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.
For my birthday this year, the world got me Slayer retiring. It’s an inevitability. Getting old happens to all of us, but man…it sure does suck when the genre you cut your teenage teeth on starts taking those AARP applications seriously. I mean, the truth is I probably couldn’t tell you a single song title off of whatever came after Divine Intervention, but if you need someone to act every note of “At Dawn They Sleep” like an idiot, I… uhhh… know a guy. A lot of shit has gone down since crushing both sides of Reign In Blood at detrimental volumes during 9th grade study hall and slowly discovering the ideal Friday night involves both Metamucil and Advil before going to bed by ten.
Metal has evolved far, far more than my teenage mind would’ve ever thought possible. Being able to buy your entire band instruments at Target and enough technology on your phone to have an album out that night has the honor of exponentially expanding the boundaries of the genre and the scourge of ninety percent of metal being unlistenable bullshit. It’s incredibly easy to get swept up in sub-sub-sub-genre wormholes of sweep-picking songs about dragons and wizards and pagans and stuff, but we all know ‘blackened death polka’ is not good, right? “What’s that? Dio is going to be revered in the year 2019, you say? A hologram tour, you say? And Manowar an influence? Pshaw!”
That’s what makes Divided By Darkness (20 Buck Spin) so great. Everyone seems to have latched on to the idea that copping Thin Lizzy harmonies works even when the song itself sucks, but Spirit Adrift really dials it in here. This is classic, no frills except shredding guitars heavy metal. I’m not sure why, but Spirit Adrift records always put me in mind of …and Justice For All, not so much in sound as the progressiveness of the songwriting within the style. It’s probably unfair to single any one song out, but when the heavy chorus to “Angel & Abyss” kicks in at two minutes and eight seconds, it tingles in all the right ‘never left high school’ places. Or when the prime solo-Ozzy gallop comes it at four minutes. Nothing really new, but goddamn is it satisfying when it’s pulled off this flawlessly.
Keeping it simple shouldn’t be such a stigma anyway. Some of my favorite records are just some dudes banging out three chords for a handful of songs and recording it with a pillow-covered boom box. Not saying the new Darkthrone is anywhere near my favorite record, but it rips like a Darkthrone record so yeah, I don’t see a problem. Old Star (Peaceville) will shock no one, but it is dependably entertaining.
All Hell bring some of that old Scandinavian feel to The Witch’s Grail (Prosthetic), like a thrashier Bathory. The extreme difficulty in this is that a billion bands have shot for ‘like a thrashier Bathory’ and failed miserably, either erring on the side of super cheesy or cluttering things up with superfluous technicality. All Hell don’t skimp on technicality, but they eschew flash in favor of making their riffs impeccably bad ass start to finish. I get the feeling I should be paying closer attention to the lyrics, as it seems there is some deep shit going on, but I like to maintain my boundaries when listening to this type of stuff. Guttural vocals over one insanely fun riff after another? All Hell delivers both, but I really just need it cathartically loud, not smart.
Not to say I don’t put my pinkie out when cueing up highbrow metal on the old iPod. Do people still use those? So if you’re one of those people that hits stop at the first sign of a flute in a twelve minute ‘journey’, just skip ahead, no judgement here, because Dreadnought’s Emergence (Profound Lore) is full of those. I haven’t looked at the song titles more than two or three times because this record flows so well I don’t even really know where I am on a track list at any given moment. Black metal, huge progressive movements, folk, new age, and yep, flutes… it’s all here, and done really well. It’s a dense listen following these songs, but really starts to unfold after a handful of listens, and while you acclimate you can focus on Jordan Clancy’s absolutely beastly clinic on drums.
Vale’s Burden Of Sight (The Flesner) is dense in a different way. Less progressive than just sheer crusty black metal pummeling, Vale smoke these six songs in just over a half hour. Kate Coysh’s vocals sear across blistering guitars that never let up. This is bleakly apocalyptic stuff, all dying world and cannibalism, but it’s a refreshingly dirty black metal blast to listen to. Quickly becoming one of my favorites this year. Black metal has become almost as ubiquitous as ‘doom’ in nuking any chance of me playing most records for more than a few minutes. Not saying there isn’t absolutely stunning black metal out there, just that there is a fuck-ton of not stunning horribleness too. Vale absolutely crushes it on Burden Of Sight.
I don’t know much about Australia’s Consummation other than Weakling’s John Gossard is on the record, so interest piqued, but they also come up with some truly satisfying black metal on The Great Solar Hunter (Profound Lore). This is smothering, gross, lo-fi-but-not-shitty-sounding black metal, but with some twisted progressiveness, which appeals to the Gorguts fan in me. It’s sad. I’ve gotten to the age where I don’t have enough hours in the day that I have to be picky with what rises to the top in whatever sub-genre I find myself, but here we are. Slayer retires. Dio is a hologram. Black metal has to actually do stuff to keep my interest. What a world.
Honestly, though, I’d be lying if I said I’d been listening to much else other than the new Cave In. As we pass the one year anniversary of the tragic death of Caleb Scofield, the band have released what amounts to the final demo sessions held just before his passing, and oof, is it a gut punch. I didn’t know him, but I know his music intimately. In the fall of 2000, I did what what anyone barely proficient in a 200 level language class would do. I decided that studying in Japan for six months was a solid idea. Ultimately, it was a great choice, even if I really never got very good the whole speaking/understanding thing, but there were undeniably periods of intense self-doubt and palpable depression. One constant in my time there was wandering around the streets of Nagoya with Jupiter on repeat in my Disc-Man. Like, hundreds of times in six months repeat. To this day, Jupiter comforts me in ways I can’t put into words. Seeing them shortly after I returned solidified the desert-island connection to that album. I’ll fully admit, though, that I’ve been a spotty Cave In fan for the last decade. Antenna was a bit too slick and poppy, Perfect Pitch Black felt a bit disjointed between the heavy and the space-poppy, I don’t even remember why White Silence didn’t click. I think I was just being a record store dick employee when that came out. Of course, hindsight has softened my initial views and I’ve come to love things about all these albums.
Not as much as I love Final Transmission (Hydra Head). The loss of Caleb certainly adds emotional heft, but this is also the most coherently Cave In album in some time, and I can’t stop listening to it. Heavy and spacey in all the right proportions, the only problem with this record is its all-too-brief half hour run time. It’s incredibly easy to take a band like Cave In for granted. I always just figured I’d get something new every handful of years. I can’t imagine how emotionally painful it was for the band to put this album together, but they honor Caleb’s memory by giving us one of their finest moments.