Possessed Steel – Aedris

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Cold northern steel rides at dawn.

Defying the belief that it would be condemned to the obscure dungeons of Greek and Italian ’80s metal collectors, the style we know as epic metal has seen a resurgence amidst the burgeoning New Wave of Traditional Heavy Metal movement with names like Visigoth, Eternal Champion, Gatekeeper, Solstice, and the almighty Manilla Road becoming increasingly well recognized in the crowded heavy metal world. Yet this particular subgenre hasn’t grown too crowded yet with the style in particular well known for having a number of myriad forms, never having truly been codified into a particular set of blueprints or molds.

Hailing from Toronto, Ontario and keeping the flame burning since 2010 (around when the new oldschool heavy metal movement really hit its spark), Possessed Steel has been forging their own take on this hallowed subgenre across one demo and two EPs, gradually improving their skill in the arcane metal arts in relative obscurity as the NWoTHM movement blossomed around them. It is when 2020 came along and brought the world to a crashing halt that they emerged renewed and vigilant. Even better, they had now signed to another rising force; Temple of Mystery Records, best known for releasing the last Pagan Altar album and now releasing the succinctly titled Aedris at the end of November. With the dust temporarily settled on the raging battlegrounds of the renewed classic heavy metal frontier, do these Canadian raiders prove themselves capable of standing the test of time or are they simply another faceless cadaver upon a mountain of the dead?

This Canadian 4-piece has always been defined by a strong grasp of melody and unfortunately on some of the earlier releases, a rather awkward and out of tune vocal performance. Thankfully, they’ve kept the former and massively improved on the latter. British stalwarts Solstice (along with a number of NWoBHM bands of course) are the closest bands I can compare them to, perhaps a less power metal-influenced Visigoth as well, with Possessed Steel having an incredible grasp for slightly folksy sounding, valiant melodies with a Thin Lizzy and Slough Feg-esque vibe. Talon Sullivan and Steve Mac’s riffing, while appropriately musclebound and battle hungry, has a kind of gracefulness to it you wouldn’t expect of the style that gave us barbarians like Hyborian Steel and Battleroar.

It’s loudly and shamelessly 100% epic metal with all the Robert E. Howard-esque pulp you expect but it focuses less so on raw fortress gate storming power and moreso on a slightly bittersweet, forlorn sense of melody and soaring elation. This isn’t to the same extent as say, Old Season or Lethean but it certainly gives it a more supernatural, almost ghostly atmosphere than you’d expect. Both guitarists excel at these midtempo stomping riffs, sprucing them up with compact melodies, where the album clearly is asking you to fistpump when it enters these triumphant marching strides. The soloing doesn’t slouch either, taking a more ’70s expressionist vibe and giving it an early ’80s metal injection of strident aggression, frequently serving as many of the album’s highlights and building on that same forlorn, mystical melodic sensibility.

Backing them up is a reliable rhythm section, with Don Bachinski’s hefty bass presence that even when holding back loudly stomps alongside the guitars, breaking out for harmonies of its own at key points. The constant rickety rumbling is awesome to behold, not only augmenting the helm-splitting impact of the riffing but adding an additional layer of intensity that gives the songwriting a grounded weightiness to its fantastical aspirations. It’s got a similar vibe as say, earlier Iron Maiden but with a greater sense of ferocity between every plucked note. Drummer Richard Rizzo also doesn’t hold back either, working in a variety of little fills and accents to otherwise straightforward rhythms.

As harmonies and interplay between each instrument intensify, so too does the drumming up the ante, fitting in careful cymbal work or thundering rolls and occasionally outshining the rest of the band in the Manowar-ian sense of hammering intensity he creates, truly coming to life in those choruses. Talon, also handling singing, has improved the most of the band since the early days, possessing a gritty, rough tone on paper at odds with the melodious sound of the band yet brimming with a throaty intensity, vigorous and powerful in its midrange warcries. It’s a colossal step from their earlier material as previously stated, eagerly shining in longer strained notes with roughly none of the fumbling from prior material. It’s a bit less operatic in scope, possessing an earthier and more grounded quality that adds to the fantastical warlike vibe.

As hinted at earlier, this album is primarily set at a steady midtempo and carried in large part by Talon and Steve’s ear for gripping melodies. They’re not really “anthemic” per se in spite of this, without that much of a focus on big catchy song title-repeating choruses, as much as they simply sound like (rather solemn) barbarians instead. The emphasis is moreso on moments of soaring, elating melodies not necessarily held up by pure hookiness or catchy riffs but beefy, muscular guitar work.

Opener “Spellblade” and follow-up salvo “Keeper of the Woods” show them at their strongest with those kinds of jogging tempo rhythms letting the riffs gallop over militant percussion while Talon’s vocals soar over these power chord battalions but not too long after they show a notable change of pace. The ominous “Frost Lich” shows an eerier, less easily resolved melodic sensibility and a black metal gurgle contrasting the smooth cleans, giving it an almost Greek black metal vibe. “Assault on the Twilight Keep” by contrast kicks things up to a speed metal tempo, outpacing the rest of the album and streamlining their songcraft into a more visceral straight-for-the-jugular form, though they still find the room for a big chordal marching riff near the end paired with a simple but ripping aggressive solo.

The album’s second half opens up with a ballad of all things but before you remind yourself to hit the skip button, do note that they don’t slack here, retaining the folksy melodic sensibility and even manage to integrating a particular riff a little past halfway that simply sounds like a distortion-free version of their usual fare. “Bogs of Arathom” returns to the triumphant midtempo albeit in a more reserved fashion, reining in the energy only to unleash its true potential a bit over halfway through, gathering momentum and intensity that builds into a triumphant exchange between soloing and vocals.

“Skeleton King” keeps up this diversity in pacing, going from a pounding slower verse into a speedier gallop underscored by punchy basslines, ending the song with the album’s flashiest soloing, exploding into an amazing dueling solo trade-off, the flashiest part of the album. “Nobunaga” ends this all, kicking off with a brisker tempo, contrasting verses with a mixture of short leads and bass fills before breaking into a wild kick-happy sprint held up by a bristling faster riff like Omen or Griffin at their most bloodthirsty, assisted by abrupt blackened snarls. Just when it seems it’s going to explode, the band enters a sudden clean guitar break punctuated by nifty drum fills and a simple bassline, momentarily amassing that same tension they were building, breaking off into an instrumental prelude featuring a particularly infectious bassline and varying it up with a new verse. “Your blade best be ready/Your allegiance true/When Oda Nobunaga calls upooooooooon youuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuu”—a gorgeous solo kicks in, really drawing the evocative wind-blowing-in-the-air-gently energy out of every note.

To make this even better, the album has that warm, slightly grainy organic production job you all love in your classic heavy metal with a particular thick bottom end and the drums benefitting incredibly well in terms of how well they’re separated. The guitars could stand to be a little sharper but that’s a nitpick at most as they manage to be big and booming without ever burying any of the instruments. That’s the icing on the cake for not only one of 2020’s finest classic metal albums but one of the best of the last decade or so. It’s a take on the subgenre of epic heavy metal that doesn’t hide its influences but refuses to simply become them, storming forth with so much ferocity and boldness that it smashes its way into a realm of its own.

The command of melody here gives them a distinct voice that while not necessarily avant-garde or progressive is distinct in how it contributes to the mystical, slightly forlorn atmosphere that populates just a little under 50 minutes of quality Canadian steel. The album does stay within a fairly singular songwriting mode even though they know how to throw their share of curveballs, comfortable with even outright dropping the metal or taking notes from other genres without outright building their entire identity around that. Reliable from start to finish, brimming with raw energy and enthusiasm, and providing a fresh voice on this style in a time of death and disease, Aedris stands mighty and superior as one of 2020’s top choices for metal of all stripes and sorts.

4.5/5 Toilets ov Ancient Kings Past

You can order this album on Possessed Steel’s official bandcamp.

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