Cruachan - Blood on the Black Robe
Folk Metal
11 songs (58:06)
Release year: 2011
Cruachan, Candlelight
Reviewed by Charles
The folk metal scene is a funny thing; for me it was a gateway into a slightly more esoteric and ‘extreme’ level of the metal kingdom. Bands like Finntroll revealed that harsh-voiced music could be fun as well as mean, and acts like Korpiklaani demonstrated that native instrumentation and drinking melodies could work surprisingly well in this context. But, since those early experiences it’s not something I’ve ever really returned to. Those same factors that endeared me to the scene- catchy tunes and plastic axe-wielding crowd pleasers- are those that irritate quite intensely now. I prefer more nuance, and more darkness, and the ‘folk’ influenced bands that provide that nowadays are those such as Negura Bunget, Fen or Primordial, who emphasise naturalistic atmosphere over stomping shanties.

Cruachan, though, arguably stand a notch above the fuzzy Viking hat-wearing hordes. In part, this is obviously because of their status as one of the genre’s originators. Their transplantation of Irish folk melodies and instrumentation onto a more savage metal delivery created a striking effect on early records like their debut, 1994’s Tuatha Na Gael, which others have since aped using mass-marketed versions of their own national traditions. That debut was a flawed record, suffering from an unbalanced sound and excessive length, but it holds an enduring primal appeal in its marrying of those folk elements to a genuinely vicious Bathory-like black metal assault. And anyway, the haphazardness of it fits neatly with their Pogues-gone-metal approach. Since then, Cruachan moderated somewhat, moving closer to a more family-friendly folk-metal sound. Blood on the Black Robe, however, sees the band professing a return to their more aggressive roots.

The album is polished and well-constructed, delivered in a crunching metal tone, and cultivating a mid-tempo heavy rock swagger alongside the stringed-instrument melodies. This formula works fantastically well on tunes like Thy Kingdom Gone, which expertly switches between an urgent, black metal-influenced introduction before kicking down into an anthemic mid-tempo string melody which, strangely, seems to channel Middle Eastern tonalities rather than the bands pastoral Celtic palette (disclaimer: this statement may reveal more about my ignorance of the tonalities of Celtic folk music than anything else). Whilst purer folk interludes do, of course, feature, they are relatively rare. The pretty flute, string, and female vocal interaction that opens An Bean Sidhe, for example, serves to build into a graceful slow rock number rather than a standalone piece. When they turn their hands to more high-energy singalongs, they do so with evident class, as on tunes like The Voyage of Bran or Brian Boru’s March, which expertly balance the band’s uplifting melodies with a stomping heavy rock sensibility (the latter even features Maiden-style lead twin guitar noodling).

So Blood on the Black Robe works because it has enough weight to moderate the sugary melodicism that bedevils much folk metal. It feels as much a hard rock album as anything else, with its heavy Celtic folk overtones integrated convincingly into a whole which feels seamless. This will likely be one of the year’s essential releases for folkies.

Killing Songs :
I Am Warrior, The Voyage of Bran, Brian Boru's March
Charles quoted 80 / 100
Other albums by Cruachan that we have reviewed:
Cruachan - The Morrigan's Call reviewed by Ross and quoted 95 / 100
Cruachan - Pagan reviewed by Jay and quoted 72 / 100
Cruachan - The Middle Kingdom reviewed by Chris and quoted 70 / 100
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