DISCOGRAPHY DEEP DIVE: Vallenfyre/Strigoi
Or, Greg Mackintosh's extreme moonlighting years
The Devil's Mouth is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
There are pieces of music that become so important to you over the years that in some cases you start to feel like you actually know the people behind it, even if you don’t, such is the familiarity you acquire with their artistic output. Fortunately, in the last couple of decades I have actually gotten to know Greg Mackintosh a little bit over the course of many, many interviews - we’ve been on such a streak for every single one of his band’s releases (not to mention his appearance as a guest on the podcast, and then again on the celebrations for Vol. 100), in fact, that these days we begin and end our conversations with the same running jokes, “here we are again” and “talk to you in a few months again then”. Another one of these took place a few days ago, regarding the new Strigoi album, and while you will have to wait for the next issue of Zero Tolerance Magazine to read that one, I can tell you that there was a fair bit of a reflection on his extra-Paradise Lost trajectory so far, which in turn lead me to consider this Deep Dive.
The quality of Vallenfyre and its sort of continuation that is Strigoi would warrant it by themselves, but these bands are also a great example that no matter how you think you’ve got an artist figured out, and after over twenty years of hearing Greg on record and seeing him on stage wielding the Paradise Lost axe, no matter how diverse those records and different phases of the band have been, I think it can be safely said that almost no one would expect to see the man fronting a crusty death/doom band all of a sudden, regardless of how much we all thought we knew him as a musician. Aside from a few backing vocals here and there, mainly around the ‘One Second’ era, we barely knew what his singing voice sounded like, let alone his raspy growls. And who would have guessed, after so many years of looking down at his guitar while Nick Holmes took most of the communication responsibilities on stage, how awesome of a frontman Greg would turn out to be, too?
Since it’s been over a decade of this wonderfully extreme moonlighting on the part of this fantastic English musician, without any kind of damage done to his “main job” - on the contrary, even, as ‘Tragic Idol’, ‘The Plague Within’, ‘Medusa’ and ‘Obsidian’, the four Paradise Lost albums released since Vallenfyre started (and the last three, after Nick also started his own bit of extreme moonlighting and joined Bloodbath, it should be noted), are among the band’s very best and stand as one of the best and most consistent streaks of their long career - let’s look back and see the body of work he has already amassed.
It’s easy to forget how much of an actual “supergroup” Vallenfyre was when they appeared on the scene. Though Greg was naturally the focal point, lest we forget the band was created in the first place as a tribute to his father who sadly passed away in December 2009, the initial line-up consisted of Hamish Glencross, who was still in My Dying Bride at the time (and who is now with the wonderful Godthrymm), Scoot from the legendary Doom (not to mention a few other acts like Extinction Of Mankind, who share a rather similar musical outlook with Vallenfyre), the ubiquitous Adrian Erlandsson, for whom you really don’t need a list of bands unless you’ve landed on this page by some strange random fluke, and Ian “Mully” Mullinger, from the bizarre dark synth project Electric Dragon. Yes, supergroups are often disappointing and, at best, nothing much more interesting than the simple sum of their respective parts, but with these people involved, it would take a lot of bad decisions for Vallenfyre to suck. Fortunately, it didn’t.
A FRAGILE KING
(2011, Century Media Records)
Even if it wasn’t a total surprise that a Greg Mackintosh side project sounds like this, as his upbringing in the UK punk scene and his love of crust and the rawer side of early death metal have always been well documented in interviews throughout the years, it was still a blast to go through those first spins of ‘A Fragile King’. It takes Greg exactly one and a half minutes to deliver his first Tom G-esque “UGH!” on opener ‘All Will Suffer’, and that’s a sort of harbinger of doom - literally and figuratively - for what’s coming over the following 40 minutes.
Does that sound like a guy in his 40s growling on a record for the first time in his career? I could name you dozens of professional death metal singers who would kill for that tone, that expressiveness and that coarse, rabid aggression in their vocals. Also, how they fit the music perfectly, and let’s be clear, as relatively direct as these songs sound, they are not an easy task for a vocalist. The mix of elements sounds natural, but with the Autopsy death metal crunch, the Discharge beat, some massive Dismember-ish grooves and, yes, a few typical Yorkshire doom leads here and there, all stirring in the same pot, a lesser songwriter could have made a total hash of it easily. That you get monoliths of doomy dread like ‘Cathedrals Of Dread’ or ‘Seeds’ and ragers like that one up there or ‘Humanity Wept’ in the same record and have them all flow perfectly and feel like they’re connected to the same whole speaks volumes of the amount of talent at work here. As if a lifetime of Paradise Lost wasn’t enough proof of the man’s genius, right? And to think that, at one point, he felt the cathartic nature of the album was so personal that he considered not even releasing it.
(2014, Century Media Records)
Reduced to a quartet after Mully left, Vallenfyre seemed to also have gone for the even simpler approach on the second album, which, by the way, wasn’t supposed to have existed - as Greg has revealed on several interviews, the band was initially thought of as a one-off to honour his father with that first album, but things turned out so well that he decided to keep it going. It was a good decision, as there was still, clearly, a lot to say with it, and ‘Splinters’ is the undeniable proof of it. Arguably the best of the Vallenfyre trilogy, it’s a record that wins you over even before you know any of the songs, because THAT TONE, MAN. The decision to record it with Kurt Ballou (with a Brad Boatright mastering job too, what a fucking team) was spot on, as his characteristic crispy, crackling, warm sound he gets out of bands fits the raw bleakness of these songs to a tee. Once again opening with a massive fist to the face in the form of ‘Scabs’ (still the band’s most played song on Spotify, whatever that might mean), it takes ‘A Fragile King’s’ strong points and just stretches them further into each extremity.
What was brutal became even more brutal - check out the grinding, Napalm Death-esque ragers that are ‘Instinct Slaughter’ or ‘Thirst For Extinction’! -, but what was melodic and melancholic also became much more so. ‘Bereft’ or the title-track are sheer monoliths of pure misery that would not be out of place on Paradise Lost’s earlier albums themselves. In the grand scale of things, ‘Splinters’ is widely underrated - it’s easily one of the most expertly put together, best-sounding and just downright nasty extreme albums of the past decade, which still holds up spectacularly well today, eight years after its initial release.
FEAR THOSE WHO FEAR HIM
(2017, Century Media Records)
Vallenfyre’s line-up shifted a bit as the years went by, and this, their final album, was recorded as a trio, with Greg and Hamish joined by well-known Finnish drummer Waltteri Väyrynen, who plays/has played, deservedly so, for a ridiculous number of amazing bands. As the guitarist (and vocalist, and vocalist, yes, I know) has stated before, he felt that, after releasing this, it was the right time to lay Vallenfyre to rest. It is, in a way, a culmination, a sort of point from which it seems absurd to take this particular mix of extreme styles any further - ‘Fear Those Who Fear Him’ is by far the less immediate album of the three, the most dense both sonically (though it was Kurt Ballou again) and especially in terms of songwriting. Even the faster, shorter songs that by now had become a staple of the band, like ‘Messiah’, ‘Nihilist’, ‘Kill All Your Masters’ or the hilariously 40-second long ‘Dead World Breathes’ had a sort of pachydermic, dragged out feel to them, let alone the behemoths like ‘An Apathetic Grave’ or ‘Cursed From The Womb’.
Doom was clearly the winner of the genre battles here, and listening to this fucking nasty record now after a few years have passed, with the bigger picture much more apparent, it stands as a crushingly final tombstone on this part of Greg’s career. Not really music to put on while you wash the dishes, but for a late night wine-sipping contemplative session, while you slowly realise that all life is pointless and meaningless (try not to roar along with Greg “this empty carcass is all that’s left of me” during ‘An Apathetic Grave’, I dare you) it’s hard to beat.
About a year after the release of ‘Fear Those Who Fear Him’, the following was announced on the band’s Facebook page:
“Some of you may already be aware but we are calling an end to Vallenfyre this year. The reason being that we want to leave it on a high for us. We have 3 albums we are proud of and we have played some great shows and met many wonderful people. Vallenfyre was also about the death of my Father and I want to keep that in tact.
Myself and Chris will be starting a new project called Strigoi which will carry on where Vallenfyre has left off so look out for that soon.”
Vallenfyre’s last show took place in London, at the Nambucca, on September 29th, 2018. Personally, I was fortunate to catch them a couple of times, both at a festival and on a club show, and I can say that they are missed. Fortunately, this wasn’t exactly the end - as the post already informed, it was now time for Strigoi.
In case you’re wondering, in Romanian mythology, Strigoi are “troubled spirits that are said to have risen from the grave. They are attributed with the abilities to transform into an animal, become invisible, and to gain vitality from the blood of their victims. Bram Stoker's Dracula has become the modern interpretation of the Strigoi through their historic links with vampirism,” as Wikipedia informs. That definition, plus the photo I picked to illustrate them up there, offer a couple of good analogy possibilities to define what Strigoi are like, especially when put against Vallenfyre. Though only Chris Casket was brought over from the Vallenfyre (live) line-up, plus Waltteri on session drums on the first album, it’s undeniable that the two bands share several similarities, given that the songwriter, vocalist and main guitarist is the same person, but Strigoi are a somewhat less defined entity, more vague and diffuse, just like that photo (hah, see?), and perhaps a bit more brooding and sinister, more focused on abstract horror than the more personal leanings of the previous incarnation, and getting the name from a mythological troubled spirit quite reaffirms that.
ABANDON ALL FAITH
(2019, Nuclear Blast)
Appearing just two years after that last Vallenfyre album (somehwat funny, as Vallenfyre albums always appeared with a three year gap between them), Strigoi’s debut did feel like a new band, even if the mix of elements isn’t all that much different from before. Less cautious, it seems, of borrowing a few Paradise Lost vibes here and there, including on the first single/video ‘Phantoms’, Strigoi feels more agile and slightly more open, while also recovering those crust punk cavalcades that Vallenfyre slowly dropped - just check out ‘Seven Crowns’ for a great example of that, a total headbanger which is then followed with the by-now typical less-than-two-minutes-long grinder ‘Throne Of Disgrace’. Monstrously heavy doom also remains in the mix, as the tortured closing title-track amply demonstrates.
All in all, while not 100% a new entity - and I don’t think anyone would really have wanted that, honestly -, ‘Abandon All Faith’ felt enough like a reboot and a refreshing of all the good things that Vallenfyre had done, and more. We were well on our way for at least one more decade of exciting ugly music.
(2022, Season Of Mist)
Just a little worldwide pandemic between them, and Strigoi’s next chapter sees Greg completing the triad of big metal labels, now on Season Of Mist after Vallenfyre had spent their career at Century Media and Strigoi having debuted on Nuclear Blast before. It’s still a recent release, but let’s just say it doesn’t need all that much to settle in your brain nicely like a nasty parasite - the organic, sinister, old horror atmosphere that presided over the first album and that is more than suggested by the artwork is absolutely full-on on ‘Viscera’. In fact, the two songs that were publicly known before the release were very well picked, as they demonstrate the two sides at war throughout the album - ‘Hollow’ is the second-longest track and it’s a painful, morose trawl through dirty mud, and I would describe it as suffocating if it wasn’t for a detail that I’ll reveal to you in a bit…
…while ‘King Of All Terror’ is the second-shortest blast, which after an introductory sample with just the word “suicide” proceeds to rip off your head with beastly indifference. The only shortest song is the wonderfully titled ‘Napalm Frost’, which does exactly the same thing, except quicker and with an even beastlier gnarliness to it.
We’ve noted before how good of a vocalist for this kind of music Greg has revealed himself to be even with the first Vallenfyre release, but have you noticed with these recent songs how he has developed that too? His growls have become even more expressive, more agile, capable of being delivered at different paces and with different intonations, which is remarkable for a 52 year old man who has only started growling in his 40s (at least in public!). Anyway, I didn’t describe ‘Hollow’ as “suffocating” before, because that word has to be reserved exclusively for last track on ‘Viscera’ - a little eight-minute ditty called ‘Iron Lung’ which really has to be listened to be believed, a monumental dirge that does its title justice which will leave you literally breathless by the time it’s done with you. Worth the price of admission alone, even if you forget there are nine awesome pitch-black ragers before it.