Azarok is the one-man black/folk metal project of E. Hereticius. Some listeners may also be acquainted with his work as the sole member of the newer funeral doom band Funerius. This, Azarok's second full-length after a long series of demos, was released about a month ago.
I mentioned the artist's work in funeral doom, because I think it's relevant to the nature of this record. The entire album consists of a single, 41 minute title track (their full-length debut last year took the same approach). As one might expect, this song is very unhurried in its nature and composition. There are long slow passages with background forest sounds, flutes, chants, acoustic guitar, hand percussion, assorted other instrumentation, and generally a good deal of folk-based flavor. The record starts and finishes with that type of material, and it is interspersed throughout the remainder of the album at varied intervals.
Within the heart of the record, moderately paced black metal takes control, though as I said it is periodically broken up by softer passages. During these heavier stretches, some keyboards crop up behind the guitar riffs and the folk elements are still occasionally sprinkled in, but the primary emphasis is placed firmly on the guitar work. Rather than walls of thin, blistering tremolo riffs, the guitar is surprisingly groove-oriented. A black metal tone is still clearly present, but a slower, slightly more bass-heavy sound pervades. In some places this means a galloping Viking charge sound, while in other places the riffs are just solid mid-paced grooves. Some soaring, almost prog-metal work even crops up here and there, with an unexpected but quite welcome solo making an appearance around the 26-minute mark. Throughout all these different phases, the sound is stunningly catchy and really draws the listener in as the music feels actively propelled forward. The drums aid enormously in this process, as they conform very tightly to the direction of the guitar, changing pace and approach as needed. They serve to drive the music forward in some passages, while in others they take a back seat and give the other instruments space. The overall approach is very dynamic, and given that the same man put them down it really isn't surprising how well they mesh with the rest of the instrumentation.
Probably the least remarkable aspect of this record is the vocal work, and even that is really quite good. E.Hereticius displays a wide selection of vocal techniques, ranging from soft clean chants to raspy shrieks to distorted roars, always adapting to the music. The sole reason why I would put the vocals on the lowest rung is that they are not especially prominent within the composition, and because the rest of the music is so engaging that the vocals are simply eclipsed. On a final note, the production falls into a very nice range. It's fuzzy and gritty without deteriorating into a hazy wall of static. This, naturally, has a very positive effect on the overall character of the record.
I didn't go into this record with any particular expectations, but as of right now I'd put it solidly in contention for my favorite metal album of 2012.
Azarok - X
[10/3/2012 Note: While I still regard this as a surprisingly good release, I should note that after giving it more time to sink in, I would give it a slightly lower grade were I to rewrite this review today.]