As far as books about metal go, there’s nothing more hardcore than an encyclopedic reference because by nature these attempt to include everything. Janne Stark wrote The Heaviest Encyclopedia of Swedish Hard Rock and Heavy Metal Ever! to keep track of the Swedish hard rock / heavy rock / metal scene, but we found it even harder to keep track of him.
For example, Stark is listed as participating in three dozens, including Overdrive, Overheat, Faith, M.O.B., Flash, TNT, Alyson Avenue, Sir Lord Baltimore, Thalamus, Chris Catena, Audiovision, Vii Gates, Narnia, Grand Design, Blinded Colony, Spearfish, Audiovision, Tower Of Stone, Teenage Rampage, From Behind, Planet Alliance, Balls, Constancia, Locomotive Breath, Mountain Of Power, Zello, Nicky Moore Blues Corporation. This is only a small slice of his participation in music, however, as he’s also a music journalist and author.
Stark was good enough to give us the time for a mid-length interview, which was conducted over coffee in the fashionable Swedish borough of Östermalm. Err… we wish. Stark was good enough to conduct this interview through old-fashioned 7-bit email, but we got some interesting answers.
Sweden has fewer people than the city I live in, yet produces more quality heavy rock, hard rock and metal bands. Is there something in the Swedish outlook that is responsible for this disparity?
I’ve had that question a lot of times. I think it has to do with several different things. Music has always been important in Sweden, folk music, singing in choirs etc. ABBA came along in the seventies showing Swedish musicians it was actually possible to break through on a big scale outside of our borders. We also have a really good (and cheap/free) tradition of music schools and the ability to learn an instrument in school. We also have the possibility to start a study circle, within a band, where you can get free/cheap rehearsal space, the possibility to record and even arrange gigs. I also think Swedish bands in general are about the music and learning to play, that getting an image and just pose.
Sweden may have partially invented death metal and black metal through Bathory. Are there are other contributions on the road towards death metal that you found interesting?
Yes, Bathory were definitely the forefathers of primitive sounding early black metal in Sweden. Later on there’s of course also the Gothenburg sound and bands like In Flames, Dark Tranquillity and At The Gates, where they started mixing more melodic and traditional metal influences with the traditional death metal sound. Swedish bands have always looked to the UK or US for influences, but I think a lot of the bands have managed to put a slightly different twist on it. Take for instance progressive bands like A.C.T or Pain Of Salvation, and then you have classic heavy metal bands like Hammerfall and Wolf who have mixed the German and UK styles of metal with a Swedish twist to it.
There’s something about the way Swedish bands write music that seems to lend itself to heavy metal, and it’s broader than the legendary Swedish melodic sense. Do you get the feeling such a thing exists?
I think it’s basically that we borrow a lot of influences from outside and blend it with the quite traditional Swedish folk touch that is in our mothers milk, whether we know/like it or not. On another note, it’s also quite interesting how several Swedish hard rock/metal musicians have become very successful in writing for pop and dance acts. People like Thomas G:son (Masquerade), Peter Carlsson (Bedlam), Anders Wickström (Treat) and not least Max Martin (It’s Alive) and Johan “Shellback” Schüster (Blinded Colony) have all become highly acclaimed pop composers who have written hits for N’Sync, Britney Spears, Pink, Lady Gaga etc.
You refer to this book as “the heaviest” encyclopedia of Swedish heavy rock and metal, and it definitely is heavy in two senses, both content and the physical weight of the book. How long did it take you to compile this monster?
It’s the heaviest in many senses. It’s definitely the heaviest when it comes to its sheer weight, 3.7 kilos (8.5 lbs) and the amount of bands featured in it (3,600), but it was also the heaviest one to get out of my system, to decide when it was time to wrap it up and get it out. When the second book was released in 2002, I simply continued compiling information. Not detailed information, but more like making notes to check this band out, check this site out, I made continuous notes of special releases and such. Then, a little more than three and a half years ago I decided Now it’s time. Then I started following up all the leads, compiling all info of the bands, took all the info from the first two books, updated and corrected and all the stuff I had noted about these bands. I made one document for each letter and just started all over again, from A to Z (well, actually the last letter is Ö in the Swedish alphabet). When I felt I was finished I started doing layout, but waited with the band pics etc until last as I was still adding last minute information and bands. I then had three people proof read it, an Englishman and a music nerd friend, plus my wife (also a hard rock nerd). In September 2013, I sent in the final PDF files to the publisher and it was off to the printers, and nothing more I could do. Sheer agony at that point!
What kind of research resources were available to you? Is there much printed information on rock music in Sweden, or did you have to spend most of your time interviewing people?
When I did the first book in 1996, there was no Internet and it was all phone calls, contacting bands, music clubs, record stores etc. Now the information is all over the place, the problem is to collect, find and sort out what is the CORRECT information. Anybody can write anything on sites like Wikipedia etc. and suddenly it’s the truth. It’s been as much about checking and double-checking this time around. I’ve listed the sources I’ve used in the book, but it’s anything from www.metal-archives.com, www.musikon.se and www.rockdetector.com, to Ebay, Tradera, Discogs and bands/labels sites to find all catalogue numbers, different pressings etc. There’s a couple of metal magazines and webzines here as well, plus books and websites covering local scenes, where I’ve found some additional information. I’ve also contacted a lot of people through Facebook etc. I’ve tried to get in touch with as many bands as possible.
From the looks of this massive book, you got every heavy band that Sweden has ever produced. Did you miss any? How did you find out?
I’m sure I’ve missed some, even though I do think I’ve covered 95% this time. There’s always going to be the local metal band that printed 250 copies of a single, sold it to some friends, tucked the remaining copies away in an attic and went on with life. These things pop up now and then, still! Plus some bands, especially when it comes to black metal, are intentionally secretive and only sell their limited vinyl release to “true” fans. But, that’s the beauty of it. Trying to find those hidden gems!
Swedish death metal won me over the minute I heard it. Do you normally listen to death metal? Did the sounds of Swedish death metal tempt you to go over to “the dark side”?
The thing is, when I wrote the previous books I wasn’t into death or black metal at all. But, for this book I’ve listened to ALL bands in it, and there’s a LOT of death and black metal. As a result I’ve actually come to like a lot of these bands, the more melodic stuff like Soilwork, The Haunted, Sterbhaus, In Flames and Unleashed, but also stuff like Watain I’ve come to like. My first choice of music is however still seventies influenced heavy rock/metal and bands like Spiritual Beggars, Mojobone, Grand Magus etc.
Can you tell us about your background as a writer and in music? This obviously isn’t your first project.
I got into music very early on and started playing guitar around the age of nine, made my first demo with the band TNT back in 1977, recorded my first single with the band Paradize in 1979 and formed Overdrive in 1980, with whom I’ve made a bunch of records. I also started doing some reviews for a local zine in 1982-83. My writing got more serious in 1989, when I started writing and reviewing for Backstage Magazine and since then I’ve written for a lot of magazines such as Hard Roxx, Kool Kat News, Sweden Rock Magazine, FUZZ Magazine etc. I did my first encyclopedia in 1996 and the second one in 2002. At the same time I’ve also made records with bands like Locomotive Breath, Mountain Of Power, Zello, Planet Alliance, Constancia etc. I still play in Overdrive, Constancia and Grand Design.
How did you get the confidence to tackle such a massive work? (It can’t all come from the writer’s famous “courage in a can” — coffee — itself, can it?)
Well, to be honest, it’s a combination of sincere interest for Swedish metal, being a music nerd and, yes, lots of strong, fine Swedish coffee. Besides beer and booze, it’s the only “drug” I’ve ever touched!
If you had to select five heavy and/or metal acts from Sweden to convince a newcomer that this scene is vital and worth investigating, what would they be?
As there are such a variety of styles within the Swedish scene I’d pick accordingly, so to check out the melodic death metal scene go for Soilwork, get some classic heavy metal with Grand Magus, some high class AOR with Eclipse, doom with Avatarium and progressive rock with A.C.T. To start with.
What’s next for you? Will you continue music journalism? Where do readers go to find out more about your work?
I still write and review for FUZZ, Metal Central and Metal Covenant when time allows it. I also have my own reviews blog and I’m now working on my next book entitled The History of Swedish Hard Rock and Heavy Metal, which will be as the title says, a more history-based book on the Swedish metal scene from the late 60s and until today with stories, interviews with prominent Swedish bands etc. Not sure when it will be finished, but I’m working on it. I’m currently also working on two new albums by Constancia and Grand Design for release in 2014. We’ve got lots of gigs booked for Grand Design as well as Overdrive. High Roller Records are also re-issuing the first Overdrive album on vinyl with an entire bonus LP of demos. No rest for the wicked!
Death Metal Epic I:
The Inverted Katabasis
by Dean Swinford
Atlatl Press, 160 pages, $10
The intersection of death metal and fiction has so far remained fairly murky. Part of this is because writing fiction about death metal is hard and has a tiny audience, where writing fiction that mimics death metal is downright impossible and will send us all scurrying back to our Lovecraft and Poe.
However, Dr. Dean Swinford has given this one a shot with his book Death Metal Epic I: The Inverted Katabasis. In occult circles, the term katabasis takes on a new meaning of a descent into hell or an occult world beneath this one. Death Metal Epic I: The Inverted Katabasis describes an early 1990s death metaller dealing with the collapse of his technical melodic Tampa death metal band, and his rebirth first through an alternate musical avenue, and next through his induction into the extreme black metal underworld.
Working in a book store after the breakup of his girlfriend and the hiatus of his death metal band after a promising but ignored first album, David Fosberg is under siege from his record label which wants him to produce the second album now. The problem is that the modern world has eaten up the souls of his bandmates, who are now pursuing “normal” activities and have zero interest in death metal. He should grow up; death metal doesn’t make money, doesn’t get girls or make you famous. Or so they say. Instead, Fosberg pursues an unusual collaboration and applies the death metal spirit to a new form of music.
Swinford’s writing resembles a cross between a toned-down David Foster Wallace and Raymond Carver. The prose is simplified, with little time spent on set and setting, and the first-person perspective in which it is written allows the lead character to state intentions and escape dense exposition. This lets Swinford regulate the speed at which the novel progresses, and he uses this to skim over most of the boring parts. In the final third of the novel some confusion emerges because enough events have occurred that every interaction has many possibilities and the author is trying to show why some must become foreclosed. David Fosberg is a naturally likeable character who resembles many who can be observed in the death metal scene: a fundamentally normal person of above-average intelligence who is bored and frustrated by society, and mired in doubt and alienation.
Death Metal Epic I: The Inverted Katabasis is structured around its eponymous descent, except that here the descent begins and then seems to be ending, setting the stage for more action before the book ends on a warlike and inspiring note. Liberal use is made of metal history, not just band names but famous historical metal sayings, tropes, common events or observations in the life of a metalhead, and other details that only a metalhead might know. These are presented in such a way that an outsider can read them and think them “quirky” perhaps but not think less of the book for it. The result is a book that reads well, moves quickly and introduces the art form of death metal through stories of its devotees.
Relying on both postmodern literary technique and a much older Gothic sense of dark storytelling, Death Metal Epic I: The Inverted Katabasis shows metalheads and death metal in a light that may be understandable outside the genre. Within the genre, it evokes familiar history and ever-present struggles, forming less of a travelogue than an introspection as Fosberg attempts to fit his mind around the difficult task of being both alienated and having a place in the world. While it might not occur to me to take a fictional narrative of death metal down off a shelf, I was glad to read this one.
a source of great and sudden wealth or luck; a spectacular windfall: The play proved to be a bonanza for its lucky backers.
Does anyone remember Morgion? They had a reunion a few years ago, and it seemed to peak interest for a month and then vanish. That’s a far cry from how it was in the late 1990s when Morgion was considered the future of metal.
Morgion was atmospheric heavy metal styled doom metal, or basically Black Sabbathy stuff with a little death metal technique and a lot of keyboards. Death metal had just burnt out, and the labels needed something new to fire out the cannons. As a result, the first doom metal boom was born.
This boom died of course because the real public discovered black metal exactly five years past its point of relevance, and suddenly it was quite popular and everyone had to have a black metal band. But before that, the labels and magazines had been casting about for something to call the future. No one wants to admit the best days are behind, but for all things, the day comes when that is true.
Back to Morgion. What happened? They produced some albums, lost a band member to a tragic accident, toured a lot and were on the cover of every magazine. Following up years later on the trail Cathedral blazed, there was a brief period where melodic and atmospheric doom metal bands came out of the woodwork to inherit the spotlight. There was a great gold rush to get on the gravy train of the popular trend of the moment, as if illustrating the dangers warned of by black metal. Death metal bands slowed down and added keyboards and strings. It was an odd time, one where the indecision in the air smelled strong.
My point is this, and it’s stolen straight out of Plato: there’s two ways to approach life. The first is to figure out what the idea is that gives it meaning, and then put that into flesh. The other is to accept the flesh as the end goal, and then use ideas to justify the behavior of the flesh. The first doom metal boom was the latter. It wasn’t about expressing an idea, cultivating a soul or any of the good things music does (including bringing us face to face with our fears and making us want to win). It was about bucketloads of cash since no one had any upward ideas.
We’ve forgotten about this now, shoveled it straight into the memory hole. Think about it: there was a time when you couldn’t go anywhere in metal without hearing about Morgion. Now you never do, only a decade later. And other bands persist seemingly immortal. It seems the first (Platonic) approach leads to something greater than life itself, where the latter drags us down into the same morass that clutches pop, politics, late night TV and mass religion, and once it has us it will never let go.
The third edition of contemporary old school print zine Codex Obscurum brings vast improvements to this already-promising zine. Under the guidance of editor Kevin Ord, Codex Obscurum has improved its readability, positioned its content for an in-depth view of the metal scene, become more consistent about its most important sections and added experimental content that expands what we think of metal zines.
The first thing a reader will notice is that readability is improved. This refers to the visual appearance of the text and how easy it is on our eyes. Since the 1980s, computer and printer technology for the average person have improved (all of this cool stuff was available then, you just couldn’t afford it). As a result, backgrounds and gradients are more likely to be used, as are complex fonts. The problem with that is that when the result is put out through a Xerox-like format, these fancy things can blur together or create contrast differences that apply torque to human optic nerves. This time around, the Codex Obscurum guys dialed back the fonts and went for more computer-y fonts on lighter backgrounds. Their best format remains the one they used for the Summoning, Disma and Nocturnal Deathstrike Records interviews, which is a white page with a border of hand-drawn art. Of course, this is the most expensive to create because it requires a human artist, but I wish the whole zine could be this way. It’s a killer look that is both like the old school and takes advantage of newer layout abilities. I also don’t mind if the whole zine is in Times New Roman and a good sans-serif font. That being said, however, readability is massively improved here and layouts mentioned above are positively gorgeous. It reminds me of the best of the 1980s zines that always seemed like little art books.
In terms of content, Codex Obscurum was never a slouch. Previous issues included high profile acts like Incantation, Skepticism, Morpheus Descends and Rozz Williams. Issue #3 has chats with Saint Vitus, Mortuary Drape, Disma and Summoning among others, raising the Codex Obscurum profile even further. The zine has also stabilized its organization so that the vital content is present and in the roughly expected proportions. There are more record reviews and a solid block of interviews framed by show reports and features. In particular, having a big block of record reviews at the end is useful for the person who picks up a zine to figure out “what’s happening” in the metal world and might have a few minutes to scan for something fun to buy at the end of a long work-week. This “feels” more solid as a zine since the relevant content keeps coming and there’s no filler, with firm boundaries between sections such that none of them seem to be second-class citizens. In addition, Codex Obscurum has added experimental content in the form of stories and reflections. While some of this was indicated in the past, such as the surreal and passionate tribute to Slayer‘s Jeff Hanneman from the second issue, here there’s a crossover more like a bleed-in from a literary zine or chapbook. The result helps the end of the zine not trail off, but offer solid content of variegated types consistently throughout.
The result of all of the above is that the third issue of Codex Obscurum shows this zine picking up where the past left off, and going further. Not only that but it does so with high quality and in a way that gives this zine its own personality and brand. I’m looking forward to seeing more from Codex Obscurum as it races forward into the future …of the past.
I used to move around a lot when I was a young adult (perhaps I still am young compared to some of the other more seasoned writers at DMU). Shortly before I moved to Tampa, Florida I was acquainted with a band from Pennsylvania called Lethal Prayer, which was like a mixture of Acheron and Incantation influences with a Dissection-esque undertone. Lead guitarist Belial Koblak also relocated to Tampa and gave me CDs of each of his projects. I grew keen to Lethal Prayer because of the era that it was from and the mentality that’s behind it.
Spiritual Decay was self-released in 1996 by Koblak’s Decaying Filth Music which issued most of his recordings and demos. The album comprises straightforward early 1990s death metal with competent musicianship. Koblak makes good use of his classical influences to present interesting ideas which might’ve been unorthodox in the death metal period when Spiritual Decay was released.
Most riffs are in the format that was standard for death metal and integrated into songs of typical underground metal construction. This formula is roughly: introduction -> development -> chorus -> revisit development -> epic-like endings usually encompassing the chorus section. Sometimes additional passages are introduced to divert from being too formulaic but the focus is generally on riffs more than song structure.
Unfortunately Spiritual Decay was the only full-length release that would emerge from the Lethal Prayer camp in their twenty-plus years of existence. If band stability was consistent and line-up issues had not been a problem with being productive, Lethal Prayer might have breached the realm of obscurity as they fine-tuned their musical output.
When Burzum released Hvis Lyset Tar Oss in 1994, underground metal was forever split. This album featured longer songs where concept was closely intertwined with song structure, and riff shape defined by mood. It both made undone past paradigms and raised the bar.
After that point, black metal and death metal deflated. The initial rise of ideas created in reaction to outrage at a dying civilization was gone, and nothing else propelled the genre forward, so it fell into self-imitation based on outward traits. Further, few bands could handle the raised bar, so it was “explained away” in social circles and the music tended toward the more primitive, not less.
Thus is the problem with raising the bar. Once you have done it, people either rise to the challenge and forge ahead in the new language, or have to hide the fact that they’re here for the gravy train which means they want to make the same dumbass music they would make in rock, pop, punk or blues, but use some distortion and call it “black metal.” That leads to high margins: the product is cheap to make because it’s a well-known type, but it has a higher markup due to novelty.
However, unless you’re deaf, you’ve noticed that the output of underground metal has seriously flagged in quality since the mid-1990s. Not so in quantity, of course, where we have more bands than ever before who have better production, are better instrumentalists, and generally more savvy at the music industry. Unfortunately the music they produce is not as good as what a few lonely intelligent outcasts did in the early 1990s.
This leads us back to a question of metal’s growth. Do we keep up with the raised bar? Style is not substance, but the two are related. Without enough substance, style never evolves; without the right style, substance often gets lost. Artists tend to visualize the two at the same time as part of the same articulation of an idea that they are communicating through mood, or the sensation of perceiving something and wanting to engage with it. In theory, metal could continue with what it has, using the same styles but writing new music, and many bands have succeeded in that. But keeping up with the raised bar has some advantages.
First, instrumental metal would be difficult and this would draw a line between metal and the pop, rock, blues and rap and place us closer to ambient and classical in the respect scale. Take for example this quote from educator Liam Malloy:
“In the past, heavy metal has not been taken seriously and is seen as lacking academic credibility when compared with other genres such as jazz and classical music. But that’s just a cultural construction.”
Second, this change would get rid of the vocal problem in metal. We know what death/black metal vocals are, but the shock has worn off as they’ve been appropriated by other genres. They are not extreme anymore, and overused by those who like them because a plausible imitation is easy to pull off. On the other hand, shouting vocals (Pantera) are annoying, most male singing sounds like drunk guys brawling, and the high pitched “operatic” vocals divide an audience. No vocals, no worries.
Third, this would make it easier to tell real metal bands from the weekenders. Real bands can put together long pieces that make sense, where the weekends just want the appearance thereof. Contrast real progressive rock like Yes to the somewhat paltry substitute in Opeth. Opeth have nailed the aesthetic, but not the underlying musical depth or density. When you hear the two together, it’s clear they are from different genres.
Fourth, instrumental metal would enable greater riffiness in metal. Already there’s a storm of protest when “riff salad” songs emerge, even if the riff makes sense. Much of death metal was an end run around using constant verse-chorus vocals, thus liberating guitars to create more interplay between riffs. Without vocals to keep bringing the song back to repetition, riffs could have greater leeway and repetition would exist not out of standard song form, but to emphasize parts of the song that need repeating for the sake of atmosphere.
Many people out there want metal to go instrumental. While it loses the masculine and terrifying aspect of the vocals, it encourages a competition among metal bands to not only preserve that but make it more extreme among their instrumentals. And if anything, that’s closer to the spirit of metal itself.
Formed in 2002, Aosoth launched themselves down an intellectual path blazed by the Order of Nine Angles, a theological Satanist outfit whose ideology differs greatly from the usual atheistic, materialist Satanism of modern “black metal.” This would become significant as the band evolved musically to match their inclinations in aesthetic and ideal.
Early Aosoth releases fit within the run-of-the-mill French black metal style with more aggression and yet control than most bands of that type were demonstrating at the time. As the band incubated their sound changes came, and each release improved upon prior works while also reaching for a style more likely to be unique to Aosoth.
IV: An Arrow in Heart meshes textures the way a painter mixes paint and applies to canvas. Most songs are in a somewhat standard format with riffs recycled often. Though the pitfalls of being monotonous from repetitive riffing are present in this release, Aosoth keep it interesting by having well-thought-out structures and progressions. Occasional ambiance meshes with the bleak and desolate droning riffs to provide an atmosphere of distress.
As black metal has found itself in a position of being separated from its origins without having discovered a path to the future, releases like IV: An Arrow in Heart site astride two very different standards, loyalty to form and need to innovate. While none will argue that Aosoth has left black metal behind like the post-metal et-al crowd, it is clear that this band has found a way to innovate within a faithful tribute to the past, and the result has given the band the voice it had desperately needed.
The Swedish grindcore band Carbonized came from an era when metal was still defining itself, and grew up alongside the more intense death metal acts which were putting Sweden on the map. Carbonized remains somewhat less known because the band embraced weirdness and unconventionality in everything it did, which makes for great art but not a conveniently wrapped-up listening experience.
Through three classic albums — For the Security, Disharmonization, and Screaming Machines — Carbonized put its mark on the death metal and grindcore underground by using outrageous technique and converting ideas from other genres into their metal equivalents. While in too “raw” of a form on the Carbonized releases, these ideas were picked up by other bands in more easily digestible forms and thus made their way into the core of those genres.
Luckily someone has bootlegged the Carbonized demos in the grand tradition of underground metal. The three demos and one EP on this CD chronicle the emergence of Carbonized and, as time goes on, its refinement from a fuzzy concept to a clear personality and eventually, such a strong presence that its songwriting is immediately distinctive even when simpler and less polished than what we expect from the albums.
The “Auto-da-Fe” demo from 1989 shows the band as a primitive grindcore/death metal hybrid that leans toward the kind of epic statement that death metal bands made but without much reliance on tremolo strumming. “Re-Carbonized” from 1990 shows the style most will recognize from For the Security, with detuned guitars and recursive-chug riffing among the broad chord progressions played without embellishment in rigid linear rhythms. This gives the music a stark and birds-eye-view character but also places it outside of where death metal was, musically, at the time. This isn’t riff interplay so much as an advanced layering of verse-chorus pairs. Next is No Canonization which shows a messier and more conventional grindcore band that could have been on par with Napalm Death in the same year. A strong inclination to use melody to counter-balance chromatic riffing gives this an expansive feel. Finally, “Demo 3” from 1991 shows us a more confident and technically advanced band who have mixed the techniques of death metal into primitive grind and come up with a melodic but structured and semi-theatrical sound. Its essential character and weirdness shines through, which preserves the esoteric feel of this material.
Probably of interest only to Carbonized fanatics or at least Swedish death metal devotees, Demo Collection reveals facets of this band who shared members with Dismember, Therion and Entombed that had been lost to time. For those of us who think For the Security may be one of grindcore’s lost classics, seeing these demos emerge again is both a treat and an invitation to explore the murky history behind this shadowed movement.
War Master attempt to create a new form of the classic death metal and grindcore that defined the underground metal period. Taking their name from a Bolt Thrower song, the band might be expected to sound like that august act, but the truth is more nuanced. War Master make a language of their own from pieces of the past.
This language can be confusing because many of these pieces of the past are recognizable, although never entire songs, so that War Master tend to pair an old riff archetype with a new riff of their own creation, or use song structure or aesthetic ideas but apply them with new forms. As a result, parts of this are immediately recognizable and it takes some moments to mentally integrate the past with the current version of the same form.
On Blood Dawn, a fifteen-minute EP, War Master drop back from their smoothly integrated style for a rougher, catchier and more Swedish death metal version of their sound. Applying the classic Swedish distortion, War Master also rely heavily on the bounding riffs of the first couple Entombed and Grave releases, producing an urgent and jubilantly violent sound.
The result is a new style for War Master that is both more hasty and, by being more raw, a bit more accessible and yet more fanatically old school. This compares favorably to the latest Autopsy which takes a similar approach. Simplified song forms, although not the verse-chorus loops of pop fame, plus catchy riffs like the most compelling heavy metal at high speed, guide these songs to immediate enjoyment.
While Blood Dawn shows this band with new personnel and new strengths, it loses some of what made Pyramid of the Necropolis so powerful, which was its tight-fitting and intricate structures. If history is any guide, War Master will explore this new direction and slowly work it into form so that they can be more articulate with this new — yet older — voice.
I used to loathe end-of-year lists. They struck me as a pointless chance to advertise what should have been obvious before. Over the years they have risen in my estimation as a way not only to mark the year, but to bring up the gold that gets lost in the chaos of everyday life. And yes, they’re also shopping lists for the metalhead in your life.
This year our list is surprising even to hardened cynics. At a time when metal is bragging up and down the Williamsburg alleys about how “innovative” and “ground-breaking” it is, that novelty turns out to be the remnants of the 1980s: emo, pop punk, shoegaze and indie. The real innovation is as always underground, because to get out of the hive mind one must first remove oneself from participation in normalcy.
Thus what you will find here is not what you will see in either (a) the big-label-financed slick magazines and web sites or (b) the majority of small zines and websites out there. That is because the genre as a whole has shifted from creation towards an idea to emulation of the past, or reaction to the past by trying to adulterate it with outside influences. Neither approach succeeds.
When a reviewer chooses an album, he should pick one that will last in your collection. Your time is limited, as is your money. Thus we look only for works that you can purchase and enjoy over the years, and can return to with a sense of wonder and discovery as new angles and nuances emerge. This standard seems high, so they call us elitists. What we really are is people who love metal and want it to be strengthened by its best, not weakened by accepting its worst.
The following albums are those that merit such a standard:
Argus – Beyond The Martyrs
Rejecting the notion of newness in itself, Argus returns to fundamental influences from the 1980s and makes a band that sounds like a fusion between Mercyful Fate, Iron Maiden and Candlemass. Guitar riffery is designed to be inventive and interesting in its own right but is trimmed down to what fits the function of each song. As a result, these songs “sound like” the classics in more ways than one. They are thoughtful and deliberate, purposeful and driven. Classic heavy metal riffs merge with meandering leads that somehow pull it all together, under the mournful voice of a vocalist who clearly enjoys classic Candlemass both in vocal delivery and sense of melody. See full review / interview.
Autopsy – The Headless Ritual
Autopsy are famous for their contributions to death metal which notably peaked in Mental Funeral where their chaotic tendencies got wrapped up in their sense of atmosphere and produced a dark ambling journey into the subconscious. Of their later works, The Headless Ritual gets close to such a balance although it aims for something more everyday. This is an album that wants to deliver classic death metal thrills, and it does so with moderately paced songs that balance melody and savage chromatic riffing. Chris Reifert’s drumming pirouttes and grapples through vicious tempo changes as riffs unlock a Lament Configuration that is equal parts nostalgia and invention.
Birth A.D. – I Blame You
What happened to real thrash, like DRI and Cryptic Slaughter? In much the same vein as hardcore punk before it, thrash was so intense that it burned out after only four years of real presence. Birth A.D. wisely choose not to “bring it back” but rather to pick up as if thrash were a party and the next day, the hung over participants awaken among the ruins. They’ve sharpened its message, which merged the anarchy of punk with the search for societal purpose of metal, and given its riffs the S.O.D. speed metal infusion without unduly modernizing them. As a result, these two-minute songs hit hard and retreat into the jungle, leaving behind their sardonic lyrics mocking society for being so stupid. When the record stops playing, there is a sense of both having received too much information to process, and a sadness that there isn’t more. See full review.
Black Sabbath – 13
Realizing what Black Sabbath meant to fans not just as a named entity but as a phenomenon, Black Sabbath integrate the sounds of vocalist Ozzy Osbourne’s solo years into their later, more refined music, with citations to Master of Reality as well. The result is a powerful album that is more pop than their original works but, in a time when nu-metal rages on the radio, reclaims heavy metal as having a voice of its own. It also pushes controversy, affirming a presence of God in this world for good or ill at a time when most people want to get polemic one way or the other. A supporting cast of sprawling but hard-hitting songs make this a great immersive lesson and transition from regular rock to metal for new listeners. See full review.
Blitzkrieg – Back From Hell
This band shares members with Satan, who also re-entered the fray with an album of strong tunes. Like Satan, Blitzkrieg know how to simultaneously avoid “changing” for change’s sake (inevitably a lateral move to other contemporarily popular genres) and nostalgia for nostalgia’s sake, making instead an album that fits into their catalogue but doesn’t deny the older, wiser status of its members. These are mostly straightforward songs with melodic choruses and driving, riff-centric verses, plus nimble-fingered and harmonically-aggressive soloing. See full review.
Burzum – Sôl Austan, Mâni Vestan
People said they wanted old Burzum back. The spirit of old Burzum comes back in this ambient album. It’s a bit more hasty and less refined by fanatical attention to detail than his previous works, but it creates the same world, only zoomed forward in time. It is both a practical and imaginative album. In style, it resembles a cross between Tangerine Dream, William Orbit and the Scandinavian folk music of Grieg, Hedningarna or Wardruna. Strongly ritualized, it unfolds like a descent through mythical worlds and finds its own balance. One of the best offerings in this field. See full review / interview.
Centurian – Contra Rationem
For years many of us have wanted this Dutch band to catch a break. They have written several albums of relentlessly pounding, rhythmically intense riffing that somehow doesn’t add up. First, writing the whole album at high speed means that soon it backgrounds itself; second, there was always a lack of melody or song structure to hold it together. Centurian have improved on the latter two and toned down the former to a great degree, such that this is no longer trying to be Krisiun but more like a more Angelcorpse/Fallen Christ approach to Consuming Impulse. The result showcases this band’s dexterity with riffcraft and creates an intense atmosphere of violence. See full review.
Cóndor – Nadia
This entry album by a new band shows a lot of promise in tackling the power metal format and trying to give it the balls of death metal and funeral doom metal. This contemplative, mostly mid-paced album shows a sense of atmosphere as manipulated by riff, in the death metal sense, given a somewhat upward curve and heroic spin in the best tradition of power metal. Although it’s a new act, and still organizing itself, Cóndor shows that life remains in true metal that can be explored by revisiting its motivations. See full review / interview.
Derogatory – Above All Else
In the tradition of Vader, Mortuary and other fast phrasal death metal bands, Derogatory invoke the classic death metal form with an album of nicely interlocking riffs that reveal a basic but distinctive structure beneath each song. This album is not self-consciously “retro” so much as it is using the voice of the older style, and while it doesn’t expand stylistically, it has found a voice of its own. See full review/interview.
Empyrium – Into the Pantheon
Combining funeral doom metal with European folk music creates for Empyrium a fertile style that is showcased here in a retrospective of the best of their career presented in a rare live setting. Expect plenty of use of silence and resonance to build up these songs, which start slowly and then become engaging before evaporating into more esoteric conclusions. While most funeral doom aims to be dark, Empyrium creates an emotional contrast like a Gothic band, with beauty arising from chaos only to be strangled by inevitability and fall again. See full review / interview.
Graveland – Thunderbolts of the Gods
Following up on 2012’s Lord Wind release, Polish/Italian artist Rob Darken unleashes a new work under his black metal brand Graveland. Like the band’s second career-defining Memory and Destiny, this release features Bathory Hammerheart-style guitars which mix speed metal and black metal to produce rhythmic riffing as a backdrop for keyboards and vocals, now featuring also human female vocals and violin. The result is a collision between heavy metal, neofolk and epic movie soundtracks that evokes the glory of the ancient past.
Master – The Witchhunt
Paul Speckmann is a metal institution who has stayed with death metal from its genesis in the early 1980s through the presence. His latest, The Witchhunt, showcases the stable lineup he has used for recent releases but tones down the overall intensity to focus on songwriting. Fast riffs blend together with touches of melody and the classic Speckmann vocal patterns which resemble the struggles of daily life turned up to eleven. Where previous Master works of recent vintage tended to blend together, on this one each song is distinct. See full review / interview.
Profanatica – Thy Kingdom Cum
Taking a hint from Necrovore and intensifying it through technical prowess, Profanatica step back from the longer melodic riffs of Profanatitas de Domonatia and instead write short, cyclic phrases within compact rhythms in the style of the ancient Texas death metal cult. The result is like a primitive album with complexity embedded in it as melodies expand within fixed riff forms, uniting savagery and beauty in the service of blasphemy. As with all Profanatica works, this is experimental to the extreme, but Thy Kingdom Cum ranks among their most listenable releases. See full review /interview.
Rudra – RTA
The Singaporean maniacs return with an album that uses more traditional melodic death metal riffing but retains its rhythmic structure based on speed metal and possibly the Hindu rituals described in its lyrics. As with most Rudra releases, RTA does not aim for the pop song idea of hitting a sweet spot and luring in your ears. It is the construction of an experience, in this case a dark descent that forges a resolve to continue through warfare and a martial stilling of the reckless personality through militant silence of the soul.
Satan – Life Sentence
The rougher edge of NWOBHM that was a kissing cousin to speed metal emerges again in this highly musical album from Satan. Like their groundbreaking early 1980s works which presaged the debut of Metallica and birth of speed metal, Life Sentence features inventive riffs in classic song format in which melodic development in the vocals harmonizes riffs to bring songs to a conclusion. Shy of speed metal mostly because it relies on relatively fixed song format which emphasizes verse-chorus riff pairs, this album nonetheless reveals both the greatness of NWOBHM and its continuing relevance in a time of tuneless songs and random song structure. See full review / interview.
Summoning – Old Mornings Dawn
After black metal fully constituted itself in the early 1990s in Scandinavia, people looked for the next development along these lines. Some went to dark ambient, but others like Summoning and Graveland instead explored longer melodies and more drawn-out, atmospheric songs. Summoning take a medieval and Tolkien-inspired approach in contrast to the more martial outlook of other bands, and produce as a result immersive waves of melody that evoke a more organic society. With Old Mornings Dawn, these Austrian metal maniacs build on the emotion of Oath Bound but exploit it in more compact and separable songs, making one of the more intense metal statements of the year. See full review.
Von – Dark Gods, Seven Billion Slaves
Following up on Von’s early career material like Satanic Blood is not easy; in fact, it’s impossible. A band would either have to re-create that minimalist style and risk irrelevance, or embark on a campaign to dress it up as something it is not. Von has opted for something else entirely which is to create a minimalistic core within a rock opera style of black metal, producing one of the more puzzling but satisfying releases in the underground metal world this year. See full review.
Wardruna – Runaljod – Yggdrasil
Combining folk music, world music, droning found noises and the type of ritualistic dark ambient that emerged from the end days of black metal, Wardruna is a black metal side project that offers a different vision of music. While earlier works seemed detached from the end listener, Runaljod – Yggdrasil embeds the listener within a wave of ceremonial sound that aims not to be forebrain listening as Western rock is, but a mentally ambient experience that overwhelms by addressing all of the senses and channeling that experience toward a realization.
War Master – Blood Dawn
Underground death metal continuation act War Master released a four-track EP, Blood Dawn, amidst personnel changes and other upheavals this year. Like the previous Pyramid of the Necropolis, Blood Dawn focuses on futuristic and yet ancient concepts, almost like Voivod taking on Robert E. Howard or Edgar Rice Burroughs. From this vast concept come songs that both grind their way to nihilism and implement the death metal method of matching riffs into an internal dialogue from which a conclusion emerges, creating a pocket of mystery which is filled with wonder and violence.
Album of the year:
Imprecation – Satanae Tenebris Infinita
There is no completely fair way to pick an album of the year from a list with this many strong contenders, but Imprecation win this one on both substance and situation. For substance, this is a solid album that combines a black metal sense of ritualistic song development with the death metal tendency to make abstract riffs into an organic whole. For situation, Satanae Tenebris Infinita sees a band that started in 1991 and is famous for releasing its discography of demos in 1995 finally reach a stage where it can release a full-length album independent of any past influences. In addition, Satanae Tenebris Infinita hits hard and does not relent. Each element serves a purpose toward creating a transition in moods, like a perpetual parallax as continents shift. If death metal was waiting for a direction forward, Imprecation have opened that gate to a new occult science and art of subversive metal. See full review / interview.
The following were considered, and then not so much considered:
Morbosidad – Muerte De Cristo En Golgota. This is like Krisiun or Impiety rendered in the style of Mystifier, or like any of the war metal bands that imitated Blasphemy but with a dose of downtuned Sarcofago. It’s not bad, but aside from high intensity rhythm, it doesn’t have much to offer. Thus think of it as Satanic death techno performed on muddy guitars.
Fates Warning – Darkness in a Different Light. Bands: don’t try to roll with the trends. You were good at something else for a reason. This album has strong smary indie rock influences on its vocals and the result is embarrassing to be caught listening to. Riffs are reasonable, but don’t particularly develop, and emphasize space and consistency more than something with a personality.
Grave Upheaval – Untitled. Not bad; mostly rumbling noises, very true to form. Unfortunately, also doesn’t go anywhere. It’s an atmosphere piece of one dimension.
Warlord – The Holy Empire. Some sort of rock-metal hybrid from back in the day, this form of power metal uses mostly lead riffing anchored by static open chording. The dominant instrument is the voice, more like Rush or Asia than most metal. It’s pleasant but lullabye and too close to rock music.
Hell – Curse and Chapter. Do you know how far I would have run to get away from this back in the 1980s? It’s NWOBHM/early power metal without much melodic movement in the riff, so there’s a lot of chugging and shifting but not much actual motion. Nor will you have much actual motion as you listen to this… in fact, you might find yourself immobile and snoring.
Battlecross – War of Will. This is traditional metal affected by metalcore aesthetics. The vocals follow the surge pattern of later hardcore, and the melodic riffs use rhythmic “chasing” to accelerate patterns older than Chuck Berry. The result is so distracting the band can’t compose a song, but instead write a riff pair and then leap into a blast beat to transition.
Enforcer – Death by Fire. Here we have another band from Scandinavia creating highly musically-literate, catchy and otherwise perfect music. The problems are twofold: (1) it is a clone of 1970s styles that are liked for their innocent pop cheeze (2) while it is emotive, and aesthetically appealing, it is also empty.
Queensryche – Queensryche. Since the band went legal on each other, there’s now two Queensryches… this one sounds like Coldplay. The same posi-pop vibe and expansive chorus feel drives this work, and it has a similar outlook on the world, which is a sort of pathological compulsion to make things beautiful instead of finding beauty where it is rare. Unsettling.
Leprous – Coal. If this Queen-slash-bad-indie band gets anywhere in metal, it’s time to bury the genre under warm ruminant feces. Power metal mixed with dramatic English pop. The result is bracingly twee with metal riffs batting about in the background.
Iggy and the Stooges – Ready to Die. Almost all reviews of this album will waffle, because it is good, but it’s not distinctive. It all kind of flows together, as if the band paid more attention to the aesthetics of sounding like themselves than whatever’s driving them. But how do you “be punk” when you have a paid up retirement plan and health insurance?
Abyssal – Novit Enim Dominus Qui Sunt Eius. This was the hip thing for a few weeks, but shows you that you cannot revive a genre by imitating it through outward form. These songs use all the right pieces, but in a random order, and thus create no mood except nostalgia. And I piss on nostalgia’s grave.
Tyrant’s Blood – Into the Kingdom of Graves. Great title, has a Blasphemy ex-member, can’t go wrong… right? There’s a lot to like about this, but it doesn’t hold together. It embraces the “hotel buffet” style of offering many different riff types in a single song that ends up distorting any coherence. Storming Perdition Temple-style fast metal explodes into melodic mid-paced riffs and then ends up chugging deathgrind, lost and adrift on the seas of making a point.
Cultes des Ghoules – Henbane. It’s ludicrous that so many in the underground were fooled by this comical album. It’s a lot of bad heavy metal riffs interrupted by “avantgarde” noise, samples, etc. — the usual cliches — so that you don’t notice it’s bog-standard. This is hipster incarnate.
Acerus – The Unreachable Salvation. Galloping uptempo yet mid-paced heavy metal with a lot of Iron Maiden and Mercyful Fate. Not bad, but not particularly expansive to anything more than that aesthetic role.
Aosoth – IV: Arrow in Heart. This album, like Immolation, got credit because people expected it should. Its strong point is listenable songs with some technicality; its weakness is that they express nothing strong. It is Participation with an A+ for method and a B- for content.
Sodom – Epitome of Torture. This rather sentimental, somewhat modern-metal influenced take on a speed metal album is very catchy and represents Sodom’s most professional work, but also loses the unique perspective this band offered on the world around it. This is more like the heavy metal albums of their youths, heavy on emotion which makes their repetitive, chorus-heavy approach almost too saccharine.
Grave Miasma – Odori Sepulcorum. I have wallpaper. It’s named “It’s 1991 again and you can rediscover things you believed in once again.” It sounds like a mishmash of 1990s era death metal and yet, because it’s wallpaper, it never comes to a point. It just creates an atmosphere.
Týr – Valkyrja. Power metal of the newer stype seems to me it has a mystery ingredient, and that is devotional music. This sounds like church music, with sweeping choruses and whole-note cadences, and it has an admitted power, but it also loses much of what makes metal powerful: it’s not protest music, nor is it music that tries to cover ugliness with beauty, but music that finds beauty in what is considered ugly.
Onslaught – VI. Eager to effect a return to the music business, Onslaught speed up their punk/metal hybrid but adopt the vocal styles and constant driving mechanical rhythm of modern metal. The result is unrelenting but also disconnected and monolithic. The catchy choruses don’t help and seem almost to mock the rest of the music, which sounds like a pilotless threshing machine gone amok in a pumpkin patch…
Death Angel – The Dream Calls for Blood. In the 1980s, speed metal bands had a certain annoying rhythm where they tried to be as obnoxiously bouncy as possible while ranting as intensely as possible. With modern metal much of the internal rhythmic interplay has been eliminated, resulting in something that sounds like chanting Stalinist propaganda with guitars strobing in the background.
Bölzer – Aura. Like Oranssi Pazuzu, Bölzer experiment in disorganized slowed black/death/heavy metal with mixed-in weirdo alternative rock. Weirdo alternative rock has existed since early rock bands made a name for themselves by being odd. The problem is that it doesn’t connect to form an impression, only a sense of instrumentalism.
Coffins – The Fleshland. Doom-death with some quality riffing, Coffins nonetheless manage to inevitably get lost in each of their songs and fill the void with noodly pentatonic leads, distracted tributaries of non-essential riffs, and “atmospheric” repetition.
Metal Church – Generation Nothing. This shrill metal band has always struck me as more in the heavy metal camp than speed metal camp, and here it’s borne out. The riffs don’t have form like speed metal riffs do but are mostly static based on rhythmic repetition. Focus is on the voice, which wails. Not bad but annoying and kind of empty. Also, older guys trying to bond with the new generation is awkward when done this way.
Malthusian – MMXIII. Like many sonic experiments, this band relies on style to shape content because style is the substance of the experiment. The idea here is to combine the Incantation-clone death metal that is trendy with melodic progressive touches, including some sneakster modern metal influences. The result loses what could have been and fails to transition to what it wants to be.
Stratovarius – Nemesis. When did this band get so bad? The first track sounds like a rip of Heart’s “On My Own,” and the rest of the album proceeds in this fashion: combine classic metal riff archetype with classic 1980s vocal melody, add some flourishes and hope it’s good enough. I liked it better when this band was more speed metally and less pop.