#663: Going to the (Metal) Extreme!
By Dr. Dave
Disclaimer: I am not THE authority on this subject, or even any of its sub-subjects. I know what I like, and I love all of this stuff. But I have not gone so far down this rabbit-hole that I have forgotten about Rush, or AC/DC, or the Cure, or Yes, or Neil Young, or John Lee Hooker, or Charles Mingus. I am not someone who would prefer to burn down a church than be caught listening to Steely Dan (love the Dan). But LeBrain requested this, and I have happily complied. It’s been fun to compile this (almost) completely random spiel on the more extreme end of heavy metal.
OK, so I need to get this out of the way at the outset. No discussion of “extreme metal” would be complete if I did not mention three particular, foundational bands – Venom, Bathory, and Celtic Frost. So – what do I do here? Do I admit that I think that Venom is mostly shit? That I think that the Bathory boat left port a long time ago, and that I despair of ever really catching up? Do I admit that I like Celtic Frost more in the concept than the execution? Well, lookee here – seems like I just did all those things. Consider this me getting those things out of the way. (Side note: Celtic Frost released an album called Monotheist in 2006 that I really like. Tom G. Warrior also has another project called Triptykon that is extremely good. “Aurorae” is just such a great tune. Feel the slow, beautiful menace!)
“Taking the Black”
Immortal – I must start with this band, and in particular Sons of Northern Darkness, for purely personal reasons. This is the album that got me heading in this direction in the first place. It was in Peterborough, where I had a contract for a year at Trent University. I was introduced to this album by being told: “If you like thrash, then you will like this.” And that is true. Much of the “extremity” of metal is working from that basis. To a 16 year old in 1986, Slayer was pretty extreme to people whose main metal reference point was a band like Black Sabbath, Judas Priest, or Iron Maiden. Sons of Northern Darkness as an entire album is, as far as I’m concerned, a perfect exercise in heavy metal. Is it really fast for a lot of the time? Yes. Does it differ from Slayer? Yes. Is the attitude metal? Gods, yes. This is PURE metal, even if it is quintessential “black” metal as well. If you love early Metallica and Slayer, then there is no reason why you shouldn’t love this. It’s that simple. At the Heart of Winter is also stellar. I almost wanted to start killing people in traffic in Cambridge one day, but At the Heart of Winter kept me in my car and happy instead of committing murder. That is what I’d call a ringing endorsement.
Dissection – The song “Black Horizons” from The Somberlain. Epic. A mix of death and black metal, resulting in a metal anthem that totally rules. The “messy” vocals and the speed can put people off, but this is incredible. It is not “well-produced” by contemporary standards. The snare sounds like something that would happen in your older brother’s shitty apartment’s bathroom. And yet…how does such seeming chaos resolve into something so perfect, so anthemic? Don’t even start to listen to this without listening to the entire song. It doesn’t even really start happening until half-way through. The lesson? You don’t need a lot of money and a great studio to record riveting metal. All you need is the balls. From 4:05 on it is just on a whole other level. And 5:33 is among the most metal metal moments I have ever heard.
Deathspell Omega – LOL OMG. Paracletus has to be my favorite full-length. It won’t let anything else be. You get it or you don’t. It’s that simple. One YouTube comment I have read about Paracletus called it enigmatic and maddening. I’d have to agree. But, to help you on your way, I’d suggest trying the song “Malconfort” which encompasses everything “good” about this band in a fairly succinct (for them) five minute package. No one else can make guitars sound like this. It’s just as revolutionary as what Piggy did to the thrash riff with classic Voivod. Yes, this is meant to be difficult and disturbing. That’s why it’s extreme. Does it make sense? Yes, in some alternate universe. If you can get down with that then do. Nothing else I say will make any difference. Of course, if you want to start with something a little more “accessible,” then I’d go with Drought. My favorite release, even if it’s not a full-length. The song “The Crackled Book of Life” is one of my favorite things recorded this century. The change at 1:30, and then the buildup that follows, never fails to get my juicy bits a-tingle.
Closely related is Blut Aus Nord, who are less chaotic and more industrial, but just as evil. Both are French, by the way. Sacre bleu!
MGLA – best black metal band on the planet right now IMO. Direct and catchy, great riffs, phenomenal drummer with great grooves and a sense of drama. The repetition is built into the sub-genre itself, but their changes make it so worthwhile. If you want to see how an “extreme” metal band handles the “live and in concert” experience, then you will want to check out their live shit on YouTube. One of my favorite bands at the moment, and this moment has lasted for almost three years. Exercises in Futility is as good a place to start as any. One of my favorite albums released this century so far. The first track typifies what I love about them – the riffage is hooky yet dissonant at the same time, and the drummer’s approach to his cymbals is utterly unique. You have to train your ear to “get this,” but once you have then nothing else will ever scratch that itch.
Drudkh – “Only the Wind Remembers My Name.” They get much faster and more complicated than this, but this is my favorite tune by them. This is what a classic “Black Metal” band should sound like, except that there is that guitar solo, one of my favorite ever, which turns this song into something so much greater. Listen to that solo: it’s worth more than a hundred “glam rock”/”pop metal” solos put together. But they have so much else to offer. They combined their black metal with post-metal with A Handful of Stars and as far as I’m concerned, that is an incredible album. Start with the beginning of Microcosmos to get the full black metal flavor, and then go to A Handful of Stars. The latter album is why I love Agalloch so much. So similar, yet different. And what I’m talking about here is HEADPHONE METAL. This is not “party metal”. Listen by yourself, in a dark room, with raging volume. Yes, there is a guy growling at you, but he’s just barking orders. What you need to accept is the grove that the drums and guitars are laying down. Is it too fast? Then just lay back and absorb it. You will get it in time.
Agalloch – Ashes Against the Grain baby. Love this. Sink in. Hooks aplenty, but this is taking time between the hooks. Requires patience. Don’t let the vocals put you off. Listen to the instruments. The voice is just another instrument. Remember that. Climax? Yes please! These guys basically wrote the textbook for “post-black metal,” and much of that involves (mostly) the patience it takes to arrive at the climax. And it has atmosphere galore. Favorite song is likely “Falling Snow.” Goosebumps every time.
Wolves in the Throne Room – Thrice Woven is the latest album, and it easily made my top-10 for 2017. If you don’t get into this then you might as well just give up on Black Metal entirely. It has of all the faults and all the virtues of black metal. Is it too fast? Then just listen and bob your head to the half-time. If you don’t like the riffs themselves, then give up. And, of course, the vocals are nutty. Par for the course, people. This album is pretty much as pure as it gets without being recorded in 1991 in some Norwegian asshole’s basement.
(I would be remiss in talking about Black Metal if I did not mention Burzum. Filosfem is absolutely crucial, and your reaction to this album will largely dictate your reaction to Black Metal for the most part, though it is often slower than Mayhem or Darkthrone. “Dunkelheit” is the main song I’d take for a spin, and yes the production can be VERY irritating. The vocals are certainly disgusting, but the sense of mystery and otherworldliness is all there in spades. Atmosphere, repetition, and a strangely seductive discordance is the order of the day here. I totally get why people dismiss it, and I totally get why people dig it. It is the anal sex of music, after all. Also, Varg Vikernes is a garbage person, so that’s a deal-breaker for some. And yes, there is a strong current of fascism and Neo-Nazism running through a lot of black metal, which totally sucks balls.)
Ulver – Bergtatt – “Capitel 1 – Troldskog Faren Vild”. Clean vocals, driving pace, wicked riffs – this is essential early Black Metal that is still accessible to those who don’t like it when goblins “sing.” Good bass motifs (if you really listen for them), and a full-on nifty guitar solo. Yes, the production is dodgy compared to today, but that really doesn’t matter. For a beafier cover of this, check out Winterfylleth’s version on their latest album. But the original, sweet Jayzus – the acoustic interlude around the 5:50 mark, and then the new riff and groove after that? Fuckin’ stupidly awesome. No respectable headbanger can have a problem with this. AT ALL.
Winterfylleth – Kings of English black metal (screw Cradle of Filth). They have the anthemic qualities of Iron Maiden but are more aggressive and abrasive. But that “abrasiveness” in the riffage is the whole point, and once you train your ear to accept riffs that aren’t just in fourths or fifths, you will be hooked. “The Swart Raven” is as good an example as any to exemplify why I love the black metal style of riffage (well, that and Mgla).
Never got into Darkthrone, but if there is a Gorgoroth song I really like it is “Sign of an Open Eye” – stately pace, repetitive in a good way, and the riff has all the requisite dissonance without sounding like an orc was being raped in the recording of it. This could easily be a boring listen without the necessary submersion required to “get it” – kind of like a hobbit getting raped by an orc, come to think of it. And that’s OK. I’m not here to judge.
Like my “relationship” to Black Metal, my appreciation for Death Metal has huge gaps in it. I do not particularly enjoy some of the essential bands in the genre, like Cannibal Corpse, Morbid Angel, or Deicide. I typically like my Death Metal as some sort of hybrid, usually involving black or prog. Like I said at the outset, I am no purist or completist, and I think a lot of death metal is just dumb. But…
Entombed – Earlier albums like Clandestine and Left Hand Path put Swedish death metal on the map, spawning a legion of copycats, and single-handedly popularizing the Boss HM-2 distortion pedal. But for my money, it’s the death-and-roll of Wolverine Blues that really catches my ear. An essential 90s metal album for sure. Just give the title track for a spin. That is attitude and swagger, my friends.
Akercocke – “Shelter From the Sand” – this is what happens when you combine progressive metal, death metal, and black metal. Love this. How do you combine Mayhem, Death, and Rush? THIS. Again, if you’re going to get it you must listen to the whole thing. Everything goes sideways halfway through in a very good way. It goes in places that rule, and should be totally accessible even to people who hated the first half of the song.
Carcass – Heartwork is the opus, as far as I’m concerned, though the earlier, grindcore stuff is good. Yes, their earlier stuff influenced many other bands, but the really GOOD bands picked up on this album. I remember seeing the video for the title track on MuchMusic’s Power Hour (remember that?) and really digging it at a time when I was getting deeply into thrash. And again, if you like the thrash then there is ZERO reason not to like this as well. With a different vocal style this would have been HUGE, but c’est la vie.
Death – Probably the true progenitors of the sub-genre, Death is the earliest bridge between thrash and death metal (other than Possessed, which gave the world Larry Lalonde, now playing guitar for Primus). Slower and less brutal than what death metal turned into, Death is nevertheless a band that anyone into thrash should appreciate, just like Immortal. My favorite of theirs is probably Symbolic, which features the mighty Gene Hoglan on drums. The curious thing is that “melodic death metal” (or melo-death) came around after Death, um, died, but I would argue that this band invented “melo-deth” already. Check out “Crystal Mountain” to see what I mean.
Cynic – Serious Death connection here, since Paul Masvidal and Sein Reinert both played on Death’s album Human. I bought Focus on cassette not long after it came out, and it took a helluva lot of getting used to. Like a hybrid of death metal and jazz fusion, with some weird robotic vocals. My favorite of theirs is “How Could I” – in particular the 2004 remix which has a gorgeous outro and ending. Just…..wow.
Paths to Possession – This is kind of a Cannibal Corpse spin-off (the “vocalist” is the same), but this is quite melodic. The riffs are much more interesting, and I first heard this around the same time I first heard Immortal, but the grim Norwegians really won my frostbitten heart. Nevertheless, this is still really good “death metal,” on the more melodic-side (at least on the guitar end – the vocals are still Cookie Monster on steroids). The first track of Promises in Blood, “Darklands,” is filled with killer riffs.
Sepultura (early) – These Brazilian titans were as much death metal as thrash in their early years, before they became the thrash juggernaut that gave us “Arise,” “Roots,” and “Chaos A.D.” Mind you, those latter two albums helped create nu-metal (along with Helmet, another band whose place in history will be unfairly shadowed by garbage). But I’m not going to hold that against them. I’m not going to recommend anything, because you should really know who they are by now if you know that “heavy metal” is an actual thing.
Other bands: Gojira gets put in this category and I’m not sure why. Their last few albums are amazing, and I get it. Meshuggah needs to be mentioned, but they are somewhat controversial because many people hate what they have spawned (djent) in the same way that other bands I’ve mentioned have inspired lesser bands. Do I dig the Meshuggah? Absolutely. Obzen is a good starting place for some, their earlier stuff a better place for some others who prefer the thrash more than the djent. “Bleed” is, well, fucking exhausting, actually. I mean to listen to, never mind playing the goddamn drums. YIKES!
Slugdge – This is a very recent discovery, and I am frickin’ LOVING IT. With a name like that you’d expect it to be low, slow, and sticky. But it’s actually sharp, up-tempo, and technical (often with a strong Ackercocke vibe). This is the kind of band I really like to support, because they are going for a niche market – a couple of guys in England who never do live shows, and just basically make records that some people pay money for. The drums are programmed, but they sound pretty damn organic nonetheless. Their song and album titles parody other titles from metal (“Dim and Slimeridden Kingdoms,” “Spore Ensemble,” “Transilivanian Fungus,” “Slave Goo World.” And the entire mythology is pseudo-Lovecraftian, centered on a cosmic alien space slug named Mollusca. It’s all very silly, but it is AWESOME. I am very happy to end this entire post with this. “Putrid Fairytale” or “War Squids” from brand new album Esoteric Malacology is probably where you should begin your servitude to the mighty Mollusca! This album is pretty much guaranteed to be on my 2018 Top-Ten list, unless Tool plans on releasing ten albums this year. Which would be the funniest thing ever.
Peace out, bitches!