LIVE BY THE SWORD: Cernunnos
Release year: 2023
Label: Rebellion Records
If you’ve been following our site, you may have noticed we’ve heaped praise on US-Dutch Live By The Sword in the past, in our reviews of both their debut full-length Exploring Soldiers Rise (here) and the EP The Glorious Dead (here). Even before that, ever since the 2018 self-titled mini-album, the group has in our esteemed and infallible opinion been one of the most interesting oi! bands around, but it was the debut full-length that truly propelled Live By The Sword to the next level. As such, it won’t come as a surprise that we had quite high expectations for the group’s sophomore album.
The reason for the bump up between the mini-album and Exploring Soldiers Rise was primarily the renewed musical direction: from rather straightforward oi! of the earlier releases to an eclectical and original mixture of hard oi!, epic metal and even black metal. This was something we’d not heard before, something we did not expect – but something we liked.
And for that reason, it is pretty obvious (and understandable) that sophomore album Cernunnos did not make our jaw drop in the same way. There’s no new paradigm shift on this album; instead, Live By The Sword consolidate and hone the approach initiated on Exploring Soldiers Rise. In other words, this time around, we kind of knew what to expect. (Yes, the royal “we” is back.)
That does not mean that Cernunnos is a carbon copy of the previous album. By and large, it does utilize the same musical palette of tough as nails oi!, epic heavy metal and black metal, but it does also see the band explore new territory. Sundawn is an entirely acoustic, tender and atmospheric interlude, which is something one would never expect on an album that can be at least somewhat comfortably be put under the banner of oi!. The Glorious Dead, already heard as an acoustic rendition on the aforementioned EP of the same name, is another track which treads new ground. It’s not really oi!, but neither is it really metal. I must admit I think I prefer the acoustic version, as well.
Tracks like the Voyage To Constantinople, Primordial Forces and the title track present a style that’s not too dissimilar from the debut album. Vocalist Erick Barnes with his powerful, gruff vocals grounds the music in bootboy street punk even when guitarist Wouter Davids shreds away with vicious black metal tremolo picking. The combination between the disparate strands of music has become more seamless, with epic viking metal melodies meshing quite seamlessly with ice-cold black metal guitarwork or in-your-face oi! riffing. Add in some epic, rocking metal like the opening riff of Mountain Of Doom and you’ve got a broad picture of the package that is Cernunnos.
Lyrically, the band continue on the same path as on Exploring Soldiers Rise, but have made noticeable forward strides. It appears to me the lyrics are somewhat more focused, like the underlying concept of Live By The Sword would have become further solidified. It is something essentially antimodern, eschewing the traditionally urban imagery of oi! for visions of ancient warriors and empires, the majesty of unspoiled nature and of a felt presence of the ancient, heathen gods.
Not yer traditional oi!, nosirree – but neither is it the all-too-common, almost entirely escapistic lyrical imagery of so many black metal acts dealing with the topics outlined above. A track like The Hollow Men plants Live By The Sword firmly in this day, age and society: using traditional, pre-christian imagery, it delivers a commentary and scathing denunciation of the idolating of superficiality, of following plastic idols with no depth or content, so prevalent in our society today.
Ultimately, aforementioned Mountain Of Doom captures, it seems to me, best the spirit of the album lyrically. Painting majestic pictured of epic landscapes, it evokes a yearning for a more heroic age of myth, and a deep distaste for our modern, hollow age. How, lost in the din of the modern world, man yearns for the desolation and solitude of nature from time to time, to feel the pulse and beat of a different time and existence.
I’ve described Cernunnos as a development and consolidation of Exploring Soldiers Rise, both lyrically and musically. And in a nutshell, that’s is indeed what Cernunnos is. Whilst the debut album was a through and through impressive release, sometimes there was a slight gap between the oi! and the metal in it. On Cernunnos, this gap no longer exists. As such, Live By The Sword no longer come across as “an oi! band with extreme metal elements”, but as a band combining oi! and metal into a style that’s really neither.
Qualitywise, I don’t feel Cernunnos is a great step forward. But one thing is clear: it’s not a step backward, either. It’s pretty much on the same line. Where Exploring Soldiers Rise charmed with how surprising it was, Cernunnos convinces with the confidence of its expression. And, considering I called Exploring Soldiers Rise one of the best oi! albums of 2021, it’s certainly no mean feat to release another album of the same calibre.
One thing is for sure. With Cernunnos, Live By The Sword prove that Exploring Soldiers Rise was no mere fluke.
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