The Month In Metal – February 2020

Cult Of Fire

The Month In Metal – February 2020

Cult Of Fire

Metallica’s “Enter Sandman.” You know it by heart. The avalanche of slightly off-kilter downstrokes punctuated by Lars Ulrich’s perfect snare hits. The way it hurtles towards the verse; changing, mutating, the aural equivalent of someone speedrunning Ninja Gaiden while playing Tetris. True, the surrounding songs on …And Justice For All flexed a similar sense that only the best shred made the cut, a coherence-be-damned riff-tape aesthetic. This cut in particular, though, is still live-wire stuff. Once the chorus hits, the band is firing with whole-brain intensity: James Hetfield’s sing-songy hook shepherded by the tricky, Rubik’s Cube playing, coalescing into a singular force of expectation-subverting rhythms. And yet, heck, is it catchy. It’s almost like this 1988 deep cut should’ve been a smash. But yeah, “One”’s fluky ascension aside, in what universe would’ve Metallica made the jump, right?

This one. You know it’s this one. It’s this stupid one. The real “Enter Sandman” was the lead single from 1991’s The Black Album (officially Metallica, but c’mon). It reached #16 on the Billboard Hot 100, the band’s second top 40 hit after “One,” and eventually went platinum. Its midpaced thud signaled that Metallica was a true pop culture force. It was also a harbinger of nearly 30 years of escalating “yeah!”s, not to mention fewls, fiyahs, and other things I don’t desyah. The “Sandman” that YouTuber StateOfMercury has made, though? I’m here for that timeline.

StateOfMercury is part of a micro YouTube movement that MetalSucks and MetalInjection have been shining on a light on for a bit. Take a Metallica song, strip it down to the essentials, and then build it back up as if it existed in a different era. Load songs become Kill ‘Em All songs, Ride The Lightning songs become Master Of Puppets songs, etc. The talented Bryce Barilla also works in this “album crossover” space, along with early contributions from the likes of Warhedd, CrebleStar, Kevin Leyva, and GuitarRazze.

Naturally, plenty of brave souls have branched out into more speculative fanfic. Denis Pauna is responsible for “What If Metallica Was a DEATH METAL Band?” and “What If METALLICA Wrote MEGADETH’s Rust In Peace (Album)” among other parallel universe experiments. Then, there’s your goofier fare. Music Of The Mat podcast put together “If Metallica Covered Wrestling Themes” in 2017. Antlion Entertainment channeled some old-school Invisible Oranges energy with “What if Metallica was a surf rock band? – metal without distortion” in 2014. Tens more of these what-ifs and parodies are posted every day.

But, for my money, the Bird vs. Magic-esque battle in which StateOfMercury and Bryce Barilla are currently engaged is the one to follow. The scholarship present in each crossover reminds me of Jason Concepcion and Mallory Rubin’s Binge Mode podcast. That is to say, these songs go deep. Littered with Easter eggs, StateOfMercury and Barilla take their thought exercises to the extreme, focusing on minute details like making sure that Hetfield’s voice, the only element not totally re-recorded by the remixers, is pitch-shifted for period accuracy.

“Believe it or not I think I’ve actually been listening to Metallica even more than I did before,” StateOfMercury emailed to me. “Now my brain is working trying to come up with an idea for every song they have. There are so many requests, too, so I keep listening to those songs to see if there’s anything I can do with them.”

StateOfMercury, who has been playing guitar for about 18 years and has also put skill points into drums, bass, and trumpet, was bit by the Metallica bug early. “When? Literally since the moment I was born. My dad was the biggest Metallica fan there was. He always had it blasting around the house or in his car. So, I’ve kind of always been a huge fan. He passed away in October and that was a huge influence on my increase in posts toward the end of 2019.”

That kind of background, the music-as-atmosphere reps that only a music-obsessive parent can pass down, must’ve readied StateOfMercury for the lightning bolt of inspiration. “I downloaded a MIDI drum plug-in (SSD 4 by Slate Digital) that came with a drum kit that sounded like The Black Album. I started messing around with different songs with The Black Album drums. I didn’t even realize there were others on YouTube doing this way before I was until like my fourth or fifth video.”

Now 13 videos in, StateOfMercury has the process down. “I always listen to the song I’ve chosen a bunch of times to remember the parts and arrangement. While I’m doing that, I’m making a mental note of the different changes I can make for a specific album sound. Usually all of this is happening with my guitar in hand, so I can make up new riffs as I go. From there it’s just making the MIDI drums, recording the bass and guitars, then cutting and editing the vocals. I think it’s a pretty simple process. But it can get a little more difficult on the long songs, especially if I’m making up entirely new sections.”

Along the way, StateOfMercury has found “that some albums are much harder to replicate than others,” but reverse engineering these tracks has been a worthwhile crash course in recording. The question, of course, is whether anyone in Metallica has heard the tunes. “Not that I’m aware of. But I’m hoping that at some point at least one of them does. Even if they roast me for it, that would still be cool.”

If Metallica ever wants to burn a day falling down a YouTube rabbit hole, there’s plenty of content to binge. A quick Google query for “metallica what if youtube” turns up 56,600,000 results. Gonna go out on a limb and say not all of those are pertinent, but the numbers suggest both “Metallica” and the current “what-if” phenomenon, especially those what-ifs with a pseudo-historical bent, possess WHO-worrying levels of virality.

The Metallica side is a little easier to understand. If not the world’s biggest rock band, Metallica is at least the world’s biggest metal band. Decades of Mandatory Metallica radio blocks have burned even the band’s obscurities into the brains of even lukewarm listeners. And the group’s history and mythos are rife with what-if forks in the road: Dave Mustaine, Cliff Burton, Justice for Jason, Bob Rock, and trashcan snares that any Astro would lust after. Metallica has even lived out its own quasi-what-if fantasies on Garage Days and Garage Inc. (You bet, this side of Justice, Metallica should’ve been Mercyful Fate more.)

I’m kind of baffled by why what-ifs are so en vogue, though. Granted, they’re not new. Wikipedia, a site that’s trustworthiness has coincidentally grown in the age of alternate facts, pinpoints Livy’s Ab Urbe Condita Libri as the earliest allohistory. That work, “written in Latin between 27 and 9 BC,” dissects the impact of “What would have been the results for Rome if she had been engaged in a war with Alexander?” If It Had Happened Otherwise, published in 1931 and featuring an essay by Winston Churchill, contained classic barbershop debates like “If Louis XVI Had Had An Atom Pf Firmness.” You can almost hear Stephen A.’s voice, can’t you? And, yes, outside of history, what-ifs of a different flavor have germinated ideas in the arts and sciences since the beginning, I’m guessing. Unpacking the potentiality of events in reality or fantasy is a pretty human thing to do. There are more than 3,400 entries in the (pretty restrictive!) Uchronia, a bibliography for alternate history works, for a reason.

But, despite the ironically robust history of what-ifs, they feel particular prevalent in 2020. The What If YouTube channel boasts 3.26 million subscribers. Its most popular video, viewed 12 million times, is “What If We Dumped Our Trash Into Volcanoes?” Your high school friend who turned into a Facebook anti-vaxxer crusader is very hurt that you’re thinking what you’re thinking right now. While most of these videos don’t fit the definitions laid out by Uchronia or The Counterfactual History Review (and, for the record, neither would the Metallica what-ifs: “stillborn alternate histories” if anything because they don’t progress beyond the Jonbar hinge), it does demonstrate the popularity of the concept and how it has gotten sucked up into the algorithm. To that end, my recommended video feed is now awash in NBA 2k-simmed Wilt Chamberlain resurrections and Baltimoreans worshipping crabs in Civilization VI.

So, what’s up? What’s the appeal? Why now? Are what-ifs a way to assuage my latent trepidation that I’m trapped in a simulation by allowing me to become the simulator? Or, as Venkatesh Rao has brought up, are we at the end of history, forced to replay major events/tropes/roles until history reboots?

(The criticisms of lazier counterfactual histories feel particularly illuminating in that regard. Rebecca Onion detailed the dissenting reaction to those in her excellent “What if historians started taking the ‘what if’ seriously?” essay for Aeon.co: “These kinds of counterfactual speculations assign an overwhelming importance to political and military leaders — a focus that seems regressive to many historians who consider historical events as the result of complicated social and cultural processes, not the choices of a small group of ‘important’ people.”)

My personal hot take, and please hit that bong now, is that the rise in what-ifs is the result of the present feeling frustratingly immobilizing. I’d like to think this take fits into the broader burnout theories, that mass analysis paralysis, particularly in the chase of min-maxing the “ideal” life that’s defined and enforced by predatory social media networks combined with the resulting fear of flubbing a Sliding Doors moment, has replaced a traditional understanding of locus of control. Is that not why Ted Chiang’s short story “Anxiety Is The Dizziness Of Freedom,” in which people can consult “paraselves” in order to inform their future decisions, is so affecting?

However, in the case of Metallica what-ifs, the appeal is much, much simpler: that the novelty of the exercise refreshes the original experience. I revisited Justice for the first time in years and enjoyed all of the little things that StateOfMercury took the time to highlight. In fact, I’m not sure I’ve ever heard the album that way before. It was a total re-calibration.

In Isaac Asimov’s 1952 short story “What If–,” a married couple meet Mister If and his portable viewing device that displays alternate timelines. They find that, no matter the tweak to the past, everything eventually ends up the same. I mean, hey, here I am listening to classic Metallica again. That said, if it’s going to rain donuts, make it StateOfMercury’s “Sandman,” please. Ye-hah. –Ian Chainey

10. My Dying Bride – “Your Broken Shore”

Location: Halifax, United Kingdom
Subgenre: doom / gothic metal

Decadent, histrionic, and occasionally hilarious, My Dying Bride embodies a particular kind of metallic excess: gothed-out gloom and doom with a perpetual red-wine hangover and an ear for funereal melody. As much as their sound has shifted over 30 years and 14 albums, moving from death/doom to gothic doom and back, they rarely repeat themselves from one album to the next, and the riffs are as strong as ever. New album The Ghost Of Orion feels less oppressively heavy than the last two records, yet it feels like a call back to some of their strongest mid-‘90s work like The Angel & The Dark River as it leans into melody and heartbreak instead of brute force. If singer Aaron Stainthorpe sounds even more overwhelmed than usual, he has good reason; in 2017 his 5-year-old daughter was diagnosed with cancer, and the band nearly collapsed while she underwent treatment and he retreated from public life. She ultimately came through, and eventually he did too, but it’s clear much of the record was written in the wake of the experience (second single “Tired Of Tears” addresses her illness head-on). “Your Broken Shore” is a weary meditation on familiar themes, until Stainthorpe cuts in with a searing growl and the guitars come crashing down, majestic as ever. [From The Ghost Of Orion, out 3/6 via Nuclear Blast.]Aaron Lariviere

9. Dirt Woman – “Creator”

Location: Salisbury, MD
Subgenre: stoner doom

Dirt Woman’s The Glass Cliff: top-tier Grimoire. The Baltimore-based label has dropped some bangers in the past, and certainly the Rose Heater-era of Cavern is cooking up a future killer. However, this delightfully doomy present is all I can think about. Indeed, the Maryland quartet that Holy Mountains Acid King’s blown out psych side absolutely crushes it. In all senses, really. I haven’t been this into the wuuuuums and the damage done to my hearing since With The Dead. Does It Doom? should kidnap Noel Mueller until he spills his DIY secrets. Here’s the real miracle: Sections that lesser knob-twiddlers would allow to be caked in detail-obscuring fuzz are somehow clear as bell. When this album hits the streets, scope out the slow-mo bit of standout “Fades To Greed.” How they do that? You can hear every instrument. Unreal. Of course, the real reason I’m pitching this is because the songwriting just nails what stoner doom needs to do. Zoe Koch (vocals, guitars) and Gabe Soloman (guitars) have a good interplay, finding fun ways to deliver tried-and-true payloads. The Mallons, Avery (drums) and Kearney (bass), are the glue guys. Kearney has that right-place-right-time Tim Bagshaw feel down cold. Avery’s swing and irrepressible energy keeps even the trudgiest sections moving. Koch’s voice puts all of this over the top, reminding of Ken Baluke’s not so much in timbre, but in how it’s utilized. When she sings, it fills up the whatever space is left in the spectrum, the final brick in a glorious wall of sound. [From The Glass Cliff, out 3/13 via Grimoire Records.]Ian Chainey

8. Violet Cold – “All Heroes Are Dead”

Location: Baku, Azerbaijan
Subgenre: atmospheric black metal

It shouldn’t surprise anymore, but the pace at which Violet Cold, the solo project from Emin Guliyev, puts out amazing release after amazing release is truly insane. Last year we saw Kosmik, the remarkable album that featured one of the best songs of 2019; the year before that saw a concept album series so ambitious it was presented as a nearly 30-song trilogy. Since 2017’s incredible Anomie, Guliyev has put out more than ten releases. It’s a crazy pace, but the only thing that’s crazier is the quality. “All Heroes Are Dead” is a hi-def, blazing star masterpiece that pulls elements both celestial and earthbound into one brilliant, cresting wave of a song. It ultimately crashes in spectacular fashion, all wails and screaming guitars, kaleidoscopic bloops and bleeps and warp-speed ambiance. It’s all so hopeful, too 00 a vision full of potential, promise, and electric dreams. [From Noir Kid, out 3/1 via the band.]Wyatt Marshall

7. Afterbirth – “Never Ending Teeth”

Location: Long Island, NY
Subgenre: brutal death metal

Afterbirth back. Quicker this time. If your brain is capable of recalling the dark ages of 2017, you might remember that these Long Islanders lifted themselves up from legendary death metal demo purgatory with The Time Traveler’s Dilemma. I liked that album at the time. “But all of that interlocks into a brutal death jigsaw puzzle pieced together by a band that doesn’t sacrifice songs for the cleverness of divergent parts.” I wrote. “Really neat, really smart, really kicks your ass.” I love it now. A high-ceiling grower. “Never Ending Teeth,” the second stream from the follow-up, Four Dimensional Flesh, is a worthy sequel, doubling down on the things that made the debut great. The gurgly BDM stuff is here: Will Smith (Artificial Brain, Buckshot Facelift, Heavy Hole Podcast) once again steps in to carry on the legacy of Matt Duncan (RIP). But Afterbirth is still diversifying. There are hints of prog and space rock, a sky full of melody while the heaving earth churns br00fully underneath. OG’s Cody Drasser (guitars) and Keith Harris (drums) and near-OG David Case (bass) deal in a duality that strengthens both sides of the horizon-separating divide. When Smith’s absurd gutturals are splashed against a stunning aurora sweep, the contrasts feel like anything but contrasts. [From Four Dimensional Flesh, out 3/13 via Unique Leader Records.]Ian Chainey

6. Malokarpatan – “Filipojakubská Noc Na Štangarígelských Skalách”

Location: Bratislava, Slovaka
Subgenre: black metal

Malokarpatan writes bewitching songs of pure black magic, adding fistfuls of traditional heavy metal righteousness to fiery hook-filled black metal anthems. It’s fitting, then, that the band’s latest is a concept album that chronicles a coven of 17th-century witches operating in a Slovakian town called Krupina. On “Filipojakubská noc na Štangarígelských skalách,” after the Goblin-esque intro, the spell takes hold — you’ll feel the side-to-side swinging, fist-pumping energy straight away. It’s upbeat and playfully sinister, with energetic yet muted guitars working in dueling leads or charging off on solo riff offensives. This muted effect stands in contrast to the cavernous, exquisitely throaty rasps of frontman HV. Occasionally, gang vocals echo against the his dark proclamations, creating a call and response effect like disciples answering a master. Equal parts malevolence, mischief, and mysticism, Malokarpatan again delivers a wild, infectious ride. [From Krupinské Ohne, out 3/20 via Invictus Productions.]Wyatt Marshall

5. Lychgate – “Progeny Of The Singularity”

Location: London, United Kingdom
Subgenre: black metal

Lychgate, one of the most promising and aggressively odd bands in recent years, can teach us a few things if we’re willing to look. Their new EP, Also sprach Futura, is a focused burst of experimentation, and it slays. But it’s been a long road getting here. A talented but tortured example of ambition exceeding grasp, Lychgate made one of my favorite experimental black metal records in 2015’s An Antidote For The Glass Pill. They pushed every conceivable limit and landed someplace explosive and fresh, with an almost painfully baroque vision of symphonic black metal that sounded an awful lot like Emperor’s final album, but made for actual listening. After that one, expectations ran high. Where to go from here? Further, so much further. Three years later they resurfaced with the overwrought lunacy of The Contagion In Nine Steps, unlistenably abstruse headache music loaded with tinkling pianos and stuttering organs, a crushing disappointment despite the obvious wealth of ideas. And here we get to the grand takeaways. The ongoing arc and continued existence of Lychgate, then, is living proof that: (1) it is possible to go too far, to sail past the outer bounds of tolerable weirdness; (2) hell is real, and it sounds like circus music played on a pipe organ overlaid with electric guitar; (3) clean vocals in metal must be used responsibly or not at all; (4) and despite all that, redemption is possible if you’re willing to crawl out of the abyss and focus. And that’s what they’ve done on the new EP. The excess of the last album is reined in just enough, without sacrificing the iridescent weirdness that gives their best stuff its glistening black energy. “Progeny Of The Singularity” toes the line of good taste, and it’s still pretty ridiculous, but it goes hard and comes together in the end. There are shades of Ihsahn in the guitars, and the fractal madness approaches Abigor levels of symphonic abuse. It’s great to have them back. [From Also sprach Futura, out 3/13 via Debemur Morti Productions.]Aaron Lariviere

4. Conjureth – “The Void Caressed”

Location: San Diego, CA
Subgenre: death metal

The death metal options this month were insane, and here we are with one of the best-written and best-sounding demos I’ve heard in years, and it comes from an unsigned (if not quite unknown) entity called … Conjureth. For context, this beat out unspeakably sick selections from Hyperdontia, Ripped To Shreds, Like Rats, and Vader, all sick bands we hope to revisit in coming months. But Conjureth is something special, made even more so because it’s a new band emerging fully formed. Right out the gate, we’ve got dense riffing and tight song structures, sufficiently organic production and an overall immediacy that punches through and demands repeat listens. The backstory is that this is a new band from a crew of death metal lifers, all of whom played in the death/doom band Ghoulgotha, who released a couple of good to great death/doom records on Dark Descent before disbanding in 2016 for reasons unknown. From what Metal Archives tells me, Conjureth seems primarily to be the brainchild of Wayne Sarantopoulos, veteran of at least 27 bands (including Encoffination and Father Befouled) and owner of this guitar. If these four songs are anything to go by, Conjureth might just be his ultimate form. Picture the current crop of nu-jack OSDM bands, as in recent 20 Buck Spin signees like Tomb Mold and Cerebral Rot, add a dash of speed and rhythmic dexterity, and tighten up the riffs and drumming even further, and you’ve got an absolute winner. Somebody sign this band already. [From Foul Formations, out now via the band.]Aaron Lariviere

3. Sadness – “I Hope You Never Forget”

Location: Oak Park, IL
Subgenre: atmospheric black metal

Sadness, the hyper-prolific one-man band from one Elisa, had consistently released a handful of singles and EPs every year over the course of the past half-decade or so. Last year, though, was different, and Elisa focused efforts, putting out two incredible full-lengths in Circle Of Veins and I Want To Be There. Both albums featured meditative songs soaked through with nostalgia and regret, plumbing the depths of inner turmoil before finding hope in surreal transcendent crescendos. Circle Of Veins was ultimately one of my favorites of the year. In 2020, Sadness seems to have returned to old ways, as fresh off 2019’s immense output Elisa has already released the three-track EP Atna, though it should be noted that, when your three songs total thirty minutes, it hardly qualifies as some sort of shorter offering. “I Hope You Never Forget” is Sadness near its very best. A gorgeous, hooky melody underrides the whole thing, chanted vocals repeat a desperate, tender message like a quiet prayer, and searing guitars build up a tense atmosphere that ultimately explodes in lightning. It’s gorgeous, the sort of special song that takes you by the hand to dwell on thoughts long buried. [From Atna, out now via the band.]Wyatt Marshall

2. Dolorangst – “Пробуждение”

Location: Bryansk Oblast, Russia
Subgenre: atmospheric black metal

Without fail, every year a number of incredible albums are released in December. This is the one month when we here — and most people that write about music on the internet — are busy tearing our hair out compiling year-end lists and are likely to overlook new music. Perhaps the artists that choose this release window try to actively avoid the kind of coverage that Internet publications provide, but if Dolorangst was hoping to evade our dim spotlight, bad news: we found you. “Пробуждение,” the opening track of the one-man band’s debut EP, is incredible. Watery guitars set the stage for an energetic mid-tempo nocturnal ambience. The sorrowful vocals, couched in such a cold but awe-inspiring setting, somehow manage to inspire. It’s really something, and if only we had found it sooner, perhaps you would have read about it in December. [From Катастрофа Внутри, out now via Northern Silence Productions .]Wyatt Marshall

1. Cult Of Fire – “Buddha 5”

Location: Prague, Czechia
Subgenre: black metal

Gather round, scumdogs: If you haven’t heard, Cult Of Fire dropped not one but two LPs earlier this month. That’d be TWO records that are better than anything else you’ve heard this year, and both can be had for a measly six euros each via Bandcamp. The first, Moksha, is dedicated to the life and memory of Baba Keenaram, the founder of the Aghori sect of ascetic Hinduism known for — wait for it, cool metallic imagery incoming — their post-mortem rituals. Per Wikipedia, the Aghori typically dwell in charnel grounds, doing charnel things like smearing cremation ashes on their bodies and making jewelry and other crafts from human bones, all of which contributes to their purported healing powers. (A CNN documentary series famously portrayed them as cannibals and, uh, coprophages.) The second album, Nirvana, like the band (no, not that one), focuses instead on Tantric Buddhism. It’s equally esoteric and just as devoted to its subject matter, including enlightenment, mental training, and the nature of reality (but sadly no mention of sexual yoga). Both are pretty close to perfect black metal records, even if they don’t follow the expected course. They’re weird in all the right ways — blasts of melodic tremolo riffs alternate with slower tempos and folkish melodies, with unexpected instrumentation and percussion scattered throughout both albums. Whether you care about the finer points of corpse art or tantric enlightenment, it’s easy enough to worship at the altar of the riff and leave it at that. But the band’s pointed commitment to the message ultimately bleeds through, infecting both records with a palpable fervor that lights a fire at the heart of the music, making it that much easier to have your own out of body experience. Personally, I like Nirvana slightly more than Moksha, and “Buddha 5” might be the best possible expression of what makes Cult Of Fire unique. It isn’t especially heavy or dark, and it probably isn’t what you’re expecting, but I’ll be damned if it isn’t transcendent. [From Nirvana, out now via Beyond Eyes.]Aaron Lariviere

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