MetalMatters: April 2020 - Notes from the Quarantine
In times of quarantine we listen and we write, so here are 20 extreme (and some experimental) records to spin during these times.
It is quite astounding how reality has been warped during this crisis. With the pandemic forcing most countries to impose quarantine on the population, we are experiencing an entirely new way of living. Our old habits are a thing of the past, and in some cases, it might take a significant amount of time to return to them. Isolation on its own is a challenging thing, but the uncertainty of what tomorrow may bring is multiplied by its presence.
Yet, during this time, we aim to remain active, and while we were a bit late this month, we have an extensive list of 20 releases that we recommend to you. All these works have allowed us to mentally travel far through the experimental realms of tetema, the surrealistic visions of Oranssi Pazuzu, and the '70s revival of Elder. They have also given a voice to our outcry of this situation in a brutal form, be it through the bitter black metal of Order of Orias, the slam variations of Abysmal Dawn, and the old-school deathgrind of Caustic Wound. And they also offer an energetic escape, filled with the '80s teaching of crossover with Drain and the thrash infections of Warbringer.
Hopefully, we are at the end of this first phase. While the remainder of this situation will not be easy and will not pass fast, we always have artists that voice many of our feelings, our grief and our anxiety, our struggles, and anger, but also our hope and wish for a better tomorrow. In any case, remember that we will get through this. It will not be easy, quick, or simple, but it will come to pass. – Spyros Stasis
Aara - En Ergô Einai (Debemur Morti Productions)
For all its bleakness and inherent nihilism, black metal can be a strikingly beautiful genre. The second LP by Swiss duo Aara takes this notion to extremes, leaning on poignant melodies to overflow the genre's usually aggressive structures of blast beats and swarming tremolos. While short, En Ergô Einai is an exhilarating and intrinsically affecting experience. Its sheer speed and sequencing feel like a roller coaster during certain segments, especially as guitar leads start to diffuse ambiance and spiral into majestic harmonies. Despite this grandiose style, the record always lands on the right side of baroque and over-the-top flourishes. – Antonio Poscic
Helfró - Helfró (Season of Mist)
In comparison to Aara's unrestrained charm inspired by the Age of Enlightenment, Reykjavik's Helfró deal in an insidious, ominous sort of beauty. The duo spike burrowing melodies with raw attacks and propel them forward with some impressive, circular but somehow intricately splintered drum patterns. At times as brutal as the first wave of black metal, at others progressive like Morningrise era Opeth or Keep of Kalessin's Reclaim, the album as a whole is surprisingly tight and compact. Built with and for a purpose. – Antonio Poscic
Abysmal Dawn - Phylogenesis (Season of Mist)
Similar to Afterbirth, Abysmal Dawn play a variant of slam and brutal death metal that trades some of their signature ruthlessness for air and a welcome sense of uncertainty – an opening for unexpected things to happen. Here, a towering groove need not necessarily be followed by a soporific faster than light segment.
Instead, Abysmal Dawn toy with tasty breaks and melodies, while grooves climax into jagged sections and fall through a labyrinth of sharp turns and tunnels. The music is merciless throughout, but technically proficient, like an incredibly complex machine whose parts follow precisely defined mesmerizing tracks. Until the trails disappear completely and only a skull massaging riff remains. In all, Phylogenesis feels like a statement record, a moment of revelation, and an excellent return to form for a band that's had a long and fruitful career. – Antonio Poscic
Ad Infinitum - Chapter I: Monarchy (Napalm Records)
Judging by the percentage of ho-hum symphonic and power metal records, it would seem that crafting something interesting from style's familiar elements – grandiose melodies, galloping tempos, nearly thespian deliveries, and blazing energy – is impossible without some sort of blood sacrifice, magic, and alchemy. And yet, Ad Infinitum prove just how simple and easy it can be. The Swiss quartet fronted by vocalist Melissa Bony doesn't try nor need to reinvent the wheel on Chapter I: Monarchy. Instead, they mesh and evolve the usual power and sympho tropes, weave them into confident, big songs, and top it all off with an impressive instrumental and vocal performance.
While the music largely gravitates around Bony's chameleonic vocal – who can soar high and mighty when needed, then tunefully belt out a smooth ballad, before grunting energetically in lower registers – the album as a whole doesn't suffer from this focus but instead builds cohesion on its grounds. An excellent debut and an inspired take on an often stale genre. – Antonio Poscic
Barishi - Old Smoke (Season of Mist)
Something is engrossing when bands take a basic, well-known style and develop it into a different thing, a musical concept just their own. While Barishi's foundations are clearly in death metal, their style feels divergent, shifted out of phase ever so slightly. Along with a significant dose of progressive elements – intricate but meaningful riffs, syncopated drum sections, and song structures that follow meandering paths – there's an underlying devious atmosphere that steals attention. Constantly amplified, this pervasive mood gives voice to a wordless narrative that supports and is supported by the engaging instrumental backdrop, full of fuzzy guitar work, wallowing bass lines, and growls that feel both menacing and fragile, like a meeting between death metal era Opeth and Inter Arma. – Antonio Poscic
(0) - SkamHan (Napalm Records)
Where Barishi start from death metal's compactness, Denmark's (0) rise from black metal's potential of cosmic expansion and construct concoctions that resemble various genres at various times, but ones that are restless on an atomic level, shapeshifting their frameworks constantly. At first, they might channel their inner Kvelertak, rocking and rolling black metal into ripping blues sections. Later, they entertain poignant atmospheric explorations reminiscent of London's Fen. Filled with sparse and crawling and clanging textures, the atmosphere ultimately overflows into an excellent post-metal crescendo and a distinctly non-metallic ambient closer. Stylistically fluid and without major flaws, SkamHan announces (0) as a band nigh impossible to pigeonhole. – Antonio Poscic
Black Curse - Endless Wound (Sepulchral Voice)
In 2015 members of acclaimed acts Primitive Man, Khemmis, and Blood Incantation came together discussing their love for the early days of extreme metal. That was the time when the lines between black and death metal were blurred, both reveling in an evil spirited nature. The result of this meeting was Malibis, which soon evolved into Black Curse. Instead of rushing out immediately with a debut record, Black Curse bid their time, preparing in the shadows to unleash pure and total devastation. Now, it finally arrives in the form of Endless Wound.
It is a tempest from the past that greets you as the sharp guitar feedback erupts into a venomous onslaught of war metal grandeur in "Charnel Rift". The fast pace leaves nothing standing in its path as blast beats and double bass merge with the frenzied riffage for a devastating assault. Yet, Black Curse does not possess a singular gear, and soon, they bend this chaotic structure, awakening a deeply dissonant and disturbing interlude. With a similarly apt attitude, they drop the pace, giving birth to moments of towering majesty in the interlude "Lifeless Sanctum", carrying on this monstrous form in the second half of the title track.
And while through the 38 minutes of Endless Wound they tick all the boxes for old school black/death, what shines through is the attitude and deep appreciation of the style. It is exactly that quality that makes tracks like "Finality I Behold" sound truly damned and evil, instead of simply cliché and rehashed. – Spyros Stasis
Caustic Wound - Death Posture (Profound Lore)
In its early days, there was something palpable and real to the sound of deathgrind. You could almost smell the stench of rotten bodies, feel the zombie-like groove take over you. Somewhere in the way, the rotten kingdom of Autopsy built alongside the cataclysmic onslaughts of Terrorizer mutated. Through pristine production and impeccable technique, deathgrind evolved and flourished. But, it felt that some of the original charm was lost in this metamorphosis, and it is exactly this primal magic that members of old-school purists, featuring members of Magrudergrind, Mortiferum, and Cerebral Rot, attempt to revitalize under the Caustic Wound moniker.
Caustic Wound are unapologetic about their nostalgia, and Death Posture oozes with an essence of true dedication to the early days of the scene. Infernal lead work and deep vocals combine in "Cabal", twisting through the progression's cyclothymic alterations. The heavy groove stampede and the blastbeat onslaught take turns to create absolute havoc in just over two minutes. Keeping the duration of their offering short, Caustic Wound make their impact that much more terrifying in the relentless "Terror Bomber" and the punk infused "Blast Casualty". Yet, it is the downtempo routs of "Ritual Trappings" and "Acid Attack" that hit the hardest in their grim beastiality, granting this monolithic testament with unearthly power and potency. – Spyros Stasis
DRAIN - California Cursed (Revelation Records)
Sharp riffs, ruthless aggression combined with immense weight and towering groove. Crossing over from hardcore to thrash or the other way around was, by all means, a successful experiment that spawned a great tradition. Even though the sound and ethos of this endeavor might echo with age and nostalgia, a true dedication to this craft can make such a release today appear more relevant than ever. And it is exactly that sense of commitment and raw enjoyment of this ethos that defines Santa Cruz punksters DRAIN.
A true crossover is one that blends perfectly, and the debut record of DRAIN does exactly that. The thrash agility and the metallic tone are prevalent throughout. The guitar work is stellar, clean, and precise with its stainless steel edge. "Character Fraud" and "White Coat Syndrome" revel in their Bay Area heritage, while the short and sweet lead interludes of "Army of One" and "Bad Faith" inject a necessary twisted sense to the mold. Yet, the progression and purpose do not rely on thrash aesthetics but a punk urgency. Short tracks, a sense of constant bombardment is what defines California Cursed, with the likes of "Sick One" and "Hyper Vigilance" reveling in this routine, while the full weight "The Process of Weeding Out" and the title track provide the necessary sludgy characteristic.
Yet, this stellar fusion is only part of the recipe, but what takes California Cursed over the top is the true, unblinking sense of enjoyment of the band in their performance. Nothing feels pushed; nothing feels fabricated; everything is honest and direct. The way crossover was always meant to be. – Spyros Stasis
Elder - Omens (Armageddon Shop)
Adapt or perish that is the way. When Elder set out, their DNA was fused in the heavy rock sense, incorporating nastier elements by way of doom metal to deliver its punishing weight. Yet, through the years, Elder slowly adapted their sound, carefully but meticulously reaching adjacent sonic domains. The stoner rock infusions felt only natural when Dead Roots Rising arrived, and the progressive waves of Lore appear to be solidifying Elder's sound to this newfound paradigm. Still, the shift with Omens is even more pronounced.
With their new album Elder melt their heavy rock, progressive sense, all their stoner rock elements and remnants of their doom past into a psychedelic delight. From the opening with the title track, the hazy bleeps and elusive background take over, crafting an astral plane where Elder can endlessly roam. It is the perfect place to expand all the band's sides, from their deeply melodic ideas, their lyrical themes, and their virtuosic playing, to their heavier and most punishing moments. The spaced-out spirit of Hawkwind meets with the Southern twang of Allman Brothers to produce a fantastical ride through the vast cosmos.
And not only do Elder dive into full-blown progressive rock structures and psychedelic overtures, but make the whole process that more enticing with their unbelievable hooks. An excellent step forward for Elder, who bind the otherworldly essence of '70s rock with its heavy sense, and modernize it. – Spyros Stasis
Gnaw Their Tongues - I Speak the Truth, Yet With Every Word Uttered, Thousands Die (Consouling Sounds)
For the past 15 years, Dutch composer and multi-instrumentalist Maurice de Jong has been turning himself inside out via the gnarly, experimental, and often fleeting music of Gnaw Their Tongues. In that sense, I Speak the Truth is an expected continuation of the project, as the music here once again feels informed, but not tethered to any specific style or genre. Hints of blast beats rise like ripples through smoke, only to become trapped in a press of low-frequency textures and pained, inhumanely human screams. As if someone processed black metal, power electronics, and industrial with a hellish blender.
The lyrical content is as scarring as the booming and destructive music that highlights the worst of humanity and renders bare de Jong's wounds. But in doing so, it offers deceptive inklings of hope and redemption in the bleakness. It's there if you listen carefully. A sinister harmony on the title track. A sparser invocation on "To Rival Death in Beauty". A scream of joy beneath the anguish. – Antonio Poscic
Golden Light - Sacred Colour of the Source of Light (Iron Bonehead)
Black metal was bred and nurtured in darkness, something that resonates from its past pioneers to its recent descendants. The psychedelic injection that rallied through the genre in the previous decade was enamored by this sardonic grimness, resulting in an abundance of extreme and, at the same time, hallucinatory offerings. Still, some do not conform to this monochrome norm instead rushing towards the terrifying power of the light. Aptly named, Golden Light is such an act that instead of funneling the monotonous dark essence of black metal, thrives under its kaleidoscopic representation.
That intricacy doesn't suggest that Golden Light's debut, Sacred Colour of the Source of Light isn't drenched in the black metal tradition. Relentless drumming and dissonant riffs assault from every direction, a never stopping locomotive moving forth from the astral domain. Yet, the coloring that Golden Light's dissonance takes on is astonishing, managing to project the grimness across the night sky in luminous light from the opening moments of "Sceptre of Solar Idolatry". This unstoppable force carries on, with the nine-minute-long "The Western Gate" featuring no breaks whatsoever, yet twisting its black metal progression to an otherworldly dimension. The riffs begin to split, the drumming acting like a constant anchor subtly causing the surrounding space to dissolve.
The psychedelic trip reaches new heights and completes with the ambient opus "Dawn of History". Minimal orchestrations construct an unearthly domain of mystical grandeur, before the title track lays waste with its absolute retaliation, completing Golden Light's enticing twist on the black metal norm. – Spyros Stasis
Kruelty - A Dying Truth (Profound Lore)
Creativity can be torn between influences, and at times there is nothing better than to be caught between different disciplines, between different worlds. For Japan's Kruelty, the focus is split, spiraling, and frantically trying to balance two primordial extreme music forces in their debut record A Dying Truth. On the one hand there is the allure of the early doom/death sound, the guttural sense of crushing pathos. On the other hand, there is the hardcore essence, a feeling of relentless urgency and boundless aggression.
While doom and hardcore have a cunningly organic way of mixing together, doom/death with punk roots is sort of a rare beast. Yet, from the opening lines of "Introduction To..." it feels like a more natural and obvious way. Cranking up the distortion to unimaginable levels, Kruelty pummel through with the rotten Autopsy-driven essence, at the same time channeling a Cro-Mags induced beatdown. The key is precisely in the groove, as Kruelty find a way to fuse the devastating doom/death motif with the energetic hardcore tone.
The start of "Vengeance" with the heavy riffs interrupted by instances of heavy bass is a historically a hardcore trademark, with the following bassline also paying tribute to the genre's heaviest moments. Yet, what soon ensues is a disgusting death metal narrative, which still carries much of the attitude of punk. That leads the way in a seamless fashion to a Black Sabbath-ian infusion, making Kruelty's most striking point: everything here is connected. Everything makes perfect sense together. – Spyros Stasis
Midwife - Forever (The Flenser)
There is an abundance of potential lurking in DIY art spaces. Denver's Rhinoceropolis has been such an institution, exposing much of the city's underground talent. Madeline Johnston emerged through Rhinoceropolis, establishing her solo project Midwife through a heavy veil of dreamy shoegaze distortion and pop sensibility. Midwife's debut Like Author Like Daughter quietly made Johnston one of the more promising voices in the experimental scene, and her follow-up Forever now forces the spotlight on Midwife.
There are many of the teachings from the heavy indie scene swirling around in Forever. An ample amount of distortion and a rich emotional depth are prevalent in Johnston's visions, but it's her minimalism that defines this journey. The solitary notes of "Vow" are enough to awaken this sentimental essence as they sweetly echo through space. Stripped down percussion, comprising of a single repetitive low-end kick, delicate sound design, and a restrained vocal delivery construct an otherworldly hazy trip with "Language".
Meanwhile, Johnston's sadly late friend Colin Ward's poem recital in "C.R.F.W" lights up the stage for an overture of profoundly deep ambient bliss. The heavier moments of "Anyone Can Play Guitar", and "S.W.I.M" round up the delicate quality of Forever, gracefully underplaying their heavy indie lineage to conclude a powerful work wrapped in modest appearance. – Spyros Stasis
Oranssi Pazuzu - Mestarin kynsi (Nuclear Blast)
If bands like Aara and Helfró are adept in commanding black metal idioms into musically gorgeous directions, then Finnish shamans Oranssi Pazuzu are the absolute masters at exploding them into rituals of galactic vastness. Mestarin kynsi is another step towards a field of metal just their own, at times so strange that it appears to lose all substance and turns into a nebula of sound. In this bizarre and perverted microcosm, the spaced-out space rock of Acid Mothers Temple meets the roughness of extreme metal to create more expansive and hypnotic textural landscapes. And with each note, break, and progression that pushes Oranssi Pazuzu away from tradition genre identifiers, Mestarin kynsi approaches a near-masterpiece of existential metal.
Head of the Demon - Deadly Black Doom (Invictus Productions)
Sweden's Head of the Demon also possess a ritualistic undercurrent. Still, instead of drifting into textures, they forge an alloy of black and doom metal elements that patiently clanks along marching, repeating rhythms. Theirs is an intriguing and ambiguous sound on the brink of despair and anger, poured into six excellent, well-thought-out compositions. – Antonio Poscic
Order of Orias - Ablaze (WTC)
Substance over frequency is a motto that perfectly describes the output of Order of Orias. The black metal band from down under has been very sporadic in its releases, yet each of their outings packs significant punch. Their debut record Inverse introduced their fierce and uncompromising black metal, deeply influenced by the more devastating edges of the Scandinavian scene and the discordance of the French underground. Four years later, in a split with the legendary Aosoth, Order of Orias unleashed a true blasphemy upon the earth with their 13-minute-long opus "Ruinous Hope". Versatility and excellence defined their vision, but what ensued was a five-year-long silence. That is finally broken with Ablaze.
True to each title Ablaze doesn't hold back, it's a record born in pyre and chaos. The traditional black metal aesthetics come rushing in with "Blood to Dust", with the relentless blast beat and the sheering riffs spreading despair. Their polemic nature is further highlighted in "Gleaming Night", as Order of Orias make excellent use of the groove to drive their bleak message through. It is an assault felt throughout, moving in devastating fashion and without offering any respite.
Dropping the pace, Order of Orias awaken a doom-laden perspective slithering through tempestuous progression and hulking riffs. Even their return to a clean, ambient realm through eerie lead work packs unearthly deviance as in "Snares and Thorns". And while melodic leanings make a shy appearance, they always make sure to highlight the disturbing underbelly, with closer "Dawning Light". It all makes Ablaze a work drenched in a damned tradition, filled with excellent craftsmanship and great musicianship. – Spyros Stasis
tetema - Necroscape (Ipecac)
Everything clicks when kindred spirits meet, making each part fall in its right place, without anything feeling pushed or rushed. Mike Patton and Anthony Pateras naturally fall into this category, not only sharing an open, experimental mindset but also a brave and no bullshit attitude when it comes to genre-hopping and undertaking creative adventures. The first specimen of this rich shared experience arrived in 2014's Geocidal, a work filled with off-kilter progressions, abrupt outbreaks in a melting pot of styles and sounds.
Returning now with Necroscape, Patton and Pateras are joined by violinist Erkki Veltheim and drummer Will Guthrie providing tetema with a more organic element to their performance. Pateras' erratic progressions melt perfectly through Guthrie's fluid drumming, making moments like "All Signs Uncensored" flow freely as Patton erratically transforms through melodic manifestations to cutthroat assaults in the span of a few seconds.
From there on, tetema pass through a myriad of different molds and motifs. The ambient space of "Milked Out Million" comes alive through Patton's exquisite, emotive delivery, and Veltheim's moving violin. Closer "Funerale Di Un Contadino" comes alive through a bizarre but deeply fitting flamenco influence. It rounds up Necroscape perfectly, showcasing the steps that Patton, Pateras, and company have taken to open up their sound further, exploring new domains always being guided by their unique taste. – Spyros Stasis
JG Thirlwell and Simon Steensland - Oscillospira (Ipecac)
Through the years, composer, JG Thirlwell has collaborated with generational artists, from no-wave ambient illusionists Coil and noise-rock visionaries Swans to industrial masters Nine Inch Nails, and most recently, the extremely talented and multifaceted Zola Jesus. Still, it feels like it is in the now that Thirlwell finds a spirit most in tune with his creative investigations in fellow composer Simon Steensland. The common thread that seems to unite Thirlwell and Steensland is how they perceive composition as an immersive process, a surrounding and inescapable experience, highlighted in both composers' history of composing music for other media, Thirlwell for the Archer TV series and Steensland for a multitude of theatre productions.
It is no surprise, therefore, that the brainchild of this meeting is a profoundly cinematic work. The adventures of the two in Oscillospira escape the aural dimension, painting an intense and intriguing series of events. An amalgamation of influences and sounds greets the visitor as "Catholic Deceit" lurks in, combining a dark, ethereal chant and neo-classical leanings with a no-wave rock mentality. Despite its chamber music approach, it feels like the weight of an entire orchestra descends up you, with Thirlwell and Steensland masterfully weaving their arachnoid progressions. The allusions towards classical masters in Bela Bartok are highlighted through the tense quality of "Night Shift", the grand manifestations of strings in "Crystal Night" and the abrupt progressive tendencies of "Heresy Flank".
But in equal measure, this work awakens the off-kilter rock spirit that defined the likes of Magma, melting and binding it together with the progressive ethos of King Crimson. And what is surprising is that Thirlwell and Steensland do not hold back, they let Oscillospira flow freely and effortlessly granting the overly ambitious work with a rare sense of authenticity and honesty. – Spyros Stasis
Warbringer - Weapons of Tomorrow (Napalm Records)
With Weapons of Tomorrow, Warbringer's inspired take on thrash metal seems to have reached its zenith. The album builds on top of the excellent Woe to the Vanquished and then substantially improves the already solid songwriting. Beyond the group's easily identifiable roots – reaching through decades and drawing from the old school, grooving approach of Bay Area thrashers like Exodus – the music of the Ventura, California quintet feels unmistakably modern.
Bolstered with licks and bits from all sides of the contemporary metal spectrum, they lose nothing of the genre's original ferocity and aggression. On the contrary, the music feels vibrant and refreshed. Take the blast beat infected motor of "Heart of Darkness", for example, where the thrashcore seems to accelerate and blitz until it contorts into black metal idioms and bursts into a twisted, deliciously malevolent hymn. Superb stuff. – Antonio Poscic
- The Best Metal of 2018 - PopMatters ›
- The 20 Best Metal Albums of 2019 - PopMatters ›
- MetalMatters: November 2019 - Winter Is Coming - PopMatters ›
- MetalMatters - December 2019 - The End of the Decade - PopMatters ›
- MetalMatters: January 2020 - One Year Anniversary - PopMatters ›
- MetalMatters: February 2020 - Running on All Cylinders - PopMatters ›
- MetalMatters: March 2020 - Self Isolation ›
- MetalMatters: May 2020 - Adapting to Reality - PopMatters ›
- MetalMatters: June 2020 - Heavy Tunes Get Us Through the Heatwave - PopMatters ›
- MetalMatters: July 2020 - Back on Track - PopMatters ›