Music

MetalMatters: June 2019 - A Month Full of Long-Awaited Returns

Slough Feg carry on their heavy metal journey while Darkthrone keep digging towards their proto-punk/heavy metal core. Baroness return with their most ambitious work to date, while Pinkish Black continue to explore the endless possibilities of synth driven extreme music.

I miss the prime days of Hydra Head, before it entered a period of decline. The label used to put out one great album after the next, just taking a peak at their activity during 1998-2000, Hydra Head produced records that would define mathcore, grind, and hardcore for years to come in the Discordance Axis' The Inalienable Dreamer, Botch's We Are the Romans and American Nervoso, as well as Cave In's Beyond Hypothermia.

Nowadays, the label's output is sparse but it still delivers as the recent Oxbow, Godflesh, and Endon albums suggest. This feeling of nostalgia is augmented when looking at the releases for this month. The label played a pivotal role in the rise of the post-metal scene during the '00s, reshaping much of the extreme music landscape. During those days, Hydra Head thrived in its aesthetically diverse roster, reaching from the outer limits of grindcore in the likes of Agoraphobic Nosebleed and the forefront of noise with Merzbow, all the way to the experimental, off-kilter rock of Oxbow and the heretical black metal of Xasthur.

This month on a number of Hydra Head artists resurfaced, with Cave In and Pelican releasing works that were conceived and recorded under, at the very least, struggling times. The Austerity Program, one of the acts to fall, unfortunately, in a state of obscurity, also returned with one of its strongest works to date in Bible Songs. And of course former label head Aaron Turner, with his current sonic vehicle Sumac, revisits the free rock and improvisational world with Keiji Haino.

But of course, this is just one slice (even though significant) of this month's releases. Carrying on their heavy metal journey Darkthrone unleash Old Star, a record containing a condensed dose of the best that '80s extreme music could offer through way of Black Flag punkish tones and AC/DC rock 'n' roll attitude. On the death metal side, Fetid produce a truly horrifying ride with Steeping Corporeal Mass while Nucleus travels to the technical, bizarro sci-fi edge of the genre with Entity. On the black metal front, Panzerfaust returns with another occult offering, while Yellow Eyes continue their cataclysmic march through the discordant plains of the genre, channeling the spirits of the dissonant cohorts that overwhelmed the '90s. These and a few more you will find in this month's feature, so put on your headphones, dig in, and enjoy!

Heavy Metal Guitarist by The Digital Artist (CC0 Creative Commons / Pixabay)

Baroness - Gold & Grey (Abraxan Hymns)

There is not really a band that depicts the process of creative evolution better than Baroness. The Georgia act began its journey in the progressive sludge field of the '00s with a sound adjacent to the early, heavier investigations of Mastodon and Kylesa. But when their debut record Red Album arrived, it became clear that beneath the heavy guitars and slow groove something else was afoot.

Through the years Baroness continued to dive under the surface of sludge and extreme metal, resulting in the exploratory work of Blue Record, but it was really Yellow & Green that fully realised the band's concept. It was in that double record that Baroness found their sonic trajectory, an intersection between their heavy sludge past, the melodic capabilities of alternative heavy music, and their progressive tendencies. It was this vision that fueled the band to then unleash Purple, a record that focused even further on the melodic side of the band and explored a more sentimental dimension.

Four years after the release of Purple, Baroness return with another double record in Gold & Grey, and they produce something remarkable. Gold & Grey doesn't necessarily act as a continuation of Purple, but rather as an overarching overview of Baroness's journey so far. A track like "Seasons" sees the band stay true to their later phase, embracing the expressive shoegaze touch and its deep psychedelic sense, progressing through melodic notions before an assault propagated through blastbeats takes over. It is through these more forceful moments that Baroness display the extent of their angst, which leads to cathartic peaks.

"Borderlines" also re-awakens the proto days of the band through its razor-sharp heavy riffs and the subtle southern-inspired lead work that usually accompanied this. Yet, it's the psychedelic touch that delivers some of the band's most powerful moments, in the otherworldly "I'm Already Gone" with its unearthly bass line and groove, or the folk passages of the incredible "Tourniquet" with its dual vocal performance.

Gold & Grey highlights a known truth about Baroness and their take on creativity: rules are there to be bend, boundaries are there to be expanded. This is a band at its peak releasing another masterful entry in their flawless discography. – Spyros Stasis

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Cave In - Final Transmission (Hydra Head)

The latest record of Cave In, Final Transmission, comes with a bitter taste. During the songwriting process bassist/vocalist Caleb Scofield tragically passed away. At that stage Final Transmission was simply a collection of demos, but the band decided to fine-tune these recordings, mix and master the final tracks, and release them. There's a strange dichotomy that occurs due to this decision with, on one hand, Final Transmission feeling incomplete, but the journey of Cave In feels like it has come to a pivotal point.

Taking into consideration everything that occurred during the songwriting process and production of this work, Cave In has managed to construct a formidable record, one that travels back to the most successful days of the band in Jupiter. The combination of heavy guitars, extreme weight and groove with a melodic backbone, and an emotive quality makes the album striking. "Winter Window" follows down that path masterfully, while "Lanterna" features an even more abrasive and forceful progression.

The dreamy psychedelic touches of "Lunar Day" and "All Illusion" provide the final addition to Cave In's musical collage. It is great rediscovering all the intricacies of Cave In, eight years after their previous record White Silence came out, but it also comes at the realisation that this band, unfortunately, will never be the same. – Spyros Stasis

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Darkthrone - Old Star (Peaceville)

"More metal than ever." Due to a glitch in my email client that line, attributed to Fenriz, was the only text in the promo email for Darkthrone's new release. It's a thought that's (a) absolutely true and (b) really the only thing that needs to be said about Old Star. Having reached their 18th full-length, one of black metal's second wave elders nowadays play metal – full stop. Their music comes in various shapes and forms, mischievously mixing heavy, doom, and punk on the same track.

Like their previous record, Arctic Thunder, Old Star glows with a jubilant, liberated, and often whimsical aura. Right from the start, Nocturno Culto and Fenriz dig deep into '80s metal, referencing in equal measure original heavy tropes and proto black legends like Celtic Frost on "I Muffle Your Inner Choir".

The only glimpses of old Darkthrone appear on the aggressive cut "Duke of Gloat", while elsewhere, like on the closing "The Key Is Inside the Wall", the duo seem more interested in worshipping Motörhead and AC/DC's vision of hard rock. Regardless of style, Fenriz and Nocturno Culto once again prove how well-versed and comfortable they are in writing fun, rousing records. – Antonio Poscic

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Enablers - Zones (Exile On Mainstream / Lancashire and Somerset / Broken Clover)

When it comes to Enablers, talking about 'progression' is almost besides the point: their sound was near-perfect when they found it, and since 2004 all that has been left to do has been to whittle, trim, and tinker. And so it is with Zones, the band's sixth full-length album and one that sees them continuing to skim effortlessly between subtle nuance and raw power. T heir jazz-dappled post-hardcore flaps lazily in the breeze one moment and hurtles down like a thunderbolt the next. Sparks fly, metal bends, and streamers unfurl.

Frontman Pete Simonelli keeps things centred, drawling his way through sorry tales dredged from after-hours bars and ill-advised stumbles through the wrong parts of town. Oxbow and Lungfish continue to serve as steady points of reference, both in terms of sonic palette and adherence to a craft that is odd, wonderful, and yet strangely unrecognised. Suffice it to say that if you have been listening to Enablers since their debut, you will not be disappointed in Zones. If this is the first time you're listening to Enablers, well, you will not be disappointed either. – Alex Deller

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Fetid - Steeping Corporeal Mess (20 Buck Spin)

Death metal trio Fetid make music so nasty that it threatens to start oozing out of walls like a thick black molasses, dripping from corners and slowly consuming everything in its path. Similar to 20 Buck Spin labelmates Tomb Mold, the Seattle-cum-Portland group's take on the genre sounds like old school death metal overdosed on steroids and transformed into an imposing yet compact onslaught.

Despite the immediate appeal of their weighty music, oppressive atmospheres, and filthy wall of sound, the five tunes on Steeping Corporeal Mess are layered with intricate guitar work, inspired breaks, gnarly growls, and bottomless, spastic drum hits that vibrate just beneath the surface. Fetid are the real deal and Steeping Corporeal Mess is the complete death metal package. – Antonio Poscic

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Friendship - Undercurrent (Southern Lord)

Rarely has a band been so misnamed as this Japanese wrecking crew, whose sound is less likely to inspire chummy backslaps and the exchange of small, thoughtful gifts than vicious bar brawls and mean-spirited retribution. If it's less difficult – and less abstract – than previous releases, then Undercurrent is certainly no less deadly, seeming to comprise little more than bad vibes, lead pipe riffing, and the kind of vocals you could use to incinerate human remains.

Rather than deploying the power-violent assault of SU19b or the mangled noise of Legion of Andromeda, Undercurrent offers a vicious dose of lean, muscular metallic hardcore that evokes Nails, Dead in the Dirt, Ringworm and Kickback a la the deliciously wrong riff closing out "Lack". – Alex Deller

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Keiji Haino & SUMAC - Even for just the briefest moment / Keep charging this "expiation" / Plug in to making it slightly better (Trost)

While noise legend Keiji Haino didn't feature on SUMAC's triumphant 2018 LP Love in Shadow, his presence was easily heard and felt throughout that record. Aaron Turner, Nick Yacyshyn, and Brian Cook became infected with a novel way of thinking while collaborating with the Japanese maestro and reshaped their sludge and post-metal into unexpected structures.

Even for just the briefest moment..., the result of their second meeting with Haino in the flesh, is a follow-up and return to the looser abstract sounds of the excellent American Dollar Bill. While second encounters of that sort often yield repetition, this new album is a different beast, anchoring Haino's freewheeling noise improvisations with sludge's firm rhythms.

From the opening "Interior Interior Interior…" to the closing "(First Half) / Once, twice, thrice…" the group enacts a restless play, developing and collapsing ideas. First, they conjure contemplative moods backed by deconstructed sludge elements and a curiously singsong flute. Then they find themselves in a sea of screechy, heavy guitar riffs dominated by Haino's playing and vocal lines that teeter between anger, elation, and humor. Finally, they surface for air, indulging in a vibrant bastardization of free jazz and free improv with resonant, beautiful melodies. – Antonio Poscic

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Nucleus - Entity (Unspeakable Axe / Me Saco Un Ojo)

It takes some chutzpah to drop a sci-fic-flavoured death metal album so soon after that Nocturnus AD release, Parado, but Chicago's Nucleus cackle wildly and engage the enemy with lasers blazing. Denser and more assured than its 2016 predecessor, Entity tosses about grotesque tangles, sudden rhythmic twists, and off-the-rails melodies to the point of absolute distraction, seemingly gunning for pure sensory overload rather than anything akin to polite songsmithery.

While it might be vile at first exposure, the cumulative effect is curiously transcendental, like finding patterns in alien star charts or noticing strange commonalities in long-forgotten languages. Fans of Gorguts, Blood Incantation, and Artificial Brain will be begging for biomechanical assimilation into the band's hive mind as soon as possible, but if you're too timid to take that plunge just yet then you can at least gaze raptly into the well-earned Adam Burke artwork. – Alex Deller

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Panzerfaust - The Suns of Perdition - Chapter I: War, Horrid War (Eisenwald)

The Suns of Perdition - Chapter I: War, Horrid War is a black metal album that rips with a bombastic urgency even as it passes under doom and progressive, tinged arches. Perhaps it owes this to Kaizer's colossal guitar tone on the quasi-industrial "The Day After 'Trinity'". Perhaps it's Goliath's vocals that make the album sound so mighty, shifting from guttural bellows to sharp shrieks on the atmospheric, poetic "Men of No Man's Land". Or perhaps it's the meaty production that turns "Stalingrad, Massengrab" into a massive, unstoppable force; an immediate black metal scorcher.

By combining all these characteristics, the Canadian quartet have crafted an album that hits with the strength of an army of gargoyles. – Antonio Poscic

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Pelican - Nighhttime Stories (Southern Lord)

Pelican is one of the more intriguing acts in the post-metal scene, because they always showed a reluctance it completely embrace that genre. Their first two records display that dichotomy, with Australasia relying on the heavier, sludge induced influences, while The Fire in Our Throats Will Beckon the Thaw verges towards the dreamy post-rock essence. But it was City of Echoes that exposed the rock vibe and attitude of the band, and it has been the pillar of their subsequent works in What We All Come to Need and Forever Becoming.

This subtle transformative process has brought to the front all the different facets of Pelican. In Nighttimes Stories, the heavy weight of the guitars, the uncanny hookiness of their leads, the melancholic touch of their lead work and the technical aptitude of the band are now front and center for all to admire.

The record was produced through a series of unfortunate events and losses, including the passings of Tusk (Pelican's art-grind mirror image) vocalist Jody Minnoch, and of guitarist Dallas Thomas's father. As a result, there's a moving sense in Nighttime Stories that arrives through the more delicate moments of opener "WST" and "It Stared at Me". Also, it appears that some of Tusk's aesthetics and characteristics have found their way in this new work, both in the form of a hazy, bitter psychedelia, masterfully displayed in "Arteries of Blacktop", and through the more aggressive outbreaks found in "Abyssal Pain".

Any creative process is influenced by a series of personal experiences and through a devastating time. Pelican has been able to hone these events in order to create one of their finest works yet. – Spyros Stasis

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Pinkish Black - Concept Unification (Relapse)

Pinkish Black are a band born of unhappy times, and have seen fit to channel their negative energy into something so powerful it's capable of dragging us all down into their swirling vortex of gloom. If 2015's Bottom of the Morning gave the impression of a band arriving, then Concept Unification has them saying "eh, fuck it" and careens off the tracks as they head once again into uncharted territory.

It's a wonderfully dark slice of synth-swaddled malevolence that transcends genre and conjures a real physical presence, despite often seeming like it's crafted little more than a poisonous purple fog. Through the haze neon lights flicker, bass riffs bloat, and inchoate vocals drift in and out like confused voices at a séance. The overriding vibe is like being stuck in a cutting room with Dario Argento, Nicolas Winding Refn, and Panos Cosmatos. The experience is strange, wild and beautiful in a terrible, unmedicated kind of way. Concept Unification brings together sorrow, malaise and spiritual decay and raises them to the point of pure, unadulterated art. – Alex Deller

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Slough Feg - New Organon (Cruz del Sur Music)

(The Lord Weird) Slough Feg are one of those bands that have been around for quite a while, but despite consistently producing quality, intriguing releases, they somehow fail to attract wider attention. On their tenth full-length, Mike Scalzi and his cohorts continue making music with voices unlike that of any other band. While ostensibly belonging to the drawer of "heavy metal", The Lord Weird Slough Feg's style is more varied, often incorporating doom metal crescendos and progressive transitions into the traditional heavy baseline.

New Organon is no different, in that respect, with the ten cuts moving elegantly from straightforward, fun romps like "Being and Nothingness" to the more intricate, folk ambience of "Coming of Age in the Milky Way". Scalzi's recognisable singing voice – a melodic howl in middle registers – is once again a centerpiece of the music.

This time, Scalzi channels his day job of a philosophy professor without restraint, dedicating the whole album to Francis Bacon's Novum Organum and related philosophical principles interjected with subtle personal vignettes. Because of Scalzi's delivery and the Lord Weird Slough Feg's general posture, it comes across as charming, not pretentious, and completes another enjoyable, idiosyncratic record for the band. – Antonio Poscic

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The Austerity Program - Bible Songs 1 (Controlled Burn)

The Austerity Program arrived in the extreme music scene of the '00s during the reign of Hydra Head. At that time the band appeared to be a true discipline of the unconventional and frenetic teachings of acts like Big Black, implementing an industrialized punk attitude and making use (fuck yeah!) of a drum machine. Even though the band would retain a sparse output, releasing just three full-length records in 12 years, they would plant the seeds for a new generation of adventurous hardcore acts, in the likes of Street Sects.

Today, The Austerity Program returns with the release of Bible Songs 1, and they remind us how potent and unconventional their approach to punk music always was. Even though their previous full-length, Beyond Calculation arrived seven years ago, these guys have not missed a beat. From the opening dissonant leads of "Isaiah 63:2-6" all of the band's dystopian aura comes out in full force. The distant vocals, howling away, the power of mechanical drumming, shining in "Ezekiel 39:17-20" encapsulate perfectly the core aesthetics of their hardcore vision.

It's the more adventurous moments that see Bible Songs 1 go over the top, with the ticking bomb progression of "Numbers 31:13-18", the sludge-oid groove of "2 Samuel 6:16-23" and the frantically, spasmodic rhythms of "2 Kings 25:1-7" stealing the show. The Austerity Program was one of the bands to follow into a subtle obscurity following the unfortunate demise of Hydra Head, but this release acts as a reminder of the potential that this act holds. – Spyros Stasis

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Yellow Eyes - Rare Field Ceiling (Gilead Media)

At a time when the black metal scene seems to tilt toward either an old-school aesthetic or the current blackgaze trend, it's refreshing to see that there are some acts that provide an alternative gateway. Connecticut's Yellow Eyes is a prime example of a band refusing to be pigeonholed into either of the aforementioned modes, and instead unleashes a different modus operandi.

Even though they follow a known recipe, combining DIY aesthetics and off-kilter aesthetics, their execution of the ingredients stand out with an almost precious clarity. This has allowed them to remain active over the years, and it's the main force behind their new album, Rare Field Ceiling.

The distinct ambiance that kicks off opener "Warmth Trance Reversal" sets the stage perfectly for the all-out attack that soon follows. Instead of calling upon the majestic tones of the likes of Emperor or early era Bathory, Yellow Eyes display a sweet spot for the dissonance of Ved Buens Ende and the unconventional progression of early black metal days Blut Aus Nord.

It's a stunning album and the DIY approach on the production side is able to breathe a sense of warmth and intimacy into the overall result. The riffs are sharp, the dissonance is echoing through the cacophonous corridors of this work and the ambient leanings of Yellow Eyes. Closer "Maritime Flare" is particularly daunting, displaying a terrifying demeanor. Tracks like "Nutrient Painting" and "No Dust" arrive with a cataclysmic manifestation and complete the sickening grin hidden behind Rare Field Ceiling. – Spyros Stasis

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Face: A Visual Odyssey (By the Book)

By turns alarming and awe-inspiring, Jessica Helfand's Face: A Visual Odyssey offers an elaborately illustrated A to Z—from the didactic anthropometry of the late 19th century to the selfie-obsessed zeitgeist of the 21st. Enjoy this excerpt of Face, courtesy of MIT Press.

Jessica Helfand
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