The Best Underground Metal of 2016

2016 is over. The funderground mentality continued spreading forth, infesting metal over the last year just the same as it had in the decades past the genre’s artistic high-point in the early nineties. Rehashes of past greats pandering to a lowest common denominator audience continue to dominate the release schedules of metal labels all too willing to please the lemmings with music fit to safely ignore during drunken socializing. Ever-flowing streams of posers are desperate to be rock stars, pumping out plagiarism, and paying their way to record deals. File sharing and streaming reducing the cost of hearing new music to essentially nothing has led fans to constantly consume whatever is new regardless of quality. However the purging is at last at hand. The day of doom is here. The filth who have lied and corrupted the underground must be cleansed while the commendable elite few will remain.

Continue reading The Best Underground Metal of 2016

Death Metal Underground’s Best Albums of 2015

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.


 

Album of the Year
Kaeck
Stormkult

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.

Reviews:

 

Recommended Albums

 

Desecresy
Stoic Death

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:

 

Tau Cross
Tau Cross

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.

Review:

 

Worthwhile releases

 

Cóndor
Duin

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:

 

Morpheus Descends
From Blackened Crypts

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.

Interviews:

 

Motorhead
Bad Magic

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.

Review:

 

Reissues

 

Grotesque
In the Embrace of Evil
Immolation
Dawn of Possession (Listenable Records)
Order From Chaos
Frozen in Steel (Nuclear War Now! Productions)
Carbonized
For the Security
Sammath
Strijd
Arghoslent
Arsenal of Glory and Galloping Through the Battle Ruins (Drakkar productions)
Blasphemy
Fallen Angel of Doom (Nuclear War Now! Productions)
Gorguts
Obscura

 

Those Left Behind
Zom
Flesh Assimilation

Crusty death metal of the better than braindead Benediction but worse than Cancer category.

Satan
Atom by Atom

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)

Sarpanitum
Blessed Be My Brothers

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.

House of Atreus
The Spear and the Ichor that Follows

Fredrik Nordstrom’s Arghoslent.

Denner/Sherman
Satan’s Tomb

Technical power metal carnival music.

Iron Maiden
The Book of Souls

Nobody is allowed to edit themselves or turn on their bullshit filters in Steve Harris’s band anymore (Read a full review here).

Kjeld
Skym

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.

Malthusian
Below the Hengiform

Where are the riffs?

Throaat
Black Speed

Every Teutonic speed metal band gone Voltron.

Ares Kingdom
The Unburiable Dead

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.

Obsequaie
Aria of Vernal Tombs

A collection of interesting renaissance faire riffs written into songs that quickly wear out their welcome as metal, becoming RPG background music.

Sarcasm
Burial Dimensions

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.

Mgla
Exercises in Futility

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.)

Horrendous
Anareta

Gothenburg cheese and Meshuggah licks are less appetizing than a lead-laced Mexican lollipop.

Cruciamentum
Charnel Passages

Grave Miasma returns. This time with 1993’s atmosphere.

Crypt Sermon
Out of the Garden

Candlemass meets Soundgarden.

Vorum
Current Mouth

Every Teutonic speed metal band gone Voltron.

Exhumation
Opus Death

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.

The Best Underground Metal of 2014

bill_and_teds_excellent_adventure

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

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.

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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.

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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 – 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

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

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

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

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

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-waelwulf

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

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

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

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

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.

CD Booklet

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

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_glorie

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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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

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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.

Related:

Interview: Ray López of Thrash Corner Records

ray_lopez-thrash_corner_records

Regular DMU readers may have noticed that Puerto Rico has been on this site’s radar since Brett Stevens interviewed José “Chewy” Correa of Organic last year, and for good reason. The “Island of Enchantment” is more than just beaches, bikinis and piña coladas; it’s also home to one of the most active and diverse metal scenes that you’ve probably never heard of.

So what’s going on in this little-known metal outpost in the Caribbean? More and more international bands play here every year. Local bands are touring and inking deals overseas. There’s an online metal radio station broadcasting live shows every week. An international academic conference on heavy metal will be held at the University of Puerto Rico in March. We even have a biannual metal flea market where metaleros from all corners of the island gather to buy, sell and trade metal merch while local bands provide the live soundtrack. And this is only a short list; there’s a lot more happening here.

Cultural idiosyncrasies aside, all national and regional metal scenes are built with the same three human components: the bands, the fans and the people who have the initiative to organize and execute the business and logistics of the scene, otherwise known as “the people who make things happen.” These men and women of action don’t often get the recognition they deserve, yet they continue to work behind the scenes to bring your favorite bands to a venue near you. (Kreator didn’t play their first show in PR last year just because people “liked” their Facebook page; someone had to organize and execute a plan and all the logistics involved.)

Some of these men of action, such as Ray López of Thrash Corner Records, have also managed to actually make a living in the metal music world — not to mention help build and shape Puerto Rico’s metal scene — while balancing the responsibilities of a dedicated family man. (In fact, I didn’t know that Thrash Corner was his livelihood until I asked him what his day job was in a followup email.) So is he lucky that he’s living a “metalhead’s dream” or is it his work ethic that makes things happen?

Ray López was kind enough to take time from his busy schedule to answer some questions about his label, Puerto Rico’s metal scene and his most ambitious project to date, the first Metal Expo Convention of Puerto Rico.

You’ve been active in metal for over 20 years, so let’s start with your label, Thrash Corner Records. What motivated you to start your own label?

I’ve been a metalhead since 1980, and my label has 20+ years in business. The story is kind of weird. One day I just got up and said, “I’m tired of going to the store (never finding what I wanted) and ordering by mail (waiting sometimes up to two months to get my goodies).” An idea came to my mind. What if I call a distributor (those days it was Caroline Records and RED Distribution) and tell them that I opened a store and want to buy wholesale? So I just got the numbers and decided to call, and to my surprise they just opened an account for me and I started buying from those companies.

I said to myself, “that was very easy,” then another idea came to my mind. Let’s say I call Relapse Records, Century Media, Metal Blade and many others. Can they sell to me direct? But then I had to remind myself that I was in Puerto Rico and most of the people in the mainland don’t know the status of what we are. Most of them don’t know we are a territory of the US, so I took advantage of that and also started buying direct from them. Then I got deeper and deeper into the underground and saw how things were moving with the small labels (everything was about trading productions between each other), so I just jumped on the wagon and Thrash Corner Records was born.

What were some the most significant challenges in those first few years?

To be honest, everything was happening so fast that I was surprised with what I had accomplished in just the first year. If I have to mention something, the first thing that comes to my mind was trading with the other labels outside the US. Back then with no Internet, setting up a trade sometimes took up to 4 months (all the communication was via letters).

metal_expo-puerto_rico

What are some of the highlights and gratifying milestones up to this point?

Those are many and I don’t want to bore you with that, so I will just mention a few:

Traveling to different places, meeting with bands, hanging out with them and sometimes becoming friends (the ultimate metalhead dream come true).

As a label, signing bands from other countries, getting distribution across the US and other countries (and that is more gratifying knowing that you were the first one to do that and in some cases the only one to accomplish that).

I understand that Thrash Corner has had distribution deals with US bands such as Hirax and Deceased. What are some of the other bands on your roster, and are there any upcoming releases we should be looking forward to?

Yes, Deceased released one album with us called As the Weird Travel On, considered by many an underground masterpiece. With Hirax there is a licensing deal and we did their complete catalog (the only title we don’t have will be the new one, SPV is the one releasing it). Now that Hirax signed with SPV, we feel very proud because we worked very hard with them as a team to get the attention they deserve and finally it pays. We also worked with both Asesino re-issues (Corridos de Muerte and Cristo Satánico). Those were out of print for many years, but now you can find them. Right now we are working with the death/thrash band from Florida, Solstice, doing our own version of the album The Dust (their 2009 full length). We decided to do that one because it had a limited distribution and we want all the fans to own this piece of art.

From our chat prior to this interview, I got an unequivocal impression that you’re a firm believer in the old saying: if you want something done right, do it yourself. Is Thrash Corner Records a one-man operation? If so, how important is it to have total control of your business and freedom to do things your way?

You are totally right: Thrash Corner Records is just one guy doing everything. It is hard work but it is worth it. You control everything and you make the decisions, right or wrong (no one to blame, just myself, but I can live with that, hahaha!!!).

I can say without conceit that I work in metal 100% and I’m the only one making a living from it here. It hasn’t been easy, but if you strive for your goals you can achieve them. My normal job is the label, selling retail and wholesale on eBay, my website and Amazon!!!

During that chat you also mentioned that you were born in the US and that English was your first language. How old were you, and were you a metal fan already when you moved to PR?

Yes, I was born in New York, but moved to PR when I was 5 years old. I wish a was metalhead at the time, but the concept of heavy metal was not invented yet, hahahaha!!

The good, the bad, and the ugly: Can you tell us what the overall situation was like for independent record distros, promoters and bands in PR back when you started Thrash Corner? How does it compare to the situation today?

Back in the old days of my label and distro, it was hard in some aspects and easy with others. Right now there are a few more distros and labels, but back then I was the only one. As for promoters, I was involved in 90% of the shows here, one way or the other. Now there are more promoters and they found the formula to do shows without my help. I don’t mean that in bad way, back then I had a lot of contacts because of the distro and the label and I was the only bridge that they had. Now with modern technology you can find bands with the click of a button. And about the bands, basically most of them are in the same situation now as they were back then (let me make a BIG NOTE: we had a few bands doing things the right way, but I can say we have more now than back in the days).

How did the idea for the Metal Expo come about? Did you formulate it and then presented a plan to people who could help you make it a reality, or did you discuss the idea and sketched it out over time with input from friends and associates?

I was crafting this idea for a while (let’s say the main concept is mine), but now that we have a team everybody is bringing ideas to the table!!! That’s why we had to change it to two days (in the beginning it was going to be a one-day event).

Was an event like the Metal Expo imaginable 20, 10 or even 5 years ago? What are the “pieces of the puzzle,” as you put it, that make this event possible today?

20 years ago – impossible.

10 years ago – maybe.

5 years ago – yes (but some pieces were missing).

About the pieces of the puzzle, I prefer to keep them to myself (this topic is too sensitive, so I prefer to make no comments)!!

There are quite a few underground metal promoters here in PR (some might say an unusually high number for such a small place). Why did you choose to join forces with your co-organizer, Paul Martínez of Bloodstained World Entertainment? Can you tell us a bit more about him?

For me this is the biggest thing that I’ve ever assembled. I needed a person that I can trust 100%. We have a perfect communication and we have known each other for more than 30 years. When I started Thrash Corner, he was one of the first people to give me a hand. (The story is too long, we leave that for another day!!) Paul has been into metal his whole life, so he was perfect for the job. I know that if he was the one with the idea for the Expo, I would be the first one to be invited to participate!!!

As co-organizers, what exactly are your responsibilities in the Expo, and what is Paul’s role?

This is a 50%-50% responsibility, that means that we are sharing everything, we both brought ideas and we are working together with the other part of the team!!!

Can you tell us about the other local promoters involved and what their roles are in the Expo?

The Shownet Group just joined us over a month ago. We are very happy that they joined us. Now it is a three-way split of responsibilities!!!

You were going to start announcing one confirmed artist per day at some point back in December. Why did you choose such an evil way to build suspense?

Initially that was the idea, but some information leaked and we had to announce what we had earlier than planned. For now we have:

Local Bands:

International Bands:

  • Anger as Art
  • Thrash or Die
  • Solstice
  • Warbringer
  • Blood Feast
  • Raven
  • Six Feet Under

Is the bill already full or is there still room for interested bands to sign up? What about exhibitors and vendors?

The bill is done for live acts. We are negotiating with the exhibitors and vendors. If you want to know everything, all the information will be announced on the official website. Visit us and click “like” to get all the updates.

One of your stated goals for the Expo is to bring worldwide attention to Puerto Rico’s metal scene. Why not do the typical two-day metal fest with just music instead? Should metal festivals offer more than just music?

If we do a festival we will never get the attention (they will see it like a big show). With the Expo you can add so many different things to get more attention. Just say the name of the event, “METAL EXPO CONVENTION” and tell me if you’re not curious and want to know what it’s all about???

The Metal Expo follows hot on the heels of another important event: the academic conference dealing with the topic of heavy metal music as a communal experience. Do you think it’s a positive thing that scholars have decided to study heavy metal, not only as a music genre, but as a cultural phenomenon? Some see that as “infiltration from outsiders.” What’s your take on the issue?

I think it is a positive thing that they decided to study heavy metal as cultural thing (metal has been around for nearly 40 years). That kind of exposure for us is perfect, specially in Puerto Rico. It will help our scene in many ways!!! We have the privilege that the person who is studying our scene is also a metalhead (Prof. Nelson Varas and the crew of Puerto Rico Heavy Metal Studies), so we have an ally. I was just investigating and I noticed that most of the professors of the International Society of Metal Music Studies are into heavy metal music, so there is no infiltration or outsiders. They are part of us and they just found a way to contribute to our movement with their profession.

At first I thought that the Expo would be held at a stadium or convention center, but it will be held at La Respuesta, which is the venue where most of the visiting underground metal acts play. Was that venue choice a conservative decision to keep things manageable? Tell us about the venue and the setup for the Expo.

La Respuesta opened their doors to heavy metal a few years ago, and it’s the official venue for most of the metal shows in Puerto Rico. We wanted to keep the Expo there for a few reasons: most of the metalheads know the venue and feel comfortable there, it has perfect spacing for this event (we’ve been running the Metal Market there five times and it runs smoothly) and we prefer to spend the money on the bands and not on a big venue. We want to give the fans the best experience they can get.

The island’s metal fans are expected to show in full force at the Expo, but in addition to them, do you expect to draw international visitors?

The response of the scene here has been great and we already started working with the promotion and invitation for visitors from outside PR!!! With this interview and some other notes that came out in other websites it will draw some attention to visitors from outside.

Internationally speaking, do you think that the island’s metal has flown under the radar? Are we at a flash point where Puerto Rican metal will conquer foreign shores? What bands do you think will lead this charge?

Yes, the island is getting some attention. These last few years we had so many more international acts here than we had in the last 20 years. Those bands are spreading the word when they go back to their countries, and all the promoters are getting more messages from international acts that want to play here. Years ago Puerto Rico had attention with bands like Puya, Cardinal Sin and Ankla, then there was a gap and now we have a few bands making some noise outside: Dantesco, Pit Fight Demolition, Zafakon and Severe Mutilation.

From what I’ve heard so far, most of the major metal genres are represented by various underground bands in PR. What do you think makes Puerto Rican bands different from other international scenes? Is it a combination of our mixed ethnic traditions, our socio-political situation, and the simultaneous identity pull/friction of being both a Latin American country and a US territory?

Like other countries, we have most metal sub-genres represented. The difference here is that our bands don’t sound alike, even if they are from the same metal sub-genre. Take two local black metal bands, like Argyle and Humanist. They are the same sub-genre, but they don’t sound alike. In other countries, bands within a sub-genre tend to sound alike and sometimes you can tell what country they are from just by listening.

Why is this? In my opinion, it is a little of everything you mention in the question, but in the end it’s hard to tell.

Ray, I know you’re a very busy man, so I want to thank you for your time. I’ll let you have the last word to all of our readers around the world.

I just want to thank you guys for the interest in the event and the interview. Just make sure to visit the official website for the event, Thrash Corner Records and our new division Retro-Merch.

The Best of Underground Metal of 2013

throwing_the_goat_horns_2013

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:

argus-beyond_the_martyrsArgus – Beyond The Martyrs

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-the_headless_ritualAutopsy – The Headless Ritual

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.

birth_a_d-i_blame_youBirth A.D. – I Blame You

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.

black_sabbath-13Black Sabbath – 13

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.

blitzkrieg-back_from_hellBlitzkrieg – Back From Hell

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.

burzum-sol_austan_mani_vestanBurzum – Sôl Austan, Mâni Vestan

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.

centurian-contra_rationemCenturian – Contra Rationem

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.

condor-nadiaCóndor – Nadia

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.

derogatory-above_all_elseDerogatory – Above All Else

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.

empyrium-into_the_pantheon-coverEmpyrium – Into the Pantheon

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.

graveland-thunderbolts_of_the_godsGraveland – Thunderbolts of the Gods

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.

master-the_witchhuntMaster – The Witchhunt

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.

profanatica-thy_kingdom_cumProfanatica – Thy Kingdom Cum

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.

rudra-rtaRudra – RTA

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.

satan-life_sentenceSatan – Life Sentence

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.

summoning-old_mornings_dawnSummoning – Old Mornings Dawn

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.

von-dark_gods_seven_billion_slavesVon – Dark Gods, Seven Billion Slaves

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.

wardruna-runaljod-yggdrasilWardruna – Runaljod – Yggdrasil

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.

warmaster-blood_dawnWar Master – Blood Dawn

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:

imprecation-satane_tenebris_infinitaImprecation – Satanae Tenebris Infinita

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.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HmuHHGfUBEE

Murder in the Front Row: Shots from the Bay Area Thrash Metal Epicenter, by Harald Oimoen and Brian Lew

Brian Lew was an early metal nerd (liked to read, watch Star Trek, and may have been a computer nerd) who went to Bay Area speed metal shows and took a number of classic photographs. You may know Harald Oimoen as the longtime bassist of DRI. Together, they’ve thrown together their best pictures of this early scene, in the hopes perhaps of catching the growing wave of nostalgia for when metal was actually good (pre-1995).

The Best Metal Albums of 2008

Legion of Doom – The Horned Made Flesh (Zyklon-B)

This Greek band take their acerbic traditional metal and slowly meld in symphonic keyboard elements, making an album that is easy to appreciate but surpasses most others in artistic vision.

Motörhead – Motörizer (SPV)

Lemmy and Company rarely go completely wrong, and so they wing another one down the middle. Like all Motorhead, most songs are cut from similar patterns and the drone wears thin, but riffs remain cutting and rhythms compelling.

Neuraxis – Thin Line Between (Prosthetic)

We all know metalcore as a genre is like an omelette — throw everything in and hope the flavors carry a lowest common denominator mix. Neuraxis attack metalcore like a metal band, using melody and rhythm to centralize, to great effect.

Deeds of Flesh – Of What’s to Come (Unique Leader)

Getting experimental, this brutal technical death metal band play with some new ideas but deliver solidly resounding songs as they try to wrap their old school metal around metalcore technique.

Hellhammer – Demon Entrails (Noise)

Three bands formed this genre: Hellhammer, Sodom and Bathory. This re-release of formative material from the first of that triumvirate shows us again how mind-blowing it must have been to be there as it happened.

Gridlink – Amber Grey (Hydra Head)

Blurring grindcore with absurdist technical elements, Gridlink make an album that upholds the best traditions of thrash mixed with speed metal and technical death metal, and by keeping it short, don’t wander outside their content zone.

Averse Sefira – Advent Parallax (Candlelight)

This rarity upholds old school black metal and infuses it with classic death metal. Like Morbid Angel from the Convenant era colliding with Graveland from the time of Thousand Swords, this band makes vicious but beautiful music.

Bahimiron – Southern Nihilizm (Moribund)

Imagine early Impaled Nazarene and Gorgoroth combined: fast, melodic riffs with a tendency to deconstruct everything they touch. Although slightly confused in ideals, Bahimiron deliver music that does not compromise aggression or darkness.

Intestine Baalism – Ultimate Instinct (No Colours)

Swedish death metal fanatics make an album in tribute to all three eras of Swedish death metal — the initial surge, Gothenburg and NWOSDM, combined. It’s an improvement over their last and most things coming out of Sweden.

Master – Slaves To Society Re-Release (Ibex Moon)

Evolving from their early primitive roots, Master present us an album that is rippingly fast like Slayer and uses melodic fills to good effect, but never compromises the driving roadhouse rhythms that pound this music forward.

Skepticism – Alloy (Red Stream)

Lush ambient doom surges resoundingly throughout this album, like dye in a pool tracked by the motion of carp. It is meditative, powerful and insightful, but prefers not to state these explicitly, rather letting you absorb them from the resonance.

Ripper Planning Euro Trip

Two of the best and only worthy modern speed metal bands are embarking upon a European tour together this fall. Ripper and Entrench, who made our lists of The Best Underground Metal of 2014 and 2016, are planning a European tour and need to get some gigs to knock headbangers on their backs. From Ripper’s Funbook page:

RIPPER announces first European Tour together with Swedish Thrashers of ENTRENCH!

Interested promoters please get in touch with Roadmaster Booking.

Available dates between September 15 and 30.
Booking via contact@roadmasterbooking.com

Continue reading Ripper Planning Euro Trip

Dave Mustaine Doesn’t Headbang or Practice Guitar Anymore

Dave Mustaine revealed in a recent interview with Hong Kong newspaper the South China Morning Post about Megadeth’s first Hong Kong show that he doesn’t headbang or practice guitar anymore due to prior injuries:

The hardest thing was not headbanging – I just do it without thinking. You don’t know what it’s like to be in my body. There are some days when my left hand can’t even play. I don’t practise – I save it all for the tour.

Continue reading Dave Mustaine Doesn’t Headbang or Practice Guitar Anymore

Lantern – II: Morphosis (2017)

Lantern take the Finnish black and death metal and move it back in time towards eighties speed metal to better appeal to a funderground hipster audience who never bothered to listen to Beherit or Demigod. The production of II: Morphosis is clean but slightly cavernous and vocals that sound like Per Boder of God Macabre help deceive inattentive millennials that Lantern are quality death metal and not Finnish Pantera.
Continue reading Lantern – II: Morphosis (2017)