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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?

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“The Call Of the Wood” is the first of three Opera IX records with Cadaveria in the vocal slot. Of these three it is the least symphonic of the three, and most conventionally doom/death metal oriented in construction and pacing. Combining sweltering Mediterreanean mysticism with esoterica, occultism, and a poignant horror atmosphere - it is rightly considered a milestone in Italian underground metal. Arriving at the advent of the European dark metal boom of the mid-90s, it helped usher in a new era for extreme metal. Often overlooked in the band’s discography it sets the stage for the album’s two critically acclaimed successors.

Ossian d’Ambrosio formed Opera IX in Piedmont, Italy in 1988 as a solo project. The project wouldn’t take off until the 90s when the first real line-up was established. Opera IX released three demos, with only the last two getting any notable traction. On the 1993 “The Triumph Of the Dead” EP (which had a video companion) the band’s music started coming together in a more unified form. Together with Hellenic horde Astarte, Acrostichon from Holland, and formative American practitioners Dérketa and Mythic – Opera IX was one of the earlier underground metal bands to feature a woman in the vocal slot. Interestingly frontwoman Raffaela Rivarolo was never played up as a convenient marketing ploy. Instead she was the alluring face and voice of a self-professed coven. Unlike any other they were able to capture that intangible 1970s Italian horror cinema atmosphere.

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On “The Call Of the Wood” Opera IX was a quintet, with founding member Ossian d’Ambrosio (lead guitar) leading the charge, along with key collaborators Raffaela Rivarolo (vocals), Alberto Gaggiotti (drums), and Vlad (bass guitar). Since the band was not able to secure a stable keyboardist at the time the role was filled by a session musician with the stage name Silent Bard. The position wouldn’t be filled until the arrival of Lunaris on the successor to this album. All music for the album was written in between 1991 and 1994. Of the early Opera IX the debut is the most ambitious and technical. Hampered by a somewhat thin production the record’s atmosphere was often imitated but never surpassed. Mixing the theatricality of Death SS with the gloom of doom metal and the esoterica of pagan metal - Opera IX offers the best of all three worlds in a tantalizing meditation on superstition, the arcane and local folklore.

Creating an aura of mystery around themselves the references to occultism, spirituality and esoterica start with the band name. In Italian the word opera means “work”, both in the sense of the labour done, and its subsequent results. The IX (9) in numerology stands, among other things, for spiritual enlightenment, spiritual awakening, mysticism and divine wisdom. It symbolizes the principle of universal philosophy and consciousness. While often categorized as black metal, Opera IX is much closer related to pagan – and doom/death metal. “The Call Of the Wood” is different from the band’s later output as it is much more death metal oriented in terms of construction. Not only is the riffing denser and more churning compared to later albums, the heaviness is aided by the thick bass guitar tone that fills up the low end. It far less overly symphonic and the gothic undertones aren’t quite as developed as they would be on later albums.

“The Call Of the Wood” deals with a variety of subjects, and isn’t quite as thematically singular with its focus. ‘Alone in the Dark’ is about Dario Argento’s Three Mothers triptych of horror movies, specifically “Inferno”. The classical piano parts manage to capture the desolation of Argento’s celluloid giallo masterpiece. ‘Esteban’s Promise’ chronicles the works of Esteban del Agua y Tierra, a Koldunic Sorcerer of the Americas. ‘The Call Of the Wood’ is a celebration of Wicca and the Goddess movement in neopaganism. The track references various Goddesses of fertility from Akkadia, Sumeria and Greece. ‘Al Azif’ is about the fictional Necronomicon of revered British pulp author H.P. Lovecraft, and its chronicle of the Mad Arab, Abdul Alhazred. ‘Sepulcro’ is about necromancy, and effectively captures the bleakness and gloominess of its titular place.

‘Alone In the Dark’ is a gargantuan +18 minute composition showcasing all the different aspects of Opera IX, be they death metal, doom, symfo and it captures the oppressive darkness within the Italian catacombs. The track is helped tremendously by the almost tribal percussion, and extended soloing an a mid-song break. ‘Esteban’s Promise’ has Mediterreanean horror movie styled keyboards, organs and throbbing bass guitar solo. Opera IX’ strongest material is usually its slowest. The track is exemplary of the band’s musical versatility within a limited creative perimeter. ‘Al Azif’ starts off with more tribal percussion, and is one of the faster cuts otherwise. ‘Sepulcro’ is the most doom-oriented track of the record with an extended bass guitar and keyboard intro. In many ways Opera IX was the South European equivalent to Polish band Christ Agony. Both bands are heavily dependent on atmosphere, of the two Opera IX remains the superior as its attack is far more versatile musically and driven by a stronger artistic concept.

Rivarolo changes from rasping, growling to emotive clean singing and narration often within the same song. She’s similar to Melissa Gray from British metal band Adorior in her vocal acrobacy. Technically unpolished and on the rawer end of the spectrum Rivarolo puts a lot of soul and emotion in her serpentine delivery. She sings in a far lower register voice here in comparison to the later albums. The clean – and spoken passages aren’t quite as developed as they would become on subsequent albums yet Rivarolo effortlessly switches techniques multiple times within each song. The keyboards are supplemental, and often use celebratory, and victorious melodies. Driven by acoustics, ethnic music and prioritizing atmosphere over technical finesse Opera IX valiantly attempts to sound as an occult pagan ritual captured on record, or as the soundtrack to a witches’ coven. During its most accomplished material they are the metal equivalent of a 1970/80s Goblin, Fabio Frizzi, or Walter Rizzati horror soundtrack. This rings especially true for the keyboard work in the eerie ‘Sepulcro’.

“The Call Of the Wood” was recorded over a two month period at PKM Studio, Vercelli with Paolo Baltaro and Marco Pesenti engineering. Functional in the basic sense it is rather thin sounding and can’t quite support all the facets of the band’s sound. Especially the guitars and drums end up sounding emasculated in the process. The leads are generally crunchier than the rhythms, the bass guitar often provides more interesting riffs than the rhythm guitar. The keyboards are well produced, even though some passages are on the hokey side. Oddly enough the band shot promo videos for both its demos, but not for this album. Its next music video wouldn’t surface until the next album was released. Combining sweltering Mediterreanean mysticism with esoterica, occultism, and a poignant horror atmosphere “The Call Of the Wood” is considered a milestone in Italian underground metal. No band before or since has quite been able to conjure up the same atmosphere, although fellow Italian witch coven Riti Occulti at least attempts to recreate what Opera IX had masterfully crafted almost two decades before.