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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…

In the last couple of years Göthenburg-based Nachtlieder, the studio project conceptualized by multi-instrumentalist, part-time yogini and natural born philosopher Dagny Susanne, has established itself as one of the most potent and distinct new voices in the Swedish black metal pantheon. Her third album “Lynx” fully delivers on the promise that 2015’s loosely conceptual “The Female of the Species” only hinted at. While her 2013 debut was serviceable in the very least, it didn't leave much of an impression on this scribe. On “The Female of the Species” Nachtlieder truly transformed into a distinct entity with its own recognizable vision and voice. “Lynx” builds, but also expands and deepens, upon that foundation and sees Dagny elevating her songwriting to a higher creative plateau. “Lynx” has Susanne at her most bloodcurdingly predatory and perhaps now more than any time before is Nachtlieder red of tooth and claw.

On the whole we’ve always been fairly ambivalent at best and completely indifferent at worst to Swedish black metal as a genre. There are records that we unequivocally love. “Summon the Beast” from the Hypocrisy side-project The Abyss, “The Secrets Of the Black Arts” from Dark Funeral, the first few Marduk albums, “The Somberlain” and “Storm Of the Light’s Bane” by Dissection (who we’ve always considered more of an epic heavy/thrash metal band than an outright black metal one) and selected works from Setherial, the the grandmasters of imitation and derivation, such as “Nord”, “Hell Eternal” or “Endtime Divine” and “Vittra” from Naglfar. The post-David Parland releases from Dark Funeral, the shortlived more death metal tinged The Legion, and the numerous more smaller hordes that persist in the underground have not helped in swaying us to stay current with what’s happening in the scene. Over the course of a decade and now three albums deep into her career Dagny Susanne has proven that she’s persistently deadlier than the male. Nachtlieder is the kind of project to breath new life into a stagnant and regressive genre without the need of a gimmick or being overly innovative.

The lynx has largely been associated with awareness, ability, balance, and change. It is a symbol of knowledge, clairvoyance, and wisdom. Across cultures (Greek, Norse, North American and Asian, among others) and times the lynx has borne silent witness to the foils and follies of humankind and is widely considered an often nigh on invisible sage of secrets both corporeal and ethereal living in great solitude and isolation. In medicine the lynx symbolizes sharp senses. Much like the titular felines an air of mystery surrounds Susanne who has revealed herself as a woman of many interests. It greatly speaks to her sense of individuality and independence that she continues to explore themes and subjects relating to the female experience. Susanne is not a woman to be pigeonholed to a convenient genre tag and with each subsequent offering Nachtlieder continues to expand into grander, ever more ambitious concepts. While Nachtlieder’s 2013 debut didn’t leave much of an impression other than being an extremely capable exercise of the form her subsequent album(s) have shown her as an agile musician and composer. Nachtlieder wouldn’t be what it is without the loyal services of studio drummer Martrum and on “Lynx” he too delivers another stellar performance. The synergy between Dagny and Martrum is one of the project’s strongest features.

Nachtlieder has never been about inhuman speed (leave that to Setherial and their ilk) and much of Susanne’s songwriting is reminiscent of Enslaved (circa “Hordanes Land”) and early Immortal records as “Diabolical Fullmoon Mysticism” and “Pure Holocaust”. Instead of the more Nordic inclinations of her possible inspirations “Lynx” sounds clinically aggressive without that it ever regresses into gratuitous Norsecore blasts (something which Belgian horde Enthroned was often prone to early on) and atmospheric meanderings that serve no larger purpose. As much as the bass guitar is often dealt a cruel hand in most metal productions regardless of their size on “Lynx” it can be heard clearly. The string instruments contribute equally to the compositions and while the bass guitar never quite gets to weave any lead melodies its constantly throbbing pulse is essential for Nachtlieder to arrive at its distinct sound. By and large “Lynx” goes for a more primal and churning epic midpace than the more conventionally speed-oriented excursions from “The Female of the Species”. The primordially crawling, eerie melodies amplify Dagny’s rasping growl. Which doesn’t diminish in any way from tracks as ‘Law Of Decay’ that completely kill with their speed. The duo of ‘Eyes Ablaze’ and ‘Moksha’ conclude “Lynx” on a majestic dark note. Like the ferocious felines of the title Nachtlieder is both elegant and cunning in its assault.

An illustration from John Bauer isn’t typically something you’d expect of a black metal band, especially not in the light of the assorted works of Gustav Doré and Jannicke Wiese-Hansen more or less being standards of the form. “Lynx” avoids the usual monochrome canvasses by using a piece from Bauer as its artwork. The illustration in question is "Guldnycklarna" (Gold Keys) from 1915 that figured into "Bland tomtar och troll" (Among gnomes and trolls), an annual collection of fairytales for children that was first saw publication in 1907. A variety of authors wrote for "Bland tomtar och troll" and Bauer contributed illustrations every year until his death with the exception of 1911. The collection steered domestic children’s literature in a new direction by incorporating themes from folk songs into the various fairytales. After Bauer other illustrators followed among them Gustaf Tenggren and from 1927 to 1980 Einar Norelius with Hans Arnold following in his footsteps. Notable authors contributing to the tome include Hjalmar Bergman, Margareta Ekström, Gösta Knutsson, Severin Schiöler and Edith Unnerstad.

Eine kleine Nachtmusik might be Mozart's most enduring composition and Nachtlieder is the last thing you'd associate with fairytales and nursery rhymes there's something about Dagny's songwriting and her strong sense of individuality that easily places it among the classic bands of her genre. On “The Female of the Species” Susanne already showcased her uncanny ability to compose fully conceptualized pieces better than most of her peers in traditionally staffed constellations. In many ways Nachtlieder is the Scandinavian counterpart to Mediterreanean outfit Melencolia Estatica, the Italian project spearheaded by vocalist/multi-instrumentalist Serena Nardin. If there's something to be said about Nachtlieder as a band and Susanne as a person it's that she will go out of her way to avoid any cliché inherent to her craft. That truly is her greatest forté. Now that the "Lynx" is free to stalk its prey we can only wonder what Dagny will come up with next. It'd be interesting to see her take on the various female apparitions of Asian mythology (such as the ghosts of Chinese folklore or the Indian nagin, the snake spirits, to name two popular examples). If there's anything the metal scene at large needs it's visionaries. People like Susanne are vital. Suss isn't just kvlt, she's kvte too.