The Majesty of Decay
The Majesty of Decay is the Blind Guardian album that we’ve been waiting for yet have never been given. Unlike Judicator’s past albums that balanced between American and European visions of power metal, Majesty dives head first into the sound of Blind Guardian’s early records, complete with melodic yet aggressively thrashy riffs, galloping rhythms, and harmonized choruses. But this is not some offhand homage. This is music that feels alive and energized.
While their starting point is familiar, John Yelland and bandmates evolve the classic German power metal approach by adding to it bits and pieces of Nevermore’s thrash-inclinations (“The Majesty of Decay”), death metal-like brutality (“Daughter of Swords”), Symphony X’s progressive affectations, and traditional doom riffs (“From the Belly of the Whale”) underscored by jumping, exuberant Euro-power in the vein of Rhapsody (“Ursa Major”) and occasional traces of heavy psych rock (“The High Priestess”). On paper, it might sound like a jumble of styles taken too far. In reality, these elements are blended together masterfully to create what is, without a doubt, the best power metal album of the year. – Antonio Poscic
Artificial Brain does not hold back. It is a work driven by a brutal and erratic spirit, appearing in its terrifying form from the get-go with the self-titled track. This manic nature keeps on exploding, leading to absolute havoc in tracks like “A Lofty Grave” and “Tome of the Exiled Engineer.” It is an experience that can only be described as a mauling, even the groovier parts riding this frenetic narrative. The brutal takedowns of “Glitch Cannon” speak volumes to that effect, and the incorporation of jazzy themes within the brutal weight of “Insects and Android Eyes” feels like a force of nature.
The other side that captivates the attention in Artificial Brain is this dissonance, coming from a blackened perspective. It carries much of the Voivod-ian DNA, becoming a defining characteristic. It augments the brutality of “Glitch Cannon,” creating a completely nauseating experience when it takes the lead in “Celestial Cyst.” Yet, the most impressive aspect is the grandeur that this mode transmits. The standout moment here is “Cryogenic Dreamworld,” the dissonance acting as a portal from the death metal stampede to a psychedelically inclined altered state. It is this inventiveness and adherence to one’s craft that truly delivers for Artificial Brain. – Spyros Stasis
Gateways to Resplendence
Abhorrent Expanse continue the small but intriguing string of musicians with backgrounds in free jazz/improvisation interested in playing extreme metal. Like Catatonic Effigy and Threadbare before them, the Minneapolis quartet deliver slabs of huge, dissonant death metal only to break them down into free improv freakouts, combining their disparate elements into a curiously cohesive whole. As a side-effect, Gateways to Resplendence demonstrates just how much the harsh, manic edges of freely improvised music and maximalist death metal have in common.
The music balances between these extremes. On “Cloak of Ancients”, a patient texture concocted out of tremolo-picked guitar, noise and feedback swallows everything in its path. But “Annihilation Operator” doesn’t mess around waiting to be consumed and instead screams with layers upon layers of death metal. Somewhere in the background, a guitar and organ shred violently before suddenly—in a simultaneously whimsical and earnestly ingenious moment—they become unplugged. And if this cut was death metal terminally infected with free improv, the tables are turned on “Empirical Languages”, a track that has all the signature elements of a free improv session but with the menacing aura of death metal injected in its strummed and bowed double bass, picked guitars chords, and spastic drum patterns. – Antonio Poscic
KEN Mode – Null
It feels like a constant, personal challenge for KEN Mode. The band from Canada has been promoting its dark, aggressive brew of post-hardcore for more than two decades. Just when you think they have reached their darkest peak, they have stared into the abyss and there is no way to top that, they surprise you. In 2018 it was Loved that sardonically grinned through its polemic angst, complex structures exploding through heavy distortion and dissonance. Yet, KEN Mode’s nihilism digs even deeper with Null.
Instead of the extravagant and brutal beatings that KEN Mode unleashed with Loved and Entrench, Null sees a return to a point of origin. Inherently more experimental, the record bounces through different modes. The noise rock aspirations of Swans lead the way, the off-kilter industrial spirit of Einstürzende Neubauten breathes in new layers of despair while the math-infused explosions evoke pure chaos. There is no respite to be found here, no shelter from the ongoing storm. KEN Mode have once again taken their darkest and most punishing form, traversing through dark experimental lounges and dystopian landscapes. Until the next descent. – Spyros Stasis
They Fear Us
In the case of London’s Ithaca, the old adage of “bursting onto the scene” rang very much true when in 2019 they released the blazing The Language of Injury to widespread acclaim. Even then, their unfiltered onslaught, stabbing riffs, and stomping chugs felt like an expression of who and where in their life vocalist and frontwoman Djamila Azzouz and her bandmates were at that time, not an ultimate definition of the band.
If flickers of optimism and brazen spite appeared as ephemeral surges of dramatic post-rock and shy melodies on The Language, they have now come to form the backbone of They Fear Us, an album overflowing with prudent brightness. Looking with anticipation towards the future, aggression is placated by strains of alt-rock, nu metal, and gorgeously melodic choruses chock-full of emotion. Yet there is no internal tension between the rawer and heartening threads. Instead, the disparate styles flow elegantly into one another, like the mellow acoustic ambiance of “You Should Have Gone Back” that opens up into barrages of distorted energy and post-metal tremolos, only for “Hold, Be Held” to close the album with lush balladry glimmering with gentle piano plinks, 1980s synth swells, and Azzouz’s soaring, pop diva-like delivery. – Antonio Poscic
Blut Aus Nord
Disharmonium: Undreamable Abysses
In many ways, Disharmonium is the mirror image of Hallucinogen, with the common thread running through both records being the psychedelic element. From there on, Blut Aus Nord set their ritualistic foundations, initially in the form of ambient interludes as with “Chants of the Deep Ones” and then further evolving these in the grand presence of “Keziah Mason” and “The Apotheosis of the Unnamable”. From there on it is a circular progression, relentless and unending. “Tales of the Old Dreamer” stands out in this regard, making it feel as if the entire cosmos is devouring itself.
But, what is key here is the cacophony. In the same way, that melody defines Hallucinogen, dissonance defines Disharmonium. So here, instead of the dreamy allusions, there is a poison IV straight into your veins. Again “Tales of the Old Dreamer” truly shines, the lead work mirroring the screams of the great old ones. “Into the Woods” combines the eerie black metal essence with the bitter psychedelia, melting the two together on top of an almost krautrock progression. It’s this quality that completes the inverted, distorted mirror image of Hallucinogen for Blut Aus Nord. In the process, they have spawned one of their greatest and darkest moments. – Spyros Stasis
On its surface, Ashenspire’s sophomore LP showcases grandiose folk-infused avant and progressive black metal, complete with swirls of morose strings, poignant clarinet lines, and melodies blossoming between cracks in the concrete black metal pavement. But unlike the autopoietic nature and occult abstract themes of A Forest of Stars and similar groups, a painful, urgent narrative frames this album. Ponder the title Hostile Architecture: structures and buildings weaponized against the downtrodden in an attempt to criminalize the poor. These are not just empty words and blithe notes against capitalism and the fascism hiding with it. It is a resounding artistic proclamation whose ideas pour through each seething note and grunted stanza.
But unlike the raw and direct messages of singer and drummer Alasdair Dunn’s other Red and Anarchist Black Metal band, Tyrannus, Ashenspire’s libretto is philosophical and poetic, reminiscent of old Partisan songs, and his inflection closer to the Fall’s Mark E. Smith rather than any black metal vocalist. Blaring saxophones, nervous string tremolos and twisted, grooving riffs push against his post-punk-like, jangly cycles of words and ignite them with anger against the exploitation of (precarious) workers, then turn their attention towards the oppressor, unleashing a potent affront as if echoing Karl Popper’s thoughts on tolerance: “You can’t reason with malice. The fasces must break.” And as this astonishing album concludes, the battle continues. – Antonio Poscic
There is a certain subsection of the punk scene that has evolved to fully depict the devastation of reality. Chat Pile proudly enter this tradition, splattering their punk lineage with everything from sludge and industrial to grunge and eerie blackened metal in their debut album, God’s Country. The toxic fumes rising in “Why” alongside the spoken word passages are impossibly condensing an infinite amount of anger into a three-minute track. The punk spirit roams free, erupting in anguish with “Tropical Beaches, Inc.” The heavier elements, by way of a sludge injection, further increase the pressure. Thus, “Slaughterhouse” and “The Mask” become monuments of pitiless despair.
Still, as impressive as the layers of influences and the creativity of Chat Pile are, it is the emotion that defines this work. Anger and frustration are embraced through every drum hit, dread, and despair are highlighted through guitar leads. Disorientation and frustration through the bass lines and then all of the above in the marvelous vocal delivery. Chat Pile are honest about their perception of reality and the world around them. A cold, industrial sphere taking form through the early, animalistic visions of Swans, is now complete. This is easily one of the most oppressive and hard-hitting works of the year so far. It is a brutal record and a near-perfect introduction. – Spyros Stasis
The avant-metal of Japanese group Sigh has taken on many idiosyncratic forms, from black metal infused with symphonic and folk elements to ghostly chamber creations. Their first album in four years and 12th overall is thus somewhat surprising, as it tones down the overarching weirdness for a more straightforward black metal approach, which makes for a supremely listenable experience.
Although often centered around Kreator guitarist Frédéric Leclercq’s cement-splitting riffs, it’s the blistering drumming and percussive work of Fear Factory’s Mike Heller that leaves the strongest impression. In general, Heller and Leclercq’s direct, to-the-point thrash/death metal energy anchors the unhinged songwriting cherished by founding members Mirai Kawashima and Satoshi Fujinami. The resulting music is thus often groovy and headbang-inviting, but also more than capable of channeling a pervasive sense of strange beauty. These defining characteristics can be heard in the signature vocodered growls, Dr. Mikannibal’s saxophone bursts, furious koto tremolos, heady flute/synth-driven psychedelia, and flourishes of Japanese folklore. And as the beautiful, folksy “Touji no Asa” closes the album, there is no doubt in mind: Sigh have created another banger. – Antonio Poscic
The Ailing Facade
When potential skyrockets. In visiting Aeviterne’s debut EP, Sireless, all the qualities that make for a great tech death metal band were there. However, nothing would prepare for the absolute gem that The Ailing Facade is. The technical death metal still defines the foundations, from the precise striking, and the brutality to the relentless progression. But there is so much more packed into this work. Post-punk ethos provides the inherent darkness, and stark industrial machinations bind together the rhythmic backbone. Discordance and melody collide through this cyber vision.
While these aspects are not new in extreme metal, the manner in which Aeviterne manage to incorporate them is flawless. Making these different qualities feel like a natural aspect, an extension of their death metal identity, rather than sparse, alien parts. It is albums like The Ailing Facade that breathe new life into the genre. While many choose to relish the days of the past, they tend to forget how exploratory and unafraid death metal was in embracing other components. Jazz infusions and progressive implementations pushed the boundaries in the early days. Yet, Aeviterne understand that to make further progress, you need to walk on new paths. In that process, they offer us this astonishing record. – Spyros Stasis