Underground metal doesn’t soar very often anymore. It churns and wriggles and spits and seethes, and it can be really great at all these things. If you’re in a bleak, heavy mood, something like Watain can line up perfectly with your mood. When you’re actively pissed off, it can be great, too; thanks to recent albums from Nux Vomica and At The Gates, I’ve found myself enjoying the feeling lately. But very little of this music feels triumphant. If you’re going to stand on the edge of a cliff and spread your arms wide, breathe the wind in through your nose, and feel like you can swallow the world, you’re probably not going to have, like, Pig Destroyer on your headphones. It would fuck the whole moment up. Things didn’t used to be that way. Black Sabbath and Danzig and Entombed made dark and heavy and uncompromising music, but if you heard them at the right moment, you could feel like you were 40 feet tall. And that’s what I hear in Where Greater Men Have Fallen, the new album from the Irish band Primordial. The album does all the things that underground metal is supposed to do in 2014. It blasts and roars and shuts the outside world out. But it does all that with a sense of melody and uplift that I haven’t heard in a long time.
Primordial aren’t a new band. They’ve been around upwards of 20 years, and Where Greater Men Have Fallen is their eighth album. By some accounts, they’re Ireland’s first-ever black metal band. I’d never heard of them before our own metal correspondents wrote a couple of nice things about them recently. (You’ve probably already figured this out, but I have just the barest grasp on what’s going on in metal right now. There’s a good chance I’ve already annoyed any number of true metalheads by mischaracterizing their entire genre.) Without deep-diving into those previous seven albums, the thing that sets Where Greater Men Have Fallen apart is its commitment to old-school metal values like melody and coherent riffage — the things that, once upon a time, could lead a band like Judas Priest or Anthrax to pack an arena. Primordial aren’t really a black metal band, at least at this point, but they’re perfectly capable of launching into that hummingbird-blastbeat moody-noise thing. They really find liftoff, though, on a song like “Ghosts Of The Charnel House” — locking into a dinosaur-stomp riff, playing it slowly enough that it can really connect, and then letting frontman Alan Averill just open up his throat and howl.
Averill has a set of pipes on him. The singer, who sometimes goes by the ungainly moniker A.A. Nemtheanga, is a classic metal wailer in the mold of Ronnie James Dio or Iron Maiden’s Bruce Dickinson. We don’t hear too many voices like his anymore: A full-bodied, high-pitched swooping eagle of a thing, a voice that makes everything around it sound bigger. When the band turns toward minor-key churn and Averill has to resort to something like the standard present-day Cookie Monster growl, as on a song like “The Alchemist’s Head,” Averill can do that just fine. He’s great at it, in fact. But there’s always the sense that his voice is straining, waiting, impatient to be cut loose and hit that glorious upper register. When that voice hits its greatest operatic heights, as on the chorus of the title track, you know you’re hearing something special. There’s a silliness in that grandeur, of course; you can make the same jokes about Averill as you might’ve made about Bruce Dickinson when you were a kid. But that voice sweeps you along anyway. It’s vast and mythic and urgent, and it can make you want to lift a mountain or chew boulders up into gravel. It’s a force.
The rest of the band has that vastness in them, too. While Averill, at least on this album, is very much an old-school metal frontman, the rest of the band doesn’t seem to feel like they need to go all imitation-Dio to keep up with him. Primordial could be a great retro-metal band, but then they’d still sound like a pale imitation of their influences. Instead, they evoke those old sounds when they need to, but they never sound beholden to them. Even in deep-crunch mode, there’s a slight black-metal enervated restlessness to the way they play. And they know how to hold back, too. “Born To Night,” the album’s longest song at nine minutes, opens with nearly four minutes of atmospheric mandolin strums before they drop the hammer and a monolithic riff bulldozes in out of nowhere. Averill barely sings on “Born To Night,” and yet you don’t really miss him, since his voice is deployed so effectively. From what I’ve been reading, Primordial have spent most of their lifespan fusing black metal with Celtic folk. There’s not that much black metal on Where Greater Men Have Fallen, and I don’t hear any Celtic folk at all. But the experience has evidently served the band well. They’ve got scope and vision and command and confidence, and they can take the best pieces of metal subgenres without being tied to any of them. And with Where Greater Men Have Fallen, they’ve made a beautiful rush of epicness. Listen to it on headphones, even when you’re walking your dog or taking out the trash, and you’ll feel like you’re on a mythic quest through a hostile land. That’s a pretty great way to feel.
Where Greater Men Have Fallen is out now on Metal Blade.
Other albums of note out this week:
• Mary J. Blige’s winning, dance-friendly The London Sessions.
• Rick Ross’ reliably swollen Hood Billionaire.
• Africa Express’ all-star tribute Terry Riley’s In C Mali.
• Ash Borer side project Urzeit’s black metal attack Urzeit/Akatharsia.
• Grimoire’s Quebecois black metal wallow L’Aorasie Des Spectres Rêveurs.
• Baring Teeth’s arty death metal exploration Ghost Chorus Among Old Ruins.
• Fen’s atmospheric black metaller Carrion Skies.
• Two Inch Astronaut’s Foulbrood.
• The Shady Records compilation Shady XV.
• Soundgarden’s rarities box set Echo Of Miles: Scattered Tracks Across The Path.
• A-Trak’s Full EP.
• Soft Fangs’ self-titled EP.
• Prawn’s Settled EP.