Sunday, January 25, 2009

Album Review: Калевала - Кудель белоснежного льна

Калевала - Кудель белоснежного льна

Artist: Калевала (Kalevala) [Russia]
Album Title: Кудель белоснежного льна (Tow of Snow-white Flax)
Record Label: Sound Age (Russia)
Released: 2008 (April)

Ah, now THIS is folk metal. Kalevala may have only formed in 2007, following the departure of vocalist Kseniya and guitarist Nikita from the band Невидь (Nevid), but the band quickly gained attention after posting rather good demo tracks to their Myspace page. At some point, they were offered a contract with Sound Age (one of the best Russian labels), and without much delay released their debut CD, Tow of Snow-white Flax, which is easily one of the top albums in the folk metal genre in 2008 (and perhaps ever).

The lineage of Kalevala can be traced back to Butterfly Temple, one of the earliest Russian pagan/folk metal bands. Kseniya was a guest vocalist for that band, but following what was arguably Butterfly Temple's greatest work, 2003's Тропою крови по воле рода, she and Lesyar had left to form Nevid. Kseniya was a part of Nevid for their first two (and so far only) albums. Then, according to the biography on Kalevala's site, she and Lesyar had some sort of falling out and she and Nikita started this new band with a new focus. Because of Kseniya's apparent Finnish background, the style of Kalevala is heavily influenced by the music of that country, which possibly explains why they kind of sound like Korpiklaani.

Kseniya and Nikita were joined by the great Alexandr "Shmel" of Rarog on bass, Nikita's old school friend Aleksandr Oleynikov on accordion, and Vasiliy on drums, and then wasted no time putting together a demo and then writing songs for their debut full-length. Despite how quickly everything came together, Kalevala sounds rather confident and accomplished. Perhaps it is due to the experience of Kseniya, Nikita, and Schmel, who are no strangers to the folk metal scene, but this CD shows the creative and adventurous energy of a young band but the maturity and professionalism of a band that has played together for a much greater amount of time. It's the best of both worlds.

I liked Kseniya's voice in Butterfly Temple and Nevid, but I absolutely love it in Kalevala. Her voice is unique, and it sounds like a mix of modern and traditional vocal styles. She sounds confident, and leads the band with an infectious energy that is well-supported by the rest of the players. The accordion player is easily one of the best in the genre. He and Johannes Joseph of Finsterforst should have an accordion-solo contest, as they both manage to make their instruments an integral and inseparable part of their respective bands' sounds. Guitarist Nikita is no slouch either. Not simply content to let the accordion steal his thunder, he plays excellent lead guitar (and frequent solos) on this album. In many bands of this style (including Korpiklaani), there's a distinct lack of lead guitar, but nobody is relegated to background duty in Kalevala. Even bassist Shmel and drummer Vasiliy manage to shine on this album. Listen to this album on a stereo system with decent bass and you'll gain a greater appreciation for Shmel's contributions to the bouncy, energetic sound. The production is clear, full, and perfect for the style of music.

The lyrics, from what I could roughly translate online, seem to be old tales (perhaps folk tales) and love songs, and I think they're mostly or all written by Kseniya. I don't think there's much if any pagan lyrical content on the album. It's hard to tell, though, because most of the words aren't recognized by Google Translate. Perhaps they're archaic words, or Karelian. I don't know. The artwork and packaging are quite nice, and the booklet is a ridiculously thick 24 pages that barely fits behind the tabs that hold the insert in the CD case. All lyrics are printed, along with pictures of what appears to be drawings of old earrings and maybe brooches or pins. Not surprisingly, all information is in Russian. The credits include a few guest musicians, including two flute players and a guest vocalist on the final track (Valery Naumov of the band Ivan-Tsarevich).

Although many of the songs are fast-paced, with humppa-influenced rhythms, there's a pretty nice variety of styles on the album. Four tracks in, they slow things down with a ballad, Кудель белоснежного льна, but then pick things up again with the fantastic and popular Пастушок and Милый, the latter being probably the fastest song on the album (with the possible exception of the last few minutes of the final track). That is followed by Снега белые крыла, which shifts the style to a more traditional rock style, and sounds more like something from Nevid. Then they move to a faster song and then a mid-paced song. The final song is a metal rendition of the traditional Ukrainian song Ти ж мене пiдманула, and it's a fun and satisfying ending to a fantastic folk metal album.

Sound Age releases (like Pagan Reign, Arkona, or Izmoroz) normally aren't difficult to find among American metal distros, but I haven't seen this CD over here yet. I had to order it from Russia. That's a shame, but hopefully it's only temporary. I think an international metal label (like Napalm) would do well to license this CD for worldwide distribution, because Kalevala is just as good as, if not better than, the folk metal bands on larger metal labels. But, in the meantime, try to track down Tow of Snow-white Flax if you're a fan of lighter, energetic folk metal. It's a great album that is hopefully just the beginning of a long string of releases from an immensely talented band. They've recently posted a demo version of a song from their next album on their Myspace page, a ballad. So they're already working on a second album, and it sounds promising so far. Time will tell if it will be as good as their debut, but in the meantime I will be enjoying this one.

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