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.
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.
Raw rehearsal recording straight from the WAR MASTER bunker. 2 new songs off the upcoming LP and a SEPULTURA cover! Comes on pro-printed white shell cassettes with hand screened covers. Limited to 200 copies!