Update X – 5/29/16

The zine has been updated with reviews of Sanctuaire, Forgotten Kingdoms, A Diadem of Dead Stars and Winterblood! These releases are all favorites of mine recently and come with the highest recommendation. I am currently working on some interviews which will be included in the next update, and will have an announcement soon regarding my own Dungeon Synth project, Oldenhelm. Thank you for your interest and support the underground!

Sanctuaire – Helserkr (Review)

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Title: Helserkr (Compilation)

Artist: Sanctuaire

Rating: 4.5 / 5

Genre: Black Metal / Ambient

Year: 2015

Country: Canada

Label: Tour de Garde

Links: https://sanctuaire.bandcamp.com/album/helserkr

Sanctuaire is a one man project by Monarque Helserkr from Quebec. The Quebec scene has maintained a cult status in Black Metal with bands such as Sorcier des Glaces and Fortresse, and Sanctuaire certainly carries the black torch of Québécois metal proudly. This release is actually my favorite release to come out of the Quebec Black Metal circle. This review is based on the Helserkr compilation CD, which is made up of the Helserkr demo from 2014 and the Echo I demo, which were previously available on tape.

The CD begins with the Helserkr demo tape tracks, which the band describes as follows: “The first half of the CD is a raw yet epic and atmospheric recording praising nature as well as ancient northern mysticism and barbarism. Melodic and austere, it’s a call to arms, the echo of a time when glory and tradition prevailed”. These themes are perfectly manifested in the music here. The first riff in Gardien du Nord brings to mind the classic ‘Raging Winter’ riff from Satanic Warmaster; a furious and aggressive nod to the early 90’s. Like the aforementioned band, Sanctuaire has the ability to play very melodic and traditional black metal riffs while still maintaining a raw sound. Near the end of the song, a synth break begins with tribal frame drumming and acoustic strumming, and the sounds of war and battle in the background. This is traditional black metal of the highest order, with real spirit and hatred, and a longing to return to our glorious past. While many bands simply copy the themes and ideas of their idols, Sanctuaire plays black metal with conviction and sincerity. Although only four metal tracks are featured on this CD, they are among the highlights of the release.

Tracks 5-13 feature ambient songs from the first Sanctuaire demo ‘Echo I’. The band writes: “The second half of the CD is like an ancestral voice, it is the wandering of an ancient folklore, fantastical, from another time, another world. Close to both the earth and the sky, this is a collection of tracks done with a keyboard and traditional instruments. All tracks are different and stand on their own”. The reason that I post the band’s own words here is because I could not have said it better myself. The Echo I tracks are honestly my favorite ambient songs to be released since Vindkaldr released the ‘Ambient I’ album. Sanctuaire excels at creative moving and incredibly atmospheric ambient songs with very little instrumentation. To create ambient of this style is always a risk, since many songs only use a couple of synth sounds at a time. The music is very bare and exposed, and musicians who write music in this style run the risk of creating boring or directionless songs. However, each one of these Sanctuaire songs takes the listener on a journey into it’s own world. While simple and repetitive, these songs are created with a near flawless level of composition. Aside from the excellent use of synthesizers, some tracks also feature frame drums or harp instruments, which add to the ancient feeling and character of the release. Since buying this CD I have found myself listening to the ambient tracks nearly every week, and even after repeated listens the songs do not lose their power.

This review is based on the digipak version of the release which features an amazing layout with a 12 page booklet. Sanctuaire has not only created my favorite release from the Quebec black metal scene, but has created one of the strongest albums I’ve heard in years. For those readers who walk on the Old Path, this release is especially for you.

 

Forgotten Kingdoms – Blue Moon Gate Between Worlds (Review)

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Title: Blue Moon Gate Between Worlds

Artist: Forgotten Kingdoms

Rating: 4 / 5

Genre: Dungeon Synth

Year: 2015

Country: Australia

Label: Dark Adversary Productions

Links: https://forgottenking.bandcamp.com/album/blue-moon-gate-between-worlds

Forgotten Kingdoms is a Dungeon Synth project by Azgorh, who is better known for his work in the prolific black metal band Drowning the Light. Azgorh is a highly ambitious musician who has taken part in many projects that I enjoy (for example, the Eternum album ‘Veil of Ancient Darkness’ is one of the best black metal albums in modern times in my opinion). With Forgotten Kingdoms he explores the Dungeon Synth genre, and does so very well.

While it is tiresome to mention Mortiis in a Dungeon Synth review, it is unavoidable as a comparison here. Not every Dungeon Synth release necessarily creates the Mortiis vibe (for example, Lord Lovidicus and Abandoned Places have very little in common musically with Mortiis, while both list him as an influence). Forgotten Pathways bears resemblance to Mortiis while still maintaining a high level of originality. The synth sounds used here are very musty and old sounding (I am sure that this is a real synthesizer being used and not MIDI). Passages which typically revolve around 2-3 instruments and orchestral percussion weave in and out, with one section fading in volume before a new one being introduced (similar to releases such as Ånden Som Gjorde Opprør). Many of these synth melodies stay in my head for days after listening to the release, so while only a few instruments are used at a time, the melodies are well developed and highly atmospheric.

One aspect that makes this release stand out amongst modern Dungeon Synth music is the prominent use of vocals. Much like the classic Mournlord ‘Reconquering the Kingdom’ demo, reverb drenched vocals narrate tales of medieval sorrow, nostalgia, ancient kings, battles and days of old. This release is based on the pre-order of the album, which included a printed lyric sheet. I appreciate and enjoy the album even more after having the chance to read the lyrics, which says a lot about the value they add to the overall atmosphere of Forgotten Kingdoms. The third track ‘The Blood Stained Gold Armour of the King’ also uses some synthesized rock drumming, another thing not commonly used in modern Dungeon Synth (at the moment the only other project I can recall doing this is Taur Nu Fuin). The last track Warriors That Time Forgot is one of the best Dungeon Synth songs to be released within the last few years, with excellent brass and woodwind sections and lyrics which any fan who truly connects with the Dungeon Synth genre can appreciate and understand. The disgust for the modern world and a longing to return to the past is truly embodied in this song, and has the power to take me to another world far removed from the disappointment of our reality.

What Forgotten Kingdoms have created here is a genuine tribute to the glory days of 90’s Dungeon Synth. Everything from the artwork, to the synth sounds and the overall presentation makes this release feel like a lost Dungeon Synth relic from the past, which I’m sure was the goal. Everything that Azgorh does is traditional and true to the roots of the genre he’s playing, and Forgotten Kingdoms is no exception to this rule. Fans of Mortiis, Mournlord, Old Tower and the Voldsom Records catalog will certainly want this CD in their collection!

A Diadem of Dead Stars – The Mist Bearer Pt. II (Review)

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Title: The Mist Bearer Pt. II

Artist: A Diadem of Dead Stars

Rating: 4 / 5

Genre: Black Metal / Ambient

Year: 2015

Country: Greece

Label: No Sleep Till Megiddo

Links: https://adiademofdeadstars.bandcamp.com/album/the-mist-bearer-pt-ii-e-p

A Diadem of Dead Stars is a one man project by a musician known only as The Pilgrim that I previously reviewed on the zine for the ‘Profaning the Ground’ EP. While that EP was a dark piece of droning doom, the band is most well-known for the style played on the album The Mist Bearer. This style of Metal is a warm and natural (as in invoking the elements of nature) form of black metal with some ‘post-Metal’ influence in the vein of Agalloch and more contemporary acts such as Old Graves and Sojourner. However, the entire band feels very traditional in the Greek sense. Hellenic Black Metal has always carried with it a certain ‘warmness’ even in it’s darkest times. A Diadem of Dead Stars carries the ancient flame without sounding dated or overtly “retro”.

This EP consists of two songs, the first being the title track The Mist Bearer Pt. II. This track is one of the strongest modern black metal compositions I’ve come across in a long time. The song opens with mellow acoustic guitars which instantly bring to mind a vast, Spring landscape. When the Metal kicks in, melodic guitars create waves of blackened riffs which wash over the listener like the tide of the Aegean Sea, accompanied with memorable tremolo riffs. Much like the Scottish band Adabroc, this is a prime example of black metal which isn’t excessively dark but still true to the essence of the genre. The synth work here is very well incorporated and not overdone at all. Choirs, woodwinds and chromatic percussion instruments are used only when needed and enhance the riffs and melodies being played. Rather than relying on these synth elements to carry the song forward, A Diadem of Dead Stars is still a guitar riff driven band. Unlike previous releases, this track also features vocals, although the song remains mostly instrumental. By the end of this 12 minute epic song, the listener is left with the feeling of having returned from a journey to a far-away land, where the ancient ways are still alive and far removed from the dreariness of the modern world. The song is nostalgic and melancholic, yet heroic at the same time, in the vein of the epic sagas of old.

The second track A Blood Red Sun Sets On Wintry Shores begins with field recordings of waves before moving into a synth key section. This ambient track is done entirely on synth and features some great plucked instrument, percussion and pad sounds, bringing to mind the ambient sections of Det Som Engang Var and Hvis Lyset Tar Oss. This track serves as a great reminder of the connection between ambient and black metal; each style is able to compliment the other and having a 12 minute epic black metal track next to an ambient song doesn’t feel awkward or out of place. While the first song is a bright journey beneath the open sky, this song allows the dawn to come before the EP ends.

This review is based on the CD version released by No Sleep Till Megiddo, and the artwork really works well to enhance the presentation of the music. The lush and bright colors used in the paintings and the portraits of landscapes help tie together the entire atmosphere of the album. This EP is highly recommended for fans of the first Mist Bearer release, and fans of Greek Black Metal in general.

Winterblood – La Via di Neve (Review)

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Title: La Via di Neve

Artist: Winterblood

Rating: 4 / 5

Genre: Dark Ambient

Year: 2015

Country: Italy

Label: Frozen Light

Links: https://frozenlightlabel.bandcamp.com/album/la-via-di-nev

 

Winterblood is a dark ambient project from Italy and was one of the first projects I reviewed for this zine. Winterblood now returns with a new album titled La Via di Neve, released on CD by Frozen Light Label. This EP continues in the same vein as ‘Il Richiamo delle vette’, creating very cold and bleak soundscapes. Deep pulsing synth pads are typically accompanied by crystalline sounds which play brooding melodies over the rumbling bass of the pad. Much like the previous Winterblood release, this creates strong mental images in the listener. The sounds used create the feeling of snow falling against a mountainside, of the sun glaring over the hoarfrost, or the wind passing through a frozen landscape. My personal favorite track of the release is ‘Anelli’, one of the longest songs featured. Soft chromatic percussion plays a very melancholic melody while synth pads drift in the background. While many Winterblood songs carry the bleak feeling of a harsh landscape, this song feels like an ancient being wandering the snow-covered mountains. Although this release consists of only 5 songs, the total runtime is roughly 42 minutes.

This review is based on the CD version of the album, which contains excellent artwork (see above). Images of spirits lost in a snowstorm enhance the atmosphere of the album, and lyrics are also included for each song. Unfortunately I have not yet been able to translate the lyrics from Italian, but having lyrics featured there is a bonus that many ambient projects never attempt. Winterblood is the complete package for cold dark ambient (from the presentation to the music itself), and La Via di Neve was well worth the couple years of waiting that I’ve been doing since reviewing the last album. If you find yourself wanting music even colder and lonelier than Paysage d’hiver, this is for you.