I’ve been saying it many times, the Russian scene is probably the one with the most unknown/untapped talent out there, with unique bands and more that just wait to be discovered. One of them now finally has made it onto a Western label with Napalm Records: Moscow’s ARKONA. The Austrian cult label scooped up the band for its fourth full album “Ok Serdtsa K Nebu” (“From The Heart To The Skies”) and good for them, because they have one of the hottest iron sin the whole Pagan/Folk Metal scene on their roster now! Now there have been two ARKONA, one of which were a NSBM band, who thankfully had to change their name to pave the way for the true ARKONA. I had only heard a song here and there before, so I was not 100% sure as to what to expect, but hey, I love giving bands a try!
The band started out in 2002 and just like other Russian bands such as BUTTERFLY TEMPLE, ALKONOST, PAGAN REIGN or TVERD they have these absolutely unique melodies in their songs, which often are taken from the Russian folklore, giving the songs a unique touch right from the get-go. There is some Pagan Metal to be found, but the Folk Metal definitely has a stronger foothold in their sound by now, but it is the way ARKONA fuse the elements together that make them so unique and strong. After an atmospheric intro, “Pokrovy Nebesnogo Startsa” sets out aggressive, with blastbeats, growls and Black Metal riffing, which took me very much by surprise at first, because it is heavier than I had thought, meshing together the more aggressive Black Metal eruptions and pure Folk and Folk Metal, with flute, accordion, mouth harp and other instruments I can’t point out right now, with Masha “Scream” Arikhipova covering everything from growls over screams to excellent clear vocals, she definitely is one of the most underrated vocalists out there. Add to that some choirs and despite the two extremes in sound a very cohesive whole and you have a great and varied opener, which is only the beginning of what promises to be one hell of an album.
While the style per se is not something unique anymore, ARKONA deliver it with passion and a freshness that is unrivalled in the scene at the moment, because they do not just take the easy route and give the listener simple melodies that will go in easily and then out just as quickly, but they add depth and rhythm changes as well as fairly demanding instrumental passages and layers to ensure that the songs stay fresh over repeated listens, masterfully creating songs that will stick to you mind and still fascinate you after dozens of listens. It is really hard for me to point out single tracks, as they cover so many different parts of the spectrum, “Goy Kupala!!!” is more instrumental than with vocals, while the title track is almost pure Folk Metal with flute, violin (or something like that) and Masha’s great clear voice, adding this medieval touch, drawing you in deeper and deeper, while letting the mood meander throughout the song like a small stream, touching on epic choirs here, Folk there and building it all on a solid foundation of Metal, which gives way to acoustic, but very energetic passages, before throwing in a double-bass driven Pagan Metal part with growls, which still does not sound out of place, which is the true beauty of this album!
I had mentioned a medieval touch, the melodies and the flute more than once give this impression, which lends the songs a completely different kind of authenticism compared to the Folk Metal many bands play. You just have to love these dynamic shifts in the mood, excelling in both the quiet and the heavier passages, yet still maintaining this unified feeling that you listen to a story made out of music (that I don’t understand a word of what they sing about might heighten this impression), moving from highlight to highlight. “Oy, Pechal-Toska” is one of the slower tracks, with beautiful vocal arrangements and melodies, while short Folk instrumentals such as “Gutsulka” or “Tsygular” loosen things up and inevitably make you move one way or the other. “Strela” is one of my personal favourites, also on the slower-paced side of things, it puts even more emphasis on the choirs and the Folk instrumentation, but the melodies ARKONA use here are stuff I have never heard before, gripping and engaging and absolutely beautiful!
“Nad Propastyu Let” reveals more of the heavy and almost brutal side of ARKONA, but again weaving in this unique atmosphere, while “Slavsya Rus” is a heroic piece of Folk Metal, with both clear female and male vocals, with the Napalm bonus track “Kupala I Kostroma” I really don’t get why it is only a bonus track, because while short, it is an intense Folk Metal track that is energetic, melodic, yet heavy, again with layered vocals, a full success in my book! I know, we’re not done yet, but just take my word for it that the remaining songs can absolutely keep up with the rest, ok? I could write so much more about this, but I feel that it would just get out of hand then…
The production of the album is pristine, clear and refined, giving the layered and multi-faceted songs on here the right surroundings to fully unfold their full potential and damn, do they ever have a lot of this! I think that it is not an exaggeration by any means to call ARKONA one of the best Folk/Pagan Metal bands out there and “Ot Serdtsa K Nebu” one of the best albums of its kind in the past few years! This band deserves more attention and success and thankfully they have a good partner with Napalm Records that should be able to help them achieve exactly that! One of the top albums of the year, no questions asked!
(Online December 13, 2008)