When you think of music in the context of culture and heritage, it’s always folk music. I hate folk music. But as I progress with my Scottish Gaelic language learning, I know I’m going to have to embrace it, because folk singers often use relatively basic vocabulary and enunciate well. It makes for a great learning aid. Still, I’ve long thought that the perfect music for Scottish culture isn’t folk music at all, but metal.
For example, here’s how you say Christmas in a few different Gaelic languages:
Irish – Mí na Nollag – the month of Christmas
Manx – Mee ny Nollick – the month of Christmas
Scottish – An Dúbhlachd – the darkness
As many have long thought, the Scots are just made different. Given our history and mythology, metal music works perfectly. Luckily for us, Hand of Kalliach are here to marry Gaelic language and mythology to metal, and it’s glorious.
I’ve found it hard to fit Hand of Kalliach neatly in a genre. They are definitely metal, and they incorporate elements of Celtic folk music. The predominance of rhythm in the music, the melodies and the mythology that serves as the inspiration are all quintessentially folk metal. Still, calling them folk metal doesn’t quite fit. You may want to peg them as atmospheric metal, and they do conjure an atmosphere across these ten songs so immersive and moving that American metal fans will be racing to look at their ancestry to find out if they have Celtic blood in them so they can lay claim to the rousing melodies. But I don’t think that’s the right place to put them either.
Hand of Kalliach are a husband and wife duo from Scotland with Gaelic heritage on one side. They use that heritage in a number of ways. Firstly, the band’s name is a play on the name of a winter god, Cailleach, who ushers in the winter around the time of Samhainn and ensures it lasts until the time of Bealltainn. Any UK based pagans or Wiccans reading this will recognise these instantly as Samhain and Beltane, the two biggest seasonal festivals. Borrowing from the mythology surrounding Cailleach, the band write music that again will be familiar with pagans, Wiccans or anyone else who tries to live in accordance with nature.
Much like any pantheon of gods, nature can be beautiful, but it can also be fierce and cruel. With Hand of Kalliach, we see this reflected in the music. Sophie’s beautiful, higher-pitched clean signing contrasts with John fierce growl. The songs themselves also swing between the two extremes, with atmospheric passages and brutal blackened death played off against each other. Never in a jarring way, though. The balance between these two extremes is one of the main triumphs of this album.
You’ll also notice that some of the song titles are in Scottish Gaelic. We have Each Uisge (Water Horse), Óran an Tein’-éigin (song of the need-fire), Solus Neónach (Strange Light) and Trial of the Beithir-Nimh (the venomous serpent). Óran an Tein’-éigin will feel very familiar to any Scots who have had to listen to traditional Scottish music at their Granny’s house, or tuned into the Mód. This is because the most immediate thing about this track is Sophie diving straight into puirt-a-beul – Scottish mouth-music. This form of rapid, rhythmic singing has undergone a modern revival but I’ve never heard it in a black metal song. This song is actually a perfect example of that great balance between the more extreme side of metal and the melodic or atmospheric elements that Sophie brings in.
Aside from the fantastic dual clean/dirty vocals, there are two things that stick out and they represent the best and worst things about this album. First, the negative. The drums are programmed, which isn’t a problem for me in itself. They are composed very well, with a lot of attention paid to small details that real drummers often miss. My problem with the drums is twofold. Firstly, they are sometimes a little high in the mix. This is to be expected when there is a lot of rhythmic double-kick drumming because the only way you’re gonna hear the detail is if the kick is pumped up. However because the drums are a little higher in the mix, it’s a lot easier to hear how lifeless they often sound.
I know how hard it is to get a good drum sound, even if you do have a live drummer laying down tracks, so this isn’t really a dig. It’s a criticism you could lay at a lot of extreme metal, but I think that a more natural drum sound could work well for Hand of Kalliach, especially in the context of the more melodic side of their music.
The other element that sticks out, and this time for great reasons, is John’s relentless approach to making every song as catchy as possible. Whether it be the melodic death style riffing you’ll hear as the backbone to Solas Neónach or Roil, or the lead guitar section kicking off Ascendant and adding flavour to a number of other tracks, the guitar across this whole album is brilliant in terms of getting stuck in your head. I dare you to listen to Cinders and not get the lead guitar in the chorus stuck in your head.
When listening to this album from front to back, especially with notes from Sophie and John on the album’s themes, it’s easy to get fully immersed. The music flows so naturally from track to track that you’ll easily listen to the full 42 minutes and not realise that kind of time has passed. Samhainn feels like a love letter to all of the stories John grew up with and the natural environment that shaped them over the centuries, and you can tell he and Sophie had a lot of fun bringing all of these elements into a musical context we all feel is lacking in authentic Scottish voices.
From the exploration of Cailleach across a number of songs to the storytelling innate to any folk tradition and even the smaller details that people may miss such as the one track being written in 12/8 to match the 12 legs of the serpent Beithir-Nimh, you can feel the love that has been poured into this. With Samhainn, Hand of Kalliach deserve to be propelled out of the underground and into mainstream consciousness. Here’s hoping for a Peat & Diesel collaboration on the next one!
Samhainn will be released by Trepanation Recordings on Friday 22nd October. You can support Hand of Kalliach by purchasing music and merch from here.