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Columnus Metallicus

Columnus Metallicus: February In Heavy Metal Album Reviews
Kez Whelan , February 20th, 2019 08:07

Kez Whelan looks at the good, the bad and the very very ugly (hello Pissgrave) when it comes to the best heavy metal albums released this month. This feature contains very NSFW imagery

Greetings metal nerds! As we plough into February, the traditional post-Xmas slump has been well and truly shaken off, and this month’s release schedule seems to be picking up quite considerably. We’ve got new records from returning legends like Candlemass and Panopticon, storming debuts from promising newcomers like Ithaca, Ossuarium and Antre, and collaborative splits from Dystopian Future Movies and Grave Lines. As ever, there’s a lot I couldn’t squeeze in here too, like new albums from Downfall Of Gaia, Bellrope and Dead Witches and splits from Coltsblood & Un and Primitive Man & Hell.

But the biggest uproar in the metal world this month comes from US death metallers Pissgrave and their, erm, eye-opening choice of cover art. It’s featured right at the end of this column in all its gory glory, but if you’re not keen on real-life blood & guts, then maybe it’s best to count your blessings, keep your lunch down and head off after the Mastiff review. It’s been the subject of some heated debate on the ethics of using photos of other people’s grisly demises as album artwork, which presumably means it’s doing its job as intended.

Pissgrave’s cover is obviously a rather over-the-top example, but authentic gore has been a staple in certain extreme metal circles for years now, so initially I couldn’t quite understand the fuss. I was immediately reminded of Carcass’ first two LPs; is depicting a stark, unaltered image of someone’s butchered head really that much worse than compiling loads of images of cadavers and creating a macabrely hilarious collage out of them? But then I thought back to my innocent youth, wondering where that sweet little boy who used to look away when Tom ‘N’ Jerry got a bit much went as I seriously consider displaying a gatefold LP baring a splattered cranium on my shelf just to rile up guests of a sensitive disposition.

Has this all been one long slippery slope into degeneracy? Did that first exposure to Reek Of Putrefaction really erode my moral fibre that much? Has a lifetime of listening to extreme metal hollowed out my sense of empathy, removed my natural revulsion to scenes of explicit violence and replaced it with a detached, voyeuristic disdain for my fellow man?

Well, I mean, probably not. But if so, it’s too late now anyway – so let’s just get stuck in to another month’s worth of delicious metal lunacy and try not to think about it too much, shall we?

Candlemass - The Door To Doom
(Napalm)

Honestly, I didn’t think Candlemass had another great album left in them. After parting ways with vocalist Robert Lowe after 2012’s underwhelming Psalms For The Dead, new vocalist Mats Levén never quite gelled with the band, only sticking around for a pair of EPs, and bassist and chief songwriter Leif Edling seemed to be focusing more on other projects like Avatarium and The Doomsday Kingdom. So when Candlemass announced the return of original Epicus Doomicus Metallicus vocalist Johan Langquist last year and claimed to be going back to their roots, it seemed more like the death throes of a band that had run out of ideas rather than an exciting new development.

But colour me pleasantly surprised; The Door To Doom may not be the band’s finest hour, and certainly has that awkward “reunion” album feel of sounding simultaneously much more polished but far less visceral than the classic record it will inevitably be compared to, but it’s also the best thing they’ve released since 2005’s triumphant self-titled opus. Songs like the funereal ‘House Of Doom’ and the driving ‘Death’s Wheel’ find Johan in fine form, with his noticeably wearier but still soaring vocals recalling Dio and Primordial’s Alan Averill in equal measure as they glide over bombastic leads and pounding doomy chords. ‘Black Trinity’ gets even more Sabbath-ian, boasting some of the record’s heaviest, most lumbering riffs, its catchiest chorus and a rhythmic breakdown section that sounds like ‘Supernaut’s evil twin, and Tony Iommi himself even shows up for a characteristically dazzling guest solo on single and album highlight ‘Astorolus – The Great Octopus’, probably the most anthemic song about an oversized eight limbed mollusc you’ll hear this year. Whilst The Door To Doom may not achieve the same dusty, eccentric and doomed atmosphere as Epicus, it’s a decent successor nonetheless, and proof that this particular old dog still has some fight left in it yet.

Seer - Vol. 6
(Artofact)

If it’s atmospheric doom you want though, this is probably February’s tastiest pick. If the name Seer is new to you and you’re wondering what happened to volumes one through five, then fear not; they were all released as EPs, with III & IV bundled together into arguably their first album. You could just as easily call Vol 6 their debut album proper however, and it’s a great leaping off point – it certainly deserves to bring their distinctive spin on the genre to a wider audience, at least. The quintet walk a fine line between epic, Pallbearer-esque majesty and more sinister, ritualistic and murky sounds, but manage to make the two blend together into something quite spectacular indeed. On songs like ‘Iron Worth Striking’, they blast out stirring, foot-on-the-monitor metal anthems with ease, before ploughing into harrowing, cold and disturbing doom on tracks like ‘Frost Tulpa’. There’s a nice mix of vocal styles, with frontman Bronson Lee Norton’s soaring, melodious tones (which sound eerily similar to sorely missed London doom trio Throne) complemented by guitarist Kyle Tavares’ piercing screams and guttural bellows. There’s a fantastic moment in ‘Seven Stars, Seven Stones’ where the pair trade distant, reverb swamped King Diamond wails with harsh, raspy croaks atop a riff heavy enough to break a rhinoceros’ legs.

Armed with both a keen ear for catchy, infectious melodies and the kind of creepy, ominous riffs that send a shiver shooting down your spine like a swift chill on a cold winter night, there’s no reason Seer couldn’t be doom’s “next big thing” – and with any luck, Vol. 6 will be the album that helps them break through.

Panopticon - The Crescendo Of Dusk
(Bindrune)

It’s been a good month for atmospheric black metal too, with the following four releases making up an essential soundtrack for this suitably grim weather. First of all, one man black metal mastermind A. Lunn dropped a Panopticon EP out of nowhere, a big surprise coming so soon after 2018’s ambitious half metal/half folk double-album The Scars Of Man On The Once Nameless Wilderness. In some ways, you could see this EP as a kind of miniature, bite-size version of that record, featuring a huge fourteen minute black metal track and an eight minute folk/bluegrass song. The first of which, the title-track, is one of those astonishingly affecting and uniquely Panopticon pieces of music that Lunn seems to generate so effortlessly, a sublime marriage of early Ulver style melodies, dreamy ambient synth work, grandiose reverb-drenched guitar and some of the most ferocious, passionate drumming around, whilst ‘The Labyrinth’ finds Lunn reciting lyrics in his husky drawl atop bright, optimistic slide guitar twangs and earthy blues licks.

Acting as both a succinct and accessible introduction to everything that makes Panopticon great to newcomers, and a neat little after-dinner snack for ravenous long-term fans, The Crescendo Of Dusk is a brilliant EP and another strong addition to an impressive discography.

Antre - Void
(Withered Hand)

If twenty minutes of Panopticon just isn’t enough to satisfy you however, then you’ll want to whack this new Antre record on pronto. Following their EP and rather fantastic split 7” with fellow Nottingham based black metal squad Underdark, this is the quintet’s debut full-length outing, and it does not disappoint in the slightest, expanding on the style they hinted at on that split and cementing their dissonant, labyrinthine take on the genre. Their sound feels broad and expansive whilst still feeling like a unified whole, perhaps due to each members’ differing musical backgrounds. With guitarist Chris Marsland coming from raucous bands like Bumsnogger and Jesus Of Spazzareth, there’s a certain punk flavour to songs like ‘Fear The Old Blood’ and absolutely raging single ‘Tyrant’, and beautiful acoustic interludes like ‘Denisovan’ and ‘The Frozen Deep’ hint at guitarist Donny Hopkins’ work with folk outsiders Crumbling Ghost. Make no mistake though, this is a metal record through and through, with songs like ‘Into Oblivion’ and the immensely sinister ‘Guided By Nightmares’ making fantastic use of jarring Mayhem-esque tremolo, ferocious blastbeats and piercing shrieks, guttural bellows and even theatrical wails from vocalist Patrick MacDonald, previously of Nottinghamshire death metallers Cacodaemonic.

The record ends on a high, with the one-two punch of the staggeringly aggressive ‘Infinite Abyss’ and the intense, emotive finale ‘Beyond These Skies’, a genuinely epic track that veers through heroic trad-metal harmonies, cathartic hardcore outbursts, flights of proggy sludgery and full-on, storm-the-gates Immortal-esque black metal. As cohesive, well-written and accomplished as you could ever hope a debut to be, this is one Void you certainly won’t mind losing yourself in.

Vanum - Ageless Fire
(Profound Lore)

American duo Vanum finally released the follow-up to their excellent 2015 debut Realm Of Sacrifice this month. Not that they’ve been slacking, of course; given that members M. Rekevics and K. Morgan can count the likes of Ash Borer, Fell Voices, Yellow Eyes and Predatory Light on their collective musical CV, it’s impressive that they both even found the time for another project in the first place. If you’re familiar with their other bands, you’ll have an inkling of what to expect here; namely, melancholy, sweeping atmospheric black metal. Vanum are a bit more straight-forward than their other bands however, and Ageless Fire feels even more streamlined and immediate than their first record, sitting comfortably amidst that kind of stirring, melodic and relentless black metal that bands like Mgła and Uada specialise in.

After searing instrumental opener ‘War’ sets the tone, first song proper ‘Jaws Of Rapture’ is a great introduction to the band’s style, with icy, razor-sharp guitar melodies carried by a minimal yet authoritative pulse. Ten minute epic ‘Eternity’ takes things a step further with its intensely sombre mid-section, as the drums cut out to allow the chilling, desolate harmonies space to breathe before crashing back to create a spine-tinglingly powerful crescendo. The title track, meanwhile, has a hint of early Enslaved or even mid-period Bathory to it, with some truly grandiose leads and a galloping, righteously head-bangable rhythm. Ageless Fire may not be a drastic evolution from their previous LP, but it’s a very convincing refinement of the duo’s sound and bodes very well for their future indeed.

Penance Stare - Solanaceae
(Crow Versus Crow)

Lastly, one-woman black metal project Penance Stare has followed up last year’s fantastic debut Scrying with Solanaceae, a record that finds her sumptuous, haunting and lo-fi fusion of black metal, post-punk, noise and goth coming into even sharper focus, like a combination of Velvet Cacoon and an even harsher, scratchier version of Zola Jesus’ first record. Songs like ‘In Antique’ offer up twisted, dissonant Xasthur-ian chords and forlorn, despondent chants atop a wonderfully stark, punishing drum machine, whilst ‘Graveside’ sounds apocalyptically heavy with its driving rhythm, pulsing riffs and distant, sinister howls. Mastered by Stephen Bishop (Opal Tapes, Basic House, Drunk In Hell), the record sounds suitably lo-fi without just sounding like shit – all these disparate sounds blend together in a way that’s clear and audible but also deeply hypnotic and otherworldly. Each instrument is easily distinguishable, and yet they all blur into one distant, unknowable mass that seems to exist just beyond the reaches of your consciousness, a ghostly and constantly shifting presence that’s impossible to pin down. There’s something both genuinely disorientating and beautiful about songs like ‘Cradlewell (Lacrima)’ and the introspective, alienating churn of the title track. Each of these pieces are relatively short, with only three tracks breaking the three-minute barrier, but they all coalesce into one incredibly effecting and powerful listening experience. The album comes with an instruction to “please listen at night for best results”, so if you’re not yet ready to say goodbye to those long winter nights, this is the album you’ve been waiting for.

Gets Worse - Snubbed
(Dead Heroes)

Leeds powerviolence crew Gets Worse return with their first full-length release since acquiring bassist Paul Priest of Hundred Year Old Man, Narayana, Sloth Hammer and umpteen other awesome bands – well, unless we’re counting last year’s excellent full-length EP compilation Struggle of course, but this is certainly their first album-length release of new material since their 2012 self-titled 10”. With previous bassist Benj Jones moving over to second guitar, the band’s aggro, downtuned hardcore has never sounded so thick and imposing, booming out of your speakers with skull-crushing zeal and bowel-rumbling power. Much like Spazz, Gets Worse manage to walk a fine line between irreverent, in-jokey mischief and genuinely cathartic expressions of rage, frustration and misery, ensuring things never get too goofy nor too po-faced. Their sound is instantly recognisable too, something that can’t be said for a lot of contemporary powerviolence acts, comprising weighty, overdriven bass tones, a high-pitched snare that cuts through the racket like a chainsaw through custard and a collection of throat-shredding screams, pained yelps and bellowing caveman barks that give the band an identity all of their own.

Snubbed doesn’t drastically alter this sound in any way, but rather refines it to a razor sharp point, offering up meaty grooves on ‘Dernard VS Drenrad’, raucous punk swagger on ‘Panic Shredder’, furious blastbeats on ‘Mumbloid’, torturous slow motion punishment on ‘Carlton Negged’ and even Man Is The Bastard-esque noise excursions on ‘Fun Borrower’. Their use of samples is on point too, never dragging on for too long but punctuating the stop-start madness perfectly (check out ‘El Belcho’ or the segue between ‘Kool Brewster’ and ’20 Gigaherpz’ for great examples). Only two songs break the two minute barrier: ‘Neck Vein’, an ode to the woes of working life that builds from a crunchy mid-tempo intro into a blinding assault of lightspeed fills and blurred powerchords before dropping into the kind of breakdown riff that’s destined to absolutely annihilate the front few rows whenever it’s played live, and closer ‘Rest In Schromph’, a disgusting great slab of sludge that acts as a total mind melter after the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it carnage you’ve just subjected yourself to. If you hate your life but are determined to squeeze some fun out of it just to spite yourself, this is essential listening.

Ithaca - The Language Of Injury
(Holy Roar)

It feels like it’s been a long time coming, but Ithaca’s debut full-length is finally here. Those in the know have been waiting on this London post-hardcore act to drop an album ever since their raging Narrow The Way EP landed in 2014, but if there’s any justice in this world then The Language Of Injury will bring their intense, technical and confrontationally heavy sound to a much wider audience. Whilst rooted in the same tradition as bands like The Dillinger Escape Plan, Botch and Poison The Well, the quintet inject a huge amount of their own personality here, and have really carved out a unique, distinctive sound for themselves. The leap from the (already fantastic) EPs to this album is stunning, without losing any of their visceral power that made them so appealing in the first place. Much like early Converge, even when they’re ploughing into huge chugging breakdowns, the riffs are always interesting enough to keep the chin-stroking prog fans as happy as the gleeful spin-kicking mosh-a-holics up front. One of my favourite things about this record is just how many weird and wonderful sounds guitarists Sam Chetan-Walsh and Will Sweet manage to get out of their instruments; listen in awe as ‘Impulse Crush’s floor-shaking final breakdown is interrupted by what sounds like a spaceship taking off for example, or the hard panned left and right squawks in ‘Youth VS Wisdom’ that sound like a pair of duelling peacocks suddenly bursting into the studio.

The band’s melodic sensibilities have come a long way too, with songs like ‘Secretspace’ and the colossal ‘Gilt’ deploying shimmering post rock chords atop muscular, syncopated grooves. Vocalist Djamilia Azzouz’s impassioned roar sounds more savage than ever, but she also uses clean vocals to brilliant effect here too. Don’t worry, they haven’t tried to shoehorn in any clichéd soaring melodic choruses or anything like that, instead using eerie, distant harmonies more as a textural accompaniment on songs like ‘Slow Negative Order’ and the devastating title track. Ithaca are absolutely one of the most powerful, interesting post-hardcore acts around today, and on the basis of this record alone, they deserve to be massive. Don’t sleep on this!

Ossuarium - Living Tomb
(20 Buck Spin)

Portland, Oregon death/doom quartet Ossuarium dropped a strong debut album this month too, with the lumbering, filthy and inventive Living Tomb. The usual influences for this type of stuff are all present and correct – ‘Corrosive Hallucinations’s taut, churning riffs have Incantation written all over them before the track unleashes some mournful Paradise Lost-esque leads, and ‘Vomiting Black Death’s use of eerie clean guitars alongside cavernous distorted riffs reeks of diSEMBOWELMENT – but there’s a lot more going on here than just your meat ’n’ potatoes death/doom mulch. The song structures are ambitious but never bloated, managing to conjure a seriously dark atmosphere whilst keeping things succinct and memorable too. A lot of these songs take some pretty interesting and unexpected twists; ‘Writhing In Emptiness’, for example, begins as a brash Celtic Frost stomp before ascending into some wild, spacey lead passages and the two-part ‘End Of Life Dreams And Visions’ tackles atonal Gorguts style skronk, bouncy oompah driven chugs and morbid crawling doom in its first half, then desolate, skeletal riffs and greasy Swe-death grooves in the second, ending the album on a particularly creepy note. This is a really well-realised and impressive debut, and certainly marks Ossuarium as a band to keep an eye on.

Dystopian Future Movies & Grave Lines - Beholden To The Flame
(Everybody Loses)

If there’s one thing I love more than a good split, it’s a collaborative split. I’ve covered both Nottingham gloom merchants Dystopian Future Movies and London doom supergroup Grave Lines in previous columns, and whilst significantly different bands they both share a certain dark kinship that not only makes them perfect split partners, but makes the idea of the two intermingling and working together a particularly enticing one indeed. For this split, Grave Lines’ vocalist Jake Harding lends his velveteen pipes to Dystopian Future Movies’ two tracks, and DFM singer/guitarist Caroline Cawley offers her delicate, emotive voice to Grave Lines. It works brilliantly, with each singers’ distinct style complimenting one another like the contemporary metal equivalent of Dead Can Dance’s Brendan Perry and Lisa Gerrard.

Dystopian Future Movies offer up two of their heaviest songs to date, with ‘Beholden’ boasting massive Neurosis-esque chords at an immensely powerful sloth-like pace. ‘Dead Sleep’, a sombre piano led ballad, may not be as heavy sonically but is absolutely crushing on an emotional level, conjuring a palpable feeling of emptiness and loss. It leads into Grave Lines’ track ‘False Flame’ perfectly too, a dense and evocative slice of misery that would have felt right at home on their recent Fed Into The Nihilist Engine LP. The song patiently builds a sparse, minimal intro riff into a whopping great sludge workout over the course of ten minutes. With both bands almost fusing into one another here, this feels like more than just a throwaway split release; this is a really great little mini LP that further demonstrates the creativity of two of the UK’s most exciting new doom bands.

Mastiff - Plague
(APF)

Hull noisemongers Mastiff have been going from strength to strength lately too, somehow getting even heavier and more abrasive with each new release – and new full-length Plague is easily their most hostile yet. Born out of the fertile Midlands sludge/doom scene, the quintet are a noticeably nastier proposition than many of their peers. You won’t find any bouncy, feel-good stoner grooves or soulful bluesy leads here, just torturous, crawling filth and abject misery. Whilst ostensibly still a sludge band at heart (as the weight of songs like ‘Bubonic’ and claustrophobic dirge-like closer ‘Black Death’ will attest), Plague finds Mastiff pushing their sound into other, even more savage areas. Songs like opener ‘Hellcircle’ and the minute-long ‘Brainbleed’ veer between burly D-beats and skin-flaying blastbeats like a much more detuned Nails or Trap Them, whilst ‘Vermin’, with its violent syncopated chugs, jarring chords and pained gang vocals, is like watching your favourite beatdown hardcore band being crushed beneath an avalanche of raw sewage. The vocals here deserve a special mention, with frontman Jim Hodge turning in his most terrifying performance yet, producing blunt, guttural barks that sound more like an asphyxiated yeti than anything human. This is an absolutely disgusting record, in the best possible way.

Pissgrave - Posthumous Humiliation
(Profound Lore)

But if it’s “disgusting” you want, you’re not going to find anything more repulsive than this little beauty this month – possibly even all year. As fitting as that cover (I did warn you!) is for this band, it would be a shame if it overshadowed the actual music here, which is heavy and nasty enough that it could still achieve the same notoriety even if it were packaged with soft focus images of kittens cuddling instead. Combining the overtly evil riffs of early Deicide with the messy aesthetic of early Carcass and then playing it with the staggering ferocity of war metal acts like Blasphemy and Revenge, Pissgrave are undoubtedly one of the downright filthiest death metal bands around today, and this second album really hammers that point home. Opener ‘Euthanasia’ is just insanely abrasive, whipping past at an unbelievable pace whilst demonic and indecipherable layered vocals blur into sickeningly oppressive bass tones and wild dive-bomb solos. ‘Into The Deceased’ sounds truly deranged, approaching grindcore levels of intensity before dropping into an utterly rancid tremolo groove complete with spiralling atonal leads and blistering double-kick rolls, whilst the vertigo-inducing ‘Emaciated’ takes things even further, sounding like every Cannibal Corpse song playing simultaneously. There’s enough variation throughout to keep things interesting though, with plenty of memorable riffs and twisting, bizarre song structures to keep you on your toes. Songs like ‘Catacombs Of Putrid Chambers’ slow things down to an Incantation-esque crawl, and the title track’s intro buries an almost Kreator-esque thrash riff beneath swathes of grating high-end cymbal feedback and sinewy, blood splattered guitar noise to thrilling effect.

Closer ‘Rusted Wind’ is the biggest surprise however, approaching funeral doom territory with a crawling pace and an incredible guitar harmony that’s as sinister and disturbing as it is thoughtful and strangely beautiful. It’s a curiously effecting piece of music that presents a far more mature and nuanced musical depiction of death than you’d expect given both the gruesome cover and 37 minutes of unrestrained aural depravity that precede it. It’s yet another reason why you shouldn’t write off Pissgrave as mere shock merchants or mindless gore hounds as, provided you can stomach it, there’s a wealth of ideas to be found amidst their sickly, lurching morass. So don’t get too hung up on the cover; pull on your rubber gloves, get your tetanus shots and just wade right in.

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