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Cwn Annwn - The alpha and the omega 4/5

Reviewed: 9-1-11


1. Red sunrise
2. The devil’s crest
3. Black star
4. Gaea’s rebirth
5. Prognatus iterum
6. Circles of Jericho
7. The alpha and the omega
8. Cloak of shadows
9. Nova

It takes a great deal of self-confidence and creativity to break out from the narrow boxes in which we classify and categorize our beloved heavy metal. Let’s say, hypothetically speaking, you’re a massive Iron Maiden freak and you want to start your own band. It’d be a straightforward, safe thing to do to form a band that sounds a lot like Iron Maiden. After all, that template already exists and that sound is already a known quantity with a built-in rabid fanbase. All you’d have to do is take those well-worn Maiden trademarks and write new songs that incorporate them. Piece of cake, right? And that’s exactly what lots of bands (including many bands I love) do. The trickier, riskier path is to take those Maiden attributes, combine them with an array of other influences (some metal and some not), and step outside the box to try to offer a unique slant on a style that has been exhaustively mined for more than a quarter century. That less-traveled road is the one selected by Minnesota’s Cwn Annwn. Oh, and before we go any further, don’t give them any guff about their name – it’s Welsh and it means “Hounds of Chaos”, so it’s inherently more metal than many of us will ever be.

I must say I had never heard of Cwn Annwn before guitarist Neil James reached out to us here at Metal CD Ratings a couple of months ago. Samples sounded good to me, so I agreed to review this new full-length CD, ‘The alpha and the omega’. Well, the samples didn’t do it justice. I fear my words won’t do so either, but I’ll try my best. The foundation of Cwn Annwn’s sound lies on a profound reliance on highly melodic, classic metal guitars in the vein of Iron Maiden or early In Flames. The band’s thrash underpinnings (including both classic thrash and more modern strains of the genre) shine through as well, especially on tracks like “The devil’s crest”, but it would be substantially inaccurate to characterize Cwn Annwn as a thrash act. What’s really interesting is Cwn Annwn’s propensity to take these fairly standard ingredients and wrap them in unconventional, unpredictable arrangements that might be called progressive, all while making the songs memorable. The tunes are catchy (check out “Black star” or “Circles of Jericho” for proof of that), but you never really know where they are going to go next. Another intriguing piece of the Cwn Annwn sonic landscape is the vocals, which are handled by Julie Schultz with occasional backing screams/extreme vocals courtesy of James and/or bassist Mike Strohkirch. Schultz is no operatic diva or faux macho wailer, but instead belts out her lines in a clear rock voice with considerable power and expression.

As if there weren’t enough going on musically, Cwn Annwn overlay another set of details on ‘The alpha and the omega’ by making it a full-blown concept album, starting with nuclear Armageddon and working through its aftermath. The lyrics are surprisingly erudite and insightful, fairly brimming with clever turns of phrase and thoughtful passages. Want a description of nuclear war’s insanity? Try this: “The senators cry, their virtues are lies, the only thing that’s certain is the inevitability of our demise.” How about a survivor’s incessant tortured questioning? “How could it change from wonder to wreckage in moments/Strong are the chains that bind me to my past/But the world turns and in time so would I.” Rebellion? “Tried to scream the words get caught/A bullet speaks when words cannot.” The more time one spends with the lyric sheet, the more fascinating the libretto becomes.

The risk, of course, is that with all of these sonic elements, wacky arrangements, and thought-provoking lyrics, a portion of the audience simply won’t get it. ‘The alpha and the omega’ really is not suitable for background music. It demands – and commands – the listener’s attention. Even when the listener focuses intently on the music, sometimes it misses the mark, such as in the 9-minute instrumental “Gaea’s rebirth”, which starts off great but simply runs out of steam well before its last notes ring out. And the whole outside-the-box aspect of it is potentially problematic, because this CD will carry many listeners outside of their comfort zones, whether it’s the harsh backing vocal accents or the spacy title track or the sometimes overtly bouncy and cheerful guitar melodies juxtaposed against the grim subject matter. There’s always a possibility that this kind of project will be too modern for the old-schoolers and too old-school for the newcomers. So I suspect mileage may vary a great deal with Cwn Annwn’s music. They’re not for everyone, but for those who are sufficiently open-minded and who invest sufficient time in the CD, ‘The alpha and the omega’ is an extremely rewarding, impressive and remarkable effort.

I would be remiss in not mentioning a couple of other pertinent points. The press kit that Cwn Annwn mailed to me was the most professional, detailed and helpful package I’ve ever received from an independent band. Everything one would want to know (personnel, influences, discography, list of gigs played, blurbs from other reviews, photographs, etc.) was contained in easy-to-read format, housed in a special customized Cwn Annwn folder, accompanied by a personalized letter signed by James. Why does all of that matter? Because it speaks to the kind of meticulous attention to detail that pervades every aspect of Cwn Annwn’s music. These guys (and gal) have their act together, and they’re doing an awful lot of things right. The other point worth mentioning is that the promo pack also included a copy of Cwn Annwn’s debut CD, ‘The method of murder’, which dates back to 2006. It is an interesting work in its own right, but it shows how the band’s compositional skills have grown by leaps and bounds in the last 5 years and how much better they are with Schultz at the vocal helm than with James.

If you’re looking for a quick, easily-digestible fix of derivative metal, look elsewhere. But if you want to hear a band that melds the old and the new in a creative way, without losing sight of the song in the process, check out Cwn Annwn’s ‘The alpha and the omega’. And by “check it out”, I mean buy the CD. Listening to samples or sound clips will barely scratch the surface for you of what this band’s all about. Me, I’ll wish these metal emissaries from the Twin Cities well, and congratulate them on a job well done.




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