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It's a little early in the year to start tossing around phrases like "album of the year", but fuck it, this is it. It's really hard to believe how far Lord Wind has come from its beginning as an unassuming Graveland side project, but this album's greatness shouldn't surprise anyone who listened to "Atlantean Monument" and saw where Darken was going. Although Lord Wind have existed since 1996, the early works lacked power and depth, and felt almost robotic at times. It wasn't until 2006 that Darken began to reveal Lord Wind's true artistic potential. In retrospect, works like "Heralds of Fight" and "Rites of the Valkyries" were simply the growing pains of an artist in the process of finding his voice. With "Ales Stenar", Darken has not only surpassed the mighty "Atlantean Monument", but eclipsed all his previous work with Graveland as well(with the possible exception of "Thousand Swords").
Looking back on the career of one of the unquestioned creative leaders of the black metal scene, it's interesting to reflect on the direction Darken went. After the initial explosion of second-wave black metal died down, the genre split in many different directions. Although most bands chose the wrong path(pseudo-symphonic Emperor ripoffs, "return to the roots" Celtic Frost ripoffs, avantgarde nonsense, the dreaded "suicidal black metal"), and their careers ended in self-parody, there were a few (such as Darken) who took black metal into a new direction which prolonged its artistic viability. Ironically, this typically meant removing the metal from black metal and trying to find more effective ways to channel the same dark energy. Ildjarn, Burzum, Beherit, Graveland, Summoning and others gave us a new vision of black metal atmosphere by incorporating elements from traditional folk music, Dead Can Dance, ambient, and classical into their sound - and it worked. All the guitar distortion, blastbeats and rasped vocals were just a means to an end, not the end itself - and that end is exactly what Lord Wind has achieved with "Ales Stenar". It's like the "Hvis Lyset Tar Oss" of black metal's legitimate third wave.
Musically, the album picks up where "Atlantean Monument" left off. The main stylistic improvements are the addition of a live violinist and more organic-sounding(while still programmed) percussion. Influences from artists like Dead Can Dance, Loreena McKennit, and Basil Pouledoris("Conan" soundtrack composer) blend seamlessly together into a masterful work. Gone are the days when Lord Wind could just be described as "an album of Graveland intro tracks"; it's obvious that Darken has put a lot of thought into making this work function as a cohesive whole. The main improvement in songwriting is that the songs sound "leaner" - every second of every song captures the listener's attention and builds toward the next moment. Unlike his early works, none of the listener's time is wasted on half-formed ideas and subar melodic ideas. This is the rare album where you'll never skip a track or find yourself waiting for a song to end - at the album's peak, on tracks like "Invisible Door to Oblivion" and "El Cid", you'll want to go back and listen to the song over again, but the promise of future glories on the next track will keep you listening. Recurring themes build throughout the course of the song, and are occasionally re-introduced in a more stripped down form, to great effect.
The hardest thing about this album is trying to find an existing genre tag to describe it - Neoclassical? Folk? Experimental? All those elements are found here, yet none of these words accurately describe it. This is one of the rare moments in music where a completely new style has been introduced and nothing existing can accurately describe it. I guess this makes my whole attempt at a review pointless, but if nothing else I hope I've at least convinced you to give this album a good listen and see what it's really about. If you're going to go the cheap Youtube route, "Invisible Door to Oblivion" is probably the most immediate piece on the album, but I highly suggest listening to the album as a whole for maximum effect.
Once again, this is the best album I've heard in a LONG time. Just listen to it.