Last year, in my role as a regular columnist for Metal Edge magazine, I wrote a piece criticizing a number of music magazines and websites for largely excluding metal from their reviews and end-of-year lists. Metal has been one of the most diverse, interesting forms of pop music for several years now, and I felt it was incumbent on publications who were helping set the critical canon for our time to pay more attention to it. Unfortunately, Metal Edge has since folded, but to my pleasant surprise, one of the publications I criticized actually took my advice: The A.V. Club. Starting today, I’ll be bringing you Metal Box, a short monthly column of what’s new and notable in the world of hard rock and heavy metal. So take off that Bon Iver CD, turn your speakers up to 11, and let’s get started.
OBSERVING THE SABBATH
With Ozzy Osbourne playing World Of Warcraft in his basement and Sharon plotting more unwatchable TV shows, it falls to Tony Iommi, Geezer Butler, Vinny Appice, and elfin belter Ronnie James Dio to remind everyone how good Black Sabbath used to be. The foursome’s new album—under the name Heaven And Hell—The Devil You Know (Rhino), can’t stand with the best of either Ozzy or Dio-era BS, but it’s surprising how close it comes. Iommi’s blunted fingerwork sounds as skillful as ever, but the best decision made here is to slow everything down to the proto-doom tempo of the early ’70s. It allows the rhythm section, still monstrously heavy, to really take control of the songs, and reigns in some of the excess of Dio’s vocal histrionics. The Devil You Know isn’t a great album, but it does serve as a reminder, at a time when plenty of AARP-aged rockers are putting out pretty decent albums, that the founding fathers are still in the game.
The big thrash revival of 2006-2008 seems to be slowing down a bit, but nobody bothered to tell Warbringer. The southern California kids, fresh out of their teens and dedicated to the mastery of a musical form that peaked before they were born, have recorded their second LP, Waking Into Nightmares (Century Media), and it’s a killer. Nic Ritter’s drumming has gotten absolutely punishing after a hard tour schedule, and John Kevill’s vocals and lyrics have both improved since the band’s 2008 debut, War Without End. Anyone missing the golden days of Megadeth and Testament (or anyone who wishes Metallica had gotten in a plane crash right after they recorded Master Of Puppets) should get in on the ground floor of what promises to be a towering edifice of thrash.
Hipster-metal darling Stephen O’Malley and chief collaborator Greg Anderson kept pretty tight wraps around the new Sunn 0))) album, Monoliths And Dimensions (Southern Lord), but we managed to sneak a listen. Layered with impenetrable sounds and textures, crammed with guest stars, and outfitted with orchestral flourishes, massed choirs, and other stuff that would get a less respected band accused of pretentiousness or gimmickry, it’s a good album, but not a great one. While it’s certain to be overpraised, it’s almost overstuffed with ideas, and those who object to Sunn 0))) on the grounds that they seem unfamiliar with the concept of rocking won’t find anything to change their minds here. Instead, check out Clean Hands Go Foul (Hydra Head), the swan song from another O’Malley project, Khanate. Intense, seething, and god-awfully loud, it was recorded a while back, during Khanate’s ugly, bad-vibe-soaked disintegration, and it shows in the blistering music. But at least there’s powerful emotion there, unlike on Monoliths And Dimensions, which comes across at times almost like a bloodless intellectual exercise.
Metalcore is still the big moneymaker in hard rock these days, as millions of Hot Topic shoppers line up to buy the T-shirts of the latest band with angular haircuts and awkward names. Still, there’s some pretty good stuff out there despite the overhyped mediocrities at the top. Dayton’s The Devil Wears Prada (a former A.V. Club Worst Band Name candidate) has done its best work yet on With Roots Above And Branches Below (Ferret), soft-pedaling its members’ Christian beliefs, making a smooth transition from shrill screamo to solid metalcore, and, thanks largely to drummer Daniel Williams and guitarist Jeremy DePoyster, opening the sound up to more complex rhythms and song structures, TDWP has suddenly become a band to watch. Starring Janet Leigh, an equally oddly named act from Canada, has likewise gained good attention for Spectrum (Metal Blade/Ironclad), which makes itself heard by building a metalcore structure over a spastic, proggy foundation and some surprisingly sharp death-metal guitar sounds. Finally, a little-known Michigan band called I See Stars impresses with an all-over-the-map debut, 3D (Sumerian); a far from perfect and often bewildering blend of hardcore, screamo, electro, and synth-pop, its music is almost sunk by eclectic on overdrive, but when it works, it’s so unusual and original, you can’t help but be impressed.
BACK TO THE GRIND
With Anal Cunt in the middle of a new tour, and allegedly preparing for the release of their first new album in eight years, grindcore fans have a lot to look forward to. Until Wearing Out Our Welcome drops, though, fans of the short ’n’ nasty can content themselves with the latest release from the legendary Agoraphobic Nosebleed, Agorapocalypse (Relapse). It’s no Frozen Corpse Stuffed With Dope; for one thing, it’s a decidedly non-grindy 13 songs, most of which are over two minutes long, making it downright epic by genre standards. But there are a handful of classics buried in the burning gravel mix, like the punchy “Dick To Mouth Resuscitation” and the rumbling “Druggernaut Jug Fuck.” Meanwhile, those looking for a new taste are advised to take a listen to Defeatist’s Sharp Blade Sinks Deep Into Dull Minds (Willowtip), a prime slice of New York grind that sounds hard and fresh, while still reminiscent of classic stuff like Brutal Truth and Discordant Axis.
FADE TO BLACK
Finally, for you handful of black metal extremists, it’s a good month to forestall your eventual liquor-saturated suicide. The best release of the last few months was Wolves In The Throne Room’s Black Cascade, covered elsewere on this site, but that’s not all that’s happening in extreme metal. British black-death gang Anaal Nathrakh has been getting better and better in the ten years it’s been around, and with its latest, In The Constellation Of The Black Widow (Candlelight), the band tops even its last three albums, which were all solid as hell. Constellation features powerful drumming and blisteringly fast and adept guitars from Irrumator, who’s never been better; if you don’t know the band, now is the time. New Zealand’s Ulcerate has been around for a while, but its third album, Everything Is Fire (on the ever-reliable Willowtip) is the first I’ve heard; it’s well worth seeking out, with low, growling rhythms in lockstep with buzzing guitars that’s as reminiscent of well-played industrial punk as it is technical death metal. It’s further proof that metal has become a global phenomenon, and that anyone who thinks it’s all the same stuff should be paying very close attention right now.