There is no question that man will eventually perish from his hubris. The conviction that we can tame nature and exploit it as we please will inevitably lead to our downfall. Compared to the splendour of our planet, we are nothing, whose existence will be long forgotten when the earth continues to turn with its old dignity. Those who mean well for our species may hope that we have at least left a few traces that remind us of the really significant achievements in the realm of art and culture…
This is where Ash of Ashes enter the scene: Christopher Rakkestad, who is also active in the Norwegian folk metal band Elvarhøi, has given the German epic pagan metal band an artwork that beautifully captures the breathtaking, awe-inspiring beauty of our nature. We are dealing with a mystical landscape that seems to have existed in this form for ages. The monumental mountain peaks reaching far into the sky radiate a power that is hard to resist. Traces of human civilisation – a narrow path and a bridge – are tiny in comparison. At some point they will have vanished, but now the viewer asks himself which people are going about their day’s work here – and whether they have an eye for the miracles around them on their way.
Skaldir and his comrades-in-arms unquestionably bow to this genuine wealth on their album Traces. The title of the introductory instrumental “Beyond White Waters“ refers to the first Ash of Ashes album Down the White Waters, which followed the story of the magnificent band Hel in 2018. Musically, we’re dealing with a particularly atmospheric introduction that skilfully brings Bathory’s Viking era to life thanks to the sounds of the sea at the beginning, the epic choirs that follow and gorgeously dreamy guitar melodies. I’m sure Quorthon would have smiled in great satisfaction here…. and his mood would presumably only have improved over the following 37 minutes. In “Under the Midnight Sun“, drummer Stryx drives the band forward, proving for the first time on their second album that they can combine introspection with a healthy degree of heaviness. Morten’s growls form an excellent contrast to Skaldir’s highly melodic guitar work, which reminds me of Swedish blackened death metal giants from the 90s – think of Dissection, Sacramentum or the completely underrated Gates of Ishtar – in terms of style and mood. Lyrically, the number is a perfect opener, because it’s about setting off into the unknown, about an adventure in which you as a human being are completely at the mercy of the force of nature. A motif that runs through the entire album, which also forms a unity in this way.
“Into Eternity“ features Lars Jensen, a first, quite prominent guest who is probably known to some of you from the blackened folk/viking metal project Myrkgrav. The fact that the Norwegian musician now works as a shoemaker creates another connection to the album title, but that is probably pure coincidence… The song we are talking about here captivates with a yearning epicness that can only arise in this authenticity when artists shed a lot of heart and soul – this is undoubtedly the case here. In a fair world, we would be facing a real hit here, which would have to be high up in many best-of lists at the end of the year. In general, Skaldir is able to compose very catchy, compact numbers, which never become banal thanks to their richness of facets. “The Eternal Traveller“, for example, starts with a cleverly placed use of synths, which provides a new sound colour that suits Traces well. Skaldir, by the way, shines here with a nice scream, which shows that he also masters the heights – basically it has to be mentioned that his clear vocals are excellent and certainly belong to the big highlights on this album. His warm voice should especially please those who like singers like David Gilmour and above all Rain Irving from While Heaven Wept. On “Evermore“, Stryx can showcase himself again with a great drum part that introduces a composition that once again offers wonderful verses and a chorus to kneel down. This is simply excellent songwriting, executed by an extremely skilled band.
Ash of Ashes put another exclamation mark in terms of variety with “Vem kan segla förutan vind“. The number, sung in Swedish, features Thomas Clifford, who works together with Skaldir in the death metal band Abscession. This short, atmospheric tune is the perfect soundtrack to the artwork discussed above, as one imagines oneself in the middle of the sublime, timeless landscape. Lyrically, it’s about saying goodbye to a friend – another interesting facet on a lyrical level, as it reminds us that it’s interpersonal relationships that leave the deepest traces in our lives, sincere friendships are rare and always a gift.
“A Lion Guards Our Names“ convinces with a well-done arc of tension that grips the listener from the first to the last second and sets a worthy tribute to the Varangian Guard, who once acted as the emperor’s bodyguard in faraway Byzantium. The hard riffing and the growls prepare perfectly for the following, quite heavy “Southbound“. However, it’s the contrasts that fascinate me here either, as the chorus is rather subdued and thoughtful, not an explosion that invites people to headbang. In this sense, an appropriate bridge is once again built to the closing track “To Those Long Forgotten“, which will presumably cause many open mouths. Two other guests contribute significantly to this: The aforementioned Christopher Rakkestad and Rúnahild from the Norwegian folk metal/rock band Eliwagar ennoble the monumental track, introduced by wistful piano sounds, with superb vocal performances that repeatedly give you goosebumps. There is no doubt in my mind that this is a candidate for the title “song of the year“. Lyrically, we are also at the highest level here, as Morten manages to perfectly put into words the farewell pain of grieving parents. However, due to its reference to the topic of war, the track is universal and highly up-to-date on this level, especially in the chorus. It is about people whose hubris drives others to their death, about victims of greed for power who leave traces in the hearts of those who loved them and will always love them:
Let all their names,
ring through the night,
Those vanished sons lost to mankind.
Tell loud their tales of woe and grief,
and give their sacrifice meaning at last.
Conclusion: Ash of Ashes easily maintain the high quality they reached on their great debut Down the White Waters. Traces surpasses the first album in terms of variety – each song has its own character and at the same time blends wonderfully into the overall work, which is immensely coherent when seen as a whole. In this respect, artwork and music are one. Of course, the excellent sound that Skaldir has created in his Kalthallen Studios also contributes to the listening pleasure – probably no album will be released this year that sounds better. We can therefore conclude that the band is leaving its traces in our scene with this opus. Anyone who wants to play modern, completely kitsch-free epic pagan metal must orientate themselves towards the standard that Ash of Ashes have achieved on their second studio album – musically and also lyrically. On par with the recent masterpieces of Vanaheim and Fer de Lance clearly at the top so far in 2022.