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In an illustrious career spanning three decades and as much distinct phases Piedmont, Italy-based pagan dark metal maestros Opera IX have experienced some of the highest peaks and grimmest lows. In their prime they were masters in combining occult death/black metal with ethnic Italian folk music like no other. “The Call of the Wood” laid the basic groundwork but it wasn’t until “Sacro Culto” that they truly embodied the sweltering Latin Meditterranean darkness and eroticism from the cult cinema of yore from which they partly derived inspiration. Their years with frontwoman Cadaveria were probably their most memorable and they have struggled to live up to their massive legacy with her (as has Cadaveria herself, ironically). “The Gospel” is the first Opera IX record in well over a decade that is in any way mandatory. Is it a return to the golden age of “Sacro Culto”? Not necessarily. There’s no contesting that “The Gospel” is the strongest and most complete Opera IX experience in many a moon.

After three albums (“Maleventum”, “Anphisbena” and “Strix - Maledictae in Aeternum” when they were fronted by Madras and the late Marco De Rosa) and a decade in the margin Ossian and his Opera IX scored what for all intents and purposes must be their greatest victory in years with the recruiting of Serena Mastracco (who appears as Dipsas Dianaria) of the now-defunct Riti Occulti - a psychedelic doom metal band whose very existence they in no small part helped inspire - as frontwoman. Former singer Abigail Dianaria now fronts Swiss death metal combo Amthrÿa and is on her own road to success, artistic and otherwise. “The Gospel” holds the middleground between the ritualistic occult waltzing of “Sacro Culto” and the more symfo-oriented and standardized “The Black Opera”. The +10-minute epics of yore have gradually been subsiding in the last decade or so and the longest track on “The Gospel” is just over 7 minutes long. “The Gospel” does return to the alternating witching vocal styles of the Cadaveria era. “Back to Sepulcro” already hinted at such return but “The Gospel” fully capitalizes on it. While the ethnic percussion, acoustic guitars and folkloristic chanting are likely never to return that doesn’t make “The Gospel” any less of a return-to-form.

If Abigail Dianaria brought Opera IX back from the brink of irrelevance then her successor Serena Mastracco heralds an era of grand restoration and artistic rejuvenation. Mastracco is probably the best thing to ever happen to this band and her vocals are probably the closest Opera IX is likely to come to the classic Cadaveria era. The shadow of madame Cadaveria has long loomed over Ossian and his rotating cast of musicians and now, some 18 years after her acrimonious departure, the band has finally obtained a younger version of their most identifiable frontwoman. The vital contributions from Abigail Dianaria are not unimportant or in any way diminished by the hiring of Mastracco. She definitely reaps the benefits of what Abigail did before her. Not only is Ossian playing some of his best riffs since the dawn of the millennium but Alessandro Muscio (keyboards) and Massimo Altomare (drums) deliver some impressive work within their respective departments. Altomare is probably the best drummer this band has had since Alberto Gaggiotti and Muscio is worthy successor to Lunaris from the classic line-up. “The Gospel” is probably the strongest Opera IX offering since the golden days of “Sacro Culto” and “The Call of the Wood”.

“The Gospel” concerns the goddess Aradia, the daughter of Roman goddess Diana and the sun god Lucifer, an important figure in Italian folklore and a key figure in Gardnerian Wicca (and its various offshoots), South European Stregheria, and contemporary neopaganism. Aradia was the subject of a fifteen-chapter treatise by American folklorist Charles Godfrey Leland and his Aradia, or the Gospel of the Witches that was publicized in 1899. Leland’s text is widely considered to be a composite of an English translation of an earlier original Italian manuscript called the Vangelo (gospel). The Gospel of the Witches was what Leland believed to be a religious text of a sect of witches in Italy that documented their beliefs and rituals and his own research on Italian folklore and witchcraft. The majority of the manuscript is believed to have come from one Maddalena or Margherita from Florence, a fortune-teller and alleged witch from an Etruscan lineage, who claimed to be well versed in the traditions, spells and doctrines of the Old Religion providing him with hundreds of pages of material. Leland used The Gospel as evidence for witch lore in 19th century Italy although various scholars and historians have since questioned and disputed both the accuracy and the legitimacy of the text. Raven Grimassi on the other hand claimed Aradia was Aradia di Toscano, who led the Cult of Herodias, or a band of "Diana-worshipping witches", in 14th-century Tuscany. Even within Wicca, Stregheria, and contemporary neopaganist circles the veracity of The Gospel remains a controversial subject even to this day.

Stylistically “The Gospel” is an apparent fusion between the waltzy atmospheric Meditterranean darkness and romanticism of “Sacro Culto” and the more symfo-inclined “The Black Opera”. The record is uniformly strong and there’s truly no weaker track to speak of. An early highlight is ‘Chapter III’ and a track as ‘The Moon Goddess’ is more reminiscent of “The Black Opera” than it is of any of the band’s earlier era. ‘House of the Wind’ even reuses a very familiar melody/riff heard earlier in ‘Congressus Cum Daemone’ from “The Black Opera”. Closing track ‘Sacrilego’ uses the third movement, widely known as the marche funèbre, of Frédéric Chopin's Piano Sonata No. 2. Interestingly, relative newish cuts ‘Consacration’ and ‘The Cross’ from “Back to Sepulcro” weren’t given a make-over. Understandable since “The Gospel” is nearly an hour long and an additional 9 minutes of bonus content would be overkill, even by opulent Opera IX standards. In short there’s a wealth of material to be found on “The Gospel” making it well worth the years that it took to finally materialize. Serena Mastracco has brought a sense of rejuvenation and even a mild form of artistic resurrection to Opera IX. Even an impressive three decades into their existence Ossian and his cohorts manage to stay relevant in a completely different musical landscape.

Don’t call it a comeback because Opera IX never was truly gone. It’s true that they spent more than a decade in the margin when the wave of millennial symfo black metal crested and they found themselves a mere second-tier. “Back to Sepulcro” already hinted that Opera IX was brewing on something. That something has become “The Gospel” and while our relationship with them is iffy at best, this is some of their best work in years. That a thirty year old band can still conjure something this powerful from the altars of whatever deities they worship is impressive, to say the least. It’s as if the sacred fire from “Sacro Culto” has been rekindled and Serena Mastracco possesses the same serpentine quality as Cadaveria, even though Mastracco’s delivery is not quite as theatrical nor as dramatic. Opera IX is at its strongest whenever they’re fronted by a woman as that is, after all, how they initially made a name for themselves. They might no longer engage in the “occult experiments” that used to be their calling card, but if “The Gospel” is the sound of their future – then count us among the faithful…

Italian singer-songwriter Federica Lenore Catalano writes music that simply transcends genres. Her 2014 debut “Inner Tales” was a record we slept on and it used gothic rock as a basis for what actually was a diary-like confessional of a record of then 15-year old Catalano. “All Things Lost On Earth” no longer concerns itself with genre classifications and conventions. It keeps the same basis of gothic elements and the occasional venture into slightly more metallic territory but everything always comes back to Federica, her guitar playing and her innocent, inviting vocals. “All Things Lost On Earth” is everything that “Inner Tales” was but the interim in between has vastly enriched Catalano’s songwriting. “All Things Lost On Earth” never professes to be a metal album and most of the time it barely qualifies as one, full stop. Federica is a singer-songwriter in full bloom. As any of her colleagues her music doesn’t concern itself with classifications and genre boxes.

Seldom has there been such a gifted songwriter as such tender age. The majority of her debut was written when Federica was but a teen scribbling notes in her room. Not since Lene Marlin’s “Playing My Game” debut all the way back in 1999 has such a young girl displayed such tremendous songwriting talent and artistic potential. Marlin and Catalano hail from different parts of Europe (Norway and Italy, respectively) and both base most of their songs around the acoustic guitar and minimal percussion – yet both couldn’t be more different while sharing the same common ground in songwriting. Catalano came from the gothic and symfo metal scenes, a background she has since left behind, yet at heart she’s a composer and singer of gentle, sweet little musings on love, life, romance, sadness and heartbreak. What also helps tremendously is the warm, loving timbre of Federica's voice and that Marlin hasn’t released new music in what seems like ages. For all intents and purposes, Federica and Lenore S. Fingers are heir to whatever throne Marlin relinquished when she released her most recent album about a decade ago.

What does remain a constant in Lenore’s music is that she always uses rock and gothic elements as a starting point for her songs but the focus squarely lies on, as it should be, Catalano’s emotive vocals. The prerequisite heavier sections are present and accounted for but they never take precedence over Federica’s acoustic guitar and vocals. As it happens most of these heavier sections are incidental and circumstantial as what truly draws the listener in is Federica’s intimate and personal songcraft. While Lenore S. Fingers presents itself as a unit, it is Federica who is the key member, with Lenore S. Fingers functioning as her backing musicians. Balladry is the bread-and-butter of Lenore S. Fingers’ repertoire and “All Things Lost On Earth” is in no hurry to introduce any significant changes to that established formula. For the better too, cos most of the more metallic aspects in the band’s music come across as an contractual obligation and not only feel completely out of place with the surrounding gentle music, but are unnecessary to begin with. In fact, we’d love Lenore S. Fingers even more if they completely abandoned what little metallic aspects they still have. The rock aspect of “All Things Lost On Earth” and its predecessor is not what sells Lenore S. Fingers. Not in the slightest. Federica does.

It remains a mystery why Federica isn’t more famous and revered than she currently is. Perhaps it's the gothic and symfo metal classification that works to her disadvantage, perhaps it’s the limited audience she's able to reach as a singer-songwriter on a smaller metal label. The reasons are probably many but none should restrict a gifted young songwriter like herself from reaching her full potential and the widest audience possible. Imagine what this young woman could write when given the proper resources and backing. It boggles the mind that Catalano is still with her current label when she displays more talent in her songs than certain bands do in their entire repertoire. It’s nothing short of insanity that Lenore S. Fingers is still considered just gothic by many when the influences of Catalano’s songwriting clearly run so much more deeper and wider than just those two genres. Federica combines the innocence of early Jewel with the songwriting of Lene Marlin around “Playing My Game”, the indie/alternative mentality of Michelle Branch and the gothic aspects from anything to Evanescence, Florence + the Machine and Kerli.

It stands to reason that “All Things Lost On Earth” sometimes imposes restrictions on itself by virtue of being a proxy metal album released on a specialist metal label aimed at said demographic. Below that surface lies something far more rewarding and interesting. The second Lenore S. Fingers album is not only a refinement of what "Inner Tales" presented a few years earlier, but a maturation from the songwriting of its most identifiable member. It’s inevitable that at some point in the future Federica will feel restricted by the limitations of the genre from whence she came. “All Things Lost On Earth” already points in that direction and when she eventually frees herself from those restrictive shackles, she’ll truly be able to showcase her songcraft and then we’ll truly see what she’s only alluding to here. Her ‘Ascension’ (which makes us wonder whether she heard any modern Vanessa Carlton records) is much anticipated and hopefully we’ll see that happening sooner rather than later. “All Things Lost On Earth” is a crowning achievement in Catalano’s nascent career – and a definite promise of much, much greater things to come.