Wednesday, December 16, 2020
Thursday, August 27, 2020
It is perhaps unnecessary to mention, but this year has been marked by loss and tragedy, both in my personal life and when looking out at the rapid decay of the world around me. Black Metal & Brews, a website that aims to push transgressive and boundary-breaking music, has been lighter on the "black metal" lately because the rest of the universe is so crowded and chaotic that adding more harshness to my troubled mind feels pointless and potentially harmful. Still, I seek new sounds and I wish to be challenged. With that sense of exploration outside the realms of aggression, I've found myself enchanted by the second collaborative work from the trio of Aidan Baker, Simon Goff, and Thor Harris, The Bit. Sparser and with a more elusive framework than Noplace, which was already rather spectral, these three artists come together to create an album that haunts without intimidating and radiates beauty with just a few hints of unease creeping around its edges.
From the intro as it builds into the album's title track, there's something about The Bit that lends itself to contemplation, yet it also tends to take the listener out of oneself entirely. I've found myself examining the beauty in the new world that's being created just as I've sat with some of the horrors that I wish I could change or avoid. There's a sense of a sort of tunneling in the rhythm laid out by percussionist Thor Harris, but I can't tell if it's an ascent or burrowing deeper, and neither the floating guitar textures of Baker nor the sometimes frantic pace of Goff's violin provide insight. It's just a sort of motion that takes you wherever you're inclined to follow it. The greyscale approach works beautifully, shining light where it must but not providing answers that are not sought. It flows like the soundtrack to a film from another realm, yet the images are muted and obscured, sometimes coming as liquid and other times as clockwork mechanisms. It's the balance of fluidity and that motorik beat that make it neither human nor inhuman, but instead a sort of uncomfortable harmony.
While things inevitably feel like a setting of the stage for the massive closing suite of "Wild at Heart" in its 23-minute span of beauty and occasional terror, "Gait" is one song that truly captures the album's mood without giving away all its most well-hidden corners. There's a gentle, yet firm pulse backing the whole song, as beautiful layers of reverb float above. Accompanying this seemingly soothing build, however, is this back-and-forth sort of squeaking melody that sways between playful and mocking. Will it grow towards discomfort or will it resolve itself? Much of the association comes from within, but the tension the trio masterfully creates is relentless even when at its most sublime. I've written many times (often for other publications) about Aidan Baker's mastery of ambient music and how to bridge conscious and unconscious listening, but this song specifically, even among an album full of it, takes that concept to new heights. When played in the background it simply seems like a beautiful piece, yet a close listen shows a staggering depth that only enriches the experience further.
Of course, to try to sum up an album of varied compositions in a single song is folly, yet a play-by-play would demean the whole experience. Tomorrow Gizeh Records will unleash this entire album for you to enjoy and process. I sincerely hope you will. It has been both a balm for some of my suffering these past few months as well as an album I put on when I need to focus on the intensity of everything. That's a hard balance to manage, but I've gained much from it. I hope it can do the same for you.
Monday, August 17, 2020
Today Black Metal & Brews brings you the debut of a brand new musical endeavor from a group of musicians whose other work you probably already know. Common Cruelty is one of the few things of beauty that has blossomed out of the murk of the prolonged lockdown in the United States during the current pandemic. What began as synthesizer wizard/producer/guitarist/vocalist Mike Mare of Dälek stealthily sending files to friends (without telling them who else was involved) quickly evolved into a larger project, ultimately rounded out by Kenny Appell of Goes Cube on drums and synthesizer, Tyler Wilcox of Forces at Work on bass and vocals, and David Obuchowski of Goes Cube and Publicist UK on guitar and vocals. With many creative minds, three different people singing, and a history in bands whose works are often confrontational, the sound of Common Cruelty is unexpectedly gentle, although not without its patches of darkness.
While some artists in more extreme music scenes tend to form a passion project on the side as a means of diving directly into another interest with specific genre constraints (just take a look at all the heavy metal cowboy bands or the ex-hardcore dudes who've gone darkwave in the last decade), this project feels simply like close friends exchanging ideas freely and fearlessly. There are touchpoints of shoegaze, trip-hop, dream pop and other identifiable sonic roots of the '80s and '90s alternative and underground communities, yet this isn't music to pigeonhole or place into a "for fans of" category. Some songs here are for drifting and dreaming, while others feel like small ways of making peace with an unkind world, yet each of them has an ethereal electronic core that makes even the most disparate elements feel united.
One of the most exciting things about Common Cruelty as a listener is the sense that this can't be placed on one particular musician. While Mike Mare serves as the creative hub and producer, there isn't a single individual voice that sticks out above the others, allowing for songs to develop in ways that are non-linear and rich with layers to uncover on repeated listens. From percussion that seems to fold into itself to vocals blended from all three singers to form a hazy specter of a harmony, the entire thing swells and pulses with a sense of togetherness.
It is an honor to share the world premiere Common Cruelty, with a song from their debut album. Selecting a single song to share felt like quite the challenge, yet "Close My Eyes" touches upon both the serene and the jagged elements of the band as it spreads itself out. From the punchy drumming that opens to the serpentine guitars and the sublime, soft singing, the band creates tension and diffuses it at the same time. Warped synthesizers feel like a fever dream as they creep in and the whole thing sways between haunting twists and comforting warmth. In addition to the song premiere, please read on for an introductory interview to help get you acquainted with the members of Common Cruelty as we discuss the project's roots in spontaneity and collaboration.
Thursday, July 23, 2020
It's unprofessional to write reviews with "I" as the subject, but I'm a blogger and professionalism isn't my strong suit. There's your disclaimer, here's your review. I've been a black metal fan for nearly twenty years. For much of that time, I've had to deal with the disappointment of knowing that right-wing politics of a pointed, hateful nature are often associated with this genre. NSBM and childish edgy behavior aren't a dominant force, sure, but everybody's aware of their existence. To my surprise and relief, the last few years have led to an uptick in political black metal from the leftist end of the spectrum. Red and anarchist black metal have always been a thing, but it's often been kept off to the side and not really highlighted. With this recent surge of left-wing black metal, however, I've been mostly disappointed. I get that unity is important, but I can't pretend to enjoy bands when their politics seem more rooted in gimmicks than action or when their ideas are aligned with mine but the music just doesn't really hit home. Thankfully, there are gems that hit all the marks, like new Dutch black metal act Soyuz.
Soyuz announced its existence on May Day (appropriately enough) with the release of Red Blood, White Frost, an album of mostly mid-paced atmospheric black metal that pays tribute to the Red Army in its fight against Nazi invaders. I'm no political scholar, so I can't dive deeply enough into the subject matter to do it justice, but the mix of leftist might and a sound that actually matches my embarrassingly large collection of demo cassettes is exactly what I needed. While artists don't need to be explicitly left-wing to win my love, it's nice to know that critics who say they listen to right-wing bands because the left doesn't have the riffs are clearly and specifically wrong. As with the last demo reviewed on this blog, the rawness may get in the way for some listeners, but I cherish it. I live for finding the beauty amid the static, and there's just enough clarity in Soyuz's sound for everything to be deciphered without leaning into sterilized production.
While the whole album feels like a valiant war march, the two real highlights are "An Arduous Battle Awaits Us" and closer "Funeral March - Lament for the Fallen Comrades," which have the melodic warmth of the early A Pregnant Light demos fused with a blown out sound that calls to mind some of the hauntingly raw production of some of the more obscure LLN acts or even some of their modern Dutch peers. The latter of the two songs even touches on some of the more beautiful aspects of DSBM without falling into cheeseball melodrama and leads into a haunting use of a recording of the Soviet war march "You Fell Victim." It's this clear love for the genre in all its eras rather than paying tribute to a single style that makes this really hit home for me. Even if we cast the politics to the side entirely, (which all you "separate the art from the artist" types are so good at, right?) this is an absolute ripper of a debut. When I can also throw this in the direction of lefty metalheads who are concerned that black metal might be overrun with nazis, it just fills my heart with joy. Of note: melodies and lyrics from Soviet anthems and war marches are incorporated in a few songs, yet it's done in a fashion where it just blends in rather than feeling like a forced inclusion. Make no mistake: this is gimmick-free and cuts to the core. If you profess a love for raw black metal, it's for you. If you like knowing the musicians can actually play, it's for you. If you're sick of being told that the right-wing acts are the ones with the riffs (and let's be honest, they almost never have them anyway), this is for you.
Long live Soyuz. Let's hope there's more output (and maybe physical releases) to come from these comrades soon.
Thursday, June 25, 2020
When a band releases a self-titled album, it's easy to take it as a statement of intent and identity, and it's clearly the case on Axis of Light, which is also the first full-length in nearly a decade of the band's existence. While the compositional muscle of songwriter and multi-instrumentalist T.L. has clearly grown over the years, the thread from By the Hands of the Consuming Fire to Axis of Light is strong and consistent: shrill vocals over shockingly melodic guitars and drums that are so distorted they sound like a blanket of static half the time. They've always been the perfect band for those of us who enjoy our black metal raw but also like to know there's actual musicians behind it rather than clowns using atmosphere as a shield for lack of originality. In a way, it's no stretch to claim that artists like this served as a bridge for many curious metalheads to find the appeal in harsh experimental noise, simply as a factor of production and atmosphere without having a token "noise guy" in the group.
As for the album itself, well there's a lot to take in here despite a typically brief run-time. While the drums are slightly more defined than on past releases, that familiar blanket of fuzz presents itself almost immediately as peaking vocals and blazing leads accompany the consistent rhythm of "On Whom the Red Moon Bleeds." While the mid-paced (almost march-like) segments are always a thrill and allow things to really breathe, it's sometimes the fastest moments that allow the band's greatest strengths to show themselves without being over the top: even the simplest of riffs dazzle and feel much denser than a single guitar track should and the vocals from A.B. are nearly inhuman in their anguish. "Scowl," for example cuts in with some of the finest guitar work to come out of the black metal underground in ages and does so without accompaniment. It's easy to impress with a full band to support an excellent riff, but T.L handles it directly and expertly on his own here on what will easily go down as one of 2020's finest metal moments in any subgenre.
Even if this album didn't contain that one furious track, each song on this album has its highlights that surprise and catch even these seasoned ears off guard (big nod in the direction of the latter half of "Black Combe"). It's so easy for me to tune out black metal after decades of listening to it and nearly a decade of reviewing it, yet Axis of Light manages to grab and maintain my attention throughout its duration every time I revisit it. You should give it a listen and see how it works out for you. If you see fit to download it, the band is giving all bandcamp donations to English environmental and animal causes (although they indicated to me their current focus is more towards causes addressing current social inequity for obvious reasons). If you're more of a cassette person, keep an eye on the Pristine Blight store for the tape, out soon.
Thursday, May 21, 2020
Do you have a taste for the bizarre? For the grotesquely heavy? For the kind of twisted death metal only Finnish bands seem to have mastered? For experimentation that includes but isn't limited to harsh noise? If any of the above even remotely suit your fancy, then it's high time you became acquainted with Oksennus (Finnish for "vomit," naturally). While savvy fans of the extreme and unconventional might've caught wind of this act with releases on Caligari Records and Nuclear War Now! Productions, it seems that news of a new Oksennus album isn't yet making the kind of waves it should in the underground. Perhaps people are put off by the (brilliant) art depicting surreal creatures and root vegetables, or by the self-appointed "antifascist occult metal" tag that may cause purists and the apolitical to scoff, or perhaps it's just that there are simply too many bands playing death metal that we sometimes need more than one friendly nudge to get us to check out a band. For every new act releasing obscure yet challenging, worthwhile music like this, there seem to be a dozen others building up hype online either through label associations or flashy album art that looks great when posted on instagram. Let this be a plea to you, dear reader, to let Oksennus cut through the static and enter your ears.
While this review is focused on the newest release, Työn orjat sorron yöstä nouskaa, an EP released on May Day to "celebrate and empower the prisoners of starvation, the wretched of the earth," I need to take a moment to make it clear that what you get on one Oksennus release is not going to remain constant throughout the discography. While many elements are shared, the band's dizzying yet oddly clean take on death/doom on Sokea Idiootti is reimagined as a sparse, freeform album with no distortion (or vocals) at all on Paholaisten yö, and there's that whole carroty album from 2016, Kolme toista, which has three tracks of exactly the same length yet varying feel and style with manic and often improvised structures. It's safe to say that while the new EP sounds like a new Oksennus release, it also sounds different. As it should.
Continuing in something of a tradition for Oksennus, Työn orjat sorron yöstä nouskaa consists of two tracks of even length, each of which are titled with half the album's title. Opener "Työn orjat" lurches in with squealing static and furious, crushing death/doom energy. Cymbals seem to crash out of nowhere, almost as if edited in mid-hit rather than played naturally. It's this sense of something familiar being altered and given a fresh, albeit filthy, new form that makes this more than just another "slow and heavy" type song. The band's sole member, K. Olavi K.virta, takes the song slower and lower until it feels as if it's just all brown note until about halfway in, when a sudden shift sees things move up in pace, although still at a crawl, and things open up with chanting, sustained notes on the guitar, and a general sense that somehow things have grown even darker despite the shifting upward in tone. It's disgusting, it's gripping, and you might just like it. The accompanying track caught me off guard, despite my love of the artist as a shape-shifter. "Sorron yöstä nouskaa" is 13:12 of pure harsh noise wall. It's a genre that most either love or hate, although your author here is one of the few sitting in the middle. I truly enjoyed it in this context, although part of me is so hooked on the strangely cerebral sounds of Oksennus in a more conventional sense that I spent my first listen waiting for something else to come through. Once I realized it wouldn't, I was able to spend future listens in a contemplative state. I love a good rumbling wall, and for an artist who typically works within a different framework, seeing such a masterful approach to the sound and focused fury of harsh noise wall is a welcome surprise.
There were apparently tapes of Työn orjat sorron yöstä nouskaa on the day of the EP's release, but they vanished before I even noticed. More will be printed at some point, but for now you should visit the artist's bandcamp page and explore the wonders contained within.
Sunday, May 10, 2020
[note: an abridged version of this review appears in Roadburn's 2020 Weirdo Canyon Dispatch zine]
As time goes on, bands tend to refine and hone their sound into something that comes together more closely, with fewer cracks at the seams. Less separation of clashing elements, more fusion of things as the band figures out how to integrate all the elements that really make their sound unique. Oranssi Pazuzu, however, have been on an intentionally opposite journey over the course of their career. Instead of bringing things closer together, Oranssi Pazuzu has taken the essential elements of their music and dove face-first into each of them, pushing them out and spreading things even farther apart as they go. Instead of it creating a sonic rift, the audience is left with increasingly vast expanses of musical terrain to explore that are still entirely cohesive and gripping.
While fans of the psychedelic black metal group's prior albums have surely noticed the influence of classic krautrock and progressive music encroaching at the fringes, it's more present than ever on Mestarin Kynsi, in spirit if not in sound. Rather than a full-on assault at all times, Oranssi Pazuzu takes to each composition like a beast stalking its prey, which makes for a beautiful unease. There's often a sort of lilting feeling when the listener wonders "when will this kick in and where will it go?" and yet somehow it's still often a surprise when the band kicks into high-gear. And even when it seems things are at their most frenzied, as on "Tyhjyyden sakramentti" for example, the music disintegrates into a swarming sea of psychedelic dizziness in the midst of it all, only to drag the listener's brain into the depths of madness. It's rarely predictable, yet somehow almost always better than what you'd have envisioned for it. Elsewhere, on "Oikeamielisten sali" the band veers from metal almost entirely with a melting electronic intro that feels more like the dizziest trip-hop beat you'll come across. The song may dip its toes back into harsher territory with grinding bass and cutting vocals, but it soon returns to the ooze it emerged from in the next song, "Kuulen ääniä maan alta," albeit in even stranger more unsettling forms.
It's this willingness to leave the path set out before them, knowing the audience will follow, that makes Oranssi Pazuzu such an exciting, daring band. Furthermore, it's what makes each new record from this adventurous group more rewarding than what came before, even though they've never created a dull moment in their nearly fifteen-year career. While this already feels like a high water mark, I recall feeling the exact same way about Varahtelija in 2016. I'm in no hurry to move on from Mestarin Kynsi, but I also know that the future of Oranssi Pazuzu is as limitless as the imagination.
Friday, March 20, 2020
Howdy folks! It's nearly a third of the way into the year, so you know it's finally time for Black Metal & Brews to get its act together and publish a list most other publications would've had ready three and a half months ago. Fear not! If you read this on the day of publication, it doubles as a handy buyer's guide to a bandcamp mega-deal in which all fees for artists are waived, which makes your purchasing power more directly beneficial to the artist. Hooray!
If you know my personal situation much by following the BM&B social channels, you're likely aware that 2019 was an incredibly challenging year for my health, in which I was hospitalized twice and spent many months barely leaving the house. It gave me a lot of time for music, but given my dire circumstances, much of the music I consumed was old favorites and comforting songs rather than hot new jams. Because of that, this list may miss some things you found essential. Drop me a line (firstname.lastname@example.org or @blackmetalbrews on twitter) if you'd like to share a favorite of yours, but don't take it personally if our tastes don't fully align. That's half the fun, isn't it? Additionally, my homebody nature means that most of the shows I attended were shows I played, but I'm listing four incredible acts I saw live that I'll remember for years to come. Without further rambling, here's the stuff that made 2019 a great year for music in my life.
JG Thirlwell Ensemble at National Sawdust, March 1st
I've been a fan of JG Thirlwell's work since I stumbled on a pair of Foetus CDs in a secondhand shop at the age of 18. I didn't know what I was in for, but could tell it was going to be industrial music. I didn't realize it'd be some of the most meticulously assembled and overwhelming stuff I'd hear and that I'd be obsessed for life. When Thirlwell announced a pair of (mostly) acoustic ensemble performances, reworking music from his whole career, I knew I needed to attend. In National Sawdust, even the back feels like the front row but I managed to snag a chair up front, just to the side of the stage. Dressed in all white like some sort of hellish take on Bowie's thin white duke, Thirlwell stalked the stage and delivered a performance that was somehow even more chilling and brilliant than I had expected. Truly one for the ages. I'm including a fantastic shot of Foetus classic "I'll Meet You in Poland" from Thirlwell's own YouTube channel (which includes a few others if you're into that sort of thing).
Marc Almond at Brooklyn Bazaar (RIP), November 1st
If Thirlwell's subversive show was simultaneously subtle and heavy-handed, watching his peer Marc Almond (of Soft Cell fame) play a set of hits in a tiny, crowded room was a more direct route to success but was no less stunning. Soft Cell are one of my favorite bands and Almond's lyrics and voice have been haunting me for ages. He played just as many fantastic cuts from his solo career as he did from the Soft Cell years, and really upped the ante near the end of the show as he made his way into the crowd during "Heat," shouting and pushing through like one would expect to happen at a hardcore punk show. It was a sweaty, singalong sort of night. Truly one of the happiest experiences I've had. I'm linking a clip here since it won't let me embed this one for some reason
Stereolab at Brooklyn Steel, September 27th & 28th
I've been a huge fan of Stereolab for ages yet never thought I'd see them live. While a crucial member is obviously no longer with us, the band played brilliantly and with a precise sort of energy that really brought their music to life in ways that surprised me. As a total geek, I had to catch both Brooklyn shows and I'm glad I did. They were stunning.
I was raised on the music of art-rock experimentalists (and early new wave legends) Roxy Music and never thought I'd have the opportunity to catch anything resembling a Roxy Music gig in my lifetime. My girlfriend and mother teamed up to surprise me with Bryan Ferry tickets for my birthday and it was one hell of a show. While the tour centered around Roxy Music's swansong, Avalon, songs from every era were present, including the haunting "In Every Dream Home a Heartache," the smooth yet upbeat "Out of the Blue," and the strangely shifting rocker "If There is Something." Ferry's voice still wavers between fully controlled and unhinged emotional abandon, which made this a truly stunning night.
Nick Cave in Conversation at Jazz at Lincoln Center, September 21st, & Town Hall, September 23rd
I don't have a whole lot to say but having the chance to see Nick Cave do Q&A with fans and play selected cuts from his entire catalog (often at the specific request of fans in the audience) unaccompanied, with just himself and a piano, was brilliant and beautiful. My health was incredibly poor around the time of these gigs and seeing Cave in such an intimate setting was oddly soothing to my soul. Out of respect for the artist, no videos or photos were permitted, so you'll have to live without it in this post as well.
Gibby Haynes and the Paul Green Rock Academy at Market Hotel, October 25th
Bringing a veteran LSD rock oddball legend together with a children's school of rock sounds like a bad idea on paper, but it's the sort of experiment that's just nutty enough to work brilliantly. Gibby seemed a bit intoxicated for this gig, but I probably would've been disappointed if he was stone sober. The kids switched instruments throughout the night and played with joyous abandon, celebrating more deep cuts and strange anthems than I anticipated, with almost no mention of the Butthole Surfers' radio hits of the '90s in the set. Instead we got treated to raucous renditions of "Sweat Loaf," "I Saw an X-Ray of a Girl Passing Gas," and even "The Shah Sleeps in Lee Harvey's Grave" with Gibby's young son playing a floor tom front and center. As with the other gigs mentioned here, I'll remember this one forever. I can't find video of this on YouTube so you'll just have to trust me here.
Albums (These are alphabetical. No winners or losers this time around)
A Pregnant Light- Broken Play (Colloquial Sound Recordings)
My musical taste often lies at the intersection of unrelated sounds, seeking the places where they meet. I grew up going to basement crust and thrash shows but also am obsessed with bands like The Cure and Pulp whose entire catalogs consist of anthems. A Pregnant Light writes anthems for those of us who grew up in hardcore shows in sweat-drenched Bathory tees. On Broken Play, raw emotion and raw power meld beautifully.
Ærekær- Avindskjold (Tour de Garde)
The Danish extreme metal scene has grown quite fascinating in the last four or five years, and Ærekær are one of the brightest groups in the whole community. On Avindskjold, triumphant black metal and majestic keyboard interludes (think dungeon synth if you must) blend to create something timeless. This may have come out in 2019 but it could've just as easily been a cult classic that oldheads talk about with reverence if it was released the '90s.
Blu Anxxiety- God's Exposure (Toxic State)
Self-described "violent goth" act Blu Anxxiety is one of NYC's greatest treasures at the moment, mixing deathrock, freestyle, industrial, hardcore, and post-punk into something that should appeal to just about any fan of subversive and dark sounds. On their debut EP, God's Exposure, they rage through three originals and a killer cover of "Send Me an Angel" that all just flatten me as a listener. If I had to make a shortlist of songs that defined my 2019, "Uninvited to the Funeral Home" would be near the top. This is music that could only come from New York. Check it out or get left behind when they blow up.
Blut Aus Nord- Hallucinogen (Debemur Morti)
Blut Aus Nord have built a career in black metal the way David Bowie did in the world of popular music: consistently shapeshifting yet staying ahead of trends and forging new sounds with a clear vision. You always know it's Blut Aus Nord when you hear them, yet you never know quite how they'll appear each time they resurface with a new album. Hallucinogen may be more directly tied to black metal than much of their catalog, but it's delivered with such spark and imagination that it never feels stale. It's a vibrant, exhilarating listen that you'll want to revisit frequently
Body of Light- Time to Kill (Dais)
Arizona duo Body of Light initially won me over with a sort of cold yet tuneful take on darkwave with their Wayside City cassette, yet have kept me coming back with each release. While they've traded some of the more somber sounds for sunny new wave and eurodance elements, their Depeche Mode-like core is firmly intact. Time to Kill is simultaneously modern and nostalgic, with urgency and tension behind even its most melodic and beautiful moments.
Caїna- Gentle Illness (Apocalyptic Witchcraft)
Andy Curtis-Brignell has been creating music as Caїna since around the time I first truly delved into extreme metal. Following his career has been a real treat as a fan (and now as a friend as well, in the sake of full disclosure). On Gentle Illness, Curtis-Brignell has created something that is equally soothing and terrifying. The album serves to document its creator's mental health struggles, his experiences as a contactee (of the extraterrestrial sort), and the failings of the mental health system itself. The music that wraps these themes up is all over the place, yet cohesive, reminding me of experimental and free-jazz metal legends like Ephel Duath at times while retaining much of Caїna's own trademark heaviness and inward-gazing density.
Ceremony- In the Spirit World Now (Relapse)
On In The Spirit World Now, Sonoma County punks Ceremony channel their inner Devo or Tubeway Army, more in sound than in theme. While not quite heart-on-sleeve, the emotional presence here is patently Ceremony's own, fusing post-punk and new wave in a way that feels new. It's hard to put a finger on this, but it's been begging repeated listens over here and it might just do the same for you.
Cloud Rat- Pollinator (Artoffact)
Michigan grind trio Cloud Rat has been absolutely killing it for around a decade now, and on Pollinator they only further cement their mastery of the genre. It's furious and tense without falling into pitfalls that other grind groups find (needless repetition, sameness). The fact that Pollinator is accompanied by an EP of extra songs that are completely removed from grind is probably a strong indicator of the band's creative brilliance. This is a band that works well together and makes gripping and relentless music that goes straight for the heart.
Clouds Collide- They Don't Sleep Anymore (War Crime)
Clouds Collide is yet another one-man band on this list. Chris Pandolfo is a Pennsylvanian musician whose post-hardcore takes on a shimmering, almost penitent quality that borrows from greats like Hopesfall or even post-rock legends Godspeed You! Black Emperor (whose work inspired the title of this record). While the experience of listening to Pandolfo's music is multi-dimensional, it keeps coming back to a sense of longing or yearning, but in a hopeful way rather than with struggle or loss at the core. There's a sense that Clouds Collide has grown in a huge way without forgetting its roots, and everybody wins from it.
Cthonica- Typhomanteia: Sacred Triarchy of Spiritual Putrefaction (Sentient Ruin)
So far this list has been relatively lacking in the "black metal" department, I know. Here, have some Cthonica. It's disgusting in a way that reminds me of war metal in how it's produced but is musically so much more fascinating than that terms would imply otherwise. If you like cavernously reverbed vocals and creepy crawly riffs that seek to drag the listener towards the abyss, you owe this to yourself. Whether you're a fan of gnarly acts like Portal or truly esoteric things in the vein of Void Meditation Cult, you'll find yourself at home with Cthonica's filthy debut.
Deerhunter- Why Hasn't Everything Already Disappeared? (4AD)
Indie darlings Deerhunter are a polarizing group, I know. I'm of the mindset that they're well ahead of the curve and write truly strange songs that are just so good they've fooled people into thinking they're simpler or more "palatable" than they really would be otherwise. While tunes like opener "Death in Midsummer" may lean towards the friendlier sounds, there's so much more at hand here and it's apparent on deeper listens and in the shorter, stranger tracks especially. I found this to be perfect salve for my aching body and soul while I was in the hospital. Perhaps you'll take comfort in it as well in these strange and dark times. No bandcamp link but I'm sure you can find this somewhere somehow.
Drowse- Light Mirror (Flenser)
Portland's Drowse is a group whose music feels either like a blanket of snow or a fog machine, depending on the song and the moment. Even the sparsest moment feels full here, and it's not just the reverb (although there's plenty of that). Light Mirror is huge but it doesn't feel overwhelming or suffocating. It just is. It's odd to find something that channels sadness in such a comforting way, but here we are. Whether you're a shoegazer or a doom lover, this should connect with you as it did with me.
Elizabeth Colour Wheel- Nocebo (Flenser)
Elizabeth Colour Wheel was probably the first band of 2019 to truly excite and challenge me. Nocebo is a whirlwind of influences, with plenty of rough edges and magnificent flourishes to keep the listener on edge. These folks don't sound like anything I've heard, yet they draw from familiar palettes at times, often combining unexpected sounds and forcing them to clash brilliantly instead of making them become smooth and soft. The result is dizzying, with punk, black metal, shoegaze, and so many more genres falling through each other and colliding like little fireworks. It's far from the more hideous stretches of heavy music, yet it captures the imagination in a way few other bands did in 2019.
Elrond- Love Across Light Years (Nadine Records/Anima Recordings/Accident Prone Records)
Elrond is a synthesizer duo from Portland, OR and they make some of the most rapturous, extraterrestrial music I had the pleasure of seeing or hearing in 2019. Boldly experimental, yet never in the ways that clash at the senses or force one into a dark place, Elrond's music is like catching a ride on a comet and cruising through the cosmos in a state of pure awe. Electronic euphoria at its finest, without a need for party drugs to feel the full effects. (Full disclosure: they're friends and the band I'm in played with them on their tour supporting this release).
False- Portent (Gilead Media)
False has long been at the forefront of exciting USBM for the last decade, yet somehow it took them until 2019 to drop an album with a title. Friendly jab at naming conventions aside, they've always been visionary and poetic in both lyrics and sound, and Portent only elevates the already standards they've always carried.Guitars and keys are to the front, sure, but False has always had some of the most brilliant drumming in American black metal and it's never been more apparent than on Portent. Plus, f you told me I'd find one of the most brilliant riffs of the year in a song called "The Serpent Sting, the Smell of Goat," I'd have scoffed initially, but here we are. It fucking rips. These folks are the only band I could imagine covering Emperor and doing it justice and this album only further proves that they're capable of carrying that torch.
Fogweaver- Fogweaver (Lost Armor)
Dungeon synth inspired by Ursula K. Le Guin's Earthsea books? Sign me up. It's beautiful and transcendent. It evokes a certain focus and thoughtfulness we could all benefit from right now. It's soothing and touches upon the classic ambient blueprint: it could serve well as background music but is still utterly fascinating when given one's undivided attention. Possibly dungeon synth's high water mark for the year.
Funereal Presence- Achatius (The Ajna Offensive)
Funereal Presence is the solo project from a member of Negative Plane. This alone should tell of the high quality contained within, yet rather than the larger than life sounds of Negative Plane, Funereal Presence is old school black (and heavy) metal worship that reminds of second wave classics, the Greek legends, and cult essentials like Mortuary Drape. It's absolutely relentless, with every song stretching past the eleven minute mark, yet not a single moment feels wasted. Possibly the best outright black metal album of the year.
Garden of the Ark- Undone/First Accident (Self-Released)
Garden of the Ark are Brooklyn locals (and again, good friends in the sake of full disclosure) who blend psychedelia and heaviness to make something that suits AmRep worshipers like myself just as much as it will appease the taste of those looking to drift to blissful riffs or even fans of more modern post-hardcore acts like Kowloon Walled City. Two quick songs teasing greater things to come. If their live show is any indication, what follows will be just as cutting and fantastic.
Haunted Horses- Dead Meat (SIXWIX Releases)
How does one even described Haunted Horses? It's noise rock. It's industrial music. It's punk. It's none of the above yet all at once. The music truly is haunted, and on Dead Meat the synth & drums duo conjures up anthems of loathing and disgust that channel everyone from Godflesh to the Locust without feeling like an imitation of anything. Pure intensity and unease. Let it crawl under your skin until you scratch open a few new sores.
Image of Life- Attended by Silence (Kernkrach Schallplatten)
Image of Life has long been one of my favorite darkwave projects and somehow his newest release is even better than the (highly essential) Last Letters from the Leper Colony. Simultaneously paranoid and uplifting, these songs are anthems for the uncertainty of the modern age (perhaps even moreso during the current period of pandemic). "Living Alone" is a pensive dance party for one, and comes highly recommended, yet there isn't a dull moment here. From introspection to taking in the entire state of the world, this couldn't have come at a better time. Grab it to soundtrack your isolation as well as you can.
Impavida- Antipode (Van Records)
Impavida serves as clear evidence that "atmospheric" black metal need not be all trees and fantasy. There's plenty of atmosphere, sure, but there's a fiery core on Antipode that is far more harrowing than simple genre tags afford. No easy listens here, but rewards and quality aplenty. Oh, and those vocals? I'm not sure they're human.
Laster- Het wassen oog (Prophecy)
Laster's career has been built on crafting strange and boundary-pushing black metal. With Het wassen oog, they (successfully) fulfill ambitions to make works on the same tier as avant-garde legends like Ved Buens Ende. While they call their sound "obscure dance music," it'd take one hell of an interpretive dancer to come up with the right moves for the twists and turns they offer up in any given song. Keep yourself on your toes and do it right. If we're removing strict genre limitations, this may well be the extreme record of the year. Highly unorthodox. Highly entertaining.
Matte Black- Psyche (Self-Released)
Matte Black is a Brooklyn-based doom trio that does so much more than just playing straightforward Sabbath worship. At times psychedelic, at times groovy and raucous, Psyche is tight and joyous. If you've ever gotten lost in a riff, you'll know exactly the feeling they seek to evoke here, and they excel at every turn. Still, the band ends on a mournful note with "Gone," which is somehow the highest moment on an album of pure energy and it ends just as it starts to feel familiar. They know exactly how to leave you wanting more, begging you to flip the record over and start again. (Also of note--two-thirds of this band make up the fantastic duo Dead Satellites, whose debut EP was also released in 2019 and is similarly worth your time). Again, full disclosure: these guys are my drinking buddies and we've gigged together many times. There's a reason for that: they rip.
Mizmor- Cairn (Gilead Media)
Self-realization, the apocalypse, and knowledge are all things that come about slowly, so it's fitting that an album of growth and finality is such a looming beast. A.L.N. of Mizmor spent some years creating this black/doom masterpiece, and it shows. "Cairn to God" feels like the weight of forever and while it's not exactly pleasant, it scratches a certain itch for me that makes it feel so damn good. I've listened many times and still haven't fully digested these massive songs. As this (short) review began: it takes time. It comes slowly. It's so worth it. Once again, in the sake of transparency, I'd consider the musician a good friend, but wouldn't recommend this just as a favor--it's just truly that great.
Nichtigkeit- Night Song (Auto-da-Fe)
Eerie, nocturnal post-punk with breathy vocals and driving bass from Denver, CO. This is a must-have for any true creeps. Many people seem to be waiting (perhaps pointlessly) for the return of Tollund Men, who did release some demos last year but are still dormant, but are overlooking the many exciting projects from main man Neal Samples. Nichtigkeit captures the same outsider spirit and sense of having gone feral in a completely different light. Transparency necessitates that I tell you I consider Neal a friend, but his talent would be the same regardless.
Nusquama- Horizon Ontheemt (Eisenwald)
Dutch black metal has had a couple strong years in a row now and Nusquama's debut is one of the most stunning pieces to come from this scene in recent memory. It's a rush from start to finish and while I haven't got many words for it, I'd simply urge you to dive in head-first.
Obliti Devoravit- OD (Colloquial Sound Recordings)
After a five year absence, one of the CSR roster's most exciting projects drops three songs of pure fury. Feedback gives way to mid-paced black metal that has a fully developed identity standing independent of anything else without being so out of place and time that it has no grounding. It's like walking blind but going forward on pure feeling. Even when it blasts, it's never lightning speed, which allows for a sense of clashing times and it's thrilling. No evil posturing, just very real human madness. Confident, essential.
Obsequiae- The Palms of Sorrowed Kings (20 Buck Spin)
The self-anointed ruler of American castle-y black metal returns with an album as rich and emotionally deep as the two preceding it. If you've enjoyed Obsequiae in the past, there's more of the same here, yet it dives deeper and provides an even more textured and fulfilling listen. Had their been electric instrumentation handy in the days of old, I have half a mind to think that Obsequiae were a band from some glorious past left to wither. Still, in the decay, there is regrowth and beauty. The castle ruins take on new life and new shapes. This is very much a closed-eye listen if you can muster the time and focus. It belongs up there with similarly thematic albums like Bathory's Hammerheart--although the sonic template isn't shared, the feeling and vastness of it is). Probably the USBM peak of 2019.
Pinkish Black- Concept Unification (Relapse)
Somehow Pinkish Black is the second band on here that's a duo consisting of just drums and synths (and vocals) and yet they couldn't sound farther removed from the other one. Droning, hypnotic, yet taut and commanding, Pinkish Black's take on doom and art-rock is unlike anything else. It often swells in ways that make it feel like the work of a larger body, yet it also has the focus and intimacy that only a duo could produce. Concept Unification is their finest work, gothic (but not in the eyeliner and guitar sense) and stark, with a constant sense of foreboding and subtle melodies that linger in the back of your head well after the album's finished playing.
Prissy Whip- Swallow (Self-Released)
Noisy, spastic grinding mutant punk from Los Angeles. Prissy Whip is a treble-heavy assault of melting guitars and shrieked vocals that will appeal to fans of everything from Oxbow to Melt Banana to Wire. Swallow is a collection of jagged sounds, cascading rhythms, and stop-start urgency. This came into my radar when the band I play in had the joy of sharing a bill with them and their set was one of the finest I caught all year. These folks are on the up and up and you should grab this before they take off.
Pulchra Morte- Divina Autem et Aniles (Ceremonial Records)
Pulchra Morte make timeless death-doom with a touch of that melancholy that reminds of old Paradise Lost at times. Melodic without falling into fanciful wonder and heavy without leaning into pointless neanderthal brutality, this is a rare case of a band arriving fully formed on their debut. It rips and, while they've already seen lineup shifts since this album's release, they're gearing up to deliver a second album soon that should be just as exciting.
Rainer Landfermann- Mein Wort in Deiner Dunkelheit (Self-Released)
Former Bethlehem vocalist Rainer Landfermann's solo debut is absolutely twisted and confusing. It's also a strong candidate for the best album released in 2019 of any genre at all. The ballerina pictured on the album art isn't just a pretty picture, it's a symbol for the seamless yet unpredictable flow of this record. Musical skill is on full display, yet songwriting is never sacrificed for its sake. This is avant-garde metal of the highest order. Fans of everything from free-jazz to black metal to progressive music of any sort will find something to love here. The best part is that somehow it's oddly catchy and addictive. Mandatory listening, if not purchasing, for all readers.
Satan's Basement- Accused of Human Decency (Hildsfvar Records)
What happens when outsider art meets death metal? Satan's Basement. I'm not sure what else goes on in the basement (is it hotter than the rest of hell or colder? Does Satan keep a six-pack like it's a man-cave?) but the music that it emits has been coming out with greater regularity and higher quality than ever before. Sole member Ian Covelli seems to have had a period of massive productivity in the last two years, but instead of it diluting the quality, he's stepped up production and has brought his A-game in every riff. Winding, circular guitars and lyrics that serve as an indictment against right-wing politics, corruption, capitalism, and religion make this a must-hear. As with many others on here, Ian's a friend. I'm just lucky to have such talented friends, clearly.
Sick Gazelle- Odum (War Crime)
It needs to be put out plainly: I'm a Bruce Lamont fanboy. Have been since the first Yakuza record and I don't see that changing. Sick Gazelle's Odum was a much-needed breath of fresh air and open space in a year of many challenges and dense, heavy listens. Three long, soothing, swelling instrumentals and one tight, slightly more rocking (ambient punk?) closer with vocals and everything make for a compelling and imaginative listen. I can't call it jazz or ambient in any proper sense, but it touches on each without falling into easy categories. It's just great.
Torture Chain- The Ascent of Deimos (Hospital Productions)
One-man black metal brilliance from an old favorite. Torture Chain has always held my attention and managed to terrify me without falling on stale black metal tropes. On The Ascent of Deimos, sole member Torturer manages to conjure the mystery and magic of the majestic second wave and the soul-crushing atmosphere of the early works of The Ruins of Beverast and make it all his own. Falses need not apply, this is the real deal.
TR/ST- The Destroyer (Parts 1 & 2) (Grouch)
The award for most heartbreaking album of the year easily goes to TR/ST. In two thirty-minute-ish releases, both different "parts" of The Destroyer, TR/ST has created something that transcends genre and goes for pure feeling. It's soulful, sad, strong, and catchy as hell. Sure it's a danceable pop album in so many ways, but there's a darkness at the core that keeps this in a subterranean domain entirely of its own at the same time.
Trollkjerring- Whistle and I'll Come to You (Under the Weeping Cherry Tree) (Pacific Threnodies)
Trollkjerring made some of the most exciting, haunting dark ambient/dungeon synth I heard all year. The spoken segments may be less welcoming to some listeners, but this isn't meant to be a comfortable or pleasant listen. It's unsettling and obsessive, far removed from the realms of fantasy that many might associate with music that comes from similar roots. When love gives way to unhealthy obsession, it sounds something like Trollkjerring. This is one of the few I might advise you not to listen to in the dark, alone, unless you're interested in being truly disturbed.
Vice Device- Living Textures (Black Water Records)
When I lived in Portland, OR, Vice Device was one of my favorite local bands to see live. In 2019, these synth-punks finally delivered their debut LP and it was worth the wait. Industrial tension, haunting melodies, and twin-vocals make this a captivating listen for any fan of darkwave or post-punk, albeit one that ends far too quickly. Perhaps it's a way of keeping the listener wanting more. It certainly works on me.
VR Sex- Human Traffic Jam (Dais)
Members of Drab Majesty and Antioch Arrow come together to make a bizarre synth-forward album that's even better than the newest offering from the aforementioned Drab Majesty. How did they do it? It's hard to say, but it's devilishly catchy and the deathrock element adds something devious to this that just makes it addictive as hell. This LP came hot on the heels of an EP that was released just two months prior and the EP is just as good (in fact the song "Landmine" from the EP might be their best jam). This has the huge sounds and beautiful guitar patterns you know and love from Drab Majesty but goes in subversive and chaotic directions the former project simply hasn't got room for at the moment. A true highlight of the year.
Waste of Space Orchestra- Syntheosis (Svart Records)
What was initially a one-off live performance act decided to bless us all with a studio recording, and the world is a better, stranger place for it. Waste of Space Orchestra is the fusion of Oranssi Pazuzu and Dark Buddha Rising, creating one hell of a psychedelic black metal journey. I first saw this project at their only show, as part of Roadburn 2018, and was thrilled to hear it committed to wax. While the visual and performance aspects may be inherently missing from a record, this is every bit as exciting as the live show was and needs to be heard to be fully understood. Only one track is streaming on bandcamp but that's just further enticement to commit and get the whole album, right?
Wishfield- Wishfield (Tridroid Records)
The first time I played my Wishfield cassette, I thought it might have been damaged by heat, but I enjoyed the experience. A quick glance at bandcamp makes it evident that the dizzy, warped textures have nothing to do with melted tape and everything to do with a band chasing euphoric psychedelia to make black metal and shoegaze (and perhaps even dream pop or indie rock) come together in ways that stand outside the common "blackgaze" trope. It feels like falling asleep intoxicated, comforting and familiar but not quite right.
Yellow Eyes- Rare Field Ceiling (Gilead Media)
Yellow Eyes keeps outdoing themselves. I've run out of ways to describe their unique take on black metal but they grow ever more distinctive and accomplished with subsequent releases. I can think of very few bands I've followed since their first demo, but it's been an absolute honor and thrill to watch a band I love really ascend artistically and in terms of acclaim and success. Is this their finest hour? Quite possibly, but I always feel the next thing will dazzle me even more. As with Laster elsewhere on this list, Yellow Eyes have joined the ranks of avant-garde black metal's legends.
Заводь- Уже заря зажглась (Self-Released)
Do you want it stranger and more challenging? Do you want your black metal to confuse you? Do you want hurdy gurdy, dulcimer, and guest appearances from Nuit Noire's Tenebras among others? Заводь (The Zavods) has you covered and this isn't just "weird," it's goddamn fun to listen to. I often forget where one track ends and another begins, not due to repetition or sameness, but because I'm so captivated by this album. It's off the wall yet wholly digestible and, as with any other album on here tagged as self-released, deserves extra attention for being one of those outsider creations to truly crack through and get my pulse racing. I'm not going to say this is a case of "best for last" in terms of posting, but I can't think of a better place to leave things off, especially for people wanting something new that they're not going to see recommended on any other lists. Thanks for sticking with me and I hope you find something you'll love.