No Love Lost #1: Five Albums Best Not Forgotten
We all have our own personal affronts when it comes to what the zeitgeist of heavy metal chooses to like and dislike. For whatever reason, every so often a release will come along that just blows your mind, and—shockingly—nobody else cares. Philistines on RateYourMusic give it a 3.2, a couple people on Facebook share it, and then, with the constant inundation of new releases, that new favorite album vanishes under the waves, never to be appreciated again.
One could argue that this is fine; our own personal tastes shouldn't dictate what everyone else likes. But it's still frustrating seeing good albums get swept away by a tide of new releases, and as someone whose inbox is nearly literally swept away in this fashion daily, it can be fatiguing. However, it turns out that waiting until the end of the year before deciding which releases we should talk about is not a viable editorial strategy, and so the cycle continues onwards while we do our best.
That being said, we're kicking off this column with an aim to unearth some of these albums from the past that have failed to find the love we think they deserved. You may disagree with whether or not they were "loved"—we didn't impose any objective standards on submissions—but they deserve it nonetheless. Expect future editions as we nurse additional grudges.
Pale Horseman—For Dust Thou Art
Pale Horseman are a Chicago sludge institution that have been putting out skull-crushing sludge for nearly a decade now, and they have never once considered giving it anything less than their all. No matter how small the venue is, every time I've seen them play live they've shown up rocking twin full stacks and a bass rig designed for small-scale demolition. While their new drummer (though he played on 2017's The Fourth Seal as well) did dial down the drumset size a bit compared to the behemoth their previous percussionist employed, the full commitment starts at the gear and and it runs all the way up to their work ethic. This is their fifth full-length, operating essentially entirely independently, and their crushing, cyclical form of sludge remains as anti-trend as possible. It's heavy, slow riffs with apocalyptic vocals and wicked fills, with zero intent to compromise.
I'm part of the problem here, because this release caught me off guard last year (not for lack of warning, just time management) and I was just barely able to include it in our Upcoming Metal Releases column, let alone give it the listens it deserved. But as I've found the time to do so in the last year, the stone-footed endurance of this record cements it as one of the band's best. For best results, turn your speakers way up and let this pulverize you.
A frequent theme across music is the band who emerges with a finely honed and impactful debut only to then fade back into the mists with just this singular permanent record of their existence. These nuggets of ephemeral glory blanket metal’s landscape, covered in layers of subsequent and similarly isolated releases, dusting the plains between the towering mountains of legacy names and big-label support.
Georgia’s Adversary is one such band. The quintet’s 2014 debut Ruination is a crisp melodic death metal record that conveys sweeping narratives of adventure, exploration, grief, and loss. Less a concept album and more a collection of vignettes centered on these themes, Ruination is a polished and far-more-than-competent exercise within the band’s limited palette of crunchy guitars, gatling-gun drums, and a growl–clean vocal hybrid that has, at least for me, supported years of repeated listens.
If Twilight of the Thunder God is steak and potatoes melodeath, Adversary’s Ruination is a venison stew. It’s similar enough on the surface, but a more nuanced listen reveals a depth of flavor and breadth of influences not present in its more popular cousin. The song structures push the band’s take on their accessible genre to more complex extremes, their use of frequent tempo changes and rhythmic shifts never disrupting the album’s consistent overall flow and complementing the sophistication of the lyrics.
For the people lucky enough to have been paying attention at the right time, or even better, to have been involved in the local scene in which these bands dwelled, these one-off records often occupy a special place. They evoke a moment in time, a particular life-state in which that record held special power and meaning, in which that band represented something greater than their physical selves for the people who came across them.
The last post on Adversary’s Facebook page is dated 2015, yet comments from a year ago hint at a follow-up album in the works to be released the following year. I attempted to reach out to the band in preparation for this column, and in the meantime, can only hope that this new music will someday soon see daylight.
America and gore-based imagery go hand in hand—hell we started death metal, right? One of the band(s) that is oft forgotten when it comes to greatness would have to be Impaled/Ghoul: the same people are in both bands, with the former being an incredible Carcass clone and their own Mondo Medicale being the best part 2 to Carcass’ Necroticism. Ghoul, on the other hand throw more thrash into their own volatile mix with random silly things like psychobilly riffs making them more like melodeath plus Municipal Waste and their own bloody imagery and costumes giving a nod to GWAR.
Dungeon Bastards was the band’s fifth proper album and still their most recent, released in 2016 when the world could have really used a laugh; it was my album of the year. The album is a loose concept of a dictator named Commandant Dobrunkum, being born and raised to become absolute ruler of Creepsylvania (the band’s country of their own creation). A track like “Ghoulunatics” is a thrash masterclass; pounding drums giving way to insane riffs and even sections that have a Middle Eastern vibe, certainly more diverse than you would expect from the band on the surface.
With more fun tracks like the self-proclaimed note to the country “Word Is Law” to more of what you expect from the band especially from their Splatterthrash days like “Shred The Dead” (which sounds exactly like you think it would), this is just a blast of a record and it continues to slay to this day—it just deserved more fanfare upon initial release. Shred the Dead!
Lethean—The Waters of Death
I’ve spent years now trying to convince people to give this one a more robust listen. I’ve interviewed the band, reviewed them, told everyone in the sun that they rule, and it seems like my one-man-hype-machine just isn’t enough to offset how little Lethean give a fuck about fitting into the metal scene. At their heart Lethean are gorgeous, moody epic heavy metal that despite fitting squarely in that description don’t sound like anyone else that could be described that way. The emotional melodic vocals from the band’s singer Thumri Paavana are far too acrobatic to compare to typical masculine singers that normally approach this sort of stuff, and the guitar playing leads more towards peaks and valleys of melody than towards pounding Manowar-esque anthems.
Much as a dragon soaring out of a mountain to roast some hobbits is epic, so is the forlorn, still ocean, and Lethean lean to the latter. Somber is a good word that describes what Lethean are; they’re almost restrained, creating soundscapes more than jagged heavy riffs, but even that fails to encapsulate the band because the band actually riffs really goddamn hard. When I reviewed the album a couple of years ago I said that the closest comparison was Argus playing with the melancholy of Warning fronted by Thumri, and I stand by that; The Waters of Death is an album of contrasts that works a lot better than it should on paper, and I desperately hope that we get more soon and that the reception is good enough to force them to get together a live band.
Vengeful Spectre—殞煞 Vengeful Spectre
Before getting into why Vengeful Spectre rips so hard, you need to know that Vengeful Spectre rips hard. There’s more to the Guangdong-based band’s debut album than that, but it’s imperative to recognize that it’s a torrential storm. The fact that the six-chapter story of swordsmen, war, betrayal, and revenge is still semi-legible through the language barrier and the shriveling vocals is a testament to Vengeful Spectre’s capacity to strike the necessary emotional notes of a narrative arc. Of course, the expected Black Kirin comparisons aren’t inaccurate, but each group is built off of different fundamentals. Whereas Black Kirin are more theatrical, Vengeful Spectre are hallowed. There’s little empathy spared here. Honestly, there isn’t much time for empathy amidst the throttling black metal.
Vengeful Spectre distinguish themselves by repurposing traditional Chinese instruments in service of the narrative. Without them the album would still shred, but implemented with this finesse, Vengeful Spectre is a masterful black metal mise-en-place. The group disregards the delicate tones usually associated with these instruments and instead use them to amplify the severity of their pieces. There’s a short break during “The Expendables” where the plucked strings act as a war rally. Or note the plodding pace of “Wailing Wrath,” which adheres more to what’s expected of epic black metal, yet is akin to a warrior on the brink of exhaustion. The strings push the track forward more than the riffs or the absolutely demonic vocals. Vengeful Spectre surpass the appeal of musical tourism. They gun for the throat, claw your eyes out in a frenzy, and thrash about like a soldier acting on instinct, all with the weight of a war epic.