Master, Autopsy, Motörhead – what do they all have in common? They’re all long running bands that settled on a workable style relatively early and generally stuck with it for decades, gradually refining their craft while managing not to lose control of the forces that initially motivated them. Master is arguably the grandfather of this tradition within the realms of death metal, as they’re the approximate beginning of the constellation of Paul Speckmann projects (since War Cry is allegedly a far cry from most of his work). Given that Master sticks with tradition on An Epiphany of Hate, anyone who’s familiar with Master should know exactly what they’re going to get.
This album belongs to the more elaborate school of Mastercraft that’s come into being in the last few years; while Master has never written especially long or complicated songs, the level of musicianship and organization on display here is a definite improvement from the early days of the band. The production and mixing is also higher fidelity, but improving such is not nearly as difficult as becoming a better songwriter. I’d argue that Paul Masidval’s (protip: Cynic) contributions to Master during his brief mercenary period in the early 1990s must’ve resonated with Speckmann on some level and encouraged this elaboration. An Epiphany of Hate is still relatively sparse in its overall construction; the songs here are built out of comparatively few riffs; if not necessarily the three per song figure that comes up in older discussions. Monophony is still the band’s weapon of choice, but like many of the bands that have… mastered this sort of metal, Master’s musicians know when to keep it up and enjoy their freedom of melody and tonality and when they should instead use some sort of harmonic reinforcement. This expansion without overextension is something a lot of bands aren’t able to successfully pull off, so it does reflect pretty well on them.
I don’t know how much of an advance An Epiphany of Haterepresents over 2013’s The Witchhunt, if any, but it’s still a good addition to Master’s legacy and a worthy addition to your 2016 collections.
As another year ends and a new one begins, many “best of” lists pop up here and there, among them our own here at DMU. While others may be eager to know about what is ever new, we are more interested in what stands the test of time. Today we will look at some albums that were highlighted here as the foremost products of the year 2013, which was a year of renewal, great comebacks, startling discoveries and a general wellspring of inspiration. In the opinion of this writer, 2013 has been the best year for metal in the 21st century.
To start off, we shall pay respects to long-lasting acts with a black metal background, namely Graveland, Summoning and Burzum. While the last has left the metal camp for good, its approach and spirit is still very much enriched by the essence of the deepest metal infused with transcendental values. Summoning is still doing their thing, ever evolving, trying a different permutation of their unique style. Fudali’s project has become the warrior at the frontlines of the strongest nationalism grounded in music that uplifts the heart with an authentic battle feeling (as opposed to those other bands playing funny-jumpy rock and acting all “dangerous”).
Sôl austan, Mâni vestan is an ambient affair that uses short loops which revolve around clear themes in each track. The approach is a little formulaic, thereby limiting the experience with a feeling of repetition. However, as with many good works of art, this self-imposed canalization serves to speed the result in a direction. As with a lot of Burzum’s work, this is a concept album that must be listened to as a whole. When this is followed and one stops looking for novelty and instead concentrates on the details that bring variation within the familiar landscape, the somewhat arduous experience brings great rewards once the summit is reached and the journey is taken more than once.
Something similar can be said of the slightly pop-minded Old Mornings Dawn. This effort by Summoning certainly lacks the density of their masterpiece, Dol Guldur, but is no less effective, although perhaps shallow. But what isn’t shallow when compared to that masterpiece? As with every Summoning album, Old Mornings Dawn has a very separate personality, and in this case, it is one of heroism, light, regeneration and hope. Something that will never leave the band’s trademark sound is the deep feeling of melancholy and longing for ruins.
Graveland materializes in Thunderbolts of the Gods one of their most warlike efforts to date in a smooth trajectory that has gone from rough-pagan to long-winded and epic to heroic war music. What raises this offering above others in Fudali’s current trend is the awesome bringing forth of destructive energies mustered in the imposing drumwork. Gone are the clumsy rhythms of Cold Winter Blades and the redneckish tone of the (nonetheless great) album Following the Voice of Blood. This is the technically polished and spirit-infused summit of this face of Graveland.
One of the most deserving releases of 2013 was Black Sabbath’s 13. More expectations could not have been placed on anyone else. Yet the godfathers of metal delivered like the monarchs they are: with original style, enviable grace, magnificent strength and latent power. Along with the last three albums just mentioned, this album shows itself timeless in the present metal landscape. It encompasses all that it is metal, and brings it back to its origin. This is an absolute grower which will age like the finest wine and is, in my opinion, the album of the year of 2013.
In 2013, Profanatica finally achieved amazing distinction with Thy Kingdom Cum, which can be considered the fully developed potential of what Ledney presented in the thoroughly enjoyable Dethrone the Son of God under the Havohej moniker. To say this is the natural outcome of Profanatica’s past work is as true as it is misleading in its implications. This is not just a continuation of what the band was doing before, but a deliberate step, a clear decision in the clear change in texture quality that means the world in such minimalist music where a simple shift in technique or modal approach defines most of the character of the music.
Cóndor’s Nadia was probably the hidden pearl of the year. Never mind the metaphor of the “diamond in the rough”, there is nothing rough about this. It is polished, but it is hidden. The shy face of this beautiful lady is covered by a veil that turns away the unworthy, the profane! This is immortal metal artwork which to uninitiated eyes and ears seems but like the simple, perhaps even amateur, collection of Sabbathian cliches and tremolo excuses of an unexperienced band. The knowledgeable and contemplating metal thinker recognizes the Platonic forms under the disfigured shapes.
Imprecation’s Satanae Tenebris Infinita and Blood Dawn by Warmaster draw our attention to the strong presence of a more humble but profoundly (though not obviously) memorable album and EP. These will stand the chance of time, but will not necessarily remain strong in the mind of a listener in a way that he feels compelled to come back to them often.
Dark Gods, Seven Billion Slaves by VON seemed more enticing at the time. It’s definitely a solid release, but it is however a very thinly populated album with more airtime than content. Whatever content it has is also not particularly engaging. The enjoyability of this one is a much more subjective affair and like a soundtrack is more dependent on extra-musical input from the listener’s imagination.
As delightful as the three heavy metal albums Argus Beyond The Martyrs, Blitzkrieg Back From Hell and Satan are, the intrinsic qualities of their selected subgenres makes them a difficult candidate for long-lasting and profound impact. That is not to say they have no lasting value. If anything, these are albums one can come back a thousand times and perhaps they will not grow that much, but they will never truly grow old.
Autopsy’s Headless Ritual is one of the strongest yet most understated albums of the year. The extremely rough character of the music may contribute to how it carelessly it can be left behind. Fans of brutal music will find it little different from the rest and will quickly forget it. Fans of wider expressions and deeper thoughts will pass it by with little interest. Such is the tragedy of this very respectable album.
A few stragglers in this group; Master’s The Witchhunt, Centurian’s Contra Rationem, Derogatory’s Above All Else, and Rudra’s RTA proved to be more impact and potential than manifest presence. These will remain fun and quaint for a very occasional listen, perhaps even a sort of throwback feeling, but lacking the long-lasting impact of others in this list.
A special mention is deserved by Into the Pantheon, the essential synthesis of Empyrium, being their most revealing, powerful and clear release. While not outwardly metal, this live recording everything that is to be metal at the level of character and spirit. As such it is the perfect closing note for this recapitulation and reevaluation of past selections.
It’s hard to browse DMU without finding at least one reference to Master’s influence (and more generally Paul Speckmann’s projects) on death metal. DMU’s ability to follow Master’s evolution has generally been better than my own, but I’m hoping that their upcoming albums will change that. An Epiphany of Hate will release on January 29th, 2016, presumably making it a superior purchase to other metal albums releasing that day, like Dream Theater‘s latest. Without any known teaser material out, I’d guess this album will follow up on the style of Master’s previous full length (The Witchhunt), but regardless of substyle this will be one to keep an eye on.
The varied Paul Speckmann projects — Master, Abomination, Funeral Bitch, Death Strike and Speckmann Project — reveal attempts to forge a new genre out of the ashes of speed metal. Roughly combined of metal, punk and 60s rock, the Speckmann approach took several forms which reflected his vision of what was occurring in music at the time.
Funeral Bitch comes to us straight from the 1986-1987 era and reflects the influence of thrash on Speckmann. Not thrash as the teeny-bopper magazines us it to describe Metallica-style speed metal bands, but thrash in the sense of Dirty Rotten Imbeciles, Corrosion of Conformity and Cryptic Slaughter. Funeral Bitch sounds like the first COC album hybridized with the early Sodom demos under the advice of The Mentors.
Short songs weighing in at around two and a half minutes or less use the infectious vocals Speckmann borrowed from 60s rock, the buoyant energy from punk, and the shaped phrasal riffs of metal but deliver the punch quickly. Versions of “The Truth” and “Funeral Bitch” from other Speckmann projects reveal how these songs were sped up and the vocals simplified to a single cyclic hook for this rendition. The result is in many ways more compelling, because the extreme speed and thrashing drum aggression of Funeral Bitch requires simplification and removes many of the excesses inherited from rock that made Master and Abomination releases confused at times. Like commando raids in the night, these short songs leap in to the fray, speak their piece, bash down the opposition and then disappear into the jungle.
These two demos provide different views of the same idea. The earlier one shows more of a punk influence, while the later shows the marks of actual thrash and perhaps influences from the rising grindcore scene. On this re-issue they are at radically different volume levels which makes regular listening difficult, but these historical recordings fit another piece in the puzzle of the evolution of underground metal and provide a punchier, more effective version of the Speckmann vision.
When the new genre of death metal emerged, no one knew what to call it at first. It grew out of a time when metal was just managing to break out of its last assimilation by rock, the late 1970s and early 1980s glam, through speed metal bands like Metallica. As soon as those broke through, others followed with an even more alienated and disturbing sound with what came to be called “death metal.”
Since that time, advertisers and marketers have descended on the phrase. Outsiderness means authenticity and authenticity sells products. Every product that wants to tag itself with rebellious, “fun” and nonconformist would benefit from using the term. But before it became another media tag-line, death metal constituted the most vital genre that existed outside that form of social control.
Its origins remain in murky obscurity, but can be tracked through the bands that innovated the sound. Read on for the five albums that invented this sound.
1. Sepultura – Morbid Visions/Bestial Devastation
Way back in 1985, Sepultura released Bestial Devastation as a fully mature death metal album including unorthodox song form that fit to content and Slayer-style introductions with related motifs to new riffs. Fast and furious in the style that Morbid Angel, Massacra and Vader later developed, this tremolo-picked fury joined Morbid Visions on a release to commemorate these early and massively influential works. Notably this band also spun off guitarist Wagner Antichrist to Sarcofago who later kept black metal alive in the intermediate years between Hellhammer/Bathory/Sodom and Mayhem. Although this early release was recorded with borrowed instruments in what sounds like a dungeon with DC power, many of the elements that became central to death metal presented themselves here: complex riff changes fit together by theme, abrupt breaks, layering by repeating at double speed, use of chaotic guitar highlights, and vocal drops over transitional riffs. For its primitive origins, Morbid Visions/Bestial Devastation demonstrates death metal entering its maturation process after early years of using loan-techniques from related metal and punk genres.
2. Possessed – Seven Churches
Like many early albums attempting to forge a death metal path, Seven Churches borrows much of its technique from earlier styles of metal. In particular, much of speed metal persists here in song structure and rhythmic sensibility, but Possessed nailed the infernal voice that would become an easily noticed characteristic of the genre and gave it its name. This album slashes through songs that mostly follow riff-chorus song format but interrupt it with discursive passages such as the famous melodic riff on “The Exorcist.” Riff shifts generally occur at significant points in the song rather than as extensions of the standard format, which gives this release a chaotic and uneven feel fitting its subject matter. Its song titles embraced outright positive feelings about Satan, which in the 1980s was enough to cause a listener social problems. The lyrics no longer warned of the possibility of evil, but the certainty of it and the necessity of embracing it to avoid the rotted and calcified lies of the “good.” Its pacing and riff forms often resemble those of speed metal as well as its tendency toward bouncing rhythms which favor the offbeat, where later death metal bands might have adopted a more downbeat approach. Despite spanning these genres, Seven Churches lent so much to the new death metal genre that it forever seems appropriate to associate it with death metal.
3. Death Strike – Fuckin’ Death
Paul Speckmann contributed much to the rising death metal movement under a bevy of different names: Master, Death Strike, Funeral Bitch, Abomination and Speckmann Project. His basic approach took 1960s protest rock, violent punk, and early dark heavy metal and mixed them into what basically sounded like rudimentary metal with punk rhythms. Death Strike emerged in 1985 with death vocals and grinding riffs but Speckmann’s demos had exemplified these attributes for at least two years at that point. While the result sounds spacious for modern death metal ears and uses variants on standard song format almost exclusively, this early embrace of the aesthetics of violent chaos and radically simplified riffing set many on their path down to the fiery depths of death metal.
4. Morbid Angel – Abominations of Desolation
The first Morbid Angel album made it to a limited release only on a small label in Tampa, Florida, and so was lost to time until Earache re-issued it in 1991 as a full release. Featuring the drum and vocal talents of Mike Browning (Nocturnus, After Death) this early powerhouse showed the unique and progressive rock influenced songwriting that would appear on later Morbid Angel but without the similarity of aesthetic. Abundant lead guitar spills out all over, songs vary tempo widely, and riffs span many more forms than the solidified final Altars of Madness — which shares most of its songs with this album after three years of refinement while band members worked at a car wash — would demonstrate. Some of lead guitarist Trey Azagthoth’s most creative and psychedelic playing adorns this release, as well as songs that stray into doom metal and progressive metal territory. While this album followed a battered and twisted path to release, it made itself known to the tape-traders who were the backbone of non-mainstream metal in the 1980s, and from there influenced the entire genre.
5. Necrovore – “Divus de Mortuus” demo
Speaking of demos, some of death metal’s most profound work never made it to vinyl or polycarbonate. Traders passed around demos and most band members were traders or had zines and got copies of demos in for review. “Divus de Mortuus” appeared in 1987 after some years of rehearsal and live tapes circulated among the demo circuit and immediately galvanized many. In particular, its influence can be felt on Morbid Angel, whose David Vincent adopted the more aggressive vocals and warlike posturing of vocalist Jon DePlachett. While the riffs on this demo focus more on abrasiveness and less on phrase, many of the elements inherited through Hellhammer and Slayer shine through here on what might be described as the first atmospheric death metal release. While this demo may never make it into stores, its influence spread outward from Texas to Florida and Europe beyond and it lives on in the death metal that followed it.
Way back in the early 1980s, a band in the Chicago area began making the transition from speed metal to a proto-death metal style. It transitioned through punk and oddly retained a lot of elements of 1960s rock, but was part of the formative path toward death metal along with Bathory, Slayer, Hellhammer/Celtic Frost, Sepultura and Sodom before Death or Morbid Angel had ever recorded.
Three decades after that rocky start, two metal journalists are attempting to record the life and times of Paul Speckmann with a documentary entitled Lone Survivor – Paul Speckmann and the story of Master. The filmmakers bill the film as not just a Speckmann history, but “the story of anyone who has chased a dream and endured the victories and defeats that come with the journey.”
Filmmakers Jeff Tandy and Will Wulff are tackling this project from a zero-budget start. Wulff is a UC Irvine film graduate who attracted the attention of Paul Speckmann with a graduate project short film. Tandy is a 20-year music veteran and freelance metal journalist with extensive experience in the death metal field.
A band from before death metal had coalesced into a genre, Master will tour North America during April 2014 as part of their “North American Witchhunt Tour” which will showcase a new touring lineup.
During the three weeks that Master will rage across North American stages in support of their most recent album, The Witchhunt, the band will comprise Paul Speckmann on bass/vocals, Alex Bouks (formerly of Incantation) on guitars, VJS on guitars, and drummer Ruston Groose.
Master continues evolving. From its earliest days as a punk/metal hybrid, to a period of intense technicality, and now in an era of massive aggression, Master has grown with the style it helped invent and now brings the latest iteration to fans across North America.
I used to loathe end-of-year lists. They struck me as a pointless chance to advertise what should have been obvious before. Over the years they have risen in my estimation as a way not only to mark the year, but to bring up the gold that gets lost in the chaos of everyday life. And yes, they’re also shopping lists for the metalhead in your life.
This year our list is surprising even to hardened cynics. At a time when metal is bragging up and down the Williamsburg alleys about how “innovative” and “ground-breaking” it is, that novelty turns out to be the remnants of the 1980s: emo, pop punk, shoegaze and indie. The real innovation is as always underground, because to get out of the hive mind one must first remove oneself from participation in normalcy.
Thus what you will find here is not what you will see in either (a) the big-label-financed slick magazines and web sites or (b) the majority of small zines and websites out there. That is because the genre as a whole has shifted from creation towards an idea to emulation of the past, or reaction to the past by trying to adulterate it with outside influences. Neither approach succeeds.
When a reviewer chooses an album, he should pick one that will last in your collection. Your time is limited, as is your money. Thus we look only for works that you can purchase and enjoy over the years, and can return to with a sense of wonder and discovery as new angles and nuances emerge. This standard seems high, so they call us elitists. What we really are is people who love metal and want it to be strengthened by its best, not weakened by accepting its worst.
The following albums are those that merit such a standard:
Argus – Beyond The Martyrs
Rejecting the notion of newness in itself, Argus returns to fundamental influences from the 1980s and makes a band that sounds like a fusion between Mercyful Fate, Iron Maiden and Candlemass. Guitar riffery is designed to be inventive and interesting in its own right but is trimmed down to what fits the function of each song. As a result, these songs “sound like” the classics in more ways than one. They are thoughtful and deliberate, purposeful and driven. Classic heavy metal riffs merge with meandering leads that somehow pull it all together, under the mournful voice of a vocalist who clearly enjoys classic Candlemass both in vocal delivery and sense of melody. See full review / interview.
Autopsy – The Headless Ritual
Autopsy are famous for their contributions to death metal which notably peaked in Mental Funeral where their chaotic tendencies got wrapped up in their sense of atmosphere and produced a dark ambling journey into the subconscious. Of their later works, The Headless Ritual gets close to such a balance although it aims for something more everyday. This is an album that wants to deliver classic death metal thrills, and it does so with moderately paced songs that balance melody and savage chromatic riffing. Chris Reifert’s drumming pirouttes and grapples through vicious tempo changes as riffs unlock a Lament Configuration that is equal parts nostalgia and invention.
Birth A.D. – I Blame You
What happened to real thrash, like DRI and Cryptic Slaughter? In much the same vein as hardcore punk before it, thrash was so intense that it burned out after only four years of real presence. Birth A.D. wisely choose not to “bring it back” but rather to pick up as if thrash were a party and the next day, the hung over participants awaken among the ruins. They’ve sharpened its message, which merged the anarchy of punk with the search for societal purpose of metal, and given its riffs the S.O.D. speed metal infusion without unduly modernizing them. As a result, these two-minute songs hit hard and retreat into the jungle, leaving behind their sardonic lyrics mocking society for being so stupid. When the record stops playing, there is a sense of both having received too much information to process, and a sadness that there isn’t more. See full review.
Black Sabbath – 13
Realizing what Black Sabbath meant to fans not just as a named entity but as a phenomenon, Black Sabbath integrate the sounds of vocalist Ozzy Osbourne’s solo years into their later, more refined music, with citations to Master of Reality as well. The result is a powerful album that is more pop than their original works but, in a time when nu-metal rages on the radio, reclaims heavy metal as having a voice of its own. It also pushes controversy, affirming a presence of God in this world for good or ill at a time when most people want to get polemic one way or the other. A supporting cast of sprawling but hard-hitting songs make this a great immersive lesson and transition from regular rock to metal for new listeners. See full review.
Blitzkrieg – Back From Hell
This band shares members with Satan, who also re-entered the fray with an album of strong tunes. Like Satan, Blitzkrieg know how to simultaneously avoid “changing” for change’s sake (inevitably a lateral move to other contemporarily popular genres) and nostalgia for nostalgia’s sake, making instead an album that fits into their catalogue but doesn’t deny the older, wiser status of its members. These are mostly straightforward songs with melodic choruses and driving, riff-centric verses, plus nimble-fingered and harmonically-aggressive soloing. See full review.
Burzum – Sôl Austan, Mâni Vestan
People said they wanted old Burzum back. The spirit of old Burzum comes back in this ambient album. It’s a bit more hasty and less refined by fanatical attention to detail than his previous works, but it creates the same world, only zoomed forward in time. It is both a practical and imaginative album. In style, it resembles a cross between Tangerine Dream, William Orbit and the Scandinavian folk music of Grieg, Hedningarna or Wardruna. Strongly ritualized, it unfolds like a descent through mythical worlds and finds its own balance. One of the best offerings in this field. See full review / interview.
Centurian – Contra Rationem
For years many of us have wanted this Dutch band to catch a break. They have written several albums of relentlessly pounding, rhythmically intense riffing that somehow doesn’t add up. First, writing the whole album at high speed means that soon it backgrounds itself; second, there was always a lack of melody or song structure to hold it together. Centurian have improved on the latter two and toned down the former to a great degree, such that this is no longer trying to be Krisiun but more like a more Angelcorpse/Fallen Christ approach to Consuming Impulse. The result showcases this band’s dexterity with riffcraft and creates an intense atmosphere of violence. See full review.
Cóndor – Nadia
This entry album by a new band shows a lot of promise in tackling the power metal format and trying to give it the balls of death metal and funeral doom metal. This contemplative, mostly mid-paced album shows a sense of atmosphere as manipulated by riff, in the death metal sense, given a somewhat upward curve and heroic spin in the best tradition of power metal. Although it’s a new act, and still organizing itself, Cóndor shows that life remains in true metal that can be explored by revisiting its motivations. See full review / interview.
Derogatory – Above All Else
In the tradition of Vader, Mortuary and other fast phrasal death metal bands, Derogatory invoke the classic death metal form with an album of nicely interlocking riffs that reveal a basic but distinctive structure beneath each song. This album is not self-consciously “retro” so much as it is using the voice of the older style, and while it doesn’t expand stylistically, it has found a voice of its own. See full review/interview.
Empyrium – Into the Pantheon
Combining funeral doom metal with European folk music creates for Empyrium a fertile style that is showcased here in a retrospective of the best of their career presented in a rare live setting. Expect plenty of use of silence and resonance to build up these songs, which start slowly and then become engaging before evaporating into more esoteric conclusions. While most funeral doom aims to be dark, Empyrium creates an emotional contrast like a Gothic band, with beauty arising from chaos only to be strangled by inevitability and fall again. See full review / interview.
Graveland – Thunderbolts of the Gods
Following up on 2012’s Lord Wind release, Polish/Italian artist Rob Darken unleashes a new work under his black metal brand Graveland. Like the band’s second career-defining Memory and Destiny, this release features Bathory Hammerheart-style guitars which mix speed metal and black metal to produce rhythmic riffing as a backdrop for keyboards and vocals, now featuring also human female vocals and violin. The result is a collision between heavy metal, neofolk and epic movie soundtracks that evokes the glory of the ancient past.
Master – The Witchhunt
Paul Speckmann is a metal institution who has stayed with death metal from its genesis in the early 1980s through the presence. His latest, The Witchhunt, showcases the stable lineup he has used for recent releases but tones down the overall intensity to focus on songwriting. Fast riffs blend together with touches of melody and the classic Speckmann vocal patterns which resemble the struggles of daily life turned up to eleven. Where previous Master works of recent vintage tended to blend together, on this one each song is distinct. See full review / interview.
Profanatica – Thy Kingdom Cum
Taking a hint from Necrovore and intensifying it through technical prowess, Profanatica step back from the longer melodic riffs of Profanatitas de Domonatia and instead write short, cyclic phrases within compact rhythms in the style of the ancient Texas death metal cult. The result is like a primitive album with complexity embedded in it as melodies expand within fixed riff forms, uniting savagery and beauty in the service of blasphemy. As with all Profanatica works, this is experimental to the extreme, but Thy Kingdom Cum ranks among their most listenable releases. See full review /interview.
Rudra – RTA
The Singaporean maniacs return with an album that uses more traditional melodic death metal riffing but retains its rhythmic structure based on speed metal and possibly the Hindu rituals described in its lyrics. As with most Rudra releases, RTA does not aim for the pop song idea of hitting a sweet spot and luring in your ears. It is the construction of an experience, in this case a dark descent that forges a resolve to continue through warfare and a martial stilling of the reckless personality through militant silence of the soul.
Satan – Life Sentence
The rougher edge of NWOBHM that was a kissing cousin to speed metal emerges again in this highly musical album from Satan. Like their groundbreaking early 1980s works which presaged the debut of Metallica and birth of speed metal, Life Sentence features inventive riffs in classic song format in which melodic development in the vocals harmonizes riffs to bring songs to a conclusion. Shy of speed metal mostly because it relies on relatively fixed song format which emphasizes verse-chorus riff pairs, this album nonetheless reveals both the greatness of NWOBHM and its continuing relevance in a time of tuneless songs and random song structure. See full review / interview.
Summoning – Old Mornings Dawn
After black metal fully constituted itself in the early 1990s in Scandinavia, people looked for the next development along these lines. Some went to dark ambient, but others like Summoning and Graveland instead explored longer melodies and more drawn-out, atmospheric songs. Summoning take a medieval and Tolkien-inspired approach in contrast to the more martial outlook of other bands, and produce as a result immersive waves of melody that evoke a more organic society. With Old Mornings Dawn, these Austrian metal maniacs build on the emotion of Oath Bound but exploit it in more compact and separable songs, making one of the more intense metal statements of the year. See full review.
Von – Dark Gods, Seven Billion Slaves
Following up on Von’s early career material like Satanic Blood is not easy; in fact, it’s impossible. A band would either have to re-create that minimalist style and risk irrelevance, or embark on a campaign to dress it up as something it is not. Von has opted for something else entirely which is to create a minimalistic core within a rock opera style of black metal, producing one of the more puzzling but satisfying releases in the underground metal world this year. See full review.
Wardruna – Runaljod – Yggdrasil
Combining folk music, world music, droning found noises and the type of ritualistic dark ambient that emerged from the end days of black metal, Wardruna is a black metal side project that offers a different vision of music. While earlier works seemed detached from the end listener, Runaljod – Yggdrasil embeds the listener within a wave of ceremonial sound that aims not to be forebrain listening as Western rock is, but a mentally ambient experience that overwhelms by addressing all of the senses and channeling that experience toward a realization.
War Master – Blood Dawn
Underground death metal continuation act War Master released a four-track EP, Blood Dawn, amidst personnel changes and other upheavals this year. Like the previous Pyramid of the Necropolis, Blood Dawn focuses on futuristic and yet ancient concepts, almost like Voivod taking on Robert E. Howard or Edgar Rice Burroughs. From this vast concept come songs that both grind their way to nihilism and implement the death metal method of matching riffs into an internal dialogue from which a conclusion emerges, creating a pocket of mystery which is filled with wonder and violence.
Album of the year:
Imprecation – Satanae Tenebris Infinita
There is no completely fair way to pick an album of the year from a list with this many strong contenders, but Imprecation win this one on both substance and situation. For substance, this is a solid album that combines a black metal sense of ritualistic song development with the death metal tendency to make abstract riffs into an organic whole. For situation, Satanae Tenebris Infinita sees a band that started in 1991 and is famous for releasing its discography of demos in 1995 finally reach a stage where it can release a full-length album independent of any past influences. In addition, Satanae Tenebris Infinita hits hard and does not relent. Each element serves a purpose toward creating a transition in moods, like a perpetual parallax as continents shift. If death metal was waiting for a direction forward, Imprecation have opened that gate to a new occult science and art of subversive metal. See full review / interview.
The following were considered, and then not so much considered:
Morbosidad – Muerte De Cristo En Golgota. This is like Krisiun or Impiety rendered in the style of Mystifier, or like any of the war metal bands that imitated Blasphemy but with a dose of downtuned Sarcofago. It’s not bad, but aside from high intensity rhythm, it doesn’t have much to offer. Thus think of it as Satanic death techno performed on muddy guitars.
Fates Warning – Darkness in a Different Light. Bands: don’t try to roll with the trends. You were good at something else for a reason. This album has strong smary indie rock influences on its vocals and the result is embarrassing to be caught listening to. Riffs are reasonable, but don’t particularly develop, and emphasize space and consistency more than something with a personality.
Grave Upheaval – Untitled. Not bad; mostly rumbling noises, very true to form. Unfortunately, also doesn’t go anywhere. It’s an atmosphere piece of one dimension.
Warlord – The Holy Empire. Some sort of rock-metal hybrid from back in the day, this form of power metal uses mostly lead riffing anchored by static open chording. The dominant instrument is the voice, more like Rush or Asia than most metal. It’s pleasant but lullabye and too close to rock music.
Hell – Curse and Chapter. Do you know how far I would have run to get away from this back in the 1980s? It’s NWOBHM/early power metal without much melodic movement in the riff, so there’s a lot of chugging and shifting but not much actual motion. Nor will you have much actual motion as you listen to this… in fact, you might find yourself immobile and snoring.
Battlecross – War of Will. This is traditional metal affected by metalcore aesthetics. The vocals follow the surge pattern of later hardcore, and the melodic riffs use rhythmic “chasing” to accelerate patterns older than Chuck Berry. The result is so distracting the band can’t compose a song, but instead write a riff pair and then leap into a blast beat to transition.
Enforcer – Death by Fire. Here we have another band from Scandinavia creating highly musically-literate, catchy and otherwise perfect music. The problems are twofold: (1) it is a clone of 1970s styles that are liked for their innocent pop cheeze (2) while it is emotive, and aesthetically appealing, it is also empty.
Queensryche – Queensryche. Since the band went legal on each other, there’s now two Queensryches… this one sounds like Coldplay. The same posi-pop vibe and expansive chorus feel drives this work, and it has a similar outlook on the world, which is a sort of pathological compulsion to make things beautiful instead of finding beauty where it is rare. Unsettling.
Leprous – Coal. If this Queen-slash-bad-indie band gets anywhere in metal, it’s time to bury the genre under warm ruminant feces. Power metal mixed with dramatic English pop. The result is bracingly twee with metal riffs batting about in the background.
Iggy and the Stooges – Ready to Die. Almost all reviews of this album will waffle, because it is good, but it’s not distinctive. It all kind of flows together, as if the band paid more attention to the aesthetics of sounding like themselves than whatever’s driving them. But how do you “be punk” when you have a paid up retirement plan and health insurance?
Abyssal – Novit Enim Dominus Qui Sunt Eius. This was the hip thing for a few weeks, but shows you that you cannot revive a genre by imitating it through outward form. These songs use all the right pieces, but in a random order, and thus create no mood except nostalgia. And I piss on nostalgia’s grave.
Tyrant’s Blood – Into the Kingdom of Graves. Great title, has a Blasphemy ex-member, can’t go wrong… right? There’s a lot to like about this, but it doesn’t hold together. It embraces the “hotel buffet” style of offering many different riff types in a single song that ends up distorting any coherence. Storming Perdition Temple-style fast metal explodes into melodic mid-paced riffs and then ends up chugging deathgrind, lost and adrift on the seas of making a point.
Cultes des Ghoules – Henbane. It’s ludicrous that so many in the underground were fooled by this comical album. It’s a lot of bad heavy metal riffs interrupted by “avantgarde” noise, samples, etc. — the usual cliches — so that you don’t notice it’s bog-standard. This is hipster incarnate.
Acerus – The Unreachable Salvation. Galloping uptempo yet mid-paced heavy metal with a lot of Iron Maiden and Mercyful Fate. Not bad, but not particularly expansive to anything more than that aesthetic role.
Aosoth – IV: Arrow in Heart. This album, like Immolation, got credit because people expected it should. Its strong point is listenable songs with some technicality; its weakness is that they express nothing strong. It is Participation with an A+ for method and a B- for content.
Sodom – Epitome of Torture. This rather sentimental, somewhat modern-metal influenced take on a speed metal album is very catchy and represents Sodom’s most professional work, but also loses the unique perspective this band offered on the world around it. This is more like the heavy metal albums of their youths, heavy on emotion which makes their repetitive, chorus-heavy approach almost too saccharine.
Grave Miasma – Odori Sepulcorum. I have wallpaper. It’s named “It’s 1991 again and you can rediscover things you believed in once again.” It sounds like a mishmash of 1990s era death metal and yet, because it’s wallpaper, it never comes to a point. It just creates an atmosphere.
Týr – Valkyrja. Power metal of the newer stype seems to me it has a mystery ingredient, and that is devotional music. This sounds like church music, with sweeping choruses and whole-note cadences, and it has an admitted power, but it also loses much of what makes metal powerful: it’s not protest music, nor is it music that tries to cover ugliness with beauty, but music that finds beauty in what is considered ugly.
Onslaught – VI. Eager to effect a return to the music business, Onslaught speed up their punk/metal hybrid but adopt the vocal styles and constant driving mechanical rhythm of modern metal. The result is unrelenting but also disconnected and monolithic. The catchy choruses don’t help and seem almost to mock the rest of the music, which sounds like a pilotless threshing machine gone amok in a pumpkin patch…
Death Angel – The Dream Calls for Blood. In the 1980s, speed metal bands had a certain annoying rhythm where they tried to be as obnoxiously bouncy as possible while ranting as intensely as possible. With modern metal much of the internal rhythmic interplay has been eliminated, resulting in something that sounds like chanting Stalinist propaganda with guitars strobing in the background.
Bölzer – Aura. Like Oranssi Pazuzu, Bölzer experiment in disorganized slowed black/death/heavy metal with mixed-in weirdo alternative rock. Weirdo alternative rock has existed since early rock bands made a name for themselves by being odd. The problem is that it doesn’t connect to form an impression, only a sense of instrumentalism.
Coffins – The Fleshland. Doom-death with some quality riffing, Coffins nonetheless manage to inevitably get lost in each of their songs and fill the void with noodly pentatonic leads, distracted tributaries of non-essential riffs, and “atmospheric” repetition.
Metal Church – Generation Nothing. This shrill metal band has always struck me as more in the heavy metal camp than speed metal camp, and here it’s borne out. The riffs don’t have form like speed metal riffs do but are mostly static based on rhythmic repetition. Focus is on the voice, which wails. Not bad but annoying and kind of empty. Also, older guys trying to bond with the new generation is awkward when done this way.
Malthusian – MMXIII. Like many sonic experiments, this band relies on style to shape content because style is the substance of the experiment. The idea here is to combine the Incantation-clone death metal that is trendy with melodic progressive touches, including some sneakster modern metal influences. The result loses what could have been and fails to transition to what it wants to be.
Stratovarius – Nemesis. When did this band get so bad? The first track sounds like a rip of Heart’s “On My Own,” and the rest of the album proceeds in this fashion: combine classic metal riff archetype with classic 1980s vocal melody, add some flourishes and hope it’s good enough. I liked it better when this band was more speed metally and less pop.
As the old joke in Hollywood goes, any time you say “This person needs no introduction,” you must immediately follow that with a lengthy introduction. So it is with Paul Speckmann, who both needs no introduction and also needs a more in-depth introduction because he’s done so much for metal that it’s easy to lose sight of it all.
In this interview, we ask Mr. Speckmann about his songwriting style, the changes in master over the years, the meaning of his music and where Master fits in the death metal family tree. His answers are as always thoughtful and honest, with a few surprises that we could never have guessed were coming.
Please show your appreciation for Mr. Speckmann by reading and commenting with your favorite “Speckmann stories”: how you discovered Master et al., what influence it had on you, where you think it fits in metal, and how you think his art has changed the outlook of the extreme metal populace.
Here’s the interview. Ladies and gents, Mr. Paul Speckmann, of Master, Abomination, Deathstrike, Funeral Bitch, War Cry, Speckmann Project and many more!