ANCIENT VVISDOM: 33

(MAGIC BULLET RECORDS/ARGONAUTA RECORDS; 2017)

Once again, my life has intersected with the occult band Ancient VVisdom, led by lyricist, vocalist and Satanist, Nathan “Opposition” Jochum. The group has released three previous albums (including my introduction to the group, 2014’s SACRIFICIAL), as well as a notorious single-sided split with Charles Manson. Yes… THAT Charles Manson. The guy who is rumored to have written a tune or three with the Beach Boys’ Dennis Wilson. So, with a name like that and lyrics like that and a pedigree like that, their new record, 33, should be heavy enough to have its own gravitational pull. And, it is that heavy… except in the delivery. Antithetical to SACRIFICIAL, this is an album of mid-tempo, near-folk Gothic rock with acoustic guitars aplenty, minimal percussion and an almost soothing vocal performance. Sure, there are plenty of recognizable metal tropes on 33, with enough reference points to keep any headbanging historian ooh-ing and aah-ing but, the heaviness doesn’t come from any crushing musical fury; rather, the true heaviness comes from Jochum’s belief in what he’s singing. Whether you are – like Nathan himself – a true believer in the power of Lucifer or – like yours truly – a follower of Christ, you can feel the man’s fervor and… well, love for the subject matter. And, wherever you fall within that wide spectrum of beliefs, that emotional connection between Jochum and his own belief system makes for a very heavy – and very real – listening experience.

The genesis of the album is a fairly simple one. As Nathan explains, “33 is a master number. It is also the age Christ was crucified. 33 is the age of the peak of existence. It is the age I am. 33 is the answer.” With that concept in mind, Jochum – along with his brother, guitarist Michael (the Dark Angel) and new bass player, Connor Metsker – created his ultimate peaen to the Dark Lord, the first new music from Ancient Vvisdom in three years. Admittedly, it may sound a little strange to hear love songs to Satan but, again, with Nathan’s fervent beliefs laid bare, the lyrics aren’t as disagreeable as you might think. The album opener, “Ascending Eternally,” is a minor key piano piece which serves as a short, atmospheric intro to “Light of Lucifer,” a kind of space hippie, semi-acoustic dirge that – more than anything else – recalls very early Pink Floyd. With nearly whispered vocals, a wicked, droney vibe and the underlying philosophy of “less is more,” the track definitely gets the record off to a great start. “In the Name of Satan” has a Sabbath-like riff that’s dense enough to caulk Tony Iommi’s entire house. And, yet… even with that heavy riffage on display, as well as some rather hefty percussion (Nathan, again proving that less is indeed more, offers nothing more than a lead foot – or, perhaps, a Led foot? – to the pedal of a kick drum to produce the perfect percussive part for the song) and some Maidenesque twin guitar leads over the top, the number seems to be a near-balladic love song. Hearkening back to the last album, Jochum’s vocals are a nasally cross between Klaus Meine and Ozzy Osbourne. With the band seemingly working its way through every conceivable metal touchstone, “True Will” is Metallica’s “One,” with all of that band’s angst removed… just to prove it can be done! It features more of Nathan’s fine acoustic work floating through some great lead work from Michael. If possible, the vocals are even more understated than on “Light of Lucifer,” making the track that much more powerful. “The Infernal One” is very groove-oriented and much more of a ‘90s alt-rock sort of thing – it comes off as an oddly appealing cross between Soundgarden and Manowar, with kind of a ‘70s arena rock guitar solo thrown in for good measure. It’s actually not a bad song at all, though it seems a bit short at less than three minutes.

Ancient VVisdom (Connor Metsker, Nathan Jochum, Michael Jochum) (publicity photo)

The bass-heavy slab of Sabbath-cum-Metallica-cum-Gothic instrumental moodiness, “Summoning Eternal Light,” gives Connor Metsker a chance to shine (no pun intended). Like similar tracks from Geezer and Cliff, it works well as a stand alone piece or as an intro to the next number. Here, that number is “Rise Fallen Angel,” which features still more Sabbath crunch with Dio-like lyrics of mysticism and spiritualism, while visions of the mighty Priest (along with Cirith Ungol, Diamond Head and Night Demon) dance in your head. It may not be a masterpiece, but it is close. “33is the one where the group (and, in particular, Nathan Jochum’s vocal performance) revisits that weird Blue Oyster Cult/Donald “Buck Dharma” Roeser world of heavy ballads. The only thing missing is an actual drummer; far be it from me to question such decisions but, that one missing factor could have possibly pushed the entire album over the top. As is, though, the return to the heavily BOC-influenced SACRIFICIAL sound may also make “33,” lyrically, the most powerful song on the record. Having stumbled upon the BOC comparison, I am now hearing more evidence that the Jochum boys owe more than a fleeting nod to that august court. On “The Great Beast,” the vocals have settled into a nice pop-rock niche, while the music adds a wickedly cool swamp vibe to the proceedings. This track is definitely in the running for my favorite on the album. “Lux” starts off with a languid, melancholic slice of Americana before the song proper kicks in, a languid, melancholic slice of Americana, with self-affirming lyrics and a chorus that pleads – or warns – “Don’t give yourself away.” I gotta say that the further I head into 33, the better it sounds. A short, chilling piano piece called “Dispelling Darkness” closes the album. Echo-drenched and sustain-heavy, the thing may be the single most disturbing piece of music I’ve heard this year. I wonder how it would have sounded if it had been fleshed out into a full band arrangement with suitably maudlin lyrics. Ah, well… one can dream, can’t one? 33 may not be Nathan Jochum and Ancient Vvisdom’s magnum opus, but… it is one fine record.


GREY SKIES FALLEN: THE MANY SIDES OF TRUTH

(Xanthros Music; 2014)

TMSoT Blue

THE MANY SIDES OF TRUTH is the sixth release by New York’s Grey Skies Fallen (the previous five are offered as free downloads at the band’s website, www.greyskiesfallen.com). The album, clocking in at less than 40 minutes, is as varied as the region from which the band hails. The overall feel is epic metal, but there are also brilliant swatches of doom, progressive and folk – elements that push to the fore in totally unexpected ways and at unexpected times throughout the course of the seven tunes. Whether this adventurous envelope-pushing is due to the maturity that comes from nearly 20 years as a band or from the two new members (Joe Sanci and Tom Anderer, guitar/vocals and bass, respectively) is a subject that I’ll leave to be debated by others; the salient point here is this: Is the record any good? Well…

The opening track, “Ritual of the Exiter,” is close to ten minutes of virtually perfect progressive folk metal. It starts in a slow, hypnotic fashion, with kinda creepy, mantric-like vocals buried low in the mix. Nearly half way through, the song proper is introduced, featuring two voices: One clean, the other harsh with a weird, robotic quality. Stun-gun guitars – the type popularized by Zak Wylde and other like-minded players – are on open display before breaking off into a quiet interlude. The respite, sweet though it is, is short, as a powerful Maidenesque instrumental section – complete with keyboards and full-throated chants – charges to its terminus. The drums and guitars are top-notch throughout, making for a fine opening salvo.

Grey Skies Fallen (publicity photo)

Grey Skies Fallen (publicity photo)

The next track encompasses the next three tunes. Acting as a prelude, “Unroot Transparent Being” reminds me of the opening guitar passages of Metallica’s ”One.” The instrumental features some very nice keyboard work, as well, but nothing more – no bass, no drums. Staying in a Classic Rock frame of mind, the guitar and the groove of “The Flame” brings to mind “Right Now” from Van Halen’s FOR UNLAWFUL CARNAL KNOWLEDGE album, while the vocals are more reminscent of Conrad Lant (Cronos of the English metal horde, Venom). In an odd (but very much appreciated) move for a band like Grey Skies Fallen, this portion of the triumvirate of mayhem is very keyboard heavy. Naturally, that leads into an atmospheric piano intro – rather like the score of an old Gothic movie – to “Of the Ancients,” a majestically evil sounding power metal piece with a well placed clean vocal performance.

A gentle, pastoral guitar piece, “Isolation Point” is full of echo and sustain and awash in feedback that somehow shimmers as it morphs into the main body of track three, a song called “End of My Rope.” This part of the suite careens forward in a bestial manner, with great, gutteral vocals before retreating slightly with a more epic sounding second half featuring clean vocals. “Winter Hand” is a more frenzied and disjointed refrain of the intro piece. This record works on so many levels that checking the “metalhead” box on your resume is not a prerequisite to total enjoyment. The technical efficiency of the players alone is worth the investment; the incredible music is simply a bonus.


SCYTHIA: …OF CONQUEST

(SELF-RELEASED; 2014)

Of Conquest Art

Canadian metal-merchants Scythia’s third full-length album (and fifth release overall, including a Christmas single called – what else? – …OF SANTA) is an impressive display of power, melding progressive metal with ancient folk balladry and a medieval Dio-like mysticism in an hour-long conceptual piece, recalling the nomadic Scythians, a people who, through the second century, inhabited what is now Central Asia. The breadth and scope of this epic piece (the twelve tracks flow seamlessly together) lays out like a latter-day heavy metal primer, touching on everyone from fellow Canuckians Rush to Iron Maiden to Kamelot to Lamb of God and everything from power metal to pagan folk metal to orchestral metal. In other words, if you’re a metal-head, this is the album for you!

Scythia (Dave Khan,Celine Derval, Jeff Black, Terry Savage) (photo credit: CRYSTAL LEE/VANDALA CONCEPTS)

Scythia (Dave Khan,Celine Derval, Jeff Black, Terry Savage) (photo credit: CRYSTAL LEE/VANDALA CONCEPTS)

Fanfare 1516” opens, offering an epic Maiden sound. Dave Khan’s vocals, in particular, brings to mind the powerful voice of Bruce Dickinson. As the first song melds into “Merchant of Sin,” the comparison momentarily shifts to late ’80s/early ’90s Alice Cooper (TRASH and HEY STOOPID) before the progressive power metal evokes the mighty Maiden. Lyrically, a nod to the legendary Ronnie James Dio, as “Bear Claw Tavern” blends a Saga-like pomp rock sound with a cool Irish reel vibe. Bassist Terry Savage adds his harsh vocal delivery to the track, sounding very much like Conrad Lant (better known as the leather-throated Cronos) of famed black thrash metal icons, Venom. There’s a wickedly funny video of the song available at the band’s web-site (www.scythia.ca), proving that, while the music is seriously good, the band doesn’t take themselves too seriously. Later, “Reflections,” again ramps up the pomposity – in a kinda Rush overload – and introduces a female voice to the mix (drummer Celine Derval perhaps, or a guest vocalist?). “The Kraken,” amazingly enough, is heavier than anything yet heard on …OF CONQUEST, with an abundance of power chords and drums that relentlessly pummel your brainpan ’til you’re fairly certain that you can feel gray matter oozing out of your ears. “Into the Storm” follows suit before the folky, Maidenesque “Land of Scythia” brings you back to the ancient, legendary feel of the album. There’s plenty of guitar shredding, harmony work (everything overdubbed by Khan, the only guitarist in Scythia), nice acoustic playing and rhythm work on this record, but for me, the solo on “Land of Scythia” stands out as one of the best. “Wrath of the Ancients” is yet another progressive piece, with definite Kamelot overtones and an acoustic part that reminds me of Ritchie Blackmore’s work with his band, Blackmore’s Night. “Path Through the Labyrinth” is a 13 minute tour-de-force, incorporating every style and genre previously mentioned in this review (and a few others, to boot!), with layers of textured guitars and keyboards (by musical wunderkind, Jeff Black). It may not be the centerpiece of the album (as most longer tunes are), but for pure pomposity, it does have everything that you could possibly want in a metal record. …OF CONQUEST is the kind of record that you can listen to over and over again and evoke a different emotion each time. And, that, good friends, is a good thing!