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July 2009

Each month, The A.V. Club takes a break from its usual routine of reviewing records by sensitive guys with scruffy beards and glasses singing about how sad they are, and instead asks you to pay attention to loud, horrible screaming by alcoholic misfits. Metal Box is our monthly column of what’s new and notable in the world of hard rock and heavy metal, and we’ll strive to bring you the best of the mainstream as well as the most essential extreme metal, along with an audio sampler to let you know what you’re in for. So put Panda Bear on pause, break out that old Dio T-shirt you’ve been using to dust the furniture, and let’s see those horns! 

PRO-ROCK AGENDA. Clutch is one of those bands that’s been so reliable for so long that it’s easy to forget it’s still around. It would be a crime if that happened with its new album, Strange Cousins From The West (Weathermaker); continuing to refine the buzzed-out blues-funk it’s been working with since 2007’s outstanding From Beale Street To Oblivion, it’s one of the best pure rock ’n’ roll records of the year. Having shed almost all its punk and grunge influences and stripped its style down until Neil Fallon’s vocal hooks and Tim Sult’s terrific guitars have nothing to hide behind, Clutch is leaving itself plenty of space to show off; while old-timers might miss Mick Schauer’s keyboards, the band is better off without them, and Fallon’s lyrics are better than ever. The band does some stretching, to be sure, and eclectic tracks like “Minotaur” and “The Amazing Kreskin” break things up nicely, but simple, thumping songs like “50,000 Unstoppable Watts” and “Abraham Lincoln” explain what this band is really about. 

GET YOUR GOAT. Ben Falgoust might be the hardest-working man in the metal business. As the frontman for Soilent Green and Goatwhore, the New Orleans native careens between two bands doing excellent work in their respective fields, and at last year’s Ozzfest, he played riveting shows with both outfits, becoming the first person since Ozzy himself to front two outfits on a single bill at the ’Fest. Now, with Goatwhore’s latest record, Carving Out The Eyes Of God (Metal Blade), he’s made his greatest album to date. A remarkably deft blend of latter-day death metal and old-school black metal, with a bit of sludge swirled in to give it flavor, it’s simply a fantastic record, heavy as hell and brutal in the most complimentary way. Sure to be on my best-in-metal list come year’s end, Carving Out The Eyes Of God is one of those records that’s so powerful and intense that it belongs in the collection of anyone who likes metal dark and scary.

EURO-THRASH. Vintage American power-metal outfit Manowar has never been that popular in its native land, but Europeans go for its flashy ’80s-metal sound, epic fantasy-inspired lyrics, and leather-and-biceps look in a big way. Its latest is Thunder In The Sky (Magic Circle), basically a preview for its next full-length, Hammer Of The Gods. It’s a collaboration with German fantasy novelist Wolfgang Hohlbein, and the first in a multimedia something-or-other called “The Asgard Saga”; those who aren’t fond of Manowar’s overblown, almost cartoonish style won’t find anything here to change their minds, but those hardcore Manowarriors who embrace its goofy look, sub-Tolkien lyrical obsessions, and pure throwback sound will probably eat it up. Meanwhile, Finnish folk-metal superstar Korpiklaani has come out with its oddest record yet in Karkelo (Nuclear Blast). Musically, it’s a reminder of the fact that it started as a traditional folk band before adding Finntroll-style heavy-metal fripperies; ethnic melodies and grandpa guitars are all over the place. But lyrically and thematically, it’s almost a party record—its first single, “Vodka,” is just one of many drinking songs, and the whole thing has a very weird boogie-with-gnomes quality.

DAWN OF THE DEATH. This month features a downright embarrassment of riches for death-metal fans, with tons of great records hitting the shelves. One of the best is from a band that’s been around for ages: veteran New York outfit Suffocation has released its best album since reforming in 2002. Blood Oath (Nuclear Blast) is a throwback to the sheer grinding ferocity of its early-’90s work, but with much-improved guitar breakdowns from the underrated Terrance Hobbs. Darkest Hour started out as a melodic metalcore band, but it’s risked the goodwill of its fan base by wandering ever further into pure death metal; its latest, The Eternal Return (Victory) is excellent stuff, veering away from melodic noodling and replacing it with angry death-shredding to good effect. Finally, the terribly-named Job For A Cowboy just keeps getting better and better; Jonny Davy’s vocals are much improved, and his lyrics are actually getting deep. The loss of guitarist Ravi Bhadriraju was a blow, but the band couldn’t have made a better move than replacing him with Despised Icon’s Al Glassman, who adds a nasty veneer of old-school death metal over the Arizona band’s modern deathcore sound. Don’t let the name and the Hot Topic affiliation fool you: Ruination (Metal Blade) is a sharp little record that needs to be heard.

ROAD WARRIORS. BlackenedFest was hyped as the metal event of the summer, with ultra-blasphemous black-metal gang Marduk making its first U.S. appearances in nearly a decade. Unfortunately, half the supporting bands dropped out, and Marduk ran into passport problems that sank the tour. Those problems are finally resolved, though, and lucky fans will get to see Marduk spill Satanic punishment all over them starting with a short East Coast jaunt this August. Meanwhile, the Thrash And Burn tour—kicking off in San Diego at the end of July—could turn out to be one of the must-see neck-whipping mosh parties of the year, with bands like Despised Icon, Veil Of Maya, and Oceano lending support to DevilDriver, a band that isn’t always reliable on record, but that works a crowd like nobody’s business, and never fails to bring it live.

REANIMATED. Two essential metal albums from the 1990s are being given a new lease on life this month, and getting another chance to sink their plentiful hooks into anyone who missed out the first time. Skull-cracking Viking metal band Amon Amarth tore it up last year with Twilight Of The Thunder Gods, but its second album, The Avenger (Metal Blade), set the tone for what was to come with its lightning-quick guitars, courtesy of Johan Söderberg and rollicking martial rhythms that would mark its trademark sound in years to come. Metal Blade has given it a well-deserved fancy-pants repackaging for its 10th anniversary. Better still, Morbid Angel—the great forgotten band of the fertile Florida death-metal scene of the early ’90s—is re-releasing its tremendous 1991 album Blessed Are The Sick (Earache). Anyone who missed the band the first time around should jump in here: Its second album was a great leap forward, with slower tempos and more sophisticated structural qualities. Trey Azagthoth’s guitars and Pete Sandoval’s drums have never sounded better.

BUMMERS IN THE SUMMER. Sadly, it isn’t all smiles and sunshine in the world of metal; June brought a trio of deep disappointments by generally reliable bands along with the good stuff. Obituary is another groundbreaking band from the Florida death-metal scene, but its latest, Darkest Day (Candlelight), is nothing to get excited about. Eclectic to a fault, it mixes up thrash, doom, and even bits of power metal and metalcore instead of sticking with what the band is best at—raw American death-metal power. The playing is unimpeachable, especially from drummer Donald Tardy, but it’s all in service of a highly confused-sounding album. Likewise, the new Spinal Tap album, Back From The Dead (A2M/Spuzzle) is worth owning for the cool action figures of Mssrs. Tufnel, Smalls, and St. Hubbins that come with it, but not for any musical merit. Sure, the Tap was always a joke band, but what made the band fun is that it recorded genuinely awesome ’70s metal songs; there’s nothing like that here, as the new tracks are hit-or-miss, the remakes of old songs are inferior to the old versions, and the remixes (including a soulless funk version of “Sex Farm” and an insufferable reggae take on “Flower People”) are unlistenable. Finally, Killswitch Engage—one of the first big metalcore bands, and one that attempted, at least in its early days, to do inventive work that distanced the band from much of the criticism of that genre—has released its latest, Killswitch Engage (Roadrunner), and it’s pretty dismal. Glossy, slick, overproduced (by Brendan O’Brien), passionless, and with nothing to set it apart, it’s the kind of record that critics of metalcore will cite as the reason the whole style is weak.