Gwydion - Thirteen - (8/10)
Published on December 5, 2018
Everyone probably says this, but Gwydion don’t exactly seem like the most obvious band to be playing Viking metal, seeing as they are from Portugal and take their name from a magician of Welsh mythology. Sure, the Vikings visited both Portugal and Wales, though did so mostly to plunder the former, most notably in 844 and sporadically thereafter until a decisive defeat in 1014 put an end to invading jollies. In Wales, the Vikings formed a short-lived pact, which was then betrayed when Ceredigion was invaded by an ensemble of Viking and Wessex soldiers. However, that doesn’t mean that the sextet are not to be taken seriously, having begun life over 20 years ago, even if the full-length discography is restricted to the past decade. Keyboardist Daniel César remains the only permanent fixture, though guitarists Miguel Kaveirinha and João Paulo have helped to keep the ship steady after a brief break-up since Veteran in 2013. Following the band’s revival, two Pedros – Dias and Correia – have joined the ranks on vocals and drums respectively. This puts Gwydion in a strong position going forward from Thirteen.
A pleasant fact that becomes quickly apparent when enjoying songs like “793” and “Shield Maiden’s Cry” is that the band has a sound of its own. Similarities and familiar tropes abound through Amon Amarth’s sweeping riffing, the catchy singalongs of Turisas, and eclectic folk element of Ensiferum, though the whole bears no stable form. The mood of the compositions fluctuates quickly and unpredictably, as the pace and technique of the playing shifts. Thirteen includes little of the humour present in the past (“Brewed to Taste Like Glory” should give some indication of the sillier tendencies previously indulged), opting to attack, lament, and eulogize in equal measures without giving up the atmospheric trappings that hold the album together. Though not recognizably a concept album, the whole experience hangs together in theme and in feel without sacrificing variety.
Keyboards rarely play such an important role in this kind of Viking metal as they do on Thirteen. César proves on most of the songs that he possesses not only a discerning ear but also a professional touch, bringing the long intro to a fine peak of tension before the opener crashes through in rare rhythmic dominance, accompanied by the glowering stormclouds of backing keys. The same kind of transition between “Under Siege” and “Shield Maiden’s Cry” raises those songs to the status of album centrepiece, a terrifically taut “waiting for battle” line morphing into symphonic darkness as the second part kicks off, sounding ominous as arriving death. In choosing tones for the keys, César also reigns supreme: the medieval harpsichord that opens “King’s Last Breath” is priceless for setting the scene, while even the cheesier Alestorm sounds in “Balverk Warfare” fit the gonzo rush of a horde rabid for adventure and treasure.
Crucially, the heavy use of keys does not obscure the work of the guitarists, which is not excellent, yet more than acceptable. A few riffs and leads stand out on their own, such as the melancholic introduction of “Allah’s Tagides” and the heavier sections of “793”, all of which are bolstered by a gorgeous clanking bass tone. Thirteen is really a band effort because of how all six members integrate themselves into the sound, producing no outstanding highlights but a consistently pleasing array of diverse songs. Moments sure to stick with the listener include the rolling hymn of group vocals that closes “Strength Remains” like a football crowd, the electric contrast between rampant folk metal and whirling black metal keys on “Oh Land of Ours – Al Andaluz”, and “Our spirit rises like bubbles in beer” – an excellent line from the drinking romp of “Voyage”.
Being original in folk or Viking metal might seem slightly beside the point, since all bands seek to emulate the mythical or historical past and utilize traditional sounds, but it certainly makes for a pleasant experience when exploring Thirteen and finding that Gwydion sound distinctive. Admittedly, space remains for some additional tightening of screws and forging of sharper weapons so that the Portuguese can truly stand out, especially when considering the gloomier mood and bigger chorus of the title track; nevertheless, there are few fans of this kind of adventurous metal style that could look with disdain on such an enjoyable album.