Folk-infused black metal (folkened black metal? blackened folk metal?) comes in so many varieties, seemingly as many as there are cultures across the globe. If you’re a connoisseur of this genre, then there’s no way Saor is a new name to you. Born from a desire to blend the Scandinavian fury of black metal with the Scottish folk of Andy Marshall’s native home, the outfit has been steadily gaining traction from the strength of each output, even beginning to play live shows across the world (a performance not to be missed, from someone who was lucky enough to catch them). On Origins, the fifth full-length from the project, new beginnings are indeed seized and new paths forward forged.
The name Saor means “free” or “without obligations,” and this has been the ethos by which Marshall has lived and died by within his music. Always preferring to write and record his music alone, since 2013 he has been putting out stellar black metal with Scottish influences both expected and novel. “Since I grew up around traditional Scottish music and was a huge fan of film soundtracks, I used those influences and tried to merge them with atmospheric black metal, folk metal and other sounds,” says Marshall. Indeed, most Saor songs flow and weave more like a soundtrack to a movie than a traditional black metal song, melding bagpipes, guitar melodies, roaring and chanted vocals and thunderous drums over tales of Scottish folklore. Origins is a concept record about the Picts, an ancient people who lived in Northern and Eastern Scotland until about the 10th century. While not anything too outside the ordinary lyrically, it is the first true concept album for Marshall, but that’s not the only surprise on Origins. Much more heavily influenced by classic heavy metal and post-metal, much of the black metal onslaught has been traded in for actual riffs and twin-guitar harmonies that are much more prominent. Overall, it is much more guitar-driven affair, but it still retains the things that make Saor unmistakably Saor: wild, heart wrenching melodies, Scottish flair and a grand, cinematic sense of wonder.
The first, most noticeable thing that sets Origins apart from other Saor releases is the distinct lack of vocals. Not that there aren’t any, but “Aurora” stands out as the only song on the album that contains more passages with vocals than not, which is unconventional for an album that has a central theme and stories to tell. On Origins, Marshall lets the music speak for itself and tell its own story, and in that it succeeds beyond any shadow of doubt. Origins is one of the most beautiful albums I have ever heard, bar none. It doesn’t need to beat you over the head with words because you feel the story in your bones. Tracks like “Call of the Carnyx” and “Fallen” weave whole worlds in your imagination just through expert use of melody, harmony and mood. This music is wonderfully transportive, but it just makes me realize I should be in Scotland instead of wherever I am right now. More importantly, it is incredibly obvious that Origins, like all Saor records but never more so, is a labor of love. Love for history and culture, love for the land, and love for a people. Take one listen to the closing title track and tell me you feel nothing. It’s impossible. I’ve been obsessed with that song since it first debuted as a single, and there’s no way I can get myself to go more than 24 hours without listening to it. Every single one of the six cuts on Origins has that kind of potential. There is something undeniably compelling about the way that Marshall tells a story, a thing that is undefinable and unique to Saor and only Saor.
Every single Saor release has been better than the last, and they started out pretty damn good. Origins beats them all, hands down. The switch to riff-based songs allows them to have an immediacy that instantly grabs you, as opposed to a slow burn, without sacrificing any of the facets that have gotten Marshall this far. It is an album that I have unabashedly fallen in love with, and one that I would consider crucial listening for anyone who is a fan of black metal, folk metal, or music in general.