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Despite some oddly variable weather patterns that find the temperature shifting from summer heat to winter cold and back again in the course of a mere day, it’s suddenly apparent that spring has sprung upon us at last.

OK, I hear you asking.  How do you know this, o great prestidigitator of yore?  Simple.  Because the album releases are coming at us fast and furious, and some truly quality ones they are!

So fasten your seat belts, lower your visors and prepare to jet off into one of the stronger months for music we’ve had in some time.  Just because it’s spring doesn’t mean it’ll be all hearts and flowers, but it’s clear that with the incipient return of the Oak King, there’s an unusually positive vibe in the air…avaunt!

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Words Of Farewell – The Black Wild Yonder (AFM Records) (April 15)

Taking influence from bands as far afield as Watchtower (check out some of Tristan Wegner’s drum patterns), Echoes of Eternity, Killswitch Engage and (most unfortunately) the snooze-inducing yet strangely much beloved Dream Theater, these guys cross the borders of progressive, melodeath and screamo while never fitting comfortably in any of those categories.

The drumming is often quite impressive, though the guitars fall back on that tried and true machine gun rhythm thing Echoes (and latter day Death before them) overdo massively.  Leads are all done in that guitar synth legato style of John Petrucci, and there’s similarly generic keyboard lines that follow and match the leads.  It’s all far too Mac and ProTools for me, there’s nothing organic about the sound whatsoever.

If you’re looking for something to cross, say, Mors Principium Est with the umpteenth remake of “pull me under”, but done with those similarly overused if not played out growl and scream emo-style vocals just about every band out there falls back on as a matter of course, there’s certainly some mood and dark emotion to be found here (“in kingdoms of rain” being the clear standout in that respect, as well as the album’s best track per se).

But it’s all too standardized, far too generic to give any real recommendation to in the end.  Depends on how much of a fan of Dream Theater you are, I guess…

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DELAIN – The Human Contradiction (Napalm Records) (April 4)

Like most bands of its era and ilk, Delain is a band I once loved, but whom I’d more or less written off.  A big fan of their debut album Lucidity, they were part and parcel of my immersion in the gothic/symphonic metal scene during the first decade of the new millenium.

Unlike peers such as Within Temptation (who featured bandleader Martijn Westerholt in its Mother Earth incarnation), Epica, Leaves Eyes (whose Alex Krull recorded Lucidity at his own renowned Mastersound Studios) and so forth, Delain always held to a more radio friendly if not pop sensibility, never even attempting the more bombastic and operatic stylings of other bands in its genre, which at the time was something of a breath of fresh air in a heavily Tarja Turunen influenced zeitgeist.

But they also were notoriously slow to release new material, with Martijn fighting off a bout of personal illness at the very outset leading to a four year delay between their early demo Amenity and the debut album’s eventual release.  Even so, with said album release falling at the very height of the scene’s heyday, things seemed ideal…but very shortly, the bottom dropped out.

With a major shift in the gothic/symphonic scene occurring somewhere around 2008, nearly every band in the genre began faltering, releasing far more abstruse if not generically “pop” material and losing the very fire and operatic force that brought them to attention in the first place.  For every Bloodangel’s Cry, we had a My Fatal Kiss; for every Mother Earth or Silent Force we had a Heart of Everything; in place of a Phantom Agony or Consign to Oblivion, we had a Divine Conspiracy.  Rather than an Epica or Black Halo, we had a Ghost Opera.

Elis’ Sabine Duntsler died.  Nienke de Jong succumbed to illness and left Autumn.  Even Visions of Atlantis, finally finding their footing with guitarist/songwriter Wolfgang Koch and Aesma Daeva vocalist Melissa Ferlaak, suffered a major personnel shakeup that set them back for several years.  For all intents and purposes, the scene had imploded.

Delain would soldier on, now releasing an album every three years like clockwork, but these albums seemed quite different to what had come before.  Was April Rain, for all its merits, really anything like Lucidity?  Or the rather iffy We are the Others anything like April Rain, for that matter?

But now here we are in 2014, a mere two years after their last release (not counting last Fall’s mixed bag of an EP Interlude) and Martijn, Charlotte and more recent recruits Timo Somers (guitars), Otto of the interminably lengthy last name on bass and April Rain-era drummer Sander Zoer are back, with what is without question the strongest release the band has put out since Lucidity.

Jam packed with catchy choruses, beefy, crunching guitars and appropriate dramatic gravitas, The Human Contradiction showcases some rather assured vocals from Wessels and a tonality that simultaneously looks back to the glory days of the gothic/symphonic scene while moving resolutely forward.

Westerholt provides keyboard and piano stings that subtly underpin and enhance the overall sound before taking some tasteful and appropriate leads in the forefront that point to the potential for some equally powerful piano/vocal solo work between himself and Wessels.  But Delain is all about drama and realism – their lyrical approach has always been firmly grounded in the real and the highs and lows of existence in the material world, and as such require if not demand the full force the band brings to this frankly outstanding effort.

Need I say any more?  Get out there and grab this one, already.  Welcome back, guys.  Looking forward to seeing you on tour this Fall…

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XANDRIA – Sacrificium (Napalm Records) (May 2) 

aaaaaand speaking of powerful comebacks, let’s talk Xandria.

Forming back in the early millenium, they initially featured Lisa Schaphaus (later Middelhauve), who would front the band through the better part of their recorded career.  Always a bit too middle of the road for my tastes, they featured neither the radio friendly sensibilities of acts like Delain, Nemesea or Unsun or the gothically operatic ones of early Epica, Tarja-era Nightwish, earlier Magica or even Bloodangels’ Cry-era Krypteria – Xandria, for all their particular merits, just came off as somewhat bland under her watch.

With Middelhauve departing with 2007’s Salome: the Seventh Veil, the band would soldier on, despite suffering further setbacks with the loss of her husband and longtime bass player Nils Middlehauve shortly thereafter.

Picking up new singer Manuela Kraller for 2012’s Neverworld’s End, things were finally looking up for the band musically, as they’d suddenly adopted (seemingly out of nowhere!) all the bombast and catchiness that eluded them during the Middelhauve era.  But Kraller too proved short lived, departing the band shortly thereafter.  Would this be the band’s one moment of crowning glory?

Well, allow me to be the first to set you straight on that one.  With new vocalist Dianne van Giersbergen now firmly ensconced and heading the charge, Xandria delivers more of the same, much welcome new approach of Neverworld’s End, albeit with a smoother, less noticeably Teutonic vocal approach (if you hadn’t heard Kraller’s efforts on the aforementioned album, think Carmen Schafer of Coronatus and you’ll get the idea).

Eschewing the stiffness and clipped tones of her predecessor, van Giersbergen offers a more operatic legato style, sacrificing some of Kraller’s obvious force and power for a lighter, nigh-bel canto feel.  Both equally valid approaches, but I’ll give the edge to Sacrificium on the basis of what surrounds it, namely one of the most intensely dramatic gothic/symphonic metal albums we’ve heard outside Leaves Eyes and Rhapsody for nigh on a decade.

Kudos of the highest order – because unlike Delain, this was a band I was familiar with, but in all honesty never really cared for under Middlehauve’s watch.  Long may this new direction, established one album back, continue.

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PET THE PREACHER – The Cave & the Sunlight (Napalm Records) (April 25)

Sounding like Dave Wyndorf at his druggiest, this is Kyussesque “stoner rock” to the bone.  Done reasonably well, but it has a bit too much of that early 90’s WSOU feel to sit right with me.

If you’re a fan of the style and looking for something new, you might be better served picking up Monstermagnet’s much welcome return to form the Last Patrol instead.  Not bad at all, for what it is.

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ARKONA – Yav (Napalm Records) (April 25)

Russia’s most notable pagan metal band is back at it again, but don’t expect another Goi, Rode, Goi! or Slovo here.  Losing much of the obvious Slavic folk influence and just about all of the Trollfest cum Turisas playfulness of tracks like “stenka na stenku”, Yav displays far more of a wide ranging influence, pulling in decided elements of modern black metal alongside a few strongly gothic metal touches.

With keyboards, vocal harmonies, arpeggiated guitar lines and a more syncopated drumming style coming to the fore, Yav represents something of a musical growth from Arkona’s earlier, more arguably “typical” pagan folk metal material (as much as we all loved it).

Despite coming very much from the Angela Gossow school of masculine puke-growling, “Masha Scream” Arkhipova counters this unfortunate failing by including an ever-increasingly significant percentage of proper “clean” singing in her material, while also adopting a dash of the inhaled croaking of Master’s Hammer’s Frantisek Storm or Trollfest’s Trollmannen on tracks like “na strazhe novyh let”.  If anything, this is her most diverse and listenable effort to date, eschewing much of the bottom-of-the-bowels belching for a far more palatable take on the compositions to be found herein.

An astronomically more diverse album in terms of stylistic approach, Yav further shows a band capable of far more than was previously apparent, however entertaining much of their more recent material may have been (and it’s fair to say that both Goi, Rode, Goi! and Slovo got more than their fair share of airtime around my place over the years, with even Ot Serdtsa k Nebu getting a few more rotations than any number of the band’s ostensible peers).

Whether their new sound appeals to the diehard and dedicated fan of their earlier material or no is open to debate, but it’s undeniable that the listener will come away from Yav significantly more impressed by the band’s musicianship skills, particularly departing drummer Vlad Sokolov (who to my understanding is on the first 6 tracks).

Incoming drummer Andrey Ishchenko (who I’m given to understand appears on the last three) is no slouch either, but appears to favor more of a floor-heavy d-bass approach, where Sokolov’s tracks are all manic, heavily syncopated kit work.  It’s a damn shame we only get to appreciate the man’s impressive skills at the last minute, but at the same time, Yav serves as a fitting farewell, displaying just how much the man was capable of delivering when not buried under all that aggro bombast.

With Arkhipova’s production skills noticeably improving with each successive album, Yav is something of a feast for the ears, powerful yet clean, with all the distorted chaos of previous efforts giving way to a crispness that allows all instruments (and vocals) to breathe for a change.

All around, a major paradigmatic shift for Arkona, and while I do miss the prominent Slavic folk of their earlier work, it’s undeniable that the band has made something of a quantum leap here.  Expect the unexpected, and dive in.

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Gun Barrel – Damage Dancer (Massacre Records) (May 13)

Fairly traditional style metal with something of a power metal production and more than a touch of 80’s AOR “hair metal” as garnish.  Original member and guitarist  Rolf Tanzius has been pounding away at the template since 1998, which was probably too soon for the general populace to properly embrace the driving with the top down California-style Black N’ Blue by way of Y&Tisms the band embraces.

Less the stiffer NWOBHM or Teutonic feel than a more distinctly timelocked mid to late 80’s L.A. metal one, Gun Barrel occupies something of a grey area that falls between the cracks a good majority of current bands and subgenres so admirably fill.   While it does get a bit samey after awhile, there’s more than enough authentic feeling retro sound here to keep the old guard happy.

If you were desperately pining for the glory days of the Sunset Strip, you may want to incline your ear this way.  All in all, Damage Dancer is a very strong contender for the throne vacated by the likes of Ratt, XYZ, Rough Cutt, Sykes and Vandenberg-era Whitesnake and King Kobra.  Despite sporting an anachronistically inappropriate modern production style, this is some very retro good time music hearkening back to what were indisputably much better days.  Thumbs (and more to the point, horns) up.

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Metal Inquisitor – Ultima Ratio Regis (Massacre Records) (May 13)

Notable mainly for being cofounded by drummer Stefan “Witchhammer” (later “Tormentor”) Huskens of Teutonic blackened thrashers Desaster, Metal Inquisitor is a very traditional metal act leaning towards a more underground or speed metal feel.  With vocals reminiscent of both Agent Steel’s John Cyriis and arguably Fates Warning’s John Arch, there’s a bit of archness and whine to what are otherwise fairly powerful tones.

To put it bluntly, if this doesn’t make you feel like you’re digging through the record bins at your local metal store circa 1986 (and yes, we’re talking mom & pop specialty shop here, this isn’t the sort of thing they’d carry at The Wiz or what have you), then you just weren’t there.

This is the sound I came up on, so you know I’m gonna love this.  The only shame is that these guys aren’t exactly prolific, having only given us four albums over the past 16 years (!)  Here’s hoping we get another album before the decade ends…but in the meantime, get off your arse and pick this one up already, what are you waiting for?

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Three Lions – S/T (Frontiers Records) (April 18)

With this nod to the British coat of arms (and possibly the infamous 1996 chart topping footballer’s anthem of the same name), Three Lions is a very Triumph meets Aldo Nova affair, with bold dramatic singalong choruses and the soaring nigh-baritone vocals of a chap going by the name of Nigel Bailey (who also doubles on bass guitar).

With standard if reasonably anthemic guitar from former 90’s-vintage Asia and Ultravox fretman Vinny Burns, this is more of label head Serafino Perugino and producer (and Eden’s Curse and Silent Force keyboardist) Allessandro Del Vecchio’s ever increasing library of AOR and classic metal magic.  Seriously, it seems like Frontiers is on a two-man mission to bring harmony, melody and just plain good music back to the airwaves, or at least into the hands of listeners, and for all their notable efforts of late, the well doesn’t appear to be running dry in the slightest.

If you hanker for ye olden days when radio had more than Demolition Man-style “mini songs” and talentless rappers to offer to the general public, you’d be well served to direct your attention towards Italy’s increasingly notable Frontiers records.

As for Three Lions themselves, this self titled debut is one of the stronger, harder rocking efforts to come out of the Frontiers vaults of late, with aggressive yet melodic guitars that approach the likes of Whitesnake or early Bon Jovi.  While essentially a rhythm player, Burns keeps the listener engaged, driving the songs forward propulsively while Bailey croons smooth harmonies over the top.  A truly killer debut, this self titled marks Three Lions as a band to watch.  Nice stuff.

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EVILNIGHT – Stormhymns of Filth (TAPE) (Hells Headbangers) (March 31)

Second demo from the Finnish blackened speed metallers.  Sporting some amusingly tongue in cheek pseudonyms, they go for the retro vibe while (relatively speaking) “updating” things by putting more of a black metal veneer over what would have been some fairly traditional underground thrash of the genre’s heyday in the mid to late 80’s (of which, if you recall, Bathory was an important part…)  Hell, they even directly quote “raining blood” for a few bars there…

Tapping into the biker thing that marks many US based blackened thrashers and occult rockers (see Intoxicated, Maax and Venomous Maximus for just a few examples), Evilnight comes to the table with laugh out loud inducing songs like “warbikers”, “leather bitch” and most amusingly, “dykes on bikes”, many of which utilize old cult horror film soundbites (a standby of classic early 90’s death metal) to kick things off.

If you dig the old school underground, this may be worth giving a listen to.  At the very least, you’ll get a laugh out of nudge-wink names like “Clint Beastwood”, “Dr. NecroPhil”, “Ron Heresy”, “Hell Gibson” and “Samuel L. Saxon”.  I dug it.

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ACID WITCH / NUNSLAUGHTER – Split 7″ (Hells Headbangers) (March 24)

With a sleeve made to look like a timeworn old Warren or Skywald horror magazine from the 70’s, this is a killer slab of underground vinyl from our pals at Ohio’s Hell’s Headbangers.

Acid Witch open and close the affair, and despite being the new kids on the block, steal the show without question.  Both “evil” and “fiends of old” mix thick, nigh-stoner rock style guitar tone with a more blackened thrash approach and aggression, tagging in some Gloomy Grim or early Gehenna style church organ to fill out the mix.  With vocals often not far removed from Goatlord’s Ace Still and some great old newscast soundbites from the Christian heavy metal scare of the 80’s, Acid Witch are the reason to pick this one up, and I hope to hear more from these guys in the future.

Perhaps shooting for more of a “satanic stoner” vibe, Nunslaughter deliver a more toned down, comparatively laid back take on their now-standard full throttle blackened thrash assault.  Like a less underground version of Necrophagia, the boys sacrifice much of their loveably lo-fi traditional nastiness for a cleaner, slower crunch that owes much to the only material of quality a certain Phil “Anton Crowley” Anselmo ever bequeathed to the world back in the days of Cannibal Holocaust, Black Blood Vomitorium and Holocausto de la Morte, particularly on the rather light heartedly monikered track “spooky tails”.

If the Acid Witch material wasn’t quite so strong, that song would be the obvious selling point, but as things stand, the veterans appear to be taking a bit of a backseat to the up and comers this time around.  Regardless, a strong release all around, and quite recommended for fans of any of the bands mentioned herein.

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HIGH SPIRITS – You Are Here (Hells Headbangers) (May 13)

Displaying more of a powerpunk feel than last month’s eponymous 7″, High Spirits returns with a full length slab of retro-styled AOR inflected uptempo goodness.  With Chris Black’s Greg Graffin style clean vocals simultaneously evoking the likes of Journey and Styx, what appears to be a dual guitar effort from Scott Hoffman and Mike Bushur manages to remain resolutely rhythm guitar based, without even a Brian Baker (Bad Religion) or Kevin “Noodles” Wasserman (the Offspring) level of lead playing to boast of.

Like several Frontiers Records affairs of late, the material manages to shine despite the absence of a proper lead guitarist, never really falling into the obvious trap of succumbing to the generic repetitiveness  inevitably marking music which lacks leads or solos of any appreciable sort.

With a positively toned, upbeat tonality befitting a band so named, High Spirits hails from the school of positive (if not straight edge) punk established by the likes of Seven Seconds without ever getting political or delivering any sort of message beyond the general concept that where there’s life, there’s hope and every tomorrow is a new day.

And in a world as dark as ours is fast becoming, that’s a very important message in and of itself.

Isn’t it time you took a listen?

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EVIL DAMN – Black Effigy (7″ EP) (Hells Headbangers) (April 7)

More black metal masquerading as death metal.  This is rather more primitive and brutal than the more polished, comparatively melodic sheen of vintage death metal or the tuneless and toneless flurry of notes of the more modern “technical”, “math metal” and “djent” school, with a sort of four on the floor snare that comes off like a halftime blastbeat.

Mucous-filled throat Groveresque vocals and slow, stilted riffs that owe more to Black Sabbathlike single note bend phrasing than a James Murphy, Bill Steer or Paul Maisvidal, this is pretty underground and blackened, with only some d-bass triggering, a few nice tom rolls on “embrace by death” and the vocals showing any lineage to death metal proper.

Listenable, to be sure, but can’t seem to make up its mind what genre it belongs to…a decided failing of all too many bands these days.  While I did sort of like it, the bottom line is that this falls too squarely between the lines to either love or hate in any real respect.  Interesting, but inessential.

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Opium Warlords – Taste My Sword Of Understanding (Svart Records) (May 30)

Mournful, nigh-funeral doom but with generally clean, dramatic “Messiah” Marcolinesque vocals.  Much akin to Ahab’s excellent The Giant, this is doom done right, with any stoner or Sabbath influences kept to a minimum and a more heady, considered if not intellectual approach to it.  There’s clearly more going on here than the run of the mill, let’s put it that way…

If you like painfully slow, grinding doom with progressive touches, clean vocals and even a bit to think about, this is a pretty good choice to dive into.

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Vainaja – Kadotetut (Svart Records) (May 23)

More doom metal, this time more midtempo with some very death metal vocals.  They have cute names like “The Cantor” (vocals, duh…), “The Gravedigger” (drums) and “The Preacherman” (bass).  Wait a minute…are they trying to say that “The Cantor” isn’t the main vocalist, but the guitarist?  And “The Preacherman” is the vocalist and bassist?  Did they translate the term “Cantor” properly?

Anyway, they’re from Finland and are a family act, presumably all brothers (seriously, all three of them bear the surname Wainaa).  Hmm…when I think European family acts, images of Folkfest yodeling types in lederhosen come to mind, not hulking doom metal…

So all that aside, how is the material?  Well, it’s not bad.  Compared to Opium Warlords, Vainaja bears more of a distinctly “metal” approach, with strong death metal influence in both vocals and sound.  It’s more traditional than most of what we’re supposed to accept as being “death metal” these days (you know, all those crappy black metal acts in disguise I complain about every month), so that’s a plus right there.  There’s tolling church bells and an often blisteringly heavy vibe, with a drummer who knows when to hold back and leave some space for the guitars (none of that blastbeat bullshit here, kids).

That said, I don’t know exactly how often I’ll be revisiting this particular album – it’s good for what it is and even refreshingly different in a scene clogged with soundalikes and copycats, but something indefinable appears to be missing that would make the album stand out more than it already does.  Objectively, I’ll say take a listen, you may very well dig this.  Subjectively…hmm.  Not bad.  I’m curious where they’ll take things next.
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Tusmorke – Riset Bak Speilet (Svart Records) (May 16)

Vaguely Wicker Man soundtrack by way of early Black Widow, Eldritch Dark-era Blood Ceremony or Jethro Tull style flutes, Hammond organ and chanted harmony vocals give this one a rather pagan feel.  As a fan of all those (not to mention British and Celtic Folk-rockers Pentangle, Fairport Convention, Steeleye Span and their various splinter groups), this is right up my alley.

There’s an unusually cheery major key 60’s pop radio sensibility playing into portions as well, which is odd but not entirely inappropriate, considering.  And is that Bjorn Ulvaeas’ Hej Gamle Man?  No, sorry, it’s about an old church, not an old man.  What do you expect from my limited Swedish (or is that Norwegian, in this case)?

Regardless, it’s very late 60’s/very early 70’s in feel, with a strong pop-tinged psychedelia on one hand and pagan folk sensibility on the other vying for primacy throughout.  Not very “metal”, but good stuff if you’re into the folk-rock or retro-psychedelic scenes.  Recommended for those who fall into that classification.

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E-Musikgruppe Lux Ohr – Spiralo (Svart Records) (May 2)

Similar to their last release Kometenbahn, this is more space rock ala Tangerine Dream or early Kraftwerk.  Unlike Kometenbahn, it’s not quite so catchy or absorbing, and consists of a mere pair of lengthy tracks.

Still trippy, but somewhat less than essential.  Pick up Kometenbahn first, and if you’re jonesing for more, Spiralo will get the monkey off your back for awhile.

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Curimus – Artificial Revolution (Freezing Penguin / Svart Records) (April 25)

Oy.  Another case where the band’s actually pretty good, in an At the Gates circa Slaughter of the Soul/Killswitch Engage under Howard Jones/Mors Principium Est melodeath sort of way…but they have a lousy aggro/screamo singer.

Does every single band vaguely approaching the style have to go that route?  Old school death metal vox, cool.  Black metal shrieks, dig it.  Clean singing, wonderful.  But belching and croaking like some generic take on Phil Anselmo?  Instant slam.

Sorry guys – the music is actually pretty damn good.  Just get yourself a proper singer and drop the screamo thing already.  We’ve suffered through enough years of that shit.

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Nightsatan – Nightsatan And The Loops Of Doom (Svart / Solina / Twisted Films) (May 9)

So apparently this is the soundtrack to a short no budget film starring the Finns “in character”.  The film itself (directed by the similarly pseudonymous ‘Chrzu’) is a pointless but rather amusing homage to the Italian postapocalyptic epics of the early 80’s that came in the wake of Mad Max and Escape From New York, even going so far as to (very obviously) post dub the entire affair in Italian (and yep, it’s the real deal and perfectly comprehensible to native speakers).

With an arid post nuclear setting populated by drag queens, warrior women and murderous child cyborgs, the survivors fight for fresh meat (and in certain cases, blood) to keep them alive while one of them goes hunting for a mate.

“We are lonely, starving men. We play, for only the music keeps us sane.”

The most obviously Nordic of the trio, drummer “inhalator II” comes to us half clothed in a Caesarian cape and studded leather tiara, but the others are more interesting: keyboardist “mazathoth”, who sports a Judge Fear style helmet, cape and pentagram epaulets and speaks in an Earons by way of Soundwave electronic tone, and…uh…keyboardist “wolf-rami”, in Crimson Ghostlike skull mask, biker helmet and studded leather vest.

“Wolf-rami” is the most bloodthirsty of the trio, always eager to kill in the quickest and goriest of ways, while “mazathoth” is, as you might expect from a computerized cyborg or android, the most coldly logical. “Inhalator”…well, he’s pretty much just an idiot.

Far more indebted to the worst excesses of SOV grue than the comparatively measured extremities of even the worst Italianate offenders, what plot there is amid all the cleverly staged and nicely costumed atmosphere concerns the trio killing folks at will and trying to ‘rescue’ an unnamed warrior woman whom the credits refer to as ‘Marika’ (Annika Siren) from a killer cyborg and the vindictive drag queen (‘Mandy, Queen of the Desert’ – Miska Kaukonen) who delights in burying females up to their neck and subjecting them to a bio technical ‘loop’ that leaves them screaming on endless repeat (an annoying bit of business that takes up even more of the soundtrack than the sparse dialogue or Nightsatan’s music itself).

“Everything here runs in circles. The geometry of sound and movement…connected in the aether. The loop keeps the aether in constant tension – the sequenced siren song attracts males, turning them into mindless drones. We shall charge the aether, adding higher frequencies…in theory, all matter is disintegrated when exposed to constant vibration. We shall form a triangle which breaks the circle.”

With this dollop of pseudo-mysticism, things go all Eye in the Triangle for a few minutes, “inhalator” gets to rescue his girl…uh, well, somewhat mature MILF type (hey, she’s buck naked, not bad looking and has enough taste to sport a proper bush instead of going with that strangely ubiquitous Barbie doll thing, so good enough by me), and dumpy, snaggletoothed “inhalator” finally gets some action.

“I will strangle you in your sleep,” she promises. I’m with ya, honey.

So, the soundtrack.  John Carpenter style keyboard-driven Italian genre film goodness that should be instantly familiar in style to anyone who’s indulged in the postapocalyptic (and horror, and sword and sorcery) films of the early to mid 80’s.  It’s all atmosphere, pedal tones and plenty of negative space, allowing each note or phrase sufficient room to breathe.

Dark, minor key, suffused in reverb and echo and so close to the sound it’s trying to recapture it’s almost indistinguishable from the real deal…even without the benefit of being able to view the film (which I understand the retail package does come complete with) this one comes very highly recommended.

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DEN SAAKALDTE – Faen i Helvete (Agonia Records) (May 27/US Jun 10)

Den Saakaldte leaves its “black metal supergroup” status behind, as both Jan Axel “Hellhammer” Blomberg and Shining’s Nikolas Kvarforth part company with the band.

At this point, the biggest names you get are 1349 bassist Tor Risdal Stavenes and former Thule vocalist Einar “Eldur” Thorberg.  Well, I liked Thule.  This is much more generic, once again tapping into that same old “modern” black metal sound spearheaded by Watain (and for that matter, 1349).

I know somebody’s got to be buying record after soundalike record in this style, or there wouldn’t be so many bands rehashing this sound over…and over…and over…but suffice to say, I’m not one of ’em.

Shoulda been, coulda been, isn’t.

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Plain Ride – Skeleton Kites (Ektro) (May 16)

Modern day Bob Dylan fronts Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds.  If you can tolerate the former (these have got to be the rattiest vocals ever recorded outside Tom Waits, seriously), the moodiness and sparseness suggested by the latter make this worth a listen.  Hell, “the siege” even evokes Gitane Demone era Christian Death (think The Scriptures).  A definite thumbs up for what they’re going for.

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Ranger – Shock Skull 7″ (Ektro) (May 16)

The vinyl mastering makes this one sound like it’s skipping its groove between drumbeats – there’s a sensation of missing notes all over the place.  But otherwise, the same speedy traditional underground style 80’s metal they got my approval for on last September’s Knights of Darkness.  A skimpy two tracks this time around, but if you love the sound, these guys are diehard traditionalists to the bone – you get a distinct sense they bleed metal.  And in my book, that’s what pushes them over for the win.

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The Sultans – More House Rockin’ and Other Boogies (Ektro) (April 18)

I used to listen to a weekly rockabilly show on a local college radio station back in the early 90’s.  Can’t remember the name of it, but they’d eschew the expected Carl Perkins, Wanda Jackson and Hank Williams for relative obscurities like Ferlin Husky and Hasil Adkins.  Before I really got into and understood what the Cramps were all about, the show was one hell of an education, and helped to shape my own musical development in the process.

Somewhere vaguely along the lines of the sort of naive, art brut obscurities the show (and the Cramps themselves) would dig up, we find The Sultans.  They bill themselves as “brutal boogie from Tornio River Lower Delta since 1995”, which sounds very down home Delta blues until you realize that the Tornio River runs through Finland…

This is really crusty, overly distorted, tape wobble afflicted amateur auteurism that comes off like a bunch of kids in their father’s garage…and I mean grammar school kids.  Eventually (about 5 tracks in) things upgrade to more of a Muddy Waters/Howlin’ Wolf level of blues rock, and the production increases concomitantly.  Now it feels like we’re listening to a bunch of teenagers who just discovered the Yardbirds and early British Invasion (even the Beatles and Stones started off as fairly hardcore blues aficionados, particularly the latter).

And that’s about where things stay through 23 tracks of all-instrumental blues rock shuffles and ZZ Toppesque boogie.  Whether live, studio or what appears to be in someone’s basement, the tracks are more or less of uniform quality or lack thereof throughout – very simple, lead-free blues rhythm guitar by what I’m really hoping are a bunch of teenagers learning their instruments.

There’s so many better players of similar material out there, it’s not even a joke…I can’t see who the audience would be for this album or who might find it inspiring and original.  The material and style were old long before all of us were born, and you can pretty much cover your eyes and point to find musicians who play the exact same thing a hundred times better.

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Hades Archer / Slaughtbbath – Circus of Abominations / Antichristos Thanatos – split LP  (Iron Bonehead) (May 16)

Five short tracks from the former act, two long ones from the latter.  They have bizarre pseudonyms, like “Negro” (seriously, not making that one up), “P. Skullshredder” and “Skullcrusherhammer” and both hail from Chile, long notable as a home base of gnarly blackened thrash (remember Pentagram?)

They have a fairly similar style, both musically and vocally, and while I dig the general sound they’re trying for, I have to admit to being wholly unimpressed by either act.  I am curious as to what subsequent efforts from each of these bands turn up, but this one’s pretty much a pass.

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Infernal Curse – The End Upon Us MLP (Iron Bonehead) (May 16)

wow, the recording on this is really bad!  With guitars buried under thick layers of sludge and an extremely hissy forefronted drum sound that appears to be pushing the needle past the red with each and every hit, the overall sound is only worsened by the heavily reverbed, echoplex vocals.  The band itself is pretty basic death metal, I guess if you picture early Grave you’ll get the general idea.  Like Grave (or early Unleashed, it must be said), it’s kind of hard to tell one track apart from the next.

Is it bad?  Nah.  But inessential unless you’re really dying for a revival of the general sound those comparisons evoke, albeit without the benefit of proper production this time around.

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Verberis – Vastitas TAPE  (Iron Bonehead) (May 19)

sheesh, I’m not even sure what to compare this to.  And that’s not a good thing, mind.

Possessed of a uniquely hollow sound that sounds like someone recorded them through an empty roll of paper towels, this is odd, noisy, black metallish and yet another one of those bands who bury their vocals in so much echo and delay that it’s actually ridiculous.  The drumming is pretty bad, with a lot of fast alternating bass drum and snare or straight four on the flour snare hits predominating.  It got very annoying, very fast, particularly when combined with the the the the vo vo vo cals cals cals.  No thanks.

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Killgasm – A Stab in the Heart of Christ (Moribund) (May 28)

oh, joy, more black metal posing as death metal.  Really?  

The recording sounds like the drummer has floppy feet, as if he’s wearing flippers while he plays.  You can barely hear the guitars in the mix, and the vocals alternate between puking gibberish (one song literally features the guy going “wee wee wee, wee wee wee wee” over and over) and shrieking blasphemies.  How exciting.

I get the distinct impression they’re trying to be Marduk and failing miserably.

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Waxen – Agios Holokauston (Moribund) (May 27)

och, another one.  These guys remind me more of Dark Funeral than Marduk, but same idea.

The drummer’s either a hell of a lot better than the guy in Killgasm or they mixed his drums better, but the overall recording is still an overdriven, scratchy mess, which goes with the scratchy, shrieking vocals.  There’s some nice slow sections on the guitar every once in a blue moon (I’m thinking mainly of “procession” here), but the rest is pretty generic and not incredibly appealing.

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Blood and Sun – White Storms Fall  (Pesanta Urfolk) (May 15)

Out of tune Celtic style fiddles, acoustic guitars and the general feel of a Voltaire album (minus the omnipresent good humor that implies), or perhaps Audra.  I dig classic Projekt Records acts like the aforementioned, so I’ll give this one the nod.

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Dornenreich – Freiheit (Prophecy Productions) (May 13)

Donovan goes to Germany.  But as soon as you start getting in the mood for “barabajagal”, “riki tiki tavi” or “atlantis”, he kicks in with the distorted guitars and screaming on track 4.  Then back to Donovan territory again!  On one track, he even flips back and forth between the two styles, just to really fuck with your head…

I could easily dig the folkier mood music end of the Dornenreich equation, but really didn’t appreciate the seemingly random wake up call in the middle of the album (before going back to the mellow stuff, yet!).  Bizarre.

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Lantlôs – Melting Sun (Prophecy Productions) (May 13)

Somewhere between Lush, My Bloody Valentine and Curve, but with more of an emo (ahem) curveball thrown in to the mix.

I found I preferred the latter far more than the former in this case, but the band themselves appear to have felt otherwise, making this top heavy with “wall of noise” jangling guitars and such and limiting the dark melodic business far too much for my taste.

Has potential, if they flip the ratio of the one style to the other.

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Skogen – I Döden (Nordvis) (April 7)

wow, influenced by Ulver much?  With Bergtatt and Kveldssangerlike acoustic bits offset by driving if melodic black metal business and Kristoffer “Garm” Rygg style Gregorian chant vocals alternating with more standard BM shrieks and growls, really good production and some high quality musicianship (let me reiterate and emphasize that.  Really good production and high quality musicianship), this is more Ulver than Ulver’s been since ceasing to be black metal after their last good album, Nattens Madrigal.

If (like myself) you’ve been hankering for Ulver to wake the hell up already and create another Bergtatt, you could do much worse than picking this one up.  Derivative to the bone, but so, so good going down.  High recommendations.

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Funereal Presence – The Archer Takes Aim (The Ajna Offensive) (May 27)

Holy crap, there’s a hardcore, reasonably old school, evil sounding black metal band locally?  Really?  Well, I gather as a one man band, he’s not really gonna play out…

Is it one of the better black metal albums I’ve heard of late?  No, not really.  But it’s good, and has a far stronger devotion and lineage to the classics of the genre than the neverending horde of Watain zombies I get disgusted by finding more of each and every month.

Score one for the local boy.

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Strafk – Phaseshifting (Wraith Productions) (May 13)

Odd mix of black metal and industrial-style synthesized and electronic elements.  Not generally a fan of this sort of genre crossing, but it may or may not appeal to less traditional listeners.  For my part, nah.

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Harakiri For The Sky – Aokigahara (Art of Propaganda) (April 21)

Bold, dramatic, more “viking” in sensibility than any Viking metal act I can think of bar Leaves Eyes, these Austrians build the sort of mournful sturm und drang Primordial cut their teeth upon.  Sadly, the vocals really suck.  And I mean really suck.

Picture some pimply emo kid croaking away about his girlfriend screwing around on him, and put that in front of the sort of bombastic, moving pagan metal the earlier comparisons evoke, and when you pull your jaw off the floor and stop muttering “who the fuck would desecrate music like that with shit kiddie vocals like some crappy screamo band?” you’ll have a fair idea of what to expect from Harakiri for the Sky.

It’s always a shame when I have to ride a band or album that’s as good as Aokigahara because of an atrocious vocalist, but there you have it.  Seriously, this one would’ve gotten top marks with a real, or even  passable vocalist.

If you don’t mind a shit garnish on top of your chateaubriand, have at it, you’ll love this one.  Me, I’m sending this one back to the kitchen for one without the topping.

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Vanhelga – Längtan (Art of Propaganda) (April 28)

Former solo project of Lifelover’s Johan Gabrielson, it’s become a full band affair.  Lots of talking, crazed laughter and gibberish atop off kilter acoustic mixed with electric guitars and drums, all poorly recorded and overdriven to the point where it sounds like someone kicked a hole in the speaker.  Strange.

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Aurvandil – Thrones (Eisenwald) (April 21)

French black metal, but don’t expect Les Legions Noires or even the French Canadian sound of Montreal’s Sepulchral Productions.

More indebted to a sort of early, demo-era lo-fi Norwegian second wave aesthetic, Aurvandil ascribes to a very Ulver circa Nattens Madrigal motif, where pronouncedly melodic lines grope their way through a busy if not noisy overly distorted guitar-drum assault.

You can barely make out the instruments, it’s all buzzing and sounds like it was recorded a few doors down from where the band was actually playing.  But you can tell they’re decent enough musicians, the croaked vocals are a bit more baritone than usual for the style, and the Ulveresque melodic line underpinning makes this one a decided winner.  Horns up!

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Woman Is The Earth – This Place That Contains My Spirit (Eisenwald) (April 21)

With a name like Woman is the Earth, who the hell was expecting seriously underground black metal with death metal inflections?

The drummer does some interesting footwork – less syncopated than coming in flurries of triplets.  As his kit work is far less impressive, the band wisely chose to mix the bass drum right to the forefront while burying the rest in the mix alongside the fuzzed out guitars and echo and reverb happy vocal croaks and screams.

Not as interesting or exciting as Aurvandil, but you can tell something of the Eisenwald house style in the similarities (mind you, Woman is the Earth hails from South Dakota, of all places – a further place from France in every respect cannot be imagined).

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Velnias – Sovereign Nocturnal (Eisenwald) (EU April 21/US May 6)

On the other hand, we have Velnias, who breaks what appeared to be establishing itself as a general rule for the label.

With more nastily croaked vocals that cross Graveland with Desultory (if you can even picture such a thing), this features three lengthy, well produced if somewhat unexciting tracks that lean heavily towards a stoner rock inflected take on death metal.  They hail from Colorado, so again the German label is reaching its arms from halfway across one continent to the same distance across another.

As it doesn’t seem to fit in the same stylistic pocket as either Aurvandil or Woman is the Earth, I have no idea what made them sign these guys…not bad, but nothing like what I’m assuming to be the “Eisenwald sound”.  We’ll see what clues next month’s releases bring…

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