The Month In Metal – October 2020
It’s finally time to dig into The Gate. The 1987 Canadian/American fantasy horror film, with a key plot point that hinges on a metal band named Sacrifyx and its mysterious album The Dark Book, left a lasting mark on a generation of kids who would eventually elevate The Gate to a cult classic. In fact, in just the last few years, it finally feels like it’s getting its due. At the very least, it’s now ripe to be referenced. For instance, earlier this year, Couch Slut namechecked the flick on “I’m 14,” and did such a good job recounting the storyline with non-spoiler economy, that I’m going to cede the floor to singer Megan O:
I open The Gate
By director Tibor Takács
In which two young friends
Discover an evil dimension
Couch Slut isn’t the only one opening The Gate. Many YouTube channels have reviewed The Gate. Podcasts aplenty have spotlighted it, like Megaphonic’s A Part Of Our Scare-itage and Toilet Ov Hell’s Toilet Radio, the latter of which features Merzbow aficionado metal.txt. Naturally, as it enters its nostalgic sweet spot, blogs upon blogs have blogged about it. And, within some of those recaps and listicles and retrospectives that recount the story of a kid who finds a demonic gateway in his backyard is a reoccurring item that is of particular interest to a certain kind of metalhead.
Here’s the ninth entry in TVOvermind’s “10 Things You Didn’t Know About ‘The Gate’”:
9. The Sacrifyx band is not real.
The Dark Book was created by a Canadian thrash metal band called Sacrifice. Obviously they’re not into summoning demons with their music.
And here’s one of the facts found in Arrow In The Head’s 30th anniversary post:
The fictional The Dark Book album that Terry shows to Glen features the logo for (the very real) Canadian thrash metal band Sacrifice.
Those are just two of a few pieces that assert that either Sacrifice was Sacrifyx or Sacrifice was the basis for Sacrifyx. And I’m like, Sacrifice? The Toronto thrash band Sacrifice? That one that was buds with Slaughter? The one that cut the 1987 thrash classic Forward To Termination? The one that recorded “Re-Animation,” the song that would be used as the intro to the Pepsi Power Hour metal video show on Much Music? The one that stayed uncompromisingly thrash well into the groove metal early ‘90s, much to the detriment of the band’s bank account? The one that released the killer Apocalypse Inside in 1993, a criminally underrated album that sounds like a cross between Coroner’s Mental Vortex and Death’s Symbolic? The one that resurfaced, 26 years later in 2009, with The Ones I Condemn, a ripper that is still thrash and still goes just as hard as the early stuff? That Sacrifice?
Yes. That Sacrifice.
But … is it really that Sacrifice? For the past three years, I’ve been trying to figure that out. I can’t say I’m much closer to a definitive answer. However, just simply excavating The Gate’s many connections, from the music nerd six-degrees links to the cinema-dork trivia tidbits, unexpectedly opened up so many other worlds that I never expected to set foot in. Turns out this little movie is a nexus between a ton of other musical dimensions, particularly the alternative side of a vibrant Toronto art scene that was firing on all cylinders in the ‘70s and ‘80s. One that, like this movie, is worthy of reappraisal.
I. And Now Someone Has Opened…
If you’re of a certain age, you might have this hazy memory hanging around in your head: After getting grabbed by the monsters under the bed, you run downstairs, followed closely by your best friend, sister, and her sleepover friends. You open the door and you’re greeted by your parents. Aren’t they out of town? No matter. They’re here now. You feel safe. You run and embrace your dad. He puts his hands around your neck. “YOU’VE BEEN BAD!” he bellows. It’s unlike anything you’ve heard before, a thousand tormented dads yelling all at once. You touch his face. It melts. You look at your hands, now covered in green dad-gloop. Your mom laughs manically as your dad’s head falls off and splatters across the walkway.
Is this a prepubescent night terror that your brain failed to defragment before entering adulthood? Nope, it’s one of the gnarlier scenes from The Gate.
Directed by future Hallmark movie maker Tibor Takács and written by Michael Nankin (Battlestar Galactica, Hell On Wheels, Van Helsing), The Gate is one of the few movies of the late ‘80s horror boom that was aimed at a younger crowd. That said, even though it features the silver screen debut of a 12-year-old Stephen Dorff (Blade, True Detective, the Limp Bizkit “Rollin’” video) and is something of a coming of age tale that examines childhood friendships and the relationship divide between pre-teen and teen siblings, it earns every ounce of its PG-13 rating by leaning hard on gooey effects and old school movie magic.
Fresh off of working on The Thing, Ghostbusters, and Fright Night, visual effects genius Randall William Cook packs The Gate with so many memorable moments, a real achievement when you realize that the Toronto-based film was shot for the microscopic budget of $2.5 million CAD. Cook, who’d go on to win Oscars for the Lord Of The Rings trilogy, utilized forced perspective to execute some real stunners, like when Carl Kraines’ zombie workman falls over and reveals he’s actually 15 mini minions. It’s one of the great pre-CGI effects, and it surely ruined the next month of nights for younger kids who either walked in the room or channel surfed to it while it was playing. That’s the lasting mark. Seems like everyone who now loves The Gate has that story.
Cook’s inventive scenes, along with key contributions from makeup wizard Craig Reardon (The Goonies, Weird Science, Poltergeist) and Illusion Arts, powered The Gate to second place during its opening weekend, falling just a few bucks short of an already struggling Ishtar. (As YouTuber Razzle Dazzle points out about that weekend’s slate, “That is remarkable, one of the most notable structures of the ancient world is called the ‘Ishtar Gate.’”) The Gate would eventually rack up $13.5 million USD during its theatrical run, ensuring it was cast in entertainment beat articles as the low-budget David to Ishtar’s legendarily bombing Goliath. That kept it in the public consciousness enough that The Gate would spawn a pretty solid sequel titled Gate 2: The Trespassers in 1990. But Gate 2 failed to match the earnings of its predecessor and, before the internet could connect fans and give name to those hazy memories, mainstream interest eventually dried up as horror and kids-centric films moved in different directions.
While love for The Gate always seemed to simmer, I feel like things really started cooking again when Alex Winter announced a 3D reboot in the late 2000s that had creature designs by, holy crap, H.R. Giger. Bloody Disgusting wrote breathlessly about it in 2009. Although, sadly, Gate 3D appears to be dunzo, interest in the original escalated from there. In 2016, one of the big draws for that year’s Toronto Horror-Rama was GATE-FEST, a tribute curated by obsessive Joe “Vision” Hart. A collector’s series Blu-ray release followed in 2017 that’s actually worth it for the special features, especially the Made In Canada featurette that extracts some charming, decades-old goss from the cast and crew.
So, why does The Gate seem known more now than at any other time during its 30-plus year history? Obviously, the practical effects and makeup have aged incredibly well, looking far better than the primitive CGI that would take over the industry in the ‘90s. (Worth noting: You can debate the period realism, but the casual homophobic insults haven’t aged well at all. Heads up on that.) The model Harryhausen stuff along with the rubber-suited minions have such a classic look that the movie now looks timeless. There’s some cringe, but overall, the effects are too brilliant for the film to remain buried. And, there’s a timelessness to the film’s emotional center.
The Gate nails a certain slice of childhood, that tweener space of being 11 or 12, where the magical thinking and vestigial terrors of adolescence crash head on with the fears and hangups that will envelop the lives of adults. Throughout the beginning of the movie, there’s a tension between the main character Glen (Dorff) and his teenage sister Al (Christa Denton). Glen loves rockets and the old family dog. Al used to love those things, too, but seems to be leaving them behind for high school concerns, much to Glen’s consternation.
But the film also delves deeply into how universal fears are magnified by real-world trauma and how kids learn to cope with the resulting angst. Glen’s best friend Terry (Louis Tripp), is dealing with abandonment issues. His mother is dead, his father is mostly absent. Because he’s likely an only child and there’s no one around to corroborate his existence, he uses metal as a frame to construct his burgeoning identity, to carve a life out for himself that is bigger than the dominate narrative that has been applied to him: the weird kid whose folks aren’t around. Uh … relatable!
It’s stuff like that makes The Gate one of the best ‘80s heavy metal horror movies. While Black Roses and Trick Or Treat get certain elements of the metalhead experience right, The Gate is, pound for pound, the best piece of cinema, doing a whole lot with its tight 85-minute runtime. It also winks at metal in a way that’s pretty appealing to actual metalheads. Here’s one of my favorite bits of dialogue:
Terrence ‘Terry’ Chandler: We accidentally summoned demons who used to rule the universe to come and take over the world.
Glen: Yeah, we found out about it from, uh, one of Terry’s albums.
Man, doesn’t that sum up my writing career here.
II. It’s The Workman…
There’s a lot of stuff hiding in The Gate, some real “huh!” connections scattered in the CVs of the cast and crew. For instance, Michael Hoenig, who worked on the score with J. Peter Robinson (Cocktail, Wayne’s World), got rolling in Agitation Free and had a cup of coffee with Tangerine Dream. Hoenig is also responsible for one of the great analog sequencer classics of the ‘70s, Departure From The Northern Wasteland.
Louis Tripp, who’d reprise his role as Terry in Gate 2 and co-starred alongside a young Pamela Adlon (the voice of Bobby Hill, among other rad things), started making industrial as X.A.O.S in his post-acting career. (He’s also a writer. Dude has had a life.) This month, he popped up in a music/video collaboration with Australian horrorcore artist KidCrusher, another self-professed Gate fanatic.
And that’s not even getting into the neat where-are-they-now minutiae on the film side. Ingrid Veninger, who played the levitation enthusiast, is now an award-winning director. Kelly Rowan, one of the sleepover pals, was Kirsten Cohen on The O.C. The other pal, Jennifer Irwin, was Cassie Powers on Eastbound & Down. It goes on and on.
But, the connections that really stand out to me are the hat tips to legit punk and metal bands throughout the movie, because of course they do. For that, we’ll have to break down one of the classic scenes: Terry jumping on his bed to the righteous riffs of a spooky band named Sacrifyx.
III. The Old Gods!
As the camera moves through Terry’s bedroom, sweeping over a drum set that’s emblazoned with a Cramps’ Bad Music For Bad People sticker, you catch a glimpse of the Sacrifyx jacket propped up against the turntable. (One of the underrated elements of The Gate is how well Takács and cinematographer Thomas Vámos frame shots to set-up the plot and provide wordless exposition.) As a chunky Trouble-esque metal song with solos aplenty spins on the record player, Terry air guitars wildly.
Much like Ragman’s room in Trick Or Treat, Terry’s wall is full of real metal iconography. You can readily see a few Iron Maiden merch items, such as a Trooper flag along with Live After Death and Purgatory posters. There’s also an Ozzy pic in the upper left corner. And, eagle-eyed viewers will be treated to a sign that Terry is getting into heavier stuff. Just above his head is a Live Undead-era Slayer poster. Hey, fits in with the Venom-patched jacket he was sporting earlier in the movie. Yes, about Terry’s wardrobe: Although you can’t see it in this scene, Terry is wearing a battle vest with a full back-patch of Canadian hard rockers Killer Dwarfs.
As the song fades out, Terry hops off his bed to mime the dramatic voice-over about the Lovecraftian “old gods.” With a blanket pulled over his head that transforms him into a rainbow Sunn O))) member, Terry goes full Orson “Dark Avenger” Welles. Then, a spark of recognition flashes across his face. He reaches for the Sacrifyx album titled The Dark Book, pausing to take stock of the cover: a demon, with claws extended, pulling itself out of a hole burrowed into a tome.
Terry flips through the expansive insert that’s full of ancient texts and woodcut prints. When he gets to the page with the relief of a wormy demon, the voice-over hits its high point: “A gate, behind which the demons wait, for the chance to take back what is theirs!” A King Diamond cackle cues Terry to examines the back cover to compare those symbols with ones he’s recently seen. Above the hieroglyphic-y shapes is a picture of the band. One member is levitating, seemingly comatose. The other members stand above him menacingly. Terry makes the connection. On the stereo, a backmasked message plays on a stuck groove. Cut.
Louis Tripp acts the heck out of this scene, moving seamlessly from charged-up, out-of-body escapism to realizing something real and sinister is at play. Pretty nuanced stuff for a child actor. I also love how Tripp delivers Sacrifyx’s bio later in the movie, in the same did-you-know voice that any Encyclopaedia Metallum crawler knows all too well: “They’re called Sacrifyx. My dad brought it from Europe.” Adding: “And here’s the creepy part. This is their only album. And after they made it, they all died in a plane crash.” Ah yes, the drummer-fell-off-a-mountain approach to metal cred. Also, Ben Cauley is not amused.
So, who is Sacrifyx for real? What band appears on the album cover? And who did the song? Curiously, it doesn’t appear in The Gate’s credits. It also isn’t collected in fan-made soundtracks that have popped up on YouTube. “What is the name of the song [when] Terry jumps on the bed?” YouTube user Max Smoller asks on one such upload. “For more than 5 years, looking for [it].”
Well, I’ve got some good and bad news, Max.
IV. Love Will Find A Way
“It’s interesting,” Vince Carlucci wrote to me an email, “in that almost every year since around 1990, I get requests and or questions about The Gate around Halloween.”
I found Carlucci and Mark Krawczynski through Coming Soon’s 2009 interview with Tibor Takács. In the Q&A, Takács ID’d Carlucci’s band Station Twang as doing the “heavy metal stuff” and Krawczynski as the brain behind the album’s design. Here’s the thing: Like how Michael Hoenig and Louis Tripp have done so much more than their IMDB listings, seeing Carlucci and Krawczynski’s name on the page answered a few questions, but didn’t hint at their rich history. After all, one of the reasons The Gate endures, especially in this crash-bang-wallop blockbuster era that tends to eschew character building, is that it takes the time to set up its players.
All three go way back to the early days of Toronto punk and new-wave, though let’s examine Carlucci and Takács first. From my vantage point, Takács’s early exploits paint him as a multihyphenate, one of those ambitious people that alternative scenes produce that seem to have their hands in everything (Takács didn’t respond to interview requests). Along with working on theater productions, Takács was managing and producing the Viletones, one of the more notorious outfits in a bustling scene that included bands like The Diodes, The Ugly, and Teenage Head. You can spy Takacs’s name on the jacket for the Viletones’ first single:
In addition to being an important scene documentarian, snapping pics of local bands and the iconic acts that came through Toronto like Blondie, Bowie, Peter Gabriel, Iggy Pop, the Ramones, and more, Carlucci was in a band called Cardboard Brains that was fronted by musician/actor John Paul Young.
Young was a high school friend of Takács and worked on some of his plays. That gave the band an in. According to Carlucci, the Brains “loved the production of” the Viletones record. “Clean but sloppy and mean and tight. So, we thought it would be cool to get Teebs to produce our first single…and what an education as far as studio techniques.” Seems as though Takács’s future directorial sensibilities also translated to the studio. The productive sessions produced The White EP. It includes a bugged out cover of Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart’s “(I’m Not Your) Steppin’ Stone,” which made it to wax before a lot of other punk covers. It’s now the only thing streaming by the band on YouTube.
Well into the future, Fucked Up would add its cosign by covering the The White EP’s first track, “I Want To Be A Yank.” Though its arty and experimental approach never quite caught on, the Brains would cut one more Takács-assisted studio record, The Black EP, in 1979. Here’s Carlucci and Takács doing a quick rundown on the band’s backstory and its “post-punk before there was punk” oddball style for the excellent documentary The Last Pogo Jumps Again. The snippet is bookended by, I kid you not, a very enthusiastic Nardwuar.
Rappers, remember this. Turn the tables and ask Nardwuar about Cardboard Brains. Doot doo to you, sir.
Anyway, Takács booked the Cardboard Brains as an opener for the Viletones at places like Club David’s, where he previously shot scenes for his debut feature Metal Messiah, in which John Paul Young had a role. Gotta say, the Club David’s story, as told in this piece originally published in the Grid, is a heck of a read. It features Takács and Carlucci as interview subjects and includes Carlucci’s photographs, some of which he’d show during a 2010 exhibit titled Your Pretty Face Is Going To Hell.
When Takács came calling for incidental music for his new movie filming in 1986, Carlucci had moved on to Station Twang. Twang’s debut, Secret Sides, had just been released in 1985. (Stanley A. Viezner, who plays on the record, also worked on John Paul Young’s solo record, The Life Of Ermie Scub.) “Everybody’s Running,” one of the three tracks on the A-side that a Discogs user recently reviewed as “masterpiece[s],” would eventually make it into The Gate. Station Twang aren’t the only ex-Brains in the movie, actually. The immortal “you’ve been bad” line? That’s Young.
The most famous Twang track, though, was one that Takács picked off of a cassette Carlucci was working on. “[Takács] did like a tune by the Cult which he wanted for the party scene, however the licensing was some astronomical amount in the tens of thousands or some such,” Carlucci wrote. “Science Has A Way” became the pinch hit hero, although it would need some light retooling. “Tibor loved the tune but clearly the lyrics did not fit the scene, hence we rewrote the lyrics to compliment a sort of ‘love’ aspect, which is also a main premise of the flick, in that ‘love or light conquers evil,’ etc.” The re-titled “Love Will Find A Way” has its own cult following now that people can dig up the couple isolated versions that have made it to YouTube. “Can’t believe someone found this OMG best song ever!!” comments CAPCEL. “I watched this movie now just to hear this song at the party scene so RAD!!!”
The original ended up on Twang’s 1994 album as a more guitar-centric banger. You can find most of Carlucci’s music on Discogs.
And then there’s “Dark Book.”
“We did the Sacrifyx ‘Dark Book’ tune in the studio,” Carlucci recalled, “as in it was written in the studio and recorded live off the floor (but for the vocals) to get that sort of ‘grunge garage metal’ feeling.” Carlucci is the one doing the rhythm guitar juns. The leads were played by a gentleman named Mark who was also moonlighting in Pink Floyd tribute bands. The track is also not a complete song, more of a standalone outro. What you hear in the scene is pretty much everything they recorded.
I asked Carlucci if Takács played any reference material during the genesis of the track. “As far as ‘Dark Book’,” he wrote, “there was no reference but for something that sounds like a heavy metal band. We looked at some rushes with the dudes jumping around. It was a similar sort of thing where I had stuff I was working with and played some riffs, chords on my guitar and we took it from there. It was great writing on the spot without having to worry about studio costs.” And that’s kind of how it went: chords, tempo, leads, lyrics, vocals. Boom, boom, boom. “Dark Book” was finished in an afternoon. According to Takács, Carl Krains would end up cutting the voiceover part.
So, because an official soundtrack has never been released, Carlucci has high quality rips of these songs and can upload them to put an end to Max’s suffering, right? Ehhhhhhh, it’s complicated. “I come to find I do not own the TAPES. Alliance Atlantis own the tapes,” Carlucci lamented. “I own the music ON the tapes. Weird, I know.” Yeahhhhh … that’s the industry for you.
And yet, maybe you should still keep an eye out for it. I think I might’ve summoned something. Carlucci and some former Brains/Twang members are still playing, now operating under the name Elvis Cooper. “I’m going to have a listen to the ‘Dark Book’ tune off the DVD and perhaps extrapolate it into a full tune, as the version in the movie is a 30-40-second piece,” he wrote. “We never had a beginning or body, only what sounds like the last 30 seconds of a tune (which never existed). So maybe I’ll get the fellas to do a full version and see if we can get a decent recording and do the upload as you suggest.”
V. The Dark Book
In 1986, Mark Krawczynski and his brother Mike were moving into a new house. “Originally, Tibor was suggesting that we do the music,” Krawczynski told me over Zoom. “At the time, I really would have loved to have done it, except that I had just moved into a house my brother and I bought. We wanted to set up a studio, but I had to do all of this [renovation] stuff.”
Feeling the homeowner crunch and lacking a studio for Mark and Mike’s band Space Phlegm to record in, the opportunity to work on Takács new movie seemed like something they’d have to turn down. But then, as Krawczynski recalls, Takács had another idea. “He said, ‘Do you want to do the album cover?’ I said sure. Because I had done album covers for other bands.”
Krawczynski, who worked on Takács’s two previous films, Metal Messiah and The Tomorrow Man (later retitled 984: Prisoner of the Future), and was another high school chum, has a knack for clean designs. Spoons’ 1982 album Arias And Symphonies is one of his, done in collaboration with Peter Nobel. “We won the YouKnow award (CFNY radio’s answer to the Juno awards) for best album cover of the year,” Krawczynski emailed to me during a later follow-up.
(Incidentally, Phlegm’s first drummer, Patrick Harbron, also has some notable album photography under his belt, particularly in the metal space: Anvil, Black Sabbath, an all-timer on the first Piledriver, and, coincidentally, Sacrifice’s Forward To Termination.)
Given Krawczynski’s experience and artistic inclinations, perhaps it’s no surprise, then, that what he produced for The Gate is so genuine looking. It passes the smell test. It doesn’t look like a prop, it looks like an actual album, with all of the elements you’d expect in an elaborate gatefold. (Krawczynski is also responsible for The Dark Book insert and most of the illustrations, though, per the 2017 blu-ray commentary with Takács, Michael Nankin, and Randall William Cook, the latter did a couple of the woodcut prints. Krawczynski would return as the bookmaker for Gate 2.) And the front cover just pops, especially the way the demon is poised to leap out of the hole, flashing its slender phalanges. You have to wonder if Infernäl Mäjesty’s None Shall Defy would’ve made more of an impact if it had The Dark Book’s cover instead.
Although Krawczynski’s original Dark Book probably met the same fate that it did in the movie, in that it was consumed by hellish flames, his art continues to live on inspiring fans anew. In 2017, DeviantArt user TerrysEatsnDawgs posted a high-res recreation of the jacket with some wear-and-tear as a tribute. Popular Etsy store Monsters Outside also offers a Sacrifyx shirt, complete with band pic, done up to look like Bathory.
Right! The band pic: That’s a portrait of the artist and Phlegm. “When you read the script, one of the band members is floating, and the rest of us are looking like we’re going to sacrifice him,” Krawczynski said. “So we set that up in the basement and got all dressed up. I set up a camera and took several shots until we found one that Tibor liked.”
Space Phlegm was a frequent presence at Mike’s Record Peddler, a notable Toronto record store he co-owned that played an important role in fostering the nascent punk, hardcore, and metal scenes. (It’s in that capacity that you’ll hear from Mark and Mike again in a future column.) In 1989, Phlegm pressed a 7” of dubby, psychedelic-tinged rock. It’s still active. And Krawczynski is still making art, showcasing his prolific and varied work on his website that includes evocative abstract pieces and furniture.
VI. Demons Aren’t Gonna Ring The Doorbell
I asked both Carlucci and Krawczynski about Sacrifice. Neither remembered the band specifically being part of the conversation, though they didn’t rule it out. From my perspective, when the production came their ways, I assume they were given a greenlight to put their own spin on things. “Tibor gave us lots of leeway with the tune and words,” Carlucci wrote.
Krawczynski, though, did remember that there was possibly an issue around the name. “When I was making the album I was like, ‘So, what’s the name of the band?’ And I think they mentioned Sacrifice, or something like that, and it was a name that was already taken so eventually they settled on Sacrifyx.”
He clarified: “There might’ve been an issue about something being too anti-religious about some of the names that they came up with. So, Sacrifyx was the compromise. You know, there’s a lot of kids in the film and they didn’t want to go way over the top and call it Jesus Christ Upside Down On A Cross or anything like that.”
A future Hells Headbangers band just googled Jesus Christ Upside Down On A Cross hard. Kidding!
(I reached out to Sacrifice’s manager to set up an interview with the band. I also got in touch with Killer Dwarfs, the band that Terry rocks on his battle vest. I was unable to connect with either before deadline. If these interviews take place, I’ll add an addendum to a future intro.)
So, yeah. While I didn’t accomplish what I set out to do, which feels like a running theme of these intros, I’m still blown away by The Gate’s relationship to music that goes far beyond Terry’s on-screen metal fixation. And perhaps it’s right that some mystery about The Gate remains, that the hole to another dimension is still wide open. –Ian Chainey
10. Draconian – “Moon Over Sabaoth”
Location: Säffle, Sweden
Subgenre: death/doom / gothic metal
Nearly missed this one. I’ve always had a soft spot for the first few Draconian records — they had a different singer back then, and the overall vibe hit the sweet spot between extremely gothic My Dying Bride stuff and the seismic whomp of early Swallow the Sun. Plus they had the one guy from Doom:VS, who also rule. Even still, it’s not the kind of thing we often cover here. But if you like crushing gloom and can hang with ridiculous transitions between unabashed operatic female vocals, brutal gutturals, and self-serious Swedish guy spoken word, the early stuff has a certain charm. Somewhere along the way they started shifting focus onto the clean vocals and adding lame piano breaks, and my interest shriveled. The mid-period albums aren’t as blatantly soft as something like Katatonia (who transcend all other sadsack soft bands), but the soft bits fell flat to my ears and it all felt increasingly awkward alongside otherwise competent death/doom. 2015’s Sovran marked a shift in the right direction, as new singer Heike Langhans brought a darker edge and the songwriting adjusted to match. The newest album, Under A Godless Veil, goes even further, with heavier production, stronger hooks, and better implementation of the tonal shifts from light and dark, clean and harsh. The guitars are gorgeous throughout, with chiming cleans entwined with every suffocating doom riff. Longer tracks like “The Sacrificial Flame” experiment with haunted church organs, and it gives a bit of a Skepticism vibe, which goes a long way on its own. “Lustrous Heart” marks the rare gothic doom single (at least outside of Paradise Lost) that lives and dies on the strength of the vocal hook. But it’s “Moon Over Sabaoth” that brings it all together: the thick, syrupy doom of the early days; the perfect harsh vocal over the verse; even the absurd spokens that culminate with an OOGH for the ages. It’s ridiculous, and it works. [From Under A Godless Veil, out 10/30 via Napalm Records.] –Aaron Lariviere
9. Autonoesis – “Visions”
Location: Toronto, Canada
Subgenre: black metal / death metal / melodeath
Fitting that a very Toronto column should include a new Toronto band. That said, this is here because of the solos. Readers, these solos. I mean, the rest of the songs are strong. This wouldn’t be featured otherwise. I’ve grown to think of Autonoesis’ self-titled debut as Dawn meets the Chasm, less in pure sound and more in that it doesn’t mind racking up the miles while burning a career’s worth of riffs in every song. Not sold? How about this for a comparison: What Slugdge did to the Edge Of Sanity strain of melodeath, Autonoesis does to ‘90s thrashy melo-black. It ascends a frozen spiral staircase of icy tremcicles that’s worthy of a purple album cover. That’s the requirement and Autonoesis nails it. But it also slathers on the hooks while adding a graceful bob to the rhythms that takes some of the acidic bite out of the O.G. stuff. To that end, like Slugdge, Autonoesis doesn’t mind playing footsy with some more modern elements. Like, I swear I heard the Meshuggah “Bleed” riff in “Death, And The Cosmic Return,” a 12-minute longform journey that’s the greatest testament yet to this band’s compositional chops.
I wouldn’t start with that track, though. It’s the best thing here, but it works best when you’ve become accustomed to Autonoesis’ flow. First, you gotta be wowed by the solos. These solos are ridiculous, not in an athletic way, but in a Denner/Shermann, Andy LaRocque lemme-spin-you-a-yarn way. Epic in the Homer sense. The solos all sound effortless, too, smooth and swathed in majestic velvet. That this is a debut is kind of low-key bonkers, reminding me of when Arsis surfaced with A Celebration Of Guilt. Just some undeniable widdles that have their own character, ready to be cited forevermore as a FFO or RIYL after your first listen.
And here’s the kicker! No one knows who this is. At the time I’m publishing this, totally anonymous. It just popped up on Bandcamp in August and on the socials in September. Again, this hails from Toronto, so, uh, maybe it’s the starting five of the Raptors? (It’s not the Leafs because this is not a demo and thus made it past the first round.) However, I kind of appreciate that no one has claimed ownership yet. It adds to the mystique, the delightful idea that there’s some newly metalized soul quarantining in Toronto and was like, Yes … now is the time to shred. [From Autonoesis, out now via the band.] –Ian Chainey
8. Hellripper – “Hexennacht”
Location: Aberdeen, Scotland
Subgenre: thrash / black metal
Just in time for Halloween, Hellripper is here with a new album and this blazing would-be-single “Hexennacht.” Click play and you’ll hear what this is all about — it’s old school black thrash to the max. The track shreds on the double quick, burning rubber out the gate with frenzied riffing and maniacal menacing snarling that barely breaks for air. The whole thing is jacked way the F up, and if you didn’t know any better, with the guitar tone and lo-fi, slightly tinny mix, you’d think you were listening to something recorded a few decades ago. Some lovely little guitar flourishes add to the guitar hero credo, but everything you’re hearing is the work of James McBain, the Scot who mans the kit and the strings. Of all the bands featured on the column this month, McBain’s is the most aptly named. [From The Affair of the Poisons, out now via Peaceville.] –Wyatt Marshall
7. Edenic Past – “Kolyma”
Location: Brooklyn, NY
Subgenre: brutal death metal
Hello, welcome to the quarterly Menegroth, The Thousand Caves report. The fact that I’ve been hoarding bangers so I could cheat the 10-blurb system just speaks to what a crazy year it has been for metal. I probably owe a few other artists and labels a similar summary. Like, I, Voidhanger is just crushing it right now. That Onirik is AOTY material and, uh, the label has issued six other LPs since. No big deal! Anyway, yes, the last time we caught up with Colin Marston, I marveled at his already prolific run. In the hell-months since, he’s played on a new Encenathrakh (insane), Krallice (ditto), and cut a lot of noise stuff (Arelseum, with Ryan Lipynsky, is real neat). He’s also mixed, mastered, or been on the boards for False Gods, Houkago Grind Time, Palsied, and Reeking Aura. And that’s the stuff we know about. Duder is having a year. That fact that it’s during this year is all the more incredible.
So, out of the abundant Q3-Q4 harvest, the one I want to highlight is Edenic Past. Marston is on guitars, Nicholas McMaster is on bass and drum programming, and Paulo Paguntalan is doing every guttural imaginable. Outside of maybe some session stuff, I believe this is the first time all three of these dudes have banded together. Of course, given that they’re all busy bees in the New York scene, they have some crossover credits: Encenathrakh, Krallice, Gath Šmânê. And you could be like, Oh, okay, I bet this sounds like all three of those bands mushed together, particularly the new Krallice and the new Encenathrakh. You could also bet that Red Amarcord is some sludgy, techy, future brutal metal (FBM? Cite me when the Wiki page is made, thanks). And you wouldn’t be wrong, but it’s my job to slice the meat as finely as possible, offering you a definitive comparison that doesn’t lean on vague descriptors or oafish analogies.
Alright. Yep. Here we go. You know how Wormed is … like … space sci-fi? Red Amarcord is like that, but, instead of exploring the stars, these are the anthems that belong to the vendors out on the street in Blade Runner. This is sweatier, dirtier, lift-the-boot-off-of-the-people shit. If you’re smarter than me, which is a given, you can kind of infer that from the “anti-totalitarianism” bent of some of the song titles. It really comes through when listening. Marston and McMaster churn out a ton of beguilingly blocky juds that scratch the slam itch while remaining rhythmically intriguing. Paguntalan, as only he can, offers up a grand buffet of gurgles, from gut rumbles to Predator whirs. Within this context, it’s almost like he’s fighting to escape an ever-changing, procedurally generated cube of riffs. Neat. The thing I love, though, is while this pretty is logical (to me, at least?), it never fails to brush me back with some wicked curveballs. Every once in awhile, a song receives an unexpected Holdsworthian synth wash, this little wink to the past from these future-bound crushers that could only be made by these three people in the present. [From Red Amarcord, out now via P2.] –Ian Chainey
6. Of Feather And Bone – “Consecrated And Consumed”
Location: Denver, CO
Subgenre: death metal
There’s only so much you can say about black / death, or bestial metal, or war metal, or whatever else you call it. As a style, it’s reductive by nature. The core ingredients are usually the same: rhythm guitars rendered shapeless through tremolo abuse; blast-furnace drums that do little else but blast; mindless upper-fret Slayer solos; and goat vocals straight from the source (i.e., the butt). Rinse and repeat. Success almost always boils down to execution over innovation, a willingness to push hard enough into outer chaos without going too far and losing shape, where the greatest (and most common) point of failure is devolving into boring noise. Very few get it right. To be fair, Of Feather And Bone aren’t your bog-standard Revenge-clone, and they come at it from a different angle. Way back in 2014, they started life as a grindcore-influenced hardcore band that wasn’t afraid to chug when called upon. Since then they’ve fully purged any hardcore influence, digging deeper into death metal in the intervening years. Worth noting that their Metal Archives entry listed them only as death metal for a long time and compares them to Tomb Mold (not inaccurately) and Gatecreeper (ehh), and I suspect that’s what the band prioritizes above all else. Ripping metal ov death, that whole thing. But try as they might, they can’t help being slightly weirder, slightly more interesting than most of their peers blasting away in the dark, and on album three they’ve leveled up mightily. There’s still some grind in the DNA, reminiscent of label-mates Infernal Coil, but it’s rendered even clearer due to the ridiculously sharp production (courtesy of Arthur Rizk, from a very different band that also made the list this month). The guitars, such as they are, are still pure filth, but the recording quality is pristine, which gives the collective assault that much more impact. There’s even some jagged black thrash in there, especially in the vocals, and it has a hint of what I love about Teitanblood, yet they never succumb to gimmicks, tricks, or cheese. There’s only so much you can say about extremely extreme metal; it either rips or it doesn’t, and this certainly does. [From Sulfuric Disintegration, out 11/13 via Profound Lore Records.] –Aaron Lariviere
5. Misertus – “Dawn”
Location: Manchester, England
Subgenre: atmospheric black metal / blackgaze
Misertus plays massive and airy atmospheric black metal, launching into song after song that breaks through the clouds in search of crystalline catharsis. This isn’t an uncommon goal for solo blackgaze projects that can be found on Bandcamp, but Misertus both achieves its aim and does so better than perhaps anyone else. A distinguishing characteristic to these dreamy, deeply satisfying melodies awash in synth reverb and smeared beauty is the gravitational pull of deeply resonating drums and rich bass. These qualities are felt even more keenly elsewhere on mastermind Tomas’ Earthlight, but for its pure soaring ambition it had to be “Dawn” that was highlighted here. Fans of bands like Astronoid, Sadness, Violet Cold, and An Autumn For Crippled Children will find a great deal to love immediately upon hitting play. [From Earthlight, out now via the band.] –Wyatt Marshall
4. A Pregnant Light – “Transfigure Me”
Location: Grand Rapids, MI
Subgenre: post-black metal
It’s official: I can’t keep up. The world’s spinning too fast, and my brain’s on a smoke break. There’s too much swirling in the aether to process a fraction of everything happening, never mind finding time to slow down and digest all the worthwhile art that demands consumption. So when I randomly check in on what one of my favorite metallic content creators has been up to in 2020 … the deluge I uncover is overwhelming. Damian Master — the voice/musical presence behind A Pregnant Light, Aksumite, and like 10 other mostly-solo bands, and the visionary brain responsible for my dead-ass favorite album of 2019 — has been obscenely productive. In January, A Pregnant Light kicked off its “Kiss Me Thru The Phone” project, where fans were invited to call a toll-free number on the 13th of every month and listen to a new song only available by phone (no streams, no downloads, no mercy). By my count, in 2020 he has also released: an EP and a full-length demo with Aksumite; a new full-length with Dressed In Streams (which is fully anonymous, but I assume he’s involved); three new EPs under his own name (the latest one being blessed with the name Honeyhole 2, with cover art that looks like Tycho’s ghost settling over planet Eno, and the sonic persona of ‘90s Integrity; shit rips); and on top of that, two EPs from A Pregnant Light, including this one. I’ve heard several of these in scattered bursts and they all rule, unequivocally. The latest APL release hit me right when I needed it most, on a shitty day when pedestrian metal wasn’t cutting it. I hadn’t slept much at all; life was hovering somewhere between “pain” and “more pain”; this was the kick to the head I needed to snap back. A Pregnant Light tends to have that effect. Where the last album dabbled in thrash and mid-tempo anthemics, this one’s raw in a different way, focusing on longer track lengths and a slightly different effect overall. We get brutally long verses that build in intensity through repetition and relentless vocal sparring. The climax, when it comes, is an irruption [NOTE TO THE EDITOR: don’t let spell check switch that to eruption; I mean irruption as in an inward-facing explosion. Ian: K. *plays backwards EVH solo furiously*] of dueling leads — an explosion of hooks aimed inward, straight to the heart. Just like the cupid and ouroboros adorning the album art, wrapped in ribbon, spangled in hearts. “Transfigure Me” does just that. [From You Cannot Pour From An Empty Vessel, out now via Colloquial Sound Recordings.] –Aaron Lariviere
3. Iskandr – “Gelderse Poort”
Location: Nijmegen, The Netherlands
Subgenre: black metal
Iskandr is part of the Haeresis Noviomagic circle, a Dutch record label and collective that counts among its members Black Market favorites Fluisteraars and Turia. Both those bands released incredible albums earlier this year, with each achieving dizzying new heights of cinematic beauty. Turia and Fluisteraars are markedly different bands, with each employing frenetic guitars and relentless blasts to different ends, but, on a spectrum, they’d be closer together on one end with Iskandr some distance away. “Gelderse Poort” shows Iskandr pounding out a bruising mid-tempo march, slogging through dark sludge. It’s both unsettling and irresistible, and there’s a sort of doomed inevitability to the way it draws you in. Iskandr, for those taking notes, is a solo project from Turia’s O. (and features Fluisteraars’ Mink Koops on drums on record). With releases from three of Haeresis Noviomagic’s acts this year so far (five if you count the amazing Vuur & Zijde and the live split from Turia and Lubbert Das), we’ll be watching to see who strikes next. [From Gelderse Poort, out now via Eisenwald.] –Wyatt Marshall
2. Bríi – “Esperança é um Pai que Abandona”
Location: Rio De Janeiro, Brazil
Subgenre: atmospheric black metal
Back at the very beginning of the year (and before we knew what 2020 had in store), hearing the Brazilian solo project Kaatayra for the first time blew our minds. On the remarkable Nascido Sob o Signo Incivilizatório, Kaatayra manages to meld progressive atmospheric black metal with Brazilian folk, channeling the mysterious beating heart of the rainforest to produce a mesmerizing listen. The sound and feel is otherworldly in a broader genre filled with ice and fire, and hearing Kaatayra felt like the first foray down a new black metal lineage, one where swathes of deep green are as prominent as the black roots. Now, a few months late to the party again, we’ve stumbled across Bríi and the incredible “Esperança é um Pai que Abandona,” another Brazilian band that brings a magically lush vision of ambient black metal to vivid life. A brooding, immersive intro sets the scene, with lively drumming evoking ritual and starting a build toward an unmitigated explosion. From there, it’s full-speed ahead for some time, with an awe-inspiring beam of dancing arpeggios, relentless drums, and starlight-catching electronics at the fringes. This track was written for the Israeli website Machine Music’s second Bandcamp compilation, which Ian discussed in the intro to June’s column. Somehow we missed this track amidst the 25 other great songs it featured, though better late than never. Proceeds from the compilation are split between the Global Foodbanking Network and the For The Wildlife Sanctuary, while sales of the track directly from Bríi are donated to a Brazilian charity. [From MILIM KASHOT – VOL. 2, out now via the band / Machine Music.] –Wyatt Marshall
1. Eternal Champion – “Ravening Iron”
Location: Austin, TX
Subgenre: heavy metal
I’m too lazy to hide the ball, and the world might end next week anyway, so let’s just get it out of the way — I’m calling it now: AOTY. Thirty seconds into “Ravening Iron” and I’ve heard all I need to. Everything you need to know, everything you’ve been missing in life these past hellish months, is right there in that ripping guitar tone and that galloping riff. The gleaming steel of a thousand swords rips through your mind to haunt your dreams, and it’s only just the start. It’s been four years since Eternal Champion’s near-perfect debut — which rightfully held the TRAD BELT through Q3 & Q4 of 2016. In a Metal Archives review, someone much younger than me compared that album to “listening to Iron Maiden meets Manowar meets Scorpions meets Symphony X without the bad aspects of any of them,” which, to be clear, is not entirely accurate, but it’s funny and captures the enthusiastic good feels that thing engendered among the faithful. Anyway, it’s been four long years. There were murmurs of life late last year when they released a guitar-free, “sword and synth” instrumental 7” inspired by Gene Wolfe’s eternally sick Book Of The New Sun tetralogy (which you should read, heathens). A year later, and there’s legit cause for celebration; album two is here and even better than the first. Arthur Rizk — who doubles as the band’s drummer and in-house producer, mixing engineer, and mastering engineer — has proven himself in recent years as one of the best engineers and producers working in metal, and those gifts are on display here. Guitars are rich, textured, slightly jagged; drums crack like cannon-shot, resonant and absolutely massive. As before, the songwriting leans heavily on muscular US power metal like Omen and Liege Lord, but the riffs consistently outperform and cover much more ground, drawing on everything from early Helloween to chunky Nuclear Assault-style crossover. Every song seems to tap into something new, something wicked unexpected, and the album shines in its least predictable moments. The end of “Coward’s Keep” — a knuckle-dragging stomp in the middle of the record — collapses into a brutal gauntlet of decaying chugs, and it’s enough to shred your loincloth. The next track, “Worms Of The Earth,” takes the quickest of detours into harsh vocals, while the guitars screech through a burst of black thrash, before the whip cracks back to the heavy metal goods. Towards the end of “Ravening Iron,” the absurdly tight title track and first single, the band leaps through a psychedelic wormhole; in the space of a minute, we get flanger-drenched leads, chiming synths, and an absurd Viking chant to send us into the night, drunk on glory and ready to take on the world. [From Ravening Iron, out [when] via No Remorse / Sword Worship.] –Aaron Lariviere
BONUS. Glorious Depravity – “Ocean Of Scabs”
Location: Brooklyn, NY
Subgenre: death metal
Behold, your abdicated king and now part-time micro blebsmith Doug Moore is on the mic here, which relegates Glorious Depravity to the Friend Of The Column, or FotCker, space. Shame, because, wheeeeeeeeeeeeeeeew, does this rip. Joining Doug is an all-star cast: Matt Mewton (Woe, Belus) and George Paul (Mutilation Rites, Overdose) on guitars, John McKinney on bass, and Chris Grigg (Woe, Unrest) on drums. The five forge old school death metal, but with an important twist: STRONG TAMPA VIBES. Hell yeah.
I can’t overstate this: OSDM works a lot better when it’s caked in classic Floridan chonk. Bloodbath figured this out when they were good and then we had to suffer through years of incantating murk merchants and bare-minimum HM-2 clone steppers. Glorious Depravity, though, has that Tampa chungus growing all over it. It rules.
On Ageless Violence, the quintet doesn’t mess around, clearly evidenced by the 30-minute runtime. In addition to the aforementioned morbid monstrosities, the quintet extracts the active ingredients from old school NY death metal like Breeding the Spawn-era Suffocation and adding just a hint of punky, thrashy black metal. That last bit is barely perceptible – you really have to listen to the way that McKinney and Grigg swing — but it makes a big difference to thick rippers like the lead stream, “Ocean Of Scabs.” I also love the attacking guitar tone that cuts through speakers. For such a filthy record, there’s no mud on it.
My favorite thing here is “(In The Clutches Of) The Oligarchic Exsanguinator,” which adds a Cannibal Corpse groove along with a riff that sounds like primo Napalm Death (3:06, nasty). Mewton and Paul slay these riffs, quickly shifting between propulsive palm-muted chugs with syncopated stabs, descending flurries, and no-bullshit juns. In particular, Ageless Violence reminds me of a Disincarnate-y version of Mutilation Rites’ Chasm, an album that I’m slowly realizing was one of the funnest things released last decade.
And that’s the thing. Ageless Violence is fun provided that you think early Deicide is fun and present day Baest is fun. There’s a song titled “Incel Christ”! But it’s also well-considered in a very Doug way. “Digital Reaper,” the second stream, is “about the impersonal and inglorious way that modern militaries do their killing,” per Doug to Invisible Oranges. Aaron, a smart person, has pointed out that the lyrics have a Tennyson-type build to them. That this album also does that is pretty neat, offering some unexpected brain gainz while you thrash around to sick riffs. I would expect nothing less. [From Ageless Violence, out 11/27 via Translation Loss Records.] –Ian Chainey