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Columnus Metallicus

Columnus Metallicus: Heavy Metal For June Reviewed By Kez Whelan
Kez Whelan , June 16th, 2020 10:15

Kez Whelan is back with his stygian sack of sludge, doom, thrash, BM and post metal releases

With this month’s edition of your favourite riff worshippin’ column coming to you amidst some of the biggest protests for racial equality of a generation, it’s as good a time as any to examine how racism can infest and damage the metal community. Writers like Laina Dawes have eloquently called for metal heads to reflect and stamp out racism, but it’s been disappointing to see comment sections filled with folk who seem to have interpreted this as an attack. When people say metal has a racism problem, they’re not saying “metal is awful, ban it!”, they're saying “metal is awesome & I care enough about it to make it as welcoming to everyone as it was to me”.

The wide and wonderful world of metal can be an exceptionally accepting and empowering place, but unfortunately it’s not always the leather clad utopia it’s often made out to be – the fact that you instantly know what I’m referring to by saying the four letters “NSBM” says a lot about how racism has manifested itself here and gripped hold of certain pockets of extreme metal. It’s frustrating to see otherwise well-intentioned, caring people immediately dismiss accounts of racism within the scene, only to deliver their own “well I’VE never had any problems” retorts in return.

If you’ve never encountered regressive, racist attitudes during your run-ins with this form of music, then great, that’s how it should be, but unfortunately that’s not the case for everyone – and to drown out their voices by boasting about how welcoming the metal community is rather than just welcoming them, makes you a part of the problem, ironically enough. If you agree that everyone is welcome here, then you should listen to the people who feel they're not.

Pyrrhon - Abscess Time
(Willowtip)

I’ve been itching to hear this one for a while now, given how consistently extraordinary this New York death metal outfit has been over the last decade. Whilst their 2011 debut An Excellent Servant But A Terrible Master was cool, ever since 2014’s boundary pushing The Mother Of Virtues the band’s vivid, imaginative sound has fully transcended tech-death tropes and now seems to exist in its very own unique sphere amongst the wider metal spectrum. Sure, you can definitely hear elements of Obscura-era Gorguts skronk, Cephalic Carnage’s joyously anarchic approach to deathgrind and Human Remains levels of dizzying, hyperactive technicality in there, but nobody else really blends these influences together or creates a racket anywhere near as obtuse and idiosyncratic as Pyrrhon. That the wonky, relentless dirge of their new record’s opening title track recalls the beginning of Brutal Truth’s classic Need To Control feels very fitting, as if any contemporary band so whole-heartedly represents that album’s fearless, experimental spirit, it’s surely Pyrrhon.

After building all that tension, the release of frantic, maelstrom-esque tracks like ‘Down At Liberty Ashes’ and the no-holds-barred burbling brutality of the minute long ‘Teuchnikskreis’ feels all the more visceral and violent, but there’s an extremely focussed approach to these dense clusters of wild, dissonant riffs that keeps the whole thing sounding as cohesive as it does chaotic. It just gets weirder and weirder too, with the spacious, nine-minute long ‘The Cost Of Living’ leaving a lot of breathing room for lingering dissonant chords to rub up against free-form Sonny Sharrock-style lead guitar outbursts. ‘Overwinding’ and ‘Human Capital’ get even jazzier and more abstract, effortlessly binding cacophonously fiddly death metal riffage to some really uncomfortable and unexpected rhythmic shifts. ‘State Of Nature’, meanwhile, sounds like it’s physically buckling and distorting under its own intensity, riding a tough noise-rock bass line whilst sickly, melting guitar leads drift in and out of focus.

Lyrically, the band are still on form too, continuing their tradition of self-aware prose that manages to be surreal, socially conscious and viciously, venomously sarcastic at the same time. Whilst a lot of overtly technical death metal doesn’t seem to extend the same intricacy to wordsmithery as it does musicianship, part of the fun of a Pyrrhon album is not only trying to digest and untangle all the dense, avant-garde compositions, but also reading along and deciphering the lyrics, which always manage to be as intelligent and cliché-free as the music itself. It really feels like Pyrrhon have outdone themselves again here, managing to broaden their sound out into even stranger, psychedelic places whilst retaining that core intensity that’s always made them such a thrill to listen to. This is some truly top shelf, forward-thinking 21st century extreme metal right here. Cherish it.

Bell Witch & Aerial Ruin - Stygian Bough: Volume I
(Profound Lore)

Seattle funeral doom duo Bell Witch return this month with a collaboration with Aerial Ruin, the solo project of Erik Moggridge who fans will recognise from, well, his guest appearances on every other Bell Witch album. It definitely makes sense that he’s given an equal billing here though, as Stygian Bough is much more of a combined effort, with not only Erik’s voice but also his guitar given a much more integral role. Yep, Bell Witch have become a power trio for this one, and the results sound as enormous as you’d expect. Opener ‘The Bastard Wind’ really showcases Erik’s mournful, wraith like voice as bassist Dylan Desmond lets rip with those beautiful, morose yet grandiose licks that have become his trademark.

Whilst the pace is still slow and resolutely crushing, Jesse Shreibman has enough space to get a bit busier on the kit here, utilising some swift and extremely impactful rolls beneath the thick, swampy guitars. The two-part ‘Heaven Torn Low’ turns the spotlight on Erik’s melancholy, folky finger picking in its first half, conjuring a stormy but still atmosphere similar to Morningrise-era Opeth, before the second half erupts in earthy, distorted bass notes and celestial, shimmering organ swells, whilst ‘The Unbodied Air’ is positively overflowing with deep, dark slow motion guitar leads that add a whole new dimension to Bell Witch’s flattening bass vibrations.

Stygian Bough is an interesting glimpse into Bell Witch’s potential future, and whilst the Volume I subtitle certainly suggests they’re open to collaborating further, I wouldn’t be surprised if they end up intertwining with Aerial Ruin permanently further along the line. After all, where do you go from Mirror Reaper? That album is such a powerful, towering work of art that it sort of feels like the zenith of the Bell Witch duo sound, and it’s difficult to see how they could follow it. Stygian Bough in that sense is an ideal follow-up, exploring the fresh possibilities opened up by new instrumentation after exhausting the possibilities of minimalism pushed to the Nth degree – sort of like how Om began to incorporate more exotic flourishes on God Is Good after pushing the bass/drums format as far as they could, only with devastating Warning-esque guitar harmonies rather than ethereal sitar strums. Either way, this is a great addition to their discography and a fine companion for those long, lonely lockdown nights.

Vile Creature - Glory, Glory! Apathy Took Helm!
(Prosthetic)

On the subject of awesome doom duos, Canada’s Vile Creature are back with what could well be their most powerful release to date. Following up 2018’s sci-fi inspired Cast Of Static And Smoke was never going to be easy, and whilst Glory, Glory! Apathy Took Helm! doesn’t have the same overarching narrative, it still manages to feel just as cohesive, dynamic and focussed, if not more so. Whilst not a “concept” album in the same way its predecessor was, there’s still an overriding theme running through this LP of catharsis and the creative and spiritual benefits of confronting despair and resisting apathy, as the title suggests, and it all amounts to a record that feels incredibly inspiring and empowering.

It’s a big step up sonically too, boasting the fullest, tastiest production of any of their output yet. Massive opener ‘Harbinger Of Nothing’ is a case in point, emphasising the fantastic interplay between guitarist KW’s gruff, hardcore indebted bellow and drummer Vic’s more otherworldly shriek atop crushing sludge riffery, before dropping into a more desolate and eerie drone, with all manner of subtle textures echoing out amidst the thick, full-bodied guitar tone whilst impassioned screams and eerie whispers intermingle beneath. ‘When The Path Is Unclear’ is an enormous slab of no-nonsense riff worship, dishing out deliciously slow, ominous chugs with skull-rattling low-end, but Vile Creature sound just as comfortable dipping out of their comfort zone here too; check out the ambitious two part title track, with the first half ‘Glory! Glory!’ building a gloriously rich soundscape with the haunting voices of guest vocalist Laurel Minnes and her choir, Miniscule, and subtle but extremely effective piano and organ embellishments from Bismuth’s Tanya Byrne, before ‘Apathy Took Helm!’ weaves in big, emotive Thou-esque chords without missing a beat. It’s similar to some of The Body’s more orchestrated stuff with the Assembly Of Light Choir, but with the nihilistic, apocalyptic vibe replaced with a cautious, yearning optimism, and it makes for a spectacular way to end of 2020’s best sludge metal albums.

-(16)- Dream Squasher
(Relapse)

A lot of sludge has felt a bit stagnant of late, so whilst it’s heartening to see newer bands like Vile Creature breathing life into the genre, it’s also great to see sludge luminaries like -(16)- continuing to sound this pissed off, inventive and convincingly heavy even after three decades of existence. The LA quartet have always had their own distinctive sound, helping to define the term “sludge” in the early 90s alongside peers like Noothgrush, Eyehategod and Grief whilst injecting a hefty dose of Unsane and early Helmet into their swampy groove alongside the traditional diet of Sabbath and My War side B that those other bands were feasting on. They’re still sounding remarkably vital on this eighth full-length, with tracks like opener ‘Candy In Spanish’ and ‘Harvester Of Fabrication’ serving up pipin’ hot syncopated grooves, mean hoarse barks and gutter dwelling, tar stained riffs in a suitably vicious, authoritative manner. ‘Acid Tongue’ is just straight-up classic sludge metal, teasing lumbering, crawling palm-muted chunks atop aggressive samples before breaking into a huge, swinging groove with a gloriously simple, bile filled chorus.

Rather than simply busting out a load of filthy textbook riffs and calling it a day however, there are a number of surprises in Dream Squasher. Take ‘Sadlands’, for example, a thick, syrupy churn that incorporates some surprisingly effective clean vocals and a soaring, melodic chorus that feels very different to anything else the band have done so far. It suits them well however, and manages to retain an authentic darkness too – think Crowbar covering early Baroness, and you’re in the right area. ‘Agora (Killed By A Mountain Lion)’ has a fantastically desolate, swampy atmosphere with unsettling harmonica swells and forlorn bluesy licks, whilst ‘Ride The Waves’ jostles hardcore punk vibes with blastbeats and unexpectedly deathly riffing (and a triumphantly Iommian mid-section, naturally). All in all, this is a really consistent, solid and engaging record from one of sludge’s most unsung heroes.

Wino - Forever Gone
(Ripple Music)

Somehow, Wino’s first solo acoustic record Adrift is a full decade old this year. A decade! He’s done a lot in the interim, of course, including albums with Saint Vitus and The Obsessed in addition to a series of acoustic collaborations with German singer/songwriter Conny Ochs, but Adrift has really managed to stand the test of time in a way a lot of “revered metal musician goes acoustic” records don’t. A lot of them are nice enough in the moment, but I still find myself reaching for Adrift fairly regularly even ten years later, it’s just such a well-rounded and endearing testament to the strengths of Wino’s song writing. This follow-up, Forever Gone, definitely harks back to Adrift’s more diverse, eclectic definition of an “acoustic album” in comparison to the more stripped down, bare bones approach of the Conny Ochs records. There are still some very effective, minimal pieces like ‘Crystal Madonna’ and the haunting title track, but elsewhere ‘Taken’ finds Wino constructing a beautiful mini-symphony with layered guitar effects over his plaintive strumming, whilst ‘You’re So Fine’ throws in a barrel load of smoked out classic rock leads.

There’s also a full band rendition of ‘Dark Ravine’ from the first Conny Ochs collab Heaven Kingdom, alongside an updated ‘Dead Yesterday’ that really emphasises those wistful, stargazing licks that Wino uses so effectively. There’s even a fantastic Southern fried cover of Joy Division’s ‘Isolation’, transforming the original’s melancholic stomp into a robust desert rock banger, complete with a suitably bleary eyed psychedelic outro. Forever Gone doesn’t feel quite as cohesive or definitive as Adrift did overall, but it’s a great collection of songs nonetheless, and is mandatory listening for any devotees of Wino’s weathered but heartfelt style of song craft.

Mrs. Piss - Self Surgery
(Sargent House)

With last year’s Birth Of Violence opting for a more pensive, folky approach, it seems Chelsea Wolfe has unleashed all her aggression and satisfied that lust for volume with Mrs. Piss, a two piece featuring herself and drummer Jess Gowerie, whose thunderous, hard hitting assault helped make Hiss Spun such a powerful, heavy record. Given how sombre and understated Birth Of Violence was, ‘Downer Surrounded By Uppers’s soaring, aggressive chorus and kinetic, booming energy feel like a revelation, sounding like a Kim Gordon fronted Lightning Bolt. The foreboding, gothic ‘Knelt’ is probably the most traditionally Chelsea Wolfe-esque song here, and despite it’s rawer, stripped back sound, wouldn’t have sounded completely out of place on Hiss Spun, but other than that Self-Surgery is far more primal, relishing in its loose, no-fucks-given immediacy.

‘Nobody Wants To Party With Us’ alternates between sparse, Suicide-style tension and balls to the wall, speaker blowing bombast, whilst ‘You Took Everything’ flavours its massive anthemic choruses with blasts of noise and harsh, screeched vocals backing up Chelsea’s haunting wail. The title track comes across like a heroin-addled fusion of Ministry and L7, with Gowerie’s furious, pounding beats given centre stage. At just eighteen minutes, Self-Surgery definitely leaves you wanting more, but has that punchy, filler free quality that blesses many a classic punk album. It’s addictive, and as much as I loved the last Chelsea Wolfe album, it’s awesome to hear her just letting loose in a heavy two-piece format. More of this, please!

Living Gate - Deathlust
(Relapse)

Given that we get a new combination of members of awesome bands forming other awesome bands together seemingly every month now, it’s probably about to time to retire the term “supergroup” and just accept the inherent incestuousness of playing any form of niche music in the internet age. Here’s another one, featuring various members of the Belgian Church Of Ra collective who comprise the likes of Amenra, Oathbreaker, Wiegedood etc, and Yob bassist Aaron Rieseberg. If you’re expecting to hear something gloomy & doomy based on those ingredients however, prepare to have your hopes dashed: this is straight up death metal, and a very precise, sharp strain of death metal no less. It’s great though, and even though Deathlust whips past in a brisk seventeen minutes, it definitely leaves a lasting impression.

Opener ‘The Delusion Of Consciousness’ demonstrates the band’s lean, mean riffing style with a crunchy, biting tone and ultra-tight punch that feels a bit like a more hardcore influenced Krisiun, only briefly relenting towards its climax to unleash some cosmic guitar harmonies, whilst the laser focused picking of the title track has an almost Origin vibe to it. Far removed from the vast, fuzzy low end he pumps out with Yob, Rieseberg gets really busy on the bass here, scuttling beneath tracks like ‘Roped’ à la prime Alex Webster. Whilst Living Gate doesn’t quite have the same amount of personality as their other projects, there’s a lot of promise here – a full-length of this stuff would go down nicely. If you just need a no-nonsense death metal boost, then have at it.

Ulthar - Providence
(20 Buck Spin)

Featuring bassist Steve Peacock (the mastermind behind bands like Mastery, Pale Chalice and utterly insane free impov solo black metal outfit Pandiscordian Necrogenesis, to name but a few) alongside Vastum guitarist Shelby Lermo and former Mutilation Rites and Tombs drummer Justin Ennis, Ulthar are another band you could bless/tar with the “supergroup” brush if you were so inclined. It’s a winning combination, with the band managing to conjure a convincingly rotten old school death metal atmosphere and fusing it with more sinister, blackened riffs. Their 2018 debut Cosmovore was a great example of filthy but subtly proggy death metal, and Providence feels like more of the same in some regards but with all the elements that made the debut so good exaggerated even further. The OSDM bits are even more rancid, the black metal edge to the riffing feels even colder and more threatening and the atmospheric bits feel even weirder and more disorientating – but it feels sort of reductive to describe it like that, as it all fits together in such a gruesomely complete manner that feels like more than the sum of its parts

After ‘Churn’s gristly Autopsy style, erm, churn, ‘Undying Spear’ seems to fly out of the left-field, a delirious chugging march with what sound like several different Immortal riffs played at three times the speed blaring away over the top. The title track, meanwhile, sounds like a chemically altered Bolt Thrower attempting to cover a Voivod song before just giving up and blasting themselves into unconsciousness, whilst ‘Through Downward Spirals’ somehow seamlessly transitions back and forth between crawling, psychedelic death/doom and fist-pumping Aura Noir style black thrash. Providence is just an absolute riff feast in all honesty, a death metal album that’s as inventive and cerebral as it is physical and grotesque.

Vampire - Rex
(Century Media)

After a couple years of silence, Gothernburg death-thrashers Vampire are sounding as ferocious as ever on third album Rex, maintaining that same darkness, energy and righteous riff-craft that made their Fenriz approved 2012 demo such a cult classic. They’re still mining that fertile period where thrash was just starting to evolve into death metal for inspiration, whilst incorporating a similarly cold, steely melodic sensibility to early Tribulation – but hey, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, right? Vampire are still managing to make this approach sound fresh, with the title track going straight for the jugular with it’s vicious, Possessed-meets-Bathory riffage and seething, sneering vocals. The band have always had a strong classic heavy metal influence hidden amongst the gnarlier, more extreme aspects of their sound, and that’s even more apparent here on tracks like ‘Inspiritus’, with its galloping Maiden-esque harmonies soaring atop the blistering death-thrash beneath.

Whilst the band’s modus operandi is still busting out frantic and immediate deathly thrash, Rex has a few more ambitious pieces up its sleeve too. ‘Pandemoni’ toys with bright, shimmering and subtly atmospheric guitar licks atop a buoyant, chugging stomp to great effect, whilst ‘Moloch’ is a perfectly formed mini-epic, incorporating an eerie acoustic passage and twisting and turning through sinewy strains of dirty thrashing and foot-on-the-monitor NOWBHM-esque gloriousness. The creepy, Mercyful Fate-esque ‘Anima’ is even more note-worthy, a patient six minute behemoth that eases off on the breakneck pace to explore some truly heroic, sprawling guitar leads atop ominous occult riffs. Rex is another success for the Swedes, then, managing to subtly progress their style without ditching the evil enthusiasm that made it so endearing to start with.

Wren - Groundswells
(Gizeh Records)

London post-metallers Wren are sounding humongous on this second LP. With Kowloon Walled City’s Scott Evans in the producer’s seat, it’s a much darker, denser and more desolate affair than their 2017 debut album Auburn Rule. For the most part, the band’s sound hasn’t changed a whole lot (they’re still worshipping at the altar of Celestial era Isis as the burly chug of opener ‘Chromed’ will attest), but it feels like it’s been chiselled into an even more bleak, monolithic slab of heaviness, with tracks like ‘Crossed Out Species’ locking into sublimely beautiful grooves very effectively and squeezing maximum impact out of repetition.

As much as Groundswells feels like a refinement though, it also broadens out the band’s sonic palette in some very evocative ways. ‘Murmur’s neck-snapping thud is imbued with a subtle but potent melodic sensibility, but it’s ‘Subterranean Messiah’ that really steals the show, a vast ten minute epic that incorporates ethereal chants from Fvnerals’ Tiffany Ström and some stirring cello from Jo Quail into the band’s pulsating riff worship, like the Neurosis/Cocteau Twins mashup you never knew you needed until now. It’s one of those songs that really doesn’t feel as long as it is, building so steadily and enthrallingly that by the time it’s sweat-drenched distorted crescendo reaches its peak, it feels like it’s flown by all too soon. Great stuff.

Cryptworm - Reeking Gunk Of Abhorrence
(Me Saco Un Ojo)

Lastly, we’ve got this absolutely revolting EP from Bristol death metal duo Cryptworm, who could probably become this country’s answer to Undergang if they keep this up. The band have been toiling away in the underground for a few years now and impressing those in the know, but hopefully Reeking Gunk Of Abhorrence will see them gaining the same recognition as contemporaries like Tomb Mold or Phrenelith. Whilst it’s not quite a fully-fledged album, it’s definitely the most complete, well-round thing they’ve released so far. They’ve got the requisite cavernous, mercilessly detuned guitar tone and even lower, hyper-guttural vocals, and, like Undergang, they somehow manage to make this oppressive murk strangely catchy, with tracks like ‘Festering Maggot Infestation’ peppering it’s dense, blasty onslaught with enough big greasy grooves and grotesquely memorable riffs to stick in your brain long after its finished battering your body. ‘Cesspool Of Perpetual Decay’ is just absolutely disgusting in the best possible way, tying squirming tremolo riffs to a pulsing, doomy thud as a bass tone that sounds like someone smacking a severed limb against a damp prison cell boils away beneath. Reeking Gunk Of Abhorrence won’t win any prizes for originality, but that hardly matters when it sounds this unashamedly septic. If fetid, knuckle-dragging caveman riffs and blastbeats are your raison d'etre, this is supremely satisfying.

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