Cold Steel Dawn: November’s Onslaught
It’s quite fitting that the season of witchcraft, evil spirits, and supernatural mischief is followed by that of solemn reverence for the dead. In a way, they have never really left us as much as they have simply become quieter to suit the occasion. Quite a few of the bands both me and B. Wold cover thankfully don’t have too many dead musicians, but it’s a shame many of them disbanded. Here are five forgotten gems buried beneath the graves of those better known. For those looking for the more eccentric end of old school heavy metal, this is where your voyage begins.
რკინის რაინდი – ინგრევა მონობის კოშკი (Independent, 1991)
If the funny looking characters making up the band’s name didn’t tip you off that this band is from Georgia the country rather than Georgia the state, you probably didn’t even try to read their name. რკინის რაინდი (Georgian for “Iron Knight”) hailed from the same town in Georgia that Stalin did, but despite their tough name and some imagery building on the recently-fallen Soviet Union, their sound has a lot more in common with an even more keyboard-driven Rainbow with perhaps a bit of early Yngwie influence than with anything more militant. The riffing itself is incredibly melodic and is accompanied by a powerful, charismatic vocalist who beautifully compliments both the more peaceful, dreamy parts as well as the more driving ones. The unusual nature of the music is apparent right from the melancholic synth-and-singing introduction to the first song, with the synths acting both as atmospheric backing and as the leading melody at different points, creating a curious offset to riffs that range between plodding vocal-backing and neoclassical shredding. This album fills a niche for me that I have trouble finding in traditional metal in general, utilizing a big arena rock edge without losing metallic punch; the mood is superb, and I adore the smooth production paired with surprisingly well-handled keyboards. In general, excessive melody is a turnoff for me in metal, but these Georgians pulled it off with a flair for memorable, catchy songwriting and for solid composition that stands as a stark contrast against the weakness of their second album, which took all of the melody of this one and dialed it up even more while dialing down the metal in favor of a simpler and poppier rock sound. The only real weak point here is the boring ballad that closes the album.
Stonefield – The Eyes Of The Dawn (Switzerland, 1988)
Here’s another big, synth-filled slab of Rainbow worshipping melodic heavy metal for your ears, though this time, it’s a bit easier to follow due to being sung in English. The riffs range from slow, powerful epic stuff a la Dark Quarterer’s less progressive songs to some slightly more aggressive (relatively, at least) power metal, such as on parts of my favorite song from the release, “Bread and Games.” Some passages would slot perfectly into a Rainbow song, right down to the vocals, creating a nice offset to the other material on the EP; there’s a pleasant amount of variety that’s uncommon to hear without losing individual identity, but Stonefield really pulled it off. As with რკინის რაინდი, sometimes the big synths take a glorious forefront to the music, leading it instead of trying to just fill it out- there are even keyboard solos. While there’s not a tremendous amount of heavy metal that really manages to integrate such large synth playing successfully into their music without sacrificing something fundamental to my enjoyment, Stonefield only lose me at a couple of brief points in the EP, for the most part managing to remain as effortlessly catchy as the bands they clearly worshiped. I also really enjoy their willingness to change up tempo a lot, since I’ve always been a fan of slower heavy metal tracks as much as I am a fan of the ripping ones. The Eyes Of The Dawn ends on an anthemic nine-minute-long title track that combines a lot of the best elements of the slower songs before it, marking an excellent ending to an excellent mLP.
Магнит (Magnit) – День гнева (Dies Irae) (Мелодия, 1988)
You probably didn’t come to this special for neoclassical power metal but here we are with one of the first post Malmsteen style bands to mix double kick buttressed streamlined riffing and Tchaikovsky esque fretboard fireworks. Magnit’s particular brand of power metal can be fairly fast paced, similar to Accept’s fastest moments and Helloween circa both Keepers albums, but there’s a highly articulate sense of melody woven through each one with guitarists often spicing up verses with tasteful neoclassical licks and cheap sounding if charmingly antiquated keyboard embellishment. However as would be the norm for power from the 90’s onwards, a stronger emphasis on vocal-guitar harmony is emphasized and thankfully, both of their singers do quite a strong job. Sergei gets the faster and riff-heavy songs where his raw delivery, in a similar realm as Walls of Jericho add a roughness to otherwise delicately played power metal like on “Work” and “Keep the Fire,” but on “Eleonora” he really shines in his ability to stress lower notes in a way I imagine most will describe as soulful.
On the other end, Karen makes better use of his finesse in tracks like “Memorandum” with its snappy verses giving away to quick bursts of banshee shrieks and rousing calls in “Nostalgia,” but his defining moment is the nearly seven-minute “We Exist Without Feeling Our Land Underneath”, an abysmal journey into depression and madness that sees him hitting window-shattering heights over stone-eyed single-note angular riffing, gradually letting airy melodies drift like smoke. Yet these are but a prelude to some genuinely terrifying howls that would go all the way up to Mount Olympus, communicating a sense of agony and terror so vivid not even the tacky, first wave black metal tier production job can hold them back. This song otherwise doesn’t actually fit on the album in terms of style but it’s too damn cool for me to give any kind of genuine musical criticism. The band would become Credo (Кредо) afterwards and release one album in 1990 that basically was a more inconsistent version of this but yeah, stick with this.
Witchsmeller Pursuivant – Manifest of Evil (Shiver Records, 2008)
Obscure and evil heavy metal reaching back into the realms of lurid pulpiness and horror defined by groups like Cloven Hoof, Angel Witch, Sortilege, D’ianno era Iron Maiden, and of course, Mercyful Fate. Some may recognize Luther Veldmark’s distinctly bizarre swaying bellows from King Heavy’s 2015 self-titled debut ,though here his voice is a bit rawer and lacks some of the same finesse. In terms of songwriting Witchsmeller Pursuivant play a rough and tumble riff-heavy style, bordering speed metal on a few occasions albeit with a gloomy doom vibe that pervades the dense atmosphere and Luther’s powerful, chanting voices. While it’s pretty simple songwriting wise, the combination of abrupt rhythmic changes and bizarre, occasionally quite unhinged singing makes for something that sounds considerably more deranged than the usual “retro” bands you’ll hear on Nuclear Blast or Century Media.
What singer Luther might lack in consistency of tone he compensates for in his wide range of character, perfect for the band’s love of sudden twists and turns in their songwriting. “Feel / Know / Fear” starts like an ominous if fairly catchy gallop before morphing into a buzzing single string racing riff, but then that short, almost punkish chorus comes in with Luther wildly snarling out the song title as the band accelerates to extreme thrashing speeds, throwing itself wildly off course. “Heavy as Fuck” jumps between gutsy stomping verses definitely created to induce serious fistpumping that break away for a long dancing lead that almost sounds like it came out of Slauter Xstroyes’ playbook. Meanwhile the album’s second 6+ minute epic, “One Hundred Percent Scar Tissue” sees them pushing their Mercyful Fate influences to the forefront as cleanly played guitar and Luther’s wobbly, condescending singing gives way to a threatening bellow and meaty, lurching riffs even as the chaotic soloing section that momentarily splits them can’t stop them from closing in on their hapless prey for its crushing last minutes. A perfect album for some Halloween hijinks and what would probably be the weirdest heavy metal karaoke ever.
Restless Breed – No Walls Can Hold (Stormspell Records, 2012)
When was the last time you heard an 80’s power metal band open up an album with blast beats? This 15-song compilation comprises three demos from 1987 to 1989, showcasing one of the most savage bands from the original American school of power metal. Fast paced skank beats and abrupt shifts in rhythmic patterns and speed define the first eight songs and are by and far the band at their most distinct. While groups like Attacker and Helstar definitely did break new ground for how hard hitting power metal could be, Restless Breed go a step further as they throttle the user with faster riffs that wouldn’t be out of place on a Heathen or Forbidden album, frequently breaking into muscular half-time riffing that doesn’t so much give the song breathing room as much as it sets one up to be violently yanked back into a tornado of manic thrashing. It helps a lot that the singer reminds of an angrier Matt Barlow who ignored his Iced Earth operatic approach for an insidious, outright homicidal snarl that manages to add quite a bit of grit to an otherwise clear, commanding voice. However, the last stretch of the album, made of their earliest material, is tamer, lacking both the tenacity and musicianship that preceded it. Back to back, the static rhythms immediately stand out and not in a good way; the riffing is far too consistent in phrasing and leads to a lot of flat-sounding rhythmic topography. Still, the first half of this alone makes the album worth it for USPM aficionados.