Reviewed: January 2020
Released: October 2019, Independent Release
Winnipeg is located in Canada, underneath a cold air mass, near the fast flowing polar jet streams of the Northern Hemisphere. It’s placement on the flats of the prairie make it susceptible to harsh conditions and brutally cold weather. In the winter months, the temperature can drop as low as minus 30 degrees.
Bear this in mind when you press play on Ancient Incantation Of Xarbos, the latest album from Winnipeg black metallers, Cell.
Before a note of music is played, Cell set a bitter tone using the sounds of a desperately cold wind. Within the icy bluster you can make out the terrified screams of the poor souls who appear lost and suffering in the sub zero temperatures. It is a grim and desolate start, devoid of any optimism or hope. However, to anyone with a taste for heavy, blackened metal, these are all familiar themes, so when the pulsing weight of Defiling The Ancient Hierarchy emerges from the tempestuous intro and accelerates into a series of stabbing riffs, it is with a sense of satisfying expectation.
While All I See Is Them continues the assault, making an impressive showcase for Hypnos’s rapid drumming, it’s worth considering that despite mirroring the cold climate of their home in the song’s arrangements, Cell’s intention is actually to take the listener away from Earthy concerns. By describing themselves as Cosmic Black Metal, the trio are highlighting Ancient Incantation Of Xarbos as a science fiction concept album. It tells of events taking place far away, on the planet Xarbos, continuing a theme the band started with their 2016 debut, “The Frozen Moon Of Erebath”
The band explain: “Each track has its own story in the album that leads to one big ending which is the decimation of the Xarbonitehierarchy. In the story, there are two races of beings on this planet: one race chose to rise with power, technology, money, while the lower race is actually the oldest of Xarbos and know the ways of the land and it’s magic.
Speaking specifically about the album’s first single, The Wailing Sea Of Emptiness, which pummels forth with a confident blast (watch the video below), the band elaborates: “This song is about the lower race crossing the wailing sea to get to the Valley of Assimilation. Within the valley. There is a wormhole that can transport any being to the realm of the Frost King. Long ago, before the higher race started taking over, everyone was in harmony and lived together as one. Over the years fewer people believed in the gods of the old world and the God of Gods grew tired of this and trapped all the souls of non-believers.”
It’s imaginative stuff and it certainly gives an extra dimension to the album. Crucially, Cell have the musical skills to match their high concept. Each musician shines on this release and I’m surprised to learn that the band have put this out without the support of a label because overall, it’s an appealing mix of superb musical ability, original ideas, twisting arrangements and heavy, HEAVY riffs.
Production wise, the album has a “live” and organic sound, using a crunchy, death metal tone that reminds me in places of Celtic Frost or Beneath The Remains era Sepultura. It all sounds clear, but it’s not without weight. For example, the aforementioned single climaxes with a dirty, doomy chug that will get necks snapping with no problems at all.
Elsewhere, the tempo is predominantly rapid. Savage blast-beats and rhythmic shifts weave throughout the band’s almost prog-like arrangements. The guitars dig in, occasionally breaking into impressive solos and on Valley Of Assimilation, dovetailing into well-executed complex parts alongside Demios’s equally deft basslines.
Of particular note is the ten minute, epic album closer, Altering Matter In The Realm Of The Frost King. Here the band bring things to a climactic crawl that takes the listener through an evocative, aural rendering of the Frost King’s empire. The guitars are layered with dirt, the tempos shift from a Sabbath swagger to a savage, heavy metal gallop over which Hyperion solos. Voices snarl and drop to a low growl: it’s a dramatic conclusion to what has been an impressive performance and one that I feel I will revisit often.