Melodic black metal and I have always been keen bedfellows, so the opportunity to check out a debut album from a new player in the scene was too tempting an offer to pass up. In fact, I’ve been keeping an eye open for this album from Pestilent Hex since it was announced a while back and became more interested upon hearing the first single and opening track, ‘The Ashen Abhorrence’ a month or so ago.
The band Pestilent Hex hail from Finland, an entity comprised of just two musicians. Better known for their work in other genres, namely death and doom metal, the duo features L. Oathe (Lauri ‘LL’ Laaksonen of Desolate Shrine fame), who handles all of the instrumentation alongside vocalist and lyricist M. Malignant (Matti ‘MM’ Mäkelä of Corpsessed, Tyranny, ex-Wormphlegm and many others besides). This isn’t a rarity within black metal circles, but it never ceases to impress me how just two people can create such proficient and quality music. ‘The Ashen Abhorrence’ is no different in this regard either, as it’s a hugely solid album, particularly given that it is a debut release from Pestilent Hex.
The modus operandi of this Finnish duo becomes clear almost immediately that the album begins. ‘The Ashen Abhorrence’ is very much cut from the cloth of symphonic, melodic black metal in the style that was seemingly everywhere in the mid-late 90s. It’s the style that, for the most part, got me into the genre and gave me much enjoyment and aural gratification. The blend of aggressive and evil-sounding music with a softer underbelly of well-placed melody was like catnip to me, and I plundered as much of the scene as I possibly could in my late teens and early 20s. To hear that this style of music is undergoing something of a revival is wonderful as far as I’m concerned.
As with everything, though, there are numerous ways that something can be viewed. My delight could just as easily see others rolling their eyes and shrugging their shoulders, unhappy that a style of music is making a comeback rather than new bands pushing the envelope just that little bit further and offering an original sound. Depending on which side of the fence you sit, this review will either leave you cold or it might point you in the direction of the next album on your wish list. I sit firmly on the latter, as if you didn’t already know that.
Comprised of six tracks, ‘The Ashen Abhorrence’ takes the listener on a 42-minute ride that reminds me of why I fell for the charms of bands like Obtained Enslavement, early Emperor, Dimmu Borgir, Abigor and many, many others. It demonstrates a really excellent and well thought out blend of extreme metal alongside plenty of rich, dark atmosphere, melody, and a sense of grandiosity.
The title track wastes no time in hitting the ground running, featuring blast beats and a malevolent-sounding fast-picked riffs. It is all laced in an opulent gown of orchestration, where tinkling keys and bold organs emerge alongside layers of synths to add a touch of Gothic splendour to the composition. The vocals are full-on nasty, with plenty of high-pitched shrieks, accented by some deep and gruesome growls. But the changes of pace, from all-out speed to more a more measured mid-tempo, alongside occasional deviations into quieter moments creates a variety to the composition that is then further enhanced by the delicate melodic sensibilities of the song.
It’s a great opening but, if anything, ‘Chapter II: ‘Nature Of The Spirit’ is even better. Again, it opens with real intent, driving forward with blast beats and long, tortured growls of anger. If anyone was under the impression that the music of Pestilent Hex wasn’t particularly extreme because of their melodic tendencies, should think again. But with that said, this second track is easily the most immediate and melodic of the entire lot – either that or the chosen melodies just resonate with me most strongly. I love the way that the song shifts effortlessly from all-out attack to epic grandeur in the blink of an eye, offering fantastic entertainment in either guise. There’s even space within the composition for some spoken-word lyrics, followed by the kind of piano tinkling that so beguiled me on Dimmu Borgir’s ‘Enthrone, Darkness, Triumphant’ record all those years ago.
The impossibly difficult to pronounce ‘Chapter III: ‘Mephistophelean Liaison’ comes next, and it features plenty of those classic frostbitten staccato riffs that I latch on to with eagerness. The song also feels like it is both the most grandiose and the heaviest at the same time, which is some feat in itself. The mid-song breather that sees clean guitars lay out a delicate solo melody is quickly seized upon, only to build into something far heavier and really rather striking, especially when the lead guitar lines sneak up on you in the latter stages.
If you were wondering about the presence of the ubiquitous instrumental workout, then wonder no longer as ‘Chapter IV: Interlude – ‘Mists Of Oneiros’ offers a two-minute respite from the black metal attack. If there was a weaker moment to be heard on ‘The Ashen Abhorrence’, this is it. It is incredibly dark and theatrical, but it doesn’t do an awful lot for me if I’m totally honest.
Never fear though, because we are back on track quickly with the delightfully named ‘Chapter V: ‘Old Hag’, which thrusts us straight back into the multi-layered melodic, symphonic black metal amphitheatre, albeit in a slightly more upbeat and playful manner, as the melodies seem to dance around with a little more whimsy unless I am very much mistaken.
The final track is ‘Chapter VI: ‘Banishment’, the longest of the record at nearly nine minutes in length. It uses this time to lay down an impressively varied and nuanced track, that’s part twisted malevolence, part thunderous aggression, and part majestic opus. And the final stages are glorious affair, where the pace is slowed, the melody is cranked up a notch, and we’re treated to a truly majestic final act, the kind of crescendo that’s befitting of such a great album.
Death metal stalwarts they may be but here, the two talented Finns of L. Oathe and M. Malignant have come together to create a masterful collection of melodic and symphonic black metal that recalls the mid-late 90s perfectly and provides me with a high level of consistent entertainment throughout. It may not be the most original or ground-breaking record you’ll ever hear, but I simply don’t care. When the final product is this impressive and enjoyable, originality be damned I say.
We’re halfway through 2022 already. How on Earth did that happen? It’s true what they say, that the older you get, the faster time seems to fly by.
However, the good news is that it gives me an excuse to bring you a round-up post of my favourite albums that have been released in the second quarter of the year, between April and June.
In the same way as my post for the first three months of the year (click here to read that), I have listed the releases chronologically. The task of ordering them will come at the end of the year with my mammoth ‘Album Of The Year’ countdown.
On that note, here goes…
Atomic Fire Records
“…you hopefully get the idea just how varied and dynamic this record truly is, and why I like it more than any other Meshuggah record in their now nine-deep discography. It may be a little too long but that’s literally the only gripe I have. In every other way, it’s Meshuggah. But more than that, it’s Meshuggah at their glorious best. And that means that with ‘Immutable’, we’re in the presence of heavy metal greatness.”
“It’ll be interesting to see what others come up with over the next few months but, as it currently stands, ‘The Endgame’ is far and away the best melodic hard rock album of 2022 so far. And it’ll take an awful lot for it to be beaten, that’s for sure.”
“I’m so glad I was introduced to Soledad, because the French quartet have impressed me immensely with their ambitious, bold, eclectic, and slightly eccentric musical vision…listen to ‘XIII’ and, I hope, prepare to be entertained and captivated like I have been. This is easily one of the best progressive records of 2022 so far.”
“…the album takes me back in time and fills me with an infectious nostalgia, and for all the right reasons. This album reminds me in glorious technicolour exactly why I fell for this kind of music in the first place. And it does this because it is lovingly crafted and is of an incredibly high standard throughout.”
“‘A Heartless Portrait (The Orphean Testament)’ is anything but Evergrey’s unlucky thirteenth record. Instead, it only helps to further underline their utter dominance and superiority in my mind, and hopefully in the minds of other fans too. A companion of mine for the last few months, the music on this album has given me strength, support, and the knowledge that I am not alone on this tumultuous journey called ‘life’.”
“…the six songs are chock full of exemplary musicianship from guitar, bass, drums, and vocals alike, just as we would all hope and expect from a band with the reputation that they historically have. To be honest, I’m just delighted that Zero Hour are back. The fact that they bring with them such an enjoyable feast for the ears is just the icing on the cake. Welcome back gents…”
“As extreme metal albums go, ‘Cancer Culture’ has to be up there with the very best that 2022 has had to offer so far. Everything from the slightly disturbing cover artwork to the performances, and from the production to the songs themselves, Decapitated have returned with one hell of a bang. But crucially, the bang is not only thunderous, but it is intelligent, varied, and completely engaging from start to finish.”
“It may have taken 14 years to see the light of day but as far as I’m concerned, it has been more than worth the wait. I absolutely love this album and, if quality black metal is a favourite of yours, then you will too. Without doubt, with ‘Rapture’, Lord Belial have released my favourite out-and-out black metal record of the year so far.”
“It really is hard to fault ‘Hate Über Alles’ when all is said and done, because Kreator have well and truly delivered the goods once again. Power, aggression, venom, and spite collide superbly with expert songwriting, memorable melody, and irresistible catchiness to produce easily one of my favourite thrash records of the past couple of years.”
“Ultimately, I’m just delighted that Seventh Wonder continue to write new music. The fact that they have created another excellent body of music is the icing on the cake…it is so refreshing to hear Tommy Karevik once again unshackled and able to put his own unique talent to full use. When he is in full flow, there are few better vocalists out there…But alongside him are four more supremely talented individuals…As a result, ‘The Testament’ is, quite simply, a joy to listen to from start to finish.”
“With ‘Liminal Rite’, American quartet Kardashev have pulled the rug out from under me and sent me reeling. I said earlier that I feel like this record is a game changer for me, and I truly mean it. I love heavy music and I also adore strong melody; Kardashev have managed to combine the two in a way that I’ve never really heard before and I am left stunned and in awe of this album.”
“I had a feeling that ‘Tiktaalika’ would be good, but I wasn’t banking on it being quite this good if I’m being brutally honest. There is much to enjoy about Charlie Griffith’s debut solo effort, and I keep discovering new things with each passing listen too. No doubt it’ll appeal first and foremost to lovers of the guitar and the almighty riff, but given the diversity of the material and the quality of the songs themselves, I’m certain that the appeal of ‘Tiktaalika’ will be much wider, and rightly so.”
“Add to the package some seriously cool cover artwork, and a production that is crystal clear without detracting from the sheer power and technicality of the music, and you’re staring at one hell of an album. I love the way that bands like Exocrine have managed to open my mind fully to the magnificence of technical and progressive extreme metal, because it is a genuine thrill ride when you get to listen to music that’s this intense, this intricate, and this memorable.”
“…I am delighted to be able to say that ‘Inhuman Spirits’ shows that this quintet have lost none of their ability, hunger, or bite. All that remains is my now heightened ambition to see the Swedes on a stage as I’ve never had the pleasure to date. In the meantime, won’t you all please stop what you are doing and wrap your ears around ‘Inhuman Spirits’, as Darkane are well and truly back.”
“The album is a definitive punch in your face… or maybe we could say a hammer in your forehead! A mixture of open evil chords with blastbeats finding a defined yet tormenting growling vocal. The song themes are very precise, and lyrics brings a subjective aspect of humans mental conflicts from a darker angle. It’s right there, aggression, darkness, heaviness, a critical sound mass with huge personality, not to mention its fine production.”
For once, I thought I’d let the band themselves describe their music, so this is the quote from Brutta, a brand-new band that seeks to channel the heavier end of the death metal spectrum, add in some black metal, and ensure that listeners are left in no doubt that they are in the presence of something truly uncompromising. Brutta is the name given to this collaboration of three musicians that was sparked very recently by drummer Gledson Gonçalves. Having worked with ex-Haken bassist Tom MacLean and Adriano Ribiero (guitars and vocals) as a session drummer for their Athemon project, Gledson put forth the idea to both that perhaps they should work together again. And the rest, as they say, is history, and we can now hear the fruit of their labours in the form of their self-titled debut album.
‘Brutta’ is everything that has been described above in what is a pretty accurate summation. For just over half-an-hour (33 minutes to be exact), the trio of musicians seem to take a perverse delight in bludgeoning the listener with a particularly nasty brand of extreme metal that has its roots firmly buried in the death metal genre. However, with Gonçalves’ appreciation for black metal, the music manages to fuse the two rather proficiently. I’m reminded most of the likes of Satyricon, Dark Funeral and Bloodbath, but many more references may be heard by each listener depending on your own vantage point or knowledge of the two extreme metal genres. Suffice to say that there’s precious little let up throughout this debut.
At the outset, I was going to bemoan a lack of variety and also a lack of memorability within the eight tracks. But with further familiarisation, this initial view has been found wanting, as there’s far more going on within the music than I first appreciated. Admittedly, the early spins will have you reeling and perhaps only noticing the crushing, uncompromising heaviness. But give it some time because if you do, the rewards are there to be discovered.
The opening riff of the opening track, ‘Brutta’ is a beast and sets the tone for the album really well. It’s a hypnotic and evil-sounding riff that’s then joined by bruising double pedal drumming, Tom MacLean’s consummate bass playing, and growls that are gritty and spiteful, but decipherable which is a positive, meaning that you can explore the lyrical content more closely. The lead guitar notes have a dissonance, but weirdly add to the memorability of the song, whilst the contrast between the fast-paced ‘chorus’ and the slightly slower verses works well. Mind you, I’m saying this after listening to it many times over.
The sound of buzzing flies at the opening of ‘Mortem’ conjures up a mental image of the original ‘Texas Chainsaw Massacre’ film, as it displays a similar kind of discomfort, as well as an oppressive, claustrophobic feel. I hear a great deal of the ‘Stockholm’ death metal sound within the song too, as it is a reasonably straight-forward heavy riffing death metal song, but with an intriguing couple of moments in the middle that mix things up just a little.
‘Frgmntd’ is a savage proposition, where walls of heavy sound clash with vocals that are much more spiteful, attitude-laden, and possessed. A certain amount of robust groove is injected, but for the most part, this is easily one of the more extreme and confrontational tracks on ‘Brutta’.
My favourite song of them all has to be the seriously cool ‘Inferno’ though. It makes a blistering start, full of pace and energy before I’m hit with arguably the closest Brutta ever get to real overt melody and accessibility. The chorus hits and it hits hard as a result; dark and penetrating, it has a twisted and malevolent pull that’s hard to resist, the thundering guitars at their very best.
If I have any slight misgivings about ‘Brutta’, it’d be that I am less keen on a couple of the closing tracks. And primarily, that’s because I don’t get on quite as well with the vocals which, in the case of ‘Devon’, are a cross between tribal moaning, and a tormented groan to accompany the more familiar growl of Ribiero. And musically, it’s an unrelenting battery with precious little respite. It’s a similar story with ‘Cristus’, although the cleaner vocals come across as a bit off-key, probably entirely deliberately though. The song itself calls to mind the likes of Rotting Christ or Moonspell at their heaviest and least melodic. They both remain interesting songs, but just not the best on this album.
Nevertheless, this minor quibble aside, I have no qualms in recommending Brutta to fans of extreme metal. It does exactly what it sets out to do, namely pummel the listener into the ground and in a way in which the musicians seem to take great delight too. It isn’t the most sophisticated dose of music you’ll hear this year, but it is hard-hitting and very satisfying all the same, whilst being executed professionally and, when given time, more nuanced than you might think at the outset. All-in-all, ‘Brutta’ is a more than solid affair that’s well worth checking out.
I missed the White Ward’s last album, ‘Love Exchange Failure’ in 2019, so I also missed the fact that the Ukrainian band had added a new musician to their ranks, saxophonist Dima Dudko. Those that are familiar to my reviews will know that this spells trouble, for I am not a lover of this particular instrument. Neither am I a fan of brass instruments, the trumpet being top of my hit list. And yes, you guessed it, the trumpet also features on ‘False Light’, albeit not to the same extent as the saxophone.
I have got on my high horse plenty of times, bemoaning the increasing prevalence of these instruments in metal music over the last few years. But this time, I really listened and delved deep within myself to try to work out what it is that puts me off so much. And the reason why I am so keen to do this right here, right now, is because, were it not for my dislike of brass instruments and the saxophone, we would be standing in the presence of a genuine top five or top ten contender in my 2022 ‘Album of the Year’ list. In every other conceivable way, ‘False Light’ is a behemoth, a fantastic body of work that impresses me no end. I felt I had to explore my prejudice in greater detail then, and to better understand it.
This I have done, and I have had a bit of an epiphany in the process. Sadly, not the epiphany that I wanted, where I could genuinely say ‘I like the trumpet and the sax’. But a few realisations have been made. The first is that brass instruments within an ensemble, or as part of wider orchestration, I can handle and have no issue with at all. My problems stem from the instruments when they are solo, prominent within the composition. If they are used sparingly in this context, quietly or gently within the general framework of the music, again I can deal with this. But, if the saxophone or trumpet is used as the primary instrument within a song, or within a particular part of a song, that’s where it gets difficult for me.
I can only liken it to the way in which the sound of nails down a blackboard, or a knife cutting an empty plate can set some people’s teeth on edge. I have realised that’s the case for me with the sax or trumpet; I don’t want to dislike their involvement, but I simply can’t help it. I grant you that part of me wishes that the solo notes were played by a guitar, but I’d accept the flute, violin, piano, instead. Anything but the sax or trumpet. I’m sorry to all those who like these instruments, but I can’t help the way I feel.
It’s therefore inevitable that others will be giving ‘False Light’ a far better score and write-up than I will, but as I said earlier, everything else about this record is out of the very top drawer and should be commended as such. If you’re not afflicted with similar prejudices to me, prepare to have your mind blown.
The album begins with the appropriately named ‘Leviathan’ because the song is an absolute monster. At over thirteen minutes, it’s a bold opener but it becomes quickly apparent that White Ward are not afraid of taking risks or tying new things. The opening minute or more is quiet, tentative, and shy, before in marches the heavy guitar tones of Yurii Kazarian and Mykola Previr, gurgling and rumbling bass, and interesting drumming courtesy of Ievgen Karamushko that delivers blasts but is much more refined and varied than that. We get an early blast of the sax but as I said earlier, I can live with it in this context, especially when it is quickly replaced by some crushing black metal that’s powerful, emotional and melodic. The rasping growls of vocalist and bassist Andrii Pechatkin are truly nasty and also strangely full of sorrow at the same time. The atmosphere and drama is palpable despite the frenetic and aggressive black metal assault which, blended with the melody makes it a real force to be reckoned with. At almost exactly the mid-way mark, everything drops away to reveal a minimalist post rock ambience, upon which guest trumpeter Jerome Burns adds his solo skills to take us into avant-garde jazz territory for a good couple of minutes, before the heaviness returns, along with more pronounced saxophone embellishment from Dima Dudko. Clean vocals from Vitaliy Havrilenko add yet another dimension to the song that honestly feels like it lasts half the time that it does. And that’s in spite of my aforementioned prejudices and misgivings. That’s how good this moody composition truly is.
The even gloomier and moody ‘Salt Paradise’ throws in a curveball thanks to the almost spoken-word singing of Jay Gambit, nothing like the aggressive and atmospheric black metal fare found elsewhere on this album. Nevertheless, it shows another side to the band, and will intrigue many a listener, even if it’s not an instant favourite of mine.
The bass within the dark opening to ‘Phoenix’ feels like it could jump out of the speakers and throttle us, such is its demonstrably menacing approach and tone. The vocals, when they arrive are equally as fierce and dangerous, whilst the all-out speed of the fast-picked tremolo riffs are a thing of real frigid beauty. I also love the chosen electronic synth sounds that bathe the quieter passages within the song.
Elsewhere, I cannot resist some of the riffing and melodic intensity within ‘Silence Circles’, a song that unleashes some of the most savage but majestic material found anywhere on the record. Plus, the playful, groovy NWOBHM-inspired riff that jumps out towards the end is another unexpected delight. Speaking of the unexpected, White Ward again toy with the listener with ‘Cronus’, a very different track that features Vitaliy Havrilenko once more, and calls on a more Goth-sounding vibe, blending this with post black metal tendencies and more of a punk attitude in places.
But undoubtedly my favourite track on ‘False Light’ is the title track which stands at an impressive near-fifteen-minutes. I actually like better the avant-garde passages within it, plus the latter stages feature my favourite riffs. Add to this a more pronounced quota of groove, beautiful clean vocals from Adam Symonds, and a bona-fide lead guitar solo, and it has to end up at the top of the pile for me. It also underlines the fact that nothing will beat the sound of a well-executed guitar solo; it just can’t be done.
In order to remain consistent, I have to mention the 66-minute run time which is just a little too long in my opinion, especially when you consider just how intense and aggressive much of the music is on this album. This minor niggle alongside the issues discussed in detail at the outset of this review mean that ‘False Light’ falls a touch short of being considered as an essential album as far as I’m concerned. However, I am absolutely certain that most of you out there will disagree and proclaim ‘False Light’ as a masterpiece of extremity and originality. And I get it, I really do – this is a band and a record that deserves all of the plaudits that it gets, and I wish the band nothing but success with it. And success is what they will get thanks to the vast majority of the heavy metal community lauding another superb release.
Even in a day and age where it’s ever easier to have a quick listen to a release to see if you’ll like it, the artwork for a record still has a remarkable pull for me. There have been a number of great examples this year already, the likes of Spheric Universe Experience and The Midgard Project immediately springing to mind. On the other side of the scale, I nearly bypassed the new Tranzat album because the artwork didn’t appeal. And the same nearly happened here, too. ‘As Life Drifts Away’ is the debut album from Winds Of Tragedy, and the cover did not initially speak to me. Faced with hundreds of review offers, I skipped past this offering a number of times because the artwork looked a bit basic, and the logo was uninspiring. In short, the presentation didn’t resonate, so I disregarded it. Late one night though, I pressed play, and my opinions changed.
On closer inspection, the pink and purple painting that adorns ‘As Life Drifts Away’ (courtesy of Ameirican artist Sean Deloria Black Wolf) is better than I first gave it credit for. The logo still isn’t great, but now that I have taken a listen to the music, this all becomes something of a non-issue. Winds Of Tragedy is actually a largely solo affair, the creation of Chilean multi-instrumentalist Sergio Gonzalez Catalan who you may already know thanks to his work with Rise To The Sky. He is joined in his exploration of the black/doom metal realm by Portuguese drummer Emidio Alexandre Ramos, whilst the production was taken care of by Filippos Koliopanos (Aesthetic Soundscape Productions) based in Athens, Greece. Everything else that you can hear on this album is down to the skill and vision of Sergio Gonzalez Catalan.
‘As Life Drifts Away’ is not a perfect album. I happen to think that the production could have been even better than it is for a kick off. It’s organic and raw, which suits the music to a certain extent, but this melancholic and atmospheric black/doom could have sounded even better with a little more clarity, especially when the songs are at their fastest and most intense. Nevertheless, the sound does not wholly put me off at all. Having been a little disparaging of it, I will concede that the output is given a gritty, unpolished authenticity by the chosen production, so I can’t be completely dismissive of it.
Then, at around 38 minutes in length, you really want every single song to hit the mark squarely to ensure maximum enjoyment. But if I’m being hyper critical, that’s not the case here, with a couple of less engaging songs to be heard amongst the eight, including ‘A Place Of Sad Despair’.
Putting all of this to one side, I’m prepared to bet that if you spend a little while in the company of Winds Of Tragedy, you will fall for it, and may fall hard for that matter. And the reason for this is because for all the rough edges here, there is a brutal honesty that comes through in the music, as well as genuine emotion. This is then backed up by some aggressive black metal ferocity, doom metal muscle, and more than a touch of elegant melody for good measure. In fact, for me, it’s the despair laden beauty that elevates this album from being just ‘ordinary’ or ‘ok’.
Take ‘Stay’ as a prime example of the quality that is on offer within ‘As Time Drifts Away’. Ok, so the synth intro that is joined by the howling of wolves is a little on the cliched side, but once the first monstrous guitar notes emerge, all else is forgotten. The drumming is slower, and more sympathetic to the heavily doom-led nature of the song, at least at the outset. As the song develops, the mournful melodies only increase, enhanced by a greater use of synths and orchestration. The speed increases also, with faster beats acting as the counterpoint to the elegant melodies created by the sounds of strings and then the guitar. I love Sergio’s deep, guttural growl too as it is so impactful and fully committed.
With the howling of cold, unforgiving winds in the background, ‘Winds Of Ruin’ opens with some utterly gorgeous clean and acoustic guitar playing, a delicate, almost whimsical melody created in the process. Even when the full force of the black/doom metal onslaught bursts into life, the melody remains at the heart of the song, the thread that holds everything together so well. Therefore, as frenetic as things become with blastbeats and cold staccato riffing dominating, the elegance remains intact.
I challenge anyone to not get a slight tingle of satisfaction at the outset of the closing composition ‘Failed This Life’; that guitar tone and the notes that are played are delicious and wonderfully heavy as well, raising a bittersweet smile on my face.
The other positive about the songs on this album is that none of them outstay their welcome. Doom-infused music often has a desire to wallow in songs that last for what feels like aeons. Here, the average song length is somewhere around four-and-a-half minutes. The advantage of this is that, by and large, the music makes a strong impact, does its thing, and then lets another track take over. Yes, it means that the album is shorter overall, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing at all. It just means that I want to listen to the intensity, heaviness, and fragile beauty of songs like opener ‘Our Time Is Gone’ or the slightly longer ‘Everything Is Dying’ with its achingly sorrowful quiet introduction and ensuing lilting cadence of misery much more frequently than I otherwise might.
Rough edges it may have, but it is genuinely difficult not to be moved and entertained by the music on this debut for Winds Of Tragedy and Sergio Gonzalez Catalan. The blend of extreme metal in the form of black and doom metal, coupled with some achingly beautiful and resonant melodies creates a very pleasing final product. It may have more than a faint whiff of the 90s about it, but I call it nostalgia and, when it is executed as well as it is here, why bemoan a listening experience that is inspired by yesteryear? The positives far outweight the minor niggles I have, so Winds Of Tragedy and the debut album, ‘As Life Drifts Away’ comes with a heartily positive recommendation from me.
When was the last time you sat down and listened to an artist about which you previously knew nothing and had your world turned upside down? Well, it has happened to me here. Deathgaze – I didn’t even realise the subgenre existed, but I do now. Equally, I didn’t even realise a band by the name of Kardashev existed until a week or two ago. Why didn’t anyone tell me? Why didn’t anyone shout their name to me at any point over the last decade since their inception back in 2012? It’s too late to go back in time and put right this massive faux pas, but at least I am here now, and have seen the light.
For those of you who are still in the dark, Kardashev are a quartet from Arizona who play a style of music that’s referred to as deathgaze amongst other things. Progressive death metal, atmospheric, post-metal; these are all descriptions with merit as well, but for me, deathgaze resonates best. Two original founding members remain in place, in the form of vocalist Mark Garrett and guitarist Nico Mirolla, with bassist Alex Rieth and drummer Sean Lang both joining the ranks in 2019. In their decade of existence thus far, Kardashev have released a demo, three EPs and one full-length album, ‘Peripety’ in 2015. That’s a lot of music that I’ve missed, but I’ll track it down and devour it, of that make no mistake.
The reason why I like the term ‘deathgaze’ so much is because, when you distil Kardashev’s music down to fundamentals, you’re left with adjectives like ‘crushing’ and ‘monumentally heavy’ sitting alongside ‘fragile’, ‘poignant’, and ‘achingly beautiful’. In much the same way as blackgaze goes about its business, Kardashev merge the delicate beauty of shoegaze with an uncompromisingly ferocious and weighty brand of death metal. And it works. No, that’s not doing the music justice. The music on ‘Liminal Rite’ has floored me. It isn’t overstating things to say that the discovery of this band and this album has been profound, a game changer if you will. I have literally no qualms in likening this discovery to those heady days as a teenager in a pre-Internet world when I’d take a blind punt on a record based on the cover art or record label alone, only to find that I’d found a gem. Dimmu Borgir, Anathema, and My Dying Bride are three that immediately spring to mind. Remember that rush of giddy excitement? I have that here in spades.
In terms of negative comments, I only have two. Firstly, at a full hour in length, ‘Liminal Rite’ is a little on the long side. Mind you, I’m only saying this because I feel that I have to for reasons of consistency, because in reality, I don’t really mind at all. Yes, you can have too much of a good thing, but not on this occasion. Secondly, the final song on the album, the gargantuan ‘Beyond The Passage Of Embers’ features a guest musician, Christoph Clöser, the saxophonist from ambient/jazz band Bohren & Der Club Of Gore. You all know ad nauseum what I think of this wretched instrument, and yet it doesn’t ruin the final offering. In fact, through gritted teeth and with bile rising in my throat, I must concede that the song is enhanced thanks to Clöser’s inclusion.
So, in reality, I don’t have anything truly negative to say, and what’s more, everything else about this album is approaching perfection. Unnecessary hyperbole, I hear you cry. No, not a bit of it. It now falls upon me to back this up, so I shall take my best shot…
Argh, I don’t know where to start. Normally, I tend to go track-by-track, but to a certain extent it’s a fruitless exercise here because the whole album is wonderful and should be enjoyed as such. To skip a song is to risk missing a slice of magic, and to shuffle this album is akin to adding a mixer or ice to a glass of neat 18-year-old single malt whisky. It shouldn’t be done. Ever. And that’s because ‘Liminal Rite’ has been carefully and lovingly crafted by the quartet to flow in a certain way and flow it does. If you listen from start to finish as I have done on countless occasions, you realise that everything fits together perfectly. Nothing is out of place, it just feels right as you listen to it, quite the feat when you consider just how different and contradictory some of the passages are to each other. It should sound clunky or jarring. Instead, it sounds smooth and completely natural.
As early as the first 20 seconds of opening piece, ‘The Approaching Of Atonement’, I get a tingling because of the delicate, atmospheric feel, accented by an equally delicate melody from the synths whilst Mark Garrett, I assume, delivers a melancholy spoken-word monologue. From there, ‘Silver Shadows’ takes over and it’s like being hit by a truck carrying several tonnes of feathers. Frantic blastbeats and fast-picked riffs assault the senses, but the onslaught is softened somewhat by a sublime, elegance and melodic intensity, whilst the bass playfully frolics within the song’s framework. I don’t mind admitting that the sheer power and beauty has moved me near to tears on more than one occasion. When the vocals emerge alongside chunky death metal riffs, they are clean and ethereal, adding to the overall impact. It isn’t until a minute or more has passed before we get to hear Garrett’s higher-pitched rasping delivery, and then his guttural growl hits and it’s incredible – it’s so low and bestial, it’s fantastic. As the song progresses, Kardashev demonstrate that they are not afraid to strip everything back to minimal ambience one minute, only to raze the tranquillity down to the ground with a truly thunderous death metal attack. But those melodic guitar leads from Nico Mirolla which remind me a little of MØL return alongside the soaring clean vocals to ensure that as heavy as the music gets, it is laced liberally with an air of grandiose majesty combined with heartbreaking poignancy. Apparently, this song falls just shy of eight minutes but feels like two, ending with a dramatic, cinematic soundscape that’s eerie and dystopian in tone.
‘Apparitions In Candlelight’ follows and it begins with an explosion of death metal fury, with a hint of deathcore around the edges. The multi-layered vocals create a menacing presence before, out of nowhere, one of the most heartrending melodies I’ve heard in a while appears. I love the way in which Garrett’s various vocal styles are cleverly interwoven to provide numerous emotions to accompany the music. Within the quieter, more reflective and insular mid-section of the song, the sound of clean guitars is accompanied by some reserved drumming and truly resonant bass work to offer something different once again. Towards the end, the blastbeats continue unabated whilst Garrett returns to his stunning clean approach, joined to devastating effect by a whimsical yet melancholy lead guitar line. The sheer emotion and feeling that comes across is almost too much to bear, but in a good way.
I’m beginning to run out of superlatives and yet I’ve barely scratched the surface of this album. Tracks like the captivating ‘Lavender Calligraphy’ defy words…well, my pathetically inarticulate words anyway. Whatever I write will not be enough to convey the brilliance of the song. Suffice to say that I adore the way in which the music is both insanely heavy and melodic at the same time – the deep, guttural vocals sound inspired against the unashamedly glorious melodies, ensuring that the whole listening experience is simply magnetic and utterly irresistible.
If you’re looking for some chugging death metal groove, I urge you to listen to the bulldozing ‘Compost Grave-Song’. If you are hankering for something more heavily inspired by the machinations of the death/doom sound, then the aforementioned closer ‘Beyond The Pale Embers’ is where you’ll have your craving sufficiently sated.
In between, you’ll find the trio of ‘Cellar Of Ghosts’, ‘Glass Phantoms’, and ‘A Vagabond’s Lament’. All three songs have their own identities and are bathed in genius. The first features some killer melodies and soaring clean vocals from Garrett, whilst ‘Glass Phantoms’ has to be one of the most abrasive tracks whilst also managing to be one of the most emotional and angst fuelled. It is a heady combination, but these gents have made it seem so easy and effortless, complimenting an all-out black/death attack with resonant melodies and a mesmeric performance from Garrett as he literally pleads to the heavens as he sings.
‘A Vagabond’s Lament’ is the perfect antidote to the bruising predecessor in that it spends the first half or more of the song exploring much more ambient soundscapes. Delicate yet striking drumming, and whimsical bass playing join ethereal, dreamlike surroundings bathed in synth-led melodies, although over the ensuing minutes, there’s an ebb and flow that builds in intensity, hinting at something else to come. And that something else is a controlled and measured eruption of heaviness overlaid by clean vocals predominantly whilst the central melodic sensibilities very much remain intact.
I could continue to wax lyrical about this stunning album, but I hope by now that I have made my point forcefully enough. With ‘Liminal Rite’, American quartet Kardashev have pulled the rug out from under me and sent me reeling. I said earlier that I feel like this record is a game changer for me, and I truly mean it. I love heavy music and I also adore strong melody; Kardashev have managed to combine the two in a way that I’ve never really heard before and I am left stunned and in awe of this album. All of a sudden, the usual suspects have a fight on their hands for the number one spot in my end-of-year ‘best of’ list, and I couldn’t be happier about it because I feel like a teenager again, full of that wide-eyed wonder at a new, very special discovery.
I think that it is safe to say that this record has surprised me. I’d heard very little about Artificial Brain prior to being sent this promo opportunity, so I was expecting an album full of brutal and technical death metal, the kind that bulldozes whilst expanding your mind – that sort of thing. What I actually heard, was something quite different to that, and it has been a very pleasant surprise if I’m honest.
Mind you, when I say ‘pleasant’, I can see the band recoiling in horror and revulsion, because I suspect that ‘pleasant’ was not an adjective that the band were seeking to be attached to a review of their self-titled third album. Comprised of guitarists Dan Gargiulo and Oleg Zalman, guitarist/saxophonist Jon Locastro, bass/synth player Samuel Smith, drummer Keith Abrami, and vocalist Will Smith, the sextet play music that is designed to sit far and away from words like ‘pleasant’, and ‘nice’. Their offering is dark, harsh, dissonant, and aggressive, plundering the realms of death and black metal, with strong progressive elements. It has atmosphere oozing from every pore, as well as lashings of sinister, evil-sounding intent.
But, and here’s the thing, Artificial Brain also bring along with them their unwilling friend called ‘melody’. This friend may come kicking and screaming, but once in place, is an integral element of the band’s overall sound. It might be lurking in the copious shadows or interwoven into some downright nasty soundscapes, but it is there within many of the songs. And it is this melodic edge that has meant that this record has gone up massively in my estimations. Additionally, I recoiled when I saw that Jon Locastro is credited as a saxophonist on the press release. I had images of the compositions drowned in awful indulgent sax solos, but this is not the case at all, far from it in fact. As far as I am concerned, this is a major win for ‘Artificial Brain’, and I’ve enjoyed the experience of listening to it, uncovering everything it has to offer throughout.
On that note, this is not an easy album to listen to at the outset. I find the production a little muddy and distant at times to say the least. This may well be deliberate – almost certainly so – but it does detract a little from my experience, because I would have dearly loved a touch more clarity. Added to this, with such convoluted ideas, competing elements, and lots more besides, I didn’t quite know where to listen first. However, with familiarity has come understanding, and it is a less daunting experience now than it was at first.
Not only is the album a self-titled affair, meaning that the band would appear to be extremely proud of their efforts here, but right off the bat, the opening track is also the title track of ‘Artificial Brain’. It might only last for two-and-a-half minutes, but it packs one hell of a punch. A twisted gnarly riff, accented by minimalist bass and drum accompaniment, is joined by the deepest grunt that I’ve heard in some time. It signals the onslaught in the form of blastbeats, sickening bass, and vocals that are so low that they are barely audible above the swirling cacophony. Just when I’m thinking that this isn’t at all for me, in comes an impossibly catchy melody deep in the bowels of the song. I’m caught off guard, not expecting this chink of light in an otherwise thoroughly uncompromising track. I love it, and with more time, I have grown to love the punishing brutality that surrounds it.
It’s a similar story for many of the other nine songs that feature on this record, starting with ‘Glitch Cannon’. It starts off in impenetrable death metal fashion, but when it picks up speed and injects more of a black metal edge, in comes a fleeting but noticeable melody line that acts as the entry point for what is otherwise a dense,
The collision of black and death metal can be heard in gloriously muddy technicolour within ‘Celestial Cyst’, a track that has grown on me enormously over time. Initially, the piercing guitars were uncomfortable but, alongside the bass playing, deep growls, excellent riffs, and changes in pace and intensity, it has become an incredibly addictive composition that intrigues and excites me in equal measure.
Other tracks that are worthy of mention include ‘Tomb Of The Exiled Engineer’ which carries with it the air of the chaotic whilst at the same time being oddly accessible. If anything, this serves as a good description of the album as a whole. On the one hand, it feels impenetrable and hugely challenging thanks to the sheer heaviness and complexity on offer. But after a couple of spins through, the music becomes far less daunting and inaccessible thanks to the incisive songwriting that allows enough melody into the songs to help counteract the impossibly chaotic maelstrom of instrumentation elsewhere.
In the case of ‘Cryogenic Dreamworld’, the extreme metal onslaught is tempered by passages within the song that are melodic, bordering on the whimsical and gentle, entirely in keeping with the ‘Dreamworld’ portion of its title. It still hammers home the riffs and overall sonic destruction, but Artificial Brain allow listeners to hear another side to their music, a softer side. The same could also be said of the closing track, the wonderfully titled ‘Last Words Of The Wobbling Sun’ thanks to the elegant melodies that join forces with the occasionally discordant, frequently frenetic, and mostly thunderous core of the song. Even when the melodies are a little off kilter, there’s a charm to them that is undeniable, carrying me willingly to the finale of the track indeed, the album.
I must admit that I have been left very impressed by this album, for all manner of reasons. It isn’t perfect, but in a way, this only adds to the charm of the record. I like the deep guttural vocals, I like the chaotic nature of a lot of the material, and I like the technicalities, and the experimentation. But I love the use of melody most of all because it features cleverly, in a way that doesn’t negatively affect the music’s overall aggression or extremity. For all of these things, ‘Artificial Brain’ deserves the plaudits it will receive and demands to be heard by as many fans of extreme music as humanly possible.
Regrettably, this release ghosted past my radar initially during a busy period, so I was unable to get a review completed before its release. However, for a number of reasons, I had to write a review, even if it means that it comes to fruition a week or more after it’s release. The biggest, and most important of all the reasons is simply that this is the first full-length release from the stalwarts of the black metal scene since 2008. Dogged by health problems for drummer Micke Backelin, the band called it quits in early 2009, soon after the release of 2008’s ‘The Black Curse’, their eighth album. Lord Belial reformed, only to call it a day again in 2015 for health problems once again. It’s something of a pleasant surprise therefore to have them return in 2022 with their ninth album, ‘Rapture’.
The other very important reason for bringing this review is because the resultant creation is very impressive. Some might argue that this should be the most important reason, but without a band being together, all else is moot, because music cannot be created if there’s no band in the first place. Regardless, the fact remains that Lord Belial are back, and they are back with a real bang. Drummer Micke Backelin is joined by guitarist Niclas Pepa Green, and vocalist/guitarist Thomas Backelin, meaning that the key core trio are responsible for this impressive return.
Within seconds, it is absolutely evident that the trio have not lost an ounce of their energy, hunger, or menace. But, over the course of the 50-minute album, the Swedish trio demonstrate that, as venomous as they are, they have far more in their locker than just out-and-out aggressive malevolence. In fact, I’m going to say this now – this is up there with the very best black metal I’ve heard in quite a while. It has, for my tastes, an almost perfect blend of evil savagery, melody, and variety, making it rather hard to remove from my playlist.
‘Legion’, the opening salvo, is anything but subtle though, as it rips through the speakers with thunderous blastbeats, sharp and incisive fast-picked riffs, and Backelins spiteful, hate-fuelled dry rasping growls. It’s a full-on battery of unrelenting blackened power from the trio, spiced with the occasional wailing, spiralling lead break and slightly slower, almost groovy moments. But, for the most part, this is a monstrously extreme signalling of intent that I’ve grown to really enjoy.
If I had a very small gripe at all, it’d be the prominence of the snare drum in the mix. We’re not talking ‘St Anger’ levels of hideousness, but as ‘On A Throne Of Souls’ continues the onslaught of the opener, the loud snare does threaten my overall enjoyment just a little. It’s pretty much the only negative, but for the sake of transparency, it needed to be referenced. Otherwise, this song demonstrates the variety of ‘Rapture’ brilliantly. Fast, atmospheric, and melodic, it has it all. Choral vocals and well-placed synths inject added darkness, whilst the changes in pace keep the song interesting. And the final two minutes are fabulous, injecting some epic melody into the composition, showing the first signs that Lord Belial can temper their anger when required.
If you want a straight-up blast of black metal aggression, but with plenty of atmosphere and a hypnotic, rhythmic quality, ‘Rapture Of Belial’ is the song for you. It is properly sinister too, thanks to some cold tremolo leads and the introduction of haunting acoustic guitar notes alongside a stomping, march-like rhythm at times, especially within what passes as the chorus of the song.
As its name suggests, ‘Destruction’ is a shorter track that goes on the attack from the first second to the last, ending with some thrash-like wailing lead guitars. ‘Belie All Gods’ follows, and it noticeably lowers the pace to inject greater atmosphere and a sense of foreboding. We even get moments when nothing but the synths are present, as well as some heavily effect-laden spoken word embellishments. It happens to be a personal favourite too, because I just love the juxtaposition between the heaviness and the more subtle yet equally dark sections, not to mention the melodies that emerge as the song advances.
If anything, as the album advances, the music gets more and more melodic, with several of the songs delivering something truly memorable within them. In the case of ‘Evil Incarnate’, it’s the mid-tempo groovy to begin with, coupled with a gorgeous closing segment that’s dominated by a melodic lead guitar that adds a touch of memorable elegance to an already excellent song. For ‘Lux Luciferi’, it’s the lashings of Gothic-like synths alongside gently tinkling guitars and choral vocals that intersperse more extreme, fast-paced black metal aggression to great effect.
But, for me, the last two tracks, ‘Alpha and Omega’ followed by ‘Lamentations’ are two of the best, closing the record incredibly strongly. The former is melodic from the beginning, a sombre yet gloriously majestic composition that retains the bite of earlier tracks but isn’t afraid to go all out with a certain harrowing beauty. The pace is generally slower, with the wailing leads more poignant and less out of control, almost soulful if you can imagine such a thing. Blastbeats remain, as do the staccato riffs, but there’s more room for palpable emotion, as Lord Belial deliver their contender for one of the songs of the year.
The latter is ostensibly an instrumental, with a few moments of spoken word added for good measure. It is well named too, as it feels like a solemn lament; cold and intimidating yet warm and elegant at the same time. Again, as with the former, the melodies are arresting, especially when a greater orchestral element is introduced after the halfway mark, leading to a thoroughly rousing and suitably powerful ending to the album. It may have taken 14 years to see the light of day but as far as I’m concerned, it has been more than worth the wait. I absolutely love this album and, if quality black metal is a favourite of yours, then you will too. Without doubt, with ‘Rapture’, Lord Belial have released my favourite out-and-out black metal record of the year so far.
Today’s review allows me to indulge in something that I really like doing, namely write about a band that has self-released an album without the clout or backing of a record label. Whether by positive choice or necessity, it is still nice to be able to give over a little corner of the Internet to a band that might not be known about by large swathes of the heavy metal-buying public. The band in question go by the name of Stiriah, and ‘…Of Light’ is the third full-length release from this hitherto unknown Berlin-based black metal entity.
Formed back in 2007, it wasn’t until the band reformed in 2014 that they actually released any material. It began with the ‘Night Falls’ EP in 2015 and, with two subsequent full-lengths under their collective belts, 2017’s ‘Aurora’ and ‘Into The Depths’ (2020), they now bring us ‘…Of Light’, a six track, 45 minute sojourn into dark and foreboding black metal realms. As is often the way with black metal entities, the names of the musicians are hidden beneath pseudonyms. As such, I give you bassist/vocalist Cryst, drummer Ortok, and guitarist/vocalists Esgaroth and Tyrann, the quartet that comprises Stiriah.
The press release that accompanied this promo talks of emotional and ferocious black metal that ‘borders between the legendary sounds of the 90s and hypnotic soundscapes’. Having spent a great deal of time with the album, I can attest to the truth of these statements. ‘…Of Light’ is certainly a ferocious affair, with cold harsh riffing accompanied by plenty of blastbeats and frantic bass work to create a rather unforgiving soundscape. The hypnotic quality that’s referenced bears fruit as I have often been lulled into a bit of a trance-like state when listening to parts of this record. Much of this has to do with the pace of the music, and the way in which a lot of the music comes close to being cacophonic; when at their most savage and uncompromising, there is little let-up in the cold, precise attack that’s laced in dense, cloying atmosphere. However, if you listen hard enough, there is just that hint of melody to pull the music back from the brink of the abyss.
In actual fact, in the case of the opening track, ‘The Emergence Of Being’, there is more than just a hint of melody, making it arguably my personal favourite composition on the album. The atmosphere that feeds this music is immediately evident within the moody intro, as the sound of evil winds is slowly and deliberately joined by frigid riffs and a steady, pinpoint beat delivered at a slow tempo initially. The keys that bathe the song are well-placed and not overdone, whilst the vocals that accompany this sinister soundtrack are nasty, rasping screams in the main, although with three members of the band willing to lend their voices to proceedings, there are lower growls and higher-pitched screams as well. All of a sudden, the track picks up a bit of pace and, led by blastbeats and rumbling bass, the guitars create a really cool melody that has burrowed its way into my affections. There is even the inclusion of choir-like vocals later in the piece to increase the atmosphere nicely.
If I’m being entirely honest, which I’d suspect you’d want me to be, none of the remaining five songs hits the mark quite as firmly as this opening composition. It is a bit of a shame, but for my tastes, the opener is easily the best material on offer within ‘…Of Light’.
That being said, if you are more of a fan of the heavier, more aggressive side of black metal, ignore the last paragraph and read on. Whilst the opener is in no way a soft or fluffy affair, what is to follow is generally more aggressive and thunderous. And this approach begins immediately with ‘Drifting In The Sea Of Flames’ thanks to an audible intake of breath followed by a punishing scream and a blitz of hefty instrumentation delivered at a frenetic pace. There is a touch of melody to be heard deep in the bowels of the song, but it is far less overt and you have to go hunting for it, as it is generally held at bay by the uncompromising black metal battery that continues apace. There is an element of spoken word later in the song that allows a slight easing of the cacophony, but only briefly.
Admittedly, I do really like the old school feel of ‘Threatening Shadows’ and the way that it features those archetypal frosty lead guitar tones to create dissonant melody and atmosphere in equal measure. It is here that a word needs to be made towards the production because it is both clear and powerful, allowing the instrumentation to be heard, but without completely robbing the music of its sinister, organic atmosphere. Not all black metal fans will agree of course, but to me, the music is all the better for the increased clarity.
If any of the tracks are to threaten the opener for top billing, it’d be the final cut, ‘My Burden The Last Crown’, which offers increased melody in places, as well as a sense of malevolent groove. It is a great composition that builds on the atmospheres that appear within the album as a whole, but explores these in greater depth and detail as it draws the album to a close in ominous fashion.
When the album finally concludes, I have competing thoughts. On the one hand, I do wish that more of the compositions featured a greater use of overt melody, even briefly. But equally, I understand that this wasn’t in the grand scheme put together by Stiriah here. The German black metal band deliberately wanted to mix in the harshness and cacophonic elements to their music to create something both intriguing and disturbing alongside the brief touches of immediacy. And by and large, it is an approach that has worked. I have enjoyed listening to ‘…Of Light’ and would therefore have little hesitation in recommending it more widely.
This is my first experience of IATT, and I’m listening to ‘Magnum Opus’, their third album, having read some positive reviews elsewhere of previous records. I’m also taking the plunge because the band find themselves on Black Lion Records, a label that has released some very good albums in the last couple of years. Billed as simply ‘extreme metal’ in the press release, but it doesn’t take long to realise that this is a gross over-simplification. Within the music found on ‘Magnum Opus’ you can hear elements of black, death, and progressive metal, as well as plenty more besides. It is quite a daunting listen initially, as there’s a lot to get your head around, but once you get to grips with it, ‘Magnum Opus’ is definitely very rewarding. Except for one element, that is, that threatens to ruin the entire thing for me personally.
The Philadelphia-based quartet is comprised of vocalist/bassist Jay Briscoe, guitarists Joe Cantamessa and Alec Pezzano (who also handles the orchestrations), and drummer Paul Cole. Based on the content of this album, they are undoubtedly a talented bunch of musicians. However, on this ‘Magnum Opus’, they have enlisted the talents of a number of notable guest artists to further expand and flesh out their musical vision. These guests include Ben Karas of Windfaerer and Thank You Scientists fame who adds his violin to a handful of songs, Jake Superchi of Uada, who adds vocals to one song, and a guitar solo from Daryl Baker. So far so good.
And then it all goes a bit wrong. Jorgen Munkeby (Shining, Emperor) and Burial In The Sky’s Zach Strouse are enlisted as guest saxophonists on no less than three songs. And they are not small guest appearances either, as the sax is used extensively in each, either as an extended solo, or as frequent embellishments. No. No, and thrice no. I will readily admit that they are both highly talented individuals, and their contributions reflect this. And I also concede that it is purely my own taste that means I have a problem with the inclusion of the saxophone. But to me, the songs are made worse by their inclusion. I have tried, I really have. But I just don’t want to hear that instrument in the heavy metal. The odd song, I can stomach, but not three, and not this widespread and potent, I’m sorry. Yes, it’s my issue, but I have to be honest. I also want to be fair, so I will award two scores below – one for me, and one for everyone else.
It’s a real shame too, because I like an awful lot of the music on this record, and I hate the fact that the overall experience is compromised by the choices made. But if I’m reviewing an album, I can’t just ignore large swathes of it and pretend they don’t exist.
‘Magnum Opus’ begins in fine fashion too, with ‘Servitude, Subjugate’ exploding into life after an interesting violin-led intro. Throughout the course of the five minutes, we’re hit with savage blackened death metal led by fast-paced drumming, staccato riffs, and dry, rasping growls. But this is cleverly interspersed with moments of quieter reflection, or with out-and-out progressive experimentation, complete with strange sounds and textures woven into the sonic tapestry.
‘Ouroboros’ begins promisingly too, with a noticeable increase in the melodic offering. The vocals flit between the higher-pitched rasps and something deeper. But as we near the two-minute mark, in comes the saxophone of Jorgen Munkeby and I just lose all interest. Delivering both melodic passages as well as deliberately off-kilter sounds, it is present without pause for over a minute and then returns later. Not even the quiet, clean-guitar-led atmospheric section, which is beautiful by the way, can appease me, I’m that disappointed.
‘Prima Materia’ does its best to pull me back to the fold, and to some extent, it succeeds. The overtly Gothic synths that give the song a vague Cradle Of Filth feel are a nice touch, but not overdone, whilst the guitar riffs and blastbeat drumming push the track into greater black metal territory than anything else. What I didn’t expect was the mid-song shift into beautiful but dark melodic opulence that has me grinning from ear to ear. And then, for the love of God, more blasted sax, this time courtesy of Jach Strouse. Seriously? The only saving grace is that it is well played, but isn’t present for too long. And when the guest solo from guitarist Daryl Baker hits, it just emphasises how much better this instrument fits the music than the saxophone.
Tracks such as ‘Elixir Of Immortality’ and ‘Demiurgos (Architect Of Disaster)’ are well-crafted affairs that bring much positivity to proceedings. The former is a slower, more atmospheric track for much of the time, but isn’t shy of mixing up the pace at points, as well as increasing the intricacy when required. The latter is much more aggressive, and faster in tempo, as well as a touch more avant-garde with an odd but satisfying mid-section that features an incredibly bold synth solo amongst other things.
One of my favourite tracks however, has to be the delightful ‘Exculpate, Exonerate’ which features a wonderful cameo from violinist Ben Karas, but which is also one of the most immediate compositions on ‘Magnum Opus’ thanks to arguably the strongest and most overt melodic sensibilities on the entire record. Even when it veers into more progressive climes, the melody remains, which I find very impressive.
‘Planes Of Our Existence’ would be another great composition if it wasn’t for…well you know the rest. At the half-way mark, there’s a marked increase in atmospheric, epic melody which catches my ear only for my excitement to be deflated by another couple of minutes of intermittent saxophone embellishment. ‘Seven Wandering Stars’ by contrast is awash with dextrous, wonderful lead guitar work that only makes me wish that more of the solos could have been guitar-led.
By now, you are no doubt bored of me and my personal soapbox, so I will conclude this review by saying that if certain instruments don’t put you off, you will find a great deal on this latest album from IATT to entertain and intrigue you. Blending a multitude of ideas together as they do is not easy, but by and large IATT are successful with their endeavours. I just wish they’d not made a couple of the choices that they have here. Oh well, I’ll just have to wait until the next album to see what IATT come up with next.
The Score of Much Metal: 68% (85% for everyone else)