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Thursday 23 March 2023

Reviews: Ihsahn, Fatal Embrace, The Rhubarb, Xalpen (Reviews By Matt Bladen & Mark Young)

Ihsahn - Fascination Street Sessions EP (Candlelight Records) [Matt Bladen]

Emperor mainman and musical prodigy Ihsahn has been preferring EP’s to full length albums for a while now and his latest Fascination Street is another selection of new tracks plus a cover version, Ihsahn collaborating with highly touted producer/engineer Jens Bogren at Fascination Street Studios. 

The EP is part of his and Jens's involvement in the URM Academy’s educational program focusing on music production. Having these two teaching almost guarantees a pass right? Anyway to the EP itself and of course the production is perfect, Ihsahn, drummer Tobias Ørnes Andersen and keyboardist Øystein Aadland playing in a collaborative manner that has led to clean vocals from Aadland and the addition of Katatonia man Jonas Renske’s baritone on Dom Andra a cover of Swedish band KENT, the brooding H-era Marillion style great for Renske’s voice. Ihsahn fulfilling a Swedish fantasy as all the stars aligned for this cover. 

Opening with The Observer, Aadland’s vocals bringing the warmth of Mikael Akerfeldt, the use of flutes also nodding to the Swedish natives. Bogren of course knows how to produce this kind of thing having helmed multiple Opeth albums. So it’s pretty close to the Opeth playbook but serves as a great opener to this Swedish fantasy project, the keys used much more than on previous Ihsahn recordings. Everything was videoed by the URM team, the production process using analogue equipment for the natural sound you have here. Contorted Moments is almost hard rock, Ihsahn’s squawk evolving into the cleans for the chorus, packing more Opeth/Swano-isms into 3 minutes. 

Whether this is one off, or an amuse bouche for what to expect on his next full length, Ihsahn seemingly can turn his hand to any style and make it his own. 8/10

Fatal Embrace - Manifestum Infernalis (Black Lion Records) [Mark Young]

Checking online for background on Fatal Embrace, melodic death metal and blackened death metal seemed to be the main genres for which they have been known for. Haling from Varberg in Sweden, they were originally active between 1992 to 1998 and returned in 2016. Like a lot of bands, Covid, world unrest would put delays their way in getting this album recorded and ultimately released as you hear it today.

Black metal, depending on who you speak to and indeed which phase you listen to means that certain elements such as speed and levels of production are more prized than texture, atmosphere if you will. So, with that in mind Fatal Embrace has produced an album that is chock full of melody, of rich texture and an overall ideal that shows they are not just speed demons.

Each of the songs seems as though it has been built from a central idea, be it a guitar part or a vocal phrase which means all of the songs are similar but in no way the same. There are slow parts where piano fills the space, others where screeched vocals cut through with the drums ever present in keeping everything together. I don’t pretend to know the history of the band and I certainly don’t want insult any fans out there by cribbing from online sources, but I suggest that we have missed out on their being only two released full-length albums from them.

There is a constant funereal tone to proceedings, supported by the vocal attack and your standard rapid guitar attack. As I said earlier, it isn’t all blast beats and furious riffs, there are a number of mid-pace songs which are almost sat in gothic territory (Death Goth?) but each of them is so well put together they do echo classic Black Metal but are unique to themselves. Sometimes you find that bands may use a particular motif as a crutch to mask poor or worse lazy arrangements. Fatal Embrace are not guilty of that by any stretch.

Black Metal in general is not my jam, at the same time I can appreciate where there is a mastery of a form involved, and for me that is here. If I was to criticise then it would be a lack of bottom end / chugging riffs, but I guess that was never the intent in the first place. Fans of atmospheric metal should get onto this, because it should appeal to a broad spectrum of metal lovers 7/10

The Rhubarb - Symptom Of Failure (Milky Bomb Records) [Matt Bladen]

Glasgow foursome The Rhubarb don't crumble on this debut album. With that terrible joke out of the way I can tell you that they flourish and thrive with a heady concoction of distortion ravaged stoner doom riffs, psychedelic wandering and dual vocals that merge droning lows and spectral highs. Musically similar to bands such as Black Moth, Alunah and MWWB, Symptom Of Failure is downbeat doom metal that persistently furrows the brow and bangs the head with tracks such as Trip To The South and The Brines Effect where the relentless throb of Sleep builds the hypnotic style while on I Wanna Play A Game has the aggressive groove of High On Fire. 

If their debut EP, Black Sun, was a toe dip into The Rhubarb and their style of mind melting stoner doom, then Symptom Of Failure is a plunge into the deep end of an obsidian black pool without really knowing what's at the bottom. I Can't Roll is the albums middle section where the oppressive guitars and drums punish you into a woozy state of being; Hannah White's ghostly vocals and swirling basslines throbbing like a stubbed toe, the bottom end deep and cavernous as the drums of Jack Donnelly have a strength but also a dexterity. On a song such as the haunting Mother's Ruin, Michael McConville's guitars are strum like they're in a dark lullaby, the distortion coming in just as Seán Maguire begins to croon, Hannah in unison for that brilliant duality. 

If I have a suggestion about this album it's listen to it on headphones as you can feel that sense of claustrophobia and breathlessness much stronger when it's injected right into your ears, the cries of "One Last Thing" on Mother's Ruin lingering with you long after the needle leaves the wax. An incredible debut from these Scottish, masters of misery, no symptoms of failure to be heard here just plenty of success. 9/10

Xalpen - The Curse of Kwányep (Black Lodge Records) [Mark Young]

Xalpen in their bio note that on this, their latest release they are unleashing raw Black Metal whilst staying true to their devotion to all things black. For me, raw indicates that it is going to be stripped back and harkens to perhaps earlier phases of Black Metal where attitude and embracing of that scene took precedence over ability.

Starting with off-beat, discordant introduction it blasts into Chenke, which at first suggests traditional stab at Black Metal. Everything is there but doesn’t feel raw, but this could be down to interpretation by me. This doesn’t last as they change up rhythm before putting their foot down in mixture of Morbid Angel and Vader. Kolpewsh continues with that mid-pace pummeling to then change gears once more, throwing some great breaks in to it. So far this is pretty good stuff, it flows and shows that there is a confidence in their abilities as musicians.

Title track, The Curse of Kwányep starts with a ponderous, slow burn feel that builds into full on audio mayhem then slows down to meander through to the expected lift off again. This I felt sucked the energy out of this, which was a shame as had they avoided that slow section it would have just flown.

Regrouping with The Beast From The East they are soon on stable ground, just grinding out a constant attack before Kash Wayeweìn Qer ups the ante and continues with the fast attack which is just unrelenting and gives the album a shake-up which was definitely needed. Daughters Of The Nightside darkens the tone and sounds more urgent because of this shift but adopts that constant tempo present elsewhere and you feel that it should be faster than it is.

Moon-Woman ends the album with an 8-minute romp that serves to close proceedings although it is followed by an instrumental Hain Koijn Harsho which meanders through a softly whispered vocal track and a repeating guitar line which in all honesty could have been removed. Moon-Woman does the trick in bringing all the threads together and is probably my stand-out track on here as it weaves its way from heads down trem picking to almost traditional heavy metal riffing and shows that they have got the tools to make a truly great album.

The problem I have is that adopting a certain pace for each song leads to them slightly losing their effect as they can bleed into another. Technically it is proficient and sounds great, but it is a little bit flat in some spots where they let the momentum drop. There is actually nothing wrong here, it’s got everything you want in Black Metal, and they attack with gusto. Fans of this genre will certainly dig the songs here, for me it lacked a certain something to raise it from good to truly great listening. 6/10

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