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Haggard are most definitely a one-off band. There simply couldn't be another 20-piece band out there which combines a traditional metal lineup with most of a small orchestra and actually gets away with the result. Not only does Haggard get away with the result, they actually make seriously good music out of what could so easily have been a trainwreck.
"Awaking the Centuries" is their second album in this form and probably a more fully-realised concept album than "And Thou Shalt Trust...The Seer", which came before it. Yes, I said "concept album", so obviously if that isn't your thing, look away now.
The plot, as nearly as I can work it all out, is that Nostradamus is making his prophecies and being tormented by what he sees at roughly the same time as the Black Death is sweeping Europe. It's a shame that the plot isn't slightly clearer, since there are several short interludes - in everything from Latin to archaic German - which try to advance it. There's even some narration in the middle of one of the songs, which I guess obviates the need for yet another interlude getting in the way.
So let's talk about the tracks first. They're all long - hovering around the 9-minute mark at most - which is largely what we've come to expect from the band. They're performed in a mixture of English and German and have a definite progressive feel to them, with orchestral breaks taking the part of the guitar solos we might expect in a more "traditional" band. Vocally, there's the mixture of operatic soprano vocals and surprisingly hoarse grunts. Yes, I definitely mean "hoarse". Asis Nasseri sounds as though he's got laryngitis at some points of this album, which makes his voice unique among all the grunters I'm aware of, but is definitely not for everyone.
The main focus of the album is the title track, a mini-epic in itself. In plot terms, this is the point at which Nostradamus is starting to see into the future, and we actually hear some of his predictions near the end of the track. This is the kind of song which, after listening to it, you'll know without a doubt whether you're going to like Haggard. If it sounds like a disaster, there's no way anything else this band records will sound better. If, on the other hand, you're like me and singing along with Asis as he wheezes "Take my hand/Forgotten in the promised land/Death in all the centuries is what I left behind", then chances are you'll be committing unspeakable acts to get tickets if the band ever tours nearby.
As an interesting point, incidentally, the "Hister" mentioned in the predictions is generally taken as being the classical name for the Lower Danube River, rather than a slight misrendering of a certain infamous German politician of the last century. Read into that what you will.
And so we come to the interludes. I know they're useful for the storyline, and you can't have a concept album without bad acting and enigmatic dialogue, but the majority of these really are a waste of space. The street scene in which the man dies of the plague and then someone races off to tell the local priest is atmospheric, but lasts far too long, as well as featuring gratuitous Latin. "Statement zur Lage der Musica", on the other hand, serves no obvious purpose whatsoever. It's simply a monologue - in archaic German, which is not spoken or sung elsewhere on the album (the earlier dialogue is in contemporary German) - about the dangers of having drums in music at the time. At best, I guess you can argue that this was one of the reasons advanced for the plague happening, but it's tenuous at best.
All up, this is going to be a polarising album for anyone who listens to it. Personally, I can overlook the silly interludes - just - and focus on the incredible musicianship being displayed and the way that the concept hasn't entirely got in the way of a strong album. Thousands of others, of course, will find themselves nodding off to sleep or trying to get a refund.
Haggard follows up their first album, on which the music certainly lived up to the band name, with a much more dynamic, remarkably much better record. Forty years after Nostradamus came to the world, ending up delivering one of his darkest prophecies: “De La Morte Noire”, the Black Death strikes mankind. Believed, foretold, but who’d suspect it to come already?
Musically there’s no reason to be bored… Haggard masters their blackish heavy metal with grunted vocals, their orchestral string- and piano-laden classical music as well as everything in between. The difference when compared to And Thou Shalt Trust… The Seer is that they do use the whole array, changing style every now and then – providing some dynamics when mixing two of the most majestic music genres ever, instead of playing a minute of half-assed metal and then a minute of classical music. Cut shorter, the difference when compared to And Thou Shalt Trust… The Seer is that Awaking the Centuries is way better.
There are spoken parts here, a fact, which I tend to loathe. Here, though, they turn out much better than they normally do, because of their somewhat theatrical approach. Well not in the case of Statement zur Lage der Musica, which is the most stupid track Haggard’s ever done. Fortunately it’s one of the shorter interludes, which otherwise tend to be instrumental piano-laden tunes. When, as they usually are, being followed by intros based on the same instrument, it annoys me a little bit. They could be better woven into the musical picture as a whole, but it’s no big deal.
Another fact is that dynamic music is good music. Switching vocalists and type of vocals – from the dominant male grunts, the cleaner male vocals and the female ones, bordering to operatic qualities, that gives you dynamics. Another way to do that is of course tempo switches, but Haggard’s key to success here is having so many instruments available that they can just simply change the orchestration every now and then. Classical string instruments have always sounded well – combined with distorted guitars and piano (an instrument which is used a whole lot on this album), it sounds very well here.
Awaking the Centuries is done in a unique and original fashion, and succeeds in being very special – and generally really good. The downfalls do however exist, and they include the Rachmaninov: Choir and Statement zur Lage der Musica tracks, and some of the more boring parts within the songs. All in all, Haggard’s went from sucking to being good over the time of three years, which is impressive enough. Recommended to anyone who isn’t frightened by the prospect of mixing two such diverse genres.
If you like Heavy/Black Metal, and you Love orchestral/classical music, and you love fusion bands, then this is the Haggard album for you. This band/album has a unique black/heavy metal sound mixed with classical instruments. Its done well too, the band actually has many members playing classical instruments so it sounds great. Alot of bands just use keyboards for the classical parts of their songs, and it sounds rather cheap, but that is not the case here. Haggard with over 15 members has a wide array of band members playing all different types of classical instruments.
This particular album is equal parts classical and equal parts metal, so it may turn some fans away who aren't that into classical music. Their are some songs on this album that have no metal in them at all, while some are prodominatly metal, and while some have a equal mixture of the two. My personal favorite is the latter, respectivly. At times this album can get rather heavy with fast, heavy, thrashy/black metal guitars. This isn't the pure black metal sound like Old Emperor or Immortal...but black metal influenced by heavy metal. Its not like Cradle Of Filth "black" metal, the horrible shitty type, but a unique good type.
There are some great tracks on this record like Awakening the Centuries, The Final Victory, and In a Fullmoon Procession. The first of these is a long track with equal parts clean/death/black metal vocals, while the rest is classical instruments with and heavy quitar riffs, definalty the best song on the album. The Final Victory is great too, very powerful. Fullmoon procession is also great. There is nothing bad here on the album, whats also cool is there is a story on this album, but alot of it is in french. I speak french and can tell you the story is pretty cool too. I can't take any points off this album, there is nothing on it I do not enjoy. So if you like Neoclassical metal, then buy this album, you will no regret it.