Saturday, May 21, 2005

Primordial — The Gathering Wilderness (Metal Blade)

Ireland’s Primordial are one of my favourite black metal bands partly because they’ve grown beyond the conventions of the genre. Instead of grooveless blasting, their rhythms surge at a satisfying pace; instead of adding keyboards to affect cod-symphonic majesty, they build their atmospheres with good old guitars/bass/drums; and instead of screeching, buried vocals, AA Nemtheanga’s singing is understandable and up-front, and of varying timbres—similar to My Dying Bride’s Aaron with his alternating wailing/growling style. Primordial have done some label hopping in their decade together: The Gathering Wilderness is their first for Metal Blade and fifth overall. Despite this instability, they’ve never stopped honing their sound, and here it is spread over an hour of savage, passionate metal, captured with the perfect balance of grime and clarity by doom-master Billy Anderson. Primordial’s main concession to black metal philosophy is their reverence for heritage. They’re aggressively Irish in both their music and lyrics. Their riffs have a pronounced Celtic feel, with broad-stroked strumming that I can imagine working well in an acoustic context. The drums are often tribal, like a mighty bodhran of the gods, as you can hear in the introduction and denoument of the first track, “The Golden Spiral.” This approach manages to retain the uneasy dischord of black metal, and thankfully never descends into Riverdance-style kitsch. The words, written exclusively by AA Nemtheanga, use a lot of nature imagery—the first track alone incorporates the wind, rain, the sky, streams, and forests—to evoke the mysterious forces that beset us; again in keeping with a lot of black metal. “The Coffin Ships,” the album’s emotional centerpiece, is devoted to the Irish famine of 1845–49, when Ireland lost 3 million people to starvation and emigration. (This info courtesy of AA’s booklet notes, another indication of Primoridial’s desire to communicate to its audience.) Primordial also retain black metal’s apocalyptic/genocidal sensibility, unafraid to depict carnage on a massive scale, as they do on the title track where Nemtheanga, personifying the terrible maelstrom gathering to cleanse the world, doles out punishment to men, women, and children "with a rusted blade across their throats." Like Sabbath before them, however, the message behind the lyrical grand guignol is cautionary and moral. Primordial’s strength, their singular style, perhaps contributes to the album’s only weakness, which is a lack of variety between tracks. Each song uses the same rhythm at different velocities, and lasts for 8 or 9 minutes. I would have welcomed one or two digressions, like the sparse, nearly a cappella "Solitary Mourner" from A Journey's End, to disrupt the uniformity of song. Still, it’s not so bad to be overconsistent if you’re consistently good—which Primordial are here.

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