A few songs deep into Unleash The Archers’ hour-plus set, Brittney Slayes took a between-song break to address the audience. “I don’t know, is this as weird for you guys as it is for us?” the singer asked, punctuating the question with a laugh. Drummer Scott Buchanan and session bassist Ben Arscott looked amused. The Rickshaw Theater in Vancouver, BC, capacity 1,000 people, was silent. I hit pause on the stream to pour myself another cup of coffee. Yeah, I thought, this is kind of weird.
Held within the confines of a TicketSpice page on 8/22, Unleash The Archers’ record release show was the second concert I’ve “attended” this month, with Arcturus’ two-night adventure in latency being the other. While Arcturus were streaming from the open-air Møllafestivalen in Gjerstad, Norway, and thus had some humans around to acknowledge their existence, Unleash The Archers’ “virtual concert” was limited to just the band and its A/V crew.
Still, Unleash The Archers did their damnedest to keep their normal crowd interaction playbook intact. Slayes, for instance, pumped up songs with chant-inciting “hey!”s. However, it was impossible not to recognize the pandemic-sized elephant in the Zoom. “Stand up, get off the couch. I want to hear you!” she yelled during live staple “Test Your Metal” while guitarists Grant Truesdell and Andrew Saunders were locked in a spark-flying lead duel. In a one-way Vimeo stream, can anyone hear you scream?
And yet, Unleash The Archers’ set offered a needed dose of before-time feels. The band’s new full-length, Abyss, is a ripper, unexpectedly reaffirming that I can still get down with modern power metal sharpened into a melodeath edge. When the quintet blazed through the blasty, HevyDevy-esque “Legacy,” my favorite song on the record, a chill washed over me, that once-familiar reaction to finally hearing a banger in the flesh. But, of course, I wasn’t there. And when the song ended, no one cheered. And that was weird. A lot weirder than I expected.
How important is an audience to the live experience? That’s the conundrum post-lockdown live broadcasts have been trying to untangle. It’s not exactly breaking news that a Deepwater Horizon-sized spill of uncanniness has seeped into most entertainment events as they’ve transitioned from live to a buffered approximation of live over the past few months. Some have fared better than others, though all have been radiated with a heavy dose of weird. And few have been more abnormal in their attempt at normalcy than sports.
After an extended hiatus, most professional leagues in America have hit the airwaves again. (Whether we deserve sports in America right now is a different story.) Once more, you can tune in to hear the crack of the bat, swish of the net, crunch of a check, and … cheer of the crowd?
Skip to 2:35 to watch as New York Yankees slugger Aaron Judge deposits a dong into the left field seats that are populated by … wait … oh god. Oh god.
In order to alleviate the incongruity of uninhabited sporting events, leagues, teams, and broadcasters have experimented with ways to effectively fill the empty seats. The bloodless fans above, who look like less like bleacher creatures and more like they’re waiting for a Call Of Duty war crime to be committed, were a short-lived addition. The NBA, on the other hand, inflated its bubble by erecting a digital wall of Together participants that left Lil Wayne hanging for way too long. WWE, as it does, took that wall and went wild for its Thunderdome, a true PTSD nightmare for anyone who has been forced to endure a work-mandated Zoom happy hour. Congratulations to the nominees, but the everyone-is-fired award goes to South Korean soccer team FC Seoul, whose PR department decided that the perfect objects to hold signs aloft were sex dolls. For real. It looked like the graduation ceremony for Incel University.
Most broadcasts, though, have taken to simply adding generated crowd noise to their productions, providing the illusion that fans are there … somewhere. Initially, I hated it. I resented that producers thought I was an idiot and couldn’t entertain two competing thoughts at once, that SPORTS FANTASY GOOD but COVID REALITY BAD. Not to mention, why encourage people to think they can or should be there? Plus, hearing on-field/-court chatter is a rare treat. Behold, Don Mattingly’s fuck-laden “there’s nobody here!” rejoinder to an ump ribbing him for his circular argument.
But lately, I’ve come back around on piped-in cheers. I don’t really need them for sports. For virtual concerts, though? I’ll bite. The silence is just too weird. Now, the reason why I think it’s weird is … well … it’s a bit of a mindfuck.
First, let me say that there are definitely things I like about virtual concerts. I mean, I don’t have to stand in line for the bathroom or lie to friends when I want to bail. (“Doors are at 11pm on a work night! Come on, dude!”) I’m also not endangering my community by acting like a reckless asshole during a pandemic. I’m sure bands are also pleased that the chat is turned off and the merch table has been digitized, making punishment opportunities few and far between.
Streaming has upgraded certain facets of the audiovisual experience, too. I normally frequent crusty dives with an acoustic profile that, at best, can be described as taking a shower in an active jet propulsion lab. So, hearing Arscott pluck distinct bass notes during Unleash The Archers’ set was an enjoyably new experience. And I liked the band’s decision to utilize a multicam setup that often included GoPros clipped to headstocks, providing a bug’s eye view of the shred. Finally, my identity as the intently staring creep trying to turn a ticket into a free guitar lesson has been anonymized.
A lot of these production elements, though, are things we’ve come to expect from concerts either professionally recorded for video releases or captured by amateur videographers for YouTube uploads. Multiple angles, quick cuts, closeups. These elements add a layer of artifice, which moves virtual concerts into an interesting tweener space, one inhabited by sports broadcasts that seek to spin the many threads of the present into a digestible story. The concert is still live, but it’s now a step removed from reality. It’s live-ish.
Thanks to decades of subconscious training imparted by canny TV directors who position the viewer as an omnipotent figure, the stylized production of a virtual concert nudges me to work off of a different set of expectations. That is to say, I’m no longer watching a concert the way I would if I was there, but a TV presentation of one. In turn, I fixate on what’s missing. Wait, where are the requisite interstitial crowd shots that help drive the narrative? Where are the cheers? Oh, right, the world sucks and we can’t do that anymore. That’s, you know, reality! The world does suck! And you’d think that would make the virtual concert realer. But, it ends up violating the rules established by TV, so there’s a disconnect. The real is too real and that makes the presentation feel unreal. That’s weird!
This weirdness isn’t the fault of Unleash The Archers or the event’s producers. Really, as a band, you have to roll with the best tools available; damned if you do, damned if you don’t. And I would much rather watch a well-directed TV presentation version of a live-ish concert than, say, the old static-webcam that I used to log into to catch the odd CBGB matinee. To reiterate, Unleash The Archers put on a good show! But the delivery system it utilized has a history and context, not to mention its own visual language, that I can’t disentangle myself from. My brain just won’t let go of the fact that I’m watching Unleash The Archers on a screen and no one is there. However, a live-ish virtual concert still provides something that pre-recorded sets do not.
In the July edition of his Let The Roundup Begin column, Tom wrote about hate5six, a prolific show documentarian whose work is getting some extra publicity now that we’re in the “Remember That Show?” phase of dwindling content. The metal equivalent is the legendary Frank Huang at Max Volume Silence. Huang’s video of Artificial Brain playing at Saint Vitus Bar on 2/14 is one of the other live shows I’ve been watching a lot lately. Arty B crushes, and the crispness of Huang’s capture is top-notch, balancing individual instrument clarity with the overtone-soup reverb that makes live shows great. It also has fans in the frame, reacting to music in real time. I can’t understate this: The further I move away from treating that experience as “normal,” the more powerful accurate depictions of it become.
While these videos scratch an itch, they’re not, you know, live in the sense that they’re unfolding before my eyes. These sets are trapped in a temporal oddity, like watching a SportsCenter recap of the big game. Some of the thrill remains, not unlike the complex emotions driving the reaction video phenomenon that’s seeing another boom, but it’s not the same as being there in the moment. These older live sets can’t compare to knowing in your bones that something unexpected might happen and you’re there to witness it.
“I could never understand our success; I could never understand why so many people bought our records, because they were so full of flaws!” Ron Glover said to Goldmine when asked why Deep Purple’s bootlegs became so popular. In Glover’s mind, this was the key: “We walked a very thin line between chaos and order, and that was the magic, that was why people bought our records. I came from a pop band, and when you’re a pop band, you learn the song, and you play it the same way every night. And now, there’s this band veering off, and suddenly the solo’s in E when it should be … ‘Hey, what’s happening here?’ That’s the magic.”
That magic is what places you wholly in the present. And being present is such a scarce resources these days. That’s why I still thirst for live events, then, even if they’re live-ish.
Be that as it may, I can’t get around it: Not hearing a crowd has really borked my brain. Both artist and audience have been trained to expect a certain atmosphere, a supercharged shared experience, that generates immediate feedback. It’s a crucial part of the live show contract: Band does a thing, crowd reacts. Even if I intellectualize it beforehand, that there’s going to be a muted crowd response if there’s any at all, it still catches me off-guard. My brain takes a beat to catch up and then I’m out of the moment.
To put it another way, it’s a slightly different version of my TV presentation reaction. I just watched Unleash The Archers slay. Wait, did no one else like that? Oh, right, no one is there. Most of the time, the silence is a reminder that things aren’t normal and I’m able to reconnect the circuit and reboot. Other times, that non-reaction can be maddening, an infuriatingly familiar progression left unresolved. It’s like Judge Doom tapping out “Shave And A Haircut” in Who Framed Roger Rabbit. There’s the call! Holy shit, someone, anyone, respond!
The thing is, well, bands could make that happen. While we’re stuck in the virtual concert zone, bands could use generated crowd noise to fill the void. I reached out to Brittney Slayes before Unleash The Archers’ show to see if this was something they considered. Through Napalm Records Public Relations Manager Natalie Camillo, she said this:
We had not thought of this actually, no, but what a great idea! I think it would be somewhat similar to a laugh track in television — sure it fills out the moment, but might be a little strange for those watching the show. I like to think the fans are singing loudly and cheering for us on the other side of the camera, so that is where we will pull our energy from. You just have to visualize the crowd, imagine all of their smiling faces are out there in front of you and do your best to engage with them that way. A crowd noise generator might make the show feel more real during filming but at the end of the day nothing will ever replace the energy that passes back and forth between you and a live crowd, so it might be okay for a sports team that is fully immersed in the game, but for us, the crowd IS the game, and I am not sure it would have quite the same effect! We are all just going to have to do our part to get the world back to normal as quickly and safely as possible so we can hit the road again for real!
Fair. Slayes’ take is a good one and it fits in with the sentiment of a lot of smarter sports pundits: No matter how well the generated crowd noise is designed, it can’t deliver the same aural cues.
On Episode 1574 of the baseball podcast Effectively Wild, ESPN’s Sam Miller noted his frustration with the fake cheers, saying that, in normal times “there’s all of these instances of things happening off-screen and the crowd is actually telling you something is happening by getting a little bit louder.” That rise in volume and intensity happens organically. Now, if a preset “base hit” reaction is played with no rise in volume, experienced viewers like Miller are “[lulled] into believing that nothing else is happening.” Miller is right, it’s disorienting. Who knew I derived so much contextual data just from the timbre of cheers?
Sports leagues have tried to rectify this by letting A/V engineers essentially “DJ” via a soundboard of canned responses, mixing to match the on-field energy. England’s Premier League and other European soccer leagues have done the best, using crowd noise pulled from the FIFA video game series. Those video games went to great lengths to design a unique atmosphere for each region (though, thankfully, the digital crowds are free of racist fan chants) in order to suspend players’ disbelief and it’s paying off now that they’re scoring the real deal. Fake fans cheer, but they also hiss and boo.
Major League Baseball, on the other hand, has “discouraged” teams from adding dissenting voices. “They specifically asked us that we not add boos to the mix,” Mark DiNardo, the Philadelphia Phillies’ director of broadcasting and video services, said to the Philly Voice, “but it is kind of funny since everyone says that boos are ‘so Philly.’”
Needless to say, this enforced positivity is pretty irritating. How will anyone on the Houston Astros know that they’re alive unless they’re booed mercilessly? (Sit down, Joe Kelly.) That said, it’s particularly irritating because crowd noise can be instructive, influencing how one perceives the action at hand. A crowd’s response is a societal cue, informing those with a lower knowledge base what the collective finds worthy of highlighting. As an example, check out the Waldner-esque double chop block that opens this Koki Niwa highlight reel. If a table tennis newbie watched this on mute, without the sound of the announcer and crowd totally losing their shit, would they find it impressive? If this awesome thing happened in silence, would it be as awesome?
That kind of pop, the unforced outpouring of ecstasy from hundreds giving themselves over to the bigger moment, is even kind of addictive. It’s the reason that I’ll re-watch Troy Deeney’s bid for immortality even though I couldn’t care less about Watford FC. The crowd goes mental. It’s the best.
My reaction is what live albums and videos bank on. When it works its magic, a live album or video can even become my favorite thing in a band’s discography. Live (Hot Curry & Wine) is the best thing the pre-prog Holocaust committed to tape. It just hits differently. And a good live video with a wild crowd can even make me reappraise bands that I’ve previously written off. Lizzy Borden doesn’t do much for me on record, but I’d be damned if a recent viewing of The Murderess Metal Road Show made me seriously question my hearing. Some of that is because, jeez, I don’t remember Lizzy Borden ever going this hard. However, a lot of it is because the crowd’s liveliness is infectious. It’s contagious. Good call, ensorcelled mulleted throngs, I will also bang my head to Lizzy goddamn Borden.
Naturally, live albums and videos help me set the baseline for what I expect a great live show to be. Naturally, that’s why we also get stuff like this:
That’s Metallica, live. Well, “live.”
“And then there are the quote-unquote live versions of ‘Seek And Destroy’ and ‘Phantom Lord,’ which were really just us at [San Francisco recording studio] the Automatt,” drummer Lars Ulrich said to Billboard on the occasion of the band’s Record Store Day deluxe repress of Kill ‘Em All. “The famous live versions that weren’t really live!”
Shocker, generated crowd noise is nothing new. It’s not new for sports. In 2015, the Atlanta Falcons lost a draft pick and were fined $350,000 for filling the Georgia Dome with artificial cheers in order to gain a competitive advantage. And it’s definitely not new for the arts. In fact, it goes way back. After a successful proof of concept in the 16th century, paying people to applaud performances became an enduring feature of the French theater. These “claqueurs” even became a profession. Per the Encyclopedia Britannica by way of TheatreHistory.com:
By 1830 the claque had become a regular institution. The manager of a theatre sends an order for any number of claqueurs. These people are usually under a chef de claque, whose duty it is to judge where their efforts are needed and to start the demonstration of approval. This takes several forms. Thus there are commissaires, those who learn the piece by heart, and call the attention of their neighbors to its good points between the acts. The rieurs are those who laugh loudly at the jokes. The pleureurs, generally women, feign tears, by holding their handkerchiefs to their eyes. The chatouilleurs keep the audience in a good humour, while the bisseurs simply clap their hands and cry bis! bis! to secure encores.
It’s like the forthcoming Juggalo Singularity, the day when everyone at the Gathering realizes everyone else is also a journalist. Hilariously, the practice persists. In a 2013 New York Times piece, the Bolshoi Ballet was found to be employing the same tactics. And, as recording studios evolved, a similar strain would find its way into the toolbox of record producers.
This excellent and prescient listicle by Serene Dominic in the Phoenix New Times rounds up a few of the more infamous “live” albums that were actually created mostly, if not entirely, in the studio. It contains some classics along with some real cynical cash grabs. Fake audiences abound. And that’s just a small sampling. I was able to trace this studio fake-out trend back to Peggy Lee and George Shearing’s 1959 album Beauty And The Beat!, although I bet hundreds of hucksters got there earlier.
Beauty And The Beat!’s 2003 remaster came clean about its origins: “This album was originally released with overdubbed applause and background ambiance and issued as recorded at the 1959 Miami Disk Jockey’s [sic] Convention. It was actually recorded in the studio shortly before or after the actual appearance and is presented here in its pure state and greatly improved fidelity.” While the quality of the original album’s foley work is, uh, debatable, it still fools people. “I can tell ya mate the ‘LIVE IS LIVE’ it was recorded at a Disc Jockey Convention in Miami,” YouTube user Tony lawrence Walsh commented on an upload. User murzek11 confirmed: “It was recorded live in front of a convention of DJs. I was a DJ and attended.” Nnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnope.
Of course, the big open secret is that most live albums and videos are varying degrees of bullshit. As the quote goes, “No one wants to hear me dropping a guitar just because it is ‘real.’”
That one-liner is often attributed Kiss’ Paul Stanley and most likely references the band’s live-ish Alive II. It recently showed up in an exhaustive retrospective on Judas Priest’s Unleashed In The East. That album has been dubbed “Unleashed In The Studio” in certain circles because a flu-stricken Rob Halford had “partial laryngitis” during Priest’s four-show run in Japan and overdubbed some of the vocals later. Unleashed In The East is also probably a bit of a composite, cherrypicking the best takes from two different dates: Koseinenkin Hall on February 10, 1979 and Nakano Sunplaza Hall on February 15, 1979.
This is not a knock on Unleashed In The East. It’s one of the best live albums of all time. It is an “ideal” metal show. But, I have to wonder, what are the ripple effects of that? What happens when you cleverly edit reality to achieve an ideal?
To be fair, finishing a live album in the studio is the norm. Everyone with a budget tends to do it because the results are worth it. I don’t think bands are worried about an escalation of perfection, of creating an impossible ideal. It’s more like, do you want a dropped guitar or a good album? Do you want a normal crowd or one sweetened with additional cheers?
As an example, take my beloved Live (Hot Curry & Wine). That same stop was documented earlier on the 1981 video Live From The Raw Loud ‘N’ Live Tour:
Compare that to the audio upgrade it received 18 months later:
Live From The Raw Loud ‘N’ Live Tour doesn’t have quite the same spark, which is funny because it’s the more authentic document. To me, Live (Hot Curry & Wine) sounds … realer and live-er, no doubt thanks to the hooting and hollering fans that have been elevated in the mix. (I reached out to Holocaust for comment. The band didn’t respond.) Those elements give the album a big bump.
That bump holds true for Metallica’s “live” versions, too, even though, to be clear, they’re fake. Recorded during an August 1983 session, the tracks were plopped onto the B-side of the “Jump In The Fire” single. They’ve been a bit of a Metallica curio ever since because the crowd noise isn’t exactly convincing. And yet, the over-the-top rapturous cheers fill up the spectrum in a way that’s … agreeable? Here’s the same recording without it:
Even though I know the cheers are fake, it’s weird hearing this track without them. It feels empty. God, why is my brain like this? Give me the kayfabe! And that’s another thing. While Metallica has proven itself to be a pretty carny enterprise, I don’t think its “live” recordings were some nefarious attempt to boost the band’s appeal. Already a killer on the road, it wasn’t like Metallica were hurting for legit live recordings in 1983, although perhaps the ovation it received at the time wasn’t as thunderous. My best guess is that I think they were in on the joke, not unlike Encenathrakh’s winking Live Album that was released earlier this year. James Hetfield and Ulrich were students of NWOBHM, after all.
Blitzkrieg’s Blitzed Alive demo from 1981 is legitimately live, but it has been sweetened with additional crowd noise. Per the legend, the band caught so much heat for this they purposely added the cheers from a Queen concert to “Hell To Pay” on 1985’s A Time Of Changes to antagonize the haters. (I reached out to Blitzkrieg’s PR contact to confirm. They didn’t respond.)
To an extent, I get why would want to make your live demo more live at risk of making it live-ish. I’m taking this a little bit out context, but singer Brian Ross, also of Black Market favorites Satan, said the following to Power Of Metal.dk in 2016: “When you saw Blitzkrieg live, you saw and heard the band the way it was supposed to be. On record … and I met a lot of bands at the time who were also like that … their recording was sort of very basic. A lot of people like that I guess … but from a musician’s point of view it’s not really the way it should be. In the studio we hear the album the way it’s supposed to be heard but when it’s released it doesn’t sound quite the same.”
The way it’s supposed to be heard. The way it’s supposed to be seen. The way it’s supposed to be. Worthwhile pursuits. TV presentations, studio live albums, claqueurs, and generated crowd noise are after the same ends, though. Which is real and which is the ideal?
I think the real and ideal both feed into each other and influence our conception of reality. As a consequence, both change quickly as they substantiate and subvert the other. Each generation brings its own wants and desires to the table, accepting or rejecting what came before. Back in 1926, engineers abruptly cut off recordings because they didn’t want to capture applause. Imagine if that stuck, if that was our current expectation of a live recording.
My “live experience” and the baseline that informs it is a hodgepodge of data points, some lived, some imparted by inauthentic sources that have brightened and sweetened reality. Considering the latter, a lot of that is done to help normalize the presentation, to make sure I can get from A to B without deviating from my expectations. In other words, to make sure things don’t get too real. But, life is at its most interesting and memorable when it’s weird, when the unexpected is allowed to crash the party.
Unleash The Archers closed their set with “Afterlife,” Abyss’ finale. The song includes an orchestral interlude that swells with a heartstring-tugging, pastoral flute part.
Out of nowhere, someone said “my dear Frodo.” I laughed so fucking hard.
“Someone did indeed say ‘My dear Frodo’ and that someone was Andrew, because that song was so very much inspired by LOTR and he wrote all the orchestration,” Slayes said during a followup. “We wanted the album to end on a light-hearted, triumphant note, and what better way to do that than to invoke the sentiments of one of the greatest fantasy stories of all time! We wanted the ‘live stream’ to feel as live as possible, so we brought the energy and the good times and did our best to enjoy ourselves up there just like we would any other show! Ending the set on ‘Afterlife’ might be a new staple for us, so the ‘dear Frodo’ line might become a tradition for us as well, hahaha.”
In a year bereft of positive memories, where the days are impossible to differentiate and the whole mess has congealed into a gloppy mush, I’m going to remember that. Stay weird. –Ian Chainey
10. 0 – “(em)Pathetic”
Just last month Ian wrote a fascinating introduction to the column about the significance of band names in metal, delving deep into the philosophical meaning behind secret-handshake band names. For the piece, he interviewed one of the members of the Danish band (0), pronounced “parentes0parentes” by those in the know. (0) is not the same as 0 — this 0 goes by “Núll,” is from Iceland, and sports the Bandcamp URL “https://0000000.bandcamp.com,” which isn’t too far off from another band Ian mentioned, 01101111011101100110111001101001. Behind these non-names is real music, and 0’s newest is a powerful, tortured doom. “(em)Pathetic” soundtracks a mind coming undone, plodding towards oblivion while it all falls apart. Weary and surprisingly lush instrumentation give the song a flair for the dramatic, heightening the sense of melancholic anguish. The dark, unsettling and raw yet melodic qualities make all the more sense knowing that 0 features members of Icelandic black metal firestarters Misþyrming, Naðra, and Skáphe. [From Entity, out now via Ván Records.] –Wyatt Marshall
9. Naegleria Fowleri – “Fractals Of Absolute Disease”
Subgenre: brutal death metal / goregrind
As the intro demonstrates, I am only capable of holding bad opinions about sports and brutal goo music. Bumble keeps deleting my profile. It is the strangest thing. Anyway, yes, goo music. It has been an unexpectedly excellent year for goregrind. The Houkago Grind Time full-length, which I hope we cover in the next few months, is the best Dead Infection record since A Chapter Of Accidents. Meanwhile, prolific splatterer Hagamoto keeps churning out releases with reckless abandon; Aspirate Coma is another winner. And newcomers Nyctophagia have proven to be one of the more promising quaran-grinders going.
But, I’ve been especially exited about the upsurge of a substyle I’ve lazily dubbed “ultra ping turbo goregrind.” This is the new frontier of super-short, grinding blurs of blastbats that are indebted to Last Days Of Humanity’s seminal In Advanced Haemorrhaging Conditions. White-noise-wall guitars, pitch-shifted blerghs, and drums tuned tighter than any screwtop in an OCD sufferer’s house. Late last year, Dayton, Ohio’s Sulfuric Cautery chewed through my guts with the punky Chainsaws Clogged With The Underdeveloped Brain Matter Of Xenophobes. It hit my shortlist. This year, we got a wild one from Cystgurgle, a two-piece from Bangkok that I kept on the shelf because I’m convinced the appreciably barfy album art will get me fired.
Now, welcome to the party, Naegleria Fowleri. You might already know two of the three members depending on your familiarity with this part of the goo globe. Bassist/vocalist Alex Mamontov made some waves with Bowel Leakage (more barf art, Google it) and catchy BDMer Egregious. And guitarist/vocalist Sergey Krechetov has tread these hyperblast waters before with the uncomfortably wet Hydrocele. Both players nail the intricacies of LDOH, finding a way to inject hooks into the chaos where you’d least expect them. (Hint: Hum along to the vocal patterns.)
But, the star of this bucket of sick is drummer Aleksej Popov. This guy can do the requisite speedy blasts, but his drumming is also delightfully loose and … dare I say … groovy? Yeah, Popov has an arsenal of fills that are atypical for grind and it gives Odes To The Adorable Essence Of Putrefaction a different feel. Where most bands wouldn’t drop the BPMs below 1,000, Naegleria Fowleri feint at toughguy slams throughout, maximizing the potential of those brief respites by experimenting with microscopic sonic details and rhythms. A controlled rot, or something. Neat. [From Odes To The Adorable Essence Of Putrefaction, out now via Ungodly Ruins Productions.] –Ian Chainey
8. Moldé Volhal – “Through Everlasting Halls (Triumphant Return To The Keep Of Moldé Volhal)”
Subgenre: atmospheric black metal
Moldé Volhal is another excellent black metal band roaring into the column this month on the strength of a remarkable debut. “Through Everlasting Halls” burns down the barn, screaming from the get go behind constantly trilling guitars and continuously eliding high caliber riffing. The melodic dual-guitar attack, along with an overall epic bent — and the rock-on-rock grating vocals — strike a sweet spot. Guitar hero solos and castle metal DNA run throughout, landing Moldé Volhal in the center of some sort of atmospheric black metal Venn diagram. One would expect nothing else from the album’s totally killer throwback cover art. [From Into The Cave Ordeals, out now via the band.] –Wyatt Marshall
7. Atramentus – “Stygian III: Perennial Voyage (Across The Perpetual Planes Of Crying Frost & Steel-Eroding Blizzards)”
Location: Longueuil, Québec
Subgenre: funeral doom
I get the feeling that, if he’s not already, Philippe Tougas is going to be one of those cultly adored figures in underground metal. Dude isn’t even 30 yet and he’s racked up quite the resume: Chthe’ilist, Cosmic Atrophy, First Fragment, Serocs, Zealotry. That’s how you death metal. And, before Unleash The Archers, the last modern power metal album I loved belonged to the all-star ensemble Eternity’s End, which employed our man as a sixth-gear shredder and songwriter alongside Christian Münzner. Naturally, Toguas’ new project is Atramentus, a … [*reads slowly*] funeral doomer?
“Around eight years ago, I walked through a snowstorm for three hours in temperatures exceeding -20 degrees Celsius and came back home freezing, miserable, angry, and anxious,” Tougas said to Invisible Oranges earlier this year. “I grabbed my guitar and wrote the song ‘Perennial Voyage.’ Atramentus was born on that night.” Hell of an origin story. And, yeah, you can feel some of that coldness permeate the Demilichian titled “Stygian III: Perennial Voyage (Across The Perpetual Planes Of Crying Frost & Steel-Eroding Blizzards).” This one is, uh, 23 minutes, by the way. You’re definitely getting your money’s worth with the column this month.
Tougas has assembled quite a crew to bring Stygian to life: Claude Leduc (Chthe’ilist, Sutrah) is the second guitarist; bassist extraordinaire Antoine Daigneault (Chthe’ilist, Serocs) holds down the low-end; X. Berthiaume (Gevurah, also plays live in Akitsa, which, heads up, has sketchy connections) is on the skins and the recording console knobs; and François Bilodeau, the album’s sneaky secret weapon, is on keys. Everyone brings it. The music feels effortless.
Indeed, what’s especially intriguing to me about Atramentus is how effortlessly they move through the funeral doom space without relying on cliches. They have that Mahlerian, planetary weight of Esoteric along with the keyboard-draped lachrymosity of Shape Of Despair. But, man, this is a different beast. I love how guttural Tougas goes with the vocals, really giving Thergothon a run. Plus, the lead guitar has a careening, hyper-emotional quality; more David Gilmour than traditional doom weeper. Still, Atramentus know what it is. This is funeral doomy doom. But, at the same time, it’s also absurdly detailed, containing so many independent facets. In a way, it’s almost like a novel about funeral doom.
Ah, there’s something else here, too. Is … is that … a bit of Manowar? Tougas, from the same IO interview: “I also think traditional doom metal works better when it is more ‘epic’ and vivid. It so happens that I wanted to combine both approaches to create soundscapes as powerful and majestic as they are tragic, suffocating, dark, and sorrowful. The ‘funeral steel’ sound as I call it.” Funeral steel! Yeah, this sucker is plenty miserable, but it sure isn’t inert. It can crawl and it can run and it can swing a goddamn sword. No small feat for a funeral doomer. Take note, cult. [From Stygian, out now via 20 Buck Spin.] –Ian Chainey
6. Self Hypnosis – “Empowered”
Location: United Kingdom
Subgenre: industrial metal
Self Hypnosis is a weird one, blending elements of industrial metal and doom into a sparse, surreal, and punishing package that seems to echo from some perhaps not-too-distant dystopian future. Self Hypnosis sing of the present, though, kicking off “Empowered” with a shouted “Undress to impress!” that gets a call-back from a second vocalist who sounds like an Uruk-hai general barking orders across the battlefield. The mechanized feel, with clearly delineated boundaries between noise and silence, underscores how brutally heavy Self Hypnosis can get. These tracks are shouted and banged out, with desperate cries of principals screamed against the deaf inhumanity all around. Self Hypnosis comes to us from members of the funeral doom band Esoteric and progressive doom band Camel Of Doom, and the expert hands show their skill in crafting a uniquely unsettling and enthralling sound. [From Contagion Of Despair, out now via Svart Records.] –Wyatt Marshall
5. Havukruunu – “Tähti-Yö Ja Hevoiset”
Location: Hausjärvi, Finland
Subgenre: pagan black metal
I’ve been trying to find a way to get Havukruunu into the column since I heard “Verta, Tulta ja Kuolemaa.” That track heralded the rise of lone member Stefan, who quickly ascended to the mountaintop of air-guitar-inciting, vividly vast pagan black metal. One of the most impressive things about the earlier stuff was that it flipped the script on epics, doing in a compact five minutes what most bands fail to nail in songs three times that length. To an extent, that’s the major storyline of Uinuos Syömein Sota, the band’s third LP overall and first as an expanded quartet. There’s just so much data packed into this 46-minute album. During a first pass, it’s almost too much. Havukruunu’s interest in setting the scene with galloping horses and rumbling battles is more along the lines of a radio drama than basic headbanger. In addition, the pacing is quick. Havukruunu doesn’t dawdle, discarding sections quickly. Keep in mind, this is a genre known to sit on trems in a meditative stupor. (It’s also, regretfully, drowning in donkuses; Havukruunu appears to pass the sketch check with flying colors.) I bring all of this up as a warning for the easily overrun: Havukruunu’s highly caffeinated approach takes a few spins for Uinuos Syömein Sota to click. When it does, it’s hard not to find the amount of ground the band covers sort of spellbinding. I think “Vähiin Päivät Käy” is the best thing in the Havukruunu discography, so if you’re in need of a stronger sales pitch, skip to that. But, to drive my point home, I wanted to cover closer “Tähti-Yö Ja Hevoiset.” A jam. This thing kicks off with a trad chugga-chugga that’s way more Armored Saint than Árstíðir lífsins. After a few minutes of righteous riffing, including the band’s characteristically killer soloing, it dips into an extended ambient section that pulses with, like, “Echoes” at Pompeii energy. I rarely say this about outros: It’s great! It’s legit wild how talented this band is. It feels like anything is within its grasp. Sad I waited this long to blurb it, but glad I’m blurbing this one. [From Uinuos Syömein Sota, out now via Naturmacht Productions.] –Ian Chainey
4. Vital Spirit – “Centaur”
Location: Vancouver, BC
Subgenre: black metal
“Centaur” is one of the more invigorating black metal debuts to cross the bow in some time, fueled by fire burning deep in the wilderness of the Pacific Northwest. In our Black Market bunker (Slack channel), Ian initially said the band’s first single reminded him of Agalloch, just before he listed off several qualities that completely differentiate Vital Spirit from their neighbors across the border to the south. (Namely, he identifies a more second wave bent to Vital Spirit, and to put it mildly, he, ah, prefers the Vital Spirit vocals to those in Agalloch.) I will say, though, that Vital Spirit exude, but don’t force, a woodsy warmth while ripping with a grander purpose in the way the best of Agalloch did. This is done with effortless style that flows as much as it rips. Vital Spirit, a duo comprised of members of Wormwitch and Seer, take inspiration from the “spirit of the Americas,” and their Instagram features powerful portraits of Native Americans and landscapes of uniquely American wilderness, alongside images of the encroachment of European influence and the ruinous change it brought with it. Listed amongst the band’s influences, according to No Clean Singing, are Earth, Ulver, Wovenhand, and Morricone, the latter of whom makes an obvious appearance in the latter half of the song. In one of the more charming uses of tags on Bandcamp, alongside “americana,” “black metal,” and “Vancouver,” Vital Spirit list “spaghetti western.” [From In The Faith That Looks Through Death, out 8/28 via the band.] –Wyatt Marshall
3. Xythlia – “Schrödinger’s Foreskin”
Location: Minneapolis, MN
Subgenre: technical grindcore
I don’t get to talk about my love for death metal very often in Ugly Beauty, so taking part in a blurb exchange with Ian was a very exciting opportunity. I considered writing up some knuckle-walking brutal death metal (the new Faceless Burial is amazing), but then this album drilled into my skull and I knew it was The One. Xythlia is a one-man project from Nick Stanger, a dude from Minnesota who makes woodsy black metal (there are acoustic guitars, piano, and even mandolin) as Ashbringer. This is … not that. Xythlia is insane tech-grind that piles layer upon layer of Slayer/GridLink riffs and squiggle-shred solos on top of programmed blast beats, with furious weight-bench-in-the-garage vocals and the occasional bass break. “Schrödinger’s Foreskin” is one of only five tracks out of 12 to pass the two-minute mark; the whole record blasts by in a concise 23:02. It has the your-face-is-my-speed-bag relentlessness of Agoraphobic Nosebleed’s Frozen Corpse Stuffed With Dope and the developmentally arrested rage of the best Strapping Young Lad material, with the sci-fi edge of early Behold… The Arctopus and the ascetic obsessiveness of Mick Barr solo projects like Octis and Ocrilim thrown in. Basically, this is the music you hear blasting from hidden speakers when TV cops kick in the door of a) a meth dealer or b) a guy who looks like an insurance broker but has six teenage girls in dog kennels in his basement. If you’re anything like me, you’ll have it on repeat for a week. [From Immortality Through Quantum Suicide, out now via I, Voidhanger Records.] –Phil Freeman
2. Uada – “No Place Here”
Location: Portland, OR
Subgenre: black metal
When Uada first appeared in 2016 with Devoid Of Light, the band’s ambition was clear. This wasn’t a group that would be content with a cult following — Uada were swinging for the fences, with full, polished production and riffs and choruses built for splitting crowds from the big stage. Doing this while leaning into the melodic, nature-reverent tenants of the genre as often practiced in their Pacific Northwest home was bold, a tightrope act that required something close to perfection in translating hermetic tendencies into rockstar power. Uada nailed it with finesse, and they are better than ever on their newest album Djinn. We should have featured the title track when it released in June — it is an absolute hook-laden monster that is one of the best tracks of the year. But no less exciting is “No Place Here,” a masterpiece of driving black metal interlaced with thoughtful, awe-inspiring instrumentals. The execution, here, is next level, an authoritative guide for how to step forward boldly into the arena before tearing it apart. [From Djinn, out 9/25 via Eisenwald.] –Wyatt Marshall
1. Kaatayra – “Miséria Da Sabedoria”
Location: Brasilia, Brasil
Subgenre: atmospheric black metal
Get comfortable, because “Miséria da Sabedoria” may be the longest track we’ve ever featured. At 26 minutes flat, this rainforest epic is three minutes shorter than Napalm Death’s 22-track classic From Enslavement To Obliteration. (The bands have zero in common, but Napalm Death has a new one out next month, and I recently stumbled across this old post on Invisible Oranges about average Napalm Death song lengths. For those keeping track, the average song length has gone up.) Anyway, the important part: Following last year’s insanely awesome Nascido Sob o Signo Incivilizatório, one of my favorite releases of that year or any, Kaatayra has blown our minds once again. Caio Lemos, the sole power behind Kaatayra, channels the wonder and dark mystery of the forest floor into a stunning work that rips through lush foliage, guitars ablaze. That would be enough to keep it interesting, but the interspersed instrumental passages, with a cool Brazilian folk inflection that bounces like an Amazonian heartbeat, and the transfixing, soothing vocals that take on the power of an incantation, take this to an entirely different plane. It’s easy to get hopelessly, and happily, lost in this immersive world. [From Toda História pela Frente, out now via the band.] –Wyatt Marshall