For a moment, Anathema looked like they would close out the 2015 Roadburn Festival on a completely flat note. Then they pulled off a comeback for the ages.
Album(s) of the Week
Seeing that I missed two weeks of new releases -- apologies, I was cavorting across Western Europe for nine days -- instead of doing the usual roundup for this week, I’ve chosen to highlight some of the more noteworthy albums that came out from 7 to 21 April.
Acid King, Middle of Nowhere, Center of Everywhere (Svart)
Ten years after their last album, the influential stoner doom trio has returned with a spellbinding record. Loaded with similar hazy, heavy grooves as fellow cult faves Sleep, only with a more mystical air to the music, listeners will hear just how much Acid King’s shadow looms over a band like Kylesa and Across Tundras. The best metal often comes from the subgenres’ progenitors, and this band has returned sounding on point, in full command. (Stream and purchase via Bandcamp.)
Acid Witch, Midnight Movies (Hells Headbangers)
Acid Witch is one band I’ve always felt never fully delivered on their promise. Their harsh vocals fail to deliver the extra melodic punch their classic heavy metal compositions need. However, this is one gregarious, very fun band, and they channel all that positivity into this wonderful four-song EP of ‘80s horror movie covers. You get Sorcery’s “I’m Back” from Rocktober Blood, Black Roses’ “Soldiers of the Night” from Black Roses, and best of all, Fastway’s Trick or Treat nugget “After Midnight” and 45 Grave’s classic “Partytime” from Return of the Living Dead. All tracks are outstanding choices, and sound fantastic -- even Shagrat’s gurgly vocals -- performed with verve and including audio samples from each flick. For those old enough to remember renting those old VHS tapes, you’re going to love this.
Bosse-De-Nage, All Fours (Profound Lore)
Much has been made of the graphic, vivid, harrowing poetry that comprise the lyrics on the San Francisco band’s latest album -- to the point of being presented as a word cloud on the cover -- but as exciting as it is to finally have a new metal album that puts an effort into strong lyrics, I’d rather focus on the musical aspect of this extraordinary record. An even balance of black metal and post-hardcore, All Fours moves gracefully between passages sound either like Burzum, Slint, the Refused, or sometimes all three at once. There are moments so bleak, so raw that they accentuate the dark lyrics to an unsettling degree, but there’s a sense of resolution too, shades of light sneaking in, bringing the album to an uplifting -- but unlike Deafheaven, not maudlin -- climax. (Listen on Spotify.)
Enforcer, From Beyond (Nuclear Blast)
The year 2015 needs its go-to retro album, its own version of what Skull Fist was to 2014. Until Cauldron puts out a new record, the latest by Sweden’s Enforcer will do just fine. If you don’t know these guys, they’re permanently stuck in 1984, with a full grasp of what heavy metal was like back then, devoid of subgenres, exuberant, fun, and never shying away from a great hook. With the nimble riffs of late-era NWOBHM, the speed of Exciter and Helstar, and the brashness of young American metal at the time, the accuracy of this album is uncanny, and a total joy. (Listen on Spotify.)
Halestorm, Into The Wild Life (Atlantic)
The Revolver favorites teamed up with Eric Church producer Jay Joyce on their third album, and while Joyce successfully created a country-hard rock crossover on Church’s The Outsiders, here he strips Halestorm of whatever bite the foursome might’ve had. Lzzy Hale is in fine vocal form as always, but the songwriting is scattershot (“I Am the Fire” skitters between Survivor and ‘80s Rush) and the band is buried underneath a lacquer so thick it all feels synthetic. When you write a song that blatantly rips off Loverboy’s “Lovin’ Every Minute of It”, you’ve got problems. And is she actually singing, “I’m-a get mine”? (Listen on Spotify.)
Magic Kingdom, Savage Requiem (AFM)
What’s so enjoyable about Magic Kingdom’s first album in five years is how well it keeps itself from flying off the deep end. With one foot planted in the classic power metal sounds of Rhapsody and Helloween, the other firmly rooted in classic speed metal, there are plenty of opportunities to send the music spiraling into a mess of frilly bombast -- good lord, “Ship of Ghosts” quotes Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” for a spell -- but guitarist Dushan Petrossi keeps things focused for 63 flamboyant minutes. New singer Christian Palin brings a good blend of flamboyance and robustness to the band, and although the running time is a bit of a stretch, there’s enough variety going on to keep things from stagnating. It’s a lot to take in for the average uninitiated listener, but so is any other form of extreme metal. This is a good example of a genre’s style executed well.
Mammoth Mammoth, Volume IV: Hammered Again (Napalm)
One of the most underrated bands on the Napalm roster, the boozin’, brawlin’ Aussies have come through with another collection of catchy, blue-collar rock ‘n’ roll tunes. Alcohol, bitching about The Man, car metaphors, celebrating the power of rock, masculine braggadocio; you know what you’re going to get from Mammoth Mammoth, and they never disappoint. (Listen on Spotify.)
Metallica, No Life Til Leather (Blackened)
The coolest fetish item on Record Store Day was, ironically, a cassette. Recorded in June 1982, this demo played a huge part in launching Metallica’s career, making the rounds among tape traders and catching the ear of Brian Slagel, who put “Hit the Lights” on Metal Blade’s seminal metal Massacre I compilation. The rest, as they say, is history, and No Life Til Leather has been brilliantly remastered in 2015, kicking off Metallica’s ambitious reissuing of its back catalog. Demos of legendary bands are usually quaint affairs, and you hear a little of that innocence in 19 year-old James Hetfield’s voice, but aside from that, the ferocity of these tracks is a marvel to hear 33 years later. It’s all about the guitar interplay between budding greats Hetfield and Dave Mustaine; Mustaine is all flash while Hetfield already shows signs of becoming the greatest rhythm guitarist metal has ever seen. “The Mechanix” has always paled in comparison to the “Four Horsemen” rewrite on Kill ‘em All a year later, but the rest of this extremely important demo explodes with youthful energy. Metallica would incalculably alter the heavy metal landscape over the next decade, and this is the first, crucial step. This release is essential, but if you missed out on the cassette, fret not: it’ll be released on CD and vinyl this summer.
Royal Thunder, Crooked Doors (Relapse)
The evolution of Atlanta’s Royal Thunder has been a marvel to witness. After starting out categorized by many people -- yours truly included -- as doom, sludge, or both, they branched out on the ambitious debut album CVI in 2012, on which bassist Mlny Parsonz displayed some astonishing vocal power atop the band’s languid, meandering compositions. The follow-up is just as bold, but only in a different way. The songwriting continues to grow and tighten -- Parsonz readily admits the band still has a habit of wandering -- but even better is how the band is steadily leaving the more outwardly “metal” influences behind them. No more apparent is that than in the guitar playing of Josh Weaver, which practically ditches all riffs in favor of texture. He accompanies and enhances rather than dominates, creating a lavish backdrop against which for Parsonz to show her stuff. And does she ever shine on this record, from the commanding “Time Machine”, to h teaching ballad “Forgive Me, Karma”, all the way to the extraordinary “The Bear II”, an inspired improvised piano/vocal performance that was magically caught on tape and too good not to release. This has been a funny year so far, with very few moments of greatness and inspiration, but Crooked Doors has been the best metal/hard rock album I’ve heard this year so far. (Listen on Spotify.)
Tribulation, The Children Of The Night (Century Media)
So lacking in compositional skill as present-day music has become, that whenever a new death metal band discovers dynamics that the extreme metal hive mind wets its collective pants. Melody and restraint makes music better -- imagine that! As a result, you often see bands with decent ideas but half-baked execution receive lavish praise for work that shows more promise than fulfills promise, a perfect example being Horrendous’s likeable yet scattershot Ecdysis album last year.
So it’s easy to understand why one might approach the new album by Swedish band Tribulation with a little, ‘scuse the rhyme, trepidation. The big difference upon hearing The Children of the Night, though, is just how in command of their craft this foursome is. The death metal aspect is being steadily phased out, as the band is clearly following the lead of the late In Solitude, streamlining its sound to incorporate leaner, simpler arrangements. As a result, this album doesn’t so much mimic Morbid Angel than approach the flamboyant majesty of King Diamond’s classic lineup of LaRoque/Denner/Hansen/Dee, a comparison I never use lightly. The sticking point is bassist/vocalist Johannes Anderson, who sticks to a reverb-drenched death growl, which is rather unfortunate considering what In Solitude’s singing brought to Sister two years ago. Although it’s a mild disappointment the band is unable to take the music over that one final hurdle with strong, cleanly sung vocals, Anderson does accentuate the music well enough, giving it more of a horror-derived edge that, once you hear it enough, does work in its own way. Besides, these compositions are so strong, from “Melancholia” and “Winds”, to the gorgeous instrumental “Själaflykt”, to the second half of the album, which shifts gears from “very good” to “excellent”.
Heavy metal, in all forms, is extreme by nature, but “extreme metal” will never evoke the same level of power and majesty as the classic work of the '80s, when metal had no subgenres to bicker about. Tribulation is clearly well aware of that. They could care less about “extremity”, and they care more about songwriting, staying true to what they feel heavy metal is all about. By doing that, drawing inspiration from tradition, and learning that less is more, they’ve taken a huge, important step forward. If only more bands would learn to do this. (Listen on Spotify.)
Halestorm’s Into the Wild Life made a big splash in America this week, debuting at number five, its first-week sales in excess of 56,000 more than doubling that of the band’s previous album three years ago. Good for them, but it’s an absolute shame such a terrible album is the one to break them.
I wrote about it at Decibel yesterday -- apologies for the shameless plug -- but I’ve been listening to Oxford band Undersmile a lot lately, most notably their new album Anhedonia, and especially the song “Sky Burial”. With two women guitarists/singers singing haunting, gothic harmonies countered by absolutely massive doom riffs, it bears a very strong similarity to SubRosa, but enough of that pastoral English influence permeates the music just enough to give it its own character. It’s an extraordinary track from a revelatory album. (Stream the track via Spotify.)
Horns Down: Kirk Hammett’s iPhone, Phil Rudd, anyone who claims to be a metal authority yet neither knows nor respects heavy metal history.
Follow me on Twitter at @basementgalaxy.