The Black Market: The Month In Metal – March 2014

The Black Market: The Month In Metal – March 2014

The Black Market: The Month In Metal – March 2014

The Black Market: The Month In Metal – March 2014

I spent the second week of March at SXSW, and I spent a pretty good percentage of my SXSW at metal shows. In truth, most of the people I talked to at the festival seemed to agree that this year’s metal lineups were pretty lackluster, but even so, every day the genre offered numerous acts I felt I had to catch, and I was energized a whole lot more often than I was disappointed. Some of the best bands I saw at SXSW — in any genre — included Power Trip, Obliteration, Psalm Zero, Vaporizer, Primitive Man, Vattnet Viskar, Pilgrim, and Black Market contributor Doug Moore’s Pyrrhon. I also skipped a bunch of excellent metal bands, many because I’d seen them already in other venues — Windhand, Christian Mistress, Sannhet, the Atlas Moth, Earthless, Trash Talk, Indian, Spirit Caravan — and missed others because let’s face it, there are only so many hours in the day. The names listed above represent only a fraction of the total metal acts who performed at SXSW in 2014, and I’d argue that’s a pretty impressive array of talent. However, I’d also agree with the consensus: This year’s metal lineups at SXSW really were lackluster. That’s not because the bands on display were by any means unimpressive, but because they represented such a tiny percentage of the great metal being released right now. 2014 is shaping up to be a historic year for this genre. Remarkable albums are arriving with an almost dizzying frequency. The bands scheduled to perform in Baltimore this May at the annual Maryland Deathfest might comprise the best metal lineup ever assembled — literally, no exaggeration, no hyperbole. Last week, Pelican guitarist Trevor de Brauw (who also serves as publicist for lots of excellent bands, including last month’s Black Market list-toppers Young Widows) tweeted:

That’s a pretty apt way of saying it. It really is nauseating. It’s nauseating because you almost feel gluttonous consuming the many elements of this feast so quickly, so voraciously, without savoring each and every bite the way each and every bite deserves to be savored. It’s also nauseating because it’s kind of sickening to realize how many incredible records will invariably go overlooked, or under-loved, just because, again, there are only so many hours in the day. It’s sickening to think of the hours, days, months, and years that have been poured into the creation and promotion of all these albums — many of them extraordinary; an unusually high percentage of them actual masterpieces — in contrast to the minutes if not seconds in which they will be processed and put aside by the listening public, not because the listening public is fickle or unable to focus, but because in 2014, the flood has arrived, and keeping afloat requires not treading water in any one place for too long.

The flood is here in part because the water mark for metal has been steadily climbing over the past few years — and as they say, a rising tide lifts all boats — but also because a bunch of planets have unexpectedly aligned while moon is apparently at perigee or something, and thus we’re in the middle of a moment that probably shouldn’t have occurred, but due to coincidence and serendipity, has occurred just the same. This month brought the release of new music from no fewer than three bands whose 2014 releases are patently obvious contenders for Album Of The Year honors: Thou, Agalloch, and Triptykon. All three of those bands’ last LPs are now four years behind them, and all of those LPs vied for the gold in 2010 in places like Decibel, Brooklyn Vegan, and here, among others. That all three of those bands should return within the span of four weeks in 2014, bringing with them some of the strongest material of their career, seems impossible. But here we are.

March 2014 delivered plenty of excellence beyond that, too. Even if none of the aforementioned bands had happened to release new songs this month, it still would have been difficult to choose only 15 songs worth featuring, and difficult to determine exactly how to rank those 15 songs. What follows, then, is a truncated, compromised assessment of what actually occurred in metal this month. It was hard not to sink, and I’m not sure we successfully stayed afloat. But you could do a whole lot worse than to drown in this.

Michael Nelson

15. High Spirits – “The Last Night”

Location: Chicago
Subgenre: Traditional Metal

The guy behind High Spirits, Chicago resident Chris Black, is also the guy behind Superchrist and Dawnbringer. Those are three pretty great bands; in fact, Dawnbringer released our second-favorite metal album of 2012 (and for that matter, our sixth-favorite metal album of 2010), and High Spirits’ last release, the 2013 EP, was featured in our metal column, the Black Market, last April. Each of Black’s musical iterations has its own identity, but each is also a lovingly crafted extension of a bygone era of metal (mostly circa the early to mid ’80s): Superchrist belong to the same rugged, drunken New Wave Of British Heavy Metal school that produced Saxon and Motörhead; Dawnbringer combine the melodic, anthemic, and progressive tendencies of Iron Maiden circa Piece Of Mind and Powerslave with those same tendencies as manifested in the music of Swedish black metal pioneers Bathory during that band’s viking period. And High Spirits are Black’s feelgood metal band, the one that would have scored a drag-race scene in a slob comedy circa 1983. Here Black, finds his influence at the exact point before feelgood metal became a joke, before Poison and Warrant ruined it for everyone, when bands like Kix and Ratt were considered (and in fact were) every bit as unassailably great as Judas Priest and AC/DC. And every detail is spot on: the thin instrumental tones, the simple yet timeless song structures, the high-pitched melodic vocal attack. But while Black is an obsessive historian and sonic perfectionist, he’s also a hell of a songwriter: His songs are focused, engaging, and insanely catchy. “The Last Night” appears on High Spirits’ forthcoming LP, You Are Here; it was performed and recorded entirely by Black, and it’s so, so great. [Hells Headbangers] –Michael

14. Svartidauði – “Venus Illegitima”

Location: Iceland
Subgenre: Black Metal

If you happen to keep score of metal using some complex algorithm known only to yourself that deals in a ratio of creepiness to catchiness, Svartidaudi should rank high on the scoreboard. The Icelandic band loosely self-identifies as a black metal band, but you’ll quickly hear elements of doom and death. It’s muscular stuff — deep and disturbing, more gore than grim. If this holds any water for you, it’s a bit like Malthusian meets Prosanctus Inferi. If not — and you’re probably better off if this is the case — it’s a horror-filled sound, the soundtrack to some Boschian nightmare. Atonal whining guitars blare like sirens throughout, while a relentlessly driving rhythm section pushes forward and a guttural bark issues unholy commands. If you check Svartidauði out on Metal Archives, the Encyclopedia Brittanica of metal, one of their lyrical themes is “Drug Use.” Someone clearly had a bad trip, but that shouldn’t deprive you of this awesome listen. [Terratur Possessions/Daemon Worship Productions] –Wyatt

13. Miasmal – “Until The Last”

Location: Sweden
Subgenre: Crusty Swedish Death

Swedish Death Metal is a lot like pizza. Everyone likes it, it’s easy to make, it’s recognizable no matter what cockamamie bullshit you add to it, and even done horribly, it’s still pretty fucking good. Simple ingredients that cannot really go wrong = satisfaction every time. But when you do this shit right, when you select the perfect ingredients and assemble them with effortless panache — no CPK jerk chicken nonsense needed, just some tasteful assembly — pizza has the power to conquer all other foods. (Yeah, we’re still talking about metal.) Miasmal understand the art of combining simple ingredients. Their 2011 debut was one of the best Swedish Death records of the millennium, partially because it stuck to the formula while weaving in the slightest bits of crust punk melody. It was strong enough to catch the ear of Century Media, who scooped them from the Dark Descent dugout and tapped them for the big leagues. Their latest continues the winning streak with flair. You hear it in the perfect flow from serrated riff to shifting rhythm, not unlike the tactile rush of rack-and-pinion racing, and when the lead guitars lash out and slice your eardrums, you’ll be grateful for the pain. [Century Media] –Aaron

12. Noneuclid – Paranoid Alkaloid

Location: Germany
Subgenre: Death/Thrash Metal

“Inventive thrash metal”: not a combination of words that the modern metal writer has many opportunities to use, but it applies to Noneuclid. This enigmatic band (which has ties to the post-Celtic Frost project Triptykon; see below) evidently recorded this sophomore effort several years ago, shortly after their great 2008 debut The Crawling Chaos. The fact that it sounds so fresh even now is a testament to both Noneuclid’s unique vision and to the stagnation of their home style. To be fair, these guys venture well outside of the classic thrash canon in their music; Covenant-era Morbid Angel figures prominently here, as do several strains of progressive rock and metal, but amped-up thrash fills the lion’s share of Metatheosis’s dense compositional space. The subtle highlight here is Noneuclid’s clever songwriting. I’m using the “song” part literally here, for once — “Paranoid Alkaloid” sports largely clean, ear-wormy vocals among all the violent setpiece changes and winding riffage. Endure the pain and the payoff shall follow. [Blood Music] –Doug

11. Portrait – “In Time”

Location: Sweden
Subgenre: Heavy/Speed Metal

Listen to those guitars sing! Of all the bands to spring up in the past few years rooted in King Diamond worship, Portrait might be the only one to focus more on the sound of King’s solo project than his original band, even to the point of channeling some obscenely tasty Andy LaRoque-style lead guitars. This is not “occult rock,” thankfully. It’s metal, of the heavy variety, with a dash of speed metal for punch. The result is melodic, but much more aggressive than anyone else doing this kind of thing. Retro metal has become more than passé by this point, but Portrait feel honest, if that makes sense. True heavy metal requires that sense of intrinsic believability, the intangible essence that separates the true from the false. Air-raid vocals, furious leads, and dueling solos over a progressive bridge — all the elements for a heavy metal success story, wrapped up with perfectly warm production and stellar musicianship. Bang your fucking head already. [Metal Blade] –Aaron

10. Sargeist – “The Shunned Angel”

Location: Finland
Subgenre: Black Metal

Compared to neighboring Norway and Sweden, the Finish black metal scene is relatively small, yet vital, and its roots run deep: Seminal bands like Beherit, Archgoat, and Impaled Nazarene date back to 1989-’90 and are responsible for some of the genre’s defining work. And the next wave of Finnish bands included two especially notable ones: Horna and Behexen, who formed in 1993 and 1994, respectively — and still are active today — and whose intertwined lineups help make up the bedrock of Finland’s black metal community. Horna was founded by Ville “Shatraug” Pystynen, whose resume includes membership in 23 bands and counting (including Behexen, since 2009), along with having run two independent record labels. Surely the most successful of Shatraug’s projects, though, is Sargeist, which he started as a solo venture in 1999, before recruiting a full band over the next couple years. Today that band includes two founding (and still-active) members of Behexen — vocalist Hoath Torog and drummer Horns — as well as Horna drummer Vainaja, who plays bass in Sargeist. (There’s so much crossover between Horna, Behexen, and Sargeist that most festival bookings include two of the three bands.) The three full-length albums thus far released by Sargeist are largely revered, and justifiably so: Like much of their country’s black metal exports, Sargeist display a devotion to the genre’s sonic and thematic roots — no-fi, Satan — with an emphasis on riffs and hooks that feels uniquely Finnish. It is, perhaps, the sound of the genre at its essence, maybe the apotheosis of pure black metal: equally caustic and enthralling, murky and atmospheric yet viscerally bludgeoning. Sargeist are set to release their fourth LP — and first since 2010 — Feeding The Crawling Shadows, and it’s great: a blurring, blistering thing of howling agony and adrenaline highs, all built around and resultant from Shatraug’s colossal riffs and furious playing. [W.T.C. Productions]. –Michael

09. Lord Mantis – “Negative Birth”

Location: Chicago
Subgenre: Hideous Sludge

There’s already a clear narrative for the year in metal, and we’re only 3 months in. This came up once already when I wrote about the band Indian in January (coincidentally, their lead singer guests on this track), but it bears repeating: hideous sludge is the style to beat in 2014. Brilliant examples appear each month: Thou, Coffinworm, the aforementioned Indian, and even the progenitors of the style, Eyehategod, have a new one coming out. All of them continue to shift our focus away from technicality and back towards rudimentary riffs and webs of feedback. The latest, and possibly greatest, of 2014’s sludge monstrosities comes by way of Chicago’s Lord Mantis. Blackened, urban, hellish, seedy and a few dozen other adjectives come to mind immediately upon hearing their latest single, “Negative Birth,” whose title makes things even darker when you realize it’s absolutely meant to be sexual in nature. That’s really the key here: there IS sex in their violence, and it plays out in both the antagonistic lyrics and in the pounding thrust of the rhythm section. Some styles of metal inherently fear the body—death metal, for example, is all jagged and churning, deliberately undanceable and entirely unsexy — whereas Lord Mantis are all lascivious, libidinous filth, meant to make us move to the music and feel disgusting doing it. Carnal instinct lies beneath the graphic violence — like a tryst gone wrong in a slaughterhouse bathroom, the record revels in the kind of imagery that’s designed to make you tingle in all the wrong ways. Try as you might, it’s hard to look away. [Profound Lore] –Aaron

08. Metallica – “Lords Of Summer” (Garage Demo); “Ronnie Rising” (A Tribute To Ronnie James Dio)

Location: California
Subgenre: Thrash Metal/Heavy Metal

Metallica have spent more time as the punchline to a bad joke than they did as The Greatest Band In The World, but since achieving a genuine cultural nadir in 2011, they’ve worked the last few years to climb out of the bottomless pit into which they so enthusiastically dove some two decades back. Since last year, Metallica have been doing some legitimately cool stuff, including the second installment of their awesome Orion Festival, their impressive 3D concert film, Through The Never, some inspired one-off shows in places like the Apollo and Antarctica … even their Grammys performance of “One” with pianist Lang Lang. The real proof that Metallica are “back,” though, will come in the form of new music. And this month, the band gave us two reasons for pretty genuine optimism. The first, “Lords Of Summer,” is the first new song released by Metallica-as-Metallica since Death Magnetic, and while there’s no official version just yet, their “Garage Demo” showcases Metallica at least attempting to return to the sound and style of …And Justice For All, with actual success. The second Metallica song to be released in March, “Ronnie Rising,” is even better still, although it’s not a Metallica original; it’s a four-song medley of old Rainbow songs (“Stargazer,” “Tarot Woman,” “A Light In The Black,” and “Kill The King”) that the band contributed to the forthcoming Ronnie James Dio tribute album, This Is Your Life. The medley captures both the spirit and sound of Metallica’s great 1987 covers album, The $5.98 EP: Garage Days Re-Revisited, and in doing so, more than suitably honors one of metal’s true icons, while re-establishing actual confidence in another such icon. The whole goddamn thing is great — as is “Lords Of Summer,” actually — but if you don’t want to spend nearly 20 minutes listening to new Metallica material right now, I insist you at least skip ahead to 4:19 on “Ronnie Rising” and press play — that’s where the medley transitions into its final movement, “Kill The King,” and it is ridiculously, life-changingly awesome: the best song Metallica have released since … Master Of Puppets? Honestly, it just might be. [self-released demo; Rhino] –Michael

07. Thantifaxath – “The Bright White Nothing At The End Of The Tunnel”

Location: Canada
Subgenre: Progressive Black Metal

The foremost challenge that comes with being a technically demanding metal band is, of course, playing the material right. Using those fancy chops for desirable ends is a close second, though — many an overeducated group of metal musicians have chased the shred dragon up their own asses. Not Thantifaxath. This anonymous trio has skills to spare and the brains to deploy them effectively. Like the great Jute Gyte album we covered last month, Sacred White Noise starts with a collection of black metal tropes — tremolo picking, shrieked vocals, repetitive structures, etc. — and perverts them into a claustrophobic clusterfuck of ugly chords and weird timings. But where Jute Gyte play to fuzzy, introverted one-man BM type, Thantifaxath use a seamless production to blow the nightmare up to arena-prog proportions. It’s an intensely atmospheric listen, and somehow it’s catchy? How do people do that? I’d ask, but the Dementor cloaks suggest that Thantifaxath don’t do interviews. Combine with drugs and the dark, visually striking film of your choice for a psyche-rattling good time. [Dark Descent Records] –Doug

06. Teitanblood – “Sleeping Throats of the Antichrist”

Location: Spain
Subgenre: Black Death

A certain type of metalhead hears the latest from Teitanblood and absolutely loses his shit. I sure did. Seven Chalices, their last album released way back in ’09, was an instant classic, in turns brutally raw and frustratingly dense (in a good way), but entirely ‘bangable. The follow-up, aptly named Death, is no longer frustratingly dense, yet it sacrifices nothing in the way of power. This is metal born of absolute extremity, and it demands a physical reaction. The riffs … are insane. “Sleeping Throats Of The Antichrist,” the second track on the album, is a 12-minute pile-up of untouchable kill riffs. I’m not sure if I’ve ever seen a proper definition of a “kill riff” written out before, but I know ‘em when I see ‘em: It’s the riff that rises from the chaos to initiate maximum headbanging. It’s a simple effect, and it kills. Otherwise-chaotic songs become instantly catchy when the kill riff delivers. Teitanblood have found a way to do this repeatedly — essentially dropping kill riffs on top of kill riffs — meaning they continually top themselves as they continually raise the stakes, like a bomb exploding over and over, getting more awesome as it goes. Check out the 7-minute mark for a taste. Blasting gives way to absolute groove, and then it shifts. Over the remaining five minutes, one godlike riff mutates into another, until we arrive at the closing riff, the mother of all kill riffs, and it is a towering lesson in headbangability. (Lesser riffs cower in its wake.) In any other month, this could have been the best track released — as it stands, March might be one of the best months for metal … ever. [Ajna Offensive] –Aaron

05. Forteresse – “Wendigo”

Location: Quebec
Subgenre: Black Metal

For fans of black metal, there might not be a better place to be right now than Quebec. Our favorite province up north, Quebec enjoys an insane and unfair wealth of bands that churn out black metal with conviction. There’s a style, too — most Quebec bands blend an old-school approach with an embrace of melody that leads to some seriously catchy stuff. It’s Métal Noir Québecois, as much an ethos as a sound. I’ve rattled on about it in TBM before, but we’ve yet to feature arguably the best in the business, Forteresse (whose first album was titled, fittingly, Métal Noir Québecois). That’s largely their fault, as they haven’t followed up on their insanely great Crepuscule d’Octobre until now, and even here, it’s just one track (off a split, Légendes, highlighting some of Quebec’s best black metal — shout out to Monarque, Chasse-Galerie and Csejthe, all of whom deserve to be on this month’s list. The above showcases what black metal can be — dark, anthemic, frantic and lo-fi yet infectious. There’s a swing to it. Those guitar leads! It’s a ride, to be sure, one best taken with an open mind as to what the genre is capable of. Listen and enjoy, because it doesn’t get much better than this. [Sepulchral Productions] –Wyatt

04. Eyehategod – “Agitation! Propaganda!”

Location: New Orleans
Subgenre: Sludge Metal

This song nearly didn’t exist several times over. Since Eyehategod’s fourth album Confederacy of Ruined Lives dropped in 2000, the members of this trope-making sludge institution have suffered countless brushes with death, imprisonment, and debilitating addiction. They did not escape that 14-year span unscathed; longtime drummer Joey LaCaze, who played on all of the band’s recorded work, passed away last year. The fallen drummer will put in one last performance with his band, though — his playing appears on EHG’s self-titled fifth album, which comes out in late May. “Agitation! Propaganda!” doesn’t focus on LaCaze’s iconic slurring grooves — instead, it’s a two-minute hardcore burner in the vein of past classics like “Peace Thru War (Thru Peace and War).” It’s also an encouraging harbinger for the rest of the record. The recording nails the band’s characteristically foul tones, forever-haggard vocalist Mike Williams hasn’t lost a gasp, and the riffs are fucking there, man. The wait may yet be worth it. [Housecore Records] –Doug

03. Agalloch – “Celestial Effigy”

Location: Portland, Oregon
Subgenre: Dark Metal

In the December 2013 installment of our metal column, the Black Market, I spent several paragraphs gleefully anticipating the forthcoming fifth longplayer from the great Pacific Northwest dark metal band Agalloch. I’m not alone here — Agalloch’s then-untitled LP5 came in at No. 7 on our list of the 100 Most Anticipated Albums Of 2014. As I’ve said before, in my opinion, Agalloch’s last full-length, 2010’s Marrow Of The Spirit, is the best metal album released so far this millennium. But by limiting the scope of the conversation to Marrow, I’m actually forcing the band’s career into a reductive frame. Here’s the bigger picture: Since 1999, Agalloch have released four LPs, and a large number of EPs and splits, and that catalog is not only nearly flawless, but peerless among its class — the body of work produced by Agalloch over the last decade and a half stands alongside the body of work produced by any artist in any genre over that same timeframe, and it stands a great deal taller than most. Anyway, since December, the details of Agalloch’s fifth LP have emerged: The album will be titled The Serpent & The Sphere; it was produced, recorded, and mixed by Billy Anderson (Neurosis, Sleep, and a million other things including Agalloch’s last release, the 2012 EP Faustian Echoes); and it will be released on May 13. “Celestial Effigy” is the first song from The Serpent & The Sphere to be made available to the public. It’s slotted at No. 3 on this list largely because I think there are at least two better songs on the LP, while the songs ranked above it are the highlights of the respective albums from which they are culled. That’s not to say “Celestial Effigy” isn’t great. It is, in fact, absolutely great. It’s a labyrinthine epic that slowly unspools to reveal massive, magical details, many drawn from the ridiculous guitar work of Don Anderson, who is operating on a whole new level throughout The Serpent & The Sphere. [Profound Lore] –Michael

02. Triptykon – “Boleskine House”

Location: Zurich, Switzerland
Subgenre: Doom/Death Metal

The second album from Triptykon, Melana Chasmata, arrives next month, but it is already far and away one of the best metal albums 2014 will produce. Triptykon is the band fronted by Tom G. Warrior, formerly of the timeless, massively influential Celtic Frost. Triptykon’s 2010 debut, Eparistera Daimones, was an absolute monster, a worthy follow-up to CF’s final LP, 2006’s towering Monotheist. But Melana Chasmata is bigger and better than that album, and perhaps the single best album released to date by Warrior. This is a massive feat. Tom G. is one of the few remaining legends of the proto-extreme era still producing vital work, still charting a course for metal. I don’t think I’m exaggerating in calling it a masterpiece. “Boleskine House” is the second song on Melana Chasmata, and very likely the album’s highlight: Warrior’s vocals resemble nothing more than those of Leonard Cohen, especially as he shares the mic with Triptykon bassist Vanjah Slajh, here in the role of Judy Collins. It’s a beautiful, devastating track on an album of gargantuan, world-altering metal. [Century Media] –Michael

01. Thou – “At The Foot Of Mount Driskill”

Location: New Orleans
Subgenre: Atmospheric Sludge

The catalog produced by New Orleans sludge band Thou can be daunting to consider: Right now it stands at 28 releases (over 7 years) but that number could seemingly multiply at any time, without much warning. Thou also have a reputation as being one of the most intense, punishing live acts in America, with some 400-odd shows already in their rearview. Longtime Thou fans treat the band with a devotion bordering on reverence, if not zealotry. So for a newcomer, the prospect of getting into Thou can be an intimidating one, and understandably so. But today, any such ambivalence should be set aside: Thou’s new album, Heathen, is such a powerful, immersive piece of music that it reduces to rubble all barriers to entry.

Heathen is the fourth full-length album from Thou, following 2010’s Summit, but it is the best and most complete statement of their career. Where most sludge derives its power from relentless, grinding assault, Heathen achieves much wider-scale grandeur by not dedicating itself to any specific sound or tone. Huge stretches of the album are devoted to quiet acoustic or ambient passages. Even at its heaviest (and this thing gets very fucking heavy, too), the songs stay grounded with explosive melodic hooks and skyward-reaching guitars. Vocalist Bryan Funck remains a black-lunged psychopath screamer, but there are also occasional clean vocals here, cutting through the smoke like searchlights. The only constant, really, is the rhythm, which rarely exceeds that of a human heartbeat.

Heathen is a dark, bombastic, hugely ambitious album of great sorrow, but perhaps even greater beauty. It is an album that demands and deserves obsessive attention — an album that will inspire and reward such attention, as its hooks sink deeper and its priceless, gorgeous, terrifying treasures are slowly unearthed, piece by piece — an album that already feels like a classic. [Gilead Media] –Michael

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