Dark Hemyspheres: February 2014

Rain, rain, go away, please don't come back in May. With half the country under water, we have at least been given something to look forward to with exciting announcements from Download, Sonisphere, Bloodstock and Damnation festivals. An addition to the calendar has also emerged in the shape of Out Of The Ashes, set to take place near Chester in July and looking to champion many smaller acts who otherwise don't get a shot. But in the meantime, let's have a look at who has what to promote at these esteemed gatherings.

Nuclear Blast have not one but two prestige releases out this month. After all his horrific medical problems, it is very pleasing to see Nergal resurrect Behemoth, coming out as vicious and driven as ever. Whilst The Satanist [6] might not be much of a departure from the band's more recent trajectory, it is still a bile-ridden assault that exhibits a maturity and nous many young metal bands would do well to study. There is a subtlety to the malice, a fine example of how to deliver crushing heaviness without necessarily ramping everything up to eleven and making a mess of it all.

Old school stalwarts Grand Magus themselves deliver a lesson in true heavy metal. One of the few bands around that can tap into the much-plundered retro vein and come up with something sounding fresh and alive, and with Triumph And Power [7], they have done it again. The galloping riffs and JB's call to arms will get fists pumping and heads banging across the nation as this wildly fun, and not altogether serious, record blasts out at full volume.

Van Canto play a similar brand of metal, but do so in an entirely different way. With the exception of the drums, all the instruments are "sung", down even to the wah-wah solos! Sounds bizarre? Too bloody right! New album Dawn Of The Brave [4] would be completely unremarkable if it weren't for the unusual method of delivery, being yet another German power metal album. And once the novelty wears off, that is exactly what is left. Yes, it is an impressive display of vocal dexterity, but throw in a few comically dodgy covers (including 'The Final Countdown' and 'Holding Out For A Hero') and the excitement soon wanes. More traditionally on the traditional metal path, Slough Feg stir up the Digital Resistance [5]. A collection of tales warning about the frightening advance of technology, the songs themselves are rather twee, cute melodies that hark strongly back to NWOBHM's 80s heydays. This is as easy listening as metal gets, pleasant enough with a certain merit, but never attention-grabbing or challenging.

Two rising stars of the doom scene in Lazarus Blackstar and Black Shape Of Nexus get together to release a tasty Split [6] mini-album. Contributing two tracks each, this is a filthy and bleak ride through music's darker alleys. Lazarus Blackstar offer us a pair almost completely devoid of treble, the dirty bass rumbling along with menace in a slow groove that feels you are being marched towards some indescribable horror. Black Shape Of Nexus on the other hand don't even make that concession, indeed they are the monster at the end of the path. Squealing feedback and huge drones leave the second half feeling black and bruising.

Instead of feeling gloomy and depressed, the world has got Godhunter somewhat riled. City Of Dust [6] certainly fits stylistically in with other stoner doom outfits, but there is a real punky aggression cutting through the sludgy guitars and toiling drums. This is the aural equivalent of the man with the "It's the end of the world!" sandwich board, only this time he's wielding a sledgehammer too. The third interpretation on doom this month comes courtesy of Solstice. The new EP Death's Crown Is Victory [5] is more classical with some evil Sabbath-esque riffs, and also leans more on folk influences, in particular on the two instrumentals bookmarking the piece. It is enjoyable, but is equally forgettable as soon as the final notes fade away.

Norwich might not be a thrash metal stronghold, but Shrapnel have a damn good go at getting the party started. Their debut offering The Virus Conspires [6] proudly wears the influence of the genre's legends on its sleeve, barrelling through with tremendous speed. All the essential elements are there in the right place, but as with many newcomers, there is not quite enough of their own fingerprint on the record, nothing to mark this out as new and different. By comparison, Immortal Legacy [5], the fifth album from veterans Hirax, sounds a touch tired, as if they can't quite keep up with the young guns. Again, there is nothing here to get particularly excited about, and although this is far from being a bad record, the homogeny of it all gets dull after half a dozen near-identical tracks. Lightning fast riffs and super-shredded solos might have been the order of the day when the band first fired up, but a quarter of a century later and they've stood still.

British black metal has a history of being maligned, but over the last decade a slew of bands have come forth and forged what is now a distinctive sound. Ditching the lo-fi aspects and adding soaring atmospherics, Bast are the latest to emerge with their debut Spectres [7]. Not quite as frozen a sound as their Scandinavian peers, they still manage to capture a vast, lonely bleakness within their music that is hypnotically crushing. Finns Woland show signs that black metal in the far north can also evolve as Hyperion [5] comes bursting out with a highly polished production and pinches of musical variety. The relentless ferocity is alleviated with flashes of Spanish guitar and delicate pianos. Yet despite these interludes, the record still sinks into a slightly monotonous haze that eventually fades into the background. Folge Dem Wind are better at keeping the listeners attention as second album To Summon Twilight [6] dances a lively jig, showing a greater dynamic in the vicious backbone of the record throughout. As with their debut a couple of years ago, this has the feeling of being a little unhinged, much akin to the ravings of The Joker or some such – a bit bonkers but not without a dash of (twisted) logic.

Straying into more progressive territory, Sweven [5] is the debut from Morbus Chron. Technically very proficient, and at times mesmerizingly so, the record manages to get itself lost as it drifts between bursts of machine gun heaviness. Especially into the second half, these wistful interludes become the dominant feature, relaxed jams that feel too safe and fail to elicit any palpitations.

Given the personnel in Centiment (they include the brothers from InMe), it might be easy, if too hasty, to dismiss Streets Of Rage [6] out of hand. A mix of prog metal and computer game style electronics, it is definitely a bit different, if not universally successful. Very much at its best when really letting rip, the diversions into stadium rock and dubstep only distract from the highlights such as 'Viktor Frankl' and 'Mother's Nature'. In a month seemingly dominated by backwards-looking releases Sammal really get their prog on with new EP No 2 [5]. Full of Hammond organs and bluesy rock, the nostalgia trip is tempered by some sub-standard vocals. This is less homage to 1969, more an attempt to reconstruct it.

Canucks Incura, now releasing their self-titled debut outside of their homeland, are a different band from InsideOut's usual fair. Incura [6] is full of the over-the-top theatrics often associated with prog, but the catchy tunes and rocky directness are less common amongst the roster. This is more flamboyant dress than impressive beard, but still highly enjoyable when they really go through the gears and cut loose. Equally grandiose, and with a few extra players on board for this one, Within Temptation return with Hydra [7]. Yet another collection of uplifting and remarkably pleasing tunes, heads have been turned by the number and variety of the guests. Amongst them, Tarja Turunen is a close fit on operatic 'Paradise (What About Us?)', whilst Xzibit is very much a leftfield choice on 'And We Run', but one that surprisingly works. To call these metal pop songs might well conjure up derogatory connotations, yet with crunching riffs, soaring synths and a bag-full of earworms, what else are they?

This month's dark star was an easy choice as one album stood far above everything else, a near-perfect concoction of experimentation and atmosphere. Both Sunn O))) and Ulver have consistently pushed boundaries and delivered genre-defining records over many years, so the prospect of them finally producing a full album together has sparked a fair amount of excitement. The one piece they did almost a decade ago, 'CUT WOODeD', is a fair indication of where Terrestrials [9] goes; Sunn O)))'s overwhelming guitar drones are all but absent, instead both bands melding to create much more subtle drones as echoed guitars and reverb-drenched synths ghost around in a dark, uneasy calm. In a sign of true collaboration, it is difficult to judge who really took the lead here as strong elements of both can often be heard whilst each of the three tracks never sound too much like one or t' other. Terrestrials is a deeply unsettling listen, but one that is both enthralling and addictive as you return to its haunting corridors again and again.

Behemoth – The Satanist (3rd, Nuclear Blast Records)
Grand Magus – Triumph And Power (3rd, Nuclear Blast Records)
Van Canto – Dawn Of The Brave (10th, Napalm Records)
Slough Feg – Digital Resistance (17th, Metal Blade Records)
Black Shape Of Nexus/Lazarus Blackstar – Split (10th, Alerta Antifascista Records)
Godhunter – City Of Dust (17th, Battleground Records / The Compound)
Solstice – Death's Crown Is Victory (10th, Into The Void Records)
Shrapnel – The Virus Conspires (3rd, Candlelight Records)
Hirax – Immortal Legacy (24th, SPV)
Bast – Spectres (24th, Burning World/Black Bow Records)
Woland – Hyperion (17th, Indie Recordings)
Folge Dem Wind – To Summon Twilight (24th, code666)
Morbus Chron – Sweven (24th, Century Media Records)
Centiment – Streets Of Rage (17th, Pledge Music)
Sammal – No 2 (17th, Svart Records)
Incura – Incura (24th, InsideOut Music)
Within Temptation – Hydra (3rd, Dramatico)
Sunn O))) & Ulver – Terrestrials (3rd, Southern Lord)

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