Presenting the best metal albums of 2013
It saddens me to say that this is my last post at Headbang.
Over the last two years and one month, I hope I was able to make this a welcome daily stop for metal fans. With so many metal blogs out there, it's very much akin to fighting over table scraps, but I’d like to think I was able to sort through the terrible music and trite press releases to point readers towards new music worth listening to, put together informed reviews, and give this blog an identity that reflected my own personality.
For those regular readers, I’ll still be writing about music - metal especially - elsewhere, so if you don’t follow me on Twitter yet, feel free to do so. Besides, I always love talking metal with fellow headbangers.
As a final post, I figured it’d be fitting to put up my list of the best metal albums of 2013, my third annual list here at MSN. Although it’s two months early, we music writers are already very nearly through the year, and of the few releases I haven’t heard, they won’t alter my list dramatically at all, especially the top 30, which is ironclad. It’s an eclectic list, and if there’s one record in there that becomes your new favorite, then I’ve done my job.
Thanks to MSN’s Sam Sutherland, as well as my predecessor Phil Freeman, two of the best people in the business, and a huge thanks to you for reading!
Your friend in metal,
The Best Metal Albums of 2013
1. In Solitude, “Sister” (Metal Blade)
2. Carcass, “Surgical Steel” (Nuclear Blast)
3. Shining, “One One One” (Prosthetic)
4. Atlantean Kodex, “The White Goddess” (20 Buck Spin)
5. SubRosa, “More Constant Than the Gods” (Profound Lore)
6. Altar Of Plagues, “Teethed Glory and Injury” (Profound Lore)
7. Ghost B.C., “Infestissumam” (Loma Vista)
8. Oranssi Pazuzu, “Velonielu” (20 Buck Spin)
9. Darkthrone, “The Underground Resistance” (Peaceville)
10. Uncle Acid & The Deadbeats, “Mind Control” (Metal Blade)
11. Anciients, “Heart Of Oak” (Season Of Mist)
12. Shooting Guns, “Brotherhood of the Ram” (Easy Rider)
13. Voivod, “Target Earth” (Century Media)
14. Gorguts, “Colored Sands” (Season of Mist)
15. Vattnet Viskar, “Sky Swallower” (Century Media)
16. Purson, “The Circle And The Blur Door” (Metal Blade)
17. Magic Circle, “Magic Circle” (Armageddon Shop)
18. Årabrot, “Årabrot” (Fysisk Format)
19. Amon Amarth, “Deceiver Of The Gods” (Metal Blade)
20. Mansion, “We Shall Live” (Svart)
21. Audrey Horne, “Youngblood” (Napalm)
22. Author & Punisher, “Women & Children” (Seventh Rule)
23. Portal, “Vexovoid” (Profound Lore)
24. Amorphis, “Circle” (Nuclear Blast)
25. Clutch, “Earth Rocker” (Weathermaker)
26. Motörhead, “Afterburner” (UDR)
27. Pinkish Black, “Razed to the Ground” (Century Media)
28. Bölzer, “Aura” (Iron Bonehead)
29. Kvelertak, “Meir” (Roadrunner)
30. Jex Thoth, “Blood Moon Rise” (I Hate)
31. Jess & the Ancient Ones, “Astral Sabbat” (Svart)
32. Locrian, “Return To Annihilation” (Relapse)
33. Grave Miasma, “Odori Sepulcrorum” (Profound Lore)
34. Vaura, “The Missing” (Profound Lore)
35. Powerwolf, “Preachers Of The Night” (Napalm)
36. Magister Templi, “Lucifer Leviathan Logos” (Cruz Del Sur)
37. Avatarium, “Avatarium” (Nuclear Blast)
38. Agrimonia, “Rites Of Separation” (Southern Lord)
39. Kadavar, “Abra Kadavar” (Nuclear Blast)
40. KEN Mode, “Entrench” (Season of Mist)
41. Noisem, “Agony Defined” (A389)
42. Uzala, “Tales of Blood and Fire” (King of the Monsters)
43. White Wizzard, “The Devils Cut” (Earache)
44. Deep Purple, “Now What?!” (Eagle Rock)
45. Ihsahn, “Das Seelenbrechen” (Candlelight)
46. Bombus, “The Poet and the Parrot” (Century Media)
47. Dream Theater, “Dream Theater” (Roadrunner)
48. Inter Arma, “Sky Burial” (Relapse)
49. Untimely Demise, “Systematic Eradication” (Punishment 18)
50. The Cult of Dom Keller, “The Cult of Dom Keller” (Mannequin)
Mike Muir's ascent as crossover innovator
Five years removed from a groundbreaking LA hardcore punk record, Mike Muir and Suicidal Tendencies had morphed into a straight-ahead thrash metal band. Longtime fans from the hardcore side of the fence were boohoo-ing, but the young metal kids wasted no time embracing it. Videos for “Institutionalized” and “Possessed to Skate” introduced the band to an entirely new crowd, and 1987’s “Join the Army” was a good stepping-stone between the two genres, not to mention a very underrated crossover record. With the influence of guitarist Rocky George looming large, Muir replaced the band’s most stubborn punk, bassist Louiche Mayorga, with Ric Clayton and finally Bob Heathcote, while rhythm guitarist Mike Clark was taken on to add some much-needed muscle to the band’s already toughening sound.
The idea of a metal/punk crossover was hardly a new thing by 1988, but no band succeeded in bridging the two sounds quite like Suicidal did. Whether it was loose, speed-riddled blasts or taut, musically challenging thrash epics, either glove fit the band perfectly, and the bulk of the credit goes to Muir, a talented wordsmith who brought intelligence, humor, and sharp social commentary to a genre not exactly known for lyrical prowess. And he was never stronger than on the band’s wittily titled third album “How Will I Laugh Tomorrow When I Can’t Even Smile Today”.
Under the guidance of producer Mark Dodson, whose background was strictly in the heavy metal realm, Muir and Suicidal were able to refine that metallic edge to the band’s sound enough to latch on to the thrash wave that was just starting to crest. However, when you revisit the album today, it stands out as a quirky record that, despite pushing all the right stylistic buttons, is still plenty idiosyncratic. The fact that the band didn’t ooze credibility like the rest of the trash scene worked to their advantage; they did it their own way, always open to new ideas, and with “How Will I Laugh” they established themselves as one of the most original sounding bands in the genre.
From a compositional standpoint, Clark’s involvement on this album was a huge reason it turned out the way it did. Six of the ten songs on the record, including its two most enduring songs, were written by Clark and Muir, and as for George, who co-wrote two tracks, his role was primarily to shred atop the arrangements, which he does with abandon over the entire record.
More than anything else, “How Will I Laugh Tomorrow” is all about Muir and his neuroses. While most thrash bands went all-out with confrontation and aggression, Muir went inward at a time when introspection couldn’t have been less fashionable in metal. He addresses multiple personalities vividly on “Hearing Voices”, “One Too Many Times” subtly veers from loneliness to seething rage, while “Miracle” explores self-doubt. Closing track “The Feeling’s Back” ends things on a lively, strangely life-affirming note, with Muir singing a final verse that brings the record to an empowering climax:
I dug my hole too deep-I couldn't admit, I didn't know when to stop
But you can only dig your hole six feet until the dirt comes back on top
I've got a long way left to climb but I'll still look you straight in the eye
And I can honestly say I'll never quit-not even on the day I die
The album’s first single, the tetchy “Trip at the Brain”, sees Muir addressing his own mental instability with sly, self-deprecating humor, including an extended breakdown where he doesn’t so much rap as rant on and on like a mental patient (“try to pay another shrink, buy his wife another mink, let me tell what I think think I think I think / I gotta, gotta get away, gotta get away, gotta get away”). It’s a peculiar track, but aided greatly by its Bill Fishman-directed video, which features John Cusack of all people, quickly clicked with MTV viewers.
Much more successful, though, was the title track, which remains the most definitive song from Suicidal’s metal period. Starting off as a strangely slow, brooding ballad not far removed from Alice Cooper’s own best psychodrama “The Ballad of Dwight Fry”, Muir addresses adolescent angst with startling accuracy (“problems never solved, just rearranged”) before the track takes an unexpected dark turn at the 2:40 mark. The mood shifts, led by a palm-muted riff. “You think something’s funny?” Muir sneers menacingly as the tension builds. “Laugh at this!” The song explodes out of the gate in a rampaging, Anthrax-style breakdown, Muir letting loose some of his most eloquent vitriol:
So when I look outside my room, I see the world, but not the reason
What is done to me is not fair; you call it pain I call it treason…
I cried out so loudly but you just covered your ears
I gave you all the signs, but you ignored my tears
If there ever was a moment that anticipated the middle-class anxiety of late-1990s nu-metal, it’s this record, but no bands have been able to equal the lyrical power that Muir brought to Suicidal Tendencies. At 50 minutes, it could have been trimmed of some fat – “Surf and Slam” and “Sorry?!” are the two weakest moments on the record – but it still remains a very strong album from thrash’s heyday whose legacy cannot be ignored. As if the band wasn’t inventive enough already, they’d take on a new young bassist named Robert Trujillo in 1989, which would lead to Suicidal’s most popular album, as well as a well received side project that would help pave the way for a new form of heavy metal in the 1990s. But that’s a story for another day.
Welcome to middle age, Generation X
Today one of the greatest heavy metal albums ever turns 30 years old.
Baby boomer critics slammed Mötley Crüe’s second album mercilessly – my MSN colleague Robert Christgau declared it “utter dogs***t” – but for budding Gen-X metalheads, “Shout at the Devil” was crucial in our musical development, and as those of us who first heard it when we were 12 or 13 have become middle-aged music critics ourselves, a lot of us consider this album to be part of the heavy metal canon.
Their timing couldn’t have been better. Def Leppard’s “Pyromania” and Quiet Riot’s “Metal Health” brought heavy metal to mainstream audiences in early 1983, and the buzz around Crüe had built ever since their televised performance at the US Festival on May 29. Kids were not only hungry for mew heavy metal, but heavy metal that felt badass, and “Shout at the Devil” delivered exactly that. Of course it was contrived in every sense, that’s undeniable. Nikki Sixx played up every cartoonish aspect of the budding genre: the huge sound, the guttural riffs, the cocksure vocals, the leather, the studs, the teased hair, the umlauts, the gigantic pentagram on the album cover. Sixx and Crüe took the shock rock imagery of KISS and Alice Cooper and dragged it through the then-modern, 1980s gutter of the Sunset Strip.
At the end of the day, it was the songs that made the album the classic it is. The opening trifecta of “In the Beginning”, the title track, and “Looks That Kill” is sensational. “Bastard” – which made the PMRC’s “Filthy Fifteen” – and “Red Hot” are hostile and fast. Sure, the instrumental “God Bless the Children of the Beast” is a toss-off, but the cover of The Beatles’ “Helter Skelter” cranks up the sleaze factor tenfold. And speaking of sleaze, “Ten Seconds to Love” is an all-timer. “Knock ‘em Dead Kid” is a bruiser, while the dark “Danger” paints a sordid picture of the seamier side of Hollywood. And best of all is the menacing “Too Young to Fall in Love”, which kicks off with the greatest strutting drum beat in metal history. Tom Werman remains one of the most pedestrian producers rock music has ever seen, but his crowning achievement is the drum sound he created for Tommy Lee. Lee sounds like a beast behind the kit, and that kick/snare/hi-hat combo on “Too Young” is simply perfect. If I were a drummer, I’d demand my producer give me the “Tommy Lee On ‘Too Young to Fall in Love’” sound.
At just over 35 minutes, this album is taut as hell. Each track is concise and memorable, just enough for us kids and our Atari-riddled short attention spans. The videos for “Looks That Kill” and “Too Young to Fall in Love” became staples on every music video show (I remember “Too Young” premiering on Friday Night Videos like it was yesterday), and the rest, well, is history. I’ve gone on record as saying “Shout at the Devil” is a classic album made by a very ordinary band, but as harsh as that statement was, I mean it in the best possible way. There wasn’t much to Crüe, but their whole was greater than the sum of their parts. When everything came together, as it did on that record, the results were spectacular. They went on to become one of the biggest rock bands of the ‘80s, but were never able to top this moment. Sure, for most of us kids it was a gateway for much heavier, cutting-edge stuff, but 30 years later it still holds up extremely well. I still play the album regularly, and I think I will again today, several times over. As should you.
21st album out October 22
Some will say there’s no point in reviewing a new Motörhead album. After all, you know exactly what you’re going to get time and time again. Well yes, and no. While Lemmy, Phil Campbell, and Mikkey Dee have been cruising along making music together for the past 21 years, never for a second deviating from the formula, what matters is just how inspired the trio is each time out. They can be on, like on 2008’s “Motörizer”, they can be cruising along complacently like on 2006’s “Kiss of Death” and 2010’s “The Wörld Is Yours”, or they can come from right out of the blue and outdo themselves for the first time in ages, as they did on 2004’s “Inferno”. Fans will most likely never be disappointed with however a new Motörhead album turns out, as most are just happy to have Lemmy still around making music as he inches closer to his 70th year on this earth.
This time around, though, the latest Motörhead album feels a little more significant for fans, as they were dealt a reminder of how Lemmy is nowhere near the immortal that some foolishly assume he is. The man had serious some health problems this year, from being fitted with a defibrillator to struggling through his set at Wacken, and that hard news will have people savoring the band’s forthcoming 21st studio album even more.
What’s remarkable about “Aftershock” is how it responds to the world in typical Lemmy fashion: loud, abrasive, middle finger upraised, a defiant “f*** you” to those who think the man should slow down. There’s a snarl in Motörhead that audiences haven’t heard since “Inferno”, and I’m not just referring to Lemmy’s distinct singing. Recent records have seen Campbell bringing a little rockabilly into the band’s material, but this time around his riffs have an unmistakable bite to them. Meanwhile, Mikkey Dee throttles his drum kit relentlessly, the double-kicks often going into overdrive. Sure, Lemmy plagiarizes himself here and there – “Death Machine” nicks its riff from “Shoot You in the Back” – but new ideas were never his forte. Tracks like “Heartbreaker”, “Paralyzed”, “Crying Shame”, “End of Time”, and “Going to Mexico” are relentless in their ferocity, a pleasure to hear.
As if aware that this 14-track album would be at risk of sounding too repetitive, a couple of slower numbers have been tossed in to mix things up a little, and both are effective: “Lost Woman Blues” is a straight-ahead slow-burning blues jam that morphs into a nasty, swinging groove, while “Dust and Glass” displays a little soul to complement all the badassery. As immediately pleasing as it is, the heightened attention surrounding Lemmy’s health makes “Aftershock” feel all the more a small triumph. All he and his mates have done is put together one of their best albums in the last 20 years.
Yesterday Rolling Stone premiered “Crying Shame”. Click here to listen to the track.
“Aftershock” comes out October 22 on UDR Music.
Ohio music students' performance of "Forty Six & 2" goes viral
Kids record a Pantera song. A girl shreds “Eruption” flawlessly. Another girl’s dad helps her make a cute hardcore song. A brother and sister make an ungodly racket on a reality show.
Such viral videos are a dime a dozen, with some endearing – until you find out the parents wasted no time making merch to hawk online – some amusing, and more often than not, nowhere near the novelty that people make it out to be. The fact is, kids are becoming more technically proficient musicians at younger and younger ages, so much so that it’s scary. But as accurately as they can play note-for-note transcriptions, whither the soul, the attention to detail, the restraint that makes a song a song?
Ohio music teacher Aaron O’Keefe knows a thing or two about teaching that valuable lesson, and his group of students have posted an incredible video performance of Tool’s classic song “Forty Six & 2”, in which all musicians understand the nuances of the song, performing it with accuracy, but most importantly, passion and soul. The singer’s voice is chilling. Watch the clip below, and prepare to be wowed.
Prog band long thought creatively dead storms back
Album of the Week:
Dream Theater, “Dream Theater” (Roadrunner)
It’s been so long since Dream Theater released an album that’s come anywhere near on par with “Images and Words” that I simply took it for granted that their 12th album would be yet another bloated suckfest of instrumental wankery. But then I popped the new record in, was drawn in by the restrained melodies of “The Enemy Inside” and “The Looking Glass”. I can’t remember the last time I listened to two Dream Theater songs with genuine interest like that. The band, all exceptional musicians, had buried their music underneath so much self-indulgence and pretension that it seemed irrevocable, but the restraint on “Dream Theater”, the willingness to sit back and let the melodies dictate the directions of the compositions, is so refreshing that this longtime skeptic sat back with a big, stupid grin on his face. As the album went on and “Behind the Veil” and “Surrender to Reason” continued that positive momentum, the prospect of the 22-minute suite “Illumination Theory” loomed at the end, but therein lies the kicker on this shockingly marvelous album, as it skillfully balances the noodling tendencies of John Petrucci, the keyboard wizardry of Jordan Rudess, and the tasteful singing of James LaBrie. And give new guy Mike Mangini credit; he opts for Neil Peart-style control rather than the flash of his predecessor Mike Portnoy. As the track builds to several climaxes that rival the bombastic majesty of Queen, Dream Theater in one fell swoop have redeemed themselves, putting themselves back on top of the American prog metal pile.
Also out this week:
Angrenost, “Planet Muscaria” (Code 666): Black metal, industrial, and space rock converge on this mildly interesting debut album by the Portuguese band. At times all the gimmickry comes off as too arbitrarily tossed in, but those who like their black metal on the polished side might get a kick out of this band’s attempt at doing something unique in the genre.
Black Label Society “Unblackened” (eOne/Eagle Rock): Focusing on Black Label Society’s mellower fare and performed in stripped-down arrangements, this live CD/DVD will appeal to fans of Zakk Wylde, but there’s not much here that will appeal to those who aren’t die-hard followers, unless you want to hear the marble-mouthed singer channeling his inner Elton John.
Dark Age, “A Matter of Trust” (AFM): I always get a kick out of any band that claims to play “modern metal”, only to sound like they’re straight out of 1995.
Fyrnask, “Eldir Nótt” (Temple of Torturous): Just when you think the latest album by the German band will be another been-there-heard-that exercise in atmospheric black metal repetition, the mellow parts kick in and you realize there’s more depth here than you expected. See what happens when you have good command of dynamics, kids?
Glamour Of The Kill, “Savages” (eOne): These Brits are bent on becoming their country’s version of Avenged Sevenfold, and indeed, metal riffs are co-opted amongst pop-punk arrangements on their latest album. It’s catchy enough for tweens in search of harder music – the hooks are undeniable – and much more musically competent than the band they’re trying to imitate, so while it’ll make the average metal fan cringe, there are worse gateway bands out there.
IMVSN, “INVSN” (Razor & Tie): Led by Refused singer Dennis Lyxzén, the Swedish band’s debut is a very pleasant surprise, an unabashed homage to early-1980s post punk. Drawing from Joy Division, New Order, The Cure, Kate Bush, PiL, and Killing Joke, it’s sleek, garish, and very, very catchy. If The Killers were less obsessed with Springsteen and more interested in dark wave, they might’ve sounded like this. Nope, it’s not metal by any stretch, but anyone with a weakness for the more gothic side of post punk will love this record. Highly recommended.
Metallica, “Through The Never” (Blackened): Recorded in Vancouver and Edmonton in 2011 and released as a companion to the upcoming concert/concept film “Metallica: Through the Never”, this is a good, fan-pleasing live album that spans the band’s 30-plus year career. While Metallica has been selling fans recordings of live shows for years, it’s nice to have something more finely tuned and punchier. Whether it was doctored in the studio or not is for those die-hards to research by comparing the “official” bootlegs, but nitpicking about those details are pointless. This is an old-fashioned double-live album, and it conveys the energy of the band’s performances very well. Besides, the performances here are strong, especially on such older classics as “…And Justice For All”, “Master of Puppets”, and “Creeping Death”. For all the griping about Lars Ulrich’s sloppy drumming and James Hetfield’s singing style – which is actually stronger here than he’s sounded in years – Metallica remain a tremendous live band, and when they cart out all those ‘80s songs, which are some of the greatest heavy metal songs ever written, recent sins are forgiven. At 100 minutes, it’s leaner than the Mexico City live album from the “Live S**t” box set – the definitive Metallica live document – but “Through the Never” is still immensely pleasing.
Obelyskkh, “Hymn To Pan” (Exile On Mainstream): The German band’s latest album is straight-ahead, inoffensive stoner/doom, but the way they utilize samples of William Burroughs and “Apocalypse Now” feels too obvious for their own good. And sorry, you can’t reference the “come out and play” bit from “The Warriors” when Twisted Sister it more memorably in 1985.
Onslaught, “VI” (AFM): The longtime UK band is back with a new record that, despite feeling a little too close to Destruction’s last few albums for comfort, nevertheless does its job well, delivering rampaging, fun, no-frills thrash. “66’F***in’6” is a goofy blast.
Sarke, “Aruagint” (Indie): Featuring drummer and namesake Sarke and vocalist Nocturno Culto (!), this supergroup’s third album doesn’t do anything new, simply churning out good, albeit unspectacular black metal. Thankfully Nocturno Culto brings some of his Darkthrone charisma to the frontman’s role, especially on the brilliant, Hellhammer-ishly sloppy “Ugly”.
Carcass, Candlemass, Gorguts highlight diverse metal fest/conference
Over the course of the last seven years, the Noctis Metal Festival and Conference has steadily built a reputation for itself as one of the most rewarding experiences a metal fan could ever have. With each year, the fest’s clout has grown, more fans traveling long distances to Calgary, Alberta to attend, performing bands raving about how well they were treated. Focusing on bringing in bands to play special one-off shows and with no genre bias whatsoever, Noctis celebrates the variety of the metal spectrum, bringing everything from cutting-edge bands to veteran acts. Couple that with a conference that attracts musicians, scholars, and industry insiders, it’s immersive and illuminating, where you and 1,000 more of your fellow metal buds eat, drink, breathe, live metal for three days and nights.
At the center of it all is Terese Fleming, the extraordinary driving force behind the entire Noctis event, who curates the entire thing and oversees it with the care of a doting mother. Adored in the Calgary metal scene for galvanizing the community in a way that few could ever do, it came as a shock to learn that this year’s fest, dubbed Noctis 666: Lucifer Rex, would be the last, as Fleming has decided to gracefully step down and enjoy life without the stress of organizing such an event.
The first night on Thursday, September 19 was divided between two nearby downtown pubs, a smaller scale than the next two nights, but not short on quality at all. While two prides of Northern Alberta, the lovable Striker and young up-and-comers Edge of Attack led the way at the cozy Lord Nelson’s, Dickens’ Pub was where the bulk of the action was. Herndon, Virginia trio Satan’s Satyrs, who wowed yours truly with a pair of incendiary sets at Roadburn this past April, brought their fuzzed-out, heavy garage rock to Noctis, their wall of noise and wah-wah solos feeling like the room had been invaded by the ghosts of Blue Cheer for 45 minutes.
Pictured above, Swiss death metal duo Bölzer – that’s right, a death metal duo – is responsible for one of 2013’s best death releases in the “Aura” EP, and they hammered out a towering set that threw the full room into a frenzy, frontman KzR’s guitar tone so massive that everyone forgot there was no bassist, while his screams felt more tortured, more maniacal than your usual death growler. The buzz in advance of the band’s set was palpable, and they exceeded all expectations. After a perfunctory set by local thrash band The Cadavor Dog, Exciter took the stage and in one fell swoop, took the lively crowd into the Delorean straight back to 1985. Led by founding guitarist John Ricci, the Canadian speed metal progenitors rampaged their way through an astounding set featuring such classics as “Heavy Metal Maniac”, “Long Live the Loud”, and “Violence and Force”, singer Kenny Winter more than making up for the absence of former drummer/singer Dan Beehler, hitting the high notes with power.
Friday’s show, which switched over to the 1,000-capacity MacEwan Hall on the University of Calgary campus, was even more of a mixed bag, and was also the least consistent bill of the fest. While the top-billed bands were Canadian underground black metal bands Blasphemy and Revenge, the band the overwhelming majority of people were there to see was Quebec death metal innovators Gorguts. After sets by Japanese grind band Barbatos, the surprisingly tepid-sounding Pagan Altar, and a brilliant dose of Slayer-esque thrash courtesy the highly satirical Villainizer – their “terrorist metal” pretty much prevents the Edmonton band from ever playing in America – the venue packed to its biggest crowd of the night as Gorguts took the stage. It was a cruelly brief performance, but they made the most of it, guitarist Luc Lemay mesmerizing with his inimitable technique, and backed up brilliantly by guitarist Kevin Hufnagel (Dysrhythmia) and bassist Colin Marston (Dysrhythmia, Krallice) as they capped things off with the stunning “Inverted” and the classic “Obscura”. The only mistake of an otherwise exceptionally run set was that Gorguts did not headline, because the crowd thinned out after their set and the only thing people were talking regarding Blasphemy’s performance was their constant quarrels between songs.
As great as all the live music is, the Noctis Conference is just as rewarding. Held at the Ramada in downtown Calgary – the hub of the entire fest, the hotel was almost completely taken over by metal fans – it featured a wide variety of speakers, ranging from well known artists, scholars, and industry insiders. In one room, Dan Swanö would be reminiscing about Edge of Sanity and Bloodbath, while in another there’s be a fun discussion on the importance of the patch-laden denim jacket in metal culture. Filmmaker Sam Dunn would be pitching his “Extreme metal” episode of his “Metal Evolution” TV series, while drummer Gene Hoglan and guitarist Tosin Abasi would be holding clinics for musicians.
Of all the presentations, the best ones were the ones that provoked thought and discussion. Professor Deena Weinstein, author of the essential book “Heavy Metal: The Music and its Culture”, and author Martin Popoff collaborated on a presentation that discussed the musical origins of heavy metal and the very first use of the term “heavy metal” that related to a form of music (Weinstein proved that the credit goes to Lester Bangs, not his fellow Creem writer “Metal” Mike Saunders, as legend has it). Montreal professor Vivek Venkatesh examined the music, imagery, and sociology of black metal in an enthralling lecture, while Josh Hogan of music solutions company Red Tentacle delivered a blunt and hilarious hour of real-world advice for young bands.
Above all else, the role of women in metal was front and center. Author Laina Dawes related her own experiences as a black woman metal fan, which served as the inspiration for her excellent 2012 book “What Are You Doing Here? A Black Woman’s Life and Liberation in Heavy Metal”. Calgary-based journalist and metal scholar Sarah Kitteringham proved why she’s a young metal writer to watch with her impassioned presentation about the increasing prominence of women on the extreme side of metal. Meanwhile, Weinstein gave a wonderful, free-form lecture based on the question, “Are women ruining metal?” that, great professor that she is, brought up many valid points for either side yet left it open-ended enough for the audience to form their own opinions and keep discussing it at the end of the hour.
By late Saturday afternoon as the conference and accompanying fan expo came to a close, people were itching to hop on the train to the city’s west side to catch what was a spectacularly stacked lineup of bands. After Winnipeg NWOBHM revivalists Evil Survives opened the night, Portland doom foursome Witch Mountain, one of the best American doom bands working today, played a short set highlighted by such standouts as “Bloodhound” and “Beekeeper”. Canadian thrash greats Sacrifice followed with a searing set that climaxed with “Soldier of Misfortune” and the definitive Canadian thrash anthem “Re-Animation”. Following a punishing set by the always-great Bay Area thrash legends Possessed, NWOBHM legends Girlschool shocked everyone with a swaggering, rampaging performance that leaned heavily on their Motörhead-esque output from the early-1980s. As they tore out such classics as “Demolition Boys”, “Race With the Devil”, “Hit and Run”, and “Yeah Right” – guitarist Kim McAuliffe still the original picture of woman metal badassery and bassist Enid Williams all smiles – the hall quickly filled up as skeptics found Denise Dufort’s swinging, ferocious double-kick beats too impossible to resist. The energy from these 50-something ladies was incredible, and was yours truly’s favorite set of the entire fest.
After Girlschool warmed up the crowd perfectly, it was time for the two heavy hitters. Kicking off with “Prophet”, Swedish doom greats Candlemass thrilled the throng of fans. Journeyman singer Mats Levén, one of the most versatile singers in the business, proved to be a stellar replacement for Robert Lowe and Messiah Marcolin, and led the funeral march through ‘80s gems “Bewitched” and “Under the Oak”. By the time the band wrapped up with the awe-inspiring one-two punch of “At the Gallows’ End” and “Solitude”, the crowd was ecstatic.
The timing could not have been better for Noctis headliners Carcass, who just a few days earlier, had released their comeback album “Surgical Steel” to universal praise. Most people in attendance had been waiting many years to see the death metal gods in the flesh, and they were not disappointed as the foursome played a taut, efficient set that schooled all modern death metal bands with its dynamic range, dexterity, and personality. With bassist/vocalist Jeff Walker in typical dry humor and guitarist Bill Steer in full rock star mode, the band kicked off with the “Heartwork” trifecta of “Buried Dreams” and “No Love Lost”, as well as “Incarnated Solvent Abuse” and “Edge of Darkness”. New songs “Cadaver Pouch Conveyor System” and “Captive Bolt Pistol” were unveiled, while “Corporal Jigsore Quandary” – the “Breaking the Law” of death metal – ignited the mosh pit with its classic, ingeniously simple opening riff. Closing with “Keep on Rotting in the Free World”, Carcass’s 70-minute set Noctis attendees in a frenzy, beaming all the way to the afterparties downtown.
At the VIP shindig that carried on until five in the morning, Fleming, that great lady of Western Canadian metal, was met with much respect and emotion by bands, speakers, and staff. When artists like Carcass and Gene Hoglan implore you to not retire, to keep this festival and conference going, you know it’s made an impact. It’s too special to the Calgary scene to die now, but if this is indeed the last Noctis – oh, please, don’t let this be the last – then it ended on a spectacular note.
(huge thanks to Monika Deviat for the photos)
Above: Witch Mountain
Impressive debut album combines iciness and warmth
I first came into contact with Pennsylvania musician Chris Pandolfo a couple years ago, strictly through mutual admiration of Alcest and other “metalgaze” bands of that ilk. Over that time, I’ve also been watching his own musical project Clouds Collide slowly evolve, and after a long period spent working on it in his spare time, the beautiful debut album “Until the Wind Stops Blowing” is officially out in physical format right now.
A combination of lo-fi, one-man black metal, the swift, blastbeat driven crescendos of Agalloch, and the aching beauty of Alcest, it’s an emotionally raw album that, for all its despair – it was written in tribute to his late mother – leaves the listener with a sense of hope at the end. “Until the Wind Stops Blowing” has been released in a gorgeous CD package by Khrysanthoney Records, which you can order here. You can also stream the album below via Bandcamp, and purchase a digital copy of the album.
Earlier this year I caught up with Pandolfo, and we chatted about Clouds Collide, the new album, and where he sees his musical direction going next.
How did this project come into being?
Chris Pandolfo: About 4 years ago I had been writing a lot of music under a band name Depths, which was like dreamy post metal. Things fell through a bit with close friends who were attempting to help me make a CD come true and I was basically stripping the members in the band of all their creativity. I hated doing that. It was around this point where the combination of my influences and my vision were starting to lean toward shoegaze with a hint of black metal in it and I realized I needed to do everything myself. At this point in time 4 years ago I had no idea 'blackgaze' was even a thing let alone an upcoming movement of awesome music.
What artists have inspired you to explore this musical hybrid?
Around the time I was developing melodies and structures in my head the big bands that were sticking out to me were Slowdive, Agalloch, Alcest, and Rosetta.
What is it about this side of black metal that draws you to it?
I think it's a lot of things really. Growing up I used to hate anything that didn't have a really polished production and as I began listening to more and more black metal bands I slowly fell in love with the atmosphere and the lo-fi approach. I also was drawn to the overwhelming emotion behind the music and the vocals. It all seemed to fit what I was trying to say emotionally, lyrically, and musically. This style of black metal really caters to nostalgia, which is essentially what all my music will be about, and I'm sure a lot of other artists in this genre can agree with that.
This album is clearly deeply personal. What was the idea behind dedicating this album to your late mother?
A bit of both catharsis and therapy I guess you can say. When I write music I tend to think of her and that appears in the lyrics. This particular album is kind of the 'winter' album and I reflect on how winter affects my nostalgia and well being in a negative way. Although the lyrics in future songs will SOUND more healing, the recording process and finally making this album happen was definitely medicinal.
What’s the significance of the Terrence Malick samples you use? I hear the narration from "Days of Heaven" at one point.
Not to sound like the huge Malick fanboy that I am, Malick's films and ideas within the film simply inspire me if it's what he's saying visually or what the characters thoughts are during the film. 'Days of Heaven' and 'Badlands' really hit me on a nostalgic level that his other movies can't do...while watching 'Days of Heaven' that particular line in the film really made me think about a big theme on this record that something as simple as a wind blowing passed somebody can make them feel so many different things. 'The Way the Wind Blew' lyrically is kind of the culmination of all these simple and at times not so simple things in my life that I experience that throws me into a whirlwind of nostalgia with particular memories. I get that feeling with a lot of characters in Malick's films with their longing dialogue, especially those in 'Days of Heaven' so having that quote open the song is very fitting for me.
This form of music tends to dwell in melancholy, yet there seems to be a feeling of hope creeping in. Was that your intent?
For “Deathless”, absolutely. The great thing about hope and despair in musical format though is that it's truly subjective. My buddy Jared who helped me master the album told me he thought “Deathless” was one of the saddest things he's ever heard and I laughed because it was intended to be that ray of hope!
Many will say that the second a hint of positivity creeps into the music, it ceases to be black metal. How important is it that black metal expand its musical breadth and move beyond the corpsepaint and Satanic gimmicks?
I think it's very important because with the help of black metal and shoegaze you can combine tools that you can use to truly create something beautiful and dense at the same time rather than being stuck with only hatred and evil. To me there's a lot of beauty in general with even the archetypical black metal and I think a lot of artists can relate to that. There is nothing wrong with using that influence and combining it with something other than burning churches [laughs].
Is Clouds Collide strictly a solo studio project, or do you ever see yourself forming a band?
I've actually very recently had friends approach me about forming even just a live band to do a show or two. I just don't think it's possible but you never know. I prefer to just be a solo act for writing and releasing records though.
In what directions do you see your music evolving next?
I actually have the entire next album written and ready to record. I'm finishing up two tracks for a Sleeping Peonies spit on Khrysanthoney and then will hopefully begin recording LP2 shortly after. The split songs will be kind of a tug of war between the sound on "Until the Wind Stops Blowing"and my next album, which is going to embrace a much warmer sound. You can say that if this record is the 'Winter' album, the next album will be the 'Spring' edition of Clouds Collide.
live local music on
Enter your ZIP code to see concerts happening in your area.
Data provided by Zvents