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Cauldron Born's Born of the Cauldron is among the ranks of Manilla Road, early Fates Warning, Hanker, and Existence in that they're incredibly difficult to get into; in Cauldron Born's case it's because they're extremely technical and progressive; it's often hard to follow the music because of its complexity, and you have to listen to it several times before you can pull out the hooks (although, rest assured, they're definitely there). The riffs are strange and they often change quickly, making it easy to be overwhelmed by the music. However, like Manilla Road, once you're able to absorb all of it, it's well worth the wait. This is some absolutely top-tier material.
1994 saw the band's first release, the Swords, Sorcery, and Science demo, which features three songs that would later make it to their first full-length, as well as a song that didn't make it. That being said, I'm very glad that Howie Bentley did not stick with Christian Schulze as lead singer; while he hits the notes, his tone isn't very enjoyable, and he lacks charisma. Some of my favorite parts on Born of the Cauldron thanks to the skill of Danny White, are some of the worst fuckups on the part of Schulze. In a nutshell, just avoid that demo, and pretend it doesn't exist. BotC's Danny White is worlds away from Schulze, with a powerful midrange, soaring falsetto, and a huge presence. However, he's also pretty unique; there are hints of Geoff Tate and James Rivera here and there, but the guy definitely has his own voice. His clear, slightly demented, white collar tone is also perfect for the material, as his strangely enchanting delivery complements the dissonant, dark, and technical guitar lines wondrously. I can't imagine anyone doing a better job with this material; such is pretty evident with the aforementioned demo, showing how bewildered a lesser vocalist is by all the obtuse oddities. It's only a shame White hasn't done anything else in metal.
Lyrically, the album draws from a number of literary references, proving themselves to be on the awesomely nerdy side of PM along with greats like Manilla Road and Virgin Steele. Specifically, the songs reference only Arthurian legend, Michael Moorcock, Robert E. Howard, and ancient Egyptian culture, but there are more subtle influences, like Lloyd Alexander (perhaps not so subtle, given the band's name) and Lovecraft. Needless to say, the album holds up lyrically as well as it does musically. The production, too, is excellent, with a thick, clear guitar tone, loud and manly drums, and (sometimes) a nicely audible bass.
Musically, the album can more or less be organized into two categories: more straightforward songs, and more obtuse songs (which can be divided into two subcategories: those with a more battle-thirsty, blue collar tinge, and those with a dark, doomy atmosphere, as of forbidden lore). The straightforward songs would be the best ones to start out with, as it's easiest to pick out the hooks in these. There are two songs in this category: "Crusader" and "The Final Incantation/In the Dreaming City". "Crusader" is probably the more accessible of the two, and the first Cauldron Born song I really got into myself; while the riffs are still quite technical and noodly, it's got a strong, triumphant feeling to it, excellent harmonies, and a kickass chorus; there's literally nothing bad I can say about this song. Lyrically it seems to be anti-Christian, or perhaps just anti-organized religion in general; it tells the tale of an insane, bloodthirsty crusader and points out everything that is wrong with what he is doing. It does so quite well, with, not surprisingly, an excellent delivery from White. "The Final Incantation" is a bit darker and more progressive, though still fairly easy to follow, with some really cool bass lines and catchy riffs and vocal lines; while the song changes pretty quickly, none of the ideas are particularly complex, at least compared to the rest of the album. This one is more traditional for the album lyrically, speaking of black magic and ancient beings, this time bringing H.P. Lovecraft more to mind.
Those that fall into the 'obtuse but battle-tinged' category are as follows: "The Sword's Lament" and "In Fate's Eye a King". "The Sword's Lament" was actually the most difficult song for me to get into it, and it's only been in the last few weeks that I've really begun to appreciate everything about it. Rather than the Fates Warning influence heard on most of the rest of the album, this takes more of an Omen influence, although it's still quite technical; perhaps Slauter Xstroyes would be a better comparison. The harmonies here are quite sublime, especially the wordless vocal harmonies White has toward the end of the song. Lyrically, the song draws from Arthurian legend, Moorcock, and some other influences that I'm not familiar with, describing a sword that has been reincarnated as virtually every major sword in legend or fantasy. It's an interesting concept, and I find it works quite well. "In Fate's Eye a King" is a bit more accessible, but the vocal lines are strange, sounding almost spoken at times, as White narrates the tale of a king of Cimmeria - Kull perhaps? I'm not intimately familiar with Howard, but they reference Kull in their second album, and he was a king, so that's my best guess. At any rate, the song is quite good, although it can be a bit overlong at times.
The final category, 'obtuse and doomy/arcane' consists of the remaining four songs, "Synchronicity at Midnight/A Baying of Hounds", "Imprisoned with the Pharaohs", "Born of the Cauldron" and "Unholy Sanctuary". "Synchronicity" is probably the worst of these; it's good, but not as catchy or powerful as the others, not drawing the listener in as much but definitely not failing. "Born of the Cauldron" is fantastic, with some of the strangest, most dissonant leads on the album, making it one of the less accessible songs, but one that makes quite an impression, sounding like some dark, chaotic nightmare. "Unholy Sanctuary" and "Imprisoned with the Pharaohs" are musically pretty similar; not so much that it sounds like the same song, but the structures and atmospheres are very much alike, which has led me to often refer to "Imprisoned with the Pharaohs" as the little brother of "Unholy Sanctuary", as the former is not quite as good as the latter. Both evoke feelings of a dark, sealed, ancient crypt with forbidden magic of some type, that's being opened after a long time (that actually is the lyrical subject of the former song, more or less, and it's not too far off from the subject of the latter song). These are the doomiest songs here, and although there's not any overt Sabbath influence, as far as atmosphere is concerned they may as well be power/doom in my book.
This definitely isn't something you want to miss out on if you're a fan of early Fates Warning, Manilla Road, early fantasy/horror, or just USPM in general; although released in 1997, one of the worst years for USPM in history, it stands as one of my favorite albums of the genre to date, beating out most of its competition even in USPM's prime in the mid-to-late '80s. Howie Bentley puts his name on the map and begins his legacy proving that he is once of the greatest metal musicians of our time.
Born of the Cauldron is an oddity. Released in 1997, you'd expect it to carry the stamp of the times; it ought to sound like Imaginations from the Other Side, Barlow-era Iced Earth, or if we're really unlucky maybe even some kind of Helloween-plagiarizing keyboard-laden European cheese log. Instead, it somehow manages to channel a manic interpretation of USPM, and really to my ears the only modern-sounding aspect is present a bit in the drumming techniques (but maybe that's just my prejudice shining through). Rather than sounding of the white or blue collar USPM persuasion, it deftly reconciles elements of both to forge a sound simultaneously reminiscent of Crimson Glory's melancholy depth and Jag Panzer's strident, aggressive directness. "Depth and directness together? Isn't that paradoxical?" Well, not in execution, Mr. Hypothetical Reader. Rather, Cauldron Born tend to lean on the complexities and obtuse melodies, until just at the right moment a direct and straightforward riff will explode out, made all the more direct and visceral in contrast. For example, check the choruses to both "The Sword's Lament" and "The Final Incantation/In the Dreaming City"; aren't those riffs totally excellent and most triumphant? I'm sure the discerning listener could pick out many other instances. Early Fates Warning was very good at this as well, and I happen to know Howie Bentley cites them explicitly as a major influence. Now, this brings us to a couple of other good musical comparisons I can make, and unfortunately for most they will be a bit far afield; but hell, with Cauldron Born we're already pretty fucking far out there. Anyway, the band has a very manic style, throwing in tons of riffs, lead snippets, lengthy, complicated solos, jumping basslines, etc., most both melodically complex and quite memorable; a feat to say the least. Instantly I think of three bands: the aforementioned early Fates Warning, followed by Psychotic Waltz and Matthias Steele. The noodly guitar runs incorporated right into the riff structure and some of the melodies have Psychotic Waltz written all over them, and while I'm not sure they were a direct influence, it is at the very least a case of convergent evolution. Just listen to "In Fate's Eye a King" after A Social Grace and tell me you don't hear a distinct similarity. As for Matthias Steele, you can hear right off the bat that Danny White sounds a hell of a lot like Tony Lionetti. Their warm, vibrant, dramatic tones, bordering on the operatic; their impressive ranges and considerable power; and even their penchant for surprising you with a leap to a sudden piercing falsetto; all sound suspiciously similar. If you told me they were related, I wouldn't be surprised in the least. A lot of the vocal melodies and weird structural complexities are present in both bands as well, though Matthias Steele are somewhat less technical and tend to indulge in the tongue-in-cheek a lot more, and Cauldron Born lack their strong thrash influence as well. Still, the bands have far more in common than not. Also, Oracle's As Darkness Reigns is surprisingly similar in both composition and sound (again the singers are alike), though once more it's improbable they were actually a direct influence due to obscurity. Still, it's at least another instance of convergent evolution and should also give you a good idea of what Cauldron Born sound like.
Well, we still have the album's atmosphere and lyrical direction to deal with; for that, I've got two words: Manilla Road! Howie Bentley told me he hadn't actually heard of Manilla Road prior to writing this album, but the comparison is still apt. Cauldron Born focus more on Lovecraft and other pulp horror writers than Manilla Road did, but the gleeful myth-mixing is still there in full force. Just think less Odin and more Clark Ashton Smith and Robert E. Howard (the reissue contains both the lyrics and Bentley's interesting explanations). The atmosphere reflects the lyrical content flawlessly; surely a happy by-product of Bentley being both primary songwriter and lyricist. You can just feel the dark approcahing doom of the magician in "The Final Incantation/In the Dreaming City" as he calls upon ancient gods beyond his control and they drag him off to the void ("Liar, treacherer, you won't hide beyond the cross, we were here before you or your puny deities!"). Totally channeling Clark Ashton Smith with a side of Lovecraft, though oddly enough the lyrics have nothing to do with CAS's "The Last Incantation".
A bit of a misstep is the Warlord cover at the end; a fine song in its own right, "Lucifer's Hammer" is really simple in comparison to Cauldron Born's original material, and the transition is jarring. Imagine asking Michelangelo to paint a color-by-numbers of a Picasso, or something. Both fine artists, just wildly different and incompatible styles. Still, not a total bust, just less than the sum of its parts.
Born of the Cauldron is really one of those oddball releases that manages to be a successful statement in a style more or less creatively dead for years; one of even fewer from a band that wasn't ever a part of it in the first place. Manilla Road, Vortex, Pagan Altar, and the like may still be soldiering on after decades and keeping their old sparks alive, but it takes a really special band to conjure a new one up from the ashes.
Cauldron Born are a highly underrated traditional metal band. They are firmly rooted in the traditional metal scene of bands like Manowar, Iron Maiden, Dio, Yngwie Malmsteen, and Mercyful Fate but managed to create their own unique style. Their debut album "Born of the Cauldron" was released in 1997 by Underground Symphony.
Each of the musicians is highly skilled. The guitar riffs on this album are far more developed and interesting than just about any other power metal band. The riffs are melodic but sophisticated, many times during a riff jumping up an octave to do a melodic run, reminding one of bands like Watchtower or Coroner at times. At other times the guitar riffs will feature arpeggiated chords that the bass accompanies. There are also some odd time signatures utilized here and there to keep things interesting. It's sophisticated parts like these during the rhythms of the songs that are a big factor in what gives Cauldron Born their unqiue sound. The vocalist Danny White is excellent, utilizing a high-ptiched vocal style perhaps a bit like Geoff Tate or Rob Halford. In particular, the vocal melody at the end of "The Final Incantation / In the Dreaming City" is really outstanding. The bass is unusually dominant for this type of music and he has a lot of great melodic runs. The guitar solos are well-done but not overly technical so as to lose the focus of the song.
The production sounds great and each instrument gets enough room in the mix to shine. The overall sound is very warm and pleasant to listen to. Lyrically, the album explores a lot of sword and sorcery/fantasy topics based on Robert E. Howard stories. "Imprisoned with the Pharohs" features some nice Egyptian-sounding guitar riffs that accentuate the theme of the lyrics. The final track, "Unholy Sanctuary", begins with a funeral-like dirge riff that recalls Candlemass and perfectly suits the lyrical story dealing with zombies rising from their graves and a band of people seeking refuge from their attack in a church.
I subtracted a few points over a few minor issues. First of all, let me be clear that I don't believe any album is perfect. I believe there is always room for improvement for musicians to strive for. My rating reflects that belief. There are times when the complexity of the piece sometimes seems to overshadow the intent of the song and I think some of the songs could benefit from a tighter arrangement (particularly "The Sword's Lament" and "Born of the Cauldron"). Keep in mind though, that I consider this critcism to be very minor considering the number of things "Born of the Cauldron" has done well and I consider this album to be a gem of underground metal.
Unfortunately, "Born of the Cauldron" is very, very hard to find and if you do find it expect to pay quite a bit for it. I hope that at some point it will be reissued because it is one of the very best traditional metal albums of the 90s.