Ophidian I – Desolate (Season of Mist)
Even if it’s only July, I’m calling it now: with Desolate, Ophidian, I have become the owners of the best technical (death) metal release of the year. Putting aside the insane level of musicianship and expected complexity of the music, a keen sense for writing actual songs elevates the Icelandic quintet above others. For them, form is as important as matter.
Of course, their pieces are still jagged and full of twirling, how-on-Earth-did-they-play-this riffs, neck-breaking changes of tempo and rhythm, and brutal sections, but these tropes are arranged so that they form a supremely melodic and catchy flow. A rarity in the genre, this focus on songwriting means Desolate‘s 40-odd minutes pass in a blink of an eye. Simultaneously, the album is a wonderful sustained attack on the senses that invites repeated listens. All of this makes for challenging music, not by virtue of being hermetic or tedious, but because it invites the listener to discover new details and brilliant tricks in the dense tapestry of sounds, like the leads that light up the sky on “Storm Aglow” or the sublime acoustic-to-slamming transition on “Captive Infinity.” – Antonio Poscic
Qrixkuor – Poison Palinopsia (Dark Descent / Invictus Productions)
A symphony of noises assembles itself into some sort of demonic architecture during the first few minutes of “Serpentine Susurrus – Mother’s Abomination”. This opening to Qrixkuor’s debut Poison Palinopsia is a prime example of how utterly disorienting death metal can be, as sounds seem to appear from the purposely lo-fi darkness only to be swallowed whole within a murmuring, bumbling mass of riffs, drums, and growls. A strain of melody and rhythm then breaks free from the chaos and starts careening forward. It buzzes, chugs, and blasts, only to be finally destroyed by a mid-tempo roll of dissonance.
At once beautiful and horrifying, the music’s progressive and meticulously sculpted segments follow some unknowable and unknown logic, as if Lychgate went completely off the rails with their avant-garde black metal. With its fifty minutes spread across only two tracks, the album is characterized by an inherent sense of grandiosity and world-building. This approach seems to place its story just outside our grasp, never really meant to be fully understood. – Antonio Poscic
Vouna – Atropos (Profound Lore)
Gianna Bekris’ project Vouna made its first appearance in 2018. The raw first demo was repurposed, with the tracks reworked and re-recorded for Vouna’s self-titled debut. Coming out of Artemisia, the label of Wolves In The Throne Room, the extreme doom of Vouna was a diamond in the rough. Heavy riffs and majestic atmospheres painted the soundscapes, and black metal outbreaks offered catharsis while the traditional Greek folk touches added a unique twist. At the time, the short duration of the Vouna did not allow Bekris to showcase the extent of her storytelling, the progressions falling slightly short and the opus leaving an unfinished feeling. Not anymore, as Vouna makes a return with sophomore record Atropos, more than living up to expectations.
Atropos is an immersive experience, transferring the listener to this magical realm, as the ceremonial start of “Highest Mountain” travels through dark forests and rocky landscapes. It is a dreamlike scenery, taking place in the midst of nature, clouds forming in the sky, rains falling over mountain peaks. The epic essence is taken to another level with Bekris’ stellar vocal delivery, cutting through the heavy riffs and shining in the hidden center of the ambiance. It carries so much emotion, the beautifully mournful approach in “Vanish” or in the minimally set “What Once Was (Reprise)”. Still, there are more realms to travel for Bekris, and that is where Atropos is at its darkest.
The doom-laden setting of “Highest Mountain” fades, and the descent into the underworld begins, as slow drums echo through the distance before the synth-driven quality of “Vanish” comes into view. The funereal sense is just the start, the minimalism at times hitting a dungeon synth or kosmische Musik level, bringing to mind Wolves in the Throne Room’s Celestite. Still, nothing feels forced; the long-form narratives naturally progress through these different modes. Offering moments of grand majesty with Subrosa influenced weight, and an Evoken informed progression, traveling to the edges of minimalism and then offering the brutal black metal interpretation.
With Nathan Weaver making a guest appearance on the vocals, these parts awake a primal rage that draws from the Cascadian nature of the album. However, when Bekris’ clean vocals join in these explosive moments, the result has a wonderful Bergtattian quality. Shadow and light combing into these brilliant moments. Atropos is inescapable. The record fulfills all the promises that Vouna’s debut made most gloriously. – Spyros Stasis
Wizardthrone – Hypercube Necrodimensions (Napalm)
What would happen if the folks behind Alestorm, Æther Realm, Nekrogoblikon, and the excellent and deliciously self-aware Scottish symphonic power metal band Gloryhammer took the template for the latter and applied it to death metal? Wizardthrone would happen, that’s what. In spirit, Hypercube Necrodimension is a continuation of Gloryhammer’s three LPs, especially how it gets the balance of satire/parody and authentic metal extravaganza just right. The opening “Black Hole Quantum Thermodynamics” is deliriously grandiose and catchy. It’s as if a Euro-power band went brutal death metal and decided to still indulge in moments of scintillating melodies and technically brilliant guitar interplay reminiscent of Children of Bodom and Kalmah.
Elsewhere, “Frozen Winds of Thyraxia” goes all-in with roaring synths and a Lost Horizon take on melo-death. “Incantation of the Red Order” embraces a thespian mood akin to Devin Townsend’s Ziltoid. “Forbidden Equations Deep Within the Epimethean Wasteland” steamrolls everything with unfiltered energy and cosmic spunk. Meanwhile, “Beyond the Wizardthrone (Cryptopharmalogical Revelations of the Riemann Zeta Function)” gives us a glimpse of how Nile would sound if they ever decided to play progressive heavy metal. Considered as a whole, this is an absolute blast of an album that manages to be positively stunning despite (or thanks to?) not taking itself seriously. – Antonio Poscic
Year of No Light – Consolamentum (Pelagic)
Another post-metal powerhouse returns. Last month, Bossk and Amenra came back; now, it is Year of No Light. The French act come with an atypical progression, starting in the early 2000s and releasing a solid debut in Nord. Up to that point, Year of No Light featured vocals, courtesy of ex-member Julien Perez, but since his departure, they decided to go into an instrumental form. It turns out that this choice worked in their favor as the band’s sophomore work, Ausserwelt, saw both a compositional growth combined with prudent attention to detail. What ensued was a couple more records in the dual releases of Vampyr and Tocsin before the prolific era would come to an end. The output became sparser, and it is now eight years later that Year of No Light return with a new record in Consolamentum.
The strength of Year of No Light arises from their ability to merge different sources in a cohesive musical result. The broad term “post-metal” acts as an excellent umbrella term to describe their sound, but make no mistake, these guys are masters of multiple trades. Ambient leanings are explored with opener “Objuration” crafting a harrowing, dark and oppressive start. The feedback here is spectacular, and it raises the anticipation for the coming blows. Similarly, dropping down the tempo and traversing the drone domain is something this act has always marveled at. Minimal and unyielding, it crafts an unforgiving manifestation.
Still, the main pillar upon which Year of No Light build their structures is their atmospheric sludge side, which arrives with an epic underpinning. This is grand music, completely immersive in the opening track, while it oozes with a doom gloom in “Interdit aux Vivants, aux Morts et aux Chiens”. The gear is not always set to the glacial setting with the band building momentum and delivering an all-out assault with “Came”, showing their teeth and hardcore roots. It is something that they call upon brilliantly to add an immediateness in “Aletheia” and the ending of “Came”, as pummeling drums combine with noise rock motifs to reach a crescendo. And through all that, there is the magnificent lead work that carefully colors each passage with the necessary emotion. Melodic and ethereal or twisted and punishing, the soundscapes are always ablaze, signaling the triumphant return of Year of No Light. – Spyros Stasis
Xalpen – Sawken Xo On (Black Lodge)
And into the orthodoxy of black metal, we dwell. Xalpen’s debut record was released in 2020 through Morbid Skull Recordings, but just a year later, it is getting the remastering treatment through Black Lodge Records. Hailing from Chile and featuring long-time Watain live member Alvaro Lillo, Xalpen plays an unforgiving style. Call it the black metal of death if you will, heavily influenced by the brutal side of the Swedish and Finnish underground black metal scenes.
Chaotic and frantic, the primal quality of Sawken Xo On prevails from the very start of “Devourer of Light”. The darkness first unleashed by the likes of Behexen shines through the unyielding progressions while still Xalpen call upon the old-school proto-black metal sound. Echoes of very early day Sodom hover, while the corpse of Sarcofago’s morbid vision is still going strong with the thrash informed applications. Even the Celtic Frost spirit is amongst us in Sawken Xo On, the proud death grunt sardonically greeting all in “Dark Knights of Winter”. It makes for a cataclysmic and epic approach, especially when the longer tracks unfold, with “Among The Pillars of Death” being a perfect example of this gear.
Yet, the heart of Xalpen still beats in Scandinavia, the Watain circa Casus Luciferi influence is undeniable, and by extension, the early Dissection works. It is something that becomes clear in the sparse, yet necessary, melodic leads in the rockier start of “Han K’Win Saik” and the epic presence of “The Formidable Fumes of Hell Fire”. They all make for a very cohesive result. The only slight downside is that in isolation, some of the compositions feel like they are dragging on for a bit longer than necessary. The frenetic energy of “Tres Chamanes” and “1340” would appear more potent and focused if they were a bit more contained. Still, Sawken Xo On remains a strong work of black metal expression. – Spyros Stasis