The year winds down. The stream of news, releases, and overall music community activities begins to slow as we prepare for the heart of winter. As if remembering days when winter’s darkness had a stronger hold on us than it does today, people’s minds turn to introspection, eyes moving away from an imagined blanket of cold that just isn’t really there anymore. Big publications have already begun to publish their end of year lists and we’ve already started to prepare for our own; our little niche of social media is filled with these lists, as people publicly curate their taste and in the process, display their identity like so many peacock feathers during mating season.
But a second before everything comes crashing down and the inexorable weight of the dreaded period known as “The Holidays” descends upon us all, there is the month of November. November! A month of in-between, a passage between melancholy Autumn and depressing Winter. Also a month that, on first sight, looks like nothing much, especially for music, but when considered in a deeper manner suddenly reveals a treasure trove of releases. From this year’s second Full of Hell release to King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard’s umpteenth release this year, from the much expected Cryptodira full length to the out-of-left-field Úlfur, November has something for everyone.
2017 will be remembered for many things and not a whole lot of them will be good. We’ll get to properly summarizing it soon, as December starts its dreary rotation, but for now November will serve us well in pointing out this year’s musical diversity. It seems as if The Golden Age only continues spreading, reaching its fingers into corners of the music scene as diverse as they are interesting. There’s truly no overstating how varied these lists have become over the past 11 or so months and they only look they will keep diversifying. As the industry looks forward to 2018 which, we believe, is going to be a year of many changes, it should be worried about things like where the money comes from, social justice in the scene, and more but it shouldn’t be worried about the music itself. The kids are alright and they’re making some incredibly weird and unique music.
The Body & Full of Hell – Ascending a Mountain of Heavy Light (power electronics, sludge metal)
Last year’s collaboration from experimental sludge act The Body and grind/noise group Full of Hell One Day You Will Ache Like I Ache was a surprise highlight, and this year’s sequel is no different. Ascending is a collection of grotesque soundscapes bordering on nightmare fuel that will appeal to those with a taste for the avant-garde side of extreme music. And like its predecessor, Ascending manages to tow the line between completely off putting and genuinely enthralling in its artistic purity.
Opening track “Light Penetrates” cycles doom riffs over noisy industrial loops before giving way to John Zorn-worshipping free jazz, complete with The Body’s signature howling falsettos. “Earth Is A Cage” sounds like a hardcore punk take on Nine Inch Nails, shrouded in grinding machinery. “The King Laid Bare” is a slower burn that layers loops of noise like a Clipping. track for a sense of trance-like groove.
“Didn’t The Night End” continues the marriage of harsh noise and industrial with nightmarish results. “Our Love Conducted with Shields Aloft” is a deceptively exhilarating with distant, riotous drums and a static drone through its duration. “Masters Story” initially feels like the collective’s take on hip-hop, with snappy synthetic drums and a rhythmic vocal delivery from Full of Hell’s Dylan Walker before an off-kilter doom aesthetic overtakes the track. “Farewell Men” sounds like a more traditional middle-ground between the two acts, with Full of Hell’s territory of dirty grind filtered through The Body’s electronic glitches, swaggering doom, and maddening vocals. “I Did Not Want To Love You So” acts as a somber ending, with pounding drum samples and guitar drones providing a backdrop for apocalyptic vocal samples.
This record, as you can tell by the track descriptions alone, is a beautifully psychotic mess that marries grind, doom, jazz, industrial, and noise. It’s frightening, thought-provoking, challenging, and exhilarating. Much like its predecessor, this feels like pure, unfiltered musical id at large, though it’s apparent that there was much attention to detail in seeing this project through its second stage. Hopefully these two acts haven’t run out of things to say in such a mutual context because The Body and Full of Hell are perfect for each other.
Cryptodira – The Devil’s Despair (progressive death metal)
Good things come to those who wait; this adage has been proven to me over and over again during my life. There’s nothing sweeter than the feeling of anticipation paying off and many times, the really quality stuff needs time to gestate. Take Cryptodira for example; their name has been on the Heavy Blog radar for years now, partly because they’re from Long Island and we have several people there. All this time, we got singles, split EPs and rumours of their incredible live sets, a whispering in the web of a band to look out far.
Which is why we were incredibly excited for what is technically their first album, certainly their first full length release. There’s an anxiety in such a wait; will Cryptodira be able to translate the success and strength of their shorter excursions and their fabled live shows onto an LP format? Gladly, the answer is “goddamn hell yeah”. The Devil’s Despair is a marvellous release of progressive death metal, dipping deep into the influences at the genre’s core but also taking notes from hardcore, mainly for its vocal stylings.
This creates a heavy and intricate album which defeats its own penchant for bloated ideas by turning to straightforward aggression and emotional expression. This mitigates the inherent intricacy and layering of the album’s more technical parts and creates honesty where too often pretentiousness reins. Thus, Cryptodira have made an album of their scene but also unique to their scene. It has things that every fan of progressive death will love (growls, intricate guitar parts, odd meters and the like) but also ideas that appeal to more basic and innate modes of expression (high pitched screams, breakdowns, moving clean vocal passages). The end result is a finely crafted album that’s sure to echo down the years; hopefully not too many pass before we see its follow up.
Impureza – La Caída De Tonatiuh (progressive death metal, flamenco)
I’ve been listening to death metal for more than half of my life at this point, and I’ve gotten to the point where the genre has few surprises left for me. Sure, there are many acts that are pushing the boundaries, I don’t mean to do any disservice to them. But there is a specific avenue of the genre where the core formula is kept static, whereas a lot of experimentation happens with completely eschewing that instead. Not a lot of bands try to find a spin on the core formula. Enter Impureza. Blending flamenco elements into a more straightforward death metal formula is a brilliant idea, and they make it work way better than anyone could expect.
This isn’t the first attempt at this idea, clearly. Flamenco-esque playing and melodies have been prominent in metal for a while. However what Impureza do is taking the Nile approach to fusion. A total commitment to the idea, respecting the mindset that comes with it and making it an integral part of their sound. There have been a few bands that attempted this, but it’s usually resulted in either “flamenco with metal elements” or “metal with the occasional flamenco break”. This is neither – it’s a perfect blend.
The brilliance of La Caída De Tonatiuh lies in how they take riffs that would be at home in a traditional death metal context, and slightly recontextualize them to make them work as flamenco riffs. The reframing is done through adding subtle extra instrumentation plus very clever and subtle writing that feels at home in both styles the band embody. Impureza’s sound more than a sum of its parts, and the parts alone are worth listening to. I can’t overstate how great the execution is, and how enjoyable this album is. Just go listen. It will get you going.
King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard – Polygondwanaland (math rock, psychedelic rock)
Between Full Of Hell, BROCKHAMPTON, and King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard, I feel like I’ve written about maybe four or five bands at most this year (expect me to write about BROCKHAMPTON’s Saturation III for Ed’s Picks next month, by the way, unless it’s a drastic step down from I and II). This has been a weirdly prolific year in terms of the number of bands putting out multiple albums across a bunch of different genres, and also an unusual year in that a lot of them are really fucking good. All of the previous Gizz albums have been varying shades of good, but man, Polygondwanaland is definitely the one that takes the cake for 2017.
As with all of this year’s Gizz albums, Polygondwanaland is themed around a simple gimmick; this time, it’s a dependence on odd time signatures and polyrhythms across various instruments. With this comes a sound heavily inspired by classic progressive rock, especially when it comes to the warbling synthesizers and long instrumental breaks. It’s a treat hearing something that pulls so heavily from Yes and Iron Butterfly filtered through the Eastern-tinged garage psychedelia that Gizz usually trades in, and what this leads to is almost 45 minutes of music that are something progressive rock almost never, ever is: fun. Because the approach is still based in the simplicity of typical King Gizzard fare, what we get is lots of odd-time grooves that build over each other and meld into what might be the world’s first danceable progressive rock record.
King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard have absolutely had a stranglehold on 2017 because of their daring undertaking, and it seems as though they’re abdicating this year’s throne with one of their best albums as a band to date (seriously, I would put this up there with Nonagon Infinity and 12 Bar Bruise). Clearly, the lessons they’ve learned through the release of the last few albums have all paid off in spades, and when King Gizzard inevitably does return, we can only expect the best.
Merkabah – Million Miles (avant-garde jazz, experimental post-metal)
Delayed gratification has become a much more visible aspect of music fandom. Before the advent of the internet, it was a distinct possibility that fans could remain completely ignorant of their band’s new album until walking into a record store on release day, particularly for less publicized artists in the underground. But the rise of social media was accompanied by the popularity of consistent studio updates, which may be tantalizing for some and torturous for others. For those unenthused by being constantly in the know, constant band updates can bring about update fatigue and spike impatience, while infrequent posts with long stretches in between can cause an insatiable thirst for something tangible to matriculate. And on top of all this, bands have begun announcing albums more and more months in advance, only exacerbating the craving further.
Of course, all this pent up rage dissipates when a band follows through with an excellent album, as was the case with the three-year wait for Merkabah‘s exceptional, triumphant return Million Miles. Due to countless spins I gave to their last album Moloch and the band’s numerous, spread out studio updates, there wasn’t a single album I anticipated more in 2017 than what these experimental Polish wizards would unleash next. And with a band like Merkabah, it was difficult to hypothesize what exactly to expect; a synthesis of post-metal, avant-garde jazz and noise rock produces a unique, enticing result that consumes the listener and constantly reveals new musical territory. While I expected an album that was at least on par with what the band accomplished on Moloch, I couldn’t have imagined just how closely the band would sync their performances to completely nail the most ambitious and rewarding music of their career.
As we said in our review, Merkabah expand upon their formula of combining the avant-garde jazz metal stylings of The Iceburn Collective and Masada-meets-Naked City, with shades of Pelican. The tracks on Million Miles are longer, denser and more keen to unravel at their own pace rather than dazzle the listener and risk fizzling out. As the band weaves such a rich musical tapestry, it’s infinitely more impressive to hear them refrain from unfurling all their strengths in one fell swoop and instead carefully sew each individual thread to create an extraordinarily crafted piece that stands triumphantly on its own incredible merits. It’s worth every minute invested into it and proves on each listen why its one of the best experimental heavy music releases of the last several years.
Thantifaxath – Void Masquerading as Matter (blackened death metal)
In the realm of dissonant, avant-garde metal, bands like Deathspell Omega, Dodecahedron, and Jute Gyte have forged for themselves unique paths that have separated them from the teeming masses of modern black metal bands by creating sounds distinct to themselves. We can now assuredly count Thantifaxath among their unique and special ranks. No one else sounds quite like them. Their mesmerizing debut Sacred White Noise was an obtuse, crushing affair that left an indelible impression on the black metal scene a few years ago, and those positive vibes have transferred directly to their latest EP, Void Masquerading as Matter. But plenty of debut albums engender good will that bleeds into subsequent work, whether or not that material is actually any good (cough INTERPOL cough). Rest assured that the hype here is rightfully deserved, as Void matches every fantastic aspect of Sacred White Noise and does it one better. This is arguably the best EP of the year, and one of the best black metal releases I have heard in a good while.
To be honest, the EP designation seems a bit of a stretch here. At thirty-five-minutes in length, there’s more material in these four songs than most bands can conjure in a full-length. With each of the record’s first three songs clocking in past the nine-minute mark, Void is no proverbial walk in the park. But give these songs in all their chaotic, dissonant, and avant-garde glory the time and attention they deserve and you will find yourself utterly transported by one of the most unique and assured new voices in black metal.
The singular nature of this music becomes readily apparent in the opening moments of “Ocean of Screaming Spheres”, which starts this EP off with speed and ferocity to rival the best the genre has to offer. Beneath the speedy audio assault, Thantifaxath pack this song with some unexpectedly catchy riffs and a hefty dose of melody. The production on Void is worthy of note, as each instrument here feels crisp and clearly heard, allowing each individual musician to shine throughout various portions of the record. Additionally, these production values serve to highlight the technical elements of the band’s music. The latter half of the opening track displays some deft and disconcerting tempo changes that more than adequately showcase the band’s songwriting creativity. But all the technicality in the world can’t cover for uninteresting songs.
Thankfully, the rest of the EP is more than up to the challenge laid out by the opening track. “Self-Devouring Womb” contains one of the best riff sequences the band has yet written, and “Cursed Numbers” continues the themes of its preceding track with relish, adding an eerie atmospheric component with a string passage straight from a panic attack. It’s a riveting sequence of tracks that are among the band’s most assured and well-written. But the grandeur of these tracks pales in comparison to the shock of the EP’s finale. A strictly acapella affair performed by vocalist Jocelyn Barth (who also lent her incredible talents to the soundtrack for last year’s impeccable horror film The Witch), the title track of the EP sounds like a cathedral choir slowly becoming possessed while reciting liturgy. It’s a bold, uncompromising statement of artistic clarity, and is without question the most haunting and unique track on Void.
There are so many reasons to recommend Thantifaxath. There are no bands in extreme metal at large that sound quite like them. They are a unique entity creating expertly crafted music that stimulates and terrifies in equal measure. If you have yet to give the band or this EP a listen, I strongly encourage you to do so. Riveting stuff.
Úlfur – Arborescence (modern classical)
I’ve been big into albums this year that exist as their own kind of unique musical microcosms, albums that create an immersive universe of sounds that I can fall deeply into and stay in for a while. Perhaps it’s the state of the world and the uncertain crossroads I’ve felt I’m at in my own life recently, but this kind of musical escape has been one of my few sources of reliable refuge from everything. It should be no surprise then that the latest album from Icelandic by way of NYC composer Úlfur Hansson is my top pick for this past month. As if his own bona fides weren’t impressive enough, and as if the ridiculous list of collaborators he had performing and helping shape the album weren’t enough (seriously, look at the full list in our review, Úlfur managed to take this incredible potential and elevate it even higher into a sleek package of utterly breathtaking and gorgeous music in the form of Arborescence.
Like Grails’ Chalice Hymnal, another album that I lauded highly for its musical microcosms and transportative quality, the seven tracks that form Arborescence are the perfect balance of atmospheric beauty, deep and rich texture and sound design, and grounded melodies and structures that keep the entire thing from floating away too far from earth. Though the former is rooted in more traditional psychedelic/stoner rock (among other things), Úlfur’s music comes from a more distinctly classical and experimental music tradition, going so far as to produce his own instruments for his projects, including this one. The effect is largely the same though, whether it’s in the more abstract and acoustic forms of the opening title track, the darkly synth-like and recent Kayo Dot-like pulses of the ponderous “Tómið Titrar,” the glitchy Venetian Snares-like EDM of “Rhinoceros,” the sweet pastoral folk of “Fovea” and closing track “Vakandi,” the celestial harp of “Serpentine,” or the dread-inducing sonic void of “Weightlessness.” It’s an album tied together not necessarily by sonic consistency but by similar compositional approaches taken directly from the album’s title itself, implying a tree-like structure that grows organically in every direction.
Though perhaps a bit depressingly short, Arborescence makes brilliant use of every minute, and I find myself hitting play to repeat as soon as the last whispers of ‘Vakandi” fade. Right now I’ll take any extra bit of escape I can grab, and Úlfur has crafted a near-perfect vehicle to do so.
Björk – Utopia (experimental pop/electronic)
You can’t keep a woman like Björk down for long. Only a couple of years after her opus of heartbreak and torment in Vulnicura, the Icelandic icon has returned invigorated with optimism, fire, and love. Utopia is her second album in collaboration with Venezuelan electronic producer Arca, and the results are even more lush and dizzying than before. At a runtime over 70 minutes the album is possibly a bit too daunting to take in one sitting, but it cannot be denied that the music present is gorgeously lush and represents some incredible high moments for Björk’s illustrious career.
Dan Terminus – Automated Refrains (synthwave)
Man, synthwave has gotten really good, hasn’t it? The period following its genesis was iffy at times, with repetition and mediocrity leading the way, but some of the originators and inheritors of the genre have managed to punch through the fog and deliver some great albums. Automated Refrains is definitely one of those; it has punch, it has groove and it has style. The future is here and it is automated.
Desolate Shrine – Deliverance from the Godless Void (blackened death metal)
The Satanist has finally met its match in the realm of blackened death metal. Yes, it’s that fucking good. Crushing, monolithic, hellish. Sublime.
The Knells – The Knells II (symphonic prog rock)
Deep down inside, I’m still a die-hard fan of vanilla progressive rock. I love the guitars, the vocals, the fantasy concepts, the works. So when The Knells give me that and add on insanely layered and rich vocal choirs, what did you think would happen? I’ve been hooked to this album for weeks now, parsing its often times intricate and hard to grasp ideas and boy has it been paying off! Now, the sound of classical choirs above moving guitars can be heard resounding from my house at all hours and I feel like my street is better off for it.
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Krallice – Go Be Forgotten (blackened progressive metal)
With each new release (two this year), it becomes increasingly more difficult to predict which direction Krallice will take their music. It seems that the band likes it this way, as their past four records have each taken different approaches to extremity. While by no means a simplistic record (there’s plenty of technical wankery here), Go Be Forgotten may be Krallice’s purest and blackest musical statement. It’s also one of their best. Not since Years Past Matter has the band sounded this vital, vibrant, and assured. An impeccable record from the kings of genre-bending insanity.
Antigama – Depressant (grindcore)
Armand Hammer – ROME (experimental hip-hop)
Bolt Gun – Man Is Wolf to Man (atmospheric black metal)
Boucle Infinie – 直線移動 (synth/ dark wave)
Chaos Moon – Eschaton Mémoire (progressive black metal)
Converge – The Dusk in Us (hardcore)
Godflesh – Post Self (industrial metal, post-metal)
Ground Patrol – DRIFT (math rock)
Kardashev – The Almanac (deathgaze)
Path of Might – Hallowed Gate Style (progressive stoner)
Salvya – Impostor Syndrome (post rock)
Vaivatar – Vanitas (symphonic black metal)