Working at Natural Music I couldn’t help but notice that we — and virtually every other publication — were not doing the best job at covering extreme music. Sure we would throw in a Sunbather here and there but by and large metal and noise remained fairly ignored. Well, as the resident metalhead of Natural Music I’ll be working on monthly round-ups of metal, noise and any other sort of extreme music that I come across that’s worth listening to, so you don’t have to wade through all the bullshit both genres bring with them.
With this being the first entry into the extreme music column, it’s going to be a little bit longer than future entries as it contains all the metal from the first two months of the year that I enjoyed. Future monthly entries will be a little shorter unless we have a really kick ass month. So without further ado, here’s the metal and noise that are worth listening to from January and February.
Xenobiotic - Mordrake
As someone who was introduced to metal by prog metal groups like Protest the Hero, I will always have a soft spot for technical competence. The issue is that so many bands that are technically proficient often mistake that for artistry, resulting in compositionally brilliant pieces of soulless metal. Since this is such an issue, it makes coming across a soulful release with high technicality uniquely exciting. Xenobiotic absolutely threads that needle. Each song on Mordrake is, for lack of a better term, fucking unrelenting. While it never reaches the ungodly levels of intensity of a group like Infant Annihilator, Mordrake is not far behind. The screams are full bodied and vicious, showing a massive amount of range (though they tend to stay in throaty mids); and the drums are on an entirely separate level from most releases you’ll hear this year. The guitars and bass are fierce, and exhibit a proclivity towards exciting tones that they constantly tinker with to keep listeners on their toes throughout the record. This is a must listen piece of metal from every perspective, and while no individual component is the highlight of the record, the combination of separate elements is masterful beyond belief.
Merzbow - StereoAkuma
As a fan of noise, I’ve long been outspoken in my general distaste for Merzbow’s output. While I respect his contributions to the genre, I believe it has largely passed him by; and his constant release schedule is actively working against his ability to consistently output quality material. So when I heard StereoAkuma I was utterly shocked. This five track record never withers or loses its teeth despite its unrelenting intensity. Each track, while maintaining a consistent motif and sound palate, feels distinct and meaningful. Plus the sounds that Merzbow chooses to play with are things I’ve rarely heard used in noise music, which make this an essential listening experience for those with the stomach. Additionally, if you listen to and enjoy the record I’d implore you to purchase it as a portion of the proceeds go to help the wildlife displaced by the Australian wildfires.
Frayle - 1692
Doom metal is a bit of an acquired taste. The very style — predicated on long, dragging riffs and amplifier fuzz — is intentionally slow in a genre that often prides itself on being fast and technical. Inversely, doom metal is far heavier than many of its genre fellows, which is part of what makes Frayle so fascinating. Much like the exceptional Big Brave, Frayle is a doom metal group with a female singer, which creates an exciting juxtaposition between angelic vocals and devilishly heavy guitars. But that juxtaposition isn’t the only thing this album has going for it. The texture that Frayle pulls out of their guitars is gritty and vicious, the drumming is potent, and the screamed vocals are tight, comprehensible, and loud as all hell. Mixed together, these elements combine to create the most exciting doom record of the young year.
Loathe - I Let It In and It Took Everything
One of the more interesting releases of the year to date. Loathe’s latest record shares quite a bit in common with recent critically acclaimed metalcore such as Vein, Code Orange and Knocked Loose; but they add in a touch of what we lost when old metalcore went away, the pop punk side. While they do so with far more intensity, Loathe follows a model of songwriting that is not entirely dissimilar from A Day To Remember or Deftones. Verses throughout the record have more in common with a firefight than anything resembling a traditional song. Guitars shriek and flare, feedback ripples through headphones at every turn, and the drums just go absolutely batshit. However, the choruses often feature brilliant clean singing that feels like exactly what the metalcore of today was missing, and provides listeners a brief break in the intensity. But even with all that, Loathe consistently takes their album into a far more experimental space than most metalcore groups. Their enthusiasm for experimentation is such that it actually makes this album difficult to classify, as it teeters into blackgaze and indie rock through its various tracks. While there are some misses because of their willingness to shift sound profiles, the record comes together admirably and is worthy of more than a few spins.
tricot - Makkuro
I’ve gone back and forth on putting this album on the list. While Makkuro (actually 真っ黒, according to Wikipedia this is pronounced as Makkuro and translates to “Black” in English) isn’t really metal, it’s technical and exciting enough that I thought the average metalhead would get a kick out of it. Some math rock bands like Polyphia, Pliny and Hella do actually hew a little more closely to metal, tricot is distinctly on the jazzier side; however, just because they’re jazzy doesn’t mean they don’t get down. Sections on certain songs (sorry they’re all Japanese characters so I can’t pronounce them) get absurdly complex and even a little noisy in parts. Again, this isn’t metal and (unless you speak Japanese) you’re not going to understand any of the lyrics. But if you enjoy jazzy, hyper impressive instrumentation this is more than worth your time.
Intronaut - Fluid Existential Inversions
This one is for the prog fans. After a disappointing entry from Tool last year, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to see prog metal fans acting a little despondent. Luckily, we didn’t have to wait very long to hear a truly excellent prog metal with Intronaut’s Fluid External Inversions. Like any good prog metal album, this record starts with mind blowing drums (I’m talking truly incredible stuff here, it consistently blows my mind whenever I listen to literally all of “Cubensis”) but doesn’t stop there. The guitars are “14 year old after an orthodontist visit” tight, but have just enough grit on them that they stay heavy, as opposed to something like Dream Theater where the grit is removed to showcase the technicality. As a result, the album feels like it was put together as a cohesive metal album first, then the technical showcase was layered on top where it would be most effective. Though the clean vocals aren’t 100% my favorite, they certainly never get in the way, and there are moments when they absolutely shine. That small gripe aside, this is a must listen album for fans of technicality and prog metal.
Sightless Pit - Grave of a Dog
One of a few albums on this list that isn’t “exactly” metal, this record pushes the boundaries of the genre farther than anything else you’ll see here. Comprised of members of The Body, Full of Hell, and Lingua Ignota, Sightless Pit was never going to be anything close to traditional. If you’re willing to take a leap into the dark, terrifying world of avant-garde metal, you could find a worse starting point than Grave of a Dog. The album is a bit too sonically varied to really dig into in a newsletter or column format, but to give a glimpse into the insanity that is this record you need look no further than “Immersion Dispersal.” Within a single track you get everything from a thumping bass beat, washed out hell screams, women wailing and ripples of static and feedback. If that sounds up your alley, this is a must listen record. There won’t be a release this year that pushes metal further to the edge, but I wouldn’t blame you if it isn’t your cup of tea.
Kepzelt Varos - Samizdat
If I wanted to get needlessly technical (I do, why do you think I’m writing this) Kepzelt Varos isn’t really metal, he’s actually post-rock. But of all the post rock artists he certainly hews closer to the post-metal side of the genre. His latest record, Samizdat, delivers on the promises of the post-rock genre (soft/loud structure, cinematic swells and crescendos, and valleys of unexpected beauty) but when he really digs into the meat of his songs, things can get pretty intense. His crescendos rely less on the squealing feedback utilized by Mogwai (who are also arguably metal) and more on chugging guitars played with a shocking intensity. The structures of the songs demand that the instruments, particularly the guitars, become at least partially lost within one another, but he still finds room to make for interesting drum patterns and compelling bass grooves. If you’re unfamiliar with post-rock/metal, this is an excellent entry point to get your feet wet.
Dark Fortress - Spectres from the Old World
A constant complaint among those who are trying to get into black metal is that it lacks melody. Luckily, melodic black metal is uhhh… more melodic. Of the melodic black metal bands, Dark Fortress manages to nail the split fairly admirably. The soupiness of the instrumentals falls away just enough to reveal the layers of guitar, but not so much that it veers into tech metal or anything so showy. The genre choices also open up the drums and bass to do more than they’re typically allowed and the vocals are more comprehensible than most black metal releases. The clean vocal melodies harmonize nicely and bridge together with the instruments and screams rather well. This is an excellent album for those who like certain elements of black metal but would like just a little more clarity and technicality in the recording style.
Nero Di Marte - Immoto
Seeing as this list is based off of my own personal tastes, it’s only fair to let you all know I’m a fan of music that does “a lot.” This could mean any number of things, but in this specific instance I’m referring to music that tries to operate in multiple genres or just make something absolutely unhinged. Thankfully, Nero Di Marte does both with aplomb. This is one of those special bands where no one stands out because of how well everything blends together. Drums are just special enough that they catch your attention, the bass hums along at a nice pace, making its groove known only when it serves the songs, while the guitar switches between a heavy rhythm and soaring melodies without pause. If anything truly stands out on its own accord it’s the full-bodied, almost operatic vocals. Though they are in Spanish, the sheer emotion the singer communicates is instantly recognizable. Before this record I don’t believe I’d ever heard a metal album in Spanish, if the rest are half as good as this I’ll count myself lucky.
Drown - Subaqueous
Because metal is so comically obsessed with genre subdivisions, it feels like I need to point out that this is a funeral doom metal record. The short version is that it’s doom metal but more dirgey, and sometimes utilizes organs and other church instruments to create a dour, gothic sensibility (but it’s different from gothic doom, which is a thing, and… how bout let's not get into it). Anyways, this record, which consists of only two songs, each over twenty minutes long, is a deeply multifaceted affair. The songs vary between delightfully calm melodic sections and vicious doom metal drones with little to no difficulty. Twenty minute run times may seem intimidating at first but I promise you it’s well worth it.
Gorevent - Fate
To get this out of the way before you go listen to the record, as far as I can tell, no the vocals are not a joke. It’s only worth pointing out because the vocals are such a ridiculously guttural scream that it sounds like the singer must have the microphone somewhere in his esophagus. The (occasionally distracting) vocals aside, the main draw of this record is the combination of fun, fill laden drum sections laid atop a mountain of guitar fuzz. There are doom metal records with significantly less layering and distortion on the guitars than this and the texture that results from whatever production or equipment they use is positively intoxicating. Give this one a shot but no one will blame you if the vocals are too much.
Leeched - To Dull The Blades of Your Abuse
This is exactly the type of album that I’d have hated just a few years ago. The guitars have a tendency to be awash in feedback and sizzling fuzz, the vocals are near incomprehensible, and sometimes the riffs are sooooo slooooow. But this album doesn’t succeed in spite of those things, it succeeds because of them. This grimy masterwork combines washed out harsh vocals with guitars turned up to 900, then melds that sludge metal sound with traditionally metalcore riffs and tempos. The resulting album threads the needle between doom metal vibes and metalcore intensity, leaving listeners with an excitingly dark experience.
Marrasmieli - Between Land and Sky
Now this is some great black metal. Guitars, drums, vocals, all of it is so vicious and so fast that it teeters on overwhelming. Luckily, unlike many black metal releases, Marrasmieli absolutely nails the production on this record. With a set of decent to good headphones you can isolate and pick apart individual instruments with relative ease. When you do so, you’ll immediately recognize the unbelievable skill that is going into each instrument. There’s not a better place to get started with modern black metal than this record in my opinion.
Plague - Portraits of Mind
Of all metal genres, death metal; despite its long legacy and impact on the genre as a whole, has never been my favorite. But I know a great death metal album when I hear one. Blast beat drums and a precisely wielded guitar form the bedrock of this brutally heavy record, making an excellent showcase for both instruments. “Intersperse” for instance, provides both instruments moments in the spotlight, particularly the guitars, which frequently enter into new melodies and solos. While nothing too exceptional, the tight, mid-range screams serve as a glue that holds the album together wonderfully.
Kvelertak - Splid
As one of the “sort of metal” releases on this list, I searched for a compelling reason to leave this off, and (clearly) came up with nothing. The biggest reason I couldn’t come up with anything is because this album straight up rips. Bearing more in common with hardcore punk or even hard rock than most metal, this album is just a joyful listen. There’s no need to litigate what works and what doesn’t, if the guitars are too heavy or too clean, it’s just a fantastic showcase in rock music. The guitar work is crisp and fluid, bursting into solos or complex riffs without hesitation. Drum sections hold the album together but there’s enough room leftover for fills when the bass takes over the rhythm. While in Norwegian, the vocals effortlessly change between a rowdy yelp and throaty scream full of body and emotion. If you’ve been looking for an album that’s just a good damn time, Splid is the record you need in your life.
Lutkie - The Dominator is Cuddled Inside Me
Again, this is another record that isn’t metal, but it is very soundly in the category of noise, so it gets in on the “extreme music” technicality. With the unsettlingly named, The Dominator is Cuddled Inside Me, Lutkie has created an album that manages to walk the extremely thin line between challenging and accessible (for noise music, don’t go playing this at parties). Each song possesses elements of music that most non-noise listeners would recognize as musical elements, things like melody and rhythm, but it just so happens there’s heavy bursts of static, feedback and… breathing. Really, this album survives, and becomes necessary, based on the strength of its emotional storytelling. Noise music affords a musician an entirely new way to express pain, joy, sorrow, and any other wealth of emotions by actively assaulting the listener with sound. Unlike many noise records, the emotional intent of this record is always clear, and should be interesting to noise fans and the uninitiated.
So there you have it, all the extreme music albums worth highlighting from January or February. There were plenty of albums that almost made the list, but were excluded because they were either not heavy enough or they just fell short quality wise. If there’s something you think I missed, shoot me a message or leave a comment. Hopefully you found something you dug in this list, if not, well there’s always next time.