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I've listened to melodic death metal with heavy folk elements mixed into it before, but never anything like this. In some ways it's like taking Equilibrium and crossing them with Amon Amarth, which sounds a bit weird when read but in practice works very well. Of course it's not quite as simple as that, but you get the idea. Swap the theme of vikings for the Celts and you end up with Suidakra, who produce a very enjoyable album in Caledonia.
Melodeath is my favourite genre, mainly because of the melodic leads that make up most of the music, so with hybrids like these there is always a little concern as to whether the best bits will be washed out of the formula. With Suidakra that is most definitely not a problem, and actually the melodic death metal seems to come before the folk elements do. I'm glad about that, because with bands like Eluveitie where the folk elements are put first the music has a tendency to suffer a little in terms of being catchy and not just repeating itself over and over again. I'm all for hearing a set of bagpipes leading a band (and indeed they do find an occasional place here), but when that's the case right across the album and you hear them as often as I do (pretty much weekly) nothing sounds like it hasn't been done before.
One of the great things that has been done on Caledonia is the epic range of vocals the band uses. There are death metal growls, rough grunts, clean singing (which I have to say is very well done) and even chants. Most people I know like a good chant (and everyone absolutely must know the song 500 Miles), and having heard Germans trying to cover a song by The Proclaimers I had previously wished that nothing of the sort would happen again. Suidakra manage to do it pretty well though, and it's actually hard to believe that these guys are German rather than Scottish at times across this album.
There are several acoustic songs included across this album, and although that sounds off-putting they all fit in very well. I'd actually be tempted to say that Distant Call is the best song on Caledonia, but there are just too many good moments here to pick a favourite. I've heard acoustic songs done well before, but Suidakra really take things to another level in that area.
The drumming is interesting as well, not just generic stuff played on a constant loop but actually a lot of variation. That isn't something that you'll hear all that often from me, but this guy can actually play very well. The blast beats are present at times, but the cymbals aren't constantly crashing and the snare isn't being beaten like it deserves to die. Every piece of the kit is used as much as the next, which is certainly more entertaining than hearing a load of smashing in the background that serves no purpose.
The guitars are very varied too, more than many bands that play what is considered to be one hundred per cent melodeath. It's sad that that's the case with the world, but at least on this record things are done properly. They're heavy at the same time as well, which is a bonus. The use of keyboards and occasionally bagpipes also strengthen the melodies and it all blends together very well. I'm not sure throwing bagpipes into the middle of one of Amon Amarth's songs would work very well, but for some reason it works in Suidakra's music.
This is actually the first record that I've hear that I've given the same rating to as Arch Enemy's Wages of Sin, which I feel is possibly the greatest melodeath album of all-time. My albums aren't based entirely on score, but that is an accomplishment in itself as I'm very reluctant to give out a score that high. Caledonia though quite simply merits a score that high.
Like an oppressive frost, the winter of commonplace melodeath in “Command To Charge” had ravaged the pristine green lands where Suidakra once resided. For many a promising outfit to come out of the darkness of the mid 1990s black and death metal scenes, this sort of blizzard spells death for any hope of recovery, but thankfully the witch of C.S. Lewis’ Narnia series had a very short run with these German turned Celtic fanatics. With a blast of spring heat and a much needed return to form, a winner has been uncovered in “Caledonia”, the Latinized name given by the Roman Empire for Scotland, a land that they were never able to tame during their campaigns of expansion during the imperial era. And in similar fashion, Arkadius has broken the bonds of commercialized melodeath for something equally as accessible, yet much more intricate and worthy of the legacy established by “The Arcanum” and “Emprise To Avalon”.
The rebirth established here is underscored in the wildly different album art, depicting a woodland landscape heavily reminiscent of Elvenking’s first 2 albums, and the music follows suit. The only remnant of their previous flop that endures here is the Scottish pipes, which were the only good thing to be heard on said album. The processed guitar sound, the whinny Andres Fridén vocal worship, and the 5th wheel Robb Flynn wannabe singer have all been dropped and the older, folksy melodies and Celtic lore has returned with a vengeance. Acoustic passages are accented to a point that actually surpasses most of their previous endeavors, and the clean vocal sections, while still somewhat gritty and gang chorus oriented, fit in with the epic template suggested in the title of the album. But most important of all is that instead of a depressive tableau that has been done to death since long before “Command To Charge”, what emerges here is a character of music triumphant enough to put Ensiferum on notice.
The only weak spot that this album that it overcompensates slightly, perhaps the most forgivable mistake a band can make given the situation, but definitely a noticeable one here. “Highland Hills” is arguably the most accomplished and ambitious epic song that this band has put together, throwing forth a highlight intricate mixture of fast paced riffs, thudding mid-paced grooves, dense keyboard textures, and epic pipes to recapture the image of William Wallace standing atop a pile of felled English soldiers. But its placement at the very beginning of the album lets the proverbial cat out of the bag, and leaves the listener wanting to jump back and listen again before experiencing the rest of the album. Nevertheless, “A Blackened Shield”, “Evoke The Demon” and “The IXth Legion” do an excellent job of bringing the goods home in the Viking era Bathory meets Skyclad packaging that was commonplace for them 6 years ago, and “The Ember Deid (Part II)” brings in the typical, woeful acoustic ballad element something fierce.
This is roughly the same caliber as the often glossed over “Lays From Afar”, but with a crunchier, newer sound that is more in line with the larger sounding tendencies of the present folk scene. It’s still markedly mid-tempo in character, breaking into occasional blast sections, but largely maintaining the Manowar feel of the past. Those who were a bit disappointed with this band’s mid 2000s output should be pretty well placated by this, if not completely blown away by how quickly they recovered from what seems to have been a mere momentary misstep. It can be argued that the true greats are the ones that learn from their mistakes, and with a little luck, maybe Children Of Bodom, In Flames and Edguy might take note of this, but forgive me if I don’t hold my breath.
The widespread scorn heaped upon Suidakra regarding Command to Charge did a lot to set the stage going forward. While the aforementioned watershed effort featured a few truly awesome cuts like "Dead Man's Reel" and "Reap the Storm," a number of discursive departures from the well-entrenched roots of the band's long-standing genre mashup left many out in the cold. After taking into account the more straightforward melodic death exercise that was Signs for the Fallen, the grandeur of epics like The Arcanum and Emprise to Avalon were becoming but specks in the distance of the Scottish heather - and growing ever smaller.
To Antonik's credit, he shuffled his deck a bit for this one, ejecting Kupka and rotating Schoenen back into the lineup proper. What we have here is in essence the classic Suidakra roster, and this fact is undoubtedly reflected upon the music. "Highland Hills" wastes no time in proving the potency of this approach, covering a number of bases in its eight-plus minute run time and taking care to check all of the necessary hallmarks on its way. Certainly an atypical songwriting stance from these guys, but a number of more direct, streamlined cuts await deeper in the procession, like "Forth-Clyde" and "Evoke the Demon." Toss in three acoustic numbers courtesy of Schoenen, and it goes without argument that we are certainly looking at the framework for something grand here.
In my review for Command to Charge I stated that Caledonia was stylistically indebted to the two records that directly preceded it. The band hasn't attempted to force a revisionist coup and return to their earliest methodology, instead drawing from all of their post-The Arcanum tropes to meld something unique and memorable. As such, the leads aren't quite as soaring and sticky as on Emprise to Avalon, instead deferring to the chunky rhythm section and incredible bass tone to help fill in the atmospheric gaps and inject some quick vitriol when needed. Riewaldt's bass deserves a special mention on its own, absolutely dominating the mix at points and really giving Caledonia a parched, dessicated aural quality that while far from the warmer tones the band has traditionally sided with, is a great change of pace that was sadly dropped soon afterward. Check out the beginning of "Dawning Tempest," during which one almost forgets about how great the riff is underneath, what with the clangy, omnipresent bass slicing and clawing its way to the forefront. There are still some scant keyboards here and there like on "On Torrid Sand," and as usual Antonik makes use of very little regarding the synths, knowing when to interject in order to raise the proceedings to an even more stratospheric echelon.
This leaves some of the more experimental numbers to bring up the rear, and Schoenen is truly at his greatest here. As impressive as Tina Stabel may be, she can never fill the void left by his departure. "The IXth Legion" shows how powerful his cleaner tones are, and diversity is solidified with more affecting, emotional vocal performances like on "The Ember Deid (Part II)." His acoustic ditties are always well worth the listener's time, far from embodying the space-filler status often relegated to such. "Ramble" is one of the greatest acoustic numbers Suidakra has ever written (it runs through three distinct motifs, each better than the last), and serves as a well-needed breather and allows the troops to regroup for another attack. That attack is without a doubt the aforementioned "Dawning Tempest," and after the more half-and-half experimentation of "The Distant Call," Caledonia continues and never lets up in any form or fashion.
Truly a modern classic, and if I was to draft a "Top three Suidakra albums", this would fit seamlessly next to The Arcanum and Emprise to Avalon. Caledonia takes all of what makes modern Suidakra so great, and distills it into the finest of essences. Will this end up being Suidakra's final great album? I surely hope not, but I can't necessarily complain either.
Note: I am updating this review based on the fact that I was probably too quick to review before. I initially gave this album an 83, that is far too low for this album I now consider classic. Hence, I have re-written the review.
Time to go into "how do I not rave and gush about this" mode. At the time an 83 seemed like the right score, but I have never been far from this album since. And it's grown, and grown in appreciation. Every song on this album crushes skulls. Just classic.
Suidakra are considerably aggressive, yet melodic, balancing somber folk inspired parts, slightly blackened faster riffs and unconvential melodic death metal. Vocals ranging from harsh death/black vocals, to singing, to chants. They wrap all this into a tight, musically proficiant, well written package that any fan of metal could appreciate.
Where most of their lesser contemporaries have abandoned blast beats, Suidakra still throw them in at just the right times in the music. The drumming is quite varied, and colorful. Always complimenting the other instruments nicely. The generic melo death worthless drummers should take notes from this guy - rather than playing their same plodding triplet beats with the same old fills and no variety, he mixes it up, and most importantly makes beats that compliment the music.
The guitar playing is hugely varied. From traditional heavy metal inspired riffs, to extremely melodious death metal with Suidakra's signature all over it, to pure folk acoustic Celtic parts (and even whole songs) to folk infused metal riffs - there is everything, and it's all well done.
And I have to say, the most remarkable thing about this album - nothing in the known universe makes me want to bang my head so damn hard as this album does. I mean, fucking kill people with my forehead. I mean, the lowest level I go to on this is "aggressive nodding", all the way up to "if you need to demolish a building, just put this album on and I will headbutt that fucker into oblivion."
In seriousness, this band blends all it's elements so well, and there is just so much punch to the music. Fantastic riffs abound. There is no lull in the greatness and headbang-inducing awesomeness of this offering. This is just a true classic.