Release: 24 March 2023
Label: Despotz Records
Cruachan, the pioneering Folk Metal band from Ireland have returned to the studio with their first offering since Nine Years of Blood in 2018. Even though they weren’t actively in the studio, they had been active on social media with what can arguably be deemed a side-project, known as the Cruachan Balladeers. It is comprised of Keith Fay and Joe Farrell. And it is clear from that side of their musical output that it was a pure passion project, and this influence of folk ballads shows up to a large extent in their new album, The Living and the Dead. It should be noted that on this release Cruachan have changed their approach to being much heavier on the Folk than the Metal than usual. And unlike comparable works like some Tuatha de Danann releases, or newer Korpiklaani music, they don’t come across as the Metal being an afterthought or accentuating the Folk. On The Living and the Dead roots of Metal are buried deep within the soil of passionate Gaelic folk music.
The intro immediately shows that Cruachan is going in a new route. “The Living” offers a spirited, high octane romp that adapts a staple of classic Irish folk music and a stock of balladeering acts, “Cooley’s Reel”. This song is a far cry from the usual adaptations Cruachan makes and sets the stage for what is to come.
Following the intro, the listener revisits the warrior queen concept in “The Queen”, and interestingly enough, Grace O’Malley here is cast as a warrior queen of old. And the song is written like a proper Folk ballad one would hear celebrating heroes, which considering that these influences are built in and the band is trying to write their own songs, speaks volumes about what went into this release lyrically.
“The Hawthorn” follows, it the first, and is perhaps the most well known single of Cruachan, but for the purposes of this review it will be mentioned that this is the turning point for the themes that show that the “New Ways” are on the rise, but that the “Old Ways” still hold sway. It can be seen as foreshadowing in a way considering its somber tone and grim themes is followed by “The Harvest”, which is about the Folk celebrating their Way by gathering under the harvest moon. After this “the Festival” begins to lead the album into much darker territory.
Next the album goes to the remnant of the Old with “The Ghost”, which is a much darker song musically too, and one of the few ones to properly utilize harsher vocals extensively. Continuing in the darker vein is “The Crow” about the symbol of the old order keeping watch over Ireland and what the dark holds for those who don’t keep to the light.
“The Reaper” is a more obvious ballad but continues this dark territory lyrically and musically, a lot of the Violin tracks here aren’t driving as in the others, but instead accentuates and flavors the ominous mood of the track. There are plenty of slower moments on this track too, and overall it is more of an exercise in theme and storytelling than something you can headbang to.
Following the themes of death on the previous track is “the Children”, and “The Changeling”. Both share similar concepts, but the former is a track lamenting the mistreatment of unbaptised babies or infants in Christian Ireland, more information can be found on the Cruachan facebook page accompanying this song. The changeling is about children being taken by the fair folk and is also quite slow compared to the rest of the output.
“The Witch” was also released as a single, and is in all honesty one of the weaker tracks on offer. It is more of a Ballad without the bounce or cheer they typically have, and it deals conceptually with themes established on “the Queen” (and for those who believe that this is pure speculation examine the two halves of the cover art and we can speak again). It’s less exciting and understandably so, as it is a toned down and more “mild” version of its companion track (and if the parallel themes did not factor in to this extent it would actually be worse for the track taken in isolation).
Finally the album closes off with “The Dead” which is the culmination of the story told over the album, and rounds things off on a suitably dark note with heavy riffs and intensive music to contrast against the lighthearted cheer of the opener.
There was an extensive lead up to this album, and it must be said, this reviewer heard the singles after “The Hawthorn” and feared that Cruachan would completely abandon their Metal roots and rather go the balladeering route, but this album only shows that it is possible to incorporate novel Folk music traditions into Metal music in the modern day and to try new stuff without abandoning your roots. This album will most likely be divisive because some of these tracks are definitely something that needs multiple listens to appreciate. So after a few weeks the verdict might vary slightly, but even in the worst case, Cruachan has managed to work within familiar territory to produce something that reflects their developing artistic direction, while remaining rich and complicated enough to keep a listener coming back. The Living and the Dead is a release fans of Cruachan or just Folk Metal will not want to miss as it delivers a singularly interesting take on Folk Music implemented in Metal that can be an introduction to other forms of music like Neo-folk or even just ordinary folk music.
- The Living
- The Queen
- The Hawthorn
- The Harvest
- The Festival
- The Ghost
- The Crow
- The Reaper
- The Children
- The Changeling
- The Witch
- The Dead