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With the likes of Ice Age, Lady Beast and Savage Master there’s no shortage of quality traditional metal. St. Johns, Newfoundland, Canada heavy/power metal revivalists Category VI already left a favourable impression in 2013 with their charming and unassuming little debut “Fireborn”. Since the last record the band has acquired the services of a new drummer and inked a recording contract with German imprint Killer Metal Records. In other words, Category VI is ready to bring its music to a wider public. “War Is Hell” is very much cut of the same cloth as “Fireborn” but is more muscular, rugged and possesses a greater focus and combativeness. Ideal for a record dealing with the horrors of war.

The primary appeal of Category VI lies in its blue-collar charm and down-to-earth approach to their craft. They live and breathe the music they produce. On “War Is Hell” the Category VI core remains unchanged with Geoff Waye’s burly riffs and fiery soloing, Keith Jackman’s lively bass guitar licks, and Amanda Marie Gosse’s soaring vocals. Evinced by her choice of melodies Gosse is an ardent disciple of the late Dio. Befitting of the war thematic “War Is Hell” is still traditionally inclined, but far more muscular and combative all around compared to the more conservative “Fireborn”. The midpace is occassionally broken for a mildly faster section, but unlike Lady Beast “War Is Hell” is more about atmosphere and feeling than it is about speed. Not that Category VI would describe itself as a speed metal band in the first place. Would it benefit Category VI to let loose and put the pedal to the metal? Probably, but they are obviously comfortable in their midpace. Some changes in pace would lend it a considerably greater sense of dynamics and scope.

‘Strike Of the Axe’ opens the gates after a bit of guitar psychedelia and it’s rather evident that guitar solos have been given a more prominent place. Moreso than on “Fireborn” at any rate. The riffs are more muscular without becoming thrashy and drummer John Angelopoulos is given more to do than simply keeping time. ‘Full Metal Jacket’ has a pumping groove and ‘Crossing the Avalon’ is one of the band’s fiercest tracks to date, even with all the psychedelic guitar noodling that it engages in. Interestingly, 'The Traveller / The Dark Warrior' and ‘Crossing the Avalon’ are two songs from "Dark Warrior", the 2002 independently released and distributed demo from Waye's erstwhile band Oberon, here given a due re-recording. ‘Arise’ isn’t a Sepultura cover instead its a pulsating cut reminiscent of something off Iron Maiden’s “The Number of the Beast”. With Waye’s guitar pyrotechnics and Jackman’s clanging bass just waiting to break out it’s puzzling that Category VI insists on a midpace as often as it does. These three men obviously have the chops to write and play something more demanding and adventurous. Evidently it isn’t frontwoman Amanda Marie Gosse that is holding them back from doing just that. What an amazing set of pipes this redheaded lady has. Not only is she powerful, expressive and commanding, her falsetto and higher register is equally full of emotion and girth. Category VI has obviously experienced a considerable growth spurt since its debut. Are they living up to the potential that “Fireborn” hinted at? Well, not entirely. The band has yet to pen its own ‘Rime Of the Ancient Mariner’ and they still tend to second-guess themselves every step of the way. Up the Irons already, guys!

Category VI is all about efficiency. At 47 minutes “War Is Hell” is about 5 minutes shorter than the debut. Their unpretentiousness is translated in the matter-of-fact production work and accompanying visuals. It’s functional, it’s earnest and oozes with the kind of heft and body that a lot of today’s overly sterilized productions lack. Amanda Marie and her men obviously have their heart in the right place and the disarming honesty of their music is ultimately works in their advantage. In a world where everybody’s a crook, and in an increasingly disingenuous scene, they are a welcome breath of fresh air. Arguably the metal scene needs more people just like them, but in all likelihood they will probably remain criminally overlooked just because they do things on their own terms. Admittedly the visual aspect remains on the amateurish side for a band now on a professional label. Imagine what Category VI conjure forth with a canvas from Jan Meininghaus, Péter Sallai, Samwise Didier, Thomas Ewerhard, or Jan Yrlund? In the grand scheme of things it’s a minor qualm considering how well-developed Category VI’s music is for a band of their age.

“War Is Hell” has Category VI on the verge of greater things; of finally unlocking their innate potential as a band, of Gosse elevating herself from a mere frontwoman to an underground icon, and their blooming songwriting finally matching their ambitions. “War Is Hell” is that kind of record. One where a band's entire future hinges upon. The Great White North has given the underground its fair share of now-classic bands in a variety of metal genres. Whether or not Category VI becomes the next institution depends on how they handle this record. There are plenty of bands with not half their promise that remain inexplicably popular with the masses. It’s high time for Category VI to claim their rightful place in the Canadian – as well as the international scene. If “War Is Hell” is any indication they are on the threshold. Together with Pennsylvania stalwarts Lady Beast (fronted by the indomitable Debbie Levine), Category VI is the best traditional metal is likely to get.

La-Ventura - White Crow

Dutch symfo metal band La-Ventura was formed in 2005 in Goes, the Netherlands by singer Carla van Huizen-Douw and former Orphanage drummer Erwin Polderman. The band debuted a mere two years later with “A New Beginning” in 2007, which had a troubled release history. After the usual amount of line-up changes La-Ventura returned with a new record a few years later. “White Crow” is the band’s most recent effort, and it differs in a number of important ways from what usually is found in this genre. Typically Dutch in a number of ways, and atypical in others “White Crow” is a record that doesn’t reveal its depths and many intricacies in the first few listens. It goes beyond that. It is catchy, heavy and adventurous without losing sight of its symfo metal sensibilities

Although typically filed as a gothic/symfo metal outfit for easy categorization La-Ventura uses both genres as mere starting point for something altogether more compelling. La-Ventura play far heavier and technical than the average gothic – or symfo metal band. The album title symbolically refers to the intangible. Segments of ‘Falling Down’ border on the progressive. The most easily digestable song is ‘Song For An Idiot’ which the band smartly capitalized on by making it the subject of a music video. ‘White Crow’ and ‘Human Vanity’ are re-recorded tracks from the 2009 “Breaking the Silence” EP. ‘Drowning’ is the only song of the record that fits the typical gothic metal mold. The almost complete lack of pervasive keyboards make the record refreshingly metallic, as do the prominent bass licks. When keyboards do appear, played by studio musician Jos Houtzager, they are inobtrusive and purely supplemental. All songs were written by bass guitarist Michael Saffrie, except ‘The Only One’ was written by guitarist Sacha Kondic – and it has, unsurprisingly, the most acrobatic riffing of the entire album.

The title track is easily the most ear-catching because of its piano intro that is somewhat reminiscent of Pink Floyd’s ‘The Great Gig In the Sky’. Carla van Huizen-Douw is blessed with an emotive rock voice, and while she can easily hit high notes she never pushes into operatic territory, and sings what fits the music best. She can actually sing without aide of studio enhancements and trickery. van Huizen-Douw’s vocals are more akin to Amy Lee (Evanescence) than the well-known operatic divas of the genre, although she occassionally will pull out all stops as on ‘Time and Time Again’. From a compositional point of view La-Ventura is more of a heavy rock band than a stereotypical symfo/gothic band. Likewise is the band’s metallic aspect a mere vessel to get its intended point across, but the band is never limited by or to it. None of the usual symfo/gothic genre trappings apply to La-Ventura as such. La-Ventura has none of the symphonic pompousness that often ends up crushing lesser bands under its weight, nor do they write seemingly interchangeable saccharine, syrupy thinly-veiled pop songs with incidental heavy guitars and drums under the guise of gothic metal as many far less talented and musically gifted bands of this ilk are, sadly for all involved, prone to do.

La-Ventura promoEven with but a single guitar at its disposal La-Ventura is far more adventurous in its songwriting and technically stronger than many of its contemporaries with dual guitars. The prominent bass lines are another thing that differentiate the band from the crop. In the more populist variations of the symfo/gothic genre the bass guitar usually plays a secondary, or tertiary role. Not so with La-Ventura as the bass guitar not only features prominently within its music, many a time it is integral to the very compositions. As is typical for the genre the drumming is subordinate to the other instruments, although it stands to reason that Renzo van Poecke provides far more interesting beats, fills and patterns than the average symfo/gothic skinsman. Whereas most only serve to keep the beat and stay on time van Poecke is allowed to integrate interesting fills whenever the music allows. This is another important facet wherein La-Ventura differentiates itself from the vanilla, bubbly pop metal that pervades this genre to its everlasting detriment.

“White Crow” was recorded and mixed at MII Recording Studio, France, 2010-2012 with Didier Chesneau producing. The album was mastered at Electra Mastering, France by Bruno Gruel. The crystal clear analog production puts many of the band’s big label contemporaries to shame. It is both pristine without any overproduction, or simply too slick sounding. The crunchy guitar tone and concrete bass guitar tone deserve a special mention. The digital artwork was rendered by Eddy de Putter (of Dutch technical thrashers Mindlink). Additionally high quality music videos were shot for ‘Falling Down’ and ‘Song For An Idiot’ to give the album the required marketing push. No expenses were spared to make the album the best it would be, as there also was a limited run special edition 6 panel digipack, with 16-page booklet and 2 bonustracks. In terms of presentation La-Ventura is among the more professionally-minded of their ilk.

The album was released independently in physical and digital format in 2013. “White Crow” was licensed to British label imprint Ravenheart Music for UK/Ireland. German label Valkyrie Rising re-released the album for the Germanophonic territories in 2014. La-Ventura proves that the Dutch symfo metal scene is as potent as ever, even though it apex was clearly during the second half of the 1990s. “White Crow” is a testament to the fact that symfo metal bands can do far more than write thinly-veiled saccharine pop songs. The album is a good deal heavier, technical and ambitious than the average record in the genre. In many ways “White Crow” is reminiscent of the classic Dutch genre record “Mandylion”, the 1995 breakthrough record of former death/doom metal outfit The Gathering, in the sense that it is catchy, heavy and adventurous without losing sight of its symfo metal sensibilities. It also makes no qualms about its frontwoman Carla, who is respected for her vocal abilities first – that she’s attractive is a bonus. In conclusion, La-Ventura combine the best elements of the symfo – and technical metal styles without doing concessions to either. “White Crow” is indeed a rare record.