Molly Daisy Scarpine Is A Screamer
You’re driving down a back road on your motorcycle. Nothing feels safe anymore. Your eyes dart around nervously, scanning the trees for trouble. Suddenly, a person shambles in front of you. You swerve. No thud. You skid to a stop and turn around. It’s not a person. Human-shaped and frail, yes, but, oh god, you know better. It stares at you, its vacant eyes devoid of life but brimming with malice. It opens its mouth, its jaw stretching and stretching and stretching. It’s then that you hear it: that scream. Suddenly, freakers reacting to the signal pour out of the trees from either side of the road. Even if you escape this moment, you know it won’t be the hands clawing or teeth chomping at you that you’ll remember. No. It will be the scream. It will take over your life as a faint echo of terror. You’ll hear it in the wind. You’ll hear it in the whine of a sputtering engine. You’ll hear it in dead silence. You’ll hear it everywhere it’s not because you never want to experience it again. And yet, for reasons you can’t quite put your finger on, something about that scream is oddly captivating. Terrifying, yes, but it has connected with you.
Players of the video game Days Gone, the 2019 post-apocalyptic open world masterpiece by Bend Studio, will tell you about a time they encountered an enemy literally known as a “screamer.” That’s because, for a game that produces so many memorable moments, screamers stand out. And Bend Studio seemed to know what it had, devoting a full cut scene to the enemy and featuring it in the TV ad.
The reason a screamer cuts deeper than the other Days Gone enemies is, of course, the scream. It’s naturally unnerving, as all great screams are. But there’s more going on with the creature. For instance, observe the behavior of the unaware screamer: One can hear it humming lullabies to itself, a vestige of its former personhood before it was infected. The scream pulls off a similarly disturbing effect. Underneath the fury is a voice that, while pushed to its extremes, sounds human. Once you pick up on it, it makes the scream all the more ominous. It begs the question, if a tiny change to our physiology can change us so much, then who even are we, really? To be able to convey that depth in a scream is really something. But voice actor Molly Daisy Scarpine knew precisely how to pull it off.
“That was cool cause at the very end of the sessions, a guy named Paul Deakin suggested I try doing a scream for some character that was supposed to act like an alarm for the freakers,” Scarpine writes in an email. “I was like, ‘Ooooh, OK, so like a banshee wail maybe?’ And they said, ‘no,’ lol, then I just gave something a try. They ended up filming some of those screams. There are clips on my IG they gave me years later. When I saw the commercial for the game, I was at a bar, and as soon as I heard the screamer, my jaw dropped. I got an email the next morning, and it said, ‘Congrats, you made the commercial!’ I felt such gratitude.”
The producers on the other side of the studio glass were not only impressed by Scarpine’s versatility but her endurance. “While we were recording [Scarpine] for the female swarmer, we had her do some screams, and it was just amazing,” Deakin said in a Bend Studio behind-the-scenes documentary titled “Resonance of Sound.” “And then she came out of the booth afterwards, and I just said, ‘Is your voice OK?’ And she just talked normally, softly again, like nothing had happened for the last four hours.”
Scarpine was OK because she’s been screaming in bands for years. Her latest musical project is Hyper Psychic, a Los Angeles-based multi-style metal band that recently released its debut, Deeper Psychosis. Across the EP’s five tracks, Scarpine unleashes ferocious scream after ferocious scream over frantic sonic onslaughts that sound like Anaal Nathrakh transposed to death crust. It’s a blast in all senses. It also provides a proof of concept for something metalheads have known about for ages: If you need someone to make discomforting noises in your video game, there’s no better place to find them than the extreme metal underground.
Scarpine isn’t just a vocalist or a voice actor. She has extensive theater training and is an impressive athlete, skills that have aided her as a creature actor. But the strength and dynamism of her voice have become her calling card, allowing her to rack up credits in a bevy of high-profile video game franchises such as God Of War, Devil May Cry, Resident Evil, The Last Of Us, and Fallout, to name a few. And, as CEO of Scream Team LA, an industry group connecting skilled screechers with clients needing harsh vocals to bring their projects to life, Scarpine has become a leader in the realm of growls, howls, and wails.
Indeed, at a time when the mainstream seems more receptive than ever to the artistic possibilities of screaming, Scarpine is at the vanguard of making gamers’ hairs stand on end. How she got there is a testament to her unceasing drive that has primed her to make the most of lucky breaks. It’s also an endorsement for maintaining varied interests in one’s youth, such as establishing a lifelong love of music. But, more than anything, it’s simply a story about the power of the human voice and its ability to turn the extreme into something people can connect with.
“I’m not sure if I can pinpoint exactly when I [first] heard extreme vocals,” Scarpine writes. “I really liked punk, riot grrrl, and anarcho punk, and went to see Bratmobile play at the Roxy and the Locust opened. Do they count? I’ll probably get judged for that. I think I was 13.”
The Locust definitely count, but if sticklers want to pass judgment, another musical epiphany for Scarpine was right around the corner: “I immediately loved Curl Up And Die the very first time I heard Mike Minnick. I think their We May Be Through With The Past was the first record of harsh vocals I would practice trying to mimic.”
However, before she mastered Minnick’s maniacal yell, a more unexpected artist prepared Scarpine for hardcore roars. “I went through a Tom Waits phase that lasted a few years. I think trying to sound like Tom Waits was a good baseline for practicing by myself in the beginning.”
One assumes Scarpine applied the same focus to unlocking the gravelly bray of Waits that she did to her other wide-ranging interests. After all, by age 11, she was an Irish dance champion. She also trained for the theater at the University of Southern California with the Young Actors Group. Where did this irrepressible drive and indefatigable interest in uncommon pursuits come from, then? “I really don’t know,” Scarpine confesses. “But I know that I like to do a lot of things and not necessarily because I can’t focus. I can definitely focus. I like to feel alive and explore.”
Soon enough, a young Scarpine was exploring bands. “By the time I was in my last few years of high school, I really liked hanging out in lockouts with friends that played in bands,” she remembers. “I always had liked different kinds of music and just wanted to try something, so I bought a microKORG synth and got FL Studio, and just winged it on my own and played with friends.”
Winging it eventually led Scarpine to Starfish, a band she formed with Quiddy Van Salter that expanded into a trio with the addition of Aimee Artz, a veteran of Ruido who’d later join Bastard Noise. Scarpine also had a solo project named Pulpo that involved her “screaming over tracks I made on FL.” And when she filled in on vocals for Artz’s Progeria, it turned heads and helped Scarpine land her next gig: vocalist for the venerable SoCal grinders Bloody Phoenix.
So, who set Scarpine’s Bloody Phoenix membership in motion? “My friend Mell Raiser!” she answers. “My friend from Canada. She was in Mass Grave and Iskra back in the day. Jerry [Flores, guitarist in Excruciating Terror and Bloody Phoenix,] wanted Mell in Bloody Phoenix, and she had just seen me perform with Progeria at Smash the Sausage Fest in 2010, I think? So she passed me along, lol, so Jerry had to settle. But Jerry ended up being one of the greatest friendships I’ve ever had. I just adore him. He’s always been much like a protective brother figure to me. Tough on me, too. But I got really good at this stuff under his demand for multiple band practices per week. He is dedicated to his art, and I needed that.”
Scarpine appears on the final Bloody Phoenix album, 2013’s appropriately titled Ode To Death, her roar buttressing the band’s trademark wall of distortion. But anyone lucky enough to be pummeled by the band in person knows that Bloody Phoenix on stage were a sight to be seen. The group’s unrelenting dedication to maximum volume made anyone who stood too close to the imposing amp stacks look like the Maxwell Tapes ad. And Scarpine was an ideal frontperson, her screams cutting through the din while she channeled each riff’s energy by headbanging and menacingly stalking the stage.
Even though it was lofi, a YouTube video of Bloody Phoenix playing the 2012 edition of Oakland’s DeadFest captured the band’s undeniable potency. And, when it made its way into the hands of some game developers, they knew exactly who they needed to contact for an upcoming project.
“I was brought into PlayStation in San Marcos to record a prototype for a game tentatively called Dead Don’t Run,” Scarpine recalls. “I met a man that would greatly change the course of my life named Jeff Darby that day, and he directed me for a few hours. We came up with some crazy, angry, and disgusting shit. In 2016 that project got greenlit and went to Bend Studios. I got brought back in to finish the game and got to do a few back-to-back sessions at Santa Monica Studios. I had the time of my life. So many bits of gold from those days. Jeff Darby came up from San Diego to sit in on the sessions. It was like a dream. That game is known as Days Gone.”
Darby was the senior cinematic sound designer on Days Gone, and the team ran wild on the game’s sound design, an aspect that significantly increased the finished product’s immersive qualities. “The team I got to work with was so gracious and wonderful,” Scarpine writes. “I got to play with really disgusting ideas, too. I used dried mango to create the sound of ripping flesh with my teeth. I had a bowl of water I was slurping into furiously that at one point went up my nose, which then caused me to choke and then gag back into the bowl.”
And if rending dried mangos didn’t produce enough of a disgusting effect, Scarpine also leaned on her experience as a vocalist to push her voice to the limits. So, how often does she dip into her metal bag for motivation, thinking, OK, I need to do more of a brutal death metal guttural thing for this zombie? Scarpine: “Yeah, actually that very much happens quite a bit, hahaha.”
That’s the thing about voice acting that connects it with metal: You need a vivid imagination to excel at it. “I really didn’t know much about voice acting initially and only had experience in theater growing up,” Scarpine explains. “But I learned that some of the best actors in the industry are in voiceover and performance capture. [It’s] more than reading something in a funny voice. You’ve got to have the imagination of a child. It’s all theater. With monster stuff, it’s a whole body and mind trip.”
Following her work on Days Gone, Scarpine’s foot was in the door. She was going to auditions and booking roles. A sampling: revenants in God Of War (2018), the Hell Judecca boss and Hell Caina minions in Devil May Cry 5 (2019), female zombies in the remake of Resident Evil 2: Biohazard (2019), Mademoiselle Rapide in Ghost Giant (2019), and various enemies and NPCs in The Last Of Us Part II (2020). That last credit would prove to be fortuitous.
“I met Beau Anthony Jimenez working on The Last Of Us 2; super cool, very talented sound designer and fun guy,” Scarpine writes. “We became friends and stayed in contact over socials. He was working on creature sound design for God of War: Ragnarok, but I hadn’t landed any creature stuff yet. My revenant character from God of War 4 got integrated into the game, but the only part I had was for these female owl berserker/raider warriors, which aren’t creatures.”
Similar to what happened on Days Gone, Scarpine’s musical side set her up to make an indelible mark on a video game. “Beau saw me screaming at band practice on social media one night, and I guess a lightbulb went off,” Scarpine recalls. “He popped into one of my raider sessions like halfway through and said, ‘Hey, let’s do some of those metal screams for Corpseswallower, the Eagle of Hell.’ I was shook. We did numerous takes so he could have a lot to work with. Highs, mids, lows. I envisioned myself as the eagle pissed off in hell. I gave some high-pitched sounds I thought a hell eagle would make. It was a blast.”
Scarpine’s performance as Hræsvelgr, the massive bird calling Helheim home, has earned plenty of plaudits for its intensity. “First time hearing this thing’s voice, and it’s the scariest goddamn thing I’ve ever heard,” commented YouTube user Mad Man Webster. “I got terrified when I heard her, especially because I was still up at 3AM while listening through Dolby headphones at max volume,” enthused Incog2k6. “Hraesvelgr would kill it as vocalist of a death metal band,” said Confounding Quasar. Little do they know…
As a flip on how she landed in video games, a voice-acting connection provided Scarpine entry into Hyper Psychic. “My friend Adriana, who is a voice actor, is a tattoo client of Dan Bones, and he had been sharing he was looking for a vocalist,” Scaprine explains. “So grateful she pointed me in his direction.”
In Hyper Psychic, Scarpine completed a formidable quartet: powerhouse Aniket Shenoy on drums, shredder Max Beehner on guitars and backing vocals, and Bones on guitar, bass, noise, and backing vocals. Bones is also responsible for the band’s artwork, including the cover of Deeper Psychosis, one of the best-looking pieces of album art released last year.
In a way, Hyper Psychic matches Scarpine’s restlessness regarding her interests. It feels like the band encompasses every extreme element of Los Angeles’ heavy metal underbelly. “It’s quite a mix,” Scarpine admits. “Depending on the song, it’s either death, thrash, blackened crust, grind.”
That kind of style fluidity can come off as indecisive if the songwriting and performances aren’t up to snuff. But Hyper Psychic has put in the work. Beehner and Bones quickly shift between ripping riffs and Richter-scale-shaking chugs with the well-practiced, turbo madness of a racecar driver navigating the Nürburgring. Shenoy hits every inch of the drumkit in athletic feats of forcefulness while maintaining a steadiness that acts as these songs’ spine. Finally, there’s Scarpine absolutely crushing the vocals. She’s no better than at the beginning of “No Pilot,” the first of an impressive two-song stretch that is Deeper Psychosis‘s high point. The roar she releases is like “Reveille” for metal sickos, a sound that is both frightening and invigorating.
Hyper Psychic are currently working on new tunes. Scarpine’s assessment: “It’s pissed.” She’s also busy as the CEO of Scream Team LA, “a supergroup of professional extreme metal vocalists, creature creators and voice actors currently working in various fields of the entertainment industry,” per her website.
“I’ve met everyone either through working on games or training together,” Scarpine explains. “We’ve each kind of got our own specialty in this genre and a lot of us wear several hats in this industry. What we’ve all got in common is we keep booking these roles, forming solid relationships, becoming the go-tos for our respective clients. We are able to do extreme vocals without compromising our vocal health. Whether it’s screaming like orcs for a few hours, looping for horror movies and/or consulting for game development, embodying a monster in the volume for several days in a row, dubbing for hours, you name it and we have the pros that are doing this stuff already who are absolutely dominating. I’m so proud and honored to know these humans.”
And, in a sense, that’s what this comes back to, that these vocalists and artists working in the extremes of their fields are human. Yes, they’re exploring the edges of expression. And yes, sometimes the results are fantastical: a screamer with a cry that’s a call to arms, a huge-ass hell bird with an otherworldly guttural growl, an introduction to an unusually heavy death crust song. But the human voice makes these surrealist moments feel more real. That’s why we delight in screams, isn’t it? To be terrified, angry, sad, or any other powerful emotion by proxy. It’s the desire to feel the thrill without the peril. One could say that Molly Daisy Scarpine and her compatriots are the conduits through which people can connect with complex art that conjures these intense emotions. That is to say, at the end of the day, it’s the screams that you remember. –Ian Chainey
FOUL EMANATIONS FROM THE VOID
10. Thulcandra – “Velvet Damnation”
Location: Munich, Germany
Subgenre: blackened death metal
Just in time for heavy metal BBQ season, Thulcandra’s big, beefy blend of black and death splits about 80/20, with a body of black metal’s driving melody and song structure and a respectable dose of death metal’s oomph and chug giving you something to chew on. “Velvet Damnation” is a bruiser, a gust of cold medieval chill that has big production umami, a high-quality treatment for extreme metal that calls to mind their neighbors and label mates Imperium Dekadenz. The recipe — blue album art included — was originally developed by Dissection, and Decibel once awarded Thulcandra the distinction of the top spot in a “Top 5 Dissection Clones” list. Clone seems a bit unfair, as Thulcandra craft compelling and absorbing worlds all their own, full of anthemic dueling guitars, mean mugging riff assaults and blasts, and scenic circuitous routes that are worth the journey. Fit for a beer and brat at a backyard or European summer festival. [From Hail The Abyss, out now via Napalm Records.] –Wyatt Marshall
9. Nightmarer – “Obliterated Shrine”
Location: Portland, OR
Subgenre: death metal
Patience isn’t the first trait you think of when it comes to excellent experimental death metal, but Nightmarer aren’t exactly death metal, either. “When I hear the term death metal, I don’t think of music that relies as much on atmosphere as ours,” guitarist and co-founder Simon Hawemann said to Decibel in 2018. “There is death metal in our fabric, but in my opinion, it’s not necessarily the most dominant element.”
The better descriptor for Nightmarer is probably the name of Hawemann’s record label: Total Dissonance Worship. Some of the TDW faithful even drop in to lend a hand on Deformity Adrift, Nightmarer’s second album. Brendan Sloan (Convulsing, Altars, Dumbsaint) plays bass throughout. On “Taufbefehl,” Absolutum and Valborg’s Jan Buckard and Christian Kolf (also of Owl and Labyrinth of Stars) chip in vocals and Lung Knots’ Eeli Helin (also of Fawn Limbs) provides “soundscapes.” So, you know, given the band’s pedigree and this album’s attendees, it doesn’t take much much of a leap to make the connection. But even “total dissonance worship” is a little misleading. Yes, there are squeezes of Gorgutsian dissonance across Deformity Adrift‘s tracks. However, like the similar in spirit yet sonically disparate bands that have filled out the TDW roster, Nightmarer defy easy categorization because their fabric is woven from many styles.
What’s intriguing is that despite its myriad touchstones, Nightmarer don’t sound like a band that evades classification. The band’s core quartet — guitarists Hawemann (ex-War from a Harlots Mouth) and Keith Merrow (Merrow), drummer Paul Sidel (The Ocean, ex-WFAHM), and singer John Collett (ex-Gigan) — have synthesized a style that is far-reaching, but avoids the chronic genre jumpiness of the prog and chaos set. Right: Nightmarer write songs, not parts. So, like a lot of modern metal under the omnicore umbrella, Deformity Adrift is often all genres at once, even one I’m particularly enamored by.
“Generally speaking, the term ‘technical’ seems counterintuitive with the slow and crawling nature of doom metal, so I’m not sure if it will ever exist as a genre of its own,” Hawemann told me last year regarding the concept of “technical doom,” “But I do see a lot of death metal bands toying with doom elements and believe there is a lot of potential for that to be explored more.”
Nightmarer explore those technical doom elements with “Obliterated Shrine,” the ferocious finale that is like Nothing-era Meshuggah convinced Immolation to get groovy. But “Obliterated Shrine” isn’t that different from the rest of Deformity Adrift. It’s just…slower. What I mean is that, even at this speed, Seidel, who is stellar across this album, adds all kinds of tricky flourishes that enliven the song in the margins. At times, when you hear how his fleet footwork gives Hawemann, Merrow, and Sloan’s heaving lurches a foundation, you even wonder if this song really is slow or if it’s just an aural illusion. In a sense, it’s fast and slow. That’s the Nightmarer MO.
And that brings us back to patience. No matter what Nightmarer pack into these songs, no matter how busy they should sound, they always come off as streamlined, just towering colossuses ceaselessly and efficiently moving forward. While I love me a death metal band that pushes itself so hard that it sounds like it’s on the verge of falling apart (see: Conjureth or Garoted, a band we’ll be talking about next month), there’s something about one that can’t be stopped that’s equally formidable. Sure, there are many details and elements layered to create that effect: Collett’s voice has incredible depth, Hawemann, Merrow, and Sloan widdle out some impressively technical juds, and Seidel is simply a skins-slaying beast. But Deformity Adrift’s most dominant element is its patient indomitability. It will crush you. [From Deformity Adrift, out now via Total Dissonance Worship, Vendetta Records, and Blood Blast Distribution.] –Ian Chainey
8. Krallice – “Porous Resonance Abyss I”
Location: New York, NY
Subgenre: black metal
Porous Resonance Abyss, Krallice’s 12th album and fifth since 2020, starts with a synthy woosh. Of course, that isn’t surprising if you’ve been paying attention to the avant-garde collective over the past few years. First, 2020’s Mass Cathexis added keyboards, and then its follow-up, 2021’s Demonic Wealth, foregrounded them. It makes sense then that, down the road, we’d end up with a four-movement, mostly instrumental, labyrinthine space prog record. And yet, what am I even talking about? That only makes sense in the way that looking at yourself in the mirror every day as you age makes sense. When you unexpectedly see an old photo, it’s like, damn, how did we get here?
In this case, the old photo is Krallice’s self-titled debut, which will turn 15 in July. I hate to bring this up every single time I write about this band, but Colin Marston, Mick Barr, Lev Weinstein, and Nicholas McMaster’s evolution over those 15 years is truly something. The New York all-star institution has produced a (and this is an all-time understatement) varied discography that, in these later years, seems particularly interested in switching things up. That’s not to say that Krallice have lost their identity. Far from it. If you made a mixtape and sequenced Krallice’s “Forgiveness In Rot” next to Porous Resonance Abyss’s second movement, I think most listeners could tell that the two songs share DNA. At the very least, those listeners might say that one inspired the other. But, more than the commonalities, the contrasts between the two highlight that, in a metal style that tends to reward serial repeaters, Krallice are keen on experimentation. And, while subsequent releases have taken on an “Oh hey, new Krallice” habitualness thanks to their relative regularity, the band’s unceasing progression will be seen in starker relief after, god forbid, they finally call it a day. That’s to say, if any of this seems normal now, it’s because we’ve been blessed with the pleasure of living through it. You’ll miss this when it’s gone.
Anyway, Porous Resonance Abyss. First, it’s worth noting that the big instrument shake-up on Crystalline Exhaustion and Psychagogue has been carried over: Barr and McMaster have swapped roles, with the former on bass and the latter on guitar. This inter-band transaction subtly shifts Krallice’s approach, as Barr, the master of the sustained tremolo, does some neat things with the low end, particularly on the 21-minute closer. But, I mean, cataloging the textural differences is missing the bigger picture: Porous Resonance Abyss is so unique. For instance, take the 10-minute opener. I’ve been replaying it frequently, and I still don’t have a handle on what it offers. It begins with sweeping keyboard blips and then moves into a vibe I dare call post-punk, like if NASA commissioned Killing Joke around Brighter Than A Thousand Suns to cut something that could be beamed into space to prove to aliens that we’re not idiots. But the middle section, with its layers of juddering rhythms that sound like multiple Ved Buens Ende records simultaneously stuck in an unintentional locked groove, is pure Krallice. And that’s it, really: Porous Resonance Abyss is pure Krallice. It’s just, you know, a different Krallice. Same as it ever was, I guess. [From Porous Resonance Abyss, out now via P2.] –Ian Chainey
7. Fen – “Scouring Ignorance”
Location: London, UK
Subgenre: atmospheric black metal
England’s Fen have long produced moving, grand works of atmospheric black metal, ranging mountains and sweeping forests and delving into tumultuous, churning waters. It’s been a reliable recipe for years, a favorite meal you can count on. Fen largely stick to the formula on their new album, but they’ve thrown a handful of habaneros into the pot. “Scouring Ignorance” burns, and Fen are hitting on the double-quick — they’ve never sounded this energetic, this angry, this fired up. You’ll still find all the gorgeous melodies, the interjected clean vocals that call to another plane, but they’re backed by a band weaponizing their instruments with feverish obsession and brute force. On prior albums, when inspired by the natural world around them, Fen have channeled the power of rock, wood, bone, and stars to tell an English black metal tale. Song titles on the new album — ”Scouring Ignorance,” “Truth Is Futility,” “All Is Lost,” — suggest Fen have turned their attention from the land to the humanity that occupies it, and in doing so, they found a whole lot more to be angry about. [From Monuments to Absence, out 7/7 via Prophecy Productions.] –Wyatt Marshall
6. Naturvidrig – “Själens Skymning”
Location: Värmland, Sweden
Subgenre: black metal
Naturvidrig’s debut self-titled album arrives a full seven years since the band put out their only other recording, an EP titled Sönderfall. That EP wasn’t on the radar at the time, but listening now, it was a raw-ish ripper with more than its share of memorable moments, and it showcases a knack for bringing dark, brooding melody into some meaty blasts and chugs. “Själens skymning,” from the new one, showcases a more mature sound, but it’s hard to trace a whole lot of development in the long intervening interval other than to say everything has been leveled up. Melody is more front-and-center, disquieting and slightly off-kilter, and you also get the feeling the band were inspired by what’s come out of the Quebec metal scene in the last decade or so; the blasting and hurry-up nature of it all is very Forteresse, with formidable walls of riffs and indefatigable drumming, and the vocals similarly have a gruff narrative bark that calls the band to mind. But they also bring some mid-tempo groove tendencies to bear, a sort of Swedish contemplative pause or fika. Naturvidrig, which translates to “unnatural,” should turn some heads with this release, which only gets more powerful and persuasive with each successive listen. Let’s see if we have to wait seven more years to see what comes next. [From Naturvidrig, out now via the band.] –Wyatt Marshall
5. Kostnatění – “Slunce Svázáno S Krvácející Zemí”
Location: Minneapolis, MN
Subgenre: black metal
First, let me write that you don’t really need to know anything about Kostnatění or D.L., the artist behind the band, to enjoy Úpal. You didn’t need to know anything about last year’s excellent Oheň hoří tam, kde padl, the EP that ingeniously combined black metal and traditional Turkish songs, either. Like its predecessor, Úpal states its case fine on its own. It smokes. Imagine if an over-caffeinated !T.O.O.H.! circa Pod vládou biče became obsessed with exploring Middle Eastern and African musical idioms. Now imagine that whatever you just imagined goes even harder than that.
But why imagine when you can scroll down for an embed of Úpal’s closer, “Slunce svázáno s krvácející Zemí”? Worth your time, that one. It features frenzied tremolos that dip and dive like a murmuration of birds that sense a nearby predator. Additionally, session drummer Andrew Lee augments the aggression with some of his finest work. It’s fierce, fiery, and a bracing blast of freshness if you’re sick of by-the-numbers black metal. Also, for those in the know, and this is very important, there’s an “OOGH!” That’s what you need to know.
“OOGH!” aside, let’s take a deeper look at what’s happening underneath Kostnatění’s hood. “For Úpal, the stated goal was to expand the project in all directions simultaneously — to take the nascent songwriting ideas and push them all one step further, no matter how contradictory the end result,” D.L. said to Invisible Oranges. “For softer sections, that meant drawing upon various Middle Eastern and African folk traditions and making passages intentionally more folky, flowy and psychedelic. For heavier sections, that meant pushing the riffs from ‘intense’ to ‘legitimately psychotic-sounding.’ I want the heaviest parts of the album to make listeners feel the way extreme metal felt to me as a young teenager — legitimately deranged, dangerous, and sublime — before I had heard a couple thousand different metal albums and learned enough guitar and music theory to always understand what the band was doing behind the scenes.”
That answer is fascinating. I love that there’s a detailed breakdown of Úpal, and then there’s the acknowledgment that listening to and learning a lot about music diminishes the magic. Beyond that, though, I have to admit that D.L. is successful. Úpal is working as intended. It does feel like extreme metal did when I was younger. It has a bracing wildness to it, something that I used to experience more frequently but I’ve since normalized out of a lot of music simply by listening to a lot of it. So, the reason D.L.’s magic is undiluted is because I haven’t heard much like it. That is to say, D.L. isn’t approaching this stuff through the lens of genre or theory or other aspects of music that I have a firmer grasp on. No, it’s through D.L.’s unique perspective.
In a predictably excellent Q&A with Machine Music, D.L. discussed why a Minneapolis band has song titles and lyrics in Czech. “I’ve always seen my music as a synthesis of things that I like and have wanted to interact with. I very much see my music as an extension of myself. And so I incorporate different ideas, cultures, philosophies that have some meaning to me … It keeps a very important part of me close to my music, and it’s admittedly been challenging, especially as the project ramps up in renown, to continue to move it forward to keep that momentum. Staying authentic to that part of myself and what I want to get out of it. But, ultimately, I think that just reflects a broader theme throughout my life, which is that I’ve always just been kind of unforgivingly unique and idiosyncratic. I just wear whatever I want to wear on my sleeve, and I don’t care too much about whatever somebody thinks of it.”
And that’s kind of it: You don’t have to know anything about Úpal to enjoy it, but having more insight into its idiosyncrasies makes the album feel so real, so lived in, so human. D.L.’s uncommonly well-considered answers to interview questions during this press cycle (there’s another great one over at BeaverMosh) give Kostnatění depth, just like having a deep conversation with another person deepens your relationship with them. And, uh, Úpal’s riffs are sick. [From Úpal, out now via Willowtip.] –Ian Chainey
4. Dratna – “Fomóraigh Reign”
Location: Belfast, UK
Subgenre: black metal
“Fomóraigh Reign” is a wicked and sharp track, a nocturnal ripper that spills over with dark sorcery and mean mugging sneers. Full moon, foggy synths set the scene, and when things get kicking, a distorted banshee’s scream sets the tone — this nature-inspired black metal is fueled more by evil spirits than a contemplative appreciation of the misty mountains. Dratna, the one-person project from Andrew McKenna, does draw from Irish mythology and topography for inspiration, interweaving the two and channeling the primal forces that hewed the island’s dramatic geographic features and continue to indifferently churn cycles of life and death (across Dratna’s catalog, the Emerald Isle comes alive in rather terrifying fashion). Though “Fomóraigh Reign” is lush – there’s rich texture in the jagged guitars, those synths lay a bed of blackened decomposing foliage, and the raspy screams seep into every nook and cranny — “Fomóraigh” is lean and agile, with an economy of instrumentation that wastes nothing. [From Fomóraigh, out now via Fiadh Productions.] –Wyatt Marshall
3. Vinsta – “Schwoaze Låckn”
Location: Tennegau, Austria
Subgenre: progressive death metal
Vinsta play lush, beautiful music built upon folk bones, weaving atmospheric death metal into tracks that carry epic melodic narratives. Though Vinsta write songs that take a wide-angle sweep of things, there’s a proggy-ness to the music, too, and at times the band can sound a bit like Deliverance-era Opeth. That comparison rings more true given Christian Höll’s deep growl, which tends to show up when the double kicks get going and the riffs get heavier, dissonant, and shifty. As the song moves from folk woodsiness to choppier melodic death metal, there are a few moments of hammered-out, bright doomy-ness that bring to mind the ever-great Kauan. Vinsta started as Höll’s solo project, and he’s still at the helm, with a crew of musicians brought on to fill out the vision, and some of the most memorable moments on “Schwoaze Låckn” come when Höll’s cleans duet with the airy vocals of Moni Hahn to ethereal effect. It all makes for a rich, engrossing listen, one that is as intricate as it is grand. [From Freiweitn, out 7/28 via Eisenwald.] –Wyatt Marshall
2. Khanate – “To Be Cruel”
Location: New York, NY
Subgenre: doom / drone
The first words Alan Dubin screams on “Like a Poisoned Dog,” the first track on To Be Cruel, the first Khanate album in 14 years, are “I feel dead.” Yep, Khanate are back.
The drone doom supergroup — Dubin on vocals, Stephen O’Malley on guitars, Tim Wyskida on drums, James Plotkin on bass — left us in 2009 with the once-thought-to-be-posthumously-released Clean Hands Go Foul, a swansong assembled from improvisations captured at the end of the Capture & Release sessions. In a 2016 CLRVYNT feature, various reasons were forwarded to clarify Khanate’s demise: interband tensions, logistics, O’Malley’s Sunn O))) breaking out among the NPR crowd and the newfound opportunities that entailed. Still, Wyskida left the door open, telling interviewer Brian Cook, “It’s unlikely we’ll ever play again, but if and when everyone in the band is ready, I’m sure we could give the music community a much-needed kick in the pants. It’s pretty fucking boring out there.”
Per an interview attached to the PR copy for To Be Cruel, O’Malley and Wyskida started winding up that kick in 2017 with a fruitful recording session in Woburn, England. The material was shared with Dubin and Plotkin, and the reconstituted band returned to the find-the-songs-by-arranging-and-editing process that it pioneered on its 2001 self-titled debut and 2003’s landmark Things Viral. Another recording session took place in 2019 with Colin Marston, which included Wyskida outfitting his kit with a neat assortment of noise-makers. And then, the pandemic. Mixing didn’t resume until 2021. Nearly two years later, after a surprise release this month, foot has finally met pants.
That To Be Cruel doesn’t sound like an album that took nearly six years to make is the great contradiction at the heart of Khanate. That’s a compliment, by the way. For music that is so slow, Khanate always have a knack for making their music appear spontaneous: the way O’Malley pulls the e-brake on riffs; Plotkin creates waves of unsettling tones; Wyskida lobs flashes of percussion like concussion grenades; or Dubin just breaths menacingly. These choices sound like in-the-moment decisions. However, in actuality, they’ve been carefully plotted for maximum impact. That’s what many of its disciples miss: Khanate make “minimalist” music that’s actually not very minimal at all. It’s complex and maximizes emotions. But its kineticism obviates any sense that it’s labored over. Instead, it feels like you’re living through these songs alongside the band. That’s the duality: “I feel dead,” but the music is so alive.
To Be Cruel’s best moments sound like a corrective to 2005’s Capture & Release, a recording not particularly beloved by the band’s members. (For what it’s worth, and it’s not much, I think Capture & Release is good.) Sure, To Be Cruel retains the long-form format of its 17-year-old sibling — “Like A Poisoned Dog” is the shortest track of these three new songs, clocking in at a brisk 19 minutes and 20 seconds. But where Capture & Release was almost masochistic in its purposeful inertness, To Be Cruel is unnervingly active. Well, comparatively. This is Khanate, after all.
For example, the stunningly spare title track, the quietest song of the bunch and most likely to wield negative space like a weapon, is like listening to the slow-motion avalanche of someone’s late-night breakdown. (I’ll refrain from giving it a style designation other than drone doom, but if there were ever a Khanate song that the Necks could cover after staying up for six days straight because they took the wrong drugs, it would be this one.) The key is that, despite its down-in-the-dumps dismalness that uses Dubin’s declaration of “I’m at an all-time low” as an excruciating exclamation point, it carries the listener along. Naturally, each musician provides unlimited points of interest even when not playing, and the song is unusually well-sequenced. But I think it flows so well because Khanate are a great band that used the last 14 years to figure out what they could be. Makes sense. Khanate have always made the most of silence. [From To Be Cruel, out now via Sacred Bones Records.] –Ian Chainey
1. Kaatayra – “Boca Que Se Engole”
Location: Brasilia, Brazil
Subgenre: atmospheric black metal
It’s been some time since we’ve heard from Kaatayra, Caio Lemos’s original project that opened the doors to a world of Amazonian black (and green) metal and blew minds; he’s been busy with his other projects, the remarkable Bríi and Bakt most recently. “Boca que se Engole,” a track from a split with fellow Brazilian solo-phenom Pessimista, is worth the wait and, at 16 minutes, an immersive journey that you will spend plenty of time in, wandering beneath the canopy and unearthing horrors and wonders at every turn. Those familiar with Lemos’s work will find themselves in the now familiar but always surreal, heart-quickening milieu that he’s crafted across his previous works. But as always with Kaatayra, surprises are in store on what could be Kaatayra’s greatest song to date. From swirling chaos, with arpeggios soaring and crashing to earth all around, Lemos conjures dark powers that portend shapeless doom. There’s beauty in that darkness, and Lemos introduces it one strand at a time, pulling electrified threads together into a sky-splitting, revelatory conclusion that leaves your jaw on the floor and you wanting to dive in all over again. [From Kaatayra / Pessimista, out now via the bands.] –Wyatt Marshall
Bonus. Memorrhage – “Reek”
Location: Dallas, TX
Subgenre: nu metal
Garry Brents, the busy metaller who is Memorrhage’s sole member, is upfront about the project’s purpose in the Bandcamp liner notes for its self-titled debut full-length: “This album is a nostalgic tribute to growing up in the 90’s with nu-metal as the first genre I latched on to, moved away from for nearly 20 years, and then came back to with more appreciation and love for the genre than I did as a kid.”
The key is that Memorrhage is nostalgic without being mired in full-blown nostalgia. Sure, that may read like it’s splitting hairs, but adhering closer to the ‘ic’ than the ‘ia’ is what has been powering the recent nu metal renaissance. Memorrhage and like-minded outfits such as Cheem, Vein.fm, Зло, and Marion have excelled because they use nu metal not as a meme schematic but as a jumping-off point. They realized that nu metal isn’t a stylistic restriction but another shade of paint on their palette.
You can get a sense of what shades Brents is working with based on a recent tweet tracking Memorrhage’s more apparent influences: “Korn, Godflesh, Soulfly, Spineshank, Slipknot, Converge, Nasum, Breach, Candiria, Disembodied.” Notice: not all nu metal. And, unlike the clumsier attempts of yesteryear to cross over in either direction, that being metal bands trying to court nu metal’s massive audience or nu metal trying to re-establish cred via more underground (read: hipper) avenues, Memorrhage is far better at finding the point of convergence shared among its influences. That’s because, like how Kostnatění is D.L., Memorrhage is Garry Brents. He’s the point of convergence. And he loves all of this stuff.
Take “Reek,” a song that definitely sounds like it was composed by someone super into Nasum’s “The Professional League” without denying themselves the finer things in life, such as when the clown hits the keg. Sure, if you wanted a more tortured critical analysis, you could say that there’s tension between Brents’ twin impulses to make something that nowadays metalheads would find authentically heavy while shaping these songs with the same hook- and fun-first approach that once helped nu metal conquer the rock charts. Those impulses even play out in the guest spots: “Reek” features guest vocals from Adam Bailey of the blast haven heavies Narakah and turntable scratches from Mr. Rager. And, to an extent, by melding these sides without compromising their individual integrity, Memorrhage has made a guilt-free pleasure for those who never pictured themselves liking a metal or nu metal album in 2023.
But, I don’t know, I really don’t think the “this is why Memorrhage is good” theories need to be that nuanced. In the spirit of nu metal, which is all about giving into the purity of base emotions, let me just call it like I see it. Memorrhage rips because there’s a thrill in hearing talented musicians doing what they want to do and pouring everything they have into their riffs. Garry Brents gives this material his all, and his earnest passion provides a spark that energizes every chug, scream, and soaring chorus. He loves it. I do, too. And maybe this is nostalgia talking, but can you even split hairs when you’re busy jumping the fuck up? [From Memorrhage, out 6/16 via Big Money Cybergrind.] –Ian Chainey