Five Fives: Top 25 Records, 2016

2016 was a year of monster releases from veterans and relative newcomers alike. Weirdly, three of the top five were neatly stacked side by side. N-bands Nails, Neurosis, and Nothing put out three of my most-listened-to and most revered records. My friends and heroes, emcess/producers Aesop Rock and dälek round out The Five Best. It’s not a huge drop off from there, but these were definitely my five favorites. Let’s run them down along with the other worthy candidates in five sets of five: The Five Best, Five More, The Five Less Likely, The Five Heaviest, and Five Leftover From Last Year. Disclaimer: hyperboles abound. It was a good year for music!

The Five Best:

Aesop Rock: The Impossible Kid

Aesop Rock The Impossible Kid (Rhymesayers): On easily his most personal record yet, Aesop Rock dug deep but didn’t forget to come up for air. I’ve listened to this record hundreds of times — more than any other this year. There’s not a skippable song in the bunch, and too many favorites to name. The Kid just keeps getting better.

Neurosis: Fires Within Fires

Neurosis Fires Within Fires (Neurot Recordings): Thirty years strong and still pushing every boundary in every direction, Neurosis proved once again why they’re considered one of the best bands doing it. Fires Within Fires pulls from all of their flame-forged, hard-earned strengths. “Broken Ground,” for one, seethes with the slow burn of a raging star. Their output from this century alone puts them high above most other bands, and this is just one more untouchable document of their power.

Nothing: Tired of Tomorrow

Nothing Tired of Tomorrow (Relapse): Where they’ve previously flown their influences like a flag in the fog, Nothing really cleared a definitive path for themselves on Tired of Tomorrow. They’ll probably never shake the 90s-revivalist, shoegazer tag, but they’re bigger and broader than that. This—only their second full-length record—more than proves it.

dalek: Asphalt for Eden

dälek Asphalt for Eden (Profound Lore): Back at it with their OG DJ (rEK), longtime fellow traveler (Mike Manteca), and of course MC dälek (Will Brooks; Peace to Brother Oktopus), they’ve never sounded better. “Masked Laughter (Nothing’s Left),” with its mix of dreamy feedback drones and nightmare non-notes, is a perfect example of how unique and how powerful this music is. Shame on you for not playing this all year as loud as possible.

Nails: You Will Never Be One of Us

Nails You Will Never Be One of Us (Nuclear Blast): I watched with excruciating anticipation as Nails released in-studio video teasers in the months leading up to the release of You Will Never Be One of Us. One of the most used words in those videos was “Slayer,” which only made my pain more acute. The record owes as much to Nails’ past as it does Slayer though: all of their bluntness sharpened to a lethal point. At a breakneck 21 minutes and 43 seconds, it’s a beast of a release in every way.

Five More:

ERR: Marked for Death

Emma Ruth Rundle Marked for Death (Sargent House): Emma Ruth Rundle’s Marked for Death rolls in emotional waves, crests in catharsis, and is downright devastating all round. “Heaven” alone is enough to level the strongest of any of us. If you’re still standing after that, try “Real Big Sky.” If that doesn’t do it, you’re more of a “man” than I.

Daniel Lanois: Goodbye to Language

Daniel Lanois Goodbye to Language (ANTI-): In his 2010 book, Soul Mining (faber & faber), Daniel Lanois mentions an idea called “future hymns.” Goodbye to Language is somewhere between “future hymns” and an update to the Apollo: Atmospheres and Soundtracks record that Lanois did with Roger and Brian Eno in 1983. There’s an outer-space quality to these compositions but also a frontier feeling. According to Eno, the twang on Apollo was to “give the impression of weightless space.” According to Lanois, it was because the astronauts were from Texas. The steel guitar is the reason here, and it works here as it did there. Such a beautifully subtle record.

True Widow: Avvolgere

True Widow Avvolgere (Relapse): Great music is often completely confounding. True Widow has been slowly building a body of work that confuses me in the very best way. It’s doomy and heavy but also light and shoegazy. It’s hypnotic above all else. Given enough time, True Widow might be one of the only bands future-people still talk about from our era.

Explosions in the Sky: The Wilderness

Explosions in the Sky The Wilderness (Temporary Residence): Call it a comeback, if you must. The Wilderness is everything you love about Explosions in the Sky refined and redefined all over again.

Savages: Adore Life

Savages Adore Life (Matador): Savages’ infectious, angular energy is showcased properly on Adore Life. The original Gang of Four finally have a worthy heir.

The Five Less Likely:

It Only Gets Worse: Angels

It Only Gets Worse Angels (self-released): Over the past few years, the words of Matt Finney and the music of Maurice de Jong have been melding into some of the most heartbreaking sounds around. Angels, their first proper full-length record, is no exception. If I had this on any analog format, it would be worn out.

Wreck and Reference: Indifferent Rivers Romance End

Wreck & Reference Indifferent Rivers Romance End (The Flenser): Indifferent Rivers Romance End is a hard star to place in a constellation, but there’s no denying its gravity. It’s so heavy it hurts. I don’t know what to call what Wreck & Reference does, but it doesn’t really matter. They do it because they have to, and that’s enough. Pain is intoxicating.

the body: No One Deserves Happiness

The Body No One Deserves Happiness (Thrill Jockey): Most of The Body’s output the last several years has been collaborations with everyone from Thou and Full of Hell to Japan’s Vampillia. On this, their first full-length by themselves in two years, they continue illustrating why they’re one of the most adventurous bands in the Metal underground. Brutally weird.

White Lung: Paradise

White Lung Paradise (Domino): I often wake up with Mish Barber-Way’s words—written and sung—in my head. She is the absolute embodiment of 21st Century Punk Rock, and White Lung is but one arm of her full-frontal haranguing of hegemony. Join the fight or else.

Father: I'm a Piece of Shit

Father I’m a Piece of Shit (Awful Records): So laid-back as to be dreamlike, Father’s latest is a pill-fueled fantasy of excess. It’s like using the last of your three wishes to wish for more wishes, getting them, and then realizing how bad you fucked up. This is the slow-grinding sound of greed, indulgence, and ultimate nihilism. His new song is dope too. Father is the future.

The Five Heaviest:

Mouth of the Architect: Path of Eight

Mouth of the Architect Path of Eight (Translation Loss): Delivering on the promises of 2013’s Dawning, Path of Eight is Mouth of the Architect at the peak of their massive powers.

Vukari: Divination

Vukari Divination (Bindrune Recordings): Chicago’s own Black Metal powerhouse, Vukari came back even more polished on 2016’s Divination. This has been my go-to Black-Metal release of the year, and one that I’m guessing hasn’t revealed all of its delights.

Oathbreaker: Rheia

Oathbreaker Rheia (Deathwish, Inc.): Burning down the barriers between all the subgenres of heavy music, Oathbreaker is one of the only bands worthy of the “post-” part of the post-metal mantle. That, and Rheia might be the best metal record of the decade. It’s huge.

Heiress: Made Wrong

Heiress Made Wrong (The Mylene Sheath): Seattle’s most underrated band did it again. Another great mix of pedigree (Undertow, Botch, et al.) and prophesy, Made Wrong is the product of pieces of the past and planning for the future. The metal is strong with this one.

Russian Circles: Guidance

Russian Circles Guidance (Sargent House): As an instrumental three-piece, Russian Circles have few peers. Their live shows are always stellar and their records always push limits. Guidance is no exception. Heavy music gets no better than this.

One Day You Will Ache Like I Ache

The Body & Full of Hell One Day You Will Ache Like I Ache (Neurot Recordings): As one of The Body’s aforementioned many recent collaborations, this is easily the heaviest. It’s difficult to imagine tempering the fiery fury of Full of Hell with anything, much less the mechanical, maniacal howling of The Body. This melding of metal is as much noise as it is music, and that is to its credit not its detriment.

Five Leftovers from Last Year:

Kamasi Washington: The Epic

Kamasi Washington The Epic (Brainfeeder): I totally missed this one last year. The Epic, Kamasi Washington’s immense, three-disc debut (after self-releasing a few gems and collaborating with everyone from Ryan Adams to Kendrick Lamar), is the future of Jazz. Don’t sleep like I did. Do yourself a flavor.

Panopticon: Autumn Eternal

Panopticon Autumn Eternal (Bindrune Recordings): One of the most underrated one-person, American Black Metal bands (even I only gave it runner-up status on last year’s list), Panopticon’s latest, 2015’s Autumn Eternal is his—Austin Lunn’s—best yet. It’s the third of a trilogy including Kentucky (2012) and Roads to the North (2014). Dig in!

Tunde Olaniran: Transgressor

Tunde Olaniran Transgressor (Quite Scientific): If ever there were an album that deserved to linger at the top of a list such as this, Transgressor is that record. If this year’s “Namesake” video doesn’t do it for you, then just never mind me over here dancing. Guaranteed to keep you reaching up for them high notes.

Red Apollo: Altruist

Red Apollo Altruist (Moment of Collapse/Alerta Antifascista): One thing lots of bands and fans miss about the many strains of Black Metal is the subtleties. Another runner-up from last year, Altruist has so many, it took me an extra year to hear them all. And don’t miss their cover of Deftones’ “Knife Party” from White Pony.

Deafheaven: New Bermuda

Deafheaven New Burmuda (ANTI-): What else can I say? They’re my favorite, and this is their best record yet. Sunbather may have solidified their status, but New Bermuda shows shades of the many other things they can do. This lives in rotation.

Top 20 Records, 2015

With all the beautiful debuts, great returns, and stellar collaborations this year, I’m still baffled by people who complain about the current state of music. I couldn’t even cover all of 2015’s great releases, but here are the ones I listened to and loved the most.

Unless otherwise noted, each album is linked to its Bandcamp page so you can have a listen and support the artists, if you are so inclined.

Deafheaven: New Bermuda

Deafheaven New Bermuda (ANTI-): Let’s not kid ourselves, when a band does a record as good as Sunbather (Deathwish, 2013), it’s difficult to imagine what they’re going to do next. No matter what you had in mind, I’m sure New Bermuda is not it. Not that it’s a left turn from what they’ve done before, but I’m baffled as to how they got better. Until compiling this list, New Bermuda was the only record I wrote about this year. I’m still quite okay with that. This is exactly what I want to hear right now.

Publicist UK: Forgive Yourself

Publicist UK Forgive Yourself (Relapse): Forgive Yourself is perhaps not what one would expect from a band consisting of Brett Bamberger (Revocation), Zach Lipez (Freshkills), David Obuchowski (Goes Cube, Distant Correspondent), and Dave Witte (Melt-Banana, Burnt by the Sun, Municipal Waste), but it’s heavy in all the other ways. Two weeks of listening to little else besides this record sent me on a two-month long Bauhuas and Killing Joke kick, if that clarifies the sound at all.

Tunde Olaniran: Transgressor

Tunde Olaniran Transgressor (Quite Scientific): Flint, Michigan may as well be another planet where Tunde Olaniran is concerned. His spaced-out soul is from some future Flint where pop music is fun and funky above all else. Just have a quick listen to “Namesake,” “Diamonds,” or the title track. Olaniran succeeds where The Weeknd fails.

Chelsea Wolfe: Abyss

Chelsea Wolfe Abyss (Sargent House): Chelsea Wolfe shines a bright light into so much darkness. This is a record of such binaries: light/dark, loud/quiet, ugly/beautiful, terror/calm… Wolfe holds them all in a deft, delicate balance. The abyss never sounded so inviting. [Also one of the best live shows I saw this year.]

Zombi: Shape Shift

Zombi Shape Shift (Relapse): You know the era of Rush that every old-man fan hates? It runs from Signals to Grace Under Pressure on through Power Windows and Hold Your Fire — the 1980s, basically? Well, Zombi has taken that thinking-person’s prog-pop and pushed it straight into outer space (The beginning of “Total Breakthrough” even sounds vaguely like “Subdivisions”). “Triumphant return” is a phrase we’ve all heard before. This record is what it means.

Tau Cross

Tau Cross Tau Cross (Relapse): Finally, a band that’s just the sum of its parts! With bassist and vocalist Rob Miller (Amebix), Michel “Away” Langevin (Voivod) on drums and Jon Misery (Misery) and Andy Lefton (War//Plague) on guitars, Tau Cross can afford to trust the math. Reminds me of when Al Cisneros and Chris Hakiusof (Om, Sleep) got together with Scott “Wino” Weinrich (St. Vitus, The Hidden Hand, etc.) and Scott Kelly (Neurosis) to form Shrinebuilder: It sounds fresh and weathered at the same time. Unexpect the expected. [Thanks to Grant at Bucket O’ Blood for the tip on this one.]

Heiress: Of Great Sorrow

Heiress Of Great Sorrow (The Mylene Sheath): Of Great Sorrow by Seattle’s Heiress, which includes vocalist John Pettibone (Himsa, Undertow, nineironspitfire) and was recorded by Tad Doyle (Tad, Brothers of the Sonic Cloth), reminds me of all the interesting ways hardcore and metal can mix (think Kiss It Goodbye or Botch). Heiress consistently does just that.

Failure: The Heart is a Monster

Failure The Heart is a Monster (INgrooves): The 1990s are coming all the way back! The thing is, all the bands returning from that decade (e.g., My Bloody Valentine, Godflesh, Failure, et al.) are not the ones bringing it back. The shadow of Failure’s 1996 space-rock classic Fantastic Planet (Slash/Warner Bros.) looms long not only over them but countless other bands and various genres. Fortunately The Heart is a Monster just sounds like Failure. That’s a good thing in any decade.

Liturgy: The Ark Work

Liturgy The Ark Work (Thrill Jockey): The Ark Work all but abandons the American Transcendental Black Metal that Liturgy helped establish. The result is a strange mix of layered samples, repetitive drones, blast beats, and chanted vocals. The result could just as easily end up in your recycle bin as it could on repeat for days. The result is annoying, compelling, and utterly intoxicating. It’s an album as polarizing as its creator.

Gnaw Their Tongues: Abyss of Longing Throats

Gnaw Their Tongues Abyss of Longing Throats (Crucial Blast): Out of all the horrendously beautiful noise that Gnaw Their Tongues have released, dare I say that Abyss of Longing Throats is the most musical? Don’t get that twisted, this fits the sound of the Crucial Blast family, which includes Theologian, Light, Gulaggh, Year of No Light, Across Tundras, and Hal Hutchinson, among others. Gnaw Their Tongues has been churning out nastiness for a while now, but this record plumbs ever new depths to reach a definitive new high.

Low: Ones and Sixes

Low Ones and Sixes (Sub Pop): Over the past 20+ years, Low has ever-so-quietly become one of the most important bands of our time. They’re yet to do a sub-par record or repeat what they’ve done before, and Ones and Sixes is no exception. No one blends vulnerability and power into such perfectly crafted songs like Low.

Cult Leader: Lightless Walk

Cult Leader Lightless Walk (Deathwish, Inc.): They call it “progressive crust,” which is apt. Cult Leader is like every heavy genre wrapped up in a shiny, bloody, metal point. Lightless Walk is not out-and-out noise though. Groove, melody, dynamics, and great production are not lacking here. Whatever you call it, it’s brutally moving.

Daniel Menche & Mamiffer: Crater

Daniel Menche & Mamiffer Crater (SIGE): I’ve been a fan of Daniel Menche‘s sound sculptures for damn near 20 years. On Crater his dense layers of sonic texture are tempered by Aaron Ross and Faith Coloccia’s muted sense of melody. It’s less of a balance you can hear and more of a tension you can feel.

Thou & The Body

The Body & Thou Released From Love / You, Whom I Have Always Hated (Thrill Jockey): Two great tastes that taste great together. The Body spent 2015 building a small collection of excellent collaborations (the others with Vampillia and Krieg are also well worth checking out), and this is one of the best. Oh, and as great as it is, don’t let the cover of Nine Inch Nails’ “Terrible Lie” be the only thing you hear off of this.

Metz: II

Metz II (Sub Pop): What exactly is this? Metz hearkens back to the early 1990s when everything from Fugazi and Jawbox to Barkmarket and The Jesus Lizard were redefining what it meant to play punkish, heavy rock. Metz doesn’t concern themselves with such genre trouble. On this, their second outing, they blast relentlessly through ten more songs of whatever it is, screaming forward with their collective foot fully on the gas pedal. It’s a fun and frenetic ride.

Dragged Into Sunlight / Gnaw Their Tongues

Dragged Into Sunlight & Gnaw Their Tongues N.V. (Prosthetic): “N.V.” stands for “negative volume.” One of the nameless members of Dragged Into Sunlight explains it this way: “The thing about modern volume is that it just isn’t as good as that negative volume, that real fucked-up, 90s, wall-smashing, soul-crushing volume, a level of unrivaled misery and a time when extreme music posed a genuine threat with bands such as early Obituary, Mayhem, and Godflesh. It is on that basis that the title N.V. best summarizes the intent of the music.” That’s exactly what this collaboration sounds like: unrivaled misery and genuine threat.

Grave Pleasures: Dream Crash

Grave Pleasures Dream Crash (Metal Blade): Grave Pleasures emerged from the remains of Beastmilk this year with some sweet, gothic post-punk. Goth is stronger than ever thanks especially to Chelsea Wolfe, Publicist UK, Anasazi, and this. [Thanks to Radio Fenriz for this one.]

Sunn O))): Kannon

Sunn O))) Kannon (Southern Lord): Finally, Sunn O))) returns with another drone-metal masterpiece, their first non-collaborative album since 2009’s Monoliths & Dimensions (In the meantime they’ve worked with Scott Walker, Ulver, Nurse With Wound, and Pan Sonic, each on respective projects). Kannon is all the reasons you love or hate Sunn O))): the drones, the monk-like chants, the darkness. It’s perfect.

John Carpenter's Lost Themes

John Carpenter’s Lost Themes (Sacred Bones): For all the influence his creepy minimalist melodies have had, you rarely hear director John Carpenter’s scores mentioned much (Have a listen to Disasterpiece’s score for It Follows, for one excellent example). On Lost Themes he ventures into strictly sonic territory without moving images to accompany. Make no mistake, even without blades and blood, these are still scary little jaunts into the mind of horror.

Kendrick Lamar: To Pimp a Butterfly

Kendrick Lamar To Pimp a Butterfly (TDE): Don’t even front: No 2015 list is complete without it.

If This List Were Longer: Red Apollo Altruist (Moment of Collapse/Alerta Antifascista), Xibalba Tierra Y Libertad (Southern Lord), Flying Saucer Attack Instrumentals 2015 (Drag City), Marriages Salome (Sargent House), Trial Vessel (High Roller), Brothers of the Sonic Cloth s/t (Neurot), Marduk Frontschwein (Century Media), Dystopia Nå! Dweller on the Threshold (Avantgarde), Haust Bodies (Fysisk Format), Anasazi Nasty Witch Rock (La Vida Es Un Mus), Myrkur M (Relapse), Steve Von Till A Life Unto Itself (Neurot), Killing Joke Pylon (Spinefarm), Ghost Meliora (Loma Vista), Archivist Archivist (Alerta Antifascista), Wimps Suitcase (Kill Rock Stars), Anopheli The Ache of Want (Halo of Flies/Alerta Antifascista), Panopticon Autumn Eternal (Bindrune Recordings), Wives So Removed (Wives), Disasterpiece It Follows (Milan), Slayer Repentless (Nuclear Blast).

From the Bottom: Deafheaven’s New Bermuda

I noticed a long time ago that my favorite bands never seem to fit neatly into an existing genre. They all sit on the lines between the categories. From my junior-high days listening to Oingo Boingo all the way up to the most recent string including Milemarker, …And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead, and The Mars Volta. Each one of these bands came from the spaces in between and provided me with exactly what I needed at the time. The band doing that right now is Deafheaven.

Deafheaven by Kristen Coffer

Deafheaven’s breakout record, 2013’s Sunbather (Deathwish, Inc.), was awash in guitar warped into waves and bent into textures courtesy of Kerry McCoy. In oversimplified terms, it was a deft blend of shoegaze and black metal. The record was also noted for the screeching vocals of George Clarke. These elements remain firmly intact on New Bermuda (ANTI-, 2015), but it departs from the formula of Sunbather in several ways. Though each of these five songs runs longer than eight minutes, they rely less on the lava-like meandering of traditional shoegaze and more on the calculated precision of metal.

deafheaven-new-bermudaBeing the metal nerd that he is, McCoy finally bows to the all-mighty riff. His skills are various and far-reaching and he stretches them out on every song. The post-rock dynamics are still here, but there’s a new variety available. My personal favorite is the closer, “Gifts for the Earth.” The shortest track here at 8 minutes, 23 seconds, it really showcases the breadth of the guitar work of McCoy and relative newcomer Shiv Mehra. Amid the guitar and and piano runs (!), Clarke’s vocals sound farther away, as if he’s finally disappearing into the darkness.

Daniel Tracy’s blast beats and fills are as dynamic and exciting as they were on Sunbather. “Baby Blue” finds him doing his best Dave Lombardo, riding the riffs like some wild beast. Stephen Clark’s bass is all but hidden in this five-man body, but like any good spine, it holds the whole thing all upright.

Vocalist George Clarke is as caustic as ever on the mic. I seem to spend a lot of time defending his vocals when I attempt to introduce people to my favorite band. Many say they like the music, but don’t like the vocals. This runs counter to the metal community’s cries of “crossover” and claims that Deafheaven is “metal for people who don’t like metal.” This is metal, and I dare say one has to like metal to like it. It’s not your dad’s metal, but it’s metal nonetheless. Many sub-genres of metal and most of what is called shoegaze use vocals as another instrument in the mix. Clarke’s vocals are best seen in this light, as another color in the palette.

Now more than ever, Deafheaven’s bleakness is veiled in beauty. If Sunbather was a dream where wishes don’t come true, New Bermuda is a real place with no dreams at all. The only way to go from here is up.

Top 14, 2014

Depending on the fandom, our attention to music can span from the insignificance of wallpaper to the altar upon we sacrifice our days. It can be everything from decoration to downright worship. I probably tend more toward the latter than the former, but you probably already know that.

Of all the things that December brings, year-end lists might be the most polarizing, to some by their contents and to others by their mere existence. Regardless, these are the records that soundtracked my 2014, in no particular order. The links on this post, unless otherwise specified, link to the bands’ Bandcamp page so you can listen to them if you like.

Yob: Clearing the Path to Ascend

Yob Clearing the Path to Ascend (Neurot): If there’s any band that has yet to get their due, it’s Yob. They’ve been slowly building a stellar body of work for years, and Clearing the Path to Ascend illustrates just how refined their sound has become. It’s heavy and doomy, yet oh so subtle, their most personal and personable release: a near-perfect record.

Nothing: Guilty of Everything

Nothing Guilty of Everything (Relapse): Nothing came out of nowhere last year promising to update a sound that was all but lost to the past. On their debut full-length, Guilty of Everything, you can hear the presence of various bands from the 1990s: The Jesus and Mary Chain, My Bloody Valentine, Sebadoh, Eric’s Trip, Teenage Fanclub, The Boo Radleys, etc. But Nothing manages to take those sounds and do something all their own with them. For every influence you might trainspot, there’s always something ultimately unique about the way Nothing brings it all together. It’s a mesmerizing mix.

YAITW: When Life Comes to Death

Young and in the Way When Life Comes to Death (Deathwish): The mix of black metal with other genres in not new. Many bands have done it to great effect (e.g., Wolves in the Throne Room, Deafheaven, Panopticon, Myrkur, etc.), and the blackened crust of YAITW is a perfect alloy. The riffs that are usually missing from black metal are here en force. I can never seem to play it loud enough.

White Suns: Totem

White Suns Totem (The Flenser): White Suns, whose last record spent a lot of time in my ears, completely reinvented themselves for Totem. As they said of a show just prior to the record’s release, “You may notice that it is a bit different from our previous work.” The core of what they’ve done in the past is still here, but it’s much sharper, much more piercing. Here’s hoping that abrasive electronics like this and Wreck & Reference, whose Want (Deathwish; See below) was also in heavy rotation around here this year, continue to crush expectations.

GODFLESH: A World Lit Only by Fire

Godflesh A World Lit Only by Fire (Avalanche): I’m always wary when a long-defunct, all-time favorite band reunites years later. Not that I doubted Justin Broadrick and Benny Green’s getting back together, but I did have to wonder. The record that resulted, A World Lit Only by Fire, is a welcome return of a monster outfit. It fits well in their catalog and continues what they were doing when they split 12 years ago. The title evokes a flaming planet, cities and nations scorched in ruin, but it’s actually a reference to a book about the darkness of the Middle Ages by the same name. Both visions work well for Godflesh’s sound on this record. It’s dark, brutal, and could come from a tumultuous past or a post-apocalyptic future. Glad to have them back.

Trans Am: Volume X

Trans Am Volume X (Thrill Jockey): The tenth album from Trans Am, the 21st-century’s own Kraftwerk Plus (Lily calls them “Krautwerk”), is no less confounding than anything in their nine previous lives. From their usual arty Krautrock to the surprisingly frenetic thrash of “Backlash,” Trans Am is well worth exploring if you haven’t already, and Volume X is as good a place to start as any.

Code Orange: I Am King

Code Orange Kids I Am King (Deathwish): This is another record that just makes you proud to love the band that made it. Code Orange Kids studied up, did their homework, and schooled everyone else trying to make any kind of heavy music. I Am King stays true to its hardcore roots while bringing all kinds of new noise to the network. This is the anthem.

Hail Mary Mallon: Bestiary

Hail Mary Mallon Bestiary (Rhymesayers): Even if I’ve strayed from Hip-hop with my several year metal kick, there are still a few folks I have to check in on. My dudes Aesop Rock, Rob Sonic, and DJ Big Wiz are among the few, and Bestiary illustrates why. This is just classic beats and rhymes with tight wordplay, the turntable on display, and an atemporal sense that it could’ve been made during any era. Timely, timeless, and right on time.

Wreck and Reference: Want

Wreck & Reference Want (Deathwish): This is the sound of despair. There’s no other way to describe it. Wreck & Reference defy genre conventions with machine-driven noise, anguished vocals, and abject nihilism. Want is as heavy as anything out, but it’s nothing you expect from heavy music: monstrous, wondrous, and somehow beautiful.

Perfect Pussy: Say Yes to Love

Perfect Pussy Say Yes to Love (Captured Tracks): Debates about punk being dead are over. Perfect Pussy keep it alive and kicking so much ass. From The Shoppers to Perfect Pussy, Meredith Graves is a force of nurture.

Panopticon: Roads to the North

Panopticon Roads to the North (Bindrune): Panopticon, Austin Lunn’s one-person band, continues to show why he’s such a force in American black metal. Where his work with Seidr is heavy on the heavens, Panopticon tends toward the trees. It’s as rural as it is dark and might be the only black metal in which you’re likely to hear a banjo.

Torch Runner: Endless Nothing

Torch Runner Endless Nothing (Southern Lord): After nearly wearing out Committed to the Ground this year, I found out that Endless Nothing had dropped. It’s a welcome 13 more songs of violent, ugly, hardcore grind. Just what I needed right when I needed it.

Earth: Primitive and Deadly

Earth Primitive and Deadly (Southern Lord): Earth are the undisputed kings of drone, and they expand their sound in subtle ways with every record. Primitive and Deadly includes more vocals than normal, courtesy of Mark Lanegan and Rabia Shaheen Qazi on two respective tracks, but all of the reasons that Earth is so revered are here in glorious form.

Pallbearer: Foundations of Burden

Pallbearer Foundations of Burden (Profound Lore): What else is there to say about Pallbearer’s break-out opus? This is the kind of record you always wish a band you love would release. Foundations of Burden is a beautiful blend of loss, rage, and hope. It’s heavy in every possible way and rewards the repeated listen. It’s a beast of a release.

If This List Were Longer: Boris Noise (Sargent House), Coffinworm IV.I.VII (Profound Lore), Thou Heathen (Gilead), Cult Leader Nothing for Us Here (Deathwish), Falls of Rauros Believe in No Coming Shore (Bindrune), Sguaguarahchristis Der Nacht (This Winter Will Last Forever), Mogwai Rave Tapes (Rock Action), Scott Walker & Sunn O))) Soused (4AD), Full of Hell & Merzbow (Profound Lore), Rob Sonic Alice in Thunderdome (OK-47), Trap Them Blissfucker (Prosthetic), Trash Talk No Peace (Trash Talk/Odd Future), Today is the Day Animal Mother (Southern Lord), Morphinist The Pessimist Session (Throats Productions), Theologian Some Things Have to Be Endured (Crucial Blast), Planning for Burial Desideratum (The Flenser), Panopticon/Falls of Rauros split (Bindrune), Wolves in the Throne Room Celestite (Artemisia), Floor Oblation (Season of Mist), The Atlas Moth The Old Believer (Profound Lore), Run the Jewels 2 (Mass Appeal), Murmur Murmur (Season of Mist), and Myrkur Myrkur (Relapse).

The One I was Mentioned On: My dudes Johnny Ciggs and Skweeky Watahfawls gave me a shout out on their collab record, See Us on the Dancefloor (Gritty City), on the song “Celebrate” (at around the 4:35 mark). The record is dope, and I’m stoked to have been a very small part of it. Can’t wait to see what the fam does next. Rock, rock on!

If I’m Being Honest: It should probably be noted that I listened to Deafheaven’s Sunbather (Deathwish) as much or more than any record from this year. I should also mention that this list was compiled in the shadow of intense anticipation of the new Xibalba record, Tierra Y Libertad, to be released next month on Southern Lord.

Special Thanks: I can’t imagine what it must take to run a record label these days. Many thanks to the people who do, especially the fine folks at Deathwish, Inc., Southern Lord, Profound Lore, The Flenser, Bindrune, Neurot, Sargent House, Thrill Jockey, Crucial Blast, Season of Mist, Rhymesayers, and Relapse: Power to you all.

Conjuring Infinity: The Dark Reach of Black Metal

At barely thirty years old, black metal is a relatively young musical genre. Its roots running back to such thrash acts as Celtic Frost, Venom, Bathory, and Slayer, it finally found fertile ground in Scandinavia in the late 1980s/early 1990s. This second wave, including such bands as Mayhem, Darkthrone, Burzum, and Emperor, is what most are referring to when they utter the words. As author Ulrike Serowy puts it, black metal is “music that touches the inmost depths, goes beyond words, music that conjures infinity” (p. 33). Dayal Patterson points out that black metal “will surely continue to innovate and evolve, and this should be celebrated” (p. 484). Serowy’s new novella and Myrkur’s new EP both show how far this style has spread since its spiked-leather beginnings.
Skogtatt logo by Aaron Turner
Ulrike SerowySerowy’s Skogtatt (Hablizel, 2014), is the first piece of fiction to capture the spirit of black metal. It tells the story of a young man lost in a wintery forest, his car having left him stranded after band practice, a black metal black mass: “Together they create an invocation, ever and again, over and over they call on something for which they yearn, something they never the less fear.” His struggles in the dark reflect the struggles of black metal as a genre and of humans as a species: nature versus technology, humanism versus misanthropy, love versus hate, silence versus sound. The protagonist’s long, lonely walk in the woods gives way to the introspection so central to the appeal of black metal. SkogtattThe rhythm of the story is reminiscent of a song. It’s no surprise that Serowy also plays guitar.

With illustrations by Faith Coloccia and a logo by Aaron Turner, (both of Mamiffer) and an English translation by Samuel Willcocks, Skogtatt is a true metal artifact without ever directly mentioning metal. It’s the perfect bedtime read as winter approaches here in the West. It’s as scary as it is unsettling, as dark as it is daring, as mysterious as it is moving, an intoxicating visit to the cold land of death. Couple it with Cult of Luna’s Eviga Riket (2012), and you’ll have all-metal dreams.

Myrkur: Amalie Bruun

Screaming is one of the rewarding parts about black metal, both to listen to and to do myself. It releases a fraction of the anger and hatred I have inside me. — Amalie Bruun, Myrkur

MyrkurMyrkur’s self-titled debut EP (Relapse, 2014) alloys black metal’s core aesthetic (e.g., frenetic, tremelo strumming, blast beats, screaming vocals) with haunting female choral arrangements. Before becoming a model and a musician in other genres, Amalie Bruun grew up with this music. She told Wyatt Marshall, “I was born and raised on the northern coast of Denmark. I have written this music for years by myself in my house in Denmark. Black metal comes from my part of the world, Scandinavia, and has its roots in the Nordic nature that I hold so dear and also our ancient pagan religion of Norse Mythology and our folk music.” Patterson continues, “it should also be remembered that many of the most powerful efforts have come from bands utilizing conventional black metal frameworks and traditional ideologies…” (p. 484).

In the short film embedded below, Bruun explains, “I always dreamed about becoming a Huldra, an elf girl, a valkyrie, or the goddess Freja. There are these powerful women in Norse Mythology that have both an element of beauty and mystery, but they are also deadly.” That’s exactly how Myrkur sounds: beautiful, mysterious, deadly. My only complaint is that there isn’t more of it.

Here is a very short film about Myrkur featuring the song “Nattens Barn” [runtime: 2:44]:

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References:

Marshall, Wyatt. (2014, September 16). Shedding Light on the Darkness of Myrkur. Bandcamp Blog.

Patterson, Dayal. (2013). Black Metal: Evolution of the Cult. Port Townsend, WA: Feral House.

Serowy, Ulrike. (2013). Skogtatt: A Novella. Lohmar, Germany: Hablizel.

Slayer: Building Bridges With Fire

Opinions often vary widely on the most important bands and records of any era, but only a few dare dispute the reign of Slayer and their thrash watermark Reign in Blood (Def Jam, 1986). There has always been a weird rift between punk and metal, but thrash was the first sub-genre to draw heavily from both. The two major movements have since spawned such tributaries as grindcore, metalcore, murdercore, power violence, and various strains of post-metal. “What do you think would get a bigger reaction: a Minor Threat cover or a Slayer cover?” Tim Singer, of long-defunct Seattle metalcore band Kiss It Goodbye, asked me during the recording of their one full-length record, She Loves Me, She Loves Me Not (Revelation, 1997). “Isn’t it weird that it’s debatable?”

Slayer
Fuckin’ Slayer.

As hardcore, post-punk. and new wave were expanding out of the punk explosion of the mid-1970s, thrash metal was also fomenting. Slayer and several other thrash bands helped knock parts of the punk/metal divide down during the 1980s. By decade’s end, there was a whole lot of genre trouble in heavy music. What exactly was Barkmarket? The Jesus Lizard? Helmet? Even Pantera, emerging from the most staunchly Southern forges, had sharpened its edges on something other than metal. Slayer was one of the early major bands to flaunt its roots in both genres, and Reign in Blood is clearly a blend of the best of both. “It wouldn’t be accurate to say it unified the metal and hardcore punk-rock crowds,” D. X. Ferris (2014) writes. “But no metal album did as much to open the channels between the two distinct cultures” (p. 6). Making those influences explicit a decade later, Slayer did a punk covers record called Undisputed Attitude (American, 1996) that includes tracks from Minor Threat, TSOL, D.I., Verbal Abuse, Black Flag, and The Stooges (via Sid Vicious).

Reign in Blood: 33 1/3 Metal Hammer‘s recent Thrash issue names Reign in Blood #1 in its list of the top-50 thrash records of all time. Calling the album “perfect,” Dom Lawson writes, “Reign in Blood towers above every other thrash album for several reasons, but the most important of them is its swivel-eyed intensity.”  There’s something about this half-hour slice of metal that no other band has ever come close to matching. It sounds as fast, as fresh, and as menacing now as it ever did. When I first heard it, I knew that things were different — for me, for metal, for music.” “It sounds like it’s ready to derail at any second,” Kerry King tells Ian Winwood, yet it sounds tightly controlled at the same time. There’s a tension, an anxiety to it that no one has touched in the almost 30 years since its release. Its terror so taut, its aggression so relentless, it’s focus so fierce, “It may never be surpassed,” Lawson concludes. He is not alone in this assessment.

It’s been a year since we lost Jeff Hanneman, and in the meantime, D. X. Ferris, who wrote the 33 1/3 book on Reign in Blood (Bloomsbury Academic, 2008), has cranked out another book about Slayer. Slayer 66 2/3: The Jeff & Dave Years (6623 Press, 2014) is a highly readable rush job that fills in the blanks surrounding his 33 1/3 book. No one questions the fact that Slayer has done their best work as the classic line-up of Tom Araya, Kerry King, Jeff Hanneman, and Dave Lombardo, and Ferris’s book is mainly about those times. After all, Reign in Blood was the first of what is one of the strongest three-album runs by any band in any genre: Reign in Blood (1986), South of Heaven (1988), and Seasons in the Abyss (1990). They remain the one metal band that punks who hate metal still revere.

Slayer: 66 2/3While Kerry King came up on traditional metal like Judas Priest and Iron Maiden, Jeff Hanneman and Dave Lombardo were the punks in Slayer. Hanneman was weaned as much on Sex Pistols and Dead Kennedys as he was Black Sabbath. Thrash is as close to punk as metal got in its formative years. James Hetfield listened to the Misfits, and Dave Mustaine loved the Pistols. Others in the scene were into it, but Slayer was the only band actually jostling with the punks at the time, banging elbows with the likes of D.R.I., TSOL, Bad Brains, and Suicidal Tendencies. They weren’t burning bridges, they were building them with fire.

I saw the O. G. Slayer line-up live in 2009, and it remains one of the best shows I’ve ever seen. “I don’t know, there seems to be this aura about Slayer,” King says, “and I definitely think our live performances have something to do with that.” No question. The show I saw was everything a Slayer fan wants from seeing Slayer: speed, aggression, evil, volume — classic thrash metal played with absolute abandon. And as much as I was looking forward to also seeing Marilyn Manson, no one can follow Slayer. No one.

They’re currently continuing without Jeff and Dave, and there seems to be no way to offer genuine support without sounding shitty about it. I have no doubts that Paul Bostaff and Gary Holt are holding down their half as they’ve both done with Exodus, who are widely considered the original thrash metal band. Regardless, Slayer will never be the same without the raw, punk aggression of Jeff Hanneman and Dave Lombardo.

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Postscript: I interviewed Jeff Hanneman on the phone in 1996 for the August/September issue of Ride BMX magazine. A little while after the interview, I got a call from their publicist. She said Jeff and Slayer were so stoked to be in a BMX magazine that they wanted to send me something. In the weeks before the package arrived, I made a joke that Slayer was sending me something to show their gratitude. Friends speculated wildly. Would it involve blood, bones, body parts? It turned out to be a Slayer hat, which I still have. Rest in peace, my brother.

References:

Ferris, D. X. (2008). 33 1/3: Reign in Blood. New York: Bloomsbury Academic.

Ferris, D. X. (2014). Slayer 66 2/3: The Jeff & Dave Years. Akron, OH: 6623 Press.

Lawson, Dom. (2014). Metal Hammer’s 50 Hottest Thrash Albums of All Time. Metal Hammer Presents… Thrash, pp. 100-105.

Mustaine, Dave. (2010). Mustaine: A Heavy Metal Memoir. New York: HarperCollins.

Winwood, Ian. (2014). Slayer: Reign in Blood. Metal Hammer Presents… Thrash, pp. 106-109.

Download, Spin, or Stream: Ten Records, 2013

Unlike last year, 2013 found me mostly listening to one strain of metal or another. With the embedded videos and off-site links on this page, I’ve tried to provide a way for you to hear a bit of each of these lovely records. There’s never been a better time to be a music fan.

Deafheaven: Sunbather on BandCampDeafheaven Sunbather (Deathwish, Inc.): I’m not sure what else can be said about Deafheaven that wasn’t said during 2013, but let there be no question that Sunbather is the record of the year. In conception and construction, no other record came close to its heights and depths. As I wrote in my review of the record, even with a space seemingly cut out for them by a family of description-defying groups, Deafheaven is likely to work loose from any label applied to their sound. Neither the bands nor the fans come up with these categories anyway. If it moves us, we don’t care what you call it. In spite of their often caustic heaviness, there’s a pop sensibility in there that can’t help but shine through. Purists of all kinds had plenty of smack to talk, but Sunbather defies category and critique, rewards the repeated listen, and leaves behind the feeling that opposition only makes one stronger.

A Storm of Light: Nations to Flames on BandcampA Storm of Light Nations to Flames (Southern Lord): Late to these ears this year comes the latest from A Storm of Light. Nations to Flames brings together the best of the band’s abilities. The depth, breadth, weight, and ferocity of past outings are all here with a precision their peers often lack (See “All the Shining Lies” for one extreme example). If you still think of them as a side project, it’s high time to stop. Where so many others have stagnated in the past, A Storm of Light is burning new paths in the futures of heavy music.

Cult of Luna Vertikal (Density): On Vertikal, Cult of Luna plays songs about cities composed with the weight of concrete. Not unlike their past few releases (i.e., Eviga Riket, Eternal Kingdom, and Somewhere Along the Highway), this one is the product of many minds working overtime. Unlike the rural themes on those records, the band worked inside the city limits this time partially inspired by Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927). The companion EP Vertikal II includes Justin Broadrick‘s essential remix of “Vicarious Redemption,” which is ironically and atypically half the length of the original track. Here’s their video for “Passing Through”:

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Wire: Change Becomes UsWire Change Becomes Us (Pink Flag): Wire have been together for nearly 40 years, and they released one of their best records in 2013. Change Becomes Us is made up of reworkings of older, unrealized, and unreleased ideas from Wire’s classic, late-1970s era (cf. Pink Flag, Chairs Missing, 154). It’s also everything they do well in one place. It’s as punk as it is post-everything else, and proves why they’re one of the most influential bands of the late 20th century. If you don’t like “Re-Invent Your Second Wheel,” then we probably can’t be friends anymore.

Seidr : GinnungagapSeidr Ginnungagap (Bindrune Recordings): Though their name comes from Norse religion, Seidr is as low-key as they are Loki. A subtlety that’s often missing from heavy genres is the mark here. With members from some of my other favorite bands (e.g., Panopticon, Wheels Within Wheels, Kólga, etc.), Seidr is more than a supergroup: They are a collective of seers, mapping new territories in consciousness and the cosmos. Ginnungagap is only their second missive, but it sounds like the product of eons. “A Blink of the Cosmic Eye,” “The Pillars of Creation,” “Sweltering II: A Pale Blue Dot in the Vast Dark,” and the title track churn and smolder like dying stars. This is doom on the largest possible scale.

Mouth of the Architect: Dawning on BandCampMouth of the Architect Dawning (Translation Loss): Along with the new releases by Deafheaven and Cult of Luna above, the new Mouth of the Architect was one of my most anticipated records of 2013. Dawning is a sprawling six songs, the least of which is still just under seven minutes long. While they get lumped in with the usual suspects of post-metal (e.g., Neurosis, Isis, Pelican, etc.), Mouth of the Architect’s sound is subtly different in distinctive ways. It’s metal and majestic, heavy and heavenly, gruesome and graceful, and difficult to describe in detail, but you’d be hard pressed to confuse them with anyone else.

Watain The Wild Hunt (Season of Mist/Century Media): In the battle of the most brutal, it’s hard to beat Sweden’s Watain. They just keep pushing further into the darkness. After last year’s Opus Diaboli DVD, it was difficult to imagine how much darker or heavier they could get, but they managed to mangle expectations like so much dead meat. Here’s the absolutely perfect video for The Wild Hunt‘s “Outlaw”:

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My Bloody Valentine: mbv on YouTubeMy Bloody Valentine mbv (mbv): My Bloody Valentine finally followed up on their genre-defying and defining classic, Loveless (1992), with mbv. Like Wire’s Change Becomes Us, mbv is an amalgam of old and new recordings, some reworked from rough drafts done during their demise in the mid-1990s. With nine songs total, mbv is a trilogy of trilogies. It hangs together as a whole, but one can easily discern three movements. Three floes in the waves. After 21 years, this was possibly the first record lauded as much for not existing as it was upon its release. One thing’s still for damn sure: No one does this sound better than My Bloody Valentine.

Light Bearer: Silver TongueLight Bearer Silver Tongue (Halo of Flies): Light Bearer has been not-so-quietly building a body of work worthy of the most discriminate collectors. Silver Tongue is the second of a four-record concept called the Æsahættr Tetralogy. If feminism writ its largest could be an anti-religion, Light Bearer is writing it that large, chapter and verse.

Altar of Plagues Teethed Glory and Injury (Profound Lore): The last word from a band that deserved to be heard much more. Like their American peers Falls of Rauros, Panopticon, Wolves in the Throne Room, and Deafheaven, Ireland’s Altar of Plagues was pushing traditional Black Metal into new territories, and Teethed Glory and Injury is their best statement of purpose yet. R.I.P., A.o.P. Here’s the clip for “God Alone”:

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Others worthy of mention and attention: Portal Vexovoid (Profound Lore), Russian Circles Memorial (Sargent House), Nails Abandon All Life (Southern Lord), Lumbar The First and Last Days of Unwelcome (Southern Lord), Medicine To the Happy Few (Captured Tracks), Run the Jewels Run the Jewels (Fool’s Gold), Palms Palms (Ipecac), Vhol Vhol (Profound Lore), Wolves in the Throne Room BBC Session 2011 Anno Domini (Southern Lord), God is an Astronaut Origins (Rocket Girl Label), and Pelican Forever Becoming (Southern Lord).

Rotten With Perfection: Deafheaven’s Sunbather

Some of my favorite records are the ones where a band leaps outside the bounds of their past and tries something their fans might not dig. I’m thinking of post-Until Your Heart Stops Cave In (Jupiter polarized their existing fans, while Antenna proved they were onto something new), Corrosion of Conformity’s definitively metal years (starting with Blind, but culminating in the Pepper Keenan-led Deliverance and Wiseblood), and even Kill Holiday’s swan song (Somewhere Between the Wrong is Right, on which they abandoned aggressive hardcore for an energized gothic-pop sound, by turns reminiscent of The Smiths, The Cure, and Ride). Sunbather doesn’t stray from the Deafheaven signature sound but strengthens it instead, and it reminds me of the things I love about the ill-fated albums above. Whether it was growing pains or genre strains, those bands all sacrificed something to pave the path for odd weldings and meldings of metal like this.

Deafheaven

If Mayhem and Mogwai collaborated on a record in some other universe and someone brought it back to ours, it might sound like Sunbather. If Immortal and My Bloody Valentine melted into one smooth mound of blast beats and gauzy guitar, it might sound like Sunbather. If Emporer and Explosions in the Sky had naughty, noisy sex, it might sound like Sunbather. If Taake and Flying Saucer Attack collided head-on in midair at a thousand miles an hour in slow motion, it might sound like Sunbather.

Of course, Sunbather doesn’t and wouldn’t really sound like any of that nonsense, but the marriage of shoegazing and black metal makes a lot of sense. A match made made somewhere south of heaven, both subgenres are about meditation, contemplation, and introspection, in sharp contrast to the pomp and posturing of their rock forebears. While Deafheaven is easily among the best, they’re not the only outfit doing this misfit sound: Wolves in the Throne Room, Altar of Plagues, Light Bearer, Falls of Rauros, Panopticon, Liturgy, Krallice, and Seidr, among many others, are all bashing and bastardizing black metal into something else entirely.

Deafheaven: SunbatherWhen genre-specific adjectives fail, we grasp at significant exemplars from the past to describe new sounds. Following Straw (1991), Josh Gunn (1999) calls this “canonization” (p. 42): The synecdochical use of a band’s name for a genre is analogous to our using metaphors, similes, and other figurative language when literal terms fall short. Where bands sometimes emerge that do not immediately fit into a genre (e.g., Radiohead, dälek, Godflesh, et al.) or adhere too specifically to the sound of one band (e.g., the early 21st-century spate of bands that sound like Joy Division), we run into this brand of genre trouble. Even with a space seemingly cut out for them by a family of description-defying groups, Deafheaven is likely to work loose from any label applied to their sound.

Neither the bands nor the fans come up with these categories anyway. If it moves us, we don’t care what you call it. With renewed focus and fury, Deafheaven moves. George Clarke’s vocals have never sounded more shredded or sincere, and Kerry McCoy’s guitar work is driving, diving, and daring. The addition of Daniel Tracy on drums tightened the trio into an ensemble capable of new leaps, depths, textures, and sophistication. In spite of their often caustic heaviness, there’s a pop sensibility in there that can’t help but shine through.

“You might come across American black metal and see a greater tendency to humanize the terms, which may seem somewhat contradictory,” says He Who Crushes Teeth from California’s Bone Awl, “But I think an unknown goal in American black metal is to level the vocabulary and draw attention to the fact that nothing is outside of humanity” (quoted in Masciandro, 2010, p. 152). Kenneth Burke (1966) defined the human as “the symbol using, making, and mis-using animal, inventor of the negative, separated from his natural condition by instruments of his own making, goaded by the spirit of hierarchy, and rotten with perfection” (p. 16). The very Burkean phrase “rotten with perfection” is an apt description of Sunbather, not only in its intent but also in its execution. “The ‘Sunbather’ is essentially the idea of perfection,” Clarke tells National Underground. “A wealthy, beautiful, perfect existence that is naturally unattainable and the struggles of having to deal with that reality because of your own faults, relationship troubles, family troubles, death, etc.” (quoted in Glaser, 2013). Balancing ambitions for more with appreciating what we have is a definitively human struggle.

“If you let go of the idea of perfection,” Anna Chlumsky once said, “a lot of beauty can happen.” Thankfully with Sunbather, Deafheaven endeavor to bring us both.

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Here’s a brief peek into the making of Sunbather, which comes out June 11th on Deathwish, Inc. [runtime: 7:53]:

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References:

Burke, Kenneth. (1966). Language as Symbolic Action. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Glaser, Anthony (2013, March 11). Interview: Deafheaven. National Underground.

Gunn, Josh. (1999, Spring) Gothic Music and the Inevitability of Genre. Popular Music & Society23, 31-50.

Masciandro, Nicola. (ed.) (2010). Hideous Gnosis: Black Metal Symposium 1. New York: CreateSpace.

Straw, Will. (1991). Systems of Articulation, Logics of Change: Communities and Scenes in Popular Music. Cultural Studies, 5(3), 361-75.

Concept-Oriented Discography: Literary Post-Metal

Though the concept album has a history dating back to the 1940s, prog rock acts like Pink Floyd, Yes, and Rush are probably the first bands to come to mind. Just doing an album-length story connotes prog leanings, recall The Mars Volta‘s De-Loused in the Comatorium (GSL, 2003) and Francis the Mute (GSL, 2005). Metal picked up the concept mantle in a big way. Devilish icons like King Diamond wouldn’t have records if it weren’t for album-long narratives. The same can be said for Coheed and Cambria with their multi-album and comic-book epic The Armory Wars, Voivod with their career-spanning, post-apocalyptic visions, and Mastodon‘s Melville-driven Leviathan (Relapse, 2004). Drummer Brann Dailor explains the literary influence on that record in a 2004 interview, saying that the summer before, he was reading Moby Dick

We were in London in fact, and I kinda just spouted off why we should choose Moby Dick as a guideline of what to write about and what to go for. I was looking up all these passages and reading them to the guys and saying: look, they call Moby Dick the sea-salt mastodon, you know, it’s all in here. There are so many different images we can borrow from whaling and just the whole thing as a complete package.

As bizarre as it might seem for a metal band to be influenced by classic literature, it makes sense when you look at the histrionics of metal in the first place. It’s all a kind of theatre. The stories are endemic to the genre. “[W]e just chose Moby Dick ’cause we’re all really interested in any kind of folklore,” Dailor continues, “We’re totally into Sasquatch and The Yeti and The Loch Ness Monster and all that stuff, you know? We’re into that kind of subject matter.” Folklore is metal’s secret lifeblood. Slayer, Ghost, Bathory, and many others mine the story of Elizabeth Bathory for themes, Maine’s Falls of Rauros lifted their name from J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, and Light Bearer‘s four-part saga, Æsahættr Tetralogy, is influenced by Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trology (Everyman’s Library, 2011) and John Milton’s Paradise Lost (Samuel Simmons, 1667), among other texts.

The now-defunct Fall of Efrafa took their name from Richard Adams’ Watership Down (Rex Collings, 1972). Their Warren of Snares trilogy (Halo of Flies, 2010) is an elaborate artistic, musical, and literary artifact based on the mythology in Adams’ novel. Watership Down is an allegory in which the endeavors of a group of rabbits — Hazel, Fiver, Bigwig, and Silver, “mirror the timeless struggles between tyranny and freedom, reason and blind emotion, and the individual and the corporate state” (Magill, 1991). Fall of Efrafa extended this allegory to rail against all forms of oppression. Vocalist and artist Alex CF described it like this:

From the point of view of the metaphorical tale behind the band; the story is about desperation, as the ‘Efrafa’ encroach more and more upon the earth, what is left for those who share this space with us? The story is a war of will, not only to stand your ground, but also not to give in to the crutch of misguided belief. From the point of view of us as a band it has a lot to do with our lives outside this; what we cherish and think about, what we read…

The Warren of Snares box-set comes with the trilogy on six LPs, a book, posters, and a silk-screened tote bag, among other paraphernalia. With delicately dark art work by Alex CF (who now serves vocal and art duties in Light Bearer and Momentum), the box is an artifact worthy of time-honored capsuling.

In another extended package, Swedish post-metal band Cult of Luna’s Eviga Riket tells the story behind their 2008 record Eternal Kingdom (Earache). During rehearsals for that record, which were conducted in an abandoned mental institution, the band happened upon the journals of former inhabitant Holgar Nilsson. The songs on Eternal Kingdom are based on Nilsson’s journals, which chronicle his torment by an owl demon (the Näcken), his drowning his pregnant wife at its command (leading to his institutionalization), and his demise in the ongoing battle between the herbivores and carnivores, the humans and other “malformed fauna.” Drawn from Nilsson’s journals (titled “Tales from the Eternal Kingdom”), Eviga Riket tells his story in full, in both English and Swedish, hauntingly illustrated by Joris Vanpoucke. The hardbound book also includes an audio version on DVD read by Anna Guthrie accompanyed by Vanpoucke’s visuals and new music by the band.

Cult of Luna also released a live DVD of a 2008 performance of these songs in Scala, London (Fire Was Born; Earache, 2009). With the self-funded and released Eviga Riket finishing the story at last, they’re planning to move on to new material.

In our day of downloading disposable sounds and music perceived as free window-dressing, it is heartening to see bands take the longview — without automatically looking backward.

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Fluff Fest: Here’s Fall of Efrafa performing “No Longer Human” from Owsla (2006), part one of The Warren of Snares trilogy during their last tour in 2009 [runtime: 7:29]:

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References:

Deaf Sparrow. Fall of Efrafa: Representing the End of All Forms of Oppression; Religious Political & Emotional.

Magill, Frank N. (Ed.). (1991). Watership Down. Masterplots II: Juvenile and Young Adult Fiction Series. Ipswich, MA: Salem Press, Inc.

Schwartz, Paul. (2004, August 31). Where Swims the Leviathan? Chronicles of Chaos.

Fear of a Black Metal: Cyclonopedia and Evil

Borrowing everything from the Scandinavians except the panda paint, America Black Metal bands blend the core aesthetic with other subgenres to great effect. Over the past few years, it has become my favorite accompanying sound for almost any activity. Its energy, its all-encompassing crests and crumbles, its sheer power moves me in ways no other genre has in many years. And I am not alone: The darkness of this stuff touches something in us, something buried deep in our beings, in our nature.

We cannot understand and fight evil as long as we consider it to be an abstract concept external to ourselves.
— Lars Svendsen, A Philosophy of Evil, p. 231

Among the best of this mix of subgenres (e.g., Seidr, Panopticon, Deafheaven, Liturgy, Krallice, Falls of Rauros, et al.), the undisputed masters stateside are Wolves in the Throne Room. Their Cascadian Black Metal is as majestic as it is monolithic, mixing the forest and the trees, their epic songs can be as dense as they are sparse. In a 2006 interview, they explain the draw of Black Metal:

True Norwegian Black Metal is completely unbalanced – that is why it is so compelling and powerful. It is the sound of utter torment, believing to one’s core that winter is eternal. Black Metal is about destruction, destroying humanity; destroying ones own self in an orgy of self loathing and hopelessness. I believe one must focus on this image of eternal winter in order to understand Black Metal for it is a crucial metaphor that reveals our sadness and woe as a race. In our hubris, we have rejected the earth and the wisdom of countless generations for the baubles of modernity. In return, we have been left stranded and bereft in this spiritually freezing hell.

To us, the driving impulse of Black Metal is more about deep ecology than anything else and can best be understood through the application of eco-psychology. Why are we sad and miserable? Because our modern culture has failed – we are all failures. The world around us has failed to sustain our humanity, our spirituality. The deep woe inside black metal is about fear – that we can never return to the mythic, pastoral world that we crave on a deep subconscious level. Black Metal is also about self loathing, for modernity has transformed us, our minds, bodies and spirit, into an alien life form; one not suited to life on earth without the mediating forces of technology, culture and organized religion. We are weak and pitiful in our strength over the earth – in conquering, we have destroyed ourselves. Black Metal expresses disgust with humanity and revels in the misery that one finds when the falseness of our lives is revealed (quoted in Smith, 2006).

The urge to return to our roots is a prevailing ethos in Black Metal of all paints. In Norway, it’s about returning to the Norse traditions that predate the Christian and Western influences on the culture there. For Wolves in the Throne Room, it’s about a return to nature. “Our music is balanced in that we temper the blind rage of Black Metal with the transcendent truths of the universe that reveal themselves with age and experience,” they continue. “Our relationship with the natural world is a healing force in our lives” (quoted in Smith, 2006). Drummer and one half of the brothers that make up the core of Wolves in the Throne Room, Aaron Weaver was taken by Black Metal upon first hearing it. “… it’s more about creating a trance effect. It’s really got more in common with shamanic drumming and with noise music. It’s not heavy metal, it’s not riffs, it’s not head-banging music at all… It’s meditative music. Most heavy metal is very extroverted. It’s about putting on a big show and head banging and drinking a beer with your buddies. Black metal is the exact opposite. It’s all about gazing inwards and trying to discover things about yourself” (quoted in Moyer, p. 42). Having seen these guys live last year, I can truly say that their music is introspective to the point of turning one inside out.

Weaver discusses the connections between Black metal and the radical Northwestern culture he and his brother are immersed in, both of which are about “critiquing civilization, yearning for a more ancient sense of the world, a connection with tradition and nature that we’ve perhaps lost as modern people.” That’s not the whole of it, of course, he adds, “Then the darker side of it as well exists in both worlds. In both the Black Metal world and the ecological punk world, a hatred of humanity and a strong sense of misanthropy as we look around and see what humanity has wrought” (Moyer, p. 42).

We are going back to the future and forward to the past, engaging all of history’s villains and saints in quick time… Ancient ethnic sores are belching fire while transnational companies linked by satellites conduct their business oblivious to the fuedal past below. — Don Beck and Christopher Cowan, Spiral Dynamics, p. 18.

Aside from Lords of Chaos (feral house, 2003) and the documentary Until the Light Takes Us (2009), Hideous Gnosis (CreateSpace, 2010) is the most in-depth exploration of what Black Metal’s not-so-joyous noise might mean to fans and to theorists of same. Though it’s a compilation of essays, documents, and thoughts from a symposium by the same name, which took place on December 12, 2009 in Brooklyn, New York, the book stands alone well as a collection of academic work on the subject. Edited by Nicola Masciandaro, it brings together pieces by Steven Shakespeare, Hunter Hunt-Hendrix (of Liturgy), Eugene Thacker, Reza Negarestani, and Evan Calder Williams, among many others, as well as naysayers and haters from the blog’s comments section, “to bask in the speculative glory of the problematic,” as Reza Negarestani puts it (quoted in Masciandaro, p. 267). Whenever academics or nerds turn their attention to something so sacredly held as Black Metal, its fans are likely to be wary. But if you, like me, enjoy immersing yourself in as many aspects as possible of the things you love, this collection is a welcome addition to Blackened Theory, the literature, music, thought, and culture that is Black Metal — and the internal, eternal evil that drives it.

@1jamiebell: What’s the speed of dark? (Tweeted March 22, 2012)

Another symposium collection, Leper Creativity: Cyclonopedia Symposium (punctum books, 2011) brings together scholars to discuss Reza Negarestani’s world-warping book Cyclonopedia: Complicity with Anonymous Materials (re.press, 2008). Not since Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves (Pantheon, 2000) have I been so simultaneously intrigued and scared of a book. It is a return to the “hidden prehistory” (as Steven Shaviro describes it) of the dark global forces of the twenty-first century. It is at once philosophical fiction, nomad archeology, Middle Eastern occult study, object-oriented ontology, and straight-up horror, all centered on Western civilization’s lust for oil, the darkest of matters. Leper Creativity sets out to excavate this work’s dark secrets. Their own introductory language reads as follows:

Essays, articles, artworks, and documents taken from and inspired by the symposium on Reza Negarestani’s Cyclonopedia: Complicity with Anonymous Materials, which took place on 11 March 2011 at The New School. Hailed by novelists, philosophers, artists, cinematographers, and designers, Cyclonopedia is a key work in the emerging domains of speculative realism and theory-fiction. The text has attracted a wide-ranging and interdisciplinary audience, provoking vital debate around the relationship between philosophy, geopolitics, geophysics, and art. At once a work of speculative theology, a political samizdat, and a philosophic grimoire, Cyclonopedia is a Deleuzo-Lovecraftian middle-eastern Odyssey populated by archeologists, jihadis, oil smugglers, Delta Force officers, heresiarchs, and the corpses of ancient gods. Playing out the book’s own theory of creativity – “a confusion in which no straight line can be traced or drawn between creator and created – original inauthenticity” – this multidimensional collection both faithfully interprets the text and realizes it as a loving, perforated host of fresh heresies. The volume includes an incisive contribution from the author explicating a key figure of the novel: the cyclone.

More than worthy of a symposium as such, Cyclonopedia bridges and problematizes the divide between modern, global politics and the dark forces of ancient humanity. Claudia Card (2002) wrote, “The denial of evil has become an important strand of twentieth-century secular Western culture” (p. 28). To deny evil is to deny ourselves, to deny a part of our positive nature. Cyclonopedia digs deep into both sides. It is a triumph in both form and content. We’re dropped into the first hole in the plot as a young American woman arrives at a hotel in Istanbul to meet an online acquaintance with an unpronounceable name who never actually shows up. She finds a manuscript in her hotel room and begins culling its clues leaving her to wonder if her friend from afar was real at all (as Johnny did Zumpano in House of Leaves). “Meanwhile, as the War on Terror escalates,” the jacket copy explains, “the U. S. is dragged into an asymmetrical engagement with occultures whose principles are ancient, obscure, and saturated in oil. It is as if war itself is feeding upon the warmachines, leveling cities into the desert, seducing the aggressors into the dark heart of oil.” As Howard Bloom (1995) explains, “Behind the writhing of evil is a competition between organizational devices, each trying to harness the universe to its own particular pattern, each attempting to hoist the cosmos one step higher on a ladder of increasing complexity” (p. 325). The Middle East is sentient, alive, proclaims the embedded manuscript’s author Dr. Hamid Parsani, dark forces its lifeblood, its story the evil of all of history — human and nonhuman.

“Evil is a by-product, a component, of creation” Bloom (1995, p. 2) writes matter-of-factly. To understand its legion forces, we have to look extensively at the edges between nefarious, non-human history, as well as the insidious inside ourselves. It is in this way that the draw of Black Metal and the study of its ethos is something we cannot afford to ignore.

—————–

Leper Creativity: Cyclonopedia Symposium is available as a free download from punctum books. Many thanks to Kenyatta Cheese who emailed me about Cyclonopedia almost two years ago. Sometimes I’m a little slow on the uptake.

References:

Beck, Don, & Cowan, Christopher. (1996). Spiral Dynamics: Mastering Values, Leadership, and Change. New York: Wiley-Blackwell.

Bloom, Howard. (1995). The Lucifer Principle: A Scientific Expedition into the Forces of History. New York: Atlantic Monthly Press.

Card, Claudia. (2002). The Atrocity Paradigm: A Theory of Evil. New York: Oxford University Press.

Masciandro, Nicola. (ed.) (2010). Hideous Gnosis: Black Metal Symposium 1. New York: CreateSpace.

Moyer, Matthew. (2011, Winter). Wolves in the Throne Room: From Mount Olympia. Ghetto Blaster, 30, 40-42.

Negarestani, Reza. (2008). Cyclonopedia: Complicity with Anonymous Materials. New York: re.press.

Smith, Bradley. (2006). Interview with Wolves in the Throne Room. Nocturnal Cult.

Keller, Ed, Nicola Masciandaro, Nicola, & Thacker, Eugene. (eds.). (2011). Leper Creativity: Cyclonopedia Symposium. New York: punctum books.

Svendsen, Lars. (2010). A Philosophy of Evil. Champaign, IL: Dalkey Archive.