Obituary’s Alive And They’re Dying Of Everything
John and Donald Tardy are reviewing my PowerPoint. What’s that? When you talk with two founding members of a foundational Floridan death metal band, you don’t show them slides? Oh, I’m the weird one? Whatever. At least the brothers are amused. “Those are completely, totally wrong,” John, Obituary’s vocalist, tells me over Zoom. “All wrong,” Donald, the band’s drummer, adds.
For Obituary, though, everything is going right. The death metal institution is between stops on the Amon Amarth, Carcass, and Cattle Decapitation tour. Turned Inside Out: The Story Of Obituary, an exhaustive biography by David E. Gehlke, was released earlier this year by dB Books, the publishing arm of Decibel. Most importantly, the quintet has a new album due on January 13 via Relapse Records. The appropriately titled Dying Of Everything, the band’s 11th LP in a career that began decades ago, is one of its finest albums. And, as icing on the cake, John’s beloved Miami Dolphins are having their best season in years.
But, instead of recapping these triumphs, I’m punishing John and Donald with my PowerPoint detailing one of the great metal mysteries of the internet age. Lyric databases ranging from Lyrics.com to Encyclopaedia Metallum to Genius list lyrics for Obituary’s entire back catalog. That’s notable because, according to Donald, the band didn’t officially release lyrics until 2014’s Inked In Blood. And what’s even more remarkable is that, on all of the websites mentioned above, 1989’s Slowly We Rot has been transcribed in full, an album that, pretty famously, is light on lyrics.
“Even if you asked me to write out what I sang, some of those things that came out of my mouth weren’t even words,” John says of his pivotal performance. Driven by youthful exuberance, John found his voice by aligning it with guitarist Trevor Peres’ instantly recognizable tone. “…my voice just gravitated towards trying to sound more like his guitar, if you will, trying to get in tune with that,” John said in a 2017 profile by Hank Shteamer for Rolling Stone. And thus, he growled, screamed, and howled, creating one of the defining sounds of death metal.
But that’s just it. A few audible phrases aside, Slowly We Rot is mostly sounds. Lyrics? Nope. “It’s not even the English language,” Donald says. “They’re just sounds,” John confirms. “So, I couldn’t even write them out, but the lyrics certainly wouldn’t be ‘slowly read in your love.'”
Right. That’s the other thing. Some of the alleged Slowly We Rot lyrics that sites have printed are, how to put this, fucking ridiculous. Each database’s interpretation is a little different, but they’re all littered with humdingers that crack the Tardys up as I show them slide after slide of goofball gobbledygook attributed to John. Here’s a sampling of couplets Genius has posted for “Slowly We Rot.”
Kill them all, fight death/ And slowly read in the love
Dead to all, fighting as you/ Slowly read in your love
Fighting the sword/ The sword is your plow
The sword is your plow! “I’m going to use that on some friends tonight, man,” Donald says, all of us laughing. “Just to see their eyebrows.” Slowly read in your love! It’s like the Tristan Tzara cut-up method used on the works of Rod McKuen. And, I mean, these aren’t even mondegreens because there are no lyrics to mishear. They’re not audio illusions, either. No one is listening to “Slowly We Rot” and being like, “Oh yes, I hear ‘yanny,’ ‘laurel,’ and ‘fighting the sword.'”
And yet, these wildly inaccurate interpretations of well-known Obituary songs are published across the world wide web. So how did that happen? Well, I have an idea. It has something to do with a quirk of the internet and Obituary’s continued influence and relevance.
While the digital lyric transcribers of yore might’ve struggled, you can hear John loud and clear on Dying Of Everything. Now 54, the singer sounds stronger than ever, even utilizing his low death growl again. It turns out I’m not alone in making that observation. “God, I think Jeff Walker [of Carcass] asked me that the other day. I’m not sure what you guys are talking about. I feel like I’ve been doing the same kind of thing.”
Dying Of Everything’s strength is that it’s the same kind of thing that Obituary have been doing for years, but one of the best versions of that thing. On songs like lead single “The Wrong Time” and album standout “My Will To Live,” Donald and bassist Terry Butler, who joined the band in 2010, lay down monumental grooves and construct big pockets. Peres pulls the undeniable metal spirit of Venom and Hellhammer out of the forge and shapes that steel into his own riffs. Lead guitarist Kenny Andrews, who ascended to shredder duties in 2012, rips through heroic, air-guitar-ready solos. And John’s demon-stretched-on-a-rack wails hold it all together.
“There’s certain parts of this album that I’m super proud of,” Donald says. “The drumming and John’s voice and his lyric and vocal and everything he does, you know? ‘My Will to Live?’ I think it’s the epitome of an Obituary song. It is not anything technical. But you can’t get much heavier than that.”
Dying Of Everything’s production is a big reason why it’s so heavy. Recorded by the band and mixed by its longtime live engineer Joe Cincotta at his Full Force Studios, the album sounds enormous. Even the tiniest element feels big, like Obituary are playing the record right in front of you. In a time when it seems like every modern metal band is quantizing and slathering on the same presets, the album stands out. It demonstrates how weighty a real performance can still sound.
Dying Of Everything will also be available in Dolby Atmos, one of the first death metal albums to receive that mix courtesy of Morrisound Studios. “War,” a mid-album pummeller that opens and closes with sound effects-heavy skirmishes, was one of the first songs Obituary pulled out for the Atmos treatment. “Let me tell you what, there are 13 speakers around all over the place,” John says of the session at Morrisound. “And that war scene at the beginning? You find yourself ducking and hiding in the corner when that thing starts.”
However, even though they’ve become adept at capturing themselves at their home studio and trusting Cincotta and company to twiddle the knobs, John and Donald knew the key to the album was the performances. Obituary put in the work. “We did not hit record until we were 100 percent ready,” Donald remembers. “With the songs, performances, instruments, mic placements, inputs, how hot are we hitting things, the arrangements. We were very prepared before we hit record on this album.”
Likewise, during the writing phase, Obituary freed themselves from rushing things. They gave themselves time and space to let the creative process play out, allowing the band to find songs organically. “We actually go in pretty open-minded and easygoing and have a good time coming up with something new,” Donald says. “We’re also not that band that focuses on, ‘What do we need on this record? The last time we had a fast one, we need a faster one on this one. [Other] bands are doing this thing.’ Whatever happens in the studio that day, you know, crack a cold beer, and what happens happens. And if nothing happens, not a big deal. It’s our studio. There’s always tomorrow. And with that approach, you don’t put pressure on yourself, and you end up coming up with some pretty tasty and fun riffs.”
The fruit of that tasty riff labor is the title track, which has a compositional cleverness and patient confidence. You can almost sense the band smiling when it locks in for that gloriously chugging coda.
Dying Of Everything also closes with a world-beater, the doomy “Be Warned,” an instant Obituary classic that is a showcase for Donald’s rocksteady, Reed Mullin-level workout. The rest of the band sounds ferocious, building up a slow stomper of a progression that culminates in a devastating Iommian bend.
“It’s so heavy,” Donald says. “I don’t even know what we did, how we did it, or why we did it. It’s just one of those riffs that Trevor came up with, and I knew what I wanted to do on drums immediately.” “There’s a lot of songs where that happens to us, too,” John adds. “I think we’ve just been writing together for so long that we just kind of anticipate what somebody else might do. We’ve gotten so good at feeling each other out, and it just works out that way for us.”
Another thing that has worked out is John’s lyric-writing process. “It’s cool when I come up with lyrics that I feel are really cool and fit the song so well but actually have something interesting behind them,” he says about his current methodology, which has evolved beyond sounds but is still rooted in the thrill of screaming over cool riffs. “You know, people have been asking me a lot about these things. ‘Weaponize the hate? What does that mean?’ I don’t know, but it sounded cool when I came up with it. And it’s a cool song title. But the lyrics and the song titles are the last things that get piled onto the music. I don’t write lyrics and go up to these guys and say, ‘Hey, came up with these lyrics. Let’s try and write some music that fits.’ Doesn’t work that way for us. It starts with the music, it starts with me mumbling and jumbling over the top of stuff. And I turn that into syllables. I turn that into lyrics.”
John has worked hard at penning catchy phrases. He’s always had a knack for it, but this new album is chock full of them. “Beware/ be warned,” he growls on “Be Warned.” It’s the sort of sticky sloganeering that everyone at a show is dying to shout along to. “I love trying to come up with those,” John says. “It’s fun for me to come up with song titles, cool phrases, that maybe people use all the time and never really thought that, Hey, you know what, that’d be a good song title or a good line in a song. It makes you feel like you’ve kind of heard it before, you know?”
Unless, you know, you’re prone to hearing lyrics completely wrong. Or, in the case of the great Obituary Lyrics Mystery, you turn a bunch of sounds into erroneous verses. And so I ask, do the Tardys know how and why nearly every lyrics website has whiffed so hard on Slowly We Rot’s lyrics?
“Maybe they just held Siri up to the radio and that’s what she spit out,” John joked. And, hey, great minds. I had the same idea.
In order to test the theory that some sites were batch auto-transcribing songs, I isolated the vocals in “Slowly We Rot” and fed them into Otter.ai, a real-time transcription service that utilizes AI. Here’s what it spat out:
Hi Bob! We got you up. Sign up. Join now. Boy!
“We can officially say that’s as close as what that other guy came up with,” Donald deadpanned. Yeah, I don’t think we’re close to the singularity that involves a Terminator screaming, “Hi Bob! We got you up!” while it crushes my skull. And AI wouldn’t necessarily fit the timeframe anyway since these lyrics have been kicking around the internet forever. No, I think “slowly read in your love” had a much more human origin.
DarkLyrics.com is one of the oldest extant heavy metal lyric sites, plugging into the matrix in 2001. It looks like a Web 1.0 relic, although somehow, against all odds, people still submit lyrics to the database. Meshuggah’s Immutable was posted this year.
Is Slowly We Rot on DarkLyrics? It is. Is its transcription similar to all of the other lyric sites? …sort of. Like the version that appears in Encyclopaedia Metallum, DarkLyrics’ “Slowly We Rot” is longer and more detailed. That means all the good parts are there: “fighting the sword,” etc. But there are also some very intriguing notes sprinkled throughout the transcription.
“The below is a real question mark,” the DarkLyrics submitter admits in one aside before guessing that John Tardy must be singing, “Kill all who find death is not/ (To be) slowly rotting out??” “Kill all who find death is not” is a real question mark? Wow. You don’t say.
Based on that clue, here’s what I think happened. Way back in the dark ages of the internet, some brave soul decided to transcribe Slowly We Rot by ear. Maybe they believed in the utopian vision that decentralized access to the world’s knowledge would set us free. Maybe they wanted to cover “Slowly We Rot” at their next show. Maybe it was a bit that lost the setup and punchline. The motives don’t matter. What matters is that they made a valiant attempt but acknowledged their shortcomings. “This is also a question mark?” they wrote before jotting down a passage that reads like a philosophy professor having an aneurysm. “Then the one who finds death/ Is not (to be) slowly rotting out.” Is that Schopenhauer? Oh no, Someone call an ambulance.
What happened next is what happens all the time on the internet. The annotations were lost as the lyrics got shared and scraped by competing websites hungry for ad money. Like a grainy meme that looks like it’s being viewed through a fully zoomed in microscope because grandparents keep screenshotting it with shittier phones, the original transcriber’s question marks and misgivings got cropped out. What remained after these accidental edits looked authoritative enough since multiple other sites stole the same lyrics. And so “Slowly We Rot (Slowly Read In Your Love)” was now gilded with a patina of authenticity, like anything else on the internet that’s older than a week.
Did this actually happen? Who knows. No lyric website will talk with me. Apparently, you can show a PowerPoint to a legendary death metal band, but a lyric depot wants nothing to do with you.
While I lack closure, the Tardy brothers are good sports about everything, no doubt possessing the wisdom that comes with being in the music industry for over 30 years. “Tell you what, the next time I do a hit of weed,” Donald jokes, “I’ll write down what I think he is saying and we’ll crack the code.”
Later in our conversation, John formulates a new experiment. “I guess you can listen to the live DVD [of Slowly We Rot] and compare it to the original thing. Might be interesting to see what changes. I hadn’t even thought to compare the two because that would have been done 30 years apart from each other.”
“Yeah, that’s my question to John Tardy,” Donald interjects. “If they’re not words, how, after 33 years when we kick into it live, do you know what you’re about to say? There are no lyric sheets. Can you imagine a teleprompter? Teleprompter goes by, and it’s just WTF.” “It’d be like the Peanuts cartoons,” John cracks, both of them mouthing the muted trombone noises of the adult voices. Look, if there’s a future Obituary/Peanuts crossover in the works called You’re Chopped In Half, Charlie Brown!, I want the world to know I was there when it started.
Still, while the Tardys take it in stride, I think there has to be a psychic toll to having preposterous lyrics credited to you, especially when most of the world is unfamiliar with the Obituary mythos. “It’s horrible,” Donald admits. “Yeah,” John responds. “I mean, some of that stuff is silly. And I’m sure 99 percent of people that read that assume those are the lyrics I wrote.” “That’s the scary part,” Donald adds. “It’s just silliness,” John reiterates. “So hopefully, most people know that. That’s not even remotely close to what I think I’m saying.”
However, John also said something that I’ve been thinking about a lot. “When you go back to Slowly, that was such a weird time for us. We were so young. And we were writing songs in the studio. I would start singing, and half of it was making noises. We didn’t really think it was gonna be permanent. It was before we even thought we were doing an album, for God’s sake, some of those songs, you know?” Later, John adds this: “I know it’s hard for a lot of people to be like, ‘What do you mean you weren’t saying anything?’ But I’ll be honest, when we wrote those songs, we were young and it’s just the way I did it. I can’t explain why I did.”
Due to the eternalism of music, it must be bizarre to continually explain your teenage intentions, or lack thereof. Your impetuous output becomes the bedrock influence for hundreds of bands, and then everyone fixates on that time forevermore even though your life has moved on. It’s not like I have to explain, day after day, why I took the SATs with a blinding hangover. Then again, my SAT scores didn’t inspire Power Trip.
The Tardys are appreciative that they’ve been embraced by so many. “There’s no better compliment, for sure,” John says. “You know, you get some big bands: Slipknots of the world, Lamb Of God guys. And when you hear that you influence them? You don’t get a better compliment.” Donald concurs. “And now, the Power Trips and the 200 Stab Wounds type dudes, where it’s not super thrash, it’s not a million miles per hour, they’re coming back to the basics that Obituary has been doing forever. So what a compliment to see young bands not going in the direction of new metal all the time. Instead, they’re like old souls.”
Obituary are like a band of old souls who inhabit an ageless body. Their status and legacy as the band that made the all-timer Cause Of Death affords them the time to make albums how they want and grants them the opportunities to play big shows. All of that has been built on years of relentless work. But that work hasn’t extinguished the members’ obligation to their younger selves to make music that they enjoy. At their core, Obituary still want to make cool music.
In that sense, Obituary exist in all times. Dying Of Everything is the band now, shaped by all the accumulated experiences that occurred after Slowly We Rot’s release. But the Tardys are still the kids who fell in love with Venom and Hellhammer; who were inspired by seeing early Savatage; who rode their bikes past Ben Meyer’s garage, hoping to spy Nasty Savage practicing; who were driven to shows by their biggest fan, their dad, Jim Tardy. That’s all still there. Obituary in 1989? Want to make cool music. Obituary in 2022? Want to make cool music. Same as it ever was. And that’s why Obituary endure. The insatiable desire to make cool music, the reason why so many make metal in the first place, plays in any era.
There are downsides to that, I guess. Freaks like me will try to over-intellectualize your teenage dreams and show you PowerPoints. We’ll turn your juvenile ambitions into an ethos and ask you about decisions that don’t extend far beyond “because.” We’ll study your sounds and hear lyrics. That has to be tiring.
But metal isn’t about foresight. Metal is about swinging your sword because you want to swing a sword because where else in life can you swing a damn sword? Over 30 years ago, inspired by the bands they loved, Obituary swung their sword, and a section of death metal grew out of the ditch that it cut. In turn, the bands they inspired swung their swords, cutting new ditches, repeating the process. When you think about it like that, the only thing I can say is, you know, I guess the sword really is a plow. –Ian Chainey
FOUL EMANATIONS FROM THE VOID
10. Hoaxed – “The Call”
Location: Portland, Oregon
Subgenre: heavy metal / goth
Hoaxed’s “The Call” pulses with dark magic, a nocturnal entreaty to take a step into a world a little less safe than the one you may know. That mix of intrigue and danger plays out across Two Shadows, Hoaxed’s first full-length released on Relapse at the very end of October. From Kim Coffel and Kat Keo, Hoaxed blends a lot of the best of goth, heavy metal, and music that’s generally fit for nighttime consumption into captivating tracks. On “The Call,” that means angst-building leads, invigorating rapid-fire double kicks, and airy vocals that both enchant and haunt — turning just ever so sinister for emphasis — all set in a haze-thick atmosphere under a troubled moon and torchlight. Backing synths fill out an already gut-punching mix, and scarcely a moment is spared on a song that rushes forward from the get-go. It all casts a spell, entwining shadow and flickering light to hypnotic effect. [From Two Shadows, out now via Relapse Records.] –Wyatt Marshall
9. Ueldes – “Foreverer”
Subgenre: atmospheric black metal
Ueldes is the new project from Slovenia’s Tilen Simon — an artist I’ve been following on Bandcamp for quite a while now but whom I’d never much fucked with before this. Simon’s other projects include Mossgiver and Morrowsworn, but most of his output thus far has been under the moniker Veldes, via which Simon has released eight records: five full-lengths and three EPs.
When I first came across Ueldes’ new LP, Foreverer, I assumed it was a continuation of Veldes, in fact, with a slightly updated spelling of that name. But nope — Simon identifies Foreverer as Ueldes’ debut album. (Of course, he also precedes that declaration with this one: “The old tree has withered away and a new one has been planted, may it grow and flourish!” So it’s really an entirely new thing that’s directly related to the old thing, I suppose.)
I should’ve known Ueldes was a new thing simply by looking at the cover art of Foreverer, really. It was that cover that initially struck me and drew me in. How could you not be struck and drawn in by that artwork? It’s so bright, so clean, so beautiful. It’s also so unlike any of Simon’s previous cover art, which features a signature dark and murky aesthetic.
The music on Foreverer is a magnificent reflection of that cover art: crisp, distinct, beguiling. For the purposes of providing it with a genre tag, I have branded it here as atmospheric black metal because I hear a healthy bit of Agalloch, etc., in this music. But I also hear…Children Of Bodom? Those synths, those melodies, that joyful bounce? That’s Bodom, man. I mean…I dunno. I hear more in the music than can be confined to any one particular bucket, is what I’m trying to say. This is music for autumn, for winter, too, and I’ve always felt that the best atmospheric black metal was built for those seasons — and it goes without saying that this music, like most epic atmoblack, is something of a celebration of nature — but there’s a sense of light here, of ecstasy even, that feels to me vital and new.
I’ve really never heard one-person black metal that sounds anything like this, either, and I listen to a fairly substantial amount of one-person black metal. It helps that Simon has enlisted not one but two clean singers here — one male, one female —and the variety of voices gives the whole thing the feeling of something incredibly massive, more wondrous, and less ponderous than most one-person material.
The cleans are tasteful, perfectly employed, and quite thrilling, by the way. But that applies to absolutely everything on the record, really. I could have featured in this column any single song on this album — including the slam-dunk short instrumental opener — and I would’ve felt fully confident that the music would more than support everything I’m trying to put into words. However, I chose to feature the title track, probably because it’s the longest song on the album and thus the one I would pick for myself. More minutes means more music. And man, when I hit play on this thing, I want it to just keep playing on and on. Hit play. [From Foreverer, out now via Sij MusicArt.] –Michael Nelson
8. Stabbing – “Razor Wire Strangulation”
Subgenre: brutal death metal
No matter how heavy or unhinged Stabbing get, the riffs are still catchy. On their full-length debut, Extirpated Mortal Process, the Texas brutal death metal quartet covers its songs with the kind of earwormy maggots that wiggle throughout Tomb of the Mutilated. Even on listen numero uno, it’s like hearing the jud you’ve been waiting for at a show all night.
What hit on last year’s EP, Ravenous Psychotic Onslaught, that being the…uh…ravenous onslaught, hits even harder now. As stated, guitarist Marvin Ruiz and bassist Meryl Martinez have cut some absolute killers. But Stabbing’s strength is that they are nothing but strengths. Bridget Lynch is becoming one of my favorite vocalists in the genre. The inhumanly full-force roar is impressive, but Lynch’s timing and control is what’s worth marveling over. Rene Martinez’s drumming has a limberness that allows him to groove at a moment’s notice. And these four have developed a connection, a supreme understanding of their individual roles, that gives Stabbing an extra gear.
That extra gear is the opening of “Razor Wire Strangulation.” The song opens in the same way a car bomb opens. Farewell, my face. But there’s so much happening underneath the sheer extremity. I love how Lynch and Rene Martinez play off each other, flowing together into a nifty polyrhythm. And that dexterous, noodly riff that Ruiz and Meryl Martinez spin is that perfect offset to the unrelenting aggression. You take a second to appreciate it, the way it rises and falls almost elegantly, and then, whoomp, you’re freed from your reverie by a runaway steamroller. Rarely have I felt so pulped by an album. Let these riffs be the last thing I think of as I’m shoveled off the pavement. [From Extirpated Mortal Process, out now via Comatose Music.] –Ian Chainey
7. Tómarúm – “As Black Forms From Grey”
Location: Atlanta, Georgia
Subgenre: progressive black metal
Tómarúm released a remarkable album back in May that flew right by us, so here we are giving Ash In Realms Of Stone Icons its due. In short, it’s an intricately carved, thick slab of black metal that hurtles at your face at high speed. “As Black Forms From Grey” is undoubtedly a highlight, and, like the best technically-minded metal, you can admire the whole from afar, appreciate the swirls of progressive movements, or lose yourself in the remarkable detail of the brushstrokes. So while the multi-part epic that is “As Black Forms Grey” may leave your face contorted, you’ll also find room to smile and kick back during a jazzy interlude that gives away to a genuinely wild outro that sends shredding guitar leads crashing into your eardrums like overactive lightning strikes. On the far side of 11 minutes, the urge to dive back in all over again will have you unearthing more gold with each listen. [From Ash in Realms of Stone Icons, out now via Prosthetic Records.] –Wyatt Marshall
6. Luces Lejanas – “Lobo Blanco”
Location: Barcelona, Spain
Somewhere around the very beginning of this month or the very end of last, a Barcelona-based artist called Luces Lejanas broke into my Bandcamp feed with their debut single, “Lobo Blanco.” And I’m not sure how, but I swear, immediately it felt like A Thing. Like everyone on that site (myself included) was buying it. I mean, sure, if you’re an anonymous, non-English-language, extremely DIY musician with no backstory to speak of and just one home-recorded song to share, I suppose it’s a bit easier to achieve A Thing status in the world of blackgaze than it is to do so in…literally any world other than the one of blackgaze. But I live here, and I can tell you, it’s really not that easy, and it really doesn’t happen very often.
Luces Lejanas is — as they all are — a one-person gig. At first, I thought that one-person’s name was, in fact, Luces Lejanas, but then I read his bio. Well, I mean, truthfully, I kinda-sorta sadly don’t really know one word of either Spanish or Catalan, and I actually have no clue which language that bio was even written in, but I was nonetheless able to make out that the artist’s name is Morthalion(?), and I suppose Luces Lejanas is the name of this project. And with that, you now know as much as I do about the background of this artist.
Let’s talk about the art instead. Part of why “Lobo Blanco” felt like A Thing was, hey, it just fucking rules, bro. It feels fresh and invigorating and surprising. It blasts stupidly, ridiculously hard. And it’s just so goddamn catchy. It jumps out and drags you in with the first hook, and then it keeps hooking you, from just about every conceivable angle, with just about every type of hook, until you look like the guy on the cover of Severed Survival. (The second cover, I mean. Or the first? I can’t remember. You know the one I’m talking about. It’s the one with the guy with all the hooks.) The other day, I had a thought that every section of this song feels like the bridge. And in songwriting — good songwriting, I mean — the bridge is often the best part of the song, as well as the hardest to write. It’s the section that stands apart from the others — even as it bridges them — and it fundamentally serves to kick the whole thing up a notch. “Lobo Blanco” opens by kicking it up a notch, and from there, the notches, and the kicks, just keep going. Up and up and up.
Just to give you some idea what this music actually sounds like, I’ll tell you that the guitars — the guitar tone and the riffs themselves — remind me a whoooole lot of Woods Of Desolation’s masterpiece As The Stars. It’s thick, gnarly, home-cooked stuff, a beefy stew indeed, with delicious distortion and generous helpings of flange and a thin coat of hiss sort of coyly and barely covering up the crazy heat of the track underneath. The harshes here are harsh as fuck. The drums you’re hearing are real, and they’re spectacular. The vocals that open the song (and reappear at points throughout) remind me of the ones you hear on a handful of Sadness’ songs — most famously on “I Want To Be With You” — where Damián Anton Ojeda suddenly seems to shape-shift into a children’s choir. On “I Want To Be With You,” however, those vocals don’t arrive till the song’s breathtaking finale, a shock to the system at the absolute godhead pinnacle of the piece. On “Lobo Blanco,” those are the very first vocals you hear. That’s supposed to be the bridge!
And Luces Lejanas don’t just compose it differently; they hit it differently, too, which makes it hit different when you hear it. Like I said, when Damián does that vox, you actually hear in your head a children’s choir; it’s a truly massive and meticulous sound. When Luces Lejanas does it, he pretty much sounds like a dude singing sorta like a little kid, and then doubling up his vocals and drowning them in reverb and muddying them in the middle of the mix. It’s no less haunting, it’s just way dirtier. It’s like Luces Lejanas knows that those are the best parts of those Sadness songs, so he loaded up on ’em and threw ’em all on top of riffs that would have been the best parts of those Woods Of Desolation songs. And then he built bridges all over the fucking place. All bridges and nowhere to stop. And it would probably be a bit exhausting if it weren’t so deceptively, if not astonishingly, well-constructed and pretty near perfectly executed. Now, of course, I can’t say if Luces Lejanas will ever actually be A Thing. Like, a real thing, I mean. But this one right here? Boy, this one is really something. [From Partida, out now via the artist.] –Michael Nelson
5. Epectase – “Confusion”
Subgenre: black metal
France’s Epectase turned heads with 2019’s Astres, an ambitious debut for the duo that found a fitting home on I, Voidhanger. Logline: high-concept black metal, progressive peregrinations, sky-scraping crescendos. But it was also a fascinatingly dense document that blended an instrumental acuity with raw emotionalism. The compositions were complex and clever, such as the great “Entering the Domain of the Solar Sovereign,” but Vague (instruments, vocals) and Avitus (vocals) made complete songs that lived and breathed.
Three years later, Epectase return with Nécroses. Astres’ qualities are still present, but the songs are sharper and darker. “Confusion,” one of the black metal highlights of the year, stands out in that respect. Its first quarter features trems that lock in perfectly with the bass drum’s rapid-fire shockwaves while a spacey arpeggio trails like a comet’s tail. Soon, Epectase are in full-on space rock mode, a gorgeous sweep that grows into an aurora borealis of layered guitars, synths, and bass. The transition is perfect because it’s barely perceptible; it takes a close listen to realize that the arpeggio was a seed. But the prettiness of that Enslaved-ish stretch is soon offset by a nose-crinkling, skronky groove. Then, a wonderfully fluid guitar solo reroutes the track back towards the melodic. But we’re not staying long. A rhythmically pounding section with tricky timing takes over. With each repetition, “Confusion” grows more forceful. “Time moves forward,” Avitus screams. “Watching.” Finally, the song relents, replaced by a deep, Lustmordian drone.
In an interview with Metalorgie.com, Epectase talked about their admiration for bands that are in perpetual evolution, namechecking Blut Aus Nord, Radiohead, Ulver, JK Broadrick, and Ihsahn. Two albums in, Vague and Avitus are plotting a similar path, building a varied discography. But, and this is key, like those artists mentioned above, Epectase’s quality control will be the crucial commonality that links all of it together, no matter how much it deviates from Astres. “Confusion” reminds me a lot of Code and Dødheimsgard, not so much in sound, although it does sound a little bit like those two, but in its pursuit of making sure each moment lands uniquely and with the greatest impact. It’s evidence to me that Epectase will always take the time to make sure these songs work, no matter where they go next. Time moves forward. But Epectase are definitely watching, ensuring these songs are worth your time. [From Nécroses, out now via Frozen Records.] –Ian Chainey
4. Ancient Mastery – “City Of Broken Dreams”
Location: Vienna, Austria
Subgenre: symphonic black metal
If you’re a regular here, you’ll be familiar with Erech Leleth’s work through our recent feature of Bergfried’s Romantik I, where the German-born maestro evokes heroic battlefields and castles of yore through the lens of “War-Torn Lovers.” Before Bergfried, though, there were Ancient Mastery and at least seven other projects. Ancient Mastery’s debut, Chapter One: Across The Mountains Of The Drämmarskol, arrived unheralded at the top of 2021, was slept on by many, narrowly missed our list at the end of the year, and set the stage for what would surely be a tremendous second act. Our mistake on the list part.From Chapter One’s opener “To Valdura,” named for a fantasy world of Leleth’s own creation, it was clear Ancient Mastery was on a path to epic black metal glory. With big synth sensibilities of bands like Summoning and Caladan Brood, heroic riff work, pitch-perfect rasps, and a sense for crafting full-length sagas that kept you hooked at every step, Ancient Mastery had it all.
Now Ancient Mastery return with part two, and lead single “City Of Broken Dreams” picks up where part one left off, zooming in on the protagonists of Leleth’s story. This focus does away with much of the atmospheric sweep that defined part one, making room for more diverse influences to take leading roles — from power metal riff work to folk-inspired interludes. It’s great, and an interesting evolution of a project that should be on every black metal fan’s radar. [From Chapter Two: The Resistance, out 12/2 via Northern Silence Productions.] –Wyatt Marshall
3. Elder – “Merged In Dreams – Ne Plus Ultra”
Location: Berlin, Germany
Subgenre: stoner doom
I think I have some deep internal bias against the genre called “stoner doom.” I hear a band name like Bongzilla or Belzebong and I’m immediately out. Weed for weed’s sake is cool and all, but it hasn’t been my trip since I was about 16 (by which I mean 25). Yet somehow, I constantly — constantly — find myself writing about stoner doom bands that absolutely blow my mind, and I’m constantly trying to convince you, reader, as well as maybe me, writer, that those bands are something far greater than stoner doom. I mean…just constantly. King Buffalo’s Regenerator. MWWB’s The Harvest. Pallbearer’s Heartless. Amazing records, all of them. They are all amazing. And there are others like them, too.
Thing is, all those bands very much got their start playing a brand of music that aligns more with the droney, stoney side of this stuff. (MWWB used to be called Mammoth Weed Wizard Bastard, for example.) That’s still in the marrow and muscle of all this music. However, those bands, these bands, they grew; they expanded. And true psychedelic music is very much about growth and expansion.
The Berlin-based Elder got their name from Conan The Barbarian, and they used to sing songs about Conan The Barbarian. By this point, however, their name might as well be a reference to Pliny The Elder, and they’re singing about things like Nietzsche’s borrowed concept of eternal recurrence (“Endless Return”) and Jung’s collective unconscious (“Merged In Dreams”). And that, reader, is where psychedelic music should venture, both lyrically and musically. And spiritually. The weed should serve the music, not the other way around. And the music should serve the mind. And the mind should serve the soul. And the soul, well…
The new Elder album is called Innate Passage, and it closes with a song called “The Purpose,” and there can never possibly be a question greater than that one. It is, forever, the ultimate question. The song I’m featuring here, however, is the aforementioned “Merged In Dreams” (whose full title is appended with “Ne Plus Ultra,” or “the ultimate”).
“Merged In Dreams” is the titanic centerpiece of the relentlessly titanic Innate Passage. It is exquisite and elegant and vast. And it melts the brain as much as the face. It gives you 14:44 perfect minutes of astral travel in the form of guitars. It is monumentally heavy in every possible respect. It is best served with a side of greens, yes, but the main course is far bigger and far more filling. Dig in. Dig deeper. [From Innate Passage, out now via Armageddon Label.] –Michael Nelson
2. Hammers Of Misfortune – “Don’t Follow The Lights”
Subgenre: prog / heavy metal / thrash
Hammers Of Misfortune’s seventh album, Overtaker, deserves to be replayed. These 10 songs are to metal what FromSoftware is to video games. The first playthrough is every possible variation of “huh???” and “holy heck!” Each new spin-plus familiarizes you with Hammers Of Misfortune’s moveset and peels back another layer of the story. To continue this tortured analogy, like games, there are albums you can conquer immediately, and even simply assigning them the designation of “good” is the same as deleting them from your brain. There are others that seem to live within your thoughts forever, where the pleasure is in acknowledging that today’s listen only sets up tomorrow’s, and your overall understanding of the album will always be as fleeting as time and malleable as memory. You play them again and again because there’s always something new to glean, some new aspect that reflects where you are in your own life. Overtaker is an other.
On my first listen, I was ready to say that nothing in metal sounds like Overtaker. “I didn’t know exactly what I was writing,” John Cobbett said in the superb Justin Norton-penned liner notes that accompanied the promo. “I was just going with what I wanted to hear.” Honestly, pretty good reason to make an album. But it’s also like, dang, John Cobbett, I love that you needed to hear this wild-ass amalgamation of thrash, prog, and trad that rockets the last couple Vhol records into another galaxy.
Cobbett’s turbo-trad riffs are delirious. Longtime creative partner Sigrid Sheie’s keyboards are too. Aided by former Vektor drummer Blake Anderson, this years-in-the-works, multifaceted piece invites Punnett square-created comparisons to explain its musical genotypes. I’ve told people that it sounds like Voivod wrote an album with King Diamond, stuck the sheet music in a bottle with instructions for prime Heart to collaborate with prime Focus, tossed it in a time-bending wormhole, and then the resulting recording produced by this miraculous team-up was sped up during mastering. Sure, that reads like something that would get me wheeled away by a nurse. But the big takeaway is that it barely even hints at Overtaker’s scope.
Five plays in, I realized this is a Hammers Of Misfortune album. Sure, it doesn’t sound like anything else in the catalog, but I think I’ve said that after every new release. What made it click is that, for all of Overtaker’s bold steps, those strides are being made by a classic core. Jamie Myers returns 16 years after The Locust Years and delivers a wild-eyed, ultra-pissed performance that’s the opposite of her work on the moody and smoky Veldune album from this year. Mike Scalzi is also back and guests on two tracks. (Disclosure: My pal and column contributor Avinash Mittur recorded his vocals. Not the last time Avinash will be in today’s column.) And, even though this was composed without the Hammers moniker hanging over it, allowing its players to indulge their wildest “I want to hear this” needs, it’s a Hammers record. It has that unmistakable essence that has made this band your favorite band’s favorite band.
Ten listens in, can I talk to you about “Vipers Cross”? What is even happening in this song? It’s like Agent Steel used a spell that reanimated Acquiring The Taste-era Gentle Giant and put that band on tour with Sigh. It’s like the trad version of Cleric’s ultimate mindbender, Retrocausal. Imperial Triumphant’s Steve Blanco guests on that one and crushes the keyboard solo, a third-eye-prying ELP workout. It’s sick. All of the guests on Overtaker are sick. Frank Chin, now of Crypt Sermon and Daeva, plays bass on two highlights, the Nuggets by way of Genesis “Dark Brennius” and the appropriately titled “Outside Our Minds.” Shredder Tom Draper rends the sky with a solo on another personal favorite, “Overthrower.” Greetings, metalheads. Welcome to the credit that will always shine bright on your resumes.
Fifteen plays in, did I say this sounds like nothing else in metal? That’s wrong. Overtaker’s boundaryless qualities are also reminiscent of younger bands pushing the envelope. The exacting thrash played at breakneck speeds reminds me of Serpent Column. The way the songs are layered is Krallice-esque. The sheer technical achievement is Mastery. There’s a sense that Cobbett, Sheie, Myers, and Anderson’s ears are open to metal’s always-evolving sounds. And this is where I want metal to be, freed up to make something this untethered from unit-pushing trends while maintaining a distinctly metal feeling. Because, dang, these riffs! They’re metal. They were metal when Tipton/Downing and Denner/Shermann played them. They’re still metal when super creative next-level shredders play them. It’s that ineffable metal spirit. And no matter how often Overtaker sounds like Van der Graaf Generator powering Mekong Delta, it’s metal. When breathlessly writing about the weirdness, I need to remember to say that. The songs are metal. And the songs are great. The way they rise and fall. The way they move, how each musician’s immense effort makes the flow feel frictionless. How each song’s hundreds of little hooks burrow into you. Overtaker: great album. I can’t wait to hear what it sounds like the next time I play it. [From Overtaker, out 12/2 via the band.] –Ian Chainey
1. Imperium Dekadenz – “Memories… A Raging River”
Location: Villingen-Schwenningen, Germany
Subgenre: black metal
Over their last two albums, Imperium Dekadenz have become the gold standard of epic black metal, cementing a claim to its dark throne with 2019’s epoch-ender When We Are Forgotten. The Black Forest duo of Vespasian and Horaz are smiths of the most monumental works of blackened art, blending regalia and ruin in equal measure as they craft Wagnerian songs that stand watch over fallen empires. With “Memories… A Raging River,” the kings return at the height of their powers, and the sweep of their scepter is as formidable as ever. Everything is massive, and the depth of the mix feels bottomless. Layers of guitars, guided at times by a troubled tocsin lead, evoke wonder, loss, and dread in equal measure. Gut punching drum fills fire for emphasis, and Horaz’s sinister, raspy growl is by turns the bark of a tyrant, an observant narrator, and, when it fries into a pained howl, a victim of forces beyond comprehension. It’s an utterly grand track, a dark comet of a single heralding what will surely be an early highlight in the year to come. [From Into Sorrow Evermore, out 1/20 via Napalm Records.] –Wyatt Marshall
Bonus: Wretched Stench – “Monolith”
Location: Oakland, CA
Subgenre: brutal death metal
On Wretched Stench’s debut EP, Weaving a Web of Viscera, the brutal death metal quintet achieves a neat synthesis. It’s caked in filth like the best of the ’90s basement-dwellers, has the sharper songwriting of the ’00s hammer smashed hooksmiths, and ties those two eras together with modern chops. Odious Sanction plus Severe Torture plus…well…Wretched Stench, I guess. I just broke someone’s brain with that recursive loop.
Anyway, if you’re into brutal death metal, all of that means something to you. These Bay Area notables make music for those who have opinions about Visceral Bleeding and think thoughts like, “Hm, which Cannibal Corpse album is most like the starting lineup of the 2007-08 Golden State Warriors?” (It’s Butchered at Birth.) It’s the real deal.
So, Weaving a Web of Viscera is some delightfully gooey death metal, full of haymaker riffs, pinch harmonics, and guttural blarghs. Avinash Mittur (bass) and Adam Gambel (drums) team up to create a formidable rhythm section, supplying the thwump and propulsion in equal measure. Guitarists David Rodriguez and Reed pull riffs from where the slime live, slathering on some additional grit. And Jamison Kester’s great growl recalls the vox on San Francisco’s killer contribution to technical brutal death metal, Severed Savior.
If you’ve got time for one track, make it the album closer, “Monolith.” It’s five minutes of grimly gorey grooves and sweaty blasts. But it’s also catchy, sounding like a moister Gorefest reinterpreted by an alternate universe, early Defeated Sanity that has designs on evolving into Aeon. And, whew, does Wretched Stench ever go for it on that back-half groove, especially when Kester unleashes that final BLEEEEEEEEEEEEEEARRRRGH! US tour with Glorious Depravity, when? [From Weaving a Web of Viscera, out now via the band.] –Ian Chainey
Bonus: Kurushimi – “Return III: Death”
Location: Sydney, Australia
Subgenre: jazz / metal
The short documentary Violence in Action follows Lachlan Kerr, founder of the experimental music movement of the same name, as he gets ready to move from Australia to Japan. “My biggest fear is that what will happen when I first went overseas, where it fizzled out from apathy, will happen again,” Kerr said.
It’s easy to empathize with Kerr’s apprehension because Violence in Action is a brilliant endeavor that would be a shame to lose. Put simply, it’s an innovative approach to improvisation featuring a conductor leading a group through a series of “games.” Naturally, it attracted a small but dedicated group of musicians searching for artistic absolution in the unknown. And, at the documentary’s end, you can see some splinter groups preparing to keep the movement alive in Kerr’s absense. One is Kurushimi.
“Kurushimi is a project that I put together that is best described as ‘free-metal,'” bassist Andrew Mortensen said to Moessacre, “it is metal-based music that incorporates the elements and ideas of free-jazz and free-improvisation.” Kurushimi’s first recording, a self-titled release in 2016, was described as “the unholy congress of Ornette Coleman, Morbid Angel, Bill Laswell, John Zorn and Bohren & Der Club Of Gore.” Pretty accurate. Kerr conducts that one. It also features “Shinigami,” which, six years later, would become the basis for Kurushimi’s most metal work, “Return III: Death.”
Alongside albums, such as 2018’s Simeon Bartholomew-conducted What is Chaos?, Kurushimi’s statement of purpose both in title and sound, Mortensen’s crew has issued “returns” that reinterpret and recontextualize old works, often by bringing new musicians into its orbit.
For this third installment, Return III: Death, Kurushimi tapped Doug Moore (*deep breath* Pyrrhon, Weeping Sores, Seputus, Glorious Depravity, Scarcity, the best writer this column had, my friend), Matt Hollenberg (Cleric, Sarattma, John Frum), Mares Refalæða (Úkryt), Noah Souza (Those Darn Gnomes, which we should cover at some point), Gene White (Serious Beak), Marc Whitworth (Five Star Prison Cell), Malikoth (Sanguine Tithe), Michael Taverner (Gvrlls), and Bartholomew (SEIMS). Colin Marston supplied the mixing, reamping, and mastering.
Look at those names again so you won’t be surprised by this next sentence. Return III: Death is a trip. Like you’d expect anything else from the fertile minds of those unceasingly creative musicians. The twist? Return III: Death is restlessly inventive, extremely soulful music about the end.
“The title subject ‘death’ was chosen for a few reasons,” Andrew Mortensen states in the liner notes. “The original base remix element was taken from ‘Shinigami’ from the debut, which means ‘death god.’ Then with my mental state, the blackness of the planet, and all that, I just felt I wanted to call it that. I’d also been listening to a lot of Earth, Sunn O))) and Khanate, so I had the idea of adding guitars — and before I knew it, I’d added various musicians to the mix and had created quite the beast.”
It’s a big beast, a 20-minute, hulking avant-garde organism that curls around your head and squeezes. Bassy guitar drones, sax squeals, and screams from three vocalists. It’s a lot. And yeah, while the expanded ensemble isn’t using any games, giving their collaborators free will to experiment, you could say the violence is still in action in that, damn, the song is pretty violent. Some of these searing tones sound like how a flamethrower must feel.
More accurately, though, “Return III: Death” is what happens once the violence subsides. It’s a forest town incinerated by faulty powerlines, a city that sat too close to an active volcano, a seaside hamlet washed away by waves. It’s the aftermath of an apocalyptic event. But you notice that there’s still life in and around the rubble. Hollenberg unfurls a characteristically imaginative solo that’s splendid in its askewness, a spidery, Vai-ian creature that we catch acclimating to the harsh wasteland.
“Return III: Death” is backed with “Cold Light of the Mirror,” a What Is Chaos? leftover given new life by Moore’s intense vocal performance. The track has a Black Flag-esque spikiness pushed and prodded by drummer Chris Allison’s fascinatingly atypical approach. When Moore’s vocals are swallowed by static, it’s one of the scariest sounds I’ve heard on a record this year. “I wanted to evoke the way that these feedback loops can appear actively malicious even though malice isn’t a moral category that really applies to something without sentience like a chain reaction,” Moore says in the liner notes. “Humans and the things we value are substances to be ingested and processed for utility to them, though suggesting that they have a perspective anthropomorphizes them too much.”
Return III: Death is another captivating, absorbing work from Kurushimi. That this two-song set about death is its most thrillingly vital work is one of those contradictions that’s irresistible to music nerds like me, the same kind of allure that drew people to Violence in Action in the first place. So, I hope Kerr’s fears have been allayed. What Kerr birthed hasn’t been slayed by apathy. Kurushimi is as passionate about music as you can get. [From Return III: Death, out now via Art as Catharsis.] –Ian Chainey
HYMNS OF BLASPHEMOUS IRREVERENCE