Undulation’s Pursuit Of The Authentic Self
The Executioner knew the band had something from the start. “Honestly, I felt it click the first day I went to practice with Undulation,” the singer writes in a joint email interview with the group. “I was initially nervous, but there was an instant sense that I was in a space where I could be my authentic self, and things kind of progressed from there.”
A collaborative exploration of the members’ authentic selves isn’t a bad way to describe An Unhealthy Interest In Suffering, the debut EP from the Seattle quintet. Then again, the magic of Undulation is that there isn’t just one way. Their first salvo of six songs feels both intimate and ever-expanding, a possible contradiction rendered cohesive by Undulation’s choices. And, more often than not, the outfit gives you a lot of those choices at once. The metal of Undulation’s undertaking is black and death metal, atmospheric and technical, elegant and morbid. As previously stated, for some bands, these contrasts may be polar extremes. On An Unhealthy Interest In Suffering, it is simply Undulation, a group that has found its unique voice through its players’ experiences, interests, and the place they call home.
If you want to hear that approach in practice, clear your schedule and spend a worthwhile six minutes with the An Unhealthy Interest In Suffering highlight “Failures Of The Demiurge.” It opens with twinkling twilight arpeggios and a waltz-y rise and fall. When the Executioner enters with unearthly cleans, it’s like seeing an apparition out of the corner of your eye. Soon, the metal comes pouring out with the surprising severity of an unstoppable nosebleed, but that sense of the otherworldly permeates the rest of the running time, transforming the heavier material, which is as if early Horrendous were into Undying and Weakling, into something memorably mystifying.
In other words, it infuses the beats of black and death metal with a sense of the unknown, as if the listener is becoming aware of a hidden dimension. Guitarists Dylan “Dahlia” Berry and Nelson Payne twist together riffs like quickly growing vines that flower at midnight. Bassist Seth Death and drummer Zach Putrell craft rushing rhythms that flow with the ferocity of a flash flood. With a necrotic BLECH, the Executioner punctuates a particularly harrowing stretch of evocative lyrics set to throat-searing screams. This total package is black and death metal, sure, in that those familiar with the genres will find comfort in the way Undulation plies its trade. Nevertheless, it’s uncannily familiar in the same way that sensing the presence of someone behind you when you know you’re alone is uncannily familiar. Those chills are Undulation, a band already adept at evoking these feelings through its songwriting.
Not surprisingly, when weaving this tapestry, the members collected many different threads. “I was reading a book at the time called The Dictionary Of Obscure Sorrows and thinking deeper about a concept they talk about called the ‘Interior Wilderness’ in terms of consciousness but specifically the dream states and parts of reality that can feel unreal and almost as if what is known can feel like it never really existed,” Dahlia explains, going deep on the inspirations behind “Failures Of The Demiurge.” “It is worth saying that I had many lyrics written for some of these songs before the Executioner joined that had to do with my own experience with the occult, astrology, bicameralism, and Orphism that were later replaced with E’s writing. We realized that the Executioner should really be at the helm of the writing for this band in that it would connect them so much deeper to the music, and honestly, their writing style is so much more visceral and intense than my own, like you really feel it, and I couldn’t be happier with the result.”
The background behind those results is a fascinating portrait of a new DIY band finding success by trusting its gut. To an extent, that’s not dissimilar to underground metal bands worldwide. Be that as it may, the Undulation story thus far is a study of how the musical history of a band’s members allows it to approach well-worn metal styles in a distinctive way. Put more simply, Undulation are not chasing trends. They’re chasing the authentic self. And that makes all the difference.
Undulation have their roots in a band named Shrouds, a project Putrell worked on with Jeremy Curles (ex-Unearthly Trance) and Dave Houston (Evangelist). An invitation was extended to Dahlia to play bass. While Shrouds didn’t work out, Putrell and Dahlia kept collaborating, with the latter switching to guitar. Seth Death came via recommendation and filled the bass vacancy. Then Payne joined the fray. Finally, the band knew exactly who should sing.
“Yeah, honestly, both Zach and I had wanted the Executioner to join us for a while, both being big fans of their earlier works and also friends of the scene,” Dahlia remembers. “I was in a band called Nauticult before this project that was more of a digital hardcore/industrial hip hop project, and during that time, we had shared the stage with E, who was a solo horrorcore/industrial rapper under the names Guayaba, and then later, Ex-Florist.”
Dahlia and the Executioner aren’t the only members of Undulation with extensive resumes. Putrell plays drums in the punk and powerviolence bands Rainbow Coalition Death Cult and Tax Evader. Seth Death is in the great death metal crawler Foul and has a DSBM solo project named Soil on the way. Payne was in the chunkily omnicore-ish Ranofer and is also in the adventurously improvisational Monster Toke.
“I think that each of our past projects influences can be heard in the type of writing that we do and the performances that we bring to the table,” Dahlia notes. “As an example, even though my past project was more experimental, you can hear the black metal influence in my guitar playing alongside our drummer who also has roots in death metal, having actually played in Ranofer with Nelson as well. I feel like if you listen to Foul you can also hear the sludginess and drone elements of that band that comes into Seth’s writing style.”
Seth Death, though, sees it a little differently. “I try to have projects that have as little overlap stylistically as possible. That’s why Undulation was perfect for me to join because it’s very different from Foul and Soil. Undulation is very technical where Foul is very stripped down and minimalist. Foul is very primitive sounding while Undulation is more of a showcase of elite metal riffing.”
Undulation is also a showcase for good metal lyric writing. An Unhealthy Interest In Suffering does a lot with a little, delivering high-yield payloads of vivid imagery in only a few words, such as on “Judith Beheading Holofernes,” which contains the line “Bound in ecstasy and/ Made to drink the vomit of God.”
“To be honest, my writing style was more equipped for metal than it was for hip-hop, I just wasn’t able to scream,” the Executioner writes, clarifying how their approach to lyrical poeticism changed between their solo project and Undulation. “A lot of the references and allusions come from a similar realm of darkness. I like a lot of weird and horrible things and don’t like to limit myself to the subject matter that I scream about.”
Indeed, the Executioner’s sky-rending screech? The deathly lows? Those vocal developments, which they make feel so natural, are relatively new. “I started doing vocals because, when I was 17 or 18, I was posting on MySpace, and I was hitting up other metal bands, being like, ‘Do you need operatic vocals?” they said on an episode of Metal Shop’s Backstage Pass. “Throughout my music career, people have asked me about doing harsh vocals. I’ve not been able to. But, through hanging out with Tannöth [from Foul and Forest Of Grey] and Zach, and playing around with death metal vocals, I was like, ‘Wait, I think I can do this now.'”
The fruits of that epiphany are all over An Unhealthy Interest In Suffering, including some of those operatic vocals that the Executioner used to pitch to bands. (“We definitely want to incorporate more operatic vocals in the full length,” they note.) Describing the effect of the Executioner’s performance is tough to put into words, though. Visceral? Yes. Immediate? Yes. But there are layers and depth. For every rasp that cuts and growl that bludgeons, there’s also a deep ache present, like the omnipresent throb of a wound that won’t heal.
“As cliché as it sounds, my biggest vocal inspirations are raw feelings; pain, hatred, suffering, madness, terror and paranoia,” the Executioner explains. “I listen to the deepest and darkest parts of my heart and essentially what comes is something akin to automatic writing. I tend to gravitate to the surreal and nightmarish, with elements of whatever speaks to me the loudest for a particular composition. The subject matter varies widely, but death, the occult, surrealism, violence, and Gothic literature are subjects I often revisit. The more unsettling the better.”
Interestingly, when it comes to stated influences, the members of Undulation are all over the map (although, admittedly, asking for influences tends to flatten people’s tastes, and all members justifiably offered a version of the “too many to list” catch-all to cover their bases). That variance is one of the band’s strengths and what might allow it to cover so much ground without moving too far astray from its core black and death sound. The Executioner cites “John Gossard from Weakling, the avant-garde nature of Silencer, the range of Dani Filth” as touchstones while namechecking Pacific Northwest heroes such as Thorr’s Hammer’s Runhild Gammelsæter and Burning Witch’s Edgy 59. Dahlia notes early, formative big bangs like Death and At The Gates, alongside more experimental modern practitioners like Gorguts, Krallice, and Oranssi Pazuzu. Purtell’s list ranges from punk (Poison Idea) to grind (Insect Warfare) to death metal (Suffocation). Payne hit some rock prerequisites (Rush, Ozzy) while also dropping in the intriguing troika of Allan Holdsworth, Django Reinhardt, and Shawn Lane. “For this group, though, while fusing those inherently, I can’t help but try to infuse Black Dahlia Murder-esque stuff,” Payne specified.
The thing is, once you become acclimated to Undulation’s black and death metal, you can hear many of those influences surface on An Unhealthy Interest In Suffering, along with each player’s personality. The raw, self-imposed DIY production handled by Putrell acts like a veil, an immersive element that dedicated listeners can figuratively pull back on multiple listens. (“All of the instrumentals were recorded live, and I think it’s easy to miss some of the harmonies that are present,” one band member asserts.) And the deeper you go on subsequent listens, the more likely you are to find so many little components that add up to something much bigger. There are rollicking and dexterous guitar runs imbued with a proginess that maintain a grind tempo. There are imaginative rhythms that Eurostep around genre tropes. And there are songs like “Acid, Vinegar,” which is as if a hardcore band like Undertow spearheaded the USBM movement. That might be a vestige of Undulation tirelessly dialing these songs in for maximum impact.
“The song used to be more of a sort of slam death metal song and it didn’t really fit with the rest of our material,” Dahlia explains. “I added some tremolo picking and some open arpeggios to the part and suggested that Zach do more of a classic blast beat instead of the more open beat that he was doing and it really changed the feel. I think the thing we didn’t expect is that ‘Acid, Vinegar’ really seemed to get responses that it was people’s favorite song and it definitely was the one that underwent the most compositional switch-ups.”
It’s not just “Acid, Vinegar.” People have responded favorably to Undulation in general. An Unhealthy Interest In Suffering has been a success on Bandcamp, and Grime Stone Records will release a tape version on October 6. So, how and why has a DIY band from Seattle found worldwide appreciation?
“I think that part of it is because of our combination of genres that we are integrating has put us in front of a wider audience of metal fans online,” Dahlia surmises. “People looking at different lists within the genre are finding us and as more people listen to the record, we are getting recommended, shared, reposted, reviewed and the like. The record has really spread in a way that I didn’t expect. I will say that my favorite genres of metal have a lot of activity in places besides the United States and that is part of it perhaps.”
The Executioner adds, “One thing that I love and cherish about metalheads is their unquenchable thirst for new music. We’re definitely in a death metal renaissance via larger and independent labels and DIY. It’s easy to find new music to connect with if you search for it. I think metal is one of the final frontiers when it comes to honoring obscurity; popularity seldom matters in the pursuit of the sound you’re looking for when it comes to extreme music. And as much as we joke about gatekeeping in the community, it’s much easier to find records I wouldn’t otherwise hear via YouTube channels and download sites dedicated to metal. The most inaccessible music is also the most accessible.”
Undulation’s accessible inaccessibility is part of the reason it has, at least for a band featured in the Black Market, broken out. “I would like to think we write for ourselves and what we feel is something unique or feels/sounds good,” Payne states with refreshing plainness. “It’s cool that people seem to enjoy it.”
But there’s also a powerful emotional connection at the heart of Undulation’s music that will attract others less exposed to ultra-underground metal. “The writing of ‘Failures Of The Demiurge’ musically was definitely the most emotional experience for me as far as the album’s material goes,” Dahlia writes. “The beginning of the song encapsulates that feeling of the ‘Interior Wilderness’ for me that I was explaining earlier, but the song also had to do a lot with loss in me writing it and the strength that must come in fortifying oneself when the weight of things want to crush you; ascending from the depths that we reach into and bring back messages from the dark so to speak.”
The Executioner feels that emotional wallop, too. “The material definitely feels emotionally overwhelming at times, especially some of the more personal lyrics. I think ‘Demiurge’ is the song that takes you on a journey, and by the end, there’s a sense of exhaustion and weariness as if you were a traveler. I try to push myself to the edge without toppling over into a breakdown. I’ve definitely cried during practice and feel safe doing so.”
Speaking of taking listeners on a journey, besides the music and emotional heft, the other thing setting Undulation apart that interested fans might be picking up on is that it’s a very Pacific Northwest band. That regionality cuts two ways.
“I do think that there is a sort of melancholy that comes from being in this environment and also a sort of reverence towards the doom, ambiance, and natural world that is very much a part of where we live and the metal music that comes from here,” Dahlia explains. “One thing that people may not realize is that there is an abundance of magic mushrooms that grow up here, and it is actually part of our culture in a unique way. All of us have experience in the world of psychedelia and I would say that is a defining quality to the way that we approach our music and art together, though it is not something that we would say is a part of our identity as a band or specifically our connection together, but something worth mentioning.”
So, yes, melancholy, metal, and mushrooms: Welcome to Washington. But, to go deeper, there’s something else that’s particularly Pacific Northwest about Undulation, and one can find the seeds of that quality in the story of how Seth Death got into metal.
“I grew up in a very musically repressive family of origin situation,” Seth Death writes. “Ultra-conservative religious household in the Midwest right in the middle of the ‘Satanic Panic’ movement in the ’90s.” Because nothing heavier than the pebbles of hard rock reached young Seth Death’s ears, they figured music wasn’t their thing. On the one hand, they enjoyed performing it in the school band and choir, and that stoked an interest in perhaps creating music they may want to listen to. “I got my hands on one of those black-body Squire Stratocasters and a little Peavey practice amp, but with no musical foundation, I was having a hard time figuring out how to create music that I enjoyed.” On the other hand, making the leap to actually doing it seemed far away.
And then, at 17, Seth Death moved to Seattle. They met people. And those people finally had good recommendations. “I discovered ’80s hardcore and was ecstatic that not only were a good number of these bands still playing shows, but a whole community of people were still starting bands in that style. It was all downhill from there. I started progressively getting into darker and heavier music: crust, sludge, and grindcore, and appreciating the metal influences in those genres eventually brought me to black metal and death metal.” It also brought Seth Death to the Snakepit.
“The year was 2011, an unholy year,” Seth Death writes, setting up a fantastic metal flashback. “The Mayan apocalypse was on the way, and economic depression was impacting everyone’s ability to buy beer. So a small group of crusty hardcore/grindcore/powerviolence enjoyers, borderline oogles all of us, decided to pool our resources in an attempt to keep the party going through the already trying decade. This is how the Snakepit was born. There was only one rule at the Snakepit: ‘No Dead Bodies.’ And with the exception of the namesake rotting python the landlord left in there for us to discover and a roadkill pet cat we drunkenly buried in the front yard one cold night, we were successful in upholding that rule.”
Located “at a nexus between the International District, the Central District, and Capitol Hill, and a block away from the juvenile detention facility,” the Snakepit quickly became the Seattle underground’s Xanadu. And it was only a matter of time until it housed shows.
“By this time in my DIY music journey, I had accumulated a decent backline worth of gear that could support small bands that were unprepared or touring bands that couldn’t afford to move their gear,” Seth Death recalls. “It was a veritable Field Of Dreams. We built it and everybody came. This space also afforded us the opportunity to form our own bands and just generally be immersed in music every possible moment of our lives.”
Naturally, following this full-time music immersion, it wasn’t long before people started branching out to the harder stuff, with lodgers getting down with Norwegian black metal, thrash, and death metal. For Seth Death, extreme metal became part of the everyday grind. “For a long time, I would spin Slayer’s Seasons In The Abyss on the tape deck in the bathroom while I did my morning paperwork. ‘Hammer Smashed Face’ was my wake-up alarm tone.”
And soon, some notable houseguests inspired Seth Death to make good on the dream of creating music. “It was also during this time that Sam Osborne (Hulder, Funebrarum) and the rest of the Bone Sickness members would hang out and party with us, and we thought their band was really cool, and it solidified in a lot of us that death metal was the kind of thing we wanted to be doing for ourselves at that time,” Seth Death remembers.
Surely, many bands spent their entire lifecycles within the Snakepit’s walls, but the first project that made waves in the burgeoning scene was Chronic Tomb, a deathly grind band with stoner parts. “I still think the concept is genius, and the members of that band have gone on to be in a lot of projects you may have heard of if you know anything about the Pacific Northwest death metal community. Cerebral Rot, Cystic, Fetid, Mortiferum, Foul: all bands with alums from the Snakepit, and those are only the death metal bands. I could fill a whole page of shoutouts to people from that spot. Sorry to everyone I left out. The roots of that house grew deep and wide and provided nourishment to our little subsegment of the underground extreme metal community in the form of sick riffs and devastating blast beats.”
Undulation carries on the tradition of the Snakepit by providing some Pacific Northwest musicians with a sense of belonging and the ability to explore their art. Undulation is the Executioner’s first band, and the experience has been far different from their solo work.
“I would say it is like night and day,” the Executioner writes. “As a solo artist, I only had myself to account for, and my setup was extremely minimal. I played a lot of shows and considered it to be a career for a few years. It was easy for me to get depressed or lack the motivation to write, and I never got around to releasing merch or physical media.”
For some, navigating the non-creative demands of a project can be, well, an unhealthy interest in suffering. However, in Undulation, the Executioner has found a better balance. “Being part of a collaborative effort relieves a lot of the burden of the legwork involved with DIY, which can get really overwhelming as a solo artist,” they write. “We all do what we’re good at. This band definitely challenges me and what I’m able to do sonically, which I love. With the encouragement of my bandmates, I’m able to push the boundaries of my creativity in ways I haven’t been able to before. But perhaps most importantly, I’m encouraged to be myself. This is the first band I’ve been in, and I was afraid that in a musical setting with other people that I would be a control freak or a diva. If anything, this band has taught me to be a better listener, open-minded, and focused on the art I’m creating. I’ve definitely grown and learned from being in this band, and I’m very thankful for the experience.”
And, as the Executioner makes clear, it’s also helpful to have supportive bandmates who are on the same page. “My solo project was also very political; though I still hold those ideologies, it isn’t necessarily something I wanted to focus on for this project. Black Lives Matter, ACAB, and protecting trans kids are three core principles I live by, and seeing the rise of antifascist black metal is something that helps me feel safer in the community. We have a zero-tolerance policy for NSBM. Often, at the shows I attend, no one looks like me, and it can be somewhat isolating, but my bandmates always look out for me, and I’ve been able to connect with the few other POC in the scene here. Hopefully, my presence will inspire some people because I know it’s going to piss some people off.”
If all of that sounds like solid reasons to start a band with the right people, the Executioner has another good pitch: “Being in a band is both challenging and rewarding. To find a group of like-minded people and to create something from nothing is challenging, and when it comes to extreme music, it may seem like those people are few and far between. I think that’s why there are a lot of solo artists, and many of them do fantastic work. But in many ways, a band is like a creative think tank. You’re not only challenging yourself, but you’re challenging the people you are working with and drawing upon each other’s strengths. If you dedicate yourself to your craft, it will change your life. We set out to create something terrible and beautiful, and I think we’ve achieved that.”
Undulation have achieved something, and they have done it their own way. In a musical landscape where some posit that regionality is extinct, they are a recognizably Pacific Northwest band with new fans across the globe. They also delivered a new spin on a classic sound, while providing fans a place to feel like they belong. And they’ve done it thanks to the members being themselves, seamlessly melding their influences and experiences. After all, based on everything that came before, Undulation knew they had to be that way from the start. –Ian Chainey
FOUL EMANATIONS FROM THE VOID
10. Białywilk – “Nine Of Swords”
Location: Chicago, USA
Subgenre: atmospheric black metal
A woman falling through star-pocked space has now graced the cover of both Białywilk’s latest album, Zmora, and its 2021 debut, Próżnia. It’s a fitting image. Białywilk creates otherworldly atmospheres that are disorienting twice over; they drop you in the midst of an aimless void, then they swirl and twirl. The dense, lush instrumentation from Marek Cimochowicz, formerly of Chicago’s abstract black metal masters Vukari, is inundating. It taps a marrow, and you’ll surely get lost in the smears of melancholic ethereal grays — with the appropriate volume. Cimochowicz’ vocals are rasps from somewhere beyond, across a veil, through a black hole, from the other side of a dream that’s haunting yet strangely comforting in its own way. The jacket copy describes the album concept as a “journey through the struggles of sleep paralysis and insomnia.” These feverish visions of otherworldly beauty from the precipice of sleep will linger. [From Zmora, out now via Vendetta and Vita Detestabilis.] –Wyatt Marshall
9. Februus – “Gentrification Of The Soul”
Location: Höör, Sweden
Subgenre: death metal
If you’re obsessed with a specific strain of Swedish death metal from the late ’90s and early ’00s, Februus’ sole proprietor, Andreas Karlsson, has some riffs for you. While it has its own quality and quirks, Surveillance Orgy, this project’s first full-length, reminds me so much of the early works from Anata, Visceral Bleeding, and Spawn of Possession. If you know, you know. But, of course, don’t let that dissuade you if you don’t. If you generally like death metal derived from the Disncarnate school of tech-prone riff-havers who are compelled to liquidate those riff-holdings in restless song structures, Karlsson has something for you, too.
“Gentrification Of The Soul,” Surveillance Orgy’s opener, is rife with the kind of Floridian riffs that washed upon Swedish shores and were reworked by its shred-inclined inhabitants. There are melodically-ish leads, abrasive juds, near-tech flourishes, choppy churns, proggy peregrinations, and more on this tour of what the straight-up death metal riff can do. And Karlsson has those riffs doing a lot. It’s not just that Februus loves “the journey,” what I’ve come to call those extended sections when a metal band decides it wants to take the scenic route. No, it’s that Karlsson has a knack for taking a similar idea and twisting it ever so slightly until it becomes something different. That makes this straight-up death metal album with straight-up death metal riffs feel more varied than expected. At times, Surveillance Orgy is psychedelic. At others, it’s swathed in the same sort of lush grandeur as the heavier melodeath bands (think Intestine Baalism, or if a velvet dress fell into an industrial meat grinder). While it’s always firmly rooted in death metal, it shifts so often, and sometimes so subtly, that you don’t really know where the ground is. It’s a neat trick, something that’s hinted at in the one-sentence explainer found on Surveillance Orgy‘s Bandcamp page: “Death metal in the borderline between reality and the progressive figments of your schizoid mind.”
Anyway, you already knew that there’s a Tomb Mold, Blood Incantation, and Cannibal Corpse. Now you know that there’s a Februus. That’s how the column works. So check this out on Bandcamp before Bandcamp is blown up. [From Surveillance Orgy, out now via Horg Recordings.] –Ian Chainey
8. Vórtize – “Suspiro En La Eternidad”
Location: Limache, Chile
Subgenre: heavy metal
Vórtize are back, and they have come for the Trad Belt. Javier Ortiz’s guest-heavy solo project debuted in the Black Market last year with the ridiculously infectious ¡Tienes Que Luchar!, an album that plopped a speed metal turbo atop an ’80s trad engine. At the time, I compared it to “a peppier Riot circa Fire Down Under, Messiah Force, or the NWOSHM Universe augmented by early Blind Guardian’s approach to storytelling via riffs.” Also, and this is very important for understanding the entirety of this Ortiz enterprise, it had a whistling solo. Note: That’s not a solo with the quality of whistling. That’s Ortiz literally whistling with his mouth for a solo. It was great, the album was great, and the entire kitchen-sink package befitted one of the best band pics in the biz.
I’m proud to announce that the whistling is back on Desde bajo tierra, Vórtize’s second full-length, appearing on the epic “Tempestad.” Rejoice. Still, what’s intriguing about Desde bajo tierra is that, this time around, it has a savvier approach to integrating its more gonzo inclinations. Now, it’s vital to make the distinction that it’s not hiding them per se. You couldn’t claim to be hiding moments of divine outre extravagance after the acapella opening to “Dentro del Vórtice.” But they don’t stick out on album number two, flowing better within the music. That makes for a more robust release. On the other hand, you know, this is metal, and as someone who has been writing about this stuff for longer than I’m willing to admit to dates, HR representatives, and tax CPAs, I like it when things stick out. I bet that’s not going to be taken out of context.
Anyway, Ortiz also plays in Oldeath and Demoniac, the latter of which has a well-regarded new album out now, so the idea of making a tougher, more deliberate, and refined album isn’t totally out of left field. But you’re absolved of your doubts if you heard the lead streams from Desde bajo tierra, emitted a pensive “hmm,” and became slightly concerned that the forthcoming follow-up wouldn’t have time for a song like “Toma Acción,” the Romi Huerta Núñez-fronted stunner from Vórtize’s debut that seemed to get giddily drunk on its own speed. Fear not. Like how the whistling is back, that stuff is, too, just in a different, slightly more elevated way.
While Desde bajo tierra doesn’t redline and speed wobble as often as its predecessor, it reroutes that gonzo energy into pure heavy metal feeling. “Suspiro En La Eternidad,” which features the return of Huerta Núñez on guest vox and Javier Salgado on guest shred, has a ridiculously triumphant rising chorus as a hook that is absolutely irrepressible once it gets lodged in your brain. That’s followed by a delicate acoustic guitar solo that should be the antithesis of heavy metal but fits so well. Old Vórtize might’ve emphasized the contrast. This wiser Vórtize makes it work for the song. Still, the fact that it’s there at all suggests Vórtize is as gonzo as it ever was. Ortiz, my friend, siempre metal, to you. [From Desde bajo tierra, out now via Nube Negra Prods, Black Legion Records, Despreciable Realidad, and Selvajaria Records.] –Ian Chainey
7. Ruin Lust – “Dissimulant”
Location: New York City, NY
Subgenre: death metal
Ruin Lust’s Michael Rekevics has had his hands in a number of important underground US extreme metal bands of the last 10-plus years; often, those hands have been on the drums. Early on, he was part of the early 2010s US black metal scene that was taking shape, bringing frenzied propulsion to Fell Voices and accompanying the like-minded Ash Borer live on bass. Both bands heralded a new era of black metal from America — it was statement stuff, hypnotic, meandering and artful, and tracks often clocked in at 20+ delirious minutes.
Following that heyday, and not necessarily in this order, Rekevics then brought out his anthemic black metal band Vilkacis, the triumphant, atmospheric black metal band Vanum, and he also joined Yellow Eyes, who were by then distending reality and damaging eardrums at the Brooklyn metal venue Saint Vitus on a regular basis. Amidst this work in tone-setting black metal, he launched a wildcard, Ruin Lust. In comparison to a brutally powerful black metal oeuvre, Ruin Lust is a death-first, blackened metal band that hits with the force of an earth borer churning through obsidian on overdrive. It stood out a bit, but one thing in common across all these projects, and something you’ll pick up on if you’ve ever caught Rekevics live, is that he brings the energy of a man possessed to anything music performance-related. Playing is wild-eyed and feverish, and it is a physical, grueling act. In Ruin Lust, and some of his other bands, he’s doing vocals while on drums, and If memory serves, he’ll sometimes do it without a mic, just screaming over the drums into the crowd. That maniacal energy pulses throughout “Dissimulant,” a track from Ruin Lust’s album out on Twenty Buck Spin. [From Dissimulant, out now via 20 Buck Spin.] –Wyatt Marshall
6. Fluisteraars – “De Mystiek Rondom De Steen Des Hamers”
Location: GE, Netherlands
Subgenre: black metal
Even when it’s the middle installment of a three-part series of EPs, each inspired by a ruined castle in the band’s hometown of Bennekom, a Fluisteraars release feels like a monumental occasion. The duo of Mink Koops, who drives the instrumentation, and Bob Mollema, credited with vocals (“Zang”), keys, and “space” on this one, are tapping into something primal and dark. The EP opener is shaman-esque, summoning strange spirits in an unsettling black metal ritual. On track two, “De Mystiek Rondom de Steen des Hamers,” Fluisteraars pull from a more familiar playbook, one that has made the band perennial year-end contenders. Koops’ bright riff arrangements lay a rich but uneasy ground, providing a base layer for a marching anthem to build while siren-esque lead guitars shoot strange comets across a psychedelic sky. Mollema howls across this, narrating a doomed chronicle. At the end, portended by building ominous drones, it all comes together – the anthem finds its stride, an eliding, infectious melody takes hold, and the track goes down as another Fluisteraars masterwork. [From De Kronieken Van Het Verdwenen Kasteel – II – Nergena, out now via Eisenwald.] –Wyatt Marshall
5. Cognizant – “Dissension”
Location: Dallas, TX
It felt like Inexorable Nature Of Adversity, Cognizant’s long-awaited full-length follow-up to its outstanding 2016 self-titled debut, came out of nowhere. A September 1 Facebook post teased it, and then, boom, there it was. However, if there’s a grind album where that little-warning approach makes thematic sense, perhaps it’s this one. Is it speedy? Yes, of course. Blast master general Bryan Fajardo (Kill The Client, PLF, Noisear, Triage, Trucido, Gridlink, and probably many others) plays drums. Needless to say, many blasts are blasted. That’s the surest bet you can make.
Also, check the numbers: 16 songs in 16 minutes and 22 seconds. That sound you heard is Cognizant breaking the sound barrier. But it’s not just that Inexorable Nature Of Adversity is fast and unrelenting. No, Cognizant’s approach of playing avant-garde riffs at grind speeds, like a more death metal-inclined Discordance Axis, has gotten weirder and fiercer. At times, it feels like I’m listening to grind from a different dimension. So, to answer why this was a surprise album, maybe Cognizant had to tunnel it in from a parallel universe, and the properties of time get strange when crossing realities.
One of the most impressive things about Inexorable Nature Of Adversity is how hard it goes, pummeling me with a similar force as recent albums by Shitgrinder and Lurid Panacea. Every player puts a little extra sauce on their performance. Kevin Ortega’s vox are outstanding, giving his gritty roar so much definition. Even in the unheralded position of grind bassist, Brad Luttrell takes every opportunity to anchor and stretch Cognizant’s sonic profile simultaneously. And, of course, Fajardo is a beast, delivering blast after blast that will become favorites on the playthrough circuit.
But I can’t stop thinking about the riffs. Again, I need to reiterate that Inexorable Nature Of Adversity is fast. That’s notable for a band that deals in knotty, cryptic riffs. And Cognizant riffsmiths Alex Moore and Irving Lopez have cooked up some stunning ones for this release. But the frantic pace and lack of breathers standard on most speedy albums (no leaden stride to nowhere?) suggest they’re not worried if you miss them the first time. That’s some Wire-esque belief in the quality of one’s riffs, but it’s more than earned in this case. They know that first listen is a blur, but you’ll be back. How could you not? Have you heard how hard this goes? And then you start unlocking all of the delightful oddities they’ve hidden away: the Yacøpsæ stop-starts of “Seizures,” the jagged shards of “Mirrors,” the almost-pretty outro of “Dissension.” It’s all there in the replays. And when a 16-minute album eats up two or three hours and you feel no listener fatigue? Well, that’s when time gets really strange. [From Inexorable Nature of Adversity, out now via Nerve Altar, Selfmadegod Records, and Rescued From Life Records.] –Ian Chainey
4. Woe – “Fresh Chaos Meets The Dawn”
Location: Queens, NY
Subgenre: black metal
It’s hard to believe we’re closing in on 20 years of Woe, and it’s another time warp to think it’s been four years since we last heard from Chris Grigg’s stalwart New York City black metal band. Grigg began Woe in 2007 as a solo project, and over the intervening years, as Woe demonized local venues, the band has evolved to include envious first-round picks from the Philly-to-NY 95 corridor underground metal honor roll. To say nothing of Grigg’s lengthy credit list, the combined resume of Grzesiek Czapla, Lev Weinstein, and Matt Mewton includes Krallice, Anicon, Geryon, Glorious Depravity, Coral Cross, and many more that have set the tone for avant blackened metal reachable by the Northeast Regional.
As true New Yorkers, Woe are ever the pessimists and foresee a bleak future, and “Fresh Chaos Meets The Dawn” catches the cataclysm in media res. It’s full-speed, no-holds-barred black metal with an overhanging atmosphere of toxic fire and dread, with the occasional glimpse of fallen grandeur as layered guitars find beds of lush sorrow. The mix has heft, and it pulls at the gut as riffs shred through hope — no ambience-inducing additives here; it’s pure four-piece dark magic. Grigg’s throaty bark is commandeering, shouts of anger and regret testifying against a foreseeable doom. It’s remarkable stuff, and combined with the cover art depicting a leveled Union Square with blazing fires and billowing black clouds uptown, shows that our cities, and not just our windblown mountains or dark cosmic unknowns, can spew forth some of metal’s most horrid source material. [From Legacies of Frailty, out now via Vendetta Records.] –Wyatt Marshall
3. KEN Mode – “I Cannot”
Location: Winnipeg, Canada
Subgenre: noise rock / metalcore
“I Cannot,” the noise rock bruiser that kicks off the second half of VOID, KEN Mode’s ninth album and a companion to last year’s NULL, initially comes off as a classic KEN Modean trudger. Jesse Matthewson’s guitar alternates between molten-metal juds and numb-to-the-world wails while riding atop a mid-paced churn cooked up by a rhythm section — Scott Hamilton on bass and Shane Matthewson on drums — that is absolutely on one, excelling at subtly stacking ingeniously inventive noise rock rhythms while maintaining the same sonic force as a commercial jet landing on your house. When everyone locks in, the build-up feels unbelievably tense. “It’s never been more apparent that we’ve gotten this all wrong,” Matthewson screams before leveling the listener with the next line: “I don’t think there is valor in making it to the other side with so many that you despise.”
Following a hearty blech and one of the more mosh-ready riffs of KEN Mode’s career, Kathryn Kerr kicks the door down and starts spitting fire from her saxophone, stoking an inferno that’s more Live in Seattle than Coltrane for Lovers. The release is palatable. And in that moment of post-sax clarity, you start taking stock of all the little things KEN Mode do to make “I Cannot”‘s impact so immediate: the lyrics, the rhythms, the riffs, the atmosphere. That’s the story of NULL and VOID, the works of a band that has mastered the intensity of its delivery. There’s what you hear first and there’s the terrifying depth of everything else, and both sides of that whole are uniformly crucial. KEN Mode are a rarity in that they’re equally engaging no matter how deeply you approach their music.
That’s a quality that KEN Mode have been playing with for a bit. For instance, on the surface, it seems like one of those classic noise rock jokes that the quartet’s most recent efforts, two albums that are so musically rich and emotionally resonant, are titled NULL and VOID. If that were the punchline, it’d be one worthy of Big Black, Oxbow, or Black Helicopter. And it fits in with KEN Mode’s previous one-word album-naming conventions, including 2013’s Success, an especially abrasive and wry retort to the band’s commercial prospects.
But, of course, there’s more to it than that. Besides being written and recorded at roughly the same time, if there’s one thing that connects NULL and VOID, it’s that they’re pandemic albums, probing the collective and continually unprocessed trauma of that surreal stretch of modern history. “It’s not like any of the songs are directly talking about stupid-ass conspiracy theories or anything like that,” Jesse Matthewson explained to Exclaim. “It’s all very much an emotional reaction to how we’re feeling and dealing with the crippling depression that came from it, and stripping away all your coping mechanisms.” He’d go deeper in an interview with Collective Zine: “I think people are more detached from one another than they were before that whole mess. I know I’m angrier than I was. I’ve lamented in the press that the pandemic undid 10 years’ worth of self betterment and growth, leaving me just as angry as I was in my 20s, only with a body that can no longer take that kind of stress.”
In a sense, NULL was the initial impact of that stress on the body and VOID is the aftermath, something that Matthewson noted to New Noise Magazine: “There are distinct voices coming from each — NULL has a more frantic, confused, and crazed feel, while VOID has allowed everything to set in; it’s decidedly more melancholy — with a sense of great disappointment. We played around more with melody, and some of our more goth/post-punk influences were allowed to shine from time to time.”
And shine those alternate influences do. Like its predecessor, VOID allows KEN Mode to explore the edges of their style, bringing previously hinted-at elements to the fore. Take “We’re Small Enough,” a more ruminative track that sounds like Frodus found synths while working on an And We Washed Our Weapons In The Sea follow-up. Or sink into the nervily quiet “Not Today, Old Friend,” which reaches Rodan levels of good. “We always want to create a story with our albums,” Matthewson said to Invisible Oranges. “It’s probably a blessing and a curse for a band like us, as we don’t like beating you over the head with the same style song over and over again. It’s clearly something we took to heart a long time ago with influences like the Melvins, Black Flag, and the Dazzling Killmen, who created a narrative with the styles they utilized throughout their records. That diversity is inherently more interesting to us, and as a result, it’s something we’ve always tried to accomplish in our own writing.”
While KEN Mode reach beyond their comfort zone further than in the past, these stylistic shifts aren’t variations for variation’s sake. No matter if they’re exploring post-genres or buckling down to batter a listener with violent grooves, KEN Mode have the same goal of making engaging music. There’s the same push and pull, tension and release, surface pleasures and deeply considered reflections. That KEN Mode can apply what they’ve learned over their hard-won career to seemingly any style they want is the best-case scenario for a veteran outfit. But they also still excel at the core formula. “The Shrike,” with its stellar noise rock rhythmic ingenuity, is prime KEN Mode. “A Reluctance Of Being,” which closes with the devastating lyrics “I’ll never let you be okay/ We’re never going to be okay,” is prime KEN Mode. So, NULL and VOID are the best KEN Mode have ever been at being KEN Mode, and what KEN Mode is continues to expand with every album. [From VOID, out now via Artoffact Records.] –Ian Chainey
2. Great Falls – “Dragged Home Alive”
Location: Seattle, WA
Subgenre: metalcore / noise rock
Demian Johnston is working through some stuff. “Without getting too specific, I really despise my current material conditions,” the Great Falls vocalist and guitarist said to Idioteq about “Up to the Gums,” a song from the band’s previous three-song EP, Funny What Survives, that was recorded during the same sessions as its newest full-length, Objects Without Pain. “I am better off than most but I live in a situation that is very damaging to my health and happiness. Due to factors outside of my control I am basically helpless to fix them. I can’t do much more than to scream about it to strangers.”
Johnston, Shane Mehling (bass), and Nickolis Parks (drums) engage in that kind of catharsis across Objects Without Pain, a loud, punishing, and painful album that flays itself open and pours itself out. For example, “Dragged Home Alive,” the opening track on the trio’s first album since 2018’s excellent A Sense Of Rest, is an exploration of self-imposed suffering. In a sense, enjoy your stay at Great Falls. It’s always like this. The band has made a career out of producing a noise rock-inflected metalcore tumult of harrowing emotional turbulence that clamps onto a listener’s raw nerves. Think if Today Is The Day recorded Couch Slut songs for classic Hydra Head. That said, “Dragged Home Alive” feels different. Great Falls are still in the same sonic territory — rumbling bass, thumping drums, delirious guitars, corrosive screams — but the way this song, and the album on the whole, is structured is some expert storytelling. It’s a tale in two parts, one discomfortingly downtrodden and the other bristling with rage at the helplessness of the situation. It sets up an album that is naked, vulnerable, uncomfortable, and ugly. Still, there’s a beauty to that ugliness because it feels so honest about a particular facet of the human experience.
Per Great Falls in a No Echo write-up, the themes on Objects Without Pain include “aging, insecurity, fear around being a parent and partner.” However, the press copy on the Bandcamp page highlights a critical connection, describing the album’s larger concept as “a bleak, purgative journey through a separation — a snapshot of the turmoil and indecision that occurs after the initial realization of someone’s misery, and before the ultimate decision to end a decades-long partnership.”
Credit to Neil Sedaka and Howard Greenfield: Breaking up is hard to do, especially as one enters middle age. Even as a doomed relationship feels like a runaway train and no one can switch the tracks, many complicating factors keep both parties in place. (The press copy cited above lists some of them: “How did this happen? Is it too late for a new life? Will the kid be OK? What will make me happier: familiar torment or unknown freedom?” A rare event: When press copy is too real.) And even though one can rationalize and intellectualize the advice from others that a break might be for the best, they’re still stuck within the thrall of uncertainty and indecisiveness, pleading for a private universe they’ve tuned to magical realism to provide a clear and unmistakable out. Johnston screams about exactly that on Objects Without Pain‘s opener, “Dragged Home Alive.” “The last New Year’s!” Johnston yells, sounding utterly defeated, too numb to cry anymore. “Waiting here. Just hoping for a sign.”
So, is Objects Without Pain the great metalcore divorce album? I don’t think it’s that simple because it has never been simple for Great Falls or the previous bands the members have been in, an all-star CV that includes Kiss It Goodbye, Undertow, Playing Enemy, Bastard Feast, and Gaytheist. (I also think Justin Charity would rightfully destroy me if I even tried to engage with the divorce album throughline even a little bit.) For one, Objects Without Pain isn’t weighted down with a false sense of morality to make it an easier listen. What I mean is that it doesn’t pass judgment: the narrator isn’t the hero, the person they’re breaking up with isn’t the villain, and vice versa. It’s almost like Great Falls are reporting from the frontlines of a middle-aged breakup more than anything. And more importantly, they’re simply setting this story to music that absolutely rips.
In a feature in Echoes And Dust that asked Johnston and Mehling to examine three albums each they found influential, Johnston explained Craw’s 1994 classic Lost Nation Road in a way that could easily sum up the appeal of Great Falls: “Craw had a confounding insanity in their songwriting that I had yet to encounter. They gave me the odd time signatures of prog rock but without any of them being terrible. The lyrics were stories filled with fear, confusion and wild missteps. The guitars played against each other is incredible ways with bizarre chord structures and the bass was heavy and inexhaustible. I felt like I had finally heard my favorite band.”
I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that Objects Without Pain will be a lot of people’s favorite album for the reasons given above. But it’s also emotionally resonant in a way that feels so real and lived in. For instance, Johnston drops a doozy of a line on “Thrown Against The Waves,” the outstanding near-13-minute closer: “I slide the key under the door/ I don’t want the weight.” I don’t think you can pen that line unless you’ve felt it. And while Johnston might think he’s screaming at strangers, I think many of those strangers have felt it, too. [From Objects Without Pain, out now via Neurot Recordings.] –Ian Chainey
1. Moonlight Sorcery – “Vihan Verhon Takaa”
Location: Tampere, Finland
Subgenre: melodic black metal
The aptly named Moonlight Sorcery puts on a sonic firework show, creating full-speed works of nocturnal magic that light up the night. Hit play on “Vihan verhon takaa,” and it won’t be long until you’re thinking of some other Finnish greats. Children Of Bodom were one of a kind when they stormed onto the scene in the ’90s, when the late Alexi Laiho, armed with virtuoso guitar chops and a distinctive rasp (“Yeow!”), put together an infectious palette of blazing solos, massive chugging riffs, and electrified foundations of big, bold synths. Bodom ushered a generation of fans into the world of extreme metal, and they had a catalog that’s worth diving into if you never went there — for holdouts and newcomers, at its best, it completely rips. Moonlight Sorcery is driven by a similar engine, with nonstop, sparkling guitar heroics, heavy-lifting synths, and rhythms you can hook onto. The band’s Loitsumestari Taikakallo has said they lean into electronic and dance music sounds when it comes to the keys, and you can feel the overall impression it has on the band’s sonic palette. It’s catchy, bright, and pops against a pitch-black canvas. [From Horned Lord of the Thorned Castle, out now via Avantgarde Music.] –Wyatt Marshall
HYMNS OF BLASPHEMOUS IRREVERENCE