Celtic heavy metal?
Bloodless Creations through Modern Invasion Music
A Journey's End
Review by Ben Courtice
I was attracted to the CD by Perth band Samain by a reviewer who praised it for its tasteful melding of traditional Celtic acoustic music and heavy metal and by the quote from the Communist Manifesto in the liner notes. After listening, what attracted me was simply the band's heavy metal, not its "Celtic" flavour nor its political bent.
Samain's rich and earthy, dominated by the guitars. It is bass-laden without hiding the tunes. The rhythms are not overly fast, the quick drum beats being secondary to the slower pulse of the riffs. There are pleasant lapses into acoustic guitar, with melancholy (but melodic) singing. There isn't anything especially Celtic in it, but it is well-crafted music.
Lyrically, there isn't a shred of politics, despite the quote from Karl Marx: "All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and options are swept away ... All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned ... and man is at last compelled to face ... his real conditions of life, and relations with his kind."
The songs are about ancient Celtic warriors heading into battle, the burials of kings and other themes from Celtic mythology. Heavy metal has always had a strong inclination towards the romantic. Sword-and-sorcery fantasy is a common theme for many bands. Samain's focus on Celtic mythology for inspiration is perhaps a little more interesting.
Quoting Marx seems a little strange at first, but it fits if you understand the sub-genre known as "black metal" (and realise that the quote is used way out of context!). A common theme of heavy metal is the rejection of Christianity. While the sillier manifestations — "satanic" bands like Deicide and Venom — are amusing at best, there are more interesting examples.
Black metal has taken a turn towards pagan themes and religion. Despite the mysticism, self-reliance is emphasised, rather than reliance on hierarchical authorities. The less positive side is that many (mainly Norwegian) black metal bands have added Nazi politics to their "Nordic Aryan master race" paganism.
It is the rejection of the Christian religion (especially in its most patronising, repressive forms) that leads Samian to quote Marx. Paganism is seen as a way to reclaim dignity, rejecting the guilt and hypocrisy associated with Christianity.
Irish band Primordial's music is similar to Samain's, but they go further by incorporating traditional instruments like whistles, bodhran and mandolin. Rather than using the standard metal power chords, they strum acoustic chords in all their songs. The overall sound is bleaker, but not without a good dose of melancholy charm.
A lot of contemporary black metal bands — Cradle of Filth the best known — rely on synthesisers to create the dark romantic atmosphere they want. Primordial and Samain create an atmosphere equal to the best of such bands using guitars and with less pretension than one has come to expect from normal black metal bands.
Primordial's lyrics focus on personal issues through a prism of mythological references. Nevertheless, lyrically Primordial shows more promise than many other black metal bands. "There is some pagan and heathen roots in the band but a Celt does not exist in 1998, that is purely a Romantic myth. There is nothing regressional about this band", singer Alan Nemtheanga Averill told In Your Face magazine in October last year.