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Ah, a new year dawns.  A pleasantly cool start to what promises to be a better year (fingers crossed, particularly given what I’ve both heard from others and lived myself as being a few surprisingly horrific months last Fall), with barely a whisper of snowfall and crisp but seldom bonechilling temperatures in the air.

I don’t know about any of you, but I’m sure as hell ready for some changes for the better…so let’s see if several returning champions and could’a been contenders can jump on that bandwagon and provide some good omens for a brand new start, shall we?

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Scorpio Doctrine – Via Liminalis EP (Pavitra Kunta productions) (December 19)

Brooding, mournful darkwave goth from Finland in the vein of a darker Projekt act (think somewhere between Lycia and earlier Audra) crossed with Empyrium.  While it’s more than likely that much of what we’re hearing is sample generated, the album is full of definite piano and faux-cello chamber orchestrations that bring Gitane Demone to mind (more in line with the torch singer material than her work with Marc Ickx or Christian Death, but even so).  The Casio sampling nature of much of this also evokes Era I Mortiis and Elffor, all of which aren’t bad reference points to be compared to.

Vocalist/main musician “H.A.” recites in a dead monotone rather than sings, and does this in some very broken English, but that sort of adds to the atmosphere.  He and bassist “O.K.” seem to be trying to set themselves up as some sort of Psychic TV cum black metal act, referencing vague occult concepts and mystery religions, but fans of underground music should be well aware of the sad fact that stance comes a dime a dozen nowadays – your call whether you buy all the schmutters or not.  Musically speaking, they’ve got the right vibe and can put likeminded aficionados in the general mood, and that’s good enough for me.

Available via Saturnal Records distribution and comes recommended to darkwave/goth fans.

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LYNX – Caught In The Trap CD (No Remorse records)

Re-release of a Swedish AOR metal album from 1985 with a sound that falls somewhere between Europe and Pretty Maids, with a Ted Pilot or Ken Tamplin type neo-baritone on vocals.  There’s plenty of Deep Purple/Whitesnake style Hammond keyboard business bolstering the more standard guitar/bass/drums setup, and songs are slower and more dramatic than what generally passes for metal, even in that era.

There’s a touch of Yngwie and a dash of Y&T, but it’s all coming from the midtempo, organ-driven feel rather than any particular style of playing or flashy guitar work, which is all but absent herein.  If you anticipate more of a Journey by way of Heavy Load or Leviticus, guitarwise, you’ll have a pretty good handle on what to expect.

It’s crunchy, melodic yet hard rock-heavy, very true to its era (I certainly recall listening to, if not paying any particularly special attention towards, any number of acts like this at the time) and likely to make a pleasant if inessential addition to the collection of any true 80’s metal warrior.  I liked it.

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DEMOLITION TRAIN – Unleash The Hordes CD (No Remorse Records) (January 5)

Motorhead meets early Venom with a dash of On Through the Night/High N’ Dry era Def Leppard (you know, when they were actually worth listening to?).

These guys are very true to the early 80’s NWOBHM sound, and for a brand new act, they really have their shit together – even the thin, trebly but dead toned production exudes period authenticity.

Brothers Apostolis and Vasilis Korakas (who handle guitars and in the case of the former, vocals as well) are the core of this backwards-looking venture, filled with the sort of straightforward, no bullshit playing and songwriting that appears to be all but lost on the modern crowd.  It gets a bit samey after a few songs, but the energy and vibe are irresistible and more than compensate for any shortcomings in that respect.

Refreshing and definitely worth a listen.

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PAT TRAVERS BAND – Live at the Iridium NYC (Frontiers Music srl) (January 27)

Toronto’s 70’s hard rock axeman returns with a live album hailing from 2012 right here in New York City.  Like I said when reviewing his latest studio effort Can Do a year or so back, his was a name I heard bandied about back in the day, but my experience of the man and his music hail from a very recent vintage (as in the release of Can Do…), so there’s not a lot I can comment on from a historical or discography perspective here.

What I can attest to is some strong blues rock/70’s style “classic rock” guitar playing with an Allman Brothers by way of Rick Derringer vibe – there’s even dual harmony lead guitar lines and solos throughout, courtesy of second guitarist Kirk McKim.  It’s reasonably aggressive hard rock from that era, with a slight James Gang funk/jazz chord injection to keep things interesting.  Highlights are arguably “Rock and Roll Suzie”, “Gettin’ Betta” and “If I Had Possession Over Judgement Day”, which seem to have the strongest guitar-driven rock vibe, but it’s all pretty much of a piece.

If you’re big on the 70’s “classic rock” sound and haven’t tapped into Travers yet, you really don’t know what you’re missing – most of what I’m hearing here beats that bizarre “locked in top 40 playlist from 40 years ago” crap you hear being flogged on such stations ad nauseaum all to shit.

Maybe it’s because he’s Canadian?  When’s the last time you heard someone play Ian Thomas, eh?

Good stuff.

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ECLIPSE – Armageddonize (Frontiers Music srl) (February 24)

Erik Martensson of W.E.T. and Adrenaline Rush fame returns to his own band with this strong release from Swedish melodic metal/AOR rockers Eclipse.  Strong guitars, respectable radio friendly vocals and well constructed compositions – what more can you ask for?

Pretty much what you’d expect from a songwriter and producer as accomplished as Martensson is proving himself to be, with Magnus Henriksson providing stronger than usual lead guitars to sweeten the mix.  Decidedly recommended for fans of the Frontiers sound.

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Jorn Lande & Trond Holter present DRACULA – Swing of Death (Frontiers Music srl) (January 27)

We’ve spoken of him previously in reference to last month’s Allen/Lande and his own Symphonic, but here’s yet another project from Norway’s Jorn Lande, this time in conjunction with guitarist Trond Holter.

Oddly, the duo seem to have taken on the life of Vlad Tepes as fodder for a sort of “rock opera” (a misnomer of a term I’ve always held some distaste towards) just a few decades too late for the Anne Rice/Forever Knight/Buffy driven vampire craze.

So in the (cough) vein of…uh…Twilight and crappy CW tweeny “vampire dramas”…comes a nod to what passes for a vampire thing nowadays (pretty sad company to be keeping, in 2015, but hey).

The songs are oddly pop and oriented towards catchiness over storytelling or any sort of grandiose album-side build, which in a strange way works in its favor.  They bring on a Lena Borresen to duet as Mina Harker…wait a minute, I thought this was about the life of Vlad Tepes, not the 1929 stage play or the Bram Stoker fiction that character derives from?!?

umm…anyway, she’s not bad in a sort of Karla De Vito to Meatloaf sort of way, all gravelly voiced sass and such (gee, I didn’t remember any tough neo-feminist characters in the book or films pre-1980…), and Lande only lapses into his Ronnie James Dio impersonations at random intervals, for better or worse.

It’s all pretty generic, but far more listenable than anything (mis)labeled under the header of “rock opera” since The Who came up with such a stupid idea back in the late 60’s, so let your inner voice guide you towards or away from the project according to your own personal tastes.

I’ll give it a relative pass (in the pass/fail sense, rather than “I’ll pass, thanks”) – I absolutely despise the concept album/”rock opera” subgenre it adheres to and find myself quite bemused by the ill researched conflation of the “historical” and fictional on display herein, but it’s definitely catchy enough and worth giving a spin to see where you stand on this one.

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LEVEL 10 – Chapter 1 (Frontiers Music srl) (January 23)

Symphony X vocalist Russell Allen joins forces with the ubiquitious Mat Sinner for a strong effort more in line with the work of the latter (Sinner, Primal Fear, Silent Force) than the former, and that’s a definite plus.

Pulling in Primal Fear/Voodoo Circle/Silent Force guitarist Alex Beyrodt and Voodoo Circle/Eden’s Curse keyboardist (and regular Frontiers producer) Alessandro Del Vecchio for something of an all star lineup, the more straightforward, melodic and to the point stylings of Sinner offer a more palatable showcase for Allen’s voice than the meandering prog blather of his own band, with more of a soaring neo-Ronnie James Dio thing going on than the gravel gargling he’s prone to when not pushing for the high notes.  The end result is pretty good, and filled with the Sinner/Beyrodt/Del Vecchio standard of melodic yet driving aggression.

This is actually the first time I found myself a bit impressed by Allen.  That should say something right there…

Maybe they should think about making this one permanent instead of letting him go back to Symphony X.

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Aktor – Paranoia (High Roller Records) (February 20)

Chris Black pulls in Circle mainmen Jussi Lehtisalo and Tomi Leppänen for an album that’s both less New Wave and less driving than his prior I am the Psychic Wars, instead tapping more into the 70’s “classic rock” sound of Circle side project Falcon (of Beer and Ribs fame).  While it’s nice to see off kilter artists collaborate every now and again, it seems like Black comes out the worse for it, with none of the Six Day Run era Circle and precious little of his own prior sound working their way through the mix.

Falcon with less tongue in cheek lyrics and more palatable vocals.  No thanks, I’ll pass.

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Air Raid – Point Of Impact (High Roller Records) (January 23) 

Old school 80’s style heavy metal hailing from, of all places, Gothenburg, Sweden (birthplace of the At The Gates/Killswitch Engage “metalcore” sound).

The band references Riot and Accept which are appropriate enough, but it’s less the Judas Priest and Iron Maiden they claim than Malice and Omen in the end.  As I like both of those bands, I’m reading it as a plus – those more inclined to the pomposity of Bruce Dickinson era Maiden or the shriekiness of post-Turbo Priest should take note, however.

Think of it as a sequel to License to Kill with touches of Nightmares and The Curse but with Bride’s Dale Thompson on vocals, and you’ll have a good idea.  Best thing I’ve heard this month, for sure.

Damn good stuff, highly recommended.

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Iron Lamb – Fool’s Gold (High Roller Records) (January 30) 

Motorhead worship, pure and simple.  A wholly unabashed impersonation of Lemmy fronts album opener “One Way Track”, and the sound is straight up Ace of Spades, right down to some Fast Eddie Clarke-isms in the guitar solo.

While the music gets a bit more varied as the album goes on, several songs are still close enough to the template to be a Motorhead tribute album, and the vocal style seldom changes.

Odd that this comes from Swedish death metal and grindcore folks such as Daniel Ekeroth and hailing from bands like Repugnant, General Surgery and Dismember…but hey, Lemmy and Bon Scott were my personal teenage heroes, so you know I’ve got nothing but respect for what they’re paying homage to here.

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Trial – Vessel (High Roller Records) (January 23)

Swedish act whose 2013 Malicious Arts single we noted as crossing early King Diamond with Agent Steel and Cerebus (of Too Late to Pray fame), and those comparisons still hold true as apt, though there are moments that sound Helloween or perhaps even earlier Fates Warning vocally this time around.

Stretching things out to a 7 song full length with often midtempo if not slow tracks pushing 7-13 minutes leaves Vessel somewhat less exciting than the single was, but it’s certainly the same band, same general idea.

Could certainly do with a bit of tightening up on the song length, and they could use a bit more adrenaline injected into the mix, but overall, this is still quite promising.

Ball’s in your court, guys.  Next round could go either way.

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U.D.O. – Decadent (AFM Records) (February 3)

Veteran Accept and U.D.O. frontman Udo Dirkschneider gets uncharacteristically political, taking on the corporate fat cats hellbent on taking away the rights of the common man and silencing dissent as they speed the world towards socioeconomic and environmental collapse.

Bet you didn’t see THAT one coming!

Seriously, though, Udo has apparently discovered through his touring of the world the longstanding income and lifestyle disparity between those who run our governments and set insane prices on necessities and the rest of us, as well as how ruthless the fat cats are at ensuring they get their way without any talkback.  No kidding around, this is stuff he’s saying in the press release!

“People who have everything seem not to really care about the world around them anymore; it’s like they use their own privileged status as an absolution for that. Also they do not seem to see that there’s a correlation between their own luxury and the poverty of others…If all of us would live a little bit more consciously and think about who has to pay the price for our standard of living, we could make the world a better place.” – Udo Dirkschneider

Now, you already know I’m going to give this one an unreserved thumbs up, just for the man’s epiphany – it’s about time all of us start waking up and wising up to what’s going down, while we can still resist and enact much needed change.  But to compare this album musically with last year’s Steelhammer is like comparing Restless and Wild/Balls to the Wall era Accept with the David Reece stuff, or Di’Anno/Dickinson Iron Maiden with the Blaze Bayley albums.

I shit you not, the man upped his game on all fronts this time around.  This is both a more driving, catchy, Animal House-worthy U.D.O. album than we’ve heard in many years (!) and a surprisingly bold and enlightened one, particularly in an age marked by a shocking degree of indifference, selfishness and fear.  What’s not to love?

Welcome to the club, Herr Dirkschneider.

Join us, why don’t you?

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Serious Black – As Daylight Breaks (AFM Records) (January 20)

Mario Lochert of Visions of Atlantis, Dominik Sebastian of Edenbridge, Urban Breed of Bloodbound and members of Helloween and Blind Guardian get together for another all star project, which like Level 10 and the most recent lineup of Silent Force transcends the old stigma attached to all star jams to deliver a surprisingly solid slab of melodic metal in the European tradition.

“High and Low” and “Akhentaton” are particular standouts, but the entire album is of a piece, and far stronger than casual fans might expect.  Breed’s voice is well suited to the affair, bringing Obsession/Loudness/Yngwie Malmsteen vocalist Mike Vescera to mind, and the album as a whole stands up as yet another strong melodic metal release in a month that appears to be jammed to the rafters with them.  Thumbs up.

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Orden Ogan – Ravenhead (AFM Records) (February 3)

Far less over the top and grandiose than 2012’s The End, Orden Ogan returns to the fray with power metal legends Joacim Cans (Hammerfall) and Chris Boltendahl (Grave Digger) in tow as guest artists and a great cover (though what the hell swamp zombies have to do with all this is anybody’s guess).

Does the strangely stripped down sound work well for a band noted for quite this level of (let’s be honest) pomposity and sonic layering?  Well, to be honest, not really – much of the band’s appeal, like Rhapsody (“of Fire”) or Manowar before them, lay in seeing just how far they’re willing to push the envelope with enormous choruses and seeming armies of guitar.  There’s still touches of that sort of thing, as in “deaf among the blind”, but for the most part, the newly streamlined approach leaves Orden Ogan as just another voice among many in a fairly overcrowded power metal scene.

With double (and triple) decade veterans still going strong and new bands seeming to pop out of the woodwork on a daily basis, do we really need another, say, Powerwolf? 

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Messiah’s Kiss – Get Your Bulls Out! (Massacre Records) (January 20)

Mike Tirelli makes his bid at being yet another Ronnie James Dio wannabe, though I’m hearing more Rough Cutt by way of Mr. Big’s Eric Martin in his sound than that of metal’s favorite son.

Georg Kraft and Jason Banks seem to prefer a noisy, Kirk Hammett-like crybaby wah filter tone on their guitars, which leaves the leads sounding less Loudness, Obsession or Randy Rhoads than 90’s grunge cum metal in its sheer ear grating noisiness.  Corrosion of Conformity circa Deliverance should give the reader an idea of what to expect tonally, but without the strong production…

While certainly driving and propulsive throughout, the poor choice in rig/tonal coloring, and some iffy songwriting leave Messiah’s Kiss as something of an also ran, unless you’re aching for a return to 1989-94 style “metal” along the lines of, say, a more aggressive Jackyl.

Not terrible, but not my thing at all.

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Voices Of Destiny – Crisis Cult (Massacre Records) (January 20)

Ada Flechtner, late of Coronatus, joins up with VOD for their third album, bringing a more lively and expressive performance than her former band allowed to the table herein.

Surprisingly, the main letdown here is in the hissy, overdriven production by Andy Horn, which leaves all elements save Flechtner’s vocals (which are crystal clear and strong in the mix) sounding a scratchy mess beneath her.  This is the guy behind albums by Edenbridge, Liv Kristine and Mortal Love?  Think Don Dokken’s Up From the Ashes for a similarly hissy (under)production.  Look, all due respect for your past work, but some level of incipient hearing loss may be a factor to consider here. Might want to look into that, Andy…

That aside, the album is fairly standard gothic-symphonic metal, perhaps a bit more driving than most. The “beast” vocals could easily be dispensed with, but Flechtner brings a world class veneer to the band that should garner them some attention and may in fact lead to their becoming more of a recognized presence on the scene in the future.

More on the basis of Flechtner’s performance than anything else, I did like this one, and think they could really go places if they keep along this general track – she’s definitely a charismatic and effusive frontwoman on record. I just hope they find some better production next time around, hard as that is to believe I have to write.

After all, “HISSSSSS HSSSS SSSSHHHHH HISSSSSSS” does not a gothic symphonic sound make…

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Raunchy – Vices.Virtues.Visions (Massacre Records) (January 20)

Modern metal with an emo sensibility. They’ve been around long enough to rack up 6 albums, so they’re certainly experienced enough. Now that we’ve put that aside, on to what I’m actually hearing here.

The aggro vocals suck as always (general notice: if you’re not in a death metal band, learn to sing. The puking, growling and screaming just sound lame, not to mention clearly pandering to pissed off mallrat Hot Topic teens). The clean vocals, which surprisingly tend to predominate, are certainly listenable enough, but done in that sort of depressive nigh-monotone we’ve become saturated with in the wake of thousands of emo/screamo acts of the past decade or so. The overall effect is…well, kind of boring.

Musically, they seem to be taking a semi-industrial, semi-driving metal approach with odd keyboard effects saturating an otherwise detuned guitar, d-bass trigger-centric sound that fits right in with what passes for modern metal.

Look, those into the “new sound” will probably dig it, they certainly know their way around ProTools and their instruments and have a fair sense of song construction. But to be honest, this is about a thousand miles away from what I consider metal, or good music per se.

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Lonewolf – Cult Of Steel (Massacre Records) (January 20)

France’s Lonewolf returns with yet another slab of accomplished power metal offset somewhat by Jens Borner’s usual (and quite cheesy) swallowed vocals.

This feels like a much more straightforward and driving effort than 2013’s Fourth and Final Horseman, pushing things closer to a cross between Rhapsody (of Fire) at their most aggressive, earlier Hammerfall and even a touch of classic Accept.  The guitars from Alex Hilbert are quite impressive, with harmony leads and well crafted multi-part solos that show the man to be a much better and more thoughtful player than your average power metal wannabe.

Where most metal acts nowadays are perfectly happy to forefront some rather generic, seemingly aimless noodling tossed in as an afterthought, Hilbert clearly sat there and worked these lines out.  Good phrasing, bits of modulation and changes of tone, and lines that run through the verses and bridges are punctuated by and build to solos that actually feel like the centerpiece of the song, the way rock and metal songs are SUPPOSED TO.  Don’t go in expecting an Yngwie style “virtuoso” by any means, but the guy is good and definitely knows his stuff, particularly in terms of song construction.

The rest of the band keeps things incessantly pounding at a speedy Helloween-esque pace, and slower throwback “Mysterium Fidei” aside, the album is so good that I was actually able to sideline the vocals and listen to the songs without snickering even once, which was certainly not the case with Fourth and Final Horseman.

Serious thumbs up, and a major improvement.

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Callisto – Secret Youth (Svart Records) (January 30)

Alice In Chains, the 2014 version.  At least the singer doesn’t stick to that irritating corner of the mouth NYAAOWW WAOOWWW AAAHHHWWW thing Layne Staley built his entire career on, and the production’s better, but that’s it in a nutshell.  Oh, and there’s emo-screamo touches too.  I guess another member of the band screaming part of the lyric sheet makes bands cool nowadays.  Sorry, not a hipster, I don’t get these little nuances of modern culture…

There’s a dark, mournful feel to the proceedings that mirrors the album cover, the production’s pretty good and the instruments are clear but properly muted to avoid excessive bleed and hiss, so I’m happy on that end – this is just not a sound I really connect with.

Fans of Arcade Fire or whoever (yeah, I’m punting, I don’t listen to hipster music) should find more to love here than I did, as it’s certainly a well crafted package for what it is.

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Morbid Evils – In Hate With The Burning World (Svart Records) (March 6)

Finnish detuned “sludge metal” with lame aggro vocals.  Wayyyyy too “modern metal” for my tastes.

Zero interest in this sort of thing.  Pass.

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Mourning Mist – S/T (Forever Plagued) (February 9) 

Italy has always been known for offering a bizarre take on metal, particularly black metal.  Great as they are, can you really lump Bulldozer in with the Norwegian crowd?  Mortuary Drape with Nunslaughter?  Black cum gothic/vampire metal act Theatres des Vampires with Cradle of Filth?

So when Mourning Mist dropped onto my desk here at Third Eye, it wasn’t all that much of a raised eyebrow being cocked towards this ersatz black metal/darkwave outfit…

It looks like the band is run by a violinist, which already pushes things into Luna Sea or Voltaire territory, but things get even stranger than that, shoving matters straight into the general ballpark of Madman’s Esprit if not Sigh.

While far less complex or informed by classical or jazz sensibilities than either of those acts, Mourning Mist is certainly oddly syncretist, pulling in a sound that at times feels like early 80’s new wave synthpop, at others displaying hints of traditional European folk music (particularly the French or Greek taverna styles), then a dash of black metal vocals fall amidst some more traditional metal riffing, but with a very modern metal production and feel.  In other words, it’s all over the damn place.

I sort of liked it, and recognize the sleeper factor in it: it’s so bizarre that the listener isn’t quite sure what to make of it.  This often results in repeated listens, which can then turn into admiration, as with similarly minded oddities as Hungary’s Tormentor (of Anno Domini fame) or Czechoslovakia’s Master’s Hammer.

It doesn’t catch me anywhere nearly as much as any of the bands mentioned hereinabove, but who knows, by next release I may be singing their praises.  Interesting.

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Demoncy – Joined in Darkness (Forever Plagued) (February 9)

Originally released in 1999, the fact that this is USBM almost surprises me.  Bob “Ixithra” Crusen goes the one man band route and delivers a particularly nasty and evil sounding slab of darkness hailing from a period when the very concept of black metal hailing from the States was a frequently shared joke.  And yet, somewhere amidst the hordes of drunken Southern Johnny Rebs and pissed off Bible Belters recording some half-assed take on blackened thrash, a few gems hid among all the dross.

While still bearing the hallmarks of USBM (a strong debt to 80’s style blackened thrash over the more recent Norwegian led revitalization of the scene, sloppy Bathory-style drumming, a rather Goatlord-ish vocal approach, utter lack of European folk or classical influence), Demoncy offers a relentlessly grim, undeniably underground aesthetic unlikely to appeal to fans of the more symphonic or “populist” end of the black metal spectrum (Dimmu and Filth fans, forget it).

As a fan of the first three Bathory and Sodom albums and the first two Sepultura releases (almost exclusively over where those bands took things later), Goatlord and bearing an ever-building respect towards Nunslaughter, I really dug this one.

Those inclined towards more sophistication or oneiric ethereality in their black metal need not apply, but if you dig acts like Blasphemy, Beherit or any of the aforementioned, you’ll find yourselves right at home with this one.

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Vivus Humare – Einkehr (Eisenwald) (January 27) 

German black metal act with a dash of the sensibilities of Mutiilation and the French Legions Noires.  Unlike the more blunt, nigh-thrash or death metal approach typical to black metallers  of their nation, these guys stick to a brooding, mournfully depressive vibe filled with tremelo guitars and the appropriate level of reverb.

Eschewing the oddities of a Bethlehem or  the neoclassical darkwave approach of Empyrium, the band keeps things simple, placing atmosphere and gloom above all else.  There’s a bit of Watain to the sound in tracks like “Traum”, but for once it’s in a good sense, as they’re not jumping on the copycat zombie bandwagon like so many others.  Instead, it feels like just part of their palette and makeup.

Vaguely reminiscent of a European take on your typical Sepulchral Records act, Vivus Humare earns themselves a thumbs up here.

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Grimoire – L’aorasie des spectres rêveurs (Eisenwald) (January 27)

And speaking of Sepulchral, here we have an actual Quebecois black metal act, whose other bands Forteresse and Csejthe both hail from that very label.  Regular Third Eye readers know that I tend to enjoy this style of black metal, and this four track EP is no exception to the rule.

Crossing the more typically reflective and sorrowful sound of French Canadian black metal with more airy, Echo and the Bunnymen-esque passages likely influenced by the more recent direction of Alcest, this “ghostly dreamer” is often hard to pin down, even pulling in touches of funeral doom ala Ahab in “Cachot de Cristal”, and heading straight into Enya-reminiscent new age ambient territory on “Cantilene Celeste”.

It’s strange, but like most material in this general Legions Noires/Sepulchral ballpark is likely to remain on the ipod for the forseeable future.

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Kruger – Adam and Steve (Listenable) (January 20)

“Born in 2001 in Lausanne, Switzerland, Kruger started playing music in complete indifference.”

Yeah, that’s right from the promo materials on this band.  Mallrat metal.

The drummer’s pretty good, with plenty of double bass kitwork punctuated by nicely syncopated bits that fall somewhere between prog and fusion in stylistic complexity.  The guitars like to play “off”, like some ersatz AFI with vague Sonic Youth inflections, but what comes out is less interesting than either of those bands in their respective heyday.  Vocals are that horrible aggro bullshit where some guy screams at you the entire time.

I guess if you’re big on bands like Avenged Sevenfold or whatever.  Respect to the drummer aside, this is SO not my thing.

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Armageddon (Sweden) – Captivity & Devourment (Listenable) (January 20) 

Chris Amott of Arch Enemy does guitars and clean vocals on this modern death metal style project, so you know to expect Carcass-like guitar breaks, Arch Enemy-esque melodic but heavy riffing and death metal-style snarl/growls.

It’s a bit generic, but with strong elements of class, articulate shred-style leads and dare I say catchiness on the guitar end that would be surprising if Amott’s name weren’t attached to it.

Far more listenable (not to mention less irritating) than Arch Enemy as fronted by that clown from the Agonist (great show in NYC back when…snort), so Chris one ups his brother with this one.

Not exactly my go-to for a metal fix, but worth a few spins to be sure.

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Hellish Outcast – Stay of Execution (Listenable) (February 3)

Fairly brutal and fast death metal hailing from Norway.

Thick, chunky production and some reasonably flashy if somewhat ephemeral leads give this one more appeal than expected for a modern era death metal act.  A tad unspectacular, but listenable and decidedly driving, with a few old school-ish (think circa 1995, a few years past the scene’s heyday) touches to spice the mix.

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Ahamkara – The Embers Of The Stars (Nordvis / Bindrune) (February 10)

Wow, this is rather good!

A surprisingly British-sounding black metal act, which is wholly appropriate as they do in fact hail from Newcastle-on-Tyne.  Bearing elements of Northern Oak and Cradle of Filth while striving towards a comparatively Norwegian approach, Ahamkara infuses their epic songs with fluently melodic lines to an extent rarely encountered outside of black metal-era Ulver, while bringing a far more Isles-based sensibility to the table.  Does that bassline in “on the shores of defeat” sound a touch Primordial?  Or is it more Fairport Convention?

Expansive, lush sounding material bolstered by excellent production that leaves a full bottom end (check out all that bass and drum opening “lamentation of a wraith”) while ensuring the jangly, Watainish guitars are right up front and vocals buried a tad beneath both guitars and reverb.  There are moments that come off a tad fey (the pizzicato string section underpinning the aforementioned “wraith”), but overall strong in the same sense as To the Nameless Dead is (whilst still maintaining a very distinct sound from the storied Irish black metallers in most respects).

Even given all the points of reference and comparisons above, this is actually reasonably original, all told.  I liked this one.

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Izah – Sistere (Nordvis Produktion) (February 23) 

Oy. A sort of darkwave variant of groove metal/metalcore without the At The Gatesness (and Howard Jones-ness) that make Killswitch such a killer act.

It’s certainly dramatic enough, with moody passages that brought such unlikely bedfellows as The Cure and black metal to mind, but I really hate this screamo vocal approach, and the dissonant and “bouncy” “breakdown” bits that are sprinkled throughout the album’s four rather lengthy tracks (one of which runs over a half hour. Seriously.)

Has potential in parts where it doesn’t sound like, well, every frigging metalcore/groove/screamo/”modern metal” band they play on our local college “metal” station, but nah.

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Tervahäät – S/T (Nordvis Produktion) (January 26)

Lonesome cries in the woods.  Banjos pick hesitant notes, pianos pound out mournfully echoing chords.  Cello strings reverberate.  There’s one lone classically influenced acoustic guitar piece, and a single instance of tinny overdriven black metal-like guitar, but it’s nigh-wordless (at least in terms of comprehensibility – any vocals herein tend towards yodel-like ululations in the distance).

Reminiscent of ice fishing, for some reason.  Pure folk, but grim and mournfully so.

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Skogen – Vittra (Nordvis Produktion) (February 23)

Less Ulver-like (and therefore less loveable) than last year’s I Doden, this is a slower, more considered, yet strangely less folk-inspired re-release of the debut album from these Swedes.

There are two acoustic folk pieces that bring Kveldssanger to mind, but the rest of the album is fairly straightforward if somber black metal, which while more than listenable, lacks the stylistic integration (and better production) on display in I Doden.

Think of it as the Imrama to Primordial’s To The Nameless Dead – nothing to complain about, but hardly in the same league as what was soon to come.

Not bad by any measure, but stick with I Doden.

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Satan’s Host – Pre-dating god Parts 1 & 2 (Moribund) (January 20)

Retro-minded “occult rock”/traditional-ish metal act tread water and lose some steam on their second release.

2013 brought us Virgin Sails, a mixed bag which offset elements that appear to have been gleaned from Portrait with some obvious 80’s influences. Opener “heart of evil” really showcased Harry “The Tyrant” Conklin’s pipes, which drew inspiration from legends of the scene such as John Arch, Mike Vescera, Michael Kiske, Messiah Marcolin or even Eric A.K., making the track quite an impressive opener to what turned out to be a fairly middling album thereafter.

There were moments of life, at least on Conklin’s end: the Ronnie James Dio swipe on “dichotomy”, the obvious King Diamond business on “reanimated anomalies”, the John Archisms of the title track.  Sure, the man’s approach can be a tad too impressionistic of scene greats – at times, he comes off like the Rich Little or Frank Gorshin of metal.  But it was an impressive vocal performance nonetheless.

But Conklin’s major flaw is that he tends to use his soaring tones as punctuation rather than as a go-to.  At times he goes for a thrash style chanting (as in the midpoint of “hell’s disciples”), at others more of a sprechtgesang if not growl.  He’s still copping King Diamond (“fanning the flames of hell”, “lady and the snake”, “embers of will”, the list goes on), but to the exclusion of nigh on all other influences, losing thereby the soaring tones he was (and at times still is) capable of producing.

“After the end” shows touches of Geoff Tate and Racer X’s Jeff Martin, and “pre-dating God” shows occasional Dio-isms, but generally speaking, the man is sounding raspier, and perhaps more tired this time around.

Case in point, a fairly weak cover of Grim Reaper’s “see you in hell”.  Conklin can certainly hit some of the high tones on the choruses, but sticks to a fairly spoken word mixed with King Diamondlike “spooky growling” for the verses, even where Steve Grimmett let ‘er rip with the high notes. It’s not horrible, certainly in the right ballpark, but if you’re clearly capable of doing it, why not do it right?

The band, for their part, stick to a slightly detuned sound that feels more 80’s thrash than traditional metal, but it’s fairly retro minded any way you slice it.  Even so, it gives Satan’s Host more of a “modern” feel than they’re likely striving for, and also throws their Grim Reaper cover off somewhat – it just doesn’t feel right.

Look, they’re on the right track overall, so it’s hard not to give them accolades for trying.  But there’s way too much King Diamond influence this time around, to the exclusion of all else, and it’s still a bit boring.  Conklin has one hell of a voice, when he chooses to use it, but his (and the band’s) most impressive performance to date is still “heart of evil” rather than anything on this latest release (or pair thereof), and that’s not exactly saying “progress”.

Worth checking out if you’ve never indulged previously.

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Vardan – Verses From Ancient Times (Moribund) (January 20)

Our favorite Sicilian ghoul returns once again with yet another slab of pure retro black metal darkness, hiding behind a really cool and atmospheric nighttime shot of an old mansion. While more aggressive than such recent efforts as Dreaming…Living my Funeral, Enjoy of Deep Sadness or the amusingly titled The Woods is my Coffin, this is very much in the vein of an early to mid 90’s Norwegian (or perhaps more to the point, French) black metal demo band.

Mixing reverb and obviously well produced, tremelo driven 2nd wave black metal hate with a Vlad Tepes-esque level of grit and raw, almost Graveland-style vocals, Vardan injects his releases with an eerie, Halloweenlike vibe all their own.  The darkest gothic rock releases, the blackest metal albums often fail to hit the sweet spot Vardan manages to, time and time again, release after release.

He’s practically become an institution around here.  Keep ’em coming, paisano.

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Legion of Andromeda – Iron Scorn (At War With False Noise / Unholy Anarchy) (February 20)

Apparently these guys are comprised of a Japanese guitarist and an Italian vocalist, and may in fact reside in Tokyo.  Lucky guys.

The promo materials reference such odd bedfellows as Big Black, Suicide, Godflesh, Swans and Von, which should give a vague idea of what to expect: while this is very much a weird variant of underground death metal, all you get here are a massive detuned guitar crunch with some incomprehensible death metal puking, punctuated by an annoying pseudo-industrial metallic clanking (likely someone hitting two pipes together, or some sort of oddly processed cymbal).  It’s relentless, and quite irritating.

Did I mention every one of the seven tracks is nearly identical?  Yeah.

Pass.

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Infernal Manes – S/T (Edged Circle Productions) (January 12) 

Re-release and remastering of demos from an old school traditional metal act out of Norway circa 2004.  Apparently a new iteration of the band (with a different vocalist and members of Taake) is working on an “official debut”.

This version of the band is extremely retro minded, sounding very much like some long lost New Renaissance or Metal Blade act that never broke through back in the day.  I liked it despite the lousy Mercyful Fate cover, but can’t imagine how they could possibly find a vocalist to match or replace this one, he’s got a pretty distinctive tonality and approach (think Eric A.K. from Flotsam and Jetsam for a ballpark comparison).

Old schoolers, you’ll probably want to check this one out.

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DWELL (Denmark) – Vermin and Ashes (CD, LP) (Hells Headbangers) (February 10)

Members of Cerekloth go for a more syncretist approach here, at times an unimpressive death metal, others a bit more depressive doom, and others something different entirely.  It’s in the third category that they made me pay attention, as in the final third of “a collapse sublime” or the second half of “plunging into ash tombs”.

The vocalist leaves much to be desired, so the less they have him screaming and growling, the better the band sounds.

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ATOMIC AGGRESSOR – Sights of Suffering (Hells Headbangers) (February 24)

Chilean blackened death metal, last seen on a split with Death Yell.

Definitely adhering to the Morbid Angel/Necrophobic school of hyperaggressive, stutter-stop death metal, this is their first full length.  As with a lot of death metal, things can tend to get a bit repetitive after awhile, but there’s no question these guys are damn good, and well worth your time to check out.  I liked it.

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PERDITION TEMPLE – Sovereign of the Desolate (7″ EP) (Hells Headbangers)

New act with Bill Taylor of Immolation and a few other post-heyday death metal scenesters.

They go for a raw, underground vibe, all thin toned tremelo guitar but in a very obviously death metal fashion rather than that black metal in death’s clothing crap everyone’s doing nowadays.  Only 2 tracks, one being a Blasphemy cover, so you get the idea of what they’re shooting for sonically.  I liked it.

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NUNSLAUGHTER – Burn the Cross (7″ picture disc) (Hells Headbangers)

Unusual reissue from the Nunslaughter camp in that it features 2 versions of the title track, one with the original singer (the amusingly monikered “Don of the Dead”) and the other with the drummer “Jim Sadist” taking the mic and rewriting the lyrics.

No offense to the latter, but it’s night and day, with Don’s black metal snarl blowing Jim’s Bill Steer in Carcass-like death metal belches all to shit.  Interestingly, Don’s still there on Jim’s version, enlivening the mix like a more comprehensible take on Mick Harris’ backing vocals in early Napalm Death.

There are two more tracks to fill out the running time, but they don’t really match up to the forcefully aggressive yet catchy title track…in either version.  Another unreserved thumbs up.

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GOAT SEMEN – Ego Svm Satana (Hells Headbangers) (February 24)

Peruvian blackened thrash/death metal hybrid.  Has all the virulence and reverb-infused mania you’d expect from a South American blackened thrash act but a bit more uninspired (as death metal produced after 1992-3 is generally wont to be).

Several elements are dead on, but just doesn’t match up to the quality of a good blackened thrash act ala early Sepultura, Vulcano or even Sabbat (two of whom were actually namechecked in the promo materials!).

I found myself surprisingly bored despite all the crazed drumming and frenzied guitarwork.

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GOUGE – Beyond Death (Hells Headbangers) (March 10)

Aggressive, essentially old school death metal with modern production.  Short but sweet.

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Garotting Deep / For – Void Asceticism – split LP (Iron Bonehead) (January 16)

Canadians Garotting Deep offer Zom-style over-reverbed underground black metal with a USBM bent.  Perfectly average for the style, but certainly nothing to write home about.

Sweden’s For offer one and a half tracks where they seem to be asleep, perfectly content to fill the time with random belching and sound effects that come off like some fat guy snoring snot bubbles through the course of the night.  The other one and a half they pick up to a speedier tempo on the guitars, which are so out of tune it’s hilarious (think early Abruptum here), while the drummer plays what sound like a consignment of empty soup, vegetable and coffee cans slightly off meter.  I get the impression one of their prior efforts crossed our desk here a few months back, and that it was similarly unspectacular.

Pass.

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Black Cilice – Mysteries LP (Iron Bonehead) (January 30)

Very poorly produced Portugese one man band black metal.  Sounds like one of those subway terminal speaker announcements, as heard through a tunnel, at a huge distance, in a howling rainstorm.  6 tracks where every song sounds exactly the same, and I mean exactly.

Oh, well, at least it has a cool album cover!

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Death Karma – The History of Death & Burial Rituals part I LP (Iron Bonehead) (February 13)

Previously encountered on 2013’s A Life Worth Living EP, this full length from the Czechs offers much better (if still compromised) production and an odd if admittedly intriguing concept relating to funerary rituals and the dispensation of the dead in various nations around the world.

The band still sounds hissy, over-compressed and overdriven to the point of extreme noise bleed, but you can tell there was a much bigger budget this time around – there’s some expansiveness and real body to the base mix (which includes solo vocal and/or guitar segments before the whole band joins the fray).

Apparently Death Karma shares band members with Cult of Fire, which may explain this new bent towards global travelogue (remember all the Sanskrit gibberish of their 2013 album?), but this is far more listenable than that aforementioned trainwreck of an album, and like Cult of Fire’s Ctvrtá Symfonie Ohne bears more of a uniquely Czech sound that may also be fairly described as unique, period.  Best tracks relate to India, Czechoslovakia and Madagascar, but the whole album’s worth checking out for those into a modernistic sound – arguably a black metallized variant of death metal, but ultimately hard to find points of reference to compare this one to.

If you don’t mind the crappy production on the guitar/drums/bass (see above for caveats relating to the production overall), this is probably something you’ll want to take a listen to.  Interesting, which translates to good in my book.

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Atomicide – Chaos Abomination LP (Iron Bonehead) (January 30)

Chilean black metal pretending to be death metal.  It’s dark and evil sounding, with vocals buried in reverb, blastbeat drums and tremelo guitars.

Unusually for bands inappropriately mixing these two mostly incompatible genres, it works pretty well. Gets a bit samey after awhile, but I can certainly appreciate this one.  Not bad.

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Hic Iacet – The Cosmic Trance Into the Void LP (Iron Bonehead) (January 30)

Spanish oddity responsible for 2012’s Prophecy of Doom single.  Midtempo to slow black metal of the underground variety.  Best track is probably “death in the abyss of meditation” if you’re going to sample one, but they’re all pretty much of a piece. Dark, moody and quite listenable.

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Ithaqua – Initiation To Obscure Mysteries TAPE (Iron Bonehead) (February 27)

Greek act with an appropriately Rotting Christ-like vibe.  Clean, open ended thrash style guitar, straightforward, midtempo double bass drumming and a wide open, analog studio-style sound not often heard in today’s metal landscape.

The cover is pretty cheesy (the poorly drawn girl in the middle of the hexagram looks like a hippie getting into the groove at a Santana concert) but endearingly low-rent in its sheer ineptitude, there’s some amusingly broken English spoken bits (“beyond the cursed lines”) and the end result is a damn good release all around.

Very likely one of the best releases reviewed this month.

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Isabrut – S/T (TAPE) (Iron Bonehead) (February 27)

B.C. Canada offers a fairly low-rent four track release of oddly Sarcofagoesque death metal.

Reasonably clear production and the guitar lines are driven by an old school thrash sensibility that offers recognizable riffing and time changes (when’s the last time you’ve heard THAT about a metal band, eh?), but not enamored of the vocals at all.

Check out “omen” and “roots” and see if all that riffing grabs hold of ya.

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Malsanctum – Metamorbid Fetishization TAPE (Iron Bonehead) (February 20)

Black metal meets funeral doom.  You can figure out the result.

Detuned, noisy, buried under reverb and boring.

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Swarþ – Veneficivm 7″ EP (Iron Bonehead) (February 27)

Last summer we reviewed this band’s Omines Pestilentiae, a middle of the road 4 track slab of black metal with death leanings that was listenable but fairly unspectacular.  Now they release a far noisier single that does little to change that impression, but whose piss poor production and relentlessly speedy riffing put forth something of a bad face by comparison.

Stick with Omines Pestilentiae.

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Devathorn – Vritra (W.T.C.Productions) (February 27)

OK, these guys kick off their press release talking about the Qliphoth.  Uh…yeah.

That’s about all there is to be said here, really: still playing in the same basic ballpark as W.T.C.’s other two releases reviewed herein.

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Negura Bunget – Tau (Lupus Lounge/Prophecy) (March 3)

Romanian black/pagan metal with folk elements.  Somewhat akin to Arkona in the trad folk portions, with touches of Vintersorg in the quieter, clean chanted portions.

Lacks the excitement of an Arkona, Primordial, Vintersorg or even Trollfest, but fairly standard by pagan metal standards.

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A Forest Of Stars – Beware The Sword You Cannot See (Lupus Lounge/Prophecy) (March 3)

Odd British black metal act whose schtick is that they’re a fin de siecle steampunk “Gentlemen’s club”, which leaves them presented as natty dressers but fails somewhat as a conceit due to the fact that there’s a lady rather prominently placed in their membership…

There are elements reminiscent of early Cradle of Filth and others drawn from the goth scenes of both the early to mid 80’s and mid 90’s waves, complete with string sections, female vocals and folkish bits peppered amidst the blastbeat drums and tremelo guitars.  There’s sufficient bombast and an interesting feel, but the odd quavering male vocals and overreliance on quiet folkie sections leaves them occupying a strange quarter all their own.

Look, I love the first few Cradle of Filth albums.  All posthumous scenester slagging aside, the pre-Sony material just works, campy theatricality and all, and A Forest of Stars is definitely staging the same panto Dani and company left behind.

My only issue is with the profound alterations to the template: some work, and rather well, at that.  Others tend to fall a bit flat.  But the fact that I could do without nearly half the album’s running time keeps what should be all rights be an unreserved accolade somewhat more muted and qualified than I’d prefer.

Try it.

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Helrunar – Niederkunfft (Lupus Lounge/Prophecy) (March 3)

German black metallers take on a bit of a historically oriented concept album, something to do with the shift from medieval times to the Enlightenment.  It’s dark and moody and well produced, fairly typical modern black metal.

I hear too much of this stuff to be overly impressed, but this will be staying on the iPod for the forseeable future, which should say something.  These guys are certainly accomplished and self-assured in their approach, and good production and an appropriately decent vocalist help matters tremendously.  I liked it.

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Dysangelium – Thánatos Áskesis (W.T.C.Productions) (December 24)

No real change from last summer’s Leviaxxis beyond much improved production.  German act doing the Watain thing, and fairly well too, for what that’s worth.  But do we really NEED another Watain, much less with a literal army of clones and wannabes running around out there today?

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Acherontas – Ma IoN (Formulas Of Reptilian Unification) (W.T.C.Productions) (February 27)

Greek black metal act, also doing the Watain thing by the way, who wants to be taken seriously for their occultism.  Yeah, join the club.  For better or worse, there’s about a thousand other bands out there saying the same thing right now…

Worse production than their 2013 release Amenti – Ψαλμοί Αίματος και Αστρικά Οράματα, and a bit more boring to boot.

 

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