Thursday, June 19, 2008

Album Review: Astaarth - "Gloria Burgundia"

Astaarth - Gloria Burgundia

Artist: Astaarth (France)
Album Title: Gloria Burgundia
Label: Bloodfiredeath (Germany)
Released: 2007

Astaarth is a band (now a duo) that has been in existence since 1996, yet Gloria Burgundia is their first album (not including two demos released in 1998 and 2002, respectively). According to the insert, Astaarth plays "Burgundian Pagan/folk Metal exclusively," this statement being followed by about twenty exclamation points. Listening to this album has had the benefit of forcing me to learn some things about the history of Burgundy, a region of France and Switzerland that was once the site of the kingdom of the Burgundians, an East Germanic tribe that probably originated from Scandinavia. As a lyric from the album's opening track, "Our Beloved Country," states: "We are not French, nor another nationality. We are Burgundians above all." Okay, then. These guys mean business.

The music can be described as somewhat raw and epic black metal with a strong folk sound. One half of the duo plays, in addition to the expected heavy metal instruments, the ├ępinette (a form of zither found in France), banjo, double-bass, and Irish pipes. There are also several guest musicians on the recording, so, in addition to those instruments, we are treated to the sound of the hurdy gurdy, mouth harp, flute, violin, accordion, and spoons (!). To top it off, there are backing vocalists who sing choir parts as well as pieces of traditional Burgundian songs that appear within the construct of the long (between 7 and 12 minute) tracks. Two shorter instrumental tracks round out the package, leaving us with a very odd but compelling 57-minute folk metal album. The lyrics are almost all in English, and primarily deal with Burgundian history and nationalism.

My first listen to this album was a strange experience due to the contrast of the black metal and the frequent folk sections. One moment I was listening to a fairly normal black metal with the expected shrieking vocals, and then in the next moment I'm hearing weird yipping sounds, handclaps, acoustic guitar, mouth harp, double-bass, and another stringed instrument that I'm assuming is the ├ępinette. I'm no neophyte to to folk metal, but even I had to become accustomed to the music Astaarth creates on Gloria Burgundia. I can't even imagine the reaction that a person who is not at all familiar to folk metal would have if I were to play the album for them, especially the track "Vae Victis," which is the one with the spoons.

Although I enjoy Gloria Burgundia immensely, I found that, in contrast to the vibrant (and often smile-inducing) folk sections, some of the longer black metal-oriented sections can be dry. Astaarth is miles more interesting when they bring in the folk instruments and traditional melodies. Fortunately, the black metal sections are made better when the violin, bagpipes, and other instruments play along, though I didn't always notice them at first listen.

Astaarth is likely to have limited appeal with Gloria Burgundia, because, even by folk metal standards, this is a bit of a niche product. I think that some listeners will be entertained but will view it as no more than a novelty due to the uniqueness of the sound. However, I have found it both entertaining and enlightening, and I enjoy it even more with each listen. It persuaded me to look into the history of Burgundy, a subject with which I was unfamiliar previously, so that says something about its impact on me. It's definitely an album to check out if you're looking for something different and perhaps challenging. It's a great album, but, like most folk metal, it's going to sound perplexing and strange to those who aren't prepared for it.

So, prepare yourself with a visit to Astaarth's Myspace profile and give them a listen. I can almost guarantee that you've never heard anything else like it. I would definitely recommend Gloria Burgundia to open-minded fans of folk metal, and I hope we won't have to wait 11 years to hear a second album from this Burgundian duo.

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