Cold Steel Dawn: Sepulcrustacean Returns (Again)
Coinciding with the return of my other column, Cold Steel Dawn is back and bringing 10 excellent obscurities in the realms of classic metal, dungeon synth, and progressive rock.
Signals from the Mystiverse
Stormspell Records – 2014
I was bewildered by this EP when it independently released in 2013 and that sense of wonder hasn’t left me since. Its bizarre yet also very silly cover captures the manic, circus-like approach of the three metal tracks present. Big timpani sounding drums, frequent use of semi-dungeon synth keyboards, rough yet acrobatic riffing, and most importantly the unhinged vocals. VERY unhinged, “sung” technically in a way like the UK Hell’s David Bower but with any restraint he had completely vanished. It’s not entirely melodic either, reaching absurd falsetto heights and at times bordering into the atonal. The end result of all of this is like Master’s Hammer and Negative Plane, with blast-beat drumming propelling mangled, eclectic riffing into atypical structures set to some utterly nonsensical vocals. This is a highly cluttered, merciless listen that reflects very well its solo project status.
Most impressive is that this is all actually quite good. Going beyond most of the progressive metal spectrum, Gentry Lord unite all these disparate elements through sheer intensity. The songs are generally on the longer end, rocking the listener between volatile riffing and maniacal vocals. They’re demonic enough in their disdain for coherence and the easily hummable melodies sound more demonic than most black metal. While they do guide the way, the riffing is no less attention-grabbing, at times having an ominous first wave black metal vibe in its stompier riffing and malformed musical DNA. Rarely is a single idea stuck to for that long as Jori von Meriläinen unleashes a veritable carnival of ideas most bands would require a whole album to fit. This is heavy metal, more avant-garde than it is progressive, and by far the strangest take on this genre of metal I have heard to date.
Independent – 2023
On the other end of the spectrum is this no-nonsense heavy metal/’80s American-style power metal banger. While Syl Smith of the oddball act Ancient Séance handles vocals, here he takes on more of a James Rivera (Helstar) character and the music goes for a triumphant midtempo stomp. The riffing here thanks to a surprisingly clean, modern production and crunchy approach is pretty damn heavy. This is all without any of the thrash inclinations that crept into this style after 1986, almost militaristic in its dedication to high-flying yet weighty, typically jogging speed melody. It’s about as straightforward as it can get but its competence makes it stand out from the legions of NWoTHM bands trying to hearken back to the same era. Simply put, this has the beefiness to it so much of it is missing, focusing less on some pseudo-Iron Maiden style high flying approach for something closer to the meaner direction Americans were taking their British influences.
There’s one moment it falters a bit with “Beyond These Visions”: a slow, burly bruiser with a somewhat repetitive sounding verse and chorus. It’s not crippling however as much as it could have cooked in the oven for a little longer. In general that’s the main field where the album falters; it’s got a hefty, generally weighty sound but it doesn’t quite soar like it always should given the style. Some songs can blur together with how comfortable with their own rhythms they sound. Despite this the foundation the album sits on is one of the more promising in recent ’80s metal-styled acts, demonstrating a grasp of foreboding atmosphere and stalwart riffing less common than I hoped. A band to keep an eye on.
Independent – 2016
I typically ignore purely progressive metal bands nowadays given the djentrifiation of the genre and other stylistic shifts that have happened since the 2000’s. The way much of it has modernized has diminished my interest but this obscure Chicago band finds a way to make an exception. A shimmering, highly melodic sound with a sci-fi cyber-y tinge dances on an adept and agile rhythm section. Helmed by a hearty, evocative midrange singer with a semi-operatic yet grit-inflected tone, it manages to be very forceful music yet there’s little stutter-pause chug or emphasis on noodling. Genre boundaries are blended frequently yet a consistently riffy base unites them, tinted with slight film score-esque keyboards. The band can be fairly rhythmic yet the singing controls and capitalizes on the intense tension with careful fluctuation with tone and enunciation. The fellow is no stranger to growls but it is his range of character that nearly steals the show.
It’s rather telling that the album’s main flaw isn’t in any of its performances or other technical choices but rather how hard it goes on some songs and not others. Opener “Another Sky” is a constantly shifting narrative of punchy, energetic midtempo riffing weaving in and out of expressive soloing and operatic wails, all the while the drumming goes nuts. A surprisingly mosh-friendly synthy portion follows alternating harsh vocals and cleans, then converges on a riffy climax featuring a pseudo-symphonic keyboard accompaniment. “The Last Resistance” has an almost grooving, classic heavy metal rhythm leading into an anxious, desperate chorus accompanied by a wailing lead. It later recontextualizes this into a fast gallop, layering additional vocals and really capturing this big cinematic vibe. Yet where it may struggle for others are slower, lengthy tracks like “Totality” and “Odium”, sacrificing some dynamism for weighty, ponderous crushing. They’re great. but maybe not as fleshed out for all their impressive drama and might. In spite of that, one of this genre’s strongest entries, top 10 and all.
Independent – 2023
These two Portuguese epic heavy metal battle hymns feel more like they should be from Germany or Greece but that is no matter. If you remember Ravensire then you’ll feel at home here as two members comprise its rhythm section. What massive rhythms they are, going for a cadenced marching tempo stomp, early Manowar-like in its rowing riffs, commanded forth by Ana’s narrative lower mid-range delivery. Oddly enough I’m reminded a little of MindMaze’s Sarah Teets by her singing, not the sort I typically associate with this kind of metal, but demonstrating impressive control and technical finesse. The riffing here is a lot more melodic than you might expect, woven into guitar without drawing too much attention or being particularly flashy, playing in masterfully to Ana’s vocal patterns and approaching at times a USPM-esque kind of sound. Less aggressive in terms of pacing and execution, but savagery is in ample supply either way. I’m reminded not only of the sadly now defunct Ravensire but also debut-era Domine (Italy) as well, though this is much more concise.
I really don’t have much (or anything) to criticize or suggest for them to fix. Also maybe I don’t want them to break another sword like on the cover on my skull for being a false who likes too many European power metal albums. They’ve genuinely got a very good grasp on this style, an interesting singer, an evocative atmosphere of battle and danger. Like with Savage Oath, they hit the ground sprinting and didn’t just hit all the boxes as much shattered and scattered them to the winds. Incredibly promising band with a sound that’s familiar yet fresh in all the right ways.
The Man In The Wood
I, Voidhanger Records – 2023
The label they are signed onto typically specializes in experimental death/black fare but Yaaroth’s psychedelic, progressive interpretation of classic doom feels fitting for the roster. Originally released in 2020, The Man in the Wood combines the psychedelic leanings and folksy inclinations of the ’70s it draws from with a sinister metallic flair evocative of certain John Gallo projects. Coincidentally, multi-instrumentalist Dan Bells is an ex-live musician for Blizaro and his idiosyncrasy manifests from his relaxing croons and High Tide meets Canterbury-style prog guitar idiosyncrasies. Drummer Samuel Nells plus session skinsmasher Will Hoback handling the fourth track prove themselves capable companions. A cymbal-heavy style evokes a floaty deftness rather than the typical doomy hammering, adding an agility to the genre often absent. Bass rumbles and intonates behind the haze of riffing, a resolute and solid layer of harmony against the atypical chords and off-kilter verses.
While Yaaroth possess the funereal dread of the genre it’s evoked in an ambiguous flavor frequently blurring the line between its origins and these ’70s roots. There’s no real stoner touches here as even at its catchiest it takes on an alluring, arguably occult atmosphere. The songs do riff but the riffing possesses a deliberate and almost wandering character. Listen to the drifting, descending pattern of “The Subterranean Stench” contrasting itself with a more conventional Sabbathian groove. Yet also pay attention to the way Dan’s delicately sung lines slightly rise in intensity and power, weaving through the misty ambience with an impressive though not overpowering clarity. It’s almost akin to the more ’80s-esque realm of Arch-era Fates Warning, less agile and wandering, but almost akin to an additional guitar with the finesse and nuance of its unusual execution. For those whose place of worship is the ’70s yet remain unimpressed by mere retro regurgitation, a tantalizing and compact delight of an debut.
Shiver of Frontier
Faint Hope to the Reality
Black-listed Productions – 2022
From Japan’s fervent power metal scene comes one of the first albums I’ve heard with a prominent Galneryus influence yet differing in subtle yet impactful ways. Whereas that band has flirted quite heavily with progressive inclinations and a sleeker neoclassical Japanese sound, this act is more rooted by comparisons. “Unga bunga” some might say, stripping away the burgeoning complexities for straightforward energy evoking moreso classic mid-’90s to late 2000’s European-style streamlined fluidity. It’s notable even in the cover, speaking to a more classic-era sort of older western fantasy themes than the shonen heroics that were always Galneryus’ bread and butter. The bass riffs clearly refuse to be buried by the semi-symphonic keyboard flourishes. Both guitarists demonstrate a knack for stout and punchy riffing, miles ahead of most modern power practitioners, adding some serious weight to its high-flying histrionics. Much hearkens back not just to Galneryus’ riffier side but a speed metal sense of streamlined rhythmic attack. Fast picked, single string, matching pace to the kick drums, and capped off by melodic fills and phrasing to avoid becoming pure backdrop.
Minaki’s voice might be a bit of a stickler with his hollow, kind of nasally Sho-esque singing at times outright brassy yet technically competent. Personally it’s an odd voice yet one that stands out with its more mature character, a sorcerous battle clarion over the surging stampede of mounting melodic tension. Of course I can’t make all these comparisons to Japan’s mightiest without bringing up the soloing and you’ll be pleased to know that It Goes Pretty Hard. They don’t hit the Syu-threshold of fretboard-igniting neoclassicalism, working in a slower more expressionist style, frequently straining for effect and working in relatively easy to remember clusters of shreddy note-clusters. There’s a few moments mostly in its latter half where their inspirations become a little too apparent though they’re capable enough to genuinely pull off most of it. Still, I hope the next album will see them branch off a bit more towards their own sound as they have a strong foundation after the two very mid prior albums. Personally, I enjoy more than the latest Galneryus album.
We Pyrrhic Conquerors
The Tenebrous, The Tame, The Untethered
Independent – 2022
A mysterious out-there prog project run by one Joey M. Bishop, We Pyrrhic Conquerors’ latest album is an unearthly and at times outright ambient interpretation of the genre. It’s spacious and ambiguous in a way that can feel post-rock or psychedelic even if it’s not really either, yet layered and abstracted in an avant-prog kind of manner. A lot of this music while complex is not so in a stereotypically flashy manner, sweeping and cinematic yet it focuses mores on the overlapping harmonies of its synths and supporting rock instrumentation. As such there’s not really a lot of “riffs” or conventionally delineated sections as much as there are cloudy layers of escalating, morphing texture. Each one is a little bubble of activity, delicate internal interactions gradually bleeding over or melting into the shifting of theme and narrative in dreamy layers. It sounds vague and watery yet the band has a great grasp of layering theme via melody into their textures. Songs may be simple structurally but it is the little interactions within the moments comprising them that give them so much depth as they move cloud-like overhead.
While I did say “avant-prog” earlier, that might be a slight misnomer. This has little of the jarring dissonance or shock-and-awe renegade nature quite a few entries tagged by that title suggest. A lot of it is sonorous, outright relaxing even, yet an element of suspense and even haunting permeates every minute. Strings and brass manifest at certain junctions (whether synthesized or actual is unknown), giving it almost this dark chamber jazz kind of vibe. The way it contrasts with the strange sci-style synths morph that into a sort of desolate, abandoned city kind of futuristic vibe. While it’s not really heavy or aggressive music its tone is often forlorn and haunted in a contrast with how Joey seems to have such vibrant freedom in how he plays around with jazzy rocky tropes. It’s somewhat repetitive in terms of working with more pulsing layers than set musical building blocks like riffs or leads, yet the actual songs constantly flux in waves of momentum and redirection. Mesmerizing in its hypnotic charm and a mandatory listen for those looking for an unsung hero of adventurous modern prog.
Independent – 2022
A nonstop-rapidfire technical combination of earlier power metal and thrash gutsiness. The heart of it rests on an emphasis on articulate dual guitar harmony, with similar sounding lines for both or one commenting on the other’s flashy melodies with articulate supporting rhythms. It reminds me a bit of bands like Annihilator and Megadeth but crossed with the more aggressive end of late ’80s to early ’90s power metal like Oliver Magnum and Helstar, possessing both impressive soloing and a rather… odd vocal performance. Miguel Eguiza’s rough howl is a bit like a rawer James Hetfield trying to sing high-flying power metal lines. It’s very gruff, yet oddly charismatic and driving in its intensity. Given the rough, barely processed demo sound it’s not out of place. The rhythm section is no slouch either, somewhat stifled in the mix but doing an impressive job of keeping up with the cyclonic fury within. It’s impressive how well realized this is yet how this band is completely unknown with no (listed) connections (on MA) to anyone else in their scene.
While this can be placed in the technical (power) thrash category, this is far less about ornate structures and winding harmony than it is turning musicianship into mayhem. This is complex stuff with the ease which both guitarists duel yet it takes the form of almost NWoBHM histrionics augmented by an incisive rhythmic accompaniment. There’s not that much chugging here, taking a more acrobatic rhythm approach almost like Realm (USA) and debut-era Heathen, seemingly overshadowed by the leads. A close listen reveals the little ways they counterpoint against them as puzzle pieces might, making them feel vivid and full. At just an hour long, the band doesn’t really lose steam, not afraid to play around with slower, even catchier, and even more melodic elements in its second half. The complexity or intensity doesn’t vanish as it’s retooled heavily, just as impressive as its throttle numbers with the end almost Slayer-like with a harsher, pseudo death/black vocal performance. It shot straight to the elite of power/thrash as perhaps 2022’s finest surprise.
Beyond The Great Vast Forest
Independent – 2003
Brazil had an explosion of power metal bands in the 2000’s and many got buried under the genre’s burgeoning expansion. Among them was this band whose black metal influence reflects their Emperor-referencing name even if the atmosphere is more akin to Rhapsody. There’s a tendency for blast beats and tremolo riffing, more guitar driven than the Italians in a way hinting at the German semi-speed metal school’s influence. With a greater level of aggression than the typical sympho-power act, they nonetheless retain a similar scope with only a single metal track falling under 7 minutes. Singer Sandro Barros has a rougher tone devoid of the operatic tenor we typically expect, more of a baritone by comparison, unpolished compared to Fabio Lione or Dark Moor’s Elisa C. Martin. I’m reminded of Jorge Bermúdez of Dominus Praelii, though after a good deal of singing lessons. A bit of the rawness remains, a gruffness that creeps in now and then between his somewhat strained lines, complementing the crispy low-budget production.
With prog-length songs comprising its runtime, Immortal Choir thankfully take a pseudo-Blind Guardian route in terms of how they deviate from verse-chorus comforts. Elongated midsections feature energetic if slightly undercooked soloing, long instrumental breaks, and whole new verses that keep songwriting fresh. They never feel that chorus-heavy though truthfully that’s not a field they excel at. Keyboards aren’t as prominent as expected either having more of a support role. The pseudo-film score elements do feel kinda cheap given the obscurity of this release, yet along with adding to the charm they do their job of adding more atmospheric weight to the guitar work. While it has a lot of the subgenre’s hallmarks, this is one of the more distinctive albums in the sympho-power subgenre old or new, passion bleeding through a production job we would deem unacceptable today. Yet in spite of its relative rawness, the charm it brims with it undeniably evokes the best of its era.
Gondolin Records – 2022
I’m admittedly not much of a dungeon synth person as much as I like the idea of the music on paper. It’s not for a lack of trying as I like the aesthetic and idea of it but few of it hits me like this turtle-themed solo act. As expected of music for tranquil, relaxed animals it’s often lacking in urgency and the fantastical mystery you expect, its atmosphere naturalistic as opposed to majestic – murky ponds, sunlit bogs, and scaly beings relaxing on floating wood. Yet clarity defines these compositions as opposed to murk via layers of interacting melodies, unfolding along a central thematic line with an almost Berlin School sense of interaction. A lot of it is delicate, almost plucked sounding, and while it feels more medieval than it does modern, there’s not a trace of humanity to feel. Sacral is its atmosphere but it’s a holiness devoid of worship and of reverence by conscious, sapient minds.
If there is one thing they specifically excel at, it’s the sense of constant growth and development in these songs, repeating themes only to vary on them with new through-lines woven into harmonies. It’s music that rises not so much in a symphonic sense but one of accumulating thematic weight. It may be peaceful music but its tranquility is one that is ageless, carried on by very choice synth tones having this ringing clarity to them. While not a band I’d say is traditionally catchy, they do know how to have easily memorable hooks which then set the stage for more ambient explorations of key themes. It can feel like a lot by the time songs are over the halfway mark, mostly because the sense of buildup is incredibly deliberate in its execution. I’d say it “snowballs” even, slowly that is, yet there’s few things as majestic as watching all these threads of theme and polyphony become something towering and immense when a song really hits its peak. I’d recommend this even to people who aren’t into synthy music in general as this was the first one I ended up truly enjoying.
Cover image by Cody Williams.