Wednesday, 8 September 2010
The infamous Fenriz has been on a bit of a 'true' metal crusade of late, championing many bands he believes to be keeping the 'flame of old' burning. One of these bands is the Washington five piece, Christian Mistress. Having just been signed to 20 Buck Spin on the back of their critically acclaimed demo last year, their debut album has just hit the shelves and is a piece of traditional heavy metal straight from the textbooks of Warlock and Judas Priest. In short, 'Agony & Opium' is six, to the point tracks of pure refined classic heavy metal, centred around duelling guitar leads and the sharp vocal performance of frontwoman Christine Davis.
Straight from the off, the twin guitar attack of 'Riding on the Edges' lets you know what you're up against. The vocals then come in and are reminiscent of an amalgamation of Doro and Dawn Crosby. Technically, the vocals are pretty below par, but it's the absolute grit and honesty they are delivered with that makes them so fantastic. They may be frayed around the edges, but then again in metal's golden era, what wasn't? I'll take vocals like these over processed, commercialised Lacuna Coil clones any day of the week. The vocals are surprisingly infectious, take for example the chorus of 'Desert Rose' or the ending verse to 'Home in the Sun', I find it very hard not to involuntarily sing along to half this album even while writing this. 'Desert Rose' is an absolute stormer of a track, one of the highlights of the album with Christine's vocals over the NWOBHM-esque twin guitar leads of Ryan and Oscar tearing their way through the song. Finishing up with a fitting, tasteful solo of which there are many throughout the album, never entering the territory of aimless masturbation, if you didn't know otherwise you'd swear blind these guy were thirty years older than the really are. And that is most certainly a good thing. The bass is fairly prominent in the album, at times utilising the famous Harris gallop, and others retaining a more conventional style and holding up the rest of the music.
The B side to the album is just as strong as the A, if not even more so. 'Poison Path' is the only song which is retained from the demo, and is given to customary facelift to album standards, and has a heavy Diamond Head vibe to the whole thing. 'Black Vigil' again is three short minutes dripping with the intensity of the eighties and before you know it you're at the last track already. It isn't long in coming, the album is short, but the sheer enjoyment you get from this unfortunately just accentuates this. 'Omega Stone' starts out extremely slow, almost ballad like. 'Heresy!' you say? Not quite, for it is done tastefully and is possibly Christine's best performance on the album. It kicks up gear towards the middle of the song and sends the album out in a blaze with duelling solos, galloping basslines and frenetic drumming. The drumming on the album is the only thing which could be described as being 'standard', holding together well, dictating the tempo of the album. Not that it's a complaint, but when set against the rest of the musicians, it's hard to focus on anything else but them.
Christine may be no Doro, but she certainly has the balls to cut it with the rest of them, When you get a song which makes you want to clench your fist and sing along, you know you're on to a good thing, and there's six of them here.
Unfortunately the thing with Christian Mistress is, with a raw DIY production like this, they will never break into the 'big time', which is a crying shame. Twenty five years ago it would be a whole different story, and this is why metal in the underground continues to trounce the tame sterilized muck being passed off as Classic Metal these days by the major parties, because it lacks the most important thing of all; heart.
One thing Christian Mistress are not is subdued, they're a band doing what they love and not bowing to any trends or pressure, and for that I love it. For anyone who appreciates their metal littered with shredding leads and the fire of the eighties, then I don't think I need to say much more than go out and get this.
Al-Namrood are relatively recent on the scene. They play a brutal form of symphonic black metal with a twist. What is this so called 'twist' I hear you say? Well rather than playing on their new Casio's they got for Christmas and trying to emulate Dimmu Borgir, Al-Namrood are rather more attached to their roots, infusing black metal with wisps of traditional Middle Eastern folk music. Upon hearing they came from the metal wasteland that is Saudi Arabia, my interest was peaked. Although unlike many other countries, Saudi Arabia has it's own socio-political factors as to why metal isn't a widely performed genre in the country. Considering public music performance is banned in Saudi Arabia and 'Western-ised' music is still heavily taboo, it is extremely surprising to come across a band playing a genre which is built upon anti-religious sentiments and nihilism. Considering this, it is refreshing to see them breaking the mould and bearing the flag for the genre's future in the country, as these guys and Mephisophilus (who are the same guys) are the first black metal band to have a release of this nature from the country.
'Atba'a' Al-Namrood' is the name of the EP which is the band's debut offering. It clocks in at a short twenty minutes, and opener 'Atba'a Al-Namrood' sets the mood and atmosphere perfectly with its simmering, ethnic introduction, and combined with the drumming which is a mixture of traditional Middle-Eastern patterns and more typical metal rhythms which are used with tact and refrain from ever entering pretentious territory. Much more invigorating than the usual aimless blasting or lazy programming so common with naïve, fledgling black metal bands. The guitars are set very low in the mix and completely overpowered by the vocals. This is the stand out problem of the release. Just when there's an interesting passage with everything else, the vocals come in and completely smother everything else beneath them, suffocating all the instruments in the mix, and most notably on the guitar as it already sounds like a swarm of bees in a can. The guitar does get to shine a bit more on the second track 'Fe Zafraz Almouz' as the vocals are less oppressive, and it's pretty much standard fare tremolo picking and slow dirges which hark back to the likes of Celtic Frost. The vocals are sufficient, nothing more nor less really. They do enough to fit the music, with Mukadars opting for a more restrained, sinister style rather than all out aggression. When they aren't completely overpowering, such as in tracks two or four, they are certainly enjoyable. 'Fe Zafraz Almouz' would be the strongest song on this release, as the folk style is used to good effect with the steady riffing and drumming. One of the main problems with this EP is the guitar, whereas it is actually fairly interesting in track two where you can hear it clearly, it is also incredibly amateurish in tracks one and three, incorporating all of the traits of 'bedroom' black metal everywhere, with that heavy hanging static sound which sounds as if there's only one or two notes being played for much of the song. Don't get me wrong though, I'm not comparing the actual band to any of your 'Johnny-come-lately' one man cookie cutter's, they're a lot more talented than that. It's just the guitar work one song is completely uninspired, and the next it is in a different league altogether, The last track 'Youm Tusar Nar Aljaheem' is along with track two, the strongest here. The guitar here has a distinct arabic feel to it as well and along with the keys create an extremely fantastic atmosphere, it's almost as if this song could be the soundtrack to some ancient demon summoning in Arabic lore. The vocals keep their place well, and helps set a fitting closer to the EP.
The drumming and the atmosphere on this release are certainly the strong points. The guitar work is too inconsistent, where one minute it's considerably varied, playing some Middle Eastern inspired riff, the next it's playing derivative dross you'd expect to hear from a spotty 'misunderstood' middle class teenager sitting in his bedroom. The vocals are competent enough for the release when they aren't drowning everything else in the song, and considering it's the bands first effort and the country it's from, they certainly get plus marks for that. Bass is non-existent, even though there is a bass player credited in the linear notes. It is more than likely the awful production has nullified any bass presence.
It is fantastic to hear of bands like these starting to make waves out of countries like Saudi Arabia, and more-so whenever they are incorporating music from their own culture, and this will certainly play into their hands in the future if they keep with this concept, but on the basis of this EP they need to work on the basics of black metal before improving on anything else. Remove the lacklustre guitar riffs which crop up and concentrate on developing a sound like that of the fourth track. Some slight variation or distinguishing factor in the vocals wouldn't go amiss either nor would some more bass on the drumming. Adding the one thing which is missing completely, bass guitar would definitely be a wise move, because if Al-Namrood are going for a Middle Eastern sound, then they should take note from other 'warm' sounding black metal bands such as those from the Hellenic scene as bass is paramount to their sound and I certainly feel it would be a significant cog in the sound they are aiming for. If they were to follow these they will certainly begin to go places.
As of writing this review, the band have two full lengths out, so I believe they must be doing something right, and I will most certainly check those out based on the merits of this release, but based on 'Atba'a Al Namrood' there is ample room for significant improvement to the metal side of their sound, but that can almost be forgiven considering they come from a country who's first metal release on came out in 1999. Well there's one thing that lots of people believe, and that's the best black metal comes from countries with the harshest landscapes and political/religious histories.. Lets see if that's true then?