Smell the glove and make the sign of the umlaut, kids: announcing the fourth installment in our latest genre study, with Witch Mountain, Khold, Myrkur, Panopticon, The Skull, Black Trip and more. Go here to read the first episode, Pt. 666.1, or the second, Pt. 666.2, or the third, Pt. 666.3 —if you dare.
BY METAL MIKE TOLAND
With its image of lo-fi primitivism, cartoonish Satanism and anti-everything rhetoric, black metal makes itself hard to take seriously, especially as any kind of musical art. Not that there’s anything wrong with the cruder strain of black metal, mind you – noisy, nihilist screeds can often be a bracing tonic to a shittastic day, and many of its purveyors give good RRAWRRGGGH. But plenty of black metal maniacs maintain actual honest-to-Baal artistic values, making music that’s not just for chronic thrashaholics with anger management issues. Chief among them, at least to our ears, is Panopticon, whose latest album Roads to the North (artwork pictured above; released by Nordvis/Bindrune;) finds the acclaimed one-man-USBM-band reaching a new peak. Kentucky-to-Minnesota (with an inspirational sidetrip through Norway, where black metal as we know it was born) maverick Austin Lunn gained fame outside of underground headbanger circles with Panopticon’s previous platter Kentucky, which somehow managed to combine sweeping black metal with Appalachian folk music and pro-union sentiments to amazing effect. Roads takes the same mix and expands it even further, injecting more sweep into the melodies, more traditionalism into the folk atmospheres and a finely honed sense of craft.
Multi-instrumentalist Lunn (guitars, drums, dobro, keys, flute – everything but the fiddle) clearly takes the precision and skill with which he conjures tunes like the blazing “…In Silence,” the lovely “Norwegian Nights” and the epic “Where Mountains Pierce the Sky” very seriously, and producer Colin Marston (Dysrhythmia, Krallice) captures the orgy of banjos, Mellotrons, power chords and eviscerating shrieks with perfect clarity. Look no further than the madly ambitious multi-parter “The Long Road,” where Lunn puts all his metal/prog/folk/etc. eggs into one pan and cooks the richest black metal epic you’ve ever tasted. Roads to the North is the sound of an artist truly coming into his own, and it’s magnificent.
Speaking of artistic black metal, one of the veteran flag-fliers for that notion is Blake Judd, who’s released a series of strong, boundary-pushing LPs under the name Nachtmystium. The World We Left Behind (CenturyMedia) may or may not be the final Nachtmystium album – the Chicagoan’s well-publicized struggles with smack and the attendant personal and professional fallout tend to make getting reliable information a challenge. Regardless, it’s a solid album, heavy on melodic riffs, loping rhythms, personal (if occasionally awkward) lyrics and even, on “On the Other Side,” some straightforward rock & roll – well worth hearing unless you’re sick of Judd’s alleged junksick shenanigans. Trading under the band name Krieg, Judd’s former Twilight cohort Imperial (Neill Jameson to his mom) also has a new record, his first in four years.
Outside of the mysterious spoken word/ambient/folk track “Home,” Transient (Candlelight) bathes in the old school black metal sound, with a smoky atmosphere laid over a mid-fi aggressive attack that’s all riff and roar. Check the thundering “Return Fire” and “Order of the Solitary Road” and the galloping “Walk With Them Unnoticed” for some righteous fistpumping action. And speaking of black metal comebacks, Khold suddenly resurfaces after a half-dozen years with the fang-grinding Til Endes (Peaceville).
The Norwegian duo has always eschewed both the proggy symphonic elements and the low-fi crud their peers on either side of the fence embrace, preferring a straightforward and brutal but highly crafted and clearly recorded sonic hurricane that owes as much to ‘80s hard rock and ‘90s groove metal as to the usual Nordic shitstorms. (They’re also in possession of some of the genre’s creepiest corpsepaint designs.) “Skogens úye,” “Dommens Arme” and “Det Dunkle Dyp” blast in the most grinding but graceful way.
Black metal ain’t all grizzled vets these days, though – check out Myrkur, a one-woman-band from Denmark whose self-titled debut EP (Relapse) fields an expert blend of ghostly ethereality and monstrous bash ‘n’ crash. As with Panopticon above, Myrkur (AKA Amalie Bruun of Ex-Cops) flourishes in studio solitude – “Nattens Barn,” “Dybt i Skoven” and “Må Du Brænde i Helvede” paint vast landscapes of twilight skies, scorched landscapes and phantom Nordic gods watching over it all with mournful bloodthirst. She covers a lot of ground in less than 25 minutes, making a strong statement while still leaving us slavering for more. [She also makes it tough on this magazine’s spellchecking program too, Toland! –Frazzled SpellCheck Ed.]
Vocalist Eric Wagner, bassist Ron Holzner and drummer Jeff Olson were mainstays of Chicago metal godhead Trouble for decades; now, with ex-Pentagram guitarist Matt Goldsborough and Sacred Dawn axeman Lothar Keller, they’ve formed The Skull, picking up on debut LP For Those Which Are Asleep (TeePee) where they feel Trouble left off. (We covered The Skull’s debut 7-inch here.)
The combo of the pickers’ thick riffing, the rhythm section’s powerhouse propulsion and the singer’s distinctive moaning wail will flick the switch of any headbanger missing that classic Trouble sound since Wagner quit. “A New Generation,” “The Door” and the title track slash and pound with the winning combination of menacing doom, brash NWoBHM and bad acid psychedelia that Trouble did so very well back in the 80s and 90s. To be frank, For Those Which Are Asleep beats the feces out of Trouble’s recent Wagner-less comebackrecord, and while music isn’t a competition, it’s telling that the singer holds the keys to such a classic sound tighter than the latest incarnation of the original band.
Another new outfit led by a veteran, Death Penalty strikes a similar balance betwixt fistpumping metal anthemry and ribcage-crushing grunge on its self-titled debut album (RiseAbove). Though primarily a Belgian outfit, the prime mover here is Cathedral axewielder Gaz Jennings, whose concrete-chewing tone has risen from his former band’s ashes intact. That said, his riffstrangling shares the frontline with singer Michelle Nocon, who more than holds her own on chugging blasters “Golden Tide,” “Immortal By Your Hand” and “Howling at the Throne of Decadence.” Nocon and Jennings equal a one-two punch you’ll be happy to be beaten by. Another new band of old dogs, The Dagger puts members of extreme metallers Dismember, Grave and Necronaut through a tradmetal sieve on the Swedish quartet’s self-titled debut (CenturyMedia). The presence of Nordic superproducer Fred Estby ensures superb sonics, but it’s the swooping melodies and the clarity in Jani Kataja’s larynx that make “Call of 9,” “Nocturnal Triumph” and “1978” stand out from the retro metal pack.
Not to be outdone, Black Trip (SWE) also boasts a membership drawn from the Swedish extreme scene, including Entombed, Enforcer, Nifelheim and, yes, Dismember. Guess the Swedes are getting tired of the werewolf vocals. Either way, Goin’ Under (Prosthetic) also dips into the anthemic hard rock/metal pool up to its knees. Frontdude Joseph Tholl has a grittier, more working class style than the usual clear-voiced bellowers in this genre, but it’s the quality of the writing that carries “Putting Out the Fire,” “The Bells” and “Voodoo Queen” to glory.
While also hailing from Sweden, Saturn doesn’t claim an august lineage. It does pack plenty of riffs on its debut Ascending (Live in Space) (Rise Above), however, as well as a street metal vibe that keeps “Rokktori,” “Peasant” and “So, You Have Chosen Death” lean, mean and masterful. A touch of psychedelia adorns “Last Man in Space” in order to justify the album title. Norway’s puzzlingly named Lonely Kamel dials even further back on Shit City (Napalm), adding bolts of punky aggression, bluesy boogie and growling doom. Less psychedelic than Kadavar but also less NWoBHM than its Scandinavian fellow travelers, LK swings riffcrunch and attitude in equal doses on “I Feel Sick,” “BFD” and the title track.
For those who prefer their metal slowed down to a crawl, YOB continues its quest for the ultimate doom sound on its latest record Clearing the Path to Ascend (Neurot). Mike Scheidt’s Eugene, Oregon trio has arguably been working toward this four-song hour of power its entire career, throwing every downtuned chord, spacey interlude, dinosaur drum stomp, roar, growl and moan into textural earthquakes “Nothing to Win,” “Marrow” and “Unmask the Spectre.”
Interestingly enough, another Oregon troop of doommongers is also hitting its peak – Portland’s Witch Mountain. The quartet’s new LP Mobile of Angels (ProfoundLore) rumbles and roils like Lucifer on an acid trip, vocalist Uta Plotkin overlaying her brash tenor over the magma-thick flow of enigmatic crunge like glaze over a cake donut. “Psycho Animundi,” “Can’t Settle” and “Your Corrupt Ways (Sour the Hymn)” drill deep into the substrata with barely repressed fury, only to mine the shining diamond that is closing track “The Shape Truth Takes.” A shame that, after this peak, Plotkin chose to leave the band. Cranking the psychedelia even further than Witch Mountain, Megaton Leviathan goes for full-on mournful metalgaze on its second record Past 21 Beyond the Arctic Cell (SeventhRule). “Past 21” starts things off with a dose of sweetness (for 13 undulating minutes), but when we get to “Arctic Cell” the mask comes off, the power chords pummel and depression sets in. By the time “Here Come the Tears” gently ends the proceedings, there’s no hope left.
Inter Arma released one of last year’s most interesting, diverse albums in Sky Burial, a marvelously odd mix of psychedelic textures and extreme metal brutality. The Cavern (Relapse), the one-song follow-up, strips away most of the death and black metal elements, honing in on a pounding strain of acid doom. The influence of Neurosis is difficult to deny, but interlocking harmony licks, ambient prog interludes and indie rock melancholy give it a spin all the Richmond quintet’s own. At 45 minutes, “The Cavern” is no mere placeholding scrap, but a work of metallic art in its own right.
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.