Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Album Review: Darkestrah - The Great Silk Road

Darkestrah - The Great Silk Road

Artist: Darkestrah (Kyrgyzstan / Germany)
Album Title: The Great Silk Road
Label: Paragon Records (USA)
Released: 2008

My first exposure to Darkestrah was in the fall of 2005 when I ordered their first album, Sary Oy. This promising and unique debut mixed obscure black metal with a lot of traditional Kyrgyz instruments and throat singing, which is not a combination you hear on a regular basis. Unfortunately as vocalist Kriegtalith and drummer Asbath moved the band to Germany, they parted ways with the guy responsible for playing all those traditional instruments (Oldhan). As a result, their next album, Embrace of Memory, had a sound that was much closer to traditional black metal, though it was very epic and had some scattered influences of Kyrgyz culture in the mix. Because a lot of their uniqueness was gone, and I was losing interest in traditional black metal, I ignored their next album, Epos, for a while.

After Epos, Darkestrah left German label No Colours and arranged for their next album, 2008's The Great Silk Road, to be released on small New York State label Paragon Records. This should be good news for U.S. fans, who won't have to track down another Darkestrah release on No Colours and pay the higher prices that are usually charged for releases on that label. Not that a higher price wouldn't be worth it for this album, which would turn out to be one of my favorite 2008 releases, but the easy availability and very positive reviews the album was getting inspired me to give the band another listen.

While Epos was thematically centered around the Kyrgyz lake of Issyk Kul, The Great Silk Road, obviously, is concerned with the ancient trade routes that pass through Asia. Epos was a good album, but I found it a little repetitive and very short (if you get rid of the several minutes of sound effects, the album clocks in at around 27 minutes). The Great Silk Road builds on the many positive aspects of Epos, but is overall a much more satisfying package, in my opinion. For one thing, it's significantly longer, with four long tracks (ranging from 8 1/2 to almost 19 minutes in length) and a short outro. I also found it to be more musically interesting. There are certainly those who prefer Epos, however, and I would certainly recommend that release if you find it for a good price and are prepared for what is basically a long EP consisting of one song.

On this album, Darkestrah reminds me quite a bit of Drudkh or Negură Bunget but with a bit of Orphaned Land mixed in. There are many atmospheric, slow-burning sections with thick chords and catchy riffs, sometimes enhanced by keyboards, cello, or a few traditional instruments (like the temir-komuz, the Kyrgyz jaw harp). The music, especially in some of the intros, has a very distinct Middle Eastern quality to it, and one may have no problem picturing the desert and traders from various cultures converging on the Silk Road. Then there are Kriegtalith's vocals, which are evil and icy cold. Hers are some of my favorite black metal-style vocals, because they are in such a high register and often sound inhuman. I don't know if she enhances her vocals with a little distortion, but I suspect that she has simply perfected this style over the past few albums. Some might not like the style, because it at times seems at odds with the atmosphere otherwise created by the music, but I didn't find this to be a distraction.

Because of the long track times and the patient approach the band takes at developing the songs, what results is a satisfying, winding journey. It's one of those albums you can love on the first listen, yet continue to discover new things about it with each subsequent listen. Those who enjoyed the first Darkestrah album but felt that they ventured too far from their roots after that should give them another chance, because, even if the use of traditional instruments and melodies isn't quite as prominent as it was on Sary Oy, I think everything blends together better on this album. Folk metal fans who don't tend to listen to pagan-themed black metal (like Fimbultyr, Enslaved, Hate Forest, etc.) might find this to be too strongly black metal-oriented for their tastes, but then again they might find it easier to listen to because of how well Darkestrah establishes the atmosphere and keeps it throughout the album. It's kind of like how Nile's use of "ancient Egyptian" musical themes made it possible for me to listen to them even though I don't normally like ultra-pummelling death metal.

Perhaps the centerpiece of the album is "Kara-Oy," which is by far the longest track. This track begins with what I think is the cello, along with some throat singing, before launching into some furious black metal. At just before the twelve minute mark, and again shortly thereafter, the band references the main musical theme to their debut album, Sary Oy, which I thought was a pretty cool touch. Anyone familiar with Sary Oy can't possibly miss it. The way this song builds, dismantles, and re-builds, with an organic ebb and flow, reminds me very much of Epos, except about ten minutes shorter. It winds down with the sound of the temir-komuz over a thick backdrop of Drudkh-like musical atmosphere before fading into the 2-minute long, cinematic-sounding outro.

Darkestrah is certainly a unique band, and with each album they have gained a lot of attention, and rightfully so. Fans of black metal, pagan metal, and bands like Orphaned Land should at least check out some samples of The Great Silk Road and see if it doesn't grab you. An excellent metal album indeed.

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