This is Part 3 of our 2021 Missing Pieces series, in which we offer praise to some great stuff we missed during the initial press cycles. Have a gander at Part 1 and Part 2 if you haven’t, and thanks for reading!
MENTAL CRUELTY ‒ A HILL TO DIE UPON
released May 28; Unique Leader Records
Allow me to briefly recap my initial reactions to the first few minutes of Mental Cruelty’s new album:
The minute-long intro track “Avgang” plays
“Mmmkay this is a pretty standard acoustic-focused intro; fairly unremarkable so far.”
“Ultima Hypocrita” launches out of the gates with pure fire
“Oh hello! This is some very slick and triumphant black metal riffage that I wasn’t expecting from a death metal band.”
The music cuts down to just some dramatic synths and a gloriously ignorant guitar riff hits
“HOLY SHIT!!! This song is about to go OFF!”
The vocals roar alone and the song drops into pure knuckle-dragging glory
The song opens back up and a chorus kicks off with a layered, clean choral-style singing of the word “Satanas”
“Hold my beer, I need to go punch God in the face!”
A Hill to Die Upon so perfectly fuses the most ignorantly heavy death metal with the dramatic triumph of black metal that listening to it will bestow you with enough infernal might to punch through the crust of the Earth and drag up hordes of demons to help you destroy every facet of heaven. If the chugging bouncy monster of a riff in “King Ov Fire” doesn’t make you feel like you could square up against Mike Tyson, I’m not convinced you really like heavy music.
Did I mention the glorious leads? They avoid just being shred-fests and are actually played with a sense of feeling that perfectly matches the dramatic flare of the rest of the music. The songs muscled into your ears have no business being this stupidly heavy while pulling off such adept blackened drama. This is the aural equivalent of encountering a caveman in a tuxedo who can perfectly recite from memory a 15-item specials menu made entirely of items harvested from a saber-toothed tiger he mauled to death with his bare hands a few moments earlier.
The only mental cruelty you’ll suffer is that of regret if you don’t hit play on one of the heaviest albums of the year. [SPENCER HOTZ]
ORDEN OGAN ‒ FINAL DAYS
released March 12; AFM Records and Fono Ltd.
A band simply doesn’t exist successfully as long as Orden Ogan has without committing to an aesthetic. In addition to Blind Guardian-esque vocal layering, saccharine choruses, and meaty riffs, Orden Ogan’s aesthetic includes committing like hell to a narrative concept. And I can forgive the German quintet for going Wild West with dusty jackets and cowboy hats in “Gunman” and vaqueros in “Fields of Sorrow,” but I am not as forgiving of whatever that is on the cover of Final Days.
Despite the objectively horrendous art, the music holds up. Whereas Isuffered from far too many mid-paced songs, Final Days finds Orden Ogan diversifying ever so slightly. Ballads are still not the band’s strong suit—just listen to “Alone in the Dark,” a dud orchestrated by Rhapsody of Fire’s Alex Staropoli that features the wasted talents of Brothers of Metal’s Ylva Eriksson—but the faster songs such as “Interstellar” (featuring an excellent Gus G. guitar solo) and “Inferno,” which eclipse most everything from Gunmen. Orden Ogan’s sound may be well-established, but the band proves here that they can play with the formula without compromising the memorability at the heart of their appeal.
The digital apocalypse theme works insofar as it gives the songs some sort of lyrical uniformity, but if there’s a story here I am not sure I care enough to follow it. Rather, riffs are the band’s bread and butter, and with song such as the aforementioned “Interstellar” and “Inferno,” along with “Black Hole” and “Heart of the Android,” Final Days represents a notable step up from Gunmen. [CHRIS C]
INCINERATE ‒ BACK TO REALITY
March 6; Dead by Dawn Records
Heavy metal music that is generally associated with The Mosh Pit can typically be split into two categories: metal that panders to the pit (booooo), and metal that commands the pit (yesssssss). The former is made up of bands that are only there to get people moving their butts whether or not anyone remembers the music after the show; think of the more generic deathcore and pizza thrash as examples. Metal that commands a pit is music so tight and dominant that even if you’d never heard a note before the band hit the stage (or before you hit play on an album), you’re still overcome by Involuntary Bushwhacker Convulsing (copyright pending).
On sophomore album Back to Reality, Belgium’s Incinerate plays music that likely commands quite a lot of sweaty metalhead bodies moving in a violent blur. Their pummeling death/thrash formula draws on some equally pit-friendly influences, key among them a whole bunch of Demolition Hammer and Beneath/Arise-era Sepultura with bits of heftier thrash like Sacrifice and Forbidden (minus the vocals of the latter). But they make it their own with extremely tight and efficient songs (9 in 35 minutes) and some very beastly performances. From the moment the album’s title is first barked in isolation in the opener, this record is nonstop kickassery.
Every performance is huge, but the drumming goes above and beyond the album’s typical level of above and beyond. From the great mid-paced ride cymbal passages and roto toms to all the timely usage of double kick patterns and the big bass drum/cymbal mute hits, Incinerate’s impact always starts with Michael Paulus’s work behind the kit. On top of that comes the delightfully rumbling bass, riffs that range from straight thrashing patterns to quick harmonies and brutal chugs, the occasional shreddy solo, and Nils Pervé’s gruff vocal personality (complete with the occasional touch of fun ESL pronunciation). Each element has presence, and the already sleek songs are elevated because of it. One gets the sense that each member of this trio elevates the other during songwriting and jam sessions and that they relish every last moment.
Shows aren’t quite back in full force yet, so in the meantime clear your furniture, play Back to Reality loudly, and make a pit of one at home. [ZACH DUVALL]
SICKRECY ‒ FIRST WORLD ANXIETY
released June 4; Spikerot Records
Psssst, hey, kid. Wanna know a sickret?
Grindcore is pretty awesome. Pass it on.
Okay, so maybe that’s not much of a sickret, really. If you’re here, scrolling through these hallowed pages, chances are you’re quite aware of it, and you’re at least partly hip to the wonders of the loud, the fast, and the ugly. (If you’re not, you should be.) Sickrecy is a new trio from the grand grind hinterlands of Sweden, a new project very rooted in classic grindcore and featuring Martin Eriksson and Marcus Dahl from death/crusters World In Ruins and Adde Mitroulis from the ever-dependable Birdflesh, and First World Anxiety is their first release. Most importantly, it’s a rock-solid little ripper, six songs in 17 minutes, which is positively epic by grindcore standards.
Blending the crustiness and the death metal influence from World In Ruins with the vicious death/grind of Birdflesh, First World Anxiety is the sum of its parts, eschewing the latter band’s penchant for silliness in favor of the more traditional sociopolitical grindcore themes. But really what matters here is twofold: the riffs, and the rage. The former come in the expected forms, sometimes tremolo-picked, sometimes chunky and thrashing, and yet always carving, hooking into the flesh with sharpened claws. The latter is relentless, be it directed in furious blastbeating or in groovier grinding like bits of the title track or the bulldozer drive of “Banner Of Contempt.”
Overall, First World Anxiety is a pretty straightforward release, but that’s not to sell it short in any way — it may not be boundary-pushing, but it definitely get its point across, and sometimes a good ass-kicking is all you really need.
Grindcore is pretty awesome. [ANDREW EDMUNDS]
CULT OF LUNA ‒ THE RAGING RIVER
released February 5; Red Creek Records
Would this be an awkward time to admit I’m new to Cult of Luna? Of course I knew of them—I’ve known of them essentially since day one—but I’m the fellow who, apart from the exceptional Neurosis, skipped out on the entirety of the atmospheric sludge explosion that occurred throughout the early 2000s, so no CoL, Isis, The Ocean, Mouth of the Architect, etc. I don’t have any impressive explanations for this malfeasance, particularly given my affinity for post-rock, but I mostly attach it to a general aversion to the characteristic vocal style ascribed to the off-shoot. In truth, that shouty / distraught sort of delivery remains the largest obstacle for me today, but a chance encounter with 2019’s A Dawn to Fear that quickly turned into a bonafide infatuation finally put that discrimination to rest, at least with regard to Cult of Luna. Since then, it’s been smooth (but noticeably emotional) sailing for me and the band, and I now count myself as a notably unpunctual fan of Cult of Luna, thanks largely to something they did in year 20 of their storied career.
Here’s the thing about that A Dawn to Fear release from 2019: It’s a fucking beast of a record—a perfect amalgam of intensity and elegance, and of crushing the soul while also lifting the spirits at the very next bend. Perhaps it doesn’t reach quite the same heights for those who’ve been Cult of Luna fans for two decades and have spent years upon years returning to imposing records such as Somewhere Along the Highway and Vertikal, but one gets the strong impression that this is one of those bands that typically finds ways to release varying shades of greatness extremely systematically, so every release is treated with pronounced enthusiasm.
Wait… Right? Are people still getting excited about atmospheric sludge / post-hardcore / progressive whatever-the-hell? Not only did Last Rites miss out on covering The Raging River earlier this year, but we managed to skip A Dawn to Fear back in 2019 to boot. Shame on you, Last Rites. Shame on you. In our defense, however, that particular record seemed fairly overlooked by a number of publications. Case in point, consider the following stack of notable outlets that spend perhaps a little less time mining the über underground as compared to Last Rites and whether or not A Dawn to Fear—a very good record by a band that’s spent years being lauded by endless publications—managed to hit their Best Of 2019 lists:
Rolling Stone: nope
Pop Matters: nope
Kerrang: no. 43/50
Also, please keep the following in mind: Many of those same publications (including Last Rites) found it in their hearts to hail Inter Arma’s Sulphur English from that very same year, so scrap any notions that people have suddenly fallen out of love with the entirety of atmospheric sludge / post-whatever. The only feasible answer relates to people being too…comfortable (?) with Cult of Luna releasing high-quality atmospheric post-hardcore, and they perhaps wish the band would spend more time pushing the envelope. Solid argument—people love backing the rookies and underdogs, and if you’ve spent years head-over-heels in love with albums like Salvation and Eternal Kingdom, can you really expect to be blown away by releases a decade-plus later that continue to spin fabric from a very similar loom, even if the quality is clearly still there?
Yes. The answer to that question is yes. It should be yes. But sometimes it takes a fair bit of time to realize it, or maybe you do so…more privately. You know, one of those “Hello, old friend. Come in and join me for a brandy by the fire, just the two of us” scenarios where the love literally goes without saying.
Of course, this is all an incredibly round about way of stating the truth that The Raging River is a wonderful EP very deserving of celebration by new and old fans alike. Similar to the LP that preceded it, Cult of Luna’s long proven proficiency for underscoring intensity and elegance back and forth and hither and thither survives as the dominant force, but it’s magnified even further by the most recent development to the CoL sound: keyboards that add a significant (and significantly wonderful) new layer to the soul crushing and spirit lifting. The modern face of the band feels heavier compared to, say, the Eternal Kingdom years, but there’s still well enough somber, reflective guitar work woven into the fabric here—particularly with regard to opener “Three Bridges” and throughout “I Remember”—to pacify the fans of their more solemn face as well. And netting the incredible Mark Lanegan (ex-Screaming Trees) for a quiet interlude was certainly a spectacular achievement that pushes the overall righteousness directly over the edge.
It’s taken a long 20 years to get to here, but I finally count Cult of Luna amongst the ever-growing list of bands I will happily follow ’til the end. And lucky for us, The Raging River confirms that there’s still plenty left in the Luna tank. [CAPTAIN]