Review: Àrsaidh – ‘Roots’

When Askival mastermind Andy Marshall announced that the Scottish band was no more in 2009, the news was received with equal bewilderment and sadness amongst fans. The one-man project released first album ‘Eternity’ earlier that year, showing great potential and especially catching the ear of black metal fans who simply prefer an escape into the beautiful wilderness of a dark British woodland space. A promising project ceased to exist…

Arsaidh                                                        

But from the ashes of Askival, Marshall collaborated with friend Scott Mclean in 2010 to form Falloch – an altogether airier, more post-rock driven project, musically inspired by anything from Jeff Buckley and Yann Tiersen to Alcest and Old Silver Key, whilst keeping the love of their Scottish homeland’s natural landscapes close to heart. In the same way that Askival’s debut made a significant impact in underground UK black metal, Falloch’s ‘Where Distant Spirits Remain’ did too.

Unexpectedly, Marshall left the band at the end of last year and the silence was resumed. It seemed Marshall had lost inspiration for the music he was making and withdrew himself into obscurity, leaving us with our own imaginative thoughts of the musician dwelling in the mists of the Scottish Highlands somewhere. That is until another Scottish black metal band randomly appeared through the medium of internet with little promotion and little information about who they were. Upon hearing the sounds of Àrsaidh, alarm bells began ringing; not only did the project have Marshall written all over it because of the Celtic influence, but Marshall’s unique work as a guitarist distinguished the identity of the project. The mystery was solved. Listening to the whole of this debut album from Marshall’s latest incarnation, it’s clear that he has crafted yet another beautiful piece of work.

‘Roots’ goes back to, well… the roots of Marshall’s past musicianship, but that’s not to say this is Askival revived. Whilst this is somewhat of a return to more intense black metal pastures, Marshall has struck his own unique balance, somewhere in between Falloch and Askival. For those who thought Askival was too straight-forward and less-developed and others who thought Falloch was too much of a left-field stretch into softer, melodic textures, you may find that Àrsaidh is right in the Goldilocks’ zone.

If we’re to generalise very lazily, folk-spliced black metal remains to be Andy Marshall’s primary output. But compared to Askival’s brilliant (and only) full-length record, ‘Eternity’, Àrsaidh is packed with more floral harmonies. The intensity is still there, but the more intricate aspects of Marshall’s playing – for want of a better word – have matured with his ideas too. ‘Roots’ is only four tracks long, but it’s the most ambitious piece Marshall has attempted. Three songs weigh in well over the 13-minute mark with one three-minute interlude (‘Saorsa’) to give a break between the second and fourth tracks with some echoing bagpipes played from the peace of some unknown windy mountaintop. Out of the variety of instruments on offer – including acoustic guitar, violin and synths – the Scottish whistle features as a key force in the folk section and is used especially well in their instrumental verses. The slightly harsher, bulked-up areas of blackened riffage drive the songs forward in mountainous strides, but it’s still pleasing to hear that Àrsaidh equally emphasise their more melodic, folk sensibilities.

Whilst the use of synth-generated choirs created a more medieval-feeling atmosphere in Askival, Àrsaidh instead welds a Celtic feel with less oppressive sounds; airy keys and sprinkles of gorgeous piano playing feature in the near-14-minute, beautiful second track ‘Carved In Stone’. Marshall’s vocals have changed over the years too, taking a more rugged, deeper edge with a subtle echo, as if he’s shouting every lyric through the breadth of a remote Scottish valley. 17-minute epic ‘A Highland Lament’ tops the record off with overwhelming layers of electric guitar and gradually morphing structures, delivered in an almost Wodensthrone-like progressiveness.

The only real criticism of ‘Roots’ is areas of the production, which don’t give the lighter vocal harmonies their due. A little higher in the mix and their power could undoubtedly be maximised. Nevertheless, one minor gripe can take nothing away from this brilliant return to form from Andy Marshall. Let’s hope the roots remain strong and we hear a second album from Àrsaidh.

8.5/10

Originally published at SoundShock Webzine:
soundshock.com/index.php/cd-reviews/4848-arsaidh-roots-album-review

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