Album Title: Spawn of Steel
Label: Barbarian Wrath
This is the tenth full-length album from Countess, a Dutch one-man band playing Orthodox Black Metal.
The mood of Spawn of Steel is very close to that of the songs on Hell's Rock and Roll. That means triumphant, unapologetic black METAL. There's hardly a downbeat moment on this record, which is roughly split between historical themes and fervent paeans to the ways of heavy metal. The former recall classics like "Son of the Dragon" and "A Warlord's Swansong", while the latter's Manowar-style lyrics and rousing guitar lines are closer to "The Triumph of Steel". A few repeated themes ("to no man I'll kneel", "hail to the king") lend the album a strong sense of unity, and some echoes from the past ("the priest must die!") give it an equally powerful link to the rest of Countess' work.
The guitar sound on this album is similar to that of Countess' last one, Heilig Vuur, but the vocals are much higher in the mix. The final product is the best mix that Countess has ever had - if only both parts of Revenge of the Horned One had sounded like this! Orlok's guitar playing has improved quite a bit, as well.
The opener, "The Call of Steel", starts out with a touch of the familiar Countess intro, but very quickly jumps straight into some echoing guitar. The song itself is a solo-laden black metal anthem with an interesting lyrical construction - after every two lines, there's two very short lines, snarled in true Countess style. Add that to the chorus, and you can't help but sing along to this one.
"Trumpets of Dawn" is a short, war-themed stomper that breaks up the mood between two more epic songs. The solo here has plenty of feeling, and the repetition of "ride, to war!" gets my blood pumping. This one would be great live.
"Sword and Sceptre" tells the story of a prince in exile, with excellent lyrics and another amazing chorus. Most of the greatness of this song lies in the interplay between the music and vocals.
"Torch the House of God" harks back to songs like "In Hate of Christ" and "The Priest Must Die". The point here is straightforward blasphemy, complemented with Bathoryesque riffing.
"Alone Against the World" begins with a short, declared passage, set to contemplative guitar and tambourine. The song itself reinforces that mood with defiant riffing and mid-paced lead guitar. The lyrics here are quite inspirational.
"Thermopylae" is one of the greatest Countess songs ever, with a stunning main guitar theme and lyrics based in historical fact. The repetition of "Thermopylae!" combined with the guitar line creates a feeling of defiance, as befits the story.
In the whole of "Spawn of Steel", there's no song more Manowar than "The Metal Creed". Simple riffing, power guitar leads, and a yell-along chorus make this one easy to enjoy. The pair of solos about halfway through are especially great.
It's tough to decide which is the better song: "Rise of the Warrior King" or "Thermopylae". This one has the advantage of the single best chorus on an album full of them, as well as more cool vocals/instruments interplay. The blasphemous lyrics are a fine touch, too.
The haunting guitar theme from "Ghosts of Leather" combines with an odd, shuffling riff to give this song an unsettling feel. This one has the best lyrics of the metal anthems on the album. They recall the glory days of metal, while refusing to give in to the present... much like the album itself.
"Knights of Baphomet" tells the story of the Knights Templar. It starts off with some demented soloing, then moves into a slower section. The solo that comes after "...the left-hand path" might just be the best on the album.
"The Seal of Wrath" is about as fast as Countess gets, with some frantic strumming and nearly non-stop vocals. This one does a fine job of breaking the mood between "Knights..." and the next song.
"The March of the Ten Thousand" starts and ends with the sound of the sea. In between is this album's epic, a twelve-minute song with tons of martial riffing and solos. This is the most atmospheric of the songs on this album. The last few minutes are particularly haunting.
The album closes with a cover of Manilla Road's "The Veils of Negative Existence". It's about what you'd expect from a Countess cover of this song, and makes an excellent closer for an album so clearly inspired by the ancient ways of metal.
As good as Heilig Vuur was, Spawn of Steel is even better. The mix allows the vocals to stand out as they should, the vocals are complemented by thoughtful lyrics (included in the booklet!), and the entire thing is brought together by memorable guitar work. If you like some Metal mixed in with your Black, or some Black mixed in with your Metal, this should be the first thing on your shopping list. Spawn of Steel is easily the album of the year for 2005, so far, and I've no reason to expect it to be dethroned. Highest recommendations!
Standout Tracks: "Thermopylae", "Ghosts of Leather", "Rise of the Warrior King"