Columnus Metallicus: October's Heavy Metal By Kez Whelan
, October 17th, 2016 09:00
From Anaal Nathrakh to 40 Watt Sun; from Bölzer to Meshuggah; from Enslaved to 11 Paranoias: Kez Whelan is back with all the metal reviews that count for October
With 2016 rapidly drawing to an end, it's safe to say the year has been an absolute shitstorm in most regards. It seems like every passing week has brought about some great tragedy or heated controversy, with the latest outrage being something to do with a group of faceless clowns launching a series of unprovoked attacks across the country on our most weak, elderly and vulnerable citizens. But, hey, enough about Theresa May's new cabinet, let's take a few minutes to find some respite from all the doom and gloom, eh? The distorted lens of internet journalism and social media can often make the planet seem like a far uglier, colder place than it actually is, so it's important to remember to unplug and spend some good quality time in the real world. But, ahem, not before you've taken a few minutes to peruse this month's latest metal column, of course.
And what a month for metal this is; it seems like all our most anticipated albums have arrived all at once, with long awaited comebacks from Meshuggah, Urfaust, 40 Watt Sun, Ash Borer and Krypts landing at the same time as much hyped debut full-lengths from underground stalwarts like Bölzer, Let It Die and Void Meditation Cult. There's a rather obvious analogy to made here about buses and “waiting for ages before two show up at once”, but I'm going to refrain because A) there have been far more than just two great albums jostling for space this time, B) the last few buses I've caught have actually been surprisingly efficient, and C) you deserve more than that. So let's just get on with it, shall we?
Bölzer - Hero
Drop whatever it is you're doing right now because that Bölzer album is finally, finally here. The Swiss two piece had enjoyed a lot of success off the back of their Aura and Soma EPs (not to mention the awesome 2012 demo Roman Acupuncture), records that captured the imaginations of black and death metal fiends alike with their unique atmosphere and fresh, imaginative take on extreme metal riffing, and there's been a lot of hype building around this debut full-length. Thankfully, Hero makes it immediately apparent that it plans on justifying that hype with its genuinely fucking massive opener 'The Archer', with that distinctive riffing style sounding sharper than ever and a hook big enough to ensnare blue whales. It carries the steamrollering power of Bolt Thrower, the rousing melodic might of Primordial and the windswept aura of early Immortal, whilst also not sounding that much like any of those bands. Indeed, perhaps the most impressive thing about Hero as a whole is how strong it is in its individualism, and how acutely realised and intuitive that 'Bölzer sound' has become for this duo. Songs like 'Phosphor' and 'I AM III' are enriched by this otherworldly sound that doesn't really sound like many (if any) other metal bands around today, with even their most harrowing, chaotic and furious moments imbued with a haunting, crepuscular atmosphere, as storming, blizzard-like riffs break into elegant melodic phrases and back into battering-ram blunt force. Guitarist Okoi Jones' extended vocal range is a real highlight, his deep, harmonious chants on the fantastic 'Spiritual Athleticism' recalling Attila Csihar on the title track of De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas, and his rich, bluesy baritone on 'Chlorophyllia' and outro coda 'Atropos' attaining the same soulful power as his father, singer/ songwriter Paul Ubana Jones. Don't fret though, death metal fanatics, Okoi's gravel-gargling rasps and growls are still sounding great, but the addition of those soaring howls really adds to Hero's wild, irrepressible character.
Like many truly important records, Hero is likely to be fairly divisive, even amongst the band's existing fanbase (there's already been moaning about the 'clean' vocals from some quarters, despite the band having played songs like 'The Archer' live for some time now), but Bölzer's dedication and determination to progressing their sound and challenging themselves speaks for itself. It's eerily similar to the path of another group of Swiss pioneers, in fact; just as Celtic Frost released two exceptional EPs in Morbid Tales and Emperor's Return and then dropped an absolute game-changer with To Mega Therion, cementing everything that was great about their sound but with an eagerness to explore and push its very limits, so too have Bölzer redefined themselves after the double-whammy of Aura and Soma with Hero. OK, so that's a pretty lofty comparison, and time will tell if Bölzer's latest has anywhere near the influence of that legendary opus, but the point is, this is a really, really great first album. There's a marked evolution from the EPs that some may find jarring, but just go with it, and you'll find everything you loved about them here plus a whole host of new ideas, atmospheric details, stirring performances and, most importantly, brilliant songs.
11Paranoias - Reliquary For A Dreamed Of World
They say you should never judge a book (or, indeed, a record) by its cover, but the beautiful sleeve housing 11Paranoias' latest opus does a pretty good job of portraying the arcane psychedelic tapestries within. Based on the RGB colour model, each CD/LP comes complete with a 'Mutidimensional Paranoid Vision Key' with red, green and blue filters that, when used to view the cover, each reveal different obscured layers of artwork, and just as the unaided eye might initially mistake the cover art for nothing more than a blur of vibrant, intense colour, so too could the untrained ear fail to pick out the intricacies and detail in this hour long slab of wigged out, kaleidoscopic doom. The tidal force of dense, hypnotic songs like 'Destroying Eyes' or 'Phantom Pyramid' can perhaps overpower on the first listen, blasting your ears to oblivion whilst tickling the reptilian part of your brain into a dreamy trance, and it's only on repeated listens that the full magnitude of Mike Vest's fields of elaborate wah pedal landscapes, Adam Richardson's thunderous, athletic bass riffs and Nathan Perrier's propulsive beats and huge, Bill Ward worthy grooves fully reveals itself.
The production is fantastic too, retaining that same esoteric grit that enshrouded Superunnatural and Spectralbeastiaries in such a dark and alluring shade, but with an additional clarity that makes their subtler, atmospheric parts sound even more layered and vertigo-inducing, and heightens the punch of both their cavernous, evil doom moments and hallucinatory motorik segments – which now hit your pineal gland with all the force of a runaway train, careening off the tracks as Aldous Huxley cowers naked and shivering by the wheel, muttering something about “never opening that damn door in the first place”. Reliquary… is probably the trio's strongest and most varied work to date, with songs like 'Mutus Liber' and the desolate 'Meditation On The Void' providing all the doom and gloom we've come to expect, and closer 'Milk Of Amnesia' finding them at their most euphoric and immediate, a glistening and unexpected slice of heavy noise-pop that ends the record on a blistering high. Great stuff.
Void Meditation Cult - Utter The Tongue Of The Dead
Given that we've just checked out a song named 'Meditation On The Void', I'd be a fool not to grab this opportunity for a cheap transition, so, erm, here we go: say hello to Void Meditation Cult! If you've ever found yourself alone on a cold, moonlit night, listening to Drawing Down The Moon for the gazillionth time and thinking to yourself, “Damn it, why don't more bands rip off this era of Beherit?”, then this band is going to fit you like a glove. Well, “band” is maybe not entirely accurate as Void Meditation Cult is essentially the work of one Ohio resident named Dave Ingram (not to be confused with the ex-Benediction vocalist of the same name – this one goes by the stage name Desolate Defiler, which is presumably as useful in avoiding misunderstandings in press releases as it is cultivating mystique). And, to be honest, the phrase “rip off” is pretty unfair in this instance too, as there's a lot more to Utter The Tongue Of The Dead than just that, but the evil, half-whispered vocals, mid-tempo lurch, dank guitar tone and minimal but supremely fucking effective song structures are all dead ringers for Beherit circa 93. Our pal Defiler had already mastered that style by the time he'd changed the project's name from the goofier sounding Sperm Of Antichrist and put out the Sulfurous Prayers demo in 2011 though, and this, VMC's debut full-length, finds him building on it and putting his own stamp all over it.
The brash, squelchy stomp of 'Mould And Blood' is proof of this, collapsing in ethereal, wraith-like wafts of shimmering reverb drenched guitar, very reminiscent of Australian death/doom pioneers diSEMBOWELMENT, before dropping into one of those irresistibly slow, knuckle-dragging riffs a la Archgoat at their most primitive. 'The Brimstone Hail' is one of the record's most malevolent sounding cuts, battering away with pounding hammerblasts and intently focused downpicking, whilst closer 'Goddess Of The Waking Death' ends the record in a hazy smog of creepy delay smothered licks and diabolical Bathory style riffery. If you've been waiting for this with bated breath since the demo came out, then rest easy because Utter The Tongue Of The Dead is pretty much everything you'd hoped it would be. The murky-as-fuck production may be off-putting to newcomers, but otherwise this is a delicious little slice of evil that should appeal to fans of black, death or doom metal across the board.
Meshuggah - The Violent Sleep Of Reason
It seems like every new Meshuggah record continues to widen the gulf between the pioneering Swedes and all the so-called djent bands who've followed in their wake; whilst the latter are content to smother their polyrhythms in horrendous, saccharine choruses in an attempt to make you nod your head in a slightly awkward manner, the former are determined to use them in the most jarring and uncompromising manner possible, aiming to scrape out the contents of your noggin instead, scramble them into a pale grey pulp and serve them back to you like some demented, Giger-esque brain harvesting machine. Their last effort, 2012's Koloss, was a definite career high point for the band, harking back to their more raucous early thrash roots but bringing all the head-spinning technicality and terrifying, mechanical indifference of their later years with them. It almost felt like the band had come full circle, with Koloss pinpointing the exact moment this particular serpent began to snack on its own tail, and it was difficult to see where they could go from there.
The Violent Sleep Of Reason, their eighth full-length, is a very different beast to Koloss, not least as it's the first record they've recorded live in the studio in almost twenty years, which is impressive for several reasons; firstly, because of the physically and mentally demanding nature of this kind of music, but more importantly, the fact that the cold, calculated, emotionless presence that the band have cultivated over the past decade is still in full effect here, despite the more 'organic' method of recording. The phrase “mechanical” is often used derogatorily when applied to metal bands, implying they've lost the genre's all-important fiery human touch somewhere in the production process, but in the case of Meshuggah it's a glowing compliment, adding to the harsh, dystopian feel of their music and giving it an even more unsettling edge. To that end, whilst The Violent Sleep… definitely has a looser, more natural feel than their last few records, it still doesn't really sound like a band playing live in the studio, rather a group of state-of-the-ate, Skynet-constructed Terminators sent from the future to eradicate weak tech-metal acts before they take over the world.
It's also surprisingly accessible given how belligerent and obtuse this band can be; mind-fuckingly busy yet irresistibly bouncy songs like 'Stifled' and 'Born In Dissonance' recall their own feel-good(ish) hit 'New Millennium Cyanide Christ', and the amusingly titled 'MonstroCity' is about as anthemic as you can get whilst dabbling in staccato polymeters and a gloriously bloody-minded chromatic riff that just keeps on descending, and descending, and descending, almost to the point of nausea. Whilst the album is generally slower and doesn't have the same frantic quality that ran through Koloss, there's still a palpable urgency to songs like 'Nostrum' and 'Our Rage Won't Die'. Live recording aside, The Violent Sleep Of Reason doesn't really break any new ground for the group thematically or sonically (feeling like a companion piece to their 2002 classic Nothing more than anything else), but it is solid proof that nobody else can do this style like Meshuggah.
Ash Borer - The Irrepassable Gate
The members of America's Ash Borer seemed to have unearthed a bottomless well of inspiration over the last few years, with critical acclaim not only being lavished upon their second album, 2012's atmospheric black metal tour de force Cold Of Ages, but also the myriad of bands bassist R and drummer M have formed and released with their Vrasubatlat label, like Serum Dreg, Triumvir Foul, Urzeit, Uškumgallu and Dagger Lust, not to mention guitarist/vocalist K's work with the equally excellent Predatory Light and Vanum. With Ash Borer's long-awaited third album out this month, you'd be forgiven for worrying about said well and its buckets of inspiration running dry, but on the contrary, apparently it's churning out so many ideas that the quartet is in danger of drowning in them.
The Irrepassable Gate is an ambitious but very uneven record; it takes a lot of risks, and not all of them pay off. 'Grey Marrow', for example, awkwardly transposes dreary, fairly rudimentary post-metal trappings with shrill Transylvanian Hunger-style tremolo riffs without really managing to coalesce the two in a very satisfying way. The next song however, 'Rotten Firmament', is arguably one of the band's finest compositions to date, managing to drift between yearning, hypnotic melancholia and the kind of utterly furious, filthy black thrash assault that would have Aura Noir themselves banging along with delight, without losing the potency or momentum of either segment. It's in these looser, more aggressive moments that The Irrepassable Gate really shines, which may seem a little odd coming from a band that has become widely regarded for their sweeping, introspective epics, but is perhaps unsurprising given the filthier sounds of the Vrasubatlat roster – you can definitely hear elements of Triumvir Foul's sickly, Autopsy-indebted churn in 'Lacerated Spirit' for instance, albeit painted in icier tones. The vocals too have undergone a big change from Ash Borer's previous records and may take some getting used to, now resembling Aaron Turner bellowing at you over a particularly bad phone line rather than the more traditional black metal shriek.
It's difficult not to feel a bit disappointed by The Irrepassable Gate's inconsistent approach and somewhat stunted flow, but it's a record that's still worth persevering with; many of its intricacies won't reveal themselves on the first few listens, and its fleeting moments of genius are, well, just that – genius. Sure, it's a bit cluttered and may not be the definitive high water mark many were hoping for, but the band's ambition, scope and refusal to toe the line are still commendable, and for that reason, it's worth taking the time to digest.
Urfaust- Empty Space Meditation
The new Urfaust, on the other hand? Holy shit, make sure you're not driving or operating any heavy machinery the first time you listen to this one. This is the most intoxicating, engaging and powerful recording these two have ever made. The Dutch duo have always been one of those “love 'em or hate 'em” kind of bands, with the raw, harsh minimalism of 2004 debut Geist Ist Teufel and sparse ambient soundscapes of 2005's Verräterischer, Nichtswürdiger Geist combined with guitarist IX's unique, almost operatic wail and ear-splitting shriek proving as enrapturing to some as it did repulsive to others. Their third and last album, 2010's Der Freiwillige Bettler, found the perfect balance between their first two records and hinted at even more evocative and bizarre places the pair could take their unusual style of black metal. Since then, Urfaust have been experimenting further on various splits, live releases and EPs (including last year's largely ambient 44 minute Apparitions) and it's evidently done them a world of good as Empty Space Meditations is everything you could want from a follow-up and more, taking all the elements and most successful experiments from previous records and building their most imaginative, well-written and fully realised album yet.
After 'Meditatum I' sets the scene with sheets of sensual ambience, the glorious strains of 'Meditatum II's screaming, cosmic guitar wails come roaring into view, backed by a wall of intensely passionate blastbeats from drummer VRDRBR and IX's heroic, soaring voice. '…III' dips back into dense waves of droning, Burzum-ic riffs, whilst '…V's uneasy, paranoid lurch and greasy, pulsating guitar is as close as black metal comes to space rock; the missing link between Darkthrone and Hawkwind, if you will. The whole album flows beautifully as a single piece, knowing exactly when to ramp up the intensity and when to ease off for maximum impact, the song writing is great, the riffs are killer, the production is so rich and layered… Seriously, I can't say enough good things about this; if you're already a fan of the band, you're going to love it, and if you could never quite get into them beforehand, this could well be the one to make it finally all click into place. If you only buy one atmospheric black metal album this year, make it this one.
Let It Die - The Liar And The Saint
From one highly anticipated album to another, although you may not be as familiar with this band if you don't have your ear pressed to the UK's grind/hardcore underground. You really, really fucking should be though, especially if you're still bummed out that Nails are no more; dry your eyes, stop moping that 'you'll never be one of them' and take solace in the fact that you can still watch this arguably superior band playing this excellent album live for a fraction of the price. Silver clouds and all that, eh?
So, for the uninitiated, Kettering's Let It Die are a three-piece in the classic Pig Destroyer sense, composed of just vocals, guitar and drums, sitting somewhere between the grinding intensity of Nails, the ferocious HM2 driven pulse of Trap Them and the collective sense of downtrodden misery and righteous, barbed anger that runs through English grindcore like sugary shit in a stick of rock. They put out a great demo in 2011, followed it up with an even better seven-inch in 2012 and a cripplingly heavy split with sludgy duo Monolithian in 2013, and have spent the years since knuckling down to record this monster of a debut album, in between blowing minds, perforating ear drums and breaking teeth every time they play live, of course.
Despite its title, the slow, creeping chords and cumbersome heft of opener 'Release' does a damn good job of building tension before the band unleash a volley of minute long blasts of anger like 'One Hundred Days', the astonishingly lethal 'Take All The Heads Of The People, And Hang Them Up Before The Lord Against The Sun' and 'Dysphoria', which comes complete with lightspeed blastbeats and wild Slayer-esque solos. Even on the first listen, it's apparent that 'The Liar And The Saint' flows brilliantly and has clearly been sequenced with the two sides of a vinyl record in mind – amidst all the razor sharp speed, songs like 'Oderint Dum Metuant' and the catastrophically heavy closer 'Heaven & The Eternity Of Tears (Part 2)' drop the pace to bash overwhelmingly nasty riffs into your skull with frightening efficiency, bookending the brutality quite neatly. Tighter, meaner and heavier than their previous output, this is Let It Die's crowning moment thus far, and probably one of the most cathartic, intense and well written hardcore albums of the year, beating the aforementioned Trap Them and Nails at their own game and then some.
Krypts - Remnants Of Expansion
Just like the particular sound Norwegian black metal has, or the industrial clamour lurking beneath Birmingham's metal exports, there's a very distinct, peculiar aura that seems to surround Finnish death metal, with bands like Demilich, Convulse, Rippikoulu and Abhorrence all producing thick, twisted and sinister takes on the genre back in the mid-'90s. Krypts' first demo dropped in 2009, around the same time the country also gave us the likes of Swallowed and Solothus, and it's tempting to view them as something of a second coming for Finnish death metal. The problem with doing things like that, though, is it's easy to overlook the unique personalities of bands when grouping them together into neat little movements for the sake of introductory paragraphs in metal columns, so let's just say that though Krypts possess neither the hysterical, feral lunacy of Swallowed or fantastical, theatrical aloofness of Solothus, they do just fine with their own no-bullshit brand of dank, subterranean murk, thank you very much.
Remnants Of Expansion is even doomier than its predecessor, 2013's debut full-length Unending Degradation, with the colossal ten minute opener 'Arrow Of Entropy' instantly conjuring a fantastically moribund atmosphere as plaintive, detuned chords hang over wonky Thergothon style leads like thick, black clouds. Despite this, it's also a much punchier record too, wrapping things up within 33 minutes flat and not once feeling rushed or unfinished. Songs like 'The Withering Titan' and 'Entrailed To The Breaking Wheel' offer up some truly punishing blasts, the latter's rolling double-bass grooves especially recalling the ominous, dark majesty of fellow countrymen Demigod's classic Slumber Of Sullen Eyes's opus, whilst closer 'Transfixed' does exactly what it says on the tin, catching you under its spell with dusky great mounds of distortion and spine chilling leads. It's a darker, more mature, well paced and cavernously inviting album all round really, and highly recommended if you dig this type of doom-laden death metal.
Venom Prison - Animus
Speaking of both hardcore and death metal, the fusion of the two has proved to be notoriously difficult to pull off over the years (just cast your ear back over the last decade of piss poor deathcore acts if you don't believe us), but UK quintet Venom Prison have pretty much nailed it on their debut album Animus. Musically, the most obvious reference point here is Dying Fetus, with guitarists Ash Grey and Ben Thomas' trading off blisteringly technical fretboard workouts and blunt, palm-muted and unstoppably chunky breakdowns in a ferocious manner on tracks like 'Abysmal Agony' and 'Devoid', reeking of the Maryland bruisers in their prime. Elsewhere, the pulverising chug of 'Corrode The Black Sun' fuses huge, rolling Malevolent Creation-esque riffs with Madball's muscular swing, and the twisted, technical melodicism of tracks like 'Celestial Patricide' recall latter-day Suffocation. Vocalist Larissa Stupar's impassioned roar and piercing shrieks help to distinguish the band from legions of cookie cutter Cookie Monster clones, and her lyrical themes of enacting revenge on rapists provide a welcome relief from the casual misogyny of contemporary death metal without skimping on any of that gory nastiness that you sick fucks get off on.
Death metal and hardcore fans can be infamously tribal in their tastes, but Animus is such a well-crafted and enthusiastically heavy record that it feels like it'll appeal just as much to your bitter old death metal elitist as it will your fresh-faced, spin-kicking hardcore kid. With no shortage of killer riffs, interestingly structured songs and bits that make your brain shout “OH SHIT” and instil an overwhelming desire to flip your desk over, punch your boss in the face and leap out of the nearest window cackling with deranged glee, Venom Prison have hit a home-run with this one.
Enslaved - The Sleeping Gods – Thorn
It may not be a particularly popular opinion round these parts, but this jaded hack can't help but feel that the last few Enslaved albums have sounded a bit too safe for their own good. Both 2012's RIITIIR and last year's In Times were perfectly functional records, but felt as though the Norwegian quintet had settled into a comfortable little rut and were content to stay there. It was a bit strange to see so much praise lavished on these – let's be honest here – comparatively boring records given the band's reputation for pushing the envelope and expanding their sound, especially as the two limited EPs that had preceded these albums in 2011 contained some of their best material to date. The Sleeping Gods was originally released as a free download via that short lived Scion Audio Visual imprint (what ever happened to that? Did Scion finally cotton on that giving a bunch of unemployed, pot smoking hessians a steady stream of admittedly excellent free records probably wasn't the best way to sell cars? Oh well, it was fun while it lasted), and Thorn was pressed as a limited run of 1000 seven-inches via Soulseller Records, and both of them find the band taking greater liberties with their sound and experimenting in all manner of weird of wonderful ways. Hopefully ByNorse's re-release of these two forgotten gems on a convenient single disc will bring them the kudos they deserve, but who knows, the metal press will probably still be too busy jerking the last few drops out of their flaccid flesh trinkets over Metallica's latest mid-life crisis to care. Clueless bastards…
Ahem, anyway, of the two EPs on offer here, The Sleeping Gods is the most substantial, offering five tracks in just under half an hour. Opener 'Heimvegen' feels like classic Enslaved, with fantastically emotive riffing and stronger vocal melodies than the last two records combined, but things just get weirder from that point onwards. 'Alu Misyrki' is the most energetic they've sounded in years, marrying rambunctious Hellhammer-isms and croaking, whiskey drenched vocals with widescreen, Rush aping theatrics, whilst 'Synthesis' delves deep into luscious, Tangerine Dream style keys and futuristic synth arpeggios, and 'Nordlys' combines their distinctively Scandinavian use of melody with the kind of bonkers, free-wheeling instrumental fervour that defined Lark's Tongues In Aspic era King Crimson. The title track closes the EP on a curious note, with dramatic, climactic tom fills providing a foundation for stirring Wardruna-esque chants and forlorn, windswept keys to whisk the listener away into a blissful reverie. Thorn, meanwhile, dishes out two songs in the space of ten minutes and takes us right back to the early '90s, with their hazy production, hypnotic basslines, rasped vocals, mournful keyboards and distorted, dissonant riffs strongly recalling the band's earliest works, like their split with Emperor. Rather than a quick exercise in nostalgia, however, these two cuts manage to find the perfect middle ground between the band's recent sound, their grimmer early days and more contemporary lo-fi black metal – the bleak keys on 'Striker' could have come straight off a Xasthur record, for example. Don't write this off as a set of mere studio off-cuts and B-sides, as these two releases represent Enslaved at their most adventurous, daring and imaginative.
Anaal Nathrakh - The Whole Of The Law
On the subject of bands falling victim to their own formula, it pains me to say it, but our beloved Anaal Nathrakh seemed to have been treading water ever since the unbelievably harsh In The Constellation Of The Black Widow in 2009. That album seemed like a perfect combination of The Codex Necro's bile drenched vitriol and the soaring melodic choruses and more conventional song structures they'd been playing with since 2006's Eschaton, but the records that followed didn't really expand on that sound much at all, representing a slide into complacency that culminated in 2014's decidedly underwhelming Desideratum.
Thankfully, ninth full-length The Whole Of The Law has enough piss and vinegar to make up for it; 'Depravity Favours The Bold' makes that clear from the get-go, based around an incessant operatic sample that remorselessly drills into your brain as the band unleash some of their filthiest riffs in years. That apocalyptic quality and overpowering sense of complete and utter fucking chaos is back, and it doesn't let up. 'And You Will Beg For Our Secrets', for example, has the same abrasive wall-of-sound quality that made their early albums such a mindfuck, building to an almost unbearable level before lapsing into spine-tingling Emperor-esque licks. Meanwhile, the excellently titled 'Hold Your Children Close And Pray For Oblivion' trades grinding From Enslavement To Obliteration style riffs off against pounding gabber beats as Dave Hunt vomits up his spleen, demonstrating some of his gnarliest, most tortured screams yet. This cold, electronic undercurrent seems to run throughout the album, bubbling up to the surface on songs like the punishing cyber-grind of 'The Great Spectator' and the demented, glitchy 'In Flagrante Delicto', which bounces menacing downtuned chugs against stuttering mechanical belches while Hunt lacerates his vocal chords over the top. Indeed, his repertoire of vocal styles just seems to increase with age, and he's on fine form on this record. In 'Extravaganza!', he alternates between guttural roars, King Diamond aping falsetto and a kind of histrionic baritone wail, reminiscent of some of Bethlehem's weirder vocal moments, before indulging in some truly demonic cackling on the disgustingly heavy 'On Being A Slave'.
The Whole Of The Law sits precariously on that precipice between stirring melody and outright brutality that made Constellation such a thrill ride, and whilst it doesn't exactly reinvent the band's formula, it does manage to subvert it in a number of interesting ways. Not only that, but it all seems to be performed with more passion and intensity than the last few records combined, making the band sound properly dangerous again. It won't scramble your mind to quite the same extent that The Codex Necro did all those years ago, but it will remind you exactly why you fell in love with this band in the first place.
40 Watt Sun - Wider Than The Sky
After all that racket, let's end with a record that could be the 'lightest' you'll find in this column all year. Well, light on a purely sonic level, of course, as the emotional weight of this thing is as heavy as ever. If you've had the pleasure of seeing 40 Watt Sun at any point over the last few years, you'll know that the band has replaced the cavernous walls of distorted guitar of their debut The Inside Room (and indeed, vocalist/guitarist Patrick Walker's previous band Warning) with a gentler, more stripped down semi-acoustic vibe, so it should come as no surprise that Wider Than The Sky follows suit, with an airy, largely undistorted guitar tone throughout. Whilst this may be a little off-putting initially, as that dense, humongous sound seemed to be something Patrick really excelled at, the more you listen to these songs, the harder it becomes to imagine them backed by that usual blaring fuzz, as tracks like touching 16 minute opener 'Stages' are granted substantial room to breathe and evolve in this form.
Patrick's beautiful, heartfelt voice is sounding more expressive and versatile than ever too, especially on the breath-taking centrepiece 'Another Room', and is obviously one of the album's biggest highlights. Patrick's music is often described as having this tangible feeling of sadness to it, and whilst that's certainly true, to categorise Wider Than The Sky as just a “sad” record would be to do it a massive disservice. In a recent Terrorizer interview, Patrick claimed that “there are certain experiences and times in our lives where we cannot, and need not, distinguish between those feelings of great pain or sadness and those of love and peace and deep happiness,” and that quote speaks volumes about the wealth of different yet interconnected emotional shades on this album. Sure, the aforementioned 'Another Room' hangs heavy with a deep, palpable melancholy, but there's a cautiously optimistic and curiously elated vibe to songs like the breezy 'Pictures', whilst the plaintive chords of 'Craven Road' drift between a profound sense of weariness and the warm nostalgic glow of good times passed. Maybe this is just my own unstable mental state talking, but it's an album that will speak to you just as much when listened to in the grips of a deep depression as it will in times of joyous, nostalgic bliss, and writing music with that kind of multi-faceted catharsis is enormously hard to pull off. For that reason, even though nothing here really matches the same immediate gut-punch feeling of Watching From A Distance, it's still tempting to conclude that this is Mr. Walker's most mature, nuanced set of songs to date.
With its lighter tone, Wider Than The Sky feels like the perfect counterpoint to the doom-laden The Inside Room, the two albums representing two sides of the same coin, but it'll be interesting to see where the band goes from here. Given the band's recent live activity, it may have felt like Patrick had turned his back on that more distorted sound for good, but the recent news that he's reforming Warning for next year's Roadburn Festival would suggest there's life in those tube amps yet. Time will tell if he'll get his louder kicks from Warning and continue with this softer sound for 40 Watt Sun, but it feels like if he could combine the two sounds for album number three, we'd have something absolutely incredible on our hands.
Mammoth Weed Wizard Bastard – Y Proffwyd Dwyll
(New Heavy Sounds)
It may be too early to call it a sound, unlike the Sun Studios sound or more apt for this column, the Sunlight Studios sound, but the Skyhammer Studios sound is coming into its own. As a producer, Chris Fielding, who has twiddled knobs for Primordial, Electric Wizard and Winterfylleth, launched the Cheshire studio in 2013 and from there the UK has seen its crushing, crashing, sludgy doom scene assemble through the racket of Conan, Slomatics, Boss Keloid, Bast and Elder Druid. So when New Heavy Sounds announced they'd signed a band called Mammoth Weed Wizard Bastard, who had recorded their debut album Noeth Ac Anoeth at Skyhammer, excuse us while we presumed it would be business as usual.
Our teachers told us not to judge a book by its cover, and with that in mind we should not judge a band by its name. Come on, now. It is a really silly name. And with so much samey sludge coming out of that sub-universe of UK doom, we forgive ourselves the gargantuan mistake. The Welsh band may as well rename themselves Virgin's Entrails or Goatpriestfucker for just how unlike their sound their name is. Their sound is mammoth, we'll give them that, but it's not stoner, it's not occult and they don't seem like horrid people either. With new album Y Proffwyd Dwyll out now it's clear that the foundation of MWWB is crushing doom, but it's bolstered by hypnotic swirls of synth-laden space dust drawing on as much Hawkwind as Delia Derbyshire. But it's the Elizabeth Fraser, Hope Sandoval, Miranda Sex Garden vocals of Jessica Ball that make the band stand miles apart from their peers. Make the band stand miles apart from all other doom bands in the UK at the moment. Make the band stand miles apart from all other doom bands in the world at the moment. Y Proffwyd Dwyll is as much a surprise as it is unpronounceable. Truly stunning. Louise Brown
Red Fang – Only Ghosts
A new Red Fang album is a reason for a party. The stoned/drunk/bit of both Portlanders have been slogging it out in vans and in studios since 2005 and along with The Sword, High On Fire, Kylesa and Torche have become the vanguards of the new wave of American doom. 2013's Whales & Leeches was a breakthrough album of sorts and saw the band playing to ever-growing crowds and nestled among the pages of magazines who would earlier assign to them that vanity column for weird bands. Only Ghosts is the next logical step, it's the album that will get them sought after support slots with bands that play Wembley or higher up the bill at the type of festival that's sponsored by an energy drink. The album is a familiar quandary where a band you love are on the cusp of becoming as popular as they deserve but you also wish they still played pub back rooms. It all makes sense when you find out Ross Robinson is behind the production on this one, but once you know that all you can hear is the Korn-eqsue cymbal ride, the early Deftones whispering vocals that makes you imagine guys with small plaits doing that head-grab dance they did at sticky floored clubs circa 1999, the Fear Factory-esque pummelling. Not that it sounds like those bands, it sounds like Red Fang. You just think it does because Ross Robinson is some looming spectre over your most regretful music obsessions of the '90s. Forget he's responsible for the band's biggest sounding album of their career and it's still those same loveable stoner rogues we've loved since 'Prehistoric Dog'. They just sound a bit more like they deserve those magazine covers they should be getting any day soon. Louise Brown