Arkona may have only been around since 2002, but the band has made a large progression in only a few short years. The first two albums, Возрождение and Лепта, were very solid metal albums which put Arkona on the map, to to speak, but the folk metal was really kicked into overdrive with 2005's Во славу великим!, a monster of an album, which replaced the first two album's keyboard-based folk melodies with a number of traditional instruments such as various flutes and bagpipes. Во славу великим! also clocked in at over an hour long, and managed to keep its momentum throughout. It's a tough act to follow, but after only 2 years, during which time they released a live CD and DVD, Arkona is back with another masterwork, От сердца к небу (which I will call From the Heart to the Heaven for the remainder of this review).
One of the major draws of this band, besides the many wonderful folk melodies, are the excellent vocals by frontwoman (and principal songwriter) Masha "Scream." She is capable of doing both clean and harsh vocals proficiently, and, in a live setting, can quickly alternate between the two without missing a note. She's like the Russian female version of Opeth's Mikael Åkerfeldt in that regard. She also has a great love for Russia, paganism, and folk music.
I was really excited to get this album, and ordered the limited edition digibook version from a Russian Ebay seller shortly after its release. I'd only been listening to Arkona since the summer of 2006, when I bought Лепта, but since then had acquired all of their CD's (as I tend to do). The digibook is pretty slick, with excellent artwork from Kris Verwimp. I don't like the digibook's cover artwork as much as the image posted above (which I'm guessing will be on the regular jewel case edition), but at least that image is contained within the booklet itself. The artwork seems to give off a somewhat melancholy atmosphere, which is a pretty good preparation for the music itself.
From the Heart to the Heaven is a pretty dark album, compared to its predecessor. It is also an album that is even further rooted in traditional Russian folk music than any Arkona album before it, and perhaps more than any folk metal album I have ever heard from that country (and, being a big fan of Russian pagan/folk metal, I've heard many). After a short and dark synth intro, the first track explodes into one of the heaviest Arkona songs I've heard thus far. The guitars are crunchy, Masha's voice is snarling, and the drumming is tight. Yep, this is classic Arkona. The second track, however, is the first of many songs on the album to contain the chanting of a folk choir. It sounds great, but I would imagine some listeners may not like it.
The CD is split pretty evenly between what I would consider "normal" Arkona songs and songs which are much more folk-based (and therefore may not appeal to listeners who are looking for simply a metal album with folk melodies). Out of the eleven tracks on the album (twelve in the digibook edition), six are what I would call "normal" Arkona songs. Four songs are metal (or partly metal) but with folk choir vocals, and one is a folk instrumental. The digibook contains a bonus track, which is another instrumental folk tune. Most of the non-"normal" Arkona songs fall towards the middle of the CD, so for a listener who doesn't like those types of songs, the middle of the CD will seem to drag.
However, for those who are looking for a "true" folk metal album and not just a metal album with some folk melodies thrown in, From the Heart to the Heaven is one that must be heard. The "folk choir" vocals remind me of a Ukrainian folk choir CD I have in my collection. I've never heard a Russian folk choir, but I would guess it sounds pretty similar. I don't know if this is what Arkona was aiming for, but the choir-style vocals (usually backed by bagpipes or other traditional instruments) certainly adds to the atmosphere the album creates. A variety of sound effects (of nature, usually) between songs also helps.
As a concept album, From the Heart to the Heaven is best when taken as a whole, though there are certainly some standout songs that will sound great on their own (the title track is one of them; the anthemic "Славься, Русь" is another one). It is a wonderful album, but it is less accessible than Arkona's previous albums. For those who are musically open-minded and adventurous, or those who have an affection for traditional folk music but also don't mind a lot of screaming and guitars, Arkona's latest is an easy one to recommend.
I should also point out that the production is excellent throughout, and the band sounds better than ever. I've never found the metal elements of Arkona's music to be that impressive --they sound fine, but there's nothing flashy or memorable about their performances, besides Masha's vocals-- but in my opinion the entire band has managed to impress me with this release. I was especially pleased with the work of drummer Vlad. The traditional instruments also sound fantastic, and I hope that this is an element that Arkona continues to incorporate on future releases. I don't know how many different wind, string, and percussion instruments are used on this album (my ability to read Russian is very limited), but I think there is a much greater variety used on this album than on the last one.
From the Heart to the Heaven solidifies Arkona's place, in my opinion at least, as one of the very greatest bands in pagan and folk metal. I hope that they continue to follow this musical path, but, even if they don't, this album will stand as a masterwork of the genre. It may not draw in as many new fans as Во славу великим! did, but Arkona is to be commended for following their hearts and contributing a work of great art. This is one of my top albums of 2007, and one that, each time I listen to it, reaffirms my love for folk metal and the great potential this genre has.