Arð - Untouched By Fire (Cover Artwork)


Untouched By Fire (2024)

Prophecy Productions

When I sat down to start writing this review, I had a moment of clarity. For the second time in a few years, I’m putting pen to paper (metaphorically) to write about a one-man project who earned his PhD in Philosophy on the topic of "National Identity in Northern and Eastern European Heavy Metal". The mastermind behind Arð, and the man in question, is a one Mark Deeks. Also of UK black metal stalwarts, Winterfylleth. On top of both of those projects, he somehow finds time to be a musical director, arranger, piano coach, and conductor as well as a best-selling author. So if a one-man doom/black/folk metal project seemingly only interested in Northern Anglo-Saxon saints sounds like it might be a bit niche (let’s be honest, it’s extremely niche), it’s probably worth considering the man in question’s pedigree before you dismiss this project.

Metal-adjacent folk music, (black, doom or otherwise) is by no means a new thing, nor is it that niche in and of itself. If Heilung and Wardruna can headline festivals and fill arenas, then there is demonstrably a market for it. I know that those bands are more shamanistic and folky than black metal in their delivery, but the same is true of Arð. The instrumentation is more classical in nature than anything traditionally black metal (piano, cello, organ, etc. alongside the more typical bass, drums and electric guitar), and the vocal is for the most part, more monastic than the piercing shrieks that began echoing around Norway in the early 90’s. So what is left of the black metal then? If I had to articulate it, then the mournful majesty would be what I would point at. To quote another band in this sub-genre, it’s “the smell of ancient dust” (RIP Dawn Ray’d). The timeframe that the record focuses on (633-642 AD) and specifically, the reign of Northumbrian king Oswald during that period, is somehow evoked so clearly that it’s hard not to be put in mind of the bleakness of the dark ages. And whereas that as a stylistic approach is more obviously aligned with doom, there is something intangible that remains true to black metal about the sonic landscape of this album, much as there was on the last record.

Genre politics aside, the record is a masterpiece of dynamics, much as you would expect from someone with such a grasp of the subject matter, the complex theory in arranging such music and bringing to the fore, fascinating tales from centuries ago. The pacing, the instrumentation, the use of vocal layering and more besides generate an ambience that has the weight and gravity of a black hole. It’s utterly immersive. Presuming you’re willing to give yourself over to a record (and own a decent pair of speakers or headphones), there is a genuine experience to be had in this record. Should you wish to deepen that experience for yourself even further, I would recommend doing some brief reading into the story of King Oswald himself. It turns the record from something impressive to something borderline magical, albeit in a way that feels leaden and morose but deeply profound. However, I should be clear, this is not a record that would be welcomed or indeed accepted by older generations fixated exclusively on the historical aspect I fear, despite its classicist elements. There are searing electric guitar passages, a conscious focus on the bleaker aspects of a time that was already about as grim as one could fathom. And all of this, backed by the weight of import afforded to real, historical events.

There’s not a huge ‘FFO’ list I can summon here. And by extension, not a huge number of records or artists I can compare this record to. But what I can tell you, is that for the second time in as many attempts, Arð have created something that feels immense but delicate, bleak but with shimmering light flashed through it, and above all else, utterly transportative. I appreciate this thing isn’t going to be for everyone, but whatever this thing is? Mark Deeks and Arð do it magnificently.