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From The Vaults #21 | Bal Sagoth’s epic ‘Starfire’

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.

Other Realms

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

  1. one of my favourite albums .i still listen to it regularly nothing matches it for pure over the top pompous fantasy .

    the thing that made it special is that it sounded dark as well .pity they didnt continue on this route but i suppose how could you top that.

    having said that i like all bal sagoth stuff.

  2. Leather Mike Says:

    i’d never listened to Bal Sagoth before reading this article. I’m now halfway through my second listen of the album and my jaw is still on my desk. Absolutely fucking magnificent.

    Cheers CT!

  3. Can you imagine what that sounded like in 1996!

  4. Leather Mike Says:

    given that it’s completely flattened me 20 years on, i can only shudder to think. i imagine the amount of WTF IS GOING ON was significant.

    Maybe if i’d heard stuff like this in my formative years my taste in music wouldnt be so terrible!

  5. Smythsonian Says:

    Such a unique band. I was instantly floored, hooked, and the whole shebang since I first heard this album.

    Their tunes make me think of Warcraft III & Dragon Ball Z somethin’ fierce.

  6. Great album. Used to listen to it in 3rd year a lot!

  7. Blizzard Beast Says:

    Black Moon Broods Over Lemuria is still their best IMO ..

  8. Paul keohane Says:

    I’ve never actually listened to this,but I did love Black moon….

  9. Black Moon I always thought was just too murky, not clear enough. That’s why Starfire shines, there’s just so much more life about it.

  10. Black Shepherd Carnage Says:

    Great read and reminder CT. Guitar tone always left me a little unimpressed on this, but it’s a small qualm. I bought a Rhapsody album once hoping it would be something like this. It wasn’t.

  11. apparently the first three albums are coming on vinyl in early 2016 .i have a black moon broods on vinyl but the other two would be most definatly be welcome on that format .

    imagine the artwork on a 12 inch ,savage.

    the last album they released is very good too and probably the heaviest one they did since starfire.

    thats almost ten years ago though.the cthonic chronicles its called.

  12. I remember paying a few quid for this on ebay many years back after all the good reviews etc…but after a few very irritating spins I failed to comprehend how anyone could enjoy this..a metal album with a fella basically narrating a fantasy tale, there’s not even fuck all proper vocal parts on it from what I can remember, complete and utter bollox of the highest order…needless to say I think I got like two quid for it when I traded it in Freebird at the time.

  13. Your loss!

  14. that is class, a band I tried to get into years ago and I seemed to have picked the wrong album. That track is great. Will be spending my time getting accustomed to this..deadly stuff

  15. Gordon is spot-on about ‘The Chtonic Chronicles’, a really killer album as well.

    “The key…I must hide the key!!”

  16. Yeah, CC is great. They really dropped the ball with ‘Battle Magic’ in trying to follow up Starfire… understandable really, how could you? But BM sounds very weedy, and Atlantis Ascendent isn’t too hot either. But Chronicles is great.

  17. I so, so, SO wanted to LOVE this album when it came out. I bought it at HMV Oxford when I was 16 and stuck up there on my tod for four days awaiting an interview surrounded by braying toff twats. It was supposed to get me through those gloomy, lonely days. It didn’t – mine was a Tolkien/Games Workshop/black metal forged brain perfectly primed to be obsessed with this record but I just couldn’t stand it. Dry, chunky guitars, cheap sounding ‘MIDI Brass’ keyboards, plodding drums, nonsensical vox. Took it back the next day and exchanged it for the Call of Cthulu roleplaying game…

    Listening to it now. Opinion hasn’t changed much I’m afraid. All the trappings are there but the riffs suck and the general quality of the sound is stodgy gruel. Sorry chaps!

  18. andy/bottle Says:

    A blast from the past. I remember reading about it in Metal Hammer as a young gos. The song tit

  19. andy/bottle Says:

    ……Song title, not tit, “the splendour of a thousand swords gleaming beneath the blazon of the hyperborean empire” struck a chord that I can remember to this day. Unfortunately being a young bogger from roscommon I never got the chance to pick this up. If it is re released on vinyl in 2016 I might finally catch up 20 years later.

  20. andy/bottle Says:

    Did metal hammer give it something like 1/10 can anyone remember? In the same way they destroyed Waylander’s “reawakening pride once lost “

  21. Funny this appeared. Just listened to the their whole discography 2 weeks ago after not listening to them in ages.

    Due to the bombastic, flamboyant nature of the music, its something that you really have to be in the mood for, but I really like all the albums 🙂 I’d say AA is the weakest with this being their strongest.

    Having said that, live they were not so good. I think I saw them 4 times live and only 1 of the times were they any good, with the show at Wacken being completely embarrassing.

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