With a name like Carriage, you should have a pretty good idea what’s in store. After all, the word Carriage immediately conjures up imagery of the cover artwork from Abigail, and puts one in mind of Miriam Natias and Jonathan La Fey riding up the alley in the rain to a mansion in darkness. Song titles like “Primal Ritual,” “Drink the Blood,” and “Gypsy Woman” confirm that initial impression. Lest there be any lingering doubt, the CD traycard proudly proclaims, “Occult Heavy Metal Darkness.” So prepare yourself for a full, unadulterated dose of King Diamond-inspired spooky traditional heavy metal. Interestingly, Carriage features singer Robbie Rainey and guitarist Michael Martin, both of speed/thrash act Possessor, who released a damn good album called City Built with Skulls back in 2012. Carriage represents a pretty significant stylistic detour for these guys, but you’d never know it from listening to this debut album entitled Visions, freshly released via the ever-reliable Stormspell Records.
Truth be told, Visions is an entertaining and rewarding listen. Guitarists Martin and River Ashberry have compiled a slew of sturdy, bright, ‘80s-inspired riffs that explain the band bio’s references to the likes of Grim Reaper and Savatage (Sirens / Dungeons Are Calling era). Vocalist Rainey acquits himself well, convincingly channeling the spirit of Kim Bendix Petersen on both the falsetto screams and the vitally important midrange stuff. Lyrically, the material is suitably ghoulish, touching on such macabre topics as seeking revenge against sadistic nuns, spilling blood in the night, invading coffins by the light of the full moon, and so on. And the songs are largely convincing, particularly on tracks like “Medusa’s Stare,” which rides catchy melodies and haunting themes, before a brilliant extended instrumental break beginning at the 2:20 mark (punctuated by a few Oliva-style yelps) elevates the song to gold-plated status. Other standouts include the stellar “Primal Ritual,” which creates a creepy vibe between fits of galloping riffage; the energetic, straightahead “Hunting the Witch;” and “Drink the Blood,” which begins with a gently plucked intro that segues into a slow, grinding, sinister riff before picking up a full head of steam in a spine-tingling dual lead section. There’s even a nifty, effective instrumental entitled “The Owl” smack dab in the middle of the album, allowing each musician an opportunity to shine.
The Virginia-based quintet has done well here at capturing the classic King Diamond style, with an injection of their own identity in the form of those ‘80s trad metal riffs. If there’s a drawback to Visions, it’s that the Mercyful Fate/King Diamond space has been fairly exhaustively mined of late, with the likes of Attic, Them, Portrait, Trial, and In Solitude, among others, all having done a similar sort of thing in recent years. Carriage might be a bit late to this particular party. Is it necessary to have another band in this style? Well, no, probably not. Those who think this Abigail-type sound is played out, or who crave originality in their metal, should probably look elsewhere for their musical fix. That said, if (like me) your touchstone for new music is quality rather than innovation, then Visions is an album of many charms that comes easily recommended. Also, if you have the opportunity, be sure to catch Carriage live, as their stage show includes all manner of friendly evil fun, with everything from smoldering pulpits to corpses to full-on blood drinking. And who doesn’t like that sort of thing, right?
~ Review by Kit Ekman ~
STORMZONE Lucifer’s Factory
(Metal Nation 2018)
As regular visitors to True Metal Lives know, we take our mission quite seriously. We’re not here to feed the hype machine, curry favor with the big labels, or chase the latest trends; rather, our objective is to shine a light on the finest underground true metal, wherever we may find it. With so many bands and so many releases, sometimes even the most worthy albums can fall through the cracks. Case in point: Lucifer’s Factory by Stormzone. The album’s been out for a couple of months already, and has garnered a number of glowing reviews, but it deserves so much more. So let’s dive in for a closer look, shall we?
Hailing from Belfast, Northern Ireland, Stormzone have compiled a consistently impressive discography of six full-length albums spanning the last 15 years. Although they proudly fly the banner for classic heavy metal in the time-honored British tradition, Stormzone have avoided painting themselves into a corner by either aping Maiden/Priest or confining themselves to the tropes of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal. There’s a remarkable amount of diversity and versatility in Stormzone’s music, even as it all remains solidly under the umbrella of traditional-minded heavy metal. Absolutely there are elements of giants like Maiden, Priest and Saxon in their sound, and more than a few nods to the timeless traditions of the NWOBHM, but Stormzone also offer speedy tracks, full-blown anthems, moodier pounding Iced Earth sorts of passages, occasional forays into Celtic melodies, and a remarkable knack for balancing shades of darkness and light to form a cohesive whole. Production values on Lucifer’s Factory are modern and powerful, showcasing the crunching rhythm section, the stellar twin guitars, and the top-notch vocals of John “Harv” Harbinson. Make no mistake: these are skilled players and talented writers, and Lucifer’s Factory oozes class and professionalism out of every pore. A comparison to some of Blaze Bayley’s more accomplished solo releases would not be entirely off-base.
At first glance, it might appear that Lucifer’s Factory is a daunting listen; after all, not many bands can execute a 14-song, 70-minute running time (counting the uncredited hidden track on the CD edition) without descending into realms of boredom, repetition and filler. Not so here. Stormzone’s songwriting and performances are such that the lengthy succession of 5-minute tracks never becomes a chore or dissolves into tedium. Part of the reason lies in the outstanding performances, but it helps immensely that the songs are consistently engaging and memorable, and manage to avoid feeling redundant because of the diversity described above. For me, peppier songs like “Albhartach” and the near-thrash onslaught of “The Heaven You Despise” immediately catch my attention, but the anthems such as “We Are Strong” and “In for the Kill” are not to be undersold either. Although the entire album is strong, my favorite cut is “Cushy Glen,” a bona fide song-of-the-year candidate with guitar melodies to die for, a ridiculously addictive chorus, and entertaining lyrics about a nasty chap with a penchant for robbing and murdering the drunks as they wander out of the tavern by the light of the moon, until one day fate catches up with him and the drunks celebrate forevermore. The band wisely made a video for “Cushy Glen,” so if this review piques your interest in the slightest, then by all means check it out to see what Stormzone are all about.
In a just world, a long-running, high-quality act like Stormzone would not be flying below the radar for so many metal devotees. Fortunately, it’s not too late. Harv Harbinson and his merry mates are still out there, firing on all cylinders. And Lucifer’s Factory might just be the finest, most complete album they’ve ever done. Given a chance, this one could appeal not only to the true metal crowd, but also to the power metallers (at least, those who worship bands like Iced Earth and Primal Fear) and really anyone who appreciates classy, well-crafted traditional metal.
~ Review by Kit Ekman ~
EVIL-LYN Disciple of Steel
(No Remorse 2018)
Pop culture and I are mostly strangers. Case in point: A couple of months ago, I posted the Evil-Lyn song “Tengel” on my Facebook wall. Much to my puzzlement, the ensuing comments were dominated by cartoon images. I had no idea what they were talking about. Totally missed the lineage of the band’s name, which (if you live under a rock like me) is taken from a character on the Masters of the Universe, Skelator’s mistress from what I gather. So there you go. In this context, Evil-Lyn is a Finnish true metal band that has been slugging it out for more than a decade. At long last, their debut album sees the light of day via the prestigious No Remorse Records label in Greece. (Evil-Lyn previously released a fine EP entitled The Night of Delusions in 2012, although guitarist Anssi Salonen is the only holdover from the lineup credited on the EP.)
Let’s cut to the chase: Disciple of Steel is easily recommended for fans of traditional metal, the New Wave of British Heavy Metal and even power metal. Evil-Lyn’s music is catchy, well-written, anthemic, and powered by the glorious riffs and twin-guitar melodies of Salonen and Lasse Tiainen. You’ll be pumping your fist and singing along with the likes of the blistering “Survive the Night,” the midtempo “Disciple of Steel” and “Tengel” (whose main riff feels a bit like Night Demon’s “Full Speed Ahead,” and that’s a good thing) in no time flat. Perhaps my favorite song on the record is “Hellfire,” which features a mighty chorus, “Burn! Down! Everything! Death by fire!” There’s also a terrific Maiden-style breakdown leading into and carrying you through the solo section, culminating in a brilliant guitar harmony passage. Soul-stirring stuff. I dare you to listen to this song without raising your fist and belting out the gang-shouted lines with the band. It can’t be done. Throughout the proceedings, vocalist Lasse Heinonen is quite a likeable fellow, sporting a semi-gruff yet tuneful bellow that reminds me very much of Xentrix’s Chris Astley sometimes. Evil-Lyn don’t try to reinvent the wheel, but they don’t sound like a carbon copy of anybody else either. They just play rollicking classic metal that ticks all the right boxes and makes you feel happy to be alive. Wisely, Disciple of Steel does not overstay its welcome either, clocking in at a lean 8 songs and 40 minutes to maximize the impact and minimize the filler.
Look, I know it’s a crowded marketplace out there. True metal bands have sprouted up everywhere. It remains to be seen whether Evil-Lyn can distinguish and separate themselves from the hordes. Time will tell. For now, though, Disciple of Steel is a well-crafted, well-executed slab of pure heavy metal goodness that is guaranteed to appeal to a wide cross-section of readers of this site. Give it a listen. You won’t regret it.
~ Review by Kit Ekman ~
NIGHT DEMON Live Darkness
(SPV/Century Media/Shadow Kingdom 2018)
In the span of a few short years, Night Demon have taken the underground by storm. With a sound channeling the best of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal, a treasure trove of killer songs, a tireless blue-collar work ethic, and a reputation for incendiary live performances, the trio from Ventura, California have been methodically conquering the world one stage at a time. Having released a self-titled EP (2013) and two full-length albums (2015’s Curse of the Damned and 2017’s Darkness Remains), Night Demon decided the timing was right to release a double live album (or triple live, for those who prefer vinyl formats). And why not? They have hundreds of gigs under their belts, and many of the songs (especially the older tracks) have evolved, and I daresay improved, in the crucible of the live arena. Besides, as any dyed-in-the-wool Night Demon banger will tell you, the band shines the brightest onstage. Not to take anything away from the superb studio albums, but you can’t possibly grasp the ferocity, intensity and sheer fricking genius of Night Demon until you’ve experienced them live. So why not try to capture that true essence of the band with a live album?
Recorded on a chilly December night before a packed house at the Beachland Ballroom in their adopted home of Cleveland, Ohio, Live Darkness includes searing, sweaty renditions of every original Night Demon track from their studio body of work save three (“Livin’ Dangerous,” “Killer” and “Run for Your Life” are the winning answers if you’re ever asked on Jeopardy), plus a crushing cover of Midnight’s “Evil Like a Knife,” featuring a guest appearance from Athenar himself. Your humble scribe was on hand to witness the occasion, and I can tell you that Live Darkness accurately documents what happened that night (except that final encore “Wasted Years” was axed from the tracklisting). The band was on fire, tearing breathlessly through their 24-song setlist, each song faster and louder than the last, with a rabid audience of true fanatics reveling in every moment. That energy, that passion and that fire all fairly burst out of the speakers when listening to Live Darkness. All three musicians were as locked-in as I’ve ever seen them that night: Dusty Squires methodically pounding his drums into oblivion, Armand John Anthony effortlessly conjuring fiery magic on his fretboard, and Jarvis Leatherby singing his lungs out while bringing the thunder on bass. When you play Live Darkness, you can feel it, I swear you can.
It’s not easy to get a live album right. Think about it: We’ve all heard dozens of basically superfluous, contract-filler live albums where the songs basically sound the same as the studio versions, with a little crowd noise mixed in and maybe a few extraneous solo or singalong parts to pad the running time and bore the listener. Not so with Live Darkness. There’s no bullshit, no wasted time, no self-indulgent speeches or solo spots or endless boring audience participation parts. On this album, as they do every single night, Night Demon hit the stage, kick your ass, and leave you breathless and exhausted, wondering just what the hell happened. In recent interviews, Leatherby has said that the band’s objective with Live Darkness was to give their fans definitive versions of their songs. And that’s exactly what they’ve done. Without exception, the live renditions of the Night Demon cuts on Live Darkness outshine their already magnificent studio counterparts. Especially the EP and Curse of the Damned tracks crackle with newfound life and vibrancy, nearly all of them screaming past at faster tempos and positively breathing fire as they careen down the rails. (It’s not just tempos either. Truth be told, and I think the band wouldn’t disagree, all of the players have gotten better since the EP and Curse were recorded, both vocally and musically, so they now do justice to these songs in a way they perhaps couldn’t before.) But even the Darkness Remains tunes benefit from the go-for-the-jugular treatment on Live Darkness, replacing the thin layer of studio sheen with balls-to-the-wall sweat and blood. All told, it’s akin to the difference between the early Raven studio recordings and Live at the Inferno, or the difference between the early Judas Priest studio recordings and Unleashed in the East, or (if you’ll indulge me for a moment) early Blind Guardian versus Tokyo Tales. That’s what a great live album does: It transforms and elevates the material into something above and beyond what you previously knew it to be. And it’s exactly what Live Darkness does. From now until forever, when I hear “Ritual” or “The Howling Man” or “Save Me Now” or “Black Widow,” I’m going to crave the live version over and above the studio version. That’s the version I hear in my head. It’s definitive. And now I have it preserved on tape (or CD or vinyl or 8-track or whatever) until the end of time. What an amazing gift Night Demon have bestowed on their loyal fanbase.
Look, at the end of the day, there’s a very short list of mandatory live albums: Live After Death, Alive in Athens, Live at the Inferno, Alive!/, Alive II, Unleashed in the East, No Sleep ‘Till Hammersmith, and a handful of others. Add Live Darkness to that short list. Carve it in stone forevermore. It belongs there. It’s essential. If you’re already a Night Demon fan, then do yourself a favor and queue up to buy this sucker on its worldwide release date of August 10, 2018. (Pro tip: Get the vinyl, not only for the sound, but for the endlessly entertaining photo collages on each record sleeve. Images of many of the band’s fans and friends are included, so you just might find yourself too.) And if, for whatever reason, you’ve not encountered Night Demon before, Live Darkness is the ideal introduction point to what the boys from Ventura are all about. The sky’s the limit. World domination is at hand. And Live Darkness is the soundtrack.
~ Review by Kit Ekman ~
(Loma Vista Recordings, 2018)
“Don't you forget about dying. Don't you forget about your friend Death. Don't you forget that you will die.” Oh, don't worry, Ghost. No listeners to “Pro Memoria” are likely to forget their own mortality anytime soon. This holds true for a couple of reasons: 1.) These rather morbid lyrics are repeated several times, and 2). The vocal melodies of this chorus are more infectious than the bubonic plague circa 1347 (how's that for some creepy morbidity, eh?) What's more, the telltale metal lyrical themes of darkness and evil are – somehow both tongue-in-cheek and un-ironically – ubiquitous in Ghost's songs.
The thing is, the total package of this proverbial musical specter is greater than the sum of its parts. Ghost's music – which effectively toes the line between traditional metal, ‘70s hard rock, progressive rock, and yes, bona fide pop – simply wouldn't sound as biting or creepy without the pensive pleas to Lucifer or eulogies to dying lovers; the fact that singer/songwriter/Ghost supreme overlord Tobias Forge (currently aka Cardinal Copia) sings these scary words so cleanly and beautifully only adds to their psychological impact. But the band's music would not be nearly so impactful without that unique blend of power, melody, mysticism, and dynamism. On Prequelle, Ghost's fourth album, Forge and co. have created another compelling gem.
Now, it is by no means a secret that Ghost loving and hating is very much in vogue. Either they're the greatest gift to metal-kind or the most overrated pile of musical milquetoast imaginable, depending on who you ask. While I don't subscribe to either extreme viewpoint, the sheer quality of Ghost's songwriting places me much closer to the former camp than the latter. Perhaps it shouldn't have helped the band's momentum and consistency when all former band members/Nameless Ghouls quit prior to the recording of Prequelle. But Forge has, ahem, forged bravely onward with a fresh set of Ghouls and an inspiring, instant-classic collection of tunes.
Any longtime Ghost fans will not be surprised at the limited amount of speed and aggression on Prequelle. Sure, heavier moments are not abandoned altogether; rather, the metallic elements are used more like a spice to complement the melodic sensibility of these songs. The album's heavier nature is mostly front-loaded: “Rats,” the debut single and first proper full-length track, is a driving, galloping rocker that deftly conjures Priest, Deep Purple, and B.O.C. The sheer catchiness of the vocal melodies creates an eerie discordance when combined with the lyrics: “Them filthy rodents are coming for your souls/never to let go/Rats.” Next up, “Faith" delivers a doomy vibe with a groove-based, Sabbathy main riff; here Cardinal Copia beautifully scours organized religion: “The Luddites shun the diabolical/a fecal trail across the land/although it…/stinks, feels, and looks identical/a pack of fools can take the stand.” Later, Ghost bust out the bluesy hard-rock riffs on the mid-paced ode to the Black Death, “Witch Image.” More importantly, such sinister and morbid lyrics have rarely sounded so sublime: “While you sleep in earthly delight/someone's flesh is rotting tonight/like no other to you…/what you've done you cannot undo.”
Forge's ability to intertwine stylistic diversity and a concrete musical vision really sets Ghost apart from the pack. He's not afraid, for instance, to write slow songs in major keys that feature the most gorgeous choruses imaginable (“See the Light"); “Dance Macabre” rides power chords atop a danceable pop beat and super-saccharine chorus. I want to “bewitch you all night,” too, darling. The aforementioned “Pro Memoria,” which showcases a lushly-orchestrated arrangement, may be one of the most brilliantly-written and memorable songs of recent years. As for closing piano-based ballad, “Life Eternal,” a more touching and melodic eulogy to a soon-to-be-lost loved one can scarcely be imagined.
Again, Prequelle won't win many awards from the more-metal-than-thou elitists. Yes, perhaps some greater variety in tempos and an increased aggression level could have upped the excitement factor here. But man, these songs are so damn good it hardly matters: “Can you hear me longing for you — forever?”
--Review by Jonathan Kollnot
--Tracklisting: 1.) Ashes 2.) Rats 3.) Faith 4.) See the Light 5.) Miasma 6.) Dance Macabre 7.) Pro Memoria 8.)Witch Image 9.) Helvetesfönster 10.) Life Eternal
SUBSTRATUM Permission to Rock
This album came out a couple of months ago already, but I’m just now getting around to writing the review for this most worthy effort. Substratum are a traditional heavy metal band from Seattle, Washington, who released their self-titled debut album via Swords& Chains Records at the end of 2016. A three-song demo cassette entitled Rough Rider followed in early 2017. After some delays, Substratum’s second album, Permission to Rock, finally saw the light of day in CD format this spring via Divebomb Records. (Interestingly, the band took advantage of the time lag to write and record six additional songs, released concurrently with Permission to Rock in the form of a strong EP entitled Stratosphere, so keep an eye out for that one too.) Substratum are an easy band to pull for. Here’s why: They believe in building community and supporting the scene. They routinely show up at festivals where they aren’t even playing, not to promote themselves but to hang out, rock out and support their friends. They contribute artwork/graphic design to bands and festivals. They even organized their own successful festival, the NW Metal Fest, in Seattle this spring. They don’t just talk the talk, they walk the walk. We need more unselfish, giving bands like Substratum in our little corner of the heavy metal universe, for sure.
In light of the above, I’m especially pleased to report Permission to Rock is a smasher of an album. Substratum remain very much the same band who recorded the 2016 debut; indeed, they still play classic U.S. heavy metal, featuring the compelling vocals of Amy Lee Carlson and the terrific guitar riffs of Jonny Haynes and Max Nazaryan. But Substratum have unquestionably taken a step forward on Permission to Rock. The songwriting is tighter, stronger and more consistently memorable. They’ve trimmed away the fat and focused on delivering a batch of killer tracks, infused with perhaps a bit more rock’n’roll spirit this time around (see “Zero to Infinity,” for example). Songs like “Rough Rider,” “To Nothing, To None” and “Exxtremer (Permission to Rock)” have been staples of Substratum’s live set for some time. As a result, they are battle-tested and primed to strike for maximum impact. “Cemetery of State” is a knockout and just might be my favorite on the album. It is a longer tune, weighing in at 7 minutes, but it feels much shorter, sporting a magnificent chorus and a couple of nifty tempo changes. Another highlight is the three-minute closer, “Up on Wheels,” whose ripping main riff and breathless arrangement take no prisoners and deliver an exclamation point to conclude the proceedings with a flourish. Carlson sings her ass off on this record, summoning grit and power galore, and cementing her place as one of the finest vocalists (male or female) in the new wave of American heavy metal. Guitarists Haynes and Nazaryan supply a cache of killer riffs and solos, but also showcase an unexpected dimension with a pair of delicate, classy acoustic interludes, “Vulpeca” and “Triangulum,” that lend a sense of dynamics to the listening experience. Nicely done.
Don’t listen to Tipper Gore and the PMRC. They lost, so you don’t need permission to rock. But if you’re a self-respecting metalhead who loves the classic style delivered with skill and reverence, then you definitely need Permission to Rock. Substratum stand proudly in the top tier of new traditional metal bands, even though many haven’t discovered them yet. Check them out and spread the word. This album deserves to be heard, and the band is absolutely worthy of your support. I’ll look forward to seeing them at the next underground U.S. metal fest I attend. Hopefully Substratum will be on the bill, but I know I can count on them being there either way.
~ Review by Kit Ekman ~
True Metal Lives
The Voice Of The Underground