Botch’s Glorious Return And The Myth Of The Failed Metal Comeback
The dreaded comeback. When it goes wrong, unwanted records flood the markets, razorblades slide under stickers, and tattoo shops are booked solid with coverup appointments. At least, that’s what some fans imagine are the stakes. In their minds, goofing up the comeback is a legacy wrecker, the irreversible sin of the presumed cynical cash grab. Because, well, what else could bring a band back from the dead? Enduring friendships? The joy of playing music with other people? Pfft. Right, next you’ll tell me Mortiis is wearing a mask.
But what if the failed comeback is a myth? What if it’s just punk rock fear-mongering? While a few big-name comeback boondoggles do exist, the biffed-it boogiemen whose parables have trained us to think that it’s better to fade away than take a festival paycheck, what if the majority of bands that reform end up being… fine? You know, the respectable revivification. Is that really so rare? Hey, I have a pot of coffee, 8,000 tabs opened to Encyclopaedia Metallum and RateYourMusic, and a searing case of curiosity. Sounds like we have an intro.
Now, I must admit, I didn’t think I’d be writing about this stuff again so soon. After all, I explored the related late-career return to forms, rebounds, and clunkers a couple months ago in the wake of In Flames stunning the world by deciding to be OK again. (For the record, In Flames titling their second single “The Great Deceiver” hasn’t exactly quelled my anxiety that the melodeath band’s return, as my bud Ramar Pittance mused, is actually being spearheaded by Nathan Fielder.) Ah, but as I wrote in that intro, In Flames weren’t making a comeback because they have never broken up. Although plenty of annoying social media influencers and politicians have tried, you can’t come back if you never leave. I purposely punted on comebacks because I didn’t have time to pull together the data. I figured I wouldn’t have to dig into comebacks for another decade or three or whenever this new Coroner album will be finished and released.
And then, on Aug. 24, Botch dropped their first new song in 20 years. It was a “holy moly” moment for elder metalcore maniacs such as myself. That bombshell followed another “holy moly” news item that rocked the same demographic: Deadguy would be releasing new material on a split with Pig Destroyer. These aren’t forgotten demo bands returning to wring out some weekend warrior bucks. These are real-deal comebacks.
Better still, Botch’s “One Twenty Two” is pretty good. David Verellen’s voice has deepened but still sounds like a human jet engine. Tim Latona’s characteristically rock-solid drumming still shifts time like a hidden treadmill beneath your feet. David Knudson’s guitars still squiggle unlike any other despite giving rise to entire styles. (Compare this song to the new, very good track by Pillar Of Wasps to hear where the kids have taken it.) Brian Cook’s bass still fills up the rest of the spectrum, a humungous throbbing thrum. Basically, it still sounds like Botch. But, more importantly, it sounds like Botch 20 years later. These four musicians aren’t trying to Weekend At Bernie’s a long-dormant band. Cutting another “Thank God For Worker Bees” in 2022 would be bleak. Instead, “One Twenty Two” sounds like everyone’s intervening experiences, such as Minus The Bear and Russian Circles achieving the popularity Botch deserved during their original run, have modified the band’s muscle memory. And thus, “One Twenty Two” doesn’t sound like An Anthology of Dead Ends B-side, but something these grown folks who are not denying their grown-ness cut to reconnect during the pandemic. In other words, it’s like Botch-plus. As comebacks go, you couldn’t ask for much more.
Most of the people on my various timelines celebrated the return. But, naturally, a few sour patch punks thought “One Twenty Two” smelled like crass capitalism. The grumblings were enough to force Cook to tweet about it.
Let me pull this part out:
It gets tough for me to hold that line when public opinion comes into play. It doesn’t bring me joy to field the routine festival offers, but it also doesn’t bring me joy to see people project their cynicism onto any discussion of current Botch activity. Believe me, I get it. So much of what makes a band special is specific to time and place. Taking it out of that context can sully it. Then again, I can’t tell you how happy it made me to see Rorschach on their reunion run or to see Unbroken play at the benefit for Eric Allen. Putting out a new song isn’t going to satisfy the fans that want a full reunion and it isn’t going to please the people who hold the band as some sacred entity. It wasn’t intended to be a Botch song; it was intended to be its own thing. But it was the 4 of us, and it felt right, and doing something with my four old friends during the loneliness of lockdown for the pure joy of creation was ultimately more important than public opinion.
I mean, I get it. I’m guilty of reflexively sighing “why” whenever I see a comeback announcement. I generally try to live by the teachings of the great philosopher Dag Nasty, that “I wish I could learn to never go back.” And there is something depressing about the hardcore nostalgia circuit that’s summed up in the old joke “I’m finally seeing Hellfest 2k at [insert next festival here]” that gets grimmer by the year.
However, “One Twenty Two” truly does seem like a one-off, fulfilling its purpose as a reissue bonus, taking the place of the remix at the end of We Are The Romans that has sounded bad to me since the day I first heard Venetian Snares. In that light, it doesn’t feel craven. If anything, it’s kind of altruistic. At the time I’m writing this, the cheapest LP version of Romans on the Discogs marketplace is priced at $74. A more affordable reissue is doing a solid for everyone who missed it the first time.
But, in my mind, the most compelling argument for Botch’s comeback is… who cares? It’s Botch’s band. The members have the right to do whatever they want, just as I have the right not to listen to it. The latter, I must remember, is the only thing I have control over in this situation. And there is transcendence in the acceptance of that fact. That’s why I gave up on this notion that it’s a mark against me if a band I like cuts a clunker. Music isn’t sports, and the idea of the “flawless discography” is a fallacy that has probably irrevocably borked more artists’ brains than laid the groundwork for good artistic decisions. That’s not to say that bands shouldn’t endeavor to create exciting, creative, worthwhile art, it’s that they shouldn’t be held to some impossible standard by fans who have bet their whole identities on results that are meaningful only to them. (I should probably write an intro on this, but if you reconfigure your fandom to be a fan of albums instead of bands, a lot of the baggage, at least the non-sketchy baggage, goes away. Ride The Lightning will never disappoint me.) People change. People grow. And often, people grow apart. That’s what makes life interesting. While I’m still friends with some people I knew 20 years ago, I’m definitely not friends with all of the people I knew 20 years ago. They don’t know that, though, because I’ve muted them on Facebook.
Anyway, Botch got thinking about comebacks, specifically in metal. Is there any credence to the pervasive fear that a comeback will always spell doom for a discography? What percentage of comebacks are actually good? I am on the case.
To start out, let’s define terms. A “comeback” is when a band reforms and releases new material. It’s applied explicitly to the first non-demo release post-resurrection. That is to say, if a band screws up the comeback, it can’t come back again with a better follow-up unless it breaks up between the two albums. There’s only one comeback, no takebacks. As an example, think of Celtic Frost’s post-Into The Pandemonium years. Cold Lake is a comeback because it’s the first album after a breakup. Vanity/Nemesis, a better album, isn’t a comeback. However, Monotheist is a comeback since it was released on the side of another breakup.
The period before a breakup that includes the band’s classic material is the “OG incarnation” or the OGI. The period after a comeback is the “post-resurrection incarnation” or PRI. For bands that have broken up multiple times and released music in each period, a “Larry King phase,” LKP, will denote these tweener periods, named in honor of the oft-divorced broadcaster. (I tried really hard to dub this period the “pre-comeback” or the “pre-come,” but I was continually shot down for reasons I don’t understand.) Here’s all that in action: The US power metallers Jag Panzer have split three times. They released one album during their OGI, the classic Ample Destruction. Then, it returned with Dissident Alliance in 1994, an album my podcast partner described recently as “innovatively awful.” It’s a tough break for ol’ Jag Panzer because Dissident Alliance is forever a comeback despite rest of the albums in the LKP being pretty decent. That LKP ended with The Scourge Of The Light. Jag Panzer, now in full Dad Panzer mode, kicked off their current PRI with 2017’s The Deviant Chord, the second comeback of its career.
Three more terms. The last album released before a breakup is called the “auf wiedersehen” or AW. The AW sets the baseline. It helps measure the quality of the comeback, similar to how rebounds and clunkers were calculated. If the comeback is better than the AW, it’s a “plumback.” If it is worse than the AW, it is a “backfire.”
OK, moving on. I created a 101-band database of higher-profile breakups to makeups that resulted in a comeback. The breakup lengths ranged from one year (Hypocrisy) to 25 (Witch Cross). The genres ran the gamut, but I tried to adhere to the distribution I found when tracking new band formations. Next, I pulled the EP/LP discographies for each band. This is important: I condensed the LKPs for each band into an extended OGI or PRI based on my understanding of the bands’ histories. (Due to time constraints, it made more sense to try to focus on one breakup and one comeback. Admittedly, this is terrible stats, and, once again, I have been sentenced to life for flagrant blurb crimes and sent to the same maximum security list-maker jail holding Aaron.) For instance, Jag Panzer’s LKP became one long PRI. This made the results less accurate, but it preserved the few remaining threads of my sanity. Finally, I applied the respective RateYourMusic (RYM) ratings to each EP/LP.
Cool? Cool. All of this was done in the interest of answering five questions:
- What percentage of bands have PRIs that are rated, on average, higher than their OGIs?
- What percentage of comeback releases are plumbacks?
- What percentage of bands improved after their comebacks?
- Did the length of the breakup factor into the above questions?
- Did genre factor into the above questions?
Before I break down the findings, I have a few caveats and misgivings. This section will be shorter than usual since this is the 800th installment in this series and you can read more in-depth rundowns elsewhere. Let’s hit the big ones first:
- Yes, RYM isn’t an objective measure of quality. I disagree with a lot of the ratings. The user base is rife with weaklings. Morbid Angel’s Kingdoms Disdained is a great album, goddamnit. But the wisdom of the masses happens to be the best set of numbers we’ve got for this kind of exercise.
- Yes, the sample size is small. I should’ve chosen more than 101 bands. Also, why 101? I forgot Sacrifice had a comeback and just tossed it in there. Science!
- Yes, if you’re new here, it is plainly evident that I am not a statistician. Assume I screwed all this up worse than hiring a cormorant to feed your fish while you’re on vacation.
- Yes, I am an idiot.
Here are a few other things worth pointing out that are specific to this exercise. Feel free to take a nap. I’ll wake you up as soon as I’m done.
- I’m relying on Metallum data to determine breakups and breakup lengths. I’m assuming that some of the data is inaccurate. On the other hand, it feels like some bands were on break for longer because of the time between full-lengths. As an example, five years passed between Riot’s Born In America and Thundersteel, but the band was only inactive for two of those years. Where possible, I tried to fact-check these dates with press releases.
- If a band started operating under a different name, such as when Satan became Blind Fury and Pariah, I considered it broken up for those stretches. Changing your band name is what you’re supposed to do. It’s common courtesy. I also didn’t count spin-off bands such as Entombed A.D. OG Entombed won’t appear in this database because they haven’t yet released a comeback album.
- If a band reformed briefly to play a festival or tour and didn’t release new music, I didn’t feel like that reset the breakup clock. Again, this is another thing that you’re supposed to do, become a legacy band and play the hits live and forget everything else exists.
- Ideally, I should’ve created a weighting system a la the Trad Belt to ensure that EPs with a couple ratings didn’t body albums with 10,000. Maybe next time.
- I didn’t count archival releases.
- I didn’t count re-recorded albums. Those are still a bad idea and bands shouldn’t make them.
- The second biggest problem with this study is that many bands only have one album in their OGIs or PRIs. I’ll note whenever this skews the findings.
- The biggest problem with this study is that I am an idiot.
[*places a boombox next to your head and cranks Mulk*] Hey, did you have a good nap? Here are my findings:
What percentage of bands have PRIs that are rated, on average, higher than their OGIs?
As you might expect, this percentage is low… but it’s not too low: 19.8%. The more I think about it, the more incredible this number becomes. A nearly one in five chance that a comeback will result in better material than a band’s original run? That ain’t bad. If that holds up across all of metal, I think that pretty much dismantles the failed comeback falsehood. Some comebacks do indeed work out.
Keep in mind, that’s a straight comparison. The numbers only get better if I lower the threshold. And I have my reasons to do just that. I believe fans are harder on post-comeback material because they have more context for those releases. Context is the great demystifier in music. Of course, this is total conjecture, and we’re veering off into what has been affectionately called “Ian Bullshit,” but my theory is that most fans prefer music they have less context for because the surprise, and therefore the general impact, is more significant. Even if they develop more context for that music later, the imprint of that impact remains. That’s probably an intro for another time.
Anyway, I thought it would be interesting to see what would happen if I instituted a similar rule to the form line from the clunkers study. So, I measured how many PRIs were rated, on average, within 95% of the average OGI release. That bumped the percentage of successes up to 57.43. If I set the baseline to 90%, 79.21% of PRIs clear that hurdle.
Nevertheless, here’s a dose of reality: 90% of a RateYourMusic rating isn’t always pretty. The website rates albums out of five. Previously, I set the hot take line at 3.15, in that if you liked an album rated below that marker, that is a pretty spicy predilection. 90% of 3.15 is 2.84, a smidgen below the current rating for Lucifer’s Friend’s Sumogrip, i.e., Carolina Reaper spicy. Still, if you said a band could return to 90% of its previous power, I’m guessing many fans would take that kind of comeback.
What percentage of comeback releases are plumbacks?
39.6%, meaning 60.4% are backfires. Considering how many AWs were the reasons bands broke up in the first place, this feels right. If I set the bar at 95% of an AW, plumbacks jump to 65.35%.
What percentage of bands improved after their comebacks?
22.77% of bands had a PRI that averaged a better rating than their comeback albums. This number is likely deflated by bands with only one album in their PRIs.
Did the length of the breakup factor into the above questions?
I was surprised by this one: Not really.
I broke the breakup lengths into five categories: one to five years, six to 10, 11 to 15, 16 to 20, and 20-plus. The numbers were pretty consistent across the board. The only thing worth reporting is that bands broken up for more than 15 years rarely seem to better their OGIs. Only Pagan Altar pulled it off. (This is controversial since Pagan Altar’s lone OGI release, 1982’s Pagan Altar, later retitled Judgement Of The Dead for numerous reissues, is listed in Metallum as a demo. Eh. It’s an album to me. What are you going to do? Send me to list-maker jail? I’m already serving a life sentence. Someone can’t serve consecutive life sentences, right? Oh, they can? Welp, that’s weird and shitty.) Really, though, the sample size is so tiny (eight bands) I don’t feel comfortable calling it an effect.
Did genre factor into the above questions?
I wasn’t surprised by this one: Kind of, but I’d take this with a massive grain of salt.
First, yes, again, the sample size: more minuscule than the collected works of Gath Šmânê. Second, considering that I put together the database, I’m assuming some unconscious bias came into play. Successful comebacks tend to stick in my brain more than failed attempts. It wouldn’t surprise me if I leaned hard in the direction of the former.
Whatever. No one cares about rigor. Genre fans want to gloat, so let’s get to gloating. In order to ensure a bigger return, I set the OGI vs. PRI bar at 95%. I then sorted bands via tags. (You can read the band formation intro for a breakdown on tags in Metallum, but suffice to say, some bands have more than one tag. Tags are also subjective, bands evolv, etc.) Here’s how they’re ranked based on their success rates:
- Black metal (80%)
- Doom metal (72.73%)
- Heavy metal (62.96%)
- Power metal (61.54%)
- Thrash (50%)
- Prog metal (50%)
- Speed metal (45.45%)
- Death metal (42.11%)
(I was uncomfortable ranking the other genres because they had even smaller sample sizes.)
You can read into the results however you want. Like, as a death metal fan, of course death metal is last because we’re people of taste and have high standards. Yep. That’s totally it. Please don’t read the high-standards names of bands in my Bandcamp collection. Beyond that, I’m a little surprised that black metal (80%!) beat doom (72.73%), the quintessential old dog genre. But, perhaps black metal fans are more forgi-hahahahahahaha. Wow, I almost finished that sentence.
Wrapping up, what does this all mean? Not a damn thing. That Botch song is good, though. I’d like to write that it didn’t…botch the comeback, but that’s a dad joke so powerful that Athena would burst out of my forehead and bleeding out in blurb jail is not the way I want to go out. –Ian Chainey
FOUL EMANATIONS FROM THE VOID
Stygian Love – “Take Me In”
Location: Flanders, Belgium
August was good to all of us who work in the Bandcamp blackgaze mines. Bountiful. Maybe a little overwhelming. Case in point: Stygian Love’s “Take Me In” would have been my personal pick for #1 in plenty of other months; in this month, however, I’ve written about three songs, and this one finds itself walking away with the bronze. Still, it sounds like gold.
There’s an inevitable Sadness reference to be made here, and that influence is apparent within… 30 seconds of the first note being played? Something like that. Basically, it hits as soon as you hear the first cymbal crash. That right there is a Damián Ojeda signature “here it comes” cymbal crash. “Take Me In” glides in on a sound much like the one you hear when Sadness goes epic: those mountainous, billowing, beautiful gusts. But where Sadness operate on a limitless plane with no boundaries or tethers, Stygian Love find a way to make those same sounds even bigger by containing them in a smaller space. It’s like clouds in a cathedral rather than clouds in the sky.
Still, there’s more to Stygian Love than a simple Sadness comparison. After its initial burst, “Take Me In” moves elegantly from blackgaze to… shoegaze? I guess they’re sorta the same thing now? But I digress. Without noticing anything has changed, you find yourself in waters first charted by My Bloody Valentine on Loveless; an ethereal bath of gentle distortion and helium breeze. At other points, it takes different turns, evinces different faces as seen from different angles. You can hear strains of Viking-era Bathory, as well as the delicate, whispery grandeur of such intensely refined funeral-doom artists as Ahab. And more. (Hell, that plinky piano could be on a Ghost record, if you squint hard enough.) And yet, for all its leaps in different directions, “Take Me In” has a strong melodic center, a steady sense of direction, almost a narrative arc. It feels seamless and satisfying. It’s an outstanding piece of composition. Performance, too.
Stygian Love is an anonymous artist from Belgium who goes only by the initial G, and “Take Me In” is the opening track on their new four-song record, Solace… It’s the debut release from Stygian Love (I don’t know a single thing about G and I probably never will), and I’d be lying if I said any of the other three songs here are on quite the same level as “Take Me In.” It’s almost as if G finished “Take Me In,” and immediately (and correctly) realized it was great, so he rushed it into the world with three other demos that hadn’t been developed to the same degree. Even so, there’s a goddamn ton in those rawer, less-polished tracks that excites the hell out of me, maybe even more so – there’s just so much to dream on. “Take Me In,” meanwhile, sounds like a dream realized, or maybe just a dream. [From Solace…, out now via the artist.] –Michael Nelson
Violet Cold – "Shazam The Void"
Subgenre: atmospheric black metal
Violet Cold’s Empire of Love was one of the best metal albums of 2021, an awe-inspiring missive from an imperfect future where planetary and personal existential dramas play out against a surreal backdrop. The theme of struggle for individuality and humanity against prevailing powers coursed through Empire of Love – and graced its cover – and Violet Cold’s recent work seems particularly suited to cinematically render life-affirming beauty and hope amidst chaos. “Shazam The Void” picks up where Empire of Love left off, with massive, crashing waves of searing guitars and synths guiding sad, resolute melodies into alien sunsets. Eastern instrumentation and an earworm vocal sample heighten feelings of displacement, remnants of a relinquished past as a rocket tears away. Emin Guliyev, who has conjured worlds of magic and melancholy as Violet Cold for nearly a decade, left the artistically repressive Azerbaijan in recent years, and he continues to inhabit these worlds of wonder from wherever he physically resides. [From Shazam The Void, out now via the band.] –Wyatt Marshall
Müür – "Grief Ascension (Amaranthine Flame)"
Subgenre: atmospheric black metal
Müür’s gray haze seeps in like a fog and steadily consumes all in sight, layering dreary malaise onto an already bleak boggy landscape. You can find beauty in this desolation, and Müür channel it through melancholy melodies of palpable regret and loss, while screams that are equally parts howled and barked beg to be heard from beneath. There’s a hypnotic quality at work on “Grief Ascension (Amaranthine Flame),” a mix of Paysage d’Hiver blurred riffage and woodsy reverence that takes hold, smothers, and clings tight over a surprisingly quick 18 minutes. As the song progresses, aggravation grows, struggling to break free through the oppressive dread atmosphere before falling back into the murk from which it rose. With no one claiming credit for Müür’s work there’s not much context to offer, though Metal-Archives will tell you its name translates from the Dutch word “Muur” to “Wall.” With little to hold onto, the project is as mysterious as the mental image it conjures. [From Grief Ascension, out now via the band.] –Wyatt Marshall
Asunojokei – "Heavenward"
Location: Taito, Japan
Japan probably doesn’t get enough burn for its place in blackgaze. I wouldn’t go so far as to call it the genre’s birthplace, but it has some legitimate claim to that title: As much is owed to Envy as is owed to Alcest in terms of the music as we hear it today.
It’s not just Envy. Asunojokei, from the city of Taito, formed in 2014, and over the last half-decade have been one of the huger blackgaze acts on Bandcamp – and therefore, in the world. And as Asunojokei’s profile has grown, so has their sound. I got hip to them on 2018’s Awakening, their excellent debut album, and I included their most recent record, the Wishes EP, on my list of 2020’s best releases. The Asunojokei that made those records was a fucking killer band. The Asunojokei that made this new record, however, sounds like the band that ate that first band.
The new record in question is called Island; it’s Asunojokei’s second full-length, and to be honest, I hate that I chose to write about it, because you know what? You can’t write shit when this beast is in your headphones just ripping it the fuck up. I’m not really joking. I literally have to stop the record in order to collect myself and type this shit. I don’t even know how to write about it. Like, I gotta single out one song to pull for you guys? Gimme a break. There are 11 songs here. They’re all different from one another, and they all do different things, aside from the fact that they all shred like fuck. Pick any one of these songs, it doesn’t matter: As soon as it hits, your whole horrified face will burst into flames and your skull will be reduced to black ash. I’m not sure I’ve ever heard another record that is both this exhilarating and this exhausting. I’m telling you, you will get the best sleep of your life after spending the better part of an hour in this rainbow-cloud-tornado weather event. It’s got the high-variance peaks and valleys found on the big-dog blackgaze albums, except here, every time you think you’ve reached a peak, you soon discover it’s not the actual peak, and it is possibly, in fact, a valley. It just goes so hard, so high, and it does not stop.
The thing that immediately separates Asunojokei from 99.9% of all blackgaze is: This is a full band – not a bedroom outfit – and the musicians in this band are powerhouses. Outside of Deafheaven and Astronoid, it’s pretty hard to find anybody in this style who does it like this: just mammoth hotshots at every position, all of them playing so fucking tight that you’re thrown into a manic frenzy, speaking in tongues and running into walls and whatnot. Asunojokei fucking slay, dude. I’m sayin’! They do not stop!
Island does a lot of things like Deafheaven, in fact – particularly Deafheaven on Sunbather and New Bermuda. Island might be … as good as those albums, too? Feels weird to say that, but I’m not sure I have another option, unless I wanna take a perjury charge. But nah, I can’t lie to you guys. This is the goods. This is a big, big sound, and a big, big album. It is here expressly to level you and levitate you and leave you back on the goddamn ground, sputtering and speechless. If you think you have a choice in the matter, just…try it. Just try it! See how that goes for you.
You can start by pressing play on the song I’ve chosen to feature here. It’s called “Heavenward,” and it opens Island. I can’t say for sure that it’s my favorite song on the album, but it’s definitely one of my 11 favorites, and as the opening number, it kicks down the door for everything else to rush in. And not just the door – it also kicks so much ass. [From Island, out now via the band.] –Michael Nelson
Wake – "Infinite Inward"
Location: Alberta, Canada
Subgenre: blackened death metal
Wake hit like an absolute maelstrom, and their new album Thought Form Descent delivers some of the tightest, most intricate and heavy hitting tracks you’ll hear this year. “Infinite Inward” kicks off the album, and it’s got everything that put “Beyond Empyrean” from their last album Confluence at the top of our November 2020 list. Multi-geared, grinding riffs, disorienting batteries of drums, crushing hits, and meticulous melodic underpinnings combine into a mille-feuille of blackened death that reveals more with each successive cut. A constant blast of technical excellence shoots from start to finish across Wake’s works, but it’s how this beam of black energy plays into a vast, immersive mix that really sets Wake apart. Everything just feels huge with Wake, and as “Infinite Inward” movies forward you marvel at things like the carousel of vocals that growl and shout and howl, the innumerable gear shifts, and the feeling of following into bottomless atmosphere. It’s a marvel of musicianship, production, and ambition, and Wake have only continued to accelerate on Thought Form Descent. [From Thought Form Descent, out now via Metal Blade Records.] –Wyatt Marshall
Harlequin – "Trapanrot"
Location: Los Angeles, CA
Subgenre: death metal
Remember Harlequin? Last year, I covered Deep Throat, the live compilation issued by Transylvanian Recordings. “There’s just something about recordings of live death metal that, when it works, it really works,” I wrote. “At its best, a good live recording harnesses the messy, live-wire spark of real musicians really playing in the real world and uses it to propel the band to new heights.”
The subtext of that blurb was that if Harlequin brought any of that energy to the studio, they would deliver a winner. Nearly a year later, here’s the trophy: Origin Of Suffering, the Los Angeles trio’s second album. Standout “3120” sounds just as energetically unhinged as it did on Deep Throat. A live wire? Yeah, in the sense that it feels like an electrocution, sending a million volts of grinding death metal through your body.
Harlequin is partly powered by its performances. Take “Trapanrot,” a prime example of the overall enslayment. Think if Dying Fetus descended into the rug-burns-on-a-face delirium of Deicide’s Legion. Tawney Arredondo’s vocals take center stage because, I mean, listen to them. They’re what a chipmunk hears before an eagle eats it. Rachel Solis’ roars add depth and dimension, underlining Arredondo’s killer highs with guttural rumbles. The two have the same interplay instrumentally. Arredondo’s guitar shred is kinetic, bouncing between extreme styles. Solis’s skillful bass playing highlights some runs and adds bounce to others. Drummer Neyda Umana keeps the songs on track by being just as frenzied, using every blast and fill to generate more propulsion. It’s like a sheepdog keeping the herd together by doing backflips. I imagine everyone looking like they ran a marathon by the end of these absolute burners.
However, more than the performances, what makes Origin Of Suffering so engaging is its eclectic quirkiness. On the opening title track, Arredondo’s throat-searing scream pairs awesomely with guest Michelle Solis’ operatic singing, easily Vince Carter-ing Cradle Of Filth. “Riot”‘s extended, sample-heavy bridge should be sent to space as a time capsule of the last couple of years. Plus, the punchline is perfect. And, yes, the Mass Psychosis acoustic interludes rule. But pay special attention to “Sine Sole Sileo.” It’s the watershed, a straight-up black metal banger, trading in the brutal death metal pinch harmonics for Dark Fortress-y triumph. After that, Suffering’s dynamics change and it gets gooier. Rachel Solis takes on a more prominent role, particularly on the slammier “FTB” that fits in one of the better Burnt By The Sun riffs I’ve heard in a bit. (The album seems to naturally cleave into three parts. I’m wondering if every member took a crack at composing.) And then “We Didn’t Planet” is so gonzo, it would be a shame to spoil it. Wild.
I love this stuff. It takes me back to when I first started listening to death metal, my ears uncorrupted by categorization and codification, not knowing what might come next. I distinctly remember hearing Cephalic Carnage and Nuclear Death on the same day and being like, “What the heck am I getting myself into?” and loving every second of it. Origin Of Suffering, particularly its back half, gives me that same sort of high. It’s very Cephalic Carnage-meets-Nuclear Death, a rollicking ride that tickles my brain while melting my face. If you miss those wild-westy days when everything felt new and fresh, Harlequin is like flipping back to the beginning of your personal Choose Your Own Adventure book. I’m going to remember this one. [From Origin of Suffering, out now via the band.] —Ian Chainey
Fog Kingdom – "As The Battle Rages Through The Endless Night"
Location: Canada / France
Subgenre: black metal
Fog Kingdom return to the field on “As The Battle Rages Through The Endless Night,” dialing up the majesty glimpsed on the band’s 2019 demo as sword and shield clash in moonlit struggle. Heroic melodies are your guide, blasting and galloping as fortunes sway and charges renew. From Wyrm and Lila Starless, the latter of whom has appeared in the column with their similarly medieval-minded bands Ardente and Starlight Salvation, Fog Kingdom also occupy but even more clearly embrace the realm of epic fantasy. Though the production is raw, the instrumentation has bite, with a constant onslaught of earthshaking double kicks and endlessly dancing guitarwork at furious work behind Wyrm’s superbly phlegmy, in-your-face rasp. It’s this combination of valorant melodies and real sonic heft – along with a dash of effortless style – that elevates Fog Kingdom above the rest. [From Of Long Forgotten Battles, out now via the band.] –Wyatt Marshall
KEN mode – "But They Respect My Tactics"
Location: Winnipeg, Canada
Subgenre: noise rock / sludge / post-hardcore
I don’t know how KEN mode keep doing it. “But They Respect My Tactics” is KEN mode through and through, but it’s harsher, gnarlier, better. Then again, that could sum up any new KEN mode record, a discography that has been quite the journey with no end point in sight.
NULL, the Winnepeg band’s eighth full-length, has two modes: heavily heaving noise rock and industrial-y, no-wave dirges. “Tactics” belongs to the former, building a bevy of textures and rhythms atop Scott Hamilton’s bass and Shane Matthewson’s nifty drumming. Jesse Matthewson’s riffs alternate between off-kilter arpeggios and head-nodding grooves. His vocals add another rhythmic layer that ties “Tactics” together and makes it satisfyingly knotty. And the lyrics ride that line between round-the-gallows funny and gut-punchingly true. “All grow frail and die,” Matthewson roars. “No power lasts. Success is fleeting. Existence: temporary.”
KEN mode’s existence has been anything but temporary, continually reinventing and refining its sound. For example, multi-instrumentalist Kathryn Kerr, who debuted on the excellent Loved, is let loose on NULL, adding a ton of neat timbres. Kerr’s sax on album opener “A Love Letter” squeezes on an acidic contrast. It sounds dangerous and unpredictable, like getting yelled at by a drunk. These extra earworms shine, making NULL the richest album of the quartet’s career sonically and emotionally.
Take “Lost Grip,” the 10-minute centerpiece. It’s a masterclass in Swans-y agony that fits an aching Nine Inch Nails-esque melody atop martial drumming. Jesse Matthewson’s tired, wounded vocals sound like someone’s conscience, while the gang vocals are a Greek chorus that might as well be social media’s id. When “Lost Grip” explodes cathartically, it’s a real release. Matthewson’s howls are one part Steve Austin, one part John Mohr, and two parts end of the world. “We deserve this,” the chorus cries over a guitar lead that sounds like bolts of electricity emanating from a Tesla coil.
Do we deserve KEN mode, though? A loud, noisy band finding critical success that gets louder, noisier, and more uncompromising with every release? That’s not the road most taken. “For me personally, my own concept of success kinda more has to do with the journey rather than the end point and a lot of it is just constantly growing and learning and experiencing new things,” Jesse Matthewson said to Northern Transmissions in 2015. Perhaps that’s why KEN mode have been able to keep their foot on the gas: They’re refueled and reinvigorated by the experiential effects of making music.
NULL is KEN mode at their peak as composers, especially in the memorably lyric department, navigating these songs with old-hand know-how. What blows me away is that it somehow retains that young-band spark. To be continually doing this style this convincingly this far into a career is really something. To not burn out, but burn brighter? To survive the goddamn Velvet Unicorn? I don’t know how KEN mode do it. I respect the tactics, though. [From NULL, out 9/23 via Artoffact Records.] —Ian Chainey
Dispar – "Skin"
Blackgaze might be the first significant metal subgenre to be born into the streaming world, and as such, it’s evolved both apart and away from metal – as well as absolutely everything else. Surfing Blackgaze Bandcamp today reminds me of tape-trading at the dawn of death metal, when every new demo or debut felt totally unlike anything else out there.
And this music, blackgaze, it really is unlike anything else. You gotta remember, all the people who are doing this stuff, they’re verging into the unknown. They’re sitting at home, obsessively hunched in front of a computer at 4AM, tweaking reverb, making a whole genre – and making it whatever they wanna make it. There are no maps, no rules, no ancient elders to guide the way. There are no gates, so there are no gatekeepers. It’s life on fuckin’ Mars out here. Put your flag wherever you want. And if Mars starts to feel too confining, we’ll just move to Venus. We can take this anywhere.
And it can arrive from anywhere. One of the coolest things about blackgaze’s streaming-life evolution is the fact that game-changing new artists can emerge instantly, at any moment, from…wherever. Nowhere. Everywhere. Somewhere else.
There’s something hot happening in Brazil right now. You can hear it in the 2022 releases from Empty Inside, Sonhos Tomam Conta, and F1D31. It’s textured, spacious, hypnotic stuff; it feels both narcotic and psychedelic. It’s expansive and unconventional. And it’s really, really great. I highly recommend you listen to all those albums I just mentioned. Truly, I tell you, they are great. But Dispar is something greater.
Dispar is, naturally, a one-man show, and totally anonymous except for the inclusion of a fairly clear, color photograph of the artist on his Bandcamp page (which perhaps takes away some of the “anonymous black-metal dude” mystique, but he’s a cool-looking guy, so I get it). And Hopeless (demo) is his first and only release so far. It’s also… a demo. It does not sound like a fucking demo. This is as lush, as powerful, and as exquisitely rendered as blackgaze gets: hooks the size of Niagara Falls; a sound the size of the goddamn moon. It’s simply beautiful music with some pretty serious thump. I wanna isolate all the finest components of this thing, but I don’t even know where to start. I cannot get over the vocals; they sound absolutely fucking unreal. The mix is insane. The production is like crystal chimes echoing in the hallways of the Sistine Chapel. That deep bass throb? That shit will work out knots in your back if you let it. And those synth loops? That sweet feedback glaze? THOSE GLIDE GUITARS?? Good lord. Fucking glorious, bro. It’s a truly magnificent sonic experience – listen to it on headphones and it feels like you’re submerged in an ocean of warm electric swells. Like, this is the shit you hear when you heroically leap into the Grand Canyon, and then, when your life force is reunited with the universe.
Now, OK, has the guy heard an Alcest record? I mean, yeah. Yes, he has heard an Alcest record. Has he heard a Slowdive record? Sure. He’s heard… at least two Slowdive records. But you know what? Alcest and Slowdive are probably two of my 10 favorite artists of all time, and everyone should always be listening to them. More importantly, if the Dispar song I’m featuring here – the record’s opener, “Skin” – were actually on an Alcest or Slowdive record, I would be out here losing my mind over it. Instead, it’s on a tiny two-song debut demo by an anonymous kid from Brazil. So… I’m out here losing my mind over it.
Or maybe I’m just giving my heart to it. How could you not? From the very first sound that you hear to the very last, “Skin” is perfect. It is a perfect piece of music. And you know what? So is the second track here, “Essence.” So, two-for-two, 10 out of 10. By my count, Hopeless (demo) has exactly two flaws: It’s too short and I need more. Besides that? Perfect. I’m not calling Dispar the best blackgaze band on the planet today, but I am saying there’s nobody doing it better than this right here, right now. And I’m not calling Dispar’s demo the best album of 2022, but I might just say it anyway. [From Hopeless (demo), out now via the artist.] –Michael Nelson
Autonoesis – "Moon Of Foul Magics"
Location: Toronto, Canada
Subgenre: black metal / death/thrash
From where and what did Autonoesis come? I missed the pummeling, insane, hair-raising thrashy piece of work that was their 2020 self-titled debut, so their newest album Moon Of Foul Magics hit like some kind of deep-space bulldozer. Autonoesis do it all, bringing the best of everything they touch into tightly wound songs of technical riff mastery full of action, suspense, and satisfying resolve. Blackened blasting brings an alien evil into play, while chunky, deathy guitars grate the ear drums and provide a bed for intricate tech forays into parts unknown. Much of the thrill of the headlong off-the-rails rip through dark matter can be credited to the thrash DNA that’s wired Autonoesis for face-contorting chaos. And while “Moon Of Foul Magics” rips with a body-shaking ferocity and low end, with a mind-obliterating breakdown thrown in for good measure, there’s also a gorgeous instrumental interlude that gives way to technicolor meteor showers of radical guitars. An artifact of awesome power from parts unknown, Moon Of Foul Magics destroys and wows in equal measure, growing stronger and stronger with each listen. [From Moon Of Foul Magics, out now via the band.] –Wyatt Marshall