This is the final part of “The Curse Of The Velvet Unicorn.” You can read the first part here.
Eight years ago, India Scott, guitarist for the Wolf Hongos, was helping a friend move into a new apartment.
“The place was completely empty except for that painting,” Scott emailed to me. “We joked that the previous renters left it behind because it was cursed. She was just going to throw it out, but you’ve seen the thing. I couldn’t let it get tossed out.”
These days, Scott is an in-demand tattoo artist in Rhode Island who also runs a LARP event in Massachusetts with her fiancé called Blessing. The Wolf Hongos, the gipsy punk band that occupied the primary position in the list of names on back of the Velvet Unicorn’s canvas, is now inactive, though it wasn’t brought down by the curse. No, its end was far more human: people moved, the distance became difficult, and the creeping demands of non-band-life delayed the dream until there was more delay than dream. But that’s the thing about recorded music, right? If the music is findable, the music is active. All Hail The Mal Kree Odd, the Hongos’ 2016 LP, is right there on Bandcamp, a collection of past experiences ready to influence the present of whomever discovers it.
As for what Scott found in that apartment so long ago, well, things started small. “The painting was just another goofy thing in the Hongos’ arsenal of oddities. ‘Yeah man, just prop it up near Oliver’s suit of armor and Zac’s puppets,'” Scott remembered. Soon the Unicorn was transferred to the drummer’s van and became a convenient scapegoat. “It was just a gag for a while to blame anything bad that happened on the painting. ‘Can’t find parking in Cambridge? It must be the curse of the Unicorn!'”
That said, throughout its stay with Scott, the Velvet Unicorn was a cordial guest. “We never had any serious incidents that I can remember, but we were a young band in our early 20s. Shit was always tough for us even before the Velvet Unicorn popped up. Our drummer Nick sat on a bucket and a pillow to play his drums. Oliver’s accordion straps were 50% duct tape. The gigs rarely paid and no one outside of our friends wanted to buy our homemade merch. Still, we never considered ourselves cursed or down and out. We were just the Wolf Hongos and we played because we loved it.”
And play they did, finding likeminded souls in the Swaggerin’ Growlers who in turn would set up a show for the Hongos at the Midway Café in Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts, on July 16, 2011. It was there that Scott saw an opportunity. “Farler’s Fury was down from Canada and that gave us a fun idea. ‘Hey guys…wouldn’t it be funny if other bands had to look at this ugly unicorn painting?’ We basically came up with the plan during the show. Our goal was to see how far the painting could get.”
At the bar, the Hongos set the foundation for everything to come. “[We] started telling [Farler’s Fury] our plan…we had this amazing painting and we wanted to get it into the hands of as many bands as possible,” Scott said. “Not only as an experiment to see how far it would go, but mostly as a reason for bands to have a fucking black velvet unicorn in their van. So, we grabbed some scrap paper and wrote up the rules of the curse. Then we tagged ‘The Wolf Hongos — MA’ on the back of the painting and stuffed the rules under the corner of the frame. After that it was put into the very capable hands of Farler’s Fury.”
After that, welp, you know there’s a lot after that. Now, so too do the Hongos. “We were all freaking out when we heard about the Unicorns travels. Our painting toured with bands that we never could have. We didn’t expect anything of this scale.” And I didn’t expect that the Unicorn’s travels might not be finished.
Before last month’s Black Market went live, I reached out to a few other bands based on various leads. Most had no idea what I was talking about…but one did. I’m not sure they’re willing to go on record, so all I’ll say is that the story they gave me regarding their time with the Unicorn is pretty convincing, further bolstered by a third party who remembers the name of the band in question scrawled on the back of the painting. I mean, I’m as gullible as they come, but it had the hallmarks. And it shredded my timeline. It reminded me of those hidden-in-plain-sight, cult-revered albums that you finally check out due to some quirk of fate and it upends your understanding of an entire genre’s narrative. If I didn’t know about that, then what else don’t I know? Cue my mania, cue the curse. Saddled with a never-ending, Book Of Sand-esque non-conclusion, I started drowning in hypotheticals. Maybe it’s still out there. Maybe someone has it, blissfully ignorant of its secret history of doom and destruction. Maybe, without the story, it’s back to just being a painting.
Yeah…thinking about the Velvet Unicorn drives you a little nuts. It is, after all, just a painting. And yet, once you learn its history, once you spill a little human experience on it, it’s hard to think of it as just a painting. It’s like those old baseball cards that you should throw out but will continue to pile into U-Hauls, that lucky shirt that your OCD will never let you wash. It’s an inanimate object imbued by something else that might only exist in the beholder’s eye, notable only in the owner’s memory. It enlivens it, makes it more us, gives it powers. But any sense of youthful magical realism is leashed to an adult rationality. If one thought takes off, the other is close behind.
Here’s what I mean. The Velvet Unicorn? It’s cursed. It has inflicted misery upon many punk and metal bands. Its perceived powers would fill up a D&D monster manual: van eater, mysterious disappearer, bad luck band breaker-upper, anatomically incorrect rainbow vaper. Totally. Yes. Logically, though? Minus the rainbow part because that heinous beast is clearly juuling Skittles, all of that is bullshit. As a music writer, and not much of one at that, I can relate to what KEN mode’s Jesse Matthewson wrote: “So many people in bands are such hot disasters of human beings, it’s not surprising at all that this ‘curse’ could seem like it’s real.”
“Seem” is the keyword because I don’t think anyone thinks the curse is real real. I don’t think it’s real. The people who created the curse, building it brick by brick as a gag, don’t think it’s real. Similarly, no one I’ve interviewed believes in spooky stuff. In spite of that, this duality twists people into the same mental gymnastics as kayfabe, where I know it’s not real, and you know it’s not real, but this thing that we agree upon not being real that’s playing out in front of us makes me feel…real things. In that way, the Unicorn is a stand-in for something greater.
This all falls in line with something Sean Sabatini wrote years ago that has always stuck with me: “The best part of this cursed painting being around is that it seems real to those of us who know about it. Folks like the KEN mode dudes as well as ourselves in the Great Sabatini, I know there is a distinct lack of belief in supernatural shit going on…we’re all pretty grounded, skeptical folks, but everyone I know of who had that painting in their possession was upset to have it, as if we all became superstitious as soon as we were unwittingly involved. I think that as the Unicorn has traveled, and been passed from hand to hand, it HAS gained power and it HAS fucked with certain bands, to varying degrees. But ‘bad luck’ is a part of the road.”
We know instinctively to chalk this up to the no-feelings-please realm of probability, that even “bad luck” isn’t a devilish deviation from a universe-defined equilibrium so much as just another data point. We know that there’s no weird shit going on…except, shit, there’s some weird shit going on. Thing is, I think we’re the weird shit.
Take this weird shit: No matter who held the Unicorn, how is that the rules the Hongos wrote up somehow remained the same? This part of the story wasn’t a little different. It’s hard enough getting people to agree on the plot points of the argument they just had let alone centuries-old laws that continue to shape society. However, to the end, this painting’s governing particulars were bedrock: The Unicorn is cursed and you have six months to pass it on to the next band or yours will break up. Regardless of how many more bands added their names to the back of the canvas, the behavior-setting backstory stayed remarkably consistent. When it came time to burden a new owner, you ended up saying the same thing as whomever was previously in your position. So much for free will. Didn’t anyone think to amend the rules or append more?
“We really should have,” Matthewson said. “I could have constructed any narrative I wanted…I guess we’re just honest to a fault. Bloody Canadians.” Sean concurred: “Never. All we wanted to do was get rid of it, and we did discuss who might be the best band to give it to, but we never considered changing the rule. It’s so simple…. I was curious as to where it might go, or how far it might go, based on that one rule and the growing ‘mystique.'”
Of course, who knows if the mystique would’ve metastasized the way it did if people knew the Unicorn’s actual origin. Part of the appeal was, once that not-very-dangerous meeting in a Massachusetts bar was obscured by a few degrees, people could fill that part in. “It probably started like any run of the mill chain-letter,” Sean said. Still, he was quick to cover his bases: “But probably, some lesser demon made that painting from the upholstery of Cliff Burton’s bunk, and mixed the paint using spit from the valves of some road-worn vaudevillian’s trumpet and the plaster dust from a hotel room that Keith Moon had trashed.”
Though I never could, people would fill in the finale, too. On episode 53 of the Taker Wide Podcast, Steve Sabatini and Jesse and Shane Matthewson joke about an ambitious endgame: “Somebody said they wanted to see if it could’ve gotten into the hands of Metallica.” As if Metallica needed a curse, but did anyone check the studio walls when Lou Reed was in the booth?
But, even if the painting never had the opportunity to suck the life out of busses and private planes and whatever the fuck powers this room, it still traveled farther than anyone could have imagined: thousands of miles across North America and a tour cancellation away from reaching Cradle Of Filth. The daydream and the kayfabe one could weave was enjoyably wild, but the truth was still plenty weird. To be clear, the truth was that a painting was passed from band to band for longer than anyone could have reasonably expected. When given the story, people just…went with it.
So…why? What makes Angus Byers of the Hypnophonics tell me stuff like “I was really glad I was a part of this shit” despite him losing his van and band? I think it’s because it’s a good tour story for people who know a good tour story.
“There are some great tour stories that you can really only relate to if you’ve lived this lifestyle…while others tap into some of the most primal fears of your average adult in our society,” Matthewson wrote. “Tour stories are all about bizarre people (musicians) getting into bizarre situations constantly! Hell, an easy example: We once stayed at an abandoned race horse slaughterhouse in upstate NY with Anodyne and American Heritage back in 2004; and we swore we heard the faint screams of dying race horses in the middle of the night. In daylight hours, there were horse skulls and repossessed cars with bullet holes all over the lot. I smashed a horse skull with a stick for the simple sake of doing so. What normal person wouldn’t have questions about that ridiculous story?”
On the one hand: Hi, normal person here, I have questions. On the other…that story is the The Right Stuff for cowardly hot disasters like me, thrillingly adjacent to the expectations of my constructed and curated day-to-day. And it nails the other tour-yarn-criteria that Scott laid out: “Like any good story there needs to be conflict. No one cares if things went off without a hitch. People want the blood, sweat, and tears. The stuff that inspires them to push on, too.”
And part of me kind of thinks that’s it. Trust me, I feel a strong desire to blurt out some tortured Dean Witter shit like “the painting’s real power is its story!” and call it a day, but let’s not. Instead, to me, the Curse of the Velvet Unicorn caught on because it’s an encapsulation of what it’s like to feel the irrepressible itch to pursue something creative. It’s like this weird, bizarre feeling that shows up unannounced, sometimes inspired by someone else. The window to achieve it is finite. There’s hardship, there’s bad luck. If it works out, you pass something along, something of yourself, to the next person and the next person and the next person, farther than you could’ve ever imagined. If it doesn’t, and van dies and band breaks up, hey, at least you were exerting some agency over your existence. And sure, people won’t get it because they haven’t felt it and its incongruous with their path. But, as Sean said, “I’ve had more fulfillment in my experiences on the road as a musician than I ever got out of working in a kitchen or hammering away at some other dead-end job.” That’s why you chose this life. That’s the story you want to tell, the story you want people to pass on. You played because you loved it.
But…yeah. Really, in keeping with what the Unicorn does to people, the real reason is probably more elemental, devoid of the abstractions we put upon it and it puts upon us. It’s probably more what like what Scott wrote: “Some beautiful person woke up one morning and said, ‘Today is the day I paint a unicorn on black velvet.’ And they did a shit job. There is nothing purer in this world.” –Ian Chainey
10. Deicide – “Excommunicated”
Location: Tampa, FL
Subgenre: death metal
I think I’ve stumbled onto something crucial about Deicide. Bear with me here. Maybe, across 12 albums and 29 years of occasionally good death metal, Glen Benton has been trying to tell us something. If you look closely at the song titles and lyrics, it’s almost like there’s a theme. Let’s start with the album titles: first came Deicide in 1989, then Legion, Once Upon The Cross, Serpents Of The Light, Insineratehymn (ooh, good one), In Torment In Hell, Scars Of The Crucifix, The Stench Of Redemption (ew), Til Death Do Us Part, To Hell With God, In the Minds Of Evil, and here we are, finally, with the impending release of Overtures Of Blasphemy. But what if, rather than a long-running death metal band with a constantly rotating lineup churning out random tunes more or less in the vein of past successes, what if we’re actually supposed to view all of this as part of a widescreen narrative arc, a tapestry of good and evil on the grandest possible scale, each album a chapter in the story of “Satan” (possibly a typo for “Stan”, a perfectly relatable everyman) and his endless quest to dethrone the weak and stupid (but simultaneously all-powerful and all-knowing) “God”? In support of my theory, I give you numbers: armed with a calculator and access to Metal Archives, I counted every appearance of the name Satan/Stan across the Deicide catalog, and believe me, he recurs heavily. I count 123 appearances, in tons of songs, including “Satan Spawn, the Caco-Daemon,” “Behead the Prophet (No Lord Shall Live),” “When Satan Rules His World,” “The Gift that Keeps on Giving” (choice lyric: “I accept the word of Satan — yes I do”), “Christ Don’t Care,” and “Homage for Satan” (a late-period classic, no joke). With each appearance, I posit, Deicide teaches us something new about our protagonist. And then, as evidence of his omnipresent, oppressive nature, Stan’s nemesis God appears a whopping 334 times across the catalog. The song titles suggest he gets this much screen time so the band can fully plumb the depths of his character: there’s “Blame It on God,” “Forever Hate You,” “Mad At God,” “To Hell With God,” and “How Can you Call Yourself a God,” amongst others. You can read this a number of ways, and I encourage you to really dig in and explore the catalog (after all, Deicide have at least three good albums, and the rest aren’t that bad in small doses if you play them quietly). But hear me out: rather than a lack of vision, or a dearth of ideas, or a genuinely weird fixation on something you claim doesn’t exist in the first place, I say this is all just proof that Glen Benton and company are operating on a higher plane, defying expectations by leaning into them, building a multi-faceted masterwork from something that only looks tired, flat, and mildly embarrassing. Even if the music sounds like the local opener at the Newark stop of a Cannibal Corpse package tour (yet somehow fun?), we can rest assured the new album will bring the narrative progression and emotional development we crave, perhaps even offering some closure. “Excommunicated,” with its deceptively simple riff structure and winking return to a familiar lyrical motif, certainly hits the spot. [From Overtures Of Blasphemy, out 9/14 via Century Media Records.] –Aaron Lariviere
9. Binah – “Dream Paralysis”
Location: Guildford / London / Birmingham, United Kingdom
Subgenre: death metal
The first time the HM-2 buzzsaw is revved on Phobiate, Binah’s second full-length, you think it’s going to be another one of those bands. And then shit gets weird. And maybe it’s because I’ve been inhaling mold spores all month, but it’s a great kind of weird. At the very least, it is a needed alternative. Yeah, while the nth wave of whatever Bloodbath kicked up is actually washing ashore pretty decent driftriffs this time around (in addition to one you’ll see soon, check out Carnation, as well), the style still tends to be pretty smooth and featureless at this point. However, this UK trio of gents with multi-band résumés has roughed shit back up (maybe via a necroticism?) by finding its own sound without also totally obscuring the OSDM ear candy. Which is to say…this is kind of what we want bands of this ilk to do, right? You know…take a style and twist it into its own image? Except, the entity doing the twisting here is a burnout warlock in an Aleister Crowley robe who summons a spectral goat that pushes its hooves into your eyes and transports you into a surrealist plane where mutated Sunlight Studio creations spew corrosive hallucinogens into your face. Ahem, I guess…not that I had this mold trip or anyth-oh, did I mention that the first song after the intro is 12 minutes? The fact that this sound doesn’t rip apart and shoot off like a broken rubber band after getting stretched this far is a testament to the players. Despite the intense WTF gravity that warps everything bizarrely, Aort (Code, Blutvial, Indesinence) and Ilia R. G. (Indesinence) actually burn through a bunch of killer riffs and leads that would still crush in more traditional settings. A. Carrier, obviously the guy you call in England if you need a drummer, peppers in the perfect amount of wumps and thumps in to keep Phobiate flying along. Listeners who liked the way Slugdge reconstructed an exploded style should give this a spin. Maybe a couple times. [From Phobiate, out 9/28 via Osmose Productions.] –Ian Chainey
8. Deracinated – “Reeking Accumulation”
Location: Moscow, Russia / Laredo, TX
Subgenre: death metal
We all say we want to live through a genre’s golden age, you probably didn’t know slamming brutal death metal was getting the gilding. Adoration of Decaying Carrion, an album title that pretty much doubles as an explanation of what I value in art these days, is a collabo between Abominable Putridity’s Alexandr Kubiashvili (all instruments) and Seraphic Enthronement’s Ruben Guerra (vocals). Like a lot of stuff in this lane, it overcomes the desolate per capita fanbase for sick-ass belchy and squelchy death metal by uniting disparate locales, in this case Moscow, Russia and Laredo, Texas. Yes, let’s all take a moment to hail the goodly, never-corrupted power of the internet for giving rise to much slam that wouldn’t have had a chance to slam before. And that’s especially noteworthy in this case because Deracinated fucking rules. Perhaps that’s thanks to Kubiashvili, who is also one half of the leadership team behind Inherited Suffering Records; he’s certainly heard his fair share of br00tz and thus has the same sharp intuition as any field’s esteemed expert. (Case in point, this LP clocks in at a just-right 20 minutes before rigor frrrtis sets in.) However, the duo have a live-wire spark that can be felt throughout, something that’s far more primal than knowhow can totally account for. If you can mentally strip away the steel wool carapace of the guitar tone, check out how these riffs swing in between the posts hammered down by the drums and bass hits. And Guerra’s gurgs are great. My man pushes his gutturals to the next level with a rare force that should shame the whisper-borkers who need a sensitive mic and a shower in order to approximate this dude’s power barfs. This more than delivers on the promise of last year’s promo demo (both that A- and B-side are present and accounted for, saving you the hunt) and sets a high-water mark for the style. Following that very normalizing statement, another: Please listen to this, average Stereogum reader. [From Adoration Of Decaying Carrion, out now via Inherited Suffering Records.] –Ian Chainey
7. Un – “In Its Absence”
Location: Seattle, WA
Subgenre: funeral doom
Un has two things going for it. I’d hate for either to come off as backhanded because the Seattle quartet is good and I am what social scientists refer to as a “stupid asshole.” So, yes, please calibrate accordingly. The first is that this quartet’s second full-length, Sentiment, is what I like to call “a record that doesn’t screw up.” Again, this is praise. Because, well, I feel like funeral doom is a genre where players walk along the knife-edge juggling a lot of lit Molotov cocktails. Shit is tough (“hi there, please make this slow, long song interesting; no biggy”) and thus there’s a lot of variance between the good and bad. The masters, though characteristically different from one another (and this is a very metal thing: a sub-sub-subgenre that still has infinite variation), really capture the human condition as it relates to despondent mopey sadsacks such as myself. The gothy goofballs tend to turn in crapterpieces that are interminable borefests that hew too closely to the soul-sucking effects of actual depression (namely “why can’t I get out of bed and make this stop?”). So, yes, Un doesn’t screw up Sentiment’s four songs and 53 minutes. The band makes the right decisions, landing on a more austere funeral doom, trading in some of the lachrymose leads for sludge. Right decision: that sludge, along with some Evoken-sized seismic heft, make the leads that do remain more powerful. Right decision: when it comes time to sing emotively, these gentlemen outsource. Right decision: the crescendo of the closer, “A Garden Where Nothing Grows,” is bruising as hell, pounding you back down into the dirt. Ah, yeah, the second thing? This is the “right record at the right time.” It’s when an album so wholly crystallizes you current moment, you feel like you can place shit your working through into it and the puzzle pieces fit. That context ultimately exists only for me. I feel it, though. [From Sentiment, out 9/28 via Translation Loss Records.] –Ian Chainey
6. Inexorum – “Years In Exile”
Location: Minneapolis, MN
Subgenre: black metal
Several years back, right as I was getting into the metal writing game, black metal seemed to catch fire, exploding outward in quantity and quality, even briefly piercing the public consciousness. On the heels of bands like Wolves in the Throne Room, countless new hybrids arose, more willing than ever to dig into melody and texture, pushing the boundaries beyond frosty second-wave Scandinavian sounds into new moods and modes. Since then…well, you’ve probably felt the tide rise and fall. So-called atmospheric black metal came to supplant the older forms for a time, reaching peak saturation a few years back, before spinning off a number of lesser variants. Brilliance continues to emerge amidst the glut, but with so many competent bands playing in this space, a lot of bands we once thought were visionaries no longer feel particularly special. In that same window of time, several genre leaders flamed out in spectacular fashion, including Agalloch (sadly) and Inquisition (good riddance), leaving the subgenre with the equivalent of a power vacuum, headless and adrift but not quite dead. But time marches on, and so does metal. When done right, with enough spirit and conviction, black metal still has the power to transcend. Uada’s second album, released in May, was a great example of measured progression delivering stellar results — high ruleage through superior riffage. And here’s another monster of a meloblack album from Minneapolis duo Inexorum. Featuring the live guitarist of Obsequiae, Inexorum build off that same melodic framework by pairing endlessly swirling lead guitars with pounding, perfectly programmed drum machines. The drums are almost overwhelming, but the effect makes the riffs that much more muscular, making the whole thing larger than life. Minimalistic black metal has been done to death; here’s a band twisting every knob to 10 and embracing maximalism to maximum effect. We at home reap the rewards as the power courses through the speakers. And the effect is electrifying: “Years in Exile” is a series of perfect moments one after another, leads chasing leads in a blaze across the sky, none better than the haunting harmony that closes the track. Stream the whole album here. [From Lore Of The Lakes, out now via Gilead Media.] –Aaron Lariviere
5. Black Viper – “Hellions Of Fire”
Location: Oslo, Norway
Subgenre: speed metal
At a superficial level, Black Viper’s debut full-length, Hellions Of Fire, is the realest I’ve heard speed metal sound that wasn’t recorded in the ’80s. But, yeah, if this Norwegian quartet only ran that deep, this record wouldn’t live long enough for us to list it. Instead, here we have a marvel of songwriting’s transportive powers: seven tracks clocking in at nearly 48 minutes that…absolutely do not feel that long. Yarp, the songwriting is so on point, it suspends time; replay city, meet your newest mayor. No small thing! Granted, I’m a mark for this sort of stuff, one who would happily piss away a weekend picking through private press dreck, but know that even quality-control-deficient me would raise an unconvinced eyebrow at a speed metal song exceeding 10 minutes. And yet, there’s Fire’s third track, “Quest For Power / The Fountain of Might,” vaulting over the double-digit barrier…and it works. All of this works. Which, I guess, shouldn’t come as a surprise given Black Viper’s pedigree. Created to catch the non-Deathhammer ideas of drummer Cato Stormoen, the band also includes the primo shredding of guitarist Arild Myren Torp (Nekromantheon, Obliteration) and bassist Kato Marchant (the promising Evoke). (The liner notes suggest Christoffer Bråthen of Condor also stepped in for some session work.) These dudes rip and run through wonderfully solid heavy metal that feels classic without being a carbon copy of classics; there’s a proggy adventurousness present that shakes it free of the shackles of imitation without it also becoming a pedantic earsore. But special shout out to singer Salvador Armijo, who hookily sings and yips and yelps. Usually the vocals in throwbacks are the weak link, but Armijo is one of Black Viper’s strongest, which is a fine way to sum up Fire’s real realness. [From Hellions Of Fire, out 9/14 via High Roller Records.] –Ian Chainey
4. Ancient Empire – “Shadow From The Past”
Location: San Francisco, CA
Subgenre: heavy metal
As reality grows increasingly grim — with ideological divides ossifying into hardened battle lines, a growing dependence on technology veering into addiction and worse, and impending ecological disaster only eclipsed by the specter of nuclear war — we need heavy metal now more than ever. Headbanging gives us strength; sweet riffs bring us joy; faced with gleaming steel, bullshit fades away. Ancient Empire are here for you, carrying riffs a’plenty and visions of life after the coming storm. Plenty of bands ostensibly play this style — a blend of straightforward heavy metal and power metal — but few do it with this degree of skill and commitment. Part of it’s in the approach: Ancient Empire are as earnest as they come, metallic true believers to be sure, but they manage to steer clear of cheese, walking the tightrope of tastefulness that allows trad bands to rule hard in 2018 without falling victim to retro fetishism or winking party vibes. More importantly, they write songs. Songs with hooks and riffs and feeling, the stuff that pulls you through the tougher days. Check the perfect chorus on “Shadow from the Past”: Admittedly, I am a weak soul in need of escape and metallic comfort, but that vocal gives me chills. Then the riff breaks at 2:45, martial drums lead us to the solo and beyond — and I’m dead. Join me; take comfort where you can. [From Enternal Soldier, out now via Stormspell Records.] –Aaron Lariviere
3. Sear Bliss – “The Main Divide”
Location: Szombathely, Hungary
Subgenre: atmospheric black metal
It’s hard to choose a favorite from Sear Bliss’ latest, the band’s eighth full-length in a career that has now spanned roughly a quarter century. The single “Shroud” would be a clear contender, but on “The Main Divide” the infectious, regal swing is irresistible. Announced by horns with a nostalgic bohemian flair, the meat of the track is loaded with passage after passage of invigorating perfection, a string of the kind of ear-opening moments that draw one to metal in the first place. The guitar work is intricate and undeniably stylish, European cool delivered with ease. It all comes together into an incredibly tight package that sounds a call to arms and alludes to something darker and more significant than day-to-day existence. [From Letters From The Edge, out now via Hammerheart Records.] –Wyatt Marshall
2. Baest – “Ego Te Absolvo”
Location: Aarhus, Denmark
Subgenre: death metal
2018, it seems, has been little more than an endless, mindless news cycle salvaged only by a string of killer death metal releases. (Side note: pity the lost souls who don’t listen to death metal.) Here we are in the sweaty armpit of August, staring down the smoking barrel at the best of the death metal batch, a righteous exercise in Bloodbath-worship from Danish newcomers Baest. Behold their unearthly opus of riffs: (go ahead and click play on the thingamajig and we’ll pretend we’re all beholding the greatness together, like cavepeople struck dumb by Aurora Borealis). Straight out the gate, THICK TONES slam home. The guitars belong to the HM-2 varietal, born in Sunlight Studio and well familiar by now, but still a worthwhile weapon when wielded with courage and conviction. These riffs grate and grind like a buzzsaw on bare flesh, back and forth, closing in on bone. A rhythmic stomp beneath the harmonized leads generates headbanging energy for impending release…but not yet; we have to earn it first. Grind harder, guitars, while the drums let out a few lithe blasts to whet the appetite. And then it’s on: at the minute mark they drop the d-beat, and we’re done for. Wave after wave of death comes crashing. Leads scream, bodies fall, reality fades: and there amidst the smoke and swirling debris, a final riff rises. Mark the time on your Casio, friendo: four minutes, thirty seconds. One riff to rule them all. Outro of all outros. I’ve written before about my love of perfectly executed kill riffs, the kind that can cycle forever and no one gets bored, rolling over everything in their path, pounding bones to dust: this is that and then some. Death begets death until there’s nothing left. [From Danse Macabre, out now via Century Media Records.] –Aaron Lariviere
1. Fórn – “Scrying Below The Wolf Moon”
Location: Boston, MA
There’s the type of impossibly heavy doom that is allowed to reverberate for effect, where guitars become a physical force and the faithful congregate before mighty amps to feel riffs actually billow the ear lobes. Heaviness for heaviness’ sake is certainly a key tenet of the broader heavy metal spectrum and is particularly so within the confines of doom, but it’s the way Fórn paints with these massive, loaded, emerging-from-the-depths guitars that sets the band apart. There’s something lyrical to it, and thick riffs will occasionally reveal glimmering undertones beneath a beastly outer form, a vein of gold in a lump of black rock. Stylistic wails serve a much greater purpose than filling empty space. All together, and paired with phlegmy, grating, yet incredibly expressive vocals, it is a remarkably soulful experience. [From Rites Of Despair, out 9/7 via Gilead Media.] –Wyatt Marshall