The future lies obscured beneath a veil of black. Our feeble taps against the fabric of unreached time do yield some merit, but ultimately our absurd desires for control over what can not be bound proves time and time again to be an unnecessary frustration. Predictions based on reason, history, probability, and that unsolved sixth sense of human tenacity are all we have in this losing war against incoming time, but that might just be enough on rare occasion. Included within this smidgen of baseless confidence lies the following statement; Saor are Scotland’s defining metal act. I don’t mean Saor rule the pack for 2016, or even the 2010’s. I mean Saor is Scottish metal. Bands of the future will adopt Celtic instrumentation more wholeheartedly, Scotland will become a topic of musical infamy in the metal sphere, and all eyes will be directed to Andy Marshall’s legacy. I can’t predict the quality of Saor’s future releases. For all I know, the best might just be yet to come. Should Roots, Aura, and Guardians be the penultimate of a career, then a trilogy of near-perfect story-telling isn’t a terrible way to fade. Guardians sounds like a destination record, with the previous two acting as the journey. Whether or not it stands as a stronger release than Roots and Aura is besides the point; this is the sound of Saor at its purest.
I’ll get the primary issue out of the way right off the bat, because it is one that will undoubtedly follow in the wake of this album’s release. Guardians for the most part does very little to differentiate itself from the previous Saor releases. It’s success lies more so in the quality of its storytelling than its originality when viewed in context of Marshall’s discography. In saying that, there is a brief counter-argument I wish to quickly make; Saor don’t really sound like anyone. Three albums of top-tier Scottish shredding is nothing in the vast seas of Scandinavian and American black metal, and so there should theoretically be very little reason to bring up this argument. Due to the nit-picky nature of the metal community, it is an inescapable clasp, and should Saor somehow manage to break free of this iron grip, my self-proclaimed predictive skills can kindly walk out of the door. The opener/title track is quite literally a mix of Roots and Aura. The main difference to be noted right away is the considerably different style of percussion play, with Bryan Hamilton giving a considerable amount more breathing space with his performance than Austin Lunn’s trademark chaotic sound. The dynamic shifts, blasts, and builds all sound somewhat primitive by comparison, but this is not without intention. Hamilton’s performance feels emotionally connected to the rest of the instrumentation. He carries songs with confident simplicity, and this ultimately works absolute wonders, with “Guradians” ending on an incredible crescendo that just doesn’t give up. It is the sort of crescendo that requires serious restraint, and Hamilton knows this like the back of his hand.
This isn’t to say the album is devoid of technicality. While Saor aren’t as heavily riff-driven as a lot of their black metal counterparts, Guardians still boasts complex melodies and rapid passages. However, the main points of technicality come in the sheer excellence of harmonic layering. One place this album truly excels is in the way specific instruments are chosen to fulfill specific purposes. Take the chunky breakdown 3 minutes into album highlight, “Hearth”. Where most breakdowns from similar bands result in a less powerful force than that of the choruses due to the immense power of an uncontrollable wall of sound, a violin acts as a lead to give the breakdown a bit of a much-needed push, allowing for the intensity of the song to not be hindered by the shift from massive chords to chugging. Half way through the track, another breakdown emerges and Marshall employs a similar tactic; by layering extra leads into the background of the track, he inadvertently creates a semi-wall of sound to boost the breakdown to unprecedented heights. Atmospheric black metal is a genre not exactly known for it’s implementation of breakdowns as more often than not, the isolation of all sound but the kit and guitars is a surefire way to stilt the flow of whirring reverb and bombastic ambiance.
It might seem as if there hasn’t really been much to say about this release, and that is entirely true from those viewing Guardians in context with the band’s discography. There is very little done here to separate the record from what has been done in the past. This is an album we have indirectly heard before, almost in entirety. The borrowing of elements from previous releases is undeniably strong, stronger so than Aura borrowing from Roots. Which is exactly why Saor is Scottish metal. Because regardless of the lack of progression from the previous two albums, Guardians stands tall as one of the best albums of 2016. There is little to nothing wrong with this record, and while some might not forgive the extreme lack of experimentation outside of a rhythmic shift, it is difficult to honestly criticize the safety of Guardians‘ approach. Much like the ending piece of a serialized novel or the concluding film in a trilogy, this album needs no introduction, nor does it try to sway it’s contained world too far from the reach of the listener. This comfort is a strength and a weakness, but the overwhelming detail of storytelling kept within the folds is more than enough to push the stumbling block of a lesser band into a shape resembling nothing more than a niggle. Classics of old are timepieces of all eternity, and until the very medium of audio music becomes exiled into obsolescence, Saor’s Scottish roars will continue to echo into the chambers and caverns of metal well beyond the foreseeable future.
1. Guardians (11:31)
2. The Declaration (10:31)
3. Autumn Rain (11:09)
4. Hearth (11:27)
5. Tears Of A Nation (11:18)