Svartby – Elemental Tales (17 February 2012, Trollzorn Records)
Svartby are an extreme folk metal band from Saint Petersburg, Russia, which was formed back in 2003 by a keyboardist/composer/lyricist named Giftsvamp. Actually, “extreme folk metal” is a phrase they sometimes use to describe themselves, but they actually prefer the term “Svartcore” because the unique sound they create just doesn’t quite fit with what you’d normally consider “folk” music, or “extreme metal” or even “metal” music. They blend elements of all of these, but essentially “Svartcore” is centered around the band leader’s orchestral creations, which are then augmented by heavy metal guitars, drums, and death-metal-style vocals.
“Svartby” itself is the name of a fictional “black village” which is inhabited by mythical creatures — mostly either mischevious or malevolent ones (such as witches, gnomes, and imps) — and these form the main basis for the band’s lyrical content. Despite the band’s Russian origin, at first their lyrics were written entirely in Swedish, although over time, they began adding many songs in English as well.
The latest of these releases, Elemental Tales, first saw the light of day in February of this year, on CD via German label Trollzorn Records. However, the band is of the opinion that music ought to be freely available to all listeners: they have been quietly encouraging the album to be shared on the internet since the time of its release, and now they have established a Bandcamp page for themselves, where all their albums can officially and legitimately be downloaded for free. Bear in mind, though, you also have the opportunity to pay any price you choose — which would be highly appreciated by the musicians, who say they had never earned any money from their own music before now (explaining that, instead, everything has always gone to the record labels to offset expenses). (Read more about the band’s decision to give their music away for free here.)
So without any further ado, let’s discuss this recent album, and then I’ll give you the opportunity to listen to it and grab a copy of it…
The “elemental tales” in the title refers to the fact that all the album’s songs are about the various elements of the world (water, air, fire, stone, wood, and mushroom), and more specifically, about the imps who represent each of these. An example of these miniature spirits of nature can be seen on the album cover (shown above), but to get a better idea of the variety of critters, the band posted a different image every day for the whole month preceding the album’s release! In all, there are five pictures of imps for each of the six elements; all of these have been collected in an album on their Facebook page.
As you might imagine from looking at these pictures, or just based on the well-known nature of “impish behavior,” these are generally fun-loving and free-spirited, but occasionally can be a little naughty or even a bit mean sometimes — especially when their hiding places are disturbed by humans.
For example, the song “Scum from Underwater” revolves around the water-imps, which are depicted with gills and webbed feet, and live quite peacefully at the bottom of streams or ponds — until a person unwittingly treads through that water, at which point they might find themselves being attacked from below!
The song is a moderately-fast-paced example of death-thrash metal, although it is highlighted throughout with sudden orchestra hits, as well as quickly dancing runs of mallet percussion (xylophones, glockenspiels, etc.), both of which seem to represent the erratic movements of the tiny imps, as well as their sudden strikes (whether that means biting, grabbing, or even trying to pull below the surface).
This is fairly representative of most of the album’s songs: “Boulder Massacration,” “Mushroom Rings,” “Done with the Wind,” “Flaming Balls,” and “Morning Wood” represent each of the other five elementals. All the songs have their own unique flavor and tone, matching with the type of imp they are describing, but they all have common threads as well. Each song is built upon a foundation of thrash or death metal; some faster, some slower; and all of them incorporate playful orchestral parts, which can sometimes also sound a bit frightening.
In this way, much of Svartby’s music brings to mind some of the great Russian classical compositions. For instance, the “Sabre Dance” from Khachaturian‘s Gayane makes use of a great deal of mallet percussion to represent a lively dancing movement; in more recent times this melody has even become popularly associated with circus music. However, in the original work, it accompanied an Armenian folk dance in which warriors showed off their swordsmanship.
Similarly, the “Infernal Dance” from Stravinsky‘s The Firebird also relies heavily on mallet percussion parts to represent lightness and the appearance of carefree dancing — although in this case the dancing is being done unwillingly, by creatures who have been bewitched by the magical titular bird.
I could go on and on with examples: selections by Glinka, Prokofiev, and many others, use a contrast of levity and gravity, capriciousness and solemnity, spriteliness and nefariousness. In the tradition of all of these, the Elemental Tales represent the dual nature of the imps described herein.
In addition to the six element-specific tales, there are a pair of songs (“Sleepy Devils” and “Ash and Dust”) which interject some mellow, ballad-like breaks from the otherwise heavy nature of the tracklisting (the first of these has lyrics which are primarily whispered; the second is instrumental). Furthermore, the last full-length song, which is the album’s title track, is presented as the sort of bedtime story which might be told to youngsters to lull them to sleep, but also to warn them of dangers which may go “bump” in the night:
When the summertime comes to town
The elemental imps awake and
Beat the shit out of you.
Sleep tight, oh little child
Maybe it’s another village that will
Suffer Svartby’s wrath this year.
Finally, the whole collection of songs is bookended by a duo of instrumental vignettes, “Impby” and “Imp Slam,” which serve first to introduce the subject material, and then to conclude the tales, as sort of a “Once Upon a Time” and “They Lived Happily Ever After” pairing. Of course, it goes without saying it would be the imps — and probably not the humans — who end up happy and cheerful. In fact, as that final track polkas its way through a short ditty accompanied by a tuba, in the background you can just barely make out their devilish little voices, giggling mirthfully about some mischevious act or other…
Listen to Elemental Tales here, and download it free (or for whatever price you choose)…
Of course, if you prefer, you can also grab the CD copy here.