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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.

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“The Black Opera” is the final of three Opera IX records with Cadaveria in the vocal slot. Of these three it is the most conventionally symfo with lush gothic overtones. It is by far the most streamlined and concise in writing of the trilogy, on top of being the best produced. What Opera IX lost of its distinct Mediterranean character was complemented by its increased ability to write shorter, punchier songs. Benefitting from the symfo black metal explosion it was Opera IX’ breakthough album, but that success came at a price. As such “The Black Opera” is an eulogy to what could have been had the band not splintered into two factions.

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“The Black Opera” delivers exactly what it promises being structured as an actual opera, consisting of six arias, or acts. The subtitle “Symphoniae Mysteriorum In Laudem Tenebrarum” translates to “Symphony in praise of the mysteries of the shadows”, concisely summarizing the lyrical direction of the record. Of the three it is the most focused on occultism, spirituality and esoterica. It more or less is a loosely conceptual record about spiritual awakening and liberating oneself from dogmas. Each song represents a seal that the listener must pass in order to reach enlightenment and to attain a higher state of consciousness.

The most interesting aspect of “The Black Opera” are its lyrics. Frontwoman Raffaela Rivarolo, who obviously has a personal interest in mythological – and occult subject matter, fuses together multiple religious pantheons through the easily recognizable literary convention of the monomyth, as described by author Joseph Campbell. Drawing mainly from Greek, Israelite and Egyptian belief systems the album’s central narrative is that of a hero’s journey in search of spiritual enlightenment. The artwork and photography by Alberto Maria Gotti puts more of a focus on frontwoman Raffaela Rivarolo than prior efforts. Foreshadowing Rivarolo’s future solo career in the industrial metal subgenre the album includes ‘Bela Lugosi’s Dead’, a cover of British post-punk and later gothic rock band Bauhaus.

‘Act I: The First Seal’ functions as a general outline of the album’s concept, and ‘Act II: Beyond the Black Diamond Gates’ represents the summoning ritual that sets the listener-character on its spiritual journey. ‘Act III: Carnal Delight in the Vortex Of Evil’ has the protagonist describing the arch-nemesis. ‘Act IV: Congressus Cum Daemone’ invokes the wind gods from Greek mythology. ‘Act V: The Magic Temple’ is sung in the band's native Italian. ‘Act VI: The Sixth Seal’ contains multiple invocations from the Thelemic Bornless Ritual, including the line “Asar Lin-Nefer”, a variation of "Asar-un-Nefer" ("Myself Made Perfect"), an epithet of the Egyptian god Osiris.

“The Black Opera” is more streamlined and concise in its songwriting. As a result its the least adventurous of the Cadaveria trilogy as it has none of the Mediterranean character and ethnic spirit that made the preceding two record so unique. Only a few tracks reach the band’s usually bloated song lengths, and on its face it sounds like a Dimmu Borgir record of the day. Unlike their Norwegian contemporaries Opera IX write incredibly varied songs that are majestic and aggresive in equal measure. In its defense, Rivarolo delivers her most sensual, passionate and serpentine performance on this third album in what would be her swansong with the band she helped popularize.

With the proper support of a mid-level label behind them Opera IX was given the opportunity to record in a facility outside of their native Italy. “The Black Opera” was recorded at Studio Underground in Västerås, Sweden with Pelle Saether producing. In adapting itself to the expectations of the industry Opera IX won in polish and sheen but lost part of what made its prior records so appealing. “The Black Opera”, for the lack of a better description, sounds as a Scandinavian record. It has none of the Mediterreanean warmth that graced this band’s earlier records. “The Black Opera” is as elegant as before but the standard metal production robs it of much of its spirit.

“The Black Opera” was released on AvantGarde Music in 2000, in November of the same year the label would release “Thelema.6”, the album that broke Polish death/black metal unit Behemoth to a wider audience. “The Black Opera” sold approximately 18,000 copies, and Opera IX was poised for stardom. Raffaela Rivarolo (vocals), and Alberto Gaggiotti (drums) acrimoniously split from the band due to creative differences and interpersonal tensions. Both parties carried on in their own respective projects, and Opera IX lost much of its cross-market appeal and scene visibility due to the leaving of its beloved frontwoman. Rivarolo and Gaggiotti would continue working together in different bands but neither of those units experienced the kind of exposure they had at the very heights of Opera IX’ success. Opera IX would continue releasing albums on a variety of labels and with revolving lineups.