Gospel – The Loser (Dog Knights)
Everything happens in cycles, fads come and go and come again, but a resurgence of post-hardcore (see: Cave In, reviewed elsewhere in this column) and screamo influences (see: So Hideous) was the last thing I was expecting in 2021, and 2022. What’s even more surprising is the quality and evolutionary steps with which these genres are being brought back. In the case of the New York band Gospel, the wait was a really long one. Their new album The Loser arrives a full 17 years after the seminal LP The Moon Is a Dead World. What a comeback it is.
While expectedly building on various mutations of screamo, post-hardcore, and things in-between, the progressive structures that hold these elements and the shimmer around them dazzle the most. Keyboard leads flicker left and right, punching through buzzing guitar attacks, bursts of drum rolls, and Adam Dooling’s gritty vocals. Unlike the almost joyous sonic makeup of the album, his lyrics and delivery feel lived in and heavy, reflecting all those small personal frustrations, losses, defeats, and victories that accumulate through two decades of life. In spite of or thanks to this contrast, The Loser ultimately appears as a small triumph. – Antonio Poscic
Hällas – Isle of Wisdom (Napalm / RMV Grammofon)
Making deliberately retro-sounding hard and progressive rock usually results in music bogged down and boxed in by the set of old-timey stylistic principles it was meant to follow. There are a number of bands and labels that churn out this type of music like clockwork, with each release more forgettable than the last one. In this context, superficial skepticism towards Sweden’s Hällas and their categorization is understandable. But passing on them would be a grave mistake.
Like their previous two albums, Isle of Wisdom is a warm and enveloping masterpiece of progressive rock and vintage heavy metal. Yes, it consciously harkens back to the golden era of the genre. But it manages to do so while incorporating elements of modern heavy prog and psych, pressing familiar idioms into fresh patterns, and finally cradling everything with an irresistible organic production, full of analog synthesizers, fuzzy riffs, and velvety soars. Crucially, these inherently pleasing aural elements are assembled into exquisite songs. They all share an endearing flow that leaves plenty of space for virtuosic twists and turns, while also allowing pop melodies and catchy hooks to blossom. Feel-good album of the year. – Antonio Poscic
Haunter – Disincarnate Ails (Profound Lore)
Haunter, the San Antonio act has taken great leaps in their interpretation of the progressive black/death sound. Their initial outing in Thrinodia found them relishing a DIY ethic, resulting in a raw and uncompromising offering. Yet, beneath this harsh packaging, there were clear signs of brilliance. These truly came to the forefront with Sacramental Death Qualia. Balancing between brutality and their progressive inclinations Haunter’s sophomore record is a dark work of cosmic awareness. Now, they outdo themselves once again with their Profound Lore debut in Disincarnate Ails.
The key factor that has made the biggest difference here is the production. Thrinodia relished in its lo-fi aesthetic, while Sacramental Death Qualia settled on an old-school US death metal style production. But, Disincarnate Ails has a perfect balance. Clear and crisp, it allows for all the nuances of their progressive attitude to shine, while still retaining the extreme metal weight. It is for this reason that the progressive touches truly shine here. The clean passages accompanying the shrieking guitars in “Spiritual Illness” cut through beautifully, as is the case with the melodic lead work of “Chained at the Head of the Eschaton”. It is a quality that pays tribute to the very early stages of Opeth (remember Orchid?) but without becoming overly melodic. Haunter are more rugged, and that shows with their appreciation for black metal atmospherics as the clean parts of “Overgrown With Moss” first suggest.
From there on, Disincarnate Ails is a record of our times. Haunter draw upon the grand lineage of avant-garde black metal to fuel their dissonance. Through the Ved Buens Ende DNA, and its reinterpretation through the works of Deathspell Omega, they revel in this multilayered cacophony. Yet, their death metal affluence triumphs over the blackened aesthetics in the end. The latter days of Gorguts see this progressive take on brutality succeed, while the claustrophobic nature of Ulcerate is only a step away. However, they do push onto different territories as well, leaving behind some of the introspective aspects of the aforementioned acts. This is where Haunter become openly polemic, causing havoc with their chugging prowess in “Chained at the Head of the Eschaton.” It is all the above that make Disincarnate Ails their most potent work yet, and with this superior production and the more focused narrative (the album clocks in just over 30 minutes,) they are more impressive than ever. – Spyros Stasis
Hold Me Down – Powerless (Sentient Ruin)
Back in the early 2010s, an act from Virginia caused havoc through the extreme underground. With just two outings in 2013’s Coping With Lose and 2017’s Violate and Control, american became a formidable force. Industrial and noise merged with sludge, while an overarching punk ethos and an overall blackened perspective completed the recipe. And while american lie dormant, their heritage lives on in Hold Me Down. Featuring one of the original american members, J.G., the band is now releasing their debut record in Powerless.
Hold Me Down have the same across-the-board perspective that defined american. Heaviness and weight are established through the sludge presence. The heavy riffs of “A Serpent” are testament to that fact, while the bends and groove of “Faces” further drives that side. On the other hand, again the punk ethos is pivotal adding urgency. The title track oozes with that sentiment, a complete sonic annihilation performed with malice. But, of course, all of this is wrapped through industrial and electronics means. Breakbeats make the doom weight of “STK” more imposing, while post-dance applications add depth to “A Serpent”. It also lends a mysterious tonality to Powerless, with moments like “Null & Void” taking a decadent turn.
Yet, what really sticks is the fluidity that Hold Me Down showcase. The rigid industrial structures are malleable. They are contorted at times to reveal impressive aggression but then retracted to a simpler form. “Cradled at Gunpoint” sees the latter application, adding a grand perspective. It is also here that the ambient and experimental self takes over. “Formation” takes an eerie tour through blackened soundscapes, while “Untitled” sees a dark ambient presence rise.
Even more extreme is the transformation with “Money & Bodies”, an ecclesiastical essence coming to view, while “Forced Into Life” reaches a dark hybrid neo-classical/industrial machination. Something that could have been spawned during the glory days of Cold Meat Industry. Boundless, aggressive, and dark. Everything basically justifies the title of this album. It perfectly encapsulates the state of anyone that experiences it. – Spyros Stasis
Luminous Vault – Animate the Emptiness (Profound Lore)
Luminous Vault have been a specter haunting the extreme music of New York. The project features Mario Diaz De Leon, whose ambient electronic/symphonic works under the Oneirogen moniker have been outstanding, and Stephen Samuel Smith of Aeviterne (absolutely check The Ailing Facade) and Artificial Brain (cannot wait for the new, self-titled album). The two started Luminous Vault back in 2015, as a vehicle towards the amalgamation of extreme metal, of the black and death families, with industrial and electronica. And so following two EPs, in Communion and the excellent Charismata, Luminous Vault return with their debut full-length in Animate the Emptiness.
The electronic scene is the foundation for Luminous Vault. The repetitive rhythms of the opener “Invoke Radiant Gleam” make this abundantly clear, with the duo still investigating its experimental side. “Regeneration” sees post-dance aesthetics come in, disfigured through the heavy processing and brutal bass lines, while the post-club applications come to full form with closer “Ancient North”. It is from there that the industrial and post-metallic connection is made. Echoes of Godflesh can be felt, the Streetcleaner influence setting up towering moments like “Earth Daemon” and in doom fashion “Ancient North”.
Still, Luminous Vault’s strongest quality is not in this aspect of their sound. It is actually their black metal inclinations that cause the most havoc. The dissonant lead work carries the Ved Buens Ende heritage and the cyclothymic alterations bring to mind Dodheimsgard’s 666 International. So, while the classic annals of the genre live on, with “Divine Transduction” flirting with the cold eerie touch of Mayhem’s “Freezing Moon”, the entire endeavor tilts more towards the Thorns-ian DNA.
Again, this concoction is not necessarily novel. This is the weak point of Luminous Vault, in that they do not diverge that much from that norm. There are still elements that work great in their favor. The move towards the electronica ethos is very interesting but feels incomplete. In the same way, their synthesizer applications are excellent and lead to hellish and dystopian allusions in “Incarnate Flame Arise” and “Embryonic”, but they feel they could be more pivotal to the work. There is this missing link of the boundless exploration, which tracks like “Tower” from Charismata alluded to. Still, Animate the Emptiness is a very well-put-together record and it touches on many interesting ideas and concepts. It just feels like if De Leon and Smith keep digging, they will eventually hit gold. Looking at their resume, that is only a matter of time. – Spyros Stasis
Mournful Congregation – The Exuviae of Gods – Part I (20 Buck Spin / Osmose Productions)
While ostensibly an EP and bearing the suffix “Part I”, Mournful Congregation’s follow-up to 2018’s superb full-length The Incubus of Karma is a well-rounded work rather than just an appetizer for something bigger to come. Over 37 minutes and three cuts—two new compositions and a reworking from the band’s early demo days (“An Epic Dream of Desire”)—the Australian quintet continue perfecting their signature dynamic and ever-evolving take on funeral doom metal.
In the opening “Mountainous Shadows, Cast Through Time”, the rhythmic foundation staggers forward as monoliths heaved through a desert. Alternating between crescendos and decrescendos, ambiance and aggression, each new roar and heavy riff effigy settles like dust on the figures that came before them. As a whole, The Exuviae of Gods – Part I is a collection of beautiful and soul-stirring yet quietly suffocating music, with only the title track, squeezed in the middle between two doom juggernauts, brightening things up and allowing for a short moment of respite. – Antonio Poscic