Shadow Kingdom Records
May 25th, 2018
1. Dragon's Breath
2. The Coming Of A King
3. Lancelot Of The Lake
4. Forbidden Love
5. Enemy Within
6. The Grail Quest
7. A Dream To Some, A Nightmare To Others
8. The Death Of Arthur
\m/ 8.5 \m/
VOLCANA Goddess of Flame
The name Volcana may not ring a bell with you, but its pedigree likely will. This relatively new band (formed in 2016) features members best known for their work in Vindicator (vocalist/guitarist Vic Stown) and Mantic Ritual (lead guitarist Jeff Potts). Given that lineage, you would be forgiven for assuming that Volcana are some kind of warp-speed neck-snapping thrash band. You would also be way off base, because Volcana really have nothing to do with thrash metal. The label’s description on the CD traycard – “void ripping dust devil metal” – isn’t particularly illuminating either. My best stab at classifying their sound would be to say that Volcana play a muscular brand of doom-infused traditional heavy metal with stoner tendencies. Think of it like mid-period Grand Magus getting into a violent automobile collision with Pepper-fronted Corrosion of Conformity circa Deliverance / Wiseblood, then having Dehumanizer-era Black Sabbath arrive in an ambulance to perform triage.
At first blush, it might seem paradoxical that a couple of die-hard thrash guys are qualified to do an album of groovy, doomy heavy metal. But it’s not as much of a stretch as you might think. For this type of music, just as in thrash, the riffage is king. You either live by the riff or you die by the riff. Fortunately, Stown and Potts are total riff merchant lords. From a guitar-playing standpoint, Goddess of Flame is a joy to listen to, as Stown and Potts dish out one titanic, musclebound riff after another, expertly balancing lumbering heaviness, locked-in groove, deft melody and sparkling harmony in perfect equilibrium. Potts also plays in Gygax, and that band’s unabashed Thin Lizzy worship bleeds into his work in Volcana to some extent, although it’s not nearly as overt here. It also helps, no doubt, that the one-man rhythm section of Glen Monturi (who is credited with both bass and drums) has spent several years in a stoner/doom project called Mountain Kings, in which he plays all instruments, so he is well-versed in the relevant genre conventions. And it’s not all snail’s pace, lugubrious vibes on Goddess of Flame either. Volcana aren’t afraid to slam their foot on the gas pedal at times, like in the burst of speed at the outset of “Drone,” the exhilarating staccato-riffing finish to “We Stand” and the ripping closer “Witch Blade.” These tempo variations are important, not only for the dynamics of the record but also to jolt the listener out of the hypnotic quality that some of the tunes have.
That said, I confess that I was curious to hear how Vic Stown would adapt his vocals to the Volcana aesthetic. Sure enough, the venomous, acrid snarl that is Stown’s calling card in Vindicator is largely absent here, supplanted by a gruff shout that nonetheless manages to be expressive and tuneful. The vocals actually fit the music extremely well. Lyrically too, Stown has cast aside the overtly cynical political commentary of Vindicator in favor of more arcane, obscure themes with a discernable anti-authoritarian bent (see “Drone,” featuring lines like “Forever damned to serve the crown / Another drone to serve”).
There are no weak links, no skippable moments on Goddess of Flame. The 11-track, 45-minute running time consists of eight proper tracks, a killer instrumental (“Smoke and Terrors”) and a mysterious, thematically-linked musical intro and outro (“The Unwelcome” and “Iniquitous Shores,” respectively) that somehow reminded me (in terms of execution at least) of the musical pieces bookending COC’s Blind. The memorability factor is high, and the disc’s highlights include “Scolopendra (Come Forward),” “Merchant Lord,” and the aforementioned “We Stand.” It is easy to imagine Goddess of Flame appealing to a broad range of metalheads, without being pigeonholed into a tiny subsegment of the market. Maybe it’s not so easy to fit them in a tiny stylistic box, but Volcana have released an album that successfully fuses together elements of trad, doom and stoner, with catchy songs, stellar guitarwork, and a cool, rockin’ attitude that makes Goddess of Flame an easy, satisfying listen at any time in any circumstance. Check it out.
~ Review by Kit Ekman ~
SORCERER The Crowning of the Fire King
(Metal Blade 2017)
Honestly, Sorcerer are one of the best stories in heavy metal in the last few years. The Swedish epic doom merchants recorded two legendary demos in the late 1980s and early 1990s that surfaced in 1995 in the form of a compilation CD, the very first release on John Perez’s Brainticket label. (By the way, John Perez knows a thing or two about epic doom metal, being the founder/guitarist/mastermind of the almighty Solitude Aeturnus.) After recording these demos (which are still revered by doom worshipers worldwide), Sorcerer disappeared for nearly two decades, with bassist Johnny Hagel moving on to Tiamat and vocalist Anders Engberg becoming a bit of a journeyman, working with bands like Lion’s Share, Twilight and Therion. Then in 2010, Hagel and Engberg reformed Sorcerer with new musicians, including guitarists Kristian Niemann (ex-Therion) and shortly thereafter, Peter Hallgren. Improbably, this newly configured version of Sorcerer not only rekindled the magic of those classic demos, but somehow managed to refine and hone their craft to an even higher level. Indeed, since reforming, the Stockholm-based band has reeled off a winning streak of truly epic proportions, releasing a jaw-dropping album entitled In the Shadow of the Inverted Cross in 2015 and an equally worthy EP called Black a few months later. Now Metal Blade Records has unveiled Sorcerer’s new album, The Crowning of the Fire King.
Perhaps the best way to describe The Crowning of the Fire King is simply this: It is a dream come true for devotees of the melodic, epic, grandiose doom style pioneered by the likes of Candlemass and Solitude Aeturnus. The album faithfully honors the hallmarks of the genre, from the monolithic, dirge-like riffs of Niemann and Hallgren to the solemn, hypnotic tempos to the sprawling song structures (four tracks exceed the eight-minute mark) to foreboding lyrics about unheard prayers, drifting into nothingness, darkness devouring our souls, and unbearable sorrow. Of course, for the epic doom style to be executed effectively, world-class vocals are a must. Well, Anders Engberg is a truly elite singer, boasting a spine-tingling combination of power, range, emotion and control, without sounding like a clone of anyone. I’ve long been a fan of Engberg’s work, but my goodness he has outdone himself on The Crowning of the Fire King with a positively captivating performance that cements his status as one of the finest vocalists in the world. And the songwriting on this record is uniformly excellent. At 10 songs and 70 minutes, The Crowning of the Fire King does require a certain degree of patience and persistence; however, the listener’s diligence is rewarded with a collection of elegant, magnificent songs whose strengths are revealed slowly, inexorably with each successive spin. It’s a testament to Sorcerer’s ridiculously high quality level of the songwriting that I seem to have a new favorite song each time I listen to the album. If I could only pick one track, though, I’d vote for “Unbearable Sorrow,” which positively nails the epic doom sound, feel and emotion better than anything I’ve heard in ages. I swear, this song pierces my heart every time I hear it. Simply soul-stirring stuff.
Listen, I know some have complained that The Crowning of the Fire King sticks too much to the same slow pace, without those sporadic speed bursts that other epic doom bands have used to such devastating effect. It’s true: Sorcerer lock into those dirge tempos and remain there. This is not music to put on the stereo to get fired up for a Saturday night house party. This is music made for a certain mood, a certain feeling, a certain spirit. When you are all alone and you feel the relentless darkness creeping over your soul, when the sun is obscured by blankets of impenetrable gray clouds, when your heart feels laden with sorrow and despair, and when you want music that is heavy and beautiful and glorious, but captures exactly the depth of emotion you feel, The Crowning of the Fire King is there. Sorcerer have delivered a simply stunning album that should forever guarantee their place as one of the most magnificent epic doom bands that ever lived. There are a number of very good doom bands walking in the hallowed footsteps of Candlemass and Solitude Aeturnus today, but Sorcerer are at the head of the pack, not so much following others as executing their own vision of what epic doom should be. Let’s not mince words: The Crowning of the Fire King is the doom album of the year. And it is one of the best albums of any stripe to see the light of day in 2017. One last note: Be sure and check out the European import digibook version of the album, which includes two extra tracks (“Disciples of the Dark” and “Bringer of Misery”) that are every bit as worthy as the eight songs on the regular US jewel case edition. Not sure why Metal Blade chose to stiff the U.S. market on those other two tunes, but they are well worth tracking down.
~ Review by Kit Ekman ~
ARGUS From Fields of Fire
(Cruz Del Sur 2017)
Pittsburgh’s Argus have been one of the true gems of American metal underground for more than a decade. No, they don’t jump on the bandwagon of whatever the latest trend or fashion might be. They don’t snag headlines as a “buzz” band. And their preferred form of musical expression – a sort of hybrid of leaden doom and twin-guitar traditional metal – is definitely not in vogue. But over the course of their first three albums, the Argus name has become synonymous with quality, creative, emotional, bold, genuine, uncompromising metal. Now the time has come for Argus to unleash their fourth album, From Fields of Fire, via Cruz del Sur Records. There have been two significant lineup changes. Longtime guitarist Erik Johnson (a co-founder of the band in 2005) and bassist Andy Ramage (also of Lady Beast) have departed, and are replaced here by Dave Watson (ex-Icarus Witch) on guitar and Justin Campbell on bass. Watson in particular is a natural fit, given his behind-the-scenes involvement (recording/mixing and adding some guitars) with 2013’s Beyond the Martyrs.
Do not fear: Notwithstanding the lineup shuffle, the band you hear on From Fields of Fire is definitely the Argus you already know and love. The key ingredients remain intact, from Brian Balich’s hellishly tortured but tuneful bellows to the introspective and melancholy lyrics to the magical harmony guitar sections to the foundation-shattering epic doom rhythms to the knack for superb melody, From Fields of Fire is classic Argus all the way. What does that mean? Take a generous portion of classic Black Sabbath, add a killer dose of guitar harmonies like Thin Lizzy on downers, then season with a dash of Iron Maiden and a pinch of While Heaven Wept. I’ve read multiple reviews commenting that Argus have largely forsaken the doom aspect of their sound on From Fields of Fire, but I disagree. First of all, Argus were never a straight-up doom band in the first place. Second, listen to “No Right to Grieve” and tell me that’s not the purest of soul-wrenching doom piercing serenity’s heart. Third, the poetic and descriptive lyrics (cementing Balich’s place as one of the finest lyricists in metal today) paint vivid pictures of dark despair. But to the point that Argus aren’t strictly doom, that’s of course accurate. This record has many uptempo moments, like the gallop of “You Are the Curse” or “As a Thousand Thieves” (whose main riff ever so slightly echoes Maiden’s “Powerslave”).
If anything’s really different on From Fields of Fire, it’s that Argus sounds more musical than before. You can hear it on the bookending intro “Into the Fields of Fire” and outro “From the Fields of Fire,” all acoustic guitars and bass effects from new members Watson and Campbell. The musicality I am referencing is nowhere more evident than on the 11-minute “Infinite Lives, Infinite Doors,” which has to be the album’s crowning achievement. The song features an adventuresome, extended instrumental section effortlessly weaving a forlorn, beautiful acoustic guitar passage into the tune, before a bludgeoning doom section wrecks your neck and breaks your heart, then the magical twin guitars come in to take you home to a glorious conclusion as Balich intones, “Far beyond the end / there is no end.” That instrumental break is so good it gives me chills every time I hear it, just brilliantly crafted and executed. Wow! I’m also going to take a moment to acknowledge “Hour of Longing,” which hits really close to home for me. When Balich sings “Your wizened words would anchor me / In losing you I lost part of my soul,” I think of my dear grandmother, who passed away this spring. The lyrics of the song talk about how this departed loved one is not really gone, and that in the stillness of your hour of longing you can her voice giving you the strength to fight your fears. I’ll confess, I’ve teared up more than once listening to the song, which once again features a truly inspired, well-placed acoustic break. The ability to make that emotional connection with the listener is what makes Argus a truly special band.
Given the chance, I think From Fields of Fire is the kind of album that could appeal to a broad swath of traditional-minded metalheads. Its sound harkens back to the foundations of the genre, but Argus have spun those influences into a unique, creative style all their own. This album may well be their finest hour, and it deserves to be heard. What are you waiting for? Remember, boldly stride the doomed …
~ Review by Kit Ekman ~
CANDLEMASS Death Thy Lover
(Napalm Records, 2016)
The gods of doom are alive. Sure, they occasionally may be seen vacationing in Bermuda, or hibernating with the mightiest of the metal grizzlies of Alaska. But they are never silenced, and they certainly aren’t dead. Melodic, classical-based doom may never be the highest trending sub-genre of metal, but it unmistakably is one of the most resilient. It is the proverbial Energizer Bunny of metal, albeit a much slower and more melancholy one. In recent years, a few newer bands such as Sorcerer and Pallbearer have been flying the doom flag, the latter act integrating more progressive soundscapes into the mix while retaining the epic feel. If one widens their net to include stoner types of doomy bands, then the listening options appear unlimited, if also decidedly more simplistic and upbeat.
Still, when hardcore doom metal fans consider their options these days, the pickings appear slim. Classic doom bands such as Pentagram, Cirith Ungol, Solitude Aeturnus, and Candlemass all hover amidst the ether of partial activity to utter, barren inactivity. The status of the latter of these acts, the almighty “Epicus” Swedish masters themselves, seems especially shrouded in mystery. Back in 2012, Candlemass concluded a strong three-album run with Solitude Aeturnus’ Robert Lowe manning the vocal duties. With Lowe essentially fired due to live-performance issues, longtime collaborator Mats Levén (ex-Malmsteen, Therion, At Vance) took over as singer for the band’s remaining live dates. Despite rumors that the band was done as a recording entity, Candlemass surprisingly returned last year with one powerful, if tantalizingly short, ep, Death Thy Lover.
f Death Thy Lover turns out to be the band’s swansong, then longtime Candlemass fans can claim some solace in the quality of the four tunes presented here. Founding bassist/main songwriter Leif Edling has trimmed any fat and made these songs all killer and no filler; there’s just plenty of sweeping, epic, glorious doom. All the old-school ‘Mass trademarks are featured aplenty: dynamic riffs ranging from a crunchy, mid-tempo groove to glacial melancholy; tasty, neo-classical shredding from lead axeman Lars Johansson; and some of the most emotive vocal melodies this side of “Samarithan.” Levén shines with his clean and passionate delivery, while also avoiding the overly-wide vibrato that makes Messiah Marcolin (iconic ‘Mass vocalist) an acquired taste for some. Sonically, David Castillo’s production job sounds appropriately beefy without verging into modern, over-compressed territory.
As for the songs themselves, there’s a lot to like, if nothing quite as emotionally moving as “Mourner’s Lament or “Under the Oak.” The opening-and title-track opens with swirling guitar melodies before launching into a rather speedy and crunchy main riff that recalls something from the Tony Martin era of Sabbath. Levén’s vocal melodies are appropriately catchy but not super dismal. Mats “Mappe” Bjorkman’s clean guitar arpeggios in the interlude section set a brief doomy mood before the reprise of the epic chorus: “Death thy lover/in the hollow there’s no other/he’s your only friend/ and he’s watching over you.” This one’s a nice banger, for sure. Next up, “Sleeping Giant” conjures up the sludgy deliberate groove of Masters-era Sabbath, representing nicely the crushing, neck-wrecking aspect of Candlemass. Things crawl to a tortoise-esque, if not quite slothlike, pace for the chorus riff. The harmonized guitar melodies in the middle section embody classic ‘Mass to the max. So far, so good.
Based upon a simple, dirge of a riff and brooding, minor arpeggios, “Sinister and Sweet” delivers a solid dose of the classical ‘Mass doom we all know and love. The guitar work here is perfectly dynamic and effective on this epic track. Closing out the (not-so) extended-play proceedings, “The Goose” at last provides the aforementioned slothlike pace and crushing, palm-muted groove devotees so crave. Featuring Johansson’s hummable leads, this magnificent, monolithic, musical water fowl requires no vocals and few frills to get its sorrowful point across.
‘Tis still the time for ‘Mass, no matter the religious affiliation or day of the week.
--Review by Jonathan Kollnot
DOOMOCRACY Visions & Creatures of Imagination
(Steel Gallery 2017)
Candlemass and Solitude Aeturnus hold a special place in my heart. But these are difficult times to be a devotee of epic doom metal. The mighty Candlemass still tours (albeit without Leif Edling, with a keyboard player, and with Mats Leven on vocals), but appears to be largely defunct as a recording entity. As for Solitude Aeturnus, I fear we have permanently lost the Texas masters of doom to the sands of time. It’s all very depressing. I know many of you feel the same way, so I write these words to bring you all great tidings of doom. There is a band that has dedicated itself to keeping the spirit of those hallowed artists alive. The band is Doomocracy. They hail from Greece, the birthplace of democracy. In 2014, they released an excellent debut album entitled The End is Written. And they have now returned with their second album, Visions & Creatures of Imagination, on Steel Gallery Records.
If epic doom is your thing, then you will find much to enjoy about Visions & Creatures of Imagination. Guitarists Angelos Tzanis and Harry Dokos churn out one towering, ominous riff of sadness after another, sometimes backed by faint keyboards that effectively augment the foreboding atmosphere without sapping the guitars of their leaden weight and power. The rhythm section of bassist Manolis Schizakis and drummer Minas Vasilakis lumbers like an elephant, each footfall making the ground shake like thunder, holding the tempos firmly in check. And singer Michael Stavrakakis turns in a jaw-dropping performance, his clean, clear, commanding voice dripping with sorrow, melancholy and doom at every turn. There are places where his resemblance to Robert Lowe is eerie, but he definitely retains his own character and vibe throughout. Just listen to the chorus of “One with Pain,” which includes the lines, “You’ll hear my screams / But you won’t see me cry / You’ll see me laugh / Yet I will no longer live.” The mesmerizing vocal sends shivers down my spine. Stirring stuff, indeed.
Make no mistake: Visions& Creatures of Imagination is an eight-song, 51-minute journey into the depths of sorrow. You’ll confront the well of souls at the gallows end, all the while haunting the obscure as destiny falls to ruin. Doomocracy travel a well-marked path of epic doom, and they do not deviate or diverge from it in the slightest. That said, I do take issue with the reviews classifying Visions& Creatures of Imagination as nothing more than a faceless copy of Candlemass and Solitude Aeturnus. Contrary to that sentiment, Doomocracy do have their own spin on this classic sound, particularly in terms of their sometimes exotic melodies, which feel quintessentially Greek to my untrained ear. From listening to this album, even if I had no idea where they were from, I would guess that Doomocracy were a Greek band because that is how many of the melodies strike me. It’s hard to describe, and maybe I’m totally off-base, but it’s what I hear, and it’s what distinguishes Doomocracy from the masters.
Look, I know there are other bands out there proudly carrying the torch once held by Candlemass and Solitude Aeturnus. By way of example, for my money, Sorcerer are one of the best metal bands of any subgenre (not just doom) today. The new Below album is excellent. But my point is that high-quality epic doom acts are a relatively scarce commodity in the metal underground in 2017. Doomocracy fit that bill splendidly. Those who enjoy the style are strongly encouraged to check out Visions & Creatures of Imagination, a well-crafted doom album that captures the essence of this mystical sound with passion and skill.
~ Review by Kit Ekman ~
BONEHAWK Albino Rhino
(Ripple Music, 2014)
Is there really a better to way to discover new bands than with the live experience? Sure, in these 20-teen days we have every online avenue to hear new music, and with the thousands of great (and not-so-great) bands putting themselves out there, this constant deluge of musical choices can feel overwhelming. It can get to the point in which jaded, crusty heavy rockers like myself can feel content sitting at home and listening to the same old Priest, Saxon, and Thin Lizzy records over and over again. Thankfully, there is a fool-proof cure for these apathetic doldrums, and that is actually going out to shows and exposing yourself to new bands in their natural and LOUD environment.
That scenario led me directly to Bonehawk. Back in February, the 1970s-inspired four-piece heavy rock/metal band from Kalamazoo, Mich., was playing at Mulligan’s Pub in Grand Rapids with other local stalwarts Old Black and Knives Are Quiet. I had heard some heady buzz about Bonehawk prior to the show, but the band, who were playing last on the bill, blew me straight out of the stratosphere. These guys play bludgeoning, crushingly heavy rock/metal in the vein of early Sabbath, yet they also employ sublime, Thin Lizzy-esque guitar harmonies in nearly equal measure. But as brutal as some of their fuzzed-out, down-tuned riffs get, their grooves are as dynamic and bluesy as they are hypnotic. Plus, the vocals are clean and tuneful in a solid mid-range; a welcome change of pace from the hordes of screaming-and-yelling acts proliferating everywhere. Some would call this stoner rock or stoner doom, certainly, but I prefer to dub Bonehawk as classic, melodic metal that is as old-school as possible – ‘70s vintage.
I’ve seen Bonehawk perform twice more this year, and recently I finally got the opportunity to pick up their 2014 debut full-length, Albino Rhino. This unusual title evokes the sorts of eccentric, psychedelic imagery usually associated with the stoner heavy-rock scene. One could argue, though, that the highly-original title simply harkens back to the glorious era of ‘70s metal, when sub-genre labels were non-existent and individual creativity was unfettered. As with the title and artwork, the music contained on Albino Rhino works to capture the retro-yet-unique experience of Bonehawk’s live show. For the most part, the band has succeeded, and the album should help bring this fantastic band much greater exposure on the national scene.
The core of Bonehawk’s music is anchored by the muscular-sounding guitar tandem of Chad Houts and Matt Helt, whose fuzzed-out Les Pauls recall the sludgy tone of the first several Sabbath albums. Their fluid and tasty leads are fairly technical, but they are also melodic and drenched in bluesy soul (think of Cactus, just a little bit). The frequent guitar harmonies, likewise, are memorable and uplifting, especially for fellow Thin Lizzy fanatics. Albino Rhino also benefits from varied tempos, and unpredictable and engaging riffs; Chris Voss provides the rock-solid, and often, hypnotic and hallucinatory basslines. Remarkably, not only does Helt sing all the lead vocals, but he also recorded the drums. Their roster has since been completed by Jay Rylander on the (rhino) skins.
As for the song-writing itself, that’s where Albino Rhino truly shines. The album’s ten tracks are dynamic and infectious, rife with delicious hooks and irresistible melodies. "Argenia," the mid-tempo opener, deftly alternates between heavy, Sabbath-esque riffing and harmonized leads that could have been culled straight off Lizzy’s Live and Dangerous. Then comes "Sexy Beast," a nasty, sludgy piece of groovy doom that never lets its heaviness limit its harmonic capability. The bouncy groove and fuzz-driven leads of "Hot Mary" remind one again of Cactus (yes, a second Cactus reference on a metal site!), and perhaps even some Jimi Hendrix or Lenny Kravitz. As good as these songs are, Bonehawk brings out the heavy artillery (and cowbell) for the driving and exhilarating "Tonight We Ride." "Warchild" features more bruising riffs that seamlessly blend Sabbath and Lizzy, but Voss' hypnotic bassline and Helt’s supple vocals steal the show. "Desert Run" is one of Albino Rhino’s heaviest songs and my favorite; the contrast between the mellow clean chords in the verses and crushing blast of HEAVY in the chorus make this a live gem. The chipper blues of "Nomad," along with the deliberate and jammy title instrumental are other clear highlights.
If one could offer some constructive criticism for Bonehawk, it would be the album’s sound. While the production job is not bad, by any means, it does lack the awe-inspiring power of the band’s live shows. The drums are too far behind in the mix, and Helt’s vocal lines would be more effective further up front. I imagine the band was going for a rawer, more retro-sounding production, but perhaps they could slightly raise the overall volume levels in the mastering of their next release.
That said, Albino Rhino is a remarkable debut album for the local West Michigan heroes. Fans of stoner doom and any of the ‘70s giants would be remiss not to give Bonehawk a long listen.
--Review by Jonathan Kollnot
Today's New Band Of The Day focuses on a doom metal band in my own hometown of Milwaukee in Asatta! Their brand new CD just released and the CD Release Party is in just four short days! The band brings forth a bit of ambience and drone to their sludgy doomy mix and feature a five piece set up with keyboards, bringing forth a very rich and heavy sound! Worth checking out!!
Psychedelic stoner metal from Austin, TX and featuring a pair of former members of the vastly underrated Scorpion Child, Duel have a throwback 70s vibe and cite such influences as the James Gang, Thin Lizzy, BOC, Humble Pie and naturally Sabbath. Tom Frank, Shaun Avants, JD Shadowz and Jeff Henson round out this fearsome foursome and hot on the heels of the incredible debut release Fears Of The Dead, they are poised to make an impact on the scene!
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