Wanderer On The Continent Of Saplings
Review by George on March 19, 2020.
Wanderer on the Continent of Saplings is the second full-length release from the Canadian melodic black/folk outfit Thrawsunblat. The trio started as a side project of former Woods of Ypres guitarist Joel Violette but became his main band after David Gold's tragic death led to the disbanding of Woods.
Instrumentally, Wanderer... is immaculate - Rae Amitay's fierce drumming has as much of a part driving the songs forward as Joel's catchy guitarwork. The production defies black metal tradition in its crystal clarity, which allows every instrument some space to shine and is very welcome in the sections containing multiple guitar melodies on top of each other. The album also lives and breathes folk - not only does every track contain very discernable Canadian melodies, two are full-on traditional folk songs. Both are well-composed and nicely placed to provide a break from the intensity, adding yet another layer of depth.
Thrawsunblat's greatest strength is their way of seamlessly juxtaposing more tense and emotional sections with catchy riffing and folky melodies and this record is an excellent showcase of that. In general, the variety is extremely impressive - songs like 'Bones in the Undertow' have slow, melancholic verses which transition into an infectious, memorable chorus while other pieces like 'Once Fireveined' remain brooding throughout, gradually building up through both harsh and clean vocal sections to a satisfying conclusion.
The penultimate track on the album is far and away the best in terms of both composition and delivery. The first half of 'Song of the Nihilist' is crawling and sinister, wherein a man called the Nihilist tells the narrator of the woes of the world and of how they will inevitably grind him down. A quiet segment in the middle allows the Wanderer... to reflect on the man's words before a new melody comes in, triumphant and proud. Our protagonist dispels his doubts and continues on his journey, more determined than ever (also delivering my personal favourite line on the whole album - "If every step is a mountain, enjoy the fucking view." Pure inspirational joy.) Despite being only 6 minutes long, it packs a lot of variety in while still retaining a clear theming and consistent vision throughout.
However, the record isn't always this perfect in its composition. 'We, the Torchbearers', for instance, is just a mess. A cool intro leads into a repeated part that seems to be beginning a buildup which ends on the very next line and transitions into a new riff that immediately drops away and is replaced with a quiet section that comes out of nowhere. All of this takes place over about thirty seconds - if my description was confusing to read, imagine what listening to it's like. The band generally has a pretty bad habit of repeating lines when it doesn't make much sense to, which takes away from a lot of otherwise impactful sections, but fortunately it's nowhere near as noticeable on other tracks.
Overall, Wanderer on the Continent of Saplings is a very capable release from Thrawsunblat, overcoming a few compositional faults to deliver an experience packed with energy and emotion. It's somewhat overshadowed by the fact that the group would go on to release Metachthonia, which improved on many ideas found here and ended up being one of my all-time favourite albums, but even so it's a different approach to the sound and well worth listening to.
Rating: 7.7 out of 10188
Review by Nathan on March 19, 2020.
Even though in the larger scope of things I'm still just another dumb kid on the internet, I've been noticing my feelings towards music getting more...jaded. Every new band I decide to partake in listening to isn't supplemented with my youthful enthusiasm and anticipation. Instead, I go in more with the attitude I've heard everything before and therefore view a new band in question with a very skeptical, critical eye. I'm no longer searching for the perfect album; there are at least three albums I know of that I would give 100% to were I to review them, so anything less than what those three albums give me is a sort of an objective failure. Maybe my tastes have just fully formed at this point in a way they weren't when I was sixteen, maybe overexposure to music has sped up my brain's decreasing ability to enjoy new stimuli--all I know is that it's much, much harder for an album to give me that shiver of frisson and make me spout grammatically incorrect praises regarding its excellence to anyone willing to listen after just a single spin of the record. I'm like some sort of emotionally distant dad who only becomes harder to appease as he gets older and more bitter.
And yet, just four days before the end of 2013, I innocently stumbled across Thrawsunblat browsing through yet another basement-dwelling metalhead's year-end top ten list without any sort of background knowledge on the band. Having zero prior knowledge of who this band was and what they were about, Wanderer on the Continent of Saplings had just that sort of impact on me I thought was impossible for music to do. After the title track had finished, this was already my number-one release of the year, despite how late in the game I had heard it and not to mention how many excellent albums from some of my favorite bands had dropped that past year. Summoning finally patched up their mistakes made years ago with "Old Mornings Dawn", Kvelertak kept on rocking the fuck out harder than literally anyone else ever has and yet Wanderer on the Continent of Saplings blew them all out of the water in five goddamn minutes. Others didn't echo my opinion so readily, though. After sharing this with a few other greasy longhairs I know on the internet, responses were mixed at best--so what was going on here? There was clearly something about this band that was resonating a little more with me specifically. I then took the next step and looked into who the actual cast of characters was writing this music was and what the hell they were all about. Amazingly, I found almost every single extramusical aspect of this album was connected to me, my culture and my musical passions with a depth I never previously imagined possible. Forgive me if this review tends to focus as much on my own self as it does the album I'm supposed to be writing about, but inevitably (as you'll find out) I'm always going to end up mentioning one, even if I'm writing about another. This is a fantastic album and I wholly recommend any metal fan gives it at least one honest chance solely based on its musical attributes, but deep down I know the real reason I find myself heaping praise on Wanderer on the Continent of Saplings is because in a way it somehow provided me a reflection on who I am.
Thrawsunblat was a project formed by Woods of Ypres members with occasional contributions from Woods frontman David Gold, and as fate would have it seems to have become the means by which the members will carry on in the wake of Gold's death. Now, I'll be the first to admit Woods of Ypres was inconsistent at best (Woods IV was an abomination) but I like a good deal of their stuff because, inevitably, I'll squeeze any good I can get out of an Agalloch ripoff band from my home country. Since Gold's personality was so thoroughly smeared all over the aesthetic of Woods of Ypres, one could often have forgotten that there was an entire backing band of musicians behind him, probably with their own significant ideas and contributions. On Wanderer on the Continent of Saplings, they truly have come into their own. I could never really tell what Woods of Ypres was trying to be style-wise, and this album isn't too easy to categorize either. Folk/black metal would be an adequate descriptor, I suppose. The rhythm guitar in the background often consists of lush, dense tremolo punctuated by an occasional minor chord to keep it from sounding too joyous when needed, but rhythmically this album doesn't fall much in line with black metal. Blastbeats aren't completely absent but serve as little more than a spice to the overall content of the drumming. Much of the time, this album almost seems to "jig". The opening track serves as an easy example of a moment where this album is jiggy enough to sound like a damn sea shanty. Somehow, though, the black metal influence adds a nice bite to the riffs and the track is just riffy and serious enough to not sound completely ridiculous. 'Lifelore Revelation' ends up being a powerful introduction to the album that's also a hell of a lot of fun.
The best part? It's not the strongest track on the album. Doesn't even fall in the top 5 for me.
I can usually only hear music reminiscent of "I's the b'y that builds the boat" so many times before I want to ram my head in a wall, but Thrawsunblat have somehow incorporated a consistently engaging folk-ish texture into a heavy metal framework. Exactly where the folk metal influence ends and the influence from plain old Maritime folk music begins will vary depending on who you ask, but from the acoustic guitar-backed seafaring tales to the remarkable compatibility of the rock-based riffs with rhythms more commonly heard behind a limerick the grimy spirit of the eastern Canadian coast manifests itself. The metal and folk are merged thoroughly to the extent that neither of the two seem excessively neglected in the music, and the times which the music shines the brightest are often when both sides of the metal/folk spectrum are clearly presented. 'We, The Torchbearers', a not-so-subtle monument to Gold, is one of the best tracks on the album for this very reason. Starting out with a relatively discordant riff like Woods of Ypres sometimes did in their heaviest moments, the song shows a quick flash of a more melodic riff and a danceable beat before returning to the metal riff for a little while, building a little more until all goes quiet except for whispers of "heed the torch, carry the torch, we all must carry the memory". Then, that infectious rock beat returns, supplemented with a riff that's as catchy as it is headbang-inducing. Then they do it all again before the track ends. The self-contained hopelessness of Gold's influences has waned, replaced with a solemn but bright-eyed and visionary energy, and as a result this album rocks out harder than any previous efforts by these musicians did.
On Canada 2010, Thrawsunblat showcased some genuine and provocative black metal melodies amidst an amateurish aesthetic and delivery. There were some good ideas, but they sounded a little rushed at times and they definitely benefit from the greater scope and better production quality offered to them in this full-length release. Though Thrawsunblat certainly does take a riff-salady approach to their songwriting on both releases, Wanderer... gives each theme a little more time to build before radically jumping into a clean guitar segment, a blastbeat-backed black metal riff, or maybe a folksy chorus; whatever the song seems to necessitate is fair game. It'll take a few listens to wrap your head around the way this album works. Not because of the actual feel of the music, more so because of the way the songs are structured (this is fairly accessible and pleasant melodically for anyone remotely familiar with melodic death/folk metal). There is a natural ebb and flow to the songs that goes beyond genre conventions. Holy fuck does that ever sound pretentious but hear me out. There's folk metal songs on this album ('Lifelore Revelation'), straight-up melodic black metal numbers ('View of a Million Trees'), acoustic folk ditties ('Maritime Shores', 'Goose River') and slower paced 'Woods O Negative' doomy depressive rock stuff (the beginning of 'Song of the Nihilist'), yet amidst everything Thrawsunblat throws at you, every step of the way you feel like you're listening to the same band. There's a congruency in this album's disparate tracks because they all just seem to flow in the same sort of way.
There is a massive array of little quirks that contribute not only to the feel of the individual songs, but to the character of the band as a whole. Clean vocals and harsh vocals are sung simultaneously and creating a really haunting yet bitter taste. (Why haven't more bands learned how to combine the two vocal styles as well as this yet? Perhaps the fault lies with the producers of the album, as the quality of the two styles combined rests in the measures taken to layer them together properly in the studio. All I know is when the vocals come in at the beginning of the title track, it's a fucking incredible feeling that no other band has replicated yet.) Aspects commonly associated with metal drumming (blastbeats, double-kick drums, you know the deal) are often used more as a spice to the rhythm rather than serving as the skeleton for the song, and the sparsity of the blastbeats gives them an intensity that wouldn't be possible if they appeared more frequently. The band does an excellent job of instantly removing the intensity of the music by allowing only one or two instruments to play and carry a root melody, then exploding back into a new, powerful riff. The previously mentioned section of 'We, the Torchbearers' that relies on the vocal verse and a simple melody is a good example of this, but the moment that provides the best utilization of this technique is a few minutes into the title track. Guitar comes in, playing the sort of clean intro you'd usually hear an an overblown introduction, but it lingers for just the right amount of time to settle you in. Then, with a quick hit of the snare drum it immediately disappears, washed away by the triumphant solo section that it leads into.
One possible critique of this album is that it may be too disjointed for some. Indeed, even as there is a (previously touched upon) dissimilarity between tracks, within tracks themselves there exists a lot of variation and even that might be a little bit off-putting. What sounds like a carefully constructed masterpiece to my ears is likely to be a cluttered, pompous mess to someone else. These guys like to switch it up a lot while still attempting to remain peasant and inviting the entire time, and that may not be something you're looking for when you're flicking through the used metal section at your local record store. This band doesn't have some standout aesthetic that makes them instantly attractive; this album isn't particularly heavy nor overflowing with remarkable musicianship, and as strange as it sounds, they don't even give off the impression that they're particularly passionate. Usually genuine passion is a staple of atmo-folk-black-sadguy music, but Wanderer on the Continent of Saplings is much too playful, too proud of itself to convey any sort of brooding, intense passion in the way bands like Agalloch, Saor and Woods of Ypres did. This isn't overflowing with solemn passion, but rather a certain exuberance and bounciness uncharacteristic of music in this vein.
Even the disjointedness of this album tells a story when you look at the picture the album attempts to convey. When one ponders the title of this album and why it may have been selected, the way in which Wanderer... flows seems so much more fitting to the overall concept behind the album. This release is a monument to the vast and mountainous landscapes of the Maritimes, and in its own way almost stands as a testament to the natural beauty that permeates through the whole of Canada. The "wanderers" in the story are Canadians, lost in the incredible reaches of the "continent of saplings", which is a positive and apt way of describing the current state of the Canadian landscape.
Truth be told, I've never thought the nation which I was born and raised in has a lot to be proud of. Our history apparently "begins" when settlers arrived from Europe and completely wiped out the indigenous population (hence why we are but mere saplings--our history, compared to most other nations in the world, is quite short). Anybody who's taken a Canadian history course in high school can probably agree with me in that Canada's history is pretty boring. We champion relatively inconsequential victories in the World Wars like the Battle at Vimy Ridge as if our meager victories in certain wars somehow establish our unification and pride as a nation. Toronto and Vancouver are among some of the most multicultural cities in the world today, and amidst this convergence one may often not know where to look to gain a true sense of their cultural identity.
What does any of this have to do with the album I'm reviewing, you may ask? Well, this album may be one of the few things you could turn to to get a real sense of what it is to be Canadian. Thrawsunblat has referred to their sound on multiple occasions as a "bastardization of European metal", and that statement is representative of what Canadians are on the whole- English and French settlers bastardized by mixing in with the indigenous populations of the land. We wander because we know not what we are, living under the plague of the nihilist. We can only discover our roots in the roots themselves, the very ground which we stand and grow upon. Through the rigid guitars forming the mountains, constantly evolving drumbeats providing the changing backgrounds of Canada and the quirky, Maritime folk tinge that permeates many of the melodies, Wanderer on the Continent of Saplings makes me proud of my culture in the way that nothing else has. Buy the shit out of this.
Rating: 9.9 out of 10188