Cold Steel Dawn – Onslaught from the Unknown

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Back to the dungeons.

Wrathful winter winds, ever-hungering disease, incompetence from on high, and the accelerating decrepitude of exploitative regimes—the illusion of a comfortable, functional civilization falls apart as forces from within and without consume a slavering husk. Thankfully in these trying times, steel speaks with the same intensity and clarity with which it shines, cutting through mundane bigotries, gnawing anxiety and tedious demagoguery as easy as it would untested armour and unwitting flesh. Like with Catacomb Ventures, today I’m bringing you 10 overlooked classics primarily in the realms of melodic metal of olde but a few progressive rock numbers will be found amongst them. Sharpen your steel and shield your mind in cast-iron defiance—here is a small legion of the finest from this year.

Tyranonaut
Marble Eye
Independent

As strange of a comparison as it sounds, doom and progressive metal can often fail for a lot of the same reasons. They easily get drawn out without having much to justify their length, lacking distinctive riffing beyond synchronized plod or lazy hanging chords, busy being charmed by their own aesthetics as they drape nonexistent songwriting in excess fuzz and aimless noodling. When they transcend their stereotypes, utilizing the aesthetic as the means to rather than as the end, the result can be unparalleled. Rochester’s Tyranonaut, a project by Greywitt brothers Alex and Nick, is definitely a doom metal band but they have a lot of the strengths of the stronger progressive metal bands as well (although the furthest they go into that category is being fans of ’70s bands).

First and foremost rather than vague airy plod-thuds, they have a properly active riffy assault, unafraid of throwing in a few choice licks and at times bordering on the territory of bands like Dream Death and Celtic Frost in their confidence with dense, chordal riffs. Augmenting this is their ear for ambitious multi-sectioned songwriting, whether it’s how they contrast a wider variety of riffing intensities with lumbering longer chords with sharper, crunchier phrasings or their ear for breaking away from zombie-like marching to lengthy breaks into faster riffing with an admirable confidence. They might be big, lumbering, and fairly slow but they never stop that from letting them be as ruthless as any other metal bands.

A look at the tracklist of 5 reveals two double digit epics, one 10 minutes and another nearly thrice the length, but their willingness to avoid easy verse chorus structures extends to the three 4-5 minute-long numbers as well, always finding compact ways to digress or outright escape from what you’d think is a comfortable set of melodies or themes. The singing on “The Doller House” changes from the somewhat airy, nasally, Bobby Liebling (Pentagram)-esque tone to a dreary, almost sardonic snarl matching the discordant proto doom-death riffing while drumming sounds off on the cymbals like distant thunderclaps.

At times they border on the punkier end of thrash such as halfway through when they go into a mixture of loosely strummed chords riding atop a d-beat ambushed by sudden stompier diversions, bleeding away their energy perfectly. “Erskine Hollow” on the other hand is written with the sort of intricacy usually reserved for bands like Fates Warning or Fatima Hill, travelling through a full variety of Witchfinder General and Reverend Bizarre-esque hyper-dramatic grandeur, managing to even fit in a surprisingly tasteful folksy acoustic section right after a wild ’70s-esque jammy part. This leads into some surprisingly exorbitant solos and triumphant, battle-ready melodies almost bordering on some sort of later Bathory-inspired epic heavy metal in terms of the sheer grim-eyed vigour. Tried and true but defined by immense ambition: this isn’t just one of 2020’s very best but for doom metal as a whole.

Acerus
The Tertiary Rite
Lux Inframundis Productions

Picking up the tempo but not losing out on the complexity, Chicago’s Acerus is the brainchild of The Chasm’s death metal legend Daniel Corchado and has been honing their craft since 2012. Their two previous albums while promising with their mystical atmosphere and Daniel’s distinct melodic sensibility, came off as somewhat rigid and oddly phrased in terms of riffing as if they couldn’t quite get past their death metal roots. After a lengthy wait and with a new lineup, the band finally nailed it with a heavy/speed battlecry capturing the sinister melody of their origins in its most propulsive, confident form.

Vocalist Esteban Julian Penna takes command with his stern mid-to-upper range wail, storming forth with grim and at times almost ambivalent lines, easily their finest singer to date. Second axe-slinger Ed Escamilla from thrashers Reign fits in perfectly to this aggressive, punchy sound and alongside Daniel (who also handles bass), crafting entrancing melodies through slicing, compact riffs. The leads in particular are the closest aspect to Daniel’s main band, leaning of course moreso into their ’80s roots but possessing a similar degree of darkened majesty as they soar wraithlike over the inferno below. New drummer Mario Hernandez proves just as deft as the rest of the lineup, sending out tasteful cymbal accents and blink-speed fills lashing back against the thrust of the riffing.

As expected of a band fronted by one of death metal’s most adventurous songwriters, Daniel brings his compositional expertise into this even-more-oldschool format with the same gusto. These are powerful, triumphant songs but they never feel very verse-chorus-y even if they are considerably simpler than his main band is. Most of the songs contains at least one major change in tempo and riffing, breaking away from prior riffs to expand on atmosphere and melody often in the interest of deepening atmosphere and establishing a stronger sense of narrative. The title track is outright progressive in this sense, adapting an ever-unveiling structure to best make use of its 8-minute length. It comes the closest to their death metal material less so in style and more so in ethos, a storming journey of ever-darkening guitar work trailing off into mystical domains inhabited by the spirits of old gods such as Mercyful Fate, Satan (UK), Running Wild, and Helstar.

It’s not very “fun” music at heart with its emphasis less so on catchy riffing and hooky vocal lines, instead carrying the sort of steely-eyed ardour and willingness to engage with mystical forces more in line with a lot of extreme metal. Any and all actual death or black metal musical characteristics however are implicit rather than explicit at best. It’s best thought of as its own beast compared to the The Chasm, one that easily stands over most trad metal in the last decade.

Drainbow
Tower of Flints
Independent

While categorized as a progressive metal band on Metal-Archives, Drainbow has nearly nothing to do with both the modern, ’90s, and even ’80s interpretations of this genre and bear a large though not completely reckless avant-garde streak to their music. The solo project of Nicholas Sacrophagus, their debut album exudes a strange and malevolent idiosyncrasy, defined by jarring and technical riff-forging, choice elements of extreme metal such as snaking tremolo riffs and abrupt blast beats, and a varied vocal performance going between narrating wails and blackened shrieks, even including desperate shouts on occasion. Synths hover about chirping and twittering under the guitar lines, playing a more supportive role for the most part in conjuring an atmosphere that while horror-like isn’t full on Halloween-like haunted house fare like say Mercyful Fate.

The lyrics take on a considerably more cryptic nature, the mysteries evoked by the verses matching just how bizarre the music sounds, bordering on overwhelming in the aggressively mishmashed combination of ideas that at first conflict then resolve to form a larger, more horrific picture. The Tower of Flints is a punishing album in that sense not so much due to aggression of the playing but moreso due to its ability to conjure some of the most arcane moods I’ve heard this year, rivalling a number of extreme metal bands with just how specifically arranged it is.

Listen to the sudden clean guitar break halfway through “Lair of the Night Gaunt” with its unsettling, unresolved melody that soon becomes the template for a series of discordant harmonies that emerge in its final quarter. The borderline pleasant opening of the semi-titular track has a melancholy balladic energy to it that has been pounced upon and annihilated by a stream of chaotic screeching solos and near-mechanistic pounding rhythms. The album’s epic, “Callipygian Hunger”, has a brief foray into tech-thrash territory; an oasis of aggression in a desert of slowly creeping layered melodies.

If the album has one weakness it’s that it is pretty amorphous and at times difficult to grasp what they’re trying to do, less so due to say a lack of conventional hooks or riffiness as much as it is in near constant flux between all its various elements. The only time this is an outright stumbling block is on the bonus track “Worm Attack” with its stilted rhythms and somewhat questionable vocal lines, breaking from the manic confidence that defined the rest of the album. Regardless a band to watch out for that has found a take on progressive metal that is at once refreshingly distinct and extremely uncomfortable.

Chalice
Trembling Crown
High Roller Records

This Finnish band, not to be mistaken with at least 9 other metal bands with the same name, was already quite promising straight from its lineup. Both guitarists, one of which doubles on vocals, are from speed metal maniacs Ranger while the bassist is also in Satan’s Fall. Add to that a pointy-looking logo and the artwork, William Blake’s The Great Red Dragon and the Woman Clothed in the Sun, and you have a formula for a ripping pulpy bulldozer of—wait, actually not much of that happens. Chalice’s sound, while “heavy metal,” isn’t exactly 100% traditional, informed by elements of ambient, synthwave post-punk, gothic rock, and prog. The closest I can think of to it are two Swedes: the last album of Trial as well as In Solitude after their debut, both bearing a comparable sense of gothic melancholy to their music.

Compared to compatriots like Angel Sword, Speedtrap, Legion, and Chevalier, they might not have the same level of bristling guitar work but in its place is an eye for very distinctly phrased and evocative melodies kept rooted by workmanlike riffing giving them a “rockier” vibe without being overly saccharine, with Verneri Benjamin Pottu’s voice striking a heartfelt, slightly gritty mid-range tone with a desperate, paranoid tone brimming with pain and wonder in equal measure. While this sound isn’t necessarily without precedent, Chalice perfectly capture its ghostly atmosphere with a far stronger sensation of almost doom-like sorrow, contrasting the mysticism implied by its cover art.

The first three songs focus on the gothic/post-punk aspects, emphasizing cleanly played, somewhat jangly windchime-like harmonies hovering over relatively sparse riffing. In spite of the gloomy tonality, the music is itself fairly airy and spirited with most of the harder-hitting intensity here being relegated to the excellent soloing sections. They’re tasteful in a way that encapsulates the vibrant atmosphere of the songs, carefully pacing themselves into some show-stopping moments, and on the title track even managing a sizzling acoustic portion. “Hunger of the Depth” on the other hand goes into a lengthy instrumental break bringing out a cello and letting the keyboards chime in, as the soloing goes for less of rockstar madness and instead more of mounting, layered buildup.

The three after are more conventionally metallic with the flashy instrumental “Karkanxholl” demonstrating impressive fretboard fireworks. “Wings I’ve Known” and “The Key” possess the punchiest rhythms, matched by the melodies at their most dramatic and lush in their catchy choruses. Breaking from these is 9-minute closer “Stars”, a slow burner ballad hitting a similar level of evocatively layered songwriting as “Hunger…” yet this time starting from a far quieter beginning. It ends with a series of sparser melodies concluding in a mixture of backing vocals and a gorgeous semi-bluesy solo, letting a few last piercing notes ring before a quieter counterpart ushers the album to its end.  For those who like their metal to be as mystical as it is deeply personal, this is a perfect accompaniment for the colder, lonely days.

Tears of Tragedy
TRINITY
Walküre Records

Active since 2008, Japan’s Tears of Tragedy forged their niche in East Asia’s most established power metal community with their marriage of ethereal keyboard atmospherics, staunch melodeath-tinged riffing, and soothing vocals showing notable improvements from album to album. 2016’s Statice showed hints of a less Swedish and more j-rock/pop-influenced and streamlined sound with the Astrea single the following year hinting at a transformation that has now been completed. With their 4th album, they present their sound at its most developed. Hayato’s keyboards now play a notably larger role in complimenting and leading melodies while Toru’s soloing has stepped it up considerably while his riffing is more tastefully varied as he moves further from his melodeath roots, knowing when to streamline into the thrust of a song and when to soar alongside Haruka’s sunlight-bright, sunny vocals.

The music as a whole has taken on a far more climactic approach, harmonies becoming more vibrant and choruses even bigger, and while it might be cliché it does give the album more of an anime opening/closing vibe—the best parts of your favourite shows condensed into a metallic form with all of its driving buildups expending their tension in colossal, explosively satisfying choruses. It’s not quite ultra “poppy” to the point of being an actual j-rock or pop act with the amount of punch the songs still have, something which gives them a distinct vigour that stops them from being too floaty.  While it isn’t technical and riffy as the two preceding albums, its choices in riffing are considerably more fitting and their ear for particularly heartstring tugging melodies has only grown more particular, almost making them sound like a more symphonic band less so due to orchestral histrionics and moreso due to their skill in making the big buildups pay off in colossal melodies.

After a choral-sounding keyboard lead intro, the band rip into the speedy “Nonsite”, punctuated with unobtrusive keyboard melody lines. They take the lead during the stutter-punch rhythms, collecting tension to unleash lengthy chorus that subtly lets the keyboards not only lead it back into the verses. Meanwhile the rocky “Innocent Gram” has the guitar focusing more on floaty chord shapes in an understated manner. It’s tame by their standards but it does show Haruka’s skill in her restraint and enunciation in its rising-falling patterns. By contrast, “Outsider” starts off with a surging semi-symphonic intro punctuated by grim choirs, breaking off into a riff playing off the tension between strummed chords and agile melodies. Its chorus seems standard fair but it stretches out to accompany more aggressive riffing, confident to display its full power before kicking back into the verses.

The ballad track “Frost Flower” sticks out with its pacing and style, sounding almost like one of their metallic numbers simply with an acoustic guitar. Add distortion and it wouldn’t be unfamiliar, refusing to get sappy simply because it ain’t a heavy hitter. The 6-minute epic “Sometimes the Mirror Tells A Lie” is more compact than the 10+ minute long epics of their last two, demonstrating outright neoclassical style shredding barely half a minute in before Toru unleashes probably his most infectious guitar lick yet. A full throttling attack letting its guitar and keyboard lines rise in intensity before entering full flight in its springing chorus, leading up to an incredibly cool Haruka, keyboard, and tom-roll lead bridge followed by Toru frying those strings with one of his more evocative solos. Even better are the additional vocal lines at the end, saved for that specific moment and resolving the distress and agony wrought through the rest of the song before the digitized-organ sounds crush its final few breaths. If you’re new to the band, start here and work your way back through their discography.

Ring Van Möbius
The Third Majesty
Apollon Records

If you prefer your “epic” music to be of a more antiquated nature, this Norwegian prog-trio’s sophomore captures the grandeur of early Brit-prog with a Nordic twist. Although it features a founding member of Throne of Katarsis and another from black-thrashers Vesen, it’s devoid of any hints of black metal. In its place is a highly ornate form of progressive rock, mixing the eclectic organ-lead humming and semi-psychedelic haze of groups such as Van Der Graaf Generator and King Crimson with the impressive scope and complexity of Genesis and Yes style symphonic prog. It/s intricate, multi-part music with moments disorienting abstraction and stormy, unresolved melody juxtaposed with smoother and even relaxing sections, the perfect way to prepare for the choice moments when they simply explode into daring ’70s pyrotechnics with bass, mellotron/keyboards/moog/whatever, and drums hammering away at these demanding passages.

It’s complex and clearly demanding stuff, not to the extent of a jazz fusion act, but it brims with a greater sense of confidence than the first album and also benefits from being a bit longer at 4 tracks as opposed to three, letting them explore a wider and more nuanced level of arrangement. Two of them (“Illuminati” and “The Möbius Ring”) are (relatively) shorter but hold up quite well even compared to the 22- and 11-minute monsters here. The former runs through a wild goose chase of shifty, amorphous song structure, traveling through a wild smorgasbord of varying keyboard styles like a full on national weather report. The latter is a more straightforward track, defined by driving percussion and a series of bass-keyboardmoogsynthorgan toomanytonamemybrainhurts riffs, the former helping to keep its momentum going between a few more spaced out, sparse moments.

For most the real showstoppers will be said super-long tracks. “The Seven Movements of the Third Majesty” is as majestic as its title suggests, a small odyssey of moustachetacular proportions. Warbling keyboard (don’t fucking @ me you know what I mean you dumb assholes) lines coalesce into straightforwardly triumphant organ chords accompanied by pounding timpani, leading to a lengthier series of passages—tumultuous seas of technical jamming into soothing pastoralism contrasting the chaotic with the streamlined. The song’s second half descends into chaos as vocals and organs shriek and screech, a mad dash nearly careening off of the rails, near hastily crashing into another enormous display of triumphant, stately melodies. It takes small detour into a few sparse moog lines before it ends as ominously as it began.

“Distant Sphere” begins in a more mellow, relaxed manner with some tasteful baroque strings before it enters a playful, jazzy midsection. Contrasting this is a surprisingly blunt ending, vocals belting out with pure passion over simple sustained organ-drones, by and far the least ambiguous part of the album. With how “retro” all of this sounds, this probably isn’t exactly going to bring in too many new prog listeners as while it has a lot more fun sections, it’s all arranged with the kind of complexity that is as reviled by genre detractors as it is slobbered over by its fans. Still, if you can look past the aesthetic to see the mechanics and passions united beneath, it’s not only a love letter but an invocation of what made the genre such a force of nature when it first came to light, something that its harshest critics could not stop no matter how they tried.

Sirent Screem
Black Rain
Black-listed Productions

No, the band name was not a typo. That is actually how it’s spelled. Thankfully while their naming might be a headscratcher, the early Queensryche reminiscent brand of heavy/power leaves no doubts. In particular, this Japanese act recalls a sound somewhere between the galloping roots of those American legends’ debut EP with a few slight touches of the progressive origins. It’s not enough to put them in the same category as Crimson Glory or Fates Warning, being as a whole more focused on fast, melody-infused riffing emphasizing graceful, stately playing over the barbarity typically associated with USPM. Add to that a vocalist clearly inspired by Geoff Tate in his prime, albeit a couple of pitches lower, and you have a band that does a great job of capturing the melodrama and valiant energy of the more graceful Heir Apparent or Fifth Angel-esque USPM bands.

It’s satisfying, very direct classic metal with an understated finesse to it less so in terms of technicality but the impressive vocal histrionics and moments where the guitars get to unleash some highly emphatic, graceful melody lines. It’s still backed up by fairly stout riffing so it never really feels too airy or sugary with all of its electrifying solos and slightly brassy sounding ghostly singing.

The album at first sounds like it’ll open with a synth-heavy atmospheric track but thankfully it’s not long before stuttering riffs kick in to set the stage for Chris DeGarmo-esque soloing. Opening up the album is the kick-happy drumming and galloping, weighty riffing of “Inferno” bordering on early Griffin or Omen with the sheer aggression on display, building up to a fearsome wailer of a chorus and an even more furious solo. “River” starts with an almost semi-Euro power style noodling guitar line, trading in beefiness for fretboard fieriness before settling into a fancy twin-guitar riff backed up by a trotting bassline, evoking Queensryche’s “En Force”.

The most forceful track of the album, “Break the Spell” in the meantime practically stomps out from its ominous tom-thumpy harmonies down to heavyweight hammerblow verse riffs out of which a wild, desperate chorus attempts to escape, settling on a title-repeating shout. Finally we settle on the epic length closer and it starts with a grim enough semi-balladic clean intro, advancing into a midtempo stomper riff bringing a bit of the vibe of Black Sabbath’s “Heaven and Hell” and a pinch of earlier Savatage (Sirens and Hall of the Mountain King). The pre-chorus is particularly interesting, abruptly dropping into a sparse, de-distorted riff with subtle synth-y choirs before the titanic, fistpump-inducing chorus kicks in. There’s still a lot of room for this band to go and I’d love to hear them develop their twin guitar harmonies and ear for epic, grandiose melodies more. One of the most promising new entries into the marching armies of classic metal.

Enter
1991-Images from Floating Worlds
Pure Steel Records

Sirent Screem had some slight musical similarities to a classic prog band but Italy’s Enter featured two members of cult legends Adramelch on vocals and bass. While Adramelch would later become a progressive rock band, three years after their classic work Irae Melanox, vocalist Vittorio Ballerio and bassist Franco Avali could be heard on this album. Well, they would’ve have been able to if it hadn’t taken nearly 30 years for these demo recordings to have been released! First things first, beyond that they have a similarly active level of bass guitar and the same singer, Enter are far from a metal band. The presence of keyboards also helps distinguish them even from Adramelch’s later day de-metalized material, helping to evoke a fantastical atmosphere and sense of youthful naivete that puts me in mind of classic Hayao Miyazaki films.

As there is no guitar on this album, the keyboards take the place primarily reserved for them with tones that almost have a bit of a new age or likely more accurately neo-prog vibe to them. Yet that arcane atmosphere combined with the mythological airs, communicated through Vittorio’s nasally, gloomy wails (along with Franco managing to find small pockets anywhere to stuff in his basslines) does make them feel like they touch on the same neo-medievalism of 1988 Irae Melanox. A bit more contemporary for their time and flourishing with how keyboardist Gabriele Bulfon uses a fairly versatile armory of tones (occasionally bordering on charmingly silly in an SNES game way) but this is essentially the prog rock equivalent of a lost early ’90s Slavic black metal demo where half of the riffs sound like Venom and Celtic Frost conjuring dark magics with the help of Mercyful Fate and Death SS. It’s absolutely mystifying if somewhat decrepit, trading in cleanliness and realism for a bizarre, ambitious idiosyncrasy.

“Atlantis (An Empire)” sets the stage quite well, alternating between moments of quieter semi-introspection with those of shimmering, soaring melodies as if traveling between the shadows of pillars and the sun-cooked ruins. On the other hand, “Lemuria” starts with borderline offensively nerdy sounding, amateur video game console music sounding synths. They’re overwhelmingly lo-fi to the point I nearly gave up on the album at first, but if you can learn to appreciate the beyond dungeon synth level of dorkiness, Vittorio Ballerio gets to do some beautiful overlaid vocal harmonies that lead into a gorgeous piano-tone lead passage.

Remember how I said there was no guitar earlier? Oops, I lied—“Holy Office” does feature acoustic guitar, picking away softly at first before accompanying the vocals during the chorus sections, finally getting to take a leading role around halfway through. “Gondwana” is the most lavish of these 6 songs, with its almost power metal-like quicker sections featuring some excellent vocal-keyboard interplay, broken up by infectious bass licks and leading to some big dumb grin-inducing JRPG-sounding woodwind melodies. Mystical obscure lo-fi progressive rock is probably not what a lot of people generally search for, with Enter sounding almost like an obscure Japanese band, but few other albums have as charming of an atmosphere and sound as this one pulled off this year. It’s complex stuff but straightforward enough to not be overwhelming while its sense of atmosphere evokes the best parts of prog metal without really being progressive metal at the same time. Highly recommended for lovers of obscure, magical metal and prog.

Goldenhall
Collide
Independent

Marked down as “symphonic power metal” on Metal-Archives, Goldenhall’s wintry cover art makes it seem like they might be some Finnish style band in the vein of maybe Sonata Arctica or Nightwish but their muscular sound is actually more evocative of Swedish power metal if anything. Choirs, strings, brass, and so on pop up frequently but never really lead the way as much as they augment the sturdy guitar work. The gutsy, midrange voice of Jason Shealy is matched by the powerful, often classic heavy metal-inspired riffing, less oriented towards speed metal in the way the German style is and catchier, fist-pumpy, with less of the single string picked riffs racing alongside double bass and more punchy, crunchier phrasings that create these big, rowing, occasionally viking-vigorous rhythms.

It’s quite catchy as you’d expect but its catchiness and ear for epic-sounding symphonic bustle is backed up by surprisingly firm riffing. It’s not to the extent they can match say, power/thrash hybrids but compared to your average European style power metal band they are practically Olympic tier weightlifters. It has the vibe of something you’d hear in some mead hall in a western fantasy setting with how Jason’s range is relatively closer to most and the vocal lines feel like they’d naturally have a rousing chorus of weary travelers and warriors bellowing along to them after a long day out slaying beasts and discovering ancient prophecies. At times, the symphonic parts are kind of ignorable not so much because they’re extraneous as much as how their grasp on mental fundamentals is powerful enough to not really need to rely on them to cover for any shortcomings in their style.

“An Awakening” sets out these strengths perfectly, packing a verse riff with a slight stutter to it playing off of the double-kick rhythm, layering additional melody over it and providing a backdrop for sombre, muscular vocal lines to glide over. Brassy symphonic accompaniment appears to punctuate the chorus, playing off of the cadence and guitar-driven thrust but otherwise remaining fairly understated. “Into the Infinite” shows a faster aspect of the band, speeding them up to nearly early German speed but still retaining that chilly melodic undercurrent which grows stronger in the strummy blast-beating chorus, letting the vocals soar in one of their more forceful moments. “The Fade” also packs some impressively fast blasts yet it never feels as vicious, letting its verse melodies develop and flesh themselves out into a heartfelt, almost soothing form in the chorus even against the backdrop of said blasting.

“Meadows” leans into an almost folky element with plinky almost xylophone like tones dueling with the guitar lines crafting ornate, exotic harmonies. This is all songwriting that while not groundbreaking, is nonetheless distinct in that rather than the usual AOR or goofy tongue in cheek schmuckery infecting a lot of power metal, there’s a genuine sense of weightiness here whether musically or thematically. It’s bold and adventurous as power metal should be but it treats itself with a lot more dignity and subsequently that results in a sense of grandeur understated in execution but immense in its effect. The closest I can think of to this is maybe Viathyn‘s Cynosure if you cut out the majority of the prog in their sound and focused way more on the riffing and symphonic aspects.

Gates of Paradox
S/T
Independent (2019)

Released in December of last year, it took some time for this Rochester band’s debut to click with me in large part due to the slightly hoarse, gruff vocals that vaguely sound like an older Bobby Blitz of Overkill going power metal. The music on the other hand is some raw, hard hitting power metal of the speed metal orientation, resembling a late ’80s style band with a lot of comparisons being drawn to A Distant Thunder era Helstar with its light prog touches as well as the sadly now defunct Ancient Creation who coincidentally further developed that era of Helstar’s sound with a proggy twist. It kind of but doesn’t quite go full on thrash, capable of very adroit playing as you’d imagine but focusing moreso on ardent neoclassical sounding melodies as opposed to rhythmic bludgeoning, with much of the riffing being quite agile and sleek in their shape.

The soloing is also pretty excellent, a bit less focused on melting the fretboard as much as a very aggressive, expressionist approach that matches technical string sorcery to lengthier melodic phrasings. In that sense it’s similar to the Magnabolt album from the same year (RIP to that band) but Gate of Paradox is rawer around the edges, more frenetic at times, and their songwriting scope wider by comparison. They might arguably be a progressive band in the original power metal oriented sense of the term but it plays second fiddle to their aggressively riff driven style that easily can go blow-to-blow with more blunt USPM bands of the thrashier (to outright half-thrash) variety whether it’s Liege Lord, Powermad, Deadly Blessing, or Oliver Magnum. While it does have an intro and two outro tracks (one of which is a bonus track), that does leave 8 ragers to enjoy.

“Cursed Eternity” takes a tense almost King Diamond like melody putting it through a gauntlet of palm mutes, overlaid choirs, and sudden pauses before a drilling, sparse riff kicks into the verses over which Daniel Parker semi-growls and breaks into wild shrieks. The chorus-melody comes with an unexpectedly catchy guitar lick, topped by the electrifying hyper-picking of the subsequent solo which even includes a blast beat to match its electric Paganini antics. The lengthy intro of “Hatred Within” might be ornate and graceful but its verses are wild and abrupt with cartwheeling guitar riffs, absolutely berserk singing, and semi-techy drumming holding it all together only to break into shorter, more easily followed crunchy resolving riffs.

“The Voyage to the Shore” is an instrumental one, packing the kind of melodic shred you’d expect from a post-Malmsteen power metal band divided up by slower, semi-stomping riffs that themselves splinter off into quick flurries of carefully picked licks. “Cast into the Sea of Oblivion” starts off slowly with these big almost hum-along melodies, advancing quickly under a veil of sparse synths to one of the less frenetic verse sections on the album and an almost jaunty set of bridging melodies. They break off towards harsh vocals going over streamlined tremolo picking, joined by soaring singing in a macabre duet. There’s later on a portion with the sort of seafaring, bellowed melodies you’d expect from Wuthering Heights of all places but it does fit the particular atmosphere intended by the song down to its title. The song even ends with clean guitar and what accordion, a somber kind of epilogue for a surprisingly conflicted journey. If you’d like to hear modern day USPM that’s not really huge on flexing its ’80s heritage but bristles with a similar level of confidence, this one is a must have.

Cover image by Yee-ling (syncmax) Chung.

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