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Editor’s Choice April 2016

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Finally, The column has a logo. how do you like it?

Normally I try to find something insightful and provocative to presage my chosen stream with, I don’t have an essay for you today. I attribute this to two things: one, we’ve been getting so much good content coming in that I’ve spent my time editing the thoughts of others instead of committing my own to paper. For another, I frequently find my own essays to be less-than-satisfactory.

I prepared a draft of one, and then promptly deleted it. It is critical as an artist and writer, to know when to kill a project. Too much bad material makes its way into circulation because people care more about filling the hole in their content and to little about the quality of that filling.

This goes for bands as well. I was on the phone with King Fowley of Deceased last week, and we spoke at length about his propensity for spending years between records, and how he feels it’s made his recorded output better as a result. Too many bands release albums every few years that are only half decent. That’s damning with faint praise, but I bet you’ve listened to many records where the first few tracks are good and then the remainder of the disc falls apart. Some of that is because bands want to make a great first impression and put their best songs first, and why not? But imagine a world where there’s only three The Black Dahlia Murderr ecords, but they’re all as good as Side A of Nocturnal.

It’s a nice dream, but anyway.

In the November 2015 edition of this column, I included an album by The Antichrist Imperium, one of two bands (the other being Voices) formed from ex-members of England’s Akercocke. At that time I guessed that I would never hear a new Akercocke album, and that would have been fine. Both Voices and The Antichrist Imperium put out better albums than 2007’s Antichrist.

I spoke too soon, however. Akercocke have reunited for a new album, Renaissance in Extremis, and released a new song, “Inner Sanctum” live on BBC radio. The video above is a direct radio rip, so please forgive the cut-off intro and the disc jockey talking again. Instead, focus on how good this is. It sounds like the most melodically competent song in their discography thus far. And would you listen to that guitar solo? Renaissance indeed.

What is the lightest that heavy metal can be while still being considered ‘heavy metal’? I’m speaking in relative terms, here. Heaviness only describes the pull of gravity on objects. No music is heavy. Heaviness in music refers to a cornucopia of factors, many of which that appreciators of heaviness don’t even have the expertise to identify (this would make a great subject for a serious musicological study), such as rough timbres and loud percussion.

New Light Choir are a heavy metal band, but they’re not heavy, musically. You’d need to go to a Chris Black project to find standard-tuned riffs that chirp like the flourish on their new song, “Pillars.” Jon Niffenegger sings in an airy minstrel yowl about nostalgia, love lost and the impermanent nature of good feelings. Case in point, “Pillars” immortalizes a long lost woman and the mythological city of Iram mentioned in the Quran. Lightness sits at the center of this band, both literally (central word in the name) and figuratively, and the thing to remember about light is that it passes through things. I am drawn to metal because it sticks to my psychological bones. Hypothetically songs like “Pillars” should not work, but they do. Special attention ought to be paid to the intro and outro tracks.

Full disclosure: Chris Dalton, the drummer in New Light Choir (and onetime IO contributor) is a regular commentor here. See, I do read your emails!

Syrupy and morose, Dead Register embody a great deal of what’s best about the gothic doom style, but express those ideas in an atmospheric sludge context. Both of those styles can get boring easily, but I found “Fiber,” the title track of their debut album, to be a real shot in the arm. The point here is sonic richness. M. Chvasta’s voice, deep and nasal, sounds more like something I’d expect from a post rock band than something as heavy as this. More interesting: there are no guitars on Fiber. Chvasta plays a Bass VI, a six-stringed bass instrument with the versatile ability to sound like a bass or a down-tuned guitar. It compliments his vocal timbre very well. Considering so many metal bands tune their guitars down, I’m surprised more bands don’t use this instrument—Sergio Vega from Deftones uses one and beyond that I’ve come up short. Let me know if you have any leads in the comments below.

Pardon me for burying the lede, but I have a story to tell. The first time i saw Gojira, they played at the bottom of a stacked bill at Headliner’s in my hometown of Toledo, Ohio. Their tourmates? Trivium, who at the time were supposed to be the ‘next big thing,’ Machine Head who were about to release The Blackening, and Lamb of God who had just released Sacrament. The French unknowns opened for a Bay Area royalty act at their creative peak, and two already successful American acts one album out from their creative peaks. Nobody knew who the fuck Gojira were and nobody cared.

Gojira wiped the floor with the rest of the bill. At the time Joe Duplantier’s English was so steeped in his native accent that he was impossible to understand. It didn’t matter. His music spoke volumes and at very high volume. Randy Blythe spent one of his stage banter breaks proselytizing for them, saying that From Mars to Sirius was a masterpiece and that Gojira deserved his fans’ support.

This was a decade ago. Joe Duplantier’s English has improved. No longer the next big thing, Gojira are a known quantity, one that has successfully avoided the diminishing returns trap that Lamb of God and Trivium fell into (even if they’re both now pulling out it). Trouble is, consistency comes with a cost, and that cost is innovation. The two albums Gojira has released since, The Way of All Flesh and L’enfant Sauvage contain about as many great songs as From Mars to Sirius does, but they don’t really improve upon it. Sure, one record is a little longer, and the other is a little more jazz-inflected, but more or less it’s the same song and dance.

That’s only half true for “Stranded” the first single from Gojira’s upcoming album, Magma. This time, the Duplantier brothers are playing it . . . straight. Well at least Mario is. He’s plays a 4/4 Lars Ulrich beat over his brother’s odd-time main riff so that the song feels steady but a little off-kilter. Things sync up when then grunge-ish chorus comes around. This is the closest thing to a radio song Gojira have released. I’m not sure listener-friendly is the direction they needed to go at this point in their career, but so long as those pick squeal keep sounding like dental drills I’m game.

Wildfire, the newest album by Australia’s Destroyer 666, came out in February, which means it’s actually a little older than what I typically like to include in this column. I am making this exception because for some reason I didn’t listen to it until recently and holy crap was that a massive mistake on my part. Wildfire reaps from its instant-classic opener “Traitor” to the end of “Tamam Shud.” Black-thrash is excellent in theory, but too often lackluster in practice, hence my less-than-optimal knowledge of Destroyer 666, but I bet this is a high water mark for the band. Even what I’d consider the best bands in the genre, bands like Goatwhore, tend to produce a few great songs and a whole lot of fodder. Wildfire, though, have mastered the art of forcing my fist up in the air almost against my will. “Hellhounds at Ya’ Back” hasn’t left my gym playlist since the day I heard it.

In keeping with the theme of “bands I ought to have paid more attention to,” Death Angel were always also-rans for me. Bay Area thrash remains probably my favorite microgenre of heavy metal, a delicate three-way balancing act between aggression, melody and rhythm. The trouble is, that balancing act is so delicate that moving the needle too far in any one direction throws everything off. In Death Angel’s case, their songs tend to run on a bit long in the tooth. Thrash excels in short and simple bursts or longer and more complex compositions, but Death Angel always tended to land in the 5-to-7-minute dead zone. I distinctly recall listening to their last album, The Dream Calls for Blood, and liking every song but not being able to see most of them through to the end. Something is different on “The Moth” the first track on their new album, The Evil Divide. It’s still dangerously close to that 5-minute valley, but seems to have more parts crammed into its running time, and that added complexity keeps me interested. The tripartite vocal chorus, with a hardcore main vocal line accompanied by a melodic response and then a gang shouted finish, works especially well. Fellow Bay Area veterans Machine Head have been proceeding in a similar direction (and even though most underground metal sites don’t give that band enough credit, their past four albums have been stellar) but have made their songs longer and longer. On The Evil Divide, that’s not a problem.

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