Painting an elaborate portrait of the mysterious but beautiful Scottish Highlands, Aura is atmospheric folk metal of the kilt and haggis variety. Saor is the brainchild of Andy Marshall, ex-Falloch, and he saw great success with his début Roots. Hiring a few extra hands this time around, Aura is better, more bombastic yet more ethereal too, demonstrating a range and depth most black and folk metal bands can only dream of achieving. For a feel of the music within, look no further than the artwork: wild and deep with a mist of uncertainty. William and Alex would be proud.
Front and centre of both the black and folk material are the melodies. Marshall has proven himself to be quite the wizard of catchy guitar riffs, with writing that simultaneously pummels and enchants – see 8:15 on “Children of the Mist” and from 1:15 on “Aura.” Even if you disregard the atmospheric qualities and folk influences, it would be a superior melodic black metal record. The vocals are deeper and more savage compared to the high-pitched shrieks commonly used, and the drums are more diverse than typical small black metal projects. On the guitars, Marshall does not solely rely on tremolo-picking, using a nod-worthy chugging rhythm guitar in a couple of places too.
Where some folk metal bands fall down with cheap and superfluous integration of traditional instruments, Marshall had the good sense to draw on those experienced in such music. While he performs the extreme vox, the guitars and the bass, he defers to Panopticon‘s Austin Lunn for the percussive compositions, including the Gaelic bodhrán. Indeed, Johan Becker handles the string compositions and performances, as well as Nevena Krasteva on the viola and Beth Frieden on the female Gaelic vocals. Subsequently, the musicianship is exceptional, and the multi-layered melodies all fit their respective instruments. It’s a credit to Marshall that he drew all these components together into a cohesive and compelling whole, with subtle and deep compositions on all five songs. “Pillars of the Earth” is particularly striking, with an introductory crescendo, ebbs and flows in aggression and calmness, before the beautiful synthesis of black, folk and Frieden’s choral vocals to close out the record.
This all sounds fantastic, but there is a catch: the opening three tracks all overstay their welcome a little. While I appreciate the protracted stretches of blackened riffing have a strong impact and contribute to the atmosphere, I feel each could use a few minutes trimmed. It’s not a huge complaint, but your attention can begin to wander.
The production deserves a mention too. The bog standard edition of the record, like what’s available on Spotify for example, can sounds muddy. The complex layers can be lost to a wall of noise, and the vox are subdued and distant. I urge everyone to buy the FLAC format of the record, available on Saor‘s Bandcamp. It sounds approximately seventy-three times better, with appropriate weighting given to different instruments and clarity in the mastering. The guitars sounds like saws, the tin whistles soar majestically and you’re able to discern individual melodies and rhythms in the dense layering.
Andy Marshall’s decision to split from Falloch proved to be a master-stroke. For me, what certifies his metal credentials most is his recognition of others’ command over styles he wants to integrate into his music. He affords the contributors creative freedom before unifying everything under his vision – a very mature attitude to song-writing. Those Williams and Alexes lobbying for Scottish independence should observe the new-found Marshall Model – separation for the right reasons with expert assistance. I did not expect to uncover a political model when I started with this record, that’s for sure.
Tracks to check: “Pillars of the Earth” and “Aura”