Album Title: Auri
Label: Nuclear Blast
Date Of Release: 23 March 2018
In all honesty, my love of Nightwish has plummeted over the years to the point where I’ll take a casual listen now and again, but I no longer consider myself much of fan. And that’s coming from a position where I absolutely adored their 2004 album ‘Once’. I still do if I’m honest. And before thie inevitable allegation is levelled at me, I will place it on record that my relative abandonment of Nightwish has little or nothing to do with the departure of Tarja Turunen as lead vocalist. Indeed, if anything, in Floor Jansen, the Finns have an equally powerful, compelling and beautiful voice at the helm. Different, but equally good. No, my apathy stems more from the fact that try as I might, I don’t engage as strongly with the songs themselves anymore.
But, I hear you cry, what relevance does this have to this review of Auri’s debut album? The answer is that it serves as important context for what is to come, because Auri features none other than two Nightwish members in founder Tuomas Holopainen and more recent recruit Troy Donockley. These names are, to be honest, the main reason why I decided to check this record out. That and the fact I was offered the opportunity to listen by those good people at Nuclear Blast.
But importantly, the desire to listen initially was caused by intrigue, rather than blind adoration of the protagonists. As such, I don’t come to this record having already made up my mind about it, be that positively or negatively.
With that out of the way, I now wish to turn my attention fully and squarely onto Auri. The band is essentially a trio, comprised of Holopainen on keyboards and backing vocals, multi-instrumentalist Donockley on acoustic and electric guitars, bouzouki, uilleann pipes, low whistles, aerophone, bodhran, keys and vocals, and Johanna Kurkela (who some of you may recognise thanks to a guest appearance or two with Sonata Arctica) on lead vocals and viola. There are a few guests that litter the album, but it is this core trio that bring us ‘Auri’.
And the greatest thing about Auri is that none of the three musicians seeks to steal the spotlight. It might have been easy for any one of the three to seek a leading role to the detriment of the others, for they are all incredibly talented musicians in their own right. However, ‘Auri’ is the sound of three artists coming together to create something special, something rather unique but hugely powerful and compelling.
If I’m honest, when I first allowed Auri into my life, I wasn’t quite sure what to make of it all. I think that much of this has to do with the fact that I simply didn’t know what to expect, so when I heard the record, it took time to adjust to what I was listening to. This isn’t my usual heavy metal fare. Neither is it rock in the truest sense, although there are rock-isms within many of the eleven tracks that feature on ‘Auri’, through some powerful rhythms and guitar embellishments. The press material rather loftily suggests that this isn’t music that can be ‘described by words alone’. However, I can understand and agree with this to an extent. The problem is, though, it’s my job to describe music, so I have to at least give it a try.
On that score, I’d have to say that the music is symphonic in tone, with heavy Celtic folk influences. It is dreamy, with minimalist tendencies in places, but it sounds organic and warm, with a welcoming and beguiling feel to it. Every time I listen, I get lost in the wistfulness and the gentle nature of much of the material, as it seeps into me, filling me with a warm glow. I also like the way in which the trio successfully blend modern sounds with more traditional fare, making it sound relevant, whilst also harking back to days gone by.
Opening track, ‘The Space Between’ is about as upbeat and urgent as Auri get, thanks to a strong, pronounced driving beat that continues throughout. The Orchestration is rich, full and inviting, whilst the deep-timbred strings that segue into an understated electric guitar lead, which then gives way to a higher-pitched violin is the section that produces the most magic in my opinion. However, the smooth and vaguely ethereal voice of Johanna Kurkela cannot be ignored, taking us all willingly along for the ride. Hers is a delivery that is impossible to ignore – soft, lilting and with a magnetic quality to it.
It may not be metal or rock in the slightest, but ‘I Hope Your world is Kind’ does carry with it a sense of Nightwish familiarity thanks to the chosen folk melodies that come to the fore. ‘Skeleton Tree’ which follows, is one of the darkest and most striking compositions on the record and a personal favourite. I’m not normally the biggest fan of Celtic folk, but on this occasion, as the urgency returns for the final minute or so, I make a willing exception. It also showcases some of the exceptional, yet subtle talents of Troy Donockley, embellishing the composition with skill and panache.
I also like the acoustic guitar and male vocals that appear within the exquisite ballad ‘Desert Flower’. On this song, the melodies hit me hard right out of the gate – no ‘growing on me’, it is instant love. And, in the right mood, the male/female duet, the minimalist orchestration and gorgeously fragile violins could bring a grown man to tears.
The quality continues with seemingly no end, as ‘Night 13’ is another stand-out piece. For the most part, Johanna Kurkela takes centre stage but what I like so much is the way that it builds so serenely, to create a wonderfully dramatic, percussion-led climax, full of drama. The simply-titled ‘See’ is a superb masterclass in blending modernity with the traditional, as Holopainen bathes the folky track with some intriguing sounds, unique but almost psychedelic in nature.
I could quite easily believe it if you told me that ‘The Name of the Wind’ featured within a cinematic soundtrack, such is its majestic nature. But then, I also get more than an occasional hint of modern-day Anathema within ‘Aphrodite Rising’, which is a bittersweet composition with plenty of Donockley magic and an infectious vibe, particularly in the latter stages.
Alongside the aforementioned ‘Skeleton Tree’, ‘Savant’ is another darker composition with the hint of a twisted, slightly uncomfortable lullaby. And the darker side of Auri continues with ‘Underthing Solstice’, although this is a much more sombre, minimalist affair, complete with church organs and powerful orchestration in places.
The album then concludes with the slightly quirky ‘Them Thar Chanterelles’, thanks to some interesting vocals and a ‘Riverdance’ edge. It isn’t a personal favourite if I’m honest, but it’s an important song insofar as it pulls the story together neatly at the end.
Auri may not have too much in common with my normal preferred musical choices, but I find myself really liking this record. It has charm in abundance and an inner strength that belies much of the more delicate material that emanates from the speakers with spectacular clarity thanks to a wonderful production. And even though there are nods towards Nightwish occasionally, Auri has created a strong identity all of its own that means you are guaranteed a unique listening experience if you give Auri a try – and I really recommend you do so. I didn’t expect to like this, but I have well and truly fallen for its numerous charms.
The Score Of Much Metal: 9.25
If you’ve enjoyed this review, you can check out my others from 2018 and from previous years right here:
Purest of Pain – Solipsis
Susperia – The Lyricist
Structural Disorder – …And The Cage Crumbles In the Final Scene
Necrophobic – Mark of the Necrogram
Divine Realm – Nordicity
Oceans of Slumber – The Banished Heart
Poem – Unique
Gleb Kolyadin – Gleb Kolyadin
Apathy Noir – Black Soil
Deathwhite – For A Black Tomorrow
Conjurer – Mire
Jukub Zytecki – Feather Bed/Ladder Head
Lione/Conti – Lione/Conti
Usurpress – Interregnum
Kælling – Lacuna
Vinide – Reveal
Armored Dawn – Barbarians In Black
Long Distance Calling – Boundless
In Vain – Currents
Harakiri For The Sky – Arson
Orphaned Land – Unsung Prophets And Dead Messiahs
Tribulation – Down Below
Machine Head – Catharsis
Bjorn Riis – Coming Home EP
Twilight’s Embrace – Penance EP
Bloodshot Dawn – Reanimation
Rise of Avernus – Eigengrau
Arch Echo – Arch Echo
Asenblut – Legenden
Bleeding Gods – Dodekathlon
Watain – Trident Wolf Eclipse