Columnus Metallicus: Heavy Metal For May Reviewed By Kez Whelan

In his latest guide to the best in brand new metal, Kez Whelan assesses the strengths and weaknesses of Metallica's 72 Seasons, and reviews the latest offerings from Esoctrilihum, Orme, Dødheimsgard and more


What does anyone even want from a new Metallica album in 2023? If they stick too closely to the formula laid down by their early records, they’ll be lambasted for playing it too safe, but try and reinvent themselves and do something completely off the wall (like Lulu) and they’ll be scoffed at for deviating too much from the Metallica sound. It’s almost enough to make you feel sorry for them – almost, that is, until you remember they could just spend the rest of their days lounging in their LA mansions, surrounded by all the cocaine and overpriced pop art their hearts desire, whilst more inventive younger bands toil away for a pittance and lose column space to waffling non-sequiturs about Lars Ulrich’s painting collection.

All of the big four were victims of their own success to some degree, but Metallica are always held to a higher standard of scrutiny than their peers – which makes sense given their peers aren’t charging hundreds for gig tickets, but you get the feeling that even if, miraculously, they were able to knock out an all-guns-blazing return to form that could stand alongside their old classics, it would elicit little more than a collective shrug and a dozen YouTube guitar videos with titles like “Here’s How Kirk SHOULD Have Played It!”. Not that 72 Seasons is that album, of course – far from it – but it’s almost certainly the best thing they’ve done in the last two decades. Not the highest bar, perhaps, but it finally sounds like there’s a bit of life back in the band. The title track is arguably more robustly thrashy than anything on the last two albums, and ‘Room Of Mirrors’ and single ‘Lux Æterna’ see the band’s NWOBHM obsession (don’t call it a NWOBsession) returning with full force, whilst ‘Sleepwalk My Life Away’, one of two tracks bassist Robert Trujillo receives a writing credit for, has a pretty infectious Sabbathian swagger to it.

It’s obviously not without its flaws; there are no real surprises, Hetfield’s distractingly overproduced vocals are often at odds with the more organic, stripped down vibe the songs are aiming for, and the stodgy bloat that’s plagued their recent records rears its head again here. I realise criticisms about length may ring hollow from someone who’s only just sung the praises of the first 80 minute instalment of <a href=”” target=”out”> Bell Witch’s new triple album on this very site – not to mention the two hour Esoctrilihum album lurking mere paragraphs away – but these records justify their running times by broadening the horizons of metal and pushing against its limits, reaching for the infinite. By contrast, Metallica’s continued insistence on filling 77 minutes feels like, at best, a stubborn hangover from the CD era, and at worst, a cynical attempt to bump up streaming numbers and charge more for deluxe LPs. If Bell Witch sound liberated whilst pushing against the confines of the album format, Metallica sound trapped, forced to repeat that chorus just a few more times than really necessary to pad out those final minutes.

These flaws were honestly to be expected at this point, though I certainly didn’t expect to enjoy the album’s peaks as much as I did. Both Death Magnetic and Hardwired… To Self Destruct always sounded too rigid and lifeless to my ears, like an overly self-conscious attempt to return to their more respected thrash roots after St. Anger became a perennial punchline. Here, they’ve finally loosened up and sound a lot more natural and energised, closer to that sweet spot between NWOBHM and thrash they pioneered on Kill ‘Em All than anything else they’ve done this millennium. Maybe this marks the point where, ouroboros like, Metallica finally eat their own tail and vomit out everything else they’ve toyed with over the last 40 years to end up right back where they started – but maybe that’s the best possible outcome for a Metallica record at this point.

Esoctrilihum – Astraal Constellations Of The Majickal Zodiac
(I, Voidhanger)

Speaking of ouroboros, apparently infinitely looping extreme metal triptychs inspired by the concept of eternal return are like buses – I wasn’t even aware I was waiting for one, but now we’ve got two of them. Shortly after Bell Witch unveiled the first part of their Future Shadow trilogy, this insanely prolific French solo act has just released a trio of 40 minute albums that combine together to form a single sprawling space opera. Aside from that uncanny similarity however, the two couldn’t be more different; whilst Bell Witch take a slow-burning, philosophical approach, Esoctrilihum dish out a dizzyingly intense barrage of blackened death metal riffing whilst illustrating an all-out war between “bizarre zodiacal deities”.

The first LP is arguably the most psychedelic, dynamic and texturally interesting thing he’s released since 2020’s Eternity Of Shaog, whilst the second is billed as the most aggressive part of the trilogy, and certainly delivers. It’s not as ludicrously abrasive as last year’s Consecration Of The Spiritüs Flesh, but given the spacier nature of the two records it’s sandwiched between, that would have made for a strange tonal shift anyway. It does a good job of evoking some sort of grand, cosmic war, not just in the artillery-like blasts of blistering opener ‘AlŭBḁḁlisme’ but also the surreal, bombastic atmosphere surrounding the whole thing – those triumphant synths in ‘Shadow Lupus Of Sæmons-Tuhr’ combined with the huge windswept riffs feel like Blood Fire Death era Bathory launched into the furthest reaches of space. The third opus features just two 20 minute pieces, allowing the listener a little more breathing room whilst still delivering the knotty, concentrated riffing Esoctrilihum has become known for. Despite the blistering double-kick, the first track has a slightly slower pace, making room for eerie cosmic keys and some doomier grooves; the second, however, goes like the absolute clappers and ends the project on a particularly intense note.

In a strange way, this extravagant approach almost feels like it could please everyone. If you’ve been experiencing Esoctrilihum fatigue after nine dense, hour-plus albums in less than six years, then each three of these records are quite tight, digestible and accessible when listened to in isolation; on the other hand, if you can’t get enough of the project’s uniquely surreal and disorientating sprawl, then the full two hour experience is remarkably consistent, if somewhat exhausting, feeling like a return to form after the last couple of unfocussed, somewhat patchier records.

Orme – Orme

On the subject of long albums, there must be something in the water at the moment – this Hertfordshire drone trio’s debut album clocks in at a whopping 95 minutes. Not to be confused with Danish black metallers Orm (who also dropped a 95 minute album last year, funnily enough), Orme seem to have studied the Bong school of songwriting extensively, with their oppressively slow dirges decorated with sheets of scathing, psychedelic guitar – even guitarist Tom Clements’ dramatic, portentous and almost spoken vocals sound like a slightly more manic take on Bong vocalist Dawn Terry’s distinctive style. The band manage to dish out two gargantuan tracks here, the first of which builds patiently as distant, delicate guitar licks gradually morph into a wall of steady, buzzing drone, before erupting into molten Sleep-esque riffage in its final third. The second, ‘Onward To Sarnath’, is even more meditative, pairing tranquil guitar drones with Clements’ chanting vocals for a good 16 minutes, before bassist Jimmy Long supplements the drone with some didgeridoo and Clements’ chants are backed up by the more ethereal tones of Chea Griffin-Anker. The track also picks up significantly in its final third, as Clements blasts out a huge lead over a leaden, chugging groove.

Does Orme need to be 95 minutes long? Not really, in all honesty, especially given the chunk of silence clumsily placed at the end of the album before its outro – whilst I can’t imagine cutting any of Bell Witch’s latest and I still seem to come away from Dopesmoker thinking it’s too short every time I listen to it, there are definitely moments here where it feels like the band’s focus drifts somewhat. For a debut, however, you can’t help but admire the ambition, and the album’s peaks are certainly worth sticking around for.

Dødheimsgard – Black Medium Current

It’s been a full eight years since we last heard from Norwegian black metallers Dødheimsgard, and although new album Black Medium Current may feature an entirely different line-up to 2015’s A Umbra Omega aside from guitarist, vocalist and songwriter Vicotnik, it feels like a continuation of that record’s surreal progressive approach. In contrast to the more industrial approach of 1999’s 666 International and 2007’s Supervillain Outcast, these two latest records have a much more organic, natural feel – in fact, this one perhaps even more so than A Umbra Omega. That album’s overtly theatrical aesthetic has been smoothed into a more subdued, streamlined approach, with a cleaner, more polished sound that touches on soaring space rock, glitzy 80s funk, moody Badalamenti-esque jazz, wonky new-wave in the Talking Heads or Discipline era King Crimson vein and, yes, traditional black metal – and that’s all just in the first song!

The way ‘It Does Not Follow’ floats seamlessly between glistening post-punk guitar swells, taut, funky bass-lines and bubbling pools of twinkling keys to full-bore black metal somehow feels entirely natural, as does the way the Coil-esque interlude ‘Voyager’ transitions into the windswept, Enslaved style riffs of ‘Halow’. Despite all these disparate influences, Black Medium Current as a whole feels more fluid and less cluttered than its predecessor – and whilst that chaotic feel was undoubtedly a big part of the last album’s appeal, the more lucid, focussed approach here really works. If A Umbra Omega felt like the soundtrack to an astronaut’s existential angst and encroaching madness upon leaving earth, this instead is the crystalline moment of clarity they might feel afterwards, taking in the sight of their planet nestled amongst the stars whilst revelling in the vast scope of the universe itself.

Acid King – Beyond Vision
(Blues Funeral)

Stoner doom legends Acid King also returned from an eight year hiatus recently – coincidentally enough also with an all-new line-up aside from long-standing guitarist and vocalist Lori Joseph, who’s now flanked by Black Cobra guitarist Jason Landrian, Bädr Vogu’s Bryce Shelton on bass and drummer Jason Willer, who’s played with everyone from Jello Biafra to Nik Turner. Beyond Vision manages to retain a similar vibe to earlier Acid King records whilst sounding significantly different; Joseph’s soaring vocals and hazy guitar tone are unmistakable, but the album opts for a largely instrumental approach, with her voice used sparingly, if at all on some songs. It’s much darker in tone too, occasionally touching on post-metal atmospherics with a more textured approach than the blaring fuzz of their earlier works. It’s hard not to miss that at times, but those early records aren’t going anywhere, and this is a very mature, unique addition to the Acid King discography – if a record like III felt like being scorched by the full heat of the desert sun, this one is more like kicking back in the cool amber glow of sunset.

Wallowing – Earth Reaper
(Church Road)

Brighton space-farers Wallowing’s long-awaited second album lands this month too, finding their unique fusion of sludge, noise, grind and black metal coming into even clearer focus. Continuing the heady sci-fi concept of 2019’s Planet Loss, Earth Reaper is even more immediate whilst retaining the mysterious depth that made the debut so intriguing. ‘Flesh And Steel’ might be the most ferocious track they’ve penned yet, recalling both the visceral pummel and nuanced sonics of Full Of Hell as the group deftly weave shards of scathing, hissing noise amongst their raging assault. ‘Cries Of Estima’, meanwhile, delivers some mournful trad doom guitar harmonies before erupting into a flurry of blastbeats, vast reverb-smothered screeches and yearning high-end tremolo, pitched somewhere between atmospheric black metal and the sound of a star collapsing in on itself, before ‘Cyborg Asphyxiation’ drops into some gloriously bull-headed slo-mo riffage that could have come straight from sludge metal’s late 90s peak, where it not for the vortex of whimsical, proggy synths it eventually lapses into.

As thrilling as the first half of Earth Reaper is, however, it feels like a mere warm-up compared to its colossal 20 minute title track, which voyages through deep drone/doom territory before belting Sabbath-esque leads over punishing blasts and huge seas of crumbling, fizzing noise atop swinging grooves – it’s like Amplifier Worship era Boris and early Dragged Into Sunlight being sucked into a black hole and melding together. There’s much to love about Wallowing – their evocative conceptual focus, their theatrical, maximalist aesthetic, their sensory overload of a live show – but the main thing that resonates here for me is just how smoothly they manage to blend elements from a host of extreme metal subgenres into a sound that defies easy categorisation whilst remaining cohesive, organic and inventive.

Mournful Congregation – The Exuviae Of Gods – Part II
(Osmose Productions)

Almost exactly a year after releasing the first The Exuviae Of Gods EP, funeral doom legends Mournful Congregation are back with the second half as promised, once again delivering new tracks alongside a re-recorded track from their 1995 An Epic Dream Of Desire demo – in this instance, it’s opener ‘Heads Bowed’ which has aged remarkably well. The newer tracks really demonstrate how much more expressive the band have become however, with ‘The Forbidden Abysm’, the shortest track here, showing off dazzling but extremely tasteful leads atop churning, starkly beautiful distorted riffing. ‘The Paling Crest’ takes an even more sombre approach, with gentle acoustic guitars building steadily to a morbidly triumphant climax over the course of 18 gripping minutes.

This second instalment feels tighter than the first, but still isn’t as cohesive a listening experience as any of the band’s full-length outings, nor the still astonishing Concrescence Of The Sophia EP. Combining the two into a single piece doesn’t really fix this either, with the juxtaposition of re-recorded tracks and new compositions giving it a bit of a B-sides and rarities feel – but Mournful Congregation’s offcuts are still exemplary slabs of funeral doom, and this makes an ideal snack for those times you’re not up to the feast of their hour-plus full-lengths.

VoidCeremony – Threads Of Unknowing
(20 Buck Spin)

In addition to playing in Mournful Congregation, Damon Good is also now a full-time member of VoidCeremony, as is the increasingly omnipresent Philippe Tougas, the Chthe’ilist and Atramentus mastermind who’s recently joined Worm, Funebrarum and Cosmic Atrophy too. Unsurprisingly, this has made the group’s second album even more adventurous than their 2020 debut – not to downplay guitarist/vocalist Garrett Johnson’s overall vision here, of course, but Threads Of Unknowing feels instantly more intricate from a musical standpoint, bordering on jazz fusion on nimble, fluctuating tracks like ‘Writhing In The Facade Of Time’, as fluid guitar licks and undulating fretless bass runs tangle around deft, complex rhythms. Eleven minute closer ‘Forlorn Portrait: Ruins Of An Ageless Slumber’ is the album’s most ambitious moment but also perhaps the most thorough encapsulation of VoidCeremony’s jazzy take on the genre, marrying Allan Holdsworth style leads to evil Morbid Angel-esque delirium. It’s an interesting approach, taking the cleaner, jazzier sounds of later Atheist and Spheres era Pestilence and running them through a scuzzier, somewhat Autopsy-esque filter to create a surreal form of tech-death that feels slightly outside time.

Thanatomass – Hades
(Living Temple)

This Russian trio are an interesting proposition, fusing the blistering speed and intensity of war metal with the more robust, riffier approach of classic 80s metal, all wrapped up in a warm, natural sounding production. This is their first full-length after a couple of well received EPs, and it’s arguably their most well-realised offering yet – the band just oozes personality, harnessing the raw power of bands like Venom, Bathory and Hellhammer without feeling like another throwback or glorified tribute act. They’re also much hookier and more dynamic than your average war metal band, resisting the urge to rely on wall-to-wall blastbeats and instead weaving them in to twisted but immensely satisfying classic metal song structures – songs like ‘Gravedance Sabbath’ and ‘The Bone Nimbus’ are swift, punchy bangers, delivering divebomb leads, early Slayer style falsetto and ripping blackened riffing in condensed bursts, but the album is bookended by two hulking ten minute behemoths, taking notes from both the Mercyful Fate school of progressive but unabashedly metal song-writing and the Teitanblood approach to prolonged tantric brutality. Scorching stuff.

healthyliving – Songs Of Abundance, Psalms Of Grief
(La Rubia Producciones)

This Edinburgh trio may be comprised of members of Ashenspire and Falloch, but aside from the bleak riffs and skittering blasts that open the rocking ‘To The Gallows’, there’s very little black metal on this debut album. Instead, healthyliving offer up some deliciously moody shoegaze, coming across like a post-metal Siouxsie & The Banshees on the gothic ‘Bloom’ or a Chelsea Wolfe fronted Slint on pensive epic ‘Galleries’. Supposedly the band challenged themselves to write each of these songs in one sitting per track; they feel surprisingly fleshed out and well realised considering, but this process is perhaps responsible for the spontaneity and energy coursing through the record. It may be a dour, melancholy experience, but there’s a vitality to it which is quite infectious, thanks in large part to Amaya López-Carromero’s soaring, heartfelt vocals.

Blood Ceremony – The Old Ways Remain
(Rise Above)

Seven years after their last album, Canadian psych-doom squad Blood Ceremony are sounding rejuvenated on this fifth record. Whilst their smoky, folky take on doom had begun to run out of steam somewhat by that last record, The Old Ways Remain sounds vibrant throughout. Given that the album was composed in the depths of covid isolation, it’s a surprisingly breezy affair, easing off on some of the doomier aspects of their earlier work whilst bringing that psych-folk sound right into the forefront. Songs like ‘The Hellfire Club’ continue the band’s distinctive blend of Coven bombast with Jethro Tull whimsy, but tracks like the saxophone backed ‘Eugenie’ push their sound into even more expansive territory, evoking some of the Canterbury scene’s jazzy psychedelia, whilst the deceptively titled ‘Powers Of Darkness’ is a sugary sweet slice of summery ‘60s psych-pop. Despite the more rocking climaxes of songs like ‘Widdershins’, The Old Ways Remain is probably Blood Ceremony’s lightest and least metallic offering to date, but it’s a sound that suits them well. A fine soundtrack for those hazy summer evenings looming on the horizon.

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