Second albums are often make-or-break propositions. Artists either follow up the promise of a strong debut with an album that fulfills their potential, or they prove that they burned through all their good ideas the first time out. A batch of bands in this month’s best metal on Bandcamp column fall in the former camp; sophomore efforts by Visigoth, Ataraxy, Chevalier, and Chaos Echoes all improve on their respective makers’ opening salvos, paving the way for what we can only hope will be long and fruitful careers.
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Salt Lake City’s Visigoth made waves in the trad metal community three years ago with the release of their first full-length, The Revenant King. That album was tantalizing yet imperfect, the work of a band with chops and ideas for days, but who had yet to tighten up the songwriting screws. The band’s intense focus is what makes Conqueror’s Oath such a triumph. It clocks in at a lean 42 minutes—in contrast to King’s hour-plus—and it doesn’t waste a second. Visigoth is unmistakably a U.S. power metal act, heir to the thrones of Savatage and Manilla Road, but they reach across the ocean to draw from its European influences more comfortably than most of their peers. Album highlights “Warrior Queen” and “Traitor’s Gate” aren’t shy about getting bombastic, and there’s more than a little of Blind Guardian’s multi-tracked Queen worship in frontman Jake Rogers’ vocal arrangements. On the Highlander-quoting “Outlive Them All” and the ode to Visigoth’s hometown “Salt City,” the band embraces its looser, more playful side, to great success. The New Wave of American True Metal rages ever on.
Keys of Orthanc
Dush agh Golnauk
Vinyl LP, Compact Disc (CD)
Quebec has been the spiritual home of a certain strain of atmospheric black metal for more than a decade now, with bands like Forteresse, Csejthe, and Chasse-Galerie heading up a flourishing movement. Keys of Orthanc, from Chambly, Quebec, fit broadly into that lineage, but the Tolkien-obsessed songs on debut album Dush agh Golnauk offer a convincing vision of Middle-Earth that places it outside of any one specific scene. The LP begins and ends with ambient tracks not far removed from the sounds of dungeon synth. The four songs they bookend announce the arrival of a new force in atmospheric black metal. The album’s highpoint is “The White Wizard,” which opens on a gorgeous major-key guitar figure reminiscent of prime Alcest before adding haunted synths and pummeling drums. By the song’s climax, it’s charging ahead like Shadowfax, demonstrating the meaning of haste. Impressively, Dush agh Golnauk is a Tolkien-inspired atmospheric black metal record that will never make you think of the great Summoning album that just came out. Keys of Orthanc is doing its own thing, and are already doing it very well.
Where All Hope Fades
Compact Disc (CD)
Where All Hope Fades, the second full-length by Spanish death/doom crew Ataraxy, opens with an instrumental track called “The Absurdity of a Whole Cosmos.” That feels like a mission statement for the album, which paints its wide-eyed epics on a canvas the size of the universe. Part of what makes the songs feel so huge is how well they utilize their midtempo pace. Ataraxy rarely pushes the beats per minute for long, which allows them to settle into deep, menacing grooves. Frontman Javi’s vocals are desperate shouts to an uncaring sky, interspersed with understated but effective spoken word sections. Where All Hope Fades should impress fans of old-school, Finnish-style death/doom, but it’s not totally stock — the longer you sit with it, the more Ataraxy’s small but rich innovations shine through.
Master’s Hammer has spent the past 30 years twisting black metal into whatever form its muse has required. Fascinator is another avant-garde coup for the long-running Czech band. It has its share of traditional black metal riffs, but it pits them against an insistent, shapeshifting synthesizer that keeps the album from ever feeling too familiar. Founder Franta Štorm is at the center of every song—as guitarist, keyboardist, and chief songwriter, but most crucially as the oddball master of ceremonies. When black metal vocals began to hew to a common range in the ’90s, he ran the other direction, and that continues to serve him well. “Satanská nekrofilní porn”—which translates exactly how it looks like it would translate—is the apex of Fascinator’s absurd what-the-fuckery. Štorm’s distinctive croak is in top form, gliding across an orchestra of synth sounds that could have come from a German techno record as easily as a Dreamcast-era video game menu. Love them or hate them, you can’t say Master’s Hammer doesn’t keep you on your toes.
Chapitre II and Split w/ Legionnaire
The fresh-faced Finnish speed metallers in Chevalier released their raw but impressive debut EP A Call to Arms last March. Now, they’re back with four new songs—three on Chapitre II, and one on a split with their countrymen in Legionnnaire. It’s often tempting to wish for a young band with obvious promise to get into a proper studio and make an album, but so much of the charm of Chevalier is in the DIY raggedness of these songs. They hurtle forward at an almost reckless pace, the instruments constantly threatening to fall out of time with one another, while Emma Blomqvist explores the limits of her untapped register, stumbling from time to time on King Diamond’s piercing falsetto. Listening to them figure it all out is a genuine thrill. (Legionnaire, for their part, manage some convincing twin-lead-driven NWOBHM worship on “Born of Ash and Blood,” but it’s almost unfair to make them share a split with the more exhilarating Chevalier.)
Compact Disc (CD), Vinyl LP
The freeform, avant-garde death metal of Chaos Echoes defies easy comparison. On Mouvement, the band’s second full-length, the French trio finds itself farther afield than peers like Portal and Mitochondrian. These songs often threaten to untether the band from death metal altogether. They float in ether, their rumbling riffs cut with elements of drone and psychedelia, subtly ratcheting up claustrophobic energy all the while. Remarkably, the album is fully instrumental for much of its runtime. What is death metal without its characteristic growled vocals? In this case, it’s evidence of the band’s tacit endorsement of atmosphere over form. Chaos Echoes build a distinctive sonic world where anything goes, so long as it serves the disquieting ambiance. Vocals would only get in the way.
Apostle of Solitude
From Gold to Ash
Compact Disc (CD), Vinyl LP
There’s something admirably blue-collar about Apostle of Solitude’s take on doom metal. On their fourth full-length, From Gold to Ash, the Indianapolis quartet sound exactly like what they are—four guys in a room, banging out Sabbath and Saint Vitus bummer jams with some after-work beers. Even in its most transcendent moments, like the climax of the ambitious 10-minute centerpiece “My Heart Is Leaving Here,” the album always stays true to its earthy core. The result is a doom record that feels relatable, and that’s a rare and beautiful thing in a genre more often given to the grandiose.