Husband and wife duos are not as rare as you think in metal, rock, and dark alternative music. Employed to Serve, Spiritbox and Lycia released three of the best records of 2021. The likes of Sonic Youth and Cocteau Twins also produced classic albums with this power dynamic before they called it a day.
Scotland’s Hand of Kalliach are as enigmatic as the Celtic mysticism that permeates through their debut LP, but this makes them no less captivating or heavy. Indeed, you wonder if the nuptials between the two band members are the spark that ignites their art. They get full marks on Samhainn for determination to create original music and only a few downgrades for the execution.
The words ‘Celtic’ and ‘metal’ conjure images of fiddles and flutes and galloping guitar riffs shrouded in harmonised scale patterns, and Hand of Kalliach are no strangers to these features. Yet opener, ‘Beneath Starlit Waters’, explores the best of both worlds with cascading harp melodies and angelic soprano vocals giving way to vicious thrash metal rhythms and salivating growls. In summary, fluttering butterflies and pernicious demons co-exist in the same forest in Hand of Kalliach’s audio dream world. What colours do you see when you listen to the blackened death metal of ‘Solas Neònach’ and the melodeath mayhem of ‘Ascendant’? Are they the orange and black shades of Swedish gothic metal legends, Tiamat, mixed in with the dark purple of early Emperor? The spellbinding voice of Sophie Fraser invites you to imagine her wandering the Scottish woodlands in a Celtic version of The Sound of Music enthralled by the nocturnal splendour of life among the hawthorns and birches of a full moon. By contrast, husband, John Fraser, drools with carnivorous lust on the pseudo-industrial metal aggression of ‘Roil’. You might call this a bizarre cross breeding of All About Eve and Ministry. It’s so good they replicate it again on next track, ‘Cinders’, but with more syncopation.
Like all strong albums, Samhainn ends with two of the finest cuts just when you think you’ve figured out their formula. ‘Trial of the Beithir-Nimh’ tells you what you already know – Hand of Kalliach are on the cusp of originality. Who wants thunder and lightning, tribal drums, frenetic thrash riffing and blood-gargling vocals balanced with glorious soprano harmonies? ‘Return to Stone’ is Celtic death-doom with fiddles. If Kate Bush composed a metal album, it’d sound like this. Now there’s a thought…
Hand of Kalliach are the unorthodox undergraduate student that hands in a late History essay and turns the question on its head in a brilliant piece of counter-thought. But with this risk, comes the higher chance of falling at the last hurdle compared to those that stuck to the conventional format and focused on the quality of their content rather than the quality of their imagination. ‘Òran na Tein’-éigin’ is as impenetrable and incomprehensible as the pronunciation of its Gaelic song title. No Celtic deity could fathom what Sophie Fraser’s rapid-fire cherub rap is trying to achieve here, just as the diluted Nightwish dross of ‘Each Uisge’ will leave you cold to its attempted embrace. And yet these are not the main flaws. Step forward, John Fraser, and show that you can fret a metal riff without lapsing into lazy palm-muted root notes for the rhythms. Fans of the band’s debut EP from last year will lament that the duo decided to weaken this element of their sound at the expense of incorporating more fluorescent folk melodies into the compositions.
It’s clear Hand of Kalliach are yet to finish mapping out the terrain of their pioneering vision, but you can expect a magical piece of metal when they do. Samhainn is a promising start to their career and an album experience that never fails to transfix the listener.
Release Date: 22/10/2021
Record Label: Trepanation Recordings
Standout tracks: Beneath Starlit Waters, Roil, Trial of the Beithir-Nimh
Suggested Further Listening: Ewigkeit – Starscape (1999), All About Eve – Scarlet and Other Stories (1989), Lord Belial – Enter the Moonlight Gate (1997)