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7 Dec 2010

Review: The Bells Before Dawn (Awen)

The Bells Before Dawn coverAwen
The Bells Before Dawn
Triskele Recordings, 2009/2010

The Bells Before Dawn is a voyage into neofolk marked by minimalist arrangements, deep male vocals, and a passion for history and heritage.

Awen present 15 songs on this CD (which is a rerelease, the album originally appearing on vinyl). The tracks range from acappella chants to eerie sound scapes and skeletal acoustic compositions. Erin Powell’s commanding vocals are as much those of an orator as of a singer, and are a distinctive feature of the band’s sound.

Exploring both more pensive moods (“Ode to a Briton” performed with beautiful vocals from Katrin X), and more aggressive territory (the sample laden assault of “Empire, Night & the Breaker” being the crowning point of this aspect of the album), Awen certainly offer a multifaceted experience. The album has distinct movements as it progresses, with clusters of tracks exploring various moods.

At their best Awen are bucolic and dreamy but with an unsettling, aggressive undertone. The trio of tracks “Little Edelweiss,” “Woden Within,” and “Unter Den Linden” stand out as emblematic of this very interesting juxtaposition of emotional motifs.

Speaking of emotional juxtaposition, On The Bells Before Dawn Awen heavily co-mingle their love of things ancestral and their anger at the wounds inflicted to that heritage over time. This creates a sometimes complex pathos that I found sharp and sour to the taste, an interesting and enjoyable synaesthetic reaction.

Although an enjoyable release, marked by interesting ideas and genuine passion, I must say that musically The Bells Before Dawn is a little too simplistic or even derivative for my (admittedly somewhat jaded) ears.

Compared in the light of recent releases by outfits like Cult of Youth or Art Abscons, both of whom are taking neofolk into rich and fertile new territory, Awen seem, well, strained or forced, and somewhat undercooked.

Perhaps with time and more creative fermentation they will find a sound that is more distinctive, a musical aesthetic that carries the spirit of their creative passion more convincingly. Had this album come out in, say, the early 1990’s then it might have been ground-breaking…but unfortunately for Awen those days are past.

As it stands The Bells Before Dawn is a credible achievement, but to these ears it is not sufficient to cement Awen’s standing as a leading force in the neofolk world.

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