Argus - s/t 3.5/5

Reviewed: 9-4-09


1. Devils, devils
2. Bending time
3. From darkness... light
4. Eternity (Beyond, part I)
5. None shall know the hour
6. The damnation of John Faustus
7. The effigy is real
8. The outsider

In the category of up'n'coming metal labels, Pittsburgh's Shadow Kingdom Records deserves a close look. Although the label occasionally veers too much into primitive/70s metal/groove/stoner sounds for my tastes, they have blessed the metal masses with fine releases from bands like Ironsword and Altar of Oblivion, as well as a demo compilation from (The Lord Weird) Slough Feg. Shadow Kingdom doesn't bother with anything trendy or wimpy, and nearly everything they issue is of high quality, even if it doesn't necessarily align with my personal metal sweet spot. Among Shadow Kingdom's most intriguing recent signings is Argus, a Pennsylvania-based band featuring ex-Penance vocalist Brian "Butch" Balich.

If I had to stuff Argus into a stylistic box, a couple of descriptions come to mind: old metal and epic metal. They're "old metal" in the sense that their influences derive from the formative years of the genre, with clear nods to Black Sabbath, early Iron Maiden, and even Thin Lizzy (in the guitar department). From listening to this, it's as if the last 26 or so years of heavy metal never happened. And Argus are "epic metal" in the sense that their songs sprawl and spread into extended workouts without regard to time constraints. Indeed, 5 of the 8 cuts weigh in at 6:59 or longer. But there's an awful lot going on here, so Argus are not easy to pigeonhole. Sometimes galloping, sometimes lumbering along like a besotted Godzilla laying waste to a cardboard movie set, Argus vary the tempos and textures of their music enough to keep things interesting for the entire 54-minute duration.

The unifying features of the package are the superb, harmony-laden guitar work of Erik Johnson and Jason Muchio, as well as the clear, powerful, emotive vocals of Balich. The Johnson/Muchio tandem provides a virtual clinic on the art of composing towering, mighty doomy riffs, then leavening them with an endless stream of mesmerizing harmony parts. The most obvious reference point for the guitars would be Bruce Franklin and Rick Wartell of Trouble, circa 'The skull' and 'Psalm 9' (otherwise known as Trouble's first 's/t' release before it was posthumously renamed to avoid confusion with the later Def American 's/t' CD). As for Balich, I'm hard-pressed to identify a singer that he sounds like, but he does a great job. He may not be gifted with the greatest range, but Balich nonetheless exudes confidence, passion and barely controlled rage/sorrow/despair at various points in the proceedings, with vocal melodies that sometimes recall Robert Lowe, albeit without the sublime majesty of the Solitude Aeturnus/Candlemass singer. He really takes Argus to a higher plane with his distinctive, unique voice. And it also helps matters immensely that the lyrics are so literate, thoughtful and well executed. Adapting Christopher Marlowe's "Doctor Faustus" and H.P. Lovecraft's "The Outsider" for lyrical inspiration was a brilliant move, and Argus also succeeds in tackling topics such as living with regret ("Bending time") and the dark and lonely path to redemption ("From darkness... light") with profound, pensive lines like "We must walk through the shadows to be whole again."

My praise and enjoyment of 'Argus' may be extensive, but it is not without limits. My principal gripe is that sometimes the band descends into jam mode, kind of meandering away from the thread of the song with their rocking-out parts that tip the cap a bit too much to the Maryland doom scene (you know, Revelation and Iron Man and so on) for my preferences. I'm a song-oriented guy, so stuff like the 5-minute jammy instrumental, "The effigy is real", doesn't really resonate for me, even though it is done well for what it is. Also, I'm afraid that the too-busy abstract cover artwork may discourage many prospective fans by lending the mistaken impression that this is a psychedelic, stoner or even grindcore CD. It's not that the cover artwork is bad, but one would never guess that Argus play this style of music from looking at it.

In addition to the adjectives "old" and "epic", listening to this Argus CD also brings another word to mind: timeless. Argus play an ancient and archaic form of metal, but to the old-schoolers among us, this music is timeless and pure. Chicago doomsters Trouble will be hard-pressed for their forthcoming 'The dark riff' opus to match the quality of Argus's debut CD. Dark riffs, indeed...




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