How do you end up getting cursed by a unicorn? Well, the story is always a little different.
Maybe you’re just getting off stage. Or, you’re behind your band’s merch table. Perhaps you’re even settling down at that night’s crash spot, your state of mind wavering between exhilaration and exhaustion as you descend into sleep-deprived delirium. Really, the setting doesn’t matter as much as what happens next: A member of a different band or the band’s manager approaches you. They hand you a painting. The black canvas is velvet, the decaying frame long since retired from fulfilling its original duties. On the front, a white unicorn is rearing in a dark forest, a wispy rainbow emanating from its nub of a horn. “Want it?” the giver asks. This is like the 16th weirdest thing that has happened to you on this tour so you say sure. “Great,” the giver responds, looking relived, “it’s cursed.” You turn the painting over and see a list of band names. The instructions soon follow: “You need to give this to another band within six months or your band will break up.” Maybe you think it’s a prank, the kind of inside joke that can’t be cracked by anyone outside of the unique bond formed by bandmates. You toss it in the back of your van and depart for your next destination. You lose sight of the painting, its existence submerged by the monotony of touring life. It’s then that the Curse of the Velvet Unicorn truly begins.
Between 2011 and 2014, the Velvet Unicorn terrorized bands across the United States and Canada. In its wake, it has been blamed for breakups and hiatuses and other misfortunes big and small. While camouflaging itself as a forgettable piece of junk, it was said to have refueled its powers by sucking out the lifeforce of vans, turning once-functioning vehicles into scrap. Even when assessed by skeptics, it was present for runs of luck so shitty, its temporary owners were compelled to keep the tradition alive by passing it on to the next crew of unfortunate souls lured out of a cozy existence by the age-old call of the road. In turn, no matter the popularity of its prey, the Unicorn showed those who came in contact with it a vision of a dark future, forcing all to answer the question: What will you do when the life you chose gets tough?
“I got rid of that painting after almost six months exactly. We’ve been on indefinite hiatus ever since,” Angus Buyer told me with a chuckle over Skype in 2015. His band, the Montreal-based Hypnophonics, were the fifth to feel the curse, making Buyer the earliest victim that was willing to go on record with me. He was also something of a bridge between the Unicorn’s two eras, transplanting the bane from punk circles to the heavier realms of sludge, noise rock, and, eventually, death metal.
During a short jaunt with Chicago’s Flatfoot 56, the Hypnophonics cruised into Ottawa’s Café DeKcuf on March 25, 2012. A local Celtic/folk punk band, the Beer Barons, opened. After spying Buyer selling prints of his artwork, they ambled up after the show. “One of them was like, ‘Ah, you’re an artist. Do you like art?’ And I was like, ‘…yeah.’ And then they were like, ‘Do you want this?’ And it’s this black velvet unicorn painting. And I was like, ‘Fuck yeah I do.’ And they hand it over to me and they’re like, ‘OK, cool. It’s cursed.’ I’m like, ‘…what?'” From there, the rest of the now-familiar transaction played out: Buyer was told to pass the painting to a different band within six months or his would break up.
“The Beer Barons were the ones that were really scared of it,” Buyer remembered. And maybe for good reason. Of the four previous bands, “a couple of them had already broken up. And everyone attributed it to the black unicorn.”
The Wolf Hongos, a folk punk band from Fall River, Massachusetts, was the first to sign the back of the painting. (The Wolf Hongos didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment.) How the members acquired it is now lost to history, but it’s possible they decided to doom Farler’s Fury on July 16, 2011 after a show at the Midway Café in Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts. Farler’s Fury, perhaps not realizing it was the unwitting victim of an act of American aggression, schlepped the painting back to Quebec where it was presumably passed to Crooked Jacks. On January 27, 2012, Crooked Jacks played with the Beer Barons at Crobar in Montreal. Less than three months later, the Unicorn belonged to Buyer.
“You just keep on forgetting about it. It just lingers in the back of your van,” Buyer said. During the six months it sat there, “everything started to get a lot harder for us as a band. Everything was harder: we could never organize practices, we had a lot more van trouble. Our van died two days before I gave the painting to Sean. The van was running great and then the engine just cracked in half.” Even though Buyer originally contemplated keeping it, the death of the van sealed the deal: The Unicorn needed new hosts.
“I believe we were gearing up for a tour around that time so we must have seemed like prime candidates to get that thing away from him,” Sean Sabatini (surname like The Ramones) emailed me in 2015. The Great Sabatini, a smart sludge band from Quebec, is still active, having survived its brush with the Unicorn’s soft exterior. Sean and Steve Sabatini were also the first to popularize the existence of, along with standardizing the name of, the Velvet Unicorn; Sean doing so via his Thinking Man’s Idiot Online blog and Steve via his Taker Wide podcast.
But back in October 2012, Sean didn’t yet know what he was bringing with him. After getting relegated to the Great Sabatini’s roof rack, the Unicorn was soon hungry for van, setting the stage for two near-catastrophes in the “middle of nowhere.” But the painting would wait until Saskatchewan to unleash its true powers for the bizarre.
“After playing in Regina, I noticed a girl wearing one of our t-shirts,” Sean wrote, “and I stopped and said, ‘Hey, thanks for buying a shirt,’ to which she replied ‘who the hell are you?’ I told her I was in the band I’d assumed she’d just seen and didn’t think much of it till a few minutes later when our buddy McGee (who was doing merch for us on that tour) went bolting down the stairs and out the venue after her.” Turns out the wearer asked to try on a shirt and then took off, eventually forcing a standoff. “She was outside with her boyfriend when McGee caught up to her, and [he] told her to either pay for it or give it back. I can’t remember which option she took but McGee was incredulous. He asked her why the fuck she’d try to steal from a band with no money slogging it out on the road, and her answer was ‘you chose this life,’ as if that were an ethical “get out of jail free” card or something.”
Once the Great Sabatini reached Vancouver, they knew their time with the Unicorn needed to end. “It went with us, a black velvet cloud of discontent, raining on our parade, for thousands of miles,” Sean wrote in his blog. “We forgot it was even there. which it probably wanted, (I assume it takes power from the forgetfulness of its possessors, waiting for that black magic moment of six months passed, when it can destroy the band that carried it) and we almost didn’t give it to the band we had thought of giving it to.” Packing up outside of “Steve from Anion’s place,” Sean saw his mark and made the transfer. “After [Steve] thanked me, with just a hint of a question mark in his tone, I told him it was cursed, gave him the rules, and witnessed the disappointment on his face the same way Angus must have seen it on mine.”
Sean also had a surprise in store for me: close-up pics of the painting. Finally, I beheld the bane of many bands. And…yeahhhhhh. Taken as a whole, the Velvet Unicorn is like The Picture Of Dorian Gray for a Lisa Frank Trapper Keeper. The dead-eyed head looks like it was modeled after a scrimshaw chess piece carved by a sociopath. The proportions, too, are creepily uncanny, such as its anatomically impossible, Barbie-sized midsection, an un-equine feature easily dwarfed by the half-dolphin-sized neck. Worse, the horn’s rainbow ejaculation resembles either cigarette smoke, as if it was ripped from some Marlboro executive’s fever dream, or a skid mark left in your undies if you only ate Lucky Charms for a week. If a family member requested your appraisal, you’d utter a “hmmm” long enough that either the asker would lose interest or you’d have time to quietly die. (And, speaking of dying, three successive computers that I viewed the pictures on are now in silicon heaven. Coincidence? Or…murder?) But…it’s also sort of entrancing? In a “this is where I left the bodies” kind of way? Which is why I thought one of the owners after Anion might want to reacquaint themselves with it.
“I don’t want to see that piece of trash ever again” is how Jesse Matthewson of KEN mode politely declined my offer. And that’s probably for the best. KEN mode is preparing for the release of Loved, their seventh full-length, at the end of next month through Season Of Mist, and now is not the time to chance a Crying Boy-style run-in with whatever evil the Unicorn still wielded. Especially since the band got off light in comparison to what others would eventually suffer.
On an off day in late October 2012, KEN mode bid farewell to tourmates Revocation and A Life Once Lost and trekked up to Vancouver to play a show. Something was waiting for them. Matthewson: “Anion handed us this disheveled painting and said Sean from the Great Sabatini wanted us to have it — then explained the story to us.” A picture was snapped for posterity.
From there, the Unicorn sneakily manipulated turnouts as it made its way down the West Coast, across the Midwest, and finally into Atlanta. “For us, it was a bomb of a leg,” Matthewson explained. “We blamed the Unicorn. I refuse to reference our historic statistics that would allude to the fact that we’ve never done well in those regions…it was the Unicorn that dictated how we did on the west coast/south of the US. It was the Unicorn.”
As for the next recipients…well, KEN mode was in a caravan with two prime choices. Thankfully, as Matthewson tells it, something like compassion — or survival of the fittest — guided their hands: “We handed it to Peter from Ramming Speed, who was Revocation’s tour manager for that run. We told him the rules, and that it’s their burden now. We contemplated giving it to A Life Once Lost, but they had already had horrible luck up to that point. Their box van got tagged in Portland, they got into a brawl because of that…it subsequently died in the middle of the desert and they had to abandon the thing mid tour. It was a rough go for them — we figured Revocation were resilient.”
So, what did that perceived resiliency buy Revocation? In late November 2012, that band jumped on a package with the Faceless and the HAARP Machine. As you can guess after leaving KEN mode’s four wheels unscathed, the Unicorn was starving. “On our way out, the van blew two cylinders in the Midwest,” Brett Bamberger told me via email, himself gearing up for the release of Revocation’s new album The Outer Ones in September through Metal Blade. “We drove that on six cylinders to Denver and junked it. Long story short we had to change vehicles three times on that tour. Old van to rental one, rental one to a suburban rental, suburban rental to East Of The Wall’s sprinter.”
Fully believing the curse was validated by the demise of many vehicles, Revocation quickly found some takers within their own convoy and unintentionally sealed the HAARP Machine’s fate. With its impossibly tiny belly full of van, the Unicorn’s power was (:anime voice:) unimaginable. On January 25, 2013, the HAARP Machine announced that three-fourths of the band had quit.
At this point, much like the way it hides within a holder’s belongings, the Unicorn’s history gets cloudy. Some remember that drummer Alex Rüdinger was left hanging with the painting and brought it with him when he joined up with the Faceless on January 28, 2013. (Rüdinger, the Faceless, and Sumerian Records didn’t respond to requests for comment.) If that’s true, here’s a sampling of Lambgoat headlines from Rüdinger’s run:
1/28/2013 – The Faceless cancels UK tour
2/14/2013 – Cradle of Filth cancels U.S. tour [note: the Faceless were the support act]
4/25/2013 – The Faceless stuck in Texas; missing shows
8/22/2014 – The Faceless hit moose and total van
10/21/2014 – The Faceless bassist, drummer quit band
Was the Unicorn there for all of that? It’s unclear. So too is the painting’s current whereabouts. From the outside, it doesn’t seem like either Rüdinger or the Faceless are presently bedeviled by velvet. By the measurables available to nosy music writers, Rüdinger appears to be doing well, drumming for Ordinance and the Conquering Dystopia supergroup. The Faceless? Welp…I’ll give the band the benefit of the doubt. It is technically intact, so, at the very least, it found a way to beat the breakup curse. The question then remains: If they don’t have the Unicorn, who does?
Sadly, the sightings have long since ceased. If the Unicorn was still in circulation, you’d figure someone in the age of document-everything would be like “LOL I’m getting a tetanus shot because of this stupid painting that smells like moose guts!!!” And yet, instead of fading away, its absence has only stoked escalating rumors. For the last three years, I’ve heard that it was left behind a dumpster, burned to ash in a cleansing ceremony, and migrated to a different circuit. My best guess is that it rematerialized in a Fall River thrift store, cloaked itself with its invisibility spell, and is biding its time until a U-Haul center is opened next-door. But these rumors and hypotheses are only that. No one can, or is willing to, say for certain.
Ah, but then, like it always does, the Unicorn turned up unexpectedly to sow chaos. Days before this piece was set to be published, a band got in touch with me and blew my mind. Provided I’m still alive, join us next time when the Velvet Unicorn cold case heats up. –Ian Chainey
RIP, Mark “The Shark.”
10. Crawl – “Suffer”
Location: Kalmar / Stockholm, Sweden
Subgenre: death metal
Around the turn of the ’10s, Californians with beatdown in their blood stomped cloned HM-2s and moshified Swedeath. Crawl, a Swedish trio, has intercepted that transmission, re-re-engineered the sound, and delivered Rituals, a 25-minute romp that’s like if Grave shared common ancestry with 100 Demons. It’s pretty fun. It’s also neat that the nine-track album plays out like a single-take set, with feedback connecting the tracks and supplying a kind of continuity that magnifies the intensity. But Crawl’s best feature is that it knows when to quit. At this point, one could randomly hum Swedeath riff approximations and hit like 30 percent of the content of any post-Clandestine song; the style is the twelve-bar blues of European death metal. Crawl understands this, utilizing the shit that still works and then moving on without belaboring the chugs. As an example, “Suffer” has a killer section of staccato down-strokes that wonderfully contrasts the unceasing angry hornet buzz of the previous two minutes. Some bands would return to that tactic over and over, hammering the lever in a death metal Skinner box of their own making. Crawl picks it up and drops it in seven seconds. Rituals, then, ends up being a whole lot of Swedeath in not a lot of time, which is all you could ever really want out of new entries to this sound. [From Rituals, out 8/20 via Transcending Obscurity Records.] –Ian Chainey
9. Cold World – “Interludium VI”
Location: Leipzig, Germany
Subgenre: atmospheric black metal
Since returning from an eight-year hiatus in 2016, Georg Börner, ColdWorld’s singular force, has been busy, putting out an album and a series of singles and EPs at comparatively breakneck speeds. This month sees not only the release of Interludium, a collection of largely ambient tracks, but also Nostalgia, a ripping tribute to 90s black metal. Keeping it going, next month will bring a split with German compatriots Farsot. “Interludium VI,” the closing piece to its namesake EP, emerges from the depths on the back of synths before taking on a methodical march full of menace. Börner croaks prophesies of doom, with the occasional distant emphatic wail underscoring his dark visions. A message delivered, the song returns to its ambient origins and heads back into the abyss. [From Interludium, out now via the band.] –Wyatt Marshall
8. Sulaco – “Disguise”
Location: Rochester, NY
Subgenre: death metal / grindcore
I don’t get why Sulaco are so slept on. Erik Burke is a riff lover’s riff slayer who has been a constant in the Rochester, New York, scene for decades. On The Prize, Sulaco’s third full-length, Burke and fellow shredder Brian Mason blaze through more riffs in 30 minutes than most labels release over a lifetime. To an extent, same as it ever was. Sulaco balls up death metal, grind, and metalcore (of the Starkweather variety) together in the same sort of engagingly technical way as Lethargy, the equally slept-on ’90s outfit that’s now remembered as what previous partners in widdle Bill Kelliher and Brann Dailor did before joining Today Is The Day…and some other band that time forgot. But though that band’s cult may bristle at the suggestion, The Prize is miles ahead, building on the intensity that Sulaco has been sharpening since 2002. “Disguise,” the first of the album’s six songs to stream, is flat out doing some grandmaster shit, demonstrating the full power of interlocking riffs. Bassist Lon Hackett and drummer Chris Golding cook up a feast of killer rhythms. Mason and Burke, himself a drummer in Blurring and Kalibas, cruise along on top like a hovercraft. How a band gets this tight is beyond me. On the whole, “Disguise” is an attention-dominating tractor beam that locks on to those who like their metal to have a million moving pieces. It’s cliché to say, but the music does indeed sound like the album art looks: a community of wormy, writhing horrors functioning as one nasty monster. [From The Prize, out 8/17 via Translation Loss Records.] –Ian Chainey
7. Cosmic Autumn – “Event Horizon”
Location: Bonn, Germany
Subgenre: atmospheric black metal
Space is impossibly huge, but the space-themed atmospheric black metal landscape is starting to get a little crowded. There’s room for the one-man band Cosmic Autumn, though — particularly the track “Event Horizon,” a bruiser that storms out the gate and carries a sometimes impressive low-end for the style. Yes, while admittedly some black metal stargazers lean heavily on synths to evoke the twinkly and awe-inspiring aspects of the galaxies (see Mesarthim, who have a single out this month), for Cosmic Autumn they take a back seat. Perhaps this will make the project more appealing to some purists. As it should, following a journey through meandering pummeling passages, the song abruptly closes out mid-denouement, sounding as if were sucked up in a vacuum. [From Cosmic Autumn, out now via the band.] –Wyatt Marshall
6. Opening Bell – “Loma Atomal”
Location: New York, NY
Subgenre: noise / doom
The spacious brooding and building tension on “Loma Atomal” is constructed from a kaleidoscope of subdued reverberating tones. They ripple at the edges, and over the course of the song, the fuzzy harmonics decay and wilt into a dirge underlaid by feedback-drenched screams. Even as it all devolves into grief and a profound sense of loss, though, the faded tones still ring, and they are provided due recognition by a guitar sendoff and continue beyond the cathartic explosion. Opening Bell comes in part from Mike Reisinger of the Brooklyn record label Sleeping Giant Glossolalia, a label notable for its work in experimental music that has released material from the likes of Couch Slut and Mick Barr. [From Compound Eyes/Loma Atomal, out now via Sleeping Giant Glossolalia.] –Wyatt Marshall
5. KEN mode – “Doesn’t Feel Pain Like He Should”
Location: Winnipeg, Canada
Subgenre: noise rock / metallic hardcore
Sometimes the good bands do make it. Now nearly decades in, KEN mode still thrill with onslaughts of vicious noise, adding a metallic weight to propulsive punk. That they have outlasted, like, three or four waves of bands with similar intentions is a testament to the trio’s songwriting ability. “Doesn’t Feel Pain Like He Should” has a Chris Spencer kind of chorus, one that sneaks a lasting hook into the maelstrom, that then gives way to a barrage of haymakers. Jesse Matthewson (vocals, guitars) and Scott Hamilton (bass, vocals) make for a killer one-two combination, and Shane Matthewson (drums) relentlessly drives everything forward. This works so well even normos have noticed. Yeah, KEN mode has been dug up for above-ground acclaim, snagging the first Juno Award for Metal/Hard Music Album of the Year (hard…music…) in 2012. If you ignore the fact that a Kataklysm album not named Sorcery also scored the same honor a few years later, that’s something. But it’s also kind of missing the point. It’s not that KEN mode is more feted than our usual inclusions, it’s that KEN mode, this KEN mode, is still around. The band’s Wikipedia history is like a name-check cemetery of could’ve-beens that flamed out long before filling out a discography with this kind of consistency and ingenuity. (For instance, they played shows with Breather Resist, the band with the National Acrobat and Black Cross members. Do these words even mean anything to anyone anymore? Asking for a box of CDs and 7″s in my garage.) Judging by the two available streams, Loved is set to be another good one, a fresh take on an enduring sound that usually chews up and spits out its practitioners. [From Loved, out 8/31 via Season Of Mist.] –Ian Chainey
4. Horrendous – “Soothsayer”
Location: Philadelphia, PA / Columbia, SC
Subgenre: progressive death metal
Change is in the air. Three years out from the mind-melting/life-changing antics of Anareta, Horrendous are back from the time tombs to bless us with a new symphony of death, hopefully, with fourth LP Idol. Behold: the first single is here, and it’s a weird one. Without drastically changing approach, the Horrendous boys have subtly turned the dial toward prog. You hear it in the mid-forward bass production, in the tightly wound melody lines designed to squeeze the air from your lungs, and in the stunted, fragmentary rhythms that seem to start before the previous line finishes. There’s a sense of tripping over one’s own feet, falling down an airless tunnel and tumbling through space. Muted colors swirl and pulse to the jagged beat, and the band plays on. From the start, Horrendous was always a special band, miles beyond their peers in both ambition and ability. The early stuff was old-school death with a flair for thoughtful composition and sharp melodic fretwork. Each album thereafter dug deeper than the last, mixing earthbound rhythm guitars and screaming aerial leads to achieve metallurgic alchemy of the highest order. Beyond the sick riffs and strong songs, the music is evocative in the truest sense. Each album feels like a world unto itself — rich with history and tragedy, packed with resplendent sights, scents, tones and textures — an invented universe carved from a pulsing primordial wound. Ecdysis and Anareta are both perfect albums; I haven’t heard the latest album in full yet, so we can only speculate about its inevitable impact. One has to wonder if “Soothsayer” is the tip of the iceberg, its hints of King Crimson and Coroner, a sign of stranger things to come. Or perhaps it’s an oddity, one of many quirky one-offs that make up some of the best moments in the Horrendous canon: recall the slow-motion explosion of “Titan,” the instrumental glory of “Siderea,” or the transcendent riff-bliss at the end of “Acolytes.” Time will tell. For now, take your time and enjoy unpacking everything buried within “Soothsayer.” [From Idol, out 9/28 via Season Of Mist.] –Aaron Lariviere
3. Finnr’s Cane – “Strange Sun”
Location: Ontario, Canada
Subgenre: atmospheric black metal
Finnr’s Cane piles high the thick regal guitar work on “Strange Sun,” mixing meandering windswept melodies with eerie eliding dissonance in a tight package that has a bit of everything. There’s a whole lot of haunted castle guitar magic, an instrumental passage of bubbling tension, and a war-march outro that kicks in as if the band was saving an extra gear for just that moment. And while there’s a theatrical nature to it — the band members go by “The Peasant,” “The Slave,” and “The Bard,” after all — you can appreciate “Strange Sun” from start to finish without picturing yourself in a cloak. Lastly, the track is aptly named — it’s not hard to imagine those guitar passages paired, silent-film style, with some sort of sped-up sepia-toned solar eclipse montage. [From Elegy, out now via Prophecy Productions.] –Wyatt Marshall
2. Voivod – “Obsolete Beings”
Location: Jonquière, Canada
Subgenre: progressive metal
Let’s shake the Etch A Sketch regarding what I wrote about Immortal last month and make this Downy-fresh blanket assertion: conventional logic suggests bands aren’t supposed to do this. It’s not just that Voivod is nearly 40 years old, it’s that only two multi-album members remain: drummer Away, who’s been there since nearly the beginning, and singer Snake, who took a brief breather in the mid-’90s before rejoining the crew in 2002. Piggy, the genius guitarist who pioneered a perfect, influential sound built around dissonance and atypical timing, passed in 2005. Voivod’s subsequent two albums, Katorz (2006) and Infini (2009), would feature Piggy’s previously recorded work; the former considered a late-career highlight, the latter a fine tribute that is also a freaking bummer knowing that such a unique player would play no more. If that was the way it was going to end, so be it. Except…it didn’t end. Enter Daniel “Chewy” Mongrain, a killer guitarist in his own right who played in the wildly underappreciated Martyr and on Gorguts’s From Wisdom to Hate. To fill out this next phase, Blacky, the co-founding bassist who left after 1991’s Angel Rat, returned after Jason Newsted’s (yep, that one) admirable innings ended. Target Earth was released in 2013…and it’s still fantastic. Chewy, a longtime Voivod acolyte, acclimated himself with aplomb, doing right by Piggy’s style without ever coming across as crass or losing his hold on his own characteristic jazzy voice. The EP Post Society followed three years later, this time with new bassist Rocky, and showcased a quartet that sounded comfortable together, the players developing the rich interplay that only flourishes when musicians are truly in sync. And hey, here we are, the third record that proves this is no fluke. “Obsolete Beings” is the first track from the forthcoming The Wake and it’s gooooood. Chewy’s playing is wonderful: supremely detailed without muddying the crystal clarity of the hooks. Snake’s idiosyncratic singing, a love-it-or-hate-it croon that’s instantly recognizable within the realm of metal, bursts with character. Away and Rocky’s rhythms are locked in; real clock-gear stuff. I want so badly to go full hack and compare Voivod to the eponymous character, interstellar and immortal. But “Obsolete Beings” is so human, exploding with life, evading the tight confines of logic as only humans can.
(This won’t be on the test, and excuse me for being extra indulgent, but I don’t feel like I’m being honest without mentioning that Voivod exists outside of the bounds of criticism for me. This band was one of the few things me and my then brother-in-law could bond over. He was a fanatic, developing his own hot-shit guitar and bass abilities in part from the album-length lessons Piggy and Blacky provided. Voivod was a constant, there for him even during the dark times. He enlisted in the Army to reboot a life that went off the rails. He returned changed, mentally and physically, existing outside of the continuum that the rest of us inhabited, his timing a tick or three off. When we briefly lived together, we didn’t connect on much but music. Still, in that small way, he fulfilled his big-brother duties. He fostered in me an appreciation for the ’90s stuff that ratings would tell you to skip. He passed me recordings of Piggy’s riff tapes and told me to really listen. We don’t talk these days; bridges burned and all of that. But, whenever I hear Voivod, I imagine a younger him, one I only know from pictures, sitting in front of a speaker, guitar or bass in hand, bursting with unlimited potential that would be limited by circumstances he could have never foreseen. And I try to really, really listen.) [From The Wake, out 9/21 via Century Media Records.] –Ian Chainey
1. Satan – “The Doomsday Clock”
Location: Newcastle, United Kingdom
Typically, when staring down the barrel of yet another late-period/post-reunion release from a trad metal band from an earlier era, it’s helpful to calibrate your expectations. Let’s face it, The Book of Souls was pretty cool for old-man Iron Maiden, but it has more in common with The X Factor than Somewhere in Time. If we’re being honest, most of these records only exist to justify a new tour, in which the aging sweet band of yore can trot out older, better material and sell a mountain of merch. For metal bands of less means than Iron Maiden, that might be a car payment or two, essential funds for folks who may or may not have developed any other remunerative skills during their prime years. It is what it is; the world is cold and uncaring. In that vein, most of these albums invariably evoke memories of better days while generating few new memories of their own. The decline in quality is perfectly natural, albeit slightly sad — an understandable consequence of a band’s diminishing faculties, stagnating worldview, and increasing reliance on its own back catalog as the sole source of inspiration. Hopefully you see where I’m going with this depressing intro: resurrected NWOBHM legends Satan are an otherworldly exception, a band that falls victim to exactly none of those pitfalls, defying conventional wisdom and time itself to crank out reunion album after album of exploratory, exemplary British steel. If anything, Satan’s playing and songcraft have only grown richer, stranger, and more detailed over time, like tawny port aged in a sunken cask. Songs are idiosyncratic, less beholden to metal stereotypes, not particularly heavy but surprisingly athletic. Listen to “The Doomsday Clock” and witness a bunch of oldsters ignoring bodily limitations to shred their faces off. The guitars are a surfy slurry of swirling notes, frenetic tremolo licks and legato spirals cast off with abandon as the drums and bass pound along in time. Beneath it all, there’s an order to the chaos: tension escalates with each chord change, guitar solos shred away but only in greater service to the song, and there’s even a nifty psychedelic vocal bridge, which goes to show that these guys follow their muse wherever she leads. Singer Brian Ross doesn’t go quite as high as he used to, but his voice still oozes power and command. Roll it all together, and it doesn’t get any better. [From Cruel Magic, out 9/7 via Metal Blade Records.] –Aaron Lariviere