At the end of 2020, a friend and colleague asked me about some of my metal recommendations that he might have overlooked, and I noted that a lot of my favorites ended up being music that had a lot of forward momentum. After being stuck in one place for the better part of the year, at the very least, I needed music that felt transportive.
Things are different now. Kind of. People are vaccinated (not enough of them, but the numbers are still going up) and live music has returned, and for a lot of us, there’s reason to breathe a sigh of relief. Only it’s apparently not that easy, as now the Covid Delta variant is providing even more reason to panic, and we might very well discover that the sigh of relief might well be followed by a sigh of exasperation. Compounding that is a period of transition in my personal life that’s both exciting and a little scary, but mostly involves a lot of moving parts. And, of course, the usual reasons to be stressed out about the state of the world that I don’t need to get too into detail about here.
It’s about here where some people might suggest some form of escapism, but as I often did throughout the pandemic, I’m choosing to embrace therapy through sound. Which is in some way a form of escapism. But rather than get lost in the fantasy of grand narratives or even the momentum of thrash and hardcore, I’m finding my escape through the arrangements of the songs themselves. Metal is great when it’s big on melody and riffs, but it’s also great when it creates an immersive atmosphere, or builds a world that you never could have imagined. That’s in large part why I got into metal in the first place—it does things that other genres simply won’t or can’t do. Metal musicians are famous for pushing their own abilities to the limit, for one, but more than that, a lot of the best metal artists create a sonic universe that invites you to shut off the outside world. There is nothing outside of that album at that moment—and this month I’m getting comfortable within that space.
I’ve highlighted six albums that overwhelm in the best ways, some of them dense and rich in atmospheric elements, others overstuffed with technical dazzle, and some simply strange in ways I’d never fully experienced before. It’s a fest for the senses—don’t fill up on bread.
Hellish Form – Remains
Willow Ryan has already delivered one dense, slow-moving, awe-inspiring slice of brutality this year with Body Void’s Bury Me Beneath This Rotting Earth. And just two months later, the Bay Area musician offers up a second, utterly crushing four-track effort with Hellish Form, their ethereal doom partnership with Jacob Lee. Remains is largely cut from the same cloth as Body Void’s latest album, as well as some of the more devastating efforts from the likes of The Body and Khanate. But there’s a haunting glow that surrounds this album as a result of a more prominent use of synthesizers, drawing it away from the riff- and distortion-driven aesthetic of metal and more toward a hypnotic, atmospheric presentation—one that still sounds like it could tear a Buick in half, but you know, gracefully, like steel origami. The bleakly beautiful “Another World” has a delicateness to it in spite of how massive its guitars are, tapping into the eerier aesthetics of darkwave, while “Ache” has a kind of beautiful shoegaze approach reminiscent of Jesu’s best moments. None of these four pieces goes anywhere in any particular hurry, but the scenery—even at its darkest—is never anything less than astonishing. (Translation Loss)
Iceburn – Asclepius
If you bought In-Flight Program—the Revelation Records label sampler that sold for $5 or so at skate shops in the ’90s—you probably remember hearing Iceburn and their track “Sphinx” standing out as being the weirdest song amid a set of mostly hardcore bands. Now reformed after 20 years apart, they’re no less mystical and mysterious, but there’s a bit of sludgy low-end groove carrying their first new album in 20 years, Asclepius. The Salt Lake City group, in their latest iteration, offers up two side-long tracks that offer plenty of psychedelic territory to explore, taking a journey from Kyuss-like groove to heavy-psych math freakout to heavy metal chooglin’. In hindsight, it seems a little ironic that they shared label space with straight-edge bands, because this is music that’s pretty liberal on the chemical enhancement. Not that you need to be under the influence to enjoy the ride. (Southern Lord)
Jute Gyte – Mitrealität
Jute Gyte’s catalog overwhelms even before you’ve heard a note of it. Missouri musician Adam Kalmbach has amassed a catalog of more than 30 albums in less than a decade, and it’s not necessarily an easy sound to dive into. He makes microtonal black metal, not unlike recent favorites Victory Over the Sun, but that’s only part of what makes this project interesting. Compositionally Mitrealität, his third album this year, is labyrinthine and always chasing some sort of climax; listening to this album is like being on a rollercoaster that’s constantly plummeting at maximum speed. It doesn’t seem on paper like the kind of thing that should be fun to listen to; microtonal music in general doesn’t lend itself well to pleasure listening. But then a song like “Prometheus Ends in Onan” comes on, and what results is a giddy rush of gallop and groove, an exercise in visceral immediacy delivered in the least likely format. It rocks! (Most of it anyway—there are also some dark ambient pieces.) Kalmbach has seemingly cracked the code, taking a once-cerebral form of music and making it something worth wrecking some shit over. (Jeshimoth Entertainment)
Noctambulist – The Barren Form
The catch with extreme metal is it’s not really supposed to be about balance—it’s not very “extreme” to embrace nuance or moderation. But there comes a point where every utterly bonkers element within a song has to have some kind of center of gravity holding it together, otherwise it just becomes an unlistenable mess. Noctambulist understand this. The Denver group are the kinds of musicians that play with the kind of superhuman gusto that reminds you of why metal kicks ass—because kicking ass is what it’s supposed to do! But that’s not all they do; throughout this blistering hybrid of black metal, death metal and grindcore, Noctambulist balance their lightspeed bursts of punishing rhythm with melancholy arpeggios, haunted atmosphere and some honest-to-goodness mosh moments that put this album in the must-experience-physically column, rather than simply something to be admired from afar. It’s an Ironman competition of an album, loaded with feats beyond the reach of all us normies. (Translation Loss)
Papangu – Holoceno
Brazil’s Papangu describe themselves as a “wicked prog rock band” which makes their presence among death, sludge and all-of-the-above metal bands here a bit curious. But the emphasis is on the “wicked”—the riffs that tear through the intro of “Ave-Bala,” the leadoff track to new album Holoceno, are burly and beastly, the kind of muscular guitar tone that’ll instantly bring to mind mid-’00s era Mastodon. But Papangu are a little less “Blood and Thunder,” a little more “Bladecatcher,” with an overflowing salad bar of progressive theatricality. A who’s-who of contemporary prog rock/metal make appearances on the album, including Kayo Dot’s Toby Driver and members of jazz-metal visionaries Shining and Norwegian jazz-rock outfit Elephant9. (I’m surprised I didn’t learn about this band through our resident prog expert, Langdon Hickman.) All of which is to say, yeah, it’s a little nerdy—but it also rips. There’s not a moment here where there aren’t layers and layers of musically dazzling things happening, whether on the sludgy, King Crimson-esque “São Francisco” or oozing like Oranssi Pazuzu at their most alien on “Terra Arrasada.” It’s not like I didn’t already love and get completely lost in what I was hearing, but once I heard the saxophone break through the riffs on “Lobisomem,” there was no going back. This is the band for me. (Self-released)
Seputus – Phantom Indigo
Metal that gets described as “technical” tends to be stereotyped as nerdbait, in part because the idea of spending more time perfecting pinch harmonics and complicated time signatures than writing good songs probably deserves an eyeroll. But there’s no reason they shouldn’t go hand in hand, and let’s face it—watching a band play their instruments like they’re pulling an elaborate bank heist is actually really fucking fun. Just watch them and try to make sense of human limbs and fingers moving that fast! Seputus, featuring members of Pyrrhon and Weeping Sores, are ostensibly a “technical” death metal band with a grindcore intensity driving their intricate compositions. Which makes the act of listening to their debut Phantom Indigo feel like an elaborate chase; just attempting to run the gauntlet in real time with this album can be exhausting. There’s a lot going on. But it’s all pretty spectacular to hear, and more importantly, these are incredible songs! Phantom Indigo is much more than the sum of its technique. (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.