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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.