September ends and with it, Summer fully dies. Especially where I’m presently at, the East Coast of the United States, the first brushes of Autumn are being felt. To be honest, there’s no better time of the year for metal; sure, Winter is black metal’s eternal domain but Autumn lends itself to more than just one genre. The epic morbidity of doom metal, the fierce defiance of power metal, the melancholic wanderlust of post-metal, the melodramatic expression of progressive metal. All of these find their aesthetic expression in the changing of the seasons (get it?), speaking well to the things inside of us that still remember the many emotions stirred by the rising of Winter on the horizon.
It seems as, probably by coincidence but perhaps informed by a well-hidden seasonal bias, our editorial picks this month mirror this aesthetic moment pretty well. From the lamentation of ages long past found in Atlantean Kodex’s album, through the emotional chaos of The Number Twelve Looks Like You and the epic melodrama of Gone In April, and all the way to the blackened urbanity of White Ward and the ferocious abrasiveness of No One Knows What the Dead Think, this month’s entries are all about indulgent expression and emotional impact. These entries showcase what metal has always been about, namely embracing the power and impact inherent in untethered musical expression.
As the year dwindles down and much of our world (especially in the colder parts of the world) retreats to our homes and close social networks, to the little circle of heat which we erect in the face of Winter, let us burn brightly for a few months. Let us fill our hearts and ears with music which reminds us why we live and how it feels to let your heart soar free, to imagine the limits of existence, both personal and otherwise. Before Winter descends and we turn our aesthetic directions to introspection, let us savor music which puts it all on the line and shouts its ideas into the wild. The entries on this list do all of that and more; none of the albums chosen here can be blamed for being shy or coy. Happy listening!
Atlantean Kodex – The Course of Empire (epic doom metal, heavy metal)
It’s time to expand the name of the “traditional heavy metal revival” and drop the “heavy” signifier from it. The nascent movement is no longer that nascent and has expanded to include thrash and doom under its wings. Everywhere you look, the retro sound which admittedly began with heavy metal has spread to bring back the other two early genres which classified metal back in the late ’70s/early ’80s. A fine example of this is Atlantean Kodex, who capture the exquisite blend between heavy, doom, and even proto-power metal to channel the kind of epic feeling and soundscapes which informed that time in metal more than anything else.
With their latest release, The Course of Empire, they show that they have refined that sound to a degree which rivals even the masters of the genre. The vocals and their inflection call down the grandiose evocative settings of Cirith Ungol. The energetic guitar tones would make Satan proud. The galloping broadsides of the verses would set Iron Maiden’s heart at ease. But, more importantly than all, Atlantean Kodex is more than just a collection of these influences and styles; when all the elements come together, we’re left with something unique, bearing the personality of the band rather than just the style itself.
The secret, I believe, lies in Atlantean Kodex having a fully fleshed out theme and concept to the whole album. Like many of the bands above, they are fascinated with a fantastical sort of history but (unlike many of the bands above) this fascination is wholly at the core of their work. This injects the album with an even “bigger” sense of size, driving the music firmly into the realm of spacious, melodramatic, and epic doom metal. Don’t believe me? Simply listen to how the chorus returns at the end of “People Of The Moon (Dawn Of Creation)”, the first full track on the album. None of the bands cited above reach quite these heights of romantic expression, guitars unfurling like banners across the horizon, vocals reaching dramatic peaks, and drums churning like cannons.
This is what The Course of Empire does so well and what sets it apart from its progenitors; it takes the doom/heavy metal formula from the days of yore and compounds it by orders of magnitude, pushing the envelope of magnificence communicated through music ever further.
Car Bomb – Mordial (experimental mathcore)
Admittedly, declaring an album cover to be an encapsulation of the music contained within is a bit of a self-evident observation. That’s the central purpose of album art, of course. But good God, if Mordial‘s artwork isn’t the most spot-on depiction of the music that listeners will be bludgeoned with. The Escher/Picasso mashup Car Bomb chose for their fourth record is a perfect visual representation for their famous synthesis of groovy mathcore and djent. Further still, it alludes to some new and bolstered elements from the veteran band, including an added emphasis on melody and some downright insane guitar effects.
Longtime fans will encounter yet another excellent rendition of the band’s core sound. For newcomers, imagine Meshuggah accenting their thunderous grooves with elements of mathcore à la The Dillinger Escape Plan and Psyopus. You could cite bands like Frontierer and Ion Dissonance as direct parallels, but Car Bomb have always distinguished themselves with a keen ability to balance progressive, experimental ideas with bone-crushing heaviness.
While this is true on seemingly every track, let’s focus on the lead single that truly fired up the hype machine. “Dissect Yourself” presents a myriad of mind-bending ideas in fewer than three minutes, with thunderous riffs and chugs placed in a bricolage with the sounds of glitches and lasers. Throughout the album, the band manages to constantly shift tempos and ideas while still producing coherent, memorable compositions. Listeners looking for more direct grooves have tracks like “Scattered Sprites.” The band launches with a Meshuggah-esque groove that twists and contorts while still retaining a driving, thumping bounce.
Both these tracks also feature melodic, moody atmospheres, a key component of Car Bomb’s songwriting across Mordial. While the band has always incorporated variety and “unheaviness” on their previous records, it’s especially pronounced on their latest batch of songs. Clean vocals, spacey atmospheres, and woozy riffs appear frequently amid the chaos, all of which seems to draw heavily from Cave In. The results can feel a bit jarring at first, but subsequent listens reveal how truly unique the synthesis of sounds is, and how much this contributes to the album’s sky-high replay value.
And ultimately, constant ingenuity is the driving force behind Car Bomb’s success. With each new release, the band prove why they continue to be one of the most unique and boundary-pushing bands in modern metal.
Read More: Review
Takafumi Matsubara – Strange, Beautiful, and Fast (grindcore)
It’s grind, so as is fitting with the genre I’ll try to make this lean and mean. Takafumi Matsubara (he of Gridlink and Mortalized fame) is one of grind’s preeminent guitar talents. His incredibly unique style, mixing highly emotive melody with insanity-inducing speed, rivals that of Pig Destroyer’s Scott Hull for sheer recognizability. His glorious and storied career was feared cut short in 2014 after a brain issue caused partial paralysis in his left hand. A long road to recovery ensued, culminating in the release of his first recorded material with Retention Terror last year and with Strange, Beautiful and Fast under his own name this month. That history in tow, Strange, Beautiful and Fast is as close to an event record as the genre has had in some time. Thankfully, the hype is more than justified. This record is lethal from start to finish.
One of the more unique aspects of this record is its various cast of characters. Guest spots from members of Full of Hell, Fawn Limbs, Antigama, Cognizant, Wormrot, Merzbow, Organ Dealer, PALM, and just about a hundred others populate this album’s seventeen blistering tracks, creating space for a range of styles that’s every bit as jarring as the best grind should be. It’s this veritable who’s who of guests that make the record more of a collaborative effort than a strictly solo affair, but this ends up working as the project’s principal strength. Matsubara’s manic and deeply emotive guitar work is particularly complemented by impeccable vocal accompaniments from the likes of Dylan Walker (“Stuttered Rope”), Toshihiko Takahashi (“Ice Pick”), and Dorian Rainwater (“Abstract Maelstroms”) who bring their respective entries a level of viciousness that rivals their best work. The percussive performances across the record are brilliant as well, especially the contributions of Bryan Fajardo, who handles the kit with all the heat-blasted energy a record of this caliber requires. On every technical level, the record is a marvel, and a more than fitting welcome back to one of grind’s most influential artistic voices.
That’s enough. Quit reading this and go listen to Strange, Beautiful and Fast immediately. You won’t regret a single blistering minute.
No One Knows What the Dead Think – No One Knows What the Dead Think (grindcore)
It is unbelievably hard to write about No One Knows What The Dead Think. I have a strange sort of inverse writer’s block when it comes to formulating any sort of cogent, sound writing about this band: there are simply too many important things to mention, all of which vy and scramble over one another in a mad rush to be the first bit of information to move from my brain to the computer screen. It doesn’t help that this album has been lauded so much already in the short time it’s been out, or that my connection to this project is as emotional as it is critical. There are a multitude of factors that make it hard to write about No One Knows What The Dead Think, not because I don’t have enough to say, but because I have too fucking much.
I suppose the spot that makes the most since as our embarking point is the history of Rob Marton and Jon Chang, the guitarist/bassist and vocalist of this outfit respectively. The two, along with percussion legend Dave Witte, formed the legendary Discordance Axis back in 1992 and released a trio of incredible grindcore records. The last of these, 2000’s The Inalienable Dreamless, is, by the account of myself and many others, the best grindcore album ever put to tape. It is an incomparably dense, labyrinthine, utterly chaotic record that manages to still find space to be emotionally affecting and undeniably human. It is fluid, violent, heavy; and yet, it is morose and wrapped in a barbed-wire constriction of depression and self-hatred. It is, in a word, unforgiving: bleak, inward-turned personality means an all-consuming vortex of calculated sonic warfare.
Following the release of The Inalienable Dreamless, the trio was forced to disband because of a debilitating ear injury suffered by Rob Marton that left him unable to write or play music any longer. Witte and Chang went their separate ways, both forging incredible catalogs of albums and earning their respective places as two of the more recent additions to metal’s constellation of legends and gods. Witte is going to this day – he actually has new music coming out pretty soon with Municipal Waste and released an excellent hardcore EP this past August with Under Attack – but Chang retired after the release of another grind classic, Gridlink’s Longhena, in 2014.
Or so the legend goes. But obviously, that’s not the end. No One Knows What The Dead Think is a brief step back out into the world of grind for both Rob Marton and Jon Chang. Together with Kyosuke Nakano, they’ve put out another grind landmark, a final run that, in their words, serves as a “definitive ending” to the careers of both Marton and Chang.
What a fucking ending it is. It is genuinely hard to imagine a more positive outcome of the leadup to this record. Although I’m sure fans expecting The Inalienable Dreamless 2 were disappointed, this album is so astonishingly good on its own terms that any disappointment is quickly annihilated. In place of the barely-controlled vortex of chaos and depression that defined that record, we get something that is far more straightforward, bursting at the seams with – dare I say? – genuinely catchy, earworm riffs. The song structures are linear and relatively easy to follow, but this approach pays off in spades by further highlighting Marton’s inimitable sense of melody; a sort of bright, resolute, mature hopefulness permeates this album and makes it a fundamentally different beast that comes completely out of left field from this duo.
As a technical product – nine new pieces of songcraft, plus an ambient outro (a sample from Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams, which serves as the final piece of transmission from these two musicians into our world), plus a cover of an old Discordance Axis song – it is a clinic in perfect performance. Instrumentally, Nakano and Marton are completely locked in: Marton, as always, understands the dynamics of tension perfectly and knows exactly when to let up or apply more pressure; Nakano likewise displays godlike wisdom in knowing when to create urgency with his percussion versus when to let Marton’s extreme melodicism shine through. Chang is as arresting a vocalist as ever, juxtaposing his pained screech and cavernous lows as the mood demands.
No One Knows What The Dead Think is a paradoxical album. It is so much more than its pedigree, and yet the stories of those who created it feel so intimately intertwined with this album’s release that to not explain this record’s backstory seems a disservice. It is the perfect followup to a record that’s almost 20 years old, and yet it seems completely unconcerned with its heritage. More than anything, No One Knows What The Dead Think feels monumental: in scope, in sound, in emotional resonance, in importance. In the grand scheme of things, grindcore is a young genre’s whose history is still being written on the daily, but it’s impossible to listen to No One Knows What The Dead Think and not feel as though what you’re hearing is a landmark album in the history of one of metal’s most intense and intensely loved subgenres.
The Number Twelve Looks Like You – Wild Gods (metalcore, avant-garde metal)
During their initial active period during the mathcore golden era, it was hard to pin down The Number Twelve Looks Like You. Each album is different from the last, getting progressively weirder and more experimental each time, culminating in the genre-defying Worse Than Alone in 2009, which pitted avant garde influences against chaotic screamo and grind. The band didn’t last long beyond the album cycle, and called it quits the following year.
A decade later, No12 are back with Wild Gods, which continues their musical development into more progressive and avant garde territory as if they never took the time off. Despite losing a vocalist in the downtime, you can’t tell by the performance of frontman Jesse Korman, who dons many voices and an erratic delivery that puts him into working overtime. There’s plenty of sass, death growls, and carnival barking to go around, and he adapts to the many different stylistic shifts that Wild Gods offers.
Wild Gods shows its hand right away, opening with the jazz-infused “Gallery of Thrills” and squashing any doubts about the band’s ability to deliver oddball metalcore in a way that nobody else is capable of at this level. Wild Gods is for sure the weirdest No12 album, and most certainly the most diverse and dynamic. Even on a per-track basis, tracks such as “Raised and Erased” move from punishingly heavy and wildly chaotic metal into emotional post-rock and jazz fusion, only to later dip into classic prog metal guitar solos (think Rush’s Alex Lifeson) and demented organ-based circus detours.
It doesn’t feel as unhinged as Mr. Bungle’s early work, but No12 have evolved to occupy similar spaces. Dillinger certainly wore a Bungle influence on their sleeves, but No12 have taken up the mantle in unexpected ways and offer a modernized take on the style of avant garde metal that Bungle trailblazed some thirty years ago, and it’s a much needed take. Even if the newly reformed Mr. Bungle leads to something more substantial than a handful of coastal shows, it’s nice to know that they have some honest-to-god contemporaries in No12, the current torchbearers of the style if Wild Gods has anything to do with it.
Read More: Review
White Ward – Love Exchange Failure (progressive black metal)
When thinking about what makes music “forward-thinking” or “progressive” (two terms just as often out of alignment in practice as synonymous in theory), it becomes impossible not to bring one’s own preconceptions of both the future and the past along with it. There is nothing that is inherently futuristic other than by virtue of our projections of our recent history extrapolating beyond what we currently know. This is extremely important when talking about the music of a band like White Ward and their sophomore album Love Exchange Failure, which relies so heavily on building an atmosphere that is at once steeped in sonic touchpoints we are all too familiar with but within a context that feels so subversive that it drags it into unfamiliar territory that can only be described as forward-thinking or feeling.
The musical starting point for this quintet from Ukraine is classic noir film and TV soundtracks, a melange of melancholy and mystery that evokes dark urbanism, smoke and crime-filled alleys, and a lurking sense that evil and darkness is constantly on the edge of subsuming the light. Combined with black metal — a music built on heavy contrasts of light and dark, with passages of fragile beauty suddenly cut by blistering passages of brutal heaviness — it appropriately updates the old pulpiness of noir and drags it into a progressively bleak modernity or near future. If anything, White Ward sounds like metal’s version of retro-futurism, a meeting ground of past and present with an eye on what comes ahead. In that sense, Ukraine is the perfect place from which to draw inspiration from. Caught in the ongoing struggle for their own soul as a democratic nation and still bearing the scars of their own recent history as a part of the Soviet Republic while still fending off Russian subversion and subjugation (all of which has, of course, become even more apparent here in the US given recent events), Ukraine is the perfect environment for the exploration of this kind of brutalist urbanism. Throw the ever-increasing threat and visibility of other existential crises across our planet from climate change to war-driven mass migration and beyond, and there is more than enough material to draw on for this kind of futuristic angst.
Concepts and inspiration aside, Love Exchange Failure works first and foremost, of course, because the music, compositions, and performances are stellar. The passages of piano on tracks like the opening title track and “Shelter” provide an eerie base from which to build their jazzy, foreboding soundscapes. Then there’s the sax-filled noir explorations throughout (though it’s particularly strong on “No Cure For Pain”) that transports the listener straight into smoke-filled rooms and rainy streets. So when the music blasts off into a frenzy of buzzsaw guitars, deft and spacious drumming, and snarls, it’s sheer revelation that somehow doesn’t feel shoehorned in. As I’ve written many times before, knowing how to smartly incorporate sax into the sonic dna of your music can absolutely transform it, and White Ward is a prime example of that. It’s the throughline tying their various sides and modes together, providing a familiar melodic and brooding touchstone. Put all the pieces together, and White Ward have developed a unique package that manages to call upon the familiar past to paint a picture of our chaotic present and quite possibly dystopian future.
Read More: Review
Cranial – Alternate Endings (post-metal)
This album flew under my radar a bit, so I’m including it here in addition to my review in hopes that it doesn’t go unnoticed. Cranial have turned up the groove dial on their new album, injecting their style of post-metal with plenty of attack and momentum. This makes Alternate Endings a dense and rough first listen but an almost endlessly gratifying album to sink your teeth into. Make sure you do!
Read More: Premiere
Cult of Luna – A Dawn to Fear (post-metal)
Coming on the heels of their brilliant and cosmically sci-fi collaboration with Julie Christmas in 2016’s Mariner, Cult of Luna were always going to have a rough challenge returning to their established format for a proper “solo” album, their first since 2012’s Vertikal. You’ll probably find few around here who believe that A Dawn To Fear completely met or exceeded that challenge, but that’s more by virtue of Mariner’s near-perfection than this album’s own merits. A mammoth piece of progressive-leaning post-metal, as the title suggests, A Dawn To Fear is yet another album that draws inspiration from the irreparable damage humans are wreaking on our home and the bleak consequences that face us if we don’t quickly reverse course. It’s a bold and harrowing piece that demands you pay attention to it and certainly merits it in spite of its somewhat onerous runtime.
Read More: Review
Disillusion – The Liberation (progressive death metal, melodeath)
It feels so good to be able to sing this album praises, mostly because I never even expected it to actually release, but also because I was worried it would be disappointing. Not only was it released, but it’s also really, really good! If you loved Disillusion’s brand of epic progressive metal the first time around, then The Liberation has plenty more of that for you. And if you’re unfamiliar with the band, this is as good a time as any to get acquainted with one of the genre’s most underrated names.
Read More: Review
Hashshashin – Badahkshan (psychedelic post-rock, world fusion)
Most efforts to blend middle eastern or central Asian traditional instrumentation and music with rock are, to put it mildly, not great. Rather than incorporating it with genuine knowledge and respect for the music, it’s generally thrown in haphazardly as a novelty or as a way to say “Oooh look at this craaaaaaazy flat/sharp-9 scale I learned” that quickly veers into pastiche. Thankfully with Australian instrumental band Hashshashin you don’t have to worry about that. With multi-instrumentalist (and ringleader of beloved labels Art as Catharsis and Worlds Within Worlds) Lachlan R. Dale, you have someone with feet firmly planted in the worlds of traditional music and modern/progressive rock. And Badahkshan (a reference to the land in Tajikistan bordering Afghanistan) is a humongous step forward for the project, one that succeeds both in remaining true to the roots it draws from as well as crafting mesmerizing instrumental rock compositions that are beyond thrilling to take in.
Hiss Golden Messenger – Terms of Surrender (Americana, folk rock)
On his eleventh full-length in as many years, MC Taylor has argubaly produced his finest record under the Hiss Golden Messenger name. The record presents a collection of warm, earnest tracks that sounds like Tom Petty playing top-notch Americana. Aiding this is some truly exceptional production, which creates an arena-ready sound without sacrificing any organic, folksy qualities. Oh, and “I Need a Teacher” is easily one of the best songs of the year, regardless of genre.
Korn – The Nothing (nu-metal)
It’s 2019 and Korn are good again! I know it’s a hard sell, but it’s true: The new Korn record The Nothing is the best thing the band have done since the Issues / Untouchables era. For many of you, that’s not exactly high praise. But those of you who grew up with the band and fell off the wagon over the past decade may find that The Nothing hits the spot.
Mizmor – Cairn (black metal, doom metal)
Doom and black metal are two styles of metal that rarely combine to memorable results due to the foundational differences between them. Mizmor destroys those boundaries with Cairn, the solo project’s utterly magnificent sophomore record. Emotive, epic, and technically majestic, it’s one of the best records of the year.
Opeth – In Cauda Venenum (prog metal, prog rock)
It’s 2019 and Opeth are good again! I know it’s a hard sell, but it’s true: The new Opeth record In Cauda Venenum is the best thing the band have done since the Watershed / Heritage era. For many of you, that’s not exactly high praise. But for those of you who grew up with the band and fell off the wagon over the past decade may find that In Cauda Venenum hits the spot.
Read More: Review
Sturgill Simpson – Sound & Fury (blues rock, southern rock)
Alt-country star Sturgill Simpson has evidently bucked all pretense of performing country music, and instead rolls out his “steamy rock ‘n’ roll record.” It’s a soundtrack of arena-rock infused, synthwave-obsessed honky tonk rock that sounds like Queens of the Stone Age covering Muse, or Andrew W.K. covering Chuck Berry. I’m sure many fans out outlaw country will absolutely hate the funky disco of “Good Look” or the fuzzy bass grooves and wobbly synth leads of “Sing Along,” but it’s clear that this weird-ass record is exactly what Simpson set out to make.
Read More: Unmetal Monday
Thaiboy Digital, Bladee, Ecco2k – Trash Island (cloud rap, alternative r&b)
Sleepy, forlorn, autotuned cadences over hazy trap instrumentals – perfect rainy day music. I think you have to have at least a bit of appreciation of the “bad-good” side of things to really unlock what this Swedish trio have to offer, but these guys – and their broader rap collective, drain gang – are the real deal.
Vitriol – To Bathe From the Throat of Cowardice (death metal)
Vitriol’s debut full-length is one of the most unrelenting and thoroughly vicious death metal records I’ve ever heard. Full stop. The remainder of 2019’s death metal stock has its bar set incredibly high. Untouchable sonic violence.
65daysofstatic – replicr, 2019 (post-rock, electronic rock)
A Constant Knowledge of Death – Vol III.c Everything Was Possible and Nothing Was True (blackened post-metal)
Apprentice Destroyer – Permanent Climbing Monolith (experimental rock, krautrock)
Blut Aus Nord – Hallucinogen (progressive black metal, psychedelic black metal)
Bonniesongs – Energetic Mind (indie folk, indie pop)
Ecstatic Vision – For the Masses (heavy psych, stoner rock)
Foscor – Els Sepulcres Blancs (post-black metal, progressive metal)
HarborLights – Isolation Ritual (post-rock)
Haunter – Sacramental Death Qualia (blackened death metal, progressive death metal)
Brittany Howard – Jaime (blues rock, neo-soul)
JPEGMAFIA – All My Heroes Are Cornballs (abstract hip-hop, glitch-hop)
Kayo Dot – Blasphemy (avant-garde metal, prog metal)
Casimir Liberski – Cosmic Liberty (jazz fusion, avant-garde jazz)
The Messthetics – Anthropocosmic Nest (experimental rock, jazz-rock)
Parliament Owls – A Span is All That We Can Boast (post-hardcore, math rock)
Secret Shame – Dark Synthetics (post-punk, darkwave)
Serpent Column – Mirror in Darkness (progressive black metal, mathcore)
Tides From Nebula – From Voodoo to Zen (post-rock, electronic rock)
Tiny Moving Parts – Breathe (math rock, pop-punk)
Wallowing – Planet Loss (blackened sludge)
Chelsea Wolfe – Birth of Violence (gothic country, dark folk)