by Anthony Abboreno

Sinister Realm's Alex Kristof is one of the best metal vocalists I've heard. His voice is rough and expressive. He's operatic but not histrionic. When he growls, it's menacing. When he's sorrowful or tragic, it's heartbreaking. His bandmates are no slouches, either. Drummer Darin McCloskey and bassist John Gaffney previously played in doom band Pale Divine, and they're great here. McCloskey's drumming swings, while Gaffney's bass is upfront in the mix, both driving and following the guitars. If these songs were instrumental or had a more one-dimensional vocalist, they'd still be lethal. But Kristof brings out their power and depth. Listen to his disgust at the climax of "Machine God" when he commands, "Tell them how we were the victims / Of our greed and our lies," or how his voice shakes at the end of "Message from Beyond" when he explains, "My message from beyond is all that's left of me." It's chilling.

Gaffney is the creative center of Sinister Realm. His albums with Pale Divine pulled from '70s Black Sabbath, reproducing many of their psychedelic digressions. Sinister Realm, however, recalls the harder moments of the '80s — think Iron Maiden, Judas Priest, and Dio, mixed with Candlemass heft. Its debut (Shadow Kingdom, 2009) is not flimsily nostalgic, however. It's not modern, but it's vital. "Machine God" turns a sci-fi evacuation of the planet into a narrative of rust belt decay. The political and cultural frustration of "The Nihilist" is compelling regardless of party affiliation. Even straightforward rockers depict poor schlubs crushed by powers outside their control. "Mongol Horde" overturns the listener's world while the narrator mocks him: "Your life is not yours." This music is severe — it tells you that life is hard and nothing gets easier — but it's also nourishing. You feel stronger for having listened to it.

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