There’s a lot going on in the beginning of Amorphis’ “Black Winter Day.” Sure, it’s just a few seconds of some keyboard chords and a lead, but it racks up the musical miles. Kasper Mårtenson’s playing feels like he’s surveying every high and low, traversing every field, river, forest, and mountain. It’s like if Dario Argento, beset by full-on tracking-shot-mania, was given the keys to a nature documentary. And that unceasing movement makes the melody dramatic. You hold your breath, wondering how the hell it’s going to resolve. But, sure as the morning sun, it does. And then in crashes the rest of one of Finland’s finest metal exports: Tomi Koivusaari and Esa Holopainen’s guitars, Olli-Pekka Laine’s bass, Jan Rechberger’s drums. Koivusaari growls an overflowing-with-feels growl, one that maybe even he didn’t expect to still be reverberating 25 years after it was first preserved at Sweden’s Sunlight Studio. The lead guitar soon picks up the melody and off we go. It’s one hell of a moment for metal, one I love so dearly, one I can recount without thinking. Which is good, because I haven’t listened to the centeriece of Tales From The Thousand Lakes for months. I don’t need to. “Black Winter Day” has been stuck in my head for years.
Allow me to Innerspace you into my brain to review the play-by-play: Between my ears, “Black Winter Day” will begin. I’ll get the intro, for sure. Then…it might play through or skip around. Maybe I’ll get the verse. Maybe this: “But how do I feel/In my gloomy depths?” Maybe I’ll make it to Ville Tuomi’s guest vocals, those lachrymose cleans that signaled to Koivusaari that his reluctant time behind the mic was ending. But, at some point, whatever point that might be, “Black Winter Day” will stop. “Black Winter Day” will then start again, right from the top. Why is this happening? I don’t know. How is this happening? I don’t know. Why is this song, stuck in the head of this culture-less, know-nothing idiot? I want to know.
What I’m experiencing has been dubbed an “earworm.” In psychology, an earworm is INMI, Involuntary Musical Imagery, a fancy bit of science lingo for something so common, 99 percent of respondents in this turn of the millennium James J. Kellaris study said they experienced the sticky song sensation. However, in order to lay some concrete, the best definition of an earworm comes courtesy of Maria Konnikova in the New Yorker: “…it is generally considered to be a constant loop of fifteen to twenty seconds of music lodged in your head for at least a few hours, if not days — or, in severe cases, months.”
The idea of a song staking a claim to your brain goes way back. In Oliver Sacks’ 2007 book Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain, he footnote-spotlights musician Jeremy Scratcherd who found the phrase “the piper’s maggot” wriggling around folk music manuscripts from the 18th and 19th centuries. This was colorfully defined by the Times as something that “gnawed away inside the musician’s head like a maggot in an apple.” Very metal.
And, indeed, that insidiousness made earworms an effective plot device for fiction. In Arthur C. Clarke’s “The Ultimate Melody,” bar patrons listen to a Bill Brasky tale about comatose physiologist Gilbert Lister, an indefatigable researcher who chased a mind-warping ur-melody. “Supposing it existed — and I’m not admitting that it does — it would form an endless ring in the memory circuits of the mind,” says storyteller Harry Purvis, regaling his pint-sipping collective. “It would go round and round forever, obliterating all other thoughts. All the cloying melodies of the past would be mere ephemerae compared to it. Once it had keyed into the brain, and distorted the circling waveforms which are the physical manifestations of consciousness itself — that would be the end.”
Unsurprisingly, many real Gilbert Listers existed, even surviving their brushes with brain-borking melodies. Sacks and Konnikova both wrote about Nicolas Slonimsky, a Russian music theorist. The ultra-dry title to Slonimsky’s 1947 publication “Thesaurus of Scales and Melodic Patterns” belied its contents: music composition/improvisation jumping off points that were weaponized to be plutonium-grade catchy. By 1979, German psychiatrist Cornelius Eckert was formally exploring, and perhaps standardizing the name of, the earworm effect in “DerªOhrwurm´,” published in Psyche. Yeah, surprise: Germans had the word for that.
Anyway, now that music is pegged to the instant catchiness of its Spotified output, earworm theorizing has really been cooking this decade. A slew of new studies continues to mine the phenomenon for psychological insights. Along with Kellaris, you’ll see names like Lauren Stewart, Victoria Williamson, Daniel Müllensiefen, Lassi A. Liikkanen, and Kelly Jakubowski appear frequently in citations whenever pop-psych blogs try to explain why the song of the summer is still living rent-free in your melon. But if you’re willing to get sucked down the study hole, you’ll find a ton of intriguing takeaways. This one from Jakubowski, Sebastian Finkel, Stewart, and Müllensiefen works towards highlighting and consolidating common musical features within pop songs that increase the likelihood of INMI: “turning points” within melodies, “melodic contours” that are “highly congruent with established norms,” “highly unusual pattern(s) of contour rises and falls,” etc. And, if we wanted to make some rash correlations, I bet we could use it to demystify the mechanics behind why “Black Winter Day” has still been looping away in my head since you started reading.
Okay, yeah…slight problem with that: I’m not much of a music knower. So, I contacted a couple former colleagues to harness their brain power to help explain what was stuck in my own.
“The first thing “Black Winter Day’ has going for it, memorability-wise, is that it’s simple,” Jeremy Morse emailed to me. Morse is the deft metaller behind Last Rites’ “Riffology” column, where he untangles the more intriguing elements of death metal axe-ology and makes it understandable to me, a dipshit goofus. Yes, I’m sorry for all of the technical terms.
“There’s only a few riffs, they’re all composed of four chords or less, and they are all structured pretty similarly, both melodically and rhythmically,” Morse observed. “Consequently, the song achieves a very consistent, almost monolithic groove. The very relaxed pacing, and uncluttered arrangement, I think, also contributes to the song’s catchiness. The song is very easy for your ear to follow; there are key changes, but no real musical curveballs. Structurally, it is more of a folk song or a pop song than a metal song.”
Morse also noticed something else: “Another thing that I think makes “Black Winter Day’ catchy is the chord progressions, which return to the “one’ chord nearly every other measure.” He showed be a diagram to drive this before hammering the final nail. “As the song is in 3/4 time, at no point are these riffs more than six beats from the one-chord, and most of the time they are only three beats away. This creates a sort of hypnotic effect, almost like a pendulum swinging, or the hypnotist’s swinging pocket watch: The repetitive musical motion really imprints the pattern on your mind.”
Avinash Mittur, he of Wild Hunt and general sound-design wizardry, chipped in an idea of his own while we worked together on what would become a different piece. “The lead lines are the big centerpieces in the song, and they never really go away. Either the mini-moog or the guitar is always playing a big hooky melody, even during the vocal sections. It’s kind of like having the chorus be the entire song.”
This all generally fits in with the science. And I think it’s right. And I think I could stop right there if I wanted to. But….
Like I’ve said over and over this year, these studies, though captivating and compelling, are…kind of a bummer if you want to desperately cling to artsy-fartsy, maybe naïve *cough*new-agey*cough* beliefs. Granted, for involuntary musical imagery, that’s kind of the point: it’s involuntary, stupid. And yet…even if I can intellectually accept that “Black Winter Day” is catchy because it’s irresistible to the way brains have evolved to process music, that doesn’t quell the philosopher’s maggot that gnaws away at my soul. Why this song?
Ah. That’s a question. Another: What path did this song take to even reach me? Let’s plumb the depths of this “Black Winter Day”‘s three minutes and 48 seconds. Shouldn’t take long, right? Right? In the same way “Black Winter Day” eternally spins in my head, let’s go back to the beginning. Because, what do you really know about something unless you know what came before it?
By the time Amorphis returned to Sunlight Studio in September 1993, it was breaking out of the mold and finding its own identity. The band’s debut, the Karelian Isthmus, had been out for a bit. But, while its sturdy death/doom garnered acclaim, it wasn’t quite Amorphis yet.
“When we started to work on new stuff, I remember thinking “either this stuff is going to be a huge flop or a huge success,'” Tomi Koivusaari said in a 2014 Metal Crypt interview with Luxi Lahtinen. “The main focus was to do what we felt like doing and I think we just found something unique in our music. Also, our taste for different music styles had gotten wider since the Karelian album, where we were trying to sound like some other bands.”
Perhaps a series of fortuitous events accounted for that widening. For one, “Kasper Mårtenson joined us to play live as sort of a “ghost member,'” Koivusaari remembered, “and obviously he had some great ideas, not to mention the keyboards, which changed our soundscape quite a bit.” And where did they pick up Mårtenson, “Black Winter Day”‘s eventual composer? “Oppu, our bass player, knew him at that time, and we did a bit as well. We saw him at gigs, parties and so on.”
The band’s listening habits were also changing. By Koivusaari’s account, there was the usual psych and prog suspects. But they also kept an ear open for gems of a domestic distinction. A fascination with Kingston Wall soon led to Piirpauke, “a folky, jazzy, and progressive-sounding act, formed in the 70’s, which is still active.”
And the latter might’ve seeded an important epiphany. Again, Koivusaari: “We got the idea on a ferry back from Sweden, where we were recording the Karelian album, to use the Finnish folklore Kalevala in our lyrics, as we felt it would fit perfectly with this kind of musical path.” Fans of Sentenced are nodding in agreement.
As for when it came down to paving that path in the studio, Koivusaari, who held additional brutal bona fides thanks to his Abhorrence badge, recalled Sunlight Studio knob-turner and HM-2 doula Tomas Skogsberg expressing some doubts: “I do remember that he was a little worried about what our label might think of our new stuff with the keyboards and so on. He wondered if our new stuff was a bit too commercial sounding. Tomas had more of a punk attitude.” So, ahem, yes, there was a time when one could worry about commercialization and keyboards on a Relapse release. Regardless of any trepidation, Tales From The Thousand Lakes was released on July 12, 1994. It proceeded to sell hundreds of thousands of copies.
While it seems foreordained now, influentially forging the iron that would strengthen upcoming strains of Finnish metal, Tales From The Thousand Lakes was neither a sure nor fully formed thing. Instead, it grew from things that Amorphis found along the way. So, imagine if the band stuck with standard death/doom, never found Mårtenson or Kingston Wall or Piirpauke, or heeded Skogsberg’s fretting. What if Amorphis never lived up to its name, never let go of the known and embraced the unknown?
Let’s go deeper.
The Kalevala is a collection of Karelian and Finnish folk singing, which contains elements of Finnish mythology. It was compiled by Elias Lönnrot, who published his final version in 1849, 68 years before the Finnish Declaration of Independence. It is dope. You should read it. Anything else I write about it without citation will be within the realm of accuracy but not definite, because…we could go deep. Really, really deep. And, well, the interpretation changes depending on your depth and who drilled the tunnel that got you there. Very metal.
For instance, the 1849 Kalevala measures 22,795 verses. That feels like a definite. However, there’s this: It has been translated into English numerous times, but each varies depending on the translator’s goals.
As an example, the lyrics for “Black Winter Day” are a direct quote of Keith Bosley’s poetic and concise 1989 translation. It’s from the 22nd song.
This is how the lucky feel
How the blessed think
Like daybreak in spring
The sun on a spring morning
But how do I feel
In my gloomy depths?
Like the flat brink of a cloud
Like a dark night in autumn
A black winter day
No, darker than that
Gloomier than an autumn night
Here’s how John Martin Crawford translated that same verse in 1888:
“Such the feelings of the happy,
Such the minds of merry maidens:
Like the early dawn of spring-time,
Like the rising Sun in summer
No such radiance awaits me,
With my young heart filled with terror;
Happiness is not my portion,
Like the flat-shore of the ocean,
Like the dark rift of the storm-cloud,
Like the cheerless nights of winter!
Dreary is the day in autumn,
Dreary too the autumn evening,
Still more dreary is my future!”
Little different, right? Crawford was translating from Franz Anton Schiefner’s 1852 German translation, which kind of became the Rosetta Stone of the Kalevala for other languages for a time. Crawford also makes a real go at retaining the unique Kalevala meter, a kind of trochaic tetrameter, that these songs were sung in for centuries. (You can hear a 1939 recording, captured in California of all places, of something like it here). Amazingly, this meter was retained despite the dramatic geographical distance separating those who remembered this orally passed down tradition.
Anyway, yes, what’s going on in “Black Winter Day”? One read from our neck of the woods comes from Tal, a Finn who wrote a fantastic review of Tales From The Thousand Lakes in 2015 for DCHeavymetal.com in preparation for Amorphis’ appearance at Maryland Deathfest. “‘Black Winter Day’ is the Maiden of the North telling of her sorrow as she must leave Pohjola to wed the smith Ilmarinen. The bride’s sorrow is a common theme in Finnish folk music, as she is separated from her family and will see them again only rarely, and must leave behind carefree childhood for the burdens of adulthood. It makes for a great doomy song.” He goes on: “For someone who doesn’t know the origins of the lyrics, it seems like a song about depression — I should feel happy, yet I can’t. As a feeling that many metalheads can relate to, this may be part of the appeal of this song, which is probably the most popular one from the album, and certainly my personal favorite.”
Again, we could stop right here: “I should feel happy, yet I can’t,” a phrase that sums up my entire stupid existence. But, since I was an empty-headed interloper, I wanted to dig down a bit further. I reached out Professor Andrew K. Nestingen, chair of the Scandinavian Studies department at the University of Washington and author of books like The Cinema of Aki Kaurismäki: Contrarian Stories.
“Yes, this is the Maiden of Pohjola lamenting her impending marriage,” Nestingen emailed back to me. “However, the songs sung here are part of the repertoire of wedding songs, one part of which are the bride’s lament songs, where she sings of leaving her family, and settling with the family of the groom. So as much as her singing is personally expressive, it’s also a performance of the correct generic song at the right moment in the ritual.”
Following up, I asked about Tal’s take. “I think this is a fair read, because Tal has noticed that the lyrics do not psychologize the character. That is why they “seem’ like they’re about depression. The wedding cycle about the Maiden of Pohjola are much more about ritual and genre, not so about individuated characters,” Nestingen wrote. Ritual and genre, also things to which metalheads can relate.
He later took a stab at why “Black Winter Day” might be stuck in my head: “The songs are elegantly wrought expressions about the ambivalence of love. Their ritualistic origins show that everyone experiences love as both new blossoming with another, new hope, but also self-loss and fear of one’s destruction. Those are powerful themes, which keep one thinking (and resonate with one’s feelings)!” You had me at “self-loss and fear of one’s destruction.” That’s now in my Tinder bio. Jokes aside, wow, did I mention the Kalevala is dope?
But there was something he wrote earlier that really kept me thinking: “It is worth remembering that Lönnrot collected the songs from singers, who performed parts of the repertoire for him. Lönnrot’s contribution was to create characters with some expressive coherence in the way he edited what he had collected together. As a result, the characters do not display psychological depth, even though they sing about many topics of intense emotional experience.”
And, as I found out, it’s hard to write about any of this without Lönnrot, even a death metal song.
Like all things, Elias Lönnrot, 1802 — 1884, was much more than the header of his Wikipedia page. Cut from a bygone polymath cloth, he made the most of his years. As this great biography by Raija Majamaa lays out, he was a doctor, linguist, botanist, scholar, professor, journalist, poet, and definitely more. “By the standards of his era he was a great man, whose authority transcended the boundaries of language and politics to unite the nation,” Majamaa writes. “If one looks behind the myth, it is possible to find new ways in which he has influenced society and to arrive at new assessments.” So…how much time do you have to look behind the myth?
For Lönnrot, constructing the Kalevala took 15 years and eleven trips into a wide area encompassing what is now Finland, Russia, and Estonia. (During his life, Finland would’ve been under Swedish or Russian rule; it was a Russian Grand Duchy at this particular time). He usually walked and rowed. During his expeditions, he met with folk singers such as Arhippa Perttunen. He then unified what he collected, first publishing the Old Kalevala in 1835 and then the Kalevala 14 years later.
That’s some stuff, but, like all condensed nuggets of history, it’s missing a lot of stuff. Lönnrot worked extensively in the medical field, getting called back from one of his trips to help out during the 1831 cholera epidemic. He became a doctor of medicine in 1832. He almost died of typhus in 1833. In 1839, he nearly drowned after a boat capsized. Somehow, in between all of this, he found the time to create the first Finnish-Swedish dictionary, helping to elevate the status of the language. Again, this is only some stuff, a thimbleful of stuff. How different would the Kalevala be if Lönnrot turned his attentions elsewhere, publishing only the Old Kalevala? Or if he met different singers or didn’t meet any at all? Or…you know…worse things befell him?
Väinö Kaukonen, in his 1979 piece “Lönnrot ja Kalevala” that’ll I’ll now quote from the English Wikipedia for obvious reasons, surmised that “3% of the Kalevala’s lines are Lönnrot’s own composition, 14% are Lönnrot compositions from variants, 50% are verses which Lönnrot kept mostly unchanged except for some minor alterations, and 33% are original unedited oral poetry.”
To that end, it’s also interesting to see how the Kalevala was reflected back onto Lönnrot. Professor Nestingen, again on the Maiden of Pohjola: “Scholars have written that Lönnrot himself only married very late, and that while his interest in marriage came about because of his folkloristic research, his own life is a sort of analogue to some of the narrative in the Kalevala. On that view, his interest in the marriage cycle had much to do with his own experiences and perhaps longing.”
Needless to say, I find all of this fascinating — how art informs identity and vice versa, the underlying tenuousness that lurks behind the lead up to momentous events, the obvious parallels to music discovery; all of it. But there’s one moment of serendipity in Lönnrot’s backstory that still blows my mind. According to Majamaa, Lönnrot was assigned his master’s thesis on Väinämöinen, the hero whose story would later make up the first two cycles of the Kalevala, by Reinhold von Becker. Von Becker was, according the Wikipedia entry on the Kalevala, the founder of Turun Wiikko-Sanomat and published “three articles entitled Väinämöisestä (Concerning Väinämöinen)” in 1820. Lönnrot met von Becker while tutoring at the home of Johan Agapetus Törngren, a von Becker relative. Let me quote this next bit, emphasis mine:
The Törngrens’ home was a meeting place for the academic community of the time. Showing great foresight, this circle chose Elias Lönnrot from among the students of the Academy to implement its ideas for a national awakening, to free Finland intellectually from its centuries-old connection with the Swedish motherland and to seek a history for the nation in Finland’s ancient popular poetry. The foundation had been laid for future publications in the field of folk poetry.
This “national awakening” encompasses a lot: language strife; the Fennoman motto of “Swedes we are not, Russians we cannot become, therefore Finns we must be”; Carl Axel Gottlund’s call for a national epic on the scale of classics; and so many things I was shocked and embarrassed that I didn’t know. Out of this, you get so much. You get the Kalevala. You get Finland. And yep, way down the road, you get Amorphis and I get a song, one that is now so much richer, stuck in my head. Kind of incredible. Hey, told you there was a lot going on.
There’s more. There’s always more. Much more. Mercifully, though, let’s leave it at that for now. Let it be. Let it be. Incidentally, according to researchers, that’s one way to cope with an earworm. And wouldn’t you know it, “Black Winter Day” has started playing in my head again. –Ian Chainey
(Special thanks to Alex Brandmeyer and Avinash Mittur for research assistance.)
10. Terror – “Mental Demolition”
Location: Los Angeles, CA
Terror. Not just a long-running, casually hilarious hardcore band, but also the feeling I get when I realize it’s 2018, and not only is my mortality bearing down on me like a runaway hearse, but I’m somehow excited for a new Terror LP, so what does that say about me as a passably sane human of otherwise discriminating taste? Do I have a brain tumor that makes me suddenly like bad things? Probably not. But what else could explain my surprisingly deep and abiding love of this album? I’ve listened to it at least 30 times since I got the promo (and it still rules, bad rap interlude and all). I’ve made Doug and Ian listen to it, despite their better instincts. This isn’t some rhetorical ploy; I honestly don’t know why I like this as much as I do. I mean, look at the artwork: they used the meme font! Despite a thousand internal voices screaming “NO!” (imagine that “NO” shouted by 20 guys in Nike hoodies, like the gang vocals on this album), I feel desperately compelled to get that on a t-shirt. Gah. Maybe check out the first single, “Mental Demolition.” Mental demolition! What does that mean? I dunno, but the fast bits rip like old Cro-Mags and the breakdown…Jesus Christ, the breakdown hits like Power Trip covering Hatebreed, and it’s exactly as great/terrible as that sounds. Everything about this is so massive and so stupid it becomes irresistible, like a black hole filled with beatdown riffs. But let’s dispense with pleasantries and serve up the main course: just this week these guys released my favorite track as a single. “This World Never Wanted Me” is a lot of things. It’s apparently a song with a message, per the last 10 seconds of the video, that suicide is bad (I mean, yeah). It’s also a showcase for semi-legendary vocalist Scott Vogel (of semi-classic and reasonably dope hardcore bands like Buried Alive, Despair, and Slugfest), who gets to drop some epic new Vogelisms like, “THIS WORLD WASN’T MEANT FOR ME; NOT PART OF YOUR SUH-CIETY.” It also features some of the most aggressively mixed gang vocals ever recorded (despite the best efforts of lesser bands). But more than anything, it’s an album intro that turns into something else: a slow-burn buttchug of a riff punctuated with drum hits and absurd vocals that ratchets up the tension until it finally explodes into floorpunching crossover madness. By 2 minutes and 10 seconds, it’s over. And I play it again, and again, and for some reason again. Terror. [From Total Retaliation, out now via Pure Noise Records.] –Aaron Lariviere
9. Convulsing – “Inert”
Location: Sydney, Australia
Subgenre: black metal / death metal
Convulsing is the optimistic outcome for the “future of metal,” a future that is probably already here. The Sydney solo project of Dumbsaint’s Brendan Sloan fits well into the Bandcamp modern metal milieu of bands that blur taxonomic distinctions, molding great, heaving masses of metal that are technical, blackened, sludgy, deathly, and doomy without pushing their chips in any one direction. This matches the omnivorous diets of metalheads reared on this side of Oink. That said, most of these bands suck, choosing to unite once-varied strains through a common denominator which ends up being the lowest common denominator. In other words, we get boring, formless muck. Grievous, Convulsing’s second LP, is the antithesis of that, something that’s highly composed and alive with feeling. I think that’s because Sloan finds the common denominator within himself instead of the styles, letting his individuality guide him towards unique ends. In interviews, and they’re good interviews for this reason, Sloan has been up front about his influences and interests. Regarding the rollout for 2016’s Errata, he said this to Toilet Ov Hell: “The only promo I’ve done was a single Facebook post to my friends that said “Hey, I made an album this year. If Vermin Womb, Krallice and Porcupine Tree all at once sounds like a good idea, maybe you’ll like it.'” Later, he namechecks Ulcerate’s Everything is Fire, Primitive Man, and Allan Holdsworth. And you can hear all of this stuff within tracks like “Inert”: the chop of Ulcerate, crush of Primitive Man, elevated melodic intuition of Holdsworth, cinematic wide-angle lens of Steven Wilson. But it’s still wholly Sloan, as if he is the filter that all of these things need to pass through instead of the other way around. That makes a big difference. So too does his drive to do right by himself, something that compels him to program the most realistic-sounding and creative drum patterns I’ve heard. Again, best-case. Anyway, because I don’t think people actually listen to music in this way, don’t actually divorce their emotions to treat metal like a sticker book of best cases, lemme cover my bases and also say this shit rules. Still stuck in the too-raw state of loss, where empty platitudes just end up being infuriating, this is one of the few things that makes sense to me right now. No, I don’t think that’s a coincidence. [From Grievous, out now via the band.] –Ian Chainey
8. Sylvaine – “Mørklagt”
Location: Oslo, Norway
Subgenre: post-black metal
Sylvaine has quietly emerged as one of the leading artists in the shoe-gaze-y post-black metal world, evoking nostalgia through space-y riffs and her ethereal voice. You’d be correct to pinpoint Alcest as a chief inspiration — in fact, Neige plays drums on “Mørklagt.” But on this track (and others), it is Alcest at its best, a few albums back when Neige and company introduced their uncanny ability to craft a completely convincing alternate reality full of moonlight and magic. On “Mørklagt,” Sylvaine lulls you into a netherworld, evoking emerald green and blue grey on the way to a more sinister place. She then riffs her way back out toward the light, achieving a sort of resigned and melancholic transcendence. It’s beautiful and a great song, awash in wonder and regret all at once. [From Atoms Aligned, Coming Undone, out 11/2 via Season of Mist.] –Wyatt Marshall
7. Irreversible Mechanism – “Abolution”
Location: Minsk, Belarus
Subgenre: progressive / technical death metal
I could almost skip out on describing the music here and just show you the cover art, and you’d have a pretty good sense of the color and character of the world Irreversible Mechanism have carved out of the aether on their second LP, Immersion. So let’s do that: go look at the thing. Shimmering pink, purple, and green, all iridescent and irradiated; fractal hell meets crystalline madness, like the Shrike tearing through some kind of dimensional womb, rending reality into fragments of light and a whole lot of spikes. “But…that could be any tech death/deathcore/butt-prog masterpiece from the last dozen years!” you shriek wordlessly at your keyboard. Ah, but these guys actually capture the embodiment of their cover image in tone, texture, and blistering melody; for my money, they transcend their (mostly forgettable) peers by a parsec or two. Let’s be honest: on an aesthetic level, I am not built for this kind of metal. You guys are well aware of the type of death metal we cover here (ad nauseam, to the detriment of all else, because life is short and death eternal). It’s the rare band that can bridge the gulf of good taste and deliver something in this style worth listening to…and I can’t stop listening to this record. Clean tones, clean singing, hyper-processed, and shreddy: that’s what Irreversible Mechanism do. But fortunately for us, for their second album they’ve shed the symphonic cheese and gone all out with the atmospherics. On the surface, this slots them in alongside fellow travelers Fallujah, another reasonably decent band (considering the milieu) who graduated from the tech-death herd into something more interesting. Sad YouTube commenters have been quick to point out the commonalities, with much moaning and weepy typing. But where Fallujah too often fall prey to bad ideas (like whispering over four minute intros) and frequently forget to include a song, Irreversible Mechanism deliver a ruthlessly tight package that channels the band’s experimental tendencies through the crushing lens of good songwriting. Perhaps they’re onto something! Even when they occasionally go astray — ugh, the Matrix sample on the otherwise dope but goofily titled “Footprints in the Sand“) — they quickly redeem themselves by writing an actual melody, or by spinning out a ridiculous riff that actually leads somewhere worth going. “Abolution” covers the whole diaphanous palette: crystalline cleans waste no time in giving way to ripping death, but melody is never far behind. It’s this constant dimensional bleedthrough, every riff a new and worthwhile trick of the light, to the point it becomes impossible to lose interest. My favorite moment comes out of the blue at 4:40: an unaccompanied bass guitar playing chords up high. Simple, clean, and gorgeous. Chiming guitars slide in, and it sounds like, I dunno, Sad Lovers & Giants or the Chameleons, and I’m in non-metal heaven, right until the death slams home for a last dash through the blast furnace. Trust me this once and give it a spin. [From Immersion, out now via Blood Music.] –Aaron Lariviere
6. Cirith Ungol – “Witch’s Game”
Location: Ventura, CA
Subgenre: doom / heavy metal
Unreal. Cirith Ungol, forgotten gods of doom and steel, and one of the best and truest examples of American heavy metal deserving of “cult” status, have returned with their first studio recording in 27 years. And it’s glorious. It sounds exactly like Cirith Ungol should: plodding, pounding, epic, righteous. We may have lost the equally excellent Manilla Road when Mark Shelton slipped this mortal coil in July, but the pain of that loss is tempered ever so slightly by the knowledge that the flame of true metal still lives: Cirith Ungol are not only still here, not only back in action and recording once more, but vital and alive, undiminished by time and operating at full strength. With four out of five members of Cirith Ungol’s classic lineup, this is no imitation: the riffs are real; the production is raw but rich with gooey midrange; and Tim Baker’s ragged scream sounds unbelievable, not unlike peak-era Tom Araya but with so much more enthusiasm than Slayer could muster in their dotage. And they pull out all the stops: a pristine acoustic intro sets the tone, preparing us to part the mists of memory, until the song literally crashes down with a massive gong hit…and then come the riffs. What’s so impressive is not just that these guys sound like they always did, but that they get every detail right and reemerge sounding as good or better than they did when they bowed out in 1991. Legendary fantasy artist Michael Whelan returns with stunning cover artwork, as always, right in line with his work on the band’s classic LPs (each in turn featuring glorious artwork borrowed from Michael Moorcock’s Elric saga). And while the sonic details match the mood and hit all the necessary genre touchpoints, the ease with which they roll this out belies some serious compositional depth that’s grown stronger over the decades. Behold the maniacal laughter at 2:42, which somehow doesn’t sound cartoonish, but instead works as high theater, signaling the shift from full-throated doom to funeral dirge. These transitions are flawless, and they’re everywhere: perfect left turns abound, and around every corner a new riff to sink the hook. At one point soaring, wailing, weeping leads give way to a full-tilt, bass-driven Maiden boogie complete with clanking cowbell, and somehow that all leads to a ferocious countdown to annihilation. “Can this much pleasure, be this much pain, or am I finally going insane?” Now that we have them back, here’s hoping they’re here to stay. [From “Witch’s Game,” out 10/5 via Metal Blade Records.] –Aaron Lariviere
5. Iskandr – “Verban”
Location: Nijmegen, The Netherlands
Subgenre: black metal
A Dutch black metal invasion is currently underway, brought to us by the German label Eisenwald. September has seen the release of a remarkable split from the ever-excellent Fluisteraars and Turia (see below), an album from Solar Temple (see you next month?), and, here, a swath of regal black metal pulsing with dark energy from Iskandr. The coordinated releases come from what looks to be a close-knit group of musicians — Iskandr’s sole permanent member is one O who also plays in Turia, and the new Iskandr album features Fluisteraars’ Mink Koops. O and Koops together comprise Solar Temple, a band that alongside Turia, Iskandr, and others form a collective called Haerisis Noviomagi that teamed with Eisenwald on this release. Anyway, there’s a lot of black magic swirling in The Netherlands right now, and in addition to members, collectively the bands share a certain stylistic approach centered on a full speed ahead drumming style and a guitar attack that feels like a riff maelstrom. On “Verban,” a throaty yell cuts through the mix, and horns create a sense of theatricality and uneasy majesty. It’s awesome, and further proof that Holland is home to one of the best black metal scenes around. [From Euprosopon, out now via Eisenwald and Haerisis Noviomagi.] –Wyatt Marshall
4. Fluisteraars – “Oeverloos”
Location: Bennekom, The Netherlands
Subgenre: atmospheric black metal
On the A-side of the incredible split with Turia, the Dutch masters Fluisteraars are inspired by the Rhine, the more famous of the two rivers celebrated on De Oord and the one that wraps Fluisteraars’ home region. You’ll feel the flow from the very beginning of the song, when Fluisteraars break into a buoyant, uncharacteristically bright passage where a clearer cry replaces the frontman’s typical grating rasp. The relaxed ease and natural grace with which the band navigates subsequent movements is remarkable, and the song is ferried along in metered fashion, lulling you into a state of inebriated satisfaction and ultimately depositing you in a foreign place. I’m not sure I’ve ever listened to such a time warp of a song, where 14 minutes slip by so easily. Unlike other things in life that you look back upon and wish you could have done differently and relished more dearly, here a press of a button takes you to the top, letting you drink, or drown, again. [From De Oord, out now via Eisenwald.] –Wyatt Marshall
3. Sorcier Des Glaces – “Sorcier Des Glaces”
Location: Québec, Canada
Subgenre: black metal
Here’s the deal: This was the month I was expecting to catch up and list the records that have grown stronger and matured into heavyweights since their release. Sepulcher, Runemagick, Massive Retaliation, and, well, all of the Blood Bowl-y New Jersey underground, really. And then, like every month of this unusually strong year, we got buried by a bunch of can’t-skip crushers…and Terror. So, what was the late add that bumped everything off my September slate? The song “Sorcier Des Glaces” from the album Sorcier Des Glaces by Sorcier Des Glaces. Hey, maybe you should remember the name, because…well, you ever hear an album and know it’s an instant classic? I’m not being hyperbolic, you’re being hyperbolic. Because, even though this release dropped somewhat unexpectedly, the result isn’t a surprise. The Quebec duo of Sébastien Robitaille and Luc Gaulin already had a good feel for second-wave black metal across 21 years and six LPs, finding their stroke by flinging many frosty snowballs that landed with grim efficiency. But it’s clear, to me at least, that this 50-minute song is their masterwork, fulfilling the lofty expectations set by past-stated influences and elevating SDG into the realm of “peer.” To that end, if this thing needed a sticker to entice skeptics, it would say “the first three Ulver albums played by prime Mayhem ends up being the best Québécois Moonsorrow.” Really though, SDG sounds like SDG, meaning that there’s not a second where it contorts itself to be anything other than SDG. It’s just that it’s open to learning lessons from other sources. Check out the guitars, the tens of guitars, layered like how shoegaze constructs walls of sound but utilized to be many Immortals rather than wimpy blackgaze. Or, how there’s an anthemic release of energy always around the corner, feeling earned, never of the box-checking variety. These ideas have been assimilated to aid in SDG’s attack, something that grows grander and more distinctive with every album. Thaw this one out, though. Lot of secrets under the ice. [From Sorcier Des Glaces, out now via the band.] –Ian Chainey
2. Turia – “Aan den Golven der Aarde Geofferd”
Location: Amsterdam / Nijmegen, The Netherlands
Subgenre: atmospheric black metal
Continuing this month’s Dutch takeover is Turia. In their relatively short history, the trio has crafted psychedelic black metal from lean compositions, letting the rawness of minimalist production evoke by turns the snarling tenacity of a wild animal and, often thanks to a characteristic well-timed tambourine and organ, the surreal landscapes of a desert hallucination. On “Aan den Golven der Arrde Geofferd,” Turia’s contribution to their excellent split with Fluisteraars, the band throws us straight into the midst of a fever dream bubbling with angst. The song is inspired by the Waal, the river that bends around Turia’s hometown. Fluisteraars’ side is inspired by the Rhine, and “de oord” is an old Dutch word for where the two meet. From play, one quickly gets the feeling that the Waal is not a peaceful river. But despite its raging, there is nevertheless a flow, however turbulent, that speeds through the length of the track and ultimately feeds into quiet oblivion. [From De Oord, out now via Eisenwald.] –Wyatt Marshall
1. Evoken – “Valorous Consternation”
Location: Lyndhurst, NJ
The first single off Evoken’s latest starts slow and rather unassuming. Two chords jostle back and forth, and we’re riding a harsh groove, feeling the sludge beneath our feet, squelching and uncomfortably warm. The drums kick hard and it’s all rather up-tempo; not quite the funereal crush we’ve come to expect from the single greatest extant death/doom band going. A minute in, there’s this billowy cloud of synths or choir vocals or something I can’t quite put my finger on, and it’s mildly disconcerting to the extent I’m thinking about “The Great Gig In the Sky” while listening to Evoken and expecting my skull to cave in at any second. Instead, they shift gears and let the floor drop out. Strings fade in, and the song seems to drift backwards, almost unstuck in time, like the quiet parts on Neurosis’ flawless and foundational Times of Grace. For anyone well-versed in Evoken’s back catalog, everything happening thus far in this song…is slightly weird. Good weird, but weird. They often use thick swells of synth to add to the suffocating atmosphere, but this feels different. The production is warm and earthbound in a way that contrasts with the cold crush of past records. And it gets weirder! When the cymbal cracks at the end of the string-laden Neurosis bit, every fiber of my being thought “this is it — here comes the doom.” But instead of the expected Slow and Weighty Riffs of Great Import our brains demand, the band chomps at the bit and lashes out with full-speed death metal. It’s not until a full 5 minutes and 41 seconds that they finally drop the weight; once they do, it’s unreal. The Evoken we’ve come to know and crave rises from the gloom, and it is good. Guitars scream, drums stutter and pound out a gallows dance, and it’s done before you know it. On one hand, they’re clearly toying with us; expectation and unexpected release create an interesting sort of tension. On the other hand, they’re up to something new. The press kit says this is the band’s first concept album, something about war, despair, and a haunting curse. Who knows where they’ll take us next. [From Hypnagogia, out 11/9 via Profound Lore Records.] –Wyatt Marshall