Cruachan- The Living and the Dead (Album Review)

March 24, 2023


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Ireland’s Cruachan celebrates their thirty-year anniversary in 2023, and if you’ve had even a passing interest in folk metal chances are good you’ve come across some of their discography.  Their earlier material is regarded as some of the earlier examples of what would become folk metal in the 90s, and alongside Primordial they were one of the first to explore Celtic elements in the genre as well.  Over time Cruachan’s approach has morphed from a hybrid of black metal and Celtic folk into a mixture that pulled in elements from across the metal landscape.  Following 2018’s Nine Years of Blood, the majority of the band left for other endeavors and founder Keith Fay was left to rebuild with an all-new lineup.  Alongside three new members and a slew of guest musicians, Fay has done just that on The Living and the Dead and written what may just be the group’s most diverse offering yet.  The Celtic folk elements pop out even more than before while the metal side is just as prominent, and with the songwriting integrating the two better than ever this may just be one of Cruachan’s best efforts to date.

The Living and the Dead wastes little time in establishing a high energy and heavy sound, as instrumental opener “The Living” keeps the tempo fast and seamlessly integrates the folk violin and harsher guitar and bass work that gives off more of a black or death metal sound.  From there the group heads into one of their longest album tracks “The Queen”, which spends equal amounts of time on harsher instrumentation and sweeping melodies that feel like they are transporting you to back a few centuries.  Cruachan’s had an interesting history with how they merge the world of Celtic folk and metal, with some of their album achieving it more seamlessly than others, but they’ve achieved a stunning balance on The Living and the Dead that allow the two to grab your attention equally.  Even when songs like “The Reaper” pause for some periods of beauty and calmer folk instrumentation before launching back into abrasive riffing, the transitions aren’t that jarring and the instrumentals build up naturally to these intense peaks.  There’s also a considerable amount of variety in both the folk and metal arrangements, with the former capturing both somber ballads and up-tempo, joyous melodies that will have you wanting to dance wherever you are.  On the metal side, there’s aspects of black and death metal that come through in terms of heaviness and tonality, and “The Ghost” even has a few moments that feel like full-on thrash.  Cruachan doesn’t just stand out when they bring in guests to play a wide variety of instruments and go full Celtic folk either, as there are a number of abrasive riffs and more traditional metal arrangements that have stuck with me upon repeat listens.  At fifty-four minutes a few tracks do run just a bit longer than they need to, but considering how well everything flows from one song to the next and the hooks that come in both somber and joyous form, there’s a lot to like about what the band has done on this album.

Keith Fay still handles the majority of the vocals on The Living and the Dead, but he’s joined by quite a few guests throughout the album who provide some additional character to the songs they appear on.  Fay’s performance mixes somber singing and harsh screams and shrieks that bring a bit more black metal into the equation, and on songs like “The Queen” he’s able to transition between the two without losing any intensity.  Sometimes folk metal bands of this type succeed with clean singing and the harsher aspects feel like an afterthought, but that isn’t the case here and Cruachan delivers both in ways that stand out.  Some of the guests include Vreth from Finntroll who delivers his familiar raspy screams and Irish singer/songwriter Nella who gives a haunting performance on “The Changeling”, but there are plenty others who each lend some different pitches and help build the atmosphere of each piece.

I went into Cruachan’s latest effort with fairly high expectations given the highs they’ve achieved in their discography and the quality of the early singles, but The Living and the Dead has easily exceeded them.  The Celtic folk elements are more diverse in tone and composition than before, and the band incorporates elements from across extreme metal even more seamlessly and with strong hooks.  A few moments may last longer than they need to, but if this type of metal is of interest expect to get a lot of mileage out of this one for some time to come.  It’s unusual for a band on their ninth album and three decades in to release what may be their best effort to date, but Cruachan may have done just that.  The Living and the Dead is available from Despotz Records.

-Review by Chris Dahlberg