The Black Market

The Black Market: The Month In Metal – May 2019

Back in January, our own Aaron Lariviere completed a true death metal triathlon, playing the full-length discographies of Immolation, Incantation, and Gorguts back-to-back-to-back over a weekend. That, my friends, is 26 albums, a metal marathon if there ever was one.

As his reward, he gave himself a chance to exsanguinate his remaining free time with Cannibal Corpse’s oeuvre. This is like your parents catching you smoking a cigarette, them teaching you a lesson by forcing you to smoke a carton, and then you teaching them a lesson by smoking another carton. “This album rules,” he wrote while in the middle of Gallery Of Suicide, the second-lowest-rated album per the reviewers on Encyclopaedia Metallum. At that point, he still had 350 minutes of Cannibal Corpse remaining. “Turns out 14 Cannibal Corpses are a lot of Cannibal Corpses,” he wrote many hours later.

Aaron’s marathons are a thing of Black Market legend. It’s always an event. Your column-makers pile into a thread for a live report as he plows through the entirety of Dismember or Bolt Thrower or Summoning’s catalogs. It’s not even a stunt. He just does it. Naturally, “dude, why?” is an AMA consistently filed near the top, as marathoning one artist or band for albums at a time is now so incongruous with how modern music platforms automate users’ experiences.

Seriously dude, why? “On some level it’s a personal challenge and a test of endurance, like reading Finnegans Wake or running a marathon, two things I’m constitutionally incapable of,” Aaron told me. Makes sense. The thrill of embarking on a masochistic, and thus contrarian, undertaking is a thing that has always been spudding around in death metal’s shadow. Aaron Lariviere, befuddler of the false, death metal Desert Bus.

However, what he said next got the rusty gears in my brain turning: “But considering how easy it is to quit by putting on literally anything else, I suppose I enjoy the simplicity of the exercise and the way it flattens an entire body of work into something entirely different by dramatically altering the context of an individual album.” Ah, yes, now this is extremely my shit.

Here’s the crucial bit: “I always do discographies in order, so you’re hearing the lifecycle of a band — there are obvious changes like different producers and members, but you also get to hear the band develop and advance their craft, usually with a few missteps along their way, to some kind of career plateau before the inevitable holding period or sharp decline,” Aaron said. “But again, it’s the flattening effect that makes it so interesting — you’re hearing progression and decline across a span of hours rather than years. Played back to back, albums display minor differences in a strange light.” If I may be so bold, behold: the Aaron Effect.

So, let’s play this out. As Cannibal Corpse is one of the more consistent metal bands on the planet, both qualitatively and sonically, the Aaron Effect is felt most effectively within their early discography, from the thrashy beginnings of 1990’s Eaten Back To Life to 1999’s Bloodthirst.

Do we have minor differences and changes? Yes. That seven-album run contains its share of shifts in membership: original vocalist Chris Barnes exits after his dying cough on The Bleeding (1994) and is replaced by George “Corpsegrinder” Fisher on Vile (1996), O.G. guitarist Bob Rusay shreds his last riff on Tomb Of The Mutilated (1992) and is replaced by Rob Barrett on The Bleeding, who in turn leaves after Vile and is replaced by Pat O’Brien on Gallery Of Suicide (1998). These are the blarghs of our lives. There’s a three-hour documentary that can catch you up. It’s actually good.

Do we have missteps? Indeed. However, no one agrees which albums constitute those missteps. Outside of Tomb Of The Mutilated, which is an absolute classic and is only disliked by idiots and you should fight me at a show, the ranking varies wildly by ranker, a weird quirk for a band known for doing its workmanlike thing and doing it well over and over again. (This is why I’m convinced the debate will surely have its own ring in the viral stump of online discourse. Do you wash your legs in the shower? Do you think The Wretched Spawn cracks your top five? Did you know Dragonriders Of Pern is insane?)

Finally, I’m going to throw this in there: If I were a young, unknowing metalhead and went to Encyclopaedia Metallum, I’d see that Vile and Gallery Of Suicide’s combined scores (65 and 71 percent, respectively) dip like an elephant crossing a rope bridge before Bloodthirst (1999, 83 percent) rebounds and sets up the 21st century holding pattern. Me, that hypothesized young version of me that has good hair and is so full of promise and isn’t writing this because other intros came together, might even skip Vile and Gallery Of Suicide because of that. Time is finite. Why waste it on anything but the user-approved standouts? But that’s exactly what the Aaron Effect helps to rectify.

Let’s get the reappraisal rolling: 1998’s Gallery Of Suicide does indeed rule and it rules harder within a marathon. The criticisms that the disenchanted have leveled at it — the diminished production, then-new guitarist Pat O’Brien not being Bob Rusay and/or Rob Barrett — are transformed into vital distinguishing characteristics when the previous-album layover shrinks from two years to two seconds. With that kind of smash cut, the idea of Cannibal Corpse — what the band is, isn’t, can, and can’t be — isn’t allowed to curdle, never given the time and space to be reformed by memory and then further shaped by intervening human experiences. In other words, the memory of Cannibal Corpse doesn’t calcify into the kind of hypercritical bedrock the next album needs to chip through in order to receive a standalone appraisal. Gallery isn’t Tomb Of The Mutilated and it isn’t Bloodthirst. Inside of the marathon, that’s kind of the point.

But the Aaron Effect goes a little deeper than that. “My brain starts to synchronize with the internal rhythms of the band, I start to identify with the band in a new way, and each passing song and album feels like another step into something larger,” he explained. “It’s totally a projection, just a consequence of punishing your brain for too many hours with too much noise, but you trick yourself into thinking there’s a transcendent experience to be had down there at the bottom of the well with Incantation or whatever.”

If you have the free time, an Amish-esque, pre-smartphone attention span, and don’t mind if your family leaves you, you should give the marathon a shot and let Gallery play through while it’s hot on the heels of five other Cannibal Corpse albums. Provided you actually did this and showed up at the 9th green at 9 and wrecked your Discover Weekly forevermore, I’ll now ask: Is this album not a breath of fresh air in this setting? The title track’s comparatively midpaced tempo and dismal dissonance stick out for the right reasons, showcasing a natural evolution of technical and compositional chops. Better yet, a closer inspection of “From Skin to Liquid” within the context of a cram reveals it to be, and this is a technical term, pretty sick. It feels right in a way that it didn’t before.

Perhaps the Aaron Effect is the audio analog to semantic satiation or jamais vu, when repetition turns common words into oddities, separating them from their associated meanings. By the time one hits that supposed Vile/Gallery fallow period, one has filled one’s good-haired head with so much Cannibal Corpse that minor differences might sound revelatory. And there’s a tractor-beam pulling you forward: It might get even better. (It does.)

But that’s not quite it. No, the Aaron Effect and metal marathons in general kind of mirror the Up series of documentaries, how the neutral passage of time takes on a story-esque quality when framed as a life. But, it’s also the time-lapse historian’s view, where new connections can be soldered through hindsight and presentism. It’s like knowing the “where are they now” epilogue beforehand. This is all catnip for the human brain.

So, yeah, maybe Gallery would sound different if that’s where the story ended. But we know that Bloodthirst is great (don’t even start with the ranking stuff, we’ve moved on to talking about Pern) and the 2000s would only increase in quality. Knowing that lessens the stakes, allowing me to hear Gallery for what it is, which — again I’m really sorry for tossing this academic jargon all up in here — is pretty freaking sick.

Since this is very much extremely my shit, there’s so much about the Aaron Effect that I want to explore. But I fear that the rest of the world thinks this is some straight up Mindhunter stuff and will soon incarcerate me and Todd Fraiser in weirdo space jail.

Because, jeeze, despite the fact the rest of the entertainment world is binge-crazy, with each new media property seemingly attracting legions of completist, sleep-deprived consumers ready to chug the hemlock, no one binges music in this way. Plug “binge watch” into Google and enjoy sifting through 66,900,000 results. “Binge listening” only racks up 9,480,000, with most of those concerning the spell cast by narrative podcasts. Does Netflix really leverage the human desire for immersion, escape, and empathy better than music can? Are we just not wired to enjoy music the same way?

“The reason we like listening to music and feel the desire to have it repeated is likely that it affects the reward center of our brains,” said Peter Vuust, director of the Center For Music In The Brain, to Noisey’s Alfred Maddox in 2017 for a piece exploring repetitious listening. “This is the biological system that rewards us for doing things that are vital to our survival. It’s the reason we get a little high from eating food, and a little higher from having sex and so on. It’s nature and biology’s way of making sure we repeat the things necessary for our survival.”

The interview is worth a read, particularly regarding how music taste is further shaped and reinforced by one’s identity and social groups. But the important part here is Vuust describing how music can get played out, how one can take a ride on the inverted-U line and get dumped off at the meh end: “If you listen to something a bunch of times, it makes its way to the other end of the spectrum, and we stop learning anything new when we listen to it, which our biological systems are hypersensitive towards.”

Which, I mean, yes: 14 Cannibal Corpses is a lot of Cannibal Corpses. I get it. That said, I’m sure I would’ve said the same thing about 14 episodes of Friends in 1994. Which is to say, technologically speaking, we’re at a perfect point where the metal marathon could become similarly normalized. Heck, you no longer need to own 14 Cannibal Corpse albums to marathon them. But, I feel like like mainstream interests in making sure our hypersensitivity is never tickled, are moving us away from this method of music exploration being an availability, much less a choice.

“We live in a singles world today. No longer does anyone consistently sit down for 40 or 50 consecutive minutes to listen to an album from front to back like they used to,” Bobby Owsinski wrote in Forbes in March 2018, a piece I read while wading into a 72-minute Warforged album. Despite metal still being very much a full-length style, with LP numbers eclipsing EPs and singles combined every decade since the ’80s, you can see how this pop group-think is making playing simply an album cumbersome on some platforms.

“I’m trying to get Alexa to play the album Magica by Dio, and she will play specific songs from it but says she can’t find the album,” wrote Reddit user Taalii earlier this year. The best workaround that someone could offer was to “create a playlist that is just this album.” So much for the Aaron Effect, right?

Alexa, play every Blood album in order.

…you are going…to space jail….Ian Chainey

10. Varaha – “Climax And Exile”

Location: Chicago, IL
Subgenre: atmospheric doom / dark metal

This one nearly snuck by us, actually being released at the end of April, but the keen eyes and ears of former Black Market captain Michael Nelson made sure that Varaha’s debut masterpiece of dark metal wasn’t overlooked. Varaha’s A Passage for Lost Years blends a best-of-the-mid-2000s mix of bands like Agalloch and Katatonia into a delectable post-metal listen — no small praise. Regarding Agalloch, on “Climax and Exile,” there’s the same kind of sensibilities around guitar hooks — the perfectly timed stutter to pull you further into a groove–and the mix of clean and harsh vocals isn’t dissimilar, either. The opening bars, for one, will certainly catch the attention of long-time fans. As far as Katatonia, their signature doom and gloom is similarly in the marrow of Varaha’s sound. But in the end the result is wholly Varaha’s own, and on “Climax and Exile,” it’s both as memorable and moving as nearly anything released this year, and is just one snippet from an album that rewards repeat listens. [From A Passage for Lost Years, out now via Prosthetic Records.]Wyatt Marshall

9. The Austerity Program – “Isaiah 63:2–6″

Location: New York, NY
Subgenre: noise rock / math rock

The Austerity Program’s previous album, 2014’s Beyond Calculation, had a biblical bent to it. “All accounts are settled when the water takes the land,” Justin Foley memorably sang on “Song 33” while his guitar and Thad Calabrese’s bass churned forever forward. Bible Songs 1, the duo’s forthcoming third full-length, makes that connection explicit, switching up the “Song [number]” format (though maybe not that much) to cite the Old Testament. “Isaiah 63:2–6,” the lead stream, doesn’t quote those exact passages, instead recasting them in a modern voice and changing up the lens from which it’s viewed like an optometrist toggling between possible prescriptions. Here’s Isaiah 63:3 according to my trusty digital copy of the NRSV: “I have trodden the wine press alone, and from the peoples no one was with me; I trod them in my anger and trampled them in my wrath; their juice spattered on my garments, and stained all my robes.” The Austerity Program takes that righteous zeal, that sense of zero to well-that-escalated-quickly, and twists it, applying it to an undercover Little Red Riding Hood who so desperately wants to unleash a big-ass hammer. “Well bless my soul! A wolf in clothes! And what big teeth you’ve got for me! But they don’t swing like a hammer does,” Foley yells with increasing fry before letting the hammer fall with a demented sing-song howl. And that’s one of the big changes with this set, how wild, primal, and ferocious a band known for tightly interlocking rhythms sounds. Always blessed with the ability to drop a fully paid-off sonic boom, the concept here allows the Foley, Calabrese, and Drum Machine to pull compositions taut until they unexpectedly explode into caterwauls of noise that are legit unnerving. This is, after all, the chunk of the good book where God’s wrath is at its most consistently wrathful. And that aural wrath is no more clearly meted out than on “Numbers 31:13–18″; yes, that section of Numbers. In that track, the drum machine’s anxious tick-tock and Herrmannian dissonance of Foley and Calabrese’s instruments is silenced before the fathomless cruelty of man is unleashed. “Shit. Moses! What the fuck have you done?” is pretty apt as far as commentary goes, slicing the meat finer than most. “Look, I’m in this band and I’m not totally comfortable with this whole project,” the PR copy’s omnipotent narrator says. “This record is dark.” [From Bible Songs 1, out 6/14 via Controlled Burn Records.]Ian Chainey

8. Sleepwalker – “夢遊病者 – 37.8227537-122.2505281″

Location: ?
Subgenre: post-metal

It’s hard to know what to make of Sleepwalker’s latest, a dizzying work that no one would be blamed for failing to make heads or tails of. What begins as an engrossing and alluring march accompanied by a chant devolves into a confusing and occasionally gorgeous mess, with abrupt tonal and rhythmic changes that somehow all tie together thanks to that initial march refrain rearing its head here and there. To try to classify what’s going on here is a fool’s errand, so give it a listen and see what you think. One thing that I can say, though, is that despite having just a thread to hold onto throughout the course of the track’s four-minute run, the song is oddly catchy. For those curious about the name, the characters read “Sleepwalker” while the rest is a mystery — longitude and latitude points to the middle of the Yellow Sea. [From Split w/Sutekh Hexen, out now via the bands.]Wyatt Marshall

7. Nocturnus AD – “Seizing The Throne”

Location: Tampa, FL
Subgenre: death metal

It’s a great month for metal, and by extension a good time to be alive, when I’m choosing from new death metal droppings from a still-kicking Vader, a resurrected Possessed, and a perfectly calibrated approximation of Nocturnus — and I’m struggling because they all rule hard. The new Vader EP is probably my favorite of the bunch, but it sounds exactly like everything Vader does, which makes it excellent to listen to and boring to write about. (Still, you should snag it.) Possessed feels like it should be the comeback of a decade, what with its neck-snapping riffs and a surprisingly non-garbage sound for a band that’s mostly been on ice for a few decades. But even if it’s great to have Jeff Becerra and company back, it’s solid grade-B death metal, no more or less, and some of the vocal choices leave me unstoked. (Don’t get me wrong; it still rules. Do your part and buy this one, too.) Meanwhile, Nocturnus AD just put out a perfectly appropriate and perfectly absurd follow up to one of the weirdest of the early death metal albums, 1991’s synth-drenched, science-fiction opus The Key. If you’ve lived a good life and somehow never heard The Key, rectify that immediately. Imagine a technical-thrash take on Morbid Angel alongside beautifully dumb raygun sounds, all in service of a fully Satanic vision of space madness. The original version of Nocturnus was the brainchild of singer/drummer Mike Browning, who years earlier had founded Morbid Angel alongside Trey Azagthoth and played on their early unreleased album, Abominations of Desolation. Legend has it, Browning left Morbid Angel in 1986 after Trey seduced his girlfriend, which is hilarious if you’ve ever seen a picture of Trey’s pants. (Maybe she was into Sailor Moon?) Long story short: Browning scampered off to found Nocturnus, who produced one amazing album (The Key) and one mediocre album with a different singer (Thresholds), before his bandmates wrested legal control of the band’s trademark and fired Browning from his own creation. A grave injustice! Nocturnus-sans-Browning carried on but continued sucking, until they eventually called it quits in 2002. Browning formed a new band, After Death, which would putter around for a decade before changing its name to Nocturnus AD and unearthing classic Nocturnus jams. The circle of Browning was complete, and here we have the first fruits of his labor…and it sounds an awful lot like The Key! Which is to say it all sounds very, very silly. Noodly shreddy bits abound, and every cool guitar part gets to shake hands with a lame keyboard. It’s great. See for yourself. [From Paradox, out now via Profound Lore Records.]Aaron Lariviere

6. Tomb Mold – “Infinite Resurrection”

Location: Toronto, Canada
Subgenre: death metal

This past weekend was Maryland Deathfest XVII — and it was wonderful, as usual. (If you missed it, my condolences. Sell a kidney, buy tickets for next year, and live your best life.) Besides a near-perfect performance from Mexican death gods The Chasm and the nonstop hilarity of a milk-chugging, headless-guitar fondling, braid-toting Pestilence, Tomb Mold played one of my favorite sets of the fest simply by showing up and kicking ass. Riffs were delivered with blunt force, leads tossed off with abandon. No muss, no fuss. And look, they’ve got a new one burning a hole in the horizon: Planetary Clairvoyance drops in July, and the first single already feels like another step beyond last year’s already-excellent Manor of Infinite Forms. Last June I described the experience of listening to Manor in purely physical terms: “Your guts clench and release; knuckles go white; involuntary headbanging sets in.” The new one maintains that visceral physicality, albeit with a slightly dryer mix, but delivers a cerebral twist by way of complexified songwriting in line with the sci-fi imagery of the cover art. The chordwork features more twists and turns, and the leads feel sharper and better deployed, particularly the intertwining harmonies at song’s end. This is ripping death served with putrid flair, the perfect midway point between Incantation’s unholy tones and the idiot aggression of Asphyx. I haven’t heard the rest of the album, but I desperately want to. Dollars to doughnuts they’ll push this even further. [From Planetary Clairvoyance, out 7/19 via 20 Buck Spin.]Aaron Lariviere

5. Falls Of Rauros – “New Inertia”

Location: Portland, ME
Subgenre: atmospheric black metal

Falls Of Rauros have become one of the most reliable American atmospheric black metal bands out there, a worthy northeast counterbalance to the Cascadian crowd and Panopticon in the northern regions out west. “Banished,” an absolutely epic track from the band’s 2011’s excellent The Light That Dwells In Rotten Wood, is what got me hooked on Falls, and the band has continued in the treads that song laid out since then, going after bigger and bigger sounds and increasingly complex song structures. On “New Inertia,” Falls is as woods-y as ever, with honey-sweet dueling guitars dancing throughout, but taken on the whole the song reflects a more focused and ambitious drive, hitting harder and with more accuracy. There’s a lot to love here, and it’s rather remarkable, at the end of “New Inertia’s” nine minutes, to reflect on where the song began and where it drops you off. [From Patterns In Mythology, out 7/19 via Gilead Media.]Wyatt Marshall

4. Yellow Eyes – “No Dust”

Location: New York, NY
Subgenre: black metal

Yellow Eyes has been one of New York’s best black metal bands for nearly a decade at this point, and the group that first perked ears by opening up for notable touring acts at Brooklyn’s Saint Vitus is still as ravenously hungry as ever on their latest album, Rare Field Ceiling. The band’s signature trilling, warped sound is pushed to the limits with “No Dust” — its intricate, sprawling, distorted and kaleidoscopic nature is often disorienting. As with the rest of Yellow Eyes’ material, there’s an element of terroir, here, with the band’s Brooklyn roots showing as the track gives off a regal air as much as it reeks of urban decay. Yellow Eyes’ 2017 album Immersion Trench Reverie was quietly one of the best of the year; Rare Field Ceiling looks to deserve a louder reception. [From Rare Field Ceiling, out 6/28 via Gilead Media.]Wyatt Marshall

3. False – “A Victual For Our Dead Selves”

Location: Minneapolis, MN
Subgenre: black metal

Speed is underrated. Time was, playing as fast as you could for as long as you could was enough. Plenty of second wave black metal bands knew this in their bones. The riffs sometimes suffer, and maybe the songwriting gets a bit murky, but all that fades beneath the transcendent blur of a band playing at ludicrous speed. Recent years have seen encroaching waves of slower bands in every extreme genre — bands with measured riffs, coherent songs, all that jazz. The shift is probably a net positive if it means we get more tunes played well, more hooks we can discern, and a lower barrier to entry. Huzzah for a level playing field, I guess, but I still miss the idiot thrills of speed for speed’s sake. Fortunately, there’s a corrective in sight. False can’t help but play fast. Even when they do normal, everyday 2019 black metal things like strummy atmospheric minor chord stuff, there’s an undercurrent of frenetic energy that translates to an endless sense of urgency…and it all starts with the drums. Listening to “A Victual for Our Dead Selves” for the first time, you might not notice just how much the drums are doing, or how absurdly fast they’re doing it, what with everything else going on. There’s the frantic wanging of multiple guitars content to do the trem-thing eternally; there’s a smothering wall of angelic synths filling out the mix like a poisonous cloud; and frontperson Rachel sprays masterful vocal invective throughout. You’d be forgiven for not focusing on the drums at first, but man do these absolutely rip by song’s end. And to keep it up without relief, with nary a slow part, no weakness in sight for 11 minutes straight? Madness. That they can weave in some perfect Emperor riffs and thoughtful songcraft without slowing down, in the process creating one of my favorite black metal releases of the year? Brilliance. [From Portent, out 7/12 via Gilead Media.]Aaron Lariviere

2. Esoctrilihum – “Invisible Manifestation Of Delirium God”

Location: France
Subgenre: black metal / death metal

What to say about Esoctrilihum, a band meant to be indescribable? They, or he, hails from France, but other than that there’s not much tying the band or its output to our earthly realm. The sound encapsulates black metal, death metal, an almost industrial form of mechanistic thrash, and a slew of more exotic sounds, and then churns all of the above into glistening pulp. I hear the cosmic smear of Gateways-era Morbid Angel stretched over the broken bones of Deathspell Omega like a tourniquet made from torn flesh. Vocals are annihilating nonsense, buried moans and incongruous prissy whispers that feel like they’re pressing against the inside your head, trying to get out rather than in. More than actual music, Esoctrilihum feels like the violent emanation of something fundamentally broken; a stunted approximation of metal turned cancerous and feral. Anyone paying attention already knows this is Esoctrilihum’s fourth LP since 2017 — and this one clocks in at an easy-listening 75 minutes. And every second of those 75 minutes is worth hearing. I listened straight through twice trying to pick a single, before giving up and picking the one with the most illustrative title. “Invisible Manifestation of Delirium God” is just that: a swirl of everything and nothing, punishing and incomprehensible. But I could have just as easily picked the mammoth “Black Hole Entrance,” which sounds like Nightbringer caught in an electrical storm, or “Inexorable Plague of Time,” which tricks you by sounding deceptively normal for the first half before collapsing in on itself. The trick is that Asthâghul, sole faceless dudenheimer behind the band, never loses sight of the song despite everything else going on. Meaning it’s all weirdly listenable for what it is. Whereas a lot of folks pretend to “get” well-executed-but-mostly-nonsense bands like Portal, Esoctrilihum makes for comparatively straightforward listening, at least for the open-minded. [From The Telluric Ashes of the Ö Vrth Immemorial Gods, out now via I, Voidhanger.]Aaron Lariviere

1. Arch / Matheos – “Kindred Spirits”

Location: Hartford, CT
Subgenre: progressive metal

The way John Arch sings “shadow” gets me every time. From his throat, “shadow” takes on a few extra syllables, each a different chapter in Arch’s one-word melismatic novella. It’s probably off the cuff, a practiced improvisation like how bodybuilders just unthinkingly crush complex Olympic lifts. But I like to think that it’s because John Arch is patient, taking his time to reflect and plan how best to wring out every particle of meaning.

Arch turned 60 this month. Somehow his voice is still that prog metal ideal, a peal of bells that cuts through the distortion and brain-spraining shredding and plunks you right in the goddamn heart. It has been that way since he powered three classics with guitarist Jim Matheos in the peerless and supremely influential Fates Warning, the group he parted ways with 32 years ago. Not that he thinks much about the past. “It’s hard to listen to [those records] because it’s not your best,” Arch said to a disbelieving Metal Blade chief Brain Slagel in 2012. “Every time you make a progression, it’s hard to look back.”

From the fan perspective, those progressions tend to come around like long-period comets. While Fates continued on and evolved, Arch worked a full-time job as a carpenter and started a family, living a life apart from music. He resurfaced briefly in 2003 for a two-song project that featured Matheos’ impeccable, texturally rich playing. Fans wouldn’t get to hear Arch again until 2011’s masterful Sympathetic Resonance, an album intended to follow Fates Warning X, but, due to release schedule constraints, was tagged with Arch / Matheos instead. The name made sense, though, not only because of the two’s history together but what they inspire in each other. “Jim knows me very well and I know Jim very well on a personal level, but also musically,” Arch told Loudwire recently. “He knows my inner workings, and he knows what excites me as far as music is concerned. I’ve had other opportunities, but they weren’t anything monumental.”

Seven years and some change later, a new opportunity has presented a followup. Needless to say, Winter Ethereal is monumental and well worth the wait. The album is stacked with guests, from Fates friends like Frank Aresti, Joe DiBiase, Joey Vera, Mark Zonder, and Bobby Jarzombek to outstanding contributions from Cynic’s Sean Malone, Leprous’ Baard Kolstad, Thomas Lang, and everyone’s Steve DiGiorgio. Those players add their own spice, complementing and delightfully complicating an already hooky and heady set of nine songs. But, with a title acknowledging the phase of life the composers find themselves hurtling towards, it’s hard to think of this as anything but an Arch and Matheos record.

Throughout, Matheos’ riffs are as impressively immersive as ever. “A lot of it just comes from me trying to keep the parts interesting for myself — I get excited and inspired when things don’t necessarily ‘line up,’ or when there’s more than one thing at a time going on musically,” he said to Maximum Metal, explaining the panned counterpoint that makes every driving riff sound like a latticework of crystalline structures upon closer inspection. To hear that in action, check out the opening section to “Wanderlust,” how a seemingly simple riff gains an extra dimension like a Magic Eye picture the longer you focus on it.

That said, it’s hard to tear one’s focus away from Arch. He’s captivating, infusing this recording with such feeling. His lyrics, once speckled with the fantastic, have been pulled back to earth, his poetic turns navigating all-too-human markers of existence. To that end, the 13-minute “Kindred Spirits” is some career-defining shit, a real gut-kicker of a track that might be the best prog metal song about putting a dog down? I could be reading too much into that, but what these guys have made allow you to do that, building songs so meticulously and patiently constructed that you could live another life within them. “The Inner Light,” the album. [From Winter Ethereal, out now via Metal Blade Records.]Ian Chainey