Although I’d head their name mentioned here and there previously, I didn’t really catch up with this Sheffield sextet until their second album ‘Monuments’ had been out for a while and I witnessed their engaging set at Warhorns 2013 (a cool little festival that health problems kept me away from this year, sadly). This album is therefore their third and a self released kickstarter financed affair, exactly the kind of move that proves kickstarter has a real place in the underground (as long as backers accept that it gives them no say in what comes out, y’understand)
When the first song ‘The Dark Of Midsummer’ brings out their distinctive flute led sound, you could be forgiven for asking what the Hell am I, a self confessed prog-sceptic and cynical-of-folk-metal person doing here? Well it’s a kind of ‘never-say-never’ situation because Northern Oak’s take on the style has an awful lot going for it. It’s a thoughtful, lilting thing; often gentle, sometimes a fair riotous jig, occasionally a stormy take on progressive folk metal. Guitars, growled vocals, flute, piano and keyboards, fiddle, clean backing vocals swirling around a sylvan sound with preoccupations from folklore to historic. We get snatches that, to an old fossil like me, can’t help but bring in a little Jethro Tull around Stormwatch, a little very early Heart if you listen really hard, but there’s a good bit more of Borknagar’s echoing, universal proggy path too and a less cynical and biting Walkyier period Skyclad all wrapped in a fresh and youthful energy and their own leisurely ways.
In other words, there is a nice sparkle of charisma about them.
It’s a nicely laid out album, musically. More focused than the predecessor I think, a sign of growing maturity. Variation of tempo and length keep things interesting and the production means the warm bass sounds and runs are clear. Sometimes, yes, the meandering is a touch overplayed for me: ‘Taken’, with an admittedly doomy style, gorgeous fiddle break and well thought out drum and piano close, jangles and wanders too far for me. But then straight after it, the bouncing ‘Levellers meets Finntroll’ swing of excellent song ‘The Gallows Tree’ brings me back with a (probably inappropriate) grin. ‘Bloom’ is another fine song and an atmospheric one, showcasing both an urgency and how well they can play one instrument off against the other, in this case piano and flute, and with some fantastic clean singing. This is where the band are at their absolute best; a slightly frantic interplay, the flute pushed into faster tempos, made sharper by the piano with great support from the riffs and vocals. Tie it to drums that fair skip and a deft bass and it’s a winner. As is the title track, where the gorgeous warm bass lines bubble up to the surface to add a superb richness. Again the superb clean vocals, allied to the growls boost this song into a glistening gem where Borknagar meet A Forest Of Stars if they sipped real ale not guzzled decadent wine.
‘Marston Moor’ is a fast little number with the fiddle matching the flute to great effect but despite being a fine song is a good showcase for one minor picky aspect I wonder about: The flute and fiddle interplay is excellent but under used on the album as a whole which is a shame. The main thing is it makes me yearn for just a little more variation in the flute sound. I actually really enjoy flute music and know it has a fine range of sound textures and I just think, maybe, possibly, that it could have been expanded even more than it is overall. A very minor arrangement point more than anything and probably displaying my lack of musical talent; just sometimes it feels a touch too sweet and smooth no matter how beautifully it is played (and it is). Ah, as I say, minor point.
Northern Oak are the kind of band that is the heart and soul of underground metal; doing what they do for the love of it and doing it with their own style and considerable verve. Of Roots And Flesh is the sound of Northern Oak maturing and crystallising into a fine progressive folk band. Song-writing and performance have stepped up considerably, their own personality is firmly and attractively in place and with its complexity and depth it’s a real grower too. Well worth the attention of any folk metal fan. And don’t forget to catch them live too.
Cover’s rather cool as well. Very nice indeed.
(7.5/10 but still growing on me Gizmo)