Tuesday, December 29, 2020

Hindsight in 2020

How honest are year end lists? Does anyone stand by their picks of the "best" albums from 5, 10, or 20 years ago?

At best, these lists provide a snapshot of who we were as people and as music fans - as well as who we identified with, and how willing we were to branch off from our peer groups to find our own paths.

Truthfully, I haven't kept up with what's cool in metal for years. Other than the albums that appear in my inbox for interview and review consideration, and a few clandestine black metal collectives that I'm currently obsessed with, I hardly keep up with what's happening in the scene. The most exciting music I heard this year was old kraut rock and obscure proto-industrial bands. And maybe that's for the best.

I've never wanted to be part of the "group think" that accompanies scenes. The appeal of heavy music was never being part of a larger group. Why would it, when the music I loved marked me as an outsider and weirdo for most of my life, and gave others an easy handle with which to mock and deride me? The term "metal friends" has mostly been an oxymoron.

The categorizations of "death metal", "black metal", "hardcore", etc mean less to me now than they did when I was a long-hair going to CBGB's every weekend. I realize now it wasn't any particular genre that interested me, but the very idea of underground music. The "thank you" lists at the back of Beneath The Remains and Clandestine had my mind racing, thinking of the dozens (or, as it turned out, thousands) of bands toiling in obscurity to create uncompromising music. I had as little interest in "metal" bands who found a home on MTV then as I do in the ones currently thriving on social media; my interest was always in unearthing iconoclastic weirdos who existed outside of the mainstream. Also, I have no patience for the dogma and fashion that comes with being "metal" or "punk"; or in wrapping myself in the shallow trappings of a scene's identity. My interest is in the music, and the underground.


Everyone knows Napalm Death is one of my favourite bands; just check my wardrobe closet. Also probably not a secret: I've always preferred the Mitch Harris/Barney Greenway iteration of the band, since my view of underground music was shaped so strongly by Fear Emptiness Despair.

This line-up had been responsible for an unprecedented 20 year streak of near perfect albums (starting with Enemy of the Music Business) - but that streak looked to end when Mitch Harris moved back to the US; Corrupt Moral Altar/Venomous Concept guitarist John Cooke took over his live duties. The band's sixteenth studio album was subsequently announced; but the question of who would actually be playing guitar was left unanswered for a long time. As it turns out, Harris was enlisted to record his guitar parts after all, since his picking style is crucial to the group's current sound. [Imagine: The band that went through a line-up change between sides A and B of their debut - and further roster shuffles on each of their next three albums - strived for continuity between releases.]

With Shane Embury handling the music by himself, Throes Of Joy is everything you'd expect from modern Napalm - fast paced bangers, Celtic Frost-inspired grooves, and odd deviations. If the previous two albums distinguished themselves with a fixation on early Swans, this album expands that with nods to Killing Joke("Amoral"), The Boredoms ("Joie De Ne Pas Vivre), and Einsturzende Neubauten ("A Bellyful Of Salt And Spleen"). These digressions from the band's usual style provide the album's most memorable and worthwhile moments (if the tumultuous nature of the band's early line-ups taught its present members the importance of a consistency, the divided response to their Nineties albums presumably taught them how many reinventions their audience will tolerate).

Right now the future is as uncertain for Napalm Death as it is for anyone else. If this really does mark the end of the Harris/Greenway/Embury/Herrera partnership, Throes Of Joy is as good a way to end a 20 year streak.

Listen to my interview with Napalm Death.

Listen to my interview with Mitch Harris.

Listen to my interview with John Cooke.


20 years is also roughly how long the Derrick Greene version of Sepultura has been around. No longer pressured to deliver another breakout hit like Roots or Chaos AD, guitarist Andreas Kisser has been letting his interest in film scores become a larger part of the band's songs; the resulting albums have been every bit as adventurous as those from Sepultura's "tribal" period. But few of them have been as strong from start to finish as this one.

Quadra is chock-full of unorthodox time signatures, tribal percussion, choirs, and classical instrumentation, making it as progressive a take on thrash metal as anything in the Watchtower or Voivod discographies. If one accepts that the main mistake of the post-Cavalera Sepultura has been that they've leaned too heavily on "groove" and not enough om "speed", this a step in the right direction. Though there's no attempt to replicate the reckless death-thrash of their seminal albums, you can hear the (dead) embryonic tendrils of Schizophrenia (Kisser's first album with the band) weave their way through Quadra's orchestration. This is a reminder of why Sepultura quickly became one of the most important bands in the genre - they left it to others to emulate their past, preferring instead to move forward. Quadra continues that journey, and as a result is their strongest album in years.


Perhaps better known as drummer Inferno's "other" band, Azarath may have delivered their most accomplished work yet. Joined by Marcin Skullripper from Embrional (the Polish scene is nothing if not incestuous), Saint Desecration continues the evolution of previous albums, muting the lurching Immolation-isms of their earlier work, and emploginy a production that better suits the band's precision, as well as their growing comfort with melody. Unrepentant in both its blasphemy and blast, this album represents everything that's great about Polish metal.

Listen to my interview with Azarath.


Speaking of Polish metal, OGs Vader dropped their twelfth album with a title that strangely anticipated this socially isolated year. If you heard any of its eleven predecessors, then you know what to expect from Solitude In Madness: Insanely fast, impossibly precise death-thrash, peppered with the occasional "Hey, isn't British Steel awesome?" mid-paced banger. Vader have been more consistent and prolific than most of their peers, and every album they release is a vindication of tortoises over hares. That kind of dependability is welcome in a year like this.

Listen to my interview with Vader.


If I were to use one word to explain my preference for Polish and Brazilian death metal over the "brutal death" emerging from the US, that word would be "blast". But the number of American bands leaning towards unfettered blast is growing. I submit to the court: Denver's Of Feather And Bone, whose third album Sulfuric Disintegration is unabashed hyperblasting death metal in the vein of Hate Eternal or Angelcorpse, and as feral and uncompromising as anything that came out of Belo Horizonte or Warsaw. Blasters without borders.


Expander are a throwback to the period in the late Nineties when punk, metal, and indie rock were smashed together, and then reassembled with no concern for genre fidelity or classification. Wrapping their music in an equally adventurous sci fi concept makes Neuropunk Boostergang one of the most memorable releases of 2020.

Listen to my interview with Expander.


Modern black metal has become homogenized by overly similar music and productions, to the point where most of the releases I hear in a given week could have been created by a bot. Blattaria is different - different to the point where I'm not even sure they belong in the genre. Ostensibly rooted in the dissonant death/black movement, the solo project almost entirely eschews the Phrygian mode favoured by their contemporaries - the riffs on Dream, Dwell, Die sound like a lint brush rolled over the frets; and in its more subdued moments, the shadow of bands like Sonic Youth and Shellac begins to emerge. But regardless of its influences, Blattaria is that rarest of things in 2020: An original.


For obvious reasons, solo projects were immune to most of the challenges of recording and releasing music during this pandemic. Black Pestilence are technically not a solo project anymore - the line-up has expanded to three people - but mainman Valax has been working out of his own studio and self-releasing music (not to mention wearing a mask) for over a decade, giving him all the preparation he needed to release an album during this year. Like a bare bones Carcass, or a deathlier Toxic Holocaust, Hail The Flesh breezes from thrashy hook to thrashy hook, providing plenty of earworms and few opportunities for attention spans to wane. It's not the most original album released this year, but it was one of the most enjoyable.

Listen to my interview with Black Pestilence.


The Oracle, a corpse-painted solo artist based in Massachussetts, has encompassed drone, noise, and dark ambient music; but his latest album is his most ambitious. Evoking the dreamlike scores of John Carpenter and Vangelis, Hypogeum tells a story without words - though a modestly-budgeted DIY film [embedded above] was created in conjunction with the album. As laudable as the audio-visual approach is, this music really doesn't need visuals - Hypogeum's strength lies in the emotions and images it evokes in the listener's mind, which no digital camera can compete with. These synths may have started in the dungeon, but they belong to the cosmos.

Listen to my interview with The Oracle.


By melding funeral doom, DSBM, and dark ambient passages, Gravkväde created the perfect soundtrack for a grim and tragic year. GRAV|RUIN is a an exercise in joylessness, opting for bleak chord progressions over riffs, and letting the guitars ring out until the notes dissolve into feedback. Grim and unsentimental, it was the perfect soundtrack to this tragic year; and dropping as Covid cases were on the rise, it strikes an appropriately ominous note for what the next year portends.

Listen to my interview with Gravkväde.

I've done a lot of soul-searching these past few years, trying to figure out why I still do this. The realization came to me when I had Barney Greenway and Mitch Harris on the podcast - the attention those episodes got was impressive (by DoC's standards, at least), but I kept wishing that they would trickle down to the shows about other, less prominent groups. Thus came a belated realization of who I was as a music fan: I was always the kid who was recommending more obscure bands to my friends. Do you like Pantera? Check out Machine Head. Dig Entombed? Listen to Dismember. That's why I took so quickly to tape trading and zines. It was never about being "a cred whore" (an accusation that's been lobbed at me), but about sharing knowledge with like-minded music fans. Fans who understood and appreciated the underground.

In my teens and twenties, I wasted a lot of time and energy trying to introduce my friends to the underground and the multitudes of bands and sub-genres that existed within it. A lot of those friends came around to my way of thinking eventually - but only 5-10 years later, after those bands had broken through to a larger audience. I no longer have the patience or interest to wait a decade for people to realize the value of what I have to say.

The people who are interested in what I have to give are out there. I may not ever know their names, or meet them. But they're reading this blog and listening to my podcast every week. And to them I say: Thank you. You're the reason I do this.

And also: If you like Napalm Death, you should check out Grid.

The Best Podcasts of 2020:

Episode 158:
Episode 151:
Mitch Harris
Episode 150:
Napalm Death

Episode 125:
Episode 120:
Today Is The Day
Episode 114:
Musket Hawk

The Best Q+A Interviews of 2020:

an interview
with Ulcerate
an interview
with Bedsore