Sunday, December 20, 2009

Album Review: Graveland - Spears of Heaven

Graveland - Spears of Heaven

Artist: Graveland (Poland)
Album Title: Spears of Heaven
Record Label: No Colours (Germany)
Released: 2009

I have grown to love the music of Rob Darken's epic pagan metal project Graveland over the past few years, but I hate reading most reviews of his albums. Occasionally more "mainstream" metal writers will review a Graveland album, I suppose to show how open-minded they are to listen to something they find so detestable to their political beliefs, but they can't resist hurling cheap insults at Darken or spending half the review distancing themselves from his politics so as not to leave any doubt that their own politics are much more left-wing. Well, I'm not left-wing, for the most part, so if you're waiting for me to call Darken an "utter fool" or "forest-dwelling heathen LARPmaster" like one reviewer for a major metal website called him in his listless review of Spears of Heaven, you'll be waiting for a long time.

However, as much as I am a fan of Graveland, I cannot give Spears of Heaven a ringing endorsement as I am prone to doing on this little blog. Many of the things I enjoy about Graveland --the war-like atmosphere and imagery of epic battles for the survival of our race, the fire and passion that bleeds from every riff, lyrics that stir the pride of blood even though Darken's English is less than perfect-- are absent from this recording. This is a bit baffling, as the last few albums have had these qualities and more. The previous two albums, Fire Chariot of Destruction and Will Stronger Than Death, showed what seemed to be a re-energized Darken. They are both excellent releases, among the best in Graveland's discography. I'm not sure what went wrong with Spears of Heaven.

It's not all bad, despite what I said in the last paragraph, but I expected much more. The opening, title track begins in promising fashion with a war-like atmosphere and synthesized/sampled female choir voices like Valkyries announcing the new album. But then the first riff starts, and it's uninspiring. At least the drums sound good, though they seem to lack the driving force of the drums on the last few recordings, if I'm not imagining things. Darken's voice sounds pretty standard, a sort of croaking voice that doesn't do much but deliver the lyrics. Most of the basic building blocks seem to be there, so what's missing? I think it's all about the riffs, and the drums. I'm not expecting great riffs here, but normally the music adds up to some sort of atmosphere, created by the grim riffs, the war drums, and the epic feeling delivered by the choirs and synths, and I can't help but feel that it doesn't add up on this album. Spears of Heaven doesn't really give my mind any imagery, nor does it stir anything in my mind or my blood. It lacks inspiration or fire. Darken sounds as if he, when recording this album, was momentarily lacking the passion and pride that normally drives him to create the great, epic pagan metal that Graveland normally delivers. I'm hoping that that's the case, because I hate to think that this marks the beginning of a change in direction that will extend beyond this album.

Spears of Heaven is not without its positives, or its moments of greatness. There are a few good tracks to be found here, like "Flame of Doom" and "Sun Wind." If these songs weren't brought down a bit by the too-clean production, they would have been even better. "Sun Wind" even contains some energetic riffs that the album could have used more of. But then he finishes the album with "Return to the Northern Carpathian," which wouldn't be a bad track except for the almost four and a half minute intro, which is pretty bland and even contains some odd Hammond organ-sounding keys that gives it almost a 70's prog-rock vibe. Without the intro, this is a pretty solid track. It closes the album in good fashion, with some nice riffs and even some of that atmosphere I was looking for as the last few minutes wind down. It would also probably be among the shortest Graveland tracks of the last decade and a half, so maybe he felt the need to extend it with a pointless and long introduction.

Maybe I'm just missing something here. It wouldn't be the first time. It took me several months and several listens in various contexts before I could appreciate the greatness of Thousand Swords. Perhaps this is an album that will grow on me or even "click" with me as others have. I put off writing this review for a long time, hoping that my initial feelings were wrong. But now, several months after purchasing Spears of Heaven, and many, many listens later, I'm just not feeling anything towards it. It's not painful to listen to (unless being somewhat bored brings pain to you), but when I listen to it, I often think about what I would rather be listening to, like Thousand Swords, Memory and Destiny, or Fire Chariot of Destruction.

It's not difficult for me to recommend Graveland, but it is difficult for me to recommend Spears of Heaven, except to hardcore Graveland fans and completists. But, then again, maybe it was unfair for me to expect another album with an atmosphere of war? The prevalent theme of Spears of Heaven seems to be Valkyries, so perhaps that could explain the change. Whatever the reason, I hope that the next Graveland album proves that this is only a small speed-bump, and that Darken will be back on track to inspire us again.