This week’s Heavy Music HQ reviews include releases from Category VI, Dawn Ray’d, Endless Nameless, Floor Jansen, Gatekeeper, Hatesphere, Ihsahn, Keep Of Kalessin, Liturgy, Marianas Rest, Mork, Ne Obliviscaris, Saxon and Xysma.
The ratings are on a 5 star scale.
Category VI – Firecry (Moribund)
The Canadian traditional/power metal band Category VI issued their debut album a decade ago. Nearly six years after their sophomore album, the quartet returns with their latest effort, Firecry.
Their brand of metal is inspired by the ’80s with plenty of guitar solos, but the production is modern. They alternate between soaring power metal like the title track, more deliberate and groovy traditional metal such as “Coven” and ballads like “The Cradle Will Fall.” Vocalist Amanda Jackman has powerful pipes that suit the dramatic material very well. Category VI close the album with a cover of Heart’s iconic “Barracuda” that’s a bit heavier but doesn’t stray far from the original arrangement. Firecry is quality metal from an underrated band.
Dawn Ray’d – To Know The Light (Prosthetic)
To Know The Light is the sound of a band in transition, as Dawn Ray’d redefine not only their own black metal, but what the genre can be as a whole. It takes supreme confidence as a group to do a two-and-a-half minute a cappella song like “Requital” and pull it off as well as they do. From the optimistic tone of “Freedom In Retrograde” to the booming organ of closer “Go As Free Companions,” there’s a willingness to not just regurgitate past successes and pass them off as new.
Dawn Ray’d haven’t lost their identity as anti-fascist compatriots though, and the seething messages of “The Battle Of Sudden Flame” and “Inferno” will alleviate any fears they have left their anger behind. They continue to be purveyors of violin-driven black metal with folk-laden melodies, with more of the latter on display on To Know The Light. Three albums in, Dawn Ray’d have styled themselves as innovators who aren’t content with staying stagnant.
Endless, Nameless – Living Without (Silent Pendulum)
This writer was almost tempted to put down “Everything” as the genre descriptor for Endless, Nameless’ debut album, Living Without. This is because the band’s eccentricities have them sonically all over the map. It becomes standard to hear them go from mathcore to prog to black metal, all within the same song. The group won’t be held to any particular songwriting standards, which gives this album a fluid sense of excitement.
That excitement does come with an extra effort in engagement. There are so many idiosyncrasies to their sound that it can seem disjointed with a casual listen. It’s easy to miss the gripping harmonies within a song like “Sarah Lynn” if a listener doesn’t fully put themselves into it. Living Without is a good kind of experimental music, where it’s not accessibility that is the hurdle to climb over, but one’s attention span.
Floor Jansen – Paragon (Republic)
The purpose of side projects and solo albums is to pursue and express different styles and approaches than the artist’s main band. That’s exactly what Floor Jansen has done with Paragon. Known as one of metal’s best and most powerful vocalists from her work in After Forever, ReVamp and Nightwish over the past quarter century, Jansen is now exploring her pop/rock side.
The songs on Paragon are accessible and melodic, with Jansen eschewing operatic singing and showcasing a different vocal style that fits these compositions perfectly. “My Paragon” is an upbeat pop number, while “Daydream” is a ballad with the album’s most wide-ranging vocal performance that goes from delicate to belting it out. The songs are diverse not only musically, but also emotionally. Tracks like “Invincible” are empowering and inspiring, contrasting more introspective but still positive songs such “The Calm.” Paragon is an impactful album that while not metal, will still appeal to many of Jansen’s fans while having a wider mainstream appeal in pop music.
Gatekeeper – From Western Shores (Cruz Del Sur)
Gatekeeper‘s second full-length album From Western Shores has a very classic metal feel to it. Undeniably influenced by bands like Manilla Road, there is a strong tendency towards the old guard to be found here. Songs like “Nomads” bring the old school riffage to a high degree. The musical performances are strong with melodic guitar work that rounds out with high-pitched vocals from new vocalist Tyler Anderson that adds character to the sounds.
At times Gatekeeper sounds too similar to older bands and borrows too heavily from them. If they balanced the homage to the genre’s classic with a bit more adventurousness, the band could be really something else. As it stands, From Western Shores is a strong totem to the classic sound that is glorious heavy metal grandeur that’s jam packed with melodically catchy songs.
HateSphere – Hatred Reborn (Scarlet)
The long-running Danish band HateSphere have had a few vocalists over the years. Esben Elnegaard Kjær Hansen exited the group after a decade as frontman, and has been replaced by Mathias Uldall (Royal Deceit) for their eleventh full-length album Hatred Reborn.
The album begins with a mellow acoustic instrumental before their trademark blend of extremity kicks in. Uldall shows his versality from the jump, able to deliver lower pitched growls, gruff sing-song vocals and higher pitched fierce barks. Guitarists Peter Lyse Karmark and Kasper Kirkegaard shift smoothly between the speed of thrash and the groove of death metal. It’s an effective blend of melody and brutality, with the lyrics focusing on man’s fascination with evil. They close the proceedings with a cover of Scorpions’ Another Piece Of Meat that’s more extreme than the original along with a live version of “The Fallen Shall Rise In A River Of Blood” from 2005’s The Sickness Within. Uldall is a positive addition to HateSphere, and Hatred Reborn shows they haven’t lost any momentum.
Ihsahn – Fascination Street Sessions (Candlelight)
Ihsahn‘s latest effort Fascination Street Sessions was spawned from Ihsahn taking URM Academy’s online program for music production and working with the legendary Jens Bogrem (Opeth, Arch Enemy) of Fascination Street Studios. The result is a three song EP.
Opener “The Observer” shifts between mellow and heavy, with contrasting vocals. Keyboardist Øystein Aadland sings lead, his smooth melodic croon contrasted by harsh vocals from Ihsahn. Lush keyboards provide atmosphere. “Contorted Monuments” is a brisk rocker that also has a combination of harsh and melodic vocals. Closer “Dom Andra” features vocals from Katatonia’s Jonas Renske, with his distinctive style and delivery giving the song done originally by the Swedish pop/rock band Kent its own flavor. Ihsahn’s education in production resulted in three excellent songs, and after three EPs in a row fans are even hungrier for his next full-length.
Keep Of Kalessin – Katharsis (Back On Black)
The Norwegian black metal band Keep Of Kalessin emerged in the mid-’90s and released a couple of albums before splitting up. They reformed with a more melodic but still extreme style and issued several more albums. There was a long gap after 2015’s Epistemology, but are finally releasing their seventh full-length Katharsis.
Founding guitarist Obsidian Claw, now known as Arnt Obsidian, also took over vocal duties on Epistemology, and that continues on this album. It’s a varied collection of black and death metal, with the heavy and epic opening title track shifting between brutality and melody. There are several focused and streamlined songs like “Hellride” and “War Of The Wyrm” alongside more ambitious and lengthy tracks like the ten minute “The Obsidian Expanse” that’s bombastic and symphonic at the beginning and mellow and introspective in the middle before amping the heaviness back up. Katharsis is a welcome return that combines elements of both Keep Of Kalessin’s recent and more distant past releases in an album that’s varied and compelling.
Liturgy – 93696 (Thrill Jockey)
93696 is the New York experimental black/avant-garde band Liturgy‘s most ambitious and wide ranging release so far, as they continue to push musical and artistic boundaries. 93696, a numerical representation of heaven or a new eon for civilization, is a double album clocking in at more than 82 minutes.
93696 is sweeping and eclectic, with tracks like “Djennaration” switching between chaos and melody, with throat shredding vocals from Ravenna Hunt-Hendrix. She combines melodic and harsh vocals on songs like “Haelegen II.” Several interlude tracks such as the hymn-like “Angel Of Sovereignty” and peaceful “Angel Of Hierarchy” provide respites between the roller coaster arcs of most of the album’s songs. Liturgy really shine on lengthy numbers like the dynamic 15 minute title track and “Antigone II.” There are some lulls and songs that seem extraneous (“Red Crown II”), but 93696 has a lot of adventurous and unpredictable moments that make it a worthwhile listen.
Marianas Rest – Auer (Napalm)
On their fourth album Auer, Finnish doomsters Marianas Rest are as morose and melancholy as ever. They bring some extra bite with black metal influences added to their blend of doom and death metal. The six-piece group write songs that are deliberate and lengthy, unfolding at an unhurried pace. Heaviness and harsh vocals are in ample supply, but so are melody and atmospherics.
Tracks like diseased shift between crushing doom and airy, mellow sections. Marianas Rest do a nice job varying tempos, from the brisk “Light Reveals Our Wounds” to the deliberate “White Cradle” that also incorporates some melodic vocals. The album closer “Sirens” features My Dying Bride’s Aaron Stainthorpe on a track that’s quiet and laid back before the extremity kicks in several minutes in. Auer runs the gamut when it comes to tempos, textures and intensities, weaving them into a cohesive and riveting album.
Mork – Dypet (Peaceville)
Mork’s Thomas Eriksen will stop at nothing to bring his one-man show to our eardrums, and on his sixth offering Dypet you get more of what you want from true Norwegian black metal. The cold riffs on opener “Indre Demoner” convey that elusive feeling of dread that is often missing from more modern black metal, eventually giving way to a tremolo picked section that is wonderfully crafted, weaving a tapestry of tundra in its wake.
“Et Kall Fra Dypet” is more of a gruff turn for Mork about midway through the album, also the longest song at over seven and a half minutes, making for a mini-epic with varying levels of attack levied onto the listener. The album also features a guest appearance by fellow Norwegian Hjelvik on “Hoye Murer,” providing a more grandiose and Viking-like atmosphere, much like his own band. Mork deliver a solid black metal entry with Dypet, one that continues to solidify their place in the underground as champions of the second wave and one of the best bands in black metal today.
Ne Obliviscaris – Exul (Season of Mist)
Ne Obliviscaris are one of the truest symbols and the definition of an extreme metal band. Six years after the acclaimed album Urn, Ne Obliviscaris have once again created a gigantic theatrical stage to direct their musical show with the utmost epicness and passion.
Every moment and every second of Exul is surrounded by carefully-designed songwriting, tremendous emotions and sensational power. Violin-driven songs create dramatic and thought-provoking moments, and the complexity of melodies with the silky operatic voice of Tim Charles and the roar of Xenoyr’s growls, combining melodic/progressive death metal with melancholic yet overwhelming death doom metal. This combination touches a new frontier that the band have not approached in such an impressive way in previous albums. Exul is an extraordinary achievement, a glorious renaissance in creating emotion out of chaos.
Saxon – More Inspirations (Silver Lining)
In 2021, the legendary NWOBHM band Saxon released the covers album Inspirations. It featured their take on songs from classic bands such as The Beatles, Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple and more. More Inspirations is the second installment of cover songs.
Like the first one, the artists selected are rock staples. Saxon tackle The Who’s “Substitute,” KISS’ “Detroit Rock City,” Nazareth’s “Razamanaz” and ZZ Top’s “Chevrolet.” One of the more interesting choices is The Sensational Alex Harvey Band’s “The Faith Healer,” a Scottish rock band known for their theatrical performances. Covering anything originally done by Ronnie James Dio is a challenge, but Biff Byford is up to the task on the Rainbow track “Man On The Silver Mountain.” The arrangements on More Inspirations are pretty faithful to the originals, but Byford’s distinctive vocals are able to give them a slightly different sound.
Xysma – No Place Like Alone (Svart)
Finnish extreme oddities Xysma return for their first full-length in over 25 years with No Place Like Alone. Originally given massive credit for the rise in death metal in Finland in the early ‘90s, Xysma turned into a combination of The Hellacopters, Entombed and The Stooges by bringing a garage rock sensibility to their mayhem. Album opener “Well Seasoning” features some excellent vocals by Janitor, balanced wonderfully by the underlying main riff. Xysma aren’t afraid to let the piano rip on “Model 670,” making for an excellent track to throw on in the car and blast to your heart’s content; windows down, no exceptions.
There are elements of ‘80s synths on “Midnight Call” and “Final Episode,” the latter which gives off major Ian Astbury vibes and horror movie intro riffs and overall darkness on “Mr. Fulltrade.” Nothing is off limits to this band. Xysma rock on this fun comeback, a plethora of twists and turns keep the listener guessing again and again. It’s a blast of a record that only gets better each time.