It's been well over a decade since Skyforger evolved out of their previous entity Grindmaster Dead and initiated a unique cultural spin on historical pagan/black metal. But outside of their national perspective, which was so rare in the late 90s, albums like The Battle of Saule and Latvian Rifleman were pretty standard black metal efforts in the vein of Bathory or Barathrum, only with more samples added to create a warlike atmosphere. Both were great efforts, mind you, but nothing necessarily out of the ordinary, and in the ensuing years, the band started to adopt other influences into their fundamental aggression. Kurbads is their 5th full-length, the first in 7 years, and if you were to compare it to their debut, you'd be hearing a much different band...
The historical/folklore elements are still central to the band's concept, but they've morphed from a straight black/pagan style to one that incorporates heavy/thrash metal, cleaner folk elements and lots of great guitar work, particularly through the leads which alternate between bluesy and emotional to simply glorious. Don't judge this book by its cover, a folksy but primal image which will conjure either disgust or revelation, because this is easily the best of Skyforger's efforts since the sophomore album in 2000, 50 minutes of bombastic, swaggering epic fun with both pride and purpose. If you're seeking flighty and fantastical folk metal akin to what a Finntroll or Korpiklaani produce, then you might not be prepared by the simple, steel rhythms present, but there's enough of that dynamic here that you might still get something from Kurbads, in particular "Son of the Mare", which seems to be the lightest fare on the album, which a straight rock influence adjoining its winding pipes. But most of these tracks draw from deeper wells.
It'd be an oversight not to mention the mix here, which is fantastic, whether it's balancing the core instruments or the pipes, kokle and acoustics. The rhythms are laid on thick in the fist pumping heavy/thrash rhythms of "The Nine-Headed", the gloomy enclosures of "Bewitched Forest", the driving melodic power metal that opens "The Devil Slayer", and the spacious majesty of "The Stone Sentinel", but the real star of the show is the band's sheer versatility. No song derives too closely from another, and each is a sonic extraction of the rich folklore in the band's homeland. Points must also be given for the vocals, which sound incredible in the native tongue. Peter's evolved into what I can only compare to a Latvian version of Sabbat and Skyclad's Martin Walkyier, with a bitter, rasping characteristic that gives a full body against the backdrop of the instrumentation. The backing vocals also satisfy, and when the band breaks into full folk mode briefly for "In the Yard of the Father's Son", you truly feel as if you're sitting around some ancient fire.
This is a total package, though. The drums sound like studio-bottled thunder, and nearly every melodic lead on the album, from the melodies over the crushing "Curse of the Witch" to the superb bonus/title track, is distinct enough to please the palette. I can already see the dismay some fans might feel for the level of variation here, and the lack of much straightforward black metal from their formative years, but it's well worth giving Kurbads the chance to captivate you. The majority of the tracks are catchy and well written, always throwing something memorable your way, and the potential is simply enormous. It's easy to envision that Skyforger will join the fore of Eastern folk metal, standing alongside their neighbors in Arkona, Kroda or Temnozor in opening a window on the past. I hope there are enough people out there willing to look through it.
Verdict: Win [8/10]