The band that defined modern grindcore made an album that’s… not grindcore? Only Pig Destroyer have the guts and the skill. Head Cage, their sixth record, is chock full of ignorant Scott Hull riffs, which intersect between groove metal, noise rock, and knuckle-dragging hardcore. He always had a talent for this sort of pummel — see “Sis” from Book Burner, or “Starbelly” from their classic Prowler in the Yard. By basing a whole record around it, you don’t have to choose between swole and smart. (And if you still need speed, “Mt. Skull” and “Trap Door Man” have you covered.) Does it border on nü? That means you think of mid-paced riffs as “nü,” and boy are you throwing some Celtic Frost stuff under the bus with that nonsense. Hull would be disappointed in you.
Do you like Hellhammer and Slayer? Do you live in a dungeon that has a throne made from the skulls of the false? Do you talk shit on posers with real live metal freaks? Congratulations, you are a functioning, well-primed human being, and you also might be New Jersey death-thrash duo Siege Column. When it came to fast, loud and primitive, their debut Inferno Deathpassion was it. Barreling drums and subterranean early death metal riffs collide for a totally necro ride. There’s some Von there too in how the vocals — mostly grunts, because enunciation is posing — trade off in a barbaric hypnosis. They’d be reluctant to admit it, but they’re kinda catchy too. That’s what separates this from a whole lot of other lo-fi ho-hum: They’re not afraid to throw in a riff that would make a young Tom Araya crack a smile, or open a song with a “HEY HEY HEY” bass drum thud. And even the grimmest of the grim know that in the revival game, having a hook is everything.
I’m good with hardcore kids getting into death metal. I’m good with people using Mortician memes to pretend they’re more meatheaded than they actually are. I’m good with OSDM tribute acts — I write about them frequently, because I am a death metal maniac, after all. What I really love in death metal is the bands who don’t see complexity as a crutch or a curse, but a challenge. Horrendous carry on the death metal tradition that I want to see carried on: death metal as progressive metal. In just a few years’ time they’ve really pushed themselves, and their fourth record Idol feels less sweeping than Anareta, yet it’s more focused. It’s Death not just in sound but in spirit, in every melodic charge, in every fretless bass lick, in every growl. These are death metal songs of bloom, not decay. This is most evident in “Soothsayer,” whose keyboard chorus gives way into a bombastic assault, with asymmetrical soloing that is also somehow pleasing. “Devotion (Blood For Ink)” also has a cocky rock swagger to it, moving way more freely than it should. Is Idol the future of death metal? Looking ahead sometimes does wonders.
Australia is pretty much another dimension when it comes to metal: Bands there are just reckless and weird in a way nowhere else inspires. It’s unintentionally avant, full of savants convinced they’re just brute and simple but going to the most extreme of extremes. Brisbane death metal quintet Portal are more aware of their abilities, and they’re deadlier for that reason. Portal’s work before was slathered in bassy murk, yet ION is oppressively bright, with its tone sounding like an even more strung-out black metal buzz. This actually gives you a more informed glimpse into what madmen Portal are — sunlight is far from a disinfectant. Horror Illogium’s guitars are skronky and jagged, like if Florida death metallers discovered no wave; The Curator’s hushed howls feel more upfront because they’re not swimming alongside bass. ION both redefines Portal’s puzzling death metal and stays true to their own madness. (If you’ve never heard of them before now, go ahead and Google Image search them. My editors are surely convinced I’m making them up.)
Sleep’s The Sciences has been getting a lot of year-end love, as well it should. Real Matt Pike heads know that High on Fire is where it’s at though, and leave it to Thee Beer Gut Iommi himself to put out not one but two slammers this year. High on Fire’s Electric Messiah is a High on Fire album — MotörSabbath cranked so hard, it’s destroying the asteroids that would collide into us. They’ve found a comfortably searing niche working with Kurt Ballou for the third time, because he really knows how to maximize the dynamic between Pike’s speed, bassist Jeff Matz’s gnarl, and drummer Des Kensel’s thunder (more crucial than many realize), hairy moles and all. Speaking of moles, the title track is about a dream Pike had where Lemmy was hazing him, and if you’ve had a more metal experience this year, you better have pulled a new Pike from your rib or you’re a liar. Does Pike communicate with Lemmy from the grave? You bet your riffless ass he does. When your “par for the course” rips harder than most, you’re doing pretty well, yet High on Fire also topped themselves with the mid-album monolith “Sanctioned Annihilation.” It’s about half a Sleep song in length, which is really stretching it for High on Fire, yet it takes their stomp into something huger, a meeting between early Sabbath with the bigger vision of Dio-era Sabbath. And true to form for Pike, this album sounds even better without a shirt on.
Here’s an uncomfortable truth about black metal, none of which has to do with sketchy musicians: for it to really impress now, it either has to be totally out-there weird or it has to have some connection to more traditional forms of metal. (There’s an album that’s definitely the latter on here, but we gotta wait a couple spots.) Mysterious tri-country trio 夢遊病者, aka Sleepwalker, is certainly the former, taking black metal through krautrock, late ’80s New York downtown avant-jazz and noise rock. 一期一会 is their second EP, and when it comes to oddball black metal, there isn’t much better. They’re not as frantic as Naked City, but that group’s spirit of mishmash is quite present. Pianos will pop out of nowhere, guitar licks are isolated but sweet, blasts will give way to more jazzy drumming. It’s chaotic, bound by an overhanging mist. How it comes together is the closest thing we have to old black metal mystery today. All that’s known is the members are from Russia, Japan and New York. Maybe we don’t want to know more?
Nü metal has its place in history, which old metal dudes don’t want to admit, but virtually none of it is redeemable, which metal dudes my age don’t want to admit. Massachusetts’ Vein reconstitute nü into a weapon against nostalgia on Errorzone, throwing in the fray of their chaotic hardcore and stretching it far beyond pleasure. Breakbeats in “virus://vibrance” immediately throw everything off balance, and though they’re reminiscent of Slipknot’s “Eyeless,” they’re more jarring in a “what if ‘Come to Daddy’ was actually a metal song?” way. They’re not here trying to flip old Korn shirts for a hundo, or old Static-X shirts for half that. Vein haven’t forgotten their East Coast metalcore roots — the end of “Broken Glass Complexion” is Dillinger Escape Plan skronk fighting against Hatebreed breakdowns, and “Old Data in a Dead Machine” is also rife with beatdowns and chaotic stop-start dynamics that 2002 Relapse would have thrown on Contamination Fest without question. The title track also feels like a “Jane Doe” radio edit, taking Converge’s most emotional high and cramming into an even smaller space. Irreverence for the past and totally addictive breakdowns that make my nerdy ass wanna floorpunch the world make for one hell of a fusion. Errorzone should be an error, but it’s not, which is the most terrifying thing about it.
Getting drunk gets… kinda old in your 30s. That’s not mind-blowing wisdom, but it’s true. Some members of Deafheaven had already hit 30 when making Ordinary Corrupt Human Love, and the band’s core, vocalist George Clarke and guitarist Kerry McCoy, were creeping up on it. Hell, McCoy has his own Instagram dedicated to sparkling water now, that’s how committed they are to this. By sobering up, they made their best record yet. New Bermuda was heading in a darker and more conventionally metal direction, but on Ordinary McCoy lets his Britpop love that’s always been evident really shine. This leads to a lightness that permeates the record — they still bring the black metal-influenced fury they’ve always have (“Glint” especially”), yet here they’re effervescent like they’ve never been before. McCoy and Mehra rocking out don’t deter from Clarke the shrieking poet; the contrast actually makes them whole, recognizing that joy and sorrow are natural partners essential to being a real person. Deafheaven have resisted being boxed in as saviors and heretics (often both, often by people who like them!), they realize life is too complex — and wonderful — for that. (Read my feature on them from when Ordinary came out here.)
One of the best albums of the year has a song called “Drunk on the Wizdom of Unicorn Semen” on it. Is this a case of 2018 being 2018? It’s a case of existence being existence — metal can, and often does, thrive in the ridiculous, and Australian black metal solo entity Rebel Wizard’s second full-length Voluptuous Worship Of Rapture And Response is emblematic of that. Response is a black metal that feels more connected to heavy metal as a whole, using NWOBHM riffs and leads to give his black metal an ecstatic feel. Nekrasov understands their romantic and exhilarating appeal, as he’s a skilled writer (“Unicorn Semen” included, rather, especially) who hasn’t forgotten the unbridled joys of first discovering metal. “The Poor And Ridiculous Alchemy Of Christ And Lucifer And Us All” is pretty much an Iron Maiden song with blackened shrieks and buzzier production, and “High Mastery Of The Woeful Arts” has thrashy gallops galore, basically if Kill ’Em All was conceived in a dank sewer. Could he burn up Liquid Metal if he took those black metal signifiers away? Perhaps, but the wider metal audience needs to get on his level. Nekrasov knows metal is both a communal experience and a solitary pleasure, making songs for the Queen at Live Aid inside your own self. That’s why a even mid-paced, sadder song like “Mother Nature, Oh My Sweet Mistress, Showed Me The Other Worlds And It Was Just Fallacy” still feels like it’s hearing the laments of your enemies defeated. Hail Heavy Negative Wizard Metal. (Rebel Wizard also released the excellent Great Addictions to Blindingly Dark, Worldly Life EP this year.)
I see the world, old. I see the world, dead.
I also want to see the people I care about live for a long time. What a contradiction, huh?
I still wanna live, and maybe that’s foolish. That’s also why Yob’s Our Raw Heart resonated more than any other record this year, metal or not.
Heart was made following Yob frontman Mike Scheidt’s recovery from diverticulitis last year, which could have been fatal if he had not acted in time. As such, this is a record about living as a victory. Yob already made a ’10s metal classic with Atma’s “Prepare the Ground,” an aggressive devotional, and “Beauty in Falling Leaves” is its more introspective, more open equivalent. Scheidt flicked death in the nose like a mischievous little rat and ran off, and his voice in “Leaves” sounds both victorious and weathered. Its psychedelic break nine minutes in is so warm, so enveloping that it will make you learn to love again or, if you never forgot, it will make you feel love deeper. “Original Face” and “The Screen” both reflect Scheidt’s earlier hardcore days as they’re faster tracks, yet they come from a place where working through anger is on the path to finding love, not just anger for anger’s sake. His meditative approach to Yob never fails, even when he’s on the warpath. Yob has always felt deeply spiritual, in touch with something intangible whether you believe in anything higher or not. “Ablaze” lives up to its name, setting itself up as a burning renewal cleanse, finding a touch of lightness in Yob’s mountainous doom. It is leaning into the everlasting arms of metal.
Heart isn’t disconnect. It is the connect, where its overwhelming nature is not to desensitize you, but to make you feel alive, beyond survival. That’s why it’s called Our Raw Heart — it’s experiencing everything while never alone. Heart the electricity in every time Scheidt hammers down a riff, it’s the community that helped him get through his illness, it is saying “Only death is real, maybe. But life is pretty good too.”