Cold Steel Dawn: The Subjugation Of September
Sepulcrustacean returns with 11 entries from the battlefields of metal, plus a few others.
Wars Fought With The Heron-Marked Blade
The Philippines is hardly a country known for its metal output. They’re the last place I would expect to find late ’80s American-style progressive power metal. It’s unfortunate this album flew over everyone’s heads as it rips as hard as it remains hidden from the oldschool crowd as a whole. In stark contrast to the welterweight, mish-mashed NWoTHM that’s since become ubiquitous, this Chrono Trigger-referencing band hones in on a very specific part of a classic style and the concussive intensity that defined it. A clarion-call wail rides upon NWoBHM galloping rhythms augmented by a beefy thrash kick, frequently letting the ringing of Manowar-ian chords harmonize and lead into moments of vocally-led triumph. This might be in the same realm as old Fates Warning and Crimson Glory but there’s a battle-ready, warlike nature to this album absent in most of their contemporaries. It’s something I would expect from the Greek and Italian scenes if anything.
While they are hardly a hooky, Euro-style band, these Pinoys have a killer grasp on how to make colossal choruses when need be. Try 2:42 on “The Bite of the Lycan” for example. Its accelerating beat following the climbing interchange between the pseudo-Ky Kiske (ex-Helloween) wails and angular guitar leads creates grandeur normally associated with Atlantean Kodex or Obsequiae. Their verses are no less mighty; “Tears from Silver Eyes” has a main riff that morphs throughout its various sections but keeps a consistently creeping, suspenseful tension later laced with almost tech-thrash embellishments. “The Great Hunt III: The Duel in the Sky” is outright militant with its syncopation between nimble upper-register quick picking and its kick drums. Yet it manages a lengthy acoustic break really showing the vocalist’s range, lending this near medieval mood. In case it wasn’t clear, this is a crushing work even by USPM standards in general, not just the prog fare, closest to a modern-day Enchanter (see Defenders of the Realm). Colossal metal with mountainous riffing, perfect for galloping into enemy positions with lance in hand.
Goddess of Night
Winding Star Records, 2020
Technical, acoustic, metal-influenced folk? Not a sentence I expect I’d ever have to say but that’s the easiest way to summarize this band. I’m tempted to call this neofolk but beyond the completely opposite politics towards the standard of the subgenre, this has a far more progressive, technical approach. This is aggressive, even riffy material even if cleanly played; many of the songs are just one distortion pedal away from sounding like some sort of slicing and cleaving metal attack. Not merely from the point guitar melodies but the ever-accenting, fill-heavy drumming deftly keeping pace to the narration of hearty, mid-range vocals. Bass is no less vital with quite a few harmonies unfurling beneath the measured guitar work, adding an implicit if understated weightiness to the proceedings.
Damnation-era Opeth comes to mind with far more active rhythm. Its atmosphere is less ghostly and ethereal, more sylvan in its emphasis. There’s an aggression to this music even if it never accelerates beyond its almost waltzing midtempo; less so from power chords and howling vocals as much as the consistent melodic attack and strict cohesiveness of the execution. “Goddess of Night”’s last quarter is almost the sort of chorus I would expect moreso in a Darkest Era or Old Season track. “Searching for the Way” somehow manages to feel fist-pumpy even with its dancing basslines and undulating guitar patterns. The last minute and a half of “Release” has an arpeggiated sweeping pattern that is like uh, acoustic tech death I guess. Did I mention the 18-minute track as well, that for all its peaks and valleys has moments of being aggressively confrontational? A surprisingly varied work that only lays the foundations for greater things to come (given that they now have Robin Stone on drums).
Formed from the ashes of underappreciated UK prog-USPM masters Starborn, Empyrean Blade ditches the Arch-era Fates Warning for a galloping, triumphant energy evoking bands like Blind Guardian and Iron Savior. This two track EP is short and straight to the point but it demonstrates the application of their honed musicianship into a highly focused and most importantly, hard-hitting delivery. Only subtle flashes of these Brits’ brainier origins can be heard, primarily in the finesse of the near speed metal-adjacent riffiness. While the Yoshitaka Amano style art suggests a Final Fantasy theme, I can’t say I am familiar enough with that series of JRPGs to gauge the accuracy of its lyrics. Do not think this is very “happy” metal though; there’s this desperate, ethereal energy captured perfectly by the smooth, sorrowful singing. Even at its most battle-ready, victory never seems certain amidst a titanic, ancient prophecy.
“Vanquisher” is easily the star of the two, with a beefy pulse in its rhythm bleeding off into longer melodic passages, vocals straining their notes with bittersweet elegance. Its chorus is easy to follow: “Endless Tides of War, PRAY FOR THE DAWN OF THE VANQUISHER.” It’s anthemic and evocative, its underlying melody based on Thin Lizzy-esque dual guitar licks. We even get after a scorching solo a triumphant vocal lead in to said lick: “HERE WE MAKE – OUR FINAL STAND – FOR THE WORLD – FOR ALL OF MAN!” “Moonlight Sanctuary” is a bit subdued by comparison, laden with tension in its staccato riffing and its vocal lines wandering and wavering. It feels a bit longer than 5 minutes, and while it stomps most of the genre into dust, it doesn’t slaughter as its preceding track does. Still a highly promising start for these seasoned power metal vets and a band many labels ought to be eyeing up for a signing.
¡Tienes Que Luchar!
Nube Negre Prods, 2022
Some bands have a singular moment that upon experiencing pulls you past the point of no return and into ravening obeisance. In this case, it was a whistling solo on the opener of this Chilean band’s debut. I do not know if it was done just with the mouth or some sort of instrument. Yet it plays so well into this introspective, melancholic vibe evocative of ADX and pre-1987 Helloween, post-NWoBHM melody upturned in intensity and tenacity yet retaining a highly melodic core focus. Frequent guitar licks dot its rhythmic topography and it breaks away to elaborate upon its verses with vocal-free variation, adding a bit more depth, being a not very “chorus” focused song. This is definitively the work of a solo musician with a very particular vision, something we notice when the next track adds a piercing, near-vindictive vocal attack from session/guest singer Romi Huerta Núñez, a far cry from Javier Ortiz’s almost melodic-Lemmy gruff tone. Not to say Javier is a poor singer; the slower number “Para Ti Es Facil” shows his more emotive side alongside delicately plucked acoustic melodies and dismal, descending verse patterns.
Add to this a crispy, almost live rehearsal production (a soft layer of fuzz coats much of the mix) and it feels like some long lost compilation of demo tracks from 1988. There’s good clarity for every instrument in spite of this with perhaps Romi’s vocals being a little too upfront for some. It’s definitely rawer than the usual NWoTHM act with a few of its slower moments being a bit less of a draw than its Walls of Jericho or For The Universe-esque ones. The faster tracks can blend together for all their strengths, not as differentiated from one another as they could stand to be. Thankfully, the upcoming sophomore sounds like it’s dealing with most of these issues and adding an even beefier production. Over half of said album can be heard on their official YouTube channel as of the time of writing this paragraph. Yes, they kept a whistling solo on the opener of the album. Yes, it slaps, September 15 really can’t come fast enough (please have more than one whistling solo, maybe dueling whistles, I don’t know).
Elevate Records, 2021
The prior Chileans brushed up against early Euro-power metal’s borders. Espada has full citizenship. Playing a neoclassical variant armed to the teeth with its nimble speed metal heritage, Espada has the expected elegance and shredding virtuosity, touches of keyboard even. It helps that the guitars are more than just a flat platform for the vocals to stand on, possessing an aggressive, harmonious approach. They might sacrifice concussive violence for fluidity and melody, putting guitar and vocals in a delicate dance, neither entirely dominating the other. This is cool lick central, unsurprisingly also the headquarters of Sick Shreds Incorporated. When the keyboards get more prominent it can sound like a far more ’80s version of Symphony X. The closest to this I can think of is Russia’s Magnit (Магнит) on 1988’s Dies Irae (День гнева). Espada lacks that particular Tchaikovsky-esque tonality but the prominent though not overpowering keyboards and agile guitar work that slashes as a rapier rather than swinging a broadsword puts them in a similar camp.
“Destello Veloz” goes heavy on atmosphere with shrill verse keys building up ever-mounting anxiety against staccato riffing chasing after the vocal lines. “El Encuentro” kicks off as if it’s Agent Steel, featuring a pretty spectacular keyboard section as part of its soloing. Strangely enough, it ends on an elongated metal-free clean bridge, first with acoustic guitars and soulful singing. Then you get a not entirely melodic acapella occult sounding chanting portion. “No Se Acabará” inserts an infectious shred passage into its verse riff, by far the most aggressive song here, streamlining itself like a speeding missile with their most aggressive rhythm. Epic-length “Nunca Me Ha Ido Peor” takes a mid-tempo Dio-esque approach, breaking up rock-steady pacing with a variety of showy solos including a delicious bass one. A very consistent album start to finish, showing up more than a few of its European compatriots!
A good album cover typically reflects how the music within feels and if you can imagine yourself strolling through the colorful settings of a 2000’s JRPG or racing game then yeah, that’s basically this. By “basically” I really mean to say “put through a hyper-colorful filter of guitar-led jazz fusion.” While this is a guitar shred project, the rest of the instrumentation, while entirely programmed, is just as worthy of attention. A sonic palette of whistling, chiming, plinking, and all-around vibrant MIDI-style sound effects flourish in blossoming rays of elaborate melodies. For a programmed performance, the rhythm brims with various little nuances and aggressive energy, playing into the ever-forward facing momentum with lots of tasteful nuances. This is not the methodical drawn-out kind of fusion but a sort with a video game music sort of hooky energy where even its slower moments still have that vivid pulse.
“Trackstar” is my personal favorite from the album, its plinking synth notes adding a whimsical backdrop for its angular soloing to play off and featuring a Daisuke Ishiwatari reminiscent, pseudo-power metal lead section. It is the most aggressive song here but by contrast, “Local Weather Forecast” demonstrates Seda’s more laid-back strengths. Gentle synth textures buttress sparse guitar melodies, cresting like waves into MIDI-esque passages showcasing Dylan Reavey’s ear for excellent keyboard-y hooks. Sandwiched between them is the gutsy swagger of “Geyser”, cockily grooving along with infectious synth-guitar harmonized riffing. I’m not sure if “heavy” is the word I’d use but it carries itself with a weightiness bordering on unwieldy but keeps turning smoothly on its axes too often to feel that way. “Alistia Harbor” features Japanese shred virtuoso Sebon, collaborating on this Australian onslaught for the unsurprisingly most extravagant soloing on this album. The perfect end to an album of weaponized childhood nostalgia and a surefire banger for any fan of Galneryus’ Syu (not even just on his solo work) or even classic Shrapnel-style fretboard sorcery.
The Night Eternal
Ván Records, 2023
A classic metal band playing a relatively more recent sound, this German act continues a melancholic gothic rock infused sound similar to In Solitude. Sister sent shockwaves when it dropped and held up well on relistens and this band roughly continues that general idea with key differences. Those Swedes emerged from a simplified Merycful Fate-esque sound but The Night Eternal’s only connections to that are somewhat in the vocals. Neither band had King Diamond’s range but his hollow, ghostly midrange is where they converge. Ricardo Baum’s voice however is far deeper and hollower, complementing a deep and sonorous sound pulsing with a weighty and suggestive delivery reveling in its mystifying subject matter. In Solitude were a more cryptic and occult band—features not alien to this album. Yet these Germans’ more visceral, almost celebratory tone hails dark forces rather than conjuring them.
In spite of this, it’s not necessarily a riffier sound even if it is very blunt and thumpy. Listen to “We Praise Death” with its pounding cymbal-hit emphasis and big, ceremonial fills leading to its foot-tapping chorus. It’s almost dancey in its rhythmic sensibilities, rocking along with invigorating energy, something you could almost put on as the background to some party or a bar. This isn’t to say the guitar work is without memorability; the pausing verse riffs and jangling melodies of “Stars Guide My Way” balance tension against the rise and lulls of cresting vocal lines. “Prometheus Unbound” shows a malevolence evoking melodic black metal akin to Swedes like Portrait and Trial. “Between The Worlds” continues this shift towards heaviness, featuring a hypnotic harmony hovering over its grooving rhythms, evoking the mind-bending ritualism of whatever nocturnal magic they’re partaking in. A strong follow-up occupying a niche for “NWoTHM”-inspired gothic metal associated with bands like Sonja and Unto Others.
Mist Fell In The Gathered Gloom
A listen perfect for when summer begins to morph into autumn, the latest Dreichmere album drops the metal entirely to focus on an acoustic dark/neo-folk sound. Elements of both were prominent on their last album, perfectly accompanying the dissonant ’90s Opeth-infused sound of theirs. While the metal might be absent its foreboding atmosphere and technical delivery manifest it as a shadowy figure. As with The Fruit Of Barren Fields, a creeping sense of anxiety and melancholy pervades this album haunted by the shrouded whispering of Dustin Matthews. Synths frequently pop up as well, harmonizing against the carefully picked acoustic guitar and filling up the clarity of its emptiness with a ghostly chill. The tonal ambiguities they are known for still manifest, letting off-sounding riffs set in as moments of tension-alleviating resolution hover just barely in reach.
Its riffing, while deprived of distortion, can be rather forceful; elaborate in a way that makes clear their roots even if in a sharply different form. “The Sun’s Cold Reminder” has a simple main riff, anxious and meandering amidst interjections of articulate melodies and creeping synth motifs. “A Drab Reflection” has an ever-shifting, arpeggiated riff that feels almost flashy for this style, leading into a bizarrely decrepit midsection where the percussion cuts for a bit before re-entering accompanied by plinking, disjointed keyboard lines. “The Winterwood” works through a series of themes that culminate after a clean break into practically acoustic metal in its final quarter, ending the album on a foreboding note that would have fit perfectly on the last album. Think of it as a folk album aimed at metal fans, swelling with moments of moroseness and funereal sorrow that evoke doomier realms.
No Remorse Records, 2023
Emerging out of nowhere on Greece’s premier epic metal/USPM/Manoboomer label, this 5-piece act debuted with one of the most polished debuts in this general style to date. Fairly cleanly produced by this style and hearkening farther back into its harmony-heavy post-Iron Maiden heritage (think Slough Feg) than the more Manilla Road and Cirith Ungol approach, it’s one of the less esoteric entries in the epic metal subgenre. This is far, far more heavily focused on virtuosic guitar playing with leads and melodies playing a very heavy role as opposed to battleaxe-heavy chords and Hammerheart-esque pounding rhythms. Pacing is methodical and typically midtempo, allowing the rhythm section a lot of room for notable bass harmonies and drum patterns. Harris Stampoulidis’ voice has a hearty, desperate midrange that is slightly grating for his more demanding moments and at times sounds like a much younger, less nasally Gianni Neppi from Dark Quarterer. His accent shows a bit here and there but his delivery is fairly clear, assisted by the mix separating every instrument very well.
Like with those brits, Protean Shield flirt with a lot of progressive tendencies but never become prog. The Manowar-esque marching verses of its opener are kept on their toes by various breaks in drumming patterns as clarion call leads wail overhead, harmonizing closely with the mighty swell of Harris’ singing. “Mariner’s Dream” is a cyclone of interlocking intricacies, the suspense building until a fast pseudo-speed metal breakaway leads it into a longer melodic bridge. “Sin And Dream” is about as straightforward as it gets, the steady row of its riffing underscoring its ominously brooding tone that leads into a massive chorus. “Dancers at the End of Time” doubles down on the progressive elements, almost feeling like a small concept album crammed into an 8-minute runtime. It’s the perfect send-off for the album, almost like an American-style power metal version of an Evil-era Mercyful Fate epic but I’m hesitant to spoil the rest of its details given how well they pull it off. This is enough of an endorsement already to grab so far the year’s best straight up classic metal album.
Les Productions Hérétiques, 2023
Between dungeon synth and a darker Berlin School-inspired kind of ambient, this Quebecois project evokes a vastness both of distant stars and of more fantastical domains. It’s the sort of music you could expect to see in some sort of dark fantasy film or show, or a videogame more likely. While its main strength is its ambience it is no less suited for active listening, revealing its magic in unfolding layers of overlapping melodies. One side of their heritage works in carefully articulated melodies simple at heart but carefully juxtaposed against the other side—stretching textures of alien tone. The latter stretches out like a more alien Tangerine Dream or even X-era Klaus Schulze, gradually recontextualizing shorter melodies or patterns into the sonorous, glacial motions of the greater song structure. It’s a simple approach to harmony on paper yet a combination of choice tones and knowing when to break from and further develop patterns lets these songs stay memorable and fleshed out.
In spite of its ’70s German heritage, the songwriting is fairly concise as a whole. Only two songs could be called “long”, beginning and ending the album. Without much in the way of percussion save for a few particular songs, it is a very airy album that floats about with an atmosphere not unlike a black metal act. There aren’t really hooks here as much as there is a flowing sense of momentum and melody, the former created by the latter. There isn’t as much to follow in these songs as in some older, more elaborately written ambient but this works to its benefit. It can hone in on just a few particular ideas and stretch them out just enough to give them their spotlight before using them as the basis for further development. A great album for when you need the soundtrack to deep space exploration or venturing into the deepest crypts lurking below.
Rage And Fire
The Last Wolf
No Remorse Records, 2023
Ravensire split into two bands when they broke up in 2020: Dolmen Gate and these guys. After the high note they went out on, both bands continue their sound with some subtle but important differences. Rage And Fire’s half of the inheritance comprises of vocalist Rick Thor (also on bass) and guitarist Mário, joined by prog/goth doom/OSDM guitar-hero Fred “The Shred” Brum and Vasco Machado (of no prior known band history). Dolmen Gate are themed after rebellions against the Roman Empire in antiquity, taking a highly archaean sound but Rage And Fire take a far pulpier, ’80s leather jacket metal warrior vibe. Rick’s throaty bellow will not be for everyone with its gruff and generally unusual sound. The battle-ready, epic heavy/US style power metal riffing is there for those who can endure or even appreciate it. It isn’t as weighty as Ravensire were, upping the aggression with a tendency for more fancy lead guitar riffing in a sort of post-NWoBHM manner. This is a partial step away from the epic metal idiosyncrasy of the past, though not to its detriment. The Manowar-isms are not absent however, but there’s a newfound agility and energy capturing well the spirit of the era they are hailing and killing for.
“The Summoning” is the best example of these newfound acrobatics, its verses featuring elaborate melodies dancing circles around the vocal lines as they lead to a vivid solo. “20th Century Man” is a shot of energy into the arm after its opener, sounding almost like it was hewn out of the weathered stone of Omen’s Warning Of Danger. “Shapeshifter” almost sounds like it could have been a Dolmen Gate track with its harmonized riffs in harmonized cadence. Its militaristic, rhythmic march gives it a sense of invigorating vigor impressive even by their standards. The title cut meanwhile reins it in a bit with understated melodies climbing to the narration of the hearty vocals, an oddly streamlined song for them though not to its detriment with its mournful atmosphere. As a whole it’s a great sign that they still have it after the loss of a band that had called it quits just as it had really nailed it. Though this is best experienced as its own thing rather than a direct continuation of Ravensire.
Cover image art by Jay Park.