It’s been 3 years since we last heard from French medievalist troupe Darkenhold and no doubt they have been holed up in their castle walls constructing their newest opus and fourth full length album. It’s immediately striking too when you are drawn to the fabulous romanticism of Claudine Vrae’s (who the Internet has drawn a blank on) fantastic cover art. It kind of puts you in the mood for what is contained within, tales of ancient castles, swords and maybe even a little sorcery. The translated track titles speak of Sealed Ruins in Old Forests, Caves Of Golden Goats and all sorts of mysteries and fables to walk through. Apparently there was an official campaign to fund the making of this album with those who put in receiving it with unique hand written messages from Aldébaran of the band stamped and sealed with wax. Sounds like they really did get in the spirit of things and looking at the band’s official page they still yearn for days of olde posing in authentic costume and bearing staffs and swords.

Gorgeous acoustic guitar tones take us in to the album itself and vocalist Cervantes adds a blackened rasp. The thing that stood out straight away are the magnificent choral chants behind him, fragrant and beguiling along with the lush melody and charge of the brutal drumming, which combined together present the best of both worlds. More of a heathen cleave powers away as we ride with the spirits on ‘La Chevauchée des Esprits de Jadis.’ This is not a band all about speed and brutality, it is there but tempered by those fantastical chants and acoustic fretwork and although rooted very much in the traditionalism of black metal Darkenhöld seem to be doing something here that we don’t really hear the likes of much these days.

It’s not until the third track that I suddenly noticed the keyboards seeping in and then completely enchanting with more fantastic icy melody. They do become a component part of things as the album continues and really add to the atmospheres too. Some of the fretwork has a touch of Opeth about it as well and although subtle as it weaves away it really does showcase the strengths of both the players and the compositions themselves. There are plenty of nods along the way to the most well-known fathers of the second wave of black metal, there’s a brutal spiky charge of early Satyricon and the rasp and keyboards definitely bring to mind Emperor before they got overly technical too. Vocals are in native tongue adding to the mysteries and there are plenty of these to be found within the tracks themselves such as a sudden patch of clean acoustic picking dropped into the middle of a rampaging furrow. This is an album that is not immediate and has taken a fair few spins, I’m finding different nuances on each and every listen making it all the more enjoyable. The aforementioned golden goat presents itself in the form of a short keyboard instrumental which sounds like it has been made by a lone figure in the castle bowels (pure dungeon synth) and completely entrances. Then we are taken to the vault of oaks and their reach is mighty, trembling under the weight of the drumming and tempered by some of the most gorgeous dreamy acoustic guitar I have heard in ages. Brutality and melodicism is matched perfectly here and if put on the spot I would have to say ‘Sous la Voûte de Chênes’ is the album’s standout track although the swaggering clamour of cliffs following it delivers everything you would expect and is the most violent, glorious passage, guaranteed to get heads banging.

Tempestuous and romantic in equal measures Darkenhöld have managed to create an album that does actually deliver everything I could have wished for upon first being transfixed by that album artwork; proving sometimes you can actually judge a book by its cover. I bet they are well worth the trip to France to see live on the no doubt fleeting occasions they play but for the time being ‘Memoria Sylvarum’ will do nicely and I can see me being drawn back to it for plenty more listens.

(8/10 Pete Woods)