Some of the cuts that COVID-19 has slashed into the arts and entertainment side of culture have been cauterized thanks to humanity’s knack for acclimation. Others, we are all learning, are unable to be sutured shut. These breaches in normality are different for everyone based on their pre-pandemic predilections. And yes, most, if not all, of them get the ‘I’m not complaining!’ preface: Unless your livelihood is tied to them, when measured from a fan’s perspective, these things aren’t that important when compared to this global catastrophe. But, these losses still suck like mini, soul-sipping black holes. You still feel them.
“Right now, thanks to this squalid state of affairs, nobody is getting the catharsis that a hardcore show can grant,” Tom Breihan wrote in his last Let The Roundup Begin column, a great read to add to your itinerary if you only come here for this column. “It’s harder and harder to imagine a time when we’ll be back in those rooms,” he later added. “This is a small concern in the grand state of things, but the feeling of being in one of those rooms is a feeling I already miss terribly.”
I’ve been trying to scratch the metal itch with various YouTube dives, exploring both authentically documented concerts and those of the, uh, less real variety. Still, there’s something missing, that live-wire current of potentiality that charges an event witnessed in real time. Even when the event is, you know, largely unmemorable.
“This is what I’ve been missing: not the occasional thrill of a buzzer-beater, but the constant, comforting knowledge that sports are just always there,” Lauren Theisen wrote for the briefly rebooted Unnamed Temporary Sports Blog. “And now that it’s completely gone for the first time in any of our lives, it only adds to the confusion and helplessness that has defined the past couple of months.”
With team owners, leagues, and networks hemorrhaging money and, no doubt, plotting out the novelization of their victimization in order to recoup employee salary, there’s been a constant pressure on finding a way that sports, any sports, can fill the sports-less void. Ideas have run the gamut, from the big to the small. Big: Dana White’s Fight Island, somehow not a Left 4 Dead reboot. Small: Envision Virgin Racing contracting with Jelle’s Marble Runs.
The unexpected thrill of competitive marbles aside, no one is really succeeding. The NBA Horse Challenge was…well, what was that? The best thing about it was learning that Allie Quigley and Courtney Vandersloot are the proud owners of a fake dog. On the other hand, the NFL at-home draft had its bizarro moments, as any NFL production does, but, from a technical angle, was mostly glitch-free. Keep in mind, this is a league that normally can’t even enforce its own disciplinary procedures properly. But, still…it was a draft. Considering that, if things were normal, Stephen A. would shouting about the third or fourth major storyline tied to NBA and NHL (one can dream) playoff runs and baseball fans would be treated to a few weeks of the Orioles losing, this has been a rough time for sports fans.
To which I say: Metalheads? Sports fans? I got you.
WHAT IF there were a metal Valhalla where everyone was alive (and their best non-problematic selves) and metal bands recorded sweet-ass metal songs during the day and played highly competitive basketball games in a 30-team league at night?
And WHAT IF these metalheads were imbued with basketball skills that roughly matched their musical talents?
And WHAT IF both band and team rosters were constructed via the drafts, trades, free agent signings, and other questionable hiring methods that only make sense in sports?
And, finally, mercifully, WHAT IF, deep breath, some friendless dork stuck in lockdown bravely resisted the new-video-game pull of the no man’s land known as Walmart and, instead, simulated a season of such a league on the out-of-date NBA 2K18?
“What if” no longer, friend. This fantasy is now a reality. Sort of. A reality of a fantasy. I guess. Moving on! Behold, the Headbangers Basketball Association, the dumbest column I have ever filed.
And now you know why I hire artists. I promise you, that would’ve impressed the heck out of Fark circa-2000.
Alright, two disclosures:
1. If you don’t like basketball, this is going to suck for you. If you don’t like basketball video games, this is going to suck for you. As an elitist metal doofus, it’s my life’s calling to refuse to dumb this down. Also, if you don’t like metal, how did you read this far? Are you a cop?
2. Second, unlike the people who can quickly model players based on Tiger King and hack them into the game somehow, I am no modding wiz. I am, in fact, an idiot. So, I’m stuck sharting my mania upon NBA 2K18’s generally inflexible-to-idiots roster customization options. That means, unfortunately, I’ll have to scrap the sick roach-themed Pyrrhon custom team I made that was in no way a free ad for Doug’s new album, Abscess Time, out on 6/26 via Willowtip Records. Alas. I’m constrained, then, by the low-level modding I can perform.
So, to execute this dumbass intro, I’ll use real NBA franchises as proxies and fill these surrogate teams’ rosters with the past and present lineups of metal bands. For example, I’ll clear out the players in the NBA 2K database who were rostered in 2017-18 by the Golden State Warriors and fill the team instead with Manowar members. For bands with a great deal of lineup flux, I’ll limit those rosters to the 15 most-recognizable members. For those that don’t hit the 14-player minimum, I’ll fill out the ranks with randos taken from 2K’s ample free agent list. Let’s ride, Brian Scalabrine. I’ll rename all of these fillers as “[band name] Roadie.”
Here are the teams sorted into conferences and divisions:
Dad Metal Conference
My Dying Bride
Br00ful Goat Conference
Death Metal Division
Black Metal Division
Wanna quibble? Let’s quibble.
First, eagle-eyed readers, i.e. those without eyesight, will notice that some of these aren’t exact fits. It’s like that in real sports leagues, too. The legit NBA still sequesters the Undead Sonics, aka the Oklahoma City Thunder, in the “Northwest Division.”
Next, yes, I went with bigger, older, mostly good bands in most instances. Am I passing up a chance to go viral amongst Inzaniacs with a killer Blood Incantation meme? Sure. Likewise, it was…tempting to add, say, Six Feet Under as the eternally lol-Knicks Knicks, “Revenge Of The Zombie” being James Dolan’s ownership strategy and all. But I didn’t want to be that big of a dick. Still…I included Dimmu Borgir because…I mean…imagining Dimmu Borgir playing pickup games in full Hot Topic BDSM regalia is funny to me. I’m a simple person.
Schadenfreude aside, some very big band names are missing. Two reasons:
1. First and foremost, I wanted to avoid roadie-heavy teams. Tiny-roster outfits like Bathory and Darkthrone, along with weirdo bands who like each other and have consistent lineups, will have to duke it out in the NBA Jam tournament I create during the next pandemic when I’m out of ideas. Some roadie-heavy teams I couldn’t ignore, though. I don’t care, I want to play as Blind Guardian. Please, just let me have this.
2. In other instances, the member crossover was too great with another band. (For the crossover that does occur above, I’m putting the artist with their most-often associated band. That is to say, Dave Mustaine is playing for Megadeth, not Metallica.)
I was able to sneak a few of the missing artists onto the “free agents list” in order to maximize the fantasy-band potential. Thar be your Quorthon. I also added some other metal characters: Flo Mounier, Glen Benton, Yngwie Malmsteen, all of Ulver, and the like. These artists can be signed by bands at any time and will take the place of the few I jettisoned into the sun for being shitheads. It would’ve been fun watching Varg getting dunked into oblivion, but fuck Varg. Finally, for the incoming draft class, I included a classic fanboy “what-if”: The top prospect crap teams will be tanking for is…Geddy Lee. Why not.
And that brings us to players and positions. In order to enforce some measure of consistency so bands don’t end up with, like, five singers in the starting lineup (even though a cappella Dimmu Borgir would be pretty good), I assigned basketball positions this way:
Power forward: bass
Small forward: rhythm guitar/keyboards/pan flute/etc.
Shooting guard: vocals
Point guard: lead guitar
The starting five for each team will also double as the “band,” playing and recording in the style of team (Judas Priest will play Judas Priest songs) but with the idiosyncrasies of each metalhead (if Judas Priest swaps Rob Halford for Frank Mullen, Frank Mullen is singing Judas Priest songs in his style).
Yes, this has problems. Two points that I’m going to imagine you yelling:
- This isn’t a 1-1 match considering how basketball and metal have evolved as a sport and genre of music respectively. Traditional centers who can’t pick and roll aren’t that important to an NBA currently experimenting with small ball lineups that maximize space. Conversely, I’d argue that being a good drummer is now more important to a metal band than ever before. Raven was wrong: metal is hard to sportify.
- It forces a five-piece structure upon bands. Motörhead, famously not a quintet!
- Bands with fairly static lineups (Blind Guardian) or one Spinal Tap-esque rotating position (Priest had, like, 5000 drummers in the ‘70s) are doomed to either roadiedom or unbalanced benches. Hopefully, this is resolved by the free agent list. Still, I think “you should fire your entire band often so you can build a sick basketball team in Ian’s diseased brain” is probably the wrong message to send to Batushka.
- The backcourt should be guitarists, you numbskull.
I hear you. Be that as it may, it roughly encapsulates how these parts function within the band dynamic and gives this insane timesink of a project a vague sense of coherence. To that end, it provides framework when it comes to interpreting what kind of basketball player a metalhead might be. Abbath (vocals, bass, sometimes drums) could be a power forward who’s the centerpiece of an offense. Huh. On a pure stats level, could Abbath be…Charles Barkley?
And that brings us to the fun/insane part. Because this is supposed to be entertaining and not just a missed-layup/turnover fest like it would be in real life, I wanted to use the DNA of real NBA players that played during the prime periods that these bands operated in. That is to say, thanks to NBA 2K’s inclusion of rosters for all-time teams, I could use ‘70s players for the “classic” Black Sabbath period, ‘80s players for Metallica, etc. Plus, not only could I try to find the equivalent basketball player based on skill, but narrative.
It plays out like this: Who is Michael Jordan? Well, Tony Iommi is the GOAT, but the timeframe doesn’t quite match. Instead, we need someone who debuted in the ‘80s and had an incredible run of quality albums to match Jordan’s “never lost in the finals” barbershop trump card. So, MJ is…Chuck Schuldiner, the vocalist/guitarist of Death? I think Chuck is a better talent evaluator than draft room Jordan, but it kind of fits!
And you can go down the line making these pseudo-connections for a bit. Isn’t Lars Ulrich kind of Bill Laimbeer? This took a whole lot of unscientific squinting and me digging through old Fleer cards while I had my ear pressed to a speaker whispering “who are youuuuuu.” Yeahhhh, I’m single.
However, considering how nuts NBA players get over their 2K ratings, I don’t need Messiah Marcolin coming after me when he learns he’s Otis Birdsong, or whatever. (And, yes, I have to say: It made me kind of queasy applying the talents of a labor force that is predominately people of color to an extremely white set of metal bands, some of which have sketchy connections. It’s…not great, especially when combined with US sports’ history with race. Hi, Donald Sterling.) So this devolved into me thinking of how playing metal might translate to basketball. Pete Sandoval had good, non-duck-walk footwork, so he’d be a dream shake beast in the post, right? That makes sense and is totally not a qualitative judgement, right? Fuck it.
Indeed. Finally, I had a league. And more than finding out who won a chip, I just wanted to see what bands ended up looking like when the NBA 2K AI went trade crazy. After bugs aplenty, because a deprecated version of NBA 2K doesn’t like me making 400 changes to a roster, here’s how the season unfolded:
Now, I should mention that, for the simulation, I left player injuries on. That accounts for a lot of the chaos you’re going to witness. Like, Lemmy, one of the league’s premiere bass bigs, suffered a season-ending broken foot (*deepest frown*), forcing Motörhead to sign…Mick Barr off the free agent list instead of getting another power forward. That, plus a bench short of key positions (remember: trio), led it to the worst record in the league. Subsequently, it would win the draft lottery and the right to take Geddy Lee with the first pick in the draft.
In brighter news, Ihsahn shocked the world by capturing regular season MVP honors. And, the following teams made the playoffs (seeding noted in brackets):
Dad Metal Conference
Judas Priest 
Black Sabbath 
Mercyful Fate 
Blind Guardian 
Iron Maiden 
Br00ful Goat Conference
Morbid Angel 
Celtic Frost 
Cannibal Corpse 
Death met Opeth in the finals, with the seriously deep Death winning in five games. The finals MVP? James Murphy!
Now, for the good stuff:
Most Ridiculous Trade
It’s hard not to award this one to the deadline deal that saw Judas Priest sending Glenn Tipton and Les Binks to Cannibal Corpse for Paul Mazurkiewicz and its premier free agent signing, Nocturno Culto. Start practicing “Painkiller,” Ted. That is some legendary Trade Machine abuse.
Runner up goes to Morbid Angel flipping Pete Sandoval and Dan Vadim Von to Candlemass for Johan Längqvist and Robert Lowe. Imagine David Vincent and Robert Lowe in a band together. Glorious.
And an honorable mention goes to Suffocation who turned Doug Bohn into Manowar’s Ross The Boss and picks.
Most Ridiculous Pickup
The free agent list paid off. So. Many. Weird. Things.
Gaahl singing for Anthrax is pretty good. Same goes for Jørn Lande who is the new voice of Entombed. Read this sentence: Pentagram picked up Karl Sanders. That’s going to be a Google hit for someone one day. Celtic Frost brought aboard Quorthon, which makes too much sense. Black Sabbath signed Flo to replace an injured Bill Ward. Metallica bet on getting multiple seasons out of John Longstreth. Surely, when you think Saint Vitus, you think Fredrik Thordendal. And…Candlemass filled out its roster with…Jute Gyte. That’s a thing.
But, man, for my money, it’s Luc Lemay getting signed by, wait for it, Dimmu Borgir.
Top Three Weirdest Bands
These were starting lineups when the season ended. Again, imagine these configurations trying to record something together. There were lineups that underwent great change, but something about these cracks me up.
3. My Dying Bride
Singer: Aaron Stainthorpe
Guitar: Yngwie Malmsteen
Guitar: Hamish Hamilton Glencross
Bass: Lena Abé
Drums: Dan “Storm” Mullins
Singer: Devin Townsend
Guitar: Jørn Inge Tunsberg
1. Judas Priest
Singer: Rob Halford
Guitar: Nocturno Culto
Guitar: Richie Faulkner
Bass: Markus Grosskopf
Drums: Paul Mazurkiewicz
What even is that.
Anyway, I haven’t lost my mind at all. How are you? –Ian Chainey
10. Malist – “The Ultimate Possession”
Location: Moscow, Russia
Subgenre: atmospheric black metal
Malist is a bit more reserved on its second offering, toning down some of the wildly enjoyable gothic flourishes that made In The Catacombs Of Time such a great and surprising release last year. Those distinctive theatrics are most intact on “The Ultimate Possession” off the one-man band’s second release, which like the debut sounds as if it should soundtrack a mausoleum. As ever, Ovfrost’s croaked vocals sound like the voice of something long expired — they pair exquisitely with morose clean vocals in one of history’s more despondent duets — and general cold and decay shroud every note. This time, though, a more forceful arrangement of riffs and a tendency toward more complex song structures that twist and turn point to more dark, winding paths forward. [From To Mantle The Rising Sun, out now via Northern Silence Productions.] –Wyatt Marshall
9. Sölicitör – “Betrayer”
Location: Seattle, WA
Subgenre: speed metal / heavy metal
Is this the new golden age of speed metal? Seattle’s Sölicitör is the next band up that makes a strong case. Spectral Devastation, its LP debut after well-received demo and EP how-do-you-dos released last year, is a high RPM hellion that blows the dust off trad riffs and injects them with modern steroids, similar to what Black Viper and Mystik have pulled off recently. For a highlight, I’m picking “Betrayer” mainly because the solo/lead duet that caps off the requisite heavy metal theme-peregrination part is ridiculous, closing with shredding that sounds like a crystal sword exploding. Shrapnel aside, this whole thing is something. Killers-type progressions undergo a tightening and ample heavification, acknowledging that other metal has happened in the past 40-odd years. “Grip Of The Fist” even has a blasty proto-death intro. And, yeah, this is a star-making performance for Amy Lee Carlson. Previously compared favorably to Leather Leone, Carlson really goes for it here, giving each track a unique, charismatic read, adding more venomous bite to her voice the deeper one wades into the record. She brings the right corrosive contrast to the more anthemic parts, which burrow deep like earworms should. A summer record, through and through. We might not get a summer, but at least we got this. [From Spectral Devatation, out now via Gates Of Hell Records.] –Ian Chainey
8. Golden Ashes – “As Sacred Bodies Wither Into Nothingness”
Subgenre: atmospheric black metal
The smeared synth-driven orchestral beauty of “As Sacred Bodies Wither Into Nothingness” sounds like nothing else you’ll hear. It is troubling and operatic, at moments cautiously hopeful, the stuff of the apocalypse. The prolific Maurice de Jong, best known for his work with Gnaw Their Tongues, is no stranger to the outer fringes of metal, bringing in unexpected and unsettling sounds to transport listeners to his netherworlds. He was responsible for two of the best underground releases of the past year in Mystagogue’s And The Darkness Was Cast Out Into The Wilderness and Golden Ashes’ debut full-length, Golden Are The Ashes Of The Restorer. The surreal atmospherics he brings to bear on “As Sacred Bodies Wither Into Nothingness” are more violent than what was on Golden Ashes’ previous output; the dancing leads crest in cascading, disorienting crescendos, throwing the listener out into the middle of a greatly agitated boundless sea. [From In The Lugubrious Silence Of Eternal Night, out 5/1 via Oaken Palace Records, which donates all proceeds to environmental causes.] –Wyatt Marshall
7. Cirith Ungol – “Stormbringer”
Location: Ventura, CA
Subgenre: heavy metal / doom
How to put this delicately…. Getting a new Cirith Ungol album now, at our time of greatest need, 29 years after their last album, Paradise Lost, is like waking up to a new Iron Maiden record. Both in terms of metallic significance and raw power. It’s a gift from the gods, and a priceless one in these godless times. To put a finer point on it: Throwing on Forever Black and basking in the barbarian riffs and absurdly blown-out vocals feels like laying hands on a new record from the original Maiden lineup in their prime, all roughshod energy and no gloss, no third guitar, no mercy. Not that Cirith Ungol sound too much like Maiden — they’re doomier and even more primitive sounding, and the vocals are much more punishing — but they’re as true to the spirit of capital-letter Heavy Metal as any band on earth, and they haven’t lost a fucking step in the intervening decades since they last roamed the earth. Back in 2018 when these guys teased a colossal comeback single, I blessed it with a mountain of words that probably could have been boiled down to this four-word pull quote: “plodding, pounding, epic, righteous,” which is even truer now. Having written an overlong blurb once, my stannish impulses are satisfied; I’ll spare you this time around. Just cue up “Stormbringer,” the epic centerpiece of the album and one of the most majestic tunes in their catalog, and taste the glory. [From Forever Black, out now via Metal Blade Records.] –Aaron Lariviere
6. Kvaen – “Revenge By Fire”
Location: Kalix, Sweden
Subgenre: black metal / speed metal
“Revenge By Fire” blazes out of the gate, fittingly, a full-throttle old-school riff attack leading a charge that whips left and right. What at first seems like a song defined by the blitz morphs quickly, though, first to some anticipatory melodic building that still fails to prepare you for the sudden drop into the boat with a full-on Viking raiding party. The switch to the Amon Amarth-style, pyrotechnic-ready chorus does feel a bit like the floor falls out, and when it comes back later the transition is no subtler — Jakob Björnfot, the man behind Kvaen, knows it works so well that he hits you with it as if it were a war hammer. There’s a distinctive throwback sound at work here, and the power of the anthemic war-song chorus is as good testament as any as to why this sound burns as fiercely as ever. [From The Funeral Pyre, out now via Black Lion Records.] –Wyatt Marshall
5. Devangelic – “Sigils Of Fallen Abominations”
Location: Rome, Italy
Subgenre: brutal death metal
Devangelic, a blenderized combination of “devastation” and “angelic,” has taken a step forward on their third full-length, Ersetu. Hate to start a bleb with such a generic plaudit for an absolute crusher of a record, but there’s no other way to spin what the Italian quartet have pulled off here. Sure, previous LP Phlegethon was also a world-eater, but it was targeted squarely at brutal death metal dorks such as I, nailing a chonky take on Morbid Angel by way of Disgorge. Now, Ersetu is no less guttural, mind you. The band is still a showcase for the phlegm-expelling power of Paolo Chiti, a real turbo-blergher who has shown up on two other piles of muck I’m fond of: Esophageal and Fixation on Suffering. However, lead single “Sigils Of Fallen Abominations” has, dare I say, crossover potential? Am I that far gone? To my goo-filled ears, it’s best-case Disentomb, subtly progressive and thrillingly propulsive now that the rougher edges have been sanded away. Pared down to just the good parts, Ersetu is 32 minutes of highlights. Somehow, though, it also adds in a ton of new elements. “I tried to imagine some ancient sounds coming from an old age connected with more modern references of the actual Iraq,” the band said to Angelus Mortem, “therefore including Arabic melodies while not losing the brutality of the death metal.” Can attest: Brutality has not been lost. Neither has the complexity. Close listens unveil a latticework of rhythms: tricky arpeggios, blasts, borks, and bass widdles. It just goes and goes, but has the sense to call it quits before it numbs your senses. [From Ersetu, out 5/15 via Willowtip Records.] –Ian Chainey
4. Aara – “Telos”
Subgenre: atmospheric black metal
Aara’s So Fallen Alle Tempel materialized from seemingly nowhere early last year, arriving via portal from a haunted chapel perched atop a forbidding rain-whipped crag. The nearly-eponymous track “Aare” announced the Swedish duo’s intentions most clearly — they were here to unleash a force-beam of regal gothic blasting and banshee wails upon unsuspecting metal nerds. That the album, loaded with brain-searing hooks and chest-filling leads, ended up being one of the best of the year as 2019 came to a close was no surprise. It wasn’t long after So Fallen Alle Tempel that Aara returned with the single Anthropozän, which nearly scratched the Aara itch but, in its largely experimental structure, left a bit more to be desired in the wake of the band’s debut gauntlet toss. With their latest, En Ergô Einai, masterminds Berg (“Mountain”) and Fluss (“River”) have brought the full force of their black majestic magic to bear once again. “Telos,” the closer, is all mesmerizing leads and unrelenting blasts, aural enchantment that is at once dark yet glitters magnificently. Enjoy. [From En Ergô Einai, out now via Debemur Morti Productions.] –Wyatt Marshall
3. Oranssi Pazuzu – “Uusi Teknokratia”
Subgenre: black metal / krautrock
In preparation for this little adventure, I spent my day at home (in prison, in hell) revisiting Oranssi records, trying to remember just how weird they’ve always been. Sure enough that seething, seasick, darker-than-dried-blood quality was there from the start. The first album was no less experimental than they are now, no closer to orthodox black metal, and they were more or less fully formed from their first breath as a band. What is striking is how their third album, Valonielu, seemed to capture hearts and minds in a new way. Listening back, that might have been the closest they came to accessibility; the core bits were the same, but they leaned into the psychedelic Hawkwind guitars just enough to crack the blood-brain barrier that otherwise prevents weird shit from working its way into your memory. Thus did Oranssi Pazuzu transcend the earthly constraints of being a band of weirdos, known for weird tunes; on album three they attained greatness, or fooled us into thinking they did. And even though they’ve since retreated from the dread scourge of melody, with their last album skewing quite a bit darker and less friendly, they haven’t lost that ability to carve out some skullspace and take up residence, which is weird when you think about it. The new one, album five, Mestarin kynsi, which translates to “Master’s Fingernail” according to Google, continues the trend: extremely dark, generally unpleasant, weirdly catchy. Throbbing bass textures butt up against blown out guitars that gnash away at the same few chords. An angry goblin tries to kill you with a curse, and…is that an oboe? What is that? I have no idea, but it’s squealing in my ear along with a choir of other unidentifiable but undeniably lysergic sounds. Hey, it’s fun to take a trip, put acid in your veins. Anything to get me out of this house. [From Mestarin kynsi, out now via Nuclear Blast.] –Aaron Lariviere
2. An Autumn For Crippled Children – “Water’s Edge”
Location: Friesland, Netherlands
“Water’s Edge” is one of the best black metal-influenced non-black metal tracks to cross our bow in some time, and at four minutes in length it’s hard not to hit repeat again and again. I’ve seen Autumn For Crippled Children compared to both black metal New Order and Sigur Rós, and I’m inclined to agree, with a bit of stripped-down, more punkish Envy thrown in the mix with a bit of late-period AFI. Make of that what you will, but know that “Water’s Edge” is inspiring and hooky, bubbling with energy and glamorized rage. The track floats in on dancing guitars before it kicks into gear, with muffled riff progressions generating punkish RPMs and buried distorted shrieks bringing a metal edge. Swathes of cool synths lend a northern European industrial air. It’s an awesome track, one that brings together so many nostalgic and current favorites into one absorbing listen. [From All Fell Silent, Everything Went Quiet, out 5/1 via Prosthetic Records.] –Wyatt Marshall
1. Ulcerate – “Stare Into Death And Be Still”
Location: Auckland, New Zealand
Subgenre: death metal / black metal / post-metal
It’s almost meditative. Ulcerate’s latest isn’t a full reinvention, but bringing up the melody and backing off the throttle makes for a subtle recalibration — one they’ve needed for years. Their core sound always showed insane promise, wedding the experimental edge of Immolation’s best records to the wilder side of Deathspell Omega and Gorguts, then polishing it to an industrial shine. And the last few albums were technically perfect but increasingly static, an exercise in “cold aesthetic purity,” as I described their last album in 2016. I’ve always appreciated what they do, but it was time for a change. Here the songs breathe, edging away from the airless aggression of the older records. Melody creeps in, and with it a thin shaft of light. It’s enough. “Stare Into Death And Be Still” has all the portentous gloom you could hope for from a song with that title, and even if they’re starting to shy away from death metal towards something cleaner and sharper — setting aside the vocals, it’s not wildly different from the Icelandic black metal bands, just a few degrees more violent — it’s really no less punishing. The melody just helps it go down. This is how I relax now. [From Stare into Death And Be Still, out now via Debemur Morti Productions.] –Aaron Lariviere