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From the Mountainous Woodlands of Central Virginia - 85%

Bronan, May 27th, 2014

Hidden beneath college town top 40 hits and surrounding rural country stations, Salvaticus does something that very few other musical groups in the Charlottesville area do - they play really good black metal. And with the release of their debut, Hidden Manna, they have accomplished something that very few modern black metal bands have been able to accomplish - they have created a genuine and original black metal album in 2014, 2 decades after legendary releases like Transilvanian Hunger and In the Nightside Eclipse.

Despite containing only 4 tracks, all of them run over 9 minutes long, and individually, none of the tracks feel repetitive or drawn out. The style is atmospheric black metal, combining standard, raw black metal music connected by ambient, folk influenced instrumental bridges. They call themselves Blue Ridge Mountain Black Metal, and indeed every song captures an atmosphere sound that takes you on a journey through the Piedmont region of the Great Applachian.

Each member of the band has their individual talents, and they all come through brilliantly on the album. Guitarists Brian Weaver and Carter Felder lay the foundation for each track and have a strong synergy that compliments one another very well, often melding with one another to create a thick sound before splitting apart and filling out the void. The guitar tone is EQ'd very well, neither too thin nor bass heavy, and the riffs and harmonies are clearly audible. There are no dubs, and everything you hear on the album can be played live in full.

Vocalist/Bassist Alex Lee delivers a powerful, piercing shriek that bring a haunting element to music. Although the album comes without printed lyrics, he enunciates well enough such that they are very easy to decipher given enough spins, and the album is surely good enough to warrant that. Furthermore, the bass has a presence that is unfortunately often lost or ignored by other black metal bands. Here, the basslines avoid the mistake of blindly following the guitars, and brings a much needed element that completes the harmonic aspect of the music.

The final member, drummer Kevin Ardrey, gives a performance so good it deserves special recognition. The man is an absolute machine and he takes on the role of carrying each song with his hands and feet. Every track is written in movements, transitioning seamlessly from one section to another through Ardrey's brililant contribution. Steady on blast beats and double kicks, he brings a very technical aspect with his work on cymbals that compliments both the furious black metal riffs as well as the slower atmospheric sections.

I have to commend guitarist Felder for a job well done on the production side of the album. Nothing is lost in the mix and everything occupies its own musical space. The instruments all come together very well, and yet avoids sounding overproduced. As a matter of fact, despite the solid production quality, the music maintains a raw edge that's perfect for this style of black metal. Hidden Manna should be used as a modern example of how independently produced black metal music should sound.

Although I have given nothing but praise up until this point, the release is not without it's flaws. After listening to the first two songs, it becomes apparent that Salvaticus has been sticking to a certain songwriting formula. Each track is about the same length, beginning with a standard black metal riff which breaks down after a couple of verses into the song. By the time you reach the final song, "A Vulture's Feather", the clean guitar section near the 6 minutes mark is almost expected. So while each individual track is complete and delivers, the album on the whole can seem repetitive, and it's difficult to separate the tracks from one another.

Speaking of which, the second major flaw of the album is that the clean guitar tone pretty much sucks, with the exception of track 2 "Further". This is especially apparent in the intro to "A Vulture's Feather", where the guitar sounds annoyingly thin and compressed. While "lo-fi" production quality can certainly be desirable in black metal, "poor quality" is not a substitute, and the recording would be near flawless if the clean tone sounded more like it did on "Further".

Overall, Salvaticus has done a mighty fine job with their debut release. At times, the album is reminiscent of early second wave black metal, and should be enjoyable for anyone who is a fan of the Norwegian scene. In a time when the term "black metal" implies influences from outside sources like post-rock or progressive, the band from central Virginia has managed to produce a pure, authentic black metal sound that at times recalls classic Darkthrone and Emperor sans-keyboard. The music can be surprisingly technical at times. Given time to write and develop a greater variety of songs, I expect Salvaticus to continue producing great, modern black metal music.