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A different, better band from Kauja Pie Saules - 83%

Lustmord56, February 23rd, 2011

Review Originally published at http://www.teethofthedivine.com by Erik Thomas



Despite having plied their brand of Eastern European folk metal since 1995, I’m still relatively unfamiliar with Latvia’s Skyforger, having only heard the Paragon Records 2006 re-issue of their 1998 debut, Kauja Pie Saules (The Battle of Saule). I’ve missed the three albums and a compilation that have been released since 1998. When hearing the band’s sound now, compared to Kauja Pie Saules (The Battle of Saule), I’m was a bit taken aback, but eventually found myself rather impressed.


Apparently the band has transitioned from a traditional Eastern European folk metal band with a war metal/black metal backbone, into a more tempered and amicable more thrash/heavy metal band. The vocals are now a mid-range, hoarse shout that at times reminded me a lot of Martin Walkyier (Sabbat/Skyclad). Except this time the singing is in Latvian. In fact, a burlier version of Skyclad is a good reference looking for Skyforger’s current sound. The folk/ethnic elements are still present in the form of bagpipes, pipes, and traditional Latvian stringed instrument, the kokle. The overall effect is not unlike Korpiklaani, Eluveitie, Suidakra and such, but the metal element is far more retro and relatively mid-paced than I was expecting.


Based on the Latvian legend of folk hero Kurbads, the album actually opens relatively weak with “Raganas lāsts (Curse of the Witch)”, a fairly standard and even bland, rumbling thrash number with virtually no folk elements. It left me pretty unimpressed. However, ”Ķēves dēls (Son of the Mare)” dropkicks things into a swing with a rousing marching riff and a nice little flute/piccolo/pipe-combo. Again, with Pēteris’s gravelly voice, I’m reminded of Skyclad’s heavier moments, especially with a great thrashy, mid-song canter and jig. “Devingalvis (The Nine-Headed)” is a simple catchy track I can imagine hearing on Latvian rock radio or a the Latvian song for Europe qualifier before moody “Noburtais Mezs (Bewitched Forest)” slows things down a bit with a stern, steady pace replete with some beer hall “wo-ahs”.


After the brief drunken chant of “Tev a Dela Pagalma (In the Yard of the Father’s Son)”, “Velnukavejs (The Devilslayer)” delivers an upbeat, thrashing, more typical (think Turisas) folk gallop. Some deeper, almost death metal vocals grace the menacing “Akmens Sargs (The Stone Sentinel)”, where Skyforger bare their teeth a bit. But sure enough, it’s followed by the rather tepid Korpliklaani-ish simplicity of “Pazeme (In the Underworld)”. Luckily “Melnais Jatnieks (Black Rider)” picks things back up again and closer “Pedeja Kauja (The Last Battle)” wraps the album and tale up in crunchy but somber fashion. Then there’s the bonus track, “Kurbads”, a cover of a 1986 song by a Latvian rock band called Opus Pro. But you’d never know if I hadn’t told you (and I wouldn’t have known if I didn’t have a press sheet).


The album has a very robust, thick production, further distancing Skyforger from their black metal roots, and their signing to Metal Blade is certainly deserved with the growing interest in folk music. They are better than Eluveitie and offer a much more authentic take on folk metal without being overly cheesy.

Versatile, punchy pagan power - 80%

autothrall, January 20th, 2011

It's been well over a decade since Skyforger evolved out of their previous entity Grindmaster Dead and initiated a unique cultural spin on historical pagan/black metal. But outside of their national perspective, which was so rare in the late 90s, albums like The Battle of Saule and Latvian Rifleman were pretty standard black metal efforts in the vein of Bathory or Barathrum, only with more samples added to create a warlike atmosphere. Both were great efforts, mind you, but nothing necessarily out of the ordinary, and in the ensuing years, the band started to adopt other influences into their fundamental aggression. Kurbads is their 5th full-length, the first in 7 years, and if you were to compare it to their debut, you'd be hearing a much different band...

The historical/folklore elements are still central to the band's concept, but they've morphed from a straight black/pagan style to one that incorporates heavy/thrash metal, cleaner folk elements and lots of great guitar work, particularly through the leads which alternate between bluesy and emotional to simply glorious. Don't judge this book by its cover, a folksy but primal image which will conjure either disgust or revelation, because this is easily the best of Skyforger's efforts since the sophomore album in 2000, 50 minutes of bombastic, swaggering epic fun with both pride and purpose. If you're seeking flighty and fantastical folk metal akin to what a Finntroll or Korpiklaani produce, then you might not be prepared by the simple, steel rhythms present, but there's enough of that dynamic here that you might still get something from Kurbads, in particular "Son of the Mare", which seems to be the lightest fare on the album, which a straight rock influence adjoining its winding pipes. But most of these tracks draw from deeper wells.

It'd be an oversight not to mention the mix here, which is fantastic, whether it's balancing the core instruments or the pipes, kokle and acoustics. The rhythms are laid on thick in the fist pumping heavy/thrash rhythms of "The Nine-Headed", the gloomy enclosures of "Bewitched Forest", the driving melodic power metal that opens "The Devil Slayer", and the spacious majesty of "The Stone Sentinel", but the real star of the show is the band's sheer versatility. No song derives too closely from another, and each is a sonic extraction of the rich folklore in the band's homeland. Points must also be given for the vocals, which sound incredible in the native tongue. Peter's evolved into what I can only compare to a Latvian version of Sabbat and Skyclad's Martin Walkyier, with a bitter, rasping characteristic that gives a full body against the backdrop of the instrumentation. The backing vocals also satisfy, and when the band breaks into full folk mode briefly for "In the Yard of the Father's Son", you truly feel as if you're sitting around some ancient fire.

This is a total package, though. The drums sound like studio-bottled thunder, and nearly every melodic lead on the album, from the melodies over the crushing "Curse of the Witch" to the superb bonus/title track, is distinct enough to please the palette. I can already see the dismay some fans might feel for the level of variation here, and the lack of much straightforward black metal from their formative years, but it's well worth giving Kurbads the chance to captivate you. The majority of the tracks are catchy and well written, always throwing something memorable your way, and the potential is simply enormous. It's easy to envision that Skyforger will join the fore of Eastern folk metal, standing alongside their neighbors in Arkona, Kroda or Temnozor in opening a window on the past. I hope there are enough people out there willing to look through it.

-autothrall
http://www.fromthedustreturned.com

The Hero Lives - 82%

mirons, August 31st, 2010

After a long wait „Kurbads”, the 4th full length metal album by Latvian pagan metal stalwarts Skyforger, is finally here, and some time has been spent listening to it to let it sink in as to avoid making premature judgements, so it’s about time to write down the impressions. It took them 7 years to create and polish this new opus, so one could definitely say they took their time. This time they also scored a deal with one of biggest metal music labels – Metal Blade, so that should mean more publicity and availability throughout the whole metal world, which the band certainly can use.

So, the main questions are: 1) Was it worth the wait? and 2) How has the music changed over this time, if it has at all?

Let’s start straight away with the second question and leave the first to the end of this review. Before the album came out, many of the fans were wary about the label change and if it hasn’t had an impact on the music, forcing it to become more marketable. Well, this isn’t the case. They have changed a bit, there’s no denying that, but it doesn’t sound like they were trying to appeal to the masses here. „Kurbads” has the band going in a more traditionally sounding direction, featuring many classic heavy metal-styled harmonies and leads, mixed with some thrash riffing, at times sounding not unlike the heavier end of power metal but having also some darker and more crushing parts. Not that big a change, as most of „Pērkoņkalve/Thunderforge” leaned towards this direction as well, as did 2 out of 3 new songs on the „Asinslauks” EP which was added as a bonus to the reissue of their demo”Semigalls’ Warchant” in 2005. And mind you, the album was already as good as finished at the time they got the deal with MB, so that hardly could have been a factor.

„Kurbads” is a concept album, based on a folk tale about a hero, miraculously born from a mare and possessing unusual strength. That shows also in the composition where the theme is successfully carried from one song to another, and the songs work better together as a whole, rather than individual pieces. Understanding Latvian language can largely enhance the listening experience, as the lyrics are well written and also try to link the events of the tale to modern day happenings. The album closer, exemplifying a noticeable Judas Priest influence, is a cover version of an eighties song by a Latvian hard rock band Opus Pro, and that’s why it differs considerably from the rest of the album and cannot be viewed as the title track, despite having the same name as the album.

The use of folk instruments in „Kurbads” is better than ever before, the sections are integral parts of the songs instead of being just an adornment. The folk parts are bagpipe-heavy this time, pretty often even taking the lead role, but there are also the occasional flute and kokle parts. The album is full of subtle nuances and fine arrangements, which may take some time and in-depth listening to notice, however, the songwriting does lack a bit at times, despite all the fine-tuning. There are no real clunkers here, but I’d say that there aren’t also any real instant hits. Sure, there are a lot of catchy and otherwise attractive moments, but they often are followed by or interspersed with some pretty generic stuff. This, however, isn’t as bad is it might sound, the overall impression is fine. The production is very clear without being too sterile, but there are times when the guitars could have been higher in the mix and could use more bite in their tone.

Lead vocals sound pretty much the same as they have sounded since „Latvian Riflemen” – a semi-clear, hoarse shout, often backed by clear-sung and some growled vocals, done by bassist Zirgs and folk instruments’ player Kaspars. An exception to this is the sinister sounding piece „Akmens Sargs/The Stone Sentinel”, which features the nominal vocalist Peter duelling with the deathly growls of the guest vocalist Sandis Korps (ex-Brute Chant). „Pazemē/In the Underworld” also has an interesting vocal setup for the verse part, with alternating vocals from frontman Peter and bassist Zirgs while a different melody and text is being sung in the background. Actually an album like this with its more melodic, heavy metal-styled approach calls for more melodies in the vocals as well, I think.

So then, was it worth the wait? Yes, I’d say it was; while this is not the best album Skyforger have crafted, it’s still very good stuff.

He's Kurbads - son of the mare - 95%

Sidlavs, July 30th, 2010

After seven years since the previous album Latvian folk/pagan metal band Skyforger have finally released their new record Kurbads. Skyforger started playing their Latvian folk-influenced metal already 15 years ago. The genre has changed a lot since then, many commercial wannabe Viking bands have appeared. This is probably why many journalists sometimes incorrectly describe all folk metal as Viking metal which is completely wrong. Latvians and Lithuanians are Baltic nations; hence Skyforger lyrics are about history, traditions and legends of ancient Balts and have nothing to do with Vikings and Scandinavia. The history and culture of Baltic tribes is no less interesting and valuable and that is what Skyforger have always emphasized in their music. In this conceptual album they tell an old Latvian fairy-tale about the heroic son of the mare – Kurbads – who is magically born at a time of famine and misery when evil fiends and witches are hiding everywhere. He is the one who is strong and brave enough to come up against them.

This is somewhat a breakthrough album for Skyforger since they have signed a record deal with a major label Metal Blade. Many reviewers think that this has influenced the style of the band a lot but this is not pop music where label dictates the band how to sound. They write what they want to write. This is how Skyforger naturally evolves. They have never released two similar sounding albums but have always tried to create something new. It is weird to think that they have suddenly abandoned their old black metal style elements since they were present only on a couple of songs on their previous metal release seven years ago. Skyforger does everything in “do it yourself” manner. Even all the nice amateur style artwork is done by the guitarist Mārtiņš.

So how does Kurbads sound? Firstly, it is better produced than all previous Skyforger releases. As always, the driving force of Skyforger’s music is the guitar work. There is a great deal of heavy and aggressive yet melodic riffs. They feature more lower string palm-muting than before, hence many reviewers use the term “thrash metal” to describe the style. More nice classic metal style guitar solos are also present. And in Kurbads there are more folk instrument parts than ever before, especially bagpipe melodies, possibly because this is Skyforger’s first full-length release with folk instrumentalist Kaspars who is mainly a bagpipe player. All folk parts fit in perfectly and naturally blend together with guitars creating the feel of ancient times. The lively drums with a lot of double bass drumming are also appropriate and very enjoyable. There is a lot more experimentation with vocals in this album. Aside from aggressive and raspy lead vocals by Pēteris there are plenty of backing vocals by bass player Edgars “Zirgs” and folk instrumentalist Kaspars. Sometimes they make a lot more sense if you understand the lyrics since in places they play roles, e.g., in “Deviņgalvis (The Nine-Headed)” Pēteris is Kurbads but Zirgs acts the nine-headed giant. As always, Skyforger has all their poetry in pure Latvian. The lyrics are very important part of this conceptual album so English translations can be found in the booklet of CD, however, it is always better to understand the text in the original language because of specific expressions that can’t be properly translated.

The most interesting aspect of Kurbads what makes it enjoyable to listen to the album from the beginning to the end again and again is that all the songs differ a lot. There are mid-tempo epic Skyforger anthems like “Ķēves dēls (Son of the Mare)”, “Pazemē (In the Underworld)” and “Deviņgalvis (The Nine-Headed)”, faster and more aggressive tunes like “Velnukāvējs (The Devilslayer)” and “Melnais jātnieks (The Black Rider)” and also more atmospheric slower songs “Noburtais mežs (Bewitched Forest)” and “Pēdējā kauja (The Last Battle)”. The title track “Kurbads” in the end is actually a cover of a Latvian hard rock band Opus Pro. It is referenced as a bonus track although it appears on all versions of the album and fits in the composition perfectly after the tragic ending of the story. This album is a little less atmospheric than some of Skyforger’s previous efforts but that should not be considered as a drawback since this energetic and more straightforward style fits the concept very well. The songs are powerful, catchy and should work very well live.

Overall, Kurbads is a great folk metal album and is a must-have for all fans of this music style. After all, Skyforger is one of the best bands in the entire genre.

Skyforger - Kurbads - 53%

Memnarch, May 11th, 2010

Skyforger have finally 'hit the big time' some would say. Relatively recently they appeared on a BBC documentary about Latvian Folk music and more importantly, signed to major players 'Metal Blade' which set a lot of tongues wagging over what direction their new album would take. Metal Blade have an inconsistent roster of fantastic bands coupled with a lot of turgid, commercial metalcore. So has this affected their sound as some predicted, have they toned down their sound in conjunction with a larger label supporting them now? In short, the answer is yes.

I will readily admit, first I detested 'Kurbads' completely, it just wouldn't sit right with me. Maybe it was just I was really yearning for 'Thunderforge' or 'Latvian Riflemen', for this album is a lot different to their early material. After a bit of time, the album has grown a touch, but something still doesn't click.
The Black Metal influence has all but disappeared on this album and in it's place are rather mediocre thrash riffs and a stronger general atmosphere of traditional heavy metal than anywhere before. 'Curse of the Witch' opens the album, and I had to take a double take initially whether I was listening to Skyforger or infact Lamb of God. The guitar has been down-tuned from before, and the main riff which forms the backbone to the song has a strong whiff of 90's groove off it, and is incredibly flat and dull. The whole song to be honest is just flat out boring. The vocals have no real power in their delivery, and lack the character of their earlier material. Luckily, the whole album isn't this terrible and uninspiring though, as 'Son of the Mare', the second track proves to us. Starting out with the traditional Skyforger flutes, with bagpipes strewn throughout the song. This song is much more like the old Skyforger, but still the guitar playing is remarkably average and the man riff to the song at the beginning is so simple and drab, but eventually things get faster towards the end with a traditional duel between flute and bagpipe and the guitar picks up a bit and is fairly diverse for once. 'The Nine Headed' basically follows on with this formula. Getting this far it is hard not to remark upon how much slower the album is compared to their other efforts. Rather than being Black/Folk metal as was their sound before, 'Kurbads' is essentially a slow thrash album with folk influences here and there. The whistles and bagpipes help avoid complete mediocrity, some songs they are used to great effect, such as 'Bewitched Forest', and in some it sounds if they've been merely tacked in at the last minute, almost as if to try and remind people of their roots. The vocals stand out a little more in the mix this time as well, they aren't really any different from before, except Peter does use some questionable techniques where it ends up sounding rather comical, and the lower death growls which are sometimes heard are pretty weak. These don't appear too often thankfully. As the album gets pretty good towards the middle, it drops off again towards the end unfortunately. Songs like 'Black Rider' and 'Kurbads' are just not up to level I have come to expect from Skyforger. The production of the album doesn't help matters either, it is as if it is too 'clean' sounding or sterile. The guitar lacks vibrancy while the vocals are too loud. In all, it is exactly the production I feared.

This is still recognisably Skyforger, there's no question about that, but I keep getting a sense of them having diluted their sound slightly. The Black Metal has been all but removed while watered down thrash riffs have taken it's place. The album is extremely heavy, their heaviest to date, but it it just lacking that certain attribute which made Skyforger so unique and revered when they first appeared on the scene. The album is a decent, there are certainly worse out there, but put it against their back catalogue, it is extremely poor. For 'Kurbads' just doesn't cut it when it comes to anything near the majesty of 'Thunderforge' or flaying folkish brutality of 'Latvian Riflemen'.

If you are a fan of folk metal who has never heard Skyforger, and are drawn in by the nearest hint of an Eastern European wind instrument then by all means get 'Kurbads'. For major Skyforger fans I would suggest a little caution first before heading out to buy this. Is it a good album? Average. Was it worth the seven year wait? Definitely not.