Folk metal, when done well, can be an invigorating, even magical experience that captures the mind and spirit. Equally, when done badly, it can become a turgid, clichéd mess, conjuring about as much long-lost tribal history as a city-centre Pan-pipe band. Happily Slovenian act Avven belong to the former category and, since their inception in 2003, they have spent a good deal of time honing a sound that is as natural, emotive and frequently beautiful as the landscape of their stunning country. Much of the band’s success comes from the fact that, as a seven-piece they have the ability to bring to bear an impressive range of instruments which (apart from the traditional metal band fare) range from the violin of Barbara Upelj to the wooden flute, bagpipes, and tin and low whistles all of which come courtesy of the depressingly talented Anej Ivanusa. As a result, Avven have a wonderful, natural sound which is perfectly augmented by the fact that they sing almost entirely in their native language – a fact that absolutely should not put you off as it fits far better to the music than any compromised translation.
‘Kastalija’ is Avven’s second album, thematically linked to the band’s love of fantasy, miracles and old world tales, which comprises plenty of heavy riffs but also a sense of barely repressed joy that anyone who has encountered a genuine folk act will find instantly familiar. Opening track ‘Zamaji’ is the perfect starting point, and a perfect example – a song that captures the sweaty intensity of folk singers let loose in an ale house, it conjures images of dancing on tables, oak tankards filled with foaming ale and hearty singing by the fire. Musically it combines crunching hard rock riffs with massed vocals and banks of whistles and strings leading the melody and it couldn’t do a better job of kicking off the album if it tried. ‘Ros’ is a different beast in that, although it conjures the same sort of feel on the wide-eyed and ebullient chorus, the verse is led by female vocals and just a touch of melancholy, introducing a nice sense of dynamic and the feel of a tale unfolding. ‘Nuala’ leads off with the keys of Peter Dimnik laying down a beautiful, understated melody as a female vocal, alone and forlorn, rings out. As the song builds more and more instrumentation is slowly added until you’re faced with blazing guitars, massed vocals and memorable melodies.
‘Vvile’ is a heavier number that sees the guitars lead the charge in a more straight forward rock fashion than yet showcased on the album. Of all the songs here, this is the most familiar sounding within the genre – the full-on guitars, the folk elements augmenting rather than leading the tune and the harmonised vocals all well-trodden ground which just goes to show how diverse Avven are over the majority of the album, and the chunky riff that draws the song to its conclusion is as great a head banging moment as you could want. ‘Ibo’ is a glorious song, once again filled with joy and feeling as the band celebrate their musical heritage with a song that would be equally at home at a rock concert or a celebration of traditional folk culture and, as such, it’s a highlight that makes you want to sing along until your lungs burst with the effort. ‘Tarak’ is the album’s only English language song, and it stands out simply because it takes a moment for your ears, accustomed to the sound of the Slovenian lyrics, to adjust to the fact that you understand the words. A driving, powerful song it simply rocks and, with the lyrics delivered in a charming piratical fashion and the guitars going hell-for-leather, you can imagine it would make a fine single too.
‘Hej Ti!’ returns to the band’s native tongue for an anthemic track that again encourages mass sing-alongs and you can only imagine how exciting and communal the band’s live shows must be if they’re capable of conjuring such an atmosphere even on CD. The closest relative is probably the mighty Korpiklaani who craft a similar atmosphere with their natural good humour and bonhomie equally shining through the music. ‘sPain’ is a slower, slightly darker number that makes good use of the string quartet drafted in for the recording, not to mention a lone trumpet that adds unexpected depth to the track. ‘L.78’ is another powerful track with a hefty guitar riff and some brilliant violin before everything gets stripped back for an atmospheric verse recalling no one so much as Polish ‘soul metal’ act (and perennial SonicAbuse favourites) Hunter. That just leaves the grand finale, ‘Tornach’, which arrives all too soon but which has a great impact as the band throw everything into making it the brightest, loudest conclusion you could want from such a rollercoaster of an album.
Overall Avven impress on every level. They are obviously in thrall to the wonderful music they make and their spirit is truly addictive. ‘Kastalija’ is a heart-felt, intelligent and innovative addition to the folk-metal canon. Where some bands are content to simply fling a violin over the top of tired metal riffs, Avven develop folk structures and then augment them with blazing guitars with the result that the music feels genuine, passionate and exciting. The imagery conjured by the music, the beauty and the power of the melodies and the memorable nature of the songs (none of which outstay their welcome) all combine to make this a special record indeed and if you’re a fan of rousing, spirited music then this is certainly for you.