The easing of lockdown restrictions and return of live music feels somewhat bittersweet, knowing that COVID cases are still on the rise. Whilst I’d envisioned a glorious, sweat-drenched communal outpouring of joy at the first few gigs after lockdown, it now seems like it’s going to be a tentative, cautious experience instead; rather than emerging from the past year safe in the knowledge that the pandemic is over, we’re carefully crawling out of our little bubbles amidst new variants and a government that has decided that doing the bare minimum was still too much, and has seemingly completely wiped their hands of this mess and left us to deal with the fallout. The utter, utter bastards.
Still, whilst live music is still in a state of flux, there’s plenty of great new records to catch up on this month, from legends like At The Gates, Darkthrone and Mayhem to extremely promising new lockdown projects like funeral doom duo Hellish Form and solo death metal outfit Sallow Moth, which you can hear below.I know I say this every month, but every month it’s true; there’s just too much music being released to contain it all in this little old column.
Thou have another compilation out, collecting songs from some of the band’s fantastic recent splits with the likes of Regana and Barghest. If you haven’t been keeping up with the band’s relentless release schedule, then this is a handy way to catch up, but even if you have Hightower, this is worth checking out for the re-recorded songs – classic early Thou tunes like ‘Smoke Pigs’ and the crushing ‘Fucking Chained To The Bottom Of The Ocean’ reimagined with the band’s current line-up and beefed up with an even heftier production.
I’ve already covered Nottingham quintet Underdark’s debut Our Bodies Burned Bright On Re-Entry elsewhere, but suffice to say, if you have any interest in black metal, screamo or post rock, it’s an essential listen, outgrowing the more straight-forward Deafheaven worship of their first EP and blossoming into a fresh, intense sound that feels entirely their own.
Michigan grindcore trio Cloud Rat just released a new single – well, two new singles in fact, conjoined into one track, Mother Tongue – Glitter Belly. The first half ‘Mother Tongue’ does a good job of balancing dreamy chords with the band’s trademark ferocity, whilst ‘Glitter Belly’ combines chuggy Melvins riffs, ethereal wails and frantic blasts before collapsing into a heap of bristling, uncomfortable noise and gradually rebuilding itself into gloomy, downbeat electronica.
But for now, let’s focus on the stuff I did have room for, beginning with At The Gates’ best album since 1995’s Slaughter Of The Soul…
At The Gates – The Nightmare Of Being(Century Media)
Swedish death metal legends At The Gates’ 2014 comeback At War With Reality was solid enough, but it was a very safe effort, sticking perhaps too closely to their classic Slaughter Of The Soul blueprint. 2018’s To Drink From The Night Itself was better, marrying that anthemic Slaughter sound to the more twisted, experimental song structures of earlier records like With Fear I Kiss The Burning Darkness, but this new one is a different beast entirely. Easily the most adventurous, daring and surprising album they’ve released since reforming, The Nightmare Of Being feels like a whole new chapter for the band, expanding their trademark melodic riffage into more progressive and psychedelic pastures. The opening combo of ‘Spectre OF Extinction’ (featuring a scorching Andy LaRocque guest solo) and ‘The Paradox’ is great but only hints at the album’s overall scope, continuing the dark but stirring sound of To Drink but with a slightly more melancholic vibe. After this though, the record really broadens out, with the unexpectedly gorgeous ‘Garden Of Cyrus’ playing out like a late 70s King Crimson vista, even boasting a beautiful saxophone solo. ‘The Fall Of Time’ expertly blends these prog soundscapes into the band’s signature style, with windswept viola, cello, flute and tuba bleeding into sombre guitar licks and pounding Gothenburg death metal, whilst ‘Cosmic Pessimism’ keeps the band’s taut, driving riffing fully intact, but eases off on the distortion and binds it to a throbbing motorik beat as Lindberg opts for understated post punk misery instead of screeching catharsis. Despite all these curveballs, The Nightmare Of Being never feels like too wild of a leap for the band – there’s definitely a link here to the more intricately composed, labyrinthine pieces on their debut The Red In The Sky Is Ours, but imbued with an older, more world weary outlook. Even extra instrumentation like the aforementioned saxophone doesn’t seem too out of place when you consider the prominent use of violin on that first record. In a way, this album sort of feels like At The Gates coming full circle and reimagining the vision of the debut under a more modern lens. Either way, it’s definitely their best post-reunion album, and a bold addition to their discography that proves there’s still a lot of creative energy left in the band.
Darkthrone - Eternal Hails……(Peaceville)
Darkthrone are also firing on all cylinders at the moment, with this nineteenth full-length taking the more sullen, mid-paced vibe of its predecessors, 2016’s Arctic Thunder and 2019’s Old Star, to its logical conclusion. The result is their most overtly doom influenced record since 1995’s Panzerfaust, with one of the warmest, punchiest productions they’ve ever had. This is Darkthrone so it’s still extremely lo-fi, to the point that the whole thing seems to be shrouded in a thick, ominous mist, but there’s a supremely pleasing thump to the kick drum and an organic, roomy glow to the murky guitars.The frosty, authoritative riffing in tracks like ‘His Master’s Voice’ or the epic, bitter ‘Hate Cloak’ would have felt right at home on either of the last two records, but here they’re welded to denser, more elaborate song structures that aren’t afraid to slow right down for maximum impact – the end of the latter is pure Candlemass worship, with grand, mournful guitar harmonies and swinging Sabbathian groove from Fenriz. ‘Voyage To A North Pole Adrift’ features probably the swiftest riffing here, but even then it’s tied to a proggy, Mercyful Fate style ten-minute structure that takes all kinds of twists and turns, contrasting D-beat backed speed metal riffs with lumbering Hellhammer grooves. Closer ‘Lost Arcane City Of Uppåkra’ is the biggest surprise though, kicking off with one of the album’s most infectious hooks before collapsing into a huge doom riff, complete with sinister layers of Moog that sounds more like the end of an Electric Wizard record than a traditional Darkthrone one. It works though, and completely fits the eerie, otherworldly aura the band were aiming for with this LP. Eternal Hails…… feels like Darkthrone’s most robust, cohesive and atmospheric record since abandoning the more unabashed, upbeat heavy metal style of The Underground Resistance, conjuring a genuinely ancient atmosphere as if it’s a recently unearthed, dust covered tape containing metal recorded by some long lost civilisation.
Mayhem - Atavistic Black Disorder/ Kommando(Century Media)
Fellow Norwegian black metal pioneers Mayhem return this month too, with a choice selection of off-cuts from the recording sessions for 2019’s Daemon. The driving, almost punky ‘Black Glass Communion’ was released a single shortly after the album was released, and holds up here too, whilst both ‘Voces Ab Alta’ and ‘Everlasting Dying Flame’, much like most of Daemon, represent a pretty solid return to the De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas sound, complete with Attila’s demonic rasp and almost operatic, crazed clergyman style vocals. I still think it’s a little jarring to hear the band going back to that sound after so successfully deconstructing it on 2007’s perennially under-appreciated Ordo Ad Chao, but I realise I’m probably in the minority here – if you’re a sucker for the classic Mayhem sound, they’re probably closer to it right now than they have been at any point since the late 90s, for better or for worse. The punk covers here, meanwhile, showcase an entirely new side to the band. Whilst there’s been a punk influence in Mayhem ever since Deathcrush, it’s never been as overt as it is here. Songs like Discharge’s ‘In Defense Of Our Future’ are played entirely straight, the band resisting the urge to trem-pick and blast their way through in favour of delivering an unexpectedly faithful rendition. Early vocalist Messiah shows up to belt out the Ramones’ ‘Commando’ in a belligerent, guttural manner, whilst Deathcrush-era frontman Maniac delivers a surprisingly passable Jello Biafra impression (albeit with a thick Norwegian accent) as the band romp through Dead Kennedy’s ‘Hellnation’. Rudimentary Peni’s ‘Only Death’ arguably lends itself best to the Mayhem style here, and it’s a blast hearing Attila croakily aping Nick Blinko. The production feels a tad too polished, and you get the feeling a bit of extra filth around the edges would have really completed the package, but this EP is still a fun listen for die-hard Mayhem fans and hardcore punk obsessives alike.
Year Of No Light – Consolamentum(Pelagic)Consolamentum by YEAR OF NO LIGHT
Bordeaux post metal sextet Year Of No Light are back with their first record of all-new material since 2013’s Tocsin, and it’s one of their biggest sounding releases yet, boasting a thick but crisp production that really brings out the subtle details in their rich, gloomy sound. The seven-minute ‘Alétheia’ is the most direct track here and a great example of the band’s style, mixing melancholy post rock soundscapes and ginormous sludgy riffs with a vigour and aggression that hints at their hardcore roots. The other four eleven-minute-plus pieces here are much more stately and drawn out – ‘Objuration’ is a slow-burning opener for example, but by the time it explodes in a burst of widescreen, delay smothered guitar, it feels like the crescendo has really been earned. Consolamentum is certainly a record that rewards patience, and the gradual, steady build in intensity as each of these songs progresses is immensely satisfying. ‘Interdix Aux Vivant, Aux Morts Et Aux Chiens’ begins with some of the most sombre, understated strumming on the whole album, but eventually erupts in a flurry of black metal-esque aggression, before dropping right down into cavernous, slow motion doom.Consolamentum never feels too schizophrenic or fragmented however, with the whole thing flowing very organically from track to track.
King Woman – Celestial Blues(Relapse)Celestial Blues by King Woman
Californian doom quartet King Woman’s second album is a very different beast to its 2017 predecessor Created In The Image Of Suffering. Whilst that album maintained a consistently dour, shoegaze-y gloom throughout, Celestial Blues is far more dynamic and has more peaks and troughs. Tracks like ‘Psychic Wound’ and the wistful title track aren’t a million miles away from the debut, mining a similarly hazy, washed out doom sound to Windhand, but this album also makes room for sparser, more vulnerable moments like the desolate ‘Golgotha’ or sultry, Mazzy Star-esque ‘Entwined’. ‘Boghz’, meanwhile, contrasts eerie, skeletal chords (à la Fvnerals) with some of the band’s most aggressive riffing yet. There’s an almost noise rock feel to it at times, and the unexpected blastbeats at the end are a welcome addition. Vocalist Kristina Esfandiari adopts a rougher, harsher howl in addition to her usual breathy croon here, to great effect. She deploys both simultaneously on ‘Coil’, an anguished three-minute rocker that feels more like Babes In Toyland than anything in the contemporary doom canon. The band seem to gel a lot more in general on this album too, with tracks like ‘Morning Star’ giving Skin Like Iron drummer Joey Raygoza a chance to flex his chops with some pummelling fills. If you dug the debut but longed for a bit more energy amidst all the doom and gloom, you’ll love this.
Craven Idol – Forked Tongues(Dark Descent)Forked Tongues by Craven Idol
Featuring members of Fen, Crom Dubh and Scythian, Craven Idol are one of the UK’s most underrated black thrash acts, drawing from both the blistering, no-nonsense riffing of Aura Noir and more elaborate, imaginative song structures of Absu to create something that feels very much their own. With any luck, their third album Forked Tongues will turn more people onto the band, as it’s also arguably their best yet too, outdoing their previous records both in terms of memorable, adventurous compositions and balls-to-the-wall, wide-eyed intensity. ‘Venomous Rites’ is an absolutely ridiculous opener, in the best possible ways, all barely restrained tremolo riffs, vintage Tom Araya falsetto and chaotic blastbeats, which make ‘The Wrath Of Typhon’s stompier pace and colder, mid-paced riffs strike even harder by contrast. Tracks like ‘Even The Demons…’ deliver straight-up 80s thrash battery and squealing dive bomb solos with aplomb, but it’s the pair of ambitious nine minute closers that really see Craven Idol coming into their own, with ‘Deify The Stormgod’ combining rambunctious D-beats, theatrical chanted vocals and pure evil black metal riffing and ‘The Gods Have Left Us For Dead’ taking a more sombre, mournful tone. Much like Wode’s recent album, there’s very definitely a traditional, old school heavy metal influence underpinning Forked Tongues, lending their ripping black metal onslaught an even more ancient, timeless quality. It’s a dynamic, well-paced record that somehow manages to remain melodic, grandiose and even faintly whimsical whilst scorching your fire clean off for the duration of its 40 minutes.
Hellish Form - Remains(Translation Loss)Remains by Hellish Form
Keeper’s Jacob Lee and Body Void’s Willow Ryan evidently kept busy over lockdown, joining forces to mine even darker, slower depths than their other bands with Hellish Form. After their self-released MMXX debut last year, this follow-up is even better, with the band’s distinctive style coming into clearer focus. Ostensibly a funeral doom band, Hellish Form manage to sound pretty unique compared to a lot of other bands in the genre, partly due to both members’ anguished, high-pitched shrieks replacing the traditional guttural rumble, but also because of their adventurous approach to song-writing and blending their influences. Opener ‘Your Grave Becomes A Garden’, for example, strikes a perfect balance between devastatingly slow, punishing tempos and ethereal, deeply layered guitar textures, sort of like Corrupted with an early 4AD production. There’s a keen sense of melody throughout Remains, with ‘Ache’ using both gorgeous, snail-paced guitar leads and haunting, Disintegration style keys to create a syrupy soundscape that’s just as memorable as it is sorrowful. For all the moments of beauty on here though, there’s plenty of abject despair too – the suffocating, claustrophobic dirge of ‘Shadows With Teeth’ recalls early Moss at times. Remains is one of the most poignant, harrowing and emotive doom records I’ve heard so far this year – if reality is currently making you want to curl up in the foetal position and pretend you don’t exist, this is the perfect soundtrack.
Sallow Moth - Stasis Cocoon(Tridroid)Stasis Cocoon by Sallow Moth
After releasing perhaps the most unique Cara Neir album yet earlier this year, multi-instrumentalist Garry Brents is back with his death metal solo project Sallow Moth. Compared to Cara Neir’s more eclectic, genre-hopping sound, Sallow Moth is very much focused on Swedish death metal, with the crisp, memorable riffs and churning buzzsaw guitar tone of tracks like opener ‘Chalice Of The Void’ recalling both the grandeur of early (and I guess judging by their latest, also contemporary) At The Gates and burly power of Dismember. That said, there’s still plenty of Garry’s eccentric flair here – just check out the wonky rock & roll riff that bursts in during the title track, like Lemmy breaking up a bar brawl between Vomitory and Bloodbath, or the almost grindcore ferocity of ‘Fevered Visions’. There’s a more technical, progressive edge to tracks like ‘Seal Of Primordium’ too, almost like Edge Of Sanity covering Gorguts, whilst closer ‘Drowner Of Secrets, Bring To Light’ even makes room for some yearning, emotive lead guitar amidst it’s pummelling blasts. Boasting a really full sound and cohesive aesthetic, this is not only impressive for a one-man outfit, but a great death metal record in its own right.
Know//Suffer - The Great Dying(Silent Pendulum)The Great Dying by KNOW//SUFFER
This Texan quintet offer up a pretty distinctive style of hardcore with death metal leanings on this new EP. The bludgeoning grooves of ‘Godplay’ make for a crushing opener, feeling like Xibalba with Meshuggah’s guitar tone, before ‘Thumbnail’ snaps between grinding blastbeats and stuttering, oddly timed aggressive lurches in breakneck style. There’s a very dry sound here, from the scooped churn of the guitars to the hollow thud of the snare, right down to vocalist Toast Williams’ harsh, throaty shout. Whilst the EP would probably benefit from a thicker, more flattening production, Williams’ hoarse approach suits the band well. Drummer Joseph James also deserves praise for the unexpected rhythms he busts out here – take the end of ‘Vertigo’, for example, which gears up as if it’s going to drop into that clichéd staccato deathcore breakdown groove, only for James to slip into a propulsive shuffle that totally changes the feel of the riff. There’s a distinctly modern approach to The Great Dying and, despite wearing their influences proudly on their sleeve, Know//Suffer manage to blend them in a way that feels pretty unique. If they can keep their riffs sounding this hard and beef up the production a bit on a full-length, they could be massive.
Blue Ruth - Mausoleum(Supersonic Recordings)
Finally, here’s something that isn’t quite metal but is heavy as fuck nonetheless. Having played in noisy Birmingham punk acts like Youth Man and Pretty Grim, Blue Ruth finds Kaila Whyte exploring more industrial territory. You may have caught her transforming Black Sabbath’s ‘Electric Funeral’ into a sparse, squelchy synth workout as part of Supersonic’s online Sofasonic event, and this debut EP does a good job of capturing that same alienated, nightmarish sound. Opener ‘Almost Gone’ builds patiently into a churning, throbbing metallic dirge with Whyte’s sardonic low-key vocals simmering away at the centre of it all, almost like a Gazelle Twin fronted Godflesh, whilst ‘John Wick’ takes an even more minimal, bass driven approach, burying ominous synth swells beneath rolling waves of jittering, footwork style bass hits. ‘Fresh’ sees Whyte howling like David Yow and deploying an almost black metal-like croak atop undulating, queasy bass drops, before closer ‘Wide Eyes’ ends the EP with a pounding, evil house banger. Mausoleum isn’t for the faint of heart, but it’s forlorn, industrial atmosphere should resonate with anyone who has felt the curious sense of isolation that comes with city living.