Programming note: Two of the best heavy albums of the month aren’t strictly metal albums, and they were made by folks I’ve worked with in various capacities that would make it a conflict to write about them at length. But do yourself a favor and check out Cave In’s Final Transmission and Pelican’s Nighttime Stories. Now, on to this month’s picks.
Rare Field Ceiling
Brothers Will and Sam Skarstad have been kicking against the outer edges of black metal as the principal members of Yellow Eyes for nearly a decade now. With their fifth full-length, Rare Field Ceiling, they’ve made their masterpiece. The band famously incorporate field recordings from Siberia—chimes, dogs, choirs—into their avant-black attack, but the focus on that aspect of the band’s sound has always been a bit of a smokescreen. It neglects the fact that, between the eerie interstitials, the Skarstad brothers are laying down better black metal riffs than just about anybody on the planet. Where a lot of bands would be satisfied to pound away for minutes at a time with any of the riffs on Rare Field Ceiling, Yellow Eyes often yank them away just when it feels like they should repeat, creating a surreal, disorienting effect. The woozy, labyrinthine structure of songs like “Light Delusion Curtain” and “No Dust” (a legit contender for the best metal song of the year) will draw comparisons to Blut Aus Nord and Krallice, but the album is just as effective when it turns to blistering black ‘n’ roll, as it does on the legitimately stunning intro to the title track. All of the song titles and lyrics on Rare Field Ceiling describe talismans of protection, and while they’re often too impressionistic to pin a specific meaning to, the theme feels appropriate. Rare Field Ceiling is a dizzying, wondrous place to get lost inside. You’d better wear armor.
An Isolated Mind
I’m Losing Myself
At first blush, the debut album by Kameron Bogges’s solo project An Isolated Mind sounds like a down-the-middle release for I, Voidhanger, the Italian label that has made perplexing, left-of-center heavy music its bread and butter. Listen closely, though, and I’m Losing Myself comes into focus. This is not music that is concerned with the cosmic or the metaphysic. It feels like music about one troubled person, reaching out desperately for help as they descend into unbeing. Bogges deconstructs the conventions of black metal to create a singular vision of a mind undoing itself. That is, until the last two songs, which are best left unspoiled, but have nothing to do with metal at all, and are as unsettling as anything I’ve heard in years.
Compact Disc (CD), Vinyl LP
It’s impossible to overstate how important Mike Scalzi is to the history of American true metal. As frontman of The Lord Weird Slough Feg, Scalzi has been flying the flag for traditional heavy metal since 1990, through some of the leanest years the genre’s seen. It’s some long overdue justice to have Slough Feg releasing New Organon, their best album in a decade, during a boom time for this style of music. It’s hard to imagine an Eternal Champion or a Spirit Adrift emerging without Slough Feg sweating it out in the riff mines for the past three decades. On New Organon, Scalzi taps into the same primal well that fueled modern classics like Atavism and Hardworlder, leaning into the guitar harmonies he and his co-guitarist Angelo Tringali have perfected over the years. (For those inspired to work back through the catalog, their harmonies on 2007’s “Tiger! Tiger!” are my favorite in any metal song, ever.) He also lets his day job as a philosophy professor color the material more than he ever has before, penning a history of philosophy from the dawn of civilization to the present day in the lyrics.
The status of the band (or bands) called Batushka is in serious dispute. The Polish band who made 2015’s breakout album Litourgiya has since splintered into at least two other acts, both continuing to call themselves Batushka. One of those splinter projects was signed to Metal Blade, and their work has widely been considered dubious. The other released Панихида, and that album is a worthy successor to Litourgiya. Панихида sees apparent Batushka mastermind Krzysztof Drabikowski expand on the hybrid of black metal and sacred music found on Litourgiya, and his album is a similarly meditative experience. The music here is at once liturgical and steeped in the black metal tradition. If the conflict between the groups wears on much longer, Drabikowski can rest assured that he will be thought of by the true as the real Batushka.
We now live in a world where Pallbearer has a Sub Pop Singles Club release. For all this planet’s glaring flaws, that’s a cool thing! The Little Rock doom band’s entry in the long-running 7″ series is the new song “Atlantis” b/w a live version of the Heartless banger “Thorns.” Keeping Pallbearer at 7″ runtime necessarily requires a specific subset of their strengths to be highlighted, and the two five-minute songs demonstrate how tight their songwriting has become. “Atlantis” hints at a future Pallbearer that’s even more comfortable working in short-form. For a guy whose warble was once primarily utilized as a vessel for misery, Brett Campbell’s vocal lines on the verses are a pure pop-metal sugar rush. It’ll be fascinating to see if this is a true one-off or a sign of things to come.
Flesh of the Stars
Chicago’s Flesh of the Stars have been self-releasing ambitious, beautiful doom metal albums on Bandcamp since 2015. On Mercy, they’ve stepped their game up in every conceivable way. The opening title track is a 22-minute prog-doom epic that successfully splits the difference between Yes and Sleep, and there’s somehow four equally enthralling songs after that. Mercy is structurally complex, but it’s also surprisingly approachable. The luminous, melodic vocals on the album have a lot to do with that. All told, four members of the band, plus longtime collaborator Rachel Rustemeyer, step behind the mic on Mercy, and the collective vocal performance is the best on a Flesh of the Stars album to date. You should have been following this band already, but if you weren’t, this album is a great place to start.
The Anatomy of Unholy Transformation
Compact Disc (CD), Cassette, Vinyl LP
The debut full-length by New Mexico’s Superstition is a wild-eyed, scuzzy, old-school death metal album that cuts to the bone with little unnecessary flourish. The roots of The Anatomy of Unholy Transformation are clearly in punk, and the songs constantly remind us that, as a perversion of thrash, death metal is only a few steps away from punk music proper. Superstition’s palette is death metal at its most uncorrupted, and there’s a clear line drawn from what Possessed and Death were doing in the mid-1980s to this excellent record.
The Grand Descent
If you like your death metal with a heaping side of classic NYHC, Fuming Mouth is the band for you. The Grand Descent is body music in the most visceral sense. It sounds like taking a shot to the ribs in the mosh pit, or like the pain in your neck the morning after a long night of headbanging. It’s streamlined, but it’s not overly simplistic. It’s just that it has one goal (e.g., beating your ass) and it knows how to achieve it. “Out of the Shadows” and “Visions of Purgatory” flaunt the band’s metal side with some almost spooky atmospheric passages, but at the end of the day, these songs are vehicles for slamming riffs and breakdowns. They serve their purpose exceptionally well.