This month is an important anniversary in the world of heavy metal—Iron Maiden’s The Number of the Beast, which we celebrated earlier this month in a retrospective. To reiterate a few points from Wil Lewellyn’s article, the album represents so much of what makes metal great, from Bruce Dickinson’s operatic vocal range to the heroic narratives he spins with those pipes to the progressive song structures and soaring riffs. In a word: Epic.
That’s also how I’d describe many of the best metal albums being released right now, as strains of classic doom, progressive metal and vintage ’80s speed metal are seeping into much of the best metal albums right now. Or, perhaps more accurately, those sounds never really went anywhere, but a lot of contemporary bands are making the most of those influences and elements, building something new and thrilling out of longstanding traditions within heavy music.
This month, it’s been hard to avoid those epic sounds and tendencies within much of the best new metal releases. Maybe it’s just because I have Maiden on the brain, or perhaps there’s something happening organically that’s driving all of these bands toward such grandiose quests. Ask me next month when I’m discussing the new Devil Master album and I’ll probably change my tune, but for the time being, these six new epic metal albums are your best bets for March.
Dark Meditation – Polluted Temples
Seattle’s Dark Meditation seem to balance two contrasting ideas on their debut album Polluted Temples: Vintage heavy metal with a penchant for stadium-filling anthems and burly, Mastodon-like sludge circa Leviathan. At least a little bit of the credit for the second half of that equation can be attributed to Matt Bayles, producer of both this record and that 2004 sludge classic. Within those burly layers of crunchy power chords is a reverence for heavy metal of generations past, updating Priest and Venom-inspired graveyard sprints with a more hardened exterior and more than a little punk attitude—not unlike their neighbors to the south in Red Fang. Dark Meditation have done their homework, however, and listening to rippers like “Haunt of Fear” and “Strange Caress (of the Night)”, it’s easy to imagine the group pre-gaming their gigs with cassette copies of Defenders of the Faith and Melissa. What you won’t hear on this album is operatic King Diamond-style vocals, which to some readers will come as welcome news and to others a deep disappointment. Personal takes on showboating pipes aside, there’s no question about how much Polluted Temples rips. (Satanik Royalty)
Mamorlis – Sturdy As An Oak
Another band from the Pacific Northwest with an ear for epic heavy metal from the days of denim vests and B-movies on VHS (admittedly, we’re still there in many ways), Mamorlis (who share a member with one of our 2021 favorites, AEnigmatum) take their admiration of soaring ’80s metal to grandiose heights, in large part thanks to drummer/vocalist Alex Noce, who doesn’t scream, growl, shriek or grunt. He sings his ass off—he’s studied Dickinson, Halford and Messiah Marcolin, and though the group has a lo-fi, raw sound, that doesn’t get in the way of the sheer ambition behind their trad-doom epics. A track like “Salamandastron” is just stunning upon first listen, its gothic tendrils of spooky organ cascading over its stately and elegant riffs—all before it transitions into some air-guitar-worthy riffing and broadsword-wielding gallop. In stark contrast to the Dark Meditation album, Noce’s vocals are a pretty big focal point, and if you’re not on board with the unapologetic heroism of the whole thing, I get that, but you’re also missing out on a highly theatrical metal record that’s a hell of a lot of fun. (Self-released/Cursed Ritual)
Midnight – Let There Be Witchery
Cleveland speed-metal misanthrope Midnight has an approach that just works. Breakneck thrash and old-school heavy metal that celebrates all things evil and debaucherous—in contrast to most of the other albums and artists here, Midnight embraces the accessible and the straightforward, packing each hell-bent-for-leather ride into the abyss with big hooks and little in the way of fluff, filler, throat-clearing or breath-catching. This is heavy metal that goes—it goes fast, it goes without hesitation, and it goes whether you’re ready to keep up with it or not. And yet—and yet!—there’s still something massive and mighty about it, Midnight’s embrace of an almost punk-like power chord punch by no means standing in the way of their ability to create music that sounds like it belongs in a coliseum or a video game where you fight centaurs with an axe. Whether you need to fight your way through a labyrinth or just need to reup your stash, Let There Be Witchery is the perfect album to accompany your quest. (Metal Blade)
Messa – Close
Italy’s Messa plays more or less what you’d call “doom metal,” but from the opening chords of “Suspended,” it feels a lot more like doomjazz, the haunted glow of the keys evoking groups like Bohren and Der Club of Gore in their Badalamentian noir. The key difference is that Messa also rocks, delivering a powerful, riff-driven approach that’s as much influenced by classic heavy metal as it is a spiritual kin to contemporaries like doomy desert-psych favorites Blackwater Holylight. The group’s third album Close is equal parts atmosphere and guitar-laden attack, intertwining a chilling, nocturnal vibe with something more immediate and tense, though it’s often the atmosphere that puts this over the top—the addition of saxophone (always a good thing in my book), oud, mandolin and other less traditional metal instruments gives this album the feel of descending into a smoke-filled opium den populated by strange and dangerous characters. Beautiful, masterful doom psych that’s always wandering, finding something new to explore in realms far from the safety of an Orange stack. (Svart)
Falls of Rauros – Key to a Vanishing Future
If there’s a “most epic” award to be handed out this month, it pretty easily goes to Falls of Rauros, the Maine black metal band whose 2019 album Patterns of Mythology practically defined the word. Their take on black metal is at once melodic and soaring, not the blissful blackgaze of Deafheaven nor the dreamy fantasy of Alcest, but rather a more progressive approach that emphasizes beauty as much or even arguably more so than anything else. Yet Key to a Vanishing Future is more compact, more concise—we’re speaking in relative terms, here, since there’s not a single song here under six minutes, and a handful more than eight, though by their standards, that’s pretty slim. And yet, still epic and gargantuan black metal that aims for transcendence rather than ghoulish descent. Tracks like “Desert of Heart” and “Survival Poem” are as beautiful as black metal gets, if we’re even still technically within that realm, which is perhaps debatable. When the latter presents a twinkling clean guitar interlude before erupting into a surge of intensity, Falls of Rauros offer a sampling of what make them special. Sure, the actual moments of harshness and menace are phenomenal, but that’s only one piece of a much more impressive picture overall. (Gilead)
Hath – All That Was Promised
At the beginning of second track “Kenosis,” it might be easy to assume that All That Was Promised—the second album by New Jersey’s Hath—is a more straightforward ride through brawny, ugly, pummeling death metal. And if it were, it would be both worth listening to and celebrating. We love ugly, pummeling death metal around these parts! (Me, especially, though I’m certainly not alone.) But that only tells part of the story, and not even necessarily the part that comprises half. Frequently compared to Opeth more for their ambitious approach than their sound proper, and almost as frequently compared to North American death metal‘s patron saints Death, Hath employ death metal as a tool in their arsenal rather than committing wholly to the genre’s tropes. In that sense, they do share a lot in common with the influential Swedish progressive metal band, but Hath make their impact in a more compact package, their songs only occasionally crossing six minutes, and within that time they create entire worlds that extend from vocal harmonies in soaring choruses to dense and intricate networks of guitar riffs and even moments of quiet restraint. I’ve already compiled two months of the best metal prior to this one, but All That Was Promised feels like a genuine setting-the-bar-higher moment. I’d never say it’s been a slow year for metal, but Hath have made damn sure that it’s accelerating. (Willowtip)
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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.