Grim King of the Ghosts is the second album from the American neofolk project Awen after their 2009 debut The Bells Before Dawn, though the band has had much activity in the intervening years with limited singles and compilation appearances. The album was released on the Italian Old Europa Café label in a digipak format with a pressing of 300 copies. It contains thirteen tracks, totaling fifty minutes of music that straddles the neofolk and martial genres, with hints of dark ambient/industrial.
Stream “Tree of Sacrifice”:
This is a concept album, and per the promotional text it “stands as a sonic dedication to the ties that bind this world to the spectral” and is “rooted in the concept of the Grim Grey King.” The music and songs which Awen employ on Grim King of the Ghosts is successful at bringing this concept to fruition, with the overall album showcasing musical acumen, standout songs, memorable lyrics (in a variety of languages), and vocals that range from bombastic to seductive. Awen, helmed by Erin Powell and Katrin X—along with a plethora of other musicians including b9 InVid (from Et Nihil and the now-defunct, infamous industrial project Luftwaffe)—brings a musical diversity to Grim King of the Ghosts which ranges from haunting and unnerving to militant, mystic, and folky, while managing to keep each track’s sounds canonical for the entire experience.
The first standout track on the album is “Tree of Sacrifice,” which has ominous drumming and organ work while being propelled by Powell’s booming vocals, which are a strange but successful mix of shouting and oratory. It’s angry, like a shouting priest, and a great way to start off the album proper after the intro track.
Awen’s cover of “Seeker” is a welcome surprise in that it takes the song in a different but positive direction over both the Fire + Ice and Blood Axis versions. The violins and somber voices are forfeited, and in their place is a faster tempo with a greater emphasis on acoustic guitar and harmonized vocals, both of which have been added courtesy of b9 InVid. It’s successful and stands up well on its own, even when compared to its predecessors.
Katrin X’s vocals take the lead on a few tracks, her style different every time. Her best track is “Cradle Spell,” which is an iteration of the traditional Scottish lullaby “Cradle Spell of Dunvegan.” The song starts off very much like a lullaby, but after three minutes the song switches gears, the guitar picks up, and other members of Awen join in by singing. The transition is executed quite well and is not jarring at all.
The title track is perhaps the most important, as it sums up the theme of this concept album. The lyrics are culled from different versions and adaptations of the traditional “Grim King of the Ghosts,” arranged by Powell into a new narrative. Drawing from different eras of the song gives the lyrics an added ancestral weight. The music itself is more grandiose (and maybe even a little optimistic) in feeling, with the guitar work and the harmonized background vocals giving the song a hint of a Spaghetti Western vibe.
The vast majority of the tracks on Grim King of the Ghosts mirror these strengths, so there are only a few blemishes on the album. The music of “Grym Grå Kung” is too abrasive and uncomfortable. It overstays its welcome with its almost five-minute duration. “Il Re Grigio Cupo” fares better than “Grym Grå Kung”; it’s less noisy, and the guest appearance by Gaya Donadio sounds like a late-90’s Nina Hagen. However, the song sounds like a broken computer emitting strange signals—a ghost in the machine, as it were—and while it fits within the scope of the album’s theme, it simply doesn’t hold up when compared to the rest of the songs.
Stream “Grim King of the Ghosts”:
As great as the music proper is for Grim King of the Ghosts, the actual packaging needs help. Kudos does need to be given to Old Europa Café, as many of their releases as of late have embraced either inventive packaging (such as the plastic envelope of Wappenbund’s A Way to the Empire of Light) or using high-quality digipaks. This practice definitely sets the label’s products in terms of presentation above many other label’s releases, and Awen’s Grim King of the Ghosts receives the digipak treatment.
The problem is that the format is not utilized correctly for this release. While the cover art proper is quite nice—showing the iconic Awen logo—the inside flap of the album, which contains the credits, contact, and copyright information, is presented in a giant wall of all uppercase text. The font size, typeface, and colours of the text makes it difficult to read against the grey background. The text fares worse behind the plastic CD tray, where it looks blurry and scrunched together.
What this album really needed to remedy this issue is an insert or a booklet. Space was obviously an issue, attempting to cram as much text inside the digipak as possible, but a booklet would have alleviated this design flaw and even expanded on the physical release, perhaps accommodating lyrics and additional artwork. A concept album such as this needs to have a visual and physical component to really compliment it. Compared to the packaging of Awen’s prior album, The Bells Before Dawn, Grim King of the Ghosts is a step backward.
Despite the packaging faltering, the music itself is what stands out. The narrative and themes of Grim King of the Ghosts is conveyed succinctly with excellent music. This is a tight album, an accumulation of five years of labor, and the effort shows.
01) Grim Grey King
02) Tree of Sacrifice
03) Grym Grå Kung
04) Humble Hempen Cord
05) Grimmigen Grauen König
06) Grim King of the Ghosts
07) Bitter Augur
08) Il Re Grigio Cupo
10) Cradle Spell
11) Sons of Exiles
12) Sacred Bones