What did you get into metal for? It’s a big question.
Was it for the gritty realism and the rebellion against bores, teachers, parents and authority?
Or on the other side of the (same) coin – to be taken away to other worlds on flights of fancy?
Let’s be honest: why we love metal is because it can be both those things.
And so I’d like to use this From The Vaults to reminisce a little about an album that I consider to be among the heights of underground metal fantasia – the huge, bombastic and almost impossibly OTT album that was the highlight of Bal Sagoth’s career.
The Sheffield band, on Cacophonous Records, had been toiling as a dark, deeply esoteric underground concern until they released this.
When it dropped, in 1996, people literally couldn’t believe their ears. It was an actual, rare, mind blower.
I remember vividly listening with absolute focus to this album in headphones as the guitars wove their way ever more intricately through the stories and sagas this band told of – and being just transported by it.
Walking to school with it was like walking through the Mines of Moria.
Everything Longer Than Everything Else
Even the name was pompous: ‘Starfire Burning Upon The Ice Veiled Throne Of Ultima Thule’ as a title.
There were tracknames like “And Lo, When the Imperium Marches Against Gul-Kothoth, Then Dark Sorceries Shall Enshroud the Citadel of the Obsidian Crown (Episode: VIII)”.
That looks daft on paper. In retrospect it makes Nile look sensible.
But there was method in Bal Sagoth’s madness, because this language actually worked, in the context of this fantastical album.
The thing about it was that, like a Tolkien or Pratchett book, it was its own world. It had its own vocabulary, its own mythos, it’s own images.
And its massive swathes of keyboards and battle stories just begged for you to lose yourself within.
A Frenetic Attack
Many fantasy metal albums can do that.
What marks this one out however is its freneticism, which even at an outrageous 20 years old, still manages to take your breath.
The many, many changes of pace in any one track – take for example ‘To Dethrone the Witch-Queen of Mytos K’unn’ – showed Bal Sagoth’s amazing ability to tell huge, intricate, dense tales through their music with stunning evocative ability.
You could be warring one second, with armies spilling down a hill, swords out and spears forward – while the next, taking stock, licking wounds, appealing to the gods.
All of this conjured from pure heavy metal: it could be blistering in its intensity, but also remarkably reflective too.
This album is also however a definitively extreme listen. There will be many who will say the album before this (‘A Black Moon Broods Over Lemuria’) is heavier and more brutal. That is true.
What ‘Starfire’ did however was take the thrash and deeply cavernous blasting of that album and make it somehow more distilled and refined. No doubt that was due in some part as well to producer Mags, veteran of UK underground classics of olde.
So when Byron rasps out ‘Weave… my… dark…spell’ over those blastbeats and churning, distinctive guitars, it’s absolutely scintillating.
Or when, in ‘Summoning The Guardians Of The Astral Gate’ he begs to ‘recite the conjuration – the key… THE KEY” it sounds absolutely furious in its intensity. The drumming alone could have been on ‘Covenant’ it’s so hammering.
Jonny Maudling – A Towering Talent
On that note, what makes this album so completely special – and I’d say unique – was the singular talent of Jonny Maudling. Not to do the rest of the band down in any way: but this was surely Maudling’s towering achievement.
If he had just been a drummer, his contribution to this masterpiece would have been impressive enough. The drumming, from the Ulrich and Sandoval schools, is incredibly powerful.
He was also responsible though for the keyboards which drench this album and which take the listener away to another time and another place.
Of course keyboards are a much maligned part of metal. But not when they’re done like this. They are this album’s other voice.
And talking of voices, then there was Byron Roberts.
How he came up with these narratives is itself mind blowing.
Verbose yes, but finely woven, brilliantly narrated and expertly placed, his stories somehow feel real, as absurd as that sounds.
He makes you feel like you’re listening to actual legends.
And then, the icing on the cake: Joe Pentagno’s absolutely stunning artwork really put the seal on this most fantastical of musics. Just look at it!
If metal was created to allow us to dream of other lands and other times, of primitive ways and superstitions, of other lives and other realms… well, this artwork just encapsulates it.
I really, really love this album and its one I keep really close to my heart. It says something that should appeal to all of us.
When I think of what metal’s all about, and how bands like Cirith Ungol married fantasy art to wonderful music, it’s plain that Bal Sagoth were the rightful inheritors of that flame.
If you think you dont like fantasy metal, and of course many of us could agree with that – stick this on, and let yourself be absolutely transported. It’s like going to the cinema. It’s a treat for the senses.
It’s also incredibly heavy, fast, powerful and raging in its intensity.
So let’s hear it for the album that was so preposterously overblown that it actually worked, brilliantly.
Few underground treasures will bring you somewhere in quite the same way this one will. It is majestic. It is very obviously total genius from start to finish. You must own it.
– Earl Grey ::: 11/11/15