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Something has been stirring in the Northeastern state of Pennsylvania. Pittsburgh traditional metal powerhouse Lady Beast has been steadily making a name for itself since forming in 2009 and releasing their namesake debut in 2012. “Vicious Breed”, their third album overall and first for Italian heavy metal specialist label imprint Cruz del Sur Music, is the culmination of years of hard work in both the studio and on the road. It is the product of a band whose career is experiencing a meteoric upward trajectory. The time for Lady Beast is now and “Vicious Breed” is here to once and for all cement their status as North America’s most deserving traditional metal combo. Now with Cruz del Sur Music behind them Lady Beast is finally to roam free and pillage all over the world. Seal the Hex, indeed.

If there was anything that “II” abundantly proved it was that Lady Beast embodied the best qualities of Iron Maiden (circa 1982-84) and the take-no-prisoners, spikes-denim-and-leather attitude of earliest Metallica. It isn’t as if Lady Beast isn’t in good company these days with the likes of Category VI, Savage Master and Elvenstorm. Lady Beast early on made a name for itself by being one of the more grittier, speedier traditional metal revivalists and that is only partially true on “Vicious Breed”. There’s a sense of sophistication to this album that was absent on their earlier two records. In certain aspects “Vicious Breed” is indeed the most vicious Lady Beast has yet sounded. On the whole it’s a far more deliberately paced effort where sheer speed and the whole retro angle is of secondary importance. It isn’t so much a progression from “II” either but more of a continuance without doing any concessions to the Lady Beast template. Lady Beast is still Lady Beast, even with “Vicious Breed” being more of a reserved effort. Lady Beast knows its strenghts – and will only bare its teeth and claws when it needs to. “Vicious Breed” is, above all else, all about efficiency when and where it matters.

“Vicious Breed” abolishes the tradition opening with the closing track of the prior album. In fact the album opens in a way more akin to Category VI than to anything Lady Beast has done previously. The tempo is a bit lower compared to the past two records and “Vicious Breed” even is custodian to a power ballad of sorts with the touching ‘Always With Me’. ‘Sky Graves’ is probably the most epic Lady Beast has yet sounded. The five-minute instrumental opens with a riff sounding close to early Hypocrisy (and, likewise, Belgian doom metal veterans Insanity Reigns Supreme) and it soon explodes into the title track that is another Lady Beast anthem celebrating the rebellious nature of the heavy metal lifestyle. Since “II” Lady Beast for some reason has cut back on fantasy and mythology based tracks and “Vicious Breed”, perhaps fitting for a label backed effort, is a lot more grounded in reality on all fronts. In a lot of ways it is reminiscent of the band’s eponymous debut from 2012. What it does retain is the driving, pounding rhythm section (where most of the “Kill em All” Metallica influence is derived from) as well as the lightning-fast, fiery soloing and concrete, no-frills riffing that is the bread-and-butter of Lady Beast’s arsenal. “Vicious Breed” does indeed live up to its title even if it comes at the expense of “II”’s innate sense of epic storytelling, grand declarations of self-empowerment and larger-than-life imagery.

And the best thing about Lady Beast? Debbie Levine, of course. This blonde (and occassionally war-painted) vixen has an electrifying and commandeering presence that elevates Lady Beast from a promising underground act to a veritable force of nature. Levine has that rare quality voice; commanding yet emotive, powerful yet soothing and with passion and expression to spare. Debbie can easily reach the high registers but only does so sparingly to maximize their effect. The record might not open with ‘Banshee’ but Levine certainly can scream like one. “Vicious Breed” is something of a step to the side instead of forward, and that’s perfectly okay. At no point did they promise a carbon-copy of “II” and the artwork reflects that sentiment. Not that the artwork for “Vicious Breed” is terrible by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s a definite step back from the fantasy art rendered by Mark Cooper for “II”. Imagine how a canvas from Ryan Barger, Johnson Ting, Robh Ruppel, Valentina Kallias or more established artists as Martin Hanford, Boris Vallejo, Tom Thiel or Julie Bell would elevate the Lady Beast visual aspect to a completely different plane than their competitors and differentiate them from the retro metal masses.

On “Vicious Breed” Lady Beast still does what Lady Beast does best. Which is giving traditional metal a much-needed injection of youthful adrenaline and enthusiasm. “Vicious Breed” is a tad more reserved than “II” but that doesn’t make it any less charming or effective. What would be truly interesting would be Lady Beast pushing their traditional metal into more aggressive, darker and malevolent realms. On the past albums they occassionally got violent and when they did they bordered into “Show No Mercy” era Slayer territory. To have them push that angle to its logical conclusion would be nothing short of blood-curdling. How we would love to hear Debbie and her men give the geriatric Californians a dose of their own medicine. And we’re looking forward to the day when that happens, that day the Pennsylvanians will lay waste to their competitors, foreign and domestic, once and for all. And with Debbie at the helm, nothing is stopping them. Every Giant Shall Fall, is what they say – and they’re right. Let the ferocious Lady Beast roam free!

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.