Monuments Review:

Late last year, in the depths of winter, Northern Oak unleashed their new album on the world. The more astute of you may have noticed that I already briefly mentioned it in my round-up of wintery black metal, along with a vague promise of a review “soon”. This is that review.

When we found out about the new album release party at Corporation, it was decided that we must attend. A masquerade ball with folk, metal and burlesque? What could possibly go wrong? Sadly, the worst that could possibly go wrong; we didn’t make it. Undeterred, I bought the CD online instead.

If you’ve only heard some of Northern Oak’s demos before, you’re in for a pleasant surprise. The production quality is in a different league to some of the earlier material and really lets the songs shine. Of the 12 tracks on the album, only 2 have never been previously released in some form on demos or EPs, but you really wouldn’t know it. This is a polished record.

The gorgeous album art by none other than Travis Smith, the man behind some of Opeth’s best artwork, adds to the high quality of this production. Having each song’s page from the booklet as the MP3 artwork is a great touch. It takes the concept of album art in MP3s beyond simple identification and uses it to mesh the imagery, the music and the lyrics into a cohesive whole.

The music itself shifts between softer folk melodies and hard hitting metal riffs. Neither as soporific as Agalloch, nor as brash as Eluveitie, it’s somehow both relaxing yet energising. A half growled, half whispered vocal over the gentle first half of Nivis Canto kicks up to a powerful riff-packed finish. The black metal rasp of Arbor Low gives way to almost an orchestral arrangement in Cerridwen’s Round. The folk gives way almost completely in The Scarlet Woman to a great black metal track with intricate riffs layered with a harsh, thumping vocal.

Like all good folk metal, the songs are more than just their melodies and harmonies. They are entwined, too, with stories; with people, places and events. There are some well known classics included, such as Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and the whore of Babylon. Others include a warriors defeat, an introspection of the impermanence of things and a consideration of the ancient rituals of Sun God worship.

While it’s entirely possible to enjoy this album without ever listening to the words, it’s an even greater pleasure to read the considered, thoughtful lyrics and read the tales that go hand in hand with the emotion locked in the music. On the other hand, if you’d rather dispense with the lyrics entirely, the band have also made an instrumental version of the Monuments available in MP3 format with every purchase.

Northern Oak clearly care very deeply about their music, and this is made even more apparent when reading the band’s own write-ups about each track on their music page. This care and attention to every detail is what has helped build this album up and make it more than the sum of its parts.

The album is available for mere pence at Northern Oak’s music page, along with a pressed and printed CD version that worth the asking price for the artwork printed throughout the booklet, illustrating every track. And for a few extra quid you can also get one of their awesome t-shirts. Hopefully we’ll see Sheffield’s finest purveyors of folk metal and waistcoats at Bloodstock Open Air this year. Head over to the Bloodstock forums to give them your support.

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