If Scotland is going to have an impact year in black metal it’s going to be due to the tireless efforts of Andy Marshall. Guardians represents his second solo release of 2016. Earlier this year he released the debut album from his other solo project Fuath, simply entitled I. That album leaned harder on atmosphere and pagan themes rather than the more folk-influenced sound of the project he is most known for, Saor. This album sees Marshall plying the trade he is best known for: folk-, specifically Scottish folk-inspired black metal. While both albums are good in their own right, Marshall might do best by combining the efforts from Fuath into a more mature version of Saor.
The tracks on Guardians, as a whole, are a tad bit shorter than previous efforts, yet all still exceed the 10-minute mark. The album is mournful, often evoking emotions via woven guitar and fiddle melodies that create more tension than they do resolution. The album is, as all Marshall projects are, inherently tied to Scotland. A difficult thing to avoid when the band name is derived from gaelic “Saor Alba” meaning “Free Scotland.” The unique sound is inherently tied to the land upon which it is not only honors but celebrates.
Always a standout of Marshall’s work, vocals are as airy and open as a windy Scottish plain. A deep voice, full of smoke and mist, that somehow never feels as forced or overdriven as it sounds. Rather, the vocals feel as if they are coming from every direction, blanketing the listener in atmosphere and effect. Across graceful and alluring melody lines, the vocals pierce through providing exasperated anger and unending pride. Unsurprisingly, the drumming has taken a step backwards with Bryan Hamilton handling the work instead of Panopticon’s Austin Lunn (who handled drums on Aura). Often sounding uninspired, too loosely tuned and far too rote, the drums leave the guitars to handle the more interesting rhythmic duties.
Still, Guardians is, if nothing else, beautiful. The third track, aptly titled “Autumn Rain,” is a largely clean, slowly meandering track. In stark contrast to the more subdued “The Declaration” which opens with all the fury that Saor can muster: blast beats, treble-heavy distorted guitars and fiddles for effect. “The Declaration” shows the sheer breadth of instrumentation that Marshall is composing for. The track employs whistles, fiddles and a bagpipe all expertly played by studio musicians. The song’s outro is a major album highligh: A beautiful, looping fiddle line supported by melodic guitar lines and double bass.
The title track employs the most gratuitous use of bagpipes (played by Kevin Murphy), the presumed musical protector of Scotland. That track contains what can only be described as groovy breakdowns as the track meanders through its progression of movements. Much like most of Marshall’s work, the composition is neatly divided into smaller sections complete with intro, outro and plenty of guitar driven rhythms.
The closer, “Tears of a Nation” is the riffiest song on the album. As such, it’s also the heaviest track and comes closest to what Marshall offers in Fuath. The main difference being that “Tears of a Nation” employs multiple layers of instrumentation to create harmonies where appropriate. Those supporting instruments often lead the charge and do more than just carrying the melody. This is perhaps the largest change on Guardians: The secondary instruments, those of the folk world, are often employed to create tension rather than merely provide beauty on periods of release.
Fuath showed us that Marshall can succeed with more stripped down, straight-forward and aggressive black metal. After three albums consisting of five tracks each, and with Guardians being a marked step back from Aura, Saor is beginning to feel like a stale outfit stuffed into the washing machine again and again. Don’t get me wrong, Guardians is a beautiful album second only to Aura in the Saor catalog. And the ever diversifying expansion of instrumentation is reassuring, but where Saor begins to become rote is in its pillow softness and lack of aggression. Aggression that we now know Marshall is capable of because we heard it so brilliantly on Fuath. While the projects are separate entities, and they both accomplish different ends, it would be nice to see Marshall combine some of the Fuath sound into Saor as to take the project forward rather than let it continue to wallow in the shadow of Aura.