Speaking of Italian black metal, in recent heavy rotation for me has been Hiems, of the northwestern city of Novara. Hiems plays good, strong black metal. With black metal, I don't often use "strong" to connote "powerful." I am a fan of black metal, but for all its posturing with weapons and spiky wristbands, much of it feels powerless to me.

Sign of the Hammer
The Last Sunset

In fact, the first time I heard black metal, I questioned whether it was even metal at all, so devoid of low end and balls it sounded (the shrieking vocals still seem rather witch-like to me). Its appeal for me remains mostly atmospheric and textural, a feminine counterpoint to metal's usual hypermasculinity. I find it ironic that black metal bands go onstage dressed for medieval battle, but often muster only limp-wristed tremolo picking on guitar.

Hiems runs the oomph of first wave black metal through modern production. Instead of the typical blastbeat-palooza, Cold Void Journey (ISO 666, 2005) has actual riffs, grooves, and heaviness. Though Hiems is Algol's one-man project, session drummer Gionata Potenti provides much of its impetus. His drumming is deservedly equal with guitars in the mix. Thunderous yet deft, it spans a wide variety of speeds and beats. "Sign of the Hammer" alternates thrashy d-beats with storming blastbeats; dig the industrial metallic snare accents near the end.

This album's weight keeps me returning to it. Little black metal has this much full-bodied presence and variety; Algol sometimes deploys stringy clean tones that recall Joy Division. The ISO 666 website seems to be down at the moment, but Cold Void Journey has been remixed and remastered for reissue on Moribund (which carries either the old or new version here; Red Stream also has it). This album doesn't need new sound, but at least it'll reach new listeners this go-round. Moribund also reports a new Hiems album due out this year, though time is running out for that...