As an unpatriotic Englishman, it’s not an issue for me to love Saor. From North of the border, Andy Marshall’s evocative vessel for Scottish pride and history hasn’t yet failed to impress, from Roots to Aura and now on to Guardians. Celtic-infused black metal softened with strong melodies and atmosphere, the two prior records aren’t significantly different and yet both come highly recommended. I was marginally concerned this time given the release of Marshall’s other project this year – had there been enough time given? Had ideas been split between the two? I can happily report that my fears were unfounded and he’s really nailed this one.
Though the tracks are as lengthy as they’ve ever been, Marshall has that Moonsorrow-like knack for writing long, cyclical songs that are thoroughly engrossing throughout and truly embed themselves. If anything, Saor‘s melodies have even more resonance this time around. Each track is obviously the result of much time and effort and they’re remarkable and all invoke some new emotion: wonderment on “Guardians;” longing on “The Declaration;” distance on “Autumn Rain;” heroism on “Hearth;” and pride on “Tears of a Nation.” Your heart will soar, wrench and swell as the album flows and it’s truly one of the most emotive things I’ve heard this year. There’s an over-arching entrancement present but the emotional gamut it nonetheless runs is wonderful.
But more substantially than such touchy-feely bollocks, it’s the compositions that make Guardians tick. The riffs are plenty good and surprisingly technical at points, such as on the title track and in the neat flourishes transitioning into the heightened melodies on “Hearth.” But it’s when these are layered with the traditional instrumentation that Saor leaves their competitors behind. The duality of distorted guitars with fiddles, strings, bagpipes and other whistles elevates all involved instruments. Indeed, bagpipes are used more prominently here than anywhere in their discography. Though all writing is accredited to Marshall, recognition must also be given to his range of guest musicians fleshing out these other aspects, including Bryan Hamilton (Cnoc An Tursa) on drums, John Becker on strings, Meri Tadic on fiddle, Reni McDonald Hill on bodhrán and Kevin Murphy on bagpipes. This ensures all parts of the music are executed professionally and haven’t been cheaply integrated, which is a cut above most folk metal.
It’s a testament to the strength of the song-writing that the structures are entirely repetitive yet no track is dull. Particular passages can repeat with few variations for significant periods of time and the only substantial development save a couple of quieter interludes is an emotional heightening towards the end of all songs. Though by the end this swelling is expected it’s no less powerful for it. The conclusion of “The Declaration” is utterly undeniable with a melodic black metal passage from 8:10 which rivals the best of them. Similarly, the slow solemnity before the final climax on “Hearth” is just exquisite and that climax may be the best part of the album. It’s just so epic. Guardians is formulaic but it’s a formula that works incredibly well.
What remains is something to make even the most cricket-playing, Pimms-drinking, colony-acquiring Englishman rip his trousers into a kilt and cry for the blood of the South. As if simply recording at Cairndow and on Skye wasn’t sufficiently Scottish, every note from Guardians exudes Scotland, acting as a resounding reminder that I need to revisit the beautiful Highlands. Even if the subject matter wasn’t so conspicuous in the lyrics and themes, the resulting melodic black metal would still be excellent. Saor is habitually great but this is particularly so.