Although Kurbads is my first experience with Latvia’s Skyforger, a little bit of research taught me that the band has a back-catalog of four full-lengths devoted to pagan folk-inspired black metal. I also learned that they carry something of a storied history involving misinterpreted pagan symbolism that has since been resolved. Their latest record, seven years on the offing, is not black metal, though it may engender a new air of controversy among Skyforger’s fans as a result.
I’m going to call Kurbads thrashy traditional heavy metal rendered with a fresh production that gives it a modern death metal tinge. There’s more going here, though, than just that, as flashes of black and doom spark up here and there. The degree to which it all comes through will vary between listeners, of course, but there’s no doubt at all as to the band’s reverent affection for folk music. Beyond the obvious presence of indigenous instrumentation, such as flute and bagpipes, the rhythms and melodies at play connote the distinctive character of pagan mythology and ancient warfare that bands of this ilk celebrate. A large part of the band’s authentic sound can be attributed to the voice of Peteris, whose vocal countenance is one of feverish battlelust, low and gargley, and whose every utterance demands the low angle camera shot as he thrusts his broadsword to the sky. The riffs are basic but sturdy and move with a predominantly tramping gait, though there is fire to be loosed from time to time, and when it is, it burns with a fury. The bottom line regarding the style is that the folk is stalwartly contained within the metal. It is revelry within battle. And, whereas this notion will surely ruffle some puffy shirts among more conservative folk-metal devotees, I find it to be refreshing in a subgenre that all too often conjures tights and pointy hats more than bloodied shields and halberds.
The desire to set the heavy tone early might be what was behind the band’s choice of opener, but “Curse of the Witch” is an unfortunate anomaly on Kurbads, featuring a heavy but tired groove within an unremarkable, streamlined structure that is denied the powerful folk flourish found throughout the rest of the album. Curiously flat, but not insurmountable. Songs like the follow-up, “Son of the Mare” and “The Stone Sentinel” retain the first track’s heft but bolster it with the impassioned battlecry of the pipes to great effect. The latter tune and “The Underworld” pit those pipes against some fierce and fiery fretwork and “The Devilslayer” whips the flames to epic heights with a sortie into European power metal territory. I have to say I don’t care for the modern thrash, HBB sound of “Black Rider,” but I’ll be damned if the song doesn’t rip despite itself, invoking images of an ebon-clad champion, as one with his steed, intersecting the battlefield at light speed and lopping heads from their bodies as tomatoes from the vine.
Skyforger takes a more sprawling, epic turn for brief periods of “Bewitched Forest” and “The Stone Sentinel” and ends up losing ground in the process, but each song recovers with up-tempo galloping (the former) and captivating solos (the latter). And it’s within these songs that Skyforger’s primary weakness is exposed. Because the riffs are typically so straightforward, the addition of the winds sometimes feels a bit superfluous. It isn’t always a problem, as evidenced by the powerfully ascendant “The Underworld,” and it isn’t ever so disparate as to suggest the band won’t work it out if they continue along this path.
The self-titled closer feels like a High on Fire tribute to Judas Priest, all the way down to the solos, and it kicks immeasurable amounts of ass. The pipes on “Kurbads” are limited to a bit of restrained soloing near the end, and, because it’s perhaps the album’s best song and a sure-fire live set highlight, this suggests that longtime fans may be disappointed at hearing even less of that full-on folk in the future. Those of us more amenable to the change or just now coming to know Skyforger, though, can smile a little knowing that the guidon is ablaze and there is still plenty of blood to be shed.