Folk metal is one of the most intriguing subgenres of heavy music, largely because of how un-heavy it sounds. This is a style that puts an emphasis on traditional melodies and instrumentation, rather than on rhythmic experimentation. You’re more likely to hear the light-footed plucks of a lute or violin than a blood-curdling death growl or blast beat. And forget about shotgunning that warm PBR in the name of Satan; in this club, it’s all about raising a stein of mead to good ol’ Odin and spinning tales of dragons, maidens and blood feuds.
Yeah, it sounds pretty Game Of Thrones­-y—and it is. But that’s just part of the experience, an adventure in metal mysticism that’s made bands like Finntroll and Subway To Sally big names in the field. For years, Americans have been without any folk metal heroes to call their own; practically all of the big names, from Turisas to Skyforger, hail from Europe. Enter Æther Realm: four dudes from North Carolina who, a little over two years ago, set out to put an American stamp on this foreign style of fretwork. Just in case you have any lingering doubts about the band’s authenticity (or its badass factor), let me just say this: Lead singer Vincent Jones sports a bearskin cloak in the band’s performances. These guys don’t play around, and their full-length debut, One Chosen By The Gods, shows it.
Æther Realm’s epic ideals are made apparent in the first few seconds of opener “Journey Of Discovery.” The lonely tune of a jukebox gradually unfolds into majestic orchestral swells that seem ripped straight out of a Peter Jackson film. And then, with “Hourglass,” we’re plunged right down into Mordor: Jones’s razor-sharp scream pierces the cinematic daze, signaling a feverish gallop of guitars and almost inhumanly fast drum beats. With its heavy use of soaring melodies and hairpin key-changes, the band’s sound doesn’t seem to be too far off from the strain of melodic death metal championed by contemporaries like Skeletonwitch. But whereas most of those bands find their muse in gloom, Jones and company are driven by a love of glory.
And, yes, that medieval mindset may lend the songs a certain air of cheesiness—some eye-rolls are warranted for the operatic wails that pop up on “Odin Will Provide,” and closer “Oak” hits a little too close to Castlevania soundtrack territory. But the band’s penchant for drama, in turn, makes the songs a lot more fun to listen to than your standard metal fare.
Consider the album’s centerpiece, “One Chosen By The Gods,” which rides along on dramatic strings and a seemingly endless string of solos, stopping only briefly to accommodate some drum fills. The song tells a story of a man seeking revenge for his fallen comrades, his “blades dancing in perfect unity,” culminating in his cathartic self-sacrifice. On paper, it seems like the stuff of a tacky tenth-grade creative writing composition—and yet it works. The same could be said for folk metal, too. It may seem too fussy, too silly, too melodic to fit alongside the black sludge-and-thrash metal camps, but one spin of One Chosen By The Gods and you just might become convinced to swap your pentagrams for paladins.