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A tartanic sonic voyage through Scotland - 91%

PassiveMetalhead, December 31st, 2016
Written based on this version: 2016, CD, Northern Silence Productions

To the north of the U.K lies unique and picturesque scenery. There, you can bask in the spectacular sights of Scotland’s numerous Lochs, with their smaller siblings of pools and meandering glens dotted around the rolling hills of the Highlands. Further north, the tranquil lochs gradually expand into imposing spines of mountains that stand adjacent to golden beaches, dense forestation and turbulent waves that crash into the distant nomadic isles across the sea.

Andy Marshall, the multi-instrumentalist brains behind Celtic black metal Saor, values the unique elegance and rich culture that has forged Scotland’s rugged land better than most. The tartan of Saor is fabricated from the history, geography and culture of the location in which it was conceived. As with Saor’s two preceding albums, “Roots” and “Aura”, Marshall continues to bond with something larger than the mortal spirit of man and attempts to carve deeper into the heart of the Highlands on “Guardians”.

Despite tight production, expert song-writing and meticulous attention to detail, the general expression that “Guardians” resonates is a sense of freedom. The average song length is about 11 minutes, which is ample time to allow the music to breathe and progress naturally. However, the bane of songs with long durations is the crucial requirement to keep an audience captivated. The structures of the 5 songs on “Guardians” appear repetitive, but Marshall’s ability to subtly steer the course of the songs into different territories is a testament to his skilled craftsmanship as a musician. ‘The Declaration’ commences with energised tremolo while dipping into pools of folksy fiddle, bagpipes and flutes; all of which are native to Scotland’s heritage. After a brief, bleak intermission, the song explodes into a gorgeous crescendo where the fiddles and bagpipes are in full march. ‘Tears of a Nation’ also features a repetitious structure where dancing folk and sorrowful metal take precedence. However, the advantage of Marshall layering both of these elements simultaneously, revealing each in equal measure, allows both forces combine efforts in a heightened assault of compelling emotional outbursts during the climactic ending.

Certain moments of the album express specific feelings that make the content of “Guardians” so emotive and cinematic; like any of Saor’s music for that matter. The strained strings and despondent riffs in ‘Autumn Rain’ emit a mournful tone as Marshall’s fervent lyrics detail a swelling tribute to fallen warriors. But as always, it’s the subtle changes that draw you in further. As the lyrics become more proud, the music follows suite with galloping drums and embracing female cries. Arguably, the ceremonious ‘Hearth’ is the most emotive composition here and is a true tear-jerker. It proceeds through ancient causeways of delicate folk and racing tremolo, but then the song cascades into Marshall’s clean vocals which echo a sincere adoration for his motherland. It’s difficult not to be moved over the vivid imagery of Scotland’s proud reputation that Saor artistically paints us.

Simply put, this album is atmospheric black metal with intricate folksy elements woven into the fabric of the album. Nevertheless, it’s clear that upon first listen to the aptly named title track, “Guardians” is as expansive as the landscapes it is inspired by and as prevailingly prideful as the Scottish heritage that the album has been wrought by.

Originally posted on

Tears of a Nation - 91%

dystopia4, December 17th, 2016

I have to admit that I was a bit hesitant about the new Saor album. This is largely because Aura was so impossibly good. That album holds a very special place in my heart and going on numerous hikes in the Rockies with Aura being my soundtrack is something I will never forget as long as I live. Needless to say, it is a tough act to follow. Aura was the perfection of the sound started in Roots and to do a third album along the same lines could end up an act of redundancy. To make matter worse, Panopticon mastermind Austin Lunn was no longer behind the kit. His unique and enigmatic style is a massive part of what made Aura so good, and is probably the best drum performance of his entire career.

So how does this stand up to one of the greatest atmospheric folk metal albums of all time? Well, it doesn't outdo Aura but does prove itself to be a very capable successor. The sound isn't too far removed from what we have come to expect from Saor. As per usual, the songs are long and epic, bringing to life the majesty of the Scottish highlands. Saor is billed as a one man band, but this is only half true. While it is wholly the brainchild of Andy, he has a drummer and a host of session musicians at his disposal. The additional instrumentation is a large part of what sets Saor apart. Here, Saor has strings, fiddle, bagpipes and bodhrán (not going to lie, had to look that one up - it's a traditional goatskin Irish frame drum - pretty fucking cool!). The additional instrumentation widens the scope of the album by a staggering degree and the bagpipes and flute do a lot to give it a distinctly Scottish flavour.

All these bells and whistles are well and good, but they wouldn't mean shit if the metal wasn't good. It would be like an expired $4 grocery store steak served with caviar and gold flakes. Well fret not, because the meat of the music is juicy and full. The metal is drawn out and bombastic, and this is a rare case of metal not really needing to rely on big riffs, instead drawing out grand soundscapes with metal providing the backbone. The leads here are fantastic, with the repeating melody at the end of album-closing "Tears of a Nation" being astoundingly moving and uplifting - I'd be very, very surprised if it wasn't plucked from a traditional folk song. The way the lead is repeated for minutes at the end of the song reminds me of Agalloch's "Into the Painted Grey", and a few of the leads on Gaurdians actually are pretty reminiscent of some on Marrow of the Spirit.

Recorded in cottages in Isle of Skye and Cairndow, this is another grandiose testament to Andy's native Scotland. Being more drawn out and about showcasing wonderful non-metal instrumentation than Aura, this is another excellent offering from Andy. I have to wonder where he'll go from here - this album seems like the end of a trilogy to me. Roots laid down the framework, Aura perfected it, and Gaurdians experimented with it. I hope it's something a bit different, but I'm sure he'll find a way to do something worthwhile. Gaurdians shows Saor once again leading the pack for atmospheric folk metal.

Blissful Serenity - 90%

Grumpy Cat, December 15th, 2016

Guardians is the third release from Saor and my formal introduction to the project and may I just say that it is stunningly beautiful. The mixture of celtic instrumentation in contrast to the atmospheric metal approach creates a sound that is serene and positive.

First and foremost this album is about the instrumentals and the effect they produce, the vocals are only used in short passages and rather sparingly however the deep growls that come forth are well executed even if I have no idea what he was saying. The guitar and bass take back stage against flutes and the like which paint some amazing and down right epic melodies such as the closing bit for "The Declaration". The guitar work consists primarily of long tremolo picking sections. The rest of the riffs are played when the folk melodies aren't so prominent and are generally more rhythmic in nature or they echo the melodies adding to the effect such as the end for "The Declaration" before the guitar does some screechy noodling. The melodies are beautiful and infectiously catchy finding themselves playing on loop in my head for days at a time. I wish I could say which instruments do what part but I don't have all that good of a knowledge for instruments but I'm very confident that flutes and violins play a pivotal piece of it all. The drumming is complementary and reserved, generally a lot of double pedal and cymbal work or a gallop like in "Autumn Rain", mostly only catching the ear when a good fill finds its way to front stage.

Production wise I think the album is precisely where it should be, the vocals and the drums don't distract. The tracks are well polished without being overproduced, nothing raw about them. The guitars and the traditional instruments intertwine and though the tracks are a bit lengthy they never drag or become dull, quick and rapid changes are always introduced in such a way that the release is unpredictable and never grows stagnant but also can be thoroughly absorbed and appreciated on the first listen. I'd say this is a strong contender for album of the year.

nationalism can be cool i guess - 88%

RapeTheDead, December 14th, 2016

I was fairly confident that Saor weren’t going to disappoint with Guardians, but at the same time I worried that my overall enjoyment of the album was going to take a bit of a hit without the frenetic drumming of Austin Lunn. He had this way of injecting tons of energy into a folk metal groove on songs like “Children of the Mist” and “Pillars of the Earth” that added more meat to the naturally light and airy aesthetic of Saor. Whenever you write a great album, there’s always the pressure to top it, even moreso when a new member is added. Bryan Hamilton, however, is already fairly established with his work in Barshkasketh and Cnoc an Tursa, and based on the latter band’s sound in particular it’s easy to see why Marshall thought he would be a good fit for his project.

Something about Guardians feels a little bit different right off the bat. Much of it could be attributed to the new drummer, but not all of it. Maybe it’s the vocals, which are more pronounced in the mix than they have been before, which gives them a bit of a scratchy, gravelly tone as opposed to the distant roar that characterized previous Saor albums. Still, though, this is Marshall’s pet project and he hasn’t deviated much from his core formula since it began, so the differences aren’t merely a result of lineup changes and production tweaks. Guardians sounds much more solemn and pensive than previous work by the band, and does require a bit of a reframe at first, but in the end, the results are even more rewarding.

Guardians is more of a grower than a shower for a couple of reasons. First, unlike Aura, this doesn’t come bursting out of the gate with triumphant energy. “Autumn Rain”, though a full song in its own right, is very gradual and is essentially just a full version of those obligatory intro tracks every metal band has at the beginning of the album. Even when “The Declaration” kicks in, the blastbeats sound steadier and calmer than Hamilton’s work in Cnoc an Tursa. Though the most energetic song on the album, one still gets the impression that Saor’s still building into something even bigger. Even the title track feels like ait just sets the stage for this now-30-minutes-long introduction.

The slow bloom of Guardians has a lot to do with the violins, flutes, and other bagpipes present. Saor has always had these elements in their music and have always avoided making them look like a gimmick. There’s always been plenty of room for them to breathe, and it never seems like they were thrown in just because Marshall had a few flautist and violinist buddies who really wanted to play on the album or something. However, with Guardians, all the extra instruments no longer feel like a tertiary layer woven into the music; at this point, they’re the driving force behind the album. That seems really strange to say about a folk/black metal band, especially because the metal elements are still in the foreground as they always have been. There never really seems to be a point, though, where the metal elements carry this on their own; the flutes have more detailed melodies and feel more involved in the music, the violins do a lot to slowly let the tension grow, and the whenever the bagpipes come in you know something big is about to happen—and when they come in on “Tears of a Nation”, they ARE the climax. Strangely enough, though there is only one core member of Saor, it never feels as though he wants to hog the spotlight of his own band. If anything, he actively avoids it as much as he can and gives the session musicians every opportunity they can to shine, and Guardians is so much better for that.

At first, the slow build of the first three tracks seems agonizing, but once “Hearth” kicks in, the wait immediately becomes worth it. Right away, it settles into that warm tremolo and rolling groove that Saor captured my heart with a few years ago, and when the flute melody and the clean chorus kicks in with Marshall singing “there’s nowhere I’d rather be…this is my home”, man do you ever believe that shit. “Tears of a Nation” just keeps the momentum going and though at first the slow sense of growth might have seemed a bit awkward compared to the joyful energy of the band’s previous work, during the latter half of the album the band sounds much more comfortable in their own skin. The ordering of the tracks feels very intentional in that sense. Aura felt more like a collection of songs (some really good songs, mind you) but no one track on Guardians feels complete on its own. You really do have to listen to the whole thing all the way through to get the full picture. Though this doesn’t have as many specific moments that stand out, Guardians feels much more complete and well-rounded than anything they have done before, and by the end of the album you’ll feel a little bit exhausted, but nonetheless satisfied. Andy Marshall has matured a lot since his days in Falloch, and with that comes changes in the style of his composition, but barring some sort of drastic change in style or vision, Saor looks content to remain at the top of the atmospheric folk metal heap.

(Originally written for the Metal Observer)