Nostalgia can be the worst enemy of creativity. A lot of great music has been made about the past—The Kinks’ Village Green Preservation Society being a perfect example, the kind of album that literally couldn’t have existed in the era its characters and narrators exist in. But music that concerns itself too much with a vintage aesthetic is something else entirely, an attempt to recreate something that already happened, manufacturing bottled lightning instead of capturing it by chance the first time. It’s not that there isn’t value in learning from music that came before; I’d love nothing more than to hear more bands learn the right lessons from the greatest bands and apply them to something new. It’s when a band never quite makes it to the creative application of those lessons when it becomes a problem.
But look, I’m human, and I’m just as susceptible to being won over by an album that sounds like one I already like, even if it’s an album that came out 30 years ago. If you were to tell me an album sounded like Big Black’s Songs About Fucking, I’d listen to it instantly. But there are also limitations to what those albums can give you. Some people want to be comforted by music, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But there’s always something new to explore and experience with music—why cut yourself off from that potential?
Metal in particular has a tendency to fall back on the familiar. I’m not necessarily talking about bands releasing similar kinds of albums year after year—Cannibal Corpse have released 15 albums, and they’re all definitely Cannibal Corpse albums, and that’s totally fine. But there are so many bands that revel in eras that are long gone and in sounds that have run their course. Black metal is potentially the worst offender, because there are thousands of black metal bands, and quite a few of them don’t seem to acknowledge any developments in metal beyond the first couple of Bathory records. But those Bathory records exist. A carbon copy would seem to just ring hollow. (That’s before we even get into the unspoken political conservatism that sometimes lies at the center of this phenomenon, where the idea of preserving the old ways takes on an even more infuriating tone.)
And yet, metal is also the area where tapping into a vintage aesthetic can prove incredibly fruitful. A lot of the best metal band in recent years have learned from the masters but build something on top of that foundation rather than just making a 3D-printed replica. The reason that the New Wave of Old School Death Metal became a Thing is because these younger bands were writing songs and crafting melodies in ways their influences often didn’t. Sure, there are similarities between ’90s-era Death and Horrendous, but it’s the differences that made the latter stand out in spite of what came before. Similarly, for as much traditional heavy metal courses through the best moments in Khemmis or Spirit Adrift’s catalogs, the way they might intertwine Metallica with Ozzy, and Priest with Mercyful Fate in unexpected ways shows that there’s always a new approach to be found.
As one of black metal’s most legendary bands has just released their latest album, I’ve been taking stock of some of the other metal albums to be released in the past month or two that has roots in music from 20, 30 or even 40 years ago, but given a creative spin and a fresh presentation. These six albums offer a strong argument that there’s always something new to be uncovered, even in familiar places.
Darkthrone – Eternal Hails……
Darkthrone will probably be forever associated with a lo-fi, old-school black metal aesthetic, one that brings to mind misanthropic ghouls and unseen forces of evil. But Darkthrone hasn’t actually sounded that way for a long time. Despite being one of the longest-running bands born of the early ’90s Norway scene, they’ve mostly put that behind them. Yet they haven’t turned their backs on the influences and sounds that made them who they are, like vintage doom metal, crust-punk and thrash, with a particularly large helping of Celtic Frost. Darkthrone’s nineteenth album Eternal Hails…… is an outstanding new showing from the group, Fenriz and Nocturno Culto continuing to adhere to a raw, lo-fi sound while building an ominous atmosphere out of a slow-burning vintage doom metal churn—think early St. Vitus and, yes, Celtic Frost. What makes the band so much fun to listen to after all this time is that they’re not predictable, other than that there will always be some element of stripped-down, guitars-and-drums heavy metal happening. And Eternal Hails…… is no different, offering some boogie and swagger on the rollicking “Lost Arcane City of Uppakra,” and some slo-mo sleaze on the epic “Voyage to a Northpole Adrift.” Thirty years ago or more this would be prime listening material for late October, but it’s just the kind of vintage hedonistic heshery that sounds great on a summer road trip. (Also, best title for a metal album all year?) (Peaceville)
Deathchant – Waste
Los Angeles’ Deathchant has a sound optimized for quadrophonic systems in airbrushed custom vans (a.k.a. the Makeout Machine). A song like their Thin Lizzy-inspired anthem “Rails,” which kicks off the band’s new album Waste, should have its own laser show—for a good two and a half minutes it sounds like it’s 100 percent riffs, until everything drops out to usher in an atmospheric haze, taking an already colossal showcase of badass rockin’ and making it feel that much more epic. Depending on the angle at which you’re hearing them, they might feel remind you of a group like Red Fang, which on “Black Dirt” is a pretty strong parallel. But Deathchant draw their greatest strength from an era in which “heavy metal” was still a relatively new term, when Sabbath was still as heavy as it got, and when you had to cut the sleeves off your denim jacket to make your own battle vest. (Riding Easy)
Heavy Sentence – Bang to Rights
Heavy Sentence hail from Manchester, the city that produced both The Fall and Factory Records, but if you were to expect any kind of post-punk influence to seep into the group’s New Wave of British Heavy Metal-influenced sound, you might be either surprised or disappointed to learn there’s not a single trace of Peter Hook basslines or Mark E. Smith-like vocal mutterings. No, Heavy Sentence have been raised on a steady diet of Motörhead, Tokyo Blade and UK Subs, pairing heavy metal’s early ’80s heavyweights with the anthemic sound of old-school punk rock. All of the albums featured in this space this month are in direct competition for the most purely fun, but this one wins hands down—listen to a track like “Age of Fire” and find yourself ready to shotgun some beers and commit some petty misdemeanors while cranking it up to eleven. This is heavy fuckin’ metal. ‘Nuff said. (Dying Victims)
Morbific – Ominous Seep of Putridity
Finland’s Morbific are self-described as “disgusting,” and their logo looks like the kind of thing someone drew on college-ruled paper in ballpoint pen instead of paying attention to trigonometry. It’s that kind of old-school death metal—raw, direct and an unbelievable amount of fun. Morbific are death metal in the way all of the first death metal bands you heard were death metal—there’s no need to get too technical or pedantic about it, or to debate the nuances, because there aren’t really any. Well, that’s not exactly true; each song is strong enough on its own that these tracks can be hand-picked for summer miscreant mixtapes, with each of the album’s 10 tracks fitting in comfortably into a perfectly executed archetype: the thrashy one, the doomy one, the one that sounds like their amp heads are fucked, etc. But they’re pretty much all in direct competition as the one that whips the most ass. (Headsplit)
Wheel – Preserved In Time
Wheel’s Preserved in Time has one of my favorite album covers of the year—an art-nouveau style depiction of a gloomy maiden holding an hourglass. Simple, elegant, aesthetically stunning—much like Wheel’s music itself. A doom metal band that merges the intricacy of Pagan Altar with the epic ambitions of Candlemass with a mesmerizingly melodic sensibility—not to mention some gorgeous vocal harmonies—the German group have delivered upon the promise of two excellent prior records with a new mark of excellence. There’s a versatility to their brand of doom metal that shows through their songwriting, which has never sounded stronger than it does here. The group sounds as comfortable easing into a minimalist slow-burn like “When the Shadow Takes You Over” as they are building an intricate strata of riffs and harmonies on the absolutely stunning “After All.” (Cruz Del Sur)
Witch Vomit – Abhorrent Rapture
OK, I’ll be the first to admit that the style of music that pretty much always gets a pass when it comes to classicist critiques on my part is death metal. Perhaps it’s because music this dense and ugly tends to transcend nostalgia traps—worshipping at the altar of Morbid Angel worship never feels as quaint as, say, Iron Maiden—or maybe it’s just because an aesthetic that cloaks everything in a heavy drape of carbon monoxide and sulphur is inherently immune from any such skepticism. All of which is to say Witch Vomit have access to better recording technology than the early ’90s bands that pioneered this aesthetic, but their new, 18-minute, surprise-released EP doesn’t necessarily attempt to reconceptualize classic death metal for a new era. A dense roar of guitars, squealing solos, tremolo riffs, a demonic bellow that’s indecipherable but unquestionably threatening—it’s everything anyone could have possibly wanted in a death metal record since 1990, and it rules. (20 Buck Spin)
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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.