Saor - Guardians - (9/10)
Published on October 27, 2016
I was fairly confident that Saor weren’t going to disappoint with Guardians, but at the same time I worried that my overall enjoyment of the album was going to take a bit of a hit without the frenetic drumming of Austin Lunn. He had this way of injecting tons of energy into a folk metal groove on songs like “Children of the Mist” and “Pillars of the Earth” that added more meat to the naturally light and airy aesthetic of Saor. Whenever you write a great album, there’s always the pressure to top it, even more so when a new member is added. Bryan Hamilton, however, is already fairly established with his work in Barshkasketh and Cnoc an Tursa, and based on the latter band’s sound in particular it’s easy to see why Marshall thought he would be a good fit for his project.
Something about Guardians feels a little bit different right off the bat. Much of it could be attributed to the new drummer, but not all of it. Maybe it’s the vocals, which are more pronounced in the mix than they have been before, which gives them a bit of a scratchy, gravelly tone as opposed to the distant roar that characterized previous Saor albums. Still, though, this is Marshall’s pet project and he hasn’t deviated much from his core formula since it began, so the differences aren’t merely a result of lineup changes and production tweaks. Guardians sounds much more solemn and pensive than previous work by the band, and this change does require a bit of a reframe in how you approach the music at first, but in the end, the results are even more rewarding.
Guardians is more of a grower than a shower for a couple of reasons. First, unlike Aura, this doesn’t come bursting out of the gate with triumphant energy. “Autumn Rain”, though a full song in its own right, is very gradual and is essentially just a full version of those obligatory intro tracks every metal band has at the beginning of the album. Even when “The Declaration” kicks in, the blastbeats sound steadier and calmer than Hamilton’s work in Cnoc an Tursa. Though the most energetic song on the album, one still gets the impression that Saor’s still building into something even bigger. Even the title track feels like it just sets the stage for this now-30-minutes-long introduction.
The slow bloom of Guardians has a lot to do with the violins, flutes, and other bagpipes present. Saor has always had these elements in their music and have always avoided making them look like a gimmick. There’s always been plenty of room for them to breathe, and it never seems like they were thrown in just because Marshall had a few flautist and violinist buddies who really wanted to play on the album or something. However, with Guardians, all the extra instruments no longer feel like a tertiary layer woven into the music; at this point, they’re the driving force behind the album. That seems really strange to say about a folk/black metal band, especially because the metal elements are still in the foreground as they always have been. There never really seems to be a point, though, where the metal elements carry this on their own; the flutes have more detailed melodies and feel more involved in the music, the violins do a lot to slowly let the tension grow, and the whenever the bagpipes come in you know something big is about to happen—and when they come in on “Tears of a Nation”, they ARE the climax. Strangely enough, though there is only one core member of Saor, it never feels as though he wants to hog the spotlight of his own band. If anything, he actively avoids it as much as he can and gives the session musicians every opportunity they can to shine, and Guardians is so much better for that.
At first, the slow build of the first three tracks seems agonizing, but once “Hearth” kicks in, the wait immediately becomes worth it. Right away, it settles into that warm tremolo and rolling groove that Saor captured my heart with a few years ago, and when the flute melody and the clean chorus kicks in with Marshall singing “there’s nowhere I’d rather be…this is my home”, man do you ever believe that shit. “Tears of a Nation” just keeps the momentum going and though at first the slow sense of growth might have seemed a bit awkward compared to the joyful energy of the band’s previous work, during the latter half of the album the band sounds much more comfortable in their own skin. The ordering of the tracks feels very intentional in that sense. Aura felt more like a collection of songs (some really good songs, mind you) but no one track on Guardians feels complete on its own. You really do have to listen to the whole thing all the way through to get the full picture. Though this doesn’t have as many specific moments that stand out, Guardians feels much more complete and well-rounded than anything they have done before, and by the end of the album you’ll feel a little bit exhausted, but nonetheless satisfied. Andy Marshall has matured a lot since his days in Falloch, and with that comes changes in the style of his composition, but barring some sort of drastic change in style or vision, Saor looks content to remain at the top of the atmospheric folk metal heap.