Band: Huntsmen | Album: Mandala of Fear | Genre: Progressive metal, Post-metal, Doom metal | Year: 2020
From: Chicago, USA | Label: Prosthetic Records
For fans of: Panopticon, Pallbearer, early Mastodon
I’ve got mixed feelings on the term “folk metal.” On one hand, you can have some genuinely creative fusions, while on the other hand you have schlock like Korpiklaani. (Korpiklaani are very fun in a live setting, but there’s no denying they are extreme schlock.) Over the last decade or so, there have been some uniquely American attempts at folk metal. Almost all of these have been made with a straight face, in contrast to many of the campier European acts (the aforementioned Korpiklaani, Finntroll, etc.). Panopticon, with their intertwining of black metal and bluegrass, is likely the best-known example, and I’d argue for including Zeal & Ardor’s Satanic spirituals under the “folk metal” umbrella.
Huntsmen’s Americana influences are less in-your-face than either Panopticon or Zeal & Ardor, but they’re nonetheless present in the band’s vocal arrangements, melodic choices, and electric-acoustic contrasts. This Chicagoan quintet also bases their sound in doom metal and post-metal, as opposed to the more common folk metal template of black metal.
Among all the subtle folk inflections and big, doomy distortion is a sense of ambition. Mandala of Fear is a double album clocking in at nearly 80 minutes. The individual songs are dynamic, exciting, and emotive. There’s an incredible sense of drama, without it feeling overblown.
The album’s first track, “Ride Out”, is among my favorites. The opening chords are strummed in a manner reminiscent of folk and country music, and the harmonized vocals in the verses sound like Yes playing sludge metal. “Colossus” contrasts with a more moderate tempo and doomier timbre. The band’s Americana influences come out in the vocal melody. This was a smart, subtle choice, as opposed to many folk metal acts’ tendencies to slap on some acoustic instrumentation, which may feel out-of-place.
“Atomic Storms” is a lurching, prog-doom instrumental cut where competing textures of distortion vie for supremacy. Following this, “God Will Stop Trying” cools everything down with its gentle opening. It eventually becomes a huge, growling mass of doom metal licks, supported by the band’s signature vocal arrangements and grandiose song structures.
On “Pirates of the Waste”, another instrumental, Huntsmen explore their post-metal tendencies more openly. The song’s build and churn is its primary focus, as opposed to any specific instrumental or melodic flashiness. Eerie synths complement the crunchiness of the main riff during the song’s midsection lull. These atmospheric tendencies are continued on “Hill People Drugs”, though this particular song is a bit longer than it needs to be.
“A Nameless Dread” feels like an early Mastodon track, if Mastodon had started off as a post-metal band. Shouted vocals and chunky bass propel the song’s opening minute before smoothly transitioning to something more melodic. More folky vocal arrangements in the song’s middle add a haunting quality.
The nine-minute “Awake at Time’s End” opens on some of the most explicit folk on the whole album before quickly pivoting to Huntsmen’s dynamic post-metal. Narration reminiscent of Porcupine Tree is incorporated smoothly at one point. The whole song has an underlying tension between the vocals and the music. The vocals (mostly) remain clean and almost understated, while the instrumental elements strain against them relentlessly. The closing instrumental movement is one of the best parts of the whole album. “Loss”—a folky, jazzy instrumental—is a much-needed palate cleanser.
“The Swallow” is Mandala of Fear’s other big song, at nearly 11 minutes long. Doom metal in the vein of Pallbearer opens this track, and the middle features some gorgeous instrumental interplay that gives the rhythm section a great chance to shine. The last few minutes of “The Swallow” are one of the best examples of Huntsmen’s ability to write music that feels majestic without coming off as hacky.
Mandala of Fear is one of those rare long records which is befitting of its length. There are almost no wasted notes, and all the disparate elements serve to complement and intensify one another. The Americana influences are obvious enough to be apparent without being so obvious as to become grinding. 2020 has been a strong year for the broader progosphere, and even in that context, this album manages to stand out as one of the highlights.