Arkona aren’t my usual cup of tea, but they remain on my radar nonetheless. I saw them open for Fleshgod Apocalypse and Epica last year at The Palladium in Worcester, MA, and it was silly fun. Dressed in their signature rags, they took the stage by storm with their pagan/Slavic folk metal, causing the pit to erupt into just a bunch of dudes with likely no Russian heritage doing that Russian kicking dance (you know the one). Their frontwoman, Masha, whom my girlfriend and I endearingly refer to as “the crazy Russian lady,” carried the set with hilarious and frightening charisma.
After exploring their discography after the show, however, I realized that my affection was attached solely on their live performance. Arkona are quite the unique spectacle, but not something I would invite into my weekly rotation. Still, “crazy Russian lady” holds a soft spot in my heart due to that killer live show, so when I saw they had a new album, I figured what the hell. Khram, let’s dance.
I’ll be upfront about this. There’s no dancing to be had here. Khram is drastically different from everything else I’ve heard from Arkona, so much so that I stopped halfway through track 2 to make sure it was the same Arkona. Gone were the cheesy, medieval power metal underpinnings. Masha’s voice was no longer a brutal yet fun invitation to a smiling crowd. The folk instrumentation was dialed back so much so that it became decoration as opposed to foundation. And by golly does it all work.
Khram clocks in at about 75 minutes, with tracks ranging from 9 to 17 minutes long. It has long, atmospheric passages and aggressive sections of speedy, wall-of-sound black metal. Admittedly, this has the genetic makeup of a perfect background album, and that is indeed what I intended it to be when I gave it its first listen. About 30 minutes in, however, I realized that I had been paying close attention to every second, and getting little real work done in the process.
Every moment of this massive album is enthralling. Masha’s death metal growl is like a piercing winter wind, and her cleans deliver some of the most gorgeous and infectious melodies you will hear all year, guaranteed. The guitars are deep and oppressive, the drums and bass shine, and the folk instrumentation is integrated with careful perfection. The astounding songwriting and darkened tone take Arkona to another level entirely. Pre-Khram Arkona would be comfortable on a tour with Alestorm. Post-Khram Arkona can be spoken of in the same breath as The Ruins of Beverast.
Arkona seem to have taken a leap of faith with Khram, and they landed with an epic masterpiece. I have nothing but the highest of praise for this album, aside from the fact that it has now consumed my life and my expectations were so utterly shattered that they kinda feel violated. This is an album of the year contender if there ever was one, folks. Arkona weren’t my cup of tea up until January 19th, and now I’m chugging excessive amounts of them everyday. Go listen to Khram immediately, I gotta take a piss…