The best metal on Bandcamp in February includes a double dose of cosmic death metal, a medieval black metal glow-up, and much more.
Anthronomicon and Helionomicon
Vinyl LP, Compact Disc (CD), Cassette
The latest transmission from the planet Ulthar is a lot to take in. For starters, it takes up two full-length albums: Anthronomicon, which spreads its 40-odd minutes of confounding, complex death metal across eight songs; and Helionomicon, which is home to two massive, side-long compositions. Both albums plumb the depths of the cosmos and the soul alike, returning with dizzying riffage, haunted atmosphere, and incredible performances that help sell both. The band’s approach recalls fellow death metal explorers like Gorguts and Blood Incantation, but Ulthar have carved out a space of their own. Guitarist Shelby Lermo plays with a mathematical precision that he’s learned to disguise as anarchy, while bassist Steve Peacock (also the man behind black metal chaoticians Mastery and Pandiscordian Necrogenesis) and drummer Justin Ennis complete the power trio dynamic with their tricky yet punishing rhythms. Lermo is also a vocalist in Ulthar, and shortly after the sessions for Anthronomicon and Helionomicon, he learned he had throat cancer. (His recovery is going well.) These records are retroactively weighted with the knowledge that he may never sing again, at least not the way he has in the past. Hopefully that won’t be the case, but if it is, Anthronomicon and Helionomicon would make for one hell of a vocal swansong.
Cassette, Compact Disc (CD)
As the curator of Grime Stone Records and the primary musician behind many of its projects, the California artist known as Abysmal Specter has created his own strange world in the hinterlands where raw black metal and dungeon synth meet. It’s a world well worth getting lost in, but if you’re only going to check out one Grime Stone release, it should probably be Curta’n Wall’s Siege Ubsessed! After four excellent EPs and a split with Fugitive Wizard, the medieval-themed Curta’n Wall have delivered a rarity for Grime Stone: a true full-length album. Siege Ubsessed! is, almost by default, the most ambitious record Abysmal Specter has ever made. Its arrangements are rich and varied, with at least a dozen guest musicians helping A.S. flesh out its 15 songs. Accordion, bagpipes, tin whistle, violin, saxophone, banjo, shawm, hurdy-gurdy, and bouzouki all join the fray alongside the Specter’s jagged guitar, chintzy synths, programmed drums, and croaked vocals. (The honey-voiced Elvya Dulcimer handles almost as many of the album’s vocal parts as Specter.) The production on Siege Ubsessed! is also a cut above the deliberately lo-fi recordings of most of the Grime Stone catalog. That might alienate some people who were only here for the raw black metal aesthetic. Good riddance to them. Curta’n Wall is onto something far more exciting.
Death metal history is littered with bands for whom a defiant tastelessness was a governing principle. Some of them became legends of the genre—Cannibal Corpse, Impetigo, Autopsy. Most were rightfully forgotten. But when an instinct to be utterly disgusting comes together with legit songwriting chops, the results can be magical. That’s what happened on the self-titled debut by Menstrual Vampires, a grimy, gory, gaudy new death metal duo improbably led by Scott Conner of Xasthur. Before he got cult-famous making depressive black metal soundscapes, Conner was playing in underground death metal bands, and he leans on that experience to pen songs like “Piss on Your Wounds” and “Miscarriage Fetish (Womb with a View).” Conner delivers his vocals in a totally indecipherable gurgle, and the Neanderthalic riffs by bandmate Randy Rhot pay homage to Shitfun-era Autopsy and the brutal early demos of Immortal Fate. It might make your stomach hurt; it might make you laugh. It’s undeniably in poor taste. But Menstrual Vampires executes its vision to perfection, and it belongs in the proud lineage of crude, repellent death metal.
Might & Power
Vinyl LP, Compact Disc (CD), Cassette
In the press photo for Megaton Sword’s Blood Hails Steel – Steel Hails Fire, the Swiss band’s diminutive frontman Uzzy Unchained is pictured holding a comically large sword. Dude looks like a Dark Souls character. It rules! Megaton Sword still pretty much sound exactly like that photo, but they’ve refined their formula and added a few new wrinkles for their sophomore LP Might & Power. Like Blood Hails Steel, Might & Power is a fantasy-obsessed trad metal album, packed with anthemic riffing, soaring lead work, and charismatic vocals. The songs that live in that basic mode, like “Iron Plains” and “Power,” hit with even more force than they did on the debut. Elsewhere on the album, though, the band dial down the heaviness to borrow from classic rock and ’70s prog. Songs like “Raikaszi” and the piano-led “Babe Eternal” will undoubtedly be more polarizing in trad metal circles. They work for me, though, and I think they point a potentially fascinating way forward for one of the finest bands in this scene.
Warlocks Grim & Withered Hags
Not long after releasing 2020’s The Affair of the Poisons, Hellripper mastermind James McBain moved from Aberdeen to the Scottish Highlands. The new environs got him thinking more deeply about the place he comes from, and he decided to center his new album on the folklore, history, and poetry of Scotland. The title, Warlocks Grim & Withered Hags, is taken from Robert Burns’s “Address to the Devil,” and it sets McBain’s intentions. Warlocks Grim isn’t about William Wallace or wearing a tartan kilt to the pub. It’s about Satan and black magic and cannibals. McBain has spent nearly a decade honing his blackened speed metal to a fine, evil point, and Warlocks Grim is easily his most successful outing yet. Songs like the vicious “The Nuckelavee” and the bagpipe-featuring title track bring in the rich Scottish atmosphere the material demands while retaining Hellripper’s signature streamlined punch. There’s no place like home.
Cassette, T-Shirt/Shirt, Other Apparel
As a nature-worshiping black metal band from Olympia, Washington, the two members of Returning are surely prepared to be compared to Wolves in the Throne Room. Thuja (almost certainly a reference to WITTR’s “Thuja Magus Imperium”) and Heron play marathon-length songs that rely on hypnotic repetition and dense thickets of atmosphere for their power. (Personally, I hear more Ash Borer and early Altar of Plagues in Severance than WITTR, but it’s all in there.) What’s remarkable isn’t the basic formula of Returning’s debut album, which we’ve heard before, but how painstakingly and immaculately crafted these songs are. Opener “Path of Ashes” spends over four minutes on a drone piece backed by field-recorded forest sounds before introducing its first riff and blastbeat pattern. It’s that patience and attention to detail that allows Thuja and Heron to build songs that hit with their intended seismic weight. Severance is also a political album, a self-described “homage to the rivers, forests, and mountains which nourish us, and give us the strength to carry on in the face of ecological unraveling.” That makes Returning allies of the Standing Rock water protectors, the activists fighting the construction of a “cop city” in the Atlanta Forest, and anyone else standing in defiance of ecocide. The songs on Severance aren’t just well-written black metal epics. They’re battle hymns.
ALL OUT WAR
Newburgh, New York’s ALL OUT WAR have carved out a career as heavy music’s eternal square pegs—too metal to be hardcore, too hardcore to be metal. Their gnarled take on metallic hardcore doesn’t even fit neatly within any of the various waves of metalcore. Celestial Rot doubles down on the band’s singular streak, adding a heaping dose of ’90s black metal to their pounding, mosh-ready attack. You’ve never heard anything quite like the blistering “Snake Legion” or the eerie tritone stomp of “Hideous Disdain.” Thirty years into a remarkable career, ALL OUT WAR stand alone.
Vinyl LP, Compact Disc (CD), T-Shirt/Shirt
When I interviewed Redefining Darkness label boss Thomas Haywood last year, he referred to Wretched Fate as “the New Wave of Swedish Death Metal,” saying that “they’re the ones holding the torch.” I hadn’t heard Carnal Heresy at that point, but now that I have, I can’t say I disagree with Mr. Darkness. The Orsa band’s sophomore album buzzes like Entombed, stomps like Dismember, and shreds like Bloodbath, and a gloriously unhinged vocal performance by Adrian Selmani helps set it apart from the legions of fellow Sunlight Studios imitators. Guitarist Mats Andersson produced the record himself, in fact, and its razor-sharp leads and surgical riffs cut to the bone.