July was a strong month for death metal from all over the world, with bands from Belgium, Canada, the UK, and India headlining this month’s crop of the best metal albums on Bandcamp.
Vinyl LP, Cassette, T-Shirt/Shirt, Other Apparel, Sweater/Hoodie, Bag, , Compact Disc (CD)
The Belgian musician Robin van Oyen has recorded as Gateway for nearly a decade, and in that time, he’s carved a niche as a purveyor of joyless, unsettling, doom-encrusted death metal. A lot of the death/doom that appears in this column boasts a kind of sepulchered beauty. That’s not van Oyen’s game. On Galgendood (“gallows death”), the multi-instrumentalist wallows in the genre’s uglier side, casting his jagged, malevolent songs in inky shadow. Even the scant squirming melodies that emerge from songs like “Scourged at Dawn” and “Bog Bodies Near the Humid Crypt” feel like an extension of the album’s all-consuming darkness. The result is something like what would happen if Incantation leaned fully into their doomy side, or if Dead Congregation started playing slower. It’s grim, it’s evil, and it’s this summer’s antidote to toxic positivity.
Compact Disc (CD), Vinyl LP, Cassette
Serpent Corpse play the kind of scuzzy, punk-rooted death metal that made Autopsy legends. Mental Funeral devotees should certainly get plenty out of the Montreal band’s menacing, lurching groove. But there’s a few key wrinkles here that keep debut album Blood Sabbath from falling into total hero worship. Beacons of classic heavy metal’s majesty shine through the cracks in the foundation. When you call a song “Electric Eye,” you’d better have at least a little of Judas Priest’s swagger, and Serpent Corpse do. The way the album pairs its grander impulses to its crusty, insistent D-beats is what makes it special. Punks and heshers, reach across the aisle and get down to some death metal together.
2 x Vinyl LP, Compact Disc (CD)
I’ve spilled plenty of ink in the past on the difference between tech-death and prog-death, so I’ll try not to belabor this point. But when I hear a band that plays truly progressive death metal, and not just death metal that’s difficult to play, my heart skips a beat. Rannoch play progressive death metal, with all the thrilling flights of compositional fancy and lush arrangements that the term implies. Founded in Britain’s Midlands in 2004, the trio’s music draws from the deep wells of bands like Opeth and Akercocke. Conflagrations is their third and most ambitious full-length, and while it bears the marks of the band’s chief influences, it also sees them carving their own path more profoundly than they ever have. The rich melodicism and stop-start rhythmic madness of “Daguerreotype” and the ambient-industrial oddity “EarthRecycle” give a sense of Rannoch’s range, but it’s with the album-closing epic “Threnody to a Dying Star” that they ascend to their place among the genre’s elite. Over a staggering 17 minutes of dense instrumental interplay, impassioned clean vocals, and powerful riffing, they made me feel the way I felt the first time I heard Blackwater Park. Sleep on Conflagrations at your peril.
Compact Disc (CD), Vinyl LP, T-Shirt/Shirt, Sweater/Hoodie
At the far opposite end of the death metal spectrum from Rannoch you’ll find Gutslit, a Mumbai band who are only interested in crushing your skull. On Carnal, their third album, they do just that, working through a set of songs that update the template of brutal death metal OGs Suffocation with a few modern touches. Vocalist Aditya Barve isn’t afraid of the oft-maligned pig-squeal vocal style, but he uses it sparingly, as one of many voices in an impressively wide range. The slamming grooves that are endemic to the brutal death metal genre are here, too, but they’re incorporated far more thoughtfully than in your dime-a-dozen gore bands. It’s a testament to Gutslit’s sharp songwriting and viciously precise execution that Carnal stands out so dramatically in its crowded corner of death metal.
“Blast Furnace” b/w “Standoff“
Before Power Trip took the metal and hardcore worlds by storm with 2013’s Manifest Decimation, they were a singles band. Their earliest output trickled out across a series of EPs and 7-inches, and Power Trip guitarist Blake Ibanez appears to be taking a similar slow-drip approach with his new band Fugitive. Last summer saw the release of the sweltering Maniac EP, and now, almost a year later, the Texas crossover mavericks are back with a couple of loosies. “Blast Furnace” and “Standoff” both sound eternal and immutable, like Fugitive pulled them from the ether and hustled them onto tape before the magic faded. The A-side mostly sits in the pocket of a fat, midtempo groove, while the B-side spends more of its runtime barreling full speed ahead. But both songs show off the band’s panache for memorable riffs, full-bodied tones, and drill-sergeant calls to the pit. Fugitive will get around to a full-length when they get around to it, but in the meantime, the amuse-bouches they’ve been slinging are delicious.
Compact Disc (CD), Vinyl LP, Cassette
Over the past year, Blackbraid has enjoyed the kind of meteoric rise that causes cynics to throw the term “industry plant” around. Rest easy: There are no puppet strings attached to Sgah’gahsowáh, the indigenous musician behind the one-man atmospheric black metal project. Despite a high-profile slot on the annual Decibel Tour and a New York Times profile, Sgah’gahsowáh still releases his own music without the assistance of a label, a manager, or a publicity team. That makes Blackbraid II the biggest, most ambitious independent self-released metal album of the year. Its hour-plus runtime, crisp production, and grandiose, confident songwriting reminds me of the mid ‘00s extreme metal boom, when bands like Nile and Behemoth pushed for mainstream credibility without compromising their visions. Where Blackbraid I saw Sgah’gahsowáh discovering his sound and his place in the indigenous black metal ecosystem, Blackbraid II comes across fully formed. The traditional Native American flute and acoustic guitar, once elements that dotted the fringes of the music, have been incorporated more satisfyingly into his melodic black metal maelstrom. On a pair of towering mid-album epics, “Moss Covered Bones on the Altar of the Moon” and “A Song of Death on Winds of Dawn,” Sgah’gahsowáh delivers the Blackbraid project to its highest peaks yet. Believe the hype.
Wind, Breeze, or Breath
Compact Disc (CD), Cassette
On the third Starer LP in as many years, the Kentucky musician Josh Hines continues to expand on his vision of atmospheric black metal. Wind, Breeze, or Breath doesn’t abandon the gossamer synth work that led Starer to be characterized as a symphonic black metal project early in its brief history, but it feels much bigger than that. With riffs as vast as the firmament and Hines’ commanding vocals, both harsh and clean, Wind, Breeze, or Breath reaches beyond the walls of its genre’s too-limited box and touches the cosmic.