Ah, Metallica… Is there any metal band that’s more polarizing? Or any other that commands a fan base remotely as large while attracting a seemingly equal amount of haters?
Metallica were my first favorite metal band, which makes me one of a legion of similar converts. I was just entering adolescence when the Black Album came out, and though I’d previously loved Def Leppard, Guns N’ Roses, Poison and the rest of the class of ’87-’88, this record completely took over my life. I had one of those little padded cases for my Sony Discman, which held both the player and five CDs, and every day, I’d show up to middle school with the whole thing packed full of Metallica’s full album discography to date, Kill ’Em All through Metallica, and blast the albums on rotation in between classes. I even remember giving a speech on them once as part of some English class assignment, complete with homemade visual aid.
From there, my musical tastes exploded in various directions: grunge, punk, death metal and eventually indie rock, jazz, classic rock, blues and beyond. Amid these other excursions, I kind of lost track of Metallica, just at the point where they really started to piss people off, by slowing down, cutting their hair and committing all the other sacrileges they were crucified for during the Load/ReLoad years. (I realize that for some, the “First Four Albums” die-hards, the “betrayal” began with the Black Album, the album where they dared to rock in a slightly more accessible way than before, but for myself and my headbanger friends, who weren’t old enough to be on the journey since the beginning, Metallica was just another killer Metallica record.)
Then, as we all know, things got really weird. I’ll spare you the plot summary of Some Kind of Monster, but suffice to say, you probably know what went down during the St. Anger years. By this point, 20 years ago now, in the minds of pretty much every self-respecting metalhead I know, or at least the ones I would regularly see at shows, Metallica fully transitioned from respected icons to insufferable laughing stocks. And, sure, I get it! I’ve seen the documentary too — in fact, I pretty much have it memorized. But! And this is a major “but”: My fandom doesn’t really work like that. I didn’t inherit the cynical gene that allows me to turn against a band the second they start showing signs of wear and tear, or even releasing music that can’t compete with their classics on a level playing field. Honestly, no matter what happens, except in a select few cases, I’m usually just happy that the band in question is still around at all, playing shows and putting out records.
And that’s been my feeling about Metallica all along. They’re a fucking awesome band that changed my life irrevocably. In my opinion, when it comes to heavy metal, there’s them and there’s Black Sabbath and then, wayyyyyyy below that elite tier, there’s everyone else. Do I love the second half of the Metallica discography, from Load on, as much as the first? Probably not! Nothing can really compete with the likes of Ride, Master and Justice. But there’s not a single studio Metallica album, the much-reviled St. Anger included, that I don’t love at least some of. This is all to say, I feign no objectivity here; I’m a fan for life. And I couldn’t be happier that they have a new album out this month. I’m still taking in 72 Seasons, but I love it so far. Is it probably at least a couple of songs too long? Sure! Does it have its occasional uninspired moments? Yeah! But it’s new Metallica music, so just as with the sturdy, surprisingly catchy Hardwired… to Self-Destruct seven years ago, I’m fully on board.
As I celebrate my first favorite metal band, I also share the news that this is my last Blast Rites column. I’m moving on to a new full-time gig and don’t have the bandwidth to continue as your humble metal concierge. To anyone who’s tuned in during the past six months or so, I can’t thank you enough for reading. And I’m equally grateful to SPIN for having me — it’s been, ahem, a blast sharing my inexhaustible passion for this art form month after month. I couldn’t be happier to be leaving the column in the exceedingly capable hands of its founder, Andy O’Connor, a man of impeccable tastes whose metal recommendations I’ve read and trusted for around a decade now. So you, dear Blast Rites reader, are in the best possible hands going forward.
I’ll go ahead and roll the 72 Seasons title track, an early favorite from the record, as my opening credits music, before moving on to the best of the rest for this month.
Jesus Piece, “Tunnel Vision”
For anyone, myself included, who takes comfort in ultra-aggressive music, the new Jesus Piece album, …So Unknown, will feel like a weighted blanket. The latest from the Philly extreme-hardcore quintet does have a few tasteful, catch-your-breath moments, but this is the kind of record that shines the brightest when it’s simply mauling you with vicious intensity. “Tunnel Vision” reveals the band at peak snarl, with vertigo-inducing breakdowns — featuring the arresting, almost subsonic growl of frontman Aaron Heard — giving way to a romping midtempo riff tricked out with what sound like lacerating pick scrapes.
Dødheimsgard, “Interstellar Nexus”
I haven’t delved too deeply into Dødheimsgard before this writing. That’s a clear oversight, as the band’s founder, a Norwegian chap who goes by the name Vicotnik, is also a key part of one of my favorite black-metal-adjacent bands, Ved Buens Ende, a fantastically strange outfit that perfected a kind of proggy, gloom-laden art rock on their sole full-length, 1995’s Written in Waters. While his VBE bandmate Aggressor went on to form the excellent, similarly styled Virus, Vicotnik pushed ahead with the band known as DHG, which progressed during the ‘90s from fairly orthodox black metal to the deep weirdness of 1999’s 666 International, which brought in elements of oddball industrial and stately classical piano. The new Black Medium Current is only their third full-length since then, and it was very much worth the wait. “Interstellar Nexus,” a darkly psychedelic, if-Bowie-made-black-metal opus that finds Vicotnik wailing lines like “I wish I was a butterfly/Seeking to remember/Its beginning and its end” and ends up in a thrilling genre-splicing pileup, exemplifies how confident the band sounds in its hallucinogenic avant-garde creations.
Runemagick, “Archaic Magick (After the Red Sun)”
Sweden’s Runemagick have been around since the dawn of the ‘90s. But their profile is strangely low considering the high caliber of doomy, epic death metal that guitarist-vocalist Nicklas “Terror” Rudolfsson & Co. (including his wife, bassist Emma Rudolfsson, a member off and on since 2000) have been spewing forth for decades. By my count, the upcoming Beyond the Cenotaph of Mankind is their 13th full-length, and judging by this nearly 12-minute advance track, the band isn’t interested in prettying up its sound in the slightest — this is grimly atmospheric stuff that suggests a moonlight trudge across a freezing wasteland, with Rudolfsson’s beastly growl reverberating in your ears. The track builds to a hard-rocking stomp and, later, a punky gallop, but throughout, the sense of desolation remains. This is a terrific showing from a band that deserves to be way better known.
Anthropophagous, “Abuse of a Corpse”
If you needed further evidence that we’re living in a death-metal golden age, I direct you to Abuse of a Corpse, the splendidly titled second outing from Massachusetts’ Anthropophagous (that name means “eating human flesh,” FYI). It’s hard to enumerate each instance of awesomeness found within the title track, from the wiry 5/4 bass-drums groove that erupts out of the gate to the thresher-like, tempo-juggling chorus, the nasty, almost stoner-rock-ish breakdown and the swaggering climax. This thing is swarming with great riffs, craftily assembled, and I can’t wait to spend some good time with the rest of the record.
Overkill, “Twist of the Wick”
One cool thing about metal is that there’s no one path to success and longevity. For some acts, your Opeths, Mastodons and Deaths, say, a dramatic evolutionary arc is key; for others, it’s the ironclad guarantee that they won’t change that keeps fans coming back. Overkill are firmly in the latter category. Sure, they flirted a bit with grunge in the ‘90s (I mean, who didn’t?), but this New Jersey outfit has never attempted to pass as anything other than what it is: a die-hard thrash-metal machine. Play this uptempo burner from the band’s new Scorched alongside one of the speedier selections from an Overkill classic like 1989’s The Years of Decay, and it’s clear that banshee-voiced frontman Bobby “Blitz” Ellsworth and co-founding bassist D.D. Verni are still fully committed to their original mission.
Enforced, “Hanged by My Hand”
It’s a pretty safe bet that you’d find an Overkill record or two in the collections of some of the members of Enforced, a Richmond, Va, band that beefs up ’80s thrash with elements of ass-whooping hardcore and caustic, primitive death metal à la Asphyx. You won’t hear anything fancy going on here, just a band rabidly intent on wrecking your neck in a no-frills manner reminiscent of the late, lamented Power Trip. I can attest that these guys tear it up live, and their upcoming War Remains LP ably captures the relentless bludgeon of their gigs.
One thing I’ll miss about putting together this column every month is stumbling on unusual Bandcamp finds like Ὁπλίτης: a one-man black/death-metal band from China, with lyrics and titles penned entirely in Greek. The project’s name translates to “Soldier,” while the title of its latest album, Τρωθησομένη, means “Eaten up.” I’m honestly not quite sure what’s going on here thematically, but what I can confidently say is that, as you can hear on this track — the title of which translates to “Thirty,” this is music of overwhelming power — filled with cyclone-like riffs, shrieked vocals and bursts of alien technicality. The drums are almost certainly sampled, giving the music an eerie precision reminiscent of the similarly maximal Deathspell Omega, but that fact only heightens the sense of meticulous craftsmanship that’s on constant display here. Easily the most head-spinning thing I’ve heard this month.
VoidCeremony, “Abyssic Knowledge Bequeathed”
Lunar Chamber, “Spirit Body and the Seeing Self”
Death-metal fans who like a little knotty prog mixed in with their caveman brutality are in for a treat this month, as Pittsburgh label 20 Buck Spin is unveiling two new releases that happen to check that highly specific box. First we have Threads of Unknowing, the second LP from Ramona, Ca, outfit VoidCeremony — as you can hear on “Abyssic Knowledge Bequeathed,” their songs embrace brainy virtuosity (check out those beautifully intricate bass lines) while still coming off as grimy and sepulchral. Also out soon is Shamballic Vibrations, the debut EP from Lunar Chamber, a simultaneously furious and ethereal outfit inspired by Buddhist thought. As you can hear on “Spirit Body and the Seeing Self,” their fusion of New Age–y moodcraft and sheer blasting insanity makes for an odd yet compelling listen.
40 Watt Sun, “Restless”
Macabre, “Sniper in the Sky”
Two April reissue campaigns showcase the opposite ends of the metal spectrum. First we have the height of elegance, in the form of two newly re-pressed albums by 40 Watt Sun, available directly from the band. It’s hard to know where to begin with this band — one of the greatest and most emotionally shattering on the planet, in my opinion — but it’s important to note that chief singer-songwriter-guitarist Patrick Walker formerly played in Warning, a band that harnessed a sublime mixture of beauty and gloomy despondency. This project is subtler, and on recent releases, can’t really be comfortably described as metal at all, but at least on their debut, 2011’s The Inside Room — soon to be reissued along with the titanically lovely follow-up, 2016’s Wider Than the Sky — their sound was both crushingly heavy and almost unbearably gorgeous. Put on “Restless” and buckle up for the ultimate in bleak beauty.
As willfully tasteless as 40 Watt Sun are artful, Macabre are a long-running Chicago band that specializes in so-called Murder Metal — i.e., bloodthirsty death metal with lyrics about the shocking deeds of serial killers, sung in almost nursery-rhyme-like cadences. Their defining album, 1993’s Sinister Slaughter, has been re-released on vinyl and cassette courtesy of Nuclear Blast, and it still sounds as loopy and grotesque as it did when I first spun it 30 years back, as you can hear on “Sniper in the Sky,” about Charles Whitman, the perpetrator of a horrific 1966 mass shooting at the University of Texas. Complete with its Sgt. Pepper’s–parodying cover, this is death metal as outsider art, and its gleeful depravity still scratches a certain very specific itch.
Smoulder, “The Talisman and the Blade”
Sometimes in metal you have to choose between an epic feel and an appealing grit, but not in the case of Smoulder’s Violent Creed of Vengeance. As you can hear here, this is chain-mail-and-sword metal, packed with Arthurian imagery, but presented with the hungry immediacy of the best of heavy music’s more extreme wings. Guitarists Collin Wolf and Shon Vincent provide just the right shreddy majesty, drummer Kevin Hester supplies the perfect frenzied gallop, and vocalist Sarah Ann adds the drama-filled belt this sort of music demands. This is heavy-metal escapism done right.
And with that, dear Blast Rites readers, I bid you a fond farewell. Thanks again for tuning in, check back next month for Andy’s return to the fold, and most importantly, stay heavy!