The Month In Metal – January 2022

The Month In Metal – January 2022

Are black metal bands now being formed at a higher rate than bands in any other metal genre?

This question surfaced in the 11th hour while I was working on a different data mining project. I couldn’t stop thinking about it. It’s something I’ve felt for a long time but never considered proving conclusively, so here we are. The short answer, as is often the case with any data-driven exercise undertaken within subjective spaces such as music categorization and criticism, is … maybe. The longer answer is … well … this extremely weedy intro that, spoiler, features an even bigger question that continues to flummox the absolute hell out of me. Sound fun? Doesn’t matter, I’m doing it. So load up the spreadsheets, to Encyclopaedia Metallum we go.

If we’re thinking of metal as a game to be won by the genre with the most bands, which is, in fact, the wrong way to think about music 100 percent of the time, then the battle for metal’s Stanley Cup-sized, Dio-shaped trophy has been waged between four genres over the last 30 years: black metal, death metal, heavy metal, and thrash. (Doom, progressive, and power are the next genres three up, but, as I’ll demonstrate later, they’re a tier below.) For lack of a better term, I’m going to refer to these big, elite metal genres that are highly populated and impossible to fully explore as “metalopolises.”

OK, let’s start digging in. While I’ve previously established that metal’s most popular genres are heavy metal and thrash since those styles have the most popular bands, when it comes to starting a band with the intention of releasing music, it has long been the case that it’s more likely to be some variant of death metal.

This is relatively easy to find. Using Metallum’s “advanced search” page, I queried the database for the total number of entries in each metalopolis:

Black: 41,873
Death: 51,345
Heavy: 22,613
Thrash: 30,743

Death metal reigns supreme. Case closed? Oh no. See, if I filter those results down to just entries tied to “active” bands, death metal’s big lead evaporates:

Black: 25,862
Death: 28,169
Heavy: 10,983
Thrash: 14,476

Compared to the all-time numbers, black metal retains the most entries, pulling it within striking distance of death metal. Since this is a two-horse race, I’ll spend most of the rest of this intro discussing black metal and death metal. That said, I think it’s worth noting what those numbers portend for the old-dog metalopolises: If we’re thinking about an all-time vs. active comparison as something analogous to a birth-death ratio, thrash is the biggest loser in this respect, shedding almost 53 percent of its total. Heavy metal is not much better, losing nearly 51 percent. I’ll get to possible demographic decay in a bit, but, in either case, youch! Valhalla is full.

Anyway, while these numbers are fun and could be an intro unto themselves, it still doesn’t answer whether black metal bands are being formed at a higher rate now. To do that, I’ll have to break the all-time data down by each band’s “formed in” year. But, before I can take a crack at putting that together, I need to explain why this entire exercise is ultimately pretty futile, and it’s not just because I’m an idiot who failed statistics.

Since this is the first column of the year, and I guess there’s a chance that someone made a New Year’s resolution to learn about metal, I’m going to go deeper into the caveats than I usually would, which I’m sure will overjoy longtime readers who have been forced to endure this absolute prattle since … let me check the calendar here … dear god, 2018. All right, buckle up.

By its nature, being a user-editable wiki with idiosyncratic submission standards, Encyclopaedia Metallum: The Metal Archives is constantly shifting. The massive metal database that will turn 20 this July has, at the time I’m writing this, 155,196 bands listed that account for 467,691 releases and 3,226,952 songs. Since kicking things off with Amorphis on July 7, 2002, an average of nearly 22 bands are added to the site every day. Metal, there is a lot of it.

But it’s not just that there’s a lot of it, an ever-growing a-lot that will keep growing as long as there are riffs to both copy and subvert. What constitutes “metal” is also constantly shifting in such a way that its history is never set. No, the fossil record is frequently rearranged to define the present experiences of newer generations. Bands change genre. Fans reevaluate bands and redistrict styles. (Example: Does “ambient black metal” even exist anymore, or has that been swallowed up by atmospheric black metal, blackgaze, and post-black metal?) In both cases, what is metal today may not be metal tomorrow. That said, to a substantial portion of the fanbase, what was metal yesterday is the only metal that matters.

This seems to be a source of consternation for outsiders, that metal contradictorily eats its tail and is also deathly allergic to it. However, that trait is a vital part of what makes metal metal. Metal needs to be everything and nothing with infinities in between the certainties to function correctly. That duality allows it to be so forward-thinking and goddamn sclerotic, an eternally contested space that’s the theater for a forever-war pitting progressives against conservatives, in all senses of either word.

Given that and the type of person naturally attracted to metal, there’s no objective “true” metal experience. That I can listen to Effluence and someone else can listen to Epica and we can both call ourselves metalheads is wild. The metal experience, then, is unique to every experiencer, with an innumerable number of contextual factors twisting each genre’s supposedly core tenets into something another experiencer might deem unrecognizable. Me, a brutal death metal dork, finds the experience of deathcore fans to be utterly alien, even though both styles sound exactly the same to 99 percent of the planet.

This is a long way of writing that even the big umbrella catch-all genres like the metalopolises are hard to define once one moves past the agreed-upon representative bands and pioneers. Each genre is way more gray than black or white, and that gray is often only navigable by personal experience. Is death/doom death metal? Is it doom? Is it its own distinct genre? Does it depend on the band? Or even the scene? My death/doom is likely not someone else’s death/doom because our context for the style — the songs we heard first, the way we learned about it, the fans we ran into along the way — is different. Metal is strange like that, this mass shared experience that’s also highly personal.

If all of that didn’t make this exercise hard enough, there’s also the way Metallum is constructed. While Metallum has done more to preserve the history of heavy metal more than almost any other entity on the internet, it’s here that I need to mention that even its rules have evolved over time. For instance, “The Management”‘s plea in 2005 to “please stop submitting -core bands. Please,” seems particularly antiquated now that so much metal-leaning core is included in the database. Not to mention that, since becoming the premier source for heavy metal information, Metallum has both hardened and loosened its guidelines for what constitutes a “valid” release, which is still the gateway to entry for most bands. You still need a release to get in. It’s just that the format has changed with the times. Remember that.

But, and this is critical, since Metallum deals in metal, its older annals are still living! If you keep an eye on the front page’s “latest additions” tracker, you’ll find a ton of bands that were born in decades past, no matter if it’s some forgotten ‘60s proto-metaller, ‘90s Malaysian tape-trader, or brand new one-person bedroom band. This makes measuring bygone trends like hitting a moving target. Who knows if, or really when, someone is going to come across a trove of zines that review a bunch of demos that everyone forgot about. So, while Metallum is a good resource, it isn’t … like … carbon dating or something. Hell, its pages are rarely verified by primary sources. Metallum is history in the Herodotus sense, cataloged by people with biases and faulty memories and all of that extremely human stuff.

For those reasons, even something as relatively clean-cut as “black metal” is going to be a nebulous concept since we’re relying on the unique experiences of a legion of Metallum contributors to make a grand pronouncement about the state of metal on January 31, 2022. Is this an ultimately pretty futile exercise? You bet! And then, AND THEN, there’s the data.

Searching Metallum is tricky due to how many dang substyles and hybrid genres are in the system. As an example, if I search for “death” with Metallum’s advanced search tool, it’s going to pull anything with “death” in the genre field except for “deathcore,” which it treats as its own thing. A death/thrash band will show up in both a “death” and “thrash” search, etc. This is further complicated by genre-hopping bands. For instance, Embodyment‘s genre is “Death Metal (early); Deathcore (mid); Alternative Rock/Nu-Metal (later),” so it’ll show up in four different searches. One band, four different searches. This makes the numbers I’m going to cite fuzzier and possibly more inflated than I’d prefer since the results aren’t a one-to-one correlation. Nope, it’s how many times a band’s genre tags appear in the database. Cleaning the data would take forever and require me to make some hot-take decisions, like how I increasingly don’t think that most melodeath bands are actually death metal.

*wipes spittle from mouth after ranting for hours* Holy shit! Remember when I said I would try to answer whether black metal bands are being formed at a higher rate than other bands? I can try to do that now. I just need to break the total number of entries down by year. Easy enough. Except …

I don’t have formation data for about 19 percent of Metallum bands. That’s a lot of bands. Like, 28,854 bands. To be clear, I have no idea what year those 28,854 bands were formed. (Why? The reasons why run the gamut, but it’s mostly (a) no one knows or (b) bands don’t want you to know.) That’s going to be a problem! If you told someone “I lost 19 percent of your dog” you’d definitely no longer be considered for dog-walking duties. So, I understand if that invalidates this ultimately pretty futile exercise. But, let’s work with what we got.

The oldest band in Metallum is Olympic, a Czech rock band formed in 1962 that dabbled with metal during a mid-career run that included its ticket into the archives, 1988’s Když ti svítí zelená. (Olympic, still active! Congrats on dodging the money-hungry wrath of the legendarily litigious IOC for 60 years.) Since we don’t have more finite units of time like months and days, it’s hard to ascertain which band is the newest, though, when I’m writing this, seven bands have met the guidelines and been added to Metallum in 2022. Here’s a line graph plotting the number of bands formed by year in between that range, and … I got to say … I wasn’t expecting these results:

… huh. Weird! The greatest number of metal bands were formed in 2005. That’s not the weird part. This is the weird part: Outside of a slight rebound in 2012, metal has been in a steady decline ever since despite there being more metal releases now than ever before.

I’ve thought about this constantly since running those numbers. In a way, this became the question rather than the question that kicked off this ultimately pretty futile odyssey. Problem: I still don’t have much of an explanation. While releasing a “valid” album is still how the doors to Metallum’s hall open, I’m not sure that would account for a 16-year crash, in that I don’t think we’re waiting on that many bands formed between 2006 and now to finally release a record. (I would love to see the average time between formation and first release if anyone is willing to scrape it.) If anything, it’s easier to get into Metallum now than ever before, as stream-only bands are more likely to be considered. The physical requirement is long gone.

That’s not to say that this graph is totally inaccurate. Sure, 2005 is probably the peak of NWOAHM, right in the middle of its imperial period. Hold on, let me pass out for a second thinking of the number of physical promos that stuffed my mailbox and made me an enemy of my mail lady. Those were the days. But was that really the end of a 30-year crest that began in 1975? Metal is obviously not immune to cyclical popularity spikes, undergoing a moonshot about once every 5-10 years that allows it to sprout from the underground and tickle the underbelly of the mainstream. But this trend, if it’s even real and verifiable outside of Metallum, suggests something else.

I’ll write it again: this is weird! There are probably more genres and thus more opportunities to play metal than ever before. There’s better equipment allowing one to go solo. There’s fucking Bandcamp! Like, no longer will you miss your chance to be heard because your tape fell off a plane before it could be shipped to a college radio station. There are so many factors that should allow for so many more bands … and yet … where the bands at? Are bands just … staying together longer? Are younger players who would’ve been primed for metal glory in the ’80s and ’90s now bouncing to frowned-upon forms like djent, beatdown, and twinkle shred? Are fewer Metallum users interested in adding newer bands? Are we blind to potential hotspots for metal like … the entire continent of Africa? Is this just that dang ol’ demographic decay I wrote about earlier, that an old genre populated primarily by old people is finally aging out? Or, more terrifyingly, can younger people even enter the arena? To that end, is this decline due to recent economic pressures? That the need to work harder and longer to earn a living wage has not only eaten up one’s free time but priced potential younger metallers out of acquiring instruments? Is the data just … bad? Does the missing 19 percent make up the difference? If you have any ideas, post them below.

OK, I need to tear myself away from the possible heat death of heavy metal (jazz: “First time?”), because I still have a question to answer. I took the formation data above and sorted it out into genres. To narrow things down, I nixed the subgenres that would likely be collected elsewhere, i.e., “funeral” would be captured by “doom” and so forth. (I didn’t bother searching for substyles I knew would be negligible. My beloved goregrind only counts 939 entries in Metallum as most submissions are denied. Post-metal, which felt like it was everywhere 15 years ago, has an even smaller footprint: 870 entries.) That wouldn’t completely solve the duplication issue, blackened death bands were still going to be counted twice under their respective genres, and genre jumpers like Tiamat would show up multiple times in their respective years of formation. *whispers under breath* Yeah, yeah, ultimately pretty futile exercise. Whatever. I’ve bolded and italicized the leaders in each decade.

Now, I know what you’re thinking: There were death metal bands in the ‘70s? No. Those three bands – Graf Spee, Graveyard Rodeo (which briefly featured future Corrosion of Conformity member Pepper Keenan), and Satan’s Host (which rules and has such a weird career arc) – experienced mid-career crises and became death metal later. Of course, the fake time-traveling bullshit in the chart above might scuttle the results for you, in which case, I can’t really argue with you. But let’s play out the rest of the string since, on the whole, the rest of the data plays out generally like I’d expect. Heavy metal rules the roost during the ‘60s and ‘70s and then ends up tied with thrash in the ‘80s. (Remind me to talk about my NWOBHM test case sometime when I haven’t blown my wordcount.) After that, death metal assumes the throne in the ‘90s through the ‘10s. But, would you look at that? It seems like black metal has zoomed into the lead this decade. Granted, it’s a tiny sample, and as more bands release debuts and enter Metallum, that may change. I can’t stress that enough: All of this might change.

Here’s another chart, then. This one shows the percentage share each genre achieved by decade:

And here’s what the metalopolises’ shares look like when transposed to a line graph:

Black metal is the only genre that increases its share every decade. Again, this kind of makes sense, since, and this is my totally subjective asshole opinion, it’s easier to play bog-standard black metal than it is death metal (although, yes, a lot of bog-standard death metal bands that have gotten popular recently sure have tried to make that statement inaccurate). That’s part of the reason why there are so many one-person black metal bands.

Never mind, I’m being a jerk and I’m losing the thread. So what year did black metal actually overtake death metal? According to Metallum, that happened in 2019:

Is that our answer, then? That, yes, since 2019, black metal bands are now being formed at a higher rate than bands in any other metal genre? Well … I’m not totally swayed by the numbers. I mean, there’s still that 19 percent elephant clomping around. I think we need to attack this from another angle, and that’s the total number of releases broken down by genre and sorted by decade:

If anything, I think that provides a clearer picture of each genre’s lifecycle and more accurately encapsulates what I’ve felt picking through promotional emails for the last god-knows-how-long. If black metal releases overtook death metal’s in the 2010s, what year did it do it?

Well, it did it twice. First in 2011 and then again in 2014 for good. And the gap keeps growing. Last year, black metal pulled away to the tune of a nearly 30 percent increase over death metal.

Welp, metal now belongs to black metal, I guess. Conclusively? Hell no. There are too many unresolved questions in this ultimately pretty futile exercise. Be that as it may, I think we’ll eventually have a clearer picture in a few years when more of the 2010s is filled out with band submissions.

But … maybe it’s just because I don’t want to feel like I wasted my time … there is something there. And, I gotta say, as the resident death metal idiot of the Black Market … it makes me worried. Are you coming for me, Wyatt and Nelson? Is this a coup? If only I could get a sign, like whether the next blurb is black metal … –Ian Chainey

10. ICICLE – “The Icicle Song”

Location: Louisville, KY / Los Angeles, CA
Subgenre: atmospheric black metal

According to the Bandcamp blurb, ICICLE was pieced together from drum sessions between James Brown III and Andorkappen, two members of LA black metal punks Harassor that have each gone their own ways with solo projects (Moonknight and Vorpal Sword for Brown III, Lord Time for Andorkappen). United again, the pair leans into off-balance shoegaze grooves that careen side to side in delightfully delirious ways. The excellently named “The Icicle Song” is a thing of smeared beauty, a hallucinatory vision of blinding light that inspires awe before turning deadly, lulling you into a dream state like the latter stages of hypothermia. Though its surf-tinted hypnotic riffs would make for a fitting soundtrack for both a day at the beach and night driving, ICICLE sticks to its guns and recommends “for best results listen while jogging outdoors on a cold, gray winter morning.” [From Demo #1, out now via Rising Beast.]Wyatt Marshall

9. Altar Of Gore – “Foul Dwellers In The Sacrificial Pits”

Location: New Jersey
Subgenre: death metal / black metal

From the brutish war-scarred land known as New Jersey comes the death metal duo Altar Of Gore. Acolyte of the Foul Ones, T. Warrior, handles most of the instruments, Joe Aversario adds the guitar solos that sound like someone tossing a possessed guitar down some stairs. You may remember T. Warrior from Lux Absentia, the chaotic black metal band that released the great Worship Nothing in 2020, and if you do, we should be friends because I felt like I was so alone on that one that Stereogum had every right to file a missing person report. More famously, though, you probably know these two lifers from Death Fortress and Massive Retaliation, if not any of the other many bands in the broader New Jersey Metal Attack extended universe. Blasphematory, Siege Column, and on and on. Real, gnarly, battle vest left in a gas station puddle-type metal shit. The fact that I’m writing this and not recording the rest of it in the same voice that the Undergang singer uses to introduce songs is a crime on my part.

You can definitely peg Altar Of Gore as a Warrior/Aversario project as soon as it drags a sword across a whetstone because it has the same tank-rumbling-through-a-swamp reverberations as most of their other projects. When listening to Infinite Visions Of Violence via headphones it still feels like the walls are shaking, a real hallmark of the duo. More specifically, though, this demo drives home that Altar Of Gore is equally inspired by Blasphemy and Bolt Thrower, grabbing the evilness from the former and wrapping it around the battle-tested grooves of the latter. Where Altar Of Gore really excels, though, is its indefatigable pursuit of forward momentum. When it drops into a groove, the music never stops pushing ahead with roughly the same force as the fast stuff. That makes these 20 minutes incredibly cohesive, even when it sounds like Aversario is snipping guitar strings with wire cutters. I never tire of those shocks transcribed as solos, a comparison that’s too on the nose and yet perfectly encapsulates how alive and electric this stuff is despite it never leaving its comfort zone of 1991. That’s … pretty damn metal, really, even if it’s something better felt than explained. [From Infinite Visions Of Violence, out now via the band.]

8. Vixenta – “Phantom Blood (Equinoxe Mix)”

Location: Brisbane, Australia
Subgenre: post-black metal

The Australian duo Vixenta released their debut album in 2012, followed by an EP in 2014 … and then their sophomore album … in 2021. So, nine years between their first and second LPs. I’m sure that’s happened before, but it’s not a common trajectory for obscure black metal bands! I didn’t first encounter the band till last year, and it was a purely chance encounter during a Bandcamp binge; I don’t want to give the impression that I was sitting around all that time waiting for LP2. I didn’t read the band’s backstory until after hearing the music, and when I did, I was astonished. You look at Vixenta’s timeline and assume they must be casual hobbyists. You hear their music, then, and you wonder how it’s possible for them to be making art at this level — and also, how they are not huge.

I mean, relatively huge; huge in the way that Agalloch were huge, before they blew themselves to smithereens. I’m using Agalloch as my reference here because I hear a lot of that band’s best music in Vixenta’s new music. It’s not a perfect comparison: Vixenta, on the whole, tend to go much heavier than Agalloch ever did, and when Vixenta get weird, they’re weirder than Agalloch ever were. But if you’re even a little familiar with Agalloch, one listen to the Vixenta song we’re featuring here — “Phantom Blood,” from a four-song split with fellow Ozzies, Elcrost — you’ll hear the similarities. You’ll hear them in the crazy-big melodies driving the song from beginning to end; in the playing, which is master-level throughout; in the arrangements that shouldn’t fly at all but somehow absolutely soar. Vixenta frontman Moosh’s vocals are a LOT like those of Agalloch’s John Haughm, and while “Phantom Blood”‘s incredible, endlessly swelling chorus would have been a jaw-dropping moment if it had been on Marrow Of The Spirit, it certainly wouldn’t have felt out of place there. The song’s bridge, meanwhile, might actually be on Marrow. Or Ashes. Or The Mantle. You’ll hear it. You’ll hear so much more, too. Stick around for the second track, “The Sorrowful Screams Of A Thousand Wicked Souls,” and then spin the band’s 2021 full-length, Polarity. I really recommend you don’t miss any of this music. In fact, I’m sort of cheating here to make sure you don’t miss it. This split was originally released last September, a month before I returned to writing for The Black Market, and I was thus unable to cover it here. But the record was given a wider release this month by Pest Productions, and for that, Vixenta swapped out the original “Phantom Blood” with a new, superior (if not radically different) mix. But it’s got an updated title, which makes it a new song, which means it qualifies, which means I had to write about it. I couldn’t wait around for a true new thing from Vixenta. I don’t know how long it’s gonna be till they come back again. I do know you need to hear them now. [From Vixenta / Elcrost, out now via Pest Productions.]Michael Nelson

7. Oculi Melancholiarum – “The Presence”

Location: Mexico
Subgenre: atmospheric black metal

“The Presence” is a remarkable song that defies categorization, a hazy dream of decayed baroque grandeur and starstruck wonder that makes use of an unusual and bewitching palette. The clarion vocals that introduce the track, seemingly delivered by a forlorn figure overlooking a gloomy landscape from a landing within a decrepit English estate, are both the stuff of gothic fiction and ‘80s synth ballads at once. A spacious celestial backdrop where drum hits ring into nothingness soon gives way to lush, watery guitarwork, and the surreal journey continues from there, eliding into blasting Summoning-esque black metal passages replete with dungeon croaks and back again. Oculi Melancholiarum is the work of Victoria Carmilla, who is the force behind a number of one-woman bands, including AIAA 7, Micarlla II, Cantodea Dianthus, and Oblivion Castle. On “The Presence,” she brings her singular vision to bear, imagining haunting synth-rich worlds of beauty and melancholy. [From Noche Azul/Three Crimson Tears, out now via the band.]Wyatt Marshall

6. Empty Inside – “Empty Inside”

Location: Brazil
Subgenre: atmospheric black metal

The black metal hinterland is such a strange, amazing space. It exists everywhere and nowhere in particular. To explore it is to fall into the collective unconscious. It is impossibly vast. Once you’ve wandered inside, you are immediately lost, and you never know what you’ll find.

I won’t walk you through the breadcrumb-trail maze that led me to Brazil’s Empty Inside (which comprises, as far as I can tell, one guy named Pedru). I came upon it by accident, and it blew me away.

Is this song, “Empty Inside,” even black metal at all? Does it belong here? Does it belong anywhere? It is simply a thing of rare, exquisite beauty. And yet … I mean, yes, it is absolutely black metal. This is the stuff in its most primal form. What I mean by that is, there are these old Norwegian records called Hvis Lysett Tar Oss and Filosofem, and really, they are the earth upon which this whole thing was built. (They are also, in my opinion, perfect, timeless works of art, much as I wish they weren’t.) And if you know them, you will hear their echoes just as soon as you enter “Empty Inside” (the song). But Empty Inside (the artist) then adds a chorus of new echoes that were never there before. Suddenly, without even realizing that it’s happened, the place you were just in … you are no longer there. Now, this thing sounds like those long, quiet stretches of Loveless — another perfect, timeless work of art. And it also sounds like some nameless, faceless new-age ambient CD that you’d find in a store that sells crystals and sage. Is that a pan flute I hear? It can’t be. But what is it? What is any of this? Where am I? “Empty Inside” is a giant drift of sound, a transporting piece of music that feels as though it has neither beginning nor end, just infinite space. Enter it, I’m telling you, and let it carry you there. [From Eterna Soledad, out now via the bands.]Michael Nelson

5. Shapeshifter – “Rust”

Location: Japan
Subgenre: grindcore

Nothing like when an album immediately melts your speakers. Most of the press I’ve seen for Shapeshifter’s second album, Dark Ritual, leads with that. I’m not going to buck the trend. “Dark Ritual” is 53 seconds of prime amplifier death which sounds like an inferno engulfing Mainliner’s practice space. I like noise, and this is some noise I love, a backdraft of ear-immolating feedback that prepares you for the oncoming grind onslaught. And yet, the only thing about this Japanese quartet that stays static is how loud it is. As its creator’s name suggests, Dark Ritual is sneaky eclectic, jumping from genre to genre, letting the tail of one song foreshadow the beginning of the next before that track zooms off into a different direction. For instance, “Black Liquid,” the next blast up, is like Assück practicing Sarcófago’s I.N.R.I. before Grief crashes through the wall and chugs through a meaty sludge part. In that way, though it is brief, clocking in at 11 tracks and 18 minutes, one of the appeals of Dark Ritual is running it back just to hear how much you missed. Still, the album’s true selling point is that its impact isn’t diminished after you’ve plotted all of its movements. Like, it’s rad that “Rust,” my favorite song on the album, sounds to me like a unification of the aggro-melodies of Swarrrm with the crusty violence of Shikari. For some bands, I’d be like, Oh cool, I’ve cracked the case, and I’d move on. With Shapeshifter, a killer track remains after my mental cartography is complete. In other words, the songs are so solidly composed that they transcend comparison.

Anyway, needless to say, Shapeshifter is a band to watch, shining a spotlight on a scene I’m ashamed that I know next to nothing about. Some of that is logistical, some of that is the language barrier, all of it is admittedly embarrassing for someone who should have their ear to the ground. When Unite Asia, the excellent news site I linked out to above, introduced Shapeshifter last year, it wrote, “The band features members of Only The Last Song, Heth, Youth Issue, Soiled Hate, Abiuro, and Sans Visage … so OF COURSE it’s going to fucking RULE!!!” And I was like … oh … yeah … those bands. When Unite Asia mentioned Shapeshifter’s recent tour, it added a few more: “Nervous Light Of Sunday, Otus, Disgunder, Self Deconstruction, Kruelty, Cocobat, Saigan Terror, Invictus, and Rest In Gore.” Of those, I’m only familiar with Invictus, Self Deconstruction, and Disgunder, with the latter only crossing my radar because of a 324 connection. Hey, I have work to do. So, yeah, not only is Dark Ritual a great little record, but, along with the last Palm LP that I somehow missed, a sorely needed heads up that the best metal isn’t going to come to me, I need to go to it. That’s what keeps me in the game, that it’s possible to constantly uncover these whole universes that you never knew existed. [From Dark Ritual, out now via Ungulates.]Ian Chainey

4. Falls Of Rauros – “Clarity”

Location: Portland, ME
Subgenre: atmospheric black metal

Falls Of Rauros is heavier than ever on “Clarity,” and in embracing a beefier low end, the band’s found a whole new wilderness to roam. There’s still an atmospheric black metal woodsy element coursing throughout, but rather than life beneath the pines, Falls Of Rauros delves deeper, cutting into earth and stone and mass with precision tooling that’s more targeted than the rough-hewn rawness of the band’s earlier catalog. Loads of trilling guitar charges and sugary eliding leads help steer “Clarity” up front, but there’s a stronger center of gravity than ever before, with a really elegant balance bringing that guitarwork, emphatic drumming, lively bass, and earnest breathy screams into a whole. In that sense, “Clarity” is aptly named, and it’s a choice introduction to a more focused and powerful Falls of Rauros than we’ve ever seen. [From Key To A Vanishing Future, out 3/25 via Gilead Media and Eisenwald.]Wyatt Marshall

3. Slowbleed – “The Law (Atonement Through Blood)”

Location: Santa Paula, California
Subgenre: death metal / hardcore

In the beginning, all death metal was death metal. Death, Obituary, and Deicide all had distinctly different sounds and styles, but they were all part of the same scene, and they all recorded their early albums at the same studio, with the same producer. Carcass, Morbid Angel, and Bolt Thrower were all on the same label, and they were sent out on the road together as a package tour. Basically, as long as the vocals weren’t clean and somebody in the band could play guitar, it was cool. Beyond that, nobody gave a shit about anything. It was a free-for-all. It was the Wild West. It was all so invigorating, so exciting. Then, the boom went bust back around the time Gorguts, Grave, and Immolation were releasing their first albums. Metal critics and kids alike were getting bored with “death metal.” The bands were bored, too. Darkthrone pivoted to black metal. Paradise Lost went goth. Entombed made Wolverine Blues. Today, 3,000 years later, the corpse has been cannibalized and the genre has been atomized to such a degree that every band falls into a scientifically precise niche for which there is an organized, engaged, opinionated audience. Technical death metal. Melodic death metal. Brutal death metal. Blackened death. Death/doom. Deathcore. The list goes on and on and on and on. But do any bands today play the thing we used to call “death metal” when I was a child during the Iron Age? Sure there’s the whole OSDM subgenre, but half of the actual old-school death metal bands wouldn’t qualify as OSDM if their old records were first released today. I’m asking, does anybody just do death metal that hits like death metal?

I mean, who the fuck actually cares about this taxonomical bullshit, really. I, personally, genuinely do not give a shit. I really don’t! The only reason I’m putting you through this otherwise-pointless thought exercise is because I’m writing about the California quintet Slowbleed, who just released their first full-length, The Blazing Sun, A Fiery Dawn, and therefore haven’t yet been filed in the system. And when I pitched this, it was solely because I liked the lead-guitar tone that opens one song (“Driven By Fire”), which reminded me of Diamond Darrell on “Cemetery Gates” — a song by Pantera, who incidentally did not play any form of death metal. But once I started listening to the album — trying to determine what to write beyond the thing about that Diamond Darrell guitar tone at the beginning of that one song — I found that I couldn’t stop listening. I loved it, obviously; I’m not gonna listen to any record a thousand times a day for a week straight if I don’t love the record. More relevant to this writeup, however, was the fact that I couldn’t pin it down. Every time I was pretty sure it was one thing, I heard something else in the music that was so essential to its identity that I decided it had to be that other thing instead. It could be one; it could be the other. Or the other, or the other. Again, who cares. Here’s what Slowbleed sound like: ungodly sewer-dark monster-fuck brutality. What else? The double-bass is fast. The riffs are slow. The mood is grim. The tuning is dropped and the distortion is on. The mosh parts are abundant and the grind is crushing. The vocals are on some John Tardy circa Cause Of Death shit, and the lead guitars are truly Azagthothian madness: Every time there’s a little lick or a big solo — and there are a ton of both — I lose my goddamn mind. Now, I don’t know about you, obviously. Maybe you hear Slowbleed and you don’t hear real, pure, true death metal. Maybe not. Know what I think, though? I think that maybe you just don’t hear YOUR death metal. But lemme tell you something: I was walking through the halls of junior high school when the big dinosaurs were walking the Earth — and this is the exact same noise we heard from in there when they were just outside and alive. [From The Blazing Sun, A Fiery Dawn, out now via Creator-Destructor Records.]Michael Nelson

2. Midnartiis – “Coiled Within The Earth”

Location: Keller, TX
Subgenre: atmospheric black metal

Midnartiis absolutely nails gray day black metal, crafting muffled melancholic melodies that sit heavy in the air and chill to the bone. “Coiled Within the Earth” is one of a few subtle stunners from Wes Radvansky’s fifth LP as Midnartiis, which follows the format of ripper→folk interlude→ripper. That folk, of course, bleeds into the blasters, which seem to include all of the best elements of atmospheric black metal and virtually none of the filler. A la Agalloch, an upfront guitar lead is a constant guide, and Radvansky’s snarled rasps are pretty constant, too, blending into the stylish groove that continues throughout the track’s seven minutes. While “Coiled” has an understated palette, Midnartiis does veer for the dramatic, going big with thick riffs and shouted existential proclamations on a jaw-dropping build just over two minutes in, and aiming high on a dizzying outro that makes a break for the heavens. It’s an understated masterpiece, one that deftly plants its hooks and leaves indelible marks. [From Sinew of Sol, out now via Naturmacht Productions.]Wyatt Marshall

1. Maule – “Evil Eye”

Location: Vancouver, British Columbia
Subgenre: speed metal

I listen to all kinds of metal — and of the stuff I don’t actively listen to, I’ve heard enough to know what I’m missing — and while the new breeds are always plumbing new depths from which to obliterate skulls, for my money, when my blood is hot and I need music to match, nothing hits harder than good old-fashioned speed metal. Is it the very apotheosis of heavy metal itself? I think it might be. Speed metal was the bridge between NWOBHM and thrash, combining the massive melodies of the former with a terrifying intensity that would go on to inform the latter. And yet its peak was so brief, and its parameters so indistinct, it seems fair to raise the question of whether “speed metal” ever really existed as a thing unto itself, or whether it was a liminal zone into which other things occasionally bled. To wit: Can Kill ‘Em All be retrospectively classified as a speed metal record, even as it is crucially an important cornerstone of the then-nascent but subsequently seismic thrash genre? As I wrote in my 2002 thesis, Reagan-Era Speed Metal: A Vision Of Apocalyptic Humanism

No, seriously, there’s no point analyzing this music because analysis is entirely antithetical to the experience. How can you write about music that itself wasn’t written but instead sent howling from hell through a Peavey amp? Don’t bother. It kicks ass because it kicks ass. It rules because it rules. If you don’t get it, it’s because you don’t get it. Maule get it. They play true Satanic Panic speed metal, the stuff you’d hear from out the window of a 280Z in River’s Edge. On the Canadian band’s brand-new debut album, Maule, Maule have included a song called “Maule” — and another called “Summoner”; and another called “Red Sonja.” This is the way it was done; the way it’s supposed to be done. The song “Ritual” is about “a demon rite/ goin’ down tonight.” Maule aren’t telling you; they’re calling you. There are other contemporary bands who mess with this kinda music — and some are really fucking good, too, don’t get me wrong — but way too often, it comes off feeling either ironic or academic. Not Maule. Not to me, anyway. To me, Maule sound like something Fenriz would ecstatically force you to listen to, and then he’d talk over it the whole time, telling you about how he still has a working-but-warped cassette copy of Fastway’s Trick Or Treat soundtrack that he bought one day in 1987 when he skipped school and instead took the bus into Oslo, and then he’d ask if you ever saw Trick Or Treat or if you’d ever heard Fastway, and then he’d digress into something about Diamond Head, and then Destruction’s Live Without Sense, and the whole time he’d keep turning up the volume on the Maule record and telling you to “listen to this part” while banging his head to that part. It would all be a crazy, ecstatic blur. But that’s what metal is supposed to sound like. Maule are what metal is supposed to sound like. [From Maule, out now via Gates of Hell Records.]Michael Nelson

Bonus. Nite – “Kronian Moon”

Location: San Francisco, CA
Subgenre: heavy metal / black metal

Hails, Nite, the band featuring my podcast compadre and frequent Black Market guest Avinash Mittur on bass. Mittur forms a formidable battery with drummer Patrick Crawford, and both play with a fantastic amount of feel that makes Nite’s trad-y rhythms more supple and flexible than past practitioners. And … that’s all I can comfortably write without rolling this log down a waterfall. Right, this is one of those instances that I wish we could George Bailey my ass out of here so someone could cover this in the column proper because it’s a blast. Voices Of The Kronian Moon, the San Francisco quartet’s second album, has a killer big-feels, anthemic sweep to it that I don’t remember the debut, Darkness Silence Mirror Flame, nailing quite this well. Tracks like “Acheron” and “Kronian Moon,” the two jams available at press time, have classic fist-pumping, spiked glove-wearing leads. The overall atmosphere, though, is the crepuscular grandeur of black metal, right down to Vangelis Labrakis’s frozen-wizard rasp. It’s like speeding down a freeway at night in a Corvette with the top down, but everyone is wearing velvet capes. Ultimately, if you like guitars, you’ll like these guitars. Scott Hoffman (Dawnbringer) and Labrakis (Satan’s Wrath) really turn up the trad belt gloriousness, fishing more than a couple riffs out of Vivian Campbell’s Dio/Sweet Savage bag. (You could do a lot worse describing Nite as “One Night in the City” played by I.) But the thing that makes those riffs click is that undercurrent of melancholy, like a sad, bloodstained royal standing on a cliff and staring out to sea, wondering if that battle was worth it. Sure, heavy metal is supposed to be all sorts of brawny badass, strong people holding swords aloft and all that, but that streak of sorrow is like that first cold wind of fall signaling that summer is over. It rules and helps Nite really land for different fans, allowing it to be the connective tissue in a mix linking Eternal Champion to Cult of Fire. Anyway, peep the video for “Kronian Moon” below where you can see everyone flipping their hair in an industrial setting that I’m going to say is in the same universe as Journey’s “Separate Ways.” [From Voices Of The Kronian Moon, out 3/1 via Season of Mist.]

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