I’ve been meaning to do a review of Eluveitie’s album Origins (2014) more or less ever since it came out. I’m going to be wearing two hats here—Gallo-Roman polytheist and aficionado of metal music in various iterations. For those who aren’t yet acquainted with Eluveitie, you’re in for a treat! They’re a folk metal band from Switzerland who sing in English and Gaulish, and many of their lyrics have to do with Gaulish religion. Huzzah!
The theme of Origins is regeneration out of death, with specific reference to Gaulish foundation legends, from the Posidonian statement that the Gauls considered themselves descendants of Dis Pater to early legendary figures such as Celtos, eponymous founder of the Celts, and Ambicatos, emblematic here of sacred kingship.
The album’s conceptual core is perhaps in the song “Sucellos” (track 8), for Eluveitie have evidently identified Dis Pater with Sucellus (an interpretation I have some sympathy with, although I prefer an identification with Cernunnos), and the idea of Sucellos as founder, as god of rebirth after death, runs through the whole album. (The album art, by the way, features the same mallet-of-mallets motif as the bronze statuette of Silvanus from Vienne I’ve featured in a previous blog post—see the image below.) Equally pervasive is the idea of Antumnos as the site of this death-and-rebirth; their portrait of Antumnos as seething with the primordial soup of future life is clearly informed by interpretations of its Welsh cognate Annwfn. In certain songs—for example, “From Darkness”—there is a clear ‘exhortation to philosophy’, as it were, that echoes the calls of the ancient druids not to fear death and darkness but to embrace it as the “eternal refuge of the soul” (as Eluveitie put it). This is one of a number of songs where the lyrical content is more compelling than the music itself. Instead of boiling their lyrics down to the simplest, plainest expressions of sentiment (think “Oh, what a beautiful morning! Oh, what a beautiful day!”), Eluveitie, like a number of other metal bands, aren’t afraid of packing their lyrics with thought as well as feeling. They use the word “sempiternal”, for heaven’s sake. Repeatedly. In a death growl. It’s awesome.
Anyway, before I leave the subject of Origins’ lyrical content, I ought to touch on one pervasive element that elicited a strong WTF from me the first couple of times I listened to this album. This is the proliferation of unmistakable Biblical allusions, from “He who has ears to hear, let him hear” and “word became flesh” (Intro) to “Hallowed be thy name” (“Vianna”) and “Thou shalt know me by my fruits” (“King”). These are all New Testament allusions, as you’ll notice: the creation story in question belongs to the Gospel of John, not to Genesis. What are Eluveitie doing here? Are they (1) echoing Biblical language because that’s the idiom of prayer that they’re most familiar with in English, and they’re Swiss and it’s not their first language (except for Anna Murphy’s presumably)? Or (2) are they appropriating Christian phraseology in order to turn it to their own, ostensibly polytheistic ends? Or (3) have they fallen prey to the ‘Jesus-was-a-druid’ line of thought, by which everything Celtic prefigures Christianity and it’s all the same and kumbaya? The third possibility crosses my mind whenever I listen to “The Nameless” (track 2)—yet even here the other two interpretations can hardly be ruled out. I certainly don’t look to, or expect, the purest expressions of pagan theology from the bands I listen to—but I admit I find this lyrical gesture puzzling.
Music and instrumentation
The music’s sound is really classic Eluveitie: the driving percussion and guitars give it a deeply metal flavour, while tin whistles, hurdy-gurdy, uillean, harp, and violin bring it softness, movement, and light. Folk metal, now that I think about it, is a lot like Gothic architecture. Stones and buttresses build the heavy metal edifice, while light and air suffuse the folk/pagan space.
Origins has a great blend of peppy, up-tempo numbers that you can really get amongst it and dance to, if you’re the dancing type (such as “The Call of the Mountains” (track 7) and “Celtos” (track 4)), as well as more sombre and moody tracks (like “Virunus” (track 5) and “Day of Strife” (track 13)). For me, some of the most compelling songs musically feature a sweetness and melancholy paradoxically tempered by urgent vivacity: I’m thinking here of “Vianna” (track 10) and “Carry the Torch” (track 15).
One thing that’s been bugging me about the song “Sucellos” is that the background sound effect is of a whip, not a mallet. Surely a mallet or big hammer striking a wooden post would have given a more appropriate sound here—or alternatively some good stout strokes of the bodhrán. (Admittedly, as an American, I’m probably more bothered by our historical association of whips with slavery than Europeans might be.)
I’m an absolute sucker for soaring female vocals. I could listen to (and in fact often do listen to) Within Temptation and Evanescence and Therion all day long. So it’s no surprise that my favourite Eluveitie songs tend to feature Anna Murphy’s vocals rather than Chrigel Glanzmann’s. Anneli features splendidly on “Celtos”, “The Call of the Mountains”, and “Vianna”, while Chrigel does a fine job (despite his voice not being my favourite) on “Celtos”, “Inception”, “King”, “The Day of Strife”, and especially “Carry the Torch”. Incidentally, I had heard “The Call of the Mountains” in its French and Romansch versions on Pandora long before I got the whole album with this English version; there’s a Swiss German one out there as well. I think I might like the sound of the Romansch one the best (“Il Clom dallas Muntognas”).
I confess that the spoken word bits in the Intro (track 1), “Nothing” (track 6), and “Ogmios” (track 14) don’t really work for me. The solemn Scotsman (Alexander Morton) sounds like he should be voicing The Hobbit, while the moany Scotswoman in “Nothing” practically paraphrases The Lord of the Rings (“history became legend”, etc.). And the child in “Ogmios” just creeps me out—I wish they could have written the Ogmios story into a full-on song.
Those few quibbles notwithstanding, I have to give Origins a hearty and enthusiastic commendation. I’d say this is plainly their best work since Invocation I: The Arcane Dominion. (Seriously, Invocation I stands as one of the great monuments of pagan metal, in my opinion.) Speaking of which, I’d like to conclude this post, as I will probably keep doing until it comes to fruition, with an exhortation to Eluveitie: now, on to Invocation II!