I must admit, I have several reservations regarding anything packaged as 'folk' metal. Perhaps this can be attributed to unsavoury past experiences with music marketed as such, or an intrinsic distaste for music that endeavours to combine tried and tired, predictably ethnic influences with the sonic presentation of metal. Heljareyga, the Progressive/Folk metal outfit whose debut album I'm reviewing here, seem to have entirely bypassed my aforementioned qualms and have created a genuinely fresh, authentic and sincere melding of folk elements with the basic progressive/power metal template.
Hailing from the Faroe Islands, and helmed by Tyr frontman Heri Joensen, Heljareyga's self-titled debut album impresses at first glance with its ambitious song lengths, epic thematic elements and impressive musicianship. Everything on display is presented with a degree of professionalism and finesse, especially striking considering this is a debut album from a very new band. Heljareyga succeeds in creating a unique and fresh sound right off the bat, which can partly be ascribed to the fact that the musical influences originate from an unusual locale like the Faroe Islands, but more importantly, to the seamless incorporation of these influences. Rather than employing esoteric instrumentation as a shtick, Heljareyga sticks to the conventional instrumental palette, allowing the folk elements to manifest themselves in the music more subtly, through the melodies, harmonic choices and phrasing. The result is a refreshingly coherent musical identity that exudes class and confidence in its control and self-assurance.
There is an admirable amount of restraint in the compositions, and the focus is visibly more on crafting cohesive songs, than meandering suites. Though the songs are fairly long, a tight and controlled songwriting approach keeps everything reigned in and perfectly paced, ensuring that the tracks never overstay their welcome, an all too familiar peril of similarly styled progressive metal efforts. The title track, "Heljareyga" and "Feigdin" offer the most succinct summations of the band's sound and style. The album and the musicians themselves never succumb to excess or self-indulgence, and the expansive song structures only serve the purpose of contributing to a suitably epic and grand atmosphere, not as vehicles for instrumental extravagance.
That said, once the interest of the exotic folk elements wears out, Heljareyga, at its core, is a standard progressive/power metal album and brings little new to the table. The band seems to be too reliant on their exotic thematic influences to forge a signature sound, and after several spins of the album, I was left with the feeling of having heard much of this before, just under different garb. Again, this may not be a serious downside considering this is a debut album, and that the band will evolve from this point and probably acquire a more individualistic sound, beyond the folk themes. An obvious downside to the foreign language choice for the lyrics is that the songs lack sufficient vocal hooks, which combined with the extended song durations, works against the album's memorability. Joensen's voice gets a tad repetitive by the end of the album, and his execution can stand to be more emotive, often falling into the background, for lack of sufficient expressiveness in delivery. The production is on the sterile side, sounding a bit too dry and refined, some grit and dirt would probably have enhanced the earthy, human element that the album otherwise expresses so well.
With this album, Heljareyga are on to an interesting sound, one that could stand head and shoulders above the crowd, with the addition of a few more original elements and further development of the band's style and theme. This is one of the most promising debuts I've heard in a long time, which augurs well for the future of this band, and progressive folk metal in general.
1. Regniš (9:00)
2. Heljareyga (10:27)
3. Lagnan (8:49)
4. Feigdin (8:43)
5. Vetrarbreytin (11:15)