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Dark, intense majesty - 89%

Agonymph, January 8th, 2017
Written based on this version: 2002, CD, Rising Sun Productions

Sometimes bands are so short of the attention they deserve, that they even surprise me pleasantly when I come across them in my own collection. Because really, Stygma IV’s brand of dark, somewhat progressive power metal is nothing short of excellent. And yet, they’re not exactly a household name. Maybe it’s the fact their native Austria didn’t have the infrastructure for metal that their German neighbors had or simply that they were forced to change their name multiple times throughout their early career. ‘The Human Twilight Zone’ is a true grower: it slowly reveals its dark secrets over multiple listens.

It certainly isn’t the musicianship. Günter Maier is an accomplished guitarist with an audible background in progressive metal, but without all the neoclassical clichés of all of his contemporaries, while Alex Hilzensauer is a true bass virtuoso, but wisely chooses to only show that in small, digestible doses. Ritchie Krenmaier’s voice often strongly enhances the atmosphere of oppression or psychological illness in the lyrics; his expressive voice is clean, but with a distinct raw edge and sounds like a lower pitched version of Metal Church’s Mike Howe. Herb Greisberger stands out because in an era of rapid footwork, he chooses for interesting tom and snare drum patterns instead.

The centerpiece of ‘The Human Twilight Zone’ is the 16 minute epic ‘Sleep’, which never actually feels as long as it does. You can hear the song going through multiple movements of varying degrees of intensity. Again: the composition is marvellous, but it’s Krenmaier who really enhances the intensity. It’s hardly the only highlight on the album though. It’s preceded by ‘The Void’, a slow, ridiculously heavy song with massive guitar riffs. The title track starts off sounding like the band is trying to attempt something more melodic, but turns out to be another typical Stygma IV song: dark, atmospheric and really heavy. Excellent fretless work by Hilzensauer as well.

Luckily, there is enough variation to warrant the album’s 70 minute run. ‘My Failure Reveals’ has a somewhat lighter, more traditional heavy metal feel, though I wouldn’t exactly call it upbeat. This is also one of the songs where Maier’s leads, while very well structured, have an almost improvised feel, which is quite rare in the genre. ‘Scars’ also has a more traditional feel, albeit in a more proggy manner. ‘Why’ and closing track ‘The Way To Light’ are the ballads of the album, but they retain the dark vibe of the rest of the album, which – together with Krenmaier’s spirited performance – makes a true highlight out of the former.

Unfortunately however, Greisberger contracted a back injury some time ago, resulting in the band calling it a day. Maier and Hilzensauer went on to form the very similarly styled Crimson Cult, which is also very worthy of your time, but ‘The Human Twilight Zone’ is one of those instances where all the parts are in the right place. Had they toured with Nevermore or Savatage at the time – both of which are similar to the band in style, but not in sound – they could have made it a little bigger. Because this material truly deserves that.

Recommended tracks: ‘The Void’, ‘Sleep’, ‘Why’

Originally written for my Kevy Metal weblog

Should be a classic. - 91%

Empyreal, June 18th, 2014
Written based on this version: 2002, CD, Rising Sun Productions

Fourth album for the lamentably underrated Stygma IV – and I hate to use the word underrated, but they are. This was one of the best bands in power metal during the 90s and early 2000s. After their odd prog-laced debut Solum Mente Infirmis they only got more riff-based and traditional from album to album, with this one pretty much being a solid metal jackboot straight to the teeth. Well, metaphorically anyway – I’m pretty sure it hasn’t come out yet in jackboot format.

The band’s formula is pretty much propulsive classic guitar-hero stuff a la Ritchie Blackmore or Tony Iommi – just slick, heavy, hooky riffs that can dive into a doomy section or even some faster speed metal type stuff, with a taste for the epic at the ready at all times. The guitar-work of main man Gunter Maier here is seriously just unparalleled, as he run circles around many of the band’s contemporaries and put out some licks to rival the classic bands. The songwriting is compact and heavy, with shorter songs than their earlier albums had and a focus more on being retro and old-school than on twisting the songwriting format around into loopy epics and bizarre acoustic sections. That would probably be disappointing if the songs here weren’t so good.

Singer Ritchie Krenmaier powers out a great performance on here with a raspy Dio-esque midrange exploding sometimes into a more Russell Allen-esque high wail – though those two influences aren’t that far apart, it does show you where he’s coming from. Opener “Calculation Towers” is good and the hooky groove of “Stygmatized” is even better, but things don’t get going until the next few tracks – which are the best on the album. “The Void” is an old school Sabbath doom riff and one of the catchiest choruses on the album – it’s bare bones songwriting, but oh man does it ever work. “Earth Children” boasts a monster of a riff – seriously it will just own you and your family and even your dog, it’s so fucking good. It loops through some mellower 70s-trippy sections here and there, but those really just serve as a counterpoint for the song to dive back into that amazing riff.

But the real crown jewel here is “Sleep,” a 16-minute epic and the best song the band ever wrote. I am no fan of super-long epic songs – I think most metal bands tend to over-use the format in an attempt to sound ‘deep’ or ‘progressive,’ when really they don’t have enough ideas to sustain a huge song length. Rush and Iron Maiden got it right way back when and that’s that, with only a couple of exceptions. This is one of those exceptions. It’s not really progressive (well except for the flute solo about 9-10 minutes in…), but more of a huge heavy metal maelstrom, with a lot of different sections and parts and emotive vocal bits all strung together by a killer main riff. There’s a real sense of flow to the song as it feels very narrative in structure, with tormented lyrics that take you on a journey through it. I really think any fan of classic metal should track this song down and hear it. And while you’re at it, listen to the rest of this goddamn album.

If the rest of this can’t measure up it’s really no slight against the album to say so – following the previous three tracks and keeping the same quality would have been a Herculean feat. But there are no weak tracks; just some that you like a bit less than others. “Omega” is a cool tune, as is the title track – both have fistfuls more great riffs, vocal lines and attitude. “At the End of My Daze” is a bit of an oddity for the band, as it is a sort of bouncy half-ballad AOR track, but the highly emotionally driven vocal performance elevates it above just some cash-in attempt, and it’s one of my favorites here. “Scars” has some cool guitar riffs and licks that remind me of Queensryche and Crimson Glory at their prime.

Lyrically the guys have penned more of their misery and madness tales, ranting about politics, the end of the world and all sorts of other topics that, while generic, are delivered with an earnest enthusiasm I can’t help but like. Many bands, when they get really big, tend to try for lyrics like this and it comes off as trite and try-hard. It takes young, scrappy and angry bands fighting their way through unfair music business deals and the vapid state of modern popular music to do these lyrics right – which is, I believe, what we had on this album.

I really dig this album, and it’s second to Solum Mente Infirmis… as my favorite Stygma IV album. There’s a real dedication to what metal should be about here – just boundless energy, great nimble, aggressive guitarwork and epic, imaginative songwriting. I love the hunger and passion the guys had here; you just don’t get this with so many of the bands trying at retro 70s and 80s metal nowadays. If you can track down The Human Twilight Zone I recommend you do so, as it is a lost gem, and one of my favorite metal discoveries of recent months.

Stygma-IV-tized - 84%

DeathForBlitzkrieg, February 6th, 2007

When it comes to metal, Austria has quite a few internationally known bands, but those mainly belong to the extreme spectrum of metal. The popularity of bands like Belphegor, Hollenthon, Summoning and Pungent Stench crowds out more traditional bands and while that scene is indeed rather small, it has some gems like Stygma IV to offer. Stygma IV had a lot of bad luck in their career, without several name changes caused by legal problems they probably would have had a greater success, but nonetheless they tried their best and released a couple of decent to very good albums.

The Human Twilight Zone, the second album under the final moniker Stygma IV, is probably their most progressive one, but not Progressive Power Metal like Symphony X. No, it’s different, certainly in a good way different, to most Power Metal bands. There isn’t a particular epic feeling, or overly pronounced keyboards, or a high-pitched singer and it doesn’t bear any resemblance with so-called Flower Metal. I even think they tried not to conform to any of these clichés and the result is surprisingly good, if not by far perfect.

There are two driving forces, the guitarist and the singer. The latter has really outstanding vocal skills, not only he can change notes on the fly, he also tries to maintain a high variety of singing styles all through the album. He has a pretty standard Power Metal voice, slightly raspy, but quite high-pitched and very melodious. There’s also something that is often neglected, Ritchie Krenmaier sings with emotion. Yes, that is a trite term, but it really applies here, he manages to sing very authentically, as if he wrote the lyrics just before recording. As important as the vocals is rest of the band, especially guitarist Gunter Maier is at the forefront with his powerful handling of the six-string and he has quite a few excellent ideas, in particular in the first half of the album. In the second half the riffs get boring fast, the leads and solos aren’t as mind-blowing as in the first six songs and there is just a lack of consistency. Don’t get me wrong, those tracks aren’t bad, there are even very interesting parts, like the piano melody in the chorus of ‘At the End of my Daze’ or the bass leads in ‘My Failure Reveals’, but all in all they are quite disappointing.

So, what makes the first half better? Well, it is catchier. “What? Catchier? That doesn’t make something better”, I can hear you say and that’s absolutely correct if you’re referring to riffs or melodies, but when it comes to song writing, this is important. It’s actually quite simple. If the arrangements are well thought-out, a song isn’t just different parts put together randomly and it feels like a whole piece, your ears will recognise it as euphonious and it will most likely catch your interest thus it’s catchy. This is obviously harder to archive the longer the song lasts, so the fourth song ‘Sleep’, clocking in at 16 minutes, is certainly a hot spot. Stygma IV have had overlong songs on their previous albums, with more or less pleasing results, but they never reached 16 minutes and did so well. ‘Sleep’ is a masterpiece, probably the best song Stygma IV have written in their more than a decade-long career. It has really everything a (prog) metal fan could possibly wish for, a fantastic and catchy lead and rhythm guitar work, highly varying rhythms and dynamics, two bass solos, one with a fretless bass, but the most surprising thing is that they pull a Jethro Tull in the middle of the song. Yes, an incredible flute solo can be found here and it feels like ‘Thick as a Brick’ for several seconds.

I can easily recommend The Human Twilight Zone every progressive and power metal fan and if you usually dislike power metal, you could have a shot this album anyway, because due to the rather dark general atmosphere and lyrics it is a rather atypical album for this genre. Essentially, you could drop the decent second, but not nearly as good as the first, half and you’d still have six excellent songs with a total playing time of forty minutes.