This Memorial Day weekend marked the 14th annual Maryland Deathfest down in Baltimore. Only one of us Black Market guys made it to the festival this year (Aaron, who’s probably watching Hail Of Bullets at the time of this writing, the lucky bastard — see his Katatonia writeup later in this column for more on that subject). Fortunately, the rest of the Northeast enjoys a rash of live appearances by international bands in the weeks surrounding the main event.
Finnish grindcore institution Rotten Sound, for instance, kicked off a North American tour built primarily around MDF with a show at the Acheron, one of Brooklyn’s indispensable heavy music venues, on the Wednesday before the fest. You can and very much should watch their pummeling set in full below, courtesy of the tireless documentarian behind the Pit Full Of Shit video blog.
The video’s shot from the front, but the best view in the house could be found to the audience’s left of the stage, by the bar. The Acheron’s stage is oriented such that audience members in that part of the room stand directly to the side of the band, which gives them a perfect view of the drummer in action. Rotten Sound skinsman Sami Latva rewarded those with the foresight to claim a spot in this part of the room with a speed clinic that few humans could even dream of equalling.
If you are unfamiliar with Rotten Sound, be aware that they play insanely fast much of the time. This in itself isn’t unusual for grindcore, but the utter force and crispness with which Latva executes his blastbeats in particular place him among a tiny musical elite. Notice how well you can hear his snare when he blasts in that video. It’s virtually impossible to play at those tempos and still punch through the wall of noise that the rest of a band like Rotten Sound produces without the use of drum triggers, which we discussed a bit in last month’s column. But Latva does so, seemingly with ease and nary a dropped beat. The dude may be the single best straight-ahead blastbeat drummer in the world. Not the fastest, perhaps, just the best. The folks gathered around the bar area knew this and reacted accordingly: a mix of slack-jawed stares, incredulous laughter, and shouts of approval.
It’s hard to explain to non-fans why some people respond to blastbeats with this kind of rabid enthusiasm. Only growled vocals seem to put the metal-curious off in larger numbers, as far as musical ingredients go. (There is a reason that doom metal and its offshoots, with their clean vocals and reasonable tempos, have more crossover appeal than any other metal style.) As with just about everything in the metal world, the blastbeat has evolved into a whole host of confusingly-nicknamed variants, the definitions of which are subject to hot debate among specialists. Still, every subspecies works similarly: The drummer wails away on kick, snare, and cymbal, either simultaneously or in rapid-fire alternation, at extremely high velocity.
The wicked speed and volume that blasting entails strikes most listeners, even adventurous and knowledgeable ones, as a pointless straitjacket in all but a handful of cases. One noteworthy example of this attitude comes from The New York Times music critic Ben Ratliff’s Every Song Ever: Twenty Ways To Listen In An Age Of Musical Plenty, an engaging collection of essays he published in February. The book features a chapter discussing speed in music; Ratliff, no metal neophyte himself, puts his prototypical feelings on the subject this way:
Speed has no practical purpose in music. It doesn’t inherently increase or enhance the feeling of the notes themselves, or the listener’s physical pleasure. Speed is to be considered separately from music. Speed in music is like a sweater on a dog: mostly for show. It increases tension, and its death-ride futility can feel attractive. It represents a tacit contract between the player and the listener: we’re in this together, and it might come to no good. I’m going to tighten my grip, and so are you. It doesn’t elicit: it forces, always, and in its very best instances it can force counterintuitive feelings, feelings of hummanness and frailty.
Ratliff goes on to discuss blastbeats specifically as used by D.R.I., a legendary ’80s-era punk/metal crossover band who were among the first to employ blasting in a rock context. (A moment of pedantry: Ratliff strangely chooses to frame the discussion around “Draft Me,” a D.R.I. song that doesn’t feature the archetypal kick+cymbal / snare blastbeat or any variant thereon, though it does feature a very fast example of the closely related d-beat. That said, the album the song appears on does feature plenty of primitive blasts. This may be the most gruesomely nerdy point I’ve ever made in public, which is a high bar to clear.) Ratliff’s regard for the technique’s emotional range comports with his grudging feelings on speed in general: “Blast beats are frustrating and not lovely — you almost try not to hear them, you almost try to push them away — but they matter.” Later, on the hardcore scene that birthed D.R.I.: “It is the sound of the lack of control or oppressive control, and nothing in between.”
As a confessed blast junkie, my instinctive response to the notion that blasting is essentially just an ugly musical stiff-arm is similar to the one I tend to reach for when people complain that screaming is inexpressive: In short, some folks are just wired to enjoy blastbeats and some aren’t, in the same way that some people are wired to enjoy roller coasters and contact sports, while some aren’t. And that’s true to some degree! Blasting IS an ugly stiff-arm, and some people ARE more naturally inclined to enjoy it than others, in spite of its abrasive nature.
But there’s more to the blastbeat than its overt WHAM-WHAM-WHAM-ing. While not a technique that most would recognize as versatile or nuanced per se, blasting can involve a ton of fine detail, and can be deployed to achieve a variety of effects. Some familiar examples: black metal bands — like the archetypal Darkthrone, or Wolves In The Throne Room more recently — use slow, steady blasting to establish ritualistic, trancelike grooves. (Try nodding along to their blasts; you’ll probably find yourself accenting only every other kick-drum hit, if not the first out of every four.) Certain death metal bands, such as Incantation and their stylistic descendents, use blasting to project an atmosphere of dense, inexorable menace. By contrast, grind acts ranging from the direct and earthy variety (e.g. Rotten Sound and their classic forerunners) to the spasmodic fringe (Discordance Axis, Maruta, etc.) use blastbeats as a dynamic spike — a spurt of wide-eyed acceleration, often intended to set up a big slowdown or launch out of one. And those are just a couple of common permutations. It gets way more exotic, as metal always does.
This increasingly dweebed-out discussion aside, I suspect blastbeats appeal to metal fans in part because of deep-seated symbolic reasons that go beyond both their immediate clatter and their surprising range of musical applications. Ratliff gets at these reasons a bit in his chapter on speed: “Playing a great many notes with individual definition is an action tied to negative associations: competition, the limitations of the body, physical pain, and the risk of being dismissed for soullessness.” But for most folks who derive pleasure from extreme metal, these associations might not register as so negative. Coping with pain; mortal frailty; the urge to dominate: these are all important thematic and practical concerns for metal, associated with striving towards and sometimes transcending limitations. There are physical and cultural costs to pay for this kind of pursuit — the techniques involved constrain your audience, and can literally destroy your body — but successfully navigating these dangers yields a sense of empowerment, and the thrill of victory accrues to the listener as well as the performer. For my money, no musical techniques better captures the letter and spirit of this struggle than the face-ripping blastbeat.
This urge to toe the brink in musical form will understandably strike a lot of people as onanistic or even self-destructive, in the same way that climbing Everest did in the time of George Mallory (and justifiably still does for many). But then as now, some will climb the mountain merely because it’s there, and others will cheer them on as they do so, even while the rest of the world regards them with confusion. Just ask Rotten Sound. –Doug Moore
15. Asphalt Graves – “Who Do You Serve?”
Location: Richmond, VA
Subgenre: death metal/grind
Asphalt Graves is a new collaboration between a bunch of Virginia-area metal veterans with extensive résumés. It features current Misery Index and ex-Dying Fetus frontman/bassist Jason Netheron, ace drummer Shannon Lucas (best known for his work in The Black Dahlia Murder), and guitarists Brent Purgason and Adam Feris, of GWAR and War Torn, respectively. Netherton is also a death metal historian of considerable note — I highly recommend reading his exhaustive look at the early years of the American death metal underground if you have the slightest interest in how all this racket got going. It therefore isn’t surprising that Asphalt Graves couches themselves in historical terms too. A self-described “modern take on the classic death/grind of the 1990s,” the band draws heavily on the hooky blastmasters of yore throughout their clipped debut The New Primitive. You can hear a lot of Assück, Righteous Pigs, and “we just became death metal”-era Napalm Death in particular. But the combination of the beeftastic production, Shannon’s pristine blasting, and Netherton’s unmistakeable snarl calls to mind a younger band even more readily: Misery Index. Or rather, the lean and hungry iteration of Misery Index that appeared in the early ’00s, before the band tacked in a more sophisticated and melodic direction. (Their first EP featured a Terrorizer cover that could well have appeared on this record instead.) But all these comparisons kind of sell Asphalt Graves short, as this unit’s got a hyperactive personality all its own. You can hear much of that identity in “Who Do You Serve,” but since it’s all of 80 seconds long, check out previous single “Angst And Praise” too if you like what you hear. [From The New Primitive, out 7/8 via Vitriol Records] –Doug Moore
14. Seedna – “Abyssus”
Location: Lidköping, Sweden
Subgenre: atmospheric black metal/doom
“Abyssus” is the penultimate track on Seedna’s third album, Forlorn. Like both titles imply, the Swedish quintet isn’t exactly suffering cheek cramps from all of the smiling. But Seedna aren’t stuck in the boring stasis of atmospheric black metal depression, either. First premiere “Wander” spent 22 minutes testing the range of your hearing by weaving together the highs, lows, loudness, and lulls of the atmospheric black metal, doom, psych, and post-rock promised by Seedna’s Bandcamp bio. Needless to say, the song was dynamic. “Wander” definitely did, but it wasn’t exhausting. The friction between the contrasts sparked the song’s ignition in a way that felt earned. Yeah, it started and went somewhere. And yeah, 22 minutes, earned. The 11-minute “Abyssus” flies by in the same fashion. Beginning with a pulsating build-up that has the same fog machine setting as gothy rock/industrial, the track soon moves into a cathartic doomy crawl. From there, it’s like Seedna step down tiered levels of misery. At 3:54, we hear guitars sounding like the chimes on Cthulhu’s clock. At 7:23, a twangy guitar lead ties together the rhythm section’s heavy thumps; a between-note run that’s more from-the-gut than a scale. Four minutes later, “Abyssus” relents. If you hit play again real quick, you hear how the beginning foreshadows something different than the actual end. At the very least, the remembered progression is unexpected. Yet, if you play it straight through, especially the last five-or-so minutes of glorious downtrodden dirgedom, you just roll with it. Again, somewhere. Again, earned. [From Forlorn, out 7/15 via Transcending Obscurity Records] –Ian Chainey
13. Toska – “Night I – Albid Gales”
Subgenre: atmospheric black metal
Toska’s “Night I – Albid Gales” falls between the cracks of clearly definable metal subgenres — as more and more of today’s best metal does — but ostensibly it’s a black metal song. That’s what the overall style and the tremolo guitars would tell you, anyway, but those riffs are weirdly clean. The drums are wild, too — hyper-articulate and mechanized, a drum machine firing off machine gun fills. It works perfectly with the song, but you almost get the feeling that whoever was in charge of percussion sort of said “fuck it” and decided to just go nuts whenever possible. And then the vocals come in, which in their extremely distorted state sound like something that may have been ripped from a harsh noise track; meanwhile, the keyboard melody would be at home in a song by Lustre, the Swedish synthscape black metal band that writes songs built for daydreaming and stargazing. It’s a weird mix, but damn is it awesome — a strange vision that’s slightly out of focus until it bulldozes you down with a crazy riff attack half way through the song that snaps you back to reality. Toska hail from Iceland, a hotbed of killer raw black metal these days, but Toska are doing something different. Instead of the fire that you hear in bands like Svartidauði, Misþyrming, and Naðra, Toska channel something else, something cold and a bit more proggy, playful, and pensive all at once. [From Toska, out now on Eihwaz Recordings] —Wyatt Marshall
12. CB Murdoc – “Everything Is Going To Be OK”
Location: Stockholm, Sweden
Subgenre: experimental death metal
We deal with a lot of strange band names in this column. Most of them fall into one of two categories: either cartoonishly violent and offensive absurdities, in the tradition of Cannibal Corpse and Dying Fetus, or gravlax-flavored letter mazes, peppered with diacritics alien to the English-speaking tongue. CB Murdoc is a sufficiently weird band name for this realm, but less predictably so — it could refer to anything from a comic-book villain to an Australian company that manufactures power washers. In this instance, the odd cover matches the book within. Featuring several former members of the defunct black metal band Mörk Gryning (now there’s a classic!), CB Murdoc deal in an idiosyncratic style of modernist death metal-ish heaviness befitting their clinical moniker. These guys occasionally get lumped in with “djent,” the onomatopoeic microgenre named for Meshuggah’s guitar tone, thanks to their love of disorienting grooves and jarring shifts into bright melody. (Meshuggah themselves have also publicly endorsed CB Murdoc, which will probably saddle them with the djent tag forever.) But while djent bands tend to feel airy and plastic, CB Murdoc dig into those slippery rhythms in seriously violent fashion. Witness the sardonically titled “Everything Is Going To Be OK.” The way the rhythmic intervals in that main riff expand and contract like a jellyfish’s bell is fucking freaky, on top of being a technical marvel. Then there’s the absolute beating they deliver about two and a half minutes into the song. The yanked-string hits and whammy pedal warbles recall Meshuggah-informed bands like the underappreciated Car Bomb, but they bring more guttural force to bear than just about anything this side of Decapitated. [From Here Be Dragons, out 6/24 via ViciSolum Productions] –Doug Moore
11. Tyfon’s Doom – “Gate To New Reality”
Location: Tampere, Finland
Subgenre: heavy metal
In other genres, the one-man band is the realm of the virtuoso and/or the insane. Metal adds necessity into the mix. Imagine someone like Tommi Varsala, Tyfon’s Doom’s sole proprietor, rolling through a Finnish grocery store when “Gate to New Reality”‘s harmonized guitar melody sneaks into his head like a sneeze. He urgently checks his contacts for future bandmates: nada. So, eff it, he pins on the “everything” badge and goes solo. Need outranks all; heavy metal just makes you take these sort of life leaps. So, while Tyfon’s Doom probably had a different origin story, Yeth Hound, Varsala’s January EP that’s seeing a June re-release through Cruz del Sur’s Gates Of Hell imprint, has that same “I just gotta do this” spirit. Influenced by the kind of heavy metal that swept through northern Europe in the early ’80s, songs like “Gate To New Reality” have a nice roughness, an immediacy, that’s an echo of their inspirations. Yep, Yeth Hound doesn’t feel labored over or overcalculated, rather it’s the purer expression of someone who loves this stuff. And that familiarity grants Varasala flexibility. Listen to the way he modulates the harmony after “Gate”‘s second verse or how he lets the song breaks free from its galloping pace soon after. True, these things were learned, passed down by the finest teachers, but the build-ups and breakdowns sound natural in Varsala’s hands. They sound like him. It’s not “I have to do this because _________ did it,” more “I love this riff and this sounds cool.” It’s not a distinction that can be easily explained, but, whatever, no one headbangs to words. [From Yeth Hound, out 6/10 via Gates Of Hell Records] –Ian Chainey
10. Replicant – “The Everdying Realm”
Location: New Brunswick, NJ
Subgenre: death metal
Replicant’s Worthless Desires is a four-song set of squelchy, techy death metal that doesn’t require a PhD in Advanced Obscura Studies to untangle. That might not sound like a big deal to those already schooled in the weird ways of the off-kilter, but it’s huge for everyone else. And let’s face it, “everyone else” is a lot of people. So, hello everyone else. You might not have known you were looking for a New Jerseyan quartet sounding like a skittering Steeve Hurdle riff reborn as an early-’00s Relapse signee, but here it is. And the crazy thing? Chances are you’ll stay here. Once you’ve heard “The Everdying Realm,” it’ll probably click better than most of the self-consciously esoteric stuff we’ve featured. That’s not to say Worthless Desires is simple; rather it’s uncluttered. This makes Replicant feel realer, a quality deepened by guitarist/vocalist Michael Gonçalves’ performance. His howl has a raw-nerve hurt as opposed to the default death metal setting of blind rage. It grafts on another layered muscle to a group already stronger for avoiding obscurity. Peter Lloyd’s guitars are gloriously murkless, allowing him to explore novel sounds a listener can actually hear; Matthew Thompson (drums) and TG (bass) eschew weak random number generator rhythms for perpetual momentum. Yes, screeching dissonance abounds. Yes, Desires lurches and lunges and leaps wildly. Yes, there are moments when all members are stargazing, shooting off in their own directions, before they’re pulled back together by a hefty, earthy riff. This is squelchy, techy death metal, and longtime fans will eat this up. But so will beginners. Great place to start your journey, great place to continue it, too. [From Worthless Desires, out now via PRC Music] –Ian Chainey
9. Velnias – “Absolution”
Location: Nederland, CO
Subgenre: black/folk metal
Velnias have been lurking out in the Rocky Mountains since their fantastic 2012 album, RuneEater, and they’ve lurched back to life with the gigantic “Absolution,” which features more rising and subsiding suspension and riffed-out bliss than most bands summon over the course of a whole album. Velnias have evolved in the period of dormancy, from a black metal, folk, and doom entity, one in which lo-fi haze added to a murky atmosphere but also slightly obscured some expressions from coming through clearly. Now, Velnias have managed to both clean up the edges and maintain a dark and somewhat distant atmosphere, and the band is more agile and powerful for it, and seemingly more aligned to black metal. Guitars are crisp and cutting, and almost somewhat restrained. The refined focus allows for quieter interlude play, which then roars back to life with fury, all throaty screams on a foundation of accent-rich drums and active bass. “Absolution” is a single released in anticipation of a new album next year. We’ll be impatiently waiting. [Out now via Velnias] —Wyatt Marshall
8. 16 – “The Absolute Center Of A Pitch Black Heart”
Location: Los Angeles, CA
Subgenre: sludge metal
16 — sometimes stylized as -(16)-, as per their logo — are both holdovers from an earlier age and harbingers of the current one, like a heavy metal coelacanth. Though only frontman Cris Jerue and guitarist Bobby Ferry remain from the band’s salad days, the songwriting paradigm they established as far back as 1996’s Drop Out endures. Its ingredients: fermented sludge riffs, antagonistic noise rock wailing, a dash of nimble thrash, and a whole lot of bad feelings. (Read this interview with Jerue, conducted by occasional SG contributor Justin Norton, for a sense of the negative vibes that drive 16’s artistic direction.) This toxic stew foreshadowed the heterogenous sound popularized by the likes of Mastodon, High On Fire, Black Tusk, and so forth during the mid-aughts. 16 ironically fell dormant for a few years around the time that the seeds they planted finally bore fruit, but have found a fitting home in Relapse Records — the same label that launched the careers of many of 16’s descendants — for their post-reunion efforts. Lifespan Of A Moth, the third album in this phase of the band’s career, continues their lineage in especially scabrous form. (Its title also reflects 16’s largely unappreciated sense of humor.) “The Absolute Center Of A Pitch Black Heart,” one of its up-tempo burners, strikes with more ferocity than most bands half 16’s age could muster. [From Lifespan Of A Moth, out 7/16 via Relapse] –Doug Moore
7. Inquisition – “Wings Of Anu”
Location: Seattle, WA
Subgenre: black metal
Two years ago, the Seattle-via-Colombia duo Inquisition found themselves the subject of one of modern metal’s weirder controversies. It’s a troubling-yet-confusing story that can neither be discounted nor distilled into a couple sentences, so rather than attempt to retell it in full, I’ll encourage you to click that link to learn more, and we can air it out in the comments if you wish to discuss further. For now, though, I’ll leave the extramusical stuff there and move on to the matter at hand. Inquisition write absurdly hooky songs about some sort of Outer Space-dwelling Luciferian Spirit — a narrative conceit they’ve been honing for about a decade, having moved on from the standard-issue Biblical devil business that defined their early work — pairing Immortal-size bombast (and an appropriately Abbath-ian croak) with guitar lines worthy of the Smashing Pumpkins. Those axes are powered by several racks of equilibrium-altering effects borrowed from early-’90s shoegaze progenitors such as Ride or Verve, and then set against lurching rhythmic shifts that run from blast to bliss, the end result of which is a mountainous grandeur that makes this two-man outfit sound like a stadium-filling ensemble. Inquisition’s last album, Obscure Verses For The Multiverse, is nothing short of essential, and their forthcoming Bloodshed Across The Empyrean Altar Beyond The Celestial Zenith (!) advances their sound by scaling back: It’s rawer, filthier, more immediate — but frontman Dagon’s vocals feel fuller, less froglike, and his guitars retain their addictive melodic sensibilities and bendy, blurry, staccato stickiness. Lead single “Wings Of Anu” is an unholy ripper, the heaviest thing on here by a couple degrees, but man, that chorus … you can sing along to that chorus. Maybe not sing along, per se, but it’ll get lodged in your head like an LSD-loaded syringe. Satanic majesty, indeed. [From Bloodshed Across The Empyrean Altar Beyond The Celestial Zenith, out 8/26 via Season Of Mist] –Michael Nelson
6. Wendess – “Identité Dissociative”
Location: Québec, Canada
Subgenre: black metal
Wendess are an atmospheric black metal band from Quebec, and like a rare few other bands that we’ve featured here before, they strike a perfect mix of acoustics and organic-sounding guitars. But Wendess tread territory more depressive and sinister, luring you in by evoking a sense of wonder, and then they take you on a tour that includes some darker sounds you can’t see coming. You’ll learn more of those twists and turns on Wendess’s excellent MMXXIII, which I highly recommend you give a listen to, but you’ll get a feel for the palette on “Identité Dissociative.” The album’s arrival coincides with the news that the atmospheric black metal genre has lost one of its pillars, Agalloch, amongst strange and disheartening circumstances. If you’re bummed out by the whole scenario, MMXXIII is a salve that should go a long way to healing your wounds, and maybe it can be a new guiding light. Parts of the album will speak directly to you, particularly if you’re a fan of The Mantle. But Wendess are their own beast, and they cram in an impressive variety of stylistic twists borrowed from various schools of metal in the process. It’s excellent, a foray down new untrodden paths in a genre that continues to find new ways to delight and surprise. [From MMXXIII, out now via Wendess] –Wyatt Marshall
5. Sorcery – “The New Armageddon”
Location: Gävle, Sweden
Subgenre: death metal
Sweden’s Sorcery released Bloodchilling Tales, their first full-length, in 1991. And then, nothing. “I guess our biggest problem at the time was that we couldn’t hold a steady line-up and we got really fed up with breaking in new members,” singer Ola Malmström said in a great interview with Deathdomain. Despite demos here and unconsummated deals there, that would be the story for the next 22 years. That is, until death metal adorers Xtreem Music unveiled Arrival at Six in 2013. And it was good. No kidding. Perhaps this isn’t as much of a surprise now that a “comeback” is part of the band lifecycle, but Six was juiced to the gills with energy. So to is new album Garden Of Bones. Receiving Xtreem’s backing once more, Bones showcases a group unwilling to rest on its laurels. Now partnering with members of Sordid Flesh (bassist Jacob Wiberg, drummer Emil Berglin, and lead guitarist Johan Wickholm), Ola and guitarist Paul Johansson continue to rise as old-school Swedish death metal’s cream. Speaking of energy, “The New Armageddon,” like lead single “Holy Ground,” is a goddamn burner. If Swedeath needs to have “the buzz” and “the riff,” then you’re invited to devastation kicking off 42 seconds in. So yeah, three albums, 30-odd years, and now Sorcery are one of the prime practitioners of the style. Took a bit, but it worked out in the end. [From Garden Of Bones, out now via Xtreem Music] –Ian Chainey
4. Katatonia – “Serein”
Location: Stockholm, Sweden
Subgenre: progressive depressive metal
As the lone Black Market representative at Maryland Deathfest, I promised the guys I’d write about Katatonia on the fly, in the heat of an MDF moment, and I always make it a point to keep pointless promises. So here I sit under a rusting underpass, surrounded by a sea of aimless headbangers strewn about picnic tables and lying on dirty asphalt, anything to stay in the shade and hide from that goddamn sun, on this, the final afternoon of the fest. I still have a residual headache from watching Dragged Into Sunlight annihilate the crowd at the Rams Head last night, and the current throb of noise tickles that pain and makes me hate everything a little more than usual, in a good way. The final day of a fest always draws me a bit inward, faced with the return to everyday life, exhausted and sore, the thrill of relentless extreme metal starting to wear a little thin. It’s on days like these — where my dopamine receptors barely remember how to fire, where the thought of another day in the sun bums me the fuck out, and my patience for blasting metal is utterly drained — I reach for Katatonia. Like Disintegration-era Cure cut from heavier cloth, Katatonia bring the rain better than anyone. The older I get, the more often I need that feeling. Looking way back, you can trace a long progression from the death/doom crush of 1993’s Dance Of December Souls. Even by 1996’s classic Brave Murder Day the band was playing in a world of its own, following the lead of Paradise Lost and My Dying Bride to carve out their own corner of quiet, introspective, domestic gloom. Across a string of haunted gems like Last Fair Deal Gone Down, Viva Emptiness, and Night Is The New Day, Katatonia explored the tension between moody clean singing and heavy guitars. Sometimes it felt like metal; just as often it felt like sad-sack depressive rock with chintzy keyboards that somehow work in context. That’s not a knock; they excel in both modes, often combining them in perfectly strange ways. Slow-unfolding melodies bloom but never burst, etching deeper into your head with every listen. Lyrics about petty crime and everyday disappointments steer clear of the grand declarations of pain that most goth bands invoke like scripture, and somehow that makes Katatonia all the more human, all the more mine. Back to MDF: On my way up to Baltimore from DC on Friday, I took the opportunity to spin the new Katatonia LP, The Fall Of Hearts, top to bottom. I was thinking back to last year’s festival, watching the headlining set from Bloodbath — a throwback Swedish death metal band mostly comprised of Katatonia members — and it felt oddly appropriate to play something wistful and moody before a weekend of heavier stuff. The new album is probably their most progressive record, a bit more diverse and dynamic than their last few, with liberal use of mellotron strings and organs (recalling both classic Cure and recent Opeth albums), and a neat trick where the band constantly drops the tempo, plays a sweet drum fill, then restarts in a new direction. The melodies are as thoughtfully obscure as ever. It took a few listens, but I love it. “Serein” isn’t one of the heavier songs, but it catches Katatonia at their best anyway, with a subtle chorus hook and a perfect clean guitar break. I could describe it in more depth, but you may as well just listen below (then listen a few more times, until it clicks). Here at MDF, things are looking up. Just like that — as if I could will it to happen by thinking hard about Katatonia for the past hour, wishing they were closing out the night instead of Mystifier — it just started to rain. I’ll take it. [From The Fall Of Hearts, out now via Peaceville] –Aaron Lariviere
3. Slomatics – “Electro Breath”
Location: Belfast, Ireland
Slomatics’ fifth full-length, Future Echo Returns, brings the three-part narrative the band began on 2012’s A Hocht to its neutron-star-heavy conclusion. Over seven songs the Belfast trio riffs in two directions, somehow emphasizing heft and melody. This is no happy accident. Guitarists Chris and David have an old-hand feel for wrangling riffs, and drummer/vocalist Marty stamps sections with true hooks. So, fear not: Though tagged with sludge/doom, a genre with a glut growing larger with every newly issued weed card, Slomatics stands with a small cadre of likeminded bands that are still rising above the ruin. “Electric Breath,” Returns’ first single, isn’t just guitars, but kitchen-sink synths; a diverse zoo of timbres unifying into one rattling hum. The enormity of the sound is impressive, the way it burns the melodic as fuel to propel the crunch more so. However, it’s all about how the band controls and tempers their onslaught. Others would hold on desperately to the soundwave reins, praying for Sabbath or Sleep when the dust settled. Slomatics actively shape their own sound, a quality best evidenced by the song lengths. Red-eyed meandering is traded in for a comparative tightness. Songs do stretch and expand in the third-eye sense, but there’s a destination in mind. If you’re new to sludge/doom, welcome. If you thought you were over it, welcome back. [From Future Echo Returns, out 9/2 via Black Bow Records] –Ian Chainey
2. Gojira – “Stranded” & “Silvera”
Location: Queens, NY
Subgenre: progressive metal
In the second half of the 1980s — when “extreme metal” was still a commercial concern, before it splintered into infinite special-snowflake subcategories — the genre’s leading lights pushed each other to write songs that were not only heavier, faster, and more complicated, but smarter and catchier, too. I have no idea why this happened in the first place, or why it stopped (though you can probably credit/blame Metallica for both these evolutionary developments), but it spawned a half-generation of dust-smoking, D&D-playing dirtbags who grew up cultivating nuanced opinions on global warming and learning the ins and outs of pentatonic scales and odd time signatures just because, like, “When The Sun Burns Red” had a killer sing-along chorus. That ambitious and inclusive approach to metal has largely been abandoned, but it lives on in the music of Ridgewood, Queens-via-Bayonne, France quartet Gojira. That’s not to say Gojira are in any way retro-minded — quite the opposite! If anything, their music sounds like it’s from The Future — but there is something atavistic about the way their stadium-size melodies and breathtaking grandeur serve as a Trojan Horse transporting innovative, dazzling instrumentation, bone-breaking low end, and challenging lyrical themes. “Silvera,” the second single from their forthcoming sixth LP, Magma, features a chorus that goes, “Time to open your eyes to the genocide…” And it’s so catchy! But still not as catchy as first single “Stranded,” whose knockout hook demands endless repeat plays and fist-pumping gang-chant listener engagement — which sorta diverts attention from the fact that it is, at heart, a pretty weird song fusing Voivod-ian prog with Killing Joke-y post-punk. “Stranded” lodges itself in the viscera, allowing “Silvera” and the rest of Magma to spread like weeds or wildfire to the cerebellum, and the whole thing almost immediately captures and captivates both body and brain. Magma pulls off the all-too-rare trifecta of being heavy, complex, and catchy, while most of today’s best metal bands are happy to pull off only two of those three things (if that). Metal is Satan’s music, of course, but make no mistake: Gojira are doing God’s work. [From Magma, out 6/17 via Roadrunner] -Michael Nelson
1. Forteresse – “Là Où Nous Allons”
Location: Québec, Canada
Subgenre: atmospheric black metal
Forteresse are the standard bearers of Métal Noir Quebecois, a movement that encompasses what I think is one of the most intriguing black metal scenes out there today. The band is literally a rallying point. Forteresse feature members from other Quebec mainstays like Ephemer, Cantique Lépreux, Déliquescence, and Grimoire, to name a few, and Monarque contributed lyrics to one song on the incredible new (forthcoming) album. But despite leading the charge, Forteresse have been pretty quiet since 2011’s awesome Crepuscule d’Octobre, with just one excellent contribution to a split since. Their return, Thèmes Pour La Rebellion, centers on Quebec’s 1837 rebellion. Albums that ostensibly sing about the past rarely sound this real or urgent, but for Forteresse, the fires never went out. You hear that desperation in the breakneck tempo on “Lá Oú Nous Allons,” and you feel the sense of mission in its soaring lead. You lurch with the sways of fortune in the titanic swells just before the song’s midway point, and you almost taste victory. You still feel the bitter sting of defeat. Athros snarls his lyrics with rabid determination, bleeding grit. This isn’t a song just regaling great deeds of the fabled past, these are songs for action. And so “Là Où Nous Allons” plays like a song for battle, with tom rolls that thunder below the epic din. Anxious anticipation builds from the lead-in riff and then it explodes and you’re racing to keep up. Forteresse songs have long featured a guitar lead that dances atop an underlying hurry-up offense, but it’s never all come together quite like this. It’s now thick and muscular, with a cleaner mix that the label notes was done at Nocromorbus Studios in Stockholm, which has done work for Behexen, Watain, Tribulation, and many more. Now those leads blend into an engrossing whole, and Forteresse are better than ever for it. [From Thèmes pour la Rébellion, out 6/24 — better known in Quebec as St. Jean Baptiste Day, Quebec’s national holiday — on Sepulchral Productions] —Wyatt Marshall