Northern Oak - _Monuments_
by: St. John Satansson (3 out of 5)
Northern Oak's _Monuments_ is presented with impressive style and an eye for quality. The whole package has been diligently constructed, and this alone scores highly on first impressions; clearly this band mean business. It's also a long demo effort, and boasts an academic concept: the writings of George E. Deakin. The artwork is a sickly green and sepia, depicting the reflection of a man with thorned vines and roots bursting from his facial orifices.

I'm thinking twisted folk, and this is an apt way of describing Northern Oak's music. A primitive black metal vocal gargles and rasps above a band that stray in and out of traditional folk tonalities, drawing us down darker, atonal rabbit holes. The production is pleasingly low-fi, with restrained, brittle drums and warm bass notes. The fuzzy guitars lack power, but they have bite and clarity. Overlaid with prominent flute melodies, traditional percussion and acoustic guitars, the experience is somewhat soporific.

The album kicks off in promising fashion, "The Thoughts of a Dying Man" charging down the broken garden path with ferocity and presence. My greatest pleasure from _Monuments_ is the effective and technical playing of bassist R. J. Allen, who weaves in and out of the melodies with skill and taste; his lines recall Steve Harris on _Piece of Mind_, but in the musical context of early Opeth. The melodic hooks of the songs wander in and out of the unexpected, trading beauty and unease with unrestrained purpose, and the band sound unencumbered by expectation or concern, as the music ebbs and flows like a mountain river.

As the record progresses through, the rot sets within. An over reliance on slow, swaying tempos mires many of the album's tracks into a dreamy dirge. Too many of these compositions settle into blissed out, medieval chain dances. The minimalistic composition shows sensitivity and precision, but it also lacks dynamism. Tracks such as "Gawain", which feature long passages of the spoken word, are unengaging and, as such, are ill-conceived.

The progressive promise and immediacy of the opening track never reappears in the following eleven tracks, and many of these slip out of the mind in very little time. This is a shame, as Northern Oak have painted some evocative shades under their gnarled branches. _Monuments_ is a dark and beautiful forest, but it is also overgrown and suffused with bogs. I have found it hard to recall where I've been or where I am going on this woodland trek.

(article published 6/2/2011)


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