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 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!

The best thing to happen to Dimmu Borgir in years was the much-publicized split with long-time clean vocalist/bass guitarist ICS Vortex and keyboardist Mustis. Not that the transition was smooth in the least. To get to “Eonian” the world had to endure the colossal failure that was 2010’s “Abrahadabra”. If Dimmu Borgir’s very public crisis of identity has yielded anything substantial it’s that they have at long last shed the veneer that they are the vanguards of extreme metal, black – or otherwise. No. “Eonian”, like its rightly maligned predecessor, is power metal in everything but name. Trudging, dirgey, marching power metal with an undercurrent of triumphant, glorious melodies and a thick layer of would-be evil theatrics. As unbelieveable as it might sound, “Eonian” is the best Dimmu Borgir album in many, many years, or at least since 1999. It might sound nothing like the Dimmu Borgir of yore, or even like anything they have done prior for that matter. In point of fact “Eonian” is shockingly good at whatever Dimmu Borgir is attempting here. It is by far the least actively hostile outing this band has unleashed upon the world. …And 12 different versions of “Eonian”? That’s pushing it, even for Nuclear Blast Records.

Plenty of blood has been spilled on these pages detailing how terrible Norway’s most famous export is most of the time. A good deal of that venom warranted because Dimmu Borgir is godawful more often than they’re not. Over the course of 25 years Dimmu Borgir went from your average no-budget black metal band to Victorian age romantics, wanna-be Cenobites, and post-apocalyptic warriors to tundra gypsy-barbarians/pirates and now… futuristic hooded warrior-monks? "Eonian" is about a lot of things: letting go of preconceptions, overcoming barriers to reach one's maximum potential and cleansing oneself from spiritual detritus in order to attain complete and perfect awakening. In other words, roughly the same Buddhist subjects that Caelestis handles so wonderfully. So, Dimmu Borgir is really trying this time around. Trying so hard to distance themselves from their old sound that they might as well be an entirely different band, but trying indeed. At their most potent and pointed Dimmu Borgir was stunningly mediocre. At their worst they were actively hostile to the listener. Most of the time they were just bloody annoying. Moreso than on “Abrahadabra” does “Eonian” revolve around contrasting atmospheres and instrumentation. Whoever still believes that Dimmu Borgir plays, or ever played, black metal is massively deluded. The Dimmu Borgir of today is nigh on impossible to tell apart from the likes of Nightwish, Therion and Luca Turilli's Rhapsody. Except for the would-be evil corpse paint and costumes, that is.

“Eonian” is destined to be polarizing and utterly divisive, even moreso than any of this band’s other records. In the twenty-plus years since “For All Tid” Dimmu Borgir finds themselves back at the exact same spot where they started, except now they have Nuclear Blast Records behind them and every tool and resource at their disposal to indulge their every creative whim. ‘The Unveiling’ opens with industrial and Eurodance keyboards effects that would make Amaranthe green with envy. ‘Interdimensional Summit’ is a heavily orchestrated and choral pop song that in a different world would be a Nightwish or Therion outtake. ‘Ætheric’ plays around with some guitar psychedelia and stoner rock riffs very much like second advance single ‘Council Of Wolves and Snakes’, but it also has the very rare blastbeat. ‘Council Of Wolves and Snakes’ is a Middle Eastern tinged pseudo-doom metal track complete with psychedelic guitar noodling, ethnic chants and tribal percussion by former Opeth drummer Martin Lopez. The second (and pretty much last) blastbeat of the record can be found on ‘Alpha Aeon Omega’ which starts with an extended cinematic opening, sort of everything that ‘The Promised Future Aeons’ aimed for in 1999 but lacked the resources for. “Eonian” concludes with a grand finale in the form of the 5-minute instrumental ‘Rite Of Passage’. A closer so life-affirming and bordering on film score that you’d swear it was ghostwritten by Hans Zimmer or Armi Päivinen from Suomi epic metallers Ravenia. Whoever you prefer…

For the lack of a better descriptor “Eonian” sounds almost New Age-y in its choice of melodies and overarching atmosphere. Granted it fits with the overly prententious abstract esoteric and faux-philosophical concept they are pushing, but Dimmu Borgir was never known for its lyrical prowess. “Eonian” is custodian to lyrical gems as, for example, ‘Interdimensional Summit’ dispenses with the obvious by stating that “to the trained eye / there are no coincidences” and ‘Ætheric’ insists that “to govern thyself / you must know your past” or the memorable choral chorus in ‘Council Of Wolves and Snakes’ that mantra-like posits that “we are gods in the making / we are gods for the taking”. It’s all so wonderfully rich coming from a band as blissfully unaware of itself as Dimmu Borgir. No. Whatever this is supposed to be it doesn’t hurt as much, or at all, as some of this band’s prior records. “Eonian” is a Dimmu Borgir record where the keyboards are inobtrusive, where the orchestrations and choirs are responsible for the brunt of the dynamics and where Daray, one of Poland’s best underground metal drummers is reduced to a very expensive metronome. Poland’s best drummer is reduced to a metronome. It is so unadventurous Tjodalv could have drummed on it. In the production notes can be gleaned that Fleshgod Apocalypse keyboardist Francesco Ferrini and long-time collaborator Gaute Storås arranged the orchestrations, with the latter also handling the Schola Cantrum Choir and Jens Bogren engineering the thing.

“Eonian” is probably the best sounding Dimmu Borgir record thus far. Unless you care about little things such as guitars and drums. Since this was mixed by Shagrath the vocals, choirs, orchestrations and keyboards take prominence. Naturally with the guitars being as buried as they are, it’s surprising that they sound as crispy and clear that they do. Galder actually tries on this album too. Does he ever try. There are actual guitar solos again this time around and Dimmu Borgir still chugs as if they have a bone to pick with populist groove metal bands like Machine Head and their ilk. Speaking of Shagrath. He was, is, and continues to be this band’s weakest link. At least now his other talents are put to good use as he contributes on keyboards and shares bass guitar duties with Galder and Silly-Nose. Shagrath always better at everything excluding vocals. The Zbigniew M. Bielak artwork is probably the most restrained this band has had in a long time and includes an hourglass, a clock, the lemniscate and assorted Satanic imagery – eventhough “Eonian” at no point resembles a traditional black metal album. Dimmu Borgir’s reinvention as a power metal band would be complete if they finally decided to drop their overcooked black metal imagery and ornate stage costumes, but that is probably a tad too ambitious for this bunch. “Eonian” is pretty tolerable when you’re prepared to meet it halfway. “Eonian” continues on the path the band embarked on with “Abrahadabra”. Whether their fans will follow is another matter.

Never before has Dimmu Borgir sounded so focused and on-point as they do on “Eonian”. It’s nothing short of a miracle that Norway’s most popular export was able to conjure up an undertaking so bombastic, so melodramatic, so completely different from anything and everything they have done prior. It’s interesting to see where Dimmu Borgir goes from here and to what degree they will further embrace their newfound appreciation for power metal. It’s hard to come to grips with how good “Eonian” is when it fires on all cylinders, and even Shagrath’s tired croaks aren’t as annoying as they usually are. This time around the choirs handle the more ambitious parts – and the record is so much better for it. It’s hard to believe that this is the same band that wrote ‘In Death’s Embrace’, ‘Moonchild Domain’ and ‘The Insight & the Catharsis’. Two of these men were responsible for “Stormblast” and “Death Cult Armageddon”, one a record legendary for its atmosphere and thievery, the other for its relentless drudgery. Dimmu Borgir is nigh on unrecognizable on “Eonian”, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The masks have come off from The Kings Of the Carnival Creation, but it’s not like they are suddenly venturing into uncharted territory. “Eonian” is the product of writings that were on the wall many years ago to anybody remotely perceptive – and it actually is suprisingly good.