How do you keep a genre fresh without turning it into something it’s not? This is a question I’ve been pondering for a while now. See, I’ve been a near-obsessive devotee of the whole atmospheric-blackened-folk metal shebang ever since I caught Winterfylleth as a support band back in about 2009. Unfortunately, after many years, countless foliage-themed album covers and a surfeit of unintelligible shrieks about Odin and mountains, the sub-subgenre is starting to feel a little stale, and thus my corresponding enthusiasm for new releases is beginning to wane accordingly. Despite this, one such band I’ve been looking forward to hearing more from for a good while now is Scotland’s Cnoc An Tursa. They released a cracker of a debut album in 2013’s The Giants of Auld, showcasing formidable musicianship and an air of folksy authenticity. When their latest release—The Forty Five—came along, therefore, I cast my growing pessimism aside and prepared myself for a treat. I’d been waiting a long time for this, so my expectations were high.
Cnoc An Tursa—whose Scots Gaelic name translates into “Hill of Sorrow”— draw their thematic influences from old Scottish poetry, and I strongly suspect this to be the reason why their first outing sounded as authentic as it did; they kept their emphasis on themes that were sociologically relevant to them. This celebration of their heritage and culture translated into a rousing debut, and this stylistic thread has been duly carried across onto The Forty Five as well. Regrettably, in the end, it ultimately fails to live up to its potential.
Now let me be clear: The Forty Five is not actively bad. What’s so frustrating about it, however, is what it could have been. The Giants of Auld was heavy with a sprinkling of folk styling thrown in here and there to give it character and depth. In the case of their second outing, however, the band have reversed this formula, opting instead to place greater emphasis on the melodic side of things. While this seems like a good idea in principle—it feels like a logical progression for their music—a significant proportion of what is on offer here is neither stirring nor memorable enough to really grip the listener in the manner in which it ultimately should. This is immensely disappointing considering its promising predecessor.
On first impressions, The Forty Five actually starts out fairly encouragingly. Intro “Will Ye No Come Back Again” gives way to “The Yellow Locks of Charlie,” which utilizes traditional folk instrumentation to bring the music to life. Once the vocals kick in, however, it all begins to get a bit hit and miss. For such a delicate record, the production is surprisingly soft, and thus when the sounds begin to layer up, it all becomes a bit soupy. Furthermore, while there are pretty atmospherics, there’s nothing that really engages the listener to the degree, or in the manner of, comparable acts like Primordial, Cruachan or Saor.
In all fairness, The Forty Five is not a complete write-off. “Sound the Pibroch” and “Fuigheall” are both suitably gutsy, with plenty of fist-pumping grunt and rousing melodies. Indeed, if the whole record were up to the standard of these two tracks then my verdict would be considerably more favorable. The highlight of the album, however, is the haunting instrumental interlude “Flora MacDonald.” Featuring an achingly beautiful piano refrain, it really is a crying shame that it’s consigned to just a fleeting two minutes in length, as I could quite happily sit and listen to an entire album’s worth of such material. Even if the record as a whole hits somewhat wide of the mark, such moments demonstrate that the potential Cnoc An Tursa showcased on their debut album was not a complete fluke.
I had high hopes for this record, so it’s a real shame that it failed to fully deliver. Far from being a complete failure, it simply lacks the quality forecasted by its predecessor. There are signs of promise, and I’ll listen with interest should Cnoc An Tursa ever elect to release a follow-up. In the case of The Forty Five, though, I found that a significant proportion of the time when I ought to have been enjoying it was instead spent lamenting what a magnificent album it could, and ultimately should have been.
DR: Yes please | Format Reviewed: A stream of consciousness
Label: Apocalyptic Witchcraft Recordings
Website: cnocantursa.com | facebook.com/cnocantursa
Releases Worldwide: February 17th, 2017