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.
There’s an exit off of 77, snaking down the southern side of Ohio from Cleveland, that leads to a little nub of a hill right off the highway. I’m sure there’s plenty more behind it, but I haven’t pulled off more than two, maybe three times for gas and coffee in the countless trips I’ve passed by. I have, however, been fascinated by this little slope of commerce since I can remember.
My young teenager eyes, returning from a summer trip to visit my dad’s side of the family by the lake, saw everything my small hometown wasn’t, a shiny mecca where every square foot of hill space was crammed full of modern convenience. Wanna make that next rest stop absolutely necessary? Bam, Taco Bell for you. Wanna risk shitting your pants a few miles before that rest stop? Bam, McDonalds in the car for you. Wanna truly damage your body with sodium and butter? Belly on up to Red Lobster before getting back on the road. A veritable oasis of huge chain consumables under a canopy of mesmerizing branded signage.
As the small college town I live in finally capitulates to the fever-dream miasma of anemic blandness that is this small off-ramp mecca of trademarked ‘American Dream’, I now understand that corporations offer so many cloistered choices so that there are, in fact, less choices. The lockdown has not been kind to rural flavor, especially small town identities far removed from resources, rundown by an economy designed for those identities to fail and ultimately be consumed by fake brick facades (“Would you prefer CVS red, or do you prefer the rustic tint of Burger King bricks?”) and indistinguishable greasy gut bombs as we march towards one giant homogenized Shitty Town U.S.A.
Believe me, I get it. The inevitability of expecting the same Oat Milk Venti Caramel Macchiato Extra Whipped Cream no matter where you are in the world has been perfectly visible for decades now. Watching in real time as rents skyrocket and local businesses are all but shut out in favor of some spectral idea of ‘market demands’ being implemented, despite the numerous vacant holes that are too expensive for anything but a chain to occupy, is pretty fucking depressing though.
The most infuriating part of it all however is that I’ve become the “back in my day, that was a…” guy. Which sucks. Nobody wants to be that guy. Unless something incredibly historic happened there, not a single person gives a fuck about where Hole In The Wall subs used to be. Goddamn, I miss those subs.
I’ve spent more time than is probably healthy weeding through the eras of my life over the last fourteen months or so, and I’ll be honest, the lockdown wasn’t so kind to my relationship with the city I am surrounded by. After decades, I got a job far removed from the public, I stopped drinking in a town built on bars, and COVID allowed my agoraphobia to not only blossom but be fully justified. It’s a no-brainer that my usefulness would evaporate. Henry Darger here I come!
Still, the through line that connects these eras has always been change. We all do the same drugs, have the same low paying shit jobs, listen to the same albums, yet no matter how universal those fetal position Bon Iver tears flow, we’ve all had to drag our way through the gristle and muck of love and loss and joy and depression and our favorite sub shop shuttering up towards a singularly personalized abyss.
Perspective is everything, and becoming a whisper amongst the ruins is a necessary step in finding out what parts are actually worth dragging through. I don’t know that I have it in me to round the edges too far, being a prickly asshole is too ingrained at this point, but as I start to come out the other side, I have a deeper sense of when to breathe deeply and accept that trying to cull reasons from an ever shifting cityscape is a foolish game. The only environment I can control is on the inside. This town has certainly had a part in shaping me through the many highs, many lows, and all the painful shit in-between. But letting go of the idea that external, mostly corporate entities have any bearing on finding the little moments of happiness has been a big step in discovering that coming to grips with not only where I’ve found myself in life, but the forks ahead of me as well, has always been about the landscape inside.
I feel I could’ve learned that from Enslaved a long-ass time ago, if I’d have been smart enough to pay attention. Talk about a band with eras to spare. Only into the early Viking shit? Cool, it rules. A Monumension / Below The Lights fan? Shit yeah, untouchable classics. You actually stuck with them past 2004? Fuck yes, my man, fuck yes. As many of their peers chased better (or shittier, if you’re Darkthrone) production and loftier (or shittier, if you’re Darkthrone) audience goals, Enslaved strike me as a group of dudes who decided franchising wasn’t an option and got weird with their internal dialogue. Pagan Viking Black Metal has exploded as far as genres go, and yet nothing else sounds like Enslaved. Those distinctly weird chord voicings! Instantly recognizable. Grutle Kjellson and Ivar Bjornson may be the only constants throughout the bands three decades (shoutout to Ice Dale as a two decade traveller!), but it’s a testimony to their shared vision that a discography this deep sounds as cohesive as it does in the face of near constant experimentation and line-up changes. While some spots are brighter than others, you certainly can’t accuse the band of capitulating to outside pressures.
Heimdal (Nuclear Blast) is no exception, and as someone that enjoys all eras of Enslaved, I dare say it’s the group’s strongest in some time. The Pagan folk-isms and face-melting Black Metal aspects are still at the forefront, but the accents shifted to early 70s Crimson and Captain Beyond twenty or so years ago. The title track closes out the album with one of the heaviest opening riffs on the album, and it is proggy as fuck, possessing far more notes than the TRVE CVLT nerds are probably comfortable with.
I will admit, one of the stumbling blocks of post-Below The Lights Enslaved has been the integration of the clean vocals. For the most part, the band has faired decently. There are a few near misses in there, for real. I, for one, am very pro clean vocals. I often find myself, certainly with the more progressive acts, wishing more bands would tone down the Death croaks. Boy howdy, some of that shit gets old. Enslaved have really dialed it in on Heimdal. The growls on the blazing “Congelia” coexist perfectly with the folky psychedelia of “Forest Dweller” or the progressive “The Eternal Sea”.
If you’ve stuck with Enslaved this long, I don’t need to tell you this album is a winner. If you ditched the band because they aren’t strictly long-boat-and-oars Viking Black Metal anymore, Heimdal is a great place to reconsider. Change is an inevitable, and invaluable, part of growth, as is a grounded sense of identity. Enslaved has mastered both aspects in spades. Thirty plus years in, Heimdal is a fearlessly individual high point in their discography, vital and full of vigorous creativity. Nothing else sounds like Enslaved.
Goddamn, 20 Buck Spin is not fucking around this year. It’s only the end of March, and they keep dropping end-of-year contenders like it’s nothing. Majesties came out of nowhere and has been in rotation pretty hard. I expected the VoidCeremony to shred me, and it still hits harder than I could have imagined. There’s brutal Death Metal, lyrical solos, jazzy interludes and that’s all in the first two minutes of opener “Threads Of Unknowing (Paradigm Of Linearity)”. Comparisons suck, but the upfront bass runs and overall interplay of every instrument harkens back to the more complex end of Morrisound’s classic period. The jazzy touches on the drum fills really elevate this to the next level for me. This shit is insanely bonkers and tight. The brief reprieve of “At The Periphery Of Human Realms (The Immaterial Grave)” before the gargantuan closer “Forlorn Portrait: Ruins Of An Ageless Slumber” is a mini-album unto itself. So smotheringly good. Hard to imagine a Death Metal record knocking this off the top, but 20 Buck Spin still has eight months left…
Watching Hardcore have a blow-up moment has been pretty fun. There are a shit-ton of good bands out there right now, almost too many to keep up with. Thankfully, at seventeen blissfully riffy minutes, it’s pretty easy to get a dozen spins of Gel‘s Only Constant (Convulse Records) in before checking out the other names I don’t know on the flier. Their earlier splits and EPs get pretty regular play so this is a gimme as far as recommendations go. Ripping guitars, propulsive rhythm section, and pissed but mostly positive lyrics delivered in a perfectly raspy scream, Gel is certainly deserving of the hype they’re currently enjoying. Only Constant delivers, and will be a constant in this summer’s rotation. Great shit.
I guess I lost track of Lamp of Murmuur somewhere in the mix. I vaguely recall enjoying M.’s one-man-band brand of lo-fi Black Metal, but holy smokes has he been busy! Saturnian Bloodstorm (Night of the Palemoon / Not Kvlt) is an entirely different beast. The production is cleaner and thicker, and the songs are more complex than I recall. Anyway, that’s on me for blinking, I guess. The package may be a bit more produced, but this is still highly contagious Black Metal evilness. Not much else to add with this one. Like Black Metal? This is your shit then.
I don’t know what’s up with Finland. Voted happiest place in the world, still more metal bands per capita than anywhere else. Suotana didn’t really jump out at me on Ounas I (Reaper). It’s a very cleanly produced Melodic Black/Death album with keyboards, and nothing stuck the first time through. It is, however, an album I’m glad I persisted with, as it’s quickly becoming a favorite. The songs are well written, the solos are crisp, the vocals fit into the mix perfectly, and it occasionally veers just close enough to symphonic power metal to pull me in, but not so far as to veer into goofy stadium-sized sing-alongs. It’s safe to say there’s nothing particularly groundbreaking here, but this is a very well done example of the genre, and worth a couple listens.
There’s a new Fluisteraars EP with a really long title out on (maybe) Eisenton? Anyway, it’s good. There were a bunch of things I checked out for this month that ended up being overly-produced and not that interesting, so I burned the Ardent Nova (Wise Blood) for my car. “Pagan Thunder”? “Sound The Horns”? “In The Darkest Ages”? Shit was made to speed on the highway to. Speaking of Finnish Symphonic Black Metal, …And Oceans return with an unrelentingly blistering fifty minutes on As In Gardens, So In Tombs (Season of Mist). This style of European harmonized blast beats all the time Black Metal isn’t usually my thing for very long, but I’m digging this one quite a bit. The Fugitive EP is finally getting a vinyl release, so here’s your reminder that Maniac (20 Buck Spin) absolutely fuckin’ rips. Cave In immaculately blistering classic Until Your Heart Stops finally got a vinyl reissue via Relapse, so here’s your reminder that Heart Stops is one of the best albums ever recorded. Period.
It is hardly metal adjacent, but because Translation Loss put it out, I gotta mention the absolutely necessary reissue of Repair And Reward, a collection of Lincoln‘s 7”s. Some of my favorite 90s Emo singles get the remaster treatment so I can hear what they’re supposed to sound like instead of how they sound on the warped as fuck 7”s I will probably still pull out. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Jay Demko’s new Exit Angles album. Fucking rules. I think it’s on Intentional Grounding, I hope you have better luck sifting through pages of Google football results than I did.