ArkonaI’ve always found Russian Pagan Folk band Arkona an interesting and intriguing listen, but when funds are tight there was always another band that won my hard-earned. Then I realized I might be doing them a disservice because I really hadn’t put in the hours and maybe that’s why I hadn’t got to grips with them in the past. They are quite hard work and not particularly immediate, but as this is their seventh studio album in ten years, they aren’t amateurs either!

One thing I always noticed about the band when I heard them in the past was their tendency to use every feasible vocal style Metal has to offer. Come on guys, pick a style! I mean how many vocalists do you need on stage right? Then, upon reviewing this new release I realised that all the voices are in fact one person – Masha “Scream” Arkhipova. Bloody Hell! That is one talented and innovative female vocalist! And to be fair, given the vocal dexterity on offer, the songs do rather revolve around the vocals. Given the vast array of clean and extreme singing styles herein, it frees the songs up and there is a tendency towards the progressive, which keeps each track fresh, if sometimes a little cluttered…but always interesting.

Musically Arkona still have the most in common with fellow Russian’s Alkonost, but as they are on such a similar musical plain, I would also point out similarities to Cruachan (in the folkier parts) and Moonsorrow (in the more Pagan sections), with the odd touch here and there of of Heidevolk, Finntroll (early stuff), Siegfried and Skyforger – but Arkona really are unique. Take fourth track ‘Zov Pustyh Dereven’, it bounds from Black Metal to Gothic Metal to Death Metal to Prog and Folk Metal and back again via various combinations, and all wrapped up in it’s Pagan Metal skin. It’s quite exhausting! There are some great “Non-Metal” instruments scattered very effectively throughout the album – Balalaika, Komuz, Yakut, Flute, Bagpipes, Gaita, Gallega, Blockflute and more. Most seem to be crammed into ‘Gorod Snov’ (probably this releases most accessible track, due to it’s slightly more melodic slant and less avant-garde arrangement), but feature to varying degrees throughout the album.

But really it always seems to come back to the vocals, because they really dictate the feel of each part of each song. There is no obvious structure so the listener is always kept guessing. Ok there is usually at least something – a hook, an instrumental riff, a time-change, that you can latch on to by at least the second listen, but on the whole, the Wow (or WTF) moments are all down to the vocals. They are really where the band claim their individuality and stand out from the crowd.

On reflection, I’m rather glad I took the time to sit down and really listen to Arkona, and I really rather enjoyed it – I imagine it is an album that I will keep returning to and hear something new each time. I can’t claim to quite understand them (I mean arrangement-wise and not due to the fact they sing in Russian!) and I am very grateful for the Western script versions of the song titles and album name – I really didn’t have a clue how to pronounce “Явь”! There are some really great parts to each song and yes, Arkona are a challenge, but worthwhile in the end.

(7/10 Andy Barker)