Finnish death metal band Abhorrence are releasing a live album of their comeback performance at the 2013 Tuska Open Air Festival. Totally Vulgar – Live at Tuska Open Air 2013 is coming out February 10th on Svart Records. Svart released an earlier anthology of the band, Completely Vulgar, that was some of The Best Underground Metal of 2012.
Article by David Rosales
While a hessian might rightful sneer at the mainstream idea of metal music being the result of unsatisfied teenagers, Ragnar Bragason has created in Málmhaus (Metalhead) an accurate depiction of the sad reality faced by many first-world kids that are emotionally neglected by their parents. It seems that there are two main elements needed to be present for an alienated teenager to turn to metal as a refuge under these conditions. The first is that metal music be available in his range of perception in one way or other. Secondly, and more often than not, the minds that are most receptive to this art of dark tones lean towards a romantic disposition1.
After portraying the death of main protagonist Hera’s older brother, Bragason proceeds to tell us how the girl takes refuge in adopting his image and diving head-first into his metal persona. As she grows into a young adult, Hera becomes increasingly conflictive, to the point that she goes out of her way to create trouble for its own sake. Most of the movie at this point is a big tantrum with a few scenes in which the main character is writing and recording some angsty rock with harsh vocals. Basically, for Bragason extreme underground metal is virtually indistinguishable from emo rock at its core and motivating sentiment.
Aside from these outsider misconceptions, Málmhaus is a pleasant movie to watch with patient pacing that does not drag, convincing acting and a desolate feeling that only Nordic (and perhaps Slavic) settings really produce and which is more than suitable as backdrop for a metal scenery. Furthermore, and unfortunately for the metal movement, this picture of the pseudo-metal emo-poser is not at odds with the reality of many would be musicians in the medium. In this respect, the movie is objectively deserving.
II. Against the Vulgarization of the Metal Ideal
You may be wondering what beef I would have with this idea if the movie is in fact revealing a truthful picture of the scene. The answer is that metal art that most accurately and authentically reflects transcendental metal ideals are those produced by strong minds with a realist mentality. The emo posers in question usually produce music that is a thin veneer of emotionally outspoken yet ultimately safe and empty hogwash. From the outside, the product of the poser mind is similar to that of the authentic metal artist, because the imitator will always try to look like their idols on the exterior, but without becoming a threat to the society it claims to oppose. A true metal artist, however, represents a threat.
True metal is not an agent of social change. It is a rejection of social norms. True metal is not protest music that seeks to “create conscience”. It is the proud sneering of nihilists who see above and beyond the trappings of human convention. However, metal does not seek to destroy traditions but rather to exalt their realist underpinnings. It is not about destroying what is, because metal is realism, but rather about getting rid of the meta-reality created by humans who need an illusion to feel safe. Safe from uncertainty, safe from evil, safe from death.
Those making deconstructionist garbage music with the excuse of “destroying conventions” miss the point altogether. Yes, metal has evolved through innovation, but in a natural away in which the newly created sound is a construction and a depuration, not a musical negation, which by definition cannot be about anything because it attempts to be about something that is not, a mere abstract and near all-encompassing generalization that can never attain a definite form. This is why metal today needs to stop trying to be new and different. This is why it also needs to stop being a mere superficial rehashing of past formulas.
To reject musical convention or imitate it has never been the point. Black Sabbath gave birth to new music as it painted a stark picture that opposed flower power through its own being, but they were not defined by the latter’s non-being. New musicians need to start creating tradition, instead of attempting to dissolve it or trying to be what something else is not. Moreover, metal today needs to continue classic metal tradition if it is to be metal at all. Rejecting said tradition would essentially imply not being metal.
Death and black metal were jewels of their own time, as movements they were one of a kind and today they are, for all intents and purposes, dead, as the conditions that created and propelled them are not present today2. This does not mean that a new generation metalheads cannot be inspired and learn from it, in fact, they should. But this is the same as being inspired by Mozart or Wagner: it never calls for a copy-paste application of their surface traits.
One could describe the climaxing trilogy of Burzum3 as a concoction of Tolkien-filtered Destruction and Dead Can Dance4. But we may clearly observe that Vikernes never sought to suppress these influences nor did he try to simply make updated versions of them; he created something completely new with ideas produced from his own digestion. Part of the beauty of Burzum is how self-contained it is despite its borrowings in technique and method. Vikernes’ successfully-achieved objective in Burzum was the mystical recreation of the experience of reaching out to the ancestral knowledge ingrained genetically within the unconscious.
Immolation may serve as a different kind of example as they come from a background in early U.S. death metal from the north-east. Some say that Immolation is deconstructionist, but this is based on superficial impressions of the music, which is mistakenly considered atonal by laymen (most metalheads) who have never even heard truly atonal music. Immolation’s music is modal, but heavily emphasizes dissonant intervals as well as diminished and augmented arpeggios. In the long haul, Immolation’s approach is pretty much standard and proper death metal5 with a very unique approach to melody and an exertion of crucial control in the rhythm section.
III. The “Understood” (Assimilated) Metalhead, the Eviscerated Soul
Towards the end of Málmhaus, Hera goes through a period of introspection and redefinition after which she is understood not only by her parents but also by her whole community. She even participates in the rebuilding the church that she burned down earlier in the movie. She is no longer a threat. She even plays an alternative rock version of her “black metal” demo for the people in her little town. The wolf has been turned into the whimpering dog.
One of the main problems faced by metal today is that it no longer boasts of the outsider status enjoyed by its predecessors. A condition that lent them a unique perspective is utterly missing from most of today’s circles. Today’s apparently most rebellious metalheads are best compared to gimmicky Marilyn Manson; those that express genuine anti-establishment ideas are ostracized by their own “fellow metalheads”. There is no extremism in extreme metal today.
Today’s metalheads conflate cowardice and sheepish compliance with maturity, while they indulge in childish vices as expressions of their “freedom”. Somewhere along the road, man-made law and society’s comforts became the reality of these assimilated metalheads, and their “rebellion” is today only an echo of leftist humanism while they support a hypocritical system that fights bigotry with bigotry while denying it. They are completely locked inside the fence–inside the cave, convinced that the shadows on the wall are real, and that Plato is talking nonsense. Only the shadows are objective, they say, the shadows we can see and measure, the “sun” that is “outside” is only an idea.
Those who wisely choose to isolate themselves from the distractions of the modern world, the banal entertainment and the “metal scene”‘s circle jerk are mockingly tagged as “kvlt” or “trve”. This in itself is a terrible sign that metal has been assimilated into a safe space that forces it to be politically correct in the worst cases and representing tongue-in-cheek darkness in the best of cases 6. Monastic devotion is ridiculed as strange fanaticism, while mediocre and inline thinking coupled with a superficial extroversion is expected. Metalheads are “normal” now. They have grown up into their accepted slavery.
The truth is that this is what lies at the root of modern metal’s sterility – its inability to produce a new tradition because its own values have been supplanted by those of an assimilated portion of the mainstream. That those creating meaningful metal are only a handful of exceptions in a time when there has never before been a larger number of self-identifying metalheads indicates that the movement is at a loss. There was promise in the idea of war metal, but with the exception of black metal – flavoured acts like Kaeck, it is largely a dead medium. Cóndor is virtually sui generis, and the likes of Graveland and Summoning are the sole survivors and curators of a dead tradition way past its heyday.
I hope you’ll excuse me for bringing Vikernes back into the conversation, but it seems to me that his movement away from metal aesthetics during the mid 1990s was only the escape of a clever sailor from a fast-sinking ship. Although we should not mix politics with the judgement of music quality, the observation that deliberate ideologies (or lack thereof, supposedly) directly affect the kind and quality of music that is produced is pretty obvious to anyone watching intently. It is therefore only honorable that Vikernes should wholly embrace the ambient aspect of his music, the side that has remained truly underground to this day.
Once black metal becomes the cash cow of sell-out clowns like Abbath or Ihsahn, it no longer represents, in the eyes of the world-perception, what Burzum was about. There is no boundlessness. There is no escape from the idiocy of modern society in black metal anymore. It is only a show, it is not dangerous because it is not real, actually, it is fun. It is obvious that there is no other option but to move away from the symbol that has become a sign for ridiculousness and poserism. A symbol is only as good as what it transmits, and an artist cannot be excluded from context as the dreamers within the ivory towers of academia think (and contradict by trying to insert politically-correct statements in their garbage modernist compositions which hold no meaning in themselves).
The solution to metal’s plight is that circles of metalheads arise who can truly think outside the constraints and mandates of what is considered “good” or “proper” by the status quo. How they achieve that is less important to metal itself than that they actually accomplish it. This is not rebelliousness for its own sake, though it could be mistaken for it, but the idea that nobody else should in control of your mind and thoughts, and that the only truth lies in our mortality, and in man’s natural multiplicity of mind which makes his reality material and psychic at once without either being more important than the other7.
It is important that metal stands outside any such constraints to be what it is, otherwise it is like a caged predator: it ceases to be one as soon as it is shackled. Furthermore, metal loses its edge if it is not under pressure, because that is its whole purpose, it is a counter culture. Without nothing to counter, it simply loses its essential raison d’être. Therefore, this is not a call to the comformist to accept extremism, to understand those few who actually step outside the bounds of what is permitted. This is an encouragement to those who would attain higher understanding and see metal come alive again to become extremist in thought themselves, because in a sick and decadent world, it is those who are healthy of mind who are willing to act insanely.
1 Anyone who is new to this idea might need some clarification here. By romantic we do not mean someone who is the perfect womanizer, but more of a neo-dark romanticist, a revivalist of 19th century romanticism with a Nietzschean twist. People in our society who are commonly referred to as such are usually not so much romantics as whiny weaklings who cannot face up to reality. Metalheads do not avoid reality, they reject the images created by the delusions of modern man, who conveniently assumes their truthfulness: his own refusal to accept life in its full-fledged manifestation and the place of MAN within it.
2 It is my contention that the capacity for almost complete isolation experienced by young musicians during the late eightees and early nineties is made void today by the effects of the Internet and inescapable (for those living in urban and suburban areas) fast-paced life.
3 Namely Det Som Engang Var, Hvis Lyset Tar Oss and Filosofem
4 The reader may refer to Destruction’s Infernal Overkill from 1985 and Dead Can Dance’s Within the Realm of a Dying Sun from 1987.
5 Both Immolation’s Close to a World Below and Obscura by Gorguts are outstanding examples of this. Also, seemingly unbeknownst to the masses, well-developed death metal falls into the category of properly progressive music, while so-called “progressive death metal” (a redundant term) outfits are surface-oriented bands that produce disparaged songs as a result of poor musical judgement. A painful example of this would be The Sound of Perseverance, Death’s final album and an awkward affair that would make anyone with ears for proper music cringe in empathic embarrassment.
6 There was tongue-in-cheekness in the past, even during the golden years, but you can trace a distinction between these clowns and the best bands who used imagery to drive points home in a non-ironic way. Sincere nihilism and non-pretentious occultism stared right out of the classic albums, while today, these concepts are flat images worn on the outside only, as musicians try to cash in on people’s expectations.
7 The young science of psychology approaches these conclusions even as its mainstream-dictated values orders it to not make these findings, to try to make void the importance of the unconscious and subjective perception and will.
It took some time, but despite the deluge of content constantly bombarding us and aspiring metal fans worldwide, we’ve been able to reach some level of consensus on 2015’s worthwhile metal music. Not to say that we’re in perfect harmony (If you’ve been paying attention, you’ll note that there’s some room for dissonance in our musical language), but the hope is, like what our recent reinspection of 2013 revealed, that some of this material remains interesting for more than the year it was released.
A wrathful reminder of what war metal should have been: a melodically-structured, chromatic holocaust to the god of this world. Jan Kruitwagen’s leads awe listeners and are optimally placed to hold attention just as each rhythm riff runs its course. An impenetrable mix rewards repeated listening to an album that may surpass Kruitwagen’s work on Sammath’s Godless Arrogance. March to Kaeck’s martial heartbeat or revel in shit.
Bolt Thrower meets ritualistic black metal. Rather than cathartic bending into climactic oriental leads, Desecresy diffuse tension by methodically varying into bizarre melodies with carefully placed, otherworldly leads to a steady metronome.
Mid-paced riffing in the style of Bolt Thrower builds tension with melody and drifts off into space with variations and well placed leads. Where Bolt Thrower themselves shoot a rifle at the ballon using rhythmic change to introduce another riff or dramatically bending the riff into a climactic, oriental short solo, Desecresy insert ritualistic blackened leads for dramatic contrast with the rhythmic, power chord riffing.
Review and Interview:
Rob Miller returns from blacksmithing to his previous metallic occupation with an album of catchy post-punk in Motorhead and Metallica song formats. Thankfully free of the Godsmack and other MTV influences present on Amebix’s swansong.
- Tau Cross – Tau Cross (2015), by Brett Stevens (July 1st, 2015)
An effective album of mid-paced death and heavy metal riffing. There is no psychedelic rock pretending to be Black Sabbath “doom” here. Highly structured; the opposite of the random tossed riff salads of most modern metal. This band takes an approach more like that of classical guitarists toward melding death metal with progressive rock, blues, folk and other influences: it mixes them in serially and adopts them within the style, rather than hybridizing the two styles.
In other words, most bands that try to sound like progressive death metal try to act like a progressive rock band playing death metal, or a death metal band playing progressive rock. Cóndor takes an approach more like that of musicians in the past, which is to adopt other voices within its style, so that it creates essentially the same material but works in passages that show the influence of other thought.
Reviews and Interview:
This vinyl 7” single features two new, well constructed death metal songs from one of from one of the few truly underrated bands in the genre. Those foresighted enough to purchase the identically-titled CD boxed set version received the band’s entire catalog in one of the rare remasters that sounds better than the original releases.
- Interview: Morpheus Descends (Rob Yench), by Brett Stevens (June 12, 2013)
- Interview: Brad Moore, who designed legendary Morpheus Descends cover, by Brett Stevens (October 9, 2013)
One last Motorhead album of mostly Motorhead songs. Nothing “new” is introduced for those in the non-metal audience who disdain metal and wish to feel intellectually superior to the common headbanger. The final work from a relentless machine of a band.
- Motörhead – Bad Magic (2015), by Gabe Kagan (August 31st, 2015)
- Slaughter of the Soul‘s 20th Anniversary of Awfulness, by Daniel Maarat (November 14, 2015)
- Listenable Records reissues Immolation – Dawn of Possession, by Daniel Maarat (November 19th, 2015)
- Order from Chaos – Frozen in Steel (2014), by Daniel Maarat (August 29, 2015)
- Carbonized – For the Security re-issue, by Brett Stevens (February 9th, 2015)
- Sammath’s debut now on Bandcamp, by Gabe Kagan (September 10, 2015)
- Arghoslent’s Arsenal of Glory and Galloping Through the Battle Ruins reissued, by Daniel Maarat (January 3rd, 2016)
- What thrived and what died from the 1990s (Part I), by Brett Stevens (September 3, 2015)
- Blasphemy – Fallen Angel of Doom (1990, 2015), by David Rosales (June 11, 2015)
- Obscura and Osho, by David Rosales (May 3, 2015)
Crusty death metal of the better than braindead Benediction but worse than Cancer category.
I’ve possibly heard too much but Hanger 18. I know too much. Although not as degradingly vulgar as Surgical Steel, Atom by Atom results in a pretty tacky affair. Vocals are as emotional as in the first album, except that in here they seem even more disconnected from the music as the music veers into some sort of progressive speed metal akin to Helstar’s. (Editor’s note: I liked it, but David Rosales was critical)
The band shows promise with their Unique Leader-style rhythmic riffing and soaring heavy metal leads. While being above par for technical deaf metal, aping a different one of your heroes every few verses doesn’t make for particularly enjoyable repeated listening.
Fredrik Nordstrom’s Arghoslent.
Technical power metal carnival music.
Nobody is allowed to edit themselves or turn on their bullshit filters in Steve Harris’s band anymore (Read a full review here).
Kvist meets the randomness of metalcore. Indistinct riffing and songwriting mix with pointless shoutout verses to past greats that makes listeners wonder why they aren’t just playing Sodom and Mayhem in the first place.
Where are the riffs?
Every Teutonic speed metal band gone Voltron.
The band has no need to repeat half the song just so the guitarist can get over his refractory period and play another solo. This is also an extremely distracted riff salad in which the individual riffs can be brought in from sources as different as galloping power metal to thrashy death metal to alternative nu and groove “metal”. This is headbang-core for beer metallers and other social metalheads. This recording received two reviews in 2015.
A collection of interesting renaissance faire riffs written into songs that quickly wear out their welcome as metal, becoming RPG background music.
A few strong songs on a demo do not warrant a two CD set of Swedish death with limpid keyboards anticipating the steps black metal took towards mainstream goth rock in the late nineties.
This is the type of black metal as repetitive rock music that ignorant hipsters will praise as “ritualistic”. The album’s title sums the quality of its musical content: futile. (Editor’s note: I wanted to give this album a chance. It didn’t age well.)
Gothenburg cheese and Meshuggah licks are less appetizing than a lead-laced Mexican lollipop.
Grave Miasma returns. This time with 1993’s atmosphere.
Candlemass meets Soundgarden.
Every Teutonic speed metal band gone Voltron.
Solid underground metal in the spirit of Sarcofago that is perfectly well-written but does not amount to more than the sum of its parts; does not conjure up any long-lasting message.
Article by David Rosales
As another year ends and a new one begins, many “best of” lists pop up here and there, among them our own here at DMU. While others may be eager to know about what is ever new, we are more interested in what stands the test of time. Today we will look at some albums that were highlighted here as the foremost products of the year 2013, which was a year of renewal, great comebacks, startling discoveries and a general wellspring of inspiration. In the opinion of this writer, 2013 has been the best year for metal in the 21st century.
To start off, we shall pay respects to long-lasting acts with a black metal background, namely Graveland, Summoning and Burzum. While the last has left the metal camp for good, its approach and spirit is still very much enriched by the essence of the deepest metal infused with transcendental values. Summoning is still doing their thing, ever evolving, trying a different permutation of their unique style. Fudali’s project has become the warrior at the frontlines of the strongest nationalism grounded in music that uplifts the heart with an authentic battle feeling (as opposed to those other bands playing funny-jumpy rock and acting all “dangerous”).
Sôl austan, Mâni vestan is an ambient affair that uses short loops which revolve around clear themes in each track. The approach is a little formulaic, thereby limiting the experience with a feeling of repetition. However, as with many good works of art, this self-imposed canalization serves to speed the result in a direction. As with a lot of Burzum’s work, this is a concept album that must be listened to as a whole. When this is followed and one stops looking for novelty and instead concentrates on the details that bring variation within the familiar landscape, the somewhat arduous experience brings great rewards once the summit is reached and the journey is taken more than once.
Something similar can be said of the slightly pop-minded Old Mornings Dawn. This effort by Summoning certainly lacks the density of their masterpiece, Dol Guldur, but is no less effective, although perhaps shallow. But what isn’t shallow when compared to that masterpiece? As with every Summoning album, Old Mornings Dawn has a very separate personality, and in this case, it is one of heroism, light, regeneration and hope. Something that will never leave the band’s trademark sound is the deep feeling of melancholy and longing for ruins.
Graveland materializes in Thunderbolts of the Gods one of their most warlike efforts to date in a smooth trajectory that has gone from rough-pagan to long-winded and epic to heroic war music. What raises this offering above others in Fudali’s current trend is the awesome bringing forth of destructive energies mustered in the imposing drumwork. Gone are the clumsy rhythms of Cold Winter Blades and the redneckish tone of the (nonetheless great) album Following the Voice of Blood. This is the technically polished and spirit-infused summit of this face of Graveland.
One of the most deserving releases of 2013 was Black Sabbath’s 13. More expectations could not have been placed on anyone else. Yet the godfathers of metal delivered like the monarchs they are: with original style, enviable grace, magnificent strength and latent power. Along with the last three albums just mentioned, this album shows itself timeless in the present metal landscape. It encompasses all that it is metal, and brings it back to its origin. This is an absolute grower which will age like the finest wine and is, in my opinion, the album of the year of 2013.
In 2013, Profanatica finally achieved amazing distinction with Thy Kingdom Cum, which can be considered the fully developed potential of what Ledney presented in the thoroughly enjoyable Dethrone the Son of God under the Havohej moniker. To say this is the natural outcome of Profanatica’s past work is as true as it is misleading in its implications. This is not just a continuation of what the band was doing before, but a deliberate step, a clear decision in the clear change in texture quality that means the world in such minimalist music where a simple shift in technique or modal approach defines most of the character of the music.
Cóndor’s Nadia was probably the hidden pearl of the year. Never mind the metaphor of the “diamond in the rough”, there is nothing rough about this. It is polished, but it is hidden. The shy face of this beautiful lady is covered by a veil that turns away the unworthy, the profane! This is immortal metal artwork which to uninitiated eyes and ears seems but like the simple, perhaps even amateur, collection of Sabbathian cliches and tremolo excuses of an unexperienced band. The knowledgeable and contemplating metal thinker recognizes the Platonic forms under the disfigured shapes.
Imprecation’s Satanae Tenebris Infinita and Blood Dawn by Warmaster draw our attention to the strong presence of a more humble but profoundly (though not obviously) memorable album and EP. These will stand the chance of time, but will not necessarily remain strong in the mind of a listener in a way that he feels compelled to come back to them often.
Dark Gods, Seven Billion Slaves by VON seemed more enticing at the time. It’s definitely a solid release, but it is however a very thinly populated album with more airtime than content. Whatever content it has is also not particularly engaging. The enjoyability of this one is a much more subjective affair and like a soundtrack is more dependent on extra-musical input from the listener’s imagination.
As delightful as the three heavy metal albums Argus Beyond The Martyrs, Blitzkrieg Back From Hell and Satan are, the intrinsic qualities of their selected subgenres makes them a difficult candidate for long-lasting and profound impact. That is not to say they have no lasting value. If anything, these are albums one can come back a thousand times and perhaps they will not grow that much, but they will never truly grow old.
Autopsy’s Headless Ritual is one of the strongest yet most understated albums of the year. The extremely rough character of the music may contribute to how it carelessly it can be left behind. Fans of brutal music will find it little different from the rest and will quickly forget it. Fans of wider expressions and deeper thoughts will pass it by with little interest. Such is the tragedy of this very respectable album.
A few stragglers in this group; Master’s The Witchhunt, Centurian’s Contra Rationem, Derogatory’s Above All Else, and Rudra’s RTA proved to be more impact and potential than manifest presence. These will remain fun and quaint for a very occasional listen, perhaps even a sort of throwback feeling, but lacking the long-lasting impact of others in this list.
A special mention is deserved by Into the Pantheon, the essential synthesis of Empyrium, being their most revealing, powerful and clear release. While not outwardly metal, this live recording everything that is to be metal at the level of character and spirit. As such it is the perfect closing note for this recapitulation and reevaluation of past selections.
The Argentinian (Patagonian) city of Neuquén is an important regional industrial and agricultural center, but it’s still in a relatively remote part of the world and probably analogous in some ways to living in the Great Plains of the United States and Canada. If this compilation by Black Vul Destruktor is to be believed, knowledge of extreme metal has made its way to the region. The material on Beyond Time and Portals of Death seemingly takes more after the proto-underground; its mixture of stereotypical black and death metal technique marks it as a descendant of the Bestial Devastation school of metal, but more often not trading pure chaos and insanity for some level of refinement.
Since Beyond Time and Portals of Death compiles both the band’s Bestial Obscure Metal Kaos demo (from 2012) and an older demo from 2008, there’s a clear split in sound, but not necessarily in composition. The old material is understandably much rougher in production and mixing (although it’s still intelligible), but it shares much of its DNA with the new material. Both recordings showcase Black Vul Destruktor writing loosely structured and performed songs composed of fluent chromatic tremolo riffs over initially sloppy and later more coherent drumming. Everything’s a bit amorphous at the best of times, but this extremely stripped down method leaves enough wiggle room for the band to experiment with structure a bit. The material seems to generally work better on the more primitive demo, although Bestial Obscure Metal Kaos does achieve a higher level of satisfying rhythmic prowess. Everything feels a bit more charismatic on the earlier material, at least in that ineffable early Blasphemy/Beherit/Sarcofago/good “war metal” way; especially in its vocals, which have little regard for meter or prosody. It’s nearly the exact antithesis of how I compose, but the style admittedly has its value.
The end product is far from original, but it showcases some careful study of what made the simpler, more hardcore-inflected black metal work, and it occasionally throws in some threshold-expanding ideas of its own (see the goofy melodic outro of “Slaves”, or the constant variety of tempo and texture on the later material). It is very much of its scene, showcasing a great deal of techniques and stereotypes I’d associate with the South American underground, but what it does, it does well, even seemingly responding to the common criticism of underground metal (that it’s limited to mere worship and aping of the great classics) by pushing for some innovation within its adopted framework.
This album can be streamed and purchased from Bandcamp thanks to the services of Blood Harvest Records.
William Burroughs often wrote about the “edge,” or the liminal threshold between states. The last real edge year for underground metal was 2009 when strong contenders and new voices united to defend extreme metal against the onslaught of imitators making Potemkin village metal from hipster flair and lite-jazz fireworks but underneath it, nothing but disorganized songwriting and an absence of something to express. As the underground has come back with a vengeance, it has begun to displace the imitators because their music simply does not measure up. This has created a backlash as the hipsters defend their territory with guilt, ostentation, pretense and surface-level novelty. On the other hand, the underground has produced some strong contenders. And so we move forward through the past to the future, remembering that what is true is eternal, and trends, novelties, fads, hipsters and other transient moments pass quickly away…
Blaspherian – Demos (Compilation of Death)
Compilation of Death Records has re-issued the a classic demo and rehearsal from a band of recent vintage but oldschool origins, Blaspherian. Their thunderous death metal sounds like Incantation and Obituary covering Deicide but has a voice of its own and unique perspective. It also carries forward the old school sensibility of building intensity and contrast in a morbid mood that is not self-echoing and redundant. Songwriter Wes Weaver (Imprecation, Infernal Dominion) avoids solos and other adornments to focus on tunneling riffs that are distinctive and create interplay with others in each song to give every song a unique feel within the lexicon of symbol and emotion that death metal addresses. Like the bands that inspire it, Blaspherian aims to create an immersive atmosphere of doom and morbidity in which it can bring forth other emotions in layers, such that the “mixed emotions” feel common to much music is not something achieved at the peak of a song, but is a constant in which the emotions mixed vary like a texture, revealing new combinations under the shifting striations of darkness.
Blood Urn – …of Gory Sorcery and Death (Terrorghoul)
Death metal of the classic style fascinates this young band who write music much like the early years of death metal but with more of an emphasis on melodic bridging material, avoiding the pitfall of using melody as essentially a production technique and instead causing it to highlight songs that come alive with a ferment of conflicting riffs. Vocals use the old-school method of shadowing riffs and the salad of phrases itself fits together and creates a deepening mood. While on the heavier and slower side of death metal, this demo is varied enough to touch on all areas of the genre, assembling rich textures as a means to develop depth to the emotions in each part of the song. Unlike many newer bands, Blood Urn decided not to follow a single identifiable influence but instead sound like a study of European and American death metal rendered by someone approaching it with a fresh vision.
Cenotaph – Riding Our Black Oceans (Chaos, re-issue)
A re-issue of this album restores it to its rightful place in the death metal canon. After the immensely powerful Gloomy Reflections of Our Hidden Sorrows, the thunderous Mexican death metal band Cenotaph changed their style to an airier and more intense high-speed melodic death metal sound. Unlike contemporary “melodic death metal” this style embraced the vigor of death metal by expressing it through sequences of tones that added melody without obscuring structure and darker moods, and Cenotaph displayed its customary acumen for songwriting by keeping each track centered around an idea that came forth not only in the whole but in the shape of its riffs. In the years following Sentenced North From Here and At the Gates The Red in the Sky is Ours, many bands attempted this newer style but few made it as vicious and uncompromising as Cenotaph.
Conquering Dystopia – Conquering Dystopia
Conquering Dystopia creates instrumental mental that hybridizes death metal styles with progressive heavy metal and some of the newer progressive styles like that of At War With Self. The result often sounds a lot like Joe Satriani’s older works in that clear theme is expressed and highly repeated, but varied with other instrumental detours which strengthen it as the song progresses and all the pieces fit together more an in interrupted linear way than the geometries of pure death metal. While this is like most commercial rock indulgently emotional, the underlying music is good and the technique interesting without leaving service to what each song needs, which keeps it not only topical but interesting.
Dead Congregation – Promulgation of the Fall (Martyrdoom)
Although this band gets mentioned as the foremost in the “Incantclone” series of bands inspired by streaming columnar detuned tremolo underground metal in the style of Incantation, Demoncy and Havohej, Dead Congregation draws influence as well from the subtler structuring of older Immolation in its use of melody to underscore is otherwise a thunderous series of chromatic rhythm riffs needing a center. Although songs vary in completeness throughout the album, generally these storming high-intensity dirges fit together well and produce an encompassing atmosphere which both crushes and awes the listener. If anything, this band could let up on the classic technique and float more of their own aesthetic ideas now that they are established.
Demilich – 20th Adversary of Emptiness (Svart, re-issue)
Back when death metal was viewed by just about everyone as an incompetent genre of malcontent losers who would go nowhere and who were complaining about our new consumer+hippie paradise, a few bands emerged who saw the emerging genre not as a style but as an artistic voice with unlimited possibilities. One of these, Finland’s Demilich, created an album so circuitous and bizarre that the metal press basically dropped it and ran in fear, as did many fans. For those who discovered it however, Nespithe presented unlimited potential as to how death metal could adopt technicality and yet not be mastered by it and forced into the type of generic jazz-blues-rock theory that served to actually limit what musicians could conceive of and execute. With its twisted passages and seemingly erratic rhythms, Nespithe resembled a strange machine risen from the bowels of earth to conquer humankind. Instead, it inspired generations of fans and musicians to visualize death metal as a broader language than many wanted it to be. This re-issue pairs up older works with a handful of newer songs to make for a complete experience of this distinct voice and its concept.
Desecresy – Chasmic Transcendence (Xtreem)
Desecresy combine Swedish death metal, doom-death metal and atmospheric influences from black metal to create towerlike scenes of dark moods in collision. With Chasmic Transcendence, the band update the formula with more easily separable rhythms to riffs and use of melodic transitions to intensify the building sense of doom. It builds grinding tension and discharges it in lengthy melodic passages which expand beyond their origins into new landscapes. Add to this a tendency to use lead melodic rhythm guitars over its power chord riffs and this makes for a haunting listen that resembles a descent into the underworld. With this third album, the band shows not only its staying power but the depths of the well of its creativity in not just re-inventing older styles but finding a new combination of them and using that to express a perspective which elaborates upon the basics of the genre and gives them new elegance and power.
Enthroned – Sovereigns (Agonia)
Famed for their high-speed melodic black metal, Enthroned take the populist approach of middle-period Dimmu Borgir — before it went into its final stage as warmed-over hard rock — and craft it with greater urgency and the instrumental approach of older black metal. The result more resembles the later Bathory albums where heavy metal, proto-black metal and post-Slayer death metal influences merged to create a potent ferment. Sovereigns does not achieve the vast contrasts and epic sense of loss of earlier black metal, but upholds a battle-spirit and pushes it into song with strong melodies that do not lapse into the cloying saccharine world of “feelings” — personal observations based on personal perspective — but instead appeal to emotions, or the shared sense of importance and value to certain things which might be eternal. This album breaks up the formula slightly with slower songs as the album expands, in the style of Hypocrisy Penetralia.
Entrench – Violent Procreation (War Anthem)
Following in the steps of Merciless, who could be seen as the stylistic ancestor of this band, Entrench craft speed/death metal with melodic underpinnings and a frantic but strident voice which guides riffs much in the way Dio narrated his own songs. To the Merciless formula of adroit ripping riffs concluding in both ambiguity and alignment, Entrench adds a Kreator style of finality to both vocal and guitar phrase, making these songs less emotional but more solidly violent. While speed/death hybridization usually ends badly, here the essence is speed metal riffs played as if by a death metal band in the context of a rhythm more like that of death metal. The result is satisfyingly impact-oriented but for it to take the next step to where Merciless is, it will have to coordinate its melodies and cultivate ambiguity both for it to resolve and preserve to keep the dark sensation produced by the riff-style of death metal, minor key melodies and mentalities outside those of the herd.
Heresiarch – Wælwulf (EP, Dark Descent)
Attempting to forge a niche for itself in the Incantation/Blasphemy inspired style that has become a de facto underground currency during the past few years, Heresiarch create a muddier and more obscure version of their previous works, focusing less on tunneling riffs and more on simple two-chord riffs introducing songs that expand to greater degrees of structure with the slightest hints of melody. The band, in hoping to take war metal to the next dimension, probably consider their work to be unstudied and arising on impulse, but these songs show a clear pattern of development from the grinding to the structural and as a result, take the listeners with them on a journey of finding beauty in darkness and coherence in chaos. The violent slamming intensity remains but by lessening its consistency the band achieves a greater sense of contrast, like raising a sacred object higher above the marble floor to ensure that when it shatters the pieces are irreducible.
Kever – Eon of Cycling Death (Dark Descent)
Perhaps one of the most inspiring releases this year, Eon of Cycling Death wears its old school influences in Suffocation and Morbid Angel on its sleeve but without imitating them in pale imprint of their technique without understanding their essence. Instead this band forges on with a kind of fantasy death metal that shows them living an alternative and parallel timeline to these bands, developing the basics they innovated with a voice specific to these individuals regardless of what time they are born into. Percussive riffs give way to an ensemble of death metal styles united by rhythm and space which convincingly outline the ideas of each song and then give them depth through internal dialogue. On top of it, an abrupt and croaking vocal gives new life to a very familiar technique with its guttural but carefully sculpted sonic enunciation.
Massacra – Enjoy the Violence (Century Media, re-issue)
One of the great classics of death metal, long passed-over for more dramatic acts, gained new life with this re-issue. Massacra created their early music in the style which stretches from Slayer through Morbid Angel and emphasizes fast strumming of rapidly-colliding riffs which emphasize ambiguity and openness over the kind of certainty that works well with more percussive styles. Enjoy the Violence is like a rollercoaster between extremes where all things lead back to the same point, but the experience is changing enough that it is almost unrecognizable as the same. With the remaster, some of the weaker sound from the earlier recording is corrected and bonus tracks are added, giving new life to this under-recognized classic of the genre that was more highly influential among musicians than fans, and took on new life in the bands it influenced.
Massacra – Final Holocaust (Century Media, re-issue)
This foundational album of death metal by Massacra has been re-issued by Century Media with bonus tracks and a booklet rich in information. That provides a good introduction to this view of the death metal style, which instead of attempting to be “heavy” aimed for shock and awe with fast riffs and convoluted songs that somehow emerged into an almost peaceful calm after chaos and combat. Massacra derive their strength from the ability to write fast-fingered riffs that capture the thrill and terror of being alive into a single moment and use this to make basic clashes within life into a mythology of trying to conquer empty spaces with the will and sensibility of a warrior wandering a dystopian wasteland. While this album was forgotten in the day mostly due to its mids-heavy (in contrast to bass-heavy) production and relative availability through distribution contracts more circuitous than its riffs, it rides again in new form.
Massacra – Day of the Massacra (Century Media)
Century Media compiled several early Massacra demos into a single disc, paired it with extensive liner notes and pictures, and remastered everything for an insight into the rise of the Massacra sound while it was recognizable as what would emerge on the first two and most influential Massacra albums. These recordings show the band merging its early influences into a style and then finding its own voice within that beast, allowing it to compose distinctive and evocative songs immediately including several pre-album tracks with some duct tape still visible. While this might appeal most to Massacra maniacs, it also serves as a useful introduction to new fans who may appreciate the heavier production and more aggressive primitive approach here as a means of transitioning to the albums that follow, which focused not so much on slamming impact as a kind of sky architecture of riffery.
Nausea – Condemned to the System (Willowtip)
Straddling the line between grindcore, crust and old-fashioned hardcore — which are inches apart as it is — Nausea return with this recording of older and newer tracks alike. Carefully pared down to incorporate only necessary elements and keep energy high, Condemned to the System demonstrates the simpler style of punk composition with all of the riff power of early grindcore, including several tracks (and pieces thereof) that later made it to the first Terrorizer album, World Downfall. The listener who can forget that heritage however will discover merely a crushing, efficient and streamlined album of enjoyable but hard-hitting punkish music that will not win awards for extremity or technicality, but shows care applied to songwriting so that a listener does not feel lost in a sea of riffs or drone, but can isolate each song in the mind and appreciate its individual attack.
Nunslaughter – Angelic Dread (Hells Headbangers)
While some may be tempted to categorize Nunslaughter as dinosaurs, the fact remains that this band takes the raw ingredients of power metal, speed metal and most death metal and makes a stripped-down, hardcore-punk style ripping version of this that remains highly listenable even if not particularly distinguishable on a song-to-song basis. Like other collections of many short songs, such as Dead Infection or Carcass, Angelic Dread operates like many small insights into roughly the same idea. Somehow, what this band creates never gets old, in part because they understand their riffs as a language from the same basic source, and in part because like a thrash band their song format carefully fits the particular clash of the two riffs (with a few budget transitions, and sometimes rhythmic variations, Nunslaughter uses two riffs per song on average) and the need of presenting them in the best light. The result is compelling and enjoyable and upholds the best tradition of riffcraft and expressive violence in underground music.
Oppression – Sociopathie & Gloire (Preposterous Creations)
Merging Oi!-style punk with some enhancements from black metal, tracks are short (2-3 minute) affairs. Melodies are catchy, yet wistful lines grounded in simple guitar and bass riffs, with vocal alternating between manic shrieks and an idiosyncratic, youthful attempt at melodic singing. Using the more linear style composition of punk, as opposed to the riff-stacking song construction used by much of black metal, each song contributes a sense of motion that builds the album up over successive tracks. Production values are what one would expect for this style of music; clear enough to make out each instrument, but raw enough to preserve low-budget ethos. This is a release that is not attempting to invent a new genre, but rather one which seeks to renew genres that had collapsed under their own entropy. The strange aesthetics may be off-putting to some, but if those can be sublimated into the spirit of this album, a refreshingly honest work will open itself for enjoyment.
Personal Device – Microorganismos del Mal
First there was the faux 80s crossover thrash revival with party retro-thrash bands like Toxic Holocaust and Municipal Waste, then bands like Birth A.D. bounced back with actual thrash and reformed the genre. Now Personal Device take it a step both further and in a different direction by being a classic hardcore band that informs itself with early speed metal like the first Metallica and Nuclear Assault albums. The result is bouncy fast and precise punk like Ratos de Porao or even middle-period Bad Brains that is thoroughly enjoyable with riff breaks that resemble “The Four Horsemen” or maybe even “Live, Suffer, Die.” Their guitars are remarkably precise which creates an unusual sound for punk that by making it mechanistic makes it seem more inexorable than like protest music, and the result is a more testosterone-fueled and warlike approach. Mix that with the surging chord changes of speed metal and the fast repetitive chanted choruses from thrash, and you have a high-energy band. Its flaws are that experienced listeners may find this a bit too transparent, and that many of its rhythms are similar, but the band has administered its style with an editor’s red pen handy, cutting out any lesser parts, which gives it more staying power than all but a few albums in this stylistic range.
Ripper – Raising the Corpse (Underground Defenders)
Much like Merciless, Ripper know to invoke a melodic hook with a rhythmic hook and gradually bring a song into unity, at which point they hammer home the infectious chorus until the audience is ready to carve it into their own flesh. While some may point out that little new occurs here stylistically, and many of these riff forms can be traced back to Slayer or Destruction, what Ripper does well is keep this music high-intensity without falling into sameness and to streamline into an effective delivery mechanism that outgrows the confused collision of styles that was the mid to late 1980s. This approach fits within the early speed metal model that formed the basis of great hook-laden German bands like Destruction and Sodom, and this tradition continues with Ripper. Where Ripper succeeds is in removing extraneous material and cutting to the core of its music, eliminating some of the distraction and randomness that blighted later work from the German bands.
Sorcier Des Glaces – Ritual Of The End (Obscure Abhorrence)
Flowing dark melodic forest black metal band Sorcier des Glaces burst onto the scene as any appreciation for this style of Graveland and Immortal influenced black metal fully waned as the initial loss of momentum in the genre caught up with its inertia. Since that time, the band has continued its path of making naturalistic long-melody black metal with the distinctive wandering tempo and phrasal development that many of the French bands also explored. With Ritual of the End, Sorcier des Glaces present their vision in a more focused style that nonetheless preserves the inconclusive nature of their earlier music, becoming like a vision of the woods at twilight equal parts promise and ambiguity, revealing the continuous nature of life through its inability to achieve finite endpoints. When metal mistakenly went toward faster/more extreme variants of the past, it lost the majestic beauty which inspired imagination as well as aggression, and Sorcier des Glaces return it.
Varathron – Untrodden Corridors Of Hades (Agonia)
One of the original Greek black metal bands, Varathron returns with higher speed and more dominant melody in a style that approximates what Borknagar and other later black metal bands tried to do, with some nods to music since but fundamentally a sensibility closer to Rotting Christ Thy Mighty Contract. Keeping energy high with frequent changes but return to theme and focus on a melody or progression at the heart of each song, Varathron expand their repertoie and craft an album that speaks enough of a contemporary language to dominate that style with the vocabulary of the older era, invoking both a return to and a continuation of the past. While the influence of the present time makes itself known, it remains under control of the guiding forces behind this band that seek to open the imagination instead of gratify self-image, and as a result more possibility emerges here than in other contemporary works.
Witchblood – Hail to Lyderhorn (Aurora Australis)
Attempting to uphold the values of classic black metal while introducing to them some of the more recent developments in tradfolk-inspired music, Witchblood combines the catchy attack of Venom with riff technique from mid-90s black metal and adds its own voice, which consists of equal part narrative bardic style and an idiosyncratic ability to make memory-haunting tunes. The result features a range of techniques from the history of metal, including NWOBHM-inspired riffing right alongside streaming tremolo picked melodic riffs, but this band makes it work by keeping focus on an essential melody in each song paired to a vocal rhythm designed to deliver a foot-tapping chorus, as bands like Sodom or Destruction did years ago. The result takes the Venom school of metal, upgrades it with black metal, and restores it to a 1980s delivery that is both clear and dark and then infuses that with the type of ancestral identity and epic sensation of purpose that arises from folk music. Through this, Witchblood creates its own form of metal that shows clear roots in much older traditions.
Woodtemple – Forgotten Pride (Sacrilege)
Showing more of an influence from Following the Voice of Blood era Graveland, Woodtemple return with a more focused version of their flowing black metal. In the past, the music more resembled flowing hills in a landscape of vast breadth, but now greater internal contrast makes what is portrayed closer to a mountain range with ragged crags over deep valleys. The addition of floating female vocals and gentle keyboards allow the band to put more aggression into guitars and bass, keeping vocals semi-backgrounded which produces the effect of reducing the “human” feel to the music. As a result, songs come together with more focus, making this the clearest statement from Woodtemple yet made. Like most metal in this style, Forgotten Pride creates an effect of distance from the human world, isolation and a focus on the larger picture through a lens of large leaps in time, but now creates another hypnotic effect in a distancing from humanity itself. This band, while not a Graveland side project, features Graveland composer Rob Darken on bass.
Album of the Year 2014
Sammath – Godless Arrogance (Hammerheart)
Godless Arrogance features nearly constant high-intensity rhythmic riffing and finally has a production to match which emphasizes internal harmony but projects vocals and guitars to the forefront, creating an enveloping wall of sound. Drumming is violent martial battery without the happy kickbeat tendencies of overly rock-trained drummer; percussion here is more like punk, hard-driving intensity to channel the guitars, which alternate between abrupt chromatic confrontation in the Demoncy style to gentle unfolding melodies much like were found on Strijd. Bass folds into the guitar, and vocals are the high-volume bluster that reduces distorted vocals to a sound like a whisper spoken close to a microphone in high wind. The result is incessant and unrelenting but also has an inner life of melody that gives it depth and allows it to manipulate riff context like a death metal band while evoking ambient atmosphere in the best tradition of black metal. For resurrecting the black metal spirit of great beauty hidden within massive aggression and alienation, Godless Arrogance deserves to be seen as the best album of 2014.
South American death metal and progressive band Cóndor will release its second album, Duin, on January 27. This band takes an approach more like that of classical guitarists toward melding death metal with progressive rock, blues, folk and other influences: it mixes them in serially and adopts them within the style, rather than hybridizing the two styles.
In other words, most bands that try to sound like progressive death metal try to act like a progressive rock band playing death metal, or a death metal band playing progressive rock. Cóndor takes an approach more like that of musicians in the past, which is to adopt other voices within its style, so that it creates essentially the same material but works in passages that show the influence of other thought.
Cóndor‘s first album Nadia made our best of 2013 for its mix between primal death metal and other guitar-oriented styles. It will be interesting to see how much the band matured and developed during the past two years and how it will handle what are undoubtedly new influences.
The tracklist is as follows:
- Río frío
- El lamento de Penélope
- La gran laguna
- Helle gemundon in mod-sefan
It is a seldom-known fact that you get more of what you allow to exist. In a musical community, this means that whatever albums sell enough to attract some audience will produce imitators.
When a community is thriving, this means that good albums replace bad. When a community is dying, it means that labels pump out thousands of near-duplicates in an effort to reap profit.
The community that proves intolerant of the bad is a good step, but the community must act in the corresponding opposite, which is to celebrate the good. To hold up all that is excellent means that more of it will come, because it is rewarded.
As we pass through the 20th anniversary of the demise of death metal and black metal, which perished in a flood of imitators who pushed the quality material to the periphery, it behooves us to celebrate the excellent and use it to push aside the rest.
What follows is a partial summary of the highlights of the last five years. These are albums that should be played loudly, given to metalheads at Christmas, forced onto MP3 playlists and constantly affirmed as excellent. This is the only path to better metal.
Blaspherian – Infernal Warriors of Death
Underground metal began with Slayer, which mixed hardcore punk and heavy metal to make a new sound, inspiring in the next generation bands like Bathory, Hellhammer and Sodom who made a darker and more detuned sound. By the time the genre flowered in the late 1980s many bands integrated the Hellhammer style of bass-heavy thunderous material alongside the faster Slayer style of tremolo phrasal riffs. Picking up from that era, Blaspherian combines the thunder of Deicide and Immolation with the simplicity of early doom-death, creating songs that simultaneously use primitive parts and arrange them into more than the sum of those parts. A morbid and violent atmosphere emanates from this music as it rolls through a few basic riffs per song, setting up a Possessed-style verse chorus but then like Incantation and other old school acts, expanding on that context to create a ritual atmosphere. This mysticism of thunder and subterranean blackness pervades the resulting metallic onslaught which favors the dark, antisocial and evil side of metal. What defined the underground was this stepping away from the modes of seeing that most people use to look at society, and to instead associate itself with the bestial forces of nature and occultism that array against any form of order that has no goal but itself.
Beherit – Engram
When Beherit makes an album, the result will not only open full throttle on the ears of its listeners, but also change how we think of black metal. Its violent and simplistic early days took the deliberate primitivism of Blasphemy and Sarcofago and made from it violent amalgamation of dark moods and the unleashed human id which wants nothing more than to crush this overgrown, spoiled, decadent and indulgent world of directionless people and purposeless activity. With Drawing Down the Moon, Beherit created a standard that few bands could exceed, which was an album both inventive in its use of occult symbolism and distinct for its memorable, infectious and yet dread-intensifying riffs. After years and permutations later, Beherit returned to the fray with an album that aimed to expand the relationship between black metal and ambient music and operate as an album, moving us from one frame of mind to another through immersion in fragments of idea that add up to a whole picture. This is no trivial task! Engram begins in tribute to Venom and Bathory and ends in an entirely different style where hermetic atmospheres mingle with riffs that seem to use ancient numerology to achieve the balance between ear-addictingly hook-laden and a dark mood like atavism which creates a feral disconnection from the failed mentality of this world and transports us to another. The violence seems subdued at first but emerges in the mindset this album creates. It literally reprograms the mind, much like the thought objects that its title references. Better than most of its critics realized, Engram showed black metal a new way but that set the bar too high for most of the hack ‘n slash three riff crowd. It remains a testament to what this style can achieve even two decades from its foundation.
Sammath – Godless Arrogance
Sammath always made quality black metal that favored the duality of the original work: primitive/barbaric and yet elegant/beautiful. Shocking as it is, black metal appears designed after the dictatorships of Stalin and Hitler, which favored fancy uniforms and grand ceremony as they bombed, murdered, and subjugated their way across the world. If you can imagine a beautiful warplane with graceful curves and an inner beauty, and then visualize it destroying 10,000 enemies without mercy or even a pause for a snack, that is the sound of the new Sammath. It combines the elegant melodies and song structure of the band’s first album with the battering ram war machine approach of their middle works, resulting in an album that has the melodic elegance of early Immortal but the attack speed of Morbid Angel. Not only that, but this album shows across the board upgrades in songwriting for this Dutch band, with no extraneous material and tightly integrated arrangements.
Graveland – Thunderbolts of the Gods
Later Graveland inhabits the difficult zone between black metal, the Conan soundtrack and ambient neofolk. These albums are harder to distinguish at first listen because songs are based on the interaction and harmonization between different melodies instead of the emergence of a single guitar line melody which then defines the song. Starting with Memory and Destiny, Graveland morphed into its own genre with more in common with Summoning and Empyrium than conventional black metal. As a result, few know how to understand these albums, but it appears the best approach is to listen to them as albums and to fully intend to lose yourself in the sonic environment they create. Most descriptions of Thunderbolts of the Gods will combine “lush” with descriptions of martial power and motivation because true to its name, this is an album not just about war, but the reasons for war that mix sociology and theology in a potent brew that stimulates emotions deep within your average red-blooded metalhead. Like the earliest of Graveland releases, these describe lonely Celtic nights in the frozen Pagan mountains while waging warfare against unnamed unending enemies (like a buffet gone wrong). Not only does Graveland possess the same epic vision as before, but now the band has added epic instrumentation including layers of keyboards, synth instruments, strings and a guitar line that now organizes the other melodies instead of trying to dominate all alone. The result is like being lost in a book more than tapping your foot along to a record.
Profanatica – Profanatitas de Domonatia
Many are turned off by the somewhat amateurish album title but they should stick around for the music, which combines the best complex long-phrase tremolo riffing in the Incantation school with the acerbic and vigorously rhythmic black metal for which Havohej/Profanatica are famous. Before you can say “I vomit on God’s child!” (and you should say this daily) the album tears into its circuitous riffs that give relatively straightforward compositions an air of esoteric bafflement in addition to enjoyment of a good tune with forward momentum and acrobatic guitar work. While this album is not as raw and purely rhythmic as earlier Profanatica, it makes up for that by creating instead an air of mystery and paranoia, like walking into the court of a Satanic adversary and being told to justify oneself. Vocals retain their traditional rasp and as usual, Paul Ledney’s drum playing adds a richness of rhythm that most bands do not have. The result is pure enjoyment of the musical aspects of this band with the constant blasphemy as a garnish. Its inventive riffing and foray into death metal territory adds a depth to black metal that corresponds to the raw aggression this band has always used as the charge behind its warhead of apostatic occultism, and in this album the entirety comes together for a complex series of moods within a similar idea. If anything, this improves on older works which could be too straightforward for repeated listening, where Profanatitas de Domonatia holds up as a musical companion.
Demoncy – Enthroned is the Night
Always an outlier, Demoncy saw its greatest career height when it produced a death metal record with black metal atmosphere in Joined in Darkness. Not content to revisit past victories, Demoncy launch in a melodic direction and mix death metal and black metal influences into a smooth voice by always retaining the black metal atmosphere and refusing to get into the more abrupt stop/start mentality of death metal which loves contrast. Black metal is after all about emergence of ideas instead of discovering them at the end of labyrinth, and so Demoncy creates an album where riffs establish atmosphere and song structure provides gathering mood, creating a momentum of dark emotion which eventually dominates the entire experience. Unlike most black metal bands, Demoncy prefers to create atmosphere through steady application of layers and then selective removal, which avoids the charge into the abyss sensation but instead creates a sense of slowly sinking into the depths of human emotion. Riffs and ideas on this album borrow from the classic years of death metal, specifically the first two albums from Unleashed, but add to it the sense of an arch-predator on vigilant patrol above a wasteland of miserable, helpless souls that Joined in Darkness made so effective. Instead Demoncy lets these riffs ring out and then join simultaneously simpler and more cryptic song structures to create a sense of delight in the possibilities of darkness.
Divine Eve – Vengeful and Obstinate
Divine Eve combine death metal with the newer veins of doom metal, mixing in classic heavy metal and punk to give the genre more of a listenable approach and higher energy. What results is a command to battle that suffuses with the dread and morbidity of doom metal but joins it to a violent but almost boyish delight in the possibilities of music and life itself. As a result despite its doom inclinations and death metal styling, this album more resembles the adventurous explorations of a world falling apart that bands like The Doors embarked upon a generation ago. Guitar work prefers the boxy charging approach of punk bands or minimal acts like Cianide and Motorhead, giving these songs a bounding energy even when they slow down and removing the polish that later death metal used to obscure its dark intent. Although this is an EP and so runs shorter than an album, it gives a vision of Divine Eve joining the style and substance of their 1990s EP As the Angels Weep with the material most of the band released as Crimson Relic and some of its recent appearances. Rumor has it that Divine Eve are currently working on new material for release in the near future, which makes it more exciting that this promising release presages onslaughts which may amplify the promise it unveiled.
Blotted Science – The Animation of Entomology
Modern metal makes itself hard to like, both because it is a hybrid and thus a loss of direction, and because it is fundamentally annoying, being based in the late hardcore style of “carnival music” where the goal is to make each riff dramatically contrasting the rest, resulting in a type of randomness that appeals to lost teenagers in a lost land. Blotted Science take that approach to its logical conclusion by removing the vocals and the randomness, and preferring instead to stack together related riffs that initially do not appear to be so, causing songs to flow together like collapsing buildings where many disparate parts suddenly become a single momentum. Most reviewers will focus on technical ability, which is not lacking here, but the real triumph of this band is using adept songwriting to pull together a mess of a genre and make something better out of it. These songs, like those on Gorguts Obscura, embrace the chaos of life and impose order on it in unconventional ways, much like objects seen through a microscope do not resemble the physical whole seen without magnification. These songs speak to a delight in the power of music itself and the imagination to twist and obscure a message only to bring it out with greater impact after a roller coaster of riffing distorts reality and deranges the senses.
I used to loathe end-of-year lists. They struck me as a pointless chance to advertise what should have been obvious before. Over the years they have risen in my estimation as a way not only to mark the year, but to bring up the gold that gets lost in the chaos of everyday life. And yes, they’re also shopping lists for the metalhead in your life.
This year our list is surprising even to hardened cynics. At a time when metal is bragging up and down the Williamsburg alleys about how “innovative” and “ground-breaking” it is, that novelty turns out to be the remnants of the 1980s: emo, pop punk, shoegaze and indie. The real innovation is as always underground, because to get out of the hive mind one must first remove oneself from participation in normalcy.
Thus what you will find here is not what you will see in either (a) the big-label-financed slick magazines and web sites or (b) the majority of small zines and websites out there. That is because the genre as a whole has shifted from creation towards an idea to emulation of the past, or reaction to the past by trying to adulterate it with outside influences. Neither approach succeeds.
When a reviewer chooses an album, he should pick one that will last in your collection. Your time is limited, as is your money. Thus we look only for works that you can purchase and enjoy over the years, and can return to with a sense of wonder and discovery as new angles and nuances emerge. This standard seems high, so they call us elitists. What we really are is people who love metal and want it to be strengthened by its best, not weakened by accepting its worst.
The following albums are those that merit such a standard:
Rejecting the notion of newness in itself, Argus returns to fundamental influences from the 1980s and makes a band that sounds like a fusion between Mercyful Fate, Iron Maiden and Candlemass. Guitar riffery is designed to be inventive and interesting in its own right but is trimmed down to what fits the function of each song. As a result, these songs “sound like” the classics in more ways than one. They are thoughtful and deliberate, purposeful and driven. Classic heavy metal riffs merge with meandering leads that somehow pull it all together, under the mournful voice of a vocalist who clearly enjoys classic Candlemass both in vocal delivery and sense of melody. See full review / interview.
Autopsy are famous for their contributions to death metal which notably peaked in Mental Funeral where their chaotic tendencies got wrapped up in their sense of atmosphere and produced a dark ambling journey into the subconscious. Of their later works, The Headless Ritual gets close to such a balance although it aims for something more everyday. This is an album that wants to deliver classic death metal thrills, and it does so with moderately paced songs that balance melody and savage chromatic riffing. Chris Reifert’s drumming pirouttes and grapples through vicious tempo changes as riffs unlock a Lament Configuration that is equal parts nostalgia and invention.
What happened to real thrash, like DRI and Cryptic Slaughter? In much the same vein as hardcore punk before it, thrash was so intense that it burned out after only four years of real presence. Birth A.D. wisely choose not to “bring it back” but rather to pick up as if thrash were a party and the next day, the hung over participants awaken among the ruins. They’ve sharpened its message, which merged the anarchy of punk with the search for societal purpose of metal, and given its riffs the S.O.D. speed metal infusion without unduly modernizing them. As a result, these two-minute songs hit hard and retreat into the jungle, leaving behind their sardonic lyrics mocking society for being so stupid. When the record stops playing, there is a sense of both having received too much information to process, and a sadness that there isn’t more. See full review.
Realizing what Black Sabbath meant to fans not just as a named entity but as a phenomenon, Black Sabbath integrate the sounds of vocalist Ozzy Osbourne’s solo years into their later, more refined music, with citations to Master of Reality as well. The result is a powerful album that is more pop than their original works but, in a time when nu-metal rages on the radio, reclaims heavy metal as having a voice of its own. It also pushes controversy, affirming a presence of God in this world for good or ill at a time when most people want to get polemic one way or the other. A supporting cast of sprawling but hard-hitting songs make this a great immersive lesson and transition from regular rock to metal for new listeners. See full review.
This band shares members with Satan, who also re-entered the fray with an album of strong tunes. Like Satan, Blitzkrieg know how to simultaneously avoid “changing” for change’s sake (inevitably a lateral move to other contemporarily popular genres) and nostalgia for nostalgia’s sake, making instead an album that fits into their catalogue but doesn’t deny the older, wiser status of its members. These are mostly straightforward songs with melodic choruses and driving, riff-centric verses, plus nimble-fingered and harmonically-aggressive soloing. See full review.
People said they wanted old Burzum back. The spirit of old Burzum comes back in this ambient album. It’s a bit more hasty and less refined by fanatical attention to detail than his previous works, but it creates the same world, only zoomed forward in time. It is both a practical and imaginative album. In style, it resembles a cross between Tangerine Dream, William Orbit and the Scandinavian folk music of Grieg, Hedningarna or Wardruna. Strongly ritualized, it unfolds like a descent through mythical worlds and finds its own balance. One of the best offerings in this field. See full review / interview.
For years many of us have wanted this Dutch band to catch a break. They have written several albums of relentlessly pounding, rhythmically intense riffing that somehow doesn’t add up. First, writing the whole album at high speed means that soon it backgrounds itself; second, there was always a lack of melody or song structure to hold it together. Centurian have improved on the latter two and toned down the former to a great degree, such that this is no longer trying to be Krisiun but more like a more Angelcorpse/Fallen Christ approach to Consuming Impulse. The result showcases this band’s dexterity with riffcraft and creates an intense atmosphere of violence. See full review.
This entry album by a new band shows a lot of promise in tackling the power metal format and trying to give it the balls of death metal and funeral doom metal. This contemplative, mostly mid-paced album shows a sense of atmosphere as manipulated by riff, in the death metal sense, given a somewhat upward curve and heroic spin in the best tradition of power metal. Although it’s a new act, and still organizing itself, Cóndor shows that life remains in true metal that can be explored by revisiting its motivations. See full review / interview.
In the tradition of Vader, Mortuary and other fast phrasal death metal bands, Derogatory invoke the classic death metal form with an album of nicely interlocking riffs that reveal a basic but distinctive structure beneath each song. This album is not self-consciously “retro” so much as it is using the voice of the older style, and while it doesn’t expand stylistically, it has found a voice of its own. See full review/interview.
Combining funeral doom metal with European folk music creates for Empyrium a fertile style that is showcased here in a retrospective of the best of their career presented in a rare live setting. Expect plenty of use of silence and resonance to build up these songs, which start slowly and then become engaging before evaporating into more esoteric conclusions. While most funeral doom aims to be dark, Empyrium creates an emotional contrast like a Gothic band, with beauty arising from chaos only to be strangled by inevitability and fall again. See full review / interview.
Following up on 2012’s Lord Wind release, Polish/Italian artist Rob Darken unleashes a new work under his black metal brand Graveland. Like the band’s second career-defining Memory and Destiny, this release features Bathory Hammerheart-style guitars which mix speed metal and black metal to produce rhythmic riffing as a backdrop for keyboards and vocals, now featuring also human female vocals and violin. The result is a collision between heavy metal, neofolk and epic movie soundtracks that evokes the glory of the ancient past.
Paul Speckmann is a metal institution who has stayed with death metal from its genesis in the early 1980s through the presence. His latest, The Witchhunt, showcases the stable lineup he has used for recent releases but tones down the overall intensity to focus on songwriting. Fast riffs blend together with touches of melody and the classic Speckmann vocal patterns which resemble the struggles of daily life turned up to eleven. Where previous Master works of recent vintage tended to blend together, on this one each song is distinct. See full review / interview.
Taking a hint from Necrovore and intensifying it through technical prowess, Profanatica step back from the longer melodic riffs of Profanatitas de Domonatia and instead write short, cyclic phrases within compact rhythms in the style of the ancient Texas death metal cult. The result is like a primitive album with complexity embedded in it as melodies expand within fixed riff forms, uniting savagery and beauty in the service of blasphemy. As with all Profanatica works, this is experimental to the extreme, but Thy Kingdom Cum ranks among their most listenable releases. See full review /interview.
The Singaporean maniacs return with an album that uses more traditional melodic death metal riffing but retains its rhythmic structure based on speed metal and possibly the Hindu rituals described in its lyrics. As with most Rudra releases, RTA does not aim for the pop song idea of hitting a sweet spot and luring in your ears. It is the construction of an experience, in this case a dark descent that forges a resolve to continue through warfare and a martial stilling of the reckless personality through militant silence of the soul.
The rougher edge of NWOBHM that was a kissing cousin to speed metal emerges again in this highly musical album from Satan. Like their groundbreaking early 1980s works which presaged the debut of Metallica and birth of speed metal, Life Sentence features inventive riffs in classic song format in which melodic development in the vocals harmonizes riffs to bring songs to a conclusion. Shy of speed metal mostly because it relies on relatively fixed song format which emphasizes verse-chorus riff pairs, this album nonetheless reveals both the greatness of NWOBHM and its continuing relevance in a time of tuneless songs and random song structure. See full review / interview.
After black metal fully constituted itself in the early 1990s in Scandinavia, people looked for the next development along these lines. Some went to dark ambient, but others like Summoning and Graveland instead explored longer melodies and more drawn-out, atmospheric songs. Summoning take a medieval and Tolkien-inspired approach in contrast to the more martial outlook of other bands, and produce as a result immersive waves of melody that evoke a more organic society. With Old Mornings Dawn, these Austrian metal maniacs build on the emotion of Oath Bound but exploit it in more compact and separable songs, making one of the more intense metal statements of the year. See full review.
Following up on Von’s early career material like Satanic Blood is not easy; in fact, it’s impossible. A band would either have to re-create that minimalist style and risk irrelevance, or embark on a campaign to dress it up as something it is not. Von has opted for something else entirely which is to create a minimalistic core within a rock opera style of black metal, producing one of the more puzzling but satisfying releases in the underground metal world this year. See full review.
Combining folk music, world music, droning found noises and the type of ritualistic dark ambient that emerged from the end days of black metal, Wardruna is a black metal side project that offers a different vision of music. While earlier works seemed detached from the end listener, Runaljod – Yggdrasil embeds the listener within a wave of ceremonial sound that aims not to be forebrain listening as Western rock is, but a mentally ambient experience that overwhelms by addressing all of the senses and channeling that experience toward a realization.
Underground death metal continuation act War Master released a four-track EP, Blood Dawn, amidst personnel changes and other upheavals this year. Like the previous Pyramid of the Necropolis, Blood Dawn focuses on futuristic and yet ancient concepts, almost like Voivod taking on Robert E. Howard or Edgar Rice Burroughs. From this vast concept come songs that both grind their way to nihilism and implement the death metal method of matching riffs into an internal dialogue from which a conclusion emerges, creating a pocket of mystery which is filled with wonder and violence.
Album of the year:
There is no completely fair way to pick an album of the year from a list with this many strong contenders, but Imprecation win this one on both substance and situation. For substance, this is a solid album that combines a black metal sense of ritualistic song development with the death metal tendency to make abstract riffs into an organic whole. For situation, Satanae Tenebris Infinita sees a band that started in 1991 and is famous for releasing its discography of demos in 1995 finally reach a stage where it can release a full-length album independent of any past influences. In addition, Satanae Tenebris Infinita hits hard and does not relent. Each element serves a purpose toward creating a transition in moods, like a perpetual parallax as continents shift. If death metal was waiting for a direction forward, Imprecation have opened that gate to a new occult science and art of subversive metal. See full review / interview.
The following were considered, and then not so much considered:
- Morbosidad – Muerte De Cristo En Golgota. This is like Krisiun or Impiety rendered in the style of Mystifier, or like any of the war metal bands that imitated Blasphemy but with a dose of downtuned Sarcofago. It’s not bad, but aside from high intensity rhythm, it doesn’t have much to offer. Thus think of it as Satanic death techno performed on muddy guitars.
- Fates Warning – Darkness in a Different Light. Bands: don’t try to roll with the trends. You were good at something else for a reason. This album has strong smary indie rock influences on its vocals and the result is embarrassing to be caught listening to. Riffs are reasonable, but don’t particularly develop, and emphasize space and consistency more than something with a personality.
- Grave Upheaval – Untitled. Not bad; mostly rumbling noises, very true to form. Unfortunately, also doesn’t go anywhere. It’s an atmosphere piece of one dimension.
- Warlord – The Holy Empire. Some sort of rock-metal hybrid from back in the day, this form of power metal uses mostly lead riffing anchored by static open chording. The dominant instrument is the voice, more like Rush or Asia than most metal. It’s pleasant but lullabye and too close to rock music.
- Hell – Curse and Chapter. Do you know how far I would have run to get away from this back in the 1980s? It’s NWOBHM/early power metal without much melodic movement in the riff, so there’s a lot of chugging and shifting but not much actual motion. Nor will you have much actual motion as you listen to this… in fact, you might find yourself immobile and snoring.
- Battlecross – War of Will. This is traditional metal affected by metalcore aesthetics. The vocals follow the surge pattern of later hardcore, and the melodic riffs use rhythmic “chasing” to accelerate patterns older than Chuck Berry. The result is so distracting the band can’t compose a song, but instead write a riff pair and then leap into a blast beat to transition.
- Enforcer – Death by Fire. Here we have another band from Scandinavia creating highly musically-literate, catchy and otherwise perfect music. The problems are twofold: (1) it is a clone of 1970s styles that are liked for their innocent pop cheeze (2) while it is emotive, and aesthetically appealing, it is also empty.
- Queensryche – Queensryche. Since the band went legal on each other, there’s now two Queensryches… this one sounds like Coldplay. The same posi-pop vibe and expansive chorus feel drives this work, and it has a similar outlook on the world, which is a sort of pathological compulsion to make things beautiful instead of finding beauty where it is rare. Unsettling.
- Leprous – Coal. If this Queen-slash-bad-indie band gets anywhere in metal, it’s time to bury the genre under warm ruminant feces. Power metal mixed with dramatic English pop. The result is bracingly twee with metal riffs batting about in the background.
- Iggy and the Stooges – Ready to Die. Almost all reviews of this album will waffle, because it is good, but it’s not distinctive. It all kind of flows together, as if the band paid more attention to the aesthetics of sounding like themselves than whatever’s driving them. But how do you “be punk” when you have a paid up retirement plan and health insurance?
- Abyssal – Novit Enim Dominus Qui Sunt Eius. This was the hip thing for a few weeks, but shows you that you cannot revive a genre by imitating it through outward form. These songs use all the right pieces, but in a random order, and thus create no mood except nostalgia. And I piss on nostalgia’s grave.
- Tyrant’s Blood – Into the Kingdom of Graves. Great title, has a Blasphemy ex-member, can’t go wrong… right? There’s a lot to like about this, but it doesn’t hold together. It embraces the “hotel buffet” style of offering many different riff types in a single song that ends up distorting any coherence. Storming Perdition Temple-style fast metal explodes into melodic mid-paced riffs and then ends up chugging deathgrind, lost and adrift on the seas of making a point.
- Cultes des Ghoules – Henbane. It’s ludicrous that so many in the underground were fooled by this comical album. It’s a lot of bad heavy metal riffs interrupted by “avantgarde” noise, samples, etc. — the usual cliches — so that you don’t notice it’s bog-standard. This is hipster incarnate.
- Acerus – The Unreachable Salvation. Galloping uptempo yet mid-paced heavy metal with a lot of Iron Maiden and Mercyful Fate. Not bad, but not particularly expansive to anything more than that aesthetic role.
- Aosoth – IV: Arrow in Heart. This album, like Immolation, got credit because people expected it should. Its strong point is listenable songs with some technicality; its weakness is that they express nothing strong. It is Participation with an A+ for method and a B- for content.
- Sodom – Epitome of Torture. This rather sentimental, somewhat modern-metal influenced take on a speed metal album is very catchy and represents Sodom’s most professional work, but also loses the unique perspective this band offered on the world around it. This is more like the heavy metal albums of their youths, heavy on emotion which makes their repetitive, chorus-heavy approach almost too saccharine.
- Grave Miasma – Odori Sepulcorum. I have wallpaper. It’s named “It’s 1991 again and you can rediscover things you believed in once again.” It sounds like a mishmash of 1990s era death metal and yet, because it’s wallpaper, it never comes to a point. It just creates an atmosphere.
- Týr – Valkyrja. Power metal of the newer stype seems to me it has a mystery ingredient, and that is devotional music. This sounds like church music, with sweeping choruses and whole-note cadences, and it has an admitted power, but it also loses much of what makes metal powerful: it’s not protest music, nor is it music that tries to cover ugliness with beauty, but music that finds beauty in what is considered ugly.
- Onslaught – VI. Eager to effect a return to the music business, Onslaught speed up their punk/metal hybrid but adopt the vocal styles and constant driving mechanical rhythm of modern metal. The result is unrelenting but also disconnected and monolithic. The catchy choruses don’t help and seem almost to mock the rest of the music, which sounds like a pilotless threshing machine gone amok in a pumpkin patch…
- Death Angel – The Dream Calls for Blood. In the 1980s, speed metal bands had a certain annoying rhythm where they tried to be as obnoxiously bouncy as possible while ranting as intensely as possible. With modern metal much of the internal rhythmic interplay has been eliminated, resulting in something that sounds like chanting Stalinist propaganda with guitars strobing in the background.
- Bölzer – Aura. Like Oranssi Pazuzu, Bölzer experiment in disorganized slowed black/death/heavy metal with mixed-in weirdo alternative rock. Weirdo alternative rock has existed since early rock bands made a name for themselves by being odd. The problem is that it doesn’t connect to form an impression, only a sense of instrumentalism.
- Coffins – The Fleshland. Doom-death with some quality riffing, Coffins nonetheless manage to inevitably get lost in each of their songs and fill the void with noodly pentatonic leads, distracted tributaries of non-essential riffs, and “atmospheric” repetition.
- Metal Church – Generation Nothing. This shrill metal band has always struck me as more in the heavy metal camp than speed metal camp, and here it’s borne out. The riffs don’t have form like speed metal riffs do but are mostly static based on rhythmic repetition. Focus is on the voice, which wails. Not bad but annoying and kind of empty. Also, older guys trying to bond with the new generation is awkward when done this way.
- Malthusian – MMXIII. Like many sonic experiments, this band relies on style to shape content because style is the substance of the experiment. The idea here is to combine the Incantation-clone death metal that is trendy with melodic progressive touches, including some sneakster modern metal influences. The result loses what could have been and fails to transition to what it wants to be.
- Stratovarius – Nemesis. When did this band get so bad? The first track sounds like a rip of Heart’s “On My Own,” and the rest of the album proceeds in this fashion: combine classic metal riff archetype with classic 1980s vocal melody, add some flourishes and hope it’s good enough. I liked it better when this band was more speed metally and less pop.
Norwegian black metal band Gorgoroth have announced a tentative schedule for their new album, Instinctus Bestialis. In a recent interview, the band stated that their goal was to have the album released by the early part of 2014, later adding that the demos had already been finalized.
This will be the band’s first release with this lineup; having replaced vocalist Pest with Atterigner, vocalist for modern black metal band Triumfall. In 2009, Gorgoroth released Quantos Possunt ad Satanitatem Trahunt, which saw the band furthering their post-millennial style of playing black-flavored heavy metal, relying primarily on verse-chorus arrangements.
Most relevant for their ’90s work, the decade saw Gorgoroth perfecting the style of melodic narrative metal, linear yet intriguing in its possibilities. Simultaneously unsettling and inviting, Gorgoroth bridged the gap between the progenitors of the genre and the many bands that would later follow.
The band will be touring in support of Instinctus Bestialis, starting in March and beginning in Europe, with Hoest from Taake on vocals. No tour dates have yet been announced.