Bal-Sagoth “Starfire Burning Upon the Ice-veiled Throne of Ultima Thule” (1996)

“Starfire Burning” was my first foray into the pulp fantasy universe of Bal-Sagoth. Somehow a college radio station in Las Vegas got a hold of a promo and put it into heavy late-night rotation. And let me say, “The Splendour of a Thousand Swords Gleaming Beneath the Blazon of the Hyperborean Empire” was one hell of an introduction.

The song possessed a pulverizing brutality, fast, heavy and grindy, pure metal mayhem. And yet, when it slowed down and the synths came to the forefront, the music took on a soaring heroic quality that elevated it to peaks of pompous perfection. And then Byron’s voice intoned “My warriors, a legacy today shall be wrought with our blades…” And as if that wasn’t enough, Byron then proceeded to portray another character, the song’s evil antagonist, in another, far more insidious voice. On one level it was incredibly nerdy, Robert E. Howard by way of Forgotten Realms, but on another, it was total head music, forcing the listener (i.e. me) into Byron’s strange universe whether they wanted to be there or not.

This is the kind of album that should be preceded with a THX sound effect. It’s big, the production as thick and heavy as a pint of imperial stout. The band is firing on all cylinders. Jonny Maulding’s drums are full on death grind, blasting away and only slowing down for pounding breakdowns and cymbal rides, especially when his keyboards take center stage—in these parts, the drums are a perfect complement, tight, powerful and martial. The keyboards, of course, are the first thing about Bal-Sagoth that stand out, adding orchestral power to Chris Maulding’s guitar lines, which alternate between epic heavy metal and pulverizing blackened death metal.

The whole point of the thing of course is to deliver Byron’s ornate language and ridiculously convoluted war story, which plays out like the coolest Warhammer campaign ever waged on a tabletop. When not rasping, his voice seems to emanate from ancient depths, by degrees oracular and imperious. His lyrics are bleak, and so is the music, unusually so. Since “Battle Magic,” the band has sought a more upbeat sound, but “Starfire Burning” is darkly inspiring, cold as a glacier and just as impenetrable. It’s fun and escapist, but carries the melancholic conviction of a Conan story, by turns blood soaked, desultory and elegiac.

Fans of later Bal-Sagoth may be shocked by the grim atmosphere and utter heaviness of the band’s second outing, but it shouldn’t be missed. It remains the brooding epicenter of the Bal-Sagoth discography. Now, I’m off to down some beers and fight Seattle yuppies to their dishonorable deaths with my mighty +3 broadsword of de-gentrification. Many hails, metal brothers!

-James Slone


Release:  1996
Label:  Cacophonous
Avantgenre:  Savage Bloodsoaked Wars Of The Far Far North Metal
Duration:  57:36
Origin:  United Kingdom
Official site:
Review online since:  25.03.2008 / 07:08:26


01 – Black Dragons Soar Over The Mountain Of Shadows (Prologue)
02 – To Dethrone The Witch-Queen Of Mytos K’unn (the Legend Of The Battle Of Blackhelm Vale)
03 – As The Vortex Illuminates The Crystalline Walls Of Kor-Avul-Thaa
04 – Starfire Burning Upon The Ice-Veiled Throne Of Ultima Thule
05 – Journey To The Isle Of Mists (Over The Moonless Depths Of The Night-Dark Seas)
06 – The Splendour Of A Thousand Swords Gleaming Beneath The Blazon Of The Hyperborean Empire
07 – And Lo, When The Imperium Marches Against Cul-Kothoth, Then The Dark Sorceries Shall Enshroud The Citadel Of The Obsidian Crown
08 – Summoning The Guardians Of The Astral Gate
10 – In The Raven-Haunted Forests Of Darkenhold, Where Shadows Reign And The Hues Of Sunlight Never Dance
11 – At The Altar Of The Dreaming Gods (Epilogue)

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