Sunday, November 29, 2020

Enslaved - Utgard (2020)

When I heard the first few singles for this latest Enslaved album, "Homebound" and "Jettegryta", I was suitably impressed, and thought immediately that drummer Iver Sandøy was a cool addition to the roster, bringing them yet another avenue for the soaring clean vocals they like to measure off against Grutle's snarling, or the other cleans contributed by both Vinje and Kjellson. But it wasn't until I watched them perform the new album in its entirety on one of their COVID-19 quarantine live-streams, that the hooks really started to sink into me; that I started to feel that hypnotic draw which their signature blend of progressive elements and Viking black metal has long manifest since the turn of the century when their style truly began to expand. This is truly one of the best of the business, an outfit which can seamlessly integrate disparate ideas, never truly compromise, and continue to garner the respect of both their audience and metal media.

That's not to say that Utgard is some crowning milestone of their career, because at its heart it's not one of their more interesting in terms of its quantities of nuance or creativity. To be clear, there are things here that you might not have exactly heard before, like some of the approach to proggy jamming, a few of the vocal configurations with these three throats, or some of the more exotic lead guitar passages, but you're still hearing a lot of the familiar aesthetics that defined their last 7-8 albums, like the spacious Pink Floyd sections, or the wintry black metal surges dominant on discs like Isa and Ruun. Utgard is very smoothly mixed and mastered, and surprisingly, while it doesn't lack for the complexity or inaccessibility of its compositional structure, it's somewhat more accessible on its surface level than other recent efforts like In Times or E. I don't think it's far-fetched to say that Utgard is playing it safe to some degree, but even an Enslaved sticking to its last decades' worth of sounds has a massive sandbox of riffs and combinations to play around, and tracks like the rollicking prog metal bite of "Sequence", with the ambiance of the other instruments layered over the verses; or the synthy Hawkwind-esque space rock of "Urjotun" are welcome and refreshing additions to the Norwegians' canon.

Performances across the album are spotless, and as usual its a technical feast of rhythmic variety, all manner of psychedelic rock integrations, but still fully aware of the band's own roots...and you can hear plenty of faster Frost-like executions as well as a number of thundering riffs that hearken straight back to the Viking black metal source of Bathory's Blood, Fire, Death. Certainly I heard individual riffs on this one which almost played out like a catalogue of references to their other albums..."Flight of Thought and Memory" might have belonged on Vertebrae, while "Homebound" channels a little RIITIIR or Axioma Ethica Odini. It might not be as stunning or revelatory as the first time you heard them delving into these styles, but the fact remains that eight of the nine tracks on this are extremely well crafted, the one exception being the 2-minute interlude 'title track" which is merely warped, windy psychedelic ambient noise with some throbbing bass, electronics and sexy spoken word. The lyrics are great, the cover art has a proggy sort of symmetry to it plus Hugin and Munin, and I've probably already given this a good half dozen listens during the month of October when I'm usually putting all my listening priority on horror metal stuff...what does that tell you?

still rules. I'm not surprised, you're not surprised, and Utgard isn't surprising, but in hands as capable as these that becomes the diametric opposite of a flaw.

Verdict: Win [8.75/10]

Thursday, November 26, 2020

Sad - Misty Breath of Ancient Forests (2020)

Sad is an unsung, relatively long-standing act in the Greek black metal community which might be dubbed as 'dependable', truly committed to the most fundamental aesthetics of their genre but never really manifesting anything truly impressive or unique, nor anything that really drags the bottom of the well. Albums like Devouring the Divine and A Curse in Disguise are textbook cases of the medium, with nasty rasped vocals and nihilistic energy that is derived from the European forebears and iconoclasts like Mayhem and Darkthrone. They don't have a terribly Hellenic feel or sound to them, although I'd say a few melodic parallels might be drawn towards the more sinister Rotting Christ or Varathron material.

Misty Breath of Ancient Forests is the duo's sixth proper full-length installment, and while it might be considered more of the same, I'd say this was easily the band's best produced record to date, and also cultivates a consistent melodic might to it that should sate purists. I was immediately taken in by the muted, murky artwork and just how well the musical content lives up to that. You're clearly thrust into the role of some corpse-painted barbarian scouring the ancient boreal landscapes of sound, wrestling with other predators to the unending glorious melodies that spew out of Ungod's strings. The vocals are standard for the genre, but definitely get crazy and suicidal enough sounding to compete with the incessant momentum of the music, and you might get a grunt to back up all the snarling. There can be a bit of a monotonous nature to the song structures...they cycle through a good number of riffs, and few that disappoint, but often the blast parts can grow a little weary, where if they had just thrown in an added break or simpler, slower transition a lot of this could come across far more sick and effective, especially when you're juggling 6-9 minute tracks.

Just listen to when they curb the speed a bit in "White Death" and you get those really great sounding melodies to the surging chords, or the saddening guitar strings that ring out over the roiling bass drums of "Hades Gazing". These aren't a huge deviation from the main thrust, but they hint that Sad could benefit from even more versatility in tempo and riff selection. But that's the only major gripe I can say about Misty Breath of Ancient Forests, because it sure as hell is well-assembled, and if you're a fan of classics like Transilvanian Forest which could also be pointed at for its too-persistent pacing, despite it being a masterpiece, then I don't think this one will bother you. A bit overlong, especially without some more breaks, segues, or varied tempos, but with ease this is one of Sad's better outings.

Verdict: Win [7.25/10]

Monday, November 23, 2020

Outrage - Run Riot (2020)

Outrage could safely be considered an institution of Japanese thrash metal, with almost 35 years of experience and recordings behind them, no massive gaps between releases, no sizeable breaks of any sort, very little if any deviation from their chosen path; yet they've gone virtually unnoticed in the rest of the world beyond the microscopic (but always increasing) niche of metalhead Japanophiles. Even then, this is not a band that fits into any of the major trends of their own country's metal scene writ large...they're not visual kei artists, they're not playing the blistering, trendy symphonic power metal nor are they a mashup of extreme groove metal and some idol group. I can recall a day when I'd read mention of them as a 'next Metallica', probably around their old albums like Black Clouds and Blind to Reality, back in some old metal or skater rag, but as with most such predictions and appraisals, it turns out only Metallica was the next Metallica...

That's fine, because Outrage is still pretty good, and Run Riot, their 14th full-length effort, doe just what its title advertises, a molten hybrid of thrash and speed metal aesthetics which doesn't sound like the band members have aged a day since that late 80s era. If you're looking for complex song structures or nuanced riffs, this is not exactly the band for you, but if you want simple, predictable, catchy energy drenched in wild lead guitars and charismatic barking thrash/hardcore vocals, that's all here. Noaki Hashimoto, who has fronted the band for most of its career, has a nice timbre which ranges from mid-ranged grit to a higher scream, and although his accent does naturally mold his delivery, the lyrics are hammered out clearly and don't delve into Engrish. He's often got some solid gang shouts backing him up and ultimately they get a broader selection of vocal weapons than you'd expect from the style. The guitars are a mesh of pure old blitzkrieg US thrash circa 80s Metallica, and bluesier speed/heavy metal which would make Lemmy and company blush; naturally this might create a split identity for the band, but somehow the strong studio mix and the vocals hold it all together into one unified, fist flailing brawl with cuts like "Cyclops" and the hilarious titled "Supernaturally Outlaw of the Cosmic Void" providing ear candy for anyone who likes their thrash metal straightforward and effective.

If they have any faults, it's only that they can occasionally get a little overly silly like "Science Spirit Hits" which is more like Butthole Surfers style rock & roll, but even that is catchy here, and I rather like how the effects on his vocals kind of evolve as he gets angrier, and it's some mean driving music either way. Surely there's nothing present on Run Riot that would surprise anyone that had heard the band's music before, only that the band hasn't had a wider reach. It's not like they do anything more crazy or special than other, comparable bands, but from front to back this is just a fun album with enough versatility that it never gets boring across the 44 minutes and change. I usually check out all the band's albums as they arrive, because I've always had a fondness for the veteran Japanese bands like this one, or Loudness, or Anthem, and I'd have to say this is one of the best they've come out since their first three. It's about as un-pretentious as it gets, and there aren't a lot of unique riffs that will stick out for long, but it's perfect for your Corvette cruises, or at least the dreams you have of having them.

Verdict: Win [7.25/10]

Friday, November 20, 2020

Death Angel - Under Pressure EP (2020)

I have almost no interest whatsoever in acoustic recordings from metal bands. There, I said it. It's not that I harbor a particular disdain for the style; I can recall fiddling with a 12-string around a beach fire with some friends and having a blast. I don't mind the instrument being used for a shimmery or melancholic interlude, or an intro, or even being tastefully woven into some epic with the electric instruments, but I was never an Unplugged fan, and only once in awhile did I appreciate the nuance brought to a track when it's spun off into an acoustic version. Plug in and thrash my face off. When I saw there was a new Death Angel EP out, and they were covering the Queen/David Bowie hit "Under Pressure" as its center piece, I thought it'd be cool for a listen, but the prospect of four acoustic tunes, one of which is a new version of a song that was ALREADY an acoustic track (in part), the mercury was hardly busting out the head of my thermometer.

To be fair, the thrashers' acoustic rendition of the title track with the multiple vocals is enthusiastic, in no way something I'm going to ever steer towards over the original, but it's clear they put a lot of effort and emotion into it, and despite a little excess silliness balancing these vocals against Mercury and Bowie, it is the strongest tune of the four here. "Faded Remains", an original, is an attempt at a Death Angel country or folk cut that falls fairly short, it really just never hits that catchiness that it's striving for, and I found it a bit monotonous even with the solid backup harmonies and a decent performance from Mark Osegueda which if nothing else proves he's more than capable of handling the style. The new version of "A Room with a View" might sound fun sitting on the porch in the shade, watching the breeze stir the trees, but it never picks up with the 'oomph' of the original and thus doesn't exactly justify it's inclusion. Probably the greatest departure is "Revelation Song", being rendered down from its heavier version on Humanicide, and interestingly they keep it fairly aggressive, harsh and bluesy despite using the acoustic guitars, and I'd have to say this was the only other track besides "Under Pressure" that I thought was alright.

Ultimately, even as a fan who enjoys a number of the Death Angel records, I wasn't too thrilled by what Osequeda and Rob Cavestany put together here. It's pretty bland visually and aurally, though the execution of the guitars and vocals is adequate; it's not their first rodeo with these chiller vibes. I look at it this way: just a harmless, short filler release for themselves (and whatever fans might be interested), and it's better to get this idea out of the way and focus on keeping the thrash train on the tracks. In times like we're all having lately this sort of sentimental offering will surely reach some sympathetic ears, but I maintain that I simply don't think it's all that compelling a direction for this band to delve into much further. Not garbage by any means, but neither is it that inspiring. Let's break out those copies of that magnificent 1987 debut. "Voracious Souls", "Mistress of Pain", "Evil Priest". Where should you go from there? Channel those sinister teens within.

Verdict: Indifference [5/10]

Tuesday, November 17, 2020

Inherit Disease - Ephemeral (2016)

Signs your artwork might be better than your music: when you've got some sort of scaly, multi-headed slug-creature, or plural slug-things, with some human victim or patient that looks like its jacked into your squamous bio-matrix. Honestly I have no fucking idea what is going on with the cover of Ephemeral, but I know that it's awesome. That's not to say this third Inherit Disease full-length doesn't have other qualities to recommend it. In fact, if you enjoyed their fairly kickass sophomore Visceral Transcendence from 2010, you'll probably find plenty to like about this one as well. Hailing from that wave of Californian tech death acts that have been legion in the 21st century, these guys manage to scratch the itch you'd have for brutal, agile death metal in the vein of a Suffocation but without coming off too wanky or obnoxious.

This is just a rhythmic stew of bricklaying double bass, blasting, chugging and guttural fortitude which tries to lay claim to the suffocation and hopelessness of that cover artwork, and it does a pretty good job of placing you within a punishing labyrinth with absolutely no hope in sight. Sure, if broken down on a molecular level, the riff progressions from the Inherit Disease repertoire don't come across as very unique or distinct against such a wide landscape of similar acts, but they've got enough dynamic business going on at any one given time that I kept just on the edge of my seat. A palm mute might chug just one more time than I expect, or a blasted sequence might cut out into a roiling groove, or they might just squeeze in enough evil, clinical notes into that next tremolo picked segment that the brutal death maven which feasts upon my inner child perks up just enough to pay attention, which is always my worry when dealing with all these acts on labels like Unique Leader, Inherited Suffering, Pathologically Explicit, New Standard Elite, etc. Great at putting together products and expanding their rosters with acts that fit the bill, but sometimes a little too much.

Inherit Disease has a well-balanced attack, familiar but occasionally also offering up a little mystery about where they're going next, like in the closing track "Drone" and its dissonant, depressive note selection that pairs up well with the blasting intensity. The lyrics are a lot of fun to read through, and the production is fluid and clean without being too plastic or fake sounding. Definitely a band that should impress fans of groups like Deeds of Flesh, Severed Savior, Insidious Decrepancy, or other acts that have this comparable array of weaponry...who might not entirely shake off the shackles of their brutal tech/death niche and the facelessness it can create, but are clearly striving for something when they sit at the kit and amps to formulate their concepts. Ephemeral is maybe a fraction less appealing to me than its predecessor, but the band is no joke if you like those machine gun sounding muted riffs that whip up an uncaring, rapid, cold, otherworldly oblivion beneath the surface of all you hold warm and dear.

Verdict: Win [7.75/10]

Saturday, November 14, 2020

Xentrix - Bury the Pain (2019)

Xentrix was a competent if unexceptional British thrash band that, after two worthwhile albums and a goofy cover of the Ghostbusters theme, quickly fell victim to the 90s, when their subgenre dissolved in the face of grunge and death and black extremtiy. That's not to say that they gave up the fight, but the albums they produced after that were really generic and increasingly dumbed down without the catchier tracks like "Balance of Power" or "Questions" to guide them. Some 17 years after Scourge, they decided to get back together for real, and now we're seeing the fruits of that reunion in Bury the Pain, an album that is probably the best at capturing the style of the debut Shattered Existence and thrusting that into the 21st century with the expected louder and cleaner production values that will help modernize them with the current darlings of the era circa Warbringer, Evile, and their ilk.

There is no argument at all that this is about the purest thrash you're going to find, taking that heavy Bay Area/West Coast influence of the 80s and laying it out straight to the table. Choppy, propulsive riffs that all sound as if they've been paraphrased from the Testament backlog with a heavy helping of Master of Puppets. Solidly structured, with your normal verse/chorus builds but some decent riffs in the bridges, including a couple that have a slightly more clinical feel. The leads are all placed perfectly well but aren't terribly memorable, and the rhythm section here operates in perfect lockstep to provide what is on paper a flawless execution of the material. The biggest change to some might be the new vocalist/guitarist Jay Walsh, but to his credit he actually does a good job in emulating the original Chris Astley who has done various stings with the band. His timbre is slightly deeper, but possesses that same sort of grainy vibe, which also reminds me a hell of a lot of some of Steev Esquivel's stuff in Defiance, a band that is also quite a good comparison to Xentrix in general, as they were both sort of second stringers of the 80s thrash medium that had potential but very little originality...Aussies Mortal Sin also fell into this subset.

On a technical level I think this album is fine, but it does suffer a little bit from sounding uninspired, much like the modernized albums of their countrymen Onslaught. Bury the Pain is more melodic and catchy than some of that group's latest studio outings, but they both lack an element of personality which comes as a symptom of just how straightforward and structured they feel. Don't get me wrong, if you're just looking for an album that gives you the feel of a Shattered Existence, Face of Despair or Practice What You Preach, then Bury the Pain is more than serviceable. I think it's a far superior beast to either Kin or Scourge, but I think the album could really use some more blistering fast sequences or choruses that don't all feel the same. It just passes muster. It's almost like Xentrix is committing to be the best average thrash band they can be, and even if I found myself banging head to "The Red Mist Descends" or "Let the World Burn", they just didn't have the sorts of riff variety and qualities that will make them stand out to me long after. Now that they're back, and have successfully gotten back to the point that they were at in 1989, I'd like to hear a longer reach with more interesting songs that can reach outside the safety zone without sinking into the mediocrity of their post-1990 run.

Verdict: Win [7/10]

Wednesday, November 11, 2020

Six Feet Under - Nightmares of the Decomposed (2020)

Like most of you folks, I heard the first (or one of the first) singles off this record, "Zodiac", and was immediately taken aback at how poorly Chris Barnes' vocals sounded, and over such a miserable selection of riffs that shouldn't have made it past the band's own quality control despite the wealth of mediocrity they've produced since the 90s and his split with Cannibal Corpse. Now, how it got past Brian Slagel is a mystery we might never have answered, I'd like to think he stares at himself in the mirror and repeats, over and over, like a mantra 'It was only for the money...just the money." When I got around to finally listening to Nightmares of the Decomposed in its entirety, I was somewhat relieved that not all the material was quite so pathetic, at least on the riffing front. The cover art is pretty cheesy, but in a fun way it almost reminds me of something Primus might have done 25-30 years ago if they had been writing death metal instead of alterna-funk.

I think the main issue with this 17th (unbelievable!) studio effort is that we're clearly experiencing the nadir of Chris's throat-ational ability. Not like I was ever truly impressed by it, I'm more of a George Corpsegrinder guy, but clearly his presence was a huge factor on the success of those early Cannibal Corpse records and bringing a lot of fans into the genre. Here his throat sounds like it's decayed, or maybe congested from smoking too much of the good stuff that he's always been vocal about. Whether you put some kind of filter on that or not, it's quite obvious this is the worst album he's ever recorded with that particular instrument, and a huge setback. Whether it's something he can bounce back from or not we'll see, it wouldn't be the first time Six Feet Under has surprised me, like that time in 2012 when they actually wrote a really fun album called Undead.  But even when he sounds the most 'normal' here, the vox are truly lacking behind even the laziest riff selections that populate tunes like "Zodiac" and "Death Will Follow" with their humdrum groove metal and chugging.

On the other hand, tracks like the opener "Amputator" have a springy, evil old school selection of rhythm guitars which, with a better vocal performance, might have been pretty juicy. Jack Owen and Ray Suhy manage to keep it together, and it's even got an exciting lead. "Blood of the Zombie", a track which relies heavy on its creepy muting patterns, is also passable, and "Self Imposed Death Sentence" and "Dead Girls Don't Scream" also have some potential, with a few points where his vocals are almost at their usual painstakingly average. Wherever this album gets slower and groovier, it gets extremely dull, almost like they couldn't spend 10 minutes writing these fucking songs and just laid out the first patterns that came into mind. There are also a few inconsistencies with the mix on some of the songs where some sound to me a little thinner than others, and it overall lacks a level of polish to to the mix which might have smoothed out the reaction. Overall, there might be 3-4 tunes here that, with better production and entirely different vocals, could have passed for a reasonable death metal EP.

But let's be frank: since the anomalous, uncharacteristic Undead, 6FU's trajectory has been steadily downward. It took a few records to stink just like the old days, but once they dropped that Unburied EP in 2018, which was just chaff from the Undead and Unborn sessions, you could kind of tell that they back to the same old string of garbage that defined the band from around 1997-2010. Nightmares of the Decomposed feels like they were rolling down this slope and then just plummeted off a steep decline, an album worthy of trash like Warpath, Bringer of Blood and TRVE Carnage, another nail in the coffin of one of the most unshakeable, overrated musicians this genre has ever known. I think Chris himself sums it up best with the lyrics to track #8, if you'd like to do some digging yourself.

Verdict: Fail [3/10]

Sunday, November 8, 2020

In Cauda Venenum - G.O.H.E. (2020)

In Cauda Venenum is a French group that focuses heavily on creating swollen soundscapes which incorporate black metal, post-black leanings, and a cello into something sweeping and dramatic, with the intention that the listeners grow ever immersed and lost in its reveries of harsh but alluring sound. The last time I encountered them was their rendition of Angelo Badalamenti's Twin Peaks piece "Laura Palmer's Theme" which they put out on a 3-way split some years ago, but the structure to this new album G.O.H.E. much resembles their s/t debut from 2015, with two tracks clocking in at over 21 minutes length. This is a LOT of space to fill with something captivating, and while this sophomore does have a few moments of elevation, I'm not sure the bulk of the material really ekes out its existence in the most memorable of manners.

It's certainly a classy vibe with the chords thundering forth and the cello strings gliding above them, or the pianos, and they do a fantastic job of making that all feel so natural within the parameters of their style. Where I felt it fell behind was in the riffing selection...these all flow well enough, but they just never stick individually, so it's the sort of album which I could only appreciate on an atmospheric level. The drums do shift things up, and there are some nice segues here which balance off the instruments and seem to set up the next wall of sound for the post-black riffage, but the music never seems to climax quite enough with its choice in melodies, so it always seems like it's a swell of incidental music from some modern art film, just enough of a chord change to set a mood but without the visuals you'd see on a screen it doesn't really dazzle that much. The murky rasping vocals are executed well enough, and I believe they are sometimes doubled up which creates this creepy, fulfilling presence, but this also could have benefited from a stronger set of riffs below it.

The two tracks do have plenty of similarities, although the second, "Délivrance" centers more on a doomed, crawling gate and a slightly more interesting riff-set, plus a nice swerve into pure neo-classical terrain which I thought was one of the more heartening points on the whole record. Still, though, both sides feel heavily bloated; without the fascinating twists and turns required to create a compelling narrative structure, I felt like I was just listening to two halves of a very level plain, without any real secrets hidden upon it. Soothing occasionally on the surface level, but without the hypnotizing depths that I need to fix my attention. I dig the esoteric style, and there's nothing wrong with this as sheer mood music, but I'd love to hear them with a more engaging attack, perhaps more ferocity from the black metal influences and higher highlights of grace with the cello and melodies.

Verdict: Indifference [6/10]

Thursday, November 5, 2020

Iron Angel - Emerald Eyes (2020)

It's got to be difficult when you're responsible for a great cult record like 1985's Hellish Crossfire and then for over 30 years that same lightning just doesn't strike again. Granted, Germany's Iron Angel wasn't present for half of that time, but despite never putting out a bad full-length, they don't seem to have taken the metal world by storm the way that they had been poised to back in that fabled 80s era. Hellbound from a couple years ago showed a lot of promise, and I listened to that for a few months, but it was soon drowned out in the usual deluge of other bands putting their own stamp on the veterans' sounds, a pool that continues to spill ever outward as the younger generations of metal fanatics tap into those old veins and evade the glossier tech and bore-core of modernity.

Emerald Eyes is an attractive looking new album, and there is no question that the band's energy has not at all been sapped through all the years, with Dirk taking the helm over his younger cast of bandmates and unleashing an admirable and authentically-German sounding blend of power/thrash metal which is as loyal to Hellish Crossfire and Winds of War as you'd hope, but dialed up to current standards with a mix that sounds fresher but never artificial. I'd say the album sounds like a happy medium between Running Wild and Destruction; you've got a lot of those pounding, pumping heavy metal rhythms carrying a bunch of the tunes, and Dirk's voice actually reminds me a lot of Rolf Kasparek here, especially with the reverb that carries his bark out over the charging instruments and the airy backup vocals. And on the other hand, they slice up a few more clinical thrash riffs and toss them in there to keep it interesting and just a bit bloodier than you might expect. I was impressed by the sheer velocity of the track-list, I think this thing goes about six tracks before ever really slowing down, with tunes like "Sacred Slaughter", "Descend" and "What We're Living For" being some of my faves that they've written since the debut!

When it does finally reach that more measured pace, it's still a neck-strainer packed with riffs and charisma that will charm the leather off all the most die-hard 80s enthusiasts. Chances are, if you've got a wall full of records from the back catalogues of Noise, Roadracer and Steamhammer then this one is going to jerk upon the heartstrings or your nostalgia until you may require defibrillation. Good leads, solid drumming, a nice production that channels the age of its style, and a largely fast and furious selection of tracks that make me feel like I'm twelve old all over again, scrounging around with lunch and paper route money for whatever . No, Emerald Eyes doesn't contain a selection of timeless tracks that are likely to weather the next 35 years, but it's about as good as you'd expect for a reunion era band that never quite hit the level of the major German power metal or Big Four thrash acts, and I'd say this one overall nudges past Hellbound a little in quality, making it the best Iron Angel since "The Metallian" years. Iron Angel is STILL worth our time, ladies and gentlemen. Support!

Verdict: Win [8/10]

Monday, November 2, 2020

Griffon - Ὸ θεὀς ὸ βασιλεὐς (2020)

Another group ascending to the top tiers of modern French black metal acts, Griffon has in a few years and a couple of albums refined itself into a blazing balancing scale of savagery and atmosphere which it makes sound positively effortless. The Greek title and themes give it a sort of innate 'thinking man's' aesthetics, but I don't want to mislead anyone into thinking that this is any way overly flashy or technical or 'progressive' for its style...we've heard the components to this a myriad of times, but the reason this band stands out is how perfectly it aligns the blackened high velocity riffing and rasping with the elegant symphonics woven in and around the metal, narration and creepier or calm passages which feel like the polar opposite of when they lay on the fast and fury.

Part of this is the seamless production, which is leveling out everything from the spacious choirs, French spoken word, pianos, strings, sparkling leads and harmonies, and then the over the top rasps of Aharon which transcend their own hideousness as a sort of cradle of primacy from which the more elegant tones bloom. There's a lot of melancholy and somber grace which carry the moods of the note choices, there isn't much of an evil vibe to the material so much as there is a sort of searing paean to the tragedies of antiquity. The guitars are rich with riffing of all styles, from black tremolo picking to more punchy power or progressive metal sequences; and you could even feel that they'd entertain regardless of whether all the other elements of the band's orchestration were absent other than the intense drumming and vocals. But neither does it hurt the material whatsoever that it is so saturated with the airiness of the symphonics which are often complimenting the guitars on a note-for-note basis.

The album feels just right at around 40 minutes, with only one track that is pure interlude (" Praetera Nihil"), and even that one feels lush with its fluttering flutes and eerie, somber male choirs. Nothing ever feels tacky or overblown despite the sheer variety, and I'd say this might be the greatest attempt at a sort of 'neo-classicist' black metal I've heard on the French scenes. Where they've got their avant-garde exemplars and a strong wave of Renaissance or Medieval themed black metal outfits, and a few that check the boxes for other sub-strains of the genre, Griffon sounds rather refreshing and unique, and when it comes to proficiency and production they really have it all down pat on what is only their sophomore full-length, with much more to offer than 2016's Har HaKarmel, which was on its own already a fairly accomplished formidable debut, and sets up the material here even with its slightly less polished approach. But Ὸ θεὀς ὸ βασιλεὐς is simply next level, and offers earned rewards with each repeated listen, with enough of an identity that it stands alongside but apart the major names in symphonic European black metal.

Verdict: Win [8.25/10]