The Black Market

The Black Market: The Month In Metal – March 2017

Hey, this is Ian. Doug is in the studio this month. He’s also promoting Weeping Sores. Since the man is slammed, I’m filling in, much like some schlub in a Lebron jersey asked to start for the Cavs. If you want to tap out, ctrl+f “15.” and we’ll forget this ever happened.

Infernäl Mäjesty will release their fourth album through High Roller Records in April. As modern thrash records cut by ’80s bands go, No God is decent. It’s a little more progressive than you’d expect and the title track has more whisper singing than you’d want. Kreator it ain’t, but it’s not going to stick out like a whitehead in IM’s discography either. Again: decent. It’s better than whatever most reanimator labels will squeeze out of legacy acts in 2017.

Of course, if you know Infernäl Mäjesty’s richly umlauted name it’s because of None Shall Defy, this Canadian band’s 1987 debut LP. And, if you’re under the age of 35, chances are you know of that album because you either read or were told something similar to what Encyclopaedia Metallum user Drednahk wrote in a review last year:

None Shall Defy has not only become a legendary thrash metal album but is also regarded as one of the biggest contributions to the development of death metal, what with all its abrasiveness and sheer brutality; almost breaking down the walls of thrash metal completely.

As for the “legendary” part, Drednahk is not alone in heaping praise upon Defy. During my time at Last Rites, Defy found its way into Volume Nine of our multipart listicle “80s Essentials,” an embed party highlighting what the site’s staff felt were the best releases of the decade. And, at the time I’m writing this, Defy is ranked by the Rate Your Music community as the 73rd best album of 1987. That’s 73rd best for all of 1987; not just thrash, not just metal. As far as internet music nerdom goes, that at least gets Defy’s foot in the legendary door.

But the second half of Drednahk’s plaudit is the interesting part. “… one of the biggest contributions to the development of death metal.” Once again, he’s not flying solo. Thanks to the Wayback Machine, we can see that Displeased Records, the now-defunct Netherlands-based label that finally released None Shall Defy on CD in 1996, placed the following blurb alongside the record’s listing in December 2002: “Cult ’87 album. Major influence on today’s thrash, death and black metal acts.” Elsewhere on Displeased’s preserved website: “Infernal Majesty’s album ‘None Shall Defy’ was the main influence on late 80’s and 90’s death black metal.” More recently, that last quote appeared in Horror Pain Gore Death Production’s webstore.

And it’s not just labels. In an interview with Infernäl Mäjesty’s guitarist Kenny Hallman, Canadian Assault asked, “Did you have any clue the profound effect I.M. has had on the underground scene of the late 80’s/early ’90’s? I have heard many death metal bands … claim you as an influence ….” Metal Temple, also interviewing Hallman, lobbed this softball: “… you have inspired numerous bands of your genre’s scene. What do you think was the reason that Infernal Majesty became a really important band, except for your talent?”

Now, if you’re reading this and thinking something like, Uh, I’ve never even heard of this band. Is it really that important? The answer is… I’m not sure. The reason for that is because, when considering Infernäl Mäjesty’s actual influence, there are two competing scenarios. Both are still actively playing out. Both are depressing.

Scenario #1: None Shall Defy is hugely influential, but the evidence supporting it has been underreported, lost, or forgotten, so few people know about it.

Scenario #2: None Shall Defy is not hugely influential, but people have bought into the marketing.

That’s a lot to unpack. Real quick, though, I got to ask: Does calling something influential even matter?

I admit that, as a music writer, the way I’ve learned to conceptualize “influence” is flawed. Influence masquerades as an objective evaluation of an artist’s importance, and therefore, an artist’s worth. But it’s plagued by the same confirmation bias, power of suggestion, and general subjectivity of value determinations like “is this good?” And, yeah, the measures of influence also suck. All of that is a post for another time. Instead, let me offer this:

In the early 20th century, archivists John Lomax and his son Alan traveled the country collecting and preserving songs and stories. Their work made icons out of some of the contributors: Lead Belly, Muddy Waters, and on and on. But there were unintended outcomes. Carvell Wallace in “The Roots Of Cowboy Music“:

Meanwhile, blues as we know it comprised only a minority of the music played by African-Americans, in the ’20s and ’30s, but because the Lomax recordings focused almost entirely on blues, that’s what became synonymous with the black South. … Arnold Shultz was a black Kentucky guitar picker who traveled to New Orleans every summer in the 1910s, learning new chords and constructions from Dixieland ensembles there. He then went on to teach what he knew to Bill Monroe, Chet Atkins, and Ike Everly, father of the Everly Brothers.

If the Lomaxes and other archivists focused their attentions elsewhere, does music sound the same today? What if Arnold Shultz became a recognized and acknowledged household name?

Okay, back to Infernäl Mäjesty. To lay the groundwork for our scenarios, we need a little backstory. What follows was collected from band bios and previously published interviews. If you’re interested, a longer version is here. The short version goes like this:

Drummer Rick Nemes and bassist Psycopath placed ads in a Toronto paper looking for likeminded players. They filled out the ranks with guitarists Kenny Hallman and Steve Terror and singer Chris Bailey. The quintet cut a demo in 1986. It quickly sold out. An impressed zine passed the four songs to Roadrunner Records. Roadrunner, then Roadracer in North America, offered a contract. IM accepted.

In 1987, the Nemes- and Psycopath-produced None Shall Defy hit the streets. Reviews in magazines like Metal Hammer, Aardschok, and Kerrang! were encouraging. And there were other markers of burgeoning success. Good: fan letters from all over the world. Not so good: bootlegged T-shirts. Deciding it needed an extra push, IM shelled out money for a video. It premiered on MuchMusic’s Pepsi Power Hour in 1988. Hallman and Nemes hosted. In the interview section they mentioned an upcoming European tour with Whiplash.

The next time MuchMusic viewers saw the band, Bailey was joined by two new members: a bassist and a drummer. Nemes and Psycopath allegedly told Roadrunner, without telling the rest of the band, that they wouldn’t be touring until a second album. Roadrunner? Not pleased. That European jaunt? Scrapped. In IM’s absence, Pestilence covered “Night Of The Living Dead” at the Metal Attack Festival held in Eibergen, Netherlands, on 7/9/1988. Sometime later, though it’s hard to pinpoint when, IM and Roadrunner split. Even though the band felt unsupported anyway, the damage had been done. IM limped around for a few more years with different lineups before fading into the background.

Then, the rediscovery. Displeased Records’ owner Ron Veltkamp, annoyed that he couldn’t find None Shall Defy on CD, secured the rights. Displeased’s 1996 re-release coincided nicely with Sweden’s Dawn, a cult band in their own right, covering “Night Of The Living Dead” on their Sorgh på svarte vingar fløgh EP. As one would expect, the new attention breathed life back into IM. The band, minus Nemes and Psycopath, reconvened for tours. In 1998, a new album: the Scott Burns-assisted and subtly Death-y Unholier Than Thou. Six years later, the thrashier One Who Points to Death. The Demon God EP followed in 2007. Now, No God, a record burnished by IM’s legendary and influential status, right? Yeah, about that….

Scenario #1 suggests that crappy luck is to blame for Infernäl Mäjesty’s overlooked status. When it came time to write death and black metal’s respective histories, Defy — because its archaic formats were out of print, among other reasons — wasn’t close enough to the surface to be unearthed. Still, its influence remains and its quality is winning out. People have noticed it and continue to talk about it. But, the reason that a full reassessment hasn’t reached the metal mainstream is because any retroactive application of influence, whether it’s real or not, seems “weird” because it complicates clean, long-standing narratives. And man, is it ever difficult to break out of that cycle.

The cycle spins like this: If Infernäl Mäjesty, a Canadian thrash band that was coincidentally heavy in the same year as Scream Bloody Gore, are excised from the narratives, then they’re no longer considered important. If they’re no longer important, then the things fleshing out the greater context of their reach and impact — contemporaneous reviews, zine mentions, testimonials given by the influenced, etc. — are lost, because why bother collecting and uploading that stuff? If that stuff goes missing, the effort it would take to relocate any of it increases with each passing year. After all, the elephant in the circle pit is that, for the most part, metal writing is a hobbyist’s pursuit. Reporting takes time and money, things hobbyists lack. If no one is motivated to find the stuff that proves IM’s importance and, subsequently, their influence, then IM doesn’t get added back into the narrative.

Is Scenario #1 actually playing out, then? Well, it is hard to find interviews, reviews, or blurbs that mention Infernäl Mäjesty before Displeased resurrected Defy in 1996. Those reviews in Metal Hammer, Aardschok, and Kerrang!? Not digitized and/or easily found. The closest I can get is “METAL HAMMER – The Magazine That Hated Metal“, a fun Rate Your Music list by Qwerty100 that collects the more egregious whiffs by the German, not English, Metal Hammer. As the title suggests, the IM review isn’t exactly glowing: 3.30 out of a possible 7. (Wouldn’t be the mag’s worst miss: Bathory’s Blood Fire Death? 3. Godflesh’s Streetcleaner? 2. Suffocation’s Breeding The Spawn? 1.7. Ah, to have your perception blinded by the present. Another post for another time.) That’s not the greatest evidence. That said, reviews of the day are one thing. What we really need are band members or other important people recounting or demonstrating IM’s influence.

Again, there aren’t many of those floating around, either. Of the few, some are unsubstantiated (Canadian Assault namechecked Sweden’s Seance), others require a leap of logic (surely that Pestilence set must have planted the seed for Displeased). But more concrete instances do exist. Luxi Lahtinen, a respected Finnish writer and frequent IM interviewer, says he copped the demo back in 1986. Christ Denied, a Spanish brutal death metal band, is also notable: lo and behold, sitting on a split with Haemorrhage is a cover of “Overlord” recorded in 1994. And, of course, there’s Dawn’s Fredrik Söderberg. In a 2014 interview, Söderberg went to bat for IM in a big way: “Later on I was blown away when I bought the first Infernal Majesty album None Shall Defy, it was like a crossover between thrash and death metal. This was the first time I heard blast beat in the song SOS, then I started to write faster and heavier music.” If there are a thousand silent Söderbergs out there, then that’s huge. But that’s just it: silent. The Requiem Metal Podcast did a whole show on Defy in 2010 and, when discussing Dawn’s cover, said, “And then you never really heard anyone talk about it. That’s sort of the strangest part about a song like that. It shows up on this Dawn record and then, you know, [you] didn’t stumble across Infernäl Mäjesty anywhere else.”

That’s what makes Scenario #1 so frustrating. For every marker denoting IM’s true place in the metal world, there’s a counterpoint that gnaws at me. For example, you have bootlegged t-shirts and mountains of fan mail. Cool… except I guess that level of fandom didn’t translate into many album sales. Why else would Roadrunner, assuming it was acting rationally, fail to keep Defy in print? Then again, slow sellers turn into influential classics all the time because it only takes a handful of important listeners to become influential themselves. On the other hand, why would a Google search of “infernal majesty none shall defy,” 21 years after the rediscovery, still produce a paltry 21,300 results? That’s 100,000 fewer than the similarly rediscovered “morbid saint spectrum of death.” See what I mean? What’s real? What’s “weird”? Can anyone fill in the holes? Round and round we go, digging ourselves into conspiratorial-esque ruts. Fitting, really, because “conspiratorial” is an appropriate head space for Scenario #2.

Let’s revisit that Displeased Records blurb: “Infernal Majesty’s album ‘None Shall Defy’ was the main influence on late 80’s and 90’s death black metal.” The main influence. That, my friends, is some Grade-A PR speak. Once you catch on to PR speak it’s like They Live LASIK. It’s everywhere. But, really, what do you expect? The inflation of “legends” and “acclaim” catches a consumer’s eye. To that end, most PR speak is pretty see-through. In turn, you don’t really think it has much effect. And yet, flash back to that Encyclopaedia Metallum review quote that got this ball rolling: “…a legendary thrash metal album but is also regarded as one of the biggest contributions to the development of death metal.” How the heck does a label’s sales pitch take root in a person’s review?

I’m sensitive to PR speak because I’m susceptible to it. If I read something enough times, and it’s from a respectable source, AND I don’t have the preexisting knowledge to question its veracity, I’ll tend to believe it. It’s dispiriting to contemplate how much of my constructed reality is probably bogus. So why do I do this?

In a “Spiel” on Slate’s podcast The Gist With Mike Pesca and a piece on Politico, Maria Konnikova explored what “Donald Trump is doing to our brains.” (The follow-up, “the theory of trickle-down hate-speech,” is also worth a listen.) I don’t want to spoil the piece, but she, as is her expertise, dug up an idea and a study that I’m going to cherry-pick as relevant:

  • Harvard psychologist Dan Gilbert has, per Konnikova, “a two-step model of reality processing.” I interpret it like this: Your brain is a reality-sorting factory. First, all input drops down a chute into a bucket marked “true.” (If it didn’t, you’d go nuts, because you’d be distrustful of every little thing. So, default: plop, “true”.) Then, if you have a reason — prior knowledge, general fishiness, etc. — you inspect certain inputs, move them out of the “true” bucket, and drop them in a “false” bucket. But that second step takes effort. As Konnikova explains, higher priority things and smaller distractions get in the way of performing that function. And, you know, sometimes you just don’t want to move stuff to the “false” bucket. In “Seeking Ann“, Laura Yan wrote this about fetish culture: “In the realm of unusual kinks, both Jack and Mark mentioned a need for suspended belief, or setting aside the part of yourself that asks Is this real? for the sake of having the experience.”
  • Frequency and the Conference of Referential Validity is a 1977 study conducted by Lynn Hasher, David Goldstein, and Thomas Toppino. The researchers chose 140 “possible assertions.” These were things like “The thigh bone is the longest in the human body” and “Zachary Taylor was the first President to die in office.” Some were true (the thigh bone is the longest), some were false (William Henry Harrison croaked first). They then recorded the lot and broke them up into “three sets of 60,” thus repeating some of the statements. Test subjects listened to the sets and were asked to rate the statements on a scale ranging from one to seven with seven denoting “definitely true.” Results played out like you’d expect: The more testers heard a statement, the more likely they were to believe it.

Huzzah, science. Let’s go full pop-psychology scumbag and tally the Scenario #2 scorecard:

  • Displeased Records rescues None Shall Defy. Displeased wants to generate excitement, as is its prerogative, so, in the PR copy, Defy is called the main influence on death and black metal.
  • Because the record sounds slightly more ahead of its time than other thrashers of the period, the idea that it was a forbearer seems plausible. Covers by Pestilence and Dawn provide direct aural evidence of IM’s impact, which increases the believability.
  • In addition, Infernäl Mäjesty’s backstory, which has mostly been repeated by entities with a stake in the band (labels, members), includes a lot of the tropes of “lost” albums. These touchstones make IM’s situation recognizable. Since similar events have happened to other bands, why couldn’t the surrounding assertions also be true? Besides, it would take work to look into it.
  • Displeased’s PR copy gets picked up by listeners who exert their own influence: bloggers, messageboard titans, people with enviable record collections, etc. The origin of the “main influence” blurb is lost as the recommendation gets stuck in smaller feedback loops. Pretty soon, it’s just a thing people say when trying to explain what the album is. Moreover, it’s fun to think you’re rescuing a cult album.

Here’s where Scenario #2 falls apart: I don’t think anyone has acted maliciously. I don’t think Displeased Records was in the business of conning anyone. I mean, name a metal label that has a Scrooge McDuck vault. You start one because you love metal and then you tolerate the gaping money pit it becomes. Displeased probably re-released None Shall Defy because it thought it was awesome. If Displeased is guilty of anything, it’s hyperbole.

In that case, I’m guilty, too. Defy was pretty high on my “’80s Essentials” ballot. Unholier Than Thou is also great. Maybe I’m gullible, I don’t know. But I think the rediscovery of Defy was just. It gave some metalhead lifers their creative careers back. Infernäl Mäjesty is now on album number four. Unexpected in 1991, totally expected in 2017. In the utilitarianism sense, everything worked out. We’re all better for it. Hooray. Gold star.

But what if someone were to intentionally game the system? Picture it: a hard-to-fact-check claim is passed around, a tribute album is released, influencers are paid in song premieres to write post after post after post. Think we’d notice? –Ian Chainey

15. Dread Sovereign – “Twelve Bells Toll In Salem”

Location: Dublin, Ireland
Subgenre: doom metal

Somewhere, in a crushed velvet coffin, weary doom gods Candlemass lie woe-stricken and weeping, mega-bummed beyond belief that a band of Candlemass-worshipping newcomers, Dread Sovereign, have beat them to the punch by cooking up the most Candlemass-ian album title of all time: For Doom The Bell Tolls. (You can stream the full album here, and you should.) This band of relative newcomers actually consists of Irish metal royalty — including A. A. Nemtheanga, AKA Alan Averill of black/pagan greats Primordial, and members of Altar Of Plagues and Malthusian — so perhaps their ability to summon the ultimate album title shouldn’t come as a surprise. Dread Sovereign draw deep from the well of epic doom bands like Candlemass and Solitude Aeturnus, though Nemtheanga’s voice is distinctive enough to draw in some of the Primordial appeal as well. Riffs plod through the usual gloomy tritones, as you’d expect of this style. But it’s when they stretch their wings that the songs truly come to life, drawing from the same Venusian hashpipe as space-rock legends Hawkwind, sending these songs spiraling through a psychedelic wormhole. Riffs sprawl in a lunar haze, kicking up smoke and Satanic moon-dust, cosmic ripples and reverberations, and the occasional bed of mood-ring Mellotron. Meanwhile, the drumming scatters to the winds, collects itself, and builds to a throbbing climax while Nemtheanga delivers his trademark stentorian bellow, summoning the most epic moments of latter-day Primordial but wedding them to an entirely different style of music, for an entirely different effect. This is epic doom for the ages, reinvented and born anew. [From For Doom The Bell Tolls, out now via Ván Records.]Aaron Lariviere

14. Fluoride – “Cool Guy Backed Hard”

Location: New Brunswick, NJ
Subgenre: grindcore

Ian and I frequently joke that we could do an entire Black Market-style monthly column consisting only of DIY grindcore — a musical pocket world that abuts the zone we typically cover, but often leans in a scragglier and more punk-inflected direction. There’s tons of cool music coming out of this niche, but we don’t often have space for it here amid our scramble to cover all the worthy straight-ahead metal each month yields. But some of these bands are too good to pass up, which brings us to Fluoride. This upstart act employs the classically lean, bass-guitar-free grind power trio configuration favored by the likes of Discordance Axis and Pig Destroyer — a lineage Fluoride bears out with their riffy and harmonically involved take on the style, though they’re far blurrier and more punk than either of those highly technical units. Fluoride go engagingly gnarly at high speeds, especially when they leaven the mania with dashes of melody, but the best moments on their excellent debut EP lean on slower tempos. Guitarist Rick employs a huge and deeply textured tone that fills up more space than two or three guitars plus a bass normally do, giving the closing slouch of the splendidly titled “Cool Guy Backed Hard” a truly cataclysmic cast. New Jersey continues to serve as a fertile breeding ground for high-energy mutants like these guys; perhaps it’s something in the water. [From Flouride, out now via Bandcamp.]Doug Moore

13. Dargar – “Cities In Ashes”

Location: Los Angeles, CA
Subgenre: drone/doom/black metal

“Cities In Ashes” plods wearily but resolutely upon a subterranean path, wading through streams of shifting sludge that, on a good pair of headphones, you can almost feel seeping slowly into your ears, down the sides of the neck and congealing throughout the body, out to the extremities of the limbs. Dargar, a duo comprised James Brown III and Pete Majors (both of Harassor, Brown III of the ever-excellent Moonknight, as well), metes out dystopian drone on this song with a simple effective formula: a lockstep drum; a laboriously lurching bass; monstrously cavernous vocals; and reverberating guitars that work in kaleidoscopic bits of color into an otherwise morose affair. The vocals, indecipherable, seem to reflect a mind at war with itself. A funereal guitar lead comes in as the song nears its conclusion, evoking a flash of desperation from the troubled protagonist. This, though, is just the first song on Dargar’s awesome new album — easily one of my favorites of the year – which branches into brighter, livelier, and equally surreal routes. Don’t miss “No More Sky,” for one, “Chained Being,” for another, and certainly don’t skip “Vast.” [From The Shores Of Space, out now via Rising Beast Recordings.]Wyatt Marshall

12. Sarcasm – “In The Grip Of Awakening Times”

Location: Uppsala, Sweden
Subgenre: death/black metal

If metal in general is most closely associated with the 1980s, then its more extreme offshoots (especially death and black metal) are doomed forever to relive the 1990s. That’s not just because these styles produced most of their premiere touchstones during that decade but because its crop of talent is still bearing fruit. I’m not just talking about legacy acts on their 10th albums, either. Consider the likes of Entrails, who formed in 1990 but didn’t release an album until 2010, or Scum, who sat on their third LP Garden Of Shadows for about two decades before releasing it last year. (Bands of this ilk frequently receive the “influential legends you’ve never heard of” PR treatment that Ian describes in this month’s intro, though very few of them deserve it.) Sarcasm’s story is similar. The band’s original ’90-’94 run produced a pile of demos and a debut LP in Burial Dimensions, which proceeded to lay around unreleased for decades as lineups repeatedly flamed out. Dark Descent, a steward of ’90s-style extreme metal if ever there was one, finally pressed that album as a standalone release last year. This year’s Within The Sphere Of Ethereal Minds is Sarcasm’s second LP and first recording of the current era, but it could have easily been tracked during the Clinton administration, just like its predecessor. Aside from sounding very 1996, it’s also extremely Swedish — its most obvious touchstones are the beefy (Swedish) melodic death metal of mid-period Edge Of Sanity and the harmonized (Swedish) tremolo blasts of Dissection. This material likely wouldn’t have reshaped the scene had it come out back in the day, but it’s carried off so well that it might be considered a minor classic today if it had. Behold the timeless opening riff and fantastically metal title of “In The Grip Of Awakening Times,” which feels like it’s hitting a strident crescendo with virtually every one of its many tempo shifts. There’s a reason these sonic tropes have remained resonant for several decades now, and Sarcasm rep them the way only those who lived through the halcyon days can. [From Within The Sphere Of Ethereal Minds, out 4/28 via Dark Descent.]Doug Moore

11. Looking For An Answer – “La Carne Del Leviatán”

Location: Madrid, Spain
Subgenre: grindcore

Spain’s Looking For An Answer sounds like it crawled out from the same primordial ooze that spat up Terrorizer. True to that spirit, Dios Carne, the quintet’s fourth LP, isn’t much more than blasts broken up by punky thrash or crusty proto death metal. Good thing? Well, grind of this classicalist mindset lives or dies by its execution and how well it can hang with the memory of well-worn genre favorites. On that measure, man, does Looking For An Answer ever kill it. If every second between their 2014 EP Kraken, the band’s first with ex-Nashgul roarer Santi, and Dios was spent practicing, it shows. “La Carne Del Leviatán” flat out flies with nary a snag. You feel as though you’re coasting along the blasts like a puck on an air hockey table. The slower riffs, too, are well manicured. Dios is just free of the slop that poisons other grinders: the thrash sounds like thrash, the death metal sounds like death metal. The fact that all three are played competently helps alleviate the punch drunk doldrums that tend to surface on long players. Looking For An Answer is now older, wiser, and tighter. It’s miles away from those drum machine days, but still doing right by an old sound. [From Dios Carne, out 4/28 via Willowtip Records.]Ian Chainey

10. Vanum – “Spring Of Life”

Location: Santa Fe, NM / Brooklyn, NY
Subgenre: black metal

The creative web cast by Vanum’s Kyle Morgan and Michael Rekevics is wide and influential. But alongside excellent and ambitious projects like Vilkacis, Vorde, Predatory Light, and more, Morgan is best known for his work in Ash Borer, while Rekevics first really left his mark in Fell Voices. Those two bands were instrumental in shaping the contours of a style of black metal — a genre so firmly routed in Scandinavian lore — that America can rightly call its own; one that is raw, expansive, hypnotic, and loaded to the brim with meandering melodic progressions. As Vanum, the two follow a somewhat more linear route, especially on their forthcoming EP Burning Arrow, where “Spring Of Life” assumes an anthemic posture. But even as clean-ish triumphant guitar leads take front and center on “Spring Of Life,” the unbridled, unmasked fury that brought urgency and distinguished the duo’s earlier endeavors rages here, this time aimed squarely at its mark. [From Burning Arrow, out 4/1 on Psychic Violence Records.]Wyatt Marshall

9. John Frum – “Presage Of Emptiness”

Location: Philadelphia, PA
Subgenre: death metal

So, the name: Not a person per say, but a nod to Tanna’s cargo cult. Anyway, John Frum’s best asset is its momentum. A Stirring In The Noos, this Philadelphia quartet’s full-length debut, is like Tucker-era Morbid Angel as covered by Uphill Battle: squelchy guitar stuff impelled by metalcore genes to just do the damn thing. Even the requisite slower sections are peppy and have direction. That signals good songwriting in most genres, but especially so in the many realms of technical-minded metal where it’s so easy to get bogged down by wankery. And that’s just it: Noos is not streamlined. Even though song flow is the priority, John Frum still pulls off oodles of nutty stuff. Maybe that’s to be expected from guitarist Matt Hollenberg (Cleric) and bassist Liam Wilson (the Dillinger Escape Plan). True to their styles, “Presage Of Emptiness,” Noos’s opener, has many split-second points of interest that could’ve been grown into whole songs. But despite how busy “Presage” is, there are no detours between point A and B. What keeps it on the rails? The task of shepherding the listener falls to drummer Eli Litwin and vocalist Derek Rydquist (the Faceless, Bereft). Litwin burns all of the calories holding songs together. Rydquist has a satisfyingly dependable growl that fulfills expectations while Hollenberg and Wilson head off adventuring. [From A Stirring In The Noos, out 5/12 via Relapse Records.]Ian Chainey

8. Succumb – “Survival”

Location: San Francisco, CA
Subgenre: death metal

Succumb are a relatively new entity, with just one demo released on Transylvanian Tapes under the name Cloak preceding their upcoming debut LP. They’re also working in a crowded field — they play crusty, rusted, spidery-riffed death metal of the cavernous North American persuasion, occasionally evoking fellow Bay Area lurchers Vastum. “Upstart death metal band jumps off from the sounds of the ’90s” is usually a recipe for disposability, but Succumb have struck upon an identity of their own right out of the gate thanks to a few unconventional aesthetic choices. The most obvious of these is Cheri Musrasrik’s unusual vocal approach. Musrasrik occasionally emits the kind of tongueless growl you typically hear in classic death metal, but she delivers most of her lines in a feral but relatively clear human holler. (Her lyrics play against type to a degree too, dealing with familiar images of decay and perversion in a more impressionistic and less derpy fashion than the D&D-manual prose you see in most death metal…though you still can’t really make out what she’s saying.) Musrasrik’s reverby warbling gives Succumb’s music an aura of vivid, up-close derangement that death metal’s taxidermied evils can rarely evoke. Guitarist Derek Webster follows suit with a riffing vocabulary that transcends the standard genre box by including an array of harrowing scrapes and slides, charging his playing with a livewire intensity. Plus, the fundamentals are strong: Current Bosse-De-Nage / former Slough Feg drummer Harry Cantwell blasts with the stern, unfussy authority of the golden-age masters, and the band knows how to drive a song home with well-placed repetition, as demonstrated by “Survival.” A lot of death metal promises to be “filthy,” but Succumb’s lurid intensity actually merits the term. [From Succumb, out 5/5 via The Flenser.]Doug Moore

7. Bound Bible – “Bound By Mirrors”

Location: Grand Rapids, MI / London, UK
Subgenre: black metal

From the gate, “Bound By Mirrors” is relentless, and as you’d expect from a project featuring Damian Master (A Pregnant Light, Aksumite, Secret Creation, and about a dozen others), a wall of trilling, dancing guitars washes over you from start to finish, ripping with effortless style. But instead of Master’s booming yell familiar from his other endeavors, on “Bound By Mirrors,” the first song from Bound Bible’s second demo, Zen Zsigo (Cremation Lily) is on vocals, snarling with sinister, ravenous ferocity. Last time around, back on 2012’s demo, things were switched — Master was on the mic and Zsigo handled everything else. That demo had a more industrial, noisy, less black metal-forward sound that reflected Zsigo’s oft-incredible Cremation Lily. Now it’s the other way around, and it shows. The project has been trans-Atlantic since day one, a conversation between two prolific musicians using different techniques but working with a similar palette. The results have been awesome, if rare. Next time, I hear, we won’t have to wait so long to see what they create next. [From Demo 2, out now via Colloquial Sound Recordings.]Wyatt Marshall

6. Locust Leaves – “Light (Fos)”

Location: Greece
Subgenre: progressive metal

THIS. Holy shit, I haven’t heard anything this nerdy and wonderful in years. Don’t get me wrong, I fully expect you and most other human life to click play and question my hearing. Exercise patience, friends, and bear with me. Locust Leaves pull from so many styles it’s hard to keep straight — Hellenic black metal (ala Rotting Christ, Varathron, Necromantia, et al) runs headlong into the early heavy metal stylings of Fates Warning, maybe, and that covers a few minutes of the first song. Then, they swerve through some Watchtower-like thrash-gone-weird and Confessor-inspired math-doom, only to spin in a circle and tear through a few Human-era death riffs. The vocals are mostly clean — singer Nick K.’s manly cleans and bursts of spoken word are insane, but absolutely appropriate — and the songs are sprinkled with these phenomenal ornamental touches; background chants, hand percussion, scattered fits of exotic instrumentation. Despite the band’s relatively low profile to date, they brought in some heavy artillery to round out the lineup: Ayloss of the godlike one-man black metal project Spectral Lore contributes lead guitar throughout, while Greek black metal OG Archon Vorkskaath (of Zemial and Agatus) plays drums. The songs are through-composed, each a mini-suite of multifaceted moods and modes, never sacrificing melodicism for complexity — although these songs have both in spades. “Light” launches in with a lurch, chunky rhythms skewing sideways for every step forward. But the song continues to shift, coiling around itself until it finally cracks wide into what I can only call, lovingly, “a forest of pagan leads.” (Ask Doug: I have great affection for pagan leads.) There might even be a harp or a zither. I don’t even know what I’m hearing anymore; just the pinnacle of serpentine progressive metal, styles stacked over and through one another, every second more exciting than the last. And the artwork must be beheld to be believed! Hell, the lyric sheet is a morbid comic that kinda reminds me of Dawnbringer’s gorgeous Nucleus, only with a castrated god for maximum morbid impact. Everything about this record screams timeless metal glory, from one obsessive detail to the next. I’m done; go buy this. [From A Subtler Kind Of Light, out now via I, Voidhanger.]Aaron Lariviere

5. Heretoir – “Golden Dust”

Location: Augsburg, Germany
Subgenre: atmospheric black metal

Most of what we feature in this column kicks ass in one way or another, whether it’s some sort of death metal weirdness from Doug or righteous Tolkien-inspired black metal courtesy of moi. Rarely do we have anything that almost crosses into tear-jerker territory, but Heretoir’s “Golden Dust” practically does it. The song is gorgeous —a melancholic, post-metal/black metal beauty that should immediately draw in fans of bands like Alcest. The whole thing is great, loaded with gently picked melodies, distant and searing guitar leads, and restrained drumming, but the chorus is magic — I wish there was more of it. The song ends by exploding in revelatory post-rock glory, a fitting outro to be sure. If this is a little gentle for your tastes, check out the rest of Heretoir’s excellent new album Circle — the band’s first since 2012, one that also kicks ass here and there and one that was well worth the wait. [From Circle, out now on Northern Silence Productions.]Wyatt Marshall

4. Valborg – “Beerdigungsmaschine”

Location: Bonn, Germany
Subgenre: death/doom metal

We last checked in with Valborg this past September, when they released the fantastic two-song Werwolf EP. This quirky and heterogeneous outfit usually works by pairing boulder-heavy death metal grooves with more outré ideas of various descriptions, though the metal part is negotiable and goth/post-punk tendencies figure heavily throughout. Werwolf saw Valborg emphasize the straight-ahead death metal aspect of their sound to fantastic results; their upcoming sixth LP Endstrand retains its ferocity and reinforces it with rigid mechanical rhythms and psychedelic menace drawn from their other favorite stylistic wells. The results come off a little like Godflesh covering Killing Joke: relatively simple and catchy, to the point of danceability, but punishing and pessimistic in affect. “Beerdigungsmaschine” means “Burial Machine,” an allusion to the perfunctory Catholic funeral that frontman Christian Kolf saw his grandfather receive. (“It sucked,” he says.) Ironically, the song itself thrums with energy right out of the gate, taking advantage of an unusually biting and trebly production by Valborg standards. But the opening verse-chorus stomp is just a setup for the deliriously textured instrumental lurch that makes up the song’s heart. It’s a weird turn that elevates a merely fun and heavy song to greatness — classic Valborg, in other words. [From Endstrand, out 4/7 via Lupus Lounge/Prophecy Productions.]Doug Moore

3. Ingurgitating Oblivion – “Amid The Offal, Abide With Me”

Location: Berlin, Germany
Subgenre: progressive death metal

The nearly three years it took for Ingurgitating Oblivion to produce a follow up to Continuum Of Absence was a much easier wait than the nine that previously ticked off the clock. Still, jeez, what a difference three years make. Absence made our 2014 year-end list because it was a nasty lurching behemoth of death metal discordance that sounded very much like its cover looked. Vision Wallows In Symphonies Of Light, this German outfit’s third full-length, is, in both of those respects, something else. Sole constant Florian Engelke is now surrounded by a rotating crew of session musicians. In turn, Engelke’s eccentricity has only gotten more pronounced. Light is packed with atypical instrumentation: vibraphone, spare piano, and even a musical saw. These new timbres help Engelke stake out new territory. And yet, a lot remains the same. Most of opener “Amid The Offal, Abide With Me” is dissonant, complex death metal. Engelke’s ability to find catchiness within the onslaught has also been carried over — a reoccurring three-note riff cast as primal fanfare does a lot to keep the listener from getting lost. But “Amid” has a different aura than previous IO material. The next track, “A Mote Constitutes What To Me Is Not All…” makes that clear — a 22-minute post-modern workout that has as much in common with avant-garde classical, prog, and jazz as it does absurdly heavy metal. It’s heady stuff, not exactly the kind of thing you’d throw on for a jog. That said, it’s hard to call it difficult. Engelke’s aural experiments have a clarity of thought that’s rare in music like this; Steve Reich-ian, in a way. It may take three years to untangle all of it — drummers Lille Gruber (Defeated Sanity) and Paul Wielan produce a subtly astounding number of rhythms, while lyrically Engelke has said he’s “deeply moved by language and its secrets” — but it won’t make you feel stupid for trying. [From Vision Wallows In Symphonies Of Light, out 4/21 via Willowtip Records.]Ian Chainey

2. Pallbearer – “Dancing In Madness”

Location: Little Rock, Arkansas
Subgenre: progressive sludge/doom metal

Pallbearer sit at an interesting crossroads — a potential crossover act with one foot firmly planted in the underground metal scene that reared them, supported them on tour with bands like Enslaved, Samothrace, and Saint Vitus, and led them to decisive metallic victories, like landing the top slot in Decibel’s best albums feature in 2014 (their 2012 LP ranked #5, for what it’s worth). Their success may have led to a tour with modern metal’s most successful breakout act, but they aren’t out there doing Apple commercials or dressing like anything other than the grungy metalheads they are at heart. Yet, even from the start, they felt different from most of their underground peers. Their brand of clean singing and hummable guitar leads incidentally appealing to a larger base, which in turn led to pushback from certain corners of the diehard metal camp. Maybe it’s tall poppy syndrome or plain old begrudgery, a natural result of metal’s inherently contrarian nature; maybe it’s just the inescapable consequence of drawing strength from clean singing that doesn’t suck (see also: Baroness). Either way, Pallbearer are stuck in the in-between, straddling the line between full-on crossover success and beloved champions of “real metal.” Their third album, Heartless, is simultaneously more accessible and significantly weirder than previous releases, so it has the potential to exacerbate that sense of fence-sitting frustration while expanding their fan base even further. For my money, it’s the best thing they’ve done. In large part, it succeeds by shedding their original “funeral doom + Ozzy vocals” formula, instead drawing on a rotating cast of broader influences like Rush, David Gilmour, Red House Painters, Mastodon, Metallica, and even occasional flirtations with chest-beating, D+D-themed trad doom a la Cirith Ungol and Gates of Slumber. The result largely casts off the doom affectations, landing somewhere closer to progressive sludge, without the backwards-glancing connotations “sludge” so often carries in 2017. They avoid that fate by making Brett Campbell’s voice the focus of every song, and he’s never sounded better — yearning and world-weary and just the perfect foil to the gorgeous guitar music on display. If I have one complaint, I wish the mix was a bit heavier and the dynamics just a hair more pronounced, but this is a world-beater either way. “Dancing In Madness” is the centerpiece of the album; clocking in just shy of 12 minutes, it’s the second longest track and the most adventurous, one of the best things they’ve recorded. [From Heartless, out now via Profound Lore.]Aaron Lariviere

1. Artificial Brain – “Infrared Horizon”

Location: Long Island, NY
Subgenre: experimental death metal

I throw on the new Artificial Brain and feel like I’ve crash landed in some distant, far-future era — society has crumbled into irradiated ruin, few humans remain and those who do are brutal and weird. Most importantly, metal subgenres no longer exist. I know these guys ostensibly play death metal, but my ears disagree. It’s got plenty of skronk, hellaciously foul vocals and some deeply submerged melody. So, what is it then? Skronky death has been a thing, to a certain extent, at least since Gorguts released the wonderfully impenetrable ur-text for the sub-subgenre back in 1998, Obscura. A lot of bands have built on that angular bedrock in the intervening years in various ways — Ulcerate teased it out into a singular defining aesthetic (and a single song they keep recording over and over); Deathspell Omega gave it an orthodox black metal spin; Baring Teeth injected some noise rock and chaotic metalcore; Doug’s band Pyrrhon (go buy their shit) took all that and fed it screaming into a streetcleaner, landing somewhere just shy of freeform cacophony. Artificial Brain, on the other hand, share some sonic similarities with each of those bands, yet they’re still off on their own — a lifeless planet in a momentary hyperbolic orbit, rushing past in excess of escape velocity to break free and go fuck up some other solar system. To the extent this still most closely resembles death metal, there’s also a fair amount of melodic black metal packed into the riffs, plus noise rock, heavy metal, and other brutal things of indeterminate origin. One thing of fairly determinate origin: Will Smith’s still got the Demilich gurgle vox down pat, and they fit surprisingly well in an alien context. The amp tones are surprisingly low-gain, with an aggressive twang to the guitars and a jagged edge to the bass, and it works wonders to draw out the detail in the playing. Compared to the first record, the production feels less fussed over while the playing feels sharper, so the live-sounding recording captures a slightly different character — it feels more Steve Albini than Butch Vig, if that makes sense. (In reality, Colin Marston produced both records and the differences are subtle.) “Infrared Horizon” is the second single, following the equally sick “Synthesized Instinct,” and it’s built on the back of a series of collapsing chords and a rattling chain of alternating blasts. It’s deliberately ugly for the first half> Around 2 minutes in there’s a whiff of something melodic before the band dives back into atonal punishment. At 3:35, the lead guitars scream into ridiculous harmony, and the song bends into a new shape for a few fleeting bars before the song breaks into pieces and burns up in the atmosphere. Whatever this is — a hybrid of experimental death metal styles fused into some kind of alien ideal — it’s absolutely killer. [From Infrared Horizon, out 4/21 via Profound Lore.]Aaron Lariviere