Label: Swords & Chains Records Band: Substratum Origin: United States
Nothing beats a good slice of old-fashioned heavy metal and that is precisely what Seattle heroes Substratum deliver on their album ‘Permission To Rock’. It’s denim and leather, with a good nod to the crossover skate culture in a sound that is clear-cut, crisp and energetic.
After their sci-fi-vibey ‘Stratosphere’, this album embraces the cheese fully. Four faces on the cover, a big logo and a dominating posture over a city in smoke. Bursting planets encircle the faces of the band members in this still-futuristic landscape. It’s… interesting? But hey, we all love that He-Man-quality of heavy metal, so let’s dig in!
‘Rough Rider’ is exactly what you expect. Rigid, tight riffs and biting vocals, that are surprisingly low in the mix, sometimes even hard to hear. Not really a downer, because vocalist Amy Lee Carlson has a venomous snarl and brings that narrative in harmony with the music. The music is diverse and never takes you on a path or repetition, with their reach-for-the-sky attitude. Tracks like ‘To Nothing, To None’, put them in line with bands like Accept and maybe even a bit of IronMaiden here and there.
The anthemic quality of their sound is also undeniable, with a tune like ‘Exxtremer (Permission to Rock)’, they step into the domain of TwistedSister and their ilk. Tasty guitar licks and mellow passages that just make you feel so good. Man, I want to go buy a bandana and rip the sleeves of my jeans jacket. At least, if I get permission to rock! Interestingly, the latter songs on the album take on a bit more of an epic edge. After the brief intermezzo ‘Triangulum’, we get the galloping might of ‘Up on Wheels’, which is a fist-pumping closer to this record.
Label: Prosthetic Records Band: Rebel Wizard Origin: Australia
Yeah, yeah… I’m late to the party again, but I’ve been following the RebelWizard for a bit now and I actually published an interview with the Australian negative anti-shamanic black metal artist before. So ‘The Warning of One’ has been an EP I’ve listened to regularly for a while, but the words just never came.
First thing you notice is the oddly colored cover. This is highly personal, but for me it strongly stands out. All songs follow a similar pattern of title and are short bursts of frantic energy and ‘wizardly’ negativity. This Nekrasov side project (if I may call it that, because Rebel Wizard seems to have become more active) is definitely not for the fans of traditional black metal. Then again… in a way it really should be.
The opening track ‘ The One I seek’ immediately rips everything apart with furious barks and screams and some of those insta-violence riffs that you’ve come to know the wizard by. The Teutonic thrash vibe with lo-fi recordings creates this gritty, raw feeling that so befits the project. Soaring guitars just hit that nostalgic passion for what makes metal so cool in the first place.
Often that’s the big contrast in the sound; the accessible and catchy riffing combined with the dirty blast beats and raspy snarls of black metal. We stay on that for the duration of ‘One I Know’. After an almost ballad-like intro on ‘One I See’, we get the full brunt of that black metal end of the stick. A distorted, hazy pounding of about 5 minutes follows, with NKSV’s voice that feels like it’s been stretched out with painful methods for an extra grim effect. We end the EP with ‘The One I Call’, which is a demonic track full of turbulent heavy black metal that keeps firing at you. With a crushing climax, this peculiar EP ends and once more Rebel Wizard delivered one hell of a tasty, rifftastic record.
Label: No Remorse Records Band: Eternal Champion Origin: United States
This American high fantasy inspired band brings back the loincloth wearing, sword wielding hero of old fantasy books, with a woman with big assets clutching his leg. Yes, there’s definitely a reminder on the cover of this new album by Eternal Champion, that reminds you of times when fantasy was mcuh simpler.
The direct inspiration for the bandname is the fantasy of Michael Moorcock, with an entity named the Eternal Champion living through time and ages in the multiverse. It’s the archetype for epic fantasy and its therefor not surprising to hear music akin to Manowar and Sabaton on this debut by the band from Austin ‘The Armor of Ire’.
The sound is akin to a mixture of the pulsing doom riffs you’ll hear in some of the classic heavy metal bands and the soaring, clear articulated vocals of power metal. It’s a specific niche in which Eternal Warrior finds itself, but opener ‘I Am The Hammer’ is made of that legendary stuff you want from a band like this. Catchy, muscular and strong the song immediately takes you into the realm of Eternal Warrior.
Everything sounds like it is from another time and era in heavy metal. The sharp bitten vocals of Jason Tarpey are to me the most typical, offering a mixture between Fish and Joey Dimachio and Eric Adams. The band seems to take the background to the epic vocals, with little story telling through the guitars. They mostly offer the driven sound, that gives it that feel of grandeur.
I’m not putting the name Fish in there without reason, the versatility of the vocals really creates that unique atmosphere that makes me instantly love this band. The track ‘Invoker’ is the best example of that I think, totally expressing what I love about the voice of Tarpey. There’s an upsite to the static natur of the music. Many people who play Dungeons & Dragons or other games featuring high fantasy, may be looking for exactly this record as their soundtrack to glory. It’s repetitive nature in the music makes it great material. On the other hand, it allows the part of the story teller, the bard for their vocalist.
You just got to love this album. If you don’t you’ve never truly understood the charm of sword wielding, muscular macho men, dragons and having women clutching at your legs. To Battle!
Label: Independent Band: Rebel Wizard Origin: Australia
Imagine extreme metal that is free of trends, free of hip motivations and pure in its expression of angst, fear and frustration. That is a bit of a tricky thing, since most bands are connected to some other, bigger movement, some sort of trend. Then stumbling across the most raucous, rancid record in a long time, which is filled with an almost jubilant fury and enthousiasm. That’s what you get from Rebel Wizard.
What if you’d mix Angel Witch with Bathory and add some epic IronMaiden riffs? Well, that would be the most close I can get to describing the feeling Rebel Wizard’s music offers. Sole member NKSV, also known as Bob Neskrasov, has been active in Neskrasov and Whitehorse next to this project, which allows him a singular way of expression outside of that (Neskrasov is also a solo project).
The album opens with the quote: “There’s no reason to be alive…”. It sets the tone for a grim sound, but when the riff comes in, it’s not the static haze of typical black metal, but a thundering, fists in the air heavy metal riff offering you a build up like no other. The song serves as an intro with its mid pace marching vibe. Prepare, for metal is back as you love it. The riffs on the following thrack ‘Where We Surrender Completely To The Miserable Shaman’ the guitars fall down on you, but again with those recognizable heavy metal vibes. Combine that with hoarse screamed vocals and you have a potent mixture of fury.
Rebel Wizard combines the two unlikely sounds to a vibrant, energetic sound that you can not sit still to, it demands you to stomp your feet, rock your fists and scream along in the overwhelming frustration that is vented by the Wizard himself. The switch in sound is so intriguing, so different, yet so incredibly catchy. Though the recording quality is not studio-crisp, it’s that gritty element giving it even more of an edge. Just listen to the track ‘Eat The Warlock’, which has the screaming guitars that work so well, regardless of any other aspect. The high pitch of the vocals feels almost harmonious with that sound.
I find that in words I lack the means to truly describe how full of vitality this record is, how strongly it just resets the starting point for a black metal album. This is brilliant and feels like such a raw, direct expression that punches you in the gut and then knees you in your face. Bam!
I wrote a blogpost about the hipster metal thing and Deafheaven. Unfortunately, not everyone got the point. I was not trying to defend Deafheaven by saying they are TRUE and KVLT. I was defending the necessity and value of progressing as a genre. You can read that bit here.
It was also pointed out to me that there are bands doing great stuff and that is ofcourse an absolute fact. I named some myself in that blogpost. I was confronted with names like Ghost and Nihill for example, as true progressive acts in the genre. Now, for Nihill I can only agree that their intense blend of black metal and an almost noise-like soundscapism and industrial barrage is going onwards down the path where I guess Dodheimsgard, Mysticum, Aborym and recently Blacklodge have been travelling. Ghost is a whole different story, and a good way to get into another thing I wanted to write about: the heavy metal gimmick.
Do I need to say more than Okilly Dokilly, Babymetal and even that weird death metal band paying tribute to Breaking Bad?
Disclaimer, if someone actually reads those
I’m not saying that any band is a gimmick, but I’m going to point out a tendency that is rather worrying next to the elitism, mentioned in my previous post. I’m trying to make a point about a tendency that is very visible and slightly worrying, regarding the future of the music genre and the shape its taking.
Gimmick Gimmick Gimmick… I need some more
A gimmick is, according to google ‘a trick or device intended to attract attention, publicity, or trade.‘ Now, a gimmick in itself is therefor necessary. There are other words in use for it, but it’s kinda like your party trick, the thing that makes people look at you or your band. Gimmicks in metal are as old as the genre, from Black Sabbaths obsession with crosses to He-Man outfits for Manowar or the make-up and lingerie of the glamrock scene. It’s an element of the showmanship and hedonistic character of metal, even when it comes to the most conservative elements of the genre.
Some genres have managed to become gimmicks in themselves or make the gimmick part of its general identity. Black metal is one of those, which is why breaking with that identity is such a major crime (deafheaven again). Hardcore is not much better, specially the beatdown/tough guy side of things, which is a look you can practically mailorder from Impericon or whatever. But why am I making a big deal out of it?
Mainliner, Headliner, Headline
Magazines always have headlines and for years those names where those of the great bands that we still know and love. Slipknot seems to be one of the last in line for that, a band that becomes bigger than their next release and big enough to survive it. According to many metalheads, Metallica has not released anything decent since the black album (and there are those who hate the black album as well), but they’ll still buy a ticket to the show (sure, ‘Lulu’ was really pushing the patience of the fans). Same goes for a bunch of names, some slightly smaller, others bigger.
The headlines of a magazine like Metal Hammer have in recent years not featured the names of new bands that are up and coming for their progressive and spirited music. It’s always been that way that the industry can be massively wrong. Who remembers certain bands from the eighties and nineties that were hailed as the next big thing? Hell, who remembers the likes of Mudvayne and Ill Nino as bands that actually where significant to the genre? A shift has taken place to the circus act, the fantastic and weird and in a sense the gimmick in metal.
Recent favorites of the metal press include: Steel Panther, Ghost and … Babymetal. Next to those, you’ll find bands whose greatness was built atleast 10 years ago. Ok, and the rare Feed The Rhino or Upon A Burning Body, which is really just for the kids (or is it?).
The Power of the Press
Do I think lesser of these bands? No, I actually believe all three of them are great at what they do and in the case of Babymetal, it’s giving metal that odd edge and different thing it probably needs. This is not why the band gets attention, they get it because of the gimmick, the circus act. Same goes for Steel Panther, who are an overdone blast from the past act (in a way then a postmodern full circle it seems). Articles and reviews are not so much concerned when it comes to these bands with the music, but with everything around it. That is really worrying for a genre. This is ofcourse the curse black metal carries, the sensational overtook the musical.
It’s all about clickbait, being funny and getting some likes and that is a general problem with the press, both online as offline. Everything has to be insta-awesome, there is no time for records that take time. Metal has always been partly about being big and imposing, sensational and shocking, but also about music and that side keeps losing ground.
The question is, where do we go from here?
Ghost has just lived up to their name with the latest album, featuring my personal favorite ‘He Is’, connecting the band to Selim Lemouchi. It is an interesting fact how this song keeps the band attached to the undeground, atleast for one more record. Instead of going for the big hit sound, amplifying the gimmick, the band has with this move created credibility. Is that selling them short? Maybe, the album is totally great but isn’t it rather far removed from the metal sound (and does that even matter)? Should they drop the masks on next album maybe, or would the Kiss effect happen? It’s hard to say, but right now they are flagbearers for the genre with an album that sounds remarkably little like metal.
The Babymetal hype has died down and I think that Steel Panther had its moment of glory too. Ghost might be heading down the path of Slipknot, taking a gimmick all the way to the top. Who knows? But where is the purism?
What was the last band that made it on music alone? Whose merit was just that they knew how to write a great tune without some over the top sensationalist antics on stage or crazy outfits? Volbeat managed to walk the line in a way. Mastodon relied little on their artwork in the eventual sound and bands like Bullet For My Valentine and Avenged Sevenfold can hardly be considered names that made the genre move any step forward. Still, these are bands we liked for the music, not the arty things around them.
The problem is that the metal scene seems to be way to crazy about its gimmicks and is in danger of becoming the novelty itself. If metal doesn’t put the music first again (this goes for the metal music press even more so), the beloved genre will become a bastion for has-beens, hipster post-metal kids and odd Wayne’s World references in films. Perhaps Ghost has a part to play in that, perhaps your band does?
Metal has always been rich with gimmick bands. Look at GWAR, Kiss or anything fromt he eighties. Look at the whole folk-metal genre and Austrian Death Machine. Even a project like Nekrogoblikon is hilarious but based on the gimmick. It is awesome though and we should not be without it. We just need some balance now.