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With the likes of Ice Age, Lady Beast and Savage Master there’s no shortage of quality traditional metal. St. Johns, Newfoundland, Canada heavy/power metal revivalists Category VI already left a favourable impression in 2013 with their charming and unassuming little debut “Fireborn”. Since the last record the band has acquired the services of a new drummer and inked a recording contract with German imprint Killer Metal Records. In other words, Category VI is ready to bring its music to a wider public. “War Is Hell” is very much cut of the same cloth as “Fireborn” but is more muscular, rugged and possesses a greater focus and combativeness. Ideal for a record dealing with the horrors of war.

The primary appeal of Category VI lies in its blue-collar charm and down-to-earth approach to their craft. They live and breathe the music they produce. On “War Is Hell” the Category VI core remains unchanged with Geoff Waye’s burly riffs and fiery soloing, Keith Jackman’s lively bass guitar licks, and Amanda Marie Gosse’s soaring vocals. Evinced by her choice of melodies Gosse is an ardent disciple of the late Dio. Befitting of the war thematic “War Is Hell” is still traditionally inclined, but far more muscular and combative all around compared to the more conservative “Fireborn”. The midpace is occassionally broken for a mildly faster section, but unlike Lady Beast “War Is Hell” is more about atmosphere and feeling than it is about speed. Not that Category VI would describe itself as a speed metal band in the first place. Would it benefit Category VI to let loose and put the pedal to the metal? Probably, but they are obviously comfortable in their midpace. Some changes in pace would lend it a considerably greater sense of dynamics and scope.

‘Strike Of the Axe’ opens the gates after a bit of guitar psychedelia and it’s rather evident that guitar solos have been given a more prominent place. Moreso than on “Fireborn” at any rate. The riffs are more muscular without becoming thrashy and drummer John Angelopoulos is given more to do than simply keeping time. ‘Full Metal Jacket’ has a pumping groove and ‘Crossing the Avalon’ is one of the band’s fiercest tracks to date, even with all the psychedelic guitar noodling that it engages in. Interestingly, 'The Traveller / The Dark Warrior' and ‘Crossing the Avalon’ are two songs from "Dark Warrior", the 2002 independently released and distributed demo from Waye's erstwhile band Oberon, here given a due re-recording. ‘Arise’ isn’t a Sepultura cover instead its a pulsating cut reminiscent of something off Iron Maiden’s “The Number of the Beast”. With Waye’s guitar pyrotechnics and Jackman’s clanging bass just waiting to break out it’s puzzling that Category VI insists on a midpace as often as it does. These three men obviously have the chops to write and play something more demanding and adventurous. Evidently it isn’t frontwoman Amanda Marie Gosse that is holding them back from doing just that. What an amazing set of pipes this redheaded lady has. Not only is she powerful, expressive and commanding, her falsetto and higher register is equally full of emotion and girth. Category VI has obviously experienced a considerable growth spurt since its debut. Are they living up to the potential that “Fireborn” hinted at? Well, not entirely. The band has yet to pen its own ‘Rime Of the Ancient Mariner’ and they still tend to second-guess themselves every step of the way. Up the Irons already, guys!

Category VI is all about efficiency. At 47 minutes “War Is Hell” is about 5 minutes shorter than the debut. Their unpretentiousness is translated in the matter-of-fact production work and accompanying visuals. It’s functional, it’s earnest and oozes with the kind of heft and body that a lot of today’s overly sterilized productions lack. Amanda Marie and her men obviously have their heart in the right place and the disarming honesty of their music is ultimately works in their advantage. In a world where everybody’s a crook, and in an increasingly disingenuous scene, they are a welcome breath of fresh air. Arguably the metal scene needs more people just like them, but in all likelihood they will probably remain criminally overlooked just because they do things on their own terms. Admittedly the visual aspect remains on the amateurish side for a band now on a professional label. Imagine what Category VI conjure forth with a canvas from Jan Meininghaus, Péter Sallai, Samwise Didier, Thomas Ewerhard, or Jan Yrlund? In the grand scheme of things it’s a minor qualm considering how well-developed Category VI’s music is for a band of their age.

“War Is Hell” has Category VI on the verge of greater things; of finally unlocking their innate potential as a band, of Gosse elevating herself from a mere frontwoman to an underground icon, and their blooming songwriting finally matching their ambitions. “War Is Hell” is that kind of record. One where a band's entire future hinges upon. The Great White North has given the underground its fair share of now-classic bands in a variety of metal genres. Whether or not Category VI becomes the next institution depends on how they handle this record. There are plenty of bands with not half their promise that remain inexplicably popular with the masses. It’s high time for Category VI to claim their rightful place in the Canadian – as well as the international scene. If “War Is Hell” is any indication they are on the threshold. Together with Pennsylvania stalwarts Lady Beast (fronted by the indomitable Debbie Levine), Category VI is the best traditional metal is likely to get.

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The “Live & Plugged” franchise was a shortlived home video series wherein German metal conglomerate Nuclear Blast Records sought to promote upcoming new signees through concert recordings and candid interviews. The series spawned a  total of two installments, and was discontinued upon the advent of DVDs as the popular storage format. The first installment included recordings of Darkseed, In Flames and Evereve on the German club circuit, whereas the second part coupled live recordings of Norwegian band Dimmu Borgir, and Swedish death/thrash metal titans Dissection as part of the shortlived “Gods Of Darkness” festival.

Recorded during the Gods Of Darkness Festival at Live Music Hall in Köln, Germany as part of “The Rape and Ruin of Europe” tour in 1997 supporting Cradle Of Filth, and co-headliners Dissection. Dimmu Borgir was the opening band for the tour, as In Flames at that point had a more established reputation as a melodic death metal band. Promising an “in-depth” look at each of the bands the video includes a professionally filmed live set, interviews, and each of the band’s official music videos. While the package at least delivers what it says on the tin, it is riddled with errors, major and minor, from front to back. The live portion of the package is the least problematic – the interview segments don’t offer up any new information that couldn’t be found through alternative means even back when this was released. The “Live & Plugged” video opens with Norwegian band Dimmu Borgir, and is followed by Swedish death/thrash metal outfit Dissection.

Even though Dimmu Borgir was lower on the bill than its Swedish peers Dissection, the Norwegians get to open the video on the strength of its divisive third album “Enthrone Darkness Triumphant”, its first for the label. The first notable error is that the highlight opening reel plays to “The Darkest Day” by composer David Arnold from the “Independence Day” movie soundtrack instead of a studio outtake of the band’s own songs. The opening segment sets the tone for the remainder of the home video. Being that Dimmu Borgir was at this point still a support act there are barely any lights during the show, and for the majority of its set the stage is underlit to say the least. Shagrath was still uncomfortable in the frontman position, and this leads to amateurish in-between song banter. The set itself is a representative cross-section of the band’s material up to that point, even though it curiously omits its earliest releases, specifically the meandering “For All Tid” and its lukewarm companion EP “Inn I Evighetens Morke”.

In the setlist only ‘Dodsferd’ and ‘Alt Lys Er Svunnet Hen’ represent the band’s pre-Nuclear Blast catalog. Understandably the set focuses heavily on the lamentable “Enthrone Darkness Triumphant”. “For All Tid” is ignored altogether. Only ‘Raabjorn Speiler Draugheimers Skodde’ appears in its re-recorded form during the end credits. Each of the members is enthusiastic and energetic, although drummer Tjodalv sometimes struggles to keep up during the transitions in new songs. During the many keyboard solos, the top-hatted Stian Aarstad can be regularly seen staring blankly into space. The interview hardly justifies its inclusion as it offers up nothing novel (even this early in the band’s career), and its needlessly breaks up the flow of the live set. Stian Aarstad and Tjodalv don’t appear in the interview segments at all, and Shagrath only appears sparsely. Not a lot of care was put into this part of the video, as at one point Nagash is missspelled as ‘Naqash’ during the interview segments. Dimmu Borgir’s part of the video is concluded by the promo video for ‘Mourning Palace’ which mixes live footage of the concert the viewer just saw with stock war footage.

During the Dissection part ‘At the Fathomless Depths’ is played over the opening credits, why another David Arnold composition from the “Independence Day” soundtrack wasn’t used here is anybody’s guess. Tobias Kjellgren substituted for Ole Öhman on drums for the “Storm Of the Light’s Bane” touring campaign. The band plays a representative selection of its two albums, but also includes ‘Elisabeth Bathory’, a cover of Hungarian black/thrashers Tormentor – and ‘Son Of the Mourning’, an old demo song that never appeared on any of its official albums, as part of its set. The band deliver an energetic set with enlived performances from each of the members. bass guitarist Peter Palmdahl, and substitute drummer Tobias Kjellgren are subjects for the interview instead of Jon Nödtveidt, the actual frontman, lyricist and creative force behind Dissection. In fact Jon Nödtveidt, and Johan Norman don’t appear in the interview segments at all. The Dissection part of the home video is concluded by the promo video for ‘Where Dead Angels Lie’, which on the backsleeve of the video is misspells as ‘Where Dead Angles Lie’.

On all fronts the Dissection segment of the live recording is the superior shot of the two productions. Given the band’s bigger profile at the time (the band co-headlined with British dark metallers Cradle Of Filth, with support coming from Swedish then-melodic death metal band In Flames and Dimmu Borgir) it is not entirely unexpected that they were given a better stage sound and lightshow. Likewise does Dissection receive better filming and editing. Most members share equal screentime, only rhythm guitarist Johan Norman is often ignored in favor for lead guitarist Jon Nödtveidt. It’s apparent that Dissection on all fronts was a better-oiled machine and a tightly-knit unit compared to Dimmu Borgir’s semi-amateuristic showing on the same festival.

In all it was understandable that Nuclear Blast decided to scrap the “Live & Plugged” series at the dawn of the DVD format. Its contents and the dubious quality of the interviews did not justify the existence of the franchise. For what it attempted to accomplish “Live & Plugged” was functional at the very least. It was a budget line alternative to dedicated, single-band live recordings that offered a bit of everything for the casual fan. In light of the advent of widely-spread live recordings it was virtually inevitable that “Live & Plugged” was bound to become redundant, which it did. With the live aspect as its primary selling point the video has nothing resembling worthwhile additional footage. “Live & Plugged” was good for what it intended, but ultimately the brand didn’t proof resilient and strong enough to warrant further revisits.