Be prepared: as we review Kull’s debut album Exile, we might also mention Bal-Sagoth once or twice.
Back when I was a lot younger and still discovering the vast world of heavy metal at a brisk pace by reading actual paper magazines, I stumbled upon a blue album cover with a majestic looking band logo and the ludicrous title Starfire Burning Upon the Ice-Veiled Throne of Ultima Thule. As it turned out, that wasn’t the longest title on the album (that was, for the sake of completeness, And Lo, When the Imperium Marches Against Gul-Kothoth, Then Dark Sorceries Shall Enshroud the Citadel of the Obsidian Crown (Episode: VIII)). Next to the review stood a picture of a couple of guys, one holding a huge sword aloft. Since I had just started reading stuff like Lord of the Rings and was learning words like “aloft” I figured this kind of epic excess was right up my alley and bought myself the record to see what all the fuss was about. The year was 1996, the band was Bal-Sagoth and it was love at first sight.
It is hard to describe a band like Bal-Sagoth, as their musical style is completely unique. The band plays a mixture of melodic black and thrash metal, but spices things up with layers upon layers of keyboards. At its musical heart were Jonny and Chris Maudling on keyboards and guitars, respectively, and the combination of great riffs and epic keys still make for a thrilling cocktail. What made the band stand out even more is the vocal work by Byron Roberts. Open a Bal-Sagoth booklet and you’ll find the pages filled with the most text you’ll ever find on a metal album. Roberts wrote entire fantasy stories, ranging from swords and sorcery type stuff in the vein of Robert E. Howard (known best for his Conan the Barbarian stories, but who also happened to write The Gods of Bal-Sagoth and Kull the Conqueror) to more Lovecraftian cosmic horror. From those stories he picked select passages which he delivered in black metal screams, death metal grunts and, most importantly, a pompous and booming narrative voice and quiet whispers. Bal-Sagoth made epic metal fantasy audiobooks, for want of a better description, and what there has never been a band like it before it or after.
After 2006’s The Chthonic Chronicles, however, things went quiet. The band did a couple of gigs here and there and then the activity around the band just sort of fizzled out. There were a number of re-releases and remasters and 2013 saw the re-release of their 1993 demo in the form of Apocryphal Tales, but that was it. It was around that time that Kull was formed. Kull is Bal-Sagoth in all but name, helmed by the Maudling brothers who wrote all their music in the past, and they bring along former members Alistair MacLatchy and Paul Jackson with them. The only one missing is Byron Roberts. Instead, we find Tarkan Alp, a name not entirely unbeknownst to die-hard fans, since he already stepped in for Bal-Sagoth once during one of their last live shows. They have just released their debut album and if you’re been waiting for a new Bal-Sagoth album ever since 2006, that wait ends right here.
It feels unfair to judge Kull’s Exile not solely on their own merits, but on the Maudling brothers’ past ones too, but that is caused by their quirky brand of songwriting. No-one writes songs like these guys do, and you can hear Bal-Sagoth’s DNA all over Exile, especially since a number of tracks have been written with a seventh album in mind. Musically, fans know what to expect here and I’m relieved to say Exile does not disappoint at all. Sonically, this is the best sounding album these guys released to date. The sound is crystal clear, the guitars are as meaty and crisp as they were on The Chthonic Chronicles and the keys sound bigger and more epic than ever. Musically, this is a logical continuation of that very familiar sound, though it must be said that Exile is the darkest the Maudling brothers have ever sounded. Every Bal-Sagoth album had its cheesy moments on it, but the lactose levels are surprisingly low on this one.
I maintain to this day that the Maudling brothers always wrote the best intros to their albums, somehow creating a very palatable promise of high adventure and actually delivering on it on the first song, and I’m glad that Imperial Dawn is majestic in how it prepares you for the coming journey. When Set Nakt Heh starts after that it’s like putting on a beloved old coat you haven’t worn for thirteen years. The riffs are big, the keyboards are symphonics are smeared all over the place, the drums drive the thing forward at great speed and then there’s Tarkan Alp. I had my doubts when the first teasers were released, but this guy nails the vocals here. Much more of a screamer than Roberts, he impresses with his range and skill, especially when it comes to his deep, guttural death grunts. He employs the spoken word bits far less than his predecessor, but that makes for a more aggressive album whilst also leaving breathing room for the music itself.
When it comes to the production of Exile, the sound is lush and absolutely filled with little details that are waiting to be discovered in time. A lot of symphonic elements are layered in the mix, making for a rich sounding record that rewards you for sitting down and really taking notice. The same goes for the vocals. An Ensign Consigned features a part where the music crescendos into a big melodic apotheosis, and the way Kull arrives there is absolutely riveting and monumental in demonstrating the Maudlings songwriting skills. Throughout the song, tension is slowly built by layering synthesized horns and clean vocals whilst Chris fires riff after riff like there’s no tomorrow. Alp screams and growls and belts as the symphonics swell and swell and somewhere underneath, deeply buried in the mix, those clean vocals start bubbling towards the surface until the lid comes off and the song explodes into a majestic symphony. All of this happens in four-and-a-half minutes and it is glorious. And the best part about it is that this is just one example on an album rife with them. Highlights are all over the place, but special mention has to be given to the brutal thrasher Pax Imperialis, where Alp can show off his impressive grunts, and the smashingly epic Aeolian Supremacy, which infuses the mid-tempo track with an eerie atmosphere through what I can only describe as a synthesized choir of singing sirens.
Exile is immensely varied whilst still adhering to the formula these guys created all those years ago, and its biggest triumph is that although it will undoubtedly cause Bal-Sagoth fans to sit up and take notice, it can very much stand on its own. It’s brutal in places, majestic in others and even packs a surprise or two (the oriental flute intermezzos in Of Setting Suns And Rising Moon spring to mind). Whilst it does bring back a very specific sound that has been missing from the metal scene for thirteen years, it is also a very well-made metal album in its own right, and if you like your more extreme metal symphonic and epic I can’t recommend this one enough.
Label: Black Lion Records, 2019
- Imperial Dawn (02:35)
- Set Nakt Heh (04:54)
- Vow Of The Exiled (06:07)
- A Summoning to War (04:22)
- Hordes Ride (05:17)
- An Ensign Consigned (04:30)
- Pax Imperialis (03:26)
- By Lucifers Crown (05:47)
- Of Stone And Tears (04:22)
- Aeolian Supremacy (07:06)
- Of Setting Suns And Rising Moon (06:30)
- Tarkan Alp – Vocals
- Chris Maudling – Guitars
- Jonny Maudling – Keyboards/synths
- Alistair MacLatchy – Bass
- Paul “Wak” Jackson – Drums
Review by Ralph Plug