Arkona – Slovo
Last week, I had an experience that could only be described as… strange, perhaps, and… mildly disconcerting. Finding myslelf with a free Saturday morning and a new album to review, I decided to give said album a spin while walking through the woods. After twenty minutes, I was running down the path. After a half hour I had left the path and was watching birds from five meters up a pine tree. By the end of the album I was hundreds of meters from the path, realizing that I had less then the length of another listen to get back to campus, readjust to civilization, and report for work.
Okay, I admit that I may have embellished the details a bit. But that’s not imporant here; what is important is that Slovo, the latest offering from folk-metal stalwarts Arkona, is an engaging experience. As multifaceted and rapidly changing as the weather in their native Russia (and in my native Minnesota), it draws in the listener with its strange but oddly congruous mix of serene beauty and savage brutality.
Overall, it has been difficult to compare Slovo (Russian for “Word,” by the way) to anything else, because it is like nothing else I have ever heard. Many of the songs are very difficult to follow, going through multiple changes in dynamics, instrumentation, and even mood, thus making the album a bit of an enigma. On the one hand, this makes it difficult to remember even the best moments of the album; they’re enjoyable while one is listening to them but often become lost in the shuffle. On the other hand, the album would probably not be as captivating as it is without these constant changes. It’s a tradeoff, and Arkona certainly took the road less traveled. Additionally (and through no fault of Arkona’s), I can’t understand their lyrics, which are written entirely in Russian. I fed them through Google’s translator to see what they were about, finding a bunch of standard folk-metal imagery (nature, ancestors, one’s homeland) but regrettably missing out on any of the poetic subtlety of the original lyrics.
Where, then, can I go? If the album is structured so strangely and the lyrics are incomprehensible to me, I must look instead at the musical details, which may well be be the most remarkable aspect of Slovo. Everything, from the happy folk melody at the beginning of “Leshiy” (Wood Goblin), to the eerie whispering in “Predok” (Ancestor), to the tricky death-metal riffing and bombastic chorus of “Nikogda” (Never), speak to a great attention to detail. Whether the band is playing a folky jig, creating an eerie or epic atmosphere, unleashing some extreme metal fury, or doing any combination of these things, they do a good job of it. Part of this may be in the fact that they don’t always try to force all these elements together; each style plays until it has run its course and then gracefully hands over the reins to the next, giving the album a very natural flow despite its disparate elements.
The instrumental performances often go beyond what is required, and in doing so make the songs quite a bit more interesting. Take, for example, the song “Leshiy.” There are a lot of good things going on here, but what stands out most for me is the drum performance. If drummer Vladymir “Artist” Sokolov had chosen simply to keep the beat, it would still have been a decent song. However, through his restlessly changing rhythms (which are interesting but never overly flashy), he adds another dimension to the music, making for a listen that is truly captivating. The other instruments function in much the same way, taking chances to spice up the music but never going beyond the realm of tastefulness. The vocals of Masha “Scream” Arhipova also deserve a mention; though I’m not the biggest fan of her style of death vocal (generally something of a cross between a scream and a roar), her clean vocals are great, and her ability to use her versatility tastefully is remarkable.
Really, I could go on all day about this and that, but it would all boil down to one idea: the genius of Arkona lies not in their ability to write songs, or even to compose albums, but in their ability to keep the listener interested, which they do through both their constantly changing mix of styles and their impeccable attention to detail. We see here a group of skilled, mature musicians creating music that is never dull, although it may not have a whole lot of immediate appeal. Slovo is something of a niche album; it functions differently from most albums and has a rather limited appeal, but it does a good job of what it does. It’s certainly not for everyone, nor is it something I would listen to every day, but it can be an immensely engaging and entertaining listen for those ready to take on its challenge. Enjoy if you dare, but be warned; you may get lost in the woods…
Tom’s Rating: 4 out of 5