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Monoliths and Dimensions
(Southern Lord; US: 26 May 2009; UK: 18 May 2009)
Credible art or just tritone riffs dragged out? At its most tedious, Sunn O))) can lean heavily towards column B, but when Stephen O’Malley and Greg Anderson are on, the power is undeniable. Their seventh studio album starts out predictably enough, the lugubriously-paced “Aghartha” moving at a glacial pace as Attila Csihar provides a portentous narration, but the more the record goes on, the more diversity creeps in, from the piano and horns which creep into the aforementioned track, to the choir and Eyvind Kang’s arrangement on “Big Church”, to the gorgeous, downright tender 16-minute “Alice” that brings this surprising and striking album to a close.
“Who needs a God when you’ve got Satan!” There’s not a lick of originality to Goatwhore whatsoever, as the New Orleans band wears their devotion to Celtic Frost and Bathory on their sleeves, and for the longest time that was just fine as they put out album after passable album. But with Carving Out the Eyes of God, it finally feels like the band is creating an identity of its own, Sammy Duet’s blackened riffs massive and contagious, vocalist Ben Falgoust’s lyrics provocative, Erik Rutan’s production pulverizing. After years of good, complacent-sounding work, there’s now palpable passion in Goatwhore’s music, and when that happens the results are always rewarding, no matter how formulaic the music is.
We all knew Kylesa was a promising band, and they’ve made steady progress over the course of their previous three albums. With Static Tensions, though, the Savannah, Georgia, band make the kind of leap we always hope to see young bands pull off but rarely ever do. Their brand of crust-infused sludge is as potent as ever, but the many understated touches make this album: the band’s dual drums set-up is brilliantly produced (the scorching “Scapegoat” a prime example), guitarist Laura Pleasants is getting better at incorporating melodic vocals (“Perception”), their musical palette is broadening considerably (a little Kyuss here, a little space rock there), and best of all, the songwriting is spot-on, all ten tracks immediate, audacious, and memorable.
All eyes were on Baroness, to see whether or not they’d be able to come through with a worthy follow-up to 2007’s highly acclaimed Red Album. Interestingly, what listeners got wasn’t a huge stylistic stretch from Red. Far from the kind of curveballs that Mastodon continually throws our way, Blue Record faithfully stayed the course, but the gigantic difference between those two albums is that the new one is much more well-rounded, more musically rich, more developed. The big, riff-oriented gallopers are still there, as “A Horse Called Golgotha”, “The Sweetest Curse”, and “The Gnashing” attest, but the more diverse tunes are what tie the entire album together, such as “Jake Leg”, “O’er Hell and Hide”, and the terrific one-two punch of the Moody Blues-esque “Steel That Sleeps the Eye” and Fugazi-like “Swollen and Halo”.
Converge just keeps getting better, now nearly 20 years into their career. After fusing hardcore and metal on the 2001 classic Jane Doe, the Massachusetts foursome kept their sights forward, tweaking their sound, experimenting with various changes in direction (the brooding You Fail Me, the explosive No Heroes), but at the root of Converge’s sound has always been a level of intensity that no other band, hardcore, metal, or otherwise, has ever been able to equal. Not only is Axe to Fall as viscerally powerful as anything the band has previously put out, but there’s an effortlessness to it all that makes this record especially astonishing. Whether it’s furious exercises in d-beat punk (“Dark Horse”, “Wishing Well”), the post punk angularity of “Effigy”, the brooding “Cruel Bloom”, or the unsettling epic “Wretched World”, the band and their numerous collaborators (including members of Coalesce, Neurosis, and Genghis Tron) make it all so utterly blistering and affecting.
Night Is the New Day
(Peaceville; US: 10 Nov 2009; UK: 2 Nov 2009)
It was only a matter of time until Katatonia released this kind of album. Ever since streamlining their music and abandoning harsh vocals more than a decade ago, the Swedish band had been inching closer and closer towards a hybrid of doom, mainstream hard rock, and ‘80s goth, and although we saw it coming from a mile away, Night Is the New Day still pulled the rug out from under us. The trappings that made 2003’s Viva Emptiness and 2006’s The Great Cold Distance so memorable (brooding arrangements that complement the velvety-voiced singing of Jonas Renske) are all there, and Renske puts in his strongest vocal performance to date, but what knocks this particular record out of the park is its atmosphere, as keyboards and electronic touches add tremendous depth to the already rich production. Its portrait of melancholia is absolutely lavish, and compels us to wallow along with it. Drop dead gorgeous.
It’s fitting that one of the most eccentric musical collaborations in all of metal would yield an album that bucks convention as much as Gin does. Cobalt is certainly an interesting pair: on one side you have the talented multi-instrumentalist Erik Wunder meticulously writing and arranging instrumental tracks at home while his co-conspirator Phil McSorley continues his life in the United States Army (most of his 2009 having been spent right smack in the middle of Baghdad), using his time on leave to write tortured poetry and lay down on tape some of the more anguished lead vocals you’ll ever hear. It’s a unique chemistry they have, something that’s worked well on 2005’s War Metal and 2007’s superb Eater of Birds, but with Gin we get something truly extraordinary, a record savage enough in tone and sentiment to attract underground metal aficionados and daring enough to capture the attention of fans of rock and metal’s more progressive side. Melding black metal, blood-curdling crust punk, introspective passages reminiscent of Tool, and the ominous tones of both Swans and Johnny Cash, and boasting lyrics that veer wildly from harrowingly personal to downright eloquent (the record is dedicated to their literary heroes, Ernest Hemingway and Hunter S. Thompson), this is extreme music at its most forward-thinking, cathartic, and exhilarating.