What comes to mind when you think of pagan metal? Is it berserker like Viking metal with lots of bombastic riffs and lyrics about the wholesale slaughter of enemies? If so then you aren’t wrong, but there is so much more to the picture than just Viking metal. Each culture, each mythological structure has something to add to the pagan metal umbrella. Case in point is Saor (Gaelic for “freedom”) and their third and most recent effort “Guardians.” Saor is a one-man effort hailing from Scotland. If you couldn’t tell that within about three minutes of the start of the album, then you might need to read up on the musical culture of Scotland. Why? Because bagpipes.
Bagpipes, heavily and ingeniously used throughout the 50-minute epic, are the kings of folk instruments. As a child I loved watching Braveheart (at that age I didn’t know anything about historical and geographic inaccuracies) and the part that I loved the most was the bagpipes, they were so rich and nasally, they transported my younger self to a world unlike any other. Since then I have never understood the hate and bad press the bagpipes seem to get. They’re used as a comical punishment on TV and all I can think is “how is that torture?” But enough about my history, let’s get back to the important thing, the bagpipes in Guardians. While they don’t show up on every song, each song that they do appear on immediately gains atmosphere and depth, the notes, riffs, and melodies are slowed down to accommodate the bagpipes and the music is stronger for it. Instead of being fast and thin, the music is rich and full, each note carries a weight upon the listener.
There is no specific storyline in the album, it feels to me more a celebration of the uniqueness of Scottish culture and folklore. Each song is roughly ten minutes long (I love long song so color me gleeful) and within that time frame shows the listener a glimpse of something different about Scotland. There are odes to history, to geography, to folklore, and to culture. Saor has it all. This is pagan metal at its musical best.
Regarding the actual songs, I loved the length not just because I love long songs but because the songs had very classical structures to them, repeated melodies, refrains, themes that played through the album not just the song. I love classical structure because it makes the music feel more alive, more vibrant than the standard rock and roll formula. The sound is much more organic and emotionally gratifying. Saor knows what they are doing and they do it well.
The standard instruments (by which I mean those instruments that are not bagpipes or bodhrán) are amazing as well, the guitars form some surprisingly technical riffs and because the music isn’t played at a breakneck pace you can actually hear exactly how intricate the melodies are. The guitars are rich and loud, never failing to impress the listener. In fact, when the album was over I was expecting more songs because 50 minutes didn’t seem like nearly enough time. The songwriting is impressive, able to build in riffs and melodies through the songs so that nothing seems repetitive or dull, the Achilles heel of long songs. The other weakness of long songs is that they seem like several songs mushed together, not so with Guardians, each song is unique and fills the time so to speak, there are different movements within each song but they are tied thematically so the listener can tell they are all part of the same song. Saor, again, know what they are doing.
Despite what I’ve said about structure, the theme of Saor’s music, the very nature of pagan and folk metal itself is highly unstructured and how could it not be. Think about it, Saor’s music and lyrical themes are Scottish history and the Scottish landscape, something so organic and wily that normal musical approaches don’t work. When working with nature, the nature (no pun intended) of music is changed. Look at Gaoth’s debut album, it’s harsh and melodic at the same time, the music is temperamental. The same goes for Guardians, the music is extremely unpredictable and chaotic but given that the music is about nature patterns do form within the chaos. Musically speaking the ability to make something “natural” is very impressive, at least from my perspective.
There are hints of other influences throughout the album as well, a few death metal inspired riffs here to accentuate the brutality of the Scottish landscape, and a few raw black metal riffs to help cultivate some sinister undertones. All in all, with all the natural, historical, and musical influences Saor has managed to craft something spectacularly unique. Guardians is a breath of fresh, angry air. It has bite and it has heart. What more could we need from a pagan metal album?
Listen and support!