Review: Wandering OakResilience

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A flight through entangled vine and bramble.

The ’80s were a golden period for metal typically because that’s when its growth was the most explosive. While this continued to an extent in the ’90s, primarily through death and black metal, the rest of the genre was in a more tumultuous state. Genres like power and progressive metal underwent facelifts that permanently altered how we perceive them even today (there is a reason the former is perceived as a primarily European genre for example). Others like thrash were basically auctioned off piece-by-piece to those they had spawned or coexisted with. There is also the curious case of folk metal; a genre as ill-defined if not moreso than progressive and avant-garde metal. Its roots may have been in Bathory’s viking era and Skyclad but it’s long since come to encompass almost anything whether Primordial, Ensiferum, Agalloch, Dordeduh, Wuthering Heights, Negura Bunget, Falconer, Cruachan and countless others who often sound little alike. Yet somehow, they manage to end up under the same broad umbrella in a way similar to how Voivod, Dream Theater, Psychotic Waltz, and Dissona end up being classified broadly as progressive metal.

It is a younger genre functionally made standing on the ossified shoulders of its predecessors, not so much a deviation from them as much as it is a remix of sorts. A large part of folk metal, like many genres that emerged in the ’90s, is its appeal to what’s outside of typical metal boundaries. Communicated via exotic instrumentation or technical practice, this would seem an easy way to create a unique identity within metal yet this has been the opposite in most cases. The actual metal on which it’s based has often remained not only stagnant but in a deteriorated and some say even vestigial state; so much so how basic of a framework it presents in its plainness negatively juxtaposes otherwise exotic ambitions. Novelty has a notoriously short shelf life after all. Competence on the other hand, while not incapable of overlapping with novelty, suffers no such flaw.

The strength of how general folk metal is as a genre is that it can be a sort of meeting point for ideas from across the various little realms of metal. It’s not really bound to a particular time, scene, or place especially nowadays. The anachronistic possibilities contained therein are liberating in a way as its only rulebook is a very ambiguously written, publicly sourced one anyone can contribute to. Whereas most genre representatives have not progressed beyond tacking on exotic features onto an atrophied metallic framework, Wandering Oak take the opposite approach. This Rochester power trio sticks out first and foremost with an aggressively guitar-driven, riffy approach but whereas this is often associated with black metal or certain forms of classic heavy metal, Resilience opts for a rarer option. This is not to say the presence of the former two genres is absent or unwelcome, but it is not often (or ever) you see folk metal proper based upon a sort of death metal tinged, technical form of thrash. The complexity at play belies a progressive aspect in both its vast songwriting aims and the eclecticism of its influences combined. The folk aspect tends to come off in its broad, sweeping melodies and a particular sort of scale usage that evokes something I suppose Irish-folksy in nature, yet it’s treated less so as an ornament and simply part of its vocabulary by default.

If you know your folk metal history, then odd as it may sound, the genre having ties to the realm of Metallica, Forbidden, Heathen, Sodom, and Sabbat (UK) is not as strange as it sounds. The last of these bands is of particular relevance as they would give rise to Skyclad, who in spite of their fiddles and keyboards retained an aggressive, technical delivery. Pinpoint riffing and incisive vocals were the name of their game on 1991’s The Wayward Sons of Mother Earth and on Resilience, this strength in genre fundamentals has remained. It has been 33 years since those Brits began however and even the kind of thrash that they take notes from is not the same. The progressive/technical end of the genre (Watchtower, Milwaukee’s Realm, Coroner especially, Lifecycle-era Sieges Even, etc.) informs their elaborate riffing patterns a large part as does the rhythm section. Elaborate harmonies weave classic heavy metal romanticism and melodic black metal elaboration together, dancing across a gulf of history embedded with Irish-style folk melody and scale choices. As much as this already is, that is far from their totality and much of it also resides in a harsher dimension further distanced from their ’80s roots.

Hints of coiling death metal aggression and winding, eerie structure manifest on occasion like some sort of abyssic predator attracted by the frenzied eclecticism, occasionally voicing its desire through deep, hollow growls. Black metal is a more prominent part of the equation overall, evoked even in the Borknagar-style singing (ICS Vortex specifically) and the emphasis on sweeping, grandiose melody driven less so by rhythmic pummeling and more so by spacious chords and fluid guitar patterns. There’s little in the way of chugs or simple stock rhythmic patterns, never opting for easier options. This is not to say it’s devoid of accessibility but the end result reminds me of something akin to Primordial rather than Finntroll or Eluveitie thankfully. A lot less of the doom metal is present by comparison with Wandering Oak retains more of the black metal edge that diminished throughout that Irish band’s career, albeit expressed with less of an emphasis on the anthemic and more so on winding, at times labyrinthine intricacy. There’s not really a lot else I can compare it to. Their sophomore album represents a cyclonic amalgamation of various normally unrelated strains of thought within metal history into a voice whose cohesion is enforced by raw intensity as much as progressive ambitions alike.

Stylistically Resilience varies heavily not just from track to track but frequently within every song. For example on opener “To Lir They Fell” black metal-style harmonies command a huge chunk of its first half, breaking off between storming blast beats and surging tremolo lines (reminiscent of another Robert project, Helianthus), breaking off into beefy epic heavy metal infused midtempo punch. Robert Bruce Pollard shows off a combination of Opeth-esque wet growls and his hearty, resolute sung voice, the latter every bit as poetic as his ear for the folksy sway of his acoustic playing and tasteful soloing. Even before the acoustic break fretless bassist Dee Ethier is clearly audible through the guitar, pulsing in its wake with beefy accents and stepping up for invigorating harmonies. CW Dunbar’s furious blast beats made a pretty solid first impression but his knack for concise fills and unintrusive cymbal work play a large part into less streamlined, crunchier technique especially in the album’s more cerebral sections. A lot of this comes into play in the second half when the tempos slow but the riffing further intensifies in both aggression and complexity. Staccato rhythm guitar breaks off into spacier articulation and flashes of shimmering melody, straight up entering a realm of rapidly fragmenting technical thrash rhythm work as the bass begins feeling like it’s branching off from the guitar. It’s territory I would associate moreso with a band like Atvm or even Inanna but it translates well into the forested, sacral atmosphere this whirlwind of an opener created.

 

Yet where the opener saves its major stylistic plot twist for its second half, “Vespertine” stays alienating and surreal straight from the start, showcasing the flipside of their sound away from its more blackened, streamlined side into something shrouded in the surreal. A fade in towards a drowsy, swaying bassline accompanies an air of creeping tonal discord, deliberately avoiding clean resolutions as Robert’s voice leads one further down the rabbit hole. When the metal kicks in it’s not with a triumphant strike but a series of increasingly off-sounding, outright dissonant creeping riffs and even solos that feel like they warped in from the realm of weirdoes like Voivod, Aterrima, Loam, and even recent Unaussprechlichen Kulten. Tremolo riffs that might’ve been straightforward coil and break apart abruptly, basslines feel like they’re snaking both over and through them, and Dunbar miraculously holds it all together with what sounds like the album’s most demanding drumming. It almost sounds like something off of At The GatesThe Red In The Sky Is Ours in terms of general derangement. The second half features lengthy tremolo polyphony of a tonally ambiguous nature, broken up by highly expressive if similarly off-kilter soloing. The only unambiguous melody feels like it builds up to something as it slowly makes its way towards as big, comfortable resolution that doesn’t really happen. The distortion cuts and in the wake of its echoes, whispered vocals and a charming if somehow eerie acoustic melody brings it to a close.

The above songs can be thought of as representing two of the album’s contrasting extremes, sharing similarities in long and unusual structures combined with ever-morphing technical execution. It’s an aggressively multifaceted, at times overwhelming listen but it’s done with an impressive confidence spitting in the face of genre expectation as much as it reinforces the strength of the fundamentals of strong metalcrafting in general. It focuses on things that while entirely alien to folk metal, are otherwise uncommon at least in a way that we would conventionally recognize. There’s a refreshing lack of cheap party-metal singalong hooks or sugary melodic hooks dancing above half-hearted riffing. In spite of being in a genre associated with straightforward delivery, Resilience consistently finds all sorts of room for strange turnarounds and structures that recombine and diverge as naturally as the seasons pass. Its folk element is communicated in large part through its instrumentation and its atmosphere is tied directly to its execution, technical as it may be, whether creating tangled roots of unending ambiguity or blazing light across an unconquered fen. While the prior two songs don’t necessarily speak to the entirety of this admittedly somewhat short 5-track album (though it is 46 minutes), it does illustrate the sheer range of what they can cover and how drastically they can shift. Suffice to say, they make good use of lengthy runtimes to create odysseys across metallic history.

With that in mind, folk metal is not typically a genre of cerebral, technical execution. Atmosphere plays as much a part in its appeal as it would the chilliest or most possessed of black metal. Lyrics in this case are not afraid to be as cryptic as their music can be at times. To return to “Vespertine”, the lyrics paint an entrancing image not just of the natural world (“Dance! Done the garland of night / Bequeath thirst to datura / Soul as the primrose, the heart – Brugmansia / Slake on Ipomoea alba”) but tying it to more deeply personal affairs (“Dwelling on the threshold of rational thought / Cross the twilight course – Aristilus glares / By wolves of fear, I am now sought”). Yet Robert is not a stranger to a less shrouded, very pointed approach either. “Resilience”, the most straightforward and thrashy song here also hearkens to a sort of unifying clarion call of battle and defiance (“Endure craven bleating from sycophantic fools / Magna carta of ideological violence, clad in blood /Etched into our edicts by peerless tools”), ending with some lines best described as poetic as they are evocative and invigorating (“Spin your story-web, of unfaltered clout – it is dwarfed by mine / Claim the sun’s blaze as your own – In seasons of triumph, we have shown /Embrace the pace – the tumultuous chase”).

I cannot claim to have wrapped my head around the totality of the lyricism but I find that to be part of the appeal of the album. The band remains highly idiosyncratic, devoid of the hallmarks of 2000’s Nuclear Blast-addled paganfest schlock, finding an alternate point of origin in their interpretation of the genre. It’s not often I think of a folk metal album as cryptic (or thrashy; really who else is there beyond these guys and older Skyclad?) or something I can put in a similar category as something like Psycho Symphony or recent Vorbid. It’s an album not afraid to have a lot of mystery itself, layered in its cryptic yet satisfyingly organic sound—not outwardly “exotic” as are most genre compatriots in their need for aggressively superficial identity. It’s highly entrancing in how it gradually unveils its various highly specific threads of thought and firepower, frequently entering strangely technical territories often seen as foreign to the folky. There’s so much to discover and decipher; it’s the sort of off-the-beaten-path personality I associate with the obscure and off-kilter end of death metal (ie. Wicked Innocence, Traumatic Voyage, Wisconsin’s Phantasm, Poland’s Nostradamus). Hearing it in this genre at times feels disorienting.

I’ve had many criticisms of folk metal before and sometimes bands fix the formula by simply doing it better. Other times, they simply ignore it and create the genre as if from an alternate history. Resilience falls into the latter category; a miniature realm of alternate possibilities for a genre that can mean so many different things yet has otherwise come to represent a very small fraction of that to the metal world at large. It’s an anachronistic effort that casually blends the histories and traditions of metal styles that normally have very little to do with one another. Rather than conflict it finds unity in their juxtaposition and their interplay, as if implying their well recognized boundaries obscure the shared lineages behind them. This is an album not for people looking for another Korpiklaani or Alestorm but something that looks as much to metal’s past as it does the possibilities yet to be fully realized by it. It helps that said possibilities riff incredibly fucking hard too.

4.5/5 Flaming Toilets ov Hell

Resilienceis available for streaming and purchase on Wandering Oak’s Bandcamp.

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