Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Best of 2013: Challenging the Orthodoxy

Gorguts - Colored Sands

Here's an honest confession: I bought Gorguts' Obscura when it came out, and didn't understand it for years. I appreciated it for its strangeness, and I sung the album's praises to anyone who would sit still long enough to listen, but Luc Lemay's intent and execution were beyond anything I'd heard or could wrap my head around at the time.

Likewise, on Colored Sands, Gorguts present a death metal album quite unlike any that have come before it. It's a work of astounding depth and craftsmanship, taking preconceived notions of prog, tech, and brutal death and throwing them out the window to attain a unique and mature vision of the genre that will stand as a high water mark for years to come. I'm not going to pretend I'm any closer to fully understanding Gorguts, but I've never been so at peace with befuddlement.

Highlights: An Ocean of Wisdom, Enemies of Compassion, Absconders

Deicide - In the Minds of Evil

Deicide has been wildly inconsistent since their 90's heyday. Like a formerly great fighter alternating between wins and losses, you never know what you're going to get from their albums these days. Well, I'm happy to report that their latest is solidly in the "win" column. In The Minds of Evil spices up the meat-and-potatoes approach of the band's early years with vicious hooks and just a hint of experimenting with new sounds. Other than that, it's fucking Deicide, unabashed haters of Christ and servants of Satan. What more do you need?

Highlights: Beyond Salvation, Even the Gods Can Bleed, Kill The Light of Christ

Dark Tranquillity - Construct

At this point the most long-lived and dependable of the Gothenberg bands, Dark Tranquillity continue making stellar albums that take their love for florid melodies into new directions. Boldly entwining keyboards and Michael Stanne's New Wave-ish vocals with their melodic death metal, Construct is a treat for those of us who have both Kreator and Depeche Mode on our iPods.

Highlights: Endtime Hearts, Uniformity, Immemorial

Ulcerate - Vermis

Like Gorguts, Ulcerate have deconstructed the death metal paradigm to arrive at a vision that keeps some of the genre's intrinsic hallmarks (blastbeats, growling) and ignores its more obvious cliches. Vermis shows that death metal's territory is too vast to be policed, and heretics like Ulcerate roam its far borders challenging the orthodoxy. Let the retro bandwagon take heed and be wary.

Highlights: Vermis, Weight of Emptiness, The Imperious Weak

Cult of Luna - Vertikal

Cult of Luna have been solidifying their position at the top of the doomcore heap for almost a decade now; Vertikal is an accomplished work with elements of kraut rock, prog, and psychedelia adding texture to its sombre and oppressive palate. Whatever influence Cult of Luna took from Isis or Neurosis in the past, they are now those bands' equal.

Highlights: I: The Weapon, Vicarious Redemption, Synchronicity

Necrophobic - Womb of Lilithu

Necrophobic have been an undeniable (if largely unsung) pillar of black metal's second wave, with solid releases stretching over two decades. Womb of Lilithu expands on their hallmarks of blistering speed and frozen melodies with a symphonic flourish that occasionally makes the album sound like a Satanic metal opera. While most eyes were on Watain and their traveling E-Coli sideshow, Necrophobic snuck in with the best black metal album of 2013.

Highlights: Astaroth, Furfur, The Necromancer

Demonical - Darkness Unbound 

Sometime last year, for the first time since Entombed introduced the 15 year old me to the wonder of Swedish death metal, I had had enough of the style. The onslaught of second rate bands flaunting their HM-2 pedals and lack of creativity seemed to mark the end of my interest in the NWOOSDM, and few recent albums seemed to interest me. Luckily, Demonical reappeared to remind me why I loved the style so much. Driven by hooks and a blackened strain of melody, Darkness Unbounds wisely makes sure the Riff holds more importance than any distortion pedal. With no clear successor to Dismember in sight and their peers overly comfortable with wallowing in old school pandering, Demonical deserve to rise to the top of the heap.

Highlights: Healing Control, Contempt and Conquest, Hellfire Empire

deafheaven - Sunbather

The black metal album all your indie friends are talking about. The post rock and shoegaze elements may endear deafheaven to Pitchfork types, but don't hold that against them. Mixing shoegaze with black metal is not exactly new, but where deafheaven really shine is the way they use those elements to create atmosphere. Like the best black metal albums, Sunbather takes you on a journey, one with unexpected twists and turns.

Highlights: Sunbather, Vertigo, The Pecan Tree

Sepultura - The Mediator Between Head and Hands
Must Be the Heart

It can't be easy for Sepultura. Somehow Derrick Greene hasn't accrued the same kind of defenders as, say, Dio-era Sabbath, and the band's popularity has waned except with the die-est of die-hards; and even those would prefer a reunion with Max and Igor back at the helm. Once one of the most important metal bands in the world, the albums since their infamous split have alternated between decent and disappointing, with few memorable moments. Maybe that's why The Mediator is such a surprise; somehow finding a way to make the cerebral death-thrash of Arise co-exist with the wild experimentation of Roots, Sepultura came out swinging at naysayers with possibly their heaviest album in years. The writing may be on the wall for this iteration of Sepultura, but the band seem unwilling to go gentle into that good night, and I for one couldn't be happier.

Highlights: The Vatican, Obsessed, The Age Of The Atheist

Sabazius - The Descent of Man

I probably spent more time listening to this album than any other released this year - and I don't think I listened to it all the way through more than once. No other extreme metal band strove to challenge the status quo and top their past accomplishments like Sabazius. At over 11 hours long, The Descent of Man is less about catharsis and more like an endurance test, taking doom and drone to misanthropic, mind numbing depths. Part performance piece, part musical prank, it's the apex for slow and heavy music. For now.

Highlights: Cranking the volume to make your neigbours think they have tinnitus. Causing music critics to rethink their profession. Listening to the whole thing in one sitting and emerging from the other side with your sanity intact.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Bandcamp Picks: Stocking Stuffer Edition

Since tis the season to be moochin', here are some free Bandcamp downloads to stuff into stockings and/or inboxes.

If the purpose of the two song teaser EP Downpour by Canada's Kataplexis was to whet appetites for their upcoming full-length, then mission accomplished. Tight, blasting, and technical, this is death metal done right. Everything on Kataplexis' Bandcamp page is available as a free or "name your price" download, and it's all fucking great.

French provacateurs Celeste meld black metal, post-hardcore, and doom into a uniquely noisey and nihilistic package. All their releases are available through their label Denovali Records' website  as free downloads (with the exception of their newest album Animale(s), which is on sale for a very respectable €5).

It seems like it wasn't that long ago that I was writing about War Wolf's first EP (actually, it was almost exactly one year ago). On their first full-length, Crushing The Ways Of The Old, the Brits set their HM-2 pedals to "kill" for their raw and rawking Entombed-influenced hardcore. The album and everything else on their Bandcamp page is available as "name your price" downloads.

It's been a quiet year for Brazilian death metal, so this new EP by Sao Paolo's Gammoth is most welcome. Though more restrained than their hyperblasting countrymen, Caro Data Vermibus demonstrates the band is adept at creepy Immolation style riffs. This EP shows the band is striving to craft a unique identity - a rarity in the current death metal landscape, marking Gammoth as a name to remember.

Not long after I posted a link on Facebook to Death Sigils, the new album by Virginia's Occultist, they were listed as "band of the week" by Darkthrone's Fenriz. Not sure what that means; I guess I could crow about beating Fenriz to the punch if I didn't believe Fenriz was just another guy posting Bandcamp links on his blog. The album and Occultist's earlier EP are both available as "name your price" downloads, Tom G. Warrior grunts and all. Ooorgh.

Regular readers of this blog know that I have little patience or interest for anything old school revival-related, but for some reason BAT's first demo hits the spot. With members of DRI and Municipal Waste in their ranks, the 80's thrash fetishism on Primitive Age is pretty thick, but so are their chops. The band go out of their way to state that they recorded on analogue tape - not sure what difference that makes when it all ends up getting converted to MP3s, but who am I to quibble with free music?

Not content with simple crusty death/doom, the first demo by Newcastle's Live Burial is packed with swathes of atmosphere, a la (very) early Paradise Lost. Anyone who remembers the glory days of "The Peaceville Three" will feel a twinge of nostalgia for the fog and fuzz. Better jump on this before these kids discover keyboards and the Sisters of Mercy.

I first encountered Denmark's Crematoria in the Hellbound? documentary. Their 2010 debut EP Embodiment of Brutality is a fun slice of groovy death metal. The members all seem incredibly young, so chances are this band will morph considerably as the years pass - but even at this early stage their talent and love for the genre is clear to see.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Hellbound? (Probably)

This guy? Definitely.
Just watched the documentary Hellbound?. It's pretty dry for the most part, and the points it makes are fairly obvious - evangelists are nutty and hypocritical, Christian theology is convoluted and open to interpretation. But the filmmakers won my heart with a brief detour into a European metal festival, where they catch Deicide's Glen Benton being his typically wry self, and ask Oderus Urungus to name three people he thinks are in hell ("Jesus. Every pope ever. That's more than three. Ronald Reagan is in hell, believe it or not."). The filmmakers also interview David "Soul Patch" Vincent and Mayhem's Necrobutcher (who seems uniquely ill-suited for documentary interviews).

Rewards Programme

"You can't cut the throat of every cocksucker whose character it would improve."

But boy howdy, I'd love to try.

Coal in your stocking

"Would you care for a candied cane? It represents the emotional crutch of the season's empty frivolity."

"It's the most wonderful time of the year" ...unless you're a hardened cynic with a blog. Dan Brooks of the excellent Combat! blog (as seen on the blog roll at right) wrote a wonderfully funny article for the Missoula Independant about the crappiness of X-mas music. The piece has possibly the best sentence I've read this week:
"But we tolerate the songs because it is Christmas, and if we cannot tolerate them we know we are awful, because it means we cannot tolerate others’ happiness."

If not tolerating X-mas songs makes me Scrooge, then: Bah, hambug.

In college, I worked for the residential life department, and part of our job was to throw a holiday party for the kids in our dorm before they disappeared back home for the winter break. One year a dispute came up with the sole Jewish member on staff over whether or not we should use Christmas themed music during the party. The Christian staff members seemed unwilling to budge on the point, even if it risked alienating non-Christian students. I brought up that we didn't have to play X-mas music just because X-mas was coming; good music is good music regardless of the time of year, and our residents would enjoy that just as much. It was a rare act of diplomacy and understanding on my part that surprised everyone, including me. That's probably why it worked.

I sympathize with my Jewish friends for feeling alienated during the season. I personally hate the holiday. Hearing the words "Merry Christmas" makes me feel dead inside. The only thing I ever enjoyed about the season was the weather while I was living in NY; as someone raised in South East Asia, walking around in the freezing cold and encroaching darkness brought me closer to my black metal albums than anything I would have experienced back home.

As a kid, my Christmases never came with presents, or family dinners, or any of the usual trappings. Instead, I had to go to church three times in a 24 hour period - midnight mass on X-mas Eve, and twice on X-mas day. [Jesus, if you're reading this: Fuck you and your birthday]. These days, I don't celebrate the holiday in any way, besides a yearly viewing of Scrooged and one of National Lampoon's Vacation movies.

But even with my antipathy for the holiday and the musical cash-ins that come with it (seriously, how many more people are going to send me links to that Christopher Lee album?), I couldn't help but be moved by this: Stephen Colbert had the disabled veterans group MusiCorps and soul singer Aaron Neville do a few songs for his show, including the best version of "Hallelujah" I've ever heard. Better than Leonard Cohen's original; better even than the Jeff Buckley version. Even though I hate X-mas songs, I don't hate this. Possibly because it's being delivered by wounded soldiers and not a department store PA. The medium is the message, I guess.

The Colbert Report
Get More: Colbert Report Full Episodes,Video Archive

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Bandcamp Picks: Thaw, Blaze of Perdition, Erebus Enthroned, Cult of Fire

Polish black metal band Blaze of Perdition suffered a touring accident recently that resulted in the death of their bassist and the other band members seriously injured, with their vocalist left in critical condition.

In response, their countrymen Thaw released the single Afterkingdom as a benefit for Blaze of Perdition. Culled from their upcoming album, the song gives an inkling as to why the band is so highly touted by some, including Nergal (praise from Caesar is praise indeed). Not content to simply bludgeon the listener into submission, the song takes a turn into discordant Gorguts/Portal territory halfway through. In music and intent, this release makes it clear that Thaw is a band whose heads and hearts are in a laudable place. I eagerly await the full-length. [$1; but since this is a benefit release, I'm sure more would be appreciated.]

This week Pagan Records released Accession of Fire, a split between Blaze of Perdition and Sidney's Erebus Enthroned. Each band provides a track of unabashed tinder; this is music to light churches. In all likelihood, this may end up being Blaze's final release; as such, it's a fine, fiery send off. [$3.50]

Released at the end of 2012, OREMUS - Popioły marked Blaze of Perdition as a band that was reverential of black metal's second wave, with Darkthrone and Satyricon seeming to be especially big influences. This is no-nonsense black metal, brimming with malicious intent even when the band eases off the gas pedal (as on the blackened folk of the closing track). An accomplished and impressive release, made tragic by the band's circumstances. [€9]

(Note: on my PayPal receipt, payment to Blaze of Perdition went to the account of vocalist Pawel "Sonneillon" Marzec. As of this writing, I haven't been able to find out what Marzec's recovery status is, or what happens to the money that's debited into his account. But with a long and expensive road ahead for both him and his family, I doubt it would hurt.)

Western appropriation of Indian culture is a little baffling to me - but hell, I have little interest in my South Asian heritage, so anyone else who wants it is welcome to it. Cult Of Fire from the Czech Republic dive headlong into the dark side of Hinduism on their sophomore album मृत्यु का तापसी अनुध्यान ("Ascetic Meditation of Death", apparently), with a concept revolving around Kali and titles written in Devanagari. The album is often reminiscent of Agalloch's blacker moments, but with the occasional Hindu(ish) chanting and sitar playing. The Profound Lore crowd should be all over this; it's definitely the best Czech-Hindu black metal I've heard this week. [€6.66.]

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Rocket Fueled (feat. King Diamond)

One of the best bits of editing I've ever done happened over the week-end when I realized that Heavy Cream's "Stiff Lick" ends with the same riff as "Come to the Sabbath" by Mercyful Fate. I was literally giddy with excitement over how well it came together (it happens at about 24:00). My next favourite part is the audio of Carl from Aqua Teen Hunger Force scatting "The Ocean" then leading in to the actual Zep version. [I cut out the cheesy bar blues ending; the song should end the way it is here, in my opinion].

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Bandcamp Picks: Second Grave, In The Company of Serpents, Sun Black Smoke, Big Business

DoC faves Second Grave are back with their new two song EP, Antithesis. If, like me, you heard the latest Sabbath album and wondered who stole all Iommi's riffs, the answer is here. This is flawless traditional doom metal, with vocalist Krista Van Guilder's sorrowful wails taking a turn for Grief/Eyehategod territory at one point. But eighteen minutes just isn't enough for me; I may only have discovered them earlier this year, but I'm growing impatient for a full length. I guess I'll just have to play this on a loop in the meantime. [$5]

Denver's In the Company of Serpents are on their second album and they're shaping up to be more than just another sludge band. Of the Flock teems with some killer riffs and the occasional grind part, avoiding the monotony that plagues most of their peers. Make no mistake, though: This is still some dark, soul crushing stuff. [$7.77]

Sun Black Smoke have an obvious bro crush on Matt Pike, as their second untitled demo sounds like the missing link between Sleep and High on Fire. The sound quality is rough and definitely demo-level, but it doesn't detract from their songwriting or playing. If this had come out 5 years ago they'd already be signed to Relapse. The 5 song demo is available as a "name your price" download.

I've always had a soft spot for Big Business, even if they're closer to Pitchfork territory than my curmudgeonly taste usually allows. Battlefields Forever is irresistable, riding that sweet spot between heavy and catchy for the duration of its nine tracks. Comparisons to the Melvins are a no-brainer, since two-thirds of Big Business are half of the Melvins - how's that for some metal math? But for my money, Big Business write the better, more anthemic songs ...and don't get me started on how sweet Jared Warren's vocals are. [$9]

Monday, December 2, 2013

Ize of Terror

Terrorizer (the magazine) turns 20 this month; that makes it a few years older than I was when I bought my first issue in the Fall of 1997. Terrorizer has been my go-to metal bible since I was 18. At 34, I struggle and fail in trying to think of a publication that has had as much of an effect on my life.