Way out here in Western Canada KEN Mode is an institution, always good for a pair of shown in your city annually, having built up a loyal following over the past decade. It’s been rewarding to see the Matthewson brothers turn this little noise/metal hybrid into something Decibel readers have become fans of, indie scenesters name-drop, and a band every festival from Roadburn to Hellfest to Pitchfork covets on its lineup. As strong as their records consistently are, their live performances are something to behold, and this past weekend I saw them once again with a packed bar of fellow victims willing to subject themselves to an all-out assault. Jesse Matthewson is one of the more confrontational vocalists you’ll ever see; you can see the whites of his maniacal eyes from the back of the room. Don’t move away, you’ll only upset it more. This was the band’s first show with new bassist Skot Hamilton – the band’s seventh major rager on the four string motherfucker – best known around these parts as the leader of Today is the Day protégés Adolyne, and along with the requisite fan-pleasers including the epic “Never Was”, they debuted a song from the forthcoming sixth album, which is currently in the writing process. What was so striking was how much it sidestepped the overt doom metal influence of the past couple albums, instead cranking up the noise and abrasiveness even more than these unabashed AmRep fans ever did before, bearing a closer similarity to Shellac and Drive Like Jehu. For me, that one crazy, unexpected twist amidst an hour’s worth of familiar tunes was encouraging. No matter who’s playing on bass, KEN Mode always evolves, and if that one song is any indication, the next album should be a fun one indeed. In the meantime, here’s hoping Skot doesn’t spontaneously combust and leave behind a green globule. At least for a while, anyway. With summer just around the corner it feels like the metal scene is similarly gearing up, as the last new release week of spring is a fairly light load before another big load next week, but it’s not without a handful of very intriguing – and in one instance polarizing – albums to choose from. Read on:
The Austerity Program, Beyond Calculation (Controlled Burn): A couple years after the unfortunate demise of Hydra Head Records, guitarist Justin Foley, bassist Thad Calabrese, and their trusty drum machine have found a new home at Controlled Burn, and their first full-length album since 2007’s Black Madonna treads the same path they always have, combining the churning, grinding skronk of Big Black with the mechanical power of Godflesh. What struck me, though, is how “Song 32” tosses in a little electronic minimalism to great effect, its restrained moments making the powerful movements even more impactful.
Barghest, The Virtuous Purge (Gilead): The second album by the Louisiana band is a marked improvement in production, finding a good balance between the filth of its earlier material and an overall sound that’s tidy enough to hear everything that’s being played. Most importantly, though, the songwriting is involving, accentuating its rote black metal arrangements with touches of death metal and doom laced with malevolence and misanthropy, with “When the Cross Points to Hell” serving as a sterling example of how potent this band can be when firing on all cylinders. For aficionados of underground black metal, this is one to seek out. Listen and purchase via Bandcamp.
Boris, Noise (Sargent House): To its credit, Boris is never complacent. Eternally restless and prolific, the Japanese trio has developed such a stylistically rich palette from which to work, that you don’t know what they’re going to do next. Whether sludge, avant-garde drone, shoegaze, garage rock, J-pop; nothing is true, everything is permitted. It can result in wildly unfocused and sometimes tedious work as the band explores its latest indulgence, but when the band is on, the results can be electrifying, as on 2005’s Pink and the wonderful 2011 trifecta of New Album, Heavy Rocks, and Attention Please. 19th studio album Noise finds Boris returning to the heavier sludge sounds of Amplifier Worship, but this time around the past pop/shoegaze experiments looms large as well, as the bulk of the tracks here boast a much stronger sense of melody than the band’s earlier heavy work. On tracks like “Melody”, “Vanilla”, and the 18-minute mind-blower “Angel” you sense all those myriad influences coming together beautifully. At the same time, “Quicksilver” rampages like no Boris track has in years, Wata’s guitars filthy, Atsuo’s drumming relentless. You can never say a Boris album is “fully realized” because this band is so restless, so amorphous, but this is as complete-sounding a Boris album as you could possibly hope for in 2014.
Leather Chalice, Luna (Broken Limbs): Billed as a project that fuses black metal and post punk, that all might be true on this new EP, but the two sides don’t coalesce anywhere near as well as other bands that try the same thing. Plenty of promise is shown, however, especially during the 15-minute track’s more contemplative moments.
Lecherous Gaze, Zeta Reticuli Blues (Tee Pee): It’s going to be tough to follow up the rip-roaring “Bagagazo” off the Oakland band’s 2012 album On the Skids, but make no mistake, these guys’ obnoxious Black Oak Arkansas-meets-Nuggets music is just as exuberant on this new record. “New Distortion”, “Animal Brain”, and the scorching cover of “Baby Please Don’t Go” are a few terrific examples of how Lecherous Gaze have this heavy rock ‘n’ roll thing absolutely down.
Musk Ox, Woodfall (self-released): It’s hard to fathom that it’s already been seven years since the gorgeous debut album by classical guitarist Nathanaël Larochette, but in the wake of his guest appearances on Agalloch’s latest album the follow-up is finally out. It might not be metal, but it’s something that will easily appeal to fans of either black metal, pagan, metal, or the symphonic variety, Larochette’s plaintively plucked strings accentuated by violin and cello, adding richness and depth to an othwerwise minimalist record. Listen and purchase via Bandcamp.
Profetus, As All Seasons Die (Svart): Nothing puts the “funeral” in funeral doom like a church organ. One problem with the genre is that the music can become too ponderous for its own good, its attempts at sounding anguished often going too far over the top with tortured growling and songs that go on for ten minutes too long. What this Finnish band does, in contrast, is scale down the arrangements, put keyboards on equal footing with guitars, and most impressively, make enough room for some truly beautiful, expressive guitar solos, as on the majestic “Dead Are Our Leaves of Autumn”. This is a classy, first-rate doom album that doesn’t deserve to slip between the cracks.
Rippikoulu, Ulvaja (Svart): This Finnish band had previously recorded a pair of obscure demos more than 20 years ago, but it’s been resurrected on a much higher profile and reputable stage, and this three-song EP is a solid, albeit unspectacular exercise in doom-tinged death metal. The slow, theatrical title track is particularly interesting, juxtaposing female choral voices amidst the ugliness.
The Soft Pink Truth, Why Do the Heathen Rage? (Thrill Jockey): Black metal can be great. Take the new Mayhem record, for instance, which ingeniously defies convention and reinvents something the band played a vital role in creating. But black metal can be stupid. Very, very stupid. Whether addressing one’s purported Nazi affiliations with an hilarious, rambling, neither-here-nor-there explanation, excusing idiotic behavior by citing “do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law” bullshit, getting on TMZ by ripping off W.A.S.P. in front of Brooklyn scenesters who haven’t a clue, or being paid a lucrative sum for reuniting with a homophobic murderer drummer, there’s been a whole hell of a lot of stupidity in 2014. So the arrival of a collection of gay house renditions of black metal classics by musician Drew Daniel couldn’t be better timed, as black metal hasn’t been more ripe and deserving of a skewering in ages. A well-schooled devotee of black metal, Daniel confronts the paradox of the music he loves – as a gay man listening to music clouded by a hateful history – calling this album “a celebration, critique, mockery, and profanation” of black metal. And indeed, Why Do the Heathen Rage? is all of the above, confounding, sloppy, brilliant, and enthralling, as he takes tracks by Venom, Sarcofago, Darkthrone, Hellhammer, and more, rendering them unrecognizable, and often transforming the songs into something completely new and creative. The reaction to the album has been already greeted with extreme negativity from the underground black metal set, so based on that alone you can call this album a success. One thing’s for certain, it’s one of the boldest extreme metal exercises at a time where nowhere near enough risks are taken.
Trepaneringsritualen & Sutekh Hexen, One Hundred Year Storm (Pesanta Urfolk): The Oakland black metal/noise outfit collaborated with Swedish industrial thingy Trepaneringsritualen for a special performance in 2013, which, conveniently, was recorded and has been released on vinyl. It’s exactly what you expect it to sound like, a blend of the melodic and the atonal, contemplative drones accentuated by clattering discord and spooky growling. To everyone’s credit, the hour-long performance ebbs and flows comfortably enough, that is until two people suddenly clap and go, “Woooo!” At that point the mystique is stripped away. It was working for a while there, though.
Wo Fat, The Conjuring (Small Stone): The Dallas trio has always shown great potential with its hazy psychedelic doom, but it all comes together in brilliant fashion on this fifth album. A series of the kind of swinging stoner grooves that get a crowd moving, not just killing one another, this record gets better once the band locks into one of those grooves and just goes, the rhythm section churning away, blues-derived guitar solos bringing expression and genuine soul to the otherwise bombastic music. Justin Norton premiered the album on the Deciblog last week, and I highly recommend you give it a listen. It’s a keeper.
Not metal, but worth hearing:
Lana Del Rey, Ultraviolence (Interscope): Oh yes, I’m going there. Lizzy Grant’s carefully-honed alterego Lana Del Rey was an inexplicable global success, listeners transfixed by her postmodern, self-referential torch songs, as well as her undeniably spellbinding image, part teen model, part femme fatale, singing detachedly about sex and videogames. What makes her second album so extraordinary is its sheer surrealism, how positively David Lynchian it is. It occupies a weird world like that of Diane Selwyn’s dream of Betty Elms, quixotic and pretty but just barely masking a horrible, horrible darkness underneath. You’re swept away by lush, Spector-meets-Badalamenti arrangements and Del Rey’s dulcet singing, but whether it’s on the Lou Reed-esque “Brooklyn Baby”, the ambitious “Cruel World”, or the sensational slow-burner “West Coast”, you keep sensing the blue box will unlock at any time and unleash hell. As for those headbangers who’ll complain that Del Rey is nothing more than a vapid, contrived persona, what do you think your clown makeup-wearing black metal heroes are?