One of my most eagerly anticipated albums of 2017 has been the second full-length album of Cloven Altar. There are a number of reasons for this. For starters, the band’s debut, Demon of the Night, was among my favorite releases of 2015. The band features insanely talented Swedish guitarist Cederick Forsberg (Rocka Rollas, Blazon Stone, Breitenhold, The Storyteller, etc.) on all instruments. If you’ve followed his career, you know that (almost) everything Ced touches turns to gold. Even better, my good friend Dustin Umberger (whom I first met at a Night Demon gig in San Francisco a couple of years ago) writes the material and does all the vocals, with Ced contributing extra spice to the arrangements and performances. What makes Cloven Altar special is the particular combination of influences they bring to the table. They’re right in my musical wheelhouse, yet they manage not to sound exactly like anybody else, which is awfully rare in these times of oversaturation and rampant imitation. The band’s sound is rooted in the classic old-school metal template of bands like Night Demon and High Spirits, but Ced’s penchant for high-octane European power metal (think early Gamma Ray, early Blind Guardian, early Running Wild) shines through loud and clear. Undoubtedly, Cloven Altar’s “X” factor is Umberger’s punk background, which adds a unique flavor to the vocal melodies, the timbre of his voice, and the songwriting as well. It’s a unique blend and for my tastes it just works.
A few weeks ago, Dustin was kind enough to send me the advance files of Cloven Altar’s new Enter the Night album, prior to the expected Stormspell Records release date of late May / early June 2017. After many spins, I am pleased to report without reservation or caveat that Enter the Night is a superb effort from top to bottom. More than half of the album consists of balls-out, high-intensity speed burners, several of which (“Die for Metal,” “Burning Steel,” and “Enter the Night”) are nothing short of magical, just expertly crafted, ridiculously catchy, faster-than-hell assaults on the senses. “Die for Metal,” in particular, should be an anthem for underground heavy metal hordes around the world, both for its lyrical content and for its overall ass-kicking spirit, boasting an infectious singalong chorus that will haunt your mind for days. On those rare occasions when Cloven Altar decelerate slightly and drop into something approaching a mid-tempo groove, the result is quite effective not only because of the sense of dynamics and flow it gives the record, but also because songs like “Streets of Rage” or “Blood Runs High” are just flat-out cool. There’s a tune here called “Theories of Specules.” I had no idea what Dustin was singing about here, so I enlisted the aid of Google, where I learned that Specules was a dark wizard in an animated TV series called Korgoth of Barbaria that was dropped in 2006 before production even began. So there’s an obscure reference for you. Throughout the album, Forsberg’s playing is excellent. I love the little touches he adds with the guitar, like the little run cropping up in “In Worlds Unknown” that reminds me of early Helloween, the killer harmony solo in “Burning Steel,” or the glorious bit in the bridge of “Heart of the Beast” that frankly puts the song over the top, bathed in true metal glory. The guy knows exactly what to add to make these songs really pop, and to be as good as they can possibly be.
Look, Cloven Altar aren’t trying to tickle your fancy with cerebral, sophisticated stuff. Each of the nine songs clocks in at less than four minutes (with two being below the three-minute mark). They’re simple, they’re straight to the point, and they’re amazing. Compared to the debut, Cloven Altar sound more confident, cohesive and polished this time. To my ears, both the songwriting and the performances are better on Enter the Night than they were on the excellent Night of the Demon. It’s a particularly impressive accomplishment when one pauses to recognize that Dustin and Ced live across the globe from each other and have never met in person (much less played together in the same room). They’ve collaborated brilliantly here, and the results have not only met but exceeded my lofty expectations. This is a “top 10” release for me, hands down. That said, this stew of influences might not work for everybody. If a slight punk inflection in the vocals or a Euro power metal touch bothers you or makes you think the band isn’t sufficiently “true” or kvlt, then Cloven Altar may not be for you. But for the rest of you, who put your trust in well-written, well-played, high-speed, catchy heavy metal from the heart with great melodies and a vibe that stands out from the millions of other bands out there, Enter the Night merits a very strong and enthusiastic recommendation, indeed. I love this record.
Before I close the review, I’m gonna get all Martin Luther King, Jr. on you for a minute. You see, I have a dream, a dream that one day Dustin and Ced will take the stage together at a festival somewhere and bring these songs to life. Oh, I know Cloven Altar is a “project” and not really a “real band” at this point. But these songs are soooo good. To witness them being performed live one day would be a dream come true. So guys, festival promoters, friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears, won’t you? Maybe it could happen. Even if the dream never materializes, Enter the Night is a damn fine consolation prize.
~ Review by Kit Ekman ~