Last week, Grantland published a thoughtful, compelling piece by Steven Hyden titled “The Sad But True Fate Of Pop-Metal.” In his essay, Hyden used the new Mastodon album, Once More ’Round The Sun, as a jumping-off point to lament the paucity (if not void) of contemporary metal in mainstream consciousness, especially relative to the genre’s healthy mainstream presence in every previous generation of pop music. Wrote Hyden:
Not that long ago, pop-friendly metal and hard rock ranked among the most popular music in the world. Up until the early ’00s, you could find ginormously successful examples of this music in the upper reaches of the pop charts going back more than 30 years, starting with the genre’s acknowledged originators, Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath. No matter how metal and hard rock changed over the years, there was always a version for the pop market. It could have been arena rock (AC/DC’s Back In Black), the New Wave Of British Heavy Metal (Def Leppard’s Pyromania), L.A. glam (Quiet Riot’s Metal Health), post-NWOBHM (Def Leppard’s Hysteria), post–L.A. glam (Guns N’ Roses’ Appetite For Destruction), thrash (Metallica’s …And Justice For All), post-thrash (Metallica’s “Black Album”), grunge (Soundgarden’s Superunknown), rap-rock (Linkin Park’s Hybrid Theory), or post-grunge (Creed’s Human Clay). Some of these albums are masterpieces, and some are the opposite of masterpieces. But no matter the style of metal, they sold millions and millions of copies.
Now, hardly anything sells “millions and millions of copies” these days. But metal has been particularly averse to mass acceptance in the past decade. Pop-metal as a concept has been rendered virtually extinct. What happened?
That’s a question that comes up a lot among metal fans of a certain age, i.e., basically anyone old enough to remember the ’80s. Earlier this year, Metalsucks posted an essay called “Why There Will Never Be Another Metal Band As Big as Metallica,” which offered some sound theories; in short: “1. There are too many bands; 2. The internet; 3. Rock radio won’t support metal; 4. Screaming; and 5. Music doesn’t matter as much as it used to.”
It’s no coincidence that Hyden’s list of examples includes Metallica twice and that Metalsucks chose Metallica as their Platonic, messianic, unattainable ideal. Yes, Metallica’s “Black Album” is the best-selling album of the Soundscan era (having now shifted some 16 million units), but even before “Black Album,” Metallica were headlining arenas and festivals, achieving US sales of 3x and 6x (twice) and 8x platinum, and even wrangling a Grammy nomination while playing a form of metal that can accurately be described as “extreme.”
At that point in the mid- to late-’80s, it seemed as though Metallica were merely one of many such forces: Several of the band’s forebears and primary influences — namely Ozzy Osbourne, Judas Priest, and Iron Maiden — weren’t far removed from their own artistic and commercial peaks, and a handful of likeminded peers were also attaining success in the mainstream — namely Slayer, Megadeth, and Anthrax. And given that context, Hyden or Metalsucks might argue, this conversation doesn’t necessarily have to center on Metallica — you could use any of those other bands and make an equally convincing case.
But here’s the thing: You can’t. Metallica were not emblematic of an era; they were The Best Band In The World. They were the Beatles and the Stones and Led Zeppelin and U2. They were a wholly unique unit whose massive individual talents combined to create something much, much greater than the sum of their parts, and much, much greater than the scene by which they were surrounded. Metallica weren’t one of several; they were a fucking sun around which an entire solar system orbited. There will never be another Metallica for the same reason there will never be another Dylan — because Dylan is not a musician, he is a big bang and a black hole, both a starting point as well as its own, only, logical conclusion.
That’s not hyperbole; if anything, the hard data serves to underscore such distinctions. Consider this: In the years between 2009 – 2011, Metallica took part in a handful of stadium shows called the Big Four, in which they played sets alongside Anthrax, Megadeth, and Slayer. Such a billing would seem to imply all four of those bands were essentially as “big” as one another, but that’s empirically wrong. Megadeth’s best-selling album, 1992′s Countdown To Extinction, was certified 2x platinum in 1994, two years after its release, during a boom era for the music industry; meanwhile, as of today, no Slayer or Anthrax album has ever even reached platinum status. By comparison, Metallica’s last album — Death Magnetic, released in 2009 (at which point record sales industry-wide had reached a stunning new low) — went 2x platinum. So too did the album that preceded Death Magnetic, 2003′s widely reviled St. Anger. 1996′s Load and ’97′s Re-Load? 5x and 4x platinum, respectively. And that was Metallica’s fallow period! Those five albums represent Metallica at their worst! Tour packages aside, there is no Big Four: There are the Four Horsemen and a handful of bands who burst through the barn doors kicked open by those steeds.
Remove Metallica from the equation, then — as we must, as Metallica is a clear outlier — and Hyden’s argument for the demise of metal in the mainstream grows particularly nebulous. Let’s look at the other albums he mentions as past examples of metal’s commercial dominance: Back In Black and Appetite For Destruction are two of 17 albums in the history of the universe to sell more than 15 million copies in the US, and the only other “metal” album on that list is the “Black Album.” Take a step back from that. Something like 75,000 albums are released every year, and over the last seven-plus decades (roughly spanning the “the history of the universe” in terms of the recording industry), only 17 — seven-fucking-teen — are in a class with Back In Black and Appetite For Destruction. And the newest album to join the 15M+ Club came out in 1997!
Quiet Riot, on the other hand, are a footnote, known almost solely for (a) their cover of Slade’s “Cum On Feel The Noize,” which peaked at #5 on the Billboard charts in 1983, and (b) spawning the career of guitarist Randy Rhoads, whose real notoriety came when he was hired to play in Ozzy Osbourne’s band. Yes, Metal Health sold 6 million copies, but Vanilla Ice’s To The Extreme sold 15 million copies, and no one would use To The Extreme as an example of rap’s former glory. (Notably, Quiet Riot’s last charting single came just a year after “Cum On Feel The Noize”: “Mama Weer All Crazee Now,” another Slade cover, which peaked at #51 in 1984.) Moving on, the two Def Leppard albums mentioned by Hyden (which went 10x and 12x platinum, respectively) are successful more for their plush, blockbuster-sized sound than their songs — and that sound was the handiwork of producer Mutt Lange, who later applied that exact sound to the albums he produced for his then-wife, Shania Twain: 1995′s The Woman In Me (which was certified 12x platinum), 1997′s Come On Over (15x platinum), and 2002′s Up! (11x platinum).
In that sense, you could point to those Shania Twain albums as an example of metal’s hybridization; Mutt Lange applied sonic elements of pop metal to pop country, and more or less came away with the same product in a vastly different package — and both artistically and commercially, he achieved the same result! But metal’s hybridization predates Shania Twain, just as it predates culture-poisoning waste products like Kid Rock and Limp Bizkit and the 1993 Judgment Night soundtrack. It dates back to 1991, when Kurt Cobain chose Andy Wallace to mix Nirvana’s Nevermind specifically and solely because Wallace was the engineer on Slayer’s Reign In Blood. It dates back further, even: to 1986, when Rick Rubin employed Slayer guitarist Kerry King to add a guitar solo to the Beastie Boys’ “No Sleep Till Brooklyn” — the same year Rubin encouraged Run-D.M.C. to do a hip-hop cover of Aerosmith’s “Walk This Way.” (Coincidentally, Rubin also produced Reign In Blood as well as Death Magnetic and Black Sabbath’s 2013 comeback LP, 13.) It dates back further still — to 1983, when Suicidal Tendencies released their self-titled debut album, which combined thrash and punk in new and thrilling ways … to 1979, when KISS released Dynasty, which combined hard rock and disco in crass and clumsy ways …
All of Hyden’s post-Metallica examples are lukewarm, lesser products of that hybridization: Nobody considers Soundgarden, Linkin Park, or Creed to be “metal” in any significant capacity — no more than, say, Pearl Jam, 311, or Nickelback, anyway — and to bemoan or puzzle over the commercial demise of such bands seems like little more than musing on a selective variation of the timeless rockist koan “Are guitars a thing of the past?“
The answer, of course, is yes. And, obviously, no. It’s all built into the DNA at this point — your great-great-grandfather might be long gone (RIP) but you still have his eyes. That’s how evolution works. By Hyden’s standards, Bon Jovi surely qualify as a pop-metal band, but are any of Bon Jovi’s ’80s hits really all that different from their 2000 hit “It’s My Life,” which was co-written with money-printing Swedish powerhouse Max Martin? And is “It’s My Life” really all that different from any of the Martin-co-penned hits recorded by Pink over the last few years? Same product, different packaging, same result. Metal is kinda everywhere in pop, really, when you look past the packaging. The title track on country superstar Eric Church’s The Outsiders sounds an awful lot like later Metallica and AC/DC. Lady Gaga’s Born This Way claimed influences including Iron Maiden and KISS; that album featured one song called “Heavy Metal Lover,” and another song — “You And I” — which was produced by none other than Mutt Lange. Speaking of Lady Gaga, the all-girl teenage J-Pop/deathcore group Babymetal aren’t much more than a viral sensation in the States right now, but they’re fucking massive at home in Japan, and starting next month, they’ll be playing US arenas as Gaga’s opening act. Fall Out Boy’s live set includes a drum-off set to Slayer’s “Raining Blood” — which is especially notable as Fall Out Boy’s drummer, Andy Hurley, used to play for Black Market-approved metalcore act Enabler. Arctic Monkeys are headlining festivals behind a deeply Sabbath-influenced album. They might not sell like Quiet Riot in ’83, but as Hyden admits, hardly anything does.
My essential problem with Hyden’s argument is that it focuses so intently on the past that it can’t help ignoring what is actually occurring in the here-and-now. I have the same issue, actually, with Why Do the Heathen Rage?, Drew Daniel’s “queer critique of the shitty ideological disaster area that is black metal,” recorded as the Soft Pink Truth. No one could possibly deny that black metal has long, dark shadows in which bigotry has spread like toxic mold, but Daniel’s “critique” consists of covers of nine songs that are, on average, 21 years old. In the present, on the other hand, seemingly every black metal band in America is made up of vegan, environmentalist, cat-owning craft-beer aficionados who live and work in and around tattoo parlors and coffee shops clustered among this country’s several active Portlandias. The most prominent American black metal band is made up of two smartly dressed San Francisco shorthairs who read the New Yorker and sing K-Ci & JoJo songs on karaoke night at the gay bar. What is the value of the Soft Pink Truth in 2014, when 2013 already produced a pink truth of so many disparate, different textures?
Hyden, too, might do well to consider Deafheaven when he proclaims that metal is missing artists who will “barge into your life and recalibrate your senses the way popular music can.” Sunbather was far and away the best-reviewed album of 2013, per Metacritic (it was Hyden’s favorite album of 2013, too!). Was that the sound of a band “averse to mass acceptance”? How do we define “mainstream,” anyway? No, those reviews did not translate to millions in sales, but million-sellers are deader than guitars right now — the best-selling album of 2013, Justin Timberlake’s The 20/20 Experience, topped out at 2.43M, falling more than half a mil short of the 3x platinum mark achieved by that other Quiet Riot record — the one that came after the one that had “Cum On Feel The Noize” — which peaked at #15 on the Billboard chart in 1984 and effectively signaled the end of Quiet Riot’s relevance. Did The 20/20 Experience “recalibrate your senses”? It did not recalibrate mine. Sunbather still crushes me, though. Still crushes people other than me, too, I bet. I think that album barged into a hell of a lot of lives last year, and I think it changed a lot of those lives, too.
I do agree, though, with one particular point made by Hyden in his essay: This music will “never make arenas full of foxy, jean-jacketed females swoon.” Because, look, nobody is playing arenas anymore, precisely for the reasons Metalsucks listed as precluding a second coming of Metallica: “1. There are too many bands; 2. The internet; 3. Rock radio won’t support metal; 4. Screaming; and 5. Music doesn’t matter as much as it used to.” But it still fucking matters a lot. I’ve seen Deafheaven four times, and so far, the venues have only gotten bigger. And I’ll be honest, I don’t know if any females were swooning at any of those shows, but I do know this: I saw a lot of women in the pit.
I promise you, I talk more about Deafheaven in here than I do in real life (although the dudes with whom I write this column every month — Aaron Lariviere, Wyatt Marshall, and Doug Moore — might take issue with that claim), and I feel like I should apologize to the Deafheaven guys for constantly projecting my own shit onto them. (Metallica too, for that matter.) There is a vast universe of metal to discuss, and while not every meteor flying around here will crash into you and alter your landscape, I guarantee you won’t be able to avoid getting hit.
The album currently knocking me senseless — YOB’s upcoming Clearing The Path To Ascend, a pretty immediate AOTY contender in my eyes — has yet to see any of its songs premiered for the public, but lots of stuff on the list below delivers similarly high-grade concussions. That’s especially true of the two tracks at the top of this thing, which should probably be ranked #1 and #1A rather than #1 and #2, but we don’t play for ties here, and right now, the ranking as-is feels right. You’ll hear a lot more about the band in the #2 spot over the course of 2014, but man, if you sleep on #1, you will be doing yourself a severe, severe disservice.
Also worth noting: This month produced an insane amount of excellent black metal, so if this month’s list skews unusually black, that’s why; it would have been unfair and inaccurate to omit any of the below-mentioned black metal songs in favor of songs from other subgenres for the sake of diversity. In fact, looking at the whole thing now, it seems like some of those songs are given undeservedly low placement, but it’s also impossible to see a way to shuffle the deck without wrongfully displacing something else. I’m not complaining, though — if anything, I’m reveling.
But before we get to the 15 best new metal tracks released during the month of June, you gotta check out the song embedded a few paragraphs up. It’s Ice-T’s rap-metal band Body Count covering Suicidal Tendencies’ 1983 classic “Institutionalized.” I am 100-percent certain nobody in the world wanted this to happen, and I am also 100-percent certain that I did not want to listen to it, but Aaron kept pushing it on me, so I relented. And once I did, man, I was dying. As an unnecessary cover of a landmark song, it’s way better than it has any right to be, but Ice-T rewrites the lyrics so they’re illustrating the suburban ennui of a middle-aged man in a state of arrested adolescence rather than that of a disaffected teenager, and he delivers something that is both deadly accurate and cry-your-eyes-out hilarious. Check it out, then check out everything else, then hit us back in the comments with your thoughts on all of it, some of it, something else, whatever ya got.
15. Mastodon – “The Motherload”
Location: Atlanta, GA
Subgenre: Progressive Heavy Rock
Mastodon sits at a crossroads of competing interests. As a major label band, they’re operating in a commercial landscape that no longer supports metal, hard rock, or even straight up rock ’n’ roll in any meaningful way. And as the theoretical genre leader for “underground metal” — they’re one of the few to “graduate” to the big leagues, jumping from Relapse Records to Reprise — they’ve grown too big and in some ways too commercial to be properly supported by their original scene. Theoretically none of this should matter to the music, but listening to Once More ’Round The Sun, you hear a band trying to have it both ways, making strides to appeal to the old fans while pushing further into an imaginary pop landscape where these kind of records still sell. I won’t lie and pretend they always succeed, but when they do, as on “The Motherload,” it can be thrilling. Here the vocal hooks are at their strongest, the riffs retain some of the fire of old, and the prevailing melody leaves everything else in the dust, and suddenly it’s easy to remember why Mastodon got so popular in the first place. Operating in this mode, they feel like a heavier version of latter-day Queens Of The Stone Age, which is strange to hear, but fun as hell. Who knows what the future holds for Mastodon — whether they’ll get weird again or skid further towards the middle of the road — but for the moment, the tension between both worlds is more than enough to fuel some fascinating tunes. [From Once More 'Round The Sun, out now via Reprise] –Aaron
14. Anicon – “Blood And Stone”
Subgenre: Black Metal
Shortly after “Blood And Stone” kicks off, it heads into some of the most anthemic ride-into-the-sunset shit I’ve heard in a while — a bit like the soundtrack to some sort of black metal western. It’s probably a good thing that genre doesn’t exist, but you’ll get the idea here. That anthemic feel gives way to more typical but deft black metal alchemy, where the melody never steps too far out of the limelight. Note the killer vocals — the rasps have depth and a menacing edge, giving the NYC band some real umami. In an increasingly crowded NYC black metal scene, Anicon’s standing out — add them to the likes of Yellow Eyes, Vilkacis, et al., for keeping the underground interesting. [From the Anicon / Belus split LP, out now via the band] –Wyatt
13. Lazer/Wulf – “Lagarto”
Location: Atlanta, GA
Atlanta avant-prog trio Lazer/Wulf had something of a viral moment at SXSW earlier this year, when Lady Gaga crashed their showcase at Beerland and just went nuts with the music — “full-on headbanging, pounding the floor, jerking around all over the place,” per my friend Kim who was in attendance that night. (An aside: This marks the third reference to Lady Gaga in this month’s Black Market, a notable occurrence you won’t likely witness again!) I caught the band a couple nights after that, at Red Eyed Fly, and I’m pretty sure I had a similar physical reaction, somewhat involuntarily. Lazer/Wulf’s live show is one of those spectacles that leaves you whooping and hollering and speaking in tongues: a frenetically wild yet ludicrously tight display of virtuosic jazz-thrash fireworks (almost entirely instrumental except for the occasional off-time yelp and/or mewl). It’s the metal equivalent of watching the Harlem Globetrotters stunt on some stooge team — the stakes aren’t all that high, but the shit they’re doing up there is fucking bananas and so much fun to watch. At this point, Lazer/Wulf are spinning, sliding, and juggling with such confidence that they can just invent absurd new shots and nail them from half court. They upped the degree of difficulty on their new album, The Beast Of Left And Right, by making the thing palindromic. Yes, “palindromic” as in, the album plays the same backwards and forwards. I’m not even sure how that’s possible, much less why anyone would attempt it, but Lazer/Wulf make it look … well, not easy, exactly, because honestly it looks really, really hard. But they make it look pretty goddamn awesome. Sound it, too. [From The Beast Of Left And Right, out 7/15 via Retro Futurist] –Michael
12. Fórn – “Dweller On the Threshold”
Location: Boston, MA
The beginning of “Dweller On the Threshold” is probably the most badass thing you’ll hear in The Black Market this month, if not this year. It’s gruff, foreboding, and when those phlegm-soaked (barf) vocals kick in, it’s utterly menacing. Really, the vocals are “sick” in that it might be time for a certain somebody to see a doctor. “Dweller On The Threshold” isn’t just a punch in the gut, though — there’s some real atmosphere here, and smart songwriting makes this more than just a knock-down, drag-out bruiser. The track is atmosphere-rich (credit to the production here, too), murky and melancholic despite the fact that the song never strays far from a core of sludge and doom. Some effective use of push-pull tension on the track allows for a crazed black metal-style burst around the 3-minute mark. Again, the vocals there are a highlight — the insane shriek is something straight out of a nightmare. [From The Departure Of Consciousness EP, out in late July or early August via Vendetta] –Wyatt
11. Harrassor – “Winter’s Triumph”
Location: Los Angeles
Subgenre: Experimental Black Metal
In a month with more black metal than anyone can safely stomach, Harassor are here with something a little different. I’ve seen these guys play in Los Angeles more times than I remember, and I’ve watched them reinvent themselves just as often. From punkish filth with blood-soaked theatrics to sets full of explosively structured noise, Harassor push their own limits as much as they push ours. With “Winter’s Triumph” they switch gears again … and approach accessibility. Plenty of bands have tried to weld post-punk to black metal, with predictably varied results. Most focus on the prettier side of post-punk, drawing on Chameleons riffs and Disintegration atmosphere. Harassor go the other way and come up roses, mixing rough-hewn Joy Division riffs and a drumbeat that echoes “Love Will Tear Us Apart” with the primitive scuzz of something like early Bathory. If you’ve spent time with Joy Division’s live material, you know that their studio sound was just that — a studio construction polished to a cold shine by producer Martin Hannett. Live, the band sounded much more punk: simple, ugly, haunting, and explosive. Harassor taps that same energy and invents something incredible and seemingly obvious, but something that went unseen, till now. [From Into Unknown Depths, out now via Dais] –Aaron
10. Alraune – “The Process Of Self-Immolation”
Location: Nashville, TN
Subgenre: Black Metal
If you follow this column regularly, you’ve heard quite a few bands that sound a bit like Alraune. They play a very American style of black metal in the mode established by Weakling — the lineup is conventional and the production is rugged, but the songwriting involves high compositional aspirations (read: the songs are long). All four of us enjoy the style to one degree or another, so we end up covering a lot of it. Alraune don’t embellish it much, but they possess two vital traits for any effective metal act: an idiosyncratic ear for melody and the ability to hit like a freight train. A lot of bands that play this sort of American black metal forget that Weakling were actually a pretty brutal band, but not these guys. Drummer Tyler Coburn, who also played on this year’s great Yautja album, leads a forceful charge that reminds me a lot of Black Market alums Woe in its rhythmic intensity. The booming production doesn’t hurt either — during blast segments, Coburn’s snare sounds the way a strobe light looks. Throw a killer sense of pacing into the mix and you’ve got an atypically muscular triumph of execution for this corner of the metal world. [From The Process Of Self-Immolation, out now via Profound Lore] –Doug
09. Diskord – “Lethargic Regression”
Location: Oslo, Norway
Genre: Death Metal
I can get a little grouchy about new takes on old-school death metal. The genuine article — death metal’s canonic phase during the late ’80s and early ’90s — is my favorite part of the genre’s history, partially because of the wild spirit of invention that animated it. When young contemporary bands recapitulate sounds from that period, they’re contravening that creative spirit; they’re conservative where their heroes were daring. That’s why I appreciate bands like Diskord so much. Over the course of their (surprisingly low-profile) 15-year run, they’ve developed a marvelous ability to twist old-school tropes into exciting new shapes. If you’re familiar with first-gen American death metal bands like Autopsy and Ripping Corpse, you’ll recognize many of the base materials Diskord use: lean, naturalistic tones; scrappy yell-growls; lots of death-circus chromatic riffs. These features serve as staging area for some genuinely adventurous songwriting. Check out the way that “Lethargic Regression” (a jab at Diskord’s less ambitious peers, maybe?), the first single from their upcoming Oscillations mini-LP, constantly jukes and turns inward on itself. The rhythm guitar work approaches the zany technicality of bands like Gorguts and Demilich, but you never need advanced math to know where to headbang. Eyvind Axelson’s prominent bass work is another unconventional touch — his odd burbles sound the way Oscillations’ Rorschach-blot cover looks. The spirit of death lives on here. [From the Oscillations EP, out in August via Australopithecus/Hellthrasher Productions] –Doug
08. Mournful Congregation – “Concrescence Of The Sophia”
Location: Adelaide, South Australia
Subgenre: Funeral Doom
The last album released by Australia’s Mournful Congregation, 2011′s The Book Of Kings, was my favorite record of that year (and my review of the album for Invisible Oranges remains the best thing I wrote during my tenure at the site). It’s a contemplative, elegant, accomplished suite of songs; even in a funeral-doom subgenre that regularly achieves beauty through pathos (or vice-versa), The Book Of Kings dealt in an unusually painterly grace: It seemed to derive from Pink Floyd rather than Black Sabbath. This year, the band returned with a two-song EP, Concrescence Of The Sophia, to coincide with a small handful of very rare Stateside tour dates — four shows in all, the first time the band had ever played the East Coast. At two songs and roughly 30 minutes, Concrescence Of The Sophia is a decidedly brief work for Mournful Congregation (by contrast, The Book Of Kings is four songs, nearly 77 minutes long). But it’s impossible not to be awed by the power and dexterity displayed throughout the EP, especially on the 21:42 title track, which is as still and dark as the ocean floor — and as magisterial and mysterious, too. [From the Concrescence Of The Sophia EP, out now via 20 Buck Spin] –Michael
07. Mutilation Rites – “Contaminate”
You can feel the sweat behind these riffs. Mutilation Rites is a band born of labor — of months spent on the road, long hours of rehearsal, incremental refinement through endless repetition, where every part gets worked out through trial and error until it hits as hard as humanly possible. Or maybe I’m imagining that and these guys are just that good, but one look at their tour history seems to suggest the former. The fruits of that labor resonate throughout their sophomore album, Harbinger, which is monstrous, muscular, and meticulously wrought. That muscular presence is one of my favorite things about these guys, and it’s one of the hardest things for bands that play at high tempos to get right. Metal typically focuses on guitars — sick riffs and shreddies, brah — but it’s the rhythm section that adds the real weight. There’s been a recent movement amongst American “black metal” bands to add back the physicality of other metal styles — as seen on recent albums from Tombs, Bastard Sapling (also in this month’s list), Black Anvil, Woe, and others. Mutilation Rites are at the front of that pack, driven in large part by the endless crush of drummer Justin Ennis and bassist Ryan Jones. “Contaminate” takes an imaginary Slayer riff and runs it through every variation on black thrash and d-beat imaginable (there’s even a few seconds of chunky death metal) before locking in and riding one last groove straight into the ground. [From Harbinger, out 7/15 via Prosthetic] –Aaron
06. Vuyvr – “Hate is a Black Hole”
Location: Geneva, Switzerland
Subgenre: Black Metal
Of all the black metal bands we covered this month, Vuyvr have the most in common with the famous Norwegian scene of the ’90s — their rickety, rabid attack bears a noticeable resemblance to older works by bands like Immortal and Tsjuder. This is something of an irony, as the lineup’s roots lie in the un-grim metallic hardcore bands Knut and Impure Wilhelmina. Vuyvr knocked it out of the park with last year’s full-length debut Eiskalt (listen here), and have lost no momentum on the new Incinerated Gods EP. “Hate Is A Black Hole” sounds fairly straightforward out the gate, but after about 30 seconds, the band locks into a series of stuttering hits, strung together by an eerie arpeggiated jangle. It’s an odd trick for an otherwise orthodox black metal band, and it launches a sequence of aching melodies that build to a huge stomp at the song’s end. Carving out a singular identity within such a restrictive framework is no easy feat, but Vuyvr have done it. These guys could have quite the career ahead of them if they keep up the pace. [From the Incinerated Gods EP, out now via Throatruiner/Blastbeat Mailmurder] –Doug
05. Earth – “From The Zodiacal Light”
Location: Seattle, WA
Back in January, Aaron declared that 2014 would be The Year Of Hideous Sludge, thanks to powerful new albums from the likes of Indian, Coffinworm, Lord Mantis, and others. After hearing YOB’s Clearing The Path To Ascend, I suggested perhaps a new narrative had emerged, and we were in fact living in The Year Of Epic Doom — and here I used for additional evidence the new albums from Triptykon, Pallbearer, Profetus, and others. (Thou’s Heretic is sort of doing double duty here.) I’ll point to the upcoming new ones from Electric Wizard and Witch Mountain, too, to bolster my case, but I’m legit surprised to get support from Seattle’s Earth: the definition of a drone band, although their new track, “From The Zodiacal Light,” is pure doom, thanks to guest vocals from Rabia Shaheen Qazi of Rose Windows. Unless I’m mistaken, Earth haven’t employed a vocalist in nearly 25 years, but Qazi is seamlessly incorporated into Earth’s massive sound. She’s not swallowed by it, though — if anything, it sounds like she’s guiding the damn thing. The obvious reference point here is early Jefferson Airplane (or Windhand, if you want to put it in more contemporary terms). Qazi’s voice is big enough not to get carried away by Earth’s inexorable gusts, but she doesn’t just stand there facing down the mighty wind; instead, she howls along with it, giving additional force to a perfect storm. [From Primitive And Deadly, out 9/2 via Southern Lord] –Michael
04. Bastard Sapling “Lantern At The End Of Time”
Location: Richmond, VA
Subgenre: Black Metal
Even if Bastard Sapling’s name is new to you, parts of this song may sound familiar. This band shares three current members and one ex-member of Inter Arma, who put out one of my favorite albums of 2013. Like Alraune, they play long-winded American black metal with big ambitions. And on top of that, “Lantern At The End of Time” features guest vocals by Dorthia Cottrell of Windhand, whose 2013 sophomore effort, Soma, racked up a ton of crossover attention. Where Alraune offer a pressurized take on this style of BM, Bastard Sapling seem to have absorbed some of Inter Arma’s cinematic tendencies, best exemplified by Cottrell’s presence on this song. I’m not the biggest fan of the somnambulant melodies she employs in Windhand, but the restrained break she pilots at the 3:40 mark is far and away the most compelling performance I’ve heard from her. That whole segment is really a setup, though, for a blistering instrumental assault from the rest of the band. The riff that begins at 5:40 is pure heavy metal anthem material — a rare fish in these waters. [From Instinct Is Forever, out 7/18 via Forcefield/Gilead Media] –Doug
03. Panopticon – “Chase The Grain”
Location: Louisville, KY
Subgenre: Appalachian Black Metal
There’s nothing else in the world that sounds like the music of Panopticon, the seven-year-old project of Louisville, Kentucky’s Austin “Lundr” Lunn (also of Seidr, and formerly of Anagnorisis, who released one of last year’s best metal albums). In his most striking work — most notably Panopticon’s excellent 2012 LP, Kentucky, as well as the band’s forthcoming Roads To The North — Lunn plays a variation of American atmospheric black metal infused with generous elements of Appalachian folk, somehow finding a place where all those seemingly disparate musical worlds coexist organically, as if black metal had always included instruments like banjo and Native American flute. (In fairness, some black metal does include banjo and Native American flute, but Panopticon uses those tools to an entirely different effect.) Lunn is credited with playing both those instruments on Roads To The North, along with drums, guitar, bass, vocals, mandolin, resonator guitar, dobro, and keyboards. He’s also responsible for “samples, recording, art, lyrics, and songs,” but still found room to include a host of collaborators here, including members of bands such as Celestiial, Obsequiae, and Altar Of Plagues, among others — plus “additional keys, orchestral arrangement, percussion, engineering, and producing” from the tireless Colin Marston, of Krallice/Gorguts/Dysrhythmia/Behold The Arctopus, who’s been involved in like half the interesting metal albums released over the past three years. Still, for all its many component pieces, Roads To The North never feels jumbled or overstuffed — instead, it feels like the natural result of a complicated evolutionary process. Lunn is one of the few genuine visionaries in American black metal — it’s easy to imagine a near-future in which he’s credited with spawning numerous sub-subgenres — and Roads To The North might be the most impressive product of his vision yet. [From Roads To The North, out 8/1 via Bindrune/Nordvis] –Michael
02. Pallbearer – “The Ghost I Used To Be”
Location: Little Rock, AR
Subgenre: Doom/Funeral Doom
Pallbearer’s debut, Sorrow And Extinction, was our #1 metal album of 2012, and it deserved that honor: Sorrow And Extinction was a great album, of course; a modern landmark for the doom subgenre. But the band’s forthcoming sophomore LP, Foundations Of Burden, is even better. Recorded and mixed by Billy Anderson (who also helmed Agalloch’s awesome The Serpent & The Sphere), Foundations is entirely more confident, more diverse, and more immersive than Sorrow. All the great elements of old Pallbearer are still on display — the dramatic, anthemic hooks, the intricate, intertwined guitars, the rolling, thunderous rhythms, and Brett Campbell’s keening, angelic voice — but here they seem steadier than they did before, as if they are merely the base of the songs rather than the songs’ entire being. Pallbearer are now more comfortable working with alternate textures and rhythms, not to mention bolder vocal dynamics: For his part, Campbell is plainly a stronger vocalist today than he was two years ago, and his towering performances are aided by masterful harmonies, backing vocals, and even some stunning lead vox via guitarist Devin Holt and bassist Joseph D. Rowland. “The Ghost I Used To Be” is the first song from the album to be made public, and a good choice for lead “single”: “Ghost” presents a compelling balance of the band’s beloved Sorrow-era style with some of the harder, faster, sharper, more dramatic elements they have built into their new sound. It’s a fantastic, ferocious song, and it’s not even my favorite track on the album, which should give you an idea just how good this thing is. Not that you need any such context — all on its own “Ghost” offers more than enough evidence of Pallbearer’s continued greatness. [From Foundations Of Burden, out 8/19 via Profound Lore] –Michael
01. Sivyj Yar – “Distant Haze Was Arising”
Subgenre: Atmospheric Black Metal
Rarely does a band come from seemingly nowhere to collectively blow us out of the water the way Sivyj Yar did this month. The one-man band was already on our radar — Sivyj Yar is actually a Black Market alum class of December 2013 — but even so, we didn’t see this coming: one of the best songs, if not one of the best albums, of 2014. “Distant Haze Was Arising” — the centerpiece of Sivyj Yar’s forthcoming LP, From The Dead Villages’ Darkness — is just plain gorgeous. It’s an atmospheric black metal masterpiece built on sweeping, rock-solid riffs that seamlessly pull in heart-stopping acoustics, which, in other hands, often seem like a distracting afterthought. Some people hear a bowed instrument in metal and automatically bust out a thumbs down, but even the most cynical hesher would be lying if s/he denied that swelling feeling in the chest that grabs hold the moment “Distant Haze Was Arising” hits its stride. It’s just invigorating. It’s hard to believe Sivyj Yar aren’t a household name already, although you have to think the band’s home base, Russia, hasn’t helped in terms of getting the word out. Hopefully “Distant Haze Was Arising” fixes that. At the Sargeist show this past weekend at St. Vitus, Michael and I were talking about how we wished “Distant Haze” never ended. The outro riff is one for the ages, and when it fades to black, you’ll be ready to dive in all over again. [From From The Dead Villages' Darkness, out this fall via Avantgarde] –Wyatt