After a two year absence, Saor returns with their trademark Celtic melodies in Guardians. Those concerned about a change in formula from the superlative Roots and Aura need not be alarmed. The sound is a bit more polished, but in essence, the song remains the same. The familiar flutes, violins, and guitars of Saor have returned in Andy Marshall’s labor of love to the Scottish Highlands.
The meditative, ethereally beautiful melodies of Guardians are counterpointed by the blackened grimness of the harsh tremolo riffs and vocals, giving the album tremendous emotional versatility. Like many atmospheric black metal bands, Saor makes heavy use of nontraditional metal instruments, like flute, violin, and their trademark bagpipes. Andy Marshall is experienced enough to know how to tactfully place and arrange the instruments so that they enhance the sound, rather than upstaging it. One of the tricks he uses is to mimic the orchestral elements with the squeal of the lead guitar. On “Autumn Rain”, a warm host of violins introduce the track. Then, about a minute in, a clean, high lead guitar joins the symphony. The guitar does not overpower or drown the violins. It plays perfectly off them, acting more like the 1st violin in an orchestra than a separate instrument. One of the most beautiful moments of the album comes in the violin-inspired string bends of the opening melody.
The largest improvement upon the Saor pantheon in Guardians undoubtedly lies in the drumming. As per usual, the drumming generally stays at a mid-tempo thump, keeping the pace insistent without being rushed. But unlike other Saor albums, the drums are more than just standard rhythm-keepers and transition-fillers; in some spots, the percussion is cleverly used to enhance the melody. “The Declaration” quite literally declares this clear upgrade, beginning with a nifty drum solo. Then, later in the track, the drums make their presence viscerally known. After a soft section featuring a violin voicing a gentle melody, the guitars and drums kick in as the same violin melody continues onward. But it’s the drums that steal the show. Powerful double-bass kicks and snare hits charge from slow to fast across the length of that same violin melody, giving it a completely new timbre and pace. It’s a subtle touch, but it’s masterfully done. Such moments are scattered throughout the album.
Guardians builds its sound on the addition and subtraction of disparate elements. In almost every song, different elements are introduced and recede within the same melody. When the melody switches, the same process begins. If the sound begins heavy, with vocals, guitars, drums, flutes, violins, and sometimes even piano, bagpipes, and keyboards vying for the listener’s attention, instruments will recede until only one or two remain (usually an undistorted lead guitar or flutes paired with percussion). Then, the process begins again, this time adding instruments until a full complement of sound is audible. On some level, this formula succeeds by managing to weave together separate melodies into one fine quilt. Because the listener is able to hear each stage of its finely crafted construction, the final product is coherent despite the density of instrumentation. Occasionally, Guardians subverts this process of ebbing and flowing with sudden and extreme changes in tone – but even these are predictable, as they almost always follow a lulling silence before exploding into melody.
The predictability of Guardians has a curious effect on the listener because it only becomes apparent if one carefully scrutinizes and analyzes the material. (Like for, say, a review.) But the music of Saor, like most atmoblack bands, is not music made for dissecting like more technical genres may be. The music of Guardians is based more in feeling than in substance. And when Guardians is heard to be felt (like while writing, hiking, or meditating), the artifice of the magician disappears into thin air. The tricks Andy Marshall repeatedly uses to craft his music aren’t just ignorable, they aren’t even there. Every song sounds like the wayward soul of Scotland transcribed into music. But as soon as the song structure is carefully examined, patterns emerge that can make the listening experience dull and formulaic.
A flaw of Guardians as compared to its brethren is that Guardians seems to have one ounce less of the magical Scottish fairy dust Andy Marshall bestowed Roots and Aura with. The previous Saor releases were littered with moments of bittersweet beauty that crowned the albums as masterpieces. These were the sounds that played in your head before sleep. Melodies that you would like to hear in your final moments. For all its carefully arranged glister, Guardians falls just a bit short on these otherworldly moments that have catapulted Saor to the top of the atmospheric black metal cacophony. They are present in the subtle bend of a guitar string (“Autumn Rain”, or in the weep of a violin (“Tears of a Nation”), but they do not populate the crags and lochs of Guardians as they did in Saor’s earlier discography.
Guardians is a fine effort that should be proud of its place in the Saor catalogue. It’s predictable and formulaic, and it doesn’t matter one bit. For a third consecutive release, Saor has proven themselves to be the masters of atmospheric black metal. Andy Marshall’s music, inextricably linked with the landscape and culture of Scotland, continues to be some of the most transcendent and gorgeous music in the metal climate today.
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