The Black Market: The Month In Metal – February 2018
In Black Market’s super-secret fortress of slamitude, I was challenged to listen to Therion’s Beloved Antichrist in one sitting. Released earlier this month, the Swedish symphonic/operatic metal band’s 16th full-length, a rock opera that asks, “what if Jesus Christ Superstar but Satan,” immediately gained notoriety for its measurements: 182 minutes, 46 tracks, three CDs.
Mission accepted, I thought, sounds like a fun stunt for a slow February. And so, I set aside three hours to catalog my encounter. Instead, Beloved Antichrist took over my life.
I will now force you to at least scroll past the video for “Theme Of Antichrist,” a song so painfully nothing I normally wouldn’t bother embedding it, except it features a rotoscoped dragon-looking-ass gargoyle playing drums worse than Lars Ulrich.
To me, that’s Therion. The deeper you dig into the history of Christofer Johnsson, Therion’s founder and lone constant member, and his unholy creation, the less things make sense. Every fresh strata of information I uncovered seemed to contradict and invalidate whatever was layered above it. As soon as I thought I figured something out, goddamn Gargoyle Appice would start doing paradiddles upon reality.
So, in honor of the album that broke my brain, here are 46 thoughts and observations about Beloved Antichrist.
- I find everything about Beloved Antichrist interesting except the music. Imagine if a mutual friend at a party was like, “Hey guys, this is Sandy. She used to be a CIA assassin,” and the then only thing Sandy wanted to talk about was NCIS episodes. That’s this album. Beloved Antichrist is Danzig welcoming you to his book collection. Beloved Antichrist is asking Quincy Jones about the weather.
- As this excellent Angry Metal Guy review proves, whatever you write about Beloved Antichrist to drive home its infinite uninteresting qualities ends up being more interesting than Beloved Antichrist. To wit:
- In the time it takes to play all of Beloved Antichrist, you could listen to “You Suffer” over 10,900 times.
- You could fit a smidge over six Reign In Bloods into Beloved Antichrist’s runtime. (Appropriately, you’d be within spitting distance of your seventh round of “Jesus Saves.”)
- This is from my notes and it’s the only comment I’m going to make concerning the actual music: “It sounds like if Accept roadies transcribed Andrew Lloyd Weber by rolling d20s in a dark coven.” Viva gothpera.
- Somehow, Therion are popular. They once cracked the German Top 100 eight times in a row. They have over 700,000 likes on Facebook. A handful of their YouTube videos have eclipsed a million views. Keep in mind: This is a metal band.
- It’s not like Therion make easy music. It’s not intentionally primed for popularity. Casey Kasem was never like, “This next song was written by esoteric academic Thomas Karlsson. For the third week in a row, it’s ‘Schwarzalbenheim (Svartalfheim) (Gold der Unterwelt).'”
- The extremely fickle user bases of Rate Your Music, Encyclopaedia Metallum, and Prog Archives all rate Therion’s albums highly.
- If you didn’t know any of that, welcome to the disconnect between what buzzy blogs cover and the kind of metal that actually pushes units. Around here, stuff in the vein of Therion operates in near anonymity because none of us like it. This coverage gap has interesting hypothetical ripple effects. Say we’re the sole metal depot for a reader. Some presumed known quantities, the Therions, get weeded out because our scope of coverage doesn’t require us to review everything, only what resonates with us. Does that reader, then, become familiar with said known quantities? That doesn’t seem like a big deal in the moment, but what if, in 10 years, that reader is in a position to rewrite/reappraise metal’s history? I bet that history would look really weird to anyone attending Wacken this year. “The fuck is a Krallice?”
- History is only as accurate as the available resources. I don’t know what I don’t know. ::bong rip:: What is real?
- Look at this video. This wasn’t that long ago. And yet it’s like something you’d watch on MTV before learning how to ride a dinosaur.
- Therion’s first LP, 1991’s Of Darkness…., is a thrashy death metal banger.
- The next two albums are nominally death metal, but overly ambitious. “Symphony Of The Dead,” with its crystal-shattering soprano wails and hokey synths, is a harbinger of the derp to come.
- It’s amazing how I tend to hate something more the closer it is to something I like. I can ignore shitty gym music all day, but 1993’s Symphony Masses: Ho Drakon Ho Megas drives me insane.
- In 1995, Lepaca Kliffoth ditched the death metal and doubled down on Celtic Frost’s gothier inclinations. It’s kind of OK? Its endearing kookiness is emblematic of metal’s early ’90s restlessness (sup, Tiamat’s Wildhoney) that ultimately led to cooler things (sup, Opeth). If someone made it today, it would be terrible. But the era-specific elements make it weirdly timeless. Going to dub this The Key Paradox.
- “The Beauty In Black,” if Wikipedia bios are to be believed, sold 12,000 copies in Europe.
- After securing a hefty financial commitment from Nuclear Blast, Johnsson was finally given the green light to go all in. He packed two full choirs into the studio and 1996’s Theli is the kitchen-sink result. How about this for whiplash: Dan Swanö sings on it. Its cover art looks like it was rendered by the Doom engine. It sounds like this. It sold tons.
- Think of any death metal band that moved away from death metal. Entombed, In Flames, etc. Which period is the one fetishisized by metal elitists? The death metal one, right?
- Not Therion. Consensus sides with Theli, if not the even more popular Vovin. The only community rating/review hub I checked that didn’t rate Theli significantly higher than Of Darkness…. was Encyclopaedia Metallum thanks to a 10% hatchet job that included the biting criticism” …it has many great musicians but leaded by smartless compositions….” Theli still holds a 5% edge.
- Mayhem’s Euronymous hated Therion. In a Close-Up Magazine interview now hosted on a Mayhem fansite:
And the matter of THERION, who is the worst of all swedish bands, we have a special message to them. If they dare to came to Norway and play LIFE METAL, we are going to kill them.
That was in 1992. He was stabbed to death by Varg Vikernes in 1993.
- From an old MusicMight bio on Therion:
…an eighteen year old girl, Suuvi Mariotta Puurunen, claiming to be the girlfriend of BURZUM leader Varg Vikernes, attempted to set fire to [Johnsson’s] house whilst he was sleeping inside.
- From a 1992 Kerrang article reprinted on Burzum’s website:
Kristofer [sic] claims Vikernes’ girlfriend, Suuvi Puurunen, merely pinned a Burzum album to the rear wall of his house with a knife, then set fire to a small portion of the back door. Kristofer was in Germany at the time. ‘I’m not afraid,’ he sneers. ‘Count Grishnacht sent his _girlfriend_ over to do his work for him! Who will he send next? His dog?!’
- Opeth thanked Therion in the liner notes for Orchid. Early Opeth played on some Therion bills. There was a time when this lineup made sense: “At The Gates, Therion, Desecrator, Megaslaughter, and Sarcazm.”
- A lot of Johnsson’s non-Therion work is great. Here he is drumming for Procreation, a primitive early Swedeath entry with wild vocals. The under-appreciated Carbonized is like a Sliding Doors version of Therion’s post-Of Darkness…. career. For The Security (1991) is ruthless death metal bordering on grind, Disharmonization (1993) is an incredible WTF that’s like if Disharmonic Orchestra became infatuated with post-hardcore, and Screaming Machines (1996) is mathy, Voivod-gone-core weirdness years before Ephel Duath. In 2004, Johnsson and other Therionians recorded Demonoid’s Riders Of The Apocalypse, secretly one of the best death/thrash albums released this century.
- The replay review on Therion’s career path sure doesn’t look so hot: cult death metal to lucrative Victorian top-hat bullshit.
- Therion’s robust sales have enabled them to have more artistic autonomy than you might expect.
- It’s hard to pinpoint a time when Johnsson made a concession to net a bigger fanbase. Every Therion album is different, rarely capitalizing on whatever previously captivated fans’ attention. The discography is littered with bizarre choices. For example, their last album, 2012’s Les Fleurs Du Mal, is…French chanson covers.
- Nuclear Blast didn’t release it. Instead, Johnsson put it in circulation by taking out a loan against his house.
- Can you really be a sellout if you follow your uncompromising artistic vision and stumble into a bigger fanbase by happenstance? Can you be blamed for shittier bands subsuming your innovations so quickly that you get lumped in with them?
- Here’s a picture of Johnsson in a neck brace. As he told Facebook in 2017 before heading out on the 70,000 Tons Of Metal cruise, “I have two spinal disc herniation in my neck” from “headbanging and sitting too much in front of a computer.” During his DL stint, he ruminated on retirement, probably best recounted in this interview with Zenae D. Zukowski. And yet, even while in immense pain, he still performed on the cruise…twice. Why? He didn’t want to disappoint the fans and he still loved the feeling of playing Therion songs.
- Haven’t I been taught to appreciate artists who do what they want? Who tough it out for the fans? Who still feel it after 30 years?
- Isn’t it weird how much of music criticism is based on supposition? I can’t mindmeld with Johnsson. Maybe this is a con. Maybe he really thought France Gall covers were going to buy him a boat. I can’t just assume someone is acting rationally. He’s human. How much can you even learn from an interview?
- Johnsson’s Wikipedia page says he’s 45. (Therion, then, has been 66.666 percent of his life.) He’s a vegetarian. He has a kid. The idea that his kid might read what internet doofuses write about the old man doesn’t feel great.
- Johnsson appears to lack a filter, which makes him a good interview.
- In that Zukowski piece, Johnsson referred to Therion as “out of fashion.” It wasn’t an isolated moment of self-awareness.
- Can a guy who made an 182-minute album ever be considered “self-aware”?
- I still have a hard time imaging Beloved Antichrist’s initial pitch. Hey, I want to follow up the album you didn’t want with the soundtrack to a three-hour metalized rock opera. That cool? And Nuclear Blast, in the age of Spotify, was like, Hmmm, can you fit it onto three CDs?
- Johnnson said this to That Drummer Guy, which was then pulled from its context and shamelessly aggregated by Blabbermouth and, uh, me:
[Beloved Antichrist is] completely written for a theatrical stage performance. … The reason that we released it on CD first is because of financial reasons. … We need the record label to pay for it and if the record label is paying for it, obviously, they need a product release to get their cash back, especially for an expensive recording like this. We spent 100,000 euros on this, like 120,000 dollars or something.
- $120,000. Also, theatrical stage performance. Don’t shit your pants, Hamilton.
- Same interview:
I hope people are smart enough to realize that if you would take your ten favorite songs out of this, you would get a very good, regular THERION album.
- Yes, let the fans sort it out. When people barely have the attention span to read the entirety of the next world-ending push notification.
- This has been bugging me. As mentioned in PR and thus regurgitated in nearly every write-up, Beloved Antichrist is loosely based on Short Story Of The Anti-Christ (translation varies), a piece by Vladimir Solovyov (also varies) which you can read in full on the descriptively titled website, Goodcatholicbooks.org. Solovyov, a Russian philosopher who was “a defender of Jewish civil rights” and bros with Dostoyevsky, was also consumed by “Yellow Peril,” the idea that China and/or Japan were going to overrun white Europe. Short Story Of The Anti-Christ’s intro is a dramatized what-if of said scenario. Sure, it was published in 1900, different standards, whatever. Still, it kinda reads like a racist Risk.
- In this promo video titled “Why ‘Short Tale Of The Antichrist’ Was Chosen As Inspiration,” Johnsson says he “realized that the beginning was very interesting, but very messy, and not so relevant in our times.” Not…the strongest condemnation. To be fair, if any of those elements made it into Beloved Antichrist, I am too dumb to find them. But still, considering how generic Beloved Antichrist’s themes are and how much Johnsson changed (some good: he added women to the storyline for better representation), why even stand by the Solovyov attribution?
- Some old blog and forum posts make references to an interview in Close-Up Magazine #67 where Johnsson was asked about allegedly being a member of Sverigedemokraterna. Disclaimers: These posts don’t link to the interview in question. I have yet to see a scan of the interview. I don’t understand Swedish political dynamics.
- What do I owe an album I don’t like, anyway? If it’s to test if I’m wrong, why does it feel like I no longer have the time or the tools to achieve something so basic? I can’t even trust myself, let alone context-providing sources that are but another mouse-scroll away from getting contradicted. Is it to be fair? From an objective compositional perspective, Beloved Antichrist is impressive. Its biggest musical sin is that I don’t like it. If that’s the case…am I even allowed to shit on it? After all, it’s not for me. I’m a death metal guy, I don’t understand the appeal of Therion. Isn’t “I don’t like” really just “I don’t understand”? That’s the only thing I feel like I know, for sure: that I don’t understand. And that, you know, this album sucks.
- So, how did the 182-minute, 46-track, $120,000 triple album that’s a soundtrack to an unperformed stage show by an out of fashion band end up doing? Pretty much exactly like you’d expect: it hit #25 on the German Top 100, Therion’s highest-ever position on that chart. Of course it did. Makes sense. –Ian Chainey
10. Primordial – “To Hell Or The Hangman”
Location: Dublin, Ireland
Subgenre: black metal / pagan metal
After Primordial’s pitch-perfect 2014 LP Where Greater Men Have Fallen — which completed their 20-something-year transformation from the raw, Celtic-tinged black metal of 1995’s Imrama into something much bigger, with a swaggering, staggering sound rooted as much in epic heavy metal as explosive pagan glory — it was hard to guess where they’d go from there. Now that we’ve seen two singles off their latest, Exile Amongst the Ruins, it looks like they’ve taken a sideways detour somewhere else entirely. Where the last album built on the strength of its predecessors (including their oft-cited masterwork, To the Nameless Dead) but added a more muscular sense of rhythm, the new one looks to be even more of a departure from the early years. First single “Stolen Years” was a sepia wash of clean guitars set to simmer — it builds steam but never quite explodes, more appetizer than main course but plenty appetizing all the same. The latest single, “To Hell or the Hangman,” has the intensity we’ve come to expect but sounds suspiciously…danceworthy. Built on the thrumming pulse of clean-strummed guitar, it reminds me of the apocalyptic bounce of latter-day Killing Joke or the death-dance rituals of Rotting Christ more than the Primordial of yore. It works, and it’s fun as hell, just a bit unexpected. The persistent pulse paired with the lead guitar cycling through octaves gives this thing an oddly post-punk flavor, which is probably the last thing I expected from the gods of Irish pagan metal. Hell, the eventual guitar solo is so minimalistic it sounds like something Adrian Borland might have played in his heyday (and you should all go listen to his brooding post-punk band, The Sound, if you have not). But at heart and center, always, is singer A.A. Nemtheanga (aka Alan Averill), with his characteristic stentorian bellow as ridiculous as ever, grounding the proceedings in Primordial territory no matter how far the band ventures from the meadow. Here he rants and rages about the true story of a mayor who hung his own son out of a sense of duty to the law, like Ned Stark squared, and somehow, somehow, it all comes together as classic Primordial. [From Exile Amongst the Ruins, out 3/30 via Metal Blade Records.] –Aaron Lariviere
9. Slomatics – “Ancient Architects”
Location: Belfast, Northern Ireland
Subgenre: sludge / doom metal
Well then, Slomatics is making space epics. Not that this trio hadn’t already lifted off. Future Echo Returns, the last one we featured, definitely had its head in the upper atmosphere, pairing sludge with prog while squeezing in the odd anthemic hook. But what unfolds over “Ancient Architects”‘s eight minutes is a new level. Some of that is due to the amount of sonic material Slomatics has pulled into an orbiting ring system. The phhhhhhwonnnnng of the guitar tone is aided by synthy sounds, like Vangelis trapped in a stack of Sunns. Think Spielberg Face in droning riff form. But yeah, these riffs. Simple, yet perfectly crafted; minimalism maximized. Even stripped of distortion, these would be good riffs. That allows “Architects” to shine in a number of settings. Normally, sludge is so situational; effective only when you have speakers powerful enough to feel it. But throughout its side of this split titled Totems, Slomatics renders such rich experiences that the sonic crunch isn’t a prerequisite. There’s even, like, drama and stuff. That said, the crunch sure does satisfyingly crunch. Full-length, please. The A-side of Totems features Mammoth Weed Wizard Bastard. Yes, like if a stoner name generator got hacked. They’re capable, pairing a bassy wallop with ethereal vocals. Not shoegaze-y, more like Jodorowsky. Gets bonus points for the comparatively peppy tempo, too. Slomatics earns the spotlight’s shine, though. [From Totems, out 3/29 via Black Bow Records.] –Ian Chainey
8. Chaos Echoes – “Embraced By Perfidious Curls In The Innervated Flux”
Subgenre: death metal
Chaos Echoes falls into the thinking man’s metal camp, bringing a freewheeling improvisational style to the world of technical death metal. It works well — so well, in fact, that amidst the buzzing layers of spiraling guitars and hyperactive drums you might not even notice the lack of lead vocals. “Embodied By Perfidious Curls in the Innervated Flux” is instrumental, though on its Bandcamp Chaos Echoes gives credits to all four band members for “whispers,” along with esoteric and eccentric instrumentation that includes a daf and “death whistle.” And though the band, formed after the disillusion of Bloody Sign, is largely instrumental across the board, it should be noted that Chaos Echoes has a strong command of Death Metal English — that song title is something else. [From Mouvement, out now via Nuclear War Now! Productions.] –Wyatt Marshall
7. Esoctrilihum – “Lord Of The Closed Eyes”
Subgenre: black metal
Hearing things you have not yet heard, ’tis a rare thrill in the life of a music writer. Mind you, I don’t mean new songs so much as new sounds. In that vein, allow me to present Esoctrilihum, the absurdly named solo project from some French guy who goes by the nom de guerre of Asthâghul, because of course he does. The latest Esoctrilihum LP, the sophomore LP on which Astha-guy plays everything himself is called…wait for it…Pandaemorthium (Forbidden Formulas to Awaken the Blind Sovereigns of Nothingness), because what the hell else would you call this. I won’t pretend to understand how a single dude sits down and makes an album like this, hell-drums and vokills and shredz alike, but I could say the same about Blut Aus Nord, Leviathan, Palace of Worms, or Mare Cognitum, so I digress. (Second digression: we live in a golden age of one-man extreme metal bands.) But Esoctrilihum, fittingly signed to the masterfully avant-garde I, Voidhanger Records, is a particularly off-the-wall variant of the one-man metal band, and perhaps one of the best examples of auteur theory (which makes no sense in musical context but who cares) producing absolutely bonkers results. No checks and balances? No filter? No one to tell you “that’s dumb, don’t do that, people will hate that” = No problem! Oblique riffage, nightmare atmospheres, chaos for chaos’ sake, anti-cosmic death worship (to cite our friends at No Clean Singing’s recent review), and all manner of impersonal sonic extremity come together for a great time for all, provided everyone enjoys having a bad time. In terms of real-world reference points, the best I can offer is this half-sentence of description I used to pitch it to the Black Market gang: “angular, gnarly, chunky, weird black/death/thrash, sorta.” My favorite bits do sound like technical thrash welded onto hellish industrial, but every song has its own thing going, and it’s never that easy to pin down. Death metal gives way to black metal so that something else might be born to feast on its own afterbirth and produce new sounds that no one should live to hear, but here we are, struggling to hear, having heard. So join me as we spiral downward, through cellars and soil, face-first through the fleshy veil of reality into the steaming bowels of hell, where everything probably sounds like this record played at excruciating volume. I recommend listening to the entire 69-minute album in one sitting, because you deserve the best, and anything less would be insufficient punishment. Go ahead and treat yourself. [From Pandaemorthium (Forbidden Formulas to Awaken the Blind Sovereigns of Nothingness), out now via I, Voidhanger Records.] –Aaron Lariviere
6. Augury – “Mater Dolorosa”
Location: Montreal, Canada
Subgenre: death metal
I was positive Augury’s 2004 debut, Concealed, was going to be another instant classic from Quebec. On the backwater tech death metal message board I lurked, post after post seemed to prove that anything reared in the land of Gorguts and Cryptopsy was killer. Martyr, Quo Vadis, Neuraxis. Even the core-aligned stuff like Ion Dissonance seemed to share the key traits of its forbears: an exacting technical mastery coupled with avant-garde inclinations. But, when I got my mitts on Concealed, it was weird. Disarmingly so, even to a try-hard prog donkus such as myself. It just fused together a lot of things…for reasons only it knew. I’ll credit Encyclopaedia Metallum reviewer GuntherTheUndying for the apt Morbid Angel meets Cynic comparison. But that doesn’t hint at the soprano vocals, the crazy tonal shifts, or the perhaps literally alien progressions. And while it has brief blasts of utter brilliance (not to mention, amassing a cult following of fervent believers), it still feels so self-conscious in its need to always be bizarre. The follow-up, 2009’s Fragmentary Evidence, scales things back (gone are the choirs and the wormholes within wormholes), but it still overreaches by forcing immersion-breaking genre hopping, mostly courtesy of guests from Unexpect. All of that is a long way of setting the scene for “Mater Dolorosa,” the first stream from Augury’s third album, Illusive Golden Age. If these seven minutes foretell the full-length experience, then Augury has been blessed with focus. The standout hallmarks that previously tantalized are still present: Patrick Loisel and Mathieu Marcotte’s Space Shuttle Azagthoth riffs and Dominic “Forest” Lapointe characteristically busy bass lines. The old crew is now joined by Contemplator’s Antoine Baril on drums, a precise player capable of whipping up a hell of a storm. Ah, but the result the quartet produces is moodier, far more ruminative than before. It’s Death-like in its proggy majesty, a song with intentions to connect with the listener first, and then embark on the unexpected journey. [From Illusive Golden Age, out 3/30 via The Artisan Era.] –Ian Chainey
5. Amnutseba – “III”
Location: Paris, France
Subgenre: black metal
Last year, Amnutseba’s debut demo made fans out of both Doug and me, who tend to occupy opposite poles of the technical and atmospheric divide. The band’s wormhole insanity is loaded with sonic spasms and insectoid movement; songs march, squirm, melt down, and explode in euphoria of manipulated feedback and atonal chaos. It’s unusual stuff, and it has a sense of dead-serious, tortured theatricality to it. The effect is amplified by the mystery surrounding the project. There’s essentially zero information about the band to be found, other than that they hail from Paris: no IDs on members; unnamed demos; and songs labeled with Roman numerals. Curiously, the debut demo included tracks “I,” “II,” “IV,” and “V.” This demo features “III” and “VI.” I have to pick one, so here’s “III,” a work of mind-boggling heaviness and exasperated madness that festers and devours. [From Demo II, out now via Caligari Records.] –Wyatt Marshall
4. Mahr – “Onirism”
Subgenre: atmospheric black metal
Mahr’s “Onirism” is crushingly heavy, an interstellar explosion of tortured, glorious atmosphere riding menacingly on the back of howling cosmic winds. It’s a movement, so there’s enough space for “Onirism” to rage with blinding fury, slow-orbit a doomed planet, and lament the demise of long expired galaxies. It won’t come as a surprise that Mahr features members of Arkhtinn, another heavy hitter on Fallen Empire’s roster that channels deep space phenomena into immersive, gorgeous sound. Both strike the rare balance of truly otherworldly haunted beauty, but Mahr is the far more destructive of the two, pummeling planets into submission rather than gazing at them in wonder. Like everything on The Black Market, this deserves a good pair of headphones. [From Antelux, out now via Fallen Empire Records.] –Wyatt Marshall
3. Unfelled – “Beneath Distant Skies”
Location: New South Wales, Australia
Subgenre: atmospheric black metal
It’s hard to believe it has been five years since we last heard from Woods of Desolation, when mastermind D. released the glorious album As the Stars. That album was a watershed moment for the one-man band. As the Stars took the cathartic fury of Torn Beyond Reason and channeled it into a different kind of tortured, celebratory triumph that was even more personal. The album made many newfound converts, devotees who heard in the smeared, melancholic guitars something that ripped out the heart and pulled it toward the skies. D. has been noticeably absent since, but late last year, he quietly returned with two new projects, Unfelled and Remete — so quietly, in fact, that they snuck under our radar. “Beneath Distant Skies” is the stuff of legend, a mournful epic full of infectious swing that might soundtrack a last stand on a hill. For those who were introduced to D.’s universe through Woods of Desolation, we hear more of the influence of Forest Mysticism, D.’s other excellent project, here. With its guttural growls, backed by melodies carved into stone, Unfelled echoes from the past and into the future. [From Beneath Distant Skies, out now via Cold Ways Music.] –Wyatt Marshall
2. Agrimonia – “Withering”
Location: Gothenburg, Sweden
Subgenre: melodic death metal / crust / sludge
Ignoring the larger state of impending civilizational collapse, 2018 is off to a wonderful start — at least in terms of metal records. So much so, in fact, that potential classics are getting lost in the deluge of sick records, even for those of us dutifully lame enough to devote our lives to watching these unstill waters. Fortunately, you all are on the case, and a number of comments last month correctly pointed out that the latest from Agrimonia is a classic in the making, forcing me to reevaluate my half-enthused initial take and eat my words (by vomiting forth more words). For the unfamiliar, Agrimonia are a bastard creation of indeterminate genre, more indebted to a sense of roiling melancholy and all its highs and lows than any particular metallic style. Members have done time in a handful of great bands known for melodic prowess and, to varying degrees, punkish pedigree: see the crust-driven death metal of Miasmal, the hyper-catchy crust punk of Martyrdöd, and, of course, the ragged-throated melodeath perfection of At the Gates. While the discerning nerd can pick out those bloodlines without much effort, Agrimonia avoids the perils of being a supergroup — for example, being either pointlessly experimental and incoherent or sounding like a generic version of one member’s band — by harnessing each individual’s talents and channeling them into something outside the existing polychotomy of metal subgenres. Trust that whatever genre tag I slapped on above doesn’t really capture the heart of their sound. In turns elegiac and blistering, these songs start with melodic hooks and grow outwards in unpredictable ways. They’re impossible to wrap your arms around, often blowing past the 10-minute mark with more high-quality riffs in a single song than most bands manage in a career. Take “Withering,” the penultimate track and the longest by a hair at 12 minutes, 53 seconds. Gentle guitars and a wash of keyboards collapse before a wall of distortion and we’re in before we know it, dashing headlong around corners, every new riff a sudden burst of color. The middle practically catches fire, launching into a blast of pure Swedish death…only to fall away for a clean break that would make Katatonia proud. And then it all builds back up to the point of collapse, the best riff makes an encore appearance (you’ll know the one), and there’s nowhere else to go but out…and a synth drifts in like mist to lead us into the beckoning night. Not a second wasted, just an odyssey of riffs and pure abandon. [From Awaken, out now via Southern Lord Records.] –Aaron Lariviere
1. Starkweather – “Divided By Zero”
Location: Philadelphia, PA
Starkweather’s releases have the frequency of certain comets. This split is the Philadelphia quintet’s first since a 2011 one with Overmars. This round, Starkweather is backed with Concealment, a Portuguese metal band with a technical flare that’s like an earthier Burnt By the Sun raised on, well, Starkweather. That’s the been the thing about Starkweather over its nearly 30-year career: while it hasn’t exactly found the audience it deserves, it has certainly influenced its fair share of bands. Its four full-lengths are considered classics if you ask the right people. They still sound ahead of their time thanks to a seamless unification of an increasingly disparate set of sounds. It’s metalcore if you need a tag, but note that it is, in fact, so many styles of metal combined with an equal number of core variations. The later stuff would find a friend in Gorguts’s Obscura, leveraging those dissonances and inscrutable structures while singer Rennie Resmini called upon a thousand voices (screams, yelps, creepy Geoff Tate?) to effectively deliver uncommonly evocative lyrics. The nearly 29-minute “Divided By Zero” is in that mold, and yet it’s hard to say Starkweather is in a holding pattern. So many sections explore newly unveiled sounds and interests, though the tightly composed flow of the piece never relents from driving towards its conclusion. That’s to say it doesn’t feel like 29 minutes, but know that I am particularly spellbound by this combination of caustic guitar textures, spidery leads, and limber rhythms. If you’re new, I understand: it’s a hell of an introduction. I get it. I’m not gonna twist your arm, but hey, maybe expand the lyrics on the Bandcamp page and become acquainted. You’ve got time. [From Starkweather / Concealment, out 3/9 via Translation Loss Records.] –Ian Chainey