There’s aren’t too many folk metal acts I follow. As a general rule, I’ll gravitate towards the unknown blackened shit, the weird and the obscure as I scour the promo list for new review material. That said, it took two lines in the Artaius promo blurb to stop me in my tracks – Artaius has shared the stage with well-known metal acts like Ensiferum and Primal Fear and Torn Banners features special guests Tim Charles (Ne Obliviscaris), Lucio Stefani (Mé, Pek e Barba) and Dario Caradente (Kalévala). Those be some big selling points right there! Reading a little further I discovered that Artaius are a little known Italian band that merges Celtic folk melodies with modern, groovy riff-work and vintage 70’s era prog rock, to form what they classify as progressive folk metal. A knot of unease settled in when I realized they split vocal duties between Sara Cucci (clean vocals) and Francesco Leone (unclean vocals), but my thoughts finally came around to, if beauty doesn’t snag me, the beast most likely will. Another day, another dollar, Artaius‘ second release is set to hit the shelves any day now, and I’m here to tell you why Torn Banners won’t give you enough bang for your buck.
“Seven Months” kicks off in high gear with an upbeat, Celtic jig, persistant stop start drumming and the introductory serenades of songbird Sara Cucci, Francesco Leone close at hand to pick up the heavy lifting. Ms. Cucci’s style is hit or miss. When she’s on key, I’m pleasantly entertained, but when she hits a wobbly my inclination is to skip and move on. Unlike Francesco’s growl, that at times reminds me of Manne Ikonen (Ghost Brigade) or Filippo Gianotti (Krampus), Sara’s singing style is tough to pin down, varying across the album from generic, gothic-like spells in the initial tracks, then exploring electronic American Horror Story cheese on “Leviathan.” Thereafter “Eternal Circle” tries to grasp at the high-powered sweetness of Sabrina Valentine (Seven Kingdoms), but Sara falls well short of the mark. She throws anther curve ball on “Pearls of Suffering,” sounding for a moment like an audition for some swashbuckling “bacon powered pirate core” band but with less “shiver me timbers” excitement – no good can possibly come of this!
Outside of the expected folk-like tendencies, convincing flute and violin melodies and classic sounding piano work, Torn Banners contains a few more surprises. “Eternal Circle” kicks off with a short-lived Parasite Inc vibe at the front end, “Pictures of Life” delivers an unsettling break in the album flow with some hippy-dippy acoustic tree hugger-mugger. “Pearls of Suffering” introduces a weird mashup of Nightsatan synth and Jethro Tull trollery, and “Dualità” pairs the gentlemanly mannerisms of A Forest of Stars blended with whispers of early Agalloch before “By Gods Stolen” takes over, offering what one could almost mistake as a Jex Thoth outake. There’s a lot being delivered and patched together by these Italian meistros and while some of it works reasonably well, some just doesn’t.
The biggest grievance I have with Torn Banners is the track length. Most if not all the exceed the four-minute mark bringing the album up to a grand and almighty 55 minutes. That can work where you have consistently high-quality songwriting, enough catchiness to keep listeners attention or you have an outstanding songbird in the driver seat. Unfortunately, despite repeat listens, Torn Banners has a distinct point in each track where your attention level drops and your mind wanders, had the songs been whittled down in number and length, just maybe I would have been left wanting more from Artaius.
As it’s presented, Torn Banners was recorded, mixed and mastered by Riccardo Pasini at Studio 73 (Ephel Duat and Extrema). The album has a mostly modern, clean sound and good layering that compliments the folk instruments. The dynamics could use some work, but I’m reaching the point where I wonder if that’s just the norm these days. I can’t imagine that I’ll get a hankering to spend time with Torn Banners in the same way that I would an Irish folk or pagan metal band like say Primordial, but “Seven Months” and “Eternal Circle” do have some ear appeal in small doses. In short, I’m hanging onto the few meatier moments of this offering and discarding the fat.