What a month! May was arguably the most stacked month of the year thus far, and as you’ll see from the picks below, incredibly well-rounded as well. Our top picks include everything from The Armed’s noise-pop-meets-post-hardcore to Spectral Lore’s latest prog-black opus to Wax People’s bass clarinet driven math metal. Without further ado, let’s dive into what May had to offer.
The Armed – Ultrapop (noise rock, post-hardcore)
I’ve got to be honest, before ULTRAPOP, I just couldn’t crack The Armed despite my longtime affinity for the myriad of genres that the mysterious act have been associated with. Call them mathcore, cybergrind, noise rock, hardcore, whathaveyou, they’ve always just been on the outside edge of my listening habits regardless of the immense hype they’ve been building since their inception.
That changed with ULTRAPOP. This album is incredible loud and clipped out in a shroud of noisy fuzz as the band toes the line between an ambiguous blend of all things hardcore and art/indie pop. It’s hooky, exhilarating, and from the damn future. Nothing really sounds like this right now, and it wouldn’t surprise me if ULTRAPOP became a niche genre in its own right, based on how this album’s legacy settles. To be incredibly reductive, it sounds kind of like The Strokes with Wall Of Sound production, harsh vocals, and blast beats. Maybe Sonic Youth with everything that made them cool pushed to the extreme and beyond. Or even something like Genghis Tron covering The 1975? It’s an ambitious record, and it’s fun as hell.
Këkht Aräkh – Pale Swordsman (melodic/atmospheric black metal)
Black metal is having another killer year. As we approach the halfway mark of the year, I can think of several albums that could easily find spots in my top 25, but few of them have had as deep and lasting an impact as Kekht Arakh’s sophomore project Pale Swordsman. For those unfamiliar with this project, Kekht Arakh is the moniker of solo black metal artist Crying Orc. The project’s first record, Night & Love, was a deeply romantic foray into the second wave-worshiping wilds of black metal’s most traditional sounds with a deeply melodic twist. Pale Swordsman continues along this sonic trajectory but with an even deeper emotional core that is vulnerable to the point of being uncomfortable. In the violent, hyper-masculine world of black metal, Crying Orc unleashes an unabashedly honest flood of quality black metal that is somehow as appealing to black metal purists as it will be to post-black aficionados.
A great portion of the record’s success and trend-bending appeal lies in its songwriting and production choices, which in similar fashion to Mystras’ Castles Conquered and Reclaimed serve not only as aesthetic choices but integral components of the record’s overall intent. You can typically find production this lo-fi in early records from bands like Darkthrone, Paysage d’Hiver, and a host of other second wave acts, and it fits the atmosphere that the lyrics are attempting to create like a glove. The instrumentation is raw and straightforward, allowing the songwriting and Crying Orc’s knack for delicious melody to take centerstage. The songwriting choices here are what make Pale Swordsman stand tall among its peers, with tracks like “Thorns” and “Crystal” in particular incorporating a smattering of synths into the standard lo-fi black metal maelstrom that add a gentility and strikingly melodic throughline. These moments of black metal aggression are cut through with gentle key and guitar instrumental compositions like “Amor”, “Nocturne”, and “Lily”, which add soothing respite at just the right moments, all culminating in finale “Swordsman”, which is one of my favorite tracks I’ve heard all year, particularly within the context of the album. Lyrically, thematically, compositionally, and aesthetically there are few albums in the black metal world that can be compared to Pale Swordsman.
I’ve listened to this record front-to-back at least a dozen times at this point, and there are few if any gripes that I can realistically posit. It’s an exceptional piece of work that melds historic black metal tropes with more modern perspectives lyrically and thematically in a way that is tonally cohesive and consistently powerful, culminating in one of the most unique black metal releases of the year, and one of the very finest. This will continue to get regular spins, and I hope it makes it onto your rotation as well. Black metal could use more Kekht Arakh.
Monobody – Comma (math rock, progressive jazz fusion)
Over the past 6 years, Chicago’s Monobody have consistently risen in my esteem to become one of my all-time favorite groups, and certainly one of the very best currently in action. Their adventurous and acrobatic mixture of highly technical guitar and piano riffs, laid-back jazz fusion feel, and playful compositional and naming nature (“Curry Courier Career” being just one of many 5-star song names the group has come up with) has worked to create a sound and package unlike pretty much anyone else out there in either the jazz or rock scene today. If their self-titled debut was an ambitious taste of what the group could produce, their sophomore album, 2018’s Raytracing was an absolute masterstroke of ambition matched by equally impressive execution (perhaps unsurprisingly, it was my favorite album that year). So with a few years passed and with the band finally starting to receive some of the wider attention it so greatly deserves, would their third album, Comma, continue the trend?
Not exactly, but not in any way that really diminishes the excellent music the band continues to pump out. Comma, like its namesake, feels a bit like a moment to pause and breathe for the group. Raytracing was such an unbelievably dense and technically/compositionally complex album that I’m not sure it would be even possible for Monobody to come up with something that outdid it without completely losing its musicality and listenability in the process. In that context, the overall feel of Comma makes complete sense. It’s by far a much more laid-back affair, full of songs that are both shorter (only two of its 7 tracks exceed the 5-minute mark), and also more content to find a groove and really ride it out. In particular tracks like lead single “Harvester” really establish the kind of dreamy, chilled-out noodly jazz fusion tone that pervades the entire album. There’s still plenty going on, but it feels a bit less manic and a bit jammier overall.
At first I was a little bit ambivalent about this change in tone, but upon repeated listens and examining it within the greater context of their work, it both makes sense and is exceedingly enjoyable on its own terms. In particular “Sylphina” and “Mimic” are deeply fascinating songs whose overall vibe bely the complexity hiding within. That being said, Comma still delivers a couple of genuine barn burners that bookend the album. “Eighty Eight” very much continues the streak of head-spinning riffs and whiplash-inducing musical heel-turns carried over from their previous albums, and “Phaon Crescent” is a perfectly fitting end to the album that combines both Comma’s dreamy vibe and the band’s more typical sense of urgency and perpetual motion. Comma may be less likely to completely knock you back on your ass or leave you breathless on behalf of the musicians actually performing it, but it’s no less satisfying a listen for it and a stellar gateway into the incredible musical world of Monobody in general.
Saponification – Opus of Extinction (brutal death metal, slamming deathcore)
As great as new music always is, there’s something special about a new album from a hometown band. Maybe it’s because I’m fortunate enough to be in an area that’s safely re-opening, so there’s a chance I can actually see the band live. Or maybe it’s because anything new has taken on a whole different meaning in the last year. Either way, I had Saponification’s latest album, Opus of Extinction, saved for over a month awaiting its final release.
The San Francisco-based brutal death metal group originally began in 2011 as a two-piece technical/brutal death metal outfit known as Vaginal Asphyxiation that went into hiatus in 2013. Now with a full lineup that includes a mix of current and former members of Viral, Thunderfuck, and Lost to the Void, Saponification has produced a steady stream of brutal slam that reflects the band’s technical roots. With Opus of Extinction, the group combines blisteringly fast brutality with technical chops that’s reminiscent of Visceral Disgorge and Vomit Remnants.
One of my early criteria for new music is how quickly my head starts banging. If the album is so intense that you can’t help but move to it, I know this is going to be fun. And sure enough, by the end of Opus of Extinction’s third song, I was completely caught up in the ear splitting squeals and impressive guitar riffs. By the fourth song, however, I just sat and stared in disbelief at the lightning fast pace. Drummer Randy Lopez blasts out an insane tempo that only gets faster as the album moves into the title track. The second half of the album slows down ever so slightly to make room for crushing beats that remind listeners of Saponification’s earlier slam releases. The range and variety of the songs makes for a genuinely interesting and creative releases that showcases the talent of the band while always delivering punishing brutality.
It’s easy to read a list of descriptors like slam, technical, brutal death metal and wonder if the band just threw darts at the wall when writing music. But Saponification manages to give each subgenre its due and still create a cohesive and blasting record that I’ll have on repeat until they can resume live shows.
Spectral Lore – Ετερόφωτος (progressive black metal)
Given Ayloss’ prolific output in the past decade under both the Spectral Lore banner, plus a couple releases from side projects Ontrothon and Mystras, it’s hard to believe that it’s been seven years since we got the last proper, full-length solo LP. Even then, Ετερόφωτος – pronounced “etero-fotos,” a word which, according to the I, Voidhanger copy, has no proper English translation but roughly means “the one whose light comes from others” – was not conceived as the followup to the last album (2014’s III), but sees Ayloss reaching further back to Sentinel from 2012. In a helpful move, this choice is actually made completely explicit. From the copy again:
“If SPECTRAL LORE themselves originally described “Sentinel” as epic and transcendental black metal, music to inspire the warrior spirit and through it achieve spiritual transcendence, “Ετερόφωτος” walks similar emotional paths with greater maturity and awareness, and can be seen as a comment on its predecessor’s youthful enthusiasm, a kind of re-allignment [sic] that does not point towards a peaceful settlement, but on the strengthening of the need for rebellious, promethean praxis. In this respect, it is both a black metal and an anti-black metal record at the same time.”
This is an interesting stance to take in regard to the black metal genre writ large, and I think it’s worth taking a moment to ruminate on why this turn earns Spectral Lore an “anti-black metal” label. Black metal has always held a pretty deep philosophical debt to the figure of the Romantic genius – something Eden and I wrote about many moons ago – which, coupled with a misguided sense of misanthropy culled from bad interpretations of Nietzsche’s “will to power” and a deep sympathy for Satan as portrayed by John Milton, has led to a serious cult of lonerism within the genre.
The surface-level interpretation is that on Ετερόφωτος, Ayloss is pushing back against this trend, but the Hegelian in me demands to go deeper than that, and if any label puts out metal music that deserves serious philosophical rigor, it’s I, Voidhanger. It’s important to note that Ετερόφωτος, as a solo black metal record, is still on some level indebted to the self, and there’s not necessarily any denial of that here. “Ετερόφωτος” does still refer to a singular individual,and the interconnectedness the album’s title alleges to, which is made explicit on the title track, is not about denying the self or rejecting one’s own importance and agency, but about finding collective strength. Instead of embracing the solipsistic philosophy guiding a significant amount of black metal or rejecting it in favor of losing one’s spirit amidst self-denial and asceticism, Ayloss preaches for sublating this contradiction and understanding one’s place in a community. We are all the one whose light comes from others.
This contradiction-transcending dynamic plays out clearly in the music as well. Despite the gulf of time between Sentinel and Ετερόφωτος, the album’s musical lineage is surprisingly clear. There is little to be found of the touches of progressive rock, chamber classical, or folk that animated crucial moments on Wanderers, III, or even Gnosis. This is a dyed-in-the-wool black metal album in what has become the Spectral Lore style: atmospheric metal as the form dictates, touched with a noodling-heavy melodic language that sounds pulled from the early works of Krallice, traditional heavy metal, and Mediterranean melodic patterns, and a sense of songwriting that that goes beyond the typical “loud part quiet part loud part” dynamic that plagues the genre.
Although this record certainly sees Ayloss deploying moments that show exactly how much his artistic wingspan has increased in the nine years since Sentinel, Ετερόφωτος is still grounded in that form. While this may come across as disappointing to some considering Ayloss’ established diversity, it’s clearly an intentional choice to retread these old paths as a wiser and more experienced musician. With the album’s artistic foundation in reclaiming an old philosophical position and transcending its boundaries and contradictions, the music of Ετερόφωτος is likewise an older, more considered take on a relatively juvenile release.
Over the past decade, Spectral Lore have risen to prominence as one of black metal’s foremost luminaries, and every time Ayloss puts out new music it’s clear why. By grounding his output in aesthetic and philosophical positions that display a genuine sense of reflection and intellectual consideration, Spectral Lore have consistently demonstrated a masterful artistic engagement with the genre that few are able to equal. Ετερόφωτος doesn’t necessarily touch the monumental, genre-warping heights of III or Wanderers, but that’s beside the point. This is, and will likely remain, one of the best black metal releases of 2021.
Stone Healer – Conquistador (progressive black metal, tech death)
There are a lot of good albums released every year. But what sets those good albums apart from the great? From those you’ll probably end up carrying with you into the future? There are many answers; great albums are great for a lot of reasons. But one of the most common ones are that an album just doesn’t sound like anything else. It doesn’t have to be experimental; you don’t need a million notes, odd time signatures, or a weird vocal style for an album to sound like nothing else. It’s an elusive thing, uniqueness, but when you hear it, you just know. You just know that an album is its own thing and that nothing else will quite scratch that itch. But that itch will remain; sometimes it was there before and sometimes the album itself creates it. Whichever the case, you’ll know “need” to come back to this album for your fix, since nothing else will do.
I instantly knew this would be the case with Stone Healer’s Conquistador. To be accurate, it was somewhere in the middle of the opening track, “One Whisper”. Up until the middle, the track was good, don’t get me wrong, but it hadn’t arrested me yet. Its start leans more towards the rock and grunge side of the band’s sound and it alone wasn’t what sold me on the release. But then, near that middle, blast-beats suddenly explode across the mix, backed up by raspy, almost-harsh vocals that I just loved. And that passage turned into a more melodic exploration of those vocals ideas, straining them to their edge, before turning into a massively satisfying solo. And then there was this quiet, Opeth-like folk segment? And then the outro was amazing?
I could keep going because there’s literally that much stuff happening on Conquistador in every single track. Stone Healer play this kind of grungy progressiv metal, spliced with plenty of influences from black metal. It’s honestly hard to describe; there’s cowbell. There are clean vocals. There are theatrical almost screams. There are growls, sweeps, blast-beats, solos, breakdowns, and just a whole lot of extremely unique and intriguing metal. It’s an album that really doesn’t sound quite like anything else and for that reason, I foresee myself going back to it many times in the future.
Wax People – Wax People (avant-garde metal, math metal)
True story: I saw the cover for Wax People and said, “Wow, that’s awesome! It looks like something Caroline Harrison would do.” She’s a friend of the blog, and her art has graced every album from Pyrrhon, one of my favorite contemporary metal bands. Turns out, she did indeed draw the cover for Wax People’s self-titled debut, too! Neat! You know what else is neat? The bonkers music that lies beneath Caroline’s fitting cover art. If this release isn’t on your radar, do yourself a favor and bask in the oddities contained therein.
So what are we talking about here? Best I can say is “Ex Eye covering Dysrhythmia with the dudes from Moon Hooch handling bass clarinet duties.” Sounds weird as hell, right? This is one of those releases where a new, thrilling twist and turn waits behind every corner, yet it all comes together and makes perfect sense. Extended, skronky bass clarinet solo over sliudgy mathcore? Sure! Weird, jazzy song structures that feel like Larry LaLonde deciding between Primus and Possessed riffs? Have at it! Dueling guitar and clarinet trading blows over a blast beat! Let’s fucking go!
At the end of the day, that’s why Wax People resonated with me so much, and why it hasn’t left my rotation since it dropped in late April. As a voracious consumer of new music, there isn’t a lot that genuinely catches me off guard anymore. That’s not a brag or anything; it sucks that I’ve gone from being starry eyed over any and all metal in high school to being the proverbial “dude nodding politely in the back of the crowd” while sitting at my desk with headphones on. Wax People struck a chord from me from the moment the band…well, struck a chord straight into an intense maelstrom of math metal and bass clarinet. It’s an incredible, ambitious debut that reminds me why I fell in love with heavy music in the first place.
Alfa Mist – Bring Backs (jazz fusion, hip-hop)
Of the many bright stars in the modern London jazz scene, pianist and composer Alfa Mist is surely in the top tier. On his third album Bring Backs he continues his effortless blend of captivating modern jazz with hip-hop and soul.
Altarage – Succumb (dissonant death metal)
Spain’s Altarage have been holding their own in the shadow of Portal since their debut album dropped in 2016. Their fourth record Succumb sees them emerge fully as a powerful band all on their own, carving through faces with some of the most relentless, murky, and blistering death metal I’ve heard this year. Fans of Abyssal and Infernal Coil will be most pleased.
BRUIT ≤ – The Machine is burning and now everyone knows it could happen again (post-rock)
If you want to hear what the present and future of post-rock can sound like, French post-rock/experimental quartet BRUIT ≤ have you covered. Dark and foreboding but always hugely intentional and propulsive, The Machine is burning… is an album to win over even the most fervent post- skeptics.
Godspeed You! Black Emperor – G_d’s Pee AT STATE’S END! (post-rock)
Given the mixed results we’ve received from post-hiatus GY!BE, G_d’s Pee is far and away their most successful marriage of straightforward drone rock and the classical foundation of their greatest records. Two 20-minute epics (with track titles I won’t type out) anchor the album in a blend of crescendos, ambiance, and incensed post-rock ferocity, while a couple shorter tracks help balance the album in much the same way the structure on ’Allelujah! played out. In other words, GY!BE are back in their comfort zone. While it might not be a groundbreaking release for longtime fans, it will at the very least meet their expectations.
Obsolete – Animate/Isolate (tech thrash, tech death)
Over the last few months, I’ve found myself hungry for riffs, riffs, and more riffs. Make them loud, make them fast, and make them blistering. Luckily for me, the thrash/death combo of Obsolete has all the riffs I need and then some.
Oryx – Lamenting a Dead World (sludge/doom metal)
Denver doom-dealers Oryx absolutely break faces with their stunning Fourth full-length record. It’s as punishing, bleak, and aggressive as anything found in fellow Colorado-based Primitive Man’s discography, but with a bit more variety and adventurousness in their songwriting approach. If you like oppressively dark sludge, look no further. Potential AOTY material for fans of the low and slow.
Universally Estranged – Reared Up in Spectral Predation (progressive death metal)
Angular, but still crunchy and splattery-y death metal that splits the difference on Formulas Fatal to the Flesh-era Morbid Angel, Demilich, and Autopsy and then combines it with spacey, whooshing synths and forays into cosmic ambience that bring to mind the criminally underappreciated Dripping and Jenovavirus. If you like where death metal’s been at the past few years, there’s no way you won’t dig what’s going on here.
Victory Over the Sun – Nowherer (microtonal black metal)
If you missed our premiere and interview, Victory Over the Sun are back with another excellent display of avant-garde black metal. This time around, Vivian Tylinska embraces microtonality and genre bending to exceptional effect, providing all the dissonance you might expect with plenty of stylistic surprises along the way.
Ætheria Conscientia – Corrupted Pillars of Vanity (weird black metal)
BIG|BRAVE – Vital (drone metal, post-metal)
Body Void – Bury Me Beneath This Rotting Earth (doom, sludge)
Cannibal Corpse – Violence Unimagined (death metal)
C R O W N – The End of All Things (post-metal, prog metal)
Crypts of Despair – All Light Swallowed (weird blackened death-doom)
Domkraft – Seeds (stoner-doom)
Hail The Sun – New Age Filth (post-hardcore, prog rock)
Howling Giant – Alteration (progressive stoner, heavy psych)
HØST – Kos (jazz, post-rock)
KEOR – TEAROOM (prog rock)
Lascaille’s Shroud – Othercosmic Divinations II (progressive metal)
Last Hyena – How Soon is Mars (math rock, post-rock)
The Lion’s Daughter – Skin Show (spooky post-metal, blackened sludge)
Mitch Murder – Then Again (city pop, synthwave)
Moral Collapse – Moral Collapse (tech death, avant-garde metal)
Osiris – Meanders a Soul… (progressive symphonic metal, epic blackened death metal)
SEIN – The Denial of Death (melodic death metal, metallic hardcore)
Steel Bearing Hand – Slay in Hell (blackened death thrash)
Steve Von Till – A Deep Voiceless Wilderness (ambient folk)
WODE – Burn in Many Mirrors (black metal)