The Month In Metal – March 2022
It must be a hell of a burden when you tell someone this, but I think Brendan Sloan is the only person who can answer my very important questions. And, oh boy, do I have a few of them.
Like, it’s important for me to know how the Australian musician categorizes the metal he makes under Convulsing, and will soon make in the freshly rebooted Altars.
That one is important because I want to know if Convulsing is part of a burgeoning metal style.
And that one is important because I want to know if we can find a good name for that burgeoning metal style.
And that one is important because I want to know why the metal world has gotten so very, very bad at naming burgeoning metal styles.
And that one is important because…wait…do metal genres even matter at all?
So I’ve slid into Brendan Sloan’s inbox with a lot of very annoying important questions. And even if I don’t get any answers, well, Sloan seems like a good hang for a nerd like me, already accumulating quite the history of insightful interviews. The takes are sharp, the music theory is fascinating. Luckily, the first answer I get is a perfect encapsulation of the Brendan Sloan experience.
“On a synaesthetic level, genre doesn’t enter into the equation for me; we all got the same notes and some people even have notes in between those notes, the only difference is the execution,” Sloan writes in an email.
And away we go.
Let’s start by talking about Convulsing’s execution and how that might be the center of a new metal style. Amazingly, given my horrendous track record as a metal prognosticator and knower of heavy things, I somehow lucked into noticing this in 2018. “Convulsing is the optimistic outcome for the ‘future of metal,’ a future that is probably already here,” I wrote in a blurb for Grievous, Convulsing’s acclaimed full-length follow-up to its 2016 debut Errata. “The Sydney solo project of Dumbsaint’s Brendan Sloan fits well into the Bandcamp modern metal milieu of bands that blur taxonomic distinctions, molding great, heaving masses of metal that are technical, blackened, sludgy, deathly, and doomy without pushing their chips in any one direction.”
Notice my inability to pin Convulsing down? Even nearly four years later, I still don’t know what to call the style, even though Convulsing is one of my most frequently used comparisons when I encounter it, my de facto stand-in for this burgeoning new era of metal. As an example, I wrote this about Aseitas, the Portland-based experimental death metal quartet, in June 2020: “Belonging to the same genreless-because-it’s-all-genres set of modern metal that claims Convulsing as a citizen, Aseitas was as advertised, indeed the result of feeding classic death metal and downtuned chungus riffs into a mathy meat grinder.” If you’ve heard the bands, you know what I meant. Musically, Convulsing and Aseitas aren’t one-to-one, but what drives them creatively feels similar. The MOs are aligned. Make riff-rich, exciting, affecting metal, genre be damned. That’s the vibe of this…stuff.
As you can expect when a hack writer feels compelled to list many styles in a desperate attempt to summarize the music and then lands on “stuff” as the most straightforward summation, Sloan is aware that efforts to categorize Convulsing have been pretty dang unproductive thus far.
“…I don’t think anybody has labeled it right and I sure as hell don’t know what to call it except for ‘extreme art metal’ or something,” Sloan admits. “You’ll note in the Bandcamp tags I just stuck them all in there. It’s frequently called ‘dissonant atmospheric blackened death metal’ by people. But for starters, I don’t think of it as dissonant at all; just because I’m using a lot of min2 and flat6 intervals, lots of close harmony, and am tuned quite low doesn’t mean it’s not serving a purpose in a deliberately functional melodic and harmonic context. Songs like ‘Were’ are a good example of that. There is an obvious melody that you could whistle throughout the track, and you could easily turn it into an Andy Rehfeldt Disney jazz thing if you want. I also don’t think it’s black metal enough for black metal, or death metal enough for death metal (though that’s probably closest). Maybe ‘progressive death metal’ but even then, I don’t sound like any of the usual suspects for that tag….”
Right. I fear that Convulsing and like-minded bands will be lined up with the usual suspects and booked into a word-salad penitentiary such as the one Sloan has IDed: dissonant atmospheric blackened death metal. It’s important to me that this doesn’t happen. The music is too alive to be shackled with such a dry, perfunctory ball and chain. What should Convulsing’s genre be, then?
“I’ve said ’emotional extreme metal’ a few times and I kind of like that, because ’emo’ is a dirty word to most wool-dyed metalheads,” Sloan muses. “Certainly was when I was growing up. Any band doing anything emotional or ‘serious,’ politically or artistically, is to be mocked. Metal bands should kill to be as interesting as like, Pedro The Lion, or Daîtro, or Mount Eerie…. I also describe bands like Infernal Coil that way. Blake [Connally] didn’t make a ‘progressive war metal’ record or something, he made deeply emotional, extreme art that contains multitudes. It has a passage featuring bodhran and bouzouki on it playing a really mournful, liturgical melody that wouldn’t be out of place in a Dead Can Dance record, and the ecstatic climax of ‘In Silent Vengeance’ is far beyond the emotional bandwidth of something like Revenge, ostensibly in the same genre bucket.”
Emotional extreme metal? Is that this stuff’s tag? It’s a candidate. But let’s not settle on something just quite yet. I think I have a real opportunity to forge a creative genre name, one that bands wouldn’t mind wearing over a string of nonsense labels. But, is that even possible? Ah. It would be bucking recent trends.
Why are we so awful at naming metal genres now? We used to be great at it. When the heavy metal supercontinent split over 40 years ago, metalheads brainstormed (bangstormed?) so many killer genre names to help differentiate the new styles. Death, black, speed, doom, thrash, sludge, grind, and on and on. While the hit rate wasn’t 100 percent, the good names were catchy, typically one-syllable words that were action-packed. Hey, what kind of metal do you like? POWER metal! Hell yeah.
Now? We iterate through genre modifiers, weighing those action-packed words down with increasingly arcane distinctions. Brutal, atmospheric, technical, core. If a new style comes along, you simply borrow a non-metal genus or slap a modifier on the root genre and clock out, obliterating the opportunity to be creative by defaulting to ungainly modifier sandwiches. Ready to recoil? Here’s a genre that appears in 18 Encyclopaedia Metallum entries: symphonic deathcore. Symphonic. Death. Core. Hell no.
While this desire to be hyper-accurate with metal’s taxonomy definitely scratches the nerdier part of my brain, and it’s pretty funny thinking about self-serious metalheads taking Borknagar‘s Metallum classification of “progressive Viking” at face value, it does zilch for metal from a PR perspective. If you were new to metal and surveyed the scene strictly from the vantage point of accepted genre names, you’d think nothing new has happened in metal in the last 20 years. It looks like tiny tweaks to the old-as-hell tentpole genres. Atmospheric black metal. Brutal death metal. Post-metal.
God, post-metal. I knew we were cooked when the consensus landed on post-metal to categorize bands in the NeuroIsis continuum. Imagine me naming a child post-Ian. Technically correct, but I’d go to jail for it. Post and progressive are particularly foolish in that these modifiers ignore one of the few definites about metal, that it is always progressing. Using those labels suggests that you regard the music as ahead of the pack, which will inevitably make the music seem very creaky and dusty as soon as you drive it off the lot and a hundred bands post and prog past it. We should’ve known better. With the endless amount of new bands that simply want to relive the glory days of Yes, prog rock has been stuck in this rut for years. Our spin on the oxymoron is progressive death metal, where a not-insubstantial portion of the style is content to sound like 1991 Death. Progressive, indeed.
That said, I’m as guilty as anyone of perpetuating these lazy modifiers, mostly because it makes talking to people about music easier. “Hey, you like prog and thrash? Check out this sick technical thrash band.” “Oh yeah, it’s one of the best technical doom records of the year.” Distilling music down to these shorthand terms greases the wheels of discussion. Hell, if I had to talk about a band’s “dissonant angularity” or whatever when I wanted to recommend a band to a bud, I would have even fewer friends than I do now. Or, imagine being forced to ID a band through music theory, or worse, beatboxing a riff style.
I can’t believe I’m writing this, but one of the most embarrassing moments of my life was when my mom, tired of sitting in a running car while I waited with bated breath for the DJ to announce what song had just played, dragged me into Sam Goody and pushed me in front of an associate. “All right, tell him about the song.” And, with nothing else to go on, I panicked and started mouth-farting my way through the opening of U2’s “Mysterious Ways.” The look on that associate’s face will be burned into my mind until I die. Yeah, they must’ve been thinking as their face dropped, I am 100 percent breaking up the band and going to law school.
So we can’t KO genres because we need easy categories. And they serve another purpose, too. Whenever I see friend of the column Phil Freeman write masterfully about technical death metal, I understand why we have these things. In that instance, “technical death metal” is more like the title to the novelization of the substyle, representing the codification of specific stylistic identifiers. Like, being “technical” and “death metal” doesn’t necessarily make one technical death metal. Technical death metal has a distinct sound, one that has coalesced around the communal traits of its progenitors and the bands they influenced. It’s like how atmospheric black metal has a distinct sound, even though, as a pure descriptor, it’s pretty vague and meaningless.
What I’m getting at is there’s a story behind those genres, and the genre name is the tl;dr, doing in a couple words what I’d have to do on a couple blackboards otherwise. That’s how you go from “isn’t…all black metal atmospheric?” to 90 percent of the bands Wyatt writes about. You know the bands that came before. You know the bands that followed. You know the shared elements. You know the story. Even if that story is written by fans and not the bands themselves, it’s still this escalator of a narrative that you can ride. It makes understanding the music, its reason for being, and why its components do the things they do more accessible.
That story and resulting accessibility are why there’s also some measure of identity wrapped up in the more prominent genres. Saying I’m a “death metal person” means something, representing my values and approach to music.
“I find as a composer that there’s more ‘room’ in the template of black metal to try and be emotional or serious, which is how you’ve ended up with DSBM and whatnot,” Sloan writes. “When you widen the harmonic, widen the timbre of vocals, widen the arrangements, it starts to sound like things Ved Buens Ende, Fleurety, Enslaved and Emperor, Aeternus, and I guess DHG were doing in the ’90s and early ’00s. I’d love it if we ended up with a wave of florid, evocative, emotionally complex death metal that didn’t get shoved crudely into ‘tech death’ or ‘avant-garde blackened death metal’ or something.”
Right. As a writer, it’s worth considering where I’m crudely shoving things because it changes how a listener might approach the music. Each genre has its own baggage and hierarchy of needs. In the tortured parlance of our times, the absolutely cursed internet discourse of Twitter, you can think of death metal as predominately “riff rotators” and black metal as predominately “grimcels.” Riff rotators prioritize the riff, grimcels prioritize the vibe. This makes sense to me. It also sucks.
I mean, ugh, while they have their uses, a lot of stuff about genres suck. On a macro level, they’re little more than a marketing designation to help sort albums into record store bins. Genre fandom also sucks, rarely applying the friction necessary to innovate and more often stifling innovation through ridiculously dogmatic strictures. “You can’t slam, this is black metal,” etc. It also forces people to think of music in really stupid ways. Blood Incantation, a band with a roster full of pure metal nerds and absolute lifers, gets shit from gatekeepers who think something must be amiss if the band gets discussed in more pop-oriented trades. “Why, real death metal can’t possibly be comprehended by shorthairs, this must be a false!” As if there were any sort of purity in something as vast as death metal in the first place. Didn’t Disharmonic Orchestra dismantle all of that 800 billion years ago? (Don’t consider this an endorsement. I think Blood Incantation is boring, but I recognize everyone in the band knows more about metal than I do.)
This general ambivalence to genres, of recognizing their utility and futility, also comes up in Sloan’s emails. “Some of the figuratively and literally heaviest, doom-filled music I’ve ever heard isn’t metal,” Sloan explains. “Its assigned genre (heh) did not prepare me for it. While the modifiers, i.e., ‘atmospheric black metal,’ are helpful in sort of narrowing things down, they’re increasingly clumsy and rarely even do the narrowing they’re intended. Hwwauoch and Paysage D’Hiver are both technically the same genre and they sound completely different.”
As Sloan points out, some modifiers are also flat-out wrong, obscuring what the music is doing. “A major and specific bugbear for me is people using ‘dissonant’ as a modifier when they actually mean ‘non-diatonic’ or ‘crunchy chords’ in otherwise objectively consonant music; rarely does it actually describe dissonance as a fundamental compositional tool. Thantifaxath are frequently described as dissonant, but as Calder from Metal Music Theory has judiciously unpacked and pointed out: it’s all functional harmony. We need to do better or stop using it, in my opinion.”
Yeah. You got me. Although I’ve tried to limit its usage, my writing history suggests I’m looking at a life sentence in dissonance jail. And Sloan is correct: it is careless. So, even if I know this, why do I sometimes go back to that well, choosing comfort over the factual?
Hm. Well, I don’t think anyone really enjoys getting dunked on. Think of the last creative genre name that reached mass adoption. That would be djent. I agree, djent is a stupid name, but at least djent was fresh when it first started being circulated, having the same frisson of creativity as the foundational genre names coined during metal’s ’80s boom.
Here’s the thing: nobody likes djent. I’d even say they hate it. Meshuggah’s Mårten Hagström has apologized for its proliferation because it was “a drunk misunderstanding.” Similarly, purveyors of that style have debated its realness ever since, which is a fun contradiction to poke at because genres are not real. What I’m saying is, while Meshuggah is usually included in the origin myth, do we know who propagated djent? We do not. I think there’s a reason for that. If it were me, I sure wouldn’t tell you, no matter how many times you made me sing “Mysterious Ways.”
Still, I’d say that the objections to djent contradictorily make it a legitimate genre because it has followed the expected genre lifecycle. The first wave hates it. The second wave debates it. The third wave, not knowing any better because they were born after the original discourse, embraces it. But, to bring this full circle, that’s just it: there have been multiple waves of djent. It has gone from Preserve, Restore, Maintain mime-shuggah origins to the twinkle shred prog of today that sounds like American Football recorded for Shrapnel Records. Djent is as vast as any other metal genre. Djent is also old! We’ve been punning on djent forever: Tandjent was formed in 2002. Djent has been part of the wider heavy metal vernacular for at least 20 damn years.
The point is, in those two decades, the fringe of metal has gotten more experimental and dissimilar. And yet, what do we have to show for this endless evolution? One djent, maybe a blackgaze if we’re being charitable, and a bunch of genre names that aren’t new or creative and only endeavor to slice the meat ever more finely. Technical groove metal. Melodic pagan black metal. Post-metal! Why? Why? Why? Why are these so bad? Couldn’t we come up with anything else? Why do we keep falling into this trap?
OK, let’s speculate. I think there are three contradictory effects at play. First, I feel like we’re too quick to section off emerging trends from their parent styles without really understanding what the new genre is and the entirety of its scope. This is a big problem of mine because I’m always looking for a hook. Instead of taking the time to really formulate whether a substyle has become its own distinct genre and thus necessitates a unique name, I hit eject and turn it into a substyle.
Like, as an outsider, I could hear a band that upends my limited understanding of metal and thus deserves its own categorization. “My god,” I say like a complete idiot, “this is obviously avant cyber acid grind.” But to another person, one perhaps embedded in that scene with a clearer idea of how that band fits into that’s scene’s history, they just realize its Mortician with a 303. I flail because I know zip about the greater context. Therefore, instead of trying to name what I’m hearing in a more enlightened, creative, and factual way, I resort to the information at my disposal. It’s the Boss Baby tweet, basically.
Second, these modifiers are so persistent because, for lack of a better phrase, you have old space-taking doofuses like me who gum up the works and can’t hear anything past the music of their youths. Hello, demographic decay. There are not enough new metalheads to wrest control of the genre naming powers from my arthritic fingers. I’ve made this off-hand comparison a few times, but it speaks to my increasing obsolesce: Some of that black metal you folks like is just screamo to me. It’s just straight up, Portraits of Past screamo. Of course, the fact that I can’t hear it as a new thing is a problem because I am the person who is tasked with figuring out the creative genre name for it. Can’t do it! It’s screamo!
Finally, since a 360-degree view of metal’s history is at our disposal via various streaming services and wikis, thus presenting an infinite number of options for every metalhead to accept or reject like ones and zeros, perhaps we’ve all developed a unique understanding of metal. This thought process generally adheres to Venkatesh Rao’s ideas on divergentism, “that people are able to hear each other less as they age, and that information ubiquity paradoxically accelerates this process, so that technologically advancing societies grow more divergentist over historical time scales.” Strictly speaking, we’re never going to agree on a new genre name, and we’re forced to recycle the few things that we agree on, that being bedrock heavy metal genres with a few lazy modifiers tacked on.
That’s bleak, but I don’t think we’re doomed. Some of the descriptors that have surfaced in recent years to describe microtrends have been good. Caverncore was apt and hilarious, as were the snarky names for the endless waves of death metal imitators: In-clone-tation, Immotation, Semilich. Artists got some winners in, too. Jazz grind/BDM band Tantric Bile‘s “extremely hard bop” is extremely great. The flame still burns. And, would you look at that, we have the perfect opportunity to flex our atrophied genre-naming muscles. Let’s break out of the cycle. Let’s give Convulsing a genre name.
To kick this into gear, I’m going to wrestle with this genre’s borders and what possibly could be included by setting up some connections.
Grievous just received a fresh repress courtesy of Impure Sounds and Total Dissonance Worship. Both labels are a good fit, further demonstrating Convulsing’s chameleonic abilities that allow it to coexist while retaining its own identity. TDW is a particularly good fit, though.
TDW has been on an absolute tear of late, building an impressive roster of like-minded bands. Some of the label’s recent output will look familiar to column readers: Anguine, Mors Verum, Michel Anoia, and, of course, Nightmarer, the outfit belonging to label head Simon Hawemann, previously of War From A Harlots Mouth. Not to mention, TDW continues to curate clutch reissues and alternate versions for bands old and new, adding the likes of Concealment, Burning Palace, and the chunkier artists in the Christian Kolf/Zeitgeister Music extended universe to a discography that gets more distinct by the day.
As you click through the TDW Bandcamp, you start to sense a through-line, an aesthetic, an undeniable commonality. I wouldn’t say that all of these bands necessarily sound alike, Ion Dissonance’s classic debut Breathing is Irrelevant is coming from a different place than Kvadrat’s recent breakout Ψυχική Αποσύνθεση, but they do seem to share something. Perhaps it’s an approach to music, a predilection for themes, or a general philosophy. What it is, though, is that it feels kinda … Convulsing-y.
So, what is Convulsing-y? A merger of “emotions” with complex, thoughtful music. The governing principles are big feelings and big riffs, and it doesn’t matter how you achieve those dual ends, so long as you do. This frees Convulsing and its contemporaries to pull from anything and everything, which means that this genre can’t be categorized using traditional measurements such as shared musical elements. Like, the genre-hopping isn’t the point. It’s just a means to complete the goal. The pop equivalent of all this stuff is probably Louis Cole and his many projects and collaborators, a similarly clever composer who leapfrogs categorization by keying in on feelings.
Given the Convulsinginess of both band and label, it wasn’t surprising that TDW’s limited run of Grievous records sold out quickly. Of course, this wasn’t foreordained, but you can see how to fit these players into established music narratives, how the genre story is starting to take shape. TDW is tapping into an emerging metal style and establishing itself as its foremost arbiter. And, when it comes to that emerging metal style, Grievous feels more and more important. But, naturally, I wouldn’t say it’s the first album that got the ball rolling.
When did this “stuff” start? I’m spitballing, but, in my mind, the experimental/avant-garde inclinations of bands like Ulcerate and Plebeian Grandstand erected the frame while adding new editions with every release. The cryptic howl of Portal and Abyssal also probably played a part. Cross these two streams and you get something like Altars’s Paramnesia.
Digging deeper into the archeological record, it’s impossible not to acknowledge that Gorguts, which might be one of the most essential bands in underground metal in the last 25 years, provided the foundation. Then, you have a host of more-black metal-aligned bands, your Blut Aus Nords and so forth, that added atypical, jarring, and, most importantly, feelings-rich riffs to the greater metal vocabulary. Both of these bands long crossed over the riff-rotator/grimcel divide. Gorguts’s Luc Lemay adds weight to otherwordly riffs via intense soul-searching. I’ve always thought of BAN’s labyrinthine MoRT as spooky Obscura. They’re death and black metal, respectively, but they feel more whole than genre exercisers.
So…whole metal? Yikes. That’s not much of a genre name. I’m doing worse that I thought. OK. I think it’s time to pull in some data.
First, I took a spin through Convulsing’s similar artists, collecting the Metallum-defined lyrical themes to see if there was a high occurrence of any particular subject. Here are the most common words and their frequency:
I, uh, recognize the irony of the two most popular words in a database of progressive, death-leaning bands being “Death” and “Human.” I am tickled, though, that “poetry” made the cut. Poetry metal? Is that something? I don’t think that’s something. Existentimetal? Woof. I’m going to stop.
Since the lyrical themes were a bust, I figured it was time to look at the lyrics themselves. I collected all of the lyrics for three bands, Gorguts, Ulcerate, and Convulsing, and made three word clouds. I eliminated common articles, prepositions, and pronouns to find snappy, action-packed words. Let’s take a look at Gorguts first.
Luc Lemay, I love you. Life! It’s a real shame that Euronymous burned “life metal” when he was dogging on Therion. There are some other possibilities nestled in there: soul metal, time metal. Mind metal sounds unimaginably pompous. Still, the best thing about this is the quirks resulting from the spreadsheet I used to generate the cloud. The way some words got squished together is delightful. Hate Buried Remains will definitely be an HM-2 Swedeath band in five years.
End metal. Sounds like whenever I ask for job advice from a similarly aged adult. End metal sounds rad, but it, unfortunately, runs into the same post/prog issues, so I’ll have to spike it. Blood metal obviously refers to the classic Dead to Fall line, “and then I saw the blood coming.” (Carnage. Demise.) Never metal is what we call Bon Jovi, right?
Finally, let’s peek at Convulsing:
Whoa. Lost metal. If this was 2004, right when the hit TV show Lost started airing, I think I’d have something. For right now, it’s a touch too esoteric, even if it’s the coolest name so far. Beyond metal reads like a vegan alternative. Within metal is a conference for the 133 metal bands with “within” in their names. If you can pry your eyes away from the phrase “here exists nothing” and stop using it to make fun of this intro, please point your attention to “all.”
Yeah. When I realized I was getting nowhere with my methodology, I decided to take this question to the socials. Joshua Buergel hit me up with a great one that does “all metal” one better. You might’ve seen me giving it a test drive in a few blurbs: omnicore. While it’s a slight rehash by fitting into the [genre]core structure, and I’m not sure bands like An Isolated Mind and Karmacipher would want to think of themselves as belonging to the “core” dynasty, it does have a ring to it. Omnicore. It’s a candidate.
But alas, we mercifully crawl to the end of this intro with a few good candidates and nothing more. Ultimately, I don’t think I have the name for what Convulsing and its peers are yet. I feel like I’m getting closer, though, and maybe this inspires someone to figure out the definitive name.
Nonetheless, if I have anything to show for this, it’s that I have a great way to describe Convulsing. A few emails deep into our discussion, each of us going total “PhD thesis” picking apart the philosophy and psychology of genres, Brendan Sloan nails his tough-to-categorize contribution to metal better than I ever will.
“For my music specifically? Not sure if I can put a finger on that one because I already don’t know what would be a fit,” Sloan writes. “Convulsing is music I have made. The genre is ‘me.’ It’s one of many things I’ve tried to make in my life. There are a few others on the boil that I’ve been chasing for a decade or more. I still haven’t made the Europrogpower record of my dreams yet (think Pagan’s Mind), and I’m working on a Bohren x Holdsworth type weirdo jazz record to scratch my lifelong itch to keep ‘fusioning’ fusion with other stuff. I expect that can be translated into an answer in that the ones making weird genreless music are the ones least concerned with genre and more concerned with music that fires the neurons off. As I said up top, we all got the same notes. I quite literally take inspiration from everywhere and everything and it can’t help but end up in my music. Luc [Lemay]’s contemporary classical music is a logical extension of Gorguts and also a logical integration FOR Gorguts. There’s no separating them in my mind. It’s the same music. Genre cannot explain that.”
The genre is me. I like that. I think it explains a lot. That’s important. –Ian Chainey
10. Ghost – “Watcher In The Sky”
Before anybody had even heard of Ghost, Fenriz was a fan. He found their music on MySpace, lost his shit, forced Lee Dorrian to not only listen but sign the band to a three-album deal…and now, Lee Dorrian owes his first-born child to Fenriz. I’m getting ahead of myself. I remember this great quote from Fenriz that was included on all Ghost’s early ad copy. Went something like this:
Ghost play metal the old way, the way we like it.
This was back when Ghost mostly sounded like Mercyful Fate, obviously. But pretty quickly, they…evolved. In 2013, writing about Ghost’s sophomore album, Infestissumam, I rather famously wrote:
[A]s a dude who thinks about this shit a lot, I gotta say this, just this once: The music currently being made by Ghost B.C. is not metal…what you’re hearing here is retro-psychedelia, prog-based pop, Broadway rock. It’s not metal!
This was back when Ghost were called Ghost B.C., obviously. Now, was I right in my assessment? Of course I was. I’m a professional fucking music critic, dammit. But we’re nine years out from Infestissumam (which I really liked!) and I’m starting to think, like, you know what? Maybe my assessment is totally irrelevant. I don’t get to define what metal is; metal defines itself. Musically speaking, Ghost really don’t belong to any one genre, but culturally, spiritually, Ghost are clearly a metal band. And they’re by no means the weirdest metal band of all time, but they are absolutely the weirdest incredibly massive metal band of all time.
And Ghost’s new album, Impera, is very definitely weird. This thing isn’t just a roller-coaster, it’s a whole-ass carnival. Some names I jotted down in my notes while listening: Rush; Billy Joel; Voivod; Patty Smythe and Scandal; Metallica; Eurovision; Rock Of Ages, the musical; and Andrew W.K. (The heaviest song on Impera is a back-half track titled “Twenties,” which is legitimately heavy, but it is also one of the most bizarre songs I’ve ever heard.)
The song I’m writing about here, though, “Watcher In The Sky,” isn’t quite so frenetic as everything surrounding it. The title may recall Journey’s “Wheel In The Sky,” but that’s a bit of a feint. This is metal the old way, the way we like it. This is ’80s shit. Simple shit. Show-offy shit. This is good, hard, headbanger metal. I mean, until it gets to the bridge, at which point Ghost…go full fucking Journey. Which is, frankly, transcendent.
I’m pretty sure this isn’t the future envisioned by Fenriz when he freaked out over Ghost a dozen or so years ago, but he should be proud just the same. Ghost are one of the very biggest metal bands on the planet today. And you know what? The planet could do a whole lot worse than Ghost. Metal could, too. [From Impera, out now via Loma Vista.] –Michael Nelson
9. Mutarotik – “Neurotic Mutations”
Location: Edmonton, Canada
Subgenre: death metal / black metal / thrash
Things I learned in 2021: Sigil smokes. “Compounds,” one of Nether‘s many highlights, crushes like death metal, rips like black metal, and is sewn together with heart-rending, star-screaming sludgy core parts. In that way, Sigil’s songs are like complex lenticular prints. Those songs shift and change their look without losing shape, and Sigil manages that as much through movement as thoughtful composition.
So, here we are in 2022. And here’s Mutarotik, a Sigil sidepiece that is Sigil in a couple of ways. Many styles? Check. Complex? Check. Moves faster than a hungry greyhound hearing a can opener? Check. But it’s also not really Sigil at all. If anything, I think this is the devolved version, all warrish and brutish, although it has retained the thoughtfulness. Does that even make sense? Let me explain it this way: Sigil guitarist Peter Tyukasz, also of Alder, offers up four songs on this project’s debut EP that are undeniably multifaceted and smart, but also goddamn nasty. It’s like getting brained by a furious barbarian holding a PS5 or something.
Whatever. Who better than Tyukasz to tell you what this is. Here’s the FFO on Mutarotik’s Bandcamp: “Morbid Saint, (Early)Morbid Angel, Voivod, Sodom, Aura Noir, Negative Plane, Gorguts.” Brutish! Nasty! The fun part is that “Neurotic Mutations” attempts to check those FFO boxes as quickly as possible, often making multiple passes through that list within these songs’ seemingly impossible sub-three-minute runtimes. Like, check out the section that starts at :32 and ends at 1:23. Yo, that’s not even a minute! And yet, there’s a glassy Krallice texture and a widdly, Converge-y riff and a near-melodic Sigil strum. Next up, WOOOOOANNNNNGGGG, that dive-bomb whammy that swoops down unexpectedly and sheers off your skull cap. And then, poof, memory wipe. By the time you come to terms with the riffs that have been riffed, Tyukasz is off riffing other riffs, opening pocket portals to new metal dimensions that lesser bands would make their entire realities. [From Mutarotik, out now via the band.] –Ian Chainey
8. Starer – “Fire Of The Son”
Location: Bowling Green, KY
Subgenre: black metal
Starer is one of a kind. In a genre where countless bands aim to harness whipping winds into works of hurry-up impressionistic rage and beauty, Starer methodically crafts monumental and transcendent atmospheric black metal from stone chisel by chisel. By focusing on steady pacing and meticulous composition, with each instrument its own building block, we watch in awe as it all comes together — like watching an eclipse slowly blotting out the sun. This approach is all decidedly more rock-and-roll, and big-riff magic shines, grooves breathe, and stylistic flourishes take on more weight. Of course, one capable of this kind of purposeful design and meticulous playing can blast at will, and when Starer finally does so on “Fire Of The Son,” it’s precision piston-fire power, a fury, backed by a lively bass, that aims for the horizon and disappears. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the fantastic vocals, that grate exquisitely with electric crackle. [From The What It Is To Be, out now via Folkvangr Records and Onism Productions.] –Wyatt Marshall
7. Lux – “Smile”
Lux are an enigmatic one-man blackgaze band from Scotland whose sole member is anonymous, identifying himself only by a single initial (in this case, G). The band’s music is self-recorded and self-released on Bandcamp. Last January Lux released their debut full-length, and they followed that one in August with another full-length and…look, man, there is no way any writer can make this particular kind of bio sound interesting anymore. I dunno how Wyatt does it every month. Here’s the part you should be interested in: Those two full-lengths that Lux released last year? They were two of my favorite albums of 2021. Both were on my top-10 ballot at year’s end. (I think I kinda cheated and put them both in one slot. Or maybe I was forced to choose one, so I actually only included one of them on my ballot? I think that’s what happened, looking back on it. This is beside the point. They’re both equally awesome.) Lux have a raw, lo-fi sound – it’s not that far removed from Sadness’ sound, if I’m being honest – but Lux’s great innovation is this: Make every part of the song the best part of the song. Yes, I understand that “best” is superlative, and by definition, singular. What I’m telling you is, Lux’s songs are all the best part – even before and after they hit the climax. Sometimes, they’re all climax. Listen to, for example, “Bleed,” from the band’s 2021 sophomore album, Go And See. That right there is pure joy. Three minutes, one riff, and I want it to be 10 times longer. I am absolutely not exaggerating. Considering how simple this music is in so many respects, it’s mind-blowing how much drama and innovation are contained in Lux’s songs. Really, I ask you, is this even metal? And then, before you can answer, I cut you off with a delightful bon mot: No, it’s blackgaze. Haha. Lux’s first release of 2022 is a four-song split with New York’s Faith, and it’s nothing but beast all the way down. The two Lux songs at the front of the record are so great – and both of them are so equally great – that I couldn’t decide on which one to include here. Of course, I had to pick one, so I picked one. (This appears to be a theme with me and Lux; it’s what they call a “good problem.”) You, however, are under no such constraints. Don’t choose. Choose Lux. Choose it all. Once you start listening, you won’t be able to hold yourself back. [From Flying Away, out now via the bands.] –Michael Nelson
6. Bombardement – “L’Œil Électrique”
Location: Bordeaux, France
Subgenre: punk / crust / d-beat
Behold, Bombardement, a Swedish-style, crusty, lead-laden d-beat band from Bordeaux, France. If you used Anti Cimex, Parasit, and Puke as towers and aimed for the middle of that triangulation, you’d land here. This is to say, this belongs to Tom’s monthly column, Let the Roundup Begin, and is extremely not my beat. However, I’m going to make a case that Le Futur Est Là, Bombardement’s newest record, is actually a quintessential Black Market album, and not just because I’ve frequently shirked my metal duties and tried really hard in the past to get you to listen to Protocol. (Listen to Protocol.)
Argument 1: Ignore that Le Futur Est Là belongs to a long, storied, d-beat tradition. Do songs like “L’Œil Électrique” not motor along in a very cranked-off-its-ass Motörhead way? Yes. It has that old school metal diesel-fueled propulsion. In other words, Bombardement could surely hang with Vulcain, Blitzkrieg, or Beowülf. (Venice Beach’s Beowülf isn’t in Metallum for…I don’t know…crimes of core, or something. It doesn’t make sense to me, either.) If you put that song in a playlist between “Smoking Valves” and “Crazy Motorcycle,” only the most pedantic metal nerds will call you out for violating a metal law that’s not even on the books anymore because Age of Quarrel was released a billion damn years ago and no one honestly believes punk and metal don’t commingle except Radiolab.
Argument 2: Bombardement is packed with metalheads, and Black Market-y metalheads at that. Guitarists Stéphane Miollan and Benjamin Sablon are currently in Endless Floods and Âge ⱡ Total, two sludgy doom crushers. Sablon is in Hatilh as well, an exceedingly raw solo black metal band. And both logged time in the absurdly heavy Monarch, one of the more underappreciated acts in apocalyptic drone-y doom. And who was Bombardement’s previous singer? Milia, aka Monarch’s Eurogirl, also of the awesomely named and still super slept on Rainbow Of Death. Finally, Bombardement’s drummer is Luc Ardilouze, who started in the ’80s as a notable zine maker and tape trader. Need receipts? According to this career-spanning interview with No Clout, Ardilouze appears in the thank-yous on Napalm Death’s From Enslavement To Obliteration. (Checks out.)
Argument 3: Le Futur Est Là rips. New singer Oriane, previously of Barren?, proves yet again that French is an excellent language to be angry in, utilizing a hoarse yell that cuts through the jet-engine guitars. Bassist Nicolas Lambert, a frequent presence in other Ardilouze bands like Diktat and Police Charged, pushes the songs forward with a Lemmy-esque buzz. Ardilouze’s hard-hitting timekeeping is indefatigable, ensuring that these songs continually crackle with energy. And Miollan and Sablon’s leads rain down. Lead after lead. Solo after solo. All of it passionately shredded. Yep, Bombardement is one of us. Welcome to the Black Market. You can find some slams over there in Ian’s trough. We’re happy to have you. [From Le Futur Est Là, out now via Destructure Records / Symphony Of Destruction.] –Ian Chainey
5. Wist – “And So, Before Long”
Location: London, UK
Subgenre: black metal
Wist is a wild one, and on “And So, Before Long,” the British four-piece wield all of their demonic powers to fantastical and psychedelic effect. Things are twisted from the get-go, a view askew of a distorted march full of pomp and a Boschian sense of mischief. The guitars are radically tinny, a killer bass plucks and plops and bops in the hands of some maniacal jester, and some truly fiendish vocals snarl and sneer the troop forward. It’s remarkable when the band takes a turn, slowing things down to a disorienting sway before finding new footing. By the time the track comes to a close, fading under waves of nuclear orange and yellows, it’s hard to believe where it all started, back at the delirious and driving opening that was fired from some carnival cannon. The opening track to Wist’s debut, Stone Still Settling, is the best and only introduction to the band you’ll get — Wist’s a total enigma, with not so much as a Metal Archives listing, fitting for a band that alters perceptions of reality and distends sound in so many unusual and bewitching ways. [From Stone Still Settling, out now via the band.] –Wyatt Marshall
4. MWWB – “The Harvest”
Location: Wrexham, UK
MWWB were previously known as Mammoth Weed Wizard Bastard, which is, obviously, quite a goofy name. “It’s like the name of a fleet of vans in a ’70s van club,” says Ian. He’s right! I’m sorry, but it’s not a great name. Is the acronym any better? I’m undecided. On the minus side, there is literally not a person on this Earth who is going to say “MWWB” out loud (try it! It’s unpleasant to the tongue). On the plus side, I find that it subconsciously calls to mind MBV. And that’s a good thing, because…well, Mammoth Weed Wizard Bastard can only be the name of a stoner-doom band. Don’t look at me, man, that law has been on the books for years! And, OK, maybe MWWB got their start playing stoner doom, but on their fourth LP, The Harvest, they have ascended to an altogether higher plane. They are now flying in MBV’s air.
Are there elements here of stoner doom? Sure, but that’s not even necessarily the primary element; there are also elements of ambient, prog, electronic, synthwave, and most notably, shoegaze. But I hate that “elements” shit, because it immediately implies the art in question is no more than the sum of its parts. No, there is a synthesis of sounds here, and the combined whole is a work of rare power and beauty.
In the little bio section of their Bandcamp page, MWWB compare The Harvest to Dark Side Of The Moon, which is like…it takes some nerve to compare an album to Dark Side, right? Well, thank you for saying so, because I do it myself with some frequency. And why do I compare albums to Dark Side? Because I prefer to listen to, and write about, music that is rich, layered, spacious, and cinematic; music that is beautifully written, arranged, performed, and produced. The Harvest is all of that. What else have I compared to Dark Side, you ask? Well, Pallbearer’s Heartless and Ethereal Shroud’s Trisagion jump to mind. And I would like to right now compare The Harvest to those albums, too.
MWWB can scale different heights than those bands, though, because those bands don’t have MWWB’s vocalist, Jessica Ball, who elevates this music to a place far beyond the reach of most metal bands; to a place beyond metal, even. Bell’s voice annihilates me. It annihilates me! It reminds me a little bit of Rolo Tomassi’s Eva Spence on those big shoegaze sections/songs when Eva sings clean. (It is my dying wish that Rolo would release an album where Eva sings nothing but cleans, but that’s beside the point. Or is it? Because maybe The Harvest is like…kinda the album I’ve been wishing for?)
There’s another bit of that Bandcamp bio that hit me; it’s the part where MWWB write that The Harvest is intended “to be listened to in its entirety, preferably in one listen.” See, now, I love that. I mean, the music’s gotta back it up, of course, but I just love artists who think like that, who approach a project with that sort of scope and commitment, and who then painstakingly work to achieve that vision. Also, as a critic, I frequently (though only when necessary!) command you people to sit down, turn up the volume, and listen to the whole album all the way through. I did so most recently, I believe, when writing about Deafheaven’s Infinite Granite – another album that veered hard into shoegaze territory, come to think of it. (I don’t think I compared that one to Dark Side, but…maybe I did? Doesn’t matter.) Oh, wait, I guess I said that same thing about Rolo, too, right here just a few months back. So there ya go. Those are my favorite albums! Those are my favorite types of albums. And The Harvest is absolutely one of those albums. The song I’ve chosen to feature here is the album’s title track and its big opening statement, and it is a wrecker. So listen to that. And then sit down, turn up the goddamn volume, and listen to all of it, all the way through. [From The Harvest, out now via New Heavy Sounds.] –Michael Nelson
3. Pyrithe – “Glioblastoma”
Location: Pittsburgh, PA
When Vicky Carbone unleashes that first “AHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!” on “Glioblastoma,” the lead stream from Pyrithe’s debut full-length, Monuments To Impermanence, you know this is going to be the good stuff. And it is. The first few minutes of the song thud around in that Mosquito Control super-sludge way, turning the crush up to total mammoth mode. It’s some absurd, body-crunching pressure. It’s like getting checked in the open ice by Scott Stevens or a nightmare body-horror scenario where you somehow remain conscious while sinking to the deepest part of the ocean…and then you get checked by Scott Stevens. Nightmares are weird.
Anyway, while a few newer posty sludgesters can deliver this kind of churning heaviosity (see: Norna, the new outfit from Breach’s Tomas Liljedahl), part of what sets Pyrithe apart is that it has a real live-wire energy that makes me think Monuments To Impermanence was recorded live. The riffs are electric, charged by the kind of connection you can only get when everyone is in the same room, feeding off each other’s presence. But then, Pyrithe launches into a section that really sets it apart. After a couple minutes of blissful battering, “Glioblastoma” falls to bits. The chugs are eradicated by a speaker-frying drone. The shift is something else. You’re waiting for this finger-of-God-sized tornado of chugs to turn you into a pink mist. Instead, you’re zapped by a lightning bolt that puts you in a suspended state, free of time but imprisoned by the buzz. It rules. Absolutely rules. It makes even me, a seasoned slam idiot, utter a few whoas under my breath. And sure, these sections were present in the song’s original incarnation on Pyrithe’s WRCT debut, but now the composition is way more furious and frustrated. I guess the past four years will do that.
Time out to talk about the players while I replay this drone part: Bassist Zakk and guitarist Zach Miller give life this colossus of feedback that slowly stirs to life. Drummer John Kerr, also of the pretty great Noltem, rumbles and tumbles around them, eventually playing faster and faster, seemingly spinning around his string-snapping teammates as if trying to tear open reality. And Carbone screams through it all, a profoundly affecting scream that’s like an aural manifestation of our collective subconsciouses howling through this endless hellworld of bad news and worse news. Then, boom, we’re back. Big ol’ juddering chugs; Link using that Bombos Medallion, blowing this song up.
Here’s the thing you’re going to have to trust me on until April 29 when Monuments To Impermanence is finally released: The rest of this album? Not that. Nope. “Glioblastoma” is a one-off. This album is multitudes. There’s death stuff. Doom stuff. Blackened stuff. Heck, there’s blasty stuff. It’s almost like an exercise in how to preserve a band’s voice over eight dissimilar, ultra-dynamic songs. (Pyrithe further challenges itself by utilizing a ton of different vocal styles and a couple guest singers. Carbone, who was once a member, is one of the guest singers. The other? Oh hey, Doug. He’s not on this one, though, keeping Pyrithe out of the bonus blurb basement.) Want a taste? You can get a feel for what Monuments To Impermanence is by scoping out Caroline Harrison’s evocative and highly detailed album art. The visual matches the sound. But, it would be wrong for me to spoil what’s in store with by stupid words because the joy of this album is just living it, giving yourself over to Pyrithe and simply enjoying the journey. However, I will let you in on a little secret: this is the good stuff. [From Monuments To Impermanence, out 4/29 via Gilead Media.] –Ian Chainey
2. Cora’s Heart – “Un Ser Sin Luz”
Subgenre: atmospheric black metal
In the past six months or so, Victoria Camilla Hazemaze has sprinted to the front ranks of obscure internet atmospheric black metal, unloading an absolutely overwhelming catalog of material onto a Bandcamp page that you’d easily mistake as the output of a record label moving at a clip. But no, each of the 21 releases on the page comes from Victoria herself, published across a portfolio of projects with names like Oblivion Castle, Cantodea Dianthus, and Oculi Melancholiarum. Each project reflects its own path into the gradations of gray and black and blue, but there are some ties that bind — an incredible talent for conjuring moving gothic visions of faded grandeur and wilting love, a surprising polish for having released 21 demos and albums in six months, and a penchant for weaving melody in unsuspecting ways. On that last point, take a look at the grungy groove on “Revenant” from her first album, About the Past, released under the moniker AIAA 7, or the watery baroque wistfulness on Oculi Melancholiarum’s “The Presence.” So Victoria writes and records as no fewer than eight different projects, and Cora’s Heart is new to the stable (along with The Last Days, which has yet to appear on her Bandcamp but is listed on Metal Archives, so stay tuned). Cora’s Heart veers headlong into a surreal abyss, guided by disquieting synths and lively percussion on “Un ser sin luz” as alien rasps come howling from the depths. What the track ultimately finds is stranger, grander, and more unsettling than you’d expect, with a horn-filled denouement dissolving preconceived ideas of where things were heading. [From Un ser sin luz, out now via the band.] –Wyatt Marshall
1. Moonknight – “Fait Accompli”
Location: Louisville, KY
Subgenre: atmospheric black metal
Moonknight has always had an unparalleled knack for smearing surreal atmosphere across impeccably — and unusually — structured songs that course with blackened blood but beat with post-punk panache. Yet L’Eclisse, Moonknight’s newest release, is James Brown III’s (ICICLE, Harassor, Vorpal Sword, et al.) finest turn in this otherworldly guise’s most dramatic act, one that ups the drama, widens the lens, and ventures to systems unknown. “Fait Accompli” begins as a serious thrasher, a blast of black metal riffage and heavily distorted vocals with a troubled siren as a guide. But the song shifts to building mode, constructing resolve and purpose in the wake of destruction, before heading somewhere else entirely. The song’s final act is one for the ages — a cinematic, stylish, and alluring extended instrumental outro that is full of suspense. It’s a probe into the unknown, a shot into the dark that moves past celestial bodies exploding in palettes of cosmic color and finally coming to rest as a fallen comet in some hazy resplendent vista. It’s remarkable, a perspective-shifting work that’s unsettling and sad and awe-inspiring all at once. [From L’Eclisse, out now via Rising Beast.] –Wyatt Marshall