Album Review – Shane Smith & The Saints – “Norther”

The epicness and weight that Shane Smith and the Saints evoke through their songs is something virtually unparalleled in the modern era of music. Even assigning genre to it seems like a diminishing qualifier. You nearly have to hearken back to the era of symphonies and concertos, Bach and Beethoven to find comparable movements that stir the emotions of man, and awaken the audience of the gods.

This is the music you’d imagine hearing when you take the field of battle with a claymore sword to defend your creed and country against invading hoards, or when you harpoon a leviathan that pulls you overboard into the depths of the great ocean, or when the outreached hand of a loved one dangling over the abyss slowly and painfully slides from your grasp—or in the throes of heroism, a final heave of fortitude saves them from ultimate peril.

Perhaps no other band calls to mind the most defining and elemental moments of life than Shane Smith and the Saints. And perhaps no other album Shane Smith and the Saints have released accomplishes this better than Norther. Like the clashing of two atmospheric fronts causing an awesome upheaval of updrafts and downpours, the stormy and cumbrous moments encapsulated in this album send the soul reeling and dashing like the waves of the angry sea in the mightiest of tempests.

The music of Shane Smith and the Saints has always had a temperamental aspect to it. But with producer Beau Bedford and working in multiple-day increments over an eight month period while touring in-between, they were able to capture the true essence of their music. The addition of guitarist Dustin Schaefer, previously of The Black Lillies and other projects, has really allowed Shane Smith and the Saints to come into their own. And waiting fours years since their last album—even as their attention and name recognition has soared—pays off in the results of this new one.

Previously, one of the defining aspects of this band was their four and five-part harmonies. They will still pull this aspect out live upon occasion. But on Norther, the greater pursuit was to explore the depths and contours of Shane Smith’s own quivering and moody tone often naked of harmonious accompaniment, allowing the emotion it conveys and the stories it tells to be the foremost focus of the songs, with the music rising to match the tumultuous moments.

As monumental as many of these songs feel, the stress and pressure is alleviated by much more hushed and muted moments, like on the song “All The Way,” where you can almost hear the inflections of a fading Johnny Cash during the American Recordings era. So much emotion hangs on every note to excruciatingly gorgeous results.

Norther is a lot to take in to say the least. But it also has a sense when it’s nearing being too much, and knows when to pull back just slightly. The songwriting takes on a similar aspect from Shane Smith. The first three songs work almost like a war trilogy involving love, honor, duty, and family. But the song “Wheels” seems a bit more practical, and is simply about the band pulling together. Yet even when the songs are just about love like in “1,000 Wild Horses,” Shane Smith makes it feel like it’s the fate of the world is involved.

After all, this is still Shane Smith and the Saints, which means much of the music takes on a pulsating, aggressive, immediate and visceral aspect, like a speeding heartbeat during a mortal pursuit, while much of the inspiration for the music goes even farther back than the founding of country, and even further away than Appalachia to the Old World and Celtic highlands.

The music may call to mind attitudes of progressive rock, but the fiddle is the most crucial element to this music, ultimately defining it as native to the roots, even if it’s like nothing you’ve heard anywhere else. Norther also achieves the unenviable task of attempting to arrest the energy of the live aspect of this band in recorded form, which is no small feat indeed.

Instead of attempting to soften what Shane Smith and the Saints do, or trying to make excuses for it, or tempering its impact to try and widen the audience in a moment when their national recognition has never been higher, for better or worse, Norther unapologetically leans into everything at the essence of Shane Smith and the Saints. Though the “three chords and the truth” crowd may find it quite unusual, those well versed in the mythology of Shane Smith and the Saints will argue Norther definitely turns out for the better.


– – – – – – – – – –

Purchase from Shane Smith and the Saints

Purchase from Amazon

© 2023 Saving Country Music