A couple of weeks into April, a blog called Sad But True: Plagiarism In Heavy Metal Art popped up on WordPress. The site consists of metal album covers of varying degrees of renown; each is paired with an older image that the cover in question has clearly appropriated a piece of. As you might expect from the title, the blog alleges that each cover it posts constitutes an instance of plagiarism. Here’s an example, featuring a reused skeleton originally painted by legendary fantasy artist Frank Frazetta:
Each example is paired with an explanation of the ethical or legal lines it allegedly crosses. Several of the entries are in the same mold as the Dying Fetus example above — the artist in question appears to have taken a piece of an older image, used image-editing software to remove it from its original context, superficially altered it, and then added it to a new album cover. Taking pieces of older artworks and reusing them in some form is an age-old technique, but under the current regulatory regime, such appropriations must transform the original element substantially in order to avoid infringing on the original artist’s copyright. Further, this cover is meant to look like a painting rather than a collage. Herein lies the ethical issue that would distinguish it from a legitimate piece of collage art, according to the blog’s operator, a professional metal and gaming artist. (We reached him for an interview by email, but he asked to remain anonymous to avoid retaliatory harassment):
The thing with collages or scrapbooking is that when you are arranging all of these clips and cutouts from other sources that you didn’t create, you aren’t pretending like you painted the items on your collage. It’s very clear from the outset that you are making a collage and that each piece is snipped from somewhere else. That, in and of itself, is a form of suggested credit given. While no credit is printed on the collage, the viewer knows that they came from somewhere else and if they recognize a piece of it, they know its origin.
Whether this particular case of appropriation constitutes copyright infringement is a fairly technical legal matter, but at the very least, it seems shady. Other cases range further afield, including more overt collage work that likely didn’t license the source material properly, such as this Dimmu Borgir album cover:
Others involve ethically dubious instances of parody that directly lift material from the parodied art instead of recreating it by hand, like this Conan, The Barbarian-referencing Brian Posehn album cover:
It’s startling to see how brazen this filching can get, and even more so to see who is stealing from whom. Some of the source material is so famous that lifting even minor elements of it seems unnecessarily risky, such as the Frazetta example above, or this instance of an artist stealing a central feature of a famous Meshuggah album cover. The other end of the transaction is even stranger. Five of the blog’s 11 entries to date involve the work of Orion Landau, a renowned and prolific artist who serves as the house album cover guy for Relapse Records, one of America’s most prominent independent metal labels.* Plagiarism practiced by obscure and penniless sorts is bad enough, but full-blown professionals that work for established artistic institutions have fewer excuses available. (Sad But True’s founder calls Landau’s cut-and-paste habit “absolutely not a secret with other artists,” and said that many of the examples he’s posted to the blog so far were compiled through conversations with others.)
Plagiarism is a serious allegation with potential legal ramifications, and Sad But True occasionally points out that the instances of uncredited repurposing it highlights may not constitute copyright violations. Those that do might be safe anyway. The vast majority of metal albums, including most of those mentioned on the blog, do not bring in enough money to justify the expenses associated with a copyright suit. But some of these bands, such as Dying Fetus, are substantial revenue generators. If the Frazetta estate were to sue over Landau’s use of the skeleton in the example above and win, the album could be pulled from the shelves, and both the label and the band themselves could end up on the hook for settling the resultant damages — even though the band was almost certainly unaware that Landau’s work was not wholly original, and the label may well be in the same boat. The financial ramifications for both parties could be devastating, especially given the precarious economics of even relatively professionalized actors in the metal world.
I don’t want to dive too deep into the legalities here, given how unclear and uncertain they are to outside observers. (I am also 100% Not An Attorney.) But it’s conceivable up to a point that nothing might be really amiss here. It’s possible that the artists targeted by Sad But True licensed their borrowed artistic elements from the original creators in fully legal fashion, or that they asked to and the creators said they didn’t mind uncredited reuse. It’s even possible that these artists were, to a man and incident, transparent with their clients about the appropriative nature of the cover art they had delivered. But I doubt it. (And I saw at least one musician whose band appeared on Sad But True publicly expressing surprise that Landau had lifted pieces of outside work for the cover in question.)
Another likely defense that these artists might offer is that their appropriations are protected under the “fair use” doctrine, which protects reuse of original copyrighted material in such contexts as academia and critical writing. Fair use also protects parody; some examples on Sad But True, such as Landau’s Conan knockoff, could also be defensible on these grounds. Sad but True’s founder argues otherwise: “Where it gets into a bit of plagiarism is that it’s clear that the Conan artwork was cut from the original source and then pasted into the digital file for alteration. If you are going to cut and paste from a source, there must be more alteration that simply painting over the piece. If the artist had just painted it himself, there would be many anatomical and detail variations and it would easily fall under the category of ‘inspired by.'”
All of this said, building airtight legal cases isn’t the blog’s purpose, and its creator says he doesn’t expect or even really want to see these artists suffer legal consequences. He’s more interested in exposing their basic sneakiness:
There are issues of legality here, sure. But it’s the ethical issues that bother me most. I simply don’t think a designer should be able to create an album cover that utilizes the hard work of another artist without given them credit or paying the price to use it. When you are just taking a leg from Frank Frazetta, a skull from Boris Vallejo, a toe from Ken Kelly and playing Frankenstein with their art in order to make it appear like you are a painter, it really rubs me the wrong way…I just think that is the lowest thing you could do to your other professional peers in the industry, alive or dead.
This type of behavior has consequences for artists who aren’t involved, too. Making original art is expensive and time-consuming; taking pieces of other people’s work is quick and cheap. In the almost hilariously cash-strapped world of underground metal, efficient but shady practices could allow unscrupulous artists to undercut the competition on pricing and speed. And let’s face it: most metal bands want album covers that look like other metal album covers, so why not eliminate the middleman and just use the exact images they expect? It’s all archetypal stuff, and as this blog post from way back in 2011 points out, even some of the genre’s most recognizable covers feature plagiarized details.
Even if you’re indifferent to ethics — this is heavy metal, after all — there’s another reasonable objection to this practice: it’s just insanely lame. Metal iconography is maddeningly repetitive even without artists literally stealing chunks of older metal-looking art and repackaging them as new. When I came across these blogs, my gut reaction was that the sheer corner-cutting shoddiness on display was at least as distasteful as any lofty ethical and legal concerns. Good metal bands work hard to develop unique hand-crafted sounds, and good metal cover art should do the same.
Except that this position does not appear to be the consensus opinion of metal’s fanbase on either score. Sad But True did the big metal blog rounds earlier this week, receiving quick-hit coverage from sites like Metalsucks and Metal Injection. The comment sections for these two sites in particular serve as a pretty good barometer of metal’s id, and while they were both as hyperbolically contentious as ever regarding these posts, the same sentiment kept recurring. Some choice examples:
…and my personal favorite:
These are obviously not especially sound or compelling defenses of the plagiaristic practices on display at Sad But True. Its art-jacking examples aren’t the visual equivalent of writing and recording a riff in the style of another band. They’re the equivalent of taking part of an original guitar track from that band, changing the EQ, putting it on your album, and then implying that you played it. But these comments nonetheless reveal an uncomfortably blasé attitude about this subject among metal fans: Copying other people’s work is fine, especially if you don’t copy it exactly; everyone does it; metal bands in particular do it constantly; and anyone who calls attention to it is a naïve crybaby.
And indeed, creative theft of some description is extremely common among metal bands, likely more so than among visual artists. In fact, the vast majority of the music metal has produced is partially or entirely derivative. (Including some of the good stuff!) Influence is inevitable in the arts, but metal culture’s nearly total comfort with copycatting has helped its clone-band legions swell to totally ridiculous numbers.
This said, the music vs. visual art parallel we’re working with is apples-and-oranges by nature, legally and ethically speaking. For example: The purest forms of imitation in metal, as practiced by (currently somewhat ironic) Relapse signees Gruesome and The County Medical Examiners, rise to the level of pastiche — appropriative art designed to celebrate the source material. Gruesome are a verbatim Death clone, playing “original” songs which are really borderline covers of material from that band’s first two or three albums. The County Medical Examiners did the same for Carcass’ Symphonies of Sickness / Necroticism period. These bands deliberately look and sound exactly like their respective forebearers — the reference to a better-known precursor is their sole and transparent purpose. They’re copying, but by virtue of declaring the source so loudly, not stealing. And you could even read what they’re doing as a critique of more conventional copycatting — an ironic, self-aware acknowledgement of metal’s culture of creative theft.
More commonly, though, derivative metal bands just imitate a few riff ideas from one band here, borrow a few vocal ideas from a related band there, dial in the genre-relevant production settings as reported by a gear blog, and avoid letting any distinctive characteristics emerge in their music whatsoever. This approach produces vast numbers of records that sound pretty much exactly like the nearest relevant nexus of influences…except slightly different, nowhere near as good, and infinitely more boring for being so familiar. This is just the way of the music world regardless of genre to an extent, though I am convinced that the proportion of metal musicians doing this sort of thing is much larger than in other styles. It’s definitely not illegal. It’s also not necessarily unethical.
But, like even the most defensible entries in Sad But True’s hall of shame, it is laaaaame. While it’s great that metal still produces lots of new bands, the past decade and change of covering the stuff as a critic has whittled away my interest in its widespread and baldfaced musical plagiarism, and then destroyed my tolerance for it. And here, too, plagiarism has consequences. As with plagiaristic metal art, the savvier copycats can crowd out more original sorts in the perpetual battle for audience attention. Since making original music is far harder and riskier, the structural incentives favor just sounding almost exactly like Bolt Thrower or Darkthrone or whomever instead.
This is not quite how it’s always been on the metal band landscape, which used to be much smaller and less cannibalistic of its own ideas. But it is likely how things will continue to be for the foreseeable future, though it doesn’t necessarily have to be so. We covered a Greek metal band called Locust Leaves in last month’s column — a broadly traditionalist group that still has an immediately recognizable musical personality. The band’s mastermind Helm described his view of Locust Leaves as an artistic entity as follows in this engaging interview with Bandcamp:
We consider our band to be a heavy metal band. Every aesthetic decision that we have made in our record was informed not by what heavy metal is, but what we could imagine it to be. We do not think the record is that ‘out there,’ avant-garde, experimental or weird. It is just self-analytical, personal and open to its own failures. For us, this is how every heavy metal record should be: nothing like ours, yet still aware of its form-as-such.
This strikes me as a great standard for metal bands to strive for if they want to produce unique work. It’s not an especially high standard; it doesn’t require stylistic innovation or unconventional elements or any bells and whistles at all. Merely investing yourself in the specifics of the music and letting your instincts guide you without deliberately aiming to arrive at someone else’s sound is usually enough to produce an idiosyncratic final product. That’s the rewarding part of making art anyway.
I’d like to think that most metal fans would prefer the results of such an approach too, but I’d be wandering into wishful territory. Metal’s conservative streak is strong, and ultimately, a large proportion of its fanbase would simply rather hear and see things they have quite literally heard and seen before. Familiarity is comforting, and comfort is ironically what a lot of folks want from metal. It’s a pulp culture after all, as the plagiarized source images on Sad But True suggests, and artisans tend to service their clients’ preferences. If the greatest hits, revisited and uncredited, are what the people want, that’s what they’re gonna get. –Doug Moore
*It’s worth disclosing in this context that one of my bands was signed to Relapse a few years ago, and that the arrangement did not end happily.
15. Rendered Helpless – “Entities Of Frenzied Masturbation”
Location: Christchurch, New Zealand
Subgenre: brutal death metal
Alright, let’s get this out the way: “Entities Of Frenzied Masturbation” is one of the few times a lyric video is warranted. “Procreate through self-fornication/ Ejaculate parasites/ Reseed and dominate.” Ah yes, the poetry of Elizabeth Barrett Browning. The lyrics fit in with Rendered Helpless’ main aim: maxing out the credit limit of its ridiculousness. That’s not always a plus. While Entities Of Transdimensional Emergence’s frame is slamming futuristic death metal, it employs a crew of slow-mo deathcore jud-juddery and general techy djenting to jump you in with constant beatdowns. 28 minutes of that, especially without much in the way of true tempo diversity, can be a lot. Shades are thus: punch hard and punch harder. Result? Much like a concussion, time drags. But then, in comes “Masturbation,” the best song on Helpless’ second album because it’s the briefest. That reads as backhanded, but it speaks more to the strengths of New Zealand native Alexander Paul’s solo project. When isolated and cut down to its most necessary components, Helpless’ impact is huge. Just listen to the song’s centerpiece groove. Fun. Really fun. Stupidly, giddily, addictively fun. But “Masturbation” also works because it’s a little more diverse. That speedy beginning and the following jagged rhythms clear the runway, allowing the rest to land. Good things ahead? Sure. Reseed and dominate, indeed. [From Entities Of Transdimensional Emergence, out now via Demigod Recordings.] –Ian Chainey
14. Phrenelith – “Crawling Shadows, Slithering Tongues”
Location: Copenhagen, Denmark
Subgenre: death metal
Desolate Endscape is Phrenelith’s debut LP. Keep that in mind when clicking “Crawling Shadows, Slithering Tongues” — not because it sounds like the work of a young band, but because it doesn’t. The deep growls have the satisfyingly resonant tone of a longtime roarer. The midpaced riffs roll along like tank battalions. The transitions have a practiced efficiency that comes off as effortless. Endscape is a modern OSDM rarity in that it sounds like the 10,000-hour boxes were ticked before studio time was booked. Of course, there’s a reason for that. Phrenelith has a history: two demos, a split with Spectral Voice, and a nasty little cavern-dwelling EP, Chimaerian Offspring, that also came out this year. Members of this Danish quartet have also, among other CV entries, logged time in Undergang and Mold, two outfits that have/had a knack for going above and beyond the whammy bar-accented call of OSDM duty. But still, even knowing all of that, Endscape is uncommonly competent. In other words, duders mesh well. There’s an extrasensory death metal perception linking the players together, the kind of thing that’s only learned and honed after spending some serious time in the trenches. It’s just that, despite the life investment, Phrenelith doesn’t sound tired. It’s in that sweet spot where accrued experience hasn’t been blighted by the rot of jadedness. Been in the game, still enjoying the game. Granted, like most OSDM, this isn’t anything you haven’t heard before. In a way, that’s kind of the point. But the rendering is damn solid, allowing the players to tack on subtle additional degrees of difficulty that would be outside the grasp of most pups. [From Desolate Endscape, out now via Dark Descent.] –Ian Chainey
13. Marunata – “L’Aveugle”
Subgenre: atmospheric black metal
There’s not much out there about Marunata, a new project from France that, barring the occasional vocal assist, is entirely the work of one Manako. On “L’Aveugle” (“The Blind”), my favorite from her debut EP Réminisence, Manako creates an enchanting world — not unlike the most celebrated of French atmospheric black/post-metal dreamweavers, Alcest. The comparison won’t make sense right away, as “L’Aveugle” drops you off in the midst of anxious building tension that takes a turn into wailing, synth-assisted, haunted-castle black metal territory. But the shift comes halfway through — after we already get a feel for Manako’s excellent pummeling drumming and vocal versatility — and Manako flicks on the magic with effortless style, picking and plucking bright mournful notes suspended mid-air like fireflies. The song ends in a glorious crescendo of all out-riffing, frantically shuffling drums, and an unforgettable vocal line. [From Réminisence, out now on Bandcamp.] –Wyatt Marshall
12. Mind Mold – “Antipath”
Location: Calgary, Canada
Subgenre: sludge/noise rock
The promotional materials for Mind Mold call them “pitch-black, discordant, and swarming avant-garde blackened doom metal,” and then go on to compare them to a bunch of bands more of the noise persuasion: Swans, Godflesh, Rorschach, Today Is The Day. This word salad should give you an idea of just how hard it is to succinctly summarize Mind Mold’s approach, as well as the queasy vibes the band conjures. The real throughline between all of Mind Mold’s various influences — black metal, doom, noise rock — is a surreal, dreamlike sense of pacing. “Nightmarish” or “inexorable” might be better descriptors, though; “Antipath” moves like the kind of childhood monster that always seems to catch you no matter how slowly it moves. But it’s not all Freudian terrors for Mind Mold. Despite the 50-Kubrick-stare pileup of creepoid signifiers attached to this project, it still has room for subtle dynamics in the form of bright, airy chord progressions that bubble up from the oozing rhythms. Staffed by members of Wake and Seminary, Mind Mold consists entirely of grind musicians (Seminary, in particular, echoes the peculiar chiming quality of this band’s guitar work). Makes sense that strangers to the slow ‘n’ low would hit upon a rich vein of novelty. [From Mind Mold, out now via Sentient Ruin.] –Doug Moore
11. Satan’s Hallow – “Black Angel”
Location: Chicago, Illinois
Subgenre: heavy metal
If you’ve listened to a lot of trad metal released this side of the year 2000, you’ll understand this compliment: Satan’s Hallow has equal amounts of exuberance and talent. But for everyone else who isn’t drowning in a deluge of demos and promos, know that this is a comparatively rare thing. These days, it’s one or the other. Exuberance only: diehards with killer record collections stumble around like drunk, geriatric German Shepherds. Talent only: invaders from other genres plug in to shred some dusty stuff with a smirk. So, it’s nice to hear an American band catch and bottle something like “Black Angel,” nimbly threading dueling leads and not tripping over galloping rhythms. On the whole, Hallow’s self-titled debut hits a lot of its marks, coming off like something lighter that would’ve bridged NWOBHM and early Metal Blade. But “lighter” isn’t meant to be a pejorative. Lighter, in this sense, is more a matter of atmosphere. Where similar-sounding bands throb with a red hot hard rock sound, these Chicagoans’ full-length debut runs cooler, like a cool breeze at night kind of cooler. The timbre is a dark, midnight blue, pairing well with vocalist Mandy Martillo’s skillset. Martillo has a way of sounding urgent and collected at the same time. Her performance is unfussy and yet transfixing. Even on the lesser tracks, she’s the reason to keep listening. And yeah, there are some duds. Satan’s Hallow sometimes nails a hook without the right vibe or vibe without the right hook. But hey, it’s a debut. If you’re into Chris Black’s ever-growing stable or stuff like New Light Choir, you should give this a go. Chastain does this with more muscle, Savage Master with more grit. But Satan’s Hallow is pretty cool. [From Satan’s Hallow, out now via Underground Power Records.] –Ian Chainey
10. Alluring – “The Courser”
Location: Grand Rapids, MI
Subgenre: funeral doom
Alluring is a Damian Master joint (A Pregnant Light, Aksumite, Ornamental Headpiece, Bound Bible…), but one we haven’t heard from in some time; it’s been five years since the demo that showed us Master’s knack for slowing his typically blistering riffs to a more relaxed pace and dropping his yell to a cavernous, echoing roar. When one thinks of funeral doom, the often dreadfully slow lurch of prolonged chords and preposterously deep throat gurgles is the prescription. If that’s not for you, “The Courser” is an exercise in extended, vibed-out passages of careful yet relaxed riffing. A clean lead cuts through the mix, a guide above the lulling morass, and the vocals howl beneath, providing additional texture to this stylish bruiser that makes for deceptively easy listening. [From Alluring, out now on Colloquial Sound Recordings.] –Wyatt Marshall
9. Virus – “The Blue Flags Of The Dead”
Location: Oslo, Norway
Subgenre: experimental rock/metal
In 2017, it’s probably a good sign if it takes a second to explain what a metal band’s deal is. Virus is arguably not a metal band, but still a good example, as they’re a totally singular act with a rich history. The TL;DR version: Virus grew out of Ved Buens Ende, a band that did more to push black metal into weirdo land with their only album than just about anyone else has in total. The shared main guy, Carl-Michael “Czral” Eide, is a Norwegian legend with ties all over the black metal scene. Virus steers clear of black metal almost entirely, though, arriving at an isolated peninsula of a sound that could pass for the world’s darkest and riffiest dance punk band quicker than any kind of metal. Any music produced by this set of conditions would at least be interesting, but Virus is also a straight-up awesome song factory that rarely misfires. This covers Investigator, a classic-style single with an A-side and a B-side. The B-side, “The Blue Flags Of The Dead,” particularly highlights a feature of the band that tends to get glossed over: Czral’s warbling voice and hallucinatory lyrics. Czral employs a sort of literary gibberish that conveys more mood than meaning, but it smokes anyway: “Remembering how you went far through the red grass/ Disorientated in the wetlands/ The mounds of stones, shivering/ You asked the fertile crescent about the blue flags of the dead/ The persistent scalding tone of voice/ That you dance to and forget.” Czral has become an expert at dreaming up elliptical fantasies like these, and it’s a rare pleasure to hear one set so forthrightly into Virus’ alien landscapes. [From Investigator, out now via Karisma Records.] –Doug Moore
8. Dynfari – “Sorgarefni Segi Eg Þér”
Location: Rykjavík, Iceland
Subgenre: atmospheric black metal
In recent years, Iceland has earned a place at the forefront of the world of underground black metal thanks to a small cohort of bands that includes Naðra, Svartidauði, and Misþyrming. Those three exemplars seem to forge their songs in the island’s fire, delivering punishing, raw, whiplash-inducing stuff. Dynfari, on the other hand, channels Iceland’s stark, awe-inspiring beauty that everyone seems to be talking about these days. The lead-in vocals certainly fit the setting, and soon “Sorgarefni Segi Eg Þér” finds its headlong, post-rock-inflected stride, followed by sugary, eliding guitar leads that draw the mind to the heavens and the seas. It slows from there, a reflective, anguished exhale that culminates mid-breadth between closure and a new beginning. [From The Four Doors Of The Mind, out now on code666.] –Wyatt Marshall
7. Animals Killing People – “Animalistic Hunger For Human Meat”
Location: New York, NY
Subgenre: brutal death metal
You picked a hell of a month if this is your first Black Market. Welcome to Slamgum, the new home of brutal death metal coverage. Now, while we’ve explored some BDM in the past, we haven’t spelunked to the subterranean sewer where br00ful miscreants like NYC’s Animals Killing People reside. So, put on your gore-resistant jumpsuit and let’s slide on down into the slop. “Animalistic Hunger For Human Meat” is the lead stream from Eat Your Murder, the trio’s first release since a 2012 split with close relation Andromorphus Rexalia. It’s pretty much a blur of blasts ‘n’ belches from start to finish. Overwhelmed? If this is your first foray into this kind of tumult, that’s a natural reaction. Realize that “Meat” is putrefying at the end of a couple decades worth of escalating extremity. Whole subgenres have been erected and fallen during that time, each with their own recognizable tropes getting assimilated into the BDM-connected slam-mind. At this point, then, it’s more important to get a grip on how “Meat” feels rather than dissecting what it does and why it does it — that’s a long-ass story for another time. If this confluence of noise – lightspeed guitar squelches, alien gutturals, near-constant snare slaps – sounds even remotely exhilarating, welcome aboard. You’ve got some catching up to do, but you’re now part of a club that wears a wry smile whenever someone talks about “brutal” music that’s not this. Of course, if you’re already a BDM aficionado, know that this is a step up from AKP’s old stuff. The M.O. remains “animal rights:” meaning animals swiping the extended claws on right paws across the bloodied faces of abusive humans. But the nastiness has gotten nastier, particularly Ammo Diaz’s vocals and Wilson Rairán’s drum destruction. I can finally die now that this stuff is on Stereogum. [From Eat Your Murder, out in May via Sevared Records.] –Ian Chainey
6. Piss Vortex – “Soft Reboot”
Location: Copenhagen, Denmark
Worth mentioning every time they come up: Piss Vortex have one of the best names in all of heavy music, now with the perfect iconography to match. Three releases into their run, this sardonic quartet has become one of grindcore’s most exciting and engaging acts, though purists might contest the categorization. The formula for Piss Vortex’s sound is pretty straightforward: Start with the zonky rhythms and jagged chordwork of metallic hardcore’s technical wing (think Converge or Botch); accelerate it to two or three times the original speed; liberally apply blastbeats. This approach deviates substantially from the mid-rangey blur of trad grindcore revivalists in its ruthless precision, and retains the subtle tunefulness common to its non-grind ancestors. This applies even to Soft Reboot, an 8-minute EP that technically consists of five very short songs, but which functions best as a unit. Consider it an elevator pitch for Piss Vortex’s overall greatness. If you wonder whether such a technically capable band might give a few fucks too many for their chosen genre, consider the fact that they released Soft Reboot by plopping it on YouTube without providing any purchase options. These guys are not in it for the glory, if their music didn’t make it clear enough. [From Soft Reboot, out now via…erm…YouTube.] –Doug Moore
5. Time Lurker – “Ethereal Hands”
Location: Strasbourg, France
Subgenre: black metal
In a sentence, France’s Time Lurker screeches over sweet riffs. Of the two preview cuts culled from their forthcoming self-titled, full-length debut, “Ethereal Hands” shows this off to the greatest effect with sole proprietor Mick navigating eight atmospheric black metal minutes with panache. “Hands” is equally celestial and melancholic without losing its propulsion. It doesn’t futz around baiting dull hooks with lurid earworms or lightening loads with airy transitions that insult your intelligence. It just goes. That drive makes the runtime feel like it’s half that. That said, the sweet riffs are the thing. Lurker rides a few for extended stretches, using the repetition to imbue everything with a catchy familiarity even on the first spin. It’s just well-executed stuff, even if it’s not necessarily new. There’s a sharpness present that pokes through a swathed-in-space tone that cuts you a little bit deeper. That sort of polished performance also extends to the songwriting because “Hands” has been fine-tuned to be affecting. The middle builds up to a crescendo and then, right when you expect the boom, the bottom drops out. It feels like those times when only a few pages remain in a book that you don’t want to end. [From Time Lurker, out 6/2 via Les Acteurs de l’Ombre Productions.] –Ian Chainey
4. Suffering Hour – “Through Vessels Of Arcane Power”
Location: Minneapolis, MN
Subgenre: black/death metal
Metal bands like to telegraph their whole thing with their naming conventions. When you see song titles like “Through Vessels Of Arcane Power,” “Procession To Obscure Infinity,” and “Withering Microcosmos” on an album called In Passing Ascension, you can reasonably suspect the following of the product: A) it’s some combination of death and black metal, B) it does NOT sound modern and sparkly, and C) there will be a lot of mystical occult vibes flyin’ around the room during playback. Suffering Hour play directly to type, conjuring lean and spidery riffage from some adjacent dimension where ’80s Morbid Angel somehow scored ’90s Pantera’s sale figures and drum quantization was never invented. They’re hardly alone in this territory — Blood Incantation and Execration offer up more deathly takes, while Mexico’s much-missed the Chasm ramped up the black metal component. Suffering Hour balance the two traditions in virtually even quantities, driving home washy quasi-melodic arpeggios with reverb-monster bellows and pugnacious blasting. The real trick to this stuff is writing songs that feel more like actual, y’know, songs, instead of greatest-riffs compilations drawn from the annals of golden-era cultism. Even on their first LP, Suffering Hour have that on lock. That opening arpeggio motif that recurs throughout the song? Simple, classy, classic. [From In Passing Ascension, out 5/26 via Blood Harvest.] –Doug Moore
3. Au-Dessus – “XI”
Location: Vilnius, Lithuania
Subgenre: post-black metal
This came out in March, but rather than wait until the end of May to write about a song from Au-Dessus’s killer debut full-length, which is due out mid-month, we decided to play catch-up. For context, in 2015, a polished Au-Dessus appeared, ready for the big stage, with a captivating self-titled EP that brought clinical execution and thick production to mesmerizing, powerful, melodic black metal. On the new one, End Of Chapter, the band picks up where they left off, at least numerically — Au-Dessus ended with track “V,” and End Of Chapter starts with “VI.” That said, things are a bit different now, and with confident power, Au-Dessus has slowed things down, covering everything in some sort of molasses of scorn. “XI,” the penultimate track on the album, is a gruff, bruising track that grinds the ears to submission. It’s spectacular, but just an early glimpse of a highly anticipated album. [From End Of Chapter, out 5/19 on Les Acteurs de l’Ombre Productions.] –Wyatt Marshall
2. Entheos – “Écho”
Location: Rouyn-Noranda, Québec, Canada
Subgenre: progressive black/death metal
I pay decently close attention to Québec’s metal scene, but I hadn’t heard of Entheos until I stumbled across the band on the website of the esteemed Pest Productions, China’s premiere metal label; leave it to Pest to pluck such a gem from literally the other side of the world (GMT+8 in Jianxi, GMT-4 in Rouyn-Noranda). On the group’s Bandcamp, one supporter noted that the band manages a rare feat — bringing the starts and stops and dischordant twists and turns of “weird and avant-garde territories” to the expansive, “emotional and captivating realm.” Standing apart, I’m not much a fan of the former, yet am a big fan of the latter — for my palate, here is one of the special recipes that blends the two to delirious, delightful effect. [From Le Zahir, out now on Pest Productions.] –Wyatt Marshall
1. Internal Bleeding – “Final Justice”
Location: Long Island, NY
Subgenre: brutal death metal
Internal Bleeding are a true rarity in the underground metal world: A band that actually deserves the “influential but underappreciated legends” marketing they receive. They’re most closely identified with fellow New Yorkers Suffocation and Pyrexia as founding practitioners of the slam — a major component of death metal’s musical vocabulary, without which descendants like Animals Killing People and Rendered Helpless would never exist. Though all three of these bands got started within a few years of each other in the late ’80s and early ’90s, only Suffocation rose to first-tier notoriety. Internal Bleeding and Pyrexia persisted, though, operating outside of the package touring world as underground stalwarts. Regardless, these three acts have shared numerous members over the decades and deserve shared credit for driving death metal’s evolution towards more extreme sounds. Of the three, Internal Bleeding in particular refined the slam to a distinguishing and endlessly compelling feature of their music. “Final Justice,” a one-off single running a vanguard action for their upcoming sixth LP, upholds this tradition in characteristic bulldozer-down-the-median fashion. Backed by a fresh lineup featuring vocalist Joe Marchese of excellent grind act Mother Brain and latter-years Pyrexia bassist Shaun Kennedy, “Final Justice” handily outslams Suffocation’s own new single, not to mention the new tune by comparably venerable slammers Dying Fetus.
But while Internal Bleeding’s first new music in three years should be cause for celebration, it comes at a deeply sad moment for the band. This month, a day before Internal Bleeding released the video for this song, drummer William Tolley — one of the band’s two remaining founding members and a New York City firefighter — was killed in the line of duty while battling a fire in Queens. He was 42. A husband and father, Tolley stood out in the often feckless death metal world as a genuine pillar of his community on top of his influential creative output. (Read a touching tribute to Tolley written by fellow Internal Bleeding lifer Chris Pervelis here.) Tolley’s musical legacy is safe; Internal Bleeding plans to carry on making music, and they continue to attract new fans from a younger generation. My band happened to play a show on Long Island a few days after Tolley’s passing, and seemingly half of the 20s-skewing crowd was rocking Internal Bleeding gear. You can donate to an FDNY-operated fund supporting his daughter’s education here. [From Final Justice, out now via Unique Leader.] –Doug Moore