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The Bay Area's black metal scene in the late '90s and early 2000s is still heralded for not just its quality, but how much of an impact it would make on American metal as a whole. Weakling's Dead as Dreams remains highly regarded amongst black metal aficionados, who were not just inspired by the Wagnerian black metal of Emperor, but saw it as a challenge, something to best. The scene also produced a few auteurs who worked as solo acts, including Crebain, Draugar, and most notably, Leviathan. It also crossbred with the punk and hardcore scene, and the most prodigious offspring was Ludicra, the beloved quintet who eschewed traditional themes and found inspiration in vermin and homelessness. All of these, Weakling especially, were influential on (and eventually became eclipsed by) Deafheaven. The Bay is not the center of action (or the closest thing to one) it once was, especially as most of the aforementioned bands have broken up, or in Leviathan's case, relocated. Palace of Worms is one of the most exciting new bands to come out of the Bay in some time, and The Ladder is already one of the best black metal records this year. The province of one only known as Balan, he's one of the few artists who could hold his own on a split with Mastery, the absolutely demented free-black-metal warrior who made Valis, one of my favorite records from last year. Ladder deceivingly starts with a jangle-rock passage, and immediately shifts into a blasting black metal séance before you get too comfortable thinking this'll be some Austin Powers-goes-grim exercise. The record has all sorts of gothy touches throughout, resembling Katatonia had they gone deeper into darkness instead of syrup. “Wreathe” is a total blackened pop gem, as if Balan had written it for Peter Steele before he passed. He also knows how to serve up a mindfuck too in “Strange Constellations,” filled with complex, often clashing streams of disjointed unconscious. There's too much going on here to fully detail, and it does resemble Valis in that regard, but Ladder has more nods to accessibility while maintaining a singular vision.
German duo Mantar's latest, Ode to the Flame, bears a lot of similarities to their debut Death by Burning, and they've no need to change so drastically when they've got such a good thing going. They still have their “dark Melvins” sounds, applying black metal mystique to doom via Hanno's AmRep via Obituary (yeah, it's a tangled digestive system) riffs. Erinc is still a economical but hard-hitting drummer, providing Mantar with a lot of mobility. A key difference is that Mantar have more experience under their belt, and Flame is Burning comes with a Nuclear Blast budget. “Carnal Rising”'s opening salvo sounds just thunderous and a million times bigger than they actually are. Rock and roll's always been about that puff-up bravado, hasn't it? There's more of that black metal darkness here, especially when the organ pops up in “I Omen.” It helps in their quest to distill the humor and wackiness of the Melvins into primal metal fury. Burning was a ritual; Flame is going to church. (This is also the only band I've reviewed this time that isn't from California!)
Confession: I've never been terribly fond of Saviours. They felt like the Sword pretending to be bikers instead of nerds, too perfect and too opportunistic for the mid-00s metal revival. Guitarist Sonny Reinhardt's new band, Oakland death metal trio Necrot, on the other hand, are very much my thing. What else could they be but primitive, yet wholly satisfying death metal, with a name like that? Bassist Luca Indrio also plays in the Bataille-obsessed Acephalix and morbid sex spelunkers Vastum, and while Necrot is more straightforward than either of those bands, their full-length debut The Labyrinth isn't exactly a bloodshed-by-numbers affair either. The most obvious influence is the muddy, perverse Autopsy, and Reinhardt is faithful to their sludgy grind, but his guitar tone is hard to place. It's obviously death metal, bent ever so slightly to give the music an alien feel. Necrot are almost like a more trained Grave Upheaval, where the savagery is deliberate but still resembles over-juiced men just banging and banging until they've found something among the chaos. It's alternate world death metal that still feels down to Earth.
Discharge, the originators of d-beat, a hybrid of metal and punk built around a distinctive kick-snare pattern, put out a new record this month, but one of their disciples have rivaled them in the game they created. If they grew up in Los Angeles instead of Stoke-on-Trent, they'd look and sound a lot like Nomads. Their latest, Love it or Leave It, is defined by a blown-out guitar wash, much like the nosier end of d-beat bands like Disclose and Pig DNA, mixed with an N.W.A. attitude. Nails' Taylor Young's production work maximizes their hellish attack – the drums in particular are so nasty, that d-beat comfort soon turns into a unbearable battle march. Many crust punks scream “ACAB” at lily-white punk squats; Nomads wish they had the luxury of not living in the shadow of the LAPD. (Not surprisingly, they've opened for Body Count.) There's a cover of G.G. Allin's “Commit Suicide,” which seems obvious, and the record ends with a cover of Sisters of Mercy's “L (My Reflection),” which comes off as odd if you didn't know plenty of L.A. Latinos are quite fond of goth-rock. (Seriously, they keep Morrissey alive.) That bassline sounds even more killer when it's ran through apocalyptic distortion. Punks like to dance too, even after (or especially after) a night of throwing bottles at whoever yells “blue lives matter.”