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Album Review: SAOR Origins

8 Reviewer
Score

Lying between the otherworldly bliss of Alcest and the Nordic Fables of early Ulver, Scotland's Saor have spent nine years carving their niche within black metal's atmospheric and folk wings. Whether it's the raw majesty of 2014's Aura, or the lush transience of 2019 Forgotten Paths, multi-instrumentalist Andy Marshall balances ornate arrangements and memorable melodies for a powerful take on the genre. 2022 finds Marshall imbuing Saor with more robust metal riffs. While these more aggressive, angular leanings can overshadow the atmospheric depth of Origins, the album's electrifying catchiness makes it a suitable soundtrack for riding into the Heathen sunset.

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Marshall’s decision to use Origins’ final songs “Beyond the Wall” and the title track proves well-founded, as the two provide a great summation of what Saor offers this time around. The former’s flurry of blast beats and tremolo-picked guitar leads bridges nicely with the latter’s rumbling tom-toms and triumphant leads via two key factors: convincing ambiance and a penchant for rhythmic divergency. Largely due to the technical chops of session drummer Dylan Watson, Saor brings more precision to its songwriting than ever before. Even better, both tracks retain their melodic, and sometimes instrumental, roots in Pagan folk.

This album's increased velocity allows Saor to add urgency to opener "Call of the Carnyx" without losing its sense of scope and heritage. Marshall's agile guitar leads and Watson's speedy double kick drum work splendidly alongside horns and pipes, as baritone vocal harmonies and barrel-chested growls sparsely populated this exercise in dynamics. The action just keeps rising, setting the mood and driving home the sentiment behind Origins.

Much like Quorthon on Bathory albums like Twilight of the Gods, Marshall isn't overly concerned with ensuring the period accuracy of Orgins. The nucleus of "Fallen" is really its guitar leads and electrifying grooves, fluctuating from grimacing chugs and synchronized band hits to waltzing modulations and chants straight from the Scottish foothills. It's just as much about the syncopated metal might as it is the bagpipe drones that top off its epic close. If not for tremolo guitars and ghastly screams here and there, this version of Saor has more in common with straight up metal than its folk black metal roots.

In fact, Marshall doesn't overtly hearken back to Saor's atmospheric-meets-folk black metal side until "The Ancient Ones," which juggles flutes and acoustic guitars straight out of Ulver's Bergtatt and blast-beating walls of sound. But even here, Saor reaches its most lofty heights through an emotional roller coaster of mid-tempo beefiness, post-punky moodiness and soaring pipe melodies before settling into a galloping double kick groove. Amid the tumult, Marshall's attention to detail shines through as he recontextualizes what's essentially couple riffs in multiple rhythm structures before bringing the song full circle back to haunting flute motifs.

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"Aurora" shows just how few shits Marshall gives about keeping Saor on the straight and narrow of his stylistic lineage. Spanning from harmonious bass lines to accent chugs in a straight ahead blast beat, he's clearly writing for himself not genre purists. His willingness to push himself manifests in multiple highlights during eight-and-a-half minutes, including call-and-response melodic chanting and ghoulish howls, and the album's most impressive example of maintaining a melodic tangent through several distinct passages. These are motifs that bear repeating, but the way the song carries them through several dynamic shifts makes them that much easier to enjoy. There's even a swing-style finale of dueling pipes and guitars!

While not the most transformative album from Saor, Origins flexes more of Marshall's metal muscles while maintaining the core of his expression. The album succeeds on its powerful metal component, to a point where it becomes a filter for his folksy side.

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