive side, the musicianship is brilliant and at times the composition is on par. The guitar playing is really something else. There aren’t really riffs on this album, but rather a series of roughly strummed folk melodies, making for an unusually boisterous aesthetic. Capricornus compliments the guitars with wild, uninhibited percussion that constantly pushes the band toward more and more frenzied paces. The synths are more diverse than previous albums, ranging from choirs to strings to some sort of primitive oboe. Some of the compositions are out of this world. The title track is one of the highlights of Graveland’s catalog. Polka melodies bounce about to lively percussion, creating a raucous atmosphere—it’s like pump-up music for a band of rowdy pagan soldiers prepping for battle. Then near the end of the song, the composition opens up to a series of infectious clean passages that dance about, seething with joy. For a band whose prior album was as evil as it gets, it’s amazing that Graveland were about to pull a complete 180 and compose such uplifting music! Another highlight is “Born for War,” which is just gorgeous. The melodies are so glorious and that one feels like they are flying through the Olympian heavens.
Despite the sometimes excellent songwriting, the poor production hangs over this album like a black cloud. Every guitar and keyboard passage feels like a solid, but overused blade: it can still make a nice cut, but it lacks some of the luster you would like it to have. Also, the album also contains a few lame ducks. In contrast to the excellent intros and outros on most Graveland albums, Thousand Swords has fairly dull bookends. These short, slightly atmospheric folk snippets just don’t set the stage or wrap up the story in the same way most of Rob’s ambient pieces do. Furthermore, there is the goofy ditty “Black Metal War.” It’s totally out of place on an album full of longer, more complex arrangements—not to mention it’s not a very well thought out song.
There are a small number of albums in each genre that are essential even though they are not great. These are albums that managed to have a big impact on the development of the genre and contain elements of brilliance, but nonetheless are not consistent enough to be considered true masterpieces. Thousand Swords is one such album. The innovations in guitar playing and composition make this album essential listening for anyone interested in the folksier side of black metal. However, in itself, this album definitely shows Graveland trying out a style that is still a work in progress. Fortunately, all these issues would be remedied on the phenomenal follow-up, Following the Voice of Blood.
(Originally written for http://deinos-logos.blogspot.com)