The Black Market

The Black Market: The Month In Metal – March 2018

Hails. This is…gonna be long. Sorry. If you want to skip to the tunes, do a find for “10.”

In 2014, Steve Albini gave the keynote address at Melbourne, Australia’s Face The Music. The speech, which you can read as an edited version here that I’ll be using as a source for subsequent quotes, is still interesting nearly four years on because it captures an older insider’s atypically optimistic view on how the internet has affected music distribution. “In the blink of an eye,” Albini said, “music went from being rare, expensive and only available through physical media in controlled outlets to being ubiquitous and free worldwide. What a fantastic development.” Later:

If you ask bands what they want — and I know this because I’m in a band and I deal with bands every day — what they want is a chance to expose their music and to have a shot at getting paid by their audience. I believe the current operating status satisfies the first of these conditions exquisitely and the latter at least as well as the old record label paradigm.

The keynote address is available in full on YouTube. That means you’re a browser add-on and a few clicks away from being able to download and listen to it at your own convenience.

As I’m sure you’ve noticed, there are a lot of things available in full on YouTube. Of the 42 releases we highlighted in our 2017 best-of list, 34 have been uploaded to YouTube channels not directly associated with the creators or labels that released them. The remaining eight reside on “official” channels or playlists (some auto-generated, some not). That third parties didn’t already upload these exceptions is probably only because I’m checking on the wrong day.

This is, like, the least surprising revelation. After YouTube began dismantling its time-limit restrictions in 2010, it became super weird when music wasn’t available in its entirety on the platform. Like on other file sharing mediums, once the obstacles were out of the way, users rushed in to show off their most obscure hoardings. In turn, YouTube’s algorithm made feel-good stars out of long-lost artists. And, really, the early promise of YouTube was that everything could be found. Finally, we all had the same record collection, one that wasn’t limited by what we were willing to spend.

These days, now that rarity is an archaic concept, album uploads have taken on the appearance of an assembly line, a process that instantly archives anything new. Frequently updated, subgenre-specific YouTube channels have filled the space once occupied by download blogs and torrent groups. There’s Black Metal Promotion, Metal Vault, Atmospheric Black Metal Albums, OdiumNostrum, Stoned Meadow of Doom, New Wave of Old School Thrash, and on and on. These channels typically don’t provide any explicit editorial slant. The word count is dedicated mostly to links pointing to sites to support the original content creators, along with variations on “promotional purposes only” disclosures and “if you like it, buy it” calls to action. There’s a sense that uploads have cleared some sort of unspoken quality threshold, but beyond that, you’re left to your own devices to see what hits.

Here’s the thing: While most of the uploaded albums exist in full on other platforms, YouTube is way easier. The “VIDEOS” tab, a universal channel feature, is a revelation in usability. There, you’re presented with cover art icons of tens, if not hundreds, of albums. You click and music starts playing. It’s the thrill of crate digging without any of the old speedbumps and barriers to entry. Forget record shops, you don’t even need available hard drive space, patience to scroll through hyperbolic write-ups, or, you know, money to buy anything. If you recoil at the hand-holdy, algorithmically boring bullshit of Spotify’s Discover Weekly and prefer the illusion of choosing your own adventure, perusing these channels is the most efficient way to find your next favorite record.

Naturally, what’s left of the underground metal industry has noticed. Bands and labels interested in extending their reach while maintaining a minuscule budget are building relationships with people like Matt Green, Metal Vault’s operator. His channel contains a number of officially sanctioned uploads from Black Market mainstays like Iron Bonehead, Ván, Fallen Empire, Blood Harvest, and I, Voidhanger. For Green, that was the plan all along.

“It took a lot of time and effort, but it seems I’m beginning to achieve what I envisioned,” Green wrote to me via email. “That being an established platform for artists/labels to utilize at will to promote and feature their art/releases. A ‘go to’ channel of sorts for listeners to count on for music discovery and quality streaming.” This old-school media goal was achieved through old-school means: Green reaching out to bands and labels to feature their music. Soon, they started coming to him. For good reason.

Metal Vault currently boasts a robust 24,000 subscribers, which is 20,000 more than Iron Bonehead’s official channel. The similarly mission-oriented Black Metal Promotion has nearly 62,000. Atmospheric Black Metal Albums is closing in on 130,000. That’s a lot of available ears that could turn into fans, which is the bet you take on when you either submit your music or allow it to be streamed.

For Fallen Empire, that’s an approach that fits the label’s operating philosophy well. “I prefer to revere [music] as art above all and prefer it when it’s presented as such, as well,” Fallen Empire’s head told me. “That’s why I have everything I release on the Bandcamp as full streaming and Name Your Price. I like to view it as an offering, and people can donate if they wish.” Getting the word out to the maximum amount of people better facilitates the aim of showcasing the art. And, because Fallen Empire believes only a static percentage of any audience will end up donating anyway, greater exposure is a better play. “I think that keeping music locked behind a paywall or only being available physically severely hampers the rate at which your music will reach people, especially for a tiny independent label like mine that traditionally doesn’t do PR campaigns.”

Even when an upload isn’t sanctioned, it can have a profile-raising effect. I found Sorcerer’s Incantation through NWOTHM Full Albums, a channel run by a Brazilian metalhead who also posts charming vlogs highlighting his physical media purchases. Guess what: Sorcerer smokes. Considering its provenance (Argentina) and style (thoroughly traditional heavy metal), I probably never would’ve heard it without NWOTHM Full Albums’s assist.

When I asked Sorcerer guitarist Arturo Santa Marina if the band solicited any help from NWOTHM Full Albums, Santa Marina said no, and, regarding PR in general, “…there were almost no actions in that direction on our part. We just created the Facebook fanpage, the Bandcamp profile and the YouTube channel, and everything sprang up surprisingly.” Now, Sorcerer has a deal in place with Eat Metal Records to release Incantation worldwide. A new album is also in the works, one that Santa Marina hopes will open up even more opportunities.

While Santa Marina appreciated the spontaneous third-party promotion, YouTube provides a way to settle the score if a band ever did feel spurned by an upload: Content ID. Per the official Google explainer, “Videos uploaded to YouTube are scanned against a database of files that have been submitted to us by content owners.” When a match is found, a Content ID claim is generated, giving the owners the following options:

  • Block a whole video from being viewed
  • Monetize the video by running ads against it; in some cases sharing revenue with the uploader
  • Track the video’s viewership statistics

Conceivably, artists could create multiple revenue streams based off of one particularly viral song/album, forgoing the masochistic whack-a-mole that is sending out DMCA takedown notices (which suck for both sides). The idea is that getting some compensation for music that will be inevitably pirated anyway is a better, fairer arrangement than what artists had with, say, Megaupload. I guess.

Yeah…I guess. All of this makes sense, I guess, in that I don’t think anyone is wrong. In many ways, this is a better model than what Albini outlined in 1993’s classically caustic “The Problem With Music.” Fallen Empire is probably right about the amount of people motivated to buy music. It is kind of incredible to learn of the relatively frictionless nature of Sorcerer’s tech-assisted success. It is more just that artists can cash in on streams. And, now that everyone gets the promo and everyone can post the premiere, there’s no more need for mercurial gatekeepers like me. We’re all on a more level and affordable playing field.

But, for some reason, I can’t shake my inherent skepticism and that is causing me some mind-warping cognitive dissonance. Because, well, this isn’t the darkest timeline, right? Imagine still being forced to shell out $20 for a CD you’re expected to blind-buy just because you like one song on the radio, a P2P-begetting domino effect examined excellently by Chris Molanphy on his Hit Parade podcast. Or what if, Christ, like any of the many attempts to limit consumer agency over the years were successful? Even on the other side of the transaction divide, the climate doesn’t feel as apocalyptic as other industries. Music isn’t quite the same hellscape as Jon Ronson’s The Butterfly Effect made porn out to be.

Not to mention, I’d be a hypocrite if I said I didn’t use the hell out of YouTube. It’s my endpoint for any curiosity-driven exploration of older music and the unexpected related videos alone are a goldmine. For new stuff? Well, part of my selection process for Black Market includes me scrolling through the wares of new-school PR hubs like Slam Worldwide, a channel that uses its YouTube savvy to broaden slamming brutal death metal’s appeal. A band named Fatuous Rump can now be heard by more people than will probably read this column.

YouTube is full of these fantastic innovations that, thinking only selfishly, have made my life a hell of a lot better. And yet, I’m just not entirely convinced that people making the best out of what we got — because it’s either this or nothing — demonstrates that it is good. Something feels…off.

Part of my unease can be attributed to me (::saddest Deep Throat voice::) following the money. Look, no one is making much money off of YouTube except YouTube. Content ID might be a more equitable solution than piracy’s traditional return, but (1) the owner needs to set it up and enable it and (2) it hardly catches everything. Even when Content ID does score a match, your final take is based off of a percentage of the shown ads that you also have little control over. And the per-stream rate isn’t even flat, as evidenced by this fascinating and low-key depressing piece on Complex by Shawn Setaro. Digital Music News shared the screencap of the lifetime Content ID performance of a song that crossed the one million views milestone. The amount comes with a ton of caveats as pointed out by a smart commenter, but, in this instance, 1,048,305 views earned the owner $64.60.

So, if you were thinking all along that these YouTube channels were making beaucoup bucks off of music that isn’t theirs, the answer, at least in the realm of underground heavy metal, is probably not. I asked Green if he made any money from streaming and he replied, “Very little. Attempting to make money was never even part of my thought process. The payback for me is knowing that an artist or label has experienced positive results through being featured on the channel.”

I can empathize. To me, this makes the YouTube channel gig sound like a modernized version of being a street teamer or zine maker or volunteer blogger, pursuits where the dopamine hit that’s a byproduct of perceived altruism is the only expected return on investment. To put it bluntly, there’s a whole subsystem of people who are operating in good faith, working their asses off, and forgoing their shot at getting paid in the hope that their effort increases the shot of someone else getting paid. And, right now, the one with the greatest shot at getting paid is YouTube.

I have a million other thoughts about that. Nevertheless, while the stubborn existence of something resembling the “old record label paradigm” and associated payout gap is concerning, I’m more worried about what all of this is doing to my brain. Invisibilia recently ran an episode that included an interview with Betsy Levy Paluck, a Princeton psychologist. The podcast was drawn to the portion of Paluck’s work that studied the effects of a soap opera that tried to ease tensions between ethnicities in the aftermath of the Rwandan genocide. From host Alix Spiegel’s write-up:

“What it boiled down to was that despite the fact that people loved this program, it didn’t change their beliefs,” [Paluck] says. “But it did change their perceptions of norms, and at the same time it changed their behaviors. Which is why I thought this is something significant.”

One more quote:

“It’s a very uncomfortable thought,” Paluck says. “We like to think that all of our behaviors flow from our convictions, and what we do is a reflection of who we are and what we think. But we’re constantly tuning ourselves to fit in with the social world around us.”

Yeah, it sure is uncomfortable. I think that this is what is messing me up. My belief — one instilled by naïve romanticism for an era briefly preceding mine and reinforced by the older creative types with whom I hang — is that artists should be paid. I believe music still holds immense cultural and social capital. Music is how I identify myself. It’s the thing I find most interesting in life. But, are my actions consistent with that?

I’m not…sure. Frustratingly, I don’t think you can recognize this effect within yourself, and, if you could, maybe only in hindsight. I mean, I want to believe that I buy what I like, but looking at my collection, I apparently do a pretty shitty job. Predictably, I’ve tried to rationalize this away:

  • When everything is available, “like” is a high bar that only gets higher.
  • The thrill of the hunt is still engaging, but more and more, it feels like the thrill is the sole end instead of…you know…enjoying the music you find.
  • The fact that everything is just sitting there, in perpetuity, for me to eventually “discover” even bestows upon masterworks the air of disposability.
  • Pair all of that with metal’s general self-esteem issues, and it’s like…if you’re convinced that your music should be free because a socially acceptable and thus unconquerable system is just going to make it free anyway…why would I disagree with you?

These rationalizations might be accurate, but, man, they are incredibly unsatisfying because they don’t really get to the heart of the matter: It’s just plain disturbing how easy it was for me to contort my expectations to make myself fit in. Hmmm, YouTube is drinking artists’ milkshakes…but all of these Swedeath demos my friends are sharing, though.

And then, I re-read that last paragraph and the egoist in me is like, “What kind of pearl-clutching, local-evening-news-hysterical bullshit are you writing, dude?” BREAKING: Chronically worried dope has philosophical paroxysm, believes good thing is bad. Is any of this even as bleak as I’m making it out to be or am I just holding onto a calcified ethos like a security blanket that no longer has any application in the modern world? If that’s true, that might freak me out even more. Gah.

Quick story and then I’ll finally get out of your hair. Way back when Blogspots ruled the file-sharing seas, I briefly ran a label. Running a fringe indie label is like standing above a bottomless pit and tossing time and money into it. You’re either like, Man, this feels so good, or you’re like, Oh…shit…this is a pit. Anyway, there was a point when I was putting some real energy into trying to get our music out there, trying to find anyone who would listen. I didn’t think the older print mag crowd would care, so I submitted stuff to the peer-run download blogs I frequented. And then, one day, there we were: one of our releases was featured in a blog post complete with a Mediafire link, sandwiched between other posts highlighting, like, real artists. It felt great. It felt like I made it. I wouldn’t be surprised if I downloaded some stuff while I was there. –Ian Chainey

10. Depravity – “Insanity Reality”

Location: Perth, Australia
Subgenre: death metal

All hail the death metal bands that remember to be entertaining. Instead of insulating itself within an ultra-dry riff asceticism, Depravity, a nutso Australian quintet, does the listener a solid and spices things up with a dash of fun. As if you couldn’t already infer that from the title of its first LP, the pleasingly repeatable Evil Upheavel. Reminding me of a less retrograde version of Aeon, Depravity decorates its bangers with sharp hooks and succulent ear candy. “Insanity Reality” is ruthless, yes, but, more importantly, you’ll wake up tomorrow with growls of “insani-tee reali-tee” stuck in your head. However, the catchiness and melo gilding belies the solidness of the beatdown. Certainly, many hours were collectively sacrificed to smooth out these transitions and maximize the blast radius. I mean, check out the bridge around the three-minute mark: a Bloodbath part that’s better than Bloodbath has been in a bit. That’s some solid-ass death metalling. Overall, Evil Upheavel finds the right balance between punishing, exacting musicianship and pleasurable songwriting. Its br00fulness br00fulizes, but it’s tempered with a playful flair that doesn’t spill over into something like community theater Mephistopheles. In other words, it’s a ripper that’s easy to love. Try it out on your non-metal friends and then watch them blanch at the same time you realize that you dropped a crusher upon some normos. Whoops. [From Evil Upheavel, out 4/30 via Transcending Obscurity Records.]Ian Chainey

9. Messa – “Leah”

Location: Cittadella, Italy
Subgenre: doom metal

Doom is stubborn. It resists change by nature. Like a moss-covered stone, it mostly just sits put, disinterested in the trends and fleeting concerns of the larger world that swirls past, content to entertain the occasional visitor who’s willing to sit in stony contemplation of lumbering, heavy, slow things. (No coincidence such contemplation often involves weed.) What distinguishes the great doom bands from the lesser lights usually boils down to mastery of execution and having a better ear than most, which in turn translates to sick riffs; tight, tasteful drumming; and thick amp tones, rich with texture and gooey harmonic distortion. Messa, an Italian doom band fresh off the success of an unexpectedly excellent debut (Belfry), does all of that stuff without trying overmuch. And that’s what makes them great, but it’s not what makes them special. For album two, Messa reaches outside the standard doom toolbox and pulls some jazzy tones from the aether, coloring in the quiet parts with soft Rhodes piano, clean jazz guitar, and the occasional saxophone. The added texture does what purple smoke and filtered light do to a film set — subtly changing the tone, altering perception, tweaking the mood until the listener finds herself in a heightened state where doom riffs ring out in a strange new light, shedding expectations like a rolling stone sheds moss. Give “Leah” a spin and see where you find yourself. [From Feast for Water, out 4/6 via Aural Music.]Aaron Lariviere

8. Vallendusk – “The Shield”

Location: Jakarta, Indonesia
Subgenre: atmospheric black metal

Vallendusk’s over-the-top majesty is the stuff Warhammer dreams are made of, all misty mountains and evil forests and battleaxes and winged mounts. But the unabashed fantasy of it all actually rides on the rock-solid back of blistering riffs and righteous wall-of-sound swells comprised of keys and about a million other instruments. Enough movements lay within to soundtrack a journey — perhaps to Renn Fest — and some unexpected passages provide opportunities for both proggy self-reflection and epic vista pullbacks. While elsewhere on the album very serious and grandiose bard vox make an appearance, it’s all rough stuff here. The general brightness of “The Shield,” loaded with memorable uplifting leads, is a nice contrast to what often features on this column. Now back to regularly scheduled programming. [From Fortress of Primal Grace, out now via Northern Silence Productions.]Wyatt Mashall

7. Ungfell – “Die Hexenbrut Zu Nirgendheim”

Location: Zurich, Switzerland
Subgenre: black metal

Perhaps you’re familiar with the Immortal school of music video, in which Abbath and Co. traipse around a wooded landscape in full corpse paint and grim nail-studded attire, frowning and screeching like some sort of disgruntled troop banished from the circus. That’s the vibe I’m picking up on “Die Hexenbrut zu Nirgendheim,” a twangy and maniacal song that’s both icy and folksy and seems built for a crazed jaunt through the forest. The track moves on the double-quick, pressing forward an offense that thrashes with seemingly reckless abandon, but is in fact a tightly wound, trilling work. An undercurrent of melody that emerges in the second half of the song followed by dueling vocalists further emphasize a theatrical nature. The whole thing grins with impish incorrigibility, a song for troublemakers out past curfew. [From Mythen, Mären, Pestilenz, out now via Eisenwald.]Wyatt Marshall

6. Nigredo – “Mental Glimpses At Cosmic Horrors”

Location: Athens, Greece
Subgenre: black metal

Ohhh, so this is why you spin an album again. Can’t say Nigredo worked for me at first. On the surface, it felt like the Greek duo played a kind of deathly blackened thrash hybrid that sounded austere compared to its counterparts. That is to say Flesh Torn – Spirit Pierced, Nigredo’s full-length debut, didn’t have the drunken joie de vivre of Condor or speed wobbles of Nekromantheon. Ah, but that’s not really what A. (vocals/guitars; Ravencult) and Maelstrom (drums; like a billion bands, but Dephosphorus and Principality of Hell to pick favorites) are up to. Once I trained my attention on the guitars, it clicked. A closer listen finds killer riffs teaming with tones, prodded along by an unceasing propulsive drive. Within each riff, there’s that sort of suspended second-wave black metal drone, but instead of it getting stretched out for minutes at a time, it’s forced to evolve and adapt to the rhythms of charismatically drummed death/thrash. The effect is equally hypnotic, just less transfix-by-tremolo, more stun-by-flashbang. Neat. But even that taxonomic description doesn’t get at why tracks like “Mental Glimpses at Cosmic Horrors” are ultimately so impressive. I think it’s because everything is winnowed down to just the active ingredients without the music also devolving into something embryonic and super raw. There’s no baggage; black metal’s disaffected aloofness, thrash’s inebriated boneheadedness. That means there’s nothing for Nigredo to hide behind. Other bands might wilt without that kind of safety net. A. and Maelstrom never lose the thread, burning through a ton of quality material that’s smart and engaging and goddamn primal in its bloodthirstiness. And I keep hearing new things every time I play it, which is crazy considering how I once thought its bones were bare. Prediction: gonna be spinning this one a lot more. [From Flesh Torn – Spirit Pierced, out 4/15 via Transcending Obscurity Records.]Ian Chainey

5. Uada – “Cult Of A Dying Sun”

Location: Portland, OR
Subgenre: black metal

Uada’s 2016 debut Devoid of Light delivered a pummeling take on hooky Pacific Northwest black metal, adding a shot of steroids to the atmospheric tendencies of the area. It’s an album loaded with forward-leaning riffs, wild, memorable solos, ravenous vocals delivered in various styles, and hurry-up drumming. Listening again, I don’t think I gave it the credit it deserved when it was released. Now, on “Cult of a Dying Sun,” the debut from Uada’s forthcoming sophomore album, the band has turned up the heavy, shooting songs through with a gut-rumbling weight that makes for a fuller listen while also maintaining an agile assault. Again, the vocals are a highlight, rasping and bellowing and howling. But the axe attack is the real highlight here, with powerful, sometimes bendy riffs steering a mean, tight ship. [From Cult of a Dying Sun, out 5/25 via Eisenwald.]Wyatt Marshall

4. Tanith – “Citadel”

Location: Brooklyn, NY
Subgenre: hard rock, heavy metal

Fate being the strange creature she is, somehow I wound up with a slate of (mostly) non-brutal, highly melodic, borderline pretty tunes this month. And it turns out I don’t really mind living in this newly mellow world — maybe it’s my advanced age, or a side effect of watching winter melt into spring, or maybe I’ve just gone soft in the middle, like a thoroughly blackened marshmallow with a gooey molten core, but it actually feels pretty good. Of all my March picks, Tanith is the softest by far, but in no way the slightest: on this Brooklyn quartet’s two-song debut, they squeeze out more blood, sweat, and beer than most bands could safely consume in a lifetime. “Citadel” is pitched somewhere just shy of traditional heavy metal, closer to metal-adjacent psychedelic ’70s rock like Wishbone Ash, Blue Öyster Cult, or Uriah Heep. The b-side, “Eleven Years,” which you should absolutely stick around for, is even further from metal, with a summery strum peppered with sweet leads redolent of CSNY or Ten Years After, but one spin and you’ll be wondering where this band has been your whole life. The secret weapon on both tracks, of course, is the limber and lyrical guitarist Russ Tippins, best known as axeman supreme for the still active, still awesome NWOBHM gods Satan, who you might remember from such ridiculously good records as 1983’s Court in the Act or 2013’s somehow even better Life Sentence. I have said it before, and I’ll say it again: Life Sentence is EASILY the best traditional heavy metal album released this side of the millennium, and one listen to Tanith and you’ll recognize that same air of greatness lurking in the perfectly wrought leads. I can’t confirm this last bit, but I like to imagine the band takes its name from the brilliant Tanith Lee, whose mythopoeic worlds could easily populate these songs. “Where reality turns to dust, where space and time subside…where two universes touch, there’s a citadel in the sky.” Magic all around. [From Citadel, out now via the band.]Aaron Lariviere

3. Skogen – “När Solen Bleknar Bort”

Location: Växjö, Sweden
Subgenre: black metal

Skogen’s “När Solen Bleknar Bort” is satisfyingly meaty, full of chunky riffs and a low end that dictates head motion. It’s a focused effort — Skogen has wandered more in the past, but here the drive is clear, with a timeless lead and identifiable swing to light the way throughout. The understated keys are also worth noting, an instrumentation choice that typically is found in the more fantastical side of atmospheric black metal, but here is more of a tasteful revival of a Gothenburg aesthetic. The clean vocals come at just the right time, lighting a fire in the middle of what was already a banger. Taken as a whole, the song is a delight, a balanced masterwork of mid-tempo groove and understated infectious melody that will invite repeated listens. [From Skuggorna Kallari, out 5/25 via Nordvis.]Wyatt Marshall

2. At The Gates – “To Drink From The Night Itself”

Location: Gothenburg, Sweden
Subgenre: melodic death metal

History has blessed us with many fine metal bands, some merely memorable, others actually important, but precious few break through to the uppermost echelon: the timeless ones who, through force of will alone, crack the dome of the sky, ransack the heavens, and become gods. At The Gates are one of the few, as the preeminent melodic death metal band, largely untarnished by time, with a higher ratio of classics-to-clatter than any of their peers. You know them for Slaughter Of The Soul and Terminal Spirit Disease, and their earliest records are twice as mean and almost as good. When they reemerged for a victory lap with 2012’s At War With Reality, expectations were impossibly high. It was a good album, a perfectly likable album — just not quite the stuff of gods. Six years later, At the Gates are back where they belong, if the first single is any indication. “To Drink From The Night Itself” is immediate, vicious, and perfectly impure, three minutes of dark riffwork and gritty production punctuated with Tompa’s ragged screams. In the intervening years since Slaughter of the Soul rewrote the rules of extreme metal, At the Gates’s riffs became a known commodity in certain circles, abused and overused by terrible mallcore acts and several generations of copycat melodeath bands. And yet, rather than diluting the market, somehow the prevalence of counterfeit bullshit just makes the genuine article that much more precious. Just listen to that opening riff tear through your eardrums. Where the last album lacked the jagged edges of their best work, this single sounds sharper, harder, and better than ever. Godlike once more. [From To Drink from the Night Itself, out 5/18 via Century Media Records.]Aaron Lariviere

1. Judas Priest – “Spectre”

Location: Birmingham, England
Subgenre: heavy metal

You may have heard rumors about this album, surprised susurrations from the metal hivemind hinting at greatness reclaimed. Could it be? The best Judas Priest album since Painkiller?? It is that, friends, that and more. This thing is a wonder to behold, arguably the best set of songs I’ve heard from any band in 2018. Hardwired…to Self Destruct looks bloodless and flaccid next to this fire breathing ANIMAL of a record. Book of Souls feels bloated and tired in comparison, it pains me to say. Priest has arisen from a three decade stupor enraged and engorged, brimming with confidence and ready to shred expectations. KK Downing might be gone, but Glenn Tipton and KK’s youngblood replacement Richie Faulkner spit thousand dollar riffs like it’s nothing, hands incapable of forming weak chords, like they couldn’t help kicking ass it they tried. But the man of the hour is the god amongst men, the living, breathing, screeching embodiment of leather and steel, Rob Halford — and he sounds fantastic, dropping absurd metallisms about flamethrowers and necromancers and nailing one perfect chorus after another. And that’s just it: the entire band is in top form, and the songs themselves are worthy of the effort. 14 songs; 58 minutes; nary a dud. Razor-tipped rippers, midtempo headbanging anthems, and an unnaturally potent power ballad that calls back to their late ’70s peak. Frankly, I struggled to pick a single because the whole record screams to be heard. But “Spectre” is a highlight on a record full of highlights: dark chordwork, a wailing lead guitar, and a stellar vocal to match. “Spectre” ticks every box and still finds time to get weird. When the bridge hits, the guitars take flight for an aerial duel that wouldn’t sound out of place on a Blind Guardian record, which is the highest of praise, obviously. No matter what kind of metalhead you are, I promise there is something here that will blow your hair back. These guys probably don’t need your money, but just buy the damn record already. [From Firepower, out now via Columbia Records.]Aaron Lariviere