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The nearly ubiquitous love for Pharaoh among power metal fans has always been something of a puzzling curiosity to me. Tim Aymar is a great vocalist, yes - I don't dispute that, and I don't know of anyone who would; that seems like a fairly uncontroversial statement. The guitar work, though...there's something very strange at work here. It does sound quite a bit like Iron Maiden much of the time, which is perhaps where much of others' enjoyment of the band comes from, but it sounds like Maiden in a very specific, and very bizarre, way. It feels sort of like a band that couldn't get enough of the song "Infinite Dreams" and decided they wanted their entire discography to sound as similar to that as possible. This is somewhat of an exaggeration, of course, but I think there's a significant grain of truth to it. Pharaoh, especially here on their sophomore album The Longest Night, sounds like a smoother, more complex version of 80s Maiden - with all the riffs removed (and with significantly different vocal lines, stylistically, but this point is secondary).
Seriously, I don't know if Pharaoh fans somehow don't realize this or don't care about this, but there are very few riffs in Pharaoh, and those there are are extremely simple and generic in a very Tad Morose way (while I'm shitting on generally well-liked modern power metal bands). For an example of a song with no riffs at all, you need go no further than opener "Sunrise." This is exactly the shit I'm talking about. 8 minutes of intertwining widdly Maiden-esque leads which create what is, for me, a very static, almost listless atmosphere, one that gives you lots of shiny notes all the time, but never really makes any one substantial musical expression. Tim Aymar's vocal lines are actually something I quite like, quite different from those of say, Bruce Dickinson, while we're on Maiden, but he uses a lot of multi-tracking, is not afraid to go all over the place range-wise, and usually manages to craft coherent, stimulating melodies. This is why I wish Tim Aymar was in a band that was not super mediocre like Pharaoh, as the guitar work here is almost the exact opposite.
Now, I'm not saying none of the songs have riffs, of course, as I somewhat explained in the last paragraph - the second track, "I Am the Hammer," actually has pretty cool riffs and manages to be a pretty decent song, and certainly is the best thing on this album. It's got a straightforward, rocking riff and manages not to vary too far from this motif, the leads sounding more restrained in the sense that they're actually following a specific pattern rather than just noodling around and then noodling some more, like they do in a lot of Pharaoh tracks. Unfortunately, the rest of the album manages to stick either to the widdly, meandering leads or to overly simple, generic riffs which overstay their welcome and are not sufficient to support Aymar's particular vocal style. Sometimes these two styles even alternate within the same song, such as on "In the Violet Fire," which mostly has those widdly leads, but also has a pretty simple, dumb riff in the chorus. This style is so utterly bizarre to me, and I have no idea why people like it, or how/if the band knew people would like it. I mean, seriously, if someone were to tell me that they thought they wanted to make a band with Maiden-ish leads serving as the sole guitar playing most of the time, occasionally interspersed with Tad Morose riffs and topped with some very ambitious and unusual vocal lines, I'd tell him/her to stop smoking so much goddamn weed and get a job. Yet somehow, people think it works.
To be fair, it doesn't completely fall on its face - the band clearly makes a legitimate effort to fuse the styles together, and it does about as good a job as I could imagine it doing - that is to say, most of the time sounding kind of bizarre but occasionally seeming somewhat organic, if not really something I'd personally want to listen to. I apologize for making so many comparisons, but to me it's as if Pharaoh listened to the 80s Maiden albums and wanted to found a band based on all the things about 80s Maiden which I specifically dislike. I can just hear the band members saying, "Hey, those widdly leads that don't really do much on Infinite Dreams rule, let's do a ton of that! Man, I just love how Seventh Son is a 10 minute song with 2 riffs that repeats the chorus 28 times, let's do something like that (By the Night Sky)! Man, those simple, rockin' riffs Maiden uses on their really catchy shorter songs are great! Let's use riffs like that, but more derivative, and put them on longer songs that aren't catchy at all!" That's really how it sounds to me. To be fair, I do actually like the chorus of "By the Night Sky," which is probably the second best song on the album, but the song as a whole overstays its welcome and doesn't have strong enough riffs to support its length. It is probably Aymar's best performance on the album, though.
Most of the album simply puts me to sleep, though. While "Sunrise" with its extended dreamy solo is probably the worst offender, "In the Violet Fire," "Endlessly" (hey, it's like they realized what the experience of listening to the album is like!), "The Longest Night," etc. etc. seriously make me want to put my attention on anything else. "Fighting" is also decent but still predicates a 5 minute song on one riff and has way too many leads for its own good. The rest of the album is about the most boring thing I've heard in metal this side of Dream Theater's Octavarium. Many who aren't as keen on Pharaoh's later output tout this as their one album that's good, before they went off the deep end and just started making widdly melodies that go nowhere and are way too far up their own ass. To those people, I've got news for you: Pharaoh have always been up their own ass, to varying extents.
Okay, I'm not familiar with After the Fire so I can't comment on that one, but The Longest Night is still at least 75% leads that do nothing and super boring dumb riffs that make me wish I were listening to Iced Earth (yeah, you heard me). In fact, I actually think the follow-up, Be Gone, is the best thing Pharaoh have put out, making this style more coherent and actually going somewhere with the leads at least half the time, although I still don't think it's an especially good album. "Bury the LIght" is certainly worse, sub-Opeth stuff that should be avoided like the plague, but that doesn't make this album good. Pharaoh have always been incredibly mediocre, and The Longest Night is a perfect example of this. If you like metal with actual riffs, avoid like the plague and focus on good modern power metal like Crescent Shield or Satan's Host. This just isn't worth your time.
Crossing the desert sands under the gaze of ever vigilant stars; galloping towards enemy front lines, weapons ready to kill; eternal love lost to merciless oblivion. These are the kind of images that The Longest Night brings to mind, with its swirling, evocative melodies and powerfully romantic lyricism. Pharaoh's formula clearly fits a regular heavy metal mould, yet it still possesses enough flourish and creativity to easily stand out from the crowd. Indeed, the Pharaoh crew display a uniquely thoughtful approach to metal writing, probably best described as "out of the box traditionalism". Here, the old and familiar is seamlessly integrated into a stranger paradigm, albeit organically enough that neither half suffers for it. Right off the bat, this is demonstrated by the percussive barrage that opens "Sunrise", an 8 minute epic that easily alternates between a hasty USPM gallop and more esoteric bursts of melody. The guitar work is nothing short of astonishing, with Matt Johnsen's mesmerizing licks taking centre stage, although not without competing against Tim Aymar's gruff baritenor. Besides the fantastic songwriting and crisp production, the interplay between these two is easily one of Pharaoh's biggest selling points.
After the terrific opener, we go straight into "seek and destroy" mode with "I Am the Hammer", a short burst of energy that pounds the listener as mercilessly as its blunt, boastful title suggests. Right after it, "In the Violet Fire" just barely slows the pace down, with deceptively soft verses sandwiched between a triumphant chorus, and a bridge that gives the impression that Aymar himself will burst into flame at a moment's notice, just from the sheer, overwhelming power that his voice exudes. It's worth pointing out that these songs don't sound quite like anything else out there. Vague traces of ancestral, timeless influences, such as Seventh Son era Iron Maiden, or Metallica at their hungriest and most ambitious, can be felt here and there, but the Pharaoh engine itself is built with nearly unrecognizable alloys, and fueled by the raw, distilled passion of those who assembled it and keep it running.
The album does peak a bit early with the absolutely breathtaking "By the Night Sky", which is probably the best Maiden epic never actually written by Harris and company, complete with a heavy bass presence and a grandiose historical theme. This song is a perfect representation of what metal at its best ought to be, with its biblical songwriting scope, shameless adherence to a theatrical mindset, and inspiring musicianship. Not a single note or beat is in the wrong place here. Nothing can be done or changed to make "By the Night Sky" better. It cannot be improved upon. Truly, this single composition quite possibly stands as the biggest testament to Pharaoh's talent as artists. The only complaint that could ever be thrown in its way is that it isn't the The Longest Night's closer, through not fault of its own.
After that paragon of metallic might, the rest of the album keeps a steadier, more grounded pace all throughout, which is quite possibly this album's biggest and only blemish. Every song that comes after "By the Night Sky" is eclipsed by it, which really speaks more of its astonishing craftsmanship than it does of its failures, all things considered. The war-like gallop and electric chorus of "Fighting" are blood-pumping, for sure, and the same goes for the vertiginous leads of "Never Run". These are genuinely good slabs of metal. Being preceded by a godly monolith falls on somewhat shoddy track distribution, not them.
Pharaoh's sophomore release is the kind of underground gem that justifies scouring the depths of the genre as thoroughly as possible. A shining beacon of creativity, encased within a framework of metallic classicism, it has nothing to envy from beloved USPM classics such as The Spectre Within or Transcendence. If you are a person that gravitates towards the kind of music that takes you on entrancing, quasi-mystical journeys, then there's really no excuse to ignore this. Find it, get it, and treasure it until the very stars wither and die.
Though it's not quite so pristine and re-listenable as its own successor Be Gone, The Longest Night makes a number of improvements over the Pharaoh debut, and inches towards the band's current sound with class. Once again, we've got a group not willing to merely settle for the part and parcel of power metal tropes, but attempting to make strides in the field that help refresh and revitalize the form, keeping it relevant and half way intelligent while celebrating its roots. Not that a number of the band's forebears haven't done the same, but while Omen, Manowar and Virgin Steele might have provided some of the base ingredients for the Pharaoh recipe, alongside overseas legends like Iron Maiden and Judas Priest, this album at no point seems needlessly backwards or nostalgic. It sounds like it looks, blue lightning lashing out at the masses marching forward in sublimation.
Matt Johnsen dials up the melody here even further, with a lot of his dual lines trumping After the Fire in terms of their sheer infectiousness, and the rhythm guitars through a lot of the record seem like a better backdrop, splayed more into open, ringing chords that better carry the man's natural electricity. The backing riffs are not all that distinct themselves, yet superior to what he was writing a few years prior, and better conductors for the almost unbearable lightness of the leads' being. Not to mention that the general mix of the album helps enforce this glittering glaze of harmony. The drums and guitars are better balanced, and though Aymar slices straight through with the bold grit of his inflection, it all feels somewhat more progressive and potent simultaneously, even on a piece like "In the Violet Fire" where the band is alternating between its passages of cleaner guitars and more emotional vocals with the rushes of melodic speed metal that feel like later 80s Fates Warning infused with Iron Maiden at their prime, only more surgical and technical in how the melodies flood the listeners' brains.
I enjoy more or less every song on this album, whether it's the straight power of "Fighting" which almost sounds like something Hammerfall might write, the frenetic "I Am the Hammer" which at times reminded me of Germans Rage, or "The Longest Night" itself which provides a glorious evolutionary stopgap between Number of the Beast and Awaken the Guardian. Probably the only exceptions for me would be the two lengthier pieces, opener "Sunrise" and "By the Night Sky". Both have plenty of choice riffs and moments, and dynamically they don't indulge in tiring repetition, but I feel like they could have been snipped off at 4-5 minutes and better kept my interest; not to mention that I question the logic of putting "Sunrise" up front when there were far better choices strewn throughout the album that would hook the audience without any chance of growing dull in their depths. Otherwise, it's pretty goddamn consistent, even the instrumental finale "Never Run" succeeds in the video game/chase scene melodies coursing through its peppier riffs; and the guest leads via Chris Poland (ex-Megadeth) and Jim Dofka are tasteful and flush with their surroundings.
Tim Aymar was already a strong component on the first album, but with The Longest Night he too surpasses himself, with a wider range of emotional heights and pitch. Much easier to pick out individual, memorable lines than After the Fire, even in the mere verses of the songs, though they're not so bright, meticulous and haunting as those throughout Be Gone. He's especially potent when he's tracking off against himself, swapping lines in songs like "I Am the Hammer" where the airy reverb and effects built a strong contrast to the pounding of the rhythm guitar, but he's husky and dark enough that he even manages to stand out against the group's central, driving characteristic: Johnsen's melodic tsunami. All in all, a killer effort with nearly every component polished and spit-shined to a simmering perfection, and songwriting of depth and courage which, even at its most derivative feels like far more than a retrospect tribute. To think that they would get even better...
Pharaoh is one of America’s best metal bands period, and this was their breakout album after the rather uneven quality of the debut. The Longest Night is a great album for people interested in both metal’s past and metal’s future, and it is an exceptional effort from everyone involved.
If you don’t know this band, then you’re in for a huge treat the first time you hear them. Their sound is built up from a very traditional heavy metal base with shades of Maiden in the luscious guitar harmonies, but they do Maiden up one with their complex and rather weird songwriting, progressive riff patterns and the completely unique vocals of Tim Aymar, whose gravelly, deep, ballsy tone is a huge asset to this whole album. At first this whole thing sounds too frenetic and chaotic, with harmonies coming at you from all angles and battling the vocals in a huge warring state – it’s very discordant and unexpected. But with a few listens the underlying idiosyncrasies and patterns crop up, and once you are indicted into this kingly hall there is simply no turning back.
I always like when albums start off with 8-minute epics like this one does with “Sunrise.” Opening with maybe the album’s most subtle hook, the song quickly explodes into a beautiful oasis of sorts, with some really excellent lead work from Matt Johnsen. Johnsen is a spectacular lead player, and on every song on this thing he busts out leads that are expressive, unique and complex. At first they appear to be a little too technical and spazzy, but with time they become unified and serene, each one with its own personality. And Tim Aymar’s vocal lines are often rather odd and off the wall, never going into anything resembling a sing-along section – he’s too intelligent for that.
“I Am the Hammer” is the album’s most straight-ahead metal song, with some great jackhammer riffing and a screaming chorus. It rules as much as it sounds like it does. Other great tunes like “Like a Ghost” and “Up the Gates” crop up near the end of the album with more brilliant leads, hard-assed riffs and unconventional songwriting that imitates no band. The title track is one of the best songs on this thing, with its mournful chorus and resonating, atmospheric chords – perhaps the most idiosyncratic and subtle song on the whole record, and a growing favorite of mine every time I hear it. But the real gem is “By the Night Sky,” which is 8 and a half minutes of galloping heavy metal orthodoxy that shimmers with its majesty, taking the listener to Egyptian plains and pharaonic tombs, where dust has long since settled and the ghosts lurk around every corner. A stunning ode to the nocturnal world.
It’s not all perfect, and there are fillers like “Fighting” and “Endlessly,” as well as the rather unremarkable closing instrumental, but even those are only weaker in comparison to the much more stand-out material of the rest of the album. On a lot of albums songs like these would probably fare quite decently – but here they just feel a little weighty and dragging, and sometimes they just feel like placeholders before the next really great song. The production isn’t as full and heavy as I’d like, but then, the band sounds so raw and hungry on here that it doesn’t matter too much.
The Longest Night is really a spectacle for just how creative and inventive it is without ever leaving the firm roots of old school heavy metal. It is proof that bands can play retro styles and do them up with modern progressive creativity and have neither one cancel the other out, and that is a prospect that gives me great hope for the future of this genre. On future albums Pharaoh would expand on this notion and deliver even more structured and complex works of metallic art, but this was their real jump-off point. A great album.
Take best aspects from the debut, add a production boost and give it more epic flavoring, and you, my fellow metalhead, have The Longest Night. I complained about the lack of real power and progressiveness (if you will) on the last album, but I can happily dispel these concerns as the first track, “Sunrise,” roars through the night. The guitars have way more kick to them, but with the same crunchiness alongside harmonic, blissful Maiden-esque leads. Twin harmonies are utilized much more, which feels pure and satisfying, making this album sound much more fulfilling than the last. Here, you can tell the band poured their heart and soul into what very well is their longest album thus far.
Black is still as bombastic as he was on the last album, but his playing seems much faster this time around. It’s like he’s got a grip on things now (like he isn’t the bitch in the back) – he shows he can keep tabs on the rest of the guys. Thankfully the drums got a boost, too, so they aren’t lower in the mix anymore. If there’s one thing I wish was up, it’s definitely the drum bass. It sounds like he’s hitting pillows, which is no good unless we’re talking about fluffy power metal, and Pharaoh aren’t even close to that.
The riffs themselves I’d like to call back, because the album got even more edgy than before. The tone is crunchier, but I’m hypnotized by how catchy they are as they play like electricity surging through in the sky. The cover art depicts this well enough (as one such interpretation), since it’s like a concert on its own and there’s no way you’re going to sleep until it’s over. All three guitar parts (one strict lead, one accompanying harmony, and the rhythm riff) work together better than before and create a momentous, magical experience that Maiden would look gladly hear.
The first track I heard by the band (and coincidentally the best and longest one on the album) is “By The Night Sky.” Everyone benefits from this song – a win / win situation where life literally feels better while you’re listening to it. The lead is incredibly melodic, epic, and more addictive than most any other USPM you’ll come across. I’m dead serious, hear that enchanting lead and galloping riff, followed by the awe-striking, beautiful clean performance by Aymar.
“Adorned with greatest splendor
The dawning of a time…
Where all men pledge their honor
And some pay with their lives…”
His singing is extremely poignant at this moment, capturing the audience before blasting a clever barrage of charging riffs as the song carries on through the night. The solos here and on the rest album are twice as meaningful compared to the debut, really bringing you on a more personal level with the band without becoming over-the-top or delving into symphonic territory. Bass shines on this album thanks to the production, so it grumbles well during the peaceful moments while slaying elsewhere.
Pharaoh is part of that breed of power metal that to some may sound tame, but they’ve found a sound that does them justice and continues to kick ass while others fall flat on their face. The blend of Aymar’s dry vocal style with prevailing harmonized leads and epic fervor make this one a powerful force to be reckoned with in the scene. If there’s one thing Americans should be proud about, it’s The Longest Night.
On a smaller scale, Cruz Del Sur is to current heavy/traditional metal what Morrisound and Sunlight Records represented to early death metal or Metal Blade was to early ‘80s American metal. A look at the label’s current roster will give you a who’s who of contemporary American heavy metal – Slough Feg, Hammers of Misfortune, Widow & Icarus Witch to name a few. A more than worthy inclusion to such illustrious company is the Philadelphian quartet Pharaoh, boasting in their ranks the golden pipes of ex- Control Denied frontman Tim Aymar and also the guest services of ex- Megadeth six-string wielder Chris Poland.
In an era where Maiden-esque twin harmonies are flaunted largely and unimpressively by second to third rate melodic death metal bands, Pharaoh’s unflinching allegiance to the trademark dual guitar attack and the all but copyrighted Iron Maiden gallop gladden the heavy metal connoisseur by reclaiming what has always rightfully belonged to this genre. To dismiss Pharaoh as a mere Maiden clone would be doing gross injustice to the band’s supreme musical abilities. Sure, Pharaoh do wear their influences on their sleeve but this does not in any way imply that the music is drab or derivative by any stretch of imagination.
The Longest Night is Pharaoh’s sophomore effort and the sound here is easily more evolved and sophisticated than their debut After The Fire. The album kicks off with the epic Sunrise. Pharaoh waste no time in swooping in hard on the twin guitars and 13 seconds into the album, you are greeted with a tasty lick superbly reminiscent of Thin Lizzy and Iron Maiden. Throughout the album, the longer, more epic songs derive their mechanics from Iron Maiden opuses like Loneliness Of A Long Distance Runner or Stranger In A Strange Land. The shorter songs like I am the Hammer and The Longest Night take the thrash-meets-brit heavy metal sensibilities of Iced Earth soaked in good quantities of ‘80s American true power metal like Manilla Road and Crimson Glory. The 4th track, By The Night Sky is by far my favourite piece of work on the album. Starting off with a mellow guitar intro, the song switches between healthy, trotting sections, slow verses that bring out Aymar’s voice brilliantly and open chord, anthemic chorus parts with one of the most well executed solos in recent metal memory. The album on the whole is quite lengthy (clocking in at nearly 55 minutes of playtime), owing to an abundance of epic songs but the good thing about Pharaoh is that at no point do they let the album slip away into filler material of any sort. Every song is refreshingly well written and different from the other, although they operate largely within a given framework of songwriting.
Matt Johnsen is quite technically proficient with the 6 string, meaning that we get to hear a pleasing plentitude of solos, a trait which has been sorely missed in heavy metal in the recent past. And I’m talking about real, melodic solos that fit the songs, not contrived pieces of wizardry inserted to ride on the individual skills of the musicians in the band. Bassman Chris Kerns plays an able foil to Johnsen with some solid low-end backing but occasionally endeavors to show us he is no pushover with some really interesting non-rhythmic basslines. Tim Aymar is definitely one of the best vocalists in metal today and his performance on the album is nothing less than scintillating.
Overall, the band sounds tight, well in control and most importantly of all, METAL through and through. The absurdities we endure today in the name of power metal courtesy of the cloying proliferation of Blind Guardian/Helloween clones from the Balkan regions notwithstanding, this is REAL power metal, the kind which was birthed from a natural progression of the early’80s stalwarts.
It is sad that this album which might actually be a landmark in contemporary heavy metal, comparable to The August Engine or Down Among The Deadmen is languishing in relative obscurity, recognized and hailed by a niche audience but sadly overlooked or neglected by a lot of the metal community. Well, I’m doing my bit to promote them. Highly recommended!
Now is the time for serious American Metal! After the fire burn which seared my soul from their debut release, Pharaoh return with another total metal classic, fighting their way to the upper eschalon, where bands like Destiny's End, Onward and Steel Prophet once reigned. Tim Aymar from Control Denied and Psycho Scream just gels perfectly with guitar wizard Matt Johnsen and the drumming demolition of Chris Black. Both of these patriots of power also write for "Metal Maniacs" Magazine. These metal scholars scavenge the dregs of diversity; therefore, they intuit the message of metal. As Americans, they designate
diligence defining their sound of solid steel with adequate awareness of the roots and ramifications in the underground. They acknowledge their influences and with stridency they strike at the heart of the enemy of all things metal. The Longest Night retracts the realm of mettle and might, gloriously hastening a reconversion to the 80's with hints of Omen, Helstar, Oliver Magnum, and Griffin; all the while upholding and retaining the presence and puissance of today's more polished sound. Tim trained with Chuck Schuldiner and was selected by him as his vocalist when Warrel Dane could not commit to the project. This was our lasting legacy before Chuck's untimely departure, leaving us all to expect the unexpected. Concurrently Pharaoh carries on the metal's sovereign solarflight.
Sunrise, the opening track, a solemn eight minute muster, is well selected to invoke and initiate the listener into The Longest Night. The flash of the dark diffuses the incandescence and repudiates the dawn as lyrically this song celebrates nocturnal nuances of necessity. Even Chris Poland visits from Metalopolis to subscribe his shredding solo. Then the next track, I Am the Hammer, hails and kills with the sign of a hammer crumbling my tortured skull. With music and lyrics written by Chris Black echoing the drum snare and rebuke of Randy Black from Primal Fear, this metal hammer just smashes in your face: "As you're losing your way in the night, finding you've run out of life; Death will drive through your head like a spike...'cause I am the hammer!". Deference, but never diffidence is displayed to the age of mastery with ample destruction In the Violent Fire. Tim mimicks Harry "Tyrant" Conklin, yet still maintains his own unique vocal verisimilitude; therefore, Pharoah never fall thane to the throne of Jag Panzer.
Many critics claim that Pharaoh are mere Maiden clones. This obligatory obscuration is obtuse, presupposing that Pharaoh have become slovenly slaves to the power of the beast. Evidently, they are influenced by Maiden. After all, who in metal isn't? I also detect an allegiance to Thin Lizzy and Saxon. The track By the Night Sky scripted by Chris Kerns is an ardent retrospect to the band which inspired him to play bass; but there are also some heavy riffs reminiscient to Iced Earth's Something Wicked this Way Comes. This track, and several other Pharaoh songs honor the Egyptians, and forage creedence for their namesake. There is also an endlessly overarching constant to this CD which converges with night time temporalities. The whole CD is balanced musically and proportioned proficiently. Two tracks, Endlessly and Like a Ghost gear themselves lyrically with the chain breaking the broken heart sindrome of disconsolate intimacy, and the dark night of the soul. It's no wonder they disavow sunrise, as they wallop in misery, consumed by the fragile art of existence, in the violet fire of passion. Pharaoh are forever free from fraudulence and derision as they ascend and skulk like a ghost in the fog. The production is meticulous, and never maladroit by Matt Crooks and the accompanying quartet. Each detail is cautiously discerned to create such an epic masterpiece. An example of this is the song Fighting, which is so fervent with it's furious soloing and lightning leads performed by Matt and guest musician Jim Dofka. The CD closes with an intense instrumental inspired by NWOBHM artists. Pharaoh are not afraid to play what some call dated material. They are forever free! Even though this is just a studio release, I yearn to see them live, if ever they choose to tour someday, as they would receive such accolades and recognition, and never run out of die-hard dedicates. Congratulations for being true mettle...Up the Gates!
as originally posted at www.metalcovenant.com