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Varang Nord - Parkiuna Uomurs Award winner

Varang Nord
Parkiuna Uomurs
by Kira Schlechter at 23 March 2021, 7:00 AM

Each time I come across something like Latvia’s VARANG NORD, I’m reminded again of the sheer adaptability of metal – it comfortably absorbs anything that’s put with it, enhancing it as well as what has been paired with it. Theirs specifically is pagan Viking metal; the lyrics are written in Latgalian, an eastern dialect of Latvian (this is the first time they’ve sung in their native tongue; they’ve previously sung in Russian), so chances are, you’ve never heard anything exactly like it before. The title “Parkiuna Uomurs” translates to “Thunder’s Hammer,” and the tracks are dedicated to their homeland, according to their label’s website. This is their Sliptrick debut; their last album, 2017’s “Call Of Battle,” and its predecessor, 2016’s “Master Of The Forest,” were on SoundAge Productions. And it’s an auspicious one, a unique delight from start to finish, starting with the instrumental “Pi Tuolim Krostym.” Forbidding, stark, with primitive bits of drumming that segue into a military march tempo and drifts of beautiful orchestration by composer Yuri Borin, it’s a sweeping, cinematic melody full of brass and strings, really setting the stage for what’s to come.

“Stuojis” is the blast-beat, brutal-guitar-chords metal part of the band, but it’s the pairing with Jelena’s accordion that makes their sound completely their own. She takes over on the main melody and Danila’s stellar bass joins her. The verses are Wolf’s harsh vocals (as they are throughout), but they’re well-mixed and clear, not muddled, and perfectly in sync with the bouncy rhythm. Airy clean vocals and acoustic guitar take over very briefly on the “chorus.” Jelena’s accordion melody is given so much propulsion by the bass and the looping drumming (and she’s awesome, giving no quarter to the guitars at all) and her solo is wonderful, a simple but glorious evocative melody, the layers of guitar underneath giving it richness and depth. The guitar solo allows plenty of room for the bass, which assertively makes itself heard.

It only gets better as we go with the brighter-sounding “Cinis Gors,” driven by another terrific drum pattern. You can’t ever miss Aigars, but it’s not because his drumming is obnoxious – it’s that his actual vaunting skill is that noticeable. Wordless vocals and the accordion then join in a stirring dual melody. The syncopated drumming with the vocals in the verses (the kick drums going one way, the cymbals another) is insane, then it picks up the pace into a shouted chorus of the title. I have no idea what it means, but it absolutely makes you want to yell along and bang your beer mug on the table. When it shifts back to the wordless vocal and accordion, it's such a nice segue, giving you a breather from the aggression and snapping punch of the verses. There’s an acoustic interlude after the second chorus, the accordion soft and light behind it, adding ever-so-light drumming and just hints of guitar snarling beneath, before it bursts joyously back into the chorus again.

The title track is thunder, birds crying, the sound of battle (cries, crashes, metal ringing), then a tense accordion/guitar melody takes over, one that’s returned to throughout and good thing, because it’s excellent (it even seethes quietly under the verses). The trademark harsh vocals on the verses are replaced by a chorus of layered clean, chanted/droning male and female vocals with blast beats going bonkers underneath. The next segment of lyrics swings relentlessly, helped by guitar (it’s such a short section and you wish it would go on longer), then back to the guitar/accordion melody and back to a harsh verse and the chorus. The solo is accordion and guitar and tons of bass (playing the vocal chorus melody) before it picks up into just guitar and more ridiculous drumming. It whips back to wicked guitar and bass riffing side by side, then back to the accordion and guitar melody, and it ends precisely on that – no muss, no fuss.

Jelena’s accordion and the dual guitars work so seamlessly and unselfconsciously together on “Dzelka Ryuda,” one not overwhelming the other, mimicking each other rhythmically and melodically. The harsh vocals bounce along into an irresistible hitching groove, then back into the initial buoyancy, the harsh vocals spat out a line at a time, the bass echoing the accordion melody to great effect. A more legato chorus has blast beats as a gentle underpinning, adding texture to the rock-solid 4/4 base tempo. The groove and the bounce alternate again and it’s such fun; the contrast between them is a treat for the ear. There’s an acoustic play on the melody, with tiny touches of flute, then it’s back into it again, the vocals howled out on the chorus as it slowly fades and fades and fades, losing the vocal, layers of guitar, and drums until it’s just the guitar, then nothing.

Accordion, whistle, and Danila’s perfectly-mixed bass make up the hauntingly simple melody of “Svietneica,” but Jelena sings the verses, in a clean, spare, minor-key, almost deadpan tone; it’s so matter-of-fact as to be chilling, the guitar sinister at her back. The chorus is Wolf’s barking vocal after her initial lead-in; the juxtaposition between them is so cool, as is a slightly different version of the verse melody, Jelena’s accordion buzzing evilly along in the background on just a few droning notes. A reprise of the initial section picks up the pace, adding a guitar chug and terrific variations on the accordion melody. The breakdown is plenty of bass, primitive low drumming, and faint guitar chords, then blast beats and just enough superbly dark orchestration until it swells easily back into that chorus. Jelena sings along to the initial melody to close it, making for great compositional continuity.

“Uperiesona” pairs accordion and guitar in perfect tandem, the drumming giving them both urgency on an otherwise slower tempo and a deceptively simple melody. The verses are set to a killer groove; when it returns to that initial melody with a lone vocal line to start it, it almost serves as a chorus. The cymbal-iced melody (with unmistakable bass) in the solo section is simple and wrenching; when the harsh vocal and barest touches of orchestration join in, it has such a sadness to it. It goes all the way down to acoustic and orchestration on a mournful, earthy melody, yet another variation of the initial one. They have very much a folk sensibility in their instrumentation and phrasing and arrangements – it’s just outstanding.

While it’s hard to pick favorites here, these next two were mine. “Syt pa Seji” is straight metal, with guitar and grunts, until that damn accordion grabs the guitar melody and Wolf barks out the title and we learn this super catchy little combo is the chorus. The verse is so good, with the harsh vocal, that sweet little cheeky accordion melody, the chugging guitar/drum combo, and those little rhythmic punches, but the chorus is just the bomb. It would be so easy for one element of that tight, tight groove to get out of sync and bring the whole thing crashing down, but it doesn’t happen the whole way through, even at the end when they do it a few times through – it could never end and I’d be OK with that. The solo is that guitar chug, with fabulous little modulations, then back again, with more plays on the groove. Another ironic little accordion commentary takes us back to that ridiculous chorus. It’s a blast.

But the fun’s just begun with “Trolls.” Jelena takes center stage on a purely Eastern European tune, then the harsh vocal, guitar, and drumming slice across it in a stop-on-a-dime three-beat rhythm. The tempo gets the bit in its teeth and off it goes, Jelena keeping pace for all she’s worth in this ripping death metal polka. The two verses establish that polka feel in earnest, that syncopated push and pull, until it gets ridiculously fast again, Jelena still matching it with ease, keeping the rhythm firmly in check despite the blast beats longing to sweep her away. The chorus is a purely metal beefy swagger, all big power chords and the shouted vocal. Back to the beginning with the accordion and the slashing guitar, then a balls-out solo section with blast beats and power chords veers into polka chaos again and it ends on that one-two-three drumming punch. As wild and woolly as it gets, it never careens out of control – they have a tight rein on all of it and it never sounds messy or noisy. It leaves you grinning widely and completely exhausted.

“Karaveiri” is introduced by aggressive double kick and riffing, segueing into an eerie swing with droning accordion at its base, the blast beat ending each sweep through it. Chanted harsh vocals act as a transition heralding the chorus, which has a simple melody, only a few repeated notes, but it’s unforgettable. As clean vocals join in, you can still hear Wolf, well, growling faintly along. The second verse follows the same pattern as the first, the drums just very slightly different on each pass this go-round, the chanted vocals transition, then back to the chorus, first led into by the guitar playing its melody first. The bridge into the ending is the melody broken down and dissected into segments of itself, the drumming matching it in simplicity, then building upon itself each time. It ends on the crushing thud of the verse pattern, minus the accordion.

As much as “Pi Tuolim Krostym” sounded like an opener, so the instrumental “Cels da Satai” sounds like a closer. A tender acoustic guitar playing repeated variations on its melody (again a folk technique) seems to put everything to rest, on the sound of crickets and the wind. This is a top-notch effort by a band that gives their big-gun peers a considerable run for their money. Beware SKYFORGER and ENSIFERUMVARANG NORD is coming for you.

Songwriting: 10
Musicianship: 10
Memorability: 10
Production: 10

5 Star Rating

1. Pi Tuolim Krostym
2. Stuojis
3. Cinis Gors
4. Parkiuna Uomurs
5. Dzelka Ryuda
6. Svietneica
7. Uperiesona
8. Syt pa Seji
9. Trolls
10. Karaveiri
11. Cels da Satai
Maksims “Wolf” Popovs - Vocals, Guitar
Jelena Kalniša - Vocals, Accordion
Danila Lopuha - Vocals, Bass
Javgenijs Selivanovs - Guitar
Aigars Zeiza - Drums
Vjačeslavs Janens - Vocals, Percussion
Record Label: Sliptrick Records


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