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 must be losing my edge. Younger me would have been frothing to immediately track down Adam Dubin’s Murder In The Front Row, lovingly documenting the early years of the Bay Area thrash scene. Old me? Slept on it until a few weeks ago. Probably due to the constant state of overwhelming dread I, much like you, wake up with every day. I wish it would’ve hit a few more of the smaller bands on the edge, but it’s a fantastic watch, and Dubin opened the floodgates to three weeks of teenage Andrew binging all things 80s thrash. In all honesty, I’m never far away from going on 80s thrash benders, but watching all that old footage really brought it home how much those teenage years have informed my listening habits so many decades later.
I mean, how else do I explain throwing on the new Cirith Ungol album more than once? These dudes have been kicking it since 81 and have a few stone classics under their belt, so I had to check it out on principle alone. Zero expectations, however. Not sure how Forever Black (Metal Blade) will land with anyone under the age of thirty five, but their half almost-thrash, half denim vest 70s heavy metal is pretty much comfort food to me at this point. Absolutely nothing new here, and the vocals get a bit monotonous, but this just sounds like some old dudes throwing down and having fun.
I seem to remember Havok from that thrash revival surge that happened ten or so years ago. Can’t say I kept on most of those bands. It was cool to see so many kids embrace the music I grew up on, but whoo boy did that shit burn itself out in record time. Havok’s V (Century Media) reminds me of that weird early 90s period where Megadeth went to the super processed clean production and everything else followed. It’s got to be difficult to come up with thrash riffs that don’t reference other thrash riffs at this point. Anything that starts like “Ritual Of The Mind” is going to sound like Justice era Metallica, but you know what? That’s okay. It’s a solid song. “Fear Campaign” is a ripper, and “Interface With The Infinite” sits comfortably in the I-Love-80s-Coroner lobe of my brain. Again, absolutely nothing new here, but these guys scratch an itch for sure.
Nostalgia only goes so far, though. Every so often, I go against everything my brain screams and I try dipping my toes into the pool of metal I think I should like, but just… don’t get? Symphonic power metal, for instance. I will profess my Savatage love from the mountain tops. I love five of the first six albums so much (Fight For The Rock sucks, man, and you know it), I will tolerate their transition into everyone’s favorite Christmas jam Trans-Siberian Orchestra. This is why I am continuously curious about bands like Nightwish. By all accounts, Human :II: Nature (Nuclear Blast) should do something for me. Maybe tickle me in the pretty-silly-but-fuck-it spot. Instead, this just sounds like the Cats movie soundtrack decided to get ‘tough’. This band seems to be huge, so it’s as obvious there is a market as it is that I’m not it. It’s a big ol’ world full of stuff for everybody to shame listen to.
Like Katatonia. I can’t tell you what makes Katatonia different from all the other bands in this genre that I don’t much care for. They’re so far removed from their death metal roots now, I feel like they have two very distinct fan bases. The early-is-best contingent can stop reading now. City Burials (Peaceville) falls very hard in the goth-doom-prog vein of their last half of their career. I am, admittedly, already a sucker for a least a few tracks per Katatonia album, but a few spins and City Burials feels much more engaging than either Dead End Kings or The Fall Of Hearts. “Heart Set To Divide” is a great heavy opener. “The Winter Of Our Passing” mines some serious Depeche Mode vibes. “Vanishers” is the dreaded goth ballad, but when it kicks in to the harmony vocals, it definitely nails me. “Flicker” is great slow-burn goth metal, and “Neon Epitaph” kicks off like the Cult got super moody, which I’ll back every time. Dunno if the point of any new Katatonia album is to win over new fans, as this style of Peaceville goth-doom seems a bit niche, but City Burials is Katatonia’s strongest offering in some time, proving the band to be one of the best in the game.
What year is this, anyway? With albums from My Dying Bride and now Paradise Lost taking up space in the rotation, you’d be forgiven for taking a few seconds to answer that. Obsidian (Nuclear Blast) is Paradise Lost’s, what, fifteenth album? Sixteenth album? As much as I really, really like a handful of those, I most certainly don’t have enough reference to tell you how this fits into their catalog, as a little has always gone a long way and there are some bummers in the discography. Obsidian’s first third is Paradise Lost in fine heavy, melancholic form. Things get a little squirrely around “Forsaken” though, with some major Sisters Of Mercy vibes happening and just a bit too much Paradise Lost for me. “Serenity” makes the cut, and “Ravenghast” is growing on me, as is “Defiler” on those occasions I make it to the end. Solid album by, again, one of the best in the genre.
I’m certainly not implying I’m cryogenically stuck or anything. One thing that becomes obvious while working at a record store is that nobody can stand the The-Only-Good-Music-Is-(insert decade here) asshole, not even themselves. If you can’t find good music outside of The Beatles, that’s on you. Although, there was at least a decade in there where I blanked on much of the general metal world. Death metal was boring, everyone else thought it would be cool to add a DJ, and bands I loved were putting out some pretty mediocre albums. Hell, one of the heaviest things I’ve heard recently is the first ten minutes of Olivia Belli’s neo-classical Mater (Memory Recordings). I mean, the rest of it is really good too, but those first ten minutes…oof. Fucking nails me every time!
Anyway, there are plenty of bands out there expanding on the form. Umbra Vitae is what they call a supergroup, I believe. Jake from Converge, Mike and Greg from Red Chord, Sean from Hatebreed/Twitching Tongues, and John Rice playing death metal? Well, fuck yeah, sure. Jake is committed to never doing anything that sucks, what with his day job and Wear Your Wounds, where he is also joined by some of the fellas above, and now this. Shadow Of Life (Deathwish) is certainly death metal, but of a sort fully informed by their experiences. The guitars on “Ethereal Emptiness” are as modern hardcore as it gets before sliding into a phenomenal death metal breakdown. This album smokes, and is already one of my favorites this year.
Oranssi Pazuzu have been consistently weird enough over their existence that it’s almost impossible to convey what, exactly, they are. You used to be able to get by on ‘eh, like Hawkwind playing black metal’, but that simply isn’t the case anymore. Mestarin Kynsi (Nuclear Blast) is unmistakably Oranssi Pazuzu, and it’s not like any of their albums are less than awesome, but these songs sound so much deeper to me. The atmospheric drone and Krautrock influences really shine, the death vocals are well blended, and the heaviness of these songs is truly some next level shit. I know how douchey it sounds to tell people, but this really is a start-to-finish experience. There aren’t many bands out there that can manage to sound this unique with every release. This is without a doubt one of my favorite albums currently.
One band that has consistently floored me album to album has been Elder. They have expanded their sound in such a complex and often bombastic way without ever losing sight that they write great fucking songs. I will admit, I wasn’t prepared for synthy Elder the first listen or two, but “In Procession” vibes so hard I can’t imagine it any other way. Every time I feel like they’ve sacrificed past heaviness, they hit me with some obscenely tasty heaviness. Omens (Armageddon) is a bit on the proggier side of their sound, opting for more synth-laden grooves than full-on Yes-inspired doom workouts, but in the end, that is a very minor complaint. Yet another great chapter for a band that is only getting better.
Supergroup might be a bit of a stretch in regards to Black Curse, unless I’ve completely misjudged how popular a group consisting of members of Khemmis, Blood Incantation, or Primitive Man can get. Doesn’t matter anyway. Black Curse are less about filtering their influences into something new. No, they seem completely focused on sounding like a lost mid-90s European/Scandinavian death metal classic, and holy shit do they connect. Lots of bands get lost in the homage, but Black Curse have their own identity, using the atmospheric weirdness sprinkled throughout these seven rippers to modernize a timeless sound. Endless Wound (Sepulchral Voice) comes highly recommended.
Wailin’ Storms‘s Rattle (Gilead) gives me Southern gothic Black Angels if they listened to Sabbath and Gun Club vibes, and I enjoy those vibes. Witchskull deliver 70s occult rock flavored doom on A Driftwood Cross (Rise Above), and I also enjoy these vibes. Villagers Of Ioannina City weave traditional Greek melodies into a post-rock that puts me in mind of early Cult or Fields of Nephilim. I’m still not sure what I think of Age Of Aquarius (Mantra), as this double album is currently a lot to take in at once, but no doubt I’ll devote the time to allowing this to grow into a favorite. White Stones is the side gig of Opeth’s Martin Mendez, giving his death metal roots a groovy, progressive workout (Kuarahy – Nuclear Blast). Sometimes I get a very specific itch for über-technical, brutal death metal in like, a Behemoth or Nile style, but with minimal cheese, and thankfully Abysmal Dawn have got me covered with the blistering Phylogenesis (Season Of Mist). If the world is indeed ending, this is most definitely on the soundtrack.