This month the introduction to this post writes itself because April 2023 was one of the best months for music I can remember. Seriously, I wrote up three entries for the main section of this column and could have probably written four. So many albums which I absolutely adore released and it has been a joy getting to jump into them as well as into all of the rest of the truly excellent releases that dropped. And that's it; no overreaching narrative, no directive to explore, no grandiose gestures. Just a faint silence, and overwhelmed awe at how incredibly good music is, how we are unworthy of it, how it still exists, and the sheer amount of it we are truly blessed with.
Bell Witch - Future’s Shadow Part I: The Clandestine Gate (Funeral Doom)
In 2017, Mirror Reaper put me in an emotional chokehold that no album in any genre has been able to replicate since. As a statement of grief, a contemplation of death, and a juxtaposition of hope and abject despair, there are few releases in the metal world that have come close to matching its titanic and singular style of resonance. Outside of its harrowing content, its format also played a large part in its success (as well as its somewhat controversial place within the Bell Witch catalog). As a single 83-minute track that walked listeners through very insular and isolating emotional spaces with uncompromising deliberateness, it was a love it or hate it type of songwriting proposition. For as many that found its content and style to resonate deeply, a seemingly equal amount of folks found this elongated approach to songwriting ineffective and dull. So it often goes with bold artistic strokes, and doubly so when that seemingly aberrational approach becomes a mainstay. Which appears to be the case with the band’s first record in a proposed three-part saga: Future’s Shadow Part I: The Clandestine Gate. If anything, it’s a truly fantastic start.
On the surface, the band’s first solo record since Mirror Reaper (not discounting their their collaborative record with Aerial Ruin, which was more traditional in structure and also excellent) follows a similar formula to its predecessor: One contiguous, 83-minute epic track focused on a big central theme that unfurls cyclically and deliberately. If this approach in and of itself turned you off of Mirror Reaper back in 2017, I’d suggest you stop reading and skip to the next album being covered here. This record ain’t for you, chief. But for those enamored by the band’s last foray into long-form composition, The Clandestine Gate presents a familiar path leading to strange and bold new territory. Outside of its external similarities, The Clandestine Gate is a far less morbid affair, widening the band’s sonic scope to unprecedented levels of epic while putting on full display their ability to blend haunting and cosmic atmospherics with a grounded approach to and understanding of what makes doom metal tick. It may well be their most impressive record to date.
On a musical front, The Clandestine Gate excels in maintaining tension while never feeling stagnant or dull. I’m surprised to say that it feels significantly shorter and more propulsive than Mirror Reaper, despite their equally daunting runtimes. Part of this is due to a more keen understanding on the band’s part of how to write these types of compositions without remaining on one refrain or section for too long, which was a somewhat valid criticism that has been often laid at the feet of Mirror Reaper. The record’s first eight minutes are a shining example of this maturation, with the album’s opening musical motif running in two parts that both work together seamlessly but also provide much needed sonic variation, helping introduce the record in a manner that engages as much as it haunts. When the album’s first true doomy riffs roar into view, it feels like a well-earned and intentional emotional gratification for the listener that sends the album straight to orbit. It never once comes down from there, guided by expert hands that are learning how to delay gratification to a level of perfection that teases and entices and, shockingly, rarely bores. It’s a sign that bodes very well for the next two installments of what could be an all-time post-doom metal masterwork.
The best advice I can give to potential listeners is to just dive headlong into The Clandestine Gate. Block out the time, turn off the lights, and let Bell Witch carry you where they will. Is it as harrowing or singular as Mirror Reaper? Not exactly. But it’s an undoubtedly intense and appropriately epic journey, and one of the more meditative and transformative I’ve been a passenger on in quite some time. It’s a truly magnificent musical adventure that really is best digested as a whole. Just like Mirror Reaper, this record may not be your cup of tea, and that’s honestly very understandable. But if Bell Witch’s current long-form arc is appealing to you, there’s very little to find disappointing in The Clandestine Gate. Here’s to two more parts of equally excellent grandiose cosmic bliss.
FIRES IN THE DISTANCE – AIR NOT MEANT FOR US (MELODEATH)
Sometimes not being able to categorize a band is really annoying because you the categorization is on the tip of your tongue but it doesn't quite fit. Sometimes, the same exprience is pure joy because the band are intentionally playing with the jigsaw puzzle of influence in a way that is exteremly satisfying and you just learn to embrace it. The latter is definitely the case with Fires in the Distance and their brilliant, unique, and odd second album, Air Not Meant For Us. What makes this album so good is that I told you so! I've been singing the praises of this band on my own personal profiles ever since I heard Echoes From Deep November in 2020. I thought that album was raw but showed a lot of promise and now I'm completely vindicated.
Air Not Meant For Us can only be described as a successful experiment in the hybridization of melodic death metal and doom metal. The only other band that might be a touch point for this attempt is the incredibly underrated Barren Earth. But Fires In the Distance's sound is different, even more sparse and "cold" than the aforementioned band. Instead of theatrical delivery in the vocals, Air Not Meant For Us blends slow doom riffs with the scintillating, redolent synths you might find on early Children of Bodom releases but much, much slower. The end result sounds something like Insomnium but way more unfurling and majestic.
If it reads like I'm name-dropping more than usual it's because it really is very hard to describe what Fires In the Distance sound like on this album. They've really dug deep to find the energies needed to take their sound to its logical extreme, refusing to stop at what it's "supposed" to sound like and focused instead on what it "should" sound like. The result is an album that's not only unique but also deeply moving, as the passion the band brought to bear to create it shines and bleeds from every note, scream, and riff.
P.S I could have also written about how interesting it is that people are describing this album as "progressive". It says a lot about the malleability of the genre and what it has come to denote but I think that's a topic better suited to an article or a podcast ;) Ruminate on it for now.
GOGO PENGUIN – EVERYTHING IS GOING TO BE OK (JAZZY POST ROCK)
I will write more about this album's sound over on Post Rock Post, I think. Here, I'd love to explore the extremely interesting trajectory of GoGo Penguin's career and how their latest release, Everything is Going To Be OK fits into it, at least for me. You see, when GoGo Penguin were just starting out, and even more so when they released V2.0, their breakout release, they were part of a whole wave of bands that were experimenting with the spaces between post-rock, jazz fusion, nu-jazz, and electronica. We covered a lot of them on the blog before; in fact, these sounds and ideas remain some of our favorite albums from the previous decade (just a shortlist: Virta, Jaga Jazzist, Voronoi, Three Trapped Tigers, In-dreamview and more, and more).
Reading this list already hints at one of the underlying dynamics of this sub-genre/space/scene/milieu/what have you - you can either be somber, melancholic, and minimalist or you can be exuberant, joyful, and maximalist. For years, GoGo Penguin belonged firmly to the first part of this dichotomy, releasing some of the best albums that channeled the electronic underpinnings on one hand and the jazzy groove of the genre on the other. But them, somewhere in 2020, things started to shift. With their self-titled release and even more so with Between Two Waves, GoGo Penguin started to break this polarity. They started making music which was still firmly rooted in their chill, stripped down core but now injected with a new found brightness, an energy which skirted the outright exuberance of some of the above listed bands but which still channeled an energetic palette that was new and refreshing.
Which, finally, brings us to Everything is Going To Be OK which is undoubtedly, even setting the album's title aside, the group's brightest and most joyful released. Even the calmer tracks on this album, like "Friday Film Special", have a certain buyoancy and lift to them, presenting with brighter and warmer tones. And that's just the calmer ones; in other places, like "Glimmerings" or "We May Not Say", GoGo Penguin's is veritably shining with uncontaible light. Again, the darkness and cloudiness is still there but, more often than not, it is lit from behind with this uncontainable and marvellous brightness that the band have achieved on this release. And yes, the music is also great in and of itself, without this transformation to consider. But in that context, this release is more than "just" great; it is downright important, the band's biography, for the genre they operate in, and for my heart.
Lunar Chamber - Shambhallic Vibrations (progressive death metal)
Right out of the gate, enigmatic progressive death metal act Lunar Chamber have made one hell of a first impression. The group, made up of virtuosic musicians operating under pseudonyms including but not limited to Timeworm Nexus and They, Who May Not Be Perceived, employ decidedly Eastern mystical and spiritual aesthetics for their psychedelic debut recording Shambhallic Vibrations. Carrying on in the death metal lineage of Cynic and The Faceless, Lunar Chamber fill a niche in prog and tech death that’s long been lacking in originality and creativity.
Shambhallic Vibrations carries the obtuse musicality and ethereal aesthetic you’ll find in many post-Planetary Duality records, but Lunar Chamber forge their own path where others make that seminal record their entire identity. The two “shorter” six-minute tentpole tracks here offer dazzling guitar harmonies, jagged yet infectious guitar riffing, and propulsive fretless bass shifting through ideas you’d associate with acts like Obscura or Beyond Creation, with transitions, interludes, and atmospheres that elevate the experience into spiritual planes. The epic thirteen-minute finale III. Crystalline Blessed Light Flows... From Violet Mountains Into Lunar Chambers covers even more ground, evoking Blood Incantation and melodic death doom acts like Worm and Dream Unending. While not quite cutting edge, Shambhallic Vibrations quite easily sits as near the border as one can go, and does so with majesty.
At a tight 30 minutes, our first taste of Lunar Chamber toes the line between EP and full length for this side of extreme metal, leaving the listener wanting more for whatever phase comes next for this incredibly promising project. With a starting point so apparently fully realized, one could only imagine the waves that Lunar Chamber will be able to create going forward.
NEBULAE COME SWEET – DE LUMIÈRE (PROGRESSIVE POST METAL)
It seems as if post-metal is unwilling to let me go, not that I mind. Even though I've been pretty vocal about my growing disinterst with the sub-genre (and not just mine, but what seems to be a general "cooling" of attidues scene-wide as well), there are still at least one or two albums released in these spaces each year that move me. Nebulae Come Sweet's De Lumière is definitely one of these and perhaps one of my favorite albums from 2023, full stop. It does everything that is the best about post-metal exceptionally well, effortlessly conjuring that tenous balance between drama, melancholy, introspection, and sheer aggression that is at the core of post-metal's appeal.
"Lumen", the opening track, is honestly one of the best songs I've heard this year. From the somber, haunting, and contemplative intro (reminding me of Hypno5e at their best), through the groovy, agile, and impressive use of strings to back up the track's main riff and centerpiece, and all the way to the culmination of it all (including those glorious strings) in the track's outro, "Lumen" is delectable. I'd also like to shine a special and singular light on the vocals, which do pheonomenal work of turning all these beautiful sounds into emotional impact. Whether the heavier growls when the track first explodes or the gracefully poignant cleans of the middle passages, the vocals on "Lumen" (and, indeed, on the entire album) are a joy to listen to.
Going through the rest of the album step by step would be a futile effort as it would take up this entire column. Suffice it to say that Nebulae Come Sweet aren't interested in simply iterating on "Lumen"; there are voice samples, bubbling, dark waters, heavier riffs, more ambience, pianos, poetry, and a lot more on the rest of De Lumière (check out "Candor", the second track, from some truly weird and unsettling games with blast-beats and strings). It is one of the more ambitious post-metal albums I've heard in a while which is exactly why it works so well; it takes the fundamental grandiosity of the genre and pushes it to the extreme, really honing in on the emotional excess and expression that is so satisfying to listen to.
The Ongoing Concept – Again (PROGRESSIVE METALCORE, FUNKY PROG ROCK)
This is it: the feel-good album of 2023! Having had a chance now to delve back into The Ongoing Concept’s back catalogue, they seem like pretty interesting dudes, making albums based around a big old tree they chopped down and handcrafted into instruments and whatnot. For this fourth full-length though, they thought “fuck it” and decided to just sound like Don Broco for a change, which is really the best discission the (or any other band really) could have made.
As its album and track titles suggest, Again sees The Ongoing Concept revisiting and refreshing some of their older material. The songs this record contains are far from simple re-recordings or updated versions, however. Each and every track on here has been rebuilt from the ground up, with only the occasional guitar melody, chord progression or lyrical phrase left intact to hint at their origins. Rabid opener “Amends Again” has perhaps the most in common with its source material, but only because it was already built on such a solid foundation. Still, the resulting upbeat floor-filler is a far cry from the honky-tonk hardcore showings of the original “Amends”.
Elsewhere the tracks are completely unrecognisable compared to their original versions, such as “Failures & Fakes”, which goes from sounding like Maylene and The Sons of Disaster to having more in common with Jamiroquai; “Prisoner”, whose ZZ Top-esque southern boogie is transformed into something that sounds like the hardest song While She Sleeps have dropped in years, and the anthemic, Every Time I Die-esque “Unwanted”, which is reimagined as a laid-back, lounge-funk number, with frontman Dawson Scholz proving he’s more than capable of going toe-to-toe with the Greg Puciatoes and Jason Butlers of the world. On Again, The Ongoing Concept may as well be a completely different band than the one that came before, which is ironic, seeing as it marks the return of founding drummer Parker Scholz and bassist T.J. Nichols.
You don’t need to be familiar with The Ongoing Concept’s prior material to appreciate Again, however. In fact, I’ve had quite the opposite, going back and identifying and latching onto sections in their older material that stand out because of my familiarity with their re-imaginings, but that’s just an added bonus. The point is that, regardless of where they came from, The Ongoing Concept have dropped one of the most instantaneous, enjoyable and downright impressive albums of the year so far. When I wrote it and my alt pick, Sermon, up for Release Day Roundup, I proclaimed the latter the first “genuine AOTY contender” of 2023; a month down the line and Again is the one to beat.
Brìghde Chaimbeul - Carry Them With Us (smallpipes, alternative)
Listen to this one if you want to drown in a fog and then be rescued by an enchanting piper with lungs made of gold. Also Colin Stetson.
Enforced - War Remains (crossover thrash)
There isn’t a whole lot of nuance to anything Enforced does. Picking up the mantle tragically laid down by Power Trip, crossover thrash has a new god and master. War Remains is their most skilled, concise, and punishing offering to date, and if you’re even remotely interested in this style of music you may have your AOTY. Superb, frantic, brilliantly executed stuff.
fromjoy - fromjoy (experimental metalcore)
This self-titled album from Houston-based experimental metalcore group blends all manner of core (particularly beatdown hardcore with frightening Vildhjarta style breakdowns) with an array of eclectic electronic influences including vaporwave and ambient drum n bass music to create a wildly creative experience that’s absolutely invigorating for the genre.
The Eating Cave - The Miscalculation (technical death metal)
Death metal has been so good this year; this album is no exception. If you want to listen to some very heavy music played very fast and probably a bit more complicated than it should be, this album is for you.
Sermon – Of Golden Verse (progressive metal)
Just because The Ongoing Concept may have surpassed it in my esteem doesn’t mean Sermon’s second outing isn’t still one of the most accomplished and spellbinding offerings of the year as well. The elevator pitch on this one is easy. If you like Tool, then you need to hear this, and if you don’t, well you still should. Alongside their most obvious influence is an added extreme metal edge that hints toward genre heavyweights like Opeth and Gojira, which gives it a darker, more sinister edge and the more I listen to it the more I also find myself being reminded of twenty-first century Killing Joke as well. Of Golden Verse might not possess the instantaneous invigoration The Ongoing Concept ooze on Again, but it’s still going to be hard to beat by anyone else, come the end of the year.
VoidCeremony - Threads of Unknowing (progressive death metal)
The sophomore full-length from international prog outfit VoidCeremony continues building upon their reputation as one of the most promising bands to watch and prog and tech death, bridging classic movements in progressive death from the likes of Pestilence with the new wave of weird esoteric death metal championed by Blood Incantation, albeit reigned in and entirely reasonable.
CHROME WAVES – EARTH WILL SHED ITS SKIN (POST BLACK METAL)
MISTRAL – IN THE THROES OF LOSING LOVE (POST METAL, BLACKGAZE)
O.S.M. – PLAGUED BY DOUBTS (POSTY PROG METAL)
WALLOWING – EARTH REAPER (BRUTAL DEATH DOOM, SLUDGE)
ATAVISTA – COSMIC WARFARE (MELODIC DEATH METAL)
BLOOD STAR – FIRST SIGHTING (TRAD METAL)
DAWN OF OUROBOROS – VELVET INCANDESCENCE (BLACKENED PROGRESSIVE METAL, MELODEATH)
PORTRAYAL OF GUILT – DEVIL MUSIC (SLUDGY BLACKENED HARDCORE)
SMOULDER – VIOLENT CREED OF VENGEANCE (THRASHY TRAD METAL)
TANITH – VOYAGE (HEAVY METAL, PROG ROCK)
BLAZON RITE – WILD RITES AND ANCIENT SONGS (TRAD METAL, POWER METAL)
CAVE MOTH – PARALYTIC LOVE (DEATHGRIND, MATHCORE)
OVERKILL – SCORCHED (THRASH)
WITTE WIEVEN – DWAALLICHT (POST BLACK METAL)
LO! – THE GLEANERS (BLACKENED SLUDGE DEATH)
ATEMPORAL – THORN GENESIS (WEIRD BLACKENED DEATH DOOM)
CICADA THE BURROWER – BLIGHT WITCH REGALIA (PSYCHEDELIC BLACKENED DRUM AND BASS JAZZ)
COVET – CATHARSIS (MATH ROCK)
FIRE-TOOLZ – I AM UPSET BECAUSE I SEE SOMETHING THAT IS NOT THERE. (ELECTRO-INDUSTRIAL, PROGRESSIVE ELECTRONIC)
DISSOLVE PATTERNS - DISSOLVE PATTERNS (EXPERIMENTAL BLACK METAL, AMBIENT)