It’s October, and a lesser metal column would make jokes about skeletons and zombies and the witching hour. But here at Metal Box, we respect you too much for that. We figure your October is going to be much the same as every other month, but on the 31st, the streets will be flooded with amateur drunks trying to look as cool for one night as you do the whole year ’round. And besides, since we last spoke, the world of hard rock and heavy metal has coughed up an embarrassment of riches for your listening pleasure—so much good stuff has arrived in the mailbox this month that we literally don’t have enough space to talk about it all. When the rest of the world is just pretending to be terrified, Metal Box asks: You wanna see something really scary?
SPIRALING SHAPES. Kylesa is one of those bands that, because it doesn’t restrict itself to a pinpoint-specific sound and dabbles in any number of heavy influences—most especially psychedelic textures and gloomy stoner riffs—gets dismissed by purists as something other than metal. When I hear the hazy, intricate intertwining guitars of Phillip Cope and Laura Pleasants, and the ferocious, circling drum attack of Carl McGinley and Eric Hernandez, though, I remain unconvinced, and that’s why it’s so gratifying to report that Kylesa’s fifth album, Spiral Shadow (Season Of Mist), may be its greatest accomplishment. It would take a lot to surpass the tremendous Time Will Fuse Its Worth from 2006, but Spiral Shadow is an improvement in almost every way: The core songwriting team of Cope, McGinley, and Pleasants has honed its craft to razor-sharpness, and Kylesa has never sounded better as a band. The album starts with the hazed-out opener “Tired Climb” and quickly displays the band’s mature songwriting; detractors won’t be happy with the increased melodic tendencies of songs like the gorgeous “Don’t Look Back,” but there’s plenty of window-smashing fury on display as well, including the romping “Drop Out.” It’s quite an accomplishment, and almost a lock for year’s-best contention.
MIND YOUR MANNERS. It’s hard to remember now, but in the ’90s, when alternative and grunge were wresting metal free of its moorings, and the specter of nü-metal was beginning to rise in the West and threaten the whole genre, Monster Magnet seemed to many like the salvation of heavy music. Its blend of stoner metal, space rock, and flashy pop-culture lyrical fixations all wound up into a ball of biker nastiness was just the thing we needed at the time; but before long, it all went sour. Personnel problems, label frustrations, and Dave Wyndorf’s drug habits caused Monster Magnet to hit the rocks, and it’s had a rough time returning. For every album that seemingly heralds a glorious comeback, like 2004’s Monolithic Baby!, there’s another that treads water, like 2007’s 4-Way Diablo. The good news is that with a new label, a rejuvenated attitude, and a seemingly sincere commitment to heavy-duty touring, MM’s latest album, Mastermind (Napalm), sounds like the former. Grooved out like mad and crammed with cracking ’70s cock-rock monstrosities like “Perish In Fire,” throwback stoner anthems like “Hallucination Bomb,” and revved-up power blasts like “Gods And Punks,” Mastermind doesn’t do much in the way of breaking new ground, but it delivers everything awesome about Monster Magnet, complete with alternately goofy and clever lyrics from Wyndorf. The only question now is, can MM keep it up?
THRASHBACK. One of the upsides of the recent thrash revival is that it’s generated unprecedented interest in the genre’s founding fathers, making it possible to see bands playing together who haven’t shared the same stage in more than 20 years. That’s why it was so frustrating to see the pitifully small turnout at San Antonio’s AT&T Center for the September 25 stop of the American Carnage tour; SATX has a reputation as a good town for metal, but we sure didn’t show it, with a venue that can seat 18,000 filling maybe a third of that. Anthrax led off, with a newly returned Joey Belladonna sounding like the happiest man in the world to be back with his old mates; Scott Ian likewise sounded fantastic, and the band delivered an energetic performance despite the small crowd. The biggest annoyance of the night, other than the low attendance, was the cretinous stand-up delivered between sets by That Metal Show’s Jim Florentine, but the crowd was too enervated even to throw garbage at him. Megadeth was the evening’s standout: A full run through Rust In Peace, followed by an encore of odds ’n’ sods, saw the ageless Dave Mustaine playing as fiercely as he did when he was in his teens. Headliner Slayer did its best, but aside from an overreliance on newer material, was slowed down by a lethargic Jeff Hanneman and a tenuous Tom Araya, who at least has the excuse of having gone through multiple surgeries and numerous injuries during the past year. The tour continues, and will hit at least a half-dozen more cities before Slayer splits off for a visit to Australia early next year.
If you can’t show up for American Carnage, start saving your pennies for The Big 4 Live From Sofia, Bulgaria (Universal Music). An incredibly thorough document of a June tour stop featuring Slayer, Megadeth, Anthrax, and Metallica, it’s ridiculously pricey ($70), but you get the DVD, CD versions of each band’s set, interviews, behind-the-scenes bonus materials, a photo collection, a poster, and a guitar pick. It’s a pretty ferocious concert, too. Just the thing for your kid brother, or any other metalhead you’re feeling especially indulgent toward around Christmas.
OLD PROS. Metal fans are an unforgiving audience. Too often, the very idea of evolving or progressing a band’s sound is looked on with extreme suspicion, and for every band that’s taken risks and innovated its approach to heavy music, there are a dozen that have remained viable by giving their fans exactly what they expect, time and time again. Like most Chicago metal fans, I went through a brief period of Disturbed fandom a decade or so ago; the band predated the current rich flow of metal bands coming from northern Illinois, so for a while it was the only game in town. Disturbed is also made up of a bunch of genuinely nice guys who are quite aware of how much they’re hated by a significant segment of the metal world, so they’re easy to talk to. The problem is, they’re not always easy to listen to. The exact approach that’s made Disturbed one of the most successful metal bands in America has also made it one of the least interesting. So give it credit for at least attempting to open up its sound on Asylum (Reprise). David Draiman’s vocals are still front and center, and while his idea of darkening the band’s tone has resulted in some pretty embarrassing lyrics and the world’s worst U2 cover (“I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For”), he’s starting to do new things with his voice that suggest a previously unseen versatility. Dan Donegan seems to be learning some new tricks on the guitar as well, which don’t always yield the best results, but, if nothing else, suggest a willingness to mess with the formula that’s made them millionaires. (Also, Disturbed deserves credit for knocking worst-case scenario Katy Perry out of the No. 1 album slot.)
Likewise, give Pro-Pain its due for staying viable for almost 20 years now, and putting out a dozen studio albums despite burning through more players than the average baseball team. After listening to Absolute Power (Regain), you won’t be inclined to give the band much else: It’s yet another album of bog-standard, mildly groovy metallic hardcore, almost indistinguishable from anything Pro-Pain has done since 1992. Compared to this, Disturbed sounds like Fishbone.
ENVELOPED IN DORKNESS. Similarly, the two most successful European bands to emerge from the depths of black metal did so by embracing a sound—and, more importantly, an image—more cartoonish than any of the Satan-worshiping trü-kvlt bands they left behind would ever dream. The latest from England’s Cradle Of Filth is called Darkly, Darkly, Venus Aversa (Peaceville), which would be the dumbest album name of the month if it weren’t for the existence of Bring Me The Horizon’s There Is A Hell Believe Me I’ve Seen It, There Is a Heaven Let’s Keep It A Secret. Give the band credit for at least ramping up the speed and power; whether it’s a genuine movement forward for the moribund band or a cynical attempt to cash in on the new taste for retro thrash, it at least sounds a little more interesting. The lyrics are still bloated conceptual trash, though, and Dani Filth still has no idea how to alter his pitch and power to get through a song with anything like genuine emotional affect. He describes Darkly, Darkly as “a gothic horror themed slay-ride of fervour and perversion,” so my job is pretty much done for me.
Meanwhile, over in Norway, Dimmu Borgir has released its first album in three years, during which time most of the band’s most talented members fucked off to join other, less ridiculous bands. The ridiculousness factor is pretty high on Abrahadabra (Nuclear Blast), and most of it can be found in a dismaying overreliance on orchestral flourishes and massed vocal choruses that make you think you’ve wandered into a bad movie about elves. Still, there’s some excellent guitar work when the band lets you hear it, and some solid song structures that would sound much better coming out of the band Dimmu Borgir was in the ’90s. But that band wasn’t making millions of kroner off of countless Euro-teens, so the overblown Gothic posturing is likely to continue.
UNDERGROUND U.S.A. Though it came out last month, I didn’t receive a copy of Morbid Destitution Of Covenant (Relapse), the latest from Chicago’s Father Befouled, until the day the last Metal Box went to press. Thanks to a tip from our own comment-section superstar Underground Metal Douchebag, I gave it a listen, and am happy to give it a largely unqualified rave. The qualification is that it sounds a lot like Incantation, and also a lot like Exhumed, and maybe even a surprising lot like Sadistik Exekution, so if you know all those bands, you’re not going to hear anything shockingly new here. But if you love all those bands, and I do, you’re going to hear a sharp, skillful evocation and refinement of that sound, for which the phrase “dark as fuck” was invented. Others use the phrase “extreme metal”; Father Befouled earns it.
Another tip, from Guy Who Likes Metal, led me to track down a copy of V (Relapse), the new album from Unearthly Trance, whose 2008 album Electrocution made me sit up and take notice. Unearthly Trance is very much in the New York black/doom-trance vein, and frontman Ryan Lipynsky is also the man behind The Howling Wind, whose debut, Into The Cryosphere, I gave a thumbs-up back in May. V isn’t quite up to the standards of either Cryosphere or Electrocution—it suffers from an excessively slow pace, and the hooks are thin gruel—but it makes up for in mood what it lacks in energy. I’m not convinced that this is the best direction for the band, but it’s interesting to see it try on new masks.
The latest in a long and inglorious tradition of West Coast cellar-dwelling freaks obsessed with funereal-sounding epic black metal, San Francisco’s Necrite has released its debut album Sic Transit Gloria Mundi (The Flenser). Consisting of a five epic slabs of oppressive, deeply depressing ambient blackness (track four clocks in at 27 minutes), the whole is much greater than the sum of its parts: While no single track will knock you out with its originality, Necrite does an deft job of combining old-school Scandinavian black-metal drones with the modern French ambient style.
JOIN THE CULT. Okay, all you people who are constantly bitching about why can’t metal be how it used to be, and blah blah Cookie Monster wah wah blastbeats boo hoo etc., here’s what I want you to do: Buy Nucleus (Profound Lore), the new album by Dawnbringer. I want you to listen to its amazingly pure, hugely listenable synthesis of prog metal, NWOBHM, and classic early ’80s American speed metal. Then I want you to shut up… Those irrepressible no-goodniks in Slough Feg have a new album out on the same label. The Animal Spirits (Profound Lore) continues on the same path the band has taken for a few years now—that is to say, away from the folk-tinged power metal of its early stuff and toward a more eclectic, classic-metal sound. That’s fine with me, because I think the sound suits Slough Feg a lot better, and Mike Scalzi’s enjoyably bizarre lyrical content hasn’t changed a bit… Finally, one of the most anticipated albums of the year is well worth the wait: The Epigenesis (Nuclear Blast), from Middle Eastern metal’s most commanding band, Melechesh. The increasing blackness tinting its ethnic death-metal underpinnings may be a result of moving to Amsterdam to avoid getting arrested so often, but it’s not as profound a difference to its sound as frontman Ashmedi’s bringing in more Middle Eastern instruments—and graciously standing down to let them show in a couple of powerful instrumentals. In terms of songwriting, The Epigenesis doesn’t make significant progress, but this is a band good enough to improve with little more than a few tweaks to its sound.