Oakenshield - Gylfaginning 3.5/5
2. The sons of Bor
5. The aesir
10. The death of Baldr
The fact that the project shares a name with an Elvenking song and hails from the U.K. (home of folk metal trendwhores since 2006) meant the defences were up a little before the first listen, but thankfully Oakenshield proved to be a different prospect altogether, a throwback to the more traditional, black metal-derived variation of the genre.
A one-man project from York, the songs on this debut (since changing name and style a couple of years ago) are heartening examples of tasteful, epic viking metal that belie their structural simplicity to create something grand and absorbing.
Chiefly midtempo right the way through, it is a CD that requires a little patience to appreciate, and folk metal fans that prefer manic speed and danceable rhythms will not find much for them here. The focus is on atmosphere, and a neatly-balanced mixture of instruments and techniques has been put together by mastermind Ben Corkhill that interlaces with the lyrical themes – all taken from the Prose Edda book ‘Gylfaginning’, from which the CD takes its name – quite perfectly.
The songs are all built on fairly simple riffs and prominent, driving bass lines, and it is the variety of the vocals and instruments that reveal the CD’s biggest success. Corkhill’s vocals vary between blackened croaks (which seem a little monotone at first but actually tie in with the nature of the CD very well) and effects-aided sonorous chanting and ominous spoken word sections quoted directly from the ancient texts. “Utgarda-Loki” features some of the best use of spoken vocals, and they tie in with the unusual keyboard arrangements on what is a strange, but in the end very rewarding song.
The keyboards – set to a chilling, icy tone rather than imitating anything in particular - are used interchangeably with recorders, good old-fashioned lead guitar and some violin parts (provided by a guest musician), with each taking turns in different sections of different songs to have the spotlight. Corkhill has been especially careful in mixing these elements up to ensure there is never an over-reliance on a single technique that often undermine folk metal CDs – just look at the excessive flute use on Svartsot’s debut for proof of that – and it is to his credit that ‘Gylfaginning’ keeps the listener guessing even after repeated listens. The massive closing track, “Vigrid” features a particularly impressive use of the different instruments, as the conclusion sees a confluence of the whole lot that wraps the CD up perfectly.
The recording is clearly intended to be taken as a single greater work rather than a collection of songs to be individually dissected, but some deserve special mention in any case. Some brief chanting aside, “The aesir” is practically an instrumental, and one of sweeping operatic brilliance at that, which carries shades of ‘Hvis lyset tar oss’-era Burzum. Shifting through a few different tempos, it eventually settles on one of the CD's heaviest riffs before segueing seamlessly into “Fenris”, which carries on the more aggressive, BM-associated vibe to impressive effect.
Complaints are minimal – the long-winded nature of the CD means it definitely isn’t one for all occasions and the thought presents itself from time to time that on the whole just a little bit more immediacy would have been of benefit, with the lead guitar maybe just a little underused throughout. Otherwise, only the fact that the drums are programmed occasionally causes a little discomfort, as on occasion their artificial nature becomes a little too apparent despite the clear time and effort Corkhill has put into making sure the beats are varied and intricate. I can understand the mystique and, indeed, the practicality of the one-man band set-up, but in future enlisting the services of a human drummer may be something for him to look at.
As a debut though, ‘Gylfaginning’ is predominantly a very impressive one, likely to have something to offer to purists and more receptive newcomers alike. It’s quite a simple equation really; if epic viking metal is your thing, then so are Oakenshield.
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