Northern Oak - Of Roots And Flesh (2014)

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Metal fans have given themselves a million reasons to like folk metal, or ten million reasons not to. For the latter, a common theme seems to be that the music is too happy, and at the same time, not "brutal" enough, whatever that means. Northern Oak, then, can appeal to both sides of the dividing line without having to sell themselves short of their goals. Combining the intense, eclectic instrumentation you may love about the genre, but maintaining a level of heaviness throughout, their sophomore album might be the one that breaks the dam and paves the way for a new school of thought. Of Roots And Flesh is an eclectic mix of new and old, shiny and rusted, forming one wave of sheer delight that no self respecting fan of heavy music could resist. No point trying; you might as well give in and enjoy the ride.

Leading with strength isn't ever a bad idea; and the jaunty flute melody that fades in and out of The Dark Of Midsummer is enough to peak your attention early, and keep it later. Rather than standing out alone, it becomes part of the tapestry of the track, a distorted bevy of riffs and screams, elevated by some many delicate subtleties. Usually lost in this style, the bass lines are incredibly detailed and equally important to the mix. It becomes one of many common threads that runs through each song, tying the previous to the next, as it does with Marston Moor. Here the violin serves as the lead, lighting the fire from which the entire mix rises. It's polished and concise, without feeling forced or over touched. What becomes a staggering reality is how deep the sound really is, and how many layers there are. In a  moments time, it can go from soft and enchanting to powerful and invigorating, as Gaia illustrates multiple times in five short minutes.

While it is painfully difficult to say that any one song or moment stands out from the rest as being "the one," Nerthus is that perfect contrast we all look for; the flute maintains its strength throughout, mashing up with the guitars and vocals, both of which show a great deal of grit and command. Because of the equal performance, it shows so much of what the band has to offer in terms of balance. In fact, it makes Isle Of Mist that much more profound. There is no big buildup or devastating drop off, only a smooth sailing of acoustic guitars, violin, flute, and keys. It could be construed as a prelude to Taken, which shares much of the pace and richness. But where the latter separates is at the first injection of vocals, a screaming, resonating set of lyrics that cut through the instrumental like a saw through the fibers of a branch. As an appreciate user of the English language, it would be suffice to say that epic simply doesn't do this movement justice.

As the second half of the album begins, albeit in the form of a short interlude first, the journey has really only just begun. The Gallows Tree, in all its glory, does when many bands the world over cannot. It erupts. It explodes. It thrashes. It grinds. And all the while, mouth agape, there is nothing you can do but try to take it all in. It combines within its borders all that you love about the metal genre, without ever trying to be so poignant. It flows naturally from one stanza to the next, one riff to the other, and pulls you, willingly of course, behind. The melody just before the three and a half minute mark is as moving and enchanting as any you've ever heard in metal or otherwise. The moment is unstoppable at times; in fact, at all times. Bloom houses some of the most impassioned riffs on the album, along with a kick drum sound that is mesmerizing and crystal clear.

There is something in each and every track that speaks to you, whether it be on a personal level or just as a music fan at large. The title track utilizes male/female vocal harmonies to bolster its sound, while never letting go of what brought you to this point. The three minute mark is one to be bookmarked and relayed ad nauseum, a massive wave of screams and distortion. Trying not to get lost in the constant reminder of how magically a flute fronted metal band can sound is a difficult enough task, but with fluttering leads like the one in Only Our Names Will Remain it becomes impossible. Guitar and wind, playing on and off of one another to miraculous ends, and that only spells out a fraction of what lurks in the twists and turns here. It almost feels like a crime to focus so little on the percussion, an aspect that drives this album from start to finish. With only the somber Outro remaining, you may feel as emotionally spent as possible.

This is a different kind of folk metal, a far cry from the dancing with happiness brand that has flooded the market. Northern Oak is a part of the next wave of the genre, reinventing and tweaking all that you thought you know, and turning it into something you never knew you wanted. It won't sound completely unfamiliar at first, but with each passing track, you might find yourself having a familiar reaction each time; "Huh, I didn't know you could do that." It isn't just a game of flutes and guitars playing tag; It is layer upon layer of distortion and melody, aggression and emotion, colliding and cascading around each other. It sounds grandiose, and it truly is all of that and so much more. I would hate to overstate the power it imparts onto the listener, but you are in for a treat. Of Roots And Flesh is the best album of the year thus far.


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