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MetalMatters: February 2020 - Running on All Cylinders

February in heavy music features long-awaited returns from Psychotic Waltz, Envy, and Today Is the Day, along with a healthy dose of black metal and experimental music.

If in January one could hear this machine that is extreme music kick off, then February finds it running on all cylinders. This month featured some long-awaited returns with screamo legends Envy and Steve Austin's Today Is the Day dropping true bombs. Most surprising of all, progressive metal legends Psychotic Waltz unveiled their new album, 24 years after Bleeding and just a decade after they reunited! And it was worth the wait! At the same time, a very pleasant offering of doom/death glory was produced by ex-My Dying Bride guitarist Hamish Hamilton Glencross, who unveiled the mighty Godthrymm with a stunning debut in Reflections.

Yet, once again, black metal takes the lion's share in its various forms, ranging from the downright brutal and ugly with Nawaharjan and Primeval Mass to the otherworldly and ethereal with Fluisteraas, the off-kilter with Tombs post-black visions and the most primal and intense in Raspberry Bulbs. There is also the descent into an uncategorized territory, with Psalm Zero continuing their metallic post-punk fusions, OvO returning with a dark work of heavy experimentation, Insect Ark continuing their traversal of psychedelia, and Wrekmeister Harmonies retreating to their minimal form. – Spyros Stasis

Heavy Metal Guitarist by The Digital Artist (Pixabay)

Envy - The Fallen Crimson (Temporary Residence)

Envy have been one of the pioneering acts of the screamo scene. One of the earliest proponents of the genre outside the States, the act from Tokyo unleashed pure fire with their debut From Here to Eternity. Yet, it's what followed that defined Envy for the years to come. Showing an unwillingness to be pigeonholed with one particular sound or scene, Envy started to look beyond screamo, and thus the experimentation with post-hardcore and post-rock begun. That led to a series of excellent works in A Dead Sinking Story, Insomniac Doze and Recitation.

Following the release of Atheist's Cornea, it felt like the end might be nigh for Envy. For a band that never underwent any line-up changes, the departure of vocalist Tetsua Fukagawa in 2016 was a shock. Even though Fukagawa returned to the band in 2018, Envy still underwent more line-up changes, leading up to the release of their new record The Fallen Crimson. While tampering with the core of a historic act might not always yield good results, it feels like the process has rejuvenated Envy.

The piercing guitar of "Statement of Freedom" oozes with newfound energy and emotion, leading to moments of heavy havoc with "Fingerprint Mark", as the band embrace their hardcore roots, and emotive depth with "Swaying Leaves and Scattering Breath". Post-rock still holds its place at the heart of Envy's vision, as presented through the celestial melodies of "Memories and the Limit" and the distorted leads of "Marginalized Thread" resurrect. The ascension to near emo hooks in the likes of "HIKARI" and the pop sensitivity of "Rhythm" complete this fine return to form. – Spyros Stasis

Fluisteraars - Bloem (Eisenwald)

Bloem, the third album by Dutch black metal duo Fluisteraars, is above all strikingly beautiful, with each of its notes and passages arranged into an elegant glow. If Fluisteraar's overarching style could be ostensibly classified as post or atmospheric black metal, Mink Koops and Bob Mollema's purposeful songwriting and wonderful taste for harmony and melody elevate their music beyond what is often a lethargic genre.

Clocking at 33 minutes, Bloem is a relatively short record. Still, its length concentrates rather than hinders the varied approach, allowing even for a forlorn trumpet solo on the bittersweet closer "Maanruïne". Like all moments of gravitas, this feels earned, developed on the previous cuts. On "Tere Muur", a galloping rhythm collapses harmonious tremolos and sets the stage for the pastoral "Nasleep", a regal hymn with a frolicky twist.

Echoes of early Agalloch can be heard on the incisive "Vlek," while Solefald's post-metal experiments surface on "Eeuwige Ram", a song crawling heavy with emotion. Here, Fluisteraars demonstrate how an ambient section can still be effective if composed and placed properly. Coming back to "Maanruïne", a sense of catharsis sets in after the trumpet finishes its tale, piercing the otherwise solemn atmosphere with bright rays. – Antonio Poscic

Godthrymm - Reflections (Profound Lore)

Having former members of My Dying Bride and Anathema in their ranks, it comes as no surprise that Halifax's Godthrymm play a variant of death-doom metal, which is very much akin to the style those bands pioneered in the early 1990s. But what shocks and amazes is that in place of careless reliance on past glories, Shaun Taylor-Steels and Hamish Hamilton Glencross managed to create one of the genre's best records some 30 years removed from its heyday.

"Monsters Lurk Herein" opens with a chord progression that evokes Anathema's intros on Serenades and Silent Enigma, before dropping into impeccably heavy yet harmonious dirges, pierced only by Hamish Hamilton and Catherine Glencross's mountain-eclipsing vocals. It's a powerful epic doom cut, made distinct by a long instrumental section and a mesmerizing dance of clean leads and solos. Parts of the melodic and dynamic "Among the Exalted'' as well as alternations between atmosphere and groove on "The Seas As My Grave" could have easily belonged to Paradise Lost's Gothic or My Dying Bride's Turn Loose the Swans. But the citations here are never direct.

While the lineage of stylistic elements is clear, they are reborn and rejuvenated by the inspired, propelling songwriting. The result is a record that works not only as fuel for nostalgia but as an excellent album on its own, removed from the burden of its heritage. One needs to look no further than the amazing "Cursed Are the Many" for proof. – Antonio Poscic

Insect Ark - The Vanishing (Profound Lore)

Heavy psychedelia relies on finding a certain sweet spot. It is a junction that becomes apparent through mixing the heavy, doom-laden riffs with a meditative repetition and an organic application of otherworldly audio effects. Having started on a different trajectory with her indie/art-rock band Bee and Flower, Dana Schechter has moved towards this dark side with Insect Ark. Influenced by her tenure with Angels of Light, Insect Ark traversed the ethereal edge of the no-wave spectrum with their debut record, Portal/Well before moving to the earthy vibes of Marrow Hymns.

Schechter's return now with The Vanishing finds Insect Ark at its most potent. With drummer Andy Patterson (ex-SubRosa) joining on this venture, the duo performs a sickening descent to a hallucinogenic abyss. The Vanishing becomes a record that sounds desolate, crafting obscure desert-like sceneries with sparse lead work as in the "Danube" or horrifying moments of ambient dread in "Swollen Sun". The heavy riff outbreaks unveil a solid form, but yet one that slithers and moves in circular motifs.

Opener "Tectonic" acts as a deep etude on reprisal, but it is closer "The Vanishing" that drives this message straight to the heart, with its fantastic bends that stretch reality itself. While The Vanishing does not appear as a complete change of perspective for Insect Ark, it feels like a record of maturity. Schechter and Patterson expose more clearly their off-kilter, no-wave informed core, and Colin Marston's production is capable of molding their shadowy and unearthly identity in a completely novel way. – Spyros Stasis

Nawaharjan - Lokabrenna (Amor Fati)

Nawaharjan sure take their sweet time. The band from Germany first appeared in 2011 with their Into the Void debut EP. The initial release was limited to just 50 copies, but thankfully Nawaharjan made part of it available through their Bandcamp, presenting a work of chaotic and hectic prowess. It would only take nine years for this early promise to come full circle, as Nawaharjan now unleash their debut record Lokabrenna.

Drawing influences from Norse mythology is not necessarily novel for black metal, but how Nawaharjan weave these stories in Lokabrenna is quite disturbing. With each song appearing as a lock, and thus a door that Nawaharjan open wide, it follows a mystic descent through the bitter edge of black metal. The assault is devastating with opener "Warassuz", the dissonant guitars building a tempest and the anthemic vocals aptly awakening an ancient ceremony.

The eerie sense grows stronger as the record unfolds, with the opening phrases of "Skuwwe" constructing a terrifying ambiance and the lo-fi sense of "Utfursko" further fanning its flames. It is the flow and energy of Lokabrenna that make it such a captivating listen, with Nawaharjan perfecting their black metal brew. Hopefully, it will not be another nine years until we hear from them again. – Spyros Stasis

OvO - Miasma (Artoffact)

Miasma might be OvO's weirdest album to date, which is telling considering how distinctive and deranged the output of the Italian duo has been in the past. Especially in live settings, their blend of EDM, noise, sludge, and distorted ambient permeates and penetrates as Bruno Dorella's drum hits rattle skeletons and Stefania Pedretti's vocal delivery twists insides. Miasma loses some of that directness and visceral impact, but this shift feels a necessary step, an unavoidable experiment in the career of the now two-decades-old project.

While the introductory "Mary Die" is familiarly angry and resolute in its mixture of industrial, noise, and metal tropes, the following tracks vary and disperse the raw energy. "You Living Lie" lives and dies within a brooding and menacing frame. Ghosts of black metal past and present inhabit droning techno forms on "Psora", helped by low-frequency grooves and circling cymbal hits. But the strangest and starkest departures come on "L'eremita", a Current 93, martial folk-tinged collaboration with Norwegian freak rockers Årabrot, the post-punk and goth filth of "Burn De Haus", and the dark jazz, piano-led closer "Miasma", which brings the excellent record to full circle. – Antonio Poscic

Primeval Mass - Nine Altars (Katoptron IX)

There is something animalistic and deviously delicious lurking in the songs of Primeval Mass, the project of Greek musician Orth. An occult flicker in the hefty riffs and an unquenchable thirst in the undulating progressions of blackened thrash metal. A primal spirit, perhaps, which is sustained throughout the eight supremely catchy cuts on Nine Altars. It scorches and thrashes on "Burning Sorcery", narrates an epic on "The Hourglass Still", erupts in extremis through the fiery instrumental "Amidst Twin Horizons", and finally subsides into hushed flames when "Orphne" rolls around.

Its ominous energy imbues the tracks with a sense of danger as if Orth was lost on a treacherous path. Behind him, crushing swarms of guitar harmonies and dark clouds of scraping tremolos. Ahead, Planctae of pulsing basslines and George C.'s anchoring drum thunders. Around him, inhuman screams encapsulated in each lead and solo. Neither resolution nor haven is in sight. Always on the brink of a precipice without ever falling into it. A nerve-wracking and exhausting, but strangely tempting experience. – Antonio Poscic

Psalm Zero - Sparta (Last Thing Records)

Charlie Looker has an extensive list of acts he has been part of or collaborated with, but it feels that the New York-based virtuoso feels most at home with Psalm Zero. Looker's explorations spread far and wide here, ranging from industrial and post-punk to death and black metal. This vast outreach has allowed Psalm Zero to encapsulate a unique sound, call it art-metal if you wish, and it has led to two notable releases with The Drain and Stranger to Violence.

Looker returns with Sparta, the first Psalm Zero album not to feature original member Andrew Hock (Castavet), and it is a moment of change for Looker's project. Where The Drain and Stranger to Violence thrived in their broad range of sounds, Sparta is a more focused offering. The alternative rock and post-punk mold joins with the metallic guitars to create a delicious dissonance, with opening track "Open Wound" and "The Last Faith" lividly announcing this hybrid form.

Fleeting classical elements make an appearance, be it through the background of "Open Wound" or the fantastically operatic "Return to Stone", featuring the great Kristin Hayter (Lingua Ignota). At the same time, Sparta distances itself from the cold, mechanical touch of Psalm Zero's earlier offerings, with Ron Varod and Keith Abrams, on bass and drums respectively, joining Looker and giving a more live and organic quality. – Spyros Stasis

Psychotic Waltz - The God-Shaped Void (InsideOut)

Looking back, Psychotic Waltz's original run of albums released from 1990 to 1996 marked a high point in progressive metal's history—a zenith of the genre's best and most original moments. A big part of the success of these albums can be traced to the singular paths they followed. A Social Grace's virtuosic and direct vectors of attack became Bleeding's eccentric psychedelia, but their idiosyncrasies remained framed within a convinced and convincing vision. Riffs and atmospheres are hard-edged but playful. Rhythmic backdrops are technically stupendous but unpretentious. And at the core of it all lived songwriting, not instrumental showmanship.

In this sense, The God-Shaped Void is unmistakably Psychotic Waltz, even if it arrives almost a quarter of a century after the quintet's last full-length and ten years after the original line-up reformed. Similar to Exhorder's unlikely comeback in 2019, Psychotic Waltz stick the landing and craft an exquisite album. Recalling their prime, Brian McAlpin and Dan Rock's ingenious riffs play against and mesh with Ward Evans and Norm Leggio's slinky rhythms, then wrap around Devon Graves soaring vibrato.

Throughout, the group play progressive metal with character and gusto, eschewing the genre's usual, tired tropes. Instead, the eleven songs simultaneously build upon and step away from the past. They intertwine the modern with the vintage and enable The God-Shaped Void to stand on its own while marking a new chapter in the band's famed legacy. – Antonio Poscic

Raspberry Bulbs - Before the Age of Mirrors (Relapse)

The music of New York's Raspberry Bulbs feels like an intrusion in our world. Anachronistic and phase-shifted, as if emanating from a diverging universe in which black metal stayed closely tied to punk roots, its existence devoted to unnerving rather than maleficent moods. The aesthetic of the group's fourth LP Before the Age of Mirrors is thus one of extreme lo-fi nastiness, indebted to punk's no-nonsense marches and sense of carelessness, but with a propulsive and threatening motivation behind it.

The quintet led by Marco del Rio's perverted voice moves from the gothic tinges of "Spitting from on High", through ritualistic start-stop motions on "Doggerel". It arrives amid the mean and abrasive "Reclaimed Church", these bleak and distorted cycles broken only by grumbling, concrète-like interludes. As this macabre dance continues, there is a growing sense of unease, exposing the listener to small but lethal doses of radiation, building up in bodies, and twisting the perception of reality. It is only appropriate for all this esotericism to end with "Given over to History", a deconstructed and crudely reconstructed black metal piece. – Antonio Poscic

Today Is the Day - No Good to Anyone (BMG)

Steve Austin has been a true visionary, one of the first artists to combine noise rock with extreme metal. His early alchemical experiments are documented in the first two Today Is the Day records, Supernova and Willpower, but unwilling to remain static his project's subsequent releases became more involved and ambitious. Temple of the Morning Start and In the Eyes of God arrived with a furious take on introspection. It was a brutal and caustic application of grindcore and black metal aesthetics to launch Today Is the Day in a whole different sphere, a point further driven by the overly ambitious Sadness Will Prevail. In all that time, Austin appeared as this tireless force, always seeking and experimenting, but following the release of 2014's Animal Mother, there was radio silence. That ultimately comes to an end now with the release of No Good to Anyone, Austin's first record to be released through BMG.

No Good to Anyone gathers the complete essence of Today Is the Day. The latter day's sludge weight comes in straight away with the title track. The glacial pace and a hellishly addictive lead part lead the way as Austin's detached narration unfolds. In true Today Is the Day form, the weight suddenly dissipates and is overtaken by a blazing grind-infused blackened outbreak. Yet, despite these abusive assaults, Today Is the Day retain a psychedelic grip throughout No Good to Anyone, as the repetitive mantras of "Attacked by an Angel" manifest in their space rock glory. And the various transformations that Austin provides for this otherworldly, heavy psychedelia is what makes No Good to Anyone such an enticing listen.

The stoner-like progression of "Son of Man", the addictive breakdowns of "Burn in Hell" and "Cocobolo" giving way to the beautiful passages of the acoustic "Callie" and the downplayed "Mercy", all of which provide No Good to Anyone with a very earnest and straightforward quality. It is this underlying feeling that oozes through every listen of this record, making Austin's return that much more welcome. – Spyros Stasis

Tombs - Monarchy of Shadows (Season of Mist)

It took a moment for Mike Hill to find his niche. Arriving at the scene as a member of the criminally underrated chaotic hardcore act Anodyne, following their demise, Hill would go through a couple of other projects including weird alternative punks Versoma and grind inclined King Generator. Yet, it was when he founded Tombs that everything seemed to click for Hill. Infused by the notion of not being musically defined, Hill would force Tombs' black metal brew to take on a post-metal aesthetic, becoming one of the earliest proponents of modernized black metal in the late 2000s.

Through the years and with a seemingly constantly transforming line-up, Hill has been continuously molding Tombs' sound. The early fury of the raw Winter Hours and the devastating essence of Path of Totality morphed in kaleidoscopic fashion into a fearless leap forward with Savage Gold. Merging death rock and post-hardcore elements with Tombs' blackened core was the necessary injection to add more edge.

Today, Hill carries down the path he first paved with Savage Gold, unveiling Tombs' latest EP Monarchy of Shadows. The ferocity of Tombs' early days is still as brutal as ever, with the heavy riffing of "Once Falls the Guillotine" and the title track causing blazing havoc, as deadly hooks appear from all directions. Yet, within that landscape, Hill still finds the space to awaken a darkwave vibe, as the deep, otherworldly vocal delivery unfolds. Even though it never truly takes over, Hill allows for moments of complete submersion, with the ending of "Man Behind the Sun" awakening the nostalgic melancholic essence of that scene.

It is Hill's constant dedication to continuing to explore and push the sound of Tombs' that shines through Monarchy of Shadows, be it in a blazing and cathartic fashion in its black metal grimness, or an esoteric gloom through its off-kilter post tendencies. – Spyros Stasis

Wrekmeister Harmonies - We Love to Look at the Carnage (Thrill Jockey)

The first days of Wrekmeister Harmonies found J.R. Robinson traversing the vast territories of drone and ambient music, with the incorporation of doom motifs offering the necessary catharsis from the glacial movements of You've Always Meant So Much to Me and Then It All Came Down. Robinson would further expand his scope with Night of Your Ascension, trespassing more heavily in the realm of electronica via neo-classical incorporations. The trip would only become more intriguing as the core duo of Robinson and Esther Shaw would start navigating a post-rock realm in Light Falls before taking a more introspective moment with the very elegant and minimal The Alone Rush.

We Love to Look at the Carnage finds Robinson and Shaw further driving the minimal aesthetic they uncovered with The Alone Rush. Once more, Wrekmeister Harmonies expand their intricate melodies, creating a dreamlike environment with Robinson's voice masterfully leading you through the scenes of this melancholic storyline. Shaw's moving violin is central in the record's narrative, combining perfectly with the voice delivery in moments like "The Rat Catcher" to create pure cinematic bliss.

The presence of collaborators is once again prominent for Wrekmeister Harmonies, with the likes of Swans' Thor Harris and Xiu Xiu's Jamie Stewart lending their skills to this endeavor laying down some fantastic percussion and electronics to go alongside this grim vision. The very intriguing part, however, is a sense of retreat for Robinson and Shaw from the outbreaks of their earlier works. Even though there are still moments of immense pressure and distorted feedback, as in "Still Life with Prick Cancer" and "The Rat Catcher", the doom essence of their past is never full-blown. It creates a promise of a cleansing that never arrives, making We Love to Look at the Carnage appear that much more sinister. – Spyros Stasis

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