Columnus Metallicus: Heavy Metal for June Reviewed by Kez Whelan

Kez Whelan salutes a particularly fertile year in the world of metal, and delivers your regular guide to all things heavy with reviews of new releases from Darkthrone, Full Of Hell, Pallbearer and many more

Tzompantli, photo by Luckee Ngin

2024 is shaping up to be an absolutely insane year for new music, not just metal, and with so much to cover, I’m just going to skip the pleasantries and get straight into it; so how about that new Bongripper album, eh? Six years after Terminal, their longest gap between releases yet, Empty is a definite return to form. I thought recent records like Miserable were beginning to feel a bit one-note, but this one is much more dynamic, without straying too far outside the band’s usual stomping grounds. There’s a welcome return to more atmospheric ambiance on ‘Forever’, for example, which makes the unspeakably giant riffs lurking in tracks like the 20 minute ‘Nothing’ hit even harder.

Speaking of giant riffs, Thou’s new album Umbilical is absolutely essential too. I’ve written about it elsewhere this month, so at the risk of repeating myself, I’ll just say it could well be their heaviest, most vicious album to date – not too shabby after a full two decades of existence!

Wretched Blessing’s self-titled EP is also well worth a spin. Featuring Immortal Bird’s Rae Amitay on drums and Yautja’s Kayhan Vaziri on guitar, there are definite traces of each musician’s other projects in this sludgy, angular blackened death onslaught, but with a rawer and even more visceral approach. The pair sound just as intense on punkier, D-beat laden cuts like ‘Pseudoascension’ as they do on blastier fare like ‘Spurious Ovation’, whilst ‘Anathematic’ pairs wonky Autopsy style grooves with Rae’s venomous vocals very effectively. Keep an eye on this band, if they can keep this unhinged energy for a full-length, we’ll be in for a treat.

The new Effluence album Necrobiology is easily the most unhinged thing you’ll hear this month though. The brainchild of Matt Stephens, the solo project is one of a growing number of acts blurring the lines between hyper brutal death metal, rancid goregrind and chaotic free jazz (think Encenathrakh and Trichomoniasis). Following 2022’s 26 minute long single ‘Sarmat’, he’s returned to a relatively more song-based format here – with heavy emphasis on the relatively, as these lightspeed sonic nuggets still consist of an utterly baffling array of ludicrously pingy snares, inhuman vocals, jazzy chords and wild, clattering free improv percussion. If the idea of Milford Graves joining Last Days Of Humanity gets you hot under the collar, this is mandatory listening.

DarkthroneIt Beckons Us All…….Peaceville

Now on their third post-lockdown full-length, Darkthrone’s late-career creative streak shows no signs of waning just yet. It Beckons Us All is another absolute riff-o-rama, continuing the style of mysterious mid-paced heavy metal they’ve been bashing away at since 2016’s Arctic Thunder, with lengthy headbangers like ‘The Bird People Of Nordland’ perfecting that ominous, frosty sound. After I was bemoaning recent Darkthrone albums’ lack of Fenriz vocals in the last column, he delivers one of his strongest vocal performances yet here, unleashing soaring, reverb smothered hooks in rambunctious thrasher ‘Eon 3’ and the sinister but driving ‘Black Dawn Affiliation’.

Whilst much of the album is what you’d expect from the band at this stage (check out the unashamed Celtic Frost worship in ‘The Heavy Hand’), there’s still a handful of surprises here, most notably the ambitious 10-minute closer ‘The Lone Pines Of The Lost Planet’. Opening with some epic, vintage Metallica-style clean chords, it gradually opens up into a veritable banquet of lumbering doomy riffs, before dropping into a curiously sparse, psychedelic midsection and building to a genuinely stirring outro with Fenriz doing his best Messiah Marcolin impression atop a triumphant riff that could have waltzed in from one of Ozzy’s first two records. In many ways, It Beckons Us All feels like a refinement of the modern Darkthrone sound, fusing the eerie, doom-laden atmosphere of Eternal Hails……. with the more grandiose, hard rockin’ vibe of Astral Fortress. Whether or not they decide to stick with this sound or throw us a curveball with the next album remains to be seen (although we’ll probably find out soon at the rate they’re working at), but for now, there’s a convincing case to be made that this is the strongest of their recent trilogy.

Full Of HellCoagulated BlissClosed Casket Activities

After releasing collaborative records with Primitive Man, Gasp and Nothing last year, Full Of Hell’s first solo album since 2021’s Garden Of Burning Apparitions feels like a return to the band’s roots, easing off slightly on the death grind riffage that came to define their last three records and embracing the powerviolence and metallic hardcore influences that ran through their earlier work. Brash chug-a-thons like ‘Transmuting Chemical Burns’ are as close as the band have come to traditional hardcore in years, and feel custom made for instigating chaos at live shows. Likewise closer ‘Malformed Ligature’, which finds Converge’s Jacob Bannon grabbing the mic to screech over some of the album’s most robust grooves.

At the same time, Coagulated Bliss isn’t just a victory lap for the band, and continues pushing their sound into ever stranger places. The noise rock flavour that crept into the last album (presumably the result of guitarist Spencer Hazard’s ongoing work with Eye Flys) is still here in abundance, particularly on the awkwardly swaggering title track, whilst ‘Bleeding Horizon’s minimalist drone metal offers a welcome midway point breather before leaping back into the madness. The unsettling synths and abrasive industrial stomp of ‘Fractured Bonds To Mecca’, meanwhile, sound uncannily like Death Grips’ ‘No Love’, albeit with a grindier undertone. Coagulated Bliss may not be the most experimental or boundary pushing record in Full Of Hell’s oeuvre, but it’s arguably one of their most immediately visceral, and a solid reminder of how powerful they are when firing on all cylinders.

UFOmammutHiddenNeurot / Supernatural Cat

Italian space doom legends Ufomammut’s last album, 2022’s Fenice, felt like a bit of a change of pace for the band, with new drummer Levre bringing a more aggressive approach to their dense, speaker blowing riffs. Hidden again feels like a slight evolution, whilst still sounding unmistakably like an Ufomammut album. It feels like Levre has had more time to properly gel with the band, settling into some truly humongous grooves on tracks like ‘Kismet’, but that’s not the only change here. Bassist Urlo’s vocals are much more upfront in the mix this time around, belted out with confidence instead of buried beneath layers of reverb, which lends tracks like bombastic opener ‘Crookhead’ a much more anthemic quality despite its hefty length.

Hidden may not unfold with the same mysterious, psychedelic grace as, say, Eve did, but seeing as the band had already mastered that kind of sprawling, long-form sonic odyssey years ago, it’s a thrill to hear them shift into this more immediate, hookier style of doom. They haven’t skimped on those meaty riffs either, and the trio’s sound is still just as big, juicy and cacophonous, but it’s perhaps more digestible here, especially on relatively swift cuts like the pounding ‘Spidher’. Hidden is proof that Fenice wasn’t a fluke, and Ufomamut Mk. 2 mean business just as much as their original incarnation did.

SumacThe HealerThrill Jockey

It’s wild how far Sumac have come over the past decade; I remember pitching their 2015 debut The Deal to someone as “basically Isis without the post-rock bits”, a description that was admittedly hopelessly reductive at the time, and now seems a completely inadequate way to summarise the metallic free improv behemoth that stands before us today. Ever since the trio’s first collaboration with Keiji Haino back in 2018, they’ve spent each successive album getting weirder and more abstract, and this 76-minute monster could be their most obtuse solo release yet. It’s a slow starter; the almost 26-minute opener ‘World Of Light’ is a gruelling introduction, building from sparse, abrasive guitar tones to some of the record’s most bloody minded pummelling, with Aaron Turner’s immediately recognisable howl sounding more like a wounded bear than ever.

There are some genuinely beautiful moments here too however, with the delicate, sun-kissed intro to ‘Yellow Dawn’ recalling some of latter day Swans’ softer moments, before the track dives into some of the most driving riffs Sumac have put to tape in years. ‘New Rites’ is also extremely riffy, despite sounding like it’s on the verge of collapse throughout; you can really hear drummer Nick Yacyshyn’s hardcore background here, as he latches onto taut, bouncy grooves amidst the jazzy fills and chaotic cymbal swells. The drumming in the cathartic ‘The Stone’s Turn’ is similarly intense, as yearning, emotive riffs gradually come into focus amongst the free-wheeling maelstrom. Whilst Sumac’s increasingly bizarre trajectory isn’t for everyone, their commitment to pushing the envelope makes them much more interesting than your average post-metal act to my ears. There really isn’t anyone else marrying sludge metal with free improv to the degree Sumac are doing it right now, and I’m fascinated to see how far they can take this sound – if The Healer is any indication, they’re still just warming up.

Insect ArkRaw Blood SingingDebemur Morti

Following stints in Gnaw, Årabrot and an on-going position in the latest incarnation of Swans, multi-instrumentalist Dana Schechter has recently returned to her own project Insect Ark with a renewed sense of purpose. Raw Blood Singing feels like a fresh start for the band in many ways; for one, it’s their first outing with Khanate percussionist Tim Wyskida behind the kit, and his alternately booming and sparse drumming really gives tracks like ‘The Hands’ an extra kick, playing around the beat and finding all sorts of weird grooves to complement Schechter’s driving basslines. Secondly, it’s the first to feature Dana’s vocals, and her smoky, dulcet tones sound so confident and add so much emotion to tracks like the sinister, twisting ‘Psychological Jackal’ or avant-power ballad ‘Youth Body Swayed’, it almost feels like a missed opportunity that Insect Ark has existed as an instrumental entity for a full decade.

Lastly, Dana has opened the project up to more collaborative efforts here too, with Oranssi Pazuzu’s Ville Leppilahti contributing some subtle but deliciously eerie piano to the meditative yet oddly unsettling ‘Cleaven Hearted’, and Krallice’s Colin Marston layering hypnotic, swirling synths over the aptly named ‘Inverted Whirlpool’. Raw Blood Singingfeels like the most cohesive and well-realised Insect Ark album yet. The songs here are much more focussed, and Dana’s vocals really help tie the whole thing together, allowing the album’s themes to resonate more clearly and anchoring the loftier, ethereal instrumentation around an at times painfully human focal point. Their previous records were good, but this is a big step up, harking back to the glory days of weirdo Hydra Head ambient skronk metal whilst also hinting at a host of potential sonic vistas the pair could venture to in the future.

TzompantliBeating The Drums Of Ancestral Force20 Buck Spin

Tzompantli’s debut Tlazcaltiliztliended up being one of my favourite albums of 2022, surpassing main man Brian Ortiz’s “other” band Xibalba in terms of pure riffing heft with its blend of cavernous death/doom and traditional Mexican instrumentation. For this follow-up, Ortiz has pulled out all the stops, expanding the band from a duo to a ten man strong unit armed with didgeridoos, animal flutes and shells. Any worries that this would tip the scales too far in terms of atmosphere over aggression should be dismissed immediately however, as from the first few blast-laden seconds of opener ‘Tetzahuitl’ it’s clear that this album is determined to be even more brutal than its predecessor. The pounding hammer blasts and churning grooves of ‘Chichimecatl’ sound absolutely lethal, and really emphasise the unlikely similarities between doomy death metal and Xibalba’s distinctive style of beatdown hardcore.

This increase in intensity certainly hasn’t come at the expense of atmosphere however, with some of the album’s slowest moments ending up being the most effective. The gruff wails and mournful riffs that close ‘Tlayohuali’ almost feel like Crowbar gone full funeral doom, whilst the sinister clean guitar, chanted vocals and distant animal calls on ‘Tlaloc Icuic’ create a genuinely surreal aura. Closer ‘Icnocuicatl’ builds from some of the album’s most sombre, eerie chords, complete with Asunder-esque clean vocals, to some of its most bludgeoning, bull-headed riffage. Here’s hoping the band opt to keep building from this foundation, as they’ve tapped into something very special indeed here.

Unearthly RitesEcdysisProsthetic

Don’t sleep on Finnish quartet Unearthly Rites’ debut album either, which manages to be one of the freshest death metal debuts of the year so far whilst simultaneously sounding utterly, utterly rancid. There’s a genuinely unhinged quality to the band’s approach, which sounds old school without feeling rote, armed with a punky aggression that helps their dank, desolate atmosphere really leap out of the speakers. Vocalist Sisli Piisilä adds bags of character to the band too, alternating between deep, guttural roars and convincingly demented high-pitched shrieks on songs like ‘Deep Drilling Earth’s Crust’. As you may have gathered from that title, there’s a theme of environmental activism running through Ecdysis without ever lapsing into ecofascism (as the song titled, erm, ‘Fuck Ecofascism’ makes abundantly clear). This gives the band’s lyrics more weight than your standard death metal shlock, and lends an extra air of desperation to a song like ‘Capitalocenic Nightmare’ which fuses the lumbering gloom of Autopsy with the impassioned frustration of Dystopia. ‘New Venus’ also has a bit of a Dystopia vibe with ominous sludgy basslines creeping out of frantic, almost grindy blasts and gristly tremolo riffs.

Unearthly Rites aren’t exactly reinventing the wheel here, but their crusty death onslaught is performed with such energy and conviction it’s hard to resist. This style of cavernous old school death is incredibly oversubscribed at the moment, but there’s enough punk vitriol here to really make the band stand out. If your face isn’t auto-gurning during the absolutely crushing closer, the appropriately titled ‘Doomed’, there’s no hope for you.

UlcerateCutting The Throat Of GodDebemur Morti

This New Zealand trio’s last album, 2020’s Stare Into Death And Be Still, felt like a big leap forward, allowing more breathing room into their tight, chaotic tech-death sound resulting in their most melodic and emotionally affecting opus yet. This seventh full-length goes even further down that route, as is clear right from the spidery, gothic guitar that kicks off opener ‘To Flow Through Ashen Hearts’, a riff that feels like it would be more at home on a Fields Of The Nephilim record than a Gorguts one. Whilst the band’s wide-eyed intensity is still here in spades, this yearning, melancholy atmosphere permeates the whole album and really adds an extra dimension to songs like the creepy ‘The Dawn Is Hollow’, as delicate, twinkling chords dance across brutal double-kick rolls, or the utterly haunting polyrhythmic ‘Transfiguration In And Out Of Worlds’, perhaps one of the most expansive and lusciously composed pieces the band have caught on tape yet.

‘To See Death Just Once’, meanwhile, delivers all the fiddly dissonance and lightspeed blasting you’d expect, but breaks into some unexpectedly beautiful, dirge-like chords in the middle, only making the band’s usual tumult seem even more intense when it does come roaring back in. Cutting The Throat Of God feels like a natural evolution from (and refinement of) the sound of Ulcerate’s last album, and whilst it may not have the same element of surprise, the more focussed, hookier songwriting more than makes up for it. The band’s ability to demonstrate vulnerability and find such emotive nuances in one of metal’s most infamously cold and mechanical subgenres is really something special, and, like with the last record, elevates this one above being “just” a great tech-death record into something else entirely.

PallbearerMind Burns AliveNuclear Blast

Whilst last album Forgotten Days found this Arkansas doom quartet in a particularly riffy mode, they’ve gone in the polar opposite direction for this fifth full-length, undoubtedly their softest and most delicate sounding LP yet. There are still traces of the band’s usual crushing doom metal here, but for the most part Mind Burns Alive dwells in more fragile sonic terrain, akin to late-period Anathema or, especially in ‘Daybreak’ and the verses of the title track, morose ‘90s slowcore like Red House Painters at their most dejected.

I feel like Mind Burns Alive is still growing on me, in all honesty. It’s the definition of a slow burner, and after being distinctly turned off by its subtlety and oddly dry, upfront sounding vocals on the first spin, I come away from each subsequent listen finding something else to like about it, be it the soaring hook that closes ‘When The Light Fades’ or that gorgeous saxophone solo in ‘Endless Place’s cathartic climax. It’s not the sound of a band playing to their strengths, but it’s commendable Pallbearer would step this far out of their comfort zone. That said, it feels like a fairly natural evolution from the softer, proggier airiness of 2017’s Heartless, and it’s a damn sight better than Deafheaven’s similar attempt to go full 90s sentimental indie rock on Infinite Granite, at least. If you’re prepared to stick with it, there’s enough here to reward patient listeners.

The Quietus Digest

Sign up for our free Friday email newsletter.

Support The Quietus

Our journalism is funded by our readers. Become a subscriber today to help champion our writing, plus enjoy bonus essays, podcasts, playlists and music downloads.

Support & Subscribe Today