Music

Distill the Swarm: The Top 20 Extreme Metal Debuts of 2017

Pay no heed to what the curmudgeons say as there are plenty of fascinating sounds being forged annually by new metal bands. 2017's swarm has been distilled…

Death metal has, without question, dominated the extreme metal landscape in 2017. Old-school legends Immolation, Incantation, Suffocation, Obituary, and Dying Fetus all released vital additions to their lengthy discographies -- and with Cannibal Corpse's forthcoming splatterwork, the frenzied kill-spree continues. Established tech-death acts such as Decrepit Birth and Origin also dropped notable albums recently, while German enigma Ingurgitating Oblivion outdid them both with what is the progressive death metal LP of the year, Vision Wallows in Symphonies of Light, a sublime disharmonic opus.

It is, therefore, no surprise to see that death metal features heavily in our top 20 full-length debuts from the underground this year, from scene veterans returning under a new guise to ravenous newcomers keen to make their mark. But not only that, crippling doom and sludge, enchanting occult rock, vicious crossover thrash, passionate post-hardcore, and magisterial black metal -- pretty much the full breadth of the extreme spectrum -- are all represented. Pay no heed to what the curmudgeons say: there are plenty of fascinating sounds being forged annually by new metal bands. 2017's swarm has been distilled…

20. Necrot: Blood Offerings (Tankcrimes Records)

Necrot (featuring Luca Indrio of the equally punishing Vastum and Acephalix) have fully risen from the primordial ooze after a number of demos, and with the Neanderthal-pummel of their guitars and drums, they intend to cave skulls and guzzle the gelatinous nectar within. Blood Offerings is bursting with Autopsy- and Asphyx-styled riffs. Like those bands, Necrot are on the right side of loose -- you won't find dazzling displays of technical prowess here. Death grooves hack and slash wildly, decipherable growls spit bile, and the band's blunt force song-writing style recalls the sub-genre's '90s heyday in all its gut-spilling glory.

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19. Hallatar: No Stars Upon the Bridge (Svart)

Trees of Eternity's beguiling 2016 debut came steeped in grief due to the untimely passing of vocalist Aleah Starbridge, the life partner of Juha Raivio, the band's songwriter and founding member of Swallow the Sun. Hallatar is an extension of ToE -- a means to process the suffering Raivio has experienced. His raw pain could only be conveyed through the monumental weight of doom-death, and support is provided by Amorphis's versatile vocalist Tomi Joutsen and former H.I.M. drummer Gas Lipstick. The trio utilize the writings of the dearly departed Starbridge, which affords further gravitas to music teeming with anguish.

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18. Less Art: Strangled Light (Gilead Media)

Musically, Less Art might not be the heaviest band featured on this list. But when you consider how close to the bone former Curl Up and Die vocalist Mike Minnick's brutally honest lyrics cut -- tackling real-life themes of internal fear, violence, suicide, as well as pointed socio-political commentary -- Strangled Light earns its place here, no doubt. It bodes well for the band's longevity that their jagged noise-rock riffs and impassioned vocals/lyrics are more of a talking point than the fact that some of the musicians behind them are also members of Kowloon Walled City and post-hardcore favourites Thrice.

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17. Au Champ des Morts: Dans la joie (Debemur Morti Productions)

Formed in 2014 by guitarist/vocalist Stéphane Bayle of the long-running French symphonic black metal band Anorexia Nervosa, Au Champ des Morts have the exacting balance of intensity and introspection which could only be struck by a seasoned musician. Like fellow compatriots Alcest and Les Discrets, Au Champ des Morts play to grandeur; their post-BM is haunted by coldwave's sense of longing as much as windswept Ulver-isms, yet there is warmth at its heart. As autumn moves swiftly into winter's desolate grip, Dans la joie will suit the natural elemental shift, light into darkness and back again.

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16. River Black: River Black (Season of Mist)

A prime example of a cult hardcore act ahead of its time, Burnt By the Sun never reaped deserved acclaim during their run. River Black's self-titled debut is a Burnt By the Sun LP in all but name (three-fourths of the band have reformed, with bassist Teddy Patterson replaced by Revocation's Brett Bamberger). If the precise and paralyzing River Black achieves anything, let's hope it's that John Abebato finally gets recognized as one of the best guitarists in extreme metal; the dude crafts sky-cracking noisecore riffs, the raw components of which have to be sourced from the hulls of alien spacecrafts.

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15. Dool: Here Now, There Then (Prophecy Productions)

The gaping hole left by the Devil's Blood may never be filled, but Dool's debut -- featuring the band's live rhythm-section -- goes towards the healing. There are certain musical commonalities between both bands, particularly "Golden Serpents" and "In Her Darkest Hour", which explore the same aphotic moods through psychedelic rock licks and richly textured female vocals. Dool's primary influences are more contemporary, however, as "Vantablack" suggests an affinity for Cult of Luna's build and collapse dynamics, while "The Alpha" borrows liberally from Tool's "Forty Six & 2". Due to the variety displayed throughout this bewitching debut, you get the feeling true magic may occur in the future.

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14. Cavernlight: As We Cup Our Hands and Drink from the Stream of Our Ache (Gilead Media)

Cavernlight's emotionally and physically draining debut is the sour sound of depression reverberating outwards like a death-rattle. The mental health benefits for musicians using their art as a cathartic release can be profound; but for the listener, a blackened doom band such as Cavernlight can cause a debilitating existential crisis with just one baleful note. Mercifully, the misery isn't laid on for too long since the album runs a tight 35 minutes. The chances of a swift replay are unlikely though because you'll need time to replenish your soul before Cavernlight strip you bare and dangle you helplessly over the void again.

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13. Extremity: Extremely Fucking Dead (20 Buck Spin)

"Sometimes, dead is better..." This sound-bite at the beginning of Extremely Fucking Dead, lifted from the film adaptation of Stephen King's Pet Semetery, goes towards explaining the motivations of Aesop Dekker, Shelby Lermo, Marissa Martinez-Hoadley and Erika Osterhout, celebrated underground musicians who've united to play old-school death metal as Extremity. Macabre, atavistic, and oddly catchy while flaying your skin with razored riffage and blast 'n' groove drumming, Extremity's rather short debut LP has all the vile trademarks of the Floridian and Swedish scenes combined. It's a foul and bloody mongrel birth, indeed.

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12. Owlcrusher: Owlcrusher (Seeing Red)

Owlcrusher's torturous sludge is so terrifying that it would give Alan Dubin vivid nightmares. Sepulchral riffs fall like tombstones from the sky; blackened shrieks and deep growls flit, ghost-like, around the ruins. There is no reprieve from Burning Witch-esque doom, even as a rare semi-melodic Peaceville Three riff and lead lurch skywards during "Feeble Preacher". The guttural guitar tones, sub-sonic bass frequencies, and slow-motion drumming nail everything to the sodden ground, where poisonous effluence infects open wounds during the eponymous title track. By the end of "Spoiler", you're entirely numb, as though you've bathed in Novocaine and nihilism.

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11. Dawn Ray'd: The Unlawful Assembly (Halo of Flies/Prosthetic)

Laden with the piercing wail of violins, the rampaging yet atmospheric Celtic folk-infused black metal Dawn Ray'd play forms a vehicle for their anarchistic invectives. Liberation from all oppressive forces is a battle-cry worth fighting for, especially given the worrying political climate worldwide, and this young British band have taken their stand. Those protesting "Keep politics out of metal!" need to look at the history of the genre. Escapism is important, but so too is a liberal dose of realism blasting in your face just as Dawn Ray'd have done on their nuanced and expertly paced debut.

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10. Ulsect: Ulsect (Season of Mist)

With members of Dodrecahedron on board, Ulsect's self-titled debut unsurprisingly creates order through dissonance. Jarring time-changes, juddering post-Meshuggah polyrhythmics, bleak passages of disquiet, and sections of consonant tonal experimentation are among some of the technical aspects to marvel at. Conceptually, Ulsect discusses "human failure and prophecies of demise", and while the music and themes may seem too cerebral on paper, the album works on a less highbrow level in reality. In fact, the disorientating impact from the mechanical riffs/rhythms of highlights such as "Diminish" and "Unveil" hit your stomach long before they reach your soon-to-be-scrambled brain.

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9. Succumb: Succumb (The Flenser)

Bay Area newcomers Succumb play a bizarre brand of extreme metal. You get the perverse riff-mangling of luminaries Gorguts, yet there's also plenty of bestial war metal, black metal, and what Converge might sound like if they grew up in a Florida swamp instead of the Boston hardcore scene. In other words, this is spite-filled, atonal horror, the kind that remorselessly provides zero footholds for the uninitiated. Cheri Musrasrik's vocals, meanwhile, may prove divisive; her approach mainly consists of pained howls and yowls in a high-pitched punk snarl, making the whole thing -- including her violently poetic lyrics -- sound like some kind of Lynch-ian head-fuck.

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8. Expander: Endless Computer (Nuclear War Now!)

Here's a surprise: More-kvlt-than-thou record label Nuclear War Now! has released a thrashing hardcore album produced by Kurt Ballou. That's a sentence you don't write every day. But then again, Expander are not the kind of band you encounter every day. The live energy and aggression Ballou trapped on tape is startling. Some bands' music settles into the background when you press play; Expander doesn't afford you this option. The intimidating Texans grab you by the gizzards and refuse to relent. You're left wiping spittle and drumstick shards from your whitened face once the abuse is over.

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7. Memoriam: For the Fallen (Nuclear Blast)

Memoriam have rolled through 2017 like an armoured tank spraying hellfire on those who promote injustice. The new band comprised of ex-Benediction/Bolt Thrower veterans show no signs of middle-age malaise; the indefatigable battery on display has the same gusto as some of the younger acts mentioned above and below. Much of the praise has to be placed upon guitarist Scott Fairfax, a relatively unknown musician, who arrives battle-ready, armed to the hilt with high-powered riffs. His thundering syncopations with returning drummer Andy Whale are nothing short of destructive, while Karl Willets' death-bark is as authoritative as it sounded during his Bolt Thrower days, albeit more life-scarred.

6. Cloak: To Venomous Depths (Season of Mist)

Cloak's first full-length plays out like a companion piece to Tribulation's masterful The Children of the Night LP. Some might find the unmistakable parallels to the Swedish shapeshifters too on-the-nose, mind, but that criticism fades into the background as the slick songwriting chops and melodic/metallic interplay of Cloak's members shine brightly on repeat listens. The songs are anthemic, defiant and steeped in heavy metal classicism. Each player shows a shrewd understanding of extreme and traditional metal dynamics, resulting in an album which loudly proclaims Cloak as one of the most potent new bands in modern metal.

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5. Venenum: Trance of Death (Sepulchral Voice)

It has been six long years since Venenum's demo first caught the ear of those who scavenge the underground for fresh meat. But now we can rejoice, as they've completely capitalized on their potential and exceeded all expectations with Trance of Death. Death metal remains the life-source, yet not unlike the much-missed Morbus Chron, their music also comes with a litany of outlier elements. Venenum have experimented with blues, progressive rock, neo-folk, John Carpenter horror soundtracks, and the clotted, dank atmospherics of black metal, turning what could have been a stylistic mess into a raging triumph.

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4. Tchornobog: Tchornobog (Fallen Empire/I, Voidhanger)

Rivalling Bell Witch for the best artwork of the year, Tchornobog's debut cries out for a gatefold pressing. If you're willing to use such a fantastical piece -- which looks like Dune as designed by Clive Barker -- then the music has to just as enthralling and nightmarish. Tchornobog's doom/death/black metal amalgam has the power of a vortex sucking you into its cavernous maw and still, the subtle intricacies of the songs somehow remain audible. Interestingly, the album was recorded by Stephen Lockhart, the man behind our debut of the year, and like Rebirth of Nefast, Tchornobog's hellscapes come from one twisted mind, that of multi-instrumentalist Markov Soroka.

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3. The Lurking Fear: Out of the Voiceless Grave (Century Media)

H.P. Lovecraft's influence on heavy metal culture is as vast as one of Chthulu's bowel movements -- the author has been pillaged for chilling lyrical fodder for decades now. The latest disciples to the mythos are the Lurking Fear. With At the Gates alumni, drummer Adrian Erlandsson and firebreather Tomas Lindberg, in fine form, the Lurking Fear kick up a death metal miasma befitting the imagery of Lovecraft's grimoire. Comprised of 12 concise, ferocious tracks, the crust-punk credentials of the band's members never allow song-writing bloat to set in. Out of the Voiceless Grave is thrilling, horror-indebted extremity.

2. Spectral Voice: Eroded Corridor of Unbeing (Dark Descent)

Spectral Voice's 2015 demo, Necrotic Doom, stirred the interest of many death-doom aficionados upon its release. In the intervening years, this interest has piqued due to the rise in popularity of Blood Incantation, the astral-traveling DM act which shares three members with Spectral Voice. So, to say their full-length debut is highly anticipated would be putting it mildly. Like Venenum, Spectral Voice have surpassed their past potential tenfold with this unmercifully heavy and malevolently atmospheric collection of songs sourced from the bottomless depths of Finnish funeral doom, US/UK death metal, and the eerie oddness of the Australian entity diSEMBOWLMENT. The "modern class" label gets bandied around too carelessly these days, yet here's an album which justifies such hyperbole.

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1. Rebirth of Nefast: Tabernaculum (Norma Evangelium Diaboli)

Eleven years in gestation, Tabernaculum is finally upon us and comes bearing the respected Norma Evangelium Diaboli stamp, the mysterious French label which brought us black metal monuments by Deathspell Omega, Funeral Mist, and Watain as well as a handful of others. You can now add Rebirth of Nefast to that list of esteemed black/death metal bands because regardless of the label releasing Tabernaculum, it's a tour de force. Masterminded by Irish musician Stephen Lockhart, who now resides in Iceland and is heavily involved in that scene, Rebirth of Nefast's debut has been painstakingly labored over and every minute detail serves a purpose.

There is power in such intense scrutiny of art -- the manic perfectionism of a sole creator trying to nail his muse to a cross. Lockhart has suffered, and we can feel the crushing weight of his expectations on this album. The production is pristine and spacious; it allows the blasts to echo eternally and the riffs to cascade with biblical force. The funereal passages elicit hypnotic thrums which pull you closer; the discordance of the more chaotic sections is never to the detriment of primal heaviness. It's an overwhelming listen requiring plenty of focus to appreciate the scope of what has been constructed here. When it does reveal itself, Tabernaculum proves itself not only to be the best full-length metal debut of 2017, but also one of the best albums of this year... or any year for that matter.

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