We’re over halfway through 2018. Which means it’s time to cut the sleeves off that denim jacket, sew on a Defenders of the Faith back patch, get your ass in the pit, and check out Blocland’s favorite metal albums of the year so far.
Deafheaven — Ordinary Corrupt Human Love
You don’t have to hear a note of Ordinary Corrupt Human Love to have a strong opinion on Deafheaven. At this point, you either see them as futurists ushering in a new and exciting age of metal or appropriators highjacking a rich yet vulnerable scene. A spoken word poem about being spellbound by a flock of geese while getting high certainly isn’t going to change the latter. Deafheaven have never been here to please the doubters and that’s never been more true than on Ordinary Corrupt Human Love. The post rock has been slowed down to something even more spacious, the black metal has turned tender, and there’s even a legitimate goth rock duet. By fully and assuredly leaning into the qualities that have made them beloved and reviled in equal measure, Deafheaven have produced their best work yet.
With language that reads like Pablo Neruda at his most metaphorical, George Clarke’s concerns lay in “the language of flowers”, the “pink linen” of a belly, and an all consuming affection that amplifies this world’s beauty and blocks out the rest. To match these pontifications on love and happiness, the band explores very different strands of metal than what we’re used to hearing from them. Where 2015’s New Bermuda found the emotive pull in Morbid Angel and Immortal, Human Love looks to the likes of Guns N’ Roses and Iron Maiden. Classic metal solos and riffs keep their edges, but are colored in ways to maximize intimacy and bliss. If the instantly iconic Sunbather drew open the curtains on a genre adverse to that kind of thing, then Human Love steps outside and soaks up those rays. Take a good, long look. Metal has never burned this bright.
– Lobster Man
The HIRS Collective — Friends. Lovers. Favorites.
“Beautiful” isn’t a word we use to describe grindcore, but that’s exactly what The HIRS Collective is. That’s not to say the mysterious Philly unit sounds beautiful or makes any attempt at being aesthetically pretty. Every inch of Friends. Lovers. Favorites. is dripping in nasty, unrelenting grindcore savagery. Dig just a little deeper and the group’s beauty is found in the concept. As the title suggests, Friends. Lovers. Favorites. is a record about relationships. More so, it’s a record about the necessary bonds in the lgbtq community that combat loneliness and vulnerability. HIRS’ lumbering riffs and chaotic, hot pink energy would inspire the kind of physicality common in circle pits if the inherent earnestness didn’t produce tears instead.
The album boasts an extensive list of collaborators including Garbage’s Shirley Manson, Screaming Females’ Marissa Paternoster, and modern punk icon Laura Jane Grace. Each of these big name collaborators blends directly into HIRS’ blasts of noise and offer their voices to communal up-lifting. Things like self care and police brutality are treated with the upmost importance, but HIRS’ main focus is the rights and safety of the trans community. One of the year’s most powerful moments comes on “A Promise / T.D.O.V.” with the lyric “If I can’t stay alive for myself I’ll do it for you”. It’s quickly topped on the following track, “Trans Woman Dies of Old Age” with “No one’s going to kill me including myself/ I’m going to live forever”. Friends. Lovers. Favorites. isn’t the album that’s going to save the world, but it will save someone’s.
– Lobster Man
Imperial Triumphant — Vile Luxury
“Imperial Triumphant” is a strong contender for the most misleading band name in metal. With a name like that, it’d be reasonable to expect gloriously cheesy power metal meant to be belted out to the rafters. There would probably be a whole lot of lyrics about cauldrons, swinging swords around, and some sort of dragon allegory or something… Thankfully, that’s pretty much the exact opposite of what Imperial Triumphant have been conjuring up since 2014’s Shrine to the Trident Throne. Instead, the New York trio has been wallowing in the darkest depths of blackened death metal and producing a hallucinatory take on Deathspell Omega’s extreme abstraction and Gorguts’ technical prowess. On Vile Luxury they’ve expanded their scope past their obvious influences and turned the greatest city on Earth into a labyrinthian hellscape.
There’s plenty of masterfully played tech death running throughout the record, but what makes Vile Luxury is the band’s ability to take New York’s entire musical history and warp it through their crusty aesthetic. “Lower World” is grinding machinery built around a stiff, heaving riff reminiscent of Swans’ Filth. “Chernobyl Blues” is basically metal’s answer to The Velvet Underground’s druggy improvisations and La Monte Young’s symphonic drones. That would all be impressive on it’s own, but the real thrills are when Imperial Triumphant steps as far out of metal and the avant garde as they possibly can. On “Swarming Opulence” we get towering Leonard Bernstein skyscraper horns. “Cosmpolis” disintegrates into the kind of boozy piano instrumental Frank Sinatra would croon over. It it all coexists and molds into a rotting love letter to the band’s metropolis.
– Lobster Man
Panopticon — The Scars of Man on the Once Nameless Wilderness
I’ve probably written more about The Scars of Man On the Once Nameless Wilderness than anyone else. That’s not a brag. There’s just a lot to talk about. For starters, we could talk about how Austin Lunn managed to reinvent the atmospheric black metal he built Panopticon’s sound on into something dense and formidable. “En Hvit Ravns Død” barrels through the cold air like a boulder rocketing down the hill and toppling over the pines. “Sheep In Wolves Clothing” blasts into sharp focus with force of an untamed river and furious d-beat. We could talk about how Lunn pulled from his environmental concerns and used the work of Sigurd F. Olson as a direct inspiration like on the climactic “A Ridge Where the Tall Pines Once Stood” or the mountainous “Snow Burdened Branches”. We could even talk about how Lunn made room for knotty, second wave black metal violence on “En Generall Avsky”. We should absolutely talk about how every note on the first half rings out with intensity and purpose as if each recording was Lunn’s last chance in the studio.
We could talk about how Lunn billed the album’s second half as a country album while tracks like “Moss Beneath the Snow” and “At the Foot of the Mountain” are actually folk odysseys scaled into world leveling post rock. We could talk about the humanity in the bluegrass working class dramas of “The Wandering Ghost” and “Echoes In the Snow”. We could talk about the essential political and social commentary on the Woody Guthrie reminiscent protest folk of “The Itch”. We could talk about how the reverb soaked “Four Walls of Bone” and the aching contemplation of “Not Much Will Change When I’m Gone” pull back the curtains and reveal Austin Lunn at his most vulnerable. We could talk about how The Scars of Man on the Once Nameless Wilderness is the somehow both the year’s finest metal album and a can’t miss country record. Let’s just make sure we talk about how it all adds up to godhead material. Of course, we could keep talking, but words will fall short. So shut up, listen to the man responsible for this work of genius, and “Give it a shot on a long hike or by a campfire with headphones”.
– Lobster Man
Portal — Ion
This may be a rather glib take but H. P. Lovecraft is predominantly known for two things:
- An extremely questionable stance on the subject of race.
2.The creation of the pitch black, spectrally twisted Cthulhu mythos that endures to this day.
I think it’s fair to say it’s the second of these two points that has gone on to become his lasting legacy, inspiring countless authors, artists and musicians ever since The Great Old One first rose up from the greasy waters of his oceanic slumber back in 1926.
Since birth, metal has always mined horror stories for its narrative meat and Lovecraft’s tales provided a particularly rich seam. Fistfuls of bands are literally named after characters, creatures or cities from his stories, and I’ve long since lost count of the number of paeans to the Elder Gods wrangled from a B.C. Rich and a brace of distortion pedals. Lovecraft wrote of grotesque cosmic forces of unimaginable scope. Places where all geometry was “abnormal, non-Euclidean and loathsomely redolent of spheres and dimensions apart from ours” and where creatures are “eldritch contradictions of all matter, force and cosmic order.” The thing is, whilst plenty of bands name check the more obscure corners of the mythos, what we actually hear is still a bunch of riffs, no matter how well written, no matter how deliriously enjoyable… that is except for Portal.
Portal are the only band to really give voice to that chaotic, madness inducing essence at the heart of all the best Cthonic tales. Unleashing a near unknowable avalanche of distorted tones and bowed rhythms, a growing sense of overpowering futility permeates the record. Riffs are turned inside out, shifting from extreme acute to extreme obtuse angles, behaving in ways which seem to belie their six string origins. Rhythms shift in and out of time, lending an abhorrent, sickly feeling to proceedings. Each Portal album has its own distinct, albeit fetid flavour with this one living a little more in the upper register than previous efforts, presenting a more brittle, slightly less murky sound. Nevertheless after dozens of listens it’s still nigh on impossible to pick out a single song. You can’t really head-bang or dance to Portal, they have always been about a totality of experience, an invitation to ride that wave of madness… until The Great Ones awaken once more. Cthulhu fhtagn indeed.
– Black Antlers
Sleep — The Sciences
Sleep are legendary. That’s inarguable. They’re one of those rare bands whose output went on to birth an entire subgenre, in this case stoner metal. Although like all pioneers they unwittingly spawned a horde of clueless imitators. Enter 1001 garage bands charmlessley fumbling with leftover Sabbath riffs in between tokes of cheap grass, all the while failing to commit anything worthwhile to wax. With most stoner bands the music rapidly became a very distant second to the weed itself.
But on closer inspection Sleep don’t really fit the archetypal stoner narrative. In fact the more you try to force it upon them, the more it slips from their shoulders. Following Sleep’s dissolution in 1996, guitarist Matt Pike transformed from dreadlocked pot head into THE mustachioed, tattooed, bare chested living embodiment of all things METAL! Under the alias of High on Fire he literally tears lightning from his Les Paul. Bassist Al Cisneros and drummer Chris Hakius, on the other hand, shuffled sideways into the incantatory charms of rhythm beast Om. Cisneros also found time to sail the good ship Shrinebuilder into metallic waters, crewed with scene veterans Wino, Scott Kelly and Dale Crover. That’s a total of 13 albums between them. Are stoner artists usually this prolific?
The beauty of The Sciences is how Pike and Cisneros pour this myriad of experience into their music without losing sight of what fundamentally makes Sleep, well Sleep. And whilst Hakius may have opted to hang up his sticks, they found a different but no less perfect partner in Neurosis’ Jason Roeder. Titanic riffs abound, rolling about with a near effortless laconic swagger, entirely fitting for tales of sentient icebergs goaded into rebellion against a warming climate. The groove of this thing is staggering, Roeder somehow manages to bring both a Bonham-esque force and a flowing elasticity to the rhythm. The playing from all three members sounds so loose and effortless it belies an ability hewn from endless practice, a fuzzy cloak of musical stoner logic stitched from years of sweaty dedication, where every dropped note feels like it has purpose and each fluffed chord paradoxically adds power. At one point Pike practically throttles his guitar, as if it’s suddenly jolted into life as a boa constrictor, and now player and instrument are locked in some sort of death struggle. He falls so far out of step and out of tune with his bandmates you wonder how he’s going to navigate his way back, yet the deceptive grace with which he rolls back into the fray is awesome to behold.
Since the mid 00’s there’s been a fistful of classic acts that have upended the traditional reformation trajectory by releasing fantastic comeback albums every bit worthy of their illustrious history. Celtic Frost, Carcass, Gorguts, Godflesh and now Sleep. Although on reflection, what else would you expect from a band that once had the grand vision to reconfigure the story of Dune into an epic about weed? The skunk must flow.
– Black Antlers
Wayfarer — World’s Blood
In having created some of the most iconic fantasy art of the 20th century, Frank Frazetta has the double honour of creating some of the most iconic album cover art too. Along with Polish surrealist Bekzinski, he’s probably the most influential, and ripped off, artist amongst metal circles. With that in mind I’d argue that there’s a distinctive echo between the gloriously moody cover of Wayfarer’s latest opus and Mr Frazetta’s own immortal creation, Death Dealer. Both feature a shadowy figure on horseback in near profile, a figure one instinctively does not want to approach. Now, I’m not accusing Wayfarer of plagiarism, rather they’re channelling something elemental, that same something which Frank tapped into with his painting.
Why am I’m labouring on about the cover? Surely it’s the music which counts? Well, of course, but the cover is extremely emblematic of the sound which nestles in the records grooves. The wraithlike horseman is something that hovers around the edge of the prairie, a spirit born of blood spilt in a barren land. And this is important, for unlike many of their tremolo obsessed peers who are content to recycle the tropes of dark, verdant forests and blasted snow scapes, Wayfarer trade in a uniquely arid form of black metal. Their music speaks of the sepia toned photos of executed outlaws, of ravaged mining landscapes, of a dustbowl existence and piles of bleached bones. It’s an exceptionally hollow sound. Blast beats and furious riffing occasionally cut loose, little squally dust devils, heralding the coming of the dust storm. However the lengthy compositions also utilise their fair share of clean, sparse guitar tones. A certain twang lends an element of Morricone’s western themes but this never slips into gaucheness. Centerpiece song “The Crows Ahead Cry War” is possibly the highlight. At around the four minute mark it begins to build towards something of a crescendo. As the pace picks up to an almost tribal beat and deeper, growled vocals enter the mix, I’m curiously reminded of Fields of the Nephilim. Now if that merest hint of ‘western gothic’ turns you off, well, so be it but you’ll be missing out on one the year’s best.
– Black Antlers
YOB — Our Raw Heart
Last year Mike Sheidt underwent emergency diverticulities surgery. Reading his account of the ordeal is nothing short of harrowing. There’s a reason why you’ve never heard of the disease. It begins with an inflamed digestive tract that essentially triggers the body’s self destruct button. Scheidt doesn’t spare any details. In order to fully understand, an in depth description of what was happening to him physically is necessary. But the quote that stuck out to me the most was:
“From day one, when we arrived at the ER, I felt all I could do was to use my energy carefully, listen, and control the one thing that was in my power, my attitude. I did my best to memorize every doctor, nurse, and CNA’s first name. I cracked jokes as often as I could, made conversation, said ‘thank you’ probably a thousand times.”
That quote has been rattling around in my head ever since I first read the article. What happened to the YOB guitarist and frontman was senseless, vicious, and it damn near killed him. I would never wish it on my worst enemy, and yet, the story is told with bravery and warmth. And isn’t that the most apt description possible for the YOB discography? The band is very much the efforts of a group of world class musicians, but Sheidt is the guiding light. As a practicing buddhist, Sheidt brings a calming, thoughtful quality to the massive, pummeling compositions. The result is a set of records that are ungodly heavy while rejecting the darkness and cruelty that’s often associated with doom metal.
Our Raw Heart falls directly inline with the kind of works of art made by auteurs who have stared down the abyss, but few come back smiling. Swirling psychedelia, melodic grunge, and meditative doom provide a colorful backdrop for rumination on mortality and connection. “The Screen” is powered by oscillating thunderous riffs. “Original Face” is jagged and stormy. But Our Raw Heart is at it’s best when the cloud’s clear and make way for sensitivity. “Beauty In the Falling Leaves” is the perfect doom metal love song. “Our Raw Heart” wanders and lifts off like those 70s rock radio hits that play out longer than they reasonably should, but would lose all their emotional power in brevity. Our Raw Heart is a document of a man putting himself back together in the most majestic way possible.
– Lobster Man