It feels like it shouldn’t need to be said, but sadly, it does: there is no place in metal for racism. An all-star cast of metal musicians have been saying it loudly and unequivocally these past few weeks on a new web series called Metal vs. Racism. You can watch the episodes that have aired to date on Bay Area death metal crew Necrot’s Instagram page. If you’re a cruel, small-minded, and ignorant person, and watching those videos makes you want to smash your High on Fire and Testament records, I’ll gladly lend you the hammer.
Check out this month’s best metal picks below.
Angel & Abyss Redux
This Juneteenth, when Bandcamp donated their cut of all sales to the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, dozens of bands and labels stepped up to make their own donations to racial justice initiatives. One of the many bands to step up with donations that day was Spirit Adrift, a longtime favorite of this column and perhaps the committee (of one)’s pick for the best metal band in the world right now. They released Angel & Abyss Redux, an EP featuring an acoustic reworking of the Divided by Darkness highlight, plus brilliant covers of Roky Erickson’s “I Think of Demons” and Jimi Hendrix’s “The Wind Cries Mary.” The band is donating 100% of every sale of this record to the NAACP Legal Defense Fund in perpetuity, so if you didn’t have a chance to grab it on Juneteenth, it is well worth picking up now.
Vinyl LP, Compact Disc (CD)
Now three full-lengths and a smattering of demos and EPs into their career, the Finnish duo Lantern have moved far beyond merely worshiping the Nordic death/doom scene that first inspired them to pick up guitars. Dimensions is a legacy-making album, the kind of record that should ensure their place in death metal history. It’s bookended by the seven-minute “Strange Nebula” and the 14-minute “Monolithic Abyssal Dimensions,” which highlight the band at their labyrinthine best, each song rife with twisting riffs, decaying atmospherics and stretched to epic lengths. Just as impressive are moments like the two-minute “Portraits,” almost an interlude track, but far too interesting to be cast off as such. It’s an effectively eerie vocal showcase for frontman Necrophilos in a genre that rarely provides vocal showcases. “Cauldron of Souls” is another high point, a black metal-tinged banger with an infectious stab of lead guitar serving as its primary hook. For the past several years, it’s felt like Lantern were quietly climbing their way to making a true masterpiece. With Dimensions, they’ve reached the mountaintop.
Protest the Hero
For a brief, shining moment in the mid-‘00s, post-hardcore, Hot Topic screamo, metalcore, and prog rock all got along. Bands like Coheed and Cambria, Between the Buried and Me, and Canadian stalwarts Protest the Hero were consistently releasing ambitious, strange music that defied categorization but seemed to bring all kinds of misfit kids to the table. If you weren’t down then, you probably won’t be down now, but if you were down then, the new Protest the Hero album is like a cold blast of shopping mall air conditioning to the face. Now 15 years older than they were when they released their debut LP Kezia, the band offer a more controlled fury on Palimpsest. Vocalist Rody Walker still climbs seemingly impossible scales, but after recovery and retraining following a vocal cord injury, it’s not with quite the same level of abandon. That allows him to force us to focus even more on his lyrics, which here dissect American history through the dual lenses of its Trumpian so-called “greatness” and the more complicated truth. A Canadian singing about the flaws of America might seem presumptuous, but his relative distance grants him a clarity that’s genuinely refreshing. Behind Walker, guitarists Luke Hoskin and Tim MacMillar oscillate between a jerky start-stop dynamic and seemingly self-aware moments of faux-epic bluster, underpinned with the most bombastic orchestral parts the band has ever used. Most impressively, Protest the Hero took a sound that, to many people, feels tethered to a semi-embarrassing moment in time, and brought it thrillingly into the present.
Live in Seattle 05.28.2018
Live albums feel particularly attuned to this moment. There are those among us who have historically derided them as a pale facsimile of the real thing. Now, we live in a world where there is no real thing, and no one has been to the real thing in almost four months. It’s in that context that we must examine Power Trip’s new album, Live in Seattle. I saw Power Trip on that tour, in Brooklyn. They were incredible that night, well-deserving of the 675-capacity venue that they’d sold out after years of playing their furious brand of thrash-infused hardcore in smaller bars. Does Live in Seattle capture the feeling I had that night? Not quite, but a crowd surfer didn’t break my glasses while I listened to it, either, so I guess it’s a wash. The band rips through all the essential cuts from Manifest Decimation and Nightmare Logic, plus some key non-album singles, closing with the crowd-pleasing anthem “Crossbreaker.” There’s a real sense of movement and propulsion to the album, with only the briefest breaks for stage banter as the band barrel through their set. As non-live live experiences go, it’s one of the better ones available for headbangers to experience right now. Here’s hoping we can all get back together and mosh to Power Trip again soon. Hell, by then I’ll probably let you break my glasses.
Cassette, Compact Disc (CD), Vinyl LP
The self-titled Satan’s Hallow album that came out back in 2017 was a hell of an introduction to the Chicago newcomers, and it carried the promise of an exciting new band for lovers of traditional heavy metal to follow for years to come. They split up shortly after it was released. Midnight Dice rose from Satan’s Hallow’s ashes, with four of the five members of that band reprising their roles here, crucially with Mandy Martillo still on the microphone. Hypnotized is their first proper EP after a demo, a live tape, and a split 7″ with fellow Chicagoans, Hitter. It’s only 21 minutes long, but damn it if they aren’t 21 of the finest minutes of true metal to come out this year. Martillo’s pipes are laser-precise as she belts over Steve Beaudette’s souped-up NWOBHM riffs, and songs like “Starblind” and “Speed City” feel tailor-made to be played onstage someday, when that’s possible again. (“Someday you’re gonna wish/ You were still half as good as this/ So make tonight your bitch in Speed City” reads downright Proustian in these times.) Satan’s Hallow left us too soon, but with a lucky roll, Midnight Dice should stick around a lot longer.
Vinyl LP, Compact Disc (CD), Cassette
The fretless bass has a long and contentious history in death metal. Most famously utilized in the early ’90s scene by Sean Malone of Cynic, it’s since taken on a life as a kind of shorthand for exploratory, progressive death metal. If you hear a fretless bass line meandering around the edges of a death metal riff, the band is trying to tell you that they’re doing something outside of the box. On VoidCeremony’s bonkers debut album, Entropic Reflections Continuum: Dimensional Unravel, the fretless bass is doing something more interesting. Damon Good (also of Mournful Congregation) has certainly heard a Cynic record or two, but his bass lines help anchor these songs rather than making them spin off into space. His bass represents a human, flesh-and-blood presence on an album that’s often given to glorious, maddening abstraction. If this is technical death metal, it’s only in the sense that everyone performing on it has no shortage of technique. Yet their interests lie not in the proving of chops but in the exploration of what’s possible within the death metal framework. Exhilarating as Entropic Reflections Continuum is, it seems they’ve only scratched the surface.
Glory! Glory! Apathy Took Helm!
Vinyl LP, Compact Disc (CD)
Though they’ve been well-known in leftist metal circles online since their founding in 2014, the queer, antifascist sludge duo Vile Creature haven’t yet crossed over to mainstream success. Glory! Glory! Apathy Took Helm!, their third full-length, should change that. For one, they’ve signed to Prosthetic Records, who reissued their early work on a comp last year and have put significant promotional muscle behind them. More crucially, Glory! feels like an arrival, a record where everything Vile Creature is all about has coalesced. Throughout the album, moments of transcendental beauty are met with the counterweight of ugliness. When “Glory! Glory!” transitions into “Apathy Took Helm!,” the former song’s ghostly choral parts dissolve into the latter’s punishing dirge. Before long, the choral vocals return amid the din of the sludge riffs, suggesting the necessary coexistence in troubled times of joy and agony, love and hate, reflection and action. I’ve only spent a week or so with this record; I expect it to reveal so much more in the coming months.
Cassette, Compact Disc (CD)
Colin Marston is a lot of things—virtuosic musician, champion of the avant-garde in metal, mastering engineer extraordinaire. As a principal member of Behold…the Arctopus, Krallice, Gorguts, Dysrythmia, and more, he has pushed metal into some of the stranger places it’s been over the past two decades. Unsympathetic Empyrean, the debut album by his new solo project Xazraug, feels like something entirely new for him, an avant-black metal album roughly in the I, Voidhanger house style, but transgressive in its own peculiar way. It’s undeniably an assault on the senses. Its five tracks span from nearly 10 minutes to over 14, and none of them leave a lot of space for contemplative atmospherics. Whether he’s playing a mind-bending riff, laying into an Emperor-style synth part, or layering hellish chanting, Marston consistently fills the sonic space with something you can’t easily tune out. That makes Unsympathetic Empyrean a demanding listen, but that shouldn’t turn off any fans of Marston’s work. The challenge is the point.