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Immortal have fallen on some particularly hard times of late. “All Shall Fall”, the supposed grand return to form, is almost a decade behind us. “Blizzard Beasts”, far from Immortal's finest hour, dates all the way back to 1997. When severe tendinitis sidelined Demonaz, frontman Abbath switched to guitar and bassists here hired. While there’s no denying that Immortal grew in profile during Abbath’s creative reign his records seldom captured the spirit of the classic trilogy of “Diabolical Fullmoon Mysticism”, “Pure Holocaust”, and the uniformly barbaric “Battles In the North”. Now that Abbath is out of the picture, Demonaz (always the more level-headed of the duo) is free to restore Immortal to its former glory. “Northern Chaos Gods” is the album that should have immediately followed the abysmally produced wimper “Blizzard Beasts”. Has Demonaz been able to shake off the rust and creative stasis of Abbath’s decade-long reign and steer Immortal back to relevance? Judging by “Northern Chaos Gods” the best is yet to come for the Hordaland horde.

The last couple of years have been turbulent to say the least. In 2015 long simmering personal – and creative differences finally came to a boil prompting iconic frontman (and multi-instrumentalist) Abbath Doom Occulta to branch out on his own, taking with him an album’s worth of song material, and soon the cursed realm of Blashyrkh formed the arena for the two opposing factions to battle out their legal differences in court. Abbath formulated a solo project simply called Abbath and released called (what else?) “Abbath”. Not that we’d expect anything different from Abbath. Abbath is Abbath with all the good and bad that entails. Precious few bands can survive the loss of a beloved frontman and even fewer can come back stronger and more focused than before. That seems to have happened with Immortal. Demonaz and Horgh have duly regrouped as a duo with Demonaz taking up the vocal mantle. For the first time in over two decades Demonaz can be heard playing guitar again, after undergoing surgery in 2013. Reidar Horghagen remains one of the genre’s most criminally underrated drummers and “Northern Chaos Gods” brims with the sort of fury and aggression many believed Immortal no longer had left in them. “Northern Chaos Gods” is the unbridled force of two men hellbent on reclaiming their former glory. Immortal hasn’t sounded this hellish and icy in a long, long time – or at least not since “Battles In the North”.

Unlike some of its brethren Immortal never experimented with left-of-field influences nor did they stray too far from their original template. However that doesn’t mean there weren’t distinct phases in band’s multiple-decade career. “Diabolical Fullmoon Mysticism” is as much of an early death metal record as it was an early black metal offering. For the most part it was a continuation of what Old Funeral did before them. On “Pure Holocaust” and especially “Battles In the North” Immortal came into its own and “Blizzard Beasts”, demo production notwithstanding, pushed the Holocaust Metal (or Norsecore) sound as far as it possibly could while simultaneously worshipping at the altar of Morbid Angel (“Altars Of Madness” and “Covenant” in particular). Perhaps it’s nostalgia talking, but “Northern Chaos Gods” (was somebody listening to Centurian during pre-production?) is the closest to “Pure Holocaust” Immortal has sounded in decades.

It combines the unflinching barbarism of “Battles In the North” with the straighforward intensity of “Blizzard Beasts”. The title track was released as an advance single ahead of the album and bursts with the kind of ravenous bloodlust and vitriol Immortal hasn’t showcased since “Battles In the North”. ‘Into Battle Ride’ is what “Blizzard Beasts” should have sounded like. ‘Grim and Dark’ and ‘Called to Ice’ sound like vintage “Pure Holocaust” cuts. ‘Gates to Blashyrkh’ and ‘Where Mountains Rise’ is a callback to ‘A Perfect Vision Of the Rising Northland’, ‘Blashyrkh (Mighty Ravendark)’ and ‘Mountains Of Might’. There’s a point to be made that “Northern Chaos Gods” might be a little too much of a throwback to the hallowed trilogy, but it’s also the strongest product Immortal has lend its name to in years.

Is there reason for excitement with “Northern Chaos Gods”? Most certainly. Immortal hasn’t sounded this icy and lethal in a long, long time. Demonaz can still pull off an epic sounding solo and Horgh can compete with any young drummer as far as intensity and blasts is concerned. The monochrome artwork and self-referential songtitles as ‘The Gates Of Blashyrkh’, ‘Grim and Dark’ and ‘Mighty Ravendark’ might not exactly burst with creativity, but “Northern Chaos Gods” – at least on the musical end of things – is a good first step in restoring the band to its former glory. Despite, or rather in spite of, its immediacy and breakneck pace is “Northern Chaos Gods” in no hurry to forward or expand upon the Blashyrkh concept, and some of the lyrics almost too obviously recycle songtitles and even entire passages from beloved band staples. Which doesn’t mean that “Northern Chaos Gods” isn’t enjoyable exactly for what it is. Considering the turmoil and tribulations Immortal faced over the last years it’s nothing short of breathtaking that they could summon something this incendiary so late in their career. It’s not exactly a great creative renaissance, or a grand reinvention of the duo’s vintage Holocaust Metal sound, in fact it’s exactly the opposite. “Northern Chaos Gods” is regressive in exactly the right ways. It’s certainly no new classic but what it does conclusively prove is that Demonaz was the silent force on the band’s early records.

It’s unbelieveable enough that more than twenty years after their last good record Immortal is able to conjure up such fury and rekindle the flame of inspiration that spawned essential genre records as “Pure Holocaust” and “Battles In the North”. Demonaz still worships at the altar of Bathory’s “Blood Fire Death” and if the venom is anything to go by he was none too pleased with Abbath taking the band into more populist realms. Is it Immortal’s much pined after return to form? Maybe. Maybe not. “Northern Chaos Gods” is just a tad too regressive and self-referential for that. It does conclusively prove that Demonaz is perfectly able to hold his own without Abbath leading the charge. The sterile Peter Tägtgren production once again proves why he is loathed in purist circles. The monochrome artwork from Jannicke Wiese-Hansen (who designed the original and vastly superior Immortal logo, conspicuously absent here) recreates the Pär Olofsson rendering for “All Shall Fall”. Interestingly it’s only the second Immortal album (1999’s “At the Heart Of Winter” preceding it) not to have a band picture for cover art. The more things change, the more they stay the same. In other words, everything is well in the grim and frostbitten kingdoms of Blashyrkh. It seems that Immortal needed to get rid of Abbath to return to the essence of what made them popular in the first place.

It would be an understatement to say that Italian combo Caelestis has undergone a steep evolution over the years. They dabbled in tranquil ambient/lounge, gothic-tinged alternative rock, shoegaze and dreamy post-rock and now the circle is complete as they return to their chilled out beginnings. “Sutra” is a four-part conceptual EP exploring the sacred words of the Lotus Sutra. It’s everything that “Telesthesia” hinted at but explored to much greater depth. For the most part “Sutra” abandons what little rock elements remained in Caelestis’ music. In its stead is a more pronounced and befitting world music - and New Age component.

Vera Clinco and Cataldo Cappiello

As far back as “Heliocardio” Caelestis has always explored universal themes as cosmic unity and love and “Sutra” now puts an Eastern spin on things. The inspiration for “Sutra” is, as the title would suggest, the Lotus Sutra (or the "Sūtra on the White Lotus of the Sublime Dharma”), one of the most influential Mahāyāna sutras that served as the basis for Mahāyāna and Tendai Buddhism. The four tracks each represent a part of the mantra Namu Myōhō Renge Kyō, that in the practice of shōdai or prolonged chanting is used to reduce negative karma and karmic punishments from lifetimes past and present with the goal to attain perfect and complete awakening. Caelestis, who under normal circumstances sing and write in their native Italian, this time around decided to meet their audience halfway. For the first time frontwoman Vera Clinco not only wrote her own lyrics for each song, now they are also in English. At long last Caelestis has managed to overcome the one barrier that has always kept them from reaching a wider audience. Hopefully “Sutra” will inspire the Caelestis duo to continue in English.

Central to “Sutra” is the tank drum played by Cataldo Cappiello and Caelestis forgoes most traditional percussion in the process. “Sutra” is all about compositional minimalism and instrumental efficiency. Keyboards, piano, guitars and drums all appear in limited capacity and their role is purely supportive. “Sutra” is built upon a foundation of Clinco’s alluring vocals and Cappiello’s instrumentation. Caelestis always had a penchant for creating an enveloping dream-like atmosphere and on "Sutra" said warm blanket-like component is ubiquitous. The trilogy of ‘Nam’, ‘Myoho’ and ‘Renge’ is the strongest, both compositionally and atmospherically, that Caelestis has ever sounded. The brief Arabic chanting in ‘Renge’ especially sounds promising should Cappiello ever feel the need to explore that side of their ambient/world music sound. ‘Kyo’, not necessarily to its detriment, is the most standard sounding of the bunch. Caelestis has always radiated with positivity and warmth but it never was the focus of their music. “Sutra” changes this by making it the EP’s entire raison d'être.

While Cataldo never has stopped growing as a musician and songwriter, Vera has perhaps changed the most of all. From her studio guest appearance on ‘Dove La Luce’ from 2012’s “Nel Suo Perduto Nimbo” to her mousy, unsure and somewhat awkward performance on “Heliocardio” to the transitional “Spyglass” single or more recently with “Telesthesia” la Clinco is by far the most celebrated (and celebratory) aspect of Caelestis as a unit. On “Sutra” Clinco it seems is finally unlocking and fully embracing the potential we always knew she had – and does it ever show. What a truly remarkable and emotive voice this ravenhaired, wide-eyed, leggy songstress has. The direction on “Sutra” isn’t new per se as such as it was already hinted at in 2016 and 2017 when the duo released music videos for transitional pieces ‘Agape’ and ‘Le Mie Ossa Sono Onde’. That doesn’t change the fact that “Sutra” is one of the most accomplished and engrossing pieces of music the duo has written thus far. For all intents and purposes “Sutra” as an EP offers the complete experience.

Buddhism and Eastern spirituality have been the backbone for Caelestis for a number of years now, although this is the first time they base an entire recording around it. Asian mythology and folklore has a wealth of interesting figures, stories and deities which they can use as an inspiration. The inclusion of one or more ethnic instruments as the guzheng, pipa (the Chinese lute), guqin, erhu or bamboo flute would further increase the deeply peaceful and relaxing nature of Caelestis' already dreamy, uplifting and meditative sound. Especially coupled with the deeply emotive kind of wordless, mantra-like chants and vocalizations that Clinco would probably excel at. "Sutra" has opened a world of possibilities wherein Caelestis can take its music. Hopefully the Asian aspect will be explored further as it fits their overall concept, outlook and philosophy. Cappiello and Clinco would be doing themselves a disservice at least not contemplating the possibilities now present.

That Clinco has served as a muse to Cappiello has become increasingly apparent in recent years. She initially debuted as guest vocalist on an earlier recording but took up the mantle as frontwoman for the "Heliocardio" EP. Since then la Clinco has become more of an intrinsic part of Caelestis, both vocally and creatively. Vera had already been involved creatively in the years prior, writing her own melodies and generally as an inspiration, and now "Sutra" sees her induction as a songwriter. The vocal melodies are stronger than they were in the past and the deeper Clinco involves herself in the writing, the more engrossing and elaborate these might grow on future recordings. As a starting point for their collaboration "Sutra" has more than enough avenues in which it can be further explored. Vera's silky vocals are at their best when they are put to smooth ambient songs. Clinco soars when her pipes are supported by a likewise dreamy tapestry of sounds.

Caelestis has never been afraid to experiment and evolve – and at long last they have found a functional equilibrium between instrumentation and composition, now perfectly in sync. Instead of adding to their sound the duo has subtracted to great and positively intoxicating effect. “Sutra” does more with less and Cappiello’s songs have never been more tranquil and soothing than they are now. Likewise, and not any less important, has Clinco almost literally found a vocal style that she’s obviously comfortable with. The little, innocent-looking, and unconfident girl that danced in the woods in the ‘Io E Te Siamo La Luna’ music video has, much like a caterpillar turning into a beautiful butterfly, grown into a fiercely intelligent and stunningly talented young woman in a scant few short years. The greatest reward of any record is the element of discovery. In case of Caelestis and “Sutra” it is rediscovery rather than discovery as Clinco and Cappiello always were brimming with potential. “Sutra”, if anything else, evinces that the two are now perhaps at the strongest they have ever been. For that reason “Sutra” is a true revelation.