The Listening Chaos – May 2016
I have a confession to make: even though I try to keep things positive in this column (I mean, does the internet really need more negativity?), 2016 was really starting to make me worry. Through the end of April, there have been a handful of really excellent records (Chthe’ilist, Magrudergrind, Graves at Sea, Cult of Luna w/Julie Christmas, Wormed, Khthoniik Cerviiks), but only one album I’d consider a serious contender for Album of the Year (Cobalt). Instead, it seems like the biggest trend of the first four months of 2016 was disappointing albums from bands I expected more from…
In the case of Dream Theater, maybe that’s my own fault for expecting anything from them at all, because their first two post-Portnoy records were pretty forgettable. I was hoping that doing another full-on rock opera like Metropolis would re-invigorate them; instead, it is hands-down the cheesiest entry in a catalog not exactly lacking in cheese, and there’s hardly any shredding from John Petrucci to enliven the proceedings. The new Anthrax record is pleasant enough, but there’s nothing half as memorable as the best moments from Worship Music and I’ve had no desire to listen to it a second time. Amon Amarth’s new record is yet another version of the exact same record they’ve been releasing their entire careers, and each album since With Oden on Our Side has been diminishing returns for me. And while Deftones are probably incapable of making a truly bad album, Gore feels too much like Diamond Eyes, Part III to really be satisfying.
Luckily, May has completely reversed that trend. There were several albums I was eagerly anticipating, and they all delivered. So without any further preamble…
May’s Albums of the Month
Gorguts – Pleiades’ Dust
Shortly after listening to this single-track, 33-minutle long EP for the first time, I took to my social media and posted “Everybody can go home now. Gorguts has officially won metal.” I was probably being at least slightly hyperbolic when I wrote that, but successive listens have done nothing to diminish my enthusiasm for this record. It’s everything I love about Gorguts—shifting dynamics, discordant riffage, fluid time signatures—and takes them to the most extreme point possible, resulting in a record that’s equal parts challenging and engaging. I mean, just about anything Luc Lemay has done under the Gorguts banner has been pretty unfuckwithable, but this current lineup he has—which includes Kevin Hufnagel (Dysrhythmia, Vaura), Colin Marston (Krallice, Dysrhythmia, Behold the Arctopus, Withered), and Patrice Hamelin (Beneath the Massacre, Cephalic Carnage)—is the musical equivalent of that team of softball ringers Mr. Burns put together to beat Shelbyville in that old Simpsons episode. Pleiades’ Dust may well be remembered as not only the best thing Lemay’s ever done, but also as a tech-death classic. Bonus nerd points: lyrically the song is about an ancient Baghdad library known as The House of Wisdom, which was the major intellectual center of the Islamic world until it was sacked by the Mongols in the 13th century.
Kvelertak – Nattesferd
And on the exact opposite side of the musical spectrum from Gorguts is Norway’s Kvelertak. I’ve been a fan since their first record, but this might be the first time that they’ve been able to replicate the energy of their live show on record (interestingly, this is also the first record they’ve not worked with Kurt Ballou, whose production is generally spot-on). I saw them in Chicago a couple of weeks before this new record came out, and when I was telling IMS head honcho The Baron about it a few days later, I said it was like seeing a classic rock band like Boston, only with some shirtless maniac in a light-up owl mask out front screaming at you in Norwegian. Kvelertak is fun, and Nattesferd is an absolute blast. First single “1985” is probably the album’s highlight, with that super-sweet twin guitar lick in the main riff, but from opener “Dendrofil for Ygdrassil” (which I think is about being sexually attracted to the Tree of Life—all the lyrics are still in Norwegian) to closer “Nekrodamus” (which is probably about a zombie Nostradamus), there’s not a bum song on the whole record. Crack a beer or few and turn this one way the fuck up.
Vektor – Terminal Redux
You could be forgiven if you forgot about Vektor. After all, their last record, Outer Isolation, came out all the way back in 2011, and at the time they sort of got lumped in with the whole re-thrash movement, even though they sound nothing like Municipal Waste or Havok. There has always been a heavy prog influence in Vektor’s sound that owes more to Voivod (which they readily admit to—I mean, just compare the two bands’ logos) than the Bay Area, and Terminal Redux is a full-on space rock opera that is just relentless from start to finish. Remember the promo tag line from Dark Angel’s last album, Time Does Not Heal (better question—does anyone remember Dark Angel? They were Gene Hoglan’s first band)? It was “9 songs, 67 minutes, 246 riffs!” Well, this album is 10 songs, 73 minutes, and I’m guessing they have that riff total beaten pretty handily, but the album’s not just technical wankery. The song structures are tight and the riffs are catchy, and when they suddenly go all Pink Floyd on the album’s last two tracks (seriously—there’s a section of “Recharging the Void” that’s basically the prog-thrash version of “The Great Gig in the Sky”) it’s as glorious as it is unexpected. This is easily the thrash record of the year, and a strong contender for Album of the Year.
Weekend Nachos – Apology
Undoubtedly Chicago’s finest purveyors of powerviolence, Weekend Nachos are hanging it up at the end of 2016, which means that Apology is likely the last new music we’ll ever get from them. I have no problem admitting that I’m having a sad about this, but that isn’t why Apology made this month’s Albums of the Month list. This record is probably the best sounding record WN have ever made; the guitar tones in particular are so abrasive and metallic that they might well draw blood, and frontman John Hoffman sounds even more pissed-off than usual. I read an interview with Hoffman not too long ago on Invisible Oranges, and he said that he was looking forward to not being up front anymore after WN calls it a day (he has several other bands where he just plays drums), which is a shame since he has arguably the most distinctive voice in the genre. I imagine it has to get old having kids constantly try to grab the mic from you at those all-ages straight-edge shows, though. At any rate, Weekend Nachos is going out on a high note with Apology, and I am going to miss the fuck out of this band.
Ashbringer – Yügen
I am a total sucker for atmospheric black metal done right, and Ashbringer definitely do it right on Yügen. In fact, if this record had come out a bit earlier in the month it might have ended up as an Album of the Month. I think what I like most about this record is that there are moments where they remind me of other bands—a guitar solo reminiscent of Falls of Rauros, a Panopticon-like mandolin section, ethereal female vocals a la Myrkur—but seamlessly blend these elements into a sound all their own. Bonus points for the oboe on “Omen,” which I don’t think I’ve heard on a black metal record before (or at least not an isolated oboe—I’m sure there have been oboes on symphonic black metal recordings). I expect this album is going to end up fairly high on my year-end best-of list.
Earthless/Harsh Toke – Acid Crusher/Mount Swan
If you hadn’t already guessed based on the band names, Earthless and Harsh Toke both fall somewhere in the stoner metal range, and this split, which features one very long song from each band, finds both bands in fine form. Earthless is an instrumental group, and their contribution to the split really reminds me of the Allman Brothers in the way they use multiple types of percussion to create a deep, deep pocket in which to groove. Harsh Toke reminds me more of someone like Blue Cheer, and the Leslie effect they put on the vocals on their track is a nice nod back to classic acid rock on which they clearly cut their teeth. Good stuff all around.
First Fragment – Dasein
Speaking of Chthe’ilist, their guitarist/vocalist Philippe Tougas also plays in the slightly more straightforward tech-death outfit First Fragment. I say ‘slightly’ because the band is a lot proggier than what one might expect from a Unique Leader band, and there’s a surprising flamenco influence to the Canadian band’s sound. In a sub-genre where a lot of the bands sound the same, First Fragment actually sound fresh.
Gruesome – Dimensions of Horror
Matt Harvey and company are back with another EP of old-school Death worship. If Scream Bloody Gore is your jam, you’ll find a lot to like here. As much as I enjoy it, though, I’d much rather have a new Exhumed record. Still, anything Harvey does tends to be a lot of fun, and Gruesome is no exception.
Hesitation Wounds – Awake for Everything
Chances are if you’ve heard of Hesitation Wounds, it’s because Jay Weinberg of Slipknot is their drummer. Don’t let that dissuade you from giving this band a chance though, because the rest of their lineup—which also features Jeremy Bolm of Touché Amoré on vocals, The Hope Conspiracy’s Neeraj Kane on guitars, and former Trap Them bassist Stephen LaCour—is really solid, and Awake for Everything is a very enjoyable blast of metallic hardcore.
Katatonia – The Fall of Hearts
I fucking adore Katatonia, and this was really close to being an Album of the Month, but I think what kept it from taking one of the top spots is that it just isn’t as immediately satisfying as their last record, 2012’s Dead End Kings. I think it might also be about two songs too long. Regardless, Katatonia’s tenth album finds the band’s sound once again evolving, moving away from the heavy Gothic overtones of the last couple of records into something more progressive and a lot mellower that’s probably going to take a few more listens to fully click for me. That being said, “Old Heart Falls” is probably the best thing they’ve written since “Forsaker.”
Mars Red Sky – Apex III (Praise for the Burning Soul)
In spite of the bit of internet buzz around this record, I almost didn’t listen to it because for some reason I had them confused with dad-rockers Red Sun Rising. I’m glad I realized my mistake, because this album is some fantastic stoner metal with a serious psychedelic vibe—especially the vocals, which get downright Beatles-ish at times. This record is super fucking groovy, and I’m looking forward to seeing how well these songs translate live when I go see them at the end of August.
The Morningside – Yellow
Here’s a phrase I never thought I’d type: very enjoyable modern melo-death. But that’s exactly what Yellow is—a very enjoyable modern melodic death metal record. I don’t know how The Morningside did it. Maybe it’s because they’re from Russia? I don’t know. Whatever it is, this record is well worth a spin or two.
Withered – Grief Relic
Apparently the new Gorguts record wasn’t enough for Colin Marston this month, because there’s also a new album from Withered, his blackened death metal band that now also features Ethan McCarthy of Primitive Man/Vermin Womb on guitars and vocals. Grief Relic basically splits the difference between McCarthy and Marston’s other bands: equal parts dissonant and crusty, with McCarthy’s distinctly misanthropic growl over the top. If you’re into any of Marston or McCarthy’s other bands, you’re going to dig this record. Also, the first song is called “My Leathery Rind.” How can you not immediately love that?
Best of the Rest
Alaric – End of Mirrors
Coffin Dust – Everything is Dead
Darkestrah – Turan
Eternal Sleep – The Emptiness of