One day out of each month, music writer/A.V. Club regular Leonard Pierce sits down with a cup of Earl Grey, cues up some Belle & Sebastian, and tells his two cats, Doc and Vera, that they are very special and wonderful. The rest of the month, though, he fills his head with life-defiling madness and evil, as he seeks out the best of hard rock and heavy metal for your enjoyment in his column, Metal Box. So crank your speakers up to 11, carve a pentagram on your forehead, and get ready to spread some mayhem: here’s what’s happening in hard and loud in March 2010.
VICIOUS CIRCLE. Many in the metal world—well, my corner of it, anyway—have had great sport with the oddly Old West title of Darkthrone’s new album, Circle The Wagons. And, honestly, the first-edition Dungeons & Dragons cover doesn’t do the thing any favors. But if there’s any genre where judging a book by its cover is especially verboten, it’s metal, and I’ll be damned if Circle The Wagons doesn’t absolutely rip up the joint. Those who have been dissatisfied with Darkthrone’s move away from traditional black metal into a rawer, faster, rougher direction aren’t going to find much to love here, but it’s just the right direction; the band hasn’t sounded this fresh and exciting since Under A Funeral Moon. Maybe it’s the return to the Peaceville label, or just the kind of frustration with getting stuck in a rut that often strikes musicians around the same age as Fenriz and Nocturno, but the way Darkthrone has progressed is not so much a reinvention as a rediscovery. It’s as if the duo has remembered the sheer ferocity and energy that made critics and fans notice it in the early days. On songs like “I Am The Graves Of The ’80s” and the fantastic “Black Mountain Totem,” the band is almost reversing the path of its idols in Black Flag; while the latter progressed into fuzzed-out metal experimentation late into its career, Darkthrone has discovered the joy of scuzzy four-chord punk a mere 20 years into its life as a band.
COUNT ME OUT. “You can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style,” goes a famous line from Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita. But like a lot of famous lines from famous novels, it’s pretty much bullshit. Sometimes a murderer’s prose style is pretty crappy, and in the case of Burzum (a.k.a. Varg Vikernes, a.k.a. Count Grishnackh), it can be downright dull. Belus (Byeolobog Productions) is his latest album, and his first since he was released from prison for the murder of black-metal founding father Euronymous; the release has been highly anticipated, mostly for reasons that have nothing to do with the music. Those who are more interested in Vikernes as a controversial personality probably won’t care, but those who first listened to him because of his moody, often-stunning take on lo-fi Scando black metal are only going to hear more of the same sort of directionless, uninspired ambient wandering that has characterized his most recent work. Belus starts and ends with the kind of synth noodling that has characterized Vikernes’ recent decline, and while there are flashes of the old Burzum in a few songs (and sadly, in some ultra-nationalist and borderline white-supremacist lyrics), it isn’t nearly enough to satisfy anyone who wants the music to be as dangerous as the man. It’s meandering and self-involved, and never delivers the kind of gut-punch Vikernes used to be capable of. We may not have the right to demand much from a guy who’s as famous for being an arsonist, racist, and killer as he is a musician, but at the very least, he shouldn’t be boring.
POWER-LESS. Longtime followers of Metal Box are probably aware of my love of Lair Of The Minotaur; the band is repping a great surge of Chicago metal, and its 2008 release, War Metal Battle Master, was one of my favorite records of the 2000s. That’s why I was so excited when Evil Power (The Grind-House) showed up in my mailbox—and why I was so disappointed when I took a listen. Evil Power isn’t a bad album, really; some tracks, like the devastating “We Are Hades,” recall the best of the band’s sludged-up, roaring thrash. But it’s all a bit samey-sounding; the whole thing is short on the kind of pulpy riffs that made its most memorable offerings from the past stick. It’s being released on a label founded by the band’s Steven Rathbone and Chris Wozniak (though still distributed by Southern Lord), and that’s why it’s all the more curious that it comes out sounding like an obligation rather than a mission statement. What should be a strong show of purpose instead resembles a collection of B-sides. There’s something to be said for not wanting to stray too far from the path, but Evil Power plays it almost too safe. It isn’t awesome, and awesome is what Lair Of The Minotaur does.
THE DEVIL, YOU SAY. Boy, this is a hard one to figure out: Arsis, one of the standouts of the current wave of Southern technical death metal, started out heavily influenced by thrash, made its name as a skillful purveyor of tech-death, and has now released Starve For The Devil (Nuclear Blast), which is… something else altogether. It’s easy to see how the band arrived at this point, but it still comes as a bit of a surprise that it’s almost entirely lacking in the kind of intricate riffage and brutal tone that characterized the Arsis most people know and love. This new record sounds like a moderately skillful Gothenburg Sound band that somehow got overlooked; in fact, if it weren’t for the goofy sense of humor that creeps out here and there, Starve For The Devil could be mistaken for a Dark Tranquility or At The Gates album. By no means is this a bad record, though, and for those who can get over the fact that it doesn’t really sound anything like Arsis, there’s a lot of fun to be had with it.
NEW UNIVERSE. Speaking of bands that seem to enjoy throwing the change-up, Universal (Indie Recordings) is further evidence that Norwegian whatever-the-hellist Borknagar is operating on its own plane of existence, and the rest of us are welcome to hop on board or get lost. At times, the album is so all over the place that it might as well be Opeth, and at others, it settles into completely the wrong groove. (The closer the group creeps to folk-metal, on tracks like “The Stir Of Season,” the closer I get to just not listening to the rest of the album.) And the appearance of ICS Vortex, who was Borknagar’s lead singer back in the day, only serves as a reminder that this band occasionally wants to be Dimmu Borgir, and there’s already one too many of those these days. But as bands a lot younger discover a lot sooner, one advantage of this sort of hyperactive eclecticism means that eventually, you’re going to crank out something pretty damn satisfying. And between its attempts to be black, death, folk, symphonic, prog, Viking, and whatever else, Borknagar does just that. “Havoc” and “Reason” start the album off right, and “Worldwide” and “My Domain” end it the same way; it’s just all that stuff in the mushy middle that raises the question of whether Borknagar knows what the hell it’s doing.
JUNK DRAWER. I listen to lots of hard rock, and I like to talk about it here because I enjoy getting yelled at for bringing up bands that “aren’t real metal.” Even though it came out on Metal Blade, Bangers—the full-length debut from Montreal’s Barn Burner—isn’t really metal, though it has plenty of doom and sludge elements. (Sabbath is a clear influence; a less obvious one is fellow Canadian throwback band Sheavy.) But it does throw a lot of interesting hard-rock elements into its musical mix, from heavy blooze to fuzzed-out ’70s boogie; Kevin Keegan’s sometimes histrionic vocals can be a sticking point, but otherwise, this is a good band to check out if you like to have fun… Anyone aching for a return to the kind of balls-out throwback screaming ’80s metal of W.A.S.P. and Accept (and, er, who don’t own any 3 Inches Of Blood albums) would be well advised to check out Finland’s Armour. Why a grim-and-gloomy label like Hell’s Headbangers chose to put out its self-titled debut album is perplexing, but anyone who loves riff-heavy, cock-rockin’ old-school metal is going to love the shit out of this record. The lead singer is named Vince Venom, for corn’s sake, which should tell you all you need to know… When I interviewed Arch Enemy’s Angela Gossow recently, the comments section broke out into a discussion of great female metal vocalists, and it’s no surprise that Jucifer got a mention. Gazelle Amber Valentine not only has a great voice, she’s probably second only to Boris’ Wata as the best female guitar player in heavy music right now, and her husband, drummer Edgar Livengood, is truly creative behind the kit. Jucifer’s new one, Throned In Blood (Nomadic Fortress), doesn’t entirely work as the concept album it’s intended to be, but it’s mighty fine as a collection of songs by a band that doesn’t get nearly the attention it deserves.
BEASTS FROM THE EAST. Hard to believe, but Israeli extreme metal outfit Salem has been around now for 25 years. It’s a struggle for any band to keep interested, let alone interesting, for that long, and some aspects of Playing God And Other Short Stories (Pulverised)—especially the tired-sounding lyrics, a terribly misguided cover of Bob Marley’s “Exodus,” and the decision to bring in At The Gates’ Tomas Lindberg as a guest vocalist on a few tracks, which plays out as nothing more than a gimmick—show that it hasn’t been an entirely successful attempt. Still, the title track is a killer, and there’s no denying that Salem has chops to spare… Though it hails from the distinctly Occidental town of Quebec City, Aeternam has a much firmer grasp on the often-fascinating dynamics of what’s come to be called “Oriental metal” than Salem, which practically invented it. Aeternam’s latest, Disciples Of The Unseen, is a tasty, exotic blend of Western-style death metal (with some Quebeçois guitar heroics thrown in) and Arabic and Persian tonal dynamics, all adding up to the best record in that style we’re likely to see until Melechesh releases another album. An extremely promising debut, Disciples Of The Unseen doesn’t just let the exotic elements stand alone, it weds them to some powerfully good classic metal songwriting, giving them plenty of hooks to hang from. Highly recommended.