The Black Market

The Black Market: The Month In Metal – February 2016

Earlier this month, the Wall Street Journal ran a piece called “The Weird Global Appeal Of Heavy Metal.” The article provides a brief but well-researched survey of the surprising way metal scenes have appeared in countries all over the world during the course of the past 25 years, from Botswana to Chile to China. Many have taken note of this phenomenon before — it’s inspired at least one book (Mark LeVine’s Heavy Metal Islam) and documentary (Global Metal) — but it’s grown increasingly pronounced in recent years. “When economic development happens, metal scenes appear. They’re like mushrooms after the rain,” notes one academic early in the piece.

The article’s author, WSJ staff music journalist Neil Shah, points out something else that we’ve discussed quite a bit in the Black Market: Metal is expanding at a breakneck pace, in terms of both bands and fans. Metal Archives features listings for over 100,000 bands — about twice as many as in 2007, says the piece. That number is almost certainly inflated by band name changes, guys with seven different one-man bands, and so forth, but it’s an impressive figure nonetheless. And the article itself constitutes a different kind of acknowledgement of metal’s growing clout. Its respectful and appreciative tone marks a sharp contrast with the snarky attention the Journal occasionally devoted to metal just a decade ago.

But why the cross-cultural appeal? Shah doesn’t explicitly endorse an explanation, but he cites academics who argue that identitarian concerns drive metal’s allure in poorer and more conservative countries. “Metal fans are joined by a common sense of cultural dissent,” a Texas A&M musicologist opines. That’s certainly a major factor, regardless of specific locale. Metal thrives on alienation and dissatisfaction, and the prevailing public opinion in nations from across the socioeconomic and cultural spectrum holds that everything’s going down the shitter. Technology changes that occurred over the same period surely made a big difference as well — the proliferation of low-cost home recording gear and decent Internet connections have made metal a much more feasible artistic undertaking for people in remote locales.

I’d propose that an equally important — if not more important — factor is metal’s structural and aesthetic flexibility. Metal is a fundamentally amoebic genre, with few if any fixed features and the capacity to stretch into virtually any shape a musician can imagine. This fluidity allows people to mold it to fit all kinds of local sensibilities and preferences, regardless of how far from its rock fundamentals they may be. And this capacity to change has allowed it to take root all over the place, despite its general off-putting strangeness and intensity.

Take, for instance, the proliferation of folk metal — metal that borrows musical ideas, instrumentation, and/or language from local ethnic history. We don’t cover much folk metal here, but lemme tell ya, there’s a lot of it out there, drawing on cultures of every stripe — another academic estimates that at least 2,000 such bands exist, and I’d bet that there are more. It’s easy to incorporate superficially incompatible elements like ancient instruments and non-Western modalities into a metal song, because metal is elastic when it comes to melody, harmony, and arrangement. You can write a metal song with whatever scales and chords you want, with whatever extra instruments you want, in whatever language you want, and most people will still recognize it as metal for other reasons. (Imagine writing a blues song with whatever scales and chords you want and then singing it in Mongolian to see how unusual this feature is for a pop music genre.)

But the folk metal example actually undersells metal’s flexibility. You can explore the entire range of virtually any stylistic axis and still get the ‘metal’ tag if you play your cards right. Metal can be simple or complex, dense or spare, fast or slow, virtuosic or inept, catchy or unlistenable, happy or sad, crass or highbrow, static or dynamic, religious or secular, liberal or conservative, composed or improvised. Even seemingly bedrock features of metal turn out negotiable. Metal has to have guitars, right? Definitely not. What about drums? Nope. But it has to be loud, right? Maybe, sometimes, but even that’s very relative.

And this, I think, is why being a metal fan involves so many arguments about what is and isn’t metal: Nobody actually knows the answer. In fact, there probably isn’t a concrete answer anymore. My impression is that it’s become a matter of A) subjective cultural genealogy (are your influences metal?) and B) the presence of a sufficient number of metal stylistic signifiers (do you have shredding guitar solos? do you sing about Satan? do you palm mute a lot? etc.), but the matter is obviously up for debate. Which means anyone with the gear and the will can make their own answer, no matter where they’re from. That’s a lot of freedom in a genre whose fans tend to bemoan the overabundance of rules.

I can’t prove any of this, of course, but, as ever, the proof is in the pudding, and the pudding is in this column. (Ew.) A lot of you have noticed that the subgenre center of gravity for us five — that’s Ian Chainey, Wyatt Marshall, Aaron Lariviere, Michael Nelson, and me — is black metal, and there’s a lot of black metal this month. It’s February; can you blame us? But even that pile of BM varies wildly, from the icy Scandinavian dogmatism of Sorcier Des Glaces to the fiddle-flocked vistas presented up by Waldgeflüster to Cobalt’s ambiguous, psychedelic stomp. And the spread’s even wider when you go outside the BM box. Compare the traditionally tuneful Dawnbringer to the sadistic insanity of Gorguts or Wormed. They sound nothing alike, but yup — all metal. No wonder it travels well.

Before we get to the February songs, a quick programming note: The sharp-eyed among you may have noticed more metal song coverage in Stereogum’s regular news feed over the past month. Those who read those individual posts will probably also notice that a lot of the song writeups in this month’s Black Market have been published before. That’s because we’re trying something a little different — we’re covering new music more or less as it appears, and then compiling the results in the column for those who want an all-in-one-place roundup. We like this approach so far, and hopefully you will too. Let’s get to it, and let us know in the comments. –Doug Moore

15. Slugdge – “Slave Goo World”

Location: Lancashire, UK
Subgenre: melodic death metal

Slugdge represent something of a Platonic ideal for efficiency in the low-overhead world of underground metal. While most bands still trudge through the conventional industry motions of label contracts, pre-release press cycles, and extensive touring, Slugdge have stripped down their operation to the bare minimum: They don’t work with a label or producer, they don’t play live, and only after three self-produced and self-released digital albums have they begun dabbling in the logistical nightmare that is pressing physical merch. This lean structure has allowed them to produce new music at a prodigious pace that’s more commonly seen in electronic music and other studio-intensive styles — they’ve finished three albums in as many years to date. Slugdge look poised to maintain that breakneck tempo with the YouTube release of “Slave Goo World,” an unheralded single for an equally unheralded upcoming fourth album. (If the band’s release history is anything to go by, anyway; they released a number of songs from Dim & Slimeridden Kingdoms on YouTube months in advance.) Though this band only appeared a few years ago, it’s tempting to call this tune “classic Slugdge,” right down to the punny song title — huge, stuttering tremolo riffs galumph their way up a series of increasingly intense melodic apexes, eventually topped by a searing clean chorus from vocalist Matt Moss. You can hear traces of familiar extreme metal touchstones like Morbid Angel, Hypocrisy, and Anaal Nathrakh along the way, but at this point Slugdge have a well-defined and bizarrely lovable personality all their own. [Single, self-released]Doug

14. Sylvaine – “Earthbound”

Location: Oslo, Norway / Paris, France
Subgenre: atmospheric black metal

The French band Alcest are largely responsible for the post-rock and shoegaze-inspired take on black metal that so many people have come to love. The style is certainly a softer entry point into what is otherwise a forbidding genre, and this gray incarnation is full of pretty mournful guitars and ethereal vocals. Alcest’s frontman, Neige, has his fingers all over the sound, and has played with Lantlôs and Amesoeurs, two leading practitioners that show heavier and lighter takes, respectively, on what some refer to as “blackgaze.” The Norwegian artist Sylvaine falls squarely within the blackgaze confines. She self-released her last album, which landed her on a tour with Alcest in South America. Now she’s set to release her sophomore LP on the heavy-hitting Season Of Mist. The new album is fittingly titled Wistful, and — surprise — Neige contributes drums to one of the tracks. Wistful’s lead single, “Earthbound,” is a finely balanced song that nails the elements that make the blackgaze formula so great. The upbeat lead-in pairs Sylvaine’s raspy shriek with her light and airy “ahhhs,” backed by lively drumming and despondent guitars. It’s lush and immersive and aims squarely at the parts of the brain and heart concerned with melancholy. [From Wistful, out 5/14 via Season Of Mist]Wyatt

13. Geryon – “Silent Command”

Location: Queens, New York
Subgenre: progressive “death metal”

Geryon’s bassist/vocalist Nick McMaster and drummer Lev Weinstein are best known as the rhythm section of progressive metallers Krallice, but their creative relationship predates Krallice by several years. They first played together in the Chicago technical death metal band Astomatous, a promising but short-lived act that produced only one album before Weinstein and McMaster relocated to New York City, leaving the band’s guitarists behind and effectively ending the project. Or transforming it into Geryon, depending on how you look at it. This linear connection to Astomatous, who were relatively conventional by DM standards, means that Geryon typically receive the “death metal” tag as well. But The Wound And The Bow, their second album, supports that association even less than their 2013 debut did. You can certainly hear some classic death metal hallmarks on “Silent Command” in the form of Weinstein’s dense rhythms and McMaster’s arid howl. But formally and tonally, this stuff is much stranger — all icy abstraction and austere melancholy. In the absence of guitars, McMaster’s bass has a great deal of space to work with, which he fills with a chiming, textured tone that couldn’t be further from the dry rattle most death metal bassists hide themselves in. (Being able to hear the bass guitar on a death metal record at all is pretty unusual in itself.) This striking tone heightens Geryon’s alienated and alienating atmosphere — McMaster reels off long sequences of shifting arpeggios, each seeming to circle its predecessor in search of an elusive root note, with Weinstein’s drums in hot pursuit. You could envision an extremely well-schooled and intense math rock band arriving at a similar sonic space, but it’s long odds that anyone besides this idiosyncratic duo would find their way here. [From The Wound And The Bow, out 4/8 via Profound Lore Records]Doug

12. Krater – “Lust to Burn”

Location: Lichtentanne, Germany
Subgenre: black metal

Krater are a black metal bulldozer, a raging behemoth that will appeal to the death metal crowd as much as black metal types thanks to its richly orchestrated assault. The track — “Lust to Burn” — is one of the most intense ragers I’ve heard in a while. It hits like a jackhammer and is thick — everything about it pummels the eardrums into submission with muscular production and layered acrobatic musicianship, and it does so at full throttle. The guitars sound miles deep, with blazing solos springing forth like sparks from a fire. The hefty and throaty low-end vocals are backed by a horde of rasps and screams; hyper-articulate militant drums are relentless and bowel-shakingly hefty. The cumulative effect sounds like a furious dive into the depths of the earth, pulverizing layers of rock and metal on the way down to where lava furiously boils and spits in the darkness. Germany isn’t typically the first country to come to mind when we think of black metal, but Krater’s Urere will perhaps change that — the album is a blast from start to finish. [From Urere, out now on Eisenwald Tonschmiede]Wyatt

11. Spheron – “The Blind Watchmaker”

Location: Ludwigshafen am Rhein, Germany
Subgenre: death metal

Going by the PR blurbage alone, it’d be easy to think Germany’s Spheron are on their “Snap Judgment Mutation” album. Eek. That “eek” is because the SJM has a history. The technical death metal life cycle builds in a coin flip crossroads open to bands desperate to branch out without first laying the groundwork. The why behind this rerouting varies. Maybe raw talent is how a future mutant got to the top of their style, so other styles — ones that are seductively not under their current job description — shouldn’t be hard to conquer, right? Whatever the reason, and whatever the reason, no one said “no,” the 10,000 hours spent mastering the deathly arts are pitched out the window, and then it’s, screech, hard left. The immediate SJM result? Fans are shed until their kids have aged into appraisers. And that’s where A Clockwork Universe, Spheron’s second album, is different. SJM this ain’t. Sure, this quintet has progressed, but it’s not like Spheron’s full-length debut, 2013’s Ecstacy Of God, was straight-ahead death metal cooked all the way through. In between the sniper-sharp, precise riffs and blasts were touches of black metal and prog. A Clockwork Universe continues this trend, simply redistricting Spheron’s interests. So its step to the left isn’t out of the blue. It’s more of an Elements than anything; a culmination rather than a rebirth. Of course, what “The Blind Watchmaker” really has going for it is feelings. Like, real ones. Tobias Alter’s melancholic leads sound like something from the fingers of Ivar Bjørnson. It’s minor key black metal’s equivalent of seasonal affective gutbucket. Then, singer Daniel Spoor is able to give the bridges some passion without sounding like a wimp in need of a vocal coach. Plus, the acoustic stuff is as pretty as it is earned. “Watchmaker” winds through sections that are somehow both build-ups and breathers. The train doesn’t need to jump. There’s well-laid track all the way through. [From A Clockwork Universe, out now via Apostasy]Ian

10. Tombs – “Deceiver”

Location: Brooklyn, New York
Subgenre: black/post-metal

Frequent lineup changes can spell doom for some bands, but Tombs ain’t one of them. In the time since 2014’s outstanding Savage Gold, half the band’s roster has turned over, bringing drummer Charlie Schmid (Vaura), guitarist Evan Void (Sadgiqacea), and synth man Fade Kainer (Batillus) into the fold for the upcoming All Empires Fall EP. This is the fifth or sixth substantial lineup change that Tombs have endured, but frontman Mike Hill’s stern, austere creative voice still rings out as clearly here as it did on the band’s earliest recordings. Kainer’s keys — a new feature for Tombs — and occasional backing vocals constitute the most noticeable change to the band’s sound, but even they neatly fill an extant role in Tombs’ well-established approach. “Deceiver” offers a good example of this dynamic. Kainer opens the song with an eerie two-note synth pattern that likely would’ve been played on an effects-laden guitar on earlier Tombs records, but by the time the tune locks into the murderous mid-paced stomp that carries it to its conclusion, the keys recede to the background and Kainer switches to vocal duty for the shout-along chorus. It’s a classic Tombs setpiece on an EP that’s full of them — sometimes blasting and brutal, sometimes gothic and looming, but always the unmistakeable sound of one of contemporary metal’s most distinctive bands. [From All Empires Fall, out 4/1 via Relapse Records]Doug

9. Aksumite – “Double Mask”

Location: Grand Rapids, Michigan
Subgenre: metallic hardcore

Aksumite is one of the stars of Michigan’s Colloquial Sound Recordings, the label that’s home to A Pregnant Light, Dressed In Streams, and a slew of other artists that move in and around various styles of metal and punk. Aksumite’s name comes from the Aksumite Empire, a first-millennium kingdom that thrived in northeast-ish Africa (parts of modern-day Ethiopia and Eritrea) for a century or so shy of a thousand years. And while Aksumite have delivered killer hardcore punk over recent years with a collection of demos, EPs, and last year’s Self Interference, I often find myself looking for some of the exotic and ancient vibes that drew from Aksumite’s namesake and set the tone on Aksumite’s debut record, The Gleam Of Wetted Lips, and subsequently on the masterful Prideless Lions. Prideless Lions in particular was rich in arcane atmosphere — Gleam was more of a ferocious hurricane — and Aksumite mainman Damian Master (also the visionary behind A Pregnant Light) belted out his lyrics in a hearty bellow that boomed more than it roared. Master calls Aksumite’s sound “blood cult metal punk,” and dark magic pulses throughout behind the punky riffs and lively bass. “Double Mask,” from the now-released Rubber Room, sounds in a lot of ways like a natural follow-up to Prideless Lions, with, of course, some new tricks. The totally wild King Diamond wail early on is something we haven’t heard before from Master, and the harried singing and subsequent foreboding growls are new textures as well. But like Prideless Lions, “Double Mask” rocks with fury, and there’s something about it that transports the listener elsewhere. [From Rubber Room, out now on Colloquial Sound Recordings]Wyatt

8. NOX Formulae – “Hidden Clan NXN – Pt. A. Eleven Rays Of Sorat, Pt. B. Black Magic Assault”

Location: Greece
Subgenre: black metal

Underground black metal has a notorious penchant for strange obsessions, as seen in the unorthodox title of NOX Formulae’s first single: “Hidden Clan NXN – Pt. A. Eleven Rays Of Sorat, Pt. B. Black Magic Assault.” Unsurprisingly, the band is a complete unknown, hailing from somewhere in Greece and signed to Dark Descent Records, which is testament enough to their potential. Beyond that, there isn’t much to go on — besides the music. (Just a guess, but “NOX” might be referencing the Night Of Pan, which plays an important role in Thelemic mysticism, if you’re into that sort of thing. Or it could be something stranger.) Fortunately, the music is excellent, drawing influence from disparate goth-inflected, non-traditional black metal acts like Bethlehem, Negative Plane, Atriarch, and the legendary Greek bands that birthed the Hellenic black metal scene in the early ’90s. Like those bands, NOX Formulae uses raw, simplistic bits and pieces to excellent effect: The bass throbs and rumbles like a fevered pulse, pushing the song into delirium and back. Meanwhile, the drums start off on a slow trudge to the gallows, then come alive with a frantic, skittering blast of energy. And a lead guitar cuts morbid, melodic figures through the ramshackle clatter, a plaintive wail lighting the darkness like a flickering blue flame. If all that sounds about as cheery as a crumbling coffin, we’re on the right track. [From The Hidden Paths To Black Ecstasy, out 5/9 via Dark Descent]Aaron

7. Sorcier Des Glaces – “Rites Of The Black Moon”

Location: Québec, Canada
Subgenre: black metal

When asked in interviews, Sorcier Des Glaces frontman Sèbastien Robitaille calls his band’s style “Cold Primitive Metal.” It fits. The Quèbècois duo’s back catalogue has kept the classics from thawing, dusting northern sky blazes with a fresh coat of frost. Proudly stuck in time, the icy wizards’ world is one before genre prefixes, where blasts, tremolos, and rasped vocals rule like they did back then, and will continue to do so. But Robitaille (vocals, guitars, bass) and Luc Gaulin (drums) have worked hard to find their own voice. Though their influences are static, the two have changed since their 1998 debut, Snowland. “Rites Of The Black Moon,” from their sixth album, North, is distinctly SDG, but also more muscular, cleaner, and more focused. The economy of the lead melodies is a nice offset to the busy percussion, giving the “Rites” a Tales From The Thousand Lakes-like inroads for unfamiliar listeners. Sure, it’s evil as hell, all kinds of frostbite and sub-zero windchill, but the unfussiness and relative uncomplicated delivery is inviting. Without many set boundaries, black metal can spiral out of control. However, Robitaille and Gaulin have put in the reps and they know their limits. It feels like there’s a strong guiding hand leading you along their compositions. Robitaille works all of his instruments to create an expansive aural landscape. Storytelling by soundwave is a hacky way of putting it, but the sections, either fast or slow, are stitched together into a varied panorama. Frequent tremolo miles feel like they’ve been logged. Of course, that quality is thanks to the duo’s evolving abilities, both at playing and editing their own work. In particular, Gaulin’s driving snare thwaps keep things together. All in all, “Rites” is a familiar sound with its own shape. Where some bands spend a career accumulating styles, Sorcier Des Glaces are content to perfect one. [From North, out now on Obscure Abhorrence]Ian

6. Dawnbringer – “North By North”

Location: Chicago, IL
Subgenre: traditional metal

It’s pretty close to impossible to keep up with the recorded output of “Professor” Chris Black, the Chicago-based trad-metal genius behind High Spirits, Superchrist, and Aktor, to name a few of his many musical associations and identities. Black’s best-known alias (and the one via which he produces much of his very best music) is Dawnbringer. As Dawnbringer, Black has released six outstanding LPs, including 2012’s Into The Lair Of The Sun God, which we named that year’s second-best metal album. Dawnbringer are going on a very short European tour next month — their first ever. In anticipation of that jaunt, Black has dropped a new Dawnbringer EP, called XX, including the single “North By North.” It’s my favorite Chris Black song since Sun God, and it might actually be better than anything on that album. Black’s work can sometimes sound overtly retro — it’s part of his approach and his appeal — but “North By North” feels absolutely of-the-moment, while still drawing from the genre’s archetypal artists. When he’s on his game, the dude writes the best riffs and pairs them with the sickest melodies, and this right here is peak Black for seven straight minutes that fly by in what feels like three and end before you’re ready for it to be over. Play it again. [From XX, out now via Ektro Records]Michael

5. Waldgeflüster – “Der Traumschänder”

Location: Munich, Germany
Subgenre: atmospheric black metal

We’re in the midst of a golden era for atmospheric black metal, when bands like Agalloch, Fluisteraars, Winterfylleth, Sivyj Yar, and Panopticon are reliably churning out masterpieces every couple of years. Some of those bands are better known than others, but they should all be on your radar — each possesses the incredible ability to orchestrate acoustic-laced triumphs that soar high above any windswept snowscape. Waldgeflüster, from Germany, are another one to add to your list. The band put out a very strong album back in 2014, and now returns with elevated game to deliver the stunning “Der Traumschände,” which is the opening track off a forthcoming split with none other than Austin Lunn’s Panopticon, the band that released our #1 metal album of 2015. If we are talking black metal epics, “Der Traumschänder” is what we’re looking for. The song is a whirlwind of sustained emotional toil and triumph. Full-tilt blasting drums and trilling guitars are the song’s backbone, with a fiddle that weaves in and out, in a nod to Mr. Lunn, who has notably used that instrument and others like banjo and flute in his uniquely American take on black metal that is more evocative of Appalachian hills than icy fjords. The vocal delivery on this song is incredible, and the searing choruses are both pained and euphoric — there are often dual vocal tracks, one desperate and clean and the other a hoarse scream. “Der Traumschänder” isn’t pedal to the metal from start to finish — a meandering lull breaks the early rush before the monumental conclusion. [From Panopticon / Waldgeflüster, out 3/11 via Nordvis and Bindrune Recordings]Wyatt

4. Draugnim – “As In Hunger, So In Demise”

Location: Finland
Subgenre: pagan black metal

There’s a certain type of majestic, haunting melody that can rip you right out of reality — Draugnim know it well. Set to barreling drums and waves of crashing guitars, it conjures the imagery of a doomed cavalry charge, or the sort of mythical battle that only exists in movies like Braveheart. Which is to say: This is powerful, soul-stirring stuff! The kind of music that transmogrifies horror into timeless myth, satisfying the fundamental human need to imbue senseless loss with meaning. A real battle would be a tuneless clatter of swords punctuated with screams; add a mournful soundtrack that captures both the intensity of war and its crushing futility, and you’ve got the aural equivalent of Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s “The Charge Of The Light Brigade.” Frankly, I have no idea what Draugnim are singing about here, but it doesn’t really matter when the riffs and melodic hooks are this perfectly wrought, and the effect on my imagination is the same. Hailing from Finland and signed to the consistently excellent French extreme metal label Debemur Morti, Draugnim play what can best be called “pagan black metal,” touching on the brilliance of Primordial, the less folky side of Moonsorrow, early Aeternus, and Viking-period Bathory. The songs are scathing, drenched in rousing melody, and rich with antiquity. It doesn’t get much better. [From Vulturine, out 3/11 via Debemur Morti]Aaron

3. Wormed – “Agliptian Codex Cyborgization”

Location: Madrid, Spain
Subgenre: brutal death metal

The first time I heard Wormed, a decade or so back, my first thought was: “This is completely fucking absurd.” I didn’t like them much at first, or for several years afterwards. But in the period since, Wormed have become one of my favorite bands, in large part because they’re completely absurd. This Spanish band plays brutal death metal, a concentrated form of sonic ridiculousness distilled down from a style that’s already known for excess: insanely fast blastbeats, insanely low vocals, insanely offensive lyrics (typically about sexual violence and gore), and insanely heavy slams. Wormed check most of the boxes, with some modifications. Their catalog drops the squicky gore themes in favor of spinning a long, abstruse science fiction yarn based on (evidently fairly accurate!) astrophysics. And they’ve got an aural aesthetic to match — they supercharge the intense technicality of brutal death metal with a futuristic prog sheen, creating space for disorienting polyrhythms and even some genuine melody to creep in. So Wormed is marginally more highbrow than your stock brutal death metal band, but their music is still totally absurd to listen to, especially in the space-cricket vocal department. And that’s an asset! We’re living in a world where Donald Trump is the likely Republican nominee for president, where everyone’s obsessed with music but nobody can make any money off it, where “hoverboards” are commonplace but they actually have wheels, where the line between fantasy and reality is constantly blurred by technology that everyone uses but that almost nobody understands. The basic facts of our daily lives are ridiculous and nonsensical! Better to embrace the madness and laugh, I say, and Wormed’s brutal absurdity / absurd brutality is leading the chorus of giggles. Experiencing their music is like riding a rollercoaster or watching a late-model CGI actionfest; at first you’ll just be blinded by the brain-overloading onslaught, but repeated exposure will turn you into a junkie. Wormed sit atop the brutal death heap in part because they bury genuinely catchy tunes beneath all the flashy mayhem. I’ve literally heard this song’s hyperspeed hook of an ending in my dreams. And that’s absurd too! But I love it. [From Krighsu, out on 3/25 via Season Of Mist]Doug

2. Gorguts – “Wandering Times”

Location: Sherbrooke, Canada / Queens, New York
Subgenre: progressive death metal

In many ways, the story of Gorguts is about flux. This indispensable Canadian death metal act has experienced a great deal of professional and personal turmoil since its nascence in 1989, and that personal turmoil has frequently translated into personnel turmoil: Frontman Luc Lemay is the only founding member left several times over, and Gorguts hasn’t recorded two albums with the same lineup since 1993’s The Erosion Of Sanity. In fact, The Erosion Of Sanity marked the last time that Gorguts even had the same second guitarist for two albums in a row. This shifting cast has arguably helped Gorguts’ legacy — Lemay’s creative vision is inclusive, and the talented people he’s brought aboard have helped his band to remain fresh and vital long after most of his original peers began repeating themselves. But now, decades after Gorguts’ salad days, it would appear that Lemay has finally formed a new set of stable creative partnerships — this time with guitarist Kevin Hufnagel (Dysrhythmia, Vaura, Sabbath Assembly) and bassist Colin Marston (Dysrhythmia, Krallice, Behold…The Arctopus), both of whom played on 2013’s fantastic Colored Sands. Gorguts has always been a fundamentally experimental band, but on Pleaides’ Dust, the gestating relationship between Lemay, Hufnagel, and Marston has produced something that’s way outside the box even by their impressive collective standards. Despite the reputation for outré noise and ambitious ideas, every Gorguts recording before this point depended on traditional death metal structures and dynamics — digestible song lengths (mostly), riffs that return multiple times per song, and nearly nonstop volume. Pleaides’ Dust does away with all of that. It’s a giant through-composed phrase that lasts for 33 minutes, featuring lengthy digressions into dark prog rock and ambient music. What we’ve got here is just the first six minutes of Pleiades’ Dust — and given that it’s just the opening leg of a half-hour journey through some of metal’s most vibrant and restless minds, you’ll understand that it’s not fully representative of what follows. Still, even outside of its intended context, it’s a thrilling experience. [From Pleiades’ Dust, out on 5/13 via Season Of Mist]Doug

1. Cobalt – “Beast Whip”

Location: Greeley, Colorado
Subgenre: post-black metal

In 2009, the Colorado-based duo Cobalt released their third LP, Gin — one of the 10 best metal albums of the last decade, as far as I’m concerned. The album came complete with a fascinating narrative: It paid tribute to Hunter S. Thompson and Ernest Hemingway — the cover image is a sepia-toned photo of a young Hemingway in his Army uniform — and it featured on vocals a singer named Phil McSorley, himself an active Army officer whose ability to write and record his tracks was limited by his tours in Iraq and South Korea. But the music was more fascinating still, fusing blackened death metal with noise, doom, crust punk, and post-metal. Cobalt’s driving engine was (and remains) multi-instrumentalist Erik Wunder, who also works as Man’s Gin and has done time in Jarboe’s band (Jarboe added guest vocals on both Gin as well as Cobalt’s magnificent second LP, Eater Of Birds). McSorley was a black-metal lifer, while Wunder’s primary influences were Swans, Neurosis, and Tool, and that dynamic resulted in music of unparalleled scope and vision.

In 2013, with McSorley stationed in the States, Cobalt played their first-ever live shows — and prior to those shows, Wunder announced that Cobalt were working on a fourth LP, to be titled Slow Forever, a reference to the band’s glacially paced writing and recording process. But in 2014, it all fell apart: McSorley quit the band in March of that year, rejoined a month later, and then, in December, was kicked out for “spewing misogynist/homophobic slurs on Facebook to other musicians.”

But Wunder continued work on Slow Forever, and in June 2015, enlisted a new vocalist: Charlie Fell, who’d been kicked out of his own band, Lord Mantis, only three months prior. Politically, it was an odd choice: Fell has a history of bad behavior and dubious, insensitive artistic choices. There were additionally concerns about whether the album would be any good: Wunder was famously the mastermind behind Cobalt, but McSorley seemed to be an essential ingredient, and while Lord Mantis had made some very fine records, they’d never approached the Himalayan heights of Gin or Eater Of Birds. So when advances for Slow Forever rolled in, the first response (from this writer, anyway) was basically: Oh thank god this doesn’t suck. With that out of the way, real analysis could begin … and that sounded something like this: Oh my god, this is actually fucking awesome. Slow Forever is very much an extension of Gin, an expansion of Wunder’s evolving vision. Fell is more than an adequate replacement for McSorley — in many ways, he’s a superior vocalist, and here, he delivers a performance that is more technically adept than those offered by his predecessor, but no less unhinged. Slow Forever isn’t just a worthy follow-up to Gin; it’s pretty close to a masterpiece in its own right. [From Slow Forever, out 3/25 via Profound Lore]Michael