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Ambient music of any kind is not an area I've paid much attention to, for no better reason than the simple fact that I prefer the immediate thrill and satisfaction of something more structured when it comes to hectic, day-to-day life. Rarely in my free time do I consider listening to mellow, hour long (or more) affairs of instrumental music just for personal enjoyment, and that's a truth I've become disappointed in myself about as of late. Well, I'm delighted to say that Lord Wind's new effort Ales Stenar might just be my spiritual awakening to this sprawling and intoxicating genre of cerebral tones.
To be fair, however, Lord Wind isn't your typical ambient soundscape creator, and it's certainly not even close to the metal realm; no intensity or distortion is at play here. Ales Stenar is simply comprised of ten medieval marches through a calm and inviting setting, with no modern interference or electronic elements to be found. The contents could be a video game or film's soundtrack, and I mean that in the best way possible. Imagine the most epic scene in your favorite movie; that's where this music belongs. It conjures up images of ancient glories. Vikings marching in blizzards, Scandinavian gods ascending the skies, Egyptians treading across wide expanses of burning sand, etc. You'll close your eyes and see it all under the influence of Lord Wind.
Ales Stenar is a very cohesive, consistent effort, however, so don't expect much variety in terms of pacing or overall sound here. Most of the songs, which are just about equally concise in length, progress in congruent fashion. The formula? Take one simple, rich melody and repeat it in slightly varying ways as faint female voices chant above the caressing cello and violin and slow tribal drums beat below. What may sound like a repetitive, overly bare sound actually creates quite an intoxicating and overwhelming musical embrace, at least for me, anyway. Not one minute after hitting play (and I've pressed play a lot) do I find myself unconsciously swaying back and forth, transfixed by the rhythmic push and pull of these ancient concoctions.
There's just this irresistible atmosphere of royal joy and wonder that never fades for the 58 regal minutes in question. I might have liked to see a more harrowing, tear-jerking moment or two among all the subtle emotional highs, but I can't reasonably fault Ales Stenar for what it is. I'm continually surprised by how functional and relistenable this album is. Doing homework? Check. Reading? Check. Going to bed? Let's just say that if I'm listening to this during the nighttime hours, I always fall asleep with a smile on my face and bright dreams behind my tired eyes. Lord Wind is a vision many will understandably find unappealing and boring (and it should absolutely not be confused with metal in any way), but those looking for an arresting escape from the modern day definitely need to look into this shiny, medieval gem. A treasure as good as gold.
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.