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Thursday, October 6, 2016

Review: Unearthed Elf - Into The Catacomb Abyss


Unearthed Elf is a one-man band from Milwaukee, Wisconsin. It’s the solo project of Keith D, co-founder of Arctic Sleep, a genre defying progressive-atmospheric rock/metal band. Apparently, defying genres is in Keith’s blood, because the music Unearthed Elf is supposed to play is described as epic fantasy power doom metal, which is about as genre-defying as you can get. I have heard about a gazillion genres, sub-genres and sub-sub-genres, but I can honestly say epic fantasy power doom metal is not among them. When you think about it, it’s an unusual combination: bombastic metal-on-steroids with slow, atmospheric, moody heavy metal. However, when you hear the story behind it all, it might make a bit more sense. During his recovery from a torn ACL and a tear in his meniscus in 2015, which forced him to cancel an Arctic Sleep tour, this project came to life. It is said the time he had to spend alone at home, drugged and suffering from continuous pain was defined the overall atmosphere of ‘Into the Catacomb Abyss’, Unearthed Elf’s first release. Despite the fact my instincts tell that it seems impossible to deliver something good with a daring combination like this, my interest is piqued here. This is something I have to hear for myself.

Despite its intro album opener and title song ‘Into the catacomb abyss’ has definite power metal influences, it’s an up-tempo, lightly played song with the characteristic staccato riffs and a chorus that sticks to your mind. Rather than drastically switching from one genre to another from song to song or even within a single song, a more common feature in combined genre releases, Keith initially chooses otherwise. He slowly implements doom metal elements into the power metal, transforming from the one to the other over the course of the first three (!) songs. From the power metal in the opening track, the music smoothly flows via the distinctly both doom and power influenced ‘Never see the sun again’ to doom metal in ‘Eternal night’, a song filled with sadness that can easily double as a power metal ballad.

Up next is an instrumental intermezzo which could very well be used as background music to a victory march in a ‘Lord of the Rings’ type of movie, after which he backwards repeats his smooth implementing of different elements over the next three songs. From the doomy, impossibly long titled ‘Vial of holy water found in an ancient, cobweb-laden mausoleum’ via the instrumental, somewhat ominous sounding ‘Candles in the crypt’ the music transforms back to a more power metal oriented base in ‘Lighting the mummy on fire’. In the final three tracks of ‘Into…’, ‘Realm of the beholder’, ‘Ossified remains’ and the epic ‘A forest of gravestones’ this is reversed once more, ending in a heavy, doomy mood.

There is no doubt Keith is an excellent composer, the way he blends, merges and mixes power metal with doom metal and a handful of other genres and transforms from the one to the other over a long span of time and over the course of multiple songs is ingenious. Apart from that he is a gifted multi-instrumentalist, having played every single instrument on this release himself. To top it off he is also responsible for all vocals, save the arrangements of course, and that is, in my opinion, where his only weakness, if it can be called that in the first place, lies. His voice is not bad, not at all even, but it’s a bit too flat for both vocal-wise extreme genres he plays. He lacks the high pitch power metal is known for and on the other hand the moodiness, timbre and depth that is somewhat the trademark of doom metal, even though here and there he tries a decent attempt. Is that bad? Well, no, I don’t think so. Considering the fact his approach of the genres he tapped from is different up to various extends it’s actually good to hear the vocals are not as to be expected either, regardless whether he is capable of other styles or not. To conclude it is safe to say I am pleasantly surprised by Unearthed Elf’s ‘Into the catacomb abyss’. Despite the daring combination of genres, it’s a coherent piece of work, I never get the feeling the combination is out of place or the changes between the genres too abruptly. In fact, it all merges into each other as if it’s supposed to be. Definitely worth a listen for every metal fan, regardless their preference I’d say.

Written by Henric van Essen

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