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Astharoth. How exactly do we spell the name of the Prince of Hell? Is it like that? Or is it Astarott? Or Astaroth? Or Astarot? Anyway, whichever way we spell it, it’ll inevitably lead us to the gloomiest place in the underworld so expect gloomy notes coming out of the hands of those signed under that name. And, if these folks (or demons, including one beautiful demoness on guitar) vote to give a more experimental spin to their gloomy template, then one should expect things to go into a non-trodden previously direction… or thereabouts.
Poland has given its fair share to the technical metal field through the years the more renowned names belonging to the death metal side (Decapitated, Sceptic, Vedonist, Never, Redemptor, Atrophia Red Sun, etc.) those bands’ rise to prominence overshadowing the modest, but utterly essential contribution made by the thrash metal practitioners. The heavy metal pioneers Kat never ventured fully into a technical/progressive territory (“Bastard” (1992) only made timid hints at it), but their main rivals Turbo released the excellent “Epidemie” (1989) which gave a hefty technical twist to the Polish scene, a tendency immediately followed by Wolf Spider for the production of two well-executed progressive thrash records. At the same time another act, Destroyers (not quite the technical allusions made with the name), were operating on a similar plate providing another two cleverly-constructed efforts with more overt nods to the Bay-Area heritage. Then the stalwarts Dragon peaked with “Scream of Death” (1991) which was an awesome technical thrash/death metal hybrid. Very few would be those who will remember some of the best kept secrets from the European thrash metal scene: the total obscures Acrimony's "In Unknown Direction" (1992), one of the last outcries of technical genius before the genre's demise.
Astharoth remained in the deep underground and never managed to find the way out of there. Quite sad since this is by far the most talented act the Polish thrash metal scene ever produced. Even after all these years, after hundreds of listens, one is still able to find moments and nuances he/she has missed before: so multi-layered and diverse the delivery is that the listener would be scratching his/her head more than once while spending his/her time with this “gloomy” “experimental” opus…
So Astharoth play… or rather, played very complex, original technical/progressive thrash which seamlessy combined the spacey discordant landscapes of Voivod and the Norwegians Equinox with the polished "aggression" of Kreator’s “Extreme Aggression” and Necrodeath’s “Fragments of Insanity”. The opening title-track perfectly exemplifies this highly non-conventional symbiosis providing a web of ultra-technical riffs and fast blitzkrieg passages for just under 4-min, the virtuous musicianship assisted by not very audible, semi-declamatory vocals akin to later-period Mille. It also sets the model to be followed by the rest of the material at times the more direct Germanic brutalisms (“Speed of Light”, this one really tries to deserve its title with the fast-paced rhythms; the proto-death intensity of “Tool of Crime”) taking the upper hand; at others the progressive eclecticism (“Obsession”) dominating the scenery in a confident, but ultimately surreal, manner.
After the 4th composition one will start wondering what else is about to happen here which hasn’t been already done: there’s so much music present in the 1st half that the 2nd one can only be a reflection of it. And what a reflection it is: the wild shredding instrumental “Amnesia” will make you forget that there are other technical metal practitioners, apart from the “psychos” here, on the planet for about 4.5-min. “Mirror’s World” brings forward the melody which has kind of been neglected until that point, but there’s no slouching in the technical and aggressive sector this track moshing with passion near the end, a glorious abstract Voivod-ish section stealing its “crown” at the very finish. “Good Night My Dear” would be the perfect soundtrack to wishing “good night” to your dearly beloved in the small hours, this number getting a dramatic semi-balladic “colouring” on top of some maddening lead sections and vortex-like riff formulas. “Insomnia” will surely deprive you from sleeping this short piece being an exercise in classical virtuosity to an extent in the beginning before ultra-fast vitriolic guitars rudely awake you in the middle bringing the winds of death metal once again the latter again surpassed by a superb ethereal passage ala Voivod and another portion of super-stylish leads.
The closing “My Difference” begs to "differ" starting with a frolic crossover tune, and the listener may smile here seeing the band preparing for a break from this exhausting performance as a finishing touch. But that’s only a wishful thinking, fortunately: the lads start thrashing like demented just a few seconds later a more serious progressive break lying in wait near the middle, a tool which was later elaborated on the works of Depressive Age (“First Depression”, above all). So there’s no mercy shown (yes, Slayer!) anywhere, neither from the technical nor from the aggressive department… all the way till the “gloomy” end.
The band relocated to the States after that (San Francisco, to be more specific) which was a promising follow-up having in mind that area’s reputation in the consolidation of our favourite thrash. Alas, this decisive step never produced anything as distinguished: the band never reached the full-length stage again although they released a string of demos in the next few years which showed them elaborating on the spacey, surreal side of their repertoire (the "Cycle of the Sphere" demo) with a very stylish delivery giving Voivod a run for their money with their more advanced, even visionary if you like, look at the future of the genre. The “extreme” aggression has gone completely which may have been a major pullback to some, but the subtle progressive thrashy/post-thrashy undercurrents flowing under these songs are just a wonder to listen to, at times elusive and ephemeral, at times more strongly accentuated. These efforts, however, never materialized into something more substantial as the band folded in the mid-90's.
So what are these musical geniuses doing right now? Well, the mainman Jarek Tatarek (vocals & guitar) is in full swing with the gothic metal formation Arcane Dimension with three full-lengths released up to this point; the delivery, though, is pretty straight-forward, without any technical flourishes. I'm sure the rest of the crew all have found their own way in pursuing the American Dream: carrying on with the "gloomy experiments" in musical mastery would hardly have put them on the path to fortune and glory. Still, a place on the thrash metal pantheon is reserved for them; another similar "gloomy experiment" would surely catapult them there.
A released 6 years ago compilation of all their demos from the 90's, aplty titled "Lost Forever World", could be a sign that their dormant genius is slowly waking up... How long it'll take for it to fully awake, one wouldn't know, but the fanbase will readily embrace another chapter from "gloomy experimental" history whenever the "lecturers" are ready to deliver it. So prepare to go back to the classrooms one of these days...
Astharoth is one of the countless euro-thrash bands that failed to get recognition during the era of thrash metal reign, whether the cause being lack of luck in music industry, or, more often that not, lack of quality music itself. And which reason is the cause of that in case of Astharoth? Well, there's a bit of both, although upon coming across this band for the first time, it makes you wish it was only the first one.
What Astharoth definitely are not, is your another run-of-the-mill thrash metal band writing absolutely listenable, but forgettable albums with few decent songs at best. Just looking at the album cover and title suggests what style of thrash metal they play: although it's not really that gloomy as title suggests, the experimental touch is there. Astharoth play technical, sometimes a bit progressive thrash metal, comparable to bands like Coroner, Mandator, maybe Blind Illusion or their countrymen Wolf Spider, you can also hear early Voivod influence.
As mentioned, the playing of all instruments is heavily technical. While the riffs are numerous and usually good, they don't stand out as something out of ordinary for the most part, although sometimes there is something catchy in their technical nature, like beginning of Mirror's World or title track. Much bigger highlight of guitar playing on this album are solos and leads, attacking you out of nowhere multiple times during a song, showing instrumental abilities without sounding like pointless wankery. Bass is a positive surprise, it is audible in production, and the playing itself is impressive, varying its role from just supporting the guitar in the behind, to mini solos or Steve Harris-esque melodies played at the end of guitar riff, sometimes even going in the front like on song Good Night My dear. Drumming on this album is a little hit and miss, sometimes unnecessarily changing tempo or playing unadequately slow or fast to the rest of the band. At times it sounds even inspired by Ventor of Kreator, adding heaviness to the music. Overall the album doesn't sound heavier or lighter than general thrash of the era. Another hit and miss element are the vocals, and here it is more miss than hit, though they contribute to this weird atmosphere this album creates. The shouted vocal additions end up annoying and cheesy, except on track two where they are done by Litza (of Turbo fame, now quite a laughing stock in Poland's musical scene). While the vocals aren't great, sometimes the disadvantage is the music goes on too long without them, giving the impression of music going nowhere. The album has quite Voivod-ish, maybe futuristic atmosphere, while the lyrics aren't exactly matching it and focusing mainly on psychological topics, although I warn you this doesn't come close matching Time Does Not Heal lyrics, these are just average.
Overall, this is quite a good release deserving more than it got, and while not being revolutionary or excellent in any way, ends up being rewarding listen. It's a grower too, even if at the very start it leaves impression of being some true underground gem.
The MMP rerelease which is available to get comes with 8 bonus tracks, which were recorded after the band moved nowhere else than SF Bay Area. The tracks didn't make its way onto second album, which is understandable considering the band didn't achieve noticable success other than supporting few bigger metal acts, and the time of the recordings was quite bad era for thrash, 1991-1994.
In their Polish years, speed/thrash metal band Astharoth created their only album, 'Gloomy Experiments'. The title fits perfectly with the music; this is anything but your usual speed/thrash metal! Get ready for some mind-warping insanity.
Astharoth's influences came from technical thrash metal, from both sides of the Atlantic ocean. German and Bay Area vibes are abound on 'Gloomy Experiments', but Canada's cyber-thrashers Voivod also were a huge influence, which can be heard straight from the album's first riff. Compositions aren't straight, but at times very meandering. This makes the music tough to get, but there's always something so cool and interesting happening every now and then, that I stay with Astharoth and their 'Gloomy Experiments' to the last. The band can jump from German style riff (Kreator is a clear influence here) to eerie Voivod-esque melody and then to jazzy bit and after two seconds to Testament style melody. There's a lot of tempo changes, so if you can't hold on with them, don't bother with Astharoth. However, there is a chorus in most of the songs, so the variety doesn't mean there are no structures in the songs. The song quality varies, but maybe I just haven't got into some songs yet. Could be well true, so eccentric experience this is.
The band's playing isn't metronome-accurate, but it breathes and makes this something unique. If you think nowadays' honed-to-perfection productions are the best thing, you should check this one out. This has so much more life in this! Sound-wise this is good as every instrument is well audible, and rawish, unpolished. Vocals are extremely characteristic. Clean vocals, some screams and such, and at times with insanely fast pace. English pronunciation is bad, but it only adds to speciality. As with the music, also with the vocals goes the word "insane".
'Gloomy Experiments' ain't for all thrash-heads, but if you search for something with personal touch, then give this a spin. But: Give it some time, because you can't get this all with one spin, if ever. Be brave, traveller!
(origially written for ArchaicMetallurgy.com in 2006)