It’s history time! Pagan is a word which gets thrown around a lot in metal circles. Whether used to describe whole sub-genres or to speak about certain influences on an album, “pagan” connotes both subject matter and sound. The latter should probably be better classified as folk, leaning on traditional instruments, scales and compositions (whether American, European or otherwise). The former is, within the Eurocentric circles of metal, often used instead of Norse, hinting towards the specific source material found among sagas and other tales of the proto-Scandinavian peoples. However, its meaning is of course much larger. It derives from the Latin word paganus, used to speak broadly about a specific part of society which lived outside of Rome or other, major municipal centers (although its origins are indeed in Rome itself and a very particular subset of its population).
With the rise of Early Christianity, “pagan” came to something close to its modern meaning i.e those which are not Christian. This definition obviously had a negative connotation which it doesn’t (mostly) hold today, as people use it to self identify. This latter process of “cleaning” the term is a part of the 20th century revival of non-Christian beliefs, often dubbed “the New Age Movement”. While we won’t dive too deep into this movement here (because we already have, elsewhere), this is how the term “pagan” found itself in metal. Since this movement drew on multiple, traditional religions for its influence, there’s no reason for “pagan metal” to be wholly Norse or Slavic, in certain cases. Paganism is a widely scattered belief system, drawing on multiple creation stories, myths and religious systems for its world view.
Which brings us to Heid. A relatively unknown band from Spain, Heid aren’t apologetic about the style of metal they play. Their press emails, drafted by the band themselves, proudly declare their self definition. And for good reason; they don’t only make excellent music which draws on folk instrumentation and composition but they also infuse their music with Iberian mythology, a flavor of paganism not often witnessed in metal. These two elements combine to create Alba, a moving and catchy album which offers entrance into a rich world of myth which we (as in, Western culture) don’t often stop to consider.
At its musical basis, Alba can be described as a blackened, melodic death metal creation. The guitar riffs are based in speed, size and grandeur, epic melodies which blend amazingly with the dominant violin which can be found all over the album. “Rumbo al Sur” (loosely translated as “Southbound”) is a great example of these elements; from the get go, the guitar and bass are pleasingly breakneck, sacrificing little of their distinctiveness in favor of speed. The result, especially when the vocals are considered, make us naturally think of Insomnium. The drums play their backing role beautifully on this track (and on the entire album) while the violin embellishes everything with an old world charm that’s hard to resist. It’s especially impressive how the violin manages to compete with the speed of the riffs near the end of the track, playing along some of the fastest moments on the album.
Near the end of the album, the black metal influences are much more prominent. Closing tracks “Arde la Rebelión” (“The Rebellion Burns”) and “Camino Sombrio” (“Dark Road”) see the vocals take on a much more raspy aspect, crying out harshly over accelerated blastbeats and sawing guitars, eschewing the melodic death elements for more somber and sparse atmospheres. These makes a perfect closer for the album, as they do much to relieve what fatigue might have set in from iteration upon iteration of epicness which so characterize melodic death. The vocals especially and the sea-change which they undertake are admirable, completely dispelling any repetitiveness that might have been lurking under the surface.
Turning towards the source material, you might have noticed by now that the track titles are all in Spanish. So too all the lyrics on the album. Listening to music not in English but in different vernaculars is a point we’ve spoken about before, on the podcast. Alba is a perfect example of the merits of such an experience. Listen, for example, to the title track: as it speaks about the powers of folklore and myth, the harsher, more throat-y “j” sounds so common in Spanish are resplendent. They add a dimension which can’t be found in English works, coloring this most internally important track in the hues of language. Indeed, the entire perspective of the album is Iberian; the aforementioned “Rumbo al Sur” for example tells of the Viking raids on the Iberian coasts, an historical chapter often forgotten in favor of the Siege of Paris or the English monastery raids.
When you couple this local dedication with fantastic metal, you get an immensely pleasing album. And such is the case with Alba; it has so many little touches, moments and ideas that make it overflow with excellence. We haven’t even been able to touch the instrumental “El Buey” (“The Ox”), for example, and its amazing blend of traditional folk structure and metal or any of the plenty other fantastic moments on the album. Suffice it to say that if you’re looking for something fresh in the fields of pagan metal (whether it be power metal, melodic death or black metal based), in lieu of a new Elvenking album for example, Heid are a band worth giving your time to. Their unique melange of influences produces metal which is, first and foremost, well made and written but which will also usher you into a realm of folkish myth we’re not often exposed to in our culture.