The words ‘pagan’ and ‘metal’ in close proximity conjure up certain preconceptions in most metal minds. Let’s be honest, those preconceptions are not always positive and much of that is self-inflicted by bands whose musical hopes and dreams should probably have remained in their mate’s garage. So, give thanks to the polytheistic pantheons that Hagl have come from the east with their ass-kicking brand of punk rock meets pagan black metal to sweep some of those preconceptions aside. Ok, so there’s the spoken word intro, acoustic passages and folky melodies a-plenty hidden among the icy blasts – just to make sure no one feels like they’re straying too far from the pagan path. But it’s all done with refreshing ferocity and an occasional boundary-nudging mindset that proves these guys know their dark trade.
The no-nonsense attitude reminds me more of a blackened Kvelertak than the genre’s standard fare and bristles along like some beast roaming through a frostbitten winter nightmare. The band, from Tver in Russia, just northwest of Moscow (well, about 200 km from Moscow central, but it’s a big country), has been releasing material in various demos and splits since the late 1990s and this is their third full-length and most finely-honed release to date (both 2005’s Nearer To Victory and 2008’s Irminsul have both been released by Casus Belli). Hagl aren’t afraid to play a few games and do a fair bit of dabbling during songs that makes what would otherwise be an enjoyable but fairly straightforward slice of full-speed black metal into something with enough twists and turns to set itself apart. The first track proper, Heavy Gale, instantly clicks into a classic black metal riff, switches to a galloping classic metal romp, back to a tornado blast then at least three or four signature changes before getting back to the main theme for the finale. It’s a band clearly determined to be master of its chosen realm and out to prove that that pagan metal can weave its charms while remaining flesh-tearingly grim as any other.
Hagl, it turns out, has claws. Big shaggy, razor sharp and blood soaked ones that means it can go whichever way it pleases. The result is an album that wends its way though the forest steppes and river-forged ravines guided by searing riffs and fittingly harsh vocals. The tracks maintain a frenetic tempo and hammer along the folk refrains like a seething version of Kampfar (more Mare than Kvass) on tracks like Thunderstorm and Europe. Above Death includes some tremendous guitar leads and single The North (released earlier this year under its Russian translation Север) is like a hail storm in the face while the black punk of Mors Triumphalis proves yet again that this type of music doesn’t have to be a box ticking exercise.
In The Heart is fuelled by pagan black metal zeal laced with just the right amount of scene-setting melodic folk. Finally with the backing of a decent label this is a band that clearly deserves the chance to finally get a more visible profile.
(7.5/10 Reverend Darkstanley)