For metal mastermind Andy Marshall, Saor has been a means of immersing listeners in his beloved Scottish history and heritage through a sprawling, intoxicating mix of incredibly atmospheric black and folk metal, dubbed colloquially by Marshall himself as “Caledonian Metal.” For all intents and purposes, while each of his previous albums certainly had some characteristics of their own – you generally had a pretty good idea of what you were getting into: Four or five 10ish minute tracks taking you through the peaks and valleys you generally associate with long, progressive-leaning black metal tracks, featuring a blend of tremolo-picked guitars and melodies, layered with traditional Scottish instruments, all wrapped up with an album cover featuring some mountains, forestry or lakes (or lochs, as it were). All of which was enthralling and captivating, to be sure, but not necessarily surprising.

Well 10 years since the release of Roots, the band’s seminal record, Saor returns with the similarly titled Origins. In keeping with the theme of similarity, the album’s cover, just like that of Roots, features a mysterious set of three stone totems, this time glowing with inscriptions of unknown origin… ok well I assume they’re of Scottish origin but I’M NOT AN EXPERT. Anyway, you may look at these similarities and say to yourself “ah (or ACH), more of the same.” And who could blame you! All available evidence seems to point in that direction. And would that be such a bad thing? Personally, I’d be happier than a Deerhound being hand-fed a Bacon Butty. But nay! In fact, Origins offers the band’s biggest and boldest changes to date, and the changes pay off in a major way.

Right off the bat, you’ll notice how good Origins sounds. Their prior work was hardly unlistenable, but the production quality here is on a whole other level of anything they’ve done before. As such, everything sounds really punchy and crisp, most notably the guitars which, compared to the band’s back catalogue, seem a much bigger priority than ever before. Marshall himself admits that during the pandemic, he was listening to a lot of classic Heavy Metal, and the affect it’s had on the guitars is certainly noticeable, with a lot of emphasis put on dual leads, melodies and solos, as well as some heavier riffing making for a triumphant, more robust listening experience. Opening track “Call of the Carnyx” provides a perfect example, breaking out some galloping, Maiden/Priestinspired riffs you’d be hard pressed to find on any previous albums, not to mention a really driving riff after a pretty epic build up around 4 minutes that’s as aggressive as anything I’ve heard from Marshall outside of his darker Fuath side project.

You’ll also notice a change in vocal delivery. You have to wait til second track “Fallen” to get the full experience, but the more bellowing growls of prior albums has been replaced by more of a blackened shout. On top of that is an even greater effort to incorporate an array of clean sung elements – most notable a monastic-like choir found throughout the album adding a mysterious, spiritual sort of flair to the whole album. There’s some other slight stylistic changes as well, with the whole album taking on a bit less of a blackened edge in favor of a more “post” vibe. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not completely stripped of evil, but between the burlier production and the greater focus on guitar-driven songwriting, it’s definitely leaning a little further away from the blackened edges. If that scares you off, I implore you to reconsider, as sections of “The Ancient Ones” and “Aurora” stand as some of the band’s strongest and most compelling work yet, riding a fine line between catchy sensibility and true artistic wonderment.

But perhaps the biggest and most significant change here is in the length of the songs. Where before you expected to have to strap in for 10+ minute epics, Saor have cut some of the fat to bring us six tracks averaging around 6-7 minutes apiece. These aren’t exactly stripped-down pop songs ready for the radio, but the result is a collection of songs that feel much more focused, making for a more sessionable listen than we’ve gotten on prior releases. Because of this, I’ve already found myself coming back to Origins far more frequently than I have with prior albums’ releases, allowing me to better ingest and appreciate all the great elements at play here. Admittedly, while Marshall has switched up the formula from his previous work, you do get the sense that he’s following a new and pretty well-defined pattern here, where by the end of the album, you can pretty accurately predict the flow of each song. If that’s going to become a problem, I’ll save my complaints for future endeavors, because for right now this album just sounds absolutely fantastic.

This may indeed be Saor’s most accessible offering to date. I know in the metal world, that’s not a word often used to describe something in a positive light – but in this case, Andy Marshall seems to have really put it all together here to create an album in Origins that sounds altogether like a Saor album, while pushing its boundaries and opening it up to an even greater audience, which it rightly deserves. Marshall is a proud Scot who seems, more than anything, eager to share his culture with the world, and I’m pretty confident this one’s gonna put “Caledonian Metal” firmly on the world map. A brilliant debut on Season of Mist, and a major step forward for a dude who’s been doing really good things for a while now.

[Visit the band's website]
Written by Steve K
July 5th, 2022


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