2017 and Katatonia announced their withdrawal from the music scene. I admit I took my eye of the ball and assumed that the band would be mothballed before falling away forever. Their sound over the past 20 years had earned plaudits aplenty, but despite the occasional show at venues like Shepherd’s Bush Empire, they didn’t receive the success that their delicate and thoughtful music deserved. Katatonia’s line-up has changed over their musical journey but founder members Jonas Renkse (vocals) and guitarist Anders Nyström remain, alongside long-serving bassist Niklas Sandin and drummer Daniel Moilanen who remains in the stool after his debut on 2016’s The Fall Of Hearts. Newest member of the band is guitarist Roger Öjersson, whilst the luscious keyboards are once more delivered by Anders Eriksson who played on both Night Is The New Day and Dead End Kings.
Within seconds of the opening track Hearts Set To Divide you are reassured that this is Katatonia. Renkse’s voice is unique, his gentle melancholic echo enunciating in that eloquent delivery, whilst the subtle combination of guitar and keyboards lead into the main body of the song. Behind The Blood shows the band’s teeth, the first of several metal style riffs emerging in a song which vibrant and vigorous. The already released Lacquer drifts with a delicate, petalled feel, Renske’s vocals soaring, gripped by the raw emotion that is synonymous with the feel of Katatonia over the past decade. Rein is a nod to the older style, dramatic in feel and delivery. This wouldn’t have been out of place on Night Is The New Day, over a decade old but this is delivered with a modern twist.
There is the subtle delicacy of Vanishers, with the guest vocals of Anni Bernhard, of Stockholm art rockers Full Of Keys adding some wonderful ethereal harmonies. It’s a beautiful song, a sweeping soundscape of emotion. Pure and evocative, this is one of the standout songs on a quite majestic release. We have drama in Flickers, Eriksson’s keys playing an integral part in the composition whilst City Glaciers reintroduces the harder, guitar oriented edge that surfaced earlier. The double tracking vocals always works fabulously and on this track it excels. Penultimate song Neon Epitaph adds a new feel, the juxtaposition of jangling guitar riff and staccato drum linking perfectly. Having been an admirer of Katatonia for many years, there is little that they do that I don’t love. City Burials is a work of impressive quality. It is an album that requires time to absorb. Several plays are not enough to really do it justice. It is once more a piece of crafted art, containing complexity, maturity, and organic growth. Their absence was thankfully short; the return is most welcome. 9/10
Helfró: Self Titled (Season Of Mist) [Paul Scoble]
Helfró are an Icelandic duo who have been making music together since 2017. The band made up of Raynor S on Drums and Vocals, and Simon Þ on Guitar, Bass and Vocals. Raynor writes all the music and Simon arranges it. Helfró is the band's first album. The pair play a style of Black Metal that is fairly extreme, it has the density and discordance that I would associate with ‘Icelandic’ Black Metal, whilst also having a similarity with 3rd wave, Scandinavian Black Metal (1349, Koldbrann, Watain etc.). The main style is ably demonstrated by the opening track Afeitrun. Very tight, tremolo picked riffs over blast beating drums and very harsh vocals (all the vocals are harsh except for a few places where clean chanting is used). The track has some very nice dramatic flourishes, and there is a nice level of tunefulness, despite the harshness and savagery.
The style Helfró use on this album remains mainly the same, but has lots of little modifications to keep it interesting. Þrátt Fyrir Brennandi Vilja is slow and very heavy, there is a bit of a Blackened Doom feel to this track, and it is packed with very melancholic melody. The softer clean vocals that I mentioned earlier, are used to great effect. In both Ávöxtur Af Rotnu Tré and Hin Forboðna Alsæla clean, chanted vocals give the tracks a nicely devotional feel, that is very effective and fits in perfectly with the albums overall atmosphere. This album also has several absolute blasts of up-tempo, high speed blasting. Þegn Hinna Stundlegu Harma has a very fast tempo, it’s quite thrashy in style and has a brilliant feeling of speed and inertia. Katrín is another blast of fast, savage Black Metal.
It also features a few riffs that are maybe a little Old School Death Metal in style. The album comes to an end with Musteri Agans which is fast, savage and a little bit reminiscent of 1349. It’s packed full of energy and some very impressive drumming, beneath those incredibly spikey and harsh riffs. Helfró is a great debit album. This album takes no prisoners, but at the same time you will be surprised at how melodic and tuneful it is. This might be a debut, but it is a very mature work that has depth and maturity. If this is what Helfró can produce as a debut album, then I am eager to hear anything they produce from here on in. 8/10
Werewolves: The Dead Are Screaming (Prosthetic Records) [Paul Scoble]
Australian bruisers Werewolves have been together since June 2019. They also claim to have written and recorded their debut album The Dead Are Screaming, in a mere 3 weeks, just after the band formed. This all sounds a little bit unbelievable, that is until you realise that Werewolves are made up of Dave Haley (Psycroptic, Ruins, King, and Abramelin) on Drums, Sam Bean (The Antichrist Imperium, Abramelin) on Bass and Vocals and Matt Wilcox (The Berzerker, The Antichrist Imperium, Abramelin) on guitar. So, thats a lot of current bands and if you also add the band members former bands; The Senseless, The Amenta, Mithras and Akercocke, you have a list of some of the most innovative and inventive bands in extreme metal. So, forming and making a debut album in about a month starts to sound more believable. It becomes even more believable when you hear the album (I realise that sounds bitchy, but it really isn’t), because this is very simple, very savage metal.
The band themselves define their sound as Blackened Death/Grind, which is definitely a good description, although to me what this sounds like is Old School Death Metal, and very good Old School Death Metal at that. The album kicks off with Establish Dominance, a blast of old school Death metal riffs, blasting drums that have a definite D-Beat feel to them and some very nasty vocals. The riffs feel quite Scandinavian, maybe a little bit like early Entombed or Dismember, the song slow down for a very heavy ending. Know Your Place is probably more towards the grind end of the spectrum, at times it feels very punky and that D-Beat feel to the drumming is more obvious than on the first track. Dogknotted is an absolute blast of savage Death Metal, it’s really fast and extreme, this is verging on Drawn And Quartered or Pissgrave levels of intensity and and ferociousness. Fountains Of Bile is slower, but has an aggressive, driven fierceness that works really well. No More Heroes (not a cover of the The Stranglers song, although that would have been amazing) is another blastingly fast Death Metal. There is a Thrashy feel to the song, maybe a little bit of early Slayer or Kreator.
Beating Those We Despise is strait Death Metal, it reminds me a little of Bacterial Breakdown by Welsh Death Metal legends Desecration, and also features a slow and very heavy section near the end.
Gnaw Their Bones has that high speed Thrash feel to it, that was on No More Heroes, like early Sodom in its unhinged savagery. Irate is a beautiful sub three minute blast. It’s short, savage and powerful and such a great track. The album comes to a close with Showering Teeth, which has an old school Black Metal feel to the faster parts and also boasts a very slow and heavy section, and is a great way to end the album. The Dead Are Screaming is a cracking piece of (mainly) Old School Death Metal. It isn’t complex, it isn’t progressive and it isn’t subtle, but it was never meant to be any of those things. This album is meant to be blasting, simple aggressive Death Metal and Grind, and it succeeds at all of those things. If you are looking for complex, subtle or progressive I suggest you check out one of Werewolves members other projects, but if you are after some simple but very effective extreme metal, then this is what you are after. The Dead Are Screaming is a beautifully savage piece of extremity, it does one, simple thing, but it does it so well you won’t miss the complexity. 8/10
Witches Hammer: Damnation Is My Salvation (Nuclear War Now Records) [Paul Hutchings]
Originally formed in 1982, Witches Hammer achieved cult status as the first extreme band to emerge from the Vancouver area. Formed by 13-year olds Marco Banco and Alan Goddard, the band experienced numerous line up changes. A demo in 1985 was followed by further demo releases and one EP before the band split in 1990. The band are linked to the legendary Blasphemy, with Banco playing with them for several years. Having reformed in 2018, the band has now released a full-length collection of brutally evil speed metal which captures the atmosphere, feel and essence of those explosive early days when this type of music was very much still spawning from the grave.
Three remastered tracks sit comfortably alongside newly written ones. An old school production adds to the authenticity of the album and whilst it may only be the penetrating shredding of Banco and the devilish rasps of singer Ray Prizmic who link the band with the 1980s, the new recruits AJ Kovar (bass), drummer Steve Shaw and guitarist Jesse James Jardine do a stellar job in recreating those original demonic flavours. Raw, gnarly, and ferocious, Damnation Is My Salvation contains eight powerful tracks crammed full of energy and fiery intensity. It is a must for fans of those early formative years of the thrash and extreme metal movement. 7/10