At the risk of repeating myself, here’s a great story: A couple of weeks ago, I was in the front row at a Night Demon show in San Francisco. The guy standing next to me was a big Night Demon fan who was seeing the band live for the first time, so we started talking. Not only was he super-enthusiastic about the gig, but he was also an interesting, good dude. At some point, he reached into his backpack and offered me a copy of his band’s CD. Although skeptical (I’ve been handed a lot of crappy CDs at gigs over the years), I accepted, mostly to be polite. Well, it’s a good thing my mother raised me to have good manners, because it turns out this CD was none other than Cloven Altar’s ‘Demon of the Night,’ a brand-new Stormspell Records release that I had been eagerly anticipating ever since the band’s killer 3-song taster EP last year. The guy I was talking to was Dustin Umberger, vocalist/mastermind/primary songwriter of Cloven Altar. Who’d a thunk it?
Cloven Altar is a two-man collaboration between the California-based Umberger and Swedish wunderkind / genius multi-instrumentalist and songsmith extraordinaire Cederick Forsberg (Rocka Rollas, Blazon Stone, Breitenhold, Mortyr, Lector, etc.). Now, Ced’s name is pretty much a guarantee of quality in classic / traditional / power metal circles. The guy’s a killer guitarist with a boundless reservoir of awesome melodies in the vein of classic Gamma Ray, Blind Guardian and Running Wild. Although Ced needed a new project like he needed a hole in his head, he was sufficiently intrigued by Dustin’s material that he signed on to Cloven Altar, playing all instruments and contributing some touch-up arrangements to the tunes, while also mixing, editing and mastering the whole thing in Sweden. While some of the riffing patterns and melodies are pure Forsberg, Cloven Altar differs from Ced’s other projects, sounding more British than German and opting for ‘80s trad metal rather than Euro power metal. Umberger’s voice also sets Cloven Altar apart because he doesn’t sound like a typical clean metal crooner of today. He told me he’s from a punk background (and, until quite recently, fronted a punk band called Grim Deeds). Now, I’m no punk expert, but I can hear it in his clear, expressive vocals, which sound to my untrained ear not a million miles away from the likes of Bad Religion. (If that’s a terrible comparison, sorry, but my knowledge of punk music in general is extremely limited.)
What we have in ‘Demon of the Night’ is a fun, easily-digested album of simple catchy songs brimming with old-fashioned metal spirit. Arrangements are straightforward and to-the-point, songs are instantly hummable, and riffs are of the tried-and-true variety with that extra bit of Ced magic to put them over the top. The net result is an 8-song, 31-minute affair that reprises two tracks from the EP (“Forsaken Path” and the amazing “Prince of Hell,” in re-recorded and slightly embellished versions here). It also features a metalized cover version of an obscure 80s pop song called “Break the Ice,” originally performed by John Farnham on the soundtrack to the 1986 BMX /skateboarding film Rad. Umberger has told me that melodies, hooks and catchiness are prized qualities in his musical tastes, so it makes sense that he would seek out a hooky 80s pop tune to cover on a Cloven Altar record. Expect more of this kind of cross-pollination from him in the future. There are no lesser tracks, but to me “Beneath the Setting Sun” encapsulates everything great about Cloven Altar. Umberger’s emotional vocals soar over a simple-but-awesome Forsberg galloping riff, with the chorus swooping in to steal your heart away. This isn’t an album that will challenge you, make you think or expand your musical horizons. No, ‘Demon of the Night’ is an album that will make you feel good, put a smile on your face, and just maybe remind you why you fell in love with this amazing genre of music in the first place.
Look, I know there are cynics out there who have been quick to dismiss Cloven Altar as a bandwagon-jumping cash-grab by a disillusioned hardcore punk guy looking to hop the true metal trend. I strong disagree, not only because of the conversations I’ve had with Umberger (who is totally upfront about his punk lineage and isn’t trying to hide anything) but because of the obvious sincerity oozing from the music. I mean, none of us know what really lurks in the hearts of men, but my ears are usually pretty good at ferreting out an impostor. ‘Demon of the Night’ is so carefully crafted, so emotionally charged and so painstakingly delivered in absolute purity that I can only conclude it is music made by people who love heavy metal music for people who love heavy metal music. So check your cynicism at the door and enjoy the ride, won’t you? I know I will …
~ Review by Kit Ekman ~