The Month In Metal – April 2021

The Month In Metal – April 2021

This is the second part of a two-part series on Piledriver’s 1984 album Metal Inquisition. Read part one here.

After stepping out of the vocal booth, Gord Kirchin felt good. He took Leslie Howe and Louise Reny’s melodies and “went for madness,” cracking everyone up as his Piledriver performance became more outsized. Already a ludicrous song packed with hilariously debaucherous one-liners, his over-the-top selling made sure tracks like “Sex With Satan” oozed with… uh… a lot of things. Gord knew that Metal Inquisition was going to be a hit.

“I was on cloud nine, knowing what we had just laid down was a very, very solid 40 minutes of truly great metal that made you move,” Kirchin writes to me in an email. “It had shades, hues, variations, groove, intensity, drama, detail, and all those musical and lyrical hooks. And those ear-shredding guitars! Yes, I knew. I actually felt that if this album tanked, there was something truly wrong in the metal world. While Leslie and Zoran were only interested in making a quick buck on a few thousand copies, I knew from the get-go that this was going to be sooooo much bigger than that.” (I was unable to reach Howe and Reny for comment. Busic did not respond to interview requests.)

According to Kirchin, he chipped in more than vocals. He penned the original liner notes that gave the players their jokey pseudonyms, finalizing the fake band charade. A lot of the aliases were callbacks to their shared bar band past.

“In Mainstream, Les’ nickname was ‘Long John Silver’ for his love of money,” Kirchin remembers. Intended to set Howe’s nom de guerre as producer, it eventually stood in for his publishing company. For Howe’s guitar heroics, Kirchin went a uniquely Canadian route. “I named him Bud Slaker. ‘Bud’ was the band’s nickname for pretty much everyone, and it naturally fell in line there.” The “phantom bassist” position was passed to Reny and repurposed her nickname/stage name “Sally.” “I’m a big Gibson guitars nut, so that became the name Sal Gibson, cut down a few letters to impart a male-sounding odor to it.”

As for the rhythm guitar, Gord winked at the audience. “Knuckles Akimbo was just a straight up joke to explain the second guitar parts.” The drum machine got the same kind of gag: “Former” Lee. Among some groaners, a few of the “crew” received Kirchin’s more cryptic punchlines. “Drum tech” Cliff “Showmeagain” Breech name-checked If/Ted Nugent drummer Cliff Davies “and a private joke to myself referring to a former drummer of mine who could not remember a single song intro and always needed to be reminded ‘how it goes.’” The mandate throughout was to “metalize” as much as possible.

Kirchin’s other key contribution was the Piledriver character design that he “doodled… on the proverbial napkin” during that fateful contract-signing dinner. How detailed was that sketch? “From head to toe, every spike, every strap, and the bondage mask,” he recalls. “Even the skull and crossbones on the mask.”

After submitting all of his elements for the layered ruse, Kirchin headed back home to await the next steps. After all, in accordance with the plan to dress a metal cash grab in “decent cover art” and reap the rewards, there was still a Piledriver suit to make and an album cover to shoot. Little did Gord know that he wouldn’t be included either.

George Giaouris burned the midnight oil on the Piledriver job. “I remember working into the wee hours, making those crazy shoulders myself!” he writes in an email. “All the studs made them quite heavy and I had to figure out a system of straps to keep them from sliding off the shoulders.”

Giaouris is the proprietor of Northbound Leather Ltd., a Toronto-based leather/fetish retailer. The about section of the (NSFW) website proudly lists some of its buyers: “Carmen Carrera, Kreesha Turner, Tracy Melchor, Carole Pope, Lady Gaga, Katy Perry, Madonna, Enrique Iglesias, Sarah Brightman, Paris Hilton, in addition to stock brokers and club kids.” It also has one heck of a history.

Before it was Northbound, it was Leather Craft Ltd. Giaouris’ father opened the store in the ‘60s and eventually moved operations to Toronto’s Yonge Street, settling across from the patio of the Gasworks, “an excellent heavy metal bar,” in the words of Wayne Campbell. The location was perfect.

“We’ve been doing stuff for bands since the ‘70s and maybe into the ‘60s,” Giaouris tells me over the phone. “We’d make stuff for, say, Sly And The Family Stone. And I’d see people coming into the store like Iron Maiden. There were a lot of bands that came through. Anyone who played a gig at the Gasworks would sit on the patio with their pitcher of beer after soundcheck. They’d look across the street at this leather store. They’d wander in. If you wanted black leather and studs, we were the place to go.”

Adventurous clientele brought with them adventurous tastes. Leather Craft was more than willing to meet their needs. “If there was a trend, we were the first to hear about it because people were coming to us,” Giaouris says. “We had a sign in the window since my dad’s time and it’s now printed right on our current signage: ‘name it and we’ll make it in leather or suede.’ And, essentially, if people were unable to find it anywhere else, they’d come to us and say, ‘Hey, can you make this?’”

That’s pretty much how Giaouris recalls what happened when some prospective buyers wandered in with dreams of a leather getup complete with huge nails poking out of the hood and shoulder pads. Hey, can you make this?

Answering that question took some engineering. “The nails are giant,” Giaouris recalls. “They’re real nails, they’re made from, you know, those big spikes that they use to attach your eavestrough to the side of the house.” He’s not kidding. Giaouris bought the nails from a hardware store. He gave them a spritz of spray-paint to ensure they wouldn’t rust. Getting them to stand required an elaborate setup all made out of leather.

Giaouris, one of the nicest and most patient people I’ve talked to, explained the feat of leather to me slowly, like how a NASA scientist might explain space to a puppy. I’m still not sure I get it. No matter, the rig worked… for a bit. “And, basically, what ended up happening is that with all the motion, [the nails] started flopping around anyway,” he says. “You can see in some of the photos that they’re not standing up rigidly. They did initially.” Hey, happens to all of us.

While the Piledriver suit would be too outré for many, it wasn’t much of a stretch for Leather Craft. The business happened to be maturing at the time and Giaouris was interested in “separat[ing] the two different types of clientele, to give some privacy to the ones that were taking it into the bedroom or practicing their air guitar.”

“In 1984, we were doing all of the spikes and the kinky stuff and the belts and all of that,” Giaouris says. “I decided to open a separate location and call it Northbound Leather. ‘North’ for where we are, ‘bound’ for what you do with it, and ‘leather’ for what it’s made from. Kind of tongue and cheek, nondescript. Sounded like an outdoors store, but it wasn’t. Kink in a plain brown wrapper is what I wanted, nomenclature wise. And so we opened it up on the same block, behind the shop, fronting onto Saint Nicholas Street, which is the lane that runs north/south parallel to Yonge Street just to the west. We’re still here.”

Northbound is now world famous for its array of “fine leather and fetish fashions,” still proudly proclaiming “you name it, we’ll make it” on its website’s page for custom ordering. That website is another way Northbound has innovated, not just in the fetish space, but on the internet at large. “We were one of the first two hundred commercial websites on the internet,” Giaouris beams. “We wrote our own version of a shopping cart for online sales and we’ve been cited in a couple textbooks as an example of early e-commerce.”

While Leather Craft wound down, existing today as a corporation without the storefront, Northbound continues to rack up credits. “We still see a lot bands,” Giaouris tells me. “We do a lot of work for theater, film, TV shows. We’re working with a couple of shows right now and I’ve been sworn to secrecy.” Even though my prodding couldn’t get him to spill the beans, I did learn that, back in the day, Leather Craft made jackets for Charles Bronson in Deathwish and Redd Foxx was a return customer. Sanford And Son to Piledriver in two degrees of separation, all thanks to some gutter nails. And yes, they’re standing up just fine on the cover for Metal Inquisition.

Patrick Harbron snapped that photo. After starting as a talented “rock and roll photographer” and one-time drummer of Space Phlegm, Harbron has gone on to have himself a career. Over the years, he’s published three books. He has plied his trade for “Apple, IBM, American Express,” among others. He’s also done significant work photographing TV productions. And he’s set up a website, Rock And Roll Icons, to share and sell his concert pics and portraits. There’s a good chance you’ve seen his stuff.

In the early ‘80s, Harbron was making waves in album design. He has photos in Black Sabbath’s Live Evil. He also shot the photo adorning the cover of Anvil’s Forged In Fire.

“Anvil were always cool guys to work with,” Harbron writes to me over email. “They were so committed, it made the shoots fun. I wasn’t happy when they cut hash joints on my antique Coke machine, but I got over it.”

Harbron’s album cover breakouts were two Attic Records compilations, 1984’s Metal For Breakfast and 1985’s Metal For Lunch. Not only did he shoot the covers, but he created the concept. He’d be nominated for a Juno Award for the former. That one also caught the attention of Zoran Busic.

“I was contacted by Zoran, co-manager of the group Saga,” Harbron remembers. “He was already a client and liked what I did with the Metal For Breakfast cover. His office was across the hall from my studio in Toronto.”

Busic had a character, suit, and general idea. The rest was up to Harbron. “I decided on everything you see after the idea was given to me. The leather clothing for the ‘executioner’ was already set. I wanted to create a stage with proper lighting and I blended the club’s rig with my flash equipment. I achieved the ‘live’ look with proper light to assure a clean image. It was a production that would have looked different if I had just used stage light.”

The club? The Gasworks. “The Gasworks was a real rock and roll club,” Harbron explains. “Groups like Rush, Triumph, Max Webster, and Goddo played early gigs there. I’ll bet Saga did as well. So many bands went through there. I think I proposed the idea to shoot in the club because I knew the stage would make the shoot easier to pull off.”

Harbron scouted location, set schedules, acquired props, and hired on additional crew. Some things happened through serendipity. “I don’t know if we had a choice of guitars but the flying ‘V’ was perfect,” he writes, later adding, “I don’t remember where the PA cabinets and the drum kit came from. They may have belonged to the band that was playing that night.” Oh, the things your gear gets up to when you’re off window shopping at Leather Craft.

While the atmosphere is perfect, what catches your eye are the two people at the center of the cover. “I don’t know who the ‘victim’ was,” Harbron writes. “He may have been a relative of Zoran’s. We didn’t hire anyone. The ‘executioner’ is Craig Jones, who was a DJ at CHUM-FM in Toronto. Craig was also the model for the covers of Metal For Breakfast and Metal For Lunch.”

One of the enduring mysteries of the Piledriver tale that Harbron couldn’t solve for me is the victim’s shirt. Harbron doesn’t remember the longsleeves’ origin, but it’s a clever Easter egg. There, screened on the front of the shirt, is the album cover. It’s a wonderful bit of Escher-lite recursion. On the back of the shirt, which you can see on the album’s reverse, is the first line of the chorus to the album’s title track: “If you ain’t a metal head then you might as well be dead.”

After Giaouris and Harbron both nailed their respective parts, Busic had his all-important cover, the key element he believed would help sell a record regardless of the music contained within the cardboard. He’d release the experiment on Maze Music’s new sublabel, Cobra Records. Piledriver’s Metal Inquisition is IDed in the Cobra catalog as CL 0001. Everything was going according to plan, except… uh… someone wasn’t filled in about that plan.

“I had moved to Montreal from Ottawa at the beginning of September,” Gord Kirchin writes. “I was waiting for the call to go to Toronto to get fit for the costume and shoot the cover. I almost fainted when it arrived by mail, all completed, with someone ELSE in the costume on the cover. I felt so completely cheated and dismissed. It was the first sign that I was being used, abused, and ripped off for my contributions.”

Kirchin started seeing the album at Rock en Stock, Montreal’s big independent record store, “before the end of the month.” (Rock en Stock, Banzai Records, the “speed metal swirl,” and the great Canadian bootleg bust is a story for another time.) Here was his career break, the project he poured his soul into. Real, tangible, ready for purchase.

However, besides his voice, there was no sign that Kirchin was involved. He’s not pictured on the cover and his proposed liner notes were cut to bits. What remained probably worked too well, easily obscuring players unknown in most heavy metal circles. Kirchin is credited only as “Pile Driver,” and the album was now produced and engineered by “BUD” at Rattlesnake Studios, Belgium. (Interestingly, Frank Soda also gets a shout out.) Before Discogs and Encyclopaedia Metallum existed, that veil of anonymity would be a hard one to pierce.

In a cruel twist, Kirchin started hearing Piledriver everywhere, too. “It was like being Clark Kent seeing news reports of Superman’s latest save,” he writes. “Even more goosebump-raising was being on the street and hearing ‘Sex With Satan’ blasting out of a passing metalhead’s ghettoblaster, or hearing a bunch of punters [singing] in unison ‘if you’re not a metal head you might as well be DEAD’ at the back of a bar as I was playing covers onstage.”

But, according to Kirchin in an archived interview with Beat Route, the instruction from Busic was that loose lips sink fake bands. “I was told to keep it all a secret or I would ruin the masquerade. I got paid $250 for my work on it. That’s it.”

In his email to me, Kirchin confirms that this was the arrangement. “Lips were sealed, except to all but the very closest personal friends.” Even if he did let the cat out of the bag, there was no guarantee anyone would believe him. “The response was, ‘Riiiiiiiight, this is you. Yeah, sure.’ It always made me laugh.”

Metal Inquisition’s sales were no laughing matter. Based on word of mouth, the album continued to grow steam. It found fans at Britain’s Kerrang!, getting a write-up in issue number 91 (April 4 – 17, 1985). And Metal Inquisition was a favorite of smaller zines. The Corroseum, an outstanding resource for older metal, has 10 zines mentioning Piledriver in its archives and the countries of origin run the gamut: Germany, Mexico, Belgium, Brazil. The one English language zine, Canada’s Metallic Assault #1 from 1984, blessed Metal Inquisition with a fawning review, talking up the “heavy” music and instructing readers, in an unfortunately ‘80s way, to ignore the false album art. “Black metal from Ontario?” is the subheadline.

Part of the reason for Piledriver’s penetration in worldwide markets is because it was licensed to more established labels. Roadrunner Records picked up Metal Inquisition for Europe, while the US rights went to HME Records. It appears, though, that someone at HME must’ve gotten cold feet about the album’s contents. Instead of the real deal, it produced a censored version. The apocalyptic closer, “Alien Rape,” was retitled “Alien Raid.” And “Sex With Satan” and “Sodomize The Dead” were subbed off for two new songs: “Lust” and “Twister.” The replacements weren’t written and recorded by Leslie Howe and Louise Reny. They did, however, feature Kirchin’s vocals.

In the Beat Route interview, Kirchin asserts that Busic told him that Metal Inquisition “was barely making a mark” even though the songs seemed to be everywhere and zine mentions were piling up. Kirchin, then, was taken aback when Busic asked if he wanted to earn $250 for another fake band. This one would be helmed by Conrad Taylor, previously a guitarist and backing vocalist for Genya Ravan, a cultishly beloved singer whose work has been sampled by Jay-Z, N.E.R.D., and Black Moon, among others. Ravan was also a producer, working the boards for the classic Dead Boys recordings. That’s how Taylor also landed on Ronnie Spector’s punk-ish 1980 record, Siren. (I was unable to contact Taylor for this piece.)

The new “band” was named Convict. Kirchin took on the role of Terry “The Con” Browning. Go Ahead… Make My Day! was released in 1985, Cobra Records catalog ID# CL 1002. This time, the album art was by Ioannis, who’d go on to do the covers for Fates Warning’s The Sprectre Within and Awaken The Guardian.

“Lust” and “Twister” were leftovers from that session. As Convict is more of a thuddier hard rocker, they don’t really fit on Metal Inquisition.

But thanks to a production screw up, HME accidentally released a batch of the original Piledriver recordings under the new song titles. “Sex With Satan” became “Lust.” “Sodomize the Dead” became “Twister.” This early mispress happened to be sitting in a record store when Pastor Jeff Ling was out hunting for albums.

Ling was part of the Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC), a group formed in May 1985 by four “Washington Wives:” Susan Baker, Tipper Gore, Pam Howar, and Sally Nevius, partners of James Baker (then Secretary of the Treasury), Al Gore (then a senator, future Vice President, presidential candidate, and creator the internet), Raymond Howar (real estate developer), and John Nevius (lawyer, former head of D.C.’s city council), respectively. (The group reportedly received early funding from Mike Love of the Beach Boys and Joseph Coors of the Coors Brewing Company empire via his Heritage Foundation.)

The PMRC deserves a deeper dive (Zach Schonfeld’s 2015 oral history for Newsweek is a starting point, and Chelsea Anne Watts’s 2016 dissertation, Nothin’ But A Good Time: Hair Metal, Conservatism, And The End Of The Cold War In The 1980s, is your next step), but, in short, the group is most known for a series of actions it undertook in 1985. Framed as consumer advocacy and an FYI to parents, these efforts were reactions to, in Susan Baker’s words, “the growing trend in music toward lyrics that are sexually explicit, excessively violent, or glorify the use of drugs and alcohol.”

For our purposes, three actions stick out: First, a letter was sent to the Recording Industry Association Of America (RIAA) asking for albums to rated similarly to movies. Then, the PMRC created the “Filthy Fifteen,” 15 songs the group found offensive and were a proof of concept for the aforementioned rating system. And finally… well, we’ll get to that seismic pop culture event momentarily.

Ling’s work started earlier. “As a youth minister, I was concerned about the kids that I was responsible for,” he tells me over the phone. “And so I began doing talks for my youth group and [their] parents.” If you present it, they will come, and soon the groups of concerned parents surprised by what their kids were listening to grew larger. Kandie Stroud, then a journalist, was hipped to a talk Ling was giving in Fairfax, Virginia, attended by “several hundred people.”

After Ling’s talk, Stroud submitted an entry for Newsweek’s My Turn column. “Stop Pornographic Rock” ran in the May 6, 1985 issue. It begins with a now-familiar anecdote, one of a daughter bringing her mother’s attention to the risqué lyrics in Prince’s “Darling Nikki.” The piece also highlights a handful of tracks that would later make the Filthy Fifteen. The most prophetic line is this one: “Legislative action may be needed, or better yet, a measure of self-restraint.”

In the wake of the column, Ling made connections “with Susan Baker and Tipper Gore and the others.” When the PMRC started, he was there. His talks expanded to include “groups of senators, congressmen, and other civic and religious leaders in those areas.”

In order to stay up to date, Ling employed a shoe-leather approach to his research, frequenting record stores in the Washington, DC and Northern Virginia area. “My question, as always, was what else is in the bin with the popular artists?” he explains. “The kid that goes looking for the WASP album or the Black Sabbath album or the Slayer album, what else are they going to come across?” Finding the bad stuff was easier than expected. “It was always there. You could always find that material. It wasn’t behind the counter. It wasn’t in a brown wrapper. It was just there.”

Along with flipping through records, Ling perused the available periodicals. “We’d look for information on artists that were making an image for themselves as the bad guys. You didn’t have to look far in publications to see the
Mötley Crües celebrating sex, drugs, and rock and roll.” In particular, the European magazines was where the more “cutting edge” and “risky” bands resided.

“It was a drag, frankly,” Ling says with a laugh when I asked about the depth of his research. “I have been in pastoral ministry for the last 40-something years, and I don’t know any pastoral guys who would love to spend a number of hours every day filling their heads with garbage.” Still, looking at the Filthy Fifteen now, you can see the what this exhaustive approach produced. Rubbing shoulders with the heavy hitters from the pop and rock world are Mercyful Fate’s “Into The Coven” and Venom’s “Possessed.” Ling would soon get an opportunity to display more of the deep cuts he collected.

On September 19, 1985, commencing at 9:40AM in room SR-253 of the Russell Senate Office Building, the US Senate Committee on Commerce, Science And Transportation opened its hearing on “contents of music and the lyrics of records.” “The reason for this hearing is not to promote any legislation,” Senator John Danforth, chairman of the committee, said. “Indeed, I do not know of any suggestion that any legislation be passed. But to simply provide a forum for airing the issue itself, for ventilating the issue, for bringing it out into the public domain.” Senator Fritz Hollings was less restrained about the “outrageous filth,” stating in his opening remarks, “if I could find some way constitutionally to do away with it, I would.” Porn rock had made it to the Capitol.

As part of the PMRC’s opening salvo, Pastor Jeff Ling was set to give a slide show presentation. You can see it in this C-SPAN clip (it is way more NSFW than the website for Northbound). Ventilated in the US Senate that morning were your Mötley Crües and WASPs, but also album covers for Abattoir, Impaler, Mercyful Fate, and Bitch. An underground headbanger would be proud. It was quite the haul. At 6:40, Ling added this to the public domain:

This band, Piledriver, fuses together the elements of sexual violence and occult in the song “Lust.” I forgot. [Ling holds the album aloft off camera] It is right here in front of me. The song is called “Lust.” The lyrics say, “Hell on fire. Lust, desire. The devil wants to stick you. The devil wants to lick you. He wants your body. He wants your spirit. Naked twisting bodies, sweating. Prince of darkness. Prince of evil. Spread your legs and scream. This is no dream. Degradation. Humiliation. Thrusting, shoving. Animals humping. He is like a dog in heat. You are just another piece of meat. Craving demons fill you with pain. Now you are bloodied and stained, hurt and beaten. He will possess you. He will molest you. Sex with Satan. Sex with Satan.”

I asked Ling if he was nervous to be presenting this information to senators. “Well, of course!” he says, later adding, “and in the presentation itself, there was a hiccup with the slide projector — it was automatically advancing instead of letting me advance it. That unnerves you. And of course, when I put the cherry on top with the final group of lyrics [from the Mentors], everyone busted up laughing. You felt a little stupid. You felt like, Ah jeez, what am I doing?

Be that as it may, the over-the-top nature of Ling’s presentation, which included multiple instances of nudity and profanity, had a point. “But my philosophy from the beginning was you can’t sit in front of a bunch of senators and say, ‘Hey, your kids are listening to songs about having sex outside of marriage.’ That just wouldn’t do it. ‘Your kids are listening to songs about getting drunk.’ You just couldn’t do it.” In a way, it was Piledriver’s shock strategy in reverse.

Ling drives this home with the esprit de l’escalier he felt following an appearance on the CNN show Crossfire, the missed rebuttal that “would’ve made the point better than anything.” “[Tom Braden] started off the segment by saying, ‘Reverend Ling, birds do it, bees do it, even ordinary fleas do it. Let’s do it. Let’s fall in love. What’s wrong with that kind of thing, Reverend Ling?’ I wish I had had the balls at the time to say, ‘Fuck like a beast.’ Because that would have gotten them in trouble. Because they would’ve had to say, ‘You can’t say that here.’ Ah! Good point! How come we can’t say that here? Because you have standards that you have to go by at your network, don’t you? You have things you can say and you can’t say. I wish I had let loose with a stream of my worst stuff. But being a gentleman, being a pastor, being someone who was aware of the rules, I didn’t.”

While the hearing’s supporting witnesses brought out the big guns — “Some say there is no cause for concern,” Baker said her in testimony, “We believe there is. Teen pregnancies and teenage suicide rates are at epidemic proportions today.” — the opposing witnesses made the lasting impact. Frank Zappa, Dee Snider, and… John Denver have been feted for showing up and pushing back. Zappa, seemingly particularly irked by Senator Hollings’s statements, dropped the hammer on the PMRC’s push for a rating system. “The PMRC proposal is an ill-conceived piece of nonsense which fails to deliver any real benefits to children, infringes the civil liberties of people who are not children, and promises to keep the courts busy for years dealing with the interpretational and enforcemental problems inherent in the proposal’s design.”

Zappa, who reportedly told WASP’s Blackie Lawless “Be glad you didn’t go — it was a big dog-and-pony show,” would send up the experience in “Porn Wars,” an audiocollage on his 1985 album Frank Zappa Meets The Mothers Of Prevention. A snippet of Ling’s Piledriver recitation made the cut.

This Zappaian sense of pointed bemusement is how the legend of the hearings is mostly retold in the heavy metal world, especially after the burgeoning culture war traded in Satanic Panic for hip-hop as public enemy number one. The RIAA, maybe operating with ulterior motives, adopted the now-familiar “parental advisory” labels on November 1, 1985, self-policing its recordings without the rating system. While it’s never been accurately measured, the “Tipper sticker” didn’t appear to have much of a detrimental effect on sales. And, over the ensuing decades, there has also been the expected societal norming of once-unsavory endeavors.

“I’m glad on the one hand that parents got that information and were able to make use of that,” Ling says. “I’m glad that it happened when it did because getting it done today would be almost impossible. Now, a kid can get whatever they want to get their hands on. It doesn’t matter. Streaming services, downloading: you want it, you can find it. It’s unfortunate, but it is the way it is.”

While we probably don’t agree on much by dint of me writing a monthly metal column, Ling is affable, more self-aware about his place in history than his ‘80s combatants probably gave him credit for. “I’m not excited that my legacy in the congressional record is the things I said at that hearing,” he says through a chuckle. “Not exactly the thing you want to go down in history for. But, it’s okay.” As we chat about the present, he adds: “I have spent my life counseling, getting couples ready to get married, helping people bury their loved ones, baptizing babies, and sharing my faith with people. That’s my life. This other thing was a small part of it. I feel like the things I’ve been able to do are not the things people will be able to read about. The congressional record will be there forever, but I won’t be. But I have been privileged, honestly privileged, to spend my life loving and helping people along the way and that’s more important to me at the end of the day.”

Gord Kirchin’s take on the Senate hearings is the same as a lot of underground musicians who unexpectedly made it into the congressional record. “That we were included and thus heralded there was no doubt a big help in moving those 500,000 slabs of harmonic evil, haha!” Indeed, for a brief moment, Piledriver looked poised to break into the big time. Instead, everything fell apart.

“I’ve always maintained that if we would have gone out and gigged rather than play that silly ‘mystery’ game, we could have been a major act,” Kirchin writes, now referring to Zoran Busic with Kirchin’s preferred sobriquet, “Sadly, the record weasel only wanted to make a quick buck and had zero foresight into developing and growing this band as it would entail investment and work.”

Per Kirchin, Busic signed off on Piledriver turning into a touring band, but wouldn’t offer financial support. Auditions went nowhere. “I found it very hard to find musicians at the time who were into stage ‘costumes,’ stage names, and the humor-laced lyrical thrust,” Kirchin laments. (This Is Spinal Tap was released in 1984. Gwar cut its first demo in 1985. Make of that what you will.)

So, in order to capitalize on Metal Inquisition’s heat, there needed to be a sequel. Problem: Leslie Howe and Louise Reny weren’t available. “Leslie has simply denied any dealings of any kind regarding Piledriver, pretty much since weeks after it was put out, once he too realized that he had been pooched royally,” Kirchin claims. To be fair, Howe and Reny did have irons in other fires.

Following Metal Inquisition, Howe and Louise Reny were back at work on One To One. Forward Your Emotions, the duo’s debut, was released in 1985. Two of its singles, “There Was A Time” and “Angel In My Pocket” cracked Canada’s top 40 and the latter sneaked into the lower rungs of the Billboard Hot 100. The album was nominated for three Juno Awards in 1986, including two recognizing Howe’s production and engineer work. 1988’s 1-2-1 extended One To One’s winning streak. “Hold Me Now” peaked at #13 on the Canadian charts. As that song was making waves, a budding Ottawan musician entered the Howe/Reny universe.

According to Paul Cantin’s Alanis Morissette: You Oughta Know, which I am lifting secondhand from Soraya Roberts truly excellent “Alanis In Chains” essay for Hazlitt that takes a much more extensive look at this period, Morissette’s mother got her daughter’s demo into the hands of Howe. In an interview with the Detroit Journal, Reny remembered that Morissette asked her for career advice. “I met her when she was 12. My advice to her was to stay out of the music business. Good one, eh?” Morissette signed a five-album production deal with Howe’s company, Ghettovale.

Two of those albums were made for MCA Records: 1991’s Alanis and 1992’s Now Is The Time. Howe produced both, churning out sub-Jam & Lewis dance-pop with incongruously adult lyrics for a teenager. Music Canada certified Alanis platinum thanks to 100,000 units shipped. Now Is The Time did half that. Pressure was mounting for a bigger return.

In an interview with Roberts, keyboardist and arranger Serge Côté, who has credits on those early Morissette records, paints Howe as an “intense” producer to work with. “He knows what he wants and he won’t hold back,” Côté is quoted as saying. This next line from Roberts sticks out: “At one point Howe’s credit cards were ‘maxed out’ in order to finance the Alanis recordings and Côté recalls him repeatedly saying, ‘This thing’s gotta work. It’s gotta work.’”

It didn’t work for long. Morissette, unhappy over the artistic direction and suffering due in part to the gross demands of an image-obsessed record company, wanted out. Despite owing Howe three more albums, she negotiated her exit, eventually releasing her smash 1995 16X platinum juggernaut Jagged Little Pill on Maverick Records. In order to not confuse record buyers keen on Morissette’s fiery alt-rock sound, “Maverick prevailed upon Morissette’s Canadian label to take her two previous releases out of circulation,” according to a Boston Phoenix article. That wasn’t the only bit of music business that tied up loose ends. Roberts writes that Morissette confirmed to biographer Cantin that Howe released her “in exchange for an undisclosed percentage of Jagged Little Pill’s revenue.”

In interviews, though, Reny and Howe took a more friendly tack. “It’s hard to believe or imagine that our buddy is like this huge star,” Reny said to the Detroit Journal. Howe pushed that both artists were looking for different things. “I made two albums with her, then she was a star in Canada at age 14,” he said to the Hollywood Reporter. “After that, I wanted to do my own thing.”

Once Bonaire, One To One’s label, went belly up, Howe and Reny recorded one more album as the redubbed One 2 One. 1992’s Imagine It reconfigured the duo’s sound once again and managed to score them their highest charting hit, “Peace Of Mind.” A follow-up single, “Memory Lane,” made it onto Melrose Place.

Soon, there were new trends to chase. Capitalizing on the mainstream alt-rock explosion, Howe and Reny started Sal’s Birdland. 1995’s Naked Photos Inside, which contained baby photos of the members; ba dum tsh, has a sort of slacker Velocity Girl/Juliana Hatfield energy to it. By 1997, the group was renamed Artificial Joy Club And pursued a more Garbage-y, post-grunge trudge. “Sick and Beautiful,” a single from the project’s lone album Melt, made it onto 120 Minutes and got the band to Lollapalooza’s second stage. “I’ve been playing bars since I was 15, and I love it. I guess I’m just going to keep doing this,” Reny said to Billboard. Artificial Joy Club broke up two years later. Reny would go on to sing for Bubbles Cash And The Rhythm Method, a cover band whose history was wiped in the MySpace data apocalypse. While the Isle Of Deserted Pop Stars mentions that “Howe occasionally produces,” songs from the Melt sessions are his last official credits in most databases.

This is all a long way of saying that there were some other reasons why Howe and Reny might not have returned for a second Piledriver album. No matter, Busic had another artist under contract. An old Maze Music alum had made the jump to Cobra Records: Virgin Steele.

“Our manager at the time was like ‘you guys owe me money, you have to do this for me,’” Virgin Steele singer and songwriter David DeFeis said to Sweden Rock Magazine in an interview reprinted at the Corroseum. “It was one of those deals. It was creative and any chance I get to be creative, I take it, regardless of what the principle behind it may be sometimes.” That manager asked for three albums. The principle behind it? Three fake bands. The first was Piledriver’s follow-up, Stay Ugly.

DeFeis and guitarist Edward Pursino, a fellow Virgin Steele member, recruited bassist Mike Paccione and drummer Robert Espizito. The quartet worked quickly. “We did that record in two days,” DeFeis said. “I don’t know how long it took to write those songs, but it wasn’t very long. We sat in front of an old washing machine and wrote that record, Edward and I.” Even when the band flew Kirchin in, it was whirlwind affair. “We picked him up at JFK airport, he did all the vocals in a couple of hours and we drove him back to JFK later that night. There was no budget or anything. Then we mixed the album the next day and that’s what it is.”

“When I found out that there was a second Piledriver album in the works and it wasn’t Leslie Howe, I asked what are the fans going to think when it’s a completely different sound?” Kirchin said to Metallian. “‘Oh don’t worry, it is your vocals and they won’t even notice,’ said the record weasel and I am going ‘Well I think they will, it is like a completely different band because it is completely different.’”

Different? Yes. This wasn’t Metal Inquisition. DeFeis has said that he was “trying to get into the head of early Black Sabbath” on Stay Ugly, “just something completely thrashy and underground sounding.” Still, even though it’s a rush job, the album has some decent riffs. And DeFeis must’ve thought that “The Fire God” was worth salvaging. A slightly different version appears on Virgin Steele’s 1999 epic, The House Of Atreus – Act I.

The next two albums in DeFeis’ fake band career would be remembered better. Exorcist’s Nightmare Theatre and Original Sin’s Sin Will Find You Out are fake band classics. DeFeis sings on the former, DeFeis’s sister, Danae, on the latter. (Both albums have been reissued by High Roller Records. Exorcist is good. Original Sin is great.) “You know, it was organic, all those records,” DeFeis said about his time with Cobra Records, adding “I don’t regret doing them, I’m happy that we did. I would have liked to make some money from them, but that’s always possible in the future if we put them out again. I own all the masters. I wouldn’t put the Piledriver out, though. That’s Gordon. Whatever he wants to do with it, just go for it.”

After Original Sin, Cobra Records was done funding its own fake bands. It grabbed one more for Canadian release, Grudge Records’ mysterious Lords Of The Crimson Alliance and its 1986 self-titled banger of bizarro power metal. Cobra whittled out the rest of its brief lifespan as a licenser, adding records from Circle Jerks, Agent Steel, Dark Angel, Voivod, Running Wild, Chastain, Celtic Frost, Death, Coroner, and Kreator to its stable. Its last release in 1987 or 1988 was either the Canadian versions of Living Death’s Protected From Reality or Tankard’s Chemical Invasion, depending on which source you consult.

While fake bands existed before — Nick Lowe’s Tartan Horde, etc. — Cobra Records got in early with the metal material and might’ve provided a blueprint for other labels looking to jump into the cash-grab game. Grudge (Lords Of The Crimson Alliance, Grudge) and the Dutch East Records-bankrolled Pentagram Records (Jack Starr’s Phantom Lord and Devil Childe, Joe Hasselvander’s Lady Killer) would follow in its footsteps. (I write more about DeFeis and Starr’s fake band runs over here, which includes an earlier version of this Piledriver piece.) And Cobra precedes the absolute nadir of the fake-band exercise, Metal Enterprises. That one is Dan Edman’s beat. He’d coin a good term for it: “Metalploitation.”

Despite the setbacks, Kirchin was still set on living out his metal dreams. Unfortunately, he was still tangled in Busic’s web. Disappointed with Stay Ugly, Kirchin grabbed the reins of Piledriver and took over production duties. He began work on a third album. One more insult, for the road.

“When I was at the mixing stage, the record weasel informed me that he would not be honoring the agreed $12,000 advance to pay for the recordings,” Kirchin writes. “After a heated discussion, I decreed that the recordings were now attributed to a band called Dogs With Jobs, that he now had nothing to do with any of it at all, and I joined Leslie [Howe] in finally severing my ties to the sleazy record weasel. I cashed in my [registered retirement savings plans] to pay for the sessions.”

Kirchin, who plays everything except the programmed drums and Sean Abbott’s lead guitar licks, released Dogs With Jobs’ debut, Shock, in October 1990 on the ironically named Fringe Product. It sounds like Metal Inquisition by way of early Megadeth. In order to fit the new “blue collar” band image, he “de-Pile’d” some of the lyrics. Two-thirds of the album are a mini concept record about a metalhead who accidentally wastes a cop, gets sentenced to death by electrocution, and turns into a lightning bolt-flinging madman. (Note: Wes Craven’s Shocker was released in October 1989.) Shock also includes a song that has become something of a Black Market staple. Ladies and gentlemen, once more, “Dogs With Jobs.”

Dogs With Jobs expanded into a trio and recorded one more album, 1993’s Payday. And then, Gord Kirchin logged onto the internet.

“I finally got a modem and got online,” Kirchin remembers. “At the time in my life, Piledriver for all intents and purposes was relegated to ‘the past,’ and Dogs With Jobs was winding down to its demise. I was reading some article, and they mentioned Piledriver. I was all ‘Wow, someone remembered ‘that failed album.’ Zoran [Busic] had long maintained that despite the interviews, chart placements, and coverage, it was a complete flop due to rampant piracy. Plugging the word ‘Piledriver’ into that Alta Vista search engine returned literally thousands of hits. I was completely shocked and blown away. It was then that the full scope of the record weasel’s kleptocratic manipulations of me were made painfully apparent. It hurt, a lot, as finding hidden truths often can.”

Kirchin created a website to tell his side of the story. The emails poured in. He also secured an entertainment lawyer and began the battle for royalties. He believes that lawyer’s research provided the 500,000 sales figure. “Sadly, in the 2000s, that figure is easily eclipsed by the dozens of bootlegs out there,” Kirchin writes. Fun fact: One of those bootlegs happens to be by Full Moon Productions, Velvet Cacoon’s label.

Kirchin would eventually lose the war for wages. He says he still doesn’t see any money for the early Piledriver material. And he’d face another indignity: “My final falling out with Leslie was when he flat out refused to provide a letter of intent and consent to the label to include me in royalties from the Maximum Metal/High Vaultage re-release of Metal Inquisition.”

Still, the fans kept coming out of the woodwork. By Metal Inquisition‘s 20th anniversary, it was time to do it live. “Ray ‘Black Metal’ Wallace began pestering me to get up onstage and serve the fans,” Kirchin writes. “Why not? Since the record weasel wasn’t going to change his stripes and help in any way, let alone fight all the bootlegs and bullshit that’s out there, why the fuck not bring it to the fans anyway? They’re out there! They want it still! What’s he gonna do? Sue us for the $150 we got for the gig?”

Much like Myofist, Gord tacked on “Exalted” to the front of the band name to differentiate his group from the other Piledrivers now out in the world. He held another round of auditions and secured a steady lineup. At long last, the Exalted Piledriver was real. Not only did the band play dates like Keep it True, it started to tour. It released a new album in 2008, Metal Manifesto. It “re-Pile’d” some Dogs With Jobs material. Now staffed by members of Spewgore, the band is still rolling.

That doesn’t mean Kirchin has been freed from the familiar downs of his music career. “I recently attempted shopping for a record deal for a new Exalted Piledriver album,” he writes, “but response from the industry was completely negative and I have zero interest in being a ‘label’ and all the associated work that goes into it. So, since the interest was definitely not there to support it, I gave up and deleted the files. Fuck it. Why go and spend big money to do a proper album just to lose it all hours after release when the pirate torrents hit the net?”

Still, even though there’s a lot of pain in Piledriver’s past, it has allowed Kirchin to realize a few dreams. As an avid Frank Zappa fan, he’s particularly tickled that he’s now linked to the man through “Porn Wars.” And the kid who used to slither around his room to “Dead Babies” would have a chance to influence another hero. “Years later, [I met] Alice Cooper at MuchMusic in Toronto. While gushing adoring gibberish like a 12-year-old fanboy, I handed him an 8×10 promo [picture] of Piley. Almost in unison he and Kane Roberts said ‘Wow! That’s HEAVY.’ Many months later on the Trashes The World tour, [Cooper] was sporting a distressed and torn leather jacket with 12-inch spikes coming out of the shoulders. While I may not have become a rich and famous rock star, I did, unbeknownst to them, directly influence my two biggest idols in very small ways.”

Kirchin has a new band now, another real one with “extremely talented old buds from high school” that’s working on some non-metal material that’s nearing completion. Nonetheless, he’s still down to do the odd “rock and roll vacations… to go play rockstar.” The Exalted Piledriver is a big ticket in Europe and South America. After all, he still has the suit. “Mind you, after a few decades of being forced to wear that damned costume because of the fans love for it, I could definitely reconsider at this point,” he writes. “Opening the suitcase before a gig is always an ‘oh fuck, here we go again… oh well… the kids like it’ proposition, haha.” –Ian Chainey

10

Passéisme - "Chant For Harvest"

Location: Nizhny Novgorod, Russia
Subgenre: black metal

I was skeptical at first: a Russian black metal band with a bio referencing “vibes in the vein of KPN and Sühnopfer.” KPN being Kommando Peste Noire, the openly racist shitlords; Sühnopfer being the quite listenable, equally bad solo project from Peste Noire’s former drummer, who of course played in RAC bands before that. That’s to say, two bands who are not welcome here. We checked into Passéisme, and as best we can tell, this is just terrible promo copy. They play medieval-sounding, near-epic black metal more in the vein of Véhémence, Forteresse, or Obsequiae, where every riff is a flurry of melody; thick bass grinds away on the ground floor; and the vocals sound like angry peasants shouting curses in the streets (not unlike these guys). Weirdly, their members are mostly known for playing in extremely un-black metal bands like 7 H. Target (technical slams on Willowtip) and Wombripper (ripping, ugh, OSDM on Memento Mori). Curious as to what possesses some Russian spuds to radically alter their musical course and summon black windblasts of forlorn majesty, or whatever it is they’re doing here, but the riffs are certainly worthy. Just to be clear, we didn’t find any overt grossness besides the quote above, and it seems to be referring to Passéisme’s lyrical fixation on French poetry and the Decadent movement (per Metal-Archives). But we’re in the black metal zone, so trust your gut. [From Eminence, out 6/11 via Antiq Records.]Aaron Lariviere

09

Cadavoracity - "Cataegis"

Location: Bekasi, Indonesia / Bangkok, Thailand
Subgenre: brutal death metal

“Cataegis,” the opening track on Cadavoracity’s new EP Vitiosus Forma Exilium, has the bait and switch of the year. The first few seconds seemingly set the pace, the kind of laggy stroke found swimming in the more toilet side of slams, a deliberate, not-really-swinging thwap. And then Cadavoracity pull out the rug. Blasts, engage. It’s like being sucked into a jet engine. Vitiosus Forma Exilium’s six songs are mostly in that evolved mode, taking the frenzied, berserker brutal death formula and adding all kinds of fun quirks and ball fakes. Standout “Paralyticus,” for example, pans the gurgle vox from speaker to speaker. I love it, because of course I do. But, really, I wanted to highlight this one because it helps explain an important slice of contemporary brutal death metal. First, this is being released on Unmatched Brutality Records, the label run by Brodequin guitarist Mike Bailey. UBR exists primarily to release bands that sound like Brodequin. The deeper we get into this BDM boom, the more I’m realizing just how foundational Brodequin’s no-nonsense hyper-blast approach has been. Next, most of Cadavoracity’s players hail from a fertile Indonesian scene. Bassist Ryo and singer Deddy have ties to a few other local success stories. Ryo is also in Perverted Dexterity, a solo slammer signed to Jakarta’s Brutal Mind. Deddy logged reps in Asphyxiate, currently ripping it up on the stateside New Standard Elite. Those are two of the premiere goo labels going. (Ryo is also eclectic, landing the post-black Lament on Pest and atmo black Pure Wrath on Debemur Morti.) The other link of note is Polwach. The Thai drummer is in a heap of bands that we’ve either covered or should. The LDOH gorenoise Cystgurgle, Noisear-esque Smallpox Aroma, early-Wormed-y Biomorphic Engulfment, tech pinging Theurgy, and beastly Ecchymosis. Some of these outfits are members of Siamese Brutalism, “a community of musicians and bands based in Thailand who stick together in order to share an experience in extreme metal music among each other and spread the words about Thai underground extreme metal music scene.” It’s just a heck of a time to be into BDM, the butterzone. All of these labels and scenes are flourishing, attracting highly creative players. But, since nothing is too popular, it hasn’t lured the usual derpy opportunists. For now, we get bands like Cadavoracity on the regular. Enjoy it while it lasts. [From Vitiosus Forma Exilium, out now via Unmatched Brutality Records.]Ian Chainey

08

Trhä - "ëpfêrhäth"

Location: ????
Subgenre: black metal

There are plenty of lo-fi black metal mysteries out there, and we’ve got a real whodunnit here. Seemingly, there’s nothing to know about Trhä, and you can’t even pin down a country the band might call home; Google translate is at a total loss, too, suggesting text from the project’s Bandcamp page is in Arabic, Welsh, Frisian, German, French, Icelandic, Latin, and Vietnamese depending on what words you feed it, though clearly none of those are correct. Fittingly, then, Trhä sounds like almost nothing else out there, serving up wild, whipping black metal onslaughts that veer from totally despondent to the playfully carnivalesque at times — there’s great synth work across the catalogue that creates surprisingly cinematic and touching moments that would be more at home in a spa from Gattaca than an under-underground demo. And though this thing is drowned in fuzz and an audiophile’s nightmare, beneath that hiss is some really impressive playing, thundering drums, and the kind of songwriting ambition that is usually reserved for something that sounds, well, better. For those with the ear, though, Trhä is a true diamond to uncover, artfully placed dirt and all. [From lhum jolhduc, out now via the band.]Wyatt

07

Memoriam - "Failure To Comply"

Location: Birmingham, United Kingdom
Subgenre: death metal

Bolt Thrower disbanded five years ago, a year after drummer Martin Kearns died suddenly. Their last album, Those Once Loyal, favorite of many and a clear stylistic evolution, came out 16 years ago. During their run, hardly anyone else actually sounded like Bolt Thrower. They frequently get lumped in with “old school death metal,” but they have nothing in common with the US bands of the era; old school Swedish and Finnish death is a bit closer, but no one would ever confuse Entombed or Convulse for what Bolt Thrower were doing, the way they mixed punkish grind, midtempo death, and oppressively dark leads into something haunted, a violent meditation on war that embodied the sound of loss as much as destruction. A few Benediction and Asphyx songs came close, but until recently, this sound was almost entirely Bolt Thrower’s domain. Starting around 1999 and 2000, the first wave of proper Bolt Thrower clones started to emerge: Slugathor did a brutal take on early Bolt Thrower before flaming out in 2010 (guitarist Tommi Grönqvist now powers on as the sole member of Desecresy). Dutch supergroup Hail Of Bullets saw members of Asphyx, Pestilence, Gorefest, and Thanatos paying explicit tribute to Bolt Thrower, both in the somber melodic presentation and the focus on war as sole lyrical theme (HoB was more about historical retellings of WWII horrors, but the effect was similar). As Bolt Thrower’s influence continued to spread in the wake of Those Once Loyal, more bands would attempt this sound, including War Master, Trenchrot, and most recently Chainsword, with hardly any approaching these heights. It’s hard to pin down what accounts for the difference between the genuine article and the imitations, but until recently, even former Bolt Thrower members couldn’t recapture the glory. Memoriam was formed in 2016 by Bolt Thrower singer Karl Willetts immediately after the dissolution of Bolt Thrower; he brought on board Andy Whale, BT’s original drummer; Frank Healy of Sacrilege (one of the few direct influences on early Bolt Thrower), Benediction, and Cerebral Fix; and Scott Fairfax, a younger guitarist from Cerebral Fix’s later lineup. Given the British death metal royalty involved, Memoriam seemed on track for great things. The first album was…fine. There was a sudden predisposition for ill-fitting butt chugs, and why was Karl singing like that? Whether it was a choice or a consequence of not good production, the sound wasn’t quite there; the riffs definitely weren’t. The second album was horrid, a massive step down; I once described the production as “depressingly thin and functionally useless, the death metal equivalent of single-ply Scott toilet paper,” which sounded mean but was probably understating things. It came as a shock, then, when album three turned a corner with the help of Napalm Death producer Russ Russell. The old muscle was back; Karl sounded more alive than he had in ages; it wasn’t Bolt Thrower, but the spark was there. Here we are on album four: Russ Russell is back behind the boards, drummer Andy Whale has been swapped for Spikey T. Smith of Sacrilege… and for the first time since Those Once Loyal, there’s actually a sense of musical progression. The production is huge — the band swerves between punkish thrash and full-blown funeral dirges, with Karl’s vocal front and center. Memoriam are not Bolt Thrower but a viable outgrowth, finally. The riffs don’t have the same gnashing tank-tread impact, and Jo Bench’s bass-playing is still a crucial missing element. But for the first time, Memoriam sound like their own band. [From To the End, out now via Reaper Entertainment.]Aaron Lariviere

06

Mesarthim - "Matter and Energy"

Location: Australia
Subgenre: atmospheric black metal

Mesarthim have become increasingly driven by electric power over the years, with Euro dancefloor synths growing bolder and moving further into the foreground. On Vacuum Solution, the latest EP that brings us “Matter and Energy,” strong industrial body-moving beats and disco sensibilities enter Mesarthim’s star-obsessed equation. This is likely divisive and all too much for some ears, but nothing is more indifferent to opinion than the infinite, cold vastness of space. This new trajectory, plotted by an industrial stomp, yields some very colorful and surprisingly awesome results; the barked chorus is an earworm of an anthem that seems to demand a live setting and is destined for speakers of your local metal venue’s dance night. In the self-serious world of black metal, “Matter And Energy” winkingly acknowledges humans’ ephemeral nature and throws grim to the wind to take a chance on rock and roll (and something outside the comfort zone). [From Vacuum Solution, out now via the band.]Wyatt Marshall

05

Eremit - "Enshrined In Indissoluble Chains And Enlightened Darkness"

Location: Osnabrück, Germany
Subgenre: doom / sludge

This is Eremit’s second time in the column, following last year’s two-song EP Desert Of Ghouls. That one was good; this one is better. For their second full-length, these wanderers have stretched back out to epic lengths. Three tracks, 66 minutes. The opener is longer than most network sitcoms with ads. No matter, this German trio still makes the most of its running time. Really, you should know that I’m a sucker for the quiet, ruminative parts in doom/sludge songs, especially if those parts portend a grand explosion. Following a brief dungeon synth overture, “Enshrined In Indissoluble Chains And Enlightened Darkness” opens with one of those sections, a clean guitar that whispers for the rest of the band to join it in a stretch of hushed reverence. I could listen to it for hours. Eremit aren’t content to just drone on, though. Once you’re miles deep in your melancholy, they surprise with a blackened blast. Upon that scorched earth Eremit then erect the scaffolding to construct skyscraping, trad-ish wums. What’s different this go around is how workshopped those riffs sound, as if the two guitarists cut away all of the fat until they had the leanest, catchiest progressions possible. “Secret Powers Entrenched In An Ancient Artefact,” the second song, is some of the most hummable doom I’ve heard in a bit, flipping the quiet/loud script with a pure Acid King riff that arcs like lightning out of the speakers. And, believe it or not, the closer, “Unmapped Territories Of Clans Without Names,” is the best of the bunch. Another winner for Eremit, another winner for Transcending Obscurity. Speaking of the latter, thanks to some key prog death signings, I’m thinking the Indian label will be back in these pages again real soon. [From Bearer Of Many Names, out 6/11 via Transcending Obscurity Records.]Ian Chainey

04

Olhava - "Frozen Bloom I"

Location: Saint Petersburg, Russia
Subgenre: atmospheric black metal

Olhava have been knocking at the door of pure atmo black metal bliss for a couple of releases now, breaking through the clouds to that exalted level on their self-titled and Ladoga. But on “Frozen Bloom I,” the Russian duo is at cruising altitude, riding endlessly cresting waves of synths, layer cake riffs, and drums stuck on blast mode into the sunset. Though Olhava lay on the icy imagery thick throughout their discography, there’s a palpable warmth to much of their work. You feel it here in enveloping synths that manage to smooth the glorious cacophony – this is black metal at the core after all – into a calming, Zen listen. It only gets better, too, when a sugary solo leads into an acoustic interlude with chorus that explodes the song anew; when it does so, I get similar vibes to the unreal apex of Violet Cold’s “Anomie,” a track that sets off a showstopper grand finale of fireworks that still evokes wide-eyed breathless wonder after who knows how many listens. Both “Frozen Bloom I” and that track achieve these kinds of rare moments of awe, showing some of the best sides of metal in their grand flair for the dramatic, technical excellence, and uncanny laser-sighted aim at the heartstrings. [From Frozen Bloom, out now via Avantagrde Records.]Wyatt Marshall

03

Urthshroud - "Disposal Of The Soul"

Location: Queens, NY
Subgenre: depressive black metal

If you, like me, crave violent sounds to distract from the pain of existence, but you also need to focus and get shit done because you’re an adult with responsibilities, and anything too musically exciting or demanding means you’re too distracted to stay on target, in which case you’re sacrificing life and sleep for naught, and the pain of existence threatens to swallow you whole… well howdy, I have the album for you!

Urthshroud is the new “depressive misanthropic black metal” project from polymath-psychopath Xazraug, known to some as Indricothere and others by his mortal name, Colin Marston, of Behold The Arctopus, Dysrhythmia, Edenic Past, Encenathrakh, Gorguts, Krallice, and another dozen projects. Of course, Marston also keeps busy as a “New York-based producer and musician who runs a recording studio, Menegroth aka the Thousand Caves,” per the bio on his Metal Archives page. You might recognize his sick tones from such modern classics as the last two Pyrrhon albums (which by choosing to read this column you are contractually obligated to own) and many other worthy records (he also mastered the forthcoming Seputus, which is sick and deserves your pre-order). To hammer home the time-dilating levels of creative output flowing forth from our guy, I was going to try and list everything he released in 2020 and 2021, but the word count simply won’t support it. Suffice to say 2021 has already seen a new Krallice jawn and a few other LPs, including this lo-fi burst of black ambient glory in the form of Urthshroud.

It’s fun to hear Marston consciously set aside his practiced engineer skills to try and make this sound bad on purpose; we get the classic Darkthrone single-mic-in-a-practice-space drum sound (all anyone needs for DSBM) and ragged screams blown to hell and buried under everything else…but everything else still sounds great, richly textured and fantastically atmospheric. “Disposal Of The Soul” starts out with some mystical droning synths, and you’d be forgiven for confusing this for somber new age ambient — not unlike Eno’s Apollo or the sublime early work of Pauline Anna Strom (RIP to a real one) — but the guitars descend eventually and we’re off to the races, depressively. The synth is omnipresent and forms the backbone of most songs, but there’s more compositional depth than you might expect given the format. It takes several minutes to kick in, which is fine, because we’re talking about a five-track, 104-minute album anyway; plenty of time to spike your coffee with absinthe and let the world wash away. It’s perfect background music for tired metalheads; yet paying closer attention rewards you with a constant spiral of melancholy, riffs shifting from mid-tempo depressive black metal to something closer to Skepticism-type funeral doom and the occasional chord progression that hits like a cloudburst. Everything after the 12-minute mark is just raging depressive godhead, and who doesn’t need that right now? [From Eternal Forecast Of Sorrow, out now via the band.]Aaron Lariviere

02

Steel Bearing Hand - "Til Death And Beyond"

Location: Dallas, TX
Subgenre: death/thrash

If you frequent these parts, you’ve probably noticed some of us are partial for substituting metallic shorthand in place of words that would take more effort to write. “This is sick” is something I say a few hundred times a day, typically muttered under my breath when no one’s around, assuming I am listening to things that are, in fact, sick (most of the time). Because I am simpleminded and lazy, when describing music and attempting to convey genuine enthusiasm, I prefer to speak my own truth, using my own words; hence, “this is sick.” Another stock phrase with slightly more meaning is “this rips,” which only comes out when the music gets above a certain imprecise BPM and the chaos meter jumps to a particular level of freneticism. There are no hard and fast rules dividing music that rips from music that does not, but experienced listeners feel a particular irresistible twinge when exposed to sufficiently ripping tunes: the infallible autonomic headbanging response. All this is prelude for the inevitable: The second LP from Steel Bearing Hand is extremely fucking sick and rips harder than most. We could try and break down the how and why — they blend apocalyptic thrash with speed metal and motorpunk and push it to deathlike levels of intensity, with absurd blast output, a healthy dose of organic crossover-derived kill riffs, and a penchant for harmonized leads — but it’s the end result that matters. “’Til Death And Beyond” rips from the get-go, the same way the Crown’s iconic Deathrace King triumphs through pants-ripping speed, and it feels like the whole thing could fly apart at any second. When it does, Steel Bearing Hand downshift into an extended mid-tempo stomp, grinding gears repeatedly, gnashing at the bit, spitting foam and flames right up to the fakeout ending… where the guitars come screaming back in full Slaytanic glory. Relentless. Ripping. (Full disclosure: the last track on the album takes a long detour through death/doom and it’s just as sick.) [From Slay In Hell, out now via Carbonized Records.]Aaron Lariviere

01

The Flight Of Sleipnir - "Thaw"

Location: Denver, CO
Subgenre: atmospheric doom metal

The Flight Of Sleipnir straddle a ton of different genres, bringing elements of stoner doom, black metal, and folk together into something that doesn’t quite sit comfortably under any of those tags by itself; we went with “atmospheric doom metal” last time they landed in the column, so that’s what we’re sticking with. The band, named for Odin’s eight-legged horse, takes inspiration from Norse sagas. On “Thaw” and elsewhere across Flight Of Sleipnir’s fantastic discography (Essence Of Nine is a personal favorite), you’ll hear slowed versions of the kinds of epic leads that tend to show up when Vikings are at hand. That purposeful pacing you find in the lead guitars is something that carries across the band’s body of work, and rarely will you find Flight Of Sleipnir moving at a faster clip than their methodical, impactful canter. The somewhat muted screamed rasp is one of the better ones you’ll hear anywhere, and the clean backing vocals carry all the weight of destiny you could hope for without any hint of bombast. It all gels so well, evoking with ease both earthy wilderness and a monumental sense of ancient lore. [From Eventide, out 5/28 via Eisenwald.]Wyatt Marshall

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