Skip to content

We have a long history with Britain’s self-proclaimed barbarian metal kings Bal-Sagoth. Our introduction to the world of Bal-Sagoth came with their 1996 magnus opus “Starfire Burning upon the Ice-Veiled Throne of Ultima Thule” and we voraciously anticipated and consumed every of their subsequent albums. No other band, before or since, has combined ancient history/mythology, pulp (science fiction) literature, horror, and raging primitive death/black metal in such a engrossing and truly cinematic fashion. Bal-Sagoth was the purest escapism, a phantasmagorical world of heroes and magic, a dream to get lost in. To say that we worship Bal-Sagoth in a godly way wouldn’t be far from the truth. Whether it was the more traditional death metal of their underappreciated debut “A Black Moon Broods Over Lemuria” or the transitional “Battle Magic” and their more power metal influenced trio of albums on Nuclear Blast Records, a new Bal-Sagoth record was always an event and cause for celebration. In 2006 the self-produced “The Chthonic Chronicles” was released and the band descended into an extended hiatus. After nearly twenty years the Bal-Sagoth saga had apparently ended.

Now, 13 years after “The Chthonic Chronicles”, erstwhile Bal-Sagoth alumni Jonny (keyboards, synthesizers, piano) and Chris Maudling (lead & rhythm guitars) return to the fray with the equally Robert E. Howard inspired Kull. Kull was the protagonist of Howard’s 1967 short story Exile of Atlantis and a warrior-king from the Thurian Age. Kull was formed in Yorkshire, England in 2012 and now seven years later debuts on Black Lion Records without so much as having formally demoed in any capacity. It’s rather evident that “Exile” was conceived as a potential Bal-Sagoth effort. All the known Maudling signatures are accounted for and it very much is structured as a typical Bal-Sagoth album. Joining the Maudlin brothers are fellow Bal-Sagoth alumni Alistair MacLatchy (bass guitar) and Paul Jackson (drums). Bal-Sagoth had the benefit of having Byron A. Roberts, the creative force behind the band’s elaborate 6-album high fantasy concept and a supremely gifted vocalist in his own right. Kull is Bal-Sagoth in all but name, except without Roberts and with Tarkan Alp in his stead. Alp, should there be any lingering doubts, sounds like an understudy of Roberts – and a good one at that. Longtime devotees will immediately recognize the differences as well as the similarities between the two. This is not the master, obviously, but Alp clearly is a strong surrogate.

For those who know how and where to listen “Exile” will sound instantly familiar as the Maudling brothers haven't changed their formula since "The Chthonic Chronicles" in 2006. ‘Imperial Dawn’ is a cinematic introduction in the post-1996 Bal-Sagoth tradition. ‘Set-Nakt-Heh’ has a few riffs and blaring horns that sound as if they were lifted from ‘The Empyreal Lexicon’. It’s strange hearing the signature triumphant melody that typically is to be found during the latter stages of the second half of a Bal-Sagoth record in the opening track. The feast of familiarity continues with ‘Vow Of the Exiled’ as it almost verbatim copies the introductory riff schemes from ‘The Voyagers Beneath the Mare Imbrium’ before effectively retreading ‘Of Carnage and A Gathering Of the Wolves’ territory. ‘A Summoning to War’ very much sounds as lost chapter in the saga of gentleman-adventurer Doctor Ignatius Stone, the central character in “Atlantis Ascendant”. ‘Hordes Ride’ very much recalls something as ‘Draconis Albionensis’ and even has a few vocal patterns that sound as if it was meant as a continuation or follow-up to that track.

‘An Ensign Consigned’ is a busier and overall more aggressive cut that recalls ‘The Scourge of the Fourth Celestial Host'. ‘Pax Imperialis’ is a recombinant of ‘Callisto Rising’ and ‘Behold, the Armies of War Descend Screaming from the Heavens!’ and cements the ties “Exile” has with the fourth Bal-Sagoth record “The Power Cosmic”. ‘By Lucifer’s Crown’ opens with primal riffing not heard since the days of “A Black Moon Broods Over Lemuria” or at least ‘Star-Maps of the Ancient Cosmographers’ from “Atlantis Ascendant”. ‘Of Stone and Tears’ sounds like ‘In Search of the Lost Cities of Antarctica’ and even has a similar ending synth effect. ‘Aeolian Supremacy’ sounds like the epic conclusion to the ‘The Splendour of a Thousand Swords Gleaming Beneath the Blazon of the Hyperborean Empire’ saga whereas ‘Of Setting Suns and Rising Moon’ is the same kind of blast-heavy closer as ‘The Thirteen Cryptical Prophecies of Mu’. Why ‘Aeolian Supremacy’ and ‘Of Setting Suns and Rising Moon’ weren’t switched is a question for the ages. The closing 1:50 of the former is the ‘Valley of Silent Paths’ that should have concluded the record.

“Exile” is closest to “A Black Moon Broods Over Lemuria” in terms of structure while musically it forges onward with the direction of “Battle Magic” and the later Bal-Sagoth albums. There are a few puzzling choices along the way. ‘Of Setting Suns and Rising Moon’ is a stellar closing track by itself but clashes with the serene ending of ‘Aeolian Supremacy’. It’s almost as if the Maudling brothers had written two Bal-Sagoth closing songs and decided to put them back to back instead of using one here and the second on the follow-up to “Exile”. It’s more than confusing to hear Kull end its album twice in a row. At a gargantuan 55 minutes “Exile” is as long as “A Black Moon Broods Over Lemuria”, “Starfire Burning upon the Ice-Veiled Throne of Ultima Thule” and “Battle Magic” but unlike the latter two foregoes the expected mid-album synth instrumental and the concluding atmospheric mood-piece. “Exile” would perhaps have benefitted from trimming a good ten minutes (cutting ‘Hordes Ride’ and ‘By Lucifer’s Crown’ would amount to as much) and with the addition of a two/three-minute instrumental in vein of ‘At the Altar Of the Dreaming Gods’ or ‘Six Keys to the Onyx Pyramid’. That “Exile” doesn’t end with the prerequiste synth epilogue slightly dampens the experience of this being a repurposed Bal-Sagoth album, but then again the album ends TWICE. Once with ‘Aeolian Supremacy’ (that should have ended the album)… and then again.

Where Kull falls a bit short (well, that would being charitable, at the very least) of its ambitious forebear is in overall presentation. Bal-Sagoth had some truly spectacular artwork that frequently bordered on that of a paperback novel or an old-fashioned movie poster from the sixties through eighties. Whether it was Joe Petagno’s horror-infused snowbound vista of a mighty warrior on “Starfire Burning upon the Ice-Veiled Throne of Ultima Thule”, the space battle and gleaming armor-clad warlords from “The Power Cosmic”, or the grand collage canvas from “Atlantis Ascendant” (both from Martin Hanford) a Bal-Sagoth record always stood out from the pack. Kull does…. less so. “Exile” is rather drab-looking. What Kull misses here is a colorful and heroic canvas from (preferably) Martin Hanford or somebody similar as Jean-Pascal Fournier, Boris Vallejo, Julie Bell, or Nick Keller. We’d even settle for something from Ryan Barger, Dušan Marković, or Velio Josto. Týr, Leaves’ Eyes, Theocracy, and Symphony X all had far superior marine album artworks. Considering their legacy this is more than a little disappointing. Even Belgian Bal-Sagoth imitators Dagorlad had better artwork on their very few releases.

Things fare better on the production end. We’ll never be fans of the Maudling brothers’ Wayland’s Forge Studio and we sort of miss Bal-Sagoth (or in this case, Kull) being jointly or partially produced by Academy Studios and producer Mags. The production (somewhere between “The Power Cosmic” and “The Chthonic Chronicles”, in our estimation) and the mastering from Maor Appelbaum is good enough for the type record that this is. But “Exile” more than anything else misses that full-bodied, weighty, and bass-centric production work that made fairly recent records as, "Lynx", “Axis Mundi”, “The Passage Of Existence”, “Kingdoms Disdained”, "Apokalupsis" and “Sociopathic Constructs” so completely devastating and commanding in their concrete heaviness. “Exile”for the lack of a better term sounds overly digital and, well, a bit flat, to be honest. There are certain expectations that come with carrying on the Bal-Sagoth legacy (even if it is indirectly as is the case here) and Kull isn’t able to fully meet them, as of yet. Hopefully the Maudling brothers will have ironed out the production kinks by the next record.

It’s good having three-quarters of Bal-Sagoth back in the form of Kull. “Exile” is the Bal-Sagoth record that the world should have gotten after “The Chthonic Chronicles”. Mayhap the Maudling brothers will reunite with Byron Roberts one day and restore their most enduring constellation to its rightful former glory. For the time being that seems, sadly, not to be a situation that is likely to transpire. More unbelievable (or perhaps not) is that nor Nuclear Blast nor former label Cacophonous Records showed interest in “Exile”. From Nuclear Blast’s perspective it’s understandable in terms of simple economics: Bal-Sagoth was a niche band and never shifted a great deal of units. That the resurrected Cacophonous Records showed no interest in contracting one of their famous contractees from their previous incarnation is, frankly, a bit disconcerting. Whatever the case: it’s good having Bal-Sagoth back under the guise of Kull. Hopefully it won’t take another 13 years for them to produce a follow-up to “Exile”. The patience of Bal-Sagoth fans the world over has been stretched to the absolute limit over the last decade-plus. As devoted Bal-Sagoth acolytes used to say, Blodu ok Jarna!

Plot: lone muscleman must lead uprising against despotic Atlantean god-king

In all likelihood The Giant Of Metropolis is one of the greatest peplum-science fiction hybrids from the legendary first wave of the Italian sword-and-sandal genre. As one would guess from the title it merges the two central conceits from Eugène Lourié’s The Colossus of New York (1958) and Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927) with lush production design by Eugenio and Mario Bava protégé Giorgio Giovannini and starring roles for Gordon Mitchell, Roldano Lupi as well as Liana Orfei and Cuban belle Bella Cortez. The Giant Of Metropolis begat The Conqueror Of Atlantis (1965) which in turn inspired Luigi Cozzi from everything to StarCrash (1979) and his two Hercules movies with Lou Ferrigno. Everything has a beginning – and while Atlantis in the desert had been done earlier in the form of The Mistress Of Atlantis (1932) and Journey Beneath the Desert (1961) – both based on the 1920 Pierre Benoit novel Atlantida/L’AtlantideThe Giant Of Metropolis was one of the crazier exercises to follow in the footsteps of Pietro Francisci’s The Labors Of Hercules (1957), the first genuine kitschy pulp peplum.

The director of The Giant Of Metropolis was Umberto Scarpelli. Scarpelli worked as an assistant director on 17 movies from 1933 to 1951. From 1941 to 1954 he was employed as a production manager, mostly on comedies, dramas and romances. In the 18 years from 1943 to 1961 Scarpelli co-directed four productions and as a writer he had established himself with David and Goliath (1960), and Fury Of the Barbarians (1960). That The Giant Of Metropolis is his only directing credit that is truly his own should speak volumes. Scarpelli wasn’t exactly a good or particularly talented director. The Giant Of Metropolis was the first Italian production for American strongman Gordon Mitchell and Bella Cortez had crossed paths with Furio Meniconi, Roldano Lupo, and Liana Orfei earlier in The Seven Revenges (1961) and The Tartars (1961) earlier. If The Giant Of Metropolis is remembered for anything it’s the production design by Giorgio Giovannini and the special effects work from Polish surrealist painter Joseph Natanson. Natanson had worked with everybody from Vittorio De Sica, Sergio Leone, Pier Paolo Pasolini, and Franco Zeffirelli to John Huston, Joseph Mankiewicz, Jean-Jacques Annaud, but also exploitation kings as Luigi Cozzi and Lucio Fulci. That producers were going to capitalize on the on-screen pairing of Mitchell and Cortez resulted in the Emimmo Salvi directed Vulcan, Son Of Jupiter (1962) a year later.

In 20,000 B.C in an unspecified unhospitable desert landscape a group of men is traversing until the elder (Mario Meniconi) expires from exhaustion and old age. He orders his son Orbo (Gordon Mitchell) to travel beyond the mountains and into the city of Metropolis in the heart of Atlantis and issue a dire warning that they “shouldn’t try to change the natural order.” Within the span of just a few minutes his former travelling companions turn on him as their allegiance was to the elder and not much later Orbo’s brothers are killed by an electro-magnetic blizzard that will later be called “the Whirlwinds of Death.” Orbo is taken captive by the Black Guard and its captain (Ugo Sasso) brings him before their iron-fisted ruler. Metropolis is presided over by Yotar (Roldano Lupi), an implacable arch-rationalist who has dedicated his life to the pursuit of knowledge and conducting experiments to attain immortality, the closest thing to actual godhood.

Yotar envisions to transplant his the brain of his 200 year-old father (Carlo Tamberlani) into the body of his pre-teen son Elmos (Carlo Angeletti, as Marietto). In other words, The Giant Of Metropolis can pride itself for having a brain transplant a full decade before Lady Frankenstein (1971) and two before Zombie Holocaust (1980).  He is advised by the Prime Minister (Ugo Sabetta) and his sage, corpse-like scientist elder (Luigi Moneta) and Yotar even goes as far as to revive his former science lieutenant Egan (Furio Meniconi) to get validation that his experiments are just. One and all they warn him of the possibly cataclysmic consequences of his experiments. The arrival of strongman Orbo only adds to his resolve as the musclebound hunk of flesh defies any and all scientific data the Metropolis engineers had collected by that point. Orbo is an genetic anomaly that Yotar and his legion of scientists need to study and experiment for the betterment of all.

Within the palatial chambers discord and distrust is growing. Queen Texen (Liana Orfei) and Egan conspire against Yotar by freeing Orbo from bondage. Princess Mecede (Bella Cortez) is initially reluctant to join the insurrection as she’s torn between loyalty to her father and her attraction to the madly babbling desert muscleman. It isn’t until Texen commits suicide by poisoning when confronted by Yotar that Mecede chooses sides. Meanwhile Yotar continues his scientific experiments apace despite Orbo’s ominous warnings. Orbo is forced to guerrilla tactics and shorts bursts of warfare when his dire warnings fall on deaf ears. Yotar, understandably, retaliates by trying to contain the rapidly escalating situation through brute force. However Orbo is nothing the Metropolitans have ever experienced before and Orbo’s persistence forces Yotar into increasingly desperate means of repression to quell the opposition. Means that will eventually spell the fall of Metropolis and fulfill the very same prophecy that Orbo was send to warn him against. By not heeding the cryptic warnings of a primitive, desert-dwelling doomsayer as the most serious thing in the world, Yotar has ensured that his “amazingly advanced civilization” will forever be “lost beneath the waters of the ocean.

How is it possible that with a team of five writers and another two contributing dialogue that the screenplay for The Giant Of Metropolis is such a staggering mess that it barely qualifies as a three-act story and fails to set up the most important characters? It starts with an opening crawl that conveys the necessary background information for the story, but it also gives away the ending and thus kills any and all possible suspense. None of the lead characters, with exception of Yotar, are properly introduced. A majority of supporting characters, irrespective of their overall importance, remain unnamed through out. The Metropolitan society is obviously divided into various classes (scientists, clerics, defense), but none of the hierarchy is given proper explanation and the only way to differentiate between them is the costumes. The screenplay also never truly decides who the point of view character is supposed to be. Orbo is the designated hero of the piece, but he’s quickly reduced to a bystander in what is supposedly his story, and Yotar by sheer necessity becomes the point of view character. Yotar endlessly consults and confers with a series of faceless advisors, only to remain deadly passive. It’s certainly a problem when Liana Orfei and Bella Cortez portray far more internally conflicted characters than Roldano Lupi, somewhat of a specialist in despotic foreign tyrants, and supposedly the main antagonist. Orfei and Cortez far more interesting as such but their roles are merely supportive and don't carry the same narrative weight.

What is also clear is that Sabatino Ciuffini, Ambrogio Molteni, Oreste Palella, Gino Stafford, Emimmo Salvi, and Umberto Scarpelli were a bunch of staunch Catholics. Orbo is, by prophecy and destiny, a desert-dwelling messiah foretold to bring down the great house of Metropolis and liberate mankind from the dire oppression of scienctific progress and the grand pursuit of knowledge. It requires of Yotar, just like Abraham in the Old Testament, to sacrifice his only begotten son in the name of ‘science’ – and strikingly, Metropolis or Atlantis, a den of godlessness and decadence, is swallowed by the sea. Just like God punished mankind with the Great Flood for its disobedience. The Giant Of Metropolis pushes its message of anti-intellectualism hard, as it gives Orbo several occassions to proselytize with grand declarations as, “Your power is based on a criminal use of science. it will destroy you! You will die miserably” and “Perhaps, before we are destroyed, Yotar will realize he has been mistaken. He's not evil. He's only blinded by science.” In age-old Christian tradition women are men’s property and supposed to be submissive. Something which Liana Orfei’s Texen won’t stand for, rebuking Yotar’s “you’re in my power” speech with, “You desire only to possess my body. And you want to destroy every vestige of my will. But I refuse to let you, Yotar. I loath you!” Likewise does Yotar have an incestual longing after his teen stepdaughter played by Bella Cortez.

While the screenplay has its share of problems, big and small, the outlandish production design is some of the most exquisite you’re likely to see in what by all accounts is an Italian exploitation cheapie from the sixties. The sets, miniatures and matte paintings were rendered by Giorgio Giovannini, a protégé of celebrated domestic filmmakers Eugenio and Mario Bava. The locations alternate between wide, spacious, geometric spaces with sparse columns, angular pieces of technology and underlit cavernous subterranean chambers. The Metropolitan palace interiors, often in bright pastel colors, fuse Aztec and Terracotan designs and motifs. In others chiseled faces protrude from walls and stalagmites form centerpieces of barren and desolate chambers. Furniture is sparse with only the king being given the luxury of chairs. In an instance of incredible prescience a building at the center of the royal court resembles the Android mascot.

The production design would be imitated in Mario Bava’s science fiction classic The Planet Of the Vampires (1965) and Dino de Laurentiis’ Dune (1984). The influence of Bava, the elder and the younger, can be seen through the brightly colord atmospheric lightning and liberal use dry ice. The costumes by Giovanna Natili are both uncomfortable and impractical and are much a monastic habit as they are prescient of The Planet Of the Vampires (1965). The weaponry are strangely formed,  leaflike reconfigurations of large, plastic feather dusters and large ornamental fans. To have such exquisite production design wasted on what amounts to a glacially paced potboiler low on both action and thrills is unfortunate to say the least. What kills The Giant Of Metropolis the most of all is the flat and ugly cinematography that doesn’t capitalize on the wonder and spectacle of the production design. The editing is equally infuriating as it contains endless inconsequential scenes of people shuffling in and out of rooms and never builds towards a climax. Likewise does the portentous, minimalist, almost atonal score from Armando Trovajoli - rife with clarinet, piano, theremin - not help at all.

The Giant Of Metropolis is first and foremost Gordon Mitchell’s movie and his bared oiled chest. Liana Orfei and Bella Cortez steal the show in every scene they’re in, but unfortunately never bare theirs. Orfei sports a few very flattering dresses and veils and in her most memorable scene wears but a bikini. Bella Cortez is initially introduced as Yotar’s somewhat mousy daughter, but only becomes a character after her prerequisite exotic dance routine. Orfei would get her own dancing routine in much better peplum productions as Hercules, Samson and Ulysses (1963). Had The Giant Of Metropolis been helmed by a better director and with a tighter, more succinct screenplay it could have been one of Italy’s most memorable genre-hybrids. The Giant Of Metropolis is a historic curiosity that no cult movie fanatic should be without. It’s everything that Alfonso Brescia’s The Conqueror Of Atlantis (1965) was but infinitely better realized, at least from a production design standpoint, and far more brooding all around. It’s a highpoint of Italian peplum exploitation and it wouldn’t be until Luigi Cozzi’s two Hercules movies two decades later that something quite as crazy would surface. For that reason it’s a towering achievement of exploitation filmmaking at its finest.