There are those of you who won’t remember or understand that once upon a time a label’s logo was a calling card that gave a strong impression of the music that you were about to hear. While certain labels have retained that individuality (Peaceville, Spinefarm and Southern Lord all spring to mind) many labels went out of business or were swallowed by the majors, thus losing the identity that made them great. One such label was the once-mighty Music For Nations who were home to, amongst others, Paradise Lost, Anathema, Cradle of Filth and Pist.On and whose symbol was a clear and simple expression of quality.
Now the reason for my random digression about a deceased record label may seem to be the product of the onset of early senility, but Noiseart records have seen fit to adorn their discs with an imitation of the famous Music For nations logo (rebranded Music for better taste) and such is the nostalgia evoked by the symbol that my expectations for this release would have been high even if I hadn’t read the press sheet that accompanied the release informing me that Arafel are a black metal band from Tel Aviv who not only recently added folk influences to their expansive sound but who worked with the Polish duo Wojtec and Slawek Wieslawski, both of whom have been involved with Vader, Decapitated and Behemoth and both of whom have a reputation for sterling mixing and mastering work.
The album, a mere eight tracks long, opens with the epic rumble of ‘Sword’s hymn’ which opens with the onset of a storm and a gentle folk influenced piece that recalls the epic soundtracks to movies such as Braveheart before savage guitars tear the mood into pieces over hyper-speed drums and thudding bass. Vocally this is pure, gruff black metal territory, but musically the band are more Eluvetie than Behemoth with folk influences woven into the music in an organic and well thought out way so that both styles compliment the other with nothing sounding forced or disingenuous. In terms of musicianship and production the band are tight as hell with razor sharp guitars vying for attention against massed Viking-style vocals and traditional instrumentation, but such is the detail given to the recording that even at low volume levels nothing is lost or drowned out. After such an impressive opening the band don’t waste time searching for the follow up, ‘Kurgan’ offers up plenty in the way of progressive, Iron Maiden influenced riffs and memorable melodies in a way that lends a stately beauty to the proceedings that you wouldn’t otherwise expect despite the fact that the overall feel is still as heavy as hell. It’s a neat trick if you have the balls and the skill to carry it off and Arafel have both. Shorter than its title may suggest, ‘the siege’ is next up and it opens, not with a blast of fury, but with a gentle acoustic passage that quickly gives way to a strikingly traditional piece of metal that harks back to the soundtrack orientated feel of the first track while singer Helge Stang does his best to mix up the vocal style of Nergal, Dani Filth and Alexi Laiho to good effect. It’s a great track with personality and adrenalin to spare and if you’re not thoroughly hooked on this album by this stage then I humbly submit that you have picked up the wrong CD. ‘The siege’ is easily one of my favourite tracks on the album and as it nears its conclusion, even after several listens, I still want to punch the air in time to the track.
So far, then, the album has succeeded in enchanting with the band’s searing musical skills and incisive song-writing. Next up is the vaguely conceptual ‘1380: the confrontation” which kicks off with an old-school Iron Maiden style riff before all manner of folk instruments kick in and lend a depth to the medieval atmosphere being so assiduously created while the central riff is an absolute belter that will have metal fans of all stripes nodding their heads in appreciation. More to the point is the short, elegant ‘the last breath of fire’ which raises itself from howling wind and traditional folk music to be a guitar heavy dance tune that will have sack-cloth-clad maidens and their young knights whirling around the wooden dance -floor with some appreciation. ‘Im feld’ sees the riffs and vocals return with a vengeance and it’s a full blown, red blooded affair that is blacker than any of the other tracks here with an icy riff slashing and burning all in its path while Helge spews hatred over the top in a blistering fit of rage. ‘Wolf’s hunt’ sees the band tackle a fairly traditional black metal subject with the vigour and intelligence that has come to be expected over the previous six tracks with a subtle acoustic prelude demonstrating the band’s musical and compositional skills before the main assault begins in earnest and tears a blackened trail through the war ravaged forests that Arafel seemingly inhabit. Final track ‘death of archaic world’ closes things on a massive high with one of the best tracks saved for last with elements of black metal, thrash and the Keystone cops (don’t ask!) all thrown in for good measure and all it really succeeds in doing is to make you wish there was much, much more to listen to – it’s an inspiring, invigorating track and the fact that it rounds out a short, intelligent and near-perfect album makes it all the better.
There are many bands I could compare Arafel to – hints of Children of Bodom, Eluvetie, Arch Enemy, Darkthrone and many more surge through their music, but ultimately Arafel have succeeded in sounding like no-one more than themselves with songs which are well written and superbly performed. I imagine we’ll be hearing a lot more form this ambitious band but in the meantime this is a near perfect snapshot of a band whose quest for individuality in a crowded scene has led them to choose an individual and exciting path that has paid huge dividends. This is awesome, check it out as soon as you can.