They’ll Both Shorten Your Lifespan: Inside Heavy Metal’s Football Fandom
With the storytelling acumen of an NFL Films production, Erik Rutan recites the time his passions for football and playing metal crashed together harder than a safety hitting a wide receiver over the middle. It was 2004, and the acclaimed guitarist, who has logged stints in Ripping Corpse, Morbid Angel, and Cannibal Corpse, was touring Europe with Hate Eternal. Halfway across the globe, his beloved Philadelphia Eagles were playing the Carolina Panthers in the NFC Championship game.
“I think I was in Austria, and I asked the bus driver, ‘Listen, man, tonight’s the NFC Championship game. Is there any way we can stay late or something?'” Rutan recalls. After the driver gave the green light, Rutan hashed out a post-gig watch party with the venue’s bartender. Everything seemed like it was going to plan, and the diehard football fan wouldn’t miss a snap. But, much like even the best-laid playcalling scheme on any given Sunday, those plans fell apart instantly. “So we’re watching the game, and it was in German, and I remember [Eagles star quarterback Donovan] McNabb [got injured] and the bartender shuts everything down. ‘Oh, it’s time to close.'”
Disaster. Rutan knew he had to take action with the Eagles’ fortunes hanging in the balance. “I remember just thinking, Oh shit, this is crazy. We’re getting on the bus. We’re loading up. I was like, ‘We got to find a truck stop.'” By some blessing, the bus driver navigated Hate Eternal to a service station oasis where the attendants just happened to be watching the game. And it would be great to tell you that Erik Rutan witnessed his Eagles claw back a triumphant victory, beating the odds just like this death metal band beat the odds by finding a European TV tuned to American football in the deep of the night. But, of course, that’s not what happened.
“I go in there, and Koy Detmer was playing quarterback, not McNabb, and we’re losing,” Rutan remembers with a grim laugh. “And I sat there for another hour and watched us lose. It was the third NFC Championship in a row that we had lost. I was on a seven-week tour of Europe, and that was one of my top five moments of feeling away from home. I was so devastated.” And that is a feeling most football fanatics know, whether they’re a part of one of the world’s premiere death metal bands or not.
What is it about football that so ensorcells some members of American metal bands? After all, Erik Rutan isn’t alone in having the twin fixations of football and metal. In fact, it sometimes feels like you can’t windmill your hair around while headbanging without hitting a metalhead who is a pigskin obsessive. Crowbar’s Kirk Windstein has football stories. KK’s Priest’s Tim “Ripper” Owens has football stories. Pyrrhon’s Dylan DiLella and Doug Moore have football stories. So, why? Is it simply that humans contain multitudes, and the law of averages dictates that some of our fellow heshers will spend their Saturdays and Sundays immersed in gridiron battles — that between writing righteous riffs, they’ll also have thoughts about RPOs? Or is there a specific quality about America’s true pastime that makes it undeniably attractive to heavy metal musicians? And, to go deeper, in the case of a band like Obituary (whose title of their new album, Dying Of Everything, sounds like the credo of every long-suffering sports fan), how do you keep the peace when your members root for different teams?
Finding answers to those questions is why we’re here today. Instead of interviewing metalheads about metal, an audible was called, and we’re going deeper into football fandom than John Madden into a bucket’s genealogy. So, cue the Sam Spence score. It’s time to rear back, throw a Hail Mary, and ask some of metal’s most prominent players the tough stuff, like, for the sake of your sanity, why did you pledge your allegiance to that team?
Kirk Windstein, one of the most recognizable metal musicians in the NOLA scene, naturally pulls for the New Orleans Saints. “I never thought if I lived to be a hundred years old that the Saints would actually go much less win a Super Bowl,” the guitarist/vocalist who plays in Crowbar, Down, Kingdom Of Sorrow, and has new material on the way as part of the supergroup Eye Am, says over the phone about one of his favorite football memories, the Super Bowl XLIV victory over the Indianapolis Colts.
For Windstein, the chip was a long time coming. “The Saints started in 1967, and I was born in ’65, so all I ever remember as a little kid was the Saints.” Windstein’s father was at the first game and had season tickets, and thus, both Windsteins witnessed years of futility as it took the team until 1987 to achieve a winning record and reach the playoffs. (They wouldn’t win a playoff game until 2000.) But through it all, Windstein says his dad was an “eternal optimist,” even when the Saints challenged that optimism frequently.
“One of the funniest things I can remember when my parents were still alive was the River City Relay,” Windstein says. In the dying seconds of a Jacksonville Jaguars matchup in late 2003, the Saints miraculously marched down the field thanks to three increasingly unlikely laterals. They scored a touchdown to put themselves within one point of a tie. “We went to kick the extra point, and my mom goes, ‘Oh my god, that’d be terrible if he missed the extra point.’ And me and my dad just freeze and look at each other.” John Carney, a kicker who would end his career with two Pro Bowl selections and a spot in the Saints Hall of Fame, would do precisely what mother Windstein feared, shanking the extra point wide right. Saints lose.
(Incidentally, Windstein’s wife, Robin, who is a blast to talk to, is also preternaturally gifted at picking winners based on uniforms and anecdotally nails 90% of potential comebacks. Besides the Saints, she’s picking the Eagles, Lions, and Seahawks this year. You know, just in case you’re heading to Vegas.)
So, before salvation came in 2010, did rooting for the Saints during those lean years influence Windstein’s personality? “I guess in a weird subconscious way, it teaches you to accept negative things that happen,” Windstein says. “Fifteen, 20 years ago, if they lost a last-minute game, I was ruined till Wednesday, and then I could start looking forward to next week’s game.” Windstein later adds: “You have to realize that everything’s not easy and everything’s not always perfect, so you got just to learn to deal with it.”
Perhaps that’s some of his dad’s optimism and pragmatism shining through. And Windstein — who, by his admission, is more of a college football fan — pulls for two squads passed down by his father: Tulane and Notre Dame. Despite the traditional Battle of the Rag, Windstein, now playing out his role as a supportive father with aplomb, has added a new rooting interest to the stable. “Believe it or not, I’m an LSU fan now only because my daughter’s a junior at LSU.”
But if the game is good, Windstein will watch it, no matter the team. That’s exactly what happened during a past Crowbar gig. “We played some show, and it was somewhere in Pennsylvania,” Windstein recalls. “It was a Saturday night. It was one of these shows when they put a hundred local bands on, and they act like it’s a festival or some shit. Well, the crowd was pretty burned out. I walk over to [Crowbar guitarist] Matt [Brunson] during the set, and I’m just like, ‘Dude, the crowd is smoked. They’re not really getting into it that much.’ Of course, we’re doing our best to play. We’re professional. We want to give the people everything we’ve got. But there’s a gigantic, wall-sized TV in the back of this venue, and there’s a killer college game on.”
As the lead kept changing hands in the high-scoring matchup, Windstein and Brunson were enraptured. “We ended up getting so caught up,” Windstein says. And yet, Crowbar never dropped the ball. “We played everything perfect. I sang everything perfect.” But if anyone in the crowd knew what was happening on the screen behind them, they may have picked up on some tells. “One of the guys caught a touchdown pass. I quit singing. I looked over at Matt and gave him a thumbs up.”
Tim “Ripper” Owens has learned to avoid TVs in venues for that reason. “I hate TVs on during shows,” the singer says over Zoom while doing press for KK’s Priest’s new album, The Sinner Rides Again, out now on Napalm Records. Oh yes, he’s been caught scoping some Sunday Ticket. “I was doing this tour called Night of Metal. And we were touring through Canada. I remember being in Ottawa. There was a TV in the distance, and I just remember singing and trying to stare at it.”
As a dedicated Cleveland sports fan born in Akron, Ohio, who still lives in Akron, Ohio, Ripper also knows something about following teams with extended fallow periods. His fondest football memories encompass the era of Bernie Kosar, Kevin Mack, Earnest Byner, Webster Slaughter, and Reggie Langhorne, a real remember-some-guys reverie. But, as with all the teams in one of the most anguished sports cities in America, those glory days are peppered with downers.
“I have a great story that when the Browns had The Fumble or The Drive, I can’t remember which one it was,” Ripper says about two of the notorious named disasters that befell Cleveland teams in the late ’80s. “I made the cover of the Akron Beacon Journal. I was young and at the bar. I was old enough to drink but obviously young. My picture was on the front page.” (Judging by Newspapers.com’s archives, it was probably following The Drive.)
However, even though his head-in-hands heartbreak was immortalized, one of Ripper’s most brutal memories concerned Cleveland’s other vector for sports misery, the Guardians. Despite being outside of our football purview, the story is a fine example of how far we’ve come in being able to check scores in real-time. Things weren’t so easy during the baseball team’s 1997 playoff run that coincided with Ripper decamping for the UK so he could sing for Judas Priest. Let’s set the scene: World Series. Game 7. Bottom of the ninth. Cleveland was three outs away from its first championship since 1948.
“I remember going to sleep, and I thought they won,” Ripper laments. “They were leading at the end of the game. I was in London at the Royal Garden Hotel, and I remember waking up and picking up the phone and using my calling card and calling my brother. I said, ‘This is awesome!’ [Imitating a devastating deadpan] ‘They lost.’ I’m like, ‘What?’ He goes, ‘Yeah, they lost the game.'”
Ripper isn’t missing many games now. With a bevy of online options, from VPNs to streaming TV providers, gone are the days of calling home from the road to get the scores or scrutinizing newspapers in a different language to trawl for box scores. Now, the biggest obstacles to watching football on tour are the time zone difference and some modern, Black Mirror-esque knock-on effects.
“I was just in Australia,” Ripper explains. “Just trying to watch [football] there, it was like two in the morning or four in the morning. You’re trying to get up to watch the game. I missed so many of them from touring. Thank goodness you could have the ESPN app. At least you could check the gamecast live. There are so many times I have my phone on stage, and I’m going back to check the score during the set, during the guitar solo. I’m back there hitting refresh on my phone.”
Pyrrhon’s Dylan DiLella and Doug Moore, both Philadelphia Eagles superfans, have their own phone-on-stage moment. “There’s an epic photo of me watching an Eagles vs. Cowboys game in 2017 while we were performing in St. Louis,” DiLella writes in an email. “At this point in time, I’d probably wait until later to catch the highlights, but I was pretty depraved about my fandom.”
Usually, though, Pyrrhon is a little more careful when building their tour agenda. “It’s not an exaggeration to say that we plan our fall tours around the Eagles’ schedule to a significant degree,” explains Moore (who, full disclosure, used to write this column). “We’ve done night drives to make sure we can catch a daytime game and listened to a number of games on the radio in the van. It can be a pretty fun distraction from the more dreary parts of touring, and at this point, even our bassist Erik [Malave] (who is a dyed-in-the-wool Jets fan from Yonkers) has become a casual Birds watcher, so it’s something we can all share as a group. Other bands are sometimes kinda weirded out by it, though.”
What could be weird about listening to a game in the van on the radio? “There was one where the Eagles were playing the Chargers, and the game was coming down to the wire,” DiLella writes. “Doug was driving at the time and kept screaming, ‘GIVE THE BALL TO [LEGARETTE] BLOUNT!!!!!!'”
As one can infer by (wholly justified) LeGarrette Blount blowups, football has affected both musicians. “Well, I’ve been an obsessive Eagles fan since I was a little kid, so I’d say it has shaped me tremendously, haha,” DiLella writes. “There’s something magical about having a passion like NFL fandom that has no strings attached to basically anything else going on in your life (aside from the fact that I grew up in Philly). And I wouldn’t say football has specifically impacted the music I’ve made, but the visceral energy and wild unpredictability of football is definitely something that I channel in Pyrrhon.”
Moore also channels that visceral energy while understanding band life as an extension of something he felt during his days in the football trenches. “Well, I took a lot of blows to the head playing football as a kid, and I’ve often wondered whether that gave me my taste for musical ultraviolence in some fashion. Aside from that, playing the game in school and then becoming an ardent fan as an adult helped me develop an appreciation for tightly choreographed teamwork among small units of guys. Playing in bands pretty much explicitly displaced team sports for me as a pursuit while I was in high school, so in a way, my ‘career’ as a musician developed directly out of my interest in games like football.”
The question, then, is if DiLella and Moore are this into football, have they ever thought about writing a football-centric song? “I’ll let Doug elaborate on this one, but the new Pyrrhon album may or may not have our first football-related lyrical content (not in an obvious way, though),” DiLella admits. “Yeah, there’s a song inspired by (but not really based on) a football great on the new album,” Moore confirms. “Don’t wanna give away too much, so I’ll leave it at that!”
While Erik Rutan hasn’t pitched a band on a football song, he has covered one of the most essential songs in Eagles fandom. “I would tell [Hate Eternal bassist] J.J. [Hrubovcak] for years that if we ever win the Super Bowl, I’m going to do my own version of ‘Fly, Eagles Fly,'” Rutan says over the phone, fresh off of the tour supporting Cannibal Corpse’s new album, Chaos Horrific. “And sure enough, when we won the Super Bowl, I told him, ‘I’m going to put this little medley together.'”
In typical Rutan fashion, he didn’t just put a little medley together. He studied the song and flipped it into a thrashy ripper. And he’s in every nook and cranny of the final product.
“I went in there, and I played the snare. I did the military roll. I did the guitars and played the bass and just winged it together. And then I found some online footage of, I believe it was the NFC Championship game with the crowd singing ‘Fly, Eagles Fly,’ and then also from the [Super Bowl] parade ‘Fly, Eagles Fly,’ and used that in the background, and lined it all up.”
Considering this person’s past creative output, this level of attention to detail is, of course, the most Erik Rutan thing one can learn. “I guess I’ve kind of approached my whole musical career in that same fashion,” Rutan says, “that I always feel like I can write a better record, produce a better album, play better, and do better. And so with the Eagles song, I was like, man, I spent a good amount of time on it. But I got to tell you, it was just me in there in the studio recording myself and doing all this stuff. So, I definitely had a big grin while working on it. It was super fun to do.”
Rutan, an absurdly knowledgeable lifelong Eagles fan who cracks that the NFL Network is his CNN, talks a lot about the parallels between football and music. “Anybody who knows me knows I love football. I love the Eagles. There’s been so many parallels to the team in the sense that I’ve had a lot of challenges in my life and things I’ve had to overcome to get to where I’m at. The Eagles have as well.”
These pigskin parallels are everywhere, according to Rutan. As stated above, iron sharpens iron: Bad seasons make you more resilient. Another one: Legendary Eagles center (and nascent recording artist) Jason Kelce reminds him of the old dogs in the metal game that are still performing at a high level. And Rutan’s own unwavering pursuit of his goals can be connected to how a franchise navigates the ebb and flow of operational chaos to win a Super Bowl.
“It’s like when I think about all that I’m doing now in my life, being in Cannibal Corpse and being in Hate Eternal and having a studio and producing records,” Rutan says. “Well, these are things that when I was a teenager, I knew in my heart this is what I want to do. And that was 35-plus years ago. I want to play music. I want to write my own music. I want to tour the world. I want to have my own band. Then, I had the fortune of doing demos and recording my first album with Ripping Corpse at 19. I was doing shows as a teenager in high school and all that. I just knew from such a young age that this is what I wanted to do. And I never really contemplated the opposite. There are hills and valleys and times where I thought, Oh man, you have to dig yourself up from the pit to get to the peak.”
When the Eagles finally reached the peak and won a Super Bowl in the 2017 season, that was a feeling Rutan had felt professionally, too. “Another parallel with football in my music career is I feel like I’ve won multiple Super Bowl rings in my career. I’m so fortunate and grateful to have so many people who have followed my career and supported me and my family through this.”
Of course, the 2017 season felt different in another way. Thanks to writing and recording Hate Eternal’s masterful Upon Desolate Sands, Rutan wasn’t touring. (Rutan guesstimates that 75% of his touring takes place during football season.) So, relatively free, he watched every playoff game. And when the Birds sealed the deal, he and Hrubovcak flew from Florida to Philadelphia to catch the parade. You had to do it if you were an Eagles fan.
“I know it’s amazing being an Eagles fan,” Rutan says in between stretches of brilliantly detailed football minutia concerning the ins and outs of the team, something that rivals the complex construction of his death metal songs. “We’re the best fans in the world, man. I know I’m partial. And some people will probably say, ‘What the hell are you talking about?’ But guess what? If you’re an Eagles fan, you know what the hell I’m talking about. We live and breathe this stuff.”
One wonders what Cannibal Corpse thinks of this living and breathing Eagles fan now in their ranks. Turns out, as George “Corpsegrinder” Fisher is a Denver Broncos fan and the rest of the group roots for the Buffalo Bills, there’s not much consternation. “We’re not even in the same conference,” Rutan points out. “So it’s not like if I was in a band with a Cowboys fan or a Giants fan or something.”
In fact, Rutan has only been in a band with a divisional rival once. Previous Hate Eternal bassist Jared Anderson, who passed in 2006, was a Dallas Cowboys fan, and they traded good-natured smack talk for years. Rutan, though, has a plan if he has to audition in the future.
“If I’m ever going to play with a new guy, that’s going to have to be one of the first questions,” Rutan jokes. “Listen, it’s cool if you’re not a football fan. I’m cool with that. You’re not an Eagles fan? All right, well, who do you like? Cowboys ain’t going to work. Next.”
Kirk Windstein doesn’t have any love for America’s Team, either, but he felt some empathy for his bandmate when they were stuck in enemy territory. “When Rex Brown was in Down, god, I felt so bad for him when the Saints played the Cowboys.” In one specific instance, Down took a break from rehearsing to watch the game, the Texan bassist (also of Pantera) was sectioned off from the rest of the Saints faithful. “We put him in a corner with police tape, in his own chair, and everything. He was all set up, completely isolated from the rest of us.” The Saints won 42-17. That result wasn’t an aberration, either. During Brown’s stint in Down, the Cowboys went 1-6 against the Saints.
In the Obituary camp, the dueling fanbases of the Miami Dolphins and Tampa Bay Buccaneers are decidedly more peaceful, according to John Tardy. “For me, it helps if the Dolphins have a better record than the Bucs, and if the Dolphins lose on Sunday, practice on Monday is canceled!!!” the singer writes in an email, the multiple exclamation points matching his vocal style perfectly. “Haha, it’s all good. [Drummer] Donald [Tardy] and I are Dolphins fans, and [guitarist] Trevor [Peres] and [bassist] Terry [Butler] are Bucs fans. [Guitarist] Ken [Andrews] would not know a football from a baseball, so he actually takes more of a beating than anyone. We are really huge sports fans and spend a lot of time talking about all kinds of sports, but football is the biggest, and we love to talk a lot about it. Fins up!!!!”
As for Tim “Ripper” Owens, there might be a future battle for the football heart and mind of guitarist KK Downing if the legendary shredder ever decides to dive into American football. Inside KK’s Priest are two fans. On one side, Ripper, the Browns fan. On the other, drummer Sean Elg, a rabid Los Angeles Chargers supporter. Ripper assumes that if Downing was left to choose for himself, he might pick a Dallas team because that region was critical for breaking Judas Priest in the States. But, just in case, he fashions a pitch to bring Downing aboard the Browns bandwagon.
“Well, his singer’s favorite team is the Browns,” Ripper says with a mischievous grin, setting up a good-natured ribbing of his friend, Elg, who also drums in Ripper’s The Three Tremors. “So there’s no other reason to cheer for anybody else because I’m much more important than Sean, the drummer. Don’t go to the Chargers.”
And with KK Downing’s budding Browns fandom now set in stone, the officials are throwing flags to bring us back to the question asked at the start of this intro: Why does it feel like so many American metalheads in bands are football fans?
“I think it’s just because football metal’s such an abrasive and hard and angry type thing,” Windstein says. “It’s the violence in the sport that attracts metalheads more than any other sport, other than stuff like MMA.”
Rutan also thinks that violence and aggression play a part. Still, he sees many other parallels, particularly in how bands are constructed and the inherent need for collaborative teamwork.
“I look at being in a band as a team sport in a sense,” Rutan says. “It’s like you have all these people that you have to work with. You’ve got your managers, you’ve got your agents, you’ve got the record label, and this whole team of people that you’re working with. It’s all about how the team flourishes. How efficient is your team?”
Rutan realizes that a lot of fandom is conditioned, too. “I mean, I grew up having Thanksgiving dinner, then sitting around on the couch watching football. Grandpa’s sleeping in the La-Z-Boy. I’m watching the four o’clock game. It just becomes a part of the fabric of your life, really.”
For Dylan DiLella, the shock is that the football/metalhead fabric doesn’t upholster the other side. “It’s such an absolutely brutal game. It always surprised me that more football PLAYERS aren’t actually metalheads. The insane energy of the game, as well as the fact that it’s so completely unpredictable, are two characteristics that overlap with metal in general and especially extreme metal. So it makes sense that so many metalheads like football. When Doug and I watch Eagles games together, we usually put on death metal or grindcore during commercial breaks, and it’s honestly a perfect match.”
And Doug Moore, as if he were executing a perfect Philly Special, ties it all together. “Football and ‘extreme’ metal are both super challenging, technical pursuits that require intense teamwork and the channeling of heavy emotion into the execution of a fiddly, involved action script. Obviously, there’s a lot of testosterone and violence involved in each of them. Unfortunately, both of them stand a pretty good chance of shortening your lifespan. And yet, they have both enriched my life beyond measure! To me, it couldn’t make any more sense.” –Ian Chainey
FOUL EMANATIONS FROM THE VOID
10. Kankar – “Morgensonne I”
Location: Thuringia, Germany
Subgenre: heavy metal / black metal
Kankar are working with a recipe that’s heavy on melodic black metal but incorporates strong elements of more traditional metal throughout, and it’s a killer crowd-pleaser. As they say, it’s all about quality ingredients, and that means loads of meaty riffs on “Morgensonne I.” No frills here; the guitar does the heavy lifting with minimal production touch-ups. They’re high octane and hit on genre classics, but these riffs also carry a sense of playful humor, particularly when they tee up a back and forth for the two vocal protagonists on “Morgensonne I.” Kankar is the work of Stríð, and the new album is Kankar’s second full-length following a debut EP. Stríð has switched up drummers between full-lengths, and the interplay he has with drummer Hades is fun. You get the feeling they’re having a good time as “Morgensonne I” kicks off. It’s high energy, face-scrunching, fist pumping Heavy Metal, arena-ready and built for burning rubber. [From Ascension, out now via Eisenwald.] –Wyatt Marshall
9. Deliquesce – “Time Decays”
Location: Melbourne, Australia
Subgenre: death metal
The great death metal duality: 10,000-hour instrumental mastery crashing head-on with brutish, lizard-brain depravity. That’s what you get with Deliquesce, a band that (a) shreds riffs so knotty that a computer couldn’t untangle them and (b) harbors a deep desire to smash that computer with a sledgehammer. In a sense, same as it ever was. And true enough, Cursed With Malevolence, the quartet’s debut full-length, harkens back to an older kind of onslaught, one that’ll make scene vets think fondly of legendary Long Island sickos and forgotten core-curious beatdown mongers like Ohio’s Odious Sanction. Indeed, dexterous riffs might be its day job, but this band loves a breakdown, too. Few pleasures are more life-affirming than a band slowing things down and delivering a pugnacious chug, and Deliquesce shines when it’s time to leave bruises.
But there’s way more to Cursed With Malevolence than widdles and chugs, of course. Calling all prog dorks: Deliquesce can play. The band is headlined by guitarist Adrian Cappelletti, a deft shredder who has received ink in these pages before for his bonkers grinder Lurid Panacea. (He also plays bass in the much more known Disentomb. I, however, must point out that he’s on Rawhead’s Spineless Pigs, one of the better goregrind albums of the last few years. Hello, it’s me: champion of the albums no one cares about.) Cappelletti composes death metal like it’s a kaleidoscope: many colors, many shades. It’s sometimes hard to take in all at once. I’ve listened to Cursed With Malevolence in repeat stretches that would challenge the runtime of most later-day Martin Scorsese features, and I barely have a handle on what Cappelletti is doing. The quickly shifting riffs are super slippery, and as soon as you catch up, WHAM!, you’re annihilated by a lurch. You almost need to survey these songs at a granular level to get Deliquesce’s degenerate genius.
For instance, train your microscope on “Time Decays.” The song jab steps like it’s going to drop a groove on par with Dying Fetus’ “Praise the Lord.” But check out how drummer Ricki and bassist Armando Wall play tricks with the rhythms, quickly pulling the rug out from under you. That foreshadows the big reveal: Instead of Deliquesce giving in and delivering a mosh, “Time Decays” breaks free of its chrysalis and turns into a prog death song. Singer James Cooper, who plays the critical role of being this album’s connective tissue, sounds dynamite during this part, earning the gig if Disincarnate ever reform and Bryan Cegon can’t make it. (Suffocation but Disincarnate is basically this album’s elevator pitch. Also, Cecilia Keane from Algor Mortis guests on this song, and that band’s last demo was tons of fun.) What follows might be the quintessential Deliquesce experience: many ‘and then’s in quick succession. And then, a Pyrexia-style slo-mo churn. And then, an acoustic guitar/bass harmonics stretch of prettiness. And then, a total tech death tumult. Wild. Brain pulped. Body pulverized. I want nothing more from a death metal album. [From Cursed With Malevolence, out now via DAZE.] –Ian Chainey
8. Stress Positions – “Flaming Sword”
Location: Chicago, IL
Subgenre: hardcore / thrash
“Flaming Sword” is 68 seconds of pure adrenaline. Drummer Jonathan Giralt’s pounds out a primal beat. Guitarist Benjamin Rudolph tames feedback and focuses it into riffs that are so sharp that every strum feels like a cheese grater against your skin. Bassist Russell Harrison spreads out in the low end like it’s an underground city below a teeming metropolis. And singer Stephanie Brooks yells with a John Joseph immediacy, a frenzied yelp that’s a surprise jab to the face. This is Stress Positions, and “Flaming Sword” is a track from their album Harsh Reality. The nine-song full-length debut is the kind of record where it’s over before you know it, but you’ll be feeling it for days. It has got some things to say, too.
“This song has the feeling that the wheels could fall off at any moment, and that’s the point,” the band said recently in a New Noise Magazine premiere for “Flaming Sword”‘s stop motion video. “Ranging from swirling psychedelic mania to a tight and focused hardcore finish. Lyrically this focuses on the effect that mass consumption/production is having on the planet and how the perpetrators driving it will profit on its inevitable downfall.”
The quartet behind this ripper boasts some members of Chicago’s C.H.E.W., a similarly furious outfit that straddled the line between punk, thrash, and other gutter-bound styles with a penchant for fast tempos. Like that ancestor, Stress Positions remind me of unruly speed demons in the lineage of thrashcore pioneers Charles Bronson. And yeah, that means Harsh Reality technically sits outside our normal scope of coverage. But I have no qualms invoking the Bombardement Exception because it achieves the most essential quality of anything we highlight: It rips. [From Harsh Reality, out 12/8 via Three One G.] –Ian Chainey
7. Florid Ekstasis – “True Lows”
Location: New York, NY
Subgenre: death metal
Is modern death metal in a creative rut? I don’t think so. Over the past few years, committed blarghonauts have continued exploring the style’s outer edges. Encenathrakh and like-minded sickos have redefined the boundaries of what constitutes “extreme.” Monochromatic Residua and other sound synthesists have reformulated what a death metal riff can be. And now Florid Ekstasis have reengineered the death metal rhythm. Trepanning, a 48-minute composition split into four parts, sounds like Car Bomb stumbled into a nightmare fractal dimension. During the album’s headiest parts, musicians Christian Moehring (drums) and Calder Hannan (everything else) make me believe I’ve forgotten how to count. It is the most borked my brain has felt listening to music in a long time. I love it.
It’s no surprise that Hannan is in Florid Ekstasis’ driver’s seat. The music theory academic also hosts the Metal Music Theory YouTube channel, filming entertaining and highly informative explainers for some of metal’s most inscrutable entities. “When it comes down to it, people care about the music more than they care about the theory,” Hannan said on a 2021 episode of the Lamniformes Radio podcast, clarifying the appeal of his videos even when they get deep into the weeds. “It’s just fun to listen to someone talk about music you like even if you don’t understand any of it. Seeing someone else take a piece of music that you like and play little bits of it, and play it slower, and give you more angles to look at it, it’s fun even if you don’t care how it relates to academic music theory.”
After hearing Trepanning, I now understand that Metal Music Theory is kind of like having Ichiro as your hitting coach. But, if I may recontextualize Hannan’s larger point, this album works so well because it’s fun. Yes, it’s a laboratory testing ground for new musical elements that may proliferate throughout death metal in the upcoming years. But hearing the intricacies of Hannan and Moehring’s performances is a delight, the equivalent of watching professional athletes do something extraordinary. And the songwriting is genuinely striking, evoking feelings that one might not expect from a technical/progressive composition.
“True Lows,” the penultimate part before the bravura 22-minute closer, opens with an arpeggio that sounds like a transcription of a specter rattling its chains. As the tech doom riffs enter with the kind of force that could pound planets into dust, Hannan unleashes some of his gnarliest vocals. Those strangled screams have the same phlegmy quality as Portal’s The Curator trying to cough up a cockroach. And yes, there’s a whole bunch of math and timey-wimey stuff happening while you’re being smushed, not unlike getting cubed by an elegantly engineered trash compactor. But the sheer impact of this section is what really sells the song. It reminds me of something Hannan and Lamniformes Radio host Ian Cory also talked about: how a large part of the metal fanbase just wants to be overwhelmed by the experience, that some of us are either consciously or subconsciously chasing the unknown, to feel that same spark when we first heard metal and didn’t know what to do with ourselves. That’s Trepanning. So open your mind and let Florid Ekstasis’ drill scramble it. [From Trepanning, out now via the band.] –Ian Chainey
6. Closet Witch – “My Words Are Sacred”
Location: Iowa, USA
Subgenre: grindcore / screamo
The constants in life: death, the Lions playing terribly on Thanksgiving, and Closet Witch getting heavier with every release. The grind quartet hits a new level on Chiaroscuro, their second full-length but their 13th overall release (I think). While still generally adhering to their established sound as a skramzy chaos merchant in the mold of Reversal Of Man, Closet Witch have gotten faster and even more furious on this 13-track, 18-minute album. Those expecting the longer songs seemingly indicated by the excellent 2021 teaser Mellification won’t find them here. Instead, Chiaroscuro is a highly concentrated blur of fast riffs, fast drums, and singer Mollie Piatetsky screaming so intensely that your own throat might even hurt the next day.
Take the one-minute-and-ten-second “My Words Are Sacred,” an absolute burner featuring Full Of Hell’s Dylan Walker. The energy it pumps out could power an entire city block. Opening with grimy riffs buttressed by drum rolls, the song soon bursts into a blast before bringing the house down with seismic chugs. Through it all, Piatetsky and Walker trade screams like two apoplectic banshees engaged in a yelling contest. And yet, both are fighting to cut through the instruments: Alex Crist’s wall-of-Discharge guitars and Cory Peak (bass) and Royce Kurth’s deafening rhythms. Put more simply, holy heck, this song is loud. Or, as Piatetsky put it in an interview with Le Scribe du Rock when answering what quote would best sum up Closet Witch, “I don’t know about a proverb or quote, but if we were a meme, it would be this: first picture would be a picture of a sound guy with his hands around his mouth shouting to turn the amps down, next picture would be the guitar player putting a thumbs up in the air with one hand and turning his amp up with the other hand.” [From Chiaroscuro, out now via Zegema Beach Records, Moment of Collapse Records, and Circus of the Macabre Records.] –Ian Chainey
5. Krypta – “Dorian Grey”
Location: Helsinki, Finland
Subgenre: heavy metal / hard rock
Krypta conjure a golden era of metal when hard rock was turning towards something darker and channeling the occult, mixing up a potent brew of crisp riffs and memorable guitar leads that would sound great coming out the dash of a ‘72 Firebird. You’ll hear a lot of Blue Oyster Cult and other metal bands on a second-name basis (Sabbath, Maiden) across Krypta’s awesome debut Outo Laakso, with Hammond organs backing the hook-rich melodies laid down by the lead guitars alongside piercing, twangy vocals. Krypta tracks like the single “Dorian Grey” proceed at a measured, comforting pace, making them imminently head-noddable. But there’s also a bit of Finnish psych carefully distributed throughout the mix that opens the door to stranger, trippy landscapes. Krypta is the work of Henri Seger, who does double duty in the trad metal Tyrantti, a three-piece that also has a style that throws back to an earlier metal age in terms of look and melodic bent. That earlier era continues to fascinate and resonate with both grizzled metal veterans and newcomers alike, with the latter finding an approachable entry to what can be a confounding and even intimidating genre — look no further than the global success of Ghost. Krypta nail it, and in looking to the past, Seger has put together one of the most fun albums of 2023. [From Outo Laakso, out now via Svart Records.] –Wyatt Marshall
4. Elitist – “Funneled Into Oblivion”
Location: Utrecht, The Netherlands
Subgenre: avant-garde metal
“Funneled Into Oblivion” goes hard. There’s no other way to write about this death metal rager that sits in the middle of Elitist’s full-length debut, A Mirage of Grandeur. It’s part Tucker-era Morbid Angel chonkfest, part exacting speedster in the spirit of Commit Suicide. But comparisons feel like an abstraction in the presence of something this powerful. During a bridge, when the guitars turn into fizzy Roman candles and the bass plays so many notes it sounds like it’s mapping the human genome, all I can say is goddamn. Hard. Hard as hell.
Elitist members Rasmus (guitars) and Simon Stenbæk (guitars and vocals) have logged time in the Danish grind outfit Piss Vortex, one of the best-named bands in the biz. (Bassist/vocalist Thomas Fischer is in the great Dysgnostic, a band I regret not covering, along with Apparatus and Genocide Doctrine. Niclas Sauffaus is the rare metal drummer with no other credits on Encyclopaedia Metallum. May I suggest turning off your DMs and screening your phone calls, Niclas.) If you want to play the provenance game, and there’s no quicker way to a lazy writer’s heart, perhaps that’s why A Mirage of Grandeur has some extra pep. But, really, I think Elitist figured out the same thing that Garoted, another standout that freshened up an older style, did this year: If you want your death metal get noticed, it’s worth going as hard as you can.
Elitist add their own flip on the form, too, but in a much subtler way. In the accompanying PR copy to A Mirage Of Grandeur, the band shed some light on its name. “It is the central thesis of the album that boundless arrogance and contempt for perceived lessers is customary among the self-satisfied decision-makers and gatekeepers of our time. Therefore, A Mirage Of Grandeur is dedicated to those who are utterly convinced of their own magnificence and therefore have nothing to spare for the undeserving; those who believe that their status makes them untouchable; those who would simply prefer to shrug at the oncoming catastrophes facing humanity. This album is for you.”
I like that. Twist the metal meaning of “elitist” and take aim at another scourge. Tour with Gatekeeper, when? (It’s worth noting that the sludgy crust band that later changed its moniker to Bastard Feast also did this with its name but got into a spat with the other Elitist, a metalcore outfit. Maybe everyone in death metal Elitist should turn off their DMs.) When the band screams of the future being stolen in “Propagating Suffering,” one can divine a Napalm Death kind of worldview. And considering where it feels like things are going, that history’s-end anxiety is definitely a reason to go as hard as hell. Here’s the soundtrack to steal that future back. [From A Mirage of Grandeur, out now via Indisciplinarian.] –Ian Chainey
3. Aureole – “Alunarian Ghosts Of Bellmaster”
Location: Portland, OR
Subgenre: ambient black metal
In the projects Tchornobog, Krukh, and Drown, Markov Soroka delves into nightmarishly alluring nether realms to return with captivating and twisted aural artifacts. Soroka works by bending, distending, and upending black metal and doom palettes of guitars, drums, and growled and howled vocals, working them into surreal songs that are as much soundscapes as they are songs on an album. In the bio on Bandcamp, Soroka is described as a “Ukrainian audio-realm maker, sound designer, and synesthete,” which sums up the artistic vision on offer quite well. Of all Soroka’s projects, though, my favorite has always been Aureole, where Soroka ventures deep into space where physics does strange things.
The first track from Aureole’s forthcoming Alunarian Bellmaster is outlandish, a disquieting work of far-flung cosmic wonder. The song has a steady percussive march to it, proceeding at a stately pace while stellar guitars shoot beams of light into the darkness and voids open and echo all around. Chimes shimmer and bells ring (some 30 were sampled across the album). The imagery is wild — the cover art depicts some sort of cosmic puppet or bell master playing bell towers, and the whole package reminds me of some of the unsettling, stupefying imagery of space and strange archaic machinery from Twin Peaks: The Return. In an earlier promo copy for Aureole from years past, Soroka described Aureole as an uninhabited citadel perched on a crag floating through the cosmos, and that setting still holds. It’s all fantastical, mesmerizing, and horrifying in one go, and an incredible immersive sonic work to get utterly lost in. [From Alunarian Bellmaster, out 2/9 via Prophecy Productions.] –Wyatt Marshall
2. Vestígio – “Segredo”
Location: Federal District, Brazil
Subgenre: black metal
The Brazilian Caio Lemos has crafted one of the most fascinating visions of black metal this decade, channeling mesmerizing and dark spirits of the rainforest into ripping works loaded with instrumental and electronic flair reflective of his homeland. He’s a do-it-all musician, and in his best-known bands Kaatayra (inactive) and Bríi, he goes long, often topping 20 minutes on monumental tracks that are fixating and will leave you in awe — and perhaps spent — from rapt listening.
His latest work comes in the form of a new project, Vestígio, and again you’ll find Lemos providing all the eye-popping instrumentation on the three-track EP, which features a different vocalist on each song. “Segredo” premiered over on Machine Music, where you can reliably find excellent coverage of extreme metal at the outer bounds of the creative landscape. And as noted there, you’ll most clearly hear the storm-the-forest-floor black metal of Kaatayra in “Segredo.” When the track is going, it pushes crazy BPMs on the back of wild-eyed drumming, setting a turbulent base for Lemos to show off his riff wizardry. His guitar work is loaded with gorgeous dancing arpeggios that build into big thematic swings, sharp and colorful staccato riffs, and a dizzying array of axe fireworks that shower and dazzle everything below. It’s a remarkable sonic show, but nothing goes to waste, and everything is focused and channeled into a turbulent, heroic, and tragic narrative. It’s huge, earth-quaking black metal that pulls you into its world, amazes, rips you apart, and spits you out gobsmacked. [From Vestígios, out now via the band.] –Wyatt Marshall
1. Final Eclipse – “Thunder Of The Night Spirit”
Subgenre: black metal
Final Eclipse do it all, inspiring dread and awe through ripping black metal with big, lush melodies and a bitter-cold atmosphere. On “Thunder Of The Night Spirit,” you’re dropped straight into a swirling blizzard of regal and mournful guitars that pull from a Ukrainian riff palette. There’s menace and beauty in those buzzing melodies, and they are part of a high-stopping power production — the track is a bruiser, with doomy undertones and harsh, raw, and pained vocals shouted through the maelstrom. As “Thunder” progresses, Final Eclipse put you through the paces and reveals another side — the track hits a mid-tempo march a little more than halfway through, turning a grimace into a swaggery sneer. Then, things slow down further, turning eyes skyward as impending calamity builds. It’s all incredibly sharp, and the way anxiety and rich melody are woven so deftly throughout the track recalls another American band, Death Fortress, who produced incredible albums of intricate, hard-hitting black metal in the 2010s (the band logos bear a striking similarity, too). It’s dizzying stuff, and on “Thunder Of The Night Spirit,” and across the new album, Final Eclipse has pulled dark stars into alignment to create something massive and memorable. [From The Dark World, out now via Ixiol Productions.] –Wyatt Marshall
HYMNS OF BLASPHEMOUS IRREVERENCE