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In 2004-2006 Saskatchewan power metal unit Into Eternity was a force to be reckoned with. They were on Century Media Records, on every major touring package in North America and pretty much on top of the world as it was. “The Incurable Tragedy”, overt populist metalcore disposition notwithstanding, saw the Canucks experiencing an even greater wave of popularity and visibility. Then… nothing happened. In the decade that followed Into Eternity, like so many bands of yesteryear, fell into disrepair as they lost members as well as their long-time recording contract with Century Media Records. Popular tastes and the metal scene as a whole moved on to the next fad as they are wont to, inexplicably making Swedish occult retro-rock band Ghost and J-pop sensation Baby Metal (hardly the best the country has to offer) the most popular (not to mention lucrative) items of recent memory. Then “The Sirens” was released to the sound of crickets on the M-Theory Audio label in October 2018. Twelve years removed from their last good album and a decade after “The Incurable Tragedy” the question doesn’t lie so much in Into Eternity’s innate ability as a band but whether or not the metal scene at large has moved on during their unusually long absence.

From days of “The Incurable Tragedy” and “The Scattering Of Ashes” only founding member Tim Roth (lead guitar, vocals) and Troy Bleich (bass guitar, vocals) remain. Justin Bender (guitars) has moved over to the production seat and replacing him is Matt Cuthbertson. Steve Bolognese went on to substitute original drummer Jim Austin, but for “The Sirens” Bolognese relinquished his position to Bryan Newbury. Finally, and probably most important of all personnel changes this band has seen to date, Amanda Kiernan was given the daunting task of replacing the man of a thousand voices Stu Block. “The Sirens” was a long time coming and delayed for at least two years. ‘Sandstorm’ and ‘Fukushima’ were released as singles in 2011 and 2012, respectively, when Block was still part of the band. At one point “The Sirens” was scheduled for release on much smaller Italian label imprint Kolony Records but apparently that agreement collapsed somewhere in the interim. A new contract was brokered with the equally low-profile M-Theory Audio and now, twelve years after their last offering, Into Eternity is back, supposedly one assumes, in full force.

That Into Eternity has chosen to keep Amanda Kiernan permanently in the position that she was initially hired to temporarily fill shouldn’t surprise anyone. Canada has a history with female-fronted traditional metal going as far to the eighties with the likes of Messiah Force and since 2013 there has been something of a resurgence of female-fronted underground metal in the Great White North. Those hoping that Tim Roth would hire that other Amanda (Amanda Marie Gosse from Category VI) will be sorely disappointed. Whereas Gosse has the actual high register and falsetto Kiernan is of a grittier persuasion and far closer to Debbie Levine from Lady Beast in comparison. At least there’s sense in hiring Kiernan as female-fronted metal, especially the traditional metal kind, has proven commercially successful and incredibly popular in places like Scandinavia, Germany, Asia (especially Japan) and North America. Now that Stu Block has moved on to the greener pastures of Tampa, Florida power/thrashers Iced Earth “The Sirens” conclusively proves that a decade-plus absence hasn’t dulled Into Eternity in the slightest. In fact it very much sounds like a band with something to prove.

A strange duality is what defines “The Sirens” for the most part. The five new cuts are probably some of the most technical, melodic material Roth has penned to date. ‘Sirens’, ‘Fringes of Psychosis’, ‘This Frozen Hell’, ‘Nowhere Near’, and ‘Devoured By Sarcopenia’ all clock around (and upwards of) 7 minutes. ‘Sirens’ even opens with an extended piano - and orchestral piece. The two preview singles that preceded “The Sirens” lean more towards their 2006-2008 era and not nearly contain the amount of proverbial fireworks and bravado that their new material does. The inclusion of ‘Sandstorm’ and ‘Fukushima’ is far more damning especially in light of both having been around for many years at this point. It’s understandable that Roth decided to record them with Kiernan at the helm, but that doesn’t change the fact that that space could have been put to better use for another new song. ‘Sandstorm’ and closing track ‘The Scattering Of Ashes’ are the most conventional in length and the latter sort of has the feel of a refurbished b-side of the accompanying 2006 album. “The Sirens” tackles a wide variety of subjects, both fictional and real. ‘Sirens’ is about the singing creatures of Greek mythology. ‘Fringes Of Psychosis’ and ‘Nowhere Near’ are about mental deterioriation and depression. ‘This Frozen Hell’ is a cut decrying the ungentle Canadian winter very much in tradition of Cryptopsy’s ‘…And Then It Passes.’ ‘Sandstorm’ chronicles Operation Neptune Spear and the capture and killing of terrorist leader Osama Bin Laden, the perpetrator of the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center. ‘Fukushima’ is, should the name not be enough of an indicator, about the Fukushima Daiichi disaster following the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami on March 11, 2011.

Roth’s loyalty to Touchwood Studios in Regina is admirable and “The Sirens” probably sounds far better than it has any right to considering there wasn't a major label behind the funding. It has what is probably the gnarliest production work Into Eternity has yet seen, especially compared to the Century Media Records releases of yore. Bryan Newbury’s energetic and versatile drumming in particular sounds probably worse than Nicholas Barker on Dimmu Borgir’s “Puritanical Euphoric Misanthropia”. It would behoof Into Eternity to consider recording drums at a different facility such as The Grid Productions in Québec with Christian Donaldson or at Wild Studio in Saint-Zénon with Pierre Rémillard. "The Sirens" is rough around the edges and it absolutely takes no prisoners, to say the very least. The Mattias Norén artwork is line with Into Eternity’s prior releases and very much cements that Roth and his cohorts never left the 2002-2008 sphere. “The Sirens” lacks some of the overall polish and gloss that its Century Media releases had in abundance. It very much is the album that directly should have followed 2008’s semi-conceptual “The Incurable Tragedy”. A decade has passed since that release and Into Eternity is pretty much in the same place they were in 2006-2008. At least they are consistent.

Ultimately “The Sirens” is very much a victim of its prolonged gestation period. Had this been released in 2012 its impact would have been considerably greater. There’s only so many people Into Eternity can reach now that they no longer have the clout of the Century Media Records promotion department behind them. It speaks volumes about the sorry state of the industry when an established band like Into Eternity, who has plenty of experience in the studio as on the road, has trouble securing a long-term recording contract. How come Nuclear Blast, Spinefarm, AFM, Massacre, Season Of Mist, or Napalm Records weren’t involved in a fierce bidding war to sign these dyed-in-the-wool Canucks? For the longest time it looked as if Into Eternity’s hiatus was going to be permanent. Thankfully “The Sirens” proves otherwise and obviously Tim Roth has many songs still in the tank. Few bands can manage to bounce back from an extended hiatus so strong and convincing as Into Eternity does here. Hopefully it won’t be another decade or so before they come around to releasing a follow-up to this kinda, sorta “comeback” album.

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.