April 2020 Release Roundup
Holy shit, April 2020 was insane. It feels like a million new albums hit the shelves at once (especially on April 24th), and absorbing the entire waterfall at once is impossible for any one human. Outside of heavy metal, we have the coronavirus pandemic on our hands, too, which has resulted in a lot of indoor time (perfect for listening) but also a vast reduction in socializing vis-a-vis music. As always, please stay safe and healthy, everyone, as we get through this.
Festivals: canceled. Concerts: canceled. Metal bars: closed. I mean, the list goes on, and the fact remains bare that there ain't shit to do except sit at home and listen to music. So, that's what we did, and here's what we came up with for our monthly favorites in a crowded few weeks of insane releases. Stay metal, and add your monthly picks to the comments below if you'd like to share.
-- Andrew Rothmund
Ulcerate -- Stare Into Death and Be Still
April 24th, 2020
Here I am, staring into death and being still. I have to say, it's the proper way to absorb Stare Into Death and Be Still, the latest release from New Zealand's Ulcerate, one that showcases the band's near-infinite supply of talent and creativity. I'll be very blunt: I always respected Ulcerate's music, but was unable to digest large amounts of it in single sittings. Prior albums are gorgeous displays of death metal mastery -- I can hear it, I just can't maintain my attention on music so densely layered and oftentimes atonal and cacophanous.
But this album is different… sort of. There's still that classic Ulcerate sound, the one which fits with your spiral into death, that head-churning sinking in your chest that slowly grows into a void that consumes you outright. But the band has brought a new trick to the table: deeply embedded atmospheric melodies that carry listeners through the madness and help resolve some concrete ground for folks like me who need a bit more "hook" in their music. It's hard to describe, but Stare Into Death and Be Still is the least catchy "catchy" album I think I've ever heard.
I find myself humming along to these songs, even, as I stare into death while being still. Perfect, I discovered: nothing like humming away those precious life hours while listening to something so profoundly heavy and explicitly death metal that, when you look back, you'll never see those listening hours as a waste for any reason. Stare Into Death and Be Still delivers again and again and again, and nothing sounds like it. Nothing.
Khôra -- Timaeus
April 17th, 2020
Norway has always been weird. I know, I know: "black metal is not weird." Take my word for it, black metal is weird. Think about the strange song structures found on Darkthrone's A Blaze in the Northern Sky, Dødheimsgard's twisting, churning Kronet til konge, and, of course, the obvious Ved Buens Ende, Solefald, Arcturus, and more. It's something Radical Research host Jeff Wagner once referred to as "NorWeird." Khôra (who actually shares members with Dødheimsgard) carries that torch, blazing a trail into the avant-garde unknown, a complete dadaist nightmare of pure, unbridled creativity. But remember, this kind of black metal is not new: it comes from a long line of creatives who chose to take a path beyond the left hand.
The Wizar'd -- Subterranean Exile
April 24th, 2020
The music that shaped my taste for doom metal wasn't the stuff that was heaviest, or fuzziest -- no, it was the weird stuff, the music that was cast aside for years before collectors picked up the dusty records and realized what sort of treasure they were sitting on. Were it not for the Internet, The Wizar'd would rank among these forgotten legends -- emulating, nearly perfectly, eccentric doom metal acts from the 1980s, their plodding, theatrical, and entirely atypical style of metal is a blast from the past that should satisfy fans of Pagan Altar and Manilla Road alike.
Subterranean Exile doesn't redefine the band, certainly -- it's a faithful execution of the band's formula, i.e. Skeletor-like vocals, big riffs, and campy, evil styling. It does, however, feel like a fully-polished package that can highlight their appeal to a broader audience without losing any of their esoteric charm. It might not be played at earth-shakingly low pitch, but Subterranean Exile holds a comforting, old-fashioned weirdness that's sorely missed these days.
Cirith Ungol -- Forever Black
April 24th, 2020
This month was so, so stacked. Ulcerate! Oranssi Pazuzu! Katatonia! And as much as it would be tempting for me to pick those again, I already told all of you how I felt about them in a much, much lengthier format. Don't mistake this as saying Cirith Ungol is a consolation prize from me, though; we actually had brief discussion about me reviewing this one as well since, well, literally every single metal writer you can think of all love this record, and for good reason. But the decision we all agreed was that Joseph Aprill's incredible and lengthy interview with the band was special and deserved the shine and that it's presence and sheer girth would indicate how we all felt about the album.
As for the album itself: It's one of those rare reunion records like the ones from Cynic, Gorguts, and Carcass where a band that aren't just legends but legends with flawless records to their credit coming back exactly as good as when they left. Forever Black is flawless, a masterclass in that perfect prototypical heavy metal cauldron of styles, that same nameless soup that would give birth to NWOBHM and thrash and speed metal and power metal and everything else under the sun but hadn't yet, instead intermingling and cross-pollinating to pitched madness. Maybe you're getting tired of retro-ish bands; you won't get tired of this, though. It is heavy metal perfection, all guns firing on ten with enough power to instantly revert you back to the 14-year old with a Metallica t-shirt closing the door of your bedroom while your dad shouts at you to mow the lawn, only to crank up the volume on one of the Judas Priest or Iron Maiden or Celtic Frost records a cooler kid at school lent you.
It's magical. Long live heavy metal.
Black Curse -- Endless Wound
April 24th, 2020
In full admission my true favorite for this past month was actually Cirith Ungol’s return to the kingdom of the living, but I’ve already written a fair bit on that for the intro of the extensive interview with the band I conducted, so I wanted to tackle something a bit different. Another album did strike me as a real gem in the rough this month and a potential favorite for years to come: Black Curse’s debut Endless Wound. It features a striking album cover providing great visualization for how the album opens with an explosion of inferno and horror incarnate bellowing out. Upon announcement, expectations were already set high given the membership of the band constitutes compatriots throughout the Denver metal scene including Primitive Man, Khemmis, Spectral Voice, and Blood Incantation.
While certain elements cross over from all these bands into Endless Wound, the setting invoked instead is of demonic ferocity. It harkens back to the demo only days of true underground progenitors like Necrovore, Morbid, and Germany's Poison, only now crafted through hands and ears of experienced modern masters in the craft of extreme metal. From opening track “Charnel Rift” to the appropriately titled end cap of “Finality I Behold,” the band bursts with chaotic energy bordering on collapse but often retains shape through dynamic shifts in riff composition, doomed marches and howling lead work.
Soaring above it all are Eli Wendler’s voracious vocals constantly shape shifting like a madman’s cries of torment. Endless Wound is one of the most violent outbursts from the extreme metal underground this year as it rekindles for a modern age the dark atmosphere of old; that whether through the torment of rotting flesh or the evisceration by flame, we proclaim, “welcome to hell.”
Aara -- En Ergô Einai
April 3rd, 2020
Aara's second full-length En Ergô Einai is a masterclass in infusing a conceptual influence into every layer of a finished creative work. Drawing from "the Age of Enlightenment in 18th-century Europe," the band's unconventional black metal is proof that, even in their by-now-oversaturated genre, there are still opportunities for innovation waiting to be discovered, teased out, and perfected. The transportive En Ergô Einai whisks listeners away into gilded Baroque halls, through mist-covered cobblestone alleys permanently robbed of sunlight by towering cathedral edifices, with sweeping major-key progressions and melodies seemingly plucked from period-appropriate concertos, outfitting them in blast beats, rolling kicks, palette-scraping shrieks, and a robust dose of low-end.
By immersing themselves in their inspiration at a foundational songwriting level, and without dipping into any of the overwrought arrangements so beloved by their peers in affectedly symphonic genres, Aara have created one of the most effective realizations of classically informed metal in recent memory.
Freeways -- True Bearings
April 2nd, 2020
Hailing from the north come Brampton Ontario’s Freeways: a hard rocking shot in the arm with plenty of vibes left over from the early 1970s prog-rock scene to shake a stick at. Vocally, the band sounds a lot like British stoner rock progenitors Captain Beyond and their guitars soar like that of Wishbone Ash (a band Freeways has praised). Freeways remains inventive when they aren’t outright rocking, such as on "Battered, Bruised" which introduces a saxophone to the fracas. I would be remiss if I didn’t bring up their stellar and simple album artwork which is reminiscent of the RVs of yesteryear and demands the same windows down, music blaring feelings that I get from Cathedral, Goatsnake, and Fu Manchu (specifically King of the Road).
This is a feel-good rocker for these desperate times and certainly feels like it is on the short list of special albums for 2020 already.