Seven deadly sins
Seven ways to win
Seven holy paths to Hell
And your trip begins
Seven downward slopes
Seven bloodied hopes
Seven are your burning fires
Seven your desires…
Greetings and howdoyoudo, Moonchildren! Welcome to Volume 7 of our notably persistent 100 Essential Albums of the 2010s.
What’s happened this week to help distract everyone from quarantine madness and all the blistered ballbaggery that is American politics? BIRTHDAYS. Big, big birthdays.
Tuesday marked the 40th for the following hefty hefties:
And yesterday marked the 30th for this jewel:
Apart from that, not much else? Michael Denner did a neat little interview over at Bardo Methodology concerning what he’s been up to lately and the early days of Mercyful Fate / King Diamond, so give that some eyeball exercise if you love all things Kingly. Oh! And Oranssi Pazuzu snuck an album into our laps TODAY, but forever playing the role of “Uncle Frank: the guy who shows up to family reunions wearing nothing but Suffocation sweatpants, so please don’t invite him,” the Last Rites collective didn’t land a promo until about three days ago. You know we ain’t about to try and sum up a record like that after only giving it a couple days-worth of spins. If you want a 13-word review, let’s go with: “Who the hell dumped all that Purple Drank in Trent Reznor’s YETI Rambler?”
Oh! Oh! And there are some big albums dropping all at once next Friday (April 24th): Elder’s Omens, Katatonia’s City Burials, Dark Forest’s Oak, Ash & Thorn, Cirith Ungol’s Forever Black, and Ulcerate’s Stare Into Death And Be Still, so start greasing those velcro wallets if you haven’t done so already. Reviews will be forthcoming on at least a few of those, but there’s only so many hours in a day.
Until then, let’s jump into the next ten records in our race to the finish. And again, for the lazyboned latecomers:
Last one in has to wash all of Matt Pike’s jorts!
KATATONIA – THE FALL OF HEARTS
It was immediately apparent upon its release that The Fall of Hearts would be an exceptionally important album in the history of metal. Hyperbole? No. Katatonia had long flirted with the progressive genre but had yet to embrace it so completely. The band brought in a second percussionist, JP Asplund, to fill out the production, and the result was a dive into polyrhythmic doom ne’er before heard on this planet. Ok, maybe it was heard before, but on this album it’s heard perfectly. The addition of non-traditional drumming techniques catapulted the drama, emotion and lovingly over-the-top factor of Katatonia ten-fold—their tracks so often draped in darkness brought out by heaviness and double bass drum rolls now approached minimalism and layering techniques to achieve even more effectively that maudlin moroseness of melodic death / doom.
The band also brought in Roger Öjersson to handle lead guitar work, and his contribution cannot be overstated. As Renkse began limiting his vocal attack and relying more heavily on his natural talent, Öjersson stepped in to provide the umph and melody left behind. This change catapulted Renkse’s perceived vocal talent and rounded out the sound of the band. Not only did Katatonia now take up more space on stage, they began taking up more emotional space in the listeners mind. Even the lyrics took on something of a more meaningful tact as Katatonia catapulted into the mature band they set out to be in 1991.
Even more so than the brilliance of The Fall of Hearts against the backdrop of Katatonia’s history (and metal’s history) will be how that album looks as the band moves forward. What pieces do they keep? What aspects do they expand on? And, most importantly, how do they now enmesh their new maturity with their old heaviness? Those questions will be answered when City Burials sees its release late next week. But I only bring it up to let you know that the importance of The Fall of Hearts will only grow greater with the gift of hindsight. This album will continue, for the duration of your life, to take you on a journey through emotional peaks and valleys across all four seasons. [MANNY-O-WAR]
LUDICRA – THE TENANT
The next time you hear someone sneeringly dismiss “American black metal” as if it were nothing other than a pale imitation of the European original, kindly direct them to the nearest copy of Ludicra’s final album The Tenant. Second wave orthodoxy this is not, of course, but The Tenant is black metal with neither artifice nor escapism, and its palette is made gloriously rich by both touches of apocalyptic crust (think Antisect) as well as the galloping but introspective heavy metal John Cobbett has also long pursued in the Hammers of Misfortune. (In fact, although Ludicra disbanded after The Tenant, it’s not a stretch to see 17th Street and Dead Revolution as continuations of some of the work of Ludicra in a slightly different stylistic guise.)
The Tenant is unwaveringly dark in tone and focus. “A Larger Silence” ponders the mindset of jumpers (likely from the Bay Area’s own Golden Gate Bridge), although the most harrowing and mesmerizing piece on the album is “Truth Won’t Set You Free,” with its downcast acoustic intro, blistering chorus, and dizzingly melodic post-chorus tremolo lead. The album’s closing title track rides a catchy but disorientingly off-kilter figure that betrays a bit of post-punk influence, and rolls the listener off into a haze of remorseful contemplation. The next time you hear someone sneeringly dismiss “American black metal,” rest easy in the knowledge that there is no such (one) thing as American black metal, and that instead there are bands like Ludicra—albums like The Tenant—speaking both to and for the wayward, setting a grim compass back to earth. [DAN OBSTKRIEG]
PALLBEARER – SORROW AND EXTINCTION
Back in 2014, Foundations of Burden found its way onto my best-of list; 2017’s Heartless did not. I have not listened to either of them since, for no particular reason. Similarly, I had never listened to this one until it came up as part of this project. I don’t know how it would have fared back in 2012, though, because I can’t find that list. Considering all that went on that year, especially the last two months, I’m not surprised.
Also not surprising is that this is really good. The Arkansan four-piece basically found themselves a lane and stuck to it. Foundations may be more polished, but the smoke-encapsulated muddiness here is just so…comforting. The musical pillars never shift, the tempo rarely wavers, and yet they do so much within that space to completely immerse your senses. Too often doomsters try to mix it up, throw in some faster traditional metal elements or straight minimalist ambiance. Now, there isn’t anything wrong with that, but it is refreshing when one can not only stick to the blueprint but do it so well that the music feels exciting and new. Well, as excited as you can get with those BPMs. [DAVE PIRTLE]
DEVOURMENT – OBSCENE MAJESTY
Obscene Majesty is an album entirely devoid of nuance, subtlety, and good taste, and that’s only the beginning of its charms. This record is so heavy and so brutal, it is literally ridiculous. If you were to spend 48-minutes with one ear in a garbage disposal and a jackhammer in the other, you would have roughly the same experience as listening to Obscene Majesty. Death metal’s brutality arms race will probably never end, but this thing is just about as brutal as you can get while still using actual notes. It is, in fact, to Devourment’s credit that the band created this monument to musical absurdity using much the same tools that made “Johnny B. Goode” and “Love Me Do,” albeit with a few extra strings. There’s no real trickery to Devourment’s style; the band doesn’t dabble dissonance or noise, and aside from its over-the-top brutality, there is nothing flashy about the band’s playing. It’s palm-muting and power chords, plus double bass and blast beats—the same as a thousand other death metal bands. Yet, Devourment’s single-minded devotion to the most unrelenting, inhumane musical violence sets the band head and shoulders above its peers. Obscene Majesty is majestic in its obscenity, and it is a masterpiece thereby. [JEREMY MORSE]
HIGH SPIRITS – ANOTHER NIGHT
I grew up in the 80s, so that certain melodic, guitar-slinging majesty of that era’s metal is indelibly imprinted on my brain. Falling somewhere between Dokken, Scorpions, Saxon, and a half-dozen other heroes from the Golden Age, Chicago’s High Spirits is a masterclass in sugary-sweet metallic perfection, all soaring chorus and searing lead, giant hook and infectious energy.
Of course, anyone paying attention to Chris Black’s pedigree should know that this would be a good one: The man is (or was) a part of Pharaoh, Aktor, Superchrist, and Dawnbringer, after all, plus his solo outing as Professor Black. For High Spirits, he does it all, literally everything, all instruments and all vocals, all of it kick-ass, all of it guaranteed to get your spirit appropriately high. If the gloriously sugary-sweet melody of the title track doesn’t knock you out immediately, you may already be dead, and if the following punch of “Do You Remember” doesn’t kick your unconscious corpse back to life, then … well, there’s no hope left. And just keeps on rockin’ from there…
But I still think that cover looks like a Billy Ocean album or something… [ANDREW EDMUNDS]
OBSEQUIAE – SUSPENDED IN THE BRUME OF EOS
Castles are all the rage these days. Poll a bunch of schlubs on the internet about where they’d most like to be right flippin’ now and nine out of ten will likely answer, “In a cold, damp castle in the middle of nowhere, listening to rats arguing in the walls.”
Assuming everyone gets exactly what they wish for, what do you suppose you’ll most hope to hear pumping from a bluetooth speaker before the battery runs out and it’s days before you’re able to recharge it because true castles don’t have electricity? Lil Mosey?? Not terribly castley, friend. The dungeon synth demo your neighbor made last night that somehow made it into your mailbox this afternoon? Maybe. But that’s more for grim dungeon hangs—it’s right in the genre name, m’lordship.
No, you want something for those GOOD castle times that involve traipsing through kitchen gardens and cemetery orchards while the morning sun drinks dew off fresh poppies. Songs to go along with lavish masquerade balls that begin with everyone shoveling around pottage and ending in a twisted bit of bacchanalia. An album suited for those exhilarating Swept Hilt Rapier contests in the sparring room. You want Obsequiae.
Now that that’s settled, why pick the band’s debut over, say, last year’s very fine and triumphantly received The Palms of Sorrowed Kings? Yes, partly because Suspended in the Brume of Eos represents square one and therefore deserves to be recognized for its innovation, but also because there’s just a little more grit behind the production, a touch more heft in the riffs, and the delicate acoustic guitar interludes (soon to be replaced with elegant harp interludes) draw you into the hearth like a mug of warm cider on a cold winter’s night. It’s a blackened medieval metal treasure trove, pure and simple. [CAPTAIN]
ANCESTORS – IN DREAMS AND TIME
It takes something special to make doom metal that rises to the top of that sub-genre’s bottomless well. It takes something else special to make classic prog sounds work in a doom metal context. Ancestors somehow found the something special to do both of these things on their third LP, In Dreams and Time.
A wonderfully organic synthesis of doom and progressive rock, In Dreams and Time represents the culmination of remarkable growth and stylistic shift over the Los Angeles quintet’s then just six year career. Basic elements had been steady throughout: huge fuzzy guitars playing huge sweeping riffs; piano, organ, and various synthesizers working with the guitars to generate expansive atmosphere through long songs on long albums. The differences evident on In Dreams were portended by the band’s most recent output, the Invisible White EP, a melancholic affair, to be sure, but also one in which all players found room to explore where they had been content sticking to the path. That strangely solemn audacity continued on In Dreams, reflecting maturity and maybe even something like wisdom, as vocals strode more confidently into the spotlight to tell stories more poignant and evocative, accented more intently and intricately by those classic prog accoutrements, all of it sculpted with an artisan’s love through the deeply felt ebb and flow of time and meter, shape and texture, power and tension. Nowhere was this more evident than in Justin Maranga’s lead guitar, Floydian in scope and spirit yet all his own and which plays such a critical role in what ends up being this album’s greatest strength: it’s shining, uplifting essence. [LONE WATIE]
MANILLA ROAD – THE BLESSED CURSE / AFTER THE MUSE
There are a number of acts out there that the Last Rites collective internally consider as Official House Bands. The Chasm, for example, who have dominated staff Now-Playing discussions more times than can be counted. Hammers of Misfortune, Slough Feg, Giant Squid and the ludicrously under-appreciated Pharaoh as well, the latter of which continues to torture us by remaining “active” and not releasing a new album in nearly a decade.
Manilla Road, however… Manilla Road is the King who rules over all house bands. They were the motivation for a number of us to gather and become closer friends during an exceedingly wild ride at a small Midwestern festival almost a decade ago, back when Manilla Road’s resurgence was finally delivering the sort of widespread veneration they’d always deserved, and some of us developed actual friendships with the band following that event.
We’ve also felt pretty comparable to Manilla Road as a site over the years: we’ve been around seemingly forever (one year away from our 20th anniversary), yet people still say “who?” when our name is mentioned in certain metal circles; we have a strong veteran presence (of oldies) who continue to push “old metal”; and we occasionally crack the door for young punks to join the staff in an effort to keep the blood fresh. All very Manilla Road.
In short, we love Manilla Road as much as we identify with Manilla Road, so it goes without saying that the tragic loss of Mark Shelton in the summer of 2018 cast a shadow over Last Rites that will likely always hang over our heads in some form or another. But hey, life does find a way to soldier on.
That being said, few would argue that Manilla Road’s bonafide classics landed prior to the last decade. But it ain’t like the four records that did rumble to the surface missed the mark. These releases are all still epic, still galloping, and still exceedingly heartfelt and honest heavy metal produced by individuals who understand “the underground side of things” with a maven’s wisdom. If you had to choose just one release, though—and for the love of all that’s heavy, how could we not—The Blessed Curse / After the Muse is the clear winner.
The first double studio effort from the band, The Blessed Curse covers every essential base a fan could ever hope to have covered: the lighter and harder faces of Manilla Road are represented in full force (and often in the same song), with accents placed on dark and bright moods with equal intent. And all of it is delivered with that unmistakable and ever-present Mark Shelton fretboard sorcery around virtually every bend. Is it model enough to stand toe-to-toe with the band’s classic run? Who the hell cares—it’s a kick-ass record from a band whose discography from top to bottom will always be invited to any Last Rites blowout.
“And I do believe
That you will carry on
Even when I leave
I know that you’ll be strong
Here I will be for you
Till the end of all time…
…Till the end of time”[CAPTAIN]
PROGENIE TERRESTRE PURA – OLTRELUNA
Space is cool. This is indisputable. Space is also very metal. It’s cold and empty, yet full of exploding stars and expanding galaxies and black holes. Space is massive and unknown, and it will kill you. More metal bands should write about space, and get weird about it. Lucky for us all, Italy’s Progenie Terrestre Pura love space, and love getting weird.
Some incorrect Last Rites staffers point to the spacy drifts and crushing riffs of U.M.A. as the most essential PTP album (the band’s abbreviation is also styled as q[T]p, if you want to get fancy). While both U.M.A. and 2018’s starCross EP are excellent, and the Asteroidi EP is a fun, more ambient trip, it’s oltreLuna that gives us the cosmic goods in spades. It’s gorgeously composed and produced, and Progenie Terrestre Pura blends blistering black metal, synthetic bleeps and bloops, and organic instruments like the erhu, flute, and didgeridoo into one cohesive package. The hooks and the “whoa, is that a [non-traditional instrument / dubstep breakdown/etc]!?” moments will grab your attention immediately, but there are many wormholes and otherworldly expanses to explore with every listen.
Stop by that review link below for an excellent in-depth write up from Mr. Duvall, and traverse the cosmos with one of black metal’s most exciting and adventurous bands! [FETUSGHOST]
DØDHEIMSGARD – A UMBRA OMEGA
Rare is the record that combines the utmost of musical sophistication with expansive theatricality, extreme flamboyance, and blazing damnation and still come across as a coherent work of art. But that is exactly what Dødheimsgard pulled off on their fifth full length. DHG never comes out of hibernation without a point to make, as each album shows a new shade of Vicotnik’s vision, but A Umbra Omega may well be the most ambitious album in the band’s long but sporadic history. It’s rooted in black metal, and has some of the fastest tremolo riffs and blast beats you’re likely to ever hear (really), but it also traverses goth, post-rock, avant-garde, oddball prog, electronic, chamber, and about a million other styles. It features one of the most charismatic, cracking, mad, nutty, and downright unhinged vocal performances imaginable courtesy of on-again-off-again collaborator Aldrahn. It shifts from intense, ripping extreme metal to sparse, unsettling passages of piano, sax, keys, and whatever else seems appropriate at the time, throwing batty structures at the listener but never losing sight of the finish line.
A Umbra Omega exists somewhere at the complex intersection of DHG’s many extended family members—Arcturus, Virus, Ulver, Dimmu Borgir, Thorns—bits of bands like Deathspell Omega, and that scene in Interview with the Vampire when Louis finds a nearly DEAD dead Lestat playing piano in the ruins of their old New Orleans mansion. (Related: it’s pretty fitting that Vicotnik looks like Nandor the Relentless.) This album is a friend’s wide grin that you’re pretty sure comes from a place of joy, but you’re just the tiniest bit worried might come from a place of sheer madness. [ZACH DUVALL]