Hard to believe it’s already eight years since Ghost’s debut album Opus Eponymous. Time flies when you’re having satanic fun. And on the plague, death and apocalypse themed Prequelle, Ghost are still all about fun. Like on its excellent predecessor 2015’s Meliora, Ghost’s fourth album is full of blissfully catchy theatrical rock that laces its spiritually uplifting hooks with diabolical twists. But it doesn’t do much that Meliora didn’t already do better. Two flat instrumentals pad out the running time, Pro Memoria is beyond Muppety and the fiendish lyrical slants aren’t as keen or effective (replacing “be with” with “bewitch” isn’t enough to add depth to the ABBA-tastic Danse Macabre). But all gripes are rendered churlish when faced with the excellence of tracks like the glam metal Rats, the passionately defiant See The Light and majestically melodic Witch Image. Prequelle might be a weak facsimile of its predecessor but there’s still enough devilish fun in its diminishing returns to make it worthy of devotion.
When Sweden’s Tribulation premiered their new single Lady Death in late 2017, it left me expecting a bland, streamlined follow-up album to 2015’s excellent The Children Of The Night. I shouldn’t have worried. Their follow-up Down Below is definitely streamlined but, far from being bland, it hones their horror metal to perfection: simplifying their music and making it more accessible without sacrificing depth. No mean feat.
There are a lot of comparisons to be drawn with other Swedish bands. The melodic horror and direct, memorable riffing is akin to Ghost but tracks like Nightbound and Cities From The Underworld use layers of sinister instrumentation and harmony to add a thick, nocturnal atmosphere of gothic horror. Johannes Andersson maintains his ghoulish, gargled vocals style too. A crucial move that stops things getting too slick, giving the album a gritty, filth that brings to mind In Solitude’s superb Sister. And on the centrepiece track Subterranea the band conjure the kind of evil magick that wouldn’t sound out of place on a Watain album.
I can’t blame anyone for trying to pick out a single but this is best experienced in its entirety. Tribulation juggles variety and consistency, accessibility and obscurity with accomplished ease. It’s a major statement from a band that has come a staggeringly long way in just four albums and Down Below will cast a long, haunting shadow over the metal scene of 2018.
The recent reissue of 1997’s One Second harked back to Paradise Lost’s “experimental” electro-goth era but, although the band has since returned to metal, they are no less experimental today. 2015’s The Plague Within featured the surprise reintroduction of doom/death metal and growled vocals to the band’s modern style and on their latest album Medusa the veteran band continues their increasingly extreme trajectory. This is Paradise Lost’s sludgiest, trudgiest album since 1992’s Shades Of God.
The album kicks off with Fearless Sky, Gods Of Ancient and From The Gallows. All crushing slabs of epic misery with crusty riffing, mournful harmonies and Nick Holmes’ increasingly impressive vocal snarl. Anyone expecting the UK band’s traditional melody and immediacy might find this opening trio uninviting but repeat listens prove rewarding and reveal the kind of compelling emotional depth that is the hallmark of great doom. The entire album follows in this imposingly bleak vein but, as it progresses, the band factor in Type O-style clean vocals and anthemic, gloomy hooks in songs like the stunning title track, The Longest Winter and Blood And Chaos. The skillful pacing and variation preventing the album from buckling under its own miserable weight.
Fans of the band’s earliest albums and tracks like Beneath Broken Earth from The Plague Within will find Medusa very satisfying indeed. Fans of One Second are advised to be patient. Whereas that album offered easy and immediate songcraft, it has proven a shade disposable over the years. By comparison, Medusa is a difficult album to get on with but it’s an uncompromising work of substance that will continue to repay dedicated listeners. It’s another wonderful offering in the stellar career of these fearless, ancient gods.
It’s been ten long years since Akercocke’s reign of progressive death metal terror reached a thrilling and diabolical climax with Antichrist. Although the band has lain dormant for much of the intervening decade, a vibrant scene has grown in their wake: superb “ex-Akercocke” bands like Voices, The Antichrist Imperium and Shrines forming a growing family tree that has been the source of much of my favourite music of recent years. But despite my huge love of the related bands, I’ve had a growing longing for an Ak comeback and here they are with their new album Renaissance In Extremis, the most highly-anticipated and exciting release of 2017.
Given that they reached peak Satan-worship on Antichrist, it is unsurprising that the ever-evolving British band has taken up new themes. This is a more personal and emotional Akercocke that combines topics of depression, grief and suicide with rampaging positivity and self-improvement. Complex structures and varied moods evoke the subject matter. The shimmering and colourful guitar textures would make Queensrÿche and Rush proud and it’s all given an energetic kick up the arse with an array of wonderful tech thrash riffing in tracks like Disappear and Insentience. And tracks like Unbound By Sin and First To Leave The Funeral find the band’s black/death malevolence of old is still intact.
The whole band performs with distinction, sounding sophisticated and polished but also raw and live. The riffs and guitar solos are sublime throughout: the guitar duo of Jason Mendonça and Paul Scanlan combine old and new metal styles with wonderful flair. It’s also especially good to hear Mendonça’s uniquely charismatic and varied vocals again. A couple of wobbly-pitched moments only add to the crazed, natural feel and Jason leads from the front like few extreme metal frontmen can.
There’s very little to quibble about here and this is a superb comeback album overflowing with originality and creativity. Progressive in the proper sense of the word, Akercocke have created another unique album to add to their discography. And one that has enough variety and maturity that many fans of classic metal fare may find it a gateway into a more extreme musical world. For those of us that already reside in that world, Akercocke’s Renaissance In Extremis is a joyous and welcome return, wholly deserving of the most diabolical and infernal praise.
Avatarium were originally devised as a combination of crushing doom and 70s prog. But on their third album Hurricanes and Halos there’s very little doom left at all; the focus is now firmly on retro rock stylings of swirling Hammond organ and sultry psychedelia.
Into The Fire/Into The Storm is a bold opener that makes full use of Jennie-Ann Smith’s forceful, dramatic lung power and The Starless Sleep is a wonderful mix of dark fable and summery 60s pop. But there’s a sense of diminishing returns on album number three. Although it’s one of the doomier tracks, Medusa Child is overlong with cheesy child vocals. And the breezy, bluesy When Breath Turns To Air and the closing instrumental parp of the title track barely register. The album’s uneven second half is saved by the stomping Uriah Heep worship of The Sky At The Bottom Of The Sea and the ominous beauty of A Kiss (From The End Of The World), one of the band’s best tunes to date.
It’s another strong effort from the Swedes but it finds them veering away from my own taste. As the band dial down the doom I find myself less engaged. But the band’s charismatic and summery take on classic 70s rock will win them more fans and appreciation than they lose. And those listeners may well find this the band’s most accessible and enjoyable album so far.
While the actual Venom continue under the leadership of infamous bassist/vocalist Conrad ‘Cronos’ Lant, the return of the band’s classic guitarist Jeff ‘Mantas’ Dunn and drummer Tony ‘Abaddon’ Bray as Venom Inc. has caused quite a stir. Surely two thirds of the band’s massively influential and legendary formation is better than one? And to cap it all off, the band has been rounded out appropriately and authentically with Prime Evil-era bassist/vocalist Tony ‘Demolition Man’ Dolan. It’s an exciting unit and the band has been going down a storm touring a classic Venom set. But playing live oldies is a no-brainer. Now the real test comes as the band offer up their first new material with their debut album Avé.
Venom Inc. perform like heroic metal veterans throughout. Mantas in particularly impressive form, peeling out genuinely thrilling guitar solos like it’s a piece of piss. They’re too seasoned to play with the filthy, bulldozer energy of old but as gutsy, trad metal goes much of this is hard to beat. It’s also hard to stick with. Songs like Avé Satanas and Preacher Man are average songs stretched way beyond their breaking point and, while it works better as an album track than as a single, Dein Fleisch causes a hefty lull at a crucial point.
With those three totally removed Avé could have been easily and massively improved, while coming in at the golden running time of 40min too. Ace biker metal tracks like Forged In Hell and The Evil Dead would get old heads banging again and raging thrashers like Metal We Bleed and Time To Die would give young Venom-worshipping upstarts like Midnight a run for their money too. But, as a complete listening experience, Avé is overlong, uneven and frustrating: the two thirds of Venom Inc. proving that it is possible to ‘ave too much of a good thing.
Following an impressive demo and mini-album, I was expecting to be more impressed by Possession’s debut full-length album. The Belgians dish out impressively clear and concise black/death with plenty of evil atmosphere but they never really lift themselves out of the solid zone. Despite some strong riffs, the songs in the first half all blur into one. Exorkizein gradually improves, and is at its best in its closing stages with tracks like In Vain and Take the Oath being standouts. Possession have an appealing Watain-like delivery and catchiness but there’s not enough of that band’s threatening audacity and ambition here. Exorkizein is far from execrable but not exactly exciting either.