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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…

Few are going to doubt Erik Rutan’s dedication to the cause of death metal. He got his start in formative New Jersey death/thrash metal combo Ripping Corpse, joined Morbid Angel for the “Covenant” world tour and recorded “Domination” and later “Gateways to Annihilation” with them. More recently he helmed the second Warfather record “The Grey Eminence” in 2016 and Morbid Angel’s surprisingly solid “Kingdoms Disdained” a year after that in his Mana Recording Studios in St. Petersburg, Florida - the new haven for underground metal, foreign and domestic - in very much the same way Morrisound Recording was in the nineties. Rutan lives and breathes death metal and he has never written a lesser record with his Hate Eternal. While age hasn’t dulled Rutan or his band in the slightest, his writing has become infinitely more nuanced, especially in recent years. “Upon Desolate Sands” is everything that “Infernus” was but with far greater nuance.

“Fury & Flames” is a well-documented black page in the band’s history and it was marred by more than a peculiar and hostile reverb-laden production. As far as we’re concerned “I, Monarch” is the penultimate Hate Eternal recording followed closely by “Conquering the Throne”. “Upon Desolate Sands” is the sort of record that we’d usually like on principle alone. Yet, as much as we hate eternally to admit it, our reaction to it was lukewarm at best and completely indifferent at worst. Which is strange because Hate Eternal has a resumé that pretty much speaks for itself at this point. It wouldn’t be a Hate Eternal record if there weren’t the obligatory line-up shuffles. Apparently it’s impossible for Rutan to hold on to any drummer for any length of time. Chason Westmoreland didn’t last beyond the “Infernus” album and he was replaced by former Necrophagist and Obscura skinsman Hannes Grossmann, who’s also currently serving in German death metal outfit Alkaloid and Swiss death-doom combo Tryptikon. “Upon Desolate Sands” is very much a collaborative effort with J.J. Hrubovcak contributing as much as Rutan himself.

Hannes Grossman (left), Erik Rutan (middle) and J.J. Hrubovcak (right)

“Upon Desolate Sands”, the first of the third trilogy, sounds very different from any of this band’s prior records. ‘The Violent Fury’ delivers just that but what quickly becomes apparent is that Hate Eternal sounds far more controlled and stealthily melodic than any prior records. The overall pace is far lower too, something which tracks as ‘Nothingness Of Being’ and ‘Dark Age Of Ruin’ probably evince better than any other. ‘Portal Of Myriad’ on the other hand is vintage Hate Eternal with increased dissonance. The title track is bookended by hypnotizing wordless chants from one Małgorzata Gwózdz and is reminiscent of ‘Coronach’ from “Fury & Flames” for exactly that reason. In keeping with recent traditions “Upon Desolate Sands” is concluded by an instrumental. More than any record before is Rutan’s latest offering rife with classic Morbid Angel influence and the blinding velocity that once was his calling card is used far more sparingly this time around. In a sense “Upon Desolate Sands” leans closer towards “I, Monarch” than it does to “King Of All Kings”. Since “Infernus” Rutan’s vocals aren’t as guttural as they once were and the soloing has become far more melodic and extensive than it was on any of the earlier records. Hrubovcak now has served longer than Jared Anderson and Randy Piro, individually and has been Rutan’s trusted songwriting partner as long as both of his predecessors combined. The drum position remains as volatile as ever whereas the Rutan-Hrubovcak axis proves ever fruitful.

Those hoping for a return to the low-end heaviness of “I, Monarch” will find the production on “Upon Desolate Sands” fittingly matter-of-fact, arid, and, well, dry. The clarity and texture from “Infernus” remain intact while it does not nearly have the low-end weight that served the productions on Warfather’s “The Grey Eminence” and Morbid Angel’s “Kingdoms Disdained” so well. Rutan was never kind to the bass guitar and its rubbery tone possesses all the clarity and definition you could possibly want but is entirely without heft or body otherwise. Over the years the drum production has underwent a few staggering transformations yet “Upon Desolate Sands” for the most part carries over the warm tones from “Infernus”. Build from the same template as its predecessor “Upon Desolate Sands” is more of a continuation instead of a progression from what “Infernus” did before it. Erik Rutan stays loyal to the slightly modernized sound that Hate Eternal adopted in recent years and like any other entry in his discography there are no real complaints to be leveled at it as such. Rutan is a respected and widely decorated death metal warrior for a good reason and “Upon Desolate Sands” caters to fans of his work in exactly the ways they want. While offering no shocking innovations it solidifies Hate Eternal’s well-deserved place among the death metal elite.

The third Hate Eternal trilogy puts the focus on ancient antiquity and historical subjects and it’s incredible how far Rutan’s writing has come since the releasing of the now-legendary “promo ’97 / Engulfed In Grief” split demo tape in 1997. On “Conquering the Throne” Hate Eternal sounded like the band Diabolic always wished it was, “King Of All Kings” is a death metal classic for a reason but it wouldn’t be until “I, Monarch” that Rutan’s writing showed some mention worthy individuality. “Fury & Flames” saw the band in a state of flux and temporary disarray after the untimely loss of Jared Anderson. We skipped over “Phoenix Amongst the Ashes” entirely and it wouldn’t be until 2015’s “Infernus” that we started paying to Rutan’s band once more. The only notable change is Eliran Kantor replacing Paul Romano on “Infernus’” as Hate Eternal’s resident cover artist but established bands on major labels are hardly the place to look for innovation in terms of visuals. Hate Eternal is the last band to accuse of fatigue of any kind but like the most recent Malevolent Creation album the formula is starting to show its rather evident limitations. “Upon Desolate Sands” is slower overall but Hate Eternal has lost none of its searing intensity. Things are looking up for Hate Eternal and this new trilogy might just be their most memorable. Time wil tell…