Metal is dark. There are perhaps other qualities we can attribute across the board to metal, but one that I think we can probably all agree on without much in the way of dissent or debate is that darkness is one of its defining traits. There are naturally exceptions, and those exceptions can be pretty goofy (e.g. Cannabis Corpse), but when we look at the bands we tend to uphold as those whose influence runs the deepest throughout metal at large—Black Sabbath, Slayer, Morbid Angel and so on—we inevitably find a willingness to delve into the places that popular music most often doesn’t care to tread.
Which makes it perfect listening around Halloween. I mean, I listen to metal year round, and a lot of my favorite summertime spins are metal albums for that matter. But while I understand the notion that Halloween is maybe tourist season for those with only a passing interest in the darker side of art and music, I say embrace it. Especially since this fall has brought about a number of excellent new metal records that play up the more gothic aspects of heavy music, or for that matter, the mystical and the ominous. Don your velvet cloak, turn down the lights, pour yourself a glass of cabernet—and turn it the fuck up.
Blackwater Holylight – Silence/Motion
There’s an argument to be made, first and foremost, that Blackwater Holylight aren’t necessarily metal in the strictest sense, and I get that, but also we’ve been over this—don’t make me tap the sign. They’re heavy stoner/psych that carries some traces of Floydian prog and otherworldly kosmische, but even when navigating a dense mist rather than a murky swamp, Blackwater Holylight deliver something that always feels heavy even when it’s more suggested than explicitly made clear. That said, having some menacing growls from the likes of Thou’s Bryan Funck, Inter Arma’s Mike Paparo and Mizmor’s A.L.N. go a long way to providing some added ferocity. Yet it’s the emotional weight of the album, the mournful mood and intense feelings of catharsis that make this album such a breathtaking experience. The standout “MDIII” is a gentle ballad at first, but once the band plugs in, it transforms into a gothic prog dirge bordering on funeral doom. Not to mention the fact that, when the group vibe out on a groove like on the stunning closer “Every Corner,” they simply kick ass. Silence/Motion feels like more of an incense-scented late-night experience, driven less by overt aggression and wrapped in a gauzy, immersive cloak of sound. (Riding Easy)
Lamp of Murmuur – Submission and Slavery
I’ve always been a bit skeptical of “Gothic metal” because more often than not, it bears no relation to the sleek and stylish post-punk that I want it to and instead ends up sounding like L’estat fronting the Trans-Siberian Orchestra. Hard pass. But there are plenty of great metal bands that employ gothic influences, and Lamp of Murmuur are one of them. The Los Angeles black metal act’s new album Submission and Slavery, in addition to featuring a leather gauntlet full of sadomasochistic imagery, includes a Christian Death cover and frequently delves into moments of chorus-pedal-driven deathrock gloom that fuses perfectly with their lo-fi venom. It’s black metal with fishnets and eyeliner instead of corpse paint and bullet belts. But the dungeon? Yeah, it can stay the way it is. (Self-released)
The Silver – Ward of Roses
“Fallow,” the first true song on The Silver’s debut album Ward of Roses, does something pretty interesting for a black metal song. A little more than halfway through, the screaming gives way to melodic clean vocals, the blast beats transition into a more straightforward rock beat, and by around three minutes in, it’s no longer a black metal song. But go back to the beginning, and listen between the harsher elements, and what you’ll find that the song’s biggest changes only occur within its window dressing. That melodic, psychedelic post-punk sound that the group embraces is there from the start. The Silver, comprising members of Horrendous and Crypt Sermon, are—like every band featured on this page!—not a conventional black metal band. If they’re even really a black metal band, which is a subject for debate. Every track seems to shake up their approach, whether it’s a gothic dirge on “Breathe,” a kind of blackened doom hybrid on “Vapor,” or a kind of heroic shoegaze on the title track. What each moment on this album shares is a tendency toward a kind of dark beauty, even their harshest moments exposing a vulnerability and grace that black metal tends to avoid (but which, I’ll grant you, has grown more common in its umpteenth wave). This is a direction in metal that likely will surprise anyone familiar with the other bands that The Silver’s members play in, but then again those bands are similarly transcendent in their approach to melody and form as well—so perhaps it’s not so unexpected after all. (Gilead)
Sol Kia – Zos Ethos
Well here we are, right on schedule with another mind-bending release from the I, Voidhanger camp, whose year has been nothing short of legendary. Or should I say multi-year streak, since 2020 was kind of a big one for them as well. Zos Ethos, the debut album by Belgium’s Zos Ethos, should capture the interest of those who’ve been keeping tabs on what the Italian label’s been putting out, since it features a member of Neptunian Maximalism, whose triple-album Éons remains an absolutely stunning work of avant garde doom spiritualism. This is, perhaps, more of a conventional metal album than that was, but to say that it’s in any way conventional is pretty far from the truth. This is volcanic black metal and doom that arises from the same volcanic underworld as that genre-melting group, but Sol Kia is more of a hellish psychedelia that finds a way to infuse some soul into its nightmares. There are moments on “Mithraeum” that are downright bluesy, but on “Hoathahe Saitan!”, the duo plunge right back into the most harrowing depths. Everything on this album is disorienting in fascinating ways, in part because it’s mixed in such a way that it feels like the line between fantasy and reality is starting to grow blurry—which is why it’s so exciting, of course. (I, Voidhanger)
Sulphurous – The Black Mouth of Sepulchre
I didn’t plan on making most of October’s picks albums by American bands, with Denmark’s Sulphurous being one of two exceptions. But perhaps more significantly, Sulphurous is the only band that adhere to one specific, familiar genre, that being death metal. (Everything else here? Get your hyphens and slashes ready!) And yet, there’s still an overbearing darkness, horror and gloom that emanates from even their most harrowing and technically precise moments. Sulphurous do that thing most great death metal bands do, which is drag their listeners to hell for about 40 minutes at a time. Let’s not forget how creepy Morbid Angel sounded the first time you heard them, and Sulphurous capture a similar kind of occult foreboding, both in their sense of claustrophobic atmosphere and in the way they add other stylistic ephemera, like the spooky piano that opens “Shadows Writhing Like Black Wings.” Or the eerie, harmonized guitar leads that drive standout “Eyes Black Fury.” It’s a trip to hell, certainly, but a tour of the underworld well worth revisiting. (Dark Descent)
Unto Others – Strength
Portland’s Unto Others were formerly known as Idle Hands, and their debut album Mana featured a hybrid of mid-’80s gothic rock with early ’80s heavy metal, and it was glorious. If you routinely wore dark sunglasses and black jeans and had a lot of hair, it was destined to soundtrack your 2019. They’ve since changed their name and made the move up to Roadrunner Records, and it feels like a big step up for the band, in large part just because this is one of the best sounding metal records I’ve heard all year. We can talk about how much we love lo-fi metal or completely bonkers noise experiments—and we do! More specifically, I do. But Strength actually sounds like it was made in an expensive studio with its own espresso machine, imported from Italy and handmade by artisans. Which only adds to the idea of the band sounding like vampires who live in elegant luxury. They’re not, literally, but their take on gothic-tinged heavy metal remains a fantastic sound, shimmering and romantic but prone to moments of intensity, like the machine-gun chug toward the end of “When Will God’s Work Be Done.” It can be music for mayhem, but more than that it’s somber and reflective, an album defined by something more nuanced and mysterious than blind destruction. Oh, and they cover Pat Benatar’s “Hell is for Children.” Amazing. (Roadrunner)
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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.