Columnus Metalicus: June's Heavy Metal By Pavel Godfrey
, June 13th, 2016 06:00
Fire up the BBQ and crack open a beer, Summer is here and it's time for Death Fortress, Jute Gyte, Kvelertak and Nails, says Pavel Godfrey
Summer has come to the vast realms of Metal. The high seas of spring are calm and the longships shove off for the raiding season. The sun lingers long over the steppe, and the falconing is endless. Battles rage, demons howl, churches burn, and all is well. But one question remains: What shall be played on our porches, as the grillfires flare and the liquor flows free? Who shall glean gold arm-rings for their summer party jams? Behold, o King, the lords among singers, bearers of sick riffs!
Nails – You Will Never Be One Of Us
Longhairs sometimes say hardcore “doesn’t have riffs,” but what they mean is it doesn’t have big, catchy melodies. Metalheads actually love melodies, Manowar sugary or Morbid Angel sour. A great hardcore riff is memorable on a physical level. Its melodic shape is the means to a percussive end – to move bodies. On their new record, Nails push this aesthetic to its logical conclusion. They get tones so thick and so maxed out, and play with such blistering force, that it’s virtually impossible to make out the notes in the fast parts. But this is not the chaotic noise of raw grindcore and bestial war metal. Nails are clearly playing riffs, with crisply defined rhythms and contours, and these riffs have all the crushing power of Discharge or Hatebreed. Weirdly, Nails sort of converges with electronic music. Like the masters of sub-bass, they unleash waves of sound-as-sound, viscous material moving rapidly in distinctive patterns of time and tone. On a more ignorant note, this is fucking ignorant. Amidst the double-time d-beats and jackhammer blasts, we get the nasty two-steps and breakdowns of 'Life Is A Death Sentence', 'Violence Is Forever' and especially 'Into Quietus'. These aren’t just the mosh parts, they’re the album’s defining hooks. Here, Nails unleash the Celtic Frost influence that unites them with other standard-bearers of the new heavy hardcore, like Xibalba, Harm’s Way, and Like Rats. But it is the mountainous album closer, 'They Come Crawling Back', that has the highest CFI (Celtic Frost Index). This eight-minute epic never loses momentum, never stops being hardcore. You Will Never Be One of Us is a tour de force. Crank and rage.
Sumac – What One Becomes
Obligatory supergroup notice: Sumac is Aaron Turner of Isis and Old Man Gloom, Brian Cook of Botch and Russian Circles, and Nick Yacyshyn, the powerhouse drummer of Baptists. But when I first heard What One Becomes, I only knew it was “very progressive sludge.” I tend to hate prog, and I am a hard sell on sludge. But Sumac soon had me gesticulating wildly and headbanging in my living room. As brutal as this record is, it is also exuberant and life-affirming. As st00pid as it gets, it is also smart and unpredictable. I don’t want to give too much away, so I’ll stay general. What One Becomes is sludge, sure, but you could also think of it as a sprawling, psychedelic mathcore record. It’s a lot like Knut, from Turner’s old label Hydra Head. And it’s even more like Meshuggah. There are parts that sound like Mastodon, Kyuss, and even the fucking Smashing Pumpkins. But none of that conveys the sheer doom-death levels of heaviness this band attains. Turner’s vocals are brute growls, deeper than what he did for Isis, and Sumac’s mainstay is a pummeling Meshuggah-type riff that transforms as it recurs. It is polyrhythmic and kinetic, laced with gorgeous textures and melodies, but it always returns to a single slamming pattern. One of the coolest moments comes late in the first track, 'Image Of Control', when rapidly pinging guitar and snare drum trade off with The Riff. It’s less metal than dubstep, the kind of racket you might hear from an abstract bass outfit like Vex’d or Function. Where Nails approach the avant garde through production, Sumac find ways to play beyond guitar band tropes, stretching their technique throughout the record. Of course, in anything this free, there will be some experiments that don’t work. I recommend just skipping the meandering 'Blackout', probably a product of too much bong-ripped jamming. But it’s no loss, because those mighty bong rips powered the rest of this mighty album! Definitely one for the front porch, if your neighbours like Meshuggah.
Jute Gyte – Perdurance
Back in the day, Adam Kalmbach’s Jute Gyte played industrial black metal carried by swarming microtonal guitar melodies. This is definitely not black metal, but it comes from serious engagement with the tradition, and stands on its own as a fine example of whatever the fuck it is. Perdurance is aggressively antisocial music, systematically stripped of anything remotely enjoyable or expressive. The guitar tone has been forcibly sterilised, the drum machine reduced to a Casio click. Nothing is left but convulsion and abrasion, alienation and revulsion. I’m reminded of a moment in that one Scott Walker documentary where Scott chides his band for getting too into it: “This isn’t groove music we’re playing.” And yet somehow, when the textures coalesce into riffs and the polyrhythms sync up, this grooves like a motherfucker. I felt that first in the second track, 'The Harvesting Of Ruins', which trades a warped Mahavishnu/King Crimson lead with noise rock dissonance, then drops into a sick chug pattern I can only compare to Godflesh. And if you listen closely to the clattering percussion of 'Like The Woodcutter Sawing His Hands', you’ll catch a funky cowbell part. Kalmbach does some really unhinged vocals here, but they cannot prepare you for what sounds like a bunch of screaming souls getting flushed down a toilet. 'I Am In Athens And Pericles Is Young' centres on a huge riff swathed in falling, decaying melodies, but these give way to a surprisingly lovely album-ending passage. Almost despite itself, Perdurance is a lot of fun. If you can sit through it, you will be rewarded by relentlessly entertaining cacophony shot through with a warped sense of humour. If you don’t believe me, take my roommate’s word for it: “Could you never play that skronk album again? I really hate it.” So fire up the coals, put some brews on ice, then lock yourself in the basement and twitch to the summer sounds of Jute Gyte.
Cough – Still They Pray
A doom band from Richmond, Cough has garnered some mystique, perhaps because they have a weird Japanese-sounding name and they haven’t put out a new record since 2010. I’m not sure I get the mystery, because Still They Pray sounds a hell of a lot like Electric Wizard to me, but that is no bad thing. It has the warm, fuzzy tone of Dopethrone, and draws from the same wellspring of Sabbathian blues. Where Cough set themselves apart is in their austerity, eschewing the campy fun of the Wiz for genuine darkness. Cough never plays fast, never rocks out, and grooves at only the most majestic pace. Each riff is simple, memorable, and carefully shaped. 'Possession' rises upwards on spiraling arpeggios of wah-wah to find only desolation and despair. 'Masters Of Torture' hits hard with retching screams and a driving, downbeat riff that verges on midtempo, while its counterpart, 'Shadow Of The Torturer', comes looming out of a harsh psych haze that never quite clears. (Fans of Gene Wolf’s post-apocalyptic medievalism will appreciate the reference.) On the penultimate track, 'The Wounding Hours', the stonerisms drop away entirely for the eerie organs of European death-doom. But the album closes with a folk song that puts Cough’s weak spot, the clean vocals, in sharp relief. Hopefully the next record comes sooner, and has more “UUURGH.”
Kvelertak – Nattesferd
I remember standing outside St. Vitus around 1AM, after Kvelertak had just played their second triumphant sent of the night, and hearing a coked-out dweeb corner a sweating, breathless Erlend Hjelvik to talk some bullshit about how his own band – which shall remain nameless – was “true black metal,” but he loved Kvelertak anyway, even though it wasn’t “true.” Fuck that condescending attitude. Kvelertak know black metal, and their knowledge is evident in their respectful decision not to pretend to play it. Where black metal is the music of Odin, lord of strife and sorcery, Kvelertak is the music of Thor, friend and protector of all mankind – brawny and big-hearted, full of chest-thumping anger and fist-pumping joy. Even on their self-titled first album, which rips from beginning to end, Kvelertak were essentially a rock & roll band rooted in punk and NWOBHM, seamlessly incorporating black metal melodies that gave their music a Northern soul. On their second album, Meir, they went a bit psych-y and schizophrenic, but on Nattesferd they double down on hard rock without compromising on the harshness. They come out of the gate blasting like Taake on 'Dendrofil For Yggdrasil' before settling into the predictable second-track pop single, '1985'. I’m not sure this succeeds as pop, because it pushes its 80s hair-metal riffs to Darkthronian levels of repetition, but it succeeds as ridiculous rager rock. With its note of nostalgia, '1985' injects a persistent undertone of yearning or melancholy into the record. You can hear it in the brilliant lead riff to 'Nattesferd', which darkens as it falls, and in the paler shades haunting red-blooded, rockin’ tracks like 'Svartmesse' and 'Ondskapens Galakse'. If there’s a misstep here it’s the bloated nonsense of 'Heksebrann', which is really two songs – the second good, the first shitty. But for me, the standout is the last song, 'Nekrodamus'. Here, brooding 70s metal meets the Viking black metal of Hades on common ground – stern, noble folk song. If Kvelertak wanted to buck expectations and take things in a grimmer direction, this would be a good place to start. Nattesferd should be blasting from the prow of your longship as you fare forth to far mead-halls.
Kawir – Father Sun, Mother Moon
Greek black metal is going through a renaissance. Following on Rotting Christ’s excellent run from 2004-2010, bands like Macabre Omen, Nocternity, and Caedes Cruenta have all released excellent records, rising to answer the crises wracking their homeland. These groups all have origins in the early days of the scene, simultaneous with the Norwegian Second Wave, and Kawir, founded in 1993, is one of the eldest. Kawir plays – has always played – pagan black metal dedicated to the old gods of Hellas, with folk-rooted melodies and ancient Greek lyrics. On Isotheos (2012), they went for Olympian distance and Apolline beauty, but on Father Sun, Mother Moon they return to the Dionysiac spirit of early albums like To Cavirs (1997). The music of Dionysus is the wail of the ram’s horn and the keening of the syrinx, a pure, violent melody erupting from the red earth. Kawir temper that visceral force with noble purpose, beating it into the heroic riffs that are the heart of Greek black metal, the standard by which it stands or falls. Kawir stands tall. In a way, this is their most accessible album, loaded with hooks on guitar and various folk instruments, but if you listen carefully these all appear as aspects of one continuous melodic line that runs from beginning to end. Every track is colossal, but my favorite is 'Hail To The Three Shaped Goddess', which explodes from primal piping into rolling chug and culminates in a wall of blasting that calls back every riff before. Vocalist Porphyrion sounds like he’s on a Homeric aristeia, casting down every foe in his path and screeching for the gods to bear witness. Onwards!
Alaric – End Of Mirrors
Alaric is a crusty goth band from Oakland. The influences are clear and impeccable – Killing Joke, Amebix, and Rudimentary Peni, but also more melodic bands like Fields Of The Nephilim and The Cure. If anything, the latter are more important here. No, End Of Mirrors isn’t exactly metal, but Alaric play with doom levels of heaviness, slowing frantic deathrock to a dirgelike pace and stretching it out into six-to-eight minute songs. That opens up a lot of space, and their producer uses it masterfully, so that every instrument seems to echo off cyclopean vaults. The bass is hard and up front, and the drums approach Neurosis levels of battery without ever slipping into cliché. The key to do doing this style right, though, is to be bleak and inaccessible while secretly writing pop songs. 'Wreckage' begins with an expectant, almost erotic pulse that reminds me of 'The Hanging Garden', then rises into a rousing punk chorus. 'Mirrors' is just beautiful. Here, Alaric play the delicate sorrow of the Chameleons against their own intrinsic heaviness, to great effect. “The night is restless,/never wasted/it controls us all,” Shane Baker sings, channeling the truth felt by all teenagers through the ragged roar of an older, more worldly man. The juxtaposition is jarring and powerful. Many of these songs rave up to Amebix levels of intensity, and the title track is one of the best rewrites of Killing Joke’s 'The Wait' I’ve ever heard (and I’ve heard a lot). I was not that into Alaric’s debut, but this is a band I wanted to like, so I’m pleased to say that End Of Mirrors is a great improvement, a really enjoyable record in the best sense of the word. This is one to sink into just as the sun goes down.
Kringa – Through The Flesh Of Ethereal Wombs
(Daemon Worship Productions / Terratur Possessions)
Where Kvelertak use black metal to make rock, Austria’s Kringa use rock to make black metal. Don’t worry, this isn’t the “black & roll” gimmick, nor is it the “studs & spikes, booze & babes” Venom fetish (not that we can’t use a bit of that, sometimes). For Kringa, rock means deathrock and Hellhammer, completely absorbed into black metal with a strong Norwegian ancestry. The best comparison I can make is to Darkthrone’s Under A Funeral Moon, but where Fenriz sends Darkthrone hurtling breakneck from one ripping riff into the next, Kringa’s drummer sets a more deliberate pace, cycling ritualistically from one repetitive section to the next: midtempo rock stomp to hypnotic blasting to loose, loping punk beat. The bassist holds down the riffs, allowing the guitarist to do really cool noisy textural stuff a la Christian Death or Bauhaus. I love the warped bends and drones of 'Vibrant Walls', and the fried leads that close out 'Pearly Gates', 'Abhorrent Ascent'. The vocals are just as dynamic, moving from a stentorian bellow to the more typical rasps and howls. You can really hear this band playing together, which is a rarity in nowadays black metal. If I wanted to be a trendmongering journalist, I’d group Kringa with New York’s Vorde and Los Angeles’ Shataan (new record out late July) in a new wave of gothic black metal, though all these bands sound very different. Through The Flesh… is just an EP, but it is a complete statement. Looking forward to the debut full-length, whenever it materializes.
Uada – Devoid Of Light
(Eisenwald Tonschmiede, April 8)
Uada is a frighteningly good new act from Portland that I don’t quite know what to make of. They play accessible, arena-ready black metal, but there is nothing lame about it, no concession to screamo sensitivity or Hot Topic spookiness. Everything comes from a deep knowledge of the canon. Uada are clearly indebted to contemporaries Mgla and Inquistion, but the core of their sound comes from the melodic black-death of mid-90s Sweden, which is rarely imitated because it’s technically demanding and ridiculously uncool. I’m thinking of Sacramentum especially, along with the likes of Dawn and Mörk Gryning. This is a forgotten, much-maligned style that I really love when it’s done right, so I am biased in Uada’s favor. Album opener 'Natus Eclipsim' works the Swedish vein to glorious effect, storming ahead with florid tremolo riffs punctuated by squealing pinch harmonics, a ballsy move in black metal. Then, at the four-minute mark, everything drops out and Uada introduce their secret weapon – an aching, bending lead that sticks like a Top 40 hook and could’ve come from newer Inquisition or… Kvelertak! From this riff and the startling blastbeat drop of the title track to the perfectly placed grunts and thrashing change-ups sprinkled throughout, Devoid Of Light is full of clever songwriting tricks. This makes it dramatic, but it’s all a little too perfect, a little too smooth. Black metal should be challenging. If you’re down with screaming, there is nothing challenging here. And as much as Uada has a total command of black metal, they are deeply estranged from the genre’s roots in other genres, the roots that sustain it. I hear little classical music, less folk, and absolutely no punk. Devoid Of Light does have real feeling and power, but if Uada attain any extremity, it’s in their sheer control and their disregard for black metal’s own standards of good taste. There’s something pretty Satanic about that, I suppose.
Death Fortress – Deathless March Of The Unyielding
(Fallen Empire Records, Mar 31)
This one has been out for a while now, but it’s included because it is a perfect record, representative of the harder and more serious strain of American black metal that has coalesced around Fallen Empire Records in the last few years. Death Fortress sound like one band and one band only – Hate Forest, Roman Saenko’s project prior to Drudkh. The chorded riffs, poised perfectly between harmony and dissonance, the burly guttural vocals, and the double bass drumming are unmistakable. But Death Fortress is not a Hate Forest clone band, nor do they espouse Hate Forest’s stupid NS politics. Rather, they understand their chief influence from within, as a feeling and a way of writing songs, and work outwards organically. Death Fortress has the good sense not to even try imitating Saenko’s ancient-sounding Slavonic melodies. Instead, they stress the disharmonic angle, passing through the total onslaught of the first two tracks to find their own riffing sensibility in the barbaric martial swagger of 'Merciless Deluge'. This song, along with the blasting skronk of 'Scourge Of Aeons', suggest at least a parallel – the vastly underrated Texas band Averse Sefira. And throughout Deathless March…, Death Fortress plays with a rhythmic dynamism that is a far cry from the monolithic ur-drone of Hate Forest. They might not want to admit it, but this comes less from black metal than hardcore, and that is a strength. There is another parallel here, to the implacable disharmony and metalcore muscle of Aosoth’s IV: An Arrow In Heart, one of the finest black metal albums in the last decade. On 'Power From Beyond The Stars', however, Death Fortress begins to transmute relentless grimness into a lyricism all their own. It blossoms on the titanic album closer, 'Deathless March Of The Unyielding'. Not for parties.