The Best Underground Metal of 2014

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William Burroughs often wrote about the “edge,” or the liminal threshold between states. The last real edge year for underground metal was 2009 when strong contenders and new voices united to defend extreme metal against the onslaught of imitators making Potemkin village metal from hipster flair and lite-jazz fireworks but underneath it, nothing but disorganized songwriting and an absence of something to express. As the underground has come back with a vengeance, it has begun to displace the imitators because their music simply does not measure up. This has created a backlash as the hipsters defend their territory with guilt, ostentation, pretense and surface-level novelty. On the other hand, the underground has produced some strong contenders. And so we move forward through the past to the future, remembering that what is true is eternal, and trends, novelties, fads, hipsters and other transient moments pass quickly away…

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Blaspherian – Demos (Compilation of Death)

Compilation of Death Records has re-issued the a classic demo and rehearsal from a band of recent vintage but oldschool origins, Blaspherian. Their thunderous death metal sounds like Incantation and Obituary covering Deicide but has a voice of its own and unique perspective. It also carries forward the old school sensibility of building intensity and contrast in a morbid mood that is not self-echoing and redundant. Songwriter Wes Weaver (Imprecation, Infernal Dominion) avoids solos and other adornments to focus on tunneling riffs that are distinctive and create interplay with others in each song to give every song a unique feel within the lexicon of symbol and emotion that death metal addresses. Like the bands that inspire it, Blaspherian aims to create an immersive atmosphere of doom and morbidity in which it can bring forth other emotions in layers, such that the “mixed emotions” feel common to much music is not something achieved at the peak of a song, but is a constant in which the emotions mixed vary like a texture, revealing new combinations under the shifting striations of darkness.

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Blood Urn – …of Gory Sorcery and Death (Terrorghoul)

Death metal of the classic style fascinates this young band who write music much like the early years of death metal but with more of an emphasis on melodic bridging material, avoiding the pitfall of using melody as essentially a production technique and instead causing it to highlight songs that come alive with a ferment of conflicting riffs. Vocals use the old-school method of shadowing riffs and the salad of phrases itself fits together and creates a deepening mood. While on the heavier and slower side of death metal, this demo is varied enough to touch on all areas of the genre, assembling rich textures as a means to develop depth to the emotions in each part of the song. Unlike many newer bands, Blood Urn decided not to follow a single identifiable influence but instead sound like a study of European and American death metal rendered by someone approaching it with a fresh vision.

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Cenotaph – Riding Our Black Oceans (Chaos, re-issue)

A re-issue of this album restores it to its rightful place in the death metal canon. After the immensely powerful Gloomy Reflections of Our Hidden Sorrows, the thunderous Mexican death metal band Cenotaph changed their style to an airier and more intense high-speed melodic death metal sound. Unlike contemporary “melodic death metal” this style embraced the vigor of death metal by expressing it through sequences of tones that added melody without obscuring structure and darker moods, and Cenotaph displayed its customary acumen for songwriting by keeping each track centered around an idea that came forth not only in the whole but in the shape of its riffs. In the years following Sentenced North From Here and At the Gates The Red in the Sky is Ours, many bands attempted this newer style but few made it as vicious and uncompromising as Cenotaph.

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Conquering Dystopia – Conquering Dystopia

Conquering Dystopia creates instrumental mental that hybridizes death metal styles with progressive heavy metal and some of the newer progressive styles like that of At War With Self. The result often sounds a lot like Joe Satriani’s older works in that clear theme is expressed and highly repeated, but varied with other instrumental detours which strengthen it as the song progresses and all the pieces fit together more an in interrupted linear way than the geometries of pure death metal. While this is like most commercial rock indulgently emotional, the underlying music is good and the technique interesting without leaving service to what each song needs, which keeps it not only topical but interesting.

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Dead Congregation – Promulgation of the Fall (Martyrdoom)

Although this band gets mentioned as the foremost in the “Incantclone” series of bands inspired by streaming columnar detuned tremolo underground metal in the style of Incantation, Demoncy and Havohej, Dead Congregation draws influence as well from the subtler structuring of older Immolation in its use of melody to underscore is otherwise a thunderous series of chromatic rhythm riffs needing a center. Although songs vary in completeness throughout the album, generally these storming high-intensity dirges fit together well and produce an encompassing atmosphere which both crushes and awes the listener. If anything, this band could let up on the classic technique and float more of their own aesthetic ideas now that they are established.

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Demilich – 20th Adversary of Emptiness (Svart, re-issue)

Back when death metal was viewed by just about everyone as an incompetent genre of malcontent losers who would go nowhere and who were complaining about our new consumer+hippie paradise, a few bands emerged who saw the emerging genre not as a style but as an artistic voice with unlimited possibilities. One of these, Finland’s Demilich, created an album so circuitous and bizarre that the metal press basically dropped it and ran in fear, as did many fans. For those who discovered it however, Nespithe presented unlimited potential as to how death metal could adopt technicality and yet not be mastered by it and forced into the type of generic jazz-blues-rock theory that served to actually limit what musicians could conceive of and execute. With its twisted passages and seemingly erratic rhythms, Nespithe resembled a strange machine risen from the bowels of earth to conquer humankind. Instead, it inspired generations of fans and musicians to visualize death metal as a broader language than many wanted it to be. This re-issue pairs up older works with a handful of newer songs to make for a complete experience of this distinct voice and its concept.

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Desecresy – Chasmic Transcendence (Xtreem)

Desecresy combine Swedish death metal, doom-death metal and atmospheric influences from black metal to create towerlike scenes of dark moods in collision. With Chasmic Transcendence, the band update the formula with more easily separable rhythms to riffs and use of melodic transitions to intensify the building sense of doom. It builds grinding tension and discharges it in lengthy melodic passages which expand beyond their origins into new landscapes. Add to this a tendency to use lead melodic rhythm guitars over its power chord riffs and this makes for a haunting listen that resembles a descent into the underworld. With this third album, the band shows not only its staying power but the depths of the well of its creativity in not just re-inventing older styles but finding a new combination of them and using that to express a perspective which elaborates upon the basics of the genre and gives them new elegance and power.

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Enthroned – Sovereigns (Agonia)

Famed for their high-speed melodic black metal, Enthroned take the populist approach of middle-period Dimmu Borgir — before it went into its final stage as warmed-over hard rock — and craft it with greater urgency and the instrumental approach of older black metal. The result more resembles the later Bathory albums where heavy metal, proto-black metal and post-Slayer death metal influences merged to create a potent ferment. Sovereigns does not achieve the vast contrasts and epic sense of loss of earlier black metal, but upholds a battle-spirit and pushes it into song with strong melodies that do not lapse into the cloying saccharine world of “feelings” — personal observations based on personal perspective — but instead appeal to emotions, or the shared sense of importance and value to certain things which might be eternal. This album breaks up the formula slightly with slower songs as the album expands, in the style of Hypocrisy Penetralia.

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Entrench – Violent Procreation (War Anthem)

Following in the steps of Merciless, who could be seen as the stylistic ancestor of this band, Entrench craft speed/death metal with melodic underpinnings and a frantic but strident voice which guides riffs much in the way Dio narrated his own songs. To the Merciless formula of adroit ripping riffs concluding in both ambiguity and alignment, Entrench adds a Kreator style of finality to both vocal and guitar phrase, making these songs less emotional but more solidly violent. While speed/death hybridization usually ends badly, here the essence is speed metal riffs played as if by a death metal band in the context of a rhythm more like that of death metal. The result is satisfyingly impact-oriented but for it to take the next step to where Merciless is, it will have to coordinate its melodies and cultivate ambiguity both for it to resolve and preserve to keep the dark sensation produced by the riff-style of death metal, minor key melodies and mentalities outside those of the herd.

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Heresiarch – Wælwulf (EP, Dark Descent)

Attempting to forge a niche for itself in the Incantation/Blasphemy inspired style that has become a de facto underground currency during the past few years, Heresiarch create a muddier and more obscure version of their previous works, focusing less on tunneling riffs and more on simple two-chord riffs introducing songs that expand to greater degrees of structure with the slightest hints of melody. The band, in hoping to take war metal to the next dimension, probably consider their work to be unstudied and arising on impulse, but these songs show a clear pattern of development from the grinding to the structural and as a result, take the listeners with them on a journey of finding beauty in darkness and coherence in chaos. The violent slamming intensity remains but by lessening its consistency the band achieves a greater sense of contrast, like raising a sacred object higher above the marble floor to ensure that when it shatters the pieces are irreducible.

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Kever – Eon of Cycling Death (Dark Descent)

Perhaps one of the most inspiring releases this year, Eon of Cycling Death wears its old school influences in Suffocation and Morbid Angel on its sleeve but without imitating them in pale imprint of their technique without understanding their essence. Instead this band forges on with a kind of fantasy death metal that shows them living an alternative and parallel timeline to these bands, developing the basics they innovated with a voice specific to these individuals regardless of what time they are born into. Percussive riffs give way to an ensemble of death metal styles united by rhythm and space which convincingly outline the ideas of each song and then give them depth through internal dialogue. On top of it, an abrupt and croaking vocal gives new life to a very familiar technique with its guttural but carefully sculpted sonic enunciation.

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Massacra – Enjoy the Violence (Century Media, re-issue)

One of the great classics of death metal, long passed-over for more dramatic acts, gained new life with this re-issue. Massacra created their early music in the style which stretches from Slayer through Morbid Angel and emphasizes fast strumming of rapidly-colliding riffs which emphasize ambiguity and openness over the kind of certainty that works well with more percussive styles. Enjoy the Violence is like a rollercoaster between extremes where all things lead back to the same point, but the experience is changing enough that it is almost unrecognizable as the same. With the remaster, some of the weaker sound from the earlier recording is corrected and bonus tracks are added, giving new life to this under-recognized classic of the genre that was more highly influential among musicians than fans, and took on new life in the bands it influenced.

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Massacra – Final Holocaust (Century Media, re-issue)

This foundational album of death metal by Massacra has been re-issued by Century Media with bonus tracks and a booklet rich in information. That provides a good introduction to this view of the death metal style, which instead of attempting to be “heavy” aimed for shock and awe with fast riffs and convoluted songs that somehow emerged into an almost peaceful calm after chaos and combat. Massacra derive their strength from the ability to write fast-fingered riffs that capture the thrill and terror of being alive into a single moment and use this to make basic clashes within life into a mythology of trying to conquer empty spaces with the will and sensibility of a warrior wandering a dystopian wasteland. While this album was forgotten in the day mostly due to its mids-heavy (in contrast to bass-heavy) production and relative availability through distribution contracts more circuitous than its riffs, it rides again in new form.

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Massacra – Day of the Massacra (Century Media)

Century Media compiled several early Massacra demos into a single disc, paired it with extensive liner notes and pictures, and remastered everything for an insight into the rise of the Massacra sound while it was recognizable as what would emerge on the first two and most influential Massacra albums. These recordings show the band merging its early influences into a style and then finding its own voice within that beast, allowing it to compose distinctive and evocative songs immediately including several pre-album tracks with some duct tape still visible. While this might appeal most to Massacra maniacs, it also serves as a useful introduction to new fans who may appreciate the heavier production and more aggressive primitive approach here as a means of transitioning to the albums that follow, which focused not so much on slamming impact as a kind of sky architecture of riffery.

CD Booklet

Nausea – Condemned to the System (Willowtip)

Straddling the line between grindcore, crust and old-fashioned hardcore — which are inches apart as it is — Nausea return with this recording of older and newer tracks alike. Carefully pared down to incorporate only necessary elements and keep energy high, Condemned to the System demonstrates the simpler style of punk composition with all of the riff power of early grindcore, including several tracks (and pieces thereof) that later made it to the first Terrorizer album, World Downfall. The listener who can forget that heritage however will discover merely a crushing, efficient and streamlined album of enjoyable but hard-hitting punkish music that will not win awards for extremity or technicality, but shows care applied to songwriting so that a listener does not feel lost in a sea of riffs or drone, but can isolate each song in the mind and appreciate its individual attack.

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Nunslaughter – Angelic Dread (Hells Headbangers)

While some may be tempted to categorize Nunslaughter as dinosaurs, the fact remains that this band takes the raw ingredients of power metal, speed metal and most death metal and makes a stripped-down, hardcore-punk style ripping version of this that remains highly listenable even if not particularly distinguishable on a song-to-song basis. Like other collections of many short songs, such as Dead Infection or Carcass, Angelic Dread operates like many small insights into roughly the same idea. Somehow, what this band creates never gets old, in part because they understand their riffs as a language from the same basic source, and in part because like a thrash band their song format carefully fits the particular clash of the two riffs (with a few budget transitions, and sometimes rhythmic variations, Nunslaughter uses two riffs per song on average) and the need of presenting them in the best light. The result is compelling and enjoyable and upholds the best tradition of riffcraft and expressive violence in underground music.

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Oppression – Sociopathie & Gloire (Preposterous Creations)

Merging Oi!-style punk with some enhancements from black metal, tracks are short (2-3 minute) affairs. Melodies are catchy, yet wistful lines grounded in simple guitar and bass riffs, with vocal alternating between manic shrieks and an idiosyncratic, youthful attempt at melodic singing. Using the more linear style composition of punk, as opposed to the riff-stacking song construction used by much of black metal, each song contributes a sense of motion that builds the album up over successive tracks. Production values are what one would expect for this style of music; clear enough to make out each instrument, but raw enough to preserve low-budget ethos. This is a release that is not attempting to invent a new genre, but rather one which seeks to renew genres that had collapsed under their own entropy. The strange aesthetics may be off-putting to some, but if those can be sublimated into the spirit of this album, a refreshingly honest work will open itself for enjoyment.

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Personal Device – Microorganismos del Mal

First there was the faux 80s crossover thrash revival with party retro-thrash bands like Toxic Holocaust and Municipal Waste, then bands like Birth A.D. bounced back with actual thrash and reformed the genre. Now Personal Device take it a step both further and in a different direction by being a classic hardcore band that informs itself with early speed metal like the first Metallica and Nuclear Assault albums. The result is bouncy fast and precise punk like Ratos de Porao or even middle-period Bad Brains that is thoroughly enjoyable with riff breaks that resemble “The Four Horsemen” or maybe even “Live, Suffer, Die.” Their guitars are remarkably precise which creates an unusual sound for punk that by making it mechanistic makes it seem more inexorable than like protest music, and the result is a more testosterone-fueled and warlike approach. Mix that with the surging chord changes of speed metal and the fast repetitive chanted choruses from thrash, and you have a high-energy band. Its flaws are that experienced listeners may find this a bit too transparent, and that many of its rhythms are similar, but the band has administered its style with an editor’s red pen handy, cutting out any lesser parts, which gives it more staying power than all but a few albums in this stylistic range.

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Ripper – Raising the Corpse (Underground Defenders)

Much like Merciless, Ripper know to invoke a melodic hook with a rhythmic hook and gradually bring a song into unity, at which point they hammer home the infectious chorus until the audience is ready to carve it into their own flesh. While some may point out that little new occurs here stylistically, and many of these riff forms can be traced back to Slayer or Destruction, what Ripper does well is keep this music high-intensity without falling into sameness and to streamline into an effective delivery mechanism that outgrows the confused collision of styles that was the mid to late 1980s. This approach fits within the early speed metal model that formed the basis of great hook-laden German bands like Destruction and Sodom, and this tradition continues with Ripper. Where Ripper succeeds is in removing extraneous material and cutting to the core of its music, eliminating some of the distraction and randomness that blighted later work from the German bands.

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Sorcier Des Glaces – Ritual Of The End (Obscure Abhorrence)

Flowing dark melodic forest black metal band Sorcier des Glaces burst onto the scene as any appreciation for this style of Graveland and Immortal influenced black metal fully waned as the initial loss of momentum in the genre caught up with its inertia. Since that time, the band has continued its path of making naturalistic long-melody black metal with the distinctive wandering tempo and phrasal development that many of the French bands also explored. With Ritual of the End, Sorcier des Glaces present their vision in a more focused style that nonetheless preserves the inconclusive nature of their earlier music, becoming like a vision of the woods at twilight equal parts promise and ambiguity, revealing the continuous nature of life through its inability to achieve finite endpoints. When metal mistakenly went toward faster/more extreme variants of the past, it lost the majestic beauty which inspired imagination as well as aggression, and Sorcier des Glaces return it.

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Varathron – Untrodden Corridors Of Hades (Agonia)

One of the original Greek black metal bands, Varathron returns with higher speed and more dominant melody in a style that approximates what Borknagar and other later black metal bands tried to do, with some nods to music since but fundamentally a sensibility closer to Rotting Christ Thy Mighty Contract. Keeping energy high with frequent changes but return to theme and focus on a melody or progression at the heart of each song, Varathron expand their repertoie and craft an album that speaks enough of a contemporary language to dominate that style with the vocabulary of the older era, invoking both a return to and a continuation of the past. While the influence of the present time makes itself known, it remains under control of the guiding forces behind this band that seek to open the imagination instead of gratify self-image, and as a result more possibility emerges here than in other contemporary works.

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Witchblood – Hail to Lyderhorn (Aurora Australis)

Attempting to uphold the values of classic black metal while introducing to them some of the more recent developments in tradfolk-inspired music, Witchblood combines the catchy attack of Venom with riff technique from mid-90s black metal and adds its own voice, which consists of equal part narrative bardic style and an idiosyncratic ability to make memory-haunting tunes. The result features a range of techniques from the history of metal, including NWOBHM-inspired riffing right alongside streaming tremolo picked melodic riffs, but this band makes it work by keeping focus on an essential melody in each song paired to a vocal rhythm designed to deliver a foot-tapping chorus, as bands like Sodom or Destruction did years ago. The result takes the Venom school of metal, upgrades it with black metal, and restores it to a 1980s delivery that is both clear and dark and then infuses that with the type of ancestral identity and epic sensation of purpose that arises from folk music. Through this, Witchblood creates its own form of metal that shows clear roots in much older traditions.

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Woodtemple – Forgotten Pride (Sacrilege)

Showing more of an influence from Following the Voice of Blood era Graveland, Woodtemple return with a more focused version of their flowing black metal. In the past, the music more resembled flowing hills in a landscape of vast breadth, but now greater internal contrast makes what is portrayed closer to a mountain range with ragged crags over deep valleys. The addition of floating female vocals and gentle keyboards allow the band to put more aggression into guitars and bass, keeping vocals semi-backgrounded which produces the effect of reducing the “human” feel to the music. As a result, songs come together with more focus, making this the clearest statement from Woodtemple yet made. Like most metal in this style, Forgotten Pride creates an effect of distance from the human world, isolation and a focus on the larger picture through a lens of large leaps in time, but now creates another hypnotic effect in a distancing from humanity itself. This band, while not a Graveland side project, features Graveland composer Rob Darken on bass.

Album of the Year 2014

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Sammath – Godless Arrogance (Hammerheart)

Godless Arrogance features nearly constant high-intensity rhythmic riffing and finally has a production to match which emphasizes internal harmony but projects vocals and guitars to the forefront, creating an enveloping wall of sound. Drumming is violent martial battery without the happy kickbeat tendencies of overly rock-trained drummer; percussion here is more like punk, hard-driving intensity to channel the guitars, which alternate between abrupt chromatic confrontation in the Demoncy style to gentle unfolding melodies much like were found on Strijd. Bass folds into the guitar, and vocals are the high-volume bluster that reduces distorted vocals to a sound like a whisper spoken close to a microphone in high wind. The result is incessant and unrelenting but also has an inner life of melody that gives it depth and allows it to manipulate riff context like a death metal band while evoking ambient atmosphere in the best tradition of black metal. For resurrecting the black metal spirit of great beauty hidden within massive aggression and alienation, Godless Arrogance deserves to be seen as the best album of 2014.

Related:

Resurrecting the best of the underground

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It is a seldom-known fact that you get more of what you allow to exist. In a musical community, this means that whatever albums sell enough to attract some audience will produce imitators.

When a community is thriving, this means that good albums replace bad. When a community is dying, it means that labels pump out thousands of near-duplicates in an effort to reap profit.

The community that proves intolerant of the bad is a good step, but the community must act in the corresponding opposite, which is to celebrate the good. To hold up all that is excellent means that more of it will come, because it is rewarded.

As we pass through the 20th anniversary of the demise of death metal and black metal, which perished in a flood of imitators who pushed the quality material to the periphery, it behooves us to celebrate the excellent and use it to push aside the rest.

What follows is a partial summary of the highlights of the last five years. These are albums that should be played loudly, given to metalheads at Christmas, forced onto MP3 playlists and constantly affirmed as excellent. This is the only path to better metal.

Blaspherian – Infernal Warriors of Death

blaspherian-infernal_warriors_of_death Underground metal began with Slayer, which mixed hardcore punk and heavy metal to make a new sound, inspiring in the next generation bands like Bathory, Hellhammer and Sodom who made a darker and more detuned sound. By the time the genre flowered in the late 1980s many bands integrated the Hellhammer style of bass-heavy thunderous material alongside the faster Slayer style of tremolo phrasal riffs. Picking up from that era, Blaspherian combines the thunder of Deicide and Immolation with the simplicity of early doom-death, creating songs that simultaneously use primitive parts and arrange them into more than the sum of those parts. A morbid and violent atmosphere emanates from this music as it rolls through a few basic riffs per song, setting up a Possessed-style verse chorus but then like Incantation and other old school acts, expanding on that context to create a ritual atmosphere. This mysticism of thunder and subterranean blackness pervades the resulting metallic onslaught which favors the dark, antisocial and evil side of metal. What defined the underground was this stepping away from the modes of seeing that most people use to look at society, and to instead associate itself with the bestial forces of nature and occultism that array against any form of order that has no goal but itself.


Beherit – Engram

beherit-engram When Beherit makes an album, the result will not only open full throttle on the ears of its listeners, but also change how we think of black metal. Its violent and simplistic early days took the deliberate primitivism of Blasphemy and Sarcofago and made from it violent amalgamation of dark moods and the unleashed human id which wants nothing more than to crush this overgrown, spoiled, decadent and indulgent world of directionless people and purposeless activity. With Drawing Down the Moon, Beherit created a standard that few bands could exceed, which was an album both inventive in its use of occult symbolism and distinct for its memorable, infectious and yet dread-intensifying riffs. After years and permutations later, Beherit returned to the fray with an album that aimed to expand the relationship between black metal and ambient music and operate as an album, moving us from one frame of mind to another through immersion in fragments of idea that add up to a whole picture. This is no trivial task! Engram begins in tribute to Venom and Bathory and ends in an entirely different style where hermetic atmospheres mingle with riffs that seem to use ancient numerology to achieve the balance between ear-addictingly hook-laden and a dark mood like atavism which creates a feral disconnection from the failed mentality of this world and transports us to another. The violence seems subdued at first but emerges in the mindset this album creates. It literally reprograms the mind, much like the thought objects that its title references. Better than most of its critics realized, Engram showed black metal a new way but that set the bar too high for most of the hack ‘n slash three riff crowd. It remains a testament to what this style can achieve even two decades from its foundation.


Sammath – Godless Arrogance

sammath-godless_arrogance-cover_photo Sammath always made quality black metal that favored the duality of the original work: primitive/barbaric and yet elegant/beautiful. Shocking as it is, black metal appears designed after the dictatorships of Stalin and Hitler, which favored fancy uniforms and grand ceremony as they bombed, murdered, and subjugated their way across the world. If you can imagine a beautiful warplane with graceful curves and an inner beauty, and then visualize it destroying 10,000 enemies without mercy or even a pause for a snack, that is the sound of the new Sammath. It combines the elegant melodies and song structure of the band’s first album with the battering ram war machine approach of their middle works, resulting in an album that has the melodic elegance of early Immortal but the attack speed of Morbid Angel. Not only that, but this album shows across the board upgrades in songwriting for this Dutch band, with no extraneous material and tightly integrated arrangements.


Graveland – Thunderbolts of the Gods

graveland-thunderbolts_of_the_gods Later Graveland inhabits the difficult zone between black metal, the Conan soundtrack and ambient neofolk. These albums are harder to distinguish at first listen because songs are based on the interaction and harmonization between different melodies instead of the emergence of a single guitar line melody which then defines the song. Starting with Memory and Destiny, Graveland morphed into its own genre with more in common with Summoning and Empyrium than conventional black metal. As a result, few know how to understand these albums, but it appears the best approach is to listen to them as albums and to fully intend to lose yourself in the sonic environment they create. Most descriptions of Thunderbolts of the Gods will combine “lush” with descriptions of martial power and motivation because true to its name, this is an album not just about war, but the reasons for war that mix sociology and theology in a potent brew that stimulates emotions deep within your average red-blooded metalhead. Like the earliest of Graveland releases, these describe lonely Celtic nights in the frozen Pagan mountains while waging warfare against unnamed unending enemies (like a buffet gone wrong). Not only does Graveland possess the same epic vision as before, but now the band has added epic instrumentation including layers of keyboards, synth instruments, strings and a guitar line that now organizes the other melodies instead of trying to dominate all alone. The result is like being lost in a book more than tapping your foot along to a record.


Profanatica – Profanatitas de Domonatia

profanatica-profanatitas_de_domonatia Many are turned off by the somewhat amateurish album title but they should stick around for the music, which combines the best complex long-phrase tremolo riffing in the Incantation school with the acerbic and vigorously rhythmic black metal for which Havohej/Profanatica are famous. Before you can say “I vomit on God’s child!” (and you should say this daily) the album tears into its circuitous riffs that give relatively straightforward compositions an air of esoteric bafflement in addition to enjoyment of a good tune with forward momentum and acrobatic guitar work. While this album is not as raw and purely rhythmic as earlier Profanatica, it makes up for that by creating instead an air of mystery and paranoia, like walking into the court of a Satanic adversary and being told to justify oneself. Vocals retain their traditional rasp and as usual, Paul Ledney’s drum playing adds a richness of rhythm that most bands do not have. The result is pure enjoyment of the musical aspects of this band with the constant blasphemy as a garnish. Its inventive riffing and foray into death metal territory adds a depth to black metal that corresponds to the raw aggression this band has always used as the charge behind its warhead of apostatic occultism, and in this album the entirety comes together for a complex series of moods within a similar idea. If anything, this improves on older works which could be too straightforward for repeated listening, where Profanatitas de Domonatia holds up as a musical companion.


Demoncy – Enthroned is the Night

demoncy-enthroned_is_the_night Always an outlier, Demoncy saw its greatest career height when it produced a death metal record with black metal atmosphere in Joined in Darkness. Not content to revisit past victories, Demoncy launch in a melodic direction and mix death metal and black metal influences into a smooth voice by always retaining the black metal atmosphere and refusing to get into the more abrupt stop/start mentality of death metal which loves contrast. Black metal is after all about emergence of ideas instead of discovering them at the end of labyrinth, and so Demoncy creates an album where riffs establish atmosphere and song structure provides gathering mood, creating a momentum of dark emotion which eventually dominates the entire experience. Unlike most black metal bands, Demoncy prefers to create atmosphere through steady application of layers and then selective removal, which avoids the charge into the abyss sensation but instead creates a sense of slowly sinking into the depths of human emotion. Riffs and ideas on this album borrow from the classic years of death metal, specifically the first two albums from Unleashed, but add to it the sense of an arch-predator on vigilant patrol above a wasteland of miserable, helpless souls that Joined in Darkness made so effective. Instead Demoncy lets these riffs ring out and then join simultaneously simpler and more cryptic song structures to create a sense of delight in the possibilities of darkness.


Divine Eve – Vengeful and Obstinate

divine_eve-vengeful_and_obstinate Divine Eve combine death metal with the newer veins of doom metal, mixing in classic heavy metal and punk to give the genre more of a listenable approach and higher energy. What results is a command to battle that suffuses with the dread and morbidity of doom metal but joins it to a violent but almost boyish delight in the possibilities of music and life itself. As a result despite its doom inclinations and death metal styling, this album more resembles the adventurous explorations of a world falling apart that bands like The Doors embarked upon a generation ago. Guitar work prefers the boxy charging approach of punk bands or minimal acts like Cianide and Motorhead, giving these songs a bounding energy even when they slow down and removing the polish that later death metal used to obscure its dark intent. Although this is an EP and so runs shorter than an album, it gives a vision of Divine Eve joining the style and substance of their 1990s EP As the Angels Weep with the material most of the band released as Crimson Relic and some of its recent appearances. Rumor has it that Divine Eve are currently working on new material for release in the near future, which makes it more exciting that this promising release presages onslaughts which may amplify the promise it unveiled.


Blotted Science – The Animation of Entomology

12 Jacket (3mm Spine) [GDOB-30H3-007} Modern metal makes itself hard to like, both because it is a hybrid and thus a loss of direction, and because it is fundamentally annoying, being based in the late hardcore style of “carnival music” where the goal is to make each riff dramatically contrasting the rest, resulting in a type of randomness that appeals to lost teenagers in a lost land. Blotted Science take that approach to its logical conclusion by removing the vocals and the randomness, and preferring instead to stack together related riffs that initially do not appear to be so, causing songs to flow together like collapsing buildings where many disparate parts suddenly become a single momentum. Most reviewers will focus on technical ability, which is not lacking here, but the real triumph of this band is using adept songwriting to pull together a mess of a genre and make something better out of it. These songs, like those on Gorguts Obscura, embrace the chaos of life and impose order on it in unconventional ways, much like objects seen through a microscope do not resemble the physical whole seen without magnification. These songs speak to a delight in the power of music itself and the imagination to twist and obscure a message only to bring it out with greater impact after a roller coaster of riffing distorts reality and deranges the senses.


The Best of Underground Metal of 2013

throwing_the_goat_horns_2013

I used to loathe end-of-year lists. They struck me as a pointless chance to advertise what should have been obvious before. Over the years they have risen in my estimation as a way not only to mark the year, but to bring up the gold that gets lost in the chaos of everyday life. And yes, they’re also shopping lists for the metalhead in your life.

This year our list is surprising even to hardened cynics. At a time when metal is bragging up and down the Williamsburg alleys about how “innovative” and “ground-breaking” it is, that novelty turns out to be the remnants of the 1980s: emo, pop punk, shoegaze and indie. The real innovation is as always underground, because to get out of the hive mind one must first remove oneself from participation in normalcy.

Thus what you will find here is not what you will see in either (a) the big-label-financed slick magazines and web sites or (b) the majority of small zines and websites out there. That is because the genre as a whole has shifted from creation towards an idea to emulation of the past, or reaction to the past by trying to adulterate it with outside influences. Neither approach succeeds.

When a reviewer chooses an album, he should pick one that will last in your collection. Your time is limited, as is your money. Thus we look only for works that you can purchase and enjoy over the years, and can return to with a sense of wonder and discovery as new angles and nuances emerge. This standard seems high, so they call us elitists. What we really are is people who love metal and want it to be strengthened by its best, not weakened by accepting its worst.

The following albums are those that merit such a standard:

argus-beyond_the_martyrsArgus – Beyond The Martyrs

Rejecting the notion of newness in itself, Argus returns to fundamental influences from the 1980s and makes a band that sounds like a fusion between Mercyful Fate, Iron Maiden and Candlemass. Guitar riffery is designed to be inventive and interesting in its own right but is trimmed down to what fits the function of each song. As a result, these songs “sound like” the classics in more ways than one. They are thoughtful and deliberate, purposeful and driven. Classic heavy metal riffs merge with meandering leads that somehow pull it all together, under the mournful voice of a vocalist who clearly enjoys classic Candlemass both in vocal delivery and sense of melody. See full review / interview.

autopsy-the_headless_ritualAutopsy – The Headless Ritual

Autopsy are famous for their contributions to death metal which notably peaked in Mental Funeral where their chaotic tendencies got wrapped up in their sense of atmosphere and produced a dark ambling journey into the subconscious. Of their later works, The Headless Ritual gets close to such a balance although it aims for something more everyday. This is an album that wants to deliver classic death metal thrills, and it does so with moderately paced songs that balance melody and savage chromatic riffing. Chris Reifert’s drumming pirouttes and grapples through vicious tempo changes as riffs unlock a Lament Configuration that is equal parts nostalgia and invention.

birth_a_d-i_blame_youBirth A.D. – I Blame You

What happened to real thrash, like DRI and Cryptic Slaughter? In much the same vein as hardcore punk before it, thrash was so intense that it burned out after only four years of real presence. Birth A.D. wisely choose not to “bring it back” but rather to pick up as if thrash were a party and the next day, the hung over participants awaken among the ruins. They’ve sharpened its message, which merged the anarchy of punk with the search for societal purpose of metal, and given its riffs the S.O.D. speed metal infusion without unduly modernizing them. As a result, these two-minute songs hit hard and retreat into the jungle, leaving behind their sardonic lyrics mocking society for being so stupid. When the record stops playing, there is a sense of both having received too much information to process, and a sadness that there isn’t more. See full review.

black_sabbath-13Black Sabbath – 13

Realizing what Black Sabbath meant to fans not just as a named entity but as a phenomenon, Black Sabbath integrate the sounds of vocalist Ozzy Osbourne’s solo years into their later, more refined music, with citations to Master of Reality as well. The result is a powerful album that is more pop than their original works but, in a time when nu-metal rages on the radio, reclaims heavy metal as having a voice of its own. It also pushes controversy, affirming a presence of God in this world for good or ill at a time when most people want to get polemic one way or the other. A supporting cast of sprawling but hard-hitting songs make this a great immersive lesson and transition from regular rock to metal for new listeners. See full review.

blitzkrieg-back_from_hellBlitzkrieg – Back From Hell

This band shares members with Satan, who also re-entered the fray with an album of strong tunes. Like Satan, Blitzkrieg know how to simultaneously avoid “changing” for change’s sake (inevitably a lateral move to other contemporarily popular genres) and nostalgia for nostalgia’s sake, making instead an album that fits into their catalogue but doesn’t deny the older, wiser status of its members. These are mostly straightforward songs with melodic choruses and driving, riff-centric verses, plus nimble-fingered and harmonically-aggressive soloing. See full review.

burzum-sol_austan_mani_vestanBurzum – Sôl Austan, Mâni Vestan

People said they wanted old Burzum back. The spirit of old Burzum comes back in this ambient album. It’s a bit more hasty and less refined by fanatical attention to detail than his previous works, but it creates the same world, only zoomed forward in time. It is both a practical and imaginative album. In style, it resembles a cross between Tangerine Dream, William Orbit and the Scandinavian folk music of Grieg, Hedningarna or Wardruna. Strongly ritualized, it unfolds like a descent through mythical worlds and finds its own balance. One of the best offerings in this field. See full review / interview.

centurian-contra_rationemCenturian – Contra Rationem

For years many of us have wanted this Dutch band to catch a break. They have written several albums of relentlessly pounding, rhythmically intense riffing that somehow doesn’t add up. First, writing the whole album at high speed means that soon it backgrounds itself; second, there was always a lack of melody or song structure to hold it together. Centurian have improved on the latter two and toned down the former to a great degree, such that this is no longer trying to be Krisiun but more like a more Angelcorpse/Fallen Christ approach to Consuming Impulse. The result showcases this band’s dexterity with riffcraft and creates an intense atmosphere of violence. See full review.

condor-nadiaCóndor – Nadia

This entry album by a new band shows a lot of promise in tackling the power metal format and trying to give it the balls of death metal and funeral doom metal. This contemplative, mostly mid-paced album shows a sense of atmosphere as manipulated by riff, in the death metal sense, given a somewhat upward curve and heroic spin in the best tradition of power metal. Although it’s a new act, and still organizing itself, Cóndor shows that life remains in true metal that can be explored by revisiting its motivations. See full review / interview.

derogatory-above_all_elseDerogatory – Above All Else

In the tradition of Vader, Mortuary and other fast phrasal death metal bands, Derogatory invoke the classic death metal form with an album of nicely interlocking riffs that reveal a basic but distinctive structure beneath each song. This album is not self-consciously “retro” so much as it is using the voice of the older style, and while it doesn’t expand stylistically, it has found a voice of its own. See full review/interview.

 

empyrium-into_the_pantheon-coverEmpyrium – Into the Pantheon

Combining funeral doom metal with European folk music creates for Empyrium a fertile style that is showcased here in a retrospective of the best of their career presented in a rare live setting. Expect plenty of use of silence and resonance to build up these songs, which start slowly and then become engaging before evaporating into more esoteric conclusions. While most funeral doom aims to be dark, Empyrium creates an emotional contrast like a Gothic band, with beauty arising from chaos only to be strangled by inevitability and fall again. See full review / interview.

graveland-thunderbolts_of_the_godsGraveland – Thunderbolts of the Gods

Following up on 2012’s Lord Wind release, Polish/Italian artist Rob Darken unleashes a new work under his black metal brand Graveland. Like the band’s second career-defining Memory and Destiny, this release features Bathory Hammerheart-style guitars which mix speed metal and black metal to produce rhythmic riffing as a backdrop for keyboards and vocals, now featuring also human female vocals and violin. The result is a collision between heavy metal, neofolk and epic movie soundtracks that evokes the glory of the ancient past.

master-the_witchhuntMaster – The Witchhunt

Paul Speckmann is a metal institution who has stayed with death metal from its genesis in the early 1980s through the presence. His latest, The Witchhunt, showcases the stable lineup he has used for recent releases but tones down the overall intensity to focus on songwriting. Fast riffs blend together with touches of melody and the classic Speckmann vocal patterns which resemble the struggles of daily life turned up to eleven. Where previous Master works of recent vintage tended to blend together, on this one each song is distinct. See full review / interview.

profanatica-thy_kingdom_cumProfanatica – Thy Kingdom Cum

Taking a hint from Necrovore and intensifying it through technical prowess, Profanatica step back from the longer melodic riffs of Profanatitas de Domonatia and instead write short, cyclic phrases within compact rhythms in the style of the ancient Texas death metal cult. The result is like a primitive album with complexity embedded in it as melodies expand within fixed riff forms, uniting savagery and beauty in the service of blasphemy. As with all Profanatica works, this is experimental to the extreme, but Thy Kingdom Cum ranks among their most listenable releases. See full review /interview.

rudra-rtaRudra – RTA

The Singaporean maniacs return with an album that uses more traditional melodic death metal riffing but retains its rhythmic structure based on speed metal and possibly the Hindu rituals described in its lyrics. As with most Rudra releases, RTA does not aim for the pop song idea of hitting a sweet spot and luring in your ears. It is the construction of an experience, in this case a dark descent that forges a resolve to continue through warfare and a martial stilling of the reckless personality through militant silence of the soul.

satan-life_sentenceSatan – Life Sentence

The rougher edge of NWOBHM that was a kissing cousin to speed metal emerges again in this highly musical album from Satan. Like their groundbreaking early 1980s works which presaged the debut of Metallica and birth of speed metal, Life Sentence features inventive riffs in classic song format in which melodic development in the vocals harmonizes riffs to bring songs to a conclusion. Shy of speed metal mostly because it relies on relatively fixed song format which emphasizes verse-chorus riff pairs, this album nonetheless reveals both the greatness of NWOBHM and its continuing relevance in a time of tuneless songs and random song structure. See full review / interview.

summoning-old_mornings_dawnSummoning – Old Mornings Dawn

After black metal fully constituted itself in the early 1990s in Scandinavia, people looked for the next development along these lines. Some went to dark ambient, but others like Summoning and Graveland instead explored longer melodies and more drawn-out, atmospheric songs. Summoning take a medieval and Tolkien-inspired approach in contrast to the more martial outlook of other bands, and produce as a result immersive waves of melody that evoke a more organic society. With Old Mornings Dawn, these Austrian metal maniacs build on the emotion of Oath Bound but exploit it in more compact and separable songs, making one of the more intense metal statements of the year. See full review.

von-dark_gods_seven_billion_slavesVon – Dark Gods, Seven Billion Slaves

Following up on Von’s early career material like Satanic Blood is not easy; in fact, it’s impossible. A band would either have to re-create that minimalist style and risk irrelevance, or embark on a campaign to dress it up as something it is not. Von has opted for something else entirely which is to create a minimalistic core within a rock opera style of black metal, producing one of the more puzzling but satisfying releases in the underground metal world this year. See full review.

 

wardruna-runaljod-yggdrasilWardruna – Runaljod – Yggdrasil

Combining folk music, world music, droning found noises and the type of ritualistic dark ambient that emerged from the end days of black metal, Wardruna is a black metal side project that offers a different vision of music. While earlier works seemed detached from the end listener, Runaljod – Yggdrasil embeds the listener within a wave of ceremonial sound that aims not to be forebrain listening as Western rock is, but a mentally ambient experience that overwhelms by addressing all of the senses and channeling that experience toward a realization.

warmaster-blood_dawnWar Master – Blood Dawn

Underground death metal continuation act War Master released a four-track EP, Blood Dawn, amidst personnel changes and other upheavals this year. Like the previous Pyramid of the Necropolis, Blood Dawn focuses on futuristic and yet ancient concepts, almost like Voivod taking on Robert E. Howard or Edgar Rice Burroughs. From this vast concept come songs that both grind their way to nihilism and implement the death metal method of matching riffs into an internal dialogue from which a conclusion emerges, creating a pocket of mystery which is filled with wonder and violence.

Album of the year:

imprecation-satane_tenebris_infinitaImprecation – Satanae Tenebris Infinita

There is no completely fair way to pick an album of the year from a list with this many strong contenders, but Imprecation win this one on both substance and situation. For substance, this is a solid album that combines a black metal sense of ritualistic song development with the death metal tendency to make abstract riffs into an organic whole. For situation, Satanae Tenebris Infinita sees a band that started in 1991 and is famous for releasing its discography of demos in 1995 finally reach a stage where it can release a full-length album independent of any past influences. In addition, Satanae Tenebris Infinita hits hard and does not relent. Each element serves a purpose toward creating a transition in moods, like a perpetual parallax as continents shift. If death metal was waiting for a direction forward, Imprecation have opened that gate to a new occult science and art of subversive metal. See full review / interview.

The following were considered, and then not so much considered:

  • Morbosidad – Muerte De Cristo En Golgota. This is like Krisiun or Impiety rendered in the style of Mystifier, or like any of the war metal bands that imitated Blasphemy but with a dose of downtuned Sarcofago. It’s not bad, but aside from high intensity rhythm, it doesn’t have much to offer. Thus think of it as Satanic death techno performed on muddy guitars.
  • Fates Warning – Darkness in a Different Light. Bands: don’t try to roll with the trends. You were good at something else for a reason. This album has strong smary indie rock influences on its vocals and the result is embarrassing to be caught listening to. Riffs are reasonable, but don’t particularly develop, and emphasize space and consistency more than something with a personality.
  • Grave Upheaval – Untitled. Not bad; mostly rumbling noises, very true to form. Unfortunately, also doesn’t go anywhere. It’s an atmosphere piece of one dimension.
  • Warlord – The Holy Empire. Some sort of rock-metal hybrid from back in the day, this form of power metal uses mostly lead riffing anchored by static open chording. The dominant instrument is the voice, more like Rush or Asia than most metal. It’s pleasant but lullabye and too close to rock music.
  • Hell – Curse and Chapter. Do you know how far I would have run to get away from this back in the 1980s? It’s NWOBHM/early power metal without much melodic movement in the riff, so there’s a lot of chugging and shifting but not much actual motion. Nor will you have much actual motion as you listen to this… in fact, you might find yourself immobile and snoring.
  • Battlecross – War of Will. This is traditional metal affected by metalcore aesthetics. The vocals follow the surge pattern of later hardcore, and the melodic riffs use rhythmic “chasing” to accelerate patterns older than Chuck Berry. The result is so distracting the band can’t compose a song, but instead write a riff pair and then leap into a blast beat to transition.
  • Enforcer – Death by Fire. Here we have another band from Scandinavia creating highly musically-literate, catchy and otherwise perfect music. The problems are twofold: (1) it is a clone of 1970s styles that are liked for their innocent pop cheeze (2) while it is emotive, and aesthetically appealing, it is also empty.
  • Queensryche – Queensryche. Since the band went legal on each other, there’s now two Queensryches… this one sounds like Coldplay. The same posi-pop vibe and expansive chorus feel drives this work, and it has a similar outlook on the world, which is a sort of pathological compulsion to make things beautiful instead of finding beauty where it is rare. Unsettling.
  • Leprous – Coal. If this Queen-slash-bad-indie band gets anywhere in metal, it’s time to bury the genre under warm ruminant feces. Power metal mixed with dramatic English pop. The result is bracingly twee with metal riffs batting about in the background.
  • Iggy and the Stooges – Ready to Die. Almost all reviews of this album will waffle, because it is good, but it’s not distinctive. It all kind of flows together, as if the band paid more attention to the aesthetics of sounding like themselves than whatever’s driving them. But how do you “be punk” when you have a paid up retirement plan and health insurance?
  • Abyssal – Novit Enim Dominus Qui Sunt Eius. This was the hip thing for a few weeks, but shows you that you cannot revive a genre by imitating it through outward form. These songs use all the right pieces, but in a random order, and thus create no mood except nostalgia. And I piss on nostalgia’s grave.
  • Tyrant’s Blood – Into the Kingdom of Graves. Great title, has a Blasphemy ex-member, can’t go wrong… right? There’s a lot to like about this, but it doesn’t hold together. It embraces the “hotel buffet” style of offering many different riff types in a single song that ends up distorting any coherence. Storming Perdition Temple-style fast metal explodes into melodic mid-paced riffs and then ends up chugging deathgrind, lost and adrift on the seas of making a point.
  • Cultes des Ghoules – Henbane. It’s ludicrous that so many in the underground were fooled by this comical album. It’s a lot of bad heavy metal riffs interrupted by “avantgarde” noise, samples, etc. — the usual cliches — so that you don’t notice it’s bog-standard. This is hipster incarnate.
  • Acerus – The Unreachable Salvation. Galloping uptempo yet mid-paced heavy metal with a lot of Iron Maiden and Mercyful Fate. Not bad, but not particularly expansive to anything more than that aesthetic role.
  • Aosoth – IV: Arrow in Heart. This album, like Immolation, got credit because people expected it should. Its strong point is listenable songs with some technicality; its weakness is that they express nothing strong. It is Participation with an A+ for method and a B- for content.
  • Sodom – Epitome of Torture. This rather sentimental, somewhat modern-metal influenced take on a speed metal album is very catchy and represents Sodom’s most professional work, but also loses the unique perspective this band offered on the world around it. This is more like the heavy metal albums of their youths, heavy on emotion which makes their repetitive, chorus-heavy approach almost too saccharine.
  • Grave Miasma – Odori Sepulcorum. I have wallpaper. It’s named “It’s 1991 again and you can rediscover things you believed in once again.” It sounds like a mishmash of 1990s era death metal and yet, because it’s wallpaper, it never comes to a point. It just creates an atmosphere.
  • Týr – Valkyrja. Power metal of the newer stype seems to me it has a mystery ingredient, and that is devotional music. This sounds like church music, with sweeping choruses and whole-note cadences, and it has an admitted power, but it also loses much of what makes metal powerful: it’s not protest music, nor is it music that tries to cover ugliness with beauty, but music that finds beauty in what is considered ugly.
  • Onslaught – VI. Eager to effect a return to the music business, Onslaught speed up their punk/metal hybrid but adopt the vocal styles and constant driving mechanical rhythm of modern metal. The result is unrelenting but also disconnected and monolithic. The catchy choruses don’t help and seem almost to mock the rest of the music, which sounds like a pilotless threshing machine gone amok in a pumpkin patch…
  • Death Angel – The Dream Calls for Blood. In the 1980s, speed metal bands had a certain annoying rhythm where they tried to be as obnoxiously bouncy as possible while ranting as intensely as possible. With modern metal much of the internal rhythmic interplay has been eliminated, resulting in something that sounds like chanting Stalinist propaganda with guitars strobing in the background.
  • Bölzer – Aura. Like Oranssi Pazuzu, Bölzer experiment in disorganized slowed black/death/heavy metal with mixed-in weirdo alternative rock. Weirdo alternative rock has existed since early rock bands made a name for themselves by being odd. The problem is that it doesn’t connect to form an impression, only a sense of instrumentalism.
  • Coffins – The Fleshland. Doom-death with some quality riffing, Coffins nonetheless manage to inevitably get lost in each of their songs and fill the void with noodly pentatonic leads, distracted tributaries of non-essential riffs, and “atmospheric” repetition.
  • Metal Church – Generation Nothing. This shrill metal band has always struck me as more in the heavy metal camp than speed metal camp, and here it’s borne out. The riffs don’t have form like speed metal riffs do but are mostly static based on rhythmic repetition. Focus is on the voice, which wails. Not bad but annoying and kind of empty. Also, older guys trying to bond with the new generation is awkward when done this way.
  • Malthusian – MMXIII. Like many sonic experiments, this band relies on style to shape content because style is the substance of the experiment. The idea here is to combine the Incantation-clone death metal that is trendy with melodic progressive touches, including some sneakster modern metal influences. The result loses what could have been and fails to transition to what it wants to be.
  • Stratovarius – Nemesis. When did this band get so bad? The first track sounds like a rip of Heart’s “On My Own,” and the rest of the album proceeds in this fashion: combine classic metal riff archetype with classic 1980s vocal melody, add some flourishes and hope it’s good enough. I liked it better when this band was more speed metally and less pop.

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

The Best Underground Metal of 2012

The year is done. It brought many things: a new wave of hipster metal that blipped and died, an old school revival that’s been percolating for years, drama and sadness with the recent death of Rigor Mortis’ Mike Scaccia. Above all else, however, it brought us some quality music, some of which is heavy metal and some of which is metal in spirit only. Enjoy this survey of the best of 2012.

The Best Metal (and related) of 2012

  • Abhorrence – Completely Vulgar

    This legendary band existed before Amorphis and plays a grittier style of the bold, warlike and heavy yet melodic music that graced Amorphis’ first album, The Karelian Isthmus. These Abhorrence tracks show the band that would later write that album as they emerge from early grind/death stylings and gradually work more melody into their work. This is metal’s holy grail: how to be both epic and amoral in the nihilistic sense of worshipping power, darkness and nature, but also use melody and harmony to give the works some staying power. As this collection of re-released demos progresses, the fusion of the two gets more confident and deft, leading us up to the point where the greatness of the first Amorphis album was inevitable.

  • Angel Witch – As Above, So Below

    After a lengthy absence, this classic NWOBHM band returns with an album that shows integration of more recent influences, specifically American heavy metal and progressive metal, but still keeps up the power. These songs are not as distinctive or as oddball as the heavily personalitied offerings from their self-titled album, but As Above, So Below is important because it takes disparate influences and places them under the control of one voice and style, which gives others room to build on. The oil-on-water aspect of bands switching between influences is gone and replaced by a smooth enwrapping of these styles into the substrate of Angel Witch’s lauded and learned evil heavy metal.

  • Beherit – Celebrate the Dead

    If death metal was modernism, with its emphasis on structure, black metal was postmodernism, or an attempt to show through atmosphere the many facets of an idea in a clarity which could not be confined to a single statement. This was a quest as old as humanity, which is how to communicate in such a way that people who do not understand it do not simply imitate it from the outside-in and make something that looks about like it, fooling most people. Since the late 1990s Beherit have been at work inventing the next wave or movement of metal, one in which multiple statements co-exist in contradictory opposites that reveal the shadow or silhouette of an underlying truth. Two forms are in tension here: the “loop” form of traditional ambient music, in which layers are poured on top of a basic dub to create a simple sonic tapestry, and the pure narrative form which electro-acoustic music (and even some dubstep) touches on, in which a story is told through the change of riffs. This is closer to the original death metal idea of structure, but it is structure created through atmosphere, like old Tangerine Dream and Brian Eno albums, or even classical music. To this end, Beherit has re-released two demo songs from Engram which are ambitious longer (13- and 15-minute) works which show a deepening and changing of atmosphere, using both looping and narrative constructs at the same time. This is a valiant and clear-headed attempt to resurrect black metal, which has fallen into the hands of those who imitate the “external” aspects of the early classics like simple riffs and fast songs, but understand none of the underlying ideas or songwriting methods. While it seems unconventional at first, Celebrate the Dead is a return to the truest form of black metal by expanding its orthodoxy to include the transcendental narrative of those more experienced in both this world, and the realms beyond. Be not fooled — evil pervades this release, so subtly that you will not know until it has seized your soul.

  • Dead Can Dance – Anastasis

    For their return after some absence, Dead Can Dance have taken the style on Spiritchaser and refined it even more with the sensibility of modern club music and soundtrack influences. Rhythms and tempo work like you might expect a big label ambient album to work, fitting very much into the slightly picked up chill-out range with gentle backing beats that are still identifiable enough to make it easy to listen to. Consistent with even earlier work, songs use extended structures, but they fit the pattern of an early MTV video or short film more than a musical one. The result is that these are immersive little sonic ventures that are both easy to hear and not surprising, and also, rewarding in their consistency and adept arrangements. Melodies themselves are not as adventurous or period/locale-specific as older Dead Can Dance, and in fact more lifts from earlier influences can be heard (check out the Doors “The end” inspirations on the first track). For a purist, this will not be the best Dead Can Dance album, but for something that has stepped into the Loreena McKennit or Enya range of “accessible,” this is far beyond what most would encounter otherwise and makes for a pleasant listen on its own.

  • Demoncy – Enthroned is the Night

    Along with Beherit, this shares the top spot as album of the year. In 2012, a wave of bands like Cruciamentum and Heresiarch rediscovered the sound of classic Incantation from the Onward to Golgotha area. Having come from the same school, joined to Incantation by Ixithra’s former band Havohej’s primary composer, Paul Ledney, having been an original member of Incantation, Demoncy launched into the same by creating a faithful followup to 1996’s Joined in Darkness. In this case, Demoncy add a bit of melody and atmosphere, channeling from first album Unleashed and other Swedish death metal classics, thus combining the two most intense areas of death metal into what is really a death metal album with a black metal sense of atmosphere. The result is a descent into a dark and primal place in which occult spiritual warfare transpires through the battling of motifs in this complex album made of simple parts. Like Joined in Darkness, it is otherworldly and foreboding, but a bit less purely alienated; instead, this album creates a sense of symbolic significance emerging like melody from the clouded obscure. Very little black metal of this intensity has been made since the mid-1990s which makes this both faithful to the spirit and pushing the boundaries of the genre, a simultaneous advancement that eludes most musicians and fans alike.

  • Derkéta – In Death We Meet

    Arising from the ashes of Mythic, the all-female doom-death band from the early 1990s, Derkéta follows in a more purely doom metal path including some of the juicy 1970s heavy metal style doom metal that audiences enjoy with bands like Pentagram and Witchfinder General. 24 years later, this album is the first for this promising band, and holds back nothing. Like Mythic, the music is formed of giant bolsters of tunneling power chords colliding slowly over a changing melodic landscape. Atmosphere emerges from within. The simplicity of it removes the glitz and contentless enhancement of current doom metal bands, and takes the listeners back to the essence of the genre, which is an unsettling sense of pervasive dread. A prominent Candlemass Ancient Dreams influence seems to be present in these compact and droning songs.

  • Desecresy – The Doom Skeptron

    Desecresy approach Finnish death metal the way others might approach doom metal, using melody and abstract song structures to convey an experience not unlike watching the helmet camera of a pilot flying through a vast and ancient underground cave in which demons seem to lurk behind every stalagtite. Comparable to a hybrid between Amorphis and Skepticism, this album nonetheless keeps up the umptempo riffing and lets its melodies emerge to construct an emanating atmosphere. The result is both aggressive and enjoyable from a purely death metal perspective, but where appropriate, it uses the moods of doom metal to complete that raging insanity to produce an experience that is like a journey. There are doubts, fears, joys, rage and sadness, but pervading all of it is a sonorous melancholy which indicates a change in viewing life from orientation toward what is safe, to prizing what is adventurous and as such being alone on a planet of people concerned with safety labels and microwave cooking.

  • Drawn and Quartered – Feeding Hell’s Furnace

    Imagine a hybrid between Angelcorpse and Num Skull. These songs are extremely basic, like the melodies of horror movies, but are put together with interlocking rhythms that propel them forward and give them atmosphere. As a result, their themes feel intuitive like paths through a forest remembered from a childhood story. There will not be surprise at the ways these tunes twist and bend, but appreciation for a well-done interpretation on a necessary idea. In the same way you might appreciate an excellent sword or well-executed painting of a familiar subject, these songs will be appreciated for how well they do what they love. Just as most musicians make their best work when they design it to be enjoyed repeatedly by people with their own tastes, this faithful and yet creative interpretation of the old school death metal genre will be shared among those who can appreciate it, for taking the past and making it live on by keeping it current to itself and through inventiveness, an enjoyable listen.

  • Faustcoven – Hellfire and Funeral Bells

    This release is not particularly metal, or at least underground metal, even though it aspires to the aesthetics of it. Rather, this is like Marilyn Manson interpreting classic heavy metal in a gothic doom metal context as informed by death metal aesthetics but not technique. It’s basically blues rock with short phrase power chord riffs and highly compelling rhythm, underneath leads that are reminiscent of a friendlier version of St. Vitus. Good use of theme allows this release to be a faithful listen and also have some staying power for those who like this style. Like most doom metal, it is designed to build a repetitive atmosphere that is part curl of enjoyment, and part linear path of a melancholic mood. The death metal vocals would normally be out of place here but with the heavy reverb they take a backseat and let the guitars talk, which is the point of this band. It will probably not delight those who like underground metal, but if you’re looking for someplace to go for your next Cathedral or Sleep fix, this furry doom band holds the ticket.

  • Grave – Endless Procession of Souls

    Grave return to the Swedish style which they helped make famous. Like later Fleshcrawl, this music is simplified from the original riff-salad which was reverse-assembled to make a journey into darkness emerge from thin air, but although it uses plenty of verse-chorus segments, they are not the entirety of each song. There are enough labyrinthine twists and turns to be fun, a good motivational rhythm, and an atmosphere of darkness and aggressive that is also (oddly) comforting and natural. Although musically this is fairly basic, like early Grave, it shows more use of melody and harmony, which adds an appreciable dimension of compactness and centering without falling into standard rock music. The result is easy to listen to and yet brings out its power in moments of sudden clarity which, as in life, make the listener think there might be more afoot than the obvious.

  • Imprecation – Jehovah Denied

    This four-song EP shows the resurrected Imprecation: more consistent in its songwriting, slightly less manic, and more inclined to create a pervasive atmosphere of darkness. The occult death metal founders from Houston originally shone in the early 1990s, when their demos and later CD were released, but returned after inaction and the lending of band members to other acts. Their earlier material had more of a Morbid Angel influence and presented itself as clear occultism, where the newer material goes back more toward where Possessed and early old school death metal (Morpheus Descends, Massacre) were headed back in their day. Mood-enhancing use of background keyboards gives an aura of the mysterious to these dark melodies and the organic rhythms which suffuse them. Influences on this music span from pre-death metal, through the walking and stalking rhythms of speed metal, to the later black metal works in song structure and atmosphere. This EP presages a killer full-length but stands on its own as quality music with a voice particular to its worldview.

  • Incantation – Vanquish in Vengeance

    With new personnel and possibly the strongest sense of unity in a long time, Incantation very sensibly took influences deliberately from their own two greatest successes: Onward to Golgotha and Diabolical Conquest. The result is an album that self-consciously borrows from those albums in style but tries to create new songs to wrap in that style, and with the aid of new guitarist Alex Bouks (ex-Goreaphobia) shapes its works around melodic shapes but does not adorn them in melodic riffing, creating a sense of an inner region of hidden energy within the exterior of rugged chromatic shapes. The result is one of Incantation’s most conventional albums but also a festival of the methods that made early Incantation so distinctive and powerful, which combined makes for a good later death metal listen.

  • Legion of Doom – The Summoning of Shadows

    This oddity of an album begins with some form of sung prayer and launches into songs that are both adorned in the harmonic glaze of melodic playing and also possessed of the manic simplicity of early black metal. Like the primitive era of black metal, these songs are specific structures fitting the content of each song, with droning riffs that interact and build to a culmination before dissipating. On this album, Legion of Doom use more death metal and speed metal technique in with their Burzum-inspired black metal, ending in a result that sounds more like an ornate and elegant version of Gorgoroth’s Destroyer. Like all Legion of Doom releases, The Summoning of Shadows features songs that accelerate thematic intensity in layers and produce an immerse, ambient experience that suspends reality through the sheer dominating power of its riffs. This album is more efficient than the last couple of releases of this band, and by embracing a listenable style, makes the type of outsider album that Marduk or Watain wish they could.

  • Lord Wind – Ales Stenar

    If you want to immerse yourself in ancient sensation, Graveland axeman Rob Darken’s ambient/neofolk/soundtrack project Lord Wind is a good place to start. Unlike previous Lord Wind efforts, Ales Stenar mixes real vocals and violin with electronic music that is roughly inspired by the Conan and Red Sonja soundtracks. The goal however is less like the rock-ish folk songs of neofolk, or the grand accompaniment for cinema provided by soundtracks; this is music like Burzum or Graveland that is designed for the listener to lose themselves in its repetitive hypnotic surges, like a catechism or mantra. Its soaring melodies and plunging dynamics give it a familiarity like the rush of blood through veins in the ears, and the result feels natural and yet inspired to rise above the mundane at the same time. Like entering a forest, the songs open up to repeated listens and soon each part is distinct, but our natural way is to hear it all at once and derive a sentimental feeling, perhaps warlike, from it. This is the most proficient and perhaps most profound of the Lord Wind albums, proffering a complete escape from reality to a world that is both fantasy and more real than the stuporous dream of modernity.

  • Master – The New Elite

    Over the past few albums, punk/heavy metal hybrid Master has steadily been migrating toward late-1990s death metal. This new album presents a more technical view than the verse-chorus-exposition songs that Master (and related Speckmann projects) evolved from. Much like On the Seventh Day God Created…Master, riffs are strummed with precision at high speed and tend to lead away from stable grouping by adding riffs to the existing loop. These riffs use longer progressions and more chromatic fills, giving the music a mechanical terror that makes it sound like technocracy taking over. Speckmann’s vocals are tighter than in the past and urge the music along, but somewhere in this musical process of evolution, his overall tone has started sounding less like protest music and more like a cheering of the coming conflagration. Seeing that Master keep improving over time provides a great incentive to follow this band as they evolve further.

  • Profanatica – Sickened by Holy Host / The Grand Masters Sessions

    Sometimes, in order to reach your next aspiration, it is necessary to part with the past. Profanatica have done this in grand style by accumulating old tracks and re-working them in parallel, with one disc containing newer versions done in the early 1990s style, and the other containing older session takes on the same songs, interspersed with acoustic landscapes by Aragorn Amori, the band’s much-admired deceased former guitarist. Through its long history, the entity known as Profanatica/Havohej (or: Paul Ledney and friends) has consistently released material showcasing a truly artistic brilliance. Usually, between moments of brilliance there are experiments and less intense offerings that make it easy to forget that when they are in full swing, these musicians are unstoppable forces creating a unique type of black metal that is closer to ambient death metal but unlike most black metal at this time, possessed of a full mythos and unique view of the world. Like the best of Profanatica/Havohej, these two discs are ripping sonic terror that transcend daily life and divulge the essence of the feral spirit of pre-civilized humanity. In that vision of evil, Profanatica offer us something both inspiring and instructive, and do so through some of the best music of their career.

  • Terrorizer – Hordes of Zombies

    People love change if it is constant and hate it if not. Terrorizer misstepped with their first post-World Downfall album, but came back with a strong contender on Hordes of Zombies. It does not attempt to be World Downfall II which is intelligent since outward-in emulation of the past usually produces hollow shells, and a good many classic bands have gone to their graves in disgrace by doing the same thing. Instead, this aims more at the territory scoped by Napalm Death with Fear, Emptiness, Despair: a modern form of grindcore that is musical and listenable without being commercial, and aims less at creating an atmosphere of terror and misery than creating motivational, energetic and yet literalist/realist music. These songs convey a desire to look at a dangerous situation with hopeless odds, then jump in and fight it out. It’s war music, but music of a normalized war, like going out into a declining civilization and fighting for mundane survival. Hordes of Zombies does this through a somewhat overused metal metaphor, that of the zombie takeover of society, but as a movie/musical trope this theme has remained consistent since the 1960s because it so aptly describes egalitarian society. Consumerism, mass trends, fads, panics, elections, Black Friday sales, save-the-children; it’s all in there. Terrorizer may be brilliant satirists for transforming all of that mass neurosis into a simple symbol and then making these engaging songs about it. Each piece uses a combination of rhythmic and slight melodic hook to lure us in, then pits grinding riffs against one another while fitting them into bounding rhythms that unleash an inner fury in their conflict between the fear and the mundane. The result is a stream of ferocious riffs in songs that hold together as songs in the Terrorizer tradition, creating an experience of immersion in conflict that is both justified and everyday. For a genre such as grindcore, this more stable form is preferable to re-living the past or trying to “innovate” by including outside elements. As a result, Hordes of Zombies is not only a great listening experience but an archetype others will follow.

  • Thevetat – Disease to Divide

    One of the more interesting entries comes from ex-Ceremonium musician Thomas Pioli who has assembled a new team to make music that sounds like early NYDM mixed with the melodic undertones of heavy but intriguing bands like Montrosity, Malevolent Creation and Gorguts. The result hits hard with a rushing wall of chords and then drops into socketed rhythms that invoke a change in riffs, causing a twisted inner torment to emerge in Protean form. This gives old school death metal a new life without giving it a new form, since the form is the result of the content, which is essentially unchanged but slightly updated since 1992. No concessions to “modernization” (a/k/a mixing death metal with rock, jazz, metalcore, disco, punk, etc.) occur here, which allows this music to be in touch with its own spirit and flow freely from the source of its own inspiration. It is thunderous and yet perceptive, bringing with it the spirit of doom metal and its introspective melancholy. Although a three-song EP, this release beats out most albums released this year for pure death metal intensity.

  • Timeghoul – 1992-1994

    Metal developed its own sense of “progressive” and “technical” music long before it imported jazz-fusion in order to help it. In fact, part of metal’s birth was from the original progressive rock in the 1970s and the soundtracks of horror movies, which gave it a predilection for this direction. “Progressive” itself is a misnomer since nothing new gets discovered in music, but probably more accurately means “complex”: music with unconventional song structures, extensive use of harmony, melody and key; possibly linked to some kind of story outside the music itself and the usual topics (love, sex, drama) of pop songs. These songs craft winding riffs and intricate structures, using embedded melody to transition between more chromatic riffs, and culminate in odd twists of fate that translate them into seemingly the reverse of their initial outlook. Culminating in the epic 10-minute “Occurrence on Mimas,” this collection of early works by this band showcase the enjoyably weird variety of death metal in its early days.

  • War Master – Pyramid of the Necropolis

    This modern band attempts to revive the death metal style, starting with the deathgrind of its namesake Bolt Thrower and incorporating influences from many of the bands of the era, and succeeds by staying true to its own enjoyment. As a result, it’s working in a style, and not from a template; the band want to create old school death metal, but aren’t doing it by imitating songs or styles, but by writing in that style based on similar inspirations. As a result, this band has its own voice despite being very familiar in technique, and has chosen its own path for subject matter and thus the arrangement of many of these songs and the types of riffs used. Its aesthetic mixes the grinding mid-tempo riffs and repetitive choruses of grindcore with the circuitous riffing of death metal and its tendency to unveil changes in layers of rhythm, guitar and vocals. While the style shows the influences of later death metal, its sensibility is firmly grounded in the early years, which makes this a great old-school death metal experience. However, its most salient factor is that it’s also interesting music. Songs are formed around their topic, with riffs and structure contorting to resemble the object, and riffcraft shows learning from the past but creation of its own new forms. Guttural vocals which maintain an ascetic detachment from the emotional content of the music help to give Pyramid of the Necropolis the ultimate death metal point of view, which is as a dispassionate observer amongs the ruins detailing the conflict that created this mess, and must endure after its collapse.

Disappointments of 2012

Abigor – Quintessence

Apparently this is new and old material. The shift between the new and old is like jumping out of a sauna into the snow. The newer material shapes itself to an expectation, much like the newer Swedishy bands in the style of Watain, that combines melodic punk with raw and random riffing in catchy rhythms. The result is like a painting made of painted dog turds, in that from a distance it is appealing, but as you get closer its mundane nature is revealed. Abigor have always suffered from being too quick-thinking and inventive for their own good, because they can always throw together a bunch of quality riffs and make most people think a song happened, but here that model breaks down. The songs feel more like slide-shows than organic wholes. The older material is good however.

Absurd – Asgardsrei

This remaster of the 1998 album was in theory supposed to improve sound quality. Had they simply done that, this would have been a shining victory. Instead, it has been standardized. The drums have been pumped up to emphasize rhythm, and the guitars doubled and bass-maximized, with vocals shrouded in reverb. Alone that removes much of the distinctive sound, but attempts have also been made to lower the volume on elements that are not orthodox black metal-cum-oi that Absurd makes now. The result is a loss of detail and an emphasis on the simpler parts of each riff, not the interesting interplay of riffs. They’ve made this album sound more like their remakes of earlier material and by pandering to one audience, lost a lot of what made Absurd interesting.

Acephalix – Deathless Master

A highly-praised release, this album purports to combine Swedish death metal and crustcore. What it ends up with is neither, but a mishmash of riffs around a rollicking beat, changing entirely at random. You hear a little bit of old Entombed, some Dismember, and a lot of filler riffing that really goes nowhere. For about three songs, it’s pleasant listening because you can tap your toes to it and it reminds you of Left Hand Path. Then you realize the songs never went anywhere. They’re like wallpaper. And to the horror of any crust fan, this is built on the bouncy beats and song structures of pop-punk. It’s closer to Blink 182 than Entombed or Amebix.

Aura Noir – Out to Die

Once upon a time, I referred to Aura Noir as a black metal Britney Spears because their music is pop dressed up as black metal. However, it’s normally fun pop with high energy and catchy riffs, even if in verse-chorus structures so repetitive that you have to background it. But with this album, they go into the boring zone. This is almost like a drone with a horse galloping in the background to keep up energy. And yet, like the lady that doth protest too much, the more “energy” you need to inject, the less the music is actually compelling. And on that level, this album is basically the same speed metal/Motorhead style riffs that bands were rehashing back in the 1980s, but now revived in an even more exhausted form.

Coffin Texts – The Tomb of Infinite Ritual

The people behind this band are good, and their intentions are good. The result of their efforts however is bog-standard death metal, not so because it imitates anything else, but because it is unreflective of any purpose outside being death metal. It’s predictable in the sense that nothing is surprising, and yet, it doesn’t really gesture at anything more than being death metal itself. I hope these guys stop trying to be whatever they think they should be, and find whatever they actually enjoy instead. Best yardstick for your music: what you enjoy and would listen to on your own, even if you knew no one in the band.

Graf Spee – Reincarnation

Some things should stay in the 1980s. This is prescient in that it emphasizes the kind of bouncy riffing that fits on the spectrum from Anthrax to Meshuggah and onward to metalcore, but it’s disorganized, inconsistent with the vocals, and feels more like a pile of spare parts than a smoothly running engine.

Hellevetron – Death Scroll of Seven Hells and Its Infernal Majesty

2012 was the year everyone rediscovered Onward to Golgotha. I agree, it’s a killer album. There’s nothing wrong with Hellvetron, who seem like competent musicians, but this album attempts to imitate the outward form of Onward to Golgotha without grasping the underlying tension in the music that makes it work. As a result, Hellvetron impose current song structures (loops) and standards onto the aesthetic of the past, which makes for a decent listen until it becomes apparent that it’s not really about anything except itself.

Impiety – Ravage and Conquer

It’s hard not to enjoy this album, which is like a hybrid between Angelcorpse and Mortem with a squidge more melody. However, it is highly repetitive because it doesn’t go much beyond that concept. Like Krisiun before it, the concept is full speed ahead skull-crushing aesthetic, and this is so powerful it squeezes out most artistic content. This leaves you with some creative riffs, some talented use of tempo, but nothing that holds together long enough to listen to for a decade.

Inverloch – Dusk | Subside

These ex-Disembowelment musicians have a bit of a cult formed around themselves. Part of the reason is that unlike almost every other band before black metal, they knew how to write melodic music, which they do here as well, in something that resembles a cross between death-doom like Asphyx and melodic doom like Candlemass or Paradise Lost. Crashing riffs coexist with gentle melodic fills and overlays that create a dense atmosphere of nocturnal wonder. However, beyond that, the direction seems confused, which is appropriate for a re-entry EP but excludes it from this year’s best of.

Mantas – Death by Metal

Before the first Death album, Chuck Schuldiner tried out his riffcraft in Mantas, named in tribute (by educated guess) to Venom. There’s a reason these sort of re-releases are confined to collectors, and that is that these demos show a young band trying to get the order of riffs in its songs correct and at the same time develop an image, sound and voice. The result is great, if you like listening to parts of the same six songs 18 times each. A true-blue die-hard ultra-kvlt collector will put this on the stereo next to “Scream Bloody Gore” and “Spiritual Healing” and start working out each riff until he’s sure how everything works. Then again, with the hindsight of nearly thirty years, we know exactly how it should turn out, which means that for the rest of us, this will sit on the shelf in perpetuity except as a conversation piece.

Maveth – Coils of the Black Elite

This album reminds me of middle period Immolation, in which creative riffing often fell into very similar rhythms and as such, the songs sort of became a continuum which resembled pulled taffy: cut off a length of Immolation, let’s listen to that. Oh look, sliced Immolation! It’s the same way here. Maveth has very creating riffing with excellent right-hand control, but the songs themselves are a muddle because the riffs are the direction and as such, there’s not really a way to put the riffs together that makes sense, so the band converges on a mean and drops into very similar trudge rhythms to make the songs catchy. At first listen, especially the first three tracks, promise is everywhere; by track five, it’s clear that circularity has occurred.

Purtenance – Sacrifice the King

This EP suffers from a primary flaw, which is disorganization. It’s not random, but it’s what happens when you decide to make death metal and so treat that as a container, and then “write to fill” and twist the riffs into place so they work with each other. It’s not about anything, and thus is “random” in the sense that it could mean anything. As a musical experience, it mostly conveys a sense of disorganization and frustration. The best bands mold that sort of raw emotion into something which rises above the confusion and achieves clarity. If not beauty, truth, goodness, etc. at least something that is desired more than it is hated, and so inspires them, even if that goal is hatred itself.

The Best Metal of 2011

I’ve just completed reading the 2011 “best of” lists from a number of popular websites. The results are predictably dismal. Are these people incompetent or just deaf?

These lists tend to favor the nu-style of metal, which is to say a mixture of indie rock, post hardcore, shoegaze, emo, alternative rock and popular metal influences.

This new style is especially noisome when disguised as “underground metal” (Krallice) or letting its alt-rock roots hang out (Boris). Since this stuff is not metal at all, but rather a sad old product dressed up like some “new” version of metal, it appeals exclusively to over-educated idiots, and so these pathetic reviewers throw in some “old school” metal, but they invariably pick the one-note derivative ripoffs that ape the past but never come close to its attention span or clarity.

To save you from the fools and their delusion vision of music, we present this year’s list of especially violent music because the metal audience of today needs to experience metal of actual integrity and power, not pretenders of either commercial or faux underground types.

Esoteric – Paragon of Dissonance

Minor key dirge pace lamentation defines this funeral doom album on which Esoteric discover a new exhaustion that enables them to winnow their approach. At the cadence of a nocturnal mausoleum tour, the band alternate between spacious chord progressions with internal harmony, and grinding chromatic intervals. Chords collide and abrade one another slowly, letting distortion hang over the listener like curtains of lead, and then a second guitar fills the space with gentle sweeps to bring in a sense of melody. Semi-circular song structures take frequent detours, providing the most listenable and organized album from this band.

Gridlink – Orphan

Napalm Death deconstructed music by transcending scale, key, tempo and even intelligibility. What cultural purists of the 1950s said about rock ‘n’ roll came true in Scum, but with Brutal Truth grindcore shifted from deconstruction to a postmodern imitation of information overload. Gridlink picks up this mantle by throwing many different influences together into a high-speed stream of sound that mocks modern life by flinging at us an extensive lexicon of riffery in minute-long songs that never relent from their sprint. The ensuing rush holds together because these diverse riffs are variations on a not-immediately-visible common thread, delivering a cryptic but satisfying listening experience.

Death Strike – Fuckin’ Death

For the past 40 years musicians have sought the elusive metal/punk hybrid, but few have come close to the power of Paul Speckmann’s series of bands (Master, Death Strike and Abomination). Merging angry hardcore with streetwise heavy metal, these bands created simple songs with energetic riffs that avoided the rock cliches for the day to become a form of resistance music directed at modern society. This re-issue shows the songwriter at his best. Like punk, these songs construct themselves around simple riffs of a constant rhythm, but like metal the riffs fit together to drive tempo and structural changes. The result is plain-spoken but infectious and captures the spirit of metal in an instant of screaming anger.

Cianide – Gods of Death

Having contributed fundamentals of the doom-death genre, Cianide return with a late career album that shows them casting aside expectations to make the metal they enjoy, which is a cross between Hellhammer and Motorhead that thunders through the skull like an avalanche. They keep their riffs bold and simple so the resonating repetition can change over the course of each song as transitions change the nature of each song. Unlike most old school revivals, this album comprises changing moods that are startingly “mature” in that they are not polarized anger but moral ambiguity and relish for the morbid and aggressive. By escaping the self-conscious nature of most retroactive metal, Cianide land a slab of explosive power.

Deceased – Surreal Overdose

People want speed metal back and Deceased have listened. They replaced death vocals with a hoarse shout and upped the pace but otherwise this album comes straight from the days of Metallica and Rigor Mortis. Riffcraft shows familiarity with forty years of metal but for every couple of driving riffs, Deceased have thrown in something sweet like the candied fruit in a fruitcake: melodic interludes, doomy detours and passages of mixed emotion wrought in adroit lead guitar. If they want to take it to the next level, they can slow it down like Doomstone and make better use of dynamics, but as it is, this album is both more musical and more powerful than most of contemporary metal.

Heresiarch – Hammer of Intransigence

If you crossed an old school death metal band like Morpheus Descends with an energetic blasting terror like Angelcorpse, you might have something like Heresiarch. Chromatic riffs hammer you while war metal drumming races to keep up. Each song stays focused on a throbbingly catchy rhythm which it counterpoints with oppositional textures. Like a constant counterattack, this album is as primitive and amusical as possible, verging on the relativity that defined free jazz and noise. Rhythmic hooks and a pounding intensity make this EP a compelling effort from a newer band.

Morbus 666 – Mortuus Cultus

Going back to the roots of black metal, this album attempts to unify the melodic sound with the feral atavism of rhythmic violence that defined the birth of the genre. Showing familiarity with the wide range of melodic black metal riffs from the past, Morbus 666 nevertheless veer away from the noodly “Iron Maiden” style riffs for the kind of austere rigid blasting that early Gorgoroth and Impaled Nazarene made fly. Vocals vary from rasps, to shouts and Attila Csihar-inspired operatic singing with possible inspirations from Benedictine chants. Nothing too complex occurs here but it organizes itself around a singular intent, giving it a power most music lacks.

Nunslaughter – Demoslaughter

This two-disc retrospective reviews the career of this immensely prolific and influential band. This is primitive, rhythmic music that barely touches on concepts of key or harmony. Nonetheless, it uses vocal rhythm and riff to create strong themes that are distinct between each of the many songs from this band. If you like shades of grey in your riffcraft and emotions in the range of terror and despair, this highly creative band offer what are like horror movie soundtracks distilled to the barest of elements and infused with a rage for order that no human civilization can tame.

Ungod – Cloaked in Eternal Darkness

Back in the 1990s Ungod crafted primitive black metal from elementary guitar riffs and catchy choruses. Twenty years later and they return to do exactly the same thing. While guitar playing has improved, using more awareness of harmony and some influences from other metal subgenres, the basics remain unchanged. These songs are like the whispers of a devil who knows the simple self-referential phrases will stay in your mind and corrupt it. Songs emerge from a basic verse-chorus idea to mutate and discover new territory before returning to form, packing a lot of complexity into what seems like a basic form. The result is compelling.

Apocalypse Command – Damnation Scythes of Invincible Abomination

The approach of this high-energy outfit may be familiar to Angelcorpse fans since with songwriter Gene Palublicki is a founding member. If you combined early Bathory and early Slayer, you might have this constant stream of fluid riffs strummed at humingbird pace over drums which clatter to catch up. Songs charge through several interludes on top of the a circular structure of paired riffs, creating a discourse that is overwhelming by sheer energy and singular purpose. If you found yourself wishing that Fallen Christ would make a new album, and stretch out those hard-hitting riffs into pure ripping rhythm textures, then this will appeal.

Blotted Science – The Animation of Entomology

Despite the recent influence of faux progressive and technical death metal in the form of warmed over post-hardcore, Blotted Science start with later King Crimson-styled musically literate rock and add to it the ability to weave seeminly unrelated riffs into a narrative that made death metal great. Like Jarzombek’s other projects, Blotted Science use counterpoint and diatonic melodies to create a broad spectrum of emotions that transition through the course of each song. Aesthetically, the band eschew vocals and like to have a “kitchen sink” approach, but underlying that seeming chaos is strong technique. As they do not forget the metal soul in doing so, this band remains a favorite for those who seek additional dimensions of musicality in their metal.

Bahimiron – Rebel Hymns of Left-Handed Terror

After starting out as a band attempting to make black metal both feral and melodic in the style of Gorgoroth or Zyklon-B, Bahimiron detoured through a series of new sounds — swamp metal, raw and fast war metal, and chaotic rising of the Id — before finding their voice again with this most recent album. These songs are composed of only a few riffs, some variations of each other, but each has a topic idea that it expresses fully, giving this album a pleasant sense of being whole. Despite having a rushed second half that holds together less palpably, this album possesses songs that have a sense of being about something, even if an undefinable emotion. The result combines technique from the different eras of this band into a hard-hitting, ripping package.

Vallenfyre – A Fragile King

Using songwriting techniques from melodic doom metal, this band up the tempo and make a Swedish-style old school death metal band. Crude-hewn riffs are boxy and sparse but capture the death metal style of phrasal composition with a tantalizing melody buried within and emerging through hints, creating powerful mood pieces. While the riff tropes are simpler and fewer riffs are used than in proper death metal, if you view this album as sped-up doom metal it becomes a new experiment in mood music using old school death metal as a tapestry. It is more interesting than the death metal revivals which use nothing but disorganized rhythm riffs, and at times refreshingly beautiful.

Cruciamentum – Engulfed in Desolation

Working in the style of continuous long-phrase old school death metal like early Incantation, this newer band craft riffs of great potential energy and for the most part triumph into making them into onrushing apocalyptic songs. If they want to make it to the next level, they will drop some vestiges of pre-death metal genres — to be supreme in this form of music one must sound inhuman, arch, abstract and disinterested in petty human concerns like foot-tapping rhythms — but at present, the band create a reality distortion field that allows the listener to see past the ruined industrial horizon into the dark forces gathering in the future. Ominous, this release thrives on powerful riffcraft and vocals that sound like occult rage shouted from the depths of a funeral shaft, and portends great things from this UK band.

Rudra – Brahmavidya: Immortal I

Unlike most underground bands, Rudra embrace a highly musical approach as exemplified by their construction of riffs with a melodic basis to their structure yet without the surface element of “melodic” caused by overuse of fast strum and certain repetitive intervals on the higher strings. Over the course of songs, simple riffs develop into themes which then subdivide and evolve in linear progressions within the overall cycle of each song. Vocals are higher-pitched like black metal, but riffing is reminiscent of Demigod as fused with Afflicted’s first album. On the whole, this is an impressive work of music that includes some influences from progressive alternative rock within its death metal but never loses its direction and perhaps as a result makes more interesting music than all the “top ten” lists of commercial sites combined.

Abhor – Ab Luna Lucenti, Ab Noctua Protecti

This Italian band combines the open-string drone of Graveland Following the Voice of Blood with a seemingly horror-influenced, frequently melodic older black metal style. Vocals follow the Graveland model but the band alternates this homage with melodic riffs from other areas of melodic metal. As if forecasting a future for black metal, songs specialize in the transition of moods, suspending the listener in the midst of a dreamlike trance state based on more fluid harmonic motion. While not unique in style, this band makes up for it in spirit.

Primordial – Redemption at the Puritan’s Hand

Working in a hybrid between metal and celtic rock, Primordial craft a sound that is not unlike Iron Maiden using slower and more doom-metal style chord progressions for its choruses. Over this, a man bellows and then curves his straight enunciation into singing. This music is thoughtfully not noodly, and while repetitive, gains intensity from the building of a mood through a trope, and knows when to break the verse-chorus with profoundly musical variation. This is what U2 should have been: an emotional appeal to the common sense of land, heritage and history as expressed through dark songs which allude to rather than reveal their soul, which is a maudlin determination to resurrect the energy of creative destruction in all humans.

Beherit – At the Devil’s Studio 1990

For years, Beherit’s first “album” — a collection of noisy demos pressed onto CD by the label — have been a source of contention. Many love their devil-may-care chaotic burst of raw enthusiasm and dark, Blasphemy- and Sarcofago-inspired morbid rage, but others point to later material by the band and show a discontinuity. However, through their career Beherit have shown a fondness for noise, ambience, ambient noise, and highly structured experiences that like Wagnerian mini-operas walk us through a transition of realizations. At the Devil’s Studio 1990 shows us all of these influences in nascent birth from the noise into a more austere, deliberate and subversive vision of evil. This album gives these songs new life and black metal new dark energy.

Sorcier des Glaces – The Puressence of Primeval Forests

This unabashedly sentimental melodic assault creates a melancholic beauty through its two opposition parts, which are dark minor key wanderings and a counterpart in soaring powerful melodies that expand through variation on theme. The result is like Summoning a transition state from black metal in which the verse-chorus grouping has been replaced by a sense of unravelling or a story being told. While this is more polished than early Norsk black metal, it preserves that intensity with some of the lush melodic development of the Greek and French varieties integrated for a new sensation of possibility.

Obsequiae – Suspended in the Brume of Eos

Fortunately, this release replaces two odious variants of contemporary “black metal.” First is the faux progressive style which insists that a series of fast riffs with offtime picking of notes from “unexpected” chord shapes somehow constitutes interesting music. The second is a tendency to milk any boring three-note melody into “folk music” by playing it without distortion while beating on an ox-skin. Obsequia belt out a Celtic music hybrid not unlike what Celtic revivalists did in the 1970s by combining their music with jazz fusion and progressive rock. The songs sound very similar and by their focus on depth of musicality, often obscure the direction of melodic development or song structure, but are technically adept and offer a better vision of Celtic black metal than most of what has come before.

Amebix – Sonic Mass

In their return after two decades of absence, Amebix create a hybrid of their original crustcore, speed metal and shoegaze. If you can imagine Killing Joke, Prong and My Bloody Valentine in some kind of bizarre collision with UK pop, you will be able to envision the style of this album, which varies quite a bit as it tends to be ad hoc adapted in order to express what each song calls for. The hidden influence seems to be an influence as in early 1980s music on making songs that correspond to a visual idea (for an MTV video), much like the ancient Greeks combined poetry, music and theatre. This album wisely does not try to re-live the past. Instead, it gives us tuneful music that can compete with the best from the slick mega-media bands, and replace their quasi-truths with a more insightful vision of reality.

War Master – Pyramid of the Necropolis

The new style of old school death metal that War Master brings to the table wears its influences on its sleeve, from the expected Bolt Thrower influence to other notables like Obituary and Suffocation. The resulting fusion is a thunder of bassy power chords piled on each other in a series of inventive riffs, with song structure following along as best it can. Like a good puzzle or maze, the passages make sense when they connect but not before, and War Master avoid riff salad by judiciously using repetition of several main themes per song, some conforming to verse-chorus and some more abstruse in nature. Purists will appreciate the low end open-throated growl and the warlike percussion, as well as the range of tempi from doom-death to the more energetic grinding of later death metal. The end result is low-tech but powerful and brings a new language to the ancient art of old school death metal composition.

Blaspherian – Infernal Warriors of Death

Among those who still yearn for the epic power of old school death metal, Blaspherian deliver a satisfying cavernous descent into the dark netherlands of the subconscious. Drawing from older Incantation, Deicide and songwriter Wes Weaver’s previous efforts in Imprecation, Blaspherian sculpt songs out of a few chords twisted into protean riffs like bent wire, stringing it together with a sense of inexorable rhythm. Over this roars an unrelenting guttural growl and the decimating battery of militant percussion. No guitar solos mar the insurgent tunnel of destructive sound, but through its internal consistency it creates and then selectively textures a mood, creating a constantly changing experience that like the winding passages of a subterranean fortress leads through confusion to clarity.

The Best Underground Metal of 2010

Melechesh – The Epigenesis

Power metal band Melechesh make a riff heavy, fast and technical metal that sounds like Helstar and The Haunted colliding in midair. Middle eastern influences are subtly done, reminiscent of Nile in the way they are worked around the heavy metal aggregate of styles. Energetic and introspective.

Graveland – Cold Winter Blades

Continuing an attempt to join black metal, Dead Can Dance and epic movie soundtracks, Graveland throw more of the metal back into their music with several remixed tracks and one new that presents perhaps the most “metal” and aggressive voice for the epic yet conceived. Another way to view this: if power metal were black metal, this would be topping the charts.

Divine Eve – Vengeful and Obstinate

Stygian onrushing doom-death with a Swedish guitar sound, Divine Eve follow up on 1993’s As the Angels Weep with a new EP of mid-1990s songs reworked and restructured that make good on the promise of that early work. Although these songs are doomy, they are mid-paced and run the gamut of death and doom styles artfully.

Herpes – Doomsday 2010 Demo

Old school death metal in the Autopsy style, with more punkish/grind influences like Cianide, Herpes keeps the “partially formed” feeling of early death metal while churning out riffs that fit together like chain links swinging toward the skull of a deserving victim.

Avzhia – In My Domains

If you can imagine Graveland and Summoning combined and rendered in a style like that of early Rotting Christ, with inspiration from Emperor, you can envision this sweeping, melodic and unabashedly sentimental album that evokes the spirit of early black metal. A sense of life being full of wonderful things, mostly evil, emerges from this dark musical epic.

Decrepitaph – Beyond the Cursed Tombs

Building on the death metal of two decades ago, Decrepitaph paste together Swedish riffs with the intensity of American mid-paced death metal bands like later Master and Malevolent Creation. The resulting primal battering encourages the old school death metal form to breathe again.

Malevolent Creation – Unreleased 1987 CD

Before they joined the legions of percussive death metal bashers, Malevolent Creation were a speed metal band sounding a lot like early Forbidden, Exodus, Artillery and Assassin thrown into a blender. Expect grandiose topics, ripping riffs and purely satisfying metal from these three tracks resurrected from the vault.

Krieg – The Isolationist

Chaos black metal band Krieg combine their early neo-improv punk-influenced black metal with post-rock, creating a simple but effective organization that uses post-rock technique to make music in the bolder, braver, less self-pitying style of black metal.

Salem – Playing God and Other Short Stories

After years as a Hellhammer-influenced black metal band, Salem have joined the modern metal bandwagon and in doing so, found a voice that fits their style much better. In fact, this is one of the few modern metal releases that makes sense from start to finish, with jaunty syncopated riffs dropping into sync with vocals like later Samael.

Cruciamentum – Convocation of Crawling Chaos

Attempting to make music in that seminal intersection between old Incantation and Profanatica, Cruciamentum render a dark churning through this short demo that conveys the old school death metal spirit and its contemplative alienation.

Into Oblivion – Creation of a Monolith

Most of the progressive or experimental metal out there simply repeats experiments in other genres, which are “new” to metal but only aesthetically; Into Oblivion attempt an instrumental metal approach working through layers of motif-based riff clusters. Reminiscent of Black Flag’s “The Process of Weeding Out” if executed by Profanatica and Averse Sefira on shore leave.

Prosanctus Inferi – Pandemonic Ululations of Vesperic Palpitation

This album could well be a tribute to Fallen Christ, Dark Angel and other blistering speed bands who throw in dozens of riffs and stitch them together somehow into a single entity. High speed riffs that often use similar progressions clump together and form a super-high energy death/black metal hybrid with enthralling percussion.

Truppensturm – Salute to the Iron Emperors

Someone had to inherit the throne of Angelcorpse, and this low-tech phalanx of gnarled high-shock riffs fulfills the role and picks up in the process some of the murk of occult bands like Beherit and Blasphemy. The result is less martial organization than an exploding of raw Id, overrunning the social conditioning by which we normally live.

Celestia – Archaenae Perfectii

This flowing black metal suffers from “Kreator syndrome”: with at least two powerhouse riffs per song, it stands out during those riffs but the rest of each song is disorganized supporting material which adulterates the impact. Yet some of the more interesting black metal this year.

Overkill – Ironbound

Many metal fans out there if waterboarded would admit that they just want 1980s speed metal to return. Never fear, as Overkill brings us a collection of carefully-polished songs in the middle-period Metallica style, with small elements of Slayer and Exodus worked in. Nothing old but nothing particularly new, just a more experienced ear for songwriting re-approaching these concepts and making a modern version in the older styles.