Metal Music Reviews from adg211288

BELL WITCH Mirror Reaper

Album · 2017 · Funeral Doom Metal
Cover art 3.99 | 4 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 4.75 | 2 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 · Traditional heavy metal
Cover art 4.25 | 4 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 4.25 | 2 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 4.50 | 2 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 · Hard Rock
Cover art 2.76 | 7 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 3.50 | 2 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 · Melodic Black Metal
Cover art 4.50 | 3 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 3.25 | 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 3.99 | 5 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 3.41 | 7 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 2.90 | 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 4.33 | 3 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 3.90 | 6 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 · Hard Rock
Cover art 4.67 | 3 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 4.23 | 8 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 4.57 | 8 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 · Doom Metal
Cover art 4.50 | 3 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 2.62 | 46 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 3.81 | 25 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 4.50 | 1 rating
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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 3.88 | 4 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 | 1 rating
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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 · Thrash Metal
Cover art 4.30 | 6 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 · Black Metal
Cover art 3.75 | 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 4.75 | 2 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 4.00 | 1 rating
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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 3.25 | 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 4.32 | 4 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.

SEVEROTH Forestpaths

Album · 2017 · Atmospheric Black Metal
Cover art 4.25 | 2 ratings
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Ukrainian musician Severoth is a busy man, having released four albums in 2016, each for a different project: the band Endless Battle and their third full-length Roots of All Evil, the dungeon synth solo project Galdur and it's second album Age of Legends, the black metal solo project Морок and its second album In the Dungeons of Mind and finally the second album of self-titled and presumably flagship project Severoth, Самітність. His first and so far only album of 2017, Forestpaths, is a follow-up to this one.

In this project Severoth plays atmospheric black metal of the heavily ambient influenced kind. It's raw and cold, though not to the level of an album like Striborg's Autumnal Melancholy (2008). The ambient elements are a prominent feature and the main source of melody within the release, with the black metal guitar work severing more of a backdrop role while Severoth delivers some rather primal sounding growls over the top. I, at least, cannot follow a word of the lyrics and I think that would be true even if they weren't in Ukrainian but that's part of what makes a release such as Forestpaths work. You're not necessarily supposed to understand the words, but be entranced by the experience and as an album the six track release certainly does that, with its artwork also providing a great depiction of the kind of atmosphere the music conveys. I'd imagine taking it deep into the woods on a cold, snowy night would be the way to experience the full effect.

Like with many albums of its kind there is some blurring together of the individual tracks on Forestpaths due to there being little change in style on each track, but my experience with it is that Severoth succeeds more in this regard than others have thanks in no small part to the ambient elements, which have some wonderful melodies. Opener Мікрокосм particularly stands out in this regard, though I recommend that the album be experience as one complete journey. It's biggest change in overall style comes right at the end of the release during the second half of closing track Чумацький шлях where, the black metal now removed from the music entirely, the ambience takes on a decidedly folksy sound that lasts until Forestpath's conclusion. It's a nice section of music, but if there's a fault to be had with the album as a whole it's that Severoth made us wait that long to hear it. It would have been nice to hear more exploration of that sort of thing earlier in the album. All in all though Forestpaths is a very pleasing release from Severoth, so I have to say that this only acts as a minor niggle for me.

BOSSE-DE-NAGE Bosse-de-Nage (III)

Album · 2012 · Atmospheric Black Metal
Cover art 4.00 | 2 ratings
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Bosse-de-Nage (2012) is the self-titled third full-length album by US atmospheric black metal act Bosse-de-Nage. These guys had, up to and including this album, taken the curious approach of calling every full-length they released self-titled, so this album is more commonly known as Bosse-de-Nage III or simply III to differentiate it from Bosse-de-Nage (2010) and Bosse-de-Nage (2011), the latter being also known as II. They eventually broke this trend with their next full-length, All Fours (2015).

On III Bosse-de-Nage play the post-black metal form of the atmospheric sub-genre, which means tons of post-rock influences in both the heavy and softer sections of music, with no reliance on keyboards to create an ambience. For the most part the band's style is tastefully crafted and intriguing, very occasionally even hinting at an underlying progressive influence, though there are equally a couple of moments during the album's six tracks where it does seem as if their ideas could have used a little trimming down in order to become more coherent compositions, the tracks being mid to long length. The longest is The God Ennui and I'd say that this is especially evident there. But overall the band's music is very pleasant, with the exception of the intentional use of feedback to begin and close the release. That's pretty uncomfortable. Bosse-de-Nage aren't the only band of their kind I've heard make use of feedback and I struggle to understand what the deal with it is. Fortunately they limit it to the start and finish only.

What further characterises III as a record is its vocals. Primarily growled with some spoken words used in some places, the style used by frontman B. pushes Bosse-de-Nage's style away from the soothing post-black metal journey of the instrumentation and into the zone of depressive black metal. There's no better way to describe how his growls sound than to say that it seems as if he's upset about something all the time. This is even to the point that there are some instances in the album where it sounds like he's quite literally bawling his eyes out about something in growling form. I'm not sure what that could be but he sounds so fucking distraught about it that it actually makes those parts of the album difficult to listen to. It's like one of those really awkward moments when you're out in public and someone, usually a kid not getting their way, is making a scene. I find it highly doubtful that this is the image Bosse-de-Nage were intending to conjure up, but that's my impression of what these parts sound like.

Overall though, there's much more to praise here than not and maybe some listeners will find the vocal style appealing, though for my part I do think it detracts a bit from my total enjoyment of the album, which I have to describe as a difficult listen. That's not an uncommon occurrence with depressive black metal release of course, it's often part of the point. III is however such an album that hasn't yet managed to reward me for sticking with it as much as I'd like, though it's impossible not to acknowledge it as a very solid work from Bosse-de-Nage, despite a few issues.

PALE MIST Spreading My Wings into the Abyss That Calls

Album · 2016 · Depressive Black Metal
Cover art 4.50 | 1 rating
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Spreading My Wings into the Abyss That Calls (2016) is the second full-length album by UK depressive black metal act Pale Mist. The solo project of Glomor, he's released an EP and a split in the time since the debut album Where the Darkness Is Praised (2012) was released. The album was originally released on CD and digital formats by Sinister Stench Productions with a limited cassette release following in 2017 through Heidenwut Productions.

The album opens with Through the Thick Fog of Misery and Woe, an instrumental that slowly builds up the album towards it's first vocal track, which is the title track Spreading My Wings into the Abyss That Calls, which is noticeable more aggressive than the former, where the guitars have quite a jangly tone, which is repeated in other tracks of the album including the eighteen minute long Embraced by the Pale Mist. I rather like the tone of those parts actually; they give the record what in my experience of the black metal genre as a whole is an atypical sound. There are also quite a few more clean tone parts used on the album as well, including a second instrumental, Gazing, Opening the Barriers. When used in the tracks with vocals though the clean parts when combined with the growls create a surprisingly dark vibe, more so than the heavier parts of the album manage. The album's finale is The Welcoming Glow of the Moon, another long track at just over twelve minutes.

Though the album as a whole does fit the mood of a depressive black metal release due to its rather bleak sound and a semi-raw production it's overall a lot more accessible than some such bands are. Glomor sticks to using growls, albeit fairly tortured sounding ones, and doesn't throw any of those wailing and whimpering like clean vocals that some DSBM bands like Taiga or Todesstoß use. You know, the kind that can really grate on one's nerves after a while. Fortunately there's none of that nonsense here and Spreading My Wings into the Abyss That Calls is a better album for it. I didn't hear of this album until after the year of its release, but I definitely count it as one of my best 2016 finds from after the event.

ATLAS PAIN What the Oak Left

Album · 2017 · Folk Metal
Cover art 4.33 | 3 ratings
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Folk metal and I have an unusual relationship: I'm quick to count it among my favourite styles of metal, but I can list all the folk metal bands I truly consider myself a fan of on my fingers (and if I discount the ones that are heavily based in black metal or power metal (etcetera) I only need one hand). Even more so than with death metal I'm very picky when it comes to this genre. Where am I going with this you ask? Simple - it's just so easy for a folk metal artist/release to press all the wrong buttons for me. As it's a diverse genre that can draw from a large genre pool of influences on both the folk and metal sides I wouldn't say that there's an inherent objectively 'right' way to create it (though for my money the right way is authentic folk instrumentation, but I have heard good simulated stuff too), but there are many albums out there that in one way or another seem to miss the point behind the whole folk metal idea.

Italian band Atlas Pain brand their style as 'epic-folk metal' but their debut full-length album What the Oak Left (2017) unfortunately comes across as being one of the ones that missed the point. There are two ways that folk metal acts miss the point and it's not necessarily anything to do with simulating folk melodies instead of using real instruments to create them (not every artist especially newer ones have access to such things), but rather failing to find balance between folk and metal. Some bands are strong on the folk side but lacking on the metal side. Some bands are the other way around, Atlas Pain being one of them.

These guys are a relatively new entry in the Italian metal scene and have a prior demo (2014) and an EP, Behind the Front Page (2015), under their belts. I have to give them credit where it is due, they prove themselves quite capable in their metal aspects on What the Oak Left. It's a decent and at times even brilliant debut album, energetically played, fun and has plenty of epic moments. Theirs is a symphonic take on the folk metal genre and if I listen to the album as a symphonic metal album I come away feeling a great deal of appreciation for it. Their metal backdrop draws on both power metal and melodic death metal elements and the band are clearly capable of catering to the audience of epic, catchy and polished metal music, while retaining an extreme edge thanks to the primarily growled vocals. The feel of the whole thing is primarily melodic death metal/extreme power metal, with a rare dip into more black metal orientated growls, though musically the album doesn't ever go near anything remotely black metal. It's far too polished and power metal sounding for that.

But the folk part of What the Oak Left really trips it up. It's actually the symphonic elements that end up hindering it in the long run despite providing some of the album's best and most epic moments. The impression I get it that they've been applied a bit too excessively which causes them to detract from the album's status as folk metal. The band are actually delivering some great folk melodies on a regular basis, using either the orchestrations or the lead guitar, but the whole feeling of them being simulated is hard to ignore here because the folk ideas always manage to seem of secondary importance to whatever else is going on at the time, be it an epic orchestration or a speedy power metal guitar riff.

I don't know about anyone else, but for me that approach doesn't work. It sounds more like a kind of folkish metal rather than the real thing, just like viking metal and pagan black metal can be folkish in their ways. To my ears even though I do enjoy the album it creates the nagging feeling that it's missing something, which brings me back around to what I said at the start of this review: the thing What the Oak Left is missing, if it is supposed be a folk metal album (and I can't find any reason to argue that it isn't considering Atlas Pain's own branding for their music), is the point. The clue is in the genre name. Folk metal. What that means is don't slack on your metal elements but the folk should be a dominant feature as well. I can't honestly say that's always the case here. The times the band do get it right though are very good, which gives me hope for future releases.

Just to be clear, What the Oak Left is a very good album from Atlas Pain but I have to rate it as a folk metal album and as one of those it's lacking in a crucial way. But if you want to rate it as what it actually comes across as, a folkish symphonic melodic death/extreme power metal album, then you can easily add another full star to my rating. You'll have to consider me coming away from this one with a mixed opinion.

WHITE WARD Futility Report

Album · 2017 · Atmospheric Black Metal
Cover art 4.67 | 3 ratings
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I've said it before, but Futility Report (2017), the debut full-length album by Ukrainian atmospheric black metal/blackgaze act White Ward, gives me need to say it again: out of all the various styles of metal music, the only one that still manages to surprise me on a regular basis is black metal. These guys have been around since 2012 and their early work is said to have had depressive black metal qualities to it, but they've since evolved their music into something a lot more experimental.

The six track album starts off with Deviant Shapes, which for a short length suggests the band to be following the fairly typical blackgaze style of atmospheric black metal, but then the band suddenly turn their music into jazz and any notions of Futility Report being a generic record are instantly dispelled. A quick check reveals in fact that White Ward, much like Japan's Sigh, actually have a full-time saxophone player in their line-up in addition to the usual roles of vocals, guitars, bass and drums.

Now, jazz isn't exactly an unheard of ingredient in metal, but I'm normally used to hearing the influence crop up in genres other than black metal, even if saxophone's have seen use to some extent by bands such as Winterhorde, Aenaon and of course the aforementioned Sigh, though their work tends to look more towards the avant-garde since Dr. Mikannibal joined in 2007. I find jazz more likely something to be heard in avant-garde metal acts like Akphaezya and progressive metal acts like To-Mera. But even when it does feature in metal through groups like those it isn't usually as prominent as it is on White Ward's Futility Report. This record goes some way towards realising something I've long been surprised hasn't already become more of a thing: a true fusion of jazz and metal. It isn't exactly how I expected such a thing to sound of course, but maybe that's a good thing.

This is not, on paper at least, the most obvious pairing of influences, but there's something else I've said before which I believe I read in an interview with, as it happens, Sigh (presumably it was Mirai Kawashima, but as I point out every time I refer to this I'm only going on memory and it was in an old issue of Metal Hammer UK that I've long since thrown out, so I could be mistaken despite being 99% sure): that anything can be done with black metal. That's in turn why this is the genre that still manages to surprise me, as Futility Report has done. What White Ward have created simply works, offering up a unique take on the atmospheric black metal template that in some tracks such as Stillborn Knowledge also offers up the odd progressive touch in the metal side of the music, which for me suggest that White Ward could be producing even more interesting material in the future if they can hone those influences a bit while keeping their atmospheric black metal/jazz thing they have going for them intact.

I'm not sure exactly what you'd call an album such as Futility Report. I kind of want to call it 'atmospheric blackjazz' but I can't really do that without thinking of the Norwegian jazz turned avant-garde/industrial metal band Shinning, who don't really have a lot if anything to do with black metal, and blackened jazzgaze downplays the role of black metal in the album. One thing is for sure: whatever this is, it works really smoothly. Note the name White Ward. It's one to watch.

KALMANKANTAJA Demonwoods

Album · 2017 · Atmospheric Black Metal
Cover art 4.24 | 3 ratings
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Finland's Kalmankantaja may have only released their debut album Kuolonsäkeet in 2013 but the group, which currently consists of instrumentalist Grim666 and vocalist Tyrant, are, as of the release of Demonwoods (2017), already on their tenth studio album. Known up until this point as part of the depressive black metal scene, the band's last few albums, which include two albums released in 2016, Waldeinsamkeit and Tyhjyys, have also displayed atmospheric black metal elements. It's this territory that Demonwoods now finds the duo fully engaged in.

Demonwoods is just three tracks long, with the middle of those, Sorrow, serving more as an interlude between the other two, which are lengthy compositions at 15:18 for opener The Wanderer in Eternity and 17:16 for the closing title track. The total running time of the release is 35:32, which is a fairly average time for a black metal release, only made notable by most of it being taken up by just two tracks. The style of these tracks is fairly typical atmospheric black metal fare and overall the album does come across as perhaps a bit less interesting style-wise than the prior album Tyhjyys where Kalmankantaja had elements of both the atmospheric and the depressive black metal styles, as well as pure ambient music in its final track.

What Demonwoods is though is very engaging from start to finish, with a fairly well polished production job that allows every detail to be conveyed to its full potential. The two long tracks, rather than droning on and outstaying their welcome feature many shifts in style and mood. Some parts are soft, almost post-rocky and some parts are metal. Most of the vocal parts are traditionally growled with the odd cleanly sung section. Some of the music is driven by the guitars, while some has added synths. Gone from Kalmankantaja's sound though is anything that would remotely still tie them to depressive black metal. This is, overall, a fairly peaceful, pleasant atmospheric black metal experience despite the rather grim cover artwork the album carries and it's a pleasure to spend the thirty-five minutes just soaking it all up.

PROGENIE TERRESTRE PURA oltreLuna

Album · 2017 · Atmospheric Black Metal
Cover art 4.83 | 6 ratings
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A few years ago I received a promo for the debut album of a relatively new Italian band who at that point only had a single prior demo to their name. I hadn't heard of them before, but that first album, while it wasn't an immediate thing, has in the years that followed gone on to become one of my most highly regarded black metal albums, especially within the category of debut albums. The band was Progenie Terrestre Pura and the debut album was U.M.A. (2013). It was on the strength of this release that as soon as I knew the second album oltreLuna (2017) was finally on the way, inspired me to pre-order myself a physical copy without having heard a single note of it.

Much has actually changed in the Progenie Terrestre Pura camp in the intervening years. Originally a rather enigmatic duo consisting of Eon[0] and Nex[1], they next released the EP Asteroidi (2014), which intentionally abandoned their core black metal sound in favour of pure ambient/electronic work. That was the last they were heard from until the build up to the release of oltreLuna, where we now find that Nex[1] is out of the picture and that Eon[0] is now using his real name Davide Colladon to perform with the group, who have extended themselves to a trio. Emanuele Prandoni is the new vocalist while Fabrizio Sanna has joined on bass. There is still no drummer, so those are programmed primarily by Colladon, with some assistance from Prandoni. The lack of a real drummer may be seen as a detriment by some (especially considering Prandoni actually does drum for groups such as Grind Zero, Simulacro and Vultur), but it does actually make a kind of sense for such an electronically influenced group as Progenie Terrestre Pura, so I'd recommend potential listeners look past this.

Despite the changes in line-up and the direction of their previous release, oltreLuna marks a return to the atmospheric black metal based sound of the debut album U.M.A. There are some similarities between the two records, but a lot more differences. Where U.M.A. was a rather relaxed sounding record with plenty of ambience, oltreLuna is marked for it's heavier and more direct approach. This is also true of the vocals as much as the music, with Emanuele Prandoni bringing a much more forceful performance to the group compared to that of Nex[1], whose style was quite understated, becoming a part of the atmosphere of the U.M.A. album. That's still true to an extent with Emanuele Prandoni's performance, but if you've heard the previous album it will be impossible not to notice the difference as soon as the vocals start on oltreLuna's opening track [.Pianeta.Zero.].

The differences between the two albums don't end there of course. I consider U.M.A. to be a rather unique entry in the directory of atmospheric black metal albums, but the band have built upon what it started rather than rehashed it, so I'd say the same is true of oltreLuna. Familiar elements such as progressive tendencies and psybient influences can easily be heard, but there's new stuff too. For a band who put across such a spacey vibe in both their music and artwork it's quite surprising how tribal and ethnic some of oltreLuna sounds, especially in the percussion in the first and middle tracks [.Pianeta.Zero.] and [.oltreLuna.], the latter of which also features a burst of dubstep that even with the abundant influences of electronic music seems to come out of nowhere. I wouldn't normally touch the dubstep genre with a bargepole, but I have to admit, that part of the song is especially great. It's used again, in a less direct manner, during the final song [.Proxima:B.].

Five tracks in total with each composition being longer than the previous, oltreLuna seems to be an album designed to outdo itself with each track it serves up. Even bring the massive fan of U.M.A. that I am I was floored by the album as early as [.Pianeta.Zero.], which in my mind means that oltreLuna is a much more immediate album than U.M.A. which required a few years to earn the regard I now have for it. That regard remains high and nothing could change that now, but there's absolutely no way I can't say that the band haven't bettered the album in every possible way with oltreLuna. It all builds up to [.Proxima:B.], a track that at 15:19 minutes long is the band's longest track to date and easily their crowning achievement so far as well. Move over Fen, there's a new trio of atmospheric black metal kings holding the crown for the best atmospheric black metal album of 2017 now.

COLOTYPHUS Остання подорож зневіреної душі (Spiritual Journey of a Forlorn Soul)

Album · 2017 · Atmospheric Black Metal
Cover art 4.00 | 1 rating
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Colotyphus is a fairly new black metal act out of Ukraine and Остання подорож зневіреної душі (Spiritual Journey of a Forlorn Soul) (2017), which I'm going to refer to solely by its English title from here on in, is their debut studio album. The band was previously the solo project of their vocalist/guitarist Gennadiy 'Monolith' Kovrizhnykh and released its previous releases, a single and EP as his solo project, but they have expanded to a trio of musicians by the time of this album: Roman 'Morvudd' Sapozhnikov on bass and Katerina 'Todestrieb' Katharsis on keyboards, who also takes over lyrical duties. There is no mention of a drummer anywhere, so I presume those are programmed. The album contains seven original songs and cover versions of Drudkh's Summoning the Rain and Glare of Autumn re-done as one long track which closes the album.

The music on Spiritual Journey of a Forlorn Soul is atmospheric black metal with some occasional light symphonic touches, such as in the first track Ruthless Time. The band's sound is characterised by a reasonably well polished production job, by black metal standards that is. We're not talking an excessively raw and/or cold sounding atmospheric black metal fare here. Another notable feature to my ears is Kovrizhnykh's vocals, which are a growl of a deeper variety than is typically heard in the black metal genre, being closer to those of death metal. With that said there are no musical diversions into death metal present on this release, so I don't think this is intentional on Colotyphus' part, but rather that's simply how Kovrizhnykh's growl sounds.

The band's compositions tend towards a mid to long length, resulting in Spiritual Journey of a Forlorn Soul being quite the substantial debut album for the band. Solidly played and composed, their style isn't the most groundbreaking out there but it's professionally done and powerfully delivered. Getting through the over an hour total duration in one go certainly isn't an issue, though listeners may not come away feeling like each individual track made much of an impact. This long journey though, taken as a whole, proves to be very effective which keeps my regard for the release quite high.

ICED EARTH Incorruptible

Album · 2017 · US Power Metal
Cover art 4.25 | 8 ratings
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With their last album Plagues of Babylon (2014) having, let's be fair, a rather lukewarm reception (especially following the praise heaped on Dystopia (2011), current vocalist Stu Block's debut with the band), a lot is riding on US power/heavy/thrash metal act Iced Earth to really hit one out of the park with Incorruptible (2017), their twelfth main studio album. Four singles have been released prior to the full album, each showing the band in a bit of a different light. Seven Headed Whore was an immediate thrashy headbanger. Raven Wing was initially a disappointment but turned out to be one of those slow burn type of tracks. Great Heathen Army proved to be highly addictive, with this reviewer streaming the song off of Spotify about two dozen times in the run up to Incorruptible's release. Finally Clear The Way (December 13th, 1862) turned out to be long, fast, epic and catchy piece that it was impossible not to be instantly won over by.

Four tracks out of a total of ten from the album. Had Iced Earth showed their hand too early and served up all the album's best cuts as singles? Well, yeah, they kinda did, but I guess that's one way to sell your album. The rest of the material here has been a bit like Raven Wing in respect to the tracks being slow burners, requiring a few listens to open up before they can really be appreciated. There's a few of the remaining tracks that have come to stand out over the others, such as Black Flag, which could easily be a Running Wild song thanks to its pirate theme, and also Defiance, but the trinity of Great Heathen Army, Seven Headed Whore and Clear the Way (December 13th, 1862) have remained untouchable. These three are Iced Earth gold.

Incorruptible is a very balanced album from Iced Earth with several faster and hard hitting USPM tracks and some more mid-paced and melodic heavy metal orientated material. Seven Headed Whore is the only really thrashy number, though Great Heathen Army also hits bloody hard and fast. The production on such tracks is really beefy and heavy in the riffs and it sounds really pummelling. The lead guitar work from new guy Jake Dreyer is crystal clear though and sounds excellent. Iced Earth have found a great addition to the group in him. His solos really stand out across the whole release. Stu Block is also on great vocal form, delivering a mix of aggressive clean vocals and high register notes. The opening scream of 'Valhalla' in Great Heathen Army is absolutely insane.

Incorruptible is overall an extremely solid Iced Earth album. It could probably do with another really hard hitting USPM track to really knock some socks off, but even with the whole slow burn thing taken into consideration I'd judge this to be the band's best album since Stu Block took over as lead vocalist. Unlike Plagues of Babylon there's no loss of steam in the second half and I think it even edges one up on Dystopia, though that's a real close call.

DARKESTRAH Turan

Album · 2016 · Atmospheric Black Metal
Cover art 4.00 | 1 rating
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Kyrgyzstan isn't a country exactly well known for its metal bands. A quick online search for example reveals under a dozen ever known to have released anything. Best known of these bands is black metal act Darkestrah, who have been around since 1990 and have released six full-length albums, the latest being this one, Turan (2016). With long-time vocalist Kriegtalith now out of the picture, the band recorded the album with a session vocalist, Merkith, who now seems to have become their permanent replacement.

The music on Turan is atmospheric based pagan black metal. The use of synths and cello gives the album some lightly symphonic touches, though nothing up to the level associated with actual symphonic (black) metal. Some folk influences show themselves every now and then and when they do they err towards what I assume must be the traditional music of Kyrgyzstan, which gives Turan some unique flavours, heard prominently in tracks such as Erlik-Khan. Some of the additional instruments used alongside the traditional metal setup and cello are the mandolin and temir-komuz, the latter of which is a new one on me and I had to look up what it was. Apparently it's a Kyrgyz jaw harp. The band's style isn't always so overt as on Erlik-Khan and other tracks require a focussed listen to make out the fine details that give each track its identity.

Turan is a six track album with a total playing time of 52:24 minutes, with the shortest composition being Gleaming Madness at 6:59 minutes. The longest the album gets up to is its opener One with the Grey Spirit (10:22), however this track's first half basically serves as a really quite drawn out introduction for the release, the kind other bands may have made a separate track on the album, so once the whole band actually get going it doesn't seem to be such a long song after all. To my ears it's a little too long to wait for things to really kick off. It's one of those cases where it makes me want to yell at the band to get on with it.

The long introduction aside, Turan is still a very substantial album from Darkestrah. Solidly written and performed while also offering up some ideas that I've not heard a metal band doing before (this also being my first experience of Darkestrah's music – it won't be the last). The real issue holding the release back is that the music does tend towards a mid-paced tempo which coupled with the long track durations does make some of them, such as the 9:46 Bird of Prey, seem a bit elongated and could either do with a few minutes shaved off, with perhaps an extra track or two then substituted to make up the total time, or some additional experimentation with the traditional instruments, because those parts are certainly the most interesting aspects of the album that sets the band apart from the crowd.

SATURNDUST RLC

Album · 2017 · Doom Metal
Cover art 4.50 | 1 rating
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Hailing from Brazil, doom/sludge metal act Saturndust are back following their 2015 self-titled debut album with their second full-length album RLC (2017). I'd not heard of the band prior to this release, but it's eye-catching cover quickly drew my attention this time around and made me want to see what sort of music they played. It only took one track after that for the music to make me stay and listen to the whole thing.

RLC is something of a mash-up of a few different genres. At its heart the album is doom metal, featuring heavily distorted, prolonged guitar stabs and rapid trills straight out of the book of Black Sabbath, but there are also sludge metal elements in the parts where the band up the tempo a bit and take on more of a hardcore approach, using harsher vocals. But the real mash-up and what ultimately makes the album interesting actually comes from Saturndust's softer sections, most of which I would describe as space rock influences, with a bit of ambient on the side.

Prominent synths and atmospheric guitars one minute, crushing doom/sludge metal the next, RLC is quite the trip through the cosmos. While the softer sections of the album such as the first part of the title track conjure up impressions of the majesty of space, the kind you'll see portrayed on Hubble photographs of nebulae and other celestial wonders, one must never forget that Saturndust's main game is doom and that space, despite the wonders it offers is actually quite an inhospitable place. A key feature in point of this is the way that Felipe Dalam's harsh but non-growled vocals absolutely ooze real despair. It's an effective contrast of atmospheres for a subject matter that black metal bands have seemed to have the monopoly on lately and it sounds really fresh to me. Doom metal isn't my most familiar genre, but I haven't heard any other band who does it quite like this before.

What makes RLC a really great album though as opposed to simply being a different one is that Saturndust have not only come up with a winning formula for themselves, but they also have one that gives each of their tracks its own identity. Each one on the album is able to assert itself in a different way and even though all except for Titan are long compositions (with three of the six over eleven minutes) they never feel like they should have been cut down to something more manageable. The title track for instance has those lengthy soft passages of music that are some of the most out and out spacey stuff on the album. Titan is shorter and to the point, yet just as jam-packed with goodness and Saturn 12.C is instrumental (except for voice-overs) and heavily atmospheric. I've little doubt in my mind in fact that RLC should be considered the standard setting album for doom metal in 2017. This will, at least, be the one I'll be looking at others to beat in any future doom metal reviews I do this year.

BORKNAGAR Quintessence

Album · 2000 · Melodic Black Metal
Cover art 4.22 | 14 ratings
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I've had a long held belief that the Norwegian black/viking/progressive metal act Borknagar peaked with their second album The Olden Domain (1997). It's a view that many of my fellow fans seem to share. Recently though I've been spending a lot of time with the band's fourth album Quintessence (2000) and have had to seriously question whether I still believed The Olden Domain to be their best work, or if this one is. Both are quite different albums from the band and both have many claims to that top spot (while a good portion of fans will also throw the hat of the debut album Borknagar (1996) into the ring). Ultimately I had the question answered for me by my actions rather than any serious thought: whenever I thought I'd play one of my Borknagar albums my eyes always strayed first to Quintessence, which in turn has led to me playing this one more than any other of their releases that I own.

The music on Quintessence isn't quite like that of any other Borkngarar album. While many would put the band's transition from black to progressive metal at somewhere during this era of the band, which I think of as the ICS Vortex era after the then lead vocalist (he's since returned alongside his replacement Vintersorg), I find this album to be the band's truest fusion of the two genres, with the actual switch away from black metal only coming with the following Empiricism (2001), making Quintessence their last true black metal release even though they've always kept a blackened edge to their music after this point, notably through growling vocals.

I'd equally make an argument for this to be their most truly progressive metal album as well. Their later work I'd actually describe as an example of prog-lite metal (increasingly true with every new record), because it's not really all that adventurous to my ears despite the progressive label being regularly attached to the band (something I find true of many so called progressive metal acts). Quintessence is a different story, but it's also still a black metal album. To my ears this album is actually more black metal than the prior and first ICS Vortex fronted album The Archaic Course (1998), though it is of a much more melodic kind than that found on either of the band's first two albums, A.K.A. The Garm era.

The guitars of Øystein G. Brun and Jens F. Ryland are semi-raw and black metal based and there is some excellent keyboard work from Lars A. Nedland that absolutely reeks of classic progressive rock influence. It's musically an great sound that Borknagar have hit on for this one album, while ICS Vortex puts on possibly the vocal performance of his entire career here. As a singer mostly known for his clean vocals it's an unusual case to hear him growling, but he does it very well and in quite an epic manner that fits with the music perfectly.

The album's first four tracks are especially a real tour de force. The third of these is Ruins of the Future, which may just be the most epic song Borknagar has ever recorded and is without a doubt my personal favourite of the band (it's actually rare for me to have a favourite song from an artist's whole discography like this). Following straight away is Colossus, which is a great example of something I mentioned being possible (despite popular belief): clean vocal black metal, because growls are only used minimal and for backing purposes in this one, and try denying to yourself that the music in this track is any less melodic black metal based than Ruins of the Future, which is growl dominant. Next track Inner Landscape serves as an interlude a breather after the terrific first half of the album. While the remainder doesn't hit quite the same heights as those first four tracks, it's still very high quality work, with Genesis Torn and the finale Revolt being further tracks of note.

In summary Quintessence is a fantastic album from Borknagar. While I enjoy the works that followed they've never again been able to reach the same level that this is on. It has not only overtaken The Olden Domain as my favourite from the band, but I'd go as far to say that it's also overtaken Iron Maiden's Brave New World as my favourite album of the year 2000. I whole-heartedly recommend it as an essential purchase for both black and progressive metal fans.

You want to know what the real kicker about that finale statement is though? At least here in the UK this is the one Borknagar album not readily available to buy a physical copy of at normal prices. All nine others can be in a range of about £5 to £12 online, but this one will currently set you back about three times that, unless you get lucky. Bloody typical of the metal scene that!

FOGALORD Masters of War

Album · 2017 · Power Metal
Cover art 3.33 | 3 ratings
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It's been five years since the Italian act Fogalord served up their debut album A Legend to Believe In (2012) and asserted themselves as worthy heirs to Italy's symphonic power metal crown. It's a surprisingly long gap for a new band, but finally they're ready to follow their impressive debut album up. Masters of War (2017) marks the introduction of a new rhythm section to the band but despite that there wasn't much cause to expect any drastic changes with the band's direction.

And I suppose that's true of the end result, but that doesn't mean that Masters of War doesn't have a different feel to it compared to A Legend to Believe In. It's much less symphonic for a start, even though the keyboards of Daniele Bisi are still there in the music consistently. To compensate it uses a lot more folksy melodies than its predecessor. This is nice, but overall the band's music does feel like it's a bit less epic and cinematic. It's still characteristically Fogalord thanks in no small part to the distinctive sounding voice of Daniele Bisi, but compared to the high energy of the debut Masters of War actually seems comparatively subdued, a feeling that even the speedy power metal rhythms can't seem to do much about.

This does mean that even though the album is roughly the same length as A Legend to Believe In it really starts to flounder in its second half as the music starts to wear thin, a problem that the former didn't have. Fogalord's keeping of the epic length track The Sword's Will for last is something of a saving grace since it brings the symphonic elements back prominently but it still suffers from the key problem I'm finding the album as a whole to have: it's rather forgettable. An enjoyable enough album while you're actually listening to it, but try recalling any specific song a little while after the event. Power metal like this should have infectious, catchy choruses that really stick with you. The band's first album did because it doesn't take much for me to recall tracks like At the Gates of the Silent Storm or The Scream of the Thunder but with Masters of War I struggle to even remember the early tracks such as Rising Through the Mist of Time and Daughter of the Morning Light before I've even finished The Sword's Will!

Unfortunately not one of those albums that only opens up after repeated spins, Masters of War has to go down in my mind as a disappointing follow-up from Fogalord. It's something of a double blow considering how long we had to wait to hear more from them. I thought their debut was excellent. This one not so much. It's one of those albums where there's little reason to listen to it again so long as the first one exists.

PANOPTICON Roads to the North

Album · 2014 · Atmospheric Black Metal
Cover art 4.26 | 3 ratings
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Austin Lunn's Panopticon project's previous album Kentucky (2012) was something of a unique entry in the atmospheric black metal genre. A combination of lengthy original atmospheric black metal compositions mixed with shorter bursts of American bluegrass, including some covers of traditional songs, it's an album unlike any other I've come across. The follow-up to such an album was perhaps always going to lack the same kind of wow factor as it's predecessor, so it's a good thing that Roads to the North (2014) isn't a complete rehash of Kentucky, but takes some of the same ideas and adds some different ones in to create what is ultimately a very different sounding album.

The most bluegrass thing you will hear on Roads to the North is the instrumental track The Long Road Part 1: One Last Fire, though there are some subtle hints of the influence underneath some of the atmospheric black metal material this time, which is actually a marked difference from Kentucky where the two were presented separately. Lunn deviates from the atmospheric black metal template to also draw on melodic black metal on the album, giving it some more direct sounding passages and more unexpectedly some of these actually shift more towards death metal, resulting in more abrasive elements than an atmospheric black metal album will typically have. On the opposite side of that there are also some influences of post-rock to be found during the softer sections, such as the start of The Long Road Part 3: The Sigh of Summer, a track which transitions through most of the styles mentioned here.

With all these different elements going into it Roads to the North is easily the most diverse of the Panopticon albums I've heard so far. However it's also the one I've had the most difficultly with. Where Kentucky has that really overt wow factor due to being so different to anything else out there and the following album Autumn Eternal (2015) treads less diverse ground (though is still brilliant) making it easier to digest, Roads to the North is much more of a grower. It represents more of a challenge, one that will reward those who have the patience to partake in multiple listens while waiting for the album to really reveal itself to them. But once it does it becomes a very easy album to enjoy for repeated spins. Kentucky will always be special, but those who found it to focus a little too much on non-metal bluegrass work will surely find Roads to the North to be a whole lot more rewarding. Likewise those interested in what a true black metal/bluegrass fusion would sound like will find considerably stronger evidence of such a thing being possible here.

AVATARIUM Hurricanes and Halos

Album · 2017 · Hard Rock
Cover art 4.08 | 11 ratings
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Swedish band Avatarium were founded as a doom metal project by Candlemass main man Leif Edling and produced a fairly well received self-titled debut album in the style in 2013. With follow-up The Girl with the Raven Mask (2015) their sound began to diversify and take on stronger heavy psych traits, though it was still dominantly a doom metal record. Since then there has been a major change in the Avatarium ranks as Leif Edling stepped down from recording and performance duties, though he still wrote the majority of this, their third full-length album, Hurricanes and Halos (2017). Keyboardist Carl Westholm has also departed. Mats Rydström (Abramis Brama) has joined as the group's new bassist while Rickard Nilsson handles organ duties.

Judging from the sounds to be heard on Hurricanes and Halos it's impossible to not look back at The Girl with the Raven Mask and now see it not as much as an album bringing an evolution to Avatarium's early doom metal sound but a transitional album working towards a near complete reversal of all the elements that have characterised their music previously. Though still regularly present yet used in strict moderation, the doom metal riffs now have a much more background role in the music, with the guitars more often bringing a psychedelic fuzz to the table, making Hurricanes and Halos much more the rock album than the metal album. The one thing that has remained unchanged is the underlying influences of (especially seventies) progressive rock that have subtly been there since their debut, though they're a little more out in the open with the overall change in genre.

Avatarium won't be the first modern doom metal band to take such a route. Canada's Blood Ceremony did a similar thing between their own second and third albums Living with the Ancients (2011) and The Eldritch Dark (2013) and were ultimately a stronger band for it. Based on Hurricanes and Halos I'm less sure that the same path was the right choice for Avatarium, as I don't find this album to have as much impact on me as a listener as either of their previous ones. Some albums grow on you once you've given them a few listens, but unfortunately this isn't one of them. It certainly has its moments of brilliance though, such as the opener Into the Fire/Into the Storm and later on A Kiss (From the End of the World), a song which still features some quite prominent doom metal elements. It is, overall, a very pleasant album with many things to praise, not least Jennie-Ann Smith's vocals and some emotive lead guitar from Marcus Jidell, particularly during the album's softer parts.

That Hurricanes and Halos ultimately comes across as a step down from two excellent releases is of course a disappointment, but on the positive side Avatarium have once again delivered an album that is different to their previous ones which is more than a lot of artists do. While I don't think it's worked out as well for them this time as it could have done it does make me interested to hear if they can keep such a pattern up. It also remains to be seen how Leif Edling's departure will affect the band in the long run. He seems to be sticking around as their mentor for now and wrote all but two of the songs on Hurricanes and Halos, but he does have his new project The Doomsday Kingdom (which also features Marcus Jidell), who released their self-titled debut earlier this year in a more familiar traditional doom metal style (and for my money is the better of these two albums), which I assume will be his focus now short of Candlemass going back on their statement about Psalms for the Dead (2012) being their final album.

WIEGEDOOD De doden hebben het goed II

Album · 2017 · Atmospheric Black Metal
Cover art 3.83 | 3 ratings
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Formed in 2014 and releasing their debut album De doden hebben het goed (2015) (The Dead Have the Right) a year later, Wiegedood (meaning Sudden Infant Death Syndrome) are still a relatively new entry on the atmospheric black metal scene. Hailing from Belgium and consisting of a three-piece line-up that includes two members of Oathbreaker, De doden hebben het goed II (2017) is, as you may have guessed from the title, their second album and a direct counterpart to their debut.

Structured in a very similar fashion to their debut as a four track atmospheric black metal album, De doden hebben het goed II is a relatively short jaunt, lasting only about thirty-three minutes. The individual tracks run for a mid to reasonable long length each, the shortest being finale Smeekbede at 6:13 and the longest being second track Cataract at 11:11. The band's style is considerably more standardised atmospheric black metal fare compared to what guitarist Gilles Demolder and drummer Wim Sreppoc play in their other band Oathbreaker (at least from their latest album Rheia (2016), as their used to be more hardcore/crust punk based), but they and frontman Levy Seynaeve (bass in atmospheric sludge metal act Amenra) nevertheless impress well enough with their take on the genre. The record is not groundbreaking but they produce a solid effort, especially on the first two of the four tracks, Ontzielling and Cataract. The trio obviously know their stuff.

The trouble with the record is that after the first impressions have worn off it's all too easy to realise that other than being 'very well done' it doesn't actually have all that much going for it as an album. That no doubt seems a contradiction but allow me to explain: It is well done, but it's also a rather generic atmospheric black metal release. It's the kind of album that's easy to enjoy if you are a fan of the genre but if your interest is of a more casual nature then it's easy for me to hear how De doden hebben het goed II could come across as being 'just another album' from a scene that is, let's be fair, rather crowded with artists.

It might help the album's case if Levy Seynaeve's blackened screams weren't of the completely indiscernible kind so there were some lyrical references to hook onto which may have made it easier to recall which track was which, because give me a half hour after the album has finished playing and the only thing I can say was definitely a part of a certain song is the final drawn out scream in Smeekbede that brings the album to a close and I'm actually unsure if that's because it is the last moment on the album so freshest in my head or if it's because that last scream actually sounds a bit ridiculous.

The point is that in any genre it's all well and good being able to craft music that fits the industry standard and even do it well, as De doden hebben het goed II actually does for most of the album. Wiegedood certainly display stronger musicianship and professionalism in their recording than the majority of newer black metal acts. But an artist needs that extra something to make them really stand out and based on the evidence presented here I do not believe that Wiegedood have found that yet.

DEUS OTIOSUS Opposer

Album · 2017 · Death Metal
Cover art 3.98 | 2 ratings
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If you're a regular reader of my reviews then you may have noticed one thing about my tastes in metal: death metal and I don't exactly have a stable relationship. I like a good few technical and progressive death metal bands, but the kind of death metal act that gets branded as 'old school' and I generally aren't best buddies. There are exceptions of course, such as Krypts (from Finland), Sulphur Aeon, and Wound (both from Germany). Another band that impressed me a few years ago was the Danish act Deus Otiosus. The album was Rise (2014), and its semi-thrashy old school death metal sound really stood out to me compared to other, similarly branded bands and albums I was trying out, such as the then quite hyped up Abysmal Thresholds by Corpsessed, where the music seemed to just be a bunch of songs that blurred together with little to no identity between them.

Opposer (2017) is the follow-up to that album, the band's fourth full-length overall, and it brings more of the same to the table, though it doesn't have quite as pronounced a thrash metal edge to their riffs this time around. Though not as strong as Rise, it's clear that the Danes haven't lost what made them stand out before with this latest offering. They write good riffs instead of totally forgettable ones as per most death metal acts trying too hard to be old school and in Anders Bo Rasmussen they have a vocalist whose growls can actually be followed really quite well and being able to discern their lyrics makes all the difference in making Deus Otiosus's songs memorable. Many death metal bands just want to be as brutal as possible. Some are even good at that. But the individual songs nearly always end up being so totally forgettable that they just can't seem to make an album that leaves a lasting impression. Deus Otiosus rise above that and there's no danger of it happening to them.

Opposer is another solid death metal outing from Deus Otiosus, a band who many others professing to play the same game could learn a thing of three from. A rare band existing within a genre that often seems completely stale that manages to take the same formula as others and make it sound as if its as natural as breathing. I'm confident that come the end of the year Opposer will still stand tall as one of 2017's best old school death metal albums. In fact so far even its only one of two that's even registered on my interest, the other being Wound's Engrained that I still need to check out, but have a lot of confidence in after their excellent debut Inhale the Void (2013). The difference between Wound and Deus Otiosus? Wound's album has been out since January and it's been on my 'meaning to get around to it' list since then. I rushed to Bandcamp to hear Opposer the second I realised a new Deus Otiosus album had been released. I find it really sad how few people still seem to know about them. To my ears they deserve to be considered field leaders of their genre, though I guess 'hidden gem' isn't a bad distinction to have either.

THE DOOMSDAY KINGDOM The Doomsday Kingdom

Album · 2017 · Doom Metal
Cover art 4.20 | 5 ratings
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Swedish musician Leif Edling may be most famous for being the founder and main writer for major doom metal act Candlemass, but it more recent years he's been furthering his doom metal brand with another project, Avatarium and has two studio albums to that name already with the release of the third, Hurricanes and Halos (2017) imminent at the time of writing this review. Further enhancing his doom metal CV now is The Doomsday Kingdom, whose self-titled debut album appeared a couple of months before the third Avatarium album. Edling founded the project initially as a second solo outing following the project under his own name that spawned the album Songs of Torment, Songs of Joy (2008). He released the Never Machine Demo EP (2016) as a solo project, with a few guests to help along the way, but afterwards The Doomsday Kingdom evolved into a full band.

Avatarium fans will of course be familiar with Marcus Jidell, who again joins Leif Edling as the group's guitarist, with Edling taking on his usual bassist role. For a drummer they've brought in Andreas Johansson of Narnia, Rob Rock and Royal Hunt fame. Together the three have crafted some top quality traditional doom metal music full of heavy, prolonged riffs but also a sense of melody and an energetic attitude. Putting the finishing touches to their sound is their vocalist Niklas Stålvind, better known as the frontman of the heavy metal act Wolf, whose fans will get to hear this great singer in a bit of a different context on The Doomsday Kingdom. He certainly sounds at home within the doom metal genre, delivering powerful, often quite raw clean vocals. No better example of how well everything the group has going for them works is the third song, A Spoonful of Darkness. Now this is really what I want to hear when I think of traditional doom metal! Great vocals, heavy riffs and a menacing atmosphere without any cheapening of their brand by borrowing any elements from extreme metal.

The album is hardly a one trick pony though. Some songs have an even more upbeat feel to them. It's doom, but not necessarily gloom. While more straight-forward doom metal in direction compared to the last Avatarium album The Girl with the Raven Mask (2015) a few elements creep in that seem quite Avatarium-like, such as some light progressive and even psychedelic flavours behind the riff driven doom metal. The Sceptre is another clear album highlight in this regard, featuring a 7:19 minute long running time and some extended instrumental work where the song really goes off on a tangent in true prog style, featuring a moog solo from guest Joakim Svalberg, before returning to the song's familiar structure that it had been at previously.

The first of a double dose of new Leif Edling material for 2017, The Doomsday Kingdom may actually be the album for his fans to get their doom metal kicks this year rather than Avatarium, if the two songs released in the run up to their next album are anything to judge by. Of course they might just be holding some more full-on doom metal material back for the full album release, but in any case it would be inadvisable to pass up a copy of The Doomsday Kingdom. Edling's long history with doom metal has made him a true master of his craft. If you like doom metal and especially any of his various projects within the genre, then this is a must have.

MESARTHIM Presence

EP · 2017 · Atmospheric Black Metal
Cover art 4.32 | 4 ratings
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Australian atmospheric black metal duo Mesarthim have quickly become a productive group since the release of their debut full-length album Isolate (2015), with no less than six new releases put out during 2016; their second studio album .- -... ... . -. -.-. . (Absence), a single (added as a bonus track to physical releases of Isolate) and four EP's. 2017 has already seen two of those EP's put together for a physical release compilation, The Great Filter/Type III, and now their first new material of the year, Presence. It is a three track EP containing about twenty minutes of music.

Much like the Pillars (2016) EP was said to be a concluding release to what the band started on Isolate, Presence is said to do the same for Absence. The key difference is that Pillars really did feel like more of the same as Isolate but Presence feels quite different to Absence, also being more fresh in respect to the group's entire discography. There are similar elements of course and if anything it's closer to Isolate and Pillars than any of the releases put out since, but it also feels like a band taking their sound a step further. The cosmic vibes of their atmospheric black metal sound are still here, but it's even more psychedelic and trance-like than ever before, with the synths being used more dominantly than ever, including extended full-on synth sections where the metal elements get removed entirely, as in Eschaton Part I, which also adds some atmospheric female vocals to the music during the metal parts. The band's usual growling vocals barely get a look in. More familiar ground is Eschaton Part II and the title track, where the metal gets removed only in briefer dosages.

Presence is easily the most genre boundary pushing release from Mesarthim yet. It might be fair to say that for some listeners this EP may be the point where the duo finally went too far, but for my part I'm as enchanted as ever by their majestic sounds mixed with a harsh yet atmospheric black metal backdrop, yet equally enthralled in the moments where they remove the latter. In fact, this may even be my favourite EP from Mesarthim to date. A superb twenty minutes cosmic trip.

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