From our viewpoint at the end of 2016, “War Pigs” — the ubiquitous leadoff track from Black Sabbath’s sophomore album Paranoid — looks like an inevitable piece of rock history. But like most cultural pivot points, “War Pigs” and its overt antiwar message are only inevitable in retrospect. Just the day before Paranoid came out on September 18, 1970, Black Sabbath’s self-titled debut had been famously dismissed by Lester Bangs in a scathing Rolling Stone review. Among the legendary critic’s various slams:
The whole album is a shuck — despite the murky songtitles and some inane lyrics that sound like Vanilla Fudge paying doggerel tribute to Aleister Crowley, the album has nothing to do with spiritualism, the occult, or anything much except stiff recitations of Cream clichés that sound like the musicians learned them out of a book, grinding on and on with dogged persistence.
Bangs was obviously wrong on the merits. Rock history nerds now recognize Black Sabbath’s release as the birth of heavy metal as a distinct genre, which makes it one of the most influential albums ever. (Bangs came around to the band’s charms in time to write a mostly positive review of Master Of Reality the next year.) But even contemporary Sabbath boosters were probably surprised by the band’s impossibly smooth pivot from juvenile Satanism to political criticism, right there in the opening lyric to Paranoid’s leadoff tune: “Generals gather in their masses/ Just like witches at black masses.” Other tracks on Paranoid doubled down on social critique — “Hand Of Doom” ties the Vietnam War to the heroin epidemic, and “Electric Funeral” powerfully evokes nuclear anxiety.
Black Sabbath were an inescapably weird and goofy messenger for such serious themes. Bangs may have been wrong about the band’s broad appeal, but he was right that there was something fundamentally childlike (or childish, depending on your perspective) about them. Paranoid’s grittier songs share space with nonsensical fantasies — the garbled superhero/villain origin story of “Iron Man” and the hippy-dippy space vacation of “Planet Caravan.” That famous Geezer Butler lyric to “War Pigs” rhymes “masses” with “masses,” for fuck’s sake. But Sabbath went for it anyway, and ended up crafting some of the most enduring popular music ever recorded.
I bring all this up because it’s the origin point for one of metal’s fundamental tensions. On one hand, metal is a pop music offshoot, originally intended for consumption by teenagers, rooted in supernatural romanticism, reliant on shock tactics, and generally loaded with signs that it ought not be taken too seriously. But on the other hand, metal wants to be “heavy,” and not just sonically — it has always aspired to tackle adult themes in a transgressive, politicized manner. It’s no coincidence that Metallica’s best albums paired meditations on injustice with songs about Cthulhu; it’s no accident that some of the world’s more repressive governments consider even thematically bland metal a form of subversion.
We focus on underground metal in this column, with a specific emphasis on death metal, black metal, grindcore, and doom. These styles privilege subversiveness above all else. Immune to the commercial and social restrictions associated with mainstream success, extreme metal bands are free to describe the world as it truly is, challenge aesthetic conventions, mock those in power, look hard at suppressed ideas, and generally explore the dark underbelly of human life in frank terms.
Or that’s the theory, anyway. In practice, most contemporary metal bands focus on playing their instruments well and avoid communicating anything at all.
The dark, frequently supernatural themes popularized during extreme metal’s late ’80s / early ’90s nascence — Satanism, the occult, serial killers, Lovecraft, fictionalized war, pre-Christian mythology, blustering nihilism, and so on — often avoided explicit politics, but they gleefully violated taboos. In fact, many of them were chosen specifically because they flew in the face of the day’s more conservative social order. But these themes have lost whatever transgressive power they once had in the decades since. Endless repetition has hardened them into meaningless shibboleths, serving mostly to identify the speaker’s musical influences while removing the need to actually, y’know, say anything. They’re what you default to if you want to blend in.
It’s tough for metal artists to get outside of this box with their hides intact. Frank discussion of personal vulnerability is prima facie unacceptable in metal, and editorializing doesn’t fare much better. Big swathes of the community dismiss discussion of the real world and what’s happening in it as “pretentious,” or laugh it off as a form of empty virtue-signaling. (Which isn’t always wrong, judging by the average grind band’s political efficacy.) Musicians and fans deploy slogans like “keep politics out of metal” and “just listen to riffs, man” without the slightest sense of irony, congratulating themselves on their wokeness even as they disengage from corporeal history.
As a result, a large proportion of underground metal bands have essentially neutered themselves, resolving the tension between silliness and social relevance by dropping the latter entirely. By adorning their music with umpteenth-generation boilerplate evil, they validate the criticism that metal is sonically compelling but intellectually inert, that its lyrics are trivial wastes of time. This approach treats metal as pure entertainment — an intense and beautiful distraction from reality, but a distraction nonetheless. Just listen to riffs, man!
In the past, I’ve found extreme metal’s thematic inertia merely annoying, as it makes for a lot of redundant lyrics and boring album covers. It’s inevitable to a degree, after all; memetic repetition is the engine of any subculture. But lately, it strikes me as more sinister. There’s nothing wrong with escapism, up to a point. Reality bites, and everyone needs to take a break from it sometimes. But one of the core notions behind metal in general, and extreme metal specifically, is that it’s confrontational. It’s supposed to dwell on ugly facets of the human experience. And in this context, privileging nostalgia with scary window dressing over genuine engagement with such matters denies by implication that anything is really wrong, that there’s anything more worthy of discussion than Satan or Vikings or whatever.
Metal has a way of dominating the daily lives of its fans, which raises the stakes. There’s no practical difference between “escaping” constantly and living in a fantasy world. At this particular historical moment, a moment characterized in no small part by disinformation and weaponized distraction, ignoring what’s going on around you in favor of entertaining reverie isn’t just irresponsible. It’s dangerous. And it’s especially dangerous if your chosen form of escape has long flirted with and provided cover for bald-faced fascism.
To be clear, I don’t expect the underground metal community to magically abandon its reliance on stock imagery and convert itself into some sort of political bloc, and I’m not arguing that all metal bands should retool as protest music. Such demands are unrealistic and they produce bad results. There are ways for bands to address social realities without resorting to didactic politicking. And ultimately, goofy yarns are still a big part of metal’s innate character. You’re gonna see bands that sing about dragons and black masses and such in this column for as long as it exists, because a lot of metal bands that traffic in such tedium make compelling albums anyway. In the end, riffs really do come first.
But escapism and nostalgia are not virtues, especially within a subculture that prides itself on staring down hard truths. The very best metal engages with and challenges the world, instead of sequestering itself in a museum of stale bogeymen. It feels absurd to have to argue that art which tries to say something, anything, about the circumstances that produced it tends to outperform art which doesn’t, but I suspect I’ll get substantial pushback for saying as much.
Metal may have a small audience, but it also has a uniquely powerful vocabulary for addressing the horrors that humanity will face in the coming years — for criticizing injustice, cathartizing pain, and eulogizing loss. Those might sound like tall orders for a style with so much camp in its DNA, but they seem reasonable enough to me, true believer that I am. A handful of working-class kids from Birmingham already pulled it off 45 years ago, after all. And if metal can’t speak meaningfully to dark turns in history despite all its loud noises and apocalyptic imagery, then I fail to see the point of it.
If nothing else, metal’s escapists will learn soon enough that you can only escape for so long. We aren’t living in “Planet Caravan” or “Iron Man.” We’re living in “War Pigs.” And scary though that conclusion may be, it’s a better song anyway. Oh lord, yeah! –Doug Moore
15. In Flames – “The End”
Location: Gothenburg, Sweden
Subgenre: melodic death metal / groove metal
These days, it’s almost impossible to imagine that In Flames were ever considered peers of At The Gates, both bands at the head of the post-Entombed Gothenburg melodic death-metal class of the early ’90s. Like, you know how you sometimes remember that the goony goofball from Foo Fighters was once a crucial component of Nirvana? It’s kinda like that. Of course, In Flames were never actually as good as At The Gates, but still, when they were good, they were pretty goddamn good. In Flames look worse in retrospect, too, because while At The Gates took a nearly two-decade-long hiatus after the release of their godlike 1995 masterpiece, Slaughter Of The Soul, In Flames never took a break. And over time, they got so bad. I mean, really … so bad. My own favorite In Flames LP is an unconventional one: 2000’s Clayman, where the band first incorporated serious elements of groove and power metal, arguably the point at which their decline began in earnest. But man, that album goes hard, and it really doesn’t sound like anything else in the world. I ride for Clayman. I still spin that record on the regular. After that, things went sideways for In Flames, and by the time of their last release, Siren’s Call, it was a fucking shitshow. So while it may be faint praise to pronounce the band’s brand-new Battles their best LP in a long time, it’s still a statement of fact. I like it, I think, because at points it reminds me of Clayman: It’s catchy and heavy and doesn’t seem to draw any lines between its bounty of disparate sounds. If you wanted to be complimentary, you might compare it to Gojira’s more accessible material, or Night Is The New Day-era Katatonia. If you wanted to be provocative, you might compare it to Babymetal. If you wanted to throw shade, you might compare it to Linkin Park or any anonymous Victory Records mallcore band that “scene” kids listened to in the mid-aughts. All of the above would be accurate. “The End” has some massive riffs and a cheeseball chorus with cheerleader vocals, but I’d be lying if I told you I hadn’t listened to it hundreds of times since its release. Even the most contrarian metal-poptimist will call for my cred card for admitting this, but first off: They can save their breath; I never had one. And second: They’re missing out. [From Battles, out now via Nuclear Blast] –Michael Nelson
14. OvO – “Zombie Stomp”
Subgenre: noise rock / doom metal
Italy’s OvO are a band who’ve built their career on sheer persistence, rather than any pre-existing constituency. They play music — rhythmic noise, really — that simmers with a flat-affect malice, owing equal debts to extreme metal, noise rock, industrial music, and dark electronica. It’s a tough pill to swallow, but a deeply satisfying one if you can get it down. In spite of the high barriers to entry, OvO have convinced quite a few to take this dive over the course of their 16-year, 8-album run. Their ninth effort, Creatura, arrives at an opportune moment. Lurching metal/noise collages topped with wordless shrieking will never be a major commercial force, but the unhinged approach OvO employs is enjoying some deserved public interest; fellow travelers like Author & Punisher, Prurient, the Body, and Gnaw are enjoying days in the scabby, scabby sun. Creatura demonstrates that its creators can run with this nauseating sound as well as anybody. Like previous advance track “Satanam”, “Zombie Stomp” pretty much does what it says on the tin. Quicker and more insistent than Ovo’s typical pessimistic lurch, the tune drives forward with a feverish energy, and its static washes hide a melodic heart that calls ’80s slasher scores to mind. [From Creatura, out 12/9 via Dio Drone.] –Doug Moore
13. Antaeus – “Flesh Ritual”
Subgenre: black metal
Sometimes you just want to drown out life. When the figurative garbage starts to pile outside your window. When the lies swarm like flies and stupidity is a badge of honor. When the tenor of the times shifts overnight and hope turns to dawning horror. I like to think of November 2016 as that scene from Suspiria where the fleeing girl momentarily thinks she’s clever, escaping through a high window into a dimly lit room, only to fall into a pit of razor wire: we’re all that girl, whether we realize it or not, flailing, cursing, torn to bloody ribbons and caught fast, because life is shit and getting worse, and no one gets out alive. Hey-ho, let’s go. When life hands you lemons, stick a drill bit in your ear and bear down. Antaeus offers pain and little else, which is all I really want right now. Riffs gnash and grind like broken teeth over mindless blasting, and your news feed melts right away. Eager listeners hoping for riffs, melody, and other simpering concessions to listenability should look elsewhere. Do you crave thoughtful songwriting and meaty production? Go fistfuck a garbage disposal. This is atonal, blasting black metal in the vein of Marduk’s untouchable Panzer Division Marduk, which is to say violence wins over subtlety, and no one stops to ask questions. There’s no genius on display here, just ferocious cheese-grater guitars, epileptic trashcan drums, and bottomless aggression suitable for meaningless times. [From Condemnation, out now via Norma Evangelium Diaboli.] –Aaron Lariviere
12. Goes Cube – “Anthologies”
Location: Brooklyn, NY
Goes Cube came up in a Brooklyn metal scene that was spawning a crazy amount of iconoclastic bands: Wetnurse, Krallice, Kayo Dot, Tombs, Vaura … None of these bands really sounded like any of the others, but they all played some variation of a hybrid style you might call proggy atmospheric post-black avant-hardcore. (No?) Some of those bands are still active, some have splintered into other, even weirder bands, but that scene feels a whole lot different today than it did at the turn of the decade. Goes Cube released their debut LP, Another Day Has Passed, in 2009, and it’s a beast. I’ve listened to “Goes Cube Song 30” probably a thousand times in my life, and the thing still crushes. Sure, it sounds more like Quicksand than it does Bathory or whatever, but you know what? Quicksand fuckin’ ruled. Goes Cube kinda disappeared after their 2011 sophomore LP, In Tides And Drifts, only to re-emerge earlier this year with two notable updates: 1) they had a new album on the way, and 2) they were breaking up. So: good news and bad news. As far as the good news is concerned, the band’s swan song is unsurprisingly excellent. Goes Cube take the quiet-loud approach to what may be its terminus, shifting immediately from placid serenity to Napalm Death-degree heaviness, and the calming presence of the former only amplifies the steamroller intensity of the latter. As far as the bad news is concerned: In a world where Pallbearer and Khemmis topped Decibel’s last two year-end lists, it’s kind of a surprise that the stylistically not-dissimilar Goes Cube haven’t been able to get more burn, but they’re going out on a high, and no matter how you look at it, during their time on this Earth, they burned pretty goddamn hot. [From Shadows Swallowed the Flood, out now via Greenway.] –Michael Nelson
11. Set And Setting – “Saudade”
Location: St. Petersburg, Florida
Set And Setting plays lush post-rock with an acerbic metal edge, and for those who have always found the growls, howls and yells of metal a barrier to entry, you’re in luck — Set And Setting is exclusively instrumental. “Saudade,” here, is a melancholic beauty suspended in the clouds with a birds-eye-view of epic terrain passing by below. But it’s not all just buoyant and timeless energy, and there are passages of jarring, skittish prog turmoil that pull things down to a gritty earthbound level. The Florida five-piece employs a double-drummer arrangement that provides extra pummeling on the low-end in times like these, and it’s the kind of thing you can imagine just booming in a live setting. On record, it can add a militaristic edge at any volume. What will really stick, though, are those soul-searing leads and shimmering, bending guitars that convey feelings of wonder and introspection. [From Reflectionless, out 1/27 via Bandcamp.] –Wyatt Marshall
10. Nashgul – “Guerra Drone”
Location: A Coruña, Galicia, Spain
Spain’s Nashgul harvests the good stuff from three sorta-sonically-related-but-really-pretty-different styles. The quartet blasts in the grind tradition, breaks down like crust, and has a goregrind-y affinity for B-flick sci-fi and horror. These interests produce tracks sounding like World Burns To Death’s tour van crashing into a tanker carrying Trioxin. But what’s more important is the stuff that isn’t there. By emphasizing the choicest cuts, Nashgul avoids a lot of the pitfalls of those aforementioned styles: the cringe-inducing kitsch and round sound of gore is swapped for grind’s sharpness; grind’s short-term memory problem is cured by crust and gore’s emphasis on emphatic riffs; and crust’s samey top speed gets the ol’ turbo blast boost. In other
words, er, sounds, “Guerra Drone.” Overall, Cárvava, Nashgul’s second full-length, is a nice update on what the band was doing on its fun LP debut, El Dia Después Al Fin De La Humanidad. The addition of vocalist Alex in 2013 has helped add much needed oomph to the onslaught that the rest of the band has been tightening on a torrent of splits over the past 15 years. Your reward for their hard work is 30 easy, entertaining minutes that place Nashgul in a Spanish grind tier populated by the likes of Machetazo, Haemorrhage, and Looking For An Answer. Not a bad place to be. [From Cárcava, out 11/1 via Selfmadegod.] –Ian Chainey
9. Laster – “Ons Vrije Fatum”
Location: Utrecht, Netherlands
Subgenre: black metal
“Ons Vrije Fatum,” the title track from Laster’s second full-length, has been tagged “obscure dance music.” If that scares you off, it almost feels like that’s the point. Because, although black metal in the Ulverian-breadth sense, this Dutch trio does things that will probably piss off ultra-trve hardliners. So, here’s a crack at the tag’s logic: maybe “obscure dance music” is a kind of like a firewall, stopping those who get riled and rattled by the unconventional from even listening. Of course, joke is on those who see the style and flee. Parts of Ons are pretty black metal. Here and there sections recall Cult Of Fire (spokels sitting in the eye of reverb swirls), Dornenreich (brainy, yet a for-the-people immediacy), and Enslaved (a melodic balance hearkening back to their vibrant best). But, on the other hand, Ons isn’t very black metal. There are punky buildups, Frida samples, electronic burbles, and, yep, danceable 4/4 sections. Plus … well … Laster favors a rhythmic freedom and emotional intensity that goes beyond numb disaffection. One that older people might interpret as, deep breath, screamo-esque. Okay, now you are scared. Now the band and label are pissed. But … . If you cut your teeth with your Heroins and Honeywells, your Pg.99s and Portraits Of Pasts, your any of these, you might be amused by how a segment of modern black metal has been switched to a similar track. And yeah, this interest runs both ways. Back when Circle Takes The Square dropped its LP debut, you could’ve seen for miles if you were looking in the right direction. And yeah, it’s possible Laster found their frantic fight against ennui independently. Those who are young and deeply embedded in politics, philosophy, art, and themselves are probably drawn to a near-universal type of ear-splitting chaos. That’s an altogether more likely explanation than, say, a practice room shelf stacked with Envy records. In turn, consider the offending skramz comparison less about calling a spade a spade, and more about emphasizing what Laster does that other blackened acts of its ilk do not: they have a familiarly killer rhythm section. As all three members are responsible for “all instruments” and “vocals” according to their Encyclopaedia Metallum page, it’s hard to know who deserves the credit for the jazzy fills, active basslines, and energic rhythms. That said, it’s just important that it’s there. Instead of the stationary wump-thump of DSBM or the repetitive snare skitter of second-wave, Laster’s rhythms live. Like the band’s sense of experimentalism, the rhythms are all over the place, favoring many sizes and shapes over one. That allegiance to none is bracing, but realize that it’s just one thing; a tiny facet of a bigger whole. There’s just a lot of stuff on Ons, like the stellar “Binnenstebuiten,” and it would be too bad if any one of them scared you off. [From Ons Vrije Fatum, out 1/9 via Dunkelheit Productions.] –Ian Chainey
8. Cultes Des Ghoules – “Mischief! Mischief! The Devilry Is At Toil… (Scene II)”
Subgenre: black metal
Step right up, ye heathen devils: today we test your mettle (metal?). Do you have the mental and physical fortitude to stomach THREE LPs WORTH (!!!) of witchy, weird, absurdly-theatrical black metal? No? Then begone, false. Cultes Des Ghoules care not for feeble-hearted black metal fans, clearly, or they wouldn’t have stretched 6 songs to their absolute breaking point, each ranging from 11 to 28 minutes, for a backbreaking total of 1 hour and 37 minutes (!!!). To keep things interesting — or weird, at least — the band supplements the ritualistic riff repetition with pounding floor toms and crashing gongs, organ segues ripped from a low-rent Phantom Of The Opera, playful Satanic chants, and more maniacal laughter than a convention celebrating the fine art of villainy. You’re probably asking yourself: “why isn’t this terrible, and why are you writing about it, and why do I kind of want to hear it?” In reply, I offer a quote from my 2013 year-end writeup for the band’s comparatively restrained, single-disc album, Henbane: “What might be bog-standard embryonic black metal in the hands of a lesser bunch of buffoons instead straddles the fine line between kvlt and camp as well as anyone. The music, as sloppy as it is, conjures an actual atmosphere of menace. Spooky, inchoate riffs gather power and swirl into something surprisingly intense … until [lead singer] “Mark Of The Devil” creeps in and cackles like a maniac, dragging us back to the realm of the absurd. Henbane makes as little sense as most low-budget horror movies — but it succeeds for the same exact reason.” Sounds about right. You can experience the full album in all its absurd glory here. [From Coven, Or Evil Ways Instead Of Love, out 2/17/2017 via Hells Headbangers.] –Aaron Lariviere
7. Jassa – “Crescent Moon Over Dark Water”
Location: Vyritsa, Russia
Subgenre: atmospheric black metal
Jassa’s Lights In The Howling Wilderness is one of the most awesome and unusual black metal albums to come out this year. On the one hand, it’s about 60 percent pure driving riffage bolstered by absolutely booming, cavernous vocals. Listen to the opening swing of “Crescent Moon Over Dark Water” — its all-pistons-firing, side-to-side groove is the kind of stuff fans of metal live for. But on the other hand, alongside the de rigueur (and killer) guitars and drums that anchor the album, the most prominent instrument on Lights In The Howling Wilderness is a mouth harp that twangs and twongs away on every single song. It’s a sound that out of context would make most of us think of banjos, washboards, and riverboats, but in the hands of Jassa it’s like a portal to another dimension. You’ll hear it later on this song during a twisted breakdown of sorts. Throat singing, chanting and the occasional spastic guitar and bass outburst likewise evoke strange mysticism, darkness, and, ultimately, feelings of unease. It’s a wholly unique and compelling exploration of what Jassa’s Vladimir, one-half of the band, calls “‘dark paganism’ — the cults of Gods and Chthonic forces [of which] little is known about, even though we have unequivocal evidence of their existence in both archeology and ethnography.” He tells me the instrumentation reflects Slavic shamanistic tradition. Some may recognize Jassa’s Vladimir as the man behind Sivyj Yar, one of Russia’s best atmospheric black metal bands that often lyrically focuses on the plight of agrarian peasants, vividly bringing to life their toil and sorrow with heart-achingly beautiful music. Though Jassa mines a different history, it is no less effective in creating a vision in the mind’s eye — albeit one that is full of shadows and blurred around the edges. [From Lights In The Howling Wilderness, out now via Fallen Empire Records.] –Wyatt Marshall
6. Cowards – “Still (Paris Most Nothing)”
Location: Paris, France
Subgenre: metallic hardcore
If you held a gun to my head and forced me to name the ’00s-era band I’d pay the most to reform, I’d go with the Canadian metallic hardcore band Cursed. (They wouldn’t bite, though.) Stitching together a tar-black presentation, grindcore-level intensity, and melancholy melodicism that gestured towards black metal without ever really touching it, Cursed released three of the best post-2000 records in any style of music. I mention them because Cowards essentially bear their sonic mantle now, which means I love them. It’s not a perfect parallel — Cowards are more overtly metallic than Cursed, and they swap out the latter’s apocalyptic politics for a vulgar sense of humor. (“Still (Paris Most Nothing)” features vocalist Julien Henri singing about tattooing their label’s name on his junk, to give you an idea of the level of discourse here.) But I mean the comparison as a sincere compliment, and Cowards are an incredibly satisfying listen — as tersely efficient and direct as heavy music can get, with a marvelous riffing sensibility that’s as despondent as it is catchy. This tune’s sludged-out back half offers a grisly sort of loveliness that you don’t find often, even in styles that specialize in it. Cowards make beautiful music for ugly times, laughing hysterically as we all plunge into the void. [From Still, out now via Throatruiner.] –Doug Moore
5. Bethlehem – “Die Dunkelheit Darbt”
Location: Grevenbroich, Germany
Subgenre: experimental black metal / gothic doom
Black metal is full of singular weirdo bands, and few of them are quite as singular or weird as Germany’s Bethlehem. Formed in 1991, Bethlehem has progressed through a host of stylistic and personnel transformations in the decades since. Literal dozens of members have passed through the band’s ranks. Despite their chameleonic tendencies, this oddball unit’s chaotic mix of black metal, doom, goth rock aesthetics, and histrionic vocals — best exemplified on their 1994 classic Dark Metal — has resonated hard with a certain crowd, inspiring such notables as Lifelover, Silencer, and Shining. Bethlehem’s lodestar is bassist Jürgen Bartsch, whose puckish sense of humor constitutes the band’s other constant feature. (Consider, for example, his absurd press statement upon Bethlehem’s breakup last year, which obviously didn’t stick.) In classic form, Bartsch frames “Die Dunkelheit Darbt,” the second single from Bethlehem’s self-titled eighth LP, in comedic terms: “Presently, the divide from the old is starving out, if not already dead. With that, this song is yet another farewell to the almost comical mishmash of the same old tricks and habits. Originally written by Karzov, his 8-string ‘Kraken,’ and a full bottle of whiskey, as just an intentionally juvenile reject, ‘Die Dunkelheit Darbt’ has progressed into a serious studio composition that flirts with a myriad of crossover elements this band is often despised for.” But despite the snark, this tune is no joke. Built around a rollicking rock refrain but never sitting still for more than a few seconds, “Die Dunkelheit Darbt” provides a good sense of both Bethlehem’s remarkable versatility and just how bone-smashingly heavy they can get. [From Bethlehem, out 12/2 via Prophecy Productions.] –Doug Moore
4. MURG – “Mästarens Resa I Mörkret”
Location: Bergslagen, Sweden
Subgenre: black metal
The black metal duo MURG emerged out of thin air last year, presumably in some icicled and snow-blanketed Swedish forest, announcing themselves with the remarkably visceral yet sharp album Varg & Björn. It presented a fully formed vision of frigid wrath that clearly hearkened back to the ’90s in style, and it was loaded with swaggering atmospheric anthems from start to finish. Over the course of the album, which didn’t contain a single dud, MURG both blasted maniacally and slowed things down to an infectious mid-tempo swing. It was the kind of album that would be tough for any band to follow up on a sophomore album or, really, at any point down the line. I’ve heard MURG’s new album Gudatall, and, somehow, lightning’s struck twice. We all have something to look forward to in December when it is unleashed. For now, here is “Mästarens Resa I Mörkret,” a song that confidently, menacingly, and slowly builds. The gravel-pitch-perfect vocals, a highlight on Varg & Björn, are back with a vengeance, barking with contempt as if the singer surveyed the crowd and saw nothing worthwhile. There isn’t some big violent or revelatory crescendo that comes at the end. Rather, we are let off on a plateau of blissful resignation, surrounded by walls of guitars trilling away in counterpoint. Just wait until you hear what comes next. [From Gudatall, out 12/16 via Nordvis.] –Wyatt Marshall
3. Worm Ouroboros – “(Was It) The Cruelest Thing”
Location: Oakland, CA
Subgenre: ethereal doom
This has been a year of extremes, without question, and I don’t mean musically. We don’t need to get into it here, but if you, like me, have found yourself vacillating between uncontrollable anger (see Antaeus above) and just bottomed-out, gutter-scraping depression, I can say with confidence I’ve found the perfect soundtrack for the latter. Worm Ouroboros sounds bizarre on paper and perfect on tape: self-described as “ethereal doom,” which is as good a tag as any, the Oakland trio pulls from a slew of disparate, dispirited genres to create something uniquely sad on its third album, What Graceless Dawn. What we get is a fabulous, formless piece of mournful mood music to drag us through the low times; and yet, for all that outward misery, it’s surprisingly comforting. It’s a deeply strange record — full of otherworldly atmosphere, ethereal/funereal vocals, distant echoes in the mist and all that — but also a deeply human one, grounded in three incredibly expressive performances. Lorraine Rath’s bass guitar darts and weaves, wandering up and down the fretboard, gently nudging the songs forward through the quiet bits and providing the heft when things occasionally get heavy, straddling the line between a restrained death-rock throb and gently exploratory prog. Meanwhile, Jessica Way’s guitar is spindly, diaphanous, and stark in its simplicity. She treats her instrument like a paintbrush rather than a hammer, matching the spacious gloom of early Red House Painters with the spectral echo of Faith-era Cure. Aesop Dekker — best known for his work with Agalloch and Ludicra — turns in what might be the best performance of his drumming career, alternating between funeral-doom restraint and chamber-jazz finesse, with quietly energetic cymbal work that transforms the album into something much deeper, breathing life into otherwise bleak proceedings. I could go on (and on and on), but just listen — preferably in full — for yourselves. [From What Graceless Dawn, out 12/2 via Profound Lore] –Aaron Lariviere
2. Furia – “Za Ćmą, W Dym”
Location: Katowice, Poland
Subgenre: black metal
“Za Ćmą, W Dym,” the opener on Furia’s fifth album Księżyc Milczy Luty, is uncommonly measured. It unspools in its own unhurried, and often quiet, way. So, yeah, this goes against the tenor of the times and most black metal in general, which, if you need your music to be a mirror or check expected boxes, would make Księżyc seem like a tough sell; a square peg instead of what you think you want or need. But what Furia does is as equally intoxicating as a depresso bleakster or bonkers blaster because its members exhibit a rare, but undeniable, control over their music. Think classic Neurosis or Corrupted, bands that, at their best, bend sound and time to their will. Because of that vibe, Furia’s untrammeled confidence, you bestow upon Księżyc a belief that things will, no matter how tangential in the moment, pay off. To put it more simply, you end up letting it take the lead. Norms, conventions, and the emotional influence of outside factors fade until it’s just you and Księżyc, which is kind of Zen or kind of a big-ass relief depending on how you’re holding on these days. It’s one of those albums that you attune to instead of fitting it into your day-to-day. That said, for Księżyc to work, especially when it comes to one of the year’s best songs in “Grzej,” you have to start with “Za Ćmą, W Dym,” the track that lays the groundwork and helps you achieve fluency. “Za”‘s first three-and-a-half instrumental minutes are all about Furia building upon blocks that are both ruminative and furious. At points, post-rock-quiet sections are streaked with reverbed guitars. At others, the band churns earth with lumbering riffs. Once Nihil enters, like he’s telling you a story in the back of Nick Cave’s bar, you’ve already been on a journey. That said, there’s still a lot more that Furia wants to show you. [From Księżyc Milczy Luty, out now via Pagan Records] –Ian Chainey
1. Kreator – “Gods Of Violence”
Location: Essen, Germany
Subgenre: thrash metal
The morning of The Day After demanded music — disgusted, furious, destructive, therapeutic music — but no one had prepared a playlist appropriate for that particular outcome. No one was prepared, period — not even the truth-averse narcissist who’d accepted his opponent’s concession call and claimed victory for himself only hours earlier. As Jacobin’s Dan O’Sullivan wrote in his scathing post-election polemic:
Trump didn’t think he was going to win — not him, not his cracked, wincing campaign manager, not the sozzled Nazi werewolf chairing his presidential bid, not the jackal pack advising him, not the rival camp, not the media … This plainly wasn’t supposed to happen. Trump, pea-brained gurnard that he is, only swims downstream; he’s never supposed to reach the spawning ground.
My point here is: If even the craven hucksters behind the con were caught unawares, how could any of us regular folk be expected to have a soundtrack cued up for that national disaster? What the hell is one supposed to listen to while watching the republic collapse?
When it comes to angry, end-times music, I draw from a deeper well than most, but on that morning, many of my old standbys were ineffectual, even nauseating. I wasn’t up for any arch grotesquerie (sorry, Autopsy) or adolescent occultism (honestly what the fuck are you even talking about, Morbid Angel?). But what really turned my stomach was the prospect of spending a single second with repugnant real-life dummies like Obituary (bassist Terry Butler: “I understand everyone’s concerns about Trump, you know…building a wall. But hey, what’s wrong with protecting your borders?”) or Megadeth (abject dickhead Dave Mustaine: “[Obama] is trying to pass a gun ban. So he’s staging all of these murders — like the Fast & Furious thing down at the border, and Aurora, Colorado, all the people that were killed there”). It’ll be a good long time before I put another fraction of a penny into those fools’ pockets. I’m usually pretty good at separating art from artist (as a metal fan, I kinda have to be good at this), but right now, I’m holding everyone accountable for everything. You want a wall, you fucking dopes? You got one. You’re not welcome on this side anymore.
So ANYWAY, with most of the earth around me scorched to a fine gray ash, the first piece of music I listened to on the morning of The Day After was Kreator’s “People Of The Lie.” The song came out in 1990 — it was included on the German thrash band’s fifth full-length LP, Coma Of Souls — but the lyrics resonate more today than they did a quarter-century ago. It’s a disdainful repudiation of nationalism and separatism that could apply to just about any neo-fascist “leader,” but boy do they apply to Donald Trump. Here’s a sample:
You cannot hide behind those empty claims
Your racist pride is nothing but a game
And you will lose, for right is on the side
Of those who choose to fight for humankind.
It’s such a goddamn awesome song. Listen to it.
Kreator have been around since 1985, but their music wasn’t always political in nature. Their first three LPs — ’85’s Endless Pain, ’86’s Pleasure To Kill, and ’87’s Terrible Certainty; all early thrash classics — dealt in generic horror tropes. (“Ripping Corpse” is not an allegory, just an awesome track.) It wasn’t till Kreator’s fourth LP, ’89’s masterful Extreme Aggression, that the band’s frontman, Mille Petrozza, found his lyrical focus. From that point forward — right up to this very moment — the vast majority of Kreator’s songs have cried out against tyranny, against corruption, against waste and greed and bigotry…against injustice. They’ve rallied around themes of human rights, civil rights, environmentalism, progressivism, and hope.
“People Of The Lie” may be the very best example of this, but you could pick through Kreator’s vast catalog and dust off plenty of individual old songs that would immediately serve as a cudgel and a cry against our current president-elect’s policies and practices. “Fatal Energy” might be used as a rebuttal to Trump’s dangerous enthusiasm for fossil fuels. “Catholic Despot” could be a direct challenge to Trump’s retrograde views on abortion. “Reconquering The Throne” urges a resistance to the type of unchecked propaganda Trump has used to undermine the media. “State Oppression” came out 21 years ago, but its lyrics almost seem to predict Black Lives Matter (“They keep filling us, they keep suffocating us/ They’re shooting, torturing, killing us”), and they also warn of future abuses of power that could emerge under Trump’s law-and-order regime. And “When The Sun Burns Red” came out a full 27 years ago, but its understanding of climate change is much more advanced than Trump’s absolute and official dismissal of the subject just last week. Then there are the songs of rebellion — “Radical Resistance,” “United In Hate,” “Progressive Proletarians” (would any other metal band write a song called “Progressive Proletarians”?) — that call for organization, action, and insurgence. Kreator are three decades in the game, but they’ve grown more idealistic and more insistent as they’ve gotten older; they’re as close to a Bernie Sanders figure as exists in all of metal. Check these lyrics from “Civilisation Collapse,” off the band’s most recent LP, 2012’s Phantom Antichrist (which is, incidentally, their best album since Coma Of Souls):
Can’t you see our people have got no choice but to fight them back?
Can’t you see the change of consciousness demands a total attack?
Now listen to that one, too, because it’s incredible.
It’s been four years since Phantom Antichrist — an apt lacuna, considering the subject at hand — but we need Kreator back right fucking now, and as it happens, they have chosen this very moment to return. Ten days after our electoral catastrophe, Kreator re-emerged with the first single (and title track) off their 2017 LP, Gods Of Violence. In terms of songcraft and sound quality, Kreator have rarely been better. They’ve fully blended the fleet thrash assault of their early years with the Gothenburg-school melodic death-metal style they helped to inspire. It sounds amazing. “Gods Of Violence” is a blazing, sledgehammer-swinging, unapologetic, anti-authoritarian anthem. The song almost certainly cannot be explicitly about the American president-elect — it was recorded months ago, for starters — but it doesn’t have to be. It could apply to any cynical, fear-mongering, egomaniacal, sociopathic robber-baron who has ever risen to power. But you don’t have to squint too hard to see Trump in these lyrics about the “forces of separatists” and the “rise of usurpers.” And then there’s this one:
Malicious titans, and the fear their words can breed…
But “Gods Of Violence” isn’t trying to scold or scare anyone — it wants to start a fucking revolution. “These battles can be won,” sings Petrozza in the skyscraper-sized chorus. Note, though, he’s not shying away from the fact that these are battles, and there will be blood: The song’s chorus is built around a gang-chant vocal repeating the promise, “We shall kill.”
Now, look, that’s either hyperbole or metaphor — obviously no one expects (or wants) a classic-era German metal band and/or a contemporary American resistance movement to literally “kill” anybody else. Even Bernie himself will tell you that. For me, though, Petrozza’s ecstatic rage brings to mind another passage from O’Sullivan’s Jacobin essay:
It is time to confront and defeat Trump and those like him, not pay him soft homage. No more ceding the ground of what’s important to these snakes; we can’t anyway, our very lives depend upon it.
This is really happening. Now. You should be fired up, alert, and ready to fight. You should be fighting already. If you need music — righteous, outraged, world-beating, redemptive music — the playlist starts here. And if you lose track of the lyrics, don’t worry. You’ll find their incendiary message in the guitars alone, when that Maiden-esque dual-axe lead jumps out and takes command, right after Petrozza screams, “Liberty!” [From Gods Of Violence, out 1/27 via Nuclear Blast.] –Michael Nelson