The Black Market: The Month In Metal – June 2017

Akercocke photographed by Tina Korhonen

The Black Market: The Month In Metal – June 2017

Akercocke photographed by Tina Korhonen

Talking about underground metal with people who aren’t already committed to the stuff largely consists of answering variations on the following question: “But why would you do that?”

Or trying to, anyway. It’s a fair question. Most of what goes on in metal is pretty counterintuitive to people whose ears haven’t already been warped by it, which describes most everyone. The most common variants of this question focus on metal’s concrete components: “But why would you sing like that?” “But why would you play so fast/slow/loud/nonsensically?” “But why would you make the kick drums sound like that?” “But why would you make a whole band about interdimensional space slugs/Pirates Of The Caribbean (I think?)/being a fat drunken loser?”

This range of “but why?” variants is fairly easy to satisfy — you can explain via the aesthetic effect that the musicians are trying to achieve, up to a point. For instance: “Oh, the idea of the extremely trebly and loud kick drums is to make you feel like you’re inside a plastic pepper mill during the double bass parts.” Then comes the inevitable follow-up, though: “But why would they want to do that?” Which is tougher. As Black Market bro Ian Chainey pointed out in an internal chat earlier this week, metal and some other musical subcultures (punk and harsh noise come to mind) tend to use grisly descriptors to express enthusiasm, which gives the impression that horrible experiences are the only ones worth having:

Q: How was the show?
A: Oh man, the bass was so loud we all started shitting our pants
Q: That sounds b-

At this level, “but why?” is solipsistically impossible to answer, like all questions about taste. Understanding the appeal of metal aesthetics is mostly a matter of being knocked in the head the right way at a young age and then spending a bunch of time with the stuff, until all that is wrong begins to sound right. As with most of life’s finest experiences, the appeal can only be felt, not adequately explained.

But the toughest versions of heavy-metal “but why?” to answer are the pragmatic ones: “But why would you try to build a career in a style that most people hate?” “But why would you deliberately choose to sleep on floors and live off gas station-brand beef jerky for two weeks just so you can play at a biker bar in Dubuque?” “But why would you invest so much time and money in something that will never pay you back?” And so forth. This sort of “but why?” is universal to nonremunerative DIY subcultures. It’s equally unanswerable in its own way, but it can still take you to interesting places. (There’s a reason it keeps coming up in this column.)

One version that has been on the brain lately: “But why would you get you get your extreme metal band back together years after you quit?”

The matter is not totally abstract. If you follow metal in general, or even if you just read this feature regularly, you know that defunct metal bands reform just about daily. Virtually every edition of this column has featured at least one track from some act that threw in the towel back in ninety-whatever but have chosen to take another go. (This month features several such cuts, and several quality examples didn’t make it, such as the engaging new EP by ’90s metal/hardcore weirdos Thoughts Of Ionesco.) Obviously, band reunions are not some unique metal phenomenon. Musicians from all styles bow out of the arena for one reason or another and then rejoin the fray after a stretch. Doing so makes intuitive sense, especially for successful artists — most lifestyles are kinda boring compared to a touring musician’s, workaday routines can be hard to adjust to, and returning to the fold often yields a big payday.

But these particular incentives apply to almost nobody in the Black Market zone. People are not clamoring for most of these bands to reform. When extreme metal bands get back together, all but the absolute most popular are essentially volunteering to eat one kind of shit or another. The proportion of bands we cover that are even profitable at peak popularity, to say nothing of lucrative, is vanishingly small. Since unprofitable bands don’t typically have managers, drivers, and other minions, they’re usually drudgy DIY affairs. Even modest post-band careers are often much better financial propositions, not to mention more respectable. (And in many cases, more interesting than daily 9-hour drives through the Midwest.) There’s also the matter of inertia. Once the transition back to life in the land of the sane has been successfully negotiated, jamming in a shed multiple times a week and periodically fucking off from life for weeks or months at a time can be a daunting logistical prospect. (Logistics are boring to hear about, but they’re what broad swathes of life boil down to for DIY musicians, which fans don’t always recognize. As former Misfits guitarist Wolfgang von Doyle put it during this entertainingly blunt recent interview: “Do these people think songs fall out of the fucking sky?”) This is all to say nothing of the basic difficulties associated with resuming a music practice after a lapse, such as “relearning your instrument” and “getting used to being awake at 4am.”

So getting the old horde back together is an uphill battle for most metallers. Thus the question remains: “But why would you do that?” Naturally, the specifics vary dramatically from case to case, but you can pick out some clear contributing factors:

First, metal is big into elder worship, and likes at least the idea of rewarding pioneers. The broad consensus among metal dweebs is that doing something first is doing it best, so if anyone remembers your band’s ideas after you break up, chances are pretty good that your stock will rise simply by virtue of age, even if your music is irrelevant to the broader history of the genre or simply weird as fuck. (Oddball bands that people find off-putting at first tend to enjoy the biggest benefits of this sort; the post-reunion resurgence of Gorguts is a good example of this effect.)

Second, disappearing for a while creates pent-up demand. People tend not to appreciate their options until they become unavailable, and favor anything that was denied to them once it reappears. This pattern applies to pretty much all artist reunions regardless of genre, but in a subculture that fetishizes exclusivity and obscurantism at least as much as it does age, its effects get a big boost. Together, these two factors are capable of improving a revived underground metal band’s fiscal situation from “hilariously unsustainable” to “maybe reasonable for a tour or two.” But even that takes some luck.

There’s another factor that I’d like to think plays an even bigger role than these, sentimental though it may be: ex-metal musicians tend to return to the scene of the crime in the face of every logical argument against doing so because their involvement in the stuff fundamentally changes their attitudes. Metal requires fealty from the first; virtually everyone who starts playing the stuff seriously has to throw pragmatism out the window just to get going. (This applies regardless of age; it’s not like “join a heavy metal band” was considered a sensible career choice even in the ’80s.) Once a person transcends this Rubicon and is then rewarded for their decision — which they likely will be; despite what I’ve said here, playing in even the most modest metal band is extremely fun — they’ll start to wonder whether pragmatism of the go-get-a-real-job-and-settle-down variety was ever the best metric for gauging worldly success. Having gotten a taste of their weird dream, where none of the regular rules seem to apply, they become permanent dreamers. And intense dreams tend to stick with you, and to change the way you think about waking life.

I’ve admittedly harped on the borderline-depraved degree of fanaticism required to make this music a lot in this space. But with reason — I genuinely think it’s both the key element driving its creative energy and a weirdly heartwarming aspect of the culture. Metal is stereotypically destructive, by its own account and others, and it’s certainly ruined more than a few souls. But the idea that it can put the lie to the trap that is modern life, and show people a way to construct their own meaning in the world — that’s worth returning to. —Doug Moore

15. Attic – “The Hound Of Heaven”

Location: Gelsenkirchen/Lünen, Germany
Subgenre: traditional heavy metal

Attic are a golden example of one of underground metal’s weirdest traditions: the cover band that technically plays originals. This subject has come up before here, but Attic are like a Platonic ideal of the form, both as cover-ish and as entertaining as this kind of blatant sound-jacking can get. Their target sound is that of King Diamond’s late-’80s solo work — think Abigail or Them — with just the barest hint of ’90s black metal influence, in the form of a few blastbeats and some trem-picked bits that collectively serve to remind you that you’re not listening to the genuine article. King Diamond is one of the most influential artists in metal history, of course, and most of the many bands that hew close to the original version are pretty boring. Two factors make Attic’s non-cover King Diamond covers worth hearing. The first is vocalist Meister Cagliostro, who delivers the absolute fucking best impersonation of the King I have ever heard by a mile on Sanctimonious. KD is one of the most idiosyncratic vocalists ever, with multiple extremely distinctive registers at his disposal; even imitating one of them accurately is an impressive feat. The fact that this guy crushes the entire schtick, not to mention the signature King Diamond echo-heavy production treatment, constitutes of the wilder specialized musical accomplishments I’ve come across lately. The second deal-sealing attribute this band possesses is the ability to write songs that are nearly as infuriatingly catchy as the originals. I’ve listened to “The Hound Of Heaven” like 20 times, way more than I needed to for the task at hand, and it’s slowly convincing me that it deserves a place in the King’s own set list. [From Sanctimonious, out 8/18 via Ván Records.]Doug Moore

14. Slow – “Drowned VI: Mother Cetacean”

Location: United States
Subgenre: funeral doom

Quick background: Slow is Markov Soroka, the guy behind Aureole, Eternium, and the hotly anticipated Tchornobog. If Metal-Archives-listed date of births are to be believed, Soroka has a 22nd birthday coming up. Slow’s previous album, Unsleep, was released in 2014. If that doesn’t conjure feelings of inadequacy regarding your time spent on this planet, here’s the kicker: Unsleep’s unexpected follow-up, “Drowned VI: Mother Cetacean,” has a patience and songwriting acuity well beyond Soroka’s years. While “patience” is usually wielded as a euphemism when it comes to funeral doom, a lot of it tends to be the opposite. Instead of patience, you get stuff that’s rushed and therefore ponderous, crossing off requisite elements (slow, heavy, that chord progression) instead of taking the time to let original ideas germinate. Basically, monotone and monochromatic doom. Zzz. Slow, though, spends time coloring everything in. And that means layers. Lots and lots and lots of layers. For instance, on your first pass, you hear mournful synth-y strings. Then you realize those are tens of layered guitars. Imagine the time it took to put a section like that together. It’s like DIY Esoteric, just with Soroka’s roar reverberating around the mix, almost as if you’re listening to him in a sensory deprivation tank. And that’s kind of the thing: “Drowned VI: Mother Cetacean” forces you to tune everything else out. From the outset, a 20-minute funeral doom track seems like it’d be a tough sell, a thing you’d listen to once or twice but would rarely make the regular rotation. However, “Drowned VI” swallows you up with the same time-eating voodoo as a clock-less casino. The back half has some wonderful, hazy leads while guest drummer W. Damiaen (Laster) lays down the right amount of swing. When it starts to fade out, it leaves you wanting more. Yeah, more. [From Mother Cetacean, out now via the band.]Ian Chainey

13. Sadness – “Vivify”

Location: Oak Park, IL
Subgenre: atmospheric black metal

Sadness is a hyper-prolific one-man band practicing in searing epic depressive black metal, the kind of relentless smeared beauty that’s been catching my ear more and more of late. “Vivify” is for the better part of its 12 minutes one continuously cresting crescendo, utterly awash in screaming guitars and full-blast drums and wailing keys. For those unfamiliar with this sound, despondence is expressed through transcendent, soaring minor-chord glory — a great place to get familiar would be Woods Of Desolation’s catalogue. On first listen of “Vivify,” though, I almost immediately thought of another one-man band that is also expert in this style, the ever-awe-inspiring and even more hyper-prolific Violet Cold from Azerbaijan. As it would turn out, “Vivify” is from a split, Imperfect, that features a song by Violet Cold and contributions from three other excellent bands (A Light In The Dark, Unreqvited, Show Me A Dinosaur) that practice in this tortured/transcendent style. It certainly flew under my radar initially, but don’t let it by yours — it’s one of the gems of the underground atmospheric black metal internet available on Bandcamp, pay what you will. [From Imperfect, out now via Kunaki and the band.]Wyatt Marshall

12. Mothmother – “Taken”

Location: Charleston, South Carolina
Subgenre: metalcore/powerviolence/grind

South Carolinian quartet Mothmother is heavy in both sound and theme. Sound: a pummeling combination of metalcore, grind, and powerviolence. Theme: sexual assault. “Taken,” \?pe?-?s??-??mi?-?z?m\‘s first track, begins with a chugging rumble before blasting off with a section of speedy rage that leads into some nasty, Swarm of the Lotus-esque grooves. Point of interest: Listen to how the players play around with timbres, switching between round growling bass to incisor-sharp guitars, giving the same riff a different feel. Cool. Let the track transition into the doomier “Pressure” and you have five-and-a-half dynamic minutes of pleasingly dense ear destruction. Of course, there’s a lot of this stuff on the market, so here’s the pitch: the riffs are good, but the flow of this thing puts it on a different tier. In that vein, think Converge before their d-beat addiction, yet with far, far darker lyrics. (In particular, the noise/ambient experiment “Outro” has a repeated line that’s heartbreaking, especially the way it’s delivered.) In lesser hands, this theme would weigh the material down, making it feel more laborious than something to listen to for enjoyment. Not the case here. If anything, the elevated degree of difficulty adds a deeper resonance to performances. If you have any interest in the more aggressive side that emerges when people harness core’s chaos, this is well worth a spin. And there’s some action tied to your purchase: Part of the proceeds goes to People Against Rape. [From \?pe?-?s??-??mi?-?z?m\, out now via Bitter Melody Records.]Ian Chainey

11. Unsane – “Fix It”

Location: New York, NY
Subgenre: noise rock

The thing that makes this Unsane song notable is that it’s an Unsane song in 2017, which is not something there was much reason to expect. This extremely influential noise rock trio — perhaps the most imitated, if not the most popular, band in the style — has been pretty much out of the picture for the past five years, since drummer Vinny Signorelli was sidelined by a hip injury shortly after the release of their eighth LP Wreck. In the interim, Unsane’s other members have tooled around in long-running side projects — Cutthroats 9 for guitarist Chris Spencer, and Pigs for bassist Dave Curran. Both acts strongly evoke Unsane, and as the years passed, it became less and less clear that the original article would reactivate. Unsane have survived such episodes before, though. In 1998, Spencer was jumped and beaten severely after a show in Austria; his injuries forced a hiatus on the band that lasted several years. And true to form, Unsane — Spencer is prone to calling the band “The Unsane” during live performances — have come roaring back to life yet again. Truer yet, they sound basically the same as they always have. Unsane is an institution of a band, devoted with Motörhead-like discipline to a simple formula that nobody else has ever truly mastered. It’s a blind, blaring, industrial roar, with a note of sadness — the sound of greasy machines dredging up secrets best left forgotten from the bottom of the river. It’s both a singular and a unitary effect, hugely distinctive despite its narrow range. This song is just part of a 7″ that Unsane are releasing to celebrate a festival appearance this summer, but the band has already announced plans for a new LP this fall. [From BASH 17 7″, out 7/21 via Amphetamine Reptile.]Doug Moore

10. ColdWorld – “Wolves And Sheep”

Location: Erfurt, Germany
Subgenre: depressive black metal

ColdWorld came back after nearly a decade of radio silence last year to release the album Autumn, a dreary and gorgeous work that satiated fans and brought ColdWorld’s formerly fuzzy sound into high definition. “Wolves And Sheep” continues on this path, looping together distinct passages of mournful, memorable riffing into a twelve-minute single loaded with twists and turns. These transitions are made more cinematic thanks to artfully chosen pauses and effects, such as a monastic chant at the beginning and a digitized broken monologue about four minutes in — two things that wouldn’t seem at home in the same song unless ColdWorld’s Georg Börner were at the helm. Under his hand it sounds effortless, and over the evolution of “Wolves And Sheep” you’ll barely notice that its dour beginnings have become, by the end, almost celebratory. [From Wolves And Sheep, out now via the band.]Wyatt Marshall

9. Metalian – “Midnight Rider”

Location: Montreal, Quebec, Canada
Subgenre: heavy metal

Last Rites’s Michael Wuensch wrote the definitive review of Metalian’s second album Midnight Rider, nailing why we still jam out to traditional metal. And yeah, the Judas Priest on the Montrealers’ 35-minute riff fest is strong. But as Captain makes clear, it’s hard to call this a self-aware throwback or something pejoratively aligned with a trendy New Wave of Old Wave of Heavy Metal. Nah, it’s more like the exaltation of a certain set of metal riffs and the power those riffs contain to make fans of this stuff still feel things. Songs like the featured title track or “Breakout” are not unlike that Condor album we hit last month: executed near flawlessly and brimming with the kind of joy that successfully pings your authenticity radar. As a listener, it’s hard not to feel transported, imagining oneself leaning back-to-back with a fellow guitarist while nailing whatever tasty lick Metalian is currently licking. If you are beholden to those kinds of daydreams, Midnight Rider is a near lunch-break-sized relief. So, in that respect, thinking about it deeper than that might seem foolish, like Icarus taking a second gig as a forest fire airtanker. But these songs do hold up on closer inspection. You bet this set is free of the oft-cited smirking BS that’s smeared all over trad metal interlopers. More than that, though, these songs just plain work, putting one foot in front of the other in the right direction. Granted, that might be because this material is tried and true; after all, anyone can survey 50 years of material to research what works and what doesn’t. Then again, to cut a record that has a spark this far into the genre’s lifecycle ain’t nothing to sniff at, either. In other words, honestly good. Immortal and infinite hails, fellow metal Ian. [From Midnight Rider, out now via the band.]Ian Chainey

8. Earthling – “Clay In The Hands Of Evil”

Location: Richmond, VA
Subgenre: black/thrash metal

There’s a school of thought in metal which holds that all of the possible great riffs have already been written, and that in the absence of anything new under the sun, it’s best to revel in the time-tested resonance of the style’s archetypal forms. Earthling adhere to this philosophy; their most recent detectable influence comes from the Scandinavian black metal scene of 20 years ago, but the bulk of their sound dates back even further, to the ’80s. Spinning In The Void, their second LP, is a celebration of assorted metal staples, drawn predominantly from the American thrash scene of the mid-’80s and the even more primal riff stylings that presaged it. It’s a stern, blue-collar approach — the band keeps their tempos reasonable and never tries to wow with technique. This straight-down-the-middle ethos is surprisingly difficult to do effectively, perhaps tougher than relying on novelty would be. There’s no room for error when you’re trying to follow in the footsteps of giants, and the portion of bands that have produced totally redundant and/or terrible albums in this vein is large. And even perfect execution isn’t sufficient; you gotta possess that nameless magical quality which differentiates a memorable song in a traditionalist style from a pile of stale riffs you’ve heard nine hundred times before. Earthling have that thing, whatever it is, as “Clay In The Hands Of Evil” demonstrates. The classic vibes flow from the very beginning with drummer Brently Hilliard’s Sabbath-esque 4-on-the-floor intro, but they really culminate with the mighty chorus riff that the band locks into about two minutes into the song. It’s a simple figure consisting of a few power chords, some open strings, and a touch of tremolo picking, but that’s all Earthling needs to summon the fist-pumping grandeur of a simpler age. [From Spinning In The Void, out 7/7 via Forcefield Records.]Doug Moore

7. Eaten – “Swarm”

Location: Worchester, MA
Subenre: grindcore

Massachusetts’s Eaten spat out an unexpected grind highlight in 2014. Debut EP Depraved had an Assück-y impact, fusing together elements of death metal and other heavy materials to forge a blunt hammer of pure grind. Three years on, the four-piece returns with a self-titled full-length that’s a lot sharper. The clearer production might have something to do with that, but, regardless of the reason, the riffs sound nimbler and more diverse. Result? Eaten is now a breath of fresh obliteration compared to similar minded orthodox grinders. Instead of the need to whip up a constant blur of noise and blasts, burners like “Numb Mentality” and “Demise” have, you know, riffs. And the band sounds interested letting the riffs reign, often clearing the deck to spotlight particularly cutting tremolo runs. Byproduct of that attention? Memorable moments. Take “Swarm,” one of a few highlights. Yep, the baseline grind kineticism box is checked. But listen to the way Eaten seems to really pour all of its compositional chops into the doom-ier section; like the band demands that the drenched-in-dissonance section bounces around your skull all day. A lot of grinders use speed and noise as a means to an end, a way to briefly capture and release energy and aggression. You remember the feeling, the rush, not necessarily the parts. Eaten has that rush. It also has songs. [From Eaten, out now via Give Praise Records.]Ian Chainey

6. Death Fortress – “Battlefield Zenith”

Location: New Jersey
Subgenre: black metal

Death Fortress has released three fantastic albums in the last four years now, along the way refining a modern black metal style that is both brutally heavy and intricately sinister. The trio’s swarming, hive-mind attack is at full force on “Battlefield Zenith” — a shining example of concerted chaos. Amidst the hyper-active drums and endlessly wandering guitars, contrasting low guttural growls and high-pitched shrieks punctuate the insanity, feeling a way through the labyrinth. Eventually a more obvious focus emerges, uniting Death Fortress’s various forces into a muscular front. Then, at full-swing, the menacing nature of “Battlefield Zenith” is realized, evoking a sort of disdainful pomposity. There’s a lot going on here, and with each listen there’s more to like. [From Triumph Of The Undying, out now via Fallen Empire Records.]Wyatt Marshall

5. Akercocke – “Disappear”

Location: London, UK
Subgenre: death/black metal

During their original run from ’97 through ’12, Akercocke were a Thompsonian mutant: too weird to live, too rare to die. The best way I can summarize this singular band is to suggest imagining an extreme metal response to Type O Negative. Similarly born of a seedy metropolis — London instead of NYC, in this case — Akercocke effectively channel the vibe of a sex shop in a sketchy part of town, laying on the occult evil and oily Gothic eros in thick doses that are mercifully leavened with more than a few knowing winks. (Behold this absurd music video for an efficient primer on the Akercocke experience.) Naturally, the threat of violence looms way larger for Akercocke than it ever did for Type O; they frequently spin up to full-bore death metal blast mode, which makes their long, digressive songs that much harder to predict. All this stuff sounds relatively tame compared to the anything-goes blender that is contemporary extreme metal, but in the comparatively straitjacketed context of the early ’00s, Akercocke were a revelation: hard proof that you could get brutal, goth out, take a ton of risks, have a laugh, and still turn out a metal record that doesn’t suck. A decade after their most recent album and after five years of inactivity, the band’s chief architects — vocalist/guitarist Jason Mendonça and drummer David Gray, also of Voices — have reassembled Akercocke for a new album. In doing so, they’ve tweaked the band’s sound. “Disappear” sees Akercocke in what amounts to thrash metal mode during its half, an unusual look for a band whose metal component has historically consisted of shredding death and black metal almost exclusively. But reinvention is a staple for these guys, and it’s great fun to hear Mendonça’s characteristic coughing growl over such overtly ’80s nastiness for a couple minutes. Then the track takes a hard left turn down a shadowy back alley, and the ensuing weirdness recalls what made Akercocke so essential in the first place. [From Renaissance In Extremis, out 8/25 via Peaceville.]Doug Moore

4. Couch Slut – “Funeral Dyke”

Location: Brooklyn, NY
Subgenre: noise rock

“Funeral Dyke,” the opener to Couch Slut’s second album Contempt, is a step forward for the Brooklyn quartet. That’s no small thing, especially considering Couch Slut’s debut, My Life As A Woman, was already a step ahead of most of the noise rock-descended music inducing winces this side of the 2000s. Beginning with a hint of Brainsbombs-y brass, “Funeral” unleashes a series of unceasingly propulsive riffs. That sense of momentum is one of the band’s best aspects: on this ride you’re always motoring forward, though not always in a straight line. That said, it’s worth sinking your teeth into the riffs and savoring them when you can. RIYL-wise, one could say Kevin Wunderlich (guitar), Kevin Hall (bass), and Theo Nobel (drums) reference a lot of heavyweight cream, but, really, the riffs are reminiscent of classics only because Couch Slut also writes really good goddamn riffs. And hell, really good goddamn songs, too. For as uncomfortable and uncompromising as this material can be, it’s also clever in an engaging way. Squirming underneath the distortion are tons of earworm melodies and hooky textures. Evidence of the latter: Listen to the overtones that fly off when guitar and bass crash together. Or, heck, even subtler moments like… hints of tambourine? No more spoilers, just know that there are some unexpected elements that work their way into Contempt and half the fun is wondering how the group knew those timbres would fit. To that end, shout out to the producers and every sound sculptor who turned a knob on this thing. The way Megan Osztrosits’s vocals are mixed adds another layer to her arresting performance. Still, it’s her humanity that burns through. Even when buried under sheets of distortion, Osztrosits is magnetic, drawing you in. That’s Couch Slut’s thing, really: no matter how loud or cringey things get, you can’t stop listening. [From Contempt, out 7/28 via Gilead Media.]Ian Chainey

3. Undergang – “Skåret i Småstykker”

Location: Denmark
Subgenre: death metal

What is death? Depends who you ask. It might be a dwindling of light, if you’re feeling poetic. For religious types, blissfully optimistic in the face of reason, it’s supposed to be some kind of culmination, transcendent untethering from a prison of flesh, followed by an endless party where everyone behaves (a logical inconsistency not worth unpacking). It’s a nice thought, even as it ignores a harsher truth. Let’s be real here: death is just the final stage of the body’s catastrophic failure. Following sudden trauma or gradual degeneration, the body hits a breaking point and simply stops, literally dead in its tracks. With it go our pesky hopes and dreams, the things that keep us going despite the obvious futility of it all, consciousness, awareness, spirit—gone. Cheery stuff. The best I can figure, death metal — or at least the traditionally single-minded stuff like Grave, Asphyx, Obituary, Entombed and the like — relates back to actual death in two ways. First, it’s a thumb in the eye to the religious types who would rather sugarcoat the point of termination. Extreme metal has always gotten its kicks from provoking the pious, and death metal often goes to hilarious lengths to remind us precisely how putrid the process can be. Second, and this is often less obvious as it tends to happen in the quieter moments, death metal reflects a certain reverential awe towards its namesake. Death, after all, is the great leveler, the ultimate unknown, a process so profoundly powerful we live our lives in its encroaching shadow. In this sense, death metal often does two things at once — one outwardly negative, the other quietly positive (in its own strange, death-worshipping way). I have to wonder how much thought a band like Undergang puts into this stuff, or whether it’s just absorbed into the marrow of the tunes, the kind of subconscious psychological directive that pushes us all to do the shit we do whether we recognize it or not. Who knows. Yet Undergang does it better than almost anyone, and as a death metal obsessive, I don’t say that lightly. Short songs drenched in sewer tones clatter along like a casket skidding down a hillside. The vocals are low, guttural, foul. But as much as the standard OSDM tropes serve as the expected abrasive thumb in the eye to non-metalheads, the subtler arrangements belie the band’s interest in doing something with greater depth. Listen to the sudden shift at 1:57 of “Skåret i Småstykker” (translation: “Cut Into Small Pieces”). The violence melts away as a slow melody lilts over thick, sodden chords; the idiot aggression is gone, replaced with something morose and striking. Maybe I’m projecting, or maybe it’s meant to mean something more. The effect is the same. [From Misantropologi, out now via Dark Descent Records.]Aaron Lariviere

2. Solar Temple – “Rays Of Brilliance”

Location: The Netherlands
Subgenre: atmospheric black metal

“Rays Of Brilliance” is the sole track on Solar Temple’s debut release, and it is divided into two extended hypnotic segments. In the first half, with repetition a jangly riff becomes intoxicating and ritualistic, and its bright tones shimmer alluringly. The more bruising latter half assumes the groove of a purposeful march. There are vocals here — a cavernous moan in the first part, some distorted, feedback-fuzzed haunted singing in the second. The overall result is something exotic shrouded in arcane obscurity, a dense and unsettling experience that even fits in a trance-induced desert mirage mid-way through. As for Solar Temple themselves, there is nothing to know for certain about the band other than that Metal Archives suggests there are two members and that they are from the Netherlands. Earlier this year, though, we included another excellent Netherlands-based band, Turia, on this list, who are label-mates to Solar Temple through Haeresis Noviomagi. A little digging might suggest there is a member in common, and your ear will suggest that both share a knack for stylish, spacey and despondent gorgeous guitar work. [From Rays Of Brilliance, out now via Fallen Empire Records and Haeresis Noviomagi.]Wyatt Marshall

1. Gigan – “Plume Of Ink Within A Vacuum”

Location: Chicago, IL
Subgenre: experimental death metal

Death metal has a very active experimental wing these days, with a whole ecosystem of bands plonking around near the genre’s formal borders in search of new sounds. It wasn’t always thus. Though there are now loads of upstarts working the vein of extreme dissonance first opened up by the likes of Immolation and Gorguts in the late ’90s, for instance, such acts were rare just a decade ago. Gigan were one of the first bands to forge their own unique identity with that basic set of ideas at its core, and they remain one of the best. Veteran guitarist and band leader Eric Hersemann — who, fittingly, ran the PR campaign for Gorguts’ seminal Obscura when it came out — has accomplished this goal by focusing on his instrument’s capacity for texture. Rather than opting for the bone-dry clarity that most shredmaster death metal guitarists favor, Hersemann constantly layers on psychedelic washes and echoes from a massive pedalboard. In conjunction with the cramped material and a boatload of scraping, sliding, and tapping, this approach turns Hersemann’s guitar into a fluid shapeshifting sound that only occasionally recall the original instrument. It’s a daring approach in a style that’s already so compositionally dense, and it works because of the digressive but orderly way Gigan’s songs proceed. “Plume Of Ink Within A Vacuum,” the first single from Gigan’s fifth album, displays the mastery Hersemann and drummer Nate Cotton have achieved over this side of the band. Though the tune changes gears seemingly a dozen times, the sequence of subtly related grooves that make up the song unfold like a King Crimson classic remembered in a nightmare. A lot of bands in this niche do the sci-fi thing, but when it comes to sounding genuinely alien, Gigan clear the field. (Full disclosure: my band has toured with Gigan and is signed to the same label.) [From Undulating Waves Of Rainbiotic Iridescence, out 9/15 via Willowtip Records.]Doug Moore

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