The Black Market: The Month In Metal – October 2015
Near the beginning of October, the great prog-sludge act Giant Squid announced that they were terminating their 12-plus-year career with an indefinite hiatus. Though Giant Squid is hardly a household name, they enjoyed a rabid cult following during much of their run, and many folks — myself included — considered them one of the brightest stars in post-2000 heavy music’s dizzying constellation of talents. Their disbandment merits comment for that reason alone, but the explanation provided by frontman Aaron Gregory for their decision also neatly encapsulates an issue that’s been on my mind a lot recently.
Here’s the relevant bit; you can read Gregory’s full statement here. (For clarity’s sake, the Jackie mentioned below is Jackie Perez-Gratz, Giant Squid’s cellist/vocalist):
I won’t bore anyone with every reason we have to stop, as there are so many and most of which are just the nagging hardships of being in a “metal” band in your late 30’s/early 40’s … What it comes down to is, it’s nearly impossible for both parents of the same marvelous kid to be in a serious, actively writing/touring band together. It’s just not fair to Pearl, Jackie’s and my daughter, for her parents to be dedicating so much time together doing something that doesn’t involve her. Even just our short trip to the East Coast this year was brutally hard to pull off, logistically, monetarily, and emotionally. Jackie and I both agree that at the end of the day, without question, we’d rather be at home with Pearl, than killing ourselves and draining our bank accounts to play a dark, dank bar thousands of miles away from her in Brooklyn, to thirty people, if even that many.
Couple that with the fact that [bassist] Bryan [Beeson] has two amazing kids and all the responsibilities that go along with being the incredible Dad he is, as well as the fact that all of us are broke, and two of us still live in Sacramento which is now a three hour drive away from the Bay thanks to insane increases in Bay Area traffic, and it just becomes harder and harder to pull off even the simplest local gig.
Wah, right? Well, trust me when I say, that’s how it’s been for YEARS for us. Every gig you’ve seen us play in the last 5-6 years was a fucking logistical circus/nightmare. We always pulled it off, because it was still just possible enough, and felt worth it, but we almost always did so with little to no rehearsal prior to the gig, and by losing large amounts of personal money with every show. Nowadays, what we get out of the band is so small compared to how much we put in; and I’m not referring solely to money, as that’s never really been a deciding factor on whether to continue as a band. We’re just beat, really fucking busy with our families and jobs, and need to not feel like we’re keeping this lead ship afloat.
TL;DR: Giant Squid’s members, like most musicians, faced all kinds of quotidian pressures outside of the band. Since the project perpetually lost money while requiring tons of resources merely to exist, it eventually became impossible to sustain in the face of those pressures. (I can personally vouch for the poor attendance of the Brooklyn show in question.) Band break-ups rarely seem to last these days, and Gregory’s full message leaves the door open for a reunion in the future. But for now, Giant Squid is no more.
Lots of small-time bands break up when the members get tired of eating shit to keep the show on the road. But Giant Squid wasn’t a common band. They were a freakishly original, visionary act with skill and craftsmanship to match. Their four full-length records — 2014’s Minoans, 2011’s Cenotes, 2009’s The Ichthyologist, and 2006’s Metridium Fields — all scored heaps of critical acclaim. (Minoans placed high on our list of 2014’s best metal albums.) The band worked with respected labels like the End Records and Translation Loss. And their music is hardly abstract or off-putting. Those four albums are all lushly melodic, epically emotive collages that frequently stray from metal into the more digestible territory of post-rock, world music, and Americana.
In short, Giant Squid should’ve been huge — a fact borne out by the recent ascent of comparable acts like SubRosa, Pallbearer, and Yob. For one reason or another, that potential went untapped, and Giant Squid were ultimately forced into retirement by the real-world problems that come with spending all your spare money on making albums and never getting anything back. Intellectually, I know that this chain of events is just another of the music industry’s frustrating, seemingly random, and distressingly commonplace failures to reward a group of gifted musicians with the opportunity to at least break even on their art. Emotionally, it feels like a fucking crime against humanity.
And it’s surprising that this kind of thing doesn’t happen even more often, or at least more visibly. Giant Squid were a far more popular and commercially viable act than most of the cavern-dwelling extreme-metal bands we cover in the Black Market. The median underground metal musician labors under a far lower commercial ceiling, with scant industry support and grimmer lifestyle prospects. (Ask any underground-level musician with a service-industry job how much of their income they spend maintaining their gear and paying practice space rent, and brace for an earful.) It’s basically an amateur art form — not in the sense that its practitioners are unskilled, but rather in that money is almost never their driving concern. And when you’re a committed amateur, the kind of ticky-tack logistical issues that undid Giant Squid, so mundane and inconsequential on paper, can become a constant drumbeat of stress and frustration.
And beyond that, the opportunity costs inherent in committing to a serious (but amateur) band can be immense. Everything else in your life essentially goes on hold. Very few people successfully launch careers, earn advanced degrees, or start families while sustaining even a moderately active metal project at the same time. (Notably, the fact that Giant Squid’s members attempted such feats played a role in the band’s demise.) By dedicating yourself to such a band, you are virtually guaranteeing that you will spend years organizing your life around a pursuit that will compensate you strictly in fond memories and credit card debt. But every year, hundreds — if not thousands — of people knowingly choose to do so.
Strangely, the long-term prognosis for metal musicians who can financially sustain the full-time album/tour cycle indefinitely — those who become honest-to-god professionals — may be even worse. Some of the figurehead bands who sit atop metal’s totem pole of recognizability have pulled off the trick of spending their entire lives on the road, but most of them are visibly the worse for wear now — the likes of Ozzy Osbourne, Lemmy Kilmister, and Bobby Liebling have effectively been publicly eulogized even as they continue to drag their battered bodies across stages large and small. It’s hard to imagine their younger brothers, the lions of extreme metal — your Tom G. Warriors, Trey Azagthoths, and John Tardys, none of whom earned real rockstar sums even at their peak popularity — receiving such high-profile farewells as they shuffle towards the wings in a few decades. (And shuffle they will; because of its athletic instrumental demands, extreme metal is no country for old men.) By the time they do, it’ll be too late for the second act that many of their less-successful underground progeny may enjoy after hanging up their Jackson guitars and double pedals. I can’t imagine the metal industry, which is just as perennially broke as the community it serves, providing many cushy twilight gigs for its icons once they retire from performance. And without the tenuous publish-or-perish lifestyle performance entails, these guys are pretty much hosed. The tragic fact is that a lot of underground metal legends will probably die destitute, even after giving their fans so much of themselves. In fact, Death guitarist/vocalist Chuck Schuldiner — the man who most agree invented death metal during the ’80s — died of cancer in 2001, in part because he and his family couldn’t afford to pay for treatment. And THAT is definitely a fucking crime.
I bring up this ugly logic because the tenor of the recent conversation around music production has mostly emphasized how easy it is for “regular” (read: non-wealthy, non-well-connected) people to make and distribute music — on their laptops, at home, with no professional support. It’s true that upstart amateur musicians, metal or otherwise, can record and release professional-quality music much less expensively than at any time in the past. That’s a good thing on the balance. (My own band almost certainly wouldn’t have made it past the demo stage if it weren’t for this shift.) But celebrating this state of affairs obscures the fact that committing even a small portion of your life to writing and performing music requires major sacrifices — perhaps more so now than ever, given the fiscally painful ramifications of the streaming explosion. And the more outré the music, the heftier that price is likely to be.
But I doubt a single one of the musicians I’ve mentioned here would take back their decision to pay it. “Amateur” shares an etymological root with “amor,” after all. Aaron Gregory’s farewell message on the Giant Squid page puts it thusly: “If this is it, and we go out with Minoans as our last album, well then, we will have had a damn good run of over 12 years, surviving some serious shit along the way. We’re all very proud of that.” And that’s why all of this is worth thinking about: It’s a vital piece of the emotional bedrock that supports all the crazy art we talk about here every month, and it demonstrates just how blindly devoted to their craft the people who make it are. Metal is full of inhuman sounds and escapist lyrics, so it’s easy to forget that all that racket comes from vulnerable human musicians — most of whom have endured considerable hardship to make said racket possible, without any expectation of reward. You can hear that kind of overwhelming, life-consuming passion in any quality metal record, and if you follow this column, you know that there are lots of those. And the joy you can experience if you tap into that passion — either as a musician or as a listener — is a reward that nobody can put a price on. –Doug Moore
15. Thy Catafalque – “Jura”
Location: Edinburgh, Scotland
Subgenre: experimental metal
Thy Catafalque, a Hungarian one-man band now based in Scotland, is an odd one. On one hand, it plays some of the most face-melting metal you’ll hear, stuffed to the gills with techno, electronic blips and bleeps, and cheeky Stratovarius keyboard melodies with the volume turned up to “extreme.” Think the kind of metal you hear in action shots on reality TV shows where rad guitar solos, chugging riffs, and swagger-heavy drums denote some sense of over-the-edgeness — but a whole lot better. When we streamed the album here on Stereogum, I likened parts of it to the Mortal Kombat soundtrack, with its drum machine and mechanized riff assault. But back-to-back with the wildguy protometal is stuff of serious depth and conviction, top-notch black metal, cosmic in scope, that is the work of someone who knows the ins and outs of metal so well that he comes at it from different dimensions. The juxtaposition can make you feel like Thy Catafalque is coyly toying with you. Here on “Jura,” Thy Catafalque is at its most furious, blasting away and flanging like Inquisition, working those keyboards into something sinister and monstrous. [From Sgùrr, available now via Season of Mist] –Wyatt Marshall
14. Hath – “Swarm”
Location: New Jersey
Subgenre: melodic death metal
Melodic death metal is a troublesome genre for me. A lot of my most cherished metal qualifies to one degree or another — Edge Of Sanity, At The Gates, and certain records by Death, Carcass, and Dismember all come to mind. But I don’t often find myself picking up on new bands in the style. After its mid-’90s heyday, melodic death metal grew increasingly flowery and fond of antiseptic productions, while much of the musical heft you might associate with the term “death metal” went out the window. (Black Market vets Insomnium are a good example of the resultant sound.) Enter Hath, an upstart melodic death metal band that, despite the tag and the 2015 release date, deliver like a collapsing high-rise. Hath describe themselves as “blackened death metal,” and the contemplative modal leads that dot their debut EP Hive suggests that they’re big Opeth fans. But the most apparent comparison that comes to mind for me is Slugdge, less the occasional clean vocals — which you know is high praise if you read last month’s column. I don’t hear much in the way of black metal here, but there are oodles of hooky minor-key riffs and rigid grooves, which connect with serious oomph thanks to drummer AJ Viana’s crisp production. The notes for Hive don’t credit a specific member for the vocals, but whoever’s delivering them is a monster — this kind of beeftastic melodeath just begs for a powerful low-register bellow, and our mystery man delivers in the finest Mike Åkerfeldt / Peter Tägtgren tradition. The kill riff that closes “Swarm” has me very excited for this band’s future. Between them and the great and vastly underappreciated Helcaraxë (who released a very good split earlier this year), New Jersey may be the new American hotspot for melodic death metal. [From Hive, availabile now, self-released] —Doug Moore
13. Owl – “Ravage”
Location: Bonn, Germany
Subgenre: death/doom metal
Erik Highter has a saying that goes something like: “The right riff is always better than all of the riffs.” That may as well be the operating principle behind Zeitgeister Music, a small German collective of like-minded musicians who have been carving out a niche in the left-of-center. For nearly a decade, these artists have followed their muse without stretching too far past listeners’ conception of metal, giving their output a familiar freshness. Owl is Zeitgeister’s death/doom/kinda-Godflesh-y/rather-post-y conduit, manned by Patrick Schroeder (drums) and Christian Kolf (everything else). Owl’s new spin is that it’s economic. Out of EP Aeon Cult’s three tracks, “Ravage” is the epic, clocking in at three minutes and change. Its power isn’t diminished. The riff here is a huge groove, echoing under-appreciated Polish neck-snappers of the ’90s and early ’00s. It’s briefly offset by releases of pressure, permutes often, and then starts growing again. If it grew eternally, that’d be okay. “Ravage” could easily be a 10-minute-clearing double LP tentpole, but it’s more impressive in its truncated form. There’s no room for error, and half of the appeal is hearing the band briskly navigate 197 seconds without making one. The other half? That riff. [From Aeon Cult, out now via Zeitgeister Music] –Ian Chainey
12. Grave – “Plain Pine Box”
Location: Stockholm, Sweden
Genre: death metal
I love this band to no end. At this point in my metal-writing career, I have probably written more about Grave than any other band, which is insane, and probably more of a testament to the fact that Grave continues to release vital death metal at a ridiculous clip even as they celebrate their third decade of existence. I’m tempted to present this without preamble, and just tell you to listen to the fucking thing already. There’s no need to write a dissertation on Swedish death metal in 2015. It’s new Grave; it sounds like Grave, and it’s exactly as good as everything they’ve been doing for the last decade or so, which is to say it’s fucking great. The riffs are timeless and tireless, with chugging grooves that range from what I like to call “fast midtempo” to “slow midtempo,” which is the sweet spot for Swedish death metal anyway. The lyrics operate in one mode only, as they should, eternally fixated on death, dying, corpses, graves, or in this case, coffins. What else do you need?! [From Out of Respect For The Dead, available now via Century Media] –Aaron Lariviere
11. Die Choking – “Bastard Of Hyperion”
Location: Philadelphia, PA
If nothing else, Philly’s Die Choking certainly boast an arresting moniker. Named for the fate drummer Josh Cohen (also of the hardcore band Cop Problem) once found himself wishing on a certain ex-Philadelphia Eagle with an animal abuse rap sheet, this grind act delivers a surfeit of hostility on III, their debut “full-length.” (III’s 14-minute run time seems to call for the scare quotes, but Die Choking’s two 2014 EPs were less than 6 minutes apiece. That’s grindcore for ya.) Also featuring an ex-member of Total Fucking Destruction, Die Choking serves in part as a venue for its musicians to push their abilities to the limits, and these tracks are indeed withering workouts — as fast and scathing as any metal you’ll hear this year, with extra emphasis courtesy of engineer Will Yip (Circa Survive, Blacklisted, and, uh, Lauryn Hill)’s exacting production. That’s saying a lot, given how high the ceiling’s gotten for speed and brutality in metal’s more extreme marches. But fortunately, III’s not all flying spittle and popping veins. Die Choking channels the intensity with a subtle songwriting intelligence that begins to emerge after the initial shock of their impact wears off. While none of these sub-2-minute rippers approaches the kind of melodicism that Gridlink or Beaten To Death traffic in, each breathes just enough to sustain a life of its own within the album’s harsh ecosystem. The wealth of key riffs doesn’t hurt, either. [From III, available now via The Compound] –Doug Moore
10. Gravsang – “Dimt Lys Over Skrint Liv”
Location: Bodø, Norway
Subgenre: black metal
Depressive black metal is one of the harder-to-understand genres for a newcomer to metal. The basic formula: a mournful, tinny, often gorgeous, but maybe hard-to-hear backdrop accented by tortured shrieks that really do sound like a dying animal. But as with any acquired taste, the more you know about the subject, the more likely you are to go searching out its esoteric nooks and corners. Gravsang might be a good place for those seekers to start, and will likely win over some non-believers on first listen. “Dimt Lys Over Skrint Liv” is magnificent: a sorrowful, stargazing song that starts slow and subsequently grows wings. Like many of the best depressive black metal bands, Gravsang embrace clean audio quality, removing an old genre nuisance that at one time might have puzzled would-be fans. If you liked Woods Of Desolation, you’ll like Gravsang. Though this type of metal thematically deals in distress and disappointment, it often seems to find some sort of personal triumph, as “Dimt Lys Over Skrint Liv” does when it reaches its dazzling conclusion, tearing itself apart and finding something new inside. [From La Dine Taarer Livet Begrave, available now via Pest Productions] —Wyatt Marshall
9. Apparatus – “Arkham”
Location: Copenhagen, Denmark
Subgenre: blackened death metal
There’s just something about H.P. Lovecraft’s writing. More than Lovecraft’s imagination, more than his fog-machine-on-full-blast atmosphere, there’s a particular rhythm to his wording that either draws you in or walls off his work. That same rhythmic magnet — one with the power to attract or repel — also occurs in the irregular lurch of dissonant metal. Naturally, the two pair well, and you’ve probably heard such a partnership before. Portal, for example. Chthe’ilist, if ya nasty. Or, hey, any of the 318 outfits giving H.P. daps via their Encyclopaedia Metallum lyrical themes. But Apparatus is a different sort of horror. Instead of a torrential downpour of scares and machine-gun-quick gut kicks, the debut from these Danes is more methodical. “Arkham”‘s tension is derived from fewer layers than we’ve come to expect. In fact, it’s almost like the quartet is operating from a different era, as if the lessons from Mort and Swarth were wormholed into the consciousnesses of ’90s kids working off the templates of Onward To Golgotha and The Shadow Over Innsmouth. In other words, there’s a satisfying OSDM churn beneath the herks and jerks and howling mania. However, note that Apparatus doesn’t drag its knuckles. Clever moments lurk. One is a shouldn’t-be-spoiled treat for wearers of headphones. The other is “Arkham”‘s outro, when the thrum of particular rhythms buzz around ear canals long after the song is over. Lavadome, already proud owners of a sneaky good year, did well bringing Apparatus into the physical realm following the success of a self-released digital rollout back in April. Of course, the October repress is timed well. Enjoy racking up the psych bills of the kids in your neighborhood. [From Apparatus, out now via Lavadome Productions] –Ian Chainey
8. Dragged Into Sunlight/Gnaw Their Tongues – “Visceral Repulsion”
As the above genre tag suggests, there’s a lot going on here, and all of it awful. The largely anonymous British nightmare generator Dragged Into Sunlight is something of a catchall extreme metal band to begin with, less concerned with the means than the disquieting ends. Here, working alongside Dutch blackened noise act Gnaw Their Tongues, both bands push even further into the outer dark. It’s hard to summarize the effect without slipping into parody, so bear with me: There is no light here, no escape, nothing at the end of the tunnel but a train bearing down. Apparently the goal behind the collaboration was to resurrect the mechanized squalor of Godflesh’s seminal Streetcleaner album, and the influence is obvious and immediate. Clanging factory sounds, atonal sludge, drums that throb and blast in turns, all under a barbed blanket of noise; I’ll say it again, there is nothing pleasant here. When the song finally cracks wide at 4:13, a hint of melody bleeds through, only to be smothered by a sample of a since-executed serial killer, Michael Bruce Ross, as he delivers a deadpan recitation of several key atrocities. That’s right around when you realize that your entire day, and every shred of happiness contained therein, has been thoroughly fucking gutted. [From NV, available 11/13 via Prosthetic Records] –Aaron Lariviere
7. Revenge – “Silent Enemy”
Location: Edmonton, Canada
Subgenre: war metal
Revenge are one of the leading lights of “war metal” — a somewhat dubious niche genre that amounts to a deliberately primitive hybrid of death and black metal, played at extremely high speeds and produced in a thoroughly scuzzy and disorienting fashion. The term itself arguably goes back to Conqueror, Revenge’s ’90s-era antecedent, whose sole LP War.Cult.Supremacy remains war metal’s defining document. And though 16 years have elapsed since War.Cult.Supremacy’s release and drummer J. Read is the only musician common to both acts, Revenge’s upcoming fifth album Behold.Total.Rejection doesn’t stray too far from that template. (Later pressings of War.Cult.Supremacy. even share the same skull-and-bones cover art motif that appears on almost every Revenge LP.) Though war metal bands have a reputation for sloppiness, Read is a past master of high-tempo blastbeats with few peers. You wouldn’t know that by the unassuming bass intro to “Silent Enemy,” but what follows amounts to four straight minutes of Revenge mercilessly turning the screws. Consider that the hateful two-step bashing which periodically interrupts Read’s snare-destroying assault feels like “the catchy part” of the song, even though it’s anyone’s guess what the guitars are doing beneath all the distortion and effects-blasted grunting. In reality, there’s no catchy part, of course. War metal is fundamentally ignorant and antagonistic music. Revenge just wanna stomp you flat, and who cares whether you can remember the beating or even tell what’s going on during it? This is the metal equivalent of extreme endurance sports or sexual masochism: recommended for those who like when it hurts so good. [From Behold.Total.Rejection., available 11/13 via Season Of Mist] –Doug Moore
6. Abigail Williams – “Lost Communion”
Location: Olympia, WA
Subgenre: black metal
I understand the value of establishing a brand, but I still have absolutely no idea why the band called Abigail Williams continues to release records as Abigail Williams. This is, in part, because I think Abigail Williams is not a great name to begin with: It’s forever going to be confused with the classic Japanese black-metal band Abigail, as well as the classic King Diamond record Abigail. More importantly, though, Abigail Williams’ reputation is kinda spotty, and their backstory is a goddamn soap opera. Just going off Metal Archives’ biographical details: Abigail Williams formed in 2004 and have broken up and reformed twice since then. They have ZERO consistent members — even sole remaining founding member/frontman Ken Sorceron was out of the lineup for a while. They’ve apparently set up camp in at least FIVE different American cities, and I suspect the real number is higher than that. I don’t even know how to paraphrase or re-word this section of the bio to make it more economical (and still effectively capture the chaos that is Abigail Williams), so I’m just quoting it in full:
Abigail Williams broke up for a short time soon after the release of the [2006 debut] Legend EP, during the constant split of members, then officially re-formed with an all new line-up except Sorceron, moving from Tempe, Arizona to the Cleveland/Detroit area. During this time, Ashley “Ellyllon” Jurgemeyer was replaced by Kristen Randall (ex-Winds Of Plague). A short while later, the band dropped all its new members and was rejoined by Ellyllon. Bassist Tommy Harwood Jr. (of the band Plaguehammer) also rejoined the fold soon after. The band also relocated again to New York City. In May 2008, Sorceron announced that Abigail Williams had finally become a full band again…
Did you get all that? That happened over the course of two years. Abigail Williams have released four full-length albums during their 11-year existence, and they’ve gone through at least THIRTY different members (here, too, I suspect the real number is higher than that). They began life as a symphonic deathcore band and then STOPPED PLAYING THAT STYLE ALTOGETHER and re-situated as a sludgy atmospheric USBM band. There is no earthly reason for Sorceron to continue making music as Abigail Williams, yet he does. So you might not believe me when I tell you that Abigail Williams’ new album, The Accuser, is fucking amazing — but oh man, it is AMAZING. Here, Sorceron is aided by a wrecking crew of USBM all-stars — including Charlie Fell (Lord Mantis, Cobalt), Will Lindsay (Wolves In The Throne Room, Indian), Jeff Wilson (Wolvhammer, Chrome Waves), and Neill Jameson (Krieg, Twilight) — and they’ve combined to produce a superb collection of violent, raw, pulverizing, psychedelic, and often super-catchy black metal. It’s notable that every single member of Sorceron’s supporting cast did time in Nachtmystium at one point or another, because The Accuser sounds a lot like Nachtmystium’s best work (made between 2006 and 2010, before that band’s frontman, Blake Judd, fell into some unnameable hell pit), and it reclaims a lot of those sounds — and, frankly, frequently puts them to better use. More accurately, perhaps, The Accuser feels like exactly the thing that it is: a Sorceron-guided collision of many USBM greats, all of whom have classic records under their belts. That could have resulted in a trainwreck, but it didn’t; the carnage on display here is something far more glorious. [From The Accuser, available now via Candlelight Records USA] –Michael Nelson
5. Vastum – “Empty Breast”
Location: San Francisco, CA
Genre: death metal
A friend once posited a grand theory about death metal that has resonated with me over the years, regardless of its accuracy. He theorized that death metal is the musical manifestation of a rejection of sex — physical repulsion writ large. The lack of danceable rhythms, the theory goes, evinces a fear of the body. (In his imaginary nerd world, every song with a 4/4 beat is a fuck jam.) The tonality is deliberately abrasive in order to push people away, to ensure distance and avoid the dreaded physical encounter for as long as possible. Lyrics about gruesome death, rotting bodies, and so forth exist in binary opposition to the notion of reproduction, like a juvenile rebuttal of the ongoing cycle of life. Meanwhile, the foulest death metal lyrics — the caveman misogyny of Chris Barnes-era Cannibal Corpse, for example — are supposed to be the clearest, least obfuscated instance of the theory at work. Who knows. It’s a reductive way to frame a genre, but it’s an interesting lens for analysis; a worthy thought experiment, if nothing else. Vastum, in a sense, play it both ways. Their songs fixate on sexual revulsion, but they’re not hiding the ball: Every song is shamelessly, brazenly sexual, delving into themes of eroticism, violation, disgust, and abuse, rather than some abstract rejection of the above. Vastum’s third album, appropriately titled Hole Below, waves its themes like a burning flag, while the music continues to push forward, evolving further from their formative old school death metal roots towards something more oblique and haunting. “Empty Breast” churns and stomps across eight minutes: Male and female vocals trade barbs over thick, pounding riffs, while sporadic leads offer the illusion of peaceful release, closing the album on the highest possible note. [From Hole Below, available 11/6 via 20 Buck Spin] –Aaron Lariviere
4. Kauan – “Sorni nai”
Location: Kiev, Ukraine
Subgenre: atmospheric folk/doom
Metal bands are often longwinded, pushing song lengths well north of the 10-minute mark. It’s become something of a running joke amongst us Black Market contributors to call one another out when one of us shares a song for consideration and says something like, “It gets good around the 7-minute mark.” (Aaron and I are most frequently guilty of this.) But Kauan takes the cake with their one-song concept album Sorni nai, which is broken up into pieces for ease of listening. The album chronicles the infamous Dyatlov Pass incident, a horrifying event in which nine Russian hikers mysteriously died in February of 1929 after disappearing in a snowstorm in a mountain pass. The hikers had sheltered in a tent, but when rescuers found the tent, it had been cut open from the inside. It became apparent that the hikers had fled without coats or in their socks, and three of the bodies nearby had suffered horrific injuries. Two of the hikers had fractured skulls and ribs, and one was missing her tongue, eyes and part of her lips. Soviet authorities blamed their deaths on an “unknown compelling force.” Sorni nai chronicles the doomed journey perfectly, capturing the serenity of a newly-begun hike in nature and its violent end through a stunning blend of folk and metal cloaked in weary atmosphere. Kauan is a Russian band that lives in Ukraine and sings in Finnish, but the timeless and gorgeous Sorni nai translates to any language. [From Sorni nai, available now via Blood Music] –Wyatt Marshall
3. Cryptopsy – “The Knife, The Head, And What Remains”
Location: Montreal, Canada
Subgenre: technical brutal death metal
It’s been a tough 15 years for Cryptopsy. Their second album, 1996’s None So Vile, is a death metal landmark — it plumbed new depths of potty-mouthed extremity while retaining a surprising knack for catchiness. Most denizens of the genre’s more absurd reaches owe it a debt even today. None So Vile’s two late-’90s follow-ups, both featuring vocalist Mike DiSalvo in lieu of histrionic original singer Lord Worm, enjoyed positive responses as well. And since then, Cryptopsy have essentially been caught in a tailspin. 2005’s Once Was Not saw Worm return to the fold and deliver a bizarrely underpowered performance over a thin, rickety production. Worm subsequently quit again. 2008’s The Unspoken King is now regarded as something of a late-career meltdown for its transparent attempts to capitalize on the growing deathcore movement, which was reviled by “serious” death metal types even then. And Cryptopsy paid a hefty price for the misstep — 2012’s self-titled effort saw a partial return to form, including the temporary return of founding guitarist Jon Levasseur, but the bulk of their former fans remained skeptical. And that brings us to The Book Of Suffering (Tome One), their upcoming EP. Cryptopsy in 2015 has almost nothing in common with the band that released None So Vile; only legendary drummer Flo Mounier remains from the salad days. It’s thus ironic that this newest material captures more of the maniacal energy that drove None So Vile than just about anything the band has released since. Vocalist Matt McGachy, the only other holdover from the regrettable deathcore era, commands his post in a way that no Cryptopsy vocalist has since the Clinton administration. And the songs themselves are fantastic — the bouncing slam that kicks in at around the 0:40 mark of “The Knife, The Head, And What Remains” is the stuff that lower back spasms are made of. [From The Book Of Suffering (Tome One), available now, self-released] —Doug Moore
2. Furze – “Goat Cyclus”
Location: Trondheim, Norway
Subgenre: black metal
[SUPERIMPOSE: The Internet, Sometime in the 2000s] The messageboard-led hunt for black metal outsiders wanted weird, and Norwegian Woe J. Reaper, Furze’s sole proprietor along with the occasional guest assist from other maniacs, was it. Hello, “Fresh Tea!” Then, on the back of Furze and other weirdos, outsider black metal was suddenly a thing. Weird became cool and, just like that, there were a lot of “outsiders” rubbing shoulders with outsiders in a genre that has a history of being on the outside. So, cynicism festered. If something was weird, was it real? And, if it was weird, was it really any good? (As if any of this actually mattered.) Through it all, Furze kept being Furze, which is to say anything was possible in that Fenriz-ian way of not accepting ceilings. There were all-analog, glockenspiel-seasoned birthday cards to Black Sabbath and mind-expanding, slowly-unfolding psych experiments; records where Reaper’s talents grew to match his ambitions. Plus, the idiosyncratic interviews he blessed the web with kind of burnished his reputation as someone enthralled by his predilections and enthusiastic about his gifts. You could read it as batshit, but the underlying vibe is that Reaper is perhaps quietly eccentric, a James Hampton-esque Joe who just happens to have a completely unique worldview. You could read it as a joke, but his sound was too singular, his approach too earnest. Anyway, all of this is burying the lede, because “Goat Cyclus”, folks. It’s the blackest, in a traditional sense, thing he’s done in a bit, even if that main riff sounds like refurbished proto-speed metal. But, jeez, does it ever needle like a cherry bomb in a pin cushion. The production definitely helps, as Reaper finesses “Goat Cyclus” with the same well-spread sound design as Reaper Subconscious Guide. It’s also weird, but not in a way that panders, not in a way that tries to Heimlich the word out of your mouth. It’s also good, which is the lone worthwhile takeaway. [From Baphomet Wade, available 11/27 via Fresh Tea] –Ian Chainey
1. Panopticon – “Into The North Woods”
Location: Minnesota, MN
Subgenre: atmospheric black metal
Panopticon mastermind Austin Lunn relocated from Louisville to Minnesota last year (to open up a Bathory-inspired brewery!), a transition that can be mapped in the man’s album titles: Panopticon’s 2012 LP was called Kentucky, and its 2014 follow-up was called Roads To The North. And Lunn’s music, too, seems directly informed by his surroundings. On past Panopticon records, for example, Lunn’s Southern roots were laid pretty bare; you don’t hear much banjo in black metal these days, but Lunn made it work. But with Appalachia in the rearview, gone too are the region’s flourishes from Panopticon’s music. Meanwhile, Lunn seems to have settled comfortably into his notoriously frigid Scando-American environs: Panopticon’s new album, Autumn Eternal, sounds decisively northern, not to mention Nordic. The album’s title reflects its tone — several songs here openly refer to the fall season (“Tamarack’s Gold Returns,” “Oaks Ablaze,” the title track); others also document Lunn’s relationship to the natural world around him (“Into The North Woods,” “Sleep To The Sound Of The Waves Crashing,” “The Wind’s Farewell”). Front to back, it’s essential stuff, but if you need convincing, “Into The North Woods” should have you clicking straight through to Panopticon’s Bandcamp and pressing the “Buy Now” button. It’s grandly anthemic and brazenly melodic — there are some guitar lines in here that will make you weep if you’re listening loud enough — but Lunn doesn’t sacrifice ferocity for beauty. He finds an exact balance of both extremes by turning each knob to 10 … and, you know, by being a perfectionist visionary with fearless commitment and full command of his musical tools of choice. Atmospheric black metal is frequently inspired by and/or compared to sounds and sights found in nature. But rarely has the music done so much to not only capture nature, but capture the wonder of nature at its most breathtaking. [From Autumn Eternal, available now via Bindrune Recordings] –Michael Nelson