Van Jams: The Songs That Metal Bands Blast Behind The Wheel

Van Jams: The Songs That Metal Bands Blast Behind The Wheel

Imagine: You’re on tour and you hear a song that gets its hooks into you. When you’re in the van singing it with bandmates, does that song connect a little deeper? When you play that song before concerts, does it feel more important? Do the new stimuli, the new towns, the new people, and the spark of new experiences, the charged romanticism and trauma bonding of bouncing from place to place, playing music, and rocking faces turn a song you might’ve previously dismissed into something significant? Does it all make that song sweeter? What happens when you find a song you love on the road?

Krista Shipperbottom remembers how Lutharo found its song. “On tour with Alestorm last May, [bassist] Chris [Pacey] was in a random gas station and heard the song ‘No Matter How High‘ by the Oak Ridge Boys and thought it was the best thing ever, so he immediately put it on in the RV upon his return,” the singer of the Canadian quartet, whose new album, Chasing Euphoria, is out now on Atomic Fire Records, writes in an email. “That song has been ‘our song’ ever since, and we usually play it before we hit that stage at every gig.”

Unleash The Archers’ Brittney Slayes has a story like that, too. “Oh yes, we did a tour through the US back in 2015, and we had Stan Rogers playing pretty much around the clock,” the vocalist writes in an email. These days, the five-piece is gearing up to release its sixth album, Phantoma, in May via Napalm Records. But nearly a decade ago, the band made a playlist pilgrimage back to its homeland while traversing America. It was a fortuitous decision. “We had other Canadian greats like Stompin’ Tom Connors and Gordon Lightfoot on heavy rotation as well. It was awesome. We were singing along the whole time, and it is actually what inspired us to do a cover of ‘Northwest Passage,’ which is our most-played track of all time on Spotify, hahaha. I guess you can hear the love and passion we put into that song; it means a lot to all of us. It’s the other Canadian national anthem ;). Now, whenever we hear any of those artists, it brings us right back to that tour and the great times we had together!”

What connects Shipperbottom and Slayes’ tales is, of course, the setting: Both bands were on tour and falling for these songs in their respective battlewagons. And, anecdotally, at least, there seems to be some kind of magic produced when tracks are played within the sanctum of the proverbial or literal tour van, the vehicle ferrying the musicians from show to show. Whether picking a playlist of classics or suffering for the memes, the communal music bands play while on the road is an essential and under-discussed part of the tour experience. After all, what other facet of a tour can so quickly raise spirits or obliterate them? (To anyone currently eating asphalt and tossing their life savings into the money pit, don’t answer that.)

So, with band morale on the line, what music do artists reach for? Are song selections made democratically, or does the decision solely lie with an onboard aural autocrat? Do any tracks wear out their welcome and earn an immediate skip? And does ideal music for driving even exist? Let’s find out. These are the aux cord travails of grizzled metal veterans who have racked up the miles and road-tested great driving songs.

Because no one will bemoan a heavy metal playlist pick more fervently than a fellow metalhead, War Curse‘s tour tunes are all over the map, forgoing metal for everything else under the sun. “Funny enough, we’re a metal band, but there’s nothing we disagree on more than our preferred style of metal,” the heavy metal slash thrash band’s guitarist Justin Roth writes in an email. “Everyone is very passionate about their likes and dislikes. It’s usually the path of least resistance to pick something else. On any given day, I will bounce between Wu-Tang, Elton John, Gin Blossoms, and Jewel, to name a few. I listen to a lot of modern pop-punk bands like Real Friends, Neck Deep, and State Champs. The pop-punk can induce a little complaining, but I don’t care. I love it.”

In an email, Gabe Rosa, the guitarist/vocalist from the Canadian thrashers Raider, notes that his compatriots let the vibes dictate their choices. “Can definitely vary depending on the mood. If we have our party shirts on, chances are we have ABBA blasting on the stereo.”

The Bay Area black/heavy metal quartet Nite (pictured above), which is currently wrapping up a tour with Persekutor and Intranced, has some disposition-driven curveballs, too. “Def Leppard, Savatage, Toto, and UFO are on regular rotation in the van, along with other ’80s classics,” the band details in a text. “When the mood strikes or when the hour gets late, the KLF might make an appearance.”

And speaking of mood, there’s the all-too-human desire to punish oneself with the repeat button. Recently, the Reverend Kristin Michael Hayter posted an Instagram reel of the “‘Vengabus’ Challenge,” which consisted of the tour party listening to Vengaboys’ “We Like to Party! (The Vengabus)” repeatedly over their three-hour-plus trek between Denver and Salt Lake City. When the numbers were crunched, that turned out to be about 65 plays of the former Six Flags theme song. In the reel, the “We Like To Party!”-inflicted fatigue on Hayter’s face is palpable, the realization that time is a construct, but there is and only will be “Vengabus” henceforth. “Now you know how we feel having performed this song for the last 26 years,” Vengaboys singer Kim Sasabone commented. Another Instagram user had a more succinct summation: “Spotify wrapped about to be insane.”

Unsurprisingly, Nite declined the invitation to descend into replay purgatory. “For better or worse, we in NITE enjoy each others’ company too much to force a masochistic challenge while we’re on the road. Touring is hard enough on the West Coast. We don’t need to make it harder!”

That said, the tour earworm, that being when a specific song virulently infects band members and other tour participants and collectively munches on everyone’s minds, is a recognized phenomenon. “On our US tour back in 2021, the boys could not stop listening to ‘Rascal‘ by RMR, and when we weren’t on the bus, they would be singing it EVERYWHERE,” Slayes remembers about a particularly insidious earworm that burned through the Unleash The Archers bus. “Backstage, in the green room, at catering, they just couldn’t stop. It was in their heads soooo bad, hahahaha.”

RMR’s beatless, comparatively sedate ballad somewhat fits the definition of what driving safety experts have identified as optimal road trip music. An oft-cited 2019 study by the South China University of Technology produced results that “indicated that driving under the influence of rock music was correlated to higher arousal levels and perceived mental workload, and…was marginally correlated to driving impairment.” (The study had a tiny sample size of 20 participants, used a driving simulator, and also attempted to measure “driver personality,” which…uh…is a choice.) What that meant in practice, and what was reported either bemusedly or breathlessly by aggregating entities, was that drivers who listened to music exceeding 120 beats per minute (BPM) not only drove five miles per hour faster but made double the number of lane changes than those in the “light” music group.

A similarly constructed 2018 study titled “Music genre induced driver aggression: A case of media delinquency and risk-promoting popular culture” examined the effects of music with “violent” content on driving behavior. The 50 participants sat at a STISIM Drive (Model 400) driving simulator, outfitted with the finest reality-reproducing CRT monitors, and listened to 30 songs by 15 artists split into two categories: “neutral content” and “violent content.” The heavy metal section’s “violent content” included three songs, Metallica’s “All Within My Hands,” Five Finger Death Punch’s “White Knuckles,” and Mötley Crüe’s “Knock ‘Em Dead Kid,” which, fair enough, would force me to drive my car at great speeds into a wall. The findings were predictable: “energetic music boosted excitement resulting in decreased lateral control, increased excursions from the lane, and an increased tendency to stray onto the hard shoulder,” and “[d]rivers who were exposed to hostile music with violent content on the other hand demonstrated increased cruising speeds and a higher percentage of time exceeding speed limits.”

A less rigorous 2022 study commissioned by PassMeFast, a curiously named UK-based driving school, analyzed “Spotify’s 20 most popular driving playlists.” The goal was to calculate a “distraction score” based on Spotify’s song characteristic data, which measures songs’ BPM, length, key, and mode along with more subjective distinctions such as their emotional qualities, energy, and whether or not they’re “danceable.” (You can find this information on a service like Song BPM, which pulls data from the Spotify API. The output is…dubious. For instance, Spotify clocks Mithras’ “Worlds Beyond The Veil” at 131 BPM. It does correctly note the death metal blast fest is “high energy” and “not very danceable,” although JT Extreme, “your friendly metal hypeman,” might take exception to the latter.) Billie Eilish’s “Bad Guy” was found to be the least distracting song, while Outkast’s “Hey Ya!” was the most distracting. Clearly, these driving playlists are crying out for some Sulfuric Cautery.

Some other experiments, such as a 2013 test that tracked the performance of eight drivers on a closed-course track, exist, along with a handful of surveys and reader polls, but it’s worth taking most of this stuff with as many grains of salt as would fly out of the shipping container of a jack-knifing 18-wheeler blasting Five Finger Death Punch’s “White Knuckles.”

Anyway, regardless of methodology and small sample sizes that probably wouldn’t survive the replication crisis, research in this vein has spurred organizations, such as New Zealand’s RYDA, “which supports teachers on the journey as they provide their students with the tools and understanding they need to see themselves as active, responsible road citizens,” to offer road trip playlist guidelines via its Road Safety Education website. The takeaways are to be expected: “Choose soft music and keep the volume low;” “Choose slower-paced tracks for a cruisey ride;” “Consider choosing light, uplifting instrumental music to put you in a positive or neutral mood and free up your brain power for those quick decisions on the road.” So, dungeon synth.

Meanwhile, Emesa, a Spanish maintenance company responsible for “the main ring road in Madrid,” recommends pop and indie music over heavy metal, hard rock, and…jazz. “…jazz requires a lot of attention and may distract the driver and make them commit an offence,” the maintenance company stated on its website in a 2020 blog post. Ah yes, the famous jazz effect, responsible for vehicular mayhem worldwide. “Officer, it wasn’t me. I was under the influence of jazz.”

So, considering they’re metal bands that make raging, speedy music, are Nite, Lutharo, Raider, War Curse, and Unleash the Archers going hell-bent for leather, swerving between lanes, and leaving a wake of five-star GTA chaos between tour stops in Toledo and Toronto? While no one went on record describing their driving demeanor, no one is serving penitentiary stints for Twisted Metal-esque jazz crimes. Not a shocker.

What is surprising is learning what songs and styles these bands frequently nixed when fellow members put in requests. “Our bassist Avinash [Mittur] has a soft spot for Anthrax, but the rest of the band aren’t fans,” Nite admits about the musical taste of Mittur, a frequent Black Market source and my friend. “They have never been spun in the van, much to his dismay.”

War Curse’s Justin Roth has also established boundaries for his sanity, asking for the occasional skip. “I try not to, but I’m human. I have my limits. I can only hear Glenn Danzig’s voice so many times on a tour before I’m ready to tuck and roll down the freeway.” Apparently, Amazon felt the same way about Danzig’s 6:66 Satan’s Child.

How does War Curse choose its tunes, then? Roth takes me behind the scenes. “It’s definitely a democracy, but like all democratic processes, there is a fair amount of politicking involved. Think of the driver as the executive branch, able to implement executive orders and veto anything coming from Congress in the back seat. When that process gets hairy, the decision can be deferred to the judicial branch, AKA the dude riding shotgun and controlling the radio. Pro tip: this also serves as a sneaky way to get people who try to get out of driving to take their turn behind the wheel. Tired of my music? Take over.”

Unleash The Archers also institutes a more collaborative system. “Yeah, it’s pretty democratic,” Slayes writes. “If someone wants to listen to a particular song, we are all usually on board with letting them get the earworm out, lol. After a show, we are always in ‘party mode,’ so whoever gets to the stereo first will plug in their phone, and then we all just add to the Spotify session.”

However, other outfits choose to cede control to the driver. “Definitely whoever is behind the wheel,” Rosa says of Raider’s jams. “It’s only fair to have your tunes on to keep you locked in.” Shipperbottom concurs, although whoever is riding shotgun for Lutharo might get a few songs in if they are lucky. That holds for Nite, too, although their frequent wheelman, drummer Patrick Crawford, tends to be a bit more flexible…except for one significant geographical event. “He always has us listen to Crystal Logic by Manila Road as we enter the state of Kansas.”

That, of course, brings us to those serene moments of tour soundtrack serendipity, when the songs line up perfectly with the scenery. “When we drive across the desert, stark and folky rock and country music like the stuff from the Amazing Blondel or Buck Owens always makes for memorable imagery,” Nite says. “One particularly memorable moment is when we pulled into a Los Angeles hotel late into the night/early in the morning, with the Randy Rhoads Tribute live album by Ozzy Osbourne blaring through the air. It felt rather apt hearing Randy’s solo in ‘Mr. Crowley‘ rip at 4 AM while stumbling into a Comfort Inn located in his hometown.”

Roth rattles off the particulars of his memorable moment like it was a life-changing meet-cute. “Driving through Houston, pulling into a Torchy’s Tacos (our favorite stop on any tour!), starving, blasting ‘God Blessed Texas.’ It really doesn’t get any better than that. If you want to see heaven, brother, here’s your chance!”

Rosa, on the other hand, works in the inverse, allowing the music to set the scene. All it takes is some OSTs. “Definitely movie scores on long drives. There’s something about it. Kind of unlocks this adventure feel that you don’t get with other music. That ‘gather your horses’ kind of feel…ready to take on the road. Howard Shore knew what he was doing.”

What is the perfect track to play on tour, then? “We unanimously agreed on ‘Hallowed Be Thy Name‘ by Iron Maiden,” Nite texts. “The intro, the nearly jaunty verses, Clive Burr’s punches and fills…and when the song goes into double-time, it’s hard not to feel amped about whatever is coming next. The next show, a hotel room, home, you name it.”

“‘Bohemian Rhapsody.’ Without a doubt,” Justin Roth answers on behalf of War Curse. “And if you don’t bang your head at around the four-minute mark, we’ll probably never be friends.”

Raider’s Gabe Rosa was understandably indecisive. “Picking a single top song is tough…so many good ones. Would have to say ‘Ship Of Fools‘ by Vicious Rumors. Something about that thing just gets us going. It’s a great mix between melody and shred. It’s only four minutes and thirty seconds long, so you can get about 13 plays an hour if it’s on repeat.” “Ship of Fools” Challenge, when?

And Unleash The Archer’s Brittney Slayes’ choice tapped into the allure of touring and why so many bands love it despite the innumerable obstacles. “Oh, it’s impossible to pick just one! But I suppose if you really twisted my arm, I would say ‘Country Roads‘ by John Denver, lol. There’s nothing like when the whole band is singing that one at the top of our lungs while barreling down a highway on our way to play a show for all the fans that we love so much. Tour really is just the greatest thing ever. Hahaha, sorry, that one got a little too mushy!”

On the contrary, discovering the song destined to become your band’s pre-game staple or having your best mates singing an earworm alongside you isn’t mushy. That’s the call of the road and probably the sweetest song of them all. –Ian Chainey


10. Aardvark – “Tough Love”

Location: Melbourne, Australia
Subgenre: heavy metal

You’ve got to love what Aardvark’s putting out there on their debut Tough Love. You can start with the album art, with an 80s action flick bicep-flex hand grab between a man and a woman who are also handcuffed together. There’s the ice-effect logo, the stock “Tough Love” font in a flat red that makes you realize that you haven’t seen that dull red in a couple of decades due to advances in printer technology. You then might come across a photo of the band and think that Aardvark has teleported to the present from 30 to 40 years ago, and they’ve got the clothes to prove it. Aardvark gets it, and when you press play, the four-piece from Down Under hits you with steamy, hot, riff-crunching, pulse-pounding Metal. Singer Ed Vaark brings the right kind of gravelly, sleazy baritone that you’d hope for, and the crisp progression of “Tough Love” leaves stiff riffs and attitude to match lingering in the smoky air. Across tracks with names like “Destructor,” “Fight Back,” and “Killer,” Aardvark is bringing new blood — and a sense of fun — to old-school metal. [From Tough Love, out now via Dying Victims Productions.]Wyatt Marshall

9. Shock Withdrawal – “Pain Absorption Threshold”

Location: Los Angeles, CA
Subgenre: death/grind

With Mitchell Luna on vocals, a grinder lifer who has blarghed in Maruta, Noisear, and the seriously overlooked Ozaru, you know that Shock Withdrawal’s debut full-length would smoke. What’s interesting to me is how Dismal Advance smokes. Do not let the genre tag entered above deceive you. The trio is neither death/grind nor death and grind in the classical senses. Instead, “Pain Absorption Threshold,” the second-longest song on the album at two minutes and nine seconds, is death metal in miniature. Think if Assück made its Harmony Corruption but still exercised a Wire-esque approach to eschewing repetition. Obviously, I’m slicing the meat super finely here. Only the most insufferable pedants (hi) would care about the genre designation, but I’m impressed by just how much death metal Shock Withdrawal packs into these otherwise bite-sized blasters.

“Honestly, I like the sound on this record, and what we created is really just a culmination of all our favorite extreme metal bands,” Luna said to New Noise Magazine. “It’s not like, ‘Hey, we’re gonna write something that sounds just like this.’ There’s bits and pieces. It’s rooted in grindcore, but yeah, it’s just throwing it on a blender and putting something together that we would listen to if we weren’t in the band. I think that’s the best way.”

That is the best way. It’s also pretty good guidance when it comes to creating music. Shock Withdrawal’s other wise decision, and another bit of sage counsel bands should always endeavor to emulate, is writing killer riffs. Guitarist/bassist Nick Emde has crafted some rippers that can sharply slash and heftily crush. It’s the sound of a Brutal Truth acolyte who also ate, slept, and breathed the early Willowtip releases. Drummer Jono Garrett is Emde’s equal in twists and turns, rhythmically leading these songs on turn-on-dime shifts like a rally car co-driver. And Luna’s robust roar and jet-engine screams rage atop the pell-mell pandemonium.

When the trio’s powers combine, “Pain Absorption Threshold” is what comes flying out, Dismal Advance‘s most high-octane burner. That said, don’t say Shock Withdrawal isn’t just a high-tempo blur. Even that wild-eyed rager contains a near-melodic bridge that is Nasum-esque. To yank on the e-break and fly around a corner so deftly demonstrates a real sense of craft that only comes after putting in the reps. To that end, Luna has some fine advice for up-and-comers, telling New Noise Magazine in a different interview, “Enjoy the fucking ride, no matter how pointless and bleak it might feel. Create some art. Help someone. Play some fucking grindcore.” If Dismal Advance is the result, I think it’s worth heeding Shock Withdrawal’s advice. [From the Dismal Advance, out now via Brutal Panda Records.]Ian Chainey

8. Belore – “Sons Of The Sun”

Location: Marseille, France
Subgenre: epic black metal

There was a period in 2013-2014 when it looked like a second golden age of epic black metal was dawning. The eternal reigning kings are, of course, Summoning, the Austrian duo that took Tolkien’s legendarium and gave it the over-the-top, monumental epic synth-meets-black metal treatment we didn’t know it so desperately needed and forged a sound that became known as epic black metal. Summoning inspired a whole host of fantasy fans to take up Casio keyboards and write songs in the Summoning blueprint, often inspired by Tolkien or other fantasy series of epic scope and scale.

Fast forward to 2013, when a couple of musicians in Salt Lake City, Utah, going by the names Shield Anvil and Mortal Sword, took up synths under the banner of Caladan Brood. Caladan Brood turned to an even lengthier fantasy series, Malazan Book of the Fallen, as inspiration for their album Echoes of Battle. It’s an incredible landmark album, second only to the very best of Summoning in the canon, and it seemed to out-epic all previous notions of epic. Soon after, one-half of the duo behind Caladan Brood released an album under the name Ered Wethrin, unleashing a more guitar-driven epic black metal opus that’s hardly less epic. A drumbeat seemed to be growing. And then both Caladan Brood and Ered Wethren vanished, never to be heard from again, though Echoes of Battle is about on vinyl repress number 20 at this point.

I’m not sure if we’re entering a Third Age of epic black metal or anything like that 10 years later, but the new album from Belore is a chest-swelling, majestic jaw-dropper. Surging synths, flutes, horns, booming echoing drums, mid-paced searing guitar solos, resolute melodies, the blackened rasp, the solemn spoken word interludes, the group choruses that sing things that sound like they’re etched in stone somewhere — “Sons Of The Sun” nails it all. It’s awesome. Belore doesn’t take a single fictional world as inspiration for its work; instead, it channels both fantasy and medieval worlds so that you can let your imagination run further. Steel yourself, hit play, and let the cares of modern life slip away for a few minutes of majesty. [From Eastern Tales, out April 5 via Northern Silence.]Wyatt Marshall

7. Justicar – “Outbound Flight”

Location: USA
Subgenre: power metal

The pitch is simple: Justicar’s debut EP is power metal about Star Wars. But unlike other things that sound too good to be true in the garbage reality we unfortunately inhabit, everything about this group keeps improving the more you learn about it. For one, Outbound Flight, the band’s two-song hello-there, cares not for the mainstream Star Wars canon, choosing instead to explore the Expanded Universe, particularly the works of Timothy Zahn. For another, the lineup oozes talent, consisting of some Black Market regulars: Guitarists Alicia Cordisco, Joshua Payne, and third/live shredder Jeff Taft, along with bassist Leona Hayward, have been in these pages before for Judicator, Transgressive, Owlbear, Project: Roenwolfe, and Wraithstorm. Joining the crew is Valyria’s Jordan Rutledge on vocals, providing the soaring singing these majestic riffs deserve. And that’s the other thing: the nearly 10-minute “Outbound Flight” rips. Think of feeding prime Blind Guardian riffs into highly active song structures. And, like smugglers on the run, “Outbound Flight” doesn’t stop moving, making fine use of its power metal hyperdrive.

For a genre suffused with geeks, it’s surprising that Star Wars doesn’t have more of a presence in metal. Per Encyclopaedia Metallum, only 24 bands use the space opera as a theme. Compare that to the 285 hits for “Tolkien” or even the 44 bands that write songs in the key of Elder Scrolls. And, unsurprisingly, the Star Wars bands run the gamut, from the melo black of Hoth to the sludge of Noothgrush to the Wookieepedia After Dark, intensely NSFW BDM of Zuckuss. (D.V.C., who I tend to think of as one of the best Star Wars-related metallers, somehow wasn’t awarded the tag despite being named Darth Vader’s Church and covering “The Imperial March.” I don’t think I’ve ever used an emoji in the column, but I feel like this one is earned: ¯\_(ツ)_/¯.) Justicar joins just three other power metal bands in this space, a genre-plus-theme that feels like the most natural pairing in the galaxy. Why don’t we have more of these bands? Be that as it may, as soon as people hear Justicar, you know they’ll be coming. I’ll put the appeal like this: Justicar is the first time I’ve felt anything for Star Wars in eons.

“Outbound Flight” opens with a classically chunky thrash march, which is Justicar’s secret weapon. These riffs are sharp, scintillating, and speedy but also heavy. When it comes to the headbangibility, the obvious comparison is something like Artillery. However, they remind me of the weighty chugs of Tad Morose’s Modus Vivendi, a classic of the powerfully power metal form. When Justicar blasts off, complete with the requisite sonic boom heavy metal “AHHHHHHHHHH!” from Rutledge, it blows my hair back. The rest of the running time is laden with irresistible hooks and leads. What impresses me, though, is that the riffs are always putting in work, carrying listeners along. There’s no fat on this odyssey of a track, which makes that simple pitch up top even better. [From Outbound Flight, out now via the band]Ian Chainey

6. Stellar Descent – “Vaporize”

Location: California / Illinois
Subgenre: atmospheric black metal

Behold, a Black Market record: At one hour and 12 minutes, “Vaporize” is the longest song we’ve ever featured. It bests Sorcier des Glaces’s 50-minute trifecta track — the veteran Quebec duo’s “Sorcier des Glaces,” from their album Sorcier des Glaces released in 2018, 21 years into the Quebec City band’s existence. They capped that one at 50 so it could fit on vinyl; Stellar Descent, who almost always go long and have multiple tracks in their catalog topping one hour, have in the past worked around the duration limitations of physical formats by hiding a fold-out USB stick in the body of a cassette so that their three-hour-long “Cycles of Life” could exist in a tangible form. Anyway, “Vaporize” is worth your time and attention as it’s a stunning meditative soundscape to get lost in, full of deep space atmospheric wonder, horror, and cosmic drama. Layers of guitars sweep throughout the work, cast in a wispy lo-fi haze that turns riffs into interstellar wind. Rasps are sinister screeches from the void. It’s the work of Anthony W. and Jon Rosenthal, a duo with their hands in many atmospheric-ish black metal bands that have appeared in this column before (Rosenthal also was the serving EIC at Invisible Oranges, where Ian and I came from before this column.) Find some time, put on the good headphones, and get lost — and if you like what you hear, there’s a lot more Stellar Descent to explore. [From Vaporize, out now via Nebulae Artifacta.]Wyatt Marshall

5. Replicant – “Acid Mother”

Location: New Brunswick, NJ
Subgenre: death

BLECH! Of all the vocal hits available on the metal singer’s palette, from OOGHs to GOs to RAAAs, I’ve always been fond of the blech. It’s like the vocalist, tapping into a divine sense of putrid premonition, knows the upcoming riff is too sick, and the only way to properly set the stage is a phlegmy throat-clearing.

Infinite Mortality, Replicant’s third album, is bursting with blechs. The death metal quartet writes riffs with an irresistible moshiness that invites the kind of grimace accompanying riffs rich with radness. These husky chugs and juds are usually the domain of tough guys and juvenile Disembodied disciples. So, the twist with Replicant is that it’s a tech-leaning death metal band.

Right, in a write-up following the New Jerseyans’ previous album, 2021’s Malignant Reality, Doug Moore told the tale of an internet commentator trying to roast the band for being “Gorguts for morons.” Instead, this put-down gassed the band up, becoming something of a credo. True to form, Infinite Mortality is ruthless in pursuing meathead riffs. And, goddamn, does it ever flex its muscles in that regard.

Look no further than Infinite Mortality‘s opening track, “Acid Mother.” Within the first few moments, we’re already fully in the blech zone, with singer Michael Gonçalves unleashing a hearty one. “When I approach vocals, I go for what comes naturally,” Gonçalves said to Burning Ambulance. “I admire the stylings of John Tardy (Obituary), Steeve Hurdle (Gorguts, Negativa), and Tomas Lindberg (At the Gates), so I try to achieve something within that realm. My goal is to channel my emotions through the vocals rather than pure guttural brutality. Besides, I don’t have the vocal chops to do those super brutal vocals, so I just stick with what I know.”

What I know is that Infinite Mortality‘s insatiable desire for the kind of riffs that would exponentially increase the premium on a music venue’s insurance coverage is some of the best therapy I’ve undergone this year. Peter Lloyd and Itay Keren’s guitars smashing together with bassist Gonçalves and drummer James Applegate’s rhythms create a high-energy death metal din that is absolutely cathartic. It’s one of those great metal contradictions: a recharging and revitalizing fit of untrammeled aggression, a brutal bruising that refreshes the soul. It carries on the legacy of bygone death metal mosh uniters like Deepred and Odious Sanction, early practitioners that more accurately lived up to the genre tag of deathcore. In other words, Replicant is deserving of every blech it emits. [From Infinite Mortality, out 4/12 via Transcending Obscurity Records.]Ian Chainey

4. Noor – “Mother’s Guilty Pleasure”

Location: Montréal, Canada
Subgenre: progressive / power metal

Noor is doing something different on its debut album Mother’s Guilty Pleasure. The title track, which kicks it off, begins with a sort of thrashy, grungy extended riff that lays down a theatrically spooky melody. At two minutes in, you’re hooked, and it could go a lot of directions — thrash attack, trad, or somewhere else entirely. Then, the wild-eyed, glass-shattering power metal vocals kick in.

What follows is a tour de force in power metal righteousness, a muscular kind of power metal that never takes the foot off the gas and hits upon a variety of sounds and themes from across the broader metal spectrum. Riffs are staccato shredders that take epic turn after epic turn, and silky smooth starlight solos pop in and out alongside the operatic lead vocals of Thomas Karan, who’s also firing off bottle rockets on lead guitar. It’s totally awesome, and folks are rightfully making Queensrÿche and Crimson Glory comparisons online, but there’s a fresh kind of new millennium post-y and proggy energy to it that makes you think the band listened to a healthy amount of Coheed and Cambria growing up alongside Blind Guardian, Halloween, Maiden, et. al.

The whole album rips, a real treasure that creates that giddy excitement that accompanies the kind of meaningful metal first encounters that make the spark that turns into a lifelong flame, the type of debut that leaves you awestruck and coming back over and over. [From Mother’s Guilty Pleasure Part One, out now via the band.]Wyatt Marshall

3. Convulsing – “Endurance”

Location: Melbourne, Australia
Subgenre: death metal

Let’s get this out of the way up front: Perdurance is a triumph. Convulsing’s third album pushes ulcerated death metal into new territory. Brendan Sloan, Convulsing’s sole member, has reinvigorated progressive-minded death metal, composing songs with a freedom and openness that returns the style to its pre-codified ’90s roots without compromising the project’s modernity. But more than the sonics, one is left breathless by the emotions. Perdurance possesses a vulnerability that cuts to the bone. It’s death metal that feels, death metal that lives and breathes.

Not that Convulsing is strictly death metal. Not that Convulsing is strictly anything. In a 2022 Black Market intro on the shrinking pool of applicable genre descriptors even as metal became more disparate and experimental, Sloan commented on the multigenre omnicore tendencies of his solo project by saying, “…I don’t think anybody has labeled it right, and I sure as hell don’t know what to call it except for ‘extreme art metal’ or something. You’ll note in the Bandcamp tags I just stuck them all in there.”

Indeed, like past Convulsing albums, Perdurance‘s tags range from “?????” to “metal” to “metal or something” to “whatever.” And the music has that ????? spirit, pinging between death metal, black metal, doom, and more, often in a way that reminds me of prime Edge of Sanity if it were reared by Everything Is Fire-era Ulcerate. But, of course, the stylistic shifts are seamless. Sloan doesn’t cover this much ground for stamps in his passport. It’s just what works, which in turn is an encapsulation of Sloan’s feelings.

The feelings are, of course, appropriately big. During our 2022 conversation, Sloan mentioned his fondness for the genre tag “big feelings music,” which was then used to describe bands in the alt rock renaissance. There was a hope that “big feelings metal” would be allowed to take root. Perdurance is “big feelings metal” blooming. The feelings here are universal, delving into pain, hurt, and fury, but rendered with such poetic grace that it feels like Sloan has insight into your life. “I know the way/ To cause the pain/ Necessary to know,” Sloan growls on the Azagthothian “Flayed.” “Shattered Temples,” with its driving, purple-castle riffs filtered through an Opeth or Inanna progressiveness, channels the maddening frustration with oppressive leaders that hang onto power; “Passenger to poisoned world/ ruled by the whim of small men,” Sloan screams at that song’s outset. While it’s always up for interpretation, like any good art is, these songs make me feel because these are things I’ve felt before.

But the near-13-minute “Endurance,” Perdurance‘s closer, although there’s a bonus track treat if you buy the album, makes me feel the most. To me, the song gets at something that has been on my mind lately: While this world crashes and burns, the connection fostered within relationships and community will help ameliorate that sense of hopelessness. And, I mean, of course, the music is dynamite. “Endurance” is Convulsing at its most dynamic and evocative, an alternately brutal and beautiful death metal track that hits all of the project’s high points, from the inferno blasts to the journeying progressive progressions to the lush and lachrymose death/doom trudges. But what wallops me, taking the wind out of me every time, is the feeling. “The depth of a love/ restores me in all moments/ how precious you are/ I’ll endure a while longer.” Perdurance is an album that will do precisely that: It will endure and inspire you to do the same. [From Perdurance, out now via the band.]Ian Chainey

2. Couch Slut – “The Donkey”

Location: New York, NY
Subgenre: noise rock / sludge

Couch Slut is the best storyteller in noise rock. That is no small feat in a style that has its share of yarn-spinning raconteurs. But You Could Do It Tonight, the quintet’s fourth album, is like the great American short story collection set to gloriously uncomfortable music. As guitars scream and rhythms grind, Couch Slut not only delivers one of the best albums I’m going to hear this year but one of the best audiobooks.

“The Donkey” is classic Couch Slut, a madcap tale that threads the needle and sews together the surreal, sardonic, and scary. “Here’s what happened when my friends and I got fired from the haunted water park,” singer Megan Osztrosits sneers like someone still living with the ramifications of its ending. It’s a hell of a hook, a lead worthy of Edna Buchanan. From there, the story tumbles down a dark hole that is alternately absurd and far too real. And if you can believe it, “The man has sawed his arm to the bone” somehow isn’t the wildest line on the album.

That’s Couch Slut in a nutshell, really, a band that continues to push its sonic punishment to the limits. Osztrosits, drummer Theo Nobel, guitarist Amy Mills, and bassist Kevin Hall have added Pyrrhon guitarist Dylan DiLella to the fold for You Could Do It Tonight. (Pyrrhon vocalist, and our former leader, Doug Moore guests on the album. You can’t miss him.) DiLella adds layers of scuzzy, squiggly guitars that sound like a rat king collectively dying of an aneurysm. It magnifies Couch Slut’s hair-raising qualities, which were already plenty hair-raising for a band so adept at making its creeps crawl.

Couch Slut, though, is at its best when it unifies into a scuzzy, titanic groove. (That the band recommends Cherubs’ grimy Heroin Man on its Bandcamp page is no coincidence.) “The Donkey,” in particular, is like My War for degenerates taking a pickaxe to rock bottom, a terrifyingly sea-sick, delirium tremens tremor that would even give Brainbombs the heebie-jeebies. DiLella and Mills create these sheets of skronk that tower above the listener like an unscalable wall. Nobel and Hall lock together like industrial gears munching on workers after an OSHA violation. And then there’s Osztrosits, the storyteller, a true performer who should be eligible for every acting award, wringing out every drop of charisma to make this story hit hard. Like a great story, it’s all of these ingeniously observed little things that add up to a big thing. And a dozen listens deep, it keeps hitting harder, just like any masterfully told story should. [From You Could Do It Tonight, out 4/19 via Brutal Panda Records.]Ian Chainey

1. Morvigor – “Midden In De Wereld”

Location: Alkmaar, The Netherlands
Subgenre: atmospheric black metal

The thriving Dutch black metal scene has an exploratory and abstract bent, with leading acts of the current ever-cresting wave taking the black metal palette and structure into unusual and exciting frontiers. Fluisteraars (new album on the way) and Turia create transcendent, hypnotic long-form works, while their neighbors in Utrecht, Laster, pull from a mischievous experimental playbook that channels twisted visions similar to those of their compatriot, the painter Hieronymous Bosch. Morvigor, from Alkmaar, north of Amsterdam, fits into the broader creative zeitgeist that’s taken hold in the Netherlands, and they’re charting their own course. “De spiegel,” from a stunning two-track EP, is monumental. It touches on some of the best of the Dutch sound — extended riffing in gorgeous guitar palettes and, at times, a sense of creative mischief — but Morvigor writes a more linear, clearly epic narrative. Melodies are full of anguish and resolute purpose, with blasting and barrages of fills accenting a measured pace. Throaty screams are accompanied by sky-splitting cleans that make for some truly memorable moments. On the band’s two prior full-lengths, Morvigor leaned more into death metal, with a bit more in-your-face energy. Now, they’re aiming for the horizon in a blaze of glory. [From De spiegel, out now via Vita Detestabilis and Onism Productions.]Wyatt Marshall


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