To get my attention, atmospheric folk metal has to be able to engulf me like a winter snow storm, to cut off all ties with reality, and to carry me away into a parallel fantasy world.
Calgary’s Maglor does it brilliantly. This could be described as pagan metal: it is located at the outskirts of the black metal genre, where the rawness of music meets Nordic themes, and it is looking into the realm of folk metal, as heard with the folk arrangements and musical instruments. With its Tolkien reference on the one hand and the backdrop of the Canadian Rockies on the other, Call of the Forest is a magnetic invitation to get lost into the majestic vastness of the wild, an invisible yet powerful force dragging the listener towards different horizons – in other words, a moving experience.
Among the various characters we find on this 50-minutes journey are the cold wind of the mountain, the howling of the wolves and the distant lamentations of the ancient spirits of nature. These are only a few atmospheres among those depicted throughout the 4 songs (including 3 songs over 11 minutes) and 2 intros. It starts with “The Meeting of Land and Water”, an atmospheric soundtrack about restless wilderness that announces the main characteristic of the album: from this first track to the last, every song is housed in an overwhelming atmosphere. The second track, “Skoger av Døden”, gives the colors of the album. Translated from Norwegian to “Forest of Death”, we get exactly what this album is about, i.e. black metal singing, mid-hi frequency guitar sound and simple chords, and an orchestrated drum section highlighted with many keyboards arrangements. This song also has some male Viking chants (think early Enslaved), to warm up the place. At this point in the album, we know that there’s something beyond the use of black metal – although similar in provenance – and it is Scandinavian folk influences.
The epic, near 14-minutes “Summoned” follows. With occult riffs and flute, we dive deeper into Maglor’s universe, a world textured by various instrumentations and guitar melodies, where the band takes its time to carry us smoothly along their song structure. It ends with a beautiful guitar melody and other folk instrument (… reminding me of the Braveheart movie!). This journey continues with “Under the Night Sky”, an interlude that stands out from the rest of the album mostly because of its highly computer-generated flavor that could have figured as the soundtrack to a video game or a fantasy movie. “Endless I Wander” sounds like a medieval death metal valse, and has some acoustic guitar reminding me of early Absu arrangements. The album ends with the title track, “Call of the Forest”, another long and epic track. With keyboards filling for guitars at the beginning of the song, they provide a dominating atmosphere to the song, an untameable force like Mother Nature. Gradually, guitars incorporate; black metal vocals patterns are sung in a slow pace, being cold and heavy like the weight of snow; and Maglor continue playing carefully with the moods and pace of the song, providing a few rays of sun around the 8-minutes bar, but ultimately ending the journey with a sense of grandeur.
The strengths of Call of the Forest lie in its orchestration, or arrangements. Keyboards and computer-generated instrumentation are heavily coating this music like feet of snow on a mountainous land. There are a lot more keyboards than your average metal, but this exaggeration is necessary to get the point: along with the breathable pace of the album, the keys are forming the invisible stream of continuity and defining its very atmosphere. This is cold, very cold, as attested by the almost raw guitar sound typical of black metal and the vocals croaking. This is however not black in content, as the music palette ranges in many tones of grey. I keep referring to a snow storm for a good reason: the sun doesn’t get through this music, but we can feel it tainting the various layers. Needless to say, the use of folk instrumentation also brings a brighter feeling to the music.
I have only one criticism about Call of the Forest, and it’s about the drum programming. It contrasts and stands out too much in comparison with the texture created by the evilness of the guitars, the pureness of the black metal vocals, and the heavy layers of keyboards. Just as this whole storm feels like it is driven by the forces of nature, I can’t help but hear the fancy drum programming at the forefront of the music. I am not condemning the programming itself – for it is surprisingly excellent and the drum patterns are very well crafted – but I would have preferred the sound to be given something else in the mix to better blend with the other instruments.
Overall, I don’t think Call of the Forest will appeal to a mass audience, but I certainly enjoyed listening to it and I’ll revisit it from time to time. The album produces the kind of impression earlier Bathory albums had on me: in a far far away land, different metal genres are blending perfectly to reveal a journey into place and time. With its strong emphasis on atmospheres, it reminds me of Eldensky – another project from Maglor member Beren Tol Galen –, Montreal’s Transcendence, or a few contemporary American black metal bands, especially Maine’s Falls of Rauros. For a first album, it is both well conceived and well executed, and I hope there will be a follow up.
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