Music

MetalMatters: February 2019 – #Metalmindfulness

Welcome to PopMatters' monthly metal feature, MetalMatters. Each month we listen to a number of exciting releases across metal's many subgenre's to distill the swarm down to what we deem worthy of your precious time.

I recently posed a question on Twitter: "How much of the music that you listen to do you actually hear?" In this age of music streaming and smartphones it can be easy to fall into the trap of regarding music as a convenient way to just block out the noises of life as we go about our daily tasks. And by streaming through your phone, you're also inclined to allow your attention to settle on other digital media sources while the music just plays away, and so you don't consciously hear a note of what's flooding your ears.

One of the main reasons people push the physical medium of music—particularly vinyl—is because it demands your attention and your interaction. Since there's a tangible relationship between the listener and the physical record, there's more of an intrinsic awareness of the present moment. You don't necessary get that with streaming due to the other distractions your phone/tablet can cause. But streaming is an invaluable tool to discover new artists in this day and age, and you can experience present awareness while listening through your phone as opposed to your record player—it's your mental absence that's the issue.

That's why earlier this month I started #metalmindfulness as a means to encourage folks to re-engage with heavy music by actively maintaining their focus on it and by treating it as a primary concern, like you would a movie during a cinema trip. By allowing yourself 45 minutes out of your day to incorporate meditative techniques into your listening sessions, not only will it give you a greater appreciation of the artistry that went into your album of choice, you'll also calm the mind and slowly learn how to be conscious of your mind's eagerness to bombard your head with endless, distracting thoughts. And I don't care how kvlt you think you are, there's not one person out there who doesn't need to work on their mental health.

The act itself is quite simple: pick a quiet room, choose an album, grab your headphones, take some deep breaths in through your nose and out through your mouth, press play, gently close your eyes, and simply follow the music. But in practice it will pose some difficulties since your mind will immediately try dart off somewhere else, and so you'll invariably lose concentration. The key to this mindfulness exercise, however, is to notice when you've become distracted and slowly shift your attention right back to the movement of the music and maintain your measured breathing. With training, you will notice that your ability to spot when your mind has just wandered will sharpen and as a result, so too will your focus. The benefits of this relaxation is quite significant over time in terms of your physical and mental wellbeing. You're enjoyment of music will also be enhanced, because with repetition, the experience almost takes on a four dimensional quality, like you've disappeared inside another world—and all without having to take a hefty bong hit.

Anyways, with all the hippy stuff now out of the way, let's turn our focus to February's finest metal albums—all of which work great if anyone fancies putting #metalmindfulness into practice going forward. —Dean Brown

Astronoid – Astronoid (Blood Music)

With melody the main focus of Astronoid's 2016 debut, Air, this young Boston band took influence from thrash, prog-metal, shoegaze, post-black metal, post-hardcore, and dream-pop and melded those disparate styles into a sky-soaring, glistening sound of their own. Air was a welcome change of pace and life-affirming in its exuberant energy and it turned many heads, particularly fans of Cynic, Mew, Devin Townsend, TesseracT, Vattnet Viskar, or even Jimmy Eat World.

As you'd expect, Astronoid's self-titled second album doesn't stray far from the distinctive model fashioned on their debut. There does, however, seem to be more bearing placed upon using melody as dynamic space while still maintaining technical chops, as highlighted by the spiralling and ascending "A New Color", the tumultuous progressions of "I Dream in Lines", the lithe thrash stylings of "Breathe", or the promising early focus on electronica during "Beyond the Scope" and "Fault".

Of course, guitarist Brett Boland's sonorous vocals will not be for everyone. But that's ok, there's enough folks who sound like human remains being flushed down a toilet featured below. Offsetting his hyper-melodic singing, meanwhile, are numerous metallic syncopations that surge, shift direction adroitly, and hammer down, as aggressive closer "Ideal World" attests to with throttling vigor.—Dean Brown

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Bellrope – You Must Relax (Exile on Mainstream)

From the ashes of drone/doom fiends Black Shape of Nexus, a new beast has emerged. Unlike their sprawling predecessor, Bellrope focus on blunt force directness, just like a shovel blow to the forehead. And in order to achieve that they resort to an old-school, no bullshit heavy doom/sludge metal approach for their debut record, You Must Relax.

This is a work that relishes the slow, grimy aspects of the early 2000s doom/sludge scene. That kinship is highlighted instantly, as the record kicks things off with cutthroat vocals retching through ample feedback in asphyxiating fashion. From that point on, Bellrope simply unleash a barrage of rumbling riffs laden with potent groove. "Old Overholt" is the perfect instance of the methodology, a pure sludge track beholden to traditions. But then, things start to become more interesting and twisted, as effective background chants appear in "TD200", stoned-out riffs are introduced with the heaving title track, and there's an amazing noisy solo that completely unravels album closer "CBD/Hereinunder". All of which together makes You Must Relax an absorbing and immediate debut record.—Spyros Stasis

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Candlemass – The Door to Doom (Napalm)

Simply put, Candlemass have released the doom metal album to beat for 2019. Long-time fans of these veteran Sabbath disciples will be in rapture upon hearing how reinvigorated they sound on LP-12 The Door to Doom. Bassist Leif Edling unveils some of his heaviest, most punishing riffs in an age on "Splendor Demon Majesty" while tearing through the continental shelf during the seismic "Under the Ocean". And you can rest assured that "Astorolus – The Great Octopus", featuring a grandstanding guitar solo from the Doomfather Tony Iommi, has a few leviathan-sized riffs lying in wait, all worthy of the song's esteemed guest.

If all that wasn't enough to have you drooling on your worn out Black Sabbath LP, Candlemass looked Under the Oak and stirred Johan Längquist from his 32-year slumber, to sit upon the lead vocalist throne for the first time since the band's 1986 landmark debut, Epicus Doomicus Metallicus. In quite stunning fashion, the resurrected Längquist puts in a herculean performance, the kind not heard since the passing of Ronnie James Dio. He brings tragedy where needed, such as on the heart-rending balladry of "Bridge of the Blind", and matches the gravitas of each riff and rhythm stride for monstrous stride, taking "Death's Wheel" firmly in his weathered grip and concluding this near-flawless album with the rousing chorus of finale "The Omega Circle".—Dean Brown

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Downfall of Gaia – Ethic of Radical Finitude (Metal Blade)

The combination of austere black metal, the aggressiveness of crust-punk and the otherworldly atmospherics of post-metal might not necessarily be novel, but few acts combine those influences as deftly as Downfall of Gaia. Throughout their existence this German band have produced intense, introspective, yet explosive music, filled with an aching need for catharsis. Their new record, Ethic of Radical Finitude, does not break this mould, but further defines it.

There is a certain feeling of confidence that oozes from this LP, with the band appearing much more in control of their compositions. The atmospheric parts feel more subtle, the volatile moments arrive with greater urgency and with some new twists in the form of clean vocals and chants, which add to an already impressive arsenal. It is a record that spreads itself across a spectrum of moods, from the clean, beautiful melodies of "Guided Through a Starless Night" all the way to desolate procession of "We Pursue the Serpent of Time". And Downfall of Gaia swiftly and smoothly navigate through all of it, creating what is their most accomplished, widescreen record yet.— Spyros Stasis

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Hexvessel – All Tree (Century Media)

Hexvessel's music has always had a hazily occult sense to it. As if trying to conjure wood spirits with sound, their mesh of '60s/'70s psychedelia with folk and prog rock is characterized by evocative qualities and an arcane sense of world building. All Tree is in that sense no different as it invites the listener with earthy, organic tones and woody cuts embalmed with a warm and lush fragrance. But underneath this benevolence, glimpses of danger, daring, and delicious sin appear.

Compared to their previous records, All Tree feels simultaneously terser and more expansive. While the album lacks the wandering, elliptical quality of No Holier Temple and When We Are Death, its shorter songs are now more cohesive. Individually no longer segregated into separate worlds, they project a newly found purpose in song-writing. The larger number of tracks also means that there is now space on All Tree to include stylistically diverse tunes such as "Son of the Sky", a beautiful, mellow standout underlined by Matt McNerny's soothing vocals and accompanied by Marja Konttinen's harmonious singing, as well as mournful and heavier hymns like "Birthmark" and "Closing Circle", which close another excellent record in the Finnish band's discography.—Antonio Poscic

Ithaca – The Language of Injury (Holy Roar)

On the chaotic discordance of "Impulse Crush", "The Language of Injury" and "Youth vs Wisdom", Ithaca bring to mind hardcore bands from the early-2000s inspired heavily by Botch's We Are the Romans and the Dillinger Escape Plan's Calculating Infinity. In particular, the UK scene's Johnny Truant or Beecher, or US acts such as The Bled and the angular early output Every Time I Die.

Ithaca nail trademark dizzying tempo changes, stabbing, noise-drenched riffs, and chugging and juddering breakdowns with ease, but these Londoners really impress when they invest some drama from post-rock into the maelstrom, which hints at future displays of musical depth. This is best exemplified by "Better Abuse", during which Ithaca augment Converge's characteristic churn with a gentle string arrangement. Elsewhere, the melodic bookends of "Clsr." add welcome contrast to the song's post-metal pummel, while "Gilt" and "Secretspace" mine raw emotion akin to Oathbreaker through male/female vocal interchanges and some sharp crescendos.

The Language of Injury certainly makes for an exciting start for this developing band, and from some of the arrangements, which display tight control of light/shade dynamics, there's plenty of potential for Ithaca to go on to be a leading feature of UK hardcore for years to come.—Dean Brown

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Kaleikr – Heart of Lead (Debemur Morti)

Almost half of the albums covered here this month are by interesting acts on their first full-length, which certainly goes towards highlighting the rude health metal is in these days. Kaleikr may be a fresh entity but the creators behind it are familiar to anyone who has kept an eye on the Icelandic black metal scene, as composer/multi-instrumentalist Maximilian Klimko and drummer Kjartan Harđarson were in Draugsól. The lonely energy which permeates most Icelandic music, from Sigur Rós to Sólstafir, is found throughout Heart of Lead, yet that innate bleakness homogeneous to their isolated homeland is never at the expense of the metallic weight of the sophisticated death/post-metal hybrid both members have created here.

To craft compositions as evocative and fully realized on a debut album as Kaleikr have done is quite the masterstroke. There is plenty of tension and release as songs span incredible ranges, moving from Opethian prog-death to Enslaved-worthy blackened prog, to the jazzy death metal rhythms of Cynic and the regal bombast of modern day Behemoth, often within the space of one cohesive arrangement—not to mention the cinematic strains of viola used at opportune times. Discordant yet melodic, crushing yet fiercely nimble, Kaleikr are a new jewel in 2019's extreme metal crown.— Dean Brown

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Mastiff – Plague (APF)

Kingston upon Hull's Mastiff open their sophomore full-length with "Hellcircle", a vicious and filthy battery of hardcore-tinged sludge that is as heavy as a neutron star. It's ultimately a deceptive cut whose dangerous aggression is, surprisingly, soon halted and slowed down as essential sludge features take center. But it is exactly with changes in pace like these that Mastiff toy with throughout the record. Their salvos of fast attacks bordering on grindcore are constantly destroyed and rebuilt as the music morphs into expansive drones and doom segments before accelerating again.

It is especially the tail end of the album that, like a war field after the battle, entertains crumbling vistas of groveling drones interspersed with massive bursts of sludge. "The vermin will win", they scream in a chorus with ultimate conviction on "Vermin" before slowing down to a crawl amidst a forest of meaty riffs on "Torture" and "Black Death", but without losing any of the earlier determination and energy. Recorded live, Plague is an impressively nimble demonstration of power.— Antonio Poscic

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The Moth Gatherer – Esoteric Oppression (Agonia)

Founded by Victor Wageborn (vocals, guitars, programming) and Alex Stjernfeldt (vocals, bass) at a troubling time for both musicians, the Moth Gatherer became a vehicle for personal redemption. By harnessing the sturm und drang of their fellow Swedes in Cult of Luna, the band's first two full-lengths revealed great promise, but arrived with a certain rawness in respect of the song-writing and identity. It was clear that the Moth Gatherer needed to fine-tune their approach, and that is precisely what they've done with Esoteric Oppression.

So, even though the new record also sees Stjernfeldt depart the band he co-founded, the Moth Gatherer are more disciplined in how they've arranged their compositions here. The primary post-metal sound has not changed; the heavyweight riffs still come crushing down and the severe vocals are pitched with conviction. But, in addition, the song-writing has begun to flourish and the atmospheric accompaniments feature more prominently, with the band deviating more from their safe space and at the same time drawing on all their melodic tendencies to create memorable hooks. It is an album focuses on long-form, abstract explorations and having a refined vision in crafting those voyages while keeping hooks an emerging key feature. The Moth Gatherer are still sharpening their identity, but they've just made a big step forward on their latest album.— Spyros Stasis

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Ossuarium – Living Tomb (20 Buck Spin)

After an incredible 2018 run that saw acclaimed releases from Mournful Congregation and Tomb Mold, to name but two, underground label 20 Buck Spin loses zero momentum in 2019 by bringing us the first death metal monolith of the year—Ossuarium's Living Tomb debut. Ossuarium have retained the grotesque death-doom stomp of Autopsy as heard on their 2017 demo, but from this putridity, the new bloom of unsettling psychedelic pulses hold a similar odd energy as those channeled by contemporaries Swallowed, and forged in madness by diSEMBOWELMENT before them.

Across 40 minutes, none of which are wasted, Ossuarium easily traverse from the sticky depths of Floridian swamps ("Blaze of Bodies") to the dankest and eeriest of Finnish fjords ("End of Life Dreams and Visions Pt. 2"). The blurring of straight-from-the-crypt old-school death metal influences and the melancholic gloom of classic doom with the fresh impetus for heady experimentalism differentiates Ossuarium from their less creative peers. Hell, you get the sense that this band are only one album away from pulling a Morbus Chron and truly disappearing down a cobwebbed rabbit hole of death metal weirdness.—Dean Brown

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Our Survival Depends On Us – Melting the Ice in the Hearts of Men (Ván)

An esoteric aura of darkness has always permeated the art of Our Survival Depends On Us. The Austrian collective thrive in the shadows, using post-metal's tense, moody builds and black metal's sense of disquiet to accentuate when they finally drop the doom-hammer. With each passing album they seem to get closer to their essence, and on Melting the Ice in the Hearts of Men, the song-writing and layering of instrumentation is at its most notable to date.

OSDOU take their time building their solemn soundscapes, and keyboards refrains feature fully in the hypnotic thrum of the four songs which comprise this release. Opener "Galahad", their best track so far, surmises their enhancement of sound and fondness for the theatrical quite succinctly. Beginning with moaning violins and ritualistic chants, the song takes a lumbering guitar figure and out from nowhere, hikes a searing guitar solo atop, which recalls Thin Lizzy's Scott Gorham in style and execution. After some prime doom storytelling, led by distinctive clean vocals, the song takes a dramatic twist: Primordial's A.A. Nemtheanga appears from the mire with his signature impassioned decrees layered over turbulent musicianship as the song moves towards its twilight. The rest of the album is equally as enveloping; the mournful, often melodramatic vocals, in particular, turning more striking with each concentrated listen.— Dean Brown

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Rotting Christ – The Heretics (Season of Mist)

To this day, legendary Grecian black metallers Rotting Christ play a huge part in defining their country's extreme metal scene. They have intermittently evolved their style throughout their lengthy existence, starting off with their unique blend of black metal on classic records like Thy Mighty Contract and Non Serviam, then moving through a goth-influenced phase during their mid-period, and in recent years, returning to their black metal form, albeit with more melodic leanings.

On their last two albums, Κατά τον δαίμονα εαυτού and Rituals, Rotting Christ discovered a concise and winning formula when it came to their music, as they focused heavily on balancing imposing melodic guitar hooks, imperial screamed and chanted vocals, and heavy, mid-pace grooves. This approach carries over to the band's new record, The Heretics. Furthermore, these Hellenic veterans continue to be influenced by world traditions, featuring lyrics in Slavic, Arabic, and obviously Greek languages, while also taking a more cultural and philosophical standpoint thematically. Quotes from Voltaire and Shakespeare decorate the record, and "Πιστεύω" features the famous Nikos Kazantzakis' passage from the spiritual text, Η Ασκητική (Saviors of God). While it doesn't particularly break any new ground musically, The Heretics stands tall as another worthy addition to Rotting Christ's idiosyncratic black metal canon.—Spyros Stasis

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Sanhedrin – The Poisoner (Cruz Del Sur Music)

Brooklyn metallers Sanhedrin are onto a good thing with their sophomore album, The Poisoner. If some of the enjoyably gritty edges of its predecessor (2017's A Funeral For the World) have been buffed down they make up for it with a marked sense of self-assurance, led by the powerful, battle-ready voice of Erica Stoltz. The album hits a distinctly sweet spot somewhere between the more rockin' end of trad doom (think: Trouble; The Obsessed) and ultra-catchy classic metal (Iron Maiden; first-album Tank), ultimately recalling the most recent Christian Mistress LP and the work of unsung Hollywood anomalies Lost Breed.

While the mix of chunked-up riffing and a voice like ivy creeping up craggy castle walls certainly lends itself to unashamed heavy metal classicism, the inclusion of some delicate violin work (courtesy of Stolz's old Amber Asylum band-mate Kris Force) also suggest the band are unafraid of lobbing in the occasional left-of-center flourish. While The Poisoner might win out on riff-craft and song-writing chops alone, it's the numinous sense of being caught between joy and sorrow that really lifts it—as though the band are waging an intense war on something that's trying to strangle their spirit, but are determined to overcome it by using every desperate breath they have.—Alex Deller

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Saor – Forgotten Paths (Avantgarde)

The dusky motifs and tones of Scottish folk music and the melancholy and sorrow attached to them have become instantly recognizable parts of global culture. And when such appealing folk elements make their way into the sound of black metal bands, they often appear as ignorantly executed afterthoughts. But for Scot Andy Marshall and his project Saor, Caledonian culture is much more than a nifty, passing trope. It is a crucial part of his identity and art. On Forgotten Paths, the project's fourth LP, black metal and Scottish folk elements are equally essential. Here, the forlorn cries of fiddles, bagpipes, and characteristic Celtic melodies tightly embrace the music's black metal core.

Ethereal layers of folk instrumentation, impassioned shrieks, and a transportive atmosphere are driven forward by a barrage of incisive tremolos throughout the record, resulting in a gorgeous concoction. Apart from the gentle, acoustic instrumental "Exile", Forgotten Paths is indeed a more immediate and direct affair, one that leans heavily on dominant black metal riffs. While the sense of gravitas and grandeur might be slightly diminished because of that, it does not detract from Saor's majestic and affecting vision of atmospheric black metal.—Antonio Poscic

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Vanum – Ageless Fire (Profound Lore)

M. Rekevics and K. Morgan are well known for their respective off-kilter, atmospheric black metal projects, Fell Voices and Ash Borer. But when they came together to form Vanum in 2015, the two musicians set aside their slightly more adventurous takes on black metal to instead double down on its core traditional tenets. Their promising debut record, Realm of Sacrifice, as well as follow-up EP Burning Arrow (2017) therefore showcased a deep appreciation for, and knowledge of, the first and second wave aspects of the grim subgenre.

Now, their return with Ageless Fire could not sound more triumphant, a sentiment that rushes in from the first breath-taking seconds of the aptly titled "Jaws of Rapture". The essence of this record radiates with the spirit of the early days of Bathory, the perfect midpoint between melody and aggression in black metal. While the more melodious aspects of this album also recall the formative days of the Greek black metal scene, and Vanum reignite that spirit with their haunting refrains and their spot-on use of synths to awaken an unearthly ambiance. But Vanum do not remain shackled by the past, rehashing old ideas; instead they move each movement forward with their impressive energy and towering presence, brimming with the anxiety of modern life and our desire to transcend it. It all makes Ageless Fire an honest and blazingly intense ride.—Spyros Stasis

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Yerûšelem – The Sublime (Debemur Morti)

Yerûšelem's The Sublime unfurls like a more concise and industrial-focused extension to Blut Aus Nord, W.D. Feld and Vindsval's main musical vessel. As if referencing the avant-garde black metal oufit's 777 trilogy, Feld and Vindsval build a dark atmosphere on The Sublime using repetitive, marching rhythms, while their signature dissonance and complex song-writing is condensed and pushed to the background. It makes for a cold and cool sounding album, one which, even if owing heavily to traditions of post-punk, coldwave, and industrial, does not feel referential.

Buzzing distorted riffs, glitches, electronic effects, chanted moans, and anguished screams all reside in a cloud of noise that fluctuates around the core of steady drum and bass-lines. Contrasting this invasive and hypnotic rhythm, the dissonance attached to it sounds displaced and dissipated. It is an alluring idea of a style whose execution is at times too clinical and precise for its own good. While the second half of the record might thus feel tired and worn out, the metallic attack of "Joyless", the ceaseless motion of "Babel", and the razor-sharp "Reverso" are standout cuts on an otherwise solid album. Not as piercing and deranged as Godflesh, not as driven as Killing Joke, Yerûšelem's debut still marks a promising start.— Antonio Poscic

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The 10 Best Debut Albums of 2009

Continuing our celebration of PopMatters' 20th anniversary, we revisit our 10 picks for the best debut albums of 2009. It turns out our selections were prescient as many of these artists have gone on to storied careers. Travel back to 2009 and see them again for the first time.

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The 60 Best Albums of 2009

PopMatters turns 20 years old this October and we're beginning to celebrate our history by taking you back in time a decade ago. Obama was in the White House and the musical times were very good indeed. Revisit 2009 through its best albums.

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