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We hesitate to describe Amthrya as Italian death metal - even though they hail from Italy and do indeed play death metal - if only because the usual connotations that come with such description do not apply and might even give the wrong impression to listeners. The fact is that Amthrya has little to nothing to do with the likes of Hour Of Penance, Fleshgod Apocalypse, and Hideous Divinity – even if they (for better or worse) have come to define Italian death metal as it’s currently known. Amthrya bears no semblance to more cavernous acts as Ekpyrosis or Ferum either. No. Amthrya is something else entirely and they don’t let themselves be pinned down to one convenient regional sound. “Incision Of Gem” is their first with former Opera IX frontwoman Abigail Dianaria (no, that’s not her real name) behind the mic who has adopted a whole new stage persona and calls herself Kasumi Onryō (no, that’s not her real name either) now. Appearances can be deceiving and no release makes a better case for this than “Incision Of Gem”, where nothing is ever what it seems…

Life is stranger than fiction. The best thing to ever happen to Opera IX in the last 18 years was the recruiting of Kasumi Onryō, the heir apparent to legendary frontwoman Cadaveria who left the band in acrimony after 2000’s “The Black Opera”. Onryō brought Opera IX back from the brink of irrelevance with her devilish womanly wiles and reinstated some of the occult magick that defined the greatest Cadaveria-era works. “Back to Sepulcro” - Onryō’s debut with that band - was a lot of things. For the most part it was an exercise in redundancy redeemed by the inclusion of two new songs. More importantly, it allowed giovane donna Onryō to showcase her vocal abilities. These abilities are now put to even better use in Amthrya, a unit consisting of nobody you ever heard of or anybody important for that matter. Again, looks can and will be deceiving. Even though Kasumi Onryō has a penchant for dressing up like Sadako from Ringu (1998) and its hand drawn artwork is richly adorned with kanji and folkloristic drawings “Incision Of Gem” is not a conceptual effort about ghosts and apparitions of Asian mythology. It might very well be the most ambitious project la signora Onryō has partaken in.

The intro ‘Mist of Perdition’ sounds like an unused atmospheric moodpiece written by Romeo Díaz and James Wong for a Tsui Hark A Chinese Ghost Story (1987) tie-in feature that the world somehow never got. The music that follows it on the other hand holds the middleground somewhere between the Dutch, German, and Finnish schools of death metal without ever sounding like either. It never gets quite as abstract and left-of-field as “Nespithe” from Demilich, nor as absurdly technical and structurally dense as Pavor, or as mechanical/angular as Gorefest (circa “False”). However, it clearly takes influence from all three to a greater or lesser degree. The "Nespithe" influence is present in the riffing and drumming and while the rhythms never get quite as out there as their Finnish forebears the spirit is there. The dry guitar tone and some of the more post-influenced chord progressions and accents recall Brood Of Hatred and Golem (circa “Dreamweaver”) in equal measure. Amthrya never stays conventional very long and the bass guitar is as integral to the compositions as any of the other instruments. That ‘Anesthesia Survival’ was chosen as a single is only normal as it’s pretty representative for what “Incision Of Gem” aims for. Onryō is at her best and most primal in a cut as ‘Ebony Gem’ and ‘Letters to my Dears – Thoughts Of A Lost Man’ where she’s allowed the space to unleash and alternate her many singing styles at different times. Which brings us to the proverbial elephant in the room and the one true point of contention (if it can be called that) that we have with Amthrya and “Incision Of Gem”. Why is so little made of Kasumi Onryō’s fascination with Asian folklore and mythology?

That the lyrics she’s singing deal with psychological deterioration and diseases of the mind is a creative choice we’re not going to contest because at least they are put to mildly entertaining Asian ghost horror imagery. Far more damning is that except for the intro segment and a guest appearance from Kotama Omen Mako from MagdaleneJu_nen (マグダラ呪念) and Hiroyuki Takano from Church of Misery precious little actually capitalizes on the Asian imagery the record so proudly boasts. In our heart of hearts we’re hoping that Amthrya ropes in session musicians to lay down some guqin, shamisen, shakuhachi, or koto melodies or even invites 瑜子 from Bloody Tyrant (暴君) to provide pipa for atmospheric breaks or as interludes on their third effort. It’s unfortunate that the usage of ethnic Asian instrumentation is limited to merely the intro. Hopefully future releases will integrate these sections into actual songs or use them as moodsetting interludes, or preferably both. There’s plenty of precedent after all, whether it’s Nile and their Egyptian segments, Morbid Angel and their ritual wanderings, or Hate Eternal integrating ritual ambient into some of their songs. What Opera IX did for Italian folk music on “Sacro Culto” Amthrya should aim to do for ethnic Asian music on any of its planned future releases. The potential here is unlimited.

The closest companion to “Incision Of Gem” are “Suspended from the Cosmic Altaar” from American death metal duo Apocrophex and “Skinless Agony” from Tunisian death metal act Brood Of Hatred, although each put their own spin on what is roughly the same formula. Unlike the Apocrophex record this one doesn’t come bearing artwork from Raúl González. That isn’t to say that the artwork from Kasumi Onryō doesn’t fit the package because it most certainly does. It stays within the monochrome spectrum which is befitting for what Amthrya is trying to convey here. Ultimately one’s enjoyment of “Incision Of Gem” depends purely on one’s preferences. The sense of theatrics and melodrama is typically Italian while the music most certainly is not. Above all this is a record that grows with each listen. This isn’t a death metal record to listen for an easily digestible fix nor has it any hooks to drag first-time listeners in. No. Amthrya is the kind of band that demands the listener’s full attention to truly absorb the layers and nuance of their work. That alone makes them worthy of adulation compared to all these other more conventional Italian death metal sounding bands. None of them are seldom as interesting as Amthrya is here – and that sells Amthrya as the superior practitioner.

Self-professed Mesopotamian black metal combo Melechesh - originally based in the metal unfriendly environs of Jerusalem and Bethlehem, Israel who later relocated to the more secular Amsterdam, the Netherlands and recently France and Germany - has always been one of the more interesting of the original second wave bands. Together with Orphaned Land they were among the earliest to combine underground death/black metal with Middle Eastern instrumentation and Arabic folk music. Their legend and repute grew considerably in the second half of the nineties as they fled Israel under mouting pressure from strict religious authorities resulting from the release of their controversial domestically bred debut “As Jerusalem Burns... Al'Intisar”. Since their 1996 debut Melechesh has released three albums on French imprint Osmose Productions and two on the considerably bigger Nuclear Blast Records. Suffice to say Melechesh has an interesting history and oeuvre to say the least. This is where “Ghouls of Nineveh” double-disc comes in…

Thanks to the wonders of international licensing and distribution rights as well as the fine people at Napalm Records and their partners Nippon Phonogram there’s now a compilation for the casual fan who wants to whet his/her appetite as to what Ashmedi and his rotating cast of musicians have been up in the past almost quarter of a century. “Ghouls of Nineveh” is a Japanese-exclusive double-disc career retrospective spanning all of the Melechesh discography, bar “As Jerusalem Burns... Al'Intisar” and the prior demo. Interestingly there’s but a single track from 2001’s “Dijnn”, four tracks from “Sphynx” (2003) and almost the entirety of “Emissaries” (2006). The remainder of content for both discs is culled from “The Epigenesis” (2010) and “Enki” (2015) or the more widely known, far better produced recent releases on German conglomerate Nuclear Blast Records. The lack of inclusion of tracks from the band’s 1996 debut “As Jerusalem Burns... Al'Intisar” and the accompanying demo “As Jerusalem Burns...” from a year earlier is insulting to say the least. That there’s but a single track from “Djinn” but almost the entirety of “Emissaries” is another puzzling decision. Space that could’ve been put to better use by evening out selections from each album instead of what was done here. It is understandable, at least from a sonoric point of view, but as a historic document (what compilations should strive to be) it is a major point of contention. To dispense with the obvious, “Ghouls of Nineveh” covers most of the ground you’d want of a compilation and as such it is more than representative for Melechesh as a whole.

To their everlasting credit Melechesh always was more of an Ancient Rites than a Nile. Melechesh is more concerned with conveying a Middle Eastern atmosphere than with playing at an inhumanly fast pace and/or being technical just for its own sake. The band evolved from Ashmedi's earlier, short-lived death metal solo project Crushed Cenotaph. Upon release of the  “As Jerusalem Burns...” demo and their debut a year later Melechesh were charged with “dark cultish” activity by religious law enforcement officials of the Holy Cities of Jerusalem and Bethlehem, all of which were later dropped. While considered Israeli the members are in fact of mixed descent, most prominently Armenian-Assyrian, Assyrian, and Arabian-Syrian. Central to the band’s lyrics are Mesopotamian and Sumerian history, antiquity and mythology and “The Epigenesis” is an exception in that regard as it concerns the titular concept derived from Greek philosophers Aristotle (in his Historia Animalium) and Plato. Melechesh has overcome many hurdles and countered every prejudice/bias that any band in their part of the world might face.

Where Nile has downsized its Egyptian component considerably over the last decade, Melechesh has done the opposite and worked diligently to integrate as much ethnic instrumentation and Arabian folk music as its genre of choice would allow. Along with Orphaned Land, Melechesh has been one of the pillars of Middle Eastern metal and their output has consistently been one of quality over volume. Where Melechesh has made the most obvious strides forward is in fusing ethnic instrumentation and Middle Eastern folk melodies with their patented stomping melodic black/thrash metal. What Melechesh unlike, say, Nile benefits tremendously from is their more deliberate choice of tempo. Not that Melechesh ever had any shortage of able skinsmen. Whether it’s Saro Orfali, Proscriptor McGovern, Yuri Rinkel, or Samuel Santiago behind the kit.

Melechesh always allowed its songs to breathe and neither of their drummers had the proclivity to fill every second of every song with needlessly elaborate fills or double-bass blasts. Something of which George Kollias, Derek Roddy and several others are prone to, often to the detriment of the songs. It’s puzzling why “Ghouls Of Nineveh” capitalizes so heavily on the band’s Nuclear Blast Records repertoire when their releases on Osmose Productions and Breath Of Night Records are considerably harder to come by, and even moreso in Asia. Why then that this double-disc compromises for the most part of cuts from “Emissaries”, “The Epigenesis” and “Enki” is anybody’s guess. As a historical document “Ghouls Of Nineveh” blunders by not evenly distributing its track selection among the albums.

Of course the question of legitimacy looms toweringly over this double-disc. “Ghouls Of Nineveh” was released by Austria's Napalm Records in cooperation with Nippon Phonogram. Perhaps it has something to do with international licensing laws since all of the band’s major releases were issued through France’s black metal specialist imprint Osmose Productions and Germany’s Nuclear Blast Records. Had this compilation been curated in cooperation with Ashmedi and his bandmates surely the song selection would have been more even-handed. For the most part “Ghouls Of Nineveh” is a missed opportunity. It’s representative enough for most of the Melechesh discography, but the focus on the band’s recent output isn’t necessarily to its advantage. Obviously there are far worse compilations out there – and Melechesh is the last band to be accused of milking its fanbase for money.

How exactly this compilation came into existence, or what motivation was behind it besides good old-fashioned greed, is anyone’s guess. There are no indications that Melechesh has terminated its long-standing contract with Nuclear Blast Records, nor does the artwork chosen for this compilation reflect any of the band’s usual aesthetics and imagery, other than pillaging promo material publicly available from the albums it selects material from. Melechesh is in no hurry to acknowledge the existence of “Ghouls Of Nineveh” – and neither do the usual music databases. There’s definitely an audience for a band-approved Melechesh compilation. The purveyors of true Assyrian black metal deserve better than this. This might be interesting for the casual fan, but that's all positive that can be said about it.