The Best Underground Metal of 2012

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

The Best Metal (and related) of 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • Timeghoul – 1992-1994 Metal developed its own sense of “progressive” and “technical” music long before it imported jazz-fusion in order to help it. In fact, part of metal’s birth was from the original progressive rock in the 1970s and the soundtracks of horror movies, which gave it a predilection for this direction. “Progressive” itself is a misnomer since nothing new gets discovered in music, but probably more accurately means “complex”: music with unconventional song structures, extensive use of harmony, melody and key; possibly linked to some kind of story outside the music itself and the usual topics (love, sex, drama) of pop songs. These songs craft winding riffs and intricate structures, using embedded melody to transition between more chromatic riffs, and culminate in odd twists of fate that translate them into seemingly the reverse of their initial outlook. Culminating in the epic 10-minute “Occurrence on Mimas,” this collection of early works by this band showcase the enjoyably weird variety of death metal in its early days.

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

Disappointments of 2012

Abigor – Quintessence

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

Absurd – Asgardsrei

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

Acephalix – Deathless Master

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

Aura Noir – Out to Die

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

Coffin Texts – The Tomb of Infinite Ritual

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

Graf Spee – Reincarnation

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

Hellevetron – Death Scroll of Seven Hells and Its Infernal Majesty

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

Impiety – Ravage and Conquer

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

Inverloch – Dusk | Subside

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

Mantas – Death by Metal

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

Maveth – Coils of the Black Elite

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

Purtenance – Sacrifice the King

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

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The Best Metal of 2011

I’ve just completed reading the 2011 “best of” lists from a number of popular websites. The results are predictably dismal. Are these people incompetent or just deaf?
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DeathMetal.Org imperious choice picks of 2010 a.y.p.s.

Ares Kingdom – Incendiary
Avzhia – In My Domains
Divine Eve – Vengeful and Obstinate
Graveland – Cold Winter Blades
Immolation – Majesty and Decay
Inquisition – Ominous Doctrines of the Perpetual Mystical Macrocosm
Into Oblivion – Creation of a Monolith
Mutant Supremacy – Infinite Suffering
Profanatica – Disgusting Blasphemies Against God
Slaughter Strike – At Life’s End

Looking back on another fallen year, we might be reminded that the prior chapter of 2009 represented a global uprising of Death and Black Metal bands opposed to the phenomenon of underground Metal as a commodity as perpetuated by an impulsive, media-consumed, mass internet cult who denounce the culture of values which necessitated the very form of the music itself. This served to strengthen already riotous scenes of desecration and barbarity in extreme territories such as Australia and Canada, and forces across the United States and Europe began to mobilise with a renewed sense of dedication, guided by a selection of ancient voices who have not compromised their integrity to capture a new but deluded fanbase like their peers. The golden ages of Death and Black Metal have long since past and any campaigns to revive the spirit of Hessianism in Metal are not only in their infancy but vastly overshadowed by the populist trends that define the landscape of the genre today. As such, with the burden of anticipation on it’s shoulders, 2010 was by and large seized by veteran armies determined to distill the essence of their unholy craft from the impurities of our age, guiding further generations of warriors to victory. And though our imperious choices of 2010 are dominated by the hands of experience, a few young hordes also rose to the yawning of this battlefield to make bold and vigourous statements as the continuing legacy of true Metal’s eternal spirit.

Ares Kingdom – Incendiary

There is a certain door that any contemporary thrash band seeking quality must go through, a certain threshold that requires imagination and the indispensable talents of assimilation to really cross; in metal today, we see countless fragile trends that depend upon a rigid nostalgia and a lifeless worship of what has already happened, fully ignorant of the fact that what has true staying power is never something that was an idle imitation of something that was actually born of genius. In contrast to these bands, specifically the ones which belong to the so-called ‘retro-thrash’ trend, Ares Kingdom is of the opposite mindset; Ares Kingdom does not want to merely copy its primary influences, but to implement and authentically incorporate these influences into a relatively bold and forward-looking composition. The basic idea of Incendiary is quite simple: destroy the phoenix so that she may be reborn, an idea which is not so far from the opening narration of the Destroyer 666 track, Rise of the Predator. The execution, on the other hand, is what brings the band closer to actually demonstrating this vision than any other insignificant band that elects to portray death and apocalypse for aesthetic reasons alone; from the dismal album artwork to the indifference in Alex’s vocals, from the sad, painful melodies to the caustic and fiery riffs and solos that Chuck Keller (Order From Chaos) delivers, the listener can derive a sure sense of impending, even immediate doom. In conclusion, Ares Kingdom is not your average headbangin’, beer-swillin’, hell-worshipping thrash metal; ‘Incendiary’ offers us all the pace and vigour of the classic eighties bands, only it is properly assimilated and raised to a higher level through the cold visage of death metal and the individual imagination of the album’s creators. While sacrificing a bit of the rampant speed of the earlier recordings, ‘Incendiary’ compensates with a thoughtful development that is essential in allowing the band to convey its dark, apocalyptic vision; in other words, through the utility of a confident and dynamic mindset, Ares Kingdom has defiantly revealed a genuine idea independent of its forebears, and in so doing has crossed the threshold that has left so many inferior bands begging at the door.

Xavier

Autopsy – The Tomb Within

Of the artists who remain from times past, under whose names were unleashed the most disturbing and poignant sounds that defined Death Metal, Autopsy belong to a radical minority in rejecting the expectations of the contemporary audience and find their way back to the essence of their own sound on pure instinct alone. While the last couple of years has seen a rising of undead hordes practicing the ancient forms in a global campaign to transcend the pollutant mainstreamification of Death Metal, very few of these bands have really unlocked the primal secrets which were channelled into every classic of the old school – the dynamics of energy and the implementation within a brutal-violent, hysteric-emotional or transcendental-contemplative narrative, which the veteran likes of Asphyx, Autopsy and Goreaphobia have all recently demonstrated. The simple, largely hysteric level that The Tomb Within operates on makes it a powerful exercise of a seamless compositional style that is completely shaped by a savage state of consciousness, unintelligent yet impulsively aware of it’s own imminent death. Like an onrush of blood pumped through contracting arteries, guitars portray the frantic inner drama of one of Dr. Herbert West’s re-animations, diametrically opposed to his precise formulations regarding post-mortem. Atonal layering in the manner of Slayer’s more pathological works increases tension during these surging passages, punctuated by lead guitars that put to rest any hope of sanity returning. The trademark sludginess of Autopsy’s sound comes from instruments that are seemingly encased in adipocere, retaining within them all the character of their most memorable titles; not aspiring for a modern, clinical definition to their riffs but instead emphasising the rhythmic flow of energy in order to convey the sensations and suffocating experience of mortal dread. The band finds the balance once again of deathly force and doomy realisations as slower riffs offset the hysteria with tollings of morbid heaviness and an inescapable fate. Though Autopsy have stripped Death Metal to an essential skeletal frame, with the added simplicity of a horror movie-like thematic approach, this EP brings a much needed dimension of fear and madness to a world obsessed with ‘zombie horror’ as a populist, retro-hipster, marketing aesthetic.

ObscuraHessian

Avzhia – In My Domains

Another excellent tonal poem by this Mexican symphonic horde sees a sense of orchestration and riff balance that has all the consistency of ‘The Key Of Throne from 2004, though takes a deeper foray into the realm of cinematic, ambient orchestration that recalls what Summoning have been getting at for the last 15 years, mixed with the battle hardened epics of Lord Wind. This new turn in a more heavily instrumental form recalls what fellow countrymen The Chasm brought about in the form of last year’s Farseeing The Paranormal Abysm with a little less emphasis on the central role of vocals. Though rather than the syncretic, melodic death metal of their peers, Avzhia’s black metal assault owes it’s periphery to the best works of Emperor, Graveland, Ancient, Summoning and Xibalba, throwing them into a cohesive and bombastic mould. I would not say that this tops their previous full length, but this follow up is very worthy indeed and consolidates their status as one of the great torch bearers of what black metal stood to express, the embodiment of restoring mystical imagination in the listener.

Pearson

Divine Eve – Vengeful and Obstinate

See review here.

 

 

 

 

Graveland – Cold Winter Blades

The unstoppable Rob Darken took again some time from swordfights and armour forging to take a look at the barbaric-modernist thematic system devised by composers such as Richard Wagner and Basil Poledouris, with a metallic energetic pulse rarely witnessed since Following the Voice of Blood; the last of the fast Graveland albums. The lack of Capricornus hardly matters because the authentic or perfectly synthesized drumkit recalls the same Celtic tribal warmarches and the raw, unsymmetric heartbeat of a primal man hunted by wolves, perfectly countered by the dark druid’s usual cold and hardened vocal delivery. A deeply neo-classical realization how to build heaviness through doomy speeds and chordal supplements still elevates the Polish seeker-initiator into a force far beyond today’s puny black and heathen metal “royalty”, looming beyond as a frightening presence of unrealized wisdom; nothing less than the Manowar of black metal, with no hint of irony or self-loathing. There exist two directions of expansion since the ethereal melodic chime of alfar nature in “From the Beginning of Time” is Summoning-esque (“Spear of Wotan” even features a variation of the “Marching Homewards” melody) while the harmonic perception takes a sudden dive into folkloric origins in the proto-rock riffing of “White Winged Hussary”, reminiscent of the most “redneckish” moments of the early albums. No essential component has been changed in a decade of work, but slight improvements of formula keep the mystically oriented listener spinning towards the distantly heard croaking ravens that herald the upcoming axe age, one that shall bless our corrupted world with a merciful blow from Wotan’s spear of un-death.

Devamitra

Immolation – Majesty and Decay

See review here.

 

 

 

 

Inquisition – Ominous Doctrines of the Perpetual Mystical Macrocosm

Recent history has borne witness to developments in Black Metal that sets the music more at war against itself than with it’s traditional enemies and time has accumulated vast quantities of debris resulting from this internal crisis of identity and credibility. The shape of all the rubble is appropriately rocky, resembling the multitude of “fairy land” daydreams based on genres of alternative popular music incorporated to gain the approval of outsiders who possess no more understanding of the wolfish, warlike and mystic poetry of Black Metal’s spiritual essence, but want to claim this ‘niche market’ as their own. Even the cloak of demonic symbology, long-since regarded as a joke to even the casual listener – little more than a generic garb for posturing and associating with the genre’s ancestors – has been accordingly stripped of all occultic luminance, which shined too fiercely over the eyes of the humanist infiltrator, such that the tears of depressive-suicidal ideologies would instantly evaporate. None of these signs of the times, however, have influenced the veteran duo of Dagon and Incubus, who, in an ultimate statement of Satanic zealotry and inhuman purity, tunnel back to the hypnotic primitivism of Black Metal’s first waves, re-formulating and refining the style of early Bathory to produce an album that reveals the inherent mystical wisdom which inspires Black Metal’s sinister imagery, with no recourse to obvious cliches nor over-intellectualisations in order to clutch at some idea of artistic credibility and potency. Based on the technique of Immortal’s ‘Pure Holocaust‘, Inquisition craft expansive yet blasting soundscapes from swirling portals of riffing immediately reminiscent of ‘The Return……by Bathory in it’s Punkish brevity. These are inflected by dissonant open-chords and all manner of string-bending and sliding chaos to create a legitimate sense of increasing cosmic awareness and trans-dimensional ascension, as they circulate around each song’s central melody in a bizzarely motivic fashion. This is a component that bands such as Blut Aus Nord, who aspire to embellish their songs in such an experimental way, simply do not possess. Even the most meandering of arpeggiated open-chords don’t feel derivative as they sound out powerful and song-defining melodies rather than merely filling out time and space. Similarly to fellow Latin Americans Avzhia, Inquisition create a total sense of grandeur by bringing songs to an apex of expression through essentially simple but epic power-chord riffs. The masterful percussive transitions of Incubus guide the album fluidly between the various evolutionary elements of Inquisition’s sound, from the majestically crashing and pounding cadences of Burzum to the rolling avalanche of Immortal. Ominous Doctrines of the Perpetual Mystical Macrocosm is in many ways the album that the Blashyrkh horde should have recorded instead of ‘All Shall Fall’, as even Dagon’s toneless chanting style is somehow more expressive than past vocalisations in its similarity to Abbath. But all comparisons aside, there is no doubt as to which band reigns the Black Metal underground almost alone these days as Inquisition have created another uncompromising and profound work that no other so-called Satanists have the power to match.

ObscuraHessian

Into Oblivion – Creation of a Monolith

See review here.

 

 

 

 

Mutant Supremacy – Infinite Suffering

The New York City borough of Brooklyn might be better known to the universal consciousness as “The Hipster Capital of the World”, “A Fantastic Place to Collect STDs”, or “Where Culture Goes to be Sodomized”, amongst other colorful and imaginative epithets. Naturally, any self-touting Metal bands originating from this region ought to be approached with utmost scrutiny, as these are all almost invariably revealed to be alternative rock acts hiding beneath a masquerade of long hair and Dionysian discord. Breaking decisively away from this brand of perfidious whoredom are nouveau death metallers Mutant Supremacy, who occupy a peculiar nexus in between Monstrosity, Dismember, and Infester — thus setting them apart from the archetypal NYDM style as well. Seemingly fueled by an intense hatred for the free-loving cosmopolitanism that surrounds them, this band constructs theatrically explosive war-anthems conceptualized around a post-nuclear-apocalyptic Hell on Earth, rife with Thrasymachan rhetoric, biological abominations, and grisly accounts of human extermination. Songwriting on this debut mostly shows a clean-cut and sharp sense of narration clearly indicative of a studied discipline in the arts of classic Slayer, although there are a few odd weak moments where stylistic confusion vomits forth a spate of old school clichés and uncompelling Flori-death/Swe-death/British Grindcore aggregates. Overall, however, there is certainly something refreshingly violent in development here, and it’s a victory to hear such a proud death knell coming from what is otherwise an utterly syphilis-addled portion of the planet.

Thanatotron

Profanatica – Disgusting Blasphemies Against God

True to form, Profanatica release a focused, energetic and iconoclastic opus that shatters and mocks any infantile and moralistic conception of reality. Both compositionally and aesthetically powerful, the production on Disgusting Blasphemies against God is both clear and full, lending itself nicely to an analysis of its subtleties and providing the clarity necessary to gain a chuckle at the expense of nearby spectators privy to the album’s intrusive vitriol. Ledney’s vocals are hilariously clear yet retain a threateningly violent quality that is becoming of this style of Black Metal. As Ledney vomits forth his blasphemic ritual, listeners are treated to a notably ominous musical atmosphere that is uncomfortably somber, deranged and challenging. Utilizing single note tremolo picking, reminiscent of a cross between a more consonant Havohej and the effective and simple melodies of VON, Ledney in is his genius, develops motifs, that while perhaps more obvious and accessible, remain potent and successfully create an intriguing state of anxiety. These motifs both seamlessly emerge from, and return to sinister Incantation style riffs which work together to develop a unity and structural coherence that while primal and simple is undoubtedly effective. The interplay between these musical variable creates an overall experience that portends the celebration of the powerful, living and animated chthonic mysteries and perhaps more pressingly the apotheosis of their necessary destructive capacities.

TheWaters

Slaughter Strike – At Life’s End

Toronto’s death dealers unearth the forgotten formulas of 80s-90s extreme metal in their second offering, a follow-up to the debut cassette “A Litany of Vileness”. This punk-driven death metal statement delivered by veterans of Canadian scene (former members of The Endless Blockade and Rammer) shows no mercy: it is short, volatile and dirty.  Yet, at the same time the material is well weighed and balanced, blessed with the genuine feel of old-school art. The production helps conveying old metal nostalgia whereas Spartan songwriting confronts useless acrobatic tendencies of the modern scene. The band’s uncompromising music is perfectly collaborated with artwork by Moscow artist Denis Kostromitin. Standing on the shoulders of giants like Autopsy, Carnage, Pestilence, Repulsion and Discharge these reapers managed to find a voice of their own. We can only hope that this beautifully presented vinyl-only release is a “carnal promise” of Slaughter Strike’s prospects.

The Eye in the Smoke


 

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The Best Metal Albums of 2008

Legion of Doom – The Horned Made Flesh (Zyklon-B)

This Greek band take their acerbic traditional metal and slowly meld in symphonic keyboard elements, making an album that is easy to appreciate but surpasses most others in artistic vision.

Motörhead – Motörizer (SPV)

Lemmy and Company rarely go completely wrong, and so they wing another one down the middle. Like all Motorhead, most songs are cut from similar patterns and the drone wears thin, but riffs remain cutting and rhythms compelling.

Neuraxis – Thin Line Between (Prosthetic)

We all know metalcore as a genre is like an omelette — throw everything in and hope the flavors carry a lowest common denominator mix. Neuraxis attack metalcore like a metal band, using melody and rhythm to centralize, to great effect.

Deeds of Flesh – Of What’s to Come (Unique Leader)

Getting experimental, this brutal technical death metal band play with some new ideas but deliver solidly resounding songs as they try to wrap their old school metal around metalcore technique.

Hellhammer – Demon Entrails (Noise)

Three bands formed this genre: Hellhammer, Sodom and Bathory. This re-release of formative material from the first of that triumvirate shows us again how mind-blowing it must have been to be there as it happened.

Gridlink – Amber Grey (Hydra Head)

Blurring grindcore with absurdist technical elements, Gridlink make an album that upholds the best traditions of thrash mixed with speed metal and technical death metal, and by keeping it short, don’t wander outside their content zone.

Averse Sefira – Advent Parallax (Candlelight)

This rarity upholds old school black metal and infuses it with classic death metal. Like Morbid Angel from the Convenant era colliding with Graveland from the time of Thousand Swords, this band makes vicious but beautiful music.

Bahimiron – Southern Nihilizm (Moribund)

Imagine early Impaled Nazarene and Gorgoroth combined: fast, melodic riffs with a tendency to deconstruct everything they touch. Although slightly confused in ideals, Bahimiron deliver music that does not compromise aggression or darkness.

Intestine Baalism – Ultimate Instinct (No Colours)

Swedish death metal fanatics make an album in tribute to all three eras of Swedish death metal — the initial surge, Gothenburg and NWOSDM, combined. It’s an improvement over their last and most things coming out of Sweden.

Master – Slaves To Society Re-Release (Ibex Moon)

Evolving from their early primitive roots, Master present us an album that is rippingly fast like Slayer and uses melodic fills to good effect, but never compromises the driving roadhouse rhythms that pound this music forward.

Skepticism – Alloy (Red Stream)

Lush ambient doom surges resoundingly throughout this album, like dye in a pool tracked by the motion of carp. It is meditative, powerful and insightful, but prefers not to state these explicitly, rather letting you absorb them from the resonance.

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