Folk music and metal go together more often than you might think. Good metal bands have always known how to contrast their heaviness with gentler acoustic moments, often drawing on folky themes of nature and mysticism in the process, and plenty of really extreme bands like Agalloch or Ne Obliviscaris integrate folk instrumentation and melodies fully into their black metal sound to give it a fierce, primal beauty. Whether you’re into this particular niche of the music world or not I can pretty much guarantee you’ve never heard it done quite like this. Wilderun, an unsigned band from Boston, USA, self released Sleep at the Edge of the Earth in April 2015 and the result is a totally out-of-nowhere progressive metal masterpiece and in my mind a strong contender for album of the year.
Styling themselves as Symphonic Folk Metal, Wilderun’s music has many admirable qualities, but subtlety isn’t one of them. They might have their share of soft, pretty moments but they’re much more interested in fusing old school prog metal with the kind of folk music you’d find if you stumbled into a rowdy bar in Dublin on a Friday night. Raucous, dancing-on-the-tables melodies and kicking rhythms are the order of the day, played using a breathtaking array of electric and acoustic instruments to create a lush, vibrant sound. Throw in vocalist/songwriter Evan Berry’s mix of deep, operatic clean vocals and guttural death growls, and a hefty dose of symphonic orchestral pomp and you’ve got a sonic landscape quite unlike anything else around. The closest comparison I can think of is if Opeth decided to cover the Pirates of the Caribbean soundtrack- Sleep at the Edge of the Earth is heavy, swashbuckling, ambitious, fist pumping goodness that’s more than a little bit ridiculous and an absolute joy to listen to.
After a brief intro the album begins with ‘Ash Memory’, a 20 minute, four part demonstration of everything Wilderun are about. For the duration of the four track epic your ears are alternately treated to blistering heavy riffs, some impressive classic rock/metal soloing, plenty of dramatic orchestral strings and a gorgeous passage of subdued guitar and wordless vocal harmonies very reminiscent of Fleet Foxes. The song is built around three or four recurring folk melodies which are at various points played on solo acoustic guitar, mandolin, vocals, strings and lead guitar, or sometimes all of these at once, and by returning to the same melodies and motifs throughout their songs Wilderun ensure that even with the wildly shifting dynamics and huge range of ideas, the songs remain cohesive. This band really are masters of their craft and the musicianship is stellar throughout, while the excellent, crystal clear production lets you hear every individual guitar line or string counterpoint and gives the big moments the space they need to really explode. For all the musical excess and sudden changes in direction their songs never feel random and yet there’s always a surplus of ideas- each riff or lead line could probably be the basis of a perfectly decent four minute song but Wilderun cram them together so thick it takes a few listens for everything to sink in.
The rest of the album doesn’t quite live up to its opening salvo but it comes pretty darn close. ‘The Garden of Fire’ pushes Wildreun’s heaviest characteristics to the fore, hurtling through one ferocious, blast-beat fuelled riff after another for nine exhausting minutes. Follow up ‘Linger’ is fully acoustic until around the five minute mark, providing a stunning contrast and some of the albums most emotive melodies and lyrics. ‘The Means to Preserve’ adds yet more depth to Wilderun’s sound with prominent use of brass and some very dramatic choral singing, before building to an almighty, cathartic climax that somehow manages to top all the insanity that came before it. The album closes with the title track, a gorgeous, somewhat mournful piano piece that brings you gently back down to earth.
The sounds and moods of the album are very varied but unified by the consistency of the playing and production, and by Berry’s outstanding vocals. For me the epic sweep of the music invoked images of the power of nature in it’s different forms- the opening of ‘Ash Memory’ is the sunrise over vast open fields, ‘Garden of Fire’ is a violent storm, the title track is a rainy, bittersweet morning after a tumultuous night. It’s rare that music affects you on an emotive level as well as impressing you technically but Wilderun have nailed both spectacularly. The sense of melody on display here is simply beautiful and the feel is definitely more exuberant and uplifting than a lot of music of comparable heaviness, which is a welcome change in genre where the endless doom and misery can get a bit much.
The album is brilliantly paced and varied enough that even with the very long song lengths it never drags. Really there are very few criticisms I can make of Sleep at the Edge of the Earth– I guess the ‘Opeth but with banjos’ comparison gets a bit too strong at times, especially on ‘Linger’, and the band’s sense of bombast and drama may border on being a bit cheesy for some listeners. Even so, this is a stunning record and a unique fusion of different styles and ideas into an adventurous, thoroughly convincing whole. It’s available for download right now via their bandcamp for a mere $7, so do yourself a favour and give this beast a listen.