Sunday, March 8, 2020

A Savage World: Review of Awen’s The Hollow in the Stone

Released late in 2019, The Hollow in the Stone is American neofolk outfit Awen’s third and newest studio album since their 2014 release, Grim King of the Ghosts. Released right on the eve of Awen’s fifteen year in operation, The Hollow in the Stone is the band’s most refined, polished, and ambitious album to date. The album is mixture of distinct, yet associated styles – neofolk, post-industrial, narrative spoken word – arranged on the release in a seamless, cohesive fashion. This balance of styles has not gone unnoticed by fans of the band, with Erin Powell, figurehead of Awen, stating “stylistically we have maintained a combination of folk and industrial elements for the last several albums, whereas some projects seem to just focus on an all acoustic instrument sound. I’ve had feedback from people over the years that they appreciate this mixture of sounds from us.”

Cover art to The Hollow in the Stone

The Hollow in the Stone contains thirteen tracks, two of them being intro/outros, with the rest being original compositions, with only “I am Stretched on your Grave” being a traditional song, rearranged by Katrin X. Guest appearances are a trademark of Awen, with long time alumnus b9 InViD of Et Nihil appearing once again, along with a first time appearance of Jerome Reuter from ROME. “Perversity of Joy,” “Brigid the Dark, Brigid the Light,” “Hawthorn Rod,” “The Death Of Reynard,” and “The Hollow In The Stone” constitute the album’s neofolk offerings. “Englyn for Blodeuwedd,” “In the Heart of the Corpseknot” and “The Sickle and the Setting Sun” are the industrial/martial-industrial tracks on the album while “I am Stretched on your Grave” adds an ethereal sound to the mix.

The neofolk tracks are exceptionally well executed, with Powell displaying a fondness for “Hawthorn Rod” that he feels shows all facets of Awen coming into play. The song is an excellent duet between Powell and Katrin X, with catchy and seductive guitars that lures a listener in. “Brigid the Dark, Brigid the Light,” which is about the Irish goddess Brigid, captures the same romantic neofolk elements.

Awen live, 2019. Photo by Karl Hendrik

“Morrigan” is an unexpected surprise on The Hollow in the Stone and a tremendous delight. A departure to traditional Awen songs of the past, “Morrigan” is a spoken word track. Awen has come close to flirting with the genre on prior releases in songs such as “Sacrifice” from The Bells Before Dawn, which is more akin to an NSK speech or a Praise the Fallen-era VNV Nation track, and “Dream of an Omen,” which also contains bits of the spoken word formula, yet still feels more like a song than a narration. Instead, “Morrigan” is a narrative, third person perspective, dark fiction, spoken word short story. In the tale, an unnamed protagonist travels though a dark forest with a sinister steed and happens upon the mysterious titular Morrigan at a stream. It is an encounter that will not bode well for the protagonist. “Morrigan” demonstrates that Powell is a master orator, and Awen should consider releasing more songs, or even a one-off album, of narrated stories. As Cadabra Records has shown with their luxurious vinyl releases of readings of H. P. Lovecraft, Clark Ashton Smith, and Thomas Ligotti, there is a niche market for dark spoken word albums set to ambient/industrial soundscapes. Awen, who have repurposed poetic works before (as “Empire, Night & the Breaker” from The Bells Before Dawn which uses the poetry of Breaker Morant) is the perfect outfit to release even more tracks in this vein.

For fans of ROME who are not familiar with Awen, but are interested in checking out the album due to Reuter’s appearance on the track “The Death Of Reynard” (or perhaps due to Awen’s appearance on ROME’s Le Ceneri Di Heliodoro) are in for a treat as Reuter’s distinctive, hypnotic voice is put to excellent use on the neofolkish song. The song showcases a great mixture of both ROME and Awen.

Excluding the outro “Cyfraith Dyn,” The Hollow in the Stone ends with “The Sickle and the Setting Sun,” and what a way to end. The song is an excellent representation of Awen’s aggressive-side of their music catalog, and if this were the 90s-2000s, “The Sickle and the Setting Sun” would be the album’s first MCD single, complete with remixes and multimedia tracks. The song is an apocalyptic-pop, bombastic tune. Powell’s voice booms over thunderous drums while Katrin X’s vocals seethe the song’s title in a call-and-response fashion. The opening lyrics “the symbol of the setting sun / cruel crescent that severs grain and chaff as one / the punishing steel / once cut, it’s done! / the sickle and the setting sun” sets the stage for the subject matter of the song, drawing imagery from neofolk tropes, and yet uniquely applying to Awen, creating an anthem of sorts for the band. The sickle has been an iconic implement used by the band, especially during live performances with Katrin X brandishing them, drawing parallels to, say, how Christopher Lee as Lord Summerisle did during the May Day celebrations in The Wicker Man. Powell further elaborates on the meaning of the sickle to Awen:

“Katrin does use a pair of antique sickles with a contact mic on them in studio recordings and live performances. It is an interesting symbol to me. Agricultural, but also urban and modern in the context of 20th century political iconography. We read that the ancient druids used a golden sickle to cut mistletoe in their rituals. The shape of the blade is a crescent moon, which has many interesting connotations throughout the ages and different cultures. The severing blade, life from death.” 

Awen live, 2019. Photo by Karl Hendrik

The album concludes with “Cyfraith Dyn: which echoes the sound of the album’s intro track, “Cyfraith Natur.” Both tracks act as opulent bookends to the album.

Though it has been five years between the release of Awen’s second album, Grim King of the Ghosts, and The Hollow in the Stone, those years were not idle ones for the band. The time period saw numerous live, split releases (such as 2016’s European Crusade 2015 with Et Nihil and 2017’s Abyssus Abyssum Invocat [Deiance in Dallas] with Boyd Rice) and a handful of tours and live appearances. Awen’s accumulation of prestige over the years is evident in the band’s new home on the legendary Trisol label, making them bedfellows with renown acts such as, ROME, Clan of Xymox, L'├éme Immortelle, and Project Pitchfork. Per Powell, the move to Trisol came about during their concert in Frankurt in 2017:

“Alex, the label owner of Trisol, was at our concert in Germany when we played with Boyd and played as Awen as well as Fire + Ice for Ian Read. Jerome Reuter was also there, and I invited him backstage to meet everyone and gave him his first Neofolk Bullwhip! He later recommended us to Alex, who was already impressed by our performance. We decided to make the move from OEC to Trisol then.”

The end result of Awen’s signing to Trisol is the release of a beautiful and ornate vinyl edition of The Hollow in the Stone. Matching the artistic acumen demonstrated in the music proper, the physical release of the album is equally lavish. Limited to 500 units, The Hollow in the Stone is pressed on transparent vinyl, with lyrics to all the songs printed on the inner sleeve, all housed in a sleeve with unsettling (in a Giger sort of way) artwork, adopted from photos taken by Powell. Those without a vinyl player are taken into consideration as a CD with all the tracks comes packaged with the album. All in all, a luxurious release, both in regard to the packaging, but also to the music within.

The Hollow in the Stone

Post The Hollow in the Stone, the future looks as bright as the setting sun for Awen, with plans of a new albums already in the works. Powell tantalizes:

“We are working on a new album currently and have the foundations for ten songs so far. This record does not have a title yet. Expect several acoustic songs, but also an array of industrial percussion including oil drums and scrap metal. I have a concept in mind for the album, with a rambling piece of guitar music that runs like a river in between all of the other separate songs, like a subplot in a story. I think this element will only be heard on the vinyl edition, and the CD version should feature the tracks without it...making a different listening experience between the formats.”

Track List:

Side A

01. Cyfraith Natur
02. Perversity Of Joy
03. Brigid The Dark, Brigid The Light
04. Englyn For Blodeuwedd
05. Hawthorn Rod
06. In The Heart Of The Corpseknot

Side B

07. Morrigan
08. The Death Of Reynard
09. The Hollow In The Stone
10. Ravenna
11. I Am Stretched On Your Grave
12. The Sickle and the Setting Sun
13. Cyfraith Dyn

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