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A good overview - 85%

MaDTransilvanian, June 7th, 2010

Upon acquiring Skyforger’s demo re-release in the form of the Semigalls’ Warchant compilation, I was expecting an introduction to the classic Skyforger sound. I wasn’t necessarily wrong, but being music created at the very beginning of the band’s career it lacks the band’s later improvements of their own sound. However, it must be said that, in addition to the 1997 demo, this release also contains the four tracks of the Asinslauks (Bloodfield) concept EP, not yet released separately. This inclusion provides a good opportunity to hear what new Skyforger sounds like, all in one release.

Due to the Semigalls’ Warchant portion being demo-era Skyforger, the sound differs considerably from the band’s later compositions. The presence of pagan metal in the modern sense, both for the band and for the genre in general, is existent but relatively minimal. The music is actually an offshoot of black metal, with added folkloric sounds and some unorthodox rhythms characteristic of pagan metal. However, if I’d have to cite one influence here, it’s Immortal, especially from a vocal standpoint: vocalist Peter screams like some sort of gremlin-like creature, oddly enough being reminiscent of a slightly more caricatured Abbath. Indeed, the vocals seem to be taking the Immortal sound a bit further.

This portion of the music is also considerably raw, perhaps even crude, both in terms of production and of songwriting. The band’s youth and slight immaturity are definitely visible, although the overall effect is far from being unworthy. Semigalls’ Warchant (excluding the EP part, which we’ll get to soon) is actually enjoyable music, with enjoyable black metal riffs and solid drumming, which does however tends to exaggerate the use of cymbals from time to time. One element which works in Skyforger’s favour here is that hard to single out yet unmistakable primordial feel of a band’s first attempts at creating music, where the fascinating birth of the sound can be appreciated by the listener.

Contrasting the music heard in the first portion rather well, the Asinslauks EP is a good indicator of where Skyforger’s evolution has taken them over the 8 years passed between the creation of the two recordings. With the first track, Northern Shores, their evolution into a fully-fledged pagan metal band, with important amounts of folk sounds incorporated in the sound, is evident. This entire EP is much more well-produced, well-defined in the sense that this is what the band wanted to do all along, and thus the truly unique portion of the compilation, although the demo is certainly not a copycat of anything either.

The base of the folk sound seems to be a series of instruments such as the bagpipes, pipes, and a few others with which I’m not exactly familiar. They create a relatively upbeat and positive sound, which avoids the pitfall of sounding stupid like many folk metal bands unfortunately tend to sound. The rest of the music is streamlined metal, distanced from the band’s black metal origins and moving in a new and rather hard to categorize direction. It’s simply pagan metal, and can’t really be pigeonholed in as black, death, or folk metal.

One of the most interesting aspects about Skyforger is their fascination with Latvian history, especially the tribute to their people’s glory days of resistance to the violent advance of Christianity. For example, the tribe of the Semigalls after whom this release is titled, were the last ones to resist the conquering Knights of the Teutonic Order, who brought in Christianity by force and had to fight many fierce battles to force it upon the locals. This historical aspect is mixed in the lyrics with classic elements of traditional European mythology, both in the demo portion and in the Asinslauks concept EP, which touches upon another very interesting ancient historical element: the Kursi, a tribe of sea-riders, who were a kind of Latvian Vikings.
Despite the presence of music that isn’t exactly the staple of the Skyforger sound, Semigalls’ Warchant is a very interesting compilation because it highlights both the band’s beginnings and their current sound in a tasteful way. The music itself is very good and, after having heard and liked this release, I’m certainly encouraged to explore the rest of the band’s discography.