Greetings dear readers and welcome back to Editors' Picks! I am writing this introduction more or less settled in my home of Providence, Rhode Island. I've written elsewhere about what a joy it has been to have had music travel with me across the ocean. But now I want to tell you what a joy it has been to find new ways to enjoy music here. First, there's the obvious fact that everything connects differently to music here: the climate, the streets, the buildings, they all have different echoes and inflection points with music. Together, they elicit different reactions and moods, sometimes amplifiying things that were already present in a track and sometimes giving it whole new flavors and directions.
Secondly, there's the climate. Whether it was the stifling humidity of the New England summer, the rain that has blessed us over the last couple of days, and even the hurricane/tropical storm that might be mixing things up here very soon, the very atmospbere is different here. This, naturally, also changes music and sometimes in unexpected ways. I was expecting to reach more for black metal here and while that might still happen come proper winter, so far I've been looking for more uplifting and immediately powerful genres of music.
I can't wait to dive deeper into my relationship with music here as the year, and my life, unfolds. Below are some of the releases that I've been listening to while performing these first steps of re-configuration; even those I haven't been spinning are all excellent, as the deluge of summer releases continues.
The Armed - Perfect Saviors (Indie / Noise Rock)
This new LP from historically enigmatic chaos-bearers The Armed promises to be a controversial one. The collective, headed by ad man Tony Wolski (also of the voice of the Genghis Tron comeback record Dream Weapon), dials back the intensity for an arena-ready collection of songs that would sit nicely between The Strokes and Queens of the Stone Age better than they would Converge or The Dillinger Escape Plan. The act have hinted at this transition with each release, with Ultrapop making good on its title by offering simpler, major-key songwriting at the core of the record beneath the distorted production tricks. Perfect Saviors pushes the sliders further towards mainstream appeal, but fortunately haven’t completely abandoned their noisey avant garde tendencies.
Opener “Sport of Measure” disrupts Wolski’s crooning with wailing guitars, fuzzy synths, and a flurry of blasts and intense fills. Tracks like “Clone” and “FKA World” offer early highlights that fully embrace post-punk revival, with guitar melodies and grooves that would feel right at home on a Bloc Party record, with detours into surf rock and hardcore where appropriate. “Burned Mind” and “Vatican Under Construction” borrows from EDM and industrial for some truly danceable punk. To prove that The Armed can truly do it all, the band caps off Perfect Saviors with somber indie folk with “In Heaven” (they got Julien Baker for a different song and Phoebe Bridgers on the cover but neither here?!) and the art rock and jazz fusion of “Public Grieving,” which does bring to mind The Dillinger Escape Plan’s “Mouth of Ghosts”, which is a comforting consolation of The Armed’s departure from mathcore.
Despite the transition that may lose some followers along the way, Perfect Saviors is just a fun, catchy record that still features some of the rough edges you would expect out of The Armed. They deserve to be a massive act playing amphitheaters at this point in their career, and this might be the step they needed to take to secure that status in the near future. Having a member of Queens of the Stone Age producing the record certainly helps, but the songs here certainly speak for themselves.
Horrendous - Ontological Mysterium (progressive death metal)
Death metal has had its fair share of ballyhooed artists over the past decade. Acts like Tomb Mold, Blood Incantation, and Gatecreeper have been riding career-spanning hype trains the likes of which the genre hasn’t seen since the early 90s. But of all the death metal bands churning out genre-defining work over the past decade, few have reached the level of influence or expectation of Horrendous. Since The Chills dropped back in 2012, Horrendous’ status in the death metal scene has moved rapidly from “one to watch” to “best death metal band on planet earth”. That’s the type of praise of pressure that few bands can live up to, but I’ll be damned if Ontological Mysterium, the band’s fifth proper full-length outing, doesn’t shoot directly and boldly for the farthest and most brilliant reaches of the death metal universe. The most shocking part of such blatant ambition is how often Horrendous hits those highest of highs they’re reaching for. Ontological Mysterium is superb, and perhaps their most adventurous record to date.
That last sentence should be read with a hefty dose of skepticism, given the sonic trajectory of the band’s previous full-length Idol. That record was a titanic step forward for the band in regards to their wearing their more progressive influences on their sleeves. Tinges of Atheist and the ever-present influence of Death were audible in every track, setting Idol apart from Horrendous’ previous work as a more sonically ambitious affair. Fast-forward to 2023 and Ontological Mysterium feels like about as adventurous a leap as Idol was to Anareta before it. Horrendous has never sounded more wildly ambitious than they do here, with each track stretching the band’s songwriting capabilities to the next level. Whether or not you enjoy the stretching of these particular muscles is obviously a completely personal preference, but those who have followed the band’s career trajectory closely will find a record that feels wholly logical and deeply welcome within their discography.
For those who have enjoyed the band’s journey into firmly progressive death metal tropes, there’s almost nothing to dislike about Ontological Mysterium. The riffs are meaty and mighty, the more melodic passages pronounced and given plenty of time to breathe without ever feeling stale or repetitive, and the musicianship is pure masterclass throughout. That second point is one of the more noteworthy aspects of the record, given that it’s the shortest of the band’s career by multiple minutes.
It feels more common for band’s reaching deeper into the noodlier aspects of death metal increase runtime fairly dramatically, but here Horrendous do the exact opposite, presenting their most economical and brisk work yet. It’s a near-perfect blend of trying something new without overstaying your welcome. The result is a record that takes bold, intentional risks in a manner that forces the band to bring only their best ideas to the fore, culminating in a record that leaves the listener, oddly in the era of hour-plus standard runtimes in many death metal recordings, begging for more. I’ll take 37 minutes of this type of mastery all day, every day.
If you’re not sold on the direction Horrendous started pushing toward on Idol, I’d still recommend giving Ontological Mysterium a listen as it is in my mind a step above that record. But to be Frank it’s unlikely to change your mind one way or another. It seems that Horrendous is just fine with that, settling comfortably into their most progressive and superbly executed songwriting to date. If you’re willing to strap in for a wild death metal journey into the farthest reaches of the cosmos, Ontological Mysterium may end up your record of the year. If this is where you step off the Horrendous hype train, godspeed to you. The cosmic death metal mystery rolls on regardless.
Oxx - The Primordial Blues (avant-garde metal, mathcore)
There are albums that grab you right away due to their pure novel ambition, and The Primordial Blues has no shortage of that. An album easiest described as avant-garde, sees the unmitigated chaos of mathcore fusing with the feel and gritty production of sludge. Throw in some highly progressive songwriting, piano, strings, borderline tech death riffs, and Oxx have quite the stew going. If those ingredients happen to mesh with your palette, this album should immediately have you salivating. However, if the dirtiness of the vocals and guitar tones and the sheer manic pandemonium feels too overwhelming, you’ll quickly sense that this might not be one for you. It’s certainly not an easy listen. But like the album artwork, beyond the colorful and abstract insanity, there’s a distinguishable beauty to be found.
Oxx are another band from the burgeoning Danish experimental metal scene, of which we could probably write an entire article about at this point. The Primordial Blues is their fourth full-length since their debut LP back in 2015. Over their discography they’ve consistently looked to push the boundaries of avant-gardeness from a mathcore lens, and while not straying from the formula of their early work, they’ve built on what they’ve succeeded at and pushed those boundaries a little bit further each time. What keeps this album from devolving into a cacophonous mess of limit pushing is some thoughtful songwriting and strong recognition of pacing. They acknowledge when to dial things back, relatively speaking, occasionally give the listener something easier to indulge in more than marvel at. The varying influences at play work in this favor, lending to sharp shifts in tempo and style, not to mention time-signatures. One thing that does stay fairly level, arguably to a fault, are the vocals. They’re unhinged and feral and provide a bassline in a similar way that Jens Kidman does for Meshuggah, but for a less rhythm-driven band like Oxx some variation could be welcome.
The Primordial Blues maintains its momentum well into the back half of the oddly digestible 38-minute run-time with continuously adventurous ideas and strong execution. There’s post-metal influence and groove, off-kilter Baroness riffs dancing around the grim playfulness of The Chariot, and a version of Between the Buried and Me that wouldn’t get signed to Sumerian Records (in a good way). You rarely know what is coming next, from both verse-to-verse and note-to-note. Oxx have crafted an unforgiving beast of an album that demands your attention, but sometimes it's in that battle itself where the riches of a listening experience lie. If you can endure its challenge, you’ll quickly find yourself coming back for more.
Spirit Adrift - Ghost at the Gallows (heavy metal)
I’ve said it before that the “simpler” a genre gets, two things happen. First, there arises an ocean of subtlety to discern the good bands from the bad; the less room for frivolous experimentation, the more deep artistry is required to make something that really stands out. Secondly, because of this increased need for skill, the harder it is for me to say exactly what makes one band better than the rest. There’s a lot to do with unquantifiable things like passion and scope, qualities that are harder to quantify and accurately describe, let alone reproduce. This creates a reality where I immediately know when something is truly excellent but have a hard time pointing out exactly what it is that Band X has done better than the rest to truly stand out.
With Spirit Adrift, who have grown their legacy over the past few years as one of the best traditional heavy metal/doom bands, these tasks are perhaps a little bit easier because they really are just that good. Ghost at the Gallows continues their growth by polishing their sound even further, doing away with anything that is unnecessary and injecting some brilliant influences into the mix as well. Just check out the opening track, “Give Her to the River” for an example. Listen to the brilliant main riff and those soaring vocals (which remind me most of the excellent, underrated, and now sadly defunct Gygax) as they build the main thrust of the track. Then, check out that almost melo-death riff that suddenly takes over, seemingly breaking the track’s structure only to blend beautifully into its first chorus and, down the line, into a blisteringly convincing solo.
Of course things don’t just stop there; “Burn Burner” which follows is one of the groovier tracks of the year, perchance channeling some Clutch energies, and the rest of the album takes off from there. Ghost at the Gallows is such an enjoyable album, allowing Spirit Adrift to simply place their hands on all of the gauges they’ve already had and turn them all up to the max. If you’re looking to see what traditional heavy metal and doom can accomplish in the year 2023, this is your go to release. And besides, even if you don’t care about all of that “meta” stuff, this album is just pure fun to listen to.
Blut Aus Nord - Disharmonium - Nahab (avant garde black metal, dissonant death metal)
Spooky season is just around the corner, so if you need a soundtrack to ease you into the autumnal festivities, look no further, because this is frightening. The new record from France’s avant garde black metal legends Blut Aus Nord ramp up the Lovecraftian atmospheres with a touch of death metal for their second record in their Disharmonium series, and it may be some of their best material yet.
Dead and Dripping - Blackened Cerebral Rifts (brutal, technical death metal)
There’s a crop of bands on the outer extremes of death metal – in the wake of Defeated Sanity’s influence, no doubt – pushing the genre forward with brutality and technicality in ways that are absolutely mind-blowing. Dead and Dripping, a one-man project from musician Evan Daniele, have been occupying this space for a minute, but their new LP is on another level. If you love death metal that splits the difference between big-brained technicality and songwrting and ignorant, reptilian brutality, Blackened Cerebral Rifts might be your album of the year.
Reformat - Precursed (electronic post-rock)
Who knew that going dirtier, darker, and heavier was exactly what Reformat needed to become even better than they were before? Precursed is a bundle of aggression, hard beats, and an overall metallic edge that is simply too hard to resist. Stop resisting!
GRAVERIPPER – SEASONS DREAMING DEATH (BLACK THRASH)
Fast. Riffs. That go hard. Really hard. Do it.
CELESTIAL SANCTUARY – INSATIABLE THIRST FOR TORMENT (DEATH METAL, OSDM)
DRAB MAJESTY – AN OBJECT IN MOTION (DARKWAVE, SHOEGAZE)
JOLIETTE – LUZ DE BENGALA (SCREAMO, POST-HARDCORE)
THE CIRCLE – OF AWAKENING (BLACKENED GOTH DOOM)
URNE – A FEAST ON SORROW (BIG SLUDGEY THRASH)
DIN OF CELESTIAL BIRDS – THE NIGHT IS FOR DREAMERS (POST ROCK/METAL)
HAIL THE SUN – DIVINE INNER TENSION (PROGRESSIVE POST HARDCORE)
HEMINA – ROMANCING THE ETHER (PROG ROCK/METAL)
REZN & VINNUM SABBATHI – SILENT FUTURE (POST METAL)
HUMANITY’S LAST BREATH – ASHEN (DEATHCORE)
TANGLED THOUGHTS OF LEAVING – OSCILLATING FOREST (POST-ROCK, PROGRESSIVE ROCK)