Written by: S. Hache
Label: Steinklang Industries/Ahnstern Records
01 Agalloch – Where Shade Once W
02 Allerseelen – Eiche Aus Eisen
03 Àrnica – Altas Hojas
04 Changes – The Oak Trees
05 Dânnâgôischd – Ôichâbleddr Onnd Ôichâsâmâ
06 Fräkmündt – Eiche, Tüüfu, Geissebueb
07 Hrefnesholt – Winter Eiche
08 Klammheim – Des Mörders Eiche
09 Splinterskin – A Bed of Burning Leaves
10 Sturmpercht – Die Tausendjährige Eiche
11 Waldteufel – Unter Einer Eiche
12 Werra – Eichenlaub
“And the oak trees stand forgotten – they have seen a better day …” Trees have been venerated and worshiped by various pagan traditions throughout our ancient history. Our heathen European ancestors mythologized these wooded giants and thus observed the endless cycle of nature in its branches and roots. Macrocosmically, this sentiment translated into a virtual cosmology and religion as can been seen in the Norse concept of the World Tree and the Kabbalistic Tree of Life. Traditions like this exist in modernity mainly in revivalist spiritual movements like Asatru and, to a greatly lesser extent, Wicca/Witchcraft – however, the power of nature exists as an unavoidable, often dormant, presence and should never be forgotten or underestimated. Paying homage to this once noble and ubiquitous European tradition, the fine folks at Ahnstern, sub-label of Steinklang Records, have crafted a compilation of contemporary neofolk artists all evoking the majestic spirit of the oak tree. Thus, the appropriately titled “Oak Folk” presents drastically different sounds in juxtaposition towards one common goal: to honour the once idolized tree.
Not to wax too philosophical for too long, but the oak tree had a very special place in our once vibrant heathen spirit. Known as the “King of the Forest”, oaks have been aligned with Zeus, Thor, Merlin, and a host of other religious and mythical figures. The majestic tree also functioned as a place from which to preach in later Christianized traditions, and therefore took on new spiritual significance. Soon after, a royal significance was adopted as English kings recognized the history and power of the oak. Intrinsically bound to our traditions is this tree that it makes perfect sense for a neo-folk movement to participate in a re-envisioned veneration. Just as neofolk can be a sullen, atavistic glance to a nobler past – this specific expression is no different. A modern lament, as much as a reflective celebration.
The track listing reads like a “who’s who” of the genre: there are a few staples like Changes, Allerseelen, Waldteufel; and newer forces leading the way like Arnica, Splinterskin, and Agalloch. Each song offers a very unique statement on the subject at hand; so much so, that any consistency is thrown to the wind. For such a niche genre, it truly spans a staggering spectrum of styles. Rarely does this reviewer look at an album as a piecemeal collection of fragments, but as diverse as this compilation is it might just warrant a song by song breakdown:
We begin with a new track from Agalloch who have always straddled the genre with a darker metal approach. On their White EP they brought the folk sound to the forefront and proved that they are quite capable. This is a sombre acoustic piece with multiple guitars, strings, organic sounds and a dreary tale of a lost forest. Truly opening this collection on a grave note, but at once evoking exceptional beauty and profundity.
Following is an oddly out-of-place track from the legendary Allerseelen, and a bit of a jarring and immediate change of pace. Gerhard and co. have always done well at befuddling my ears and they do nothing to change that here. Syncopated rhythm and a wandering acoustic guitar mesh with a dominant bass line and a mix of odd percussive sounds (for lack of a better term!) in a true to form piece. Already the album is losing sonic direction.
Spain’s Arnica swing things back into more familiar territory with a majestic folk song that is one part story and one part ritual. At once the feeling of a fireside oral tradition emerges with trance-like percussion and shamanic voices. This is music as a spiritual vehicle – with the intention to impart true knowledge and wisdom. The spirits of nature are starting to come alive again.
Right in line with the storytelling momentum comes a spectacular piece from the godfathers of the genre, Changes. We are told of the days of yore when the oak was something mighty and respected – only to stand in our present day forgotten and not knowing why. Robert N. Taylor speaks directly to the listener giving his baritone singing voice a rest – as if an elder has chosen you to pass our traditions on to. The nimble 12-string guitar work compliments these words as simplistic and effective as ever. It is our duty to listen …
To pick up our spirits are two artists dedicated to the mountains, the trees, and the earth of their respective regions. Bavarian Dânnâgôischd and Swiss Fräkmündt bring up our moods with their own brands of joyous ur-folk, celebrating the alpine feeling and the surrounding flora and fauna. Both songs demand a stomping foot and a swinging beerstein. A connection to the land and a real pride in one’s heritage are palpable, reminding the listener that to know one’s history we must know the physical land and the spirit it imbibes.
Another track that forces me to scratch my head and wonder at its placement is Hrefnesholt’s questionable blend of pagan ambient with blackened metal aspects. The track does little more than come off as slightly schizophrenic, as it shifts direction multiple times with almost no connection to where it was or where it is going. There are moments of clarity but the lack of vision is damaging to the song and the album as a whole.
Bringing it back to an appropriate sound and aesthetic are two bands that could not be better suited for this statement of art. Austria’s Klammheim take the listener to a reflective place with their classic execution of top notch neofolk. Featuring members of Jannerwein, it should be of no surprise what is in store and they do not disappoint. Followed closely is the ever-enigmatic Splinterskin with a raw track that is straight from the forest-dweller’s soul. It is a welcome, uncharacteristically fleshed-out hymn to nature.
Bringing this journey through the wooded kings to a near close are two darker, ritualistic tracks from alpine folk collective Sturmpercht and American-German atavist Waldteufel. Both are different in initial interpretation but very similar in mysterious feeling. Sturmpercht create a sense of unease and foreboding in their creepy whispers and swelling instrumentation. The darkness of the forest comes alive in this conjuration. Meanwhile, Markus Wolfe and compatriots entrance with what sounds like a stripped down live performance, complete with triumphant guitars (acoustic and electric!) and Wolfe’s unmistakable bombastic voice.
Finalizing everything is Werra’s slightly unremarkable neofolk elegy that sounds like a tribute to fellow countrymen Darkwood or Forseti’s legacy and magical body of work. Either way, it is a great note on which to end this audio voyage, and a pleasing final word.
Much of wayward feelings that drive the listener’s ear to confusion can be attributed to the lack of musical orchestration. After scratching my head pondering the track listing, the simplicity hit me: they are in alphabetical order according to artist. Suffering at the hands of such a seemingly insignificant misstep has lead to the jumbled sound that flies all over the genre map. Each song has unavoidable power and conviction, yet the juxtaposition truly does a disservice to the message and coherency. The might individuals will inevitably receive repeat listens, but this is not an entity to be taken in as a singularity.
Flaws aside, such a meeting of forces deserve both respect and admiration, just as the stately oaks command. When the moment is right and the musical aesthetics blend with a natural surrounding a breathtaking journey ensues. Something inside is reawaken. The collective spirit, the archaic spirit is alive again for a brief moment, and we look to the past for strength. Even a fleeting glance at the power of nature and its testament to timelessness connects what was, what is, and what will be. Bow down in reverence!