The well-received Norwegian four-piece Spirits of the Dead released their self-titled debut in 2010 to what was – if the extensive collection of press quotes is anything to go by – considerable fanfare. The follow-up to said debut arrives in the form of The Great God Pan (North American release by The End Records), a short but memorable full-length collection of six engaging tracks that hones in on early-‘70s pagan folk with just a hint of dark undercurrent lurking beneath the melodic sweetness. Unlike many other retro acts, Spirits of the Dead aren’t just trying to ape a specific style or one band in particular’s aesthetic – i.e. the way early Witchcraft so directly took on Pentagram. Rather, The Great God Pan is traceable on a more vague level, culling some of its layered lead work from Tony Iommi in its final moments, but progressing as a whole along altogether different lines, and most importantly, taking the retro or otherwise familiar elements of which it’s composed and creating something fresh from them. There is a calmness to The Great God Pan that comes through in its bright tonality, and like the best of their genre, these songs are viewed as though from a grainy, sun-flared photograph.
But though they obviously dwell in a secret forest of krautrock LPs and obscure folkadelia (they have secret forests in Oslo, right?), Spirits of the Dead aren’t limited to retro posturing either. The ringing clarity of the acoustics that begin The Great God Pan opener “Mighty Mountain” and the ensuing distorted guitar revving both sound entirely modern. Guitarist Ole Øvstedal shows restraint throughout the album, and “Mighty Mountain” is just the first instance of it, as the electric guitar again cuts out to acoustic sway, coming back only for a simple start-stop progression in the chorus. Frontman Ragnar Vikse leads the drama of the verses, and proves to be more than capable of taking charge of a song in the classic tradition of the standalone singer. Even with Øvstedal playing a multi-layered lead under, it’s his repetition of the titular chorus line – he’s almost chanting it by then; far back in the mix and echoing – that has the listener enraptured. Drummer Geir Thorstensen keeps to rim shots and jazzy hi-hat/ride interplay for most of “Leaves of Last Year’s Fall,” which is among the more woodland psych of The Great God Pan’s tracks in terms of its atmosphere. Vikse’s voice is deft and almost molten in its ability to jump from note to note, and with the subtle fills of bassist Kristian Hultgren playing out under Øvstedal’s gorgeous leads, there’s a touch of class brought into the song that’s complemented – not undercut – by the somewhat foreboding progression of the bridge. Spirits of the Dead affect a decent build and chaotic payoff, but never meander too far from the straightforward structures on which their material is built.
It’s with “Pure as the Lotus” that The Great God Pan gets its first real injection of ritual. The cut – second in length only to the closer at 6:22 – begins with hard thuds from Thostensen topped with a fuzzy riff from Øvstedal and incantation ah’ing from Vikse, and it’s a clear change in atmosphere from first two songs, the underlying darker vibe of “Leaves of Last Year’s Fall” coming to the fore for the introduction. The single hits of percussion remain a focus and the melody is rounded out by sustained organ in the verse, and the chorus opens more widely into forest worshiping grace. There’s a development to the track that the insistence of Thorstensen and Hultgren’s rhythm helps highlight, but Vikse’s melody seems to be in a world of its own, which helps set up a duality that joins back together as the intro is revived in the song’s back half, leading to a hypnotic, guitar-led instrumental break that eventually fades out on the chorus. Like a lot of The Great God Pan, “Pure as the Lotus” is built around melodic quirk and a heavy dose of personality, but there’s a solid structural foundation underneath. That remains true for the softly-cooed exclamatory title-track, “The Great God Pan!”
After the richness that closed side A, the level of ceremony given to the start of The Great God Pan’s second half is relatively minute, but what the song “The Great God Pan!” does is revive the thoughtful, folkish feel of the album’s beginning, essentially setting up the same movement Spirits of the Dead had in their first three tracks to play out once more on the second. And that would seem to be the case, but no question the band takes a different methodology to the overall structure, throwing a well-placed curveball in the form of the organ-fronted “Casting the Runes,” on which Vikse’s vocals are limited to a kind of deeply-mixed grumbling that echoes in and out as Øvstedal’s guitar plays back and forth from acoustic to electric and Hultgren and Thorstensen have their biggest challenge yet in providing rhythmic ground. To their credit, they do just that, and though a lot of The Great God Pan could be called weird, at least by someone unfamiliar with retro forest and/or freak folk, “Casting the Runes” is the first time the strangeness is really highlighted. What keeps the song consistent with the rest of the album is the almost-subconscious darkness of it. It proves to veer from the straightforward at just the right moment, setting up the expansive “Goldberry” to finish The Great God Pan with some of its most memorable melodies and a fitting musical summation.
The album isn’t catchy as such, but there are parts of it that stay with you after listening, and “Goldberry” accomplishes that in a way that balances the folk and psychedelic rock aspects of the album well. There’s (what sounds like) mellotron under Øvstedal’s guitar, and the whole analog feel of The Great God Pan gets affirmed in the aforementioned layered leads and the naturalistic “Set me free” pleading from Vikse. It’s Thorstensen’s most active presentation on drums – he shows his rock roots – and Hultgren’s runs on bass after the six-minute mark offer some late warmth to offset the guitar. Spirits of the Dead aren’t the first to mine the occasionally bizarre side of ‘70s psychedelic folk (everyone from Dead Man to half the current roster of Thrill Jockey Records comes to mind), but they do it incredibly well and with a remarkable flair for balancing the modern and classic sides of their sound. There will be those reluctant to take the album on either out of some distaste for the retro style or the current hipness of this kind of folk influence, but The Great God Pan stands true with its combination of melody and progressive paganism. At its root, it’s an intriguing listen, and that’s what matters more than genre or critical hype.
Tags: Norway, Oslo, Spirits of the Dead, The End Records