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Columnus Metallicus

Columnus Metallicus: Heavy Metal For October Reviewed By Kez Whelan
Kez Whelan , October 28th, 2020 09:59

There's a lockdown album from Possessor, an unexpected LP from Isengard, new Enslaved and Pallbearer's heaviest to date. The atrocities of 2020 show no signs of lessening, says Kez Whelan, but at least the soundtrack remains peerless

Lamp Of Murmuur

As the icy grip of winter beckons, we’re all getting a taste of what it must be like to be a squirrel, frantically making our last preparations to bunker down and make it through the great COVID hibernation of 2020/21.

Whilst the encroaching horror of a hard Brexit may see supplies of things like food, water and basic human decency dwindling, there’s thankfully no shortage of great metal records to aid us through the twilight of the next few months.

We’ve got new releases from legends like Carcass, Enslaved and Isengard landing this month alongside stunning debut albums from exciting new names like Lamp Of Murmuur, Undeath and Cryptae, proving metal is in capable hands for the next generation even if literally nothing else is…

Emma Ruth Rundle & Thou - May Our Chambers Be Full
(Sacred Bones)

This could well be 2020’s most highly anticipated collaboration, and with good reason. Both artists seem to have been on the absolute top of their game recently, with singer/songwriter Emma Ruth Rundle’s 2018 opus On Dark Horses arguably being her most powerful, complete and affecting set of songs to date, and Louisiana sludge band Thou’s cavalcade of recent releases expanding their desolate sound even further. Thankfully May Our Chambers Be Full does not disappoint in the slightest. Lead single ‘Ancestral Recall’ delivers exactly what you’d expect from this pairing on paper. There are huge, emotive doom riffs complimented by Rundle’s soaring, majestic choruses and Thou vocalist Bryan Funck’s acerbic screech (which sounds notably more forceful and vitriolic here than it has recently). Tracks like ‘Out Of Existence’ combine the shimmering, earthy melodicism of Rundle’s old band Marriages with a much sludgier edge. That grungy flavour Thou explored on their Rhea Sylvia EP seems to run through a lot of the album and is a perfect fit for Rundle’s wounded, heartfelt hooks.

But the project yields more than a few surprises too; ‘Magickal Cost’, for example, transitions from luscious, dreamy shoegaze textures into cathartic, blasting black metal, whilst Emma adopts a much more anxious, Kristin Hersh-esque inflection on the jittery, up-tempo ‘Monoliths’, finally answering the question of what Throwing Muses would have sounded like if they’d been a doom metal band. ‘The Valley’ is an absolutely perfect closer, building with a remarkable amount of restraint and patience and really teasing out that glorious crescendo. Rather than just a set of aimless studio jams, May Our Chambers Be Full really feels like a fully-fledged collaborative effort, and a very dynamic and moving album in its own right.

Pallbearer - Forgotten Days
(Nuclear Blast)

Arkansas doom quartet Pallbearer are back this month too, and after the more delicate, introspective direction of previous album Heartless, Forgotten Days finds the band returning to a denser, doomier sound for the most part. The title track is one of the most assured, confident sounding openers they’ve graced us with yet, based around a gloriously old-school doom metal riff and a soaring chorus that feels like an Americana infused Candlemass, and ‘Stasis’ harks back to the yearning, sorrowful doom of their debut Sorrow And Extinction but with a more optimistic warmth to it (the triumphant chanted coda even feels like a less nihilistic inversion of the one from ‘Devoid Of Redemption’).

But Pallbearer haven’t completely abandoned the sound of Heartless however, with tracks like the dynamic ‘Riverbed’ contrasting softer sections with churning Sabbathian might very effectively indeed. Epic twelve minute centre-piece ‘Silver Wings’ feels like a spiritual successor to the previous album’s ‘Dancing In Madness’ in some ways, albeit with a more funereal atmosphere and even darker tone. Gothic closer ‘Caledonia’ is alternately ethereal and crushing, contrasting glistening autumnal chords with morose distorted guitar harmonies and some of the album’s most emotive lead work.

Forgotten Days follows a similar structure to Heartless, but feels more dynamic and seems to cram more in despite its shorter run time. ‘The Quicksand Of Existing’ is the shortest song on the album but manages to feel genuinely sprawling and immersive with its soaring leads and oppressively slow mid-section; it segues seamlessly into ‘Vengeance & Ruination’ too, a gloomy but commanding number that channels the spirit of The Skull-era Trouble in an uncanny fashion. Forgotten Days feels very much like a culmination of every Pallbearer album so far, and should appeal just as much to those who got into them via Heartless as it does old fans who were worried they’d gotten too soft of late.

Enslaved - Utgard
(Nuclear Blast)

On the subject of returns to form, this new Enslaved is an absolute belter. Feeling far more streamlined and efficient than recent outings like E, In Times or the bloated RIITIIR, Utgard somehow finds the Norwegians fully indulging their prog tendencies whilst keeping their song-writing more disciplined and immediate. ‘Fires In The Dark’ is one of the best openers they’ve written in years, combining warm Robert Fripp style leads, exultant folky harmonies and their trademark windswept black metal into a twisting, turning, but immensely gratifying song that constantly keeps you on your toes without feeling at all disjointed. ‘Jettegryta’ goes even further into their black metal past, with tantalisingly evil riffs and robust blastbeats transitioning quite naturally into wonky 70s prog keyboard freakouts.

After fully letting loose their riffing skills on tracks like ‘Homebound’, which contrasts ripping thrash with a bombastic Primordial-esque chorus, the second half of the album is a lot more atmospheric, with the synth-driven post-punk stomp of ‘Urjotan’ delivering some fantastically gothic baritone vocals, and the ethereal ‘Storms Of Utgard’ pairing whimsical Pink Floyd vocal harmonies with stirring metallic gallops.

There’s a certain playful quality to Utgard when compared to some of their more portentous recent offerings; that isn’t to say that there’s anything goofy or humorous about the record, but that there’s a more adventurous and imaginative way in which all their ideas are presented this time. It’s a very dynamic album that covers a lot of ground in a relatively short space of time, but seems to flow incredibly organically and never feels rushed or cluttered. In a sense, it’s a very potent fusion of their harsher early days with their more progressive and melodic later material, but it also hints at places they’ve yet to explore too.

Carcass - Despicable
(Nuclear Blast)

So it’s official – you can add “a new Carcass album” to the ever-growing list of things COVID-19 has prevented from happening in 2020, with the band understandably preferring to wait until touring is a viable prospect before finally unleashing it. Whilst this swift four track EP helps to ease the pain in the meantime, and I’m never going to turn my nose up at brand spankin’ new Carcass, it does seem a little odd to be treated to the album’s B-sides before the main course, so to speak. Despicable is a bit of a mixed bag too; opener ‘The Living Dead At The Manchester Morgue’, for example, is a prime cut of succulent Necroticism-era riffage, with Bill Steer’s robust, viscera splattered guitar tone sounding meatier than ever, and his heroic leads taking on a more atmospheric, haunting quality this time round. The sluggish ‘The Long And Winding Bier Road’, however, feels much more like a leftover scraped off the cutting room floor, harking back to more plodding Swansong-style material with Walker deploying some questionable semi-melodic growling that really doesn’t play to his strengths.

Walker’s trademark snarl sounds fantastically acidic on the rest of the EP however, especially on the frantic ‘Under The Scalpel Blade’, a track that alternates between stompy arena rock grooves and precision, whirlwind blastbeats with aplomb, sounding just as tasty as it did when it surfaced on a Decibel 7” late last year. ‘Slaughtered In Soho’, meanwhile, is another mid-paced number that feels wedged stylistically between Heartwork and Swansong, placing the former’s stirring, triumphant guitar harmonies amidst the latter’s thudding hard rock pulse. All things considered, for a hastily assembled grab bag of out-takes, Despicable is not bad at all, but it’s certainly a tease. If this is what Carcass discarded from the next record, the stuff that’s left must be very juicy indeed…

Isengard - Vårjevndøgn

Now, here’s a pleasant surprise – I absolutely did not expect to be writing about a new Isengard album in 2020, but evidently lockdown has given Darkthrone drummer and lovable metal obsessive Fenriz a chance to delve back into his archive of late 80s/ early 90s solo recordings and assemble a whole full-length’s worth of fresh material. That home-made feeling has always been a big appeal of Isengard; both the demo collection Vinterskugge and debut album proper Høstmørke felt like loosely curated assortments of odds & ends that somehow – somehow – ended up coalescing into a distinct and complete album experience, and to that end Vårjevndøgn is no different than its predecessors. On a musical level however, this new one is a separate kettle of fish entirely, eschewing both the obscure death influenced black metal of Vinterskugge and the atmospheric folk metal of Høstmørke in favour of a mixture of wailing, Judas Priest indebted speed metal and murky 70s style doom.

After a wonderfully evocative, tape-hiss smothered intro, opener and bona-fide banger ‘Dragon Fly (Proceed Upon The Journey)’ immediately makes it clear that this isn’t going to be a retread of the last album, with triumphant vintage metal licks racing past beneath soaring, foot-on-the-monitor falsetto, all delivered with that same drunken enthusiasm that makes Fenriz’s projects such a joy to listen to. The grandiose ‘A Shape In The Dark’ recalls early Mercyful Fate with its triumphant, spiralling guitar patterns and glass-shattering banshee wails – the album’s doomier tracks, meanwhile, are uncannily reminiscent of early 80s Pentagram, from the thick, fuzzy guitar tone right down to Fenriz’s eerie, nasal yowl, a deadringer for Bobby Liebling in his prime. Both ‘The Fright’ and ‘The Light’ were previously exhumed on a limited edition 7” back in 2016, but they seem to fit nicely into Vårjevndøgn, and fresh cut ‘Slash At The Sun’ is just a sleazy, swaggerin’ good time, offering one of the album’s most immediately satisfying doom riffs and even a psychedelic jam band style breakdown in the middle, during which Fenriz tells us slyly to ”just relax.”

More surprising still, the two-minute ‘Rockemillion’ is a stirring slice of melodic Scandinavian D-beat punk, with Fenriz unleashing some of the most hardcore indebted barks he’s ever put to tape, whilst hypnagogic closer ‘The Solar Winds Mantra’ is a curiously sparse, washed out ballad that isn’t really like anything else Fenriz has released, well, ever. Some may bemoan how far Vårjevndøgn ventures out of traditional black metal, but that’s never been the point of Isengard – the project has served as a fascinating glimpse into Fenriz’s creative mind, adopting a magpie-esque approach to his influences whilst remaining firmly entrenched in a world of murky cult metal. Vårjevndøgn certainly succeeds on that front, and also acts as a nice little time machine, with a lot of this material foreshadowing the old school metal vibe Darkthrone would later adopt. Wrap the whole thing up in that gloriously harsh early ‘90s Necrohell Studio production that made records like Transylvanian Hunger sound so unique, and you have yourself a winner.

Lamp Of Murmuur - Heir Of Ecliptical Romanticism
(Death Kvlt)

If you had your heart set on hearing some blastin’ lo-fi black metal this month though, then this is exactly what you’re after. US solo project Lamp Of Murmuur has pretty quickly became a name to watch out for, having released four demos, an EP and a split with mysterious Welsh raw black metal outfit Revenant Marquis since March last year. The brains behind the project (known only as M.) has been as consistent as he is prolific, with each release improving on the last, but even still this debut full-length seems like a massive step up. The production is incredible, maintaining the sinister lo-fi aura of the demos whilst somehow being crystal clear and alarmingly punchy too, whilst the music itself is an ideal combination of aggression and atmosphere, generating a convincingly cold ambience whilst also delivering riffs by the bucket load. Just wrap your ears around the imaginative ‘Bathing In Cascades Of Caustic Hypnotism’ for example, a lengthy piece that combines waves of dissonant tremolo and blastbeats, crunchy thrash riffs and oompah beats, and a curiously psychedelic section in which classic metal guitar harmonies and creepy early Emperor-style synths battle atop frantic, hyperactive drums.

Heir Of Ecliptical Romanticism has an interesting structure, opening with the two lengthiest, most labyrinthine pieces before whipping out more straight-forward blaring assaults like the ferocious but haunting ‘Chalice Of Oniric Perversions’, and ending with a trip into more ethereal territory for the wistful, star-gazing pulse of the dramatic title track. The record closes on a bizarrely effective cover of Dead Can Dance’s ‘In The Wake Of Adversity’, transforming the song into a buzzing black metal workout whilst retaining its magical, melancholy feel, with those cold, stabbing synths re-imagined as spiralling lead guitar passages.

This album structure works perfectly however, creating a sumptuously dark listening experience that just seems to suck you in further and further, knowing just when to disorient you with sheets of ice cold ambience and exactly when to smack you about the face with a big brash head-nodder of a riff for maximum impact. I was fairly confident Paysage d’Hiver’s sprawling Im Wald was going to be this year’s most essential black metal record, but this is honestly giving it a run for its money.

Infera Bruo - Rites Of The Nameless

This latest offering from Infera Bruo is well worth checking out too. The Boston black metal quartet just seem to get better and better, and Rites Of The Nameless is perhaps the tightest, most potent distillation of their sound to date. Tracks like ‘The Breath Of Chaos’ and the Dissection-esque ‘Mining Shadows For Unlight’ are scathing, caustic blasts of bitterly cold black metal, but the likes of ‘Latent For Arcane’ and the subtle, ominous ‘Cimmerian Shade’ allow for more melancholic, almost meditative passages with distant, forlorn clean vocals. The overall effect is similar to a more depressed sounding version of mid-period Enslaved. Infera Bruo are a lot more aggressive and pointed than your average DSBM band, but there’s still a convincingly despondent atmosphere pervading Rites Of The Nameless, a gnawing cloud of unease that adds an additional weight to these songs. At just under 40 minutes, it’s a very streamlined record too, conjuring a genuinely bleak atmosphere but never losing its razor sharp focus.

Undeath - Lesions Of A Different Kind
(Prosthetic / Maggot Stomp)

After emerging with a demo tape just early last year, you could tell these Rochester fiends were one of those bands with a classic record in them just itching to get out – and Lesions Of A Different Kind is just that, a gristly slab of dank old school death metal armed with both an irresistibly barbaric, knuckle-dragging charm and enough nuanced, imaginative compositional skills to stand out as more than just another “blastbeats and caveman riffs” band. A lot of these songs are deceptively simple sounding, primitive enough to directly engage the reptilian part of your brain but also intelligently written and hiding all sorts of twists and turns beneath their sickly morass.

The frequent tempo shifts in opener ‘Suitably Hacked To Gore’ are a good example; not abrupt or jarring enough to shift into tech-death territory or stunt your head-banging enjoyment, but seem more complex the more you focus in on them, giving the song a bristlingly frenetic feel throughout. ‘Entranced By The Pendulum’ has an uneasy but immensely powerful swing to it, with the quartet sounding tighter than the Tories’ school meals budget as they traverse through the song’s warped, undulating structure. The priority throughout Lesions, however, is firmly on the riffs, and they sure do have a lot of them. After a blistering roto-tom fill that is impossible not to air-drum along to (believe me, I’ve tried several times), the title track is just an absolute riff feast, dropping gruesome yet catchy tremolo grooves left, right and centre. If you’re a sucker for the guttural pummel of contemporary acts like Undergang, Phrenelith and Tomb Mold, you’ll have a whale of a time with this one.

Cryptae - Nightmare Traversal
(Sentient Ruin Laboratories)

If you’re after even murkier death metal, Dutch duo’s Cryptae debut full-length should do the trick. The pair exist in a similarly subterranean sonic universe as bands like Portal or Teitanblood but are much more minimal and bloody minded, building hellish aural tapestries out of little more than filth smothered, cyclical riffs and stark, punishing and intently focussed percussion, sort of like a less industrial version of Legion Of Andromeda. It should come as no surprise that drummer René Aquarius is also responsible for the dizzying yet brutal percussion in tQ faves Dead Neanderthals – in fact, Cryptae’s blunt, stripped back take on death metal is very similar to Dead Neanderthals’ take on jazz, reducing the genre down to its core components and then stretching them to breaking point to see what happens.

Nightmare Traversal is ideally titled, with a certain feverish, dream-like quality running throughout. Despite how minimal and bare bones the songs appear on the surface, their gradually mutating structures produce some pretty bizarre effects. The moment ‘Oubliette’s juddering, head-spinning bounce gives way to a cavernous doomy squelch is like watching Meshuggah get mugged by Corrupted, whilst ‘Monastic Tomb’ achieves a genuinely psychedelic quality by slowing down the traditional death metal skank beat as guitarist Kees Peerdeman summons all sorts of fretboard demons atop a brutally simple, hypnotic dirge. As experimental as it is though, Nightmare Traversal isn’t afraid to just let rip with genuinely huge, no-nonsense riffs when it needs to either, with fantastic effect on both faster tracks like ‘Cryptic Passage’ or the slower, stupendously powerful ‘Edifice’, a solid gold neck snapper that sounds like a planet exploding as it steadily melts into a sub rattling drone. This is the kind of death metal that feels like it’s been scraped from the very deepest, darkest recesses of the human psyche and once it sinks its hooks in to you, there’s no turning back.

Venom Prison - Primeval

Re-recording your own material can be a risky move: whilst sometimes it can help bring out the best in a release that wasn’t recorded under ideal conditions (see Meshuggah’s revamped version of Nothing for example), more often than not it can completely neuter the atmosphere and youthful exuberance of the original. Thankfully, Venom Prison manage to pull it off with Primeval, featuring both their debut EPs recreated in full. Neither EP sounded bad at all, but the production here is obviously improved, adding much more clarity to the denser, blastier sections and making those hulking great breakdowns hit even harder.

Of the two EPs, Defy The Tyrant is probably the most dynamic and diverse. Whilst featuring ferociously deathly cuts like ‘Usurper Of The Throne’ and the title track, it’s also got moody, more melodic moments like ‘Mortal Abomination’, a track which has really benefitted from being revisited as this new version sounds huge. Whilst there was definitely an air of a band still finding their sound on the original EP, it’s interesting hearing the band blasting through these songs again now they’re in their element, keeping the same energy as the originals but sounding even punchier and more metallic than before. By the time follow-up EP The Primal Chaos rolled around however, the Venom Prison sound was basically fully formed. A much leaner, tighter set of songs, it really allows their hardcore influence to shine through more than the first EP did, whilst simultaneously upping the intensity on the death metal aspect of their sound. The band sound like they’re having a great time ripping through it again here, especially during the wild soloing on the seething ‘Narcotic’.

Whilst Primeval may not make their first two EPs redundant, it’s a nice way for the band to pay homage to the past – but perhaps the most interesting thing about the release are the two brand new tracks which close it. ‘Defiant To The Will Of God’ feels like a throwback to the hardcore stomp of The Primal Chaos when compared to their last two albums, but still manages to make room for a surprisingly atmospheric midsection complete with jazzy, Atheist-esque leads. ‘Slayer Of Holofernes’, meanwhile, feels more like modern Cattle Decapitation, contrasting lightspeed, technical riffery with a strangely bombastic melodic chorus, hinting at an entirely new direction for the band.

R.I.P. - Dead End

Portland’s R.I.P. have always stood out amidst the glut of overly polished modern trad doom bands with their brash, scuzzy approach and OTT energy – for the unfamiliar, imagine Scott Reagers-era Saint Vitus with the punk influence dialled up way past 11, and you’ll be in the right area. For their latest album Dead End however, they’ve dispensed with many of their doomier tendencies in favour of just pure balls out rockin’ – it’s almost like their Hallow’s Victim, if you will. With its frenetic pace and frontman Fuzz’s cartoonish, histrionic vocals, opener ‘Judgement Night’ is more Dead Kennedys than it is Black Sabbath, whilst tracks like ‘Nightmare’ and the anthemic title track are just no-nonsense, filthy hard rock bangers – the greasy swagger of ‘Death Is Coming’ even has something of Deep Purple about it. Truthfully, Dead End doesn’t feel quite as powerful or well-rounded as the band’s larger than life breakthrough In The Wind, but if you’re looking for something to get black out drunk to this Halloween, knock yourself out.

Possessor - Damn The Light

London’s Possessor really came into their own with last year’s Gravelands, a storming collection of up-tempo, sludgy rock & roll with a host of vintage metal and horror influences that felt like a neat refinement of their prior releases. Unfortunately that would be that line-up’s last outing together, but any fears that the band would fade away in their prime should be immediately squashed by Damn The Light. In just over a year, guitarist, vocalist and founding member Graham Bywater has assembled a new line-up with bassist Oliver Isaac and drummer Nathan Perrier (of 11Paranoias, Capricorns and Labrat fame) and somehow written and recorded the tightest, heaviest, most fully realised Possessor album yet – during a global pandemic. Hats off!

Rip-roaring opener ‘Bloodsuckers’ immediately proves this new incarnation of the band is not fucking around, with the simultaneously sludgy and thrashy bludgeon of the rhythm section and Graham’s sinister, disembodied howl feeling almost like an Uncle Acid fronted High On Fire. Considering the album was written during lockdown, it’s incredible how much it sounds like a focused band effort, especially on tracks like ‘Razorback’ which feel more like the result of organic jam sessions than they do endless Dropbox links and Skype calls. The record doesn’t just re-affirm the snotty, high-octane sludge punk that made previous Possessor albums so good, but also branches out into new territory too. The title track itself begins as a sombre, vaguely psychedelic dirge as Perrier’s drums gradually fade in, his trademark massive tom rolls being put to use brilliantly, before exploding into a brash, moody epic akin to a much doomier version of early Metallica, whilst closer ‘Return To Slaughter High’ is probably the doomiest track Possessor have ever put to tape, summoning a similarly squelchy groove to the first Electric Wizard album. With its infectious energy and gnarly Hammer Horror aesthetic, Damn The Light is ideal Halloween listening – and from the sounds of its creation, I’m sure the members of Possessor are just as keen to hear what it sounds like live as we are.