REZN’s Burden Is Our Reward

REZN’s Burden Is Our Reward

Some bands build worlds. REZN hope you explore their universe. “We do leave quite a bit up for interpretation,” bassist Phil Cangelosi, accompanied by the three other members of the Chicago quartet, says over Zoom. “We don’t have anything that’s super on the nose. Our goal is to bring you to a place and not necessarily tell you what to do once you’re there.” Guitarist and vocalist Rob McWilliams chimes in: “It’s definitely just setting a scene for someone.”

Burden, REZN’s forthcoming fifth full-length and a companion to 2023’s Solace, sets a scene like it’s an open-world video game. The DIY outfit’s first release on the venerable Sargent House is massive and immersive. “Indigo,” the opening track that further expands the already intrepid band’s timbral palette, drops you into a dark, dangerous netherworld. Drummer Patrick Dunn pounds his kit with the force of a slipping fault line. Modular synth player and saxophonist Spencer Ouellette produces dizzying layers that hang like noxious gasses. Cangelosi’s churning bass juts upwards like jagged stalagmites. And McWilliams’ guitar and vocals dizzily swirl like the uncontainable dread of intense claustrophobia. Within a few seconds, you know exactly where you’re at, and the walls are closing in.

However, how you choose to navigate Burden’s subterranean labyrinth is up to you. That’s REZN’s great gift. Although the band constructs and sequences songs with cinematic grace, effortlessly herding listeners along their journey, the contours of that journey are left up to the experiencer. In a sense, REZN act almost like a mood ring, matching whatever you’re feeling. That mirror-to-the-self approach permits you to discover whatever you need to hear at the heart of Burden, one of those rare musical adventures that meets you where you’re at instead of the other way around. In that way, REZN are part of the burgeoning field of “big feelings metal” pioneered by Convulsing and the like, but it also makes a case for empath metal. You feel like Burden feels you. It can be cathartic, leading you out of the dark, labyrinthine confines of your own psyche. Burden can and probably will lift burdens.

“I definitely wanted to emphasize that this is an inner journey as much as it is a sonic journey, and hopefully you can grab onto that for, I don’t know, as long as you like the record, as long as you listen to the record,” McWilliams says. And that interest in involving you, the listener, is why REZN are fast becoming one of metal’s premier galaxy builders. It’s almost as if the band positions the listener as an unofficial member, someone equally integral to the process of creative exploration. It’s also indicative of REZN’s painstakingly formulated concept of composing and recording. The band works so hard to push its sonic space’s horizontal and vertical boundaries, laboring with its producer and “reducer,” Matt Russell, to make its universe as infinite as possible. All involved achieve that by ensuring every element tells its own story. The emotional lyrics tell a story. The art tells a story. The metallic crunch tells a story. Even the rainstick tells a story. But, ultimately, the listener weaves the narrative.

Ah. Right. The rainstick. You can learn a lot about REZN by asking about the rainstick. “I bought a special rainstick just for our recording. It’s got a 30-second hold time, and it’s the longest rainstick time frame you can get,” Cangelosi enthuses. “I knew this was going to happen in the interview at some point,” Dunn deadpans. Ouellette joins him: “The most annoying thing about that 30-second hold time is that if you don’t get it quite right, you got to turn it over and wait.”

Over 2020 and 2021, REZN had a lot of time to metaphorically turn over the rainstick. Following the release of its third album, 2020’s Chaotic Divine, its most accomplished work to that point and one that additionally provided the template for the evolution the band would soon undertake, the pandemic yanked the e-brake. “We had all this momentum, and then it was like, what do we do with it?” McWilliams remembers.

The decision was to head back into the song composition mines, inspired both by “boredom,” as Dunn quips, and a need to create. Turns out, the additional time provided by scuttled tour plans became an unexpected boon.

“I think this was the first time we actually wrote everything as a group,” Cangelosi says. “Rob usually comes up with a riff or something to get us started, and then we’re all together. Ideas will get touched on maybe, I don’t know, eight times before they’re in their final iteration, and sometimes it’s two different ideas that we were like, ‘Oh wait, those can go together really nicely,’ and then we’ll write towards that goal together.”

Pretty soon, two distinct goals sprouted after planting some seeds. “So we’re like, ‘Well, what if we split [the songs] up into two thematic biomes, one with more inspirational, uplifting, majestic songwriting styles or moods, and then one that’s a lot more claustrophobic and dismal and miserable?'” McWilliams says. “We took both forks in the road and let whatever idea come.”

One fork led to the “mountain,” that awe-inspiring feeling felt at the foot of one of Earth’s most impressive features. The other led to the “cave,” that primal fear of darkness and the mysteries that lurk within it. “That was the ultimate inspiration,” McWilliams explains about the latter. “What’s the most hellish place we can go?”

The mountain and cave themes also allowed REZN to challenge themselves, taking chances with its core sound. Part of that was thanks to everyone’s increased availability. “I think you listen to a ton of music, and you’re playing a ton of music, and you’re exploring routes that you probably wouldn’t be if you were just picking up a guitar and banging out an idea once a week,” Ouellette says.

But, according to Cangelosi, REZN have always been restless and relentless in its pursuit of diversifying what the band can be. “We do spend some time trying to write literally for the sake of trying something new for us. It’s like within the confines of our world, do we want to try this new time signature? Do we want to use a drum machine? Do we want to maybe do some weird studio thing we’ve never done before?”

Something REZN hadn’t done before was taking their time in the studio. “We had the time and energy just to go, ‘OK, we’re not going to work with that,'” Cangelosi says. “It helped us boil down what we wanted to put on these records.”

REZN boiled down the “mountain” songs, which would comprise Solace, first, traveling to Matt Talbot’s Earth Analog Recording Studio in July 2021. (Talbot’s band Hum is a good comparison for REZN; it is truly a match made in the stars.) Sessions for Burden, the “cave” songs, followed at the same studio in August. With Moral Void’s Matt Russell behind the boards, REZN figured out where it needed to go. “Some songs were not finished, even compositionally, until we were in the studio,” Cangelosi recalls.

While the songs might’ve been in varying states of completion, REZN’s obligation to atypical instrumentation and producing textures outside the rock idiom remained fully formed. REZN are old pros at that. Its previous album, Chaos Divine, contains credits for oud, bağlama, sitar, and, in Dunn’s case, “moisturizer.” But the Solace and Burden sessions kicked things up a notch, especially regarding the band’s newfound interest in testing the limits of sound engineering.

“We [used] a lot of things: guitar, piano, flute, lap steel,” Cangelosi says. “There are a lot of things that we would try to throw in there, especially guitar layers. There were maybe a million guitar layers in some parts, and we realized adding another guitar makes it sound worse, so let’s cut those out. It was Spencer’s idea coming into this to use the studio as an instrument, and we’re just going to put down as much as we can, and then we can chisel away at it like a statue.”

Much like a sculptor, REZN didn’t limit themselves to one dimension. “I guess after a certain amount of writing, when all the bare bones are in place as far as the structure of the song, then it’s like when we turn to the composition in a vertical sense, how everything is stacked up,” Ouellette says.

However, that studio-aided verticality presented its own hurdles. “We’re the type of people who will go in the studio and just keep putting stuff on a track,” Dunn says. “We will not stop. And we’ve definitely gotten ourselves into situations in the past where we don’t even know what we’re listening to anymore. It just gets too dense. We have a really good concept of what too much sounds like now. I think we’re really good at finding a balance, and then we can just build this dense wall that is made up of all these little bits. But we’ve often in the past taken it to a point where the wall almost crumbles.”

So, to reinforce the wall, the Solace and Burden sessions showcased another side of REZN’s growth: knowing when to pull back, a point that McWilliams hammers home: “You’d be surprised how much of an impact you can make with very few instruments.” And that confidence in its compositional abilities, of letting one element do the work because its voice is so clearly defined, speaks to how far REZN have come.

“Phil and I were always going to be in a band regardless,” Rob McWilliams says about his childhood friend Phil Cangelosi, “so we were going to just keep making stuff until something clicked.” Things started clicking when the two were in college. While working in a more hardcore context, an outline of a future project began to take shape. “We literally named one song ‘Resin,’ and we were like, it just needs to be slow and heavy and droney,” McWilliams remembers.

After graduating, McWilliams and Cangelosi moved to Chicago in 2014. “Chicago was just fertilizer,” McWilliams says of the city that would become an essential part of REZN’s identity. “If anything, it felt like going pro a little bit. It was like, ‘OK, here’s my little amateur thing. Let’s see how it does in the big leagues.’ And then you’re like, ‘Oh, wow, I need to be way better.’ And so you just take it up a notch. And to me, the Chicago influence is to work hard and do your best because it matters.”

Chicago is where McWilliams and Cangelosi’s slow and heavy ideas took root, albeit somewhat unintentionally. The two recruited friends and fellow coworkers from Schubas Tavern, Patrick Dunn and Spencer Ouellette, for a project that initially didn’t have much of a plan. “We were friends first, and then it was like, ‘Oh, dude, you want to do something crazy on this record, by the way?’ No intention really to be a band,” McWilliams recalls.

And those early sessions weren’t the most serious endeavors. “I think it was even a stipulation of mine,” Ouellette says. “I was like, ‘This isn’t going to be serious, right?'”

But when things started rolling in 2016, the four members recognized that there was some serious magic in what they were producing. “We made that first record more or less as a demo,” Dunn says. “We’re like, ‘Well, let’s just put these songs down in my janky little home studio.’ And I think after we made three songs, we’re like, ‘This is kind of good, actually.’ It’s like, ‘No, wait, we could just do the whole record like this.'” Suddenly, this wasn’t going to be just a demo. As Dunn puts it, their thinking was recalibrated on the fly: “No, it’s going to be more than that.” REZN was born, and it’d wear that “more” like a badge of honor.

2017’s Let It Burn, which repurposed McWilliams and Cangelosi’s “Resin” for the re-titled “Relax,” the album’s opener, made a splash in the psych doom/stoner metal underground. Many of the REZN hallmarks are present: the hypnotic haze and hellacious heaviness; McWilliams’ haunting, spectral vocals; the not-strictly-rock instruments (sitar in this case); and spacey, Floydian forays. 2018’s Calm Black Water, the four-piece’s finest in its more straightforward incarnation, refines those ideas. And then, two collaborations demonstrated that REZN were interested in growing its experimental side. 2019’s Live at Electrical Audio with fellow Chicagoans Lume steers into both bands’ penchant for the psychedelic, delivering two dynamic quiet/loud songs. 2020’s Infected Ambient Works with Ouellette’s Catechism is a trippy ambient drone album, closer to Roy Montgomery getting remixed by Kompakt than anything that would hit the Doom Charts.

REZN carried that experimentalism over to 2020’s Chaotic Divine. “I think Chaotic Divine was another step where we were like, ‘We’re going to try to not just do the rock and roll band thing,'” Cangelosi says. “I think that was the first record where we were like, ‘We’re going to really try to branch out and make this different than just us being like, ‘We’re going to write these hardheaded riffs, and they’re just going to smack you in the dome.'”

McWilliams agrees. “The diversion from riff-based music to soundscape music was that third record. We were like, ‘Let’s make a concept here.’ The whole thing is a journey. Let’s take you on a journey. Let’s experience as many different things as we can, and hopefully, it all condenses under one atmosphere, one soundscape.”

Solace and Burden take that approach to the next level. “Both Solace and Burden are designed to flow as an album that you might listen to all at once,” McWilliams explains. Cangelosi adds: “Each song is definitely written as one piece of a whole.”

That totality manifests in intriguing ways. Again, REZN allow you to plot your own path. These aren’t albums demanding you to do your homework so you can understand them. But it’s hard not to pick up on certain cues and extrapolate from there. For instance, the Solace/Burden song cycle could represent a 24-hour period. With its more mystical atmospherics, Solace is the daytime, with the killer opener, “Allured by Feverish Visions,” acting as a sunrise. Burden, the darker and more brooding album, is the night, with closer “Chasm” devouring all light.

Solace and Burden could also be the polar extremes of the human experience, with life pinging between stretches of consolation and oppression. McWilliams touches on this a little bit, noting that, while Solace and Burden move linearly due to the nature of time, both could be happening simultaneously. After all, emotions are complex and rarely so clean-cut. Solace could carry its own burdens and vice versa.

That duality, the light and darkness and how they intermingle, is all over Adam Burke’s excellent impressionistic album art adorning both records. On Solace, a sun breaks through the clouds, casting light on an impressive peak that towers above a verdant valley. On Burden, a deep gash in the earth glows molten red.

“I remember when we were thinking, let’s do ‘mountain’ and ‘cave,’ that’s just our general guidelines during writing,” McWilliams explains regarding the albums’ visual themes. “As it came together, it was like a vertical instead of horizontal space, which in most album art, you have the front and the back, and it’s one big landscape painting. This one, we’re like, ‘How do we vertically connect ideas from something that’s triumphant and something that’s super dismal and oppressive?'” Cangelosi adds that this connection runs deep. “Even the vinyl colors. We went with light colors for Solace and dark colors for Burden. It’s all very painfully hammered in there.”

What’s as deliberate but doesn’t hit you over the head is the albums’ flow. REZN have a keen understanding of how to get a listener from point A to point B. It’s all about contrasts. Peaks need to have valleys. “It’ll be like, ‘Oh man, we have four aggressive barreling songs in a row,” McWilliams explains. “This is going to be kind of flat if it was sequenced on a record, so let’s find a way to give it a little bit more character development.'” Cangelosi notes that even with Burden, an album intended to be heavy, being heavy all the time would neutralize the album’s power. “Sure, we could have made eight of the heaviest songs we could think of, but that doesn’t quite take you there. We wanted you to [be on] an emotional rollercoaster.”

REZN’s album structure and sequencing also contains a little Easter egg for music obsessives. “I think on every record we’ve done, we’ve designed the side transitions to be a brief moment of silence,” McWilliams says. “We are thinking about the vinyl. We need a good place to flip [the record over]. The journey needs to be interrupted in the smoothest way possible.” Dunn adds, “That’s always been something we’ve taken seriously. I feel like the vinyl listening experience is what we design our albums for.”

Burden‘s final seconds, the cacophonous crackle on “Chasm” that sounds like the universe ripping itself apart, could be one of those clever for-the-vinyl moments. It’s like the needle jumping out of the groove. Then again, like much of Burden, it’s up for interpretation. The only thing limiting your understanding and appreciation is how deep you want to go.

As an example, “Chasm”‘s crackle is preceded by the lyrics “No time/ Left to decide/ Just as I realize it’s all within my mind.” So, is the band and/or listener being awakened and snapped back to reality? That’s one read. In Burden‘s PR copy, McWilliams said it’s the “final phase of an existential descent, when you’re on the last few steps of the spiral staircase and realize there’s no going back.” And that’s just it: There are so many possible analyses. That’s REZN’s whole deal.

But thinking outside of that, “Chasms” is just a good song. At a base level, that’s why anything REZN do works. “Chasms” is a mini marvel within Solace and Burden‘s feature-length run. It’s arguably the heaviest bruiser of the set, riding a grinding riff that’s like early Isis writing for Floor. But there’s so much more there. Ouellette, who McWilliams calls the band’s secret weapon, layers his synths like they’re a ballast. It gives the leaden, repetitive stride an ethereal component, allowing REZN’s densest riffs to have balance. In other bands, those riffs might dig themselves deep underground. Here, they almost float.

This kind of interplay between the musicians doesn’t sound labored over, either. You get the sense that the members, who Cangelosi says are all “best friends” and “don’t really argue,” come across these artistic decisions instinctually.

“I think we know each other’s strengths intuitively at this point,” Ouellette says. “And we have kind of a system when it comes to writing stuff. At the end of the initial section of making an idea, everybody’s got their home and everybody’s contributing their thing. They know we’re making bread, and Rob makes the best yeast, and I’m manufacturing the best flour, and everybody’s doing their part. And at the end of the thing, you have a balanced product.” McWilliams goes on: “So letting everyone have ownership over their part, you have more flexibility and also more responsibility because that’s your voice.”

One place where those voices meld to produce the tightest results is in the rhythm section. A good rhythm section is the secret sauce for every band that plays slower music, and REZN have a killer one. Both players fit together like jigsaw puzzle pieces while spurring each other to greater triumphs — it’s like Cangelosi and Dunn have a telepathic link. “We don’t really talk about how we do it,” Cangelosi admits. “We never have an aside where we’re like, ‘Alright, man, here’s what we’re going to do.’ It just happens.” Dunn forwards a theory: “I think maybe Phil and I have the deep connection of being past roommates or something so we just lock in really well when we play. We’ve done each other’s dishes, so our connection’s tight.”

Another tight connection in “Chasms” is the guest solo from Russian Circle’s Mike Sullivan. REZN are particularly adept at collaborating — it released Silent Future, an outstanding collaboration with Mexico City’s Vinnum Sabbathi, in 2023 — and giving its compadres space to do their thing. This guest spot is no different. The two bands know each other through Dunn, who is Russian Circle’s front-of-house engineer. Sullivan popped down to the studio and quickly nailed a stunner, easily getting on REZN’s wavelength. “So that song in particular, we were like, ‘We want to make this song extremely heavy, but also it kind of had this mechanical repetitiveness about it,” McWilliams says. “I think what he did is perfect. It’s just totally chaotic and panic-inducing and a lot of feedback. I think there are six takes of pick scrapes in there, which is awesome.”

McWilliams also mentions that Sullivan’s solo is fun, which is a guiding principle in the band. “I think that’s how we always try to approach each song, too: ‘Are we having fun?’ Is this fun or is this just stupid? If it’s bumming us out, then we probably shouldn’t do it. We’ll have to play that song for a long time.”

For a band that isn’t moored to a specific style or genre, that commitment to doing right by themselves is crucial. It imbues REZN with an inherent authenticity. “We’re just trying to make whatever we make,” Ouellette says. “We’re not shooting for a really particular target genre-wise or anything.” Dunn agrees, seeing REZN’s mission in pretty simplistic terms: “Yeah, we’ve always just wanted to make the most emotionally and musically compelling music we can make. There’s never [a sense that] we have to make this as fast as possible or as heavy as possible or as brutal or even weird as possible. We just want to make compelling music. That’s it.”

That simple goal has led to big results on Solace and Burden. Solace, released in March 2023, was met with acclaim. Burden will complete the mountain/cave audio diptych next month on June 14. The early returns suggest it is another compelling album.

Of course, REZN aren’t taking a break. A tour awaits. And it probably won’t be resting on its laurels for long after that. “I think that’s one thing we all want to do with this project is we really don’t want to keep writing the same record over and over again,” McWilliams says. “We’re proud of every record in its own timeframe that it came out, and our goal with the next one is it’s going to be different, and it’s going to be in the REZN universe, but hopefully you haven’t heard that record before.”

The REZN universe is vast, and there are still so many worlds to explore. So, who will be the brave psychonaut to chart them? In the thank-yous for Burden, REZN leave the most important one for last: “You.” –Ian Chainey


10. Aquilus – “Nigh To Her Gloam”

Location: Melbourne, Australia
Subgenre: black metal / neoclassical

Aquilus’ 2011 album Griseus is considered by fans of big, ambitious orchestral black metal to be a quintessential album of the style. The Australian project from Horace Rosenqvist, which has grown from a one-person effort into one where a supporting cast has joined him as session and live musicians, certainly aims about as high and wide as you can go. And on Aquilus’ new album, Bellum II, the scope and polish is remarkable. “Nigh To Her Gloam” is one of two 15-minute-plus tracks that anchor Belum II, the second half of what is essentially a double-album that was conceived and recorded over an eight-year period, with part the first landing in 2021. Instrumental songs that pull from a variety of styles, some classical-leaning, some not, make up what’s a somewhat demanding and ultimately completely absorbing album listen. But on “Nigh,” we get a more straightforward, true black metal epic with as many twists and turns to it as any great story. I won’t attempt to chronicle them in words, but the music is incredibly rich, emotive, and stunning, moving from passages of soulful introspection to radical blasting where searing lead guitars light up the sky before traveling onto blissful folk pastures. You can get lost in the thick, absorbing mix, and with all the twists and turns and moments of sonic awe along the way, “Nigh” will call you back to experience its magic and delights again. [From Belum II, out now via Northern Silence.]Wyatt Marshall

9. Scavenger – “Nosferatu”

Location: Balen, Belgium
Subgenre: heavy metal

Scavenger have a history. The Belgium band began life as the Blueshammer-esque Deep Throat, which, if an Encyclopaedia Metallum note is to be believed, was a reference to original singer Jan Boeken’s vocal prowess. (“Oh yeah, this is our guitarist, Gyatt, who plays gyattar good.”) Deep Throat must’ve gotten a good tip from a shadowy source because they soon redubbed themselves Scavenger and followed a left-hand path toward heavy metal. Their 1985 full-length Battlefields was released on Mausoleum Records, the home to Belgian heavy hitters Ostrogoth. The album, complete with cover art depicting two warriors defending their right to get more plastic surgery, is considered something of a classic of the ’80s scene. Alas, the band split soon after.

Of course, as is often the case with legendary metal bands, no matter how short their time in the legendary sun, Scavenger reformed in 2018 with some new members in the mix: guitarist Kevin Demesmaeker and vocalist Tine Callebaut. (Boeken died in 2019.) However, by 2020, all original members had left, leaving Scavenger as the rare Total Member Turnover zombie band. That could be awkward, especially when planning anniversary tours with members who haven’t been present for many anniversaries (not to mention alive when Battlefields was released), but the new crew’s staffing appears to be surprisingly uncontentious. “We also had some contact with all the original members,” Callebaut said in a Belgian Jasper interview to celebrate Scavenger being voted the 10th-best Belgian band of the ’80s. “They support us all the time.” Hey, it happens. I guess retired athletes still root for their old teams. To that end, if this no-OGs approach jumpstarts the trend of bands treating the biz like sports, trading musicians and drafting promising metalheads from the minor leagues of punk and rock, I’m all for it.

Anyway, Beyond The Bells, Scavenger’s supremely unlikely sophomore album, might demonstrate why that support has been granted: It kicks ass. While favoring a throwback style that’s glammier and sleazier than its former incarnation, nestling into a zone that’s like if Ratt invaded Dokken, the new quintet has no shortage of ripping riffs and scorching solos. The band plays with the energy of a new outfit…because, well, it is. Even the more sedate tracks growl with an insatiable appetite for shred. Scavenger came to rawk, and it fulfills that mission.

The best track of the bunch on the pleasingly consistent Beyond The Bells is “Nosferatu,” which edges the rest thanks to a chorus earworm as persistent as its namesake’s bite. A lot of that catchiness is courtesy of Callebaut’s vocals, which are like a second lead guitar screaming across the track like a jet. When the band locks in for the hook, Callebaut’s call and response with herself is that classic ’80s songcraft, maximizing its sonic payload of satisfying heavy metal fromage. And then you get to the solo section, and oh baby, does Scavenger ever level up. Guitarists Demesmaeker and Tim Naessens go full blowtorch mode while bassist Vincent DL and drummer Gabriel DS cook underneath, avoiding the hamfistedness of its forebears. It’s a killer example of a new band subtly tweaking an old formula to work in the present, which is fitting considering Scavenger’s history. A Metal Song of the Summer contender has emerged. [From the Beyond the Bells, out now via No Remorse Records.]Ian Chainey

8. Luna Pythonissam – “Páginas Rotas”

Location: Mexico
Subgenre: post-metal

Across her galaxy-spanning collection of projects (Metal Archives lists 15), Mexico’s Victoria Camilla Hazemaze crafts remarkably diverse worlds of wonder, filling them with brilliantly colorful alien atmospheres all their own. We’ve covered Cora’s Heart, Yólotl, Oculi Melancharium, and Blitzar IV in the column, and now Luna Pythonissam enters orbit. “Páginas Rotas” is slow burning, with deep, distorted bass and curious, watery guitars setting the stage for a drama of few words but enchanting power. It’s cool and stylish and otherworldly, with moments of heightened action when ingredients from the black metal palette are more obviously felt, in particular Hazemaze’s ghostly rasp that moves in and out of earshot throughout the mesmerizing track. But elsewhere, you wouldn’t be crazy to think you were listening to something like Mogwai. Read the room, but if you’ve ever had to explain to someone that when you listen to metal, it probably isn’t what they have in mind, “Páginas Rotas” could be a great example (“but the vocals”). [From Ecos del miedo, out now via the band.]Wyatt Marshall

7. From Dying Suns – “Reclamation”

Location: Québec City, Quebec
Subgenre: death metal / death/thrash

Right from the first riff, you can tell that From Dying Suns are not our usual. If you wanted to fit the Quebec quintet’s debut full-length, Calamity, into the typical Black Market sphere of coverage, you could maybe say its high/low growls and general desire to max the speedometer makes it sound like Uphill Battle if it changed course to chase melo-inflected neo prog death downhill. Or, more succinctly, perhaps this album will even scratch the itch for long-suffering Capharnaum fans desperately seeking a modern alternative. (The PlayStation 1-style album art is pretty telling in that regard.) And that’s just it: From Dying Suns make more sense within a widdly, hook-rich metal milieu, an elevated version of the ’00s metal that we typically eschew covering.

And yet, Calamity rips. That’s undeniable. And so I couldn’t deny it from a spot in the column. “Reclamation” is one of From Dying Suns’ chunkier numbers, reminding me of a bit of a cleaned-up version of Undying’s powerful ATGcore. Vocalist Mathieu Dhani nails the high scream and low growls without feeling like he’s reaching for either. Guitarists Mathieu Roy-Lortie and Maxime Rochefort light the fuse connected to entwined leads that streak the sky like a rocket launch while also churning out choppy chugs that feel like two unblockable defensive backs blitzing every down. Bassist Christian Pacaud and drummer Antonie Baril form an imposing rhythm section, injecting heft while remaining light and agile thanks to both players’ sense of feel. (Baril demonstrates he’s additionally adept at guitars, kicking in leads on several songs, which is…unfair. Stay in your lane, drummers.)

Now, if you laid all of this down on paper for me, I’d be like, “Cool, but probably not my thing.” I mean, you’ve read the column. I usually only listen to glurpy goo so disgusting that it would make a toilet bowl in a train station bathroom retch. But Calamity is very much my thing. I think I know the reason why.

OK, let’s get into the weeds. From Dying Suns riff a specific kind of riff. For metalheads of a certain vintage, such as myself, From Dying Suns have reinvigorated the Galy Riff, a fast, hyper-technical style often paired with active basslines that, despite its finger-cramping virtuosity, flows over the equally dexterously played rhythms. I’m sure there’s a technical musical term for it. To me, it sounds like water cascading over river rocks and down a waterfall. The Galy Riff has its roots in Voivod and was evolved by Quo Vadis and Martyr until it became this delightfully contradictory amalgam of the smooth yet bracing, fun yet head-pulpingly intense. And for a while there, in the 2000s and early 2010s, it sounded like the future of death metal.

If you’re allowing me to make this a thing, The Galy Riff takes its name from Galy Records, the Quebec label that dabbled in a lot of metallic forms but seemed to specialize in a progressive strain of death metal. Needless to say, Galy’s roster was packed with prime Riff practitioners: Martyr, Unhuman, Augury, Atheretic, and to a lesser extent, Neuraxis, Beneath The Massacre, and Despised Icon back when it had a singer who sounded like a cricket. Not all bands on Galy followed this path, and few of those abovementioned bands even worked within the same subgenres, but they all had that specific kind of riff or at least that specific kind of feel.

Naturally, From Dying Suns make sense as a Galy Riff disciple because they have links to some Galy ring of honor bands, in this case, Augury and Aeternam. Simple enough. And by folding in the progressive bent of one of its other metal relations, the almost Yes-esque instrumental sweep of Contemplator, Calamity checks the box when it comes to absurd instrument acuity and atmospheric terraforming. (It also has that retrofuturist elan, recalling an off-ramp that death metal ultimately didn’t travel down. That said, I only think this element is of interest if you still have a CD booklet in your car.) Again, all of that makes sense. I could use all of that to make a flowchart proving the existence of the Galy Riff and From Dying Suns’ usage of it in the same way the person who you always see at the library has a binder proving the existence of continents beyond the Ice Wall.

But more importantly, From Dying Suns’ songs are also bursting with a je ne sais quoi, that freewheeling kind of controlled chaos that made Galy Riff bands sound like a hovercraft seconds before it’s evident it’s on its final voyage. To that end, “Ascent,” which is additionally from the Witchery school of badass metal instrumentals, a history lesson for another time, is some of the most fun I’ve had with a metal track this year. Ah, but even though I am a rule-breaking contrarian to the end, I couldn’t drop an instrumental in here as your introduction to From Dying Suns. So you get “Reclamation,” and this ridiculously tenuous connection to the Galy Riff, which was a circuitous way of writing what I wanted to write all along: These riffs are fun as hell. [From Calamity, out now via the band]Ian Chainey

6. Lichen – “Mycorrhizal Trepanation”

Location: Virginia Beach, VA
Subgenre: black metal

Before we get going, let’s acknowledge the incredible album art on “Spear & Stone,” with two mushroom men guarding some kind of totem to the kingdom surrounded by a spreading fungal root network (“mycorrhizae”). Like the mushroom maniacs in Minnesota’s Mycorrhizae, Lichen take fungal network spread as inspiration for absolutely filthy, ripping black metal that would be great even without the mushroom links. “Mycorrhizal trepanation,” which seems to suggest mushrooms physically invading the brain à la Last of Us, is a low-key stunner with fungus in focus. Hard to deny that mycorrhizae are having a moment. “Mycorrhizal Trepanation” is loaded with moments, too. The blasting, courtesy of a band of Virginia Beach veterans, is swamp-thick, buried in a mix of sludgy hiss you could poke a finger into, with grainy rasps filling any vacuums. The whole thing is richly melodic, occasionally bright, but with an insidious, unsettling intent that’s never far off. A highlight comes when the fungal floor catches some rays of sun around two minutes in when a somewhat unexpected heroic lead guitar goes vertical to awesome effect. Also awesome is Lichen’s logo, which would be worth reviving Metal Sucks’ “Completely Unreadable Band Logo” series for. [From Spear & Stone, out now via Death Eternal.]Wyatt Marshall

5. Sulaco – “Dying On The Pass”

Location: Rochester, NY
Subgenre: Death metal / grind / noise rock

On a particularly raucous episode of the Grim Dystopian podcast, Sulaco explained the title of their new two-song single: Black Cloud is an inside joke used as an umbrella term for anything bad that happens, a sort of touring band equivalent to womp womp. It’s a good title for a group that, over the years, has felt particularly snake-bitten. Indeed, despite being one of the best outfits in the metal underground, nothing seems to work out for the Rochester five-piece. Sure, they have become a band’s band by formulating a unique fusion of death metal, grind, thrash, and noise rock that is uncompromising in its instrumental interplay and rhythmic dexterity. But Sulaco seem destined to belong to the cult, discovered via word of mouth and mixtapes. Because even though everyone in the know will sing Sulaco’s praises, an opportunity-devouring black cloud hangs over it.

Last year, Sulaco were rocked by something more tragic than the usual trials and tribulations. Lon “Spoth” Hackett, the bassist who had been there from the beginning, died. “We lost him suddenly and unexpectedly,” the band wrote on Bandcamp, “and the world as we knew it came to an abrupt end.”

Hackett was a crucial part of the Sulaco sound. His bass was not only the glue holding guitarists Brian Mason and Erik Burke and drummer Chris Golding together but the lubricant that made the hideously complex music sound so free-flowing. While some technically inclined bands might think of themselves as gears, Sulaco always came off as a muscle car, a garage-built marvel barreling down the road and nimbly sliding through turns despite its immense heft. Considering how integral Hackett was to making that car go, it’s understandable why the other members might’ve thought that was it.

But the remaining members knew that’s not what Hacket would’ve wanted. “Although it’s cliché to say, it is true, Lon would want us to keep Sulaco together,” the band explained. “His exact reaction would be to tip his head back, laugh hard, and say, ‘Because of me?? Whyyy??’ Not once did he accept how important he was to all those who loved him. Who knows, maybe now he does, because it is undeniably apparent to the ones that he left behind.”

So, Sulaco did what they’ve always done and kept going. They released Spoth, a two-song tribute with Burke and Mason cathartically taking over Hacket’s intended basslines. Then, they recruited bassist Ed Jusko to complete this next phase of the band. Jusko knew his role, telling the Grim Dystopian podcast that he didn’t want to fill Hacket’s shoes so much as place his boots beside them.

And that’s where we find Sulaco on Black Cloud, a band that has undeniably changed but still fits nicely next to what it has always been. Well, not everything has changed. For instance, in typical Sulaco style, “Dying On the Pass” cribs its title from restaurant lingo while focusing its subject matter on the cooking competition show Chopped! Seriously. With an excellent strangled scream, singer Jason Leone even emits a searing “chopped!” during the bridge. This is Sulaco, folks. And, of course, the band sounds as bonkers as ever, especially at the song’s shreddy conclusion. But Sulaco also sound different. It’s subtle. It’d be hack to say the band is reinvigorated or newly smoldering with the spark of the reborn. But it does sport a fresh looseness and toughness. It’s the sound of a band that has been through the crucible once again and asked fate, “Is that all you got?” It’s just what Sulaco do. And when a band is this good for this long, you know that black cloud will burn away eventually. [From Black Cloud, out now via the band.]Ian Chainey

4. Olim – “Alone”

Location: Greater Sudbury, Canada
Subgenre: atmospheric black metal

Olim play gorgeous atmospheric black metal loaded with sweeping, buoyant melodies that are tinged with melancholy but will soar nevertheless. You’ll feel the lift in your wings across “Alone,” with beds of synths and an ever-trilling lead guitar, continuously finding melodic hooks that pull upwards, aiming for the horizon with the occasional glimpse at the troubled world below. It’s remarkably crisp but far from sterile — think crystalline, prismatic wonder rather than clinical precision. Olim is the work of Joe Caswell, who, amongst his stable of projects, counts duty in Swamp Fiend alongside Josh Hines (Starer et al.), another master of atmospheric world-building through brilliant guitars and pained screams. Caswell’s raspy yells blend into the rich mix he’s crafted, caught up in the colorful currents surrounding them. There are moments when the screams peak alongside sugary, searing guitar leads, and it’s then that you feel like you’re breaking free from earthbound cares and the ties that bind. [From Because, out now via Flowing Downard.]Wyatt Marshall

3. Insect Ark – “Youth Body Swayed”

Location: Berlin, Germany
Subgenre: doom

Raw Blood Singing, Insect Ark’s fourth full-length, is a testament to the power of the space in between. That’s something multi-instrumentalist Dana Schechter and drummer Tim Wyskida, making his Insect Ark debut, have mastered over their careers. Again and again, they’ve answered, How do you make the space between notes as interesting as the notes themselves?

Ever since anchoring the sadly forgotten Gifthorse, Schechter has excelled at doing that with her bass. Celebrated stops with Angels Of Light and Swans, among many others, have showcased her ability to inject every second of a song with emotion. Wyskida, the timekeeper for Blind Idiot God and Khanate, possesses a similar ability. In his doomier and noisier projects, he shepherds the silence in the valleys below mind-flaying flare-ups. Schechter and Wyskida have an intuitive sense of when to let the music breathe. They also make music that can be so starkly harrowing it will make you catch your breath.

Over the past few years, Insect Ark has become Schechter’s home base. “Music just always mirrors what is happening in my life,” Schechter, the band’s lone constant, told New Noise Magazine in 2020 after the release of The Vanishing, a darkly psychedelic instrumental crawler that maximized doom minimalism. And Insect Ark has exemplified Schechter’s life-mirroring maxim by constantly evolving. That is the expectation. Every Insect Ark album presents a new spin on Schechter’s singular voice.

Perhaps that’s why it’s surprising to hear Schechter singing again on Raw Blood Singing. In the 2000s into the early 2010s, she fronted one of the great underappreciated gems of the era, Bee and Flower. On songs like 2003’s “I Know Your Name,” which contains a coda so beguiling it still sends chills, Schechter camouflaged a knife dripping with poison within the haze of smoky singing. It was a masterful way to build tension via fine-drawn contrast, adding underlying danger to delightfully languid music. And Schechter achieved so much by practicing restraint and letting emotions and feelings spill into the empty spaces.

After a decade-plus away from the mic, it’s gratifying to hear Schechter’s voice. It’s like catching up with an old friend, one who is worldlier and wiser. So, what was the impetus to sing again?

“My inspiration to sing has always come directly from the music itself, as opposed to being a vehicle for storytelling or as vocals being the main focus,” Schechter tells me in a message sent through her publicist. “The long break allowed me to reconsider my connection to my voice and to approach it as an instrument to convey a facet of a song’s sensibility or use it as a texture. It’s about the whole song and how it feels. After some time away, I was released from some of the neurotic associations I had with singing and found I could approach it from a more relaxed place. Allowing for change and taking risks are some of the core ideas of Insect Ark, which mirrors my own evolution as I change as a human and as an artist. I’m not interested in staying static or staying safe. That isn’t to say it was easy; in fact, making the album was very challenging, but the feeling was right, the clarity of ideas came through, and with a lot of hard work, I think it was the right decision.”

It was the right decision. On “Youth Body Swayed,” Schechter’s voice is like a thunderhead forming in the distance over a desert plain, gently reverberating with long-off rumbles that have a power to what they portend. She can convey so much with her tone alone, simultaneously voicing the text and subtext, weaving the two together. Naturally, Wyskida is a perfect foil for that style. If “Youth Body Swayed” is a wide-open Western expanse, with Schechter’s bass acting as an ever-present wind that uproots the piano arpeggios tumbleweeds, then Wyskida’s backbeat has a cowboy-spurs-esque stomp. But the more you listen to it, the more you’re drawn to what’s happening between those stomps. Wyskida’s ghost notes are like turning over a rock and seeing how much life is teeming in a harsh terrain. That’s Insect Ark in a nutshell. It examines the infinities between whole numbers, showing how much exists in the void.

Schechter’s voice soon melts into another wonderful coda on “Youth Body Swayed.” To an extent, this is Dana Schechter’s discography distilled down to a song. But, like she says about the intended aims of the Insect Ark project, it isn’t a static representation of that discography. Schechter continues pushing her sound into new frontiers while taking risks by revisiting old elements. Again, it’s all about space. Raw Blood Singing revels in it and also collapses it, letting the space between enrich and enliven what surrounds it. After all, the space between Bee and Flower and Insect Ark has made Schechter’s voice sound all the better. [From Raw Blood Singing, out 6/7 via Debemur Morti Productions.]Ian Chainey

2. New Money – “Perpetual Stew”

Location: Copenhagen, Denmark
Subgenre: noise rock / sludge / metalcore

If New Money were paid by the riff, they’d be rich. Dinero Nuevo, the trio’s debut release, has enough riffs to retire on. But the key to New Money’s success is that despite being rich with riffs and having an established bloodline to boot, they retain an it-wasn’t-promised hunger befitting their name. It’s as if they need to riff this hard to pay off a debt tonight. That urgency imbues these riffs with a fight-or-flight ferociousness. And New Money have a canny way of keeping things fresh, too. But let’s talk about its classic qualities first. Much like Dinero Nuevo‘s pacing, we can wrap that up pretty quickly.

Take “Performancer,” the longest song here, and it doesn’t even clear three minutes. Doesn’t matter. New Money don’t need more time. No, they seemingly pack each second with behavior-altering earworms that make you bang your head until it bids your neck adieu. The riffs indeed rip in that decapitating sense, ranging from Knut-esque sludge annihilators, Botch-y metalcore concussion causers, Swarm Of The Lotus-like sea-sick undulators, AmRep-style noise rock ragers, and more. If New Money were around in the ’90s, they’d be booked on an all-timer tour with Breach and Acme, and future nerds would pay $500 a pop for the shirts commemorating an event they weren’t there to see.

All of this riff par excellence makes sense, naturally. New Money are staffed by Danish scene luminaries. Niclas Jürs Sauffaus (drums/vocals) and Christian Bonnesen (guitars/vocals) played in the expertly named Piss Vortex, with the former also hitting the column last year in Elitist and the latter punching the clock in the Black Market-approved LLNN and the Psyke Project. Simon Tornby (bass/vocals) blows out eardrums in Fossils. That’s a hell of a members-of resume. (Our former leader, Doug Moore, has a guest spot on “Blood Covenant.” Not going to talk about that one for obvious reasons. You’ll see more of Doug in this column next month.) And you can hear strains of the related projects in what New Money brings to the table: Fossils deep bass buzz, Elitist’s go-harder mentality, Piss Vortex’s swirling chaos, and Psyke Project’s 10-ton heaviness.

Right, you could say New Money sound fresh because their sound isn’t biting forefathers. That’s accurate. Instead, New Money sound unique because they synthesize the distinctive voices of their members. Dinero Nuevo is like one big proof-of-concept for tossing out the tropes and letting one’s musical history dictate how to compose songs. Of course, this approach runs deeper than the bands in which these three have logged the requisite number of riff reps.

In an interview with Selvtægt, which I’m unfortunately going to refrain from quoting directly because Google Translate doesn’t know what to do with Danish, New Money revealed their operating principle: not having one. In that absence of rules, of needing to color within the lines of metal or hardcore, the band was free to fill the void with its other interests and influences, allowing, say, funk or trap to work its way into Dinero Nuevo‘s sludge/noise rock context.

Thus, you get something like the riff at 1:21 in “Perpetual Stew,” an askew groover that is the epitome of a Mathcore Index mating call. Think if Coalesce played Car Bomb. Sauffaus’ drums pound, Bonnesen’s guitar snarls, and Tornby’s bass rumbles. The mosh incitement of “As above, so below/ Arf arf” is also one for the books. All of it is metalcore extended universe gold, deserving a bust somewhere between Kiss It Goodbye and Ed Gein. That said, keen ears will hear that “Perpetual Stew,” while exhibiting classic markers, doesn’t sound like it’s cut from the same cloth as those classics. You can tell something else is happening underneath the hood that sets New Money apart. And that engine is fueled by a band that writes riffs not in the key of the style’s history but the history of themselves. Thankfully, New Money are rich with experience, too. [From Dinero Nuevo, out now via the band.]Ian Chainey

1. Hull Of Light – “Sun”

Location: International
Subgenre: post-punk / black metal

Hull Of Light come from an international team of five, an esoteric underground super crew comprised of far-flung members of projects like Sleepwalker [夢遊病者] (previously featured in the Black Market), Megason, Suffering Hour, Zeresh, and Underground Spiritual Game. It’s the kind of collaboration that really highlights the thriving and mind-bogglingly deep underground culture of metal. In this case, it’s extreme, outer metal, and Hull Of Light is one embodiment of an artistic community and a relentless border-agnostic creative drive that weaves the multi-hued fringes of extreme music, pushing forward an art that speaks —deeply — to small fandoms scattered across the world. 

That artists from Colorado, Jersey, Tel Aviv, et. al. find one another and produce a song like “Sun,” is thanks to the power of the internet, but also the curatorial mind of Ron Ben-Tovim. Hull of Light came together for Ben-Tovim’s mixtape MILIM KASHOT VOL. 5, a series he publishes alongside his treasure trove of a website Machine Music. On “Sun,” the band’s debut track that featured on the mix, Hull of Light wastes no time introducing their surreal, twisted vision. Jangly, bright, and unnerving guitars rush forward, establishing an infectiously swinging groove that melts, unravels, and renews again and again. Caustic tortured vocals are whisked into the wonky mix, with extra wonk provided by a bouncing meandering bass. It all builds into a melodic drive that careens and unsettles gravity in an Escheresque manner, with sun exposure-induced delirium taking hold. The threads of “Sun” were pulled from across continents, and the picture it paints is universally captivating and unsettling. [From Gilded Liminal Shrines, out now via the band.]Wyatt Marshall


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