Metal is a microcosm for the world that produced it in many ways, and it’s quite responsive to the public mood. This fact has been difficult to escape over the past two years, as tumult in the newspapers has forced conversations about metal’s more “challenging” features. By far the loudest of these conversations is the ongoing food fight over how to deal with metal’s sizable and vocal far-right wing. Virtually every month since some time in 2015, a lurid news item dealing with this subject has done the rounds on the metal blog circuit. In August, the grim headlines coming out of Charlottesville were met with two such stories, both dealing with record labels.
First, a litigating attorney at the high-powered Minneapolis intellectual property law firm Patterson Thuente was outed as the proprietor of Behold Barbarity Records, a black metal label and distro that specializes in NSBM (that’s National-Socialist Black Metal, for you lucky uninitiated) and other pro-fascist heavy music. The attorney, Aaron Davis, was apparently forced out by the firm after the revelation. Then, a couple days later, the popular blog MetalSucks ran an anonymously-penned open letter to Hells Headbanger Records, a far more popular label whose output we’ve covered on several occasions, calling on it to stop distributing music from extreme-right bands and labels. To be clear, HHR is generally agreed not to be a white supremacist or NSBM-oriented label itself, but their business relationships with that sector of the metal world have been well known for some time; the letter constituted a rare public acknowledgment of this fact.
This latter item interested me in particular, in large part because of an op-ed response penned by Exhumed frontman Matt Harvey for Decibel Magazine’s blog. I’ve been an Exhumed fan since I was a teenager and always considered Harvey one of death metal’s more articulate spokesmen; he’s an excellent lyricist who has done some standout music writing of his own, so I read his take with substantial interest.
Harvey’s piece is quite long, and worth reading in full, as it’s an unusually complete and comprehensive accounting of the thinking many metal fans with no far-right leanings of their own offer when asked to account for the fashy sorts they share a cultural space with. (The piece begins with a note specifying that its position is endorsed by the editors of Decibel as a group, who aren’t exactly running Der Stürmer.) I consequently run the risk of mischaracterizing it by summarizing it in brief, but it’s a very familiar argument about the importance and fragility of free speech in the arts. In its course, Harvey argues that the presence of such elements in the metal world is both a necessary consequence of metal’s absolute commitment to untrammeled free expression, and an inevitable byproduct of its innately transgressive, antagonistic character, which has long emphasized ideas and imagery designed in part or whole to get a rise out of people. By his accounting, doing anything active to push Nazi or white supremacist bands out of metal’s primary channels actively contravenes these components of metal’s spirit. Throughout, Harvey repeatedly insists that he has no far-right sympathies and that he finds fascism and white supremacy revolting, which I 100% believe based on what little I know about the guy.
Harvey’s line of reasoning feels familiar in part because it contains several grains of indisputable truth. There is a lot of extremely objectionable subject matter in metal and there always has been. Because not all of metal’s inflammatory comments are uttered sincerely, it’s sometimes difficult to differentiate between genuinely vile attitudes and mere edgelordery, as we’ve discussed recently. (It’s worth noting that serious NSBM is usually pretty easy to distinguish from mere references to historical Nazism, though.) Harvey is also right that metal’s overtly violent and antisocial cast is going to attract a whole lot of creeps and psychos almost by definition, even if they remain a small minority within the overall culture, and any effort to thoroughly ‘cleanse’ metal of such people would completely gut the genre. These issues lead to genuinely difficult questions about determing what behavior goes beyond the pale in a space that is clearly not suited for purity tests, though wondering how best to calibrate such an immune response seems like a different question from whether there should be one at all.
Despite its familiarity, Harvey’s argument is far from airtight. For example, he characterizes metal as “apolitical” early in the piece when he really means something more like politically heterodox. He seems to recognize this distinction initially — “it owes no intrinsic allegiance to a specific ideology,” he says — but goes on to treat metal as a fundamentally apolitical space, and builds his argument on the premise that bringing politics into metal somehow changes its character and ruins its fun. He debatably characterizes an anonymous call for a record label to break off its far-right business ties as an act of serious civic opprobrium, and then even more questionably equates this example of critical speech with censorship itself. He claims that publicly distributed and performed music is not part of civic life, which is baffling in a piece about a fan’s reaction to a matter of music commerce. (“If you go on the street and shout racial slurs at people, then I’ll have something to say to you,” he writes at one point, which is a weird way to imply that you object to people giving far-right bands a hard time for literally screaming racist slogans in public venues.) And it gives no consideration to the chilled speech of would-be metal musicians and fans who choose to avoid the genre entirely because it’s a known haven for virulent bigots.
Throughout all this, Harvey refers constantly to metal’s history. In the course of the piece, he uses Black Sabbath, Morbid Angel, Manowar, Metallica, Iron Maiden, Judas Priest, Venom, Slayer, Mercyful Fate, Bathory, and many others to illustrate his points about metal’s generally transgressive and occasionally retrograde politics. In this way, Harvey uses metal history to build an essentialist argument about what metal fundamentally is and is not: It is a place where you can sing about whatever you want, but it is not a place where ethically motivated efforts to push back against lyrical or aesthetic choices are welcome.
Ultimately, Harvey argues that what concerned metal fans and bands should do about this menacing presence on the genre’s fringes is what they’ve always done: pretty much nothing. Consumers of metal should simply avoid supporting racist/fascist extreme metal bands and labels on a purely individual basis, but should otherwise let them go about their business as if they were singing about dragons or Satan like anyone else. Further, he claims that public objections to arrangements like HHR’s distribution of far-right metal will actually empower the stuff, and worsen metal’s broader image by admitting that such bands exists in the first place:
I believe the best way to combat Nazism in metal is to let it slink over in its own unlit corner of the genre. The vast majority of its fans are mouth-breathing wimps who haven’t accomplished anything in their virginal existences that doesn’t involve an Xbox controller. Let them have it, because if you take it away, they will whine on the internet and accuse you of being the fascist because of your censorship. Worse, in today’s hyper-politicized media climate, people outside of the metal scene may pick up on it and assume that all underground metal is racist and all fans of it are racist. Right now, if people outside of metal condemn the genre for allowing Nazism to exist within it, you can rest assured that they are not willing to embrace a style of music that allows for total creative freedom, regardless of where it leads. Like they say: ‘If you are a false, don’t entry.’
This argument from history, and Harvey’s perspective in general, is quite conservative. It’s protective of metal’s traditional attitudes and deeply suspicious of deviation from the established way of doing things in the genre’s little world. In taking this stance, Harvey channels and illustrates two big cultural blind spots in underground metal more generally.
First, this argument valorizes metal’s historical way of dealing with this issue beyond reason. Harvey has been playing in metal bands since at least 1990, which makes him a member of the generation that built this consensus, and so it’s understandable that he’d be inclined to continue it. Temperamentally, he’s also clearly a guy who feels like the old ways of doing things in metal are the best. Aside from Exhumed, itself a fairly traditionalist outfit, he’s played in the likes of Gruesome, Expulsion, and Dekapitator, all of which celebrate extreme metal’s pre-1995 salad days or another. In fact, the approach Harvey recommends in the case of Hells Headbangers is exactly what he did back in the ’90s during his time as an employee of Necropolis Records, which itself distributed various NSBM artists.
The trouble is that the “just ignore the fascists and they’ll stay in their little corner being dumb losers with no power” strategy has demonstrably failed. These types are all over the fucking place in metal, and especially in black metal, these days. I would know, because every time we cover an unfamiliar black metal band with a certain type of aesthetic presentation, we have to scour the internet to hedge against the substantial likelihood that the band is somehow connected to calls for the pagan wolves of Evropa to crush the Semitic vermin or whatever. (We still get burned sometimes, because again, these people are everywhere.) And, as noted, fascists are literally marching in American streets more openly than they have in generations. Suggesting that the problem will take care of itself if everyone just ignores it seems pretty dated in the context of current events. At the very least, equating the comparatively innocent pseudo-Satanic provocations that Maiden and Venom practiced in the ’80s with the kind of frank vileness distributed by the likes of Behold Barbarity is clearly spurious.
The subtext you get from this argument is that things must be fine on this particular subject because metal has always been this way and thus that’s the way it should be. But this attitude confuses an “is” for an “ought,” in the way that so much traditionalism does. Harvey clearly believes that something would be lost by reconsidering metal’s extremely permissive attitude towards its wingnut fringe:
For the sake of argument, say you’ve stopped all the overtly NSBM bands from having visible places to promote themselves — now what? Where do you draw the line? Is Slayer unacceptable, due to their adaptation of Nazi imagery? Or is Slayer okay, because Tom Araya is Chilean, or because they didn’t explicitly endorse Josef Mengele? Do you reconsider Pantera after Phil Anselmo’s Sieg Heil and sketchy stage banter and Dime’s Confederate flag-emblazoned guitars? Is Viking metal inherently a white-identity based sub-genre? How much distinction is there between the imagery of neo-folk / white power bands and Viking metal / pagan acts, and is it enough?
This intransigence encapsulates the second blindspot, which is metal culture’s extreme insecurity in the face of criticism, especially on ethical grounds. (“Are you saying there might be something wrong with Pantera!?” is its incredulous subtext.) Again, this foible makes sense coming from a guy like Harvey, who no doubt remembers the genuine hostility and censoriousness with which square culture treated extreme metal in its early years. In this way, censorship is not an abstract concern for him.
But does an anonymous open letter that basically says “hey, your non-ideological metal business should draw a line shy of distributing literal fascist agitprop” really rise to the level of censorship? Would taking such a suggestion seriously really lead to mass burnings of Slayer records? As far as organized civic efforts to delegitimize ideas go, the open letter that spawned this kerfuffle is about as gentle and as consistent with the standard rules of engagement in the democratic marketplace of ideas as such efforts get. It seems primarily motivated by a desire to keep buying music from HHR with a clear conscience, rather than running every Nazi out of the heavy metal scene or what have you. It’s certainly far less severe than the kind of government-sponsored oppression that many NSBM bands and fans openly call for. It’s also less serious than many past efforts by metal gatekeepers to eject interlopers. I don’t remember many free-speech defenders from the metal community piping up five years ago when Jeff Tandy of Texas black metallers Averse Sefira threatened to beat up Liturgy’s Hunter Hunt-Hendrix for the crime of being a hipster. So it is strange and not a little ironic that this fairly polite call-out is causing guys like Harvey to throw up their hands and rhetorically ask the heavens where the censorship will end.
So why the touchiness at the mere suggestion that it’s not a great look to help promulgate the work of ideological racists and fascists at this particular moment in history? My most optimistic theory is that a lot of lifer metal people are on some level embarrassed by the genre’s tolerant attitude towards these forms of destructive bigotry, to the point that it makes them uncomfortable. But since they don’t believe they should have to feel that way about a part of their lives that they regard as a source of joy and release, they don’t want to acknowledge that the problem even is a problem at all. (Harvey virtually admits as much when he insinuates that people who publicly criticize metal bands for using Nazi-aligned imagery are “tattletales.”) To do so would be to further admit that the same problem has been mismanaged by multiple generations of metal bands, fans, and labels, to the point that various extremely sketchy politics are woven into the core of the genre’s identity. Such an admission would be extremely awkward and require a lot of soul-searching by virtually everyone involved, myself included. One way to avoid this painful process is to conclude that confronting the issue is both unworkably difficult and a basic subversion of metal’s free spirit. But if “heavy metal rules because it has no rules,” as Harvey writes at the end of his essay, it should be willing to at least grapple with internal critiques of its mores without hyperventilating. If we manage to, we might still conclude that asking label distros not to carry NSBM is an ineffective way to approach the problem. But at least we’ll have admitted that something is wrong — which, in the famous accounting of another quasi-religious tradition, is the first step towards recovery. —Doug Moore
15. Coven – “Wings Of Glory”
Location: Tokyo, Japan
Subgenre: heavy metal
On its face, this Coven single isn’t something that should’ve caught my attention. This brand-new band plays traditionalist heavy metal of the most unvarnished variety; their Svart Records bio cheekily calls them “The New Wave Of Japanese Heavy Metal” and says they “worship at the altar of the likes of Iron Maiden and other NWOBHM bands, Mercyful Fate, Metallica and Manowar.” But really, they pretty much just sound exactly like Maiden. Specifically, they sound like the lean, mean Maiden of the Paul Di’Anno years, when they were still rocking punkish leather jackets and playing clubs instead of donning Union Jack-patterned spandex body suits for the arena circuit. That salad-days period is my favorite part of Maiden’s catalog, and something about Coven really captures the youthful spark that makes recordings from that era so special. They’re observant and diligent students of the sound — if not quite as precise as recent TBM alums Attic’s King Diamond impersonation — but there’s more to it than that. It might be Coven’s slightly naïve presentation; “Coven” is an exceedingly well-used band name, belonging to an influential ’60s psych rock band that aesthetically influenced early metal as well as at least four proper metal bands. It might be the karaoke-ish vocal performance, which gets even more charming as vocalist TAKA strains manfully to tackle the step-up modulation at the end of “Wings Of Glory.” It might just be the late summer heat, which makes this kind of metal at least 50% more enjoyable whenever you blast it out a window. But whatever the reason, this tune moves me to smile just like its muses do. [From The Advent, out 9/29 via Svart Records.] –Doug Moore
14. Serpent Column – “Biogony I”
Location: United States
Subgenre: black/death metal
The Classics — referring here to the Greek and Roman world — are an underutilized source of inspiration in metal, a genre that freewheels between arcane subject matter wherever it is to be found, often with reckless abandon. Bands channel medieval and Tolkien material ad nauseam and daringly wade into metaphysical gray areas, but hoplites, Olympus, and augury have slipped by, not to mention the madhouse that was Rome under various emperors. Serpent Column — seemingly named for a component of a Greek sacrificial tripod of three intertwined snakes made to celebrate the victory over re-invading Persians in the fifth-century BC — taps into this rich history. And in Serpent Column’s vision, the Greek world was soundtracked by absolutely ripping, thrashy, heroic blackmetal executed with clinical precision. “Biogony I” opens Serpent Column’s debut album, and it is a roaring beginning to what is one of the best black metal albums of the year. There are technical twists here that will please those who are into that, but the drive here is ever forward, with rage. [From Ornuthi Thalassa, out now via Bandcamp and forthcoming via Fallen Empire.] –Wyatt Marshall
13. Exsanguinate – “Verisimidual Phantasmogoric Dimensional Butchery”
Location: Montreal, Canada
Subgenre: brutal death metal
Witness that band name and song title. Behold the cover art below. It would be a miracle if this tune didn’t turn out to be incredibly abstruse, gibberishy death metal of one kind or another. Naturally, Exsanguinate delivers; Revel in Anthropophagic Breeding Morphogenesis consists entirely of avant-dumb brutality. On the brutal death metal complexity spectrum, Exanguinate fall much closer to the “savant-like rhythm memorization feat” pole (e.g. Malignancy) than the “too dumb to tie shoelaces” one (Devourment), but the goopy production and loose, live performances give it the stank of the latter if not the propensity to groove. I really appreciate this EP’s grind-length songs and 16-minute overall runtime, which is about as much guttural churning as you can reasonably absorb at once. Beyond that, discussing the details of the songwriting is beside the point with this style of metal — it’s just a bunch of crunching, wrenching rhythmic sounds flying at you too quickly to process, all pretty much evenly coated with a long intestinal squelch that passes for vocals. That’s not much of a sell, but seriously, there’s something I find really charming and compelling about totally batshit death metal bands like Exsanguinate. The superficial presentation is ridiculously gross and repugnant, but beneath all its unapproachable features, the stuff derives its energy from a spirit of playfulness and musical adventurism that isn’t all that abundant in the dour world of extreme metal. There’s no reason to play such profoundly off-putting music unless you truly love it, and if you do, pursuing its wackiness can become a joyful and liberating experience. Exsanguinate’s band picture on Metal Archives shows a bunch of goofy dudes getting drunk and having fun doing something preposterous together. That’s what I suspect Exsanguinate writing sessions are like, with all the members egging each other on to make every part that much crazier, laughing their asses off as they do. Endless mouthfarts or no, that’s the energy that Revel in Anthropophagic Breeding Morphogenesis radiates for me. (Side note: we technically should’ve covered this album a few months ago when it came out, but given that probably 150 people total have heard it since, we decided to bend the rules a bit.) [From Revel in Anthropophagic Breeding Morphogenesis, out now via Experiments In Torture.] –Doug Moore
12. Acephalix – “Suffer (Life in Fragments)”
Location: San Francisco, CA
Subgenre: death metal
Do you feel that? Like a claw digging into your belly, twisting your guts in a glistening knot. I’ve spent too much of my life trying to intellectualize music, death metal in particular, to the point where I’m less interested in the why than the how. Acephalix — an old-school death metal band from San Francisco that shares members with Necrot, Vastum, and others — pours an incredible amount of thought into music that sounds bombastically simple, animalistic and violent. But the effect it produces in the listener is something else: An insistent interior tug, practically physical, fully rousing the lizard brain. The music plays; fight or flight impulses flit through the cerebral cortex, a light cocktail of adrenaline and serotonin seeps into the surrounding tissue, and somehow, if we’ve been sufficiently primed for action, pleasure receptors fire. All this happens subconsciously, with the faintest sensation of a bodily process at work, like digestion or arousal, registering only as a primal pulse. It feels like a finger lightly stroking a trigger, power entwined with fear, a promise of something explosive to come. What separates the bands that produce this effect from those that produce only boredom? It’s hard to say, but the body knows the difference. Maybe it’s rhythmic acuity and a strong aesthetic sense (in terms of artfully combining elements)? More than anything, it’s probably a matter of trial and error, where bands with strong instincts win out. Here, “Suffer (Life in Fragments)” draws unnatural strength from a bouncing ball of a riff set to an intermittent pogo beat, with staccato vocal bursts for added effect. On paper it sounds ridiculous, but the proof is in the punishment. [From Decreation, out 9/22 via 20 Buck Spin.] –Aaron Lariviere
11. Daemusinem – “Gospel Truth Is Bloodshed”
Location: Turin, Italy
Subgenre: death metal
The fact that the search string “Daemusinem Stereogum” will now yield a positive hit is hilarious. Any lost lamb from the main site is going to have zero idea what is going on here, and, more than that, why this Italian relation of Putridity is doing it. By design, really. If “Gospel Truth is Bloodshed” is any indication, Thy Ungodly Defiance, the band’s third full-length, is going to be an album that only really resonates with people who have listened to a lot of death metal. Not a putdown, not a slight, just a reality. Even the album’s goat pope cover art is its own sort of signal meant to attract a certain subset of longtime death metal fans. And that cohort is in for a treat. Over three minutes and thirty-three seconds (heh), Daemusinem gathers the threads from a few divergent death metal evolutionary paths and weaves them back together. There are nods to Floridian monsters, Euro tech tinkerers, and, hell, starting at 2:01, melodic black/death widdlers of the heftier variety. Lot of points of interest, but if you’re pressed for time, the split-second groove digressions are worth it alone. And, you know, maybe there is something there for the masses. Maybe the sheer visceral force of “Bloodshed” will inspire newbies. Maybe the truly bonkers compositional/instrumental acuity required to make a menagerie of riffs sound remotely fluid will give greenhorns an in. Stranger things, right? But, yeeeaaah, I can’t front as though this will make a lick of sense at first blush. Even explaining D.O.C.’s vocal performance – listen to the way he switches his cadence/rhythm halfway through the song; insane – feels like when an Ivy League college class dissects Wu-Tang or something. Trying to get someone to like this via an explainer is a bad call. You either get it, because this is part of the very fabric of your being, or you don’t. Regardless, with both sides in mind, I can say this is worth the time required for it to click. For some, that will take years. For others, seconds. Fun end, though. [From Thy Ungodly Defiance, out 10/20 via Willowtip Records.] –Ian Chainey
10. Plaque Marks – “Plaque Marks”
Location: Philadelphia, PA
Subgenre: noise rock
Ah, the self-titled song: A fine heavy music tradition dating all the way back to “Black Sabbath,” the first song on the first Black Sabbath album, Black Sabbath. “Plaque Marks” isn’t quite as auspicious a beginning for the eponymous band as that epochal tune, but that’s forgivable. This new noise rock act is comprised of enough Philly-area loudness veterans that you could probably justify the dreaded “S.G.” words — members of Creepoid, Fight Amp, and A Life Once Lost staff the lineup. But “Plaque Marks” is a statement of intent, as all good self-titled songs are, and it shows no interest in self-regard. It’s a 2-minute charge up the gut, limiting itself to the most primitive and feral elements of its style. As such, it involves a John Bonham kick tone, smashed-to-shit vocal distortion, and approximately 1.75 distinct riffs, as performed by that gravel-throated bass tone and a couple guitars that sound like they’re being picked with glass shards. Even comparatively barbaric noise rock bands like Unsane (whom Plaque Marks are about to tour with) sound positively reserved and sophisticated compared to this squall. It’s not a triumph of invention, but it’s cruelly effective, like any good cudgel. [From Anxiety Driven Nervous Worship, out 10/27 via Learning Curve Records.] –Doug Moore
9. Sickness – “Hex”
Subgenre: black/death metal
Despite Deus Maledictus Est being Sickness’s demo, the Finnish band is already more recognizable than a whole heap of elder kvltists. The big talking point is going to be the vocals, which either sound like a banshee doing Need for Speed-style burnouts or a wight getting flushed down a toilet. Then, in another move of inspired, screw-it-all, commercial-viability-torpedoing brilliance, Sickness composes micro bangers that rarely breech the one-minute mark. For heaven’s sake, this 12-song collection is five minutes shorter than the A-side of Scum. And again, we’re talking about a blackened death metal album that’s heavy on the blackened. Few from that neck of the blargh can even write song titles that are this short. Crazy. Rest assured, though, that the music will live on far longer than the quirks. These riffs, folks. Indeed, when they stick around long enough, the riffs recall the juncture in death metal’s history when thrash genes dominated character traits. The riffs are also surprisingly dexterous, spidery rippers. Train your microscope just right and marvel at all the life. And that’s the thing: Sickness could’ve taken the easy way out and punted on the complexities because the surface qualities — vocals, tempo, found-in-a-crypt production — are already so attention-grabbing. But there’s, like, depth here. That helps Deus come off as fresh, even though it sounds legitimately ancient, fully earning its purposefully archaic cassette-only distribution. In turn, it’s the rare slab of metal that will appeal to both obstinate traditionalists (it’s dusty) and jaded, heard-it-all serial streamers (left-field vocals). That said, reality check: In what’s shaping up to be a theme this month, this will be DOA for a lot of you. The remainder is going to fall for this thing hard. For the Walkman-less among the latter, the whole demo is embedded below. For the record, “Hex” is the long thing (two whole minutes!) in the middle. [From Deus Maledictus Est, out now via the band.] –Ian Chainey
8. Spectral Voice – “Visions Of Psychic Dismemberment”
Location: Denver, CO
Subgenre: death/doom metal
Before we begin, I invite you to gaze upon the seething purple perfection of the cover art for Spectral Voice’s debut album, Eroded Corridors of Unbeing. I stare at this thing, click play on “Visions of Psychic Dismemberment,” and my brain is awash in a fresh psychedelic hell, perfect visual abstraction paired with a sound like… a living cosmos, writhing, breathing, dying, and feeding. If you’d prefer a description with terrestrial touchpoints, imagine a rough fusion between the long-departed, sorely-missed bands dISEMBOWELMENT and Thergothon, then swirl in more melody and a penchant for Finnish death metal. There’s a world of overlap between these genres, but I’d peg Spectral Voice as more of a death/doom band with a whiff of funeral doom (in the Thergothon vein, that is), plus some fleeting blasts of more traditional death to keep things lively. Of interest, surely, is the fact that three of the four members of Spectral Voice also play in Blood Incantation, who released my favorite album of 2016 (collectively ranked #3 by the rest of the Black Market horde). I’m less familiar with Spectral Voice overall, but their prior demos and splits are strong, and the first taste of the album has me hopeful for something as consistently sick as the Blood Incantation LP, which is obviously all we could ever hope for. [From Eroded Corridors of Unbeing, out 10/13 via Dark Descent.] –Aaron Lariviere
7. Grift – “Den Stora Trystnaden”
Subgenre: atmospheric black metal
Grift’s Syner was one of the best metal albums of 2015, a tortured folk-inflected black metal album that sung of sadness, isolation, and loss. Moving acoustic passages were a hallmark of that record, and, paired with soulful yet searing mid-tempo guitar work, the result was an organic and epic ode to the forests and bitter cold of Grift’s native Sweden. Here Grift returns with fresh perspective on the challenges and sorrows of life. On “Den Stora Trystnaden,” Grift mastermind Erik Gärdefors agonized howl is as piercing as ever. But the ambition of the songwriting has grown even further, and the music’s ability to rend the heart has increased. Quiet beginnings gain vigor bit by bit, swelling melody drawing out a quickening heartbeat, eventually opening to an expansive, tragic beauty. [From Arvet, out 9/8 via Nordvis Produktion.] –Wyatt Marshall
6. Argus – “You Are The Curse”
Location: Franklin, PA
Subgenre: heavy metal
One of the leading lights of progressive doom, Argus resurfaces every few years to redefine heavy metal, and for that, they’ve built a faithful following. Inventive riffing, moody song structures, and the leather lungs of Butch Balich set them apart from peers and influences alike. So it’s interesting to see the band’s latest turn: on their fourth album, From Fields of Fire, Argus steps back from the progressive ledge and turns in a more traditional performance. Balich’s bellow is as powerful as ever, but the riffs are straight up the middle, with an even stronger Iron Maiden influence and fewer left-turns (though the mid-album, 11-minute epic “Infinite Lives, Infinite Doors” holds more than a few surprises). Fortunately, the change feels like less of a cop-out and more of a consolidation of power — these guys can do this as well as anyone. What we lose in terms of exploratory riffing is made up for with muscle, hooks, and a new sense of immediacy. Pulling back on the dual leads lets the vocals take center stage. Meanwhile, the rhythm section is mixed even more towards the front, with some of the best bass tone you’re likely to hear, like, ever. If it sounds like I’m obsessively fixated on subtle shifts in songwriting and production minutiae, you’re right — Argus are a band worth obsessing over. “You Are the Curse” is a straight-up trad banger that perfectly shows off the new approach. Unsurprisingly, it rules. [From From Fields of Fire, out 9/8 via Cruz Del Sur.] –Aaron Lariviere
5. Moonscape – “Cursed?Intro? ? Hatred Parade”
Location: Tokyo, Japan
Subgenre: hardcore, punk
Ah, the hallowed tradition of trying to convince people that a thing you’re a total mark for is objectively interesting. Enter Moonscape, a Tokyo-based punk band. “Cursed?Intro? ? Hatred Parade,” the opening track on Cursed II, which is both a mini-compilation and a 2.0 to 2014’s Cursed, is like if Gauze had a more pronounced rock influence. Or like any of the Japanese hardcore touchstones, really. Moonscape has a knack for sounding eminently familiar. To wit, that rock influence: part of the intro portion comes off like the Melvins covering Kiss. And yet, it’s hard to say that’s Moonscape operates solely as a past-glories regurgitator. Granted, surely many bands have written a riff that resembles the one that begins “Hatred Parade”-proper. But that probably has more to do with the fact that it’s missing-link-esque in its power-chord simplicity. Plus, the riff just plain rages, powered by an innate ability to bring a ruckus. Moonscape finds its voice by blowing that voice out, whether it’s the career-endangering screams rumbling through the mix like thunder or the trained-punks-only instrument wrangling bordering on bloodletting. It’s that fury that ultimately separates Moonscape from the crowd, giving Cursed II a red-lined feel that tinges even well-worn progressions with menace. Add in the natural atmosphere provided by whatever grimy studio this was recorded in and the ordinary input becomes this kind of askew output. Extra points for the backhalf that sounds like Converge by way of Hellhammer. [From Cursed II, out now via the band.] –Ian Chainey
4. Serpents Lair – “Perpetual Hunger”
Location: Sjælland, Denmark
Subgenre: black metal
Serpents Lair nails the kind of thundering, cavernous black metal that burns with ravenous fury. But the muscular demonic qualities of “Perpetual Hunger” are part of a brutally stylish assault, one that maintains a stomach-shifting low end beneath menacing riffing. It’s an evolved, uglier, and fuller sound than what we heard on Serpents Lair’s last, sounding as if the band has spent the last two years in the gym (spotting Doug?). It all makes for a dark and intimidating recipe, the kind that conjures medieval nightmares of what lies below. For completists, please note that this is one of two excellent “Serpent” bands we are featuring this month. When it rains, it pours (snakes). [Out later this year on Amor Fati and Fallen Empire.] —Wyatt Marshall
3. Paradise Lost – “Blood And Chaos”
Location: Halifax, UK
Subgenre: gothic/death/doom metal
Straight talk: barring certain records written and released by Doug (see below), for my money, the new Paradise Lost is the best thing I’ve heard this year. If you’ve cared about this band at any stage in their three decade metamorphosis — from death/doom progenitors to goth metal savants, and all the way back around, like a rotting black ouroboros — you will enjoy the new one. It’s the heaviest thing they’ve done; yet they don’t shy from the hooks that brought them fame. In fact, this is probably the best fusion of the band’s early death metal sound (see Lost Paradise and the genre-breaking Gothic) and their prime-era goth metal material (Icon and Draconian Times), with superior production to boot. Even better, the new one has the highest ratio of harsh to clean vox we’ve seen in ages, which makes it feel like they wrote this thing just for me. It’s insanely good. The only thing that bothers me about this album is the way it’s being unveiled to the public, in terms of the tracks put forward as singles. (Metal bands and labels are notoriously bad at this.) “The Longest Winter” and “Blood and Chaos” are both great songs in their own right, but they’re the two least-representative tracks, significantly poppier than anything else on the record. “The Longest Winter” is a note-perfect tribute to one of Paradise Lost’s greatest peer bands, the sadly departed Type O Negative, pairing glacial gloom with a vocal that sounds a hell of a lot like Peter Steele’s pelvic croon. It rules, and it makes for a lovely change of pace in the middle of the running order, but taken out of context it doesn’t quite deliver. “Blood and Chaos” is potentially even more divisive—probably the closest thing to a Draconian Times pop-metal throwback on the new album, it reimagines Sisters of Mercy as a chugging butt-metal behemoth…in the best way possible. What can I say? It makes no sense, and it’s wonderful anyway. With monstrously chunky Entombed guitars set to a groove-based goth-pop structure, it’s the sound of a stone-throwing barbarian in a vampire costume, carnage and romance rolled into one — a beautifully stupid riff overdose built for instant headbanging, good taste be damned. The rest of the album is significantly slower, heavier, more perfectly wrought — but this works too, and it’ll scratch the itch until the whole thing is available. [From Medua, out 9/1 via Nuclear Blast.] –Aaron Lariviere
2. Converge – “Under Duress”
Even by metal and hardcore standards, bands like Converge are tough to sustain in the long run. It’s not just the relentless cycle of recording and touring required to sustain a relatively popular band in the grueling commercial space of heavy music; it’s the artistic posture itself. Converge’s hallmark is their ferocious, spasmodic intensity — a musical gnashing and tearing that captivates through explosiveness. This kind of approach is tough to sustain in the long run for two reasons. First, even young people pay a physical price for pushing the limits of their shredditude ever further, and it doesn’t get easier with age. Second, the shock and awe starts to fade as you reiterate your identity; what was once “the craziest fucking shit I’ve ever heard” gradually becomes “one of those part where Koller rolls a lot and Ballou does a squiggly pull-off thing” after enough iterations. Converge have aged much more gracefully than many of their original ’90s metalcore peers, but have still suffered the effects of this dynamic on their last few albums, especially on 2012’s relatively rote All We Love We Leave Behind. (This may be a minority opinion at Stereogum; Tom Breihan awarded All We Love We Leave Behind Album Of The Week honors when it came out.) Long-term vitality for a band like Converge requires adaptability and a growing willingness to explore. Always more creatively expansive than their reputation for murderous screeching suggests, Converge appear to be rising to this challenge as they approach their 30th year as a band. July saw the abrupt appearance of a new 2-song 7″ that served as an outrider for The Dusk In Us, a new LP which terminates a long spell of Converge members focusing on side projects. The 7″ featured two songs: “I Can Tell You About Pain,” an intense but mostly boilerplate lashing; and “Eve,” a gorgeous slow burner that doesn’t sound quite like anything else in the band’s catalog. Few metalcore acts could manage anything remotely fresh this many years into their run, and judging by “Under Duress,” Converge may be poised to follow up on “Eve”‘s restrained success. “Under Duress” doesn’t stray as far from the band’s core sound (sigh…no pun intended) as “Eve.” Instead, it’s a spiky noise rock-informed number — a vein Converge has been occasionally tapping since bad-old-days tunes like “Shingles” and “Year Of The Swine.” The song’s colossal swing feels new, though, with a fleshed-out melodic undertone and one of vocalist Jake Bannon’s best rendition of the David Yow-ish caterwaul he started incorporating into his vox a few albums back. Converge have more than earned the right to a long happy slide into benign redundancy, but these two songs have me hoping for a third act of creative growth from this beloved band. [From The Dusk In Us, out 11/3 on Epitaph/Deathwish, Inc.] –Doug Moore
1. Hell – “Victus”
Location: Salem, OR
Subgenre: sludge / drone / doom metal
In a sneaky good comeback year for sludge, Oregon’s Hell rises above. Hell, the M.S.W.-led project’s fourth full-length (and not to be confused with 2009’s Hell), flat out crushes, delivering on the triple threat of heft, catchiness, and creativity that the old cream of [insert whatever iteration]-wave doomy sludgsters seemed to promise a decade-and-change ago. “Victus” is Hell’s centerpiece and it’s hard to miss, due to the fact that it’s the longest (12+ minutes), most epic, and most diverse of the seven tracks. The opening alone is a heck of a thing: a commingling of buzzy and acoustic guitars – very classic High on Fire. But it’s soon bested by one of the most memorable screams set to sludge. That howl sounds like someone recorded Mike Scheidt on a mini cassette and then held down the fast forward button. Friends, a human made that noise. Somehow. (Impressive, but keep your head on swivel for a guttural deep in the song’s second half; lordy.) It’s also a killer way to drop the drawbridge for a weighty trudge. “Victus” later disintegrates into a section spotlighting the kind of textures that can be created by super-distorted guitars. It’s a shimmering, ear-cleansing movement that sets the stage for, yep, violins. Hell obviously isn’t the first act to contrast arpeggios with the legato sweep of strings, but it executes it so damn well that you just luxuriate in the tone bath until you’re dumped out by the expected recapitulated crush. This stuff just works and, ultimately, Hell hits so hard is because a lot of stuff in its vicinity doesn’t anymore. That said, it’s not like Hell pushes the boundary for what we consider extreme. Comparatively, it’s not a leader in that metric. The considered-for-list-inclusion Buried in Pieces is overwhelming heavier. Love it, but that stuff is always going to age worse because “heavier” and “louder” are easier mountains to climb. Smart, effective arrangements performed by folks who can impart a lot of feeling and charisma into their respective playing? Way tougher. That’s the reason that, when sludge enters another dormant period brought on by a post-whatever coma, Hell will still surely bang. In it for the long haul. Can’t ask much more from an album than that. [From Hell, out now via Lower Your Head.] –Ian Chainey
Pyrrhon – “Empty Tenement Spirit”
Location: Brooklyn, NY
Subgenre: experimental metal
It has been a bit since I’ve seen an album covered like Pyrrhon’s What Passes for Survival. The quartet’s third LP, and first with Steve Schwegler (Seputus, Weeping Sores) behind the kit, has received near universal critical acclaim. However, while that’s definitely noteworthy, it’s the way Survival has been discussed that’s pretty anomalous. I mean, what would drive a blog to ether an unsuspecting Facebook dissenter (besides the besmirching of its sexiest man)? Elsewhere, someone riffled through a whole notebook of featured sticker phrases finding new ways to define Pyrrhon’s badass bonafides (“These riffs are powerful enough to awake Cthulu, the sleeping one!”). Needless to say, both approaches are weightier than giving an average album a tepid thumbs up just for showing up. And, not to mention, Survival provokes the inverse reaction in people who don’t get it, analogous to the way certain folks lose their shit when they find out someone is on a diet because they take it as a condemnation of their own lifestyle. Strong takes, the lot of ‘em. So why are people compelled to slang ‘em? Well, they take these nine tracks personally.
There are quite a few reasons for that, and, to enforce my own lazy logical convenience, let’s only plot points that elicit positive reactions.
- For one, the whipped up dissonance and chaos that the octopus-armed Schwegler is herding fits these times better than most metal albums released this year. Survival feels like the world around us, providing a certain comfort in knowing that other people are also attuned to same wavelength.
- For another, stringsmen Dylan DiLella (guitar) and Erik Malave (bass) twist around each other like the trunk of a money tree, creating these wonderful aural puzzles that entice a listener to solve them. (This approach also shows up on the vocals. Listen to the nutty way Doug and Malave trade vocals throughout. Both performances are next level.) Granted, all of this is Cthulu-alarm-clock on the surface — the Colin Marston recording is viscerally exciting no matter the listening conditions (to wit, cheap-ass truck speakers drowned out by a dirt road: still good) — but putting in work to find the nuances is kind of akin to when a challenging book starts to click: the discoveries/resulting theories end up feeling like yours because you found them.
- For one more, Doug’s lyrics are something else. (I guess those Poison Tongues columns paid off.) Lesser writers would take on topics like Survival’s with the intention of forcing you to heed their words. Doug’s lyrics are more like a conversation, albeit an ultra-poetic one, that you’d have with someone late at night because you both require catharsis. “Empty Tenement Spirit:” “The dead-end jobs and the chronic aches / The food that sallows, and the jokes from the gallows / The cry-choked air and the fat-cloaked bones / The poisons to love, and the leaders to hate / The grey lives endured with purposeless grace.” On top of that, Doug’s line reading (line, uh, exorcism?) is the boot that kicks that boot that just booted your guts. Of course, not all of the lyrics are that soul-squishingly heavy: there are jokes and sly asides and winking damnations. But underneath every stanza is honesty. In fact, this whole goddamn band is honest, in the way it writes and the way it plays. In turn, it feels like they’re being real with you. With you. Not at you, with you. That’s an old metal feel, a sort of magical realism that used to ensorcell albums before we grew up and convinced jaded-ol’-us that we knew better.
To drive this home, look, one of the perks of filing copy with the guy who had a hand in creating this is I’ve been listening to this for a long time. I know I’m biased and therefore compromised, but I’ve wanted to write one of the strong-ass takes mentioned above since Survival first hit my ears. I’ve been desperate to explain to my 12 Twitter followers every last detail I was hearing and how I was so pleased that this band continues to grow past its influences without forgetting why those influences got them in the game in the first place. When I finally held a physical copy, I marveled at how the sunlight seemed to highlight parts of Caroline Harrison’s stirring artwork that I didn’t even notice before, an experience replicated in the music every time I played it. I wanted to tell people that. And I could happily spew a few thousand more words write-thinking out something that maybe, kinda, not really approximates those feelings. But now that it’s out in the world, I realize that listening to What Passes for Survival will mean a whole more. So my strong-ass personal take is…do that. [From What Passes For Survival, out now via Willowtip Records.] –Ian Chainey