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Protokult - Transcending The Ruins

Transcending The Ruins
by Kira Schlechter at 06 October 2020, 6:58 AM

The blend of Pagan, Black, and Folk elements Toronto-based PROTOKULT blends into their metal seems intriguing at the start…but it winds up rather schizophrenic in the end. “Transcending the Ruins” is their second full-length; their 2009 debut “Ancestral Anthems” was followed by the EP “Marzena” in 2011 and “No Beer In Heaven” in 2015. “Mark Of Thunder,” a call to assemble and fight in the name of Perun (in Slavic mythology, the god of the sky and thunder), starts us off atmospheric and dark, with a definitely folk-influenced opening riff. The long intro is energetic and spans a variety of the band’s moods. Martin delivers both growls and a contrasting gruff clean vocal – his spoken section is like a dictate from the gods.

“Feed Your Demons” has a pretty straight metal sound, reminiscent of DANZIG in certain ways at the start, and it kicks into a crisp, snapping rhythm. A pause in the middle gets all ritualistic and slow and doomy, adding Ekaterina’s eerie descant and chanted lines over top, but it does go on a bit long and gets away from the vibe of the initial verses. A faster black metal part gets even further off track – such switcheroos establish the album’s problems early on. It seems to be a commentary on the power of nature, of paganism versus Christianity, but the point ultimately being made is rather vague – “‘til they’ve been fed” in the verses is an obvious reference to the “demons” of the title, but the rest of the lines don’t really support it (it mentions things like lust, “poison,” and perhaps excess in the last verse, “Actions penetrate so much louder than words/As ye awaken face down in the mud”).

“1516 (Keeper Of The Hops)” is sprightly and bouncy with a lively guitar and vocal melody, but the later string/keyboard section is out of place. And the vocal changes are too much, veering from growls to raspy singing to kind of unpleasant hair-metal-worthy wails in the chorus, which makes the rather witty lyrics – an ode to beer, a history of the mythical “Charlie Mops” who made a “wonderful drink … out of hops” – hard to comprehend and digest. It’s fun but it rather needs pared down and focused.

“Oy Kanada!” initially released in 2017, is way too serious and fast musically for such a topic – their beer is better than ours, they say (“Give us some beer to drink/And some wenches to take back home/We’ll give you reason to believe/That you’re no longer number one”). Ekaterina sings the first verse (call her the muse of beer, warning that these crazy Canadians are coming to drink us down), Martin the chorus (which is a quite potent sing-along). The solo section meanders, the keyboard line that pops in and out is piercing, but the mock accordion solo is appealingly silly and goofy, as are her nonsense vocals. All the flourishes at the end are unnecessary; the lyrics are appealing, but again they need honing.

“Troubled Lad (Slainte Mhaith)” swings into a right bouncy jig tempo before powering into a full-on metal grind. Later, though, it inexplicably gets all bluesy and slowed down and Martin’s voice morphs into a PETER STEELE vibe – it’s fine, but out of place, despite the nice whistle and wah guitar that tries to keep the Celtic feel going. It touches a bit on emigration (“He was a troubled lad and he set out to sea”) but the prechorus gets a bit off topic (“Runaround, midnight, ready for the show/Take a big swig, on we go”). It returns to the theme in the second verse, the problems with assimilation (“Was it all you’d ever expect/Integrate now, inspect yourself/Welcome to the multikult”), but these good ideas are never fleshed out enough to make a coherent statement.

“Na Gryanoi Nedele,” with a chanted whooping vocal by Ekaterina, segues into the mystical fantasy “Rusalka,” which she sings quite nicely, with an operatic flourish in the chorus. But it’s kind of weird how she sings the lines about “the enchantress of the night” and Martin sings the response, “Am I your frivolous one/Am I the endless?” The lyrics are interesting and can be poetic in their way (“And as the stars descend/I bid farewell/To all insincere and malign”) but they’re often difficult to hear and thus appreciate. The spoken section is barely audible, and the keyboard section that follows is atonal and jarring. Again, these are unrelated segments strung together that lose their way, and all the different vocal styles don’t mesh – the juxtaposition of his harsh and her operatic is not seamless and she gets really shrill and grating at the end.

At over seven-and-a-half minutes, “Valley Of Thorns” is chaotic and messy, the black metal shrieks off-putting. When it then goes into Ekaterina and Martin singing in the chorus, it’s head-spinning and not loud enough – they get totally drowned out by the arrangement and her super-high register loses the words completely. A drum solo (why?) leads into an almost cartoonish, sing-songy circus-y groove; a spoken-word segment goes into more STEELE-esque crooning, then more screaming. A better mix on the vocals might help, perhaps more definition in each section, because it’s just a mess. It goes through so many feels and moods and styles that it just leaves you lost – there’s nothing to latch on to because nothing lasts long enough to latch on to. And the end that’s sung in what sounds like German, all exaggeratedly-rolling Rs, is plain weird. What’s it about? I have no idea, because it doesn’t really tell a story – the wording and imagery is fine, but it doesn’t hang together.

The fact that Ekaterina sings “Wenches” – with lines like, “When your girl ran off with a sleazy grunt/Or your boyfriend was a…” (I’m not going to repeat the rhyming word they use because you can guess it) is frankly degrading and sexist, even if it’s supposed to be humorous (it’s set to what sounds like an overdone harpsichord played with a zillion flourishes). I’m not a prude – I listen to metal, after all – but this offended me. I get off-color humor and I appreciate it as much as the next person if it’s done well and has wit and cleverness, but this went well over the line into bad taste. There are some lines you can’t decipher or hear especially well and that’s a good thing (I had the printed lyrics and I won’t repeat them). Not to mention, going from “Valley,” which you want to take dead seriously because it rather insists you do (i.e. beats you over the head), to something like this is just messed up.

“Greet The Dawn” was relatively pleasant. Ekaterina sings it tenderly, giving it a reminiscing feel – indeed it’s kind of about looking back, perhaps with a loved one or good friend, at good times. But after the previous song, it does nothing but screw with your head. The guitar solo is lovely and it’s fine when it heavies up, except Ekaterina’s voice gets shrill again and it’s mixed so that you can’t hear the words well enough. Then about halfway, it gets sludgy and doomy and plodding for some reason and ends with a minute or so of feedback.

The closer, “Dead New World,” is 15 minutes – if 7 was too long, 15 is way. Too. Long. Martin sings here in the verse and the chorus (where the music is too loud), but Ekaterina’s accompaniment in the chorus is unpleasantly off-key. The structure is off too, again like separate songs strung together – it just stops after the second chorus and noodles a bit before raging away again, then there’s an inexplicable spoken-word section, then another quiet part with Ekaterina crooning wordlessly. A nice crunch picks up afterward, but the vocals are hard to discern and have a distracting ringing reverb to them. We end with two minutes’ worth of basically grunts. So what’s the message here, 15 minutes later? Dissatisfaction with technology’s impact on humanity (“All the screens may guide you/But nothing works inside”)? Antisocial regression (“I don’t mind as the whole world dies/I don’t want it anymore”)? It’s not really clear.

PROTOKULT seems to be a band in search of an identity. Sometimes they want to be ALESTORM, sometimes they want to be deadly serious and avant-garde. With two such wildly disparate leanings, ultimately choosing one or the other is critical. Not that you can’t be both at once, but it’s jarring to go from one to another in the same album – and things just go on too long and lose any impact, serious or no, that they might have made.

Songwriting: 5
Musicianship: 8
Memorability: 6
Production: 6

2 Star Rating

1. Mark Of Thunder
2. Feed Your Demons
3. 1516 (Keeper Of The Hops)
4. Oy Kanada!
5. Troubled Lad (Slainte Mhaith)
6. Na Gryanoi Nedele
7. Rusalka
8. Valley Of Thorns
9. Wenches
10. Greet The Dawn
11. Dead New World
Martin Drozd - Vocals, Guitar
Ekaterina - Vocals, Woodwinds
Jack Neila - Guitar
Dawid Slowiak - Bass
Kaveh Afshar - Drums
Record Label: Independent


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