Heavy metal and hard rock were once only separated by the most tenuous of barriers, the blazing guitar riffs of Iron Maiden and Judas Priest just a hair’s breadth from the costumed theatrics of Kiss or the road-tripping thunder of Deep Purple. As metal continued pushing further into extreme territory—from death metal to brutal death metal to grindcore and so on—the window shifted, and there’s now a more explicit distinction between the two, and with it, plenty of people on the Internet to remind you of that distinction. (Nobody wants to be “False.”) But while it’s easy to overlook metal’s roots now, it’s important to remember where metal came from: Blues-based rock ‘n’ roll.
Mutoid Man—a trio comprising Cave In’s Steve Brodsky, Converge’s Ben Koller and engineer/bassist Nick Cageo—offered a good reminder of how metal went from harder hard rock to a pageant of extreme musicianship on 2015’s Bleeder, which balanced big hooks and bigger guitars. Comprising mostly two- to three-minute tracks that mostly sounded like extremely heavy rock ‘n’ roll songs, Mutoid Man’s debut maintained a safe distance from the much heavier and more progressive sounds of the members’ other bands. Little to no screaming, catchy choruses and melodies you could easily sing along to—it represented a pretty refreshing change, particularly coming from a group of musicians best known for pushing the limits of metal and hardcore.
New album War Moans, the group’s second for Sargent House, continues the path tread on Bleeder, with a batch of songs that do the band’s metal heroes proud. Yet the contemporary production techniques, coupled with Brodsky’s penchant for spacey effects, serves as a reminder that this is a thoroughly modern band, albeit one whose roots run deep. The opening gallop of “Melt Your Mind” has an instant familiarity about it, its blend of rollicking rhythms and fiery riffs a righteous fusion of Maiden and Motörhead. There’s more headbanging beer-can party metal happening on “Bone Chain,” while “Micro Aggression” kicks up the tempo just a little more, as if the band is consistently pushing themselves that much harder with each new track in an ongoing race toward the finish. Yet with “Kiss of Death,” Mutoid Man offer a taste of the progressive, sludgy triumph of Cave In, one of the few moments where Mutoid Man takes a break from hedonistic speed metal in favor of something a bit more psychedelic and weird. And yet, Brodsky still manages to make it sound like a hit as he hams it up in the chorus: “Blow me a kiss…blow me a kiss of dea-ath.”
Much of War Moans goes by in a blur, partially because the songs are mostly really short, and partially because they’re played at maximum speed. Yet there are a handful of moments where the band offers a moment to breathe and build something even more impressive on top of their classic-metal foundation. The title track, for instance, builds from a dramatic intro to a thrashy anthem that recalls old-school Metallica at their most blistering. And closing track “Bandages” is a proper ballad, a rarity in Mutoid Man’s world, but one that still succeeds because it follows the same principles as their other songs: Melody and structure first, instrumental insanity second. There are no songs on War Moans that don’t kick ass, but they do so in an old-school way, cranked up while showing reverence to pop songwriting. That’s not necessarily something that’s disappeared since metal’s pushed the extreme, but it’s still a refreshing sound to hear.
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.