Metal Music Reviews from adg211288

PARADISE LOST Tragic Idol

Album · 2012 · Gothic Metal
Cover art 4.34 | 19 ratings
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After a few more commercial albums, the gothic rock/metal One Second (1997), the completely non-metal Host (1999) and the alternative/industrial influenced Believe in Nothing (2001) and Symbol of Life (2002), Paradise Lost released a self-titled effort in 2005 as their tenth album. It was one of their more shaky records, though still solid gothic metal. After that they began a new incredible run of high quality albums starting with In Requiem (2007), which saw them starting to reintroduce doom metal to their sound, some that only increased on the following Faith Divides Us - Death Unites Us (2009). Most recent they've made their work noteworthy by reintroducing their early death growling style on The Plague Within (2015) and a full return to death-doom metal on Medusa (2017).

Stuck in the middle of these five albums is Tragic Idol (2012), Paradise Lost's thirteenth studio album. While not without a reasonable regard from fans, it does seem that out of the five albums released in the 2007-2017 period that it is the one that gets the least mentions, except perhaps for it's distinction as the last Paradise Lost (to date) to not use any death growling from vocalist Nick Holmes.

It's a shame that Tragic Idol seems so overlooked next to the other modern Paradise Lost albums and more so when putting it up against their earlier classic works like Draconian Times (1995), Icon (1993) and Gothic (1991), since for me this album actually represents one of the band's best works. Much like was with the case with fan favourite (and mine) Draconian Times, Tragic Idol comes equipped with an incredibly solid tracklist (here containing ten songs) where every single song is able to stand out and assert its own identity through memorable lyrics delivered with Holmes' varied and powerful vocal performance.

The album is more pure gothic metal in style that it's doomy predecessor and reaffirms why Paradise Lost are the kings of that sub-genre, though does overall have a different vibe to Draconian Times and Icon. This ability for their albums to stand out from each other is another reason why Paradise Lost must be recognised as one of the truly great metal bands to have ever existed. Very rarely does an album from them have exactly the same vibe as the previous one. What really sells Tragic Idol though is its songs. The excellent title track most of all, but also ones like Solitary One, Crucify, Fear of Impending Hell, Theories From Another World and The Glorious End all make this one of the band's most essential albums. The two prior albums were excellent but neither can claim that every song is as instantly memorable the way Tragic Idol can. I'd even rank this one above Icon for that alone.

Paradise Lost's thirteenth album may forever be known to me as the underrated one and that's the only really tragic thing about it. Fans of the band are advised to pay closer attention to this one.

PARADISE LOST Draconian Times

Album · 1995 · Gothic Metal
Cover art 4.47 | 35 ratings
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With their first four albums representing a clear evolution from their beginnings as a pure death-doom metal act to a gothic metal act, Paradise Lost's fifth full-length album sees them delivering something as close to what could be considered their standard fare. Not that they really have one, as subsequent albums would go on to prove. Titled Draconian Times (1995), the album is probably the UK band's best known and well regarded release as is considered a seminal album of the gothic metal genre.

It's really got hard to hear why. Gothic metal can take a number of different forms and Paradise Lost's style is one that remains closest to its roots in doom and traditional heavy metal. As on Icon (1993), frontman Nick Holmes has now left behind any traces of growling vocals in the band's style and sings cleanly in a style that is actually not that unlike that of Metallica's James Hetfield. I've seen some describe the band as being like a meeting of that band with Black Sabbath. That's kind of accurate but only the bare bones of what they and Draconian Times actually sound like. This album has a quite polished and melodic sound but it's also dark and melancholy. There's still an element of the doom metal roots, but it'll be a long while again before Paradise Lost could be considered an actual doom metal band.

The songs themselves tend toward being catchy, memorable numbers that all easily number among the best that Paradise Lost has ever recorded. There are some clear highlights such as Hallowed Land, which features excellent use of piano and Forever Failure, which includes some spoken word samples from Charles Manson. They've a very good band at making their individual songs stand out as unique entities instead of just being part of a greater whole and Draconian Times is undeniably the best collection they ever put together, each one of them having claims to being a standout in its own right. I think it is maybe fair to say that the songs on the first half of the album have become a bit more well known, but the quality in the second half really isn't that different.

Although I've listened to gothic metal on and off for years and even had a couple of other Paradise Lost albums a bit longer than this one, it was Draconian Times that really sold me on the kind of quality that the genre has to offer when the band is a cut above the rest of the pack. Draconian Times is the kind of album that not only lives up to its hype. But also converted this previously sceptical listener into both a fan of the band and someone who now wants to active investigate other gothic metal bands.

AUGURY Illusive Golden Age

Album · 2018 · Technical Death Metal
Cover art 4.50 | 4 ratings
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It's been a long road for the Canadian technical death metal act Augury to reach their third album, Illusive Golden Age (2018). Band members have come, gone and come back again and nine years have passed them by since the release of Fragmentary Evidence (2009), which itself took five years since their debut album Concealed (2004). The band was formed in 2002 and has never been outright inactive, but three albums in sixteen years isn't the most consistent showing. Augury is forgiven for this of course due to how bloody good those first two albums were. Augury is, as far as this humble reviewer is concerned, the best death metal act to have ever existed. Concealed is the main reason for that belief, but Fragmentary Evidence also goes a long way to strengthen it. Still, making their fans wait almost a whole decade for this follow-up can't have kept them in everyone's good graces. It's been so long that now that the album actually has dropped many may have even forgotten that these guys were in fact still around and who can blame them? But the third Augury album is here now and it's time to find out if it was worth the wait.

Hell. Fucking. Yes. Yes it was.

Illusive Golden Age has the sound of an album that is both familiar if you've heard Augury's earlier work but also with a bit of a different spin on it. The more atmospheric sections of music that they like to use have seen a reduction here compared to Fragmentary Evidence, as have the clean singing vocals from frontman Patrick Loisel, who main sticks to mixing his deep growling and higher pitched screams. His clean voice is still used but don't expect a track like the previous album's Sovereigns Unknown to show up during Illusive Golden Age. After nine years away Augury seem to have made a statement that they're all about the death metal. I'm not sure that anyone ever doubted that about them as they've always had a heavy sound and Loisel's deeper growls have always been brutal as hell, but that's the best description of how this album feels compared to their previous one that I can come up with.

That's not to say that their sound has become lesser by reducing these elements of variation. After all they are still there being used to effect when needed and the level of technical skill on display seems to be higher than ever, if that was even possible, including the audible fretless bass work from Dominic 'Forest' Lapointe. This is so noticeable it's like the bass is being used as the lead instrument. Not to sell what may be some of the best and most intricate technical death metal guitar work ever recorded short here, but fretless bass guitar works so damn well in this genre that it's near impossible not to focus on it as the band's defining feature. Augury and by extension Lapointe's ventures with similar band Beyond Creation have always done this well and it really does feel like he gets to share the centre stage with the two guitarists, Loisel and Mathieu Marcotte. That's very rare for a bass player and for me it's what really makes Augury more than simply technical, but also progressive.

Due to how technical and progressive their music is calling this album straight-forward seems like the start of a bad joke, but the simple fact that matter is that Illusive Golden Age is undeniably a bit less unusual in terms of its song-writing direction, especially if you're comparing it to the often weird Concealed (which for me remains their best album) or the more atmospheric Fragmentary Evidence. I think maybe stripped back would be a more appropriate way to describe it in relation to their previous, but Illusive Golden Age can only be called generic at your own peril. Augury's ability to write coherent and mostly unelongated songs while still being so technical with their riffs should quickly squash any such thoughts you might be having about this release. They did not make their comeback as just another generic tech death act by any means. They've made their comeback with an album that still sounds distinctly like an Augury album that has its own identity from their previous two. I don't know about you readers, but I'll take it.

I haven't mentioned any specific songs from Illusive Golden Age yet and that's because of the eight it's difficult to single out any particular one and then convincingly justify why that one is better. It can't be done. At a total running time of 44:20 Illusive Golden Age is pretty easy to take in during a single listen and let it all in as a singular experience. I will say that Augury made a good choice in Mater Dolorosa as the first song released to promote the album as it is a great one for getting a feel of exactly what to expect from the album. I didn't personally have any doubts that Augury would deliver when they eventually managed to get a third album out, but this song certainly sealed the deal on a CD pre-order from me. Of course there was little doubt that I'd have bought it anyway, but that song was enough to know that I need this in my hands as soon as possible. This is the death metal album to beat in 2018. I have little faith that anyone will come close to what Augury achieved here though. The long wait is forgiven...though try not to leave it another nine years next time lads.

HEAVENS GATE Livin' in Hysteria

Album · 1991 · Power Metal
Cover art 4.45 | 12 ratings
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If it were just that little bit better known I might say that the cover art of Livin' in Hysteria (1991), the second album by German power metal act Heavens Gate, was an iconic one from the nineties metal scene. A blue dragon lounges back on his rock smoking a pipe while his human slave sweeps up what appears to be the (also human) remains of his last meal. For some reason though Heavens Gate isn't a band I see mentioned half as much in relation to the early German power metal scene that they were most certainly a part of, unlike their temporaries including Helloween, Gamma Ray, Blind Guardian and Rage. It was this cover that first drew me to this album. It's definitely a strking one. The CD was a chance find in a used music shop and I had no idea who the band were. The owner of the store (now sadly closed down for some years) allowed me to sample the album. I listened to the first track and then bought the album instantly. As an aside I also got my first albums from Virgin Steele and Chastain in that shop at the same time.

Heavens Gate in 1991 seemed to exist to fill the void that Helloween created by drifting away from the power metal style that they had created with their classic Keeper of the Seven Keys albums. Sure, Kai Hansen had already debuted with Gamma Ray a year earlier than this, but I've always found the sound that Heavens Gate had on Livin' in Hysteria to be a closer representation of the early power metal style that Helloween played on their classic duo, right down to the real old school metal production sound that hasn't yet been able to let go of the eighties.

This album does in fact have quite a lot in common with classic eighties heavy metal, including the vocals from Thomas Rettke, which are old school metal to the bone rather than the very melodic styles that power metal would become known for over the next decade and had in fact already been used by Michael Kiske in Helloween. Likewise their music is not drenched in keyboards or symphonic elements. In fact the biggest reason that Livin' in Hysteria is power metal is the speedy guitar riff style employed by Sascha Paeth and Bonny Bilski, which shows them to be something more than heavy metal or speed metal. It's only 1991 so it would be fair to say the sound is still on stepping stones in becoming what we now think of as power metal.

Within this old school heavy metal meets early power metal sound the best thing about the record is its actual songs, which are quickly infectiously catchy and excellent across the board. The album opens with it's title track and from there they deliver memorable numbers one after the other. There are times where it feels that Heavens Gate were specifically writing with the live environment in mind, due to the sing-along nature of the lyrical hooks in tracks such as Can't Stop Rockin'. Best Days of My Life represents the near obligatory ballad of the album, but it's one of the better ones served up by power metal albums, while the unusually titled Fredless is a short instrumental. The rest is excellent old school heavy/power metal with excellent vocals, which makes Livin' in Hysteria one of the essential early albums of its style. You can't profess to have a decent knowledge of the German power metal scene if you haven't heard this.

LEGEND Death in the Nursery

Album · 1982 · NWoBHM
Cover art 4.73 | 6 ratings
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Discovering this wondrous thing called metal during the 2000's definitely wasn't to be sniffed at. By the time I really started to get invested in heavy music it had already done most of its evolving into the sub-genres we all know these days (and of course it still continues to evolve to this day). This time of discovery meant that the whole nu metal movement was on the decline, which many would say was dodging a bullet. But it also meant that younger metalheads like myself missed out on being there during what is arguably the most important movement that metal ever had or ever will have bar its original genesis in the early seventies: the New Wave of British Heavy Metal (NWoBHM). Sure, we still get to experience it through the recordings left behind, but while we'll all know of those who made it to become household names like Iron Maiden, Saxon or Angel Witch, many of us will miss those more obscure hidden gems that never got the same kind of attention or later reissues.

One of these gems is Death in the Nursery (1982) by Legend, a band hailing from Jersey. This album actually was reissued in 2012, but only on vinyl, a format that it has never been released beyond. A digital copy does appear on the US Amazon site, but this is not a privilege also accorded to the UK site. Since they are a band out of the NWoBHM I find that something of a kick in the teeth. Luckily, Legend's unsung classic is available for streaming via Spotify. Legend are in fact still going, having reformed in 2002 following an original 1984 split, and have released a further two studio albums, most recently in 2013. Death in the Nursery was their second and until 2003, their last.

What makes this one so good? Well for a start it comes across as pretty heavy for 1982. The riffs from sole guitarist Peter Haworth are full of bite and the band's production has more grit to it than the more polished work of say, Iron Maiden. I can't rightly say that Death in the Nursery was the heaviest heavy metal around back then, though as metal hadn't quite taken the leap forward in aggression that was thrash metal, though a bit of speed metal was about, but it seems to me as it must have been up there with the most metal driven work, lacking any kind of lingering attachment to hard rock. Furthermore, it's played with a passion and conviction that's infectious and often absent in modern heavy metal which comes drenched in so much modern production values that it just doesn't seem to have as much soul as this and other NWoBHM.

Even listening for the first time in 2018 it's impressive and brings a big smile to my face, so I can't even begin to imagine what it would have been like hearing it for the first time when it was new. I mean sure, it's not The Number of the Beast, released the same year and widely considered the finest album of the NWoBHM, but all the same I don't hear a single damn reason why Death in the Nursery should be considered any less essential to the NWoBHM canon as that seminal album. And in its title track they have what could easily be attributed to an early progressive metal song thanks to its complex instrumental break, which definitely sounds like it's before it's time. The earliest release I've heard that I'd describe as progressive metal is Siren's No Place Like Home from 1986, a whole four years after this and even though it's only one song here and only a section of it at that, that one part seems a whole lot more overt that anything else that would appear for a long time.

Legend and Death in the Nursery deserve better than it has been given so far. For starters it should at least be sold digitally all over and not just in America (again I mean come on it's a NWoBHM album and we can't purchase even an mp3 version in the UK? Lame!) and it certainly deserves a physical release beyond the vinyl. After thirty-six years a CD is long overdue. Come on Legend and record labels that specialise in old classics: make it happen! This masterpiece deserves it.

WUTHERING HEIGHTS Far From The Madding Crowd

Album · 2004 · Power Metal
Cover art 4.33 | 20 ratings
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The Danish progressive power metal act Wuthering Heights easily number among my favourite bands. They've a strong discography of five studio albums, but the one that really seals the deal for me is Far From the Madding Crowd (2004), their third full-length effort. It is on this album that they brought in vocalist Nils Patrik Johansson, whose voice, which I think is one of the true great ones from the modern metal and hard rock scene, takes the band's music to the next level. None of this is to belittle their prior efforts or previous vocalist Kristian Andrén, whose two albums with the band I also regard highly, but Far From the Madding Crowd is, for me at least, one of the best power metal albums ever recorded.

The style on Far From the Madding Crowd is basically the same as on the group's first two albums Within (1999) and To Travel for Evermore (2002). Progressive power metal with folk elements. The difference in tone of Nils Patrik Johansson's voice is what clearly sets it apart from it's predecessors though. He is able to shift through so many different styles that it would be easy to think there is actually more than one vocalist on the album. At times he even sounds eerily similar to the late Ronnie James Dio, though at others nothing alike.

Musically Far From the Madding Crowd does seem a little less progressive to my ears and more focussed on power metal than the two previous albums. The band's folk elements appear commonly but as usual aren't a dominating force in their sound, being there for (very effective) flavour. In spite of this it's easy to think of Far From the Madding Crowd as Wuthering Height's most folksy release. Even when the actual folk instrumentation is not there they have a very folksy style to their lyrics. The inclusion of The Bollard, a song originally by obscure Danish folk act The McGalster Clan, further raises the folk feel of the album.

The crowning achievement of the release is certainly the Longing for the Woods trilogy, consisting of tracks 4, 6 & 9. Rather than seeming like an unnecessary repetition, their presence gives Far From the Madding Crowd a kind of unity that many other albums lack. The band's writing is strong across the board though, with The Road Goes Ever On being an excellent track to get listeners hooked once intro Gather Ye Wild is out of the way, which in itself is one of the better intro tracks in existence. The Sensory Records version has a partial reprise of it as a bonus track and I actually highly recommend picking up that version if you can, since it rounds the album off well. I could actually highlight every single song as a highlight on this album, since there isn't a single second where the quality takes a dive.

And that brings me to my summary and to do that we return to something I said at the start of this review: Far From the Madding Crowd is one of the best power metal albums ever recorded. This release is so essential that saying that it is not in bad company with releases such as Somewhere Far Beyond (Blind Guardian), Keeper of the Seven Keys I & II (Helloween), Black Hand Inn (Running Wild) or Land of the Free (Gamma Ray) isn't overstating it's quality. All power metal fans should own this.

EINSAMTOD Einsamtod

Album · 2012 · Depressive Black Metal
Cover art 4.50 | 1 rating
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The self-titled debut album of Slovakian act Einsamtod, released in 2012, clearly doesn't set out to be an easy album to get into. Nor should it, since it belongs to the depressive black metal genre, but even so, this one certainly knows how to throw its listener right in at the deep end, greeting the ears with what initially appears to just be a wall of fuzzy noise and screams. This abrasive assault is surely enough to put off all but the most determined of listeners. But those who get past this, will find an unexpected gem of an album.

This is the opening track, Freezing End, which at 8:46 in length is actually the shortest that the five track album has on offer. Once you get over how incredibly raw Einsamtod have made their sound, you'll be able to start appreciating the atmosphere that the duo, instrumentalist Smrtislav and vocalist Nefastvm, have managed to create. Intricate melodies have been inserted into the lo-fi fuzz, resulting in a dark atmospheric journey that is an quickly compelling to the enthusiast as the initial barrage of fuzz is anathema to others.

Each does does have a tendency to begin in much the same way, but once you get used to what Einsamtod is about the album proves excellent across it's duration. There's just one problem with it, during track four, the dark ambient piece Journey Through a Land Forlorn and it's nothing to do with the composition or performance. It's a technical problem with the release. There's a noticeable glitch where the music jumps that is incredibly jarring. At first I think this was a problem with my personal copy and upon my first listen I was all but ready to get onto the supplier I bought it from to complain when something made me decide to look up the song online. And lo and behold, the exact same glitch occurs, so it's not a problem with my particular press.

This may explain why on the vinyl version, which was released the following year in 2013, has had this track pulled. One has to wonder why such a glitch made it to press on the CD version though. It seems incredibly unprofessional and somewhat spoils what is otherwise clearly an essential release of the depressive black metal genre and even though the track is an ambient one I can't help but think it's removal would be a detraction to the vinyl version, since it adds variety to the release.

That issue aside, I do absolutely consider Einsamtod to be an essential album. One day I hope these guys find it in themselves to do it the justice it deserves and properly fix that botched recording of Journey Through a Land Forlorn rather than just retconning it out of the album. I may even buy it again if they did. That's how good it is.

АРКОНА Храм

Album · 2018 · Pagan Black Metal
Cover art 4.29 | 5 ratings
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Russia's Аркона (A.K.A. Arkona, used herein) must surely be their country's premium folk metal band. They've been releasing albums since 2004's Возрождение (Vozrozhdenie), but become something really special with 2005's Во славу великим! (Vo Slavu Velikim!), actually their third album by that point due to releasing Лепта (Lepta) later in 2004. Most recently, in 2016, they went back and remade their debut album in a much more polished yet faithful to the original version, complete with more authentic folk instrumentation as they were synthesising a lot of stuff when they first started, a treatment that I hope they give Lepta as well. Before that though the band had released Явь (Yav) in 2014, an album that saw them taking different approaches in their music. It's an album that can be seen as, through the kind of hindsight that can only be gained through the release of it's follow-up, Храм (Khram), as the kind of transitional, stepping stone release to the band becoming something different. Arkona may be Russia's premium folk metal act, but in 2018 their genre allegiance has taken a thoroughly more blackened turn.

Of course Arkona was always partially based in the black metal genre, also drawing on power metal in some songs, but here it's like the genre has taken over from folk metal as the band's main focus. Khram is not so much a folk metal album but a pagan black metal album. That means that there's still folk elements to be found, but it's much more about the blackened riff and a primitive sound. Vocalist Masha "Scream" Arkhipova still uses her clean singing abilities, but is dominantly using her growling style on this record. This is not to say that her growl suddenly sounds like the typical necro black metal rasp (it doesn't) or that the guitar tone is suddenly all raw and cold (it isn't), but the overall style and vibe of the band's music has certainly taken a shift. Yet it's still very much recognisable as the work of Arkona.

They've also got noticeably more progressive with this release. Yav had elements of what I would attribute to prog but it's much more overt here and has resulted in some added complexity within the primitive pagan black metal sound Arkona has forged for themselves. This also comes across in the form of some long song structures. Intro and Outro tracks aside the only regular length song can be said to be Шторм (Shtorm) at 5:12. The rest are all at least close to eight minutes long and one, Целуя жизнь (Tseluya zhizn') is over seventeen, making it Arkona's longest song to date.

I have one gripe I need to get off my chest at this point though. It's the intro track and by extension the outro track, both titled Мантра (Mantra). The Outro version only lasts for fifty-five seconds and it's really of any consequence but the Intro version goes on for too long at 3:51 before the first proper song gets underway. I wouldn't mind so much, but the chant-based intro just fails to really click with me on any level and proves a detraction from the release as a whole. It's the kind of thing that makes me want to start the album on track two.

However the rest of the rest is excellent. Khram is definitely more of a grower than Arkona's folk metal work, thanks in no small part to its darker sound, so it may take a few listens before it really starts to feel like it's rewarding its listener for their patience. The extra long track, Tseluya zhizn', certainly stands out as the crowning achievement of the album, but there's some great work to be found right across it, with plenty of variation in the delivery of each track that gives each identity, such as the use of piano on Волчица (Volchitsa), which is actually a cover song, originally by Russian folk group ВеданЪ КолодЪ (Vedan Kolod). Arkona has released covers before, but I believe this is the first one to appear on a main album. Despite the original artist having nothing to do with metal and Arkona's newfound more black metal direction the track fits in well with their original material.

The question is, given their folk metal back catalogue, whether Khram is really the album fans wanted to hear from Arkona? For some it's inevitable that the answer will be no. For others, this will be a breath of fresh air. This band has done several folk metal masterpieces that, frankly, they'd have difficultly in bettering. It's time now for something new. It's time for Khram.

ESOCTRILIHUM Pandaemorthium (Forbidden Formulas To Awaken The Blind Sovereigns Of Nothingness)

Album · 2018 · Atmospheric Black Metal
Cover art 4.74 | 5 ratings
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Although barely half a year has passed since the release of Mystic Echo From a Funeral Dimension (2017), the debut by French atmospheric black metal solo project Esoctrilihum, it's lone musician Asthâghul has certainly wasted no time in getting it's follow-up out there. Entitled with the rather long-winded Pandaemorthium (Forbidden Formulas to Awaken the Blind Sovereigns of Nothingness), this second album sees the project building upon and expanding what was begun on the debut.

I want to make it clear that I personally loved Esoctrilihum's debut and nothing is going to be able to diminish the regard I have for that piece of work. It was a great example of the atmospheric black metal genre that could be considered contemporary to the work of I, Voidhanger Records labelmate Mare Cognitum. It wasn't the most surprising record in that respect, except for one sudden burst of death metal that came out of nowhere during the track BltQb (Black Collapse). Considered most likely to be a fluke by myself at the time, it's clear to me now that Asthâghul must actually be quite interested in what death metal can add to his music, since Pandaemorthium features considerably more death metal elements than Mystic Echo From a Funeral Dimension did, to the point where Pandaemorthium can be considered as much a death metal album as a black metal album.

While various black metal and death metal fusions aren't anything new, what makes Pandaemorthium a more unusual example is that the black metal elements themselves are still very atmospheric in nature, with many similarities to the first album in their underlying ambient, cosmic direction, a prime example being Lord of the Closed Eyes, the first song released for fans to hear. Naturally though the death metal elements greatly change the way that the record impacts upon its listener, becoming something much more aggressive. It is easy sometimes to forget you're listening to an atmospheric black metal record with this album because of them, which I guess is why some people seem to be saying that this album represents a complete stylistic shift for the Esoctrilihum project, but I have to say that I think that's false: if one listens past the death metal elements it's actually quite obvious that this isn't that big of a step away from what Mystic Echo From a Funeral Dimension started.

And that's just one of the things that's good about it! It's one thing to play this style or that style and another entirely to take bits of both and forge them into something that works as well as Pandaemorthium does. Another thing that's good about is the result of this mix. Pandaemorthium is an atmospheric yet intense album that will pummel your eardrums into submission for almost seventy minutes, neither letting up it's relentless assault or letting go of your attention span, not even during rare softer moments such as Breath of the Silent Shape. Expect plenty of black and death metal riffs (and even some thrashy ones in a track like The Holocaust of Fire in the Temple of the Red Oracle) that are full of technicality and complexity, interlaced with spacey atmospheric metal passages and of course Asthâghul's perfectly integrated, malevolent growling. I do find the latter hard to follow in terms of his actual lyrics, but as part of the whole package it works.

Pandaemorthium is undeniably a very satisfying release. It's not quite the album I expected to hear next from Esoctrilihum but maybe that's a good thing. A level of unpredictability makes this project even more exciting than it was already and Mystic Echo From a Funeral Dimension had already given me a lot of hopes for its future. For all we know, Asthâghul's next one for Esoctrilihum could easily be a full on progressive/technical death metal release, full on spacey black metal madness, or even something avant-garde. Or none of the above or maybe a bit of all of them and more. Wherever he takes this project next, it's clearly going to be one hell of a ride to take with him to find out. And for my money, Pandaemorthium is the first true standout album of 2018.

SLAYER Reign in Blood

Album · 1986 · Thrash Metal
Cover art 4.25 | 174 ratings
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First off, just let me say that I'm well aware how highly regarded the US thrash metal band Slayer is, especially this third album from the group, Reign in Blood (1986). Enough people think highly of this band and album that it has to be doing something right. However you are about to read a negative review for it. Given its fame and regard it'll probably be your inclination to write this review off as an attempt at trolling a well liked release. It is not. It would be equally be easy to assume that this review is written by someone who doesn't really like thrash metal. But again, it is not. Thrash metal is not one of my absolute favourite metal genres but I listen to enough of it to comfortable say that I am a fan of the style, one whose interest in it continues to grow in fact. Just today I checked out Kreator for the first time, and loved them.

I don't expect my word on these things will persuade you of course, and I expect you're already gearing up your choice insults in response to this having already seen the score attached to this review. So I will just ask, here and now, that if you're not open to reading an alternative point of view for this beloved album that we part ways here, agreeing to disagree. Nothing I say is going to dissuade you from thinking that Reign in Blood is the best thing since sliced bread. Otherwise read on and I don't know, I guess maybe be prepared to be offended?

Reign in Blood is a very short album despite there being ten tracks. It's not even a full half an hour. Unless something is so overlong that it becomes overwhelming or just outstays its welcome, length doesn't usually factor into the quality of an album, but with Reign in Blood it's actually quite integral to realising what is wrong with it. Slayer writes quite short songs on this album, with most not even reaching the three minute mark. In these short songs they basically do one thing: very fast thrash metal with Tom Araya shouting all over it. It's obvious that Slayer are skilled musicians all around to keep these tempos going and if this is all you want from a thrash metal album, then I'm sure Reign in Blood is basically thrash metal heaven. But for me Slayer forgot one key thing in these songs: a little thing called substance. There's little to none of it across the whole Reign in Blood album. Most of the songs follow the pattern described here, rinse and repeat.

Except of course for the two times when the band do get it right, which actually is the opening and closing songs Angel of Death and the Reign in Blood title track. The first thing that you'll notice about these two songs is that even though they aren't long by any stretch of the imagination they are longer than most on the album, each breaking not three but four minutes. It turns out that this increase in duration makes all the difference in Slayer's music. The songs have more room to develop beyond the band's go-to style and because of that they make an impact on the listener as something more than just being hard and fast. They're that too, of course.

Hard and fast metal is great, as these songs show, but they need good song-writing too. It's just a shame Slayer forgot that after track one and only remembered it when they get to their final song. Without that much needed substance to their song-writing, Reign in Blood just feels like an exercise in 'Hey! Look what we can do!'. Yeah sure, they can play. But what else have they got? Apart from the two songs Reign in Blood is forgettable, insubstantial and quite possibly the contents of one of the most overrated albums I've ever heard. The fact that there are two really good songs even proves a double edged sword as they further highlight both how weak the rest of the album is and what could have been is Slayer had just thought about their song-writing more.

I liken this album to being at a party and being told you can have a really good drink when you get there and another just before you leave, but the rest of the night you've got to drink Budweiser. The really good drinks in this analogy are Angel of Death and the title track, which I have to say easily number among the best thrash metal songs I've heard and the reason I'm scoring this album as high as I am. The rest of this album is metal's answer to Budweiser though. Some people may call Slayer the kings of thrash. Sure, but Budweiser calls itself the king of beers, a tagline that's surely said in irony.

Inflaming comparisons to pissy weak lager aside (actually, Budweiser is not that weak, but it sure don't taste like it!), I will acknowledge again that Slayer must be doing something right on Reign in Blood for it to have achieved this high regard. I will also say, because someone else does, that I just don't 'get it'. You're right, I don't get it. Same way I don't get why Budweiser is so many people's go to beer. I drank one of those once and then said never again. I shall do the same thing in regard to listening to this album.

REBELLION A Tragedy in Steel Part II: Shakespeare's King Lear

Album · 2018 · Power Metal
Cover art 3.54 | 3 ratings
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I'm sure that I can't have been the only one surprised when German heavy/power metal act Rebellion revealed their eighth studio album. It's not that the band was in a situation where a new album was either unexpected or past due; it'd been three years since the release of Wyrd Bið Ful Aræd – The History of the Saxons (2015), their usual length between albums for a few releases now. No, it was the title. The album was revealed as A Tragedy in Steel Part II: Shakespeare's King Lear (2018). Shakespeare's MacBeth - A Tragedy of Steel (2002) was Rebellion's first album and who could have expected that after sixteen years the group would return to the works of Shakespeare?

I for one did not and I have to admit, the move made me a little apprehensive. After all, MacBeth is undoubtedly Rebellion's weakest album; the very textbook definition of a record where the artist is still finding their sound. But not only that, the flow of that record was really disrupted by heavy use of narration elements, which unlike on other albums that make use of such weren't separated into their own tracks but inserted into the actual songs of the album and not always at the beginning or end of a piece. Of course it's obvious given the subject matter why they'd do that – it adds a feel of the theatre to the album, but for me at least, it really didn't work.

As a band Rebellion has obviously come a long way since then, producing an incredible run of albums starting with Born a Rebel (2003), their only non-concept and/or theme album, and going right up to the most recent release Wyrd Bið Ful Aræd. But even so, it seemed a really odd move for them to make. So now comes the burning question: were my concerns justified?

Yes, I think they very much were.

But with that said, positives first: it isn't like King Lear is a total bust for Rebellion. They still have their signature sound intact, with lots of heavy and power metal riff work on display, along with Michael Seifert's distinctive sung yet harsh vocal style. The album even actually breaks the band a bit of unexpected new ground with several tracks, usually the more heavy metal based ones, displaying an undertone of traditional doom metal, something that can be clearly picked up upon as early as opener A Fool's Tale. It's just a bit of flavour rather than a overt change in direction, but it's enough to differentiate the album from the band's others.

But the there's the issues with the album that put a real dampener on anything positive I can say about it. While it's not as extreme, the band did fall into exactly the same trap with the narrative elements on King Lear as they, way back when with a largely different line-up, did with MacBeth. Then there's the songs themselves. They're not bad and there is a few highlights to be had such as Dowerless Daughter, Storm and Tempest, and Battle Song, but there's an inescapable feeling that for the first time in a while Rebellion aren't coming close to knocking one out of the park and that despite those new doomy undertones, the album is very much Rebellion by numbers and that they went through the motions of getting an album out at the time they were expected to. As such it's difficult to really get invested in it as an album or get too excited by it.

It's still a solid enough release to avoid being considered bad, but there's no room for doubt in my mind that King Lear is the band's weakest album since MacBeth itself and I'm actually unsure which really deserves the dubious honour of being considered the actual weakest. I would say it's still worth picking up if you're a fan of the band and already have all their other work (and the price is right), but otherwise there's a choice of six other Rebellion albums out there that are considerably more powerful than this one that deserve your attention first. This one already feels like it's just there, a part of the band's discography that you're aware of and may listen to on occasion along with their other albums, but it won't ever be the one you reach for first.

THRESHOLD Legends Of The Shires

Album · 2017 · Progressive Metal
Cover art 4.57 | 9 ratings
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Back when I was discovering metal I moved through hearing bands in multiple genres before one genre stood out for me. That genre was progressive metal. That was the first metal genre I could really say I loved. I discovered both big names like Dream Theater, Ayreon and Opeth and lesser known acts such as Anubis Gate and Darkology. One band that I know I became aware of early on in my journey of discovering progressive metal was the UK band Threshold. This would of course have been through the Ayreon connection, as vocalist Damian Wilson guested on multiple releases and other projects of mastermind Arjen Lucassen.

Wilson was fairly recently re-inducted into the band at that time, for his third stint with them, so the then current material I heard from Threshold instead featured vocalist Andrew "Mac" McDermott, who sadly passed away in 2011, and was from their Dead Reckoning (2007) album, at the time their latest release. For some reason, it didn't grab me. I remember one of the songs I heard quite distinctly though. Slipstream. It seemed a far cry from the kind of stuff that I was listening to at the time and didn't inspire me to explore the band much further than that. I therefore remained largely incurious through the release of a further two albums with Wilson, though I did hear the band's third album Extinct Instinct (1997), also a Wilson fronted release, in that time through a friend and enjoyed it without being completed won over by the band.

With Wilson departed from Threshold once again, they've re-inducted another previous vocalist, Glynn Morgan, who to date had only sang on their second album Psychedelicatessen (1994). If that had been the one album I had heard in full by this point, I may have been more curious when this new line-up released Legends of the Shires (2017), their eleventh album. But no, what really made me decided to check this out was a twofold thing: it's a double album and ever since Ayreon I've always been a sucker for a double progressive metal album. But also was how well regarded it was quickly becoming, being ranked higher on 2017 progressive metal lists than even the likes of Ayreon, Anubis Gate and Mastodon. So I checked it out.

Man, am I ever glad that I did! Legends of the Shires is not only a great album, but it also made me realise that for over ten years there's been a Threshold sized hole in my album collection. This one will proudly be the first one, of what I plan to be many, to plug it.

The two disc release spans a total of just over eighty minutes, so it's only just over what a single CD can fit. This will no doubt make it seem a bit less daunting to approach than some double albums that can last for over two hours. Things are kicked off with The Shire (Part 1), a short acoustic introduction, albeit one that does feature vocals, before the first metal song, Small Dark Lines, really gets the album underway. This is a good one, quite catchy but with a real proggy solo section, but if there's a track here that's going to sell you early on, as it did me, it's the epic third one The Man Who Saw Through Time, which at just shy of twelve minutes is the album's longest song. This is a exemplary example of the progressive metal genre, featuring twists and turns, heavy and soft passages, plenty of soloing with both guitar and keyboard, but linked together by a strong vocal and lyric so it still sounds like a song instead of aimless noddling.

Three more excellent tracks take us to the end of the first disc, with some symphonic elements appearing starting with Trust the Process. Disc 2 then kicks off with The Shire (Part 2), which is musically and lyrically a throwback to the first part, though it's over twice the length and more like a full song in its own right this time and unlike Part 1, turns metal after a time. There's another brief recursion of this, The Shire (Part 3), later in the second disc. I do find the second disc to be a bit weaker than the first but there's still plenty of enjoyable material on offer, including another ten minute plus number, Lost in Translation. Despite the eighty-plus minute total length, it's a pretty easy album to take in one sitting, though can just as easily be broken into two chunks with each disc if preferred.

One thing's for sure about the whole thing though, Threshold know their craft, with plenty of riffs, melodies, progressiveness and most importantly memorable songs making up the album. Glynn Morgan, who let's be fair has to be thought of as that guy who sang on one Threshold album over twenty years ago and whose name isn't near as often associated as the voice of the band as much as Damian Wilson or Andrew "Mac" McDermott, proves to be something of a dark horse. His melodic voice is pretty stunning from start to finish, which really helps those lyrical hooks stay with you.

Threshold are old hands at this game now, and they're really showing the young guns how its done with Legends of the Shires (and maybe a certain founding father too after their own still recent double effort). I'm just sorry it took so long for me to catch on to how good they are. Legends of the Shires is undoubtedly deserving of all the praise it can get.

ELVENKING Secrets of the Magick Grimoire

Album · 2017 · Folk Metal
Cover art 4.69 | 5 ratings
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Italy's Elvenking are pretty much a staple band of the folk metal and power metal genres by this point. While for a long time I've considered their peak to actually be their first album Heathenreel (2001), they've remained an incredible consistent band for me. Their fourth record The Scythe (2007) was one that took a while to appreciate, but most of their work has been easy to enjoy, with the primarily acoustic record Two Tragedy Poets (...and a Caravan of Weird Figures) (2008) also ending up a surprise highlight of their discography. They had a brief period where their releases tended to focus on either the folk or power metal aspect of their music more, but with their last album The Pagan Manifesto (2014) they returned to the fused folk-power metal sound that they started with. This reunification of their elements continues on Secrets of the Magick Grimoire (2017), Elvenking's ninth album.

The Pagan Manifesto was a great album. Certainly the best metal album that Elvenking had done since Heathenreel (though for my money I retain a great deal of affection for Two Tragedy Poets). The band have lost none of the momentum that made it so great in the three years since it's release, a recording gap that saw them release their first live album The Night of Nights (2015). It is fair to say that in terms of the elements used that Secrets of the Magick Grimoire is a more of the same kind of release. It's folk-power metal with a dash of symphonic elements, the latter being one of the elements that distinguishes this period of the band from the actual Heathenreel days, as well as it's follow-up Wyrd (2004). While some listeners may prefer a band who are more unpredictable with every release, which could be said of Elvenking for their 2006 – 2012 releases where everything from The Winter Wake (2006) to Era (2012) showcased something a bit different each time, on Secrets of the Magick Grimoire it's actually exactly what the doctor ordered. This album isn't so much a rehash of the previous but a refinement of its sound.

It's difficult to explain in words exactly why that is. The best way to realise it is to listen to the two releases back to back. While nothing can diminish how excellent The Pagan Manifesto was or that it had more than a few of its own nods to the early days, Secrets of the Magick Grimoire just feels even more like a throwback to their roots. Naturally it's better produced and polished being their ninth rather than their first album, but otherwise it would actually be easy to mistake this as an older release of the band, it sits so comfortably with their earlier material, while also being a natural follow-up to The Pagan Manifesto. While not necessarily untrue of the previous as well, the song-writing here really seems tailored to appeal to the old school fan.

The energy of the power metal genre is fully evident, while the folk melodies are very tastefully integrated. Yet the album is no less excellent during those parts where the band do dial things back a bit, such as during The Wolves Will be Howling Your Name. Vocalist Damn is on fine form throughout, his distinctive voice as always acting like the icing on the cake within the band's sound. He's joined here by a few guest vocalists, such as female vocalist Elisabetta Furlanetto. Elvenking have regularly had guest female singers on their albums and some of their best material has come out of those collaborations, which is true here as well. There are also growls, maybe a few less than on The Pagan Manifesto overall, this time performed by Angus Norder of the bands Nekrokraft and Witchery, rather than former band member Jarpen. The most high profile guest though has to be Snowy Shaw, known for acts such as Notre Dame and Mad Architect as well as several guest appearances with Therion, who appears on At the Court of the Wild Hunt.

There's nothing here that won't be able to convince you that Secrets of the Magick Grimoire isn't another excellent album from Elvenking. There are no dull moments, with every track on a par with the rest. There's a couple that stand out early on, for me being A Grain of Truth and 3 Ways to Magick, but repeat listens will assert everything to be on the same level. I'll always admit whenever I review an Elvenking record that my favouritism for Heathenreel has a bit to do with nostalgia – it was through that record that I discovered this wonderful thing called folk metal – but there's a good chance that with continuing exposure I'll come to regard this one even higher. For now though, it's absolutely in the top three albums from the band.

Additionally if you don't mind spending a few extra quid, it's well worth picking up a special edition of Secrets of the Magick Grimoire. This will net you an additional four tracks. The first two of these are Petalstorm and The Open Breach, both of which were previously Japanese bonus tracks on prior albums. The real draw of the bonus material though is the 2010 version Jigsaw Puzzle. This song originally appeared on Wyrd, the only album in Elvenking's back catalogue not to feature the voice of Damna, so it's a window into what might have been had he not had a couple of years out of the band. Finally there's the 2008 version of Skywards, which is an acoustic version of the song originally from Heathenreel, undoubtedly from the Two Tragedy Poets sessions, though it doesn't appear to have been released before as far as I can tell. All are very much worth having.

EVILFEAST Elegies of the Stellar Wind

Album · 2017 · Atmospheric Black Metal
Cover art 4.50 | 1 rating
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It's been quite a while since the release of Wintermoon Enchantment (2011), the last full-length release by Polish atmospheric black metal solo project Evilfeast. Although there's been both an EP and a demo in the meantime, musician GrimSpirit has emerged back in full force at the tail end of 2017 with Elegies of the Stellar Wind, an album that may just upset any established lists of the best black metal releases of the year once you hear it.

Comprised solely of long songs (the shortest is over eight minutes) with no messing around with separate intros, interludes or outros, Elegies of the Stellar Wind is clearly written with being immersive in mind and it's very effective in succeeding at that. This is the kind of atmospheric black metal record where it's almost like a paradox against what metal music is usually about, featuring traditional raw and cold riff work that often merely serves to lay the groundwork for an even colder ambience (actually the first thing you'll hear when the album kicks off with The Second Baptism... Shores in Fire and Ice), to do its thing.

There are plenty of parts where the ambient elements are withdrawn and the focus is purely on the raw riffs and growling vocals of course (which every so often are switched to clean singing, which features prominently when used, especially in the final track Inclinata Resurgit... Rebirth of My Noble Dark Kingdom), such immediately following the ambient introduction of the opener. The album's certainly at its best and most majestic when the two worlds combine though. I'm reminded of a mix of the likes of Striborg and the raw yet atmospheric sound heard on albums such as Autumnal Melancholy (2008) and Midnight Odyssey through the majestic ambient parts such as on the Shards of Silver Fade (2015) album.

While the extremely raw sound of the album may prove a detriment to all but the most fervent of black metal listener, to those among us who appreciate the style that Elegies of the Stellar Wind delivers the record is quick to establish itself as being something special. The mood captures both the winter season that the album was released in while also giving off some dark, medieval vibes. It's enough to be drawn in straight away, then keeps hold of my attention throughout, despite the considerable total length of 67:24 minutes. The first listen can easily be spent just revelling in all the fine details coming off the synths that it's only on the next go around that an appreciation starts to form for the real old school black metal guitar riffs that GrimSpirit has crafted. I usually prefer my black metal to sound a bit less fuzzy than this, but I have to admit that anything more would throw the combine atmosphere of guitars and synths off kilter. It's a delicate thing to balance, but one which is handled to perfection here.

It may not be pretty or polished, yet Elegies of the Stellar Wind resonates high up on the levels of creativity. It's an excellent release and even surprising work that despite it's late year release has quickly cracked my black metal top five for the year. It's because of that late in the year release date that I nearly missed it in time to include it in my annual best of year list. That would have been a shame, so don't make the same mistake I almost did.

NIGHT VIPER Exterminator

Album · 2017 · Heavy Metal
Cover art 4.54 | 3 ratings
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Sweden. As far as metal goes it's probably best known for its death metal, a lot of it of the melodic death variety, especially the Gothenburg scene. It's also got a strong heritage in both black metal and doom metal through acts such as Dissection and Katatonia respectively, among others. What it's less known for it's it's output of classic heavy metal bands, especially in the eighties. There's Heavy Load who are likely the best known band unless one counts the more hard rock chart bothering Europe, the neoclassical metal virtuoso Yngwie J. Malmsteen or the relocated Oz (who are Finnish), Swedish heavy metal in the eighties is mostly made up of lesser known acts who you're most likely to have only heard of if you either A) are Swedish or B) have extensively researched the scene.

In spite of this, Sweden does keep turning out modern bands that fly the flag for traditional metal, old school sound included. So arguably the country actually has a better heavy metal scene now than it ever did, which in times where modern traditional albums continually get overlooked in favour of their eighties counterparts is quite something. Night Viper, a female fronted act who released their self-titled debut album in 2015, is the latest of these to come my attention and they've really got me excited about what their country has to offer the heavy metal genre. Exterminator (2017), is their second full-length effort.

If you've previously heard the Night Viper self-titled effort, then it will be quickly apparent when Exterminator kicks off with No Escape that the band have had a little bit of a shift in sound in the couple of years since the first album's release. They're still playing old school heavy metal with a nice, crisp production sound that really highlights the riffs, but it's been tempered with an often pronounced edge of speed metal or thrash metal, depending on the song. This starts off right away with some speed metal references in No Escape, but is most prominent in the following track, the short but powerful Summon the Dead, which is the closest the album comes to having a full on thrash metal song. These additional influences give Night Viper's material a faster and more aggressive edge than traditional heavy metal usually has, while still being more about classic galloping rhythms.

Starting with Never Win we start to hear some more straight heavy metal from the band like that found on their debut, which while not as hard hitting is still just as satisfying work. Following this we hear the speed/thrash edge again in tracks such as the Exterminator title track, Ashes, Lady Bad Luck and All That Remains, while the rest is more classic old school heavy metal. Regardless of whether the song in question has this or not though, the one thing that's uniform across the album is the band's growth as instrumentalists. They come across as a real tight unit across the board, while vocalist Sofie-Lee Johansson has a strong melodic voice that carries the songs well; making them easy to follow and to keep the choruses going around in your head.

Whether the speed/thrash metal edge heard on and off on Exterminator is an indication that Night Viper is evolving more towards that kind of sound remains to be seen – the kind of thing that will only be answerable with the hindsight of time and another release from the band – but one thing's for sure: they've delivered a heavy metal highlight of 2017 in this one. Exterminator is the kind of release that's fun to listen to and doesn't inflict anything that a metalhead of any taste shouldn't want to hear: if you like heavy metal, you should like this album. And if you don't like this album, then I'll have to presume you don't like heavy metal.

PSYCHEDELIC WITCHCRAFT Sound Of The Wind

Album · 2017 · Heavy Psych
Cover art 4.43 | 5 ratings
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Although their formerly shared their vocalist Virginia Monti with the doom metal band Dead Witches and the remainder of the band are also involved with hard rockers Magnet, Italians Psychedelic Witchcraft haven't up until this point been a particularly heavy band themselves. This is in spite of also being easily grouped with acts such as Blood Ceremony through the retro rock connection. With their second full-length album Sound of the Wind (2017), they're clearly set out to change this. This one's a real hard rocker!

With ten new tracks under their belt, the band, whose first album was mostly a straight psychedelic rock affair with the occasional heavier edge creeping in, have near enough fully embraced heavy psych on Sound of the Wind. There's the odd moment where things are dialled back considerably, including the title track which sounds as if it could be a lost Jefferson Airplane number. I'm very much reminded of that band's famous White Rabbit during it fact. Mostly though, this album is all about rocking hard but with plenty of psychedelic vibes throughout. It's even close to metal at points, in terms of heaviness if not technique, though there's a vague air of traditional doom if you listen closely enough.

An improvement on the decent but ultimately less interesting (especially to the heavy rock and/or metal fan) debut, Sound of the Wind is quick to assert itself as one of the best hard rock albums of 2017. Despite this I have to say that it's that title track that sounds out as it's crowning achievement, but it's a strong record from start to finish. Perhaps more to the point it stands out in the crowd of these female fronted psychedelic heavy rock bands that have been (justifiably) quite popular in recent years, thanks in no small part to the increased heaviness of the guitar riff. Along with this potent riffage, the use of psychedelic melodies really pushes the album up a level, as do the charming vocals from Virginia Monti, whose voice fits perfectly and is a real delight to take in.

Overall I'm very impressed by Psychedelic Witchcraft's change in direction to becoming a heavier band and hope to hear more work in this style from them.

VULTURE The Guillotine

Album · 2017 · Speed Metal
Cover art 3.00 | 1 rating
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There's something about the appearance of Germany band Vulture's debut full-length album The Guillotine (2017) that just screams old school. It's not an empty promise either, since the music is much the same: speed metal straight out of eighties Germany that is so convincingly replicated in all aspects, especially the production, that you'd be forgiven feeling the need to do a double take and check the album's credentials just to make sure this isn't just some unearthed gem that didn't see the light of day way back when, in the dark ages where the Internet didn't allow music to spread like a wildfire. But no, Vulture have only been around since 2015 and have, to date, a preceding demo and single to their name. The guys in the band are hardly strangers to the speed metal style though, with other band credits between them including acts such as Wifebeater and Bulldozing Bastard.

Compared to those other bands who each mix speed metal with something else such as black metal (Bulldozing Bastard) or crust punk (Wifebeater), Vulture represents a much more 'pure' take on the genre, like the band members took the common element between their other ventures and ran with just that, rarely even delving into more full-on thrash metal. This is to say that the record comes over as one dimensional, but speed metal is the kind of genre that can be gotten away with since out of all metal genres it's actually rarely represented in such a pure form as found on The Guillotine.

Things are kicked off though with some keyboards in what on another album may have been a separated intro track but instead takes up a chunk of the opener Vendetta. The Guillotine reminds a little of the way Blind Guardian's Battalions of Fear (1988) opens in this respect, but unlike with Majesty's quirky circus sounds, Vulture's keys sadly sound a bit naff and the band kind of overdo them here too, going on for over a minute before the guitars finally explode into life. From here the band begin a business as usual kind of approach to their music. Fast and loose sounding riffs that are mostly old school and raw, but with plenty of melodic parts that don't quite push them into the territory of closely related genre power metal. The vocals follow a similar pattern, sometimes rapidly barked and hysterical, sometimes more restrained and sometimes semi-harsh and sometimes with the high register let off its leash. It's a varied performance that comes over as delivered with passion, but I have trouble following the lyrics the singer is spurting.

This goes on until Adrian's Cradle (perhaps a reference to their fellow German's Running Wild and their mascot Captain Adrian?), when the synths return briefly, but then it's back to the usual, at least until the following track, (This Night Belongs) To the Dead, which throws in some acoustic guitars instead. There's a pattern here to how the band diverges from their usual and I don't think it would hurt them to vary their formula up a bit in other ways every so often, since calling The Guillotine a formulaic record overall isn't wrong. Being intentionally old school it's not exactly an original sounding album either, though it makes up for what in lacks in that regard by being packed full of riffs and it does indeed have a kind of nostalgic charm surrounding it that makes it an easy listen for anyone who likes their eighties metal and is sure to put some smiles on faces.

What it doesn't do is surpass those that came before it, but Vulture improving as song-writers will no doubt go a long way to help with that, since individual identity proves the biggest detraction while listening to The Guillotine. It's quite a fun album while it lasts, but afterwards little of it sticks with me. The closing Cry for Death is to my ears the best of the eight songs and the only one I can remember any specific thing about upon conclusion aside from those brief track intro diversions, standing out mainly for its lead melody. In summary The Guillotine is a classic case of needing that extra spark to elevate it to noteworthiness.

BLAZE OF PERDITION Conscious Darkness

Album · 2017 · Black Metal
Cover art 3.16 | 3 ratings
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Here's a story about me, your humble reviewer: black metal is my favourite genre of metal music. That means that more than any other genre I spend a lot of time checking out black metal acts, both old and new, to the point where buying used job lots of black metal albums on ebay is a thing that's happened several times now, all of them more or less blind. It's through this habit that I've greatly expanded my experience of the genre. I now believe I can safely say that I've heard most if not all facets of this diverse musical style, everything from the traditional to the melodic, atmospheric to the depressive, symphonic to the pagan and even a bit of the obscure war metal style and stuff that is so avant-garde that is sounds mentally unhinged.

This is not a boast, but the build up to this following statement: through listening to so much black metal music I've discovered it to be the genre of metal that, in my experience at least, is continually showing the most innovation, certainly more than most so called progressive metal bands do, which played a big part in it becoming my favourite. This year (2017) alone has served up the likes of oltreLuna by Progenie Terrestre Pura, which packs all kinds of unusual elements into it, from tribal beats to even dupstep. Then there is Futility Report by White Ward, which melds the blackgaze sub-genre with saxophone led jazz sounds. This is not to mention Ebne Graun by Todesstoß, an exceptionally creepy release that effectively melds depressive black metal, funeral doom metal and dungeon synth into a single 46:23 long song. So when Conscious Darkness, the fourth full-length by Polish black metal act Blaze of Perdition comes along and immediately makes a similar splash in the black metal waters to the above albums it should go without saying that my interest would be piqued and I'd make it a priority to check the release out to see what the fuss is about.

The fairy tale ending to this story would be that Conscious Darkness turned out to be just as much of, if not an even more creative release as those examples I highlighted in the previous paragraph. But this is where we've hit a major plot twist in our tale. In a year with both highly innovative albums such as those listed above and also exceptionally strong if less 'out there' ones like Wode's Servants of the Countercosmos and Fen's Winter, titles it's also mentioned in the same breath as, Conscious Darkness surprises by its sheer mediocrity. Maybe it has simply fallen victim to its own hype train; the phenomenon where an album is talked about by so many or is simply gushed over so much by a more niche audience that by the time you, who are a little late to the party, get to hear it, you subconsciously go into it with high and potentially unrealistic expectations that even the average 'very good' album isn't going to meet.

I have to say I do think that's what has happen here with Blaze of Perdition's Conscious Darkness, since I certainly don't mean to imply that I hear this as a terrible record. Not by any means. It even has some great moments, but they're counterbalanced by equally poor ones. Overall it's more like a listenable record that despite being able to hold my attention ultimately underwhelms by the time I've got through the four track, 43:03 long duration. For a while I couldn't put my finger on why that could be, because listening to it I couldn't honestly say I was hearing the kind of by the numbers generic black metal release that are all too common these days. The band's music though instantly recognisable as black metal doesn't have a typical sound. Their instrumentation sounds more, for want of a better description, chaotic, sometimes to the point of dissonance. It also seems apparent that the guys in the band were influenced by more than a single avenue of music when writing it and it's not hard to imagine that they've put a lot of thought into creating this release. So what exactly is the problem?

After a few listens waiting to see if the album would open up as familiarity set in (which it did to a point), it finally hit me. For all intents and purposes Conscious Darkness actually was a fairly typical black metal record, more so after you've scratched the surface of it. While this isn't a barrier to enjoyment – I noted a couple of fairly typical albums for their styles earlier on in this review that I have personally given high scores this year – there's an inescapable feeling when listening to this one that somewhere in the gears of this well oiled machine someone has left a wrench.

This is less evident in the opening track A Glimpse of God, which I'd say is the best on offer, but it certainly becomes apparent during the next one, Ashes Remain, which is the album's longest song. For a time it serves up much the same as the previous – nothing unusual for a black metal release there – but then the band dial back the metallic parts and throw in an extended softer section – again, nothing unusual for a black metal release there – but this is where that pesky wrench near grinds everything to a halt: this section is really not very good at all and serves to really highlight the problems with the rest of the release. Though softer and more atmospheric, things are still incredibly muddy during this section, not really allowing much detail to stand out. It's easy to backtrack then and realise that the album was much the same before this part kicked in. The real kicker during this soft section though are the vocals. Switched from the usual growl to a clean voice, they're delivered in little more than a drawling spoken word.

Even with this realisation Conscious Darkness does, overall, still manage to be a listenable black metal release. But it never transcends beyond that, it's most memorable parts being memorable for all the wrong reasons. Additionally with the longest two tracks lined up first over half if it is done and dusted by the time you've got through that non-metal section and to say that the album is derailed by that point is an understatement. The next two tracks Weight of the Shadow and Detachment Brings Serenity are better, but even though both are still pretty long it's just not enough time and material for the release to recover much in my regards. Ultimately what's left is an album that is neither worthless nor worthwhile, just something that exists slap-bang in the middle of the road, adrift within the seas of the mundane.

BURNING WITCHES Burning Witches

Album · 2017 · Heavy Metal
Cover art 4.37 | 6 ratings
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Though she already had two albums under her belt with the band Atlas & Axis, Swiss guitarist Romana Kalkuhl still had a dream to fulfil: to be a part of an all female heavy metal band. To that end, Burning Witches were founded in 2015 and have now released their 2017 self-titled debut album. For me it's gone somewhat under the radar since originally dropping in May, but I'm sure glad to have picked up on it now, since what we have here may just be 2017's best hidden gem of traditional heavy metal. The album was co-produced by Schmier of thrash metal band Destruction fame, who also provides some additional vocals on the track Metal Demons.

The sound heard on the album speaks volumes toward what kind of bands have influenced the musicians in Burning Witches. If the Judas Priest cover of Jawbreaker closing the album wasn't a big enough clue, then it's easy to hear the influence of Judas Priest in the sound of the band's original songs too. Though Jawbreaker comes from Defenders of the Faith (1984), I find myself thinking more toward Painkiller (1990) era of Judas Priest when listening to this album. For Judas Priest Painkiller has this really 'next level' feel about it. It was harder and faster than much of what they'd done before. Although this is Burning Witches debut record and the passage of time does make it considerably less revolutionary in 2017 than Painkiller was in 1990, the vibe it gives off is actually quite similar: there's definitely something extra here compared to what the typical heavy metal album in 2017 has. Something that gives Burning Witches a lot more bite.

In many ways the record seems written with a very classic feel to it, but in others its really quite modern, making use of strong production values to make the band's riffs hit as hard as possible and also featuring a pretty hefty dose of power metal, meaning the heaviest end of the genre that brings mind to German bands such as Grave Digger and Rebellion, as well as a few extreme metal elements via the use of some harsh vocals, found most prominently in tracks such as Bloody Rose and The Dark Companion, the latter of which, though it starts soft, is otherwise full of classic heavy metal galloping riffs.

The first two songs on the album do a good job of showcasing how well Burning Witches blend both heavy metal and power metal on the album. The opener Black Widow leans more on power metal, featuring speedy riffs but played in a decidedly aggressive manner, with a rawer sound than power metal is typically known for having. Then there band serves up their self-titled song Burning Witches, which is much more mid-paced but still heavy. This is where the harsh vocals first appear from singer Seraina Telli, but also some more high registered parts interlaced with them, which were also used in the opening scream of Black Widow. There are definitely times during the record where it sounds like Telli is channelling her inner Halford, with Black Widow especially coming across like it wouldn't have been out of place on Painkiller.

The song-writing continues to prove consistent across the album both in terms of quality and style. Burning Witches continually gives the impression that they're not messing around. There's no elongation of any songs (the longest is a little under five and half minutes), no needless progressive or symphonic elements and no bullshit. If the mission was to produce arse-kicking songs, then Burning Witches can consider themselves victorious. There's a lone ballad, Save Me, placed right in the middle of the release (which you can hear an acoustic version of if you have the Japanese release of the album), but even though ballads can often disrupt the flow of heavy and power metal albums that isn't the case here. It's actually just as good as anything else the band has included. Everything about the album says that it's heavy/power metal played with conviction and passion. It's real hard not to be won over by that.

That's what makes it easy to invest many repeat listens in it without getting tired of it. The songs are memorable, especially opener Black Widow, self-titled anthem Burning Witches, extreme edged Bloody Rose, speedy Creatures of the Night, and the playing right into the witch theme We Eat Your Children. All the songs are strong though; there are no low points here. The Jawbreaker cover is also pretty good too; Burning Witches certainly haven't disgraced themselves there. It's just an excellent debut in every aspect.

BELL WITCH Mirror Reaper

Album · 2017 · Funeral Doom Metal
Cover art 3.86 | 8 ratings
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US funeral doom metal duo had released just two full-length albums, Longing (2012) and Four Phantoms (2015), when their line-up was split in two following drummer/vocalist Adrian Guerra's departure. Bands change line-up all the time but this change was tragically made all the more profound when a year later, in 2016, Adrian Guerra passed away. Mirror Reaper (2017) is the group's, which now consists of Dylan Desmond (bass, vocals) and new member Jesse Shreibman (drums, vocals), first new recording since then. The monolithic, eighty-three minute long single song album can be seen as a eulogy to their fallen comrade, whose presence is still felt by the insertion of some vocals recorded before his untimely death at the age of just 35, credited under 'the words of the dead'.

Because Mirror Reaper is so long, physical versions of it have to split the song into multiple parts. The CD version has two discs with the track split into two (titled As Above and So Below) while the vinyl is also a double, with the track split into four parts. It's worth pointing out at this point that at least in the case of the CD version the physical pressing does NOT come with a download code so buyers can also obtain the full uninterrupted version of the album. Without confirmation, I'd assume that the vinyl is the same. This, while I won't allow it to affect my rating in this review, is a considerable omission to make in my view, making Mirror Reaper one of the extremely rare cases where the physical version can be deemed inferior to the digital (more so because the digipak packaging is one of the most shoddily made I've ever encountered).

In any form Mirror Reaper is a daunting journey, one that I'm certain most potential listeners will want to think hard about whether they even want to try taking it. Those that do will definitely need to find themselves in the right frame of mind, and set aside enough time to take the whole composition in during a single sitting regardless of whether you're listening to the seamless digital version or the four part vinyl version. A piece like this loses its impact if you decide to take a break of any length and while at least in the case of the CD version the split between the As Above part and the So Below part does make sense, So Below doesn't work near so well as a stand alone track.

Funeral doom metal is known for its plodding pace and atmosphere of misery and that's exactly what is delivered on Mirror Reaper, via some quite extended length non-metal sections, especially during the So Below part of the song. No idea is treated like a flash in the pan thing, but is drawn out for ages. The vocals range from growling to hypnotic chant to subdued singing. Despite the growls, there's no forays into actual death-doom like the works of Evoken or Esoteric, so it's pretty much a dirge from start to finish. In that sense, Mirror Reaper may just be an example of funeral doom metal at its most pure, though since there are no guitars and it's all done on bass the sound is a little difference to the average band. At least it's a pure funeral doom metal sound until one of the non-metal passages hits, then it's something else, yet still very much funeral and very much doom, just without the metal.

Mirror Reaper is not, understandably, an easy album. I expect that many who give it a go will find it to be too much in one way or another. To many, this will be far too long than any one song has a right to be. For others the length in itself won't be an issue but the snail's pace tempo will be. For more still it will be how it actually sounds. Mirror Reaper is certainly a dreary affair, even depressing at times, but that's hardly surprising given the genre and backstory and the death of Adrian Guerra. It's true that the point, musically speaking, could likely be accomplished in a much shorter yet still lengthy composition and that to some ears it may have been better for it. Those people will be entitled to their opinion, while I will remain steadfast in mine that they just don't get it. All things considered it seems highly appropriate that Bell Witch went all out with Mirror Reaper and produced something that will stand tall as a monumental work of what funeral doom metal is all about. This is their tribute to their fallen bandmate and it's certainly not found wanting. Even being so long there's definitely a coherence to the whole composition so that despite all the pitfalls it could fall into it never actually feels aimless.

Mirror Reaper will not go down as an album that will grace my speakers with any kind of regularity, but it's one I'm pleased to have taken the plunge on for when the mood strikes. Bell Witch have crafted a quality, well thought out work here.

WODE Servants of the Countercosmos

Album · 2017 · Black Metal
Cover art 4.50 | 3 ratings
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Black metal may have got its true start in Norway, but in recent years the United Kingdom, metal's birthplace, has become it's own little hotbed of quality acts making names for themselves. A few notable names being A Forest of Stars, Fen, Wodensthrone (sadly now defunct) and Winterfylleth. The latest band who are set to follow in their footsteps is Wode, who, like A Forest of Stars and Winterfylleth, hail from Manchester. Although their debut album, the self-titled Wode (2016), was released only a little over a year prior, this young act has wasted no time in delivering a follow-up. With their line-up expanded to four members, Servants of the Countercosmos (2017) has been unleashed and with it, Wode really make their mark.

The first thing anyone who picked up on these guys with their debut will notice is, before they've even started the music up, that even though Servants of the Countercosmos features the exact same amount of tracks as its predecessor (six), that the running time of the album is actually considerably shorter. We're talking a total time of 31:24 opposed to Wode's 47:51. The rather more atmospheric influenced debut was mainly made up of mostly long songs while for this second effort, Wode have trimmed up their writing style, leaving only one long track among Servants of the Countercosmos' number, Chaosspell, which is effectively the finale not counting the acoustic outro piece Undoing, which to me sounds as if it's actually part of the same song with an unnecessary track divider.

While the self-titled debut was a very good effort, I have to say that Servants of the Countercosmos makes for a much more instantly compelling release from Wode. The more concise writing certainly helps in that regard, but it's the more aggressive playing style the band has employed that really does it. The music is largely lacking the more atmospheric black metal elements of the debut, favouring the direct approach in every aspect. Far from a one trick pony release despite the fairly traditional style they play, Wode more than make up for the lack of additional influences this time by jam packing the album with hard hitting riffs and songs that use them to quickly establish themselves as distinct compositions. The lead growling vocals are also delivered with a similar power as the riffs, coming across like an oppressive presence that commands the sounds of blackened brutality. Though not exactly polished to melodic black metal standards, the album certainly benefits from a decent production job that avoids the excessively raw and/or cold sounds associated with the style, which really allows the guitar riffs to stand out and make their mark.

It's an experience that is over all too soon of course, but that also makes Servants of the Countercosmos a very easy album to keep going back to, one that also stands out for me as one of 2017's best traditional black metal offerings. I'm definitely looking forward to hearing more from Wode, because if their evolution so far is anything to judge by, album number three will be a real monster.

ARGUS From Fields of Fire

Album · 2017 · Heavy Metal
Cover art 4.26 | 7 ratings
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I'm sure that most metal fans, like myself, when they think of the genre's base sound, traditional heavy metal, their first thoughts are drawn to the classic acts from the seventies and eighties. Black Sabbath. Iron Maiden. Judas Priest. Accept. Motörhead. The list could go on, but I'm sure you get the idea. If you go on music rating websites and call up a chart of traditional heavy metal releases it'll be the rare album that is newer than being from 2000 and most that are will be by the long established groups. Newer traditional metal acts may obtain a small but loyal following, but seem to be doomed to forever sit in the shadow of their forebears. As good as the classics are this is a shame, because there's quite a few bands formed this side of the year 2000 that proudly fly the flag for unmodernised traditional heavy metal and play the style convincingly. The latest of these to make my shortlist for being the 'real deal' is US act Argus, whose fourth album From Fields of Fire (2017) is ready to assert them as one of the contenders to be heir to this classic genre's crown.

I first became aware of Argus with their second album Boldly Stride the Doomed (2011). Back then, they had a sound that was more of a blend of heavy metal and traditional doom metal, leaning more on the latter to my ears. But with their next album Beyond the Martyrs (2013) the group focussed more on their heavy metal side. Rather than being the kind of coincidental writing fluke that can happen with acts who blend two genres more or less equally it looks like the change was intentional, since From Fields of Fire features a similar approach; occasionally doomy traditional heavy metal played with distinctive, meaty guitar riffs and topped by powerful vocals from Brain 'Butch' Balich.

After a brief intro instrumental, the first full song Devils of Your Time starts up and it's an instant winner that sets the tone for the album. Argus must have been recording in these fields they keep harping on about because they really are on fire here! This is classic sounding heavy metal done with such strength and conviction that had Argus been around in the eighties they'd surely have been a major name today alongside the other eighties greats. And it continues through another seven songs, including the eleven minute epic Infinite Lives, Infinite Doors without skipping a beat, finally drawing to a close with a similar instrumental to what it opened with. Though very classic in style, the album does benefit from modern production standards, which makes it sound all that more potent.

While I didn't like the predecessor Beyond the Martyrs quite as much, I have to say that From Fields of Fire certainly represents a step up for Argus and while it hasn't topped Boldly Stride the Doom as the band's best album for me, it certainly provides ample proof that Argus has a future playing this semi-doomy style of heavy metal and also elevates the band in my regards in relation to other newer heavy metal acts such as Dark Forest (the UK band) and A Sound of Thunder. Undoubtedly this album is the best heavy metal album I've heard from 2017 so far or am likely to for the remainder.

NECROMANDUS Necromandus

Album · 2017 · Hard Rock
Cover art 4.00 | 2 ratings
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Although it's become somewhat prevalent for bands of the seventies and eighties who never really made it while they were young to make a comeback years down the line, one group that it probably wouldn't have been expected of is UK hard rockers Necromandus. After all, most of the band's original line-up is now deceased, with only drummer Frank Hall still around. Necromandus were only active between 1970 and 1973 and the lone album they recorded was released posthumously in various forms, originally without the band's permission or even knowledge until after the event. Hall has been quoted as being 'staggered' to discover the recordings on the market (having been told by his mother) and being 'happy and annoyed at the same time'.

It probably shouldn't have been that way. In the early seventies hard rock/heavy metal scene they had just about the best endorsement that a band could get having been taken under the wing of none other than Tony Iommi, who managed them and had them open for Black Sabbath, but things were not meant to be. Guitarist Barry Dunnery quit the band in 1973, which resulted in a rapid downward spiral that saw record label Vertigo drop them and the debut album shelved.

Revived in 2016 by Frank Hall with the aim to record a new album based off of the old material from the seventies, the new Necromandus line-up was born, including the son of late vocalist Bill Branch, John Branch, filling his father's role in the band. Necromandus (2017) is the result of their labours. At least some songs will be familiar to those who heard one of the various versions of the original debut, even if the titles aren't: opener Don't Look Down Frank was Nightjar on those releases (Don't Look Down Frank being the actual title that would have been used had the album been released in the seventies, apparently).

Though newly recorded, the music on Necromandus remains faithful to the seventies style of hard rock and even in some places actual heavy metal, often with a progressive twist. Despite the ties to Iommi and Black Sabbath back in the seventies I'm reminded more of Budgie during the heavier and more metallic parts of the album. The guitar riffs have an excellent sound with plenty of bite, though there are also plenty of softer and melodic parts. There are also heavy psych elements to be found, especially in the parts of the album where the keyboards are more prominent. They never actually had a keyboardist back during their original career, this new line-up being a five-piece rather than a four, but they certainly fit in well and offer up additional variety in the album, of which there is plenty of to begin with: the songs have no issue with individual identity.

The songs themselves are both hard rocking and catchy, with Hymn To Her, The Warriors and the closer And She Smiles in particular sticking in my head for ages after the event, while other highlights are the opening duo of Don't Look Down Frank and Alauna. The vocals from John Branch are crystal clear and his voice is very similar to his father's from what I've heard of older Necromandus recordings. It definitely feels right that he is singing on this record and not someone else and in fact this album is in itself a fitting tribute by Frank Hall to his original bandmates. It's like both the album that should have been finally seeing the light of day (despite those various versions of the original debut) and the beginning of a new chapter. It remains to be seen of course whether this will go down as one last hurrah for the Necromandus name or if, like others before them such as eighties NWoBHM act Hell, they'll continue to produce new material. I hope so, because this one is a keeper.

MONOLORD Rust

Album · 2017 · Doom Metal
Cover art 4.00 | 4 ratings
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Monolord's Rust (2017) has a simple yet eye-catching cover: two up-ended cars against a cloudy sky with, aptly, a great deal of rust in evidence. It looks not unlike like something you might run across when playing post-apocalyptic video game series Fallout (in fact, google Fallout 4's carhenge to see something that could easily be an extension of this album cover). What does that have in common with rust? Decay. Something that's past its prime, left to rot or simply put out to pasture. Despite it's name, Rust, which is this Swedish band's third album, is certainly not music that can be accused of such things and is actually some pretty compelling and heavy doom metal work that nevertheless displays a subdued vibe that fits with such themes.

The music on Rust is built on the simple premise that its listener is going to want to hear fuzzy guitar riffs that are heavy on the bass and then delivers them in abundance. Also containing elements of stoner metal and even a little bit of psychedelic rock, this doom metal record keeps the pace slow and the guitar tones heavy for most of its duration, but doesn't lack for melody either. The record can get a little samey at times, though in a hypnotic kind of manner, but is certainly engrossing at its finest moments such as early highlight Dear Lucifer, which is definitely one that will stick in many heads once they hear it.

Decent through it's first four tracks, Monolord then really hit their stride with a pair of long tracks to close the album, Forgotten Lands and At Niceae, which take up a little over half the running time between them. The band are clearly skilled at making the long track format work, but there is an unfortunate side-effect here where most of what came before, except Dear Lucifer whose title line will still be repeating in your head at that point, is eclipsed by them. It would be wrong to call Rust a patchy release since it's solid work all the way through, but it does feel like one that's clasping at but never grabbing true greatness.

I haven't heard Monolord's earlier albums Empress Rising (2014) and Vænir (2015) to say how well Rust compares, but I do know that despite some minor issues I enjoyed this one quite a lot and any who appreciate the more fuzz-drenched acts of the doom genre will certainly find something to love here.

CALIGULA'S HORSE In Contact

Album · 2017 · Progressive Metal
Cover art 4.39 | 5 ratings
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Australian band Caligula's Horse are a group I've often heard good things said about, but more from the progressive rock crowd than the metal crowd, despite the group's equal association as a progressive metal act. Indeed, when I recently spotted their latest album (their fourth) In Contact (2017) in a music store, it was filed in the Rock & Pop section. This led me to believe that, much like groups such as Enchant, that they were the kind of band who applied a metal edge to an otherwise progressive rock sound. So upon deciding that I'm in the mood to see what progressive rock can offer me in 2017 and choosing Caligula's Horse's In Contact as the first album to check out, I have to say that I've completely misjudged them. Though the band also offer up plenty of softer sections of music/tracks to provide contrasting sounds more often than not they're as heavy and metallic as non-extreme progressive metal gets. What is the point this introduction is making you ask? Well, it just seems to me that there's been less association between the band and metal, when In Contact is an album that fans of progressive metal shouldn't be overlooking.

The vocals by Jim Grey may be exceptionally melodic (I've very much reminded of Haken's Ross Jennings), but the riffs from Sam Vallen and new member Adrian Goleby are heavy and punchy. Sometimes it's in a classic way à la the Dream Theater school, in others it's in a noticeably modern way, even pushing djent at one point. At another there's even a speedy power metal section. The band's instrumentalists certainly don't skimp on the progressive technicalities and intricacies the way some so called modern progressive metal bands do either. Unlike many which get saddled with this overused label, In Contact actually deserves the description. The album is like the perfect fusion of both the progressive rock and heavy metal worlds, offering up the kind of merger that will hold appeal to fans of both crowds without either feeling that it's made a little more for the other.

For the last few years I've found a lot of progressive metal, especially of the more traditional kind like this, to be completely stale, so it shouldn't be understated how quickly this album manages to impress. I'm hooked long before the opening track Dream the Dead is concluded. There's only one track on In Contact that I really don't care for, which is Inertia and the Weapon of the Wall. This one is a spoken word theatrical piece that serves as little more than an interlude. Though convincingly performed, with it running for almost three minutes I'd ready for Caligula's Horse to start up the music that they're so good at before even a third of it is through. It's a disruption to what is otherwise an album that flows together excellently, with the songs quickly asserting their own identities through use of great riffs and equally strong melodic parts. The opening trio of Dream the Dead, Will's Song (Let the Colours Run) and The Hands are the Hardest are especially good, as is the 15:31 long epic closer Graves.

I'm certainly going to have to backtrack and check out Caligula's Horse's earlier albums now, because if they are half as good as In Contact I've been missing out on one of modern progressive metal's best bands. A highlight for their genre in 2017 without a doubt.

ELDER Reflections of a Floating World

Album · 2017 · Heavy Psych
Cover art 3.05 | 9 ratings
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Active for a little over a decade now and US band Elder have certainly changed along the way. Starting life as a stoner/doom metal band and releasing the self-titled debut album Elder (2008) in this style, they've become increasingly more based in psychedelic and progressive sounds, which is the flavour of the day on the group's fourth full-length album, Reflections of a Floating World (2017).

Much like their last album Lore (2015), Reflections of a Floating World is a lengthy album made up of a short track list. Six tracks, each lasting for extended durations where the shortest offering is 8:39 long, with most surpassing ten minutes. The title track of Lore was longer than any of these here, but overall Reflections of a Floating World stands as Elder's longest record to date. With long running times like these it's obvious that the band wasn't writing with catchy tracks in mind, but something more atmospheric and intricate that requires the teeth to be sunk into and given several listens before it can really be appreciated.

Some elements of the band's earlier metal sound is still in evidence on the album, such as during opener Sanctuary, which starts off in such a way that you'd be forgiven for thinking nothing had changed since the debut, but mostly Elder have moved away from metal at this point and are better described as a heavy psych group with strong progressive rock influences in the structure of their compositions. They're still pretty heavy though. Plenty of vocals are used, but quite often there are extended instrumental sections, which prove to be the most interesting aspect of the band's music. Quite the range of different sounds can be heard within the same song from keyboard parts, clean tone guitars and metallic riffs. When the vocals are featured it's of note that frontman Nicholas DiSalvo's singing style has changed a lot since the band's early days, being much more melodic and in keeping with the more rock based music the band is playing now.

Reflections of a Floating World is certainly the kind of album that is a slow burn. There's a lot going on and a listener may be several listens deep before they've even started to get a grasp on the scope of the work Elder has created. It's pretty grand. The biggest issue facing the release though is that despite being very accomplished there isn't actually all that much to give the tracks identity from each other even after several complete listens. This makes it the kind of album that is best taken in a single sitting to get its full effect, but it's long duration may be a barrier to some listeners. The one track that really stands out as different is the much lighter and hypnotic instrumental Sonntag. Though the album as a whole can be described as an atmospheric work, that song takes it even further. Technically speaking though it's the least interesting of the bunch, slowly building and changing up small ideas in what's otherwise a fairly repetitive pattern. Fortunately it's the shortest song, but as mentioned earlier, that still makes it 8:39 long.

An intriguing album that I have to say does live up to its name in the way it inspires reflective contemplation in me, Reflections of a Floating World is not perfect by any means, but it's clear to me that the trio that make up Elder are a group of talented guys. They seem to still be in the transitional stage from their earlier stoner/doom metal sound though and haven't yet completely honed their new craft. For my part I find this album quite the pleasure while its running and can recognise the number of quality riffs found within, but after the event it's failing to leave too much of a lasting impression, and that's the kind of thing that is going to elevate Elder's music to the next level.

KALMANKANTAJA Routamaa

Album · 2017 · Atmospheric Black Metal
Cover art 3.46 | 3 ratings
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Not content with just releasing Demonwoods (2017) earlier in the year, Finland's productive black metallers Kalmankantaja are already back for another dose of their newfound atmospheric sound in the form of Routamaa (2017), their eleventh album. The band was only started in 2011, releasing their debut Kuolonsäkeet (2013) a couple of years later. The band used to play depressive black metal, but have moved over to atmospheric black metal with their recent releases, with Demonwoods completely shedding any depressive vibes that were still prevalent on their two prior albums Waldeinsamkeit (2016) and Tyhjyys (2016).

Where Demonwoods was made up of two long songs with a short interlude between them, Routamaa instead features six tracks of much shorter durations, ranging from the 4:35 long Ikijää to the 7:27 long Varjon ja Tulen Jumala. This actually ends up with the release being a little bit longer overall, despite Demonwoods title track being a near full ten minutes longer than anything here. The change in songwriting approach may be a conscious attempt from Kalmankantaja to not make the same album twice. If so, the band haven't really been successful or unsuccessful in that regard. Shorter compositions are by their nature generally more direct, which these are, but style wise Routamaa is more or less on the exact same page as its predecessor: atmospheric black metal without any atypical elements, stripped back to its base ingredients without excessive reliance on ambient and/or post-rock.

While calling the music a fairly standardised sound for the atmospheric black metal genre was a description that could also be applied to Demonwoods, the former was at least marked by its long format songs, which were made more noteworthy by having twists and turns take place within them. These six found on Routamaa are solid enough and very listenable, with the very melodic Kylmä Ikuinen standing out from the bunch, but all come across as less interesting by comparison. Though still of what I think of as a mid-length in general it does seem as if considerably less happens within these six songs. The production gives the album a tad harsher sound this time around which may appeal more to certain crowds, but at the end of the day, for me, I can't find Routamaa to be anything more than another atmospheric black metal album coming out of what is one of metal's most over-populated sub-genres. Decent supplemental material if you enjoy the band's other work, but if you don't know them yet and are interested in a recent album, get Demonwoods instead.

HAVUKRUUNU Kelle surut soi

Album · 2017 · Pagan Black Metal
Cover art 4.40 | 6 ratings
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Pagan black metal may just be the most loosely defined of the black metal sub-genres, if only by virtue of the fact that's its so often crossed with another black metal genre, usually atmospheric, that scant few artists actually play what could be described as pure pagan black metal. It's often used to add flavour and vibe to what is otherwise music that clearly belongs to the other sub-genre, with the work of acts such as Drudkh, Saor, Wodensthrone and Darkestrah springing to mind. Others simply exist on the fringes of it, otherwise playing fairly traditional black metal. More still amplify the folk element to it and ultimately become actual folk metal. As such, exactly what makes pagan black metal is something that, much like with the semi-related viking metal genre, is often misunderstood and categorised as a pseudo genre. This is not actually true. One band who excels at making pagan black metal as a distinct genre in its own right is Finland's Havukruunu, whose second full-length album Kelle Surut Soi (2017), puts them right up there with their countrymen Wyrd in that regard.

For most genres, describing something as textbook is like another way of saying it's completely generic, but that's not an argument that can really be applied the same way to pagan black metal, for the above reason. So when I say that Havukruunu play textbook pagan black metal on Kelle Surut Soi, I don't say it to be demeaning, but in admiration that these guys manage to capture this elusive genre so whole-heartedly. Folksy and with plenty of acoustic guitars to be heard right from the opening notes of Jo Näkyvi Pohjan Portit, yet with never a shortage of black metal riff work, some of it fast and some of it slower, with vocals that move between traditional growling and heathen chanting, results in songs that display a triumphant, epic character. The music feels tailored to celebrate the band's native Finland and its pagan ancestry.

Not being a Finnish speaker, following the lyrics of Kelle Surut Soi is a no go for me, but as with full-on folk metal I only find that to add to the authenticity of the compositions and the atmosphere the music creates. It's certainly not an issue against enjoying the release immensely, as Havukruunu's sound is quick to ensnare the eardrums. Not only is the black metal aspect satisfying and convincingly delivered, but everything else applied to it is tastefully done, especially the acoustic guitars. It results in an album that, even though it passes the fifty minute mark, is very easy to get so engrossed by that you don't notice the time passing at all. I would say that hands down, as few and far between as they are, that Kelle Surut Soi is the best pagan black metal release I've yet come across. This album represents a real lesson in how it should be done!

WRECHE Wreche

Album · 2017 · Avant-garde Metal
Cover art 3.45 | 2 ratings
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A haunting piano starts up, accompanied by numerous sound effects, especially creaking noises. It's an eerie intro track called Pruning the Spirit on Wreche (2017), the self-titled debut album of of this US duo. It's known that the group is supposed to play black metal, so for the one and a half minutes long track we wait for the inevitable, sudden assault of raw, distorted guitars...

...only it doesn't come. The track changes. This second one is called Angel City and it's indeed the first proper song on the album. Only the guitars don't show up. Why? Because there aren't any on this record at all. The band isn't even one of those bass driven ones, because there's none of those either. Wreche set out to create black metal with just three things. Vocals, drums, and piano. And by piano, they mean proper piano, sans any effects to imitate the distortion of a lead guitar. It would be easy to compare this to the work of Botanist who did a similar thing with hammered dulcimers, but Botanist has used bass and distorted their hammered dulcimers. Another artist this exists close to is Les Chants du Hasard, who applies black metal vocal to classical music. Unlike Wreche though, Les Chants du Hasard doesn't attempt to make its instrumentation actually sound like black metal as well. Wreche take the concept of throwing out the guitars to a whole other level.

It really shouldn't work, yet it does. It may not be heavy in the usual sense, but it's amazing how well traditional black metal rhythms can translate to the piano. The playing by John Steven Morgan is certainly amazing. Can it really be called metal? That's up for debate for sure and if it can count then it's surely better described as avant-garde, despite otherwise capturing the same essence as black metal and vocally even pushing on the boundaries of depressive black metal, especially during Angel City. Those are some really tortured and miserable vocals from John Steven Morgan there. That's actually in real contrast to the lively music heard in the three main songs Angel City, Fata Morgana and Vessel. The other member Barret Baumgart (also of Blood of Martyrs) drums away while all this is going on, but it's clear who the star of the show is here.

But is it really any good or just a novelty? Well, after a little while it does tend to get a bit samey. An ironic criticism I'm sure since such can undoubtedly be said of a lot of pure black metal records, or any genre for that matter, but it does feel as if Wreche has this one trick and once you've heard it you start to wonder what else they've got, because it quickly becomes clear that they've built everything they have upon it. Fortunately the album only runs for 33:32 minutes, so its not excessively long, but it does start to get a bit tedious even so, despite the accomplished piano playing. It would help I think if each track were a little more distinct (Petals is basically an interlude running for over three minutes, featuring slow, regular piano playing, so it doesn't count).

Much like with the aforementioned Les Chants du Hasard, this record ultimately leaves me wishing that instead of this business of basically saying 'hey, listen to what we can do' that the artists would apply these atypical interests to a proper black metal context. The guitar is the backbone of metal. We may enjoy the odd bass driven band such as Völur or Bell Witch, but most of us metalheads like our guitars. We're unlikely to listen to something that purposely throws them away too often. That at least is how I feel at the conclusion of Wreche. It's interesting, good in moderation, but now that I've written this review for it don't intend to revisit it for quite a long time. But if what I've heard here was applied to a normal black metal sound? Now that really sounds intriguing. Sign me right up.

SPECTRAL VOICE Eroded Corridors of Unbeing

Album · 2017 · Death-Doom Metal
Cover art 3.63 | 8 ratings
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Boasting a line-up that includes 75% of the US death metal act Blood Incantation (who released their debut album Starspawn last year), Paul Riedl (guitars), Morris Kolontyrsky (guitars) and Jeff Barrett (bass), with a line-up completed by Eli Wendler (drums, vocals), comes Spectral Voice, an ominous and menacing new entry in the directory of death-doom metal. These guys have been around for five years now and already have a number of demo and split releases to their name. They used to be a five-piece with Casey Hogan (Clad in Darkness) as their vocalist, but Wendler took over the role in 2016 in time for Eroded Corridors of Unbeing (2017), the group's rather unsettling debut studio album.

Heavily channelling the death metal element for their music, with a small dash of black metal for good measure, Spectral Voice's Eroded Corridors of Unbeing creates a vibe that is undeniably all about doom metal. Even during the parts of the music that feature faster guitar riffs atypical for the doom genre, that are more like they're straight out of old school death metal, they manage to make sound absolutely sinister, filling their listeners with dread. It's a feeling shared by the more atmospheric and slow parts. The band's immense, powerful sound feels completely evil and rotten to its very core.

It's often the case with new bands, especially extreme metal bands, that the actual songwriting ends up being the weak link in a group even when they've hit on a winning sound and have good musicianship, because the individual songs don't make an impression. That's not the case with Eroded Corridors of Unbeing, which shows the guys in Spectral Voice to be very capable and creative songwriters. Often throwing out traditional song structure, each one of the album's five tracks feels jam packed with ideas, whether it be the 13:59 long Visions of Psychic Dismemberment that uses its long duration to move through multiple distinct sections or the instrumental Lurking Gloom where the band really rev up their speed to deliver some pummelling riff work. Their production work is far from polished, in fact it sounds pretty filthy, but nothing is lost in the murk. The guitar riffs stand out, as does the band's flair for haunting melodic notes that can regularly be heard behind the distortion, subtly adding atmosphere to the aggression in one wicked, unholy union. The growls from Eli Wendler are also worth taking note of, since he uses a whole range of styles. Nothing monotonous about his performance at all!

With Eroded Corridors of Unbeing Spectral Voice have a record where there's none of the usual pitfalls that extreme metal styles can fall into. Many bands, especially new ones, tend to make records where everything sounds exactly the same all the time, meaning that even if they are good musicians and have a good sound production their songs end up lacking identity. That's definitely not to the case with this one. Their music may sit in the dark and gloomy end of metal, but Spectral Voice are shining a bright light on the future of the extreme metal scene.

ARCH ENEMY Will to Power

Album · 2017 · Melodic Death Metal
Cover art 3.23 | 10 ratings
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Sweden's Arch Enemy are the kind of band who I have always enjoyed but not necessarily found to be the most remarkable act around. Very hit and miss in terms of how interesting I find their albums, I was actually blown away by how much I enjoyed their last offering War Eternal (2014). Though the last ten years have resulted in a real up and down listening experience in terms of quality, I had high hopes resting on their eleventh album Will to Power (2017), which sees Jeff Loomis of Nevermore fame joining their ranks.

This is not just because of War Eternal being a new career high point for them, but because everything leading up to Will to Power seems to have being putting all the pieces in place for Arch Enemy to break their mould and deliver something that, at long last, brings their music to the next level. They have a vocalist in Alissa White-Gluz whose dual style of growls/clean singing was only lightly scratched on War Eternal (in a real blink and you'll miss it kind of way). They were showing tendencies of experimentation with symphonic elements on the last album, which were integrated well. And now they also have Jeff Loomis, one of the main writers of major (and very different to Arch Enemy) metal band Nevermore, whose new blood is surely going to influence their sound right?

Wrong. Loomis didn't contribute a single thing to Will to Power. The album feels so typically Arch Enemy that Michael Amott may as well just have played all the guitars himself and hired a session player for the second guitarist role when playing live. Such a noted player like Loomis feels wasted here as is. As for the other things I spoke of in the previous paragraph, the symphonic elements do make an appearance on a single track, the closer A Fight I Must Win, but mostly outside of a metal context. Otherwise they've evaporated into thin air. Alissa White-Gluz does use her clean singing voice on one song, Reason to Believe, which feels very much like a testing the waters kind of track to see how well fans receive it, while playing it completely safe with the rest of the release. And that's exactly how Will to Power comes across by and large. Safe and phoned in. The songs aren't bad in themselves, but it's nothing we haven't heard before from this band and many others in their genre.

In all fairness this isn't anything new with Arch Enemy, but unlike their best albums such as War Eternal and Rise of the Tyrant (2007) most songs aren't memorable individually after the event. That makes all the difference with a band like this. But as has always been the case in the past, Will to Power is not a terrible record by any means. I don't think Arch Enemy have ever made one of those. But it is very average and only made at all noteworthy by that one song Reason to Believe that uses clean vocals. That works really well, as I expected it would given the bands polished production sound. If only they'd been brave enough to use more of the clean singing.

Will to Power is the kind of record that makes one think whether Arch Enemy knows how much potential they have right now (I can't be the only one to hear it) or are content to just keep doing the same thing over and over, occasionally producing a War Eternal or Rise of the Tyrant quality album. I'm sure there's someone out there reading this and thinking 'but that's what they play, why should they change it?' and it's a valid point. And it would be fine if every album was as good as War Eternal. But as I see it when you're turning out more albums like Will to Power and the earlier Khaos Legions (2011) and Doomsday Machine (2005), where the term 'uninspired' springs to mind surely it's time for a bit of bravery with your writing and to use every weapon at your disposal? A band doesn't have to leave their established genre behind to make a record that sounds different from their others. This one just sounds over 90% recycled.

VATTNET Vattnet

Album · 2017 · Progressive Metal
Cover art 2.96 | 5 ratings
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When US post-black metal act Vattnet Viskar parted ways with their frontman Nicholas Thornbury in 2016 after two full-length albums, it spelled more change in the band that any of their fans could have expected. Rather than seek a replacement the band recruited their new voice in house with bassist Casey Aylward stepping up to the centre stage. The Viskar was struck from their name, which appears to have been a symbolic statement now that Vattnet (2017), the self-titled debut of this new incarnation of the group and third album overall, has been released. That's because this record, simply put, has very little in common with either of its predecessors released as Vattnet Viskar, Sky Swallower (2013) and Settler (2015).

It's a well established fact that metalheads in general don't embrace changes in direction too well. This is especially true of artists who start out playing extreme metal and then stop, which is what the case is on Vattnet. The name change even though its a minor one is a decent way of them saying 'this is still us, but a fresh start' but that doesn't mean it's easy to not listen to Vattnet as a follow-up to Settler. The previous album was, by the accounts of many reviewers including myself, a really excellent work that I described in my review as something that combined absorbing atmospheric black metal with crushing sludge metal. Well with this change of direction you can forget about all that. The black metal is gone. The sludge metal is gone. The vocal style has switched to clean singing with Aylward's promotion to frontman. In fact the only thing Vattnet has really in common with Settler is the term 'post'.

Specifically this album's style can be best described as a post rock infused take on progressive metal. It's still somewhat atmospheric but done in a completely different way. The clean vocals of Casey Aylward play no small part in that of course, but the music also displays a more technical approach, especially in tracks like Sugar, which has to be singled out as an album highlight. Other standout tracks for me include Dark Black and Chains. Musically at least it's actually very good and once you've got used to the drastic shifts in style it isn't hard to hear how the band reached this point. But vocally, even though Aylward does have a good voice, with times where he sounds excellent, I do have to consider his style the weak link here. It just seems out of place against the post-progressive metal backdrop, reminding me more of the kind of vocalist you hear in modern emo or post-hardcore bands. He comes across as lacking a commanding presence and being out of his depth.

Listening to Vattnet as the debut of a new group sees it come across as a promising release, but the record doesn't allow the group to stand out in the crowd as much as Settler did. The crowd of course is a different one, meaning there's no fair way to judge the two albums against each other, but even though I do enjoy Vattnet as an album there's always this nagging feeling that the band threw something really special away when they dumped the sound of Settler for this. This album simply feels much more familiar going into it, as if I'd heard this kind of thing all before. I'm a firm believe that artists should play what they want to and not what others think they should play, but I'll reverse the right as a listener to judge it a mistake. Of course, this album may turn out be all about them re-finding their feet after their reinvention and their craft could be honed considerably by the time they follow it up, so I'm keeping an open mind at this point. For now, Vattnet is a decent release on its own merits, if a bit unremarkable.

EPICA The Solace System

EP · 2017 · Symphonic Metal
Cover art 4.46 | 4 ratings
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When Dutch symphonic metal maestros Epica wrapped up recording their last full-length album The Holographic Principle (2016), they found themselves with more songs than they needed. Uninterested in releasing a double album, a portion of these songs got dropped from the finished product. But rather than be regulated to the status of bonus tracks, they've been held back for The Solace System (2017), a six track EP release.

Lasting for a little shy of a full half hour, this is still a fairly substantial new release from Epica. I have albums passed off as full-lengths that are shorter than this. But due to its very nature one has to wonder going into it if the music will be somehow lesser than their usual high standard. After all, these are the six songs that didn't make it onto The Holographic Principle. Well overall I'd say that it's true that these ones didn't make the main album for a reason, but the good news is that The Holographic Principle has many claims to being Epica's best album, so the standard is so high that The Solace System's six cast-off songs are still very worthwhile additions to any Epica fan's collection and certainly still better than the work of the average symphonic metal band.

Sound wise the six songs are very similar to The Holographic Principle, for obvious reasons. Symphonic metal with strong progressive complexity and a bit of power metal influence. If you enjoyed that album then there's little reason not to also pick up The Solace System. It will never be as good but it's certainly essential supplemental material, especially the tracks Architect of Light, Wheel of Destiny and Decoded Poetry, that will serve well to tide listeners over while we wait for the next Epica full-length.

ANUBIS GATE Covered in Black

Album · 2017 · Progressive Metal
Cover art 4.47 | 9 ratings
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Well look what we have here, they finally managed it. Managed what you say? The Danish progressive metal act Anubis Gate finally managed to go more than two albums without changing lead vocalist, which was the trend across their first six albums. It shouldn't really be a surprise though, it was obvious ever since bassist Henrik Fevre took on the role for the self-titled Anubis Gate (2011) album that, despite two great vocalists going through their ranks before him, the band were finally how they were always meant to be. Further line-up changes on their next album Horizons (2014) that left the band technically having no original members were a surprise but ultimately did little to stop that from being true. It's been a few years since that album but the four piece are now back with their seventh effort Covered in Black (2017), featuring the same line-up as Horizons: Henrik Fevre on vocals and bass, Kim Olesen and Michael Bodin on guitars (also keyboards for the former) and Morten Gade Sørensen on drums. As usual the album was produced by Kim Olesen with the band's former vocalist Jacob Hansen.

Covered in Black represents Anubis Gate's attempt to create a darker album than their usual output. A theme record opposed to a true concept album like some of their past releases (Andromeda Unchained (2007) and The Detached (2009)), some songs are nonetheless tied together into mini-conceptual arcs, the most obvious of these being the 'Black Trilogy' consisting of tracks 6-8, Black, Blacker and Blackest. According to the liner notes for the first part it is a true story. The tracks The New Delhi Assassination, The Combat and Operation Cairo (tracks 2, 3 and 9) are also part of a linked storyline, with the first and last parts being tied musically as well as lyrically, also featuring melodies tailored to allude to their settings. The remaining tracks appear to be stand alone, dealing with themes such as mental illness (Psychotopia) and being too stuck in the past to live in the now (A Journey to Nowhere). The final song however, From Afar, appears to close the album on a more hopeful note, a reminder that even when you're at your lowest, things can get better.

Dark themes and metal music have gone hand in hand for a long time, but Anubis Gate isn't the kind of band I expected to intentionally make an album embracing such themes given how their music sounds. Though firmly in the metal side of prog (opposed to being progressive rock) their music is based near entirely on melody over aggression (though they can certainly be heavy when they want to be) and they've long favoured a polished production that's right up in the power metal levels. They make accessible music, as far as both prog and metal go. The band has a sound that I'd describe as bright and vibrant, a complete contrast to the moods that Covered in Black is written to portray. Does this mean that the band have embraced the gloomier metal genres like gothic or doom metal? Are the vocals harsher? Are they using extreme metal elements to make things seem more grim?

Well, the answer is no, no and no again. And I have the utmost respect for Anubis Gate for that. A lesser band would have done something cliché to ram home the point they were trying to make, but not these guys, who've stayed true to the sound that they've been making their own ever since the Purification (2004) debut. Not to say that said sound isn't a little bit different this time around; the touches of power metal and symphonic elements that they've used in the past have been all but completely stripped away, but their base melodic progressive metal style has been left very much intact and if anything is more focussed on being progressive than ever. Anubis Gate has never been as complex as say, Dream Theater at their most technical, but they've certainly had the craft of being subtly progressive worked out long ago and are certainly more deserving of the distinction than many artists that get saddled with the prog tag. On Covered in Black though the progressiveness seems a bit more overt, much like the case with The Detached album. The faster power metal fuelled parts as used in tracks like the previous album's Revolution Come Undone are an absence that is felt a little bit, but not for long, as it doesn't take many listens to get into the album and for the songs to start asserting themselves as being as good as anything the band has ever done.

There are highlights of course. I find myself particularly drawn to Psychotopia and the linked The New Delhi Assassination and Operation Cairo, along with closer From Afar. The thing that makes Anubis Gate albums special though is that each song is able to assert its own identity after only a small amount of listens and that's mostly true here too. That does bring me to the one quibble to be had over Covered in Black though; it's that the Black Trilogy may have worked a bit better as one continuous progressive metal epic than the three separated and unimaginatively named individual parts it ended up as. It also seems like it's begging for a more epic conclusion in the Blackest part than is delivered. With that said, I would count the initial Black part among this album's highlights. The other two parts are also decent but do tend to stand out more as a continuation of Black than as separate songs, hence my opinion. A bit of tweaking into one track and it may have even been 'the' highlight of the album for me. As quibbles go I'd say that's relatively minor, certainly not something that harms my listening experience. Otherwise the band just continually manages to impress, delivering another album that I can give many repeat spins without getting tired of it. Anubis Gate are the kind of band where if I play one of their albums, I'll likely end up going through their entire back catalogue again, a desire no less inspired by Covered in Black. Deciding where this album fits into a ranked list of their discography isn't easy though. The Detached is definitely a top 10 of all time album for me, so that's always number one, but the others except perhaps Purification, which I'd say is a classic example of a 'finding their sound' album, all have a claim on second place. I believe they are actually the only band who I've given four consecutive five star ratings to in my reviews and I see little reason not to make that five for Covered in Black.

I know the sceptical out there will question that simply because no band can be that good right? I'm sure there's a few reading this review and thinking 'He's obviously a fan. He's bias!' and they'd be half right. I am a fan of Anubis Gate. I'm proud to say that. Does that make me bias? I don't think so. No reviewer can ever do anything but give their own opinion on album, something which I find is often sadly misunderstood. That said I've given Covered in Black far more listens than is normal for my reviews to make sure I can give it the most objective appraisal that I can and even genuinely tried to find a reason to pick holes in it and come up short. I will say that I've found it to be a bit less immediate than some of their other releases but over half a dozen listens later it continues to open up and grow in my estimations. Despite its dark theme it's an album that can't help but put a smile on my face. It's new Anubis Gate music after all, and the world could always use more of that. The album may be called Covered in Black, but it's made of gold.

RUBY THE HATCHET Planetary Space Child

Album · 2017 · Heavy Psych
Cover art 4.68 | 7 ratings
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Usually counted as a stoner rock and/or metal act, US rockers Ruby the Hatchet have clearly set out upon a different, entirely more psychedelic path with their third full-length album Planetary Space Child (2017). While I quite liked the group's first two full-lengths, Ouroboros (2012) and Valley of the Snake (2015), they did little to prepare me for this third album. This one, I literally feel blown away by. I've been launched up into the cosmos, straight into the atmosphere the music creates. Now it won't let me go, even if I wanted it to. Which I don't. Let me tell you why.

The music on Planetary Space Child is still definable as stoner like Ruby the Hatchet's first two albums, but it's better described as a heavy psych album. This blending of two closely related styles isn't an uncommon thing and in fact Planetary Space Child is actually the third such album that fits into this niche that I've listened to from 2017, after Elder's Reflections of a Floating World and Spaceslug's Time Travel Dilemma. While all three of these albums have their own sounds the thing that all three have in common is their creation of atmospheric psychedelic music. Where Elder and Spaceslug's albums could be said to sit at opposite ends of this little spectrum, the latter being the most metal of them, then Ruby the Hatchet's Planetary Space Child is the album that finds the balance between them. This is first and foremost a rock album, but one that isn't restrained in getting its metal on when the music requires a little extra oomph, with both stoner and doom metal touches in evidence.

A balance of rock and metal elements is nice, but it's not what makes Planetary Space Child such a good album. I often find that atmospheric albums, meaning anything from heavy psych/stoner rock albums like this to atmospheric black metal, often aim to take their listener on a journey and as such are all about the big picture. A common occurrence with such albums is that while many succeed at creating something enjoyable the individual songs suffer from anonymity. This is not the case with Ruby the Hatchet's Planetary Space Child, which succeeds in equal measure having that absorbing quality of an atmospheric album and the creation of individual memorable tracks that rock hard, with vocalist Jillian Taylor displaying a voice that melds in with the atmospheric sounds while also delivering lyrical hooks that stick with you long after the album has ended. The songs stand out as just that: songs. Not chapter selection points in a much longer work.

Aside from some great vocals, the instruments themselves produce many instances of memorability throughout too. A common feature is Sean Hur's organ providing the psychedelic contrast behind the hard rock, sometimes metal, guitar of Johnny Scarps, working equally well in the album's softer sections, of which there are quite a few which serve towards building the atmosphere up. I even feel inclined to mention the drumming, played by Owen Stewart, especially in regard to the third track Pagan Ritual. I'm not someone who normally pays much attention to drums. They're the kind of necessity of a rock/metal band that I would miss if they were not there but take for granted otherwise. In this track though, they really are impossible to ignore, especially in its later stages, bringing beats that really live up to the track's name. And it's trippy as hell.

And that's just scratching the surface as to why I'm so blown away by Planetary Space Child. Another reason is that it proves such a compelling album that giving it many repeat spins is easy, with no risk of boredom or over-familiarity setting in. I myself have listened to it no less than nine times just putting this review together, and expect there'll be many more to come long after this is posted. Ruby the Hatchet have an album here that has that seemingly rare combination of a great atmosphere and memorable songs. For my money I'd say others will struggle to produce a better hard rock album in 2017 than this one.

MYRKUR Mareridt

Album · 2017 · Atmospheric Black Metal
Cover art 4.02 | 12 ratings
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It's fair to say the M (2015), the debut full-length album by Danish atmospheric black metal/dark folk solo project Myrkur, the moniker of musician Amalie Brunn, made quite a splash in the metal scene when it was released, albeit one that resulted in a decidedly mixed reaction. While M was nothing if not a divisive album, it's obvious that a lot of the criticism it received got well out of hand, to the point that some of the album's detractors even launched personal attacks on Brunn as a musician and as a person. Fortunately Brunn seems to have been quite thick skinned to it and rather than be perturbed she's now back with her second full-length album, Mareridt (2017).

Mareridt is in some ways similar in M, but it's also very different once you get into it. The biggest change has to be that Myrkur has used a lot more pure folk elements this time around to the point that I'd even say these make up around half the album, what with full folk songs like Crown included and the influence cropping up in at least a small way in almost every track. There's still enough metal here to think of Mareridt as a metal album though. Most of the metal songs use atmospheric black metal rhythms, though that actually only means that four of them do; Måneblôt, Elleskudt, Ulvinde and Gladiatrix, as Mareridt, Crown, De Tre Piker and Ketteren are all pure folk songs, which leaves only three further tracks on the album that don't belong primarily to either genre. The atmospheric black metal parts, when present, feel much more honed and focussed this time, making them easier to recognise even with Myrkur's atypical use of clean vocals as her primary singing style.

The metal parts on Mareridt are more varied compared to M though thanks to a greater presence of doom metal influences, something I detected only ever so slightly on M. They're much more pronounced here, particularly on the tracks The Serpent and Funeral, the latter of which proves aptly named for its style as it seems closer to funeral doom metal to me than anything. Slow, heavy, subdued and sombre work and easily the darkest sounding song on the album. It also features Chelsea Wolfe on vocals and guitars. It's a short song, as are all the songs on Mareridt, lasting only three minutes, but it's enough to show that the two ladies work well together. One can only hope this will one day lead to a proper collaboration between the two. It's just screaming to happen with this track, which barely scratches the surface of what may be possible if they joined forces for a whole album.

Regarding the vocals, there are actually less growls on Mareridt than ever before in Myrkur's music, only really being used in a major way on singles Måneblôt and Ulvinde (with a little bit in the background on Gladiatrix). With those two tracks released first it was actually really surprising how growl-free the rest of Mareridt is, but maybe that is for the best. Myrkur does decent growls, particularly the ones on Måneblôt are easily the best and fiercest she's ever done, but clean singing is where she excels. Her ethereal voice works equally well with her folk music tracks, but also against the atmospheric black metal guitars. She's proof, if any was needed by this point, that it's perfectly possible for at least the atmospheric branch of this particular genre to exist without the traditional vocal style. With that said, the growled parts do really add some extra punch and if there's a criticism to be had it's that the album could do with a couple more of these moments. But only a couple more.

While the lower amount of metal may lessen Mareridt's appeal to the metal crowd, the album flows between its soft and heavy parts incredibly well, feeling natural and not forced. While I regard M highly, Mareridt certainly feels a lot more refined and ultimately comes across as the stronger release. While there are individual track highlights to be had, namely Måneblôt, Elleskudt, Funeral and Ulvinde, the overall short running time makes it a very easy album to experience in one sitting and that's the only way to do it if you want to hear all the elements work just right. The only real eyebrow raising moment is it's finale, Børnehjem, which features a voice over that sounds like a demonic little girl. It's basically an outro fortunately, but it makes me feel as if the audio track of a cheesy horror film got mixed in by mistake. I don't think it sounds bad, more like out of place with the rest of the release. Still, I can't hold the final 2:22 minutes against Myrkur when the rest of Mareridt is such quality work. It probably won't win over her most fervent haters, but those who enjoyed the self-titled EP (2014) and M, as well as acoustic live release Mausoleum (2016), are sure to find much to enjoy here.

PARADISE LOST Medusa

Album · 2017 · Death-Doom Metal
Cover art 4.41 | 17 ratings
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Although the UK's Paradise Lost may have started as a death-doom metal band and arguably were the originators of that particular fusion, after a few albums they ventured deeper into the territory of gothic metal and it's for this genre that they are no doubt most famous for now, with Draconian Times (1995) and Icon (1993) usually counted as their best releases and pillars of the entire gothic metal genre. They turned away from metal briefly on the album Host (1999) but were quick to return to it on Believe in Nothing (2001). Mostly sticking to the gothic metal genre ever since, they've gradually been reintroducing doom metal elements to their music and on The Plague Within (2015) took things a step further back towards their roots with the reintroduction of death growling vocals. This has paved the way for Medusa (2017), the band's fifteenth studio album and their first album to fully embraced death-doom metal since Shades of God (1992).

I say fully, but what I really mean is that Paradise Lost have made death-doom metal the main focus of their music on Medusa. They also retain some more regular doom metal parts with clean vocals and an influence of the gothic metal style they've played throughout most of their career, but it's now taken a back seat in terms of their playing style, particularly in the guitars. Lead single The Longest Winter would suggest that not much has changed in camp Paradise Lost, being one of the more gothic songs with primarily clean vocals from Nick Holmes, but this is an illusion that is quickly dispelled when you start the album from the very beginning when the band serve up the album's longest track Fearless Sky. This one is quite the opposite affair, with growling vocals taking centre stage, which is the same case with the following Gods of Ancient and is subsequently shown to be the theme of the album.

While Holmes still uses plenty of clean singing - in fact after a back to back listen my impression is that there may even be a little more on Medusa than The Plague Within had - there are certainly more growls and an overall focus on extreme metal. The key difference to its predecessor that sets the two albums apart is the instrumental shift back to a doom metal dominant sound and an increase in general heaviness, though the music isn't as menacing or outright malevolent as some death-doom metal can be. If I was to choose any word to describe it I'd have to say modern. It's definitely more accessible than a lot of groups of this style are. That's what ultimately helps to make it a memorable release though, with tracks such as Fearless Sky, From the Gallows, Blood and Chaos and Until the Grave staying with me long after the album's conclusion.

If you're mainly a fan of the band's early days, this album can only be good news and perhaps even something you'd never have imagined possible, even after the growl heavy The Plague Within which was still musically more of a gothic metal album. If you prefer their fully clean sung gothic metal work though then Medusa may spell disappointment for you. That's the inherent trouble with a band that has changed their sound more than once. Hopefully most fans can appreciate both of Paradise Lost's core styles of metal and will embrace Medusa as an excellent throwback album that still has enough of their gothic metal style to retain at least some interest from gothic metal fans, though I would say gothic fans have more for them on the special editions of the album that include two bonus tracks that lean more this way; Shrines and Symbolic Virtue, which add almost a further ten minutes to Medusa's total playing time and go a long way towards evening out the doom and gothic metal elements on offer.

For my money though the base eight track album alone is an exceptional release from Paradise Lost. 2017 is certainly shaping up to be a great year for the doom metal genre, with many great and inventive albums released already, but Paradise Lost striking back to reclaim the death-doom throne they vacated twenty-five years ago may just be the doom metal event of the year.

DEVIL ELECTRIC Devil Electric

Album · 2017 · Traditional Doom Metal
Cover art 3.97 | 8 ratings
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Following their debut EP The Gods Below (2016), Australian band Devil Electric have wasted no time in upgrading to the full-length album format. Devil Electric (2017) is their self-titled debut album. Of the EP's trackd The Dove & The Serpent has been carried over but the remainder of the nine track album is new material.

The music on Devil Electric flits between some very heavy hard rock and even heavier doom metal. The doom metal parts, which were the more dominant feature of The Gods Below EP, have a very old school quality to them and it's easy to think of the early pioneers of the metal genre like Black Sabbath when listening to the music. For me, the doom parts are the bigger draw to the band, but the hard rock side of the album is equally expertly executed and provides a great contrast of sounds and riff ideas and ultimately helps create a stronger album. Though Devil Electric are to my ears the heavier band and don't flirt with psych influences as much (I'd say there's the lightest of touches of it here) it's also easy to put this debut in the same ballpark as the early work of Blood Ceremony, at least regarding their mix of hard rock and doom metal elements. Very different bands beyond that. Devil Electric also display the occasional bluesy touch, especially with the lead guitar parts.

While the heavy music played by the trio of instrumentalists, guitarist Christos Athanasias, bassist Tom Hulse and drummer Mark van de Beek, is incredibly satisfying on its own, I have to say that it's singer Pierina O'Brien who absolutely steals this show. Demonstrating a voice that has a power capable of withstanding the heavy music behind her and also seeming to be in complete control of it, she's equally effective during lively hard rock or subdued doom metal parts that the album serves up. It's her commanding performance that makes the album an absorbing experience and makes it very easy to listen to the whole thing a second time as soon as you've finished it.

Of course it's not actually that long of a record at 36:13 minutes, but we're definitely dealing with a work that is a proponent of quality over quantity. There are a couple of shorter instrumentals that serve more as interludes, albeit substantial ones, Monolith and Lilith, but otherwise Devil Electric deliver excellent hard rock/doom metal tracks. Monologue (Where You Once Walked), Lady Velvet and The Dove & The Serpent are quick to stand out as highlights.

Perhaps the biggest issue facing the album is that Devil Electric have carried over The Dove & The Serpent from The Gods Below EP but not the other equally excellent tracks, which haven't to date seen a release on CD format, only digital and a limited run of 7” vinyls (as The Gods Below Vol. I and The Gods Below Vol. 2). Devil's Bells, the first song from the EP, definitely has its absence on this full-length debut felt. Of course bands aren't obligated to tack on their prior EP tracks to a full-length but if you're going to do it for one of them...

That minor quibble aside, it's impossible to come away from Devil Electric not feeling very enthusiastic about it as an album and them as a band. It may be the case that on future releases they settle with either the hard rock or doom metal side that this one displays but no matter what they do they've set the groundwork here for it to be something even more spectacular. The spirit of heavy rock and metal is very much alive here.

HELLOWEEN Chameleon

Album · 1993 · Hard Rock
Cover art 2.87 | 47 ratings
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Originators of the European brand of power metal Helloween have a lot of fans who will tell you any chance they get that Michael Kiske is the true voice of the band, likely giving respect to Kai Hansen along the way for his performance on their earliest material including the debut album Walls of Jericho (1985). They rarely outright deride replacement and now much longer standing vocalist Andi Deris, but it's often implied that he can't hope to match Kiske. Kiske's reputation as part of Helloween though is built entirely upon the Keeper of the Seven Keys Part I (1987) and Part II (1988) albums. What these fans usually forget to mention is that the other two albums Kiske did with the band are about as much loathed as the two Keeper albums are loved, which actually makes his tenure in the band a pretty damn patchy one. While I personally find the humorously named Pink Bubbles Go Ape (1991) to be a bit unjustly bashed, I struggle to find much of a defence for what has to be the band's most disliked album, Chameleon (1993). It was Helloween's fifth studio album and was the last to feature Kiske as well as drummer Ingo Schwichtenberg, who would commit suicide two years later at the age of 29.

To round off the train of thought about whether or not Kiske is or isn't the true voice of Helloween, I can't really fault his performance on Chameleon. It's the lone thing about the album that never falters in its quality. So maybe the fans who say this do have a point. What Kiske can't do though is save this album from being a complete middling affair from Helloween. Good vocals don't elevate the quality of the writing, the biggest defence of which is the fact that Chameleon is a pretty varied album. More so then the typical power metal release is. That's the start of its problems though: Chameleon isn't a power metal release. Sure, the prior Pink Bubbles Go Ape was debatable on that front as well after the two Keeper of the Seven Keys albums kick-started the Euro style off, but the bigger problem here is that Chamelon isn't only not a power metal album, it's also not a metal album at all. Helloween have removed most traces of their metal sound on this album, favouring hefty amounts of acoustic guitars and abundant pop influences.

It doesn't take a genius to work out that even when it comes to one of metal's catchiest and most commercial genres like power metal (which several other German bands like Blind Guardian, Running Wild and Kai Hansen's own Gamma Ray continued to champion the development of during Helloween's Pink Bubbles Go Ape/Chameleon phase) this isn't something most fans at the time would have wanted to hear. Chameleon often doesn't even deserve the distinction of being a hard rock album given how many soft parts are present, sometimes even hinting at AOR influences. A few metal riffs here and there, such as in the first song First Time, offer up a little hint at the band's roots, which they'd fortunately return to on their next album Master of the Rings (1994), but most of what made Helloween a respected metal band has been stripped away. With an over seventy minute duration Chameleon certainly goes on for too long as well, with several songs coming across as filler, not least among them the single Windmill, which the late Ingo Schwichtenberg was known to refer to as 'Shitmill' and quite justifiably.

Were this the debut album of a different band or simply didn't have the Helloween name on it then maybe Chameleon would have a better reputation today, over twenty years since its release. For all its faults as a Helloween album Chameleon is actually quite listenable for most of the time once you look past what else the band has done both before or since. To my ears it could never be considered a great album but it's not as bad as its often made out to be. If its Helloween you're interested in though, then there are currently fourteen other studio albums that you should get before this one.

GAMMA RAY Majestic

Album · 2005 · Power Metal
Cover art 3.74 | 26 ratings
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Often overlooked next to the albums released between 1995 – 2001, Majestic (2005) is the eighth full-length studio album by German power metal act Gamma Ray. Bringing to a close what had been the Kai Hansen led group's longest stretch between studio albums, it is probably fair to say that Majestic isn't quite the genre classic that Land of the Free (1995), Somewhere Out in Space (1997), Power Plant (1999) and No World Order (2001) are, but it's easily the band's next best album.

Hansen and co get the album going full throttle right off the bat with My Temple. Fast, heavy power metal riffs that are well produced and full of energy; just the thing that fans of the genre expect to hear. Like many power metal albums there are some heavy metal elements too that add some variation to the tempo, but overall Majestic is close to being a pure power metal release. Hansen's distinctive vocals are instantly recognisable, as usual perhaps a bit of an acquired taste, but by this point it really wouldn't be Gamma Ray without his signature style, no disrespect meant to the work of Ralf Scheepers on the first three Gamma Ray albums of course. And he serves up many memorable choruses on Majestic that keep the album's tracks stuck in your head upon its conclusion. My Temple is just the first of these. There's also Hell is Thy Home and Condemned to Hell, to name a couple.

It's definitely a fair conclusion to call Majestic a typical sounding Gamma Ray album, but why try to fix a winning formula that isn't broken? That's right, there is no point. It's also true that this album doesn't serve up tracks that will go down alongside the likes of Rebellion in Dreamland, Beyond the Black Hole, Land of the Free and Anywhere in the Galaxy as Gamma Ray's very best songs, but what the album does have is ten very good songs that consistently deliver all the classic Gamma Ray elements for about fifty-five minutes. What more to you really want from a power metal album? More to the point, at the time of Majestic's release it had been fifteen years since the debut Gamma Ray album Heading for Tomorrow (1990) and twenty years since Kai Hansen fronted the first Helloween album Walls of Jericho (1985) yet here he is turning out hard hitting power metal with his group in such a fashion that most young bands can only hope to match. He's not called the Godfather of Power Metal for nothing!

VÖLUR Ancestors

Album · 2017 · Doom Metal
Cover art 4.42 | 3 ratings
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The Canadian trio known as Völur are not your typical metal group. With a line-up that features Blood Ceremony's Lucas Gadke (bass, vocals, double bass, keyboards) and is completed by Laura Bates (violin, vocals, effects) and Jimmy P Lightning (drums), you'll notice the conspicuous absence of one of the genre's core instruments: the guitar. Ancestors (2017) is the group's second album following Disir (2016) and is part of a four album series on the old Germanic spiritual world. The album is typically presented as four long, multi-part songs, but some versions (at least the iTunes and Spotify ones) split these up into multiple tracks, bringing the album up to seventeen. Due to the following together nature of each full composition I have to recommend that the split up version be avoided where possible.

With no guitars the roll they usually fill has been split between the bass and the violin, which proves an effective approach, especially concerning the violin which takes over the lead melody lines. There are many times when you could be easily forgiven thinking that there really are guitars used on the album, they are made up for so well that they really aren't missed. You realise the truth when you pay close attention to the fine details, which is also the point where you start to notice the little things that make Ancestors such an unusual sounding release.

The actual style of the album is best described as doom metal meets a kind of dark folk, with some Nordic influence such as in Breaker of Skulls, where there's a passage of music where it sounds like Fejd suddenly popped in for a jam session. There is also an element of black metal in the album, especially during the Svart movement of final track Breaker of Famine. The experimental nature of the band is obvious in their writing as much as their atypical guitarless instrumentation approach and is actually more all over the place in terms of chops and changes than the typical progressive metal album is, with each track having between three and six distinct parts. Compared to the previous album Disir Ancestors feels a lot more extreme, with many vocals being growled.

Völur's sound isn't always metallic and in fact it does take a little while before opener Breaker of Silence gets anywhere close to metal, but when the trio want to be heavy, they are really fucking heavy. No guitars required; the bass is all they need. Neither in fact is metal a requirement for the album to sound doomy. That slow bass line in Breaker of Silence provokes a feeling of unease and dread all by itself. The violin parts can also come across as really sinister sounding, especially during Breaker of Oaths. The rarer black metal parts sound downright evil. Völur have captured a lot of negative emotions in their music, but man is it good.

Experimental music like Ancestors is, by its very nature, always going to be considered hit and miss by different listeners. While some will no doubt find the album enthralling others may consider it a mess of thrown together ideas. I think that's just a fact of a life for this kind of group. I can't promise anyone reading this review that they'll enjoy it as much as I have, but I've come to consider Ancestors to offer a real esoteric kind of pleasure. It's an album for those who seek the unusual. If that's you, then check this out at once!

WORMWOOD Ghostlands: Wounds from a Bleeding Earth

Album · 2017 · Melodic Black Metal
Cover art 3.61 | 5 ratings
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Wormwood, who are not to be confused with no less than four other metal bands who have used the same name (all from the US) is a fairly new Swedish melodic black metal act. Formed in 2014 and featuring two members, vocalist Nine and guitarist Nox, of the black metal act Withershin, they previously released the EP The Void: Stories from the Whispering Well (2015). Ghostlands: Wounds from a Bleeding Earth (2017) is their debut full-length studio album.

The music on Ghostlands: Wounds from a Bleeding Earth (which I'm going to refer to as simply Ghostlands from herein) is, for the most part, an example of a fairly standard melodic black metal sound. That means aside from there being plenty of melody the production is extremely well polished for the black metal genre with absolutely no trace of cold rawness and the songwriting favours directness over any kind of atmosphere. Given the near one hour, twelve track running time of the album were this all the album did it would most certainly outstay its welcome as while Wormwood show themselves competent musicians, whose ear for melody is noteworthy, there wouldn't be all that much variation in their approach. Fortunately they find that much needed variation by also including an influence of folk metal, which changes up the feel of their songs considerably when it comes into play.

While this makes Ghostlands a more interesting album, it also acts as something of a double edged sword as the more folk metal based songs also show off how much stronger an album Ghostlands could have been if Wormwood had made it their focus, as these certainly are the best tracks on the release. There just isn't enough of a folk influence here for Ghostlands to be considered a true folk/black metal hybrid even though the influence is used on a regular basis and the only non-standard instrument in use is the fiddle. One track that stands out in particular is Tidh ok Ödhe (and by extension the shorter Silverdimmans Återsken that acts as something of a lead-in to it), which features guest female vocalist Alexandra 'Lalla' Moqvist, whose clean singing provides vocal interplay with the growls and adds another dimension to the music that instantly makes it the most memorable song Wormwood have here. It actually strikes me as a melodic black metal version of some of power metal band Falconer's folksier tracks, especially those that have featured a guest female voice as well.

Ghostlands ultimately stands as an enjoyable first major release for Wormwood, but an overall lack of memorability means that come its conclusion I'm struggling to recall the individual tracks even after giving the complete album several listens. This drags down the likelihood of my returning to it too often, except of course for that one really exceptional track Tidh ok Ödhe where everything just fell together and showed what the band were really capable of. If they can manage more tracks of that calibre in the future then they can definitely expect a much more enthusiastic review from this writer.

ARDUINI/BALICH Dawn of Ages

Album · 2017 · Doom Metal
Cover art 4.00 | 2 ratings
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Following the short-lived return to the metal scene of Fates Warning co-founder Victor Arduini in the form of the heavy metal act Freedoms Reign, who released a self-titled debut and only album in 2013 before calling it a day, the guitarist wasn't done. Teaming up with Argus/Molasses Barge vocalist Brian 'Butch' Balich, the pair set out to create music together, the project known as Arduini/Balich being the result of that. Despite the name, former Freedoms Reign bandmate Chris Judge (drums) is considered a fully fledged third member of the band. Dawn of Ages (2017) is their debut album.

With Victor Arduini coming from a band who were an early example of the progressive metal genre (despite being more heavy metal and us power metal based at the time of Arduini's exit in the mid-eighties) and Brian Balich being known for doom metal acts (which aside from the aforementioned acts previously also included Penance), it shouldn't come as too much of a surprise that their collaboration together sets out to combine elements of both of these genres, achieving a sound that the band label as 'doom laden progressive walls of metal'. In simpler terms what that really means is progressive doom metal: heavy, invoking a sense of foreboding guitar work, but with an adventurous attitude that sees the trio breaking doom's conventions and also generally producing some pretty long tracks, including the 17:26 minute long Beyond the Barricade, one of the album's most outright progressive metal compositions. My thoughts are that the album is out its strongest when at its most doom metal based though, opener The Fallen being a great example and in general I do find that the first two thirds of the release are stronger than its closing stages.

His early Fates Warning exit has meant that although Victor Arduini will be remembered, mostly by Fates Warning fans, as a co-founder of the classic band, his name hasn't been as notable in the metal scene as other members of that band, such as Jim Matheos or even John Arch (who only did one more studio album than Arduini) which meant that his Freedoms Reign project didn't actually make all that many ripples back in 2013, and it took a while after its release for me to become aware of Arduini/Balich's Dawn of Ages, unlike the similarly named collaboration between the aforementioned Arch/Matheos whose album Sympathetic Resonance (2011) often seems more well loved than anything Fates Warning has done in over fifteen years. I personally liked the Freedoms Reign album for what it was, but Arduini/Balich certainly represents a step up for him in terms of song-writing. It's more interesting, adventurous and most of all more powerful.

Dawn of Ages is a solid start for Arduini/Balich (and Judge) and I hope that this album doesn't end up being a one off time for them working together. It's clear that despite all the years away from the metal scene Victor Arduini still has a lot to offer, while Balich's powerhouse voice is a welcome addition to any band (Dawn of Ages actually represents the first of a triple dose of new albums featuring his voice in 2017, with Molasses Barge and Argus also releasing albums). With all respect to Arduini's performance in Freedoms Reign I definitely like Balich's vocals more than Arduini's Ozzy Osbourne like voice. Unlike Freedoms Reign, this band/album is recommendable as much more than 'the new band of a Fates Warning founder'.

MADROST The Essence of Time Matches No Flesh

Album · 2017 · Technical Thrash Metal
Cover art 4.41 | 7 ratings
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It was only last year that the metal world was hit by storm by the technical thrash metal tour de force that was the third Vektor album Terminal Redux (2016). Now their US countrymen Madrost seem to be hankering for a bit of that kind of action, if the pulling out all the stops approach of their own third album The Essence of Time Matches No Flesh (2017) is anything to judge these things by. It's been a few years since Madrost released Into The Aquatic Sector (2014), an instrumentally accomplished but not full-on technical death-thrash metal album, but a few years and a 50% new line-up later they've really evolved into something much more complex. I'm sure most thrash metal listeners will be sceptical over any band being able to touch Vektor, who are of course absolutely insanely talented musicians who undoubtedly deserve the praise they have gotten to date, but here's the thing for me:

The Essence of Time Matches No Flesh is a much better metal album than Terminal Redux.

I didn't want to make this review all about Madrost verses Vektor, especially since technical thrash metal is hardly a field unique to the two of them, but it's simply too good a comparison to play with when describing how Madrost's music sounds, since I'm sure most people reading this have at least sampled the Vektor album, seeing as it was basically treated like the metal event of the decade last year. If you haven't then I'd guess that you either don't like thrash metal (in which case why are you reading this?) or have been living under a rock.

When considering how both The Essence of Time Matches No Flesh and Terminal Redux exist in the same genre and even play with similar influences beyond thrash metal, yet come across differently, I find that the phrase 'less is more' really seems appropriate. Terminal Redux is a massive release featuring about 73 minutes of music while with The Essence of Time Matches No Flesh you can flip those two digits around. The more precise running time if 37:39 (that's about ten minutes longer than Into the Aquatic Sector ran for). There are three less tracks than Vektor's album (giving this album seven) and all are written in a much more 'to the point' kind of way, though can still pass the six minute mark, as is the case with No Future and Dimensions. There is less music here in terms of tracks and length, yet it leaves a stronger impression in no small part because of that. The shorter total running time means that when the album concludes I think about playing it again much sooner, where Vektor's lengthy opus can easily be seen as overwhelming.

Madrost favour a raw and unadulterated aggression when it comes to their music, which is enhanced perfectly by the production which is professional yet not overly slick and polished. There is some melody to be found, but its used quite subtly. Their style retains the death metal element of albums past but they are certainly a case where the thrash metal elements are considerable more prominent than the death metal ones. While The Essence of Time Matches No Flesh can even get a little bit progressive as well as technical Madrost don't mess around with fancy frills and unexpected influences and just get the job done, happily kicking arse along the way via the occasional softer atmospheric 'breather' section, which really only serve to further highlight the intensity of the album when Madrost shift things back into fifth gear. It is, needless to say, a hard hitting and powerful album with insane musicianship that's technically proficient but never self-indulgent and that's exactly why it works so well. If I had to pick a few favourites from it I'd have to name Abstractions, Dimensions and Eyes of the Deceit but the remaining four certainly aren't lesser tracks in any way.

Madrost are obviously not anywhere near as well known as Vektor, yet, but if there is any justice in this world then The Essence of Time Matches No Flesh will be the album that changes that. Even if you ultimately disagree with my assessment that they have one upped Vektor with this album (something I would repeat even if you held a gun to my head), there's no doubt in my mind that at the very least Madrost have delivered 2017's response to Terminal Redux and perhaps even the best thrash metal album of the year.

NEPHILIM'S HOWL Through the Marrow of Human Suffering

Album · 2017 · Pagan Black Metal
Cover art 3.95 | 2 ratings
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Finnish trio Nephilim's Howl, a band formed in 2015, clearly aren't intending to start their career by being pigeon-holed. It's obvious from their music found on their debut album Through the Marrow of Human Suffering (2017) that they are a black metal band, but beyond that they're a bit more difficult to fathom. They're clearly not a traditionally minded act from the school of Mayhem or Darkthrone and they're certainly not exactly progressive or avant-garde either, nor are they as depressive as the album title may suggest them to be. So what exactly are they?

To be honest with you, I don't find that Through the Marrow of Human Suffering completely fits into any established black metal sub-genre, but the one I do find it to have the most in common with musically is the so called pagan black metal style. It's not the most obvious of conclusions, I know. Nephilim's Howl certainly don't present the typical imagery for the genre either, in fact one look at that title and even the cover art and it would be all to easy to assume that this really was something from the depressive black metal style but while the album does have some elements similar to the DSBM genre such as sorrowful cleanly sung vocals (nowhere near as tortured or despairing as is DSBM) the atmosphere the record creates is altogether different. Less suicidal and more raw and primal, like it's somehow metal that comes from an ancient time. More...pagan.

Typically mid-paced with some minor underlying influence of doom metal, but also occasional bursts of speed, Nephilim's Howl have recorded five tracks for this debut album. In some ways it's very much a no frills attached kind of album, but it does prove to be quite varied in its approach, making use of more melodic sections every now and then as well as synth parts and also featuring a varied vocal style ranging from more traditional growling, the sorrowful clean singing I mentioned earlier, and also semi-harsh shouts. The cleaner vocals are not the most pleasant on the ears but they do fit with the whole primal atmosphere the band has going for them on the album. The mixed vocal approach is equally likely to be a draw to some black metal fans and an acquired taste to others.

Overall, Through the Marrow of Human Suffering continually proves itself to be a very engaging debut release from Nephilim's Howl. The band's best achievement on it has to be the final title track which is a three part song, making it their longest at over twelve minutes. The biggest selling point of course is the album's difficultly to compare it completely to the works of other artists, making it a recommended release for those looking for something of the atypical kind.

ESOCTRILIHUM Mystic Echo From A Funeral Dimension

Album · 2017 · Atmospheric Black Metal
Cover art 4.44 | 6 ratings
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There isn't much known about Esoctrilihum yet, except that it's a solo project by a French musician going by the moniker Asthâghul. Mystic Echo From a Funeral Dimension (2017), is the debut album from the project, released on I, Voidhanger Records. You can currently get the album digitally while a limited (300 copies) CD run has also been produced. Having listened to the album a few times now, I have to wonder if such a small amount is going to be enough to go around...

The music on Mystic Echo From a Funeral Dimension somewhat brings to mind the cosmic work of I, Voidhanger Records labelmate Mare Cognitum, particularly during the opening track Ancient Ceremony From Astral Land, an impression no doubt enforced somewhat by the usage of artwork by the same artist (Luciana Nedelea – who also designed the band logo) as did Mare Cognitum's Phobos Monolith (2014). It's only a passing similarity though, as Esoctrilihum is quick to diversify its sound and assert its own identity as the album progresses, so couldn't be called a clone act. They definitely seem to be cut from the same cloth though. Whether you're a fan of Mare Cognitum in particular or not (though you should be), if you like black metal at all then Esoctrilihum is a name you need to start paying attention to. I cannot state enough times what an impressive debut album Esoctrilihum has created with Mystic Echo From a Funeral Dimension.

The atmospheric black metal approach of the album is flavoured mostly by non-metal elements, such as cold, haunting ambient parts during Ancient Ceremony From Astral Land or clean tone guitar work in other tracks such as Following The Mystical Light of the Shadow Forest (Final Path to Death) or Infernus Spiritas. The biggest element of flavour and perhaps the most unexpected comes about halfway through later track BltQb (Black Collapse), where the atmospheric black metal riffs are replaced by a more intense, muddy tone and the music speeds up into something that I can only ascribe to being a burst of old school (blackened) technical death metal. In fact there are also times across the release that Asthâghul's growl breaks away from the raspy black metal standard and becomes more deep and deathly. Musically apart from that one burst in BltQb (Black Collapse) this record is as black metal as they come, but I'm sure Asthâghul has drawn influence from more than one source here.

Favouring long song structures of around the eight to nine plus minute lengths, with the exception of the much shorter Prayer of the Lamented Souls, which doesn't even hit three minutes and is more of an unusual kind of interlude featuring no black metal elements beyond harsh vocals, instead drawing more of ambient themes (less cold and more majestic this time) the seven track album runs for just shy of one hour and provides one hell of a trip. The music is engaging, well preformed and powerful in sound. This is no unnecessarily stripped raw black metal release, but one that balances the traditional treble guitar tones of black metal with quality production work that gives the music a fair bit of punch. Esoctrilihum has certainly set the bar high with this debut. Undoubtedly one of the best black metal releases, atmospheric or otherwise, that will come out of 2017.

BRUME Rooster

Album · 2017 · Doom Metal
Cover art 3.92 | 3 ratings
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Formed in 2014 after English guitarist Jamie McCathie relocated to the US, leaving his previous band, the sludge metal act Gurt behind, he met vocalist/bassist Susie McMullan and the two soon began making music, joined by drummer Jordan Perkins-Lewis. The band's only prior release is the EP Donkey (2015), making Rooster (2017) the trio's debut studio album.

There's a certain familiarity to Brume's music as soon as the opening track Grit and Pearls kicks into gear which is likely due to the prominence of other female fronted doom metal groups such as Avatarium, Jex Thoth and Blood Ceremony in recent years, but Brume distance themselves from these bands somewhat by lacking any overt psychedelic element. Instead they rely on down to earth, non-flashy doom metal riffs from Jamie McCathie's guitar and Susie McMullan's subtly brilliant and haunting vocal style. Their riffs are slow and pondering, slightly fuzzy and definitely designed to be crushing. The production doesn't make the album sound as massively heavy as some doom metal can be, but it works out just right for McMullan's soft and melodic voice, with Rooster ultimately coming across as a subdued and sombre album.

Rooster has a charm that proves to be infectious though. With the exception of the non-metal Welter the band write fairly long tracks but there's never an issue where a composition outstays its welcome. In fact Brume certainly display a knack for the longer track. Welter, not even reaching three minutes, is an interesting change a pace though. For me its Grit and Pearls, Reckon, and the closing Tradewind that stand out the most, but the fifty minute release is satisfying from start to finish. While I can't say that the album does too much to stand out within the doom metal genre as a whole, if you enjoy the style with a female voice then Rooster is a very nice release to add to your collection.

LES CHANTS DU HASARD Les Chants du Hasard

Album · 2017 · Metal Related
Cover art 3.45 | 2 ratings
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Here's a little something about me: I'm 28 years old and I've heard over two thousand different albums in my life, mostly coming out of the metal music genre. This means I've long reached the point where a lot of the new music I hear has started sounding uninteresting and generic, even when it's technically good or even great stuff. I'm sure every fan of music can relate in some way. This also means I'm always on the hunt for something that can surprise me. The latest album I've found that fulfils this criteria is the self-titled debut album by French solo act Les Chants du Hasard.

The musician behind this project calls himself Hazard. On his Facebook page for the project he brands his music as 'orchestral black metal'. This gives the impression that he'll be producing something in the spectrum of symphonic black metal as made popular by groups such as Emperor and Dimmu Borgir. There's a twist though: Hazard has some policies that he strictly adheres to while creating his craft.

No guitars.

No bass.

No drums.

Just orchestra.

That is of course orchestra topped by harsh black metal styled growling, with some cleaner chants used more rarely, particularly in Chant II - Le Soleil. Now that, I'm sure no one needs to be told, is certainly different. Of course there is a genre known as black ambient that takes a similar premise that Les Chants du Hasard likely owes something to, but this album is better described as some sort of blackened classical music. Or classical with a mind of black metal. You can't really call it metal because aside from the obvious growling there is absolutely nothing to do with metal here, but its influence is undeniable.

Due to the existence of symphonic black metal the fusion of black metal and classical elements isn't the most outrageous idea ever presented, but the manner of this album certainly isn't the most obvious way of doing it. Listening to it for the first time gives the mixed impression of not being entirely sure what audience the recording is supposed to be aimed at, though presumably it is the metal audience rather than the classical due to the album being released on I, Voidhanger Records, a metal label. Since the black metal growls are inherently the more inaccessible element here one also has to assume that metal listeners will be more open to giving the whole release a try, as I'm not convinced someone who only listens to classical music (and likely doesn't know what black metal is) is going to be able to accept those vocals smothered over the majority of the release.

Up until a point the concept works. I'm no expert on classical music but I get the impression that it is well composed and suitably dramatic, with different moods conveyed in different parts of the album. Some are pretty epic, some are simply dark, while others go a step further and are downright dreary and depressive. I don't enjoy all the album equally, the earlier mentioned Chant II - Le Soleil actually seeming to be a little bit of a farce on the whole idea by not featuring the black metal growls until near it's conclusion, but mostly Les Chants du Hasard offers up intriguing material that absolutely scratches the itch to hear something I haven't heard before, though I can't really say that it does it in such a way that the album will be one I want to revisit too often.

From a purely objective point of view the biggest obstacle Les Chants du Hasard faces is that the music very much sits on the line between two very different things and given my belief that this album is aimed at metalheads it does seem as if it may be sitting just on the wrong side of that line, as this still sounds very much like a classical album first and foremost, rather than a black metal album that's been done in a different way. I certainly recommend giving it a go and deciding for yourself whether the genre clash works but I expect this one may go down as simply a little oddity in the history of black metal music.

One thing I will add though as a little postscript is that given how great the actual orchestrations are in Les Chants du Hasard's music I'd absolutely love to hear what Hazard could come up with in an actual symphonic black metal environment. I dare say that could result in something to rival even the mighty Aquilus album Griseus (2012), a release that so far I've found to be incomparable in its field.

DIVINE ELEMENT Thaurachs of Borsu

Album · 2017 · Melodic Death Metal
Cover art 4.50 | 1 rating
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Greek musician Ayloss is of course best known for his atmospheric black metal project Spectral Lore, being particularly well regarded for the double album III (2014). Perhaps less known is the fact that aside from Spectral Lore he was a member of the melodic death metal act Divine Element. The band released their self-titled debut album in 2010 and at some point presumably disbanded. Now reformed with a condensed line-up of Ayloss on instruments and Antonis on vocals, their second album Thaurachs of Borsu (2017) has finally been unleashed. Prolific death metal drummer Hannes Grossmann (ex-Necrophagist, ex-Obscura, Alkaloid et al) has also been brought in as a guest musician for this release.

One thing that will be clear to anyone familiar with Ayloss' work with Spectral Lore is that this isn't one of those cases where a musician operates in multiple acts that are ultimately very similar in style, as there isn't all that much to do with black metal in Divine Element's music. Fans are sure to recognise the tasteful atmospheric guitar work of the Spectral Lore mastermind during some of the lighters parts, but on Thaurachs of Borsu they're mixed in with speedy and direct melodic death metal riffs. The difference in core genre also means that there are much more forceful growls from Antonis than those of Ayloss on Spectral Lore's albums. There's enough here in the music to recognise it as the work of the same musician, but it's also very much a different side to him. And that's great, since we already have one Spectral Lore.

The band's use of melody also provides a very slightly folksy sound to their music, notable in a track like Beyond This Sea. Their overall style is less catchy compared to the work of more mainstream melodic death metal acts like Arch Enemy or Scar Symmetry, but no less epic in its delivery. The production is polished and the riffs are punchy. An early standout is the title track, but there's little letting up beyond that point, Traitor's Last Stand at the other end of the album being another key track. The band do throw in a trio of shorter instrumentals that serve the roles of intro, interlude and outro as well though, meaning that if there's a disappointment to be had with Thaurachs of Borsu it's that there are only actually five fully developed melodic death metal tracks, leaving the total running time shy of the forty minute mark. The band haven't lost any of their creative energy by its conclusion, so another track or two would have been nice to pad it out into a more substantial slab of metal.

For the material that is here though to my ears it's melodic death metal done right. This is a genre that I often find stale and uninteresting, but Divine Element have been able to avoid the usual pitfalls with their creative writing and commanding vocals. While I am currently hoping for a new Spectral Lore album to be released I hope it's not another seven years since we get more Divine Element as well.

TCHORNOBOG Tchornobog

Album · 2017 · Death Metal
Cover art 3.81 | 9 ratings
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Markov Soroka isn't the most household of names within the extreme metal scene but has been steadily building his profile of solo projects these last few years. His biggest claim to fame is likely the atmospheric black metal/ambient act Aureole, who did a split with the better known Mare Cognitum in 2016 called Resonance: Crimson Void. He also operates the funeral doom metal act Slow and previously symphonic black/death metal act Eternium, which at one point became a full band and as such put out his first major album, Repelling a Solar Giant (2013). His latest project is Tchornobog, whose self-titled debut album from 2017 looks to be the musician's most ambitious work to date.

Taking elements from a range of extreme metal sources, Tchornobog is best described as a mix of black and death metal with some doom metal influences. The black metal element sometimes has an atmospheric touch but overall Tchornobog brings a more chaotic approach to the table than atmospheric black metal usually allows, making the album vastly different to what Markov Soroka's fans will be used to with Aureole. Only four tracks are presented here, each lasting for extended durations. The opener The Vomiting Tchornobog (Slithering Gods of Cognitive Dissonance) alone is over the twenty minute mark. At twelve minutes the next track Hallucinatory Black Breath Of Possession (Mountain-Eye Amalgamation) is comparatively short.

The album is an absolutely mammoth sized work and that certainly applies to both how it sounds as much as it's length. It's intense stuff for much of the running time with more melodic elements only existing underneath the raw barrage of guitars to add flavour and effect, though third track Non-Existence’s Warmth (Infinite Natality Psychosis) serves up an extended softer section that offers a bit of breathing space, where Soroka brings in guest musicians to add further instruments such as piano and saxophone, though it doesn't take long for the metal to make a reappearance and by the time of closer Here, At The Disposition Of Time (Inverting A Solar Giant) things have fully returned to business as usual. Other instruments used on the album are the trumpet and cello, while Greg Chandler of Esoteric provides some additional vocals on tracks one and three.

An album like this isn't the easiest of listens. The style of music isn't the kind that's going to serve up any lyrically hooks to latch onto, so it can be quite overwhelming at first and requires two or three sittings to really get to grips with what's been created. You know that an album like this one has been done right when it has that special spark that compels you to keep coming back to it to relive the experience it offers another time. Tchornobog certainly succeeds in that. For my money this album is leaps and bounds ahead of all the other work of Markov Soroka I've heard so far and is definitely up there with the year's best albums.

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