The coalescence of art and place is a beautiful thing. The war album that truly feels as if it were written amongst the battlefields and graves…the bluegrass album that summons a real sense of Appalachia — I offer that sincere expressions of these are rare. But in this ambitious endeavor, Scotland’s Saor succeeds brilliantly.
Saor (pronounced somewhat like “sir”) is but one man, and that man is Andy Marshall. I never fail to be amazed by the frequency at which black metal acts are created by a single person. And while that certainly can and does lead to output which is lacking, often in the percussion department where drum machines might be used, there really is a remarkable number of these solo projects that showcase staggering talent. Marshall does get plenty of help, with session members taking care of drums, fiddle, bodhran and bagpipes, but what matters here is songwriting and that’s all him. And it is top-notch.
The opening moments of the title track begin with the sound of wind and ravens, and already one is transported to another world. As haunting and majestic bagpipes enter, that world is revealed as the Scottish Highlands. And for the duration of the album’s five lengthy tracks, that’s where you’ll stay. Wander through the heather and the moors and the mist, with Saor’s sublime instrumentation as your constant guide and companion. The lyrics, naturally, have a solitary focus as well, weaving poems of woe and sorrow, of Scotland’s slaughtered sons that fought and died for her. And they literally are poems, with all five tracks’ lyrics being from established poetic works. Most notably with “The Declaration” coming from the man himself, the national poet of Scotland, Robert Burns, and his poem “Scots Wha Hae;”’ and “Hearth” derived from “Breathes there the man” by Sir Walter Scott. Of course, you’ll have to turn to the lyric sheet to know and decipher all that because Marshall delivers most of the vocals in a flat, raspy bellow.
Saor is greatly admired by, and has collaborated with, another mighty one-man black metal band: Panopticon, a.k.a. Austin Lunn. Perhaps by no coincidence, these artists share the same songwriting style to a large degree. Both have a spacious approach with varied instrumentation, both rely heavily on folk elements, and both are unafraid to set aside the gloom at times and deliver genuinely uplifting passages. Here that is no more true than in closer “Tears of a Nation.” While the lyrics are pure grief, it ends with a rousing call to arms, truly inspirational and hopeful in scope and power.
Substitute bagpipes and fiddle for Panopticon’s Americana and bluegrass, and you’re pretty much there in understanding what “Guardians” has in store. Warm, rich, and expansive in sound, though more than willing to lay down some atmospheric blackened speed, it is above all a work of consummate professionalism. Folk metal as a subgenre is fraught with peril and rarely delivers quality that does more than scratch the surface, but Saor is a different beast altogether — a Tartan-clad, Claymore-swinging beast that will leave its hallowed Highland ground sown with the corpses of inferior artists.