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Ostara - Age of Empire

Ostara - Age of Empire coverNeo-folk may be reduced to embers but the fire still burns bright with Ostara. On Age of Empire Richard Leviathan provides not just an entertaining suite of songs but an insight into the contemporary world. Lyrically, he expounds on the current state of things refracted through an idiosyncratic worldview informed by his studies of history, politics, philosophy, mysticism to the extent that Age of Empire draws on the past to show parallels with the present. The songs themselves are infectious and impassioned with spirited choruses and rich in melody, which tumble out amidst the ringing strum redolent of folk music and neo-folk.

With a military drum roll Age of Empire opens to the sprightly strum and rousing vocals of 'White Man's Burden'. "There's a blot on your name, on the spire of DNA" his voice unadorned, and accompanied in harmonies and the first track to address the symptoms of the age. "I've been dreaming of America, I've been waiting for a civil war" goes the chorus on 'America The Blind'. Over dramatic string laden and quickened strum its lyrics flit between the present and past, and imagery of the two sides to mirror the ongoing turmoil that is tearing America apart.

As much as Leviathan's obsession with history and myth informs Age of Empire it is filled with lyrics which are concise and rich in symbolism and imagery. Solemn cello strokes underpin the strum of 'The Purge', where deepset male choiresque harmonies accompany the fluttering patter of drums and the poetic symbolising of a downfall of an empire and the rise of the South. The title track rides to a flighty strum amidst wolf whoops and perhaps a search for truth ("You can swing from left to right, I will stand in the firing line"). The video for this song focussed on the Hindenburg disaster and perhaps its fiery demise is symbolic of the events that would come after. The song is so upbeat it's hard to believe that this was borne from neo-folk, and evidence of Ostara's continued musical development. Leviathan has cited Nick Drake, Leonard Cohen and Scott Walker as some of his favourite composers and it's fair to say that some of those background harmonies that feature throughout Age of Empire seem inspired by Scott Walker's solo albums of the sixties.

A couple of the following tracks catch the inherent romanticism within Ostara. With guitars bathed in forlorn strings 'Mortal Beloved' is a love song pitched not so much at an individual but for a spirit. One entrenched in a nostalgia for a past, an empire, but lost to a darkness that has lead to dead ends and false hope. A delusion that has taken many nefarious forms across the world. "My sweet love the stars are growing darker in my heart, My sweet love the sun is growing paler as we part" swelling with a hopefulness and optimism, couched in cello and massed harmonies, for the return of that slumbering spirit. Amidst the shakers and strum of 'Troubadour of Doom' Leviathan is defiant in a catchy singalong chorus "and when the hammer hits the skies, you'll know the pain of love" heralding his role as that troubadour steadfastly seeking light and love amidst the contemporary chaos, malaise and the turbulence.

It gets more allegorical with 'Germania' which is bookended by samples of sirens and falling bombs and could easily be construed as something suspect - and it's fair to say Leviathan has never ducked the right to artistic freedom - but in the context of the album it makes sense, a romantic elegy couched in organ chime and guitar punctuated by martial drum rolls for an all encompassing spirit, curtailed by events and never set to return.

It almost feels foolish given the musical progression of Ostara to reference Death In June but with its acoustic guitar over simple keyboard notes, organ, spoken and crushed glass samples 'Armada' feels like a nod to Douglas P. There's even wordplay around the lost, and the last. Anyway 'Armada' uses the failed invasion of England by the Spanish Armada as a metaphor for the resistance of people and countries rising up to oppose invasion. This track first appeared on Slava-Ukraini a benefit compilation in support of Ukraine following the Russian invasion with proceeds going to the German Red Cross.

Elsewhere there is the sombre acoustic ballad, 'Candleflesh' set to a weeping cello score, while 'Lionheart' reads like a lament for England characterised by the figure of Richard I, slipping between historic episodes to document the decline of its empire, sliding out on a Dylan Thomas quote. Stripped to voice and plaintive strum 'Fade To White' is a bright folk song tackling the extremes of opinion and the inability discover a universal truth deceiving our strive to achieve our dreams. As the final strum rings out, Age of Empire closes with the repeated question: "Do you know which is black, and which is white?"

Richard Leviathan's motivation on Age of Empire could be captured in the lines: "I gaze in the inferno of our days...and I contemplate the romance of the rose". Unlike others in the neo-folk genre who have looked back to some imagined rosy past, Ostara don't. On Age of Empire Richard Leviathan presents a contemporary reading, illuminated by the past to reflect and expound on the current turbulence where alternate realities compete to ascertain a truth, and of how the decline of empires have unleashed a myriad of unsettling reverberating consequences. The names and uniforms may change but this repeating of history has permitted Ostara to deliver their most accomplished suite of spirited folk songs. Age of Empire is available digitally and released on CD by Trisol which is available from Fantotal