Columnus Metallicus: February's Heavy Metal By Pavel Godfrey
, March 6th, 2017 09:23
Pavel Godfrey is back rounding up Jan and Feb's best and most brutal metal from the likes of Immolation, Wiegedood and Horn
It’s a weird late winter in southeastern Michigan. It was almost T-shirt weather for a week, and then last night we had violent thunderstorms. Today it was warm again, but the wind was wild, and massive black clouds raced overhead. Then the temperature dropped, hard, and it started snowing. In short, we’re getting apocalypse weather. It’s certainly been ideal for writing about metal.
This column is long overdue, for which I apologise. As some small compensation for the delay, I’ve considered new releases from the past two months (and one from March) in greater detail than usual, and included an appendix of cool stuff I wish I had been able to cover. It’d be silly of me to pretend my instalments of this column aren’t heavily skewed towards black metal, which creeps into eight out of ten of my choices in one way or another, but if anything these albums reveal just how much the genre has proliferated in recent years – its transformation into sounds that bear no outward resemblance to 'I Am The Black Wizards', and its outsize influence on the shape of extreme metal in general. At the same time, I’m still interested in the question I raised in my year-end death metal roundup: Where do we go now that the “caverncore” sound, with its diffuse ambient gurglings, has gurgled its last? How can death metal bands escape the revivalist confines of “old-school death metal” while affirming everything that made the genre so crushing and exciting in the first place? I want to start, though, by featuring the promising afterlife of one of black metal’s least promising mutations.
When I was first getting into black metal, around 2007-8, tastemakers hailed a new generation of bands that were supposed to save the genre from itself – by hybridising it with cooler, less scary styles of art-rock (post-punk, post-rock, shoegaze, etc.). From Wolves In The Throne Room’s New Age take on Weakling and Liturgy’s Hans-Zimmer-with-blastbeats shtick, the new sound “evolved” into DFHVN’s painfully affected sincerity and Ghost Bath’s sugary pop-punk clichés. Somewhere along the way, this tendency calcified into the formulaic style known as “post-black.” We were plied with talk about originality and innovation, but what we got was clumsy pastiche. Eventually, peopled cottoned on to the fact that all this stuff sounded like a mellower version of 90s/early 00s screamo.
But maybe the prophets of the post-black got it right, if not quite in the way they expected. One of my favourite belated discoveries last year was the Netherlands’ Terzij De Horde, a band whom I had more or less ignored when I was stubbornly turning my nose up at anything “post-.” TDH wear their screamo influence on their sleeves, but for them, screamo is a branch of hardcore, and they use it to make some of most ferocious, texturally sophisticated black metal going. With my mind ripped open by TDH’s Self, I took an interest in a pair of new albums from the burgeoning scenes of the Low Countries – Ons Vrije Fatum, by Laster, countrymen and fellow-travelers of Terzij De Horde, and De Doden Hebben Het Goed II, by Belgium’s Wiegedood. There’s a musical as well geographical affinity – both bands have some connection to the post-black sound, and both have found a way to overcome its limitations. But they’re moving in opposite directions.
Laster - Ons Vrije Fatum
With Ons Vrije Fatum, Laster place black metal technique at the service of ideas from post-punk lineage. What emerges isn’t metal, nor is it “black,” but it is strikingly original, emotionally rich guitar music. Laster explore poignant, even tender moods without lapsing into sentimentality. There’s always the feeling that everyday life is poised on the edge of something stranger, darker, vaster. In that sense, it’s akin to Chameleons’ Script Of The Bridge, which might’ve provided some raw material for Laster’s riffing style. They come closest to this kind of straightforward post-punk with the jangling verse riff of “Bitterzoet” (“Bittersweet,” I’m guessing), which alternates with catchy kosmische synth runs. But by the end of the track it’s the tendency to expansion that wins out. The rock song falls away, and we’re left following shimmering lead lines as they wheel and turn around one another like the floating dancers on the album cover. If this is the weirdly perky “hit single,” then the album-opening title track, with its grunts and gang vocals, and the penultimate song, “De roes na,” with its huge double-bass drumming, show the more forceful side of Laster – black-metalised screamo that forms a more sensitive counterpart to Terzij De Horde.
Like Sonic Youth and Drudkh, both strong influences here, Laster have their own harmonic vocabulary, a set of complex, dissonance-laced chords that allow them to create a distinctive emotional space. I should say spaces, because this album doesn’t stay put. Instead, it has a cinematic movement, traversing a modern cityscape while continually shifting between the inner life of the alienated individual and the impersonal workings of Fate. My favorite track, 'Binnenstebuiten' seems to wallow in introspection – searching leads collapse into mangled breakdowns, as the vocalist passes from solemn intonation to schizophrenic howls in a way that recalls Sweden’s vastly underrated Lifelover. It’s cut short by a stern, stammering groove that could’ve come from Interpol’s Turn On The Bright Lights. Then the groove sputters to an end, only to be reborn as a soaring, melancholy tremolo melody. The blastbeats hit like the beating of mighty wings, and it’s one of those rare moments when music really feels like flying. We’re still in the city, but Laster shows it to us in the way that black metal shows us the sublime and terrible forces of Nature.
Wiegedood - De Doden Hebben Het Goed II
Wiegedood deal exclusively with those sublime and terrible forces, and their uttermost effect on us – death. This band is a trio whose members also play in sludge heavyweights Amenra and the post-black/hardcore band Oathbreaker. On their debut, De Doden Hebben Het Goed I(2015), Wiegedood had already developed a massive, storming sound rooted in Ukrainian bands like Hate Forest, Astrofaes, and Drudkh, colored by post-rock’s flair for the cinematic and screamo’s desperate passion.
De Doden Hebben Het Goed II is clearly the work of the same band, but here they fully commit to black metal. Everything is grimmer, more furious, and extremely fucking fast. It sounds as if the guitarists have gone down to the proverbial crossroads. I imagine them out there on the wind-blasted marshes and dunes, offering up their souls to the Black One and receiving, in return, a fistful of Gorgoroth riffs. The intricate melodies that crown opener 'Ontzieling' and closer 'Smeekbede' are some of the best lead lines I’ve heard in years, while the rolling 6/8 attack of the title track recalls the most Evil moments of Under The Sign Of Hell. This grandiose, technically demanding Norwegian sound has become really “uncool” over the last decade, so it’s jaw-dropping to hear a band that has fully absorbed all the recent developments in the genre returning to the spirit of the early/mid-90s with such commitment and skill.
Despite embracing the high drama and balls-out aggression of the Second Wave, Wiegedood remain committed to minimalism and atmosphere as the foundation of their songwriting. My favorite track, 'Cataract' showcases their mastery of the holy grail of black metal – the Infinite Riff, a riff so well constructed and so self-sufficient that it can repeat almost without limit. The track rises up out of ambient landscape into a majestic chord progression that loops and builds for a full three minutes. And yet if it weren’t for the track listing, I’d think was the end of something, an extended coda like Drudkh’s 'Ukrainian Insurgent Army'. Its sense of finality pushes it ahead, into a false lull, from which the real song explodes. The root pattern, sliding minor chords over a drone, twists itself into two more riffs, each an intensification of what came before. This whole process is really just another Infinite Riff, cresting in a convulsive “chorus” where Seynaeve’s vocals hit with a frantic, stabbing attack. Then it fades out, into an ambient synth wash. People often talk about fade-outs as cop-outs, as failures to end a song properly, but for Wiegedood, as for Hate Forest, the fade-out is the door to eternity. The Riff has emerged and now it recedes, falling back below the audible threshold, where it cycles onward endlessly.
Hymn – Perish
The most impressive debut full-length I’ve heard over the last couple months belongs, without a doubt, to the Norwegian duo Hymn. Hymn play sludge metal so massive and elemental that it seems to ring out from the mountaintops and echo through the fjords. They’re aiming at nothing less than greatness, and they already call to mind titans like High On Fire, Neurosis, and Bongripper. Like all these bands, Hymn understand how to play slow without sacrificing riff power or momentum. 'Rise' opens with a barbarous flourish straight out of Death Is This Communion, but, as with many great riffs, this is just an excuse to do one of the heaviest things possible – smash the lowest power-chord on the guitar over and over again. Drummer Markus Støle nows how to pile on weight behind these repetitions, giving them that crucial sense of forward motion.
Perish really does evoke the harsh natural beauty of Norway, in part because Hymn pay homage to the Norwegian black metal tradition – from a respectful distance. Just as they avoid the slack stasis of so much doomy music, they steer clear of the “blackened sludge” gimmick, with its rasped vocals and third-hand Darkthrone riffs. They understand the Norse legacy not as a bag of clichés to throw around, but as a holistic vision to be folded into their own. By progressively raising the level of grimness, they give Perish an overarching narrative feel. On 'Rise', a brief flurry of blastbeats foreshadows what is to come. On “Serpent,” the shadows lengthen, and we hear that Ole Rokseth’s relatively “cold” guitar tone is matched by his penchant for dark and melancholy riff-shapes. The tension builds until the midpoint of 'Spectre', when Hymn finally kick into an honest-to-goodness Norwegian black metal riff, a gorgeous melodic theme that wouldn’t sound out of place on a Trelldom or Taake album. They don’t let it go, but rework it with the rhythm of a sludge breakdown, and it’s here, suddenly, that you can see them on the mountaintop, rocking out like Abbath.
Horn - Turm Am Hang
Unlike most black metal frontmen, who strain their voices attempting “clean vocals”, Horn’s sole member Nerrath is a full-voiced, powerful singer. From the exuberant, Romantic black metal of Jahreszeiten and Die Kraft Der Szenarien, Horn has grown ever darker, but also increasingly direct and accessible, finding its center in Nerrath’s natural lyricism. He writes guitar parts as singable, earthy melodies, and composes in terms of whole songs rather than riffs. On Turm Am Hang (Tower On The Hillside), this approach has ripened into a muscular, brooding style of folk music suited for our fallen modern age.
Indeed, everything about this record speaks of ripeness, of readiness for the harvest. The opening track, 'Alles In Einem Schnitt' (All In One Cut), uses a signature Horn riff to introduce the album’s protagonist, the figure of der schnitter (“the reaper”). Nerrath’s direct source material is 'Es Is Ein Schnitter', a ballad of the Thirty Years’ War, but this image has much deeper roots in Germanic mythology, as the figure for both the hero – the harvester of foes – and his harvester, the death-god Odin.
Over the years, Nerrath has built up a set of fundamental themes or stem melodies, which he reworks obsessively, and here he reaps the fruits of his labour. Where previously they’ve sounded playful or wistful or troubled, on Turm Am Hang they erupt in the triumphant, martial forms typical of pagan black metal. For instance, when the stomping march of 'Verhallend In Landstrichen' drops out and a faint melody comes wafting in, anyone who’s heard some Horn before will recognize it as “that riff,” and when the blastbeats hit, the effect is breathtaking.
Death Worship - Extermination Mass
(Nuclear War Now!)
Pretty much any new release from the Canadian war metal scene is worthy of note, but the debut EP by Death Worship is especially important, because it sees the reunion of the core lineup of the legendary Conqueror. Taking the black/death primitivism of Blasphemy to one of its possible conclusions, Conqueror developed a kind of abstract noise-metal. R. Förster wrote riffs that worked less as melodies than as means of generating dense, shrieking, high-end fuzz, while J. Read hammered this racket into a definite form with his virtuosically unhinged drumming and maniacal vocals. At their apex in the late 90s, they were one of the most extreme and inaccessible metal bands ever to exist, inspiring numerous less talented imitators.
Death Worship is clearly the sound of RF and JR paying tribute to Blasphemy, but it’s not an attempt to replicate the churning murk of Fallen Angel Of Doom. Rather, this sounds a lot more like Blasphemy’s second album, Gods Of War, which brought the blasted riffs into sharper relief and changed them up with more grooving midtempo sections. While Death Worship are certainly not as seminal, avant-garde, or unhinged as Blasphemy in their heyday, they have the benefit of hindsight in several crucial ways. First, they’ve heightened the aggression by incorporating the scornful, hissed vocals and blistering speed of J. Read’s post-Conqueror band Revenge. Second, they’ve recorded the guitars and a bass with a huge, blown-out low end that doesn’t fade into a blur at high tempos. This means that when J. Read unleashes his battering half-time blastbeats, as in the middle of 'Evocation Chamber', each unison strike of guitar and drums hits like a punch to the gut. Third, after years exploring every possible permutation of the war metal sound, RF and JR approach Death Worship with masterful, subgenre-specific songcraft. While these are the same kind of riffs that Revenge, Conqueror, and Blasphemy have always played, they are simply better – more detailed, more memorable, and more fluidly arranged. For instance, the mutant speed metal riffs of Gods Of War find their apotheosis in the whiplash patterns of 'Holocaust Altar' and 'Superion Rising', The most memorable single song, though, is probably 'Desolation Summoning', which introduces its chorus as a strutting midtempo mosh riff only to bring it back, after massive escalation, as a triumphant, downward-scything tremolo riff. They fake an ending, and then a squalling pick slide unleashes an abominable caveman assault.
Sanguine Eagle/Oppression – S/T split
(House of First Light)
In my year-end column for 2016, I hailed Sanguine Eagle’s raggedly regal Individuation demo as a substantial release in its own right, and with this split they continue the march towards their debut full-length, due later this year. Their contribution is a single fifteen-minute track with a suitably epic title, 'A Vision of Supremacy Cast Upon Shango’s Hammer'. Even as they embrace a grand scale, Sanguine Eagle begin to work at a new level of detail, rendered audible by (relatively) clear production. Where their influences from the infamous Blazebirth Hall scene tend to have two settings, “epic” and/or “wrathful,” Sanguine Eagle speak a complex harmonic language that allows for a fuller spectrum of feeling. And where it often sounds like the BBH bands are just making shit up, improvising arbitrary streams of tremolo riffing that serve only to carry guitar tone, 'A Vision Of Supremacy' is carefully composed, building to a glorious plateau at the seven minute mark before sweeping away into a dreamy mid-tempo section and an ambient outro that recaps some of their major themes.
Where Individuation explored a mystical practice called “storm mysticism” now Sanguine Eagle evoke the presence at the eye of the storm. Shango is the Yoruba god of thunder, his cult carried to the Caribbean in Santeria and Voodoo. Although I wouldn’t want to force too close a parallel between distinct strains of paganism, it’s pretty clear that Shango the hammer-wielder does for Sanguine Eagle what Thor/Perun does for the Teutonic and Slavonic strains of black metal.
Given that this is a metal column and I’m already pressed for space, I have to short Montreal’s Oppression, but this is a shame because their “martial punk” is excellent, and well-paired with Sanguine Eagle. Basically, imagine raw melodic black metal riffing, already heavily influenced by stompy Oi!, filtering back into a punk format. The vocals alternate between snarls and the sullen, almost mumbled cleans of French coldwave. This is intensely Gallic music, stirring and passionate despite its deliberately wonky delivery. 'Sang Et Bottes' (Blood And Boots) is my favourite title, but 'Je Serai Ton Pire Enemi' (I Will Be Your Worst Enemy) is a fucking anthem.
Kav – Chattering Medicine
(Pale Horse Recordings)
Florida’s Kav are the anti-caverncore. That is, Kav plays highly atmospheric black/death metal strongly influenced by Incantation – as do the caverncore bands – and yet takes this aesthetic in precisely the opposite direction of the dominant trend. Where bands like Grave Upheaval use reverb to fill all the available space with riffless, viscous guitar tone, Kav use it to indicate a negative space surrounding vital, memorable riffs. You can hear it at the beginning of “Chattering Medicine,” when the guitarist tremolo picks a single dissonant chord, generating pure buzz and hum, like echoes ringing off the walls of the proverbial cavern. The drums start up, stop, start up again, and then the song comes spilling into life, almost against its will. For death metal of this variety, the guitar tone is thin, even ghostly, but the riffs are propulsive and clearly defined in a way that caverncore never is. Like the drums, you can hear the guitar lines rushing through the “middle” of the ringing void, lonely and frail but hungry for blood. Throughout the EP, the clarity and detail of the tremolo riffs a lot to early Morbid Angel, while their primitive aggression conjures Profanatica and Von. The vocals shift between low rasps and more bestial growls, and, like the guitars, have a definite and rhythmic quality sorely lacking on other works of Incantation worship.
While the blastbeat attacks of the title track and frantic album closer 'The Rajmata And The Noose' offer a strong rejoinder to caverncore, it’s the slower parts that offer a visceral enjoyment and memorability rare in today’s avant-death metal. 'Weathering Vicissitude' is a lovely instrumental diversion into melancholy melodic black/death, a little like Vanhelgd’s massive Temple Of Phobos. My favourite track, though, is 'Indecipherable Scripts'. Here, Kav just works it out, steamrollering from one pit riff to the next. While most of these ideas are rooted in old school death metal, the influence of modern brutal death and beatdown hardcore is working just under the surface, and erupts in the knuckle-dragging slam that closes out the track. Overall, this EP is characterised by a weird blend of high entertainment value and survival-instinct paranoia, like Florida Man climbing out his window naked, with a shotgun, and running for miles across suburban lawns.
Tomb Mold – Primordial Malignity
When my buddy told me to check out Toronto’s newcomers Tomb Mold for some excellent Finnish death metal worship, I expected something like the somber, elegant riffage on Slumber Of Sullen Eyes. My first impression was very different. I remember being dizzied by the onslaught of abrasive riffs, and asking myself “Am I getting too old for this shit?” In retrospect, that’s a compliment. Tomb Mold attack with a wild excess of energy, cramming ornate technical gestures into impossibly tight spaces, which places them closer to the likes of Adramelech. They open the album with a bewildering maze of leads that wouldn’t be out of place on Psychostasia, but somehow turn it into a thrash riff, locked in over a ripping 1-2 beat. This album is filled with imaginative, detail-rich versions of driving, straight-ahead death metal riffs, like the crazed chromatic runs that open 'Clockwise Metamorphosis', trading off with weighty breakdowns. This hyperactive collision of intricacy and speed, each feeding into the other, sets Tomb Mold apart from the legions content to wallow in effects-pedal atmosphere or, on the other hand, to settle back into the comforting pocket of the Swedeath d-beat.
But those foolish enough to seek the more atmospheric side of Finnish death metal will find it here, too. 'Coincidence Of Opposites' starts out with crushing high-speed attack in the vein of Into The Grave, only to drop into quarter-time, building into a set of megalithic chug riffs that evoke Adramelech’s visions of Assyrian and Egyptian gods. On 'Merciless Watcher', the album’s turning point, Tomb Mold breathe deep and let their riffs flow with the unhurried, Cyclopean power of Demigod, eventually blossoming into malevolent melody.
Förgjord – Uhripuu
(Hell’s Headbangers / Werewolf Records)
Aside from Behexen’s crushing return to form – which I heard too late to year-end – the Finnish black metal underground was pretty quiet last year. But now there are stirrings, shadows rising in the north. One of the strongest new releases comes from Förgjord, whose 2008 debut, Ajasta Ikuisuuteen, established them as relative outliers within a fiercely traditionalist scene. Förgjord crafted dissonant, atmospheric riffs that evoked death metal and deathrock, working them into unpredictable song structures. Their link to other Finnish black metal bands had more to do with their punkish attack and hissing in-the-red production. On Uhripuu, they moved closer to their countrymen without surrendering the darkness and weirdness that makes them distinctive.
The title track revolves around the kind of charging, tragic-heroic folk riff that you might find in Satanic Warmaster or Vitsaus, but plays it against nasty powerchord blasting. Although they know the value of speed, Förgjord tend to favour stomping mid-tempo punk beats, as on 'Kuolleiden Yö'. Rather than dialling in the standard “raw production”, they consciously use every instrument as a noise-making device. The guitar is distorted to the point of disintegration, the bass squelches and wobbles, the drums go smackity-smack, and the layered vocals sound like a horde of gargling goblins. 'Tättymys' kicks the flanger into high gear, while 'Vahvempi Kuin Koskaan' explodes from a wall of blackest chaos, which spills over into the song itself through wild death growls and keyboards that sound like distant demonic trumpets. For all its hallucinatory abandon, though, Uhripuu is not “psychedelic” or “whacky.” This is the blood-red vision of the berserker or the spirit-ridden frenzy of the shaman, and that’s driven home on the seventh track, 'Kiviseen Syleilyyn', a heathen hymn that builds with religious solemnity and resolves in a deep sense of stillness.
Immolation – Atonement
Immolation’s core members Robert Vigna (guitar) and Ross Dolan (vocals, bass) have been riffing together since the birth of New York Death Metal in the late 80s. Among genre fans, they are widely respected for their consistency, their ten full-lengths to date averaging an almost unparalleled 87.6% on the notoriously stringent Metal-Archives.com. So why bother reviewing the latest Immolation for a niche column on new metal in a non-metal publication? Surely we can expect them to keep on immolating?
What fascinates me about this band is their consistency, which is far from stasis or predictability, but an ongoing process of exploration, refinement, and reimagination. Here, Immolation rebound from the relatively pro-forma brutality of Kingdom Of Conspiracy (2013) by doubling down on what makes them special as a band – they only really care about writing excellent songs. And by songs I mean songs in the way Horn’s Nerrath writes songs, not just concatenations of sick riffs with vocals happening over them. Witness 'Lower', where Dolan’s remarkably intelligible growled vocals follow Vigna’s hypnotic pattern of chug and warped melody in the same way a singer-songwriter follows his strummed chord progressions. This is clearly the album’s “hit single,” but any concern about concessions to pop-metal will dissipate when the breakdown hits and you hear, very clearly, “NOT EVEN GOD CAN SAVE YOU NOW.”
Every aspect of Atonement works at the service of the songs, and every extraneous detail has been stripped away. In stark contrast to all sorts of nowadays death metal bands, from those playing guttural slams to those crafting spacey atmospheres, you can’t hear the production – it serves only to render everything with crystal clarity, fitting for an album that deals with apocalypse, the pulling back of the veil. Vigna reworks the highly melodic sensibility he had started to explore on 2005’s underrated Harnessing Ruin, darkening it and stripping it down to its essentials. The tempos are stately, and every aspect of Immolation’s performance is measured, assured, controlled. A slowly building track like 'When The Jackals Come' gets its crushing heaviness from the space between the blastbeats, from the way Vigna draws out his tremolo lines, from the sense that Immolation are holding something in reserve. The most powerful moment on this track, and maybe on all of Atonement, comes when the blasts cut out and leave only a starkly simple four-note melody, a sinister and ancient drone. The drums return, cycling through a mid-tempo pattern, and when Ross Dolan growls, he lets every word hang in air, speaking with the monstrous authority of the prophet: “THE WAR IS ALREADY WON. YOUR WORLD WILL END WHEN THE JACKALS COME."
Other cool stuff to check out:
Draugsól – Vola∂a Land (Signal Rex)
Icelandic BM for adventure
The Ominous Circle – Appalling Ascenscion (Osmose / 20 Buck Spin)
Brutal, riffy power-chord death metal that sounds fresh. I should have reviewed this.
Wolfheart – Tyhjyys (Spinefarm)
Sophisticated, aggressive melodic death metal. About Vikings. No guilt in this pleasure.
Imha Tarikat – Kenoboros (Terratur Possessions)
FFO Mgla, hardcore, and Sonic Youth.
Ullulatum Tollunt - Quantum Noose of Usurpation (Invictus)
Revenge more body, more pick slides, and a metaphysical interpretation of the Will to Power.
Saqra’s Cult – Forgotten Rites (Amor Fati)
Weird death-y black metal about the Incas, who sometimes carried mummies into battle.
KLLK – Le Brasier Des Mondes (Caligari)
Esoteric, aristocratic, atmospheric BM.
Cioran – Bestiale Battito Divino (Caligari)
Esoteric, aristocratic, stomping hardcore BM.
Winds of Gladsheimr – Midsommer (House Of First Light)
Gorked berserker war cries from the folks who brought you Sanguine Eagle.
Kjeld/Wederganger – S/T split (Ván Records)
Rising heroes of Dutch BM put out a record with a dank dragon on the cover.