Another day, another excellent release from 2019 which I’ve only gotten to now. I’ve had Wandering Oak‘s Passage Elemental bookmarked since I stumbled on it when trawling through Bandcamp but I only seriously set down to listen to it when someone on my Facebook feed recommended it. What I found is hard to categorize; much like its cover art, Passage Elemental fuses different themes and sounds. It’s also not a common fusion. Instead of the usual mix of black metal and death, to name just one of the more popular fusions right now, or jazz and prog, Wandering Oak play a kind of blackened heavy metal. This is not too rare, as some other bands have been playing with this elixir in the past few months (watch out for Nite‘s upcoming release for example) but on Passage Elemental it’s given a true unique spin. Instead of having one sound be dominant, the album insists on truly mixing the two sounds, creating a heavy, busy, and challenging album that is also incredibly satisfying once you decode it.
Listening to the opening track, “Riastrad” (a sort of berserk battle fervor found in Irish mythology) is probably the best place to get acquainted with this bewildering sound. On one hand, the building intro is graced with resonant wood flutes, soon joined by an incredibly folksy acoustic guitar which announces an extremely heavy metal line up. The bass gallops, the guitar tones are in overdrive and the whole thing just sounds very 80’s proto-power metal. Which is why the abrasive vocals which then split the air are such a surprise; they belong in the 80’s as well but on something from Norway with a dark forest on its cover art rather than on this sword-wielding, giant-slaying, ring-wearing tour de force. Adding to the “confusion” is the fact that there’s a second vocal line and that vocal line makes perfect sense with the heav metal timbre of the rest of the instrumentation; its deep tones immediately communicate the “blacksmith on a mission” vibe that you would expect if you had only heard the instruments.
From there, the album only goes wilder. It has beautiful folk interludes, like on “Upon Stranger Shores”, where the bass does an amazing job underscoring and working with the strummed acoustic guitars and the vocals sing a bard-like story and melody. It has faster, blistering segments which work with the abrasive vocals to create the kind of thrash-y vibe found in the early, dirty days of black metal. You can hear those on the closing track, “The Iron Horde”, as the guitars are fully let loose to run free and work closely with the harsh vocals. Elsewhere, almost whispered growls play alongside the more folk elements on the album, and their prominent bass underpinning, reminding us of Primordial‘s chilling re-telling of European tragedy. In short, this album does a lot, weaving a common thread of dedication to a multitude of genres.
This ambition, somehow, manages to come together into an album. It might be because the same heart of heavy metal pulses through these tracks, no matter which style is currently being explored alongside it. Heavy metal is the common thread which ties the lot of it together, in tone and composition and the presence of those deep, epic vocals from the first track. It’s also probably because Wandering Oak clearly care about each of these genres very deeply. Nothing here is lip service or just another badge to stick on a battle jacket of inspirations for cool kid points. You can tell that Wandering Oak love each of these styles of metal and this passion allows them to weave them all deftly together. Bottom line, this is metal; well made, passionate, uncompromising metal. Whether played high or low, soft or harsh, the beating heart of its aggression carries Passage Elemental forward and makes it one of the better album to come out of the heavy/trad metal spaces in 2019.