The Black Market bros and I had a few long conversations regarding what was and wasn’t appropriate for inclusion in this installment of our column. February may be the shortest month, but this year, it produced a pretty vast array of exciting metal.
Or, you know, not-metal. Look, there’s no almost no dialectical dead horse less likely to be revived by a good flogging than the one that begins with the phrase, “That’s not metal,” but even so, it persists to the extent that it has become ubiquitous in daily exchanges among fans of this music. This month, it was most prevalent when we discussed whether to make eligible for inclusion “Kerosene Girl,” the great new track from Louisville trio Young Widows. It’s not metal. But it’s as heavy as a charcoal-iron anvil, and it hits like a power hammer. So we discussed.
Said Doug Moore, in one conversation: “They’re borderline IMO, but I love them and would be into including.”
Said Aaron Lariviere, in an entirely separate conversation: “Young Widows does kick a lot of ass, but man it’s pretty far afield for a metal column. Sounds like Engine Down plus the Stooges, or if Low discovered caffeine.”
We weren’t the only ones. Metal-specific blog MetalSucks covered the song, but prefaced it by saying: “The publicist who pitched us about the new Young Widows track ’Kerosene Girl’ had the following to offer about the band: ’Not technically metal, but I feel like this is in your wheelhouse?’ Yes, very much so! … He then added: ’This song fucking pummels.’ Yes, yes sir, it absolutely does!”
I could have gone either way — I already wrote about the track when it was released, and again, in Stereogum’s roundup of that week’s 5 Best Songs, so it’s not like it’s gone ignored on this site — but I felt we were most honestly serving Black Market readers by including it here, too: It’s the best “heavy” song I’ve heard this year, even if it’s “not technically metal.”
Another conversation this month centered on the question of whether to include Pyrrhon’s “Balkanized” on this list. That one was a lot tougher. As you may know — and, if you don’t know, consider this full disclosure — Pyrrhon is our very own Doug Moore’s band, and “Balkanized” is the first song to be released off their second album, The Mother Of Virtues, due out in April on Relapse Records. I covered the track when it dropped, and my writeup was basically just a long disclaimer. The ethics of using this space to cover the music made by a contributor (and close friend) are … extremely suspect, at best. But here’s the thing: “Balkanized” is obviously one of the best metal songs of the month, and it’s on an album that will be released by one of the biggest labels in metal. There’s no question we would cover the song if Doug were not a member of the band (or a member of the Black Market team). The four of us — Aaron, Doug, Wyatt Marshall, and I — debated this at length, and I finally decided we should include the song: Like “Kerosene Girl,” it’s music that, I believe, our readership will be rewarded for having heard.
Neither of these conversational themes are limited to this month or this space; slightly altered versions of them are prevalent across this community, especially among those of us who cover said community. Re: topic 1: How do we define metal, and if we cannot define metal, how do we define ourselves as metal fans? How do we define boundaries that shape our coverage sphere? Are we betraying the metal community by covering not-metal, or is it a greater betrayal to limit our coverage only to music that subscribes to atavistic orthodoxies and often retraces long-established patterns? And if we were to limit our coverage to music fitting existing and clearly identified definitions of “metal,” would we not then be complicit in the music’s evolutionary stasis? Or is stasis essential to the music’s very identity today?
Topic 2 — the question of how to define boundaries that will eliminate (or at least minimize) institutional bias (or outright favoritism) — is harder still. The metal world is very, very small. Everyone knows everyone else, or at most, is removed by two degrees of separation. At most! I could have chosen not to include “Balkanized” in this month’s Black Market, and thus avoided these specific questions of impropriety, but tugging at the thread would have revealed other, less obvious questions. For instance, next month, Pyrrhon is heading out on tour with fellow Brooklyn band Psalm Zero, who also appear in this month’s Black Market. Does that not also present a potential conflict of interest? Pyrrhon are signed to Relapse Records — should we forego coverage of all Relapse bands (a stable that also includes Baroness, Windhand, Tombs…) to avoid potential conflicts?
The answer, really, is just to fire Doug, but (a) that’s not gonna happen, and (b) even if it did, it wouldn’t erase the broader systemic conflicts — the ones above and beyond the Black Market — which occasionally seep into the content produced by nearly every metal-covering publication in the country, if not the world, almost always invisibly, and most often, without even the awareness of the publication or the artist. This scene is too small to eradicate nepotism. The best we can do is be aware of it, confront it, struggle with it, and address it publicly, to keep ourselves as honest as possible, and you as informed as possible.
tl;dr: We included “Balkanized” in this month’s Black Market, but we dropped it to the bottom of the list, because that seemed the fairest and most straightforward way to both cover the song here and minimize the ethical ramifications of having done so. For the record, I think it’s better than its position on the list would indicate — but either way, there’s no shame in being at 15 on this thing; everything here is worthy of being heard.
Of course, there were other metal songs released this month also worthy of being heard, and because we have only 15 spots to work with, those songs didn’t make this list, which puts my above-mentioned decisions in a distinctly dubious light. So, in an effort to mitigate that, I offer the following five songs — also highlights of the month — two of which would have been on our list if “Balkanized” and “Kerosene Girl” were not. I sincerely and enthusiastically encourage you to check them out, too:
There ya go. Between that and everything below, you’ve got more than enough metal, not-metal, and not-not-metal to get you through the final few days of this endless short month — enough, maybe, to hold you over till we do this again in March. Springtime! Let us know in the comments what you’re into, not into, what we missed, what icy blasts of sonic terror and/or majesty have been your soundtrack to this harsh, unforgiving winter.
15. Pyrrhon – “Balkanized”
Subgenre: Death Metal/Noise Rock
Pyrrhon’s second album arrives as death metal sits at a crossroads. Old-school death metal revivalism has dominated the discussion for a few years, but the novelty has begun to wear off, to the point where even revival bands are starting to abandon the style (see Morbus Chron below). Meanwhile a large percentage of modern death metal bands painted themselves into a creative corner, chasing ultra-clean production and hyper-technicality to a place where no listener could survive. As both these tangentially related scenes hit critical mass, we begin to see all sorts of incredible creativity emerge from the wreckage in between the two extremes: one of the more dominant strains revolves around bands like Ulcerate, Artificial Brain, and even the revitalized Gorguts, who are giving us progressive, art-damaged arrangements with an emphasis on atmosphere over sheer virtuosity. Pyrrhon could easily tour with any of these bands, but their latest album, The Mother Of Virtues, actually pushes much further from traditional death metal than any of their compatriots, carving out a lightless corner where experimental improvisation and uncomfortable atmospherics combine into something we’ve never quite heard before. It’s that last that’s most important. When Gorguts released Obscura in 1998, they gave us something legitimately new, and it made waves. The noisy hardcore band Deadguy did the same thing back in 1995, with the release of Fixation On A Coworker. Pyrrhon manages to incorporate both Gorguts and Deadguy as influences, and they give us something progressive in the literal sense — something entirely new. Chaotic aggression continually threatens to unravel, and what it amounts to is largely a shift in perspective and emphasis: By focusing on the act of falling apart, they give us the sound of decay itself. It’s entropic death metal. Lead single “Balkanized” is a fractured, fractious mess (fitting the title) that snaps and shudders until it finally breaks apart — the instruments come unstuck and spiral into the aether, until the vocal returns for a final, explosive comedown. [Relapse] –Aaron
14. Vampire – “The Fen”
Subgenre: Retro-proto-extreme Metal
An unusually high percentage of the new metal currently coming out of Sweden is extremely retro-minded, with bands like Ghost B.C., In Solitude, Portrait, Entrails, and others basically writing and recording music with seemingly no influences (or equipment) dating past 1991. The ephemeral moment they are recreating is a notable one: It’s the moment before subgenres like death metal and black metal were fully formed, when bands like Venom, Possessed, Celtic Frost, Mercyful Fate, and Bathory were making metal without the constraints of genre orthodoxy — without even awareness of such constraints — and achieving something untethered, timeless, boundless. Among the new crop of Swedish bands trying to re-inhabit that bygone moment in time is Vampire, a four-piece who, like Ghost B.C., refuse to reveal their identities beyond their nicknames: vocalist Hand Of Doom, guitarist Black String, bassist Command, and drummer Ratwing. Recorded on vintage equipment at Gothenburg’s swanky analogue Svenska Grammofon Studion, Vampire’s forthcoming self-titled debut LP is indeed a detailed excursion down memory lane. But Vampire never feels like a stylish knockoff or an empty retro exercise. It’s not nearly as thin or tinny as many of the classics and forgotten gems by which it is inspired: It’s a vast, rich-sounding record that merely celebrates a moment when metal had no restrictions beyond its authors’ technical abilities. Vampire refer to their music as “skull-fucking death metal,” but that’s not just reductive, it’s inaccurate: This is neither death metal nor black metal nor thrash metal nor speed metal, but a form of retro-proto-extreme metal that will probably soon need its own subgenre tag. I’m cool calling it “vampire metal” for now, till something better comes along. [Century Media] –Michael
13. Gamma Ray — “Hellbent”
Subgenre: Power Metal
Power metal is alive and shirtless in February, that’s for sure. We’ve got a predictably ridiculous track from Sonata Arctica, as well as a, uh, frilly dose of positivity from Freedom Call, and here’s a new scorcher from one of the all-time power metal greats, Gamma Ray. I mention the other bands upfront for a sense of context, since I assume most of you don’t intentionally seek a lot of this stuff out, and also to illustrate just how much better this stuff can sound when delivered by the masters. This might be the first chance we’ve had to cover legit power metal in the Black Market, so this is a mildly momentous occasion — we’re laying groundwork for the future, hopefully (better believe I’ll be writing up the Blind Guardian record that’s coming later this year). For the time being, we see one of the surviving pioneers of the power metal style, Kai Hansen, original singer and guitarist of Helloween, still operating in fine form here on the eleventh Gamma Ray album. Listening through, you might notice some, uh, remarkable similarities to a certain Judas Priest song. No matter. If power metal is one thing (awesome), that thing is certainly not concerned with originality. But what Gamma Ray have done here seems almost impossible for a latter-day band playing an already antiquated style: they’ve brought legitimately heavy production to the table without sacrificing what makes power metal so much fun in the first place. That being traditional pop songwriting with a classic pre-chorus tease and a so-big-it’s-HUGE chorus payoff, woven together with seamless live-wire guitar duels, all set to deeply earnest lyrics about the inherent power of heavy metal itself. As undiluted escapism, it doesn’t get much better. (FYI, the footage of a destroyed building towards the 3-minute mark shows Gamma Ray wandering through the wreckage of their studio, which burned down halfway through production of their latest album.) [Eagle Rock] –Aaron
12. Sorcier Des Glaces – “Under The Moonlight”
Subgenre: Black Metal
Formed in 1997, Sorcier Des Glaces is one of the senior statesmen of the Quebec black metal scene, an early runner in the province that’s home to an unusual concentration of the best black metal out there right now. As an intro to the band’s catalogue, “Under The Moonlight” is fantastic — SDG’s signature up-front, powerful snarling vocals sound as good as ever, the riffs and chorus are catchy as hell, and the whole thing comes off like a clinic in mid-, even slow-tempo black metal. “Under The Moonlight” is SDG at their most atmospheric; ambient sounds and vocal effects lead the track off before diving into frigid blasting — appropriate for a band whose name translates to “Wizard of Ices.” No gimmicks here, just straightforward, killer, melody-forward black metal with roots in the ’90s style. [Obscure Abhorrence Productions] –Wyatt
11. Impetuous Ritual – “Venality In Worship”
Subgenre: Impenetrable Death Metal
Musical masochism is a thing. Years ago if I heard a track like this I would have immediately shut down and tuned out. But something happens when you spend a compulsive amount of time listening to metal and little else. Boundaries erode. Old highs and lows start to sound tame, so you dig deeper, find new realms of absurdity. This Soundcloud comment for “Venality In Worship”, the first single pulled from Impetuous Ritual’s second LP for Profound Lore, illustrates what we’re in for fairly accurately: “what a horrible recording this is downright fucking putrid.” (It’s impossible to tell if that’s meant to be derogatory.) Impetuous Ritual shares members with the more famous and similarly scathing Australian band Portal — there are similarities, of course, but the bands offer punishment in slightly different modes. Where Portal is all angles, seemingly too complex to comprehend but still fairly audible, Impetuous Ritual is even less refined, even harder to properly hear, and ultimately that much harder to listen to. It’s great. The key to making this kind of music appealing in any way is what I like to call “hinting at the mystery”. Aural brutality in the purest sense — i.e., straight noise — would ultimately be unlistenably dull. (Check out some Whitehouse and see for yourself.) This kind of metal, then, becomes most intriguing when you’re given just enough to imagine the complexity of what’s going on beneath the surface without actually revealing any discernible detail. Hinting at the mystery. When done right, it’s transfixing. You tell yourself if you just listen a little bit louder you might actually unravel something important… which of course is impossible. I have no idea what’s going on beneath the de-centered hellishness on display here, but I’m perfectly content letting the pain wash through my skull in waves. [Profound Lore] –Aaron
10. Wounded Kings – “The Silence”
Subgenre: Doom Metal
Certain friends of mine are fond of arguing that when a band switches singers, they should change the name of the band as well. That tactic has certainly worked well for some bands (see: Young Widows, below). For other bands, the second vocalist actually brings the music closer to its original vision. Iron Maiden is one good example — I’m a Paul Di’Anno partisan, but Bruce Dickinson is the definitive voice of the band. The Wounded Kings may be an even more clear-cut case. Original singer George Birch had a powerful voice, but Sharie Neyland — who first appeared on 2011′s In The Chapel Of The Black Hand — couldn’t be a more perfect fit for the band’s lugubrious traditional doom. She gets even better on Consolamentum. Listen to her towering performance on the title track; if these guys do change their name, it should probably be to the Wounded Queen. [Candlelight Records] –Doug
09. Xothist – “Blossom”
Subgenre: Black Metal
If Iron Maiden or Mastadon are good bands to play for friends or a significant other in an effort to get them into heavy metal (or convince them you’re not nuts), one-man band Xothist is probably just about the worst thing you could pick. From the get-go, the song named “Blossom” appears to be a false friend — it’s a total sonic nightmare. Beneath a lo-fi haze, “Blossom” arrogantly stomps along while heavily distorted screaming blends in with a wall of thick white noise. But, if you listen for it closely, a decidedly pretty, triumphant-yet-melancholic melody dances along, making the track one of the most challenging — and best — black metal songs of the year. [Fallen Empire Records] –Wyatt
08. Dephosphorus – “Astrocyte Portal”
Metal has already been atomized into so many sub-sub-subgenres that even fanboys consider its insane taxonomy something of a joke. It thus always surprises me when bands go out of their way to set up new genre tags for themselves, especially when that tag seems to miss the descriptive mark. Greece’s Dephosphorus call themselves ’astrogrind,’ but aside from the song titles and the smattering of vocodered singing on “Astrocyte Portal,” you’d be hard-pressed to find the chill of the void on Ravenous Solemnity, this Greek unit’s third effort. Quite the opposite, really — Dephosphorus’s attack is direct, earthy, and white-hot. The ’grind’ part is accurate enough, but not in the straight-ahead Wormrot sense; the chattering rhythm section propels icky, twisted-nerve harmonies as often as good ol’ power chords. Think of this as a beefier, meaner companion to last month’s great Artificial Brain record. The vocals sound like ouch. You can hear all of their albums in full on Bandcamp. [Handshake Inc.] –Doug
07. Psalm Zero – “In The Dead”
As I noted in the intro at the top of this page, we can go back and forth for days on the question of “But is it metal?” and not reach anything approaching a consensus, but Brooklyn duo Psalm Zero force that debate to another level: It’s probably not metal, but what the fuck is it? Psalm Zero arrive with unimpeachable metal credentials: Their debut album, The Drain, will be released on the venerable Canadian indie Profound Lore (Agalloch, Krallice), and one of the duo’s two members is Andrew Hock, frontman for the excellent black metal unit Castevet. But Psalm Zero teams Hock with experimental musician Charlie Looker (Seaven Teares, ex-Extra Life), and while their music is born of metallic influences, most of those influences exist on the genre’s margins — I can hear some early Godflesh in here, Voivod’s Nothingface, King’s freakin’ X, Sunny Day Real Estate, even — and are combined to create something that abandons the map altogether. Throughout the album, Hock and Looker trade vocals; Hock sings in a gruff, death-y bark, while Looker has a smooth proggy tone. Hock’s harsh rasps, though, are entirely absent on “In The Dead,” arguably the album’s best song. Looker delivers a mournful, melodic vocal over spindly, serrated guitars and billowing synths, all producing huge pop hooks that are just slightly incongruous enough to keep the whole thing from feeling like an actual pop track. Or, for that matter, an actual metal track. So what the fuck is it? Just listen. [Profound Lore] –Michael
06. Fluisteraars – “De Doornan”
Subgenre: Atmospheric Black Metal
The first time I heard Fluisteraars, I did a double take. Was it possible that a band could blend the atmospheric black metal stylings of Agalloch and Drudkh so well with straightforward rock sensibilities? Hold the phone! Yup — and with each turn, “De Doornan” got even better. Fluisteraars are from the The Netherlands, a country not known for churning out black metal like some of its neighbors, and Fluisteraars had just two demo releases under its belt before the band unleashed a debut album. “De Doornan” is the centerpiece of that record, but choosing it over the LP’s two other 8-minute plus songs was a really tough call. In other words, check out this album — it’s one of the most exciting releases from a new band playing this style of music in quite some time. [Cold Void Emanations/Eisenwald] –Wyatt
05. Jute Gyte – “Endless Moths Swarming”
Subgenre: Progressive Black Metal
Jute Gyte has one of the most intimidating discography listings in the metal world. This unusual black metal band — comprised solely of multi-instrumentalist Adam Kalmbach — has released 22 albums since 2008. Of those, 17 have come out since 2010. On top of that, Jute Gyte is unbelievably stylistically adventurous, veering between bizarre black metal and minimalist electronic music from release to release. Jute Gyte’s first album of 2014 (how often do you say that?), Vast Chains, is the former. Kalmbach plays a microtonal guitar, which allows him to lever unbelievable amounts of dissonance into his compositions — so much that it’s easy to forget that he’s playing a guitar at all. And yet his songs are weirdly compelling, thanks in part to his awesome vocals and lyrics(An example from “Endless Moths Swarming”: “Blood and flesh are the parody of desire/ Lust is the plea before the executioner.”) This is seriously some of the most insane-sounding metal I’ve ever heard. You can stream the whole album (and the rest of the Gyte catalog) on Bandcamp, too. Bonus points for the appropriated Velázquez album cover. [Jeshimoth Entertainment] –Doug
04. Floor – “War Party”
Tampa stoner-metal trio Floor was formed in 1992 by guitarist/vocalist Steve Brooks, guitarist/bassist Anthony Vialon, and drummer Betty Monteavaro. A year later, Monteavaro was replaced by Jeff Sousa, after which Floor released a handful of EPs and splits before breaking up in 1996, as much a legend as a band. But Floor re-formed the following year (with another new drummer, Henry Wilson) and spent the next four years as a barely active unit — releasing no new music till 2002, when they dropped their self-titled full-length debut on No Idea Records — before splitting up again in 2003. It’s about as small a catalog as any band can produce in 11 years, but Floor got some serious mileage out of their limited output: Today, their 2002 debut is roundly considered a classic; it blended punishing down-tuned guitars with bright sugary riffs, and it pretty much gave birth to the sludge-pop subgenre, whose adherents include the likes of Baroness, Kylesa, Red Fang, and, most notably, Torche, the band Brooks formed after parting ways with Floor. But Brooks, Vialon, and Wilson joined forces again in 2010 to release a comprehensive Floor box set, Below & Beyond, and play some live shows (which, in some cases, featured all three drummers: Wilson, Sousa, and Monteavaro). The newly reunited Floor were met with enthusiastic crowds, which naturally led to plans to record a new album. At last, that new album, the Kurt Ballou-produced Oblation, is due in April, and it’s absolutely worthy of its legacy. Oblation arrives more than a decade after Floor, but the band’s addictive blend of concussion-inducing low end, dirtbike-trick riffs, and Brooks’ Chambord-sweet voice sounds every but as potent as it did in ’02 — and, for that matter, every bit as potent as the similarly punchy formula Torche has spent the last decade perfecting. “War Party” is the album’s first single, and the two halves of the title pretty well capture the Floor dichotomy: war on the bottom; party up top. [Season Of Mist] –Michael
03. Conan – “Foehammer”
Subgenre: Caveman Doom/Sludge/Drone
Terrible puns are unavoidable when you write about a band named Conan, especially when they attack their art like… barbarians. Crude aggression wins out over precision anything — the songs on second LP Blood Eagle are as subtle as a cavalry charge. The guitar and bass essentially bind together into a fat, pulpy mass that delivers all rhythm, all the time — nothing extraneous to distract from the simplest of missions. Picture High on Fire and Electric Wizard… without all the frills. It’s refreshing to hear metal laid out in such minimalistic fashion — deconstruction and distillation aren’t new in doom, but they so often lead to boredom, whereas Conan make high quality noise while barely moving. “Foehammer,” the fastest and shortest song on the album (therefore the default single), gallops hard beneath hideously oscillated bass chords. The only sign of progression comes when the band drops the tempo, letting the weight swell, crush, and seethe. Minimal thought, maximum volume — that’s all we need. [Napalm] –Aaron
02. Morbus Chron – “The Perennial Link”
Subgenre: Psychedelic Progressive Death Metal
Sweden’s Morbus Chron released their debut album, Sleepers In The Rift, in 2011 — the same year that gave us Disma’s Towards The Megalith, Sonne Adam’s Transformation, and Necros Christos’ Doom Of The Occult. Those four bands/albums were the cream of that year’s ridiculously fertile Old-School Death Metal (OSDM) revival crop, which seemingly sought to erase two decades of musical/technological progress and reboot death metal’s evolutionary process starting sometime in late 1991 (which was, admittedly, the exact moment at which the genre reached its artistic peak). Sleepers In The Rift was an outstanding album built of well-worn components; it convincingly recreated a fleeting, bygone, perfect moment, and managed to forge an identity of its own in the process. But with its follow-up, the forthcoming Sweven, Morbus Chron have altogether shed any and all OSDM tags — and perhaps any and all tags, period. If Sleepers In The Rift was part of a cultural reboot, Sweven suggests an entirely alternate history, one that might have emerged had death metal followed a different path than the one it did in the reality we know: a darker, weirder, more artful, less opportunistic path. Like Grave Miasma’s outstanding 2013 release, Odori Sepulcrorum, Sweven feels hauntingly ancient yet utterly unfamiliar. There are tones and textures here that date back to the mid-’80s, but they are employed in bold, often bizarre compositions that might as well represent the heretofore-unheard influence of an actual alien culture. I’m hesitant to use words like “proggy” and “psychedelic,” because there are plenty of proggy, psychedelic death metal bands, and they sound nothing like this (but what does?). That said, Sweven is indeed progressive, and it is a fucking trip. It goes to weird, amazing, uncharted places, and it will take you there, too. “The Perennial Link” is probably as good an individual representation as any of the album’s scope, ambition, and majesty. It’s one of the best albums of the year. [Century Media] –Michael
01. Young Widows – “Kerosene Girl”
It’s weird to think now that Young Widows used to be considered “that new version of Breather Resist without the singer.” Though Breather Resist — the Botch-style shreddy hardcore band that preceded these guys– were good, Young Widows’ upcoming fourth album Easy Pain indicates that they’re dangerously close to becoming great. You don’t have to take my word for it; they’ve already performed the whole record live, and you can watch a hi-fi video of the performance here. But if you’re more into studio jams, listen to “Kerosene Girl,” which encapsulate much of why I’m so stoked about Easy Pain. The restraint of its predecessor In and Out of Youth and Lightness has mostly gone out the window. Instead, Young Widows wail away on an increasingly massive series of breathless rhythm workouts, like the Jesus Lizard with a marquee production job and a fetish for locked grooves. Not remotely metal, but stupid intense anyway. [Temporary Residence] –Doug