Is Nyia’s Time Now?
In February, Moans Music and Fabryka Hałasu reissued a remastered version of one of the best metal albums very few have heard. Originally released on Candlelight Records, Nyia’s 2004 full-length debut, Head Held High, has flown under the radar for nearly 20 years despite being championed by Napalm Death’s Shane Embury and featuring the cream of Poland’s extreme metal scene, with musicians who either played in or would go on to play in Vader, Third Degree, and Antigama.
But cult status is nothing new for Nyia’s drummer and co-founder, Wojciech Szymański. Over an incredible career, Szymański has drummed in some of Poland’s most creative metal bands: Kobong, Neuma, and Samo, to name a few. However, although these bands made fans of fellow musicians worldwide, including Gorguts and Negativa guitarist Steeve Hurdle, who uploaded Samo videos to his YouTube channel, they never got their due outside the country. And, if that wasn’t unlucky enough, Szymański’s crown jewel, Nyia, didn’t make a dent internationally or domestically.
“As you mention, the bands I played in and for which I wrote the lyrics are not very well known outside Poland,” Szymański writes in an email translated by friend of the column Dominic Athanassiou. “Nyia is also not very well known in Poland because the albums were released in England.”
So, the re-release of Head Held High offers an opportunity to change that and finally expose this side of Poland’s experimental extreme scene to a broader audience. As an avant-garde amalgamation of death metal, grind, groove, nu metal, jazz, and so much more, Szymański’s extended discography is worth exploring for those who like their music on the weirder side. And there’s no better person to lead us through these bands’ twists and turns than their drummer.
“It’s difficult to say when I exactly started playing music,” Szymański writes. “From the moment when as a young boy I was hitting the sofa with my mum’s knitting needles along to the songs coming from the tape recorder. Maybe [it was] a bit later when I started mounting some constructions with the help of two tape recorders. Or maybe only when I sat behind the drums as a teenager?”
With its many intersecting timelines, this is a perfect answer for a player who pioneered a steady yet unpredictable style. Thankfully, narratively speaking, the origins of his first band Kobong are clearer. While learning to play the trumpet in music school, Szymański met Bogdan Kondracki. Later, when Szymański caught up with Kondracki in Warsaw, the rhythm section was set: Szymański on drums, Kondracki on bass and vocals. Next, guitarist Robert Sadowski joined. Finally, guitarist Maciek Miechowicz rounded out the quartet and invited the budding band to use his painting studio as a space to create. Within no time, Kobong caught the ear of an important industry figure.
“Before we recorded the first Kobong album, we played a few concerts to determine what it should look like and better prepare for our studio work,” Szymański recalls. “Leszek Kamiński was present at one of the concerts, the producer of many rock and pop albums. He invited us to the S4 studio in the television building in Warsaw. We couldn’t afford it, but Leszek wanted to record this material and help us find a record label.”
It worked. Two of those songs, “Reage” and “Za Nim,” ended up on a 1994 promotional split released by Kobong’s future label, PolyGram. (On the A-side: Sweet Noise.) And Kamiński, who later won a Grammy for his work on Randy Brecker and Włodek Pawlik Trio’s Night in Calisia, returned to produce Kobong’s 1995 self-titled debut.
Kobong crushes innovatively right from the beginning, and the build-up in album opener “Dzwony” provides an unintentional analog to how the band was formed. First, Szymański stomps out a persistent kick drum pattern. Next, Kondracki joins him with a spiky bass line. Then, Sadowski and Miechowicz’s guitars howl like wind through a cracked window. From there, a riff that might as well be heavy metal Dick Dale sets the song in motion. Following in its wake is a neck-snapping groove that makes the most of Szymański’s generously constructed pocket. Finally, when Kondracki starts singing on the verse, his voice is but one interlocking rhythm of many. Needless to say, “Dwzony” is imbued with a bounce that swings hard and begs for headbangs. And this pairing of complex rhythmic layering with primal intensity is a Kobong hallmark that still sounds relevant today.
To that end, Kobong feels like it sits at the same table with two other 1995 albums that have withstood the test of time: Meshuggah’s Destroy Erase Improve and Deftones’ Adrenaline. But the Polish quartet differentiates itself with its idiosyncrasies. The excellent “PRBDA” has neat textural splashes of sounds, such as out-of-the-blue acoustic guitar strums. The solo section in “Taka Tuka” could be Suicidal Tendencies and Infectious Grooves if they got into Allan Holdsworth. “Trzcinki” uses an early bridge to go full fusion, forgoing the beat for timbres that sound like smoke wafting in the air. These experiments land because Kobong is in control, focusing its new band energy on captivating shifts while ensuring its songs have a strong sense of forward momentum. It’s like being in a taxi cab hurtling through a bustling city piloted by a moonlighting F1 driver.
Ah, but did Kobong catch on? Not quite. Szymański has a good line about the debut’s commercial impact. “Reaction to the album: Well, someone said it was rather music for musicians than anything else.”
Some bands would take that on the chin and return with a follow-up that’s smoother around the edges. Not Kobong. Working with frequent Vader producer Adam Toczko, the musicians doubled down on the eccentricities and cut Chmury Nie Było in 1997. As soon as you hear that first fractured noise chord, you know you’re in for something different. And, considering Kobong’s “music for musicians” methods, different wasn’t what the people holding the purse strings were looking for.
“In the band, everyone pulled in their own direction, and the result was the second, as you noticed, a heavier, slightly polyrhythmic album,” Szymański writes. “During the session in Wisła with Adam Toczko, PolyGram broke the contract with us, but that did not stop us. We fell into debt, but we recorded the album and released it with Metal Mind Productions.”
With its dense polyrhythms, cascading guitar freakouts, and Kondracki’s more esoteric approach to vocals, Chmury Nie Było sounds like someone’s sanity fraying. As an example, “Lust” builds up a nearly unbearable amount of tension before it spills over into a rush of euphoria. That resulting wall of sound is eventually brought down by Kondracki, his whispered vocals growing like cracks until a scream reduces everything to rubble. Meanwhile, the speedier “Miara” is all feverish blasts and spidery guitars until it dizzily descends into a sea-sick groove. These tracks thrill with a Today is the Day-level of unease.
But Chmury Nie Było‘s quieter moments are as intriguing. The acoustic version of “Przeciwko,” which is reprised later with deafening distortion, places rich, complex chords atop an insistent industrial-esque beat. “Impro” is a creepy soundscape that does to loose guitar and bass strings what Henry Cowell’s “The Banshee” did to the piano. “Banjo” lets a strummy lead ride atop percolating rhythms in a mesmerizing way. While Chmury Nie Było’s calling card is its prickly and progressive pummeling, these respites give the album depth.
Naturally, as often happens when an ahead-of-its-time band lands on its signature sound, Chmury Nie Było spelled the end of Kobong. But Szymański wasn’t done with music.
“I needed something that would discharge the fury, something that would quench my thirst, despite the album satisfying us all,” Szymański recalls. “I met a former Vader guitarist, Jarek Łabieńiec, on the street in Olsztyn, and we set up Nyia. Initially, Sebastian Rokicki played with us, but he eventually left and formed Antigama. So Szymon Czech fell in his place.”
In 2000, those three recorded a four-song promo with Yattering’s Marcin Świerczyński on vocals and bass. Times were tough, though. “In Warsaw, while working on Kobong, I was actually homeless, supported by my friends,” Szymański writes. “Now, in Olsztyn, we worked on Nyia after nine-hour work shifts on construction sites, but at least I could already rent a room, not that much bigger than the bed inside of it. This is what the life of musicians playing non-commercial music looks like in Poland :).”
Still, Nyia remained active through it all, and some old Kobong collaborators would come back into the picture. Szymański: “I started to travel abroad to earn money, to Austria actually with Sebastian from Antigama, so working on the material dragged on. After two years, [Nyia] entered the small makeshift studio Selani in Olsztyn. With a spool tape recorder TASCAM, we recorded the material with Bogdan Kondracki on vocals, i.e., the former singer of Kobong. More or less at the same time, we made a Neuma album composed of Kobong members but minus [guitarist] Robert Sadowski.”
Neuma’s self-titled debut came out first in 2003. Like Meshuggah’s Nothing, Neuma took the groove-based approach of the players’ previous material and slowed things way down. Unlike Meshuggah, Neuma added saxophone by Karol Gołowacz and turntables by DJ Feel-X.
“I really liked playing concerts with this material,” Szymański recalls. “You ask about the turntable and the saxophone: Unfortunately, I don’t remember where this idea comes from. [It was] spontaneous and probably resulted from work at the studio. Neuma is a recording from the studio we built in Warsaw, where Maciek Miechowicz’s painting studio used to be.”
Given its spontaneous nature, Neuma’s total package is as wild as expected. Led by Kondracki’s gritty bass, songs sprout grooves covered in grime. And, jeez, do the grooves ever groove: the eponymous instrumental features an all-time chugger. However, there’s more to Neuma than just the crush of big, mathy riffs. The album’s “hook” is its hallucinogenic effect produced by Kondracki’s charismatic performance and Miechowicz’s strobing guitar experiments. These elements take a song like “Sacrifice” to the next level, an absolute banger that’s like Negativa recording a bunch of Korn breakdowns, asking Bill Laswell to make a dub remix, and then chopping and screwing it.
Nonetheless, although its music once again excited adventurous listeners who loved outré experimentation, Neuma’s release encountered a familiar problem. “We published it ourselves, and the reaction, hmmm,” Szymański writes. “Not many people knew about the band despite our concerts. All these albums only begin to be noticeable after years. Oh well. In this country, the music market practically does not exist, at least for such music. I’ll explain it like this: The Vader manager was interested in the second Kobong [album]. One of his friends asked him for an opinion and maybe to take the band on. He responded: ‘I don’t know what shelf I should put this music on in the record store.'”
With its debut album finished, Szymański’s other active outfit, Nyia, sought a shelf outside Poland. Now a quintet — Bogdan Kondracki on vocals, Jarek Łabieniec and Szymon Czech on guitars, Piotr Bartczak (Prophecy, Third Degree, Herman Rarebell) on bass, and Wojciech Szymański on drums — the band eyed England and one of their biggest supporters. “Shane Embury talked to us very honestly and fairly,” Szymański remembers. “He wanted to release it but recommended a larger label because of the promotional capabilities: that is, Candlelight.”
Three years after it was recorded, Nyia’s Head Held High hit the streets in 2004 via Candlelight Records. If the goal was to “discharge the fury,” Szymański achieved it on the first song, “Behind The God.” Clocking in at one minute and eight seconds, it’s all yells, clattering drums, discordant guitars, and tire-screaming stops and starts. It sounds like when you accidentally leave two browser tabs open that are playing different songs. It feels like walking outside into harsh conditions after being made comfortable by an HVAC all day. It’s violent and dangerous in the way bands promise but rarely deliver upon.
While “Behind the God” made its point with pandemonium, the comparatively doom-paced “Everything Is A Dream” reached the same ends with devastating simplicity, hammering the listener with brutish, forceful intensity. These tracks are Head Held High’s extremes. What Nyia does between those poles is what makes the album great. Łabieniec, Czech, and Bartczak cook up a diverse menu of riff oddities. Kondracki sings, screams, moans, and even whispers his guts out. Sometimes it’s all at once, such as the wild, lysergic ending to the title track when Kondracki sounds like Mike Patton having the worst trip of his life. And Szymański is simply everywhere, galloping with the guitars in pell-mell races while pulling hard on the reins to set up woozy grooves. All told, it’s total sensory overload, begging for replays.
Unfortunately, Head Held High, like most of Szymański’s output, was ahead of its time. The pure id onslaught of Nyia was too far afield of the zeitgeist, finding a few connoisseurs of off-kilter breakneck barbarity who were embracing similar weirdos like Crowpath, but mostly failing to attain an audience. And the expectations of the band and the label weren’t lining up, especially when Nyia evolved.
“We signed a contract with [Candlelight] for three discs, and they explained to us that only after the third album do bands usually begin to earn somehow and be more known,” Szymański writes. So, if it takes three albums to be successful and Nyia only had one done, the band formulated an interesting strategy to fast-forward to the good times: bypassing the second album entirely. “It became clear to us that after releasing Head Held High, you have to get on with the third album, omitting the second. Probably that’s why More Than You Expect was too different from the first album for the boys from Candlelight, so we terminated the contract.”
Say what you will about the skip-the-sophomore-slump gambit, but the results speak for themselves: 2007’s More Than You Expect is Nyia’s masterpiece. Jakub Leonowicz took over on vocals and Maciej Banaszewski on bass for an album that traded in the frothing frenzy of Head Held High for an abstract and artful progressiveness. Be that as it may, More Than You Expect is still a burner, featuring sections that rival the peppiest runs from more tech-leaning musical mathematicians. And, while there’s a song titled “Inaccessible Things,” this version of Nyia really isn’t. Within the thicket of chaos are hooks, most coming courtesy of Leonowicz’s multifaceted vocal approach that mixes strong cleans with screams and scat singing.
For example, “Low Life” charges out of the gate with a Dillinger Escape Plan ferocity before sinking into an extended askew groove. Leonowicz’s stratified vocals make this section, his nattering adding another rhythmic component before the song punches the gas and ends up in anarchic metalcore territory. Elsewhere, Leonowicz accents a gnarly riff with vocal hits on “Yellow,” and the churning “Inaccessible Things” opens with a near-croon worthy of Jonah Jenkins.
More Than You Expect’s best feature, though, is its more dynamic construction. “Bored Song” is as close to a rock song as Nyia ever got, albeit one suffused with an appropriate level of strangeness. And the album’s standout might actually be the chiming instrumental “Desert,” which even has a smattering of electric piano. More Than You Expect, indeed. All told, it’s a grind record that still sounds like few other grind records.
But, by the time More Than You Expect was released by Shane Embury and Mick Kenney’s FETO Records, Nyia was pretty much done. “Shane released the material via FETO, and sometime after, the band fell apart because of Jarek’s troubles,” Szymański remembers. “[Embury] proposed a joint concert with Napalm [Death] to get to know each other and maybe play together more often. But we were unable to replace Jarek. The material was recorded after many arduous rehearsals with the full band.”
Released the same month as More Than You Expect was a split with Antigama via Selfmadegod Records. Nyia’s three songs are some of its strongest material. It was also something of a proof of concept for a different path forward. But tragedy loomed. Szymański: “The split with Antigama is an outline of an idea for another album with one guitar. But soon after, Szymon got sick and left this dimension. It was the end of the band.” Szymon Czech died of brain cancer in 2012.
Despite Nyia’s premature end, Szymański soldiered on, appearing on two different albums from two bands in 2010. The first was Organoleptic Trio’s The Rest Is Just Redundant, an intriguing exercise in improvised fusion. “Organoleptic Trio is a very spontaneous project,” Szymański writes. “Improvisations to only outlined topics, comparable with a deliberate bicycle fall to a roadside ditch and an attempt to get out of a painful situation.” Sure, there’s the expected skronk, but also quieter moments, such as the elegant beginning of “Deszczowa Piosenka,” which takes the shape of a sedate Don Caballero. “Amazonka Nocą” even incorporates a new-age sweep and is recommended to experimental sound enthusiasts.
Szymański’s other 2010 album has been cited frequently in The Black Market: Samo’s S1. Masterminded by guitarist Robert Gasperowicz (Otoczenie, a guest spot on Vader’s Future Of The Past II – Hell In The East), Samo falls somewhere between the first Neuma and the second Nyia, utilizing a similar groove-based approach of the former and the catchy craftiness of the latter. You can hear this no clearer than on “The Image1,” which has bouts of string-rattling turbulence, hypnotic, hanging arpeggios, Piotr Wasyluk’s throat-searing screams, and Szymański’s typically excellent playing.
“For Samo’s S1, I recorded the drums to an almost ready material,” Szymański writes. “Robert Gasperowicz invited me to work on this album. This is his creation, but he gave me a free hand when it comes to the drum parts. It was a very fast and reliable job. At the beginning, we went to a home in the countryside and closed ourselves there for a week or two to focus and play from morning to evening — as it should be :).”
S1 contains some of Szymański’s most characteristic drumming, leaning on his years of experience to make cutting-edge riffs and complicated timing sound effortless. “Thank you for your very kind words about my playing,” Szymański writes. “I don’t feel like a virtuoso. All figures result from ideas for the music, and I wouldn’t play anything more than what you need and exactly that and what we played at concerts. I have never been suitable for solos.”
And yet, Szymański has developed a recognizable style that can be identified by the surprises. “You ask where these broken rhythms come from and whether I exercise endlessly,” Szymański explains. “There have never been conditions to practice as much as I would like. I want my own fresh solutions. I change divisions into unexpected … directions which turns out to be inspirational for the band and suggests a plot twist. And the already mentioned compromise with myself results in unexpected solutions even by me. I like this the most.”
The Samo gig is Szymański’s final appearance on record as a musician, but he racked up a notable credit last year: the cover art for Antigama’s standout, Whiteout. “Sebastian, the guitarist and band creator, is a friend, and I was glad that he wanted to use a fragment of my image for his album,” Szymański writes. And, you bet, seeing a familiar name once again grace a brilliantly creative album from the extreme side of Polish metal was heartening.
Of course, it’s natural to wonder if we’ll see Wojciech Szymański’s name more often. While Kobong, Neuma, and Organoleptic Trio have made their way to streaming services, and Samo’s S1 received a limited repress by Husaria Records, Moans Music and Fabryka Hałasu’s reissue of Nyia’s first album feels like the start of something. Now that there’s a Mathcore Index infrastructure and Total Dissonance Worship framework for this kind of music, uniting audiences who like their mazy riffs rife with mystery, perhaps these bands will find the fanbase they deserve. After all, if France’s Pleymo can finally enjoy some grassroots success in North America due to the tireless efforts of nu metal Twitter accounts, perhaps a Nyia renaissance isn’t far behind.
Then again, Szymański has a different perspective: “Maybe this is actually beautiful, that these bands never had any hope for anything, conscious of the place and time, not counting for anything, and were concentrating on their work — after nothing, for nothing, and for no one.” In other words, what matters most is not the acclaim. It’s that they gave the music their all with their heads held high. –Ian Chainey
FOUL EMANATIONS FROM THE VOID
10. Century – “Master Of Hell”
Location: Stockholm, Sweden
Subgenre: heavy metal
Take to the keep and man the ramparts, everybody, because it’s a trad attack. Century, the duo from Stockholm with a debut full-length out in April, does it exactly how it’s meant to be done. Blazing riffs, wildman wails, and he-man solos rock across the fields of battle on “Master of Hell,” a track that shot into 2023 from some halcyon era of heshers; the vocal treatment, chord progressions, chorus, and muted ’70s production capture some of the same magic that made their compatriots Ghost’s Opus Eponymous land so well back in 2010. Century’s rocking the leather uniform instead of robes, though, and they wield their lethal loadout of pitch-perfect metal with expert efficiency and a sixth sense. Long story short, Century rips, and their debut The Conquest Of Time is going to rock, big. [From The Conquest Of Time, out 4/21 via Electric Assault Records.] –Wyatt Marshall
9. Thin – “Foliage”
Location: New York, NY
Subgenre: grind / metalcore
Thin’s “Foliage” is fascinating. With tricky structures, twisted riffs, and low growls, it sits at the intersection of a few styles that don’t commonly cross over. The liner notes call it “screamo laced mathgrind,” which, sure. Much of Dusk, the New York trio’s second full-length, does sound like an alternate universe where Jeromes Dream and Ed Gein became the same band: impossibly high piercing screams, speedy blasts, shreddy licks, and clever songwriting that keeps the material moving and free of tech’s penchant for calcifying calculatoritis. But there’s something else present in “Foliage.” Where the equally intriguing Hylda spliced its screamo with Gorguts and Krallice, Thin, for this song at least, is blasted by quasar rays emitted from one of the spacier death metal bands around.
“I saw this band Afterbirth play,” Thin singer and guitarist Ashley Levine said to Mathcore Index’s Mathcast. “After the Afterbirth show, I was punishing [singer Will Smith] outside, and I was like, ‘Dude, how do you do those vocals?’ Basically, he said it’s like trying to burp. At first, I was thinking, Is he just saying that to get me to go away?” But the burps worked. Levine started using his new lows at practice. And that eventually led to featuring them in the wonderfully unorthodox “Foliage.”
But, while the vocals are killer and captured flawlessly by Colin Marston’s recording, this darker, stranger side of Thin works because of the musicianship. Andrew Cortez’s bass meshes perfectly with drummer Fernando Morales’s lively playing, giving the herks and jerks of the constant shifts a steadying, centrifugal force. Levine’s arpeggios and chugs dance and skip across the other two in a way that almost sounds like a grind music box. When the three are at full tilt, it’s similar to how stars blur when a ship in a sci-fi show punches the hyperdrive. But the atmosphere is always abstract, permeated with unease. And that’s part of what makes “Foliage” fascinating! Because you have to check out the lyrics:
I watched my daughter
Extract and examine
An acorn hidden in mulch
Loved the little boy
Buried among the oak leaves
Well, damn. [From Dusk, out now via Twelve Gauge Records.] –Ian Chainey
8. Spectral Lore – “Moloch”
Location: Αθήνα, Greece
Subgenre: black metal
“Moloch” starts in the middle. The opener of Spectral Lore’s newest four-song EP, 11 Days, doesn’t have a build-up. Instead, it fades in with what most bands would consider a bridge, a storm of windswept riffs that remind me of Isa-era Enslaved. It’s a neat effect, like when you finally notice something that has been happening for a long time.
But I’ve come to think of that beginning another way. To me, it’s a slow-moving tracking shot zooming in on a vessel tossed around by the sea. Once our subject, one of the poor souls battered by this tempest, is in the frame, “Moloch” gets wilder, transforming into a metallic maelstrom while picking up the pace with a blast. The atmospherics become more feverish. The windswept riffs are replaced with gales of Immortal-esque trems, growing increasingly violent. “I must hold to this scrap of rusted metal and not let go,” Ayloss, Spectral Lore’s sole member, screams, “for 11 Days.” It feels like this hellish voyage will never end. Until, suddenly, it does: “Moloch” shatters.
Always blessed with a cinematic approach to black metal, Spectral Lore points the camera at a still-unfolding global tragedy on 11 Days. “I have attempted to create a narrative of a fictional journey of survival through the Mediterranean sea using supernatural and mythic elements, based on a real event that has taken place,” Ayloss writes in the liner notes, calling this EP “a statement of protest against the policies of the European Union regarding refugees and migrants.” The figures supplied by the Missing Migrants Project that Ayloss cites are horrifying: Between 2014 and 2022, “[o]ver 25,954 people have drowned in the Mediterranean Waters.” And even if seafarers, who are often refugees, survive the trip, the social and political forces at play on dry land can be just as tumultuous.
“Moloch” is followed by “Fortitude-Sunrise,” a synth-based track with contributions by guest Nate Collins, who returns for the similarly synthy outro, “Tremor-Kalunga Line.” “Fortitude-Sunrise” is pure Vangelis-quality sonic storytelling. The first half is dark, brilliantly using the unceasing rhythm of waves to build a sense of dread. And then, the light. The second half sounds guardedly hopeful. But a new hell awaits. Before “Fortitude-Sunrise” can resolve, “Adro Onzi” rushes in with war metal intensity. It’s maybe the angriest song of Spectral Lore’s career. And, thanks to how Ayloss and company have set the scene, it might be the most impactful, too. [From 11 Days, out now via the band.] –Ian Chainey
7. Vitriolic Sage – “梦的角落”
Location: Zhejiang, China
Subgenre: black metal
“梦的角落” — “Dream Corner,” according to Google Translate — shocks as intensely as it awes. The track drops you straight into a swaggering shuffle from the get-go, and soon a hypnotic guitar lead has you under its power. You’re in a black metal groove dream — and dreams abound across Vitriolic Sage’s new album, with three of five tracks featuring the word “dream” in their titles; the album itself translates to “Dream Road,” Google Translate says, but throw it into the regular search engine and confusingly you get a lot of Marilyn Monroe results. Back to “Dream Corner,” there’s a remarkable scope across its eight minutes, from blasting groove to meditative bells, from Morricone-esque mirages to a mean-mugging ripper of an outro. It’s a fantastic introduction to Vitriolic Sage, a one-person black metal project out of China that comes through Pest Productions, the Chinese label that’s been exporting the best of Chinese black metal and more for nearly 20 years. The musician behind Vitriolic Sage goes by JL, who also has a blackened progressive death metal band, Ὁπλίτης (”Hoplites”) centered around ancient Greek culture and mythology. Metal never ceases to amaze. [From 梦路, out now via Pest Productions.] –Wyatt Marshall
6. Mithrandir – “Ikiuni”
Location: Turku, Finland
Subgenre: black metal
Tolkien black metal can really hit if done right, and Mithrandir sticks the landing, bringing a raw-ish sound to Middle Earth’s dungeons and haunted halls. Mithrandir (for normal people: Gandalf’s Elvish name) is an exemplary Bandcamp find — an anonymous, independent project that appears out of nowhere, dabbles in dungeon synth, and seems to get around solely based on word of mouth. What’s on offer rips, and it doesn’t rest on atmospheric laurels. “Ikiuni,” which kicks off Towards The Spires Of Dol Goldur following an atmospheric and mystical synth intro (“synthro”?), is loaded with sharp riffs that carry a medieval air to bring to mind castle heroics and the clash of sword and steel. When the pace goes on the double quick — the drums are programmed, one sore spot — Mithrandir finds grooves at higher gears. That and the dungeon synthy sidequests interspersed throughout separate this Finnish duo from the pack. [From Towards The Spires Of Dol Goldur, out now via the band.] –Wyatt Marshall
5. Asystole – “Sophist Paralysis”
Location: New York
Subgenre: death metal
Asystole’s skill is synthesizing its influences. I, Voidhanger, a label that’s not one for hyperbole and nails its RIYLs and FFOs more often than not, IDed many of them in Siren to Blight‘s liner notes: “GORGUTS, VIRUS, KRALLICE, CRYPTOPSY and ANATA.” I’d say Defeated Sanity and Suffocation circa Despise The Sun are also applicable, but I would say that. Anyway, the point is, you can pinpoint when and where all these influences surface on the death metal quartet’s debut full-length. Like, if you’re wondering, “whither the Virus?” it’s at the beginning of “Song Of Subservient Bliss.” But, like great songwriters, Asystole uses these touchstones as jumping-off points. Because, well, Asystole’s members are great songwriters.
We’ve got “Sophist Paralysis” at press time, so let’s dig into that one. My old writing partner Ramar Pittance would say this song has a high idea density. And I love how Asystole foreshadows its restlessness with the first riff that bombards you from all angles, especially as the spiky discordance is quickly transmogrified into stout chugs. It’s also, dare I say, Asystole in easy mode, providing you with a listening tutorial before pushing ahead. Right. If that intro busted your brain, find something to hold onto. Because, damn, “Sophist Paralysis” is going to do some things.
For instance, goddamn, what is even happening three-and-a-half minutes in? It’s like Iniquitous Deeds engaged in an interstellar battle with Malignancy. It’s planet-exploding stuff. But, once you’ve pieced your atoms back together, give it a close listen. It’s wild how many intricate details are layered together to make that section work. That Ayostole can get both universes to congeal — the galaxy-big, overarching thrust and the microscopic death metal matter that binds it all together — is something. That every second of this song seems to build upon the previous one is something else. It proves that Asystole isn’t a recitation of influences. It’s a whole that lives and breathes.
That whole features some musicians who are Black Market regulars. Pat Hawkins handles the guitars on Siren to Blight, a talented player who has been in these pages before for the excellent Thætas and will probably be back again with Needlepusher. (Hawkins’s Aberrated also recently released a compilation of older tracks through Lifeless Chasm. Neat record, a nice love note to Long Island death metal that presaged some of this proggy pounding.) The drummer is James Applegate from Replicant. Bassist Kyle Linderman and vocalist John Dunn IV are new to me, but they’re in my book now. Linderman’s playing throughout is fabulous, and Dunn IV’s vocals find the right balance between classic death metal growls and newer, phlegmier brays. And really, that kind of sums up the Asystole experience. The quartet exudes a modernness, especially in its all-variants-are-on-the-table methodology. But these songs are songs in the classic death metal sense, building things up and breaking things down in a way that will be forever timeless. [From Siren To Blight, out 4/7 via I, Voidhanger.] –Ian Chainey
4. Transgressive – “We Protect Us”
Transgressive writes anthems. On Extreme Transgression, the trio’s full-length debut, the riffs and hooks make you feel part of something bigger. Leona Hayward’s bass fills up the low end with hummable lines. Joshua Payne’s leads smolder and then explode with giddy intensity. Guitarist/vocalist Alicia Cordisco’s nifty rhythm riffs and incisive roars are invigorating. It’s a group effort. And each player’s performance is imbued with a charge, that heart-beat-increasing sensation that so often accompanies fighting back. It’s the modern thrash ideal.
Transgressive also has something to say. From the artwork licensed from Sergio Photone to the samples that open “Thirteen Twelve,” Extreme Transgression seeks to empower via protest. Plus, the band has used its music to help effect real change. To date, it has donated thousands in proceeds to Trans Lifeline. And, in an excellent piece by Leah B. Levinson published on Bandcamp Daily, Cordisco discussed another part of the band’s reason for being.
Transgressive arose as a way to not only spread progressive politics and raise funds for various causes but to hold space within thrash metal. “With the messages in the music,” Cordisco explains, “a lot of this is coming from a very queer and a very transgender perspective, and there’s not a lot of metal out there like that. There is some, and there’s more day by day, but it’s really not something I feel is really represented in heavy metal, and it felt important to me to use my own voice to voice these words.”
Cordisco’s voice, full of passion and charisma, clearly and powerfully delivers the message. And, while all of Transgressive’s musicians can undoubtedly shred — just wait for Cordisco and Hayward’s new Project: Roenwolfe album if you have any doubts — its best feature is its less-is-more-and-then-make-the-more-louder approach that pushes Cordisco’s shoutalong-inciting choruses to the forefront.
“This band is much more vocally/lyrically driven for what I hope are obvious reasons than my other works, so I’ve tried to keep it fairly straightforward and simplistic, albeit there are exceptions,” Cordisco said to MoshPit Nation. “I’d say Power Trip is definitely a key influence in that regard. I’d also point to bands like Suicidal Tendencies and Kreator for both musical and lyrical inspiration (both of which are referenced in our lyrics at multiple points–to say nothing of the album title obviously hahaha).”
The references are another facet that works in Transgressive’s favor, acting as both a bridge and nod to those in the know. But these songs don’t require a thrash background. Instead, they speak and thrash for themselves.
“We Protect Us” is a fine example. It adds another voice to the mix, Lux Edwards, Cordisco’s bandmate in Wraithstorm, the fabulous funeral doom band we covered last year. (Edwards is also in the death/doom band Soulmass with Extreme Transgression‘s editor, mixer, masterer, and drum programmer, Brett Windnagle. Let Us Pray, Soulmass’ newest album based on the world of Bloodborne is well worth a listen.) Edwards’ lows complement Cordisco’s sneers to the point that the energy increases every time they swap verses. And the other players ride that wave of adrenaline, with Hayward reinforcing riffs while Payne shoots sparks with leads and solos. “Flames of rebellion must burn in our hearts,” Edwards sings. Extreme Transgression proves it burns bright. [From Extreme Transgression, out now via the band.] –Ian Chainey
3. Sadness – “Lowsun In A Glistening”
Subgenre: post-black metal
Sadness has released a trove of deeply affecting, gut-dropping records over the last nine(!) years, growing a loyal following with each successive release as chance Bandcamp clicks change lives and create lifelong Sadness converts. The songs on Springgarden are some of Damián Antón Ojeda’s best, explosions of sorrow-tinted euphoria that reach for life’s sundrenched highs. Ojeda’s carved his own path of nostalgic post-punk, post-black metal riffage over the years, and it’s at its best on “lowsun in a glistening,” interweaving into rays of yellow-pink synth auras and mellifluously picked guitars that ring like bells from a chapel on a bluesky day. “Lowsun in a glistening” and “best friend (feat abriction)” are some of Ojeda’s catchiest, most memorable songs to date — with deliberate pacing and structures that allow Sadness’s signature earnest, youthfully shouted mantras to take center stage for maximum impact (as well as charming curveballs like a building banjo-synth mashup).
But equally remarkable about Springgarden is its latter half — it’s a split with Victoria Camilla Hazemaze and her project Oculi Melancharium. Just last month, I wrote about Hazemaze, the Mexican artist cementing herself as one of the most exciting voices in atmospheric black metal, and her intergalactic black metal wonder Blitzar IV, and I compared her building, hyperprolific Bandcamp breakout to that of Sadness. Hazemaze and her portfolio of metal projects straddle across atmospheric black metal, dreary gothic, the voids of space, and all things nostalgic and beautiful. The tracks from Hazemaze and Oculi Melancholiarum are as gorgeous and powerful as Sadness’s, awash in tender, shapeless wonder. It’s no surprise that these two luminaries have found each other through the ether, and they’ve put together a work to cherish. [From Springgarden, out now via the bands.] –Wyatt Marshall
2. Acid King – “Beyond Vision”
Location: San Francisco, CA
Subgenre: doom / stoner / psychedelic
Acid King has been doing this for so long it predates its genre tag. “It didn’t really exist as a genre of music at least in the U.S.A. back then,” vocalist/guitarist Lori S said to It’s Psychedelic Baby Magazine in 2019. “So, there really wasn’t a community of bands. There wasn’t a group of bands to play with. When we started Sleep was around, Hawkwind were touring, Melvins, Neurosis, Buzzov•en, Eyehategod were regulars in town. We played with some of those bands in the early ’90s.” As Lori points out in that same interview, StonerRock.com, the scene-shaping website that burned bright for a decade, didn’t hit the web until 1999. And, incidentally, guess what album topped its “Top Ten Stoner Rock Albums of The 20th Century”? Acid King’s classic Busse Woods.
So, these San Francisco stalwarts have garnered a lot of scene cred over the decades. Its last album, 2015’s Middle of Nowhere, Center Of Everywhere, was maybe its best, showcasing a band that has moved far beyond the rote, hazy stonerisms that have made THC-dusted doom a meme. “Silent Pictures,” with Lori’s trademark laconic leads, was one of my favorite songs of the year. And it set up an album that is a trip in the best sense because, by its end, you feel like you gained something from the experience. In a time when a lot of doom has become as disposable as a freebie dispensary joint, the shimmering Middle of Nowhere, Center of Everywhere is the kind of album that could soundtrack a memorably moving sunset.
But now, 30 years into its career, Acid King is trying something new. Sort of. That’s the thing about Beyond Vision: it both is and isn’t undeniably Acid King, a Schrödinger-esque experiment for stoner doom. For instance, Lori remains, but the players surrounding her are different: Bryce Shelton (Bädr Vogu) on bass, Jason Willer (Charger) on drums, and Jason Landrian (Black Cobra) on guitars and keyboards. And the album is slow, low, and, most importantly, loud. But it also incorporates a whole slew of new timbres while cloaking these songs in an atmosphere that’s unlike anything Acid King has done before.
“Years before, I had an offer from Blues Funeral Recordings to record 45 minutes of anything I wanted for their Post Wax II series,” Lori said to Guitar World in February, later adding, “So, I reached out to longtime friend and fellow musician Jason Landrian, whose band Black Cobra was on a hiatus at that time, to see if he would be interested in collaborating with me on this, and he was. This release was never intended to be the ‘next new Acid King record’; it was going to be my experimental release, but as time went on and the songs evolved, it was much more than just an experimental record.”
Beyond Vision plays like a 42-minute composition, with each track flowing into the next. As you can tell from the titles and general shape of the album, it’s a voyage. Lori, again to Guitar World: “The entire recording is in order of a journey: one that could be in your mind, one that you went on, and in our case, one while spending nights in the studio under quarantine, deep in conversations about life in general and life on the road.” But what has captured my attention is how different the record sounds from others trying to achieve the same ends. Like, this isn’t some third-eye-prying, new-age yoga bullshit. Landrian’s ambient sections are so interesting in that regard, incorporating industrial clanks and smeared, spacey stretches that sound like how Saturn’s rings look. It’s almost like you’re traversing a dying galaxy aboard the Nostromo. And, of course, Billy Anderson’s mix brings a lot of that dirt and grime out, producing a sound that always sounds crushing no matter the volume, but is even better when you turn it up.
Be that as it may, I don’t want to lose sight of one crucial element, the constant in Acid King’s long career: the songs are great. “One Light Second Away”‘s aching lead, “90 Seconds”‘s gorgeous groove, “Color Trails”‘s thunderous conclusion. Great. Acid King has been doing this for 30 years. It knows how to write a song, even an experimental one. But what sets Acid King apart is that it always sounds fresh. [From Beyond Vision, out now via Blues Funeral Recordings.] –Ian Chainey
1. Fluisteraars – “Dromen Van De Zon”
Location: Gederland, Netherlands
Subgenre: atmospheric black metal
Around these parts, Fluisteraars need no introduction, having been the reigning kings of atmospheric black metal for nearly a decade running. But if you’re new, welcome, and know that the Dutch duo of Mink Koops and Bob Mollema have pushed the bar since their earliest days, taking black metal into parts unknown and imprinting their surreal melodies that tread a line between jaw-dropping awe and sun-lit apocalyptic doom upon wayward minds. It’s so good, we named a two-track split, lyrically and thematically centered on two rivers in the Netherlands, from Fluisteraars and their equally mind-melting compatriots Turia the best “album” of the year a while back. Led by jangling riffs that seem to always be surging and cresting peak after peak, barrages of superhuman drumming that blast relentlessly but are decidedly visceral, and Mollema’s desperate, animalistic howls, Fluisteraars hits with a unique stopping power. “Dromen van de zon” packs a punky punch, distilling Fluisteraars’ longer-winded–but always compelling–compositions into four-and-a-half minutes of whirling mayhem. As ever, it’s hypnotic, surreal, disorienting, and incredible, and, as the lead single from an EP that will be the first of several EPs from the band in the coming months, not the last we’ll be hearing from Fluisteraars this year. [From De Kronieken van het Verdwenen Kasteel – I – Harslo, out now via Eisenwald.] –Wyatt Marshall