With the enormously bold and expensive-sounding 2009 album Goi, Rode, Goi!, Moscow's Arkona established themselves as one of the forerunners in symphonic extremity, combining classical, folk, and black metal influences into a sound that we hadn't quite heard before. Sure, we'd had orchestras in metal music aplenty, but not with the traditional Russian folk instrumentation and melodic inclinations, or Masha's incredibly distinct vocal presence. If that album had one flaw, it was that it set the bar so high that there was very little chance that Arkona could themselves top it. As a result, Слово (Slovo), their 6th full-length, does not feel so much a step forwards as sideways, but there is still a tremendous amount of appeal here for those who have enjoyed the multiple layers of their songwriting.
Слово seems slightly less 'intense' on the whole, but there are still a number of flighty, storming melodic black metal passages throughout that derail any plausible notion that the band are slowing down or milking their success into a more accessible, mainstream commodity. Tracks like " Больно Мне (It's painful for me)" and "Аркаим (Arkaim)" continue to surge along with polished black precision, while they also implement some punchier, thrashing punishment into the rhythmic subtext of "Никогда (Never)" that functions impressively alongside the sailing, potent cleaner vocals that this singer specializes in. Admittedly, there are a few pompous and mug swilling, LCD folk metal tracks like "Леший (Leshiy)" which did little for me, but when the band abandons the metal almost entirely for the pagan anthems "Заклятие (Incantation)" or "Во Моём Садочке... (In My Garden)", they transform into the Russian equivalent of the excellent Swedish Garmarna: all thudding percussion, beautiful vocal passages and glimmering, intense strings.
They've even coughed up another of their vocal-based pieces in "Там за Туманами (Behind the Mist)" which could easily earn them a widespread appeal well outside the genre, if Masha should choose to once again careen about a few local woodland glades or fields for some viral video. But for myself, the true centerpiece of the album is the title track, a gorgeous folk metal aspiration with lots of flutes, thundering percussion and glorious escalation. The vocals are incredibly well arranged throughout all of Слово, and the services of the Choir of Moscow State Conservatory and Chamber Orchestra of Kazan State Conservatory N.G. Zhiganova have been retained for much of the playtime, giving the album a rich, robust depth that obviously required a great deal of effort to complete. It also never hurts that Russian is, like, the most seductive language ever.
There are those that will immediately shun Arkona for the high standards here, no expense spared, as if they were primed for radio/pop exposure, but when managing such a large array of vocal styles and instruments, there's little choice but over the top. The individual elements of their sound are not highly complex, but when brought together it's nonetheless impressive. The band maintains its close ties to Russian folklore and history, so long time adherents to their sound should be content. There are probably about 10 minutes I would have clipped from this hour length experience, and it's not quite so mighty as its predecessor, but Слово is not short on the thrills and creativity that defined their back catalog, and once again Arkona prove they have the pride and guts to trample all over the field of fashionable female fronted fairy-tattoo drivel espoused by international 'sensations' like Nightwish or Epica.
Verdict: Win [8.25/10]