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When delving into the growing union of national pride and metal music, many of the resulting band monikers are a bit unexpected, arguably due to the band falling into a sense of lyrical nationalism after a brief stint as either a traditionally oriented black metal band or just generally dabbling with folksy/Viking affairs musically. Paganland are an exception that embody the intended message right in their name, asserting a bold pride in the place of their birth and the unique lore associated with it. Along for the ride is a sound that is equally as predictable, slanted a bit more towards the side of accessibility that tends to go with the folk-infused qualities of pagan metal, while still exhibiting at least some semblance of the style's more extreme roots.
The first inclination that comes with a band from Ukraine while sporting the black metal style with a strong helping of nationalism is that of Nokturnal Mortum, but closer examination reveals something that is a bit closer to the likes of Suidakra and Finsterforst. Granted, Paganland tends a bit more towards a traditional metal arrangement with greater emphasis on guitar and bass work, while atmospheric elements and occasional melodic interludes come from a keyboard rather than a mishmash of period instruments. But when considering the general melodic contour of this album as a whole, particularly the symmetrical and extremely consonant mixture of notes and generally speed/thrash oriented drumming, this is a bit closer to what Germany has been doing within the folk metal realm.
This is an album that is very easy to get into and even sing along with, owing to a very studious eye to detail insofar as sound and arrangement goes. Frequent usage of natural sounds such as spring water flowing and wind howling establish the intended setting, and right from the intro song "Wheel Of Eternity" (I'm not fluent in any slavic language so I"m sticking to the English translations) it's clear that atmosphere plays an intrical part in this whole album, though one should also note the free flowing and heavy emphasized bass part, which is a bit unique when compared with other bands in this style and is a key player in this band's sound throughout the album. There is also the employment of a child singing a haunting folk tune on "Podolyanka" that sets the stage for an intricate smattering of folksy melodies and blasting metallic goodness.
It should be noted that while the first inclination is to liken this band to a number of common German purveyors, the one area where they tend to differ from the lot is the mixture of clean to shouted vocal work. Vocalist Volodymyr largely sticks to a thick, husky baritone croon that is a bit cleaner cut than Jari Mäenpää, but otherwise comparable in terms of quality and range. His dirtier vocal work is definitely along similar lines to former Equilibrium screamer Helge Stang and a number of familiar characters from the Finnish scene, but it is used sparingly and largely for dramatic effect. There is scarcely a reference to any extreme elements of the black metal to be found on "Chornohora", the songs towering epic middle song and highlight of the whole listen, not to mention one that conjures up occasional memories of mid-80s Iron Maiden and even the soundtrack to "Last Of The Mohicans" at times.
It might seem a bit odd that a band that has been in existence for the better part of 16 years has just now gotten around to putting out a full LP, but the end product definitely speaks to a band that made sure everything is in its proper place. It's not quite up to the same caliber as what Suidakra has been pulling off since leaving their brief stint as a Gothenburg wannabe, but it's pretty close. Anyone who wants to hear some solid, folksy metal goodness without all the accordion and quirky pluck-string period instruments will find an album that is worth having, not to mention one that tops the unfortunately mediocre effort that Ensiferum put out last year.
Love and dedication can be an extremely useful catalyst when applied to the right mediums. Pouring one's entire heart into a project usually yields much better results than just going through the motions. There will be always be things to take into account, such as talent and the like, but that's a discussion for another day. Paganland, a Ukrainian act with a slightly rocky history, heralds their first full length, “Wind of Freedom” as the collective members' tribute to their native land, language, legends and history.
Ukrainian isn't even close to my native language, but I can feel the Slavic pride dripping from each vocal line, even if I only have a vague sense of what the songs are about. And before you start, this is not an NS band, it's just a band who is very much proud of their heritage, in a non-racist, non-supremacist type way. The Slavic sounding keyboard passages and decidedly Eastern European feel of this album really help to show the band connected with these elements as well.
Calling Paganland a “pagan black metal” band is very misleading. There are elements of black metal and pagan Metal, yes, but there are also folk, doom and traditional inspirations at play as well. Much like Russian act Butterfly Temple, these Ukrainian metallers seem to be at ease sorting through influences, while keeping a fairly consistent delivery that you can clearly say is their own. Take the vocals as an example. While most of the vocals are delivered in a gruff style that lies somewhere between a deep shout and a growl, there are exceptional clean lines in abundance. The clean lines sound very much like a Ukrainian version of Vintersorg: a clean mid-range tone, with smooth, high inflections. If you can imagine Vintersorg singing along to a Cossack dance, then you have a pretty good idea of what it sounds like. Volodymyr's ability to change from a growl to an epic clean passage on a dime is impressive.
The keyboards are very prominent on “Wind of Freedom”. I can't help but liken it to Dun Buk's keyboard lines on “Idu Na Wy!”, especially “Slava Ukraini”. The passages have a very Slavic feel to them, sounding like flute lines and orchestral strings. Even when things get extremely heavy, the keys are still plinking away in the background, keeping the link alive with their heritage. While the music (read: mainly the guitars and drums) have a distinctive Eastern European feel, the production is much cleaner and the use of prominent orchestration and keyboard passages, Paganland create a much more easily digestible chunk of Slavic metal.
Inside you'll find chunky distorted riffing played alongside inventive double kick patterns build into double bass runs with selective chord progressions, all the while the keyboards belt out Slavic-tinged melodies. The riffs are entertaining, but it's nothing that will redesign the wheel. The mid pace riffing and drumming provide an excellent backdrop to the Ukrainian melodies and storytelling. The band is at its best when the drums and guitars are chugging away with an airy melodic keyboard line filling in the blanks. The vocals are just some icing on the cake.
If you want to try out some so-called “Pagan Metal”, this would be a good place to start. By utilizing overarching keyboard melodies and recording the album in a proper studio (instead of a bathroom), Paganland has created one of the most digestible pagan metal albums in quite some time. While not the most inventive or original album, “Wind of Freedom” showcases the band's love for all things Slavic and Ukrainian, and it's a move that works quite well. This should sit well with fans of Butterfly Temple and Finsterforst.
Written for The Metal Observer: