Shadow of the Horns: A fall metal-stravaganza

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When I began planning for this month’s column, I ran into a unique problem. Generally when I start outlining each month of Horns, I start with the tracks and work backward. Which is more or less how it went this past week as I was combing through a bunch of great new tracks; I listened, I strategized, I curated, and then I was ready to move on to the topic du jour, which might have been about how many Black Sabbath covers are out there (because obviously those songs are fun to cover and Sabbath are the greatest), or more eye-rolling anti-SJW stuff from the knee-jerk reactionary metal contingent (get a new hobby, dorks), or the Cambridge Dictionary‘s incredibly sexist definition of a headbanger—to which I’ll say, if your pit only has men in it, your pit sucks.

But then something kept bothering me. Even though I had five great tracks this month that I felt really confident about sharing (including some music I’ve been hyped on for most of the year), it didn’t seem like enough. This is an interesting problem; every month I pick five songs I’m obsessing over, or at the very least intrigued by, but for once that wasn’t enough. Regular readers of this column are probably familiar with Stereogum’s The Black Market (which you should definitely also read if for no other reason than the history of a band called Buttocks), which picks 10 tracks each month, and this is one of those months where I’m realizing the necessity of it. The irony of it all is that I didn’t expect to be overwhelmed by so much excellent new music in the middle of a pandemic. Granted, a lot of these releases were recorded and planned probably a year ago, or at least at the beginning of the year. But it’s still a surprising outcome: In the middle of a global event that’s had widespread negative repercussions for musicians and the industry, somehow metal’s about to have its best season all year.

I’m genuinely surprised at this outcome, even though I probably shouldn’t be. Back when I spoke to Neurosis’ Steve Von Till about his artful, ambient new album of apocalyptic beauty, he said the pandemic didn’t actually affect when it was going to be released, and that while promoting it would be more complicated, putting it out would be better than sitting on it for a year. And while I imagine a lot of bands and labels did consider postponing their releases, after five months of lockdown with not a lot of reason to be optimistic that things will return to “normal” (a dubious term if there ever was one), at this point I think it’s safe to say a lot of them are simply saying “fuck it” and putting the music out. We’re all anxious and frustrated and feeling claustrophobic, so if nothing else, at least we can have new music and take comfort in knowing that a lot of what’s on the way is good.

There’s also the possibility of having a glut of new music made during the pandemic. Boris surprised us all with NO, an album made in a short span of time at the beginning of the pandemic that represents some of their best music in years. It absolutely rips, and it happened during lockdown, not beforehand. I doubt this will be the last album of its kind that we’ll hear during this time, and I suspect a few of metal’s more prolific bands will have a lot to share with us by the time stages start opening up again. Krallice, to name one obvious group, just released a new full-length, and given their tendency to drop two or three releases a year, I have a feeling it might not be their last. (Stereogum’s Doug Moore says to expect 17 albums from them—he’s probably not wrong.)

So, considering this fall is just going to be incredibly loaded with excellent new metal albums, and I couldn’t narrow this month’s selections down to five—AND today is Bandcamp Friday (!!!)—I’m giving you all a new-metal-stravaganza. Here are a dozen new metal tracks you need to hear. You’re welcome.

The Best Metal Tracks of September 2020

Evaporated Sores – “Regurgitated Existence”

I like a bit of industrial noise in my metal, which is probably why I find myself writing about Full of Hell so often. Though I’ve heard few tracks as utterly filthy and cacophonous in 2020 as this one. Evaporated Sores are billed as an “American Industrial Noise Death-Doom” band, which pretty much covers it. This is harsh, intense, ugly, dissonant and hostile music, the kind of metal that doesn’t just use speed or volume to its advantage, but completely wretched sonic weaponry. Is there a melody in this song? Maybe! If that’s important to you, however, you should probably look elsewhere. What makes Evaporated Sores interesting is that there’s a structure and a method to their noise, but not necessarily anything that makes it more palatable in a textural sense. This stuff is still pretty far from accessibility of any kind, but the fact that there’s rhythm and song structure offers the brief illusion of it being, well, an honest-to-goodness song. If that’s what you want to call it. Also I retract that “goodness.” This is pure aural malevolence.

From Ulcerous Dimensions, out September 3 via Sentient Ruin.

Undeath – “Lord of the Grave”

Don’t get the wrong idea. Undeath aren’t the antithesis of death metal, rather I’d reckon that the “Undeath” the New York group has chosen for their name is, in fact, the state of being undead—y’know, like vampires and zombies and stuff. Maybe I’m wrong. It kind of doesn’t matter, because Undeath utterly crushes. Harsh, roaring, guttural death metal with an old school reverence and a new-school level of sheer, sharpened menace, “Lord of the Grave” is precisely the sort of relentless destruction that I get really excited about these days. There are death metal bands more suited to progressive song structures or more immediate hooks and the like, but Undeath is simply laying waste to this track, leaving nothing but chum in their wake.

From Lesions of a Different Kind, out October 23 via Prosthetic

Krallice – “Feed on the Blood of Rats”

So I’ll just go ahead and say I don’t actually expect that we get another 16 albums from Krallice this year, but I wouldn’t surprised if we got at least one more, maybe even two. They’re a prolific band, and when given the gift of time—which could feel more like a burden at this point—can prog-metal their way through entirely new galaxies and capture it all on tape. They delivered at least one album this year so far, Mass Cathexis, which feels relatively concise by their standards. A decade ago you couldn’t finish one of their albums in less than 65 minutes, and that’s a conservative estimate. Now, they’re basically doing the punk rock version of their intricate, mathematically complex black metal, and it’s nice to have the option of something more digestible. Nonetheless, “Feed on the Blood of Rats” still feels like a colossal anthem, still knotty and gnarled but driven by forward momentum and seething intensity. It’s a familiar kind of cosmic black metal, but it somehow always ends up feeling brand new.

From Mass Cathexis, out now

Respire – “Tempest”

I’d like to take a moment to shout out Treble writer Brian Roesler for introducing me to Respire, the Toronto-based band whose hybrid of black metal, screamo and shoegaze sounds could probably be compared to any number of bands, from Deafheaven to Envy and Celeste. They’re an incredible band and just a few years back I’d never even heard the name—yet this is a group that’s hard to forget. Their music overwhelms, practically choking the whole of the space their music occupies and overloading the senses. From the opening moments of “Tempest,” there’s very little room to maneuver or breathe, their onslaught damn-near impenetrable. If you didn’t get farther than that, I understand, but stick with it—halfway through, “Tempest” grows into something else entirely, something graceful and pretty, something adorned by strings and horns. It’s a remarkable transformation, yet both halves have the added effect of flooding not just the senses but the emotions as well. Listen to this song and try not to feel something—I dare you. (Anyway, thanks Brian!)

From Black Line, out November 13 via Holy Roar

MRTVI – “Obscured Reality”

British-Serbian experimental metal artist MRTVI has moments of more straightforward black metal, and they’re good, but you know me—I love something disorienting and fucked up. “Obscured Reality,” the closing track of new album Omniscient Hallucinatory Delusion, is a nightmarish spiral of psychedelic effects and instrumentation, peculiar vocal tricks and a demonic dose of acoustic instrumentation. While it’s by no means as evil sounding as the Evaporated Sores track above, I certainly don’t feel safe listening to it, and I’m not even sure if I’m still in my own dimension. So, that’s a success in my book.

From Omniscient Hallucinatory Delusion, out November 6 via Transcending Obscurity

Eave – “Funereal Burn”

As I write this, I’m sweating inside my own house, dreaming of a time when winter’s grey finally returns and gives us brief reprieve from the cruel summer heat—which we can’t do much about, really. Still a pandemic! But Eave, at least, provide the illusion of winter, which is the next best thing. The Maine group, whose sound has a similar chill factor as that of Bindrune labelmates Panopticon, practically cause ice crystals to form with their dense sheets of guitar. It’d be downright refreshing if it weren’t so emotionally draining, but about halfway through “Funereal Burn,” the song goes from black metal to… emo? Well, some kind of indie subgenre—the dynamics and melody remind me of Sunny Day Real Estate, though I’d probably happily accept some other post-hardcore/indie band circa 1994. The real trick is how seamlessly they pull it off. Still, it’s comforting to know they can make their way back to that frosty black metal atmosphere so naturally. It just feels right.

From Phantoms Made Permanent, out September 4 via Bindrune

Glassing – “Twin Dream”

Austin’s Glassing released one of the most underrated gems in heavy music last year with Spotted Horse, a swirling spiral mixture of sludge metal, shoegaze and post-hardcore that captured a knife’s edge tension and awe-inspiring psychedelia within its immense sonic scope. “Twin Dream” is a new standalone single from the group, and it’s sublime, as gorgeous as it is taut and heroic. There’s a lot of space flowing in and out of this track—there’s an eerie openness that makes it much more than the sum of its riffs. The subtle traces of sustain and feedback make “Twin Dream” feel huge, cavernous, incredible. So far there’s no album attached to this track, but when that happens, it’s bound to be something special.

Single; out now via Brutal Panda

Plague Years – “Play the Victim”

There’s a brief mix of eerie, mood-setting synths, helicopter rotors and weird, murmuring vocal sounds at the beginning of “Play the Victim,” which opens Circle of Darkness, the debut album from Detroit thrashers Plague Years. That might partially be the influence of producer Arthur Rizk, whose resume includes records by Prurient, Power Trip and Tomb Mold. But once Plague Years blow the doors open, “Play the Victim” is nothing but juiced-up, beefy, jabroni-clobbering thrash metal, big on power chord riffs and beats that could leave a pretty nasty bruise. Absolutely brutal. Well, I’m convinced.

From Circle of Darkness, out September 18 via eOne

Proscription – “Voiceless Calling”

Finnish band Proscription is helmed by the colorfully named Christbutcher, a player who’s been in the metal game for a while, in groups like Abberant, Cryptborn, Maveth and Dethroned. But Proscription also features guitarist Cruciatus of recent death metal favorites Lantern, which doesn’t quite make this a supergroup, but it does mean there are some well-seasoned veterans behind the project. “Voiceless Calling” is the perfect intersection of raw, grimy death metal and crisp production, making the sharpness of the guitar riffs feel all the more dangerous and satisfying as a result. I’ll admit that the thing that drew me to this track was the Illuminati Face cover painting, which is as good a reason as any to listen to something in my book—cover art is important! It just so happens that “Voiceless Calling” is an absolute beast of a track.

From Conduit, out September 24 via Dark Descent

Spirit Adrift – “Harmony of the Spheres”

Let’s fucking goooooo! Whenever I listen to Spirit Adrift, I feel like doing something unbelievably badass, like crashing through a window, or riding my steed into battle, or shotgunning a beer. (I can only realistically do the last one, and it ain’t pretty.) Essentially whatever I am doing—which, let’s be real, is sitting in front of a computer because that’s all any of us are doing for the most part—it’s made that much more kickass thanks to Spirit Adrift. “Harmony of the Spheres” is every bit the ripper that the standouts from their fantastic 2019 album Divided by Darkness were, but with a bit more of the stadium swagger that heavy metal heroes like Judas Priest might have pulled off. The fact that its bridge goes from a disco beat into a blast beat proves that Nate Garrett and company aren’t playing by anyone’s rules but their own. And that’s pretty badass.

From Enlightened in Eternity, out October 16 via 20 Buck Spin

Pallbearer – “Rite of Passage”

It’s easy upon first listen to assume that “Rite of Passage” is going to end up one of Pallbearer’s more labyrinthine prog constructs, its opening riff climactic but not necessarily their most triumphant—the roaring thunder of “Thorns” or “Worlds Apart” has been put aside for something more ornate, less fist-in-the-air heavy metal ass kicking. And that’s fine! Because it turns out “Rite of Passage” actually turns into one of their catchier tracks, a waltz that lets the melody do the talking rather than the elaborate guitar work. Not that there isn’t plenty of that, but here the band’s showing off their songwriting above all, and it’s a fine example of what this band can do with a damn song.

From Forgotten Days, out October 23 via Nuclear Blast

Emma Ruth Rundle & Thou – “Ancestral Recall”

Depending on who you ask, and that might actually include the band themselves, Thou’s arguably as much a grunge band as a metal band. They’ve recorded a lot of Nirvana covers—they are, in my estimation, the only band left whose Nirvana covers are actually still worth hearing—and the highlights from their 2018 EP Rhea Sylvia would fit in perfectly alongside Alice In Chains deep cuts. So when you add the melodic vocals and spacious and dreamy guitar of Emma Ruth Rundle to the mixture, what you end up with is a pretty stunning grungegaze mixture that sounds at once immersive and raw. I’ve been pretty up front about how much I’ve been looking forward to this record, and the first dispatch from the EmmaThou album, “Ancestral Recall,” is more immediate and catchy than I could have imagined. Yet does it slay? Yes, it slays. I know what’s spinning on my turntable come Halloween.

From May Our Chambers Be Full, out October 30 via Sacred Bones


I can’t finish this column without first addressing the monumental loss of the passing of Power Trip’s Riley Gale. He’s not just an artist whose music I thought was some of the best metal being made right now, but a person I admired and genuinely believed to be an example of how to keep challenging yourself to be better, and for that matter, how to make metal better. Back when I interviewed him in 2017, he spoke about how frustrating he found it when metal bands leaned on a politically passive platform. “I’m not going to stand there and tell you that racism or homophobia is OK,” he said. “If you fit under one of those umbrellas, I don’t want you listening to my band. Come with an open mind.”

Everyone has a story about Gale calling out some knucklehead at a show, and at the beginning of the year, I highlighted a tweet in this very column from the band that spoke to their commitment to standing up for people’s rights. It gave me hope for the future. It still does. It’ll get worse before it gets better—it already did. But considering how, for years, metal fans either passively accepted racism or sexism, or a normalization of white supremacy in the community, the fact that Gale said, “nah, fuck that,” openly and frequently, was no small thing.

But let it not be forgotten that Power Trip are an incredibly fun band. There’s a caricature of those who stand up for social justice being buzzkills because they’ll tell you that your racist joke sucks, but look—your racist joke does suck. Being on the right side of history doesn’t mean we can’t still party, it just means that there’s room for everyone to feel comfortable and safe at the party. And that’s essentially what Power Trip shows were—a massive, high-energy party where everyone was welcome. They put on a hell of a live show, and there are few metal bands I’ve seen that have translated that infectious energy to the crowd as well as they did.

I think the best way we can honor his memory is to continue to fight to make metal more inclusive, more welcoming, more interested in ideas of kindness and social justice than subscribing to exclusionary ideas of trueness. And we should always hold onto a sense of joy while doing it—if you ever left a Power Trip show without a smile on your face, maybe you weren’t actually there.

Rest in power, Riley.

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