As you might have guessed already, the Monthly Missive’s intro will be taking much of the spotlight away from this intro. But the Editors’ Picks intro is something I’ve been writing for years now, ever since we launched the feature, and I’m not willing to let it go so easily. So, I’ll keep it but instead of talking about broader issues and perspectives here (we’ll do that over on the Missive intro), I’ll focus on the actual entries for the month for each Editors’ Picks installement.
So, on this semi-inaugural edition of Editors’ Picks on Heavy Blog 3.0, what do we have? We mostly have what I love about the stuff our editors usually end up picking, namely a good mix between recurring, “classic” Heavy Blog bands and newer, fresher stuff. This month, we have blog stalwarts like Ulver, Good Tiger, and Unleash the Archers making triumphant returns but we also have acts like Atramentus, Faceless Burial, and Nubya Garcia appearing. It’s not that we necessarily have never written about any of these artists but more that they’re not exactly staples of the blog and it’s refreshing to be exposed to ever more bands.
Which has always been the goal of this column, right? We recommend a ton of new music each month and, since we no longer have review scores (thank God), placing them on a spectrum which contains the word “best” doesn’t really make sense. This column was never about “best” but rather about shining a spotlight on albums that might otherwise be swallowed in the crush of things or that we feel especially deserve another (or a first, for that matter) shout-out. And so it shall be with Heavy Blog 3.0. Enjoy!
Atramentus – Stygian (Funeral doom)
Music has an incomparable power to transport. More than any artistic medium, its conflagration of pitch, rhythm, tempo, and sound have the ability to set the imagination alight, and the power move hardened men in public concert halls to tears. It’s a vehicle for internal and imaginative free-form storytelling unmatched by any other artform, but when coupled with an organized external narrative, can become something even more potent than what our own imaginations could conjure unaided. This world of detailed narrative encased in music is where Atramentus, the funeral steel brainchild of one Phil Tougas (he of Chthe’ilist, First Fragment, and Funebrarum fame), resides. Written in parts over more than a decade, the band’s debut album Stygian develops a full-fledged fantasy narrative in three segments of ethereal and atmospheric funeral doom, with full written accompaniment for those fortunate enough to have a physical copy of the record. It’s one of the most fully immersive records I’ve heard in a very long time, and also potentially an instant classic in its genre.
It’s a bit difficult to figure out how to write about Stygian without dropping all kinds of narrative spoilers, as the music itself is so deeply tied to the story Tougas has conjured here. It’s also the kind of story that I highly recommend jumping into as blind as possible for the full experience. But as a simple summary, those who undertake the epic musical journey that is Stygian will be immersed in a fantasy narrative involving jealous gods, mortal fools, impossibly dire and irreversible fates, and a world shrouded in figurative and literal darkness. If that sounds remotely up your alley, then Stygian is an essential listening experience that I cannot recommend highly enough. If all of that sounds like corny bullshit to you, take heart. The music is no less incredible without the narrative attached to it.
As a funeral doom album, Stygian holds a unique place in the genre’s storied and sonically entrenched history. Harnessing the weight of Evoken and blending it with the emotional heft of Bell Witch and the melodic bent of Mournful Congregation, Atramentus can most certainly be compared to some of funeral doom’s greatest modern bands, and hold their own when it comes to the sheer funereal. But it’s the ways that make them more difficult to define within the strict genre confines of funeral doom that elevate them beyond the simple status of “another funeral doom band”. Their use of melody and looseness in sectors of their compositions heralds back to the fantasy-obsessed bands that populated trad metal circles in the 1980s, with soaring guitar solos and synths (particularly during the album’s opening track) that wouldn’t be out of place, albeit at a much slower clip, on a more mournful heavy metal track. It’s the addition of these elements that make Stygian an unusual and particularly potent funeral doom experience, and set it apart from many of its contemporaries.
But for all its uniqueness in the genre it primarily occupies, Stygian is a funeral doom record through and through when it wants to be. The riffs are slow and powerful, dragged over 10+ minute tracks with all the spaced out intensity that one should expect from a funeral doom record. Tougas’ vocals are also otherworldly levels of low here, recalling his work in Chthe’ilist primarily. Stygian also unequivocally NAILS the atmosphere of funeral doom, including its instrumental atmosphere-drenched interlude that ties the album’s two titanic tracks together seamlessly. So if you are a fan of funeral doom without the trimmings, there’s still plenty to love here. Yet what Atramentus bring to the table on their first outing is substantial and diverse enough to satisfy both stingy funeral doom lovers and curious listeners alike, which for a genre as boldly individualistic as funeral doom is a feat in and of itself.
I could write another four paragraphs about how thoroughly excellent this record is, but who has time for that? If you enjoy funeral doom in any of its manifestations, Atramentus have released the album that you absolutely need to hear this year. It’s dense, rich, powerful, narrative-heavy music that you can get lost in very easily. It also bends the rules of what makes funeral doom the often inaccessible form that it is, bringing in enough intricacy and unique sonic landscapes to elevate itself beyond the trappings of the traditional format. Its a near-perfect blend of old and new, and will most certainly make its way onto my year-end list. Not since Bell Witch’s Mirror Reaper has funeral doom captivated me so completely. My highest recommendation.
Cytotoxin – Nuklearth (tech death)
It’s been a killer month for death metal, but Nuklearth stand in a unique place among the already-crowded roster. It’s not necessarily true that technical playing and heaviness are at odds with each other, but doing both in a way where both are interesting on their own is quite challenging. Cytotoxin‘s career has always been based on straddling that line, but with their fourth full length the German band have really found the perfect balance. On their previous releases, one could criticize their tendency to fall back on genre tropes, with an over-reliance on fast diminished runs to get “tech” points in, and then throw in some chugs in between fast low note runs to tick the “death metal” box. That’s a bit of an unfair characterization of their discography, but at an extremely reductive level, it’s not entirely untrue.
Obviously talking about a particular shortcoming in a band’s history sets up for explaining how their new release doesn’t have that pitfall. Indeed, Nuklearth is a massive step forward for a band that was already quite great. Every riff here has a meticulous amount of attention paid to it. Never do the band repeat the same riff without some sort of new gimmick, be it a different drum groove, an additional lead, or some interesting vocal pattern. There’s constantly something new being thrown at the user, and yet everything builds on top the previous riff, so it’s never a confusing blast on the senses. This album is overwhelming, but it knows how to keep you just on the edge so that you constantly feel like you’re in danger, but you never fall over. This adrenaline-fueled approach towards songwriting, coupled with the band’s mastery over injecting triplet grooves in every other riff make the experience of listening to Nuklearth exhilarating and joyful. Every moment is surprising, empowering and crushing.
The production does a lot of the work here as well. Every note is crystal clear, with smooth leads, crisp rhythms, snappy drums and chunky bass. Grimo’s vocals are more varied than ever, and he knows when to bring the low gurgles to add even more furor to the slowed-down breakdowns. One trick frequently employed by drummer Stephan Stockburger is to switch between hitting different parts of the snare to spice up blast beats, which again goes to show how little variations can make riffs feel so much more alive. Of course, the guitar work is fantastic – not only is it ridiculously technical, it’s also full of neat little tricks that keep repeat listenings engaging.
Overall, Nuklearth is the best album yet from an already-fantastic band, and is arguably the pinnacle of modern death metal for the year. Given the current conditions surrounding our world, a post-apocalytpic death metal album to get one’s blood flowing is about the best thing a metalhead can ask for these days.
Faceless Burial – Speciation (death metal)
Like this year’s previous bomb drops from Thaetas and Question, Melbourne death metal heavyweights Faceless Burial’s new album Speciation is at once intimately familiar to any with more than cursory knowledge of death metal’s form and yet seems to defy characterization with an intensity beyond even its immediate contemporaries. Speciation presents the platonic ideal of what is happening in ‘raw death metal’ in this way: the materials are familiar but the architecture is strange and new, twisting in novel ways that constantly goad listeners into saying “this reminds me of something, but I’m not quite sure what.” That is to say, Faceless Burial have studied hard at their craft and hacked a fresh, exciting edifice out of the same beams we’ve been seeing repurposed time and again.
The antediluvian form of Gorguts or the earlier works of Ulcerate may be the best points for triangulation, but this is appended with a flair for the same bleak cosmicism that fascinated Formulas-era Morbid Angel (they come to close to the way Blood Incantation channeled that to world-shattering effect on Starspawn). There are moments that echo the terse chromatics of Death’s masterwork Symbolic and the shattered-glass riffing style of Immolation’s Robert Vigna (pay particular attention to their punctuation of riffs with pinch harmonics). The way everything comes together, though, is where the real mastery happens; Faceless Burial’s real talent, even more so than their ability to cultivate a cohesive sound from a breadth of influences, is in their ability to structure a song. These folks have a remarkable sense for how to chain together concepts in a way that maximizes the power every individual piece of the whole possesses. “More than the sum of its parts” is a bit of a cliché, to be sure, but it’d be impossible for me to not remark on the fact that where Speciation truly is made is in how that Faceless Burial have stitched their ideas together in ways that constantly shift the tone and tempo to grab the listener by the collar and demand their attention and enthusiasm. Thirty-eight minutes go by in the blink of an eye because of how much sheer flow this record has.
If there is one thing that I have to say about Speciation more than anything else, it’s that this is a remarkable grower of an album. I was hardly lukewarm on this on the start – I knew this was going to be a killer record from the bone-crushing riffs that immediately open “Worship” – but the uncanny manners in which each track here twists and turns, all in ways that keep the ear involved, lend this record to repeat listens in a manner to which few death metal records can lay claim. Coupled with a production style that opts for hiding small deviations amidst a fair amount of girth and murk, and Speciation is a record that demands numerous returns for full dividends. Luckily for us all, it’s such a phenomenal record that this should pose no problem at all.
Good Tiger – Raised in a Doomsday Cult (progressive post-hardcore)
Of all the genres I’ve mused about in various columns and reviews, the evolution of post-hardcore interests me the most. To go from Fugazi’s artsy take on Minor Threat to the fluorescent, pop-driven approach of bands like Dance Gavin Dance is quite a shift, even after a few decades. While DGD is a particular divisive example, it’s undeniable that the contemporary infusion of math rock and pop sensibilities into the post-hardcore framework has proved off-putting to some. And it’s from that vantage point I’d like to argue that Good Tiger are perhaps the best example of a band that can appeal to fans across the post-hardcore spectrum, especially if they continue releasing phenomenal albums like Raised in a Doomday Cult.
I appreciate that the band tagged themselves as “some kind of rock” on Bandcamp, because it encapsulates their unique space within the modern post-hardcore landscape. There are still plenty of anthemic choruses, math-influenced technicality, and a general air of melody surrounding the band’s punchy, energetic delivery as much as their moodier moments. To me, they’ve always felt like a mix between At the Drive-In and Circa Survive, with a modern twist that should appeal to fans of Protest the Hero and The Safety Fire.
And yet, Raised in a Doomsday Cult exhibits a distinct degree of growth from the band’s already impressive foundation. Both A Head Full of Moonlight (2015) and We Will All Be Gone (2018) had a more refined approach to contemporary post-hardcore, but not on this level. They’ve never had the goofy lyrics and delivery of their peers, nor do they lean on a clean/heavy dynamic or breakdowns that so often alienate post-hardcore purists. Instead, Good Tiger have maintained a steady voice throughout their three releases to date, drawing from both the strength and melody of prog metal to elevate everything that’s made modern posthardcore more than just a fad.
Their third crack at this formula is easily their most successful yet. Raised in a Doomsday Cult offers a great deal of variety while maintaining the same, consistently excellent approach driven by vocals and compositions that interlock perfectly to match the mood of every track. Of course, it’s difficult to make this claim with giving immense credit to vocalist Elliot Coleman (ex-TesseracT). He’s consistently a focal point throughout the album and demonstrates an impressive amount of versatility. Whether he’s belting out an earworm chorus on “Kimbal” (I wasn’t walking away/I was running towards you) or crooning alongside delayed guitar effects on “Redshift,” his vocals shapeshift to provide exactly what every track needs to hit the next level.
Naturally, Coleman’s bandmates ensure he’s elevated to these heights. After cranking out an infectious alt-rock banger with “Kimbal,” the band immediately launches into an At the Drive-In 2.0 vibe, with a distinctly progressive edge. The band uses this kind of contrast effectively throughout the album. After an equally aggressive cut on “Animal Mother,” they chill things out with slick, bouncy guitar lines on tracks like “Sunthrower Flower” and “Growth.Smile.Accept,” reminiscent of Strawberry Girls.
All of this recalls what makes modern post-hardcore such a distinct, enticing genre. Yet, at the same time, the music on Raised in a Doomsday Cult is unmistakably “Good Tiger,” and it sees them creating their most fully realized compositions yet amid an impressive young career. Whatever shade of post-hardcore you prefer, I’d be genuinely surprised if there wasn’t a moment (or many moments) that convince you to keep listening to what the band have to offer. In my view, the band have synthesized adjacent styles more successfully than most of their peers, and the way they make those subgenres work in tandem with their complementary elements remains an incredibly impressive feat.
Nubya Garcia – Source (spiritual jazz)
It’s a rarity these days for any artist to receive the level of hype that Brit Nubya Garcia has received before releasing her first full-length album. It’s even more remarkable when you take into account that Garcia is a saxophonist putting out jazz in 2020. That’s just how strong her first EP, 2017’s Nubya’s 5ive, was though. Representing the promise and vibrancy of the new London jazz explosion, Nubya absolutely stormed onto the global stage and demanded attention from mainstream publications across genres. But on Source, she has taken those sky-high expectations and shattered right through them.
There will be many comparisons to another powerful tenor sax player who has harnessed the history of spiritual jazz and brought it into the 21st Century with great crossover appeal, Kamasi Washington. Those comparisons are absolutely warranted in terms of both the incredible talent and visceral appeal of Garcia’s work. However, Source more than proves that she has her own distinct voice as a composer and as a performer. While tracks like opener “Pace” represent the kind of strong and sleek modern jazz format we’ve come to expect from the newer crop of jazz vanguards, it’s on songs like “The Message Continues” where Garcia is able to demonstrate her own brand of jazz fusion. London in particular has earned a reputation as the epicenter for new and refreshing combinations of straight-ahead jazz, hip-hop, soul, and many other influences from around the world brought over from the many immigrants for 1st gen’ers who have often shined the brightest amongst their peers. The combination of frenetic backbeat drumming and Garcia’s utterly entrancing melodies, flutters, and bursts of energy is intoxicating.
Then there’s the album’s title track, bringing together classic London dub grooves and production, heavenly vocals, and spiritual jazz in a way I’ve personally never heard before. This is where Garcia can truly excel like nobody else out there currently. Drawing from the strength and heritage of her upbringing from two immigrant parents (Guyanese and Trinidadian), “Source” and the album as a whole glides effortlessly through these fusions of genres and styles. It’s as grounded in jazz’s rich history and present as it is the best version of its future, where artists continue to push boundaries and forge entirely new ones through interpreting the world and its many cultures, joys, and struggles through the expressive lens of jazz’s storied traditions.
As for Garcia’s own playing and performances on the album, her style is not overwhelming in the way that contemporaries like Washington can be (whose physicality certainly plays into his brand of blowing that can sound like he’s on the edge of passing out at times). It’s still sophisticated and technically impressive, but also more melodic, meditative, and at times subdued. Her tone is pure silk. On tracks like the understated “Stand With Each Other,” Garcia’s voice can carry the emotional weight of the entire piece without feeling the need to display unnecessary flash. Even on tracks where she lets herself fly free like “Inner Game,” she doesn’t feel the need to dominate and overbear upon the rest of her incredibly talented ensemble. Of course, that is another place where she and Washington are similar. They both have attracted some of the best and well-known collaborators within their respective scenes.
All-in-all there is very little not to love about Source, whatever your musical leanings are. It’s about as triumphant a debut as you will find anywhere, and it’s one that augurs a world of promise for both Garcia and modern jazz as a whole.
Ulver – Flowers of Evil (synthpop)
Ulver are a band notorious for never sitting still for very long. With roots in the infamous ’90s black metal scene, the band expanded to folk, ambient, trip-hop, and avant-garde rock among other niche subgenres, becoming one of the premier art rock bands of the world by the time their 11th album The Assassination of Julius Caesar was released in 2017. With Assassination, Ulver found themselves leaning into the then-burgeoning synthpop renaissance. If you didn’t know any better, it would be easy to accuse the band of trend-hopping, had it not been for the precedent set in electronic music previously and the fact that they managed to blow everyone else out of the water in the style.
It was a massive turning point for Ulver. As strange as it was to see them becoming a veritable pop act and riding a wave of nostalgia by pulling from the likes of Depeche Mode and Nine Inch Nails for their sonic palette, it felt like a comfortable and natural evolution despite coming off a stint in atmospheric music and drone, including a collaboration with Sunn O))) just a few years prior. Assassination was easily their most accessible record to date, with dance beats and catch choruses galore. The foray into pop music wasn’t at all a detriment; it’s a beautifully crafted record which none of us here took for granted, as we’d assumed the band would have packed up shop and moved on to the next experiment.
But three years later, the band have released yet another synthpop masterpiece, Flowers of Evil. The fact that Ulver have decided to camp out and explore these grounds further is perhaps more shocking than the fact that they’ve done a pop record in the first place. Truth be told, not much here has changed; Flowers is very much in the same vein as Assassination with very little in the development of the formula, but that honestly doesn’t matter all that much because the songwriting is still so incredible. Infections jams like “Russian Doll” and “Machine Guns and Peacock Feathers” will likely catapult Flowers of Evil into the Best of 2020 deliberation, just as Assassination wound up in the number four spot in 2017. It remains to be seen though; despite 2020 being a trainwreck in all other respects, at least the soundtrack has been nice!
Unleash the Archers – Abyss (power metal)
The secret to Unleash the Archers’ success has always been that they don’t play “just” power metal. They use many other influences, from death metal, from progressive music, and more, to charge their version of power metal with diversity and freshness. Very few bands within the genre can pull this off today, stuck in the tired tropes of power metal’s faded glory. On Abyss, these permutations and enhancements are even more felt, giving the album heavier, poppier, and more complicated vibes, depending on the influence which is currently ascendant. This means that Abyss stays fresh, even if you do push it and play it three times every day (oops).
This also means that I could pick out almost every track from the album to focus on but I want to draw your attention to one that is right there at the end of the album. Or one track before the end rather. This is the excellent “Carry the Flame” with its majestic 80’s tinged synths and vocals. Those synths and vocals make it sound almost like a Nightingale track (if you’re not aware of this Swanö brothers project, please go listen to Retribution immediately). But when you add in moments like the blistering solo near the end of the track and the sweeping chorus, you get something more akin to Angra, in all its progressive power metal glory.
If you’ve been following the blog closely, this won’t come as a huge surprise, seeing as how the band cite Angra as a major influence on them. Regardless, the track benefits immensely from these influences, creating a beacon of energy and verve right at the end of the album. And the entire thing is filled with these kinds of tracks, like the epic power metal of “Return to Me”, featuring the best harsh vocals on the album right in its middle. Or the synth heavy “Through Stars” with its sweeping synths and massive guitars.
In short, this album fucking rules, alright? It’s power metal as it should be, writ large but not ashamed to draw on other genres for ideas and embellishments to its main formula. It’s an album that will feature again and again in my rotation because, as a direct result of this plethora of influences, it remains incredibly fresh, no matter how many times I’ve listened to it. And I’ve listened to it a lot. Go do the same.
Circus Trees – Delusions (post-rock, slowcore)
If reading our recent feature on the MA wunderkind sister act hasn’t already sold you, then their debut LP absolutely should. Full of anger, anxiety, and reflection way beyond their years, Circus Trees are in full control of their voice and destiny on Delusions, and they’re here to stay.
The Fall of Troy – Mukiltearth (post-hardcore, math rock)
Mukiltearth, the newest (sort of?) offering from returned post-hardcore stalwarts The Fall of Troy (who you may remember from Guitar Hero 3 if this stuff isn’t your bag) is something of a temporal chimera: the first six tracks of 10 are re-recordings of the 2002 Martyrs Among The Casualties EP by 30 Years War, the first incarnation of The Fall of Troy, and the last four are new songs. The re-recorded stuff is inoffensive and suffers from age, but oh man, the last four songs are the best stuff the band has put out in probably 15 years. “Round House” in particular is one of the best tracks of 2020, full stop.
Jaga Jazzist – Pyramid (nu-jazz, progressive post-rock)
Pyramid is not a ground-breaking record from Jaga Jazzist but even when these guys are “just” towing the line, they still manage to make some of the most lush, mind-twisting, and intriguing jazz/electronic/urban/post-rock music out there.
Krallice – Mass Cathexis (avant-garde black metal)
The boys are back, and lord does it feel good. Krallice have gotten into the habit of releasing new records without any warning, and Mass Cathexis was no exception to that apparent rule. But after giving this record several spins, I feel confident calling this surprise a thoroughly pleasant one. Mixes the heaviness of Loum with the melody-heavy majesty and adventurousness of Prelapsarian, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Pig Destroyer – The Octagonal Stairway (grindcore, industrial metal)
Although any new release from grindcore titans Pig Destroyer is worth the excitement and anticipation, this short EP offering centers around a track that was released seven years ago on Adult Swim and another that was released last year via Decibel Magazine. Beyond those, we get another grind track and some noise and industrial odds and ends, so this doesn’t feel quite as substantial. Still, as a PxDx completionist, this was mandatory.
Primitive Man – Immersion (blackened sludge)
If you, like me, were one of those folks who found Primitive Man’s excessively amazing sophomore record Caustic just too long to enjoy on repeat, Immersion will provide you with ample opportunity to experience the brutality at half the length. Immersion is everything that Primitive Man do best in its most focused and intense manifestation yet. Time will tell if this becomes my favorite record from the band, but right now that title is looking highly likely.
Video Age – Pleasure Line (synthpop, chillwave)
One of my friends recently described Video Age’s music as “synthpop for stoners,” and honestly, I haven’t heard a more accurate description for the band’s unique brand of goofy, infectious songwriting. Pulling heavily from the sticky sweet synth tones and kitsch of the ’80s, Pleasure Line is the band’s most lighthearted, varied, and downright enjoyable collection of songs yet, all wrapped up in a modern electronic package so it fits in nicely next to the chillwave cassettes in your collection.
Bull Elephant – Created from Death (progressive doom, speed metal)
Duma – Duma (industrial hardcore)
DVSR – West Technique (djent, rap metal)
Fermentor – Continuance (instrumental death-thrash)
Incantation – Sect of Vile Divinities (death metal)
Ingested – Where Only Gods May Tread (death metal)
Mesarthim – The Degenerate Era (atmospheric black metal)
Misery Signals – Ultraviolet (melodic hardcore, progressive metalcore)
Selbst – Relatos De Angustia (atmospheric black metal, post-black metal)
Son Lux – Tomorrows I (art rock)
Steve Von Till – No Wilderness Deep Enough (Americana, chamber folk)
Titan to Tachyons – Cactides (experimental rock, prog metal)