In heavy metal, there are bands whose lyrical content, attitude and general aesthetic is so unappealing that one feels almost guilty liking them, obviously solely because of their awesome music. And then, there are bands which get it so right, which are showing such a purity and true-ness of vision, that it almost doesn't matter if the music isn't "professionally" produced, performed, or even top-notch at all times. Appalachian Winter is the second kind of band for me. This is a personal project created by Daniel Klyne (lately there have been some additions in the line-up), a US citizen whose descent or primary residence is traced in the area of Appalachia, a "cultural region in the Eastern United States that stretches from the Southern Tier of New York to northern Alabama, Mississippi, and Georgia" (to copy from Wikipedia). The area is almost synonymous with the mountains that occupy a large portion of its range, is quite famous for its unique folk music (a mix of anglo/irish/scottish tradition with some blues) and for its people. It would be interesting to read a bit about Appalachians before delving into the project, a people at different historical times revered or disdained, as as a result of their cultural/physical isolation and the hardships they endured, such as poverty and physical labor under difficult circumstances (remember Panopticon's "Kentucky").
Appalachian Winter is a historical project, as opposed to the fantasy literature that dominates metal to a large extent. All lyrics have to do with either the land itself, or the people living in it. This kind of connection with reality, is a characteristic that is not found very often in black metal music, where, even in the case of bands with historical themes (read: usually nationalist) the idealization of a distant past that might have not even existed, persists. Appalachia itself has also historically been a "victim" of idealization, with all the positive and negative elements that this entails. But this doesn't sound like new age music made by and aimed at city people; this sounds like there is something deep and pure, something truly connected with the land, in Daniel Klyne's heart.
The interesting thing is that the music of A.W. doesn't really sound Appalachian, except at few times where obvious references are made, also made apparent by instrumentation such as banjo and dulcimer. It is mostly a kind of epic, "symphonic", folkish black metal along the lines of Moonsorrow of Summoning, led by spacious orchestral synths, heavy metal-ish guitar leads and Klyne's amazing and utterly convincing vocals, usually in a deep black metal voice, but very often in clean, almost operatic mode as well. You know these sorry-ass musics featured in corporate advertisements that pass over as "motivational", right? Well, A.W. could be truly called motivational music; anthemic, heroic, powerful, but not in the typical, borderline hateful way that is characteristic of epic black metal, instead bearing a kind of sage-moderation, a positive and hopeful outlook with just the right hints of darkness or coldness, to maintain a cyclical pace that represents real struggle and overcoming. It's also useful to note that the music has much more layers that one would imagine at first. Just listen at the excellent "The Great Battle". As with Wintersun, for example, there seems to be a monotony of consonance, which might cause the attention of some listeners used in the ADHD and abrupt changes of extreme metal to drift off; however, beneath it, it contains great harmony, a wealth of glorious parallel or "hidden" melodies, best noticed with headphones and active listening.
Heavy metallers are unfortunately very seldom interested in lyrics, but it is here where the project lifts off to land into far-away, snowy mountain peaks, where only few metal bands reside; in the domain of timelessness. It's really difficult to choose one or two excerpts among equally excellent ones, so I won't. Suffice to say that Daniel Klyne is a poet that writes with great passion and in a truly philosophical manner, one that is not characterized by fancy words and aestheticism, but expressed in the more direct, folkish way possible. In perhaps the best song of the album, "Ancestors of the Lake", past and future, reality and fantasy, all meld together into one moment of universal awareness, like the whole weight of the world is suddenly felt over our shoulders; but we are holding it, we comprehend the immensity of it all, if only for a few brief moments. It is just after Daniel finishes his last line, ah what the hell, here is the last verse.
"I like to think after I yield forth my last breath,
That my spirit will join those ancient ones,
In song to our beloved mountains.
But likely that day,
We shall all be dust,
And nothing more."
It is like one of these moments experienced in a Terrence Malick movie, a feeling of of awe, sadness and meaningfulness mixed all together. And it is not just this one moment. All throughout the album, the Appalachian Winter speaks of the immensity that can be experienced even through a small fraction of isolated land ("The Town that Old Man Schell Built") paralleling William Blake's famous quote, it speaks of spiritual independence amidst an authoritative regime ("Rebellion within the Young Nation"), it speaks of the power of tradition ("Patriarchs") and even of the tragedies of war and slavery, sometimes describing the perspective of the land itself, as it witnesses the horrors than men do. Yet, this is art with a positive outlook; everything matters, even if we are small, even if we seem insignificant comparing to the great whole. We can always find our place, our own meaning.
Appalachian Winter is one of the few beacons of light in today's metal scene, one that does limit itself by cynicism, pessimism or soulless professionalism, one that hunts tirelessly for its own personal, resonant vision, without even needing to break new ground in terms of stylistic innovation, without holding back for fear of being perceived as "kitschy". To get back to what I first mentioned in this review, perhaps I should already have mentioned the played-by-hand drum machine that sometimes misses a beat, the sometimes pitch-wavering vocals, the weak home-made production that lacks definition and mid-range, even a few missteps in parts that probably didn't come exactly as the creator wanted. But how much do all of these matter? Some reviewers prefer to rate by rating every characteristic of the record and taking an average of all. But this is not really consistent with our experience. Especially when its great moments aren't just great, but a kind of magic, or when by zooming out and looking from afar, one sees a creation tall enough to reach the peaks of the highest mountains.
This should become a classic metal record, a paradigm for other bands that want to create soulful and meaningful heavy metal to follow.