Monuments Review: Phil @

When you receive an email from a band claiming to be a Sheffield-based progressive folk metal band, the instant reaction is to be interested because if there is one thing that the north of this country has excelled in producing it is doom, heavy metal and folk-orientated acts. Unconvinced? Consider this: Paradise Lost, Anathema, My dying bride, Old Corpse Road and Cradle of Filth all come from the Midlands or beyond and all are first class metal bands with loyal followings and some truly excellent albums to their name. To this list, I am tempted to add Northern Oak on the strength of their latest (and second) offering ‘Monuments’ which goes further towards the typical goal of marrying folk and heavy metal elements into a truly spectacular whole than many other leading exponents of the genre, while the band also successfully tap into the grim atmosphere of vintage Paradise Lost to create a truly absorbing listen. Have I got your attention yet? Read on, because Northern Oak are more than deserving of your time.

The first sign that Northern Oak are going to be something rather out of the ordinary is the astonishing care and attention that has gone into the presentation of the record despite the absence of label support (a neglect bordering on the criminal) and the booklet has not only some fantastic cover art reminiscent of the work done for The Vision Bleak but also full lyrics and a suitably leafy band shot. Also included in the package (behind the CD tray) is a brief exposition of the life of the album’s inspiration, one George Eadon Deakin, an English poet who lived in the mid eighteen hundreds. Such liner notes aid a deeper understanding of the music contained on the album and highlight the fact that Northern Oak’s attention to detail travels beyond fine packaging into their musical endeavours, something that becomes obvious the moment you place the disc in your player and allow yourself to become enveloped in the band’s multi-layered and engrossing work.

Opening with the heavy progressive metal of ‘Sun god’s wrath’ which successfully adjoins King Crimson, Emperor, Eluvetie and Burzum into a folk-tinged blast of icy cold black metal, all the elements that metal fans require are here from blast beats to vocals torn from the depths of hell, yet offset by a folky grandeur that dovetails perfectly with the progressive artists tendency towards story telling. The musicianship is of the highest standard and the production, too, is refreshingly excellent with each instrument afforded depth and clarity and no element sounding out of place. It is a fantastic, ambitious opening gambit that draws you deep inside the heart of Northern Oak’s unique music and keeps you there until the final track has faded into memory – it is that good. ‘Gawain’ is next and it begins as a gorgeous piece of sun-soaked pastoral progressive music before black metal interludes ravage the atmosphere with icy blasts of Arctic wind that chill the bones and strip the very leaves from the tress. Meanwhile the intelligent lyrics offer up aspects of the story of Gawain and the Green knight told in the first person and imbuing the character with a noble bravery and honour that harks back to a bygone era of chivalry and valour. Speaking of harking back to a bygone era, ‘into the forest’ with its picked guitar, flute and spoken word parts is a throwback to the days of tales told around the campfire, setting the scene perfectly for the gentle strains of ‘Silvan lullaby’, a poetic gem that sits comfortably amidst the heavier elements of the album thanks to the clever writing of the band. Here, when the guitars do come raging in, they never overpower either the melody or the traditional instruments used and it is this skill that makes Northern Oak so special.

Another aspect of Northern Oak’s success is the fact that they have made a convincing album. The tracks flow beautifully from one to the next, allowing you to drift into their beguiling fantasy world as easily as if you were reading from the works of Tolkein. With the folk sections played so convincingly that the band could feasibly decamp to a folk club and the heavy aspects so seamlessly adjoined to the whole the best way to enjoy ‘Monuments’ is to whack on a pair of high-end headphones and allow the real world to vanish for an hour or so. ‘Arbor Low’ makes good use of atmospheric percussion and flute and recalls the mighty grandeur of Negura Bunget, conjuring up images of treks across snow-capped mountains, while the gruff vocals and guitars provide the darkness upon the horizon, particular as the song develops and the guitars cut huge swathes through the melody propelled by churning drums and eerie synth. ‘Nivis Canto’ is, however, far more eerie opening with the gentle picking of guitar strings echoing amidst the raging wind before, oddly, shifting ground entirely into a strange hinterland that exists between Smashing Pumpkins’ ‘Porcelina of the vast oceans’, Mogwai and Darkthrone. It is an inventive, fascinating track that has myriad moods and ideas over the course of its lengthy duration. Following an instrumental interlude, the band unleash ‘the scarlet woman’, a lyrical epic with brutal vocal styling and riffs dragged straight from the coldest reaches of hell yet offset with the perfectly arranged flute work that is as effective in this context as My Dying Bride’s violin was on their masterpiece ‘Turn Loose the swans’. ‘Death in the marshes’ is equally evocative with the skeletal composition here creating a mood all of its own which draws you deeper into the bands involve song-writing and story-telling. ‘Pavane in G minor’ is another instrumental interlude before the band signs off with the wonderful coda of ‘in these hills’ which sees the album out on another lyrical epic and leaves you wanting more.

It’s hard to say what the best aspect of Northern Oak is. Musically, this is excellent and far more cohesive than similar works by, say, Eluvetie who, while very good, never manage to integrate their music quite so spectacularly as this or, to put it more simply, Eluvetie sound like the prototype for Northern Oak’s more refined, intelligent approach. For those looking for a metal bludgeoning, there is plenty to admire, but the depth of composition and song-writing skill on display here means that there is always far more than just a meaty riff to look to. The lyrics, in particular, deserve special mention as they have clearly been laboured over and loved and it is a pleasure to read something so intelligent and well thought out as the works here which read as if they have been put together by an English scholar. The concept too is compelling, with references to a variety of English legends and folk-lore populating the narratives and maintaining interest until the album’s close which arrives with an almost unseemly haste until you realise that you’ve actually lost over an hour to it. Ultimately, perhaps it is the old-world charm that the band exude with a level of authenticity rarely matched (except by the masterful Old Corpse Road who work a similar furrow) that works best here – whatever it is, ‘Monuments’ is an utterly compelling listen from start to the hidden track at the tale-end of ‘in these hills’ and with the artwork providing every reason to go out and actually buy the CD this is also the sort of work that is best played as a whole, allowing the various moods and atmospheres to swirl around you. Northern Oak, like OCR, are one of those bands that reminds you exactly why the UK has such a strong name in the metal world and ‘monuments’ is a landmark album that should be compulsory listening in every home across the country – it truly is a genre classic and it deserves recognition.

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