Words by Andrew Lampela
Andrew Lampela was an employee and eventual co-owner of the 40-year old institution, Haffa’s Records in Athens, Ohio, just outside of the dark woods from which Skeletonwitch emerged. Over his years there he has played in a number of bands ranging from rock to noise to metal and has taken his lifelong knowledge of music into contributing to a number of publications.
I’ve tried to become way less judgmental these past few years. Not necessarily about life. I worked at, then co-owned a record store for about seventeen years, and judging is a pre-requisite. That’s certainly not bragging, as I can tell you first hand, that shit will not get you more than a few inches over the poverty line and more than a little callous about people’s ability to think. More in the sense that working at a record store taught me two things. Be on top of as many genres as you can stand enjoying at once, and to get so sick of music in general that it is as okay to get into paint-blistering Japanese psych or pre-WWII gospel 78s as it is to spend a week figuring out why everyone is so into Fleetwood Mac all of a sudden. Sorry, everyone, Tusk still sucks. I can’t even begin to get the time spent trying to understand Manfred Mann back. But I digress.
Same goes for everyone having a favorite season. It’s weird, I know. Enjoy sweating every time you leave the house for a couple months? Great, no judgement here. Enjoy those Spring-time blossoms? Nah, not here in Ohio, doesn’t happen anymore. Fall colors get you misty-eyed? Great, but you have a two week window to get that in around here. Being in the great state of Ohio, I’m not talking any of that business. I’m more talking the shift from ‘it’s sunny and burns’ to the ‘locked in the mid-40s, slate grey, and every joint in your body aches’ season. I don’t mind the extra two layers of clothes and the gamble that the front steps of the house may or may not be frozen astro-glide. It means that best of life season is upon us!
This time of year has been my shit for as long as I can remember. It began as year-end issues of Metal Maniacs and R.I.P. and even Circus, and has grown into spending months parsing Aquarium Drunkard and the Quietus lists for crazy new shit. Working nine hours a day at a record store, a man’s got to do research, regardless of his clientele’s desire to go down a two month long German Free Jazz wormhole. Nine hours a day, six days a week, nineteen years running, you go on some pretty fucked up benders, and for the most part I always felt like I kept up with most lists while still finding some new shit to torture customers with.
It was a great way to weather the brutally boring Ohio winter. As with most things, however, there is a ‘but…’. Long story short, real life intervened, the store closed, and I traded one very opinionated set of nerds for another, landing a job at a brewery here in Southeastern Ohio, Jackie O’s. It’s a great place to work, and I’m surrounded by great dudes, but I’m pretty sure if I tried to throw on a playlist of Quietus picks, I’d get hung by my toes and drip-tortured with hazy IPA. It’s a far cry from the days of nine hour Korean kayagum binges, I’ll tell you.
And that has really hit home this year, going from judging my own prowess to getting buried deep enough I’ve probably listened to the least amount of new music this year then I have since my teens. I’ve been reading these lists and, as someone with a neurotically untenable desire to hear everything, it’s been very sobering to not really recognize anything. Like, anything. I mean, this used to be my world, something that was second nature to me for almost two decades in a professional capacity, another decade and a half as a nerd before that. Nowadays? I work and I shower and I eat and I’m lucky to make it thirty pages into the current book that’s taken me four months to read (Black Leopard Red Wolf by Marlon James, if you care) before I start drooling for a few hours and wake up to do it all again. The idea of keeping up on even a tenth the music I used to gives me weird anxiety shivers. I’ll be the first to admit that William Basinski has been my go to, both because he makes compelling music and even more so, he sounds exactly like my particular tinnitus coupled with my exact depressive fetal position. This has been a pretty tough year for all of us.
Don’t get me wrong. I know exactly how cheesy and privileged this sounds. None of the places I’ve ever lived have been shelled to rubble because the whims of rich people that hate me could afford bombs. I’ve never decided that walking my loved ones through shitty terrain and shittier people to try to sneak into a country that will most likely make them live in a cage was the better idea. All I have to do is get by and listen to music, and I fully understand how easy this is.
Still, this past year has really brought my tenuous grasp on mental health into focus. Depression is a very real thing. It happens in a split second, settling in before you’ve even noticed the last eight hours of staring at the ceiling as a form of avoidance and release. Things that need to get done are a blur of CSI re-runs that all blend together and a smothering sense of anxiety and dread settle in as a constant thrumming behind your ears. It has been a brutal couple of years, and it’s pretty unbelievable that worrying about multiple levels of fucked, from the personal to the global, has become something that we just wake up and do.
It’s been a year of adjustment, to be sure. It’s a very bizarre feeling to have the one thing I’ve always depended on to get me out of a funk turn into one of my biggest anxieties. The idea of an upcoming Quietus list honestly scares the shit out of me. No doubt I’ll make a nine hour playlist, and no doubt I’ll never have time to listen to it all. I could absolutely write this column about nothing but the Crypt Sermon album for the next couple months and be perfectly happy, with a shout out at the end about Howling Giant’s excellent The Space Between Two Worlds (Blues Funeral), but the perverse desire to waste an hour on a mediocre Refused resurgence is still there. I can’t explain it, and I’ll never be able to deny it, even as it piles on to existing existential dread.
All of this is just really saying getting old sucks. Nowhere near as bad as depression sucks, and if you need it there are numbers out there to call whenever (the National Suicide Prevention hotline at 1-800-273-8255 and the Samaritans at 877-870-4673 for starters). But yeah, getting old sucks. Not only does it take a supremely herculean effort to stay on top of things, shit you burnt out on a couple decades ago wraps back around as an influence.
The resurgence of trad metal really bums me out because everything sounds like Celtic Frost or Iron Maiden, but I’m also really stoked that lots of bands sound like Celtic Frost and Iron Maiden. There are a buttload of bands doing this stuff, and most miss the playlist by being too earnest and taking the material as some sort of holy text. Iron Maiden are fucking legends, but they also have a song that kicks off with “In a time/when dinosaurs walked the eeeaaaaaarrrrrtttttthhhhhh….” Yikes. Savage Master’s Myth, Magic and Steel (Shadow Kingdom) is a fine example dialing in the correct levels of reverence and ripping some traditional metal that sounds like every 80s Metal Blade cover all at once. I’m a complete sucker for this style, and I applaud. My go-to nostalgia album lately, however, is definitely High Command’s Beyond The Wall Of Desolation (Southern Lord). The first song has crazy heavy Celtic Frost vibes before busting out some Kill Em All, and if “Merciless Steel” doesn’t make you whisper the words to “Black Magic”, you need more early Slayer in your life pronto. This is all offered in the most complimentary way, as High Command totally get it. Raw, riffy, and fist banging, there is certainly no reinventing the wheel here. Just a ripping nod to the past. Super good shit.
It’s not enough that a bunch of younger bands remind me that I’m old, now every band I ever listened to in high school has to get back together. Cool enough, most of them didn’t make any money back then, so go for it I say, even if I’m not very inclined to give most of the albums more than a cursory listen. So, yeah, I was as shocked as most people to find out the new Sacred Reich is pretty damn good. Awakening (Metal Blade) is the return of Dave McClain-era Reich, and a brief thirty two minutes. They weren’t one of the biggest bands of the thrash era, but damned if I didn’t love those albums. Awakening didn’t blow my mind, but it is certainly five times better than I ever would have expected. Hopefully they get more attention with this album than they got back in the day, they deserve it for logging one of the better veteran thrash albums this year.
Cloud Rat’s Pollinator (Artoffact) has been my palate cleanser as of late. Nothing like a solid grind album to clear the head, especially one with such devastatingly awesome chords going on. There are some stunningly beautiful, for lack of a better descriptor, post-rock guitar parts on this ripper, and they really set Pollinator apart for me. Songs like “Last Leaf” and “Webspinner” really stick with you. I mean, if you’re into grind and all.
Cloak’s first album, 2017’s To Venomous Depths, was a favorite of mine. Just the right blend of black metal and The Cult. Not super gross lo-fi, not too shiny, but also not really something I could see being great for two albums. With The Burning Dawn (Season Of Mist), they expand their scope ever so slightly by sounding like Darkthrone covering Bauhaus in the style of Fields of Nephilim, and I am fucking down. “Tempter’s Call” is a pretty solid encapsulation of what Cloak does. Goth black metal, who knew?
Another band that learned a few tricks between albums is Wolfbrigade. I love them, but I’d be hard pressed to pick one of their albums out of a line-up. The Enemy: Reality (Southern Lord) takes their D Beat barrage and throws in what I can only call more rock and roll parts. It’s still full speed and unrelenting, but there’s an edge here that gives it all a rougher, catchier feel than the last few albums. “Human Beast” is crusty as fuck, but there’s definitely some swing in there.
Another thing that has given me anxiety this year has been the dreaded ‘highly anticipated’ label getting slapped on something. I’ve been hearing about Hidden History Of The Human Race (Dark Descent) for so long now, the idea of actually listening to it almost seemed like a dare. Hype has always scared me, and Blood Incantation is the motherlode. Futuristic space death metal is a very sweet spot of mine, however, and Blood Incantation deliver big time. I’d be happy listening to later Gorguts and early to mid Voivod for the rest of my life, so the technical but soulful death of Hidden History… is a delightfully awesome place to hang out for a little over a half hour. Three five-ish minute songs and an eighteen minute closer cover so much ground that Hidden History… rewards multiple listens immensely. This has been quite a year for death metal, and Blood Incantation deliver one of the best.
I’ve still got a handful of things on my list to check out. The problem with finding so much great music this year is that, for every time I put Crypt Sermon on repeat or remember that Howling Giant is the shit and I should listen to it, something else falls by the wayside. I’m enjoying the new Alcest (Nuclear Blast) more than I have anything from them in quite a few albums. Obsequiae’s The Palms of Sorrowed Kings (20 Buck Spin) sounds pretty interesting, but timing and mood haven’t joined up correctly enough for me to dive in with enough attention. I’ve never been more than a casual Blut Aus Nord fan, but Hallucinogen (Debemur Morti) is both crazy sci-fi orchestral black metal and way more stream-lined and accessible than I thought it would be, and will stick around for a few more spins for sure. Mortiferum (Profound Lore) didn’t get enough listens for me to accurately comment on it here, but it’s pretty solid gross doomy death metal and will get some further listens. Same with the Kostnatění album. Just haven’t had time for weird ass black metal, man.
I’m going on a vacation towards the end of the year. It’ll hopefully be just enough time away to reset the batteries and maybe breathe a little. I will have plenty of time to check all these things out and more. Or I will probably listen to a fuck-ton of Basinski and melt into my own head for a few weeks, with intermittent bursts of the first three or for Overkill albums. Seems more likely. Life is too short to be judgmental about complete garbage like DragonForce, so I’ll be dialing back the need to be on top of everything and just focusing on what gets me through the day, which certainly isn’t DragonForce. Happy holidays!