Music

MetalMatters: September 2019 - Back to the Grind

September is filled with exciting heavy releases, most notably the return of post-metal icons Cult of Luna, the sophomore record of post-black metal mavericks White Ward, and the resurrection of experimental proto-black metallers Mortem.

Just in case anyone still thinks that August was a quiet month, there are two releases in this month's installment featuring records that came out in August. Sect dropped a bomb with their third full-length, a surprise release filled with crust goodness. Meanwhile, Imperium Dekadenz carried on exploring their melodic black metal realm with When We Are Forgotten. Still, if anything, September is full of exciting releases, most notably the return of post-metal pioneers Cult of Luna with their Metal Blade debut, and the resurrection of Norway's Mortem, in many ways a precursor to the experimental branch of the Scandinavian black metal scene.

And yet, it feels like this is a month of post-(insert your preferred genre here) artists coming into their own. HarborLights take a magnificent leap forward with Isolation Ritual, taking us back in times to the majesty of the 2000s post-metal scene. Eye Flys diverge into the adventurous post-hardcore territory. Copperhead drop a multilayered work in debut record Gazing into the Dark. While Heaven's Club retreat to heavily induced krautrock, kosmische musik dreamscape, and White Ward capitalize on their dark, noir-esque take on modern black metal. Of course, the traditional elements of the genre are still heavily represented by ambient/black metal spiritualists Ancient Moon, doom orthodox Crypt Sermon, and black/death powerhouse Nightfell.

Heavy Metal Guitarist by The Digital Artist (CCO Creative Commons /

Ancient Moon - Benedictus Diabolica, Gloria Patri (Iron Bonehead)

Ancient Moon have veiled themselves in an aura of mystique that perfectly compliments their ambient take on the black metal genre. Spread across different European countries, this trio have produced a bitter take on the atmospheric side of the genre. Instead of following the folkish direction that many of their black metal brethren choose, Ancient Moon embrace the pitch-black ritualism of ambient music. That has infused their works with a realistic sense of horror, prolonged to devastating effect by their long, overarching compositions.

Ancient Moon now return with another haunting work in Benedictus Diabolica, Gloria Patri. The harrowing presence is invoked from the opening seconds of this 37-minute opus through the faraway guitar feedback. Getting closer and closer the part erupts in an epic riff with a strong dissonant quality. What is key here is the approach of Ancient Moon. Instead of unleashing an in-your-face assault, they take a more detached perspective, which in the process constructs a terrifying ceremonial structure. Liturgical chants and eerie tones join in enhancing the experience, with the band then suddenly dropping everything in favor of a minimalist ambient passage.

The metamorphosis of Ancient Moon through this work is constant. The band move into heavier territory, as in the start of the second side with the slower pace, or retreat into absolute ambient bliss, with the addition of dissolving vocals and sparse drums. The relentless finale of the record sees Ancient Moon dive completely in the dissonant black metal realm, through blazing riffs and harsh vocals while at the same time retaining the devilish essence of this work. – Spyros Stasis

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Copperhead - Gazing in the Dark (PTP)

Neurosis, Melvins, Helmet, Godflesh, the Jesus Lizard, Unsane, Tool, and Bad Brains. Shards of these bands can be easily heard in Copperhead's music. Yet, the post-hardcore and noise rock project by the Richmond, Virginia musician David Leonard sounds nothing like them. In comparison, the aforementioned bunch are clean and polished. Safe. Because there is a pure fury hidden within Gazing in the Dark that poisons the compositions and sharpens our vision. Styles are retooled and repurposed into subversive homages and mirrors, revealing society's ugly truths. Dorian Gray paintings turned into billboards. True to the PTP label credo, this is weaponized music.

Copperhead's artillery of sounds recombines itself continually through inflections that range from hard grooves and sharp guitar attacks through marching rhythms to blindingly dark implosions. And beneath this sonic onslaught, heartbreaking and enraging stories bubble up. "Hell is now," Leonard growls on the scorching "Sound Bath/Sub Lingual". "Don't you trust me, don't you respect me," he screams against a sludge backdrop on "High Production Land/Nothin'", seconds after a cynical lounge jazz segment fades out "The Driver". "Why won't it rain here in this daydream," he mourns on "Daydream Freefall Hecatomb", accompanied by painful feedback and digging bass, shaping a story that is oblique and direct and personal and political. And that needs to be heard. – Antonio Poscic

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Crypt Sermon - The Ruins of Fading Light (Dark Descent)

In the beginning, it's all about transporting the listener to a different time and place. Horses gallop. Trumpets blare. Chain mail clinks and clanks. The sonic imagery projects medieval mysticism and grandeur. You can almost see, feel, and smell this archaic world. Then the bombastic riffs crash in and translate the opening Gothic pomp into exquisite metal heaviness on "The Ninth Templar". From this point forward, The Ruins of Fading Light—Philadelphia's Crypt Sermon's sophomore release—dons the cape of a majestic record, both in terms of sheer sound and thematic focus. Compared to their excellent 2015 debut Out of the Garden, it shows an evolved band whose approach blurs the lines between epic doom sagas and traditional metal anthems.

Other than a few slower doom marches like "Christ Is Dead" and atmosphere building interludes like "Oath of Exile" and "Enslave the Heathens", the album has a distinctly agile, melodious, and riff-oriented flow, courtesy of Steve Jannson and James Lipczynski's masterful guitaristic interplay. Amidst the meaty heaviness arranged into well-written and diverse compositions, Brooks Wilson stretches his vocal cords by going both higher and lower than before. That gives the final touch to what is simply an excellent metal album. – Antonio Poscic

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Cult of Luna - A Dawn to Fear (Metal Blade)

The landscape of Cult of Luna's excellent 2016 full-length Mariner was inhabited by rising, vertiginously high pillars of atmosphere and mood. On top of them, they placed painstakingly built plateaus of sludge and doom. Above it all, Julie Christmas' soaring voice danced. It was a monolithic, often droning sound that tamed the Swedish band's usual compositional intricacy. Now, A Dawn to Fear taps again into that imposing fabric, unravels it, and reshapes it into progressive post-metal epics.

The album is dominated by a gorgeous sense of progression, sonic world-building, and inspired affectivity that post-metal lacked since the venerable Giant Squid went into hibernation. Throughout the eight tracks, styles, tempos, rhythms, and melodies change continually. While the opening "The Silent Man" might lead with grungy riffs and mid-tempo meanderings sheathed in the usual post-metal patience, it soon explodes into roaring sludge, at turns melodious and destructive, before calming itself into an Earth-like atmospheric drone. Despite the length of the album, there is not one moment that feels superfluous. Best enjoyed as a whole; it feels a bit of a sacrilege to pick the album apart. But pay attention to the organ-underscored moments of "A Dawn to Fear" and the elongated, forlorn synth dirges of "Inland Rain" if you need proof of the sublime. – Antonio Poscic

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Eye Flys - Context (Thrill Jockey)

These are some of the most interesting days of the extreme metal scene, where entities attempt to push the boundaries of the genre by performing ambitious genre-hopping through any direction. The Body, Uniform, and Full of Hell might share this common vision, but they approach things in very different ways. The Body excel in disfiguring pseudo-pop notions through a noise-induced sludge kaleidoscope. Uniform embrace the mechanized industrial majesty, while Full of Hell awaken the powerviolence ethics. Yet, Full of Hell are not alone in this version, and they are joined by some fantastic comrades, among them the mighty Backslider, focusing on a heavier groove but with an equally aggressive outlook and the manic Triac, who fully adopt the grindcore essence. So, what is the result of mixing Full of Hell with Backslider and Triac? It is Eye Flys, and although you might expect a lightning-fast, caustic record filled with cutthroat vocals, the result is quite different.

Eye Flys step outside the comfort zone of grind and hardcore music, and instead traverse the realm of heavy hardcore, with an off-kilter edge. Context is a record where volatile progressions and dissonant lead work reigns, with "Dosed" highlighting both facts vividly. The heavy grooves of "Crushing the Human Spirit" eerily implode, unleashing a drunken progression that awakens a nauseating effect. Eye Flys then dive headfirst into the unforgiving, almost straightforward hardcore of "Weaponize". While the initial instinct of Eye Flys might have been to perform the same extreme etude in pushing the boundaries of what is sonically feasible, they have taken a detour through the riches left behind by the likes of Unsane. How closing track "Fuckface" says farewell, triggering an asphyxiating assault through a barrage of heavy riffs, owes a lot to the best that intelligent hardcore music has offered through the years. – Spyros Stasis

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HarborLights - Isolation Ritual (Deathwish Inc)

Post-metal is an amorphous entity, its tentacle-like extensions ranging from the furthest reaches of forward-thinking hardcore to the deep, ambient realms of minimalistic rock. It is common for artists in that domain to find a specific leaning and stick with it, but HarborLights are not like most. The quartet from Revere, Massachusetts had earlier produced two very promising EPs and a strong debut in Under the Spreading Chestnut Tree. But their rise is now accelerated with sophomore album Isolation Ritual.

HarborLights possess a melodic core aesthetic displayed through various forms. "From Virtue (Sacrament)" travels to the most mellow side of modern post-hardcore, with a stunning vocal delivery awakening a distinct sentimentality. "Ego Ideal" follows a similar ideal, however at this point, HarborLights let in the darker post-rock aesthetic, resulting in a more harrowing and menacing ambiance. This is the connective tissue with the abstract side of post-metal that HarborLights keenly venture on. "Skinwalker" brings to mind the latter days of the mighty instrumental post-rock scene, while the extravagant weight of tracks like "Eternal Return" and "... And Hell Followed" relish the intersection between sludge and post-metal. In the end, it is the willingness of HarborLights to transform through parts, channeling the post-metal sound in its entirety to produce a solid result. – Spyros Stasis

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Heaven's Club - Here There and Nowhere (Profound Lore)

Shiv Mehra joined Deafheaven shortly after the band had released its seminal work Sunbather, solidifying their shoegaze informed black metal sound. Despite the adventurous quality of Deafheaven, Mehra sought another outlet to explore his experimental tendencies further, and that is how Heaven's Club was born. Now joined by several outstanding musicians, among them Deafheaven drummer Dan Tracy, Mehra unleashes a beautiful debut with Here There and Nowhere.

Heaven's Club warp experimental rock in its various flavors to construct their elusive identity. The kickoff with "Mnemonic" screams with the post-punk ethos, fuelled by the genre's trademark drum progression and over the top '80s synth sounds. Mesmerizing vocal lines expand, coloring the soundscapes brilliantly before the band plunges into the heavier, edgy world of alternative rock with the in-your-face attitude of "Dreambot".

Things only get stranger and more marvelous from that point on as the shoegaze glaze of "Alone in Dresden" unfolds, and the melancholic ballad-esque "Great Grief" and "Godiva" take over. The latter also sheds light into the prominent experimentalism that defines Heaven's Club, as piercing synths scream with a kosmische musik element. It is the way that Mehra and company navigate through the dissonance and krautrock essence of a track like "The Frail" and then return to the semi-acoustic melodies of "Mother" that encapsulates the very essence of this work. Here There and Nowhere is a brainy album with a lot of heart. – Spyros Stasis

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Imperium Dekadenz - When We Are Forgotten (Napalm)

Just because a recipe is tried, tested, and has endured through time, does not mean that it is simple. And bands have stumbled when taking on the melodic black metal mantle. Imperium Dekadenz from Germany understand that fact and do not simply enrich their sound with a few fancy lead parts. Despite the raw sound of their debut record ...und die Welt ward kalt und leer, Imperium Dekadenz displayed an uncanny ability of infusing their black metal core with a strong emotional quality. Through the years the band focused on perfecting this sound, and with the release of their sixth full-length When We Are Forgotten it seems like they have arrived.

Imperium Dekadenz don't seek to break molds with When We Are Forgotten; the band knows its strengths and fully utilizes them. The atmosphere of the title track ties in perfectly with the melancholic element and gains a bit more traction when the upbeat progression joins in. The experience feels all-encompassing with Imperium Dekadenz constructing an encircling space that, at times, becomes overwhelming. Despite this approach, Imperium Dekadenz don't aim for only a crushing recital but offer some cathartic respite. "Bis Ich Bin" is a perfect example of this approach, as the initial, crushing riffs arrive at a constant, unyielding outbreak filled with beautifully woven guitar phrases.

Still, the band doesn't rely only on melody and the rise of ambiance, and "My Solace I" brings forth a different flavor, as the epic vocal narration amidst the hazy space unfolds. "Behold the Flames of Time" takes a similarly atmospheric path. Although a folky element rises through the stunning ambient passages, perfectly paving the way for the most brutal moment of the record in closer "Owl of the Black Forest". In this final moment, Imperium Dekadenz draw from both melody and dissonance to create a devastating offering, closing the album on a high note. – Spyros Stasis

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Mortem - Ravnsvart (Peaceville Records)

Mortem's Ravnsvart is a sort of alternate history, an open-ended answer to the "what ifs" of Scandinavian black metal, and a peek into parallel lineages of the genre's avant-garde tendencies. Originally formed in 1987 by Steinar Sverd Johnsen and Marius Vold—both of whom later participated in the inception of Arcturus—the band existed during the crucial and tumultuous early days of black metal only to gradually disappear after releasing the Slow Death demo in 1989. Their style was raw and oppressive, far removed from Arcturus's later avant experiments and symphonic deviations.

When he reformed the group with Vold in early 2018—joined by Hellhammer (Mayhem) and Tor Stavenes (1349)—Johnsen imagined Mortem as a way of reviving early black metal's sense of danger and rawness within the progressive style nurtured by Arcturus. And vice versa. With Ravnsvart, he has achieved just that. While the album doesn't shy away from using flashes of Arcturus's vocabulary, its baseline is meaner and coarser, almost Bathory-like, with tremolos sparkling in aggressive, incisive lines around relentless blast beats. The result? There's as much Mayhem and Darkthrone in the atmospheric title track "Ravnsvart" as there is experimentation and grandiosity à la Borknagar and Arcturus in the synth-driven "Truly Damned" and the war metal of cosmic proportions on "The Core." In that sense, Ravnsvart is a timeless album: one that might have existed in the 1990s, but that still feels contemporary and original. – Antonio Poscic

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Nightfell - A Sanity Deranged (20 Buck Spin)

Portland, Oregon Nightfell's third full-length A Sanity Deranged is a beautiful shrine built in the name of the most mournful and seductive dark aspects of death, black, and doom metal. A lamentation about the end of the world. An object of stylistic synthesis and focus for metal journeymen Tim Call (Mournful Congregation, Sempiternal Dusk, The Howling Wind) and Todd Burdette (Trauma, Tragedy).

Apart from the atmospheric intermission "(Holiness Digested)", A Sanity Deranged is devoid of any meanderings and loose ends. Instead, it romps through its 35 minutes with an acute gusto. First, they alternate crunchy riffs and ritualistic tom rhythms amongst the blackened death tumult of "No Life Leaves Here". Then, "(As Now) We Must Succumb" cradles lovely melodies in its doomy embrace and "To the Flame" expands beyond the anthemic with growled and chanted call and response segments. Finally, they breathe in tremolos and breathe out harmonies and grooves on "The Swallowing of Flies" and "Sanity Deranged", punctuating the record with subdued aggression and doom pathos. – Antonio Poscic

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Sect - Blood of the Beasts (Southern Lord)

There is no denying that Sect are crust royalty. Straight from the hardcore hall of fame, members of Earth Crisis, Catharsis, and Cursed came together to create one of the most caustic, abrasive and in-your-face acts out there. Sect thrived in utter destruction and aggression, unleashing short records filled with an excruciating sense of urgency and relentless, agonizing energy. A self-titled record, the excellent No Cure of Death led the way, and now the band returns with a surprise release in Blood of the Beasts.

Although the release was kept under wraps and the record arrived like a meteor, there are no surprises when it comes to Sect's modus operandi. A primal scream introduces this blazing inferno in "Like Animals", with Sect spasmodically pass from hardcore groove to crust progression through grind-esque speed, all in 81 seconds. The same pedal to the metal attitude carries on with "You Too Will Scatter", with the track dropping the tempo near the end and establishing a heavier groove that washes over "Wait".

And yet, Blood of the Beasts is in a constant state of explosion, even when the heavier bits of "Redundant Gods" creep in or the downtrodden mayhem and decadence highlighted in "The Blankest Cheque". As always Sect keep the best for the last, and in this case "Skies Wide Shut" they unleash an overwhelming all-out assault through sluggish pace and gut-wrenching perspective. The world that Sect present might be volatile, always switching and changing erratically. Yet, their offerings have always been consistent, and that is eerily soothing. – Spyros Stasis

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White Ward - Love Exchange Failure (Debemur Morti)

The fumey visions of Alcest of combining the dreamy sound of new wave with the desolate and melancholic aspect of black metal ushered forth a revolution in extreme metal. Deafheaven infuse their black metal aesthetics with a stronger shoegaze element. Yet, in this ongoing evolution of what has come to be known as "post-black metal", there are already divergents. White Ward started their musical journey standing firmly on the core post-black metal sound, but through the years they have refused to remain static. This adventurous perspective led to 2017's Futility Report, a record combining the ambient and noir side of dark jazz with the ethereal and cathartic essence of post-black metal.

Now White Ward return with Love Exchange Failure with a much more ambitious scope. The duration of this work cloaks at about 67 minutes, about 30 minutes more than Futility Report, but it is the way the narrative flows that sets it apart. The construction of scenery starts through the mysterious field recordings and a distinct Bohren & der Club of Gore influence as the opening track unfolds. The break from the ambient motifs into the tempest of heavy guitars feels only natural, as White Ward furiously crash through lightning-fast blastbeats and ferocious, continuous riffs. But these two worlds are not distinctly separate, and White Ward can flawlessly combine them.

The ending of "Poisonous Flowers of Violence" finds the reverberated piano at the center of an ongoing shoegaze-induced outbreak, still able to cut through the mix and deliver its trademark melancholic message. Similarly, "Dead Heart Confession" binds these two paradigms together, achieving a mind-bending element through a vertigo-inducing ambient part. It is this craftsmanship, this intricate storytelling ability and structuring that sets White Ward apart, and make Love Exchange Failure such an enticing listen. – Spyros Stasis

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The Cigarette: A Political History (By the Book)

Sarah Milov's The Cigarette restores politics to its rightful place in the tale of tobacco's rise and fall, illustrating America's continuing battles over corporate influence, individual responsibility, collective choice, and the scope of governmental power. Enjoy this excerpt from Chapter 5. "Inventing the Nonsmoker".

Sarah Milov
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