When it came to new metal music in the first half of 2014, personally I feel it was mediocre at best, with only one album, Triptykon’s Melana Chasmata, deserving of the adjective “exemplary” a rung or two higher than a small handful of releases that qualify as being “very good”. However, this year’s release schedule is so heavily weighted towards the latter half of the year, that any publication’s “best of the year so far” lists seem pointless. Looking at only the next three months, I counted around 20 new albums, nearly all of which I have heard, that are worthy of consideration for my own ballot for Decibel’s year-end writer’s poll. Considering the fact that less than ten percent of the more than 300 albums I listened to and wrote about from January to July were worthy of singling out, that number is staggering. I said a while back that 2014 would get a lot better, really fast, and here in this second week of July it’s gotten truly nuts. The summer release schedule is officially off to a rampaging start this week, with no fewer than seven, maybe eight new albums you must hear. So while the music is often on the doomy and gloomy side, the forecast for the next few months is anything but. Get ready for some fantastic new tunes. Bongripper, Miserable (self-released): By now you should know exactly what to expect from the Chicago foursome, nothing but slow, deliberate, mind-bogglingly heavy instrumental doom. Contrary to Earthless’s explorations of the more textured side of the sound, and Shooting Guns’ smart blend of krautrock and psychedelia, Bongripper is all about sheer metallic force. If you’ve ever seen them live, you know what I’m talking about. What this seventh album also proves, though, that for all the Conan-levels of knuckle-dragging doom, the band is also capable of strong dynamics, only with the speed, or lack thereof, with which they work, it requires a little patience. Let these three compositions flow, though, and you’ll find just how well everything shifts gears subtly, naturally, and enthrallingly. The album is currently available as a name-your-price download via Bandcamp, and if you like the doom, this is a total no-brainer.
Earthless Meets Heavy Blanket, In A Dutch Haze (Outer Battery/Roadburn): At a festival like Roadburn it’s impossible to see everything, but one omission from my 2012 experience that I always regretted was the collaboration between J. Mascis, his Heavy Blanket bandmate Graham Clise, and the rhythm section from San Diego psychedelic rock institution Earthless. That performance generated a fair amount of buzz afterward, and now that it’s been released as a special live album you can understand why. A sprawling, hour-long jam it ebbs and flows from mellow passages to pure rampaging hard rock, Mascis and Clise shredding all the while. Some have pointed out that the presence of Earthless guitarist Isaiah Mitchell is missed, and that’s understandable given his talent and the chemistry Earthless is renowned for, but this jam works well in its own ragged, immaculately stoned way.
Exordium Mors, The Apotheosis of Death (Iron Blood & Death): Considering the past work of bands like Ulcerate and Beastwars, and two absolute stunners in 2014 courtesy Diocletian and now Exordium Mors, something is happening way over on the other side of the world in New Zealand. It’d be easy to call this kiwi obscurity “blackened thrash”, but there’s a whole hell of a lot more going on under the surface. The Absu influence looms large, but most importantly, so does the specter of Mercyfrl Fate, as the guitar work shows flashes of flamboyance that you just don’t hear in American metal. There’s no shame in showing a little instrumental flash amidst such otherwise primitive sounds, and to hear that kind of bombast juxtaposed with such brutal black/death music is a welcome thing to these ears (and wait, was that some Messiah Marcolin-style singing on one track?). Highlighted by a sprawling, 30-minute suite and continuing into three more concise tracks, this is a great example of how it’s often best to be far removed from any particular metal “scene”. With no hive mind to follow, left to think for oneself, this band has put a very unique spin on extreme metal, one that’s plenty towering and formidable, but most importantly, stands out because of its unwillingness to be categorized. This is a splendid debut full-length. Preview and purchase via Bandcamp.
Goatwhore, Constricting Rage Of The Merciless (Metal Blade): It’s not that Goatwhore made a bad album – for these guys that’s just impossible – but I just wasn’t as absorbed by 2012’s Blood For the Master as I was by 2009’s stupendous Carving Out the Eyes of God. It didn’t grab me enough; after all, you can imitate Celtic Frost all you want, but even Celtic Frost had hooks. This new sixth album, however, is a big, big return to the form of five years ago, thanks to a bevy of tracks that waste no time getting in your head. “Reanimated Sacrifice” is more of that Warrior worship, “Schadenfreude” sneaks in some very strong melodies, “Fucked By Satan” and “Externalize This Hidden Savagery” are a pair of delirious ragers, and best of all, “Baring Teeth For Revolt” is the best Goatwhore song since “Apocalyptic Havoc”. As per usual, the New Orleans band will be touring like mad, and it’s good to know they have a tremendous album to promote. Buy this one.
Gotthard, Bang! (The End): I always found the Swiss band’s popularity in Europe inexplicable, and then I saw them perform a couple shows a year and a half ago. It’s shameless ‘80s pop metal, but much to my surprise it was performed with great energy and charisma, and listening to their 11th album that pleasant feeling is palpable. Never mind how often the band rips off Sykes-era Whitesnake and all the clichés that entails, “Jump the Gun”, “Feel What I Feel”, and the title track are great tunes that dad rock (or in my case, uncle rock) fans would thoroughly enjoy.
Judas Priest, Redeemer of Souls (Epic): Having already written several pieces about the new Judas Priest album, including a review in the next issue of Decibel, I’m reluctant to go into great detail again for fear of self-plagiarizing. However, I will say Redeemer of Souls is a joy, from start to finish. Richie Faulkner has proven to be a terrific replacement for the retired K.K. Downing, and you can tell he’s brought new life to the band’s new songs. All 13 tracks – and the five bonus tracks on the deluxe edition too – burst with life, channeling the better moments from Painkiller as well as the more melodic moments from Screaming For Vengeance. It’s a huge step up from the wildly uneven Nostradamus, simply Judas Priest being Judas Priest, and by keeping things simple the band has reasserted why Priest remains the truest living embodiment of heavy metal. It’s important for a genre’s masters to make vital music, and it’s a pleasure to see this band back in peak form.
Mortals, Cursed To See the Future (Relapse): I stumbled across Brooklyn trio Mortals a couple years ago and was thoroughly impressed by the intense combination of black metal, doom, and sludge they created. The more I followed their progress, the more impressed I became with their willingness to let things grow. They were signed to Relapse incredibly quickly, in early 2013, but they smartly kept working on new material and honing their work on the road. By the time I finally saw them perform in person last fall, they’d become something a lot more formidable than I’d heard on record, and the much-anticipated debut album captures that live power extremely well. Guitarist Elizabeth Cline and bassist Lesley Wolf bring feral ferocity to Cursed to See the Future, from the buzzsaw riffs to the snarled lead vocals, while drummer Caryn Havlik punctuates and propels the songs with startling authority. This is a band absolutely brimming with ideas, and at times you feel that some of the songs don’t have to approach the nine-minute mark, but that’s a very minor gripe, as this music roars with a level of intensity I haven’t quite heard lately. It’s a remarkable effort. Listen and purchase via Bandcamp.
Origin, Omnipresent (Nuclear Blast): It’s so interesting how Origin, a band that helped pioneer the full-on, brickwalled assault that is post-2000 technical death metal, has made a significant change in the way the band makes an album. Musician and producer Colin Marston is a sworn enemy of that overly loud production and mastering, and what he’s done with Origin on its sixth album is so simple, yet so overlooked in extreme metal, creating distinct space in the sound. The music is as dense as ever, but it now breathes, and is so much easier to take in. The trio of guitarist Paul Ryan, bassist Mike Flores, and drummer John Longstreth is as great as any death metal band working today, and they flourish on these dozen tracks. More death metal should sound like this.
Sonic Syndicate, Sonic Syndicate (Nuclear Blast): Still carrying on like it’s 2004, still mimicking Killswitch Engage, still showing no musical growth whatsoever, still hilarious.
Steel Prophet, Omniscient (Cruz del Sur): At its most focused, Steel Prophet’s first album in a decade is adequate prog/power metal, galloping along in its Iced Earthy way, rife with robust Nevermore-isms and moments of Symphony X-stasy. But for some insane reason this thing quickly loses itself in 9-11 conspiracy theories, awful psychedelic interludes about taking a meander through oleander, aliens and Richard Nixon, George Orwell, and a truly awful cover of “Bohemian Rhapsody”. I’m all for ridiculousness in metal, but this much ridiculousness? Goodness, no.
Vintersorg, Naturbål (Napalm): The musical partnership of Andreas Hedlund and Mattias Marklund has yielded some very good Viking metal over the years, but the band has been especially strong as of late, with 2011’s album Jordpuls turning out to be one of Vintersorg’s finest moments on record. Naturbål – Swedish for “nature’s bonfire” – continues that positive momentum nicely, the band’s epic yet welcoming music equally bracing and affable. Hedlund is in his usual strong vocal form – it’s always nice to hear Viking metal with actual singing rather than growling – while these compositions skitter gracefully from blastbeats, to palm-muted marches, to more contemplative, melodic fare.
Wolves in the Throne Room, Celestite (Artemisia): The latest album by Olympia, Washington brothers Aaron and Nathan Weaver seems like a severe departure, but is it really? Sure, all the guitars and drums have been replaced by vintage synthesizers and a wind ensemble, but essentially this is very much the same kind of music, the same hypnotic chord progressions and melodies as heard on their past work. Only this time, instead of following the lead of Weakling they’re looking to Tangerine Dream for inspiration. With that “Cascadian black metal” gimmick so played out, it’s encouraging to see Wolves in the Throne Room branch out more, but this music follows more than it should lead, often feeling too derivative, not exactly coming through with many assertive ideas. The music just floats along complacently, going nowhere, achieving nothing. If the goal was to strip the band’s music of all metallic trappings to expose the real core underneath, you can’t help but wonder just how hollow and empty this whole thing was from the start.
Wolvhammer, Clawing Into Black Sun (Profound Lore): A little restraint in extreme metal goes a long way. After capturing people’s attention with a pair of outwardly hostile, aggressive albums, the Minnesota-based band takes a much more measured approach on this new record, and the difference is, ironically, colossal. It’s not unlike when Nachtmystium toyed with psychedelic rock on the classic Instinct: Decay, how the music here reins all the aggression in. There’s more control, and consequently more space within to work, and songs like “The Desanctification” and “The Silver Key” benefit immensely, with even a slight gothic influence creeping in, most noticeably on the subdued “A Light That Doesn’t Yield”. That’s not to say the music is any less intense – that couldn’t be farther from the case – but by pulling its punches just a little, Wolvhammer still manages to score a wicked knockout. Listen and purchase via Bandcamp.