The Month In Metal — May 2022
I screwed up. Well, I screw up a lot. Let’s narrow this down: For me, the hardest part about doing this gig is missing great music. Specifically, it hurts me bad when I come across bands that released great music in the near past, stuff that is too old for the column but too young for a “turns 10” retrospective. These tardy non-discoveries are my bane because recommending metal is literally the only thing I’m capable of doing. It’s quite the Sisyphean situation: Considering the amount of metal released every month, and the limited column acreage available to cover it all, it’s inevitable that I will screw up and screw up again and screw up a lot. Let’s just say it would depress you how much I dwell on this. Argh!
Ah, but what’s the point of me failing my way into this platform if I didn’t occasionally make amends to the albums I whiffed on? So, this month, I’m doing just that. Here are three projects I would’ve covered if I found them sooner. My bad. Please accept my mulligan.
Sometimes everything clicks into place. “As I remember it, I was hanging out with Joseph [Prein] and Sarah [Hussein], and I was like, ‘I’ve been wanting to start a Star Trek-themed metal band called No One Survived Khitomer,” Parker Lawson writes in an email. “And they were both like, ‘We should do that,’ and I was like, ‘Sick, Daniel [Mitchell] should drum, he’s perfect.’ And thankfully, Dan said yes.”
Locutus, the Denton, Texas, quartet’s six-song debut released in 2019, is powered by “we should do that” energy, WSDTE for short. Granted, that’s an animating force behind many metal formations. What’s different about NOSK? Well, the good WSDTE bands nail something you’ve been wanting, too, whether you know it or not.
As an example, take NOSK’s name. “No one survived Khitomer” is what Worf says to Captain Jean-Luc Picard, aka Locutus of Borg, in the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode “Birthright,” a two-parter in the back half of STTNG‘s sixth season. Do I, a person who has probably seen this episode multiple times in pre-streaming reruns, remember that line? No, I had to look it up. (For what it’s worth, I remember Data’s android-dreaming B-plot, which I’ll discuss in therapy, I guess.) Sure, now that I’m an adult, I realize that the A-plot has intriguing ideas, exploring themes like fathers, latent cultural identity, survivor’s guilt, and James Cromwell. But, yeah, I don’t think I’ve ever talked with another human about it. In other words, it’s not a fan favorite, it’s a deep cut.
No matter, a deep cut is ideal for a good WSDTE band. These bands end up being individualistic anyway because, if whatever they’re doing were already out there, they wouldn’t need to do it in the first place. Naturally, the rest of the choices and influences downstream from the initial WSDTE event are equally idiosyncratic, nudging the players to boldly go somewhere else. And it’s rad when you encounter bands on your WSDTE level since the connection feels more authentic. These bands reflect a part of yourself that few have noticed. In this instance, it turns “no one survived Khitomer,” especially when it’s abbreviated to NOSK, into a beacon signaling the few like-minded sci-fi obsessives that, “Hey, this is your band.”
You could describe Locutus as depth by a thousand deep cuts. Despite clocking in at 12 minutes, it’s detail-rich right down to the album cover featuring photography by Will Mecca as its background. In fact, Locutus is so packed with neat parts that even its players are still uncovering cool things. “I hear new details in Dan’s drums or Sarah’s vocals every time I listen, so I may not be the best person to answer this,” Lawson admits when I ask for one thing listeners might miss.
What you won’t miss is the feeling. While Locutus gets deeper and more cutting depending on how many fandoms you share with the band, the impact of its crunching riffs isn’t shrouded in obscurity. You can know zilch about Khitomer and still dig it because NOSK riffs a hell of a riff, recapturing the glory days of noisy metalcore.
However, here’s the thing: NOSK could be a hivemind chugger, any number of the clumsy and chunky soundalikes that don’t know they’re ripping off Disembodied. Instead, it sounds like Burnt by the Sun got invited to a costume party, dressed up as Botch, and hung out in the kitchen with Craw all night. Remember: deep cuts. But those comparisons cut NOSK short. Really, the scope-expanding potency of its WSDTE pushes NOSK beyond those RIYLs.
Take “Mandelbulb,” Locutus’ appropriately titled second song. The recording and mix by Michael Biggs sound massive, alive and ultra gritty. Once the verse takes off with that spidery riff skittering along, I can’t stop marveling at Hussein’s vocals. Screams to yells to spokels and back again. The vocal interplay with Lawson and Prien’s entrancingly entangled riffs and Mitchell’s fluidly pounding drumming is so good. It’s almost like listening to a bike messenger navigating traffic, zooming in front of, then around, then alongside oncoming cars. That verse is followed by a pulsing riff that sets up “Mandelbulb”’s centerpiece, a big ol’ groove that never fails to get me moving.
So, where did that riff come from? Where did any of this come from? “I don’t remember discussing any specific influences,” Lawson remembers. “If I had to say personally, it’d probably be Botch. I’m always trying to rip off Botch If I’m doing anything fast and techy. I remember we went into it saying we wanted to just write really ignorant and fast caveman riffs, but, like, Klingon caveman, whatever that may mean.”
Hey, I get it. The way that big ol’ groove grows, though, slathering on hooky flourishes until the song tumbles into a Capsule-like section of droning guitars, feels…I don’t know…not only Botch and Klingon cavemen. I may be projecting, but there’s a lot of life in there. Maybe it’s derived from NOSK’s local scene (Prein requests I mention that BIGHAND//BIGKNIFE, “the best band in Denton,” has an album coming out). Maybe it’s non-musical metadata, deeper cuts than I can imagine.
“Sarah and I were both watching a lot of Star Trek and playing the Elder Scrolls games a lot,” Prein writes. “Some other things I was inspired by were A Fire Upon The Deep by Vernor Vinge, Cixin Liu’s The Three-Body Problem, The Dark Crystal, Rachmaninoff’s piano preludes, and the YouTube video where Mick Gordon talks at GDC about creating the soundtrack for Doom (2016). I didn’t listen to much music while writing Locutus.”
OK! Talk about scope-expanding WSDTE: Dark Crystal fans, Rachmaninoff heads, and Doom (2016) gamers unite. Is Locutus the same album without any one of those inputs? Couldn’t tell you. But someone reading this is like, “Oh, damn, here’s my band.” And NOSK delivers on that invitation with so many songs that just go: the building Jenga intensity of “I Am An Android;” the high-octane nightmare of “The Continuum” that really shows off Mitchell’s punchy playing; the nervy battering of “Rapid Blitz Armageddon.” Goddamn, these songs go.
Of course, given that NOSK’s first, and so far last, transmission was from 2019, one wonders if it is still going. “NOSK isn’t broken up,” Prien notes, “but the pandemic definitely brought things to a halt. On top of that, I started grad school in fall of 2019, so I’ve been fairly busy with that and haven’t spent much time writing or playing music.” Lawson’s answer is straight to the point regarding a possible future: “I have no idea. I’d play again, lol.”
Please, you should do that.
As Dag Ole Huseby tells it, Rongeur were at a crossroads. “Kenny [Gjelstad Jakobsen] quit the band just as our first record, An Asphyxiating Embrace, was about to be released in 2018,” the bassist/vocalist writes in an email. “As Kenny was a long-time member, the decision sort of surprised us. [Drummer] Jon [Dahl Tveter] and I were in doubt about keeping Rongeur alive or moving on to something different.”
Crossroads? Rongeur ended up making its own road, keeping the band alive and moving on to something different. “Jon and I just kept jamming, channeling whatever we felt at the time, be it impulses from current politics and events, personal challenges, and other more philosophical personal dwellings,” Ole Huseby recalls. “I am a bit of a pessimist when it comes to my world views and thoughts about human nature, and the songs reflect that. It is safe to say that the tunes came out extremely pissed but very groovy at the same time — we found a balance. It was too good to be abandoned. Rongeur had to keep going.”
Last year’s Glacier Tongue, the Norwegian sludge band’s second full-length and first for the venerable Fysisk Format, is very balanced. With guitarist/vocalist Audun Gjelstad Jakobsen completing the Olso trio, Rongeur have cut a killer that’s invigoratingly varied, a real-deal album that unfurls like a labored-over mixtape. It’s the BBQ playlist that someone spent hours A/B testing. It’s the road-trip sampler that you let repeat. It’s progressive, catchy, and hits hard.
And it’s like, in a sludgy/stonery scene that often feels heavy with one-idea clones and one-riff bong resin tokers, why don’t we have more Glacier Tongues? Why do bands of this ilk stall out or regress when they get to the crossroads? As it turns out, directions come easier when you take the time to orient your musical map. In other words, Rongeur found its voice.
“The band started in the autumn of 2012, after the prog metal band Sju, which Jostein (former drummer) and I were in, suddenly disintegrated,” Ole Huseby remembers. “We wanted to keep working together and decided to recruit Kenny on guitar. Kenny is a long-time friend of mine and Ampmandens Døtres’s baritone guitar player. I wanted to start a new heavy sludge type of band to explore the angry, downtuned, and pessimistic styles from bands like Black Sabbath, Sepultura, Nails, Torch Runner, and Fister. Still, we set few limits to how we were supposed to sound, other than it should be raw, heavy, and real. The style we created together sort of took on its own life and became Rongeur.”
The key to Glacier Tongue is that it has many lives. The opener, “Nixonian Echoes,” is Keelhaul meets KEN Mode. Big Business plus Baroness. It’s sludgy, punky, gritty, grooving, and raging. It makes a good first impression. And, for many modern sludge/stoner records, this would be the only impression. Rongeur, though, are just getting started.
The standout on Glacier Tongue’s A-side is “Years Of Withering,” a near-seven-minute ode to lush prog and psych that rises and falls like prime Elder. It also adds new textures: Florian Bernhard Döderlein Winter hops aboard for acoustic guitar, Rune Andersen makes the trip with a melodeon. It should be a 180. Instead, “Years Of Withering” works because it’s the same Rongeur of “Nixonian Echoes.” The roaring jet engine vocals are still there, circular saw guitars are still there, and cave-in-your-chest, thwumping drums are still there. But the band has moved so effortlessly to this other direction, presenting a different feeling without sacrificing its core identity: raw, heavy, and real.
“It is hard to explain, but we sort of just know when a riff or song fits Rongeur,” Ole Huseby says of this songwriting alchemy. “My main goal with this band is to make music that is interesting, provocative, and not necessary for everyone, but still groovy and experimental enough so you can listen to the songs multiple times without losing interest.”
And that’s one of Rongeur’s more impressive abilities: interest retention. “Years Of Withering” is followed by “Gutter Marathon,” a minute-and-a-half punk burner that probably has more in common with Baxter Stockman covering Black Flag than it does anything that proceeded it. It’s a fun head-fake – following the most expansive song with your snottiest – providing Glacier Tongue with a delightful push/pull. Rongeur then pull a similar trick on “Brace,” pushing and pulling within the same track. When you get your grounding, thinking you’re in for a pyrotechnic ripper complete with Mastodon leads streaming across a Torche thunder pop sky, Rongeur pull out the rug, turning a sludge song into a sludge opera with guest vocals from baritone Bjørnar Nilsen Øksenvåg.
“We have always, in every [incarnation] of the band, been a very diverse set of musicians with many different sources of musical inspiration,” Ole Huseby writes about these inter-style flexes. “But as mentioned, I wanted this band to have a sludge sentiment, and I have to admit that this is the music I am best at making. I thus try to hold the band within this realm, even though we try to experiment quite a bit and break a few barriers in our quest.”
Sure, many bands use hard-cut genre crossovers as jump-scare shocks. What ultimately sets Rongeur apart and gives Glacier Tongue legs is that the album gets better once you internalize and normalize the surprises. Yes, that first spin is thrilling, that sense of not knowing what you’ll hear next. It is especially compelling within an exhausted genre that, aside from peers like Demonic Death Judge, Slomatics, and a handful of other questers, seems chronically bereft of ideas. But, the more I spin Glacier Tongue, the more I focus on its craft and enjoy the minute moments. These are just good songs on a good album. Each track is its own pocket universe, teeming with life. The flow, though, makes all of them better.
I have to wonder, in the age of streaming, will top-to-bottom good albums with great flow find an audience? “I appreciate the album concept, especially when presented on vinyl with great cover art and written liner notes and lyrics inside or on the cover,” Ole Huseby writes. “When the song sequencing on an album is well-thought-out, it makes you want to hear the whole album. Both our full-lengths are made this way. However, I am fully aware of the digital era we live in, of streaming and skipping songs. Thus the first songs are meant as hooks that will dig into you and not let you go until the album is finished. Some might not reach the end, but that does not worry us. Too bad for them. Art comes before consumption.”
This is the end.
That’s La finale de la vie — la résistance faible de la chair est terminée, a 2020 album by Vmthanaachth, an ensemble from the greater Dallas area. I’ve been thinking about it for a long time, ever since I inaccurately described it as “chamber grind” without understanding it. Vmthanaachth prefers “chamber music.” There are reasons for that.
“I’d say if you want to go with any sort of tagline for our mission statement, it would just be like, ‘We want to bring about the death of metal. So you could call it death metal,'” one of the two founding members of Vmthanaachth tells me over Zoom, both choosing to answer under the collective’s name. “I kind of have a personal vendetta against the genre. I’m equally as influenced, in a Zappa-esque way, by things that I like as I dislike. And there are a lot of things that I dislike about metal.”
“Yeah, just trying not to do the things you hate about metal is probably the best way to make something you’ll like,” the other member adds.
As a person who primarily listens to brutal death metal that sounds like a dolphin learned how to operate a trash compactor, I don’t know if I 100 percent agree with ending metal’s eternalism, but it’s hard to argue that Vmthanaachth isn’t something else. The band has an ever-expanding, eclectic discography that can’t be pinned down. That creates an irresistible creative tension, the friction of being between many different things that gives receptive listeners a shock of static electricity. That said, Vmthanaachth is not an enigma. It’s kind of like its name: unpronounceable, but somehow still scans well when you read it.
To that end, our conversation is also often feels like Vmthanaachth’s compositions: bursting with ideas, sharp, playful, uncompromising, self-aware, and engaging; Zappa-esque, taking the music seriously, themselves less so. That is part of what makes the project so intriguing to me: There’s a humanity present that some avant-garde music lacks. What may at first blush sound or read as abstruse quickly reveals itself to be honest and emotionally resonant. This is not music constrained by lessons learned in a conservatory. In fact, in the human experience sense, I don’t think Vmthanaachth is constrained by much. To steal its own phrase, it’s equally influenced by many inputs.
“I express hopes that the good stuff about metal will be picked up by Western tonal art music: the tempo, emphasis on tuplets,” Vmthanaachth explains, choosing their words carefully. “While that has been present in Western tonal art music since the end of World War II, it’s not done in a way that I think really sticks with people the way that say, I don’t know, a Cannibal Corpse lick can. Like that ‘Addicted To Vaginal Skin‘ riff. That opening riff is still, no matter how long it has been since I’ve learned to play it, fantastic. As a melody, it rivals anything that Mahler or Tchaikovsky did at the end of the 19th century.”
This is one of Vmthanaachth’s better features. It Eurosteps around gatekeeper-enforced tenets like the supposedly impassable walls of genre, namechecking a pretty sick Cannibal Corpse song alongside two titans of the Romantic period. In other words, nothing is off-limits. So, the only limiting factor is if it feels true to how the composers wish to express themselves. In that regard, that Vmthanaachth wants to see the death of metal, particularly the subset preferring to uphold the status quo at the determent of creativity, doesn’t seem like that hot of a take to me.
How did the end of metal start, then? “I was looking on Craigslist for just any bands,” Vmthanaachth remembers. “And then someone posted something about an avant-garde metal band looking for members. And I was like, ‘Oh shit, that sounds something like I’d be interested in.’ So I hit them up, and I was like, ‘Hey, let’s jam.’ First, it was on cello and saxophone.”
This early period coincided with “a resurgent Longmont Potion Castle phase,” because, naturally, there are few better get-to-know-you gambits than prank calls. With the ice broken, it was time to expand.
“In terms of the recording history, I would say for the first couple years was spent trying to find people who could play,” Vmthanaachth says, setting up the enduring lineup of the project: a core augmented by different players depending on the situation. “Our earliest recordings are things we improvised for about 20-minute stretches. And we would secure players. Some of them could play, some couldn’t, some stuck with us longer than others.”
One thing from this period that continues to hold is that the taste of these players doesn’t matter as much as their ability. What didn’t hold was the improvisation. As the two “learned more about each other as guitar players,” they moved to “hyper-prepared, super-notated” compositions. “I was trying to get away from that whole Denton shtick of that East Germany, Peter Brötzmann, Free Jazz Communism thing,” Vmthanaachth recalls. The ensemble was also getting away from its original Craigslist request.
“I would actually say that the best way to describe our motivations is very non-metal. I mean, we use distorted guitars on some stuff, but other than that and an inclination to play fast, I don’t see what we have in common with metal,” one member answers. The other clarifies: “Chamber music with distorted guitars is the framework we’re going for.”
You can hear Vmthanaachth in this particular mode on its 2021 split with Sallow Moth, one of the many projects of Garry Brents, who is rightfully getting good press for the new Gonemage EP. (I could dedicate an entire column to Vmthanaachth’s split partners, which appropriately run the gamut, matching the breadth of Vmthanaachth’s work.) “Problems Of Rationality” is a head-spinner of highly technical, interweaving guitar lines knotted up with complex rhythms. It’s like Defeated Sanity ripping through an Iannis Xenakis composition. It also reminds me of Black Flag’s legendary love it or hate it, The Process Of Weeding Out. It smolders with a fiery intensity that feels like it’s created on the spot, but it’s obviously painfully plotted out and highly considered. I love it.
Compare and contrast “Problems Of Rationality” to the first movement of La finale de la vie, “De L’Adepte Dans Ses Ténèbres.” Despite being set for strings, it has a similar thrust. The heightened pace makes me think of the third movement of Béla Bartók’s String Quartet No. 1. Like “Problems Of Rationality,” it’s also dynamic, with the loud stuff feeling particularly loud, swallowing up the death growls.
“Classical still hasn’t really incorporated amplification and distortion to the degree of metal,” Vmthanaachth says of the typical pieces and their typical arrangements that get programmed for larger orchestras, adding later, “I think that could be a very interesting thing to see in classical: amplifying the small sounds. You get a completely different sound image. An amplified harpsichord is going to sound way crazier.”
Sometimes this craziness is a tough sell for the players. “When we recorded the La finale de la vie stuff, dealing with a lot of the drama that comes with classically trained string players was a bit frustrating,” Vmthanaachth laments.
This leads us to a familiar topic seen through a different lens. While discussing one of my hobby horses, the viability of metal once the big gateway bands cease operating, Vmthanaachth hits me with a parallel. “One of my favorite albums when I was a teenager was Bazooka Tooth by Aesop Rock. I remember there was an intro or a sample or something to the effect of ‘a lot of people want to say hip-hop is dead, but can’t get their style out of ’94.’ The analogy holds true for a lot of these classically trained, conservatory-produced players. They can’t seem to get their style out of 1914.”
So, how did Vmthanaachth develop its style? “We’re just really big music and guitar nerds in particular,” one member says. “We just happen to know how to notate and how to play what we can notate and notate what we can play.” Like a dueling lead, the other member finishes that run: “And give it to other people who can play that notation.”
That guitar nerdiness has an appropriately shreddy touchstone. “I’d say, in terms of metal-adjacent stuff, Behold… The Arctopus is more in line with something that influences us,” Vmthanaachth says. “Even still, I’m captivated by stuff they did 15 years ago.” However, in terms of “base influence on how Vmthanaachth functions,” the two have a different analogy: Godspeed You! Black Emperor. Makes sense.
Like the Montréal, Québec, post-rock band, Vmthanaachth follows its own lead, eschewing expectations to do whatever it finds rewarding. The advance tracks I’ve heard for its second split with Coma Roulette, a project by Sarah Allen Reed that’s well worth your time if you like what you’ve heard so far, are the ensemble’s most exciting work to date. Once again, it’s a fascinating variation that’s still very much Vmthanaachth.
The first track, “Des phasmes,” opens with sighing tones. A piano enters and drips like rain at the start of a storm. A flute flutters around, a cello saws. A deep, guttural, Demilichian voice speaks as the edges of the other instruments begin to fray. It makes me dizzy. I can’t stop thinking of Rahsaan Roland Kirk’s “Salvation & Reminiscing” or Morton Feldman’s “Piano, Violin, Viola, Cello.” But the boldest thing about the through-composed piece is the negative space. It makes you very aware of the separation of notes and instruments, like you’re crawling between them. With my meager bank of FFOs stretched to its limits, it also makes me aware of my habit of finding meaning and understanding through comparison, and how thinking about music in that way adds unnecessary abstractions.
“Hearing you liken us to other things, on the one hand, it’s flattering because it makes it seem like, oh, there’s at least a developing audience for something like this,” Vmthanaachth says after I go off on a frustratingly comparison-laden jag trying to explain why I like the music. “But on the other hand, it makes me feel a little icky. Because I start to think, Well, I mean, is what we’re making just product at this point if there are so many other things like it? I don’t really know. I kind of feel as if most music right now is kind of just being made as product. Even the music whose artists’ intent is not to make product, they still don’t mind being signed to whatever tiny little record label they think will make a difference.”
That’s fair. If there’s one thing that Vmthanaachth’s music has done for me, it has made me question how I evaluate and then explain music. I feel as though I’m trapped by metal conventions to think about musical identity in terms of finding, isolating, and defining the ex-members, influences, subgenres, etc. But it’s hard to really hear music through something else. While those elements may play a part in creation, they don’t encompass an artist’s entirety.
“On the one hand, I’m inclined to say something extremely pretentious at this moment, like, ‘Well, I guess we’re all searching for something,'” Vmthanaachth says when I ask what draws them to their music. “‘And we’re trying to discover these, I don’t know what to call it, musical phrases, or these melodies, or these pieces. Like we’re trying to find the diamond in the rough.’ But honestly, I don’t think about it at all. I don’t really think musical objects are really discovered like that. So I’m not really chasing anything.”
This is something that I’ve been trying to put into words in most of the intros I’ve written this year. Ideas like musical influences and genre aren’t the “solve for x” answers that condensed narratives and style-origin breakdowns sometimes make them out to be. An outfit like Ehnahre has similar inclinations to Vmthanaachth, but I wouldn’t necessarily say that they’re a pair. If I did, the comparison is wholly invented and allowed to exist solely due to the limitations of my imagination. It’s just lazy, obviating the fuzzy grey areas where most art is really created. Even writeups like this are too clean and streamlined, with me cherry-picking quotes to create an artificial throughline. Once more, as I drag Vmthanaachth into the dumber reaches of my mind cluttered with half-formed thoughts on ontological bullshit, we touch on this.
“Talking about influences, that could put the pressure on your brain real quick,” one member notes. “The big metaphysical and ontological questions are important to an extent. But I think the things that motivate my own personal concerns with performance, particularly with respect to the stuff that I do with [Vmthanaachth], I’m more interested in conveying attitudes or responding to the way I imagine society ought to be. Not that I am a tyrant about it. We have that piece, ‘Yenaldooshi (deberían ser libres).’ That was composed for a specific event to benefit undocumented people in Texas to get an education and legal defense. And then I think of La finale now, and that was pretty much just written as a response to 2019 and 2020. As I was drafting those lyrics, my concerns were, not to purposely use a sexy academic word, much more existential than musical motivations.”
“Yeah,” the other member says, “it’s about the freedom to express yourself musically without the limitations of certain genre restrictions or modes of thinking that have to be expressed in a certain way. It’s all about determining your own way. How will you specifically express yourself and the things that are important to you?” –Ian Chainey
10. Parasite Inc. – “I Am”
Subgenre: melodic death metal
A little while back, Ian put the following question to the Black Market crew:
“How many melodic death metal bands actually play death metal?”
I am, without question, the biggest melodeath head in the group — which is a bit like being the uncoolest person at a party half-full of people who are only marginally cool, if that. Still, I wasn’t ashamed to say it.
“Not many,” is what I said.
It’s true! It’s true! I dunno what the percentage is, or where exactly the line is drawn between “death metal” and “not death metal,” but on the whole, I would say melodic death metal falls on the “not death metal” side of that line. Furthermore, I would say melodic death metal is only even melodic relative to, like, death metal.
I would also say that I listen to melodeath because it fucking rules; it’s a ludicrously strong shot of pure adrenaline delivered directly into the ears. Does that sound like death metal to you? If it does…are you sure you’re not listening to melodic death metal? Hmm?
Let’s put it another way. For my money, Germany’s Parasite Inc. are like the exact embodiment of the sound of melodeath. And Parasite Inc. sound more like…Ratt, let’s say, than they do Cannibal Corpse. I mean, they don’t sound at all like Ratt. Truthfully — boring answer alert! — they sound like if you took 50ccs of At The Gates and 50ccs of In Flames, and then combined the two into a thing that holds 100ccs. What the fuck else do you want me to say? That’s what it sounds like! That’s what it’s supposed to sound like! Now, to answer Ian’s initial question: Do they play death metal?
We can break all this down, I think, by listening to “I Am,” the lead single from Parasite Inc.’s upcoming third LP, Cyan Night Dreams. Let’s listen to the bridge, which comes in just after the 1:40 mark: Here, you see, we find ourselves in a vein of pure bludgeoning death metal…which flows outward into a stream of…sweet, gentle melody…and then? The motherfucking chorus. That is melodic death metal. This is what it sounds like. This is what it is. [From Cyan Night Dreams, out 8/19 via Reaper Entertainment.] –Michael Nelson
9. Reverb On Repeat – “02”
Location: Volkhov, Russia
It’s funny: Just as I was sitting down to start writing this thing about Reverb On Repeat, I got hit with a Bandcamp notification informing me that Olhava had just released a new album. And the reason why that’s funny is because the guy behind Reverb On Repeat, Andrey Novozhilov, is also the guitarist of Olhava, as well as scenemates Trna, “and other lesser known bands” (his words). Now, to the world at large, Olhava aren’t exactly a household name, but within the global blackgaze scene, they’re extremely well known, I would say. They’re certainly better known than Reverb On Repeat, which barely even exists, and doesn’t exist at all beyond this brand-new three-song demo, titled demo (april, 2022).
As I hadn’t yet written a word about Reverb On Repeat, the most obvious choice here would have been to pivot, to write up something from Olhava’s Mirror instead. As you already know, I didn’t go that direction. Maybe I’m sorta splitting the baby in half here, because I absolutely encourage you to listen to Mirror, and while I don’t think you need much context to understand Reverb On Repeat, I do think knowing Novozhilov’s other work sort of enriches the experience of listening to his new solo project. I just feel…man, fuck it, I just honestly like this one more.
Fundamentally, the two outfits are kinda doing the same thing: ambient post-rock blackgaze. And it’s obviously the same guy playing guitar — basically doing the same things with his guitar — in both bands. The differences? Olhava’s sound is notably tighter and cleaner, where ROR sounds looser and rougher. Olhava’s BPM rarely drops below “blastbeat,” where ROR’s is pretty steadily set on “drift.” And Olhava’s songs are about three times longer, on average, than those of ROR (which themselves run about 8:30 on average). And yet, I just hear more going on in the ROR tracks — the compositions feel more dynamic, the arrangements more fluid, the ideas more vibrant. There are three tracks on demo (april, 2022), and each one feels totally unique unto itself while also providing new facets to the work as a whole. I chose to feature the first track, “02,” because that’s the one that feels most complete as a standalone song. The best way to hear it, though, is to just press play and let it do that. I don’t know if Novozhilov will do anything more with Reverb On Repeat, or if this will become part of his portfolio of “other lesser known bands,” but I do know that this is a strange, beautiful gem, and I’m very grateful to have found it. It very much deserves to be found. [From demo (april, 2022), out now via the band.] –Michael Nelson
8. Starlight Salvation – “Starlight Salvation”
Location: Rennes, France
Subgenre: black metal
Lila Starless brings an entire lore of medieval magic and mayhem to life through various projects on her label Weeping Kingdom, tearing across ramparts under moonlight with maniacal glee (or leaning, dramatically, on the synth keys in the candelabra-lit dungeon). There are equal parts whimsy and malevolence on Weeping Kingdom, and the themes tend to occupy the artistic space where children’s fantasy and unsettling darkness meet – those familiar will note a great deal of aesthetic debt to one of France’s OG practitioners of this style, Nuit Noire. But Starlight Kingdom, one of Lila’s latest, and her other bands like Ardente, rip harder and in a straighter line than Nuit Noire ever has. ”Starlight Salvation” is a midnight maelstrom lit by lightning, a tightly wound bolt that arranges the traditional black metal pieces in ways that, in conjunction with the whole stylistic package, is a trip to a fantastical past. Double-quick, galloping drums urge on riffs that pull from the heroic palette of battles fought with sword and shield. You’ll get the idea quickly, and if it grabs you, a Weeping Kingdom beckons. [From Starlight Salvation, out now via The Weeping Kingdom.] –Wyatt Marshall
7. White Ward – “Cronus”
Subgenre: see below?
Cleans in metal: What say you? It can be a divisive subject, and not unfairly so, primarily because, in many respects, harshes are the single component that makes the shit metal. (I’m not talking about fuckin’ Judas Priest here; I’m talking about “extreme metal.” Come on, you know what I’m talking about.) For a long time, those metal bands that did employ cleans would do so in a way that I’ve always associated with Epica, although it occurs to me now that I can’t say with any confidence I’ve ever heard a note of Epica’s music. Again, though, come on, you know what I’m talking about. My point is, cleans in metal are frequently divisive, and let’s face it, they sometimes sound kinda goofy or distracting or off. Just out of place. Sometimes yes, sometimes no. For me, they’ve ruined some songs, and they’ve elevated others. I’m not really a purist though. I mean, my favorite band is Deafheaven, and my favorite Deafheaven album is Infinite Granite. I’m not what you’d call dogmatic. What say you?
I’m asking because the first 90 or so seconds of “Cronus” — from White Ward’s upcoming third LP, False Light — are entirely cleanly sung, and they’re sung in a gothy-darkwavy croon that occupies about 80 percent of the mix. It’s a robust flavor, and it hits the palate hard. And if you’re reading this before listening to the song, do me a favor: Play it all the way through on first listen, and when it’s over, see if you can even remember what those cleans sounded like.
Needless to say, the final five minutes of “Cronus” go in a wildly different direction than the one you hear over the first minute and a half. And I’ll be honest, it’s the latter stretch that got me so excited about this music that I had to write about it here: five minutes of fire-breathing bone-splitting blood-pumping sludgened blackened deathened atmos-crust-post-core…with intermittent saxophone squalls.
See, this is what I’m talking about. Those cleans before the hard stuff kicks in, then the woodwinds actually kicking it up an extra few notches…you could strip “Cronus” of these pieces and you would still have five blazing minutes of…whatever the fuck I just called it. But this, the way White Ward did it? This is better. Those contrasting tones and textures make the whole thing hit harder, they make it feel wilder. It feels alive. It feels massive. It feels so fucking huge that you could get lost in its expanse. And somehow “Cronus” is actually small compared to the album-opening first single “Leviathan.” And those two advance tracks represent only one-quarter of the full False Light. And I guess this is kinda why I was asking how you felt about those cleans: They’re a big part of the song until they’re smaller than the bigger part of the song. They’re just a tiny piece of the whole album, but they don’t feel tiny at all.
I think maybe I was asking you, honestly, because for me, the first time I listened to “Cronus,” I’d kind of forgotten they’d ever happened before the song was even over — and when it was over, I put it directly into my pile of things to write about for the Black Market. Then, when I sat down a few days to later to actually write, I started up “Cronus” and was like, “Wait…what the fuck even is this?” You tell me. [From False Light, out 6/22 via Debemur Morti Productions.] –Michael Nelson
6. Cremation Lily – “I Need To Stop Blaming Myself”
Location: London, United Kingdom
Subgenre: ambient / experimental electronic
Cremation Lily have been producing gorgeous tortured works of heavy electronics for more than a decade, and in that time the project from Zen Zsigo has moved from the world of ambiance, tape loops, noise, and power electronics into the expressive, sincere, and structured tableau before you. A new direction was clearly evident on 2020’s More Songs About Drowning, where Zsigo brought Lil Peep collaborator Wicca Springs Phase Eternal into the fold to meld the inundating, crashing electronic waves he conjures through walls of static and ambiance with late 2010s SoundCloud despondency. Zsigo’s collaborations have always been interesting and produced remarkable results; to name but a couple, with A Pregnant Light’s Damian Master he’s got the metal and electronic project Bound Bible, and with Jesse Cannon, he’s got the incredibly hook-y industrial electronic project Natural Assembly, which sounds like a club soundtrack broadcast from the other side of the apocalypse.
Much of Zsigo’s work can be found on his own label Strange Rules, a treasure trove of experimental electronic music that, until now, has hosted Zsigo’s work as Cremation Lily. Recently signed with The Flenser, his new album Dreams Drenched in Static is a bold, heartfelt step in a new direction. On “I Need To Stop Blaming Myself,” Zsigo’s searing, piercing swarms of static and feedback are overlaid atop mournful, nostalgic melodies, crafting funereal auras awash in personal catastrophe. Where Zsigo once screamed he now sings sincerely, bearing a soul through cathartic honesty. It’s a remarkable listen, crushingly heavy and overwhelming until Zsigo pulls us back from the edge. [From Dreams Drenched In Static, out now via The Flenser.] –Wyatt Marshall
5. Aara – “Sonne Der Nacht”
Subgenre: black metal
Guys, please just fucking bear with me for a sec? I gotta copy and paste a bit more text than I’d like from the “about” section of Aara’s Bandcamp page. There’s really no other way to do this, I’m afraid, so let’s just jump in. Here goes:
The wonderfully productive Swiss atmospheric Black Metal band AARA return with urgency to unleash “Triade II: Hemera”, their 4th full-length since 2019 and the second chapter of the Melmoth trilogy.
Still with me? Cool. There’s still quite a bit more to come, I just wanted to check on ya. Back to it:
Based upon the 1820 Gothic novel ‘Melmoth the Wanderer’ by Charles Robert Maturin — and closely connected in style and atmosphere to 2021’s initial instalment “Triade I: Eos” — each of the 6 brutally melodic tracks follows the book’s chronological mid-point narrative in a dazzling critical examination of theism and scepticism through the medium of top-tier Black Metal.
Haha I love that bit about “the medium of top-tier black metal.” It’s absolutely true! We’ll talk about that later. Just one last section here:
Although conceptually aligned with part one of the trilogy, “Triade II: Hemera” further-advances the AARA sound into realms of progressive extremity: defined once again by the beauteous lead melodies of composer/guitarist Berg, the record combines a raw violent undertow with subtle rhythmic shifts, left-field riffs/refrains and sublimated vocal savagery — interweaving Christian choirs, the Jewish shofar horn and traditional Indian vocal samples into yet another outstanding offering from an unstoppable young band overflowing with ideas and confidence.
Whew! Now, why did I include all that here? Partly because it’s the critic’s job to align the criticism of the art with the artist’s intent, and…well, now you know the artist’s intent, I hope. I wasn’t even gonna try to put all that into my own words, and when I thought about doing so, it made me realize that I’d probably only be alienating people who might actually fucking love this music. Here’s what I will tell you:
CHAPTER 1: I don’t know shit about “the Melmoth trilogy,” except that I am positive you don’t need to be familiar with Triade I: Eos in order to love Triade II: Hemera. You should listen to Eos, definitely, but only because it’s also incredible. It will have no bearing on whether you think Hemera is incredible (which it is). It’s not like you’re going into Empire Strikes Back without first having seen Star Wars (which was itself Episode IV, but I digress).
CHAPTER 2: I don’t know shit about “the 1820 Gothic novel ‘Melmoth the Wanderer’ by Charles Robert Maturin.” I don’t even know if that’s a real thing. Is my enjoyment of Aara’s music then somehow deficient? I guess we won’t find out for sure till after the third and final installment is released, but so far, to this point: No. It’s incredible music, as I mentioned above. You don’t need to have read Melmoth The Wanderer in order to love this shit. (Maybe that would make you love it less! Maybe you’d just be pointing out little details about the book that the album got wrong!)
CHAPTER 3: I don’t wanna say, “I don’t know shit about Christian choirs, the Jewish shofar horn, and traditional Indian vocal samples,” because I’m sure I do know a little bit about all these things, but I’m not an ethnomusicologist over here. To be honest, I haven’t even listened to the last few Darkthrone records. Who has the time? In any case, I feel confident saying you don’t need to be familiar with the cultural origins of this music in order to understand, immediately upon listening, this is incredible music.
EPILOGUE: Look, I know black metal is inherently pretentious, and maybe this absurd glut of backstory makes Aara more mysterious (or mysteriis) than not, but if the band’s intention was to weed out dilettantes like me, then they’ve failed. (On the other hand, if their intention was to get their Bandcamp “about” section reproduced in full on Stereogum, then they’ve succeeded.) Still, all these words and none of them tell you a damn thing. Except “top-tier black metal.” That tells you something. I’ll tell you something else: Aara are at the very tippy-top of that top tier. This is pretty close to perfect black metal, in fact, even though black metal has never really sounded like this. This is different. This is somebody taking the old shit and doing something new but keeping it old. And it’s absolutely fucking incredible on absolutely every level. And I wish we could talk about all that, but it appears…we’ve run out of time. Probably for the best. Probably no need to talk at all, really. Just listen. [From Triade II: Hemera, out now via Debemur Morti Productions.] –Michael Nelson
4. Vital Spirit – “Blood And Smoke”
Location: Vancouver, Canada
Subgenre: black metal
Vital Spirit are one of the best metal bands to emerge in the 2020s, bringing a cinematic vision of black metal inspired by the “spirit of the Americas,” their native inhabitants, and the wrongs they suffered. From Israel Langlais and Kyle Tavares of Wormwitch and others, Vital Spirit’s 2020 EP In The Faith That Looks Through Death was a stunner that conjured visions of great American wilderness with Cascadian and Morricone flair, ranging over deserts and transversing mountain ranges. On Still As The Night, Cold As The Wind everything is bigger and sharper — the better to cut to the marrow. Album opener “Blood And Smoke” is a torch to the earth in the night, a track that rages with malicious intent. Some special guitar moves are worthy of note, including the dizzying matter-bending chords that launch off the assault. But so too is how Tavares so stylishly inserts rock god guitar flourishes and atmospheric folk acoustics into an otherwise chaotic mix backstopped by thundering drumming that shakes foundations. When it fades to an instrumental outro, you can see the stars come out over vistas that will long outlast us all. [From Still As The Night, Cold As The Wind, out now via the band.] –Wyatt Marshall
3. Doldrum – “The Knocking”
Location: Denver, CO / Salem, MA
Subgenre: black metal
Some lines stick with you. “‘Are you a man who knocks/ At the doorways of the earth?'” Doldrum singer Rat Deveaux yells on “The Knocking,” the first track on The Knocking, Or The Story of the Sound that Preceded Their Disappearance. Deveaux’s delivery is dynamite. The read sounds delirious, like someone who, minutes earlier, was trapped in a thousand-yard-stare and is now reliving the incident. But the line itself is quality storyteller stuff. Notice the quotes: Those aren’t Deveaux’s words. They belong to someone, or something, else. That choice sets the scene, a narrator three drinks deep in the roughest saloon on the frontier, retelling a tale that Robert W. Service will never forget. It’s a hell of a hook for this black metal album that taps a rich vein of old-time terrors. In this case, it’s prospectors and miners and the things they encounter underground. After all, can you knock at the doorways of the earth without expecting an answer?
Doldrum (pictured above), a pandemic project per its label Katafalque, debuted in 2020 with a two-song demo. It was nearly fully formed, no surprise for the trio that already amassed an impressive list of connections: Vpaahsalbrox, the Texas quartet that cut 2005’s 14 Sovereign, a USBM gem according to those lucky enough to hear it; Erraunt, the cryptic riffsmith responsible for 2015’s equally jangly and jagged The Portent; I’m In A Coffin, the DSBM downer that overcame its name, peaking with 2020’s Waste of Skin. Two members are also in Gallows, a devilish black metal duo that kicked Katafalque into gear last year with the hellacious 66 Black Wings. Besides the players, the common threads between these projects are uncommonly well-hewn riffs and a knack for making music that sounds like how a landscape lit by a full moon looks. They’re surreal, highlighting the strange contours of the familiar, like putting a flashlight under your chin as you recount a haunting.
Doldrum spin a good yarn. Everything here, from the visuals to the songwriting to the musicianship to the prospector aliases, pushes the narrative along. Like any step into the supernatural, it feels familiar at first…and then not so much. For example, Jimmy Oh-My-Back’s riffs and bass lines are superficially similar to Ved Buens Ende, Virus, Code, Onirik, Lugubrum, and the like. Arcane yet catchy, basically. If Virus’s Czarl says that band sounds like a mixture of Talking Heads and Voivod, perhaps Doldrum is a mix of Wipers and Coroner. But, the more I listen to Doldrum, the more the riffs…simply sound like Doldrum, a combination of black metal with a daguerreotype weirdness, that “eerie clarity,” as Michelle Nijhuis puts it. This uncanniness seeps into the rhythms. Prodded by The Terrific Don McKinnon’s killer drumming, the songs have an unnerving, unceasing momentum. They’re on rails, a runaway mining cart that won’t stop until it reaches its final destination.
The deeper you dig into The Knocking, the more there is to find, earworm-y touches that show without telling. “The Knocking”‘s opening riff has a rise and fall that sounds like someone swinging a pick-ax match cut with a heavy door knocker falling in slow motion. “The Offering” has finger snaps that give the track a King Diamond-esque dreamlike quality, a séance that descends into the bizarre. Closer “The Disappearance,” the longest and best song on the record, features Deveaux interpolating a twisted version of “A Miner’s Lullaby (Coorie Doon).” It ends with spectral symphonic sounds leaking into the track like aural afterdamp. The last thing you hear is water dripping in an empty mine. That sticks with you, too. [From The Knocking, Or The Story Of The Sound That Preceded Their Disappearance, out now via Katafalque.] –Ian Chainey
2. Bríi – “Corpos Transparentes”
Subgenre: atmospheric black metal
It’s something of a fool’s errand to try to describe the mysterious, living compositions of Caio Lemos, but here we are again. With his bands Bríi, Kaatayra (RIP(?)), and Vauruvã, Lemos has invented a genre all to himself. The setting, especially for Bríi and Kaatayra, is beneath the rainforest canopy in Brazil, where greens and browns and blacks intermeld in fantastical, captivating, and hallucinatory ways. The instrumentation is a variation of the typical black metal set complemented by an array of acoustics, piano, hummed or chanted choruses, unidentifiable wind instruments that fleetingly flit by, and lush alien electronic beds of warbles and bleeps that, somehow, make sense in Lemos’s vision. The duration is…long, though “Corpus Transparentes” is the first track in the oeuvre to push 30 minutes, so there’s that. The one-track album is a work to get lost in — a long, strange journey through surreal magic that’s transportative and transformative, where a lure is constantly pulling you into a new shapeshifting environment as unbelievable and unusual and enthralling as the last, as what seems menacing at first becomes alluring before your eyes. I’ll stop there and leave you in the hands of Lemos, who has a whole new world to share that you may not want, or be able, to leave. [From Corpos Transparentes, out now via the band.] –Wyatt Marshall
1. Inexorum – “Equinox Vigil”
Location: Minneapolis, MN
Subgenre: melodic black / death metal
All you really need to know about the third album from Inexorum is that the Minneapolis duo has outdone themselves yet again, further twisting the blue-cover melodic black/death aesthetic into autumnal form without softening the edges. As always, there’s more than a whiff of Obsequiae’s vibrant harmonized riffing and penchant for melancholic nature imagery (they share members, after all), but this isn’t music for leaf-watching. Like spiritual forebears Sacramentum and Dawn, in spite of all the wistful melodies, the riffs seem to run on flame. It’s the airless rush of heat as a bonfire spins out of control and cremates the countryside, one last blaze of color before the seasonal cycle of death and rebirth.
While the new album isn’t a radical reinvention of the vibes set forth on the past two (both sick, both of which you read about here), what is new is the level of control Carl Skildum exerts over his creation. Inexorum have always used programmed drums to great effect, but here they sound fantastic — raging, rhythmically pristine, locked in but oddly lifelike as they interweave with the kaleidoscopic, hyper-melodic guitars. And talk about playing with fire: title track “Equinox Vigil” tempts fate in the most dangerous way, shedding the throat-shredding screams for an ejaculatory vocal climax of soaring, near-power metal clean singing. In good conscience, I would never recommend any other band tries this because the success rate in extreme metal is abysmally low. Somehow Inexorum stick the landing, with cleans that aren’t just “not awful” but actually weirdly good, at least in the limited dose delivered here — in the process elevating a ripping tune to a majestic one. It’s that sense of thoughtful restraint amid the carnage that tips the new album into essential territory. [From Equinox Vigil, out 6/17 via Gilead Media.] –Aaron Lariviere