With the likes of Ice Age, Lady Beast and Savage Master there’s no shortage of quality traditional metal. St. Johns, Newfoundland, Canada heavy/power metal revivalists Category VI already left a favourable impression in 2013 with their charming and unassuming little debut “Fireborn”. Since the last record the band has acquired the services of a new drummer and inked a recording contract with German imprint Killer Metal Records. In other words, Category VI is ready to bring its music to a wider public. “War Is Hell” is very much cut of the same cloth as “Fireborn” but is more muscular, rugged and possesses a greater focus and combativeness. Ideal for a record dealing with the horrors of war.
The primary appeal of Category VI lies in its blue-collar charm and down-to-earth approach to their craft. They live and breathe the music they produce. On “War Is Hell” the Category VI core remains unchanged with Geoff Waye’s burly riffs and fiery soloing, Keith Jackman’s lively bass guitar licks, and Amanda Marie Gosse’s soaring vocals. Evinced by her choice of melodies Gosse is an ardent disciple of the late Dio. Befitting of the war thematic “War Is Hell” is still traditionally inclined, but far more muscular and combative all around compared to the more conservative “Fireborn”. The midpace is occassionally broken for a mildly faster section, but unlike Lady Beast “War Is Hell” is more about atmosphere and feeling than it is about speed. Not that Category VI would describe itself as a speed metal band in the first place. Would it benefit Category VI to let loose and put the pedal to the metal? Probably, but they are obviously comfortable in their midpace. Some changes in pace would lend it a considerably greater sense of dynamics and scope.
‘Strike Of the Axe’ opens the gates after a bit of guitar psychedelia and it’s rather evident that guitar solos have been given a more prominent place. Moreso than on “Fireborn” at any rate. The riffs are more muscular without becoming thrashy and drummer John Angelopoulos is given more to do than simply keeping time. ‘Full Metal Jacket’ has a pumping groove and ‘Crossing the Avalon’ is one of the band’s fiercest tracks to date, even with all the psychedelic guitar noodling that it engages in. Interestingly, 'The Traveller / The Dark Warrior' and ‘Crossing the Avalon’ are two songs from "Dark Warrior", the 2002 independently released and distributed demo from Waye's erstwhile band Oberon, here given a due re-recording. ‘Arise’ isn’t a Sepultura cover instead its a pulsating cut reminiscent of something off Iron Maiden’s “The Number of the Beast”. With Waye’s guitar pyrotechnics and Jackman’s clanging bass just waiting to break out it’s puzzling that Category VI insists on a midpace as often as it does. These three men obviously have the chops to write and play something more demanding and adventurous. Evidently it isn’t frontwoman Amanda Marie Gosse that is holding them back from doing just that. What an amazing set of pipes this redheaded lady has. Not only is she powerful, expressive and commanding, her falsetto and higher register is equally full of emotion and girth. Category VI has obviously experienced a considerable growth spurt since its debut. Are they living up to the potential that “Fireborn” hinted at? Well, not entirely. The band has yet to pen its own ‘Rime Of the Ancient Mariner’ and they still tend to second-guess themselves every step of the way. Up the Irons already, guys!
Category VI is all about efficiency. At 47 minutes “War Is Hell” is about 5 minutes shorter than the debut. Their unpretentiousness is translated in the matter-of-fact production work and accompanying visuals. It’s functional, it’s earnest and oozes with the kind of heft and body that a lot of today’s overly sterilized productions lack. Amanda Marie and her men obviously have their heart in the right place and the disarming honesty of their music is ultimately works in their advantage. In a world where everybody’s a crook, and in an increasingly disingenuous scene, they are a welcome breath of fresh air. Arguably the metal scene needs more people just like them, but in all likelihood they will probably remain criminally overlooked just because they do things on their own terms. Admittedly the visual aspect remains on the amateurish side for a band now on a professional label. Imagine what Category VI conjure forth with a canvas from Jan Meininghaus, Péter Sallai, Samwise Didier, Thomas Ewerhard, or Jan Yrlund? In the grand scheme of things it’s a minor qualm considering how well-developed Category VI’s music is for a band of their age.
“War Is Hell” has Category VI on the verge of greater things; of finally unlocking their innate potential as a band, of Gosse elevating herself from a mere frontwoman to an underground icon, and their blooming songwriting finally matching their ambitions. “War Is Hell” is that kind of record. One where a band's entire future hinges upon. The Great White North has given the underground its fair share of now-classic bands in a variety of metal genres. Whether or not Category VI becomes the next institution depends on how they handle this record. There are plenty of bands with not half their promise that remain inexplicably popular with the masses. It’s high time for Category VI to claim their rightful place in the Canadian – as well as the international scene. If “War Is Hell” is any indication they are on the threshold. Together with Pennsylvania stalwarts Lady Beast (fronted by the indomitable Debbie Levine), Category VI is the best traditional metal is likely to get.