If Eastern European black metal bands are famous for anything, aside from some very dubious political affiliations, then it would have to be that they don’t suffer any lack of self-confidence or ambition. Ukrainian outfit Kroda takes that same purposeful and progressive approach on its newest release Schwarzpfad, crafting a suite of songs that splices mellifluous European folk into a swirling mix of pagan fury. Spread out across five elongated tracks, sole band member Eisenslav proves himself to be not only highly proficient instrumentally, but also someone with enough compositional nous to draw from an eclectic set of influences beyond the traditional blackened palette.
Any seriously-minded pagan outfit needs to think large-scale. Even if not setting out to create epic works like Schwarzpfad, singing stirring hymns to your forefathers and delving into the history of heritage and environment means that, conceptually at least, there’s a lot to pack into an album. If you’re not up to the task then cramming as much folky instrumentation in doesn’t remedy any shortcomings. It might make your renaissance-fair-loving uncle real happy, but extended accordion jams don’t really embody the spirit of black-metal-fuelled paganism. Thankfully there’s none of that exhibitionist waffle on Schwarzpfad. Kroda obviously has some grand ambitions, but Eisenslav hasn’t set out to evoke the old pony-riding days of yore by occasionally shunting the blurring riffs to the side for a lute solo.
Not shy in drawing inspiration from a whole bunch of other metal methodologies, Kroda uses a ton of cleaner rock riffs set around the core dissonance. And while those simpler riffs add an abundance of textures and mess around with the tension, there are also of plenty of folky atmospherics too. Flute, acoustic guitars and keyboards are used to great effect – layered throughout the album and used in transitional moments. I (First Snow) has a great guitar/flute counterpointing midsection, III (Forefather of Hangmen) has a whimsical woodwind piece set around a chunky repeating riff, and II (Universal Provenances) has a melancholic acoustic lead before giving up to the storm.
There’s a great combination of guttural, screeched, clean and choral voices on the album. Overlapping in places and best exemplified on IV (Heil Ragnarok!), that interweaving gives rise to some rousing palpability. Of course, unless you’re fluent in Slavic languages then you’re probably best to imagine the vocals as part of the overall soundscape.
For an album stacked with layers of instrumentation, nothing’s been overwhelmed. The aggressive and melodious parts marry up nicely, and the production isn’t overly busy, although a bit of thinness creeps in here and there. Kroda induces some genuinely mead-swilling moments that capture the feel of nature at its most capricious. That has to be something of an achievement.
Kroda isn’t alone in producing epic Ukrainian metal. Drudkh roam around in similar territories, and Blood Of Kingu’s latest was pretty unstoppable. But while those acts seem more inclined to charge across the steppes, Kroda takes its time. Rather than simply going all out for a darkened winter aesthetic, Schwarzpfad feels a little more autumnal and has to be one of the more authentically pagan metal releases I’ve heard in a long time.