Àrnica – Viejo Mundo CD (Percht)
Click on image to buy this CD
HAVE YOU ever touched a pig? A living, breathing, snouting, snuffling pig, that is, not one that’s been turned into bacon, sausages, ham and other tasty pork products? When you lay your hand on a pig, try patting its flanks, rubbing its snout, and scratching it behind the ears (pigs love this as much as cats do). You’ll find its skin surprisingly warm – like humans, pigs have no effective furry insulation, so they get cold easily – and rough in texture. The hair they do have is very coarse and springy – it’s used for making artists’ brushes and shaving brushes. The reason I mention this is because Àrnica’s debut album Viejo Mundo (Old World) features several pictures of wild boar. Now, I’ve never touched a live boar – they’re much less common than farm pigs, and have a nasty reputation for unpredictable aggressiveness besides – but I’ve handled tanned boar hides, and they are a lot tougher and hairier than pig skins. The kind of qualities that are evoked when I think of the tactile qualities of pig and boar skins – their roughness, their heat, their fierce vitality – are exactly the qualities that I find in Àrnica’s music.
I first encountered Àrnica in the middle of 2008, at the Madrid Le Blanc neo-folk festival (my scene report from the festival can be found elsewhere on Judas Kiss). This was the first ever live performance of the Barcelona-based trio, and they had no recordings available at the time, so no-one really knew what to expect from them, but their shamanic presentation of primal Pyrenean folk made a deep impression. I said at the time that this band obviously belonged on the Ahnstern label, and 2009 saw my prediction fulfilled. Àrnica’s first couple of releases, the self-released Live In Sintra CD-R and a split 10” with Wolfsblood on the American label Pesanta (reviewed elsewhere on Judas Kiss) were swiftly followed with South European Folk Compendium, a split release on Ahnstern shared with Svarrogh and Défilé Des Âmes, and now this debut album on Percht, the Sturmpercht-related subdivision of Ahnstern.
Viejo Mundo contains 12 songs, totalling 43 minutes, with lyrics delivered in a mixture of Spanish and Catalan. Àrnica, in common with other Ahnstern bands such as Sangre Cavallum, Sturmpercht and Svarrogh, have a highly developed sense of ethnic identity and love of the folk traditions of their homeland. There are no English translations provided, which does mean that it’s difficult for non-Spanish speakers to appreciate the lyrics on a literary level. On the deeper emotional level, however, it’s not necessary to be able to understand the literal meaning of the words in order to tune in to the primordial, nostalgic atmospheres evoked by the music. Most of the instruments used are acoustic, and they include guitar, accordion, mouth harp, bodhran drums, tambourine and other hand percussion, horns and flute, variously played by Dani, Saul and Carles. A guest musican, Raul Guerrero, contributes gaita, or Catalonian bagpipes, to a few tracks. A couple of songs, Urogallo and Hijo De Deva, employ samples, but these are quite subtle and unobtrusive, never overwhelming the rough-hewn, organic quality of the music.
The album opens with Última Hoguera, a sound-montage of field recordings – footsteps, creaking doors, crackling flames, a lonely flute melody – and narration delivered by an old man. This is evidently a framing narrative – ‘a tale narrated by an old man as his last legacy to a casual traveller’, according to the press release – but as noted before, without knowing Spanish, it’s hard to understand this. This leads into the first proper song, Ilmatar, a gentle guitar melody punctuated with deep chanted vocal refrains. Ilmater is a Finnish goddess, air spirit and mother of Väinämöinen, so I’m not really sure what this has to do with ancient Iberian culture, though the song itself is very pleasant. The clicking wooden percussion, wheezing accordion, and theremin-like background samples of Urogallo recall the work of Àrnica’s Catalan compatriot Ô Paradis.
Danzas De Guerra (War Dance) is a stirring Celtiberian battle-hymn, using Catalan bagpipes and bodhran, very much in the style of Sangre Cavallum, who use Gallician pipes. Bagpipes also dominate the later track Caballos Solares (Horses of the Sun), alongside stentorian shouted vocals and thunderous side-drums, making this the album’s noisiest track, and one of its best as well. Tu Tierra and El Trashumante are both quite gentle accordion-based songs, the latter adding clanking cow-bell, but sandwiched between them is Hijo De Deva, which uses layers of droning horns, deep chanted vocals and hollow drum beats to produce ur-folk quite similar to Waldteufel.
Aguarda (Wait) is perhaps Viejo Mundo’s most delicate song, a lilting ballad with plucked Spanish guitar, tambourine and twanging mouth harp. Tormenta is a tribute to the Austrian industrial folk band Allerseelen, ‘grabada en directo en el bosque’ (‘recorded live in the forest’), complete with chirping cicadas. Gerhard of Allerseelen also witnessed Àrnica’s performance in Madrid, and was mightily impressed – he contributed Viejo Mundo’s cover photo of wild boars in the forest, and I believe he played a part in securing Àrnica’s deal with Ahnstern. Galdr, like Hijo De Deva, recalls Waldteufel with its background sounds of crackling flames, eerie chanted vocals, dry rattling drums, and wavering flute melody. The album closes with Tu Miedo (Your Fear), a disquieting track of hypnotic beats, low drones, distant flute, and the cawing of crows.
Overall, Viejo Mundo is an excellent debut album, brimming with confidence and vitality. Anyone who enjoys the ethnically-rooted heathen folk of bands like Sangre Cavallum, Sturmpercht, Svarrogh, Waldteufel or Hagalaz’ Runedance will easily warm to Àrnica. Àrnica may be a relatively new band, but the old world they evoke is at once both enchantingly strange and strangely familiar – they are tapping into very deep wellsprings of ancestral spirits and folk memory. Close your eyes, relax into the music, and you can almost feel that boar-flesh grunting and heaving beneath your fingers. So warm, so earthy, so full of life.
There’s also a 200-copy wooden box edition of Viejo Mundo, which comes with extra inserts and a bonus 3” CD containing exclusive collaborations with Dimo Dimov of Svarrogh, Max Percht of Sturmpercht, and folk singer and Sol Invictus member Andrew King.
Reviewed by Simon Collins. Reprinted with acknowledgements to Judas Kiss web-zine.