Review enough metal albums, and the process can be pretty simple, especially when it comes to those bands that stick to the specific characteristics of one particular subgenre. Each style has its own specific requirements and criteria, and as a critic, you’re basically asking yourself a) if it captures the essence of what this subgenre is all about, b) how it stacks up against the subgenre’s most important work, and c) whether or not the songs are any good. Traditional death, thrash, black, power, retro, what have you, you can nail a generic album in one listen.
Generic metal will always be a great thing, it’s important for bands to uphold certain traditions, to keep heavy metal grounded, but not only is it just as exciting to hear bands that defy categorization, but it makes you work a hell of a lot harder as a music critic. Some bands’ sounds are so amorphous that it can be positively murder to try to put into words. The Atlas Moth is one such band, one I’ve admired a great deal over the years, but which I can never get quite right when critiquing. As I wrote elsewhere, writing about The Atlas Moth is like nailing Jell-O to a wall.
No matter how you want to describe the Chicago band in metalspeak (progressive blackened psychedelic sludge doom?), The Atlas Moth has shown tremendous growth over the course of three albums, and The Old Believer (Profound Lore) is their best work to date. It’s a sneaky record, mind you, as it took a good two months for the thing to wriggle into my head, but once it does, that little earworm stays there like a Ceti eel. Only a much more pleasant Ceti eel than Khan’s nasty buggers, one you’re more than happy to submit yourself to. The more The Old Believer goes on, the more the heaviness and extremity gives way to dreamy grooves and melodies reminiscent of the Deftones’ best work, singing continuing to dominate, with black metal screams adding some unique texture in the background. “Sacred Vine”, “Collider”, “Halcyon Blvd”, and “Blood Will Tell” are splendid examples of the band’s greatly increasing mastery of dynamics, with a level of tension underscoring the otherwise pensive-sounding arrangements. It requires a little more patience from the listener, but this is an album that gets more rewarding with each spin. It’s good timing, too, because by fall we writers should be even more smitten with it come year-end list time.
Listen to and purchase The Atlas Moth’s The Old Believer via Bandcamp. Then when you have the CD, head for the nearest faucet.
What a crazy, crazy week for new releases. I went with as many as I possibly could, and as you’ll see, the quality is exceptionally high. Along with The Atlas Moth, which you must own, you’ll find another one or two here that’ll cater to your interests, for sure. Except for Varg. Varg is hilarious.
Anathema, Distant Satellites (Kscope): The best thing Anathema ever did was get the hell out of the metal racket. It’s been an endlessly fascinating trajectory for the brothers Cavanagh, as they embraced their progressive rock proclivities and took their music into increasingly sumptuous directions. Especially impressive has been Anathema’s post-2010 incarnation. While not particularly original, and kind of dated in an Elbow-circa-Asleep in the Back sort of way, 2010’s We’re Here Because We’re Here and 2012’s astounding Weather Systems were sublime marriages of mainstream rock and progressive rock, the kind of music just begging for a large chunk of the Muse audience, but sadly relegated to cult status time and again. Still, the band remains on that creative upswing with Distant Satellites. Sure, following up the classic “Untouchable” suite with the similar two-parter “The Lost Song” is not only inferior, but painfully, painfully obvious, but like Weather Systems, it’s all about tender grandiosity, and the chemistry between singers Vince Cavanagh and Lee Douglas, as well as the richness of the arrangements, makes for yet another spellbinding achievement.
Arch Enemy, War Eternal (Century Media): Michael Amott wins the award for 2014 Poker Face of the Year, hands down. I interviewed him early this year for a Decibel studio report, and all he said was, “This album is actually very different from Khaos Legions.” Considering the band had quietly replaced one of the most charismatic lead vocalists in metal, he sure was mum about what became one of the year’s biggest stories in the genre. But to be honest, is it that big an adjustment for fans? Not really. Angela Gossow projected power on record and onstage as well as anyone, but let’s face it, metal growlers are a dime a dozen, and Alissa White-Gluz steps in on War Eternal without missing a beat, providing that crucial contrast with Amott’s melodic guitar work that Arch Enemy has built a long career of. Stylistically, not a thing has changed in the band’s approach, and it’s a little disappointing that White-Gluz doesn’t show her own formidable vocal range more than the requisite monotone snarl, but this album overall feels much stronger than 2011’s Khaos Leions. The charismatic Gossow will be missed as she steps into her role as the band’s full-time manager, but with White-Gluz as the new face/voice and Amott as the songwriter, it’s steady as she goes for one of the more consistent bands in mainstream metal.
Body Count, Manslaughter (Sumerian): I couldn’t be sicker of hardcore. The posturing, the boring songs, the lame self-help lyrics, all the attitude but little palpable passion. But at a time when Hatebreed, Terror, and all the sound-alikes continue to coast, plagiarizing themselves time and again, Ice-T and Body Count have come through with an absolutely brilliant comeback that brings eloquence, humour, rage, and genuine songwriting skill back to straightforward hardcore that we haven’t heard in ages. Before settling into a good career as an actor, Ice-T was a masterful lyricist, and he proves it here, his songs edgy, provocative, and laced with wickedly dark wit. Backing it all up is the band, who matches Ice’s charisma with music that’s suitably intense and surprisingly vibrant. From the inspired covers of “Institutionalized” and “99 Problems’ to the storytelling skill of “I Will Always Love You”, this is not only the best Body Count album since the notorious 1992 album, but Ice-T’s best album since O.G. Original Gangster, and the best hardcore album in years. Not even a Jamey Jasta cameo can ruin this sucker.
Burzum, The Ways of Yore (who cares what label it’s on): Yeah.
Equilibrium, Erdentempel (Nuclear Blast): One of the loopiest bands in pagan/folk metal, the German band is back with another busy blast of jaunty melodies, polka tempos, and silly black metal vocal gurgling. Say what you will of this style of metal music, but Equilibrium has a real knack for lively hooks, and this album is a goofy blast. You can’t listen to “Uns’rer Flöten Klang” and not have a big stupid grin on your face.
Godflesh, Decline & Fall (Avalanche): Upon learning that Godflesh was back together making new music, many metal fans rejoiced because they’d missed Justin Broadrick’s colossal industrial metal riffs during his time with the more sedate Jesu. And while there’s plenty of crunch to be heard on this new four-song EP, the main draw for me is what’s between and underneath those massive guitars and merciless martial beats. The spirit of Killing Joke continues to permeate Broadrick’s work with Godflesh, and the atonal accents on “Dogbite” and “Playing With Fire” add richness to the otherwise blunt compositions. The title track might reek of been-there-done-that, but it’s still absolutely worth a listen on Bandcamp.
Hellyeah, Blood For Blood (Eleven Seven): Yeah, Vinnie Paul’s band continues to churn out the same old lazily-paced redneck metal, but much to my surprise this is not the full-fledged Southern metal suckfest you’d expect. “Sangre Por Sangre” is the catchiest song the band has ever written, “Demons in the Dirt” has a wicked little groove, the ferocious “Say When” sees Vinnie offering a glimpse of the Vinnie Paul of 1992, while “Black December” tackles a subject near and dear to every Pantera fan. For the first time the band has made music you can remember after hearing, and for Hellyeah, that’s a quantum leap.
Mars Red Sky, Stranded In Arcadia (Listenable): I want to say the Bordeaux band’s brand of psychedelic metal is infused with a strong doom influence, but that would imply the music is gloomy. Though it’s plenty heavy, the melodies feel oddly positive, from the guitars to the lilting singing. The chugging “Holy Mondays” and the hazy “Join the Race” are both a blast, reminiscent of the old-timey charm of Bigelf and Danava, a good indication of how likeable this album is. One for the Roadburn crowd.
Mayhem, Esoteric Warfare (Season Of Mist): Mayhem is so overshadowed by its early legacy and notoriety that any attempt at making new music will forever be placed alongside the towering De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas, or in some deluded cases, Deathcrush. But while the Norwegian band’s music will never reach that level of adoration again, you have to give it credit for soldiering on with its gaze cast forward. 2007’s Ordo ad Chao was a daring, polarizing statement, and the long-awaited follow-up is even better, thanks primarily to the addition of guitarist Teloch, whose clever, atonal riffing on The Konsortium’s excellent 2011 debut is reflected in even more primal fashion on Esoteric Warfare. In a way he’s the perfect foil for the inimitable Attila Csihar, his nonlinear, lurching yet oddly catchy guitar sounds matching Csihar’s persona step for step, punctuating, accentuating. As for Csihar, he’s in typical flamboyant form, growling, gurgling, and gnashing all over the record, spewing lyrics about manimals and frankenfood, he and the band proving to one and all that while the fans still cling to the early recordings like baby blankets, they’re willing to show a continuing passion for experimentation and growth. Personally, that’s far more interesting than dead singer album covers and murdering sociopath bassists.
Night Ranger, High Road (Frontiers): No, Night Ranger wasn’t even metal in 1984. Appearances in Circus magazine aside. Still, I like these guys without shame. Their ‘80s singles were brilliant, exuberant hard rock, and their last album was shockingly enjoyable. And I’ll be damned if new tunes “High Road” and “I’m Coming Home” make me smile. Either Night Ranger is on a nice little creative upswing, or like my friend Jen insists, I’ve suffered a stroke. It’s probably the latter – Jen’s always right – but I’m not complaining.
Spiders, Mad Dog (Reaktor): It might be only a single, but the latest song by the Swedish hard rockers is a scorcher. Led by former Witchcraft guitarist John Hoyles and the fiery Ann-Sofie Hoyles on vocals, “Mad Dog” the MC5, Stooges, and Alice Cooper, with Ann-Sofie providing some welcome Suzi Quatro sass. The band always keeps things straightforward and direct, never wasting time with jamming. They cut right to the chase, and as a result their music has a bite that few Swedish retro rockers can match. 2012’s album Flash Point was outstanding, and this track is a good indication that the band is still as fiery as ever.
Tombs, Savage Gold (Relapse): Tombs might be a longtime Decibel favorite, but as strong as the Brooklyn band’s work has been – especially on 2011 Decibel album of the year Path of Totality – the music, rich and intense as it is, has always been in need of a little more color than was already there. Surprisingly, it’s with death metal producer Erik Rutan where Mike Hill has found that middle ground between extremity and texture. Amidst typically throttling songs, “Echoes”, “Deathtripper”, and “Severed Lives” offer welcome, moody respites, working so well that you can’t help but wish Hill would explore this more gothic side of his music even more. Then again, people want extremity from Tombs, and they get it in a huge way on this album, hitting an early high with “Edge of Darkness” and reaching a crazed climax on the closing “Spiral”, one of the best tracks Hill and the band has ever recorded.
Trap Them, Blissfucker (Prosthetic): Crust riffs, d-beats, psychotic vocals, Kurt Ballou production, and best of all, songs played with passion. It’s exactly what you’d expect from Trap Them, and all you’d ever want.
Not metal, but worth hearing:
Wife, What’s Between (Tri Angle): In the wake of the abrupt end to the wonderfully mercurial and innovative Altar of Plagues, James Kelly has quickly returned with an album that is even more surprising than last year’s outstanding Teethed Glory & Injury. Created in collaboration with The Haxan Cloak, one of the most exciting figures in electronic music, and ambient producer Roly Porter, Wife at times echoes the martial, industrial quality of Author and Punisher, but instead opens the music enough to let in more subtle, haunting melodies, which at times are reminiscent of James Blake. Minimal and beautiful, it ranges from the ethereal (“Heart is a Far Light”), to the jarring (“Salvage”), to moments like “Dans Ce” where you get the sense that he’s on the verge of something special, desolation and warmth incongruously intertwining.