EXT. DETROIT OR WHEREVER IT DOESN’T MATTER — NIGHT
Sweet sax jams hang in the air like bad B.O. as you survey generic big-city B-roll. You’re led to a concert venue. Inside, a crowd cheers. You see the silhouette of the singer. Strange. The lights come up and fans jump to their feet. You hear the crunch of Lizzy Borden’s “Me Against The World.” Cue close-ups of the band’s members: Oh shit, this is not Lizzy Borden…you think? Wait, who has seen Lizzy Borden? Maybe it’s Lizzy Bor-oh shit, these things are not…human? Barf, Maybe Lizzy Borden looks like Bodies: The Exhibition displaying Peppa Pig. Oh shit, here comes the pre-chorus hook: “BECUZ I AM FOR REEEEEAAAAL!” Great, that’s stuck in your head. Cut to a spellbound gentleman viewing the set from outside the venue. He’s quickly arrested for, uh, stuff. Hello, Sarah Koenig, there has been a miscarriage of justice. As the offending voyeur is dragged away, his accuser opens the doors and is stampeded by demonic patrons. They better have hand stamps for reentry.
Damn. Is this a dream? A nightmare? Did you lose your mind after making an incomprehensible string-theory yarn chart about Amorphis? No. You’re watching the beginning of Black Roses, maybe the most metal of the ’80s heavy metal horror movies.
Released 30 years ago in a temptingly forbidden 3D VHS box that still lives within the ids of ’80s adolescents, Black Roses is the final entry in director John Fasano’s informal trilogy of Bechdel test failing, hard friggin’ rockin’ flicks, all of which invaded rental shelves within the span of two years.
The first was 1986’s Zombie Nightmare, on which Fasano was the writer, assistant director, and zombie that dragged Adam West to heck. It would find a delightful second life as a masterful good-bad movie that ultimately received a hall of fame skewering by Mystery Science Theater 3000 (#604, nerds). While its objective quality is up for debate, and maybe defended only by the white-knightiest Tia Carrere keyboard warrior, it’s hard to deny the soundtrack that plucks songs from Motörhead, Girlschool, and Virgin Steele, along with underground fare like Death Mask and Canada’s Fist. And, oh yeah, there’s a little ditty by the movie’s lead, Jon Mikl Thor.
The second, 1987’s Rock ‘N’ Roll Nightmare, is a full-on Thor starring vehicle. Provided that you have any affinity for the Canadian slab of bacon, it is glorious. We should really cover the whole muscle rock thing at some point, but if you’re unfamiliar and need a nudge to wade through this particular mess of metal, know that Thor’s John Triton utters the immortal line, “Let’s tune our weapons!” Hell yeah. Rock ‘N’ Roll Nightmare holds a 10 percent audience score on Rotten Tomatoes.
Following the financial success of his prior work, Fasano was given the keys to another feature, this time with a comparatively enormous $450,000 budget. He wanted the right subject for a righteous soundtrack. He already had a plan.
“Back in the mid-1980s, there used to be a chick named Tipper Gore,” Fasano said in an extensive Brain Hammer interview that’s worth a read if you want to know how cheapo B-flicks were made in the twilight of celluloid. “[She] thought that rock music was the hand of the devil! Oh. Yeah.”
Gore was one of four founders of the Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC), a committee once dedicated to protecting innocent children from objectionable lyrical content in music. Its claims to fame were: the “Filthy Fifteen,” one of the only playlists you’ll find with Venom and Cyndi Lauper outside of a try-hard hipster pinball arcade; a ridiculous 1985 Senate hearing that’s now remembered more for hero turns from Frank Zappa and Dee Snider than any of the professional doofuses positioning metal as a behavior-altering viral scourge; and the iconic “Parental Advisory” sticker that hilariously backfired and became a cheap marketing tool. Boy, am I glad the government doesn’t pursue transparently sanctimonious horseshit like that anymore.
Anyway, Fasano and writer Cindy Cirile, credited for her script magick as Cindy Sorrell, decided to flip the PMRC’s message on its head by validating it. “Cindy and I got to talking — what if Tipper Gore was right and some heavy metal band was not only playing music of the devil, but was fronted by the Evil Dude himself,” Fasano said. “I figured the band would blow into some ‘Leave it to Beaver’ town and corrupt the morals of the kids….” And, after that opening concert, that’s exactly what viewers see lead singer Damian, played by Sal Viviano, and his minions doing: blowing into Hamilton, Ontario, recast as nowheresville Mill Basin, in the typical two-car caravan favored by all bands. The rides? Lambos, naturally. Hey, maybe they got into Bitcoin early.
Soon, the band, made up of real rockers like drummer Carmine Appice, put up flyers featuring Damian’s mug fixed into a hypnotic, youth pastor sex glare. Yes, sleepy Mill Basin and its all-Americanadian high school is where Black Roses will kick off its impending blockbuster tour. Not…uh…the other place…that the band played…at the beginning of the movie….
Plot holes like that one, which probably made Black Roses unwatchable at the time, make it supremely watchable now, especially among viewers trained to find gold in lowbrow places. One such miner is my homie and consummate metalhead Stuart Wellington, one-third of the beloved Flop House podcast and proprietor of the Hinterlands bar in Brooklyn, New York. “I remember seeing the box for the VHS of Black Roses in the video rental of my local grocery store. It had that puffy cover and looked super evil, y’know, for a kid,” Wellington emailed to me. “I didn’t work up the courage to rent it until I was in high school and it got scooped up for an all-night horror movie binge. For weeks, my buddies and I were singing, ‘I am FOR REEEEEAAAAL.'”
That uncanny ability to be really bad in a really memorable way, much like Malört or Six Feet Under, has only intensified over the years, fermenting into something quite intoxicating when Wellington and I treated ourselves to a rewatch. “Black Roses has all the elements of great ’80s VHS horror: tons of blood, nudity, and overacting,” he said. “I mean, just watch any of the concert scenes and pay attention to the extras. They all seem to be participating in a completely different movie than the leads.” Yarp, just like this scene, which, if you play it in reverse, is basically Tooth & Nail Records’s marketing plan:
The skeptical gent in the back with the ‘stache is Damian’s eventual foil, Professor Matthew Moorhouse, played by future soap opera silver fox John Martin. “The hero would be the person who was the hero in my life — [the student’s] hip English teacher, who is the only one who sees the changes going on in them,” Fasano noted. “I thought of it as a morality play, and Cindy went off and wrote the script heavy on psychological crap.”
The psychological crap starts to stir after Black Roses’s first set. The kids, now enthralled by Damian and, surely, Appice’s da-ya-think-I’m-sexy sulfuric musk, wild out in ways no teenager ever has before or will again. They do the drugs. They do the sex. They do…the murder. It’s up to Moorhouse to do battle with the devil and free his students from the intractable pull of satanic heavy metal insanity. Yeaow!
The movie goes where you expect from there, just with way more verve than it should be licensed to carry. It has a crazy split-atom energy because it knows exactly what it is and totally does not at the same time. No spoilers, but let’s just say there’s a scene where Moorhouse strikes a demon with Appice’s gong mallet like he’s gladiator Neil Peart and…holy hell…is that Vincent Pastore from the Sopranos getting eaten by a speaker?
The latter scene almost didn’t make it into the movie. “I got a great lesson from my producer/distributor Jim Glickenhaus — the movie was lame,” Fasano said. The original cut didn’t have much monster stuff, so Fasano and the effects team went back to work and shot five new set pieces to punch things up. One of those effects guys? Richard Alonzo, a Winston Studio alum, who now works on tiny indie movies like Black Panther and Star Trek: Beyond.
Black Roses is packed full of these little moments of careers coming and going, which is where the real fun resides after the laughs. Apart from the aforementioned, you can see Carla Ferrigno, Lou’s wife, as the mayor’s daughter. In a self-aware nod, there’s also Julie Adams playing a PMRC-styled buzzkill. You might know her as the first crush of many monster kids like Fasano thanks to the original Creature from the Black Lagoon.
And then there’s the soundtrack. Bedecked with Metal Blade bona fides, it’s a very ’80s collection of delicious cheese, both of the semi-hard and soft variety. You’ll see names like Lizzy Borden, thrashers Hallows Eve, and shredder Alex Masi, who is a member of the Black Roses band that was formed for the movie. Indeed, Damian’s singing voice, when it’s not Borden, is actually that of King Kobra’s Marcie Free. Plus, right there on the LP’s A-side, you’ll find a pre-fame…Bang Tango? Yeah, okay, I guess there’s Bang Tango.
Naturally, as any Bang Tango mention often does, that begs some what-ifs. For instance, what if Metal Blade, deep into a 1988 release and reissue spree, plopped a Liege Lord or Sacrifice or Slayer or Candlemass song on the soundtrack among the half-empty hairspray bottles? Does that change anything about the movie? Does it make it slightly more, I don’t know, threatening? Or, is it kind of perfect that the Evil Dude would actually be into L.A. Strip shlock? Hell, could you even make a movie like this today, one where the devil is hiding in plain sight…in music? Does anyone even fear music like they supposedly did during the Satanic Panic?
Wellington is not so sure. “It’s weird. In pop culture, metal seems to regularly be associated with dangerous loners, so that’s pretty scary. But I don’t really think metal is the music of the youth anymore. If Damian were to show up in the modern world and start making music to ensorcell kids, I think he’d pick a style of music more popular. Like, trap or something. That’s a popular thing, right?” Uh…paging Tom, I need assistance in the Black Market aisle.
But yeah, I think that is why there’s a dearth of truly metal horror movies. Despite horror and metal being inextricably linked, it’s hard to say that metal has made as big of an impact on its big screen counterpart. Whole labels like Razorback Records exist to release the forever-growing horde of horror-inspired albums such as Engorged’s Where Monsters Dwell (which, excuse me as I explode into dust, is 14 years old now). There’s not really a movie production studio equivalent yet. Once heavy metal of the pop variety left the zeitgeist, horror movies with metallic touchstones more tangible than the occasional song were infrequent, and even those that were around before the fall feel pretty one-way in the information transfer.
Of course, I watch, like, three movies a year, so what the hell do I know. After all, Mike McPadden did write an entire book about heavy metal horror movies. So, sure enough, Wellington, who doesn’t think the connection is that uncommon, was quick to dunk on me with plenty of exceptions. “The other big one from the ’80s is Trick Or Treat, which features a bunch of Fastway tunes on the soundtrack, plus appearances by Ozzy and Gene Simmons. There’s the Gate, where the kids open a portal to hell by playing a metal record backwards. And then, recently, there’s the New Zealand horror comedy, Deathgasm, which is fun and super gory, and also features a ton of great bands on the soundtrack.” And if the latter is too over-the-top, he offered another lane: “A few years ago, there was a well-regarded horror flick called the Devil’s Candy, about a killer who plays metal riffs to drown out the voices in his head.”
Fair. However, you might now recall my weaselly, not-quite-SEO-ready line from up top where I call Black Roses “maybe the most metal of the ’80s heavy metal horror movies.” I heroically stand by that maybe. While Trick Or Treat and the Gate are better movies, and I’m sure I’ll be writing about both at some point, they’re missing a certain je ne sais blargh that is inherent in the Black Roses experience.
Part of that can be found by exploring the intersection between subterranean metalheads and B-movie addicts. “I think fans of both appreciate niche media, seeking out pop culture that isn’t readily available,” Wellington pointed out. “There’s a feeling of being in a special club. Being familiar with a specific little-seen movie is very similar to having listened to some rare metal record. Plus, most B-horror movies and some of the more extreme heavy metal both push the limits of what the general public would consider to be ‘good taste.'” There’s also how metal and B-movies subtly congratulate fans for acquiring the right metadata to decrypt messages that often threatened outsiders will never unscramble.
To that end: True, on the surface, it’s not like Black Roses is super-duper metal. Like, you’re not going to find a Celtic Frost concert hidden within the cigarette burns. And it even feels, dare I say, demeaning. Ah, but then again, there’s the hidden genius of Cirile’s script. Trick Or Treat may have metal feels, the Gate metal special effects, but, thanks to Cirile, Black Roses deploys subtext in a metal sort of way. It’s not something you pick up on during your first screening, mainly because you’re probably laughing too hard. But…did you notice that the movie’s villain isn’t actually heavy metal? Rewind it back and keep a close eye on the authority figures. To make that subtext text, here’s a crucial exchange between Mr. Brain Hammer and Fasano:
BH: Is Black Roses meant to be a cautionary tale warning parents about the dangers of metal?
JF: Ha! It’s about MONSTER[S] killing bad parents! Pay attention to your kids or you’ll die!
Stuff like that makes me think that the reason Black Roses feels so metal is because of the people behind the movie. Take Fasano: This guy had a second career as a screenwriter, breaking out with 1990’s Another 48 Hours. From there…welp, it would appear that he got gobbled up by the system, getting screwed out of credits galore including Alien 3. Still, he made one of those real Hollywood careers out of opportunities that weren’t exactly critically lauded, but you work with what you get. In interviews, it’s easy to see him as a lifer, in it for the love of making stuff even if he wasn’t necessarily loved back. He passed in 2014. He was 52.
That sort of conviction, of sacrificing normality to feed an insatiable internal hell beast hungry for atypical and alienating creative pursuits, is pretty metal. I guess you could say he was…fuck me, I’m going to write it…FOR REEEEEAAAAL. –Ian Chainey
10. Witherfall – “Ode To Despair”
Location: Los Angeles, CA
Subgenre: progressive power metal
A note up front: all month long I planned to cover the new Corpsessed album, which is a perfectly fine slab of warlike death that you should nab and consume promptly. But I woke up today with a bee in my bonnet and a weird hankering for absurd theatrics and air-raid vocals, and only Witherfall could scratch the itch. We rarely cover this stuff — chunky, shreddy, painfully modern “progressive” heavy metal — but this one’s fun as hell, and you’ve already tolerated more than enough death metal at my behest. Nothing I say about these guys will convince you they’re cool. Most of the album sounds like Nevermore, which in this case is a good thing. Take the latest single, “Shadows“: it’s unabashedly overwrought power metal dressed up with chugging modern thrash and occasional bursts of death metal, slathered with neoclassical leads and set to exclusively clean vocals. And like the duo behind Nevermore, guitarist Jeff Loomis and lunatic frontman Warrel Dane (RIP), Witherfall revolves around the creative axis of chief shredder Jake Dreyer and the histrionic wail of singer Joseph Michael, who looks like this, occasionally sounds like the screeching dude from Watchtower when he really cuts loose, and is apparently Ronnie James Dio’s cousin. The instrumentation is over the top, bordering on silly at times — behold the playthrough vid for “Moment Of Silence” for some unplugged shreddy delights — but the band grounds the excess with a strong melodic sense and consistently sharp choruses. My favorite track on the album, and the one I’m sharing here, does something different: the closest thing on the album to a power ballad, “Ode To Despair” is ridiculous from the start. Chiming arpeggiated acoustics overlaid with overplayed leads that threaten to go full Segovia any second…a layered vocal comes in sounding like Axl circa Use Your Illusion, and the whole thing gives me a weird King Diamond vibe, and then…WHAM go the riffs, for all of 15 seconds. Just a fakeout instrumental precursor to a proper chorus. From there we slip back to the mellow verse, and if you’re following along at home this is a great time to crank the volume, because a few seconds later…. WHAM go the riffs again, and now we’re getting there! Full chorus, vocals and all, and suddenly we slide sideways into a Nevermore groove. Guitar dude lets loose with the shred, singer dude starts to WAIL, and when did this song get so intense? Harmonized leads, lockstep crush of rhythm guitar, and a banshee vocal scraping the rafters: “TIME JUST SLIPS AWAY.” Boy, does it ever. [From A Prelude To Sorrow, out 11/2 via Century Media Records.] –Aaron Lariviere
9. Graven – “A Failed Mask”
Location: Baltimore, MD
Subgenre: sludge / metalcore
First, an offering to followers of the Arcane Order Of The Ex-Member. Graven has two members of Swarm Of The Lotus. On this EP, its second, Teddy Patterson from Burnt By The Sun, Gridlink, and Human Remains plays bass. If those names mean something to you, jaded forum poster from 2004, here’s the spoiled-by-context revelation: Heirs Of Discord is good. If those names are new, know that Graven sits at a table offering seats to sludge, grind, and metalcore. It takes the lunch of most. Patterson is typically dependable as the buzz that’s always in the right place at the right time. Guitarist Peter Maturi’s riffs have gotten sharper with age, all sorts of playthrough-video impressive. However, his tone is still feral, looking to bolt towards noise whenever possible. Chris Csar — also of Quills, which has a similar comet-esque release frequency — plays with a flexibility that helps him direct traffic, but a muscularity to ensure that transitions stick instantly. Jason Borowy has that ideal core howl, Hayes-ian in its vicarious catharsis. “A Failed Mask” kills and states its case far better than most august ex-member bands, actually expanding upon what follow-on fans remember best. The closer, a particularly strong cover of Human Remains’s “Human,” is why Graven should stick around. As a love note to a specific period in extreme music, the kind of primo shit that people would clench their teeth through an entire Hellfest to catch, Heirs Of Discord will find a cult. Deservedly so. Years in the making, with post-reformation recording sessions taking place across America, its existence is an exception to the heap of after-the-classics crap. For the love of god, please don’t break up. [From Heirs Of Discord, out 11/2 via Negative Grade Records.] –Ian Chainey
8. Allelic – “The Transformation”
Location: Montreal, Canada
Subgenre: black metal / folk
Many bands that try to turn on a dime and jump from one genre to another lose their sense of gravity and ultimately leave behind a directionless mess. Allelic, however, morphs from one esoteric train of thought to the next with remarkable ease. Blistering, kaleidoscopically intricate black metal with a deadly low-end shifts into flights of folk fancy and then enfolds the folk into the greater work; a sharp break gives way to a surreal chant on the nature of existence and then rips into a sort of epic euphoric riff attack. The artwork on this unusual and special album comes from Hildegard von Bingen, a German Benedictine abbess that studied the natural world and was later revered as a saint. It depicts the world in round, surrounded by spheres of oceans then what looks like fire before giving way into a beyond. The artwork on Allelic’s first release is none other than the Flammarion engraving, where man is depicted crossing the celestial plane. The one-man band professes to study some obscure notion of the natural sciences, and the idea of crossing between planes mirrors the transcendent nature of the music that shifts, evolves, and emerges anew. [From Smoke Of Atavistic Fires, out now via The Green Man Label.] –Wyatt Mashall
7. Serocs – “Nihilus”
Location: Canada / France / Mexico
Subgenre: death metal
Serocs is an international consortium of metalheads bonded by brutal death metal. The Phobos/Deimos Suite, the band’s fourth full-length and first with three new members, nimbly shreds through an album concept inspired by tales such as the Divine Comedy and A Christmas Carol; a psychological examination of the hell we make for ourselves. “It is the story of a selfish, piece-of-shit man who is terrified of death,” says Everlasting Spew’s Bandcamp liner notes, somehow not naming me. Anyway, Seroc’s big selling feature is that it reaches back into the near past and enlivens a sound that has been hibernating for one reason or another. Indeed, throughout, you’ll hear the batshit braininess of old Spawn of Possession and Anata shaken awake by guitarists Antonio Freyre and Phil “Yeah, I’m Available” Tougas. Jumping aboard for this tech romp is bassist Antoine Daigneault (Chthe’ilist), drummer Kévin Paradis (Mithridatic, Benighted), and vocalist Laurent Bellemare (Basalte). Needless to say, the number of riffs these five rip through is insane and, conservation be damned, borderline career-endangering in its hold-nothing-back eagerness to blast your goddamn face off. How would you follow this? But, Serocs also possesses a knack for memorability, giving sections a melodic stickiness that increases the permanence of the widdles. So, for a listener with supremely niche interests (that is, you own a Visceral Bleeding album), this alleviates a longterm longing. [From The Phobos/Deimos Suite, out now via Everlasting Spew Records.] –Ian Chainey
6. Cantique Lépreux – “Paysages Polaires III”
Location: Québec, Canada
Subgenre: atmospheric black metal
Cantique Lépreux’s windswept frostbitten metal made for one of 2016’s best albums. Cendres Célestes, the band’s debut, howled with fury through frigid nights, sounding as if they’d bottled the essence of a blizzard. With “Paysages Polaires III,” things pick up where they left off — in the midst of a whiteout. The guitar work manages to be both frantic and regal, and palpable urgency and building desperation contrast with portending, grating vocals. There is a cool pullback about halfway through the track where the blasting switches into a stylish mid-tempo passage, a sort of reaffirmation of resolute determination for the travails to come. The album will arrive at just the right time as night falls earlier, the temperature drops, and winter’s grip takes hold. [From Paysages Polaires, out 11/30 via Eisenwald.] –Wyatt Marshall
5. Vanhelgd – “Vi föddes i samma grav”
Location: Mjölby, Sweden
Subgenre: death metal / dark metal
“A vibrant work of contempt and apathy molded in an enraptured state of beautiful grief.” Thus spake the press bio. While that’s hilariously phrased (SUCH VIBRANT APATHY), it makes a weird kind of sense here, mostly because this is such a gnarly style to describe. Vanhelgd fall between the cracks of familiar genres, starting with an atmospheric variant of Swedish death, edging into something slower and darker approximating epic doom, with a glorious helping of pagan leads like a mythical blood groove straight down the middle. (Imagine describing that to your non-metal friends.) Vanhelgd are hard to categorize, is what I’m saying, unless you reach for a lesser known descriptor like “dark metal,” which is only so helpful because of course no one knows what that means either. So let’s take a journey, you and I, down the rabbit hole of half-imagined genre etymology. As a starting point, the term “dark metal” typically refers to a loosely defined, interstitial genre that lives somewhere on the outer edge of black metal, though some variants (like Vanhelgd) are built off a death metal foundation (not unlike early Dark Tranquility or the folkier In Flames tunes off The Jester Race). The consistent thread is that it’s always gloomy, but doesn’t usually tip the scales into full-blown gothic histrionics; lead guitar is essential and omnipresent, with melodies often evoking pagan, Viking, or medieval sounds. (Again, imagine describing all that to your filthy normal friends.) The name “dark metal” probably derives from the first album from German black/doom gods Bethlehem; it’s a ridiculous and entertaining album (and you should buy it). But the style traces its origins back further, perhaps to the death-rock inflected tunes on Celtic Frost’s bizarre and exploratory 1987 LP Into The Pandemonium. (Or maybe it dates back further; we’re making this up as we go.) You see the style bubble up in various locales over time: some of the Hellenic black metal bands like Rotting Christ arguably played dark metal on albums like Triarchy Of The Lost Lovers and A Dead Poem before turning into something else altogether. It also arose in Norway, at the hands of pagan black metal gods Aeternus — their first two albums and debut EP are perhaps the pinnacle of the style, and look, here’s a review of the EP where someone describes dark metal as the, uh, sound of being “alone in the middle of the black forests of Maryland” — and blackened Viking gods Hades, who took mid-period Bathory to much darker depths, and are responsible for two of the other best records that arguably fall into this style, …Again Shall Be and The Dawn Of The Dying Sun. A modern variant might be Obsequiae, who take a medieval path to a similar destination. But what of Vanhelgd, you scream, now that I’ve wasted many minutes of your day? They rule, obviously. Take “Vi föddes i samma grav,” which translates to “we were born in the same tomb” and sounds appropriately haunted. Lead guitars dance around distant fires, and a monastic chant sets the mood before they rip into half a song’s worth of mournful, melodic, Swedish-style black/death (think Necrophobic). But it’s the midpoint where the song comes alive: everything drops out but a throbbing bass and persistent cymbal. A guitar comes in with a thunderstruck pagan lead; the vocal barks into life…and the drums crash like a cavalry charge. The whole thing explodes in a tumble of limbs and dark energy. The entire album slays, but I should note there is one utterly ridiculous track smack dab in the middle: “Profaned Is the Blood Of The Covenant” is both amazing and terribly funny, but I won’t spoil it by attempting to describe it here. All in all, the album is another dark metal classic — whatever that means. [From Deimos Sanktuarium, out now via Pulverised Records.] –Aaron Lariviere
4. Hate Eternal – “Dark Age Of Ruin”
Location: Tampa, FL
Subgenre: death metal
You had to know you’d get more than a mouthful of death metal when you strolled in here today. Hate Eternal are that and more, a bristling ball of churning rhythm and churlish tones, one of the few bands alongside Morbid Angel and Mithras to capture that miasmic smear of guitar and blasting fractal madness that feels like a dimensional rift imprisoned in a four-minute burst of muscular death. Plenty of bands out-do them in terms of sheer brutality or mindless abrasiveness, but Hate Eternal are committed to the craft in a way that few bands are, where every song feels like something painstakingly carved from stone. They deploy leads sparingly but to devastating effect, usually in the final minute of a song after subjecting the listener to several minutes of grinding, atonal sludge. That fleeting melody comes as sweet release every time, simultaneously grounding and transcendent, a reminder that there’s method to the madness. These are songs somehow wrought from mortal instruments, no matter how alien they sound. Hate Eternal’s seventh album, On Desolate Sands, is as violent as anything they’ve done, but it often finds room to slow down and breathe, trading bludgeoning punishment for brooding melody. It’s a welcome change, one that lends the album a somber cast and helps distinguish it as one of the best things they’ve done, across a back catalog of consistently great albums. I struggled to pick a single since I wanted to share them all (and you can stream them all here). But “Dark Age Of Ruin” is as good as any. With a grinding lurch it lays waste to feeble ears one concussive blast at a time. How do human hands make this kind of racket? And with only three members to boot. As the song rolls forward, a structure emerges; at the end they give us a taste of those stinging leads but don’t fully commit (as they do on “All Hope Destroyed,” another contender for best song on the album), instead veering off into a bizarre up-tempo chug that ends the song on a disorienting note. Excellent all around. [From Upon Desolate Sands, out now via Season Of Mist.] –Aaron Lariviere
3. Solar Temple – “Those Who Dwell In The Spiral Dark”
Subgenre: atmospheric black metal
Last month bore witness to an influx of incredible new black metal from the Netherlands with releases from Turia, Fluisteraars, and Iskandr. All three really are worth your time, and all three have ties to Solar Temple — M, on drums in Solar Temple, does guitar and drum duty in Fluisteraars, and O, Solar Temple’s front man, is on guitars for Turia and is the mastermind behind Iskandr. The Dutch atmospheric black metal scene, of which these four bands play no small part, looks pretty tight-knit from over here, and the ideas flow freely between its participants. Surreal atmospherics and walls of jangly riffs are two qualities that make recurring appearances. “Those Who Dwell In The Spiral Dark,” with haunting warbling organ and deep spoken-word croaks, sounds like the soundtrack to a fever dream. It’s alluring and troubling and remarkable all at once, the kind of absorbing track that could induce a trance. [From Fertile Descent, out now via Eisenwald.] –Wyatt Marshall
2. Eneferens – “This Onward Reach”
Location: Minneapolis, MN
Subgenre: atmospheric black metal
Eneferens has become one of the best atmospheric black metal bands of today, bringing a gray tableau to life with slick songcraft and hook-y riffs. On “This Onward Reach,” runaway passages of blasting pull you headfirst into maelstroms torn between despondence and angst. Eventually you arrive at melancholic, cathartic pullbacks — the equivalent of reaching a clearing with a view. While meaty vocals ensure this isn’t a quick sojourn to some fantasy world, clean interludes are welcome and poignant. What really sets Eneferens apart is that beneath the deeply moving peaks and valleys of a track like “This Onward Reach” runs a smooth, stylish undercurrent that gives the whole song a round, umami-like quality that enriches the listen. I really enjoyed last year’s (re-release) of Eneferens’s In The Hours Beneath, an excellent record full of both grandeur and doom that relied a bit more heavily on the traditional black metal toolkit. With “This Onward Reach,” we’re seeing something bigger, deeper, and even more powerful. [From The Bleakness Of Our Constant, out now via Bindrune Recordings and Nordvis.] –Wyatt Marshall
1. Svartidauði – “Burning Worlds Of Excrement”
Location: Kópavogur, Iceland
Subgenre: black metal
When I first heard this, I kept chuckling over the title. “Burning Worlds Of Excrement.” I pictured a grocery bag heaped with crap, set ablaze on a doorstep — hilarious, obviously. Since then I’ve continued to turn the phrase around in my head, for no healthy purpose other than that these are dark times and better to think of hilarious things like feces in the throes of chemical reaction than the quickening of global warming or mass murder inspired by a racist conspiracy to gin up midterm votes. It’s easiest to read it as a descriptive phrase, I find: as in, there are all these worlds of excrement out there, burning like distant suns — burning turds on the run, in a galaxy far, far away. That’s the poetic version. Or perhaps Svartidauði — the Icelandic black metal collective whose name I’m told does not translate to “Svelte Daddy” as I had hoped, but apparently to “Black Plague,” which is acceptable but less seductive — were sitting around one night in their black metal cave thinking nihilistic thoughts, when a particularly dark thought struck like brown lightning from a nightspirit’s backside — hark! The perfect phrase to despoil the sanctity of the heavens! If I was a black metal guy in a black metal band, living in a frost-rimed cave in Iceland, I suppose that’s the kind of thing I might think. But instead I’m me, exhausted metal scribe, watching the horror of last week unfold in slow motion, cursed to see the killing and the grand decline in an unbending arc like Danny in The Shining, so I look for simpler distractions and keep turning the phrase around in my head, forward then back — excrement of worlds burning — almost as good, but without that same ring. Perhaps the key lies in the song itself: listening with the volume way up, this is fairly monstrous stuff, not entirely unlike a flamethrower fueled by manure. I’m starting to see it. Violent riffs and emotions abound, shards of chords and shifting rhythms interlaced like broken teeth, and there’s a synesthetic quality to the collision of tones, where the riff-slurry feels somehow reddish-brown like dried blood or…burning worlds of excrement, I suppose. It fits, in the end. The more I think about it, the more I’m convinced this song and this title are meant to evoke exactly these thoughts: like a cracked mirror reflecting a joke gone wrong, something that might have been hilarious in another world, but not this one, not when we still have to live here. I need some fresh air. [From Revelations Of The Red Sword, out 12/3 via Ván Records.] –Aaron Lariviere