Leonard Pierce, The A.V. Club’s resident metal maniac, started writing this month’s column on Halloween night with Abruptum’s Evil hissing and bleeding out of his living-room stereo. How metal is that? Well, a bit less metal considering that he had to stop writing every few minutes to hand out Fun Size Milky Way bars to the neighborhood kids. Anyway, now it’s November, and it’s time to catch up on the best in hard rock and heavy metal in our monthly Metal Box column. October was, as we mentioned last time, a month filled with great releases, so we’re going to catch up on a few of those we missed, as well as introduce you to some new material, and prepare you for some exciting changes in store for the column in 2011. So take off your Halloween facepaint, replace it with your regular day-to-day facepaint, turn up the heat, and turn on the speakers for this month’s Metal Box.
JUMPIN’ JUPITER. Let’s get the bad news out there right away: The new album from Atheist—the band’s first in 17 years—is not one of its best. Jupiter (Season Of Mist) sees Kelly Shaefer making some vocal adjustments that take a lot of getting used to, and while he hasn’t lost a step as a guitarist, the heroic fretboard feats he accomplished in the band’s early-’90s heyday have been equaled, if not surpassed, by a generation of younger players who learned their tricks from him. Perhaps most importantly, this band sorely misses Tony Choy. One of the most adept and versatile bass players in metal, he played a huge part in Atheist’s guitar dynamic and helped put the band miles ahead of any of its technical death metal peers. Jonathan Thompson tries his best to fill in, but he’s tasked with the impossible job of replacing one of the best musicians the genre has ever seen. So, all that said, is Jupiter a bad album? Not by a long shot. It may be the weakest effort since the band’s debut, but lesser Atheist is still light-years beyond most bands. There’s some stunning guitar work here courtesy of Schaefer and Chris Baker, and the close, tight production (by Matt Washburn and Jason Suecof) gives Atheist a clanging, noisy edge that brings its sound into the contemporary metal era without sacrificing what makes the band so great. It may not be a stunning return to form, but Atheist simply operates on a higher plane, and there’s no way to call it a disappointment.
BEACON SIGHTED THROUGH FOG. Judging from its new album, Axioma Ethica Odini (Nuclear Blast), Enslaved is a band going through a personality crisis. While its last full-length, 2008’s Vertebrae, had the pleasing quality of a band trying to reinvent itself and discovering new sounds and creative approaches along the way, this one resembles the work of a band that’s arrived in a new space and doesn’t know what to do next. Herbrand Larsen’s constant fiddling with his vocals is beginning to verge on fussy, and, having firmly pointed itself in a progressive direction, the band now seems to be hedging its bets, with every other track sounding like a throwback to its more hardcore black metal days. It’s hard to single out any song that’s actually bad (though the soporific “Night Sight” comes close); it’s just that Axioma Ethica Odini veers so wildly between the old Emperor-style Enslaved and the new Opeth-style Enslaved that it begins to sound schizophrenic. The album closes with the magnificent, exquisitely crafted “Lightening,” but far from being satisfying, it just leaves you wondering: Why couldn’t the whole album be like that? There’s a lot to like here, including great performances from Grutle Kjellson and Ivar Bjornson, but until Enslaved figures out exactly what direction it wants to go as a band, it’ll put out records with the shape and impact of a holding pattern.
SMOKE UP, DANNY. In striking contrast to Enslaved’s floundering, Intronaut strides out of the gate with the confidence and direction of a heavyweight champion on its third full-length album. Valley Of Smoke (Century Media) is far and away the best work this band has ever done, and it shows on every track. There’s clear improvement in the overall songwriting skill of the band, and its ambition couldn’t be clearer, but an overall dedication to the sum of its parts makes the whole that much better. The introduction of vocals to the predominantly instrumental prog-metal band could have been a fatal stumbling block, but frontman Sacha Dunable handles it with skill, delivering abstract lyrics in a cool insinuating hiss or a confident bark. Dunable and Dave Timnick’s sinuous guitar interplay is every bit as complex and intriguing as it ever was, but the real champion here is the rhythm section of bassist Joe Lester and drummer Danny Walker, as good a tandem as can be found working anywhere in music. Their muscular, darting combination of power and finesse is what makes tracks like “Miasma” and “Core Relations” really spark, and the open, breathable production—a major improvement over Intronaut’s last album, Prehistoricisms—gives them room to flex. This allows for a completeness of sound that’s never been this present before, and helps make Valley Of Smoke my favorite album of the month.
OVERSEAS DEPARTMENT. The French have been setting the pace in the world of black metal for some years now, and within the French black metal scene, few do it better than Deathspell Omega. Paracletus (Season Of Mist), its latest album and the last of a metaphysical trilogy that began with 2004’s Si Monumentum Requires, Curcumspice, does not disappoint. At a time when the band needs to seize listeners’ attentions, when it hasn’t put out a full-length record in four years, Deathspell Omega takes just the right approach, forsaking some of the smoother tones of ambient black metal and replacing them with powerful rock rhythms and searing guitar noise reminiscent of its best early work.
Many people know Aborym as the current band of ex-Emperor drummer/convicted murderer Bård “Faust” Eithun. It’s almost a pity that the band is anchored by such a (justly) controversial figure, because over the years, it’s grown into one of the most sonically interesting bands in European black metal. Its blend of old-school Scandinavian black metal, ambient electronics, and powerful industrial music is unique and very listenable, and the thematic lyrics on its new album, Psychogrotesque (Season Of Mist), are uncharacteristically well done for a metal concept album. The album also features gorgeous gatefold art, an ace guest appearance by Karyn Crisis, and plenty of sonically inventive moments, making it well worth a listen.
Belgium’s Agathocles has been delivering its own mix of raw grindcore speed, punk energy, and death metal intensity for 25 years now (the band calls it “militant mincecore”), and in all that time, it’s mined the same hole, never straying too far from what it’s best at despite innumerable personnel and label changes. Its new album, This Is Not A Threat, It’s A Promise (Self Made God), shows Agathocles off as a sort of grindcore Ramones: nothing that you haven’t heard from the band before, but done so well and with such energy and enjoyment that it’s impossible not to like.
BLACK IN THE U.S.A. Fans of Agalloch may be surprised at the turn the band takes on its new full-length, Marrow Of The Spirit (Profound Lore). It doesn’t sound like the band’s previous work—it may come as a real shock to those who know Agalloch solely from Ashes Against The Grain—but it retains essential elements of the sound while immersing itself much more deeply in the creepy, primitive, ritual sounds of fellow Northwesters Blood Of The Black Owl. The fact that it was recorded on vintage analog equipment only adds to the moody, emotionally claustrophobic feel of Marrow Of The Spirit, a triumphant development in the progress of a great band that isn’t afraid to take great risks in becoming the group it wants to be.
One of the best of a strong wave of young American black metal bands willing to play around with the boundaries of the genre is Woe, led by singer/multi-instrumentalist Xos (Chris Grigg). The ironically titled Quietly, Undramatically (Candlelight) never strays too far from the ABM model, but when it does, it does so in rewarding and unexpected ways: Moments that seem headed for ambient spookiness turn on a dime into savage, energetic chaos, and minor-key gloom chants, instead of fading and repeating, become more immediate and frighteningly tense. Quietly, Undramatically marks Woe as a group to watch out for.
Arriving very late in my mailbox (it’s a few months old) but worth a mention because of its skillful blend of hunky Sabbath-style doom power and NWOBHM blast-riffs is Hour Of 13’s The Ritualist (Northern Silence). Phil Swanson’s lyrics are enjoyable throwbacks and he tweaks his singing style constantly to fit the mood of each track, and while nothing here is spectacularly inventive, it hits my sweet spot for oozing, cultish doom in a way that few other bands can.
JESUS!. As long as there are American metalcore bands singing the praises of our Lord and Savior Jesus H. (the “H” stands for “Hellhammer”) Christ, there will be European death metal bands reveling in His untimely demise. Venerable Finnish sacreligionist outfit Impaled Nazarene is back with a new full-length, Road To The Octagon (Osmose Productions). In keeping with its new label, the band has started edging more into blackened death metal territory, but, for better or worse, it’s essentially the same group it’s been since the ’90s, a competent but predictable death metal outfit with blasphemous tendencies. Longtime fans, if any such can be found, will at least be happy to know that Impaled Nazarene continues its jokey “tradition” of including at least one song per album about goats, this time with the rampaging “Cult Of The Goat.”
Heading a bit south to the Netherlands, former Impaled Nazarene tourmate God Dethroned continues to do what it does with a minimum of fuss. Likewise a somewhat uninspired death metal combo with a keen eye for offending thin-skinned Christians, God Dethroned does at least one thing right on Under The Sign Of The Iron Cross (Metal Blade): adding former Prostitute Disfigurement guitarist Danny Tunker to lead its musical attack. The concept-album lyrics about World War I are pretty flatulent, but Tunker at least adds some chromatic color and interesting off-kilter sounds the band has otherwise been lacking.
Meanwhile, on the truly weird end of the spectrum, Britain’s Meads Of Asphodel puts its curious obsession with Biblical narratives in a blender with Middle Eastern ethnic music, English folk songs, Viking-tinged black metal, and the most insane anti-Christian sentiments this side of Marduk. The result is The Murder Of Jesus The Jew (Candlelight), an album that’s as compulsively listenable as it is deeply strange. Musically inventive and completely unhinged, it’s one of the odder listening experiences available in the world of metal today; for a true endurance test, head to the band’s website and try to wade through the interminable (60,000 words!) “codex” that supposedly explains everything.
PROGRAM NOTE. Next month in the Metal Box, I’ll be counting down my list of the best metal albums of 2010. I’ve tried to make it clear from the beginning that, thanks to the indulgence of my A.V. Club editors, this column isn’t meant to be universal or comprehensive; it has been and will continue to be a highly idiosyncratic take on the big tent of hard rock and heavy metal, filtered through my tastes and perspectives. But I’ve also tried hard to respond to your requests, suggestions, and wishes about what direction you’d like to see the column take. I can announce that starting in 2011, Metal Box will begin featuring short, punchy interviews with metal bands and performers, and some other content changes are also on the horizon. Meanwhile, though, if you have particular requests about what you want out of Metal Box, now’s a good time to make yourself heard. Do you want more mainstream metal? Less black metal? Would you like to see fewer albums reviewed in greater depth, or more albums reviewed in short bursts? More hard rock or less? What about DVD, EP, and book reviews? Are you looking for the cultish and obscure, the more well-known, or a balance? Do you prefer it when this column is super-timely, or would you sacrifice hearing about current metal releases for recommendations/reviews of classic metal albums of the past? Let me know. Changes are coming, and I want them to be changes you’re eager to see.