Argus – Beyond the Martyrs (Cruz del Sur Music, 01 October 2013)
Arduini / Balich – Dawn of Ages (Cruz del Sur Music, 24 February 2017)
Argus – From Fields of Fire (Cruz del Sur Music, 08 September 2017)
I can still remember the first time I heard Argus — in the burgeoning days of the early 2010s, the song was “The Damnation of John Faustus” from their self-titled album. I can’t say for certain, but it was probably on Foundry of Doom radio, since that’s what I spent most of my time listening to back then. And here, among epic tracks by the likes of Solstice, Atlantean Kodex, Solitude Aeturnus, etc., this song’s dark themes and powerful vocals really caught my ear.
This was still months, maybe even up to a year, before the genesis of my career as a writer, but I’ve always been inquisitive and wanted to research and learn more about everything I heard. In this instance, I was struck by how new the band was (their first demo dates back ten years, now, but at the time of this story the debut full-length was about a year or two old), but even more surprised to see that these guys were local (originating in Franklin, PA, just about an hour and a half north of Pittsburgh)!
I also discovered that the vocalist, Brian “Butch” Balich (formerly of Penance), is also a member of Molasses Barge, another local doom band that would greatly impress me when I saw them for the first time just months later. Eventually I’d manage to catch Argus live, as well, and they definitely managed to live up to the high expectations set by their incredible recorded output. I believe this was just before the 2013 release of their third album Beyond the Martyrs — one that immediately made its way onto my writing “to do list” but inexplicably has stayed there for these past years.
But now there’s a ferment of activity surrounding the band once more: they recently announced that their fourth album will be coming later this year — and I’ll be discussing both of those today, with an added bonus that was released a few months back by a side project involving Balich. And to top it all off, Argus will also be performing in Pittsburgh THIS FRIDAY (14 July) at an event that doubles as a preview of September’s Brewtal Beer Fest as well as featuring the world premiere of the new beer produced through a collaborative effort between the band and Big Rail Brewing! So after you’re done reading about the music, pop on down to the comments section for more information about that.
Just before the Before the Martyrs full-length, Argus had released an EP called Blood, Fire, Beer, which featured — in addition to a handful of live classics and one brand-new song — a cover of a Pink Floyd song and a Thin Lizzy song. While the classic/hard rock influences of the band have never been a secret, these elements seem especially pronounced on their 2013 record. Especially the latter of those two, as Lizzy-esque guitar harmonies feature prominently in songs like “Four Candles Burning” and “Trinity” (which also employs more of a hard-rock than metal drumming style, for the most part). Of course, searing twin-guitar harmonies have always been a hallmark of this group, as has the duelling guitarists trading off leads or taking turns soloing, and that hasn’t changed a bit.
The solitary new composition from that 2012 EP, “The Hands of Time are Bleeding,” managed to find its way onto Beyond the Martyrs as well, and for good reason, as it stands out as one of this album’s highlights — especially that chorus! Other recommended tracks would definitely include “The Coward’s Path,” featuring plenty of Candlemassy riffs and outright doomination. Closing out the LP are a pair of songs, “Cast Out All Raging Spirits” and the title track, which come across more as straight traditional heavy metal than doom metal — demonstrating the band’s equally masterful command of both styles.
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Fast-forwarding a full four years, From Fields of Fire sees a band with a slightly shifted line-up — a new bassist and one new guitarist (replacing two members who’d been around since 2005) — but, it seems, with a renewed sense of determination. Beginning and ending with lovely acoustic tracks with hauntingly, maybe even chillingly, pretty melodies, the album’s tone is very dark and dismal. While the first couple songs are rather heavy and doomy, some of the album’s best moments are in some of its later songs: “Hour of Longing” is very melancholy as it discusses dealing with loss (“in losing you I lost part of myself”), and poignantly portraying the resultant internal struggle (“in the grips of anxiety / cold flush of panic consumes me”).
Perhaps reflecting the universality of that song’s themes, there’s even one section where someone else takes the lead vocal reins for an iteration of the chorus — a rather unique occurrence, although the album does prominently feature supporting vocals from other folks in the band in several places, such as during “216” (which is notable for its complex interplay of both guitar parts and the bass, with arpeggios that weave in and out between each other), and elsewhere in “Hour of Longing.” And as gloomy as the latter song is, the following track (and final full song present here) “No Right to Grieve” may be even more melancholy — mostly subdued at the beginning, but gradually building, and with an intense outpouring of genuine emotion by the end.
On Dawn of Ages, vocalist Balich joins guitarist Victor Arduini, founding member of both Fates Warning and Freedoms Reign, who also recruited Freedoms Reign drummer Chris Judge to round out the project. Predictably, the album features a lot of guitar — especially in minutes-long intros to songs like opener “The Fallen” (where several slow-developing layers of mellow playing seems reminiscent of the instrumentals from A Momentary Lapse of Reason), and the fully-instrumental last song “The Gates of Acheron” (featuring lots of varied parts intricately blended together). Aside from that sub-four-minute closing track, and “Forever Fade” which despite seeming rather epic only clocks in a little over six minutes, all of the other original compositions here are at least twelve minutes in length, spanning all the way to eighteen on “Beyond the Barricade.”
Filled with equal parts chuggy traditional metal riffing and ripping solos (often with multiple lead guitar parts trading licks back and forth), and of course with loads of strong vocals — mostly lower-register stuff, sometimes with multiple overlapping parts (usually each one double-tracked for added fullness and effect), the tone remains dark and ominous throughout, bringing to mind Queensrÿche on one hand for all of the progressive twists (as well as the Pink Floyd influence), and on the other, sort of sounds like what would happen if “Love Hate Love” (one of my all-time favorites, by the way) was adapted into an entire album.
Butch has long had a reputation as an excellent singer, but there are moments here — near the end of “Into Exile” (a song that starts off sounding like “Into the Void” run through an early-90s-almost-grunge-metal filter), for example, and into the beginning of “The Wraith” — where the vocals could rival Mike Scheidt‘s in YOB. High praise, indeed! The vocals are also impressive in the backing parts of the first of the three cover songs that are included at the end of the track listing — Uriah Heep‘s “Sunrise” (which was an amazing song to begin with, and executed very well here). Also included are the group’s rendition of “Wolf of Velvet Fortune” by The Beau Brummels, and the obligatory Black Sabbath track “After All (the Dead)” (fittingly, a song from Dio‘s early-90s second stint with that band).
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