Primordial is a band that thrives in a state of conflict. The Irish band is known primarily for their blending of second wave black metal and Celtic folk, a sound they were the first to forge. On their tenth record How It Ends, the band sounds as impassioned as ever, fully delving into their Irish heritage both musically and lyrically. Throughout the record, vocalist A.A. Nemtheanga sings of the fall of humanity in the face of authoritarianism. He is bolstered by the thunderous and anthemic battle music made by Ciaran MacUilliam on guitar, Pol MacAmlaigh on bass, and Simon O’Laoghaire on drums. The album, in its brightest spots, showcases quite well the sound the band has innovated and perfected over the last 32 years.
The set begins with the title track, which might also be the defining moment of the record. The first sounds heard come from MacUlliam’s guitars. They evoke a scene of Celtic warriors preparing to give their lives on the battlefield. O’Laoghaire then sets the pace with a rolling, galloping tempo before the band fully sets off to war. Lyrically, Nemtheanga confronts the end of time in the face of censorship and oppression. He questions how humanity has come to this point. His vocals roar in the fashion of power metal (think Bruce Dickinson of Iron Maiden) but with a substantial amount of grit, making him one of the band’s most powerful weapons. While he may not sing in a fashion typical of many other black metal vocalists, he communicates the epic sprawl of the genre quite effectively.
When the next track “Ploughs to Rust, Swords to Dust” kicks into full steam, he growls in a more traditional grimy black metal style before bursting back into his power metal phrasing. It’s a style that suits him and the music, allowing his evocative lyrics to be more fully heard over the commanding riffs of the band. The rest of the band follows suit, careening from a fast paced black metal riff to a more stately folk metal coda. Primordial has always made the anger shared in both Irish folk music and black metal the most pronounced theme in their music, but here it is made the most explicitly clear it has perhaps ever been.
References to the turmoil in Ireland’s past are amply represented lyrically. On the track “We Shall Not Serve”, Nemtheanga sings “the satanic fist of empire/casts us at world’s end”. The lyrics are inspired by the work of Irish poet Joseph Mary Plunkett, who was executed for his involvement in the Easter Uprising. The theme of Irish revolution continues on songs like “Pilgrimage to the World’s End”, which is inspired by the plight of Irish convicts and revolutionaries like Ned Kelly. It gives their music the effect of battle hymns, a theme that has always gone thematically well with metal, but here is given a needed historical context.
After all this time, the band has become immensely comfortable playing together. The gelling of their vision can certainly be heard on this record. While that chemistry can be very emboldening to hear, it can also run a tad self indulgent at times. The length of the record is formidable, with most of the tracks stretching past the seven minute mark. While lengthiness has generally never been a concern for black metal musicians, the record’s themes can become a bit repetitive. At times, instead of creating a thick atmosphere, the band comes across as jamming out on riffs on the back half of the record. While that propensity for jamming is extremely confident, it might alienate certain listeners, especially those captivated by Nemtheanga’s lyrics.
The first half of How It Ends exemplifies exactly what makes Primordial so revered. It makes the unlikely combination of black metal and Irish folk not only work, but seem like an extremely natural combination. Primordial was the first band to reach that conclusion, as they have demonstrated over nine albums. Here, their rebellious attitude truly shines. Nemtheanga has stated that this might be the beginning of the end for the band. If that is the case, How It Ends can hold its head high with The Gathering Wilderness and To the Nameless Dead as being amongst the band’s best releases.