Smell the glove and make the sign of the umlaut, kids: announcing the fifth installment in our latest genre study, with Dawnbringer, Electric Wizard, King Diamond, Atriarch, At The Gates, Godflesh and more. Go here to read the hellish first episode, Pt. 666.1, or the second, Pt. 666.2, or the third, Pt. 666.3, or the fourth, Pt. 666.4—if you dare.
BY METAL MIKE TOLAND
2014 was a good year for metal, with a ton of strong records from artists young and old. Rather than sum up the best of the best, we’ve elected to keep on with the latest releases, which, considering how good most of these LPs are, still gives you new goodies to add to your last-minute shopping list.
Chicago metal master Chris Black already put out one of 2014’s best heavy rock records with High Spirits’ You Are Here, but he apparently wasn’t done. As Dawnbringer, Black ups his game again with Night of the Hammer (Profound Lore) (album cover artwork is above, listen HERE) the fourth LP from his main (or at least best-known) project. Fielding a classic metal sound somewhere between late 70s Sabbath and early Iron Maiden, Black expands his thematic reach beyond the romantic confessionals of his High Spirits work, taking on war (“The Burning of Home”), mythology (the waltz-time “Xiphias”), vengeance (“Damn You”) and isolation (“Alien”). He seems most at home, though, with a series of death-fixated horror stories, riffing his way through the creepiness of the King Diamond tribute “Funeral Child,” “One-Eyed Sister” and the powerhouse “Hands of Death.” Regardless of his obsessions, though, Black always maintains the strength of his tunesmanship, without stinting on the heavy. As filtered through his plainspoken but instantly appealing voice and the triple guitar attack of himself, Bill Palko and Matt Johnsen, there simply may not be a finer melody maker in all of metal. Night of the Hammer isn’t quite the mindblower of Dawnbringer’s masterpiece In the Lair of the Sun God, but it’s the essence of Black’s vision distilled into one amazing album.
Doom titan Electric Wizard returns from another one of its (no doubt debauched) sabbaticals with Time to Die (Witchfinder/Spinefarm). Depending on your perspective, this is either a throwback or a return to form, as the band goes back to the slow, pounding, acid-drenched horror of its early days. There’s not a lot of the more uptempo rock & roll tunes the Dorset quartet has been experimenting with the past few records – just bad-trip agony translated into Hammer horror devil worship. Check out “Lucifer’s Slaves,” “Sadio Witch” and the awesome “I am Nothing” (watch video HERE) for some deliciously occult kicks. If song titles like “Sabbath Hex,” “The Devil’s Whip” and “Demon Blues” say anything, Orange Goblin shares a similar taste for B-movie esoterics on its latest album Back From the Abyss (Candlelight) (listen HERE). The London quartet’s cosmic biker doom sounds recharged here, with a bluesier cast than it’s managed since its early days, giving the riffs powering “Mythical Knives,” “Heavy Wears the Crown” and “Bloodzilla” a weight beyond amplifier settings. Also, a tip o’ the tentacle for adapting H.P. Lovecraft’s masterpiece “A Shadow Over Innsmouth.”
From its name, you’d expect The Flight of Sleipnir (above) to be obsessed with Norse mythology. But on V (Napalm), the acid doom duo seems less concerned with specific tales of Odin’s eight-legged steed than, as its Facebook page puts it, “a musical interpretation of the writings of poets long since gone.” That leaves the field pretty wide open, a situation the band takes advantage of by moving from ethereal float to shrieking pound with a flick of the mane. “Gullveig,” “Archaic Rites” and “Sidereal Course” soar and crawl, sing and crunch, spiking powerhouse thud with undulating acoustica and casting a cloudy spell that makes it unclear whether it will help or harm.
Ides of Gemini gets even more enigmatic on Old World New Wave (Neurot), delving into vintage mythology from several cultures in its quest for perfect doom. Both heavier and more psychedelic than singer Sera Timms’ former outfit Black Math Horseman, IoG gets metaphysical on haunted but surprisingly beautiful doomgazers like “Seer of Circassia,” “The Adversary” and “White Hart.” Boston newcomer Wormwood, however, eschews the more psychedelic side of doom on its self-titled debut EP (Magic Bullet) (listen HERE). “Hollow Black Eyes” and “I’d Rather Die” elevate depressive sludge over trippy atmospherics to evil effect.
On the more extreme side, veteran death metal act At the Gates (above) has finally released its long-awaited reunion album At War With Reality (Century Media). Perfectly balancing traditional death with the melodic thrash the Swedish quintet exploited so well on its classic Slaughter of the Soul nearly 20 years ago, the band sounds revitalized. Axemen Andreas and Jonas Björler furiously riff off each other, drummer Adrian Erlandsson bashes like an extreme metal Keith Moon and singer Tomas Lindberg wails with the inchoate power of the truly enraged. Even better, the band’s song-authoring mojo is in full flight – “The Circular Ruins,” “Eater of Gods” and “The Head of the Hydra” make all the metalcore and deathcore upstarts who claim the group as inspiration sound like petulant children. As with Carcass last year, At the Gates proves that the old dogs still hunt (and rip and tear flesh).
On the black metal front, the big news is III (I, Voidhanger), the latest slab from Spectral Lore. Or it would be, if the one-man-band didn’t hail from Greece and release records on the offshoot of an Italian label with no U.S. distribution. Multi-instrumentalist/composer Ayloss owns an ambitious sweep, leavening his mournful aggression with widescreen passages of prog, classic metal, space rock and acoustic work that sounds like a gothic take on James Blackshaw. With a passion for melody as strong as his jones for dissonance, Ayloss swings between savage and serene, raging and rocking, teethgnashingly brutal and startlingly beautiful. The record’s 90 minutes is a true pleasure to get lost in.
The return of Godflesh came as no real surprise, as brain trust Justin Broaderick’s metalgaze project Jesu seemed to have run out of steam. What is somewhat of a shock is how fresh and exciting A World Lit Only By Fire (Avalanche) (listen HERE) is. Broaderick’s six-string shreck and angry bark hit like boxing gloves hiding bricks, while G.C. Green’s ribcage-rattling basslines and the ice-cold drum machine patterns finish the damage. The harsh pummeling dealt out by “Shut Me Down,” “Towers of Emptiness” and “Curse Us All” will feel familiar to victims of ‘flesh classics Streetcleaner and Pure, while “Imperator” and “Forgive Our Fathers” demonstrate that Broaderick hasn’t left the textural explorations of Jesu in the closet. Like Godflesh, Today is the Day is practically a genre unto itself. Animal Mother (Southern Lord), the trio’s tenth helping of discordant anguish (a description, not a value judgment), takes a tiny step toward accessibility, with catchy riffs and easily moshable rhythms supporting leader Steve Austin’s usual clashing dissonance and distorted vocal smears. Anger, spite and flat-out hatred power Austin’s rants, whether they’re short bursts of invective like “Divine Reward” and “Imperfection” or more complex riffers a la “The Last Stand” and “Sick of Your Mouth.” Add the acoustic seether “Outlaw,” the lush instrumental “Bloodwood” and the noisecore acid metal epic “Zodiac” and it’s a party. One for armed, cranky sociopaths, but still. (Watch “Masada” video below.)
Giant Squid, too, avoids obvious genre affiliations, folding in progressive rock, gothic pop, experimental ambience and anything else it favors into its epic doom. Minoans (Translation Loss) (listen HERE), the San Francisco band’s latest album, comes off as both mournful and majestic, as “Minoans,” “Sixty Foot Waves” and “The Pearl and the Parthenon” move in waves of grungy guitar, plangent cello, shimmering vocals and naked emotion.
Up the coast from Giant Squid, Portland’s Usnea translates the sight of a deep-sea leviathan rising slowing from the depths to wreak havoc on the nearest city on its big label debut Random Cosmic Violence (Relapse). Moving from melancholy to malicious to monstrous, eardrum-multilators “Healing Through Death” and the title cut pour on the blackened sludge/doom, leaving no cochlea undefiled as they flow. Splitting the destinational difference, Wizard Rifle – born in Portland, based in L.A. – swirls punk and noise rock nougats into its doom metal ice cream on its second album Here in the Deadlights (Seventh Rule). From the rattling pogo of “Psychodynamo” to the thudding roar of “Crystal Witch and the stomping grunge of “Beastwhores,” the duo wreaks havoc across the fields like an invading army of hyperactive goblins.
Atriarch (above) goes even further out onto the fringes on An Unending Pathway (Relapse). Not that combining gothic death rock with blackened doom requires a genius level intellect to bring forth, but the Nashville (yes, you read that right) band’s third record wallows in gloom and doom with both widescreen sorrow and malevolent aggression. Like Christian Death in an orgy with Emperor, “Bereavement” and “Allfather” maintain melancholy melodics while still crushing bricks with bare claws, going completely off the rails on the cathartic closing track “Veil.” Brooklyn’s Occultation mines a similar black hole on its second LP Silence in the Ancestral House (Profound Lore), dropping the black metal vokills and incorporating majestic prog rock and galloping NWoBHM into gothic epics like “The Place Behind the Sky,” “The Dream Tide” and “Laughter in the Halls of Madness.” Over the top? Sure, but the band’s inherent melodicism (credit guitarist E.M.) and singer V.B.’s icy dignity sell it without guilt.
London’s Hang the Bastard puts rumbling doom, savage black metal, spacy psychedelia and beefy death metal into a blender and pour out a spiked, bitter smoothie with Sex in the Seventh Circle (SOAR/Century Media). Few bands can shift as easily from thrashing boogie (“Absorption”) to beastly extremity (“Hornfel”) to evil acid rock (“Mist of Albion”) and not grind the gears, but HtB makes it work.
Veteran Irish horde Primordial has blown way past its black metal origins with a smorgasbord of styles on its latest Where Greater Men Have Fallen (Metal Blade). Channel everything from black metal to folk to goth to NWoBHM, the quintet gallops across the windy fields of Celtic myth to the tune of burly epics “Comes the Flood,” “The Alchemist’s Head” and “Wield Lightning to Split the Sun.” Like its U.K. brethren, Austin’s Dead Earth Politics doesn’t bother showing genre loyalty on its latest EP The Queen of Steel (self–released). Death metal, thrash, NWOBHM, doom – it’s all the same to them. That makes the galloping title cut, the chugging “Madness of the Wanderer” and the blazing anthem “Redneck Dragonslayer” brutal, dissonant and catchy all at once – great metal, in other words.
From Columbus with power: Lo-Pan’s fourth LP Colossus (Small Stone) (listen HERE) fulfills the Ohio quartet’s promise and then some. Perfectly balancing ‘70s boogiegrunge with ‘90s artcrunch, the band makes an epic noise that grooves even as it stomps. Singer Jeff Martin, with his clear, muscular keen, is the star, but his bandmates give him the perfect backdrop over which to soar. Check out “Eastern Seas,” “Black Top Revelation” and the highway-cruising “Marathon Man” and alternate between banging your head in abandon and nodding it in appreciation.
After nearly 35 years as the pre-eminent corpsepaint-wearing LaVeyan Satanist in the headbanging business, King Diamond (above) can lay claim to legendary status. Temporarily felled by major bypass surgery, the Denmark-born, Dallas-based horror metal auteur just finished a triumphant comeback tour that found him not only in fine voice (amazing what finally quitting smoking can do for you) but with a new lease on life. Given his work’s obsession with death – more specifically what happens after, in the form of ghosts, demons and revenge from beyond the grave – that could be seen as ironic, we suppose. Regardless, the old devil is back to full power, celebrating his vast catalog of fright-soaked power/prog/black metal with the two-disk best-of Dreams of Horror (Metal Blade). Personally curated by King and his longtime guitarist Andy LaRocque, who also remastered the tracks for depth and clarity instead of volume, Dreams covers both the Roadrunner and Metal Blade eras and stands as the definitive collection so far. Whether you’re a diehard looking for a refresher course or a newcomer wanting to sample one of underground metal’s most flamboyant and imaginative characters, this is absolutely the place to start.
Columnist Michael Toland lives and works in Austin, TX, where, coincidentally, a series of mysterious upside-down crucifix crop circles have been turning up in the nearby soybean fields. We at BLURT have no spare time to look into any of this, however, because we spend all our time spellchecking the band names in his blog entries. Toland’s Lone Star State accomplices include The Austin Chronicle and KLRU-TV.