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On “Laguz” enduring Belgian underground pillar Ancient Rites makes its long awaited return after a near decade of uncertainty, lineup instability and general malaise. The much-anticipated follow-up to 2006’s “Rubicon” is the first for its new label home Massacre Records, and sees the band trimmed down to a quartet. As always the release of a new Ancient Rites record is a momentous occasion. “Laguz”, among its other merits, is by far the best produced effort in Ancient Rites’ modest but commendable catalog.

“Laguz” is interesting in how it recalls the band’s trans-European phase, even though its line-up has slimmed considerably since. Domingo Smets, who initially started out as the band’s keyboardist, has moved over from bass guitar to lead guitar, replacing original guitarist Bart Vandereycken who took his leave for the second time in the interim. Much like on “Fatherland” producer Oliver Philipps arranged and recorded all orchestral - and keyboard parts substituting for the departed Davy Wouters. Gunther Theys plays the bass guitar again for the first time since 2001’s “Dim Carcosa”. As far as subject matter is concerned there’s a far greater focus on Roman antiquity, and history in comparison to the preceding albums. As with its transitional records additional female vocals make their return, this time contributed by Evy Verbruggen.

‘Golden Path to Samarkand’ refers to Samarkand, the Uzbek city known for its central position on the Silk Road trade route between China and the West. ‘Carthago Delende Est’ chronicles the Punic Wars against Carthage during the 2nd Century BC, and the song title was a popular Latin oratorical phrase. ‘Under the Sign of Laguz’ takes its name from the Proto-Germanic rune for water. The intro to ‘Von Gott Entfernt (Bij nacht en ontij)’ nearly sounds as a piece from a Greg Edmonson soundtrack to an “Uncharted” game. ‘Legio V Alandae (Fifth Lark Legion)’ details the Gallica, a legion of the Roman Imperial Army founded in 48 BC by Caius Julius Caesar. The legion was most famous for fighting the Gallic Wars, and considered one of its bravest. As in the past the album is multi-lingual with ‘Frankenland’ including passages in the band’s native Flemish (Dutch).

That “Laguz” builds upon the formula of what was started on “Fatherland” and its two successors was expected. Ancient Rites has long since abandoned its primal death/black metal roots. Some of the more opulent keyboard segments on the album border on Bal-Sagoth territory, as does Gunther Theys’ vocal work. At points “Laguz” sounds like a classic Turilli/Staropoli era Rhapsody album through its usage of triumphant melodies, albeit it in a more grounded, historical context instead of an overblown and belabored fantasy one. A point of contention is the change in vocals. Theys used to alternate between rasps, narration, whispers and the occasional grunt. On “Laguz” only the whispers and narration seems to remain. It’s a puzzling choice considering how creative this band once was with its wide array of vocal styles.

As per modern tradition Ancient Rites recorded at Spacelab Studio, Germany with producers/engineers Oliver Philipps and Christian Moos. Once again “Laguz” was mastered at Eroc's Mastering Ranch in Breckerfeld, Germany with Joachim Heinz Ehrig manning the console. A notable improvement is the fact that the drums don’t sound sterile and flat for the first time. “Laguz” is without a doubt the best produced Ancient Rites album so far. A lot of time was spent on vocal production and as a result Gunther Theys never sounded better. Interestingly, the digital artwork shows a striking similarity to that of the 1997 Unleashed album “Warrior”.

In many ways is “Laguz” the summit of the stylistic evolution that Ancient Rites embarked on almost two decades prior with the “Fatherland” album. Almost a decade after its last studio outing Ancient Rites continues to prove why they are the finest and most versatile of the European symfo metal top. “Laguz” is the most pristine produced of all Ancient Rites efforts, and one on which all of the band’s different facets fall into place. Much like fellow Belgian unit Insanity Reigns Supreme, Ancient Rites never does concessions to its artistic vision – and they stay true to the old adage of quality over quantity. That “Laguz” wasn’t widely picked up seems only logical considering its protracted conception. Despite its long history and commendable catalog Ancient Rites remains one of Belgium’s unsung heroes.

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Before drummer Wim Van der Valk formulated Centurian, he was part of the transitional outfit Inquisitor. Not only was the band famous for its condemnation of organized religion, Catholicism in particular - but also for featuring guitarist Erik Sprooten who would make a name for himself with Ancient Rites a few years down the line. Inquisitor existed from 1992 to 1996, and in that short time they released two studio demos, a live demo – and its sole cult album “Walpurgis – Sabbath Of Lust” through Belgian label imprint Shiver Records in 1996. The devilish, nearly hysterical falsetto vocals of Alex Wesdijk, and boycotting of shows helped in establishing the band’s reputation.

1545795_143139552523389_429390673075033842_nPrior to cutting its debut album Inquisitor released two studio demos “Blasphemous Accusations” (1992) and “Your Pain Will Be Exquisite” (1993). A live demo tape “Crush the Holy Church” was released in 1993 to stir further industry interest. Like many a debut “Walpurgis – Sabbath Of Lust” consists mostly of songs from the previous demo tapes, except ‘Deluge (The First Final Judgment)’ and ‘A Lifetime’s Lie’ that were omitted for a hitherto undisclosed reason. In many respects “Walpurgis” functions as a best-of anthology including three new songs. Even though Alex Wesdijk is a clear-cut speed metal singer Inquisitor is on many fronts of a more death metal persuasion.

A number of songs sound like Centurian songs in waiting, primarily cuts as ‘Consuming Christ’, ‘Jehova’s Downfall’, ‘Crypt Of Confession’ and ‘Fallen Missionary’ but they are thrashier than the latter. ‘Trial Of Denial’ has a more pronounced Iron Maiden influence in terms of riffing and bass guitar licks in its slower parts. The solo sounds as something you’d hear on Metallica’s “Kill ‘Em All”. ‘Consuming Christ’ and ‘Cry Of the Christians’ are the shortest tracks of the record. ‘Chaos In Eden’, ‘Unholy Seeds’ and ‘Inquisitor’ are far more compositionally dense in comparison to the rest of the album, the second of these is custodian to one of the album’s best solo moments.  Inquisitor plays much faster and heavier than the average thrash/speed metal band. For all intents and purposes they were a contemporary equivalent of Dead Head’s “The Feast Begins At Dawn”.

One of the record’s biggest strengths is just how unhinged and uncontrollably chaotic it sounds. Each of the songs is more decimating than the next, and the nearly hysterical falsetto vocals contrast heavily with the almost death metal that the band plays. Wesdijk and Van der Valk are the band’s calling cards, whereas Erik Sprooten plays far more evil sounding riffs at a truly relentless pace than his later work with Belgian death/black metal icons Ancient Rites would ever allow. Recurring in the post-Inquisitor band Centurian is the strong anti-religious sentiment but the latter outfit would draw inspiration from newer bands in the genre. Even though Inquisitor released a sole album in its original run said album was enough to establish its cult metal band reputation.

10496107_143110855859592_2102872788656278206_oThe album was recorded and mixed over a two-month period at R.S. 29 with Oscar Holleman and the band co-producing in 1995. Much like the Acrostichon album “Engraved in Black” it has a functional production that nevertheless is rough around the edges and not very tonally defined. Holleman’s production is adequate from a technical standpoint as all the instruments are distributed evenly in the mix - but in reality is nothing more than a slightly superior demo production. While the drum tone is far from the most optimal the crunchy guitar sound, and thick sounding bass guitar tone are what truly sells the record. Misja Baas was responsible for the amazing artwork. He had made a name for himself by providing visuals for the Marduk album “Those Of the Unlight”.

That Inquisitor only released a solitary album before its membership moved on to a full-blown death metal unit has only strengthened its cult status. The band’s entire recorded history: “Walpurgis – Sabbath Of Lust”, and its three preceding demos, were recently re-released by Dutch extreme metal label imprint Hammerheart Records. Even though its key members made a name for themselves with lauded bands as Ancient Rites and Centurian, Inquisitor reunited in 2014, with original bass guitarist Alex Bakker, and over a decade of inactivity seems to have only made them more dedicated and hungry.  With the renewed interest in traditional metal and the 20th anniversary of Inquisitor’s lone album coming up in 2016, it seems we haven’t heard the last of these Dutchmen.