As usual, we’ve got an avalanche of worthy metal to discuss this month. Before we get to it, I want to take a crack at addressing one of the most frequent questions/complaints we get from readers:
“I like the music, but why do the vocals have to be like that?”
Pretty much everyone who listens to metal has fielded some version of this question at some point, and for good reason. For all of the genre’s many transgressive and seemingly anti-musical features, it’s the screaming and growling vocals that grate the hardest on most ears. The vast majority of popular music genres use the human voice as a lead melodic instrument, but “harsh” metal vocals subvert this expectation and then some. The very sounds themselves that this class of vocalization entail are completely unfamiliar to the average listener. It takes substantial time to adjust to them, and not everyone is willing or able to do so.
As a result, “I hate the stupid screaming!” is the most common reason given for rejecting metal out of hand. There’s even a sizable (and growing, in my anecdotal experience) minority of committed metal fans who feel that way. These detractors have a point. A lot of harsh vocals, and possibly the majority of ‘em, are lazy, unimaginative, and pointless. Too many metal bands treat harsh vocals as a compositional afterthought, use the incomprehensible delivery to hide awful lyrics, or otherwise fail to capitalize on the voice’s potential.
But most vocals in general are mediocre, regardless of style. Most conventional singing is meh. Most rapping is meh. “Meh” is the mathematically guaranteed standard outcome for any artistic performance measure. If harsh vocals have a larger propensity towards meh, it’s mostly because they’re usually not the center of attention — in most metal, that distinction goes to the guitars — and musicians resultantly have fewer incentives to expend a ton of time and effort on them.
When metal bands do pay attention to harsh vocals, though, they can be fucking GREAT. I seriously think they can be just as emotionally powerful and evocative as any other style of singing. That probably sounds a little crazy, and this topic is admittedly a major hobby horse for me, since harsh vocals have been my primary instrument for some time. But it’s true all the same.
So, to answer the question, the vocals don’t have to be like that. There’s loads of metal with great clean singing, ironically including our #1 tune for this month. But I think they absolutely should be like that a lot of the time.
Since I could bang on about this subject for approximately nine hundred trillion gazillion words and bore every one of you into a catatonic state without running out of things to say, I’m going to limit myself to five points of defense for this most maligned of rock ‘n’ roll vocal approaches. (Though there are more!) To wit:
—They’re essentially the most versatile drum ever:
My theory is that most people who dislike harsh vocals do so in part because they expect any form of singing in a rock-ish context to carry the lead melody, and can’t figure out how to grok vocals that don’t. The best antidote is to consciously re-contextualize them as a rhythm element, like a drum, rather than the primary focus of the song. Metal leans more heavily on rhythmic emphasis than most styles, so using the voice as an additional device to drive home the beat with max force makes sense. Voices are way more sonically complex and expressive than any drum, though, with a much greater range of tone and note length. And unlike any other instrument, they can carry all of the immense power of language, if the listener bothers to check the lyric sheet. (Though they’d frequently be better served not to, given the average quality of metal lyrics.)
—They’re the best aesthetic match for the instrumentation and subject matter.
Gnarly music and gnarly lyrics benefit from gnarly singing. This bit is pretty self-evident, but it’s important. Most metal featuring these vox is supposed to be overbearingly intense and aggressive. A lot of it delves into subject matter and emotional valences that are not exactly fit for cocktail party conversation. And virtually all of it is designed to be performed at ridiculously loud volumes. You can meet all of these requirements individually with regular clean singing, but pushing the voice way out of melodic territory projects a degree of insane (and thematically appropriate!) recklessness and hostility that’s impossible to achieve in any other way, and that almost automatically fits the bill.
—They get around some of the compositional and performance challenges associated with chromaticism and dissonance.
This is gonna get a bit wonky, so bear with me. A lot of extreme metal doesn’t feature a well-defined key and doesn’t rely on a concrete note scale in any familiar sense. Without these features, melodies and harmonies face few constraints and can tangle themselves up into all kinds of exotic and unfamiliar shapes. (The term “chord progression” effectively doesn’t apply to a lot of metal that nonetheless involves lots of chords, in the sense that metal riffs often don’t progress according to the rules that usually govern harmony.) Metal’s defiance of familiar musical laws makes it tough terrain for conventional, melodic vocals, which usually depend on more orderly tonality. It’s tough to write satisfying vocal melodies in such a chaotic context, and tougher to perform them — even immensely talented singers would have trouble nailing their parts over the seething mania that makes up a lot of underground metal. Fortunately, staccato vocal chord abuse works way better anyway.
—They can be wildly varied and dynamic.
Another common criticism of harsh vocals is that they’re static and repetitive. Again: true! Or often true, in any case — many metal vocalists just kinda bark out the same tone and pitch all the time, regardless of what’s going on around them. (Which can be great, or frustrating; the line between the two is bizarrely thin.) Despite how popular this minimalist approach is, it’s not the only option. Harsh vocals can be crazy versatile — as much as the music itself can be. Even a lone vocalist can sound like a whole host of different people by combining different pitches, tones, and rhythmic approaches. For proof, check out this Anaal Nathrakh album and consider that one guy recorded virtually all of the vocals on it. Using effects can expand the palette of sounds even further.
—Their very inhumanity makes them a compelling human element.
The best metal is the sound of striving. Every variant requires performers to push themselves to their limits in one way or another. This ambitious drive is among metal’s most compelling features, but it’s often hard to hear in the instrumentation, which frequently has the sweat polished off it in the studio or rendered miniscule relative to the music’s enormous scope. Vocals are different, though — no matter how ridiculously exaggerated or savagely EQed they are, there’s no getting around the fact that a human throat generated the basic sound. The entire premise of harsh vocals is that they’re voices doing something that no voice was meant to do, typically alongside music that sounds like no human was ever meant to hear it. But at the same time, they’re inescapably human — evidence that actual, living people somehow summoned up the insane noises at play from their fragile bodies. Metal doesn’t necessarily have to be relatable to achieve its goals, but the presence of vocals in general helps, and the all-in screaming approach loudly echoes the indefagitable passion that drives the entire culture.
Ultimately, this whole argument is tilting at a windmill. I don’t expect it to change many people’s minds. In practice, it seems like some folks simply aren’t wired to enjoy growling and screaming, no matter how hard they try, and that’s totally understandable. We’re talking about “harsh” vocals. The shit is immensely weird, and not for everyone by definition. But I still think it’s worth pursuing, on the off chance that it does help some people crack this toughest of heavy metal aesthetic nuts. Because if you succeed in doing so, you gain access to a massive trove of great music. For instance: by my count, this month’s song roster features 13 entries that rely on harsh vox at least some of the time. That’s a good place to start! Let’s get guttural. –Doug Moore
15. Sordide – “L’Incendiaire”
Location: Rouen, France
Subgenre: black metal
“L’Incendiaire” is the opening song to Sordide’s new album, and the track, which translates to “the arsonist,” is, fittingly an absolute barnburner. Sordide’s gritty black metal careens unsteadily bur incessantly forward, driven by momentum but thrown off-kilter by warped guitars twanging beneath. Elsewhere on Sordide’s new album this formula readily takes on a more rockabilly vibe, but on “L’Incendiaire” the Southern nods are just below the surface. The resulting sound is nasty, and the song thrashes accordingly. Maybe not as fitting as the track title is the title of Sordide’s new album, Fuir La Lumière, which, as noted by the estimable No Clean Singing, translates to “Flee The Light” — Sordide’s songs all hold a fire within. [From Fuir La Lumière, out now via Avantgarde Music] –Wyatt Marshall
14. Hierophant – “In Decay”
I love when bands cut to the chase, don’t bury the lede, and just whip it out, slapping the thickest of riffs on the table for hungry ears to devour. If Heirophant’s fourth full-length is any indication, this band consistently rewards the impatient, offering up a mix of short, acrid blasts of grind and hardcore alongside riff-first salvos of rumbling mid-tempo death. “In Decay” falls in the latter camp, and these guys barely make you wait for sweet release. Thirty-five seconds of portentous guitar gloom gives way and the fucking riff to end all Bolt Thrower riffs slams home like a SCUD missile, which is to say Hierophant absolutely kill. But what do we call this mongrel of a hybrid-style? Flesh-rending hardcore? Militant death-crust? Grave-scented traditional grindcore (aka grind played the ancient way, the better way)? Hierophant shares a member with fellow brutal Italian hardcore legends the Secret — which is as sure a sign of quality as any — and recorded their latest album, Mass Grave, with one of the dudes from Nails, which explains the fist-to-face factor. So who cares how we’re supposed to label their art — this is vicious, hateful, wonderful stuff, plundering the best sounds from the best bands and mixing in some shrapnel of their own, delivering a perfectly ripping blast of nihilistic noise. [From Mass Grave, out 11/4 via Season Of Mist.] –Aaron Lariviere
13. Ion Dissonance – “Perpetually Doomed: The Sisyphean Task”
Location: Montreal, Canada
Subgenre: mathcore / deathcore
The Canadian mathcore band Ion Dissonance have been mostly out of the picture since 2010’s Cursed. Normally this kind of long absence would register as a hiccup in a band’s career, but in this case, it might constitute a boon. Their first two albums, 2003’s Breathing Is Irrelevant and 2005’s Solace, established their immeasurably amped-up, slammy death metal take on the tangled chaos of bands like the Dillinger Escape Plan and Coalesce — a sound that no other band has really successfully replicated. But they changed vocalists and approaches for 2007’s Minus The Herd, opting for a simpler, groovier, and more boneheaded attack firmly rooted in the then-novel deathcore subgenre. The change worked out well for the band at the time, but deathcore eventually lost its luster and suffered a deserved backlash. Ion Dissonance sat most of this period out, and fan expectations have essentially reset themselves for Cast The First Stone, their fifth album. Fittingly, Ion Dissonance have returned to the sound of their early years, with punishing results. Cast The First Stone could’ve immediately followed Solace in the band’s discography — it’s a jarring, relentless listen, forever tantalizing listeners with meaty grooves that last just long enough to make the next flight of blinding technicality that much more disorienting. Ion Dissonance are absolute masters of this brains-and-brawn dichotomy, which you can hear in full flower on the ambitiously-named “Perpetually Doomed: The Sisyphean Task.” It even features a touch of something like melody, but Ion Dissonance temper even that subtle hint of conventional musicality with plenty of cruel twists and turns. [From Cast The First Stone, out 11/18 via Good Fight Music] –Doug Moore
12. Waldgeflüster – “Trümmerfestung”
Location: Munich, Germany
Subgenre: atmospheric black metal
Waldgeflüster play acoustic-laced, heartfelt black metal, and the band tends to swing for the fences with its nature-reverent songs — a whole lot of them hover around the 10-minute mark, and by the time you reach the end you’ll have navigated a number of different movements, each with an overtly emotional shift. “Trümmerfestung” begins with an immensely catchy and thrashy groove accented with gang vocals, but it doesn’t take long for the tone to change. The band lays off the gas pedal, and harsh screams give way to solemn and at times very earnest vocals as the song begins to twist and turn in theatrical ways. You’ll see what I mean, and by the time you’ve steered the various ups and downs, you’ll feel as if you’ve made it through some sort of harrowing — but enjoyable! — experience. Earlier this year, Waldgeflüster released a split alongside Panopticon, one of America’s prized heavy metal gems that specializes in high-flying yet decidedly earthbound black metal. The two found in each other kindred spirits — both have a thing for nature and breathtaking vistas — and on “Trümmerfestung” you hear some Panopticon seeping through. (For those paying attention, Waldgeflüster is one of two band’s on this month’s list with a moniker featuring the word “whispers” — the band’s name translates to “Forest Whispers,” while Fluisteraars translates to “Whisperers.”) [From Ruinen, out now on Nordvis.] –Wyatt Marshall
11. Profanal – “Burn The Altar”
Location: Livorno, Italy
Subgenre: death metal
Italy’s Profanal know OSDM’s key, active ingredient is cool-ass riffs. They know other OSDM things, too. A sampling: Singer Rosy has a barking growl that’s prime Clandestine; the band’s new LP, Supreme Fire, has the vibe of a foggy Swedish graveyard San Junipero’d to the early ’90s; and sometimes, when things get slow, you swear the needle has skipped and landed in a fresh, hidden groove of some well-worn classic. These are all elements that help make Profanal successful. But the riffs are what kick this quintet across the line, separating overly reverent pretenders from good death metal bands in their own right. “Burn The Altar” makes for a great test case in RIFF COURT, then. Beginning with some James Murphy-ian red-line action, “Burn The Altar” rips through a whole end-of-the-night trick-or-treat bag of R-I-F-F-S, eventually breaking open the Pixy Stix of fantastic (and spooky phantasm-tic) leads. That sentence might read like an OSDM coloring book, but Profanal’s kinetic energy is their own. Hard to fake that spark. Well, take that back: You can try. Plenty of newer OSDMers do attempt to flatter their elders by tuning into a legendary frequency, but the results are usually like a 99th generation game of telephone. However, Profanal’s members seem like they’re less concerned with achieving an established ideal and more concerned with melting faces. Classic reasoning, can’t fault it. So, Supreme Fire is for the love of death metal. Plus, this is only Profanal’s second album; room to grow! And, sure, there are other albums out this year that will show you where death metal is at in 2016 instead of where it was in 1992. However, few are this fun. Exhaust all of your possible proctology school jokes and then get into this one. [From Supreme Fire, out 10/31 via Iron Tyrant.] –Ian Chainey
10. Planes Mistaken For Stars – “Clean Up Mean”
Location: Peoria, IL / Denver, CO
When Colorado-via-Illinois’ Planes Mistaken For Stars released their debut album, 2001’s Fuck With Fire, they appeared to be a better-than-average screamo band lost in a crowd of screamo bands, and they arrived at the very moment that scene was gaining a foothold in (or adjacent to) the mainstream. But they weren’t really a screamo band. By the time they got to LP2, 2004’s Up In Them Guts, PMFS had advanced about a dozen levels; they’d altogether abandoned and transcended genre, and sounded like nothing else in music. They were playing an unholy hybrid of death metal, math rock, noise, and some unusually filthy strain of American hardcore/punk. Their music somehow conjured wild-eyed violence tinged with autumnal melancholy. Fuck With Fire is a very good album, but Up In Them Guts and its followup, 2006’s Mercy, are two of my favorite LPs ever. Over the past decade I probably haven’t gone more than two weeks without spinning “Belly Full Of Hell” or “Crooked Mile.” The screamo tag was especially inapt because PMFS frontman Gared O’Donnell doesn’t scream. From a distance, his singing bears a resemblance to screaming, but that’s his actual voice: He’s got these asphalt-shredded vocal cords, and the sound they produce is one of the best things in the whole world. It’s melodic and textured and hoarse and urgent, and I can’t understand why it hasn’t inspired a thousand imitators. The best I can come up with is this: Nobody else can do it. PMFS split after Mercy, but they reunited once in a while for some live shows. (I saw them twice during their hiatus and they absolutely blew the doors off both times.) Last year, they reissued Mercy via the excellent Deathwish Inc., at which point they also announced they had been “quietly and persistently working on new music, due to surface on Deathwish sometime in the future.” Well, the future is now. Planes Mistaken For Stars’ fourth album is titled Prey, and it’s the bleakest, most harrowing thing they’ve ever recorded, but also the most nuanced and beautiful. It still hits like a slapshot to the jaw and rips like a dirtbike over dunes, but the sadness that always lurked in the corners has moved closer to the center. According to the press materials, “In need of isolation to finish writing the album, founder Gared O’Donnell took to the road alone [where] he found himself driving deep into the crumbling heart of middle America. There, Gared took up residence in decrepit motels, finding inspiration in the descending darkness surrounding him.” I have no idea if that’s true, but I can absolutely, clearly, hear all those settings and hues in the music. O’Donnell’s voice has grown even more weathered and ragged in the decade since Mercy, and it sounds better today than it ever did before. Which means it sounds better than just about anything. [From Prey, out now via Deathwish Inc.] –Michael Nelson
9. Witchery – “Nosferatu”
Subgenre: blackened thrash
The days of thrash as a threat to morality or eardrums or human sanity or whatever are clearly a few decades behind us. In 2016, the remnants of the genre largely exist as an exercise in old bands trying to sound like their younger selves, or young bands engaged in retro-fetishistic worship of those same older bands’ younger selves. Both operate as a call back to an earlier age where “extreme” metal still threatened the status quo, at least in the sense that no one quite knew where extreme metal was headed. Throughout the mid ’80s, the actual “heaviness” of the heavy metal universe was still exploding outward in a kind of microcosmic, metal-specific Big Bang, where the horizon of extremity was essentially unimaginable. This seems quaint in hindsight. Looking back as modern listeners, with visions of brutal death and caustic black metal dancing through our heads, it’s hard to imagine a time when Metallica was scary. But hold up for a second. Dig out Ride The Lightning and cue up “Fight Fire With Fire”. When Hetfield finally brings down the axe after 40 seconds of acoustic prettiness, his rhythm guitar practically rips through the speaker. I don’t know enough about musical theory to know if it’s the syncopation of razor-sharp downstrokes against the propulsive throb of mid-tempo drumming or if there’s something else at play, but there’s a certain percussive power to well-wrought thrash that you rarely hear in other genres. Flash-forward to now, and the latest from Witchery is peeling my face in the best way, in that wonderfully percussive old way, despite the fact that Witchery sound absolutely nothing like Metallica. This is modern, raging thrash with blackened edges and death metal heft — the sound is a world apart from the thrash of yore, but those rhythm guitars rip just as hard. Rhythm guitarist Patrik Jensen — a long-running member of both Witchery and the Haunted, co-founding both bands back in 1996 — is an omnipresent force throughout Witchery’s sixth album, and his axe is ridiculously fucking sharp. “Nosferatu” is neither the fastest nor gnarliest thing on the new album, but it does have the biggest, dumbest (I mean that affectionately) chorus I’ve heard in a thrash tune in years. Thankfully, the back half of the song unchains the guitars to shred with impunity through a rapid-fire rhythmic workout, and it’s glorious stuff. [From In His Infernal Majesty’s Service, out 11/25 via Century Media] –Aaron Lariviere
8. Scum – “Trilogian Tales”
Location: Parikkala, Finland
Subgenre: melodic death metal
The 1990s were a magical time for death metal, and a strange one. The style bullied its way into the popular consciousness in the early part of the decade, making it look like it might actually be commercially viable for a hot minute. The ensuing gold rush led a whole generation of up-and-coming acts to experiment with blowing up death metal’s brutality into bigger, more ambitious, and more accessible proportions. This atmosphere birthed Finland’s Scum, who released a pair of albums during the mid-’90s on the legendary Black Mark Production label — best known as the home of black metal founders Bathory — before petering out in 1996 due to lack of audience interest. Like their labelmates Edge Of Sanity and countrymen Amorphis, Scum made music that rumbled with Scandinavian death metal’s characteristic gritty buzz, but also stretched itself proglike, dabbling in 10-minute strong structures, clean vocals, tear-jerking guitar harmonies, ponderous tempos, and extended keyboard interludes. It’s an odd approach compared to the slick and bouncy direction that death metal’s melodic wing has gone in since, and remains just as oddly resonant for its keening melodies and sweeping scope. Before dissolving, Scum self-financed one final album called Garden Of Shadows, which ultimately went unreleased by Black Mark. After 20 years of lying fallow, this death metal time capsule is enjoying a proper day in the sun, to the benefit of us all. Scum may not have gained traction in their day, but their last effort is a gem — a ragged, glorious document of its peculiar moment, as vaulting and epic as it is gnarly. They really don’t make melodic death metal albums this fantastically scummy anymore, and album centerpiece “Trilogian Tales” really cranks up the soaring ’90s excesses to 11. [From Garden Of Shadows, out 12/2 via Blood Music.] –Doug Moore
7. Fluisteraars – “Zijsselt”
Location: Gelderland, Netherlands
Subgenre: atmospheric black metal
Fluisteraars put out one of 2015’s best metal LPs in Luwte, an album of emotive black metal that achieved moments of both sorrow and euphoria through artful orchestration and, in particular, some masterful guitar work. Whereas Luwte was effortlessly refined, the Dutch trio’s new two-song EP, Gelderland, is comparatively savage — faster and more pummeling and chaotic. As is often the case when a metal band puts out material that’s more aggressive than their preceding offering midway through an established career, Gelderland most clearly calls to mind earlier Fluisteraars material, namely their debut demo cassette. “The idea behind the process of our 7″ is going back to the roots: old craftsmanship, nature, raw sound, and a fast recording session without much post-production,” Asher de Vries, Fluisteraars’ bassist, told me. But Gelderland isn’t simply 10 minutes of pure belligerence at the expense of Fluisteraars’ more thoughtful side, which comes through even when they’re wailing away. On “Zijsselt” when the song simply can’t explode anymore, there’s a somewhat sudden break and clear pivot — the latter half centers on a riff that’s more grunge than metal. Bold shifts and contrasts have been recurrent in Fluisteraars’ material, and on Gelderland, named for the Dutch province that is home base for the band, the lyrics similarly focus on contradiction. Says de Vries: “The three of us belong to the species that destroy, yet we want to preserve the province we live in.” [From Gelderland, out now via Eisenwald Tonschmiede.] –Wyatt Marshall
6. PSUDOKU – “KATASTROFALEjusteringer”
Subgenre: prog / grind
While Takafumi Matsubara rehabs (get well soon!) and a litany of supposedly active weirdos remain quiet, PSUDOKU’s Steinar has become one of our foremost grind nutters. “KATASTROFALEjusteringer,” one of two recent streams previewing the impending *ahem* release of 2037’s Deep Space Psudokument, is typical Steinar in that nothing he touches is typical. Continuing the theme of last year’s Planetarisk Sudoku — “…recorded next year in a parallel universe where grind didn’t develop from hardcore punk and thrash metal but from ’70s prog from the future, maaaaan” — “KATASTROFALEjusteringer” sounds like someone dousing a Superball in nitroglycerin. This is a riot of rhythms and styles. Blink and you’ll miss the surf rock, turbo prog explosions, musique concrète electronic doot-dooting, and so much more. But the amount of time and focus that went into shaping each strum is ultimately what inoculates PSUDOKU from the play-once-and-discard disease that plagues other gonzo blasters. Because for all this song’s rando sonic destruction, there’s a logic operating beneath it all; one plus one equals two, even if those ones felt like opposing magnets before. So even after the surprises wear off, “KATASTROFALEjusteringer” doesn’t tire. Instead, it still tirelessly threads the needle between the out-there and the well-composed in a Naked City way. Bonkers yet serious yet seriously bonkers. And you’re not sure how Steinar does it. Certainly he dives into the compositional weeds for long stretches to ensure listen #10 or #20 or #100 still delivers the same payload as that first spin. Then again, that would belie his prolific output. To the latter, consider: There’s a good chance Deep Space Psudokument will be his third album over the past three years to make our year-end list. That is a run, and one that will probably look more impressive in hindsight, especially since the half-life for Steinar’s works, so far, is long. He’s ahead of the game. Of course, other grinders may get here and make this seem rote. That happens to all grind (maybe someone is now playing In Advanced Haemorrhaging Conditions at a middle school dance or something); it happens to all art. For now, it’s great to be living in 2037. [From Deep Space Psudokument, out in 2037 via the band.] –Ian Chainey
5. Madder Mortem – “Blood On The Sand”
Location: Oslo, Norway
Subgenre: progressive metal
First, a little background: In 1999, Madder Morten released Mercury, a lightly folky, gothy doom album that was more dream than dirge. The follow-up, 2001’s All Flesh Is Grass, found a progressive flair; still slow-ish, still heavy, but the album cut through the fog. Hot on Grass’, uh, heels, the Norwegian outfit dropped Deadlands in 2002, an album that was undeniably the Madder Mortem of before, but reverberated with downtuned nü-grooves. Then, four years later, out came Desiderata. The doom of their salad days was mostly M.I.A., replaced by a proggy, modern metal popcraft; Deadlands but spit-shinned, maybe. So, if you’re new to Madder Mortem, it’s time to ask: Given everything you’ve been taught to intuit about metal life cycles, do you think Desiderata was an interesting, worthwhile listen? It sure was. Somehow, Desiderata was avant-weighty and weapons-grade catchy. It worked. But why it worked was hard to explain, hard to write about, especially if Madder Mortem’s music wasn’t audible during the explanation. Because, word-deep, Mortem might trigger Evanescence alarms or cause you to belch the “ugh” normally elicited by Therion’s corniest. Stock Mortem descriptors tend to run counter to the peer-reviewed good/bad dichotomy accepted by elitist metal dweebs (hi). So, if that’s your sole context, it’s hard not to default to “worst case.” Madder Mortem, though, are best case; the rare outlier. You just need to hear it to know. So, yeah, long-ass setup! Sorry. Let’s finally spit it out: Red In Tooth And Claw, Madder Mortem’s sixth full-length and first since 2009’s Eight Ways, continues upsetting expectations. Lead stream “Blood On The Sand” has moments that, in a vacuum, might make the trver than trve cringe. However, the song is so tightly constructed, so well-considered, you buy in. You feel like you’re in the hands of pros and, feeling safe, you give over to their judgment. Four particular hands: guitarists BP M. Kirkevaag (Frantic Bleep, Age Of Silence) and relative newcomer Richard Wikstrand. Their riffs are great, from the way a rhythm guitar seems to bob atop waves to the Fairport-Convention-discovering-Tuareg-music payoff that’s subtly foreshadowed throughout the track. But, as always, all ears are on singer Agnete Kirkevaag. Her voice keeps getting better. Always strong and powerful, always pliable, but each passing year seems to enrich her tone. Part of that is her dedication to giving every song a nuanced read. She puts in work, avoiding, as she has mentioned in interviews, limits. When Claw hits the streets, be sure to jam “Pitfalls”, a peach of a song that has a moving chorus that’s like a metallized Low. It’s hard to imagine another metal vocalist doing what she does, having that kind of feel and wringing so much juice out of lyrics that wouldn’t necessarily resonate on the page. Like singer, like band. [From Red In Tooth And Claw, out now via Dark Essence Records] –Ian Chainey
4. Helcaraxë – “World Of Nightmares”
Location: New Jersey
Subgenre: melodic death metal
Death metal is among both the nerdiest and the most Cro-Magnon styles of music on Earth, a dichotomy that Helcaraxë neatly capture. Let’s start with the nerdy: “Helcaraxë” is an obscure locale from J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Silmarillion, a worldbuilding companion to the The Lord Of The Rings, which puts it in the thematic company of about half of power metal and black metal band names. These guys pursue the fantasy thing substantially further than most of their fellows, though. The Last Battle, their fourth LP, deals with Robert Jordan’s longrunning Wheel Of Time franchise, which is less well known for good reason. It also opens with and periodically features the kind of MIDI orchestration you’d expect from a dated video game, or again, a European power metal album. Nerdy! But Helcaraxë are a death metal band, and a seriouly beefy one at that. Their galumphing grit, propulsive rock rhythms, and notably human-sounding bellowed vocals harken to the same scene that birthed the Scum album discussed above, as does the abundance of rich melodies that color just about every riff here. Like its excellent 2012 predecessor, Red Dragon, The Last Battle is set up in a suite format that works best as a continuous listen — an impressive compositional feat accomplished by just a handful of other death metal bands, notably including Helcaraxë’s clear antecedent Edge Of Sanity. But even more impressively, its individual pieces work great as standalone songs, including “World Of Nightmares”, a 150-second scorcher that showcases both Helcaraxë’s nimble melodic side and their might with the warhammer. But you should really listen to the entire thing to get a sense of how clever and versatile this band is; I feel like I’m kind of underselling them. The Last Battle was self-released at the very end of August, and we’re bending the column rules to include them for a reason. Along with the likes of Slugdge and Sarpanitum, Helcaraxë are one of the very few post-2000 melodic death metal bands that’s meaningfully expanding upon the style’s mid-’90s golden era — a period that produced some of the best metal albums ever. That’s worth getting excited about, even if you hated the Wheel Of Time books…which I wouldn’t blame you for. And Helcaraxë just landed a well-deserved deal to release The Last Battle physically, which is worth celebrating too. [From The Last Battle, out now via the band; vinyl and CD TBA via Promethean Burn and Dullest Records] –Doug Moore
3. Battle Dagorath – “Return To The Gates Of Dawn”
Subgenre: atmospheric black metal
“Return To The Gates Of Dawn” by Battle Dagorath is as epic as the song’s title (and the band’s name) would imply: a massive example of the sort of deeply atmospheric black metal that soundtracks only the most truly awesome events. Big-time fans of fantasy literature (or those who consult Metal Archives) will know that though Battle Dagorath’s members hail from opposite sides of the globe, their spirit lies in Tolkien’s Middle-earth. But of late they’ve turned their attention to the stars, where forces of destruction similar to those found in Mordor lurk. Huge ambient synths are the foreboding forces of doom, rasps come from the depths, and though the song generally proceeds like a maelstrom abusing a small exoplanet, a world-weary yet resolute guitar lead arrives to provide something resembling hope. This is one hell of a song — ambitious, catchy, intricate, menacing, and triumphant all in one gorgeous package. [From I — Dark Dragons Of The Cosmos, out now via Avantgarde Music and Eisenwald Tonschmiede.] –Wyatt Marshall
2. Martyrdöd – “Harmagedon”
Location: Gothenburg, Sweden
Subgenre: crust-punk/melodic death metal
I remember seeing Martyrdöd at Maryland Deathfest 2015 — this was my second time seeing them; I also caught them at the Acheron in Brooklyn in 2012 — and thinking: “This is everything I want in a band.” Can I quantify that? I mean, I can give it a shot. The Swedish quartet play a sort of melodic-death/d-beat/NWOBHM hybrid reminiscent of countrymen Disfear, but they go heavier on the sweeping, epic, humongous guitar solos. (FWIW, Disfear’s last LP, 2008’s Live The Storm, would be a contender for my 10 favorite albums of all time, so this is about the highest praise I can offer.) We had Martyrdöd’s 2012 LP, Paranoia, at #8 on our list of the year’s best metal albums. Their next one, 2014’s Elddop, came in at #12 on that year’s list. In both cases, those albums were ranked too low, but even so, their placement should reflect the band’s continued excellence. I wrote about Elddop around the time of its release, at which point I said:
I can’t imagine any generation of metal fan for whom Elddop would seem inappropriate — in many ways, it’s the very essence of metal. Or you could just call it essential.
Really, though, you could call it whatever the hell you like; as far as I’m concerned, Martyrdöd are 100% essential. Anyway, they have a new LP due next month, and I can’t wait. The album is called List, and Brooklyn Vegan just premiered the first single, “Harmagedon,” and the thing is a total fucking slaughterhouse. It rips from its first chord till its furious conclusion, but if you don’t get chills when they hit that breakdown at 1:45 — at which point the aforementioned “sweeping, epic, humongous guitar solos” kick in — then you and I just don’t hear music the same way. And, ya know, I’m really sorry for you. Martyrdöd were everything I wanted in a band last May, and as we head into the final months of 2016, this remains the case. Maybe even more so. “Harmagedon” is a destroyer. Get destroyed. [From List, out 11/25 via Southern Lord.] –Michael Nelson
1. Spiritus Mortis – “Holiday In The Cemetery”
Subgenre: traditional doom metal
It’s easy to take traditional doom for granted; it’s seemingly slow, relatively basic stuff your average caveperson could play blindfolded. Yet there’s a reason why it’s exceedingly rare to get classic albums in this style — namely, because it’s surprisingly easy to fuck up and so fucking hard to elevate beyond the mundane. The long-running Finnish band Spiritus Mortis — formed in 1987 as Finland’s very first doom band — are poised to return next month with their fourth full-length, The Year Is One, and all signs suggest this is one of those exceedingly rare classics, clocking in alongside modern gems like Crypt Sermon’s Out Of The Garden, the Gates Of Slumber’s The Wretch, Funeral Circle’s eponymous debut, and Candlemass’ King Of The Grey Islands. Why, pray tell, is this kind of rudimentary doom so fucking hard to do right? Let’s find out. The oldest and purest variant of metal, born from the slowest songs in the Black Sabbath catalog, trad doom is simplistic by definition and bound by rigid genre parameters. The exact rules vary depending who you ask, but you basically need four things: thick, heavy guitars (aka “heaviness”), forcibly suppressed tempos (“slowness”), proper singing (“pipes”), and that certain indescribable something that figuratively dims the lights and permeates the overall approach (“doominess”; see also “evil” tritones). Still sounds easy, yeah? Doom is actually sneakily difficult to play due to the unnaturally slow tempos, which place a huge burden on the drummer to hold the whole thing together, often requiring signaling techniques like cymbal hits or short fills to cue the rest of the band to come back in for a chord change. And there’s no room for error from anyone; everything is on display due to the skeletal nature of the songs. Factor in the relatively restrictive genre constraints and you get the added challenge of trying to write an interesting song that won’t bore us all to tears by rehashing Black Sabbath for the thousandth time. For lesser bands, the doom template is a perfect storm for producing terrible music. Spiritus Mortis, on the other hand, are abject traditionalists and consummate experts of the style, operating firmly in the same mode as Swedish doom-gods Candlemass (probably the best trad doom band of all time), and they nail everything they touch by ticking the four boxes just so. We’ve got sufficiently girthsome guitars (“heaviness”); stately, measured tempos (“slowness”); the glorious pipes of Sami Hynninen, also known as Albert Witchfinder of cult doom legends Reverend Bizarre (maybe the second best trad doom band ever); and that intangible “doominess” that comes by way of crushing production, gloomy leads, and a healthy dose of nonsensical gallows humor. From “Holiday In The Cemetery,” a slow-motion charmer about hating the living and loving the dead, we get this charming couplet: “INVITE ME TO MY FUNERAL; ALL DEATH IS PURE / LIFE IS DISEASE, AND SUICIDE…ITS ONLY CURE.” Indeed. [From The Year Is One, out 11/11 via Svart Records.] –Aaron Lariviere
But wait, there’s more!
Death Fetishist – “Voidtripper”
Location: Portland, OR
Subgenre: black metal
Death Fetishist’s full-length debut, Clandestine Sacrament, is an album for these times. Like, this very instant. Swirling with the dissonant tones that swim around Matron Thorn’s other blackened projects (Ævangelist, Benighted In Sodom, etc.), Sacrament is all unease and instability. This is Wagner-esque in the sense that nothing seems to resolve. The discomfort this creates is great, but it almost feels like our brains have become attuned to this kind of tumult, carved by so many doomsayers and hypernormalists to fit into the gears of the modern world’s unceasing chaos. In that way, listening to tracks like “Voidtripper” is almost like a They Live moment. Oh man, other people are getting this, too. Lots of people, actually. Clandestine Sacrament has quite the guest list (including Ser Dougles Of House Moore, thus necessitating pushing our coverage of this to the bonus section). Luckily, guests and duo (Thorn and G. Nefarious) alike are tuned into the same wavelength; one of those neat instances when guests might as well be members. So, the atmosphere and the symbiosis of the players set up a situation where the people who get this album will really get this album. Either put this album on or start eating that trash can. Even if you don’t experience that sort of catharsis, these songs make one hell of a racket. Squiggly guitars gnash and chatter like the teeth of cenobites, mangled keyboards could be sirens getting garroted, and samples of gale-force winds and downpours are always in the forecast. If you like loud, ear-piercing noises, Death Fetishist have made an album that is mixed and mastered for your pleasure. If you’re feeling frustrated and flummoxed by today’s world, Death Fetishist have made that album, too. [From Clandestine Sacrament, out now via Debemur Morti.] –Ian Chainey