The sacred groves of ancient pagan folk served as axis mundi, a heart-like point of connection between Earth and sky (‘heaven’ to some) necessary for their communal lifestyle intending greatest harmony with the nature that’d sustain them; Those who would liken trees to people and live with reverence to their many gifts, spiritual and otherwise. Great feasts, blood rites, and sacrifice (blóts) to celebrate a decades end and ward for future prosperity were practiced among auld Norse pagans (specifically Uppsala, Sweden) out of cultural necessity until considered barbaric and wasteful by invading Christian kings. Nine days and nine sacrifices of each species coincided with these blood anointed great boils of meat as those sacrificed were hung dead from the branches of trees in the sacred (assuredly Ash) grove nearby. Irmunsil, Yggdrasil, the Donar Oak, Wainamoinen‘s sowing of the first trees (sacred birch) in the Kalevala, Greek and Slavic oaken symbolism, along with multitudes of Celtic myth and tradition all acknowledge that the fabric of mans being (our cycle of life and death) is woven intricately, and naturally, into the trees that sustain us. Covetous apes as we are, and have always been, this innate spiritual intelligence that’d see the tree as sacred and life-giving is so hopelessly lost among rare-earth metal scavenging minds today that it becomes exhausting to consider what progress tastes like to an ouroboric non-philosophy of self-destructive greed that’d fill insatiable mouth with its own shit. In reviving myth, natural spirituality, and an increasingly human narrative Ireland by way of Finland musician Mat McNerney (Grave Pleasures, ex-Code) pivots back to the pagan heart of Hexvessel with an unexpectedly calm bout of reflection and increasingly fruitful collaboration on ‘All Tree’.
Of course I am of the troupe that’d yearned for more ‘Dawnbringer’ since its breakthrough release in 2011. The occult haunt of its Finnish-feeling dark folk reach was immediate and obviate in its appeal and it’d be fair to say that Hexvessel has never attempted to recreate or iterate upon past works. The ramping experimentation with style and ‘retro’ psychedelic folk touched upon British scenes and Finnish sensibilities in interesting ways but, reached the point of diminishing returns when they’d ‘gone too far’ off track in the minds of many fans with the release of the 60’s American psychedelic folk rock influenced ‘When We Are Death’ (2016). I personally took no major issue with that third album as I felt a return to the style of ‘No Holier Temple’ (2012) made little sense. As the rise of Beastmilk (and then Grave Pleasures) took precedence mid-decade it seemed Hexvessel had strayed from that pagan heart just slightly into progressive rock territory. Their ‘forest folk’ that’d be so initially compelling sees a different sort of return in 2019 as ‘All Tree’ appears to be a grasp of McNerny‘s ‘roots’ and a mending towards greater community with the return of co-writer Andrew McIvor (who’d appeared on ‘Dawnbringer’) into a full seven piece ensemble for the recording. This doesn’t at all suggest a return to 2011, but rather an eyeglass upon the late 60’s ‘proto-prog’ Canterbury sound minus the improvisational soul of that movement. For a project that found their footing as a marvel within the Finnish neofolk and dark folk environs ‘All Tree’ merely wears a Suomi skin and begins to feel distinctly British as McNerny pulls his performances closer to his chest.
The aim of the music isn’t at all obsessed with style, though, and there is no self-conscious examination of scene or movement evident in its expression which is clearly intended as spiritual psych-rock influenced folk music that’d yearn for the comfort of home and bask in the warmth of reflection. Beyond that clear themes here, a passionate appreciation of nature and the gift of ever-standing pillars of life as a point of purpose and poignant thought, there is a somber feeling throughout the experience that is perhaps where the Scandinavian sensibilities best express beyond certain vocal harmony. McNerny‘s timbre is sympathetic and warm when compared to earlier Hexvessel, which was performative and appropriately dark, as he is more often accompanied by wife and collaborator Marja Konttinen. Beyond co-writers McIvor (Code, Binah) and Kimmo Helén (Ardual), the line-up features several notable Finnish musicians including guitarist Jesse Heikkinen (Depth Beyond One’s), drummer Jukka Rämänen (Atomikylä, Dark Buddha Rising), and soundscapist Antti Haapapuro (Black Swan, Dolorian) who do much to bring a ‘world class’ accompaniment to a very detailed recording. Where I begin to flail in examining this varied, emotional, and highly inspired recording comes with a yearning for the ‘moody’ side of Hexvessel; Without the darker extremes represented on ‘All Tree’ it does begin to feel like an adult contemporary folk rock record that might’ve gotten a bit ‘lost’ in nostalgic forms.
There are several points of genius on this fourth Hexvessel record and the first is actually the last song “Closing Circles”, a bit of an epitaph to complete the circle of life theme represented throughout ‘All Tree’. A stunning live version was released as a teaser accompanied by a cover of Coil‘s appropriately posthumous “Fire of the Mind”. The second preview, and perhaps first single “Son of the Sky” felt to me almost like a connection between the aforementioned Canterbury sound and (bear with me) peak Skyclad based on the spiraling verses and pagan perspective, and no doubt folks will get some Opeth-ian vibes from this sort of song. “Old Tree”, “Sylvan Sign” and the insufferably jaunty “Wilderness Spirit” help to push the pacing along keeping it light but without losing the psychedelic freedom of the late 60’s folk that influenced the albums tone. For my own taste the best, darkest bits of the full listen surrounded the one track I couldn’t really stand, the Lennon-esque escalation of “Birthmark”, otherwise the intentional wilt of Side B is fantastic, culminating with the earnestly sullen “Liminal Night” and “Closing Circles”. It is an easy, moderately emotive and generally satisfying soft rock experience that does properly invoke the intended influences. For most this trip into the past for a project that’d begun as a somewhat modern feeling Nordic psych-folk act will feel regressive and edgeless but in many ways it appears as a necessary divergence from whatever Grave Pleasures might have in the works. I can recommend this but it’d take a very specific niche, the pagan neofolk fan who would dabble into the late 60’s and early 70’s for reference and tonality, to appreciate. Moderate recommendation. For preview I’d suggest “Old Tree” and “Closing Circles” for the most impactful memories on tap and then move on to “Son of the Sky” and “Wilderness Spirit” for the bigger kicks of folk rock on the record.
Sighing sylvan ache. 3.5/5.0
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