About a decade ago, before metal had crawled over and absorbed me like the seething mass in Alien: Resurrection, I read an article over at AllMusic.com about some extraordinary heavy music that hadn’t gotten the kind of Mastodon-level exposure they might have deserved. That article – which has somehow faded away, unarchived, since I can’t find a trace of it online – was my introduction to Agalloch’s Ashes Against the Grain, Gorgoroth’s Ad Majorem Sathanas Gloriam and Blut Aus Nord’s MoRT (this last I wouldn’t actually learn to love for many years). The internet world has moved on – as has the cosmos of available recordings each year – and now dozens of online tastemakers can each have their own Top 10 list without overlapping any other list. It’s a testament to the affordability of recording technology, to the direct connections artists forge with their fans, and to ever more insulated channels of musical taste.
Here are a few albums you might have missed but should probably check out before you lose yourself to all the glorious promises of 2017.
After a brief career as a French war hero in the 15th century, Gilles de Rais retired to fund a massive theatrical performance that drained his family coffers before being convicted and hanged as a serial child killer. He does not appear, however, to play any instruments on this release, credited to John Zorn but performed by his tireless Simulacrum trio. All three members are equally guilty of kicking ass throughout this very Zornian but surprisingly heavy set: John Medeski smears organ matter everywhere, in disgusting and radiant hues; Cleric guitarist Matt Hollenberg shows no mercy, proving that “virtuosic” doesn’t have to mean “darling”; and Imperial Triumphant drummer Kenny Grohowski turns everything upside down with both savage and tender tactics on the kit. Nobody made much noise over this record, but if you give it a shot, it might change your world.
Hailing these guys has become a way of life. They released my favorite demo of 2011 (Ritual of the Horned Skull) and some of my favorite doom of 2013 (Summoned from the Void), and two of their members also slay in Cataleptic, another gruesome collective we haven’t heard from in far too long. These Finns refuse to remain comfortable in molasses-thick doom, but infuse their creeping darkness with enough death and black metal to keep us squirming. The band’s crumbling castle aesthetic adds to their power. Towering guitar melodies snake across rattling chords and canyon-scraping vocals. Fans of death/doom should give this record a few serious listens. Non-fans of death/doom should fuck off and die.
Formed from the same blackened impulses and cast of characters as the Gorgoroth-influenced Wound Upon Wound, Irish quartet Mortichnia took their game to a completely new and breathtaking level with Heir. Devastating percussion crackles over a perfectly balanced low-end while guitar strings splash frightening, complicated colors over everything. Songs of truly gargantuan length somehow become unified pieces of focused, evil and enticing art. While it should no longer be surprising that extreme music can convey as much dramatic emotion as any classically-steeped orchestra, there are few enough bands accomplishing the feat as to make it refreshing. There was no stronger black metal album this year, and you probably haven’t even heard it yet.
My first encounter with this prolific British duo was through a brilliant Decibel review by Scott Seward. Since the release of This Beat is Necrotronic in 2009, the group has established its sound as a nexus of eerie atmospheres, crushing heaviness and sick electronic beats. The Capsule returns to the orbit of some extra-solar planet where all of this genre blending is normal. Erratic bleep-bloops, amorphous drone clouds, driving tempos, chattering synth chords and a backdrop of lost screams all weave together into a gleefully wicked experiment that definitely deserves your time. Also, check out all the other recordings they’ve made so readily available on Bandcamp.
I considered including Quebecois masters Hands of Despair on this list (mourners of Opeth’s lost death chops should head toward that band’s pair of full-lengths immediately), but then I realized that Decibel slobbered all over them with an Up Front Artist Profile, and it seemed a little hypocritical to consider such a band underappreciated (though I still do). More beneficial, I thought, would be to offer their compatriots Incandescence, a black metal tidal wave from Philippe Boucher, who also has a hand in music you love from Beyond Creation and Chthe’ilist. A few years ago, Incandescence burst through eardrums and blood vessels with Abstractionnisme, and a just a couple months ago they returned with this monument of blackened ire. This music requires conviction, both in its execution and from its audience. Fortitude is necessary to withstand its onslaught, but rewards await within all that corruption.
Okay, it’s a little silly to bemoan the obscurity of something released by Relapse Records, but it was one of the year’s most seductive and destructive drone/doom albums, and since it was released in early March, it might have been forgotten in the year-end shuffle. It’s also a single 40-minute track, which makes it even more unwieldy for the attention-defective. There are seven quiet minutes before the violin and percussion really turn up the heat, and by then the thrill seekers have fallen away. Those who remain are in for a terrifying half-hour of soul-scarring bleakness as Wolvserpent suffocate all sense of hope and positivity. By the halfway mark, the demons are loose and have leech-latched onto every bare inch of skin. Noise, doom, and classical intensity are all unleashed in service of this darkest of records.
W&R’s 2014 album Want was a hard sell for me – it was recommended by people I trusted, but for some reason I had trouble navigating the emotionally muddled sonic art in those tracks. Boy, did “Powders” clear all that up for me. That song’s dejected beats, simple apocalyptic chords and Felix Skinner’s semi-coherent ramblings finally coalesced into something that connected with me. I worried that later songs would break the spell, would leave me as bewildered as Want had, but that never happened, and Indifferent Rivers just landed harder the more I listened. W&R allow their ideas the time and space necessary to have a real impact. I’m often turned off by true outsider music, but I hope my romance with this band is just beginning.