Dark Hemyspheres: January 2014
For those in the northern hemisphere, it is a truth acknowledged that January is the darkest, most miserable and depressing month of the year. Which brings us nicely onto the first instalment of Dark Hemyspheres in 2014, with some fittingly bleak and wretched music to help everyone wallow in that pit of despair before the green shoots of spring rear their head!
And nothing is more desolate than the trans-continental dirge of Culted. Second full-length Oblique To All Paths  crawls along at a pace snails would consider slow. Devoid of anything remotely approaching light or relief, this starts off difficult (with the 19 minutes of the appropriately titled 'Brooding Hex') and only gets more so as it descends further into its doom-laden caves of sound. The single pace may feel a little monotonous, but it certainly adds to the overwhelming gloom. Woebegone Obscured are as clichéd as their dreadful name portents. Marrow Of Dreams  (something lost in translation, chaps?) succeeds only in stitching together all the requisite parts - even in the right places most of the time - but fail to instil the music with any sort of life or emotion. The dread is crucially missing as they merely plod through eighty minutes of frankly derivative doom.
Solo act Vardan ticks all the boxes when it comes to "kvlt" black metal: satanic, loner, cryptic alias, albums virtually unavailable, terrible grasp of the English language. But the appalling grammar of The Woods Is My Coffin  is thankfully the greatest irritant about the whole show, as the music itself is dark and twisted with a spine of frozen hatred running strong throughout. It still has that distinct lo-fi sound, but one perfectly balanced to impart the feeling of vast nothingness - but not one completely devoid of bass and impact. It still falls into the old pitfall of a lack of originality, but it is hardly a bad effort. That is not an accusation you can level at Greeks Hail Spirit Noir. Adding more than a tab of the psychedelic to their black metal, Oi Magoi  is a strange listen, but not an unpleasant one. Something akin to Jefferson Airplane at their weirdest, crossed with a yearning to continue where Emperor left the genre, it is heartening to hear a band do something radical with this brand of extreme music that too often becomes so insular.
We all know now what to expect from an Iced Earth record, and Plagues Of Babylon  delivers exactly that. Again. With a level of cheesiness that is almost in power metal territory, there is still just enough menace and a few blistering riffs to keep it on the thrash side of the line. Fans will undoubtedly lap this up, but they remain very much preaching to the converted - and few others. More likely to do so is Ravenous Plague , delivered in the most riotous of thrashy displays by Legion Of The Damned. There is little arguing with the sheer ferocity and face-melting power of the guitars from start to finish. Involuntary bouts of headbanging are sure to break out. This album may be exactly the shot in the arm the scene needs to help kickstart a genre that has been a little thin on the ground in recent years.
Back fronting a death metal band for the first time in over a decade, Steve Tucker unleashes his new project Warfather. Alas, this particular offspring rather stumbles out the gate with Orchestrating The Apocalypse . So very definitely old school death metal in the vein of Morbid Angel et al, it immediately feels dated and lacks any sort of real power. Horribly over-produced, all the instruments are sparklingly clean and neatly laid over each other with no sense of primal togetherness. In a similar vein (or should that be spilling out of one?), Finns Demilich have collected their entire recorded output in 20th Adversary Of Emptiness . The centrepiece is their sole LP Nespithe, a suitably disgusting record that has the audacity to play about with hints of harmony amongst the chainsaw guitars. The rest of the set is made up of a collection of demos, plus the jewels in the crown that are the three tracks recorded during their brief reprise in 2006 – combining the melodiousness of their early work with a top quality production. These latter tracks do leave you wondering 'What if…'
There is no denying the sheer beauty of the music Alcest create, shimmering guitars that lift the spirit and soar with such an otherworldly sense rarely experienced in extreme music. However, this time around on Shelter , too often it begins to drift off a touch aimlessly; the magic is lost as the same tricks are overused to try and induce that dreamlike state. However, when Stéphane Paut gets it right, he still enthralls and amazes in a way few else can.
With yet another release in yet another configuration, Circle return to more atmospheric, krautrock waters with the live film soundtrack SSEENNSSESS . As is often the case with these madcap experimentalists, the album never sits still for too long as it veers from gently hypnotic meanderings to full-bloodied charges through modern kosmische heartlands. It is within these latter periods where the band are at their imperious best, hurtling along with an unbridling vitality that is difficult not to relish.
Sleazy in both look and sound, Sister have managed to take a step away from the campness of the glam scene with their latest album. Disguising Vultures  is in essence a hard rocking record full of memorable riffs, given an extra edge by the gravelly, black metal-esque vocals rather than the ball-squeezing wails of many of their peers. They are given a run for their money when it comes to rollicking guitar lines by The Vintage Caravan, who on Voyage  immediately take a multi-hued camper van back to 1970. This is unashamedly retro as the good-times bluesy rock 'n' roll leads to a hankering for Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath. And therein is the fatal flaw: there are some good tunes in here, especially the likes of 'Let Me Be' and 'Winterland', but it has all been done before, both to death and far better.
But the first dark star of this year is a band able to harness that comfort of the good ol' times and use it to create music that whilst nostalgic, is still new and fresh and brilliant. With the combined talents that make up TransAtlantic, nothing less than dazzling musicianship and intelligent song craft should be expected, and after the disappointing mush of their last effort, Kaleidoscope  is a very welcome return to prog excellence for the supergroup that has managed to become simply a band. Booked-ended by two mammoth epics in the half-hour region, the closing title track in particular is a masterclass in weaving a complete musical narrative over many terrains whilst showing off every member's supreme ability, as well as keeping it coherent and exciting. 'Black As The Sky', only a mere seven minutes long, is the surprise hidden in Kaleidoscope as a heaviness and directness rarely glimpsed within TransAtlantic emerges, and most definitely leaves an impression. Of course this is massively indulgent – it is prog after all – but the whole record is imbued with an energy and sense of playfulness that should simply be enjoyed (almost) guilt-free.
Culted – Oblique To All Paths (20th, Relapse Records)
Woebegone Obscured – Marrow Of Dreams (13th, I, Voidhanger Recordings)
Vardan – The Woods Is My Coffin (20th, Moribund Records)
Hail Spirit Noir – Oi Magoi (20th, code666)
Iced Earth – Plagues Of Babylon (6th, Century Media Records)
Legion Of The Damned – Ravenous Plague (6th, Napalm Records)
Warfather – Orchestrating The Apocalypse (20th, Greyhaze Records)
Demilich – 20th Adversary Of Emptiness (27th, Svart Records)
Alcest – Shelter (20th, Prophecy Productions)
Circle – SSEENNSSEESS (27th, Ektro Records)
Sister – Disguised Vultures (20th, Metal Blade Records)
The Vintage Caravan – Voyage (13th, Nuclear Blast Records)
TransAtlantic – Kaleidoscope (27th, InsideOut Music)