May has been a pretty intense month around here. Memorial Day Weekend brought Maryland Death Fest to Baltimore, and attendance was mandatory for any metalhead who wanted to keep his cred pass. (Absences were excused in cases of need; acceptable excuses included: unavoidable domestic or professional demands; financial concerns; injury; disability; agoraphobia; and/or inability to find a ride.) If you’re not familiar, MDF is the only event held on American soil that can be compared to Europe’s legendary metal festivals, like Germany’s Wacken and France’s Hellfest. And if you love metal, it’s a total blast.
This was the second year in a row that I helped put together MDF’s official guidebook — a project sponsored by the blog I used to edit, Invisible Oranges, and helmed by my pal Kim Kelly (who writes about metal for Pitchfork, among other publications) — but my first year in attendance. The primary reason you go to MDF is the insane lineup of talent assembled at the festival, including many bands who might never do another date on this continent. This year’s imports included top-level LEGENDS like Bolt Thrower, Carcass, and Venom (all from England), as well as incredible relative-obscurities like Aosoth (France), Abigail (Japan), Deiphago (Philipines), and Revenge (Canada). And that’s really just barely scratching the surface.
But the secondary reason you go to MDF is to see IRL all these people you rarely interact with outside of Facebook or Twitter or GChat; people whose work you read or listen to or buy. It’s a surreal and incredible environment: Every hotel lobby and coffee shop in the Inner Harbor is populated by tattooed folks in black T-shirts with cracked white prints. I met so many nice people, and got to bro-down with so many people whom I don’t see nearly enough, including the dudes who contribute to this feature every month (except Wyatt Marshall, who’s on deadline for a screenplay or something, which could fall under the “unavoidable professional demands” category above, if the officials are feeling generous enough to let it slide). I got to drive from Brooklyn to Baltimore with Kim and her boyfriend Al (who writes a column for IO, among other things), who are always on the road, and never in NYC; I got to drink many much-needed beers with Stereogum/Black Market contributor Aaron Lariviere, one of my closest friends, even though he (voluntarily!) chooses to live in Los Angeles; I got to talk about the National and Majical Cloudz with Profound Lore label chief Chris Bruni, who lives in the wilds of Canada somewhere. And again, that’s really just barely scratching the surface.
The other big things that happened up in here this past month? Slayer guitarist Jeff Hanneman passed away. That’s not news to you but it can’t go unmentioned. I was in 6th grade when Reign In Blood came out, just the right age to be corrupted forever. But it doesn’t matter how old you were, or are: Reign In Blood is (arguably!) the best metal album ever, and Slayer is (to some!) the best band in the history of metal — and most of the best music from both album and band came from Hanneman. If you didn’t read Doug Moore’s brilliant eulogy, I really, really encourage you to do so.
Finally, this month brought the premiere of Deafheaven’s Sunbather, which will be — barring something totally unexpected and near-miraculous — the best and most important metal album of 2013. I’ve talked about that record so much lately that I think I should just quiet down for a bit. I’ll say one more thing down the page a ways, and then circle back in December, when we’ll all be talking about it a lot more. I won’t stop listening to it, though; I just want to start talking about some other records, too. Yesterday, for instance, I got the advance of Vattnet Viskar’s debut LP, Sky Swallower, and later today, we’re premiering the new cassette EP from A Pregnant Light. They are both amazing, and pretty soon you’ll be asking me to shut up about those, too.
Back to Baltimore for a second: I confess, I was only at MDF for the Thursday sets, and while that day’s lineup was totally incredible (Bolt Thrower!), I was really there mostly for one band — the dudes you see in the pic above these words: Cobalt. If you’re not familiar, Cobalt is a black-metal duo from Colorado, and they’re responsible for two of my favorite albums ever: 2007’s Eater Of Birds, and 2009’s Gin. The guys in the band — multi-instrumentalist Erik Wunder and vocalist/lyricist Phil McSorley — have been friends since childhood, and have been making music together for more than a decade, but until last weekend had never played an official live show. In 2003, McSorley joined the Army, and he’s spent most of the last decade in Iraq and South Korea, which makes things like rehearsing, writing, and recording new music particularly difficult, and it makes touring pretty much impossible. But earlier this year, McSorley was returned to the States, stationed in Georgia, and with that development, plans came together quickly for Cobalt to play MDF, followed by a short tour.
When I heard this news I was wildly ecstatic, throwing “Likes” around Facebook with delirious abandon. (I served as consulting editor for this year’s MDF guidebook, a role that required me to [A] oversee some aspects of the print order, and [B] talk Kim off a couple ledges. In exchange for my services, I asked only that I be allowed to write the entry on Cobalt.) I was, like, bouncing by the time I got to Baltimore, and more or less ready to explode by the time Cobalt finally took the stage. And I wasn’t alone! Basically, Phil McSorley’s first time ever on stage came in front of 3,000 people packed tight under a tent, at the biggest metal festival in America. And I swear to god it was incredible. Cobalt played for an hour, and left the crowd (what I could see of it, anyway, and me especially) in hysterics.
After the show I went to say hi to the band — I know Erik a little bit because he lives in Brooklyn now and we go to a lot of the same shows, and I did a big interview with him a couple years ago. But I’d never met Phil. So when I got a chance, I went up to him, shook his hand, told him how happy I was to be at Cobalt’s first show, how I wouldn’t have missed it; I told him the performance was everything I could have hoped for, better than anything I’d imagined. I was a little drunk, though, and a little dazed, and in the wildness of the moment, I forgot to thank him for his service. Memorial Day weekend, no less! Shameful. I did not forget, though, to thank him for the music.
Cobalt’s micro-tour comes to St. Vitus in Brooklyn tonight, actually, and I will absolutely be there, too. So will Doug and Wyatt. If you decide to swing by, come say hi. You’ll recognize us: Wyatt has messy hair and will be wearing a shirt from some Quebecois black metal band with a three-song cassette to their (unpronounceable) name; Doug has a beard and a shaved head and will probably be talking about, like, Suffocation or Star Wars; I’ll be the guy in the Gorgoroth shirt, beer in hand, smiling so big it hurts.
Here are the 15 best metal songs we heard in May. Tell us what we missed, what you’ve been listening to, whatever, in the comments.
(The above photo — of Cobalt at MDF 2013 — is courtesy of Fred Pessaro, editor-in-chief of Invisible Oranges; he’s got a zillion more shots of the festival at IO and I totally encourage you to go check them out!)
15. Torche – “Keep Up”
Subgenre: Stoner Metal
Torche’s last full-length outing, 2012’s Harmonicraft, was an absolute beast, but since then, they’ve stepped up their game yet another level on 7-inch one-offs like the fucking ridiculous “Harmonslaught” and now “Keep Up.” The new track is Torche at their stoner-metal smoothest: all beach grooves and waxed-to-a-shine guitars. It’s not exactly ambitious — I count two riffs here, total, and a chorus that demands the listener do nothing more than “Keep up” — but on a 90-degree day in New York City, with the summer ready to roll in for real? I wouldn’t mind a playlist with 10 more of these, that’s all I’m saying. That, plus a couple of those giant cans of Sapporo and a box fan blowing on high a few feet away? Man, the weekend can’t get here soon enough. [Volcom] –MN
14. Indricothere – “VI”
Subgenre: Progressive Instru-metal
Colin Marston is so busy that it’s become a metal-journalism cliché to point out that he’s busy. For the uninitiated, the Queens shredmaster plays guitar in Krallice, bass in Gorguts and Dysrhythmia, and a giant Chapman-stick-like mutant called a Warr guitar in Behold The Arctopus. All four bands play very, very complex music. Marston also runs an increasingly popular recording studio called Menegroth, which he uses to record his own bands as well. So yeah, he’s busy. Marston likes to tell interviewers that he feels like he’s wasting time whenever he’s not writing music, which explains the existence of Indricothere, the solo project he uses to fill the few remaining gaps in his schedule. Indricothere’s sophomore effort, II, is a fascinating listen because it provides an unimpeded view of Marston’s musical personality; it sounds a bit like all of his bands without sounding exactly like any of them. The programmed drums on “VI” leave it sounding a little thin by his standards, but the utilitarian tones also call more attention to its heady compositional feats. Also, there are ripping riffs out the wazoo. Surprise! [Gilead Media] –Doug Moore
13. Wrekmeister Harmonies – “You’ve Always Meant So Much To Me” (Excerpt)
When I was editor at IO, we covered the inaugural performance of something called Wrekmeister Harmonies — an ambitious and artsy project that combined avant-garde film with live music by a black metal/doom ensemble made up of some of Chicago’s most notable experimental/metal musicians. And late last year, many of those involved in that live performance convened at Steve Albini’s Electrical Audio to record the composition, “You’ve Always Meant So Much To Me,” in full. Wrekmeister Harmonies is JR Robinson, a video and sound installation artist from Chicago; other musicians are present to help fulfill his vision (the lineup varies considerably from show-to-show). The current lineup includes: Jef Whitehead (aka Wrest) of Leviathan and Lurker Of Challice, Drew Markuszewski of Avichi, producer Sanford Parker, Bruce Lamont of Yakuza, cellist Fred Lonberg-Holm, “harmoniumist/electronicist” Jaime Fennelly, harpist Chanel Pease, and violinist Julie Pomerleau. That’s the team behind You’ve Always Meant So Much To Me, which is both the title of the forthcoming album and that of its one massive track. While barrages of drone that last the better part of an hour can in many cases be wearying, the sound produced by Wrekmeister Harmonies is immense enough to merit such space; the music is a roiling blend of drone, funeral doom, and black metal that grows to Olympian heights, and as you wade deeper into the song, its undertow takes hold. [Thrill Jockey] –MN
12. Midnight – “Evil Like A Knife”
Subgenre: Speed Metal/First-Wave Black Metal
“Evil, evil, evil — like a knife!”
It takes a certain something to come up with a line like that — the kind of line that makes you pump your fist, curl your lip, and spit beer at anyone in spitting distance. On a subliminal level it sounds badass because of the words involved, yet it’s nonsense — hilarious nonsense. Midnight main-man Jamie Walters (aka Athenar) has a gift for tapping the unintentional hilarity of a certain brand of heavy metal and welding it to raging little bangers like this. Past classics include “Rip This Hell,” “Shock Til Blood,” “Endless Slut,” and “All Hail Hell” — in the hands of Midnight, they’re all gold. Originality goes out the window: Songs are built off the leftover scraps of Venom and Motorhead and not much else, but it’s done with so much lust, filth, and sleaze (another classic Midnight song title) it becomes something altogether nastier, something much more fun. [Hells Headbangers] –Aaron Lariviere
11. Man’s Gin – “Inspiration”
Partially because Cobalt are required to make music on the Army’s schedule, that band’s instrumental force Erik Wunder has focused his energy recently on Man’s Gin — a long-running project for which he serves as singer and songwriter, and which captures much of Cobalt’s blackened spirit, but manifests it in rustic tones: bleak Americana; haunted folk; boozy jams; grunge anthems; murder ballads. That band has just released their sophomore effort, Rebellion Hymns, which is in every way wilder, sadder, stranger, rowdier, and darker than the debut. Man’s Gin is frequently compared to Swans, which makes sense: Wunder has been a member of Jarboe’s band for years. You can also hear plenty of Tom Waits and Nick Cave in there. And listening to Rebellion Hymns, I noticed a lot of similarities to former Silkworm guitarist Joel R.L. Phelps’s work with the Downer Trio. “Inspiration” opens Rebellion Hymns, and it’s great, especially in the second half when Wunder shreds his voice to ribbons as the band bangs on. [Profound Lore] –MN
10. Coffins – “The Vacant Pale Vessel”
Subgenre: Death Metal/Doom
Sometimes metal is complex, delicate, and beautiful, like a fine wristwatch. Other times, it’s a fucking cudgel. Coffins are as dumb as metal gets, but they’re also as effective as metal gets. This band has been releasing music for 13 years — and that’s a lot of music, given their propensity for putting out multiple splits and/or EPs every year — but their formula has never really changed. It goes like this: Dial in huge, sloppy guitar tones; use them to play the most simplistic death metal riffs imaginable; slow them down to blackout-drunk-speech tempos; repeat until listener begs for mercy. And who would really want them to change anyway? A lot of bands try to do this same schtick and it usually flops, but Coffins’ music captures brain stem-level revulsion in a way that no other act can quite replicate. “The Vacant Pale Vessel,” off their impending Relapse debut, The Fleshlands, carries on this ugly tradition in style. No amendments, no improvements, all hate. [Relapse] –DM
9. Hell – “Decedere”
Location: Salem, Oregon
Subgenre: Black Metal/Doom
If we’re willing to ignore the occult-psych-retro movement, there have been two major trends in metal in recent years: the ascendency of black metal and doom to the forefront of the genre. Not so long ago, it wasn’t painfully obvious that bands rolling out a deathly slow crush or a searing raw shriek were doing some of the best work in metal; Hell does a pretty damn good job showing why both of those are now true. Deceptively pretty given the name, Hell plays spacious and contemplative lengthy songs that turn from black metal rippers to titanic doom on a dime, often blending the two in a high-low vice. Hell started out with a cult following, putting out tapes in small editions on Eternal Warfare, a veritable trove of quality metal. Now they’re getting the vinyl treatment on the equally killer Pesanta Urfolk. Carve out a chunk of time to listen to “Decedere.” [Pesanta Urfolk] –Wyatt Marshall
8. Ramming Speed – “Grinding Dissent”
Location: Boston, MA
Subgenre: Crossover Thrash
Hardcore and metal producer-extraordinaire Kurt Ballou has a way of taking things and making them a whole lot better. For lack of a better term, I’d say he’s got “the touch.” Take the last High On Fire album: Matt Pike’s band was always great, but De Vermis Mysteriis is fucking godhead; Ballou’s huge, abrasive production took shit over the top. Ramming Speed popped up a few years ago playing party thrash — they were promising and decidedly good, if not especially awesome or heavy. Fast-forward to now: With a new record coming out on Prosthetic Records, Kurt Ballou hath made them both awesome and heavy. Lead single “Grinding Dissent” is darker and harder than anything that’s come before, falling somewhere between the everyman metal of Skeletonwitch and the thrash-leaning hardcore of Black Breath (who famously use Ballou’s production to excellent effect). This is music for headbanging. Get in there already. [Prosthetic] –AL
7. Author & Punisher – “Women & Children”
Location: San Diego
Author & Punisher — aka San Diego scientist/sculptor/ex-robotics major Tristan Shone — is probably best known for making music with immense custom-designed speakers and machines. But focusing on that aspect of the man’s art threatens to detract from his ability to craft music. Shone’s apocalyptic noise blends elements of industrial, doom, and dubstep, and contorts that mass into some chilling, unrecognizable form. His new album, Women & Children, follows 2012 breakthrough Ursus Americanus, and largely improves upon it. The album opener/title track opens with the sound of electronic cicadas chirping over an empty dystopia, and soon, the low end (synths? bass?) comes to the surface, along with Shone’s distant, distorted vocals. When the track finally explodes — and especially when it moves into its massive final two minutes — it sounds like an amped-up version of El-P’s most discomfiting and narcotic beats, like an invasion or a riot (giving its title an especially morbid undertone). [Seventh Rule] –MN
6. Sivyj Yar – “The Dawns Were Drifting As Before”
Subgenre: Pagan Black Metal
I’ll say it up front: I think this band deserves a lot more attention. Sivyj Yar’s stuck a chord of gorgeous melancholy on “The Dawns Were Drifting As Before,” a swath of black metal guitars and pagan howls with a strong sense of melody and moderate folk influences that moves effortlessly from segment to segment over the course of eight seemingly-short minutes. It’s catchy. Sivyj Yar is a one-man band, the work of Vladimir from Vyritsa, Russia, a small town that Google Maps says is about an hour and a half outside of St. Petersburg. I’ve never been there, but I’d like to imagine Vyritsa as a font of inspiration for the band, a sort of idyll begging for a Sivyj Yar soundtrack. “Dawns” is the title track off Sivyj Yar’s third full-length, a disc loaded with similarly epic and hook-y tracks. [Those Opposed Records] –WM
5. ASG – “Blood Drive”
Location: North Carolina
Subgenre: Stoner Metal/Sludge
In last month’s Black Market, I talked a little bit about the increasing trend among extreme metal bands to feature “clean” vocals — i.e., melodic, textured singing — rather than what’s popularly known as Cookie Monster vocals. And North Carolina’s ASG might represent the apotheosis of that trend: Frontman Jason Shi’s muscular, dynamic voice drives the band’s downtuned riffing, and ASG’s forthcoming fourth full-length, Blood Drive, features a terrific abundance of both. Blood Drive is a heavy album, no question, but it’s primarily a catchy album, full of resin-sticky summertime metal. There’s not a bad song on the thing, and it surges from doom-y melancholy to sludge-y aggression, from psychedelia to rawk. It comes from a place not far from the ones that produced three of last year’s best metal albums, in fact: Baroness’s Yellow & Green, Torche’s Harmonicraft, and Pallbearer’s Sorrow & Extinction. That’s high praise, to be sure, but I think Blood Drive earns it. [Relapse] –MN
4. Raspberry Bulbs – “Groping The Angel’s Face”
Don’t call ‘em black metal. (“Raspberry Bulbs defies the constraints of classification but is often mistakenly labeled as a black metal band.” — Blackest Ever Black, label releasing Raspberry Bulbs’ next album). But you wouldn’t be wrong to note the genre’s influence in Raspberry Bulbs’ demented, and killer, blend of crusty metallic punk. Raspberry Bulbs started as a solo project of He Who Crushes Teeth, known for his past work in Bone Awl and for having arguably the best name in metal, but now it’s a full-blown five-piece. Bone Awl had a lo-fi punk/metal approach similar to that of Raspberry Bulbs, and there’s definitely an undercurrent out there trafficking in cassettes and vinyl caked in blackened crust. RB surfs at the top of that movement, having previously put out a collection of excellent demos and a full length since 2009. “Groping The Angel’s Face,” the first track off Deformed Worship (getting an idea?), is an absolute ripper and also RB’s cleanest track yet production wise. Blackest Ever Black notes that the first recording of Deformed Worship was scrapped and re-recorded on eight-track, in keeping with RB’s lo-fi origins. [Blackest Ever Black] –WM
3. Bölzer – “Entranced By The Wolfshook”
Subgenre: Death Metal
One of the best things about metal is its remarkable fertility. I’ve spent the last dozen years of my life obsessively immersing myself in its 40-year catalog, and I still routinely come across totally obscure bands that knock me on my ass. Take Bölzer: I know next to nothing about them because there’s almost nothing to know. They’ve been around for five years, but they’ve just got a demo and this Aura EP out on the equally-mysterious Iron Bonehead Productions. One of their two members also sings for New Zealand’s Witchrist. That’s about it. And yet Aura is an incredible death metal recording. “Balance” isn’t a virtue that you hear extolled often for death metal, but “Entranced by the Wolfshook” has it. The production and performance wrap you in nostalgic analog warmth, but the song itself peers into the future—check out the weirdly bright melodies that dot the guitar work and the wonderfully off-kilter vocal warbles that appear around the 1:30 mark. [Iron Bonehead] –DM
2. Locrian – “Eternal Return”
Subgenre: Experimental Black Metal
What light through yonder window breaks? This is not the Locrian I thought I knew… The Locrian of old draped lightless field recordings over dismal drone, combining space and noise with black metal in the loosest sense. “Eternal Return” opens with a strangely triumphant synth; a few seconds later the song cracks wide open as drums and guitars kick in like an actual band, spilling light, warmth, and energy in a corona of dream-pop and visceral shoegaze. The vocals are the only true remnant of metal — enough to drag you back to hell, but gone before you know it. In their place we get stunning harmonized guitars lifted straight off Siamese Dream. And that’s it — roughly three minutes from top to bottom, one glistening movement from fade-in to fade-out. I won’t pretend to know what Locrian are doing here, but goddamn is it good. –AL
1. Deafheaven – “Dream House”
Location: San Francisco
All you really need to know is that “Dream House” isn’t just the best metal song to be released this month; it’s the best song of the year, period. But if you’re reading this feature, you probably know that already. I wrote about “Dream House” when it premiered, and the album on which it can be found, Sunbather, earlier this week, and the truth is, I have a lot more to say about both (I cut two entire sections from my Sunbather review and it still came in at 2300 words) but all that’s going to have to wait. What I will say now, though — and I can back this up with, like, a 3500-word Deconstructing, if you’re interested — is this: I actually think Sunbather could be the most important moment for American metal since the release of Nirvana’s Nevermind. Yeah, yeah, I know — beyond the caffeine-fueled insanity of the statement itself, trying to claim some metal-ownership of Nevermind sounds kind of outrageous at this point, but look: I was a very serious metalhead when that album came out, and I can tell you for a fact, we all played the hell out of that record. Heck, Kim Kelly is in her 20s, she’s the severest metal purist I know — she’d probably (definitely) disavow Deafheaven — and she loves Nirvana. In fact, she still owes me a story, from way back when I was her editor at IO, about how Kurt Cobain was “black metal as fuck.” Remember, too, that Cobain chose Andy Wallace to mix Nevermind specifically and solely because Wallace was the engineer on Reign In Blood. Also remember that Cobain’s most significant musical influence was the Melvins. And the Melvins played MDF Stage 1 on Saturday night. (By all accounts, they destroyed.) The cynics say Deafheaven are just doing Godspeed or MBV or Weakling or something, but remember: The cynics said Nirvana were just doing the Pixies. Then suddenly, out of nowhere, the cynics were gone, and Nirvana were doing Nirvana. And so was everyone else. [Deathwish, Inc.] –MN