Fans of the genre know too well that picking up a new folk metal album can be such a crapshoot. The search for quality in this niche of metal can be like treasure hunting in a minefield where the slightest misstep triggers a shitbomb detonation of drunken pirate karaoke and even the most careful sweeps often yield but the daintiest of baubles fully stripped of their precious metal by the plastic chainmail-clad LARPers that buried them. These are the pyrite curios prized by fortune seekers oblivious to the artistic ends in their quest for expedient means (it’s also fun, of course, which is surely the point, but I’m a crusty old fart). Mind your step and dig judiciously, though, and you may just unearth that rare piece of refined metal that glows with authentic primordial pride derived naturally from its forger’s relentless allegiance to traditional ideals; just the shimmering artistry on offer from one of this year’s great surprises, Aiumeen Basoa.
Although they’ve only a split to show for it prior to Iraganeko Bide Malkartsutik, Aiumeen Basoa have been at the folk/Pagan metal game for a long time in their native Basque Country, where the Pyrenees split the north of Spain and the south of France. Whereas the Basques are often associated with a minority’s fierce nationalism, Aiumeen Basoa appear to be less interested in politics than crafting reverent songs of folklore and nature, reflecting a heartfelt but tenuous hold on ancient tradition. Naturally, then, all the lyrics are in the ancient Basque Language and the musical approach is centered on sustaining the ways of old via traditional instrumentation, including the sounds of violin, flute and accordion.
Iraganeko… has no time for the renaissance fair, however; there’s no high-kneed skip-along fiddle and lute play here. This is black metal at its core, at times true to the ways of the second wave’s vanguard and at others comfortable galloping aside their neo-black neighbors of the near north. But where much of black metal guards its heart fiercely, this is a celebratory album that opens itself wide, vitalizing its sentiment by sharing it with the world. And with the album’s traditional ideals tethered to its blackened foundation, Aiumeen Basoa extends them through the roots of their contemporary influences in a complex array of styles, from folk and black to atmospheric prog-rock and doom-death. The variegated assemblage gives the songs so much room to flow and soar. Giving rise to memorable melodies, it allows the listener to range the emotional spectrum from serenity to ferocity and to experience a palpable sense of pride in and wonder at the majesty of Nature (quite the feat given the lack of lyrical guidance for most).
The album works particularly well because its songs reflect a top-down process in which each piece is clearly defined by a musical idea that dictates the selection of sounds for each unique passage, as opposed to the strategy that writes to accommodate an interesting riff or tone. Six long songs reflect this painstaking approach through progressive structure, where the skillful variation of rhythmic ideas, tone and texture, time and tempo, is given clear purpose within dynamic songwriting. Take, for example, the subtle interplay of flute and accordion that opens “Akelarrearen Sua.” The instruments dance in gentle counterpoint and delicately, almost imperceptibly, trade the lead melody in beckoning the sweet aria of the band’s female vocalist, Oihane. It’s that sort of subtle attention to detail that defines the album’s excellence, but it’s the players that give it vivacious character.
There is a telling of tales in these songs and, as such, there’s a wide variety of vocals at play, from high-pitched rasps and guttural growls to male and female cleans that fully complement the range of instruments. It’s a grand production with many parts, each appropriately subtle or grandiose in faithfulness to the larger story, where even the drums and bass spend well deserved moments in the spotlight. And while the whole of the musicianship on Iraganeko… is outstanding, the lead guitar pieces stand tall in a class of their own. Each is perfectly suited to its song, whether ripping the sky in the album’s more frenetic passages or gently cruising just off the surface of its placid moments.
Then the connection between the old world and the new is made complete with highly polished modern production. At first it seemed a weird juxtaposition between the production and the music, the super clean sound benefitting the softer side while depriving the black metal of some of its critical ire. This will likely be a deal breaker for some, but in the end it’s an approach that may best serve the intent of the album, which is to draw a fully realized arc from ancient ideals through to modern sensibilities.
So, while the quest for riches in the realm of folk metal too often culminates in crates full of trinkets destined for the second hand market, here is a treasure laid squarely at your feet. Aiumeen Basoa’s first full length is an incredibly ambitious, progressive folk metal album that makes good on all its promises with songwriting acumen and stellar performances from its players. And, for those with patience to discover its beautiful nuances, Iraganeko Bide Malkartsutik is a legitimate dark horse contender for end-of-the-year honors.