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Tuesday 21 April 2020

Reviews: Cirith Ungol, Embodiment, Elephant Tree, Trick Or Treat (Paul H, Charlie, Matt & Simon)

Cirith Ungol: Forever Black (Metal Blade Records) [Paul Hutchings]

It’s been 29 years since the might of Californian epic battle metal legends Cirith Ungol released their Paradise Lost album. Having reformed in 2015 following coercion from Keep It True festival curator Oliver and Night Demon engine Jarvis Leatherby, the band started gigging again. They released their first ever single Witch’s Game to accompany the animated movie The Planet Of Doom in 2018 and now we are graced with their fifth full-length release, Forever Black. You’ll recall me reminiscing about the recent remastered version of King Of The Dead, the 1984 album the band released. Well, Forever Black is as heavy and epic as that seminal release. Opening with a long horn blast, The Call summons the band’s fans, the legions. What follows is possibly the fastest Cirith Ungol song ever; the racing Legions Arise, a call to arms for the band’s fans worldwide. It’s tight, powerful and dramatic with Tim Baker’s distinctive vocal roar showing no signs of age. In truth, Forever Black is the natural follow up to Paradise Lost. It contains all the classic hallmarks of the band, but with a fresh drive and pace that allows Cirith Ungol to straddle both generations and decades.

For the uninitiated, Cirith Ungol play a blend of classic heavy metal which combines the power of Manowar with the fantasy fiction of Blind Guardian. The inevitable Tolkien namechecks are present in the band’s name, although they take their literature influences more from the horror of HP Lovecraft and the fantasy of Michael Moorcock. Nowhere is this more evident than on Stormbringer, the mournful tale of the sword forever bound to Moorcock’s character Elric. A brooding, heavy doom filled ballad, Stormbringer allows Cirith Ungol to slow the pace without losing any power. By contrast Fracttus Promissium’s riff heavy power harks back to the 70’s power trio Budgie, with a nod to Ray Phillips in the drum patterns and fills. Few bands can pull out this classic style doom filled metal, and even though time is not on their side (several members are over 60), in Forever Black Cirith Ungol have released an album that sits comfortably with their back catalogue. The title track which closes this record is a clear statement: Cirith Ungol have returned to reclaim their throne. Join the legion! 9/10

Embodiment: Palingenesis (Self Released) [Charlie Rogers]

It’s been a while since we’ve been graced by a new Embodiment release, and as a fan of their work so far I was eager to hear what the boys had in store this time. The first record set the level very high with bangers like Infested, Carcass, and of course The Beast, will Palingenesis reach the same lofty heights? Reverence Through Disgust opens the album with a gentle introduction, neatly setting the table before Harry Smithson’s signature roar slaps down a meaty portion of vocals. The tempo picks up, the instruments follow suit, and the metal kicks into gear.

I’m immediately impressed with the vast soundscape the album paints, the mix is spot on with room to hear every single part of the four-piece’s dynamic ensemble. Soaring guitar leads from Finn Maxwell, accompanied and underpinned by the relentless clanking of Kieran Hogarty’s powerful bass-playing propel the song forwards, with the powerhouse that is Leslie Preston providing the V8 double kicks and tasteful cymbal abuse keeping the machine in check. But there’s more to the sound than these four musicians - plenty of synth and effects add to the songs to bring more to the table than one would usually get from a local band. This is no different to the Embodiment we’ve been enjoying for the past couple of years however, and I’ve got no doubt their live sound is going to continue to mirror what’s produced here.

The album sets forth with a mix of full songs and interludes, creating a very modern death metal atmosphere. My one big criticism of the record is that the interludes sometimes slow the momentum down, and interrupt the flow. I think the energy would maintain at a higher level if some of these were shorter or even removed. Perhaps that was the point though, and my thick skull isn’t appreciating the breath of air given between the riffage. Speaking of riffage, there’s plenty of it on the album. Each song is absolutely fit to burst with guitarwork, both rhythmic riffing and melodic leads. Satisfaction In Extermination in particular highlights the palette of styles and dynamics on display from the group, hitting hard with sewerlike gutturals and machine gun blasts, yet also featuring an open, airy passage of bass and guitar dueling that wouldn’t be amiss on any great prog record. 

Clocking in at just over 33 minutes, the record seems well timed, and definitely doesn’t feel drawn out. There’s enough there to satiate pretty much all tastes, and aside from the excessive interludes it’s all welcome. Stand out tracks for me are the two singles Reverence Through Disgust, Tyrant, and the aforementioned Satisfaction In Extermination with the final track Harvesting The Seeds Of Vengeance closing the album with one final uncontrollable headbang, but only while you’re listening. I found it hard to hum back much of the tracks after the record had ended, only pieces of riffs stuck in my head for much longer than the next track length. I think the album is supposed to be enjoyed as one long piece, with the tracks flowing into each other almost seamlessly, but that’s where it differs from the first record the most. I’m not sure the stand out tracks are quite as catchy as everyone’s favourite singalong about a cat (The Beast), but that was a tall order from the start anyway. In summary, this album rips pretty hard, and is definitely worth your time. 8/10

Elephant Tree: Habits (Holy Roar Records/Deathwish Inc) [Matt Bladen]

Ah Elephant Tree a band who can be described as having vibes...heavy vibes...but mainly vibes. Habits is their third album and it's their most accomplished record by far, adding more sonic deviations than before while also holding on to their thunderous prog-psych-doom that bleeds Pink Floyd and King Crimson artistry with the fuzz of the Melvins and the blues drenched psychedelic desert rock of Kyuss et al. Just listen to Bird to hear what I mean, the swirling guitars soaring into the stratosphere as the pulsating bass just catches the part of your brain between conscious and subconscious, Bird has all of the desert rock sounds raging through it, while Wasted ramps up the psychedelic doom, rarely releasing the fuzz pedal. Elephant Tree have always managed to play a very appealing style of music for anyone in the stoner/doom sphere.

They were even set to be headliners at Stonebaked festival in June (though probably not anymore), it's all encompassing drawing from everywhere for a complete audio experience. Lofty vocals almost chant rhythmically over the changing musical landscape, the epic climax of Broken Nails is a slow building final song that moves from acoustic folk, into crippling heaviness over 7 minutes. At the front end of the album Sails is thumping track to open things with groove while Faceless washes over you with waves of heavy hitting those doom notes, however The Fall Chorus takes away any distortion with a folky bewitching track that evolves into some Floyd worship counterpointing the thunder like a calm eye of the storm. Habits is difficult to put into words (not useful for a written review) but there's an otherworldly quality to it that needs to be listened to, perhaps a few times, to let it sink in deep. It seems old habits die hard but there's always room to adapt too. 9/10

Trick Or Treat: The Legend Of The XII Saints (Scarlet Records) [Simon Black]

When I started listening to this, I thought that this sounded like a poor man’s Helloween so I was not surprised to discover that Trick Or Treat started life as a pumpkins’ tribute act. They hail from Italy, so the other part of the mix seems to be a liberal portion of Rhapsody Of Fire to add a more operatic tone to the proceedings, which is probably not surprising given that their frontman is Alessandro Conti (ex-Luca Turilli’s Rhapsody).

The concept is based on the manga/anime character of Saint Seiya. Nope, means nothing to me either, but after possibly the cheesiest clichéd Power Metal introduction I have heard in a while, the album launches into a twelve track amble around the twelve key knight characters of the source material, all named after signs of the zodiac, then topped off with a closing track. To some extent it’s also a bonus edition compilation album, as the 12 core tracks have already been released as singles last year, but the whole thing makes much more sense as a single release - although it deserves credit for having such a novel approach to build crowdfunding support to fund it over a such a long period of time.

The album itself took me a couple of attempts to get my head round, but having given it some time I have found myself moving away from my initial lukewarm reaction, especially one I discovered a little more about their history and influences. This is a really solid Power Metal album, with strong musical performances and an absolutely top notch screamer on the mike. They may be tipping their hat to Michael Kiske but when Conti can hit the notes as well as him, then a certain amount of respect is due. Although the Rhapsody influence is there, this is Power not Symphonic metal, so what keyboards there are there very much for atmospheric overlay – the guitars clearly rule here, with some lovely twin-axe interplay between Guido Benedetti and Luca Venturelli.

You’ve got fast songs aplenty on here, a couple of good out and out rockers, most noticeably the top notch One Hundred Dragons Force - which is clearly the festival sing-a-long moment, with the usual more ballad-orientated close down near the end. The album really manages to hold the pace for most of its hour and 6 minutes running time, but does feel a little like it ran out of steam for the last couple of tracks, but nonetheless a good album and another band I clearly need to delve into the back catalogue of. 7/10

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