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Very few musicians are able to traverse multiple genres and still make consistently excellent music. The select handful of said musicians who actually exist are generally among the most revered of artists; you've got Gezol of Sabbat and Metalucifer, Philip von Segebaden of Afflicted, Defender, etc., and of course you've got the mighty Mark Shelton of the varied and monolithic Manilla Road. With 2010's For Mircalla, we see up-and-coming musical genius Howie Bentley join these hallowed ranks. Already a well-respected songwriter and guitarist for his milestone release Born of the Cauldron in 1997 (not to mention the solid follow-up in 2001, ...and Rome Shall Fall), Bentley proves that not only can he write top-tier power metal, but top-tier heavy/doom as well.
Vocalist Phil Swanson joins Bentley for the project, and I must say there are few better trad doom singers on the scene right now than Swanson. Already well-established in projects like Hour of 13, Seamount, and several others, Swanson seems to be the go-to-guy for quality trad doom nowadays, and for good reason. His nasal, mournful, malevolent tone fits this sort of music perfectly, as if he's a high priest of Satan or some other prominent occult figure; for some reason his performance always reminds me of Padan Fain from Robert Jordan's The Wheel of Time series; he just sounds so invested in dark rites that there's no turning back for him, ever. And again, it definitely works quite well for the music. There's not really all that many singers that sound like him; the closest comparison I can make is to Mark Shelton with a touch of King Diamond. He's clearly got his own character, though, and it comes through quite strongly in his baleful, slightly warbly midrange.
However, the riffs here are what really stand out. Taking influence straight from the masters and pioneers themselves, Black Sabbath, Bentley crafts songs with a penchant for melody, I daresay, that surpasses Tony Iommi's. Almost every song is catchy as fuck, with riffs strong enough to melt your face off - which is good, because they're repeated a lot. It's rarely enough to bore the listener, though, as is shown in "The Right Hand of Doom" - that main riff will have you headbanging for the entirety of its duration. That riff in particular is very similar to the opening riff in Sabbath's "Hole in the Sky", but it's used so well that you can't really blame him for plagiarism; similarly to Shelton's use of an Angel Witch riff in "Dreams of Eschaton", it's used to make a song that's even better than the original - which, in this case, is saying a lot, as "Hole in the Sky" is one of my favorite Sabbath tunes. There are a couple of places where the riffs get a little bit old (the outro of "Vampire Hunter", "Karnstein Castle"), but for the most part they're used with great success.
The lyrics, too, are quite excellent, Swanson warbling on about Satanic rituals, sacrifices, kidnappings, etc. This takes Sabbathian doom to a whole new level; although Bentley is far from the first to use occult themes, he does it in such a convincing way that it's hard not to credit him with perfect Sabbath's original art. The only song I'm really not a fan of is "Karnstein Castle" which is a bit too slow and repetitive, with riffs that aren't quite catchy enough and a vocal performance that leaves something to be desired. Bentley himself performs the vocals here, and while they're interesting, they're not enough to carry a slow, plodding, 13-minute song. They sound very gruff and barbaric, as if Bentley is a dumb, giantish brute relaying dark tales he's witnessed as best as he knows how. It's certainly a convincing role, it's just not particularly interesting; the song is enjoyable for three or four minutes, and then it just gets really old really fast.
Still, with classics like "Vampire Hunter", "Carmilla", and "The Exorcism of Tanith", this is certainly a milestone in the doom genre, and one of my favorite albums of the style, ever. Catchy, headbangable, yet still occult and malevolent, Bentley has a firm grasp on exactly how this sort of doom is supposed to be played, and makes use of that ability with quite a bit of consistency. The third of three hugely successful albums across two major subgenres of metal, Bentley shows a mastery of songwriting in general, and with a Cauldron Born EP and another Briton Rites full-length on the way, he's obviously far from finished. Akin to a younger Mark Shelton, Bentley remains one of my favorite metal artists of all time, along with the aforementioned Shelton and James Shellberg of Longings Past and Enchanter. Hopefully, this is merely the start of a long and increasingly excellent career.