The Month In Metal — July 2022

The Month In Metal — July 2022

This month, Metallica scored an unlikely hit when their 36-year-old “Master Of Puppets” charted in Top 40 in both the US and the UK. What pulled the strings? Stranger Things. The ’80s-set Netflix show paired a fun visual with one of metal’s most indelible epics in a way that landed with modern audiences.

The band even brought some Eddie Munson video with them to Lollapalooza just last night:

“Master Of Puppets”‘ chart ascent was Stranger Things‘ second act of revivification, following Kate Bush’s deserved return to the zeitgeist. Am I going to dive into the hows and whys behind the Stranger Things bump? No. Bush explainers, which is not a phrase worth Googling, have been running for weeks. And besides, the story is, on its face, not that metal of a news item. The bump seems isolated to Metallica, not unlike how the metal news cycle focuses on metal’s biggest pop culture emissary for the clicks. To wit, it doesn’t seem like Jørn Lande’s “Running Up That Hill” cover received any spillover listens, and I don’t think anyone is going to pay attention to my compelling attempts at reclassifying “Waking The Witch” as a prog/power song. But hey, you can’t win ’em all.

While the bump may be outside my jurisdiction, I am interested in the different responses to Metallica’s good fortune. While I saw nothing but cheers, apparently some straw-stuffed “individuals” were very concerned about new listeners learning about the most popular metal band on the planet. “FYI – EVERYONE is welcome in the Metallica Family,” the band posted in the comments on its TikTok account, preempting gatekeeping grumblers and substantiating its gateway band status. “Whether you’ve been a fan for 40 hours or 40 years, we all share a bond through music. All of you started at ground zero at one point in time.”

Metallica’s plea to stop policing playlists is shockingly good advice and momentarily blotted out such thoughts as “Metallica has a TikTok account?” and “Are those 335,435 Napster users welcome in the Metallica family?” It was another PR win for the thrash ambassadors during one of the most likable runs of the band’s post-Black Album career. For a spell, until everyone started complaining about Amon Amarth, nearly everything in our corner of the world felt good, and metal’s pop-culture-facing presence felt earned and not embarrassing. Honestly, this infusion of new fans is one of my favorite things to happen in metal this year. It genuinely rules.

So, yes, there’s a chance that you’re reading this column for the first time because you’ve found your way to us via Stranger Things. To you, my new friend, I say, “Hello! You are welcome here. This is a safe place to learn, your unique path towards heavy metal endarkenment is valid, and your fresh insight is valued and encouraged. I look forward to recommending you music. You should listen to Mulk.” Cool. Please scroll through the rest of this intro. You too, optimists. It’s fine. I, uh, need to talk to my glass-half-empty pals for a bit. Don’t worry. Let’s catch up soon — oh, you already left.

In the traditional pessimist greeting, I’m sure your day has been as horrible as mine. Perhaps you, too, felt the background radiation of a potential doomsday scenario hiding beneath these good vibes. It’s something I’ve been mulling over for over a year. I guess you could call it … a source of self-destruction.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. First, let’s take a second to appreciate what happened. The best recruiting event in metal in several years required Netflix’s most popular property recontextualizing a stone-cold, 36-year-old classic by one of metal’s last remaining monolithic entities. That’s what it took to briefly reignite the American public’s interest in heavy metal and net us some new fans.

There are some fun false equivalences to explore within that breakdown, such as the thought that, if we were in 1986, Les Paul’s A New Sound! would be a 36-year-old album. (Good record.) But I don’t have time for that right now. As metal’s foremost chronically depressed, eternally pessimistic listmaker, I have a job to do, and that’s to highlight an existential quagmire for like-minded headbangers. Do you see the doomsday scenario lurking in there? Here, let me coax it out:

What happens to metal in America after Metallica splits up? That is to say, what happens when we lose one of the only metal bands people pay attention to? In fact, what happens to metal after all of the big gateway bands are gone? Most of them are decades deep into their careers, so it’ll happen sooner rather than later. Will there be new gateway bands that replace them? If not, how will people get into metal?

Oh boy. Let’s call this the Oncoming Gateway Band Apocalypse, OGBA. Yeah, we’re doing fine, optimists. Don’t come in here. No, I don’t want to watch Love Island. Thanks, though.

Now, let me admit up front that, while I think the OGBA is a possibility in that I can’t foresee another metal band getting as big as Metallica, I don’t believe the OGBA will destroy metal. On the contrary, I think metal is nearly unslayable, and the only thing that could take it down is a Marvel-esque monkey paw wish that transforms it from a refuge for outcasts into the dominant power in pop culture. That is to say, any potential downturn in metal’s overall popularity is probably a better sales pitch for some potential fans because it would push it further from the mainstream. To that end, if we think of metal as a place for outsiders to explore fringe ideas and/or indulge in metal’s propensity for wanting to be the most, it’s wild that metal has even been this popular. It’s like a glitch in reality.

There are other reasons why I think metal will survive. As I’m fond of writing, metal is so vast and varied that any definites you want to pin upon it will be proven wrong. For instance, the pursuit of “most” is different across every substyle, meaning there’s some metal variant out there for everyone. That diversity makes metal into its own ecosystem. Some substyles get popular, some go into hibernation, but metal is always active, eternally evolving and regressing in equal measure.

Another reason metal will survive plays into the fact that my OGBA questions are American-centric. Other cultures have a different relationship to metal. In some, it’s more embedded, suggesting that the destruction of global bands don’t matter as much as long as regional scenes remain intact.

And to wrap this up because I have gone on and on about this stuff for five years and you don’t need to read this for the 50th time, I think some people are wired to desire loud music and subconsciously search for it until they find it. It’s like the recurring motif of Devil’s Tower in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. You have this compulsion that you can’t explain until one day, boom, “Master of Puppets” scratches the itch. Metallica is the gateway band at the tip of the iceberg. How far you travel below the waterline depends solely on your curiosity and tolerance for metal’s built-in firewalls. People can learn to appreciate metal, but some people simply need metal, and will keep hunting until they find a home.

So, really, any OGBA fear I have is based around a potential delay in those people finding metal. If there’s not a huge-ass metal band that’s available, easily accessible, and, most importantly, active, creating fresh and timely opportunities for people to be exposed to them, it will take longer for budding metalheads to apply for membership. And, I mean, that would suck. That has consequences. Metal is one of the few things in life that I like. Most of my friends are metalheads. The only thing I am capable of doing while this stupid rock spins around the sun is listening to metal. I have no other skills. Thinking of that purpose and absolution being waylaid or never developing is … devastating? I don’t like even thinking about it. Especially because we’re in a perfect window for people to get into metal right now.

A new fan could conceivably see almost every stratum of metal history on tour in the next couple of years, from elder legends like Metallica, Iron Maiden, and Judas Priest, to younger chart crashers like Undeath and Wormrot. Think how many bucket list bands someone could check off if they live near a frequent touring hub and have the ability/desire/money to go to shows. In addition, more metal is being released than ever, increasing the odds that someone finds a metal album that clicks with them. Add in that the representation is getting better, and the conditions seem ripe for a popularity explosion rivaling the heyday of NWOAHM in the 2000s.

But, circling back to OGBA, that window will close. A year ago, I calculated Iron Maiden Numbers (IMN), a way to measure the relative popularity of metal bands. For this intro’s purposes, the short story is that the bands with the highest IMNs are your gateway bands. And those bands skew older. As someone who has somehow outlived all of the important marketing demos, this is fine by me. Thank god, another year I can delay getting into djenty deathcore or twinkle shred in order to keep this column relevant. But it does beg the question: Whither the younger gateway bands? Doesn’t metal employ a vending machine model? Who are the next bands up?

I think the closet is probably Spiritbox. When I crunched its IMN last year, it came in at -50. Now, it’s -5, just outside aboveground status and neck and neck with Jinjer, a more experienced younger band that could also make the jump. Spiritbox’s 1,467,664 monthly Spotify listeners is an incredible ascent considering it has released only one album.

But … Spiritbox and Jinjer are the exceptions. Other younger bands that I feel should have broken through and achieved gateway status aren’t yet in the same league as established bands. Knocked Loose, Loathe, Vein.fm, Code Orange: these metal-adjacent bands all have decent streaming numbers and get buzzy press, but are dwarfed by, like, Sevendust, a band I love dearly but doesn’t get the same type of hype now that it’s 13 albums deep into its career. Even something legitimately gateway-y but debatably metal like Bring Me The Horizon, which is closing in on its 20th anniversary but is still young-ish, has an IMN of 178. That’s massive. However, it’s miles behind Metallica’s colossal 675. And, besides my derpy metric that is probably biased towards established bands, you can see Metallica’s reach play out in other arenas. ThePRP ran 10 stories mentioning Bring Me The Horizon over the past three months. It ran 15 stories on Metallica. The difference between the two is that Metallica isn’t in the middle of an album release cycle. Metallica remains the gateway band of all gateway bands.

IMN is one thing, but the more troubling factor related to OGBA is what I uncovered in January. If the numbers are correct, and that’s a big if, new metal band formations appear to be declining. That would be a double whammy. Not only does it seem like there are fewer bands in a position to move into gateway territory, but there may be fewer new bands, period. Again, I have serious reservations about the data, but if it’s true … yikes. I imagine it would be hard to get into metal if no new metal bands existed.

Ah, but that’s just it. Does it matter if a gateway band is active? How concerned one is over OGBA hinges on that question. As an example, the most robust rebuttal to OGBA is Black Sabbath. The metal band split in 2017. The argument goes that if Black Sabbath’s music is available, not necessarily the band itself, people will still get into metal. As an old who likes Black Sabbath, I’m sympathetic to this angle. It’s kind of like how people of my vintage ended up with Led Zeppelin albums because, as a fan of harder rock and classic rock radio, that was just a thing one did. I feel like I was issued all those albums when I turned 12 and suddenly had serious takes about “Achilles Last Stand.” Like, it didn’t matter that Zep was kaput. It was there, and it was presented as a rite of passage. Led Zeppelin is eternal. Black Sabbath is eternal.

Google Trends provides some additional ammo for this argument. Over the past five years, United States-based web search interest peaked with the Black Sabbath’s finals shows in 2017 and its 50th anniversary in 2020. Otherwise, its interest has remained steady. A band that hasn’t remained steady is Metallica, oddly enough. Over the same timeframe, its search interest peaked in the week of February 25, 2018, when it announced a North American tour, and then fell off until this most recent Stranger Things bump. Metallica is probably too big to be hurt by search interest flux, but that flux also seems to invalidate the idea that bands need to be active to remain relevant.

Of course, I recognize that “relevancy” is a byproduct of an older gateway band model. Back in the day, I write, as my back and knees explode into dust, a gateway band had to be blessed with two qualities to truly be a gateway band. It needed to be available and accessible. (I discussed this recently on the C-Squared Podcast, so if you want to hear me stammer through these topics in a voice that sounds like the Muppet version of John Milius, by all means, listen to that.)

Availability is pretty self-explanatory: there needed to be albums in stock at Tower Records or whatever for you to buy after you heard the band on the radio, MTV, at your friend’s house, the school dance, etc. It also helped if the band was available to tour.

Accessibility is a more nebulous term. I tend to think of something being “accessible” in the lightly pejorative music critic usage, i.e., the music is simple, streamlined, and easy for someone with no prior experience to understand. But that’s not always the case.

Like, “Master Of Puppets”? Objectively? I don’t think that’s “accessible” in the simple and streamlined sense. It’s an eight-and-a-half prog thrash monster. While it has a world-beater of a hook, in a vacuum, it would make a newbie’s head explode Scanners style. But, it has been made accessible because it has been demystified by external forces.

In the macro, there have been decades of Mandatory Metallica radio blocks, millions of t-shirts that have entered the band’s name into the pop culture lexicon, and now Stranger Things. In the micro, you have friend groups, the older sibling effect, and other interpersonal relationships. All of that, and more, has demystified “Master Of Puppets” and made it accessible, much in the same way that otherwise “difficult” music, such as Pink Floyd, Rush, John Coltrane, Miles Davis, and on and on, has been able to break through on a broader scale.

Anyway, I’m losing the OGBA thread, but I’ll finish this part up by writing that innumerable things could upset this availability/accessibility balance. Some were outside a band’s control, like, whoops, everyone likes alt rock now, and that has banished Nelson to the depths of hell with the speed of a meteor landing atop the noggin of a stegosaurus. If you haven’t, watch the Bang Tango documentary. But, for the most part, availability/accessibility played into each other, creating something of a hype loop until the external forces changed or the band ceased activity. Your popularity was pegged to your availability and accessibility, which in turn were influenced by your popularity. It was a catch-22 to break through and achieve this balance, but once you did, you were golden for a bit.

Again, that was the old model. The new model? The internet has made everything available and accessible. If you can stream it, it’s available. If you can find a review, breakdown, or reaction, it’s accessible. That turns every metal band into a potential gateway band. While I think that people will typically get into metal via a band that’s closer to a more recognizable form of whatever constitutes modern rock or pop, it doesn’t eliminate more obscure/difficult bands from being a great entry point. Like, the objective relevancy doesn’t matter anymore. It only needs to resonate with a listener to be a gateway. Any band can be the tip of the iceberg, even if it’s the bottom of the dang iceberg.

I don’t know. Maybe all of this is bullshit. Maybe I’m off on some particularly unhinged nonsense. Maybe I need to go to bed. Between you and me, fellow pessimist, it has been a really rough month, which accounts for *waves hands* whatever the hell this was. But, I don’t know, there’s something … comforting about a reaction to the constantly shifting media landscape, where the shards of the old monoculture continue to fracture into a million tinier pieces, that could still result in a rosier take like “every band can be a gateway band.” Forget fools trying to gatekeep Metallica, that’s something. Perhaps, then, nothing will happen once the OGBA comes to pass. When Metallica ends, things will be fine because metal is eternal if every band can be a gateway. Wait … am … I an optimist?

Nope, not going to consider it. If you got here via Metallica, hello! If you’re still on the fence about whether you like metal, here are 10 more possibilities. See you around. –Ian Chainey

10

Narakah – “Seven Zurls”

Location: Pittsburgh, PA
Subgenre: death/grind

There are many ways to describe Narakah’s newest offering, Nemesis Cloak, the multi-genre but staunchly death/grind Pittsburgh quartet’s third release. It sounds like a death/grind Blogspot crashed and condensed every Megaupload archive into 18 tracks running 20 minutes. It sounds like my CD book circa 2008 melted in a car fire and somehow created a super CD that compressed all of the cool parts into 18 tracks running 20 minutes. The PR copy says it sounds “barbarically melodic.” It also mentions it’s 18 tracks and runs 20 minutes. See? Lot of ways to do it.

I feel it’s worth emphasizing the number of tracks and total running time because, like Mico, which will show up later in this list, Narakah packs so much music into its songs. As an example, let’s break down “Seven Zurls.” This one-minute burner opens with 10 seconds of drone before launching into killer juds that might as well be Turmoil chugging from the Holy Grail. Then, it’s Burnt By The Sun reenacting the They Live fight with Today Is The Day. A quick trip to toughguy core follows, and Narakah closes up shop by hydro-shredding in the fashion of Cephalic Carnage. Once again, all of that takes place in the space of a minute. I don’t know. There’s probably more. Narakah helpfully includes a 589-character “inspired by & for fans of” text block in the Bandcamp liner notes. Shout out to anyone into Capsule, Contrastic, and Human Remains.

Now, while this style-hopping is fun, Nemesis Cloak wouldn’t be here if it didn’t hang together as an album. This is something that I observed about the great couldcareless LP that dropped earlier this year, that songwriting and innovation will always trump the jolt of surprises because that stuff lasts. The sheer amount of data and feels-so-good whiplash is the bait, but the other elements are the hooks. I mean, the performances are bonkers. The rhythm battery of bassist Evan Richard Kunkle and drummer Jason Lee Spence must’ve burned a lifetime of calories getting these infinite tempo shifts to sound this tight. Singer Adam Joseph Bailey is consistently creative, always finding a new way to use his voice. Christopher Martin Smith just plain shreds a good shred. There’s a lot of Nemesis Cloak that I’ve yet to crack, but I think I now have a pretty good handle on how to describe the band. It knows what it’s doing. Naturally, that description is bested by the band’s attempt in its bio: “Fuck around and grind out.” Yep. [From Nemesis Cloak, out now via Force Of Reckoning Records.]Ian Chainey

09

Obliti Devoravit – “Agonizing Repulsion”

Location: Grand Rapids, MI
Subgenre: black metal

Obliti Devoravit made its debut back in 2011 as part of the first batch of tapes from Colloquial Sound Recordings, Damian Master’s (A Pregnant Light, Aksumite, and many others) label that’s been surprise dropping cassettes from an ever-captivating roster of artists for over a decade now, with the latest landing this month. And though the project from Tim Lenger, who does bass duties in Aksumite and moonlights in that role for other CSR projects, is seldom seen, when Obliti Devoravit does make an appearance it wastes no time dragging you back into its black pit of anguish, filth, and maniacal rage. “Agonizing Repulsion,” which anchors the new EP Chains & Blood, is a rabid animal on the prowl, driven by blind seething rage and hunger, with bestial heaving giving way to dread and despair. Lenger’s bass-first mentality gives Obliti Devoravit an unsettling, gut wrenching low end that heightens the sordid horror on display. As the track lurches forward, growing panic gives way to a paralyzing inevitability of the end that awaits the living–devoured, and forgotten. [From Chains & Blood, out now via Colloquial Sound Recordings.]Wyatt Marshall

08

Vórtize – “Toma Acción”

Location: Limache, Chile
Subgenre: heavy metal

Oh, the intractable metalhead urge to immediately tell everyone you know about a band riffing sick riffs. The fact that I’m feeling this sensation at this very moment is not great in a column coverage sense. After all, it has been a particularly tough month for narrowing down selections. The fact that I’m not blurbing Ashenspire or Hylda or Lysergic Mirror is a crime, and I’m now phoning this column in from list-maker jail. Aaron is here. He says hey. Anyway, I heard Vórtize today. I am now obsessed. You know the drill. You need to listen to these sick riffs.

Chile’s Vórtize is the solo project of “H. Mortiz,” aka Javier Ortiz of Demoniac. ¡Tienes que luchar!, Vórtize’s debut, is trad heavy metal played at speed metal tempos and with plenty of examples of “the journey,” when bands use bridges and codas to go riff exploring and increase the square mileage of a song’s territory. Ortiz seems particularly game for riff expeditions. Opener “Mundo bipolar” is like cheating in Civilization by giving your units a move bonus. In other words, it goes places quickly. But what makes me pound the replay button is the hooks. Not only is that powered-up chorus sublime, with Ortiz’s trumpet-like vocals leading the charge, but our hero also fits in … an extended whistling solo? Goddamn. Rules.

All right. I realize I’ve given into exuberance and explained nothing. Musically, I think it’d be fair to think of Vórtize as a peppier Riot circa Fire Down Under, Messiah Force, or the NWOSHM Universe augmented by early Blind Guardian’s approach to storytelling via riffs. Modern comps? Eh, maybe Galaxy or Road Warrior if modified by Mystik’s need for speed. I mean, whatever, these are just a lot of words. Really, you only need two: it rips. Agonizing over comparisons is keeping you from the rippage.

And, for my money, nothing rips harder on ¡Tienes que luchar! than “Toma acción.” On lead vocals is Romi Huerta Núñez, who crushes background vox on the rest of the album and harmonizes very well with Ortiz. In this mostly solo turn, Núñez absolutely radiates charisma, giving some of her reads a … OK, this is a weird comparison, but what the heck … Debbie Deb-type immediacy. Look, it’ll make sense when you hear it. The way Núñez delivers lines like “Gracias al metal/ Descubriste la verdad/ Y ya nunca jamás dejarás” with passion and a vocal timbre that sounds like a sword cutting through canvas is irresistible to me. Yo, give me an album of that. And, as if “Toma acción” needed more radness, you’re also treated to a solo by Fabián Valdés that’s primo shred-star material.

In fact, all of the guests come to play. Elsewhere on ¡Tienes que luchar!, you get dynamite turns from players like Felipe Espinoza from Mental Devastation. But this is Ortiz’s show if you couldn’t tell that from the A+ promo picture. Here’s a metalhead with a knack for delivering the trad goods. I somehow made it seven months into the year without crowning a BBQ album for the summer, so, hey, congrats Vórtize. Better late than never. [From ¡Tienes que luchar!, out now via Nube Negra Prods.]Ian Chainey

07

Antigama – “Undeterminate”

Location: Warsaw, Poland
Subgenre: grind

Antigama! When did y’all turn into this? When these Polish grinders debuted with 2002’s Intellect Made Us Blind, it was a disso weirdo in a Euro scene that was about to be overrun with samey clones. In other words, it was more Discordance Axis or similar to the Czech oddballs than where grind was going to go. Good record, kind of like a grind Kobong. And it would only get better from there. 2004’s Discomfort was an early highlight, aligning Antigama with its future split partner Nyia, two sound deconstructionists making delightfully abstract and uncompromisingly askew music. Sure, Antigama could put on the afterburners and blast with the best of them, but Zeroland, its 2005 LP, contained a back-to-back that summed up the appeal quite well: “Jazzy” and then “Starshit.” And then, I lost touch with the band.

So, it was with some degree of nostalgia that I clicked on a new Antigama album when it surfaced in my email. I was expecting something similar to the squelchy, jazzy starshit I remembered, and … nope. Wrong. Way wrong. So yeah, to reiterate, I don’t know when Antigama turned into a death/grind beast built in the image of yesterday’s Brutal Truth and nowaday’s Napalm Death, but Whiteout, put out once more on the ever-dependable Selfmadegod, is the fully formed version of that band. 11 tracks, 28 minutes, doesn’t let up for a second.

“Undeterminate” kicks things off with Paweł Jaroszewicz’s fleet blasts, guitarist Sebastian Rokicki and bassist Macio Moretti ripping riffs, and Łukasz Myszkowski’s poked-bear roars. The thrill is hearing how quickly the band can switch between turbo-charged, death-augmented grind and turbo-charged, death-augmented core. And that’s pretty much what you get for the next 10 songs: deathly grind with an impossibly huge James Plotkin master. The wrinkle is that “2222” tosses in a saxophone solo by Marcin Kajper, because why not? Crazy that Antigama is this bloodthirsty 22 years in, creating what I think will be one of the best grind albums of the year. But, like seeing a friend’s glow up at a reunion, there’s a nice callback to the days I remember in the credits. Who did the art? Wojciech Szymanski, the drummer of personal faves Kobong, Samo, Neuma, and Nyia. Sorry I was gone, Antigama. Glad I’m back. [From Whiteout, out now via Selfmadegod Records.]Ian Chainey

06

Careus – “Vita”

Location: ???
Subgenre: black metal

Careus follows the second wave black metal demo formula, but sole member Lunah turns the lo-fi murk up to 11 (the first full track on In absentia is a watery, interdimensional cover of “Transilvanian Hunger”). Vocals were seemingly recorded by scream-croaking through a pillow, and the final 4-track tape was given a few runs through the wash before heading to market in a tape edition of 25. This does nothing to deaden the haunted majesty of the simplistic piano melodies that are the melodic driver on “Vita,” a dread-laden track of fading beauty that is the sonic equivalent of watching a flower wilt in 100x before your eyes. Nor does it stop Careus from bringing the small arrangement on hand into searing crescendo, as when toward the tail end of the six-minute track smeared swaths of synth and hammered out urgency join a 1-2 beat to exquisite, head-bangable effect. It’s a rare thing to see something that captures these seemingly contrasting qualities of haze, melody, and vigor so well–a sneaky polish winks through the fog. In Absentia is out on the NYC label Fiadh Productions, who have been on a tear with releases from This White Mountain, Parabstruse, and more of late, and who donate a portion of all sales to an animal rescue charity. [From In Absentia, out now via Fiadh Productions.]Wyatt Marshall

05

Mourir – “La Pluie, Le Torrent, La Boue, Le Vent, La Lave”

Location: Toulouse, France
Subgenre: black metal

“La Pluie, Le Torrent, La Boue, Le Vent, La Lave,” the opening track on French black metal band Mourir’s second album, Disgrâce, is a masterclass in tension building. Want a flex? Here’s a flex: The quartet, which features members of Plebeian Grandstand, Drawers, Vermine, and Indigo Raven, comes to a dead stop five seconds into the track, letting the fifth note ring out. It’s not totally silent: Olivier Lolmède’s snarl wafts like smoke from an electrical fire while band members prepare themselves for riffs ahead … maybe. But the silence is long enough to make a part of me wonder if they’ll start playing again, as if the album might just tumble into 38 minutes of nervy minimalist post-modernism. Really, Ian? OK, I am not the smartest person, but, I mean, I wasn’t expecting Mourir to grind to a halt five notes in either.

There’s something so affecting about that false stop. It feels very … now, born of this particular moment in time. When it’s just amplifiers humming, strings being fretted, and Lolmède sounding like a cornered dog, it feels eternal even though it lasts seconds, like how days go by in minutes and minutes go by in days. And it’s uncomfortable. It forces me to reflect. It’s not quite a safe spot because I recognize that I’m now within a valley between stretches of chaos. Alone, with my own thoughts, the chaos seems preferable. I’ll take the external chaos over my internal chaos.

Spoiler: Mourir does start playing again. Another five-note micro-progression with a shorter respite. Rinse/repeat, with the time between getting shorter. Over these sections, the band gets restless: drummer Mahell plays an elongated tom roll and someone shouts in the background. When Mourir finally breaks free, with Alexandre Berenguer and Lolmède locking into a shivering trem, there’s still no relief. Nothing feels like it resolves. The tension mounts. That trem finally gives way to strums, a brief break suggesting another extended quiet. Nope, fake out. Nearly three minutes into the song, we’ve finally hit the verse, a grimy and grooving post-punk lurch, like Silencer gone This Heat. During the “chorus,” there’s release. Lolmède’s DSBM yell feels fully earned, a tortured howl trying to express what this pent-up tension does to the body, the internal chaos meeting the external chaos head-on.

Like everything we’re covering this month, the rest of Disgrâce isn’t content to sit still. For instance, the next song, “Que de chemins minables,” races along with speedier BPMs as Lolmède, Berenguer, and sneaky star Jean Green on bass pull off some really interesting stuff with the overtones. The production is perfect for that kind of stuff, the guitars becoming a soup of distortion while the drums provide a meaty thwap that keeps the tracks grounded and moving in the right direction. It’s kind of the goth/no-wave ideal applied to Plebeian Grandstand’s particular tumult. It sounds wonderful, provided you want to live within the tension in hopes of transcending it. [From Disgrâce, out 9/7 via Throatruiner Ṙecords / Total Dissonance Worship.]Ian Chainey

04

Sacral Night – “Une Dernière Étoile Avant Sirius”

Location: Grenoble, France
Subgenre: heavy metal

Sacral Night nails a ton of sweet spots, album art not the least among them. On the trad-ish powerhouse “Une dernière étoile avant Sirius,” a big brooding undercurrent evokes impending doom while a cosmic occult ritual unfolds. The vocal performance is a highlight here, and it plays like a narrated space epic: in the role of the earnest narrator, we have Vocalist Number 1 making expert use of the French-heavy-metal-special-move of solemn spoken word vocals, issuing proclamations, setting the scene, and calling out key protagonists; the Chorus consists of a pair of vocalists, one from the school of King Diamond, who bewail the cataclysmic events in histrionic fashion. The blackened blasting on display borrows from some of metal’s more extreme offspring, with sustained piston percussion central to the engine powering the action unfolding. Guitars are big and bold, occasionally bearing the imprint of death (metal’s) fiery embrace. It’s awesome, and gins up the spirits the way that only capital H and M Heavy Metal, worshiping at mystic altars of arcane power, can. [From Le Diadème D’argen, out now via No Remorse Records.]Wyatt Marshall

03

Mico – “Fauces”

Location: Cali, Colombia
Subgenre: black metal / grind / metalcore / sludge

Mico is a Columbian duo that specializes in loud sound maximalism. There’s no other way to explain Zigurat, the band’s second album. If there’s a metal or metal-adjacent genre with a stake in chaos, Mico has messed with it and turned up the volume.

Take “Fauces,” first released as a single back in 2020. It opens with an off-kilter groove that sounds like Coprofago, Cult Of Luna, and Slow Crush getting pulled apart and resembled in accordance to Mico’s blueprints. That’s what I can’t stop marveling at, that no matter where Mico goes or what it experiments with, it ends up sounding like Mico. For instance, “Fauces” develops into something I can only describe as shoegaze cut with screamo’s grindier/PV side. It’s a panorama of sunset-tinged guitar layers while Raise The Bullshit Flag-era Phoenix Bodies rockets out of a time displacement equipment portal and crashes its van right in front of you. That could be a whole dang discography for most bands. For Pablo Miguel Méndez and Iván Mauricio Zapata, it’s just the section before the careening death metal section and spooky black metal clattering that’s also part of the Until Your Heart Stops constellation. What’s all of this called? Well, “Fauces.” The album is Zigurat. The band is Mico. And it rules.

It may not surprise you that Ziguart is a concept album. Mico explained the basics to Idioteq recently. I’m going to quote this entire sentence:

“The gist is that the Judeo-Christian god has decided to answer all of the country’s prayers by sending an angel of death (called the Impious Seraphim in the lyrics), not only to carry out all the massacres and torture and inhumanity, but also to keep us all incapable of communicating effectively with each other despite speaking the same language, living in the same country, how we’re still unable to articulate a common reality, in this modern day Zigurat that is our fragmented world, hyperconnected by algorithms that are nudging changes into our behavior in ways we don’t yet fully understand.”

That’s pretty much the Mico experience: multiple grand observations shrink-rayed down to micro chunks and then stacked into a single maximal statement. It’s the closest I’ve heard a band come to matching Cleric’s Retrocausal, a similarly densely woven album. What unites the two bands is the commitment to playing multiple styles and executing them as genuinely as possible.

Really, outside of that long-ass sentence, the best way I can explain Mico’s approach is that there’s a legit noise track, “Pulso Corrupto,” on Zigurat that sounds like a legit noise track. That is something that non-noise bands dabble with but rarely execute well because executing it well requires the musicians believing it’s a core part of the band’s identity instead of a lark. The reason why Zigurat works so well is because it’s deeply, profoundly Mico. If it wasn’t, the band wouldn’t work this hard to use these songs to channel its anxieties.

“The album is pretty negative overall but I guess if I were to find a silver lining is that there’s an undertone of cathartic purging to it all,” Mico said in that Idioteq breakdown, “scathing, but better out than in, better loud than quiet.” It is, indeed, better loud. [From Zigurat, out now via Total Dissonance Worship.]Ian Chainey

02

Altars – “Perverse Entity”

Location: Adelaide / Melbourne, Australia
Subgenre: death metal

“Perverse Entity,” the second track on Altars’ long-awaited second album, Ascetic Reflection, opens with a familiar churn that you can immediately ID as death metal. In particular, it brings to mind that watershed moment when the heaving heaviosity of a new variant of extreme metal overtook and swallowed up its thrash roots. Tightly composed and without an ounce of flab, the section flies by so fast that you barely get a chance to catch your breath and notice that the Australian trio has expanded the scope by rebuilding the engine. The next section is still death metal in the Altars Of Madness/Dawn Of Possession-derived sense, but it’s also pushing the conventions of the form.

This stretch of “Perverse Entity” features one of my favorite parts of the album, a subtle call and response that punches above its weight. The call: Lewis Fischer’s guitars flash across the sky like lightning. The response: Brendan Sloan’s nimble bass lines ascend from hell to the heavens to meet them. Neat. The connective tissue is Alan Cadman’s brilliantly expressively drumming that almost feels more rock and roll than the ultra-quantized tech death robotocism found in certain sectors of death metal. Not that “Entity” is bereft of whiz-bang. Every player gets a highlight: Fischer’s Greg Ginn solo that spans a bridge, Sloan’s from-gut-to-throat scream, Cadman’s snappy snare rolls during the doomy conclusion. These elements stand out, but they all fit seamlessly into the songwriting, which is truly Altars’ best trait.

What a smart, engaging album. That may be because Ascetic Reflection refuses to drift into the two paths most taken. It neither slavishly reenacts the past nor attempts to invent the future. No, Altars is somewhere in between, striking the right balance, zooming down a middle path. It is, in fact, very death metal in a classical sense, but it endeavors to eliminate tropes and unnecessary sections. To be clear, it’s not trying to fix the style but maximize its potential. I get the sense these are death metal lovers who want to prevent themselves going the easy route.

I can’t believe I’m using the following quote in a death metal blurb, but, hey, maybe that’s the point. As relayed in John Jeremiah Sullivan’s “That Don’t Get Him Back Again,'” Alex Chilton once told Robert Gordon, “Most of the Big Star stuff was searching for how to get through two verses without saying anything really stupid.”

I think that’s also Altars’ general approach. Ascetic Reflection feels labored over in pursuit of that perfect harmony: death metal but not stupid. In many ways, the lyrics are the best example of this type of workmanship. Like, I can’t get over how much information is imparted in a two-word stanza like “perpetual anathema.” Sounds excellent when Sloan howls it, too, because of course it does. That’s the thing: Altars elements are constantly in conversation with each other, from the cover art on down. It’s all done with purpose, although I don’t think everything was preordained. Altars sounds too kinetic for everything to be planned out. I think it knew where it was going and left the rest up to chance. At least, that’s what the chills down my spine tell me when the “Bullet the Blue Sky,” slide-y guitars of “Opening the Passage” kick in.

I’ll probably regret this comparison, but when has that ever stopped me. This phase of Altars reminds me a lot of Slint and Rodan, outfits straining against the formalities of their styles without leaving those styles altogether. To that end, despite Sloan stepping in on bass and vocals, this is still the same Altars of 2013’s Paramnesia. There was this thing that former vocalist/bassist Cale Schmidt said to The Midlands Rocks that continues to sum up Altars well: “I wanted it to be like a drive through the mountains at night. Twisting darkness, objects appearing and disappearing, moments of terror and exhilaration.” Ascetic Reflection is also that, but the rally car version. Darkness, terror, exhilaration, but you’re guided by someone with a map, giving you directions to make it through those mountains in record time. Same drive, same death metal, but it’s even more thrilling when you can feel the power of a finely tuned machine. [From Ascetic Reflection, out now via Everlasting Spew Records.]Ian Chainey

01

Alburnum – “Eeuwig Licht”

Location: The Netherlands
Subgenre: atmospheric black metal

Alburnum hews forlorn melodies from ancient wood, working from an organic palette to build immersive tracks that take turns between marveling and meandering and screaming in vain rage. “Eeuwig Licht,” is the single from the band’s debut, and, though it was released back in May, it’s still the highlight. There’s a build and blast pattern to the track, and it’s pretty close to tone perfect for the style, with acoustics coming in to break things up like happening upon a clearing in dense forest. The raspy vocals will bring to mind those of Agalloch’s Haughm, a style that remains best in class for evoking both storm-swept, swaying forest canopies and snow-covered crags. That said, it should be noted that Robbert van Rumund is on drums in Alburnum (a duo, with “D.B.” doing everything else); he’s the mastermind of the mighty Zeegang (and has hands in about 20 other bands), a project that makes a case for best winter soundtrack with slow-motion, hazy black and gray metal–though, in the case of Zeegang, it’s best suited for willfully trudging into a white-out, night-time blizzard with no intent of making it out alive. As a Dutch black metal band, there will inevitably be links to the rest of the rich scene headed up by luminaries like Fluisteraars, Turia, et al., and while in the guitars and production there are comparisons to be made, Alburnum is walking a different, more focused path than many of their compatriots. [From Buitenlucht, out now via Babylon Doom Cult Records.]Wyatt Marshall

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