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Pagans (2017) (
Review by Lee Blackstone

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The latest prog-folk outing of the Occitanian/French collective Artús is named after the great bear of the forests and mountains of the Pyrenees. What the band has fashioned is a thematic song-cycle, equal parts philosophical and spiritual. The essential theme of Ors is humankind's struggle with the brute beast within, and our coming to terms with our species' savage tendencies. Artús delves deep into the rift between nature and civilization.

In the extensive liner notes, Artús note that in their region of France, songs about the bear are fewer in number than the tales told about the animal. In telling stories about the bear, people can face their strong fears and primal emotions; the bear is thus a symbolic creature, of nature and apart from humanity. However, are we actually that far removed from the bear? The group also note that people have depicted the bear on cave walls in pre-history, recognizing the power of the animal in its environment. That the bear can also, at times, walk on two legs, gives it an added resemblance to people and imbues it with the aura of animal-as-god.

As a response to the folkloric tales of the bear, Artús deliver five lengthy musical pieces about the bear's qualities, and human beings' attempts to reconcile themselves with their own bestial natures. Musically, Artús have carved out a niche of experimental, alternative folk music, with plenty of room for improvisation. Artús compositions are rooted in some patterns of the Occitan and French traditions – the phrasings of violinist Matèu Baudoin, and the hurdy-gurdy of Roman Baudoin, are the obvious touchstones – but there are equal nods to (hard) rock, and the repetitive grooving rhythms of 'krautrock.' In an Artús piece, one can expect to be confronted by beautiful melodies, alongside squalls of noise, and even acoustic ambient passages.

There is a story-arc that shapes Ors: on 'Desvelh,' we encounter the bear waking up in from hibernation in its cave. The track opens as if we have stumbled into Artús in mid-jam, before the group settles in a massive led-Zeppelinesque groove. The sheer bulk of the tune is our introduction to the bear's physicality.

'Chasse Party' (Hunting Party) imagines a boar in the forest, being chased by the bear; the bear, meanwhile, is being chased by a man. The folk expressionism is particularly pronounced on this track, which sounds like the band Malicorne…except rabid.

'La hòla' concerns a wild woman of the woods, gone to live with the bears after being raped and abandoned. 'Auròst' is a lamenting song, for the death of the bear mother; it is patterned after the kinds of homage, found in the Pyrenees, regarding the death of a loved one. Finally, 'L'ors Dominique' is the one traditional song re-worked by Artús. In this last piece, the hunter succeeds in killing the bear, who lays down in death much as the day must be extinguished.

Ors is an immensely challenging and rewarding album, filled with percussive power that crunches and rumbles through the underbrush of the imagination. Artús are adept at obliterating musical boundaries, a mission that is accomplished here with complexity and purpose. – Lee Blackstone

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