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More about the songs: The album begins regally with a triumphant performance of "Tous Esforciez," a 13th-century masterpiece of the Troubadour era, here sung in Old French and performed on original medieval instruments. The listener is then taken to the frozen North with the sublime, frozen acoustic dirge "Winter Born." The harrowing, yet defiant, "Tortured by Rose Thorns" is an astonishing, truly original piece of music which transcends the seething borders of Black Metal, and positions Unto Ashes at the vanguard of "blood-lit" music. And although "In Memory of D'Drennan" was written in response to the suicide of the beloved Regent of New York's Vampire court, the song is so seductive, so infectious, that it seems destined to become THE unintentional hit on the dance floors of goth clubs from Gotham to Leipzig. "Emptiness" is simple, yet epic; performed on acoustic guitar, cello, French horn, and voice, it is both painfully honest and painfully intimate; it may be one of the first true "folk-songs" of the modern-day Apocalypse; the one "true" folk-song on the album is "Four Loom Weaver," a rarely performed 19th-century Irish lament on starvation. "The Turning" is a piano and cello composition of flawless construction, created for a film, either forgotten, or not yet remembered. Another "filmic" piece is the jewel-like "Three Haiku" which is sung in ancient Japanese and features hypnotic Balalaika and soaring soprano vocals, once again deceptively simple in construction, but festooned with garlands of "fractured-mirror" ornamentation. Although entirely instrumental, the despairing "Four More Years" is an unmistakable indictment of what has become an endless cycle of governmental futility -- and the perils of ignorance. To these are added three highly unlikely covers, including The Cure's venerable "The Drowning Man" (here performed on acoustic instruments), an Apocalyptic folk version of "The Way of the World" (written by the influential, now-defunct Punk band Flipper), and finally a spectacular version of QNTAL's "Fruhling" in which instruments from three continents (Appalachian dulcimer, church organ, and dumbec) are impossibly employed; and yet the effect is unmistakably victorious, as if Unto Ashes have at last declared, in perfect unison: "We shall celebrate, with such fierce dancing, the death of YOUR institutions!" A mysterious "Banishment Spell" at the end of the album releases the listener temporarily from captivity -- until the next.
As well as material penned by the band, Grave Blessings features excellent interpretations of a variety of music, ancient and modern. Three Haiku is an adaptation of 11th and 12th century Japanese poetry set to music by the band. Frühling is based on Qntal's version of a piece from the 13th century German manuscript Carmina Burana. It combines an authentically medieval atmosphere with big epic synths. I'm not familiar with Flipper but believe they were a punk band. Unto Ashes' version of their song The Way of the World is definitely not punk, but delicate and sombre folk music. I absolutely love Maddy Prior and June Tabor's version of Four Loom Weaver, so was very excited to learn that Unto Ashes have based their version of the song on the Prior/Tabor version. For those unfamiliar with the song, it's a 19th century Irish folk song about poverty and hunger. Unto Ashes' version is accompanied only by the sound of rain and thunder. It's spine tingling stuff.
Tortured by Rose Thorns is an Unto Ashes composition which is an atmospheric mix of metal guitar, folky dulcimer and bleak gothic synth. Vocal-wise, the song is a mixture of dark folk and demonic yowling. The Turning, written by Unto Ashes' Natalia Lincoln, is sombre neoclassical music. Dramatic strings appear throughout their version of The Cure's The Drowning Man. If I Come To You has prominent use of percussion and an effective half-sung, half-spoken vocal. Tous Eforciez is a 13th century composition by Gautier D'Espinal. This features French horn, hurdy gurdy and operatic vocals and is really impressive, emotional stuff.
An astonishing album.
Vocalists Natalia Lincoln, Mariko and Michael Laird are obviously gifted. "Winter Born" sees them singing beautifully to a stately arrangement. "Tortured by Rose Thorns" continues the bands bleak spell, a folksy song that sees Mariko's vocals stark and passionate. "Emptiness" is sweet and dreamy, its phenomenal harmonies keeping me enthralled. Overall the vocal work on this record is exceptional. A cover of the Cure's "Drowning Man" is suitably somber, all cobwebs and darkness creeping. Mariko sounds nothing like Robert Smith, which is good. The traditional "Four Loom Weaver" is an equally audacious song to cover.
A strange but reassuringly lovely album in all. - Anna Maria Stjärnell
The album contains fifteen excellent tracks spanning a range of gothic/ethereal styles from medieval, dark folk and neo-classical. Along with these general styles, the moods span from ethereal beauty to dark, brooding and mysterious. It all starts off with an ominous french horn, 13th century lyrics and the enchanting female vocals we've grown to love on so many selections from this group. The album progresses through the various styles described above including an excellent exclusive piece written and performed by these artists titled "Winter Born." On this one all three regular members contribute their vocal talents for a nice harmonized approach.
These two tracks are just the beginning as we move through an incredibly diverse piece "Tortured by Rose Thorns." It starts off with somber acoustic guitar that gives way to an array of bombastic music, beautiful soprano and alto vocals and mix of distorted spooky vocals that really adds an interesting twist. The album moves on including one excellent piece after another. Special treats include their excellent cover of "The Drowning Man," wonderful rendition of "Fruehling" and my favorite dreamy tracks "Emptiness" and "If I Come To You." Of course there's the array of downright spooky music including the finale "Banishment Spell."
This wraps up the album, and it's another great one that fans can latch onto without hesitation. The music just keeps progressing, they manage to pull everything together so well with each new album. Highly recommended. Rating: 4.5/5
The trio of Natalia, Mariko, and Michael use both their instrumental and vocal skills to craft something made out of familiar parts, with familiar instruments, but that comes out wholly original.
When listening to this, make sure to spend some time playing it with the volume up, to truly appreciate all the elements going on, and to see the great sense of depth they have given this.
When looking for standout tracks, it is hard to pick just a few, as they all maintain a high level of quality, and fit with each other like pieces from the same cloth.
To give you an idea of the range of source material and sounds, though, here are a few examples."In Memory of D'Drennan" has drones, basic drums, strings, and guitars which are reminiscent of Lycia's best work."Haiku" is based on an 11th Century Japanese poem, with the dulcimer being very central to the song. "Fruehling" is Unto Ashes take on Qntal's version of the "Carmina Burana.""Four Loom Weaver" is a 19th Century Irish folk tune, about a destitute weaver, with the sounds of rain and thunder looming in the background like inclement poverty. This song recreates the sense of Gaelic misery, without the usual sap.
For those of you who like the Cure, Unto Ashes reimagines Bob and co.'s "The Drowning Man" with strings and female vocals. This is a particularly moving track. "Tous Esforcier's" lyrics are from 13th Century France.
For the solitary, quiet, or beautiful times, this is the album to play. Not merely goth, folk, neo-whatever, Unto Ashes crafts music which embodies the best in all these, and sets their own distinct sound down as well. -Haakon Nelson. Rating: 9/10