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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!

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“Dusk… and Her Embrace”, the second official Cradle Of Filth album, was significant from moving the band out of its death/thrash metal roots, and squarely into symphonic – and gothic metal territory. Where the previous outing at least attempted to infuse its metal with a Hammer Horror atmosphere, “Dusk… and Her Embrace”, befitting of the Victorian-vampyric concept that its center, romantic above all else. Despite the album’s convincing visuals and superficialities “Dusk…and Her Embrace” has no lineage with, or connection to black metal. First and foremost it is an extreme metal album, one with links mostly in death -, thrash – and traditional metal styles.

“Dusk… and Her Embrace” is a loose concept album about vampyrism. The lyrics were inspired by the literature of Sheridan Le Fanu, in particular the “Carmilla” novel (which served as an inspiration to everybody from Jess Franco Manera to Ann Rice). The subtitle ‘Litanies of Damnation, Death and the Darkly Erotic’ concisely summarizes the lyrical content of the album. The lyrics retain part of the anti-Christian sentiment but the focus squarely lies on the erotica, vampirism and romance from this point forward. It was the recording debut of second guitarist John Piras (Gian Pyres) and the one but last record to feature vocal contributions from early backing singer Danielle Cneajna Cottington. "Dusk... and Her Embrace" was the last Cradle Of Filth album before Davey's overt usage of British humor and self-aware puns, linguistic and otherwise.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p4ZLzpVdF5g

One of the greatest improvements that the band experienced was the sheer flow of the material. “Dusk… and Her Embrace” breaks free from the conventional playing that characterized “The Principle Of Evil Made Flesh”. Here the super bass licks, played by Robin Eaglestone, follow the keyboards instead of doubling the guitars. Stuart Anstis, who debuted on the “V Empire” EP, infuses the band with a healthy amount of traditional metal riffing. Last but certainly not least had drummer Nick Barker come into his own, and “Dusk… and Her Embrace” is his finest moment with the band. Frontman Dani Davey wrote some of his most verbose lyrics while integrating a wide array of vocal styles, including his standard shrieks, grunts, whispers and narration.

‘Humana Inspired to Nightmare’ and ‘Malice Through the Looking Glass’ were written entirely by the new members. ‘Beauty Slept In Sodom’ was originaly called ‘Beauty Sleeps In Sodom’. ‘Funeral in Carpathia’ and ‘Haunted Shores’ are the only truly fast tracks of the album. ‘Heaven Torn Asunder’ is the most straight-up anti-religious whereas ‘Beauty Slept In Sodom’ is the Christian creation parable of Genesis set to prose of vampirism and erotica. ‘Haunted Shores’ is about the Arthurian legend, and functions as a tribute to their home country England. It includes guest narration by British legend Conrad Lant (Cronos) from UK proto-black metal institution Venom.

In an odd turn of events history seemed to repeat itself. As before external factors put the record in jeopardy, and Davey had to overcome legal and personnel hurdles in order to regain control over the authenticity of his product. The album had a troubled two-year production history with the formative work being laid down by previous guitarist duo Paul Allender and Ryan. The original version of “Dusk… and Her Embrace” was recorded in 1995 with most of the “Principle Of Evil Made Flesh” line-up. Ongoing legal proceedings with Cacophonous Records subsequently schismed the band in two opposing camps leaving the record in legal limbo. Paul and Benjamin Ryan along with Paul Allender meanwhile formed The Blood Divine.

As Davey’s half (consisting of himself, Nicholas Barker, and Robin Eaglestone) was embroided in said litigations it was decided to produce the “V Empire” EP as a means to wrangle the "Dusk... and Her Embrace" album recordings out of its existing, and yet to be fulfilled, contract with Cacophonous Records. After winning the court case against its former contractor the original recordings of “Dusk… and Her Embrace” were used by Davey’s part of the band as leverage to negotiate a new and hopefully better recording deal between them and interested labels. Chief among those involved in the bidding war surrounding Cradle Of Filth were British label imprints Earache Records and Music For Nations.

Upon inking a mutual satisfactory agreement with new label home Music For Nations the original “Dusk… and Her Embrace” recordings were relegated to the band vaults where they have remained ever since. As the new members put their spin on what the prior line-up had written the necessary preparations were made to re-record “Dusk… and Her Embrace” a second time. With part of the original content used in the quickly put together “V Empire” EP the band wrote new material to accomodate the remainder of the initially scheduled material. Once the deal with Music For Nations was in place the band re-recorded the freshly rewritten - and newly composed tracks in 1996.

During the second recording sessions a cover of Slayer classic ‘Hell Awaits’, a re-recording of the preceding EP’s ‘Nocturnal Supremacy’ and the instrumental ‘Carmilla’s Masque’ were laid down along with material intended for the album. These featured on the Japanese print of the album exclusively. The complete “Dusk… and Her Embrace” album session would thus include 14 tracks: 9 originals that appear on the final version of the record, plus the duo of ‘Queen Of Winter, Throned’ and ‘Nocturnal Supremacy’ (as they appeared on the preceding “V Empire” EP), along with the two instrumentals ‘She Mourns A Lenghtening Shadow’ and ‘Carmilla’s Masque’ along with the earlier mentioned Slayer cover ‘Hell Awaits’.

After two sessions at Academy Studios the band decided to change locations. “Dusk… and Her Embrace” was recorded at DEP International Studios in Birmingham with Kit Woolven (most famous for his work with Irish classic rock act Thin Lizzy) producing along with Mike Exeter and Dan Sprigg engineering. With a classic rock and pop producer behind the console the production changed accordingly. “Dusk… and Her Embrace” is blessed with a smooth, bassy production that is crystal clear but warm and organic sounding. The cover photography by Simon Marsden is stylistically similar to that of Nigel Wingrove of the preceding two records. The record contains shots of the succubi models Luna, Michelle, Rochelle, and Susie. The CD and LP use different shots for the dinner table band shot, with the model being topless for the vinyl edition.

It goes without saying that the originally intended incarnation of the album is radically different from what it would eventually become in its existing form. The current version of the album is far stronger, mostly due to a complete lack of filler material, than how the album was originally intended. Whether the original recordings of "Dusk... and Her Embrace" will ever see the light of day remains yet to be seen. The album sold in excess of 100,000 copies in Europe alone, and was extensively bootlegged on the East-European market with various labels releasing cassette versions of the album. The Polish 1997 print by Metal Mind Productions even includes the Japanese bonus tracks. It goes without saying that it is rightly a classic piece of European extreme metal, regardless of its troubled conception.