When you throw off what black metal might like to think of itself, or the image certain members of it would like to present rather, the essence of the genre seems to be rooted in love rather than hate. Perhaps more than almost any other genre of metal, black metal is about the passion which comes when you love something with a deep, fierce, and unrelenting dedication. It’s very much about being outcast for that love as well, deemed weird or eccentric for the degree of the dedication you’re willing to give this thing (essentially being labeled a “nerd” for it). The object of this love varies from genre to genre; traditional black metal is all about the love of “folk”, in its more poetic and historical meanings but also the more literal and, sometimes, racist interpretations. Symphonic black metal is often about the love of power and its extravagant expression while depressive black metal can be seen as a twisted affair with our own inner demons.
Pagan, folk and, often, atmospheric black metal return somewhat to the roots of the genre and focus on the love of nature, stripping it of the “folk”ish and historical elements of it, instead viewing it is an object worthy of a separate love, a unique love. This is, in essence, what Ulver did for black metal with Kveldssanger (even though one track on it hints towards a Christian/Scandinavian divide), showing that an entire album can be focused on nature alone. One of the most impressive and accomplished heirs to this idea in the past decade or so has been Saor, a Scottish artist specializing in the kind of black metal dedicated to a deep seated love of nature. His albums have always had this sheen to them of a powerful, well founded admiration for the land (which is perhaps why national identity continues to “haunt” the lyrics, melodies, and personality behind the band) expressed through explosive, expansive, and excellent black metal.
But on his latest release, Forgotten Paths, Saor reaches a pinnacle of craft that he has not yet attained before, a fuller expression of the passion that has always guided his music. Its heights was hinted at on Aura, perhaps his most accomplished release before this one, but Forgotten Paths has everything that was astounding about that album and wraps it up in better production, allowing the many details of the music to shine through as they should. This should be apparent on any track from the album but is perhaps most immediately felt on “Monadh”, the excellent second track from the album. Something about the deep vocals that explode alongside the heavier part of the track (following a short melodic intro) and the way they offset the guitar tone is just perfect, causing each note to sing with potency. Where, in previous releases, much of the composition was muffled, hidden behind a classically muddied black metal production, here every twisting note and electric riff can be heard in all its glory.
This is also true of the melodic passages that mark the middle of “Monadh”, right before the track simmers down for a more atmospheric passages. The string instruments and the choir vocals work so well with the crashing chords that still linger from the earlier passages of the track. Instead of creating a cacophony, a tool often used in the genre to communicate the feelings of grandeur it relies upon, it creates a beatific peak of sound for the listener to untangle, displaying all the different sounds in beautiful clarity. The quiet passages which follows is like a bucket of cold water, shocking us after the onslaught of these heavier parts, readying us for the outro, which will revisit these ideas and sounds briefly. When the track ends, we are left with the kind of powerful awe that passion and love enlist, a fullness of the heart that’s hard to describe, like the fullness we might feel when gazing on a mighty valley or towering mountain.
Forgotten Paths has many more of these moments in store for us; “Bròn”, the following track, is also a masterful work of folk black metal (em-bolstered by amazing . But continuing to describe these moments is an exercise in futility. Just like even the greatest writer can’t encapsulate how it feels to stand in nature, so too can this review only hope to capture but a shadow of the emotions this album invokes, if you let it. Perhaps that’s the reason why black metal can be so elusive to us and so hard to understand at times; the passion and love which it calls upon come from the deep places within us, places where words often fail. In making Forgotten Paths, Saor, like any great artist working in this genre, has made an admirable and accomplished efforts to communicate these deeps with a more subtle and elusive tool than language: music.
Saor’s Forgotten Paths releases tomorrow, February the 15th. You can pre-order the album above; I strongly urge you to do so.