Friday, January 29, 2010

Album Review: Arkona - Goi, Rode, Goi!

Аркона - Goi, Rode, Goi!

Artist: Arkona (Аркона) [Russia]
Album Title: Goi, Rode, Goi!
Record Label: Napalm Records (Austria, USA)
Released: 2009 (October)
Purchased From: Napalm Records

When Arkona's frontwoman and fearless leader Masha "Scream" was interviewed shortly after the release of 2007's Ot Serdtsa K Nebu, she mentioned that she was at a deadlock because she didn't know how to make something better than that album. Amazingly, she managed to do just that with Arkona's fifth studio album, Goi, Rode, Goi!

Honestly, I don't know how Masha and company managed to find time to write and record such a masterwork of pagan/folk metal in the two years since Ot Serdtsa K Nebu, considering how busy things have been for Arkona since its original release in October 2007 on Russia's Sound Age Production. In 2008, the band signed to international metal label Napalm Records, who reissued Ot Serdtsa K Nebu worldwide later that year. Many concerts around Europe followed, and in the meantime Masha continued to raise her young family with husband Sergei "Lazar," who plays guitar for Arkona in addition to fronting his own band, Rossomahaar (whose other members also play in Arkona). Despite all this activity, the band went into the studio towards the end of 2008 and first several months of May 2009, emerging with an album that I believe will be hailed for years as one of the great Slavic pagan metal releases. If anyone was afraid that their signing to Napalm would somehow change Arkona, or that they would perhaps weaken under the pressure of a larger, worldwide audience, I believe that instead it has only made them stronger and more focused.

The album makes itself known strongly with the opening track, "Goi, Rode, Goi!" The traditional instruments, again played by multi-instrumentalist Vladimir Cherepovskiy (who might as well be considered the fifth member of Arkona), make their first appearance 35 seconds in, and Masha's layered, Russian-language vocals appear at less than a minute's time. The black metal influences and Masha's fiercely growled vocals show up merely twenty seconds or so later. The ingredients of Arkona's greatness make themselves known on this first track (of which a video has been released), and by this point the listener will have no question as to what this band is about.

The second track, the title of which translates into English as "On the Unknown Trail," turns up the speed and ferocity, though it contains some more mid-paced sections and great folk-infused moments as Masha alternates deftly between harsh and clean vocals and is joined by a choir of "Loi, loi, loi"'s. This tendency to change pace, mood, and level of aggression continues throughout the album, with many songs going through a lot of changes throughout. It never feels disjointed, at least for someone who is familiar with Arkona's back catalogue. I suppose it should strike me as strange that a song can quickly go from being a fast-paced, black metal song to a happy, folky tune, and then back again, but it's to the band's credit that they make this variety feel natural and not forced or labored. Some listeners will no doubt be flummoxed by the unique sound and overall mood of Arkona, but upon repeated listens it should begin to make sense. And, with an album this long and epic (with its 79 minute, 40 second runtime and incredible musical richness and depth), one will certainly not uncover all its charms on first listen, no matter how closely they pay attention to all that is going on.

Arkona has been utilizing a variety of guest musicians (usually vocalists) for a while now, but the list of guest musicians on Goi, Rode, Goi! is staggering. Ilya "Wolfenhirt" (Svarga) and Aleksandr "Shmel" (Rarog, Kalevala), who both have appeared with Arkona on albums and in concert in the past, lend their voices to the choir on the album, and a string quintet and female choir are also featured. Other guest musicians appear here and there, but the most notable appearance of guest musicians is on the 15-minute long "In My Land." How does this guest list sound: Erik and Jan of Månegarm (Sweden), Baalberith and Sadlave of Obtest (Lithuania), Peter and Edgar of Skyforger (Latvia), Heiko of Menhir (Germany), and Joris and Mark of Heidevolk (Netherlands)? Each set of vocalists and musicians represent a different country visited by the character in the tale, with a message of reverence of one's land, family, traditions, and Gods. This song, which, in less able hands, might have come off disjointed and bloated like Folkearth, turns out to be a great and inspiring song of unity.

After a brief spoken-word track, the momentum of the album continues with a string of great songs like the short but festive "Yarilo," the passionate "Faces of Immortal Gods" (where Masha shows even more depth and range of her singing voice than I'd previously heard), and other excellent tracks that, again, contain a variety of styles within them. Highlights towards the end of the album are "Kolo of Nav," "Arkona," and the album's breathtaking closer, "Sullen Sky, Lurid Clouds." This final song begins with Masha singing a capella, then harmonizing with herself, and soon she is joined by the bass, drums, and a mandolin and domra (the mandolin played by Vetrodar of Tverd, yet another great guest appearance), and then by the guitar. This beautiful song, with its folky melody (which sounds to me not entirely unlike the traditional Russian song "Black Raven") and another wonderful vocal performance by Masha, is certainly one of my musical highlights of 2009, and I can't imagine a better song to end such a masterwork. In fact, the only real "filler" of this almost 80-minute album takes place in the waning minutes of this track, which contains a few minutes of nature sounds and then the sound of flutes.

Goi, Rode, Goi!
is one of the very greatest and most important pagan metal albums I've ever heard. While a variety of bands have emerged to capitalize on folk metal's trendiness with bouncy, enjoyable music that is devoid of any real depth or lasting value, Arkona holds the banner proudly for deep, meaningful music that is full of reverence and pride. One does not need to understand the Russian language in order to be moved by this album. It comes from the heart. The many who misunderstand this style of musical expression and feel its value to be trivial should acquaint themselves with albums like this. The sheer amount of content may initially put some listeners off or exhaust them, but Goi, Rode, Goi! is a journey well worth taking again and again, and it's an album I know I will cherish for years to come. It's a refinement of everything they've been building up to until this point. Wonderful.

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