Blast Rites: December 2020’s Hottest Metal
Welcome to Blast Rites, SPIN’s monthly metal column! Every month we’ll dig up the heaviest metal out there, stylistic boundaries be damned. Hot albums, hot tracks, hot whatever — we’ll bring only the most hellish heat. This month, we’ll bust open operatic black metal, filthy Danish death metal, and a split featuring Houston grindcore legends and Australia’s burliest bruisers, as well as remembering Cynic bassist Sean Malone.
Folterkammer – Die Lederpredigt (Gilead Media)
Not since Reed St. Mark joining Celtic Frost for their landmark LP To Mega Therion has such a formidable Swiss-American metal alliance emerged: Folterkammer, with their debut Die Lederpredigt, bring together Imperial Triumphant guitarist Zachary Ezrin and Swiss vocalist Andromeda Anarchia for black metal with operatic vocals. Ezrin and his band, rounded out by bassist Darren Hanson and drummer Brendan McGowan, play it relatively straight, which gives Anarchia the stage to really go off. She’s in control here, bringing the band to bewildering ecstasies blasting through “Die Elegie” and “Das Gelbert,” and she can screech with the best of them too, as “Das Sinngedicht” cuts with a broadsword’s grandeur and a stiletto’s grace. Folterkammer invokes trance-like tremolos like any second wave progenitor, and Anarchia keeps in you awe through the stasis, bliss in suspended animation. Die Lederpredigt is so well-executed, it’s shocking a pairing as simple and natural as this hasn’t had greater precedent. There have been operatic vocals in black metal before, yet they’re rarely, if ever, the driving force or at least a prominent part of the music. And most “symphonic” black metal relies on synths and climaxes that are closer to Hollywood than most kvlt practitioners would care to admit — which is fine some of the time (I’ll still revisit old Cradle of Filth records from time to time, and NOT on Private Session), yet it’s not as moving as this.
Undergang – Aldrig i livet (Dark Descent)
Copenhagen death metal quartet Undergang continue to plunge through Autopsy’s swampy catacombs with their fifth album, Aldrig i livet. In maintaining course, they’ve further mired themselves, mutating through sheer will. Indhentet af døden, their debut, was dirty but legible — here they’ve fully given in to the filth, slathering their production in grime and indulging in unguided chaos. Undergang thrive as they’ve gone beyond the pale: “Menneskeæder” moves between groove and speed with an ease that belies its tar-ridden backdrop, and the jagged soloing in “Man binder ikke et dodt menneske” and “Indtorret” retain the dimly-lit spirit of Mental Funeral. As much as we don’t want to be reminded of illness this year, Undergang wouldn’t be so gut-wrenching without David Mikkelsen’s mucus-ridden grunts and hacks. In particular, “Usommelig omgang med lig” feels as though he’s trying to ooze out of himself, every crackle strained yet also fluid. Forget thinking about studio trickery (he pulls it off live, trust): where is he importing all that phlegm from, and how much?
P.L.F./Incinerated Split (Rescued From Life)
Australia is considered by some as the Pacific’s Texas — in fact, there’s a small town in Queensland named for the greatest country state in the union — so uniting Houston grind institution P.L.F. and Melbourne death metal crushers Incinerated for a split is more than welcome. It’s representative of both groups at the top of their game: P.L.F.’s riffing is suffocatingly tight and razor-sharp yet maintaining a thrashy jubilance, while Incinerated take bassy slam death to its lowest, most pummeling depths. Tactical strikes versus uncritical bludgeoning: this split lets the bands’ contrasts unite for the ultimate whooping. As an added bonus, P.L.F. cover Japanese grinders Unholy Grave’s “No Racial Superiority.”
A Note on Cynic
They say that death comes in threes, but metal experienced two devastating one-two punches this year. Power Trip’s Riley Gale and Iron Age’s Wade Allison, two Texas metal icons, died within weeks of each other. This year was also bookended by deaths from progressive death metal legends Cynic: drummer Sean Reinert passed in January, and last week, bassist Sean Malone also departed our world. Chance is so cruel in not just that they are no longer with us, but in the sequence which they left us. With Reinert’s death, we had no idea how the rest of the year would turn out, and in Malone’s case, it’s part of a greater, sadder morass of loss and death and no relief on the horizon, all we’d rather forget. Reinert’s passing also came shortly after Neil Peart’s, a devoted student passing not long after a master. Chance really is cruel.
Malone’s untimely death gives us another chance to appreciate Cynic’s debut Focus in mass again. Much has been written about its technical accomplishments, Paul Masvidal’s robotic vocals that predated one of the biggest trends in pop music, and how it sounded like nothing else that came before it. Focus didn’t come out of nowhere: death metal was increasingly technical in the early ‘90s as it moved beyond its thrashier origins, and the Venn diagram between metal nerds and prog nerds is not a circle, but it’s damn close. It is an important death metal record because death metal has no one true sound. There’s room for the cerebral, the ignorant, the thoughtful, the boneheaded, the technical wizardry, the rudimentary brutality, subsonic growls, and yes, those robot vocals, in death metal. There are some boundaries, yes, but there’s a lot more you can do in those boundaries than you think. It can be simple. It can be complex. It can be neither. Death metal, like metal more broadly, can and should be a way to find yourself and define yourself in the bigger world, not another set of rules and regulations to close yourself off. We have enough of that shit already. Put on Focus and let the freakier elements you’ve suppressed loose. We’ll be better for it.