But the riffs…
Whenever someone utters this phrase on social media, it’s usually in jest. Or more accurately, with some level of contempt. As metal continues to reckon with its white supremacist problem, or any number of other problems that make something that should be great a lot more infuriating, there’s always someone who doesn’t want to acknowledge it, or simply dismiss the degree of the problem. And when attention is drawn toward a band’s problematic behavior, there’s always someone who excuses it because the riffs are good enough for that not to be a problem. Only that’s not how it works.
But look—I like riffs. I wouldn’t be writing this column if I didn’t, and metal would be pretty pointless without them. So while there will almost certainly be a month in which my monthly picks will be poignant commentaries on the state of the world (like the new Spectral Lore album, which is awesome), this month I actually feel like indulging a little bit on the riffs themselves. As it happens, there have been a number of great records showing up in my inbox in which the fretboards are simply a-blazing. This is pure, a-plus air guitar material, the kind of metal that will probably be on repeat throughout the summer, some of it hedonistic, some of it misanthropic, but all of it pretty damn fun. (Caveat: I’m the kind of guy who thinks ugly death metal is fun. I think you probably are too.)
So while I roll my eyes at the but the riffs guys, I’m not here to cast aspersions on the riffs themselves. I’m here to celebrate them. So let’s get to it.
Alastor – Onwards and Downwards
Do you know how many bands named Alastor there are? Seven—one from Poland, one from Portugal, one from Croatia, one from Austria, one from Greece (who are NSBM, so definitely count me the fuck out), one from France, and one from Sweden. Why so many? Well, because Alastor was the black horse of Hades, and you don’t even have to question how metal that is. Metal enough for seven bands to use the name, so many that it might even cause a little bit of uncomfortable confusion given who at least one of those other bands is. But Sweden’s Alastor is the one I’m talking about, and they rip. Their latest, Onwards and Downwards, offers the kind of doom metal that’s unquestionably massive, but at times leaves you wondering if this is just really heavy rock. In the case of leadoff track “The Killer in My Skull,” the answer is yes; arguably the entire album will have you reach that conclusion. But when I say really heavy, I mean Electric Wizard Heavy. Windhand heavy. Their half-stacks could shake houses off their foundation, and their fuzz could cause a contact high. But there’s a great deal of variation within their low-end roar, which soars to Sabbathian heights on “Nightmare Trip,” reaches for Pallbearer’s dramatic melodicism on the title track, and even kicks up a bit of punk rock snarl on “Death Cult,” complete with “I Wanna Be Your Dog” one-note piano plunks. I told you this month’s lineup of albums was going to be all about the riffs, and brother, Alastor bring the goddamn riffs. (Riding Easy)
Gateway – Flesh Reborn
The thing about death-doom is that it demands a bit of patience. You can’t just put on a record like diSEMBOWELMENT’s Transcendence Into the Peripheral and go straight to the ugly-face, air-guitar, ough moments without some atmospheric scene setting and lingering for a bit in the thick, toxic guitar tone. You can, however, do that with Gateway’s new EP, Flesh Reborn. The Belgian band’s first new release in three years is relatively concise—at just under 26 minutes, it’s a whole minute longer than Full of Hell’s Weeping Choir, though let’s not forget that the rules of grindcore and death-doom are wildly different. But Gateway are nothing if not economical in their approach here, getting right to the burly, riff-driven mayhem on “Slumbering Crevasses” with only a brief introduction in “Hel.” Essentially there are three solid, meaty tracks here along with one moody (and still heavy!) intro track, and it’s all supremely satisfying, getting straight to the ominously churning gallop without wasting any time, even on the closing 12-minute behemoth “Flesh Reborn.” We might not always expect death-doom to be so immediate, but that doesn’t mean it has to be that way, necessarily. (Chaos)
Grave Miasma – Abyss of Wrathful Deities
It’s really tempting to describe Grave Miasma as “catchy.” Now, my definition of catchy probably isn’t the same as everyone else’s, and this is probably a tough sell for anyone with an aversion to changing time signatures, wretched vocal barks and melodies that rise and descend and snake around typical three-chord structures in elusive fashion. But yeah, Grave Miasma’s second album, Abyss of Wrathful Deities, is pretty catchy! The London group’s approach to death metal is decidedly old-school, light on interludes and throat-clearing intros, but more than generous with the pummeling. Every track here is just weird enough to feel like a step into treacherous territory, but with more than enough ghoulish vintage energy to satisfy like death metal comfort food. I, in no way, mean this as a slight to the band—this is exactly the kind of death metal record I can listen to over and over without losing my taste for it, and the group’s precarious Tower of Babel riffs are a big reason for that, their weirdly ominous structures amounting to something that ends up, unexpectedly, being…well, catchy. (Dark Descent)
Horndal – Lake Drinker
I’m loath to say there aren’t many bands like Horndal anymore—that’s patently false, there are hundreds. But melodic, sludgy heavy metal isn’t as rich an area of innovation and inspiration as it once was. Don’t get me wrong—as long as High on Fire are still making records, all is right with the world. (Metal world, that is.) But it’s been a while since I’ve heard an album in that vein that offers the kind of pure riffing satisfaction that Horndal’s Lake Drinker does. The Swedish group’s sophomore album is a balance of post-hardcore dynamics with the big, brawny guitar sounds of mid-’00s sludge a la Mastodon’s Leviathan. Psychedelic elements creep in, as on the tense, simmering “Ruhr,” and there’s a punishing directness to their best songs, like in the galloping “Growing Graves” or the taut, searing “Town Burner.” Its accessibility doesn’t mask the fact that this is a record with sad, true story behind it, about the real-life town of Horndal was left devastated after the closure of a steel mill. If you’re going to rage against machines, or the multinational conglomerate that manufactures them, this record is an effective motivational soundtrack. (Prosthetic)
Oryx – Lamenting a Dead World
For a city that’s surrounded by natural beauty and often ranks in lists of the best places to live in the U.S. as well as the healthiest cities in the U.S., Denver has turned out some particularly wrenching, abrasive metal of late. Primitive Man is, of course, as uncompromising as it gets when it comes to harsh, skin-peeling sludge metal, but their contemporaries and neighbors in Oryx more than hold their own when it comes to being tenderized by guitars. Their new album Lamenting a Dead World is a slow drip of caustic venom, which in time reveals something more nuanced and haunting after a few tracks worth of acid-soak riffs. The dissonant, slo-mo pummel of leadoff track “Contempt” is thick and murky, but there’s a darkness and vileness to it that makes it feel almost more like death metal than sludge. That goes for most of the tracks here—the higher they get on the neck and the more suspended in tension these songs become, the more the atmosphere begins to resemble that of a fetid mausoleum. But on highlights like “Last Breath,” they also reveal an atmospheric contrast to their thick slabs of beef. On first listen, it’s the sheer heft of the band that leaves the greatest impact, but stick around a while, listen closer and get comfortable. There’s so much more to their sludge than, well, sludge. (Translation Loss)
Steel Bearing Hand – Slay In Hell
The level of metal talent coming out of Texas in recent years is unavoidable, from Creeping Death to Frozen Soul—not to mention the massive influence of Power Trip. Add Steel Bearing Hand to that list, a Dallas-based band that plays a hybrid of vintage thrash gallop with death metal’s abrasiveness and pasted with black-and-white album art that might remind you of Bolt Thrower’s earliest releases. The music, however, is more rooted in classic thrash metal, the band’s lightning-speed power chord riffs driving each of the six songs on their outstanding sophomore album. In fact, if riffs are what you’re looking for—and yes, that is the theme of this month’s edition of Horns (the theme of every month’s edition of Horns?)—then you’ll get exactly what you’re looking for. They come in the form of dazzling Coroner-style wizardry in “Command of the Infernal Exarch,” slo-mo mosh-pit burliness in “Tombspawn,” and pure, satisfying chug in “Per Tenebras Ad Lucem.” Once they’re off, Steel Bearing Hand don’t let off the accelerator, and it’s a thrill just to watch them go. There’s so much happening in these songs, so much action, so much activity, and you never quite know where these songs are going to end up, but it’s a blast just to see how it all unfolds. (Carbonized)
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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.