August 2010

While his A.V. Club colleagues have been enjoying the exciting world of outdoor music festivals, Leonard Pierce has been inside, haunting the dark clubs and enclosed spaces of South Texas for the best in live metal. Since the true hardcore eschew the sunshine, and consider it an act of weakness to abandon their usual attire of long hair, black jeans, and black T-shirts just because it’s 101 degrees in the shade, this has meant no small amount of personal suffering on his part, but suffering has been an essential part of metal since before Bruce Dickinson cajoled the entire city of Long Beach to scream for him. So grab a spot halfway between the bar and the air conditioner, have a Marduk bandana at the ready, and get ready to sweat off a few pounds in the mosh pit as Metal Box takes a look at August’s finest offerings in hard rock and heavy metal.

THE FINAL COUNTDOWN. A terrible admission: while Iron Maiden might be my favorite metal band of all time, I’ve paid precious little attention to it in the 21st century. Oh, sure, I saw the highly enjoyable Iron Maiden: Flight 666 documentary, and loved the hell out of it—Maiden seems to be one of the few aging metal bands that’s still having a blast doing what it does—but musically, its output just hasn’t been on my radar for most of the past decade. I didn’t expect that to change with the release of its latest, The Final Frontier (EMI); I figured to give it a token listen, a perfunctory mention, and nothing else. But damned if Maiden didn’t surprise me: The Final Frontier is a fantastic record, Maiden’s best since 1988’s Seventh Son Of A Seventh Son, and probably the most enjoyable record by an old-school metal band I’ve heard in ages. Combining the skillful prog elements of its late-’80s work with surprisingly complex, structurally difficult songwriting and top-notch playing by Steve Harris and Dave Murray, it’s a genuine accomplishment, and a clear signal that Iron Maiden can still put a bullet between the eyes of anyone it chooses. While other veteran bands can surprise by occasionally cranking out some good material, Maiden stands alone as a band that isn’t yet convinced it isn’t just as viable and full of new ideas as it was 30 years ago.

NORMA JEAN’S MONSTER. We give metalcore a lot of ribbing around here, and let’s be honest: For the most part, it deserves all the crap we can shovel onto it. Every so often, though, a metalcore band emerges from all the negative hype and demands to be given a fair hearing. In spite of the company Norma Jean keeps, I’ve been a fan of the Atlanta group since its killer O God, The Aftermath album dropped in 2005, and while it hasn’t exceeded that high-water mark yet, its new one, Meridional, comes close. To get the bad out of the way, the band is already self-burdened with a terrible name, so it isn’t doing itself any favors with the god-awful album titles. O God, The Aftermath was bad enough, but Meridional even surpasses the ludicrous Norma Jean Vs. The Anti Mother. The album art is ridiculous, too. All that said, Meridional is Norma Jean’s best album in five years: a personnel shake-up left the band much improved, heading back to the stunning Botch-style sound and mathcore complexity featured on O God, but with new elements like drilling industrial guitars and inverted, feedback-drenched guitars thrown in. Best of all, it abandoned the melodic timidity that held it back on its last two releases. If you feel like taking a chance on the future of metalcore, Meridional would be a good place to start.

HUMANS, DOING. On the subject of bands that do their best to transcend an often-vilified genre, The Last Felony from Montreal has been placed in the deathcore box since its debut a few years ago, but with its latest album, Too Many Humans (Lifeforce), it does its best to kick out of that box. The band’s melodic stabs, which by no means overwhelm its other sonic qualities, put it there; if metal were less enamored of labels, the Last Felony would just be considered a new-school death-metal band, with all the intense guitar grooves, moody sonic shifts, and powerful drumming that implies. With Too Many Humans, it dragged in a little black metal for atmosphere, and the result is an album that defies easy categorization and demands a bigger audience than the band has enjoyed so far. It’s no coincidence that it’s touring with fellow Canadian outfit Despised Icon: Both are underrated, highly accomplished bands that have been unfairly maligned in a career that many old-school death metal bands would be proud to have. If nothing else, Too Many Humans features some of the best song titles of the year.

SUMMER + LAUGHTER = SLAUGHTER. A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to attend the San Antonio stop of the Summer Slaughter tour at the legendary White Rabbit. A nonstop, daylong assault of top-rank tech death, it was a perfect way to spend a meltingly hot evening in South Texas, when the heat alone is enough to make you want to snap necks. The show got off to a bit of a slow start, but once it got rolling, it was as cool and deadly as an industrial fan. Among the highlights: Decrepit Birth delivered a boiling set of ultra-technical death metal with loads of brutal power—its new album, Polarity (Nuclear Blast), is also highly recommended, especially to fans of ’90s Florida death metal. Cephalic Carnage never fails to deliver a mind-boggling set of incomprehensibly extreme deathgrind, and its new album, Misled By Certainty, is one of the strangest things in a career marked by strangeness. And there was a powerhouse set by The Red Chord, whose exultant, intense grindcore has never sounded better, thanks to the return of original drummer Mike Justian. Rounding out the bill: Vital Remains, Animals As Leaders, Carnifex, the surprising Veil Of Maya, All Shall Perish, The Faceless, and the reliable Decapitated headlining. The tour had just started when I saw it, so those of you in the Midwest and West Coast (and parts of Canada) should still be able to catch it.

BORIS & BAD NEWS. Japanese rock monster Boris is back in the States, touring ahead of the release of its latest EP, BXI (Southern Lord). It’s a collaboration with Ian Astbury of The Cult, and if nothing else, it cements Boris’ status as one of the truly unpredictable bands in heavy music. Whatever you think of Boris’ pan-genre-hopping or Astbury’s fog-cutter voice, the two share a love of monster riffs, and that’s what makes BXI worth picking up: It isn’t the collaboration the world has been waiting for, but tracks like the crunchy, ultra-heavy “We Are Witches” make it worthwhile just the same. Boris continues its U.S. tour (Astbury-free) throughout August, but as you may already know, its opening act, Chicago’s hook-heavy post-metaller Russian Circles, lost its trailer in a car accident in Louisiana, and had a large amount of its equipment destroyed. Those of a generous spirit—and if you’re lucky enough to have seen Russian Circles live, you’ll know it’s generosity that will be well-rewarded—can help the group out; details are in the link. And as long as you’re in a giving spirit, you might want to spare a little for the family of Early Graves singer Makh Daniels, who died in a van wreck while touring in Oregon. Details are here.

RIFF TRACKS. The mailbox yielded a treasure trove of worthy hard rock and throwback metal this month; let’s start with Valkyrie. Hailing from Virginia and fronted by dual guitarists (and brothers) Jake and Pete Adams, it’s an airtight outfit that blends elements of traditional stoner rock with straightforward ’70s metal thunder; Man Of Two Visions (Noble Origin) will find the sweet spot with anyone who enjoys riff-crazy material evocative of Pentagram at its heaviest. Pete Adams spent some time in Baroness and picked up more than a few tricks there. Also from Virginia, but considerably more skunky, is the Southern-tinged King Giant, which adds sludgy undertones and groovy hick-licks to its drunken, messy interpretation of throwback metal. Its debut album, the self-released Southern Darkness, is tons of sleazy, amped-up fun. Finally, after a decade of proving that they can make black metal more interesting than anyone else, the French, just for the sheer hell of it, have coughed up Eibon, a pulverizing stoner-doom act that starts out with moody, despairing Franco-blackness, then adds about a hundred monster riffs just to show off. Entering Darkness (Aesthetic Death) is a killer, but be warned: If the French have learned to be this heavy, what else are they capable of?

AZTECAS OSCURIDAD. Every once in a while, Metal Box likes to focus on some of the fecund regional scenes, to illustrate that metal is a truly global music, and to earn our keep by not just reviewing stuff publicists send us. This month, we’ll take a look at a couple of excellent death-metal bands from south of the border. First up, from Querétaro comes Hacavitz, whose first album, 2005’s Venganza, was a stealth favorite. Its new album, Metztli Obscura (Moribund), ups the ante considerably, adding creepy black-metal shadings and much-improved mathcore-angled guitar riffs (from Antimo Buonnano, formerly of Disgorge) to its potent death-metal core. Hacavitz has built substantial improvements onto an already-solid old-school Morbid Angel-style death-metal sound. Also worth seeking, from Mexicaltzingo, is Mictlan; its sparse, moody 1995 album, Donde Habitan Los Muertos (American Line Productions) was recently re-released and is a fine snapshot of how quickly American death metal took hold in Mexico. Marvin Mendoza’s melodic, technically gripping riffs owe a lot to Death’s Chuck Schuldiner, but the atmospheric mood and Latin rhythms were in advance of anything being done at the time with the possible exception of Atheist. It’s well worth a fresh assessment.

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