Any metal critic worth his or her salt listens to hundreds of new albums in any given year. In the past couple years I topped 600 releases heard, while this year’s deliberate paring back – to preserve my sanity – will still see me listen to at least 500. Looking back at the numbers at the end of 2013, I realized that only about five percent of all those albums I heard were ones I would say fully warranted purchasing. Five percent, that’s it. Even worse, though, every year I can count on one hand the number of young bands that bring new ideas to heavy metal while working strictly within the parameters set by all of metal’s traditional subgenres. I’m not talking about bringing in elements from music outside metal to create a new extreme music hybrid, but making original music while staying true to what makes metal metal. Surely the creative well hasn’t run dry, right? Then again, post-2000s metal is largely comprised of followers, which gets plenty depressing year after year. Thank goodness for the few mavericks out there who dare to forge their own path, as bands like Gojira, Baroness, Animals as Leaders, The Atlas Moth, Vektor, and Anciients have taken existing sounds and melded them in their own quirky ways to create something that stands out among the rest of the sound-alike hordes. Ideas, dammit. Give us ideas. Don’t just lazily follow trends. It’s the old Life of Brian quote ringing true yet again:
“You don't need to follow anybody! You've got to think for yourselves! You're all individuals!” “Yes! We're all individuals!” “You're all different!” “Yes! We're all different!” “You've all got to work it out for yourselves.” “Yes! We've got to work it out for ourselves!” “Exactly!” “Tell us more!”
That’s precisely why Noneuclid’s second album Metatheosis (Blood) feels so encouraging. Here’s a band whose influences you can easily pinpoint – a little thrash here, Coroner there, black metal, plenty of prog – but these guys have put in an effort to do something strange and original. Featuring Triptykon guitarist V. Santura as well as members of Obscura and Dark Fortress, the German foursome’s approach is downright playful at times, constantly tinkering with melody and time signatures yet always coming though with strangely catchy material. And even more boldly, especially in this day and age, a concerted effort is being made to incorporate more melodic, intelligible lead vocals that try to match the power of the music step for step. Imagine that.
The end result is an eccentric journey that gleefully pulls the rug out from under listeners at every turn. “Paranoid Alkaloid”, “Buried Forever”, and the 16-minute “None So Lucid” are remarkable examples of musicians taking established sounds and molding them to suit their own selves. There’s nothing out there today that sounds like this, yet there’s a familiarity to it all that makes it very easy to absorb. The fact that this music defies categorization will make some sneer, for sure, but this is far from arbitrary, Between the Buried and Me/Periphery wank. It’s something much more cohesive. Of course, in boldly doing its own thing Metatheosis is not without the odd slip-up – “Cult of One” gets perilously close to being too silly – but the huge majority of this 67-mnute record succeeds admirably. It’s enough to bring a smile to this old grump’s mug. In an era of very little genuine invention in metal, Noneuclid offers a small ray of hope.
Also out this week:
Arkona, Yav (Napalm): At its best, Arkona offers a much more extreme take on folk metal, progressive-minded aggression accentuated by mournful Slavic melodies. At its worst, it stumbles into the same old polka gimmick as half the bands from Finland. To Masha Arkhipova’s credit, this seventh album falls into the former category, with richly layered arrangements and, of course, the vocal versatility that’s become Masha’s hallmark. It’s disappointing she should feel compelled to stretch this album out to nearly the 70-minute mark, but side from that self-indulgence Arkona remains one of the only interesting folk metal bands left.
Battleroar, Blood Of Legends (Cruz del Sur): The latest by the Greek traditional metalers gets off to a stumbling start, but gradually rights itself to the point where by the midway point your fist is in the air and you’re ready to head into battle. Metaphorically speaking, anyway.
Cradle Of Filth, Total Fucking Darkness (Mordgrimm): If you’re a Cradle of Filth completist, then by all means, enjoy this collection of remastered demos. For anyone else, this is an otherwise ungodly mess of boring, derivative raw black metal that fails to hint at the sinister grandeur the band would sporadically pull off later in its career. But every band has to start somewhere.
Doro, Raise Your Fist/Powerful Passionate Favorites (Nuclear Blast): To help promote Doro’s 30th anniversary as a recording artist, a new version of her 2012 album Raise Your Fist has been released. The big draw to fans is the bonus disc Powerful Passionate Favorites, an odds-and-sods collection of covers, remixes, and unreleased material. The covers are a mixed bag, including sincere tributes to Zeppelin (“Babe I’m Gonna Leave You”), Metallica (“Nothing Else Matters”), Dio (“Egypt (The Chains Are On”)), and her fantastic 1990 cover of KISS’s “Only You”. The cover of Tina Turner’s “Nutbush City Limits” stumbles – no one can equal Tina’s voice, sorry – but the sense of fun on this bonus CD is palpable thanks to Doro’s lovable persona, making for a good little treat for longtime fans.
Dwellers, Pagan Fruit (Small Stone): The second album by the Salt Lake City band deftly walks a tightrope between psychedelic rock, desert rock and doom, the music grounded by distorted, Crazy Horse-derived jams, which I’m always a sucker for. Rustic and hazy, yet with an unusual commitment to genuine singing, it’s a smart blend of heavy rock and Americana. Listen and purchase via Bandcamp.
E-Musikgruppe Lux Ohr, Spiralo (Svart): Led by Kimi Kärki of Reverend Bizarre notoriety, this project couldn’t be more different than classic doom metal. Instead, Kärki and his collaborators explore the more synthetic sounds of kosmische musik, and just as Reverend Bizarre is completely indebted to Saint Vitus, E-Musicgruppe Lux Ohr slavishly mimics Popol Vuh. While the band was a total revelation at the Roadburn festival last month, this new album is a lot more minimal in its approach, but similarly lulls listeners into a state of hypnosis, ever so slowly building tension as wave after wave of synthesizer tones build.
Epica, The Quantum Enigma (Nuclear Blast): For such a popular band, it’s taken a very long time for Epica to not only create a distinct identity but make consistently good music. From day one the potential has always been there, but whether it was improving as songwriters or allowing Simone Simons the time to grow into her role as frontwoman, it’s been a very gradual process, the Dutch crew taking baby steps along the way, modest triumphs (“Storm the Sorrow”, “Never Enough”) offset by poor choices (countless repetitive symphonic epics). At long last, Epica’s sixth album sees all the pieces finally coming together. The songs still veer toward the more bombastic side of the genre, but the songwriting is leaner, the dynamics stronger, the hooks more memorable. Meanwhile Simons sells the convoluted lyrics splendidly, displaying the command she only hinted at a decade ago, veering from operatic singing to more straightforward rock vocals with ease and grace. “The Second Stone”, “The Essence of Silence”, and “Unchain Utopia” are terrific examples of how far they’ve come, how assured they now sound. Deep down I wish this album was still pared down from 68 minutes to 45, but strong as it is from start to finish, it’s a minor complaint. Fans of the genre and the band have every reason to be elated.
Ifing, Against The Weald (Blood): This is such a convincing Scandinavian-themed black metal album – greatly influenced by Bathory and Moonsorrow – that once you find out the two members of Ifing are from Grand Rapids, it kind of ruins the mystique. Although it’s tiring seeing North American bands playing at Vikings rather than doing something original and incorporating their own heritage into black metal, you can’t deny the visceral power and frosty atmosphere of this well-crafted, at times beautiful album. Lake Michigan might as well be the North Sea in this case.
Vestal Claret, The Cult of Vestal Claret (Cruz del Sur): Phil Swanson and Simon Tuozzoli are back with another helping of occult metal fun. It might not be as strong as Swanson’s previous, more doom-oriented project Hour of 13, but Vestal Claret has its own quirky, Manilla Road-style charm, as shown by the title track, the swaggering “The Stranger”, and the clever cover of Black Sabbath’s underrated “Who Are You”.
Woman Is The Earth, This Place That Contains My Spirit (Eisenwald): They have tall trees in South Dakota, the Black Hills are cute little faux-mauntains, it’s lovely scenery, so sure, why not create a Midwestern version of “Cascadian” black metal? A trio devoted to “writing music rather than touring or promotion” – okay, why am I reviewing this, then? – this re-release of the band’s 2012 album is a passable, lo-fi imitation/homage of Wolves in the Throne Room’s Weakling imitation/homage. It’s capable and all, but come on, guys, be yourselves. More ponderosa pine, less cedar.
Xandria, Sacrificum (Napalm): Don’t worry, folks, with Epica finally coming into its own there’s still plenty of mediocre symphonic “prom dress” metal to go around. While Xandria’s previous album Neverworld’s End put the German band on the cusp of a modest breakthrough, the follow-up is more of a holding pattern, trying to evenly balance operatic Nightwish bombast and Within Temptation-level pop metal without sounding memorable at both. New singer Dianne van Giersbergen does a good job, but someone please give the lady some proper hooky melodies to work with. This is the musical version of running in place.