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Mixing doom and power metal might sound like a contradiction. One is well known for its mournful, solemn atmosphere and monolithic riffs, while the other is a fountain of high flying melodies and bravado. Epic doom might seem like an approximation of such an idea, yet its crushing hooves remain firmly planted within the realm of early Black Sabbath, Trouble, and the like. Enter Ashes to Ashes, a tragically short-lived outfit who managed to perfectly blend two polar opposites into a beautiful middle ground, resulting in Cardinal VII. This genuinely unique beast is equally reminiscent of Candlemass, Angel Dust, and in one particular case, even British goth rock, peppered with evocative keyboard licks and its own, fully original flavour.
The hellish, brutal gallop that opens "New World Obscure" acts as a rude awakening for the listener. Despite the band's dignified and quasi-religious aesthetic, they are clearly not afraid of playing with unbridled fury. Also immediately noticeable are Kenneth Brastad's deep intonations, switching comfortably between a rough, commanding growl and a smooth but firm croon. The latter makes up most of his performance in Cardinal VII, which lends credence to the band's otherwise silly self-appointed label of "Gregorian metal", with Brastad acting as a one man choir a lot of the time. Another song worthy of notice is the ominous "Truth on Scaffold", which slithers along at a menacing mid-tempo pace, and showcases some of the band's softer side with a synth laden bridge, topped by a regretful-sounding Brastad. That is, of course, right before the song explodes back into the epic opening keyboard riff, finishing with its palm-muted, delightfully dark chorus.
Cardinal VII is also no stranger to variety, including a series of instrumentals, with "Dualism" as the easy stand out. Here, the vocals take a step aside to allow the crunching guitars and tasteful synth arrangements to take the lead. There's also "Behind Closed Eyes", the aforementioned goth rock influenced tune, and definitely the catchiest and most infectious song the record has to offer. If any song gets to take the main prize home though, that's "Sic Transit Gloria Mundi"; an apocalyptic ode where Kenneth shines his brightest, in what seems like both an ultimatum and a requiem for a dying, tired world. Despite the glacial pace, this thirteen minute long monster remains engaging the whole way through, with a gorgeous climax and a perfect transition back to its slow, contemplative self.
This is not a perfect album, though. Basically every single instrumental piece other than "Dualism" is almost entirely superfluous, and the strange production job can take a lot of getting used to. Namely, the hollow drums are far from charming, and when there is a lot going on at the same time, such as during the blasting sections of the title track, the guitars tend to end up buried in the mix. A more competent, clearer production would have done wonders for the band, allowing them to take their entirely unique sound to its fullest potential. However, these complaints should not push away potential listeners, as the merits of Cardinal VII far outweigh its flaws.
A strange jewel of the underground, Cardinal VII's baroque sense of beauty is not something one comes across often. Here, all encompassing darkness meets with nearly blinding light, but they do not conflict. Instead, they meld together, to produce something the likes of which has not been heard ever since its inception, and will most likely remain just as unique for the foreseeable future.
In a just world, many, many things would not be as they are today, and one of the biggest changes would be creative, killer bands like this one getting way more recognition. Ashes to Ashes are a Norwegian band playing a dark, moody style of Symphonic Metal that manages to pull in influences from Power Metal and Doom Metal to create a powerful, vital sound that captivates right from the first notes of "New World Obscure." And once you sink your teeth into this long, dark journey through the catacombs of the underworld, there is no going back.
Ashes to Ashes' sound is not heavily reliant on one component. Everything seems to work in perfect unison. Kenneth Brastad's vocals are a definite highlight, as they are deep, clear and absolutely wonderful. He can adapt to whatever style the band is playing flawlessly, from a more metallic style on the first few songs to a dark, growly rasp and also a more melancholic croon, and he just sounds great doing any of them. The emotion pouring out in his voice is almost unparalleled, too. The riffs are just stellar, played out with class and a subtle sense of melody that just works really well. They're not always terribly prominent, but when you do hear them, they never fail to please, being both crunchy and full of depth. The orchestrations are very prominent, and the compositions often resemble that of actual classical music - especially on the stunning "Sic Transit Gloria Mundi" and the great title track. This should sound ridiculously pretentious, but somehow it does not.
We start off with the riveting, stomping "New World Obscure," and instantly Ashes to Ashes will suck you under their spell with heavy, grooving rhythms and staccato riff patterns, with a mesmerizing, haunting chorus to boot. "Embraced in Black" is even better, a longer and more epic song with a catchy riff and some morose operatic vocals for the chorus, and there's a killer solo, too. "Truth on Scaffold" boosts more symphonic wizardry (all while still keeping the metal present), and "Behind Closed Eyes" is the most commercial number here, but it's very nice, with a gamut of hooks for your consumption. There are a few short instrumental pieces which they do not add a whole lot to the album, but they don't detract anything either, so they are fine.
This album has its flaws, as the drum sound sucks, and the songs here aren't always terribly memorable, but Ashes to Ashes had quite a competent piece of work here, and it's a shame they haven't gotten more popularity. Cardinal VII is a beautiful album filled with pomp and passion, and I advise any fan of melodic Metal or somber classical music to check this out as soon as you can. Ashes to Ashes are in the process of recording a new album, so be on the lookout...
Originally written for http://www.metalcrypt.com