Friday, December 31, 2021

2021: Stasis

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I think I speak for everyone when I say I'm tired of this. The beginning of the pandemic meant months of existential terror: Every outdoor excursion, every interaction with strangers seemed to be a life/death roll of the dice. Two years later, fully vaxxed and boosted, the Groundhog Day-like cycle of variants, surging infections, and lockdowns has left us exhausted, exposing a deep vein of callousness and misanthropy that went unnoticed in functioning societies.

With global vaccination rates hovering around the 50% mark; Vvaccine access in the developing world is hampered by companies who are jealously guarding their IP, and more focused in increasing profits than in saving lives. Meanwhile, in the wealthiest nations, our technological advancements have created more ways for people to express their distrust of science. In predicting the future, Idiocracy was only off by 480 years.

We've been stuck in the same place for so long. How much longer will we be here?

Cannibal Corpse: Violence Unimagined

Longevity is an underappreciated quality in underground metal (probably because most fans are fiercely devoted for about four years and outgrow the genre in eight). Even so, Cannibal Corpse deserve more appreciation for their thirty year career: They've seen death metal emerge, evolve, grow in popularity, implode, get reborn, become technical, become retro, become hip, and finally just nestle into an accepted part of the popular music landscape (as well as a coveted asset in the mining of streaming rights). They've outlasted all the magazines who covered them (and at least one who wouldn't), been more consistent and active than all of the bands who emerged at the same time as them, as well as the many who followed in their footsteps. With fellow OG/lifer Erik Rutan now a full-time member (as if being part of Ripping Corpse and Morbid Angel didn't already qualify him for death metal's Mount Rushmore), the band have a new creative lease on life. Anyone expecting that Rutan's contributions would mean a sudden change in syle will be let down - this is as true to Cannibal Corpse as you can get; and therein lies the secret to their longevity. The band (particularly bassist/lead songwriter Alex Webster) have learned to weather change (both internal as well as external), and resist trends. While an album featuring a hybridized Cannibal Corpse/Hate Eternal approach is tantalizing (and hinted at on the Rutan-penned "Ritual Annihilation"), the band's greatest accomplishment is their consistency. At our current moment in history, that kind of dependability is appreciated.

[Listen to my interview with Cannibal Corpse drummer Paul Mazurkiewicz.]

Drawn and Quartered: Congregation Pestilence

Speaking of longevity, for nearly 3 decades Seattle's Drawn and Quartered were virtual unknowns outside the Pacific Northwest, releasing albums on obscure labels while being ignored by the bigger labels and metal magazines. But the internet has led to the increasing irrelevance of record companies and music reviewers, which lets underground fans and bands bypass their previous interlocutors to find each other more easily. Congregation Pestilence is the 8th album under the Drawn and Quartered name (not including the releases the band members recorded as Plague Bearer), and it doesn't sound a day over thirty - an avalanche of blastbeats and chaotic riffs that would fit on a mixtape circa 1991 somewhere between Immolation and Incantation.

[Listen to my interview with Drawn and Quartered vocalist Herb Burke.]

Ruin: Spread Plague Death

Ruin also has their origins in the early Nineties, but splintered before they could record an album - so if there's anyone can be forgiven for trying to relive the glory days of death metal, it's these guys. Spread Plague Death is the third full-length in a recording history that includes a dizzying amount of splits, EPs, and singles. The reason Ruin have been able to stay so prolific is their refusal to overthink their music: Beneath the grime and guttural vocals, there's a Ramones/Motörhead-like simplicity to their riffs and arrangements that keeps their songs catchy and direct.

[Listen to my interview with Ruin vocalist Mike "Abominator" Nelson.]

Churchburn: Genocidal Rite

Heshers were understandably taken aback by Dave Suzuki's decision to leave Vital Remains and later emerge in a death/doom project. For a guitarist known for his fretburning speed and flawless technique, Churchburn's slow, deceptively simple music seemed diametrically opposed to his talents. But as their third album proves, Suzuki is as adept at crafting oppressive, crushing songs as he was as fast and technical ones. Genocidal Rite sees the band mixing up their sludgy riffs with some mid-paced double bass sections, moving them closer to the Obituary/Grave/Bolt Thrower axis of slow death. But Suzuki hasn't abandoned his old style completely - and when he launches into a solo, it's a reminder of why he's still so respected (and requested) as a lead guitarist.

[Listen to my interview with Churchburn's Dave Suzuki and Ray McCaffrey.]

Sunless: Ylem

It never ceases to amaze me how death metal bands keep getting faster - just look at the way DoC friends Sunless have seemingly levelled up since their debut. Now ensconced in the Willowtip roster (where their twisted riffs and jigsaw arrangements are right at home), the band flex their technical chops on Ylem, a disorienting and ambitous release that shows a conscious attempt to outdo their previous work. This is how death metal sounds when it grows up: Cerebral without being overly technical, faithful to the basic tenets of the genre without being derivative, and brutal without devolving into self-parody.

[Listen to my interview with the members of Sunless here.]

Fossilization: He Whose Name Was Long Forgotten

Is there a country where the spirit of death metal burns brighter than in Brazil? Fossilization released their five song debut during a general lull in the Brazilian scene, when the country's most reliable purveyors of blastbeats had been uncharacteristically quiet. He Whose Name Was Long Forgotten (which garnered so much interest in the underground that no less than three labels were involved in its release) isn't in the thrashy, hyperblasting style typically associated with Brazilian death metal; instead, the duo focus on dread and atmosphere (a skill they've cultivated during their time with doom metal band Jupiterian). When the blast inevitably comes in, it's a welcome catharsis after much tension-building. I'm genuinely excited to see how the band builds on such a strong debut (and as I write this, their split with Ritual Necromancy is set to be released in a month).

[Read my Q+A interview with Fossilization here.]

Alda: A Distant Fire

It's been 9 years since Alda were first mentioned on this blog, and both their profile and their musicianship has come a long way (hopefully the same can be said about my writing - those early reviews are rough to revisit). Their long-gestating fourth album, A Distant Fire, displays how the band has refined their folk-based black metal, as well as the strides they've made in their riff-writing and arrangements. More than a dozen years after they first came together (in high school, no less), Alda demonstrates that a band can mature without straying from their original sound - a rarity in heavy music.

[Listen to my interview with Alda's Michael Korchonnoff here.]


A collaboration between members of two French doomcore acts (Greyfall and Endless Floods, who've been featured on this blog regularly), ÂGE ⱡ TOTAL pummels listeners with thunderous chords, whilst simultaneously beguiling them with Duran Duran vocals and ethereal synths. The resulting album, as heavy as it is, defies the confines of doom, sludge, or post-metal. When post-punk was splintering into the industrial sludge of Swans on one end, and MTV-ready New Wave on the other, whoever thought those two sensibilities would come back together in quite this fashion?

Godspeed You! Black Emperor: G_d’s Pee AT STATE’S END!

What to make of GY!BE in 2021? The anarchist collective became the unlikely victors of a one-sided feud with major labels when the internet made the music industry completely irrelevant (though someone should update that chart linking major labels to arms manufacturers to show how streaming services are linked to the same Military Industrial Complex). But in the two decades since they inadverently created "post-rock", the technique of reverbing guitars until they sound like strings/keyboards has become a staple of indie music, movie soundtracks, and a whole sub-genre of heavy metal, leaving the originators sounding a little less revolutionary. Such is the case with revolution: "Like Saturn, it devours its children". Adding insult to injury: Their cinematic graindiosity has become a kind audio short-hand for clueless pretension. Still, a new album by GY!BE was good news in a year with very little; and if their music is no longer as revolutionary as their politics, it's only because the rest of the world finally caught up to them.

Cynic: Ascension Codes

There's been a lot of tragedy recently in the Cynic camp - bassist Sean Malone passed away at the end of 2020; his passing followed that of co-founder Sean Reinert, who was found dead at the beginning of the same year. So one would imagine that a new Cynic album would reflect those tragedies, channeling grief into a darker album, or even sparking a return to the frenetic death-prog of the band's landmark debut.

Truthfully, though the songs are more energetic than anything Cynic released since their 2008 reunion, Ascension Codes is not particularly darker or angrier than any other Cynic album (and Paul Masvidal had actually been working on new material since 2019). But the music does reflect the chaos and uncertainty of the last few years.

Ascension Codes is the most ambitious Cynic album to date - a bold claim, no doubt, since Cynic essentially invented "progressive death metal" (and beat T-Pain to auto-tuned robot singing by a decade). But the release embodies progressive rock's true spirit of fearless weirdness, with nods to its moog/jazz-riddled past, the inclusion of latin music rhythms, and ambient interludes that reflect Masvidal's recent solo work as well as his interest in binaural beats.

In the hands of lesser talents, integrating such disparate influences might have resulted in an unlistenable mess; but Masvidal (who handled all the instrumentation for this album, except for the drums) has long been a visionary whose scope outpaced that of his peers. It's hard to imagine where Cynic goes from here - and frankly, I'm left hoping that Masvidal ends the project on a high note in a way that most metal bands don't. But in trying to conceive and bring to life something that didn't exist before, Cynic offers something that we could all use at the end of two years of a global pandemic: Hope.

Other 2021 releases worth noting:

Funeral Chant: Dawn Of Annihilation

These Bay Area newcomers crafted a lively throwback that just makes me happy every time I hear it. Dawn Of Annihilation (the band's first full-length) is a blistering death/thrash/black album that bears more than a little resemblance to Grotesque and early Vader. I just can't resist this kind of "speed-for-speed's sake" ostentatiousness.

The Temple: S/T

I'm becoming wary of the increasing regularity with which "dissonant death metal" releases are arriving in my inbox; and I suspect that we'll look back on 2021 as the year the style peaked, since few of the newer bands offer much besides worshipful emulation of Ulcerate, Deathspell Omega, or Krallice. [By way of comparison, I humbly submit the year 1992 as a similar saturation point for traditional death metal - soon after that, genre figureheads like Death, Carcass, and Entombed dramatically changed their styles, distancing themselves from their early work and the hundreds of copycats they inspired.] But I'm not yet so sick of the genre that I can't be impressed when it's well done.

The Temple has a good reason to sound like Ulcerate - it's a side project pairing Ulcerate guitarist Paul Kelland with Creeping drummer James Wallace. The eponymous debut is much in the same atmospheric death/black/doom vein as his main band. It's not as musically ambitious as Kelland's most recent work (and Wallace is nowhere near as frenetic behind the kit as Jamie Saint Merat), but the simplified sound works well for The Temple.

Årabrot: 'Norwegian Gothic'

Årabrot is the married duo of Kjetil Nernes and Karin Park, and their 9th full-length album Norwegian Gothic plays out as if the venerable indie/post punk kingdoms of 4AD, AmRep and Touch & Go threw a dance party together. Insistent bass lines provide a backbone for the band's angular rhythms, synth hooks, and Nernes' croaking tenor (with “Dark Diva” Park also making a few memorable vocal contributions). All in all, a bold album that bridges the divide between pop music at its darkest and underground music at its most populist.

Best Podcasts of 2021:

Episode 207:
Episode 194:
Wolves In The Throne Room
Episode 193:

2021 Q+A interviews:

an interview
with Nixil
an interview with
Dira Mortis
an interview with
an interview with