Shadow of the Horns: At War with Reality

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Coliseum band metal doing good

About four years ago, I saw Coliseum play a hard-rocking set in San Diego in support of their album Sister Faith. And while it was an excellent show, that’s not why it stands out to me now. I remember it because of something Ryan Patterson said. Between songs, the band’s vocalist gave a soliloquy about pentagrams and Satan and inverted crosses, and how all of it has an aesthetic appeal—one he, himself, subscribes to—but none of it was real.

He could have stopped there and left our heads ringing with a statement about the fallacies of religion, or how aesthetics are not ideology, or something along those lines. And it would have still been memorable. But he kept going, talking about how the things that are real are the hard work, emotion, blood, sweat and tears that go into making something they believe in. It was weirdly earnest for a heavy show, but it left a greater impact. It’s far riskier to bare your soul to an audience than it is to splatter them with pigs’ blood—psychologically anyway. The health department might shut down the venue in the case of the latter.

I’ve been thinking about this show because of some expectedly asinine opinions that have been circulating online regarding Hell’s Headbangers selling National Socialist Black Metal through their distribution arm. This comes up about once every two years with some controversy, whether it’s Inquisition’s hilariously poor interview answer skills or Phil Anselmo’s Dr. Strangelove-like inability to control his inner stormtrooper. And the answer is the same every time: They can’t be censored, because the government can’t stop them from being assholes. But it doesn’t mean they have a legal right to make money from their hate, and we sure as shit shouldn’t be standing idly by while people try to pass off an ideology that endorses racial genocide as just “politics.” That’s lazy, that’s dangerous, and frankly, it’s bullshit. No metalhead should let that garbage slide.

So what does this have to do with Coliseum’s earnest banter? Well, it got me thinking about how metal is highly mythological, but it’s all invented. And it’s invented by people. People play the music. People design the pentagram artwork. People set up the lights and the altars and cake on the corpse paint. The mythology is entertaining, and it’s fun perhaps, but it exists because someone decided to use it. To put it to work. To design it, refine it, experiment with it, freak out some squares and put on a fun, if somewhat more ghoulish rock show. And it’s the same way with fascist ideologies or imagery—someone made the choice to put that in their music or spread the message. And someone made the choice to use the opportunity to make some money off of these dipshits. It is, after all, the American Way.

But we’ve sung this song before. It’s an old standard. And frankly it’s getting a bit played out. The funny thing, though, is that more and more contemporary metal bands are using their platform to do just the opposite of what seems to get much of the attention. Earnestness and humanity has become a recurring trait in most of the bands that are making music worth paying attention to in contemporary metal, and whether or not it’s political in nature, their actions are showing that they do give a shit, and that there’s a lot more to metal than the pentagram.

By and large, the choices I’m being seen made by metal bands and labels in 2017 are admirable ones. As I wrote in January, a long list of metal bands today are not putting up with the racism and retrogressive policies of the Trump administration, and quite a few are calling out hate when they see it. Krallice did just that with “Hate Power” back on their Prelapsarian album. And Glacial Tomb, a Denver band featuring members of Khemmis and Abigali Williams, covered Aus-Rotten’s “Fuck Nazi Sympathy,” and are donating proceeds from its digital sales to Southern Poverty Law Center.

In the spirit of helping out fellow humans, it’s been happening a lot of late, both with bands and labels. Last week, 20 Buck Spin announced it was donating a percentage of all online sales to relief efforts for Hurricane Harvey, and Kowloon Walled City did a similar thing with an auction of some rare vinyl. In January, Baroness’ John Baizley played Nausea covers for a benefit show for Planned Parenthood and the Mazzoni Institute, which provides health services for LGBTQ people. Revolver Magazine, along with a bunch of bands and labels including Relapse, are raising money for mental health and suicide prevention via a big auction of rare records and memorabilia. Last July, Sleep played a benefit show for the victims and families of the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando. And when Bandcamp announced it was donating proceeds from one day’s sales to Transgender Law Center in July, Deathwish Inc. and Ghoul matched donations, while Southern Lord made their 2017 sampler a benefit for the ACLU.

The list goes on, and the point isn’t to highlight every good deed someone in metal has done. It’s to remind everyone, particularly those who seem to think that metal is some abstract concept nobody has any control over, that people make the decisions that lead to what we think about this music, this scene, this world. Metal is a dark form of art, but it’s just that—art. It’s a source of catharsis, a way of turning something ugly into something empowering. Metal has no doubt saved lives, in the abstract sense, but people in the metal community are also doing what they can to help out in a literal sense. We can have faux-intellectual circle jerks about free speech all we want, but it’s an exercise in self-indulgent futility. When I see people in the community showing empathy, compassion, and actually putting effort into helping others instead of selfishly trying to justify hateful attitudes, then I’m heartened. I feel good to be a fan and to be a part of this community. That’s the metal I know, and ultimately, it’s the metal that’s going to get us through the dark times.

The best metal tracks of September 2017

All Pigs Must Die – “A Caustic Vision”

Ben Koller is having a pretty busy year. First he release an album with Mutoid Man, which he toured behind with the band. Then Converge did a summer tour with Neurosis and subsequently announced a new album. And now there’s new All Pigs Must Die material on the way. You’d think this would be super exhausting, but as metal drummers go he seems pretty superhuman. This first track from the band’s first new material in four years is as visceral and immediate as metallic hardcore gets, with a crusty and blistering sound that gets in, makes a fucked-up mess and gets out before anyone’s the wiser. I don’t know how Koller balances all of it, but with the intensity and muscle he puts behind tracks like this, it sure seems like it’s going to be an intense fall.

from Hostage Animal (out Oct. 27 via Southern Lord)


Yellow Eyes – “Velvet on the Horns”

Someone’s going to have to pull off something pretty spectacular to unseat Gilead Media from label-of-the-year honors, at least in terms of the heavy music realm. Every release this year has been an absolute stunner, and the upcoming effort from Yellow Eyes tells us that it’s not even close to being over just yet. “Velvet on the Horns” is exactly the kind of black metal that sounds wonderful this time of year. It’s eerie and unsettling, the aural equivalent to good horror. And yet, there’s a transcendence about it—an epic, melodic sensibility that’s beautiful. It nods to atmospheric black metal legends Weakling, but Yellow Eyes have their own unique approach, neither as slow to calcify as Wolves in the Throne Room nor as shoegaze-indebted as Deafheaven. This is glorious, dark, cathartic black metal. It’ll be essential listening for the next couple months or so.

from Immersion Trench Reverie (out Oct. 20 via Gilead Media)


Lo! – “Glutton”

We recently premiered this track by Australian sludge-metal outfit Lo!, whose aesthetic is a punchy balance of noise-rock abrasion, sludge-metal heaviness and post-rock exploration. In that sense they’re much in the same vein as The Ocean, whose label Pelagic is releasing Lo!’s new record Vestigial. But Lo! handles a lot of complicated ideas in a relatively brief period of time here, cramming several subtle, yet crushing stylistic variances within a sub-five-minute running time. The destruction is entirely up front, with a sludgy explosion that eases into a psychedelic passage and eventually a dark, Godspeed You! Black Emperor-like instrumental interlude. That this track manages to be unsettlingly beautiful without sacrificing its dark menace is part of what makes the band so exciting right now.

from Vestigial (out Oct. 6 via Pelagic)


Celeste – “Cette Chute Brutale”

Celeste was one of the weirdest bands I saw last month at Psycho Las Vegas, primarily because of their visual presence, which consisted of red head lamps in total darkness. That’s about the most anyone could see, and their new video for “Cette Chute Brutale” pretty much captures that presence perfectly. The darkness puts more of an emphasis on the band’s music, however (though I don’t claim to understand their methods at all—it’s “art”). And the French outfit’s latest blackened-sludge single is a searing testament to the kind of emotionally cathartic power they wield. “Cette Chute Brutale” is a visceral experience, all surging tremolo riffs and dynamic, pummeling rhythms that alternate between blast beats and slow-motion brutality. Yet there’s an eerie darkness about it all that offers a potential spiral down an entirely different sort of vortex. Yes, this is heavy and it’s loud and it’s immense, but that’s seemingly just the beginning of what this is.

from Infidele(s) (out Sept. 29 via Denovali)


Converge – “Under Duress”

Did I reserve this spot for Converge last month? Well, guess what: I’m doing it again. The group’s new single “Under Duress” takes another dramatic turn from their previous two tracks, delving into some noisy, sludgy menace that showcases how abrasive and guttural they can be, even though they’re adept at explosive hardcore and atmospheric, nuanced post-metal. This waltzing brute feels almost more in line with the painful drone-doom of Sumac, which is an interesting turn of events, though in the end this is still the song-driven, tautly-constructed hardcore of Converge. They’re an interesting band because no two of their albums really sounds alike, but they always maintain a recognizable element at the heart of it. This isn’t their most streamlined or accessible track, but it’s a thing of brutal beauty. Goddamn it feels good to have Converge back.

from The Dusk in Us (out Nov. 3 via Epitaph)

Piece by piece

I’m taking a brief break from the best metal albums of the month because we’re currently working on something really cool that fans of this column are going to be interested in. However, there are two things I’d like to share:

– I recently interviewed Cloakroom about their amazing new album Time Well. It’s not always strictly a metal album, touching upon shoegaze and slowcore and emo, but they’re heavy as fuck, and had a lot to say about wizard closets and getting stuck in a time hole.

– I also recently interviewed Less Art, featuring members of Kowloon Walled City and Thrice, about finding optimism when it’s in short supply and playing heavy music as a means of therapy.

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