Every month, The A.V. Club sorts through its growing pile of ill-sounding Satanic noise and shoves it under a table in the break room, where, late at night, trained rats gather it up for delivery to Leonard Pierce. Our official staff devotee of music made under the influence of sour adrenaline, resin, and Christian blood writes up a column recommending the best and the rest of the month in hard rock and heavy metal, then opens up the floor so you can come in and tell him that his choices are either too mainstream or not mainstream enough. Metal Box took December off, but now it’s back to look at some choice cuts from the first releases of 2010.
IRAQ HARD. A few years back, Vice produced a documentary called Heavy Metal In Baghdad, about Acrassicauda, Iraq’s only metal band. Taking a step past the publication’s usual smarm, it turned out to be an affecting piece of work. It detailed the difficulties of playing the devil’s music in a country burdened first by a brutal dictator, then by a rise in Islamic fundamentalism, and it made most making-the-band documentaries look wimpy in comparison. Who cares if you can’t make it big, or if your guitar player and your bassist are feuding, when these guys have to deal with their practice space getting hit by a missile, or the risk of being assassinated on the way to a gig? After years of struggles and false starts, the band members have finally gotten out of the Middle East and are now dwelling in Brooklyn, where they recently released Only The Dead See The End Of The War (Vice). When a band has this much hype built up around its personal history, it’s fair enough to ask: Is the music actually any good? Thankfully, the answer is yes: On the four-song EP produced by Testament’s Alex Skolnick, Acrassicauda delivers Metallica-style riffing over generally clean vocals more credibly than Metallica has done for a while. Once Acrassicauda manages to get in some serious practice and hit the road without fear of being wiped out by an IED, big surprises could happen.
SIGHS MATTERS. Japanese metal mutant Sigh has been around forever—it was the first high-profile Asian black-metal band way, way back in the early ’90s. Ever since, its music has gotten progressively weirder and progressively better; the new Scenes From Hell (The End) is far and away the weirdest and best thing the band has ever done. There are still elements of the old ghostface black-metal days in evidence, but it’s now layered under so many washes of deranged Ennio Morricone keyboard, so many blats of spazzed-out, Boredoms-y saxophone, and so many off-kilter and over-the-top chants and growls from frontman Miri Kawasima that it doesn’t sound like they come from the same planet, let alone the same band. No better fusion of Japanoise and black metal has ever even been attempted, let alone succeeded; Scenes From Hell manages to be both devastating and daring, fun and terrifying, not just from song to song, but from moment to moment in the same song. If you haven’t been on board with these guys all along, this is the moment; people are going to be talking about this album for a good while.
IHSAHNITY. Former Emperor boss-man Ihsahn has had a prolific, varied solo career since the Norwegian black-metal big-shots called it quits in 2001. The high point was 2008’s AngL, a fantastic fusion of the stuff he’s been doing since then and the stuff he got famous for in the first place. Its dramatic, intense blend of black metal, electronic textures, and gothic undertones made a lot of best-of lists (mine included) and has had everyone wondering, could Ihsahn follow it up with something just as good? The answer, unfortunately, is no. His latest, After (Candlelight), is meant to be the conclusion of a trilogy that started with 2006’s The Adversary—and it’s just as clearly meant to be a transition into a new style. That style, if tracks like “Undercurrent” and “On The Shores” are any indication, will be marked with length, low intensity, unwelcome intrusions of prog-metal, and way too much saxophone. (The answer to the question “How much saxophone is too much on a heavy metal album?” is “Any saxophone at all.”) After isn’t a terrible album; it might even have fit in nicely with the stuff Ihsahn was doing with his wife in Peccatum. But it definitely falls victim to the high expectations set up by AngL.
FIRE AT WILL. Quebec’s metal scene has been dominated by prog-tinged technical death metal for so long that it took a good while for the stoner-rock good-time boys in Priestess to get noticed. Their new release on TeePee, Prior To The Fire, should put them on the musical map once and for all, though; it ramps up the musicianship and gives things a fine, clear-but-not-too-clear production job by Dave Schiffman without sacrificing the sense of pure enjoyment the band seems to get from pulverizing a wide range of rock and metal influences. Where they separate themselves from mere revivalists like Wolfmother is Mikey Heppner’s skillful songcraft; rather than just cleverly aping the sounds of his favorite bands, he disassembles and reassembles them in unexpected ways, which is what gives songs both short (the catchy, fiery “Lunar”) and long (the surprisingly complex “The Gem”) their power. Priestess is a band that needed to step up its game to avoid being lost in the current wave of hard-rock revival bands; happily, it did just that.
EAT THIS. Sometimes a band comes along that stands out just by doing something so ridiculous, its members almost dare you not to notice. As great a band as Carcass turned out to be, I’d be lying if I said I was initially attracted by anything but the insanely gross medical-dictionary-inspired lyrics. So when I tell you that Ingested—a Manchester-based outfit that combines competent death-metal riffage with thrashy guitar overlays and punishing grindcore blastbeats delivered at hyper-speed—grabbed me because of its over-the-top lyrics, you’ll know I’m not just whistling while I’m pissing. The band’s first full-length album, Surpassing The Boundaries Of Human Suffering, came out last year in the UK on Siege Of Amida, but it didn’t get a U.S. release on Candlelight until 2010. Ingested is no Carcass, but there’s still plenty to recommend it as a musical force. But really, you should just pick up this record so that someday, when your mom is over for a visit, you can leave iTunes open on your laptop and she’ll notice that you listen to songs like “Intercranial Semen Injection” and “Pre-Released Foetal Mush.”
DAMN! THAT’S A LONG BAND NAME! You know, you can give your band crazy-go-nuts Satanic-sounding names like Charred Walls Of The Damned as much as you want, but that’s not going to make anyone forget that your lead singer is hapless Rob Halford stand-in Ripper Owens. And if ol’ Rip is trying to make anyone forget his stint in Judas Priest—though, really, why would he?—his debut album with the new super-group, cleverly titled Charred Walls Of The Damned (Metal Blade), is doing him no favors. The first single, “Ghost Town,” has a bit of a tech-death flavor, which should be expected from a band featuring former Death bassist Steve DiGiorgio. But the rest of the band—including Iced Earth drummer/Howard Stern fixture Richard Christy and Trivium ghostwriter Jason Suecof—teams up with Owens to give the whole album a very NWOBHM feel, and by the time “Voices Within The Walls” rolls around, everyone has just stopped trying, and are putting in their best Judas Priest imitation. Note that I am in no way suggesting that this is a bad thing. In other long-band-name news, those of you who like to yell at me for including hard-rock bands in this column will be delighted to find a rave recommendation for the new album from Creature With The Atom Brain. Transylvania (Munich/The End) is a killer slice of fuzzed-out neo-psychedelia of the Witchcraft school, blended with grungy ’90s-style throwback rock and moody keyboard-driven groove. This is the band’s first album to hit the U.S., and here’s hoping it finds an audience here.
EUROSTYLE. Just before we went to press, stalwart European metal label Paragon dumped a couple of pretty promising metal slabs in the old mailbox. First off, from the hometown of Andre The Giant comes Aldaaron, whose debut full-length, Nous Reviendrons Immortels, is an interesting change of pace for those who might be dissatisfied with the moody, ambient direction French black metal has taken lately. Nous Reviendrons Immortels is pure throwback Scando-style black metal, but with the kind of triumphal-sounding power chords normally associated with latter-day European power metal. It makes for a better combination than you might think, and is definitely worth checking out. Also worth a glance is Purulent Reality, the debut long-player from Sectioned, a British (by way of Hungary) blackened-death-metal group. While there’s nothing particularly groundbreaking about the booming, growling vocals or the lyrics, the guitar playing is outstanding, and it wedges some fancy Floridian tech-death stylings into what’s otherwise a merely competent death-metal record. Also, while I don’t normally recommend that you look at a band’s MySpace page ever for any reason, you can peek at Sectioned’s for a chance to see forbidding-looking Central European metal dudes trying and failing to ice skate.