Deaf Forever is our monthly metal column that considers the best releases in black, death, power, Swedish black, speed, and every other metal genre you can name.
If you’ve seen Dallas’ Power Trip, you know it’s impossible to be neutral about them. A mild-mannered hardcore kid with his shirt tucked in mutates into an Olympic stagediver once they hit the stage, and he isn’t the only kid to be infected. Power Trip pits make you appreciate the clash of human motion, a guerrilla ballet where nothing is coordinated but nothing is out of place. If a riff gets mangled because a kid rams into Blake Ibanez or Nick Stewart, it’s more correct than if the notes were played as intended. Manifest Decimation was their Kill ‘Em All, a warning strike that proved they were well ahead of their peers; Nightmare Logic shows that lead is insurmountable.
It has all of what made Decimation a force: only the most moshable riffs made the cut, Riley Gale’s brings an existential edge to his screams, and there’s the presence of drummer Chris Ulsh, Austin’s great uniter of metal headiness and hardcore immediacy. Logic feels more sure of itself, and yet it’s delivered like it’s losing it mind convincing how you fucked we are. Gale comes crashing into “Firing Squad” and matches the speed with little time to make sense of the carnage. Ibanez’s dive bombs are mirrors of Gale’s howls, informed equally by King and Hanneman’s ramshackle soloing and Dimebag Darrell’s frenzied Van Halen worship. You feel another kid diving towards you with every prolonged squeal; Logic brings the physicality of their live shows to their music better than before. “Waiting Around To Die” — yeah, Power Trip are some good ol’ Texas moshers, but this isn’t a Townes Van Zandt cover — is thrash gone fatalistic, Riley and the rest of the band marching toward an end none of them are sure is really an end.
Like some of the year’s most notable releases — Uniform’s Wake in Fright is its industrial metal counterpart in particular — it wasn’t recorded with these times in mind, but is still wholly appropriate for when today’s nonsense becomes yesterday’s footnotes of footnotes. Competent genre exercises just won’t do anymore, you gotta have something to say. Like their former tourmates Negative Approach, Power Trip declare with Logic, “We won’t take any shit, and we’re not about to leave.”
With a few exceptions — Danzig and Crowbar basing a lot of their sound on the blues, and Infectious Grooves’ funk-metal experiments — metal is far removed from black music. I firmly believe that metal is still some of the most exciting contemporary music, and it’s still my favorite music above all, but as a kid who also grew up during the Houston rap renaissance, the disconnect is still troubling, to say the least. Zeal and Ardor, led by Manuel Gagneux, is helping to close that gap, as Devil Is Fine mixes black metal with blues and slave spirituals. In the title track, it’s his voice and chains that carry the song; the black metal acts more as a background accent. “Blood In The River” sees these two elements as equals, and the results are harrowing. Black metal can be a form of devotion for those who’ve abandoned religion and who cringe at “I’m spiritual, not religious,” as it inspires an all-consuming passion, for better or for worse. That’s true of Devil, as it uses all the elements of black metal — repetition is key, though it’s more through voice than guitar, and the anti-Christian feelings looms large — and both honor them and turn them on their head. Devil as raw as Deathcrush or Transilvanian Hunger, and though it’s coming from a radically different place, it’s not alien for its lack of polish. That’s the appeal: we’ve heard so many variations on shrieks and growls that Gagneux’s exuberant voice is a fresh look, as traditional as it is in other contexts. Admittedly, Devil is a bit all over the place — “What Is A Killer Like You Gonna Do Here” is straight blues, though in a darker vein, and the interludes don’t add much — it’s a compelling document still, and it’ll be interesting to see where Gagneaux reconciles two worlds that are complementary, yet quite estranged from each other.
Pity any band who has to follow Immolation. Ages ago, I saw the New York death metal legends embarrass a tepid Rotting Christ; just a couple weeks ago, they were considerably more energetic and agile than Igor and Max Cavalera’s nüstalgic Return to Roots. Blame it on Ross Dolan’s flowing hair, blame it on Rob Vigna’s hypnotic guitar moves (seriously, he does the Salt Bae flick when playing), they’re on a level most death metal bands can’t even begin to fathom. Since 2010’s Majesty and Decay, they’ve again embraced the complexity that defined their classic ‘90s albums, and their latest, Atonement, even recalls their debut Dawn of Possession with its apocalyptic cover art. They’re not interested in throwbacks; as Kreator did with Gods of Violence last month; Immolation have mined new paths in their style here. Vigna is the sole guitarist on the album following the departure of Bill Taylor, and there’s no better partner for him than himself. His soloing is even skronky at times, often sounding “wrong” while still flowing effortlessly, as his squalls on “Rise The Heretics” and the end of “When The Jackals Come” prove well enough. The solos follow a cohesive pattern, just in non-linear fashion compared to most metal soloing. He’s one of those players where the best rule for him is to “trust the process” — it may not make much sense being built, but the finished product is like nothing else. In the case of “Destructive Currents,” Vigna’s skews become the driving rhythm, a more flowing version of Gorguts’ Obscura. Even when he approaches with a more melodic sensibility, as he does in “Epiphany,” that broken cohesion remains, like reassembling a Death piece from shredded tabs. With all the focus on Vigna, it’s easy to forget that Dolan has taken care of his voice, and Steve Shalaty is one of those rare death metal drummers who has a relationship with his bandmate beyond just laying down his tracks. Atonement glides as it goes through several different paths, in no small part due to this feeling like a group effort in a genre where members are often interchangeable parts. When it comes to veterans topping themselves, no one comes close to Immolation.
Xibalba began as a hardcore band from Southern California that occasionally got confused with the Mexican black metal band of the same name. Along the way, they must have gotten caught in an intense hotbox situation with Obituary, Hatebreed, and Crowbar, as Hasta La Muerte was sludge delivered like an anvil. The smoke cleared and they started lifting weights with Bolt Thrower, or that’s at least what Tierra Y Libertad sounded like. Their new EP, Diablo, Con Amor…Adios splits the difference between the two: it’s not as murky as Muerte, but breathes more than the often charging Libertad. It’s almost like the transition EP between the two that got lost in the shuffle. Nonetheless, Diablo shows how Obituary’s groove works in a hardcore context. Unencumbered by technical demands and with a cleaner shine, the three songs here are elastic and bouncy, especially when Xibalba slam on the breakdowns. As before, they have a way of extending time; you can feel a freeze in even the brief silence between riffs at the end of “Diablo.” There’s less emphasis on speed, though “Con Amor” moves briskly, allowing for their tough-guy tendencies to get elevated. “Adios” is the longest song on here and still makes it feel like the EP is too short. It moves between both of their modes with ease, and even when it ends, it feels like a meteor of a breakdown is just around the corner. Alas, it never comes. We need just one more beatdown, just one more.
Andy O’Connor heads SPIN’s monthly metal column, Blast Rites, and also has bylines in Pitchfork, Vice, Decibel, Texas Monthly and Bandcamp Daily, among others. He lives in Austin, Texas.