I used to move around a lot when I was a young adult (perhaps I still am young compared to some of the other more seasoned writers at DMU). Shortly before I moved to Tampa, Florida I was acquainted with a band from Pennsylvania called Lethal Prayer, which was like a mixture of Acheron and Incantation influences with a Dissection-esque undertone. Lead guitarist Belial Koblak also relocated to Tampa and gave me CDs of each of his projects. I grew keen to Lethal Prayer because of the era that it was from and the mentality that’s behind it.
Spiritual Decay was self-released in 1996 by Koblak’s Decaying Filth Music which issued most of his recordings and demos. The album comprises straightforward early 1990s death metal with competent musicianship. Koblak makes good use of his classical influences to present interesting ideas which might’ve been unorthodox in the death metal period when Spiritual Decay was released.
Most riffs are in the format that was standard for death metal and integrated into songs of typical underground metal construction. This formula is roughly: introduction -> development -> chorus -> revisit development -> epic-like endings usually encompassing the chorus section. Sometimes additional passages are introduced to divert from being too formulaic but the focus is generally on riffs more than song structure.
Unfortunately Spiritual Decay was the only full-length release that would emerge from the Lethal Prayer camp in their twenty-plus years of existence. If band stability was consistent and line-up issues had not been a problem with being productive, Lethal Prayer might have breached the realm of obscurity as they fine-tuned their musical output.
When Burzum released Hvis Lyset Tar Oss in 1994, underground metal was forever split. This album featured longer songs where concept was closely intertwined with song structure, and riff shape defined by mood. It both made undone past paradigms and raised the bar.
After that point, black metal and death metal deflated. The initial rise of ideas created in reaction to outrage at a dying civilization was gone, and nothing else propelled the genre forward, so it fell into self-imitation based on outward traits. Further, few bands could handle the raised bar, so it was “explained away” in social circles and the music tended toward the more primitive, not less.
Thus is the problem with raising the bar. Once you have done it, people either rise to the challenge and forge ahead in the new language, or have to hide the fact that they’re here for the gravy train which means they want to make the same dumbass music they would make in rock, pop, punk or blues, but use some distortion and call it “black metal.” That leads to high margins: the product is cheap to make because it’s a well-known type, but it has a higher markup due to novelty.
However, unless you’re deaf, you’ve noticed that the output of underground metal has seriously flagged in quality since the mid-1990s. Not so in quantity, of course, where we have more bands than ever before who have better production, are better instrumentalists, and generally more savvy at the music industry. Unfortunately the music they produce is not as good as what a few lonely intelligent outcasts did in the early 1990s.
This leads us back to a question of metal’s growth. Do we keep up with the raised bar? Style is not substance, but the two are related. Without enough substance, style never evolves; without the right style, substance often gets lost. Artists tend to visualize the two at the same time as part of the same articulation of an idea that they are communicating through mood, or the sensation of perceiving something and wanting to engage with it. In theory, metal could continue with what it has, using the same styles but writing new music, and many bands have succeeded in that. But keeping up with the raised bar has some advantages.
First, instrumental metal would be difficult and this would draw a line between metal and the pop, rock, blues and rap and place us closer to ambient and classical in the respect scale. Take for example this quote from educator Liam Malloy:
“In the past, heavy metal has not been taken seriously and is seen as lacking academic credibility when compared with other genres such as jazz and classical music. But that’s just a cultural construction.”
Second, this change would get rid of the vocal problem in metal. We know what death/black metal vocals are, but the shock has worn off as they’ve been appropriated by other genres. They are not extreme anymore, and overused by those who like them because a plausible imitation is easy to pull off. On the other hand, shouting vocals (Pantera) are annoying, most male singing sounds like drunk guys brawling, and the high pitched “operatic” vocals divide an audience. No vocals, no worries.
Third, this would make it easier to tell real metal bands from the weekenders. Real bands can put together long pieces that make sense, where the weekends just want the appearance thereof. Contrast real progressive rock like Yes to the somewhat paltry substitute in Opeth. Opeth have nailed the aesthetic, but not the underlying musical depth or density. When you hear the two together, it’s clear they are from different genres.
Fourth, instrumental metal would enable greater riffiness in metal. Already there’s a storm of protest when “riff salad” songs emerge, even if the riff makes sense. Much of death metal was an end run around using constant verse-chorus vocals, thus liberating guitars to create more interplay between riffs. Without vocals to keep bringing the song back to repetition, riffs could have greater leeway and repetition would exist not out of standard song form, but to emphasize parts of the song that need repeating for the sake of atmosphere.
Many people out there want metal to go instrumental. While it loses the masculine and terrifying aspect of the vocals, it encourages a competition among metal bands to not only preserve that but make it more extreme among their instrumentals. And if anything, that’s closer to the spirit of metal itself.
Formed in 2002, Aosoth launched themselves down an intellectual path blazed by the Order of Nine Angles, a theological Satanist outfit whose ideology differs greatly from the usual atheistic, materialist Satanism of modern “black metal.” This would become significant as the band evolved musically to match their inclinations in aesthetic and ideal.
Early Aosoth releases fit within the run-of-the-mill French black metal style with more aggression and yet control than most bands of that type were demonstrating at the time. As the band incubated their sound changes came, and each release improved upon prior works while also reaching for a style more likely to be unique to Aosoth.
IV: An Arrow in Heart meshes textures the way a painter mixes paint and applies to canvas. Most songs are in a somewhat standard format with riffs recycled often. Though the pitfalls of being monotonous from repetitive riffing are present in this release, Aosoth keep it interesting by having well-thought-out structures and progressions. Occasional ambiance meshes with the bleak and desolate droning riffs to provide an atmosphere of distress.
As black metal has found itself in a position of being separated from its origins without having discovered a path to the future, releases like IV: An Arrow in Heart site astride two very different standards, loyalty to form and need to innovate. While none will argue that Aosoth has left black metal behind like the post-metal et-al crowd, it is clear that this band has found a way to innovate within a faithful tribute to the past, and the result has given the band the voice it had desperately needed.
The Swedish grindcore band Carbonized came from an era when metal was still defining itself, and grew up alongside the more intense death metal acts which were putting Sweden on the map. Carbonized remains somewhat less known because the band embraced weirdness and unconventionality in everything it did, which makes for great art but not a conveniently wrapped-up listening experience.
Through three classic albums — For the Security, Disharmonization, and Screaming Machines — Carbonized put its mark on the death metal and grindcore underground by using outrageous technique and converting ideas from other genres into their metal equivalents. While in too “raw” of a form on the Carbonized releases, these ideas were picked up by other bands in more easily digestible forms and thus made their way into the core of those genres.
Luckily someone has bootlegged the Carbonized demos in the grand tradition of underground metal. The three demos and one EP on this CD chronicle the emergence of Carbonized and, as time goes on, its refinement from a fuzzy concept to a clear personality and eventually, such a strong presence that its songwriting is immediately distinctive even when simpler and less polished than what we expect from the albums.
The “Auto-da-Fe” demo from 1989 shows the band as a primitive grindcore/death metal hybrid that leans toward the kind of epic statement that death metal bands made but without much reliance on tremolo strumming. “Re-Carbonized” from 1990 shows the style most will recognize from For the Security, with detuned guitars and recursive-chug riffing among the broad chord progressions played without embellishment in rigid linear rhythms. This gives the music a stark and birds-eye-view character but also places it outside of where death metal was, musically, at the time. This isn’t riff interplay so much as an advanced layering of verse-chorus pairs. Next is No Canonization which shows a messier and more conventional grindcore band that could have been on par with Napalm Death in the same year. A strong inclination to use melody to counter-balance chromatic riffing gives this an expansive feel. Finally, “Demo 3” from 1991 shows us a more confident and technically advanced band who have mixed the techniques of death metal into primitive grind and come up with a melodic but structured and semi-theatrical sound. Its essential character and weirdness shines through, which preserves the esoteric feel of this material.
Probably of interest only to Carbonized fanatics or at least Swedish death metal devotees, Demo Collection reveals facets of this band who shared members with Dismember, Therion and Entombed that had been lost to time. For those of us who think For the Security may be one of grindcore’s lost classics, seeing these demos emerge again is both a treat and an invitation to explore the murky history behind this shadowed movement.
War Master attempt to create a new form of the classic death metal and grindcore that defined the underground metal period. Taking their name from a Bolt Thrower song, the band might be expected to sound like that august act, but the truth is more nuanced. War Master make a language of their own from pieces of the past.
This language can be confusing because many of these pieces of the past are recognizable, although never entire songs, so that War Master tend to pair an old riff archetype with a new riff of their own creation, or use song structure or aesthetic ideas but apply them with new forms. As a result, parts of this are immediately recognizable and it takes some moments to mentally integrate the past with the current version of the same form.
On Blood Dawn, a fifteen-minute EP, War Master drop back from their smoothly integrated style for a rougher, catchier and more Swedish death metal version of their sound. Applying the classic Swedish distortion, War Master also rely heavily on the bounding riffs of the first couple Entombed and Grave releases, producing an urgent and jubilantly violent sound.
The result is a new style for War Master that is both more hasty and, by being more raw, a bit more accessible and yet more fanatically old school. This compares favorably to the latest Autopsy which takes a similar approach. Simplified song forms, although not the verse-chorus loops of pop fame, plus catchy riffs like the most compelling heavy metal at high speed, guide these songs to immediate enjoyment.
While Blood Dawn shows this band with new personnel and new strengths, it loses some of what made Pyramid of the Necropolis so powerful, which was its tight-fitting and intricate structures. If history is any guide, War Master will explore this new direction and slowly work it into form so that they can be more articulate with this new — yet older — voice.
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 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 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 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 – 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 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 – 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 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.
Cóndor – 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 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
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 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 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 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 – 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 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 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 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 – 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.
War 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 – 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.
It’s good to see the study of metal ramping up both in academia and in popular culture. This is because for the most part, metal remains an enigma.
One of its most enduringly baffling traits is its almost self-consuming alienation. Metal refuses to be part of anything. If a social institution reaches out to it, metal withdraws; if someone does something nice for it, metal gives them the finger. One might wonder how it survives with such a self-destructive attitude.
The answer may be found in a riddle of consciousness uncovered by the German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer. He argued that what we know of reality is a “representation of a representation,” or a mental model of a world known only through sensations and re-assembled in our mind. Our judging mind forms a representation of the representation created by our senses. In the same way, metal is both a thing of its own, and a public view of the same which includes judging and social concerns.
Metal may hurt its public layer by being so alienated and isolated, but the actual thing that is metal — something we know only distantly through our senses, most notably our ears — remains health as ever. This is because it is metal the thing that defines metal the public representation, not the other way around. Metal is not obedient to any rule by itself, and it rejects formulation for the same reason it rejects trends and hippie ideas of love, peace and equality: it does not want its public handle to control its private reality. It is not ultimately rebellious per se, but disobedient, and seeks to remove itself from the social sphere entirely so it isn’t corrupted by guilt and obligation to justify itself according to the values of others.
If you wonder why ideological movements like Christian metal, National Socialist Black Metal (NSBM) and red-anarchist black metal (RAE, with an “E” for “emo”) have all failed, it is because metal is fine with accepting dangerous views, but it’s not going to formalize them. That is because in this universe, all things go through a process of being created, becoming fully known, then becoming calcified and finally dying. That calcification in the human world occurs through people imitating them outside-in, i.e. writing down the elements of what the thing is, then going through the motions, and never understanding the step before the thing in which the reasons for its existence were felt and motivated people.
You may also have seen how many retro bands utterly fail to sound like anything but a grab-bag of riffs from the past. This is outside-in imitation; they know what they want to “sound like,” but they don’t know why. We could argue that heavy metal is not the sonic end product, but the thought process that leads to that final result. That thought process cannot be easily understood, but requires someone to study the subject intently and think hard enough to find all the connections in imagery, ideals and what each musical element represents. Very few can do that, and even fewer can do that and then make inspired music based on it.
If you wonder why the Death Metal Underground is so surly toward the world, this is it: we realize metal is a fragile and sacred thing, a form of art separate from the social sphere. To allow the public image of metal to control what metal is would be to kill it. Thus we tend to reject all of that image, toss aside all obedience, and remain fairly hostile to anything that threatens to introduce obligation, justification or guilt to our motivations.
You are probably aware of how to “succeed” (emphasis on first syllable) as a metal reviews site: write friendly and fawning reviews of every band that comes down the pipe so the labels can quote you, so people can see your name and identify you as a supporterTM of the underground and then visit your site. The problem with this approach is that it’s useless. People need actual information on what each release sounds like so they can, with limited time and money, make purchasing decisions that benefit them and not necessarily whatever label found a way to make a musical clone for cheap and hopes to profit from the excessively fat margins that result.
In the spirit of metal, Death Metal Underground chooses to be unbought and un-guilted. We choose to be outsiders like the music we love because only by keeping free of that public image disaster can we be honest. It will not make us popular like the glad-handers, scenesters, hipsters, poseurs and salespeople of the world. But it will keep us from harming our favorite sonic art and help us keep a clear mind about what is important.
To love grindcore is to love the genre “as you find it.” That is, it doesn’t make sense to go around wishing why there isn’t more progressive symphonic grindcore with world music influences. Grindcore is grindcore.
There’s plenty of room within that genre however. The only rules are brutal punk/metal fusion chromatic riffing and a certain spirit that keeps intensity high and doesn’t deviate into either holiday carols or life-affirming waiting room jazz.
Germany’s Blood have been a secret of the genre for years. Like other minimalist grindcore they specialize in the riff itself, a form of art that is closer to sculpture than music as they use rhythm and direction relative to previous notes to wrest expressive phrasal forms out of chromatic strikes.
Luckily, someone recently uploaded this amazing Blood concert (“show” for you hipsters) in Speyer, Germany. Check it out, and vomit blood!
In the 1980s, the term “poseur” or “poser” was used to near-death by people trying to describe those who were involved with the music simply to make themselves look cool.
In the 1990s, we had “scenesters” who were people who hung around a musical scene to use it as a justification for their lifestyle. If someone questioned their lack of success or purpose in life, they pointed to the “scene” that they were part of.
And now, as the hands of time have run down further, we have hipsters: people who use music as a form of lifestyle adornment to explain why their life is better than yours. Generally they do this from a position of outsiderness, and by proving to be more obscure in their tastes than you, make you look like a herd-sheep in contrast.
What all these definitions have in common is that they reflect people who are using music in a backward thought process. Most people listen to music because they like it, and use their social life as a means to that music. Insincere people use the music as a means to the end of having a social life, and eventually drag down the community by forcing it in irrelevant directions. Entropy, in other words, caused by social need.
Recently No Clean Singing entered the fray with their analysis of the hipster gradient to Deafhaven:
What bothers me is that some people seem to be judging albums (and labeling the music “hipster”) mainly because they’ve become very popular, to the point of becoming “crossover” hits. We all know that the more successful, the more popular, the less “underground” a metal album becomes, the more it’s going to be put down within the community of metal. It’s a kind of perverse streak that our community seems to have.
I hope this author allows me to respectfully dissent here. The problem isn’t that these albums are popular; it’s that they’re not metal. Metal like most outsider genres has a strict sense of identity and purpose, and it fears adulteration for good reason. If metal starts admitting regular music into its inner sanctum, then metal will become assimilated by mainstream music.
We think of mainstream music as some bold direction but, if you look at history, it’s not. Pentatonic music appeared in Europe and Asia as a way to create popular music without having to wrangle with key or mode. The song form we now know as the pop song came from English drinking songs, the percussion from German waltzes, and the call-response format from gospel churches. This music isn’t a single direction; it’s what was compatible between many different directions, a lowest common denominator.
Metal broke away from this and went in its own direction. Part of being an outsider genre is to police your own borders. The only thing that gives you integrity is that spirit that allowed you to break away and have a different vision of reality. The problem is that you are constantly under assault. To the majority, you’re a threat because you’re doing things differently. And yet they wish they could be you, or at least be as seemingly cool as you are.
Hipsters are what happens when a social scene invades a musical movement. Instead of people working toward the music, people are using the music to justify their lifestyles, show off their outsider status (which is a raised status), or give themselves a unique purpose in life that others do not have. When people call Deafhaven a hipster band, they’re acknowledging the obvious: musically, Deafhaven has more in common with emo and indie rock than it ever will in metal, and we want the traitors out.
What are Sadistic Metal Reviews? We think heavy metal has artistic value. Advertisers want heavy metal to be the token rebellion of future generations of consumers. We have truth and cruelty on our side, but they’ve got the money. Read between the screams for the rare non-failures…
Ghost – If You Have Ghost
Stop. When you hear the name Ghost (or Ghost B.C., since they got sued for unoriginality) don’t think “metal band.” Think hipster product. Ghost create yet another social status pandering musical widget for frappuccino enthusiasts to feel superior to the rest of us. If you go look at your local independent coffee haven, they are there raising their left fists above their foreheads whilst tilting a pinky finger outward and staring down their noses at the rest of us who aren’t as pop-culture savvy as their enlightened Adult Swim-watching kind are. Ghost added a Roky Erickson cover to have “street cred” amongst the garage/psych-rock crowd that hipsters associate with (because it’s rock music, but different…), but then play a series of pop songs from ABBA, Army of Lovers, and Depeche Mode to feign a sense of “open minded-ness” which reveals the true money-grubbing ways that motivate the constant churn of vapid media products. Sure to be a talking point amongst latte experts, this EP culminates in a live take of an original song which sounds like a bad excuse for carnival music.
Crystal Age – Far Beyond Divine Horizon
With their seasoned membership which includes former Liers in Wait personnel, a Necrolord cover and an overblown concept, this “seems” like a death metal gem, but it isn’t. Coming off like Liers in Wait after hearing too much Yngwie Malmsteen and Nocturnus’ Thresholds, Crystal Age play an unfocused form of late 80s Forbidden style melodic speed metal with “extreme” updates in the form of raspy vocals, Egyptian themed tremolo riffs, and blast beats aplenty. Considering the scatter brained riff salad nature of these songs, it’s a surprise these guys would even have the aptitude for writing commercially viable AOR power metal later on in Hammerfall. Nothing too offensive, but at the same time random and uninspiring, this band could best be described as “spectacularly mundane.”
Bat – Primitive Age
This is a NWOBHM with the rhythms of an American punk band playing in honky tonks. Riffs are less ornate than most NWOBHM except for the fills which are classic early Iron Maiden and the like. It has a local band vibe and as a high-energy act fits more in a live bar setting than being heard on record. Songs vary between having the punk side win out and the metal side win out. On the whole, it’s above average quality with good energy, and songs that develop in very simple but not inept ways. Why is it here among the sadism, then? I like it, but I wouldn’t want to hear it often. It would be a great local bar band, A+. For listening in the world beyond, it’s not yet ready. Most reviewers won’t tell you this, because most reviewers go through a 2.5′ pile of CDs at three minutes each and like anything that they recognize as being like the other stuff they like.
Ceremonial Oath – The Book of Truth
A Tampa death metal influenced project that made compromises to fit in better with the Gothenburg crowd of their scene at the time, Ceremonial Oath manage to wear their influences on their sleeves without living up to the promise of any one single influence, much less the hope that adding them together would make a better teen rebellion sonic product. There are some well developed counterpoint riffs and some of the tracks have interesting structures but, aside from the awesome artwork provided by former At the Gates guitarist Alf Svensson, this doesn’t hold up well over time or when compared to other releases from it’s era. Like a less worthwhile and stadium rock cheese infused Swedish counterpart to Shadows of the Past by Sentenced, but with more rhythm riffs, The Book of Truth is best judged by its cover and recycled early.
Abramelin – Transgressing The Afterlife – The Complete Recordings 1988-2002
This box set, lovingly released by Century Media on 3 CDs or 5 LPs, is a boon — if you like Abramelin. I am totally divided on this band, since they have many great ideas for song construction, but can’t get over the hurdle of writing obvious and somewhat painfully blunt and directionless riffs, which leaves the end result as a lot of potential left in the hands of implements too crude to realize it. This seems to be a national characteristic of Australian metal which often has great ideas for songs but doesn’t have the technical power of the Americans or the melodic flair of the Europeans that enables it to reach those goals. The production on these restored demos, 7″ records, live tracks and album grooves is amazing and this set does great credit to Abramelin. I just can’t see myself listening to it again.
Solefald – Pills Against the Ageless Ills
Let me tell you something about the term “avant-garde”: it works when other people use it to describe you. When you use it to describe yourself, it sounds like an excuse for low quality. Claiming to be “avant-garde”, Solefald play a style of black metal that uses the raspy vocals, thin guitar tone, and fast playing typical of the genre, but nothing else from black metal persists here. Especially not, you know, coherent songwriting, melodic development or atmosphere that isn’t a mile wide and an inch deep. Like Opeth, Solefald use “metal” sections in juxtaposition to “outside” elements in order to create “contrast” which is apparently the opposite of writing a song. This results in a compilation of new wave, rock, and synthpop elements superficially dressed up as black metal, but it’s like a bag of puppies and snakes fighting it, i.e. visible from a mile away as not being in any way unified. Listening to this, one can imagine Ulver, Enslaved, Opeth, and Dimmu Borgir sitting around a conference table and patting each other on the back to see how, like AIDS, their muzak has spread its “influence” which will ensure the ruining of metal beyond them. After us, nothing but pop brain-death, as far as the eye can see…
Cadaver Inc. – Discipline
Discipline is not too bad for a late model black metal aesthetic-ized theatre of blasturbation. The problem is the songs are way too similar for their own good and it gets grating, not because of style, but because of monotonously linear songcraft. Considering guitarist Anders Odden’s (playing here under the “Neddo” alias) imaginative and exploratory playing on Cadaver’s In Pains album, Cadaver Inc. seems like a waste of talent as he tries to make a more popular style that is literally too simple for his brain to do well. The music is worthier than Marduk or Dark Funeral, more heavily favoring a grindcore heritage than throwing pop jingles under blasts. Still, this band will perhaps be remembered more for its bringing of underground cynicism and morbidity into the “.com” era in the form of a satirical website than its music.
Arvas – Into the Realm of the Occult.
Good riffs, random order. Combine Bathory Blood Fire Death with Ancient The Cainian Chronicle. The result is black metal with a heavy metal feel and while it can build atmosphere, it can’t develop it, thus feels incomplete and deflated like early Satyricon, both in melody and song structure. This is too bad because there are some quality riffs on here, nothing groundbreaking but clearly showing a fair amount of thought. There are also some borrowed riffs which when used too blatantly without being in a new context can crush the atmosphere achieved. Still, the feeling here is that this band has a huge amount of potential but needs an editor to put the riffs in the right order to develop the moods so adroitly evoked.
Karmatik – Humani-T
When something gets trendy, like metal, everyone else starts trying to shoehorn their own genre into it. Karmatik is basically a lite progressive band that like guitary riffs, but has nothing in common with metal other than a few moments of speed metal riff before the band gets back to the real business, which is extended space jams. They do a good job of this, although its somewhat personal nature will probably appear a bit cheesy to a metalhead. The hard rock riffs here are, for all that this band likes to be progressive, of extremely well-known types and so there’s not much to listen to there. Like other bands who have become metal when they wanted to be prog, this band shines when they’re doing what they enjoy, which is the space jam parts. This should probably be referred to a prog-rock audience, but their criticism will probably be most severe for the metal parts as well, since they are the weakest link here.
Bones – Sons of Sleaze
One of these comes along every few years. In the late 1990s, it was Driller Killer. Remember them? ME NEITHER. Bones is late-model grindcore set up to have the energy and listening appeal of a late hardcore band. The embrace of sleaze/perversity is almost always a red flag that a band has zero in terms of ideas about life, thus zero in terms of musical ideas that aren’t based on what another band did. In this case, it’s a crying shame because these guys are good songwriters who can pump out quality (but not groundbreaking) grinding riffs. These songs hold together, have emotional content and are memorable, for the most part. The problem is that like Hollywood stars they don’t connect to anything but themselves.
Reverted – Sputter the Worms
Despite attempts to appear otherwise, this is LA strip styled hair metal re-shaped with modern sludge/metalcore drumming and a few aesthetic touches such as an alt-rock influence in the vocals. However, it’s the hard rock riffs from the late 1970s with just enough groove to slide into the vocals and the decadent simplicity mated with period touches of guitar virtuosity, as if showing a once-vital civilization under the collapsed ruin. It’s not bad but there’s no real reason to listen to it either. I am always repulsed when bands try to disguise their inner nature, and also, when metal bands try to dumb it down to the point of appealing to a rock audience. Just be a damn rock band. And unleash that guitarist. There’s a lot of talent here in mating up these riffs, keeping up with the drums, and making the whole thing work. Unleash some solos, go Van Halen and play more of those epic riffs that sneak in toward the end of the songs. The vocalist is too dominant, as is the giddy slaphappy shuffle drumming, which detracts from any attention span the listener might have had. Then again, if you’re marketing to morons, that’s a good bet.