This month’s column is dedicated to the memory of my father, Robert Graham Hayes. A man who was no fan of his son’s mullet or listening choices, but paid his hard-earned money for my first record player and Twisted Sister album nonetheless. Cheers, Dad.
If you ignored the statistics on abuse, violence, and sexual assault, as well as the methamphetamine epidemic, failing welfare system, joblessness and increasing poverty, you could say New Zealand’s not doing too badly these days.
In truth, no matter what those beautiful tracking shots in The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit might suggest, NZ has just as many problems as the rest of the world. True, you’re never far away from some spectacular scenery, but while picturesque panoramas may nourish the soul, they won’t fill your stomach.
I don’t want to sound too hard on NZ. I’m often struck by how idyllic it is here, and I’m grateful to call it home. Still, that doesn’t take away from the fact that the varying plagues of modernity have greatly affected these fair isles, and those infections construct the outline for this month’s column. The offshoots and consequences of those issues have fuelled the fires beneath NZ’s angriest musicians, and you’ll not find a more livid (or enthusiastically obnoxious) bunch than those lurking in the seething morass of NZ metal.
We like to refer to ourselves in NZ as a nation built on No. 8 wire. If we want anything done, we’ll do it ourselves, with whatever we have to hand, and that hardy DIY spirit is ubiquitous throughout NZ’s artistic community. It’s a trait that has always underscored NZ metal — a clear determination to never let our remoteness hinder our creativity.
If you bind that attitude with a dry sense of humor, and a rock solid sense of solidarity, you have the NZ metal scene. It’s self-sustaining, with NZ-based labels, promoters, distributors, radio shows, blogs, websites, zines, and plenty of shows bolstered by fervent fans. In recent years, the presence of NZ’s metal netherworld has been increasingly felt internationally — but of course, it wasn’t always that way.
New Zealand Metal History 1970-2013 (abbreviated)
The definitive history of NZ metal has yet to be written, but it’s a colorful and delightfully grubby tale — with a huge cast of interesting characters, both cruel and kind. Endeavoring in a single column such as this to encompass 40 or more years of rock history is fraught with difficulties — not least because space dictates that some important bands must go unmentioned.
I’ll be keeping things as streamlined as possible here, forgoing, in the main, punk, indie and pub rock, and the avant-garde gambols for which NZ is well known. A fuller picture of NZ’s rock ‘n’ roll history, which briefly mentions metal, is available in John Dix’s Stranded in Paradise, and NZ’s experimental scene is unpacked wonderfully in Erewhon Calling: Experimental Sound in New Zealand. Both are excellent reads.
With due apologies and a reverential hail to absent bands, let’s set off.
Human Instinct—Stoned Guitar (1970)
NZ has always had a vibrant local music scene. Loudness and grunt have abounded since the late ’60s and early ’70s, which is where, as in the rest of the world, the story of metal began.
On 13 February 1970, Black Sabbath released its self-titled debut in the UK, setting in motion heavy metal’s ascendency. Four months later, NZ quartet Human Instinct released its sophomore LP, Stoned Guitar. Featuring Māori guitar legend Billy TK (NZ’s answer to Jimi Hendrix) this album and its follow-up, 1971’s Pins in It, were formative albums, helping to sketch a template that eventually became NZ metal.
That template of psychedelic blues and hard rock was soon built upon by bands such as Ticket (with 1972’s Awake) and Space Farm (with 1972’s acid-soaked self-titled LP). The lysergic fuzz scene was electric in the early ’70s. This was fitting, as one of the first albums cited as showing metal promise was Think’s 1975 LP We’ll Give You a Buzz — although, to listen to the mellifluous progressive rock now, it’s hard to hear why. Further progressive rock bands followed. Albums from Ragnarok (1976’s Nooks), and Living Force (1977’s self-titled debut), injected technicality into the rockin’ and rollin’. With numerous pub bands jamming on the heavier classics of the era — from Deep Purple, Uriah Heep, Black Sabbath etc. — NZ found itself with a humming, often tripped-out, heavy rock scene.
The structures that would eventually become NZ metal’s musical framework were initially made from internationally inspired musical brushstrokes — with a few key local bands adding their sway. However, music aside, NZ society faced huge political and public upheavals as the ’70s moved into the ’80s, allowing for NZ-specific themes to emerge. Although NZ made great strides in shaping an independent identity, shucking off the last vestiges of its colonial taint, failed economic experiments and societal disruptions left many unsteady.
Knightshade—Blood and Money (1986)
As NZ punk had done beforehand, NZ metal eventually drew upon the upheavals within society for inspiration. But it took the arrival of extreme metal in the mid to late ’80s for metal to mine those disruptions in any philosophic or sonic sense. As the ’80s rolled in, the scene was still heavily inspired by the traditional metal leanings of the US, UK and Europe.
Power metal and New Wave of British Heavy Metal were the mainstays in the early to mid ’80s, but it was the decade in which homegrown metal came into its own. Traditional metal bands such as Lionheart, Knightshade, Stormbringer, Strikemaster, Confessor, Tokyo, and Stonehenge gathered large crowds and released numerous EPs and LPs — many now highly collectable. (If you’re curious, an excellent 2011 compilation, No Peace for the Wicked, collects a multitude of those artists.)
Stonehenge—Easy Livin’ (1986)
However, while traditional metal was abundant in stores during the early to mid ’80s — racks were filled with Judas Priest, Iron Maiden and any number of classic metal, hard rock and hair-metal acts — by 1986 things had begun to visibly change in NZ’s metal scene.
Like many metal fans of my age around the globe, by the late ’80s I had discovered a record store that revealed the metal underground. In the city I lived in at the time, Christchurch, it was Grunt Records, a store run out of a t-shirt shop, with the seemingly indomitable Bruce Rae behind the counter. The store is long gone, and Rae has sadly departed this realm, but what Grunt Records represented for me personally can be extrapolated out to encompass the changes that were afoot for NZ metal.
Grunt Records was my doorway into extreme metal. I spent hours flicking through its record bins, which were stuffed with imported albums. Spending my meager pennies on LPs stacked with Satan, sex, beer and drugs (and a little more Satan) was a life-changing experience. Grunt Records allowed me to connect with the tape-trading circuit, purchase my first Metallica t-shirt, and hear Celtic Frost, Possessed and Slayer for the first time on a shop speaker system. It offered unhindered immersion in independent, underground and unhinged metal.
The changes that were opening my eyes to the possibilities of metal — thereby forever altering my life — were simultaneously reshaping the parameters and culture of NZ metal. The period between 1985 and the early 1990s saw a radical altering of NZ’s metal landscape, as the weight of extreme metal arrived downunder — though the full titanic shifts were yet to come.
The early ’80s had seen heavier albums from the likes of Motörhead and Venom strike a spark. However, it was nothing like the inferno that occurred in the mid to late ’80s, when bands such as Mayhem, Bathory, Exodus, Morbid Angel, Napalm Death and many, many more, hit the record players and tape decks of NZ metal fans and musicians. In the late ’80s and early ’90s, thrash bands like Shihad, Ultimate, Phobia and Anigma arose, and NZ metal got harder, meaner, and a lot more adventurous.
Shihad—It (live at Grunt Records Awards 1989)
Spurred on by the impetus and extremity of underground rather than classic metal, NZ metal became even more determined to make a great deal of ear-splitting noise. What was impressive was that it sounded confident in its own abilities and, most importantly of all, it was forging its own identity.
NZ metal exploded, with an increase in bands and a hell of a lot more volatility, as the ’80s bled into the ’90s. The NZ indie rock scene had found much international acclaim in the ’80s, but in the early ’90s alt-metal band Head Like a Hole (HLAH) was making a big impact at home, and would continue to do so throughout the decade. The debut EP from Shihad, Devolve, and the band’s 1993 industrial, thrash-heavy Churn (produced by Killing Joke’s Jaz Coleman) were a huge success. Such artists affirmed that NZ metal bands were easily capable of producing work on a par with the rest of the world — not that hometown fans were in any doubt.
Hard, seedy rock had been given a shot in the arm in the ’80s, and glam rocker Push Push was still doing well in the charts in the early ’90s. However, like in the rest of the world, the arrival of grunge and alternative rock killed off the glitzier bands, and battered NZ’s traditional metal ramparts. Shihad progressively reduced its icier aggression and amplified the ‘alt’ to go on to even bigger chart success in NZ and Australia, and record labels such as Wildside arose to sign successful hard and alternative rock outfits such as Dead Flowers, Rumblefish, Slim, and Pumpkinhead.
Head Like a Hole—Wet Rubber (1998)
With popular shadings of alt-rock and quasi-metal vying for space on the charts, down in the underground NZ metal was doing what it did best: making a lot of fiercely independent and apoplectic noise.
Throughout the ’90s, zines, gigs at parties and clubs, rampant tape trading and lo-fi recordings ruled supreme — with NZ’s underground metal bands exploring every darkened, fetid and malevolent crevice the genre could offer. Demos from the likes of Daemon, Karnage, Haemorrhage, Eviscerate, Molested Entrails, Convulsion, Demise, Chapel of Gristle, and now long-running stalwarts Human and Malevolence, crawled through the sewers of subterranean death metal, grindcore and sludge. The blackened death of Azazel, Enshrine and Sinfeeder fed into Intorment, which, along with the commanding Skuldom and Vassafor, was among the first to reconnoiter the topography of NZ black metal.
Intorment—Grip of the Serpent (1994)
Yet, for all the formative music spewing from the underground in the ’90s, nothing came close to Sinistrous Diabolus’s 1993 demo, Opus One. This offering of hallowed death and sepulchral doom has been hailed in the halls of NZ and global extreme metal since its release — and when it was rereleased in 2011 the applause only got louder as a new generation of fans was exposed to its depths. Currently, fans await Sinistrous Diabolus’s next move with high expectations. The band has shifted through line-ups, though Kris Stanley has led the pack throughout, and with sparing shows and recordings spread over a number of years, the mystique of Sinistrous Diabolus is entirely apt, as is the murkiness of its material. However, for all the band’s mystery, there’s nothing unsure about Opus One.The hugely influential and inspirational demo was responsible, in no small part, for the success that underground NZ metal has enjoyed ever since.
Sinistrous Diabolus—Sleep of the Damned (1993)
The ’90s were a fertile time for NZ metal, with a plethora of releases, both above and below ground. Demoniac saw its early raw black metal released internationally, to much success. And, in one of metal’s strangest metamorphoses, the band eventually transformed into the now hugely popular, flamboyant power metal act Dragonforce. In all, the ’90s stoked the flames under NZ metal like never before. In the underground, bands branched out with DIY gusto, leaving behind any notion of traditional or safe metal to tackle every razor-edged, grinding or putrescent sub-genre imaginable. That drive successfully enabled NZ’s metal scene to stamp a distinctive boot print, helped enormously by fans as they supported local artists and spread the word far outside NZ’s borders.
The ’90s were also notable for another significant fact. It was the decade in which NZ metal disseminated its virulence to all points of the national map. Previously, metal bands had been centered in main cities and towns like Auckland, Hamilton, Wellington, Christchurch and Dunedin, but in the ’90s bands began to spring up all over — see New Plymouth and Palmerston North’s notorious metallic punk scenes. That DIY disposition flourished, and cacophonous noise was no longer limited to any specific locale.
2000 to Today
Like any scene founded on extremity and commitment, ructions occurred, blows were exchanged and hearts were smashed as bands splintered and fell. They were hot-blooded, unswerving times, but if not for a raft of passionate musicians and fans dedicated to building a self-sustaining, independent and resolute community, NZ metal wouldn’t have marched into the 00’s in hulking form.
Cobra Khan—Borderlands (2011)
NZ metal has been helped enormously in recent years by technological advances. Recording techniques and more intuitive software have made it easier and less expensive to make underground metal, and social networks, blogs and websites have facilitated its spread around the globe.
The last 13 years haven’t always been kind to NZ metal. It took time for metal to recover from a mauling in the ’90s — not that that was much of a concern for those crafting music in the grottos and on the extremities. However, underground metal was touched by tragedy in 2011, when the NZ and international metal community was shocked by the murder of Backyard Burial vocalist Matthew Hall.
Aside from the obvious heartbreak for Hall’s friends and family, his passing was a huge loss for NZ metal. Hall was the consummate frontman, and a respected mental health worker, and Backyard Burial respectfully called a halt to the band’s activities following his death. Also in 2011, disaster struck the South Island city of Christchurch, where 185 people lost their lives following a devastating earthquake. This has had an enormous impact on the artistic and music community, with venues and facilities decimated.
Many important bands have split, retired or gone into hiatus since the turn of the century, including powerful bands such as grinder Forced to Submit and intimidating death metal titan Corpse Feast. It hasn’t always been plain sailing for NZ metal. It’s notable that, in a country often touted as buying more metal per head of population than anywhere else in the world, it’s often the vacuous and commercially friendly variety that’s most visible on the local charts. Although sludge quartet Beastwars’ chart success in recent years has been a welcome and heartening highlight.
Beastwars—Lake of Fire (2011)
It’s nearly impossible in a country as small as NZ for musicians to cover their costs with their music, let alone make a living — and it’s even more difficult if you’re producing metal. In a country where only a tiny percentage of the population purchase locally made heavier rock, life is never going to be easy for those making bold, non-mainstream music.
Still, by no means has it been all trouble and strife since the start of the new century. Alt-metal fan’s in NZ sent Blindspott to the top of the charts twice, heavier post-rock band Keretta has gained a solid audience in Europe, the frequently stunning post-rock/metal trio Jakob has been taken on tour by both Tool and Isis, Shihad has grown ever more popular, and Head like a Hole has returned after years in the wilderness with 2011’s bombastic Blood Will Out.
Head Like a Hole-Glory Glory (2011)
From the caverns of NZ metal, where the most interesting bands dwell, many acts have gained substantial international recognition since 2000. While that appreciation isn’t generally recognized in the mainstream NZ media, bands have been fortified by the support of their fans and peers; the promotion of shows, recordings and fests etc are underscored by a sense of determined unity. NZ’s metal community has grown ever more vocal, and justly proud of this nation’s accomplishments.
If NZ metal in the early 21st century was famed for anything, it was death metal (technical or otherwise). Bands such as 8 Foot Stavia and Dawn Of Azazel made significant inroads at home and abroad, and melodic death metal acts such as In Dread Response and the Mark of Man, as well as the scrappier, more corrosive assault of Nullifier, have drawn significant acclaim in recent years. Many NZ metal bands now tour internationally, with Europe a major draw card and market for Antipodean metal — thrasher Sinate being a prime example.
The House of Capricorn—All Hail to the Netherworld (2011)
However, NZ metal hasn’t solely been defined by the success of its more extreme bands. Fuelset’s stadium sized riffs had plenty of commercial potential, and homegrown metal has also had a few red-eyed triumphs. The sadly defunct Soulseller’s 2007 self-titled EP is a hidden stoner rock gem. However, the Marko Pavlovic-fronted House of Capricorn birthed two diabolic classics of heaving NZ rock with Sign of the Cloven Hoof and the infinitely more deathrock-influenced In the Devil’s Days. (Pavlovic also fronts Creeping, a black and doom metal outfit with two albums that are both well worth seeking out: Funeral Crawl and Order of Snakes.)
In terms of vanquishing victories, NZ metal has seen some all-conquering acts smite likely contenders. The doom cult/war metal of Diocletian, Witchrist and Vassafor, and the impending return of Sinistrous Diabolus, have been widely recognized internationally . So too the frosty technical death metal of Ulcerate, imminently poised to be one of NZ’s most successful metal bands with its upcoming, as-yet-untitled 2013 release for Relapse Records. Black Boned Angel plumbed the depths of drone and despair, building a large audience in global avant-metal circles, and Dying of the Light let loose the Godfleshian thunder, bringing industrial metal’s menace to the fore.
The strength of such bands, and the accolades given to them and others, has drawn the gaze of metal fans and critics to NZ. Record labels from around the globe (including heavy-hitters Osmose, and 2012’s best, Dark Descent) are licensing, signing and releasing NZ metal works in numbers never before seen.
NZ Metal: A Primer
Subtract—Dirty Paradise (2009)
If you’re an aficionado of NZ metal you might be thinking that the above history looks a little incomplete. Where are the grinding tales of Meat Yard, the abrasive thrash from Execrate and Subtract, or the critically lauded avant-metal of Cobra Khan? Acts such as Forsaken Age and Stormforge have brought power metal back, front and center, and Red Dawn throws down the big riffs backed by a concrete stomp. There’s simply not room to unpack all those bands, nor the pitch-black thrash of Dissolution or the wonderfully torturous sludge of Mosquito Control — who I heartily recommend for fans of Noothgrush-styled gut-punches.
Those bands aren’t missing because they’re not important — they’ve all made praiseworthy contributions — but because NZ metal has never been healthier, and trying to pick a few key acts to write about is, well, difficult. I can only offer my regrets about paying tribute to the black metal of Anno Domini Mortus, Skuldom, Blood of the Moon, and the extremely promising Sabbatic Goat. All have released visceral and mordant works recently and you should seek them out. I’ll get back to them someday, I promise.
I wanted to ensure there was room for a primer on NZ metal, and from here on in we’re looking at a selection of bands in more depth.
The history of Vassafor, fronted by Phil Kusabs (aka VK), is a singularly diabolic legacy — one presented and performed with all the dark ceremony of the “VK tradition”. Birthed in the early ’90s, Vassafor was one of the first NZ bands to take inspiration from Bathory’s black metal mass and transcribe that onto the ichor-soaked palette of the burgeoning underground NZ metal scene. Since the release of Vassafor’s first series of demos, all has been building to 2012’s debut full-length, Obsidian Codex. Released on double LP via Parasitic Records, the album was an annihilating onslaught of black fuzz, tremolo pickings and occult-laden atmospherics — heavy on second-wave inhuman snarls.
A selection of Vassafor’s early work, unreleased rehearsals, and studio recordings were gathered on the equally powerful 2012 Dark Descent release, Elegy of the Archeonaut. If you’ve a mind to sample the doom-drenched black metal of Vassafor, each of the band’s 2012 releases reveals a unique revelation in worship and sacrifice. There’s no doubting VK has paid in blood for his creative visions, and as the saying goes, only death is real. Vassafor revels in that truth.
Vassafor—Makutu (Condemned to Deepest Depths)
Sometimes the best discoveries are made entirely by accident. I knew nothing about black metal quartet Bulletbelt when I found the band’s EP, Writhe and Ascend, tucked between W.A.S.P and Warlock albums in a record store in 2011. I took one look at the vintage demonic horror cover, and slapped my money down. It was a fantastic EP — raw, nasty and beastly — but it’s been superseded entirely by Bulletbelt’s debut album. Released in late December 2012, Down in the Cold Grave is a superb example of two-fisted, energetic and, yep, enthusiastic NZ black metal. With breakneck bitter tunes, Down in the Cold Grave is 29 minutes of in-your-face, rollicking metal — think Norway’s Craft and Aura Noir at the tail-end of an evening’s drinking and knife fighting.
Bulletbelt’s blistering cover of “Mistaken Identity”, by NZ punk band No Tag, is proof of the (darkened) sprightliness at work on the album, and it syncs perfectly with the band’s own meteoric tracks — see the whirlwind blasts of “Storming the Armoury”, “Icarus” and “Into Battle”. When Bulletbelt stretch on “Locust” and “Ironclad”, guitarists Ross Mallon and Raymond Petersen have room to breath, and it’s an icy exhale, with the frostiness amplified in their frenzied riffing. Vocalist Fergus Nelson-Moores screeches and wails with a bone-chilling zeal, and bassist Tim Mekalick and drummer Steve Francis lay into the thumping rhythms with cutthroat fervor. All up, the production on Down in the Cold Grave is thick enough to be felt in the sternum, yet glacial enough to draw some welcome reminders of black metal’s heyday. Short, jagged and dirty, with more than a little swagger, Down in the Cold Grave is one of the best black metal albums released in NZ. It’s a ceaselessly enjoyable rabble-rousing riot throughout.
For all the success that top tier metal bands like Metallica and Iron Maiden enjoyed in the ’80s, the best bombarding tunes were often found in the next tier down. That’s a fact that old school speed metal and NWOBHM merchant Razorwyre has noted and exploited to great effect on its debut, 2012’s Another Dimension. Building on its already sterling reputation for exuberant, over-the-top shows, this album shows a gigantic leap in compositional ability from the band’s first EP. Guitarists Chris Calavrias and James Murray fire off incendiary and ridiculously catchy riffs and solos, drummer Nick Oakes and bassist Diamond Tim drive the propulsive rhythms, and vocalist Z Chylde howls with abandon — sending the falsettos sky high.
It’s 1984, all over again, and Another Dimension is pure, vintage gold. With blistering headbangers like ” The Conjurer (Shaman’s Wrath)”, “Another Dimension of Hell” and “Desert Inferno” oozing scrappy retro charm, Razorwyre honors trad and speed metal’s hairiest heydays with a sly wink to the simple joy of rousing riffs, big hooks and neck-wrecking guitar gymnastics. Signed to French label Infernö Records, and heading off in 2013 to play in Europe, Razorwye has a sound all of its own in NZ metal. The band has every reason to be proud of crafting classic tunes.
Razorwyre—The Infinite/Desert Inferno
Black Boned Angel
Campbell Kneale’s Birchville Cat Motel and Our Love will Destroy the World projects have explored the vast possibilities of sound. His multi-layered textural communications exist as potent works of physical and sonic art, and are loaded with transcendent potential. Throughout much of his career Kneale has mixed extreme volume and traumatic frequencies with haunting drones that distort space and time, but his most overtly metal work has been produced under his Black Boned Angel moniker.
Black Boned Angel has an extensive discography of minimalist and apocalyptic doom and black metal drones — comparable in weight and emotionally overwhelming strength to the work of Sunn O))). However, Black Boned Angel’s upcoming release, The End (out early February on Handmade Birds), is the final nail in the band’s coffin. The last release presents three viscous drones, with buried, gut-wrenching melodies. The End is as dark as Black Boned Angel’s most overpowering dirges, yet allows glimpses of the shimmering light of the band’s split albums with Nadja.
It’s a perfectly fitting burial for the band, diving, as it does, into the depths of life-extinguishing noise. However, The End also allows for redemption, of a sort, with Kneale noting recently that the band’s albums were made under a black cloud, and that “It’s time to let [the band] die gracefully”. While Black Boned Angel does exit gracefully on The End, it’s no merciful goodbye. It ends the band’s career on a final statement of fathomless totality. There’s no quietly stepping into the void here; this is an all-encompassing howl in the face of death. Black Boned Angel dies with as much confrontational intensity as it lived. RIP.
Black Boned Angel—Endless Coming Into Life (Live 2005)
Open Tomb features Sean Carmichael on guitar and vocals, and Dane Bailey on drums. Both artists have played crucial roles in the development of NZ extreme metal via their work with influential ’90s blackened death bands Enshrine and Azazel. Open Tomb was born in 2011, from the ashes of metallic crust punk band Gawj — whose series of demos are well worth seeking out.
Open Tomb is a different beast to Gawj. It’s still crust-orientated, and continues to represent the smashed teeth and bloody-faced ruination of NZ society, but the speed has been reduced to a slow crawl, reminiscent of Corrupted on cough syrup. NZ’s societal frustrations come wrapped in sludge-ridden, Grief-like churns, with a gravity about them that heads straight to the self-destructive.
The band’s bristling and scabrous self-titled debut can be found on Bandcamp, as can December 2012’s two-track tape Slower than Thou. Both are exceedingly lo-fi, downtempo suppurations that demand to be heard. Open Tomb’s hemorrhaging raw sound is tagged on Bandcamp as ‘crust doom funeral metal shit sludge torture’, and that’s about as perfect a description as you can get. Malodorous magnificence.
An Exorcism of Raw Emotion
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
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’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 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.
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)
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
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.
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.
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.