Welcome to PopMatters’ new monthly metal feature, simply titled MetalMatters. Each month we’ll take a look at a number of exciting releases across metal’s many sub-genres to distill the swarm down to what we deem worthy of your precious time. The constant deluge of albums—some good, some bad, some downright atrocious—can be completely overwhelming to sift through. Therefore, the goal of this recurring feature is to act as a source of reference for those of you looking to keep up-to-date with the most interesting new sounds from the ever-expanding world of heavy.
It has to be said, however, that January 2019 was a pretty quiet month for metal releases overall, especially when you look back at the number of high-quality albums released in January 2018 that crashed numerous end-of-year lists—records by Portal, Tribulation, Corrosion of Conformity, Hamferđ, Sinistro, Agrimonia, Hooded Menace, and Watain, to name some of the heavy-hitters. But this column is all about focusing on the here and now, so it’s time to leave 2018 buried deep and focus in on January 2019’s quality over quantity, as we showcase just five LPs (including two exciting debuts) and one EP deserving of your dedication. Join us!—Dean Brown
Altarage – The Approaching Roar (Season of Mist)
Altarage’s third full-length appears as a perfected, pristine realization of the vision that the mysterious Spanish group demonstrated on previous outings. Their brutal and technically adept strain of avant-death metal thrives here, infused with a suffocating, anxiety-inducing sonic atmosphere. Instruments follow convoluted lines and become lost in a murky, abyssal sound full of dissonance and conflict. Layers in the music seem engineered to be impossible to decipher, never meant to be dissected, but rather consumed as a whole. And in this blob of menacing, gruesome sound, there are moments of breathless beauty when buzzing riffs emerge as if gasping for air, before disappearing again in the thick tar.
While their dissonant and oppressive take on death metal can be difficult to endure, it is interspersed by unexpected, but welcome bouts of sustained noise and abstract ambient segments. On “Urn”, they delve into a tastefully done drone that explodes organically into a furious blast. Elsewhere, on “Chaworos Sephelln” they entertain sparse sounds and a deceptively ethereal ambiance. These pieces work both as connective tissue between passages of pounding, chaotic death metal and as their echoes. Despite these intermezzos, The Approaching Roar is a lean and mean record, one that plays to the strengths of the band while also distancing them from the usual and cheap comparisons to Portal. Altarage have blossomed into a thing of their own.—Antonio Poscic
Judiciary – Surface Noise (Closed Casket Activities)
Taut, thrash-riddled hardcore riffs and locked-in rhythms ricochet across nine tracks of fist-clenched rage as these pissed-off Texans come out bucking on their full-length debut. This is not a new take on metallic hardcore; in fact, it’s quite traditional. But all that matters when you stomp ‘n’ chug like Judiciary do on “Social Crusade”, “Karma’s Knife”, and the aptly titled “Pure Fury” is that there is intensity dominating the delivery—and this record has that in heart-racing abundance.
Vocalist Jake Collinson’s coarse roar—think Power Trip’s Riley Gale—goes a long way in translating the palpable aggression. He is a razored punctuation mark to the pit-igniting riffs and Slayer-ed breaks the band hurl out, and he is aided on three tracks by guest appearances by the vocalists of God’s Hate, Knocked Loose, and Mortality Rate, all of whom have a different tone to their screams. Sociopolitical injustices and vicious retributions are the main themes explored and when Collinson screams, “Fragile bodies with feeble egos / Self-convincing of a world overthrown / False prophets, propaganda / Projecting truth as fucking slander”, you can’t help but to be swept up in the real-world vitriol emanating from this band’s sweat-drenched pores. — Dean Brown
Mo’ynoq – Dreaming in a Dead Language (Self-released)
Other than the fact it is hard to pronounce, the name Mo’ynoq might also not be familiar to many, but that is about to change. The main reason for this is because even though the black metal band have been around for just a couple of years, they already sound like scene veterans on their debut full-length Dreaming in a Dead Language.
The winning attribute of this album stems from the band’s knowledge of the genre, both its modern inclinations but also its traditions. That is what makes Mo’ynoq such a difficult act to pin down, as they deliver dissonant leads at an incredible pace, creating typhonic progressions that can change on a whim. The devastating arrhythmical opener “Empyreal Decay” crashes into the slow-paced groove of “The Collector”, and despite their prevalent discordant tendency, Mo’ynoq still move towards brief melodic interludes, as with the lead work on “Buried By Regret”. All these elements work towards establishing Mo’ynoq as an extremely promising act, and one we will hopefully hear more from soon.—Spyros Stasis
Mono – Nowhere Now Here (Pelagic/Temporary Residence)
Condensed within the confines of a restricted vocabulary of rock textures, resonances, and repetitions, post-rock was condemned to a short lifespan from its inception. In its original form, the genre’s strained tropes are pushed into secluded spaces for the most resilient of fans. Rare are bands like Japan’s Mono, one of post-rock’s pallbearers, that managed to evolve and rejuvenate their approach. While still very much rooted in post-rock, their music is relevant and compelling, inhabiting a niche of its own.
Twenty years into their career, the group’s tenth LP Nowhere Now Here finds them again gently tweaking their formula and extending their palette of sounds. Flourishes of electronic effects and vocal experiments now feature prominently and expand the affectivity of the music. Signature crescendos and crashes feel bolder yet emotionally delicate, punctuated by the impactful drumming of newcomer Dahm Majuri Cipolla and a signature Steve Albini production job. Nowhere Now Here ultimately progresses and evolves in a dreamlike fashion, through repetitions that carry barely perceptible shifts in style, from the melodic climax of “After You Comes the Flood” to the mournful cries of “Funeral Song”.—Antonio Poscic
Panopticon – The Crescendo of Dusk EP (Self-released)
There is no question that Panopticon have been one of the defining black metal acts of the 2010s. The project of Austin Lunn followed the rich tradition of incorporating folk elements into the sub-genre’s core and expanded on that by adventurously introducing country music and bluegrass characteristics. The latest addition to his bitter brew is Panopticon’s new EP, The Crescendo of Dusk, which features two tracks taken from the recording sessions of Autumn Eternal (2015) and The Scars of Man on the Once Nameless Wilderness (2018).
This EP highlights the inherent contrast within the core of Panopticon; black metal and Americana traditions battling then embracing each other. The title track that kicks this EP off sees Lunn unleashing a devastating blackened offering, forged through fiery riffs and thunderous blast-beats before evolving into a towering atmospheric manifestation. The case is very different with “The Labyrinth”, where the traditional instrumentation takes over and the spoken words passages morph the record’s ambiance into a dark, yet warm, acoustic space. Even though neither track mark new territory for Lunn, this EP does showcase his capabilities as a musician and songwriter, and delivers his trademark blows.—Spyros Stasis
Swallow the Sun – When a Shadow Is Forced into the Light (Century Media)
In 2016, Swallow the Sun’s Juha Raivio’s life partner and Trees of Eternity band-mate, Aleah Starbridge, tragically passed away. In the short time since her death, Raivio has thrown himself into his artistic endeavors as a means to process profound grief, firstly in 2017 with the band Hallatar (a tribute to his lost love) and now with the emotionally powerful and instrumentally enveloping new Swallow the Sun LP.
The Finnish band’s seventh full-length, When a Shadow Is Forced into the Light, follows their monumental 2015 triple album, condensing the vast array of sounds found on that sprawling odyssey into a beautifully layered melodic doom-death masterwork haunted by the specter of sorrow and suffering. Dejected doom chords crush from above but it’s the intricately arranged neo-folk strings (violin and cello), crystalline shoegaze-sourced leads, bellowing pipe organ, melancholy piano and, most prominently, Mikko Kotomäki’s poignant clean vocals which really elevate this album to raw-heart levels of deep emotional connection.
For a band who have always had that transference of tangible sentiment, to bring the ugly reality of untimely death to the table in such musically interesting ways, whether it be through a simple yet opportune key change or an affecting melody line or lyric, is a rare gift to the listener. This is the record which should finally put Swallow the Sun on the same esteemed marbled pedestal as Katatonia, Opeth or Anathema—a true album of the year contender, and their finest release to date.—Dean Brown