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MetalMatters: The Best New Heavy Metal Albums of January 2021

Wardruna investigate Scandinavian folk dimensions, the Body forge an assault of extravagant noise and distortion, and Portrayal of Guilt eloquently cross over between hardcore and extreme metal.

Molten – Dystopian Syndrome (Goathellmusic)

While fusing heavy and black metal has become somewhat of a fad in recent years (see: Rebel Wizard, Deathhammer, and Blackevil), Molten’s mix of thrash and death with epic heavy metal is a rara avis. With their roots planted in the legendary thrash scene, the Bay Area quintet throw out the rule book and maneuver between these styles nimbly, alternately superimposing and clashing their elements.

Wrapped in a horror story that’s more natural than supernatural—concerned with the dire reality of the world—the nine songs on Dystopian Syndrome move from heavy melodies underlined by harmonized twin-guitar attacks, Steve Harris-like plump bass lines, and swirling leads to bouts of supreme aggression wearing the face of d-beat and filthy death metal. On this journey from extreme to extreme, as inhuman growls turn into pained roars, they pass through progressive serpentines, spastic sections imbued with hardcore brevity, and even briefly entertain tremolo-driven atmospheres. And by retaining a sense of cohesion and purpose in the songwriting, they craft a debut LP that is as varied as it is well-rounded. – Antonio Poscic

Portrayal of Guilt – We Are Always Alone (Closed Casket Activities)

In recent years the hardcore scene is experiencing a fascinating upheaval. Propelled by extreme sound fanatics and pioneers, the genre’s idioms are being further weaponized to maximum effect. The connection with powerviolence fuelled the success of Full of Hell, while noise applications and industrial concepts saw Street Sects bring to life their hellish soundscapes. Portrayal of Guilt are another act that, while standing on hardcore and punk ground, reach out further towards the extreme abyss. Having already released an excellent debut album in
Let Pain Be Your Guide, an exquisite amalgamation of hardcore punk roots with extreme metal influences. They are now capitalizing with We Are Always Alone.

What Portrayal of Guilt succeed in is combining the punk and hardcore roots, the attitude, and dedication, firstly with a post-hardcore and screamo flavor. There is a constant aura of emotion and sentimentality stemming from these aspects of
We Are Always Alone. The despairing second half of “My Immolation” showcases that side, masterfully evoking a melancholic overtone. The case is similar with a more off-kilter presentation in “It’s Already Over”, borrowing something from the twisted sense of angst that acts like Daughters have mastered. Still, the primary emotive color that rules this realm is anger and aggression, wrapped in layers of frustration.

Grindcore speed and a harrowing blackened aura highlight the opening track, “The Second”. This quasi-black metal approach also lends an eerie aspect to We Are Always Alone, shining dimly in “Masochistic Oath”, while heavy death metal grooves dictate the pace in “Anesthetized”. We Are Always Alone sees Portrayal of Guilt take one further step in their extreme craftsmanship, this time approaching their sound with an even more aggressive outlook. – Spyros Stasis

Sagenland – Oale Groond (Heidens Hart)

The rise of Scandinavian black metal quickly saw several divergent sonic offsprings taking form. The raw quality of Darkthrone highlighted the genre in its purest form; the punk attitude of early Mayhem revealed the style’s roots. Meanwhile, the majestic and technical perspective of Emperor pointed towards the possible future. Yet, there was always a romantic side in this mix, highlighted brightly through the folk explorations of early Ulver. It is the latter branch of black metal that the Netherlands’ Sagenland are exploring. Having formed two decades ago, the duo from Twente released a single work in their split with Vargulf in 2005, and now 16 years later, they finally unveil their debut full-length Oale Groond.

Oale Groond feels in many ways like a record frozen in time. A work that was recorded in the mid-’90s, awakening the eerie essence and dark ambiance of the second black metal wave. “De jammerklachten van Singraven – eerste deel” sees the trademark, dissonant black metal touch come to rise, electrifying guitars meeting with pummeling drums to create a swirling effect. Aided by a production that preserves a lo-fi aesthetic, the duo transport the listener to snowy landscapes surrounded by dark forests.

It’s within this setting that the music of Sagenland truly flourishes as they explore their folk roots. The clean instrumentation in “De jammerklachten van Singraven – tweede deel” sets the tone, while the pronounced bass line grants more weight to the procedure, making tracks like “Blandval” and “In ‘t bos” arrive with that much more potency. But, it is the incorporation of acoustic instrumentation alongside the majestic black metal onslaught that takes Oale Groond over the top, as the monumental “‘t Leste gedicht (Twentse earde)” showcase. – Spyros Stasis

Terminal Bliss – Brute Err/ata (Relapse)

Fear. Anguish. Anger. Exasperation. Dread. All of it generated by the broken and unjust system we live in then compressed into an unfiltered, roaring hardcore punk and grindcore scream. That’s it. That’s the album. – Antonio Poscic

Wardruna – Kvitravn (Music For Nations)

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There has always been a deep connection between the Scandinavian black metal scene and the region’s folk roots. Early works by pioneering acts like Ulver’s Bergtatt and Enslaved’s Vikingligr Veldi combined these two sides to significant effect, funneling the ambiance and heritage of folk music and Viking lore in the black metal spirit. Still, some ventured further, shedding away all of black metal’s tradition to return to the point of origin. Einar Selvik became a member of the black metal scene under the Kvitravn moniker, famously playing drums for iconoclasts Gorgoroth. But, it would be his later project Wardruna that would define him.

Using traditional instrumentation to perform a complete return to the folk roots, Wardruna set off ambitiously with their Runaljold trilogy, following with 2018’s Skald. Through a deep love and appreciation of their musical heritage, Wardruna built monuments through their work, creating a spiritual, war-like, ambitious, and all-encompassing sound. It is no surprise that their music broke boundaries and has been used in both TV series (Vikings) and video games (Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla). And now, they return with their first record for mainstream label Columbia/Music For Nations with Kvitravn.

There are no surprises here from Selvik and company. The sound of Wardruna is set, and its core components will not be altered; they will only improve. The hectic and busy instrumentations of opener “Synkverv” open the gates to this magical realm, as an otherworldly flute leads the way through the ceremonial percussion. Vocals echo in the distance as if coming from frozen mountaintops, providing the work with its spiritual edge. It is then just one great song after the next, as the title track with its moving lyre leads into the mathematically precise rhythms of “Skugge” to reach one of the record’s hits with “Gra”.

That is also Wardruna’s most intriguing ability, as they can produce songs that act like earworms, catchy and sweet, but they also complete long-form journeys through a universe of textures and sounds. The war-like anthem of “Fylgjutal” and the two final tracks, “Vindavlarljod” and “Andervaljod”, display this ambitious take, methodically taking the listeners through a journey of a neo-pagan grandeur. Yet, it is the fact that everything has its place in Wardruna’s world, everything has a purpose, and that gives Kvitravn an outstanding preciousness, making it their most accomplished work so far. – Spyros Stasis

The new year starts in pure heavy fashion. On the death metal front, two old-school acts, Dipygus and Devotion, bring back the good old days’ glory. On the traditional black metal front, Grabunhold unveil their Tolkien-ian debut, Heldentod, while Malakhim widen the gaze to include both the dissonant and the majestic sides of the genre in their debut, Theion. Meanwhile, Molten open their interpretations of black metal to crossover into the death metal and thrash territories, with a hint of epic classic heavy metal in Dystopian Syndrome.

Staying with the black metal theme, but with a heavy dose of folk, Sagenland finally unleash their first full-length. The mighty Wardruna return with their deeply traditional and ethereally mystical perspective in Kvitravn. Rounding up this folk trajectory is Balothizer, with their extraordinarily forward-thinking and innovative reinterpretation of Cretan traditional music in Cretan Smash.

Moving on to the fringes, Lice fiercely open up their post-punk core to DIY practices, noise, and musique concrete applications. On the hardcore edge, there is the return of the mighty Portrayal and Guilt with We Are Always Alone, mixing screamo and post-hardcore with extreme metal. Terminal Bliss unleash pure fury through their crust/punk/grind manifestation in Brute Err/ata. Rounding up this month are two heavyweights, bastardizing doom albeit through different lenses.

Experimental noise alchemists the Body return triumphantly, full feedback roaring and distorted drums echoing in I’ve Seen All I Need to See. Meanwhile, Divide and Dissolve highlight the beauty and transformative qualities of ultra-heavy music, distorting their drone and post-rock influences brilliantly through an avant-garde process. – Spyros Stasis

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