As I begin the sixth year of Shadow of the Horns—the longest running column on Treble by a significant margin—my thoughts are occupied with how complicated metal has become. Not on a visceral level; when you hear a great metal song, how you react is pretty much just instinct at that point, and it usually involves throwing fists in the air, air guitar, slamming yourself into something or someone. That physical caveman behavior comes pretty naturally to all of us, even if it’s not metal that brings it out of us.
No, the complicated part is just how broad “metal” is. It’s funeral doom and it’s black metal. It’s grindcore and it’s industrial metal. If it’s Anaal Nathrakh, it’s probably all of these things. And a lot of my favorite heavy metal is essentially just rock ‘n’ roll played louder and faster—the same can’t be said for, say, deathgrind, necessarily. (Sometimes it’s true, if you squint, but I can sell an old Sabbath record to the average non-metal listener a lot easier than an Exhumed record.)
And that’s even before we get into the artists that are breaking the boundaries of what it means to be metal altogether. Last year, one of my absolute favorite records was Neptunian Maximalism’s Éons, which is maybe a drone album, maybe an avant garde jazz album, maybe something else altogether. Is it metal? I don’t know! But it has the muscle of metal, the supernatural power and the overwhelming intensity of many of my favorite metal records, even if it doesn’t really sound like them. Then again, one of my other favorite records of the year (and our Album of the Year), Emma Ruth Rundle & Thou’s May Our Chambers Be Full proved that while Rundle isn’t a metal artist, there’s a reason she’s often spoken in the same sentence as those who are, as there’s something awesome and mighty driving even her most ethereal songs—and collaborating with one of the heaviest bands on earth certainly brought that to the surface. These records sound nothing like each other, and yet, I still think it’s worth considering that these artists are part of the same (vast) galaxy.
Throughout the history of this column, I’ve bent the rules here and there, like including Charles Bradley’s Sabbath cover in my tracks of the month, or highlighting artists like Chelsea Wolfe, who don’t make metal records but certainly speak the same language. But I’ve always kind of felt that there had to be some kind of defining trait that made something metal, even if it wasn’t always so hard to define. I remember back in 2015 when Pitchfork’s Brandon Stosuy included a Prurient album in his list of the best metal records of the year, and that didn’t seem quite right to me at the time. But now? Makes perfect sense to me—an acoustic “noise” record (and a spectacular one at that)? Sure, let’s go ahead and call it metal!
Even a lot of the music that I’ve covered that is, unquestionably, metal doesn’t always fit in anywhere that makes perfect sense. Oranssi Pazuzu, one of the best bands in any genre in the 21st century, has long been classified as a black metal band, but even as far back as 2013’s Valonielu, they didn’t really sound very much like a black metal band, save for Jun-His’ screeches. They’ve always been more of a particularly evil sounding psychedelic rock band. Similarly, a group like Elder has always been a stoner-y prog-rock band rather than vice versa. But because they’re heavy—because these bands represent the pinnacle of what a great heavy band can be—they’re classified as metal, and I’m not here to argue against that in the slightest.
Increasingly there are more people beginning to question the way we look at genre, or perhaps more specifically, how genres are marketed to people, and how harmful that can be sometimes. The way rock and hip-hop/R&B can be racially segregated in how they’re presented by those who do the marketing is one area that’s become rightly criticized and scrutinized; as Bartees Strange told me last year, “The racial implication of genre is damaging. It fucks everything up and not just for black people.” I probably don’t have to remind anyone that metal is frequently not as diverse a space as it should be. But the great thing about easing up on the gatekeeping, about being a lot less uptight about what is or isn’t metal enough, is that it will not only make metal a more welcoming space, it’s likely to have the added effect of making it a lot more creative too. We don’t need more Darkthrone knockoffs—if someone wants to call their music “black metal” even if it doesn’t remind you of the nostalgic scent of burning churches, well, that’s fine by me.
So here’s my vow to you in 2021: If something feels metal enough to me—and that’s certainly as much a feeling as a set of rules or aesthetic components—that’s all I need. It could be noise. It could be hardcore. It could be industrial. It could be something else entirely. And a lot of the time, it’ll most definitely be metal as we know and define it already. But I’m not going to lose sleep over whether or not fits a dictionary definition that no longer applies anyway. This is supposed to be a positive space, a fun monthly exercise in celebrating what’s heavy, and that’s what it’ll continue to be. And maybe you’ll disagree with me! That’s fine too. We’re all just having fun here, so let’s get on with the best metal tracks of the month. Or not technically metal, or whatever. Lighten up.
The Best Metal Tracks of January 2020
Gatecreeper – “Starved”
Picking a favorite track on the new (surprise!) Gatecreeper album An Unexpected Reality is kind of an arbitrary exercise—most of the tracks run just slightly over a minute long and one’s only 34 seconds, though the closing track is a 12-minute death-doom lurch that kind of goes against the grain. But goddamn does this brief but brutal set of death metal (which Stereogum’s Tom Breihan rightly suggested is also more or less a hardcore album) kick ass. But start here, since it’s the first one on the tracklist. It’s one minute and nine seconds of no-nonsense, no-frills, no-hyphens death metal that doesn’t get bogged down in solos, bridges, interludes or what have you. All forward momentum, all punishing intensity, all awesome.
From An Unexpected Reality, out now via Closed Casket Activities
Thirdface – “Villains!”
Exploding in Sound is a great label that puts out great punk records from the likes of Pile, Krill and a long list of other groups worth seeking out, all of which rock hard but you wouldn’t see on a page focusing on the best new metal tracks. Nashville’s Thirdface, however, is different. They’re arguably still a punk band (or hardcore, or post-hardcore) but their metal bonafides are well established, featuring members of Yautja, Sallow and Donors. And “Villains!” will absolutely mess you up. A searing and innovative take on hardcore that brings to mind the likes of Portrayal of Guilt (whose new album is amazing!), while veering into some satisfying noise-rock scrape, powerviolence surge, black metal blast-beat mayhem and more than a few labyrinthine Converge-isms. True to the essay you just read above, this is one of those “is it really metal?” tracks for me, but it’s also so visceral, so heavy and raw that I’m inclined to say “who gives a shit?” It’s a knuckle sandwich of a listening experience, and that’s all that matters to me.
From Do It With a Smile, out March 5 via Exploding in Sound
Sarin – “Reckoner”
I think it’s important to be up front about certain biases I have, and much in the same way I’m going to be immediately enthusiastic about a black metal song with saxophone or a traditional doom metal band with some serious dad-rock tendencies, I’m always going to be on board with a sludge metal band that doesn’t make their audience have to dig too hard to find the melody. Ontario group Sarin make melody their centerpiece on “Reckoner” (not a Radiohead cover), a brawny stomper of a first single that smuggles some truly soaring moments in its thick walls of distortion. As a lot of the best sludge metal does, Sarin veer dangerously close to grunge at times, but there’s nothing particularly nostalgic about that aesthetic similarity. Rather, what’s exciting about a song like “Reckoner” is that it serves to remind how great a metal song can be when it holds fast to the elements that make it more extreme while still allowing plenty of room for radio-friendly influences.
From You Can’t Go Back, out February 5 via Prosthetic
Frozen Soul – “Wraith of Death”
I suppose I’ve never really thought about it that much, but death metal is a sound I most associate with heat rather than cold. Maybe it’s because I’ve been to my share of sweaty metal shows at San Diego’s Brick by Brick on summer nights, or maybe it’s because hell’s a pretty toasty final destination, but I don’t generally think of death metal as being “cold,” save for maybe some of Blood Incantation’s weirder alien encounters. But Fort Worth’s Frozen Soul draw their particular form of terror from beneath an icy surface. Naturally they released their debut album Crypt of Ice early in January to ensure that it was still frosty in most climates as it was being released. But tracks like “Wraith of Death,” all slow-motion groove, punishing low-end riffs and an impending sense of dread, show just comfortably death metal adjusts to winter weather. Icepicks are just as deadly as chainsaws after all.
From Crypt of Ice, out now via Century Media
Panopticon – “Know Hope”
Beginning the year with a 12-minute Panopticon song really seems like a great way to burn off the toxic residue left over from the past year of fear, stress and chaos. Austin Lunn’s music has always emphasized the parts of black metal that most strongly resonated with me—the progressive songwriting, the emotional purge, the meditations on the natural world—while casting aside the things about black metal that suck (namely the far-right politics). It speaks volumes that this track was inspired in part by anarchopunk legends Crass, but at heart it still sounds like what a great black metal song should be, along with all the soul-baring emotional weight that entails. Goat’s heads and pentagrams are fine and dandy, but extreme metal feels more extreme when it touches upon something deeper and more personal, something that translates to the listener in a more tangible way. Black metal is made by human beings after all—it’s good to get a reminder of that now and then, even if those human beings sometimes feel like they’re harnessing some supernatural power.
From And Again Into the Light, out Spring/Summer via Bindrune
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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.