HARROW – Fallow Fields

harrow fallow fieldsThis third album by Canadian outfit Harrow is a very interesting affair.  Although principally pitched as a hybrid of black and folk metal, the resultant sounds on their 2015 release stretch much further than just those musical touchstones. Taking in acoustic and even shoegazy moods, it could be said that Harrow’s take on folk metal doesn’t always the most obvious route.

To begin with, however, that broad sound isn’t completely apparent.  With the epic opener ‘Pathways’ (a number stretching across a near quarter-hour), Harrow go all out to win over the black metal crowd.  Opening with feedback sounds, it’s a surprise to hear a clean-ish semi-acoustic strum becoming the heart of the opening melody.  Crisp rhythms ensure this is hugely melodious, while the blending of the acoustic with haunting melody and a solid bassline gives a strong representation of the trio’s talents.  The main melody slowly grows with the addition of the odd shredding guitar sound before the trio eventually explode together in black metal abandon.  Frontman Ian Campbell delivers a husky vocal that’s full of the black metal tradition – a throat shredding dominance that’s all sound and few discernable lyrics – while the rhythm section (Kat Mason, bass and Jacob Moyer, drums) are suitably tight as they thrash out pneumatic sounds at incredible speed.  At the end of the first movement around the seven minute mark, the melodies from the intro make a welcome return. The sound of a haunting tune brings either a soprano sax or oboe, or even keyboard – it’s so low in the mix, it’s hard to tell – while Moyer approaches his kit in a more thoughtful and complex manner, the simple and repetitive tune underpinned by his world of toms.  Bringing back the grinding once again, the closing movement combines some more great work from the rhythm section – this time fully allowing Kat’s bass a warmer sound.  For those who like a bit of black metal with dark folk-metal overtones, this track is absolutely storming.  For everyone else, mind, there’s a fair chance it’s been a fifteen minute turn off…which is a pity, since those unable to make it past this heavy opening track are likely to miss the couple of interesting turns fast approaching.

Working a core sound that’s echoing and distant, on the nine minute title cut Harrow blend an alternative jangle with a spacious almost dreampop sensibility.  This isn’t dreampop either, though– more an indistinguishable, semi-acoustic ramble – joined by a group vocal that’s at once as unsettling as it is harmonious. The acoustic is then bolstered as low-key string sounds and a soaring bass add to this dark scenario, before a deep-ish and almost underdeveloped vocal calls and croons from somewhere deep in the mix.  While the delivery is clean and not growly, the mix still makes so many of the lyrics hard to decipher, so we’re still left with that folk-metal tradition of using the voice as an extra instrument. In this case, it works very well indeed, and while there isn’t a hook to speak of, the repetitious nature of the main vocal means that melodies actually begin to sink in soon enough.  During an extended instrumental interlude, crisp acoustic work lends a crisp folky melody, before the sounds of something that could well be an oboe, or a keyboard (again, hard to tell within the reverbed sounds) brings more of a haunting quality.  So different to ‘Pathways’, this really shows a sense of adventure. Spookier still, ‘Awake Before The Dawn’ teases with slow finger-picked acoustics and a deep droning bass, their descending scale repeated in a melodic fashion.  The twin acoustics are gentle and lingering, while an electric guitar brings reverbed sounds in the place of real strings.  There are occasional beats, usually in the manner of clanking sounds as per parts of the title track, but the percussion is particularly minimalist – it’s the main melody and the dark, sparse way in which it unravels itself that impresses.  Slowly, the descending scale dissipates and a gentle lead guitar chimes in with twangy notes akin to a soundtrack to an Italian western.  By the time the vocal makes a belated appearance, the sheer minimalism of this track has already ensured it’s place as the album’s true highlight – a score for a film that plays on a loop within the mind.   Bringing things to a close, the electric guitars crank out lengthy distorted and repetitive riffs while the vocal struggles to be heard.  Imagine the sounds of early Black Sabbath jamming Pink Floyd’s ‘Saucerful of Secrets’ heard via a field recording on a reel-to-reel, and you’d have a vague idea of how this psychy-doom climax sounds.  In all, this is a very impressive and all encompassing twelve minutes.

More traditional black metal sounds appear on ‘Through The Grey’, but even then, this number is one of two very separate moods.  The first half brings melody with acoustic guitars quickly adopting a circular riff.  In sharp contrast to the title track, there’s a harder rhythm working through the piece with programmed drums incessantly rattling from the off.  Their presence signifies an increased response from the rest of the band before too long and a distorted electric guitar churns out various shapes and sounds lending a metallic sheet – without ever becoming sheet noise – while a piano in the opposite speaker channel bashes out singular notes in a manner that suggests a classic horror movie theme by John Carpenter.  Rather than stretch this out to the point of unnecessary repetitiousness, at the mid point things change tack completely, as the drums adopt a thrashy approach, the guitars start to grind in a traditional black metal style before the vocal rasps and hisses appropriately.  At this point, it’s likely those not attuned to more traditional black and extreme metal ideas and ideals will be turned off once more, but the arrangement is solid even if the low budget of the recording doesn’t quite do it full justice.

Although not always heavy, the lo-fi qualities of the recording style and the band’s preferred epic track lengths leave behind a release that’s sounds like an experiment to see what might occur if a black metal band welded their more cinematic elements to the mountainous folk-pop of Fleet Foxes.  It makes Harrow’s approach to composition rather striking, but somehow by blending the light and mildly unsettling with the extremely thrashy they come out winning.   ‘Fallow Fields’ isn’t an album to recommend anyone constantly looking for a big riff or any immediacy with their chosen sounds, but for the more patient listener willing to invest the time, it’s shows itself as a release that has a huge heart and enough musical scope to surprise.

June 2015