This September was absolutely stacked for new metal releases, highlighted by a trio of sophomore full-lengths by a trio of American bands who are redefining their respective subgenres. I’m not one to make predictions about this kind of thing, but I think we’ll be talking about Crypt Sermon, Haunter, and Mizmor decades from now.
The Ruins of Fading Light
Crypt Sermon’s debut, Out of the Garden, was my favorite album of 2015, so my expectations going into The Ruins of Fading Light were sky-high. I’m pleased to report that those expectations were exceeded. The Ruins of Fading Light is every bit as epic as its predecessor, and twice as ambitious. The Philly doom band borrowed from Dio-era Black Sabbath, Candlemass, and Solitude Aeternus to build the blueprint of their sound, and while they transcended the sum of those parts pretty much right out of the gate, they push even further here. Though the band’s core sound remains rooted in classic doom, Light’s construction and theatrical flourishes remind me of nothing more than the late ’80s trad-metal operas of King Diamond. Songs like the stomping opener “The Ninth Templar (Black Candle Flame),” the nine-minute epic “The Snake Handler,” and the best song they’ve written to date, “Christ Is Dead,” are the sound of a band realizing they’ve captured something truly rare and giddily exploiting it. Lyrically, Brooks Wilson is still obsessed with the Biblical myths that have occasionally gotten Crypt Sermon branded as a Christian metal band over the years. But if they are, well, so what? Those stories are rich tapestries that have been underexamined in heavy metal, and Wilson’s perspective is singular, far from the youth-pastor thumping of Stryper or the Christian metalcore scene. If there’s any justice in the world, people will be studying Crypt Sermon’s songs for at least as long as they’ve been studying the Bible.
Sacramental Death Qualia
Remember how it felt the first time you listened to Opeth? That’s how it feels to press play on Sacramental Death Qualia, the dizzying, labyrinthine, and at times downright beautiful second album by San Antonio’s Haunter. They’re ostensibly a black metal band, the same way Opeth is ostensibly a death metal band, but like the famous Swedes, they’re limited only by their own imagination. That imagination runs wild across the album’s five songs. The complexity of their compositions and the proficiency of their playing screams prog, but they never chase an idea that doesn’t contribute to the atmosphere they’re trying to evoke. Sacramental Death Qualia makes the case that the truest black metal of all is one that’s untethered by orthodoxy.
Portland’s Mizmor (stylized as the Hebrew מזמור, or “Psalm”) constructs monolithic songs that sound deeply personal despite their grand scale. On Cairn, sole member A.L.N. reckons with his own loss of faith, an apostasy that shook him to his core and left him sitting “at the table of suicide” where he “was served the ashen bread,” as he vividly puts it on “The Narrowing Way”—before ultimately returning from the edge and embracing a life without God. Across four songs that comprise nearly an hour, A.L.N. walks us through this lonely journey. His atmospheric blackened doom, fully formed yet preternaturally comfortable with negative space, calls to mind kindred Pacific Northwest acts like Bell Witch and Ash Borer. But Cairn could only have been made by one man, and at what sounds like great distress to his soul, he made it.
This four-way split jointly released by Dark Descent Records and Cyclopean Eye Productions unites two bands from Sri Lanka and two bands from New Zealand for one of the most immediate, satisfying extreme metal releases of the year. The Sri Lankan bands, Serpents Athirst and Genocide Shrines, share MVP honors for the split. Their contributions are near-perfect encapsulations of what raw black/death metal can do at its best. New Zealand’s Trepanation and Heresiarch hold up their end of the bargain as well. Trepanation utilize some mind-blowing stereo mixing, with terrifying (or terrified) vocals moving eerily from left to right, creating a truly harrowing surround-sound experience. Heresiarch, arguably the most established band on the comp, bring their professional war metal with “Dread Prophecy,” a song that would have been a highlight of their 2017 full-length, Death Ordinance.
Beyond the Circular Demise
Old-school death metal is defined by its rejection of modernity; it’s right there in the name. Coffins might take that ethos farther than any other band in the world. The Japanese lifers sound like what would happen if Black Sabbath became a death metal band, or if death metal somehow was the first sound that sprang forth when guitar distortion was invented. The riffs and grooves they lock into on Beyond the Circular Demise—just their fifth full-length, though they’ve released about a thousand splits and EPs in their 20 years—tap into the primordial lizard brain. This is heavy metal, just played way heavier.
The sheer number of musical ideas that Cloud Rat pack into the 14 songs and 31 minutes of Pollinator is staggering. That’s a virtue of grindcore in general, but the Michigan band is particularly adept at pivoting between churning, math-y riffs, pummeling brutality, and moments of real beauty, wringing catharsis from Madison Marshall’s bloodied-yet-unbowed howl all the while. Her lyrics are one of the band’s major strengths. They’re tone poems that touch on feminism, self-worth, and the apocalypse, and they’re always visceral despite their formal abstraction.
Beyond the Wall of Desolation
It was only a matter of time before Power Trip, maybe the most successful underground metal band going right now, started spawning imitators. That’s what I thought High Command were doing when I saw them live twice earlier this year. Their debut album, Beyond the Wall of Desolation, provides a more nuanced picture of what the band can do. They do share Power Trip’s affinity for Slayer-meets-Cro-Mags crossover and heavily reverbed vocals, but they’re also comfortable stretching their legs for an eight-and-a-half minute song (album centerpiece “Devoid of Reality”) and playing around with clean, even pretty parts (the acoustic intro to the excellent title track). They’re also more than competent with the thrash parts. They may not be reinventing the wheel, but they’re worth keeping an eye on.
Trevor William Church remains the most prolific man in heavy metal. Haunt’s Mosaic Vision EP and If Icarus Could Fly LP both made this column already this year. Now, he returns with a pair of split releases that show his continued growth as a trad metal song writer, while highlighting his friends in the up-and-coming bands Fortress and Seven Sisters. Their contributions are interesting and well worth a listen, but let’s dig into the two new entries to the Haunt oeuvre. “Sea of Dreams” is Church in glammed-up speed metal mode, in dialogue with Accept’s “Fast As a Shark” by way of the Sunset Strip. “A Fool’s Paradise” opens with a Giorgio Moroder synth part that turns out to be a red herring: it’s anthemic, horns-high metal, tailor-made for live singalongs. Haunt keep on hauntin’.