The Month In Metal – October 2021
In a tone far more diplomatic than I deserve, Burst is letting me know that I have, in fact, fucked up. “This is a very blasphemous question,” the guitarist for the speed metal band Blood Sport writes in an email. “The music is a vital part of the Argento style and I don’t think the songs are even that bad!”
What brought this on? A task I asked Blood Sport and heavy metallers Sign Of The Jackal to complete. If these two bands were offered a chance to re-score Dario Argento’s Opera, the Italian master of horror’s 1987 giallo that has some infamously incongruous speed metal/heavy metal needle drops, how would they do it?
Fair assignment, or so I thought at the time. I mean, what better way to update Opera than by asking two rad modern speed metal/heavy metal bands for suggestions? But now, after researching all things Opera due to both bands’ prodding, I think Burst is right. I have, in fact, fucked up.
That said, I can’t let something as familiar as me fucking up get in the way of my dream of becoming the heavy metal taskmaster, can I? No. Of course not. So, in honor of Taskmaster‘s 12th season and the Black Market’s commitment to covering heavy metal horror movies every October… for reasons, I now present to you this spooky one-task challenge. I’ll judge each band’s answers and award points that they can use at Black Market’s gift shop. (Disclaimer: Black Market’s gift shop only contains one item, a print of the Velvet Unicorn. It also, let me check my notes here, doesn’t exist.)
Re-score Dario Argento’s Opera. Your time starts now.
Blood Sport is one of the brightest bands in what I’m dubbing Finland’s New Renaissance Of Speed Metal, a vibrant mini-scene that includes acts like Ranger, Chevalier, Satan’s Fall, Speedtrap, and, yes, the psychos that have kept the speed metal swirl spinning since 1998, Pyöveli. So, how did Finland amass such an armory of steel? Burst has an idea. “As for what could be inherently Finnish about speed metal… probably has something to do with the sauna scene in the music video for ‘Hot Rockin’.”
Hot Blood And Cold Steel, Blood Sport’s new EP that’s out now via Gates Of Hell Records, is a straight-up steamer, sweating speed metal down to its most muscular components. Over an ever-driving drumbeat provided by session drummer G.U.N., Burst rips through the kind of riffs that could power a gang of crazy motorcycles. His guitar tone is awesomely slicing, often sounding like someone tearing apart your eardrums from the inside. Singer V matches Burst in intensity, cutting through the tinnitus with energetic vocals augmented by sneers and yelps that always make the songs swing harder.
It’s no surprise then that Hot Blood And Cold Steel‘s six tracks, particularly the two new cuts, “Machine Gun” and “Sin Unto Death,” sound classic, as if prime Acid landed on a Neat Records tour package and everyone cranked out some post-show rippers in the most delirious of angel-dusted second winds.
“I had this massive NWOBHM binge going on once again last year and just got the compulsive urge to write something in the vein of the rougher bands like Venom, Jaguar, Atomkraft, etc.,” Burst explains. “It was a very cathartic experience when the riffs started pouring out and I knew right off that this was different from my earlier efforts on the sound. I also had a vision that V’s vocals would be a match made in hell with the riffs and gladly she agreed to work with me.”
For V, the chance to join her first band was too good to pass up. “I have always admired Burst’s skills in guitar playing and songwriting, so I expected nothing less. But he still managed to surprise me! Speed metal and NWOBHM are a huge deal for me, so it felt natural to participate in this project. Also, there is no such thing as too much speed metal, so why settle for less when there could be more of it!”
Not settling might as well be Blood Sport’s game plan. “We don’t want to make music that sounds like a copy of something that has already been done decades ago,” V writes, acknowledging that while Blood Sport are indebted to the greats, the project is anything but a rehash. To prove that point, Burst tells me about elements a listener might not immediately catch: “One thing could be that we’re also influenced a lot by other music genres than metal. For example, many of the guitar solos are actually jazz-fusion inspired.”
But don’t get the idea that future Blood Sport records might stray from the hard and heavy. As V makes clear, this is a band built for speed. “I feel like softening the sound is out of the question for Blood Sport. It means that there will be no ballads etc. I think we have to add some kind of variation on the upcoming songs, especially if the release is going to be an LP, but going harder, faster, and louder is the only way for us.”
Our other contender is Italy’s Sign Of The Jackal, a band that has been in the game for over a decade. The horror flick-obsessed heavy metal quintet released its second full-length, 2018’s Breaking The Spell, on Wax Maniax and the great Dying Victims Productions. In an extremely Taskmaster twist, the finale of that nine-track headbanger is a surprise cover that may have inspired this very task.
That said, perhaps categorizing that particular cover as a “surprise” sells Sign Of The Jackal short since the band has consistently displayed a knack for digging in the crates and unearthing unheralded gems. For example, on their debut EP, The Beyond, they dusted off “Head Over Heels,” a ridiculously catchy hard rocker from Meghan’s sole 1987 EP. And on Jackal’s 2013 debut LP, Mark Of The Beast, there sits an old friend of the Black Market, a cover of Fastway’s “Trick Or Treat.” If that doesn’t drive home that Jackal are serious about heavy metal rarities and culty horror movies, I don’t know what else will. Naturally, combining those two loves always made sense to the band.
“I think that heavy metal and horror movies go along the same path, think for instance how many heavy metal bands appear on movie soundtracks,” guitarist/vocalist Bob writes to me in an email. “For us, it was a natural step since we all like old horror movies (Fulci’s movies are my favorite, but also Mario and Lamberto Bava’s).”
Need more evidence? Take Breaking The Spell‘s one-two of “Terror At The Metropol” and “Beyond The Door.” The former contains a nod to Goblin king Claudio Simonetti’s “Killing,” pulled from the soundtrack to Lamberto Bava’s Demons, before letting loose with the ripping leads from guitarists Bob and Max. The latter puts the spotlight on Laura Coller’s tough-as-nails vocals while drummer Corra and bassist Nick “DevilDrunk” lay down a particularly forceful heavy metal rhythm.
Unlike Blood Sport, which have been very active on the release front, Bob acknowledged that Sign Of The Jackal took a “little” break due to Italy’s COVID restrictions, though the band is now composing new material. That said, COVID wasn’t the only reason Sign Of The Jackal were quiet.
“We are not a ‘social’ band,” Bob writes. “We don’t like to spam photos and news every day just to gain likes. If we have really something to say, it’s OK, but spamming old photos or making quizzes like ‘which song is better to you guys?’ and so on is not ‘heavy metal,’ it’s just getting on people’s nerves. Many people asked us if we’re still active… ehm… I mean… yes? Why shouldn’t we be active? Ahahahahah! I know spamming all around is marketing nowadays, but it’s not our way of getting things done.”
Ah, but how will Sign Of The Jackal get this task done? Before we can find out, let’s take a quick spin through Opera.
Even Dario Argento was unsure of what he shot once it was in the can. “When I finished the movie, I wasn’t feeling well,” Argento said in Conducting Argento’s Opera – A Documentary, a featurette on the Anchor Bay special edition DVD. “I was crying all the time … I thought I had made a bad movie with Opera.”
Indeed, much like the movie that proceeded it in Argento’s directorial filmography, 1985’s Jennifer Connelly/chimp with a razor-starring Phenomena, it’s hard to grapple with what Opera is even after a rewatch. Juggling a multitude of heady themes, Opera thrills with stunning, technically brilliant sequences while maintaining a frustrating-to-some dream-like logic that culminates in a bonkers ending. In addition, the plotting is so painstakingly detailed and quickly relayed that, fittingly, you’ll lose the thread if you blink. (I actually didn’t pick up on how much information Opera imparts visually until I did a scene-by-scene breakdown.) But, in a turn that’s either brilliant or maddening depending on how you watch movies, the film tricks you into blinking. Opera often sinks into a disarmingly languorous pacing, lulling you into a hypnotic state before shocking you awake with the violent stab of a heavy metal power chord.
In these ways, Opera is very Argento, and perhaps the most Argento. While it has since been embraced by critics and horror aficionados, often called the last “great” Argento film, it has the potential to be a real love-it-or-hate-it watch depending on how willing you are to give yourself over to one of horror’s most uncompromising auteurs.
Of course, it doesn’t seem that way from the start. Opera‘s no-spoilers synopsis of its first 30 minutes seems breezy enough. Argento and Franco Ferrini, the other credited writer, set things in motion by taking a page out of Gaston Leroux’s The Phantom Of The Opera. A freak accident places Mara Cecova on the DL. The next singer up in this modern staging of Giuseppe Verdi’s Macbeth is the prima donna’s understudy, Betty (Cristina Marsillach), who just happens to receive a call from a ragged-voice admirer informing Betty of her fateful fortunes. Moments later, Betty tells her argent Mira (Daria Nicolodi) that she has reservations about Macbeth‘s bad luck reputation. Marco (Ian Charleson), the horror movie director helming the production and rolling the dice with unpredictable elements like live ravens, steps in and assuages her trepidations. Betty accepts.
The opening night proves to be a success… except, you know, there’s a stage light that crashes to the ground during Betty’s aria… and they find a dead stagehand who has been impaled on a coat hook. But, hey, minor inconveniences, right? Right, it’s time to party. Oh, hold on, Argento sneaks in a shot of a pulsating brain, an audio cue of a heartbeat, and a disturbing flashback featuring a bondage scenario and an ornate knife we’ll soon see again. Flash forward: The killer returns to the opera house to slice and dice Betty’s costume that resides in the same storage room as the ravens. The birds freak. They unlock their cages. Now free, a few attack the killer, resulting in their demise. While the killer gets away, perhaps harming the birds was a fatal error. Ravens never forget a face.
Betty ends up at the apartment of Stefano (William McNamara), her workplace bud with benefits, and they engage in a seriously cringe post-coital rundown of Betty’s… uh… inability to… you know. After Stefano leaves the room to make some tea, Betty is assailed by the killer who ties her to a pillar and tapes needles below her eyelids, forcing Betty to watch Stefano’s brutal demise. Who is the murderer? Why does Betty feel the way she does after watching Stefano getting got? Wait, why the hell was metal playing while Stefano was getting got? Welcome to the next 75 batshit minutes.
You can definitely watch Opera as a straightforward slasher whodunit and have a hell of a time. That said, there’s a lot more going on underneath the hood. If you’ve ever talked about this movie in a social setting, you’ve probably heard the two most often repeated tidbits. The first concerns the killer’s method of keeping Betty’s attention: Argento was annoyed that audiences buried their heads during his audacious death scenes, so he jokingly devised the needles to keep those peepers pried open. Since you can’t physically injure an audience — and yes, I’m sure there’s an MCU joke in there somewhere — into Opera the device went. The other is that Marco, the director, is a stand-in for Argento, who himself almost directed a production of Verdi’s Rigoletto before the financial backers got cold feet over his ambitious plans. That connection gives some extra weight to Opera‘s most famous quote. “I think it’s unwise to use movies as a guide for reality. Don’t you, Inspector?” Marco says to Inspector Alan Santini (Urbano Barberini), who in turn quips, “Depends what you mean by reality.”
(I should note that Marco’s English dialogue about cranking more than just his camera before shooting any scene isn’t in the Italian dub. Otherwise… ew, Dario.)
But, again, if Opera is an iceberg, that is just the tip. This movie has ideas, and those ideas are layered like onions. Opening with the blinking eye of a raven, Opera winks at voyeurism and foreshadows its still-insane centerpiece kill, one of horror cinema’s most famous death scenes. (This is explained excellently in Chris John Gallant’s Art Of Darkness: The Cinema Of Dario Argento in an essay that compares Opera to Michael Powell’s 1960 feature Peeping Tom. On the other hand, I disagree with Gallant’s BDSM connection in his Opera review, but he lays that one out convincingly, too. Worth hunting down if you’re interested.) I also think the movie plays with the raven’s stated ability, that it never forgets, to question whether particular primal predilections can be passed down via bloodlines. Will a killer’s kid also be consumed by a desire to kill? If so, does that negate free will? All of that is there if you want it to be, although Argento rarely makes the connections explicit. Even one of Opera‘s most important themes is left as subtext.
“It’s the most ferocious movie that I’ve done,” Argento said. “A movie without love, where nobody can love anybody. When two people try to love one another, they fail because it was the era, around 1986, when AIDS was spreading. There was this idea that it was the end of love. So my idea was to make a movie without love because AIDS was silently invading our world. The only way to make love in this movie was in a perverse way, ferociously killing someone.”
While the AIDS epidemic wasn’t commented on within the movie, Argento’s enduring curiosity about the power humans bestow upon the occult and fate receives screen time. It also shaped events behind the scenes. Opera‘s shoot, a 15-week, dual-country engagement that began on May 25, 1986, is notorious for its production difficulties. For the superstitious, the opera-within-the-movie, Verdi’s Macbeth, provides an irresistible explanation. Betty is right, “the Scottish play” has a rep, even receiving a write-up on the Royal Shakespeare Company’s website: “Legend has it the play’s first performance (around 1606) was riddled with disaster. The actor playing Lady Macbeth died suddenly, so Shakespeare himself had to take on the part. Other rumored mishaps include real daggers being used in place of stage props for the murder of King Duncan (resulting in the actor’s death).” Whether any of that actually happened, the curse has stuck, receiving attribution for many disasters, ranging from the Astor Place Riot to torched theaters to financial ruin. In 1988, Bantcho Bantchevsky, a Bulgarian-born singing coach per the New York Times, leaped from a balcony to his death during the intermission of Verdi’s Macbeth at the Metropolitan Opera House.
Opera wasn’t immune to coincidental weirdness. Many “mishaps” have been noted, though few have been retold. Still, one incident that made it out is that the ravens, being generally clever birds (I quite like corvids, so I’m biased here), were a pain in the ass to recapture and some actually escaped in an instance of life imitating art. Another is a far sadder instance: Ian Charleson, following hospitalization for a car accident, received the diagnosis that he was HIV positive during the shoot. He died in 1990. He was 40. Opera is his final film.
All of this is, of course, a lot, and I’ve barely covered any of it. It’s so much that you can often miss things about Opera that are staring you right in the face. To that end, if there’s a one-sentence summation for Opera, you could do a lot worse than a lot. And that a-lot-ness sure extends to its all-over-the-place soundtrack. In keeping with the opera theme, there are selections from Giuseppe Verdi and Vincenzo Bellini. Then Argento tapped longtime collaborator Claudio Simonetti, Bill Wyman and Terry Taylor, and Brian and Roger Eno to capture the at turns dreamy and ominous vibes.
“I tried to divide the movie into various sections,” Argento said. “Each section I gave to a different musician. Brian Eno composed the biggest chunk. I think he actually composed about 45 minutes, although I didn’t use it all. And then others… each composed a different kind of music to match each different situation.” Ah, yes, about those others.
Within that same soundtrack — Verdi! Eno! — are deep cuts by Swedish heavy metallers Norden Light and a mysterious Italian speed metal band named Steel Grave. “He really liked heavy metal, so he took little groups here and there,” Simonetti noted in Conducting Argento’s Opera. “He actually wanted unknown bands for the score.” Of course, one could snarkily remark there might’ve been budgetary reasons for that. Either way, Argento got his wish. Metal was in the movie and it was underground metal at that.
Opera is actually Argento’s third movie that prominently features heavy metal in the score. The first is 1985’s Phenomena. As marketed in its US poster, that one contains Iron Maiden’s “Flash Of The Blade” and Motörhead’s “Locomotive.” Those are some gets. However, the usage of those tracks leaves some viewers scratching their heads. “It’s as if, having secured the rights to the songs, Argento had no idea what to do with them and so just randomly inserted them without actually looking at the scene in question,” David Flint wrote in The Reprobate. Still, others relish the mismatch. “I remember I saw Phenomena when I was maybe 15,” Shadowland singer Tanya Finder writes in an email, “and when Motörhead first came on I nearly jumped out of my seat. It was so bizarre and unexpected but also delighted me. I think I laughed out loud.”
Based on the financial success of Phenomena, Argento brought heavy metal with him to the next project he’d produce, Lamberto Bava’s Demons. We’re going to talk about that one in more detail some future Halloween. For now, note that the soundtrack is stacked with hard rock and metal from the likes of Accept, Saxon, Mötley Crüe, and Pretty Maids. Dario was obviously doing some digging. And then, for Opera, Argento went way underground.
Norden Light’s “No Escape” scores the famous rotating crane shot, one of the crazier scenes filmed in the practical era. The song is off the Swedish quintet’s first and only full-length, 1987’s Shadows From The Wilderness. The band’s prior incarnation, Mentzer, named after vocalist Christer Mentzer, generated some buzz after appearing on RCA’s Scandinavian Metal Attack II alongside Oz and Bathory. (Mentzer also sang on Swedish heavy metal legends Silver Mountain‘s second LP, 1985’s Universe.) Still, despite the early success, Norden Light didn’t keep the lights on for long. They split in 1990, with drummer Michael von Knorring and one-time keyboardist Mats Olausson ending up in Yngwie Malmsteen’s solo band. (Shout out to my fellow prog metal dorks who might know Olausson from the severely underappreciated Ark.)
If Norden Light were considered an unknown, Steel Grave were even less of a name… although there was a reason for that. They have two cuts on the Opera soundtrack, “Steel Grave” and “Knights Of The Night,” that splurt out whenever the killer spills blood. The
songs themselves sound uncannily like classic, motöring metal. But, if you go looking for a Steel Grave bio, you won’t find one. That’s because, befitting my chosen heavy metal beat, Steel Grave are a fake band. The real Italians behind those songs? Gow.
Not much about Gow made the jump to the digital age beyond this Metal Forces review clipping. Here’s the remainder of what I can find: The band recorded one full-length for Shirak, the label that also released the compilation Heavy Metal Made In Italy. That full-length was titled Mr. Tippel and is a very 1984 light hard rocker. By 1985, though, Gow channeled some heavier energy and cut a four-song demo titled Power Of The Night. That one features the two songs that would eventually end up on Opera. “Knights Of The Night” kept its title. “Headbangers” did not. (“Headbangers” would eventually end up on a single as the b/w to “Fire,” the first and last release on Industry Records.) Instead, it was retitled “Steel Grave,” perhaps to prop up the illusion that the band was an active entity and looking to eventually fulfill the final third of the band name/song title/album title trifecta.
Steel Grave never did anything else. Gow had a few more demos in them but were six feet deep by 1995, though Encyclopaedia Metallum indicates that the band was reactivated in 2011. Cosimo “Cozy” Fusco, who is not the Friends actor because I checked with the Friends actor in the weirdest DM he got that day, went on to play with melodic heavy metallers Dogma and Mass Media, a proggy fusion band. Drummer Elvin Betty also played in Black Evil, a fellow Heavy Metal Made In Italy alum that would eventually become Creepin’ Death, a thrasher I am mentioning mostly because, oh my god, look at this album cover.
Anyway, just the fact that Argento was able to dig these bands speaks well of his metalhead status. (Did… Argento own the Scandinavian Metal Attack II comp? Does he know Bathory? My head spins.) I also like that maybe Gow were too known as glammy rockers, so they had to become Steel Grave. Even to a master of horror, metal cred matters.
This is when we should finally, mercifully, circle back to the reason I asked Blood Sport and Sign Of The Jackal to take on my re-score task. Do Norden Light and Steel Grave’s songs work within the context of Opera? If you asked me a month ago? No. Today? Yes.
Unlike Phenomena, Argento was cannier about metal in Opera. Instead of a contrasting, tension-building texture, he used it as an additional aural cue to denote that the killer was around and most likely doing a murder. This approach has its upsides and downsides.
Downsides first: Due to the natural escalation of extremity, I have to say that all three songs are… kind of ridiculous and almost immersion-disrupting. This is not Argento’s fault. Heavy metal evolves in such a way that it makes anyone who takes it seriously look silly eventually. Still, it’s worth remembering that these songs aren’t that hefty for 1986-1987, either. Forget thrash and embryonic death metal. If Argento wanted to keep it speedy and underground, he could’ve perused Metal Forces and found, like, Blood Money or Messiah Force or something. He instead opted for tunes that sound like roadies playing Dio’s “I Speed At Night.” Considering they’re supposed to score violent, gory scenes, they’re not the most… ferocious tracks.
The upside is that, damn it, the immersion-disrupting really works once you submit to Argento’s method of storytelling. Some of that keys into the same giddiness that Tanya Finder felt when watching Phenomena. Opera never hints that it’s a metal movie until a knife ends Stefano, and then, bing bong, here’s some speed metal. What? It makes you laugh while you’re watching someone die, a cognitive dissonance pretty on brand for metal, which I now have to think was Argento’s intention. (Is… Opera… slam?) After the high-culture opera selections and the woosh of the Enos, hearing metal during the death scenes snaps me back into a reality that’s cold, violent, uncaring, and morbidly hilarious. Argento is like, welp, here’s someone dying in what amounts to a pretty dumb, meaningless way. Isn’t that some real shit? Isn’t that the realest shit? Depends what you mean by reality, indeed.
To recap, I gave Blood Sport and Sign Of The Jackal a task: Re-score Dario Argento’s Opera. This is now their time.
Ah, but what was that Taskmaster twist I was talking about earlier? Bombshell: Sign Of The Jackal completed this task years ago.
“We’re fans of ’70s/’80s Italian horror movies,” Bob writes. “Since the beginning, I was fascinated by the Opera soundtrack, but I couldn’t recognize the band because they used the Steel Grave pseudonym. When we started Sign Of The Jackal, we thought it was the perfect song for us to cover: Acid/Motörhead feeling, rough sound, very primordial heavy metal, no pompous ’80s US style. We discovered that the band was an Italian band! Great! A young Italian band, ’70s/’80s Italian horror movie fanatics, covers an ’80s Italian band song, which was really part of an ’80s horror movie soundtrack. A true trip! Fantastic! Ahahahaha!”
From Breaking The Spell, here’s “Headbangers”:
Not only did Sign Of The Jackal cover the song, but the band managed to get in touch with its creators. “As you may know, the most difficult part of the story was finding the lyrics,” Bob recalls. “There was no way to find them, no vinyl inner sleeve or demo tape containing the song lyrics. So we contacted Gow’s bass player Cozy Fusco for help. When he recognized our project was serious, he searched for the lyrics and sent them to us. Another fun fact is that we wanted to cover both songs from the movie: ‘Headbangers’ and ‘Knights Of The Night,’ but unfortunately the ‘Knights Of The Night”s lyrics are lost. We sent Cozy Fusco first a live video of us performing ‘Headbangers’ and later a copy of Breaking The Spell. He was really happy with the result. We are still in touch with him!”
Still, while Sign Of The Jackal have some experience, I wondered how Bob would complete the task today. “Oh, it’s difficult to answer,” he answers. “I’d prefer to write something ‘new’ but in the old school way, maybe starting with the Steel Grave theme like how we used Simonetti’s ‘Killing’ for ‘Terror At The Metropol.’ The important thing on a task like this is to stay on target by respecting the age when the movie was filmed. A modern-sounding song doesn’t fit, but a ’70s song wouldn’t work either.”
(For the record, I asked Bob if he ever considered covering the song from The Gate. He was noncommittal but did inform me that the next LP will include a cover of another super obscure group like Meghan. Looking forward to it.)
As for Blood Sport, after Burst let me know I fucked up, he explained that if he had to meddle with greatness, he’d prefer to keep it 100 with his re-score. “But strictly hypothetically speaking I would probably want to do something like Exorcist’s Nightmare Theatre — deranged, fast, and heinous.” I wouldn’t expect anything less. Also, answering a question about a fake band with another fake band is a surefire way to this taskmaster’s heart.
V, though, went a little deeper. “Argento film soundtracks (especially Goblin pieces) are amazing, and I’m a huge fan of the atmosphere they create while watching the movies. I feel like the speed metal songs in Opera might not be made specifically for the movie itself, so I find that they are a bit out of place somehow. So, if we were given the opportunity to take part in making soundtracks for Opera, we would add something that ties the songs to the scenes. The presence of evil is very strong in his films and Argento movies have been great sources of lyrical inspiration. So maybe writing something that fits the theme would work?”
I definitely think that would work. And I’m happy that I now realize that the speed metal/heavy metal songs in Opera do, in fact, work. Well done. Five points to both bands.
What’s our next task? Welcoming Michael Nelson back to the column. Welcome back, Michael Nelson. –Ian Chainey
MØL - "Vestige"
One of the more tedious aspects of being a metal fan is the endless debate over what is and isn’t metal. (At this point, it’s tedious to talk about how tedious it is to talk about.) Even the most rigorously outlined methodologies are riddled with contradictions, oversights, and revisions, so what hope exists for, say, four guys putting together a monthly metal column? More importantly, what’s even the point? And really, who the fuck actually cares?
Having said all that… does this qualify?
MØL are a five-piece from Denmark, and over the course of their brief history to date, they’ve mostly — basically — been a metal band. Mostly. Basically. Their outstanding 2018 debut LP, JORD, fell firmly in the Deafheaven-headed “blackgaze” subcategory, but there’s not exactly a ton of metal DNA in that particular lineage, so even a little bit of dilution raises additional questions. (To wit: JORD sounded quite a bit like Deafheaven’s Sunbather, and concurrent with JORD proper, MØL released JORD (Instrumental), presumably for the sorts of people who liked Sunbather but were turned off by the vocals. Not metal.) The first two tracks released in advance of MØL’s sophomore full-length, Diorama, sounded very much like a continuation of the journey begun on JORD, even accounting for the rather incongruous Cocteau Twins-esque midsection of lead single “Photophobic.” The third single, though — the one we’re featuring here, “Vestige” — is truly something else. Putting aside frontman Kim Song Sternkopf’s screamy vocals, the verse reminds me of Scottish alt/post/anthem-rock superstars Biffy Clyro — a plenty heavy band, but not one that plays blastbeats. Then, that already-sizable melody is boosted 500x on the chorus, which brings in an insanely ostentatious synth-sounding guitar line that reminds me of frothy forgotten Britpoppers Echobelly — not a heavy band at all. “Vestige” runs through that cycle twice before it throws to a solo section that sounds like it should be scoring a hang-gliding video… and then, the percussion drops out, and the guitars get all watery and New Age-y, and suddenly Sternkopf starts singing clean, and I swear to fucking God it sounds exactly like “Fields Of Gold”-era Sting. (When they shift straight back to the chorus, it sounds like early Deicide, by comparison.) I’m pretty sure the title of “Vestige” isn’t trying to get us thinking about which bits of the metal body are, at this point, nothing more than wisdom teeth, but if it were? That would be a great title. I’m also pretty sure MØL don’t really give a damn about whether this is metal, and they might even sorta be trying to bait people like me into getting all huffy about it, but joke’s on them, because I could listen to this shit all day long. [From Diorama, out 11/5 via Nuclear Blast.] –Michael Nelson
Alda - "Drawn Astray"
Location: Tacoma, WA
Subgenre: atmospheric black metal
Alda nail it on “Drawn Astray,” channeling primeval spirits to envision the majestic melancholy of epic terrain on cold gray days. Some true giants have tread forested paths in the part of the world Alda call home, carving stylistic trail markers — folksy twists and twangs, muted midtempo serenity, and wind-whipping blasts that rattle limbs and trouble boughs. Alda bring their own special contemplative, unhurried approach to the path and, we should note, have for over a decade. On “Drawn Astray,” acoustic intros and interludes set the stage, but it’s a series of building progressions of riffs that form the backbone of the somehow-short ten-minute track. An expansive mid-tempo beauty gives a view from a clearing, some pedal down rippage follows, and around minute six we get a truly invigorating riff that hammers the first act home. Solos aren’t the stars here, but a siren-esque soul-searing lead does appear to steal the show at the last, closing the door on a journey worth repeating again and again. [From A Distant Fire, out now via Eisenwald.] –Wyatt Marshall
Sundrowned - "Levitating"
Location: Haugesund, Norway
Subgenre: post-black metal
Sundrowned are blacklisted from Metal Archives for “being post-rock with blast beats,” a judgment that suggests it’s worth taking a closer look at the Metal Archives blacklist more often. “Levitating,” released as a single following a remarkable debut just months ago, is gorgeous aquatic wanderlust at its best. Glimmering guitars drip light and dance flittingly across the track, spattering streaks of beauty on its surface in surprising and enchanting ways. Not all is sun-touched splendor, though — there’s an undertow, and muscular bellows float up from the depths as you immerse further and further. (MA admin isn’t impressed — ”Checked the album a bit and I agree with the blacklisting. Sorry.”) While drifting away in Sundrowned’s lush and limitless world in perpetuity would be divine, a structure does take hold, funneling fleeting bliss toward an inevitable end that’s appropriately awe inspiring. From a Norwegian project just getting its start, Sundrowned leaves great anticipation lingering for what comes next. [From Levitating, out now via the band.] –Wyatt Marshall
Shadowland - "Remains"
Location: New York, NY
Subgenre: heavy metal
Hello again, Shadowland. The New York quintet has already appeared in the column a couple of times in 2021. For instance, you may remember their fun, Frank Huang-filmed video for “Lamia,” the A-side of the super promising Lost City single. The Necromancer’s Castle, Shadowland’s debut full-length, delivers on that promise.
While it retains some of the Killers Maidenisms of their older material, The Necromancer’s Castle is newly heavy. “We are a bunch of punks playing metal, so it’s natural for us to boost the gain knob up a bit,” the band writes in an email. “We used multiple guitar amps all cranked high. Sasha Stroud, who recorded us, is an amazing drummer, and she really took her time to make the drums sound fucking huge.” From the sword-swinging guitars of Al Bulmer and Jeff Saint Filmer to the titanically thwomping rhythm section of bassist Cedric Obando and drummer Dave Hawk, all of the players flourish within Stroud’s it-goes-to-eleven sonic leveling, defining their styles within the loudness.
“Warhound,” the lead single, contrasts classically NWOBHM riffs with that jet-landing-on-your-house commitment to sound maximalism, steering Shadowland down a more thundering/punkier avenue for NWOTHM while sticking with what works. “Well, there is always a push towards the extreme in heavy music, to see how big, how vicious, how fast you can get,” the band explains. “No harm in that, but there’s no replacement for solid melody and songwriting. NWOTHM is great because you get that songwriting and melody combined with the influence of punk as well. We can’t speak for others, perhaps it’s just a typical cycle of nostalgia, but we love NWOTHM for the songwriting, the riffs, the pacing, the lyrics, and the energy. It feels very free.”
That freedom has produced an album that stays true to heavy metal ideals while developing Shadowland’s voice. And speaking of voices: Tanya Finder, who also has a dope illustration site and created The Necromancer’s Castle‘s artwork, is one of the more powerful conduits for conveying heavy metal charisma that I’ve encountered in a while. Finder sure finds hooks. “Remains,” the song that follows “Warhound,” is a hook-stuffed streetwise strut, recalling Black Book-era Hellion while also being purely Shadowland. Super fun. If I still awarded year-end shower beers, The Necromancer’s Castle would surely crack one. [From The Necromancer’s Castle, out now via No Remorse Records.] –Ian Chainey
Abstract Void - "Forward To The Past"
Subgenre: atmospheric black metal / synthwave
Remember what we were talking about a little while back, re: whether that MØL song was metal? OK, now, imagine you were talking about this shit with a metal-agnostic friend. Let’s say you played for your friend MØL’s “Vestige” followed by Abstract Void’s “Forward To The Past” (or literally any Abstract Void song), and then asked your friend which of the two was more metal. I suspect your friend would point to MØL, because “Vestige” is filled with burly distorted guitars and harsh screams, and generally speaking, it feels fast and chaotic and loud. I.e., “metal.” The anonymous one-maniac-band Abstract Void, on the other hand, sounds like: What if the Stranger Things theme but ALSO the entire Stranger Things aesthetic but ALSO Van Halen’s 1984 but ALSO Asia’s “Heat Of The Moment” but ALSO a base coat of 100% sincere and authentic Scando-style atmospheric black metal? (Superficially, the only thing about Abstract Void that screams “metal” is the screaming itself, which is mixed kinda low comparatively.) So, yeah, it doesn’t really sound, like, hard at all. It sounds kinda soft, OK? And yet, compositionally speaking, the bones of Abstract Void’s music are made of the strong stuff, the real thing, iron and steel, black to the bone. Those programed beats, for instance, don’t sound much different than the drums you’d hear on any modern-day black-metal album made with a legacy label’s budget. Abstract Void’s army of synths, meanwhile, produces a head-effect not unlike the one achieved by hyper-fast tremolo-picked guitars. And the vocals sound like tape hiss, which is how this stuff is supposed to sound, if you wanna go back to the goddamn fundamentals. Now, look, it takes some getting used to. Obviously. Me personally, I initially took Abstract Void for a fun novelty. Then, I took it for an unbelievably well-executed novelty. Then, I took it for a novelty so unbelievably well-executed that it was neither believable nor novelty at all, and therefore had to be Ulver in deep disguise. And then, finally, I came around to my current assessment, which is simply to understand it as: Music That I Love. [From Wishdream, out now via Flowing Downward.] –Michael Nelson
Concrete Winds - "Noise Trepanation"
Location: Helsinki, Finland
Subgenre: death metal
Remember hearing Reign In Blood for the first time? Concrete Winds’ Nerve Butcherer feels like that to me. Not that the Finnish death metal duo sounds similar to peak Slayer. Concrete Winds have a… uh… different MO. “We are never actively concerned about making songs either stand out or stick in the head,” the band told Invisible Oranges in a premiere post, “mainly the objective is one of ear canal destruction, discomfort, and to aggravate the listener.” No lies detected. So, what connects Nerve Butcherer to RIB is the holy-shit, full-body sensation that continually careens through my being during its 10-track, 27-minute runtime. It’s my natural reaction whenever I discover a new level of extremity within a subgenre, a more brutal brutal than I previously thought the subgenre’s most brutal brutal could be. To that end, Concrete Winds sound like the endgame for classic, thrashing death metal. In fact, I didn’t think it possible for this ancient strain of death metal to rip this hard.
It’s worth noting that Nerve Butcherer’s rippingness isn’t a shocker. Primitive Force, the band’s well-titled 2019 debut and first following the dissolution of Åland Islands‘ only death metal band Vorum, also ripped. Still, Nerve Butcherer is, distilled to two words, especially bugfuck. “Noise Trepanation,” the early stream, sounds like if Hellhammer kept going, picked up some death/thrash and war metal moves along the way, and crashed into early Anaal Nathrakh. While Concrete Winds might front like they don’t care about the details, “Noise Trepanation” is pretty dang rich from a songwriting perspective. The Mercyful Fate/Bathory-esque neener-neener part that pans from speaker to speaker is legit disorienting. That bordering-on-aggravating lead transforms into a circular speed metal riff and then gets divebombed by a killer solo. That riff’s evolution is neat. The song rips. Hell of a feeling, all around. [From Nerve Butcherer, out 11/26 via Sepulchral Voice Records.] –Ian Chainey
Autumn Nostalgie - "Alámerülés"
Location: Šamorín, Slovakia
Subgenre: atmospheric black metal
According to the band’s bio, main man Gergely Almásy began writing as Autumn Nostalgie a decade ago, but only just released his first music with the band (drummer József Nagy recently joined) earlier this year — the incredible Esse Est Percipi, which you should absolutely check out. Autumn Nostalgie sort of sound like a black metal Slowdive, and “Alámerülés” bullseyes a kind of post-punky, woodsy atmospheric black metal, finding a groove straight out the gates and riding it to aural bliss. There’s a little bit of Agalloch in there, with guitars that ping back and forth in intoxicating ways, but Autumn Nostalgie shoot chill rhythms and soaring post rock guitars into his hypnotic mix. There are, for this style of music, surprising melodic turns at times, where disaffected ennui elides to bright, soaring melodies and resolutions. Raspy screams included, it’s all remarkably relaxing, never moving beyond a mid-tempo stride that slides naturally into a state of elevated consciousness. With two incredible albums this year, Autumn Nostalgie have arrived, and have introduced a wholly formed world of serene and surreal sound. [From Ataraxia, out now via Northern Silence.] –Wyatt Marshall
Be'lakor - "Valence"
Location: Melbourne, Australia
Subgenre: melodic death metal
The Australian quintet Be’lakor are often categorized as a melodic death metal band, and that’s fair. There’s absolutely no slot that better suits them. But… Be’lakor are self-evidently not a melodic death metal band. Yes, you can clearly hear the influence of At The Gates here, but you can equally hear Agalloch. Maybe you can hear more Agalloch than At The Gates, even. There’s other stuff, too. There’s some prog in here, some tech, and most importantly, more hooks than Hellraiser. What do you call that? It has no name. There’s nothing else in the world like Be’lakor. Their songs will beat the shit out of you, but they’ll also captivate you, entrance you. They’re so ferocious, but so crisp, with the atmosphere of a 747 cutting through clouds. Be’lakor’s music is an ever-expanding web of interlaced lines, finely woven and expertly wrought. (When those twin guitars start spinning around one another, it actually makes me feel high.) Each one of their songs has the drama of an episode of Succession, and that same precision, too: perfect execution, commanding power. Be’lakor songs tend to build slowly, incrementally increasing the tension and raising the stakes, with their climaxes coming in the final few minutes. (Yes, the final few minutes. Be’lakor songs are also quite long. This is a gift.) Be’lakor’s new album is their fifth, and their first in five years. It’s called Coherence, and if you were looking for one word to describe the band’s music, you could do worse than that. It all just comes together, just so, and then, man, it just crushes you. [From Coherence, out now via Napalm Records.] –Michael Nelson
Lhaäd - "Below II"
Subgenre: black metal
“Below II” is a juggernaut, a low-end black metal monster with rapid-fire pistons that hammer into the brain. The pummel is near relentless, and it pushes forward into some otherworldly atmospheres — according to the bio on Bandcamp, Lhaäd is an anagram for “hadal,” the deepest part of the ocean, and deep sea horror takes hold with flashes of color animating the otherwise murky depths. The unknowns of subaqueous realms share a great deal of similarity with the dark depths of space, and it’s no surprise that the magical murk of Lhaäd caught the ear of the space-faring Mare Cognitum’s Jake Buczarki. Lhaäd’s debut is being released on his Extraconscious Records — a reliable source of boundary pushing, disorienting, and atmosphere rich black metal — and in addition to an obsession with the deepest reaches of worlds near and far, “Below II” exhibits the kind of intricate and powerful precision Buczarki so expertly brings to bear as Mare Cognitum. The “Mare Cognitum” is a lunar feature, but it also translates to “known sea” — both bands leave those waters far behind. [From Below, out 12/10 via Extraconscious Records / Babylon Doom Cult Records.] –Wyatt Marshall
Ethereal Shroud - "Discarnate"
Location: United Kingdom
Subgenre: atmospheric black metal
I wouldn’t have known to look for Ethereal Shroud’s Trisagion if it hadn’t surfaced in my Bandcamp feed, and I might not have listened to the album’s advance single, “Discarnate,” if I hadn’t read the comments. Lemme show you a few of them, so you understand:
“Staggeringly beautiful. By minute 2 tears were in my eyes and my jaw was on the floor. If the rest of the album is as good as Discarnate then this will be a very serious contender for AOTY.” — a_human
“Easily my most anticipated BM album of the year. Judging by the quality of ‘Discarnate’, it’s going to be a blinder!” — Jonny Randall
“The return of Joseph Hawker! For those who know, this is one of the most eagerly anticipated & colossally heartfelt black metal releases of 2021. If you aren’t familiar, head directly to the prior LP “They Became The Falling Ash” before sampling the unreal lead track “Discarnate.” Yeah – that’s what I’m talking about. Glad to have Ethereal Shroud back in the game and scorching the earth.” — bcb723
Now, look, I’m not trying to make a habit of aggregating Bandcamp comments as a way of outsourcing my own work. I’m doing it now, though, because I actually wasn’t familiar with Ethereal Shroud till I listened to “Discarnate,” and I don’t wanna sit here and pretend that I’ve been a huge fan since forever — not because it would be some big ethical issue for me to do so, but because I’m not sure I could adequately convey to you the hype that got me hyped. And this thing deserves the hype. It deserves to be big, because it is massive.
Some basic background stuff (mostly covered above, but to summarize): The man behind Ethereal Shroud is UK-based artist Joseph Hawker, working here with a handful of co-contributors, including a two-piece rhythm section. Ethereal Shroud’s debut LP, They Became The Falling Ash, came out in 2015. Trisagion is the follow-up. It comes out in December. It consists of three songs, as the title would require, although there’s an additional fourth non-album track called “Lanterns,” which dropped at the same time as “Discarnate.” “Lanterns” is no less awesome than “Discarnate,” but “Discarnate” is the first Ethereal Shroud song that I listened to, and boy oh boy, I am now just imagining you reading this and listening to “Discarnate” for the first time for yourself and having an experience similar to the one I had, and anyway, that’s why I’m writing about “Discarnate.”
On that note: “Discarnate” is a magnificent and meticulously constructed piece of music. I suppose you’d call it atmospheric black metal, but the atmosphere here is a motherfucker. It’s not just ambience, it’s a real sense of motion, of momentum. The song opens on notes of immediately gripping tension and upon that, it builds and builds, and it just keeps going bigger and higher, only occasionally slowing down to further increase the already goddamn ridiculously insane tension. It’s pretty rare to hear this degree of composition in this sort of music. I mean, it’s really very rare for a 14-minute-long black metal song to move like this, and it’s basically unheard of for any of them to be this catchy. Even in that respect, though, “Discarnate” feels unusually refined. The melodies here don’t punch you in the face. They punch you in the side of the head. The melodies serve only to move the music. And concuss you. The tones are gnarly and brutal, but the layers are clearly defined. Nothing is obscured, nothing is extraneous. It’s actually very intimate music. It just happens to be the size of Kilimanjaro. It’s exhilarating. Every new peak feels like the peak. Nope. Keep climbing. It still goes higher. It keeps going higher. It doesn’t stop until it stops, and then: sky, clouds. When you get there, you’ll wanna shout about it, too, like I am right now. And I’m not saying you have to believe me or anybody else for that matter. Just listen to the music. Believe what you hear in there. [From Trisagion, out 12/10 via the band.] –Michael Nelson
Bonus. Inter Arma – “Bone Flower”
Location: Richmond, VA
Subgenre: sludge / black metal
Our friend of the column over at Machine Music just dropped Milim Kashot Volume 3. As with previous editions, proceeds are heading to a charitable undertaking. Likewise, the compilation is, once again, an excellent assortment of tunes, showcasing a varied selection of artists from all over the world. What makes Volume 3 slightly different from its predecessors is the flow. Whether its atameo, a burst of skramz from Tel Aviv, or 夢遊病者, a mysterious entity quickly becoming one of the most original voices in modern black metal, each track is sequenced perfectly. This attention to intramix dynamics creates the rise and fall of a labored-over tape made for a crush. Usually, these samplers tend to be more about the exclusives and premieres, but I think it’s worth noting that Volume 3 also functions as a complete piece of music.
Yes, OK, the exclusives and premieres. Let’s talk about one. One of the treats in the first five tracks is “Bone Flower,” an exclusive from Inter Arma. The nearly 10-minute track encapsulates what you’ve come to expect from the band when they’re not in cover mode, giving non-atmo black metal the sweep of sludgy, Rwake-y post-metal. I dig the solo, especially. And I guess it also inspired one of my favorite band tweets this year, so there’s that. Anyway, “Bone Flower” is the bait. Get hooked on the rest of the comp. Worth your time. [From Milim Kashot Vol. 3, out now via Machine Music.] –Ian Chainey