Columnus Metallicus: Heavy Metal For January Reviewed By Kez Whelan

Kez Whelan offers us a 360 degree, panoramic view of what is great right now in heavy metal, including some great releases from last year that didn't register in his scrying mirror first time round

40 Watt Sun

January is a typically quiet month for new releases, and whilst there are some Certified Bangers© below, I’ve also spared some room in this month’s column for those brave souls who chose to defy list season by releasing their new records in the depths of December. Finalising all the traditional year-end shenanigans by mid-November means there’s a good month and a half of metal goodness that gets neglected, and this year yielded a particularly good harvest.

Stormkeep’s debut Tales Of Othertime for example, is fully deserving of the hype and I can totally understand its immediate creep onto many AOTY lists. Comprised of members of Blood Incantation, Wayfarer and Cobalt, they’ve fully captured that furious essence of the best late 90s melodic black metal acts, right down to the whimsical but slightly naff sounding keys and fantastical lyrics about wizards and castles. The record is just as exuberant and detailed as its stunning cover, so if you’re into Dissection, Sacramentum, Windir etc, you’ll want to pick this up immediately.

Swiss black metal duo Ernte’s debut Geist Und Hexerei is a solid if fairly rudimentary blast of icy tremolo too – but given how effective it is in the Wolvserpent-esque opening track, vocalist Witch N.’s violin feels sorely underused here. I can’t help but wonder how much more intriguing they’d be if they incorporated more of that ambience into their ferocious black metal assault in the future.

I’ve already written about Washington death metallers Genocide Pact’s new self-titled effort elsewhere but suffice to say it’s their best yet, infusing their burly hardcore influenced take on old-school death metal with Autopsy’s doomy atmospheres and the brash crunch of early Sepultura. Meanwhile, the new Concrete Winds album Nerve Butcherer is just ludicrously hostile. Formed by ex-Vorum members, the duo play frantic, warped death metal riffs with a speed and intensity more befitting a grindcore band – think Trey Azagthoth joining Nasum to belt out Angelcorpse covers whilst gargling battery acid.

There’s an abundance of albums I’m still catching up on from early 2021 too. I’d slept on Ukrainian black metal solo project Këkht Aräkh’s new album Pale Swordsman after being resoundingly unimpressed by their 2018 demo Through The Branches To Eternity, but don’t make the same mistake – their decrepit yet melodic and oddly romantic spin on lo-fi black metal is far more well-realised here, offering a sort of blackened post punk that may even be more convincing than Lamp Of Murmuur’s latest Sisters Of Mercy-worshipping opus.

Portland quartet Blackwater Holylight’s Silence/Motion is worth checking out too; the band’s hazy, washed out take on the genre recalls Ides Of Gemini in places, but with their gloomy gothic aura replaced by a rootsy, whiskey-drenched Americana vibe that is very intoxicating. Australian duo Divide And Dissolve’s Gas Lit deconstructs sludge metal in a particularly unique way too, with guitarist/saxophonist Takiaya Reed summoning huge, abrasive sheets of sound as percussionist Sylvie Nehill keeps the whole thing from becoming too formless and abstract with brash, hard-hitting rhythms. If you missed it the first time, it’s just been reissued with some equally great remixes courtesy of Chelsea Wolfe and Moor Mother.

Before I get too carried away binging some of 2021’s forgotten treats, 2022 still has a lot to offer already too. Mizmor’s new EP Wit’s End is short but sweet, with the title track taking his unique fusion of doom and black metal to an even more barren, desolate place than his last full-length Cairn. The B-side ‘Pareidolia’, meanwhile, expands on the ambient sound of his 2020 collaboration with Andrew Black Dialetheia, and feels like it could have waltzed in straight from that new Burial EP with its elegiac, reverb-swamped choir swells and sombre, devotional atmosphere.

40 Watt Sun – Perfect Light

Entering the bleakest month after two of the bleakest years in recent memory, I don’t think there’s ever been a more perfect time for a new 40 Watt Sun album – although perhaps mercifully, Perfect Light is probably the most hopeful and optimistic collection of songs Patrick Walker has ever recorded. The crushing density of his first band, doom legends Warning, had already begun to soften on 40 Watt Sun’s 2011 debut The Inside Room, and 2016’s stripped down, mostly acoustic Wider Than The Sky went even further in that direction. At first glance, Perfect -Light continues this pattern, but dig a little deeper and you’ll find it’s a much more subtly detailed record than its sparser, rawer predecessor. The sombre, folky opener ‘Reveal’ would have felt right at home on Wider Than The Sky for example, but the distant vocals of Amber Asylum’s Lorraine Rath accompanying Walker’s yearning croon add a whole extra dimension to the song’s wistful melancholy. The eleven minute ‘Behind My Eyes’ seems to breeze past too, beginning as a delicate acoustic lullaby before warm EBow flourishes and Chris Redman’s shimmering piano gradually phase into focus, creating a breath-taking autumnal wash of sound that builds so patiently and effectively you may not even notice it. Redman’s piano takes a more prominent position on the gorgeous ‘The Spaces In Between’ too, which builds from a similarly still, meditative intro into a sumptuously painted sonic cocoon, with Patrick’s gentle wail taking on a slightly playful tone during the chorus’ surprisingly jazzy chord changes. Walker’s voice feels more dynamic and expressive than ever here, with his more reserved, restrained performance on songs like this contrasting nicely with his quivering inflection on the relatively driving lead single ‘Until’, just oozing passion and honesty. Perfect Light also features some of his most direct and personal lyrics so far, especially on the autobiographical closer ‘Closure’, an incredibly sincere ode to a close friend. Anyone still holding out for a return to the doomier textures of Walker’s early work may be disappointed that Perfect Light leans even further into this gentler, starker sound, but everyone else will be pleased to discover that it’s an even more affecting and effective experience than its predecessor, and one of Walker’s most beautiful and heartfelt records to date.

Phrenelith – Chimaera

(Nuclear Winter)

Danish death metallers Phrenelith unveiled the long-awaited follow-up to 2017’s Desolate Endscape in December, and it’s an absolute beast. Fronted by Undergang vocalist/guitarist David Torturdød, you may be wondering why you’d need to form another ultra-detuned guttural old school death metal band when you helm one of the best examples of the style, but there are several key differences between the two – especially on this new one, which is certainly Phrenelith’s most bleak, barren outing yet. As Undergang seem to get even more bouncy and groovier with age, Phrenelith just seem to get starker and more confrontational (as if to underline this, just before Phrenelith dropped this disturbing opus Undergang released a surprisingly upbeat and explicitly festive split with Cadaveric Incubator, which is worth adding to your almost non-existent playlist of “tolerable Christmas songs”). There’s still plenty of crossover, of course – both bands excel in creating oppressively murky, dank atmospheres – but in contrast to Undergang’s more visceral, bloody approach, Phrenelith feel way more spectral and despondent. This more cerebral style of morbidity has really come into its own here, as opener ‘Awakening Titans’ deftly balances sinister, genuinely unsettling acoustic licks with filthy, squirming tremolo riffs and astonishingly pulverising drumming. Chimaera is certainly blast heavy, but the drums have an incredibly punchy, organic sound and there’s a lot of nuance to Paweł “Tuna” Tunkiewicz’s playing, worming in all kinds of interesting touches and constantly keeping the listener on their toes. The two part ‘Chimaerian Offspring’ is one of the most effective things the band has ever produced, the first instalment showcasing just how ferocious they can be when they really put their foot down, and the second delivering all manner of wonky, doomy grooves and harrowingly downtrodden riffs. It may have missed your AOTY list, but history will remember Chimaera as one of 2021’s finest death metal offerings.

Malignant Altar – Realms Of Exquisite Morbidity

(Dark Descent)

This Texan quartet’s 2019 demo Retribution Of Jealous Gods marked them out as one of the most compelling Maggot Stomp acts to my ears, so I was surprised that Century Media didn’t pick them up alongside Frozen Soul and Sanguisugabogg – especially when you consider the band comprises members of War Master, Church Of Disgust of two thirds of Insect fuckin’ Warfare (guitarist Beau Beasley and drummer Dobber Beverley, to be precise). Dark Descent never misses the chance to snap up promising new death metal bands however, and Malignant Altar’s debut full-length is just as crushing as hoped, bulking the sound of their demo up to even loftier heights. The band’s style is very much in the vein of the new school of groovy, knuckle-dragging Bolt Thrower worship you’d expect from Maggot Stomp alumni, but performed with a bit more finesse and intricacy than their peers. It doesn’t reach the same kind of blast-laden perfection as World Extermination, of course, but that’s perhaps an unfair yardstick, especially when Malignant Altar has a very different aim. There’s very little grind influence here at all, but Dobber’s beats still have that certain frenetic vigour about them that really ups the energy in these songs – just check out the insane double-kick rolls in ‘Usurping The Pantheon Crown’. He knows exactly when to scale things back too, however, as the deliriously satisfying slow-mo thud of the groovy ‘Belial Rebirth’ demonstrates. Realms Of Exquisite Morbidity has no pretensions or delusions of grandeur – this is just great meat & potatoes death metal, and if that’s what you’re after, this will hit the spot and then some.

Party Cannon – Volumes Of Vomit

(Gore House)

If you’re on the hunt for death metal with an even lower IQ still, you’ll be pleased to hear Party Cannon have finally dropped the follow-up to their 2015 debut Bong Hit Hospitalisation. Whilst the Scottish quintet were perhaps unfairly seen as a novelty act at the time, in the intervening years their brand of jovial, slamming death metal has really taken off, thanks in no small part to that colourful, bouncy logo standing out amidst the traditionally illegible spikes on festival line-ups. Of course, nobody would care if they didn’t have the riffs to back it up, and thankfully Volumes Of Vomit has them by the bucket load.

There’s nothing particularly innovative or ground-breaking about the band’s style – if you spent any amount of time listening to brutal death metal in the late 2000s, their sample-strewn fusion of precision blastbeats, Suffocation-worshipping riffs, inhumanly guttural vocals and gigantic, barbaric breakdowns will feel instantly familiar – but like their peers Crepitation, Party Cannon have realised that this OTT strand of the genre is at its best when pushed to the absolute limits of absurdity, and they walk the fine line between genuinely crushing riffery and gleeful irrelevance masterfully here, never tipping the scales far enough into that reprehensibly smug “comedy metal” territory. The guest features help too (Exhumed vocalist/bassist Ross Sewage shows up on the appropriately titled single ‘Nauseating And Unpalatable’, whilst Cerebral Incubation frontman Andrew LoMastro lends his sub-sonic burble to ‘Electric Soldier Porygon’, an ode to the most seizure-inducing Pokémon), but even without them, Volumes Of Vomit is proof there’s more to Party Cannon than just a funny logo.

Ustalost – Before The Glinting Spell Unvests


Just as I was wondering whether Yellow Eyes frontman Will Skarstad’s solo project Ustalost would ever return for a second outing or remain an underrated one-off, he finally dropped a follow-up to 2016’s The Spoor Of Vipers with little to no fanfare right before Christmas – and what a follow-up it is! Immediately darker and more ambitious than its predecessor, Before The Glinting Spell Unvests manages to nail that eerily timeless quality that the best lo-fi black metal possesses; sonically, this could just as easily have been released in the early 90s as it could mere weeks ago. Whilst the cold guitar tones, harsh shrieks and otherworldly keys all sound thoroughly authentic, there’s nothing derivative about Ustalost – these six lengthy tracks are all arranged in a beguilingly angular manner, warping familiar black metal sounds into grotesque but oddly beautiful new shapes in an unorthodox way that somehow makes perfect sense. There’s definitely a Norwegian influence here, but this album manages to sound completely unique nonetheless. Take ‘Stinging Stone’; the shortest, most direct track here, it recalls early Ulver with its contrasting resonant chants and piercing shrieks and melancholic, woodsy atmosphere, but the riffs feel incredibly fresh. The sudden switch between bright, celestial tremolo and ominous hanging chords in the middle is a great example of how deftly and organically this album balances light and darkness. Whilst Yellow Eyes’ sound seems to fit into a recognisable American black metal lineage consisting of Weakling, Krallice, Wolves In The Throne Room etc., Ustalost’s sound feels even more singular, unique and alien here – and as much as I love Yellow Eyes, on the basis of Before The Glinting Spell Unvests alone, I’m prepared to say Ustalost is the more interesting and rewarding project. Now we just have to pray it doesn’t take another worldwide pandemic for Skarstad to round this out to a trilogy…

Celeste – Assassine(s)

(Nuclear Blast)

Whilst France’s Celeste may not be a household name, you could definitely argue that their distinctive fusion of black metal, sludge and post-hardcore has left a large shadow over modern extreme metal, and it’s easy to see their influence in bands like Hexis, Downfall Of Gaia, Regarde Les Hommes Tomber, Calligram etc. Discounting their 2018 live EP, this sixth album (their first for Nuclear Blast) is the first we’ve heard from the quartet since 2017’s Infidèle(s), and whilst it’s recognisably the work of the same band, there are a few changes too. Assassine(s) is certainly caustic and confrontational, but it feels like much of the searing anger that informed their earlier work has given way to a much more palpable sadness, with the forlorn, melancholy melodies in songs like opener ‘Des Torrents De Coups’ and the layered, almost shoegaze-y ‘Nonchalantes De Beauté’ really demonstrating how grandiose and cinematic the band’s sound has become. There’s still plenty of seething fury to be found here, of course (especially on the driving, mean ‘Il A Tant Rêvé D’elles’) and Celeste’s style is still much darker and nastier than, say Deafheaven or Alcest, but there’s a stoic, mature quality here that, combined with the band’s eagerness to expand their sound, makes this feel like a big step forward. The emotive instrumental ‘(A)’ brings to mind the textured drones of Chicago’s Locrian, whilst the stuttering, stunted grooves of ‘De Tes Veux Bleus Perlés’ feel like a more blackened incarnation of modern Meshuggah. Assassine(s) may not have the same abrasive grit as some of Celeste’s earlier records, but the moribund, crystalline sound here suits them very well indeed.

Agvirre –

(Through Love/Surviving Sounds/Trepanation)

Celeste fans are strongly advised to pick up Agvirre’s new EP too – long-term readers of this column may remember me raving about their first one around this time two years ago, and the Mancunian collective sound even more assured and inventive on this follow-up. A lot of the shoegaze-y, post-black metal leanings of their first EP have given way to a more angular, avant garde black metal style here more in tune with the likes of Bosse-De-Nage or Ved Buens Ende, but at the same time, this album sounds even more layered and elaborately orchestrated than its predecessor, with epic ten-minute opener ‘Urtica In Glass’ seamlessly fusing luscious, almost Godspeed-esque post rock instrumentation in amongst their dissonant black metal churn. Robin Melinda’s violin played a focal role on their debut, but here she hangs back in the shadows a bit more, adding subtle but extremely effective flourishes to the band’s sound – and the combination of her more harmonious vocals against guitarist Frenchie’s tortured DSBM style howl is pretty damn enthralling too. The three-minute interlude ‘ (In Plain Sight)’ is easily the most shoegaze influenced thing here, as closer ‘For El Dorado, Whenever I May Find You’ drifts into folkier, Agalloch-ian territory before culminating in the EP’s blastiest but most euphoric passages. Agvirre’s debut was already great but the growth exhibited here is extraordinary – here’s hoping they can maintain this momentum and inventiveness for a full-length!

Earthless – Night Parade Of One Hundred Demons

(Nuclear Blast)

After changing up their style on 2018’s tighter, song-based and vocal-led Black Heaven, Californian psych legends Earthless return to sprawling instrumental jams on this latest album – although, as the title may suggest, this is a noticeably darker Earthless than the one that gave us breezy, blissed out sonic voyages like 2007’s Rhythms From A Cosmic Sky. If you’re looking for immediate gratification, driving beats and scorching lead guitar heroics, Night Parade Of One Hundred Demons may have you working a little harder than you expected. The two-part title track begins on an uncharacteristically subtle note, with delicate licks washing over waves of soft ambience. Around the seven minute mark, the trio eventually erupt into one of those hazy, Flower Travellin’ Band worshipping riffs they do so well, but there’s a more sinister quality to it this time round. Whilst the middle of the song indulges in some kaleidoscopic soloing, it culminates in a huge, cumbersome riff that’s as close as Earthless have ever ventured towards more traditional doom metal. Night Parade Of One Hundred Demons still delivers all the thrills and fretboard fireworks you’d expect from an Earthless album (especially on the 20 minute ‘Death To The Red Sun’), but it’s much more of a slow-build than their other records, rewarding patient listeners and taking plenty of time to stop and smell the roses on its hour-long journey. None of this is a bad thing at all, however. If you just want 40 minutes of white-hot psychedelic jamming, 2005’s Sonic Prayer isn’t going anywhere (it’s just been reissued by Nuclear Blast too, conveniently enough) – but if you want to take a darker, stranger and altogether more elaborate trip into the cosmos, Night Parade Of One Hundred Demons will happily take you there.

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