EXCITER, The Dark Command (1997, Osmose)

The skull:
A barely-there skull floating translucently over what appears to be a volcano and some lightning (for some reason), this cover practically screams “Shitty Greek black metal,” but of course this is Exciter, one of the great grand-daddies of speed metal. I guess when they signed to Osmose, they looked at their labelmates’s covers and said, “Very well. If that is the way the winds are blowing, let it not be said we don’t also blow!” And they said it without even knowing that Simpsons reference.

The music:
This was Exciter’s “comeback” album, although looking back, they were not really gone for very long, only five years. Exciter is one of those bands I feel like I should enjoy, because I’m a good student of heavy metal history and I generally appreciate these elder statesmen-type bands, and because I’m generally inclined towards thrash and speed metal. But, Exciter has never much cranked my motor. I’ve got the first couple albums, and that always seemed like enough. I do actually own this album as well, because I found it used and cheap not long after it came out, and honestly, it’s not a bad album at all, even if it’s a little generic. When guitarist John Ricci reformed the band in the mid-90s, he did it without either of his classic-trio companions, and the result is an album that’s pretty good thrashy power metal, but which somehow doesn’t much satisfy as an Exciter album. And yes, I think I can say that without having ever been particularly satisfied by an Exciter album. New singer Jacques Belanger is like a bargain-basement Canadian Eric Adams, and while his voice is perfectly acceptable, he fails to bring the manic intensity that original (not-very-good) singer Dan Beehler had in spades. Plus, Beehler did it while playing drums (poorly) and that counts for a lot in my book. There are far worse comebacks, and something like this version of Exciter managed to keep the flame burning for another four albums, so I’m ready to give them a little credit, but not too much. Anyway, the original trio is back together, so I suppose it’s time for Exciter fans to start forgetting that the last 15 years ever happened.
— Friar Johnsen


ABIGHOR, The Bloody Cross (1989, demo)

The skull:
The best thing about covers like this is knowing that someone had to actually use scissors and glue to make it. Start with a picture of a volcanic eruption, perhaps from a National Geographic back issue, slap on a skull from an olde-tyme anatomy book, and finally paste on a gilt and bejeweled censer, to make some kind of point about the church, or something? It’s a metaphorically bloody cross, you see. The technology to make the cross appear literally bloody just didn’t exist in Abighor’s local library in 1989.

The music:
I am only slightly ashamed to admit that I own not one, but two versions of Abighor’s sole full-length release, 1994’s Anticlockwise. That album is a lesser entry in the mid-90s Italian prog/power explosion, reminding me of early Time Machine, only not as good. And, so armed with what amounts to an unreasonable degree of familiarity with this band, I thought I had a good idea of what I’d be getting with The Bloody Cross. What I got, though, was speed metal with only the vaguest intimations of progressive inclinations: more Exciter than Fates Warning, although they do occasionally stretch out a little even on this early effort. Amateur playing and production make this a challenging listen at times, but the energy and aggression are welcome, and while the midtempo Queensryche worship of Anticlockwise is perfectly fine for what it is, maybe if Abighor had stuck to their guns and expanded on the speedy, almost thrashy sound they have here, they might have ended up at something a bit more interesting in the end. If nothing else, the highly accented vocals of Giancarlo Mattei work better in this less controlled setting than they do in the more polished prog metal of the band’s later work. His John Cyriis scream fits better when the band is nearly going off the rails, but set against the too-serious keyboard metal of Anticlockwise he comes off as just another Italian warbler with more range than sense. The Bloody Cross is far from classic, but as context for the band’s history and the larger Italian metal scene, it’s a neat artifact.
— Friar Johnsen