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Cryptogenic is a term that refers to something of obscure or unknown origin. It also is a band from Charleroi, the Francophone region of Belgium. Cryptogenic, who never formally demoed, was formulated in 2014 and instead opted to release its debut barely a year after forming. “There Is No Hope …Beyond Mutation” is a concept album about a viral disease that turns mankind into ravaging, bloodthirsty mutants. The biggest selling point, for both band and album, is frontwoman Catarina Craveiro Salsinha.

Salsinha’s growl is impressive but the unflattering, overly dry production tends to make her sound unintendedly monotonous. That isn’t to say to say that Cryptogenic wouldn’t benefit from better developed vocal lines. As the Mike van Mastrigt-fronted Sinister and the various Incantation and Monstrosity frontmen have proven in spades it is perfectly possible to implement variation while staying within a certain vocal style. For the most part Catarina’s vocals are similar to those of Edda Tegeder Óskarsdóttir from Icelandic death metal outfit Angist. A number of songs include mood setting atmospheric sections with piano playing, church organs, sound effects and the like. A multitude of emotive, carefully-phrased and beautifully laid out solos stand in stark contrast to the rather matter-of-fact and robust death metal that the band chooses to specialize in.

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‘Deep into Flesh’ aims for that classic morbid, desolate atmosphere of desiccation and decay. It is helped immensely by the sudden piano melody and the eerie opening section. 'The Last Glow Of Humanity' is one of the more traditional cuts of the record. The slow midsection in ‘Unchained Hatred’ borders treacherously close on deathcore - and slam-death territory, neither of which is advisable. Thankfully it is redeemed by a spectacular solo. Why ‘Requiem For Ashes’ is its own song, and not integrated as an intro piece to ‘A Den Of Iniquity’ probably has to do with that it can be used as an interlude or introduction in during live shows. ‘Dismember’ and ‘Obsessed By the Screams’ are the strongest cuts of the record, the former because it is the most straightforward and focused. The latter retains the focus and tight structuring and adds a number of truly exhilarating leads portions.

“There Is No Hope …Beyond Mutation” is plagued by an uneven and somewhat schizophrenic mix of American death metal, melodic Swedish death metal, technical metal, and stomping death-groove. The songwriting, while not lacking in atmosphere, is often confused and directionless with songs either containing too much ideas, or not enough. Often Cryptogenic will start a song with an American sounding section only to move through a brief almost hardcore chord progression only to transition into saccharine Swedish melodic death metal territory. The disconnect between all three parts couldn’t be more glaring and obvious. While the versatility of players is to be commended, it naturally results in a lack of cohesion within the songs individually, and the album as a whole. Cryptogenic wants a bit of everything, and ends up with mostly nothing. What the band overcompensates in percussive vocal delivery and punch, it lacks in character and colour. The album, and the band, lacks the stylistic cohesion that made institutions as Aborted, Ancient Rites and Emeth the household names that they are considered today.

The album was recorded at Rising Recording Studio in Houffalize, Luxembourg. It combines a guitar tone not dissimilar to the early work of Sunlight Studio and Tomas Skogsberg (the formative works of Necrophobic, At the Gates and Unleashed come to mind) with a concrete bass guitar that recalls "The Bleeding" by Cannibal Corpse, and sets that to an organic, warm drum sound. The production is crunchy without being overproduced, nor does the album sound compressed, sterile or brickwalled. It does lack a sense of gloss and polish that is expected of contemporary death metal. The drums are the best produced on all fronts. The digital artwork by Hybrid Graphic suitably fits the album narrative and thankfully avoids both the comical over-the-top gore of this genre’s more underground practitioners and the video game scene recreations of its more market savvy adherents. It, however, is not the second coming of "Fearless Undead Machines" or any of the canvasses Wes Benscoter crafted for infamous New York death metal institution Mortician.

Cryptogenic is a typically Belgian band in the sense that it bathes in a veneer of contemporaneousness and modernity but can’t quite escape the looming shadow of its various influences, both old and new. In that sense Cryptogenic squarely falls into the category of fellow Belgian bands as Insanity Reigns Supreme, Pestifer and Serial Butcher that all have established potential, and reliably release albums – but never quite manage to grow beyond the tenets of the underground. Cryptogenic obviously aims high, but not high enough to truly become an international player. “There Is No Hope …Beyond Mutation” is far from terrible, but some finetuning is needed to properly hone Cryptogenic strengths into something more potent and threatening. The album is limited to 1000 copies worldwide so pick it up while supplies last.

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“Sacro Culto” is the second of three Opera IX records with Cadaveria in the vocal slot. Of the three it is the most ethnic, pagan and Mediterreanean sounding. High on atmosphere and ethnic instrumentation it is a refinement of what “The Call Of the Wood” did four years earlier. Much of the death metal stylings have been jettisoned for a fully occult sound that captures the mysticism and sweltering darkness of its home country. “Sacro Culto”, more unified conceptually than its often ignored predecessor, set Opera IX up for an international breakthrough

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On its second album Opera IX made significant strides as a band. “Sacro Culto” is better paced, with more involving writing, and on the whole is more atmospheric than its predecessor. There’s a greater influence of Mediterreanean ethnic music within Opera IX’ pagan metal, and much of the death metal stylings have been jettisoned for a fully occult sound. As such “Sacro Culto” was a major step forward for a band brimming with potential and greatness from the very beginning. “Sacro Culto” is the creative high mark of a band that peaked early, and since has struggled to live up to its own legacy. “Sacro Culto” was the result of Opera IX having to craft a follow-up to its beloved demo work and famous debut offerings.

All the members from “The Call Of the Wood” make their return. Ossian d’Ambrosio (lead guitar) remains the main creative force, along with collaborators Raffaela Rivarolo (vocals), Alberto Gaggiotti (drums), and Vlad (bass guitar) all of whom were allowed more creative input in this album’s creation. Even though keyboardist Triskent helped shape the songs for "Sacro Culto" during pre-production it was ultimately Lunaris who would end up on the recordings. "Sacro Culto" was the band’s only release for Belgian label imprint Shiver Records. The label that had famously contracted Inearthed (the precursor to populist Suomi power metal band Children Of Bodom) the year before. “Sacro Culto” was a priority release for Shiver Records, and accordingly, it was given the required promotional push. On the back of “Sacro Culto” Opera IX would be able to move on to bigger opportunities.

The biggest improvements Opera IX made in terms of compositions. “Sacro Culto”, unlike any record before or since, combines ethnic instrumentation and chants with elaborate vocal lines and highly atmospheric keyboards by new member Lunaris. While retaining the gargantuan song constructions of before, each of them transition from one segment to the other more fluent – and don’t feel as nearly as contrived. ‘Fronds Of the Ancient Walnut’ captures a fitting arboreal atmosphere through sparse wind effects and a raven cawing. ‘The Naked and the Dance’, the only track of the album to stay under the 10 minute mark, is the most folkish and ethnic. It features a greater amount of acoustic guitar playing, male chants, and even handclapping during one section. ‘Cimmeries’ opens with an incantation that would make a return on “The Black Opera” song ‘The Sixth Seal’. The strongest tracks feature in the first half of the record, in particular the trio of ‘The Oak’, ‘Fronds Of the Ancient Walnut’ and ‘Cimmeries’.

‘The Oak’ details an ancient sacrificial ceremony celebrated in a temple of wood and stones. ‘Fronds Of the Ancient Walnut’ is about nature worship and a sabbath. ‘The Naked and the Dance’ concerns itself with enjoyment of the senses, and refers to the Celtic pagan goddess Sheela Na Gog, and belongs to a pre-Christian mother goddess religion. ‘Cimmeries’ chronicles The Cimmerians or Kimmerians, an ancient Indo-European seminomadic tribe that worshipped the power of iron. ‘My Devotion’ is Rivarolo’s (and the band as a whole, for that matter) ideological vessel. It includes an invocation to Ugarit deity Shahar with the line “Helel ben Shahar” (that translates to “O light-bringer, son of dawn”.) ‘Under the Sign of the Red Dragon’ chronicles the historical account of Romanian warlord and folk hero Vlad Tepes, a subject popular among second-wave black metal bands, as Swedish powerhouse Marduk once dedicated half an album to Tepes’ life and work.

On all fronts, from concept to instrumentation and production, “Sacro Culto” was an ambitious undertaking. Where “The Call Of the Wood” was more of a traditional doom/death metal record with the occassional dash of quirkiness, “Sacro Culto” differentiates itself through a greater usage of ethnic acoustic guitars, percussion, chants and folkloristic melodies. Typically categorized as black metal Opera IX in actuality is more of a dark – or pagan metal band using a black metal aesthetic. “Sacro Culto” is the Italian counterpart to “Wolfheart”, the debut record of Lusitian stalwarts Moonspell that was released three years prior, in the sense that both records share a similar objectives and have a few stylistic overlaps. As the album title suggests the lyrics on “Sacro Culto” revolve around the subjects of paganism, the ethereal, the occult, and nature worship.

To properly capture the many nuances and intricacies of the “Sacro Culto” material it was decided to record at Cap Woofer Studio with Stefano Tappari producing. The album was mastered at Elettroformati by Alberto Anadone. The change of studio gives “Sacro Culto” a much warmer, fuller sound with more evenly balanced drums and keyboards. The bass guitar sounds as clear and throbbing as ever. The artwork by Danilo Capua is a representation of the goddess Ishtar. “Sacro Culto” was not only a milestone for the band, but for the entire Italian underground metal scene. Its reputation would allow other Italian bands opportunities that previously remained out of reach. Opera IX was now at the height of its power, but could they consolidate it?