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Image (partial) from the award-winning album cover of Beastwars, by Nick Keller (September 2012)

An Exorcism of Raw Emotion

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Meth Drinker


Much like Open Tomb, Meth Drinker shares a similar predilection for cacophonous sludge—both bands having shared a monstrous split LP in late 2012. Meth Drinker heaves up doom, crust punk, and “sewage sludge”—conjuring up images of cityscape detritus: the needle and the damage done. Meth Drinker comes from a punk background, and adheres to the scene’s DIY independence by funding and releasing its works on its own underground label, Always Never Fun.


One of Meth Drinker’s greatest attributes is that it consistently provides an honest portrayal of social inequities and personal deviancies. The band’s observations are set within a quagmire of muck and feedback on its self-titled 2011 debut, with lethargic drumming marking the pace, guttural vocals setting the mood, and dragging guitar lines slathering on the punishment. Samples, distortion and collapsing drones also feature, as Meth Drinker lurches from one heinous scene of crime to the next. It’s an unpleasant but truthful reflection of NZ society—and as we know, the truth can be fantastically unsanitary.


Meth Drinker tours Europe in 2013 (including shows with US pernicious doom legends Graves at Sea), and the toxic sludge it produces is exactly the kind to win over squat punks, metal fans, and anyone who’s sick of all the bullshit we’re fed.


Meth Drinker—Skull Smashing Concrete




Numbskull


Skate punk, grindcore and ‘80s thrash all play a role in Numbskull’s “hail skatin’” ferociousness. The band’s upcoming support slot on crust legend Tragedy’s first ever tour of NZ is set to be a legendary event for the band and its fans. Short, high-speed and combustible lo-fi blasts make up Numbskull’s work thus far, and its latest release, Powderslave, is a blitzkrieg fracas of sneering obnoxiousness—i.e., a perfectly grimy skate-metal free-for-all. 


In truth, there’s nothing complicated about Numbskull’s sound. The very leanness and momentum of the band’s explosive grind gives it such instantaneous, gratifying impact, although when the band does slow down, it’s with deviant bliss, as the excreta it wades through becomes ever more pungent. Fans of beer-soaked carpets, chipped teeth, septicemic wounds, and cruddy grind and thrash will find a lot to enjoy, but Numbskull straddles the line, and fans of maelstrom-like hardcore will find sordid, unhealthy pleasures, too.


Numbskull—Live by the Board, Die by the Board




Arc of Ascent


Arc of Ascent is a powerhouse, psychedelic metal trio, consisting of vocalist and bassist Craig Williamson, guitarist Sandy Schaare, and drummer John Strange. The band serves up mantric metal dripping with mystical and celestial themes—with a little astral-planing doom on the side. Imagine a fusion of Sleep and OM jamming under a vermilion-streaked South Pacific sky, add in resin-fuelled Eastern enlightenments and kaleidoscopic soloing, and you’ve got Arc of Ascent.


The band’s 2012 album, The Higher Key, is undiluted, consciousness-expanding metal. Williamson’s driving bass sets a hypnotic meter, Schaare’s riffing weaves multihued tapestries, and Strange’s percussion secures the eternal groove.


Witnessing Arc of Ascent live is a powerful experience. Williamson, eyes closed, incants with shamanistic passion, and the band rockets into electrifying new dimensions, reverberating with ritual promise. Arc of Ascent never allows the stentorian to overpower the seductive. That’s a crucial element to the band’s sound because it doesn’t deal in passive observances. It’s a quest, and you’re invited to join, with that constant to and fro between the colossal and divine keeping the journey consistently mesmerizing.


Arc of Ascent—Celestial Key




Witchrist


Witchrist’s first album for French label Osmose Productions, 2012’s The Grand Tormentor, was stacked with the band’s patented blackened death metal, but there was less of the brackish taint found on its debut, Beheaded Ouroboros. The Grand Tormentor contained more straightforward, mid-tempo dirges, in which the swampy noise and obscuring foulness was lifted, somewhat. Witchrist’s mood wasn’t lightened to any substantial degree on The Grand Tormentor; it’s still a brooding beast, but if you’re hankering for something more nightmarish, then Witchrist can oblige.


If the sound of Bolt Thrower and Incantation left to putrefy on an altar of oozing intestines in Beelzebub’s stateroom sounds appetizing, then Beheaded Ouroboros is the album for you. Witchrist’s debut is remorseless. Clotted, rank, and malevolent, it has a quicksand-thick production that’s downtuned to Hades-like depths. It’s no surprise that Witchrist came to prominence in the international metal underground off the back of Beheaded Ouroboros, as few albums from these shores have come close to its asphyxiating oppressiveness. It’s shadow incarnate. Few bands can evoke the dark heart of the Antipodes like Witchrist.


Witchrist—The Cauldron




Diocletian


Witchrist isn’t alone in producing obliterating works. Kith and kin Diocletian—which shares a few of Witchrist’s members—is also well known in the global metal underground for its pummeling, apocalyptic fare. The separation between the two bands comes down to varying shades of black. Both bands open the trapdoor to chasms of carnage, but Witchrist deals in the esoteric, Diocletian in the eradication. Witchrist brings the hellfire; Diocletian brandishes the sword.


War metal is Diocletian’s strongest pursuit, and the band’s Doom Cult and War of All Against All full-lengths have been hailed and horded by fans of belligerent, combative death metal. Diocletian’s recent Disciples of War split with Weregoat was one of 2012’s very best death metal releases. However, it was 2012’s Annihilation Rituals compilation (Diocletian’s first release for Osmose Productions) that brought a sigh of relief from fans.


Contained within Annihilation Rituals was the band’s discography up to 2009’s Doom Cult LP—at least, 95 percent of it, minus one Bolt Thrower cover. Annihilation Rituals was a boon for connoisseurs of Diocletian’s onslaughts, offering a glimpse into the different dynamics as the band’s line-up shifted, and early versions of a few tracks that have since been revisited. All tracks are produced by Diocletian and engineered by Vassafor’s VK (who was a member of Diocletian until recently). The album is mastered by Cam Sinclair—drummer for both Diocletian and Witchrist—giving all the tracks substantial, bludgeoning strength.


For those new to the band, or who want its earlier history on a single album, Annihilation Rituals offers thunderous rewards. The tracks are feral, hostile and unflaggingly savage, showing the band refining its attack, and whetting the battleaxe.


Diocletian—Master/Enslaver




Exordium Mors


Exordium Mors ratchets up the merciless tenor that NZ metal so often conveys. Formed in 2004, the band’s latest EP, Sacrifice, Perish and Demise, is just the kind of warmongering thrash that aficionados of labels such as Nuclear War Now! will devour. With Santi and Black Mortum on guitars, Scourge on vocals, Hades on drums and Assailant on bass, Exordium Mors dispenses old-school thrash mixed with black and death metal—imagine a blend of Bathory and Impiety, with Venom lurking close by. The result is a relentless riff-fest. The frenzied twin guitar attack (think Slayer’s Hanneman and King in their heyday) plows into a dissonant morass, with cyclical riffs bursting forth covered in gore as strident solos recall ghosts of yore.


‘Bloodthirsty’ sums up Exordium Mors. The band keeps the murderous thrash up front, with the frenetic percussion plowing through, but when Scourge’s vocals surface among the pandemonium, black metal arrives, and he spits and growls like a man possessed. Exordium Mors’ ferocity never negates its serpentine dexterity. Sure, it’s all nefarious and barbarous, but Exordium Mors’ personality rises through the slaughterhouse of influences—and it’s a wholly malicious disposition at that.


Exordium Mors—Sacrifice, Perish and Demise (EP Sampler)




Stone Angels


You might have noticed that I’ve not identified which cities the bands mentioned so far originate from. I want you to get a sense of NZ metal’s overarching presence here, not dwell on its regional differences. However, when it comes to Christchurch city’s Stone Angels, it’s impossible to separate the band’s sound from its locale.


As I mentioned, the Christchurch earthquake in February 2011 left scores dead and injured, and a city in ruins. For those living there it’s still unnerving—months of aftershocks and a landscape filled with crumbling buildings are constant reminders. Obviously, there are many ways you can try to make sense of or cope with such a disaster, and in Stone Angels’ case it was by picking up instruments and delving into the madness.


Stone Angels’ debut, Within the Witch is an exorcism of raw emotion. Encompassing the pain of the quake, and further exploring the supernatural implications of loss, it’s an album that makes room for catharsis via corrosive sludge, and thick atmospheric noise. Stone Angels doesn’t temper its message, and much like bands such as Thou or Eyehategod, which inform the band’s sound, there’s no sympathy given for your nerves—nor should there be.


Within the Witch lays out a punishing template for troubled times. Guest vocals from Marko Pavlovic (frontman for the House of Capricorn and Creeping) add another layer of darkness. And with Sinistrous Diabolus’s Kris Stanley recording, mixing and mastering the album, as well as adding menacing soundscapes, there’s feedback aplenty—of the amp-fusing and personally dire kind. Within the Witch is, at its core, the sound of guitarist and singer SB, bassist MC, and drummer GE playing their guts out, with grinding melodies and cascades of astringent bile as the result.


Reviewing Within the Witch on release, I noted one crucial fact about Stone Angels that bears repeating: Within the Witch is a devastatingly heavy album, as ragged as an open wound, but it’s not afraid to a show a little swagger either. That’s a perfect representation of life among the wreckage—when all your instincts should tell you to give up and run, Stone Angels plugged in, and chose to fight.


Stone Angels—Coffin Cross




Beastwars


I’ve never written about any single band as much as I have about Beastwars—and I’m not remotely tired of it yet. The sludge quartet’s self-titled debut, released in 2011, was one of the best NZ metal albums period. It drew rave reviews in NZ, Australia and Europe, and in 2012, when it was rereleased for North American audiences, the band found more fans to worship the riff. 


We can look forward to the band’s sophomore release in April 2013, with the title to be announced in late March. Once again, Dale Cotton was behind the desk for the recording, award-winning artist Nick Keller will provide the gatefold vinyl artwork, and John Golden will be mastering the album. Four days was all it took to record Beastwars’ debut, and while that may not sound like long to make an album, the band managed to produce some outstandingly instinctual metal—proving that the DIY spirit is alive and well.


Beastwars’ debut is a trawl though primeval sludge and ‘90s noise-rock, with a nod to Kyuss, and the looming presence of Black Sabbath. Set within its decidedly filthy walls are end-times tales and Lovecraftian horrors—all hung off plenty of catchy hooks. Gargantuan, bruising tracks such as “Empire” and “Lake of Fire” set the lyrical wrath alongside distorting riffs and bass and hammering percussion, with vocalist Matt Hyde calling out the dead with his gravel-throated howls.


Beastwars’ live shows are ceremonial observances, with Hyde delivering his flock into realms of unhinged, headbanging ecstasy. Yet, for all Beastwars’ ferocity, in the band’s slower songs, such as the glutinous crawl of “Mihi” and the evocative, yawning lurch of “Cthulhu”, the presence of psychedelia and post-rock is felt—although the band’s devotion to thickset, cathartic metal is resolute.


Beastwars released the limited edition Tower of Skulls 7-inch on their end of year tour in 2012. Expectations for the band’s new album are set exceedingly high, and if the tracks on the 7-inch are any indication of where the band is headed, it will likely find even more success. I’ve said it before, but I’ll say it again: Beastwars hasn’t just captured the hearts of NZ metal fans, it’s collected their souls.


Beastwars—Empire




Ulcerate


With much of NZ metal laden with muck and swamped in noise, it might be a stretch to call Ulcerate ‘clean’, but the band’s technical metal is as razor-sharp as a surgeon’s scalpel. Ulcerate’s line-up over the years reads like a who’s who of adept guitar, bass and drum clinicians, albeit ones bespattered with the butchery of ice cold death metal. The band’s first two albums, 2007’s Of Fracture and Failure and 2009’s Everything is Fire, were welcomingly received by fans at home and abroad, but it was 2011’s The Destroyer of All, released on US label Willowtip, that put the band under the spotlight.


Ulcerate meticulously constructed über-technical death metal teeming with experimental textures on The Destroyer of All—leading some to affix a post-death metal tag to the band’s aesthetic. Whether the band is post anything is up for debate, but Ulcerate warrants applause for greeting fans with a matrix of burnished, scientifically formulated metal. Michael Hoggard dispenses deluges of multifaceted atonal notes, and torrents of jarring chords. Paul Kelland’s rumbling bass and barking vocals add another intricate layer, and Jamie Saint Merat’s manically adroit percussion seals the album’s complex mercilessness. Somewhere out there is a budding quantum physicist who’ll write their PHD on this album.


The Destroyer of All is hypothermic, with even chillier backdrops of drone seeping through. It is nerve-grating, formidable and challenging, and it deservedly ended up on many end of year lists in 2011. Where Ulcerate is headed next is anyone’s guess. The band has been quiet since signing to Relapse Records in 2012, although it did take brief tours of the US (where all its gear was stolen following a New York show), Canada, Europe and Australia in 2012, as well as performing at home.


If Ulcerate wasn’t so unremittingly desolate, I’d be inclined say its future looked bright. Instead, I’ll just say that Ulcerate looks set to capitalize on a great deal of past success when it releases its new (as yet untitled) album this year. The band makes for uneasy listening, and one can only hope that fans of progressive, highly technical exploits can look forward to another consummate battering.


Ulcerate—Dead Oceans




Winter Deluge


Where Bulletbelt’s black metal is accompanied by a welcome sense of diversion from everyday life, Winter Deluge delves into “nature’s revenge on the ignorant and disgraceful”. The band’s 2012 album, As the Earth Fades into Obscurity is a merciless screed of second wave black metal. It’s raw, inhospitable and replete with rancorous riffing. Its malevolent vocals and rapid-fire percussion come with all determination of primordial black metal, and evoke a fierce hatred of humanity.


Of course, misanthropy is a familiar theme in black metal, as are odes to nature’s splendor. But Winter Deluge, formed in 2005 by brothers Autumus (Nathan Baylis) and Arzryth (Aaron Baylis), does not toy with black metal tropes. Winter Deluge embraces chaos and celebrates the perverse ecstasy of watching the world burn—when Winter Deluge says it hates you, and everything you’ve done to ruin this planet, it means it, 100 percent.


Unafraid to let virtuosity creep in, or to descend into a maelstrom of dissonant noise, As the Earth Fades into Obscurity is unadulterated lo-fi, blast-beaten, tremolo insanity. Winter Deluge is a vividly expressive band, capturing images of degeneration and distilling that into pure noxious spirit.


Winter Deluge—Scathe Wrought by the Will of Nature




In 2013, NZ’s metal scene is broad and deep. Zines such as Axiom of the Elite uncloak the underground: issue #1 contained an excellent two-CD set of NZ underground metal artists, and issue #2 is due around July. Lifers, like Chris Rigby, with long histories in NZ metal, continue to the bolster the scene. His early Subcide zine continues its existence online and is now a popular blog containing interviews with a range of underground NZ metal artists. 


Of course, Rigby is just one of many dedicated metal fans in NZ, and collectively they offer the scene a lot of support. Radio shows such as Anger Management and Cacophony, along with a host of others, keep NZ metal alive on the airwaves. Artists like Weta Workshop’s Nick Keller, Alexander Brown (Witchrist) and Logan Muir (Diocletian) have designed stunning cover art, packaging, websites and band merch between them. Websites such as Steff Metal offer a positive perspective on metal culture unencumbered by rampant testosterone. And internet forums such as NZ Metal are expressways to the heart of NZ’s metal community.


This column gives you just a snapshot of what’s occurring down here, but that’s NZ Metal 101 complete—for now. The contemporary bands featured above can all be found on Facebook, Bandcamp, and/or YouTube. For bands from the past, a simple Google search will find them. The Encyclopaedia Metallum (Metal Archives) website is also a great resource—with bands both past and present listed.


Hail Satan. Class dismissed.

Craig Hayes is based in Aotearoa New Zealand, and he is a contributing editor and columnist at PopMatters. Alongside his reviews and feature articles, Craig's monthly column, Ragnarök, traverses the metal spectrum. He is the co-author of PopMatters' regular metal round-up, Mixtarum Metallum, contributes to radio shows and numerous other sites, and he favours music that clangs, bangs, crashes, or drones. Craig can be found losing followers daily on twitter @sixnoises.


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