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The darkest, most churning US death metal is no longer produced in the US, but in la bella Italia. If nothing else in the last couple of years Milan/Lombardy-based Ekpyrosis has vowed to carry on the sound that Incantation and Immolation have since abandoned. Not surprising considering it is the heart of Roman Catholicism and the religious disease should be fought tooth and nail. “Asphyxiating Devotion” is the quartet’s debut for underground specialist label Memento Mori and the follow-up to the well-received “Witness His Death” EP from 2015. More inspired by various eras of Incantation than by Dutch death/doom metal stalwarts Asphyx, “Asphyxiating Devotion” is thoroughly and utterly devoted to its genre, but none of it feels insincere or fabricated. “Asphyxiating Devotion” sees Ekpyrosis coming into its own and marks the beginning of the band’s Diabolical Conquest.

For the most part “Asphyxiating Devotion” is made up of entirely new material. It is custodian to another re-recording of ‘Morticians Of God’, a cut dating back to the “Black Aspid Of Doom” rehearsal tape from 2015. Only ‘Morticians of God’ and ‘Depths Of Tribulation’ differ slightly from the rest of the album in that both lean more towards a Stockholm death metal sound. ‘Unearthly Blindness’ breaks stylistically with the rest of the album as it is closer to “Luck Of the Corpse” era Deceased than any era of New York genre pillar Incantation. All things considered it are minor tonal hiccups as the remainder of the record is consistent within the context of its chosen influences. The inspirations and influences behind Ekpyrosis as a band are fairly self-evident and they at no point are they reinventing the wheel or breathing life into a stale, artistically vacuous, self-referential genre. Bereft of any pretense and prefixes Ekpyrosis has always been a band to pride itself in being able to do more with less. This is a death metal record, pure and simple.

Ekpyrosis embodies pure death metal and in sheer decrepit atmosphere and all-encompassing gloominess they are only matched by late 90s (and now long defunct) Canadian studio act Darkness Eternal and Morpheus Descends. Compared to the preceding EP “Asphyxiating Devotion” leans more towards different eras of New York/Pennsylvania death metal monument Incantation than to the early Swedish scene. “Asphyxiating Devotion” combines the dense structures of “Onward to Golgotha” with the more straightforward riffing of post-“Blasphemy” Incantation. The vocals of guitar tandem Marco Teodoro and Nicolò Brambilla more often than not resemble Mike Saez and John McEntee in the more shriekier passages. Marco Cazzaniga (bass guitar)  is a nonentity even though he provides serviceable enough low end tones. Cazzaniga (who has since defected) dutifully doubles the guitars but isn’t given much space to do anything interesting. Hopefully Ekpyrosis will see it fit to allow their bassist a greater presence in future output to truly show the world what he is capable of. On the “Witness His Death” EP the drumming of Ilaria Casiraghi tended to sound similar to Joakim Sterner (Necrophobic) and Anders Schultz (Unleashed) but on its Memento Mori recording debut she resembles long-serving Incantation skinsman Kyle Severn and occassionally Deceased drummer King Fowley, both stylistically and in overall delivery, more often.

Everybody the least bit perceptive knows that death metal has been stagnant at least since 2000. Never was there a genre more navel-gazing and self-obsessed; so hopelessly fascinated by its own not-too-distant past and, more often than not, completely bereft of firm leadership and much-needed visionaries to push it to a higher creative plateau. In a time where every other band looks more cartoonish, mistaking self-referentiality for substance and worshipping at the altar of yesterday’s heroes (some of which are still around, if not exactly alive and/or kicking) than the next – Ekpyrosis is the cure for the common complaint. Instead of worshipping at another’s temple, these iconoclastic irreverent Italians are building their own. These are the Disciples (Of the Heavenly Graceful) and from the catacombs they will command the Uprising Heresy. Ekpyrosis love vintage Incantation and their cavernous death metal attests to that very fact. It might not exactly be original, but it is very damn well expertly written and recorded. This might very well be a long lost Incantation record released under a different name…

“Asphyxiating Devotion” sounds like a 1990s USDM record and making it all the more impressive is that Ekpyrosis is a just a bunch of guys and a girl hailing from Italy, once home to a blooming exploitation cinema industry and some of the most beautiful starlets in all of continental Europe. These days Italy is rather infamous for its mechanical and, frankly, sterile breed of faster-than-thou death metal. Just like the Germans of Necrophagist, Hour Of Penance has a lot to answer for. Ekpyrosis is the antithesis of the stereotypical Italian sound and their breaking with tradition is what makes their music so engrossing. The handdrawn artwork by César Valladares bathes in monochrome and its precisely the sort of thing you’d expect a band like Ekpyrosis to use in terms of visuals. Would “Asphyxiating Devotion” have benefitted from a canvas by Miran Kim and Wes Benscoter? Probably. Is it necessary for the experience? Not in the slightest, but it would have helped further cement the bonds to early, prime era Incantation and Deceased. As it currently stands Ekpyrosis is one of the best death metal exports from Italy one is likely to find.

Plot: Italian model inherits Waldrick Castle in Germany, creepy relatives included

Malenka (released in English language territories as Fangs Of the Living Dead) was a Spanish-Italian co-production that was significant for being one of the first vampire films to emerge in Spain under the repressive regime of Generalísimo Francisco Franco. Allegedly inspired by The Fearless Vampire Killers (1967) it was the first foray into horror for director Amando de Ossorio. De Ossorio was only preceded by Jacinto Molina Álvarez (Paul Naschy to the English-speaking world) and his The Mark Of the Wolfman (1968) that proved that horror could be a viable genre in Spain. It's rather interesting that the Philippines, a Spanish colony, arrived at the vampire film earlier with Gerardo de Leon's The Blood Drinkers (1964) and Blood Of the Vampires (1966), both with Amalia Fuentes in the starring role. For the time Fangs Of the Living Dead at least attempted to push the envelope.

The primary selling point for Fangs Of the Living Dead is poorly dubbed Swedish star Anita Ekberg. Ekberg debuted in Abbott and Costello Go to Mars (1953), with her star rising thanks to appearances in War and Peace (1956), Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita (1960) and Boccaccio ’70 (1962). However by 1968 her career had taken a steep turn for the worse, and Ekberg would be making a living appearing in mostly Mediterreanean (Italian and Spanish) exploitation productions of dubious merit. Fangs Of the Living Dead was the last cinematic exploit for spaghetti western regular Adriana Ambesi who also had a role in the big budget John Huston production The Bible: In the Beginning... (1966) just three years earlier.

The remainder of the cast were veterans of Paul Naschy and Jesús Franco productions. Rosanna Yanni and Julián Ugarte worked earlier with Naschy on The Mark of the Wolfman (1968), and Yanni would do so again in Count Dracula’s Great Love (1973). For Amando de Ossorio’s Fangs Of the Living Dead she not only acted as one of the principal characters, but also served as its producer together with Adriana Ambesi. Yanni would also appear in The Amazons (1973) from former Bond director Terence Young. In 1962 Diana Lorys appeared in the Jesús Franco thriller The Awful Dr. Orloff before starring in a string of spaghetti westerns. Lorys had worked earlier with de Ossorio on the spaghetti western The Three from Colorado (1965). During the 1970s Lorys turned up in the Franco productions The Bloody Judge (1970) with Christopher Lee, and Nightmares Come at Night (1972) with late Franco muse Soledad Miranda in a relatively minor part. Not helping matters either was that Ugarte was only two years senior to Ekberg.

As a peculiar retelling of the 1897 Bram Stoker novel Dracula, Fangs Of the Living Dead concerns itself with Sylvia Morel (Anita Ekberg), an Italian model that looks suspiciously Nordic, who inherits the old family homestead of Waldrick Castle, somewhere in a remote region of Germany. Two weeks away from getting married to her fiancé Dr. Piero Luciani (Giani Medici, as John Hamilton), Sylvia rushes to inspect her inheritance. At the local tavern she meets barmaids and siblings Freya Zemis (Rosanna Yanni, as Rossana Yanny), and Bertha (Diana Lorys), both wearing low-cut dirndl dresses, the latter of whom wastes no time in making a pass at her client. When she announces that she’s the new Countess barmaids and villagers alike act as if they’ve seen a ghost. Meeting Count Walbrook (Julián Ugarte) at the castle estate, Morel enthusiastically declares “what an incredibly handsome uncle I have!” before kissing him on the cheek and noticing his icy coldness. Vladis (Fernando Bilbao) Walbrook’s trusty coachman, houseservant, and guard at this juncture chooses to dispense information to Morel about her uncle’s nocturnal habits in the castle.

That night Sylvia is woken up by Blinka (Adriana Ambesi, as Audrey Ambert) who wears an incredibly revealing funeral dress, describes herself as one of her uncle’s former mistresses, and prefers to talk about herself in the third person. Not having properly rubbed the sleep from her eyes Sylvia is overcome by Blinka, who doesn’t hesitate to make a pass on her. Moments later Walbrook storms in, forcefully removing Blinka from Morel’s room, and whipping her into subservience in one of the adjacent chambers in a scene that must have been provocative and daring for the time. At this point Walbrook shows Sylvia an ancestral portrait which is said to be her maligned great-grandmother Malenka, “a brilliant biochemist!” and alchemist that dabbled in black magic, and experiments in necro-biology. Transgressions for which she was burned “at the stake in the town square” by a pitchfork-and-torches brandishing mob of mortally terrified - or “a murderous, ignorant crowd” as Walbrook describes them - villagers. Having put Sylvia under his spell the Count tries to turn her in a blood ritual that doesn’t follow typical vampire lore. As a last resort he coerces her to call off her engagement, to follow the voice of blood and join him in the halls of eternity. Sylvia is, of course, none too sure about any of it...

Piero Luciani and his comic relief buddy Max (César Benet, as Guy Roberts) travel to the castle but are denied admittance by Vladis. In the town they seek the assistance of Dr. Horbinger (Carlos Casaravilla), the disgraced and now continually inebriated town physician that believes in the vampire myth. Luciani shrugs it off as “nonsense” and before long the trio are headed off to Waldrick Castle to put end to Count Walbrook’s unholy reign of terror. Will they be able to free Sylvia? Is Walbrook truly a vampire as he suggests? Fangs Of the Living Dead exists in several different versions. First there's a 75-80 min. US print with producer-mandated alternate ending that de Ossorio reluctantly filmed, then there's a 96-98 min. European print, probably of Dutch origin, that includes additional science exposition, and dialog scenes but omits the alternate ending. Finally there is the original Spanish Malenka print with the ending as envisioned and intended by its director.

The ancient undead already played a prominent part in Naschy's The Mark Of the Wolfman (1968) and they were the focal point of de Leon's The Blood Drinkers (1964) and Blood Of the Vampires (1966). Fangs Of the Living Dead pilfers both of de Leon's vampire exercises in terms of plot. The vampire craze would reach a climax in 1973 with the release of Count Dracula’s Great Love, León Klimovsky’s The Dracula Saga (which all but steals the plot of Fangs Of the Living Dead), Joe Sarno's low-key Vampire Ecstasy and Luigi Batzella’s The Devil’s Wedding Night. Compared to these later outings Fangs Of the Living Dead is rather demure and prudish as was expected under Franco's military dictatorship. For a late 60s continental European production it at least tries to be provocative with its scenes of punitive whipping, implied sapphic liaisons and by putting the major female cast members (Lorys, Yanni and Ambesi) in very flattering low-cut dresses.

Fangs Of the Living Dead might not be the most stimulating of the form, but it benefits tremendously from its location. Waldrick Castle, or the chateau standing in for it, is filled with darkened hallways, candle- and torchlit mausoleums; shadowy, cobwebbed crypts, and opulent chambers. As a gothic horror piece Fangs Of the Living Dead eschews from both blood and nudity, but as Hammer Horror before it each of the actresses is put in skimpy dresses that allow as much bare skin as possible. The more voluptuous Rosanna Yanni and Adriana Ambesi regularly struggle to keep their assets contained in their dresses. What it lacks in technical polish it compensates with a sweltering sense of Mediterranean darkness and a melancholic organ, violin and harmonium score from Carlo Savina. The English language dub is atrocious even by 1960s exploitation standards. Amando de Ossorio would truly come into his own with his much lauded second horror feature Tombs Of the Blind Dead (1972), which spawned two sequels of its own, and with the amiable The Loreleys Grasp (1973) with Helga Liné and Silvia Tortosa.