“Guardians” by Saor

Band: Saor
Album: Guardians (2016)
Country: Scotland
Genre: Folk metal, black metal
Where to buy: Bandcamp

Guardians is the unlikely combination of atmospheric black metal and Celtic instrumentation as conceived by Andy Marshall, who composed each of the five lengthy tracks on this album, and by the way, performed the vocals, guitars, bass, and probably some other stuff too. He engages the talents of a number of studio musicians, who add strings, fiddle, bodhrán, and bagpipes to the mix. And for all the instrumental voices on this album, the final calculus is single-minded. Guardians is the focused manifestation of one man’s vision, with Marshall acting as the director of this particular sonic set. He delivers to us an hour of controlled movements, providing ample opportunities for the folk instruments to raise their standards above the ranks of atmospheric black metal.

The album opens with the caws of crows that yield to a beautiful clean plucked guitar, which builds a progression that soon supports the first highland bagpipes heard on Guardians. Bryan Hamilton’s drumming offers a steady beat, and with the bagpipes and other voices, gives us our first crescendo. It is simultaneously exhilarating and mournful, buffeted by the now-electric guitars’ tremolo, which leaves no space for the strings’ breath. The lyrics hearken to Scotland’s tragic history, and eventually give way to Meri Tadíc’s fiddle. The progression from the opening returns in a solo electric guitar line, and the song begins a new cycle. This is the fundamental pattern of the compositions on Guardians: traditional progressions backing traditional instruments, echoed and mirrored by the drums, bass, and guitar of black metal.

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The real trick here is that none of the instruments and voices compete with each other. The lead guitar lines, which range from simple horizontal melodies to more technical vertical runs, do not crowd out the fiddle, and the bagpipes, so potentially dominating, do not overrun the rhythm guitar and bass. The drums are right on in their buttressing role, and there are even little fills and bits of color in the percussion that the careful listener will hear, such as in the beginning progression of “The Declaration” – a subtle syncopation of toms and bodhrán that rises just above the overture but behind the opening melody. Little moments like these are all over Guardians, and they give a little more substance to the atmospheric element of the album. They tell us that Saor is not content with the more pro-forma characteristics of atmospheric black metal. Music in this genre often repeats until it belabors, but the repetition on Guardians is much more purposeful: phrases are used in cycles with clear intention. In this way, it’s easy to hear that the album is the result of a lot of hard work on the part of Marshall and the rest of the band. I recommend a good set of headphones and a dark room to fully appreciate what Saor has done here.

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