From Behind an Eclipse: Five Late-2020 Albums to Echo Life’s Bedlam
It may or may not have been obvious that I've been absent for the past few weeks. These things happen sometimes; the stark reality of writing, not to mention writing in the age of Coronavirus, is that many if not all of us have day jobs and lives beyond the page, and these lives sometimes require attending to more thoroughly some days than others. This is, in part, why we tend to assemble writing teams. Life happens and shifts occur, but writing and having a platform is a privilege and not a right and so, to honor that, you build a crew who can keep the ship afloat even when one or more people need some time to deal with things. It's the decent thing, not to mention good business.
In particular, I had a rather severe mental collapse. I've struggled with anxiety and depression my entire life. There are elements of post-traumatic stress disorder woven in, something more people struggle with than you would immediately expect, but this most recent episode seemed to only have sidelong relation to those troubling recurrent problems.
I was briefly obsessed with death, with my own dying, a stark and ink-black terror staining my heart; I was waking at four or five in the morning every day for weeks, emerging immediately into panic attacks where all I could think about was the sense of time slipping through my fingers, of how terrified I was to die.
The fragility of life was getting to me, the thought of how after this it's nothing, forever, and how easy it is to slip into that. You grow older and, unless you are the first of your friend-group to die, you lose people. You lose friends, family, heroes, and peers. You get to a point where you are older than people you have lost were when they died and you begin to think about how much of your life never would have been and how much of their lives simply isn't anymore.
On good days, this encourages you to treasure life and the living, to honor memory, to strive to be kind and to better the world; on bad days, it's an icy terror, one that grips you by the throat and destroys you. Or it does to me, at least.
My editors and peers here are thoughtful and kind people who, like many, have also dealt with their own problems both experiential and psychological over their lives. They were patient and understanding; I would update them about where I was, what I was working on, trying to get words on the page but finding it impossible to think about anything but dying, about being nothing. They encouraged me, paradoxically, to slow down; that music would be there when I was better but that I needed to take my health seriously. My own private terrors of never working fast or hard enough, never writing deeply enough, never covering enough music -- as silly as any of that might sound, the encouragement was so touching that I cried.
Everyone's response was the kind that makes you feel immediately indebted; that I needed to get better as quickly as possible even if only to honor this inexplicable kindness I was being afforded. So, I did; after working my brief therapy checklist and some CBT exercises and finding my anxiety and depression weren't decreasing one whit, I scheduled a meeting with my doctor, got back on medication, and continued diligent therapy work until the ice began at last to recede from my heart.
I can still glimpse it on the horizon; terror never leaves, only retreats. But it is at least not lingering in my throat these days.
The thing that eats at someone like me during those episodes is the sense of all the things I missed while dealing with my own depression. It feels selfish and solipsistic; so many records were released in those weeks, records I valued and had on my calendar to review, to write about, to push as hard as I could, all things I didn't do because I was too busy dealing with my collapsing head.
It eats at me, admittedly, though being fixated on it eating at me is likewise selfish and solipsistic, privileging my own sense of failed responsibility over the more practical act of getting on with it. Life, painfully, terribly, moves on at the same pace at all times, no matter what good or bad befalls us; music continues to be released and deserves people to champion it. And, thankfully, mercifully, my editors allowed me to put down some words about those records I did wish to write about, so that they might still get the love and attention I intended to give them albeit in a more confined space.
It is as important to move forward as it is to do the work that was left undone. It is a kind of closure, a peace. The world may be on fire, sliding toward fascism and terror and ecological collapse while a literal plague tears through us, but there is always the task, the work. It is a constancy.
John Petrucci -- Terminal Velocity
August 28th, 2020
It should come as no great shock given the frequency I've written about progressive music that I am additionally a massive Dream Theater fan, a band that is simultaneously one of the biggest metal bands of the past 30 years and one of the absolutely least cool on the planet.
I consider myself in good company, however, given that figures like Barney Greenway of Napalm Death also count themselves as big fans of the group. This is only Petrucci's second (or, if you count a Sega Saturn soundtrack he scored himself, his third) solo outing in the entire span of the band's career, something that makes a certain amount of sense when you remember that he has been one of the primary songwriters for Dream Theater since their inception thus rendering the necessity of solo material outside that format somewhat moot.
The excitement of this record on a sonic level comes from the way it explores guitar textures that Dream Theater largely abandoned after their seminal Scenes From A Memory record in 1999. The group had always worn their influences proudly on their sleeves, either to the delight or annoyance of listeners depending on where you stand on the group, but by the 2000s their palette had certainly shifted toward a slightly different configuration of their iconic sound, incorporating more influence from groups like Tool, Nine Inch Nails, Radiohead and other much more modern (at the time) approaches to progressive music.
This, in turn, became largely the foundation that the past 20 years of the band's life has been built upon, with Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence acting as more of a career-spanning decoder ring of their sonic aesthetic over the past 20 years than their iconic Images & Words might have been. What was lost in this translation was a focus on the hi-tek shred antics of 1980s guitar music, with the theatrical acrobatics of glam, shred, and early prog metal being slowly diminished record after record.
Terminal Velocity proudly returns to these spaces, feeling more often like it wishes to be peers with seminal shred records like Joe Satriani's Surfing with the Alien or Racer X's Second Heat than contemporary prog metal. There is a joy to the writing and playing on this record that Dream Theater seemed largely out of touch with for the past number of years, at least until last year's surprisingly solid Distance Over Time.
You can tell that this is the heart music of John Petrucci, something touching and affirming and emotionally real to him, and that sense of firm and real emotional connection in him translates capably into the songs themselves. This is only amplified by the reunion on tape between him and Mike Portnoy, players who came up as kids and forged lifelong careers together before parting ways a decade ago. While finally unleashing Mike Mangini on Dream Theater's last record finally demonstrated what a monstrously capable drummer they picked up after Portnoy left, there is still an undeniable and potent chemistry between Petrucci and Portnoy that is unparalleled.
You can hear the decades of interplay between them in the way that Portnoy plays along, feeling more often like good friends jamming together than a hyper-rigid mathematically perfected inhuman prog metal machine. There is a humanity and a warmth to all of it that's infectious.
There's also something touching humanly and hopeful about two friends of decades finally reuniting and making joyful work together after a decade apart especially in times like these. That subtle thread lingered in the back of my mind as I kept returning to this record; the weeks and months of quarantine and the seeming collapse of the world within America finally seemed to crack me, to shake a firm sense of fortitude and perseverance, so something as human and real as this was a necessary balm for me.
Admittedly, it's rendered me incapable of having anything close to a fully objective read of the record, but in this instance, I don't think that's a bad thing. Shred may be a radically unhip extension of the heavy metal world circa 2020, but it's a necessary and fundamental figure within its genetic makeup, and having such a strong showing in that field in a manner that also affirms healing in the midst of what seems to be a perpetual seeping wound was frankly necessary for me. One hopes that sense can be transferred to others as well.
Exist -- Egoiista
August 28th, 2020
This was a delightful group to rediscover. I remembered, faintly, the release of their debut and loving it a great deal, but unfortunately lost track of it over time -- what with both the constant barrage of new releases to keep track of, the shifting courses of life, and the psychic nightmare that the past six months or so has been on a global scale. So when Egoiista was released and pinged on my radar, a little research showed that, hey, this was that band I used to love, and it was easy to get excited again.
This album expands on the experiment that was their debut, specifically in charting post-Traced In Air Cynic-styled progressive/death metal, a hybrid that emphasizes that slash more than their alloyed form. Exist seem to firmly separate the two: beautiful and spacious progressive rock in the style of Yes on one side, all full of air and light and color, and death metal akin to the early/mid-1990s prog-death wave on the other, Schuldinerian and full of melodic heft.
They're a group that is deliberately not trying to reinvent the wheel but instead resurrect an older but sadly abandoned approach to the genre hybrid space and offer new insights, ones that read as quite successful here.
It is largely their sense of melodicism and organic structures that delight on Egoiista. Many of the songs here are quite long, hovering in the ten-minute mark, but they arrive via structures that remind most firmly of classic Yes work, allowing melodic embellishments around inventive wide chords before a kind of timbral rejoinder. This hits at the element I mentioned previously, the separation of prog from death metal, allowing both to sit within the same song but tending to keep the two from intermingling in one another. This results in the prog rock sections being brighter and more beautiful while allowing the death metal to be more akin to a heavy rock break.
You never get the sense that Exist are attempting to be the most brutal motherfuckers on the planet; they are uninterested in the spaces that groups like Autopsy or Incantation once explored, instead seemingly interested in ways that death metal can be radically recontextualized. We already saw this sense arrive in certain tech-death groups like Necrophagist or Obscura, bands that seem more interested in wielding death metal toward an intensified progressive rock than in dialing up the death metal end of things. But Exist live in a rare world populated seemingly only by groups such as Cynic, Exivious, and Canvas Solaris, a world where that relation is seemingly inverted, using death metal almost more as a kind of punctuating element within a sea of prog rock than as a means itself.
The result is a record that bursts with color and light. This is something to cherish in the world of death metal, which so often prides itself on a rather monochromatic approach to its aesthetic. It's also chiefly a non-comparative element, one that doesn't succeed because more straight-laced approaches to the genre are somehow less-than but instead because they show the plurality of approaches available within the style. The fact that this genre lives technically within the same spaces as Undergang and Necrovation is something to celebrate; there is no limit to the stylistic approaches available within death metal.
Necrot -- Mortal
August 28th, 2020
This is, in short, one of if not the best death metal record of the year.
The stakes were fairly simple for the group: Blood Offerings, their debut, was functionally the platonic ideal of pure death metal, death metal with no adjectives. All they needed to give for their sophomore effort was more, but they not only delivered on this promise but also surreptitiously juiced up their effort by leaning into the innate elements of progressive rock buried within the DNA of death metal.
Necrot's approach to progressivisms are substantially more subtle than a group like Exist, which openly (and rightly!) flaunt their Yes-styled filigrees and shining crystal clear chord voicings. Necrot instead take the heavy chromaticism favored in the purest of pure death metal, along with a steady unwavering pulse, and deliver within that framework a shifting sea of time signatures, ones that can pass undetected given how steady a groove they maintain. It's an old rhythmic trick, creating a sensation of a pounding four-on-the-floor steady rhythm while secretly shifting the precise values around, but it works here, generating a rhythmic push-and-pull without drawing sharp attention to itself, working its magic in the subconscious rather than bludgeoning you with tricksy 17/16 figures or the like.
There is a particular magic at work with Necrot on Mortal, a drive inward toward the core of death metal rather than out to its fringes, but a drive that still shows the capacity for inventiveness within those narrow constraints. Heavy metal and its sub-genres (and sub-sub-genres, and sub-sub-sub-genres, etc.) are primarily an iterative function, something that often comes at odds against the likewise native urge toward progressivism and radical overturning that underpins the genre; this contradiction gets resolved in different ways by different groups, obviously, and with varying levels of success, but part of the zeal surrounding Necrot relates to how they take a set of sonic ideas so close to the very definitional center of a space, ones that seem the most resistant to change and to newness, and to somehow reinvigorate them and make them feel fresh again.
It's like the difference between Lamp of Murmuur and however many umpteen bad second-wave black metal clones emerge year after year; one has that undefinable Dionysian appeal that compels the sense of satisfying art and the others, well, don't. It's the kind of thing that breaks down under the microscope; there are plenty of bands that do what Necrot does, but there's that unspecified magic here, that ephemeral spiritual impulse that defines specifically the dividing line between art and science. It is, briefly, inspired, "with the spirit."
Anna Von Hausswolff -- All Thoughts Fly
October 16th, 2020
Anna Von Hausswolff is not, strictly speaking, a heavy metal artist, though I doubt any who have heard her would argue against her inclusion in a list like this. She's one of those artists that, while not making metal in the traditional sense, still produces undeniably heavy music, the kind of that rattles the cage of the spirit in a way we might more closely associate with doom metal or the more spiritually savage and disquieting ends of black metal than you might immediately think if someone said "pipe organ instrumental music."
All Thoughts Fly, her latest, is a return to the purity of instrumental solo pipe organ compositions that made her second record Ceremony such a standout. This is absolutely not meant as a knock against her debut, which featured delicate and devastating piano-and-voice folk songs, nor of the two tremendously heavy and dark records between Ceremony and this one, those being the unearthly The Miraculous and the harrowing Dead Magic. But these compositions, stripped as they are to the bone, only raw harmonic and melodic conceits at work with little embellishment, show precisely how keen an ear for composing she has.
It's hard for me not to listen to this and immediately cross-reference it against work by Atramentus, Bell Witch, Esoteric, and other funeral doom contemporaries. The emotional atmosphere is certainly similar, at times identical, and likewise the way that both funeral doom and compositions like this use sparsity function quite similarly. There is an emphasis both on the febrile, trembling breathiness of the wheeze of the organ and on the delicate melodies, so thin they feel like they could crumble in the hand. It shows likewise a devotion and sense of timbre that is critical to great music and that many are inattentive toward; by giving herself so little in the way of sonic elements, every aspect of those included takes on more weight, where suddenly the texture and sensation of the note matters just as much as the notes themselves.
Like funeral doom, Hausswolff's work here lives just a few steps away from ambient music; these are songs to put on and ruminate to, read to, write to, meditate to, less to put on the record player and crank to high heavens. As a result, they wind up containing a more devout and spiritual atmosphere; they feel intimate, like little daggers pointed at the heart. Their drama is rich but inward-facing, a privation.
Plague Organ -- Orphan
August 28th, 2020
This one is difficult for me to write about. There is a reason I saved it for last; it was during my first listen of this record that my anxiety spiked into the nightmarish black wells that I was immersed in for the past few weeks, seemingly spurred on by the nightmarishness of the sonic landscape captured here. My brain was filled suddenly with death anxiety, vast and encompassing; thoughts of annihilation, of nothingness, cessation of consciousness, the kinds of things I grappled with as a kid when my grandparents passed, as a young adult as friends began to die, in my 20s after my suicide attempt and the loss of my father, on and on.
In retrospect, this speaks to me of the psychic profundity of this record. Orphan is a single 40-ish minute composition, a cascading wave of lashing drones and blast beats and distant shrieked vocals. It fuses elements of free improvisation, extreme metal and drone, unsurprisingly given it has the same players as free jazz/metal-adjacent group Dead Neanderthals as well as avant-death metal group Cryptae, two groups that I love a great deal.
Plague Organ pull from a deep well of sonic spaces that are very dear to me, from jazz to prog to ambient music to extreme metal, landing on a much more meditative (though pervertedly intense) blend than on their other more active-tense projects and releases. It was this intensity of the meditative bleeding edge of Orphan that hammered the nail so thoroughly into my heart; I've written before about how being on the spectrum makes music as much a physical and imagist experience for me as a sonic one, and the domains that stretched out here felt as icy in my heart as staring at a friend in a casket.
On paper, this would seem damning perhaps, but given that we all like extreme metal here, I think the idea that music-as-art can and should be allowed to explore dark and difficult terrain won't be terribly controversial. This felt like a sudden raw exposure to something that perhaps other metal bands can be more flippant about. The stark reality of death, that sheer terror of annihilation, represented here in a pure and hellish soundscape.
It broke me, though admittedly given the conditions of America and the world, having a mental collapse of the sort that I did was more a matter of time than something that can be pinned easily on any one thing. But this is more a testament to its power than anything else; when else has a work of art so thoroughly pierced you as that? It's a rare thing, worthy of being celebrated. And, ironically, by breaking me in such a manner, Orphan siderally forced me to get back on my medication, something with a long-tail of positive benefit. Hard to argue with that.