March’s best metal on Bandcamp includes majestic melodeath, arrogant black metal, gut-wrenching noise-rock, and more.
Vast Reaches Unclaimed
Vinyl LP, Compact Disc (CD), Cassette
At the Gates’s Slaughter of the Soul ended the first epoch of melodic death metal and started a new one. The post-Slaughter sound tended to emphasize aggression and simplicity, and it influenced a generation of artists who would bring Gothenburg-style melody to American metalcore—bands like Darkest Hour, Shadows Fall, and Unearth. Majesties, a new melodeath project from Minnesota, boast a decidedly pre-Slaughter sensibility. Their debut album, Vast Reaches Unclaimed, sounds like a dispatch from a world where Slaughter of the Soul never happened, and Gothenburg’s melodic death metal scene continued down the track laid by Dark Tranquillity’s Skydancer and Eucharist’s A Velvet Creation. Melodeath in those early days was a lot more ethereal, atmospheric, and yes, majestic, and Vast Reaches Unclaimed taps into the same well of magic that those bands first uncovered. (The members of Majesties also play in Obsequiae and Inexorum, a pair of black metal acts who know a thing or two about atmosphere.)
Vast Reaches Unclaimed isn’t a mere replica of an existing album, either. It pushes that 1993 sound to new heights, refining it with sharp songwriting and a craftsman’s attention to detail. Guitarists Tanner Anderson and Carl Skildum pack a seemingly endless cache of crystalline leads and nimble riffs into jeweled boxes of songs, most of which, remarkably, land in the sub-four-minute range. That brevity ensures that Vast Reaches Unclaimed is always moving, even when it steps down a side path to showcase a forlorn acoustic guitar or a haunted synthesizer. Strange, fantastical lyrics and Anderson’s throaty vocals cast enigmatic shadows on songs like “Across the Neverwhen” and “City of Nine Gates,” but everything Majesties does is with an ear toward memorability and replay value. Vast Reaches Unclaimed keeps a few of its mysteries obscured, but it rewards obsessively reaching for them. I don’t think I’ve listened to any album more in 2023. It feels revelatory every time.
Lamp of Murmuur
It’s daring to make a sharp left turn after an album as wildly acclaimed as Lamp of Murmuur’s Submission and Slavery, but he who dares wins. M., the project’s pseudonymous mastermind, brought grim black metal and Sisters of Mercy-style goth into stunning equilibrium on that record, but Saturnian Bloodstorm is something else entirely. Gone are the goth and post-punk trappings of Submission and Slavery and its predecessor, Heir of Ecliptical Romanticism. On Saturnian Bloodstorm, they’ve been replaced by heavy metal splendor, arrogance, and strength. M. has talked about using Lamp of Murmuur as a tool to help him process difficult medical diagnoses, letting the vulnerability of the music reflect the fragility of his own body. On Saturnian Bloodstorm he’s dealing with the same issues, but instead of exploring frailty, he’s become the living embodiment of might, mocking the weakness of the flesh and transcending it entirely. That means swaggering, stomping riffs; guitar-hero soloing; gritty, full-bodied production; and the most powerful vocals that have ever appeared on a Lamp of Murmuur release. The closest point of comparison is Immortal, to whom M. explicitly nods on “In Communion with the Wintermoon.” On albums like At the Heart of Winter and Damned in Black, the Norwegian legends tapped into the mystique of black metal while striving for something much more universal. With Saturnian Bloodstorm, M. has done the same, and in the process, he’s set a new high water mark for the Lamp of Murmuur project.
Vinyl LP, Compact Disc (CD), Cassette, Vinyl Box Set, Book/Magazine
While she was working on the music that would become Djunah’s Femina Furens, vocalist and multi-instrumentalist Donna Diane was diagnosed with complex post-traumatic stress disorder. The diagnosis didn’t rattle her; instead, it gave her the vocabulary to articulate something she’d been living with for years. Femina Furens (Latin for “furious woman”) burns with the fire of that empowerment. Diane and drummer Jared Karns whip up a thick cloud of catharsis as they freely straddle Made Out of Babies-style noise rock, sludge metal, and post-hardcore. Righteous anger shakes the walls of “Seven Winds of Sekhmet” and “Phaethon,” but even the more contemplative numbers, like “Suicidal on Christmas” and “Reining,” smolder with focused intensity. Diane wrote the lyrics for Femina Furens as poems, setting them to music later, and flipping the typical process on its head like that means the songs have thrillingly unpredictable structures and cadences. Femina Furens doesn’t want you to get comfortable. It shakes you by the shoulders with every note.
The Propaganda Machine
Compact Disc (CD), Vinyl LP, T-Shirt/Shirt
You can’t write the history of heavy metal in India without giving at least a couple of chapters to Sahil Makhija. The Mumbai native has been performing with his band Demonic Resurrection and his solo project Demonstealer for more than two decades now, standing at the center of an Indian metal scene that tends to be overlooked by international fans. His latest album as Demonstealer, the fiery The Propaganda Machine, is the most ambitious swing he’s taken yet, both musically and conceptually. The Demonstealer sound has been getting denser and more complex for several years now, and The Propaganda Machine is the project’s most richly layered album to date. Makhija delivers the most confident vocal performance of his career, and a crack team of collaborators help him bring his symphonic death/thrash vision to life. Lyrically, Makhija burns through a shit list of propagandists, disinformation artists, right-wing nationalists, and out-and-out fascists, drawing on his experience living in the Modi era in India and making connections to the rest of the world that ring terribly true. The Propaganda Machine is a courageous statement by a perennially underrated artist who deserves his due.
Of the Sign…
Compact Disc (CD), Cassette
Steve Peacock makes some of the strangest, most terrifying extreme metal in the world. Spirit Possession sounds like pop music next to the microtonal freakouts of Mastery, the improvised chaos of Pandiscordian Necrogenesis, or the labyrinthine prog-death of Ulthar. That’s just relatively speaking, of course; Spirit Possession’s sophomore album Of the Sign… still bears the unmistakable mark of Peacock’s insanity. Alongside ace drummer and synth player Ashley Spungin (ex-Insect Ark), Peacock shapes his eccentricity into twisted metalpunk anthems like “Second Possession” and oddball epics like “Enter the Golden Sign.” By keeping one foot in punk and the other in the avant-garde, Of the Sign… splits the difference between Devil Master and Negative Plane. It’s a slightly gentler entry point into Peacock’s work than his other bands, and for those already initiated into his cult, it’s a rewarding new volume.
From Western Shores
Compact Disc (CD), Vinyl LP, T-Shirt/Shirt, Button/Pin/Patch
Canada’s Gatekeeper have been flying the flag of true metal for over a decade now, though From Western Shores is only their second full-length. The band founded by guitarist Jeff Black trades in grandiose, sculpted songcraft, with an approach based more on finesse than raw power. There’s a microscopic sub-subgenre called “epic heavy metal” that tends to fall somewhere between power metal and doom, both in tempo and disposition. Gatekeeper are a major reason that sound has a name, and From Western Shores is a fine example of its ability to stir the soul. Listening to songs like “Death on Black Wings” and “Keepers of the Gate” makes me want to charge into a castle keep on horseback.
Maze of Sothoth
T-Shirt/Shirt, Cassette, Compact Disc (CD)
I’m pretty confident that Maze of Sothoth’s favorite Morbid Angel album is either Formulas Fatal to the Flesh or Heretic. The songs on Extirpated Light bear a similar mix of brutality, technicality, and evil atmosphere. It’s one of the tougher death metal styles to nail, and the natives of Bergamo, Italy mostly pull it off. They sound great when all the elements are whizzing around at warp speed, but they might sound even better when things drop down to a menacing crawl. They don’t get there often, but the back half of “Blood Tribute” and the bulk of “Sanctae Inqvisitionis” are strong enough to make me want to hear Maze of Sothoth’s doom record.