The Month In Metal – May 2021
As the world turns, and the day when I have to talk to real people in a real-world setting without a mute button draws nearer, I’ve been scrambling for small-talk icebreakers. Not to brag, but as a chronically unconfident idiot cursed with a lifelong streak of shyness, I’m a legendarily bad conversationalist. Oh, but that was then, before I eureka’d myself into a powerful anecdote prospector. Now, for a certain kind of metalhead at least, I think I’ve armed myself with a passable opener. Here we go:
If I knew nothing about [metal genre], what five albums should I listen to and in what order?
This is my gift to you, music nerds, those few, proud, likely broke obsessives who have spent years chiseling ex-member connections and “fun” album factoids into preciously finite chunks of brain meat. If you have displaced useful knowledge (math) and skills (how to use math) with the complete lineup of Nihilist, step right the hell up. It’s time to chat. And the follow-up question I have for you is even better. But first, let’s break our opener down.
What five albums should I listen to and in what order? I’m calling this exercise the “five-album” list. Ad agencies, I’m available. While it’s fun to see what albums you pick, I care less about the tunes and more about the thought process behind your selections. What’s your strategy? Because, yes, you will need a strategy. This is very serious stuff, after all, an all-time brainbuster worthy of Terence Tao, Johann Goethe, or Glen Benton. And this totally-not-arbitrary feature is key: Limiting the list to five albums turns the question into a puzzle with no definite solution.
For instance, simply rattling off the consensus “best” albums, those being the highest rated or reviewed, doesn’t cut it. The five-album list is not a top five. This is not a test of power.
To drive that home, Empath, a site that pulls data straight from Encyclopaedia Metallum, has a wisdom-of-the-masses section where it orders releases in each dominant metal style by combined review score. Here’s the top five for death metal:
If you submitted this five-album list in this order, I wouldn’t, like, drop a Maki Itoh on you. I’d probably ask if you’re wearing a wire since it’s a little too perfect in a min/max sense. And yes, before I’m asked to turn in my death metal license, I think all of these albums are great. All of them are important. Entire schools of death metal are content to continue biting these records until the sun burns out.
But, the question isn’t whether these albums are great, it’s will these five albums presented in this order get someone into death metal in 2021? The newest album on here, Death’s Symbolic, just turned 26. It’s the most approachable album on the list, the closest to what most would identify as “real music,” which might be a fine strategy for on-boarding new listeners. I’m just questioning the order. Sticking it in the two-hole between the frenzied teenage onslaught of Entombed’s Left Hand Path and sublime death/doom misery of Katatonia’s Dance Of December Souls has to cause some listener whiplash, especially if said listener is super green and doesn’t know why any of these records do the things that they do. Not to mention… Suffocation… for a newbie? Welcome to driving school, here’s your SR-71 Blackbird. Of course, I’m picking nits. Really, the list is just frustratingly free of quirks. Doesn’t feel real, needs more hot takes. It’s the kind of list you’d pitch to someone who is going to judge you. And we all know that’s not needed because metal isn’t full of weird elitists.
On the flip side, if the five albums on your list are the ones you like the most, I feel like you’re trying to recruit me into your basement cult, and that ends with me being branded with the Gorement logo and locked in a shipping container. While an explanation that never rises above “because it whips ass” works for my meager music writing career (ahem), it diminishes the fun of this exercise. Set clout aside. I need you to go full game theory. How would you get someone else into metal?
To that end, let’s make fun of me… on purpose this time. If I was going to get someone into death metal, here are the five albums I’d recommend to them in order:
Wow, you’re spontaneously weeping because my list is so beautiful? Thanks! I’ll wait until you’re done. Okay. I think you need to lead with leads otherwise a new listener isn’t coming back. Carcass’ Heartwork not only has sweet leads, but there are hooks aplenty that are distinguishable to normal people and Mandatory ‘Tallica metal dabblers. Next, I think someone needs to hear a death metal album from the ’80s or that entire first wave will be lost to them. Morbid Angel’s Altars Of Madness is bordering on too much, too soon, but it still sounds fresh without losing the thrash component. Then you can drop in Symbolic, an album full of irrepressible earworms. My next two selections are curveballs, examples of what death metal can be without either choice being too bewildering to weaklings since my favorite death metal album, as readers know, is the sound of three shoes in a dryer and a dog throwing up. Dismember’s The God That Never Was opens up listeners to a particularly ripping of Swedeath without getting too brutal. Finally, Edge Of Sanity’s Crimson II is total prog-dork majesty that, a few synths aside, sounds pretty modern provided your version of modern is Devin Townsend.
This makes sense to me. It is also absolutely insane. Ian, Ian, Ian, you monster, there’s a warrant out for your arrest. Why not pitch something like In Flames or At The Gates, two bands that actually influenced the last popular wave of heavier metal? Dismember? Of all of the classics, you pick a late-period Dismember album? Wait… holy shit, I must have blacked out, Edge Of Sanity’s 43-minute concept album that’s a sequel to a 40-minute song as a starter??? Why not just drop Nespithe or Obscura or Jenovavirus in their lap, you demented dork.
These are all fair criticisms. But, again, that’s the fun of this exercise! The five-album list is meant to fail in a way that greases the wheels of human connection. If you’re a nerd about this stuff, five albums are not enough to properly cover any genre because fans of that genre know, that no matter what it sounds like to everyone else, that genre’s permutations are actually infinite. Five albums? Just five? There are nine Nile albums… and seven of them are good! So, yeah, no matter the list, there are going to be gaps. That’s the point. Where there are gaps, there’s discussion, and hey, look at us, now we’re talking about death metal.
As a conversational centerpiece, does the five-album list actually work, though? Can it bridge divides? Let’s find out. In order to test this one, I reached out to some people who are much, much cooler than me.
That’s international melodic death metal band Crypta’s debut video, “From The Ashes.” Vocalist/bassist Fernanda Lira (ex-Nervosa) is joined by fellow Brazilians Tainá Bergamaschi (guitars) and Luana Dametto (drums). Dutch guitarist Sonia Anubis, previously of Burning Witches and currently in the delightfully sleazy Cobra Spell, completes the talented two-continent crew. The four-piece is releasing their debut full-length, Echoes Of The Soul, next month on Napalm Records. It’s a fun record, the kind of album destined to be a candidate for a five-album list since it sits at the intersection of a few legit death metal substyles and incorporates the catchy qualities of all of them. It reminds me of an updated version of either Stench Of Redemption-era Deicide or early Necrophobic: tight, lightly blackened, and built upon strong, anthemic progressions.
I asked Lira for some picks. She obliged. Here’s the five-album list that she passed me through Napalm’s publicist:
1. Cannibal Corpse – The Bleeding: Cannibal Corpse to me is the perfect definition of what raw death metal is — aggressive sound, harsh vocals, and gory lyrics — so I think it would be a nice “welcome” to the genre to a newcomer.
2. Death – Individual Thought Patterns: That’s death metal perfection in all ways. It blew my mind and taught me on how technical and complex metal could be, without getting boring or over the top. A true gem and masterpiece anyone starting to get into death metal should listen to!
3. Vader – Revelations: Fast-paced death metal at its finest. Perfect soundtrack for a death metal mosh or pit, in case the person prefers aggressive and speedy tracks!
4. Behemoth – Evangelion: An incredible approach to blackened death metal, which explores a little bit of the epic melodic side of death metal.
5. Krisiun – The Great Execution: Brazil is home of countless amazing extreme metal bands and a good metal list without a Brazilian band would not be complete. Krisiun is simply one of the best metal bands out there, period. It shocks everyone who listens to it for the first time — it’s so fast, technical, rich in so many ways.
Oh hell yeah. We have so much to talk about. I never would’ve thought to drop the hammer with the controlled shock and awe of Vader or Krisiun. Excellent idea. And, the thing I like most about this list is that it’s a springboard to the follow-up question I teased at the beginning of this intro, the good one, the one I really want to know: How did you actually get into death metal?
While the five-album list is fun diversion, death metal origin stories will be the meat of our metal tête-à-tête. They never fail to fascinate me. How did you end up here, a genre that takes effort to stumble into? No one just wakes up one day and has thoughts about Asphyx. No, you had a journey.
Thanks to years of trver-than-thou, forum-shaming bullshit, I think people used to be pretty guarded about their metal origin stories because very few metal origin stories are objectively cool. Like, no one’s my-first-metal recollection starts out, “I was sitting on a plane and then this dude sat down next to me and his name… was Fenriz.” “I passed out during a séance and, when I awoke, ‘Sarpanitum’ was scratched into my sternum.” Narp. It’s likely, and I’m speaking from a cobwebbed pre-Spotify perspective here so feel free to Midsommar me off a cliff, that you didn’t start your journey with a list of five perfectly curated albums. At least, logging the music-listening reps didn’t work out like that for me.
Contrary to popular belief, my first word wasn’t “WORMED.” As far as I can figure, my first exposure to death metal was the same as a lot of preteens who weren’t aware of what was festering in Tampa: I saw Cannibal Corpse performing “Hammer Smashed Face” in Ace Ventura: Pet Detective. Did that spur me on to mow a thousand yards so I could buy Tomb Of The Mutilated? Of course not. As a budding Boston shithead, I added Aerosmith’s Big Ones to my CD collection. That collection’s cornerstone? R.E.M.’s Green. I was an avid radio listener without older siblings. That’s what my brain could handle. I couldn’t hear anything else because I wholly lacked the context to make sense of most music.
After years of classic rawk blocks and chunkier alt rock singles, of eventually encountering Trad Belt titans and Big Four classics, I was more prepared for my next death metal encounter. One of the local radio stations ran an extended playlist of “xtreme” tunes on Saturday nights, i.e. nu-metal. Around midnight, they’d relent and start honoring requests. One fateful caller got his song into the mix: Six Feet Under’s “Revenge Of The Zombie.” Chris Barnes’ vocals made me laugh so hard. It was so ridiculous. But it was an addictive kind of ridiculousness, the kind that made you want to come back and figure out why the heck anyone would want to do that. Did I come back? Of course not. The nu style was kicking and I just couldn’t help it ’cause it was damn so wicked. No matter, trash still helps you accrue context. In the grand scheme of musical building blocks, nothing really goes to waste. It gets you from there to here. One day, a clown is banging a keg. The next, you’re posting playthroughs of Defeated Sanity. Life is a mystery.
As soon as I learned that I didn’t know anything about everything, music started flying at me from every direction. I finally had context for things and, if I didn’t, I was finally curious enough to establish some. Still, I don’t remember actually become an acknowledged death metal fan until I started working a summer job as a dishwasher at Denny’s. The person who got hired the same day as me was a cook named Emmett. Emmett was what most sociologists refer to as a badass. He had a linebacker’s build and a furrowed gaze that signaled that he saw more shit in a day than I would in my entire lifetime. After an overnight shift, he asked me to take him home. Uh… yes, sir. We piled into my beater of a vehicle, a decrepit two-seater that looked like an AI crashed while scanning Dominic Toretto’s id. I wanted to impress Emmett… so… goddamn… bad. So, like the socially inept moron I continue to be, I turned up my stereo, thinking, Emmett, I am also hard. Prepare your butt for some Shai Hulud. Delighted that I was listening to anything metal-adjacent, Emmett took a shine to me. We became buds. He started hipping me to “real” death metal. He also gave me a test, born of his reaction to his first brush with the cover of Brujeria’s Matando Güeros: Real death metal makes you feel sick to your stomach. I still use it. Metharoma passes the Emmett test.
Anyway, provided I didn’t put you to sleep, the moral of the story is that it took that kind of human connection for me to make sense of death metal. That story is, uh, not cool! It’s also not very replicable! “You wanna get into death metal? Alright, buy a copy of Big Ones. Then, start working at a heat-and-eat and find the meanest-looking cook possible…” But, the bigger point is that you never really know how or why something is going to click for someone. Unsurprisingly, Fernanda Lira has some of that in her origin story, too:
I got into death metal, surprising as it may sound, with Arch Enemy. I was really young when I first listened to it and that was the heaviest thing I had listened to to date. I was very into thrash already, so I was really acquainted with fast songs, but not heavy ones, with deep growls and stuff, so it was really a new world to me. From there, I started getting curious about what heavier music aside from that was around that I might like, and the second band I got into was Morbid Angel. “Lion’s Den” was the first song I was introduced to and I was just mesmerized by those double bass lines. After that, I started listening to their album Altars Of Madness and simply fell in love — this album is still my favorite. Then a friend showed me Death, but it was too soon. I didn’t quite understand it at first, haha. Then sometime later I came back to it and they instantly became one of my favorite death metal bands of all time. ’90s Florida death metal was really the wave that got me in the genre, but after that I started exploring some other bands, such as the Polish death metal ones. Then it was no turning back, DM just became my favorite metal genre along with thrash — you just can’t beat the vibe, the energy and the aggressiveness, and I love it.
Hold on… you’re telling me the sweet leads of an Amott brother led to Morbid Angel? I feel… vindicated? Seriously though, I love this. This is so relatable. Where Lira had to come back to Death, I had to come back to Immolation. I feel like everyone has that band, the one you keep trying to crack because you want to hear what everyone else is hearing. Once that clicks, it consecrates your fandom. It makes listening to that band so much sweeter.
And that’s kind of the thing. The five-album list isn’t actually about getting someone into death metal because you can’t plan that out. Really, I think the best way to get someone into death metal is by being enthusiastic about death metal. Don’t be a dink and push it on people. Just love it, because people want to be fans of things their friends are fans of. That is to say, usually someone needs something more than a “listen to these albums and you’ll get it” road map. A little bit of life needs to be mixed in there, too. Some human connection.
Sooooo. Yeahhhhh. This is awkward. I… don’t know how to end this thing. Let’s… talk? Pick a genre. What five albums should I listen to and in what order? —Ian Chainey
Our Place Of Worship Is Silence - "Disavowed, And Left Hopeless"
Location: Los Angeles, CA
Subgenre: black metal / death metal
Considering how much slop we wade through to prepare a monthly platter of delectables (all organ meat, all the time), I’ve developed a soft spot for bands willing to take a claw hammer to genre parameters and carve themselves a corner of their own. Our Place Of Worship Is Silence ostensibly play “black/death,” but it pleases me that they sound almost nothing like genre torchbearers Revenge (sentient wraparound shades masquerading as mindless war metal) and even less like Behemoth (the Great Satan Of The Shopping Mall, packing all the extremity of a bag of Warheads). Instead, they focus on an urban strain of grinding black metal and atonal sludge with an unhealthy obsession with aggressive death metal chugs. A guitar and drums duo with members who’ve played in Teeth (sick), Xibalba (kinda sick, very tough), and the criminally unknown, now-defunct Los Angeles black metal band Lake Of Blood, OPOWIS somehow draw from all those bands to land on a caustic hybrid that spends most of its time blasting, letting tension build until the call of the buttchug is overwhelming and they give into their basest desires. When the chugs are flying, it can sound a bit like the best-case argument for deathcore, but they never take it too far. These aren’t breakdowns, just a momentary sprint through a minefield: smoke and shrapnel and errant limbs exploding in slow motion as the chugs rain down. Glorious. [From Disavowed, And Left Hopeless, out 8/27 via Translation Loss Records.] —Aaron Lariviere
Meshum - "Encephalic Transmutation"
Location: Ankara, Turkey
Subgenre: brutal death metal
Erkin Öztürk plays everything in Meshum and I mean everything. No drum programming here, Öztürk authentically blasts across Enigmatic Existential Essence, the Ankara-based brutal death metal project’s debut, with abandon. The drumming is new — Öztürk has been a guitarist and vocalist in the past — but this sicko isn’t a newbie. Listeners hailing from the Nasum-grind neck of metal might recognize him from Rektal Tuşe, the band he founded in 2009. He’s also been in Decimation, a sturdy BDMer in the Deeds Of Flesh mold. True degenerates, though, will remember his stinging pinch harmonics from the last Cenotaph album, Perverse Dehumanized Dysfunctions, a slept-on ass kicker that I hope gets reappraised one day. Anyway, based on Meshum’s previous release, the two-song taster Promo 2018, I went into this 13-song set thinking it was going to be a straight speed fest. No, actually! Meshum is comparatively diverse. Stick-to-your-ribs chungus chugs abound. I’ll serve the buildup to “Encephalic Transmutation” as the first course. But, gotta say, the highlight for me is the drumming. Öztürk can whip up sustained BPMs that would make Leon Macey jealous. Ultimately, though, the inventiveness of his playing is what counts. I mean this as a compliment: Erkin Öztürk plays drums like a guitarist. He dances around the riffs with fun snare snaps and reinforces the pocket with stitches of kick drum flurries. In his hands, it’s a lead instrument. Super engaging stuff, holds my attention for every second of Enigmatic Existential Essence‘s 37 minutes. I’m a BDM nerd, so take that for what it’s worth, but, in keeping with the ‘E’ theme, it’s hard to listen to Meshum and not feel… energized? Look, I’m sorry. [From Enigmatic Existential Essence, out now via New Standard Elite.] —Ian Chainey
Zorya - "Waterfall"
Location: Ljubljana, Slovenia
Subgenre: post-black metal
“Waterfall,” from the Slovenian duo Zorya, sounds like the Smashing Pumpkins playing black metal. The picked, nonchalant, ringing guitar lead, that super satisfying deep fuzzy bass — you might as well be in peak early ’90s alt-rock world until an absolutely killer vocal blows the doors off. It’s not entirely obvious that colliding these two styles would produce such awesome results, though the vein of despondence that links the two gives common ground, where ’90s ennui can find catharsis through blackgaze shrieks and blasts. But Zorya have absolutely nailed it, and in the process shown everyone that they’ve been missing out on quite the heady cocktail. Elsewhere on Primeval, Zorya sound more traditionally metal, but there are indie sensibilities that show here and there. For a band yet to release a full album, “Waterfall” suggests there is a great deal to look forward to. [From Primeval, out now via the band.] —Wyatt Marshall
At The Gates - "Spectre Of Extinction"
Location: Gothenburg, Sweden
Subgenre: death metal
The gods of melodeath rise again, plunging further down the increasingly dark path of their post-reformation records. Only this time there’s a more experimental edge that ventures pretty far afield from the melodeath mold. To be fair, At The Gates are a weirder band than they typically get credit for being, considering most folks associate them with the crystalline, mechanistic melodeath of Slaughter Of The Soul, which was their fourth album and a watershed for metal in general and melodeath specifically, but a significant departure from the chaos of the early stuff.
After breaking up in 1996, ATG reunited in 2010 and have been slowly reshaping their post-Slaughter legacy into something harder to pin down. 2014’s At War With Reality was squarely melodeath but somehow soft around the edges; it’s fine but a bit undercooked, my least favorite of theirs overall. 2018’s To Drink From The Night Itself took its title to heart and came back much darker, with grimier production, blackened melodies with an almost gothic edge, and an overall vibe that no longer sounded much like classic melodeath. I loved it — it was a surprising step forward for a band that hadn’t been relevant for a few decades, yet it’s currently their lowest rated record on Metal Archives, so what do I know.
The new one, The Nightmare Of Being is… significantly weirder. Hardly anything here reads as “melodic death metal” in the ordinary sense, though it is plenty melodic, just consistently strange… and almost aggressively progressive. I have no idea who’s writing the music, but I feel like guitarist Martin Larsson’s time spent in the (highly sick) atmospheric sludge/crust band Agrimonia is rubbing off on ATG, leading to more expansive songs and a different relationship to melody. Here, they largely avoid the melodic rhythmic assault they pioneered, instead using melody either as an ancillary element behind pure (non-melodic) death metal, or for exploratory prog freakouts that sound more like latter day Katatonia or Opeth than Dark Tranquility or In Flames.
You can’t tell from the first single, but the record is shockingly diverse: The title track takes an introspective detour through death doom (and it rules). A few tracks go fully symphonic out of the blue, and it’s a bit discomfiting on first listen, being forced to confront unexpected organic textures. But the ultimate batshittery comes on “Garden Of Cyrus,” which is pure atmospheric Swedish prog centered around an almost offensively smooth sax solo. Melodeath purists (lol) will shit their pants in protest, but more adventurous minds may appreciate the perversity. Opening track and lead single “Spectre Of Extinction” comes the closest to classic At The Gates and keeps the weirdness out of sight; it kicks off with a gorgeous intro recalling the acoustic instrumentals on Slaughter and Terminal Spirit Disease, but ultimately reminds me even more of the crown jewel of In Flames’ catalog, The Jester Race. If the leads sound particularly florid this time around, it’s because Andy LaRoque of King Diamond is the guest shredder, lending some additional majesty to an already sick track. I’m still acclimating to the record as a whole, but it’s anything but ordinary. [From The Nightmare Of Being, out 6/2 via Century Media Records.] —Aaron Lariviere
RüYYn - "III"
Location: Angers, France
Subgenre: black metal
RüYYn hits with a frigid fury, blasting a blizzard of icicles to the ear drums from the get go on “III.” The track’s kinda got it all — the unsettling warbling undertone, mean-mugging discordant pull-backs, and a forward drive that rips through everything in its path while some quintessentially “UGH” vocals bark orders. It’s an impressive debut from the one-man band, with a styled level of refinement across five consistent and cinematic tracks. Now, imagining the picturesque Loire Valley that RüYYn calls home juxtaposed with this thoroughly bad-A album and the icy snowscape that graces the (very artful) cover is a bit incongruous. But this is top notch black metal with OG bonafides that conjures agonizing, indifferent cold with panache, bringing in enough atmospheric flare to plop you in the midst of pure chaos no matter where you’re tuning in from. [From RüYYn, out now via Les Acteurs de l’Ombre.] —Wyatt Marshall
Charnel Grounds - "Desecration Of The Host: Madness Complete"
Subgenre: death metal
Stereogum regulars, I am screaming this in full monster truck voice: If a Blood Incantation infection brought on your first bout of death metal sickness, get ready to catch Charnel Grounds. If I’m being honest, I’d actually toss Molecular Entropy Examined In The Bowels Of A Great One, this anonymous entity’s four-song debut EP, towards Artificial Brain fans and say “fetch.” Charnel Grounds are similarly technical, tackling a variant of brutalized, but not “brutal” in the slamz sense, death metal that has a black metal vastness and math rock intelligence. However, I want to see what kind of mileage I can get by pushing this as the next-band-up. It’s great, but great in a universal way? I don’t know, you saw my five-album list. My brain is obviously borked. Still, I think this maybe-quartet from maybe-Florida sprinkles space dust upon its death metal in the fashion of the aforementioned breakout and it’ll work for those still hesitant to give in to modern death metal. Not that this is all-the-way modern. Its aesthetic is pretty Demilich. Just look at the stage names: “Regurgitator Of Infinite Wisdom. Burial Shroud Defiler And Consumer of the Damned. Abyssic Scavenger: Unknown To Light. Predator Of The Cosmos.” Let’s play the game: Death metal pseudonyms or my Tinder bio. Anyway, to everyone else who has done the right thing and accepted death metal as the proper left hand path, this is legit. The one-two of “Desecration Of The Host: Madness Complete” and “Soul Scavengers Of The Abyss” is my favorite back-to-back this year, six minutes of primo blasting that’s also kind of meditative in a Hum, whoa-my-amp-can-make-this-noise way. Just rules. [From Molecular Entropy Examined In The Bowels Of A Great One, out now via the band.] —Ian Chainey
Majestic Downfall - "Roberta"
Location: Querétaro, Mexico
Intake of breath when the distorted guitar hits. Thick, rattling bass and a cannon crack of a snare. That’s just the first hit, and a sign of what’s to come. When I listen to doom, that’s the feeling I’m after. The chest-crushing snap of a collapsing building, when the structure gives way and gravity does the work. Like all good doom bands, Majestic Downfall understand that it’s the weight that matters, the experience of down-tuned guitars smashing into a human body to produce the physical sensation of being crushed. And they excel at finding ways to make every hit feel like the first. Unlike most bands that write 20-minute songs, Majestic Downfall rarely sit still, with a knack for through-composed song suites that let each passage wander and shapeshift as it will. By playing with tempo, thoughtful chord progressions, and constant dynamic shifts, every riff has meaning. Songs brood and breathe. The weight feels real. Anticipation bleeds into the quiet moments, and even a gloomy acoustic interlude feels pregnant with dread. The next hit is coming… If you need a reference point, the overall vibe feels like a more expansive take on the early Peaceville Three records: think early Paradise Lost or My Dying Bride with the crush of modern production and a better ear for composition. Absolutely top notch. [From Aorta, out now via Personal Records.] —Aaron Lariviere
Seeming Emptiness - "What Spirits Forebode"
Location: Schönheide, Germany
Subgenre: melodic / progressive death metal
As a pretty big Amorphis stan, a distracted click on Seeming Emptiness’ “What Spirits Forebode” perked my ears, drew me in, and kept me listening. The German trio has some Tales Of The Thousand Lakes/Elegy-era vibes going here and there on the track, with the one-two of a deep growl and slightly strained clean vocal recalling the epic pairing that was Tomi Koivusaari and, on Elegy, Pasi Koskinen. The guitars evoke the Middle Eastern-ish melodies that took hold on Elegy, too, when some proggy tendencies showed up and made the nothing-but-death-metal crowd angry. This comparison is high praise! Seeming Emptiness take these sounds and make them their own, blending them into a really polished song that covers some territory stylistically, with melodeath, post-rock, and earnest clean vocal passages sharing the space. You don’t come across songs that sound like this and are this good very often anymore, and hearing this struck a note of nostalgia — Seeming Emptiness are carrying a torch for a style that still sounds remarkably fresh today. [From Bliss Entombed, out now via Naturmacht Productions.] —Wyatt Marshall
Pharaoh - "Lost In The Waves"
Location: Philadelphia, PA
Subgenre: progressive power metal
I have an awful lot of FEELINGS about this band, none of which are easy to convey with earthly words. For starters, it’s been nine years since last we heard from Pharaoh. Nine years without the sweet release of unbridled guitars and exquisitely tuneful, non-cheesy progressive power that only this band can deliver. We first heard rumblings of a new album back in 2015, followed by faint allusions that recording might kick off in 2017, and then a whole lot of quiet. Here we are years later, patience rewarded: finally set to drink deep from the chalice of riffs.
For the uninitiated, Pharaoh are the best US power metal band going, and there’s not much competition. We’ve got Chris Black (of Dawnbringer, High Spirits, and Nachtmystium, and before that, a metal writer for the now defunct Metal Maniacs) on drums, Tim Aymar (best known from Chuck Schuldiner’s similarly proggy power metal band Control Denied) delivering 4 ½ octaves of full-throated vocal majesty, quietly virtuosic guitarist Matt Johnsen (another writer for Metal Maniacs and proud wearer of a Magma shirt), and bassist Chris Kerns (possessor of a steely gaze). To be honest, they seem like a bunch of unassuming dudes who love metal, regular joe metalheads putting in the time — hey, just like us! — except with ridiculous talent and five disgustingly perfect LPs to their name.
The earliest stuff was great, if fairly traditional US power metal with an extra dose of melody; solid but still beholden to genre forebears like Jag Panzer, Virgin Steele, and Iron Maiden. From there, with each album they got exponentially better: Songs became rhythmically dense and playfully progressive; vocal patterns and choruses got that much tighter, overstuffed with hooks and melodic interplay; and Johnsen’s guitar playing, the bedrock of the band and its primary driving force, quickly outpaced his influences and reached the highest plane of technical mastery without a whiff of wanky bullshit. The third album, Be Gone — my personal favorite — took a darker turn, leaning into technical thrash and more complex rhythms (they contributed to a Coroner tribute around that time, which made perfect sense). Album four, Bury The Light — the most beloved on Metal Archives — saw a mix of straightforward, bruising heavy metal and expansive, Rush-inspired power prog. For the last nine years, it cast a long shadow.
Here we are on album five, The Powers That Be. I feel like the rhythmic interplay is the new highlight, with the dual-Chris assault grinding through aggressive basslines and fluid rhythmic shifts while Johnsen’s guitar feels almost restrained, often focusing on deceptively straightforward rhythmic playing that pushes and pulls against the beat, creating tension amid the already fraught song structures. First single “Lost In The Waves” sounds like a Chris Black composition (though I haven’t seen songwriting credits yet) — the verses remind me of Dawnbringer’s godlike concept album Into The Lair Of The Sun God — and what sounds initially straightforward is actually overflowing with detail. Verses constantly shift and reconfigure. Multiple listens reveal the extent to which the guitars nod ahead and foreshadow the core movements of the recurring pre-chorus (which nails an extremely specific Iron Maiden vibe I fucking love) and the perfect-but-fleeting chorus, which doesn’t appear in full until 2 and a half minutes in… before launching into an extended bridge, where the guitars catch fire and never let up. The absolute best part of the song happens exactly once, in the last 10 seconds, demanding an instant replay. And that’s the thing with Pharaoh; without sacrificing accessibility, every track is bursting with that kind of detail, whether it’s a drum fill, a sneaky bass chord, or a hook buried behind a wall of guitars. Every second you spend with this music is rewarded with an impossibly rich experience, one that unfolds across dozens of listens. Buy the vinyl. [From The Powers That Be, out 6/18 via Cruz Del Sur.] —Aaron Lariviere
Violet Cold - "We Met During The Revolution"
Location: Baku, Azerbaijan
Subgenre: atmospheric black metal
Violet Cold has been churning out a borderless body of work for nearly a decade now, firing off salvos of singles and full-on albums at a mind boggling rate since 2013 — on Bandcamp, Empire Of Love marks Emin Guliyev’s 49th solo effort in just eight years. While Guliyev has taken Violet Cold from stargazing atmospheric black metal to stripped down club electronic, in recent years the “experimental AI simulated music project from 40°22’37.7″N 49°50’51.6″E” has settled into the habit of releasing a stunning full-length or two every year that showcases the evolution of Guliyev’s vision of what he calls “euphoric black metal.” These albums, several of which have appeared in the column, are absolute mastercuts. Polished with high-fi production and guitar tones that drip like nectar, and overflowing with dazzling fireworks of precision musicianship, there’s something of a techno-futurist quality at play. The “euphoria” label, doubtlessly meant to fly in the face of the close minded, comes in when Violet Cold absolutely explodes dizzying crescendos into new dimensions. Violet Cold has been toying with conservative attitudes in the genre for some time through musicianship — the Auto-Tuned vocal line that opens the absolutely incredible “We Met During The Revolution” would be at home in a Euro EDM track. Elsewhere on Empire Of Love, grime-style vocals and a banjo take leading roles. But it’s the album itself, of course, with its title and the pride flag juxtaposed against the broader metal world’s blacks and grays, that is aimed most squarely at intolerance. On Twitter, Guliyev joyfully tracked unfollows across social media following the album’s release, referring to the culling as the “Empire Of Love” filter. Several days later, Guliyev posted the number of new Bandcamp followers since release, a tally that far exceeded those jettisoned, and gave them quite the sizable gift — all 49 Violet Cold releases in digital download. [From Empire Of Love, out now via the band.] –Wyatt Marshall
Bonus. Seputus – “The Learned Response”
Location: Philadelphia, PA
Subgenre: death metal
Seputus’ last album, 2016’s Man Does Not Give, is one of the best lovenotes to the ’90s and ’00s Relapse and Willowtip rosters. If there was going to be a band to unite Rune, Watchmaker, Human Remains, and a Czech Assault compilation, it was going to be this one. So, I figured I knew the score once Seputus signed to Willowtip. After all, fitting label, right? Phantom Indigo annihilates expectations by being so much more than I could ever imagine. It’s so massive. If I had to offer a logline, I’d go with Converge trying to piece an exploded Gigan back together again. That kind of sums up the ferociousness of the playing, the overall onslaught, where cyclones of guitars whip around from speaker to speaker and the drums threaten to shuck their bolts and fall off the kit. But, that’s just a sliver of the sonics. Phantom Indigo is deep. Taking its name from an Oliver Sacks anecdote, these six songs often feel like they’re conversing with some deeper aspect of reality. “The Learned Response,” the lead stream, has a full-song flow to it, but each section feels like it circles independent ideas over and over again, poking, prodding, re-interrogating them. This is going to be a real NPR-ass thing to write, but, from a composition perspective, that’s something I associate more with, like, the math rock of Drill For Absentee or the modern classical of Morton Feldman. Ah, but again, those comparisons only apply to what’s happening a few leagues below the waves. Let’s go deeper. Why the repetition? The Bandcamp liner notes draw a connection to “‘mental loops’ that can occur from repeated fixation, meaningless daily routine, and negative mental thought patterns,” which… yeahhh, can relate. The album also ends on one of those Charles Ives inhales and it’s like… fuuuuuck, a real feelings wrecking ball, an “Oh right, that’s why I can’t sleep” surge of anxiety. That’s all there if you go looking for it, but Phantom Indigo is a tip-top crusher if you don’t want to mess with the emotions. For instance, there’s a salvo of blasts on “The Learned Response,” which additionally features a guest solo by Artificial Brain’s Dan Gargiulo, that I can’t stop playing. In those few seconds, multi-instrumentalist Stephen Schwegler taps the gas, singer (and Black Market’s abdicated king) Doug Moore lets the gutturals rip, and bassist Erik Malave dirties everything up with a nasty fuzz. Like the rest of the record, it feels improvised, unfurling anew every time you listen to it, but it’s obviously tightly plotted since everything hits perfectly. Needless to say, there’s a lot there alone. It’s only 0.003 percent of the record. [From Phantom Indigo, out 6/2 via Willowtip Records.] —Ian Chainey