Cold Steel Dawn – The Last Stand of 2019
One more tumultuous year, one more batch of classic heavy metal glory to add to the archives.
Here are some of the best from this year to ignite your holidays with vigour and force.
Dressed To Kill
China’s presence in the world of metal as a whole is still catching up to the rest of the world in spite of its growing geopolitical and economic power. Most of it is associated with death, black, and thrash metal but those who know their history know that this nation’s metal had its origins in the melodic sound of Tang Dynasty; while Dressed To Kill doesn’t exactly sound like them, listening to them does make one wonder why there aren’t more like them from this country.
Formed in 2013, the band’s first two releases would be seven years later and much of the material would make it onto this album. Taking early 80’s Judas Priest-style rhythms with a slight leaning towards the punchy speed metal those Brits helped inspire, Midnight Impulsion is easily comparable to the Swedes in Enforcer. Their Chinese counterparts aren’t as musically nimble and their approach to riffing has a distinct forcefulness of its own assisted by a very prominent, aggressive bass delivery. The album is oriented around slightly mid-tempo jogs supporting a steady flow of catchy, sharp riffs and vocals that struggle slightly but brim with a wild, youthful charisma in spite of moments of oddly strained enunciation.
The overall sound is pretty stompy and syncopated, ultimately being closer to the more “vanilla” domains of the so-called NWOTHM movement, but the band execute it with a good deal more riffiness and attitude than is typically the norm—it’s hooky without sacrificing muscle in the process. The second half demonstrates a greater level of confidence with “Queen of the Light” dominating with a slightly hard rocking swagger and some amazingly infectious pre-chorus basslines. There’s also “Murder City” juxtaposing higher and lower verses like haunting calls within a panicked mind, both leading to a terrified chorus. It’s certainly not anything new and the vocals might be a little off-putting initially, but they deliver on the strengths of a style that’s frequently coming off as tired and played out elsewhere.
From Life to Death
High Roller Records
From their antiquated image down to their idiosyncratically antiquated style, this Swedish band (in English “Hell’s Gate”) is about as 80’s as it gets, but at the same time it doesn’t really sound like many of the bands that make a claim to keeping it true to the spirit of the time. After a nearly decade-long wait since their 2010 EP, Man with the Chains, the Swedes returned with a sound that doesn’t just hearken back to their beginnings but also those of classic heavy metal in general. It’s no secret that around 1980 to 1982, a lot of heavy metal was still having trouble figuring out what it wanted to do with the marks of hard rock and other pre-metal styles that still comprised a large part of its musical DNA.
While this issue often resulted in quite a bit of inconsistency in quality output, Helvetets Port outright flaunts this divide for a bold and sometimes just bizarre style. “Ruled with an Iron Hand” moves between a big regal-sounding series of riffs before suddenly exploding to an almost punk energetic rollicking chorus. “White Diamond” would almost be goofy in a less-than-positive way with its big cheery stuttering verse riff, but then those oddly mellow harmonies come in and it takes a darker, more reflective tone a bit over halfway through. “Orions Bälte” takes a simple gallop riff but layers various melodies around it including lines in their native Swedish language and in turn creates an unexpectedly foreboding and relatively shorter epic-type track that switches gears into a newfound aggressiveness for its second half but does so without being obviously climactic.
Really, the only modern thing about it is the production; oh yes, it’s all analog-sounding but everything is so well separated and given enough of a dusty fresh-off-the-vinyl vibe but other than that, this is the sort of oddity you’d normally find from scouring Strappado’s metal forum (yeah remember that guy?) or chatting with the guys who frequent The Corroseum. Lovingly OLD SCHOOL AS HELL WARRIORS but without being needlessly contrived.
Dying Victims Productions
Where Helvetets Port sounds like a band that’s self-aware about their stylistic contradictions, Chile’s Hemisferio has none of that, but don’t be fooled into thinking that makes it a lesser album. They too hearken back to an earlier period of metal when its identity was still working to distinguish itself from its stylistic neighbours and forefathers. However the almost proggy hard rock vibe that Helvetets Port dabbles in but doesn’t fully shove to the forefront, these guys more or less throw at you right off of the bat.
The 8-minute monster “Tres Sombras” basically goes into prog territory with its multi-section delivery, actively engaging bass, and numerous changes in riffing and dynamics, setting a very high bar for the rest of the album to follow and capturing the energy of a band like Satan or Cloven Hoof on their pre-album material; it’s solidly settled in metal but with the kind of epic rocking ambitions probably picked up from Rush or Winterhawk. Granted, along with the influence of that era of rock comes some other aspects that might not click with everyone, from the rather untrained-sounding, raw howl that works as their singing to a few moments of grooving head-nod-foot-tap inducing rockier rhythms. However, juxtaposing them are these hyper-expressive forays into lead guitar extravagance and some amazingly catchy Hemisferio style basslines that help give it the more swashbuckling, fantastical air so beloved in many early metal classics.
Personally I find this odd contrast between the more easily digestible radio-single friendly parts and the ambitious “the sophomore is going to be the next Powerslave”-esque parts to work in its own weird way. The rockier, simpler parts give a sort of firm grounding for the high flying adventurous ones to really soar without necessarily feeling airy and lacking weightiness behind them. A simple contrast and while definitely not for fans of more “polished” heavy metal, another interesting exploration of a pivotal time in heavy metal history.
World in Sound
That band name sure is something. Thankfully the music is something else which is to say pretty fucking great and given how much I’ve spoken about the influence of various rock styles in metal, it’s about time I get to an example of that. Their Facebook page describes them as “a farrago of early heavy, psych, folk and blues rock” though most people will probably just say “it’s a Deep Purple clone.” It’s not hard to hear why with their wonderfully antiquated-sounding organ riffs and bluesy guitar licks, though this oddly named German group goes for a more mystical and prog-oriented sound that gets more notable as the album goes on.
It starts off straight-forwardly enough with the stompy “Cosmic Pilgrim” and the wait-for-it organ piping of “What do I stand for?” but that’s when they start exploring less direct forms of moustache rocking. “Tales Told by a Gray Man” is the first epic, using picked guitar lines sharply coordinating with measured keyboard lines and even when it blows up, it has this odd semi-arabesque melody to it. The ominously named “Gomorrah” on the other hand has an almost country-esque stop-and-go vibe carried by twangy guitar lines for the album at its mellowest. The last three songs unite the best of the beginning and the middle with two big theatrical epics, combining the heartfelt and the explosive into these 7- and 8-minute airborne adventures.
Even the comparatively shorter 5-minute banger “Hobos” doesn’t slack on this with a cocky 2-note synth line that serves as a springboard for some great semi-jamming displays of instrumental prowess. Granted, you’re probably not going to dig this much unless you have a very high tolerance for late 60’s to early 70’s chippy organ sounds and relatively lightweight let-the-good-times-roll riffing, but given how many classic metal fans spin Court in the Act as they do Burn, it’s probably not an issue for you guys.
A Stone Engraved in Red
Cruz Del Sur Music
Enough dad rock, back to dad metal. And daddy in this case is a big burly loincloth-wearing barbarian barreling straight through your wall, splitting your skull in two with his battle-axe for being an unironic White Wizzard fan, then selling your record collection so he can buy rare first pressing Cirith Ungol and Manilla Road vinyls. Really, even the album cover tells you exactly what it sounds like which if you somehow missed it is BARBARIAN EPIC HEAVY METAL FOR TRUE ROBERT E. HOWARD-HAILING WARRIORS WHO HATE GENERIC PRETTYBOY EUROPEAN SPEED METAL SIGNED ONTO CENTURY MEDIA AND ONLY LIKE ITALIAN DOMINE ON THE FIRST ALBUM.
This album pretty much picks up where they left off in 2016, adds more MUSCLEBOUND USPM RIFFING FOR FANS OF OMEN AND GRIFFIN and melody, ups the epic scope and length of the songs, and somehow even improves Rick Thor’s singing—though if you didn’t like his slightly yowely, hoarse, melodic growling before, then his improved tone and ability to carry a sort-of melody is probably not going to win you over. Thankfully the FLEXTACULAR TYRANT DETHRONING guitar work and pulpy classic sword-and-sorcery atmosphere make them work quite well contextually.
With this additional variety in guitar work they’ve managed to fit it into songs that work into more climactic, massive build ups like the ebb and flow of ancient armies vying for supremacy and flaming battlefields of yore. There’s a lot of big gutsy, heroic sounding lead guitar and wonderfully expressionist soloing that works perfectly with the rough hammering riffing which almost has a viking-era Bathory vibe at points. Of special note is the heartfelt tribute to TRUE WARGOD-SEER OF THE CIMMERIAN METAL LEGIONS MARK “THE SHARK” SHELTON, “After the Battle,” where James Beattie of classic sci-fi spacefarers Terminus pops in for a pretty damn cool part in a looming clean guitar portion. Capping it off is a ripping-fast solo before leading into the somber chorus again. If none of that made you want to pick up your broadsword and obliterate the nearest Pict raiding party, just stop reading this feature and go listen to I dunno, Sunn O))) or something, you sniveling little fragile hipster poser, you.
Gods, Men, and Death
Shon Vincent will be a familiar name for those converted to the cult of Smoulder on their spectacular debut album. His musical skills take a more idiosyncratic turn for his solo heavy/power/speed metal project, playing an obscure and arcane version of these styles with an otherworldly, mystifying feel reminiscent of similarly-little-known cult Canadian projects like Tales of Medusa and Sacred Blade/Othyrworld. On paper it doesn’t sound particularly special; the structures are straightforward enough, the components placed within won’t be alien to those even moderately familiar with the USPM canon, and the production is fairly solid for a solo act beyond the somewhat low master volume.
In practice it’s best described as “mystifying.” Shon’s riffing doesn’t emphasize visceral force or flashy melody but it has this kind of slowly unveiling melodic sensibility that advances in a hypnotic, calculated manner that never clashes with the spirited tempo of this short release. His singing is not exactly classically trained and has this weird, almost distant-sounding warbly tone and echoes just enough to almost make the words blur into one another and shroud them in this kind of layered fog almost like some simplified monk chant. “Age of the Mabden” has a loose verse riff that almost sounds kind of lazy with its simple ringing chords but listening closer, a thin and wispy melody is woven through it, tailing it like some serpent amidst reeds and lending this sense of paranoid tension to the proceedings, assisted by a forceful chorus.
“Omnipotent Destroyer” on the other hand shows his singing at its finest, matching every jagged inflection of the storming verse riff with all kinds of weird fluctuating vocal lines, hitting a fever pitch of foreboding power in the bridge to the chorus. It’s a really strong recreation less of a sound and more of a spirit; the mysterious, murkier ends of classic metal that even amongst the obscurity collectors is not often dredged and beyond just a few scant names, little is known. For those who want to hear essentially a heavy metal cryptid, this band is it.
Most of the King Diamond and Mercyful Fate-inspired bands have been pretty solid to amazing. In spite of the obvious appeal, there aren’t a whole lot of bona fide clones. With their haunting singing and insidious melody-oriented riffing, they have a ghoulish mood definitely inspired by the Danish legends that deviates from them in a number of ways. While it was hinted at on last year’s Cryptic demo, this 2-song split adds a downright eerie sense of melody that evokes the feeling of first wave-styled black metal such as Inconcessus Lux Lucis or even Negative Plane crossed with a more controlled take on Demon Bitch’s wild energy. It’s often communicated with higher-registered harmonies and carefully articulated or tremolo picked notes, giving this EP a very precise and deliberately creepy atmosphere.
This highly distinct melodic voicing of theirs is easily their largest improvement over the slightly under-cooked preceding demo along with the beefier yet still remastered vinyl rip-esque production that brings to mind a much better produced version of Hellfriends. Making it all the better is their love of putting various surprises and sudden breaks from their own established patterns. “Dogfight” features a pair of bridging portions that tone down the rhythms just enough to make the clean guitar playing contrasting melodies overtop all the more poignant. Near the end they break into a tremolo version of an earlier riff akin to a much pulpier Lunar Shadow.
“Guillotine” pushes this even further, opening up with another tremolo riff and sounding like some long lost Master’s Hammer-esque Czech black metal classic for a little. Breaking off into a series of siren-calling wraith-like melodies before returning to the primary theme, they then settle onto a slower, crunching riff contrasted by some more gently picked notes and eventually a number of bass melodies, before the palm mutes are replaced by open-ended strumming to the point where it’s basically half heavy metal, half heavy metal-oriented black metal. An enormous step up for these guys and hopefully, we’ll get to hear them carry that creativity to some 6-minute or so long songs as this variety is perfect for tracks of that length.
Return of the Herakleids
Eat Metal Records
Earlier in this feature I went over Ravensire as an example of epic metal that best represents its public image. However, this particular subgenre can be more than just pure thundering mayhem. Originally recorded and mixed from 1999 to 2000, Alpha Centauri’s long-awaited debut EP has the names of the two brothers behind cult Greek band Agatus to its name and it predicts the more eclectic path that band would take in their later years away from their black metal roots. Alpha Centauri does have moments of stalwart marching riffing that call back to their homeland’s original school of black metal and it leans more to the eclectic 70’s-influenced semi-proggy side of the genre associated with Cirith Ungol and Manilla Road moreso than the battle-hungry Eternal Champion and Visigoth-oriented one.
However, it communicates the strange mishmash of beefier heavy/power metal and the playful pre-metal rockisms in a much more direct, accessible manner than the 80’s originators would have. The riffing is off of the bat quite catchy but it’s not quite as straightforward as you think; one rhythm line and another making off-beat syncopated harmonies against it with moments of subtle drum accents and hits preluding breakaways into just outrageous explosions of cyclone harmonies and absolutely maniacal kit-smashing. In spite of how sudden these movements happen, the core themes behind each song unfold in a fairly smooth and graceful manner with these playful, folky-sounding melodies dancing about a storm of wild tom hits and sharp cymbal hisses.
In essence, they never really fall into easy verse/chorus arrangements which is a rarity for the more melodic ends of metal in general. While structural complexity isn’t necessary for great classic metal, it does help them add additional dimensions to explore their own aesthetic and expand on it in ways you don’t often hear in their compatriots regardless of the specific style played. It’s an example of a band sounding so hallowed and classic yet at the same time being practically impossible to accuse of cloning given how distinctly they take and reinterpret classic ideas. Highly recommended for both those dipping their toes into the genre as well as hardened veterans looking for a twist on the norm.
For I Am The Eyes
Finding quality thrash metal that doesn’t sound like tediously tongue-in-cheek pizza joke mosh-party fare is difficult enough. Finding good technical thrash might as well be trying to discover alien ruins, but here we are. Following up 2016’s Justified Atrocities, California’s Trecelence returns with a 3-song EP that expands on their musicianship and songwriting; this is 16 minutes of some of the most detailed thrash songs as of late. While many of their compatriots are focused on bludgeoning intensity, Trecelence takes an almost Nosferatu-era Helstar approach wherein even at their most straightforward or full throttle each riff goes through a series of wild string-jumping, scale-morphing histrionics contrasted and enhanced by moments of bone-crunching intensity.
Drumming bashes along diligently, matching tenacity with rapid-fire rolls. Providing low-register fire support from afar, the bass moves in the shadows of both, rounding out rough edges with choice harmonies peeking out from around every corner, cold and distant but integral to the functioning of this well-oiled machine. Finally, the riot-shout vocals lend a harsh, sardonic air to the proceedings keeping up with numerous tempo changes and cartwheeling instrumentation. This music is focused heavily on thrashing in spite of the impressive grasp of the role each member possesses, by and large less arcane than Watchtower and less stuttering than Toxik but this is far from a negative.
There’s a lot going on in each song and while they aren’t even making neo-classical multi-chaptered compositions they are tossing a veritable kaleidoscope of riffs at you; very bizarre, deformed, and unusually-phrased ones. I would love to see them expand on the scope of each song as right now it feels like they hint at a lot more than actually goes on in each one though it’s still a step up overall from the first album. It reminds me a bit of Deathrow’s Deception Ignored but with some of the more USPM leanings of Artillery’s By Inheritance though fans of more “normal” melodic thrash won’t have a hard time getting into this band either.
Progressive rock has seen both praise and mockery for its love of huge, thousand-layered double digit-length songs, bursting at the seams with raw unbridled complexity to the point some both thank and condemn punk rock for its supposed downfall. This was always a bit of an exaggeration; some progressive rock wasn’t particularly intricate as much as well played while variants of it such as neo-prog actually simplified much of the raw sonic architecture into more “song”-oriented forms. Jordsjø can’t be said to be a part of that subgenre but there are some similarities.
While they’re associated with bands like Sinkadus and Anglagard, their sound is by comparison considerably less layered and multi-sectioned but at the same time, it’s not exactly pop single fare either. If anything, the streamlining of their sound actually allows them to better communicate a different kind of complexity—the sort of slow burn growth of threads of melody and theme given additional clarity and theme unburdened by towering pillars of notes stretching off into the cosmos. The band’s musical components lean towards a kind of mellow folk-oriented kind of prog strongly associated with Sweden and going back even to the 70’s though the approach to melody is less “pastoral spring” and more “wintery forest.”
No, it’s not black metal reminiscent but it has a kind of gently melancholy mood, a kind of sadness hidden behind the unfurling themes on flute, guitar, and synth that even when it’s their time to show off retain an elusive restraint. They definitely sound like something the prior two mentioned bands would use but just stripped to bare essentials, drawing great mileage out of just a few scattered or strained notes—maximum effect from near minimal effort. The songs do have the kind of wistful, wandering approach a lot of prog can have but the slimming down of the focus to a few particular thematic threads means that it never really feels lost as much as it’s cautiously moving through paths among roots and leaves known to the dwellers of the frosty wilderness. If most prog old and new is just too overwhelming to you, then this is a more careful and unashamedly relaxed take on the genre that might just be what wins you over.
Cover art by James Ledger.