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One might assume that Macabre Omen is the least productive black metal project in all the Greek scene, but I'd like to think that its progenitors are simply those who like to choose their battles with great care, and this partially explains the consistent quality of their sole full length in 17 years: The Ancient Returns. The band started out with a pair of demos in the mid-90s, and then went on to participate on a fair number of split recordings with artists from other countries, but this is the one official long form recording the band have yet produced, and even then it's but 5 tracks and 38 minutes of content. Fortunate, then, that the writing is this good, because The Ancient Returns shines like a grim, glimmering crown among the viscera of so many underwhelming Hellenic acts of the 21st century.
Don't be fooled by Macabre Omen's scarce throughput, because the constituents here have a great deal of experience in other bands, a number of them big figures on the Italian scene. Claudio Alcara has played with Frostmoon Eclipse and Handful of Hate, while drummer Gionata Potenti has stamped his beats on albums by dozens of bands (Glorior Belli, Kult, 11 as In Adversaries, Ad Hominem, Hiems and Melencolia Estatica are a mere handful). The Greek member, Alexandros, who performs guitars, bass and vocals, has also played in The One, Australian supergroup Razor of Occam and the UK's black/death/thrashers Scythian. So it stands to reason that there is an enormous amount of talent involved on this recording, and that they enforce that with strong atmospheres and memorable compositions is but an extra smattering of blood on their blades. As the barbaric, manly figure shadowing the band's logo on the cover might imply, they manifest a certain level of epic 'barbarity' in their material, almost as if Nocternity and Immortal had birthed a Hyborian warchild.
The album is enormously well-paced, the band wisely choosing to eschew the standard blasting monotony for passages of spacious, open grandeur, like standing in some mass field of the dead, the ring of their clashing steel long having faded into the cries of blackbirds. "In Memory..." is pretty much all crisp melodies flown over the fallen standards of war, with a curious mix of deep, somnolent background narration and tortured rasping redolent of Burzum or Nocternity. The music itself creates an almost Manowar feeling integrated with slower-paced Immortal or even a touch of Rotting Christ's driving, melodic glamor. Another creeper is the 12 minute finale "Hellas - Ode A/Ode B", with incessant, brazen guitars over solid beats that intensity into molten double bass sequences. Macabre Omen can also blast away relentlessly when desired, as evidenced in "A Call from Gods to God" or "The Perfect Sound of North vs. South", but they never choose to forsake the variation that lies at the heart of a good song.
Speaking of good songs, "An Ode to Rhode" is perhaps my favorite here, with lovely acoustic guitars that morph into surges of majestic force, then back again, while the riffing landscape continues to deliver one memorial, memorable guitar line after the next. The lyrics are rather sparse on the album, and certainly such compositions could have benefited from more meat for the mind, but their simplicity is a stunning trait in its own right, and the massive, airy pain felt in Alexandros' tone does somewhat compensate. Production-wise, The Ancient Returns is both broad and searing, not polished off enough to turn away the rawheads, but also clean enough in its delivery that some obvious effort was placed in maintain the material's resonance. The drums offer an appreciable charging undertow, the bass ever present and distinguished, and the axes felling neck and limb, blade and shield as they pitch through spikes of tremolo bliss and rushes of chord-initiated atmosphere.
There are few flaws at all here, but if one could be noted, it's just that Macabre Omen never quite carves out a category of their to explore. All of the strengths in their writing fall under a mightier precedent, so I could never rate this at quite the level of its influences formative works of wonder. But in an era where many of the fresh Greek faces were simply mirroring their clear Scandinavian forebears, The Ancient Returns still brings a lot to the table, if only because of its seamless execution and brooding immersion. A tribute to the fallen warriors of many Hellenic confrontations that feels authentic and easy to take seriously. A damn good effort that falls only marginally short of greatness. How about another, gentlemen?