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Finnish folklore meets avant-garde art - 87%

drengskap, October 17th, 2009

Folklife is the final release in the series of four limited-edition CD-Rs released in 2009 by the Portland-based experimental black metal band Hail, following Frozen Grave. Although the official title of this release is Folklife, this title appears nowhere on the cover art. The front cover bears the text 'Infinite Cascadian Darkness', so it’s possible that this is being used as an alternative title by some people. Folklife is in many ways the most accurate representation of the current state of play with Hail. The band’s core line-up of Set Sothis Nox La and Carl Annala is augmented here by bassist Isamu Sato and drummer Travis Foster, and the songs on Folklife formed the basis of Hail’s live set for their recent support slots with the Cascadian black metal band Fauna. Only percussionist Markus Wolff is absent from this recording.

Folklife contains four tracks, with a total duration of just under an hour. The first three songs form a conceptual unity, being based around the 14th and 15th Runos (or chapters) of the Finnish national epic poem the Kalevala. This suite of songs can thus be regarded as the most ambitious of many references to Finnish culture and mythology to be found in Hail’s work, and also in the work of Set Sothis’ other band, L’Acéphale. The 14th and 15th Runos relate the story of the murder, dismemberment and resurrection of Lemminkäinen, a shamanic culture-hero figure. After Lemminkäinen is killed by a poisoned arrow fired by Wet Hat, a vengeful cowherd who has been slighted by Lemminkäinen in a singing contest, his body is cut into pieces and thrown into the river of Tuonela (the river of death). Lemminkäinen's mother searches heaven and earth for her son. Learning of his fate, she asks Ilmarinen, the blacksmith god, to make her a copper rake, which she then uses to dredge the river of Tuonela, retrieving all the parts of her son’s body. She then sews the parts together, but Lemminkäinen's body remains dead until she sends a bee to the halls of Ukko, the Odin-like lord of the gods, to bring back a drop of magical honey to restore life to her son. This story fits into a wide cross-cultural group of myths about gods who die and are reborn, including the stories of Isis and Osiris, the Norse god Balder, and of course Jesus Christ.

Folklife’s first track, ‘Go Forth Through The Darkness – Marajatan Virsi’, is a reworking of a track from the earlier Hail release Seeds, a long, bleak ambient piece with chiming metal percussion against a background of cold, abstract drones. The track concludes with a sampled recording of the Kalevala being sung in Finnish by an old woman, whose voice is cracked and wavering, but still resonates with an impressive primeval authority. ‘The Death Of Lemminkäinen’ is a shorter plucked acoustic guitar instrumental, brimming with melodious melancholy – fans of Prophecy Production bands like Empyrium, Dornenreich and Tenhi will immediately connect with the autumnal romanticism of this piece.

The 25-minute track which follows, ‘Isa, Or The Bee’s Journey For Lemminkäinen’, is clearly the centrepiece of the album. It’s a reworking of the track ‘Isa – Abeille Noir’ from the earlier Hail release PermaFrost, which I fulsomely praised in my review of that album. This revised and elaborated version of ‘Isa’ differs from the earlier version in many respects, most obviously in the addition of vocals. The song opens with sombre bowed cello work and the mantra-like, multi-voiced repetition of the news of Lemminkäinen’s death:

‘He has vanished Lost and dead
Gone down the dark river
Timeless carrier of the dead.’

The cello gradually gathers momentum, becoming insistent and choppy amidst layers of looped vocals and ambient atmospherics, giving way, around the five-minute mark, to a full-bore surge of melodic, mid-paced black metal, with spells and enchantments aimed at reuniting Lemminkäinen’s dismembered body recited by a deep male voice, darkly dramatic but still intelligible. The track then gets faster, and the relatively clear vocals give way to tortured black metal shrieks, in counterpoint with deeply rumbling speech. It’s an interesting vocal duel. At around 14 minutes, the song subsides to a solitary low, menacing strummed guitar part, accented with sparse washes of cymbal and shivering, suspenseful cello notes. It’s clear that this is a false dawn, and that there’s more metal to come, but the tension of waiting for this to happen is excruciating, and the relief when the black metal riff comes surging back with redoubled speed and ferocity in the 18th minute is massive. The song rages with annihilating energy, tearing itself apart and teetering on the brink of total implosion, but eventually earthing itself and coming to rest amidst gentle bowed cello notes and a warm, post-orgasmic circuit hum. The song is an epic, apocalyptic tour-de-force, although the less complex guitar-and-drums version on PermaFrost is arguably even more powerful and cathartic. Either way, ‘Isa’ is arguably the ultimate statement of Hail’s aesthetic. There are in fact three very different versions of this song in existence, since PermaFrost also contains an acoustic version arranged for cello and piano. The Folklife version is like a mixture of the two PermaFrost versions, with vocals added.

The final track on Folklife, ‘Barrow’s Embrace’, is a version of a L’Acéphale song, and not obviously thematically related to the preceding three tracks. It opens with sampled angelic choral vocals and recited text from the Book of Revelation over discordant metal guitar, leading into a slow-paced, grinding riff, something like Burzum’s ‘Gebrechlichkeit’, with prominent screamed vocals – this blending of orchestral and metal elements is very characteristic of L’Acéphale. Most of the song remains in black metal mode, though it ends with more choral vocals and sampled movie dialogue, which sounds like Swedish to me. I wouldn’t be surprised if this came from an Ingmar Bergman film, given the kind of artistic and literary references which are frequently found in Hail’s work.

Folklife is a black CD-R in a folded parchment paper sleeve with a loose-leaf booklet, and it’s a limited edition of 30 copies. The sleeve reproduces Lemminkäinen’s Mother, a painting by Finnish artist Akseli Gallen-Kallela, and the booklet contains lyrics for ‘Isa…’ and ‘Barrow’s Embrace’, as well as many pictures of bees, in keeping with the album’s theme.

This review was originally written for Judas Kiss webzine: