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Any band that has been around long enough will eventually become judged by the merits of its imitators. After all the easiest way for a young band to find its footing is by following in the footsteps, sometimes directly, of its inspirations and influences. Cannibal Corpse, Suffocation, Morbid Angel, Dying Fetus, and Krisiun at various points all have been the subject of imitation on a smaller or larger scale. Pennsylvania death metal combo Incantation weren’t part of that select group until sometime around 2008 when bands as Dead Congregation and Father Befouled sprung up and popularized the sound with those for whom the original was too difficult to comprehend. In the decade-plus since the first copycats wormed their way out of whatever unconsecrated ground they called home the original is still unsurpassed and in their old age have been experiencing something of a conceptual rejuvenation that knows no equal.

Since 2013 Lombardy, Italy-based Ekpyrosis has been conjuring something of a little infernal storm of themselves. Our introduction to them was with their commendable “Witness His Death” EP from 2015. While no paragon of originality it captured enough of that murky atmosphere that has been Incantation’s calling card since the very beginning. Two years later their proper debut “Asphyxiating Devotion” followed and while nothing fundamentally changed about Ekpyrosis’ sound in the grand scheme of things it wasn’t quite as narrow in how it choose to imitate Incantation. “Primordial Chaos Restored” continues that evolution and it sounds as if, slowly but surely, Ekpyrosis is etching out its own identity while staying loyal to the old masters. The only real significant change that Ekpyrosis underwent is the ousting of bass guitarist Marco Cazzaniga and the recruiting of Gianluca Carrara in his stead. The transition with Carrara is seamless and he debuts commendably on “Primordial Chaos Restored”. One of Ekpyrosis’ greatest strengths is the vocal interplay between Marco Teodoro and Nicolò Brambilla that is a dead ringer for both Daniel Corchado and John McEntee, but our favorite member is drummer Ilaria Casiraghi. Casiraghi (or Curly, as we frequently call her) is of the Kyle Severn, Rick Miah, and King Fowley school of drumming and probably understands better than anyone else that less is always more.

There’s something to be said about how well Ekpyrosis masters their chosen style when a track like ‘Abyssal Convergence’ sounds as if it was culled from “Profane Nexus” or a similar recent Incantation offering. ‘Instigation Of Entropy’ opens with a riff scheme reminiscent of ‘Desecration (Of the Heavenly Graceful)’. ‘Conception From Nothingness’ echoes ‘Sempiternal Pandemonium’ and ‘Crown Of Decayed Salvation’ at various points. ‘Chaos Condensing’ is an atmospheric acoustic instrumental and the first of its kind that Ekpyrosis has written, to our recollection at least. It seems only fitting that Ekpyrosis would conclude its latest EP with a faithful rendition of Incantation staple ‘Devoured Death’ (at least they were so smart not to cover ‘Profanation’, ‘Unholy Massacre’ or ‘Deliverance Of Horrific Prophecies’, which would be the obvious, and thus predictable, choices). It would be interesting to hear Ilaria tackle Dave Culross’ more technicaly challenging material from “The Infernal Storm”. At its best it’s almost impossible to tell Ekpyrosis apart from Incantation. At various points this really sounds like a long-lost Incantation recording, probably from somewhere between the Daniel Corchado, Mike Saez - and John McEntee fronted eras.

The Stockholm influence that permeated “Witness His Death” and parts of “Asphyxiating Devotion” has completely disappeared and Ekpyrosis is now fully embracing its ancient New York death metal sound. To fans of Incantation, Morpheus Descends, Autopsy, Winter, and the like this EP will sound instantly familiar and there are more than a few things to cling to. ‘Chaos Condensing’ is, by far, the most adventurous track present, primarily because it captures that old Italian horror atmosphere so wonderfully. Not that we’re expecting Ekpyrosis to suddenly turn all Goblin and go all psychotronic and psychedelic. This is about the last band where you’d expect funky bass licks like Fabio Pignatelli or mind-bending keyboards like Claudio Simonetti but the macabre horror atmosphere is certainly worth exploring further. Also not unimportant in this particular equation is the production from Carlo Altobelli. Rather befitting it leans more towards something murky as “Onward to Golgotha” than the bare-bones Sunlight Studio approximation of his earlier productions for this band.

What really sells “Primordial Chaos Restored” is the absolutely stellar cover drawing from Raoul Mazzero for View from the Coffin. It effectively captures the funereal, murky essence of the cavernous death metal that Incantation pioneered. In the second half of the nineties (when it was anything but trendy to imitate Incantation) Canadian one-man act Darkness Eternal pretty much reigned supreme in the field. These days the field is considerably more populated with all the good and bad that entails. Ekpyrosis clearly love the various incarnations of Incantation and “Primordial Chaos Restored” doesn’t focus on any era specifically. Ekpyrosis is, at least as far as we’re concerned, the leader in a growing movement of underground metal acts that steer away from the mechanical, sterile, and frankly, lifeless hyperspeed death metal that Hour Of Penance, Fleshgod Apocalypse, and Hideous Divinity have specialized in. They are, along with Ferum, Amthrya, and Resumed, the future of the Italian underground. The catacombs are churning and Ekpyrosis has been spat from the darkness. At some point this sort of death metal will become the norm again. To paraphrase Hellhammer: “Life is just an illusion, only Ilaria is real.

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!