Like August before it, September gave us Black Market folks — that’s me, Aaron Lariviere, Wyatt Marshall, Ian Chainey, and Michael Nelson — a brutal task in narrowing down our options to just 15 tunes. “Brutal task” sounds unpleasant, but the word “brutal” has a certain positive resonance in the metal world. (This usage is especially common in death metal circles, where “brutal death metal” has become a subgenre unto itself.) And both senses of the word apply here; it’s a pleasure to have all this brutal music, but a chore to cull.
While remanded to said brutality, I was struck by a dichotomy that appears in virtually every one of these columns, but that’s especially pronounced this month. One side is represented this month by Meshuggah and Neurosis, who have their 8th and 12th LPs coming out this year, respectively. These two bands are each one-of-a-kind freaks, truly original units that have refined their inimitable approaches over the course of decades. Both almost single-handedly inspired entire subgenres — djent and post-metal — but both are still pretty much regarded as kings of their respective mountains.
On the other half of the divide includes bands like Brutally Deceased, Self-Hatred, and Sumerlands. (See what I mean about “brutal”?) These bands deliberately adopt all the core traits and aesthetic dressing of an established sound in metal, and succeed by playing the shit out of them. They’re essentially craftsmen, working to create something beautiful (or, y’know, brutal) within well-established parameters. Such bands vastly outnumber the Neurosis / Meshuggah types, of course.
That both true innovators and gifted reinterpreters share the neighborhood is hardly surprising, but there’s something strange and interesting about this arrangement in the context of metal. The ceiling for acclaim and cachet is higher for unique animals, but broadly speaking, metal fans don’t really seem to mind if a band cops someone’s style, as long as the execution rules and the musicians play with conviction. (Bands perceived as insincere or cynically appropriative can lose this immunity in a hurry, though.) In fact, it’s surprisingly common for people to like derivative bands more than the original version. I can think of a couple examples that apply to me off the top of my head — Midnight, Bloodbath, and Naglfar all come to mind — and I’m pretty biased towards novelty, so I can only imagine that others find themselves in this bizarre position sometimes too.
This widespread quirk does not jibe with metal’s stated values at all. As a genre, it focuses almost exclusively on original compositions (as opposed to covers), and it places a ton of cultural emphasis on individualism and going one’s own way. This holds especially true in more underground styles, where shameless note-for-note imitation has become incredibly and ironically commonplace. That a large percentage of the genre consists of people basically rewriting other people’s music, and that few fans care to punish bands for doing so, is totally at odds with this cultural framework, especially when you consider that the more obvious route of playing actual covers is generally disdained as lazy. It’s a little easier to understand when you hear how damn good some of these bands are — that Brutally Deceased album is HOT. But still, it’s a strange and inescapable tension.
I’m not really winding up to any big conclusion here. This type of internal contradiction is just kinda fascinating to me, and I’d be interested to hear any of you guys’s theories on why metal fans accept originality and imitation in equal measure. (It’s worth noting that most bands we write about fall somewhere between these two poles, balancing familiar tropes with idiosyncrasies and flashes of real invention.) You could interpret this situation as evidence that metal musicians are not terribly reflective and just don’t really care about flouting their own values, and you’d definitely be at least partially right. But metal’s clone hordes also suggest something hopeful about why this stuff has lasted so long and continues to roll. Metal’s ideas are memetic; people can find meaning and beauty even in repeating them, which means that their lifespans are not tied to those of the musicians or groups that developed them. Not all of that repetition is worthwhile, obviously. A lot of it is trash. But it can also bear fruit in surprising ways. Meshuggah started life as an amped-up Metallica knockoff, and Neurosis were initially a pretty generic hardcore band. Sometimes repeating a litany can lead to a new truth. –Doug Moore
15. Metallica – “Moth Into Flame”
Location: Los Angeles / San Francisco, CA
Subgenre: thrash metal
I had just left for five days in Cape Cod when “Hardwired” dropped. If it had come out any other day, I woulda been the person writing about it for Stereogum. But it happened on that day, so on that day, Chris had to cover for me.
— Chris DeVille (@chrisdeville) August 18, 2016
I was bummed, of course, but I sorta felt like I’d dodged a bullet, too. I made a quick stop in the comments to share my general, nonspecific enthusiasm for the song, but I spent more time offering reticent disclaimers than actual praise. See, my emotional investment in Metallica is very high, and after 25 years of bad bets, outright busts, bizarre attempts to bankrupt the whole operation, and “Turn The Page,” I am just about broke. I need to be very careful with what little I’ve got left. So even when I see positive signs — as I have, here and there, over the last few years — I hold back. I hear Andre’s voice in my head, pleading with me:
“Too soon! Don’t do it!”
A week or so later, when we compiled last month’s Black Market, I included “Hardwired” on the long list of nominees, but I didn’t feel great about it, and I was kinda relieved when we decided to skip it. We didn’t ignore it, though: Doug addressed it in the column’s intro essay — with an assist from Ian — and that is one of the best pieces of metal writing I’ve ever read. (Doug and Ian are pretty good at this, in case you hadn’t noticed.) I won’t try to sum up everything that was covered in that essay (fucking read it, if you haven’t), but I want to say that I fully agreed with the decision, largely because: (1) “Hardwired” is an OK-not-great song, and (2) we make it a point to not cover undeserving legacy acts in this space. Deserving legacy acts? Sure. That last At The Gates LP is one of my 10 favorite albums of the decade, and it would be dumb to ignore it just because At The Gates also happen to be the best Swedish death metal band of all time. But that last Slayer LP was a limp noodle, and it would be dumb to include it just because Slayer happen to be the most important extreme-metal band history has ever known.
SO ANYWAY. Earlier this week, “Moth Into Flame” dropped, and I wasn’t on vacation, so I had to write about it. And … man, it just sounded so good to me. Not “good for Metallica in 2016,” but actually, like, “I want to listen to this song because this song is good.” But I can’t trust myself anymore. I heard Andre in my head again:
“Reconsider! Read some literature on the subject!”
So I wrote about it but I STILL couldn’t say anything. This is what I came up with:
Look, I’m not gonna say anything about the new Metallica album till I actually hear it, because my feelings about Metallica are way too complex to sum up in instantaneous reactions to songs that have only been online for three minutes. And I’m not doing anybody any favors by coming out with knee-jerk pronouncements, regardless of whether my immediate reaction is positive or negative.
And then … OK, this is basically impossible to explain, but the day after “Moth” dropped, I attended a Metallica listening event at Electric Lady Studios, and I had to agree to some crazy embargo terms in order to get inside: I’m not allowed to talk about the details of what I heard; I am only allowed to say that I attended a Metallica listening event at Electric Lady Studios. So I’m gonna phrase this as carefully as possible: This past Tuesday, I attended a Metallica listening event at Electric Lady Studios. And today, I’m writing about “Moth Into Flame.” Andre?
“You sure? Fuck it.”
So I’ve been imploring Metallica to do this for a long time — to look to their roots for inspiration, rather than try to outrun or overcome the Ride/Master/Justice triad that has basically destroyed everything they’ve done since. They can’t get away from that, and they can’t recreate it, but they can still make great music. They existed before Ride The Lightning too, remember. They were once just a band like every other band. And that’s what they’re doing here.
“Moth” is tight as hell, and more than anything, it hearkens back to Metallica’s 1983 debut LP, Kill ‘Em All: It’s racecar-fast, thundering thrash that opens up into an anthem on the chorus and then leads into some blazing solos. It has tons of cool little moments — rhythmic shifts, hard jolts, that “BURN” vocal hit — but it’s all in service of the song, and the song is fluid and seamless; every part here belongs.
I dunno how much credit here is owed to Greg Fidelman, who produced, recorded, and mixed the album, but I’d consider naming my firstborn son after him. Because Metallica came into the studio with God knows how many random ideas, and somehow, they came out of it with a song that sounds like this? And what if — purely hypothetically — there are even better songs on Hardwired, and those songs are also locked-in, razor-sharp burners? Even the lyrics here work for me: The groaners jump out, unfortunately, but if you dig in, James Hetfield is singing about the ways in which social media has become a drug: It’s addictive and unpredictable. It can make people feel bigger than they really are, and just as quickly, make people feel worthless when they’re really not. That terrain — the horror of losing control; the dangers of surrendering oneself to an uncaring and unfair master — is Hetfield’s sweet spot, and he hits pretty close to the center here. And even though the whole thing feels like a return to some essential idea or identity of “Metallica,” it doesn’t feel like a throwback or retro-fetishism. I hear more John Baizley on that chorus than I do Ronnie James Dio, and I think the growing kinship between Baroness and Metallica has invigorated and inspired something new in the latter.
“Moth” is in last place on this list because, foremost, not everyone on the team shares my opinions on the song’s quality, but also because you can’t compare Metallica to fucking Valborg or whatever. It’s not fair to either party. But you can’t actually be objective about music either, no matter how you approach it. It’s a thing that makes you feel, a thing that gets into your heart and becomes a part of you. Love isn’t really a logical thing; it’s irrational and unreasonable and maybe even insane. I don’t like talking about Metallica because I love Metallica, and I don’t wanna hear people telling me I’m wrong for feeling something I can’t help feeling. But I’m OK talking about them now, not because I expect you to suddenly love them — I’m not here to change your mind — but because, for the first time in a long time, it feels like they’re doing something to earn my love. [From Hardwired…To Self-Destruct out 11/18 via Blackened Recordings] –Michael Nelson
14. Ruinous – “Transfixed on the Gate”
Location: probably New Jersey
Subgenre: death metal
Label: Dark Descent Records
Let’s get this out of the way: Ruinous is Mark Medeiros (guitars, vocals), Alex Bouks (guitars), and Shawn Eldridge (drums). That’s three guys with Funebrarum on their resume. Bouks was also in Goreaphobia and the 2010s iteration of Incantation. Eldridge played in Disma (and, it must be mentioned for prime linkage opportunities, currently plays in the mighty Death Fortress). So, yeah, you could put Ruinous in that same bucket. “Transfixed on the Gate”, the second track on Ruinous’s full-length debut, Graves of Ceaseless Death, is East Coast USDM through and through, especially when these vets slow things down to a doomy slither. That said, is this a one-to-one, death-metal-to-death-metal carbon copy? Is it in league with the overload of authenticity-obsessed OSDMers flooding the streams? No and no. First a tiny difference: Graves exudes a repulsive, Funebrarum-ian horror flick sort of vibe, but sits a bit closer to a grindy punk/Master ancestry. Bigger difference: Ruinous just straight up rips, setting itself apart thanks to the hardness of its going. Biggest difference: Thanks to the group’s collective experience and on-the-job training, the elements that would normally bog a band of this ilk down are avoided or absent or rerouted into something better. To wit, that aforementioned punky ferocity? That’s not a music writer’s backdoor euphemism for sloppy. Nope, “Transfixed to the Gate” is clenched-fist tight. And the production? Blue-sky clear. Blissfully murkless! Result: songs feel realer because songs feel, already, like Ruinous rather than just the next thing up in the death metal vending machine. [From Graves Of Ceaseless Death, out 11/11 via Dark Descent.] –Ian Chainey
13. Mesarthim – “..—“
Subgenre: atmospheric black metal
Mesarthim has quickly become a force in underground black metal, channeling huge melodies to explore deep space and report back to we Earthbound about both the wonders and horrors beyond. In the past year, the Australian duo — whose identities are both simply listed as “.” on Metal Archives — has released a full length and three short format albums, including a surprise full-length titled .- -… … . -. -.-. . (morse code for “Absence”) this month. The new one is an absolute stunner from start to finish, and you should listen to the whole thing here. But as I can only choose one song to highlight, here is “..- – -,” or “2”. The song opens hurtling through space and time, and the sweeping melodies channel a sense of humbled awe. At points the song pulls back to survey the surroundings, opening up with big anthemic riffs to offer a vista of what’s out there. But of course the far reaches of the Universe are also full of mystery, and “..- – -” only partially lifts the veil. On the final song of the album, Mesarthim signs off with Morse code beeps that translate to “The Great Filter approaches,” suggesting that we are not long for the Universe and may, sadly, never reach the final frontiers that Mesarthim longs to explore. [From .- -… … . -. -.-. ., out now via Bandcamp. Thanks to Toilet ov Hell for the translating the album title and outgoing Morse code message.] —Wyatt Marshall
12. Self-Hatred – “No Judgement”
Location: Plzen, Czech Republic
Subgenre: death/doom metal
If the name didn’t tip you off, Self-Hatred is a death/doom band. True to form, Theia, this fittingly titan-esque Czech sextet’s debut, does all of the requisite death/doom things: slow-mo guitars and growls break you down like wheat in a mill, drums pound around your skull like an introvert’s hangover headache, atmospheric synths add an extra layer of pillowy sadness. But this ain’t an everyday kind of depression. That would be a go-nowhere, wall-staring drone. No, like their funeral doom cousins, Self-Hatred romanticizes dejection, giving Theia a 3-D feel compared to other albums working out bouts of flat doomer despondency. Creeping in here and there, in the mournful guitar leads and clean vocal melodies especially, is a gothy sort of lachrymosity. Tear-stained grandeur, even. But don’t think Self-Hatred can’t bring the heft. Take “No Judgement”. It’s heavy as heck from the onset; the sound of celestial bodies grinding against gravity. But check out what happens when Self-Hatred wants to travel. The middle pitstop, with its ethereal vocals and heart-string-yanking riffs, is lush, achingly attractive stuff. That section also sets up “Judgement”‘s finale, a big ol’ cathedral-filling crescendo where sound is maximized. Self-Hatred is a fantasy where sadness goes somewhere and eventually pays off. [From Theia, out now via Solitude Productions.] –Ian Chainey
11. Vermin Womb – “Rank And File”
Location: Denver, CO
Subgenre: death metal/grindcore
Vermin Womb is overtly a side project of the sludge/doom band Primitive Man by way of shared frontman Ethan McCarthy, but their lineage goes back to Primitive Man’s predecessor band, the ambitiously-named Clinging To The Trees Of A Forest Fire. That band’s later recordings clearly serve as the template for Vermin Womb’s overbearing assault, and the rhythm section of bassist Zach Harlan and drummer J.P. Damron features in each. It’s tough to know where to stick Vermin Womb in metal’s complex subgenre taxonomy, as they don’t fit neatly in any one basket. Decline, their full-length debut, feels like an unusually meaty grindcore record at first, thanks to its terse songwriting and Damron’s absolutely withering blastbeats. But despite their efficiency, Vermin Womb could just as easily land in death metal territory — McCarthy’s guitar shifts from chord to tarry chord with an oily, seasick sloshing that evokes Portal on fast-forward. Portal in turn have a substantial black metal influence, which makes itself known on Decline via the reverby production and the Vermin Womb’s penchant for speedpicking virtually all of the time. So there’s a lot of moving parts in this music, but chances are you won’t think about them because you’re too busy getting stomped the fuck out by its absurd heaviness. It’s nasty, forceful stuff, and it scratches a primordial itch that only this kind of gutter slime can really reach. [From Decline, out 10/28 via Translation Loss and Throatruiner.] –Doug Moore
10. Valborg – “Werwolf”
Location: North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany
Subgenre: death/doom metal
Valborg are an unusual band, and they’re closely associated with one of metal’s most singular entities — Zeitgeister Music, a German boutique label that largely handles projects associated with its owner, Florian Toyka, and his frequent collaborator Christian Kolf. Valborg’s probably the best-known band of the Zeitgeister set, and for good reason. At their core, they’re a death/doom metal band, with oddball gothic overtones that have earned them flattering comparisons to ’80s metal tropemakers Celtic Frost and successors Triptykon. But Valborg is also a moving target, and their restlessness has taken them to some strange places lately. 2015’s Romantik, for instance, bore metal markings only occasionally; instead, it expended most of its energy on disquieting synth ambience and minimal rhythms. This year’s two-track Werwolf EP walks back a lot of that stylistic drift. Written before Romantik and frequently played live prior to its recording, it’s a clear-cut death metal effort in the vein of earlier Valborg albums like Crown Of Sorrow. The band’s chilly atmospherics remain, but these songs focus squarely on Kolf’s insanely meaty riffs. That’s a good thing — these guys are better than any other active band at this niche approach, and it’s thrilling to hear them dig into grooves in their characteristically muscular fashion. [From Werwolf, out now via Temple Of Tortuous.] –Doug Moore
9. Asphyx – “Forerunners Of The Apocalypse”
Location: Oldenzaal, Netherlands
Subgenre: mid-tempo, non-Swedish, old school death metal
Death is in the air. Murder rates are rising across the United States, or so we hear. The specter of terrorism lurks around every corner, behind every newsfeed, threatening to crowd out news of the even more troubling rise of worldwide populism, which is driven in large part by these very fears. We’re locked in a terrible cycle where fearmongering breeds despair, despair feeds opportunism, and the snake swallows its own tail, forever. Despite the fact that crime is generally down and we’re still safer than we were even five years ago, it’s hard to cast off this mantle of collective unease, even when we can step back and rationally accept that fear itself is both cause and symptom. What does this have to do with death metal? Not much; I’m just venting. We here at the Black Market spend a lot of time intellectualizing things that probably aren’t meant to be especially deep, and I’m the worst of us in that regard. Death metal — I might argue on any day other than today — represents our struggle to embrace the futility of life and the inevitability of death. Perhaps we drape ourselves in morbid imagery to subvert the very things that scare the shit out of us: death, terror, fear itself. No, I won’t fully engage that argument today. Death metal is just how I drown out all that noise, how I quiet my pedestrian fears by smothering them with something even louder. Asphyx represent the ideal mid-paced strain of death metal; they’re one of the only legends left in this narrow slice of a subgenre focusing on mid-tempo, non-Swedish, old school death metal. With Bolt Thrower officially dead and buried as of this month, Asphyx now reign supreme over their diminutive dominion. Witness the wonders of Martin van Drunen’s ragged scream, the hoarsest voice ever put to tape. Bite down as the cavalcade of riffs barrels through you like a battleship over a windsurfer. When the lead guitars cry out above the onslaught, hanging on a somber note, there’s a whiff of despair, and it’s enough to trigger recognition of the daily horrors that wait outside the warm cocoon of heavy metal. Here, with that feeling recorded for posterity, we have a choice: we can intellectualize it, consciously confronting our fears, taking control of our own narrative and finding a positive way forward. Or we can do what I usually do: play dumb, crank the volume, and drown out the rest of the noise. It’s easier that way. [From Forerunners Of The Apocalypse, out now via Century Media.] –Aaron Lariviere
8. Saor – “Guardians”
Location: Glasgow, Scotland
Subgenre: atmospheric black metal
Atmospheric black metal comes in many flavors, from the pagan to the space-themed, but bands that excel in the genre don’t too often go full-tilt after the kind of folk that would necessitate, say, bagpipes. That’s usually reserved for folk metal, which is something else entirely and a genre we don’t touch upon often here. But the one-man band Saor is the rare black metal project that rules and does use bagpipes. Built on the back of high-powered riffing and blasting and layer after layer of guitars, Soar’s songs are dressed to the nines with fiddles and flutes and melodies you’d associate with Highlander. On paper, that might not work for you — but give “Guardians,” the title track from Saor’s new album a listen, and see if the immensely pretty melodies perfectly juxtaposed with chugging riffs and muscular vocals take hold. It’s glorious stuff built for the land of lochs and crags, but grounded enough to be enjoyable in the car. [From Guardians, out November 11 on Northern Silence.] –Wyatt Marshall
7. Brutally Deceased – “The Art of Dying”
Location: Prague, Czech Republic
Subgenre: death metal
Everything about Brutally Deceased’s new album, playfully named Satanic Corpse, is wonderful. Take the artwork, for example: from the rotting earth tones of the incongruous Paolo Girardi cover art to the giant garish sticker with that band name in gnarly letters, slapped right on top of the painting. Wonderful. That band name, too: BRUTALLY DECEASED, the kind of nonsense phrase you invent in study hall while ignoring everyone and doodling in notebooks, dreaming barbaric thoughts of an epic heavy metal escape from tedium. In reality, the name comes from a Grave song off the classic 1992 album You’ll Never See…, which is equally cool, because Grave slays and that album rules. That reference is actually on point — Brutally Deceased plasy a particularly vicious update on classic Swedish death metal with a hellish melodic bent. The closest comparison is probably the melodeath-ish mid-period of Dismember (think 1997’s Death Metal), but Brutally Deceased pushes the buzzing guitars even further. Tracks are short, devoid of filler, just a string of perfect kill riffs in line. Opening track “The Art of Dying” kicks off like a chainsaw in a crowded theater, ripping guitars keeping the buried melodic promise close to the chest until the 2:30 mark, where things take a turn toward Iron Maiden-land by way of dueling leads borrowed from At the Gates. There’s a lot here to unpack, and Brutally Deceased’s bandcamp is currently streaming 3 equally killer tracks, so get in there and do your part. [From Satanic Corpse, out now via Doomentia Records] –Aaron Lariviere
6. Oathbreaker – “Immortals”
Location: West-Flanders/Ghent, Belgium
Subgenre: post-black metal…?
The Belgian quartet Oathbreaker don’t belong to any existing metal subgenre, and the self-ascribed subgenres listed on their Bandcamp don’t do much to clarify what their music actually sounds like: alternative (nope); black metal (no); metal (I mean, yeah, I guess, but what does that even tell you?); punk (same); hardcore (ehhh); metallic hardcore (you mean like NAILS? Or Killswitch Engage? In either case: nah, doesn’t apply here). You’d do better to look at Oathbreaker’s professional associations. The band’s third LP, Rheia, is out on the excellent indie label Deathwish, which is run by Jacob Bannon of Converge, and which has pretty much cornered the market on bands that deal in the sorts of epic, aggressive, nuanced, noise-damaged, hook-heavy, world-devouring doomscapes in which Oathbreaker specialize: bands like Touché Amoré, Loma Prieta, and Planes Mistaken For Stars. Rheia was produced by Jack Shirley, best known (to me, anyway) for his peerless work with Deafheaven. That list of loosely connected names doesn’t exactly describe Oathbreaker’s music, admittedly, but it does a whole lot better than “alternative” and “metallic hardcore.” It also sort of characterizes the band’s scope and approach. Rheia is an album of post-rock grandeur matched with d-beat violence. The most apt comparison I can come up with is Nux Vomica’s self-titled LP from 2014 — which is high fucking praise, as that was one of the best albums of its year, it still destroys two years later, and it really exists in a rarefied world unto itself. And now, Rheia resides nearby. But Oathbreaker are doing something much different, too. They’re most notably set apart by frontwoman Caro Tangle, who isn’t a pure screamer (although she’s a killer screamer, to be sure, when she shifts into those textures). Her delivery is often melodic, and multi-tracked, and it gives these gigantic songs greater mass and momentum, as well as humanity and maybe even vulnerability. When all the pieces come together, it’s a pretty majestic thing to witness. So … witness. [From Rheia, out now via Deathwish] –Michael Nelson
5. Neurosis – “Bending Light”
Location: Oakland, CA
Few individual acts have done as much to shape the direction of metal over the past 15 years as Neurosis. They’ve been active for way longer than that — over 30, in fact, having first appeared in 1985. Their virtually flawless run of material from the early ’90s through the mid-’00s pioneered the musical territory that would eventually become post-metal, though it took a full decade after Neurosis first began developing this approach for others to pick up on it. Neurosis defined this niche but ironically never felt of a piece with it, as their music is far darker and more intense than that of virtually any band they inspired. Some of those descendants — ISIS, Mastodon, Baroness — have gone on to eclipse Neurosis in sheer popularity as they’ve developed their own styles, but none of them inspire the same borderline-obsessive devotion amongst their fans. People who like Neurosis tend to LOVE Neurosis, with a quasi-religious fervor that their ritualistic approach openly invites. (Myself included.) So when Neurosis releases a new album, it’s a major event for the metal world, involving a great deal of anticipation. And when that kind of hype builds up, people tend to go apeshit over the product itself for at least a while no matter how good it is. Their 12th LP Fires Within Fires has certainly received this treatment, with press adulation pouring in virtually as soon as it was announced. But even for huge Neurosis stans, there’s no escaping the fact that it’s a lesser work in the context of their catalog. It’s an improvement on its predecessor, the flabby and weirdly genial Honor Found In Decay, but it still lacks the frightening unpredictability and desperate edge that characterizes Neurosis’s best work. What it does pack, however, is mega riffs — oozing, sinister riffs of a kind the band has deployed with precious rarity since the 1999 masterpiece Times Of Grace. Neurosis are fundamentally still a metal band under all the experimentation and mystique, and they can still absolutely crush in this mode, as the back half of “Bending Light” proves. Aging gods are still gods, and this record still easily outperforms virtually all of the bands they’ve inspired. Which makes some of the breathlessness around Fires Within Fires a little easier to forgive. If anyone deserves the benefit of the doubt, it’s these guys. [From Fires Within Fires, out now via Neurot.] –Doug Moore
4. Mithras – “Odyssey’s End”
Location: Rugby, UK
Subgenre: death metal
If youíre new to Mithras, ìOdysseyís Endî is a great way to start. Just, you know, be patient. For two minutes, the English death metal duo ruminates on a riff that sounds like an interstellar cloud. It’s a pretty little progression that hints at more. Then, *Jeff Wayne heat-ray sound*, the now-distorted progression is spat back at you like grease from a frying pan slingshotted around Jupiter. There’s the more. Hello. From there, things get rolling as Leon Macey (drums, guitars) and the since-departed Rayner Cross (bass, vocals) start doing their thing. That thing? Kind of unique in the death metal dimension. If you needed to conserve words — like you ran over an old gypsy woman who just Redboxed recent Eddie Murphy features — you could get away with calling that thing philosophical Morbid Angel in space. But that doesnít really get at the depth of the thing nor the destination of the thing. To use a greater number of words, weíre talking innumerable layers and textures that aid the erection of focused, monolithic riffs. Weíre talking melodious ecstasy existing in the same space as breakneck ferocity. Weíre talking head-in-the-clouds mysticism matched by an earthy understanding of how best to inflict reflexive headbanging. Tension-building dualities you could say if, once again, you were word-count cursed. Or, as Macey said in an interesting origin-explainer and interview with Stephen Logos, ìAll the elements are there, e.g. creating a trancelike state by playing musical parts repeatedly, then suddenly allowing chaos to enter my playing.î Yeah, that. But more, too. Nearly eight minutes more on ìOdysseyís Endî. Nearly 56 minutes more on the impeccably mixed and mastered On Strange Loops, Mithrasís first full-length in a long nine years. Expectations are running high for this one, especially after three killer records in the ë00s, especially after impressive recent releases by related outfits (Contrarian and 2015 Black Market favorite Sarpanitum). But quell the context and just ride along with “Odyssey’s End”. Been waiting a bit for this one, so don’t rush it. Sink in. And if you’re new and patient, welcome aboard. Now that you’ve started, you’ve got some catching up to do. [From On Strange Loops, out 10/21 via Willowtip.] –Ian Chainey
3. Tardigrada – “Die Wand”
Location: Zurich, Switzerland
Subgenre: atmospheric black metal
In 2012, Switzerland’s Tardigrada released a fantastic fuzzy demo cassette on the recently founded Fallen Empire Records. It showed great promise — mournful melodies created a mood that blended despair and horror in artful ways. (The quality of that Tardigrada and other early signings were also indicative of where Fallen Empire, now arguably America’s premiere underground black metal label, was heading.) Now four years later, Tardigrada is back and better, moving out of the lo-fi gloom somewhat to embrace the power that comes with bigger production. “Die Wand” is superb — understated and menacing. Though things never really move beyond mid-tempo, the song subtly mutates over its 11-minutes. From more chill beginnings, drums soon pound out the low end, howls increase in desperation, and by various twists and shifts the listener is ultimately left in foreboding territory. On repeat listens the song’s shape-shifting ability reveals the subtle hands of masters, something that, if you listened closely, was evident all along. [From Emotionale Ödnis, out 10/28 on Eisenwald Tonschmiede.] —Wyatt Marshall
2. Sumerlands – “The Guardian”
Location: Philadelphia, PA
Subgenre: traditional heavy metal
Sumerlands’ debut is pure power, one of my favorites of the year, easily the best traditional heavy metal record since Dawnbringer’s Into the Lair of the Sun God surfaced in 2012, which is no faint praise. That’s the pull-quote, in all its simplistic glory. We could parse influences all day, but now that I’ve satisfied the base requirement for buyer’s guide blurbage, I’d rather slather on some impressionistic rambling and paint a picture of what this record looks like from inside my head. Cut to: night over a shattered wasteland, heat lightning above, debris below. A guitar crackles with blue light, electricity dancing up the frets. A flickering hologram of Jake E. Lee dives across a cracked screen, George Lynch hot on his heels, some kind of replay caught in a looping memory with no one left to watch. Nuclear light flares on the horizon like a dying star, brighter than a dream, guitars screaming as a distant voice lets out a strangled wail. Smoke rises, thick as death. From within that swirling mass, an echoing snare drum finds the beat and pounds away. A song rises, taking flight in a crooked spiral until it’s free from the wreckage, pure testicular thunder pumping through a Marshall stack (or is that a Soldano, the California shred amp perfected?), power flowing forth with a voice like eternity. Sumerlands. Say the name until it feels familiar, then click play and hold on. [From Sumerlands, out now via Relapse.] –Aaron Lariviere
1. Meshuggah – “Nostrum”
Location: Umeå, Sweden
Subgenre: progressive metal
Meshuggah have been active for almost 30 years, and an international touring act for something like 20. Like anything that’s been around for long enough, they’ve come to seem normal, a familiar piece of an inevitable landscape. But upon a second’s reflection, you will notice that Meshuggah are an extremely weird band. And not just weird, but kinda dorky, from their legendary technical prowess to their futuristic lyrical themes to their frequently…perplexing…art direction. This is about as shamelessly unhip as rock music can get, which gives them long odds for getting so popular. But popular they’ve become — more and more so over the past ten years, as imitators of their various eccentricties have coalesced into the djent subgenre. Their 2012 album Koloss charted at #17 in the US, making them one of the best-selling extreme metal bands in the world at that time. Paradoxically, it’s clearly because Meshuggah are such oddballs that they have done so well. Their tunnel vision has allowed them to develop one of metal’s most immediately recognizable sounds — a titanic stuttering clatter, like grinding gears in some unimaginably huge and complex machine — and they make the best of it with some subtly masterful songwriting choices. Just as Meshuggah prima facie shouldn’t be popular, they shouldn’t be catchy. But they are, relentlessly, even at their most experimental. That said, they’re not experimenting too much these days. The Violent Sleep Of Reason is an obvious case of veterans working at peak efficiency, comfortable in their skins and confident in the power of their template. As a result, it doesn’t provide the thrill of novelty like Meshuggah’s peak run through the late ’90s and early ’00s did. But like Neurosis, this band is peerless — they’re so much better than all similar alternatives that even a business-as-usual 8th LP is going to clear the field. Meshuggah have applied tweaks to the formula, of course — Tue Madsen’s production dirties up the band’s chrome sheen, and the songs run towards the frenetic and technical end of their compositional framework. There’s not a ton of widescreen songwriting moments on this album, aside from Fredrik Thordendal’s soloing, which is some of his finest to date. (His absolute wailer in “Nostrum” is a good example.) Instead, most of the tunes are riff workouts, and what riffs they are. Nobody — nobody — can do this except for Meshuggah, though many have tried. As long as they keep going this hard, they’ll keep their crown. [From The Violent Sleep Of Reason, out 10/7 via Nuclear Blast.] –Doug Moore