Traditionally, bands with an exceptional lead guitarist, if they’ve got their wits about them, craft their sound around that player’s leads and solos. Nothing’s more frustrating than getting an album from one of those acts and finding the inexplicable absence or minimization of the lead guitar’s melodies and solos. If you’ve got it, flaunt it, as they say. On the other hand, it can be just as grating when the lead guitar dominates at the cost of quality songwriting. Balance, then, is the key.
“But, John,” pipes the inveterate fan of the band currently under review, “yours is a fine point, but you’re really kind of talking out your ass. Silent Stream of Godless Elegy doesn’t even use lead guitar (anymore).”
This is true, my somehow obtuse yet persnickety friend, but they make my point nonetheless. The doom-laden folk metal (they call it “Ethno Doom”) fashioned by this Czech troupe achieves that balance of flash and restraint with definitive grace. It just happens that they make it so with traditional strings, rather than guitar. Návaz, SSoGE’s fifth full length since 1996, places violin at its center, so that its sweeping, solemn notes are afforded as much space as the vocals, if not more. Given the band’s medium, this might have been a dubious decision but, like other fine heavy bands to push traditional stringed instruments up front (e.g., Dornenreich, Grayceon), Silent Stream of Godless Elegy uses the violin’s luster to forge a cultivated edge, enhancing Návaz‘s heavy metal core.
Pavel Zouhar’s violin may deftly take the lead but it is only one of a wide array of instruments on Návaz, including piano and cello. The eight players at work here follow an accommodating tack, spreading the sounds deeper than wide, yielding an opulence that cradles the melodies. The rhythm section is strong, featuring two guitars on top of bass and drums, providing an ample gravity where fat and bouncy rhythms predominate, placing the footfalls around which the lead instruments spin and twirl, reflecting traditional aesthetics of the band’s native Moravia. Even as the overarching tone of the record is dark, those melodies refuse to leave the listener there, leading by hand to swing and turn within great spans of gold beaming from cracks in the misty grey.
No doubt a great deal of the energy devoted to the creation of Návaz was funneled to the vocal arrangements. The harmonies are fantastic and the melodies compelling, especially as reflected in truly beautiful counterpoint with the violin throughout the record. These Moravian melodies are carried vocally by Hanka Hajdová, whose contribution has been enhanced here even beyond her already prominent role since joining the band for 2004’s excellent Relic Dances. Her airy soprano feels as comfortable when rising to urgent, epic heights as it does in pensive and mysterious moments. Hajdová gets help from Pavel Hrncír’s baritone cleans, a new addition to SSoGE’s vocal repertoire that plays beautifully, and his deep growls emphasize the record’s heavier, darker stretches. The vocalists’ elegant dance with the violin and cello epitomizes the essence of dynamic interplay.
Following with the redefinition of the band’s sound in 2004 (along with a nearly complete overhaul of its staff), Návaz is not the least bit concerned with extremity. The pace is varied but patient and weight is generated with melancholy more than sheer mass of sound, and is counterbalanced by reluctant optimism from the strings. It’s the mark of a band that has matured its craft. The cost of that coming of age has been the letting go of some of the fire found on their early records, but it ends up being an even trade. Návaz features a greater emphasis on the relationship between harmonics and melody and mood and the result is a smarter record (if not necessarily better than previous efforts), that values subtlety and depth over the easy contrast of brash bravado against a pretty tune. Though they’ve always been a balanced and thoughtful collective, it’s clear that Silent Stream of Godless Elegy is all grown up now and that’s going to leave some feeling left behind. That’s fine. They’ll still be around when those folks catch up.