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Columnus Metallicus

Columnus Metallicus: November's Heavy Metal Reviewed By Kez Whelan
Kez Whelan , November 26th, 2019 09:32

In a few months' time we're about to mark the 50th freaking birthday of Heavy F'n Metal, says Kez Whelan, so let's get the party started early with news of the year's best death metal album: Hidden History Of The Human Race by Blood Incantation, not to mention stellar cuts from Angel Witch, Caïna, Esoteric and Nile

Have you noticed how many bona fide cast iron metal classics have been celebrating anniversaries recently? Both Godflesh’s Streetcleaner and Terrorizer’s World Downfall turned 30 years old this month; both genre defining classics that impacted with such force that we’re still feeling the ripples of their influence right now. Next year, Black Sabbath’s first album will be 50 years old. Fifty. Metal is now only ten years off from collecting its bus pass.

It’s astonishing to think how many bizarre permutations of the genre have blossomed in that time, and how many more we’re yet to experience, but metal’s age also places it in a curious predicament right now. There are only so many more times the same big festivals can recycle the same big headliners after all, with a lot of recent line-up announcements being met with little more than sighs of “them again?” and “they haven’t put out an album in fourteen years!” And yet, metal’s extended universe of sub-genres and sub-sub-genres and sub-sub-sub-genres has never been more vibrant or alive, with smaller fests offering a smorgasbord of awesome up-and-coming bands, and younger fans often flocking to these new acts in their droves before any of the old guard even prick up their ears. There’s a paradigm shift a-coming, kids, you mark my words – and I’m not just saying that because that new Blood Incantation record has melted my brain…

Blood Incantation - Hidden History Of The Human Race
(Dark Descent)

Speaking of which though, how good is this new Blood Incantation record? It’s really heartening to see that, in a month containing newbies from some pretty big, established names, November’s highest levels of hype have been wholeheartedly heaped upon a little ol’ cosmic death metal band from Denver, Colorado. And deservedly so – the quartet’s 2015 debut EP Interdimensional Extinction placed them right at the forefront of the current new school of old school death metal, and their 2016 full-length Starspawn was even better, building on the foundations laid by bands like Morbid Angel and Timeghoul to create truly progressive, inventive death metal with interesting song structures, head spinning performances and haunting, intergalactic lyrics. With all eyes on them now, Hidden History Of The Human Race could have easily succumbed to “difficult second album syndrome”, but thankfully it’s every bit as good as its predecessor.

Opener ‘Slave Species Of The Gods’ and the labyrinthine ‘The Giza Power Plant’ (complete with ancient astronaut conspiracy theory lyrics) do not fuck about at all, packing an insane amount of riffs into memorable and imaginative song structures in a way that will feel instantly familiar to fans of Starspawn. ‘Inner Paths (To Outer Space)’ is perhaps the most genuinely psychedelic offering from the group so far, gracefully spiralling outwards into a spacious, deeply layered freak out, like the missing link between Death and Hawkwind. It even features a fantastic vocal cameo from none other than Demilich frontman Antti Borman himself, who’s unmistakable inter-stellar toad belches compliment the song’s surreal, space faring atmosphere perfectly without ever pulling focus from the bands extra-terrestrial instrumental prowess. The real showstopper here, however, is the 18 minute masterpiece ‘Awakening From The Dream Of Existence To The Multidimensional Nature Of Our Reality (Mirror Of The Soul)’, an absolute voyage of a track that ventures through vintage death metal riffery, deeply immersive meditative synth workouts, dazzlingly technical and incredibly expressive leads and a vast, funeral doom-esque outro that sounds like a universe collapsing in on itself. Despite the length and the sheer amount of ideas here, the track never feels like aimless riff salad, remaining focused and hypnotic throughout.

Whilst the band have never tried to hide their admiration for classic acts like Morbid Angel et al, what’s remarkable about Hidden History is just how futuristic it all sounds. Rather than just shameless retro worship, Blood Incantation have tapped into a truly timeless sound and are boldly taking it to places that no other band has dared to before. It’s technical without ever being overly flashy, visceral without becoming exhausting and psychedelic without being gaudy or tacky. This is everything you could want from a follow-up to Starspawn, building on the band’s sound and experimenting with even proggier ideas whilst remaining true to everything that made us originally fall in love with them.

This is the best death metal album of the year. Believe the hype.

Nile - Vile Nilotic Rites
(Nuclear Blast)

Blood Incantation aren’t the first band to inject pyramids and ancient conspiracy theories into death metal though – Nile have been doing it since 93. The 2010s have been a strange time for the band however – once the undisputed kings of cinematic technical death metal with the kind of musical and aesthetic focus your local sweep picking enthusiast would give his seven string bass for, 2012’s badly mixed and strangely incoherent At The Gate Of Sethu was the first real dud in an otherwise flawless discography. Just as 2015’s more powerful What Should Not Be Unearthed heralded something of a return to form, long-serving guitarist/vocalist Dallas Toller-Wade announced his departure from the group two years later, leaving the future of the band looking uncertain. This month finally sees the debut of Nile 2.0, with Enthean frontman Brian Kingsland taking Dallas’ place and Brad Parris taking up bass duties. Thankfully the new line-up doesn’t really deviate from what made this band so great in the first place, whilst playing with an enthusiasm and conviction their last couple records were sorely missing.

Songs like ‘That Which Is Forbidden’, with its insanely fast picking, and the ludicrously titled ‘The Oxford Handbook Of Genocidal Warfare’ feel like classic Nile, dropping big juicy grooves amidst jaw-droppingly swift riffs and middle eastern flavoured licks. ‘Snake Pit Mating Frenzy’ is a no-nonsense three minute banger in the vein of live favourites like ‘Sacrifice Unto Sebek’ or ‘Papyrus Containing The Spell To Preserve Its Possessor Against Attacks From He Who Is In The Water’, whilst ‘Seven Horns Of War’ is a proper epic cut from the same cloth as ‘Unas, Slayer Of The Gods’, a towering nine minute behemoth that makes very effective use of booming, evocative horns before building into one of those impossibly huge chugging climaxes that Nile pull off so well. Elsewhere, songs like ‘Where Is The Wrathful Sky’ make much better use of the odd, histrionic vocal proclamations that At The Gate Of Seth awkwardly tried to do, whilst making room for some tasteful and extremely evocative acoustic breaks in amongst the maelstrom of blastbeats and guttural vocals. Vile Nilotic Rites may not do a whole lot that previous Nile albums didn’t, but there’s newfound vigour and energy this time round that makes it arguably their best release this decade.

Obsequiae - The Palms Of Sorrowed Kings
(20 Buck Spin)

Nile may have cornered the market for ancient Egyptian themes in extreme metal, but Obsequiae have recently done the same for medieval England. Given the plagues, disease and general grimness surrounding the dark ages, it’s a wonder more metal bands don’t mine the era for inspiration. Maybe there’s a fear that it’ll come off sounding a bit too much like Spinal Tap’s ‘Stonehenge’, but Obsequiae’s rich, melodic sound manages to completely avoid sounding clichéd or gimmicky in any way. Whilst a lot of black metal aims to sound harsh and cold, there’s a cleanliness and warmth to Obsequiae – rather than making you feel like you’re lost in a blizzard, their sound makes me feel you’re kicking back in front of a roaring fire, gazing at said blizzard from your castle’s nearest portcullis. The trio’s 2011 debut Suspended In The Brine Of Eos was a breath of fresh air, imbibing eerie blackened melodies with a mysterious medieval atmosphere, and 2015’s Aria Of Vernal Tombs was even better, with a better production and more emphasis on Vicente La Camera Mariño’s heart wrenchingly beautiful harp playing.

Once again, The Palms Of Sorrowed Kings ups the ante even further; the production is crystal clear, the songs are even more captivating and the performances are just incredible, from Vincent’s aforementioned harp to new drummer Eoghan McCloskey’s stirring rhythmic force and Tanner Anderson’s nimble bass work, impassioned vocals and glistening, windswept guitar harmonies. Songs like ‘In The Garden Of Hyacinths’ and ‘Asleep In The Bracken’ pair blistering blastbeats with ethereal, otherworldly melodies, whilst ‘Lone Isle’ drops into more mid-paced territory with thrilling effect, like a cross between Summoning and mid-period Bathory. The title track even introduces angelic, choral vocals and ripping neo-classical shredding, neither of which feel remotely pompous or ham-fisted at all, serving the song’s stunning cinematic atmosphere perfectly. Time will tell if Obsequiae can maintain this winning streak, but for now this is certainly their most accomplished record to date, and some of the most evocative, original and downright gorgeous black metal around.

Sunn O))) - Pyroclasts
(Southern Lord)

As promised, drone overlords Sunn O))) return with their second Steve Albini produced album of the year – although anyone hoping for the same level of innovation and reinvention that Life Metal delivered in April may be disappointed. Whilst that album reaffirmed the band’s thick, powerful sound whilst also experimenting with Hildur Guðnadóttir’s eerie vocals and cello and Anthony Pateras’ cleansing pipe organ, Pyroclasts is very much a “back to basics” affair, and is a lot more minimal and single minded than its sister album. That’s not too surprising given that, whilst Life Metal was much more composed and premeditated, Pyroclasts was born out of improv sessions to warm up or wind down in the midst of recording Life Metal’s more complex pieces. Indeed, the cynics out there might sneer that this is less of a sister album, and more of an excuse to just churn out another Sunn O))) album with Albini on the boards whilst the iron is hot.

On the plus side though – it’s another Sunn O))) album with Albini on the boards, ferchrisssakes! What more do you people want? The album sounds just as rich, vibrant and physically imposing as its predecessor on a purely sonic level, and is bound to knock a few fillings loose even at low volumes (although, as ever, maximum volumes do indeed yield maximum results). These drones are beautifully textured and incredibly enveloping, with the 43 minute run time ensuring they don’t overstay their welcome but last just long enough to warp time and space around you and suck you into a vast, inescapable black hole. Albini’s deft touch and analogue fetishism means this is probably the best studio representation of their live sound to date too – flood your room with dry ice, drape your dressing gown over your subwoofer and it’s almost like you’re right in the room with them. Pyroclasts may not be as cohesive or well realised as Life Metal and certainly won’t convert any non-believers, but for the rest of us, this is another extremely satisfying slab of drone to see us through the festive period.

Havohej - Table Of Uncreation
(Hells Headbangers)

Opening lines of reviews are like buses; you wait ages for an opportunity to use the lazy old “[Band X]’s albums are like buses…” cliché and then two turn up at once. Typical, eh? Yep, Sunn O))) aren’t alone in dropping two records mere months apart this time, with drummer Paul Ledney resurrecting his Havohej project just after his band Profanatica dropped a convincingly nasty record earlier this year. Whilst both bands were formed by Ledney after his departure from Incantation to explore more blackened sounds, Profanatica mutated into a perverse blend of primitive black metal and the sort of thick, atmospheric death metal his former band excelled in, whilst Havohej seemed to drop off the radar somewhat after their cult classic debut, 1993’s unspeakably evil Dethrone The Son Of God. On the basis of this new one though, that was probably a good thing…

Unfortunately Table Of Uncreation utterly fails to recapture what made the project so interesting in the first place. Opener ‘God Of All Constellation’ is shaky but feels promising enough, with torturously slow drums, harsh guttural vocals and clumps of grating detuned noise almost conjuring up an early Swans vibe, but once you realise that’s the guitar tone Ledney has inexplicably chosen for the entire record, your enthusiasm will start to wane. There’s nothing wrong with lo-fi production of course, especially for bands like this, but there’s no real atmosphere conjured here; the drums are booming and crisp, but the guitar is absolutely indecipherable, sounding more like a field recording of a rusty drain heard from two rooms away rather than anything even resembling a riff. It’s not texturally interesting enough to work in a noisy, avant-garde way either, reducing most of the LP to nondescript mush. OK, it’s not a total wash – ‘Before Them And Behind Them’ is suitably ferocious and uses noise to its advantage, whilst ‘Seven Jinn’ pairs early Beherit style thumping with ear piercing high-end scree quite nicely – but on the whole, this is a very weak, uninspired showing from an artist who’s clearly capable of better. If you want primitive, murky blackened death, just pick up the new Profanatica instead.

Caïna - Gentle Illness
(Apocalyptic Witchcraft)

If it’s genuinely experimental black metal you’re after however, then Caïna’s latest is essential. It’s amazing how far Andrew Curtis-Brignell’s solo project has come since forming in 2004; predating the whole shoegaze inspired black metal sound that Deafheaven would later popularize by a few years, it would have been easy enough to keep on that path and reap the rewards, but Caïna’s dedication to experimentation and furthering his sound is not only admirable, it’s produced some great records too. Later albums widened his already broad set of influences, with 2014’s Setter Of Unseen Snares drawing from hardcore punk and doom, and 2016’s Christ Clad In White Phosphorus emphasising more industrial and neo-folk sounds. Gentle Illness however, is easily Andrew’s most personal and out-there record yet, detailing his struggles with mental illness amidst some of most diverse and fearless instrumentation in his discography.

Songs like ‘Your Life Was Probably Pointless’, ‘One Breath Under The Yoke Is A Fate Worse Than Death’ and the epic title track offer up cathartic, cold and aggressive black metal, but are unafraid to drift into unsettling musique concrete sections, or augment their blizzard-like riffery with beautiful, forlorn piano. ‘My Mind Is Completely Disintegrating’ marries Caïna’s post-rock influenced past to a much darker, jazzier atmosphere, creating a truly disorientating effect, whilst ‘No Princes In Hell’ even breaks into a jazzy bossa nova swing, like Xasthur waking up from a fever dream in the middle of a Bohren & Der Club of Gore practice. ‘Canto IV’, meanwhile, feels like Coil’s take on trap, building an absolutely terrifying soundscape out of thunderous 808s, sinister field recordings and the distant hiss of white noise.

Gentle Illness is by no means an easy listen, and will very likely prove divisive even amongst long-term Caïna fans – but those who get it are going to really fucking get it. It’s a turbulent, uncomfortable record that perfectly captures the despair, fear, isolation and even fleeting moments of calm that come with a severe manic episode. It’s disjointed, erratic and makes wild, spontaneous leaps in tone, but that’s kind of the point – it manages to find cohesion and unflinching focus within this disarray. This is one of the year’s boldest, most vulnerable and honest metal releases; it’s all the better for its imperfections and it dares to suggest that perhaps, listener, so are you.

Triangle Face - Sentinels Of Pseudo-Reality: Interpretations Of Maelstrom
(Apocalyptic Witchcraft)

Apocalyptic Witchcraft score a double whammy on the avant-garde black metal front this month – well, not that oddball trio Triangle Face fit comfortably into the black metal category, with shades of death metal, grindcore, prog rock and even weird carnival music creeping into their bizarre sound. Imagine Dødheimsgard, Mr Bungle and Gorguts bonding over creepy Olde English fables, the works of Salvador Dali and a potent batch of mushroom tea. Discomfort is certainly the bands M.O., with their dada inspired outlook not only manifesting through their music, but also their sinister stage get up. It’s a surreal experience.

Take ‘Püsepxn Manajmnt’ for example, which veers between thoroughly menacing Portal style tremolo and jaunty disco beats without even a pause for breath, or ‘Divizibl’, which darts through staccato tech death chugging before dropping into a gleefully primitive Celtic Frost-esque stomp. ‘Mizüre Prism’s deliciously dissonant intro eventually gives way to sombre, nostalgic acoustic licks before busting out a giant mosh riff and then leaping back into swathes of head spinning blackened filth, whilst ‘Bämé Béson’ sounds like At The Gates doing their best Mayhem impression after going a bit too hard on the old absinthe. This album is a very disorientating listen, but never feels incoherent – there’s a warped logic underpinning the songwriting that may not be apparent on the first listen, but will certainly reward those brave enough to subject themselves to this lunacy over a prolonged period of time. There’s an anarchic sense of humour at play here, but the band thankfully don’t let things get too self-consciously wacky – indeed, the stark juxtaposition with these more playful passages make the band’s evil segments sound even more unnerving and disquieting by comparison. If you’re looking for some adventurous, progressive, theatrical and thoroughly baffling extreme metal, then this thing is a riot.

Aggressive Perfector - Havoc At The Midnight Hour
(Dying Victims Productions)

Sometimes, however, you just need a blast of straight forward, no-nonsense old school metal goodness. If you couldn’t tell from their name and that joyfully shlocky album cover, Manchester’s Aggressive Perfector (featuring members of Wode, Heavy Sentence and Under The Horns) worship ‘80s metal, sort of like Midnight with less black metal and more NWOBHM. If you were to take a few dog eared copies of Welcome To Hell, Killers, Show No Mercy and Angel Witch and hurl them all into the teleportation machine from The Fly, Havoc At The Midnight Hour would be the gruesome, mutant beast staring back at you on the other side.

Tracks like ‘Devils Bastard’ and the blistering ‘Chains Of Black Wrath’ are prime speed metal cuts, frantically racing past with vocalist General Holocausto’s (oh yeah, they’ve got stage names too – this is the full package right here) Cronos-esque snarl riding high atop triumphantly brash thrash riffs, whilst bombastic opener ‘Onwards To The Cemetry’ and greasy single ‘Turbo Evil’ inject more of a rock ‘n’ roll swagger, easing off on the breakneck pace to make room for a sleazier strut whilst still delivering Tom Araya style falsetto and soaring Maiden guitar harmonies.

Havoc contains enough of the band’s own personality to make it stand out amidst other ‘80s revivalists currently doing the rounds, but more importantly, there’s not a dull moment on it. The whole thing rips past in just under 40 minutes and it’s an absolute blast from start to finish. Crack open a beer and play this one loud.

Angel Witch - Angel Of Light
(Metal Blade)

Speaking of Angel Witch’s classic self-titled debut, it may have taken almost 40 years but it finally has a worthy successor. This isn’t to put down the band’s other records – the two albums they did with vocalist Dave Tattum (85’s Screaming’ N’ Bleedin’ and 86’s Frontal Assault) are great in their own right, but have a very different feel to that debut and sound like a different band, whilst their ambitious 2012 comeback As Above, So Below reached for longer, more progressive song structures but fell just short of pulling them off. It had some great moments, but felt bloated and sluggish as a whole.

Angel Of Light, however, not only feels like vintage Angel Witch but sounds positively energised too – if you’d told us this was a forgotten recording from 81, it’s only the crunchy modern production and frontman Kevin Heybourne’s more weathered sounding vocals that would give the game away. Songs like ‘We Are The Damned’ and ‘Condemned’ have that same classic singalong vibe that makes the band’s self-titled song such an enduring anthem, whilst ‘I Am Infamy’ introduces a harder, doomier riffing style that compliments their traditional NWOBHM shredding very nicely indeed. Songs like the dense, sci-fi inspired ‘Death From Andromeda’ (featuring subtle but effective electronics from new guitarist, Teeth Of The Sea’s Jimmy Martin) and the Metallica-esque ballad ‘The Night Is Calling’ nail that epic vibe that As Above, So Below hinted at with aplomb. The leads are spectacular throughout, and the guitar harmonies have that righteously metal quality to them that’ll have your perpetually headbanging inner child squealing with glee. OK, so the rough & ready charm of Angel Witch is never really going to be captured again, but Angel Of Light is a solid, mature follow-up. As a lesson in how to make a traditional, unpretentious heavy metal record in 2019, this thing ticks all the right boxes.

Esoteric - A Pyrrhic Existence
(Season Of Mist)

Birmingham’s funeral doom masters Esoteric return with their first new material since 2011’s Paragon Of Dissonance this month – not that we’re begrudging them for the wait, of course, as these herculean double disc doom records can’t be an easy feat to put together. While the length of an average Esoteric song is longer than the entirety of Reign In Blood, these guys don’t just stretch things out for the sake of it; every one of their albums has a profound sense of pay-off and A Pyrrhic Existence is no different, chalking up another tightly plotted and expertly executed epic for the quintet. ‘Descent’ is a fantastic opener, gradually transcending traditional funeral doom stylings to blossom into a big gyrating cosmic mindfuck, with grandiose lead guitar swirling through dense clusters of spacey keys.

‘Rotting In Dereliction’ picks up the pace ever so slightly before falling back into a chasmic black void, as spine tinglingly eerie string swells chime away in the background, leading to a desolate yet intensely emotive finale. The second disc gets even more adventurous, with the seething, bitter ‘Consuming Lies’ building from a pounding, slow intro into vicious syncopated chugging like a slo-mo Meshuggah, complete with ruthlessly efficient double-click, before the whole thing collapses into a spacious, intricately layered prog rock outro. That segues nicely into ‘Culmination’, a distinctly uneasy sounding piece that allows wonky death metal riffs to bubble up through its dense, impenetrable morass, before unleashing some truly harrowing screams atop jangling, dissonant chords and fluid guitar passages that sound like Larks Tongues In Aspic era King Crimson dipped in tar. By the time ‘Sick And Tired’ rolls around you’ll feel like you’ve been flattened into a human puddle; it’s an absolutely beautiful finale, all fretboard fireworks, huge, emotive chords and inescapable existential dread.

Don’t be daunted by the hour and a half running time, as remarkably there’s no dead weight on A Pyrrhic Existence at all – this thing positively flies past compared to some of the less imaginative 40 minute funeral doom records out there. If you’re a fan of the band already, you’re probably already basking in this as we speak, but for newcomers to both Esoteric and the funeral doom genre in general, this is a superb (and fairly accessible) entry point. Light some candles, dim the lights, run yourself a hot bath and just delve in.

A Horse Called War - Good For Glue (And Nothing Else)
(APF)

Also returning after a lengthy hiatus are sludgy quartet A Horse Called War, back with their first recording in over a decade. For the unfamiliar, they formed in the wake of bands like Iron Monkey and Charger, positioning themselves as Thetford’s unlikely answer to Eyehategod with 2007’s furious Stumbling At Every Hurdle EP. Unfortunately that title proved to be fairly prophetic with the band imploding not long after – but with this kind of drug ravaged, nihilistic sludge becoming much more popular in the intervening years, the band decided to dust off their saddle in 2015 and show these young whippersnappers how it’s done. With their wild, high octane live show proving to be more explosive than ever, we’ve been patiently for more studio recordings from the band, and this does not disappoint at all.

Not much has changed with the band’s sound – they still sound immeasurably pissed off, and they still combine hulking great doom riffs with bristling hardcore energy – but it sounds so convincingly furious that it doesn’t matter at all. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, right? There’s an interesting mix of vocal styles that helps them stand out from their sludgy peers too, with the traditional high register shriek and throaty bellows augmented by a panicked, intoxicated howl. Whilst not exactly harsh, it’d be a stretch to call these “clean” vocals – it sounds more like Chino Moreno shouting through a ball gag whilst the band paddle him with whatever blunt objects they have lying around the studio. Tracks like ‘Old One Eye’ increase the punk energy, ‘Pardon The Pun’ drops weighty slabs of detuned riffage and songs like the Brass Eye sampling closer ‘Woodpusher’ bring both together with an almost noise rock sensibility. A highly satisfying slice of greased up, drunken sludge fury, then.

Violation Wound - Dying To Live, Living To Die
(Peaceville)

Does Chris Reifert ever sleep? In addition to bringing his legendary death metal band Autopsy back from the dead to release some of their all-time best material in recent years, he’s also been averaging an album a year with his punk side project Violation Wound, the last of which was covered back in April of last year in this very column.

Aside from a few slightly doomier moments (the suitably desolate ‘The Day Lemmy Died’ and surprisingly Sabbathian chorus of the ripping, lead guitar drenched ‘Dead Flags’), this new one doesn’t present any real surprises, but it does refine and sharpen the trio’s grotty, Poison Idea indebted sound. Most of these songs barely scrape a minute, with tunes like ‘Off With His Head’, ‘Guns! Guns! Guns!’ and the furious, almost grindcore-esque ‘Chainsaw Brain’ racing past in a blur of d-beats, scuzzy licks and boisterous gang vocals. While it might not be anything we haven’t heard before, the album somehow manages to outdo previous Violation Wound releases in terms of speed, aggression and catchiness, so if the band can keep this up, we’ll happily keep lapping it up, year after year – or, at least, until the next Autopsy LP finally drops…

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