Columnus Metallicus: Heavy Metal For April Reviewed By Kez Whelan

Your guide to the very best in brand new metal returns, as Kez Whelan reviews pulverising new releases from across the planet


Navigating the return of live music in a post-covid world may still be a challenge, but I’ve been incredibly thankful for some of the international tours that have passed through this gloomy isle of late. <a href=”” target=”out”> Melt-Banana were absolutely life-affirming at Nottingham’s Rescue Rooms; any fears that their current ‘Melt-Banana Lite’ set-up (featuring just vocalist Yasuko Onuki and guitarist Ichiro Agata backed by a drum machine) would lack the energy that live drums provide were put to rest within seconds as the duo kicked off with the storming ‘Shield For Your Eyes, A Beast In The Well On Your Hand’ and the crowd lost their collective minds. Agata has to be one of the most inventive guitarists alive, with his small arsenal of pedals and unorthodox technique creating all manner of wild and wonderful noises.

<a href=”” target=”out”> Big Brave were incredible at Sheffield’s Record Junkee a few days later too, with the material from last year’s accurately titled Vital sounding even heavier and more powerful first-hand. Robin Wattie’s emotive vocals are a force of nature, booming out above Mathieu Ball’s deafening walls of screeching feedback, which is no small feat; the guitarist attacks his instrument with intense focus, cranking volume knobs on the fly and adding a far more aggressive edge to the trio’s more meditative sound on record. If you’re lucky enough to have nabbed <a href=”” target=”out”>Roadburn tickets, make sure you don’t miss them there.

If you’re still not feeling up to festivals yet, then fear not! There’s more than enough recorded music to keep you going for the next few weeks – much more than I could fit into this column, in fact. It may not be a metal record, but you’ll struggle to hear anything heavier than <a href=”” target=”out”> Dälek’s new album Precipice this month. Featuring some of MC Will Brooks’ most direct, forceful lyricism yet in songs like ‘Boycott’ and ‘Good’, the album just seems to get denser and more texturally expressive as it builds to its stunning apex. ‘The Harbingers’ finds Dälek at their darkest and most apocalyptic, and Tool guitarist Adam Jones adds even more swirling layers of sound to latest single ‘A Heretic’s Inheritance’.

<a href=” ” target=”out”> Corpsessed may still be one of the clumsiest portmanteaus in death metal, but there’s no arguing with their thick, detuned assault. Their fourth album Succumb To Rot lands this month, and is as reliably heavy as you’d expect from the band. Whilst not quite as morose and slow-paced as fellow Finns Krypts or Desolate Shrine, there’s still a lot of doom in their sound – especially on lumbering sluggers like ‘Spiritual Malevolence’ or the flattening ‘Profane Phlegm’. For the most part though, tracks like ‘Sublime Indignation’ fire out dark, sinister riffs at breakneck pace, à la Cruciamentum or Incantation.

If you’re after even doomier death metal still, the latest split from Japan’s <a href=”” target=”out”> Anatomia and Denmark’s <a href=”” target=”out”> Undergang is essential. Long-time fans will recall the two already teaming up for a split 10” back in 2017, but at half an hour, this is a far more substantial slab of gristly, dank death metal. The twelve-minute ‘Total Darkness’ takes up the bulk of Anatomia’s side, engaging in some pure Winter worship with bleak, leaden riffs and wonky Hellhammer-on-Quaaludes grooves. Undergang serve up three tracks of sickly, guttural filth that won’t be surprising for anyone familiar with the band – but then, we don’t really come to Undergang for surprises. We come to them for big, grotesque and gnarly death metal, and this split more than delivers on that front.

Georgia quartet <a href=”” target=”out”>Sadistic Ritual’s 2019 debut Visionaire Of Death was a solid if unremarkable romp through razor-sharp Kreator-esque thrash, but their new album The Enigma, Boundless is a big step up. They sound even more frantic on cuts like raging opener ‘End Of All Roads’, but they also excel on more ominous, mid-paced bangers like the churning ‘Maelstrom Of Consciousness’. Nevada duo <a href=”” target=”out”> Sorcerer’s Sword’s new demo tape is a certified banger too, a blast of raw blackened thrash with unhinged falsetto, zero bass frequencies and an authentically hell-raising atmosphere – think Razor playing Mercyful Fate songs with Darkthrone’s production. 20 Buck Spin’s latest signing <a href=”” target=”out”> Egregore are an intriguing proposition too, mixing the raw evil of early Morbid Angel with the more esoteric atmosphere of Absu. Discounting the oddly ill-fitting symphonic intro and lengthy neo-folk inspired outro, there’s only twenty minutes of riffing here, making The Word Of His Law feel more like an EP than a full-length – but there are enough cool ideas and weird, off-kilter melodies buried inside their abrasive sound to make it well worth checking out.

The Lord – Forest Nocturne
(Southern Lord)

Southern Lord head honcho and Sunn O))) and Goatsnake axe-bearer Greg Anderson has certainly been busy over lockdown. After dropping two excellent stand-alone singles under the name The Lord (featuring Big Brave’s Robin Wattie and Alice In Chains’ William DuVall respectively), Anderson has unveiled his debut solo album for Record Store Day, with a wider release due in July. It’s an even sparser, dronier affair than either of those previous singles, with Anderson citing film composers like John Carpenter and Bernard Herrmann as inspirations this time round. This is definitely in a compositional sense rather than a strictly sonic one, however; anyone expecting elaborate synth odysseys will be disappointed as Forest Nocturne is very much a guitar based record. Take opener ‘Theme’ or the two-part ‘Lefthand Lullaby’ for example – the skeletal, spiralling riffs backed by thick, rumbling guitar drones are reminiscent of Sunn O)))’s own ‘It Took The Night To Believe’, but seem directly indebted to old horror movie soundtracks rather than the harsh buzz of Norwegian black metal.

There are definitely still traces of that sound in Forest Nocturne (most notably during closer ‘Triumph Of The Oak’, with frequent collaborator Attila Csihar unleashing demonic croaks atop robust, dark riffing), but for the most part this album delivers a more subdued, cinematic listening experience. As the title implies, ‘Church Of Hermann’ is an obvious homage to the prolific composer, with ominous organ swells recalling the Hitchcock-ian dread of some of his most memorable work, whilst the still ‘Old Growth’ complements Anderson’s trademark drones with subtle but very effective piano chords. In some ways, Forest Nocturne may feel more like a collection of ideas than the all-consuming experience of Sunn O)))’s more fully realised records, but Anderson still manages to strike a satisfying balance between meditative minimalism and sinister atmosphere here. Comparisons to his past work are perhaps unavoidable, but Forest Nocturne definitely feels like its own thing, and is likely to speak to Sunn O))) devotees and soundtrack connoisseurs in equal measure.

Meshuggah – Immutable
(Atomic Fire)

For a while there, it looked uncertain as to whether we’d ever get a new Meshuggah record, with long-standing guitarist Frederik Thordendal taking a hiatus from the band shortly after 2016’s The Violent Sleep Of Reason. Thankfully, the irreplaceable six-stringer re-joined the band last year, and his evil Allan Holdsworth-esque leads sound incredibly sinister on the group’s ninth album (check out that mind-mangling flurry of notes in ‘The Abysmal Eye’), even if he didn’t contribute to the writing process this time around. Much like the previous album, guitarist Mårten Hagström and bassist Dick Lövgren handled the bulk of composing, giving Immutable a similar feel. The Swedes have never been keen on repeating themselves, however, and this album isn’t merely a re-tread of former glories. For one, the more overtly thrashy taste of obZen and Koloss is almost entirely absent here, with the majority of Immutable moving in slower, more ominous and oppressive strides.

Even at its most familiar, a swift pull of the rug is never too far away. The irresistible bounce of ‘God He Sees In Mirrors’, for instance, feels uncannily like a throwback to the band’s Chaosphere sound, but it precedes the nine-minute instrumental ‘They Move Below’, a surprisingly tranquil piece that’s without precedent in the band’s discography. Sure, they’ve done lengthy epics before (I, for example) and Destroy, Erase, Improve had its share of more dynamic, less distorted passages, but there’s even more of a prog rock quality to this particular beast. Whilst Meshuggah famously influenced Tool’s 10,000 Days after touring with them, this track almost feels like Meshuggah repaying the favour. This more textured approach seeps into songs like ‘Phantoms’ too, with the droning, anxious chords fizzling away beneath the band’s angular groove lending the song a whole new dimension. ‘Black Cathedral’, meanwhile, strips their sound down to just guitar and ends up sounding more akin to Portal than any of the modern djent bands the band has inspired. Immutable may lack some of the abrasive ferocity that bristled beneath their older work, but it makes up for it in the weathered, world-weary and stately atmosphere it exudes. It’s clearly the product of a much older, wiser band, and whilst it may not be their best or most extreme record, it’s arguably their most mature.

Helms Alee – Keep This Be The Way
(Sargent House)

Helms Alee’s sound has also been steadily maturing over the last couple of years, with the more frenetic, sludgy skronk of Hydra Head era records like Weatherhead giving way to a warmer, more subdued but no less interesting style, with triumphant classic rock licks rubbing up against throbbing post-hardcore rhythms and poppy vocal harmonies on 2016’s Stillicide. This sixth album continues that trajectory, but also spreads into some even more atmospheric and abstract pastures. Whilst the title track and the pummelling ‘Tripping Up The Stairs’ dish out plenty of the sludgy riffs and bellowing, Big Business-esque vocals that have typified past records, there’s an almost krautrock feel to tracks like ‘How Party Do You Hard’, with steady, repetitive drums acting as a bedrock for calm, subtly unfurling guitar swells, whilst the glistening noise-pop of ‘Mouth Thinker’ is like ‘90s alt-rock icons Belly playing at half the speed through Siamese Dream-era Smashing Pumpkins’ backline.

The dramatic ‘Big Louise’, meanwhile, is an unexpectedly wistful new-wave ballad, pitched somewhere between The Smiths and Dead Can Dance, and it totally works, providing something of a breather right before the dense ‘Do Not Expose To Burning Sun’, a slow-moving desert rock epic that builds to a dazzlingly fiery, feedback drenched climax. Some of this broader sound palette could be attributed to the fact that this is the first record the band have recorded themselves, largely in part due to lockdown. Despite the extra risks taken here, Keep This Be The Way feels like a Helms Alee record through and through, and is a natural progression. The three-piece has always thrived in the gaps between genres like noise rock and sludge metal, and this is proof they’ll continue to do so come rain, shine or worldwide pandemic.

Undeath – It’s Time… To Rise From The Grave

After their 2020 debut Lesions Of A Different Kind catapulted Undeath to the forefront of the new wave of old-school death metal, the Rochester quintet have wasted no time at all in preparing this follow-up. The band’s sound hasn’t changed a whole lot in the interim, although this second album is arguably a little more complex and less immediately hooky than its predecessor. That’s not to say there aren’t hooks here – ‘Head Splattered In Seven Ways’ would feel right at home on a modern Cannibal Corpse record, with its infectious refrain bolstered by meaty grooves, vicious riffing and gloriously absurd violent imagery – but taken as a whole, the cumbersomely titled It’s Time… To Rise From The Grave is a somewhat denser and more technical album.

It suits Undeath well however, and whilst this record may not be as immediate as the last, it could well have even more staying power. Partial title track ‘Rise From The Grave’ bolsters the band’s guttural churn with some particularly crisp, rich guitar harmonies, and the labyrinthine riffing in ‘Enhancing The Dead’ sits somewhere in between early Suffocation and Domination era Morbid Angel as it snaps between fiddly tremolo picking and humongous knuckle-dragging breakdowns. Undeath are certainly not a band to shy away from huge grooves when a song calls for it – just check out that authoritative bounce in ‘Necrobionics’. It’s Time… To Rise From The Grave is a supremely solid second record and, whilst it may not offer too many surprises, it solidifies everything that made their first record stand out whilst consistently pushing it to be faster, heavier and more brutal – and ultimately, that’s all we could ask for.

Devil Master – Ecstasies Of Never Ending Night

This Philadelphia quartet have accrued quite a buzz around themselves, and it’s not hard to see why. Combining black metal, hardcore punk and even some old-school death rock flavours, their sound straddles the line between being atmospheric and being energetic very compellingly, placing them somewhere between Bathory, G.I.S.M. and Christian Death. This second album was recorded live to tape by Blood Incantation and Spectral Voice producer Pete DeBoer, and as a result has a very organic yet powerful sound. The band have also welcomed Power Trip drummer Chris Ulsh (oh sorry, make that Festering Terror In Deepest Catacomb – yep, the pseudonyms are out in full force with these guys) into the fold, ensuring furious punk rippers like ‘Golgotha’s Cruel Song’, ‘Acid Black Mass’ and the boisterous ‘Shrines In Cinder’ hit even harder than their previous material.

Though the energy may have more in common with punk, the riff writing is unashamedly metallic, with a lot of the guitar licks and harmonies recalling the macabre vibe of Mortuary Drape, or even the timeless mystery of Pagan Altar – albeit at a much, much brisker pace. Tracks like ‘The Vigour Of Evil’ have both the theatrical, gothic black metal sensibilities of Tribulation but also the grimy, no-fucks-given attitude of Midnight, whilst ‘Abyss In Vision’ successfully transplants imposing black metal riffs into a gloomy, downtrodden post-punk strut. Vocalist Disembody Through Unparalleled Pleasure (I did warn you about those pseudonyms) has a raw, raspy and unpretentious bark that’s entirely fitting for the band’s sound, but also deploys some more reserved, theatrical croaks (in addition to some absolutely blistering bass runs) on ‘Funerary Gyre Of Dreams & Madness’. There aren’t too many bands scratching this specific occult metal-punk itch at the moment, and Devil Master do it better than most.

Alunah – Strange Machine
(Heavy Psych Sounds)

Having reinvented their sound on 2019’s Violet Hour, midlands doom quartet Alunah are mixing things up again for this sixth album. There’s been a further line-up shuffle (Slump guitarist Matt Noble makes his debut with the band here) and, as the cover suggests, Strange Machine is a much more psychedelic affair than its predecessor. ‘Teaching Carnal Sins’ makes room for sun-scorched, Kyuss-esque jams in amongst its more driving moments, whilst tracks like the airy, grandiose ‘Fade Into Fantasy’ or whimsical, proggy ‘Psychedelic Expressway’ are closer to Purson’s kaleidoscopic sound than anything in the doom canon. The latter even features some evocative flute from vocalist Sian Greenaway, giving the track an even more medieval atmosphere.

That’s not to say the band have suddenly morphed into a full-blown tie-dye clad psych band, however, as there’s still plenty of doom on offer here. The opening title track is a booming hard rocker that would have slotted into Violet Hour nicely, whilst the shorter ‘Over The Hills’ features some of the album’s most direct song-writing and most expressive riffing. Crowbar guitarist Shane Wesley shows up on ‘The Earth Spins’ too, a track that combines lumbering doom riffs with a rootsy, bluesy midsection giving Sian the chance to show off some dazzling falsetto atop soulful, soaring leads. There’s even a more traditional heavy metal feel to ‘Silver’, recalling some of the more bombastic cuts from Lucifer’s first album. Overall, it’s a great follow-up to Violet Hour; Sian’s vocals sound even more authoritative and passionate, and rather than simply continuing to mine the same doomy hard rock vein, Alunah have expanded their sound out whilst retaining the core of what made that last record work so well.

Terzij De Horde – In One Of These, I Am Your Enemy
(Consouling Sounds)

Whilst not as widely fetishised as its Norwegian or Swedish counterparts, the Netherlands black metal scene has really come into its own, producing a host of distinctive, forward-thinking and utterly savage bands. Utrecht quintet Terzij De Horde may not be the most prolific of these but they’re certainly one of the most incendiary – it’s been almost seven years since they released their debut Self, but thankfully In One Of These, I Am Your Enemy was worth the wait. Delivering three tracks in roughly the same amount of time as Reign In Blood, it manages to feel simultaneously punchier and more expansive than the first record. Ferocious four-minute riff-fest ‘Cheiron’ is easily the most straight-forward and would have slotted nicely into Self, but works as a great warm-up for the two behemoths that follow.

With its crisp melodic riffing and Joost Vervoort’s hoarse high-end bark, the eleven-minute title-track comes off like a more blackened At The Gates, whilst the almost fourteen-minute ‘Precipice’ begins with a slow, bleak churn before erupting in the same kind of unsettlingly hypnotic tremolo that bassist Jelle Agema’s former band Nihill excelled in. It remains bristlingly intense throughout, as the riffs take on a slightly thrashier flavour at its climax whilst the drums slow to a stark post-metal stomp, making it feel almost like a severely depressed Aura Noir. Like countrymen Laster and Fluisteraars, Terzij De Horde’s riffing style manages to nail that sweet spot right at the nexus between being evil, mysterious and achingly melancholic, lending these lengthy tracks more depth than a lot of more straight-forwardly grim black metal and a lot more bite than some of the airier, more ethereal strains of the genre. Don’t be deterred by the short length – In One Of These, I Am Your Enemy is just as epic as its fiery cover art.

Candelabrum – Nocturnal Trance
(Hell’s Headbangers)

Portugal has become known for its explosively raw black metal sound over the last decade or so, with bands like Black Cilice and Mons Veneris taking lo-fi black metal to some interesting new places. You can count Candelabrum among them too, although the solo project definitely has its own distinct vibe. For one, this third full-length sounds absolutely huge; despite the usual fuzz and hiss you’d associate with the genre, there’s a real physical presence to this record. Whilst a lot of lo-fi black metal aims for a more distant or obscured sound (and make no mistakes, gets great results from it), this record sounds much more up-front and visceral whilst retaining that mysterious haze. The drums may be harsh and swamped in reverb, but they pack a satisfyingly earthy wallop (especially on slower tracks like the haunting Xasthur-esque ‘Through The Mirror Of Divination’) whilst the vocals are crisp and relatively prominent in the mix – not quite to the extent that you can practically feel specks of saliva hitting your inner ear as with, say, Panzerfaust era Nocturno Culto, but they’re certainly more aggressive and throaty than lo-fi black metal’s usual wraith-like style.

The five tracks that comprise Nocturnal Trance are deceptively detailed too, with the album’s washed-out sound belying a wealth of rich, textured soundscapes. Repeated listens to swirling, curiously meditative sonic vortexes like ‘Poisonous Dark Apparitions’ will reward the patient listener with all manner of hypnotic and oddly beautiful layers, all working in tandem to create an oppressively macabre ambience. It helps that there’s a keen, if subtle, melodic sensibility here too – the album may do a good job of scaring off less adventurous listeners by opening with its longest, most abrasive track in the nine-minute ‘Crystalline Telasthesia’, but beyond the blistering blasts and harsh walls of noise, the way the track unfolds into a luxuriously dark, expansive soundscape without tempering its cold assault is pretty extraordinary. If you’ve got any interest in lo-fi music at all, not just black metal, don’t miss this.

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