Smell the glove and make the sign of the umlaut, kids: announcing the second installment in our latest genre study, with Hirax, Hell, Conan, Artificial Brain, Psalm Zero, and more. Go here to read the first episode, Pt. 666.1, if you dare.
BY METAL MIKE TOLAND
Eighties refugee Hell never got to release an album during its original lifespan. Curse and Chapter (NuclearBlast), however, is the British act’s second LP since reuniting in 2008, with guitarist/producer Andy Sneap and singer David Bower (brother of bandleader Kev Bower) joining in place of original singer/string-slinger Dave G. Halliday. Nearly 30 years on, the band is in better command of its thrashing proto-power metal than ever. If the singing Bower’s roots in musical theater sometimes show a little too much, his projection-to-the-cheap seats style at least puts him on equal footing with the riff-roaring guitars. Given the genre’s continuing obsession with religion in general and Lucifer in particular, Hell’s lockjaw grip on the same subject veers between timely and quaint, but the utter conviction with which sentiments like “End ov Days” are delivered blows past any eye-rolling. Check out the raging “Age of Nefarious,” “Something Wicked This Way Comes” and “Darkangel” or the dramatic epic “A Vespertine Legacy” for catchy, exciting lessons in heavy metal bombast.
Speaking of ‘80s metal, Hirax, a veteran of that gilded age, storms back to life with Immortal Legacy (Steamhammer/SPV), its first LP in five years. The California bunch still thrashes it old-school like Metallica’s black album never happened, with Katon W. DePena’s powerhouse larynx leading the deadly charge. Cf. “Victims of the Dead” and “Tied to the Gallows Pole” for some perfectly hair-whipping kicks. Chrome Division doesn’t go back any farther than the mid-’aughties, but definitely looks to the Reagan years for inspiration. Infernal Rock Eternal (NuclearBlast), the Norwegian four-piece’s third album, finds a sweet spot between Motorhead and hair metal and rides it like a sleek Harley zooming down the road with a chick on each arm. “The Moonshine Years,” “Reaper On the Hunt” and “(She’s) Hot Tonight” rock like proper sleazebags, while “Lady of Perpetual Sorrow” digs out the ambition and acoustic guitars for something more grandiose. Sweden’s mighty Grand Magus eschew glam and go straight for blood and leather on its seventh platter Triumph and Power (NuclearBlast). Though the trio still hasn’t quite lived up to its massive potential, this is still a satisfying slice of NWOBHM-laced epic hard rock, as songs like “Steel Versus Steel,” “Holmgång” and the title cut slot nicely between Iron Maiden and Manowar.
Conan revels in the kind of slow, sludge-caked riffery found in the first Black Sabbath album. Hardly unusual for a doom trio, but the band evolves its craft to the point of near-perfection on its second album Blood Eagle (Napalm). Spiking its collective vein with the kind of wild-eyed charge favored by fellow travelers Electric Wizard and the late Cathedral, Conan literally lays it on thick here, translating the sound of Godzilla stomping through the Japanese mountains into amplifier abuse. “Crown of Talons,” “Gravity Chasm” and the relatively brief but mighty “Foehammer” wield the mace of doom with fierce power and a surprising grace. Blood Eagle climaxes with the roiling “Altar of Grief,” a rumbling roar of pain and defiance that encapsulates what both Conan and doom are all about.
Conan’s fellow Brits the Wounded Kings stride across the landscape with less elegance, but make up for it with sheer bulk on their fourth album Consolamentum (Candlelight). No need for any fancy experimentation or genre-diddling here – the flattening weight of “Lost Bride,” “The Silence” and the monstrous “Gnosis” are this band needs to be effective. Kudos especially to singer Sharie Neyland, a siren amongst monsters – a black-eyed and -hearted siren, but still. A long distance collaboration between Canadian musicians and a Swedish vokillist, Culted pukes up some particularly frosty blackened doom on its second LP Oblique to All Paths (Relapse). Redwood-thick riffs grind the soil while Daniel Jansson’s other-dimensional devil rasp finds unholy secrets in every corner of the dim, pre-dawn haze. It’s not easy listening – especially with a near-20 minute opener in “Brooding Hex” – and, frankly, it’s too long, but the creepy edge of Culted’s arty take on dinosaur sludge sets it apart.
Houston’s Omotai keeps one claw on doom-soaked sludge, the other on bristling thrashcore and its teeth in the throat of raging noise rock on its sophomore slab Fresh Hell (TheTreatyOakCollective/The Path Less Traveled). “Get Your Dead Straight,” “Back Office” and “Giant Pygmy,” the troika of tracks that open the record, wax both savage and lyrical, vein-popping and brow-furrowing, and that’s just the tip of the ship-sinking iceberg. Put this riffmongering troop on tour with fellow barbarous Texans Lions of Tsavo and you’d have a hell of a headringing double bill.
A meeting of sick minds, Artificial Brain is a collaboration betwixt Revocation picker Dan Garguilo and former Biolich frontdude Will “No, not that one” Smith. (The ashes of the apparently seminal Biolich also gave birth to the excellent Castavet.) Labyrinth Constellation (ProfoundLore), the duo’s debut full-length, puts a science fictional spin on murderous death metal, as titles like “Brain Transplant,” “Worm Harvester” and “Frozen Planets” indicate. (Smith’s vocals are beyond guttural, the lyrics a feral blur.) Apparently that theme gives Garguilo license to add subtly psychedelic bits to the teethgrinding brutality, like the droning Farfisa in “Absorbing Black Ignition” and the sine-wave synth intro, pounding doom bass, looped coda and cosmic changes of “Hormone’s Echo,” making the LP more than just a thorough pummeling.
Equally beloved and maligned, the whole stoner rock thing always seems on the verge of being done to death, but then a band comes along that reminds us why the style was cool in the first place. Cue Pagan Fruit (SmallStone), the second album from Salt Lake City’s Dwellers. The mindgames of former members of Iota and SubRosa, the record filters doomy blues rock through a blotter of shimmering desert psych, balancing Joey Toscano’s skilled axework with songwriting stepped up several notches from the group’s 2012 debut. Check out “Call of the Hallowed Horn,” “Rare Eagle” and “Return to the Sky” for some nicely illicit pleasure spikes.
There’s been a trend over the last decade or two that involves reviving progressive rock melodies and dynamics while eschewing the solos and pointless timeshifts. Norway’s Sahg definitely falls into that camp on its fourth disk Delusions of Grandeur (Metal Blade/Indie). The Bergen band keeps the melodies flowing and the sonics racing to the rafters, whether on chugging cosmic metal like “Firechild,” atmospheric riff-pounders like “Ether” or widescreen heavy prog a la “Sleepers Guide to the Galaxy.” Ambitious and powerful. Speaking of progressive, Psalm Zero reaches for that accolade as well on its debut The Drain (ProfoundLore), but in the sense of pushing the envelope of heavy rock, rather than trying to sound like Yes cranked to eleven. The duo of Charlie Looker (ex-Dirty Projectors!) and Andrew Hock (of Castavet) melds industrial rhythm programming a la Godflesh to moody, knotty, occasionally anthemic melodies, alternating broody indie boy vox (Looker) with vein-popping growls (Hock). Check out “Meanwhile,” “Force My Hand” and “In the Dead” for a rifftastic journey through the imagination of an act not content to just regurgitate familiar tropes.
The Traveling Wilburys of U.S. extreme metal, Twilight has led as tumultuous an existence as one might expect, given the personalities involved. The Stateside chapter of the black metal underworld tends to lean towards depressive misanthropy, rather than Satanic ego worship, which must’ve led to some tense group therapy sessions (AKA band meetings). Now consisting of original members N. Imperial (leader of Krieg) and Wrest (majordomo of Leviathan and its alter ego Lurker of Chalice) with Stavros Giannopoulos of the Atlas Moth, Sanford Parker of Minsk and a thousand headbanging production jobs and, shockingly, Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth, the supergroup delivers as its final album a coup de grace entitled III: Beneath Trident’s Tomb (CenturyMedia). With that pedigree, it’s no wonder some non-trad BM sounds sneak into the mix, from the alt-tuned guitar shreeng that intros “Swarming Funeral Mass” to the anthemic arpeggios of “Oh Wretched Son” and the noise rock bass thrud of “Below the Lights.” But most of the audio hallucinations herein sound like an absinthe-sodden vampire dragging itself through its own muddy lair by its broken fangs – classic black metal filth given the royal sonic treatment.
Columnist Michael Toland lives and works in Austin, TX, where, coincidentally, for a number of years a mysterious spate of as-yet-unsolved cattle mutilation crimes have been occurring at regular intervals. We at BLURT have no insight into any of this, however. His Lone Star State accomplices include The Austin Chronicle and KLRU-TV.