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Columnus Metallicus: Heavy Metal For April By Louise Brown
Louise Brown , April 19th, 2017 10:39

Louise Brown saddles up and rides her warhorse into Metalville, lancing mighty releases by Solstafir, Sabbath Assembly and Royal Thunder as she gallops. Aiiieeeeeeeeeeeee!

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It's been a funny old few months for heavy metal. While esteemed colleagues Kez and Pavel have been keeping this column burning, yours truly has been helping finish a horrifically delayed issue of her erstwhile zine, Iron Fist. It's a tough old world for metal print journalism, or is it? Seriously, in the few weeks that we've been beavering away on the latest cornucopia of metal platter, three rock magazines were rescued from the gallows at the eleventh hour, some old blokes with bits of the Marquee carpet still stuck to their cowboy boots launched a brand new print rag devoted to classic heavy metal called Rock Candy with Def Leppard on the cover and brimming with the likes of Warrant, AC/DC and Saxon inside, and over in Sweden, the best thing, in my opinion, to happen to heavy metal journalism since Malcolm Dome got his first typewriter, Bardo Methodology made the leap from blog to paper.

When I started reading the music papers from the back and to the front (seriously, why has no one questioned that lyric?) my eyes were wide with tales of hedonism and debauchery. I would hide my copies of Kerrang! and Raw! from concerned parental view, such was the depravity contained within its pages. Over time bands became sanitised and managed and controlled by their PR shackles, or did magazines just get too afraid to print the real dirt... or did journalists stop asking the right questions? Niklas Göransson isn't afraid, and sometimes he crosses a line and sometimes that's good. He gives bands rope and they can do with it what they will, and it's shocking, but only because such honesty is rare. Whether he's interviewing trippy scribe Graham Hancock, or the most vocal of controversial musicians KK Warslut, or getting behind the art of some of extreme music's most interesting characters, such as Tyler Davis of the Ajna Collective record label and publishing house, Bardo goes one step beyond and while this column is predominantly about reviewing music, it needed to be said, that for the price of a new LP you can dig into your pocket and support print journalism too. Hail the purveyors of paper and ink, long may you stain our fingers and give us a reason to take longer in the loo.

Solstafir – Berdreyminn
(Season Of Mist)

Easily album of the column, just for sheer ambition and outlandishness, Solstafir have journeyed a long way from their black metal early days. Even back then they were a cut above, unafraid of stepping out of line, but since the jump from Spinefarm to Season Of Mist in 2011 they've just kept on wandering into territories unknown. The desolate cowboys from Iceland have mastered the art of reflecting nature and there's something wild here that cannot be tamed.

There is a lighthouse on the edge of the world. It looks to mountains to the left and then nothing to the right, just a wide ocean that seems to lead into the void. That is the view from Solstafir's rehearsal room and when you understand that, you understand Berdreyminn, their sixth album. If black metal is the band's roots, then you'll also quickly understand that Joy Division, The Cure, Fields Of The Nephilim and Pink Floyd nestle alongside their more extreme brethren in the DNA of Reykjavik's barren sons. Each song on their newest album takes them ever that step further from that expected sound, each footstep edging nearer to something unique and wholly Solstafir's.

There is a foreboding treachery to every song on 'Berdreyminn and yet each song breaks, like Aurora Borealis bursting through the dark night, to add a hopeful, victorious relief, building to orgasmic climax. While the wounded moans of frontman Aðalbjörn Tryggvason tell tales of weariness and loneliness, even in their mysterious mother tongue, they seem to narrate stories of solace as the songs draw to a close. Iceland is raw and inhospitable, but it's beautiful; the country of mesmerising eruptions, and deep lakes you can see yourself in, and springs that heal and rejuvenate, and sights that take your breath away, and that is what Solstafir reflect. Theirs is music of light and shade and beauty and bleakness, of the most extreme heavy metal and the most soaring, hopeful compositions of sheer, glacial grace. Where they journey to next, we won't be far behind.

Sabbath Assembly – Rites Of Passage
(Svart Records)

Another band on a journey almost unrecognisable from their beginnings, Sabbath Assembly arrived on the scene in 2010 at the right time. Extreme metal was rejecting the cartoon devil that had been at the centre of the scene’s Satanic Panic in the ‘90s, and begun drawing down inspiration from arcane texts and dusty tomes that presented a more esoteric worship steeped in spirituality and mystic rites. Fronted by the unearthly Jex Thoth and produced by Randall Dunn (Earth/Sunn O)))/Boris), the collective painstakingly researched, recreated and recorded the hymns of the forgotten cult, The Process Church. Their follow-up album in 2012 invited fellow Processians into the fold, with guest vocals from Psychic TV's Genesis P-Orridge and viola from Eyvind Kang. This was at a time when occult rock was booming business and Sabbath Assembly, now fronted by Hammer Of Misfortune's Jamie Myers, were proving that you could both play doom and sermonise the forecast of doom in immaculate tandem.

In 2015, on their fourth - prophetically self-titled - album you could hear the band itching to break the cliched mould that the over-burgeoning occult scene had forced them into. With Gorguts and Dysrhythmia's Kevin Hufnagel in the band since 2011, the band's founder and drummer, Dave Nuss, was able to shift from the self-imposed prison of recreating known Process hymns, to expressing his own beliefs and his own creative urges by taking the band down a much more thrashier, progressive metal path. Nuss will tell anyone that will listen that his Gods are as much VoiVod, Cynic and Confessor as they are the Goat and the Lamb and new album Rites Of Passage is his eulogy. Adding Kayo Dot guitarist Ron Varod has given Rites Of Passage the bite it needs to be a fully-formed tech-metal beast and Myers, while still the High Priestess, is preaching from a more hellfire and brimstone perspective.

Rites Of Passage is the band's rite itself, their baptism of fire even, themed around the idea of loss; loss of faith, loss of love and loss of mind. Myers is ever the Buffy Sainte Marie-esque chanteuse, delivering sermons of hopelessness that would be fitting in any Lynch film, and even beckoning comparisons to everyone's favourite gloomy siren, Lana Del Rey on 'I Must Be Gone' with the lyrics that mirror those in the starlet's 2012's hit 'Video Games'. Meanwhile Varod and Hufnagel, alongside Nuss and bassist Johnny DeBlase prove that they're as obsessed with Death the band as they are with death the concept, with a cacophony of time-signature mischief. Matching the mastery of tech-doom bands like Watchtower, Myer's alma mater Hammers Of Misfortune and early Opeth, Sabbath Assembly have shed their sweet, naïve Churchly past and have been reborn.

Demon Head – Thunder On The Fields
(The Sign Records)

Speaking of goats, meet Topaz, the fella photographed on the cover of Thunder On The Fields. The Danish rockers in Demon Head say their music is “real music for real people” and that could be one helluva cliché would it not possibly be pretty accurate. A few years ago, well to be fair, a whole decade ago, Witchcraft, an underground band of '60s and '70s rock fiends released their third album 'The Alchemist' and the metal world suddenly paid attention. It wasn't the first time a contemporary band wore their love of Tull, Ash, Heep, Black Widow and the, then, lost gem, Pentagram on their tan suede sleeves, but it was the first time it was accepted that this was going to be a “thing”. The next few years saw many bands either discovered in the wake of Witchcraft's success or indeed created in the wake of Witchcraft's success. Either way it created a scene of be-flared, boogie rockers that delighted fans of the holy trilogy: Sabbath, Zep and Purple. Now at the point of over-saturation it takes a keen ear to decipher the wheat from the chaff, and Demon Head seem pretty sincere fellas. They do things like buy second-hand Neotek consoles and go camp out in a remote cottage and record songs that do nothing more than ooze a love of Danzig, Angel Witch, Thin Lizzy, Big Mama Thornton, Son House, Creedence, Stooges... Then there's the fact that when not in a remote cottage writing Thunder On The Fields, they're in a busted-up campervan going to every metal festival in Europe and making friends. Demon Head are nothing you've not heard before, but we promise you this much, it's played with heart from guys with the skills to do classic rock 'n' roll the justice it deserves.

Royal Thunder – Wick
(Spinefarm Records)

Every so often your Metallicus crew will bang heads together to discuss the latest releases and fight over who's reviewing what, and sometimes that discussion will bring to the fore questions of validity. What makes an album, or a band, worthy of inclusion in a pretty dyed-in-the-denim heavy metal round-up? There is no criteria, it's just a feeling you get, or maybe it's the label the band are on, or bands they've been previously associated with. Should Royal Thunder's Wick be in our column. Absolutely, but in a turnaround from the usual metaldom attitude of grabbing of anything that is ours and refusing to share with the mainstream, the Savannah, Georgia band truly deserve attention from outside our sphere. Perhaps ours by virtue of their signing first to grind-heavy stable, Relapse and now on Spinefarm, the label that gave the world Beherit, Solstafir and, oh god, Five Finger Death Punch, Royal Thunder are one of those unique genre-bending entities that when watching, or indeed listening to, you fully fathom the crime that is their exclusion from the the wider world. You can imagine the band doing a session for Jo Wiley at Glasto so hard that you can almost see Mlny Parsons wearing wellies and joking with Mark Radcliffe about the rain. This band needs this. Royal Thunder are one of the rare bands that make you want to become an evangelist and go knocking door to door. Have you heard of our saviour, Josh Weaver? Slow, somniferous and all-embracing, Mlny is not a sweet, siren of a singer, she is a fierce force who sings from the earth, rattling the bones and conjuring the ancient mothers to channel through her. The band behind her create a ritualistic groove for her to hypnotise to. While she sits in the metal world, alongside Windhand, Kylesa and Subrosa, she deserves to be compared to Beth Ditto, Florence Welch and Brittany Howard, if we're talking contemporaries. And while Josh Weaver, Evan Diprima and Will Fiore build upon a classic rock bedrock with a Neurosisian bite and post-metal sparkle a la Explosions In The Sky and Isis at times, the flashback most prevalent on this new album is that of alt-'90s game-changers, Shirley Manson, Skin and Juliana Hatfield. Is Wick a potential metal album of year? Yes, no question, but it's one you need to tell more than your hesher mates about.

Trial – Motherless
(Metal Blade)

There was a time when power metal was the unloved runt of the heavy metal litter, which, frankly, is ridiculous as the genre is built on warrior lore, fighting dragons and baring your oiled up chest while rescuing a maiden fair. It's time the genre had its renaissance. Trial are one such band to take on this mighty task. The glass-shattering vocals alone, of Linus Johansson, are enough to ensure fans of early Helloween, Blind Guardian and Stratovarius find solace in the salvation of Trial. Coming out of the late-2000s Swedish revival of traditional heavy metal, Trial, now on album number three, draw more on the progressive, narrative, over-the-top operatics of Dickinson-era Maiden than the punkier early albums that many of the contemporary bands worship. That's, perhaps, a polite way to say that Trial know how to play, and have a frontman with serious chops, but they're also unafraid of breaking the metal mould, like so many of the bands in this month's column.

Their use, once again, of artist Costin Chioreanu for their cover – this time of the Mother Goddess – shows that they're not tied to the heavy metal tropes of their brethren, but present themselves as avant-leaning, modernist metal fans who want to play with expectations and take the listener on a twisted journey, much like acts like Queensryche, Annihilator and King Diamond before them. In fact, producer Olof Berggren, was a protege of King Diamond's Andy LaRoque and knows his way around a sound that twists and turns and keeps you on your toes, as with the soaring 'Cold Comes The Night'.

Motherless is an ambitious album, it's measured without being melodramatic, but still theatrical and tantalising. The album ends with a trilogy that puts Trial far beyond their peers. The metal opera may not be the fashion any more, but Trial take their classic metal base and build on it with post-metal meanderings, composing a progressive suite that is otherworldly and see the band ascend to a plateau that so few trad-metal and doom bands dare to in the current age. The Devil's Blood did it, Hammers Of Misfortune, Slough Feg and Atlantean Kodex are heading in that direction and now Trial are throwing their hat in the ring too and we're along for the ride.

Samsara Blues Experiment – One With The Universe
(Electric Magic)

The Berlin-based band return with a fourth-album of Yogic metal. On guitarist Christian Peter's own label, Electric Magic, the trio, from the first bar, want to make you strip off, feel the grass beneath your feet, entranced by moonlight. 'Vipassana', the title of the first track, refers to an ancient Indian meditation that helps you to see things as they really are. It conjures beaches at night, solace in the tantric pull and push of the waves, as sitar drones and pulsing rhythms put you in a trance-state. This is Eastern surf music fronted by David Byrne, this is 'Astronomy Domine' for a new New Age. The heads-down stoner groove of the first song paves the way for a monologue by Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev, an Indian mystic who teaches self-awareness through yoga. The song, 'Sad Guru Returns', in his honour, is a slowly building, hopeful composition that while not free completely of clanging and clashing sludgy shades of darkness, allows light in to wash over the listener. It gets the third eye twitching with cyclical motifs that draw you in and out of the shadows, eventually centring you with glistening guitars and breakbeat rhythms from Thomas Vedder (drums) and Hans Eiselt (bass).

'Glorious Daze' is rich in Indian drones, as swathes of psychedelic keys wash over you. If the first song took us to a beach and the second to a temple, the third and fourth take us the California desert and while the band are clearly fans of Tool and Kyuss this goes right back to the Whiskey bar in the 1960s channelling Jim Morrison on one of his Shamanic rambles. Still makes you want to dance naked though! The final suite brings us back to reality, with stoner jams that are much more recognisable in the here and now, drawing you slowly through the prism of oceans, deserts, Laurel Canyon gardens, Indian temples back to a jam room in Berlin. What a ride! Press play and do it all again.

Foreseen – Grave Danger
(Svart Records)

If there are black metal bands who play with post-metal, and occult rock bands who find their thrashier footing, and stoner rock bands unafraid to bring Indian raga into the mix, there are those bands that could straddle two scenes completely. Following the recently incendiary successes of Iron Reagan and Power Trip, Finland's Foreseen are back with a second dose of Helsinki savagery. For all intents and purposes Grave Danger is a hardcore punk album, and again, like Royal Thunder, could sit elsewhere on this broad and all-encompassing website, but it's a hardcore album by a band signed to metal indie, Svart and who put out their debut on cult, underground metal stable, 20 Buck Spin (Liturgy/Nadja etc). Falling into the latest of thrash revivals – this one being more Cro-mags than crowdsurfing – Foreseen are furious, fast and fucking fantastic. With songs like 'Violent Discipline', they channel the NYHC of Leeway and Sheer Terror, with early Hatebreed and Ringworm, or as one friend described it “metallic hardcore before it got ruined by beatdowns”. Helsinki may be a far cry from Brooklyn in the 1980s, but there's plenty for these politically-pissed off Finns to get raging about and Grave Danger ups the anger scale about 50 percent from 2014's Helsinki Savagery. At under 25 minutes – how thrash albums should be, right Reign In Blood? – Foreseen get in there, stomp you under their Cherry Reds, and get the fuck out of there leaving you wondering what “party thrash” ever was, or meant?

Here Lies Man – Here Lies Man
(Riding Easy)

There's a new Jesters Of Destiny album. Honest! Ektro (home of Circle and all sorts of out-there, weirdo metal bands) are putting it out and bringing those 1980's Metal Blade-signed loons back to the fore. Could this be the year funk metal makes a comeback? Would we really be that opposed to it? Everything else has had its time in the revival limelight. Marketed as “What if Black Sabbath played Afrobeat?”, which is frankly a question we've always asked ourselves, Here Lies Man, from California are advocates for putting the funk into doom and we don't mind one iota. Their debut album, picked up cannily by purveyors of stoner jams, Riding Easy, is bonged-out dub metal set against breakbeat rhythms and trancelike motifs that drill their way into your brain jelly.

A mix of Arthur Lee, Arthur Brown and Arthur from Willo The Wisp, Here Lies Man play that exact type of music you swore you heard in that tent at 5am at Glastonbury but no one believed you. There's certainly Sabbathian heft, and some psychedelic weirdness afoot for fans of Cymande and Parliament, with Electric Wizard groove and sun-drenched funk to get you shaking. Not metal? Who cares. Get them on tour with Teeth Of The Sea and Sly And The Family Drone!

Devil – To The Gallows
(Soulseller Records)

Now, while we're celebrating genre-benders, let's not forget that in the myriad of sounds that are breaking the rules, there are the orthodox stalwarts who refuse to falter from the path of all that is true. These are bands that pronounce iron as “I, Ron” and vengeance as “Wengeance”, as decreed by the ancient gods. As we usher in all that is new and experimental, we must remember to pay respect to the Great Old Ones and the monks who tirelessly remain chained to their ways. In a monastery somewhere in Oslo, live Devil who deny the pleasures of the modern world and stay true to the sermons of Accept, Rose Tattoo, Twisted Sister and Running Wild. Your esteemed writer here, too, is often at the Mercy of these old ways and Devil forced her to will on their debut Time To Repent back in 2011. You'd like to say they've moved with the times, now six years on and on album number three, but they haven't. And that's okay. They're resolute in their Luddite creation of more tried-and-tested heavy metal, wavering only to tip-toe into doom pools, as long as that doom is the doom of Trouble, Pentagram and Candlemass, none of your modern muck. They're so willing to die for metal, that they're almost fairly jolly about the whole thing. To The Gallows is a rather chipper affair, with the title song almost sounding like they're skipping merrily to their fate. 'Trenches' is a song that almost sounds like it's encouraging a merciless demise and 'Jumping Off The Edge Of Time' sounds like a lark. Perhaps that is the most doom thing ever, Devil are actually looking quite forward to meeting the reaper. They're having fun playing the most straight-up heavy metal you can imagine and you can't complain about that.

Sarcasm – Within The Sphere Of Ethereal Minds
(Dark Descent Records)

So with all this talk of bands going off piste, it remans that we have to review at least one extreme metal record per column. It was going to be Craven Idol, they are by far the most vital death metal band in the UK, and perhaps Europe at the moment. Their new album The Shackles Of Mammon is a sizzling triumph of Viking-era Bathory and Morbid Angel technicality. Scything riffs and martial rhythms collide, showcasing a band who take their death metal very seriously and when bands of a similar undertaking have tended to spin off into the stratosphere of late, Craven Idol have their heads to grind, remaining very earthly and very potent. But it's labelmates Sarcasm who are pipped to be the band to wear the extreme crown this column. You have to reward hard graft, and it's taken them 27 years to release their first album proper.

Okay, since the early '90s there have been demos and compilations, and an album in the loosest possible terms but Within The Sphere Of Ethereal Minds is the product of a 2015 reunion and the band are as potent now as they were then, which is rare round these parts. Unmistakably Swedish, Sarcasm were of that death metal stock that regarded melody, not as a sin, but as an integral part of their extremity, for how can you have darkness without light? While American bands were grinding themselves raw, this Uppsala-based band were part of a movement that should have seen bands like Unanimated, A Canorous Quintet and Hypocrite hailed alongside Dissection, Dark Tranquility and Dark Funeral; bands that mixed the darkness of death metal and black metal with glistening gold.

So, the cover art is shocking; some skeletal beast engulfed in photoshop flames is no Necrolord masterpiece, but the music, 'Silent Waves Summoned Your Inner Being' for one, is nostalgic death metal reverence. And as every album of this micro-genre needs an acoustic interlude, 'A Black Veil For Earth' is up there. Are Sarcasm as important as a band like Craven Idol in there here and now? No, probably not, but if you liked Sarcasm's early demos, or had your interest piqued by 'In Hate...' from the masterful Swedish Death Metal compilation of a few years ago, or love In Flames, or newer bands like Tribulation, take a punt on this album and get to know your roots and respect that early strain of extreme metal just that little bit more.