Originally written by K. Scott Ross.
Some things benefit from precision modern engineering and production: skyscrapers, automobiles, pharmaceuticals. Others, not so much. A blanket, infused with memory. A favourite meal, prepared by a loved one. A lazy weekend, spent with friends. There’s a reason that we place such a high value on the term “handmade.” Minnesota quintet Ashbringer feel that music should be handmade, too. And if it’s not quite perfect, if it’s a little messy and not quite square, that simply adds to the charm of the finished product.
Yugen is certainly such an album. It’s fifty-six minutes of folk/black metal, and in places it’s played with more enthusiasm than finesse. Much more, actually. Album-opener “Solace” provides an excellent example five minutes and forty-five seconds into its near-eleven-minute runtime. Nick Stanger and Robert Northrup pluck arpeggios from mandolins and acoustic guitars while Nathan Wallestad’s bass meanders in the background and Ian Sutherland’s drums…also meander. Meandering is usually not what you want from drums. Things become even more of a cacophonous mess when an electric guitar solos its way into the melange. Messy.
Have we got that out of the way now? Okay, good, because it doesn’t matter. Ashbringer isn’t trying to be Origin. They’re being passionate. They’re writing melodies that stick in your head, they’re evoking seasons and climates and memories of nature. Hell, they’re crafting ten minute songs that don’t bore the listener into changing over to something more polished.
In addition to guitars, Nick Stanger is responsible for the songwriting, the lyrics, and the vocals. His vocal style draws more from the hardcore and emo scenes than the traditional black metal circles, but they fit the expansive nature of the music that Ashbringer plays well. The lyrical content also tends towards that same vein, as songs are about self-reflection, the spirituality of nature, and deep sorrow. “Yugen” itself is a Japanese word that refers to feelings of profundity derived from knowledge of the cosmos that are too deep for words. There’s no room for Satan here, nor the coldness of the Scandinavian black (or even folk) tradition.
“Lakeside Meditation” is one of the stronger songs, with the band all on the same page. Even the clean, chant-like vocals work well in this song, and it’s not over-stuffed with extra folk trappings, like “Solace” occasionally feels. The melodies remind this critic of bands like Saor, and particularly other local bands like Oak Pantheon, Amiensus, and Iron Thrones. The Iron Thrones comparison feels even stronger on the next track, “In Remembrance,” which slows down the pace quite a bit and includes shimmery chorused guitars and electric keyboard vamping while aiming for a more post-metal “build and surge” feeling than the previous black blast attack. Here too the guitar solos are emotionally effective instead of somewhat off-putting.
Although no individual song feels overwhelmingly long, the album as a whole does. Fifty-six minutes of songs generally around the same tempo and in the same key begins to feel somewhat samey. Ashbringer is no Agalloch, although they do try very hard. The double-time transition in the middle of “Celestial Infancy” is a memorable moment that breaks up the sense of “strum acoustic guitars and yell really hard” that built up at that point. Putting together a successful album of this length even just by getting song order correct is a talent that Nick and Nathan (who engineered and produced the album together) have room to grow in.
That phrase could be used to describe much of Ashbringer, particularly if one is feeling less than charitable when they experience Yugen, yet this critic finds the album exciting and brimming with vitality. The band is already producing music that has caught my ears in a year when I’ve personally been very uninterested in anything new, and this is only their second album in two years. If they continue to grow, perhaps instead of considering their music quaintly handmade, we’ll regard them as master craftsmen.