Shadow of the Horns: Going Through Changes

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Skeleton best new metal march 2021

Six years is a long time to write a regular monthly metal column. It doesn’t feel like it’s been a long time—when you’re constantly seeking out great new metal records to listen to, time doesn’t really pass the same way. It just kind of flows indefinitely. One moment you’re listening to a killer new track from Windhand, next thing you know that was half a decade ago.

A lot has changed since then. Bandcamp has usurped Soundcloud as the embeddable player of choice. Several other publications’ monthly columns have come and gone (Pitchfork, Vice), though Stereogum’s The Black Market, which has been around since before Shadow of the Horns began(!) is still going strong. And there’s no Psycho, Maryland Deathfest or Migration Fest to look forward to (fingers crossed for next year!).

Some of you might be reading this right now and getting worried that the column you’re reading is going away. I’m doing no such thing; this page is going nowhere, and it’ll be here next month and the month after that. But I am planning on changing a few things.

The biggest change is that I’m no longer specifically highlighting the best new tracks of the month, and instead I’ll be focusing specifically on albums. The way that music is marketed and released right now, pre-release tracks are often what get the most attention and what get people excited about the album, which is the product, work or volume that they’re intended to promote and not vice-versa. But while there are plenty of metal bands who release great singles, the focus by and large within the realm of heavy music is on albums, and when there are no tours happening immediately, and too much attention paid on music as a matter of convenience rather than the statement it makes, I’d rather focus on the bigger picture.

That being said, I do intend to highlight tracks when it makes sense—one offs, compilation tracks, covers and so on. It’s not that they’ll never show up here, but they might not be the focus. Beyond that, I intend to find common ground between the albums that I cover and look at them not just as the best metal records of the month (which they always will be), but in how they’re part of something bigger that speaks to how heavy music is evolving, adapting, or simply what it is right now. I’m all about hyping great music, but I also don’t want to lose the forest for the trees. Heavy music speaks to me, and the rest of us, for reasons that go deeper than track premieres.

So this month, I’m afraid I’ve used up all my space on meta matters, but we had to get that out of the way in order to move forward and so that I can present what I hope will be an even better version of this column going forward. Thanks for indulging me. Here’s the best new metal of March.

Ad Nauseam – Imperative Imperceptible Impulse

If you didn’t already seek out this album on the endorsement of our Bandcamp Friday suggestion, then now’s as good a time as any to get caught up. Ad Nauseam is an Italian death metal band, but that really doesn’t do their music justice. They’re death metal in the same way that Gorguts is death metal, or in the same way that Krallice is black metal—aesthetic is simply one aspect of it, but the complexity of their arrangements, the knotty unpredictability of their songwriting and the sheer claustrophobia of their hall-of-mirrors atmosphere take it well into another atmosphere. This album’s been getting some strong buzz in underground metal circles for good reason; it takes a disciplined, skilled and truly strange set of musicians to make an album of this caliber, and Ad Nauseam certainly seem to be operating on their own bizarre plane. I haven’t fully unlocked all of the secrets that Ad Nauseam have packed into this peculiar puzzle of an album, but I’ve enjoyed every moment of being lost inside its labyrinth. [Avantgarde]

Mare Cognitum – Solar Paroxysm

Last year, I, Voidhanger really outdid itself as a label, delivering a number of the best metal records of the year (three on my own list, including one album that’s arguably a genre unto its own) that expanded well beyond the boundaries of what we typically come to expect from great heavy music, simultaneously in innovation, running time and visually stunning artwork. Mare Cognitum and Spectral Lore’s split interplanetary work Wanderers was one of those, stretching to two hours in an epic suite about astronomy, mythology and the universe. Only a year later, Mare Cognitum’s Jacob Buczarski has another new full-length of epic, soaring black metal full of breathtaking melodic moments and towering arrangements. Buczarski doesn’t half ass things, which makes the turnaround on a record of this caliber even more impressive (I mean, we’re all just sitting around at home, might as well make an epic black metal record), and its compositions maintain the power and intricacy of those on the masterpiece he co-delivered just last year. The hazy gothic miasma of “Terra Requiem,” the dense surge of “Luminous Accretion,” and the majestic opener “Antaresian” all make for some of the strongest moments in black metal this year thus far, as does the album as a whole. I already wrote about “Antaresian” last month, and I’m making a point not to have too much overlap going forward (and another writer will be sharing a longer review on the album). But if this page is about the best new metal each month, then there’s really no getting around this one. It’s a must-hear. [I, Voidhanger]

Regional Justice Center – Crime and Punishment

Got 13 minutes to spare and a craving for gut-wrenching, furniture-breaking hardcore? Regional Justice Center have you covered. Crime and Punishment, the Seattle powerviolence group’s sophomore album, is all energy, aggression and a hell of a lot of spite aimed at America’s carceral system. “Justice” is in their name, and it’s a part of what they do—vocalist Ian Shelton’s brother’s incarceration played a major role in the themes of the band’s debut album, and their latest continues to highlight the inequalities of the penal system and the cruel irony of how we view justice is anything but just. That said, it’s a loud, fast, brutal and hyper-energized set of hardcore that never relents, and if you just need something to blare through the speakers while you smash a few plates or unleash a socially distant primal scream, well, this has exactly what you need. [Closed Casket Activities]

Skeleton – Ordainment of Divinity

Texas metal-punk trio Skeleton released one of 2020’s best debuts, delivering a lean and blistering set of blackened hardcore in under 30 minutes on their self-titled LP, earning them some well-deserved hype (which was also in part based on their live show, which we unfortunately don’t get to see just yet, but fingers crossed we’ll be there soon enough). The group’s already at work on a follow-up, and before we get that highly anticipated set of mayhem, they’ve delivered an EP-length demo that previews some of the material that’ll eventually be on that record. It’s only 12 minutes long, but Ordainment of Divinity says a lot about where the band’s headed—this is, essentially, a proper black metal release rather than one with merely a black metal influence (with one dungeon synth track, because why not), and its lo-fi quality only makes these five track sound all the more grim, frosty and evil. There’s still a punk rebelliousness at the heart of these tracks, and a muscular rock ‘n’ roll accessibility, but Skeleton are embracing their darkest impulses and it can only lead somewhere amazing. [20 Buck Spin]

Swampbeast – Seven Evils Spawned of Seven Heads

Los Angeles’ Swampbeast capture a lot of what I love about death metal on their debut full-length, Seven Evils Spawned of Seven Heads. Specifically, they deliver a direct application of blunt-force riffs with the noxious tones of classic Bolt Thrower and a relentless fury that never allows a moment to land without a feeling of menacing exhilaration. They’re loud and fast and fun is what I’m saying, even if the general feeling behind the album is one of panic and imminent collapse—their outlook on the planet’s future isn’t so rosy, and I can’t say that I blame them, given how things are going. Then again, they’re a band called Swampbeast that pummels like hell, so even if it’s all going to shit, at least we can have a furiously noisy time with a great batch of burly, roaring death metal. [Translation Loss]

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