This past Saturday, I was lucky enough to catch the storied Canadian progressive death metal band Gorguts in the Dutch city of Tilburg, on the third stop of their ongoing European tour. Situated near the Netherlands’ southern border with Belgium, Tilburg falls somewhere between “small city” and “large town” in terms of scope — it’s home to about 206,000 people, making it roughly the same size as Oxnard, California. Tilburg is internationally recognized in the metal community as the home of the popular annual metal fest Roadburn, but its indigenous metal scene is fairly small. A crowd in the neighborhood of 150 people showed up for Gorguts and their tourmates (Tasmania’s Psycroptic, Italy’s Nero di Marte, and America’s Dysrhythmia, whose guitarist Kevin Hufnagel and bassist Colin Marston also play in Gorguts).
This crowd watched attentively, albeit somewhat talkatively, as Gorguts ripped through a roughly 90-minute set, including the entirety of their new 30-minute composition Pleiades’ Dust. (We premiered a chunk of Pleiades’ Dust last month; it’ll be out on May 13.) You can watch a video of Gorguts performing the middle third of this monster song in Tilburg below, complete with audible crowd chatter during some quiet moments:
To most observers, this modest gig probably looked like the sort of workmanlike affair that defines life on the road for underground bands of all descriptions. And that’s not wrong. But as a longtime Gorguts fan, I found myself getting a little choked up as the band wrapped up Pleiades’ Dust. It’s a journey of a piece of music, conceived during the most recent leg of a literal journey that has carried Luc Lemay — Gorguts’ mastermind and sole remaining founder — over thousands of miles of territory and through almost thirty years’ worth of creative labor. And that makes it feel like a capstone when you see Gorguts play it, a synecdoche for a musical career defined as much by devoted craftsmanship and humility as by ambition and intensity.
The term “craftsmanship” can sound a little derogatory, bringing to mind painted-macaroni tchotchkes glued together by little kids in summer camp arts classes, but that’s not how I mean it. Lemay’s craftsmanship has much more in common with the obsessive attention to detail and hands-on creative problem-solving practiced by auteur directors and Swiss watchmakers. He bears a fervor for realizing the minute specifics of a wild vision, a pragmatic creative discipline that serves as its own reward, even to the exclusion of all others.
Fittingly, Lemay is both a literal craftsman — a skilled carpenter who recently built himself a beautiful amplifier cabinet — and a broad appreciator of the arts who likes to bring up the parallels between cinema and his approach to making music. “That’s what I like about metal: I see it like filmmaking…If it’s brought together the right way, in a clever way, it’s going to work. Like in a film, you have an action part, a very sad part, and you have to light the whole thing in the right way. Any story can be told in film, but it has to be in the right director’s hand to get the right vision,” says Lemay in this revealing Heathen Harvest interview — conducted by Sabbath Assembly founder David Christian, whose own band features Hufnagel on guitar as well. (Sabbath Assembly is currently going in a very exciting creative direction of their own, thanks in part to Hufnagel’s involvement.)
Like all good craftsmen, Lemay is a team player, and he has spent his career surrounding himself with similarly devoted and selfless musicians. The current Gorguts lineup, featuring Hufnagel and Marston plus ace drummer Patrice Hamelin, is possibly the best example of Lemay’s penchant for choosing collaborators whose capacity for both invention and execution match his own. He trusts these colleagues’ own creative choices implicitly; Marston and Hufnagel composed their own parts for Pleiades’ Dust, and Lemay says he did not ask them to alter a note of their contributions.
Gorguts’ discography itself is by far the strongest testament to Lemay’s diligence and dynamism. Starting with the band’s sophomore effort, 1993’s churning The Erosion Of Sanity, Gorguts has produced an unbroken string of stunningly inventive death metal classics, including the genre-exploding noise assault of 1998’s legendary Obscura and 2013’s Colored Sands, a work of surreal intensity and crystalline sadness that reintroduced the band to a much younger audience.
Lemay and company have encountered more than their fair share of adversity and sorrow along the way. Though The Erosion Of Sanity is considered a milestone today, Gorguts’ then-label Roadrunner Records dropped them after it failed to achieve immediate notoriety. Steve MacDonald, the talented drummer who tracked 2001’s From Wisdom To Hate, committed suicide shortly after the album’s release; his death eventually led Gorguts to fold for a few years. Lemay eventually reformed the band on the advice of former Gorguts guitarist Steeve Hurdle, a visionary composer who wrote more of Obscura than any other band member. Hurdle passed suddenly and tragically in 2012 of surgical complications. And Lemay has received little in the way of material compensation for his perserverance through these trials. Though Gorguts is now a critical favorite, they remain a fringe act in the commercial sense, with substantially less of a sales footprint than death metal mainstays like Morbid Angel and Cannibal Corpse.
But despite these hardships and disadvantages, Gorguts have profoundly affected thousands of people in a way that many better-selling acts could never dream of. Witness the recent crop of younger metal acts that look to Gorguts for inspiration, many of which have appeared in this column, such as Ulcerate, Artificial Brain, and Portal. (My own band fits comfortably into this category too.)
Pleiades’ Dust will almost certainly expand Gorguts’ hard-won sphere of influence. After spinning it dozens of times over the past month, I’m confident that it’ll be my album of the year for 2016, as Colored Sands was in 2013. It’s a perfect encapsulation of Lemay and his bandmates’ mesmeric imagination, and possibly their most efficient packaging of the idiosyncrasies that have defined the band’s long career.
Lemay holds a degree in composition, but he has frequently minimized its relevance to his work in Gorguts in the past. Pleiades’ Dust, by contrast, seems overtly influenced by classical music — it’s fuguelike in structure, a dynamic dreamsong whose organic movements seem to mimic the narrative rhythms of life itself. (“It’s coming closer to chamber music, but with electric sound,” Lemay observes of the record in the Heathen Harvest interview.) Painful dissonance swarms throughout, but periodically resolves into moments of sublime, consonant clarity. Tranquil interludes balance grueling high-speed assaults that feel too dense and chaotic for the human mind to process. Motifs appear throughout, but shift and mutate as they recur. Fittingly, only the very beginning and the very end echo each other with real clarity. And just like life, Pleiades’ Dust feels eternal while it’s happening, and all too brief as soon as it ends.
Lemay drew lyrical inspiration for Pleiades’ Dust primarily from Jonathan Lyons’s The House Of Wisdom: How The Arabs Transformed Western Civlization. The book addresses the golden age of scholarship in the Muslim world, which took place mostly while Europe was subsumed in a bloody dark age. The book is named for a legendary Baghdad library that was eventually destroyed by Mongol invaders when they sacked the city in the 13th century. This lyrical conceit echoes some ideas that reappear throughout Gorguts’ catalog. It speaks to the beauty of aesthetic ritual, and the ability of gentle disciplines to palliate the pain of living by preserving parts of their practitioners against death, usually in the form of lovely artifacts — like books, or carvings, or albums of music.
But this theme also reflects a deep melancholy about the fragility of even these more durable vessels for the soul, which have been destroyed in massive numbers again and again throughout history. Contemporary accounts of the destruction of the House Of Wisdom involve the Tigris river running black with the ink of books that Mongol invaders pitched into its waters. (Lemay insists that Pleiades’ Dust isn’t a form of commentary on current affairs, but it’s impossible to hear it sans the ugly context of recent decades, during which zealots affiliated with organizations like Daesh and the Taliban have pointlessly destroyed countless antiquities.) This is a fitting concern for the headiest of all death metal bands: the beauty and futility of man’s struggle against entropy.
All of these characteristics — the relentless work ethic, the perseverance, the sheer vaulting aspiration, the thoughtful lyrics — make Luc Lemay special in the metal world, but they do not make him unique. The other Black Market guys (that’s Aaron Lariviere, Wyatt Marshall, Ian Chainey, and Michael Nelson) might not share my enthusiasm for Gorguts specifically, but each of their personal metal pantheons features some figures like Lemay — individuals who have given themselves over entirely to creating utterly alien art, without regard for consequences or success or damn near anything else. Most of these individuals labor in obscurity for their entire careers. Gorguts’s recent success, modest though it is, makes them unusual in this regard.
And that’s why I got verklempt watching Gorguts play Pleiades’ Dust. Even that mid-sized, chatty Tilburg crowd constituted recognition for Lemay and his bandmates’ prolonged commitment to doing their thing, which in Lemay’s case has lasted for about as long as I’ve been alive, and which he has kept because keeping it is its own reward. In a niche genre like extreme metal, where the constant digital erosion of record sales and audience breadth has led directly to real privation, that kind of thing is worth celebrating. Metal’s loaded with people like Lemay; I view this column as an exercise in helping them get a minor leg up. All in a day’s work. –Doug Moore
15. Like Rats – “Grief Incarnate”
Location: Chicago, IL
Subgenre: metallic hardcore / death metal
In an American Aftermath interview that’s hanging on for dear life in Google’s cache, Like Rats guitarist Todd Nief expanded on a post appearing on his Primitive Future blog where he detailed “all of the riffs I can remember purposefully stealing” for 2012’s Like Rats. “With a lot of those stolen riffs, I was more interested in why I liked them, you know? I’ll hear something and be like, ‘What makes this good?’,” Nief said, later sharing, ” … I’ll often try to compose something that accomplishes a similar musical function, but with rearranged details.” Hashtag honest. That said, Nief’s admission also nails why Like Rats’ sophomore full-length, II, doesn’t stumble during its tight 33-minute running time. This is what happens when five people spend a lot of time asking, “What makes this good?” Granted, that feeling of craftsmanship might not surface immediately. At first crush, these Chicagoans get lumped in with hardcore-centered bands like Xibalba and Skinfather, in that they too inject strands of classic death metal into a gene pool teeming with workout-friendly beatdowns. Of course, Like Rats’ older sibling band, that path-setting hand-me-down, is what first sets the band apart. Where Skinfather sound like Merauder given a Clandestine gift card to Sunlight Studios, Like Rats take their pointers from Celtic Frost. That Celtic Frostian, castle-circulating breeze has been a part of Like Rats since their punkier 2009 debut EP. On II, it’s augmented by a groove suggesting early Obituary, or maybe Asphyx, sneaking into everyone’s playlists. Vocalist Daniel Shea even has that revving-up-John-Tardy strangled timbre. But Like Rats isn’t a clone, either to Slowly We Rot or Morbid Tales. You can tell when a band’s sole purpose is borrowing the power of preceding masters in the same way a young Hunter S. Thompson supposedly retyped his classics. Instead, Like Rats take only what they need. [From II, out now via Southern Lord] –Ian Chainey
14. Reptilian – “Phantasm”
Location: Fusa, Norway
Subgenre: death metal
Perennial Void Traverse, the debut full-length from Norway’s Reptilian, crawls out from the ooze of old-school garages. The quartet play death metal like they’re from a place where the local Possessed was pulled back in to punk. Puffy pirate-shirt prog does not reside here. That said, Reptilian are sneaky. Their music is kill-everything, but it’s also catchy. Hell, it’s also expansive. Like, night-sky expansive. Like, the-deepest-recesses-of-the-mind expansive. Perennial Void Traverse’s six songs stretch out into marathon sessions where riffs bind together and generate a thick atmosphere, terraforming the OSDM of today and creating something as alive as the first wave. Frontman Cato Bakke is part of the reason Reptilian loosen OSDM’s rigor mortis. Like Tim Singer or Eugene S. Robinson, Bakke’s intense, wild-eyed delivery draws all ears toward him. Instead of growls, Bakke lets loose feral howls. His performance is unencumbered by any concern for his throat’s longevity. In that way, there’s a sense he has literally found his voice and that he is as surprised as we are listening to him. The novelty doesn’t wear off. Death metal doesn’t demand charisma, but it sure seems irreplaceable when someone goes for it. And “going for it” is the best way to describe the rest of the band. Guitarist Andreas Fosse Salbu burns through notebook after notebook of riffs and solos like there’s no tomorrow. Daniel Tveit’s drumming is limber, his fills chasing Salbu down sharp turns. Bassist Bard Inge Nygard adds a fattening thump, putting meat on song skeletons built from the bones of death metal classics, Darkness Descends ragers, and My War crawls. What Reptilian make is in their own image. [From Perennial Void Traverse, out 4/22 via Edged Circle Productions] –Ian Chainey
13. Nucleus – “Dosadi”
Location: Chicago, IL
Subgenre: death metal
“Generations of a tormented human-alien people, caged on a toxic planet, conditioned by constant hunger and war … “ Thus begins the appropriately death metal-sounding back cover blurb of The Dosadi Experiment, a 1977 science fiction novel by Frank Herbert, the author best known for creating the Dune series. Science fiction-themed extreme metal has been around at least since the progressive thrash band Voivod started making weird noise in the early ’80s; meanwhile, this sub-subgenre of extreme metal might be relatively uncommon, but it’s still going strong today: Just last week we premiered “Agliptian Codex Cyborgization” from the “brutally absurd / absurdly brutal” astrophysics-obsessed technical death metal band Wormed. Make no mistake: We’re deep in the geek zone. Nucleus, then, play a strain of death metal that hits the exact midpoint between the outer poles of Voivod and Wormed; it’s riff-driven old school death metal heavily informed by technical thrash, more in line with deeply nerdy, early-’90s death metal bands like Nocturnus (without the garish keyboards) and the even lesser-known psychedelic space-death of Timeghoul. “Dosadi” is short and simple; a grinding swirl of space dust in a vacuum. The chaotic intro riff resolves into a song undergoing explosive decompression, contorting in fits and starts before a formless solo squeals like a broken resistojet on an ailing satellite. Right around the two-minute mark, the perfect knuckle-dragging power riff pulls us back down the gravity well, and we’re on terra firma once more, ready to start again. Nucleus make this shit look easy. [From Sentient, out on 4/15 via Unspeakable Axe] –Aaron Lariviere
12. Moonsorrow – “Non Serviam”
Location: Helsinki, Finland
Subgenre: pagan black metal
You know, Moonsorrow didn’t have to twist the Wayback knob. Bits of Jumalten Aika, the Finnish quintet’s seventh album, can be surprisingly necro in that second-wave kind of way. The lushly composed pagan/folk on which Moonsorrow made their name remains, and the band still knows how to stack the layers on an anthemic belter better than most, but perhaps “Age Of Gods” isn’t just the English translation of this album’s title. The black metal edge found on the Sorvali brothers’ early demos, those recorded in the mid-’90s shadow of then-active legends, has been recaptured. Recent albums teased it. Jumalten Aika leans on it. Moonsorrow are known to put more elbow grease and brains into their music, often crossing the 15-minute mark with multifaceted, kitchen-sink songs that have a Kalevala-amount of parts. “Bombastic” is the descriptor of the day, though their melodies have a deft subtlety that haunts memories. That said, no one is going to talk Moonsorrow’s way into your heart. It’s something you either feel or you don’t. It’s a hard thing to put into blurb-length words, but “Non Serviam” is not hard to navigate. It’s a five-minute Rotting Christ cover found on Jumalten Aika’s bonus disc. (The other extra is a cover of Grave’s “Soulless“.) If DMT is the businessperson’s trip, “Non Serviam” is Moonsorrow for people with pressing commitments. The fact that it’s not even really Moonsorrow doesn’t matter because anything this band touches takes on its timbre. Check out the way they effortlessly push the melody to the foreground as easily as Steph Curry shoots a three. It’s like muscle memory. And the band goes hard, even if this is likely to be mixtape fodder for the obsessives. That’s pretty much that. How about this, though: If you want to armchair analyze “Non Serviam,” there is something of an angle. Maybe it shines a light on Moonsorrow’s mindset for Jamalten Aika. So, a Greek black metal classic just had to be added to the studio schedule, huh? Was it nostalgia or a dry run? Age Of Gods, indeed. [From Jumalten aika, out 4/1 via Century Media] –Ian Chainey
11. Mesarthim – “Pillars”
Subgenre: atmospheric black metal
Where do metal bands find their inspiration? No other genre wears a theme so boldly on its sleeve. In metal we have, first and foremost, metal about death, then a flurry of bands playing metal inspired by war, vikings, J.R.R. Tolkien, the forest, and the natural world — if you can think of it, there’s probably a band that tailors its lyrics to the subject or tries to evoke it through sound. A lot of it has to do with the suspension of disbelief that comes with embracing this stuff. The mind is elsewhere when you listen to — and take seriously — flamethrower guitars and blasting double kick drums, which invite and perhaps require you to let go of everyday realities of life for a few minutes and dream a little. And for all of the places for the mind to endlessly wander, is any richer than the depths of the universe? Mesarthim, from Australia but named for a binary star system in the northern constellation of Aries, would argue no. Mesarthim play interstellar black metal, music built for deep space travel on starships that haven’t been built yet. The duo’s songs rise from a black metal foundation, but are overlaid with swelling synth and various piano tones and keyboard blips and bleeps and, sometimes, full-on trance breakdowns. The end product doesn’t sound very evil, and it isn’t particularly black; to me, it takes on the palette of the magnificent greens, blues, pinks and purples that we see in the best images of space. Mesarthim’s album covers are, after all, graced with photos taken by the Hubble Space Telescope. In this context, the rasping vocals don’t seem like some sinister devil coming from the depths of a black hole, but rather like some sort of cosmic echo. “Pillars” is the title track and my favorite song from Mesarthim’s new EP. It’s also the most somber song on the release. It’s anchored by big solemn rhythmic swells that evoke the motion of impossibly huge, ancient celestial bodies in motion, and twinkling keyboard melodies dance beyond like distant stars. The overall feeling is one of immense wonder tinged with sadness. I’m not sure what “Pillars” is named for, but it could be the “Pillars Of Creation” — the name of a photo taken by the Hubble Telescope that
10. Piss Vortex – “Patterns Of Recognition”
Location: Copenhagen, Denmark
Subgenre: grindcore / hardcore
PISS VORTEX. This moniker is a rare gem; it sells the band in accurate terms. It’s patently absurd, but also evocative. What would a literal piss vortex be like? Disgusting and unsanitary, certainly, and possibly dangerous, but also strangely dazzling to behold. (Think of a firespout, but…y’know…piss.) And that’s pretty much the deal with Piss Vortex’s musical personality. Their presentation leans towards self-deprecatory silliness, and the sounds they wring out of their instruments frequently stray from the comforts of conventional harmony to zany and cartoonish effect. But there’s something deeply compelling about this Danish band’s atonal heaving nonetheless. Piss Vortex’s nearest sonic touchstones are scabrous future-grind acts like Brutal Truth and dissonant death metallers such as Gorguts, but the feeling you get from listening to Future Cancer, their 12-minute upcoming EP, has more in common with hardcore-derived bands such as Converge, Yautja, and fellow Scandinavians Beaten To Death. Like those bands, Piss Vortex uses a mostly-metal vocabulary to write street-level blasts of hysteria — a distinctly personal (and therefore relatable) sound, as opposed to the inhuman perspective of classic extreme metal. And like those bands, Piss Vortex are way, way catchier than they have any right to be. Considering that it’s a second-ever release featuring an average track runtime of two minutes, Future Cancer is a riot of greasy, insidious hooks. Every tune here features at least one flip-your-desk moment, but its bookends stand out as its most fully-formed and engaging tunes — check out that warpzone melody in closer “Patterns Of Recognition.” Between this EP and their self-titled debut (which landed on our 2014 Best Metal Albums list), this band is off to a hell of a running start. Time for everyone to catch up. [From Future Cancer, out 4/1 via Indisciplinarian] –Doug Moore
9. Grave Miasma – “Purgative Circumvolution”
Location: London, UK
Subgenre: death metal
Roland “Bestial Aggressor Of Morbid Invocations” C. is having one hell of a calendar year. Guitars on Cruciamentum’s Charnel Passages. Guitars on Deströyer 666’s Wildfire. Now, all-caps GUITARS on Grave Miasma’s Endless Pilgrimage. If there’s one thing to remember when prepping for the May release of this London quartet’s mini-album, it’s probably that: GUITARS. “Purgative Circumvolution” (hi) is a showcase for self-described “esoteric death metal” riffing. Roland C., here simply R, and guitarist/vocalist Y lead a masterclass on nastiness. Speedy riffs that fly then hang like hummingbirds. Death/thrash callbacks that come full circle. Balled-fist midpaced strummers that aim for the bowels. R and Y do all of this while cutting fat. “Purgative Circumvolution” is lean, ready to run through whatever wall sits in between it and the part of your brain where riffs stick. But, as catchy as “Purgative Circumvolution” is in that classic death metal way, it’s also sufficiently weird. When Y says stuff like, “I have a huge fascination with folk music from Persia, Kurdistan, India, Greece, the Middle East and so on, which manifests itself at points … rhythmically and instrumentally,” his bandmates help him walk the walk. On the surface, this is slowly rotting, hard-driving death metal through and through. But scratch “Purgative Circumvolution”‘s surface. There’s the manic solo that’s a whirlwind sprint through worldly tones (“Hava Nagila”?). Scratch, scratch. Then there are those rhythms that feel more ancient than metal’s typical modes of movement. Focus on that element, actually: Bassist A and drummer D really shine below the GUITARS. They lay the groundwork to hold those all-caps up. [From Endless Pilgrimage, out 5/6 via Profound Lore] –Ian Chainey
8. Cult Of Luna + Julie Christmas – “The Wreck Of S.S. Needle”
Location: Umeå, Sweden / Brooklyn, NY
At first blush, Mariner — a collaborative album between the Swedish post-metal band Cult Of Luna and the Brooklyn-based singer Julie Christmas — seems like a case of odd bedfellows. Seven standalone LPs into their career, Cult Of Luna’s chief musical hallmark is a sort of heavy metal equanimity. They trade in methodical, thoroughly textured build-and-burst songs that sound like they take place thousands of miles above the sturm und drang of human affairs. By contrast, Christmas has built a reputation as one of the most ferociously emotive blood-and-guts vocalists that heavy music has produced in the last few decades, with a voice that can snap from eerily childlike crooning to a throat-damaging screech in an instant. Christmas’ schizophrenic delivery seems like an odd match for Cult Of Luna’s astral plod, but it’s not without precedent in her catalog, as she did great work fronting the supergroup-y post-metal project Battle of Mice. Her dynamism works even better over Cult Of Luna’s sparser soundscapes, lending their tectonic shifts in mood an uncomfortably personal physicality — as ever, Christmas sounds like she’s screaming at you from about an inch away from your face whenever the claws come out. But that’s not how much of “The Wreck Of S.S. Needle” plays out, and she matches the band’s slow burn with breathy whispers and moans for much of the song’s first half. Its most thrilling moments, however, arrive when Christmas combines her varied delivery and skills as an arranger with Cult Of Luna’s penchant for patiently building tension. The song concludes with a massive full-band landslide, atop which Christmas layers a haunting mass of harmonies and screams. It’s been great to hear Christmas get back into the music game via guest spots for acts like Pigs and Spylacopa, but hearing her go all-out in combination with a linchpin act like Cult Of Luna is a thrilling reminder of how much both she and the band can bring to the table. [From Mariner, out 4/15 via Indie Recordings] –Doug Moore
7. Cantique Lépreux – “Tourments Des Limbes Glacials”
Location: Québec, Canada
Subgenre: black metal
I’ve argued before that Québec is home to the best black metal scene in the world right now, and Cantique Lépreux’s debut album, Cendres Célestes, reinforces my conviction. There’s already Forteresse, there’s Monarque, there’s Ephemer, there’s Grimoire … and the list goes on. To these ears, the high-flying, raw, and icy atmosphere is gold. And apparently I’m not the only one who thinks so; the German label Eisenwald has picked up all of these bands and given them release treatments. Cantique Lépreux (which translates as “Leprous Hymn”) fall square into that Quebec tradition, and Cendres Célestes is gorgeous and dark, equal parts majestic nocturnal wonder and chaotic whirlwind, a wild tear of black metal that sears into the soul. They’re firing the Quebec black metal formula on all cylinders — melodic leads that trill in time with the full-speed-ahead drums, deep and powerful vocals, a stripped-down and raw style. Solos or showmanship aren’t really what this is about, and the torrent of sound flows into a singular stream. And yes, like other Quebec luminaries, Cantique Lépreux can’t help but draw inspiration from the bewitching and bitter wilderness at their doorstep, with galloping drums and hurry-up mournful guitars that recall the headlong rush of whipping winds in a whiteout. As closely tied to the land as the style may be, these bands aren’t popping up from the ground. Like some of the other great black metal scenes of the past, the sounds that come from it are often the work of a core group of practitioners. The names of the band members in Cantique Lépreux are shielded behind new monikers, but I expect if you were to look hard enough you might find that some of the members of Cantique do double, triple, and perhaps even quintuple duty in some of the other leading practitioners of the style. You can hear their influence all across the Quebec sound. There’s something wild going on up there, a rare confluence of talent and natural inspiration that has given rise to some special music. [From Cendres Célestes, out now via Eisenwald Tonschmiede] –Wyatt Marshall
6. Camel Of Doom – “Cycles (The Anguish of Anger)”
Location: Huddersfield, UK
Subgenre: doom metal
“Cycles (The Anguish Of Anger)” gets right down to Camel Of Doom’s essence. Sure, Terrestrial, frontman Kris Clayton’s fourth full-length under the no-favors name he picked as a 13-year-old, moves at an appropriately doomy pace and is deeper than the Kola Superdeep Borehole, but this isn’t a “present to unwrap” or some other bogus euphemism denoting a fatass album that can’t get in gear. Check out that first minute: A downtuned guitar riffs like a whale’s tail slaps. A programmed Mellotron drifts like a falling leaf. Clayton holds court in the center, his roar drawing everything together despite the disparate timbres. This first minute is a legend for the rest of the album, one that actually makes good on the bet psych plus doom can be engaging. Sludgy chugs and sudden mid-riff upheavals of the Scott Kelly-ian variety; nods to the worn grooves of warm spacey classics; tranquil segues gently reclaiming the waveform before giant footfalls brick it all again: these elements are Terrestrial’s constants. That said, there isn’t one set tempo, nor a single volume. As a writer for Doom-metal.com, Clayton knows one-trick doom crumbles quickly. And Camel Of Doom are able to breathe and expand into new avenues because this isn’t just Clayton anymore. Previous album Psychodramas: Breaking The Knots Of Twisted Synapse had a similar shtick but was fenced in by one-man-bandisms. Here, bassist Simon Whittle and session drummer Thomas Vallely (Lychgate, Macabre Omen) add range. No knock on Clayton’s old programming, but Whittle and Vallely’s respective floors and ceilings are higher. Their 10,000 hours result in a richer listen, allowing Clayton to reach further. The two-track closer, “Sleeper Must Awaken” and “Extending Life, Expanding Consciousness,” blast into Hawkwind’s orbit and earns the frequent flyer miles. It’s somehow starry-eyed and earthy. Kind of like how this album is long but doesn’t waste time. [From Terrestrial, out now via Solitude Productions] –Ian Chainey
5. WODE – “Cloaked In Ruin”
Location: Manchester, UK
Subgenre: black metal
We’re only three months into 2016, but already the year has inundated us with great metal — not just impressive stuff, but albums that feel like they’re gonna be serious contenders when we get to December. That could be the result of rose-tinted perception, or it could be related to unbalanced release schedules, but right now, it feels like an ever-flowing stream of next-level music that arrives to us as the next stage of a cultural evolution that has made tremendous advances over the past decade. No longer is it enough to be merely heavy or atmospheric or technically adept; to survive in this landscape, you gotta bring innovation or songs. One of my very favorite metal albums of early 2016 is the forthcoming self-titled debut LP from Manchester, England’s WODE, which offers an astonishing, addictive surplus of NWOBHN-via-Gothenburg hooks. In that respect, the album has a lot in common with Horrendous’ world-conquering 2015 LP, Anareta. However, while Horrendous are part of a death metal lineage that includes Death, Pestilence, and At The Gates, WODE’s DNA is dominated by melodic Scandinavian black metal bands including Dissection, Watain, and Taake, with recessive elements indebted to the seminal doom of Cathedral or Candlemass and the timeless thrash of early Metallica or Megadeth. It draws from classic stuff and it feels like classic stuff, but not many classic black metal bands worked as many adrenaline-boosting earworms into their songs as WODE do here. There are six songs on WODE, and they all go equally hard, but today we’re talking about track 3 — “Cloaked In Ruin” — which happens to be the one that pushed me over the edge, past the point of “This sounds really good” and into the realm of “We are, right now, experiencing an actual renaissance.” I’m not just saying it, though — I believe it. Listen to this and tell me I’m wrong. [From WODE, out 4/8 via Broken Limbs] –Michael Nelson
4. Blizaro – “Nemesis Pt. 1 — Daughter Of The Scarab””
Location: Rochester, NY
Subgenre: doom metal
It’s high time John Gallo got the recognition he deserves. Generally unknown outside a few underground blogs and forums, Gallo is an unsung legend of doom metal — the single most interesting songwriter playing doom today. Over the past two decades he’s toiled away with a handful of bands in Rochester, NY — usually playing guitar, sometimes singing, occasionally playing everything himself. In that time he’s amassed a staggering body of work, mostly deeply obscure, cult-by-design, traditional doom records with a psychedelic shine. Within that narrow sub-subgenre Gallo is constantly testing boundaries, following his muse to strange extrapolations of sound, never sacrificing the unique voice of his guitar playing. Enter Blizaro, originally formed as a solo project, but eventually fleshed out with an excellent rhythm section to play ’70s-sounding trad doom paired with vintage synthesizers to evoke the feel of Italian horror and giallo soundtracks. It’s easily his most satisfying, inventive, and awesome project yet. Blizaro’s 2010 debut LP City Of The Living Nightmare was a perfect marriage of riffs and atmosphere, aptly described in the press kit as the crossroads of Goblin, Witchfinder General, and Pentagram; the 2013 compilation Strange Doorways pulled together over two and a half hours hours (seriously) of even weirder experiments to equally great effect. Now, in 2016, Blizaro is back with their second album, Cornucopia Della Morte, and to my ear it’s the best thing Gallo has touched. “Daughter Of The Scarab” starts with the mother of all horror motifs you’ve never heard (but instantly recognize), and Gallo knows exactly how to ride it for all it’s worth. Lyrics about “candles burning in the night” and “time running backwards” flit by as the song lurches from the full-on crush of DOOM — raise your fist and bring it down like a hammer for the full effect — to moments of melodic rest, subdued pockets of church organs and garish synths bubbling to the surface to keep things interesting. I could rave about this thing forever, but you should just hear it for yourself — at maximum volume. [From Cornucopia Della Morte, out 4/15 via I, Voidhanger] –Aaron Lariviere
3. Plebeian Grandstand – “Tributes And Oblivions”
Location: Toulouse, France
Subgenre: technical black metal
The way I see it, there are two ways for bands in the densely-populated contemporary metal scene to find a distinctive voice. The first is to find a previously unexplored artistic direction to pursue — which is getting to be pretty much impossible thanks to the genre’s age and insanely deep bench. The second is use the work of past innovators as a starting point and to refine or recombine their ideas into something that itself feels fresh and new. This tactic doesn’t sound glamorous, but it can produce great results; Black Sabbath themselves were arguably just a clever refinement of the day’s loud rock tropes at first. France’s Plebeian Grandstand — love that name! — pursue this second route to incredible effect. As of False Highs, True Lows, their upcoming third LP, the Grandstand sound has two components: 1) the drug-nightmare scarytimes dissonance of black metal countrymen like Deathspell Omega and Aosoth; and 2) the stark, personal intensity and tumbling rhythms of American ‘mathcore’ acts like Converge and Botch. In practice, Plebeian Grandstand sound more like the former set of bands — this is probably 95% metal on a riff-by-riff basis — but ruthlessly compressed and stripped of the cinematic bells and whistles that spooky black metal acts love so much. The resultant songs are suffocatingly aggressive, so heavy on withering blastbeats and jagged time shifts that they can feel like a particularly weird species of death metal if you’re not paying attention. But False Highs, True Lows bears a seriousness of purpose and resonance that extreme metal of any description rarely captures. Even as Plebeian Grandstand’s rhythm section lash themselves through one sequence of punishing, lopsided meters after another, guitarist Simon Chaubard constantly unspools skeletal, somber arpeggios, a boney clatter that’s strangely emotive in the context of the band’s violence. As with a lot of technically-inclined metal, Plebeian Grandstand’s music often evokes feelings of claustrophobia and isolation, but there’s a real sense of searching and defiance in those ever-shifting guitar chords — the sound of life, trapped in a dark hole to be sure, but endlessly striving to escape. [From False Highs, True Lows, out 4/29 via Throatruiner Records (USA preorders via Deathwish Inc.)] –Doug Moore
2. Howls Of Ebb – “Cabals Of Molder”
Location: San Francisco, CA
Subgenre: avant-garde death metal
Fine, if Grave Miasma are oddballs, the San Franciscan duo behind Howls Of Ebb are black-belted weirdos. We’re talking so fringe, they’re the fuzz hanging off the fez Walter Bishop is wearing while he peruses the cut-out bin at Aquarius Records. And wouldn’t you know it, Howls Of Ebb is getting stranger. Guitarist/bassist/vocalist Zee-Luuuvft-Huund (Earth name: Patrick Brown) and drummer Roteen’ Blisssss (Zach Wells) deal in tip-of-the-tongue moments. ZLH’s clean-ish guitars recall an avant-garde-scrambled, chitinous Colossamite stuck in the same parallel universe as Psudoku’s prog-influenced blasts. The riffs cut through cut-up sections that are like Nuggets to the power of Voivod assaulted by cosmic debris. Nuclear War Now!’s Bandcamp offers Order From Chaos as a comparison. They’re not wrong; this is Rorschach stuff. But any point of reference drawing a line is erased by HOB’s next shake. “Cabals Of Molder”‘s unpredictability is thrilling, but HOB’s songcraft is what keeps this up in the air. Even though they are out on the edge, ZLH and RB operate within the confines of recognizable music, meaning a reprieve from the splitting headache of “future nauseous.” From a songwriting perspective, it all kind of make senses. It’s even kind of logical, though that designation hinges on how quickly you normalize strange happenings and your susceptibility to aurally delivered dementia. At the very least, what HOB is doing is highly composed and painstakingly thought-out. Plus, the duo’s skills are immense. Check out the way the rhythms even have a certain pliability, a practiced swing normally blocked at metal’s firewall. That’s not an outsider accident. That took some hours in a practice space to attain. That said, let’s be clear: “Cabals Of Molder” ain’t close to whatever metal sneaks onto the Billboard charts. This is far enough away from where most metal is stationed that the lactic acid-like buildup caused by an over-reliance on tropes is, uh, unlikely. In other words, you’re not going to hear much like this regardless of your place in metal’s soil horizon. Not in this decade, at least. And this will take time to sink in. At first it’s dizzying. Then it’s clean. Then it’s complex. Then, jeez, those lyrics. Then it’s a blend of every play that came before and every new thing you hear after. The most accurate thing you can say about it is that it’s different. It’s cool that you can still say that a few days later. [From Cursus Impasse: The Pendlomic Vows, out 4/15 via I, Voidhanger] –Ian Chainey
1. Palace Of Worms – “Nightworld”
Location: San Francisco, CA
Subgenre: black metal
“Nightworld” starts with a feint — a gnarly uphill-trudge of a riff, suggesting an entirely different kind of extreme metal — but in less than 20 seconds, the song takes a hard left turn, melting into a glimmering amalgam of arpeggiated guitars, ethereal doom, and atmospheric black metal. Genre-hopping experimental black metal may be par for course in 2016, particularly from one-man USBM acts like San Francisco’s Palace Of Worms, but the band’s third LP, The Ladder, goes one further than most by wrapping its schizophrenic tendencies in perfectly wrought pathos. Songs shift and uncoil in fits of imagination, following the logic of a fever dream, but always chasing a melodic thread, never losing sight of what matters. At eight minutes in length, the structure of “Nightworld” closely tracks the larger structure of the album as a whole: Like watching an insect in the throes of metamorphosis, we start with something hideous then witness as it transforms and takes flight. An opening salvo of guitar aggression is quickly smothered in a tapestry of tattered ideas, beaten into shape, and led towards the light by a haunting vocal sequence. In the span of those few minutes, we dart and weave through sludge, doom, black metal, crust, and even chorus-drenched post-punk guitars that channel the sublime glory of the Chameleons. Suddenly the harmonic structure falls away; the song draws to a close as a backdrop of emotionally charged post-rock chords comes to the fore, spiraling upwards in unexpected catharsis. The closest overall analogue to Palace Of Worms’ particular brand of schizo weirdness is probably Leviathan, who also came up in the Bay Area and used similar passages of hallucinatory clean guitar strewn between atypical metal on last year’s incredible Scar Sighted album, though the emotional effect is entirely different. By contrast, Palace Of Worms never give in to the nihilism hinted at in their songs; instead, that underlying melodic core keeps the songs afloat and pushing forward, while keeping you glued to your headphones. The chord progressions toward the end of “Nightworld” wouldn’t sound out of place on an Agalloch or Deafheaven record, with that same cloudburst sensation of ecstatic release, but you have to dig through the detritus of a dark imagination before you get there. It’s well worth the trip. With The Ladder, Palace Of Worms have given us one of the strangest and best albums of the year, carved wholesale from an unhealthy mind; it’s a fractured masterpiece of outsider art that rewards repeat listens. [From The Ladder, out 4/8 via Broken Limbs] –Aaron Lariviere
Oh hey, one more thing…
We can’t list Pyrrhon’s new EP due to our own Doug Moore’s involvement as charismatic, muscled-up lead singer. We know that. You know that. Whatever long-suffering, senile creature holding music journalism’s scales of justice knows that. But we still hacked Stereogum’s Gibson so we could set aside space to talk about it. Because, let’s be real: How could we not? This goes above and beyond helping out a bud. Pyrrhon are good. Not “good” in the way you’d say to a thirsty, validation-seeking friend paying the tab, but good in the way you’d type while arguing your neck off a public forum’s chopping block. That said, the Saskia-screaming lede is they’re getting better. Pyrrhon’s increasingly distinct identity has a lot to do with that. Early on, a younger band followed trails toward the avant-out-there. Heaps of classic death metal, SST, and prog records were melted down to form the Brooklyn quartet. Now? They’re their own thing: a mess of tempos, noises, and feelings as conflicted and complicated as a real person. Running Out Of Skin follows 2015’s EP Growth Without End. If you dry-heaved a little thinking of the order of those titles, wait until you get to the lyrics. In typical Moore-ian style, “Statistic Singular,” which paves the way for two improvised pieces and a cover, has a staring contest with the void. “I saw a man crushed in the subway/ Four years back/ Some college kid from Queens.” Ugh, like putting cement shoes on your soul. Also, the EP’s already creep-out art now unsettles on a new level. Of course, “unsettling” could be said about guitarist Dylan DiLella who is working towards claiming the champion skronk belt. His partner in ear-ringing, bassist Erik Malave, pumps an alternate universe worth of contrasting tones into the low end. Plus, drummer Alex Cohen busily tries to unlock the secrets of infinity via his beat up kit. Over six-and-a-half minutes, “Statistic Singular” expands and contracts — breathes, even — matching free freakouts with highly coordinated riffs. It just works its way into you, twisting your insides, skewing your perception. The effect lasts a long time. “Statistic Singular”‘s reverberations wash over the rest of the day, like how an unexpectedly heavy event can degauss your consciousness. –Ian Chainey
Running Out Of Skin is out now via Pyrrhon/PRC Music.