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Critical perspective 7: Swelling hearts won't burst - 86%

gasmask_colostomy, June 18th, 2019

Almost everyone really loves Primordial. I myself was introduced to the Irish (kind of) black/folk metallers by ‘Empires Fall’ from To the Nameless Dead and really loved that song, what with its rousing epic desperation and all. You’ll hear people saying that The Gathering Wildnerness was the first major step into that same sound, and those people are probably right, although the change didn’t happen overnight, as a trawl through the back catalogue will prove. You’ll also see a lot of comments about perfection and albums of the year and so on. I’m not here to take a shit on Primordial; I just want to evaluate the negative aspects of a much lauded album such as this one. I’ll gloss over the positive features before getting stuck in.

On any given song on this album, you’ll hear Alan Nemtheanga roaring out paeans of loss and trouble in his mostly non-harsh voice, while the guitarists churn out cyclical riffs in either clean or distorted style, the folk influences largely coming from the unusual drumming patterns of Simon O'Laoghaire and the odd bit of bodhrán around the slower tempos. Note should be paid to a largely original sound, since Primordial achieve their folkiness without much use of extra instrumentation (indeed, many listeners won’t notice the bodhrán, seeing as it merely adds another percussive presence), positioning them somewhere that we might call epic Celtic metal if that didn’t sound much too fussy to be creating new names. This style allows the band to form quite a widescreen effect, which – when combined with the vocals – has a particular windswept feeling, though not to the extent that Saor or Sólstafir make the listener feel outside all the time. Bringing evocative imagery to mind is one thing, but Primordial give more of a proud feeling to their long, driving verses, as if Amon Amarth were (spiritually) tugging at iron heartstrings with a three minute chorus. Grown men may possibly cry.

Grown men may possibly also get bored. Why? Because The Gathering Wildnerness keeps doing the same thing for an hour, some minor diversions withstanding. I’m all for mood in music, but I like the mood to vary in degrees during an album or to express itself in different ways. Mentioning the Amon Amarth chorus was to highlight how the “bursting heart” trope usually works: as a climax or a theme, not as the key idea of every song. Fulfilling the promise of the lengthy build-up to that point necessitates a kind of release – a pay-off, if you will – that Primordial seem unable to provide, owing to the drawn-out and gradual nature of their music. You won’t find a lead instrument in these songs, barring Nemtheanga’s voice (which I’m coming to), so the band has little firepower to hammer a moment home and say, “We have arrived: isn’t it glorious?” The building elements of a song like ‘The Coffin Ships’ may well be exquisite in their balance and beauty, but it also returns to clean sections several times to produce better dynamics. That 10 minute centrepiece remains the exception on the album, possessing the best structuring to complement its partly stolen melodic riff (from My Dying Bride’s ‘The Deepest of All Hearts’, with even the vocals weirdly echoing Aaron Stainthorpe).

I’d like to make an observation here: Primordial sound most distinctive when playing the sprawling mid-paced riffs, yet produce more memorable moments in the contrasts between paces and styles. The riffing on ‘Tragedy’s Birth’, which follows ‘The Coffin Ships’, is set off by the sombre close of the album’s longest song, opening with a spirited up-tempo charge after jangly acoustics pave the way. However, standout riffs are few and far between, too many occupying similar territory and repeating for too long to produce much impact, sometimes serving as backing for impassioned vocal sections and sometimes just as placeholders without a particular purpose. Instrumental sections remain uncurbed, featuring little development or surplus time taken for insufficient development, as can be witnessed by the bewildering mid-section of ‘Cities Carved in Stone’, which drags a riff (without vocals) through three minutes only to drop into a clean verse and return again to the same riff to conclude. Even the memorable late charge of ‘Tragedy’s Birth’ comes only after a fairly massive period of build-up, feeling like wasted time in the grand scheme of the song. Give me a pair of scissors and I could probably get Primordial to finish The Gathering Wilderness in about 45 minutes instead of 60.

Concerns in the previous paragraph about flabby, aimless songwriting might be brushed off by calling the album spacious, but Primordial aren’t out of the woods yet. I’ve been holding back on the vocals for a while, since I know that Nemtheanga’s voice is at once the most distinctive element in the music and also the driving force of much of the emotion. Nevertheless, is he actually that good? That “shouting into the wind” style that he goes for might reflect the group’s transition from black metal to folk metal, while a smattering of harsh declarations remind us that Primordial play notionally extreme metal, but he doesn’t hit the right key as often as you’d hope, nor do all his attempts at widening his simple style come off. The roars lack power at times and the higher-pitched sections during ‘End of All Times (Martyrs Fire)’ feel incredibly ropey, especially during the “woah-oh-oh” line when I could believe that he’d be making shrugging gestures at his bandmates from within the vocal booth. That song particularly has incredible lyrics and should be delivered with a lot more power and confidence – even considering the evident doubt and loss – that just doesn’t emerge. On that point, one could also find fault with a mix that achieves scope without much finesse, slightly dry guitars being pummelled by clattering drums and the vocals being held back within the sound. This album didn’t need to be slick, but a few tweaks would have helped.

I think I’ll call the criticism for now and conclude on a few positive points, as well as my own opinion. I can enjoy The Gathering Wilderness most of the time, wholly during excellent opener ‘The Golden Spiral’, which has busier change-ups of riffs and tempos, and ‘The Coffin Ships’, on which I’ve already gone into detail. Despite strongly scorning the directionless repetition of riffs in other places, they do generally work and I’ve included the comments more to highlight how they could be a problem rather than to dismiss them entirely. Disappointingly, the title track is one of few places where I feel things didn’t work out, even though the whole song gradually elevates from a quiet start. As an aside, fans of drumming will be beside themselves for most of the album, since O'Laoghaire’s performance is absolutely stellar and if I cared more about technique this might be getting a higher score. All in all, The Gathering Wilderness can be called a strongly individual album with a slightly flawed formula.