Cometh the new year, cometh the folksy, atmospheric black metal proclaiming itself as the trvest example of native culture in heavy metal. Unlike most of the talentless hacks wielding an electric guitar, penny whistle, and swastika flag who operate out of their mothers’ houses, Saor can legitimately boast some of the greatest music in this genre1 and represent one of the best new metal bands from the 2010s.2 Hailing from Scotland, Andy Marshall continues to operate Saor as a one-man band, but one which wisely defers to session contributors and live support to facilitate strong instrumentation across the board and awesome live performances.3 If you’ve heard the previous three records you know what to expect with Forgotten Paths; that is, melodic black metal with folksy instrumentation and heaps of atmosphere.
So what can you expect to be different? While the compositions are sonically akin to prior releases, Forgotten Paths is an altogether more immediate album. The eponymous opener barrels straight into rapid blackened riffs with no pretext, which defies certain expectations of atmospheric black metal taking a measured approach. It also has fewer core tracks than Aura and Guardians, rendering it nearly 20 minutes shorter than those albums. The songwriting corresponds with such immediacy by using a greater number of riffs per track, which shifts things around more frequently. These developments are nominally fine but the cost of this immediacy is that Forgotten Paths is the least epic Saor release. Grandiosity has always been the jewel in this Scottish crown, but here it’s relatively lacking versus prior records. The atmospheric concluding track compounds this point; rather than finishing on a big high, “Exile” is a reflective moment which is simply less awesome and which I find rather easy to skip. I appreciate the structural similarity to Roots but at least that conclusion was only two minutes unlike the five which drag here.
The performances also differ somewhat this time around. My less trve colleagues have described Marshall’s vocals as “borky” in the past, and while I don’t understand this complaint and enjoy his voice, his bark is slightly less deep now. Indeed, vocals are used less on Forgotten Paths, and to the extent that they are, clean vocals wrest some control from the harsh ones. The baritone chants on “Forgotten Paths” and “Monadh” aid in mitigating the relative lack of grandiosity, while the clean singing of the unheralded Sophie Rogers on “Bròn” bolster the record’s emotive qualities. I’m actually quite surprised that female cleans hadn’t been used before and they are integrated to good effect. I am unsure to whom I should attribute credit but piano is also used more heavily, with each principle track being led by it through particular passages. The reliance on layers of strings as the dominant melodic tool other than the guitars is consequently lightened but rest assured that those layers remain, should you have enjoyed them previously.
I am relieved to report that while the epic feeling has waned somewhat, the other pillar of Saor‘s sound remains unspoiled: the emotions invoked. The piano and violin melodies mentioned above are predictably affecting. The quiet interlude on “Forgotten Paths” is a heart-breaker and “Monadh” reinforces that Saor can never truly be written off, even with my reservations. Sobbing strings adorn the blackened riffs in the first half and the simplistic rhythm of the slower passage around the mid-point flowers into a big, emotive finale which is as close as is reached to the style of Guardians. Saor is often led by an uplifting feeling but “Bròn” broods ominously across its introduction, gradually layering instruments and melodies until the song properly kicks off a minute-thirty. It says a lot that my notes are always littered with how Saor‘s music makes me feel; while melodic black metal may form the foundations, the superstructure built over this is the invocation of strong emotions.
Forgotten Paths would be a strong 3.5 release by another band. The underpinning melodic black metal features nifty, memorable riffing, the integration of folksier and orchestral instrumentation is judicious, and the music remains highly emotive. However, it fails to hit the stratospheric heights of the band’s previous material. Their measuring block should be themselves and not just the scene around them. Some followers may be tempted to skip to the score before smashing out an angry comment but consider the quality of Saor‘s prior work before doing so. Or don’t. I’ll just grab my flame retardant suit before posting.