Columnus Metallicus: Heavy Metal For September Reviewed By Kez Whelan

Your regular guide to the world of metal returns, with reviews of new releases Carcass, Employed To Serve, The Body and Big Brave, plus a tribute to the late, great Eric Wagner of Trouble


In what has been a rough year for deaths in the metal community, this month’s edition of Columnicus Metallicus comes to you as we’re still reeling from the death of legendary <a href=”” target=”out”> Trouble vocalist Eric Wagner, who passed away at the age of 62 on August 22.

It’s hard to overstate just how important Wagner was to the development of doom metal. There was always something unique about Trouble, even amongst their peers in the ‘big four’ of post-Sabbath doom pioneers. While Pentagram seemingly acted as the missing link between classic rock and doom metal, Saint Vitus brought bags of snotty punk attitude that would prove to be a huge influence on sludge metal, and Candlemass had their own dramatic, theatrical take on the genre, Trouble’s music was arguably the most unabashedly metal of the lot, a direct fusion of Sabbath’s lumbering misery with Judas Priest’s soaring, foot-on-the monitor bombast.

Their first two records, 1984’s Psalm 9 and 1985’s The Skull, are absolutely essential for anyone with even a passing interest in the history of doom metal, and still sound phenomenally heavy to this day. Wagner’s voice was a huge part of this, excelling at both glass-shattering falsetto and a lower, gloomier and far more vulnerable tone that really lends these albums a unique emotional pull. It’s remarkable how consistent he was too; after 1987’s equally doomy (and equally awesome) Run To The Light, Trouble embraced a more accessible hard rock sound for their Rick Rubin produced Def Jam debut, 1990’s Trouble, showing off Wagner’s range whilst still managing to retain that forlorn, doomed atmosphere.

1992’s Manic Frustration is even better to my ears, with proto-stoner rock bangers like ‘Come Touch The Sky’ sitting comfortably next to whimsical Beatles-esque psychedelia like ‘Rain’ and ‘Hello Strawberry Skies’. Whilst Wagner left Trouble in 2008, he still kept flying the flag for true doom; his band The Skull, also featuring ex-Trouble bassist Ron Holzner, released their second album The Endless Road Turns Dark as recently as 2018, a rich, weathered slice of authentic doom metal aged like a fine wine. If you’ve been meaning to delve into the man’s back catalogue, now would definitely be a good time.

As we continue hurtling into the latter half of 2021, the release schedule for new records doesn’t seem to be slowing at all. The new full-length from justifiably hyped US black metal solo outfit <a href=”” target=”out”>Lamp Of Murmuur still doesn’t have a finalised release date but is supposedly due any day now. The UK underground is still in rude health, with new releases from abrasive grinders <a href=”” target=”out”>Human Cull, progressive death metallers <a href=”” target=”out”>Beyond Grace and gruesome death/doom act <a href=”” target=”out”>Slimelord all due within the next couple of weeks too.

If that wasn’t enough, London doom legends Slabdragger are releasing their first new material since 2016’s Rise Of The Dawncrusher at the end of this month too, on <a href=”” target=”out”>a four-way split with Brighton noise-mongers Wallowing and New York grindcore acts Thin and Vixen Maw. There’s plenty to be getting on with in the meantime however, including this brand new Carcass album that has finally seen the light of the day…

Carcass – Torn Arteries
(Nuclear Blast)

It’s hard to believe it’s been a full eight years since Carcass released their storming comeback album Surgical Steel. The wait for this follow-up record was made even longer by the pandemic, with the band opting to delay the release until they were able to tour, tiding us over with the enjoyable but scattershot Despicable EP last year instead. As fun as that EP was, thankfully Torn Arteries is a much more coherent and complete package, building on the Surgical Steel sound in a number of interesting ways. If Surgical Steel felt like a return to that crisp, fast Necroticism era sound, then Torn Arteries feels more in tune with the more spacious, melodic sound of Heartwork with mid-paced songs like ‘Eleanor Rigor Mortis’ allowing more breathing room for guitarist Bill Steer to really let rip with some righteous lead work and those soaring, triumphant guitar harmonies that have become the band’s trademark. There are still plenty of fast-paced bangers here too, with tracks like ‘Kelly’s Meat Emporium’, ‘Under The Scalpel Blade’ and the title track feeling like classic Carcass cuts through and through.

That’s not to say Torn Arteries is a simple re-tread of former glories though, as there are definitely moments here where the band reach out of their comfort zone. The ten minute centrepiece ‘Flesh Ripping Sonic Torment Limited’ is probably the biggest surprise, a sprawling Mercyful Fate style epic with numerous different sections including a sombre clean passage in the middle featuring some of Steer’s most emotive and melancholic soling yet. They manage to pull it off though, and the song doesn’t feel out of place at all surrounded by more traditional Carcass rippers. ‘The Devil Rides Out’, on the other hand, is a galloping, classic metal workout, eschewing the band’s usual gory or socio-political subject matter to explore more satanic themes – albeit flavoured with bassist/vocalist Jeff Walker’s usual sardonic sarcasm, of course. Torn Arteries may not be as ground-breaking as the band’s early records, but it’s still a fine Carcass album in its own right – it’s nice to hear them trying new things and continuing to challenge themselves whilst also busting out that classic sound we all know and love.

The Body & Big Brave – Leaving None But Small Birds
(Thrill Jockey)

The pandemic may have slowed Carcass down, but both The Body and Big Brave have been as prolific as ever; this collaboration is each band’s second full-length outing this year, following I’ve Seen All I Need To See and Vital respectively. In stark contrast to the deafening sound of Big Brave’s latest or the industrial misery of The Body’s last one, Leaving None But Small Birds is a bright, joyous and gentle folk record, with Big Brave’s Robin Wattie really demonstrating what a diverse, emotive and distinctive vocalist she is on tracks like the classic rock tinged ‘Oh Sinner’ or the fragile ‘Black Is The Colour’.

Whilst The Body guitarist Chip King’s piercing shriek is absent for the duration, this definitely feels like a collaborative album rather than just Big Brave with The Body backing them up. The way Chip’s thick, menacing guitar tone subtly fades in as gorgeous, summery opener ‘Blackest Crow’ draws to a close is very effective, and foreshadows how much their sound will creep in by the end of the record. ‘Polly Gosford’, for example, is one of the doomiest tracks here, with the stark, ritualistic percussion and Wattie’s dramatic, passionate vocals making it sound uncannily like early Jex Thoth. Although Leaving None But Small Birds is notably more upbeat and elated than either band’s usual output, there’s still a palpable darkness beating at its core, with the anxious, wounded Carla Bozulich-esque ‘Hard Times’ perfectly encapsulating the sense of emotional burnout I’m sure all of us are feeling as we emerge from the toil of last year. In that sense, this album is just as heavy as you’d expect from these two, albeit whilst showing off an entirely new side of each band.

Succumb – XXI
(The Flenser)

This Californian quartet’s self-titled 2017 debut is still one of the most unique, abrasive and fascinating death metal records of the 2010s, and this follow-up doesn’t drop the ball whatsoever. The lightspeed, grinding insanity of ‘Lilim’ leading straight into the sinister Portal-esque claustrophobia of ‘Maenad’ is one hell of a way to open the record, immediately demonstrating how much more lethal the band’s faster sections have become and how much creepier and more uncomfortable their slower passages are now too. At just over half an hour, the intensity of those first two-tracks doesn’t dissipate at all for the duration of XXI. The churning six-minute ‘Smoke’ is a great example of how adept Succumb are at maintaining that tension, juggling dizzying stop-start grindcore phrases with dense, dark death metal and sustained, rolling tremolo riffs that feel like having your skin slowly peeled off.

Vocalist Cheri Musrasrik’s eerie, disembodied wail really helped Succumb’s debut stand out, and although she adopts a slightly different approach here, she’s no less distinctive. Whilst her vocals on the debut felt spectral and distant, for the most part they’re much more upfront and feel much more human – there’s a dry, hoarse and anguished quality to her voice in tracks like the blistering ‘Okeanos’ that sounds a bit like Pig Destroyer’s J.R. Hayes at times. On the twisted, disorientating war metal of ‘Graal’ her voice sits back in the mix a bit more but with stunning effect, sounding like a chorus of distant howls echoing through from another dimension. This is pretty much everything I wanted from a new Succumb album, and it’s further proof that this is one of the most unique, uncompromising extreme metal bands to have emerged in recent years.

Employed To Serve – Conquering

Employed To Serve’s meteoric rise from drum machine-backed grindcore duo to Kerrang! cover stars has been a joy to watch, with the now-quintet dropping new records like clockwork every two years and demonstrating significant musical growth on each one. Conquering may be their most consciously metallic offering yet, moving away from the more hardcore sound of records like The Warmth Of A Dying Sun to embrace a denser, contemporary metal sound. Their hardcore roots are still readily apparent, especially in the pounding tom grooves and aggressive gang vocals on tracks like ‘Exist’ or thunderous crowd-pleaser ‘We Don’t Need You’, but there’s a bombastic, widescreen heaviness to opener ‘Universal Chokehold’, as well as a much more overt melodic flavour too. It’s hardly surprising the band have been picked to support Gojira on their upcoming UK arena tour, although if the likes of incendiary, blast-addled ragers like ‘The Mistake’ are anything to go by, they’re likely to blow the French quartet off stage.

There’s definitely a more accessible feel to this album, but thankfully never at the expense of the band’s trademark intensity. Tracks like ‘Twist The Blade’ boast big, bold, radio-friendly hooks, but also some seriously intricate, technical riffing too, whilst ‘Set In Stone’ peppers frantic hardcore battery with warm, curiously upbeat melodies and ‘Mark Of The Grave’ delivers all the swaggering bravado of 90s groove metal without the genre’s off-putting knuckle-headed machismo. Conquering isn’t quite as immediate or visceral as The Warmth Of A Dying Sun or Eternal Forward Motion, but there’s a real sense of weight and grandiosity here – check out the way that humongous, neck-snapping groove in ‘Sun Up To Sun Down’ is augmented and broadened out by layers of eerie, almost Eastern sounding guitar swells for example. It’s as if Employed To Serve’s sound is expanding in size at the same rate as the venues they’re playing, with the lavish, full-bodied sound here custom-built to bounce off arena rafters. If this is the album that finally makes them a household name, it’ll be well deserved.

Skepticism – Companion
(Svart Records)

Whilst Finnish funeral doom pioneers Skepticism graced us with new material on their sprawling 2015 live record Ordeal, this is the band’s first studio album since 2008’s Alloy, and, as the name implies, it’s a much less bleak and foreboding affair than some of their previous work. This is still Skepticism we’re talking about, so if you’re looking for good time party vibes, you’re definitely in the wrong place, but there’s a warmth and sense of compassion here that’s a million miles away from the oppressive gloom of their classic debut Stormcrowfleet. Take ‘Calla’, an oddly jubilant opener that gives keyboardist Eero Pöyry centre stage whilst moving at a pace more akin to Paradise Lost than the leaden crawl of peers like Thergothon, for instance. ‘Passage’, whilst darker in tone, is even faster, delivering sinister tremolo licks and huge chugging grooves topped off with one of frontman Matti Tilaeus’ most aggressive performances in years.

‘The Intertwined’ slows things down a bit more but still feels uncharacteristically driving for the band, with the optimistic keys in its latter half lending it an eerie, otherworldly beauty. The ten minute ‘The March Of The Four’ is easily the most funereal offering here and is mostly exactly what you’d expect from Skepticism, but even then the rich, emotive swells and spiralling riffs that punctuate it’s soaring, emotive finale feel much less bleak than their usual fare. Companion may not be able to touch Skepticism at their peak and may sound too clean and joyous for doom heads of a more despondent persuasion, but it’s still a strong addition to the band’s discography and it’s nice to hear them continuing to push themselves and expand their sound. If their previous albums felt like attending a funeral, this is like receiving a heartfelt hug from a friend you haven’t seen in years at the wake.

Waldgeflüster – Dahoam
(AOP Productions)

This German black metal outfit has been going from strength to strength over the past few years. Originally a solo project, multi-instrumentalist Winterherz recruited a full band shortly after the release of 2014’s breakthrough Meine Fesseln and went on to deliver two dense, hour-long epics with 2016’s Ruinen and 2019’s Mondscheinsonaten. Dahoam is a good ten minutes shorter than either of those records but no less vast in scope, streamlining the band’s yearning, windswept sound into an efficient and immediate package. The record is predominately based around three sprawling ten-minute epics interspersed with several shorter atmospheric segue tracks – which may not sound like much on paper, but the whole thing flows so organically it feels like much more than the sum of its parts.

The wistful, Agalloch-ian beauty of ‘Im Ebersberger Forst’ really showcases how much stronger and more emotive Winterherz’s soaring clean vocals have become, and glides seamlessly into the portentous acoustics of ‘Am Stoa’, a dead-ringer for Kveldssanger era Ulver. Dahoam isn’t all as morose, however, with ‘Am Tatzlwurm’ delivering some of the album’s most ferocious and vitriolic black metal riffing, making its curiously sparse, emotive mid-section and suitably grandiose final coda hit even harder by contrast. A loose concept album exploring the idea of belonging, identity and what it means to call a place “home”, there’s an even more introspective air here than usual, which really pays off – especially on its sombre, folky apex, the melancholy ‘Mim Blick Aufn Kaiser’, featuring guest vocals from Panopticon’s Austin Lunn.

Antediluvian – The Divine Punishment
(Nuclear War Now!)

If you like your black metal weirder and less brooding however, this new Antediluvian is easily one of the most “out there” metal releases I’ve heard this year. Arriving a full eight years after their second album λόγος, The Divine Punishment is a much more experimental record, tearing apart their murky, Teitanblood-esque black/death sound and layering it up with field recordings, unnerving ambience and psychedelic freak-outs to create a genuinely disorientating experience that raises more questions than it answers. Why does ‘Obscene Pornography Manifests In The Divine Universal Consciousness’ sound like a Beherit track with the guitars, drums and vocals all playing at different speeds? Why does it only take a minute and a half for ‘Guardians Of The Liminal’s cavernous death metal riffs to derail and unfold into the sort of noisy but oddly beautiful avant-folk cacophony you might find on an Amps For Christ LP? Why does ‘How The Watchers Granted The Humans Sex Magick In The Primordial Aeon’ contain what sounds like the vocal from a Killing Joke chorus played through a malfunctioning loud-speaker from a couple of rooms away? Why does the kick-drum on the frantic ‘All Along The Sigils Deep’ sound like a horse slapping a man repeatedly in the face? And more importantly, why does it all work so well?

The Divine Punishment will probably be a hard sell even for hardened black/death addicts, but it feels like an authentically visionary record in a sub-sub-genre that has been bereft of them for a while. There are plenty of bands ripping off the likes Portal to create harrowing, claustrophobic metal releases that are great in their own right, but few of them are daring enough to push that sound beyond the veil of their influences and into truly uncharted terrain. Even at its most straightforwardly gnarly (like abrasive nine minute closer ‘Winged Ascent Unto The Twelve Runed Solar Anus’), there’s a deranged, otherworldly quality to this album that recalls the free-form improv madness of the sorely missed Chaos Echœs, but delivered with an unflinching focus and manic intent – there’s most definitely method behind this madness, even if that method is utterly incomprehensible to our puny human minds. If you’ve got the fortitude for some truly brain-mangling extreme metal, this is one wild ride.

Serpent Column – Katartisis

Still hungry for more oddball avant-black metal? US solo project Serpent Column has got you covered, continuing their pattern of following up a great album with a great EP with Katartisis arriving almost exactly a year after their last full-length Kathodos. Whilst that album was characterised by longer, more elaborate pieces, it’s remarkable how well Serpent Column adapts to shorter structures, with almost half of the songs here sitting around the minute mark. Despite this, the EP flows really nicely, and all these tracks feel very much like fully fledged songs in their own right – sort of like Krallice riffs twisted into Minutemnen structures. ‘Dereliction II’, for instance, veers violently between rollicking thrash and proggy, dissonant riffs, whilst the 52 second long ‘Subduction’ sounds permanently on the cusp of collapse (in the best possible way), as raucous punk riffs suddenly overturn and are sent careening off into a deep, black void.

The longer tracks here are just as satisfying too; ‘Disobedience’ conjures up a hissing, acidic wall of blackened noise before transitioning into the kind of wonky prog death groove you’d expect from an Artificial Brain record, and the six minute ‘Edelweiss’ delivers some of the EP’s most mournful melodies, the harsh, cold buzz of the guitars complimented nicely by the warm, throbbing bass tone underneath. In just 24 minutes, Katartisis manages to squeeze in more inventive ideas than most of 2021’s black metal full-lengths.

Replicant – Malignant Reality
(Transcending Obscurity)

After reaching a wider audience on last year’s impressive Chasm Of Aeons split alongside Cryptic Shift, Inoculation and Astral Tomb, this New Jersey trio have been the last of the bunch to follow up with a new release, but this second album was worth the wait. Despite their moniker, Replicant are far from another clone band, combining head-spinning technical death metal with a similarly maniacal bounce to Demilich and a subtle but effective hardcore flavour that helps them stand out from the pack (and makes me think this stuff would be absolutely devastating live). ‘Caverns Of Insipid Reflection’ is a great opener, pairing fiddly tech-death riffs with neck-snapping hardcore grooves before abruptly breaking into layers of dreamy, reverb swamped clean guitar. ‘Death Curse’ also dips it’s toes into more ominous, atmospheric passages, with wobbly Primus style basslines rubbing up against pummelling death/doom riffs, whilst the twisting ‘Rabid Future’ hints at the same warped psychedelia that Blood Incantation mined on their latest full-length.

Not every song here is as elaborate – tracks like ‘Relinquish The Self’ and ‘Excess Womb’ are more concerned with obliterating your ear drums as swiftly as possible, with vocalist Michael Gonçalves alternating between guttural roars, a harsher, drier bark and a wailing, tortured shriek that really compliments the band’s tense, uncomfortable sound. ‘Chassis Of Deceit’ wields some of the record’s burliest, most crushing grooves, but eight minute closer ‘The Ubiquity Of Time’ is the real stand-out. Featuring spoken word from Tombs’ Mike Hill and violin from Windfaerer’s Ben Karas, it’s one of the most ambitious pieces Replicant have put together so far, and a great way to finish off such an imaginative and incendiary death metal record.

Big Lad – Power Tools
(Hominid Sounds)

Lastly, Big Lad are finally back with the follow-up to 2018’s Pro Rock. Not that Wayne Adams has been slacking off of course; his projects in the interim like Petbrick or Wasted Death (who I covered just last month in this very column) were all great, but there’s something about the chemistry between him and Big Lad drummer Henri Grimes that is just absolute magic, especially in a live setting. Power Tools might just be the most accurate representation of that live energy they’ve captured yet, and certainly features some of their most high-octane, punishing material. Opener ‘Big Juggernaut Rave Party’ kicks off in full-on abrasive Drumcorps style, with Adams’ synths distorted to the point they sound like guitars and Grimes’ kinetic drumming lending the whole a thoroughly punky energy, The pounding ‘Prince On Crack’, meanwhile, knocks their usual breakcore sound down to a threatening, jittery stomp, with infectious results, whilst the sickening crunch of ‘Self Care Is Cancelled’s speaking blower synths colliding with Grimes’ furious percussion is insanely satisfying.

Despite this, Power Tools still manages to make room for some of the duo’s calmest moments to date. ‘Gary The Singer’ is like one of those bite-sized chunks of haunted ambience that break up Burial records, whilst the luscious but despondent pads and anxious percussion of ‘Benny Was My Friend’ sound a lot like the more sombre moments on Venetian Snares’ Cavalcade Of Glee And Dadaist Happy Hardcore Pom Poms, albeit with an unexpectedly massive hard rock ending. Even during these more reserved moments though, there’s a starker, harsher vibe to Power Tools than the glossier, happier sound of Pro Rock, and it wears it well. This is music to get absolutely annihilated to in small, sweat-drenched venues and I cannot wait to witness it firsthand.

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