Columnus Metallicus: Heavy Metal For January Reviewed By Kez Whelan

For those of a heavy persuasion, 2023 is off to a flier says Kez Whelan, as he delivers the essential guide to January's best metal


2023 is, if nothing else, already shaping up to be a great year for metal. Usually I spend the bulk of January’s column catching up on releases from the previous year that slipped through the net, but I’ve barely had time to brush off my festive hangover before being bombarded with heavy new records this year, leaving me with no space to wax on about how good that last Dream Unending record was.

Bent Window Records have just unearthed a long lost Goatsblood EP, comprising the last two songs they ever recorded back in 2004. The Canadian septet were easily one of the most confrontational, abrasive and downright nasty sludge bands of that era, and the vitriol soaked ‘From Worse To Pit’ is solid proof. ‘Doubtful At Best’, meanwhile, creeps into more melancholy, Asunder-esque territory, before gradually collapsing into a stirring post-rock outro, ending the Goatsblood discography on a surprisingly optimistic note. It’s a great song in isolation, but in the context of being the band’s final piece of recorded music, it’s a revelation; it’s like unearthing an alternate happy ending for Requiem For A Dream where they all sober up and go out for ice cream.

Texan death metallers Malignant Altar have called it a day too, but they’ve gone out with a bang – their new split with Russia’s Gosudar is a satisfying half hour of crushing, detuned death metal. It’s a good pairing; Gosudar err on the doomier side of death metal (especially on hulking ten minute opener ‘Mortified Transformation’) compared to Malignant Altar’s punchier, more combative sound, which makes them sound even more aggressive after Gosudar have pounded you into submission beforehand.

It’s not the only great death metal split this month; seemingly inspired by this goofy piece of internet detritus, German death-grind veterans Blood and death metal legends Incantation have teamed up for a seven inch split. Blood are still completely deranged in the best possible way, offering a particularly brutish strain of grinding death that sounds like it was constructed by mutant pig men instead of mere humans, whilst Incantation sound as triumphant as ever on the lumbering ‘Quantum Firmament’.

There have been plenty of great black metal releases too, not least the debut full-length from Chinese solo project Ὁπλίτης. For a one-man project, it’s pretty polished, amounting to a razor-sharp, uniquely vicious half hour of technical black metal. The whole thing seems to flow as one piece too – the way those jarring panic chords that close ‘Μάντις’ segue into the dissonant blasting of ‘Μάρτυς’ is particularly exhilarating. Elsewhere, New Orleans trio <a href=”” target=”out”> Abysmal Lord’s third opus Bestiary Of Immortal Hunger might just be their best yet. It’s still fairly standard war metal, but the songwriting just feels a bit tighter here (there are bits almost resembling hooks on ‘Glowing Baphomet’ and ‘Obscure Grottos Of Hell’) and the energy is absolutely through the roof. Brazilian solo outfit Cursed Excruciation’s debut album Arcane Diabolism is worth a go too; named after a track on Mystifier’s classic debut Wicca, it draws heavily from that album and Göetia in particular, a lurching, haunting take on black metal that feels palpably more fetid and sepulchral than a lot of the airier, mistier sounds of the more popular Norwegian variant. Arcane Diabolism doesn’t quite nail the same atmosphere as Mystifier, but it takes a damn good shot at it.

Grindcore fans are already spoilt for choice this year too. Carcinus’ self-titled demo is an absolute banger, featuring members of Leeds fastcore faves like Ona Snop and Lugubrious Children indulging in some gleefully filthy mincecore madness – the raging Agathocles cover that closes this brief blast of bouncy bile tells you all you need to know. Finnish trio <a href="” target="out"> Sonic Poison’s snot encrusted brand of Repulsion worship is sounding gnarlier than ever on their Me Saco Un Ojo debut album Eruption, but the cream of the crop has to be French grinders Civilian Thrower’s new EP Trebuchet Showroom. Thirteen minutes of relentless caveman riffs and pingy snares, it’s even more ferocious than their intense 2021 demo.

Obituary – Dying Of Everything

After the disappointing Inked In Blood, Obituary’s self-titled 2017 album felt like a real return to form. Dying Of Everything continues that winning streak, but as that gorgeous Mariusz Lewandowski cover art suggests, it’s a bit darker and more atmospheric than the more anthemic sound of the last album. This is Obituary, mind, so there’s still plenty of no-nonsense death metal belters, like raging opener ‘Barely Alive’ or the curiously upbeat single ‘The Wrong Time’ (complete with an intro that sounds unnervingly like the Baywatch theme tune), but taken as a whole, it’s a much sludgier, squelchier experience than its predecessor. The songs are a tad more elaborate too; the title track (penned by new guitarist Kenny Andrews, who has really gelled with the band by this point) blends vintage thrash riffs with some genuinely ominous grooves, whilst closer ‘Be Warned’ dips its toes into fully fledged death/doom territory, ending the record on a truly crushing note. Of all the original Floridian death metal pioneers, Obituary were arguably the most effective at slowing their pounding assault down to a creepy, festering crawl, so it’s cool to see them really leaning into that sound here.

Jesu – Pity / Piety

Eschewing both the electronic flavour of Jesu’s 2020 comeback EP Never and the more traditionally song-based approach of Terminus, Justin Broadrick’s latest EP harks back to classic longform Jesu releases like Sun Down/Sun Rise and Heart Ache with two seventeen minute behemoths – the first of which, ‘Pity’, strikes a perfect balance between the airier, washed out sound of Terminus and the more crushing weight of Jesu’s earlier work. The crunchy distorted bass and plodding drum beat are punishingly heavy, but the guitar remains light and twinkly throughout, creating a convincingly melancholy effect. ‘Piety’ has a similar sound, but with even chuggier riffs and Broadrick’s soft, plaintive vocals right up in the centre of the mix. It’s arguably the more effective of the two, letting the gentle tension that built up throughout the greyer ‘Pity’ blossom out into a more kaleidoscopic, shoegaze-y sonic tapestry (those reverb swamped swells in the middle are pure My Bloody Valentine) before drifting off into a vast trench of glistening ambience.

Sightless Pit – Lockstep Bloodwar
(Thrill Jockey)

With Kristin Hayter retiring her Lingua Ignota project this year, unfortunately she’s also no longer a part of Sightless Pit. We’d have forgiven Full Of Hell’s Dylan Walker and The Body’s Lee Buford for leaving the band as a one album, lightning in a bottle type deal, but thankfully they’ve managed to tap into the same magic for this follow-up. Walker and Buford don’t try and directly replace Hayter’s unique presence, but they do pass the mic to a number of distinctive female voices throughout Lockstep Bloodwar. Midwife spectrally intones “you won’t miss me when I’m gone” atop opener ‘Resin On A Knife’s crunchy dubstep grooves, whilst Elizabeth Colour Wheel’s Lane Shi Otayonii brings a vibrant, cathartic energy to the more minimal ‘Flower To Tomb’ and Claire Rousay’s disembodied, heavily processed vocals add an extra layer of depth to the tense Raime-esque beats of ‘False Epiphany’. ‘Calcified Glass’ is the biggest surprise however, as Boredoms drummer Yoshimi O’s distorted yelp tangles round Walker’s throaty snarl before a very Boredoms style drum crescendo explodes into booming industrial hip-hop, complete with what must be one of late Memphis legend Gangsta Boo’s last ever recorded verses. The whole thing hangs together extremely cohesively too, with the project’s identity remaining distinct amongst all the guest appearances. Indeed, some of its strongest moments are wordless, like the throbbing, oddly unsettling deep house of the title track. This is a very different beast to 2020’s Grave Of A Dog, but it also feels like a natural successor, expanding on what made that record so thrilling without just repeating the same formula.

Ahab – The Coral Tombs

Whilst Ahab’s debut The Call Of The Wretched Sea still stands as one of the 2000’s most enduring and fully realised funeral doom albums, the German quartet gradually moved away from those crushing depths to embrace more of a wistful post-metal sound, even sounding vaguely like a progressive metal band on their last outing, 2015’s The Boats Of The Glen Carrig. Revisiting the debut for their 2020 live album Live Prey must have reinvigorated the band’s heavier side however, as The Coral Tombs is their doomiest record in over a decade. Whilst not a wholesale return to their funeral doom roots, there’s a far more metallic crunch to songs like ‘Colossus Of The Liquid Graves’, whilst opener ‘Prof. Arronax’ Descent Into The Vast Oceans’ kicks things off in an uncharacteristically aggressive manner with pounding blasts and even some guest shrieks from Ultha bassist Chris Noir. Guitarist Daniel Droste’s clean vocals are sounding a lot more confident too, with songs like ‘The Sea As A Desert’ recalling the mournful majesty of Warning. The subdued title track itself probably would have felt right at home on The Boats Of The Glen Carrig, but ‘Ægri Somnia’ feels like an extension of that sound, drawing from the churning doom of the band’s past to make it sound even more powerful. Whilst I’ve enjoyed pretty much everything this band has done, they definitely felt somewhat adrift after leaving behind their funeral doom sound – but The Coral Tomb feels like they’ve finally mastered the proggier style they’ve been toying with since then.

Dryad – The Abyssal Plain

Iowan black metallers Dryad also take inspiration from the sea for this debut album – but whereas Ahab’s grandiose sound conjures images of vast, rolling ocean, The Abyssal Plains instead plumbs the darkest nooks of the lowest, most lightless depths, relishing in the grotesque beasts that dwell down there. There’s something genuinely unhinged about the band’s raucous, reverb drenched fusion of hardcore punk and black metal, with tracks like ‘Brine Pool Aberration’ attaining a bristling, surreal atmosphere that is all their own. The likes of ‘Trenches’, meanwhile, blend chilling, Darkthrone-esque misanthropy with the boisterous battery of Swedish D-beat, whilst the sludgier riffs of ‘Black Smoke’ almost have a blackened Dystopia vibe to them. The vocal interplay between guitarists Grimtooth and Claire Nunez adds heaps of character to the band, with the former adopting a deep, guttural bellow that seems to lurk just beneath the icy blast of the guitars, and the latter deploying a chilling high-pitched shriek that cuts through the mix like a knife. Nunez is also responsible for the eerie synths that pepper the record, adding subtle flavour to cursed stompers like ‘Loki’s Castle’ and taking centre stage on haunting, hypnagogic interludes like ‘Hadal’. The Abyssal Plain is kind of all over the place, but it fits the theme – each of these swift tracks feels like spending a day in the life of a different deep-sea horror – and the very distinctive, deranged personality this band exudes makes it a very compelling listen.

Iron Void – IV
(Shadow Kingdom)

Wakefield doom trio Iron Void are back with their very own volume four, and it’s arguably their best yet. The band’s traditional take on doom has always lent more towards the rocking sound of Pentagram or The Obsessed than the more lumbering, sloth-like strains of the genre, and new drummer Scott Naylor really emphasises that with his pounding, powerful performance here, injecting a new dose of energy into the band – and even squeezing some pummelling double-kick grooves into songs like the anthemic ‘Grave Dance’. The core of Iron Void remains unchanged, however; guitarist Steve Wilson and bassist Johnathan “Sealey” Seale are a fantastic song-writing duo, with Sealey’s gruffer vocals and driving bass riffs lending a Motörhead-esque urgency to songs like ‘Pandora’s Box’ and ‘Slave One’. Wilson, meanwhile, has a more soaring voice that sounds uncannily like Victor Griffin’s dulcet tones in Place Of Skulls, and his songs have that vintage Maryland doom sound down to a tee (check out the mournful ‘Blind Dead’ or hazy ‘Lords Of The Wasteland’ for proof). IV may not have the same conceptual focus as their last album Excalibur, but it’s probably the strongest collection of straight up, no bullshit doom metal songs they’ve released so far.

Tribunal – The Weight Of Rememberance
(20 Buck Spin)

Remember in the early 2010s when bands like Fórn and Funerary took funeral doom aesthetics but applied them in a much sludgier, more compact context? Well, Tribunal don’t sound like either of those bands, but I feel like they’re doing a similar thing for classic Peaceville doom and early gothic metal on this debut album, bringing a more visceral immediacy to the dramatic grandeur of those styles (sort of like a punchier, streamlined My Dying Bride). The Canadian duo have that Theatre Of Tragedy style ‘beauty and the beast’ dual vocal thing going on, but instead of the standard operatic wail and death grunt combo, bassist Soren Mourne opts for a sultrier, more mournful croon (sounding similar to Jex Thoth on ‘A World Beyond Shadow’), whilst guitarist Etienne Flinn has a raspier, screechier roar more akin to classic sludge bands like Grief on tracks like patient opener ‘Initiation’. Mourne also happens to be a classically trained cellist, and her cello really brings an extra dimension to songs like evocative death/doom epic ‘Of Creeping Moss And Crumbled Stone’. The Weight Of Remembrance is a pretty interesting debut – whilst it’s not exactly groundbreaking in terms of doom metal, Tribunal are blending a very specific set of influences in a relatively unique way here.

Nocturnal Departure – Clandestine Theurgy
(Hells Headbangers)

This Canadian black metal quartet’s frosty, second wave indebted debut Cathartic Black Rituals was definitely solid, but the harsher, rawer sound of their lo-fi lockdown live album Worm Moon Offerings was far more potent to my (admittedly tinnitus addled) ears. This third outing nails down the formula, with a production that’s much more robust than Worm Moon Offerings’ practice room sound but significantly dirtier than the first record. The songs themselves are absolute rippers too, with the likes of ‘Dark Spells Of The Infernal Spirit’ capturing that distinctive Norwegian black metal aura without being completely indebted to it. There’s a brash punk energy imbedded in songs like ‘Unhallowed Exhumation’ and ‘Sabbat Ablaze’, perhaps belying guitarist vocalist Funeror’s past in crusty hardcore band Flash Out, whilst ‘Fetid Manifestations Of Wretched Imagery’ deftly balances frantic riffing with an authentically chilling atmosphere.

The Gauntlet – Dark Steel And Fire
(Nihil Verum Nisi Mors)

New Jersey solo outfit The Gauntlet describes itself as “stadium Bathory”, which pretty much does my job for me. This debut album blends the stomping pace and epic melodicism of Viking-era Bathory with the more nakedly aggressive and evil energy of black metal-era Bathory, before chiselling it down into nine lean, mean, leather-clad anthems. A simple trick, perhaps, but the fantastically pseudonym-ed Ace Meggido does such a convincing job of capturing the windswept sound he’s aiming for, it’s nigh on impossible not to bang your fist along to taut ragers like ‘Beyond The Limits’. It’s hardly revolutionary, but if you’re in danger of wearing out the grooves on your battered old copy of Under The Sign Of The Black Mark, it’s a blessing nonetheless.

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