Last month, out of the blue, my brother sent me an email with an interesting proposition. As a casual metal fan—having already been indoctrinated in the ways of Baroness, Mastodon, Deafheaven, Torche, Kylesa, Wolves in the Throne Room and a handful of classics like Black Sabbath and Iron Maiden—he wanted to know where to go next.
Where to go next? Now there’s a loaded question. I’ve been listening to metal for years—not always the metal that anyone would say was “cool” by any means, but my nu-metal period in my teen years was a strong introduction to the journey I’ve since taken. Yet, when you’re asked where to send a fellow traveler along the path toward the way of the riff, it becomes a strangely existential question. Which path is the right path?
Let’s back up a bit here. For starters, this is exactly the kind of question that I live for. As intimidating as it is to be asked what metal to listen to after some of the best contemporary metal bands, it’s also exactly why I got into this line of work. I want to share music with people. I live for the bond that two people can share over something as simple as a song. And given that this was my brother asking, I wanted to do right by him and give him a proper path toward something amazing.
Now, with metal, that’s a tricky thing. It’s an even more complex web of sounds than a lot of other genres (though electronic music is arguably more complicated and confusing, though that’s an argument for another time). The traditionalists will tell you to begin with every Metallica, Iron Maiden, Judas Priest and Black Sabbath record before and up to 1990. And that would be a good start. But that’s also a rigid way to handle discovery and exploration. I know it goes against established teachings, but not everybody likes Metallica. Not everybody has to like Metallica. It’s fine. No need to freak out about that.
So what’s a curious listener to do? In the case of my brother, I paid attention to what he said he liked and spiraled out from there, making a list of 55 records that I thought he would like. Some of them are obscure, some of them aren’t canon per se, but they’re records that I love to death. Because as much as I like playing my part in reshaping the canon, I also think the albums we enjoy aren’t always the albums we’re told to enjoy. My personal philosophy is that music is getting better all the time. So while there were many groundbreaking records made in the ’80s, for instance, there were relatively few of them. In 2017, there are tons of amazing metal records being released all the time, many of them fairly radical in their approach.
I won’t list every record I told him to seek out, though there are a few notable inclusions that I want to share. Louisiana’s Thou is responsible for several really excellent records in the past decade, most recently 2014′s Heathen. Yet my personal favorite is 2010′s Summit, and that has a lot to do with “Voices in the Wilderness.” It’s 10 minutes of stunning, melodic power, a heroic anthem that makes me feel like I could climb Mt. Everest in an afternoon, nbd. It’s that massive, that impeccably written, and that essential of a track. So naturally, I put this song and album on the list.
Another record I suggested was Castevet‘s Mounds of Ash. To date, I haven’t heard another metal record quite like this. Not even the band’s second album, Obsian, sounds like it, and they’ve since broken up. (And Andrew Hock’s new band, Psalm Zero, is good but very different.) Castevet was only around for a few years, but their brief catalog hit an amazing peak early, with a style of black metal that featured a unique take on melody inspired by the likes of ’90s-era post-hardcore. It’s not a total stretch to say that elements of Jawbox and Failure made their way into the work, and that’s a rare breed of metal band indeed (I know, lots of metal bands were inspired by Failure, namely Cave In, but this is different, if only because they’re a black metal band.)
Lastly, I included Yob‘s Clearing the Path to Ascend. This is perhaps a less obscure album, but one that indeed can transcend the barriers of genre. In particular, the final track, the sprawling epic “Marrow,” is just beautiful and devastating.
Those are just three of 55 albums I recommended, and records that I highly recommend everyone listen to. But for those who are still finding their own way in metal, it’s perfectly fine to listen to any record in whatever order you want. Yes, you absolutely should be listening to Mercyful Fate, Celtic Frost and Exodus albums, not just because they’re highly influential, but really fucking good. That being said, the funny thing with metal is that if you don’t quite latch on to something at first, hearing a wider variety of sounds will get you there soon enough. You’ll be thrashing in no time. Follow your own path to find the way of the riff.
The best metal tracks of February 2017
Unearthly Trance – “Scythe”
Unearthly Trance hasn’t been terribly prolific in the past decade or so, having only released one album—2010′s V—since the turn of the decade. Technically they sort of broke up for a brief period. Then they released the Ouroboros compilation in 2014. Then they finally began working on new material in earnest, their latest, Stalking the Ghost, well after it was established that the New York band was a thing of the past. The irony is that V was their most high profile release to date, leaving them to exit as they hit their peak. “Scythe,” a newly released track from their upcoming album, is a testament to their sludgy, crunchy prowess, showcasing the full extent of their burly power. There’s a reason why this band was getting traction shortly before their dissolution: They wield a massive and murky kind of sludge that many bands aspire to but few can pull off so confidently. Add to that the fact that they actually let some hooks shine beneath all that murk, and you’ve got a best-of-genre band whose comeback is most welcome.[from Stalking the Ghost, out Feb. 24; Relapse]
The Great Old Ones – “When the Stars Align”
I’ve written about a lot of black metal tracks over the last couple years, and I will likely write about a lot of black metal tracks in the years to come. What always amazes me, however, is how bands manage to find new ground in a genre that’s already been covered extensively. Seriously, there are literally hundreds, probably thousands of black metal bands out there. I’m not sure how sustainable it is in the long run, but then again Deafheaven proved to much of metaldom’s dismay that there are whole markets out there just waiting to be conquered. The Great Old Ones aren’t quite that marketable, but they do find lots of beauty and elegance in black metal, thanks in large part to some immaculate production and excellent songwriting. “When the Stars Align” is an impressive standout from the French band, offering up a stunning opening riff that’s as much surf-rock as metal before it launches into something more aggressive but by no means chaotic. This is intricately written and performed music, no matter how harsh the vocals. And while I don’t see The Great Old Ones being a crossover hit anytime soon, they more than have the chops to catch the ear of a curious listener. This is top notch black metal that both upholds and transcends the genre.[from EOD: A Tale of Dark Legacy, out now; Season of Mist]
Pallbearer – “Thorns”
Pallbearer songs tend to have a few defining characteristics, namely that they’re often quite long and move at a more measured and gradual pace. Their heaviness tends to come from an unbearable emotional weight more than the riffs themselves, though those are also pretty damn heavy. “Thorns” switches up the approach dramatically for the Little Rock band, its five-and-a-half-minute running time unusually brief and its slight uptick in BPMs making it a regular thrasher in a catalog that has few such moments. Yet just because you’re a doom metal band, that doesn’t mean you have to wallow in the slow-mo misery. “Thorns” is Pallbearer at their most visceral and full-throated, which is to say it still comprises intricate minor key passages and a baroque sensibility. But it also rocks really fucking hard, and it feels like a single. That in itself is a kind of rare thing for the band. Pallbearer certainly didn’t need to change anything they were already doing; Foundations of Burden is a masterpiece as far as I’m concerned. But there’s a lot of crunchy excitement in “Thorns,” which suggests the band’s not done evolving or, for that matter, allowing a few surprises to sneak through.[from Heartless, out March 24; Profound Lore]
Woe – “The Din of the Mourning”
Philadelphia black metal outfit Woe is a known quantity at this point. Their visceral assault is aggressive and powerful, but not against the interests of their melodic sensibility. And that melodic sensibility is perhaps their strongest asset. To hear “The Din of the Mourning” it’s easy to get caught up in just how in-your-face the band’s blasts and bellows are. This is ferocious and fiery stuff, the kind of black metal that dudes in spiked vests go Chthulu-shit over. And yet—and yet—it’s actually halfway to catchy, the band’s hooks driving this thing while everyone focuses on the antics of their evil, grotesque sounds. The big reveal is saved until the end, however, when Woe allow some heroic melodic singing into their explosive assault. It’s not a radical reinvention, but the fact that the band so deftly transitions between the old school Hellraising and something more approachable is a testament to their talents as old pros in the field.[from Hope Attrition, out March 17; Vendetta]
Mastodon – “Sultan’s Curse”
It’s been a little while since I’ve been excited about a new Mastodon song. In fact, it’s been about six years, the last time being 2011′s The Hunter, which was a fun mixture of hard rock can-crushers and lighter-hoisters. Don’t get me wrong, I did enjoy Once More ‘Round the Sun once I finally got around to it, though it felt like the band had long since lost the visceral, direct intensity that made their classic albums from the early and mid ’00s so thrilling. “Sultan’s Curse” doesn’t necessarily represent a completely groundbreaking new approach from the band, but they’re back to concise, riff-driven metal and hard rock that sounds perfectly natural in the context of their greater catalog. It rocks. It’s fun. It’s the kind of Mastodon song I could spin over and over again and be reminded of the band’s simultaneous penchant for melody and intricate fretwork. Perhaps they’re more of a hard rock band than a metal band at this point in the game, but they’re one of the heaviest bands in the mainstream. And for that, I’ll always be ready for them to dazzle me.[from Emperor of Sand, out March 31; Reprise]
Piece by Piece
The best metal albums of the month:
Black Anvil’s As Was: Black Anvil were a very good black metal band when I last had contact with their music. They’ve gone well past that with their new album. This is, after all, a band of hardcore dudes that covered Kiss on their last record, so they’re obviously not a traditionalist sort of group (they also recorded with Jawbox’s J. Robbins, which makes me automatically endeared to them). But As Was, my god. This is how black metal goes above and beyond. This is basically a set of blackened arena rock. That probably sounds stupid. And if you really think that then you’re stupid. This record is amazing. (Relapse)
Trevor de Brauw‘s Uptown: This isn’t a metal album per se. Trevor de Brauw is best known for playing guitar in Pelican, and this album doesn’t bear much of a resemblance to that group’s heroic, instrumental metal symphonies. Rather, it’s an ambient-ish drone-ish kind of record that’s much more abstract than his other work. That being said, it has just as much power and beauty in its less structured compositions and exercises. It’s stunning work if you’re a fan of either ambient or heavy music, perhaps more so if you enjoy both. It’s a new side of an artist whose established canon is already quite strong. (The Flenser)
Emptiness‘ Not for Music: Well, this is kind of a weird one. Emptiness is, on some level, a metal band. They’ve always been avant garde, experimental and willing to take heavy music into weird places. Very little, outside of the harsh vocals, on this record sounds like a metal record. Yet the Belgian group certainly feels more at home in heavy music than elsewhere. With production from Jeordie White (better known as Twiggy Ramirez from Marilyn Manson), Emptiness essentially released a post-punk record with metallic elements. It’s dark, it’s weird, and it’s more streamlined and orderly than metal typically presents itself. But it’s a wild beast in natty clothing. (Season of Mist)
Iron Reagan‘s Crossover Ministry: Crossover thrash is a funny thing. I always like it when I listen to it, but I don’t generally get super excited about it (though my devotion to Power Trip contradicts that in a big way—you’ll see, just you wait). However, Iron Reagan is a fun exception to the rule, their cynically jokey nihilism particularly refreshing when we’ve been thrust into an era where nothing seems to matter anymore in all the worst ways. Iron Reagan are rebellious in a fuck-everything kind of way, more playful than outright hostile, like old punk records rather than black metal’s sometimes annoying need to be more evil than everyone. Iron Reagan isn’t concerned with that. Just making noise and flipping the bird, and for that I salute them. (Relapse)