Metal in 2013 will to some extent be defined by two stories that made their debuts in April, one of which was included on our list of the month’s best songs, the other which was not but deserves to be discussed here just the same. The latter is Ghost B.C.’s Infestissumam, which was released on the 16th of this month. The sophomore album from the Swedish band arrived with a not-insubstantial publicity storm, an appearance at Coachella, and a minor controversy/delay regarding the image intended to be screened on the CD itself, depicting a Satanic orgy, which no fewer than four CD manufacturers allegedly refused to print. Presumably, then, those same manufacturers would have resisted producing any of the 250 limited-editon Ghost B.C. “Phallos Mortuus Ritual Box Set” (pictured above), which includes (ahem):
1 x Exclusive Papa Emeritus II Dildo Puppetmaster T-Shirt (only available with this item)
1 x Bible box case with Gold embossed artwork and red velvet lining.
1 x Divorce paper scroll with customised Ghost foil emblem.
1 x Ghost B.C. brushed metal logo charm.
1 x Bronze effect metal butt plug with moulded Grucifix logo base.
1 x Sculpted black silicone Papa Emeritus II dildo.
On one hand, it’s pretty cool to see a relatively mainstream band flaunting such a kink-positive attitude, especially in a culture that still produces vile shit like “The Hottest Chicks In Hard Rock.” Not since Rob Halford was rolling onto arena stages on the back of a gleaming Harley in leather-daddy gear has metal seemed so comfortable with its sexuality. On the other hand, though, it’s just another example of Ghost B.C. bringing attention to themselves for something other than their music. That’s been going on since Day 1 (B.C.): Ghost are far better known for their image (robes and hoods for the guys who play instruments, all of whom are known as “Nameless Ghouls,” while the singer wears a papal ensemble and skull makeup/prostheses, and goes by “Papa Emeritus II”) than their songs. When those songs are good (as they were on the band’s 2010 debut, Opus Eponymous), the costumes and code names are kind of charming. When the songs are not-so-good (as is the case on Infestissumam), it draws a different kind of attention to the ancillary distractions: Is this subversive or gimmicky? What is this band trying to achieve? Why are they using these methods? What is the value of this art?
When I wrote about Infestissumam, I said:
The music currently being made by Ghost B.C. is not metal. It borrows heavily from the imagery of metal (specifically occult Satanism) and once in a while throws in a guitar tone that you might also find on a King Diamond record (or a Ke$ha record, or a Meat Loaf record), but what you’re hearing here is retro-psychedelia, prog-based pop, Broadway rock. It’s not metal!
That’s as good a reason as any for Ghost B.C. to not be included in our list of the best metal songs of the month, but it’s not the reason they didn’t make the cut. First off, the metal landscape is too vast to be defined from one man’s point of view (as a commenter pointed out to me, using slightly coarser language). Second, I can think of at least two other songs that we did include here that are equally un-metal. (I won’t tell you which ones; you’ll have to listen and decide for yourself.) Ultimately, none of us liked Infestissumam enough to vote for it (although I admire its commitment to utter ridiculousness, and Aaron repped for Ghost at Coachella). But there’s something kinda frustrating about the fact that one of the year’s biggest metal stories can’t even produce one of the month’s 15 best songs.
The other big story that made its debut in April — the one we did include on our list — is the new song from the reunited Black Sabbath (three-quarters of Black Sabbath, anyway). We’ll discuss that song below, but on a macro level, there’s also something kinda frustrating about the fact that one of the year’s biggest metal stories revolves around three men in their mid-60s whose legacy was cemented 35 years ago, the last time they released an album of new work together. That’s not to say people shouldn’t be curious and excited about Black Sabbath’s forthcoming 13 — and lead single “God Is Dead?” provides ample cause to suspend ambivalence — but after years of metal making small inroads into the mainstream, and the mainstream becoming more and more niche-ified, it’s disappointing to see the genre’s face is exactly the same in 2013 as it was in 1970 (only much, much older).
Oddly (and totally coincidentally), both Ghost B.C. and Sabbath represent a growing trend in modern metal: The move away from harsh vocals (i.e., grunting/growling/screaming) to clean vocals (i.e., singing). I wrote about this in our 2012 metal year in review, and since then, it’s only become more prominent. As I said then: I heard more clean singing and fewer blast beasts on metal records in 2012 than I have in any year since the ’80s. And this month’s list contains more clean singing than any prior installment of the Black Market. Some of that is due to metal’s current retro-fetish — you can’t sound like Blue Cheer if your vocalist sounds like John Tardy — but more and more bands are finding ways to include clean vocals in music that is anything but revivalist. Check out, for instance, Anciient (who made this list back in February) or Band To Watch A Pregnant Light (who made the list in March), both of whom combine harsh and clean vocals in ways that sound organic, not awkward. My favorite black metal album of 2013, Avichi’s Catharsis Absolute, shifts between the two styles almost unnoticeably (Catharsis Absolute will be released in July, but one of its tracks will be included here as soon as it surfaces online). And the top track on this month’s list features a clean vocal atop a roiling pool of guitars. It sounds like nothing else in metal today, or yesterday, and it sounds magnificent. With that, let’s begin the descent.
15. High Spirits – “One Last Chance”
Location: Chicago, IL
Subgenre: Classic Metal
Chris Black’s primary artistic outlet, Dawnbringer, was responsible for Stereogum’s second favorite metal album of 2012, but the Chicago-based musician is also the mastermind behind the equally excellent, similarly classic-leaning acts Superchrist and High Spirits (he also plays drums for Pharaoh, and used to play bass for Nachtmystium). High Spirits’ six-song 2013 EP was released via Bandcamp, in exchange for a pay-what-you-want sum, to help fund the band’s just-concluded eight-date European tour. High Spirits is Black’s most raucous iteration, as well as his most retro — it hearkens back to a time when bands like Kix and Ratt were bringing an American edge to the sound of the New Wave Of British Heavy Metal, before the fissure between “hair metal” and “real metal” became an insurmountable gulf. And Black gets every detail right: the thin instrumental tones, the simple yet timeless song structures, the high-pitched melodic vocal attack. High Spirits’ new EP may be called 2013, but a more accurate title would be 1983. [self-released] –MN
14. Fell Voices – “Emergence”
Location:Santa Cruz, CA
Subgenre: Ambient Black Metal
When I saw Fell Voices last month at Saint Vitus in Brooklyn, I was surprised to see the band perform without mics, the drummer and bassist instead opting to take turns screaming, in what sounded like muffled torture howls, over their instruments while they proceeded to knock the socks off of everyone crammed into the venue. Old school, and as anyone who was there will attest, awesome. Twenty-minute-long atmosphere-rich songs are the rule of the road for Fell Voices, but do yourself a favor and do not let the length be a barrier to entry. Fell Voices work catchy riffs into grooves that take on a hypnotic quality, and when they reach a resolution, as they do toward the end of “Emergence” from their forthcoming album Regnum Saturni, it’s nothing short of epic. [Gilead Media] –Wyatt Marshall
13. Bone Sickness – “Submit To Decay”
Location: Olympia, WA
Subgenre: Death Metal
Writing a good old-school death metal song isn’t as simple as it sounds. Some of the requisite elements are obvious:
–SIX-STRING BUZZSAW ANNIHILATION (engaging riffs)
–ASSAULTING PERCUSSIVE ONSLAUGHT (intense drumming)
–EXHORTATIONS FROM BEYOND THE CRYPT (growled vocals)
Duh, et cetera. But to really craft a solid DM tune, you need some binding agents: pacing, timing, dynamics, and all the rest of rock music’s basic connective tissue. Bone Sickness have clearly internalized this oft-ignored fact on their second release, Alone In The Grave. “Submit to Decay,” its opening cut, has the narrative flow of a roller coaster. It clanks its way up to dizzying heights for a full minute before its first big payoff: a downward plunge into a maniacal thrash section. Then, just when you think the song will lose its momentum, it takes a hard right turn into a nasty two-step riff. Independently, these parts would be unremarkable; bound by Bone Sickness’s musical gristle, they make for a wild ride. [20 Buck Spin] –Doug Moore
12. Ruin Lust – “Obedience”
Location: Brooklyn, NY
Subgenre: Black/Death Metal
Ruin Lust’s pummeling black/death metal is Heavy-with-a-capital-H, an all-out blitz that often seems barely held together by the caustic melodies somewhere deep in there amidst the chaos. The band’s first and only other release, a five-track cassette demo from 2011 that laid out their aggressive sound, took me a bit by surprise given that the group shares members with the somewhat different-minded and longer-winded Fell Voices (see above). Here’s to variety — when that crunchy guitar at 0:45 gives way to the ensuing shitstorm, it’s hard not to picture a crowd going absolutely nuts in some hellhole venue. [Psychic Violence] –WM
11. Black Sabbath – “God Is Dead”
Subgenre: Heavy Metal/Doom Metal
In a private forum, another member of this panel said of “God Is Dead?”: “Its greatest virtue is that it’s not the train wreck everyone thought it would be.” And you know, I think that’s actually accurate! That is the song’s greatest virtue. But for a bunch of dudes well into their retirement years, “not a train wreck” was no sure thing; heck, Megadeth released a new song this month, too, and it was a train wreck, and Dave Mustaine is a full decade younger than the youngest member of Sabbath. For that matter, I’d argue that “God Is Dead?” is better than any Metallica song released in the last 25 years. Of course, blues-based doom ages better than thrash, but even so, “God Is Dead?” could have been an outright disaster and no one would have been surprised. Yes, that it’s actually a passable song is its greatest virtue; that it’s actually a good song is a delight. It’s not perfect — the arrangement makes no sense, and the mix favors Ozzy’s processed voice a little too much — but the singer sounds as good as he has since No Rest For The Wicked, Tony Iommi delivers some crushing riffs, and Geezer Butler’s bass runs provide visceral thrills. A wave of metal’s best new bands — from Pallbearer to Graveyard to Witch Mountain — takes its influence directly from classic Sabbath; it’s pretty exciting to hear Sabbath coming back not to show the kids how it’s done, but to play right alongside them. [Universal] –MN
10. Arckanum – “Tungls Tjúgari”
Subgenre: Black Metal
Rely on no one. Refine your art in solitude. Create your own system of belief through a combination of discovery and invention, then chronicle the journey so others might follow. The sole member of Arckanum, Johan S. Lahger — better known as Shamaatae — has done all of this, and presumably not much else, for the better part of 20 years. Starting at age 11 playing drums in an early incarnation of Grotesque (featuring Tompa Lindberg of At The Gates), Shamaatae went on to release eight increasingly potent black metal albums as Arckanum, playing every instrument himself, as well as publishing books on Chaos-Gnosticism, Anti-Cosmic Satanism, and Old Norse religions. I bet he’s great at a party. As impressive as his resumé reads, if the music didn’t rip, none of us would care. “Dolgrinn” comes from his latest LP, Fenris Kindir, and it rips all over the place. The mix sounds like shit on purpose, which does nothing to undercut the ferocity of the playing — Shamaatae is a drummer first, with every riff strapped to the back of a drum fill, pressing the beat forward, forcing your head to bang along. The absence of cosmic existence sure sounds like a party …. [Season Of Mist] –Aaron Lariviere
9. The Resistance – “The Serpent King”
Subgenre: Swedish Death Metal
Sweden’s metal scene is so prolific that it’s easy to forget how small the place is. Fewer than 10 million people live in Sweden, but its populace produces roughly six times as many metal bands per capita as does that of the United States. It’s no surprise that the Swedish metal community tends towards incest, and the the Resistance is a perfect example. Incomplete résumé: Guitarists Jesper Strömblad and Glenn Ljungström founded In Flames, vocalist Marco Aro recorded two records with the Haunted, and drummer Cristofer Barkensjö has worked with Carnal Forge. For a group of guys whose former bands have mostly gone to seed, the Resistance do surprising justice to their name on “The Serpent King.” Strömblad and Ljungström deploy their signature slice-and-dice melodies, as you’d expect. The ‘surprising’ part comes from the forcefulness of their delivery. Those melodies get filtered through a scraped-concrete guitar tone that reminds me strongly of mid-period Dismember, a band whose insane gift for hiding hooks in high-octane death metal I deeply miss. [Armoury Records] –DM
8. Church Of Misery – “Brother Bishop”
Subgenre: Doom Metal
Metal’s interest in serial killers goes at least as far back as “The Ripper,” Judas Priest’s 1979 ode to Saucy Jack. Still, few have taken that fascination as far as Japan’s Church Of Misery; the band dedicates each of their songs to a different real-world psychopath. Depressingly, Church Of Misery haven’t run out of murderers to eulogize after four records. The good news is that they’ve become increasingly awesome over the course of those records. Like its predecessors, the forthcoming Thy Kingdom Scum juxtaposes its chilling subject matter with humid blues doom, a la bellbottoms-era Black Sabbath. The contrast sounds weird on paper but it works remarkably well in practice. The band’s swing-happy riffs and Hideki Fukasawa’s charismatic vocals feel that much more decadent for the eerie sample that opens “Brother Bishop,” and its frantic boogie coda is pure ecstacy. Oh, and Church Of Misery destroy live. Catch them if you can. [Metal Blade] –DM
7. Ruins Of Beverast – “Malefica”
Subgenre: Black/Doom Metal
The Ruins Of Beverast, ex-Nagelfar drummer Alexander Von Meilenwald’s solo atmospheric black/doom project, regularly garners stratospheric praise from a near-rabid cult following. A quick YouTube comment check on a stream his last album, Foulest Semen Of A Sheltered Elite, and “100% perfect in every way,” stands back-to-back with “Meilenwald has transcended beyond this plain of existence.” Yeah, his stuff is pretty great, but it can require some patience. On “Malefica,” the first glimpse of the forthcoming Blood Vaults (The Blazing Gospel Of Heinrich Kramer), Meilenwald shows perhaps more restraint than usual, working a gloomy dirge in and out of black-metal blasts before slowing the pace to a funereal trudge. The approach seems to be sitting well with fans: back over on YouTube, one commenter said “Malefica” is “better than sex.” [Ván] –WM
6. Amon Amarth – “Resistance Of The Gods”
Subgenre: Melodic Death Metal
In the conservative world of true heavy metal, consistency is a virtue above all. Standard-bearers like Iron Maiden and Cannibal Corpse have built careers off rewriting the same song. This is a good thing, a sign of strength and commitment to the fans. In this world change is compromise, and compromise is the manifestation of weakness itself. Amon Amarth do not compromise. They release new material every few years; invariably it sounds roughly the same — predictably powerful, reliably catchy. Any change is incremental, most likely accidental, so slight as to never ruffle the feathers of the faithful. Yet the band gets better with each release. Repeated motion leads to proficiency and efficiency; your one trick becomes one helluva trick. The title track off their latest release, Deceiver Of The Gods, sounds like … Amon Amarth, meaning it’s everything we want out of melodic death metal: hooks, riffs, and majesty. [Metal Blade] –AL
5. The Body – “The Ebb And Flow Of Tides In A Sea Of Ash”
Location: Providence, RI
Subgenre: Sludge/Experimental Doom
The Body’s been weirding me out ever since I came across their 2010 insane but classic release, All The Waters Of The Earth Turn To Blood. (What’s wrong with the water, guys?) On that freak-out of a record, overblown bass clashes with WTF samples, high-pitched screams (no mic live), a women’s choir, and some killer doom metal. Well, they’re back, this time with a three-minute track that starts with air-raid sirens and leaves you with a sense of dread. The Body’s sounding a little more black metal here, with a low-end chugging that takes the place of black metal’s traditional tremolo picked guitars, and a generally faster tempo. The song is over almost as soon as it finds its groove, like some schizophrenic nightmare. The unsettling track is made even creepier with the accompanying video, composed of news footage of a mass suicide. [At A Loss Recordings] –WM
4. Dispirit – “All Paths End The Same”
Location: San Francisco, CA
Subgenre: Atmospheric Black Metal
Before John Gossard’s old band, Weakling, released their first/only album, Dead As Dreams, there were rumors that the band intended to print only a minuscule number of copies (like single digits), which would then be buried around the country, and anyone who bought the album would get a map to its destination. They were joking! Dead As Dreams got a traditional release in 2000, a year after the band had broken up; it is now widely recognized as the seminal work of American black metal, and for my money, it is still in fact the best album ever produced by the USBM subgenre. While a member of Weakling, Gossard formed goth/post-punk/doom outfit the Gault, who also broke up in ’99, and whose sole LP, Even As All Before Us, didn’t see the light of day till 2005, when it was released in a limited run of 1,000 copies. Chris Bruni, the owner of Profound Lore Records, has called it “the best album of the last decade.” Gossard’s current band, Dispirit, are so underground that they may as well be burying their releases for the faithful to seek out: Since forming in 2009, Dispirit have delivered only one release: the 2010 two-track cassette-only demo Rehearsal At Oboroten. To obtain a copy of the cassette (or any Dispirit merch), interested parties had to email Gossard, who would then reply with instructions for payment, assuming the item in question was still available. (FWIW, he’s great about replying and getting your stuff out in a timely fashion.) Dispirit play infrequently, and never leave the West Coast; I’ve heard rumors of a full-length dating back to 2010, but nothing has materialized. Naturally, Gossard has inspired a small cult following, for whom the release of a new Dispirit demo is genuinely cause for, like, Bieber-level hysteria. And last week, a new demo dropped, titled 111112, presumably reflecting the date it was recorded. The four songs on 111112 include three originals and a Slayer cover, and are probably the most inaccessible work of Gossard’s pretty uncompromising career. The demo leads off with the 16-and-a-half-minute “All Paths End The Same,” which doesn’t reward casual listening even relative to other atmospheric black metal. But allow yourself to be immersed in it and you’ll find yourself in the grip of a powerful experience: Gossard plays guitar like a spider spinning a web — slowly, repetitively. At first, it’s simple, then hypnotic, and soon, you’re blown away by the creation before you, if not trapped like prey. [self-released] –MN
3. Uncle Acid & The Deadbeats – “Valley Of The Dolls”
Subgenre: Psychedelic Doom Rock
Proving the best way to overcome your own schtick is to write songs that stick, Uncle Acid & the Deadbeats succeed in the exact way that Ghost fail (see above). Both bands play metal-inflected retro-rock, but the method of delivery and the quality of the results are worlds apart. Uncle Acid maintain their anonymity by keeping an actual low profile, shifting all focus to their songs — which are, thankfully, perfectly formed and crafted. “Valley Of The Dolls” feels lived-in, like an old jacket — it’s hard to pin down exactly how they do it, when so many other bands try to sound “old” and come off tired. The devil is in the details, I suppose. (Someone should probably tell Ghost.) [Metal Blade] –AL
2. Surachai – “Sentinel”
Subgenre: Progressive Black Metal
Given metal’s obsession with technique, it seems a little strange that the genre’s instrumental lexicon is more or less static these days. Then again, most of the low-hanging fruit has already been plucked; metal’s been around for 40-odd years, and virtuoso musicians have been pushing its technical boundaries for roughly 30 of those years. Surachai’s new album, Embraced, is exciting in part because it employs unconventional means to heave those boundaries a little further out. Main man Surachai Sutthisasanakul draws on European-classical composer’s tricks for his tangled guitar schema, and drummer Charlie Werber (also of the bizarre noise/prog act Guzzlemug) conjures up an insectile churn that’s unlike anything I’ve ever heard before. Even more exciting than these innovations is the fact that when you listen to “Sentinel,” you don’t hear the esoteric details. You hear flowing, melodic black metal, as organic and natural as breath. Rarely can a metal act thrill both the mind and the soul as this band does. Spin the full album on Surachai’s Bandcamp. [Trash Audio] –DM
1. Kylesa – “Vulture’s Landing”
Location: Savannah, GA
As I wrote when the song first hit the interwebs, on “Vulture’s Landing,” Kylesa sound more like ’90s shoegazers Curve, Swervedriver, or Medicine than they do, say, Eyehategod. That’s not an unwelcome or unexpected evolution — Kylesa’s great 2010 release Spiral Shadow had a distinctly Alternative Nation feel to it, and based on the three tracks we’ve heard from its follow-up, Ultraviolet — “Quicksand,” “Unspoken,” and now “Vulture’s Landing” — they’ve moved further in that direction, bringing more esoteric influences to the fore of their writing. Once again, Laura Pleasants is handling vocal duties, and I love the way her increasingly ethereal coo is juxtaposed against the churning instrumental grind. Like fellow Savannah bands Baroness and Mastodon before them, Kylesa are making enormous leaps at a staggering rate — some purists won’t hang on for the journey, but Kylesa should pick up plenty of new passengers and converts along the way, as the band expands the parameters of the genre simply by allowing new sounds to inform their own. [Season Of Mist] –MN
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