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Columnus Metallicus

Columnus Metallicus: Your Heavy Metal For January
Kez Whelan , January 29th, 2018 06:36

Starting the year as we mean to go on, with Lugubrum Trio, Corrosion Of Conformity and Agrimonia.

Congratulations! You survived the garbage-fire-visible-from-space that was 2017. Not only that, you’ve made it through January too, a month usually so unforgivingly bleak that it can make even Khanate’s Things Viral sound a bit Radio Disney by comparison. Well done, you! You’re on the homestretch now, you glorious stallion of a reader, and nothing can stop you now; not that dreary, uninspiring job you hate, not your faltering physical health, not that circling sense of existential dread that pursues you like a hungry vulture bearing down on a melting, half-eaten Snickers, not anything. It’s all plain sailing from here until Valentine’s day, when you can look forward to grappling with the uncomfortable realisation that we’re all doomed to die alone and, once again, that pile of romantic gifts fails to materialise on your doorstep.

Still, there’s always the prospect of another year of delicious metal to dissuade you from hurling yourself into oncoming traffic, and thankfully 2018 is off to a rollicking start on that front. Between Summoning’s fantastical escapism, Agrimonia’s melancholy optimism, Corrosion Of Conformity’s soulful blues and Portal’s abject peril, there’ll be something in here to ease you through that late-winter slump, whatever your tastes. Well, provided your tastes cater for towering tube amps, red raw larynxes and battered drum kits, of course, but as you’ve made it this far, I’m going to go ahead and take that as a given. Onwards, fellow riff addicts!

Corrosion Of Conformity - No Cross No Crown (Nuclear Blast)

Brace yourselves for this: it’s been a whopping thirteen years since Corrosion Of Conformity last put out an album with frontman Pepper Keenan - 2005’s triumphant In The Arms Of God. Without meaning to discredit bassist Mike Dean, drummer Reed Mullin or guitarist Woody Weatherman, the North Carolina sluggers seemed to have experienced a bit of an identity crisis for the past couple of years; 2012’s self-titled effort and 2014’s IX were both solid enough, but captured neither the thrashy hardcore bluster of their early material nor the swaggerin’ southern groove of their Pepper years. No Cross No Crown, however, picks up exactly where In The Arms Of God left off; in fact, this thing could have just as easily dropped a few years after ’96’s Wiseblood. From the brash whiskey-drenched stomp of lead single ‘Cast The First Stone’ and blue-collar bravado of ‘Little Man’, to the earnest swing of ‘Forgive Me’ and ‘Wolf Named Crow’, the first half of this record pretty much sounds like vintage 90s COC with all guns blazing.

So far, so good, and just as you’re beginning to question whether this nostalgic glow can sustain itself for the course of a full album in 2018, the latter half of No Cross… switches gear and goes to some seriously deep, unexpected places, heralded by the sublime ‘Nothing Left To Say’, a sultry blues jam that dives through deliciously doomy territory before erupting in its hypnotic thousand-yard-stare-inducing outro riff. ‘E.L.M.’ balances raw Sabbathian heft with an upbeat, almost gospel feel and a soaring vocal performance from Keenan, while the title track itself has a curiously creepy medieval folk flavour. Much like their smoky 94 classic Deliverance, the songs are sewn together with several minute-or-so-long interludes that really aid the album’s flow.

It’s been a long time coming, but No Cross No Crown is a definite return to form: well-structured, well-written, and reeking of their 90s splendour while still throwing in a few surprises along the way.

Portal - ION (Profound Lore)

Portal are back after a five-year absence this month too, and continue to sound like the most alien death metal band in the multiverse. While there are those who argue that the Portal sound reached its zenith on 2009’s Swarth and that 2013’s Vexovoid was somewhat unnecessary, I couldn’t disagree more. The band’s zeal for making their warped, deconstructionist death metal even more grotesque was still refreshing, even if they’d now upped the ante to such a degree that such efforts could only ever seem incremental. So fans will already know what to expect to an extent with ION, and the fact that it still manages to sound so jarringly frantic after all this time is pretty impressive. After intro track ‘Nth’ sets the scene with what sounds like some distant spacecraft picking up a dodgy, crackling transmission of the score from The Shining, ‘ESP ION AGE’ is anything but subtle, rattling out of the speakers with apocalyptic furore.

Outside of astonishingly visceral tracks like this and the blistering ‘Phreqs’, ION still sounds deliriously evil in its more atmospheric moments. ‘Crone’ uses some cut-up string samples to legitimately horrifying effect, and its ritualistic outro chant of “pray for sickness” is about as close as they’ve ever come to a hook. Meanwhile, the two-and-a-half-minute ‘Spores’ is as freeform as they’ve ever gone, and it’s utterly edge-of-your-seat terrifying. It begs the question of what possible horrors a lengthier Portal improv excursion would unearth; I honestly wouldn’t mind if they adopted a similar approach to The Necks for the next record and just gave us an hour of searing, white-hot improvisation. As it stands though, ‘Spores’ is a perfect palate cleanser before the maniacally mechanical onslaught of ‘Phathom’, in which squirming guitar lines are bounced ceaselessly around by a rigidly brutal rhythmic backbone.

ION does enough with the Portal formula to keep it fresh, and while it may not completely reinvent the wheel in the same manner of previous triumphs, it just feels great to have them back. There aren’t many bands that manage to sound this compellingly disorientating; even some of the most depraved, gory and sickening death metal out there still has an air of carnival to it, whereas Portal’s writhing, obtuse beast is more like some kind of Lovecraftian cosmic horror, unknowable in its harsh lack of feeling and terrifying in it its dogged pursuit of the macabre.

Agrimonia - Awaken (Southern Lord)

The continued evolution of Agrimonia has been a joy to watch, with each successive album increasing in ambition, scope and emotional impact. Though they hail from Gothenburg and share members with At The Gates and Miasmal, don’t expect any death metal here; the quintet’s yearning, sombre sound is the kind of thing that usually gets tagged as ‘epic crust’, with lashings of punk energy rubbing up against post-metal atmospherics and an aching, profound sense of sadness. It’s been five years since 2013’s highly acclaimed Rites Of Seperation, their longest break between albums so far, but even a cursory listen here will assure you it was worth the wait. If Rites… felt like their most dynamic, layered and fully realised album at the time, Awaken smashes it out of the park entirely, with songs that feel even more expansive and expressive yet tighter in focus, and melodies that are even stronger and more affecting.

It’s also their proggiest outing to date; the band have always favoured long, winding song structures, but the labyrinthine, autumnal melancholy of a song like ‘Foreshadowed’ is an intense sonic journey in its own right, while solemn acoustic passages like ‘Awaken’ are strongly reminiscent of Morningrise-era Opeth (you know, back when they were actually a progressive band, instead of just a shallow simulation of what people expect a ‘prog’ band to sound like). ‘Withering’ delves into gorgeously subdued keyboard led vistas, making the eventual transition into its pulverising riffs and Christina Bloom’s guttural, impassioned roar all the more gratifying, while the tender touch of closer ‘The Sparrow’, with its twinkling keys and beautiful reverb-smothered leads, still makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand up after umpteen listens. Call me sentimental, but for my money this is easily Agrimonia’s best work to date, and the first essential metal album of the year. With its deft, moving songwriting, pensive atmosphere and cautiously optimistic undertones, it’s the kind of record that feels like a warm hug from a long-lost friend, and is mandatory listening for anyone who finds this time of year hard to deal with.

Morrow – Fallow (Halo Of Flies/Alerta Antifascista)

Epic crust records, it seems, are like buses; you wait ages for one to arrive before two unexpectedly turn up at once (the cynics out there may argue that they’re also populated by people who could do with a good wash, but this particular flea-bitten hack isn’t exactly free enough from sin to cast the first stone on that front, so let’s just swiftly move past this withered old workhorse of an analogy, shall we?).

Morrow is another band from Alex CF, who is to the whole epic crust thing what Wino is to doom, having made an indelible mark on the genre with a series of distinct bands that nevertheless share his unique style, like Fall Of Efrafa, Light Bearer, Anopheli and Archivist. While containing all the bleak soundscapes, furious indignation and morose vibes you’d expect from one of his bands, Morrow’s 2016 debut Covenant Of Teeth felt a bit punchier and more direct than, say, Fall Of Efrafa’s more heavily conceptual output or Light Bearer’s dense, slow-burning epics, and Fallow continues in that direction. Sure, both opener ‘Auguries Of Menace’ and cathartic closer ‘Crown In Red’ breach the 12-minute mark, but ‘The Hunt’, for example, is a swift, lethal four-minute rager that wouldn’t have seemed out of place on the last Svalbard album – which is perhaps no coincidence given that that band’s guitarist/vocalist Liam Phelan provides violin throughout Fallow.

Not to downplay the strength of these riffs or raw aggression of the vocal performances, but the string accompaniment is one of the most striking things about the album, weaving among these already powerful compositions in a way that feels organic and unobtrusive, elevating the songs to an even more intense level – especially on ‘Crown In Red’, which journeys from a starkly beautiful folky intro through to its bombastic, inspiring crescendo with grace and righteous intent. It feels even more well-implemented than their debut and hints at even loftier heights for their future. If you’re still hungry for seconds after that Agrimonia album, or if the concept of elegant, elaborate orchestration colliding with piss’n’vinegar laced D-beat punk intrigues you, then get into this pronto.

Autopsy - Puncturing The Grotesque (Peaceville)

Technically this was a December release, but I’m including it here anyway because (a) there’s a good chance you missed it while wallowing in your bloated festive malaise, and (b) what kind of metal fan would I be if I didn’t take any available opportunity to wax lyrical about Autopsy? The band’s genre-defining early years have been well-documented, but I’d argue that they’re also responsible for perhaps the most graceful, respectable death metal reunion ever. Rather than just chucking together some half-baked comeback record in service of a victory lap round the big summer fests, Autopsy have spent the past decade steadily churning out some of their best material to date – a feat pretty much unheard of for most of the other pioneering OG death metal bands. OK, so 2011’s Macabre Eternal was far longer than it needed to be, but its followup, 2013’s The Headless Ritual, was a bona-fide modern day classic, and each successive record has got more efficient, potent and bloodthirsty. If we’re counting this one and 2015’s Skullgrinder as albums rather than EPs (and we should; Skullgrinder was just a few seconds shorter than Reign In Blood after all), then there are now more post-reunion Autopsy albums than there are vintage ones, and the fact that they’re of the same disgustingly high calibre is to be applauded.

Just shy of 25 minutes, Puncturing The Grotesque is another short, sharp shock, but it definitely feels like an album instead of an EP. It’s structured like one, with a clear beginning (the eerie ‘Depths Of Dehumanization’ and barnstorming title track), middle (‘Gas Mask Lust’s unsettling, intoxicated lurch) and gloriously gory end (the jubilantly furious ‘Fuck You!!!’, a sneering punk rock banger pitched somewhere between GG Allin and Show No Mercy-era Slayer). Chris Reifert’s vocals deserve a special mention as always, seemingly getting sicker and more depraved with each passing year. The dude is almost fifty – this is the point where most iconic death metal growlers start hiring vocal coaches and wondering if it’s time to embark on that solo country and western project before their nodules really flare up. Reifert, on the other hand, is still pushing his larynx as far as possible in the quest to be the first human to accurately approximate, using nothing more than vocal chords alone, the sound of two opposing armies of rabid baboons and starving hyenas being unleashed upon the Betty Ford Centre, and he gets closer than ever during the intro to the appropriately monikered ‘The Sick Get Sicker’.

Hooded Menace - Ossuarium Silhouettes Unhallowed (Season Of Mist)

If it’s more death/doom you’re after, then you’ll be pleased to hear Finland’s mighty Hooded Menace have a new LP out this month too – and it’s an absolute beast. Whilst their last effort, 2015’s Darkness Drips Forth, was their most unashamedly doom-laden opus to date, Ossuarium Silhouettes Unhallowed delves into the “death” side of the old death/doom equation a bit more frequently, with devastating ten-minute opener ‘Sempiternal Grotesqueries’ breaking into a boisterous mid-tempo chug and ‘Charnel Reflections’ bolstering its morose melodies with pounding double-kick grooves, courtesy of Kyrpts sticksman Otso Ukkonen. Of course, that’s not to say this album isn’t doomy – it most certainly is, with ‘In Eerie Deliverance’ being particularly crushing, complete with sombre Mournful Congregation-esque guitar harmonies, seismic bass rumbles and even a chillingly effective spoken word section from Coltsblood’s Jemma McNulty) – but it’s definitely more dynamic than its predecessor, and feels a lot more well-rounded as a result.

It’s also their first with the new live line-up, and it certainly shows. Most of the band’s full-lengths to date have been written, recorded and performed entirely by vocalist, guitarist and bassist Lasse Pyykkö and drummer Pekka Koskelo, and whilst they’ve all been great in their own right, Ossuarium… immediately seems to spring out of the speakers a bit more, boasting a fuller, livelier sound and even more elaborate dual guitar harmonies. Of course, the most obvious change is that of vocals; with Lasse now focussing solely on guitar, the mic has been passed to Harri Kuokkanen of Horse Latitudes fame. Harri’s gruff, throaty bellow isn’t quite as low-pitched as Lasse’s ultra-guttural monotone belch, but it suits the band well, adding a bit more flavour to some of the more climactic moments here. These changes haven’t had a drastic impact on the band’s sound, and this is still classic Hooded Menace through and through, but they have helped to make this one of the band’s strongest, punchiest and most memorable records.

Summoning - With Doom We Come (Napalm)

Summoning are a band that really shouldn’t work. Drum machine-powered symphonic black metal based entirely on Tolkien lore, in which guitars take a backseat to grand, almost neoclassical keyboard compositions? “Yeah, sure buddy,” I hear you tut incredulously, “I’ll get right on that…” But, free of the pomp and pretence that dogs most symphonic metal, and armed with a keenly evocative melodic sensibility, the Austrian duo have not only created something truly special and unique with this formula, they’ve managed to squeeze eight genuinely great records out of it so far. Each Summoning record seems to get more ambitious in both scope and production values, and With Doom We Come is undoubtedly their most lusciously layered and cinematic LP so far. If 1995’s Midi-friendly Minas Morgul was like watching a battered old VHS copy of the 70s The Hobbit animation, then With Doom We Come is your full-blown, widescreen Peter Jackson summer blockbuster – just wrap your ears around the triumphant, blaring horns, magnificent harp arpeggios and spine-chilling riffs of the almost impossibly grandiose ‘Silvertine’ for proof.

Songs like the stately, hypnotic ‘Mirklands’ and heroic, wanderlust-tinged quasi-title track ‘With Doom I Come’ are among the most sumptuously textured the pair have composed, with the booming, tom-centric drum patterns sounding bigger than ever. While the name Summoning has become synonymous with keyboards, the militaristic, somewhat bizarre drums are just as big a part of their distinctive style, opting against the usual blastbeat fare in favour of rolling, stompy grooves that don’t really have much of a parallel elsewhere in black metal at all. Whilst fans will undoubtedly have eagerly snapped this one up, if you’re yet to become acquainted with Summoning’s earthy, mysterious charms, then this is a perfect entry point, encapsulating everything that’s great about the band with some of the catchiest, fullest sounding compositions in their oeuvre.

Hagetisse - Godendraak (Grey Matter Productions)

If you’ve spent most of 2017 beating yourself up for not achieving as much as your peers, then maybe best to skip this one. Not only did Mories, the mastermind behind Gnaw Their Tongues and numerous other avant-garde black metal outfits, form yet another new solo project Hagetisse (his 13th active band, no less), he somehow managed to release three albums under the name in the past 12 months alone. Godendraak, the second and arguably most memorable of the trilogy, is now seeing a cassette re-release through Grey Matter Productions, so if you’ve been seeking some murky analogue black metal to see you through January, you’ve come to the right place.

With such an insane work ethic, you may worry that the prolific Dutchman is spreading himself a bit thin, but as with most of Mories’ work, Hagetisse is drenched in his unmistakable style while being just different enough from his other projects to warrant being released under a separate name. Much like his Pyriphlegethon project (with which he also released a full-length last year), Hagetisse dispenses with all the noise, dark ambient and industrial influences that are so prevalent in Gnaw Their Tongues, instead focussing on furious, ice cold black metal. Hagetisse is equally harsh and lo-fi, but it differs from Pyriphlegethon in its use of eerie, ancient-sounding melodies, not unlike early Emperor or Ildjarn’s short-lived Sort Vokter project. While tracks like ‘Bloedende Zielen’ find cascading melodies flowing like a cold stream in a very Transylvanian Hunger-esque fashion, ‘Walgsteen Op Doodsbed’ culminates in a folky, unexpectedly upbeat refrain that’s probably the closest Mories has ever come to pop music outside of his uncharacteristically gorgeous Seirom project. Another grotesquely fascinating success for Mories then; here’s to the 18 new records he’ll inevitably put out this year.

Lugubrum Trio – Wakar Cartel (Aphelion/Those Opposed)

While we’re on the subject of bizarre, extremely prolific European black metal acts, Lugubrum quietly slipped out their 12th full-length on new year’s eve. Their second under the name Lugubrum Trio after 2015’s predictably unpredictable Herval, Wakar Cartel once again blends old-school black metal, jazz, psychedelic rock, pastoral folk and an enigmatic outsider charm into another total mindfuck of a record. Maybe you’d expect the band to get more conventional or less dynamic as they strip the lineup down to a trio, but if anything, it seems like the opposite, with the band continuing to get more abstract, surreal and daring.

After a pretty disquieting intro, ‘Het Vuur Van De Meester’ kicks things off with a bit of lairy, drunken Hellhammer worship, à la Tangorodrim. It’s proper fist-in-the-air stuff, and easily the closest the album comes to anything approaching conventional metal. The following track, the jazzy, psychedelic ‘Tussen Honden’, appears to have sauntered in directly from an early Faust album – well, before it careens off the rails into some raw, Norwegian-style black metal, complete with a series of unnervingly feral barks and yaps from vocalist Midgaars. The song totally changes direction again for the outro, locking into a shuffling, almost dubby groove as Midgaars unleashes some wild freeform guitar like a corpse-painted Keiji Haino. This leads nicely into ‘Orakelsnoer’, a taut, tense bass workout not a million miles away from Killing Joke’s ‘Turn To Red’, albeit with more sedated Dick Dale guitar lines, melodramatic chanting and what sounds suspiciously like scat singing in the middle, before ‘De Zoete Geur Van De Meester’ closes the record on a curiously smooth note, with sinister horns, languid bass licks and dancing keys. If Throbbing Gristle’s 20 Jazz Funk Greats had actually been a jazz funk record, this is probably what it would have sounded like.

As usual though, Lugubrum manage to make all this madness flow in a way that seems to make total sense in the moment. There’s something very organic about their compositions (a quality heightened by the simplicity of the three-piece lineup and the relatively warm production), and at no point do any of these wild tonal shifts feel contrived or anything less than thrilling. There’s no better way to start the year than this; if we must press on through another 12 months, let’s at least take Lugubrum’s cue and get real fucking weird with it.