REVIEW: Eluveitie’s ARCANE DOMINION II – PANTHEON

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I got into folk metal just as it was reaching the height of its popularity here in the States. Suddenly, dozens of bands were hopping onto the folk bandwagon, dressing like cavemen and singing about beer rather than learning to write competent songs or play their instruments well. Alongside that horde, there were a handful of bands that rose to the top of the pile for various reasons. Eluveitie was one of the best of them.

Eluveitie frontman Chrigel Glanzmann recently kicked out and replaced every member of his band except for bassist Kay Brem. This move, while a little upsetting to long-time fans, didn’t have me particularly worried about the objective quality of the music; in order to be a member of Eluveitie you have to be a great musician.

I couldn’t help but get excited when Eluveitie finally announced their second acoustic album. Evocation I – The Arcane Dominion was a masterpiece upon release and I still come back to it years later. At the time Chrigel said they would release a metal album after Evocation I, then come back with the second part. What actually happened was the release of three more metal albums and then the aforementioned purging of almost every member of the band. Regardless, soon I would continue from where that first, masterful acoustic album left off, this new one promising to catalog the pantheon of Gaulish deities. I was excited.

The band released teasers, the first featuring Fabienne Erni doing singing vocals and playing Celtic harp. Something about her singing had me a little less than impressed, but I chalked it up to her not having settled into the ensemble yet. Then they dropped EPONA, the new single. At first I loved it, listening to it over and over, though I started noticing a persistent issue that gave me pause.

Evocation II – Pantheon comes with a whopping 18 tracks, and the digipack has a bonus cd with the “instrumental” versions, which in this case means only removing the soloist voice. Each track is the name of a different deity, the lyrics based off of ancient Gaulish texts and archeological findings, the music trying to capture the mood for each particular god.

The opening track, DVREÐÐV showcases the band’s ability to build atmosphere, which they’ve always been good at, then leads into the single EPONA. If you listen to the track you should be able to easily hear the issue with Fabienne’s singing that began to really dig at me: her voice is cracking with nearly every note change. With good clean singing and acoustic playing the thing to strive for is an uninterrupted line where the air speed remains more or less constant, sort of like driving on a freshly-paved highway. What she’s got going on here is more like driving in a jeep with worn-out suspension on a pothole-ridden backroad. On EPONA the problem wasn’t necessarily as noticeable. At first I thought she was just adding in some sort of ornamentation, but it became clear that this was just the way she sang. It’s 90s pop star meets Celtic folk and it’s just not working for me.

The record is full of great instrumentals, but I do have an issue with the mixing and mastering. As counterintuitive as it sounds, it’s too clean and blended. This would be good for a classical record or performance but this isn’t classical. This is folk. All the instruments seem to have lost a lot of their character.

The band has once again reused several traditional tunes, a few too many times now for some in particular like Stone in the Field. There are hundreds of Celtic tunes out there, so I wish they’d use others more often, especially since it feels like some of them have been used in nearly every album.

CATVRIX is either a continuation of or homage to Desumiis Luge off of the first Evocation album, starting in the same key and with the same opening motive in the vocal line. But instead of being eerie and primal, CATVRIX is  sort of goofy and falls severely short of being unsettling like Desumiis Luge. It has its moments, but the chanting by Chrigel combined with pseudo-tribal drumming make the song as a whole fall short.

ARTIO marks some of the best singing from Fabienne, except when she gets really into it. Each crack of her voice causes an echoing pop on the track, growing more and more grating. She could be a really good singer if it weren’t for this.

ESVS is where this album really seems to come into its own.  The textures are interesting, they’ve got that low rumbling drone which is part of what made Evocation I so appealing, though Fabienne continues to hold the record back with her inability to sing smoothly, growing steadily more lady-singing-the-national-anthem-at-a-sports-game. ANTVMNOS makes up for it, with a fantastic instrumental arrangement of Scarborough Fair. It’s a shame EVOCATION II really only starts to shine so late into its run time, especially since from ANTVMNOS to the end is where all the best tracks are hiding.

If this record were just from about track 10 to the end it would have been another gem for me. Unfortunately Fabienne’s singing, and the sterilizing quality of the mixing and mastering for much of the album really brought this down for me. It’s still a good album, but Evocation I was a masterpiece, and after a track record of great and fantastic records, an album that’s just good is a letdown. I’m excited to see where the band goes from here, especially after listening to the second half of the record, but I’d have to give this one a 3.5 out of 5.

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