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We have a long history with Britain’s self-proclaimed barbarian metal kings Bal-Sagoth. Our introduction to the world of Bal-Sagoth came with their 1996 magnus opus “Starfire Burning upon the Ice-Veiled Throne of Ultima Thule” and we voraciously anticipated and consumed every of their subsequent albums. No other band, before or since, has combined ancient history/mythology, pulp (science fiction) literature, horror, and raging primitive death/black metal in such a engrossing and truly cinematic fashion. Bal-Sagoth was the purest escapism, a phantasmagorical world of heroes and magic, a dream to get lost in. To say that we worship Bal-Sagoth in a godly way wouldn’t be far from the truth. Whether it was the more traditional death metal of their underappreciated debut “A Black Moon Broods Over Lemuria” or the transitional “Battle Magic” and their more power metal influenced trio of albums on Nuclear Blast Records, a new Bal-Sagoth record was always an event and cause for celebration. In 2006 the self-produced “The Chthonic Chronicles” was released and the band descended into an extended hiatus. After nearly twenty years the Bal-Sagoth saga had apparently ended.

Now, 13 years after “The Chthonic Chronicles”, erstwhile Bal-Sagoth alumni Jonny (keyboards, synthesizers, piano) and Chris Maudling (lead & rhythm guitars) return to the fray with the equally Robert E. Howard inspired Kull. Kull was the protagonist of Howard’s 1967 short story Exile of Atlantis and a warrior-king from the Thurian Age. Kull was formed in Yorkshire, England in 2012 and now seven years later debuts on Black Lion Records without so much as having formally demoed in any capacity. It’s rather evident that “Exile” was conceived as a potential Bal-Sagoth effort. All the known Maudling signatures are accounted and it very much is structured as a typical Bal-Sagoth album. Joining the Maudlin brothers are fellow Bal-Sagoth alumni Alistair MacLatchy (bass guitar) and Paul Jackson (drums). Bal-Sagoth had the benefit of having Byron A. Roberts, the creative force behind the band’s elaborate 6-album high fantasy concept and a supremely gifted vocalist in his own right. Kull is Bal-Sagoth in all but name, except without Roberts and with Tarkan Alp in his stead. Alp, should there be any lingering doubts, sounds like an understudy of Roberts – and a good one at that. Longtime devotees will immediately recognize the differences as well as the similarities between the two. This is not the master, obviously, but Alp clearly is a strong surrogate.

For those who know how and where to listen “Exile” will sound instantly familiar as the Maudling brothers haven't changed their formula since "The Chthonic Chronicles" in 2006. ‘Imperial Dawn’ is a cinematic introduction in the post-1996 Bal-Sagoth tradition. ‘Set-Nakt-Heh’ has a few riffs and blaring horns that sound as if they were lifted from ‘The Empyreal Lexicon’. It’s strange hearing the signature triumphant melody that typically is to be found during the latter stages of the second half of a Bal-Sagoth record in the opening track. The feast of familiarity continues with ‘Vow Of the Exiled’ as it almost verbatim copies the introductory riff schemes from ‘The Voyagers Beneath the Mare Imbrium’ before effectively retreading ‘Of Carnage and A Gathering Of the Wolves’ territory. ‘A Summoning to War’ very much sounds as lost chapter in the saga of gentleman-adventurer Doctor Ignatius Stone, the central character in “Atlantis Ascendant”. ‘Hordes Ride’ very much recalls something as ‘Draconis Albionensis’ and even has a few vocal patterns that sound as if it was meant as a continuation or follow-up to that track.

‘An Ensign Consigned’ is a busier and overall more aggressive cut that recalls ‘The Scourge of the Fourth Celestial Host'. ‘Pax Imperialis’ is a recombinant of ‘Callisto Rising’ and ‘Behold, the Armies of War Descend Screaming from the Heavens!’ and cements the ties “Exile” has with the fourth Bal-Sagoth record “The Power Cosmic”. ‘By Lucifer’s Crown’ opens with primal riffing not heard since the days of “A Black Moon Broods Over Lemuria” or at least ‘Star-Maps of the Ancient Cosmographers’ from “Atlantis Ascendant”. ‘Of Stone and Tears’ sounds like ‘In Search of the Lost Cities of Antarctica’ and even has a similar ending synth effect. ‘Aeolian Supremacy’ sounds like the epic conclusion to the ‘The Splendour of a Thousand Swords Gleaming Beneath the Blazon of the Hyperborean Empire’ saga whereas ‘Of Setting Suns and Rising Moon’ is the same kind of blast-heavy closer as ‘The Thirteen Cryptical Prophecies of Mu’. Why ‘Aeolian Supremacy’ and ‘Of Setting Suns and Rising Moon’ weren’t switched is a question for the ages. The closing 1:50 of the former is the ‘Valley of Silent Paths’ that should have concluded the record.

“Exile” is closest to “A Black Moon Broods Over Lemuria” in terms of structure while musically it forges onward with the direction of “Battle Magic” and the later Bal-Sagoth albums. There are a few puzzling choices along the way. ‘Of Setting Suns and Rising Moon’ is a stellar closing track by itself but clashes with the serene ending of ‘Aeolian Supremacy’. It’s almost as if the Maudling brothers had written two Bal-Sagoth closing songs and decided to put them back to back instead of using one here and the second on the follow-up to “Exile”. It’s more than confusing to hear Kull end its album twice in a row. At a gargantuan 55 minutes “Exile” is as long as “A Black Moon Broods Over Lemuria”, “Starfire Burning upon the Ice-Veiled Throne of Ultima Thule” and “Battle Magic” but unlike the latter two foregoes the expected mid-album synth instrumental and the concluding atmospheric mood-piece. “Exile” would perhaps have benefitted from trimming a good ten minutes (cutting ‘Hordes Ride’ and ‘By Lucifer’s Crown’ would amount to as much) and with the addition of a two/three-minute instrumental in vein of ‘At the Altar Of the Dreaming Gods’ or ‘Six Keys to the Onyx Pyramid’. That “Exile” doesn’t end with the prerequiste synth epilogue slightly dampens the experience of this being a repurposed Bal-Sagoth album, but then again the album ends TWICE. Once with ‘Aeolian Supremacy’ (that should have ended the album)… and then again.

Where Kull falls a bit short (well, that would being charitable, at the very least) of its ambitious forebear is in overall presentation. Bal-Sagoth had some truly spectacular artwork that frequently bordered on that of a paperback novel or an old-fashioned movie poster from the sixties through eighties. Whether it was Joe Petagno’s horror-infused snowbound vista of a mighty warrior on “Starfire Burning upon the Ice-Veiled Throne of Ultima Thule”, the space battle and gleaming armor-clad warlords from “The Power Cosmic”, or the grand collage canvas from “Atlantis Ascendant” (both from Martin Hanford) a Bal-Sagoth record always stood out from the pack. Kull does…. less so. “Exile” is rather drab-looking. What Kull misses here is a colorful and heroic canvas from (preferably) Martin Hanford or somebody similar as Jean-Pascal Fournier, Boris Vallejo, Julie Bell, or Nick Keller. We’d even settle for something from Ryan Barger, Dušan Marković, or Velio Josto. Týr, Leaves’ Eyes, Theocracy, and Symphony X all had far superior marine album artworks. Considering their legacy this is more than a little disappointing. Even Belgian Bal-Sagoth imitators Dagorlad had better artwork on their very few releases.

Things fare better on the production end. We’ll never be fans of the Maudling brothers’ Wayland’s Forge Studio and we sort of miss Bal-Sagoth (or in this case, Kull) being jointly or partially produced by Academy Studios and producer Mags. The production (somewhere between “The Power Cosmic” and “The Chthonic Chronicles”, in our estimation) and the mastering from Maor Appelbaum is good enough for the type record that this is. But “Exile” more than anything else misses that full-bodied, weighty, and bass-centric production work that made fairly recent records as, "Lynx", “Axis Mundi”, “The Passage Of Existence”, “Kingdoms Disdained”, "Apokalupsis" and “Sociopathic Constructs” so completely devastating and commanding in their concrete heaviness. “Exile”for the lack of a better term sounds overly digital and, well, a bit flat, to be honest. There are certain expectations that come with carrying on the Bal-Sagoth legacy (even if it is indirectly as is the case here) and Kull isn’t able to fully meet them, as of yet. Hopefully the Maudling brothers will have ironed out the production kinks by the next record.

It’s good having three-quarters of Bal-Sagoth back in the form of Kull. “Exile” is the Bal-Sagoth record that the world should have gotten after “The Chthonic Chronicles”. Mayhap the Maudling brothers will reunite with Byron Roberts one day and restore their most enduring constellation to its rightful former glory. For the time being that seems, sadly, not to be a situation that is likely to transpire. More unbelievable (or perhaps not) is that nor Nuclear Blast nor former label Cacophonous Records showed interest in “Exile”. From Nuclear Blast’s perspective it’s understandable in terms of simple economics: Bal-Sagoth was a niche band and never shifted a great deal of units. That the resurrected Cacophonous Records showed no interest in contracting one of their famous contractees from their previous incarnation is, frankly, a bit disconcerting. Whatever the case: it’s good having Bal-Sagoth back under the guise of Kull. Hopefully it won’t take another 13 years for them to produce a follow-up to “Exile”. The patience of Bal-Sagoth fans the world over has been stretched to the absolute limit over the last decade-plus. As devoted Bal-Sagoth acolytes used to say, Blodu ok Jarna!

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…