Surely you checked out Volume 1 of this feature, but if you didn’t, to catch you up now, we’re revisiting some jewels that we stupidly didn’t cover during the first six months of the absolute shitshow that is 2020. This year has sucked from almost every angle, except for the fact that plenty of good music has managed to make its way out into this rapidly crumbling world, and here are some more examples of records you should be spinning…
XAZRAUG – UNSYMPATHETIC EMPYREAN
released: June 5, 2020; Independent
I’m about to admit something that very well could end up disqualifying me from being a trusted source of information when it comes to speaking of black metal born in or around 2020. By and large, I prefer modern experimentation as it relates to death metal as opposed to black metal. That doesn’t mean I’ve completely fallen off the tracks when it comes to the latter, but there’s just something about black metal’s original commitment to vulgar rawness that makes refinement, or certainly prettifying or popularizing the formula, simply feel…too against the grain. There are, of course, always exceptions to the rule—the recent works from Fluisteraars and Circle of Ouroborus, for example. But as a whole, say the words “modern, avant-garde black metal” to me and my first reaction comes stock with an extremely raised eyebrow.
Knowing this—and adding to it a fairly comprehensive knowledge of Colin Marston’s willingness to avant-garde most any style he touches—I approached his latest venture into the fertile lands of black metal sorcery with cold-steel wariness holstered at the ready. Xazraug, however, is a fascinating undertaking, and repeated spins of Unsympathetic Empyrean front-to-back has done nothing short of walloping me most every time it’s hit the player.
Trying to determine precisely why this particular work manages to scratch the itch when so much else fails to sniff the trail leads to a fairly straight-forward conclusion: the atmosphere conveyed by this music is as captivating as it is imaginative, and despite the fact that it comes across as modern (perhaps by virtue of simply having Marston’s name attached to it), the end result feels as much like an innovative amalgam of familiar figures from the past than it does “avant-garde black metal” from 2020. Cobble together equal shares of the Ukrainian scene’s devotion to nature’s raw fury (typified by Drudkh), Emperor’s commitment to symphonic majesty, the Shamanic face of Wolves in the Throne Room, and the orchestral eccentricity of Into the Pandemonium and you’re halfway there. Sound weird, exciting, inviting and encouraging? Play away, mon petit ami. [CAPTAIN]
ANUBIS GATE – COVERED IN COLOURS
released: April 24, 2020; Nightmare Records
After a particularly dark turn in 2017’s Covered in Black, Kim Oleson and Anubis Gate determined to lighten things up a bit, to have some fun by recording a few covers of songs they loved growing up or that had inspired individual members over their careers. The band said they enjoyed the process so much that a couple B-sides turned into an EP and that into a full-fledged long-player, Covered in Colours, which is their eighth and was released in April.
Cover albums are typically a mixed bag and rarely amount to more than a curiosity in the end but, in the case of Covered in Colours, anybody remotely interested in progressive metal would do well to let go of those preconceived notions, especially the ones that say covers albums are easy and expedient or, even worse, lazy. Anubis Gate members themselves say that they took the interpretation of each song as seriously as an original piece and that this approach came, ironically, as a function of the sheer fun they had doing it. As a result, Covered in Colours ended up being as challenging to make as any record before it and then just as rewarding.
The songs featured on Covered in Colours really reflect the band and its history, covering a wonderful array of styles and eras, from prog and jazz to pop and metal, and from the 60s through the 80s, while retaining that trademark modern prog metal Anubis Gate sound and spirit. Some tracks are instantly recognizable even through liberal translation (King Crimson’s “Red” and The Beatles’ “Strawberry Fields Forever”) while others bear only the most remote similarity to the source song (AC/DC’s “Back in Black”), but each of them is done with the utmost class and professionalism and demonstrates a pure love of the artists and songs that together inspired and continue to invigorate one of progressive metal’s brightest lights. [LONE WATIE]
THE SPIRIT CABINET – BLOODLINES
released: April 24, 2020; Ván Records
What is “modern metal?” When used as a genre tag, it usually raises a string of red flags up the ol’ mast. Usually it describes abysmally boring melodeath with mostly clean vocals, or worse, some kind of radio-geared post-grunge nonsense. (And seriously, does anyone actually listen to the radio anymore?) But what is metal in the modern perspective? Sure, you could point to dozens of bands pushing the various stylistic offshoots of The Real Deal; but where is the centerpoint, the throughline in the evolution and expansion of heavy metal?
The Spirit Cabinet makes a worthy claim for the title. The doom and gloom, the occult fascination and smoldering tempos of those early doom bands, the galloping and catchiness of the NWOBHM, the intensity and non-traditional song structure of black metal, the quick rhythmic shifts in the riffage and mood of death metal: It’s all there for the taking on Bloodlines. While the general sound of the album itself falls into the traditional heavy/doom camp, Bloodlines feels limitless in the consumption of its influences and the unique way in which they are artistically and stylistically regurgitated. The inspirations are fully digested; and while the backbone lies somewhere between Sabbath and Candlemass, there aren’t any singular moments that are easily traceable to a specific root originality.
The driving force lies in the riffs of Johnny Hällström (Hooded Priest, Grimm, Zwartketterij), planting a seed of songwriting for the rhythm section to grow off. (That rhythm section is composed of members of Hooded Priest and Cirith Gorgor.) The use of byzantine scales creates a base of mysticality and exoticness to the music that serves as a cake for the true icing of the record: the vocals of Snake McRuffkin (aka IX of acclaimed Dutch black metal act Urfaust). It is, without a doubt, the vocals on Bloodlines that elevate it from good to great — McRuffkin sells the whole ordeal as he shifts from semi-melodic moaning to outright wails of agony and everything in between. The way in which McRuffkin plays off the music going on beneath him simply begs for comparison to Ozzy on the early Sabbath works. It’s not so much an act of showmanship as it is a true underlying belief that he is possessed by demons. These types of vocalists only come about every so often; consider the aforementioned Ozzy or perhaps Attila’s inclusion into Mayhem. There’s a certain element present here beyond technical prowess. A particular realization of the mysticality in the music is tapped and harnessed into something mythical and magical. The gallops on “Devil In The Details” or “Satan The Healer” wouldn’t be the same without the conviction in the crooning and the emotive warbling over the mysticality of the melodies.
However, the true highlight lies in “The Medium In The Mask,” smack dab in the middle of the record. The slow, almost droning Candlemass-esque weighted melody of the guitar is accentuated by McRuffkin’s attention to detail, leaning into his accent with rolled r’s and “broken English” pronunciation: It adds that exotic factor on a level of ten; usually an acclaim reserved for vocalists with a particular set of delivery skills on par with that of, again, Attilla of Mayhem/Tormentor/Aborym/Sunn O))). Granted, McRuffkin is given a lot to work with here, as the song shifts from epic, tormented doom to pulsating thrash to the all-out climax in the form of blast-heavy black metal. It’s all taken in stride, and every element of the album blends seamlessly against a backdrop of occult madness that feels genuine and real through the Maiden-esque introduction to closer, “The Celestial Intelligencer.” The song, hell, the album itself still feels informed by the classics, but without giving in to the temptation of bending the knee to a singular altar: this is the face of modern doom, illuminated by and transformative of the classics into something inspired and new, yet familiar and engaging. A short blurb is not nearly enough to do Bloodlines justice, but alas, we missed it the first time, so let the damn music do the talking. [RYAN TYSINGER]
WAMPYRIC RITES – REFLECTIONS OF A FROSTBITTEN MOON
February 1, 2020; Death Kvlt Productions
So yes, we’re cheating a bit here. Ecuador’s Wampyric Rites self-released this EP late in 2019, but Death Kvlt Productions picked it up as a limited 12” release earlier this year. More to the point, though, this is such a gem that it would be a shame to let it fall by the wayside two years in a row. From the band name to the EP title, from the cover art to the classic gothic font: you know it, you love it – it’s raw black metal. And I do mean raw, although once you get past the almost overbearing treble harshness of the drums, there is significantly more melody, tasteful lead work, and songwriting acumen than you would normally expect from your average band flashing the exact same genre signifiers.
Wampyric Rites is a full band instead of a one-man basement vanity project, and it shows in nearly every respect other than the production values. You can practically hear the tape bleed from overdubbing as the affecting synth intro castles its way around for several minutes, but from the first downbeat of the first proper track, Reflections of a Frostbitten Moon is all business, all the time. Stylistically, we’re still on pretty standard Norwegian second-wave terrain with the rawness pushed to 11 – imagine, as an imperfect comparison, the songwriting of In the Nightside Eclipse with the hellacious racket of Wrath of the Tyrant. But even that might undersell Wampyric Rites – in the short 27 minutes of this EP, they cover a frankly astonishing range of intra-genre style moves, even kicking into a half-time and organ-backed dirge at the midway point of “IV (Orlok)” that points a little toward Darkthrone’s outro on “Crossing the Triangle of Flames.” This tremendous EP is sharp almost to a fault, but it barrels along with an overpowering aggression that is consistently balanced with tasteful, skilled instrumental flourishes. Come all ye seekers of rawness and walkers of dank castle crypts and worshippers at the altar of Grieghallen. I simply cannot wait to see where Wampyric Rites goes next. [DAN OBSTKRIEG]
SPELL – OPULENT DECAY
released: April 10, 2020; Bad Omen
It seems like every fucking year Spell releases a great album, and I fail to let it settle into my radar. I’m not sure if I got [raspberry] jammed or what, but these stellar heavy rockin’ opium trippers always seem just outside my sphere. It is —obviously — completely my fault, the most public yet of my many humiliations. So, this year, I decided to make it a priority. Yet… here we are.
Take, for example, the song “Deceiver,” for which the band released a video: It’s full of cocksure riffing and boot-stomping swagger that pair nicely with the lighter, almost airy vocals that float over the instrumentation like a rigid airship making a cross-Atlantic voyage. The galloping bass drums shove the song into a two-stomping, ale-swigging affair. The following track shows off the band’s vocal quality, with a full breakdown into a choir with perfect church harmonies. Opulent Decay is also loaded with psychedelic influences, beautiful melodies, layered guitars, keys, and a bass that could be just as comfortable in a goth-rock setting as it would this Rush-like feel. (Is that blasphemy?)
There are a few bands out there that have made similar music (e.g. Lunar Shadow), but none of them have done it as consistently as Spell (or maybe Haunt). If you’re looking for some shag carpeting in your van, there are few albums that you would like to blast rather than Opulent Decay. Go buy yourself a pinky ring and get to listening! [MANNY-O-LITO]
STYGIAN CROWN – STYGIAN CROWN
released: June 26, 2020; Cruz del Sur
An argument could be made that Stygian Crown’s 2020 release hasn’t really been out long enough to consider it a candidate for a ‘Missing Pieces’ feature like this. However, both criteria have indeed been met: 1) the album is good, and 2) we missed it, even if that miss was only by a week. Boom, we’re in.
If you’ve seen any of the hubbub circling Stygian Crown and this, their debut full-length, then you’ve no doubt caught the notably tempting keyword selling point: “Candlethrower.” Glory be, could it be true? A band combining the flattening power of Bolt Thrower with the epic magnificence of Candlemass? In a certain way, yes: Stygian Crown does indeed flex fragments of both bands in its sizable biceps—the riffs here are often tank tread heavy, and the album delivers just enough dramatic, sweeping flare to deem it worthy of investigation from fans of venerable acts such as Candlemass, Solitude Aeturnus, Scald, et al. But there’s also something about those (almost sneaky) grandiose keyboards and the strong awareness of classic trad galloping that gives a significant portion of the record a sense of primeval Warlord (U.S.) colliding with the oppressive doom / death strength of Morgion. That latter comparison isn’t at all surprising, considering the fact that Stygian Crown boasts a direct connect via one-time Morgion thunderer Rhett Davis populating its ranks, but the analogies to death metal in any other way ends precisely there. This is raw, heavily grinding (but not grind) barbarian metal that’s best suited for days spent pushing The Wheel of Pain, and how we’ve managed to go this far in our metal lives without hearing the superb voice of Melissa Pinion is a wonder in and of itself. [CAPTAIN]
TRICHOMONIASIS – TERMINAL INVERSION
released: March 21, 2020; New Standard Elite
This piece of worm-ridden filth was originally released in 2019, but perennial slam peddler New Standard Elite gave it a bit more exposure with a March 2020 boost, and for good reason. It’s hard to imagine this type of abstract brutality even being the product of human beings. A total of 14 “songs” abuse the listener in barely over a quarter of an hour, and while that’s more of a grind scope, there’s no overt anti-capitalist or class warfare intent here, just bludgeons and sloshing. (However, you can make a pretty good case that some of the extremely snide samples target out-of-control human vanity and consumerist culture.)
It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly what makes Trichomoniasis that much uglier and inhuman than countless other brutal slamming bands, but they are. Maybe it’s that the guitars (by far the most recognizable element) sound like someone slathered the strings with homemade glue, making the very act of playing the riffs a laborious process. Or that the drums sound as if they’re being played in a bubbling vat of decaying organic matter, with the trash can snare submerged instead of free to echo its PINGS in a proper studio. Or that the vocals sound like an exhausted, sick animal that only grows more ill throughout the process. The whole thing is like if Jackson Pollock was prepping another of his giant canvases, but instead of buying paint, he bought his supplies at an illegal sewage plant. Shitexpressionism, Randers.
Terminal Inversion actually reveals itself to have a touch of flow and a ton of pretty infectious (nyuk) riffing once you get past the aural shock of it all. If you get past the shock of it all. Many of you won’t get past the shock of it all. It’s pretty gross, and preposterous, and just utterly ridiculous, and so far into the realm of anti-art that it’s almost avant-garde.
To the band: please never publish your lyrics. [ZACH DUVALL]
BLACK SWAN – SHAKE THE WORLD
released: February 14, 2020; Frontiers
Frontiers Records has certainly cornered the market on these supergroups of hard rock stars from decades prior. Last year, three quarters of the classic Dokken line-up plus Lynch Mob vocalist Robert Mason released a strong album under the moniker The End Machine. Geoff Tate paired with members of Italian prog-metallers DGM for the Sweet Oblivion project, the best and most ‘Ryche-like record Tate has released since the late 90s. After a second round with his eponymous pairing with Stryper vocalist Michael Sweet, George Lynch collaborated with Animal Drive / TSO vocalist Dino Jelusić on the Dirty Shirley album, another rock solid offering. And now, along comes Black Swan…
Put together by bassist Jeff Pilson (Foreigner, The End Machine, ex-Dokken), Black Swan also features guitarist Reb Beach (Winger, Whitesnake), vocalist Robin McAuley (MSG, ex-Grand Prix), and drummer Matt Starr (Mr. Big, Ace Frehley). The list of band names in parentheses there should give you a pretty strong idea of what Black Swan’s record sounds like — it’s melodic hard rock, filled with arena-sized choruses and big hooky riffs and Beach’s tasteful shredding. McAuley, in particular, sounds amazing; he’s always been an underrated singer, and at the age of 67, he’s got the power and the range of a man half his age. And of course, it helps that Beach and Pilson composed an album’s worth of killer tunes, as well, from the insanely catchy title track through to the Queen-inspired pomp of album closer “Divided / United,” from the stomping “Johnny Came Marching” to the moody riffing of “Long Road To Nowhere.” Of course, there’s a big AOR ballad in “Make It There,” which might be a stumbling block for those looking to keep things in the realm of the hard and heavy, but it’s a well-done example of balladry, buoyed by an earworm chorus and a fine performance from McAuley.
All in, Black Swan stands as one of the best of Frontiers’ spate of collaborative efforts, and here’s hoping it’s more than just a one-off.
I still don’t know why the swan on the cover is white, though. [ANDREW EDMUNDS]
ADZES – NO ONE WANTS TO SPEAK ABOUT IT
released: May 29, 2020; Independent release
With the innate human desire to categorize, we often unfairly brand things that show a confluence of many inspirations to be “unfocused.” While any metalhead worth their salt loves a relentless battering of the ears for 40 minutes, we should also want to hear an album that takes each song in a different direction than the one that precedes it.
Adzes’ Forest Bohrer does an excellent job crafting his influences into a series of songs that go in multiple directions while managing to all sound like one cohesive album. The Bandcamp page for No One Wants To Speak About It has an FFO section claiming likeness to Isis, Godflesh, Kowloon Walled City, and early Mastodon, which are all surely influences on this album. The slow, noisy build into an ugly repeated riff on “415” will crush you clean into the street like Godflesh and the singing that aims not to belt, but to ponder along the exploratory track of “Loss” will remind one of Isis; but the influences don’t end there.
Aaron Turner’s burly side with Sumac is a more appropriate stamp for the album’s opener in “Divide”. One can’t help but think of multiple stages of Converge’s career along the way either. “Jesus Built My Death Squads” sounds like a puff of “Spacegrass” from Clutch did actually make forever come crashing down while the album’s title track forces Converge’s “Dark Horse” to stick its head deep into a bucket of sludge to find its carrots. Their friends in Doomriders get a nod in the bass-driven closer of “I won’t Last Forever.” Oddly enough, there even seems to be a hint of nu-metal groove in the faster riff on “Demon-Haunted” and “Overcome” puts spoken word over a brief clean guitar track reminiscent of the types of interludes that mid-aughts metalcore popularized.
Regardless of the slew of influences, Adzes has created a compelling 49 minutes of music that’s all their own. [SPENCER HOTZ]