ALBUM REVIEW: Mage ‘Last Orders’


‘Last Orders’
Witchhunter Records
Released: 31 October 2014

Mage’s excellent 2012 debut album ‘Black Sands’ was a maelstrom of thrashy doom, and this impressive follow-up continues in a similar vein. ‘Last Orders’ is a collection of seven high-quality tracks that are majestically controlled and compact – and yet also ripple with a spectacular energy. This is the sound of a band in rude health, utterly watertight but far from safe. These underrated UK rockers barge into your living room, kick the pet dog out of the way, plug in and blast it.

The 1980s thrash metal influences remain, but perhaps now there is a little more Candlemass than Overkill, more Kyuss than Suicidal Tendencies. Mage have gotten darker, although not necessarily dirtier. They capture all their hurt and horror into finely crafted compositions. ‘Beyond’, for example, is a gigantic doomed epic, while ‘Violent Skies’ brings in a grungy stoner groove that is delivered with a confident air to ensure the vibe remains fresh. Mage are able to reach emotional depths through understatement and simplicity, a sign of worldy wisdom perhaps.

That said, some parts of ‘Last Orders’ hurtle like a massive, shuddering asteroid. ‘Old Bones’ sounds like Motorhead wrestling with Orange Goblin in a thunderstorm. And it possesses more fire and brimstone than the latest offerings from either of those great metal standard-bearers. Recorded at Skyhammer Studio in the UK and produced by Chris Fielding (Conan, Electric Wizard), this album is brilliantly balanced with a slightly meaner, meatier sound than on the band’s previous release.

Vocalist Tom sounds like Phil Anselmo after a few sleeping pills (in a good way) and while there is not a lot of variety in terms of the tonality or melody, his interesting patterns and phrasing make him a pleasure to listen to. Lyrically, too, you can fall into ‘Last Orders’ very easily and become part of the adventure. As with the music, understatement is the order of the day, and the lyrics are teasing and tantalising, never scarce or trite.

If there are any complaints, it would be that Mage tend to reject the codpiece-wearing, catchy choruses that some of these monster tracks deserve. Nothing too cliched or obvious, of course, but perhaps a few more to sing along to would boost the overall impact. And the final song on ‘Last Orders’ – ‘One For The Road’ – could be called a little formulaic by Mage’s own high standards.

Mage’s new album is a consistently excellent offering, combining doom with traditional metal energy, stoner grooves and thrash power. ‘Last Orders’ is a smart, modern album that is highly recommended for anybody who values honest-to-goodness heavy metal that worships the riff and is doomed to eternal damnation. Sign up here.


ALBUM REVIEW: Black Capricorn ‘Cult Of Black Friars’


‘Cult Of Black Friars’
Stone Stallion Rex
Released: 1 November 2014

Two witches and one warlock from Cagliari, Italy, make up Black Capricorn, and between them they create slow, swirling doom metal that is dark and relentless. ‘Cult Of Black Friars’ is often hypnotising – the fuzzy guitars of Fabrizio Monni crawl along with a creeping insistence, while his vocals are grim and echoing.

At first, it sounds as if this might be a fantastic album of ritualistic, epic doom. However, as it progresses, ‘Cult Of Black Friars’ drifts along to the point where it ceases to be challenging or original enough to maintain a listener’s full attention. Some parts of the album are really successful, merging aspects of Jex Thoth, Candlemass and Alice In Chains. And there are some deliciously groovy moments, as well as lots of hard-hitting heaviness. But the riffs are simply too obvious and under-developed to make a lasting impression.

Black Capricorn are inspired by some pretty cool stuff – from manga to Italian movies – and they utilise these at various times in the form of audio samples and book extracts in order to keep you guessing. The track ‘Animula Vagula Blandula’ kicks off with a beautiful, mournful flute-focused intro section, but the promised intrigue fails to materialise. Instead, another rather basic, uninspiring song unfolds before the flute is re-introduced, slightly clumsily, later on. The track is built on an intriguing idea and has great promise but it does not quite deliver.

The band has light-heartedly described the album’s final, acoustic song ‘To The Shores Of Distant Stars’ as “Black Sabbath meets Pink Floyd”, but in truth Black Capricorn come nowhere close to echoing the deep emotional trenches that those two great bands explore, lacking the sophistication to embark on such memorable adventures. On this, their third release, the Italian band – who have been together since 2007 – create a dark, magical atmosphere but, aside from a few fleeting moments of quality, their music rarely binds together into a convincing or cohesive whole.

ALBUM REVIEW: Spectral Haze ‘I.E.V.: Transmutated Nebula Remains’

spectral haze

‘I.E.V.: Transmutated Spectral Remains’
Soulseller Records
Released: 7 November 2014

Do you remember that Winnie The Pooh story in which Tigger, the stupidly irrepressible tiger, and Eeyore, the ferociously depressed donkey, wander into the forest, pick a few weird-looking ‘shrooms and form a stoner metal band? No? Maybe A.A. Milne never quite got round to penning that particular tale, but it doesn’t matter – Spectral Haze have done it for him.

This new album from the Norwegian band – a follow-up to their 2012 debut EP – has all of Tigger’s energetic bounce and Eeyore’s pounding gravitas rolled into one gargantuan whole. As in the children’s classics, the symbiosis of light and dark characteristics works in perfect harmony.

Integral to their doom rock rituals, the Oslo outfit also channel the considerable powers of Rainbow, Monster Magnet, Status Quo, Black Sabbath, QOTSA and, most of all, Hawkwind, At times, Spectral Haze seem to be even more Hawkwindy than the cosmic masters themselves – a kind of ‘Eaglehurricane’ of galactic proportions.

On a largely engrossing album, Spectral Haze create strong, forceful tunes, and their admirable songwriting skills ensure that the energy levels never wane. Their meaty riffs are developed and polished until they become little gems which are delivered with passion. On a few occasions, the band rely too greatly on swooshing cosmic energy alone, rather than pushing their original concepts to the full, but generally the tide of celestial awesomeness is an overwhelming and enjoyable experience.

Each song is a step on a journey to another dimension and the album flows brilliantly, rarely rushing or dawdling. Spectral Haze seem to have an innate ability to know when to cool things down, and then when to launch into another big riff. The roaring guitars of Sönik Slöth are hot and fuzzy as if drawing energy from the sun, while Spacewülff’s spacey vocals are like the solar system’s planets: few and far between.

And the whole thing is drizzled with Winnie’s sweet stoner honey, thanks to more than a few tasty licks. Spectral Haze do things right: these psyched-out sorcerers write big, entertaining stoner metal songs that hold your attention, and they play them with a zest for doom that’ll sweep you off your feet.

ALBUM REVIEW: Hypnochron ‘Herbs For The Alter’


‘Herbs For The Alter’
Released: 24 October 2014

Imagine that a wildebeest has been to a party with some guys from work, sank a few Southern Comforts WAY too fast and before long was smashing the place up, shouting: “You’re all assholes anyway!” Hypnochron is the sound of that wildebeest’s hangover. ‘Herbs For The Alter’ is a painful mix of confusion, paranoia, violence and a deep, addled sense of satisfaction.

‘Smoke Weed, Hail Satan!’ is the Chicago band’s motto, and this is definitely a wavelength album – in that you have to be in the right ‘frame of mind’ to get the most from it. The riffs are lumbering monsters, sometimes drawing on classic or even thrash metal influences, but always slow and soothing. So anaesthetising are they, in fact, that the songs sometimes don’t quite materialise at all and the hooks drift by, inches out of reach.

Instrumental music can be enthralling – as Hypnochron’s often is – with the lack of a focal (vocal) personality a means to fuller immersion in the thick guitar tones and the interplay between the band members, leaving the music more open to the listener’s own interpretation. On ‘Herbs For The Alter’, the guitars create a blissful barrage of acidic stoner doom, played with an almost sleepy demeanour. Hypnochron would perhaps benefit from tightening up a little, but even though they are as loose as a technicolor goose, there is no doubting their commitment to the vibe.

Initially it seems that the band might be over-reliant on samples from spooky movies (an affliction that does the genre no justice), but the samples become less frequent as the album progresses. And while not particularly fond of the habit of plundering other people’s creative works, if anyone knows where the quote “I’m still sore from what the devil did to me…” on the track ‘Submit’ derives from, please shout. Elsewhere, the samples are less light-hearted, touching upon drug addiction and governmental manipulation.

There is plenty of variety on offer throughout ‘Herbs For The Alter’. The two-minute ‘Snort’ is a comically whirling blast of chaos metal, while songs such as ‘Rise From Below’ and ‘Fall Of The Sun’ are solid blocks of immense, hypnotising doom. And while the production is a touch hit-and-miss, sometimes forcing the drums too far towards the front of the mix, Hypnochron deliver around 50 minutes of music that may alter your perspective on life.

ALBUM REVIEW: Caronte ‘Church Of Shamanic Goetia’


‘Church Of Shamanic Goetia’
Ván Records
(Released 31 October 2014)

Caronte’s new album feels like the final realisation of the Parma-based band’s heartfelt musical vision. Passion and creativity shine through as the Bones brothers (Dorian on vocals, Tony on guitar, Henry on bass) and drummer Mike de Chirico play their distinctive brand of slow, thoughtful voodoo doom.

‘Church Of Shamanic Goetia’ seems to be a reflection of a tough couple of years for the band, a period of time that has strengthened their bond and deepened their spiritual connections. As students of witchcraft and philosophy, Caronte have embarked on an esoteric trip into the unknown. Sometimes dark and psychedelic, sometimes spiritual and ponderous, and sometimes all-out stoner rock, this album draws upon the “forces of the universe” to inspire a joyously experimental adventure of gongs, bongs and long songs.

It all begins like a windy day in a Nepalese tourist shop: opening song ‘Maa-Kheru’s Rebirth’ tinkles, clatters and thumps various items of percussion to create a mind-bending musical mantra. Then the thick, soupy guitars flood in, Dorian Bones’s Danzig-tinged voice speaks of searching the void, and big, expansive choruses make the whole thing accessible. At times, the singer could be compared to professional sulky-pants Morrissey, but only in tone and delivery rather than preening personality.

The opening song fades into a slightly empty, vague passage in its middle, which loses the early impetus. And while this happens on a few isolated occasions throughout the album, generally there is enough interesting stuff going on to maintain your interest, whether you’re into psych or doom.

Bones’s vocals are interwoven with gentle chanting, such as on ‘Black Mandala’ and ‘Handlecheyapi’, as the Italian band delivers a consistently ritualistic concept throughout the album’s one-hour-plus duration. The hypnotising mantra may be the main focus, but Caronte also crank things up when the mood takes them.

The song ‘Wakan Tanka Riders’ begins as a stoner metal riot, as well as being a taxing tongue-twister. Anyway, whether or not you know what a wakan tanka is, by the end of this track you’ll definitely want to ride one. The closing song, ‘Left Hand Voodoo’, is a swirling, foot-tapping shamanic odyssey that brings the album to a deeply disturbing finale.

‘Church Of Shamanic Goetia’ is Caronte’s fourth release. In 2011, they recorded a debut EP called ‘Ghost Owl’, which was followed by the full-length ‘Ascension’ the next year and a split with Doomraiser in 2013. Caronte have drifted away from their Electric Wizard-style origins, searching the universe to find their own strong personality. In doing so they have created a great, original album packed with arcane magic.

REVIEW: Wormwood (Self-titled EP)


Self-titled EP
Magic Bullet Records
(Released October 2014)

These five songs are the sound of happiness being shouldered onto a butcher’s block and cleaved into tiny red pieces. Wormwood create bleak, raging sludgy doom that hits hard and echoes long in the memory, begging for repeat plays. Magic Bullet Records is a US-based indie known for its innovative punk and metal acts, and in Wormwood they have revealed a sharp new talent laced with violence and vitriol.

There is a sparsity and ugliness to Wormwood’s songwriting that underscores the Boston duo’s vision of negativity. This EP was recorded in all-analogue at Boston’s Mystic Valley Studios in a process that is laborious but worth the effort. In this case, Wormwood were not searching for a retro/vintage vibe, but rather for a simple, stark heaviness in order to convey their message of hopelessness. So while the compositions are lean and tight, the sound is fat and meaty.

This self-titled EP marks a debut not only for the band but also for Chris Pupecki as a lead vocalist. In his other outfit, Doomriders, Pupecki had only ever contributed backing vocals, and so he was stepping into the unknown on this recording. His performance here is remarkable: a breathless Tom G Warrior in a hardcore world.

On songs such as ‘White Plague’ Pupecki’s voice – as well as his guitar and bass – lends a sense of Celtic Frost-meets-Cerebral Fix-meets-Gang Green, perhaps with an undertone of Godflesh. And while in Doomriders he steers clear of pedals, here he has been set free to get as fuzzed-out and/or crusty as he likes. Long-time friend and cohort Chris Bevilacqua pummels his drum kit with equal venom. There is a wild freedom to this EP that is exciting and invigorating.

Lyrically, Pupecki engages in the timeless protestations of the alienated. “I’d rather die… than live your life… look what we’ve done” he storms on the brilliant ‘I’d Rather Die’. This track is perhaps the most memorable of them all, although each song is a concise and intelligently edited-down snapshot of spite, refusal, rebellion and dejection. Rarely is the manifestation of misery such a positive, enjoyable experience.

ALBUM REVIEW: Arcana Coelestia ‘Nomas’

arcana coelestia

Avantgarde Music
(Released: 20 October 2014)

This Italian band is named after a 250-year-old work (trans. Secrets of Heaven) by Swedish scientist and theologian Emanuel Swedenborg which explores the spiritual meanings behind the early books of the Bible. Essentially, it is an analysis of humanity and individual struggle, which seems oddly fitting considering that due to personal problems this album took four years to record.

Formed in Cagliari, Italy in 2005 as a black/doom metal band, Arcana Coelestia began to introduce dreamy soundscapes on their 2009 debut ‘Le Mirage de L’ideal’. Today, they combine these three elements, drawing on the talents of new singer RM (Dea Marica, Aphronic Threnody) and keyboard twiddler Kostas Panagiotou (Pantheist, Wijlen Wij).

The band’s identity is in its mercurial shifts of pace and temperament. There is a huge diversity within each of these five songs (all titled Nomas I, Nomas II, etc), and while the fast sections will scythe the flesh from your bones like blackened blades, the slower, atmospheric parts will then proceed to disassemble your skeleton and disperse the bones to the far corners of the universe. There are also a few delicate, swirling bits to allow you to catch your breath.

RM’s vocals are similarly contrasting, switching from glorious to sinister to manic and back again in the blink of an eye. The continual changes from melancholy to chaos are quite dizzying. Arcana Coelestia deliver a volatile and unpredictable mix, which is either an unsettling frustration or exactly what you want from extreme music – depending on your perspective. There are certainly examples where the changes are well managed: ‘Nomas IV’, for example, opens like a thunderstorm before morphing into a rumbling, synth-backed doom dirge on an epic scale, before building to a cataclysmic finale.

Arcana Coelestia are a doom hurricane, an overwhelming blast of emotion. They are blessed with an accomplished an well-balanced sound, helped by good production to marry together the competing elements of fierce black metal guitars and rich keyboards. ‘Nomas’ may have taken four years to finally get off the ground, but it has lost none of its energy and impact during those frustrating times. Arcana Coelestia explore not only the secrets of heaven, but also the mysteries of earth and hell too. And it’s a wild ride.

REVIEW: Jupiterian ‘Archaic’ (EP)


Released: July 2014

Io, one of Jupiter’s moons, is a harsh and violent place. With more than 400 volcanoes, it is the solar system’s most geologically active place. These volcanoes send towers of sulphur hundreds of miles upwards, and torrents of black lava scar the moon’s surface. Io has a core of molten iron and mountains that are taller than Everest. Disneyworld it is not.

And it is here, on this terrifying celestial body, where you’ll currently find Brazilian band Jupiterian, on the latest leg of their intergalactic tour. Amps blasting, vocals roaring, this South American four-piece do not care that the poisonous atmosphere destroys their lungs and the lava melts their kit. They’re on a mission. Delivering sludgy death-doom of supernova magnitude, Jupiterian’s debut EP ‘Archaic’ is a relentlessly slow, heavy offering that is as vast and bleak as the changeless visage of space.

From the spine-chilling tones of the opening moments, it is clear that this three-track EP is going to be about immense power. The guitars are a slow muscular rumble, while the growled vocals from singer  ‘V’ are the sound of imminent destruction from underground. And amid the crawling, molten flow, there are a few idiosyncratic twists.

The spacey violins on the title-track (courtesy of Gnaw Their Tongues’ Moires) and the unusual, suspenseful riff that runs through the ten-minute-long third track ‘Currents Of Io’ are examples of Jupiterian at their best, willing and able to go the extra mile to create something new. The band could perhaps extend this attitude in order to bolster one or two of the less compelling sections, where thundering repetition is the order of the day.

Jupiterian are able to mould their ferocious power into well-structured and interesting arrangements as they set off on a domed journey to the most dangerous reaches of the solar system. If you’re travelling with them – and it’s highly recommended that you do – be prepared to face the darkness.

ALBUM REVIEW: Lacrima ‘A Story From Limbo’


‘A Story From Limbo’
Released: September 2014

Polish doom legends Lacrima have been busy on the Eastern European festival scene this year, undoubtedly playing many of the excellent doom tracks that can be be found on this, the band’s fifth release. That’s because ‘A Story From Limbo’ consists of compositions that were first written in Lacrima’s formative years, but which were never recorded in a studio. Now, at last, the rest of the world is able to hear more of what the people of Krakow and the surrounding region have been enjoying for years.

Lacrima were formed in 1996 by singer/guitarist Kuba Morawski, wearer of a rather lovely crimson cape, and owner of a forceful voice that is reminiscent of Tiamat’s Johan Edlund with hints of the mighty Tom G. Warrior in its tone and character. The band took a few years out at the beginning of the millennium, but reformed in 2010, stronger than ever, making them the oldest doom metal unit in their country.

‘A Story From Limbo’ is a celebration of the band’s 18th anniversary, and Morawski has described the thinking behind it as follows: “the songs were like unborn children, forever drifting in limbo.” Which explains the decision to finally record these doom gems, as well as the rationale behind the album’s title and artwork. And while the songs themselves might have been suspended in limbo for almost two decades, that’s not to say they sound dated or derivative. Yes, Lacrima’s heart and soul may be in the classic doom metal sound and ethos of that misty era, but they have moved with the times sufficiently for this album to sound fresh and exciting.

This is more a story of survival, dedication, passion, perseverance and, above all, true quality. From their early days, Lacrima have created great songs and,  in 2014, they sound more accomplished and mature than ever. Imagine that Tiamat had maintained their ‘Clouds’ standards, or that Anathema had created more of ‘Serenades’. Szymon Grabarczyk’s Roland adds something special, adorning the traditional heavy metal staples of dynamic twin guitars, trundling bass and thumping drums with subtly spectacular synths and a sense of grandeur.

It’s pretty ambitious stuff, and takes an unexpected turn late on with the addition of female vocals on ‘Backwards’ and ‘Innocent’, which sound at times like a hybrid of Asia, Epica and My Dying Bride, while always returning to a death-doom core. It proves to be a difficult balance to pull off, but Lacrima’s rediscovered zeal is for experimentation as well as revisiting its hidden past. Elsewhere, the addition of opera vocals into ‘Alar Shadows’ does not quite work, while the track ‘Chalice Of Memories’ lacks developmental flow. But, generally, the songs are deft and immense, forged from skill and wisdom and packed full of great ideas.

Lacrima are working on new material for 2015, and they will hopefully draw further strength from their roots to create more hugely enjoyable doom metal. ‘A Story From Limbo’ is a cultured and composed collection of ancient artefacts that have been dug up and polished until they glisten. This is the sound of classic 1990s doom taken to the next level.

ALBUM REVIEW: Helevorn ‘Compassion Forlorn’


‘Compassion Forlorn’
BadMoonMan Music
(Released: September 2014)

Palma de Mallorca, capital city of the Balearic Islands is a place of sun, sand and sea; a favoured holiday destination of the Spanish royal family and famed for its unusual bronze bins… With the release of Helevorn’s ‘Compassion Forlorn’, it is now clear that Palma is also a place of darkness, pain and haunted melody. Whichever way you look at it, sunshine or shadow, there is beauty to be found. Helevorn’s second album, four years after ‘Forthcoming Displeasures’ is a devastating mix of tear-stained gothic metal and thundering doom.

Helevorn create slow, simple, elegant songs of sorrow and deliver them with style. Sung in English, Josep Brunet’s proud, piercing clean vocals are punctuating with rasping growls, and his superb melodicism  brings the music to life. Brunet’s voice is imbued with a desperate in-your-face sadness that is both endearing and enthralling. Brooding/blasting guitars are blessed with rich, warm tones that hold you in their muscular, suffocating embrace. And the flowery piano parts and enticing synth undertones from Enrique Sierra add depth and inventiveness.

Essentially a slicker, modernised version of 1990s Paradise Lost, a combination of epic doom, gothicana, and mid-tempo Katatonia death-doom, Helevorn are following a well-worn path. They may lack a degree of originality in their core riffs, which often follow a fairly standard pattern, but the band makes up for it with the kind of passion and power that lifts them to a higher echelon.

Songs such as ‘Burden Me’, ‘Looters’ and ‘Delusive Eyes’ are seriously impressive arrangements that showcase the band’s superior songwriting skills. While the album can feel slightly one-paced overall, many of the songs benefit from structures that flow and bend but never get lost. They never fall into the trap of over-extending – instead, roaring from your speakers for five or six minutes each before moving onto the next item on this tapas menu of misery.

Helevorn, formed in 1999, have an ability to be extravagant without self-indulgence, to be emotional without blubbering. The stirring spoken word passages may be off-putting to some, but thankfully their timing and positioning is generally well-judged. The colossal choruses and golden harmonies will make your soul happy, while the female vocals on the final track ‘Els Dies Tranquils’ (Catalan for The Calm Days) provide a thrilling finale.

From the opening song, ‘The Inner Crumble’ (300g of plain flour, 170g of brown sugar, 450g of chopped apples…. No, wait, that’s a different kind of crumble) through 50 minutes of explosive gothic doom, Helevorn have struck gold with ‘Compassion Forlorn’ – an album of great finesse and emotional depth.

REVIEW: Bog Oak ‘A Treatise On Resurrection And The Afterlife’ (EP)

Bog Oak Treatise front cover

‘A Treatise On Resurrection And The Afterlife’
Svart Records
(Released: 28 November 2014)

Sit up, world, and pay attention. Bog Oak are a bit special. This US band plays intelligent blackened doom, their raw, youthful ferocity moulded into something stunningly elegant. This four-track EP is heavy as hell, and it’ll take you to heaven.

The opening few seconds might trick you, very briefly, into a stoner mindset, but then the black metal influence envelops you, the fuzzy sludge sweeps away your feet, and before long you must surrender wholly to the unknown. Bog Oak have a beautiful, original sound. In some ways they are similar to another bunch of misery-magicians from Svart Records’ expanding roster, the bold Kuolemanlaakso, in terms of their direction and scope. But the Californians employ richer tones and subtle melodies that will make you melt.

Julie Seymour’s devilish screamed vocals derive from the lowest torture chambers of the underworld, and are countered with a clean voice that is not stereotypically feminine, delicate or soaring, but rather goose-pimple-inducingly dark, sombre and evocative. There is a forceful attitude spilling from her reddened larynx, at once chilled, laconic, almost grungy, but also bitter, grim and cold.

Seymour’s ingeniously understated clean vocals are what makes Bog Oak stand head and shoulders above the rest. The chorus to ‘Time Drift Of Seasons’ will make you burst into tears of delight, while ‘A Sea Without Shore’ (where the screaming takes a break) is truly one of the finest doom metal songs of the year. Original, fascinating, tender, enthralling, surprising, gorgeous, heart-breaking, unique…

It’s not solely about Seymour’s charisma though, and the music is an overwhelming ride too. Three minutes into the song ‘The Resurrection Of Animals’, for example, Bog Oak launch into one of the heaviest chunks of metal heard around these parts for a while. Their slowly twisting, gently thundering riffs are like a lethal injection, creeping into your bloodstream almost unnoticed and then – bam! There’s nothing you can do but die happy.

Lyrically ‘A Treatise On Resurrection And The Afterlife’ embraces the occult, and Bog Oak list a mind-boggling array of obscure influences. Safe to say that Mr Crowley is mentioned, though, so those of us unfamiliar with the metaphysics of Mulla Sadra (the shame!) at least know which ballpark we’re in.

Exploring the dark side is hardly a rarity in this shadowy corner of the music industry, but few bands do so with such grace. One of the best releases of 2014 – a must-have for everyone in the world.

ALBUM REVIEW: Below ‘Across The Dark River’


‘Across The Dark River’
Metal Blade (2014)


This is so close to being great. At times Sweden’s Below deliver gloriously epic and adventurous doom metal, but at others ‘Across The Dark River’ sounds over-earnest and over-produced. The production was handled by Andy LaRocque (of King Diamond fame) but rather than creating a dense and foreboding sound appropriate the band’s classic heavy metal songwriting and darkly epic atmosphere, everything is too bright and clean; the album clamours constantly for your attention.

At some point, it seems, any thought of subtlety was abandoned. Not that epic doom metal necessarily needs to worry about subtlety, but surely a degree of craftsmanship must temper the showmanship. Many of the riffs on this album are comparable with classic Candlemass but they are not handled with sufficient deftness to mould them into the memorable doom classics that they sometimes hint at. Maybe that level of maturity will come with time.

Extravagant vocal melodies are prominent throughout, and again these vary between soaring into the black sky like aural fireworks, and alternatively pushing wince-inducing needles into your brain. Zeb’s vocal style is always going to divide opinion, but it seems that he might be trying too hard to be the King instead of the Messiah.

There is some great stuff on show here, but it might’ve been so much more. With their theatrical touches, satisfyingly traditional/fantastical artwork and mesmerising solos, Metal Blade have on their hands a band that could become one of the genre’s greats, but only if they apply a more delicate touch to their delivery.

REVIEW: Northern Crown ‘In The Hands Of The Betrayer’ (EP)


‘In The Hands Of The Betrayer’
Released: 14 October 2014

South Florida’s Northern Crown play classic, epic doom metal with a few modern twists, bombastic production and a sharp, metallic attitude. While the best song on this five-track EP is – inevitably – the cover of Candlemass’s classic ‘Crystal Ball’, there are moments within the original material where you feel you might be listening to one of that great Swedish band’s successors in the genre.

The opening, title track of ‘In The Hands Of The Betrayer’ does not showcase Northern Crown at their finest. It suffers from an awkward chorus and ungainly vocal phrasing, seeming unconvinced of its own merits. But then the US band picks up its game with ‘A Perfectly Realized Torment’, which is a compelling doom dirge featuring sweeping organs and slow, regal riffs. A low-key epic that falls short of inspiring but is very enjoyable.

Following the Candlemass cover (which largely stays true to the original but for a few tweaks) and a two-minute atmospheric interlude, the EP finally cuts to the chase with the most convincing composition, ‘To Thee I Give An Orchid’. This ten-minute monster is simple, patient and rewarding. While elsewhere Frank Serafine’s vocals flutter like a blindfolded butterfly, occasionally landing on a flower, here they are concise, controlled and direct, proving that power does not need to be self-indulgent.

Singing of alienation and despair, the vocals can sometimes a distraction: they’re too loud, too brash. In that sense, this is reminiscent of the recent release from Sweden’s Below (‘Across The Dark River’), where the music is often excellent but almost becomes secondary. Serafine is inspired by the likes of Ronnie James Dio and Rob Halford, and there is a certain classic metal snarl to his tone that shines through when the vocal patterns and melodies are more subtly crafted.

The EP drifts to a gentle piano-accompanied finale, and then what remains are echoes of greatness unfulfilled. Northern Crown certainly have the armoury to excel, and they will surely build on this encouraging but flawed release as they look for more consistent quality. The work of drummer Josh Brown and Roberto Celentano on keyboards is elegant and effective, while guest appearances from members of psych metal band Orbweaver bring stacks of quality. Main songwriter and guitarist Zachary Randall is clearly bubbling with ideas and now the challenge is to mould them into tight, unfaltering arrangements.

ALBUM REVIEW: Epitaph ‘Crawling Out Of The Crypt’


‘Crawling Out Of The Crypt’
High Roller Records
(Released: 31 October 2014)

One of the lost treasures of the late 1980s / early 1990s Italian ‘spaghetti doom’ movement, Epitaph released three demos back in the day, but never managed a full-length offering. Spin forward 30 years, and here it is, finally! Epitaph turn back the clock with this album, a re-working of dusty old tracks with plenty of modern touches to ensure that it doesn’t sound like a dated vintage novelty.

Opening song ‘Beyond The Mirror’ is a seriously impressive doom metal classic, like a thundering, epic version of early Trouble. Here, the twisting vocals are at their most controlled, the melodies stunning, the chorus unforgettable.

Ultimately, Epitaph do not quite reach those same lofty heights during the eight songs that follow the explosive opener. But there are still plenty of examples of genuine excellence. ‘Battle Of Inside’ is reminiscent of the equally overlooked Averon, or perhaps Chapter VI-era Candlemass, being a tight and solidly-built composition of traditional doom with gentle, understated synthesizer backing.

The keyboards return to great effect in the track ‘Daughters Of Lot’, creating an electric current of excitement each time they appear (and thankfully they re-appear numerous times throughout ‘Crawling Ot Of The Crypt’).

Equal parts energy and enterprise, the song ‘Sacred And Prophane’ is not far behind in terms of enjoyment, although Emiliano Cioffi’s vocals can get rather thin or erratic – a complaint that arises on occasion throughout the album. Also featured is the voice of Gianni Nepi (from fellow Italians Dark Quarterer) which add an extra level of authentic 80s vibe, although again his tones are not to everyone’s tastes.

Initially, the rockier-sounding ‘Loser One’ does not quite fit in, but, as it grows and blossoms, the song demonstrates the band’s adventurous songwriting abilities and willingness to push themselves. Similarly, the rippling bass line that runs through ‘Confuse The Light’ heralds a minor departure in style, but Epitaph have the guile to make it work without losing sight of their doomed core.

Guitarist Lorenzo Loatelli, a relative newcomer who arrived in 2012, adds a dynamic boost to the riffs, delivering enough crunch and heaviness to do justice to music that emanates from an era when metal was metal.

Recorded at the trusty Opal Arts Studio in Verona at the end of 2013, the first master of ‘Crawling Out Of The Crypt’ did not satisfy the band’s critical ear, so they turned to High Roller stalwart Patrick W. Engel, and the results speak for themselves.

A blast from the past they may be, but Epitaph are not exactly crawling from their coffins. More like striding with renewed vigor, while pushing a shopping trolley full of miserable classics. They will surely be warmly welcomed back by dooms fans the world over.

ALBUM REVIEW: Latitude Egress ‘To Take Up The Cross’

latitude egress

‘To Take Up The Cross’
Art Of Propaganda
(Released: 27 Oct 2014)

There are strong black undercurrents to the work of this German one-man project – and that’s despite the fact that mainman Niklas (AKA Nerrath) seems to have decided that suicide is not cool and has moved away from the kind of depressive black metal his previous outfit was associated with. While these songs were initially intended to be released under Niklas’s former Licht Erlischt monicker, ultimately this can be classified as a debut album. It’s as if he has deliberately cast aside any links with self-pity or self-loathing and taken life – and all the manifold pains that it brings – by the horns.

The result is a deeply personal and oddly life-affirming collection of slow, unhurried, plaintive tracks. The guitar tones are ugly, acidic and distorted, the sound of a lingering fury twisting into dissonant melancholy. They crash upon the rocks like huge dark waves, but do not flounder against the swirling currents, remaining buoyant enough to gasp for air. Big riffs are avoided in favour of atmosphere and emotion.

Niklas’s vocals vary between a kind of rough-edged hollering that wildly express sensations from elation to abject despair, and a more predominant melodic, clean style that is controlled and understated. The voice is imbued with too much energy to be called mournful, but it’s certainly not cheerful! Lyrically, this seems to be an exploration of pain, displacement, confusion, faith and redemption. In unison, it becomes an expansive, airy sound, raw and stripped bare, but glorious, as if emanating from a cathedral of its own making.

‘To Take Up The Cross’ is packed with numerous curious ideas and unusual angles, packaged together as a well-paced collection of musings. There are hints of Cross Vault, Pylon or Warning, but Latitude Egress perhaps currently lack the finesse of those bands. On occasion, the songs can drift along without fully capturing the imagination. A lack of differentiation between tracks reduces the adventure, although the seventh and final song, ‘To March Along The Desolate Peripheries Of Mind’ increases the tempo and launches into a Bathory/Hammerheart-style stomp, epic keyboards and all. It’s a stirring finale to an album that follows one man’s struggle to find meaning.

ALBUM REVIEW: Narrow House ‘Thanathonaut’


Bad Moon Man (2014)

The experimental doom of Ukraine’s Narrow House is visceral and searing, cutting open your skull and exposing your brain to the ice-cold Kiev air. It’s released by Bad Moon Man, a sub-label of Solitude Productions, so quality comes guaranteed.

Featuring live saxophone, cello and double bass – in addition to some more traditional doom weaponry, the kind that requires massive amplifiers – ‘Thanathonaut’ is a unique and intriguing offering from former funeral doom exponents who have decided to explore more uplifting styles and a more grandiose delivery.

Despite the unusual instrumentation, this is no Gerry Rafferty’s ‘Baker Street’. Here, the sax provides a rich, romantic dexterity, while the deep, rumbling cello and double bass underpin the arrangements with broiling vigor.

There are a number of beautiful passages, such as on the song ‘Doom Over Valiria’, while ‘Furious Thoughts Of Tranquility’ is a swirling sax-doom extravaganza. There are rare glimpses of the band’s funeral roots, while songs such as the excellent ‘The Midwife To Sorrows’ combines traditional doom with slow power metal.

But, ironically, the band’s commitment to experimentation sometimes holds back the songs’ freedom of expression. The music can feel simplified in order to accommodate the unusual instrumental additions, such as on ‘The Last Retreat’. On occasions, particularly during the album’s second half, the prominent saxophone does not feel fully or smoothly integrated into the music – and that can be a distraction which interrupts the flow and development of the compositions.

Other tracks, again during the album’s latter portion, rely on lengthy spoken word samples to deliver their message (which in most cases is about atomic bombs and Hiroshima). The song ‘Crushing The Old Empire’, for example, features a breathtaking riff that is pushed to the background by the repeated samples.

The total running time of this ten-song album is a mere 40 minutes, and that could easily double if all of the songs were truly allowed to flourish. Narrow House deploy their alternately gentle and resonant vocals only sparingly, and perhaps it is in that absence where some of the songs feel unfulfilled.

Narrow House deserve a huge amount of credit for a creative and serious approach to their music, boldly combining styles and sounds that you might not expect to hear together. On ‘Thanathonaut’, they do not always make it work fluently, but there are enough great songs and signs of promise to suggest that it is not a forlorn hope.