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Cruachan - Blood on the Black Robe Review

by Matt Hensch

I’m still in the dark about this ‘pagan metal’ label or whatever it’s supposed to mean; I often figured it’s a mix between Celtic folk music and black metal. I typically see a band like Cruachan grouped into the ambiguous identity, probably because the Irish unit flutters between black metal elements and folk channels via banjos, mandolins, and other Celtic instruments that add an Irish richness to an album like “Blood on the Black Robe.” The musical conclave they unite throughout their sixth record reigns with a mighty semblance of furiousness and grief that gleams like a sword in the sun, and the band's lyrical themes tie together the struggles of paganism throughout Irish history while they unleash Celtic serenades baptized in a variety of colors. I'm pretty sure "Blood on the Black Robe" can get a bazillion tags, but labels are irrelevant to the overall product, which is phenomenal music.

Cruachan takes a bolder approach to this record compared to their previous material; the band has gone heavier, and is more inclined to exert tremolo riffs and blast beats among the Celtic metal dose incorporated in their music. Much of their guitar work or musical formulas aren't daringly independent, yet Cruachan's ability to dissect the folk influence into their metal edge makes the seemingly-listenable music turn dazzlingly chromatic. More importantly though, the atmosphere is just surreal, like almost on the same level as Primordial; musically, only a few things separate them, actually. "Blood on the Black Robe" doesn't work well for drinking games or playful fun; it's actually an eloquent declaration submerged in the pain and frustration of historical suffering, flowing with a powerful sense of unpaid vengeance that has not been forgotten by these pagan warriors.

Cruachan, though, are masters at blending folk instruments into the musical front. Mandolins or violins are constantly thrashing against the threshold with festive melodies or harmonies that capture the Celtic essence wonderfully; there's never a moment when the band drops the stellar influence either. Kay's harsh vocals are spot-on with the music, grabbing the listener to actually feel the angst Cruachan is trying so hard to channel, and I'm willing to say they definitely succeed overall. My grievances are few and far between: most of the melodies are so uncomplicated a parrot could memorize half the album with one listen, and while few tracks are dragged down by this utter simplicity, Cruachan still emerges with a very catchy and memorable record.

“Blood on the Black Robe” likewise provides an essence of encirclement for Cruachan and their fans, if that makes any sense. The album features longtime vocalist Karen Gilligan as a guest on a few tracks, who departed from the group after paying her dues for several years; Cruachan, however, decided not to replace her. This decision fits well into the album’s flow as Cruachan primarily dashes into metallic territory, but that isn’t to go without saying her scarce contributions are anything but phenomenal. The group breaks the heaviness with “An Bean Sidhe,” a soothing ballad foiled in elegant folk arrangements with Gilligan’s sudden manifestation bringing the song to an enchanted place of wonder. Her other appearances throughout the title track and “The Voyage of Bran” are also sensational pieces of vocal bliss; words cannot describe how elegant and beautiful she makes the Celtic postulate. It’s almost like the record is a big dive into catharsis for Cruachan, or something that just needed to happen.

Cathartic: that one word sums up this effort. “Blood on the Black Robe” sounds like the magnum opus of beaten bards covered in the blood of enemies, knowing they are outnumbered, outflanked, and on the edge of defeat after battling a stronger opponent for years, yet still they raise their swords knowing death will come before disgrace. “Blood on the Black Robe” is musically significant in the realms of both Celtic metal and black metal (or pagan metal), yet Cruachan is flowing with emotional power that seldom pops up on every metal album out there. “Blood on the Black Robe” is a special record; it has that drive, that feel, that power to compel the listener into actually understanding the struggles and perseverance it attempts to convey. Not a whole lot of groups can perform such a difficult feat, but Cruachan…they are on another level of brilliance.

Cruachan - Blood on the Black Robe


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