Often, when frustrated with the current state of metal, it’s refreshing to look towards the past. While the metal underground has been increasingly well documented, there are still quality releases that slip through the cracks; whether for lack of advertising, geographical isolation, or simply being too far outside the milieu at the time.
In the late 1990s, Finnish black metal project Haven In Shadows released two demos – Legend of the Wolf and Moments of Honor. These demos feature similar material, with the main difference being the former is an instrumental recording whereas the latter adds vocals and expanded guitar work. Production for both demos is cold and tends towards “low-fidelity”, though all instruments are distinguishable in the mix.
Tracks on these releases are mid-paced melancholic narratives, unafraid to incorporate both major and minor tonal relationships. A wide variation of “color” is evoked by this, which allows the band to express a more profound meaning than would otherwise be possible. Power chords are used, though rather than having the movement between them be the inferred melody in the listener’s mind, they are the foundation for melodic variation to occur above. In this way, the band moves closer to the tradition of classical music manifested within metal.
Rather than the more exoteric approach favored by other bands, these releases attempt to answer the question posed by the original wave of black metal: “What have we forgotten and how can we recall it?” Meditative at heart, this is something lost within the current generation of black metal and is worth rediscovering again.
To those who have watched metal for some time, it presents a paradox. To the public, it seems like a railroad, where a line of cars stops and then we see what is in each, one at a time. To an experienced watcher, it more resembles an ocean, with currents swirling below and influenced by air above, and periodically the crest of a wave emerges before being dragged down by the rest, obliterated and recycled.
One of the warmer undercurrents in the metal ocean is “true metal,” which is that which stays true to the solid line of evolution leading from metal’s origin. As part of this movement, bands across the globe are continuing to make music that we associate with earlier decades, except that it’s newly created and generated from a contemporary impulse if not contemporary influences. Cruxiter, a Texas heavy metal/guitar rock band, is part of this movement.
We first reviewed Cruxiter’s self-titled first album in these pages a few scant weeks ago, but already the band’s spirit and dedication to its style have piqued interest with our worldwide readership. To go more in-depth, we interrogated vocalist Joe Gonzalez at length via a very modern iPhone yet with classic heavy metal spirit.
You formerly played in Hammer Whore, a death metally band. What prompted the switch to a heavy metal style versus a death metal one?
HammerWhore was a big mix of a lot of metal genres; because each band member comes from different eras and has their own taste in metal music we had to compromise and we created an album that contained a bit from every sub genre. In 2007 HammerWhore broke up because of personal differences, so I kept some of the songs I wrote and started a new band that was more hard rock/heavy metal. In 2009 Miggy Ramirez and Rick Ortiz joined the band and this is really when we started to develop our sound. Then in 2010 we had personnel issues again losing our bassist, drummer, and guitar player. This is when we recruited the rest of the old HammerWhore line up to help us out. The “switch” to heavy metal just came naturally after spitting from HammerWhore and working with such a great group of musicians. I’m doing exactly what I’ve always wanted to do, and that’s sing in and front a heavy metal band!
What is the Cruxiter? Is it a concept underlying all of your work?
The Cruxiter is a fictional alien computer that works through touch, connecting to the users nervous system and to the mind. The thing is, it doesn’t quite work with human biology and drives anyone who attempts to use it insane, but the Cruxiter is only a small part of the Cruxiter universe. It’s one of the few artifacts that we have here on earth from the faraway alien planet that is the subject of most of our music. So far we have not made contact with these extraterrestrials on our first album. First contact will be made on “Madness of the Void,” a track that will be released on our next full length. A look at this faraway world is probably similar to seeing ourselves in the distant future where technological advances have only made life more complicated with longer life spans and more inventive ways to kill each other.
This is a two part question: (a) what are your influences, musical and otherwise, in Cruxiter? (b) what bands do you think sound closest to Cruxiter?
I cannot speak for the rest of the band because each of us is very different when it come to the style of music we listen to. But for me it’s a combination of classic AOR, NWOBHM, eighties thrash and early seventies prog. Styx, Judas Priest, Lizzy Borden, Torch, Agent Steel, and Overkill were some of the first bands to really get me excited to pick up a guitar and sing. Really every time I hear a metal vocalist hit a high note or a guitar lead it really gets me going. As far as individual artists its Jon Oliva, Tommy Shaw & Dennis DeYoung, David Byron & Mick Box, Schmier, Tom Angelripper, Don Dokken, and Joey Tempest are all on the top of a very long list of talent that inspires me to play music.
The second part of your question is very hard to answer because we are trying to create something different but not straying from what we love. In my personal opinion I would say it’s a mix between early King Diamond, early 90s Mercyful fate, Uriah Heep, Stryper, Judas Priest, Di’Anno era Maiden. We still have a lot of material that we are working on that I think is more advanced and widens the spectrum even more.
Do you think the “true metal” genres like classic heavy metal and old school death metal and black metal are making a return? Or did death metal and black metal get lost in the shuffle?
“Making a return” destroys the true metal genres and spawns craploads of bands that really don’t know where the music comes from, then they make everyone look cheesy and people move on, which has already happened to thrash metal twice. All true metal genres have and always will thrive in the local and underground scenes. What genre is “in” at any given time is determined by what the “cool kids” are listening to, It’s very political, and it will never change.
Cruxiter is a classic heavy metal band, but you incorporate a lot of elements from what I’m calling “guitar rock.” How hard is it to combine the two?
It’s actually pretty accurate for some parts of our music because we are very heavily influenced by progressive music and classic rock but we really try hard to mix it up and make the music we write contain all aspects of rock and metal music. With the tempo changes and melodies of classic prog, guitar riffing from rock and metal, and AOR style choruses, even trying to add a bit of glam to it all.
But each song we write is different and has its own massage so it’s hard for me to explain it all without breaking down each song. Combining all these styles of music happens during the writing process… letting the song pretty much write itself, and allowing the changes to happen. It’s the vocals and solos that are dominant, and take full control during the writing of the music. We do work hard on the proper flow of the song making sure it’s chaotic and complex, keeps the listeners attention, and is pleasant to the ears. We also try to keep the music from being too heavy and noisy, down tuning and excessive kick drum is great for other bands but we like our listeners to hear without trouble how the guitars, vocals, drums, and bass interact musically.
You’ve just released your first and self-titled album. How did you record it, and where? What were the biggest challenges of recording?
We recorded this album at our home studio in a ranch house in Jim Wells County just outside Alice, Texas. Every aspect of recording was a challenge since we really had no experience. I had to watch all kinds of how to videos on YouTube about mic’ing vocals, drums and guitar cabinets, it was a lot of trial and error. The best part of recording was reworking the songs after playback adding harmonies, fills, and leads. But we learned a lot from recording this album and we are currently in the studio again and everything is running smoothly. Our next album is going to sound a lot better for sure and we are pretty excited about it.
If you had to identify the most important element in what makes a good song, what might it be? Do you think it’s energy, passion, emotion, content or some combination of the above?
A great song perfectly portrays a complex clash of emotions of a single moment in time with the appropriate energy pulsing and fluctuating between emotional highs and lows. It also needs guitar and vocal melodies that engrave themselves into the mind and the message and words find a spot to reside in listeners mind. Honesty goes along way when it come to reaching people through music.
What’s next for Cruxiter? Are you going to do small tours through Texas cities, or record more, or go national?
Right now, we are back in the studio recording new music for a second album. Now that we have some experience it should move very smoothly and we will get an even better product. We should be releasing a few demo songs on YouTube and maybe a short demo tape soon. They will not be the album versions of the songs just demos before fine tuning the structure, vocal melodies, and fills. We have already released “Under The Moon” demo on YouTube.
We will probably not be playing very many shows this year since we will be trying to complete our work in the studio. But we are playing in Houston February 8th at the White Swan for our good friend Angel’s B-day (bassist for Owl Witch). It’s going to be a really killer show. Houston is the top place to play metal music in Texas the scene has always been very strong and diverse. I’m alway excited to play in Houston.
Are there any challenges to being a metal band in Texas, with the local scenes being what they are and the distances between towns often being great?
It is pretty hard here in Texas especially since we don’t live anywhere near any of the major city. Corpus Christi is closest but they have no local metal scene and what’s hitting there now is grind and crust which is great but we don’t fit the bill. It’s a struggle for us to be a part of the scene in texas since we are so far and can’t participate in playing or attending shows very often. Playing gigs always means travel for us but its just part of the gig. Texas as a whole is full of die hard metal heads and familiar faces friends that will be playing music and supporting local shows till they die.
Welcome to the strange and protean world of Steve Cefala, black/doom metal musician, MMA fighter, former adult entertainment actor, and now, the force behind the returning Dawning and its unique brand of slow melodic metal with horror movie keyboards.
Dawning was born in 1996 at the hands of Mr. Cefala and a close cadre of collaborators. Dormant for many years, but never forgotten, the band was resurrected with the – – –/Dawning split that showcased a classic song for the band and gave it new arrangement and orchestration.
We were lucky to catch up with Mr. Cefala between his many high-energy ventures and get in a few words about the split, the history of Dawning, and its future both as band and concept.
When did Dawning form?
Bud Burke (now in Exhumed) and I quit Pale Existence and started Dawning in 1996. Bud and I may have done some rough Dawning recordings on his four track as early as 1995. We were juniors in high school. We had just terrorized the high school battle of the bands with our cheesy Satanic side project Desecrator (there’s so many bands called that).
Why do you think Dawning is less known that other bands from the era?
First, although not many people know about Dawning, the people I know of that like Dawning are people I respect.
But there are several reasons for Dawning’s relative obscurity. Some are obviously self-inflicted: personnel/lineup problems and changes, lack of self-promotion, etc. We were more focused on making good music and recording it than on the promo side. Also not fitting an exact genre or lack of other doom/black metal bands locally at the time did not help.
We also had offers to be published by record companies which we messed up. As we were about to record for a 10″ release, the incredibly talented bassist who was the band’s contact had a breakdown from acid and thought he was an alien… and the other guitarist Mike Rabald turned super flakey and just would not record his darn guitar tracks, despite being at the recording studio drinking ale and playing Sega Genesis every day instead! After months of that B.S., when we finally threatened to kick him out, he and the sound engineer showed up at my front door demanding cash for what we had recorded so far or they would to destroy the reel! Prick…..
For some reason, we just could not get a show at this period in time. This pissed me off because I was the first metal guy to rent the local library out and throw many underground DIY metal shows and I had set up a lot of shows for local bands with my previous band Pale Existence. Some ugly heifer from my high school ended up renting the library out and getting metal shows banned from the library due to burning bible, blood spills, and setting off fire alarms. Way to go! I also threw a lot of shows for Exhumed and a bunch of local acts at the Cupertino library. They are cool guys but they never reciprocated because we were not gore metal (I remember them helping out Gory Melanoma a lot with shows for instance) or would not kiss their ass or something. Drummer Brian and I used to tease them about them being Carcass rip offs and Matt Harvey being Mr. Rockstar. Anyways, the library shows I threw were integral in bringing the South Bay death metal scene together. They were free all ages DIY shows that united a bunch of different metal and hardcore genres.
It’s also not like people didn’t know we were available. Dawning got only three shows! The KFCJ radio show, one at a frat party in SLO, one in a gazebo teen center I rented. This was despite that I had a full band lineup from 1996-2003! A third show was set up in an alley in Gilroy and the club owner canceled the show at like 7 pm (Maelstrom was headliner) before metal heads, who showed up later like 8, could get the message.
I would mention some other excellent local bands from that era which may have been forgotten includes Gory Melanoma, Infanticide, Butt, Agents of Satan, Deity, Disembodiment, Doomed-horn, and Gorgasm! :) I am glad to see that Morbosidad is still active also :)
Originally, what did Dawning sound like — what was the intent, and what were the influences, behind the sound you were going for?
The sound I have always aimed for with Dawning is to take a synthed out movie soundtrack and cross it with raw doom or black metal guitars and vocals. With a hint of ambient (backwards vocals, chimes, timpani drums). The end of the first demo has a incredibly slow doom ending with a collage of apocalyptic samples. When I started recording this shit back in 1996 I didn’t hear anyone grinding black metal guitar chords over a doom beat. I still barely ever hear that. I guess all the black metal bands are playing doom and ambient now mostly — at least the ones who aren’t constantly blasting as if they are at some type of competitive track meet event.
“New” Dawning sounds basically exactly like original Dawning. It’s all written on the Roland JV series keyboard mostly. There were some demos we did that trended more towards black metal, and some had hippy elements.
Our influences include movie sountracks like Goblin, Angelo Badalamenti (Twin Peaks), John Carpenter scores, Vangelis, Jerry Goldsmith (the Omen), etc. as well as classic 90s doom and black metal — Winter, Disembowlment, Grief, Marduk, Darkthrone, Impaled Nazarene, and My Dying Bride. There is also some trance influence from raves and partying. On the hippier demos there’s a Hendrix and Sabbath vibe to the guitars at times.
Also, Dawning has goth/industrial influences. I listen to Godflesh, Rammstein, Depeche Mode, My Life With The Thrill Kill Cult, Type O Negative, etc.
How did that sound change over time?
Demo 1 – Blackened doom/new age-ish (hint of ambient). Just Bud and I, no bass.
Demo 2 – Live on KFJC. Groovier. More Hendrixy and more Sabbathy. Full band lineup starting with this demo. Trippier more occult-based song themes. Bouncy hippy basslines.
Demos 3 and 4 – More black metal. Less doom.
Demo 5 – Exit Bud Burke, enter Mike Beams (Exhumed). More brutal and detuned. Added elements of sludge doom.
…then back to the original sound of demo 1 again for the split. The upcoming full length is like demo 1 but with more mid-paced grooves and a few blasts besides the doom beats.
You’ve re-recorded “Divine Arrival of the Massive Hoof” for the split with – – – on Preposterous Creations. How did this split come about, and what’s new with the re-recording?
I hooked up with Phil from Presposterous Creations on a web forum where he had posted some old Dawning demo links. I was told Gary from Noothegrush (who actually recorded our live at KFJC demo back in the day) helped get Phil interested in Dawning. Chiyo and Gary (from Noothegrush) have always been most supportive of my band. I honestly think Dawning might not exist today if not for them. And I was told that John Gossard (Weakling) had also talked to Phil about us, which helped. Originally Bud was planning to come out on vacation to visit and record on the new tracks with me. But Exhumed called him and off on tour he went. Now he doesn’t return my calls or lousy Facebook messages even.
“Divine Arrival of the Massive Hoof” on the split has a new arrangement. Better recording. Also, there was a period during these most recent recordings where I was diagnosed as allergic to sunlight. This time was depressing and that gave the songs a darker tone.
A couple of years ago I noticed there was something called the “101 Rules of Black Metal” going around the internet (you can google it). I noticed a rule saying that “the exact date if the divine arrival of the massive hoof shall never be revealed under any circumstance.” It even made it on the Ozzfest official page at that time. I was a little surprised that phrase was ingrained as a rule of metal (I see no other song title as a rule — but I could be wrong). I will admit that I did want to get some credit for the notoriety of the song I had created in 1995-96 and that was part of my motivation in redoing the song and getting it published. I am extremely thankful to Phil and to Noothegrush and the handful of people including John Gossard who kept the spirit of Dawning alive on underground message boards and such. Also whoever put it in the rules of metal I am thankful but would have been better had Dawning been given proper credit.
What’s – – – like, in your words? What was the appeal in working with them?
As far as actually splitting the record with – – – , it was Phil who came to me with this idea. Personally I find the piano parts on all – – – songs to be very inspired and unique and I also love his guitar tone (it reminds me of early Ulver!). So I was honored to split the LP with – – –, though I know nothing about them it is an honor to be associated with that level of talent.
Do you think metal is in a slump, or a time of over-abundance? Are there any parallels to humanity at large?
I do not like the overall musical trends in metal. Blast beat blast beat blast beat. Hail Satan this, hail Satan that. Blast beat blast beat blast beat. Blah blah blah. Playing drums like a track meet competition.
Most of the Gothic doom bands seem really gay (not in a happy sense though) compared to My Dying Bride, at least locally. Stoner bands who are not stoney — or original. Technical death metal which gives me a headache. I also don’t like the super mainstream bands right now like Lamb of God.
Nachtmystium and Electric Wizard and a few other amazing bands in the mainstream (I enjoy Noothegrush, Ludicra, and Weakling) but there’s too much crummy bands you have to go through to find a good one. Compared to the 90s — it sucks!
Locally I fell into the boring status quo sound a little too much with my last band Condemned to Live (DJ) for a few years so I must also take my share of this blame.
And yes humanity stinks too. Pretty much everything stinks these days honestly. I stopped listening to Marduk and Vader, and then Fear Factory and bands like that when they put out that pseudo techno album in the late 90s.
Also when you play a show these days its often a pissing competition between the bands instead of a brotherhood of metal. The other bands come up to you and complain about the band order instead of introducing themselves. Or you could be informed that another guy in the other black metal band that night does not like your band etc I was playing black metal live when he was in kindergarten but hey whatever…
In the 90s we knew we were all social rejects and we bonded over that. Today these kids who grew up in a post 9-11 world live in a darker cutthroat worldview. 90s metal tended to have some sense of humor that is now absent by in large. I think the global economic depression has caused metal to lose its fun fantasy oriented spirit that it had before. By the way outside a few dive bars here like the Caravan, metal is so unpopular where I live in San Jose — everything is gangster rap this, gangster rap that. I can go out for a whole week and maybe see one metal tshirt. Funny thing is my gangster friends like Dawning and are supportive.
What do you think are the differences between black metal, doom metal and regular old heavy metal?
Honestly, it’s all over genre-ized. I honestly wouldn’t even mention my bands genre but I feel strongly we were ahead of our time and deserve a little credit, even if its just a tiny bit. Everyone is mixing black metal and doom now. Back then I heard maybe one Incantation album that did that a bit, not much else.
I can tell you locally while I respect the underground hardcore approach of many bands — mostly everyone just wants to be a genre guy and fit in, which is sad cause metal ain’t even popular in the US in mainstream pop culture so these days why worry about fitting in.
It’s sad to me. Oh well. When I talk to other musicians these days its “Hey, I like this one band, Electric Funeral — let’s do a band like that” or “Hey, I like this band Cradle of Filth lets do one of those!” Nobody wants to make their own band sound. It’s much easier to join a specific genre, follow that genre’s rules to the T, and network from just within that genre. That’s my main problem with modern metal. Of course there are exceptions.
Is Dawning back on the warpath? Will we hear more in the coming weeks, months and years?
I create the music of Dawning for myself and for the chosen few who are willing to listen to what Dawning has to offer them. To those who will listen we offer an escape to another another dimension in which their imagination can run free.
While I have been trying to get the band going live, at this point I am tired of auditioning show-off types and have taken matters into my own hands. I am currently playing electronic drums while at the same time playing keyboards on with my other foot (Moog Tarus clone). My right hand also plays some keyboards. So I am playing drums and keyboards; the drums are electronic, so I feel like I am piloting a spaceship when I am playing I can be in my own world. Also I am not a great drummer, but I can keep the beat.
My girlfriend Charity has taken over on bass guitar for now. She has named herself Nubian WitchGoddess (is that one taken?) and I am working with a guitar player named Gabriel. If this lineup works out we will be performing very soon. The Caravan has always been supportive and said we can play anytime. Noothegrush expressed willingness to play the tiny club with us eventually, which was very nice of them. Also I personally have an entire band’s worth of equipment including every instrument and amp and drums and PA etc., so let it be known I have 100% been trying to take Dawning live for the last year or so and basically have received little to no support from local musicians in this effort. I have had many ads out with few responses. And, funny, what do you know — now that the record came out like 10 people just contacted me all of a sudden about joining. Way of the world I suppose!
There is a full length album I finished recording coming out on cassette in a few months on French label. It has some more upbeat black metal stuff but plenty of doom too. It flows. The new full length album is about the Satanic albino cult that lives high in the hills above Silicon Valley, by the way. My car broke down up there many years ago and the Sherrif told me about them and gave me gas to get the fuck out of there.
What are Sadistic Metal Reviews? Music is art when it has something to say, entertainment when it’s distracting. Since none of us have infinite time, we pick the best and strongest music we can and mock the rest. The path to true metal is littered with sweet, sweet poseur tears and the occasional gem of non-failure, a secret delight for the wary traveler…
Behemoth – The Satanist
Promising to make a “statement” and deliver “art,” The Satanist summons borrowed Morbid Angel and Angelcorpse cliches thrown into a carnival style arrangement with such poor taste it makes late 90s Ancient seem good by comparison. A typical “song” — they cut this album up like a pizza because the riffs in each song have no relation to one another — begins with a slow build up that is awkwardly discarded to make room for a blasting section that sounds like Trey Azagthoth circa 2001 trying to intonate his 7 string while Pantera is rehearsing in the background and reggaeton horns are thrown over the top. If you can imagine a drunken outtake from a later Septic Flesh album that randomly ends after about 3 “riffs” that meander about without purpose are played for about 2 minutes each, that approximates the effect here. It’s not atmosphere, and it’s not death metal. It’s circus music. You will never fail to be distracted as the riffs dance past. And yet, they make no sense when put together. The only thing holding these songs together is that you know roughly when there’s going to be a chorus to tap those toes and listen for the melodic riff. Not even a crappy Gateways to Annihilation imitation act anymore, Behemoth now make it well known that they’re a merchandising front that’s somehow more shallow than recent Watain. Stupid music, regurgitated themes… this is the Marilyn Manson of “underground metal.” No, scratch that; he wrote actual songs. Lullabies for molested children struggling through impossibly awkward teenage years, perhaps, but actual songs. This is just gee-whiz riff practice with incoherent blasphemy and angsty mincing underneath the guitar masturbation.
Obscure Oracle – Demo 2013
Hybridizing power metal, progressive speed metal such as Anacrusis, and death metal, San Angelo’s Obscure Oracle focuses on the newer metal styles of a stream of technical riffs but unlike the newer bands, returns to the 1980s for a chorus-focus in rhythm and riff shape which holds these songs together better than most bands can manage. The detours into instrumentals often inspired by other genres are usually pretty well managed but the problem of making them a steady feature of the stylistic canon is that they must appear frequently and they must stay distinctive, so never really fit within the composition but serve as a kind of oppositional interlude. Obscure Oracle do this better than 90% of other bands and keep the focus on the song, giving us some hope for these guys despite the unfortunate modern influences.
Centinex – Subconscious Lobotomy
I always wondered why this album did not go farther back in the day. It had the thunderous electric distortion, heavy vocals, hardcore-style drumming (but flattened from offbeat emphasis to cadence), and everything else. Maybe it was the amateur hour cover drawing on the original? On re-listen to this beautifully re-mastered re-issue, I realize the actual problem: where Entombed was rocky, this album is death metal and punk that never picks up on a direction and so ends up back in rock ‘n’ roll. It sounds like regression. Entombed’s songs expanded out into these soundtrack-influenced beautiful sections that gave them death and intensity. This thrashes around, then ends up on bouncy hard rock riffs. Even more, it’s almost strictly verse-chorus without allowing for melodic development between the two. Thus, it trudges. Repetition emerges. It feels like being lost in the back alleys of an unfamiliar city, and the sensation is akin to boredom. The story the record labels want you to believe is that somewhere, someone buried a lost cache of genius Swedish death metal under a carpet somewhere. The reality is that it was a relatively small group of people who figured it out and everyone else missed the boat not through lack of opportunity but lack of cognition.
Ingested – Revered by No-One, Feared by All
Another worthless band that plays jockcore masquerading as a death metal band. Nothing about this album is morbid, sinister, or “brutal”. It’s just a bunch of stop-start mechanical rap/rock grooves sandwiched between random Cryptopsy (circa the “wearing Earth Crisis sweatpants promo pics” bad years) blasting randomness without any rhyme or reason. Do you enjoy opening storage containers with your face? Do you know how quickly you can shotgun a PBR if it’s room temperature and the game is in two hours? Put on those wife beaters, cheer for the team, and here’s some tailgate party slam death metal brocore to get the night started! If Pyrexia were tasked with rewriting Machine Head’s Burn My Eyes in a way that would appeal even more to Wu-Tang Clan fans, this EP would be the result. This “slam” garbage is Tupac with better merchandising, but since the cover art here is crappier than what they had on their debut, it seems they’re failing as being a merchandising brand used to sell “death slammer bro” lifestyle products to confused backward ball-cap fratboys as well. Another drink coaster that might as well say Aborted or Skinless on it.
Alcest – Shelter
It has become painfully obvious that the lucrative bandwagon of “post-black metal” has headed off the road and is now tumbling down a gentle hillside, to be followed by a sudden drop into total irrelevance. This won’t be surprising to those who recognized “post-black”, sludge, shoegaze, indie-metal, etc. as basically warmed over 1980s emo music. At this point, Alcest sounds about like the average generic indie rock band as these artists and their fan bases stop with the lies and come to terms with what they really want to hear: socially acceptable whine rock. If you ever want to know what a lobotomy feels like, give this track a listen. You will feel emotion on the surface, followed by an emptiness which is your brain recognizing the total lack of content other than a veneer of meaningful music. There will be wheedly-wheedly guitars, extensive arrangements that go nowhere, vocal posturing and lots and lots of false drama like that diabetes-inducing icing they spread on the cheap cakes at American grocery stores. Everything is on the surface however, designed to fool you like a Those who value their mortality, stay far away from this brain bleaching turd.
Metallica – Metallica
While it may be unfair to classify this as the first “commercial speed metal” album, it certainly was the most breathtaking example of a band choosing profit over artistry. We all know they’re out there: the vast horde of people who will buy just about anything as long as you dumb it down so it doesn’t confuse them. They like verse-chorus structures, gentle melodies, pentatonic soloing and big buoyant 4/4 verses. Metallica took one look at this audience and thought, “Well, Cliff’s dead — he’ll never know!” and so they made an album after the butt-rock that sold out in the decade before Metallica was formed. If you’re thinking Boston and REO Speedwagon with more muted E chords, you’re right! The continuation of …and Justice for All‘s proto-nu-metal stop-start riffs combined with adult contemporary crooner vocals and rock-style song structures represent a distillation of the lowest elements of metal in a form suitable for easy consumption by the masses. It’s not technically incompetent, and in fact is reasonably well-executed, if you’re expecting rock music. It misses the point of metal song construction and instead is rehashing the blues-rock and stadium country hits from the 1970s. This is the album most people think of when they hear the term “heavy metal” — and we wonder why they find it hard to respect heavy metal from that point on. Abandon all hope, ye who go down this path of listening.
Tennessee Murder Club – Human Harvest
Promising a “timeless” death metal album, this immediately sounds unlike anything a self-respecting fan of death metal fan would listen. Never mind the off putting metalcore vocals and modern guitar tone (plus the stupid metalcore band name and logo), under the surface this is Lamb of God with “horror” riffs thrown in random arrangements. With albums like this alongside Repugnant and Entrails, the blame could always be placed on Bloodbath for mixing Pantera mall grooves with generic third tier Entombed wannabe Stockholm death metal and creating a new lifestyle product for mainstream “headbangers” during their interim between Slipknot and the Dave Matthews Band. “Death metal” for angry truck drivers. So it’s really just Pantera with tremolo picking, and I wouldn’t wish for this rancid batch of sonic diarrhea to befall the ears of even my worst enemy.
Hellbastard – Heading For Internal Darkness
Debut album from the band that likely coined the term ‘crust’, this ambitious work falls short of excellence due to a few unusual and unsavory choices in aesthetic and composition. First, though certain songs pick up the pace much of this album sticks to one or two tempos? a bit more variation (such as the track “Civilized”) would be welcome. Second, poorly and sometimes awkwardly inserted female vocals are placed in parts of songs where the riff should instead be emphasized. It doesn’t take much to filter them out, but it would be far better without them? they add nothing to the music and in some cases detract from it (the faster section of “Death Camp” is a prime example). Otherwise, this is an energetic and spirited work. Chunky speed metal riffing mixed with thrash and early death metal touches compliments a looseplaying drummer. There’s an unhindered exuberance to the performance which echoes the best of hardcore punk. Basically sounds like early Metallica or Exodus mixed with Amebix, Crass, and Discharge. Its flaws hinder it from truly ascending to the top, but this is still a solid album that ranks in the top 5% of the crust genre.
Disfiguring the Goddess – Black Earth Child
Apart from growling and blast beats, this is nu-mu. Rap/rock chugging thuds (djent) and “ambient” synth/sampling forays in guitar driven rhythm oriented songs (where attention is given to vocal rhythms) give this more of a Korn character than anything else. This is a produced to perfection turd of a release that was no doubt made to pacify the simple minds of neckbeards that spend too much free time on Facebook. Songs go nowhere, literally being a series of blocky rhythmic chugging sequences reiterated in different ways. It’s monotonous and stupid. The solo “metal” project of a dubstep producer, this release borrows the surface aesthetic from “brutal death metal”, but accomplishes little more than sounding like a more “extreme” Slipknot. Considering the interest in this project has more to do with its merchandising and the personality behind it all, it’s no surprise all of this “slam” vapidity functions as an embarrassing social tool for indie-rockers and hipsters: another lifestyle product that under the surface of “crazy music”, provides more of the same disposable radio rock.
Clit Commander – Tex Mex Ass Blast
How can you hate a record with this hilarious title? That’s what they’re hoping your friends will say to you. They only need to fool you for about thirty minutes, long enough to place that order and slide that card. Then the sale is made and everyone wins… at the label. The fact is that if you buy this, you’ve not only wasted money but done something stupid enough that you really should end your life! This is predictable death-grind of the mid-paced variety that specializes in linear riffs and abrupt tempo changes that lead nowhere. Song construction is circular and yet still manages to be disordered. If you already feel a massive ennui overwashing you such that you no longer care if you live or die, imagine listening to it. It’s worse.
As far as books about metal go, there’s nothing more hardcore than an encyclopedic reference because by nature these attempt to include everything. Janne Stark wrote The Heaviest Encyclopedia of Swedish Hard Rock and Heavy Metal Ever! to keep track of the Swedish hard rock / heavy rock / metal scene, but we found it even harder to keep track of him.
For example, Stark is listed as participating in three dozens, including Overdrive, Overheat, Faith, M.O.B., Flash, TNT, Alyson Avenue, Sir Lord Baltimore, Thalamus, Chris Catena, Audiovision, Vii Gates, Narnia, Grand Design, Blinded Colony, Spearfish, Audiovision, Tower Of Stone, Teenage Rampage, From Behind, Planet Alliance, Balls, Constancia, Locomotive Breath, Mountain Of Power, Zello, Nicky Moore Blues Corporation. This is only a small slice of his participation in music, however, as he’s also a music journalist and author.
Stark was good enough to give us the time for a mid-length interview, which was conducted over coffee in the fashionable Swedish borough of Östermalm. Err… we wish. Stark was good enough to conduct this interview through old-fashioned 7-bit email, but we got some interesting answers.
Sweden has fewer people than the city I live in, yet produces more quality heavy rock, hard rock and metal bands. Is there something in the Swedish outlook that is responsible for this disparity?
I’ve had that question a lot of times. I think it has to do with several different things. Music has always been important in Sweden, folk music, singing in choirs etc. ABBA came along in the seventies showing Swedish musicians it was actually possible to break through on a big scale outside of our borders. We also have a really good (and cheap/free) tradition of music schools and the ability to learn an instrument in school. We also have the possibility to start a study circle, within a band, where you can get free/cheap rehearsal space, the possibility to record and even arrange gigs. I also think Swedish bands in general are about the music and learning to play, that getting an image and just pose.
Sweden may have partially invented death metal and black metal through Bathory. Are there are other contributions on the road towards death metal that you found interesting?
Yes, Bathory were definitely the forefathers of primitive sounding early black metal in Sweden. Later on there’s of course also the Gothenburg sound and bands like In Flames, Dark Tranquillity and At The Gates, where they started mixing more melodic and traditional metal influences with the traditional death metal sound. Swedish bands have always looked to the UK or US for influences, but I think a lot of the bands have managed to put a slightly different twist on it. Take for instance progressive bands like A.C.T or Pain Of Salvation, and then you have classic heavy metal bands like Hammerfall and Wolf who have mixed the German and UK styles of metal with a Swedish twist to it.
There’s something about the way Swedish bands write music that seems to lend itself to heavy metal, and it’s broader than the legendary Swedish melodic sense. Do you get the feeling such a thing exists?
I think it’s basically that we borrow a lot of influences from outside and blend it with the quite traditional Swedish folk touch that is in our mothers milk, whether we know/like it or not. On another note, it’s also quite interesting how several Swedish hard rock/metal musicians have become very successful in writing for pop and dance acts. People like Thomas G:son (Masquerade), Peter Carlsson (Bedlam), Anders Wickström (Treat) and not least Max Martin (It’s Alive) and Johan “Shellback” Schüster (Blinded Colony) have all become highly acclaimed pop composers who have written hits for N’Sync, Britney Spears, Pink, Lady Gaga etc.
You refer to this book as “the heaviest” encyclopedia of Swedish heavy rock and metal, and it definitely is heavy in two senses, both content and the physical weight of the book. How long did it take you to compile this monster?
It’s the heaviest in many senses. It’s definitely the heaviest when it comes to its sheer weight, 3.7 kilos (8.5 lbs) and the amount of bands featured in it (3,600), but it was also the heaviest one to get out of my system, to decide when it was time to wrap it up and get it out. When the second book was released in 2002, I simply continued compiling information. Not detailed information, but more like making notes to check this band out, check this site out, I made continuous notes of special releases and such. Then, a little more than three and a half years ago I decided Now it’s time. Then I started following up all the leads, compiling all info of the bands, took all the info from the first two books, updated and corrected and all the stuff I had noted about these bands. I made one document for each letter and just started all over again, from A to Z (well, actually the last letter is Ö in the Swedish alphabet). When I felt I was finished I started doing layout, but waited with the band pics etc until last as I was still adding last minute information and bands. I then had three people proof read it, an Englishman and a music nerd friend, plus my wife (also a hard rock nerd). In September 2013, I sent in the final PDF files to the publisher and it was off to the printers, and nothing more I could do. Sheer agony at that point!
What kind of research resources were available to you? Is there much printed information on rock music in Sweden, or did you have to spend most of your time interviewing people?
When I did the first book in 1996, there was no Internet and it was all phone calls, contacting bands, music clubs, record stores etc. Now the information is all over the place, the problem is to collect, find and sort out what is the CORRECT information. Anybody can write anything on sites like Wikipedia etc. and suddenly it’s the truth. It’s been as much about checking and double-checking this time around. I’ve listed the sources I’ve used in the book, but it’s anything from www.metal-archives.com, www.musikon.se and www.rockdetector.com, to Ebay, Tradera, Discogs and bands/labels sites to find all catalogue numbers, different pressings etc. There’s a couple of metal magazines and webzines here as well, plus books and websites covering local scenes, where I’ve found some additional information. I’ve also contacted a lot of people through Facebook etc. I’ve tried to get in touch with as many bands as possible.
From the looks of this massive book, you got every heavy band that Sweden has ever produced. Did you miss any? How did you find out?
I’m sure I’ve missed some, even though I do think I’ve covered 95% this time. There’s always going to be the local metal band that printed 250 copies of a single, sold it to some friends, tucked the remaining copies away in an attic and went on with life. These things pop up now and then, still! Plus some bands, especially when it comes to black metal, are intentionally secretive and only sell their limited vinyl release to “true” fans. But, that’s the beauty of it. Trying to find those hidden gems!
Swedish death metal won me over the minute I heard it. Do you normally listen to death metal? Did the sounds of Swedish death metal tempt you to go over to “the dark side”?
The thing is, when I wrote the previous books I wasn’t into death or black metal at all. But, for this book I’ve listened to ALL bands in it, and there’s a LOT of death and black metal. As a result I’ve actually come to like a lot of these bands, the more melodic stuff like Soilwork, The Haunted, Sterbhaus, In Flames and Unleashed, but also stuff like Watain I’ve come to like. My first choice of music is however still seventies influenced heavy rock/metal and bands like Spiritual Beggars, Mojobone, Grand Magus etc.
Can you tell us about your background as a writer and in music? This obviously isn’t your first project.
I got into music very early on and started playing guitar around the age of nine, made my first demo with the band TNT back in 1977, recorded my first single with the band Paradize in 1979 and formed Overdrive in 1980, with whom I’ve made a bunch of records. I also started doing some reviews for a local zine in 1982-83. My writing got more serious in 1989, when I started writing and reviewing for Backstage Magazine and since then I’ve written for a lot of magazines such as Hard Roxx, Kool Kat News, Sweden Rock Magazine, FUZZ Magazine etc. I did my first encyclopedia in 1996 and the second one in 2002. At the same time I’ve also made records with bands like Locomotive Breath, Mountain Of Power, Zello, Planet Alliance, Constancia etc. I still play in Overdrive, Constancia and Grand Design.
How did you get the confidence to tackle such a massive work? (It can’t all come from the writer’s famous “courage in a can” — coffee — itself, can it?)
Well, to be honest, it’s a combination of sincere interest for Swedish metal, being a music nerd and, yes, lots of strong, fine Swedish coffee. Besides beer and booze, it’s the only “drug” I’ve ever touched!
If you had to select five heavy and/or metal acts from Sweden to convince a newcomer that this scene is vital and worth investigating, what would they be?
As there are such a variety of styles within the Swedish scene I’d pick accordingly, so to check out the melodic death metal scene go for Soilwork, get some classic heavy metal with Grand Magus, some high class AOR with Eclipse, doom with Avatarium and progressive rock with A.C.T. To start with.
What’s next for you? Will you continue music journalism? Where do readers go to find out more about your work?
I still write and review for FUZZ, Metal Central and Metal Covenant when time allows it. I also have my own reviews blog and I’m now working on my next book entitled The History of Swedish Hard Rock and Heavy Metal, which will be as the title says, a more history-based book on the Swedish metal scene from the late 60s and until today with stories, interviews with prominent Swedish bands etc. Not sure when it will be finished, but I’m working on it. I’m currently also working on two new albums by Constancia and Grand Design for release in 2014. We’ve got lots of gigs booked for Grand Design as well as Overdrive. High Roller Records are also re-issuing the first Overdrive album on vinyl with an entire bonus LP of demos. No rest for the wicked!
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.
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.
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.
As recent writings from Keith Kahn-Harris and others indicate, metal may be suffering from too much: too many bands, too huge an information flow, too many blogs, too much focus on surface aesthetics.
Contrasting this flood of “too much” is a true metal movement designed to emphasize what metal has always done well, but done anew by new generations. One member of this movement is Argus, whose album Beyond the Martyrs caught our attention for its NWOBHM/Candlemass classic metal fusion.
Luckily, frontman Butch Balich was available to answer a few profile questions and some existential ones via email. His answers strike me as relatively without contrivance, and show us this band both as it presents itself and as it is likely to be experienced.
Can you tell us how Argus formed? Did you come together on a mutual love of existing music, or a desire to create something that didn’t exist at the time?
The band was put together by Erik and Kevin out of friendship and a desire to jam and play some tunes. I don’t think it was ever envisioned it would become what it has. Our goal has always been simply to write great songs. We don’t concern ourselves with whether or not we are forging new paths or treading well worn ones. Its all about playing music we love and infusing our personality into it.
What is a “working class metal sound” (from your official biography)? Do the members of Argus identify with working-class or blue-collar roots?
Those guys grew up here in Western, PA and I think definitely identify with a working-class, blue-collar set of roots. We see ourselves as hard working and our music as fairly straightforward — what you hear is what you get — we aren’t overly complex and fancy in either our writing or our performance yet both are powerful. So I think we meant to portray the band as a straight up true metal band that works hard and is not pretentious in any way.
What would you identify as your primary and enduring influences?
We’re all over the map really. If you separated us and asked each of us you’d hear everything from Sabbath to Slayer, KISS to The Beatles, Maiden to NOFX, Marvin Gaye to Slough Feg. Collectively I think we draw from a common pool of Maiden, Thin Lizzy, some doom like Candlemass, old Metallica… We know what we want the band to sound like though so you’ll hear big riffs, great harmonies… sometimes the bands that those things remind of are coincidental, for instance “The Ladder” from Boldly Stride the Doomed has a real Solitude Aeturnus vibe even though I’m probably the one guy in the band who loves them. We are also influenced/pushed by bands like Slough Feg or Valkyrie.
You’ve picked an amalgamation of older styles for your music, instead of trying to keep up with the cutting edge or invent something. Why did you make this choice? Is there anything new under the sun, musically?
Let’s be honest — there really aren’t any combinations of riffs or notes that haven’t been used. There is NO ONE reinventing the wheel musically anymore. SO, our goal is to write great songs that we love — it is the goal of any good band. Our goal has never been to create something wholly unique as that is impossible. We draw from what we love about the music we listen to and enjoy playing and hopefully our personality comes across enough — and that is what makes us special. The notes/riffs/melodies may not always be something unheard of but we each have way of playing our instruments that adds up to ARGUS sounding like ARGUS instead of a mere rate retro metal knockoff.
Do you think the style you play selects the audience you receive, and that some audiences are more supportive than others?
I think any fan of true metal would like the band. We are neither overly refined or simplistic. I think our music has the ability to appeal to folks across different spectrums as it mixes bits and pieces of things and has strong melodies. I do think we’ve been most accepted by true metal and doom crowds so far. So far every audience we’ve played for has been pretty damn supportive to be honest. I do feel there is a niche market for what we do even though it has the potential to grow larger. If you play the style we play you do need to be prepared to accept that the fanbase is fairly limited and it will take a great amount of touring, perseverance and luck to advance beyond cult level.
There has been a movement in metal over the past four or five years called “True Metal,” in which people are less interested in outward-looking hybrids and more in an inward-looking, metal-centric attempt to continue the spirit of classic bands, although not necessarily the details. Have you seen this? Would it apply to Argus?
There is a segment of folks who aren’t interested so much in modernism and would prefer new bands to play in the old style. This is me to extent though I prefer bands not to be complete ripoffs of a specific band. I prefer bands like Slough Feg, Pharaoh, Twisted Tower Dire, Enforcer who have obvious influences but whose own personality comes through and who don’t consign themselves to 80s production values 24-7. I think Argus fits in with a retro tag though I have to say I think we manage to sound modern without sounding modern (if that makes sense). Like we don’t sound dated even though we’re playing metal based on the classic metal and hard rock bands.
This is your third album, after an EP and a demo. How has your sound changed during this time? Do you see it going in another direction as time goes on?
I don’t see that our sound has changed so much as streamlined a bit. We’re trying to capture the vibe and point of each song without belaboring the point in endless repetitions of the same riff. Why take ten minutes to say what can be said in six? I think it’s been a gradual transition. We’ve definitely become better songwriters over 7 years. Stylistically though we’ve been fairly constant. Maybe less doomy but no less moody.
Why do you think heavy metal remains popular after forty years of existence?
Because it is powerful, honest, hits-you-in-the-gut music. Because lyrically it provides escape. It provides understanding. It’s a very gut level thing… metal. There is an energy to it that few other forms of music capture — …and power, volume… I also think metal is also where you will find musicians whose level of integrity and devotion to their fans is high as opposed to more throwaway styles of music where musicians are chasing dollars exclusively rather than the art.
What’s next for Argus? Are you going to tour, or write more material?
We’re about to start writing for album 4. We hope to get over to Europe again the Summer of 2014. We have a festival appearance booked at the Ragnarokkr Festival in Chicago the weekend of April 4-5, 2014. Other than that we’re looking at some possible US dates… we’ll see what happens. Are discussing plans for small releases like a possible 7″, an EP and maybe a split.