April 2010

Spring is here, and everywhere you go, young lovers are enjoying the sunshine, the beauty of the natural world, and the promise of new life. Unless, of course, you go to Leonard Pierce’s house, where the Texas sun beats down on his roof but never penetrates the eternal darkness of his heart, soul, and home office. For it is from there that he brings The A.V. Club the best in metal, hard rock, and affiliated white noise, and will continue to do so until Jesus finally returns and tells him to knock it off. So open up your black curtains and blink into the unsparing light streaming from April’s Metal Box!

RENEWING THEIR LEASE. Long a favorite of those plugged into the San Francisco underground scene, the tricky black-metal outfit Ludicra raised a few eyebrows as details of its new album, The Tenant (Profound Lore) began to emerge. For one, it would be its first effort since the band jumped ship from Alternative Tentacles to its new label, which is often—and unfairly—tarred as a bastion of hipster metal, whatever that is. Second, it was rumored that with The Tenant, Ludicra would be going full prog, which set off warning signals of possible musical pomposity in the offing. Luckily, it turns out there’s nothing to fear: The Tenant is far and away the finest album Ludicra has ever done, and the change of pace allows it to open up its distinctive sound while still maintaining the twisted black-metal foundation that made it so appealing in the first place. Tracks like the nasty, brutal “A Larger Silence” hearken back to Ludicra’s violent past, but on songs like the polyrhythmic, drugged-out “Truth Won’t Set You Free” and the expressive but still riff-crammed “The Undercaste,” it really shines. Those songs incorporate progressive sounds in the best possible sense of expanding a style, moving forward with it, and incorporating it into an already-stunning sound. Laurie Sue Shanaman’s urban-despair lyrics and howling vocals remind listeners where they are at all times, but the best moments are when John Cobbett’s guitars and Aesop Dekker’s drums leave those listeners out in unexplored space.

DECADES OF DECAY. This month’s death-metal pick—and one of the most surprising things to show up in the mailbox in April—is Majesty And Decay (Nuclear Blast), by old-school NYC death-metal stalwart Immolation. The band has been going, though not always going strong, since 1986; a general lack of direction, accompanied by the inevitable lineup changes, rendered its last several albums not worth writing home about. But Majesty And Decay represents both a return to form and a satisfying comeback. The current lineup finds Ross Dolan holding down the traditional death-metal vocals and anchoring it all in place, while guitarists Robert Vigna and Bill Taylor are left free to bring in sinister black-metal shadings and some crazily daring angular chord progressions on terrific tracks like “The Purge” and “A Glorious Epoch.” There isn’t much new in the lyrics or the general approach, but musically, Majesty And Decay is the most interesting thing the band has done in a decade, and a testament that even old dogs like Immolation and Suffocation can learn a few new tricks.

BARREN BLOOD. The heavy-metal super-group is a tricky proposition: At its best, it represents a coming-together of the best talents of disparate bands to create a whole new sound. But at its worst, it just raises the question of whether you’re listening to material that wasn’t good enough for the individual outfits. Barren Earth, a Finnish group consisting of members of Swallow The Sun, Moonsorrow, Amorphis, Kreator, and Rytmihäiriö, lands somewhere in the middle. On its debut album, Curse Of The Red River (Peaceville), singer Mikko Kotamäki skillfully swings from clean vocals to death growls, but in a way that will be familiar to anyone who’s into the current Swedish prog scene. Likewise, the overall musical approach, blending churning, thrash-influenced death metal with proggy Scando art-rock, is played with unimpeachable technique, but is certain to leave a lot of listeners wondering when the new Opeth album is coming out. Where the album’s first half seems like a bunch of guys with no compelling reason to have gotten together in the first place, though, the second half finds them starting to get comfortable and open up, and that’s when Barren Earth sounds like a band with something to say. “The Ritual of Dawn” is a respectable slice of progressive death metal, and “Cold Earth Chamber”—by far the album’s standout—delivers a pulverizing breakdown worthy of anything its players have done in their own bands. (And are Wild-West-sounding album titles officially a trend now?)

AT THE POST. So, you have a) a concept album b) about the philosophical flaws in Christianity by c) a German band that d) looks to Richard Dawkins as its primary inspiration. I know what you’re saying: “Sounds like a good time to kill myself!” And yet while I scarcely wish to encourage this sort of thing, I am forced to admit that Heliocentric (Metal Blade), the first of two such releases scheduled for 2010 by gloomy post-metal band The Ocean, is pretty damn good. The album’s weighty—well, let’s be honest, overweighty—themes are salvaged by some well-crafted, structurally complex songs, the expressive voice of new vocalist Loic Rossetti, and a desperately needed sensibility on the part of primary songwriters Robin Staps and Jona Nido, who know when to cut out the ethereal minimalist piano stuff and pile on the murky, heavy sludge that gives the record its power. I’m not exactly looking forward to the follow-up, Anthropocentric; this one is surprisingly successful, but I have my doubts that The Ocean can pull it off twice in a row. But it definitely isn’t like anything else released this month, and it manages to rise above what could otherwise be fatal levels of conceptual self-involvement.

Elsewhere in the post-metal scene, Italy’s At The Sounddawn makes itself known with Shifting (Lifeforce). This is a curious little concoction: Elements of heavy atmospheric music like Isis, Katatonia, and Cult Of Luna appear in here, but it also brings in some modern indie-rock elements of the more experimental kind, and whips them all into a froth injected by an almost free-jazz looseness. (The latter shows up in the unexpected appearance of a brass section!) It takes a bit of getting used to, and definitely has the good and bad qualities of a band that seems like it’s developed largely in isolation, but don’t be shocked if Shifting grows on you after repeat listens. 

ÖLDSCHOOL. From hither and thither come a pair of interesting releases that sound refreshing to jaded extreme-metal ears by casting way back into long-gone eras of the heavy. From Arvika, Sweden, Enforcer—whose 2008 debut, Into The Night, spurred a Scandinavian speed-metal revival—comes through with a dynamite disc of the kind of metal that hasn’t been en vogue since hairspray outsold corpse-paint. Diamonds (Heavy Artillery) is pure throwback ’80s metal, and there’s no question it has a bit of a guilty-pleasure appeal; even the cover art is deliberately evocative of the kind of stuff that clogged up the racks at Musicland back in the day. But Enforcer manages to conjure up the best aspects of the period—that is, the infinitely catchy, slick hooks of bands like Fastway, Accept, and Exciter—without sinking too deep into the corny excess. 

Meanwhile, closer to home (or closer to my home, anyway), Las Cruces has finally released a new album after years of tinkering and major lineup turmoil, to the extent that we’re really hearing a band that doesn’t exist anymore. But if this turns out to be the last we have of this talented San Antonio stoner-blooze outfit, it’s a hell of a sendoff: Dusk (Brainticket) is a groovy amalgam of doom, proto-punk, Texas blues, biker sleaze, and everything else occupying that nebulous zone between hard rock and metal. Las Cruces never shies away from the Texas touchstones; it embraces them to fine effect on songs like the fantastic (and wonderfully titled) “Cocaine Wizard Woman.” The band has a new lineup and may not be around for long, but Dusk is well worth picking up. 

INTO THE BLACK. Let’s start this month’s exploration of black-metal releases with one of the most divisive bands on the scene: Écailles De Lune (Prophecy Productions), the latest from France’s Alcest, was released last month, and will likely only deepen the divisions between those who love the band and those who hate it. Something of a compromise between its debut EP, Le Secret, which was more bounded in recognizable ambient black metal, and its first full-length, Souvenirs D’un Autre Monde, which was so stripped-down and ethereal that it could barely be called metal at all, Écailles De Lune manages to bring the washes of black-metal-guitar arpeggios back to the fore, but the vocals continue to drift somewhere between the mournful moaning of Swans and a sort of bleached-out New Romanticism that you might hear on early Cure or New Order records. Alcest occupies its own unique space in metal, but it definitely isn’t for everyone. 

On the other hand, Laethora—a group consisting of Dark Tranquility/Hammerfall guitarist Niklas Sundin and assorted henchmen—is far more traditional. Hailing from Gothenberg, it manages to maintain elements of that city’s trademark melodic death-metal sound, working in bits and bobs of early-’90s Scandinavian black metal and grind-derived undertones from the rhythm section of Jonnie Tell and Joel Lindell. Nothing special here, just solid dark metal skillfully written and played by a man who’s had a lot of practice. 

Finally, Triptykon—the post-Celtic Frost project of Thomas Gabriel Fischer (now calling himself Tom Gabriel Warrior for some reason)—has released its first album, Eparistera Daimones (Century Media), and it manages nothing more or less than to exactly meet its expectations. Fischer/Warrior has been saying since his previous band’s demise that he wanted Triptykon to pick up exactly where Celtic Frost left off. For those who loved Celtic Frost, then, Eparistera Daimones will be like manna from heaven; for those who hoped, like me, that Fischer might take the opportunity to head in a new direction, well, we’ll always have Alcest.

NORTH BY NORTHWEST. We’ll wrap up this month’s Metal Box with a trio of releases from the Pacific Northwest, an increasingly relevant hotbed of the dark and the heavy. First up is A Banishing Ritual (Bindrune), the long-awaited new album from Seattle’s Blood Of The Black Owl. Intense, painfully gloomy, and hypnotically involving, it’s a fine follow-up to A Feral Spirit; BotBO takes the album’s title seriously, and its execution as a thematically discrete piece of music to accompany a cathartic ritual is nearly perfect. Those who aren’t tuned into the repetitive, ultra-creepy vibe in which BotBO traffics won’t find anything to like here, but if its deeply felt brand of funereal, bleak musical spellcasting hits home with you, this is a must-own. 

The Abominable Iron Sloth is also from Sea-town, but its sound and approach couldn’t be more different; on its excellent second album, The Id Will Overcome (Black Market Activities), it provides one of the best stateside combos of old-style metal and punk you’re likely to find. The catchy mixture of sludgy, low-bottom filth à la Melvins and Eyehategod with the more metallic elements of grunge gives tons of appeal to tracks like “Slugs In A Salt Circle” and the title track. I could do without the would-be transgressive Charles Manson cover, but that aside, The Abominable Iron Sloth is a great band waiting to be found out. (And you gotta love that name.) 

Across the border, Bison B.C. drops its third album, Dark Ages (Metal Blade), this month, and if you aren’t listening to James Farwell and Dan And’s woolly, Mastodonic monster riffs already, you better get on board. Beer-fueled, crushingly heavy, and hard-touring, BBC offers one of the wildest live shows in metal today, and Dark Ages almost manages to replicate that freewheeling craziness on record. It only features seven tracks, but not a one of them is a dud, and they all make for perfect spring drives with the windows rolled down and the car stereo up to 10. This is what you should be listening to right now.

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