The Black Market

The Black Market: The Month In Metal – September 2015

A few weeks back, I came across the following YouTube video. It’s an 8-bit, early video game-style rendition of “Chapel Of Ghouls,” one of death-metal greats Morbid Angel’s signature tunes. As you can imagine, it sounds pretty weird, especially if you know the original:

That such covers exist isn’t surprising — 8-bit reworkings of all kinds have been floating around YouTube for years, and metal’s been entwined with video game culture for decades. ’80s hard rock and heavy metal exerted such a pronounced influence on the music for franchises like Mega Man and Castlevania that they sometimes sound more natural performed by a metal band than in their original format, and there’s a cottage industry of bands dedicated to such pastiche. (Tellingly, Mega Man’s Japanese name is Rock Man, with a sidekick named Roll.)

Naturally, I passed this weird Morbid Angel cover along to the other Black Market guys — Ian Chainey, Aaron Lariviere, Wyatt Marshall, and Michael Nelson — and we started looking for more. Turns out there are a LOT of 8-bit versions of metal songs out there. Way, way more than I would’ve ever guessed.

The obvious classics receive plenty of representation in this format, with covers of Metallica, Maiden, Slayer, Sabbath, and all the rest in plentiful supply. There are also lots of 8-bit versions of the more popular extreme metal bands — Emperor, Carcass, Death, and so forth. It’s definitely a little weird that someone would go to the trouble of constructing full-album 8-bit covers of fiddly prog metal bands like Dream Theater and Opeth, but those bands are both quite popular by metal standards and enjoy devoted fan followings.

It didn’t stop there, though. The covers grew ever more underground and obscure. Repulsion. Asphyx. Master. Falconer. Demilich. Demolition Hammer, for Pete’s sake. Demolition Hammer were once pretty popular, but they aren’t exactly enshrined in the pantheon these days. But they’re also not totally forgotten, and thus this odd fragment of cultural ephemera.

A large portion of these more obscure 8-bit covers — including all the ones I linked in the previous paragraph — are the product of a YouTuber who goes by Miles_Metal. Judging by the accreditation on his videos, he pulls his covers from transcriptions on the guitar tablature website Ultimate-Guitar.com, which explains how he’s managed to upload dozens and dozens of these videos in just the past six months. For me, the pièce de résistance of Miles_Metal’s catalog is this 8-bit version of Suffocation’s “Pierced From Within.” If you’re unfamiliar with Suffocation, it’s important to know that a) they’re considered one of technical death metal’s most groundbreaking bands, and b) the album in question is EXTREMELY complex and challenging, to the point that even an accomplished metal guitarist might struggle to imitate it:

This cover is freakishly accurate. It replicates the original’s twisted harmonies and unpredictable rhythms damn near perfectly. And, as far as I can tell, the audience for such a cover is vanishingly close to zero. Extreme metal instantly loses a lot of its appeal when you replace every ‘roided-up instrument tone with beeps and boops. You could reasonably ask why anyone would want to hear such a thing. And indeed, as of this writing, the video has 52 views. So it goes for the vast majority of Miles_Metal’s videos.

I bring all this up for two reasons, aside from the fact that I can’t resist anthropologizing weird internet holes like this one:

First, even though these stripped-down versions of metal tunes lose a lot, they also provide an unusually revealing look at the source compositions. People who don’t like metal often write the genre off as “just noise,” and they’re right in the sense that tone and texture of the music sometimes becomes more important than the composition itself. (I’m look at you, stoner doom bands.) These covers strip away the huge amps and crazy vocals to show the music’s bones — they display the sparseness of Darkthrone or the crazy-fast ambitions of Megadeth with absolutely no window dressing. That’s why I enjoy the 8-bit Suffocation cover so much. The original recording comes on so strong that it’s easy to lose track of what’s going on and let the physical force of the music occupy your attention. With all that tonal heaviness stripped away, subtle little compositional details that you could barely hear in the original — little harmonic flourishes and rhythmic adjustments — stand out starkly. Even though it’s not the kind of thing I’m likely to revisit much, this cover offers a totally altered perspective on a piece of music that I’ve listened to hundreds of times over the years, and I’ll hear the original a little differently every time I spin it now. And you could say much the same for the rest of its ilk.

The second and more important reason that I find these covers so engaging is that they’re a good example of the kind of insane, blind-to-market-forces enthusiasm that drives the underground metal world. There aren’t many material incentives for guys like Miles_Metal to post these 8-bit versions of metal tunes. (I imagine some covers of higher-profile artists generate enough views for a Youtube payout, but it’s not exactly a living.) There were no crowds in the street demanding an 8-bit version of Violator’s “Ordered To Thrash” — or even for the guitar tab that spawned it. These guys just went ahead and made them anyway: for the love of the song, for love of 8-bit music, and why the hell not?

Underground metal is all about this obsessive, solipsistic energy. It draws in people who are equipped with it — perhaps “posssessed by it” would be more fitting — by the busload. (Maybe that’s why the genre has done so well during the Internet age.) And sometimes, despite itself, that energy produces work that captures far more imaginations than intended. Such is the case with the album I’m personally most excited about this month: Dim & Slimeridden Kingdoms by Slugdge. Slugdge is an unsigned British two-piece who don’t play live or do anything to promote their work. They don’t even print physical copies of their albums. In fact, they can’t be bothered to do anything but slap their releases on Bandcamp as pay-what-you-want downloads. But musically, Slugdge would fit right in touring with Amon Amarth or playing to thousands on the European summer festival circuit. They’re a huge-sounding, epic, listener-friendly band; they just don’t care about whether anyone’s paying attention. And they’re not even weird for being that way! That’s just the prevailing attitude for a lot of these musicians — they play for their own satisfaction, genuinely and exclusively. It’s often a weird thing to behold, and sometimes it’s a little sad, but usually, it’s just beautiful. —Doug Moore

15. Acherontas – “Gospel Of Saturn”

Location: Athens, Greece
Subgenre: black metal

Not familiar with Acherontas? Acherontas V.Priest, the leader of this Greek black metal quintet, isn’t going to help you out if you’re a read-before-listening kind of person. While making the rounds for the recently released Ma-IoN (Formulas Of Reptilian Unification), V.Priest made his you-figure-it-out policy, uh, “clear” to Destructive Music: “It’s pathetic to see all these bands to give interviews and speak so much about stuff, because certain science must remain hidden, hermetically closed. Some things can see the lights of the masses, but not everything.” This fits into Acherontas’ overall aesthetic, one that walks the line between “whoa” and “lol.” On the one hand, the all-jaded-everything reaction to V.Priest is, like, For real? Sorry, I don’t have change. On the other, V.Priest’s belief in not blabbing, not to mention actually trusting listeners to come to their own conclusions, is, well, refreshing. All in all, it makes Acherontas mysterious; not because they told you they’re mysterious, because they actually are. And what do you do when confronted with a mystery? You want to lift “Gospel Of Saturn”‘s veils. Luckily, there’s a lot to lift on their side of Atavistic Resurgence, a split with Finland’s Horna, a long-running gem having a great year itself. Book-ended by mood-setting, ancient-sounding instrumentals, “Gospel Of Saturn” is rocks of black-metal ear crack. There are ’90s-styled inter-dimensional travels, vocals spewed and shouted from all angles, and athletic drumming. Two moments stand out: The first is a chunky riff bounced from speaker to speaker, a surprise sound-design conjuration; the second is the outro, where an enthralled moaning monologue spurs on a black metal drilling team to tap a well of chaotic magick. Is it “whoa”? “Lol”? Up to you, but the one thing that does see the light is that Acherontas believes in what they’re doing, and hearing that conviction first-hand is worth more than reading about it. [From Atavistic Resurgence, out now via W.T.C. Productions]Ian

14. Wild Throne – “Shadow Deserts”

Location: Bellingham, WA
Subgenre: stoner-prog

Wild Throne formed in 2008 and started their career with a couple EPs that came out in 2010 and 2012, respectively. They were called Dog Shredder back then, a name they abandoned in late 2013, probably because it unintentionally conjured up some ugly imagery. If they’d maybe put a semi-colon in there, it would have actually been a pretty apt moniker: Their music is equally vicious and fun (like a dog) and it absolutely shreds. After changing their handle to Wild Throne, they released an EP in February 2014 — called Blood Maker — a record that probably would have made my list of last year’s best if it had been five or six songs longer. Now they’re set to drop their first full-length, Harvest Of Darkness (it’s got 11 songs, FYI), and it more than delivers on the promises made by the band on that EP and everything preceding it. Wild Throne is sort of a nondescript name, but again, some punctuation might help: This shit is totally feral and out of control, and it fucking rules. Like Blood Maker, Harvest Of Darkness was produced by Ross Robinson, a guy who’s forever associated with some of the worst music of all time, but who followed that chapter in his life by working behind the boards on a handful of the early aughts’ very best, most exciting, and most cult-beloved rock records, namely At The Drive-In’s Relationship Of Command, Glassjaw’s Worship & Tribute, and the Blood Brothers’ Burn, Piano Island, Burn. The music made by Wild Throne has a lot in common with those three albums — frenetic, explosive energy; radically unpredictable arrangements; skull-scorching performances that at points seem like they should be physically impossible — but most importantly, like those records, it is essentially peerless. Harvest Of Darkness is going to be studied like scripture by young woodshedders, but Wild Throne don’t just fire off pyrotechnics to dazzle jaw-dropped audiences. These are kickass, climactically structured songs that combine elements of arena rock, prog, psychedelia, and several metal subgenres; Wild Throne are often doing more in one song than some bands manage over entire careers, and still it somehow sounds … not effortless, exactly — because you can tell these guys put in the work — but absolutely natural. It’s like watching old Jordan highlights reels — the way he was just gliding and stunting and dunking, like everyone else on the court was there not to stop him or even feed him the ball, but to make his feats look more impressive. It’s an amazing experience, and one that only Wild Throne can deliver. [From Harvest Of Darkness, out 10/2 via Roadrunner]Michael

13. Beaten To Death – “Papyrus Containing The Spell To Summon The Breath Of Life Enshrined In The Collected Scrolls Of Sheryl Crow”

Location: Oslo, Norway
Subgenre: grindcore

A few weeks back, we streamed a song by the Norwegian black metal band Tsjuder. Tsjuder’s onstage presentation is as stonefaced as it gets, which makes drummer Christian “AntiChristian” Svendsen’s membership in the unorthodox grindcore band Beaten To Death that much more amusing. To give you an idea of how different Beaten To Death’s presentation is from Tsjuder’s, consider that they credit Svendsen as “Christian Bartender.” Then consider the thoroughly sarcastic song titles on Unplugged, their outstanding third album. (Which isn’t actually an unplugged album.) Opener “Papyrus Containing The Spell To Summon The Breath Of Life Enshrined In The Collected Scrolls Of Sheryl Crow” bags on recent Black Market honorees Nile for their predilection for long song titles. “Don’t You Fucking Dare To Call Us Heavy Metal” (they are clearly heavy metal) shares space with “Death To False Grindcore.” You should Google “Robert Sylvester Kelly” if you don’t recognize the name. The last song is called “Troll,” for crying out loud. But despite the outward silliness, Unplugged is as intense and inventive as anything on the grind landscape these days. Against a familiar backdrop of blastbeats, belching vocals, and rock-salt bass, guitarists Tommy Hjelm and Martin Rygge twang away with clattering single-coil guitars that might sound more at home in a hard-charging ’90s indie rock band than in any extreme metal mutation. And at times, the material they’re playing sounds in keeping with that bizarre tone — they’re fond of chiming, layered arpeggios that would be positively beautiful if it weren’t for all the guttural mayhem belting out of their bandmates. Unplugged is Beaten To Death’s third EP-length hit in four years; time to get familiar. [From Unplugged, out 10/9 via Mas-Kina Recordings]Doug

12. Yautja – “Breed Regret”

Location: Nashville, TN
Subgenre: death metal/sludge/grindcore

If you’ve seen Yautja live, you’re a Yautja fan. It’s basically that simple. This busy trio, whose ranks include members of Coliseum, Alraune, and Mutilation Rites (among others), can dominate a room in a way that you don’t often see from bands of their relatively underground stature. Guitarist Shibby Poole’s impossibly huge tone is worth the price of admission by itself. And after the past year, chances are decent that you actually have seen Yautja — they’ve spent that period touring aggressively on their excellent 2014 album Songs Of Descent, sharing bills with the likes of Inter Arma, Cult Leader, and Black Breath whenever one of the members’ other bands isn’t already touring. Which makes me wonder how Yautja found the time to put together Songs Of Lament, the EP-sized follow-up to Songs Of Descent they’re releasing next month. A lot of Yautja’s live appeal rests on the sheer physical force they bring to bear — imagine an extremely mean-spirited death metal band toying with the thickest riffs from Mastodon’s early catalog. That power comes through loud and clear on “Breed Regret,” the opening cut from Songs Of Lament. Pretty much every riff is a banger, but wait until Yautja lock in after the break at 2:49 to get a sense of just how hard these guys can hit. [From Songs Of Lament, out 10/13 via Forcefield Records]Doug Moore

11. Amorphis – “Under The Red Cloud”

Location: Helsinki, Finland
Subgenre: melodic death metal

Amorphis is near and dear to my heart. They were the gateway band that grabbed me and led to my initial deep dive into metal. It was thrilling and foreign. Finnish metal! A palette that evoked the cold exotic climate perfectly in my mind, accented with Middle Eastern vibes. Heady stuff for a teenager. I know people point to Tales From The Thousand Lakes as their favorite Amorphis album, but I actually think I have to give the crown to Elegy, with “The Orphan” being my favorite track. Since 2001, with Am Universum, really, Amorphis has lost some edge. Lead singer Pasi Kokinen, who had taken over all vocal duties from guitarist Tomi Koivusaari and backed away from growling, was soon replaced by the able Tomi Joutsen. Joutsen delivers both growls and clean vocals, and Amorphis has now released six original albums with him at the helm. I never really caught the bug, though I’ve heard people think very highly of 2009’s Skyforger. However, at Maryland Deathfest this past year, Amorphis played through Tales in full, and it was incredible. (Joutsen had already showcased he was up to task on 2010’s Magic & Mayhem, a rerecording of early classics.) Joutsen is a pure showman, and convincing, and I left feeling that maybe I should take another look at some of the albums I missed out on. That’s on hold now for the excellent new album Under The Red Cloud. Twenty-five years into their career, Amorphis still hits with vigor, churning out exciting and uplifting melodic death metal with panache. The title track opens up the album, and is the perfect exhilarating lift-off point for everything that follows. [From Under The Red Cloud, out now via Nuclear Blast]Wyatt

10. Mord’A’Stigmata – “The Mantra Of Anguish”

Location: Bochnia, Poland
Subgenre: black metal/post-black metal

“Nature is nothing for me,” Mord’A’Stigmata guitarist Static told Necrosphere in 2011, “I was born in concrete forest, under the sky made of steel. I would easier find an inspiration in crowded, dark pub than in peaceful mountains.” Cool. Not that nature isn’t cool, but it’s a black metal trope for a reason. Considering the frequency that nature’s majesty is invoked, you’d expect every walk in the woods to be scored by some tree-perched bleakster shredding dueling tremolos. So, high-fives to Mord’A’Stigmata for being different. And, viewing this Polish four-piece’s fourth album, Our Hearts Slow Down, through a city’s lens is a good look. Opener “The Mantra Of Anguish” is structured like a busy city sidewalk: zoomed in, every instrument is doing its own thing; zoomed out, it’s a mass moving in one direction. However, the bigger difference, what really separates Mord’A’Stigmata from the pack, is the band’s comfort level. They know who they are, though we might struggle to categorize them. In other words, they shake off oft-leaned-upon genre tags. For example, “progressive post-black metal.” The band is “progressive,” just in the sense they’ve challenged themselves to winnow their sound down to essentials. Likewise, they’re “post-” whatever in that this is the path a musician takes when they grow up. That last distinction is the thing: “Mantra” focuses less on form and more on function. Widdles and bombast and speed aren’t part of the playbook. Instead, Mord’A’Stigmata rides uncluttered grooves and lets guitars tangle together before the next strum. This is nowhere clearer, or better executed, than at “Mantra”‘s 7:30 mark, when the drums and bass simmer with a propulsive thump while the guitars lock into a complimentary rhythm. Mord’A’Stigmata gives you time to fully investigate this section before ending on a surprisingly worthwhile drone. That feedback wash, like what a whale must hear on acid, is a feast for ears. Altogether, it’s 13 confident minutes of patient playing. Not quite the hustle and bustle one would expect from city-dwellers, but then again, there’s comfort in what you know. [From Our Hearts Slow Down , out now via Pagan Records]Ian

9. Black Breath – “Pleasure, Pain, Disease”

Location: Seattle, WA
Subgenre: death metal/hardcore

When Black Breath released their first EP, 2008’s Razor To Oblivion, what stood out was not the songs but the sound — a fucking absurdly titanic buzzing monstrosity that paid obvious and direct homage to the 747-sized guitars of classic Swedish death-metal bands such as Dismember, Carnage, and of course, Entombed. (Fun fact: Razor To Oblivion was released on the band’s own Hot Mass Records, and its catalog number is HM-2, which would be a hilarious coincidence if it were not, in fact, a hilarious in-joke — there is no HM-1.) Black Breath honed that sound over three excellent LPs, but a bunch of other bands also honed that sound during the same timeframe: I’d say that roughly half of everything recorded by Kurt Ballou over the last five or so years (namely Nails, Trap Them, All Pigs Must Die, etc.) employs the HM-2 in a pretty significant capacity. Of course, Black Breath also gained a well-deserved rep as a CRUSHING live act, and between the guitar tone and the kickass show, they were doing pretty well. But on their new Slaves Beyond Death, they’re separating themselves from the pack, largely by writing some songs that are worthy of the rest of the package. Slaves Beyond Death is the best Black Breath record by a huge margin, and one of the best death-metal records of 2015, as far as I’m concerned. I’m a sucker for this sound, and I have been since first hearing Entombed’s Left Hand Path in 1990, but I’ve grown pretty bored with it over the past few years. Slaves Beyond Death, though, has woken me up entirely — it’s made me realize I was right to be bored, made me remember why I loved this stuff in the first place, and most importantly, made me recognize in Black Breath a vitality that destroys nostalgia like a jackhammer destroying pavement. [From Slaves Beyond Death, out now via Southern Lord]Michael

8. Slægt – “Move In Chaos”

Location: Copenhagen, Denmark
Subgenre: black/death metal

“Move In Chaos” hits like a turbocharged bulldozer outfitted with scythes. It eviscerates everything in its path. It seethes malevolence and embraces horror film campiness, packing it into a pitch-perfect throwback package. Hearing those dancing guitars and the hurry-up drums, I get the image of a bunch of young ’90s longhairs frantically playing to keep up with the song’s innate raging energy, like, “Holy crap, what have we created?” If something ever deserved to be called a ripper, or filthy, this is it. “Move In Chaos” packs so much into its seven minutes you wonder where Slægt can go from here, and that largely remains to be seen. Slægt has been around for a few years now, releasing a demo, a split and a full-length earlier this year that were much rawer experiences than this. The tapes and the album were cool and incredibly promising, but “Move In Chaos” is something else entirely. I’ve heard what else they’ve got in store on the upcoming Beautiful And Damned, though, and I can tell you it’s an absolute, glorious rager. [From Beautiful and Damned, out later this year on Iron Bonehead]Wyatt

7. Hooded Menace – “Elysium Of Dripping Death”

Location: Joensuu, Finland
Subgenre: death/doom metal

The Finnish death-doom band Hooded Menace have been a beloved cult presence since 2008, when they released their debut LP, Fulfill The Curse. They’ve gotten markedly more attention in the years that followed, though — especially after hooking up with the hugely influential independent label Profound Lore for their sophomore LP, 2010’s Never Cross The Dead, and then with the metal powerhouse Relapse Records for their next one, 2012’s Effigies Of Evil. Along the way, they’ve released splits with similarly minded underground greats like Asphyx, Ilsa, Coffins, and Loss. If you like any of those bands, you’ll probably like Hooded Menace, too — they all deal in massive, thundering doom metal of some variety, producing art that appeals to both purists and aesthetes — but if you like any of those bands, you probably know Hooded Menace already. If not, you definitely should. Hell, even if you don’t care about any of those bands, you should familiarize yourself with Hooded Menace. There are few bands today playing death-doom of this magnitude (Triptykon and Indesinence are two that come to mind, and that’s intended as basically the highest possible praise). Their music is based around titanic, melodic riffs, proceeding deliberately to towering heights. Hooded Menace are going to release their fourth full-length, Darkness Drips Forth, next month (again via Relapse), preceded by its first “single,” the 11-and-a-half-minute-long “Elysium Of Dripping Death.” That title is a mouthful, but it’s apt: Hooded Menace’s music does indeed “drip,” like blood or rain — slowly, with increasingly high stakes — while “Elysium” is a mythological afterlife realm reserved for the gods and their relatives — and Hooded Menace’s majesty rarely feels anything less than godlike. [From Darkness Drips Forth, out 10/30 via Relapse Records]Michael

6. My Dying Bride – “Feel The Misery”

Location: Halifax, UK
Subgenre: gothic doom metal

Listening to My Dying Bride, I always think of spilled red wine. It’s metal transmogrified into mood music, conjuring oil-painting images of gothic romance in the 18th century sense. Guttering candles and histrionic sex. Rain-spattered moorlands and crumbling stone crypts. Dead flowers, dying brides, and Percy Shelley poetry: “Music, when soft voices die, vibrates in the memory; odours, when sweet violets sicken, live within the sense they quicken. Rose leaves, when the rose is dead, are heap’d for the belovèd’s bed; and so thy thoughts, when thou art gone, love itself shall slumber on.” (Singer Aaron Stainthorpe often cites Shelley as a key inspiration.) If all this feels a bit overwrought, then we’re on the right path: MDB are indulgent to a fault, and it’s part of what makes them great. Across 11 albums and 25 years, they have stayed the course, shifting only slightly from their death/doom roots towards majestic gothic doom, clean singing and all. The last few albums have seen the band in top form; their latest, Feel The Misery, is practically pitch-perfect. The title track plays like a masochistic statement of purpose, harking back to the simple, stinging refrain time and again: “Do not waste happiness, or sing for loneliness. Feel the misery. Follow the falling path, and take every single lash. Feel the misery.” Best do as they say. [From Feel The Misery, out now via Peaceville]Aaron

5. Vhol – “The Desolate Damned”

Location: San Francisco, CA
Subgenre: progressive thrash

Way back in February of 2013, Vhol — often styled Vhöl, a new band in the press cycle for their self-titled debut album — took the top spot in the very first edition of the Black Market. You don’t see a lot of rookie bands landing #1 spots in this feature, but even then, Vhol weren’t exactly rookies. This band is a full-on supergroup, staffed by names that routinely crush the annual best-of circuit: Mike Scheidt (Yob) on vocals, John Cobbett (Hammers Of Misfortune, Ludicra) on guitar, Sigrid Sheie (Hammers Of Misfortune, Amber Asylum) on bass, and Aesop Dekker (Ludicra, Agalloch) on drums. Like all supergroups, Vhol is doomed to register as less than the sum of its parts. But given that Vhol’s parts are insanely stacked, that fate still leaves a lot of headroom for excellence. On Deeper Than Sky, Vhol have shuffled around their constituent influences — ’80s thrash and hardcore, ’90s black metal, and ’70s progressive rock — in a way that takes more advantage of that upside than their debut did. Deeper Than Sky emphasizes Cobbett’s thrash riffing far more than did its predecessor, which is welcome. All of Cobbett’s projects have featured his powerful pedal-tone work on occasion, and he’s a total fucking monster at the style, with a commanding delivery and a brushed-steel tone that reminds me of James Hetfield’s salad days. (If that gradually-swelling shred intro isn’t a tribute to “Blackened”, I’ll eat my hat.) Cobbett sounds like he’s having more fun running wild with this style here than on pretty much any other recording of him I’ve ever heard. His exuberance helps further distinguish Vhol from both Ludicra and HoM, which is important — the first Vhol record sometimes sounded like it was the product of resurrected Ludicra ideas, and I don’t get that sense at all from Deeper Than Sky. Meanwhile, the other members have also settled into their roles — especially Scheidt, who occasionally sounded flummoxed by the high-tempo context of the first Vhol record. His Geddy-gone-heavy wail works to great effect here, though, especially over the celestial guitar break at 3:30 in “The Desolate Damned.” But hearing Cobbett lock in with Dekker and Sheie on those masterful thrash riffs delivers the most joy on this riotous record. I’ve listened to that first instrumental sequence in “The Desolate Damned” like six times while writing this, and it sounds better with each replay. This band has a personality all its own now — I could see Vhol really blowing the doors off if they go into a studio again a third time. [From Deeper Than Sky, out 10/23 via Profound Lore]Doug

4. Onirik – “Reverent to the Flames”

Location: Lisbon, Portugal
Subgenre: black metal

Portuguese one-man band Onirik is legit good. Now, that doesn’t say much on the surface, and it probably says even less in our current critical culture where everyone is paid by the plaudit. So, qualification by hastily constructed analogy: Music is like business in that luck is a huge factor. It feels like everyone fakes it until they hit the lottery of making it. This random success is so widespread, it’s hard not to grow comfortable in the fact that no one really knows what they’re doing. Then, in bounds a legitimately skilled person like a soul-crushing unicorn, a rare beast reminding all that the previous baselines of acceptability have been ego-protecting lies. Onirik is that, an expertly-crafted project sweeping a year’s worth of black metal good-enoughs and right-place-right-times under the rug. Granted, let’s not go overboard. Casket Dream Veneration, Gonius Rex’s fourth LP under the Onirik moniker, is damn solid. But, like what Effectively Wild’s Sam Miller said about contemporary fiction, today’s new classic is tomorrow’s C+. Time sands away insta-hyperbole until only the truth is left. Still, a song like “Reverent to the Flames” provides plenty of evidence pointing towards Onirik’s no B.S., primed-to-last artistry. First off, the way the woozy swirls of melodies coalesce together is no happy accident. And, jeeze, Onirik juggles so many elements. Cosmic horror guitars exhale progressions of paranoia, rhythms click together like clockwork, and ethereal chants echo throughout the catacombs. At first blast, it’s Vindsval, but the half-life of that comparison is one listen. Onirik’s regionalism hews closer to under-appreciated countrymen Bosque, in the chants at least. Yet, it’s not like this brand new territory, like “Reverent To The Flames” isn’t reverent to classics. Those faint moments of familiarity are by design. Gonius Rex checks his black metal boxes. Elsewhere on Casket Dream Veneration, there’s mad laughter, wild-eyed ritual recitation, and brief moments of mutated beauty burning through the neuroses. That’s black metal. It’s also legit good. Will it stand the test of time, though? Don’t know. Will you keep it close to continually retest its merits? Think so. [From Casket Dream Veneration, out 10/23 via Iron Bonehead]Ian

3. Baroness – “Chlorine & Wine”

Location: Savannah, GA
Subgenre: progressive metal/rock

It’s impossible to extricate “Chlorine & Wine” from its preceding storyline: the bus crash, the injuries, the rehabilitation and recovery process. It’s impossible not because the context is more compelling than the song, but because the context is woven deeply into the song’s fabric; the first words sung here by Baroness frontman John Baizley are, “When I call on my nursemaid/ ‘Come sit by my side’…” There’s a danger, though, that the “survivor” narrative might overshadow the music. It’s a little bit like when one-armed pitcher Jim Abbott threw a no-hitter for the Yankees in 1993: By focusing on the adversity that led to the accomplishment, the accomplishment itself somehow feels diluted. That should not have been the case for Abbott, and it should not be the case for Baroness, either. Even if Baroness’ bus had never plummeted off a cliff — hell, even if the band had spent the last three years running a goddamn petting zoo — “Chlorine & Wine” would be a ridiculous, glorious triumph. Forget about the lyrics; every single sound in this thing will produce a dopamine flood in your skull. When Baizley’s vocals double-up on the words “uncomfortably numb”? When those ascending guitar runs burst like lightning just after the 5:20 mark, as the song builds to its climax? Man, when I hear those things, waves of electricity run through my entire body. And all those sounds are sewn together and structured with the dexterity and daring of, like, Pulp Fiction: Each subsequent turn feels unexpected, audacious, and thrilling. The song starts off at the peak of Kilimanjaro and just soars from there, building momentum and altitude over its nearly 7-minute runtime (which somehow feels far too brief), ultimately leaving the listener somewhere on the surface of the moon. When they released “Chlorine & Wine,” Baroness posted a note on their Facebook, saying: “We have never been as uniformly psyched-up by a record of ours as we are today.” There are so many legitimate reasons for the band to feel such excitement, such pride. Here’s the one that matters most: This is the best song they’ve ever written. [From Purple, out 12/18 via Abraxan Hymns]Michael Nelson

2. Sivyj Yar – “The Snow Shall Fall A Long Time”

Location: Vyritsa, Russia
Subgenre: atmospheric black metal

We regularly feature metal from all over the world on The Black Market, ranking songs by bands from Finland next to those from Australia, the United States, China…and in one instance, a band from the United States that pretended to be from China. It’s somewhat rare we get a band from Russia, though, which is a shame. It can be a bit harder to find, but there’s a lot of top-notch Russian metal out there. Like their Scandinavian neighbors, Russia has the cold climate and deep-seated sense of history that’s fertile fodder for powerful metal. And the one-man band Sivyj Yar is an exceptional example that we haven’t let slip by. Vladimir, the man behind Sivyj Yar, has crafted a unique brand of deeply moving, melancholic atmospheric black metal. That said, there’s often a sense of playfulness to his songs. Folk elements arrive in lush swells of mournful strings, which are both complemented and partly offset by the lively, organic-sounding bass. Vladimir enthusiastically kills it on drums — “The Snow Shall Fall A Long Time” is a prime example — and often opts for bright guitar tones. Still, it’s forceful and soaring stuff, and Vladimir’s howls carry a sense of urgency. This masterpiece of a song is an icy beauty, sweeping in scope, with a strong sense of terroir. [From Burial Shrouds, out now via Avantgarde Music]Wyatt

1. Slugdge – “Dim & Slimeridden Kingdoms”

Location: Lancashire, UK
Subgenre: melodic death metal

Consider: A band with a concept revolving around interstellar slugs just put out one of the best albums of the year. Again. In the grand metal tradition of harnessing imagination and a boundless reserve of badass riffs to transform a ridiculous conceit into something affecting, Kev Pearson and Matt Moss have, once more, turned in eight gloriously grinding tracks far better than they need to be. So, yes, Dim & Slimeridden Kingdoms’s trail of slime is similar to last year’s sophomore outing, Gastronomicon. Modern Carcass-ian madness is further whipped into a frenzy by black metal accents, death metal descents, and baited-hook solos. But, Slugdge go deeper here, producing a set that’s isn’t as immediately catchy, though more able to withstand the erosion of multiple replays. How? For one, these songs have sturdier, uh, bones. The lyrics are a touch more poetic. “The Toxic Salts”: “Crystalline sprites now forming before him / Attempting to show him the mind of Mollusca / All spectrums of light visible in the scrying / Confounded by newfound perspectives on dying.” Most bands struggle making the universal eventuality of death resonate, yet hearing Matt Moss deliver lines about fucking Mollusca erects neck hairs. That goes double for the smoother structures, which are somehow more progressive, in the Edge of Sanity sense, and more digestible. “Flying Snails”‘ centerpiece polyrhythmic thump shrugs off the spotlight other acts would shine on it and, instead, fits snugly within the surrounding sections. Same goes for “Pellet In The Head”‘s Ihsahn-isms or “Unchained Malady”‘s nod to Enslaved. These aren’t just parts, but components of songs. Of course, thinking solely of single-element surface pleasures, it sure doesn’t hurt when you’ve discovered a guitar tone as filthy as Kev Pearson’s. It adds up to 55 more minutes of infectious metal with an insatiable appetite for playlists. The unconverted, those who can’t get over the name and gimmick, will be confounded. Again. Whatever. Praise Mollusca. [From Dim & Slimeridden Kingdoms, out now, self-released]Ian