June 22, 2018

Khemmis - Desolation

By Calen Henry. Khemmis’ last album, Hunted, immediately grabbed me. Their “doomed rock and roll” combined melodic, epic doom with elements of stoner-doom, death-doom, and traditional metal for a wonderful “kitchen sink” approach to metal.
By Calen Henry.

Artwork by Sam Turner.

Khemmis’ last album, Hunted, immediately grabbed me. Their “doomed rock and roll” combined melodic, epic doom with elements of stoner-doom, death-doom, and traditional metal for a wonderful “kitchen sink” approach to metal. Desolation sees the band digging in to their signature sound and shedding much of the kitchen sink approach to create their best record yet. The album will likely cement their legacy alongside bands like Pallbearer and Power Trip as crossover darlings.

The vast majority of Desolation is Khemmis’ signature melodic doom: melancholy, slightly sinister riffs under soaring tenor vocals. This time they delve even deeper into melody, edging further towards traditional metal, with harmonized vocals lines, lyrical dual guitar leads, and even some lower register vocals reminiscent of the late David Gold of Woods of Ypres

The mix of traditional metal and doom carries through to the band's lyrics. They adopt a lot of the swords and sorcery trappings of traditional metal, but, in a time when traditional metal lyrics about the glory of conquerors' pillaging can seem problematic, Khemmis are refreshingly depressing. Truly living up to their self-styled genre, "doomed rock and roll," they sing of cursed bargains, doomed legions, sole survivors and the associated guilt, isolation, and desolation. It’s extremely fitting that the album is called Desolation, as that single word gets right to the crux of the album’s themes.

Photos by Nessie Spencer.

They also ditch other musical styles, except for death-doom, and the result is transcendent. The deep dive into melody juxtaposed against the filthy death-doom riffs creates a fantastic dynamic throughout the album, but it’s when the band directly mixes the two, giving us twin guitar shredding over galloping death-doom or harsh vocals over soaring guitar melodies, that their sound becomes truly legendary. Album opener “Bloodletting” showcases this beautifully, when soaring guitar and epic vocals suddenly break into a filthy death-doom riff accompanied by an extended twin guitar solo.

With the overall stylistic change, the album doubles down on melodic vocals and some raspy harsh vocals that are more black metal than death-doom, but they work extremely well with the band’s overall sound. The melodic vocals are even better than on previous albums, and the combination of lower vocals and faster tempos than Pallbearer sets Khemmis apart from their closest sonic touch point.

The production is also slightly improved over Hunted. It's a bit more dynamic, and although it's still brickwalled, the slight improvement makes a difference. There is no audible clipping, and everything sounds just a bit better than it did in 2015.

Desolation one of the year's best metal albums, and the stylistic changes mean that anyone not completely melody-adverse should check it out, even those not sold on Khemmis' previous material. The band has completely come into their own. Hunted absolutely floored me in 2015, and Desolation is leagues ahead of it.

June 19, 2018

Mercyful Fate - Melissa

An Autothrall Classic. Perhaps the only tangible quip I could launch against Mercyful Fate's seminal debut is that, compared to the King's next six full-length records (from both Fate and his solo band), I hold Melissa in somewhat lesser regard
An Autothrall Classic. Originally published here.

Artwork by Thomas Holm.

Perhaps the only tangible quip I could launch against Mercyful Fate's seminal debut is that, compared to the King's next six full-length records (from both Fate and his solo band), I hold Melissa in somewhat lesser regard, owed largely to the fact that the sum songwriting is marginally less infectious. Just about every stylistic die had been cast here which would serve Kim and his companions for decades hence, but in terms of sheer riffing stickiness and atmosphere, this album just doesn't have the same gallery of chops and leads as its successors. That being said, this album still deserves the forklifts of accolades dumped upon it, because Melissa remains one of the highlights of 1983. One of the better overall European metal records of the earlier 80s outside England. Heck, apart from Don't Break the Oath and the band's more divisive reunion disc In the Shadows (which I happen to favor, others not so much), it's probably the one mandatory purchase in their discography.

Melissa was actually my second exposure to Fate, having first bought the sophomore at a young age, and I admit it was underwhelming at first, if only because I had enjoyed the other tape more. But not only does this debut age well, it has managed to never accumulate much dust on its surface in going on thirty fucking years! Melissa still feels fresh and innovative, a more complex offering than what most of the group's British peers were capable of writing at the time, and also a hallmark of strong production values and deft musicianship. It might have taken time for some to adjust to King's eery and unnerving falsetto shrieks, which he lays on pretty thick throughout this, but there is no debating the amount of effort and professionalism in the compositions. Thomas Holm's cover art is remarkable, a screaming skull that bleeds hellish red light and gives a sense of sheer monument. The lyrics are maniacal blueprints for many themes Diamond would later flesh out in both his bands, with an emphasis on history, archaic horror, and occult topics fundamental to King's later pursuance of LaVeyan Satanism.

Pacing and production are key here, integrating the critical moments of atmosphere with the thundering, primal speed metal melodies and swaggering grooves that would come to define the group's sound as it supported the chilling vocals, which in metal music had simply never gone so 'over the top' without losing the gravity and impact of their subject matter. I realize that many outsiders to the band's sound, or power/heavy metal screamers in general (Halford, Dickinson, etc) must immediately find this vocal inflection comical in nature, but there was never anything remotely 'funny' about Diamond on these old Mercyful Fate records, he was a shrill specter that I took quite seriously even if I had to adjust myself to this timbre as the primary vocal tone. He's got his grittier end, mid range register also, but it's not quite so distinct. I wouldn't say that the melodies he summons up here are nearly so unforgettable as those he'd weave in later to several of the King Diamond concept albums, but for '83 this was pretty damn ambitious even when you placed it up against a record like Piece of Mind, Bark at the Moon or Balls to the Wall.

The instruments also sound stunning, with the better balance and clarity than the band's eponymous 1982 EP. Kim Jensen's drums are loaded, with a nice slap to the snare and some great reverb to the kicks that really measure off well against the guitars, though the cymbals and hi-hat seem a fraction more muffled. The bass lines are enormous and muscular when needed, like the close of "Evil" where the guitars remind me of the primary riff in Survivor's "Eye of the Tiger" before that charging power metal finale; but Timi Hansen also slinks along with a creepy class through the record's more atmospheric climes. As for the guitars, they are just beyond compare, with an effectively chunky fiber to them that allows the looser, glimmering leads to wail and writhe above and really stand out. They're also incredibly busy here, constantly twisting and turning into some new 'banger of a riff and really controlling the tempo for King's lyrical tales. The leads are usually quite brief through the album, but none of the notes seem misplaced, and I'd rather a band give me some spikes of emotion and harmony rather than indulge themselves to the detriment of the songwriting.

"Curse of the Pharaohs" is a real bruiser, and one of my all time favorite Mercyful Fate tracks, but I'd have to give "Black Funeral" the pick of the litter, a thundering and frightening piece where King's voice and the triplet rhythm collide in a moonlit, haunted tower. "Satan's Fall" is the most ambitious in terms of its length and construction, with an opening segment that feels like an occult "Immigrant Song", and some grimy and shuffling riffs deeper in which are among Shermann and Denner's most inventive (Jensen also shines here with a few cadences in the bridge). That said, there's nothing here which even hinges on 'bad'. Pieces like "At the Sound of the Demon Bell" and the bluesy "Melissa" itself might not resonate with me as much as "Gypsy", "Night of the Unborn" or "A Dangerous Meeting", but they're all well written and stuffed to the ghastly gills with conscious effort and variation. Fuck, I listen to these songs now in 2012 and they still don't give me any impression of becoming 'dated', though as a huge King Diamond nutter I'm understandably biased.

No, it's not the eeriest record in the Danes' lexicon, but along with the rest of Diamond's works from '84-'90, this is well worth breaking out for another Halloween spin, since it's lyrics and concepts of witches, Satan and the restless dead make a great accompaniment to the aesthetics of the holiday. Granted, there's nothing so obviously cheesy or 'haunted house' here like you'd find on a Cradle of Filth disc, but instead more of a bite out of classic horror antiquity, a spiritual celebration of black/white films with Lugosi and Karloff. Like Dracula, The Wolfman or The Mummy is to nearly a century of film scares, this record serves as an aesthetic monument to its medium. How many heavy, power, speed, thrash, black and doom metal acts owe so very much to Mercyful Fate? The answer would be next to incalculable, so I'll just stick to 'all of them' and you can mark your own exceptions to the rule.

June 16, 2018

Hoth - Astral Necromancy

By Calen Henry. Hoth return with Astral Necromancy, following up to 2014’s Oathbreaker. Their debut EP Infinite Darkness mixed Skeletonwitch and Amon Amarth with Star Wars fandom, but didn’t predict the nuanced folky black metal of their debut full length
By Calen Henry.

Artwork by Dusty Peterson.

Hoth returns with Astral Necromancy, following up to 2014’s Oathbreaker. Their debut Infinite Darkness mixed Skeletonwitch and Amon Amarth with Star Wars fandom, but didn’t predict the nuanced folky black metal of Oathbreaker. Chronicling the rise and fall of a hero forsaking the light and succumbing to darkness, with the music becoming progressively darker as the character embraced darkness. Without referencing Star Wars it was easily read as a Darth Vader concept album.

Astral Necromancy returns to esoteric Star Wars concepts, but tells a larger, darker story with composition to match. In contrast to Oathbreaker, Astral Necromancy isn’t a chronological concept album but a collection of songs, all part of the same universe-spanning story. Musically it is more immediate with fewer folk and ambient passages, the majority of the album is either riffs or solos. The tone is set with “Vengeance”, a ripping track that opens the album at full burn. It introduces both the sound of the album, as well as the concept. Tearing through riffs and solos it talks of vengeance, both against old masters as well as time and memory; the desire and give in to darkness, and burn out the light, despite being born in it.

Like Oathbreaker, there is no mention of anything explicitly Star Wars on Astral Necromancy, but throughout the album themes of the dark side of the force recur; trading one’s soul for dark knowledge and in the process giving up one’s humanity to embrace darkness, isolation and anger. The duality of lusting for power and awareness of what is lost along the way permeates the album. Tracks like “The Horrid Truth”, “Ascension”, and “The Void Between The Stars” speak knowingly of what one loses along the path to the darkness, and contrast with tracks like “Passage into Entropy” and “The Gathering of the Accursed Artifacts” speaking of the power the darkness brings. “The Citadel of the Necromancer” and “Solitude” bring everything together. The latter describes the battle against and defeat of the Necromancer’s apprentice whose commitment to the darkness paled in comparison to the light of his former master. The former describes the Necromancer’s gnawing fear, as he waits in his fortress for a vision that never comes, that all the sacrifice will amount to nothing.

Astral Necromancy is approachable despite it's blackened space-ward gaze. The production is pristine with extremely precise drums, tight guitar playing and raspy vocal delivery that manages to be comprehensible. Though it feels leaner, it’s almost the same length as Oathbreaker, making it seem like Hoth have jammed two albums’ worth of riffs into one album and trimmed almost all the fat. It makes for an excellent musical complement to their previous effort, objectively better, but ultimately a complement, rather than simply superior.

June 13, 2018

Here Lies Man - You Will Know Nothing

By Calen Henry. You Will Know Nothing is Here Lies Man’s second album in as many years. The band’s sound is self described as “What if Black Sabbath played Afrobeat?” and difficult as that may be to grasp that’s exactly what they’ve done. Comprised of members of Antibalas, they know Afrobeat
By Calen Henry.


You Will Know Nothing is Here Lies Man’s second album in as many years. The band’s sound is self described as “What if Black Sabbath played Afrobeat?” and difficult as that may be to grasp that’s exactly what they’ve done. Comprised of members of Antibalas, they know Afrobeat and how to expand its sonic palette.

Band founder Marcos Garcia explains that, in the same way Tony Iommi structured blues influenced songs around core riffs, they create riff based songs influenced by Afrobeat. The result is magical, and seems completely natural. The hypnotic grooves inherent to afrobeat are a perfect match to the equally hypnotic heavy psych sound of fuzzed out guitar and keys. It’s no fluke, though, the playing on the album is excellent with intertwining rhythms backing driving guitar lines.

Though I’m no expert on Afrobeat the album strikes me as being extremely dense and exceptionally rewarding for those wanting to deep dive into the music while also being superbly accessible. The production makes it an easy listen, too. The dynamic range (DR) score is 9, so there's lots of room for all the parts to come through. It makes for an easy listen - I’m on my third listen in a row as I write this.

Though not exactly metal, Here Lies Man are completely unique, totally heavy, and one of 2018's essential albums.

June 8, 2018

Yob - Our Raw Heart

By Matt Hinch. I talked to Yob frontman Mike Scheidt once. (OK, twice. But the second time was only for a minute or so.) We didn't even talk about Yob, or even metal really. We talked about our kids and parenting them. It was obvious to me that, as any decent parent should, Mike loves his kids.
By Matt Hinch.

Artwork by Orion Landau.

I talked to Yob frontman Mike Scheidt once. (OK, twice. But the second time was only for a minute or so.) We didn't even talk about Yob, or even metal really. We talked about our kids and parenting them. It was obvious to me that, as any decent parent should, Mike loves his kids. I even think he mentioned how hard it was to be away from them when on tour. So one can only imagine how hard it was for him thinking he might leave them forever as he battled a severe intestinal disease last year. He fought hard enough to survive and once you hear Our Raw Heart you could even say he thrived.

Drawing inspiration from a life or death battle can lead to a powerful album and let me tell you, powerful doesn't even begin to describe Our Raw Heart. The album title itself is a perfect description of the journey the listener takes on this superb album. In experiencing ORH (and/or seeing Mike's ordeal unfold on social media) his heart becomes our heart and the emotions expressed are as raw as they can get.

On another level even the “our” part could be seen as an expression of the band itself. It wasn't just their bandmate fighting for life, it was their friend. I'd like to think that shared struggle plays into the wholeness one feels on what should easily be considered the band's best album to date.

ORH is a masterwork from beginning to end. From the martial chug of “The Screen” to the funereal pace of “Lungs Reach” to the overwhelming title track to the quietude and beauty of “Beauty in Falling Leaves” and every moment in between Mike, bassist Aaron Rieseberg, and drummer Travis Foster keep the listener completely enthralled. Or at least they should be. Yob has been getting progressively better with each album anyway as the band and its members continue to mature so this should come as no surprise. Personally Atma cemented my fandom, Clearing the Path to Ascend was so good I want a tattoo of the cover, and somehow ORH takes things beyond that level of adoration through a continued evolution of their sound.

I doubt a vocal instructor would call Mike's singing voice “great” but it's honest, raw, and expressive. It works for him in all his many endeavours though and especially in Yob. I don't see how anything or anyone else could make it work in quite the same, effective way. Deep, fierce growls are at more of a premium here but as the method of musical doom-bringing varies so do the vocals. From the subterranean to the stratospheric, they are the emotional pulse of the album. They convey the needed emotion without being moody. It all starts with “Ablaze” and his husky, weathered throat now bearing new battle scars representing the very scathed nature of survival at all costs.

Lyrically the album is cryptic enough and not too linear which lets the listener interpret it in their own way, applying those words to their own situation. Or one could put oneself in Mike's shoes and feel what he felt as much as you can. A particular line in “Beauty in Falling Leaves” brings maximum heft (which I'll get to in a minute”) but something as simple as “Rise!” from “The Screen” means so much more when put into context.

Yob 2016. Photos by Webzine Chuul.

The entire album can be considered typical Yob at this point as a varied mix of tones, paces, and volumes all play into their sound. ORH is no exception to this despite not feeling quite as dark overall. Aggressive, yes. But somewhat lighter. “Ablaze” falls into the “punishing doom laced with melody” category, as does the title track. As tough as these tracks can feel the human emotion always shines through in the interplay between darkness and the light. “Our Raw Heart” mines a heavy riff the same as “Ablaze”, letting melody and atmosphere fill out the sonic space.

“In Reverie” and “Lungs Reach” fill in the slower end of the cadence spectrum. The former never really breaking faster than a brain-crushing slog while conveying a good message in the lyric “The sun rises still”. No matter what happens to you or I the world keeps turning, so keep fighting to see it break the horizon day after day. The latter is even more funereal with more distinct atmosphere, growls, and a tone so heavy it will shake the wax right out of your ears.

“Original Face” tears it up! A hard drive is tempered ever so slightly by a hypnotic, rhythmic sway. It's a powerful assault on the senses that never lets up. It's kind of punch in the gut after “Beauty in Falling Leaves” from a vibe perspective but not an unnecessary one.

No doubt by now, I hope, you've already heard “The Screen” and its martial riff parade. It's mean and chunky and “holy shit!” heavy. But even it attains lift off to soar far above the earthly plane. It's kind of an odd choice for the lead single but perhaps they just didn't want to play their hand too early.

So now that I've talked about every other song let's tackle the album's high water mark, “Beauty in Falling Leaves”. Put the title in context. If you thought you were going to die wouldn't you find untold beauty in the seemingly mundane? Now take that sort of awe and apply it to a song. This song. This breathtaking expression of emotion. If “Marrow” brought you to tears, as it has so many, be prepared for heavier waterworks. Mike's expressiveness on this track reaches new heights. The melodies are entrancing and the subdued heaviness sits like lead on the heart.

Yob really work dynamics to full effect on this one. The quieter, minimal sounding verses prime the emotional pump for when the choruses hit and blow the whole thing wide open. It feels like there are multiple climaxes as every bit of feeling is wrung out of both the performers and the listener. The clincher is the line “Your heart brings me home”. No matter who you are that statement perfectly sums up the will to live. It carries hope. It signifies that one thing worth living for. Love. Yob is love after all, and something that meaningful in a Yob song is almost too much to bear.

To think that this album could easily have never happened at all is a heavy thought. Instead, Mike won and Our Raw Heart is the result. It's immense. It's heartbreaking. It's inspiring. Every band has their ultimate masterpiece (Emphasis on ultimate. Yob has more than one masterpiece.) and Our Raw Heart is it. If the Oregon trio manages to continue getting better after this I don't know what I'll do. I only have so much money and so much skin to cover. Honestly, I hope they do. In the meantime, the Yob legacy lives on in our raw hearts. And remember, YOB IS LOVE. So love Yob.

June 7, 2018

Not metal enough for Encyclopedia Metallum

By Calen Henry. The Metal Archives has notoriously strict moderation of what is and isn't metal. So, despite being an essential resource for metalheads, it paints a somewhat incomplete picture of metal as a whole. Some bands get blacklisted early in their career
By Calen Henry.

The Metal Archives is a fantastic and very comprehensive resource for all fans of metal. But they do have a notoriously strict moderation of what is and isn't metal. Some bands get blacklisted early in their career then change styles and are still out. Others do the opposite and stay in. Some genres seem to be simply disliked. Whatever the specific reasons, here are some excellent and definitely maybe metal bands who are not listed on Encyclopedia Metallum.

Artwork by John Dyer Baizley.

I love Kvelertak. This roundup was partly so I could talk about them, even though they're hardly unknown. They play this great mix of blistering black metal and sleazy honky-tonk barroom rock (complete with bluesy piano) and feature three guitarists. Only their first record is on Bandcamp but it set the template for the sound they still employ; stomping rock riffs, blazing tremolos and glorious scream-along choruses, in Norwegian, of course. Honestly if Kvelertak aren't metal I don't even know which way is up.


Artwork by Mark Facey.

In contrast to the proliferation of bands adding progressive elements to metal, giving us things like "progressive atmospheric technical depressive blackened deathdoomgaze" Dreadnought play blackened prog rock. They write long complex songs featuring keyboards, flute, saxophone, and beautiful vocal harmonies but also tremolo picking, blast beats, and shrieking vocals. Their albums are an elemental cycle, Lifewoven is earth, Bridging Realms is aether and A Wake in Sacred Waves is water. Each one is stunning but their newest brings everything they do together in the most spectacular package. Their older albums are Name You Price so, really, get them all.


Artwork by Andrew Saltmarsh.

Toehider is Mike Mills solo progressive metal project. It's utterly fantastic. It sounds like Protest the Hero but none of the songs are serious, as evidenced by the latest album name. Topics range from knocking over a cabinet at an estate sale to ruminations the nature of ghosts and existential ponderings of humans versus eggs.

Though the topics are ridiculous the music is anything but. Mills is a jaw droppingly talented musician. Many full bands could never hope to do what he does by himself. The vocals, riffs, solos, and composition are all meticulous and excellent, spanning through almost all styles of melodic progressive metal from the edge of prog rock to extended range chugging.

June 3, 2018

Cult of Occult - Anti Life

By Justin C. I wrote about Cult of Occult's last album, Five Degrees of Insanity back at the end of 2015, and at that time, I dubbed it "lava-core" because of its slow, smothering heaviness.
By Justin C.


I wrote about Cult of Occult's last album, Five Degrees of Insanity back at the end of 2015, and at that time, I dubbed it "lava-core" because of its slow, smothering heaviness. (And yes, I'm still trying to make "lava-core" a thing. Metal journalism needs to catch up with my inventive new micro-genre labels.) Their newest, Anti Life, doesn't radically change their sound, but as I said with their last album, I still find it strangely compelling.

If not lava-core, then call this funeral sludge rage. The tempos are achingly slow--better measured by an hourglass than a metronome--but the intensity is ratcheted up to 11 for each long, agonizing beat. This is the music you listen to when you go on a rampage in a steamroller. The songs are long (the shortest is still over 12 minutes) and punishing. That's not to say there's no variation--there's a nice stretch in "NI" when the roar-growl vocals go nearly a capella, accompanied only by the bass and the occasional drum strike before the guitar kicks back in--but by and large, this is an album that wants to grind you into submission with repetitive intensity. You could almost call it drone if it weren't so damn menacing. My cat is normally happy to listen to black metal with me, but this album made him hide in the other room. How Cult of Occult manage to make what, by most definitions, is pretty minimal music fascinating is a bit of a mystery (and maybe some black magic), but I'm once again ready and willing to be smothered by their brand of slow-motion sludge.