May Metal
by Gary Spencer

Wussup, y’all?

It’s springtime in the U.S. of A, and prime touring season is upon us. In fact, live metal is alive and well, even in Ohio, where I recently got to go see a great metal show in my backyard of Columbus and had a ton of fun. This particular concert at the Ravari Room on High Street was courtesy of the good folks at Starwood Presents and featured Skeletonwitch, 3 Inches of Blood, Locusta and Infernal Death. All of the bands turned in crowd-pleasing sets for the near capacity turnout.

Infernal Death are a tribute act, with their set comprised entirely of cover songs by Chuck Schuldiner’s legendary Death. I didn’t see that coming, but being a fan of Schuldiner’s classic work it was certainly very enjoyable. Local band Locusta was next. I’d never seen this Columbus-based band before, but had been advised that they were brutal, and I must say that, yes, they were very brutal. I would categorize their style as being of the blackened death metal variety with dark, growly vocals. Good stuff, mang.

Up next was 3 Inches of Blood. I’d been apprehensive about checking them out in the past based on the impression that they were more for the Rockstar Mayhem Festival–type of crowd. Well, was I surprised when they got up on stage and delivered a fist-pumpin’ set of rocking, high octane, old-school influenced heavy metal. At the minimum, 3 Inches of Blood was mad fun in a live setting. Headliners Skeletonwitch (pictured above), who come from Athens, Ohio, put the icing on the cake with their unmistakable brand of NWOBHM-influenced thrash, steamrolling through a lengthy set that sent the raucous crowd into a slamdance fest. Apparently, the group was breaking in new drummer Tony Laureano, who some of you may remember for his work in other notable acts like 1349 and Nile. He seemed to have no problem keeping up with rest of the band as their set was tight from start to finish. Skeletonwitch announced that they were in the process of putting together a new album that should be out on Prosthetic Records sometime later this year.

Apparently, Starwood Presents has been bringing in notable heavy metal acts from all over to the Columbus area for a while now, and has more notable shows up their sleeve for the immediate future including Holy Grail with Cauldron and Midnight at the Summit on May 6 and the Black Dahlia Murder on June 1 at the Ravari Room.

And now, how about some album reviews? Too bad, that’s what I’m giving you anyway!

The Beast of the Apocalypse, Henosis (Transcendental Creations)
European label Transcendental Creations seems to be honing a very specific sound in the modern world of black metal, and the newest album by the Beast of the Apocalypse, Henosis, continues to explore avant garde realms. While the Dutch band is a little more straightforward than labelmate De Magia Veterum, the Beast of the Apocalypse takes a remarkably bleak, noisy approach to playing black metal. Henosis offers undecipherable vocals, buried drums and oppressive atmospherics that are more artistically daring than most of their peers. Layers of tremolo-picked guitar haze produces a sound akin to a huge swarm of bees attacking your senses, and generally speaking, the Beast of the Apocalypse produces a musical cacophony full of unease and dread, which, again, most modern black metal acts couldn’t touch with a 10-foot pole. Henosis is the aural equivalent of being held down and smothered, screaming for air yet no one ever hears you. Scary stuff.

Destruction, Day of Reckoning (Nuclear Blast)
For those readers who may have been living under a rock, Destruction is one of Germany’s big three classic thrash bands from the 1980s who, alongside Kreator and Sodom, were pioneers of the burgeoning thrash metal movement that helped inspire classic U.S. acts such as Metallica, Megadeth and Slayer. Remaining original members Mike and Schmier have added another jewel to their heavy metal crown with Day of Reckoning, released earlier this year. Apparently with a modus operandi of not fixing something that’s not broken, Destruction stick to their musical and lyrical guns from triumphs past on this new record, with Schmier’s snarly vocals intact and sounding as righteous as ever. Yep, Day of Reckoning is brimming with galloping drums, screaming guitar licks, catchy riffs and lyrics touching upon familiar territory such as anti-Christianity, war, hate, sin and “the system.” If it weren’t for the crisp, punchy, modern production values I would have sworn this album came out the same year that Kill ’Em All was released. But with retro thrash coming back into vogue the last few years, Day of Reckoning should be a favorite for headbangers who want to continue partying like it’s 1986.

Kvelertak, Kvelertak (The End)
Aptly drawing their name from the word for “chokehold” in their native tongue, this relatively unknown Norwegian sextet goes for the throat on their self-titled debut on The End, a label famous for putting out records by black metal titans Dissection and Enslaved. But Kvelertak’s sound has nothing to do with “true” Nowegian black metal, and instead opts for a slick, melodic, but punchy, punk-influenced classic sound. Kvelertak is a big sounding album with dynamite guitar harmonics, crunchy riffs, meaty drums and hooks, hooks, hooks galore. The songwriting and execution are very impressive for a young band’s debut release, no doubt. In fact, the only “extreme” metal trait Kvelertak possesses is the raspy bark of vocalist Erlend Hjelvik, aided by some rather unusual backing vocals on the riotous choruses found throughout this disc. Kvelertak seems reluctant to ever slow things down, preferring to keep the music continually rocking, yet managing to throw in keys and acoustic guitars where you don’t expect them. It all seems to work. All the lyrics are in Norwegian, so I have no idea what they’re singing about. It might be record’s only fault, cuz I want to sing along, but I don’t know what the hell they’re saying! Still it’s a small drawback to what is otherwise a fist-pumpingly fun, rock-metal album that shows a lot of promise.

Moonsorrow, Varjoina Kuljemme Kuolleiden Maassa (Spinefarm)
Helsinki, Finland’s Moonsorrow have grown by leaps and bounds since their inception in the mid-90s, going from a fairly run-of-the-mill black metal band to becoming a pioneering force in the pagan and folk-metal sub-genres. A couple of months ago, the band’s newest magnum opus, Varjoina Kuljemme Kuolledien Maassa (“as shadows we walk in the land of the dead”), hit U.S. shores and, whoa, what an epic release it is. As is Moonsorrow’s wont, Varjoina is a concept album that tells the story of a lost soul trying to find his way through the frosty wilderness to some sort of sanctuary, enduring punishing physical conditions and a weakening state of mind as the search continues until the primary character finds the end of the line in death. The story is told across the length of four songs (with all the tracks well over the 10-minute mark). There are short interludes in between each one that are usually contextual ambience representing the main character’s stumbling through the woods, panting, gasping for breath, and at one point screaming out in rage and sorrow for his predicament.

So what about the music? Each track is an epic unto itself, with guitars heavier than an avalanche and moving at a pace slightly faster than one, leaving your eardrums crushed in their wake. Varjoina has hooks to spare, and each song plays out like a symphony; each track has several movements and melody structures expanded upon and revisited repeatedly so that you become engrossed to the point of not noticing that some of these compositions are pushing upwards of 15 minutes in length. And the European melodies that Moonsorrow are famous for are notably present here. These traditional melodic motifs are seamlessly interwoven into the mammoth music, alternating between being airy and chiming or deep and emotive, each coordinating to what’s going on in the story. The final minutes of Varjoina are the gloomiest of the entire album. As the main character finally expires, the music becomes a death march noting the finality and grimness of his dying in a cold forest, with the whistling feedback feeling like the brisk, snowy winds howling over his body. Moonsorrow’s newest LP stands out among contemporary metal in that you can tell by listening to it how much thought and construction was put into crafting it as a flowing piece of music. It should be regarded as not just a monumental piece of modern metal, but as a work of art—one that you can headbang to nonetheless. So far, this is the best new metal album I’ve heard in 2011, so that means the rest of the year’s releases have a lot to live up to.

Rotten Sound, Cursed (Relapse)
I remember a while back my brother and I were discussing music and he asked me if anyone really played grindcore anymore. At the time, I’m sure there was, but I couldn’t specifically recommend any one or two groups playing grind in modern times. Well, I wish I had been aware of Rotten Sound when we had this discussion, as this Finnish quartet’s newest LP, Cursed, fucking destroys everything in its path. The album storms out of the gate with a 50-second thrasher, machine gun blast beats aplenty, rough and nasty guitars, and snarled, distorted, barking vocals. It sets the cyclonic pace for the rest of the album, although Rotten Sound isn’t afraid to break it down here and there with some slow-motion tactics so you truly feel their heaviness. Unlike a lot of classic grindcore, which sports lo-fi or thin production values, this album’s cadence is thick and beefy—a true “grind crusher” by definition. There are 16 songs here, and with each averaging under two minutes, Cursed is the right length for an effective grindcore full-length. Don’t be surprised if it feels like your eardrums are bleeding as you listen to this. As their name suggests, this group’s sound is about as rotten as it comes.

Trap Them, Darker Handcraft (Prosthetic)
There seems to be quite a bit of quality metal coming out of the American Northwest these days, and Trap Them have to be considered at the top of their geographical class. Hailing from Seattle, the band has been dealing musical kicks to the head for the last five years or so, and their seventh release, Darker Handcraft, picks up right where the Filth Rations EP from last year left off. Darker Handcraft is seemingly comprised of influences of all sorts, including thrash, punk, hardcore, grind and even doom. What’s amazing about that is the way those influences are sewn back together into actual songs. Not to overuse the analogy, but Darker Handcraft comes across as fairly seamless and idiosyncratic in style. Converge and Entombed are easy reference points, but that is totally underselling what Trap Them is capable of, and this album, in particular, has a manic, psychotic feel to it that I’m not sure either of those bands ever really brought to the table. Lots of droning, sick-sounding guitars, addictive riffs, and some fist-pump worthy choruses here and there seal the deal. Barely brushing past the 30-minute mark, Darker Handcraft punches you in the face, but runs away slowly. The album closers are creepy, atmospheric numbers that are sure to leave the listener with a sense of dread of which you may not have thought Trap Them capable.

Vreid, V (Indie)
Vreid is a Norwegian band that’s been putting out good ol’ black metal way below the radar for almost a decade now and never seems to get much lip service. Their newest disc, V, boasts intricate songwriting, quality musicianship and lead vocals reminiscent of Satyr’s vocals on Satyricon’s first album, Dark Medieval Times. As a whole, V is mid-paced, cold and grim second-wave influenced black metal, but Vreid will occasionally steer their songs into black ’n’ roll territory to keep everyone’s heads nodding along. For a reference point, imagine if Watain or Dissection were covering the more recent songs of Satyricon’s catalog and you might have an idea of what Vreid sounds like. And to further sweeten the deal, Vreid isn’t afraid to soften the guitars and subdue the pace to allow for exquisitely haunting, clearly sung passages aided by cool keyboards punctuating the songs within. With any luck, V will find Vreid a larger audience and greater notoriety.

Weedeater, Jason... The Dragon (Southern Lord)
The North Carolina trio of bowl-tokers known as Weedeater have been injuring themselves on tours and espousing their Southern-fried brand of stoner metal for roughly a decade now, and their fourth full length, Jason... The Dragon, stays the musical course of unpolished, drug influenced sludge. Produced by legendary knob-twiddler Steve Albini, Jason is a surprisingly lean and mean affair. Unlike say “Dopethrone”-era Electric Wizard, Weedeater’s newest slab isn’t sludgy to the point of figuratively plodding around while aesthetically drowning in mud. Most of the songs here are on the shorter side of the spectrum and move along at a pace that keeps an average metal listener from getting bored too easily. Most of Jason’s tracks have memorable riffs amidst the sonic weed smoke, punctuated by Dixie Dave’s raspy, cotton-mouthed vocals. However, Weedeater deals us a couple of surprises on their newest platter. “Palms of Opium” is a country tune with some warped pedal steel that sounds like it was performed under the influence of who knows how many opiates. And the album closer, “Whiskey Creek,” boasts rainy night atmospherics as the perfect backdrop for an introspective banjo jam. Unlike most other stoner releases, Jason is a short long-player that doesn’t overstay its welcome. It’s amazing how much I enjoy this album, especially considering that I don’t smoke pot anymore. Go figure.