(Photo via Boris' MySpace page.)
Was 2008 another renaissance year for metal? Well, yes -- but the point should be moot by now. Whether metal is "in" or "out" during any given year, the music has gone through a creative revitalization every year -- especially when you consider heavy music and all of its sub-genres as a whole. While the musicians who kick-started what we consider metal today may have set out to make the most raw, gutteral music imaginable, since the early Eighties, those musicians have collectively followed a twin trajectory.
For every band that's trying to push further and further toward levels of extremity previously thought unimaginable, there have been other bands who've focused on progression and getting a tighter grip on nuance and craft. Many bands do both at the same time, and it's always a good idea to look both inside and outside of whatever's currently mainstream, because you can always find gems in both areas.
Here are 10 recommendations (and five essential re-issues) to get you
started. Readers should bear in mind, however, that there's a lot of
great stuff out there, and that this list is not intended as a "best
of," but as a place for intrepid listeners to use as a basis to begin
exploring on their own. It's inevitable that you'll eventually hit on
something that you find awesome.
And note, we didn't mention Torche's Meanderthal, because you
should already know it's awesome. (However, we still think Torche is no
Torche without Juan Montoya.). On with the list.
Invisible City (Seventh Rule)
For a brief 20-second stretch after this album's crunching guitars kick in -- following a lengthy (and exceptionally tasteful) acoustic intro -- you might think you're in for yet another growl-fest over a bed of undistinguished heavy riffs. While Wetnurse could easily have gone that route and exhausted the listener with monochromatic forcefulness, the New York City quartet makes things interesting really quickly.
You don't get the full brunt of this album's compositional depth until about halfway through (the majestic climax of the third track), when it becomes clear that Invisible City was conceived as an entire album, meant to take you on a journey filled with peaks, valleys, and new rewards with every listen. Kudos to guitarists Garrett Bussanick and Greg Kramer for coloring (but not overwhelming) the music with textural lead licks that sparkle and swirl in the music, and that hearken back to the off-kilter dissonance of classic Prong and Voivod. And kudos to the entire band for writing as a group. The sense of group interplay shows, as Invisible City easily qualifies as one of the most thoroughly rewarding front-to-back listening experiences of the year.
2. Clinging To The Trees Of A Forest Fire
Omega Drunk on the Blood of Alpha (Debello)
For all of the brutality it takes to play grindcore -- which arguably lies at the most extreme end of the metal spectrum, beyond conventional notions of melody and even listenability -- it also requires the finesse of a diamond-cutter to keep an audience from glazing over after three songs. There must be something in the water in the Rocky Mountains, as CTTTOAFF follows in the footsteps of Denver's resident grind kings, Cephalic Carnage, and raises the bar yet again in a genre that should by all rights have burned itself out two years after Napalm Death's 1987 debut album.
Twenty years into the running and we're still lucky enough to have bands like this, who can keep pushing the music into deeper levels of intricacy. What is perhaps most striking about Omega Drunk on the Blood is the fact that the band simply doesn't let up for the duration of the record, yet somehow keeps enough rhythmic and harmonic variation going from song to song to keep you spellbound. Not to mention just how much the band is able to accomplish in short bursts of sound -- the mark of a truly exceptional grind bands. Following in the footsteps of recent grind innovators like Fuck The Facts and Sulaco, Clinging To The Trees takes this year's award for proving that grindcore's future is as bright and brutal as ever.
3. Exhausted Prayer
Looks Down in the Gathering Shadows (Dwell)
The group is somewhat of a throwback to death metal's classic Death/Morbid Angel era, with heavy shades of black metal thrown in for good (read: great) measure. Still, the L.A. four-piece Exhausted Prayer also brings enough of fresh perspective to up the ante and prove that death metal is far from, um, dead, just yet.
Most of all, the band displays an infectious energy, an aspect missing from all too many death and black metal recordings. Further, like the other acts on this list, Exhausted Prayer shows an unparalleled knack for writing songs that work not only on their own, but also pack a mean punch when taken back-to-back-to-back. And, not to exaggerate, but album finale "Logic of Death" could quite possibly be the most well-executed, epic, and absorbing example of overt melodicism in a death/black metal context without veering into cliche. For anyone who thinks that black metal lacks musicality, brains, and heart, Looks Down offers them all in one fell swoop.
4. Child Abuse
Child Abuse (Lovepump United)
With its irresistable blend of spazzcore, Nintendocore, grindcore, industrial, and prog, this full-length debut pretty much captures what it would sound like if you stuck a band inside a dryer and listened to everything tumble in circles for half an hour. But don't expect to be worn out from overstimulation by the end, because, as much of a racket as Child Abuse makes, the band has a knack par excellence for threading its brand of noise into a catchy series of hooks and grooves.
A trio consisting of bass, keyboards, and drums, Child Abuse also blows the lid off the sub-genre tribalism that plagues too many scenes. Refreshingly enough, though, the metal references (including the word-less, shrieking vocals that recall the rawness of early, early thrash) aren't intended to be ironic in the slightest. Child Abuse has so many other styles at its disposal that it's clear the bandmembers aren't card-carrying metalheads. But when the band does incorporate metal, it means it.
Astute listeners will note that Child Abuse's setup is the same as Emerson, Lake & Palmer's, a band that founding members Luke Calzonetti and Oren Canfield both not only revere but consider the ultimate in heavy in its own way. Child Abuse represents the quintessential example of what can be done with metal when its done by musicians who are open to other styles and interested in creating exciting new hybrids.
Smile (American version), (Southern Lord)
For all that Japanese trio Boris is deified in the American press for its droning sludge sound, the band loves to keep its audience guessing, changing styles the way some people change socks. In fact the American version of this album is strikingly different from the Japanese version, with a modified song selection that features alternate mixes, titles, and different tracks altogether, to the point where the two releases really shouldn't be considered the same work at all.
It starts out with an almost schmaltzy ballad. But the last two tracks are moody, deliberate, and drawn out so that they build towards a fever pitch at a deliciously slow pace, stuffed to the gills with the bludgeoning yet subtly textured distortion for which the band is so highly praised for. Together, they clock in at 24 minutes and are worth the price of admission alone. The disc also features key contributions from guest guitarists Muchio Kurihara of Ghost and Sunn O)))'s Stephen O'Malley.
-- Saby Reyes-Kulkarni