November 18, 2019

Epic Metal Roundup

By Calen Henry. Earlier in the month Wilderun released their epic third album Veil of Imagination so it’s a great time to continue the legend and break out some other epic metal. Metal is a genre prone to drama and grandiosity, in other words, it’s epic. Historically, though, epic didn’t simply mean larger than life
By Calen Henry.

Earlier in the month Wilderun released their epic third album Veil of Imagination so it’s a great time to continue the legend and break out some other epic metal. Metal is a genre prone to drama and grandiosity, in other words, it’s epic. Historically, though, epic didn’t simply mean larger than life, it referred to a specific long form of poetry best known through Homer’s Odyssey and Iliad (both of which have been the subject of multiple metal songs). Some albums tell stories in a dramatic fashion befitting the literary meaning of epic be they historical, fantasy, or science fiction. Epic also manifests in the modern sense with bombastic arrangements and long-form multi-part songs. Some albums may even pull off both. Here’s a trio of albums that each approach epic in different and interesting ways.

Artwork by Jana Heidersdorf.

Xanthochroid are top of the heap for high concept epic fantasy metal to the point that they’ll likely turn off some listeners. All of their albums take place in Etymos, a fantasy realm of their own creation. Their website even has a lore section. Of Erthe and Axen is the two-part prequel to their previous album Blessed He with Boils. In brief, it tells the story of two brothers vying for power, the love of a woman, and control of ancient forbidden magic. The concept is engrossing and involved enough that the albums include completely justified listening guides. They lay out not only lyrics but the full-fledged story complete with character dialog and a narrative connecting all the verses and songs together. The songs are so much related that the titles make up the final lyrics of Part II, tying everything together:

Open the gates, O forest keeper
To lost and ancient gardens
To higher climes where few might stand
To souls distant and dreaming

In deep and wooded forests of my youth
The sound of hunger rises
The sound of a glinting blade
The sound which has no name 

Reveal thy shape, O formless one
Of aching, empty pain
Of gods bereft of grace
Of strength, and the lust for power

Walk with me, O winged mother
Through caverns old and yawning
Through chains that drag us downward
Toward truth and reconciliation

Musically it’s symphonic black metal meets Alan Menkin for what really feels like a metal Disney musical. There is as much classical instrumentation (with a delightful amount of oboe) as metal and it features male/female vocal duets telling the characters’ stories throughout. It may not be every metal fan’s cup of tea and it may be too metal for die hard musical fans, but anyone who likes metal, fantasy, and musicals would be remiss not to check it out especially since all their albums are Name Your Price.



Though not particularly epic in the narrative sense, Lör are musically way over the top. They play what is best described as “turbo folk metal”. Though lacking much of the traditional folk instrument backbone featured in many “folky” metal bands they’re folk by nature of their compositions. Many of their songs start with rhythms and motifs from traditional instrumental folk music then crank up the speed, layer face-melting solos over top, and underpin it with machine gun double kick. There’s a classic thrash feel to it that brings to mind early 90’s power metal thanks to the high clip of the riffs, the guitar tone, and the way the synths sound unabashedly like keyboard patches rather than like a real orchestra. It’s a singular sound and one that took me a bit to get into, but man, does it rip.



Nechochwen present a different and somber version of epic. Hearkening back to historical epic poetry, Heart of Akamon tells stories of displaced indigenous people in eastern America and their journeys to find a place to belong and preserve their traditions. To accomplish this the band play a blend of visceral melodic black metal and folk. But even reducing the music to those genre demarcations is a bit disingenuous. Every track on the album is different from the last and each creates a singular mood that beautifully and terribly conveys each story and theme. The album comes with images of the CD booklet that I found to be essential to understanding and connecting with the album. Not only are the lyrics contained therein, but the band has written about the historical context of each song on the album. The album starts with first contact with Europeans in the ominous “The Serpent Tradition” and traverses themes of life, loss, violence, grief and ultimately hope on the album closer "Kišelamakong". Putting it all together with the lyrics and concepts reveals one of, if not the single best, folk metal album I have ever heard.

November 15, 2019

Abigail Williams - Walk Beyond the Dark

By M.A. Spiro. The enigmatic extreme metal collective that is Abigail Williams once again marshals forces to produce a fifth, and likely their most blistering, full-length recording yet. Walk Beyond the Dark, has been released on the group’s new label, Blood Music of Finland.
By M.A. Spiro.

Artwork by Mariusz Lewandowski

The enigmatic extreme metal collective that is Abigail Williams once again marshals forces to produce a fifth, and likely their most blistering, full-length recording yet. Walk Beyond the Dark, has been released on the group’s new label, Blood Music of Finland.

Championed by lead guitarist, vocalist, and primary composer Ken Sorceron, Abigail Williams’ new recording delivers a massive dose of rage-tinged pathos. The seven-track album spins a glistening narrative with themes of despair, longing, and destruction. Prepare for songs like “Black Waves” to tear your heart out and hand it back to you -- still beating. Brace yourself to be swept away by songs like “Born of Nothing,” which harkens back to the most unforgiving sections of the group’s 2012 offering, Becoming.

I reached out to Ken to talk about the album’s creation in detail. He composed most of the songs on Walk Beyond the Dark during the last five years in between contributing his talents to other musical endeavors, such as Cobalt, The Faceless, and Lord Mantis. Some of the songs reflect the black metal intensity derived from the places where he’s been spending much of his time: the otherworldly beauty found in the Pacific Northwest and the arid desolation experienced in the Texan outback.

I wrote all the songs except “The Final Failure,” which was a song that Ian Jekelis (Aborted) brought to the table back in 2014 when he was in the band. It morphed into what it is now after I fucked with it for years.

The everchanging lineups for Abigail Williams have always featured some of the most phenomenally talented musicians around. Joining Sorceron this time are drummer Mike Heller (Fear Factory, Malignancy,, Raven); bass player Bryan O’Sullivan (Altar of Plagues, Mortichina), and classically trained cellist Christopher “Kakophonix” Brown (ex-Empyrean Throne, Hvile I Kaos). Not since the album Becoming have the talents of a cellist been featured so prominently. In addition, Justin McKinney (ex-The Faceless) provides a guest guitar solo on the track “Ever So Bold.”

Unlike The Accuser (2015), which included guest vocals from Neill Jameson (Krieg) and Charlie Fell (Lord Mantis, Cobalt), Walk Beyond the Dark features Sorceron singing every tune. Listeners may be surprised at the fair amount of clean vocals employed here, but they don’t overpower the riffage.

Recording for Walk Beyond the Dark took place in Washington, New York, and Dublin, Ireland. Mixing and mastering were accomplished by Lasse Lammert of LSD Studio in Lübeck, Germany. Where the last two albums demonstrated a transition and maturation of the group’s sound, could one say that Walk Beyond the Dark most closely represents the Abigail Williams’ sound? Ken seems to think so.

It really has elements of all four previous albums in my opinion, so in that regard it’s the most ‘Abigail Williams’ sounding album to date. I think it’s a good culmination of everything I’ve done. All those sounds come together to create this album. The production is top notch while still retaining raw qualities. It’s dreamy and atmospheric when it needs to be and punchy and clinical when the song calls for it.

Like the master craftsman that he is, Ken never expresses complete satisfaction with anything he’s accomplished, and the evolution of Abigail Williams is no different. As a musician, he says, he’s

gotten shittier at some things but better at others. I’ve stopped listening to other bands, for the most part, and I’ve just been doing my own thing.

Has Abigail Williams attained its final form? Not likely. For now, Walk Beyond the Dark presents fans with the most accurate snapshot of the level of excellence that American black metal can achieve today. I am pretty sure this will be my album of the year or at least close to the top.

November 11, 2019

Vastum - Orificial Purge

By Matt Hinch. When I wrote about Vastum's 2015 effort, Hole Below I name-dropped Bolt Thrower, Atheist, and Death. Don't ask me why because I don't really listen to those bands. I should but... whatever the case the death metal created by these Bay Area bashers fills the void created by my lack of OSDM listening with new album Orificial Purge.
By Matt Hinch.

Artwork by Laina Terpstra.

When I wrote about Vastum's 2015 effort, Hole Below I name-dropped Bolt Thrower, Atheist, and Death. Don't ask me why because I don't really listen to those bands. I should but... whatever the case the death metal created by these Bay Area bashers fills the void created by my lack of OSDM listening with new album Orificial Purge.

That title sounds like the prep for a colonoscopy. Pain, suffering, enslaved to the agony and in the end, there's no shit left. There was nothing shitty about Vastum to begin with and these six tracks should silence any doubt about the matter.

The other thing lacking here is light. Listening only brings an aura of darkness. Whether it's their “spooky” intros or ghastly atmosphere, or everything in between, Orificial Purge plunges the listener below the surface into a hellish existence where the sinister reigns in hues of black and red.

Black metal may inform the beastly death Vastum is so good at but their right-hand demon is doom. Thrashy cadence and twisted screaming solos mold the album into various tortured and twisted shapes but the heaviness and their slowing down to a lurching place brings the whole world down upon you. No matter the pace – ripping speed, lurching doom, or mid-paced pummelling – Vastum leave nothing on the table. Full-spectrum death metal.

As if the sonics weren't enough, the coal-breathing vocals grab hold and turn your spine to ash. What's left of it anyway. This is the kind of death metal for which furious headbanging will not be denied. It's a primal instinct activated by primal terror. The lyrics are themselves tortured and twisted but also uttered in an equal foul way. Discerning ears are required.

Orificial Purge has it all. A varied pace, cavernous atmosphere, commanding vocals, and serious chops. The most notable change from previous albums, to these ears, is an uptick in production value. Yeah, death metal isn't supposed to sound clean but this does. The nastiness just sounds better. That's really saying something. What are you waiting for? Let the Purge begin!

November 6, 2019

Sunn O))) Monoliths and Opinions: Part XIX - Pyroclasts

By Craig Hayes. Critics often point to drone’s snail-like momentum and supposedly flavorless ingredients as the genre’s major stumbling blocks. Obviously, there’s no getting around the fact that drone creeps and crawls rather than sprints or gallops, and drone can definitely be bland and unimaginative.
By Craig Hayes.

Artwork by Samantha Keely Smith.

Critics often point to drone’s snail-like momentum and supposedly flavorless ingredients as the genre’s major stumbling blocks. Obviously, there’s no getting around the fact that drone creeps and crawls rather than sprints or gallops, and drone can definitely be bland and unimaginative. Even worse, drone can be unbearably monotonous. Laboring at the same point, over and over again.

That’s why truly sublime drone should be treasured, which is where Sunn O)))’s enthralling synthesis of crushing metal and sound art enters the frame. Sure, the band’s music is slow moving and often comprised of minimal components. But all of Sunn O)))’s releases have traversed different audio terrain.

The band’s core creative duo, Greg Anderson and Stephen O'Malley, have explored new and often inventive pathways with every Sunn O))) release. Sometimes those pathways have been shrouded in darkness. Sometimes they’ve been bathed in light. But they’ve never been featureless or one-dimensional.

Case in point, Pyroclasts, the latest colossal release from Sunn O))). It wasn’t that long ago that I was writing about Sunn O)))’s last album, Life Metal, which was the band's most rapturous release yet. It’s a testament to Sunn O)))’s forever-evolving nature that I’ve yet to exhaust my vocabulary about them. In fact, this is the 19th edition of this Monoliths and Opinions series, and I’m not remotely tired of writing about Sunn O)))’s adventures.

Reason being, Sunn O)))’s music always feels so ripe for interpretation, from myriad perspectives. In Pyroclasts’ case, one interpretation points to it being Sunn O)))’s most curious release yet. In a nutshell, Pyroclasts is unrehearsed but still heavily conceptualized and purposeful. It features immense mood pieces, as you’d expect, but they’re off-the-cuff drones, where musicians seek each other out on a higher creative plane.

In practical terms, Pyroclasts is the result of daily practice. Every morning or evening during the two-week recording sessions for Life Metal (at Electrical Audio), Sunn O))) and co-collaborators –– Tim Midyett, Tos Nieuwenhuizen, and Hildur Guðnadóttir –– would work their way through a 12-minute “improvised modal drone”. The aim was to (re)connect and focus energies, and everyone involved immersed themselves in oceans of sound and aligned their creative chakras via meditative means.

As a whole, Pyroclasts is a vast introspective and contemplative work. Digest the lot in one sitting, and you’re in for a transcendent treat. The album’s four lengthy drones merge into one monumental teeth-rattling suite, with gargantuan slabs of noise being channeled in deeply devotional ways. (And, as always, Sunn O)))'s inner space explorations are offset by celestial escapades.)

Of course, Pyroclasts is a companion piece to Life Metal, which is scrupulously assembled and arranged. Pyroclasts is far more impulsive, but both releases share a similar ambience, with molten riffs that are as dense, intense and heavy as collapsing stars. Mesmerizing tracks “Frost (C)” and “Kingdoms (G)” look to the heavens, but they also shake the membranes, memories, and anchors that maintain our place in time and space. Massive chords collide and coalesce, altering our perceptions, which is what Sunn O))) have always done at their best.

In towering tracks “Ampliphædies (E)” and “Ascension (A)”, huge shifts in sound spark equally intoxicating shifts in emotional states. Mantric musical movements see pulverizing tones rise and fall, with subtle melodies lurking beneath the crashing waves of trance-inducing drone. “Ampliphædies (E)” and “Ascension” also have a far more intimate impact, which is just as powerful as their earth-shaking presence.

Like its volcanic namesake, Pyroclasts is a slow-motion eruption. But for all the album’s brawn, Pyroclasts is one of Sunn O)))’s most reflective releases. Perhaps that comes down to the close connections forged as everyone involved sought to find common ground through instinctual and unscripted drones. Whatever the case, much like Life Metal, there’s a brightness and even euphoria to the heavyweight dirges here –– and a similarly mercurial sense of adventurousness.

Sunn O))) have noted that Pyroclasts can be viewed as a lens to “re-experience the complexity" of Life Metal, and you're free to press play and scrutinize Pyroclasts’ contextual (and textural) relationship to Life Metal. What's most interesting, though, is that Life Metal underscored that Sunn O)))’s ultimate creative destination remains unknown, while Pyroclasts highlights some of the experimental footsteps along the way.

In the past, Sunn O)))’s creative preparations have remained hidden from sight. But Pyroclasts grants us a view of the band and their collaborators bonding and scouting potential routes. In doing so, Pyroclasts becomes a profoundly soul-stirring voyage unto itself. Revealing a band eager to explore new artistic methods as well as new creative avenues. Sunn O)))’s artistic journey has made for an enthralling odyssey thus far. Long may their expeditions into the hinterlands of sound continue.


The Sunn O))) Monoliths and Opinions series.

November 1, 2019

Wilderun - Veil of Imagination

By Calen Henry. Wilderun's sophomore album Sleep at the Edge of the Earth garnered a grassroots cult following with its unlikely mix of Appalachia-tinged Americana and epic progressive melodic death metal. Four years later they're back with Veil of Imagination
By Calen Henry.

Artwork by Adrian Cox.

Wilderun's sophomore album Sleep at the Edge of the Earth garnered a grassroots cult following with its unlikely mix of Appalachia-tinged Americana and epic progressive melodic death metal. Four years later they're back with Veil of Imagination, an album that's both a departure and a refinement of their last.

Sleep at the Edge of the Earth’s centrepiece was the four-part "Ash Memory". It used leitmotifs to create a majestic folk metal suite moving from acoustic Americana to grandiose symphonic metal and back. Veil of Imagination’s fourteen minute album opener “The Unimaginable Zero Summer” plays out much the same way, starting acoustic and building through movements but it merely opens the album, rather than being a self-contained suite. Throughout the album it’s apparent that Wilderun have improved both their composition and performance chops. Fading transitions are all-but gone, replaced with dramatic stop time, smooth transitions between passages, and meaningful builds into sections.

Veil of Imagination partly accomplishes cohesion by digging into bombastic metal while eschewing most of the Americana making for tighter and still grandiose songs. There’s still a folky vein running through the album, but the resonator guitar, dulcimer, banjo (frailing on the intro aside), and mandolin are all but gone leaving only symphonic metal with a tinge of folk. Much as I’m loathe to admit it makes for a more focused if less unique album.

The orchestral parts are gorgeous and the metal parts have more bite, with more tremolo leads and dissonant chords underpinning the dramatic orchestrations. Vocals are improved as well with more variety on display. Cleans range from low, soft accompaniment for quiet passages to belted choruses and chorale vocals the most grandiloquent this side of the Red Army Choir. The growls have more bite as well, sometimes raspy, sometimes more guttural shifting from Akerfeldt inspired to Swanö. Though not a concept album the lyrics are thematic and focused. Wrapped in the trappings of fantasy the album grapples with the dichotomy of action versus inaction, the desire for control pitted against the fear of inaction. The lyrical focus adds another layer holding the album together as a whole, rather than a collection of songs.

The one pitfall is Jens Bogren's crushing master (DR 6) of Dan Swanö’s excellent production, especially compared to Sleep at the Edge of the Earth which sounded more dynamic than it’s DR 7 mastering score. Veil of Imagination is more dramatic and overblown with layer upon layer as pieces build and when blasts, tremolo picking, chorale vocals, and symphonic elements all come in these parts feel flat and the low end gets lost. It’s especially evident against more sparse sections where the bass and drums are clearly audible. It’s nowhere near many other albums in terms of loudness with no audible clipping and it sounds quite good overall, but an album so lush and detailed cries for more dynamic range to maximize all the different components of the music.

Veil of Imagination's move away from Americana, in some ways makes Sleep at the Edge of the Earth more special but it shows undeniable growth from the band and for 68 minutes of progressive metal to be this cohesive, dramatic, immediate, and layered is truly wonderful. Those prone to deriding epic, dramatic metal as overblown may come away unmoved but Wilderun, by dialing up the bombast, are clearly unconcerned and invite everyone else to pierce the veil of their imaginations.