By Nathanas Trismegistus

Vassafor – To the Death; released, on all formats, August 7, 2020 by (who else) Iron Bonehead Productions. Despite continuing to dwell in relative obscurity today, Vassafor has existed since the olden days – the strange aeons – of black metal. However, the New Zealand unit never released any music until 1997. After their first demo, imaginatively titled “Demo I”, the band split up, only to reform, in 2005, and release a second demo, also imaginatively titled “Demo II”. Vassafor would not release their first, proper full-length album until 2012, but the build-up to Obsidian Codex was marked by some concise, but interesting, EPs and a compilation, released by Dark Descent Records, which, I think, really put them on the map. After another vast gulf of time, Vassafor released their follow-up, Malediction, in 2017. And here we are, in 2020, with the third, full-length assault by the warrior-occultists; an oblique, diabolical deathmarch to bloodstained glory.

To describe Vassafor’s musical style merely as black/death would be inaccurate. There’s definitely a lot more going on here. Elements of doom and thrash (if you can believe it) also comprise the infernal landscape of Vassafor’s musical domain. Their riffing style is, of course, similar in nature to that of Black Witchery or Teitanblood; though, on this album the interplay of rhythm and lead guitars is more akin to what Teitanblood was trying to achieve with their latest release. The closest possible comparison I could make would be with fellow Kiwis, Diocletian. But, imagine if Diocletian wrote songs that were more melodic, far more varied, and considerably longer. Seriously Vassafor songs clock in anywhere from three-to-five-times the length of your average Diocletian track. One Vassafor track could contain all the movements of an entire Diocletian album and that’s not an exaggeration, I think. And the fact that Diocletian is far more popular than Vassafor is an injustice, in my opinion.

The opening – and titular – track expresses the premise of To the Death very well; it is dark, bellicose assertion of apocalyptic mysticism. Tracks 2 and 3 continue the trend of smothering anxiety. I would have said that To the Death was the most succinct and trimmed Vassafor album, simply due to the stellar pacing and brisk tempos, but track 4 does seem like ultimately pointless and redundant padding. Tack 5 has a vicious, aggressive attitude which I thoroughly enjoyed. Track 6 has a lecherous allure and discomfiting brightness to it, but the vocals are so qualitatively dissimilar that it is sort of distracting; though, this may be due to use of a guess vocalist (it’s anyone’s guess who it is). The closing track truly is a journey, and probably – between 2 and 5 – one of my favorite tracks. The only real departures I can detect in the style of this specific album are the weird, whispery vocal segments (when you listen to this album, you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about) which are so sparse one might wonder why they even bothered to include them. Certain riffs do culminate in an almost Baroquian fashion. This is also probably Vassafor’s least discordant album, or, rather, the riffs in To the Death alternate more frequently. One might be tempted to call it meandering and aimless composition, but I think this is, perhaps, only true to a lesser extent than previous offerings by the band. I think the songs reach a satisfying conclusion even though the listener might not immediately understand what that conclusion is. The songwriting, overall, is rather complex and, as a result, can be inscrutable. But, upon repeat listens, the point becomes increasingly evident.

The main issue I have with the production quality of Vassafor releases is that they simply have too much low end. They are all just overloaded with echoey bass, particularly with the percussion. And I get that this is a conscious, artistic choice and I wouldn’t begrudge them for achieving the sound that they are aiming to achieve. It is very murky, oppressive, and claustrophobic; but, it’s just not that dynamic. Certain musical artefacts, some of its personality, just gets kind of lost in the bellowing drone, and that might put off a lot of potential listeners. As much as I loved Nyogthaeblisz’s debut last year, it had a similar problem, and I know VK (the guitarist/bassist/vocalist of Vassafor) mastered that album, so he’s probably solely responsible. To be fair, though, the guitar leads (which are solid throughout) do manage to shimmer through the dour mix; and when it works, it does work well. Also, that ever-elusive analogue warmth is certainly present; this album feels like my taint after a trek through a sweltering, tropical rainforest (in a good way).

This album is the sonic equivalent of an atomic eruption, violently ascending, rending the clouds, and eclipsing the stars with baleful, thermonuclear refulgence. I would put To the Death at the same level as Malediction. Maybe a little higher. Technically better on certain fronts, especially the songwriting. It is definitely longer; in fact, it is the longest Vassafor release to date (if you don’t count the cassette version of Obsidian Codex). Just over sixty-five minutes of seething, despair-inducing, apocalyptic black/death metal. It has been a while since I listened to Obsidian Codex, so I’d have to go back and listen to it again, but for the purpose of this review I’ll go on record as saying that To the Death is the best Vassafor release yet. It is, without a doubt, the best release, in its category, this year. If it were up against, say, last year’s Sammath release, or even Hellvetron’s, then this would probably only get the bronze medal. (I do wish Vassafor would take notes from Sammath’s production quality.) LEAGUES better than Diocletian’s futile effort, though. Excellent work, nonetheless. I’ll buy it. Highly recommended listening, essential listening for this year!

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By Nathanas Trismegistus

Khthoniik Cerviiks – Æequiizoiikum; released July 17, 2020 by Iron Bonehead Productions. This is the sophomore album from the German trio (which is surprising given the complexity of some of the chords and harmonies present in their music). This album was not my first (third?) encounter with this band, nor was their first. My introduction to Khthoniik Cerviiks came in the form of their 2017 split with US-based band, Howls of Ebb (RIP)—their contribution titled “Voiidwarp”. (The significance of doubling the letter I’s which appear in their track and album titles is a mystery.) This, of course, prompted me to check out their other releases. Though I wasn’t too impressed by their older output, I am happy to give the band a second chance. And I am even happier to report that Æequiizoiikum exceeded my expectations.

Khthoniik Cerviiks’ 2015 debut, SeroLogikkal Scars (a copy of which I do own but I wouldn’t deign to guess how long it’s been since I gave it a spin), was a confused, muddled Frankenstein’s monster of an album, in my opinion. At one moment it was a hellish descent into a Marduk-esque black metal maelstrom; at others it was a Demilich- or Demigod-esque experimental surgery of off-kilter, technical death metal; and at other times it was an auspicious, Voivod-esque, progressive/thrash interstellar jaunt. It was really interesting, refreshing, and – dare I say – engaging; but, ultimately, it was an overwhelming clusterfuck. And maybe that’s impression it sought to achieve.

Æequiizoiikum is definitely an improvement—definitely a step in the right direction. This new album takes Khthoniik Cerviiks’ unique, arcane vision (known, perhaps, only to the band members themselves) and amplifies and refines it. There are definitely some bangers on this album. Tracks 3, 4, and 5 specifically stood out to me. Here we have yet another case of reversed sagging middle; the quality of the middle utterly eclipsing the beginning and the end. The last few tracks, I think, are really where this album falters. The tonal range on this album can really be quite staggering at times. The musical style apparent on this album, to which I’ve already alluded, is a pastiche of progressive thrash, technical death, and orthodox black metal. However, these elements are all reigned in to a degree which is far more palatable and stylistically coherent than ever before achieved by Khthoniik Cerviiks. Æequiizoiikum is just as unpredictable as their first album, but without leaving the listener exhausted and bewildered. The lyrical content, I can only assume (because I have not yet read the lyrics), beneath its obvious references to science fiction, deals with the reliance on and obsession with technology, and the resultant intellectual degradative effect it has on the humans which created it.

If I had any complaints about this album, it would be the sound of the drums, as well as, to a lesser extent, its performance. The bass sound is very modern, clicky, and tech-deathy. The high-hat sounds excessively compressed and way too and prominent in the mix. At times, it seems like the high-hat is the only cymbal being hit And, I’m sorry, but it all just doesn’t sound real to me. I see Khthoniik Cerviiks brought on a new drummer this year. Did he perform on this new album? Did any drummer perform on this album? While I’m on the topic of production, though, the bass sounds great by itself, but is rendered rather emaciated when the full mix kicks in. The guitar tone I can see being a massive deterrent to the misguided fans of the trve kvlt/nekro sound who follow me and might be reading this review in search of bands which fit that mold. It is very mid-focused and trebly. I would consider it smooth, polished, and almost glass-like or not unlike some space-age, high-tech plastic; very much in keeping with a more modern metal sound and the band’s lyrical themes. (I would like to put forward the motion that this style of music be henceforth referred to as black/death polymer.) The overall production quality is vastly improved from other Khthoniik Cerviiks offerings. Whereas SeroLogikkal Scars sounded markedly anemic and hollow, Æequiizoiikum sounds vastly fuller and more dynamic.

Æequiizoiikum is a death-defying, superluminal slingshot maneuver around a supermassive black hole into spatial dimensions unknown. Definitely recommended for fans of Artificial Brain, Chthe’ilist, Demigod, Demilich, Gorguts, Mithras, Nocturnus, StarGazer, Timeghoul, Vektor, and Voivod. If you’re just getting sick of the typical black and death metal affair continuously getting cranked out this year, I would deem it essential. Obviously, not the heartiest of approbations, only because I don’t think Kthoniik Cerviiks necessarily does anything that some of the aforementioned, analogous bands haven’t done better already. Regardless, check it out and decide for yourselves.

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By Nathanas Trismegistus

Necrobode – Sob o Feitiço do Necrobode (translates to “Under the Spell of the Goat Corpse”); released February 21, 2020 by Iron Bonehead Productions. Portugal, it seems, is trying to make a name for itself by distinguishing itself from the decidedly more popular Spanish black/death or bestial black metal scene. To forge its own path, so to speak. As is the case with this newcomer. Unfortunately, I do not believe they succeeded in their endeavor.

This is the band’s debut, although, I had listened to – and actually own a copy of – their demo, Metal Negro da Morte, which had more of that raw, aggressive energy and tone one would expect from such a band. It was, incidentally, also about the same length as this release. Sob o Feitiço do Necrobode is definitely more polished, strictly in terms of production, than their demo, which, in this case, unfortunately, does them no favors in this regard as the simplicity of their music and songwriting is laid bare for all to witness. It’s not that I expect complexity or intricacy from a bestial black metal band, but, in a genre as rampantly scaturient (and interminably expanding it seems) as this, you really need something to differentiate from the extensive list of near-identical bands. Trajeto de Cabra’s (despite the Portuguese name, the band is actually Canadian) forgettable release suffered the same fate last year, I think. Competition is fierce and you either leave an impression or join the countless forgotten bands in immemorial obsolescence.

 As I briefly mentioned, the songwriting is extremely basic. Common time (4/4) blast beats incessantly hammering away with bland, down-tuned, single-note, chromatic meanderings played over top. The bass is, of course, present and audible, adequately punching its way through the mix. The riffs do deign to, occasionally, enrapture the listener (as the title suggests), but not enough to justify the album as a whole. You will be tempted to nod along with head-bangers like tracks 1, 2, 6, 7, and 9 (which is admirable in a pathetic sort of way). Track 10 does end the album nicely with an ominous, monkish chant.

Overall, though I consider it a bit harsh for this album, Sob o Feitiço do Necrobode was just sort of mediocre. It was not terrible. It did not offend me. It did not anger me. I can’t even say that I’m ambivalent towards it. I feel nothing. It provoked little to no response from me. It’s a short release, so you won’t be wasting too much of your time by listening to it. It was certainly a valiant effort, but, if you’re looking to satisfy that bestial filth hunger, I would actually recommend you skip this one and go track down a copy of their demo. It’s more worthy of your time and money. Obviously, not essential.

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By Nathanas Trismegistus

Empire of the Moon – “Έκλειψις” (translated as “Eclipse”); released January 10, 2019 by Iron Bonehead Productions. I mean, did you really expect anyone else? Not even two weeks into the year and Iron Bonehead has published two albums on the same day (incidentally, both from Greek bands). I’m not a big Kawir fan, so I decided to forego reviewing their latest release in favor of the more obscure Empire of the Moon’s.

Empire of the Moon is a real throwback, in the best way possible, to classic Hellenic black metal bands like Varathron and Necromantia. They released a single, two-track demo, all the way back in 1997. And, for seventeen years, this band lied dormant. Producing absolutely nothing in the way of musical material. After this protracted stint of, no doubt, pensive silence, they unleashed a debut album, in 2014, which I don’t think anyone really even listened to (because I never hear anyone talk about it). It was really good, though. And if you haven’t listened to it, then I don’t know what you’re waiting for. An invitation? With this new album, Empire of the Moon continue the trend – started with “Πανσέληνος” (translated as “Full Moon”) – of naming their albums after lunar phenomena. It also functions as a proper successor and complement to the musical themes and styles set up thereby.

The vocals are shrill and acute, barring any chanted or dictated passages. Despite being a Greek band, and their album titles being in Greek, the song titles and lyrics themselves are in English and Latin—for some reason. Though the lyrics are of an esoteric nature, they are not an occult black metal band like Acherontas or Akrotheism. The riff-craft and composition are mid-paced, but sufficiently aggressive. Melody is present, but simple and interspliced or interplayed with beefy, chuggy rhythm. There is a sort of rocky feel throughout this album – especially in track 4 – which reminds me a lot of Dissection’s “Reinkaos”. Unlike the vast majority of black metal bands of the Scandinavian persuasion, Greek bands (and Empire of the Moon by extension) aren’t afraid to indulge in a little bit of lavish lead work and glib, genial guitar tone. There are some occasional symphonic and choral elements (which, if you’re familiar at all with my work, you know I generally find such elements to be annoying) scattered throughout, but they’re so infrequent and unobtrusive that they’re perfectly tolerable. If I had to think of an analogy to encapsulate Empire of the Moon’s musical style, I would describe it as a trance-like, euphoric, continuously rhythmic curbstomp against the steps of the Parthenon at dusk.

“Έκλειψις” is a black, hedonistic orgy of blasphemy, blood witchery, and murder. It starts strong and ends even stronger. Sink into some ambrosia or baklava, queue it up directly after “Πανσέληνος”, and let your spirit disembark on an 80-minute, noumenal odyssey through the underworld along the rapids of the river Phlegethon. Highly recommended. Essential for the true disciple of classic Hellenic black metal.