Cold Steel Dawn – An Emperor’s Return

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A new year, a new world of riffs to discover. Some ancient, others contemporary, but all overlooked and ignored by critics and the press alike. This article seeks to address that, giving you six melodic metal offerings to start 2019 off with the sound of raw power.

Spiral Wheel
Resurrection for Revenge
Metal Warning, 2018

It’s been said before that in the age of the internet, filesharing, youtube, and facebook that the underground or perhaps more accurately truly obscure music no longer exists. I’m not especially inclined to disagree but somehow, bands like this still fly under the radar. With connections to longtime legends such as Abigail, Sabbat, Metalucifer, Exciter, Barbatos, and Anatomia among others it’s truly puzzling that even in the OLD SCHOOL HEAVY METAL crowd that this album was all but forgotten. This collaboration of Canadian, Japanese, and Australian musicians has proclaimed straight from the day the facebook page went up that they play nothing more and nothing less than balls-to-the-wall pounding heavy metal and everything from the imposing cover art to the first power chord ramming into your ear drums makes this unambiguously clear. Yet in spite of the familiarity of their sound, somehow they avoid simply becoming another face in the New Wave Of Traditional Heavy Metal Crowd. How exactly? The short answer is them simply having an experience and edge to their sound your usual Enforcers, Skull Fists, and Strykers simply don’t have. However that does sell them short a bit.

Spiral Wheel play a style of classic heavy metal that first and foremost is very riffy. Now that doesn’t sound unique (it’s not by any means) but honestly, it’s fairly rare in a time of flimsy sugar-sweet third rate hooks comprising the arsenal of most of their contemporaries. But what kind of riffy are we talking about specifically you ask? Spiral Wheel’s sound inevitably is going to be compared to one particular band from the prior paragraph, namely Metalucifer. While that band tended to be a bit more stand-up-and-shout-y, with lots of tupa-tupa-kick-snare patterns and stripped-down semi rockin’ guitar work, Spiral Wheel differ with a wider variety of tempos and phrasings with lead guitar while their more aggressive moments bring to mind an early pre-power metal German influence in the vein of Warlock and Accept. It’s simple at heart but a good deal of songwriting variety and Damian of Starlight Ritual’s powerful, raspy wails give each song an invigoratingly anthemic character that pushes it choruses hard without over-selling them all the while backed up by a steady onslaught of punchy, quasi speed metal riffing. Even the refrains before each chorus show a great deal of care, with every musician knowing how to tone it down just enough to make the cathartic rush of ensuing power all the more memorable. If you prefer your classic heavy metal to be less pyrotechnics and swashbuckling and more sheer hard hitting attitude and fistpump inducing rhythmic muscle, grab this album now.

Fatima Hill
Valhalla
Independent, 1997

In spite of its small size and relative lack of a larger presence in metal’s public eye, both classic heavy metal and modern-day power metal fans have a special respect for Japanese bands whether they’re old classics like Saber Tiger, Genocide, and Sabbat, or newer acts such as Galneryus, Light Bringer, and Lovebites. It’s not often that these two groups intertwine; other than how Saber Tiger later became a modern progpower band and X Japan once being the country’s equivalent to Helloween, fusions are rare. In the 90’s this little-known band crafted a mysterious and even occult themed sort of highly idiosyncratic progressive power metal and becoming a mystifying name to collectors of forgotten oddities. Like many of their more modern brethren keyboards take a prominent role in their sound but tonally they use an antiquated 70’s prog/hard rock aproach reminiscent of a darker take on the approach of bands like Rainbow, Uriah Heep, and Deep Purple. They’re primarily a guitar driven band regardless yet not in line with Omen or Liege Lord style USPM. Highly melodic leads are frequently woven into or serve as the riffs yet they’re not too streamlined, frequently throwing in thicker lower register playing, and taking a semi baroque neoclassical approach that’s in line with the mysterious gothic atmosphere pervading the album. It’s even notable on their soloing, fairly flashy but often reflecting that foreboding occult vibe with its minor key extravagance. The most interesting instrument is Yuko Hirose’s voice, taking an unusually deep tone with a slightly nasally enunciation, even a slight soul feel with her surprising expertise at straining certain phrases for a strong degree of expression. It’s definitely an acquired taste but given how off-kilter their sound is, I can’t see it working with a more conventional Michael Kiske or Rob Halford type.

The songwriting isn’t any less atypical, featuring lots of odd rising-falling verse melodies punctuated by creepy keyboard harmonies and sometimes broken up with jangly open sounding chords. This pales in comparison to the three 10+ minute epic lengths that end the album. “The Sun of Thorns” and “Valhalla/The Song For Beatrice Part II” both open up cleanly before turning into looming apocalyptic stomps, but before any idea of a comfortable verse-chorus structure can settle in, we’re met instead with these lengthy prog interludes. Get ready for Yuko to really show her full range and lots of dream-like keyboard playing, even throwing in a bluesy section at one point that when juxtaposed immediately with these arching classical guitar lines immediately afterwards, only makes these portions more weirdly charming in how surreal they are. While both songs end with triumphant metallic attacks, the 12 minute closer, “Oriel Window”, is a ballad albeit draped in the same mystical air as the rest of the album. Where the other songs are ambiguous, this is earnest and soulful with even the ESL lyrics adding to that sense of vulnerable yet unafraid sense of longing. Halfway in, an incredibly long solo, nearly five minutes in length, climaxes the album in away that on paper sounds disgustingly self indulgent yet with the buildup for it and just how explosively it does the job, it’s hard not to be in awe even as the dreaded fadeout ending quietly ushers the song away. Its appeal is definitely fairly niche and it’s not for everyone from *either* previously described group but those interested in exploring a sort of power metal that simultaneously sounds more oldschool than the genre’s first practitioners in a weirdly 70’s way yet even more magical than its 90’s flag bearers should grab this little-known weirdo of a debut.

Also, what the fuck is going on with the dude on the right on the album cover?

Expiatoria
Crimson Evil Eyes
Independent, 2018

Active since 1987, this demo is the Italian epic heavy/doom band’s first entry on bandcamp and in spite of their age, they hold up impressively well. Like many of their countrymen such as Death SS, Hands of Orlac, and Black Hole, there’s a haunting and horror movie esque mood that pervades these three songs but they differ in having a sound that’s less like a foreboding voice guiding you through a smoky catacomb and more of a reanimated vampiric ghoul chasing you through forgotten catacombs and cathedrals. Big meaty riffs come first and foremost, taking the crushing existential weight of doom metal and carrying them with heavy metal’s vigour, resulting in a sound comparable to classic Solitude Aeturnus and Messiah Marcolin era Candlemass at their faster moments but with prominent melodies and floaty choruses, revealing respectably tight musicianship and an eye for semi Mercyful Fate/King Diamond esque macabre intent, partially audible in the hollow-sounding vocals, odd instances of more uplifting melodies crushed by eerier ones, and even some moments of gurgling and shrieking vocals. “Nails” even almost tricks you into thinking it’s a death/doom track and while this decidedly more modern touch will make them hit and miss with many, it rests on an incredibly tight foundation of doom that isn’t afraid to speed it up and classic heavy packing a weightiness often lacking today. Their lead guitar in particular I found the most memorable, frequently worked into their verses and jutting out at various intersections, and there’s all kinds of neat licks for days in just three tracks. Highly recommended for those who like the weirder graveyard dwelling contingent of heavy metal.

Der Kaiser
La Griffe de l’Empire
Devil’s Records, 1985

Today France is seen as being on the cutting edge of highbrow (and occasionally extraordinarily racist) extreme metal. However their 80’s contributions are frequently overlooked with ADX, Sortilege, High Power, Slaughter, Voodoo Child, Blaspheme, and others being pretty much known only to hardcore oldschool bangers. While their name was German, Der Kaiser’s sound had little to do with Walls of Jericho or Terminal Earth and instead, was closer to a direct continuation of the original NWOBHM sound crossed with elements of the first post-Queensryche progressive metal. Their guitar work is upper register and lead focused enough to be comparable to certain earlier power metal acts and combined with the aggressive bass presence earlier Iron Maiden comparisons are obvious. However Der Kaiser are far more aggressive and even more lush in terms of their harmonies, using them less as strategic ear candy and keeping a near consistent level of showmanship combined with occasional sudden structural detours that throw catchy curveballs to vary songwriting. “Vision De Cendres” weaves jogging bass riffs over sparse guitar chords suddenly contrasted by jutting interjections of syncopated melody before going off on a wildly extravagant digression culminating in a fiery solo but even better, turns the militarized cadence of its drumming into an irresistibly headbang syncopated refrain. “Maitre De L’Univers” shows their bass work leading the way through a slow and mounting opening into a blitzing rush to exhilarating heights of acrobatic fretboard magic, refusing to break into repeated hook and even using a clean guitar break to lead into a shred wizard tradeoff that comprises the song’s end. In other words, the French took an English idea and honestly, outdid most of that nation’s originators. A hot take for sure, but grab the album if you want to experience the best the country has offered for classic metal.

Void of Silence
The Sky Over
Avantgarde Music, 2018

A lot of metal is described as “epic” to varying levels of accuracy but Void of Silence’s return after an eight-year absence I’d simply describe as “immense”. This is less high fantasy swords and sorcery pulpy heroism and more of an all encompassing, all destroying sense of existential dread carried on by grand pillars of ambient synths and resonating riffs each one a ringing death knell for the human species. Now some of you might remember Brooke Johnson’s uh, interesting singing from The Grave of Civilization which was a notable change from the legendary voice of Primordial’s Alan A. Averill on 2004’s Human Antithesis. Luca Soi’s time on the microphone is their finest since then, a resonant semi-operatic baritenor who knows how to strain every note, stretching and bending them with a remarkably poignant if at times slightly struggling sense of tragedy and gloom. He cuts through the dense layers of almost symphonic background synths and tidal wave like streams of riffing, dwelling in yet not blending into the oceanic textures that surround him.

Their sound is marked down as “funeral doom/dark ambient” on Metal Archives as of the writing of this feature and that roughly describes their sound. However the way the songs gradually warp and morph through multiple heavily layered sections of moribund riffing bracing lofty almost orchestral sounding arrangements doesn’t quite sound like what the term implies. In a way it’s “progressive” less in the schlocky showboating sense and more in terms of just how particularly composed their music is; the combo of multi-part structures with swelling film-score-meets-Tangerine-Dream style waves of electronics within the desolate spaces of doom results in a sound with a great deal more variety in harmony and composition than is the norm for this style. Granted, at times it can make even the most bombastic moments of Nightwish and Rhapsody resemble tiny ants by comparison with its absurdly colossal scope so people with an allergy to keyboards might want to steer clear of this titan of a doom release. It can be an incredibly exhausting album to listen to but being there for each swelling crescendo and arching melody grasping towards the sky is an experience best described as cinematic.

Timelord
Regeneration
Shrapnel Records, 2007

The union of thrash and power metal is as far as I’m concerned, the ultimate combo in metal. Where both genres are flawed, with thrash’s overindulgence in repetitive and static rhythmic battery and power metal’s often barely-riffing and all too often under-powered delivery, both genres cover for the other’s shortcomings. Power metal’s soaring melodies are backed up perfectly by thrash’s muscular chords, balancing out its sheer jackhammer drive with vibrant harmony. Only a scant few albums however have realized this fusion as well as the only work by Springfield, Virginia’s Timelord. Citing from a little over two decades of melodic and pummeling metal, Regeneration is a feast for both the veteran and the fresh recruit. You’ll be able to pick out the mark of all sorts of bands: Nosferatu era Helstar, Forbidden, Iced Earth, Coroner, Blind Guardian, Powermad… all wrapped up in an impressively sharp performance that almost enters tech-metal territory. It might sound like a mishmash yet the sharply coordinated and extremely energetic approach, tinged with small bits of prog, never becomes exhausting or incoherent, kept together by musicians not only masters of their instruments but the careful finesse needed to rein in the full power of this violent hybridization.

With his desperate and piercing voice combined with guitar solos in the Marty Friedman/Cacophony school of incendiary madness, frontman Matt Aub leads this onslaught through 13 songs that are as much a condensed history of the intersection between two sibling genres as they are a stunning reminder of their immense capacities. Opener “Dawn of Dissent” takes the kind of complexity most bands achieve in 12 minutes and condenses it to a little over half of that, connecting sharp changes in style (even briefly touching on doom metal) and phrasing to begin a five-track lyrical suite of a fall from grace and a revolution for revenge and liberty. “The Great Machine” touches on and condenses the confrontational nature of that track, it’s the explosive “Sparks of Rebellion” that climaxes the idea. As their equivalent to “Reign in Blood”, it’s three minutes of barely relenting laser-precise bombardment still managing both varied chord topography and razor-mean melody. “Slaves” shows the incredible power and skill in behind Matt’s voice, letting an almost Blind Guardian esque “bard” style chorus explode seemingly out of nowhere yet thematically is 100% in line with the track. “Cult of the Dead” is the most throwback one, taking Agent Steel and Walls of Jericho Helloween style youthful velocity and mythic fantasy, even working in a super catchy Markus Grosskopf style bass lick. The sinister ambiguity in the melodic resolutions of the creeping “Aeons Calling” contrasts the stuttering midtempo bursts and ridiculously empowering chorus of “Sirens”. In turn, “The Alchemist” combines both with a tale of both the search for illuminating wisdom and tense riff filled paranoia, ending with a surprisingly straightforward yet wonderfully uplifting chorus.

TLDR: just fucking grab this album and support the shit out of this band because holy fuck, it’s been 12 years and I’m 99% sure if we crowdfund sophomore, we’ll effectively reverse global warming.


Art credited to Moonxels.

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