Magister Templi and The Spirit Cabinet Pillage Heavy Metal's Past Without Plagiarizing
“What we’re trying to do is to make Heavy Metal of the Old School kind without it becoming ‘Museum Metal.’”
Magister Templi photo courtesy of Cruz del Sur
Heavy metal is often pushed into a false dichotomy between innovation and craft. To hear too many people parse the choices, a band is expected either to do something wholly new or to master a given template laid down by some canonical forebear. The new albums from Norway's Magister Templi and Holland's The Spirit Cabinet pose a nice counterpoint to this asinine strain of logic, and both convey the same message: if you do your homework and know your history, you can do whatever the hell you want.
Of course, there's room for both of those extremes: Dodheimsgard's A Umbra Omega is so masterful precisely because of its complete disregard for any sort of rule book, while I believe that Caladan Brood's Echoes of Battle is one of the best albums of the last several years because of how forthrightly it devotes itself to sounding exactly like Summoning (and I do mean exactly – don't even play.) Magister Templi and The Spirit Cabinet both play comfortably in the middle distance between progression and recitation, or, as Magister Templi's singer Abraxas d'Ruckus (everyone else, please step up your stage name game immediately) tells Noisey, "what we're trying to do is to make Heavy Metal of the Old School kind without it becoming 'Museum Metal.'"
The specific middle ground that both bands inhabit is defined by the Danish masters Mercyful Fate. Magister Templi and The Spirit Cabinet don't really sound much like one another, and neither one sounds very much like Mercyful Fate, but at the same time both bands are the most faithful, jubilant inheritors to the throne of Mercyful Fate to have emerged in years. (and yes, this includes Portrait, In Solitude, Occultation, and any other recent band that sounds more directly indebted to Fate). With the recombinant glee of the longtime fan, each band pulls liberally from NWOBHM, doom, and traditional metal. They pillage without plagiarizing, reverent but never repetitive.
Magister Templi's new album Into Duat builds beautifully on the already striking sound they had put together with their 2013 debut, Lucifer Leviathan Logos. While the band calls to mind Candlemass, Accept, Iron Maiden, Trouble, Witchfinder General, and Cirith Ungol, the focus is always on the supremely chewy interplay between the guitars and d'Ruckus's overwhelmingly charismatic vocals. Each of these eight songs is built on at least one towering riff, from the ridiculously physical stomp of the chorus to "Osiris" to the speed-obsessed "Slaying Apophis."
Given that Norway's most widely-known metal export is the grimness of black metal's Second Wave, Magister Templi's guitarist Baphomet admits that, "in a way, we feel a bit like outsiders in Norway. There are some really good doom bands, and now there's a few nice heavy metal bands as well, but… we feel a bit like the odd one." D'Ruckus adds that they feel a closer kinship with bands like America's Crypt Sermon or Italy's Epitaph than anything closer to home, and while one hardly wishes loneliness on a band, if that outlier status has led to their having forged such a potent, unique identity, maybe more young bands should consider the benefits of a little isolation.
While Magister Templi's metal is perfectly suited to fist-pumping and synchronized air-drumming, The Spirit Cabinet's debut album Hystero Epileptic Possessed is an altogether gloomier affair. Although a brand-new band, its members have played together in groups like Grimm, Hooded Priest, and Zwartketterij. Indeed, the band tells Noisey that The Spirit Cabinet is a "distillation" of the twenty-five years they've spent playing music together. The most notable aspect of The Spirit Cabinet, however, is the unmistakable vocal style of Urfaust's singer Willem (billed here as—wait for it—Snake McRuffkin). In Urfaust's droning, hypnotic black metal, Willem's vocals are a pained, distant warble, and while his tone is roughly similar in The Spirit Cabinet, his singing is a little more tuneful and much more upfront in the mix.
Compared to Magister Templi, The Spirit Cabinet turns its doom and NWOBHM influences toward much more contemplative purposes. There's also a strong black metal influence which is entirely absent in Magister Templi. Still, despite the tremolo riffing and occasional harshness in Willem's vocals, there's no blasting or blasphemy to be found. Instead, because of the sorrowful vocals and rich, smoke-occluded atmosphere, The Spirit Cabinet more often calls to mind the dramatics of Primordial or Root.
It's not pure dourness, though: on some of The Spirit Cabinet's harder-rocking songs like "Ramakrishna," it's easy to hear the same atavistic spirit that has animated the last several Darkthrone albums. As the band describes it, "we wanted to walk the path of traditional metal." And in a way, that's exactly what they've done: strong riffs, chest-thumping vocals, galloping bass and drums, and exactly zero bullshit.
When asked what band – whether active or inactive – they would most like to tour with, both groups' answers are instructive: The Spirit Cabinet chose Blue Öyster Cult, while Magister Templi said either Uriah Heep or Uli John Roth-era Scorpions. It's hard to imagine many more proudly uncool responses to that question, but that's part of what marks both bands as such refreshing antidotes to a metal scene that too often privileges extremity over songwriting and image over substance.
In the end, that's how this all comes back to Mercyful Fate. To repeat: neither The Spirit Cabinet nor Magister Templi sounds very much like Mercyful Fate, but the feeling that both have lived closely, deeply, and—let's say it—nerdily with Mercyful Fate is inescapable. For all that Hank Shermann and Michael Denner are rightly lauded for their brilliant soloing and twin leads, the real magic of Mercyful Fate was always the primacy of their world-beating riffs, and the way that each riff, each measure, each single beat of music was perfectly matched to King Diamond's vocal bravura. Magister Templi and The Spirit Cabinet have infused their new albums with a similar sense of holistic purpose that never forgets the thing itself: songs, goddamnit. Good songs; great songs; songs to move mountains.
There are always new ways to live the old ways, so dig into these albums and get inspired just like it's the first time.