The Month In Metal – June 2020
An intro to the intro to the intro:
Black lives matter. I support the protests against police brutality held in response to the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, and so many others. I support those doing the work to dismantle white supremacy. A metal column is the right place to state this.
Earlier this month, Laina Dawes penned an excellent piece for Metal Hammer. “Even as heavy metal scenes in South America, the Caribbean, China, India, and the Middle East have flourished, the fact that there are ‘people of colour’ playing metal does not negate the issues of anti-black racism or discrimination,” Dawes wrote. “North America’s music industry is embedded with the history of inequality that is intertwined within its cultural fabric. You can’t use a band or an artist from an ethnically monolithic populace to avoid conversations about racism. You also can’t hide behind your token ‘black’ to shield you from criticism.”
Dawes also went in on the scene-specific work required. “We need to challenge musicians that post racist comments or memes online. Don’t want to curse them out? Unfriend or unfollow. Watch what venues are booking bands (post COVID-19) that have made their xenophobia and bigotry clear and create a boycott. For black metal heads: don’t even bother trying to ‘educate’ people who will not take the time to educate themselves. Report posts that express thoughts and ideas that could lead [to] physical harm against others.”
(Don’t know which bands and labels are sketchy? It’s okay! I still goof on this. A lot of this is word-of-mouth and tends to go under-reported for reasons we’ve gone into. This is not complete, but here’s a list that I consult regularly.)
As a listmaker, I also need to interrogate my privileged position by examining our coverage choices. This column has always been about our “favorite” metal songs from the month, which, I have to note, is usually far removed from what is actually making waves in metal. On the one hand, I feel like that enables us to give you honest recommendations: we’re not currying favor with artists, labels, and PR people, we actually like this stuff. On the other, and speaking for myself, if the majority of my recommendations end up being white men from North America or Europe, I have to grapple with why that is and what iniquitous systems were in place to drive that result. I can’t just write that off by cowering under the meritocracy fallacy. If I become comfortable in my complicity, then I am just taking up space. I would be the problem.
This is something that I’ll revisit because the work is ongoing. It has been something watching the metal community beginning to undertake that work as well, be it Clambake making fiery protest grindcore or tens if not hundreds of other bands donating their proceeds to organizations like the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. (Here’s a list of protest charities and community bail funds that I’ve found useful. I’d also like to highlight the Okra Project that’s doing incredible work for Black Trans people.) It’s a start. It will continue.
An intro to the intro:
Stereogum is running a Save Stereogum campaign. Founder Scott Lapatine recently bought Stereogum back, making it an independent site again. Then, you know, COVID-19 brutalized publishing worse than Six Feet Under doing a cover. Not great! So, this crowdfunding campaign aims to keep the site chugging along. There are some dope perks for donors, including a compilation of cover songs. You can also make Tom Breihan write a Number Ones column about any song you choose. Hey, do you remember that time Last Days Of Humanity hit the Hot 100? I’m totally sure that happened.
Anyway, the Black Market has called Stereogum home for quite a bit. We appreciate you, the readers, more than you could know. You’ve made this column a killer place to talk shop, find new tunes, and examine the finer points of the scene. I don’t write this enough: Thanks for reading, thanks for commenting, thanks for just being here. You people rule. If you can help out the mothership, even just by sharing the announcement, we’d appreciate it.
Alrighty. The intro that follows has been in the pipeline for a bit. In fact, it has been in there so long that at least one of these interview sessions happened before the pandemic. Apologies, then, if there’s some time-traveling tonal whiplash. Stay safe.
How the hell did you find this?
That’s the thought that most often floods my pre-caffeniated brain as I make my morning scroll through my Bandcamp music feed. Scroll. The Secret Of Esaglia, a split between Cyaxares and Amelnakru, two Iraqi one-man-bands. Scroll. Vmthanaachth, the finest purveyor of Texas chamber grind. Scroll. Feminazgul … uh … I don’t even know how to explain this one yet. It’s wild, though.
The examples above were purchases made by Bandcamp users I follow; YomaBarr, Can This Even Be Called Music? (creator of the site of the same name, CTEBCM.com), and last vinyl before doomsday, if I remember correctly. I follow a ton of labels and bands, too, to the point where I don’t even remember how I came across a lot of them. The music feed giveth: Hate Inclination, a solo slammer that writes evocatively about alcoholism, has a new demo out. Self deconstruction, an absolutely ripping Japanese grind trio, recently made its 2019 EP available to digital denizens. Both must’ve come my way via a rabbit hole follow fest, where I clicked on the now-familiar mosaic of album supports and opened up parallel universes of music feeds. Click. Click. Click. Man, Holy Grinder is sick.
For me, this is what a big chunk of my non-promo music consumption looks like now. I have outsourced much of my crate digging not to algorithms but to people like the aforementioned, those who keep a closer eye on their respective fiefdoms. Granted, that’s the not the … greatest admission for a heavy metal listmaker to make. Still, there’s just so much music now. I want to listen to slam and THC-fried doom and wizard-pissing-into-a-blizzard black metal. Unless you feel comfortable dedicating your life to one style, working your ass off within that tiny sphere to quell one’s overbearing new-release FOMO, it’s a concession that becomes all the more attractive as life’s other myriad responsibilities continue to mount exponentially.
And the Bandcamp music feed is pretty neat, the closest I’ll ever come to watching albums catch on in real time. Often, I’ll see a record pop up in the morning and it’ll hit my feed a few more times before the week is out as more and more people click “Buy Digital Album.” It’s a weird sensation, voyeuristically keeping tabs on bands as they move from obscurity to known quantity, or as much as anyone can be known in the extreme music underground. Diabolic Oath’s Profane Death Exodus is one such example. As soon as Sentient Ruin Laboratories, the band’s label, dropped a preview, it burned through my feed. And, all the while I’m still thinking: How the hell did you find this?
As someone who is tasked with being a monthly metal sleuth, that question has a professional component, especially as I grow older and feel … less confident in my abilities to keep up with what’s happening in the wider world of heavy stuff. So, I wanted to try to figure out how some music hunters always seem to find the right band at the right time. After talking with two, one a frequent Bandcamp user, the other a label owner, I got the sense that those who are good at music hunting in the 21st century have flipped the old marketer saying “think global, act local.” Instead, it’s more “think and act local and you’ll be global,” as if those who are dedicated to local scenes have an empathetic sixth sense for the artists who will eventually break out. Because, you know, they know them as people.
Of course, maybe that’s all pop-psych bullshit. But, indulge me. Here’s MILIM KASHOT – VOL. 2.
This 26-song set comes courtesy of Ron Ben-Tovim, proprietor of Machine Music, a blog that, per its great tagline, traffics in “Metal, Hardcore, Hyperbole.” What immediately sets MILIM KASHOT – VOL. 2 apart from its predecessor is that Ben-Tovim has expanded his gaze beyond the Israeli scene he documented on volume one, adding new versions and unreleased tracks from global underground heavyweights like Chrome Ghost, Esoctrilihum, and Locust Leaves into the mix. Proceeds from sales on Bandcamp go to the Global Foodbaking Network and For The Wildlife Animal Sanctuary. It’s a cool thing.
The point of interest for me is still the local stuff Ben-Tovim has rounded up. There are a lot of highlights, but to name two from Tel Aviv: Bormavet, a sturdy death/doomer making its debut, and KIP, a nutty fusion of experimental styles that still doesn’t hesitate to blow out your speakers with a sludgy trudge. Not sure I would’ve ever heard these bands otherwise. And, in a way, that’s what connects all of the bands on the comp: Ben-Tovim tends to find them before most others.
When I emailed Ben-Tovim about how his music hunting habits have evolved, he responded, “I’d say it has changed dramatically, on one hand, and not as dramatically on the other. Dramatically since my mode of checking out new music was basically flipping through an entire CD store, which made me very boring to hang out with. Literally every friggin’ CD in the place. So, that is quite different — CD stores are gone, music stores in general are gone, and it’s all online. But I’ve found that Bandcamp provides a very similar experience, one that is based, sometimes, on recommendations, but that still allows for a lot of random stuff to come through the cracks.”
That random stuff is sometimes the result of Ben-Tovim throwing a “wrench in the system at least once a day” to force him to leave his comfort zone by listening to “something that seems entirely out there.” The wrench-toss works, making Machine Music into a heard-it-there-first hotbed.
And Machine Music continues to grow. Ben-Tovim recently added a podcast, MATEKHET, that has already made waves with an interview with Ian MacKaye. Of course, interviews are kind of his thing. He kicked off the ambitious “Albums Of The Decade” series last year, extracting atypically deep interviews from subjects ranging from Isis to Oranssi Pazuzu to Alcest. Suffice to say, Ben-Tovim, who has a PhD in English Lit and has been “pretty much all dad, all the time” since the pandemic hit, has a stuffed workload. What motivates him to take a significant chunk out of his day to dig for new music, then?
“I think, for me, it has first and foremost to [be] that feeling of being blown away by something, or really confused, which is why that’s the question I always open with in my interviews,” Ben-Tovim wrote. “I think a lot of the contemporary ‘reaction’ culture on YouTube has to do with people wanting something real, or [without] artifice, and music and finding new music and specifically heavy music, to me, has always been about surprise. The kind of surprise I felt when I randomly found and heard Zeal & Ardor for the first time, or Brazilian black metal project Kaatayra, or Markov Soroka’s catalogue. But beyond that I think there’s a kind of reaffirmation of the human spirit that’s kind of addictive, that finding brilliant, original people — the only music I’m interested in — again and again has a kind of optimism about it. That as long as there are people there will always be great art.”
A similar sentiment runs through Transylvanian Tapes’ discography, an Oakland, California, label that just released bangers from Hellish Form, Occlith, and the seriously good dark ambient curveball Pastoral. (The latter is like Windham Hill took the wrong drugs and I am here for it.) “With this label I try to shine light on dedicated individuals that I truly believe in,” James, the label’s head, emailed to me. “I look at each band I work with as a personal investment. In my eyes, you should build the folks up that you surround yourself with and all rise together.”
The Transylvanian Tapes story started nearly 20 years ago when James got his feet wet with his first label. “When I was in middle and high school, the folks that I looked up to mostly were in bands, I always wanted to be a part of that experience in some shape or form. I didn’t have a band of my own but I did have impeccable taste in music so I figured why the hell not start my own label to carve out my own space,” he wrote. “So that is what I did, I invested a lot of money into a band of people that I considered close friends and started booking shows, booking recordings, and trying to elevate the band where I could. That band, like a lot of bands, ate themselves and I ended up losing out on a lot of money, but at the same time I learned a lot of valuable lessons about doing it yourself.”
When it came time to do it again, James did have a band of his own. Four, in fact: Swamp Witch, Caffa, Your Enemy, and Circle Of Eyes. (He’s since added quite a few more, including Atone, Evulse, and GraveCoven.) He just needed to know who else in his scene was ready to take the next step.
“Around the time that I decided I wanted to do another label to push my own bands, I had spent a couple years going out to three to four shows a week, trying to network with all sorts of different music communities, just to see who’s who and who’s full of shit; I don’t really talk a lot when I go out, but I assess a lot,” James wrote. “What I noticed was a lot of people can be pretty standoffish and unwelcoming of new blood. I felt it first hand and I am sure that several other folks did as well. I started going out of my way to make a connection with a core group of individuals that were hungry and motivated to really take things to another level. I figured, and I kinda felt like the others I was surrounding myself with were also like, ‘Fuck it if we aren’t going to be welcomed, we will just make our space and cultivate our own community.’”
Of the growing friend collective, two bands stuck out. “I wanted to put out Bruxers and Lycus, but I didn’t have any sort of label leverage and quite honestly I was pretty broke,” James remembered. Lycus would eventually release two acclaimed albums, one for 20 Buck Spin and the other for Relapse. Bruxers’ lifespan was shorter, releasing a tape on Deific Mourning, the cassette label that was also an early home for Acephalix and Vastum. The next band that Bruxers members would form, though, would be responsible for Transylvanian Tapes release number ┼ ┼ – 01.
“We knew Mortuous was going to be something special because after the first demo, Mor Immortalis, came out. Col Jones from Exhumed/Repulsion/Cretin and Mike Beams from Exhumed hit up Colin [Tarvin] to join [his] band,” James wrote. “They heard his demo and wanted to help bring the band to life.” After growing from a one-man band to a quintet, Mortuous were ready to roll. They also had someone in mind for the cassette release.
“Since they knew I had wanted to put out the Bruxers tape and had been super supportive, they let me put out their first full-lineup release and it was a huge honor to get to do so,” James recalled. Five years later, Mortuous hit the underground death metal version of the big time, earning plaudits for their LP debut Through Wilderness, released on fellow Oakland label Tankcrimes.
Snagging Mortuous wasn’t a fluke. James has consistently broken bands that, while they haven’t caught on in the mainstream sense, have definitely found ears within the underground. Transylvanian Tapes caught Cloak before they’d become Succumb, put Chrch and Body Void on tape first, and helped spread Vile Apparition’s demo to an audience outside of Australia. Recent Black Market readers also know the label for Chrome Ghost’s The Diving Bell. You should know it for Abyssal’s Misanthrope, an album that continues to grow on me … that I failed to properly cover in 2018. Whoops.
Whiffs like that are why I wanted to pick James and Ben-Tovim’s brains. I originally reached out to the two for a larger piece on how people are finding music now, a sort of sequel to my 2018 intro on the rise of YouTube channels. That piece fell apart as the world fell apart, and this was even back when I thought that the cassette crisis was “world falling apart” material. Still, in trading emails with the pair, I found two people who had acquired a trait I’ve never possessed: the ability to find the next thing.
Thanks to my ancient, by blogger standards, birth date, I feel like I’ve explored a lot of avenues for finding music. I’ve done record store word-of-mouth recommendations, read thank-you lists, traded mixtapes on message boards, spat bits and bytes at ratio-dependent FTPs, and taken extended safaris through blogspots that ate up so much of my day they felt like full-time jobs. As I said up top, though, I’m kind of … at a loss for one crucial element of my listmaking gig. I have Bandcamp. I have YouTube. I have sites like No Clean Singing. I have promos. But I have no real sense of what band will break out.
Let’s be honest: If it weren’t for Aaron and Wyatt, no one would read this column. That is to say, my prognostication powers have become something of a Punxsutawney Phil-style in joke. This year, I’m convinced that Relic Point is going to be a worldbeater. On the mainstream side of the coin, I believe I also told someone that the new Kairon; IRSE! is going to be “Tame Impala big,” proving I know fuck-all about pop music, too. Of course, I love these records. I am enthusiastic about these records. I’m only capable of writing about what I adore. That said, kind of like the time I forced an Internal Suffering tag into the Stereogum database, it’s clear that my finger isn’t on the pulse. If anything, I am Midas if he had a turd finger.
However, James and Ben-Tovim? They got it. I mean, sure, this is all a matter of degrees and perception. We’re talking of two other travelers who are careening down the underground along with me. And, granted, the world always sounds more interesting when you’re hearing it through other people’s ears. This is why I like reading year-end lists but hate making them. However, I kind of feel like their respective records speak for themselves. They both excel at finding good things that other people find … good.
“I have to say that, for the most part, stuff that I thought was absolutely brilliant and I was very early on usually takes on more generally not that long after.” Ben-Tovim wrote. Gosh, rub it in, Ron. But, like a lot of us who have turned this hobby into a gig, he thinks about the ones that should’ve caught on, too. “However I would like for a moment to say that there is one artist that I have been pushing for, well, forever, who I feel has not been given his due, which is Charlie Looker (Psalm Zero, Extra Life). Not because he hasn’t caught on, he is obviously a very respected member of the metal/experimental avant-garde, it’s just that I feel it’s a kind of travesty he isn’t bigger than that.”
Ben-Tovim chipped in two more. “More recently I feel that way about a Brooklyn black metal duo by the name of God’s Bastard — incredible, inspired, organic, powerful black metal, of the kind, to me, at least, anyone with half a brain should be into, and their brilliant EP from last year somehow still remains amazingly underrated. One last case is a local band by the name of Karkait who is, I feel, on the cusp on everything that’s exciting about heavy music today. They’re like a tortured-artistic-soul’s version of grindcore and noise. They’ve taken off relatively nicely in the local scene, but in a perfect world they’d be signed to Hydra Head/The Flenser, where there was more exposure for the kind of challenging-yet-punishing music they make.”
Despite being mastered by Dan Swanö(!), why hasn’t Karkait hit globally? Ben-Tovim has an idea: “No one is thinking of Israel in terms of heavy music, except for notable exceptions like Rabies Caste, Kever, or Dukatalon. That’s just a fact. But, in all honestly, there’s a grind/hardcore scene rising up here that’s worth taking notice of that’s political, original, and very interesting.”
As music hubs like Bandcamp further globalize music, making it easier for, say, certain dorks like myself to look worldly by adding killer Indonesian brutal death metal bands into our collections, Ben-Tovim wonders if the next move would be to split these gigantic music publishing networks down into something more digestible and context dependent.
“Since I am and always have been a firm believer in the power of geography and of local scenes,” he wrote, “I feel like maybe the future would be something like regional Bandcamps, or regional sites or a network of such sites, where you could travel from place to place and see what they specifically have to offer. I know I have, in my writing and in the compilation we put out, tried to focus on that more, and have also tried to focus on other scenes (such as a piece I did on grindcore in Cali, Colombia) because it’s a way for me to both be ‘international’ (which is, obviously, the future of all metal and all music) and locally-oriented.”
That focus on regional scenes was something that came up early when I emailed James, particularly regarding his own neck of the woods. “Smart bands will tap into the local community here and hone their craft taking cues from other more established artists. Underground shows in the Bay Area aren’t so much just fans of [the] music. A lot of time, the crowd will be made up of successful artists and folks in bands that understand the importance of going out and supporting one another. I cannot stress the importance of getting involved in your local communities enough. This is such a crucial piece of advice that I wish more people would grasp.”
The other thing James wishes people would grasp is the Sisyphean existence of being an underground artist, that even if you hit the lotto, are plucked from the void, and become successful, it’ll inevitably come with a tall-poppy backlash. “It is insane to me how fickle folks act when an underground band achieves any sort of notoriety for busting their asses,” James wrote. “It is like, sure, they may be selling out small clubs across the world and able to print merch regularly, but they aren’t rich, they aren’t making tons of money, you are probably making more money than them at your stupid job, the audacity to turn on these hard working bands for succeeding is dumbfounding.”
He went on: “People are legitimately afraid of other folks besides their core circle of friends liking something they like. This level of selfishness never existed before. Thirty years ago all you could do is spread the word around but now it is a contest to out-obscure each other so you can brag about it years down the line, like, ‘I listened to them when no one else did.’ Good for you, I guess, but pretty shitty for the bands that you are gatekeeping.”
I have to think that Bandcamp, with its supporter pixels and music feeds, is ending that kind of artificial-obscurity gatekeeping. That it, along with sites like Rate Your Music, has given everyone the ability to be a tastemaker, to find the next band that’s going to be the next band. They’ve allowed everyone to do their own PR, to publicize their own likes as far and wide as their follower count can reach. Any local scene can be global depending on who is scrolling through it.
Anyway. Here are a bunch of bands we found this month.
Quotes have been lightly edited for clarity and concision. Shout out to Wyatt for the editing assistance. –Ian Chainey
10. Chepang – “Antim Bhet”
Location: New York, NY
Chepang have never adhered to a template. “Isn’t punk supposed to be like that, break barriers and be different?” guitarist Kshitiz Moktan said in a 2018 Decibel interview when asked about the band’s atypical setup: two singers, two drummers, one guitarist. The band also said this to the Kathmandu Post:
We don’t support categorising music or anything in general. The idea of separating things and drawing a line between them has done enough harm. Why can’t you be all genres at the same time or even none? There is nothing more in the world we hate more than elitists and purists. Every time someone uses the term ‘fake grind’ or ‘pure grind’, I just want to yell, “Who the fuck are you to decide that?” We play extreme music and that’s about it.
No surprise, then, that Takafumi Matsubara and Colin Marston, two other genre evaders, make guest appearances on Chatta, the band’s second full-length. (Marston also produces. Quickie news item on Matsubara: His Formless Master cut a split last month with Bayht Lahm. It’s neat.) Slight surprise that Mette Rasmussen and Tashi Dorje’s saxophones are such an integral part of this album. Then again, given its history of defying easy sorting, perhaps not. Maybe Chepang just wanted to bury Fear.
Whatever, the unceasing onslaught of sonic surprises really brings Chatta to life, keeping listeners on edge even after multiple plays. An an example, “Bhramit” already speeds along with a Gridlinkian intensity, but the deep horn wum and reedy sax scream that streak across the outro adds an attention-grabbing WTF element. Did I just hear that? Yeah, probably. Get ready to think that even more during Chatta’s B-side that collects four remixes. Still, I mean, Chatta ultimately works not because it’s “out there” but because the players have a strong grasp of how to build songs that, you know, build in intensity. Moktan has been laying down riffs that balance catchiness and wildness since Sangharsha. Still got it. His hooks are strong enough to conjoin whatever chaos the two other pairs get into. (Regarding the vox, I love the lows. I’m assuming that’s still Sanket Lama? Hey, is BruteMukti on ice? That EP ripped.)
So, I’m picking “Antim Bhet” as a stream because it has got everything mentioned above: sax, Matsubara, two drumkits hammering away, sweet riffs, and screams aplenty. Extreme music. Wholly Chepang and Chepang alone. [From Chatta, out now via Nerve Altar.] –Ian Chainey
9. Aseitas – “Impermanence”
Location: Portland, OR
Subgenre: death metal / technical death metal
Way back in a forgotten time called “2017,” or roughly 800 years ago, M.I.R.P. asked the Aseitas band members who they would “like to share the stage with.” Aseitas answered with my kind of summer tour package: “Car Bomb, CB Murdoc, Gorguts, YOB, Plebeian Grandstand, Cattle Decapitation, Revocation, and Suffocation.” And that, my friends, is how to end your aux cord privileges in a car full of normos. Since M.I.R.P.’s question was really a backdoor into “what are your influences,” it’s hard to think of what all of that would even end up sounding like. The Mr. Bungled Meshuggahisms of Car Bomb and CB Murdoc transmogrified by the advanced-studies dissonance of Gorguts? The grasping-air riffdom of YOB crashing into the frantic grinding core of Plebeian Grandstand? Suffocation? Well, Suffocation makes sense because all bands should try to sound like early Suffocation. Still, huh. In early 2018, a few months after that interview, the Portland quartet dropped its self-titled debut and … they nailed it? They kind of nailed it.
Belonging to the same genreless-because-it’s-all-genres set of modern metal that claims Convulsing as a citizen, Aseitas was as advertised, indeed the result of feeding classic death metal and downtuned chungus riffs into a mathy meat grinder. Still, this was a very specific version of that. If you needed to quickly orient yourself, you could see that “City Of Stone,” one of the album highlights, had a Kevin Hufnagel guest spot. Overall, the band translated that Hufnagelian flare for innovation into a canny ability to pick up traits that worked for it without standing in any style’s shadow.
False Peace, the band’s 71-minute followup, is similar to its predecessor on the surface, obviously the work of the same crew, but proves to be a much deeper listen. Where Aseitas was a tapestry of interests, False Peace defines Aseitas’ voice. “Impermanence” and “Scalded,” the two streams that have gone public by the time I’m writing this, are engaging deathly stompers that only hint at what’s in store on the rest of this mammoth, in all senses, record. “Impermanence,” in particular, welds golden-era Relapse abstract metalcore to sweaty, early ‘90s brutal death metal while dropping in a fretless guitar solo that swings like crazy. That solo dogfights with the rhythms, zipping in, out, and around a crescendo of chugs. It’s heady stuff, but the song never loses that primal intensity. And that’s Aseitas’ unfair advantage, that the band is able to keep a sense of urgency even when exercising its most ambitious inclinations. The two epics, the 14-minute “Spite/Sermon” and 16-minute “The Behemoth’s Dance,” remind me of when post-metal was at its most vital, not so much in sound, but in the ability to balance progressive intent (and, importantly, zero cleans) with headbangable juds. Both tracks are dynamic, chock full of trapdoor surprises, but neither become untethered from Aseitas’ core strength: badass riffs. [From False Peace, out 7/10 via Lizard Brain Records.] –Ian Chainey
8. Moonknight – “Crystal Warfare”
Location: Louisville, KY
Subgenre: atmospheric black metal
Moonknight has a unique ability to channel intense fuzz into smeared beauty, extracting alluring light from crackling chaos. One of my favorite albums from James Brown III’s one man band is Toplov, Moonknight’s debut, a release that sounded so different from anything at the time then and today with its punkish sensibility and atmospheric dread splattered with kaleidoscopic light. Recently, outtakes from Toplov and its excellent followup Ligeia were released in a new collection, and while it’s a shame these gems somehow didn’t make the cut originally, it’s excellent they are being dug out now. At first, “Crystal Warfare” is a pummeling engine, but as Moonknight does so well, the track veers toward blissful harmony just as the tumult reaches inundating levels. [From Podnos, out now via Rising Beast.] –Wyatt Marshall
7. Xazraug – “Relentless Ignorance”
Location: Queens, NY
Subgenre: black metal
By the time you read this, Colin Marston might’ve released another album. Or five. Or maybe next month’s list will be Colin Marston all the way down. Thanks to his work behind the boards in his studio, Menegroth aka the Thousand Caves, his name has already appeared on a boatload of bangers this year: Afterbirth, Chepang (plus a guest spot), Defeated Sanity (ditto), ESP Mayhem, Pyrrhon, Reeking Aura, Thætas, and more. And then there was the stuff he played on. Krallice dropped a single, “The Wheel,” back in March. In April, Marston popped up as the bassist for Rejoice! The Light Has Come, another proggy band pushing familiar sounds into new territories. This month, his long-running mindfuck Behold The Arctopus released their fourth album, a familiarly unfamiliar brain sprain of techy prog batshittery. And then the pandemic hit and Marston slowed down. LOL, no, of course he didn’t. Indricothere, his sometimes metal, sometimes ambient, sometimes something else project, has already dropped three records in 2020. The most recent one is Tedium Torpor Stasis, his long-awaited exploration of “technical sloom.” It’s, like, 50-plus minutes of a slow slam. It’s great. And, apparently, Groeth will be unveiled this Friday. Looks like a noise project, especially as it credits Marston, under his Indricothere guise, with “FEEDBACK, mellotron”. Prepare your butts, neighbors.
This was a super long windup to talk about an album that isn’t any of those. Xazraug’s Unsympathetic Empyrean is an interesting one within the Marston oeuvre. As expected, it’s progressive and experimental. Close listens give you a chance to unpack the outré touches, such as the wordless vocals that float through “Relentless Ignorance.” They sound delightfully archaic, like they were pulled from a lost Hildegard von Bingen work. That’s the thing, though. While this is no doubt made by someone who has plied their trade in some of the most forward thinking bands this century, Xazraug, on the whole, is delightfully archaic. Instead of Krallicean widdles, we get longform songs that adhere more closely to the drone of the black metal classics that surfaced in the second-wave. These five songs are like weird, Fringe alternate universe versions of early Emperor and Enslaved. Each track delights in the overtones created when trem’d guitars, spooky synths, and blasting drums crash together. What’s truly different is how Marston plays with time, pulling these sections to their breaking points. He either adds or reduces elements, finding ways to mutate sections without losing the thread. “Grim And Unhallowed Entitlement” is an 11-minute album by itself, building up to a Mahlerian crescendo before the track is ripped apart as its universe expands. It’s also the second shortest song on the album. There’s just so much goddamn music on here. It’ll keep you busy. When you come out the other side, you’ll probably be a couple dozen Marstons behind. So, you know, like I said: July. [From Unsympathetic Empyrean, out now via the band.] –Ian Chainey
6. Lantern – “Strange Nebula”
Location: Kuopio, Finland
Subgenre: death metal / black metal
“Strange Nebula” does it all. Most importantly, it’s an absolute ripper that pummels and chugalugs with the best of ‘em. But there’s a ton of thrash mixed in with the old school death metal bona fides, with some black metal tendencies that further shift the track off its axis as it goes on. A little less than half way through, the fabric of the song unravels, and we subsequently fly off into deep space. Things come to a standstill, then pick up and die off again at varying speeds. This latter half of the track can feel like some sort of threshold has been crossed, and the rules of reality have been altered. Warped leads fly in and out, and big riffs and drums regroup to make quick concerted charges. Disquieting yet alluring, “Strange Nebula” ends on a cliffhanger that we’ll have to wait until July to resolve. [From Dimensions, out 7/10 via Dark Descent Records.] –Wyatt Marshall
5. Thætas – “Dearth”
Location: New York, NY
Subgenre: brutal death metal
Allow me to don my Wendy Beckett habit so we can look upon this album art together. That’s a red-tinged cityscape painted by prolific sicko and fanny pack enthusiast Paolo Girardi. Here, the album title comes through: Shrines To Absurdity. Pretty much what Thætas, the New York brutal death quintet, were going for, per this note pinned to a recent premiere on Metal Injection: “The debut record draws inspiration from the absurdity seen throughout human civilization and in particular the existential dread that many of us feel in modern times.” Ah, but take a harder look at those buildings. This is a Girardi work, after all. Something about those urban monuments seems … off, as if they’re not made of mathematically shaped stone and steel but of pulsating muscle. To me, and I say this with the minutes of experience I’ve now logged as an art critic, that’s Thætas. Where a similar technical brutal death metal would lean into flawless widdles constructed in a cleanroom, Thætas is fleshy and weird. Not that “Dearth” is, say, inexact. It has that inbuilt guitar-playthrough wow factor. But it sounds human, which is really something for a style normally so hellbent on sounding inhuman. Of course, it helps that Thætas have a strong grasp on what makes slamming brutal death metal with a technical bent tick. “Dearth” draws from a long line of brutal New York entities: from Suffocation to Malignancy to newer outfits like Andromorphus Rexalia. This adherence to a sort of NY brutal death metal classicalism — where the fast parts grind like braking subway cars, pinch harmonics ring out like car horns, and spiky slam parts are doused in that city-on-a-muggy-day stink — allows Thætas to color inside the lines creatively without messing with the song structures that work. The twin-guitar battery featuring Pat Hawkings (Aberrated) and Terrell Grannum (Buckshot Facelift, Reeking Aura), in particular, freshens up some quintessential grooves. That shit hits the bloodstream quick; you know you’re going to get what you want. In turn, that weaponizes the unexpected asides: the brief Candirian segue chord at :45 pops like crazy. How/why? Well, I think it goes back to that humanness. “Dearth” sounds dirty and filthy, less something abstract like breaching an event horizon and more about tripping into a storm drain. That is to say, it taps into that “existential dread” that’s closer to the surface of reality, giving this song stakes that hit a bit deeper. I could just be forcing my own hangups upon it. But, I don’t know. I listen to a lot of death metal and this has a different feel, something that taps into that Maggot Stomp M.O. of favoring ugly, real stuff. Ain’t that a sign of the modern times. [From Shrines To Absurdity, out now via Maggot Stomp.] –Ian Chainey
4. Förfallet – “Hällregn”
Location: Stockholm, Sweden
Subgenre: post-black metal
It can feel as if every take on black metal and its derivatives has been done at this point, with future improvement to be found in rearranging and perfecting what loose tenets and techniques hold the sprawling genre together. But then something like Förfallet comes along, opening up a whole new section of the map yet uncharted. What you’ll hear on “Hällregn,” the opening track off the band’s debut album, is sparse and cautious at first, testing the boundaries of a new sound. Quickly, it turns raw and ugly, with a pummeling low end and caustic vocals that are roared maniacally in what sounds like an abandoned torture chamber. There are both industrial and animalistic elements at work here, with mechanized indifference battering on one side and desperate instinct writhing and gnashing on the other. Decay and rot in a rusting urban environment. Many black metal bands lay it on thick, with layers of guitar building upon each other to create immersive atmosphere. Here, silence is all the more powerful, with space and reverberation doing the heavy lifting, allowing the physical striking of a snare or string to take center stage. It’s powerful and unsettling, an introduction to a new shade of black. [From Förfallet, out now via the band.] –Wyatt Marshall
3. Fellwarden – “Upon Stone”
Location: United Kingdom
Subgenre: atmospheric black metal
This year’s epic atmospheric black metal masterpiece has arrived: Fellwarden’s sophomore album Wreathed In Mourncloud is a stunner. “Upon Stone” begins with a quiet piano motif that grows into a work of earth-shifting magnitude, with lurching melancholy melodies seemingly swaying with the vicissitudes of fate. Orchestral elements, enmeshed in the high quality mix rather than ladled on thick, join cascading drum fills throughout the 12-minute song to produce swells of emotion. Frontman “The Watcher,” and “Havenless,” on drum duty, tread a mid-tempo path as they typically do in Fen, their other band. And the thoughtful, deliberate approach creates a wondrous result — the feeling of watching some beautiful, momentous event unfolding in a sort of sped-up geological time. [From Wreathed In Mourncloud, out now via Eisenwald.] –Wyatt Marshall
2. Mystras – “The Murder Of Wat Tyler”
Location: Athens, Greece
Subgenre: black metal
Ayloss is best known for his work in his one man band Spectral Lore, the mighty space-themed atmospheric black metal band that earlier this year released an incredible split with fellow traveler Mare Cognitum. In contrast, the inspiration for Mystras is decidedly earthbound, found mucking and writhing in the mud outside of castle walls. The sways of battle dictate the driving nature of “The Murder Of Wat Tyler,” but there’s also the heavy dose of melodic flourishes of lutes echoing off tapestry-lined halls. A revolutionary zeal runs through the album, which sings of peasant rebellion in medieval Europe. Wat Tyler, his last name reflecting his likely occupation as a roof tiler, led a peasant revolt in 14th century England, an uprising fueled by the institution of a poll tax and one that demanded social and economic reform, including the right to choose one’s employer and an end to serfdom. Following a revolutionary path that led all the way to London, he was killed by agents of King Richard II during negotiations. The ardor of his cause runs through Castles Conquered And Reclaimed, one of the most compelling releases of its kind in years. [From Castles Conquered And Reclaimed, out now via I, Voidhanger Records.] –Wyatt Marshall
1. Paysage d’Hiver – “Le Rêve Lucide”
Location: Bern, Switzerland
Subgenre: atmospheric black metal
Note: In 2017, Paysage d’Hiver released a split with Drudkh on Season of Mist and the band’s own Kunsthall Produktionen. While Drudkh has described itself as “non-political,” its members/ex-members have logged time in Astrofaes and Hate Forest. Both are associated with National Socialist black metal (NSBM). Additionally, the latter has shared members with bands like Nokturnal Mortem and Dub Buk. We missed the split during our research. We are calling attention to it now.
Paysage d’Hiver holds a near mythical status amongst a subset of black metal fans. Scarcity plays a role in this deserved reputation — lone member Wintherr, also of the legendary Darkspace, surfaces only rarely to deliver his monumental, immersive, and frigid works before returning to hiding to channel inspiration for his next work. The level of deference fans show Paysage d’Hiver can be a bit unique. After an invite-only listening party for the album was held in a cellar beneath a castle in Switerland — an event for which special beer was brewed and served, followed by a listening session in darkness of the 2-hour album — one fan shamed another for describing the intimate event on Reddit in such a public fashion that would betray the artist’s vision. (Attendees of this listening party got a really cool USB stick engraved with a forest scene containing the album that will surely be an end-all for collectors.) Choosing a favorite track from a Paysage d’Hiver album is a die toss, especially so early after its release, and describing songs that are so meditative and transportive is something of a fool’s errand. That said, “Le rêve lucide” is an early earworm, full of the alluring, hypnotic qualities that make Paysage d’Hiver unique, and it conjures unforgiving winter landscapes and nighttime magic as only Wintherr can. As every Paysage album seems to be, it is truly a landmark album. [From Im Wald, out now via Kuntshall Produktion.] –Wyatt Marshall
BONUS: Pyrrhon – “Another Day In Paradise”
Location: Brooklyn, NY
Subgenre: death metal / not death metal
One of the perks of inheriting this gig from a more talented person is that I get to hear his musical endeavors early. This is to say, I was jamming Abscess Time before the world started to burn. I imagine that could be a nightmare scenario for most artists, especially those in the extreme environs, when reality threatens to Bob Beamon over your songs in measurable levels of anxiety, depravity, and brutality. Abscess Time, though, still works. In fact, I’d say it has become even more important as 2020 reaches terminal velocity in its septic-tank-bound free fall.
I think this is because Pyrrhon have never shied away from stating the hard truths as wildly and discordantly as possible, something that society wouldn’t tolerate if you did the same by losing your shit in a breakroom. “Rise and praise the hungry sky/ Another day in paradise,” Doug Moore yells on the song that takes its title from that bleak, sardonic couplet. He goes on to excoriate the empty-headed philosophy of the striving middle manager and the group-think “should be happy to have a job” horseshit favored by friends of and unwitting cogs within the American capitalist machine. But, you know, it’s funny. Darkly funny. Painfully, “too real” funny. Similarly, when Pyrrhon delve into disenfranchisement and marginalization, they leverage that too-realness for equally bracing ends. With a thank-you in the liner notes to journalists for providing the reporting that inspired “Down At Liberty Ashes,” you can say it again: too real.
Pyrrhon as composers have leveled up on Abscess Time, placing listeners on the rack for this set, forgoing a traditional metal album flow for something that reconfigures it in the same way COVID-19 has, in Venkatesh Rao’s estimation, flipped our collective senses of Chronos/Kairos/Aion time. How else could you describe a record that starts with the slow crawl of the title track, something that sounds like if Brutal Truth’s “Collapse” went full My War/Public Castration. And yet, opening the album that way makes you listen. Due to the incongruity, you hear every second of that song: Doug’s vocals giving classic Steve Austin a run, Dylan DiLella’s Zeus-like control of feedback bolts, Erik Malave’s cornered-rat bass lines, and Steve Schwegler’s drum fills that move across his kit like fear does up your spine. In turn, you feel every second of the songs that follow, as if the part of your brain tasked with spotting contrasts is fully activated. There are wild improv sections and not not death metal slammy parts and bristling punk parts and so much more. You’re there for all it. Present. Because this record is so much this moment. And it starts with that first song, especially the way it ends: “The rush of our pus will bleach the cruel streets/ For when all is corruption, no act is obscene.” That was true when I first heard this album. It’s true now. It’s because it’s just true. Too true, too real. (Bonus note for the bonus bleb: Not to imperil your local delivery driver, but try to pick up a physical copy of this so you can check out Caroline Harrison’s art in detail. The way they did the printing adds extra dimension to an already affecting piece. Cool stuff.) [From Abscess Time, out now via Willowtip Records.] –Ian Chainey