I like to root for the underdog. Part of the motivation for launching this column three years ago (holy cow, three years!) was to get under the surface and dive deeper into what was happening in metal—to highlight many of the bands whose music was on the verge rather than those who were already household names among metalheads. Not that I won’t lend my vote of approval to a new track by Boris or Baroness or Darkthrone or Mastodon. Unless they fuck up royally—which I’m pretty sure they won’t—they’re going to get some attention in that section down there labeled “Best Metal Tracks of the Month.”
Still, while Boris and Darkthrone have their reserved parking spaces in Shadow of the Horns—the column is named after a Darkthrone song, after all—it’s just as exciting, maybe even more so, to find an entirely unexpected discovery that just blows the doors off of anything happening in more mainstream or at least bigger-indie metal circles. Discovering bands such as Venenum or Necrot is what makes the slog through so many uninspiring promos and streams entirely worth it.
But that’s not what I’m talking about this month. Maybe next month I’ll highlight nothing but up-and-comers and unknowns and underdogs, but for right now, it’s all about the all-stars, the MVPs and the ringers. And anyone who’s been paying attention to metal in the past three weeks should understand what I mean: It’s been one astounding new track or new album after another, and it feels a little like the most kickass music festival on the planet building its lineup in real time right before us. (Oh man, someone book all these bands together and then invite me, please.)
It started with Deafheaven. On April 17, they released their new track “Honeycomb,” a lengthy and anthemic metal track with traces of alt-rock that served as a reminder why the Bay Area group has been able to successfully convert so many non-metalheads into worshippers of the riff. And certainly, there were plenty of people who rushed to Twitter just to remind us that they were the first not to like Deafheaven or whatever, but that’s boring and I don’t care and they can go away. As if that wasn’t enough for one day, along comes YOB with their first new track since 2014′s Clearing the Path to Ascend, “The Screen.” And good god, it chugs and scrapes and roars and sounds more intense than any of us could have expected.
It could have stopped there, and there still would be no oxygen left in the room. (Cough) But then three days later (cough) on April 20th wafts the weedian doom metal of Sleep, who dropped their first new album in 15-19 years (depending on how you look at it), The Sciences. (Cough, cough) As could have been expected from the band that released an hour-long track in Dopesmoker, one that their label had no fucking clue what to do with, The Sciences is massive, the kind of album that takes a good time commitment from its listeners, but remains consistently entertaining throughout, in part because Sleep create such a ferocious atmosphere of fuzz and power, and in part because it’s full of dad jokes (“Giza Butler,” anyone?). And then—and THEN!—as if some kind of third encore after an epic show full of deep cuts and left-field catalog jams, the mighty Khemmis return with the promise of another new set of music, their follow-up to 2016′s Hunted just over the horizon.
This would have been enough. I could have been pretty busy with these four bands alone for a while, not to mention all of the more underground releases that continue to be released at a steady clip. It would have been fine. I can’t keep up with the amount of music that’s in my inbox as it is. But then on April 27, Louisiana sludgemongers Thou drop a surprise new EP loaded up with five new noise-metal tracks and five pure noise/dark ambient shrieks. It’s by no means as soaring or huge as 2014′s Heathen, but that might be a blessing in disguise. More Thou is always a good thing, and a digestible version of Thou, rare as it is, is worth celebrating.
I mean, good god (or Satan, I guess?), that’s a hell of a batch of new metal, and though this space is often reserved for reminiscences, closer looks at pressing issues or trends, or simply a celebration of something more specific, I can’t help but be overwhelmed by the kind of year that 2018 is turning into for metal. It’s only May, and I can’t imagine the fall release season boasting a greater embarrassment of riches than this. (Then again, Baroness are just about due for a new one…) I’ll worry about that when it happens, but for now, it’s nothing but high-fives and fist-bumps as we get to…
The best metal tracks of May 2018
Sleep – “Marijuanaut’s Theme”
It’s so absurd. The song actually begins with the sound of a bong rip. And it’s called “Marijuanaut’s Theme.” I mean, it’s not as if Sleep’s love for all things green and leafy was a surprise, but they wild out on their paean to the sweet leaf on the first proper song on their first new album in 15 years. (Nearly 20 when you count Dopesmoker as a re-release of their “official bootleg,” Jerusalem.) Of course, Sleep is still essentially in “Dopesmoker” mode here, Matt Pike’s guitars creating a truly thick and toxic-sounding haze of overdrive. It’s nasty and crunchy and sticky and disorienting. Just like the dankest shit in their own personal stash. But the great thing about Sleep is they replicate the experience of being high af simply by making the sound of their doom metal dense and overwhelming enough to create something of a contact high in itself. It’s great to have these dudes back. *Cough*[from The Sciences, out now; Third Man]
Thou – “Malignant Horror”
Thou is one of the best contemporary metal bands if simply because they’re a group that never stops moving. There’s always somewhere new for them to go, and they do it with creativity and good humor, not to mention a DIY ethos that makes them a lot more like a punk or hardcore band than a metal one, at times. The sound is pure devastation, however, which “Malignant Horror” reinforces in its filthy riffs. About half of their new EP comprises noise, essentially, and this is one of the more melodic moments on the record, which is to say, not that melodic. But it’s certainly in character with a band who has collaborated with some shrieking miscreants like The Body. It’s a slow, menacing and destructive sound, far from the anthemic power of 2010′s “Voices in the Wilderness,” or the majestic doom metal of Heathen, but it still sounds like Thou. It’s a sound that never wears out its welcome, simply because they never offer anyone the opportunity to get bored with it, or even used to it.[from The House Primordial, out now; Robotic Empire]
Khemmis – “Isolation”
I once attended a show where Khemmis was opening for Oathbreaker, and there was an odd divide in the crowd, in that more than a few people there for the headliners just didn’t take too easily to Khemmis’ more old-school riffs. That’s the sort of thing that makes me shake my head a little, because it seems to suggest that people have forgotten their heavy metal roots. That clean vocals, harmonized leads, heroic questing and a soaring sense of melody just aren’t a part of what contemporary metal audiences crave. But I also think it’s because most of the naysayers were punk fans who have only recently found their way over to the metal pool, and aren’t quite as indoctrinated in the NWOBHM canon. It gives me no small amount of pleasure to learn that Khemmis is doubling down on the trad-metal sound with new single “Isolation,” a song that’s heavy but employs that heaviness for the sake of delivering a true anthem. Much like the Deafheaven song I discuss below, this is a massive track that takes many different directions, but those directions are more directly informed by early metal and prog-rock, and the song’s about half as long. It’s complex and knotty and aims for something powerful without overreliance on fucking shit up too much. Metal can have complex melodies and nerdy aesthetics. It’s more fun that way, sometimes! And “Isolation” is Khemmis showing off just how badass that nerdery can be.[from Desolation, out June 22; 20 Buck Spin/Nuclear Blast]
Deafheaven – “Honeycomb”
It says a lot about a week—let alone a month—when the flood of new metal is so overwhelming that Deafheaven doesn’t automatically dominate the discussion. I mean, they will to some extent; they’re a band who attracts both the obsessive and invites acid-tongued detractors in equal measure. You’d think people would have gotten over the fact that one of the biggest breakout metal bands of the past five years is one that has listened to a few Oasis or Slowdive records, but then again metal is a fun place where everybody has rational opinions about everything. (I kid! I love metal, but Deafheaven doesn’t sound like Darkthrone—and I don’t want them to!—get over it.) “Honeycomb” is 11 minutes of Deafheaven doing what they do best: Melancholy, melodic metalgaze with elements of post-hardcore. It soars. It shoots for the fucking moon. Pretty much all of their songs do, and at this point it’d be frankly sort of weird if they scaled back (though “From the Kettle To the Coil” was just that, I suppose). Around the four-minute mark, “Honeycomb” goes full-on Siamese Dream (with a little arena rock schlock, in the best way), and it’s a glorious sound, because it’s a reminder of how far-reaching the band’s influences are, and how far they’re willing to swerve outside of black metal’s lane while finding a way to have it all fit. Audacious? Absolutely. But expecting anything else from Deafheaven at this point would be a fool’s errand.[from Ordinary Corrupt Human Love, out July 13; Anti-]
YOB – “The Screen”
Considering how Mike Scheidt was derailed for a period of time in the past couple years by some debilitating health issues, it feels like something of a triumph that YOB are returning this year with a new album. And a pretty massive one at that. (And guys, it’s good. It’s really fucking good.) But nothing quite projects the power of YOB roaring back to life like their new 10-minute track “The Screen.” In fact, for a band so steeped in powerful melodies and psychedelic textures, it’s kind of weird how brutal this track is in its opening riff. Scheidt unleashes a burly chug that sounds like the stalking of some great prehistoric beast, and for that matter indulges in a pretty fearsome bark. Coming off of the 18-minute religious experience of 2014′s “Marrow,” it’s pretty fucking gnarly. But once the chorus hits, YOB returns to their most transcendent instincts, transforming this dissonant, dark and furious dirge into another masterfully performed moment of doom metal splendor. Like I said about having a month so stacked that Deafheaven doesn’t automatically win? Well, they released their new single the same day that YOB did. And goddamn, this is just glorious.[from Our Raw Heart, out June 8; Relapse]
Piece by Piece
The best metal albums of the past month.
Ails‘ The Unraveling: I only came to appreciate the late, great Ludicra around the time they released their final album, The Tenant, so that left a long period of hankering for some new black metal from the Bay Area group (though its members also played in Agalloch, VHOL and the like, which meant plenty of good music from some of the same musicians). Ails features two members of that band in a new, raw, yet progressive metal setting, blending some complex melodies with the ferocity of old school black metal. It’s a strange contradiction of a simple ethos with an intricate sense of songwriting, and it’s just the right balance for a 40 minute session of blistering black metal. (Flenser)
Grave Upheaval‘s (Untitled): It’s a little trite these days to lean too heavily on the “We’re anonymous ghouls, rawrrrr” marketing scam, but Grave Upheaval’s too fucking good for me to care. Their untitled second album is pleasingly ghastly and ghostly, sounding like it was recorded inside of a mausoleum and performed by the apparitions that haunt it. But you know, really heavy. Count me in. (Nuclear War Now!)
Panopticon‘s The Scars of Man on the Once Nameless Wilderness: I already spent a lot of time and words discussing this one last month, but Austin Lunn’s latest double album (quadruple on vinyl!) is a breathtaking album, both in its ambition and in its execution. It’s half black metal, half bluegrass, with a little post-rock in between, and it’s one of the most audacious metal releases I’ve heard in a long time. It’s also one that boasts a great deal of humanity, with Lunn’s concerns about how we’re destroying the environment and how the excesses of capitalism and American life threaten to destroy something beautiful. It’s a lot to take in, and considering the length, it’s a commitment. Lunn himself posted a statement about how it’s intended to be heard all in a sequence, though on vinyl that’s pretty expensive (I opted for the metal half, no shade to the folk half—and the vinyl’s beautiful, by the way). It’s an album that I intend to maintain a relationship with over time and expect to get more out of it, but for now, I’m basically floored. (Nordvis)
Pharaoh Overlord‘s Zero: A curious album by a group of Finnish experimentalists that also play in Circle and Demilich, Zero isn’t a straightforward metal album. At all. It’s not even, technically, a metal album on the whole. It’s mostly some heavy, trippy-as-fuck krautrock that occasionally delves into some heavy metal riffs (though it’s often more Deep Purple than Death). However, the presence of Antti Boman’s death metal growl pulls it toward metal even while the songs are soaring into outer space. An odd juxtaposition? Certainly. But it works well, and it’s a hell of a lot of fun to listen to. (Ektro/Hydra Head)
RYLR‘s Actual Existence: In his review of this album, Langdon Hickman pointed out how much fun it was to listen to these three veterans of heavy music simply reveling in the riffs and rhythms that they bounce off one another. And he’s absolutely right. While instrumental metal often builds its sense of atmosphere and distinct character through dramatic builds and ambience (which RLYR does, to be fair), Actual Existence is by and large a really fun record to listen to, because these guys are amazing at what they do, and they never let any one track wear out its welcome. And that’s an impressive feat, given that some of these are fairly lengthy. (Flenser)