It’s been a year since we last spoke. January and February felt like a full year, right? The last thing I remember was spending a week holed up writing blurbs about bands like END and Clown Core and now we’re here. 2021 is proving to be no different than its predecessor, which means the world is a reeking pit of sewage and people just cannot stop writing riffs. We are thereby obligated to bring you the heaviest, nastiest, gnarliest releases the year has given us thus far. There’s also a HUGE list of records we simply did not have the time to cover but loved nonetheless at the end of this month’s column. But first, a few words with Rhode Island’s Dreamwell, who just released their sophomore album Modern Grotesque. I wrote a review for it here. Spoiler alert: It bangs.
– Calder Dougherty
Thanks for taking the time! For those that don’t know, give us a quick primer on Dreamwell.
Aki: We formed in 2016, after the breakup of Ryan’s old band and Justin and Anthony’s old band. I’d just moved to Boston and barely knew anyone, but found a Facebook post looking for a guitarist for a band “inspired by Touché Amoré and Pianos Become The Teeth” and I was in. I think one thing that sets us apart is we practice in a literal barn. The first day I went to practice, I spent an hour driving into the middle of nowhere, not having met any of these people yet, growing increasingly sketched out. It became one of the best decisions I ever made.
We recorded and released The Distance all within a year of becoming a band, playing gigs I never thought we’d get in that time period and meeting so many other musicians around New England that we’re still friends with today. I think the theme of this band’s history since we started writing Modern is that this album and this band are now cursed. Or maybe life’s just hard and all of us are cursed. Either way, we started writing new music about a month after The Distance was out in 2017, but there’s a reason it took us until now to release it. We parted ways with not only our original vocalist, but had our replacement vocalist drag us along and not really contribute anything for another 6 months after that. Thank god we finally found KZ. The month we were supposed to start tracking, Anthony accidentally got stabbed in the leg at work (and tracked the whole album anyway even though he could barely walk), we had band members losing family members, and then Covid lockdowns hit right in the middle of our scheduled tracking. Our engineer got Covid right when I was supposed to go in and finish mixing with him. We’ve had falling outs with people close to the band for doing horrible things, and most recently, we were dropped by our former label two weeks before our album release! At the time of me writing this, it’s a couple days until release day, and even without Covid I’d be sheltering in place to make sure I live to see this thing finally get released.
I guess my point of writing all this is that the struggle, and overcoming it, has been such a core part of the band and this album the last few years. It’s brought us so close together both musically and personally. And it’s made the times we get to see each other and play music together such a bright spot amongst the bullshit. We let KZ take the reigns with lyrics writing and he summarized the album’s lyrical themes as “exploring moments of pain, suffering and sorrow which immediately precede great change”, and it’s incredible the degree to which our personal lives and the creation of this album have embodied that.
Modern Grotesque is your sophomore album. How would you say it compares, if at all, to your first full-length The Distance Grows Fonder?
KZ: This is a hard question for me specifically to answer because anything I say always makes me feel like I’m badmouthing an album I had nothing to do with. But, you know, I guess speaking as someone who has an outside perspective on the first one and an inside perspective of this one, I can say pretty confidently that this is a more diverse record. More ideas were explored on the tracks and I think it makes for a really dynamic and exciting listening experience.
Aki: To be fair to The Distance, we walked into the studio with the intent of quickly demoing the 6 songs we’d written in our 4 months of being a band and walked out with something we felt at the time we could call our first album. I didn’t even mic the dang toms. I’m still pretty impressed with the music we wrote for it. With Modern, we really went through all the steps from actually writing as a band in one room, pre-proing it, and then going into the studio to do final tracking. Stylistically, there are some links to The Distance, but we took everything that was a strength on it and doubled down. KZ was such an important addition too and took us to the next level as a band. He’s made our vocals and lyrics a major strength to the music, which I think is so important in a genre that entirely revolves around emotional expressiveness.
Ryan: I felt like we recorded The Distance while I was in the middle of trying to find “my sound”. I was constantly switching things in and out to find what worked best and honestly my playing at the time wasn’t the most confident either. The next summer after the release I spent a lot of time trying to improve myself as a musician. There’s tons of parts on Modern Grotesque that I constantly had to practice to keep clean. Honestly I think we all pushed ourselves to our total musical limits writing MG. There were a lot of moments where I felt this album became all or nothing, it had so many setbacks and there was lots of uncertainty among us within our own lives, but in the end we all wanted this album and I think the energy explodes in this album whereas The Distance was us just feeling each other out.
Aki, you’re the lead engineer at Nu House Studios. Does having constant access to the stu affect the writing and recording process? Is there a secret folder with seventy-four iterations of each track?
Aki: The studio has really taken off in about the last 6 months, in which time me and my friend James (A Constant Knowledge of Death, Mother Mammoth, former Struckout) have upgraded it from a bedroom studio to what you would expect from a professional studio. For this album though, we decided to record with Ryan Stack of The Noise Floor (worked with The World Is…, Cerce, etc.) who mastered our first album. I recorded and mixed The Distance, but there’s a special stress of self-producing your band’s album/recording everyone else along with worrying about your own instrumentals that we wanted to avoid this time around. It was also nice to get out of my own space and see what gear/techniques Stack was using and just how he approaches sessions in general.
Having Nu House has been extremely convenient for us in other ways though. We ended up doing live instruments for our pre-production, including vocals and it’s arguably releasable quality. Hashing out tempos, tones and arrangement on the pre-production made the final recording way easier. So yes, we do have some alternate versions of songs on the album that might be good enough to see the light eventually! With Covid and lockdowns hitting right as we started our final recordings, it would’ve made it even more difficult to finish this had we not gotten a lot of the work out of the way in pre-production.
There’s also so much audio work in addition to the album itself that the studio has made much easier. We’ve been able to go on podcasts remotely and record all our own audio, as well as doing some high quality instrumental playthroughs, which we were actually just doing last weekend. In these times especially, it’s been super important that we can figure these things on our own when we can’t safely go to someone else to help us out.
You were recently mentioned in a BrooklynVegan article alongside genre titans like Pianos Become The Teeth and other contemporary newcomers like The Callous Daoboys as some of the best practicioners of the “new wave” of post-hardcore. How did that feel?
KZ: Feels pretty righteous to me. Every time little things like this happen, I don’t even think it would be right to say I feel “proud”. I’m almost more flustered or like, awestruck that anyone would say that about something I took part in. Pianos Become the Teeth and La Dispute were my introduction to the genre. I remember traveling to Philly to see them both play together because the Boston show sold out and I felt like that couldn’t be missed. To be referenced even in passing in the same breath as them is wild. And Daoboys rip. We bonded over them at the start of my involvement with this record actually. Daoboys, let’s tour baby.
Aki: When I think about what I want from being in a band, it’s never necessarily been to be Huge, but to be a part of something. To be able to be equals with the best musicians that are doing what you’re doing, learn from them, share experiences with them. To feel like you’re a part of a musical moment and community that makes a difference in people’s lives. Maybe we’re not all the way there yet, but seeing stuff like this makes me feel like we’re closer than we ever have been.
Ryan: Being the baby of the band, I was actually a freshman in high school when all these albums started dropping. They all helped build my current musical identity and find my place in the local music scene. It’s absurd to even be mentioned along these names, nevermind being told you’re on the next upcoming wave of the genre.
Anything else you’d like to mention or plug before we wrap up?
Aki: If we’re getting the chance to shamelessly plug, I might as well put in another plug for the stu. Since we’ve basically built this during Covid, we’ve had to think about how to make things as safe and isolated as possible. We’ve also been doing a lot of remote drum work since a lot of people have been starting solo projects during this time and drummers are the hardest to come by. James has reluctantly taken the title of “House Drummer” and a couple times, we’ve been running live audio to an artist via Zoom while he plays. Since I’m a trans woman myself, we’ve wanted to go out of our way to make the studio a welcoming and comfortable place for all queer people. In an industry that is mostly dominated by cishet white men, I think it’s sometimes hard to come by engineers that put in the extra effort to accommodate queer people.
For frequent readers of the site, you may also have seen reviews of my other bands, A Constant Knowledge of Death and Vivid Illusion. With any luck we’ll also have some new music out this year!
KZ: Now that Aki has plugged something of value, allow me to be a complete idiot and plug a metalcore EP from 2013. I used to be in this band called The Navidson Record and I’ve always had this dream that our final EP, White Plague | Black Noise, would get American Football’d and people would suddenly care about it way after the point that it mattered, because frankly I think it’s sick. “Pill Eater” was so much darker than any metalcore band had any right to be back then. It’s on Bandcamp. That’s all I got really.
The Wall of Death
Humanity’s Last Breath – Välde (progressive deathcore, post-djent)
My first review of the year went to this absolute worldkiller of an album, and I have to admit I was chomping at the bit when it showed up in my inbox. Humanity’s Last Breath blew me away with their 2010 self-titled, and each successive release has only further cemented their place as one of the heaviest, most creative acts in modern metal. Välde signs, seals, and delivers on that legacy with masterful ease.
The scope of this record seems immeasurable. Bandleader and producer Buster Odeholm has somehow unlocked the secret to composing music that feels like being caught in the inexorable pull of a black hole. This holds true for its thematics as well, boasting an original Mariusz Lewandowski painting titled “Annihilation” as its cover and exploring topics of late stage capitalism, addiction, and of course, the tendency towards nihilism in the overwhelming face of it all. Been there, pal.
Rather than rinse and repeat my longform review, I’ll leave you with this: have you ever had your soul ripped out and pulverized by an unholy, unknowable galactic force while you watch, paralyzed? Cool, tracks 4 and 9 should do the trick then.
Portrayal of Guilt – We Are All Alone (screamo, black metal)
Portrayal of Guilt got an early start on the album of the year race in January when they dropped their sophomore full-length We Are Always Alone. The nihilistic blackened screamo group from Texas have built upon their 2018 debut and two excellent EP’s, and seem to have really found their sound with this one. POG operate on the bleeding edge of black metal, screamo, and atmospheric sludge metal, fusing them together for one megazord combo of violence and beauty. While fairly short for an LP, coming in at just 26-minutes, being able to split that into 9 tracks allowed them to take their time with their song-writing to build this horror-esque tension. The hardest hitting moments as a result feel completely earned and even more rewarding.
You can’t get too into talking about this album without touching on vocalist Matt King’s delivery, which honestly feels like the backbone of their sound. Their raspy blackened scream reminds me a lot of Eva Spence (Rolo Tomassi) in what she brings to their similar post-black metal influenced hardcore. There’s a sinister nature to it that can’t help but make you snarl like a super-villain. Combined with the production quality, it does a great job at bringing out the eeriness to their sound. While not being too sterile or over-produced, it’s tight enough that it feels polished and cinematic while still being a little rough around the edges.
They lean into the black metal influences perhaps more than even before, giving it a dissonant twist that evokes comparisons to Noise Trail Immersion or Serpent Column. There seems to be a tightening line between black metal and screamo and I think bands are discovering how well the two can genuinely work together. Portrayal of Guilt’s sludgy post-metal additions just make it that much more of a novel and powerful vessel of extreme music that seems to be enamouring an increasingly broad demographic of fans.
– Trent Bos
Basilica – Basilica (metallic hardcore, crossover)
North Carolina’s Basilica have burst out of the gate swinging wildly at anything in their way with their self-titled debut album. Crossover fans will be thrilled at the filthy riffs that don’t quit, and hardcore fans will crowdkill them out of the pit when the inevitable off-time breakdowns rip the wheels off the thrash machine.
Not to be shoehorned in too closely with acts like Power Trip and 156/Silence, Basilica pepper in some surprisingly delicious interludes à la old psych-jam Incubus and your favorite lofi beats to study to. It’s the forced anachronism and just how well they pull those sounds off that really made me fall in love with this record. Mix in a cheeky little feature from Carson of The Callous Daoboys and you’ve got a winning recipe in my book. There’s enough fatty riffs to chew and fun to be had for all, and I can’t wait to hear where they go from here.
Silenus – The Garden is Burning (metalcore, metallic hardcore)
If you’re into the no-nonsense violent brutality of the likes of Jesus Piece and Sanction, mixed with a bit of Slipknot and the nu-metal edge of Vein, this is the EP for you. One of the heaviest releases of the year, this Long Island, NY based metalcore five-piece have flown depressingly under the radar. The Garden is Burning is teeming with unfettered mosh-worthy energy, broken up by memorable harsh-clean vocal hooks that are begging to be shouted along to live. While I generally prefer this style of music in EP form, the tempos fluctuate nicely enough between feverish blastbeats and more downtempo chugs in a way that I’d like to hear translate into a long-form release.
Hazing Over – Pestilence (metallic hardcore, mathcore)
Former up-and-coming post-hardcore darlings Shin Guard have rebranded to Hazing Over, and their debut EP Pestilence makes it very clear why. While the chaotic approach they brought before remains intact, gone are the days of tinny 90s screamo fare. Shuffling members and musical duties around to embrace their more traditional deathcore roots, Hazing Over is a bat to the temple of their former sound.
Mathy salvos and big fuck-you breakdowns accompany new vocalist Jake Yencik’s full-throated aggression in a wild ride through quick, to-the-point assbeaters. It is so refreshing when you can actually hear how much fun a band is having, and Hazing Over seems to have unlocked something special with the switchup. Title track “Pestilence” stands out with its take on the tried and true bring-the-riff-back-but-slower by hitting it double time in its ending breakdown to great effect. I am personally looking forward to a full album of this kind of material from artists full of fresh enthusiasm for the music they’re making.
For Your Health – In Spite Of (screamo, mathcore)
For Your Health first caught my attention with their inclusion on the best Split EP of 2019, death of spring, with now defunct Shin Guard, who coincidentally changed their name to Hazing Over and have also been covered in this article. Their debut full-length (though only 17 minutes spread over 12 tracks) is a chaotic mix of abrasive screamo, sassy mathcore and post-hardcore. This album doesn’t really follow any conventions and isn’t afraid to have big stylistic swings across it’s break-neck pace. I can’t fault some for being turned off by that and the more raw production style, but if you’re into the range of influences they draw from here it makes for an eclectic and engaging journey. Take the run from “If Anybody Asks We’re Already Fucked” to “You’re so United Ninety-Three, We’re so Flight One Eighty”, an ambient math-rock track into chaotic, mathy screamo with a catchy A Lot Like Birds type clean chorus? That immediately just shifts into a 14-second track of pure myspace sass-grind? In Spite Of is both hugely nostalgic yet entirely representative of the current shifting zeitgeist of hardcore, punk and metal’s subgenres.
To Kill Achilles – Something To Remember Me By (melodic hardcore)
On the more emotional side of things, a surprise early favourite this year came from Scottish melodic hardcore breakout-artist contender To Kill Achilles. I’ve had a turbulent history with the melodic hardcore genre over the years, but I tend to be drawn to the artists that seem to bridge the more emotive aspects of post-hardcore with metalcore, while incorporating borderline post-rock instrumentation into the mix. We profiled the highly-underrated Bloom a few months ago, and TKA pick up comfortably where they left off, especially on the heart-wrenching lyrics department. Comparisons to Being As An Ocean can also easily be made with his coarse post-hardcore style vocal delivery and general use of atmosphere and contrasting slower moments. In the course of one song you can find hard-hitting chugs, upbeat punk drumming, and nearly acapella sections where vocalist Mark Tindal does his best Touché Amoré worship, passionately blaring his heart out in an angst-fueled rap-like rhythmic pace over sombre ambience. The way the instrumentation brings out the emotion in his delivery, he could honestly be saying gibberish and it would probably still hit just as hard. An impressive feat for a passionate young band that feels wise beyond their years. Keep an eye out for these guys.
Annisokay – Aurora (melodic metalcore, alt-metal)
German four-piece Annisokay are back after parting ways with their original harsh vocalist and adding Rudi Schwarzer (Wither) to handle screaming duties. The transition is seamless, and Annisokay pick up right where they left off as some of the premiere practitioners of alt-rocky melodic metalcore in Europe alongside acts like Bring Me The Horizon, Architects, and Solence. Fifth full-length Aurora leans into the specific sound BMTH and Issues have pioneered in recent years, with electronic elements and groovy, overdriven breakdowns leading the charge in flagship tracks like “The Cocaines Got Your Tongue” and “Face The Facts”.
Bandleader and clean singer Christoph Wieczorek continues to prove he’s got some of the best chops in the genre, channeling both the calculated grit of alt-rock belters and the haunting post-punk whine of AFI’s Davey Havok on “The Tragedy”, all while handling songwriting and guitar duties. The end result of Aurora is some of the best broad-spectrum heavy music out today, featuring tracks both likely to end up on rock radio and in mosh aficionados’ playlists of best breakdowns of the year. As the lines of genres continue to blur and the global acceptance of metal and hardcore in the mainstream grows through ease of discovery, bands like Annisokay who appeal to a wide audience will become the superstars of a generation.
The Circle Pit
Scatter Shot – As Above So Below (metalcore, beatdown hardcore)
FreeHowling – Journey of a Dead Man (metallic hardcore, deathcore)
Arcaeon – Cascadence (progressive metalcore)
The Pain Body – Guilt (progressive metalcore, tech death)
Evil Prevails – Dirt and Decay (tech metalcore, blackened deathcore)
Earthly Bodies – Paradise (progressive metalcore)
Normandie – Dark & Beautiful Secrets (post-hardcore, nu-prog)
BYSTANDER – Product of Misinformation (beatdown hardcore, deathcore)
Sanity Slip – Submerged in Pain (metallic hardcore)
Auteur – Before & After (southern metalcore, chaotic hardcore)
moralslip – Know Your Place (nu-metalcore)
Cowboy Amazing – There’s Nothing More American Than Wearing Someone’s Skin (mathcore)
Svdestada – Azabache (blackened hardcore, neo-crust)
A Night in the Abyss – Begotten (symphonic deathcore)
Glass Splinter – After the Future (hardcore punk, emoviolence)
Juan Bond – Womb (mathcore)