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Columnus Metallicus

Columnus Metallicus: The Best In Heavy Metal For April
Kez Whelan , April 2nd, 2024 11:31

Kez Whelan turns his Sauronic eye on the lazy use of AI in metal design this month and praises bands – Judas Priest, High On Fire, Coffins, Inter Arma & more – still using their organic intelligence. Coffin Storm portrait by Christian Kickan Holm

Dystopian science fiction really undersold how tedious the bleak digital future was going to be. At least the robots in Terminator had the good grace to slaughter us all instead of subjecting us to an endless conveyor belt of their misshapen pre-school art projects, expecting us to coo with half-arsed enthusiasm and stick it on the fridge before it’s inevitably obscured by the folds of the next electricity bill. It was only a matter of time before AI “art” made the leap from the internet to actual proper records that are released on actual proper labels and sold in actual proper shops (well, what’s left of them anyway). Harrowing to think that all those misspent lunch breaks we spent hammering things like “Lars Ulrich giving a TED talk” or “Sunn O))) using the self-service machine in Tesco” into online image generators may have contributed in whatever way to this generic-album-cover-belching hive mind that stands before us today, but you live and learn.

I’ve seen plenty of smaller Bandcamp dwellers leaning into the trend, but now even death metal legacy acts like Deicide and Pestilence are unveiling hideously bland AI sleeves. If “we couldn’t afford to hire an artist” feels like a weak excuse coming from DIY musicians (if you can’t think of a more creative way to get around that problem, what the fuck are you doing in a band in the first place?), it’s completely inexcusable coming from established bands on labels who clearly have the budget (if not the creativity) to cover it. The standard defence, of course, is that AI is just another tool in an artist’s arsenal, but that doesn’t really hold water when said “tool” has been force-fed the work of hundreds of other non-consenting artists for the purpose of blank replication. There are many non-slimy ways you could feasibly engage with AI but using it to fart out album covers is not one of them.

Modern electronica is rife with provocateurs exploring innovative (and ethical) ways to use this stuff, for example. Holly Herndon, perennially teetering on the cutting edge of technology, treated her own DIY AI program named “Spawn” as part of an ensemble choir on 2019’s Proto, in an attempt to make the technology seem “less dehumanizing” by improvising alongside human singers, whilst just last year the ever-fascinating Lee Gamble toyed with AI on Models, reconstituting pop music as an intangible, disembodied mist whilst meditating on glossolalia and the differences between human and artificial voices. That said, it’s certainly not his best work and I did think the fact that ‘Xith C Spray’ was so obviously modelled on Lana Del Rey’s ‘Video Games’ worked against the whole voiceless shtick the record was aiming for, but that’s a conversation for an entirely different column.

There’s definitely room for these kind of post modern shenanigans in metal though; see Nepalese quartet Chepang’s Swatta, probably one of 2023’s most interesting grindcore releases. A sprawling double album, the first side of vinyl dispenses some of the group’s trademark blistering assault, whilst the second finds them teaming up with producer Colin Marston and saxophonist Patrick Shiroishi to push their sound into much weirder places, and the third features a series of collaborations with members of Gridlink, Noisear, Municipal Waste, Krallice and more. The fourth, however, feeds the other three sides into the Realtime Audio Variational auto-Encoder to spew out an EP’s worth of procedurally generated grindcore. It’s the weakest part of the record in fairness, but it’s at least an example of an artist poking at their own relationship with technology, exploring the distinction between their own art and that of a machine whilst being entirely honest and open about the process. Neither Deicide or Pestilence are doing anything like that; they’re just using AI to cut corners and churn out generic images of zombies and evil goat dudes instead of paying someone else to do it for them, and hoping nobody notices. Now don’t get me wrong, some of my favourite album covers are just pictures of zombies and evil goat dudes, but those are usually the result of an artist twisting what would otherwise be a cliché into their own unique vision – remove that intent, and all you’re left with is the cliché.

Judging by the backlash to these records however (Pestilence walked theirs back almost immediately, but not before hurling their toys out of the pram beforehand), I’m hoping this fad will fizzle out before long, and in a few years’ time these abominations will look as dated as those early 2000s CGI covers that labels churned out as soon as they got their hands on Photoshop – but hey, at least real human beings were getting paid to churn those out! And that’s the crux of the matter, really – we can argue over abstract things like aesthetics until we’re blue in the face when it comes to AI, but post-pandemic, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to eke out a living working in the arts, and the act of feeding computer programmes the work of hard-grafting artists so they can freely regurgitate it and claim it as their own should be rigorously shunned by anybody who cares about keeping art as a viable career path. It’s infuriating that metal musicians, of all people, struggle to see this.

High On Fire – Cometh The Storm
(MNRK Heavy)

Not even the mighty High On Fire have escaped the clutches of AI, with a ramshackle generated video for ‘Burning Down’ being released alongside a more standard performance video – but thankfully the record itself (with an Arik Roper original adorning the sleeve, naturally) is free of such malarkey. In fact, if you can ignore the advertising campaign around it, it’s one of their most powerful releases in years. Given how crucial previous drummer Des Kensel’s pounding percussive style had been to the High On Fire sound since inception, I was slightly worried about the band’s future once he left, but Big Business (and former Melvins) sticksman Coady Willis proves to be an able replacement here. He proves he can dish out the same brand of tom-heavy bludgeoning on no-nonsense pounders like ‘The Beating’, but also manages to inject his own distinctive swing into songs like melodic epic ‘Hunting Shadows’, rather than just replicating his predecessor. The evocative instrumental ‘Karanlık Yol’, meanwhile, feels like it could have come straight from the last Om record, whilst opener ‘Lambsbread’ breaks down into a curiously Middle Eastern sounding groove halfway through, allowing Matt Pike to let rip with some exotic sounding leads. Pike’s on fine form throughout, serving up gristly, full-bodied riffs on songs like the thumping ‘Tough Guy’ but also more atmospheric fare on the title track, recalling the dynamic ‘Bastard Samurai’ from 2010’s Snakes From The Divine. Whilst both High On Fire’s last record Electric Messiah and Matt Pike’s recent solo album were solid enough, this feels like a real return to form for the band, recapturing the primitive force that made their early records so vital whilst also pushing the more psychedelic flavour they’ve experimented with in recent years – just remember to let your closed-eye visuals do the legwork here, instead of that damn music video…

Inter Arma – New Heaven

2019’s sprawling Sulphur English was, to my ears, Inter Arma’s magnum opus and the culmination of everything the band had been working towards over the previous decade, so I was eager to see how they’d follow it. 2020’s underwhelming covers album Garbers Days Revisited aside, this is the first new material we’ve heard from the Richmond quintet since, and it’s an interesting change of pace for them. Wisely choosing not to replicate the last record, New Heaven is easily the group’s coldest, most dissonant and uncompromising album so far; if ‘Sulphur English’ sounded organic and expansive, this feels more metallic and claustrophobic by comparison, with the churning title track recalling the cavernous depths of Portal more than the expansive sonic vistas the band used to explore. Inter Arma have never shied away from expressing their love of death metal, but it’s written throughout this record like a stick of Brighton rock, with songs like ‘Desolation’s Harp’ coming across like a sludgier Immolation, all angular, fiddly riffs and dense walls of blastbeats. New Heaven is still very much the work of the same band, however. At little over 40 minutes, it’s their shortest full-length yet (even briefer than the single song EP The Cavern), but still manages to convey the same sort of cinematic sonic journey, with the record’s B-side delving into much more sombre territory. The gothic ‘Gardens In The Dark’ fuses dark, throbbing grooves with an almost Swans-esque brand of brooding Americana, whilst the stark ‘The Children The Bombs Overlooked’ feels like a mournful folk song reimagined as a sprawling death-doom epic. This is absolutely not the follow-up to Sulphur English I was expecting, but it’s a fascinating and remarkably concise tangent for one of post-metal’s most interesting bands to embark on.

Iron Monkey – Spleen & Goad

In hindsight, you wonder if Iron Monkey’s 2017 “comeback” album 9-13 would have been afforded a more generous reception if it was released under a different name. That record was a respectably filthy slab of punked-out sludge metal, but arriving under such an iconic moniker perhaps raised people’s expectations too high, and without the punishing grooves of drummer Justin Greaves and legendary screech of frontman Johnny Morrow, it felt like a different band. For this new LP, it’s almost a totally different band again; long-serving guitarist (and now vocalist) Jim Rushby remains, but the drum stool is now occupied by ex-Widows man Ze Big instead of Chaos UK’s Brigga, whilst guitarist Dean Berry replaces Steve Watson, strangely mirroring the line-up change between 97’s self-titled debut and 98’s Our Problem. Watson, as it happens, is now playing in Simian Steel alongside members of Fistula and Grime who, ironically enough, sound more like vintage Iron Monkey than the band themselves these days. Perhaps it’s to the Nottingham trio’s credit that they don’t stick too rigidly to their original formula however, as the brutish downer hardcore sound Rushby championed on 9-13 has come into much sharper focus here. The swaggering, bloody minded groove that kicks off ‘Misanthropizer’ (and the album itself) is prime Monkey of course, but elsewhere tracks like the ferocious ‘Rat Flag’ veer more towards the punky sound of the last record and the short-lived post-Iron Monkey project Armour Of God. The vocals sound much stronger here too; obviously there’s no replicating Morrow’s game-changing vocal presence, but Rushby’s brash, genuinely unhinged sounding bark has a very unique character in its own right, especially on demented thumpers like ‘Lead Transfusion’ or the punishing dirge of ‘Off Switch’, complete with spiralling noise-rock style guitar leads. Spleen & Goad may not rival the band’s classic material, but in some ways it does feel like the Our Problem to 9-13’s self-titled; it’s a denser, heavier and meaner sounding record all round, so if you were disappointed with the last one, this could pleasantly surprise you.

Toadliquor – Back In The Hole
(Southern Lord)

Speaking of unexpected comebacks from sludge legends, who amongst us had a new fucking Toadliquor LP of all things on their 2024 bingo card? Over three decades since the release of their planet-obliterating 93 classic Feel My Hate – The Power Is The Weight, they’ve just unceremoniously dropped a perfect follow-up on us like it’s nothing. Sure, the production is a little cleaner here, but the band still push those hulking great riffs around with such menace on songs like ‘Entry Level Position’ and ‘First Crush’, imbuing every leaden groove with complete disdain. Vocalist Rex’s tortured howl has weathered nicely, with the extra hoarseness lending it an extra layer of seething contempt – if he sounded like he wanted to die back in 1993, now he sounds even more pissed because he didn't. Back In The Hole doesn’t just feel like a victory lap though, occasionally furthering the band’s sound into some of the weirder places they’d hinted at on the bonus tracks unearthed on Southern Lord’s 2003 vault clear-out The Hortator’s Lament. ‘Recained’s strung-out Sabbath riffs break into an unexpectedly sparse, psychedelic dirge, with nauseous synths enhancing the record’s bad trip vibe, whilst ‘Open Trough Funeral’ lapses from some of the record’s most belligerent, miserable riffing into a quietly psychotic bit of Nurse With Wound-esque ambience. The closing title track, meanwhile, injects some despondent melody into the band’s tar-black tumult, somehow managing to sound just as sickening as the pounding filth that preceded it. Absolute banger.

Coffins – Sinister Oath

Tokyo death/doom legends Coffins return with their first new album since 2019’s Beyond The Circular Demise this month too (although this being Coffins, of course, we’ve been treated to no end of splits and EPs in the interim). The last record was something of a rebirth for the group, featuring a revamped line-up alongside long-standing guitarist Uchino, and whilst it was still a satisfying listen, you can tell this new incarnation of the band has had more time to gel. Boasting one of the gristliest, gnarliest guitar tones they’ve ever captured on record, Sinister Oath showcases the band at their best, pumping out sickening Autopsy-esque filth with gleeful enthusiasm. You should pretty much know what you’re getting from a Coffins record in this day and age, and whilst this one doesn’t offer up any true surprises, it ticks every box so voraciously I can’t help but respect it. The pacing feels a bit more dynamic here too; you’ve got your D-beat addled punk ragers like ‘Chain’, your crawling hypnotic dirges like ‘Everlasting Spiral’ and deathlier fare that straddles the two like ‘Spontaneous Rot’. The title track itself, meanwhile, features some of the swiftest material the band have put to tape in recent memory, with punishing blasts propping up some seriously slimy sounding tremolo picking, and Massacre frontman Kam Lee even pops up on ‘Things Infestation’, backing up Jun Tokita’s brutish gurgles with his own iconic roar. You’ll be hard-pressed to find another band who can make churning, doom-laden misery sound this fun right now.

Coffin Storm – Arcana Rising

As much as I’ve enjoyed Darkthrone’s return to a darker, more mysterious sound in recent years, I have to admit I’ve missed those raucous Fenriz vocals on their last couple of albums. Thankfully, new project Coffin Storm has them by the bucketload, with Fenriz in the frontman role flanked by Aura Noir’s Apollyon and Infernö’s Bestial Tormentor, who previously played together in early Norwegian doom act Lamented Souls. Coffin Storm is most definitely a separate entity however; whilst billed as a doom record, it’s only really the title track that slows down to a grandiose, Candlemass-esque pace, with the rest of the album settling into a mid-paced thrash sound. The trio wear this style well, drenched in atmosphere and old-school heavy metal bravado, with songs like opener ‘Over Frozen Moors’ and the catchy ‘Ceaseless Abandon’ delivering bona fide anthems with the epic scope of early Metallica and the unabashed metallic glory of Manilla Road. There’s even a vintage Iron Maiden style epic in the ten-minute ‘Open The Gallows’, with plenty of dual guitar harmonies and wailing falsetto hidden within its labyrinthine structure. Arcana Rising may not be as ferocious as Aura Noir or as grim as Darkthrone, but it stands up as a solid, unpretentious heavy metal record in its own right, sounding more like three mates having a blast jamming in their garage than some sort of hype-driven supergroup.

Judas Priest – Invincible Shield

On the subject of solid, unpretentious heavy metal, few do it better than the metal gods themselves Judas Priest. Don’t let the Turbo-esque 80s style intro fool you here either, as Invincible Shield is another cast-iron ripper – if 2018’s Firepower was a return to form after misguided attempts to go prog on records like Nostradamus, then this one is arguably their most direct, powerful release since Painkiller. Rob Halford is on ridiculously good form, belting out glass-shattering falsetto with the gusto of singers half his age on the anthemic title track. Whilst Invincible Shield wisely eschews most of the experimentation of the band’s recent records to focus on robust sing-along rockers like ‘Devil In Disguise’ or ‘Sons Of Thunder’, there are still a few surprises hidden away here – ‘Escape From Reality’, for example, leans into a more psychedelic, Sabbath-esque sound, whilst ‘Giants In The Sky’ finds new guitarist Richie Faulkner dishing out some smooth flamenco licks in between chugging riffs. Sure, some of the schmaltzier numbers like ‘Crown Of Horns’ come with a generous side-portion of cheese, but for the most part Invincible Shield is far more consistent and focussed than you’d expect from a legacy act like this – cuts like ‘Gates Of Hell’ sound more energised and rejuvenated than anything, say, Maiden or Metallica have done in decades. Given the collective age of the band at this point, there’s a good chance this could be the last Judas Priest record, and honestly, it would be a great note to bow out on, playing to the band’s strengths and summarising everything that makes them great in one robust, hour-long package.