It’s Who I Am: Álvaro Domene’s New Frontier

Enid Farber

It’s Who I Am: Álvaro Domene’s New Frontier

Enid Farber

Álvaro Domene has made a home on the frontier of sound. For over a decade, one of the underground’s most creative forces has constructed compositions that sound unlike anything else, a unique amalgam of guitar-centric jazz, metal, modern classical, and electronic influences that evades easy categorization and often doesn’t sound like traditional guitar-centric music. Those lucky enough to find those solo and collaborative releases discover works that rewrite the books on the possibilities of the guitar and the genres Domene chooses to delve into. And for those few souls brave enough to stick around, it often seems like he’s rewiring multiple styles at once, flipping the off switches on tropes and cliches while patching together something new. That said, since Domene is making the music he wants to listen to, the music isn’t “experimental” in the overused music critic sense. This isn’t an experiment. No, Álvaro Domene is letting you into his home to hear Álvaro Domene.

So, given that openness, is being out on the boundary-pushing fringes of music ever lonely for Domene? “Not for me,” the multi-hyphenate guitarist, composer, improviser, sound designer, educator, and so much more writes in an email. “I’m out on the fringes of other aspects of my life, too, so I’m quite used to it.”

What I still haven’t gotten used to is the feeling that Domene’s albums inspire. His newest works, Collisions and Contradictions — released on Iluso Records, the label Domene started with drummer Michael Caratti — are fine examples of the ineffable sensations that Domene’s music evokes. The related sets are named quite literally, letting metal, jazz, and electronic elements, among other touchstones, smash together like particle beams in an accelerator. What’s produced can be quite contradictory and even disarmingly alien. Take “Fierce Universalism,” Collisions’ opener. With its body-blow beats, skittering solos, and metallic chugs, it’s like a computer trying to recover a Blotted Science song lost on a severely fragmented drive. However, unlike some self-consciously experimental releases that come off as a skunkworks produced solely for other musicians, Collisions and Contradictions have something else swimming around in the soup of the neat noises. In a sense, it’s the trademark touch of all of Domene’s releases: These songs are teeming with life, imbued with the human experience. They’re less a didactic exercise in theoretical possibilities and more like someone showing you the inner workings of their mind.

And it’s clear that, in opposition to the rep hung on a lot of prog tinkerers as inveterate noodlers, Domene has thought about this stuff pretty profoundly. “One aspect that has been augmented and furthered forward significantly in relation to previous works is the emphasis on time linearity manipulation as it relates to form,” he explained in both albums’ Bandcamp liner notes. “I often hear melodies and other musical events simultaneously happening at different tempi, range, direction, stereo location, and correlation to each other at both the micro and the macro level, resembling the self-replicating nature of fractal maths at different magnitude of perspectives. What this entails, for instance, is that the same melody might take the form of a full five-minute piece but also occur in one single instance and anything in between and also be manipulated in different ways (pitch transposition of many kinds, tempo, retrograde, granular, rhythmic displacement, and mutation, etc.) while retaining the structural codependency of all the iterations of said line and its inner cells. Melodies can become a web of decentralized musical cells that have an interdependent logic and structure.”

While considering the fractal math of it all may make you smell something burning as your brain is revved into overdrive, the high-level processes at play behind these two albums are more straightforward. “Collisions and Contradictions represent the natural evolution of the concepts documented on Rapid Influx,” Domene explains to me, namechecking his excellent 2023 release, which I’ve described elsewhere “as if Autechre commandeered Botch and forced Dave Knudson to make a jazz record.”

What has evolved, then? “The main difference is that while on Rapid Influx, I worked with guitar and drum computer at once, as one instrument, on these two, the process was altered,” Domene notes. “I recorded the guitar parts in their entirety as full takes and then recorded the drum computer afterwards. Compositionally, Collisions is quite influenced by death metal but actively avoids as many cliches as possible, and I’m not talking only about the drum computer. Instrumental roles, flexibility of time and multi-directionality of gestures, melodies, modular motivic blocks that get manipulated through the piece, are some of the compositional elements documented in it.”

Needless to say, both of these albums are, and this is a technical music term befitting Domene’s expertise, wild. They’re also not for everyone. But Domene’s dispatches from the unknown end of music will resonate with people who have made music their life, who want surprises and seek comfort in the unexplored. After all, that’s a key part of Domene’s story. And for those who vibrate on the same wavelength, they may feel like through Domene’s work, they’ve finally found a home, too.

Álvaro Domene felt the vibrations early. “When I was a child, the vibrations transmitted from the guitar itself onto my body, and later, the addition of the amplifier pushing air in the room felt soothing, really exciting, and incredibly mysterious, which made me fully committed to it and obsessed right away,” he remembers. “My brain still processes the sensory input in the same manner; however, now, as an adult with 25 years of dedication to the craft, those sensations have deepened. The connection to the instrument and sound in general feels as both an extension of my central nervous system and, without intending to be pretentious, as transcendental as the universe using my being in a state of flow as a vessel to organize sound, space, and time.”

Domene’s mother and grandfather played guitar while he was growing up in Carabanchel, a district in Madrid, Spain. He picked up the instrument and then focused on it in his teens. Alongside his budding talents that landed him in several early bands, he was developing a voracious appetite for far-reaching music. “I was driven by my own relentless curiosity and obsession with different musics and gained awareness through a combination of a friend from high school who was older than me, people from different scenes in Madrid (where I grew up and went to lots of concerts, festivals, etc.), music/guitar magazines, late night MTV (remember that? Good music on…MTV?), early online forums, etc.,” Domene recalls. “I was a sponge and wanted to hear everything that I could find, so I would always be following the serotonin trail left for me by art that shook me to my core at an emotional and intellectual level.”

The trail naturally led Domene to sponge up metal. “I never really considered myself a ‘metalhead,'” he admits, “but the music of certain metal bands was really important to me, especially growing up, and through listening and learning some of that music I acquired certain sensibilities, both abstract (attitude, risk, conviction) and material (specific techniques on the instrument, sound considerations, gear, etc.) that became a part of my musical personality and which are applied to everything that I do, whether it’s a metal derived project or not.”

While Domene may not consider himself a metalhead, he’s still cultivated an intriguing take on the style’s importance in his playing. “There are certain aspects of performing ultra-intense, loud, and highly technical music that I think is likely only achievable, as an instrumentalist, if you spend time working in metal music that features those elements,” he writes. “Incidentally, I think that’s why most ‘jazz rock’ or ‘jazz metal’ groups out there sound like cheesy ’80s fusion to me because the performers tend to be jazz musicians who are attempting to play loud and tricky material, but they, in my opinion, and for the most part, are not even remotely aware of the macro and micro strategies inherently applied in great metal and which make that music blast you in the face and punch your heart in total catharsis, like the many nuances that the picking hand of a competent metal guitarist has, for example, which can turn a flat riff into a chainsaw or freight train. All this to say that metal and punk, not as styles per se but more so as an ethos, are part of my vocabulary, so when the music requires a certain level of intensity and sonic insurrection, that part of me is pleased to come out and burn it all down. I just never think of it as, ‘Oh well, time to play some metal riffs now.’ I actually never think of this. It’s well ingrained.”

To further his studies, Domene moved to London and attended Middlesex University. While there, he gigged around the London scene. He recorded with Geoff Bartholomew’s avant-garde jazz ensemble BigRedYellowTruck and Big Sur, a jazz metal trio with saxophonist Dan Mays and drummer Chris Packham. But an album recorded back in Madrid in 2012 would put Domene on the map. Gran Masa’s self-titled album captures the quartet — Domene on guitar, Álvaro Pérez on saxophone, Sergio Mena on bass, and Michael Caratti on drums — melding free improvisation with an eclectic array of styles.

Gran Masa was also the first release on Domene and Caratti’s Iluso Records. As Domene remembers it, it was a label born out of necessity. “After [the Gran Masa album] was done, we contacted a huge list of labels and basically ended up deciding to release it ourselves through our own brand-new label, given the mediocre nature of the offers that we got. We put together a website and started working on the distribution and promotion of that release. Eleven years or so later, we are planning our 46th or so release. We are a very small label but have a loyal and supportive audience.”

That supportive audience appreciates Iluso’s statement of purpose, a simple question that helps guide its decisions. “For those not familiar with Iluso, the catalogue focuses on exploratory creative new music derived and informed mainly by the fertile traditions of jazz, avant-garde metal, free-improvisation, western contemporary classical, and electronic music,” Domene writes. “Our process always starts with the question, ‘Does this need to be out in the world?’ If we are in agreement, we will do our best to put it out.”

One of those albums that needed to be out in the world proved to be Domene’s breakout. After moving to New York in 2015, Domene, in addition to numerous other pursuits that included teaching, worked with many heavyweights in the avant-garde jazz scene. In 2018, he released his debut solo guitar album, The Compass, recorded at Menegroth, The Thousand Caves with Colin Marston. It’s a harrowing and yet strangely beautiful album, in the same way that the awe-inducing hugeness and affecting humanness of György Ligeti or Krzysztof Penderecki’s works can be beautiful.

On The Compass, Domene transforms his seven-string guitar into so many different shapes. “EMS Of Despair” sounds like a bummed-out Fredrik Thordendal letting his amplifier howl at sunset in the middle of a wide-open dusty plain. The weighty “Coulomb’s Barrier” is like if Allan Holdsworth hung out with Steeve Hurdle. “Beta Particle” has a glitchiness that could be a noise artist tinkering with a SUMAC soundcheck. Years later, it still has the bracing quality of something new. It also cemented Domene’s solo approach.

“Part of my vision for this album was the application of certain serial composition techniques in real-time, which allow me to produce and generate a whole piece spontaneously,” Domene said in a 2018 interview with El Intruso that has been translated by Google. “I practiced the process so much that when it came time to record, I closed my eyes and didn’t open them until I felt like I had enough material. It was the most organic album I’ve ever recorded to date. All the sounds of the album were generated by me in real time. People ask me and no, there’s no overdubs, it was all live.”

Is that still Domene’s process? “It is,” he answers. “It has been evolving, refining, and expanding every time I’ve made a new album but the same core process remains.”

One element that has been refined and expanded is the aforementioned “emphasis on time linearity manipulation” detailed in Collisions and Contradictions’ liner notes. Another vital component of Domene’s solo work is the “orchestral aspect,” “specifically the aim of perceived size, impact and dimension of the music as you listen to it through speakers or live.” Domene continues: “I work really hard on crafting a sound that comes across as huge as it possibly can be while retaining crystalline detail, making full use of the stereo field as much as possible, aiming for three-dimensionality in my guitar sound by creatively using several types of delays, LFOs, and mid-side processing, deep mixing, among other techniques, which contribute to a listening experience through which the audience might distinguish the width, depth, movement and height of the guitar as if it was some kind of electric and synthetic orchestra.”

Perhaps that multi-dimensionality is why The Compass was acclaimed, earning plaudits from the press and fellow guitar virtuosos such as Ben Monder. But why does Domene think that set struck a chord? “My guess is that, at the time, very few people had attempted to make that type of record at that level of consistency and focus among its moving parts. I’m talking about a live and mostly loud atmospheric metal-sounding solo distorted guitar album containing the abstraction and risk-taking of free improvisation and noise plus the harmonic and rhythmic sensibilities of jazz and modern composition, and a soundscape spontaneously established by the creative use of delays and live looping devices. There are precedents, of course, but they don’t sound nearly as monolithic, in my opinion. Colin did a phenomenal job capturing it.”

Marston and Domene would collaborate again in 2019 in Catatonic Effigy, a trio staffed by Domene on guitar, Marston on bass and synths, and Caratti on drums. The album, Putrid Tendency, closes with the bruising “Putrid Destiny,” a 10-minute workout of lurching death sludge augmented by screaming solos. Phonon, a quartet featuring Domene, Marston, guitarist Elliott Sharp, and drummer Weasel Walter, would record the similarly metal-inclined Alloy the same year, although it didn’t see a release until 2022. That album is arguably wilder, taking Catatonic Effigy’s free metal and doubling down on the freewheeling ferociousness. When Sharp and Domene’s askew shredding collides, the flying sparks ignite the top-notch rhythm section to improvise even more chaotic grooves.

While he surveyed this metallic terrain, Domene kept his musical partnership active with Álvaro Pérez for works that hewed closer to modern jazz. “We met in Madrid in 2011 right after I returned to Madrid from London, where I had spent some years studying music,” Domene recalls. “I knew I wanted to work with him the moment I heard him play at a gig where a mutual friend had brought me to meet him. After that show, we set up a session to play and connected immediately. At the end of that session, it was evident that something special had happened in that room. It was magic. You probably know what I mean by this; it’s much more rare than people think. Since then, we have been honoring, evolving, polishing, transmutating, documenting, and furthering that experience to the best of our abilities and possibilities.”

The pair have released nine albums, and seven more are on the way. One of those is the stunning Standards, which is precisely what the title implies, unifying everything Domene and Pérez are doing right now with the jazz standards of the past. “Besides being an extraordinary improviser and saxophonist,” Domene writes of Pérez, “he is also a Kung-Fu medalist, which shapes his musical choices in very interesting ways, and I am very fortunate to collaborate with him so often.”

“Musical choices executed in interesting ways” is definitely one way to describe my first brush with Domene’s solo work, 2022’s Not Arbitrary. I struggled to convey the power of that extraordinary record in a year-end wrap-up, writing that it was “like someone scratched a KK Null CD.” Yeah, that was meant to be a compliment, and yeah, I don’t think that pull quote is making it to the press sheet. Anyway, Not Arbitrary is The Compass but reshaped into total glitch miasma, closer to Mille Plateaux’s roster remixed by Merzbow than anything an avant-garde-adverse listener would call a guitar album. The accompanying PR copy on its Bandcamp page easily one-upped my feeble attempts at categorization, calling it “AI Derek Bailey meets death metal machine guitar.” That still feels like an understatement.

“The ‘AI Derek Bailey meets death metal machine guitar’ was kind of a quick joke description that I sent as a text to my friend Ed Keller (who wrote the liner notes and has also designed some of our recent and most stunning album covers) when I talked to him about the record and it was a funny oversimplification though it makes sense, so he added it to the liner notes,” Domene clarifies. “I now would take back the AI aspect of it since there are technically no machine learning models there. It was all done with a few guitar pedals.”

So, the $10,000 question is how does one decide to make that? “What pushed me in that direction was, in short, a sensorial need for contrast,” Domene explains. “I had just finished mixing and mastering the second Zodos album (duo with the great Álvaro Pérez on saxophone, and more of a contemporary classical/chamber music/avant-garde jazz project) and Torsion (the first record I made of guitar and drum computer-sampler and which had some, what for me are, some mellow and ethereal soundscapes) and immediately after I was done with them I started hearing this dry and intense sound in complete aesthetic opposition to those records, and it needed to come out. Extreme rhythmic and pitch angularity without sacrificing precision, emphasis on sonic proximity effect, momentum manipulation and deliberate fracture, and a process of robotifying my guitar sound were the ingredients that my subconscious mind put in the front of me as an itch that needed scratching. Once I managed to get the sound the way I wanted it, I recorded the album in one hour in my home studio sometime during the holiday break in December of 2021. No overdubs and very minimal editing took place. I’m quite proud of it.”

Not Arbitrary scratches a lot of my itches. I’ve listened to it tens of times because it’s like a key that unlocks a part of my soul that I don’t get to commune with often. It’s so weird to write this about an album that others will hear as noise, but the sheer fact that it exists makes me feel less alone. Somewhere in this world that seems to prioritize separation and destruction of community, resulting in an irrepressible loneliness wracking our brains and bodies that are starved for connection, there’s someone out there making music that I can relate to. The older I get, with the wrinkles of my alienating idiosyncrasies growing ever deeper, that feels more and more miraculous.

Contradictions contains one of those miracles, too. “Extinguish The Blaze” closes the album with amplifier howls floating above abstract beats. “Besides guitar picks, fingers, springs, screws, reeds, and any other small objects that I can find worth using, I have been using a cello bow for over 10 years as I love string instruments, and approximating that sonority on the electric guitar, especially when distorted, can yield really interesting results as a LOT of otherwise unused harmonics are produced that way,” Domene writes. “It had been a while since I had used it on a record, and one day, I heard myself humming what became the main melody of the piece. I started singing it and asking myself which way would be the best for me to play that melody on the guitar and honor the haunting and melancholic atmosphere that it sets. It decided itself. It was time to get the bow out.”

The outcome is a song that feels like a response to the fatigue of modernity, a scream from the depths of our psyche that spills out over the undulating but incessant forward passage of time. It inspired me to ask Domene what motivates him to keep pushing the boundaries of music and whether any fatigue is involved with fostering that kind of creative restlessness.

“I will begin by saying that, as someone who has been battling depression and anxiety for over 20 years, this music is the magic that keeps me alive, almost literally,” Domene responds. “I don’t need motivation nor inspiration to continue making music, never have, as this is not only much more than what I love and I’ve trained my mind and body to do; but also, I experience music as a constant presence and flow of ideas, always in my mind whether it’s in the front as the main process with which I’m engaging or whether it is in the back of my conscious mind, where my brain seems to continue problem-solving and coming up with new things to explore for me to transfer into sound and develop further.”

What Domene wrote next is a sentiment that beats the heart of many music obsessives. “The fact is that I do this work because I simply love it; it’s who I am, and I must do it. if I weren’t able to create, play, and document music, I would suffer such a level of emotional dysregulation that it would likely end me.”

Of course, Domene recognizes that some might read that as too dark. “On a lighter note, I also get bored of music really quickly, and I’m musically self-indulgent but hate the idea of repeating myself; so, once I document something in what I consider a satisfactory way, I move on to the next project and rarely look back.”

And yes, we soon touched on the precarious nature of being a creative in today’s culture. “The real fatigue (besides actual physical fatigue that I still deal with thanks to Long Covid) and frustration that I experience comes due to the socio-economic pressures of being forced to exist in a ruthless capitalist nation-state that doesn’t value life, human and otherwise. Under that premise, how is music and the other arts then going to be valued? I staunchly reject the notion that art is a mere market commodity and encourage everyone to reclaim its true purpose, which is to challenge, inspire, and help catalyze the necessary moral transformation of society as a whole.”

There’s plenty ahead for Domene. The Effects Of Gravity, a touring collaboration with poet David González and astrophysicist Luke Keller, has headlining shows coming up. Per the troupe’s website bio, the show “tells the story of our cosmic origins — the formation of the universe, galaxies, stars, planets, our solar system, and our planet — from both scientific and poetic perspectives.” Many Domene releases are on the docket, including an especially tantalizing team-up with the Baltimore experimental electronic sound shaper User Friendly and new project named Warning Bells with Max/MSP electronic musician Tom Law. And there’s the possibility of Domene and Caratti hosting shows and workshops in Australia next year.

In the meantime, there’s Domene’s body of work to explore, a discography that is out on the edge of music. That can be an inhospitable place, existing in the harsh vacuum of the unknown. But by Álvaro Domene being Álvaro Domene, he’s provided a refuge. His music is a home for those who need it. –Ian Chainey

FOUL EMANATIONS FROM THE VOID

10. Deep Mountains – “Erguna”

Location: Tai’an, China
Subgenre: post black metal

Deep Mountains were forerunners in Chinese atmospheric black metal, introduced to Western shores by the influential Chinese label Pest Productions, founded during a late aughts heyday that saw exciting pockets of atmospheric black metal bands emerge around the globe. The band, a four-piece, originally played folk-inflected, often ripping atmospheric black metal that leaned into shoegaze and mid-tempo melancholy. Their debut self-titled EP turned heads in the underground — it was and still is pretty uncommon to come across a black metal band from China — and opened up a new, exciting scene. Fifteen years on, Deep Mountains have brought forward White Phoenix On Snow Mountain, an album that is a testament to the time that’s passed and how much the band has changed. The marrow is still the same — black metal, but a little less folksy and a little more post-y. But across the album, the band samples from a palette of the broader metal spectrum and also ranges from rock to alt-rock and, at one point, incorporates an extended exploration of Beethoven’s “Ode To Joy.” “Erguna” is a favorite, one that’s a bit more on the straight and narrow, growing pretty picked melodies into passages of sunlit blasting and a memorable recurring guitar lead that rings into the distance. A curveball shows up, though, when what sounds like throat singing gives way to a building second half. Deep Mountains pulls it all together in glorious fashion, merging these wide-ranging styles from half a world away into a great song. [From White Phoenix On Snow Mountain, out now via Pest Productions.]Wyatt Marshall

9. Owl – “Cryptid”

Location: Bonn, Germany
Subgenre: death metal / doom

In a 2019 interview with Last Rites, the multi-instrumentalist Christian Kolf said of Owl, his solo endeavor with frequent assistance from drummer Patrick Schroeder, “I never wanted to repeat myself with this project.” It’s hard to imagine Kolf ever repeating himself in any of his artistic pursuits. The bands Kolf has played in — Labyrinth Of Stars, Woburn House, and Valborg, among many others — seem to drink deep from an inexhaustible well of creativity. But, yes, to Kolf’s point, Owl has been particularly attuned to remodeling itself in the image of the player’s current set of interests and influences. Kolf is the throughline, of course, providing some continuity, but each release has a different flavor.

As an example, Ghosts Of Summer, Owl’s newest five-song EP, is somewhat similar to Owl’s 2023 singles “Cryptic Deities” and “Inversion Wave” in that Kolf is playing a version of death/doom that carves the monolithic chugs that could’ve found a home on early Cult of Luna releases into the mathy shapes of Meshuggah circa Nothing. Tech doom lives. But Ghosts Of Summer is also much heavier than the Owl material that has come before (with the caveat that these tracks were written and recorded in the first half of 2021, so who can make heads or tails of the timeline?). Its ferocity reminds me of Labyrinth Of Stars, Kolf’s cosmosh collaboration with Lantlôs and Dirk Stark. And yes, for the record, 2022’s Spectrum Xenomorph is one of the many albums I regret not covering.

I’m finally making good on that whiff by covering this one because “Cryptid” rips. Kolf continually increases the density of the crawling trudge, eventually offsetting the pounding with a fantastic solo from guest shredder Sebastian Müller. Right when it feels like your head is about to explode, “Cryptid” relents, transitioning into Gas-eous ambient. Cool stuff. [From Ghosts Of Summer, out now via Total Dissonance Worship and The Crawling Chaos Records.]Ian Chainey

8. Mean Mistreater – “Let ‘Em Roll”

Location: Austin, TX
Subgenre: heavy metal

“Life’s much sweeter when you’re speeding.” Mean Mistreater, put it on a shirt. That quintessentially heavy metal line comes from “Let ‘Em Roll,” one of the many highlights on the Austin quintet’s debut full-length, Razor Wire. You might recall one of the other highlights: “Bleeding The Night,” the song I built an impassioned plea around to award these speedy tradsters the 2023 metal song of the summer. But that was back when the weather was warm, and I wasn’t afflicted by Seasonal Affective Disorder. So, the question is, in the frozen part of the calendar customarily reserved for the starkest/dorkiest black metal, would Mean Mistreater similarly ensorcell me with their NWOTHM gusto? Yeah. Of course. This band and album run hot, turning any listening session into the fist-pumping freedom of a summer night. And it pulls this transformative metal magick off by being itself, which is precisely what singer Janiece Gonzalez told us a few months ago when I asked how Mean Mistreater set themselves apart from 50 years of heavy metal history.

“I really like this project ’cause we’re not really going into writing with any certain genre in mind,” Gonzalez said. “After hearing our music back in the studio, I feel like we’re just a really high-energy traditional/’80s metal band that leans a bit into punk. It really reflects exactly what I love to listen to. I don’t see it as super different per se, but it’s definitely a unique reflection of what we all love in one package.”

“Let ‘Em Roll” is that package. The twin-guitar attack of Alex Wein and Quinten Lawson craft leads and riffs that flash like lightning and rumble like thunder. Bassist Jon Gibson and drummer Joaquin Ridgell rip through muscular rhythms that have the horsepower of a hot rod. And Gonzalez can absolutely wail, belting out hooks with a power and grit that achieves that heavy metal ideal. And all of that makes sense. Mean Mistreater are that band. They’re not play-acting as a heavy metal entity. It simply is heavy metal.

“Heavy metal runs deep in our veins for sure,” Gonzalez said. “There’s a vibration we all give off while jamming that is super hard to not get stoked on. When we play live, it’s way more intense, and we, along with the fans, can fucking feel it. There’s nowhere I’d rather be than on stage at the moment of our performance. It’s electric, it’s mean, it’s love, it’s excitement, and it’s fucking contagious.” [From Razor Wire, out now via the band.]Ian Chainey

7. Asphalt – “Melted Skull”

Location: Portland, OR
Subgenre: sludge / doom

Stop me if you’ve heard this one: Riffs. If you had to take a stab at Asphalt’s MO across four EPs they’ve released thus far, that one-word statement of purpose wouldn’t be a bad one. Because, I mean, Asphalt have riffs. It’s not that hard. What is hard are the songs this sludge duo, T.A.S. (vocals, guitars) and Hell’s M.S.W. (drums, backing vocals that sound like a melting warlock), cooks up. The way to describe these slow and low batterers could double as a summation of the life of a caveman employed at a prehistoric DMV: nasty, brutish, short, and mean. And yeah, “short.” That wasn’t a typo. Yes, Asphalt are sludge doom through and through. And yes, they play with the deafening power that could exceed the noise complaints generated by someone trying to run a jet engine facility in their garage. And yes, their music is slow and low. But Asphalt play with a comparative economy. The longest song thus far in the Asphalt oeuvre is the extra punishing “Meth Gator” from last year’s E​.​P. III, a hard-swinging doom cruncher that is the closest these two groovehounds have gotten to breaking five minutes. In a genre where some bands can’t even finish a progression in five minutes, that’s notable. It also demonstrates everything Asphalt is about: hitting you with killer riffs and then getting the hell out. No more, no less.

Asphalt recently posted a behind-the-scenes look at the recording process for “Melted Skull,” a song that they tacked onto E.P. IV after its initial release. (This is a trend. Every one of these EPs has had an expanding tracklist. It’s one of the better deals in metal because you’ll know you’ll get more eventually.) It’s about what you’d expect: M.S.W. and T.A.S. pounding away at a deadly groove, and then T.A.S. recording vocals that sound like a bear trained to take over the mic if Catacombs ever resurfaces. But what separates Asphalt from the morass of try-less bong-toke burnouts and strung-out sludge impressionists that have diluted the effectiveness of the style is that this two-piece has “it.” That’s a hard thing to quantify, but you know it when you hear it when your head reflexively starts to bang to a riff. The critical ingredient that makes this Asphalt alchemy work, then, is M.S.W. and T.A.S.’s feel for the material, a sixth sense of knowing precisely when to trigger the grimace you make when the riff is too sick. I used to love this stuff, so it’s nice to hear a collection of songs that remind me of the glory days. And, given that 2024 already contains E.P. IV, along with a comeback from Toadliquor and a rebound from Iron Monkey, perhaps the sludgenaissance is finally upon us. [From E.P. IV, out now via the band.]Ian Chainey

6. meth. – “Blackmail”

Location: Chicago, IL
Subgenre: noise rock / sludge

SHAME is punishing. Continuing the evolution it began on 2019’s Mother Of Red Light, which saw the quintet moving away from its mathcore beginnings, meth.’s sophomore release digs deeper into a mutant metal plus no wave/noise rock style that foregrounds sheer force. This is by design. “[Guitarist Zack Farrar] made an effort on this record to focus less on riffs and focus more on a textural approach like, ‘How dirty and greasy can I get my guitar to sound? How wretched can I make this without having to rely on riffs or technicality or anything?'” bassist Nathan Spainhower said to Punknews.

Indeed, SHAME’s wretchedness builds up like a pressure cooker. Sonically, meth. end up in a similarly tense territory to a band like Black Sheep Wall if they were more indebted to Public Castration Is A Good Idea-era Swans. And songs like the title track, an impressive squall of howling amplifiers that makes good on Farrar and fellow guitarist Michael McDonald’s textural proof of concept, rise to the high-level tension-teasing songwriting of noise rock pain merchants like KEN mode and Great Falls. But there’s something else here, too. SHAME is one of the best albums I’ve heard this year that encapsulates what it feels like to deal with trauma and how its virulent knock-on effects — the guilt, torment, and shame — pervade every inch of your being with no relief.

In an excellent interview in Treble Zine by Jeff Terich that explores meth.’s “confrontational metal through honesty,” singer Seb Alvarez discussed SHAME’s lyrical concepts that, among other things, touch on alcoholism.

I started writing the lyrics to SHAME when I was sober, and I wanted to explore it. I have a lot of pent-up negative feelings about myself and…I have trouble addressing things in an open way, even to myself. It’s weird. But I need to be able to talk about it. I just felt it was the only correct way. When I started going into it, I didn’t really know what to write about, and I had tinkered with diving into different weird elements and on previous records I would deep dive into a topic and just kind of live in it. And I just couldn’t find that, so I thought what if I wrote about myself. It’s more that I wrote everything in a sober mindset and kind of went back after I wasn’t sober and kind of re-approached it.

So, to me, SHAME sounds like a struggle, the Sisyphean pursuit of trying to find yourself when you’re trapped within trauma’s chaos. “Blackmail,” one of the more chaotic tracks of the bunch, complete with a Pyrrhon-esque commitment to aural annihilation, feels like trying to tread water during the Sturm und Drang of life’s low points. Put more simply, it feels real. Authentic. Thus, that authenticity, that vulnerable griminess, is cathartic in the way that someone recognizing and empathizing with your pain can be freeing. In turn, that catharsis feels more earned than a labored-over groove scientifically engineered to make one’s head nod.

Sure, SHAME’s “riffs” may eschew the traditional tenets of headbangability, although I’d argue that the combined rhythmic vehemence produced by the two instrumental units — bassist Spainhower and drummer Andrew Smith and guitarists Farrar and McDonald — crashing into each other incites a similar body-moving effect. (Smith really shines in this setting.) But meth. prove that being punishing can be just as potent. [From SHAME, out now via Prosthetic Records.]Ian Chainey

5. Knights Of Rain – “Warm As A Dream”

Location: Berlin, Germany
Subgenre: atmospheric black metal

The Berlin-based solo project Knights Of Rain, formerly Agnosis, has quietly released two demos and three EPs since 2021, culminating in a full-length, the witch’s garden stays hidden from dawn, last September that slipped past us and, presumably, lots of people. Now that the record is seeing a release on Fiadh Productions, the label with a knack for unearthing underground works of black metal beauty, our very flexible rules about what is eligible for inclusion in the column allow us to highlight the beautiful work.

Knights Of Rain is appropriately named — it’s a melancholic, lo-fi black metal project with regal and romantic undertones, blackgaze for daydreaming under heavy clouds. Guitar tones are watery, but tremolo riff forward, and the tenderness that prevails comes largely from distant, gentle atmospheric synths and simplistic picked melodies that echo from some primordial innocence. Rasps are quiet and poetic, yearning and truthful. It’s gorgeous, a plush bed of gentle guitars to lie in and drift away. Lyrical themes center on equality, revolution, and misanthropy, making it a perfect fit for Fiadh’s antifascist roster of black metal acts reworking the genre’s invigorating sounds towards more helpful ends. [From the witch’s garden stays hidden from dawn, out now via Fiadh Productions.]Wyatt Marshall

4. Knoll – “Revile Of Light”

Location: Tennessee, USA
Subgenre: grind / death metal

The handful of well-worn metallic descriptors typically sprinkled into a blurb can’t summarize a song like “Revile Of Light.” Unrelenting? I guess. Knoll, the Tennessee grind/death metal quartet that recently expanded into a quintet with the addition of Pelagius’s Cameron Giarraputo on guitar, rarely let up on As Spoken, their third full-length. “Unrelenting” isn’t wrong, but it’s not right, either.

Take “Revile Of Light,” a track that is particularly intense — another word that feels like a cheap stand-in for the kind of onslaught that Knoll are now pursuing. The opening, with its squelch-slinging riffs from guitarist Ryan Cook and bassist Lukas Quatermaine, inferno-inducing blasts courtesy of drummer Jack Anderson, and paint-peeling screeches from vocalist James Eubanks, is unrelenting, intense, brutal, and a host of other ineffective words that could illustrate its power as well as the raised areas on a topographical globe represent a mountain range. Because, jeez, you want to talk about power? Listen to “Revile Of Light”‘s middle, which features guitars swirling around a trumpet like a stormy sea swallowing a fishing boat that shouldn’t be out that far. Or sink into the the finale, a dark ambient drone recorded in the space between life and whatever is next, which might as well be those doomed sailors pulled under, watching the moon’s light vanish as they sink toward their tomb.

All of that looks fine on the page but is quickly obliterated by the genuine article. Again, Knoll can’t be pinned down. Even this-but-this band comparisons can’t approximate the sonic impact. Vermin Womb teaching Thantifaxath to play fast? Converge attempting to contact the elder gods in Portal by playing a necrotic take of Morricone’s “Death Theme”? Lustmord opening up to a therapist about his anxieties? I mean, OK. Some of those comparisons kind of get you there. I am, after all, a certified RIYL professional with a degree in FFO. That said, you also get why Knoll are playing off the archaic definition of its name and just settled on calling this stuff “funeral grind.” The point is that As Spoken isn’t an album that can be read. It needs to be heard. It needs to be felt.

And yet, As Spoken is kind of an album about words. In an interview with Mind Decay Productions, Eubanks talked about “battling impermanence.” My read on the singer’s impromptu disquisition is that if your existence is your outward impact on the world and how it’s remembered, then casting your words in the amber that is the eternalism of music is a way to allay the feeling that all of this is for naught because all of this will turn to dust.

But Knoll also poke at what happens when words are held onto with a too-reverent zeal for too long and how that shapes the present and future. “Bygone matters of antiquity & those to be antiquated are preserved within the formless ghost of music unto time immemorial,” the band writes in the Bandcamp liner notes. “We bring this ideal to you in its first manifestation, As Spoken – a lecture of dilapidated language & its propensity to become riddled with sickness when kept.”

That tension gives us lyrics like the two lines that kick off “Revile of Light”: “Elating negative inwith allwhere/ Vanishing wards, aweigh with light.” That concentrated bit of Joycean verve is fittingly opaque and also sounds sick as hell when screamed at the top of one’s lungs. And, if we’re getting back down to the philosophy of it all, those lines are now also entered into the grand Googleable record as “Knoll lyrics.” Permanence achieved.

Anyway! I didn’t think I’d write that about a grind album today. As Spoken works on a lot of levels, many of which are hard to broach in the space of a blurb. Then again, isn’t that exactly what you want from an authentic artistic experience in 2024? [From As Spoken, out now via Total Dissonance Worship.]Ian Chainey

3. Wolf-Rayet – “Formulae Of The Infinite”

Location: Oakland, CA
Subgenre: black metal

Wow, where to start. Wolf-Rayet are from Oakland, a metal hotbed that, over the last decade or so, has exerted a southward gravitational pull on a lot of the activity that shaped the Pacific Northwest metal wave of the aughts. To pull from metal press promo lingo: the band’s a four-piece that features veterans of bands like deep space black metal rippers Void Omnia, grinders Infinite Waste, and putrid death dealers Wretched Stench, the latter of which offers bridges to blackened metal masters Nite and sludge slingers Abstracter. So the band members are in the mix of a thriving scene, and as Wolf-Rayet, they’re playing absolutely ripping, masterful black metal.

“Formulae Of The Infinite” kicks off their new self-released EP, and it’s a frenzied, awesome track that brims with regal swagger and energy that quickly boils over. I hear a lot of Forteresse in there — the hurry-up and relentlessly melodic riff attack that carries a whiff of medieval heroics and sorrow, the cascading speedy drum fills that hit like rampart batteries unloading at an approaching foe. But there’s a bit of ’80s wild-guy guitar heroics that make an appearance as well. Wolf-Rayet take these sounds and casts them into the setting of deep space — a Wolf-Rayet is a kind of star, of which the James Webb telescope has afforded some stunning images. Against this incredible cosmic backdrop, we get this ferocious but majestic track, with a clear riff narrative and vocals that rasp sinisterly from some unknown source. [From Emperium, out now via the band.]Wyatt Marshall

2. Bilious Miasma – “Kardinal Deception”

Location: USA
Subgenre: black metal

Absolutely filthy and loaded with warped and wobbly tones, Bilious Miasma is a new black metal entity that is part of the Ordo Vampyr Orientis crew alongside Bat Magic, Bad Manor, Bestial Majesty, and Bellum Mortis. That makes five BMs; read into that what you will. And keep in mind the name “Bilious Miasma.” In line with the rest of the BM crew, the formula for Bilious Miasma calls for lo-fi black metal pushed to its extremes, with loads of distortion and themes and imagery that are oh-so quintessentially Black Metal. Vocals are distorted to the nth degree, resulting in something equal parts machine and goblin. There’s a ferocious all-out speed to it, and it never lets up — that goes for both the actual blasting underlying it, as well as the seemingly endless supply of wild-guy guitar effects that get hurled into the mix by some deranged wizard pulling any and everything out of his bag of tricks. Album credits read as follows: “The Ghastly Vrykolak – all instruments, Oneiric – vocals, The Impaler – drums.” Press play and let the stench blast your hair back. Delightfully wonky. [From Bilious Miasma, out now via KTFQ.]Wyatt Marshall

1. Chapel Of Disease – “Selenophile”

Location: Cologne, Germany
Subgenre: progressive death metal

Chapel Of Disease play a kind of super catchy hard rock with a sharp metallic edge, but the band spices the mix up with tricks of the trade pulled from across the metal spectrum. Up front you’ll notice the deathly vocals, which are barked in decipherable English and become choruses you can easily imagine being shouted back at the band from the crowd. Everything about “Selenophile” — a track for moon lovers — is designed to stick in your brain. The riffs are mid-paced hooks that grab the head and induce nodding, and little tasty guitar licks arrive at just the right times to provide a hit of metal dopamine. This formula of catchy, rock-based tracks with real-deal metal bonafides kicking things clearly into the world of heavy metal is one that works remarkably well. San Francisco’s Nite, who play a kind of traditional heavy metal with grainy black metal vocals and flourishes, come to mind as another band conjuring metal magic that tones down some of the extreme elements of black metal or death metal but employs vocals and more that put it purely in those extreme metal camps. It’s a metal special recipe that rules and one that is surprisingly uncommon and just a tad more accessible and, in many cases, memorable. [From Echoes Of Light, out now via Ván Records.]Wyatt Marshall

Bonus: Hands Of Goro – “Uncanny”

Location: San Francisco, CA
Subgenre: heavy metal

You might’ve heard “Uncanny” before. The song made its recorded debut on The Lord Weird Slough Feg’s 2019 full-length, New Organon. It’s the one that longtime bassist Adrian Maestas sings. It’s also one of the best songs on the album. But the roots of that song go stretch back three years earlier to the beginning of Maestas’ team-up with Tom Draper, the guitar wiz currently in Pounder and Spirit Adrift, who has also gigged live with Angel Witch and Carcass. In a now-distant time known to historians as 2016, Maestas and Draper looked to kickstart a Third Wave of British Heavy Metal. Noble cause. But there was a twist: The project was also a love note to one of the pinnacles of ’90s culture, a digital gauntlet where fighters from far and wide would convene to test their might. The band that formed? Hands Of Goro, as in the Prince of Shokan, the extra-armed ally of Shang Tsung. Yeah, I sometimes wonder if the rest of The Lord Weird Slough Feg knew they were recording a song about Mortal Kombat.

“Goro will dominate over Earthrealm,” goes Hands Of Goro’s one-line Bandcamp bio, and by Raiden, this trio delivers. Joining Maestas and Draper is distinguished drummer Avinash Mittur, who was last in these pages for Wretched Stench and Nite and is also my friend, thus why Hands Of Goro, the band’s debut album, is popping up in the bonus section. Together, the three have crafted eight killer selections that mix Trad Belt-style heavy metal with a deep purple hue with something the group has appropriately dubbed as scumbag rock. It’s all driving rhythms, riotous riffs, and odyssean song structures. And “Uncanny” is the right entry point because of course it is. Goro already knew it would be.

“Under the tutelage of the great Shao Kahn, Goro gained the ability see into the near future and can easily predict subsequent moves by any opponent, thus his counterattacks are most effective not only by their ferocity, but the confusion that sets in when opponents realize that Goro knows their next move before they do,” Maestas said about “Uncanny” in the PR copy. Fittingly, the version that made it to Hands Of Goro is more patient, delighting in the Manilla Road-esque side quests. Mittur hammers home the pulses with a classic rock thump. Draper stacks riff atop riff, creating what he described as “a veritable orchestra of guitar harmonies.” Maestas wrings every drop of catchiness from the verse’s vocals. The song rips harder than Goro aiming for employee of the month at a document destruction service. It seems to know exactly what I want. And then “Uncanny” finishes me off with a whole wildfire’s worth of scintillating solos. Fatality, indeed. [From Hands Of Goro, out 3/1 via the band.]Ian Chainey

HYMNS OF BLASPHEMOUS IRREVERENCE

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