Extreme metal bands withholding lyrics is commonplace, something we writers have learned to constantly deal with, to the point now that even though we’re never given the complete album experience, it’s pretty much taken for granted that we have to give readers an even and thorough assessment of a record even though we have literally no idea what so many of these bands are screeching and hollering about. When bands withhold lyrics from the actual album that’s released, however, it always strikes me as particularly odd. Extremity in metal includes lyrical topics, and in black metal the level of introspection and cathartic anguish in lyrics is commonplace, but at the same time, for a genre so bent on strength and bravado, ironically there’s a strong sense of insecurity when an artist refuses to print the lyrics to his or her songs. The fact that they’re screaming these words in a manner that’s impossible to comprehend what’s being said serves the same purpose as a security blanket: they’re emoting, baring their soul, but keeping audiences at an arm’s length. In a way that refusal to go all-in defeats the purpose of metal music. Metal is supposed to be an all-or-nothing genre, is it not?
Besides, what these metal bands are doing is nothing new at all; “dark night of the soul” songs and albums have been a huge part of popular music for eons. If Sinatra, Dylan, Nick Drake, Willie Nelson, Fleetwood Mac, Springsteen, Tori Amos, Beck, even Bon Iver have the guts to engage in such a public form of bloodletting, why don’t some extreme metal artists show similar courage? Yes, those songs mean a lot to you and represent truly painful moments in your life, but if those people went all-in, 100 percent, on a much more public stage, why can’t you do the same to the couple thousand that will buy your album? Instead, they scream away, emoting yet never fully communicating. Yes, part of the appeal of the music is to hear that anguish in those tortured screams, but to do so without providing lyrics feels like a cop-out, an easy way out to avoid confronting what people have to say about your art. Diffidence masked as “enigmatic”.
Anyway, those thoughts ran through my mind as I took in the latest album by Austin Lunn’s black metal project Panopticon, which, as you might have guessed, will not come with any lyrics. Which is perfectly fine, I’ve been dealing with that shtick for so long that it’s water off a duck’s back. And besides, Lunn is such a supreme talent that it’s easy to focus on the music of Panopticon, which is consistently a cut above all black metal coming out of America these days. 2012’s Kentucky was the most inventive American extreme metal album since Cobalt’s Gin three years earlier, a watershed moment that saw Lunn combining raw, melodic black metal with bluegrass and folk music and themes that delved into the cultural history of the region, and the way he made something so incongruous feel so seamless, so unabashedly soulful, was a marvel.
Although the follow-up Roads to the North (Bindrune) offers no new invention, simply following the same rustic path as Kentucky, it further refines that sound to the point where listeners are just thrilled to hear Lunn combine those two sides of his artistic persona so vividly. This time around, the sound is expanded in graceful fashion, most beautifully on the three-part suite “The Longest Road”, which serves as the album’s centerpiece. Over the course of nearly 20 minutes the music ebbs and flows gracefully between bluegrass, black metal, and even progressive metal, the harshness of acoustic folk and blasting extremity giving way to more contemplative, ambient moments reminiscent of Isis and Godspeed You! Black Emperor and more gothic, “blackened doom” moments reminiscent of Woods of Ypres. The composition, the musical aspect of it anyway, is a masterstroke by Lunn, produced beautifully by the great Colin Marston.
Bookended by tracks that also rank among Lunn’s very finest work, including the epics “Where Mountains Pierce the Sky” and “Chase the Grain”, Roads to the North might not feel as groundbreaking as the Harlan County USA-inspired Kentucky did, but it proves the last record was no novelty, but rather another sublime and powerful statement by a vital artist. However, if Lunn, who is an undeniably eloquent lyricist, ever makes these new lyrics available for all to see, this album will feel even more towering than it already does. There’s no shame in giving your listeners the complete, unfettered package. If Frank was still around he’d tell some extreme metalers to man the hell up.
Here’s what’s also out this week.
Abolition A.D., After Death Before Chaos (Pulverised): Hailing from Singapore, this band’s debut album is a very adept blend of sludge, doom, and crust punk, the variation in tempo making for some very effective variety. Black Breath one minute, St. Vitus the next, Asphyx the next. Robust and very disciplined, and not above tossing a little melody in here and there, this is well worth checking out. Preview and purchase via Bandcamp.
AOV, Act of Violence (Inverse): This Finnish band focuses on the more modern, “extreme” form of thrash, integrating elements of death metal into the arrangements, and nails it on this very surprising debut. As strong as the faster moments are on the album, the real strength lies in the more mid-paced material like “Surrounded By Concrete”, which is built around some very robust rhythm guitar riffs and fluid, Testament-style grooves. It’s a fresh, energetic take on a familiar formula, and deserves to be heard.
Device, Device (self-released): My weakness for bands that replicate that brief period of Canadian melodic heavy metal from 1982 to 1986 borders on obsession, but I can’t help it, when I hear bands that capture that quirky Banzai/Attic-era sound, my ears perk up. Vancouver band Device – not to be confused with David Draiman’s alt-metal side project – capture that sound well on this fun debut. Stylistically it runs the gamut from UFO worship (“Don’t Mess With Texas”) to NWOBHM co-option (“Lost My Soul”) to speed metal (“Enemy’s Blood”) to more progressive doom material (“The Devil and the Shoemaker”), but the trio does a good job keeping it all from flying off the handle, with bassist Marc LeBlanc providing great melodic vocals punctuated by some truly hair-raising screams. Fans of classic heavy metal will get a big charge out of this. Listen and purchase via Bandcamp.
Fungonewrong, Fungonewrong (Legend Group): Give this knuckle-dragging nu-metal band credit, it actually sounds like all they’ve ever heard are Limp Bizkit and Slipknot albums, and if anything their music faithfully adheres to that sound. An hey, they even have a silly ‘90s metal gimmick too, although wearing paper bags on your head is clearly scraping the bottom of that barrel.
Invidiosus, Malignant Universe (Tridroid): This death/grind hybrid is plenty intense and intricate, but it’s a testament to this Minnesota band’s smarts that the songs are always mindful of the fact that you’ve got to have a hook, and there are some sneaky ones on this debut. This is a record fans of The Black Dahlia Murder and that ilk should check out. Besides, any album that includes a sample from Lars Von Trier’s Antichrist is fine by me.
Sacrificio, Sacrificio (Iron Bonehead): The Spanish band’s debut album bored me to tears, that is until the aptly titled song “Sacrificio” came on, an absolutely wicked blast of Venom/Sarcofago filth, featuring a nasty groove that grabs you immediately and keeps you riveted. Sadly the rest of the album immediately reverts to sloppy, chaotic death metal, devoid of personality and competence. But at least we had those nice few minutes, I guess, metal band and critic passing each other like two ships in the night.
Taatsi, Amidst the Trees (Forever Plagued): Repetitive, hypnotic atmospheric black metal from Finland, keyboards and guitar duking it out atop drum machine, plenty of forest and fog evocation, mournful melodies, the odd acoustic interlude, silly troll-sounding vocals. Neither bracing nor haunting. Just there, the ennui fading only on the superb last track “Hunts in the Night’s Mind”, a fleeting glimpse of what might’ve been.
Unbreakable, Knockout (Dark Star): These preening, camera-mugging German kids come across as goofy in their video, but the music is a very surprising, not to mention deft co-option of that early-‘80s Scorpions AOR sound, with simple, polite guitar riffs accentuated by exceptionally strong vocal melodies. Unlike The Darkness, who did it all with a wink, Unbreakable is straight-faced on mild, pleasant rockers like “Rock the Nightlife” and power ballads like “Come Back to Me”, producer Herman Rarebell (that’s right, the old Scorps drummer) doing a very good job keeping this album sonically and musically consistent. The novelty of “Crazy Cat Lady” aside, this is quite a pleasant surprise.
Not metal, but worth hearing:
The Muffs, Whoop Dee Doo (Cherry Red/Burger): For those too young to remember, The Muffs were one of those early-‘90s major label powerpop/punk curiosities from back in the Alternative Nation day, led by the irrepressible singer-songwriter Kim Shattuck. Responsible for such whimsical little tunes as “Lucky Guy”, “Everywhere I Go”, and “Sad Tomorrow”, The Muffs never set the music world on fire, but they could always be counted on for a good album loaded with witty pop tunes. The band had been dormant, new music-wise, for the past decade, with Shattuck briefly returning to the public eye last year during her ill-fated stint with the Pixies, but The Muffs’ spirited sixth album is a wonderful return to the form of 20 years ago, “Like You Don’t See Me”, “Take a Take a Me”, and “Cheezy” leading the way with their Beatles-esque rock ‘n’ roll, Shattuck’s inebriated-sounding snarl lending the music that distinct charm so many of us know so well, not realizing how much we missed it.