Last month saw the release of one of the year’s best genuine article death metal albums—Undeath’s It’s Time…to Rise from the Grave—and such an occasion is always worth celebrating. And that’s true of any stylistic sphere of metal; when the songs are good, when the musicianship is tight, there’s nothing better than a metal record that scratches a highly specific itch.
But it’s also become less common over time, as the sheer number of bands playing black metal, death metal, any you-name-it subgenre of metal has grown large enough to dilute the whole. Maybe it’s just me—exposure therapy has made me somewhat immune to the appeal of a standard blast beat or pinch harmonic. Or maybe it’s just that it becomes that much harder to stand out when there are literally thousands competing to rise up from the scrum. And that’s an opportunity for things to get really interesting.
This month, all of the best metal albums (one of which was released late in April, but bear with me) have something in common: They’re not beholden to genre. They’re heavy, they’re even indisputably metal (for the most part), but beyond that it gets a little blurry. Psychedelia, prog, industrial, art-rock, grunge, post-rock, scores for films that don’t exist—it’s a lot of contrasting sound for six metal albums. Though nobody reading this space should necessarily be surprised; I did something similar last year, and it likely won’t be the last. But aside from being
Heriot – Profound Morality
One of the genre tags on Heriot’s Bandcamp page is “nu metal,” which is arguably true in the sense that a group like Loathe or Vein.fm take influence from groups like Slipknot or Deftones. But that’s not really what Profound Morality is; the Swindon, UK group is, more accurately, a hybrid of sludgy grindcore and atmospheric industrial that goes harder than most sludge, grindcore, industrial or nu-metal albums in recent memory. In early highlight “Coalescence” alone, each of these elements is given a masterful showcase through a sequence of three minutes that goes quickly but feels like it could contain three unique, distinctive songs: Full of Hell-style noisegrind brutality, punishing The Body-like industrial throb, and darkly ethereal Chelsea Wolfe-isms. In the span of just around 20 minutes, Heriot explore each of these various facets of their sound in concise and efficient fashion, making the most of the time that they have and never letting a groove, gallop or drone go to waste. (Church Road)
Vital Spirit – Still As the Night, Cold As the Wind
Vancouver’s Vital Spirit (pictured above) aren’t the first black metal band to draw inspiration from the mythology and history of the American West, as well as the sonic palette from cinematic depictions of those very things. Colorado’s Wayfarer made one of my favorite albums of 2020 by doing those very things. Yet this Canadian duo, which shares members with Seer and Wormwitch, take much more impressive measures than merely pairing Duane Eddy twang with blast beats. There’s a triumphantly heroic aspect to their arrangements, both in their searing and soaring black metal aggression and in their moments of post-rock openness, their Morricone-esque instrumental arrangements, and in the sense of triumph that carries throughout it all (as well as in presenting a view of the history of the West from an indigenous perspective). I confess that I have a tendency to express exhaustion at just how much black metal keeps getting released each year, and more importantly how much of it is indistinguishable from the rest, but albums like this are what restore my faith in the sound. If only anything else sounded like this… (Vendetta/Hidden Tribe)
Helms Alee – Keep This Be the Way
At the center of Keep This Be the Way is something unexpected, even for a band like Helms Alee, who’ve rarely been known to take a straightforward path: a cover of Scott Walker’s “Big Louise.” And not a particularly heavy one, either, but a kind of psychedelic dirge that keeps intact the baroque beauty of the 1969 original. Somehow, though, it fits on this set of songs, only half of which could conceivably qualify as “metal.” Keep This Be the Way is, perhaps, more accurately a record of heavy psychedelia, but not heavy psych in the way Blue Cheer intended. There are moments of ominous, slow burning noir, dark ambient lounge, bluesy desert sludge, and yes, certainly moments of raw power and righteous pummel. That’s just no longer the whole of what Helms Alee are, if it ever really was in the first place, which it wasn’t, really—Night Terror is a weirder album than you remember. Thankfully for the Seattle trio, weirder almost certainly always means better. (Sargent House)
Encenathrakh – Ithate Thngth Oceate
Encenathrakh are bonkers. They’re absolutely nutso. Encenathrakh are a tornado barrelling through your kitchen and stirring up a dervish of utensils and appliances. There is brutal death metal, there is powerviolence, there is deathgrind and beatdown hardcore—and then there’s this, total chaos captured on tape as if falling down a flight of stairs could somehow be translated into sound. One of the many offshoots from the New York metal braintrust of Krallice—who also released the excellent Crystalline Exhaustion earlier this year—Encenathrakh finds Mick Barr and Colin Marston joined by vocalist “Vito” (Paulo Henri Paguntalan) and drummer “Coward” (Weasel Walter, of a long list of similarly avant garde noisemakers), along with “Sesh” and “Session.” And though the group sounds nothing like Krallice, the connection feels only natural, given Barr and Marston’s tendency toward bending extreme music into absurd new shapes. There’s no sense in highlighting one track or another (or attempting to spell any of them—all of which seem to be incomprehensible palindromes?), because it’s essentially one long experience in just riding through it and withstanding the onslaught, but what a remarkably confusing thrill it is to experience. (Self-released)
Cave In – Heavy Pendulum
One of the first reactions I had to Cave In’s new album Heavy Pendulum was that it reminded me of Soundgarden—a trait that immediately endeared the album to me, as finding that rare balance of blazing heaviness, showy but not clinical musicianship and hook-driven accessibility is a rare hybrid indeed. One could even make the argument that Cave In have transformed into being a truly spectacular hard rock band, a distinction that on paper doesn’t necessarily sound that cool, but the fact of the matter is this is one of the strongest capital-R rock records I’ve heard this year, and maybe in several years. And part of that most definitely comes from the members’ openness and eagerness to collaborating with others (I spoke to Stephen Brodsky about this in our recent interview, which I think you should read!), which in turn prevents the band from ever becoming too rigid or overly comfortable in any one direction. A lot happened in the past five years with Cave In, from the tragic loss of bassist Caleb Scofield to the addition of Converge’s Nate Newton to the lineup, but for as big of a transition as they’ve gone through, they’ve only come out sounding stronger for it. (Relapse)
Blut Aus Nord – Disharmonium—Undreamable Abysses
Blut Aus Nord have built up one of the most incredible bodies of work in black metal, both because of songwriter/sole member Vindsval’s vision and the idea that black metal is never the endpoint for a Blut Aus Nord album—it’s just the beginning. Disharmonium is a case in point, a journey into the swirling vortex you see on its colorful yet ominous cover art. As Vindsval has come to embrace a greater emphasis on psychedelia, as with 2019’s Hallucinogen, his music has only grown more fascinatingly strange—and it wasn’t exactly straightforward to begin with. The darkly enchanting songs on Disharmonium are identifiably Blut Aus Nord, recalling the recent peaks of the 777 series, while continuing to push beyond that darkly mystical core, particularly on a track like “Keziah Mason,” its woozily churning low end feeling like being slowly sucked into the abyss. Black metal is often at its best when it’s at its weirdest, but for Blut Aus Nord, that’s never been much of a struggle. (Debemur Morti)
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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.