In my three years with this blog, I have never had as much difficulty penning an introduction as with Kull‘s debut record, Exile. This is not due to any conflicting feelings about the subject at hand; rather, I’m petrified of underselling just how monumentally special Kull is to me. Their existence is borne from the ashes of Bal-Sagoth, an English band that is a permanent staple of my listening rotation, and whose output fizzled out just before I stumbled upon them in 2008. Mind you, my ongoing affection for them does not stem from sentimentality or nostalgia. Bal-Sagoth excelled through sheer bombastic fun alone, combining lush orchestrations and thrashing blackened metal with unique tonality ranging from sinister to heroic. No other band sounds like them, making Kull—comprised of four of five Bal-Sagoth members, sans vocalist Byron Roberts—the first new band in over a decade to scratch an extremely specific itch. For me, Exile is a miracle of a record. On its own merits, it’s an absolute triumph.
Though aesthetically nearly identical to Bal-Sagoth, Kull recontextualizes their established tool set to offer a more compelling duality of symphonic majesty and rhythmic weight. While a handful of tracks, such as “A Summoning to War,” are reminiscent of the sugar rush bombast that defined albums like Battle Magic, much of Exile is darker and heavier than any record that precedes it. Kull smartly capitalizes on the resulting breathing room to craft a remarkably rich soundscape. Synthetic brass and strings, ethereal choirs, and oddball electronic effects play off each other in layers I’m still discovering after countless listens, yet never invalidate or overpower the metallic instrumentation. The colossal, earth cleaving riffs—hybridized of equal parts black, death, and thrash metal—pack as much character as any symphonic ornamentation, resulting in an experience that is equal parts breathtaking and skull crushing.
Exile’s dynamic ethos extends beyond its instrumentation, permeating the very structure of Kull’s compositions. Many tracks exhibit the songwriting chops of brothers Chris and Jonny Maudling at their dramatic peak. “Vow of the Exiled,” for instance, offers a steadfast ascent towards catharsis as riffs play off each other in increasing complexity, while the brisk melodeath center of “By Lucifer’s Crown” is book-ended by the record’s most crushing death metal chugs. Yet Exile’s remarkable pacing wouldn’t be possible without the inclusion of tracks which excel through sheer simplicity. The aforementioned “A Summoning to War,” as well as the exceptional, abbreviated blast of thrashing metal that is “Pax Imperialis,” inject the proceedings with welcome shots of brevity. Even so, special commendations must be given to Exile‘s longest cut, “Aeolian Supremacy,” as its ghostly grandeur is of a caliber the Maudlings never achieved prior.
My biggest concern with Exile was whether new vocalist Tarkan Alp could successfully carry on the legacy of Bal-Sagoth’s Byron Roberts, namely his trademark narrative delivery. While Alp’s narration feels rough on occasion, Kull utilizes these sections far less often than Bal-Sagoth, leaving more room for Alp to flex his amazingly diverse harsh singing skills. From vile, blackened rasps to guttural death metal roars, Alp offers an unprecedented array of tones, often stacked in caustic harmony to give one the impression of a raiding barbarian horde. Alp’s narrations are often obscured beneath the instrumentals,1 but Exile’s mix is otherwise well balanced and surprisingly dynamic. The meaty, high-gain guitar tone, borrowed from the final Bal-Sagoth record The Chthonic Chronicles, is carefully balanced so as not to drown out the vast array of sounds. This is unquestionably a better sounding record than anything produced under the Bal-Sagoth banner, though some may find the bouncy snare drum tone off-putting.
In a modern landscape where symphonic metal is defined by relentless, empty bombast, Kull has doubled down on the quirky niche carved out by the six Bal-Sagoth records that preceded their formation. Yet Exile is no mere shadow; it effectively explores darker, more nuanced territory, bolstering dynamism without sacrificing a drop of that special Bal-Sagoth sauce. Perhaps its greatest strength, however, is that it manages to pull all of this off while being relentlessly fun, making for an album which offers an incredible value of towering ambition paired with joyous excess. If this is your first run-in with the work of the Maudling brothers, I can’t recommend Exile enough as a jumping off point. If, like me, you’ve been anticipating it as a payoff to over a decade of Bal-Sagoth drought, it’s a work that’s more than worth the agonizing wait.