Hard rock! Stoner metal! Crustcore! Psychedelia! Grunge! Thrash! Skronk! Black metal! Trash punk! Bad boy boogie! (huh?) Smell the glove and make the sign of the umlaut, kids, it’s the seventh installment in our latest genre study, with Demon Eye, Steve Von Till, High On Fire, Lucifer, Armored Saint, Vattnet Viskar, Cradle of Filth and more. Go here to read the first episode, Pt. 666.1, here for Pt. 666.2, here for Pt. 666.3, here for Pt. 666.4, here for Pt. 666.5 and here for 666.6—if you dare. Incidentally, following the text are links to audio and video of the bands discussed, so check ’em out.
BY METAL MIKE TOLAND
In the spirit of the Ramones, Social Distortion and AC/DC, Oakland powerhouse High On Fire essentially makes the same record over and over, getting away with it by sheer consistency – to paraphrase Lou Reed, HOF does HOF better than anybody else. To these ears, though, the band’s been in a creative holding pattern for a few years. But that pattern’s been broken on Luminiferous (eOne), the band’s seventh studio LP. Much like key influence Motörhead, HOF doesn’t radically alter its approach – those in thrall to the trio’s patented Sabbath/Celtic Frost/’head blend will remain so. But for the first time since the shift from the overtly stoner metal debut The Art of Self Defense to the more extreme Surrounded By Thieves, the band sounds like it’s actually developing beyond its self-imposed limitations. “The Sunless Years” rolls across a thudding waltz time signature, while the similarly-tempoed “The Cave” sinks into a pool of shimmering acid. “The Falconist” and “The Dark Side of the Compass” revel in the epic doom of mid-80s Europe, while “Slave the Hive” and the title track blast into straight-up thrash. Guitarist Matt Pike still treats power chords like hammers on his fretboard, but indulges in more licks, arpeggios and even the occasional divebomb – the six-string variety offsets the conspiracy theories in which his lyrics are soaked. Again, the band doesn’t make massive changes here, just smartly employed tweaks – the picture is the same, just painted with more colors. Arguably the best High On Fire album since Blessed Black Wings, Luminiferous crushes new life into the old beast.
HOF tourmates Lucifer strides mightily across the landscape on Lucifer 1 (Rise Above), sipping a steaming goblet of magic potion with one hand and throwing the horns with the other. Rising from the ashes of the gone-too-soon Oath and teaming up with ex-Cathedral guitarist Gaz Jennings (moonlighting from the similarly-inclined Death Penalty), singer Johanna Sadonis casts a confident spell, sounding as comfortable consorting with demons as with Marshall stacks. Jennings provides her with riffs that crossbreed NWoBHM’s sinister melody and doom’s menacing weight, resulting in a plethora of darkly memorable songs. “Izrael,” “White Mountain” and “Purple Pyramid” put Sadonis’ bewitching power right up front, mesmerizing you while Jennings lets his vampire guitar sink fangs into your neck.
Also current brothers of HOF’s road, Venomous Maximus happily cavort through a hybrid of ‘70s hard rock, ‘80s street metal and timeless occult doom. The Houston foursome’s latest LP Firewalker (Shadow Kingdom) picks up where its fine previous platter Beg Upon the Light left off, rocking furiously through mysterious anthems like “Through the Black,” “White Rose” and “Angel Heart.” G. Lee Higgins’ declamatory vocal style – sort of like Cirith Ungol’s Tim Baker after cough drops – may be offputting to some, but to these ears it gives VM a distinctive kick. Portugal’s Ironsword celebrates two decades of existence with None But the Brave (Shadow Kingdom), a collection of rampagers dedicated to war, courage, battle, brotherhood and the other stuff you’d expect a band called Ironsword to champion. It’s hard to pull this attitude off without collapsing under the weight of your own irony, but guitarist/vocalist Tann and crew do it – partly due to pure conviction, but mainly because “Army of Darkness” and “Kings of the Night” are just plain catchy.
A collaboration betwixt Rob “The Baron” Miller from U.K. crustcore legend Amebix and Montreal drummer/visionary Away from Voivod, Tau Cross bashes a straightforward punk/metal blitzkrieg on its self-titled LP (Relapse). Strident sociopolitical anthems “Hangman’s Hyll,” “Prison” and the absolutely titanic “Our Day” sizzle across the sky in widescreen, while the folk music lurking in the corners steps into the light for “We Control the Fear.” This is what New Model Army would sound like as a metal band. Metal polyglot Dead Earth Politics continues its merry ways on Men Become Gods (self-released), the second in a series of EPs from the Austin quintet. Flamboyant growler Ven and flamethrowing tag team Tim and Aaron provide the thrills, but it’s the varied construction of “Ice & Fire,” “Crimson Dichotomy” and the title track that sets the foundation.
Thirty-year veteran Armored Saint delivers a thrilling salvo of anthemic metal on its ninth LP Win Hands Down (Metal Blade). Featuring the tough, melodic roamers “Muscle Memory,” “An Exercise in Debauchery” and the title track, the LP’s tight songwriting gets perfect support from John Bush’s ageless voice.
The marriage of psychedelic rock and heavy metal is the consummation of flirting that began in the late ‘60s, when the latter was evolving out of the former. Now there seems to be a ton of bands with some acid in their thud. Italian power trio Ufomammut dig deep into subterranean space with Ecate (Neurot), a lumbering beast of a record. Like some kind of underground leviathan dragged not only into the light, but out into the Milky Way, the band’s eighth LP laces dinosaur-heavy riffage with spacey synth gurgles, giving the sound of an earthquake a sprinkling of faerie dust. “Temple,” “Somnium” or “Daemons” crush your skull to tiny fragments, but it’s done cosmically. Ecstatic Vision also fills the bill nicely on its debut record Sonic Praise (Relapse). Inspired most obviously by the heavier side of Hawkwind, the Philly trio sets the controls for deep space with Marshalls on stun on “Don’t Kill the Vibe” and “…To the Astral Plane.” Abrahma leans more toward the doomy side of the equation on Reflections in the Bowls of a Bird (Small Stone). The Paris foursome – which owes a little somethin’ somethin’ to early ‘90s alt.grunge as much as it does to Black Sabbath and Blue Cheer – lets the psychedelia be more of an aftertaste than the main flavor, giving the barrelling “Square the Circle” and the crushing “Weary Statues” and “A Shepherd’s Grief” a distinctive diabolical power.
Seattle’s Bell Witch goes all mournful and majestic on Four Phantoms (Profound Lore), its second album. On four long tracks that crawl along with the speed of a giant staggering home drunk, the bass/drums duo adds surprising layers of melody, contrasted with gut-wrenching, thousand-yard-stare moans of lyrics like “Breaking off my teeth to breathe.” It may sound unpleasant on the face of it, but you’ll find willingly yourself drawn into the pair’s suffocating cloud of doom. Hailing from that most black metal of states, New Hampshire, Vattnet Viskar sound no happier on Settler (Century Media), the quartet’s follow-up to its acclaimed debut Sky Swallower. Equally drenched in melancholy emotion and teethgrinding brutality, VV delivers harsh blasts of anthemic melody like “Glory” and “Colony” with the skill of seasoned technicians and the conviction of berserker barbarians. Though claiming a path to self-redemption, Temple of Dagon skips the melancholy and goes straight for the jugular on Revelations of the Spirit (Black Voodoo). The Hollywood quintet’s chugging deathgrind rips skin from flesh with just enough melody to get your guard down, the better for the Great Old Ones to have their wicked way with your soul. And speaking of spiritual violation, Cradle of Filth unleash album 11 with Hammer of the Witches (Nuclear Blast). At nearly a quarter century into their career, leader Dani Filth and his latest cohorts can conjure this kind of finely-crafted melodic black metal in their sleep, so the effort comes in the tongue-in-cheek lyrics – even the darkest of devil-worshippers have to crack a smile at “Blackest Magick in Practice,” “Yours Immortally” and the mouthful that is “Deflowering the Maidenhead, Displeasuring the Goddess.”
Japan’s Sigh started out as a black metal band, but grew into a multi-headed monster shitting out elements of psychedelia, thrash, prog, black metal, jazz, disco and whatever else fiendish mastermind Mirai Kawashima fancies. The 25-year-old band has never quite managed to equal its 2001 mondo masterpiece Imaginary Sonicscape – until now, that is. Graveward (Candlelight) gleefully mixes all of the above, plus power metal, emo, electropop, doom and everything else into a dayglo/blacklight splatter that would give Jackson Pollock a headache if Kawashima didn’t keep such tight control. Multiple guest stars (from the ranks of Trivium, DragonForce, Shining, Rotting Christ and the Meads of Asphodel) add their own bits to the insanity, but the record remains Sigh’s show. Norwegian metal supergroup Arcturus returns after a decade-long hiatus with Arcturian (Prophecy), an unsurprising amalgam of progressive metal and symphonic black metal (with some electronica spice in the middle). The difference between this and previous Arcturus platters lies in the balance betwixt the two extremes – the songs definitely favor the former over the latter. Singer ICS Vortex (formerly the bassist/clean singer in Dimmu Borgir) is clearly more comfortable with traditional emoting rather than demonic growling, giving “Game Over,” “The Arcturian Sign” and “The Journey” the epic feel keyboardist/composer Steiner Sverd Johnsen requires.
Being called one of the progenitors of metalcore may be akin to being called the forerunners of ebola, yet that’s the praise thrown Starkweather’s way. To compare the long-running Philly outfit to the likes of Shadows Fall, All That Remains or The Devil Wears Prada certainly smears the issue. On the basis of Crossbearer/Into the Wire (Translation Loss), a double CD reissue of the group’s seminal 90s work, more relevant are metal/punk crossover acts as disparate as Prong, the Cro-Mags and Black Flag, especially if those bands threw prog or avant psych moves into the mix. Rennie Resmini’s raw throat nails the focal point, but it’s the alternately roaring and roiling music that makes Starkweather far more than just another namecheck.
NYC’s Mirror Queen veers between down and dirty Lizzy/UFOisms and the proggier side of Iron Maiden on its debut Scaffolds of the Sky (Tee Pee). The band’s mastery of snarling rockers like “Quarantined” and (yes) “Vagabondage” and kitchen sink epics like “Strangers in Our Own Time” and the title track give it license to veer in whatever direction it wants, especially given the respect afforded Blue Öyster Cult on a perfect cover of “Wings Wetted Down.” Corsair hail from a similar perspective on One Eyed Horse (Shadow Kingdom), album 2 from this Charlottesville, VA bunch. Leaning ever so slightly more in a prog direction, the harmony-rich quartet manages to call up the spirit of early 70s Wishbone Ash on the hard-rocking “Brothers,” the languid “Royal Stride” and the difference-splitting “Coriolis.” Full-on prog metal suffuses Duende (Metal Blade), the debut album from Swedish quintet The Great Discord. “The Aging Man” and “The Discordant Call” throw dissonant time signatures at stomping rockers, while “L’Homme Mauvais” shifts almost gently from chugging riffs to atmospheric piano. “Illuminate” wafts between anthemic hard rock, synth-soaked proggery and wispy acid pop, while “Woes” dips into gothic balladry. Serving as connective tissue, Fia Kempe’s lush voice soars above it all. With songs about addiction, necrophilia and cannibalism, the darkness is never far from the band’s field of vision, even if the messages get delivered in strangely beautiful envelopes.
Funny how, in these days of info overload, “old school” doom means the echos of the 80s instead of the sounds of the 70s. Sure enough, though, Philadelphia’s Crypt Sermon makes its love of Trouble, Candlemass and Solitude Aeturnus pretty obvious on its debut Out of the Garden (Dark Descent). Slow, mournful and melodic, “Byzantium,” “Temple Doors” and “The Master’s Bouquet” make the most of downtuned riffs, occult atmosphere and Brooks Wilson’s magnificently charismatic singing.
North Carolina’s Demon Eye — they’re currently based in Raleigh, right down the street from the BLURT offices — keep the doomsday clock turning on its second LP Tempora Infernalia (Soulseller), leaving it shot through with memorable melodies borrowed from the burgeoning NWoBHM. Whether on chooglers “Listen to the Darkness” and “Black Winds,” roilers “Sons of Man” and “Give Up the Ghost” or the creeper “Poison Garden,” the band keeps the steel churning. Moving to a different part of the body, Las Vegas’ Demon Lung returns with its second album A Dracula (Candlelight). With a thematic spine inspired by the quirky Mexican horror film Alucarda, the record’s muscular doom runs from the moody (“Behold, the Daughter”) to the grotesque (“Raped By the Serpent”). As the band pounds and singer Shandra Fredrick pushes her witchy persona for all it’s worth, tracks like “Deny the Savoir” and “Gypsy Curse” take you to another, darker realm.
One of the biggest items in doom news this year was the arrival of a new record from the mighty Goatsnake, following a decade’s hiatus. Black Age Blues (Southern Lord), the West Coast quartet’s first release since 2004 and first of new material since 2000, timelessly picks up right where the band left off. The noise kicked up by guitarist Greg Anderson (Sunn 0))), Southern Lord honcho), drummer Greg Rogers (the Obsessed) and new bassist Scott Renner burns melodic and sensual, and singer Pete Stahl (the Scream, Wool, Earthlings?) remains more soulful than he has any right to be. The band may prefer ironing the old suit rather than wrinkling a new one on “Jimi’s Gone,” “Elevated Man” and the title crunch, but it’s so well-tailored it’s churlish to argue. Valkyrie also indulge in the melodic side of doom on Shadows (Relapse), the Virginia combo’s first record in five years. Led by the Adams brothers (one of whom also slings strings for Baroness), the quartet kicks ass on guitorgies “Shadows of Reality,” “Echoes (of the Way We Lived)” and “Golden Age.”
Though named after a Canadian science fiction flick, Sweden’s Space Probe Taurus goes more for acid-tinged biker rock than space metal on Mondo Satan (Ripple). Not very nice biker rock, either, if the likes of “Spahn Ranch Motherfucker” and “Kill City Death Cult” are to be believed. Sounding a lot like early Nebula, stoner riff rockers “Scorpion Queen” and “Superfuzzed” keep heads down and six-strings burning. Freedom Hawk proves itself a fellow traveler on fourth album Into Your Mind (Small Stone), adding just enough psychedelic spice to its pounding blazers to pass. “All Because of You,” “Waterfall” and “Lost in Space” should make the Virginia Beach trio’s cosmic bad boy boogie a new thing. Though named after a Zeke song, Amsterdam’s Death Alley hearkens to that murky era when the heavier end of psychedelia was evolving into heavy metal. The band’s debut Black Magick Boogieland (Tee Pee) adds a dollop of Detroit proto-punk to its mix, but it’s nowhere near as self-conscious as it sounds. Short and punchy, “The Fever” and “Dead Man’s Bones” just rawk righteously, while “Supernatural Predator” roars in ever-increasing intensity for nearly 13 minutes.
Nobody seems to agree on what Nashville Pussy does – trash punk? sleaze metal? good ol’ rock & roll? – but the band’s 70s-derived riffmongering, Bon Scott-as-good ol’ boy vox and guitar heroism via the unstoppable Ruyter Suys rock like fuck regardless. As advertised, Ten Years of Pussy! (Steamhammer/SPV) summarizes the Atlanta quartet’s past decade since leaving the major minors behind. Given how uneven the continued output of any band for which progression would be the kiss of doom tends to be, this double CD (one disk studio, the other live) provides excellent value for money, especially since it puts “The South is Too Fat to Rise Again,” “Lazy Jesus” (guest-starring Lemmy) and “Good Night For a Heartattack” (a fairly unique “we kick ass” anthem) all in one place.
It’s hardly unusual anymore for musicians associated with metal and hard rock to do something quieter in their spare time. American doom legend and Townes Van Zandt fan Scott “Wino” Weinrich (the Obsessed, Saint Vitus, Spirit Caravan, etc., etc.) likes to crank it down on acoustic from time to time – cf. his excellent solo album Adrift. Thus Freedom Conspiracy (Exile On Mainstream), his second duo album with German singer/songwriter Conny Ochs, comes as no surprise. Wino takes the lead on “Crystal Madonna” and “Sound of Blue,” more like a wizened folk singer than a heavy metal icon, with Ochs providing plaintive harmonies and accompaniment. Ochs fronts “Heavy Heart” (which adds a rhythm section) and “Timeless Spirit” like a street rocker who’s tired of the debauched rat race. Like Simon & Garfunkel if they’d spawned on the Sunset Strip, Wino and Ochs have a near-supernatural musical connection, sounding born to sing, write and play together. Wino’s pal Steve Von Till, co-guitarist/screamer from the pioneering avant sludge band Neurosis, has been known to play wooden music from time to time, and so it is on his fourth solo album A Life Unto Itself (Neurot). Aided by spooky steel guitar and ghostly fiddle, Von Till puts his weathered rasp to the service of droning folk a la “Birch Bark Box,” “A Language of Blood” and the synth-enhanced “Night of the Moon.”
If you spent your career touring punk and metal clubs, does that make you metal? Ask experimental producer Bill Laswell and jazz iconoclasts Peter Brötzmann and the late Ronald Shannon Jackson and Sonny Sharrock, AKA Last Exit, who took their maximum volume improv to European extreme music venues because jazz clubs couldn’t deal. Originally released by an arm of Virgin, now reissued by ESP-Disk, Iron Path – the quartet’s only studio album after several live, completely improvised joints – rewrote the music-listening synapses of your humble columnist’s brain when it came out in 1988. Adherents have claimed it tames the wild, stage-destroying beast a bit too much, but that’s quibbling. Peter Brötzmann’s multi-octave sheets of scree sax, Sharrock’s steel-shring skronk and Jackson’s Keith Moon-meets-Tony Williams rumble simply punch harder and do more damage when (barely) reigned in by Laswell’s elastic bass and studio construction. To my ears, just recently opened to jazz back then, this came off as the soundtrack to nuclear apocalypse – the horrible anticipation of oncoming destruction, the violent, world-destroying conflagration, the fallout-poisoned aftermath. Twenty-seven years later, “Prayer,” “Detonator” and “Cut and Run” retain every iota of their awful power. Highly recommended.
Columnist Michael Toland lives and works in Austin, TX, where local officials are rumored to have made “a deal with the devil” to bring rampant urban redevelopment and gentrification to the formerly “weird” city. Toland, however, claims he has nothing to do with the recent (or imminent) closings of popular indie-rock clubs in Austin. His Lone Star State accomplices include The Austin Chronicle and KLRU-TV.
Incidentally, that “Metal Mike Toland” moniker posted at the top of the page is indeed a none-too-subtle hat-tip on the part of the Blurt editor to the legendary Metal Mike Saunders, of vintage rock critic and Angry Samoans fame. Just so ya know, Meanwhile, here are links to audio and video of most of the artists detailed above. Be sure you surf anonymously, however, because government officials will be monitoring them….
Abrahma – album stream:
Arcturus – “Game Over”:
Armored Saint – “Win Hands Down”:
Bell Witch – “Garden (of Blooming Ash)”:
Cradle of Filth – “Right Wing of the Garden Triptych”:
Crypt Sermon – album stream:
Death Alley – “Black Magic Boogieland”:
Demon Eye – “Black Winds”:
Demon Lung – album stream:
Ecstatic Vision – “Don’t Kill the Vibe”:
Freedom Hawk – album stream:
Goatsnake – album stream:
The Great Discord – “Eigengrau”:
High On Fire – “Slave the Hive”:
Ironsword – album stream:
Lucifer – “Izrael”:
Mirror Queen – album stream:
Sigh – “Kaedit Nos Pestis”:
Space Probe Taurus – “Scorpio Queen”:
Tau Cross – “Lazarus”:
Temple of Dagon – EP stream:
Ufomammut – album stream:
Valkyrie – “Mountain Stomp”:
Vattnet Viskar – “Glory”:
Venomous Maximus – album stream:
Steve Von Till – album stream: