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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.