Remember when summer wasn’t a time of abysmal heat-death either through dehydration, or forest fires all around the world, or apparently, historic flooding in Europe and China? The Metal Pigeon remembers. I remember that as a kid I used to ride my bike outside nearly all day with likely never a thought to gulping down water continuously so as not to pass out. I remember it being hot, but like summery hot, shorts and t-shirts hot, never oppressive blanket of humidity and painful sun kind of hot. I know I made it my resolution not to use weather related post titles this year, and I have kept true to that, but I said nothing about not remarking on it. The axiom here in Houston is that you get through summer by not complaining, by merely accepting that its hotter than hell, and through acceptance comes a kind of surrender, and through surrender, peace. It sounds like hippie talk, but the truth is that it actually works because its a mindset thing. Until August that is. August ruins everything. Its the most despised month for me (the hottest month by far, everyone seems anxiety riddled, pre-season football… its like the tepid version of what you really wanna watch), and so as August rolls in, my zen acceptance of sweating hither and yon comes to an end. Fortunately there do seem to be a plethora of new metal releases to keep me distracted, but in the meantime, let’s look back at the soundtrack to these past few pre-August weeks when I wasn’t an agitated mess of a human being.
Darkthrone – Eternal Hails……:
Darkthrone returns with their 18th (or 19th, I dunno) studio album Eternal Hails…... (that’s six dots to be precise) which marks a return to a two year gap between releases (2019’s Old Star) as opposed to the three year clip they’ve been maintaining for nearly a decade now. That kind of thing might seem trivial, the circumstances of touring and album gestation times tend to be unpredictable and vary for any band between albums, but remember that the pandemic likely didn’t affect Darkthrone activities that much — after all, these guys don’t do gigs. The likely explanation for a decrease in the gap between albums is that something transpired to increase the band’s enthusiasm for writing new music, perhaps newfound inspiration? I’ve been hesitantly leaning towards that explanation when considering this album because it is way more interesting than Old Star, at times even crackling with an excitement and intensity that matches Circle The Wagons and The Underground Resistance. The problem is that this is still an album that frustrates by spending way too much time on riffs that can only be described as plodding, if not laid back to a fault. An example is “Wake Of The Awakened”, where after a slow, trodden build up (there’s a lot of that going on throughout the album) the band kick it up a gear at the four minute mark, with uptempo trad metal riffs that I really wish they’d employ more of. That fantastic riff that comes in at around the 7:30-7:40 mark… it’s exactly what I wanted for most of the song, and though its cool that we get it as an outro, its also a headscratcher — why were you guys sitting on this? Same goes on “Voyage To A Northpole Adrift” (what a title), where the song leaps free of its slow, meandering riff built prison into blissful heavy metal, Priest-ian territory at the 3:40 mark, and you kind of just wonder, “Guys, why didn’t you just start the song here?”. Look I get it, there’s a place for slower, doomier metal within a black metal (or crust-black whatever you wanna call modern Darkthrone), but here’s the reality — Darkthrone just isn’t good at that stuff. There’s a lethargy that seems to linger around those minutes when they’re in that mode where you’re hoping something else will happen, gimme a drum fill for god’s sake Fenriz! That’s why the introduction of the Moog synth passages, particularly in “Lost Arcane City Of Uppakra” were a breath of fresh air, not only because of their novelty within the Darkthrone context, but because the melody being painted via that instrument really does sound creepily inspired. It’s the closest thing on this album that mirrors that unorthodox wash of color on the album artwork. I was as patient with this album as I was with the new At The Gates record that I reviewed below, but between the two I arrived at strikingly different conclusions.
Suidakra – Wolfbite:
I’ll admit that I didn’t have the highest of expectations going into Wolfbite, this the 14th studio album from Germany’s folk-melodeath pioneers Suidakra. This is one of those bands who has so many albums that I adore that I can overlook the ones that I don’t, but even I’ll admit that Realms Of Odoric and Cimbric Yarns were underwhelming and for the latter, challenging listens. The band’s last truly spectacular album is debatably 2011’s Book Of Dowth (although I’ll contend that 2013’s Eternal Defiance deserves consideration despite its unfortunate production defects (ie a loudness wars casualty), and its really been difficult to gauge what determines the likelihood of an artistically successful album for the band, given that Arkadius has been the consistent songwriting voice for ages now. Whatever changed this time around, it worked, because Wolfbite is one of the band’s finest hours, a record that is as charged up in its melodeath ferocity as it is inspired in it’s folk metal roots. I was a little stunned to behold it all upon first listen, but this is just flat out an incredibly strong outing for Arkadius and company from beginning to end. Consider “Resurgence”, where bagpipes anchor the melody in a mournful wailing cry, while Arkadius and Sebastian Jensen’s riffs are assisted with the deft, nimble violin performance of one time Eluveitie member Shir-Ran Yinon. Everything pauses to take a breath for a moment at the 2:38 mark before Arkadius comes screaming back in over a headbanging riff, a moment that is so damned satisfying. This album is packed with little one-off details like that, such as the awesome classic melo-death riff moment at the 1:58 mark in “Redemption”, something right out of the 1995 Gothenburg playbook that just feels comforting to hear being done in 2021 (I realize that’s a weird adjective to throw out at a melodeath song but it’s the truth). And beyond just the musicality on display here, credit needs to be given to the clean vocals of Jensen who turns in his strongest performance in that role to date. He had some remarkable moments on Cimbric Yarns as well, but he’s on another level here, particularly on “A Shrine For Ages”, the brooding, almost waltz-like semi-ballad where it sounds like I’m listening to a lost cut from the Dowth era. The spiraling upwards guitar solo climax midway through is gorgeous enough, but its the aching, melancholic acoustic melody in the verses that really make this one of the prettiest Suidakra cuts in ages. Intense and focused, this is one of the best melodeath albums to come out in the past few years, a visceral reminder of just how fantastic this particular vein of metal can be in its most punishing, angry, and melancholic form.
At The Gates – The Nightmare of Being:
I’m glad I spent a month mulling The Nightmare Of Being, this the seventh At the Gates album and second album where Jonas Björler has taken full control of the songwriting reigns in the void left behind by his brother Anders who as you might remember, decided to leave in 2018. I say glad because this is admittedly a difficult album right off the bat, and requires a few listens to get past the strangeness of it all. Underneath all of that is the best album the band has delivered since their reunion, though one that couldn’t have come without the two that preceded it. It almost feels like with Anders leaving, he took his straightforward, more direct to the throat approach ala The Haunting with him — in other words, leaving Tomas Lindberg and Jonas to get weird with it. It makes sense to me that way, because 2018’s To Drink From The Night Itself really did feel like a record that was torn between aiming for the Terminal/Slaughter dartboard like 2014’s At War With Reality clearly was, and in branching out towards more experimental areas that the band was tentatively venturing out towards. There’s a dynamic between the two Björler brothers that I’ve never been able to decipher (and I suspect only they really know), but it is surprising to consider that Jonas might be the one in favor of chucking the band’s now oft-lifted musical DNA in favor of something a little murkier, slower, and more contemplative. There’s a classic, coiled spring intensity to “Touched By The White Hands Of Death” via the riff progressions and Tomas’ echo-y, screaming in a cell sounding vocals; and “The Fall Into Time” is perhaps the most epic and cinematic composition the band has ever penned, built on a simple chord descending chord sequence that is downright foreboding. Another unconventional gem is “Cosmic Pessimism”, with dare I say jangly guitar lines that crest and fall in their dynamics, eventually exploding underneath Tomas’ demon-barked lyric “…We do not live, we are lived!” As I mentioned above, I took my time with this album, only listening to it when the mood struck, and in that spirit I think I got more out of a fewer number of listens. I thought of that approach when I heard that particular lyric again on my playthrough of the album this morning, sandwiched as it was between K-Pop this and K-Pop that. Take your cue from me, don’t force this one down your ears if you’re not in the mood, instead give it time when you’re feeling patient and receptive. Or just play it right after listening to Red Velvet’s “Peek-A-Boo”.
Wizardthrone – Hypercube Necrodimensions:
Not content with his giddy pirate themed folk/power metal project in Alestorm, nor songwriting for the exuberant Euro-power metallers in Gloryhammer, Christopher Bowes has another splashy project to delight or annoy you with (depending on your mood I guess). Wizardthrone is his symphonic melodic death metal detour, an unabashed ode to Bal-Sagoth as it’s primary influence, but also tempered by a surprising amount of power metal melodicism. On “Frozen Winds Of Thyraxia”, the lead guitar melodies lean far more towards Wintersun than they do Dimmu Borgir, and it makes for a brighter sounding atmosphere than you’d expect, melody drenched and easily listenable. And I’d argue that’s not a bad thing, because even though Aether Realm’s Jake Jones spews his best shredded throat grim vocals here, replete with the requisite “bleghs” that you’d expect, this is largely a theatrical affair. Spoken word dramatics appear throughout “Incantation of the Red Order”, and if you can tolerate that kind of thing, it does help to space out the composition a bit, giving space to the more menacing moments during the verses and allowing the orchestral pomp and grandeur to stand out more when it appears as a mid-song bridge. That’s one of the album’s strengths, sonic diversity in dynamics and song structures, and it helps to keep your attention a bit more than if it was just battering you with spooky keys and blastbeats for 5 minutes straight at a time. It results in an album where I’m able to remember that “Of Tesseractual Gateways and the Grand Duplicity of Xhul” (jesus Chris… these song titles… the “Xhul track” then) starts out with an almost Rotting Christ-like primal death metal passage, sounding vaguely Middle Eastern with guitars that reminded me at once of Melechesh. I can also pinpoint “Forbidden Equations Deep…” (track 4 dammit) as the one that starts with a Blind Guardian blast of guitars and a keyboard melody within that sounds very close to a theremin. In summation, there’s a lot of diversity on the album and that’s really to its strength, it lends it replay value, and I didn’t ever really get bored sitting through it. What Hypercube Necrodimensions really lacks is similarly the kind of gut punch that Bal-Sagoth could never quite deliver (mostly due to the thinness of their symphonic black metal approach), which is why I suppose I was never that big on them, even though it felt like I should have been. I kept waiting for Wizardthrone to deliver a really heavy, punishing riff to batter me relentlessly, and it briefly appeared for a moment on the title track, only to disappear before it could really leave a mark. The result is an album that is admittedly interesting to listen to, with some incredible artwork to gawk at, but doesn’t move me one way or another. More heaviness or more melody, I dunno what the answer is for the next album, but I hope they pick a direction and head towards it.
Dialith – Atrophy (EP):
In a weird coincidence with my K-Pop listening, Dialith are back with a release strategy that owes more to the approach taken by Korean Idol groups than anything metal related. Their new EP Atrophy is the first in a series of three planned releases, with another EP of songs to follow at some point, after which they both will be combined and packed along with more new songs to ultimately make up the full length sequel to their 2019 Metal Pigeon Album Of The Year Extinction Six. That’s not dissimilar to the way the K-Pop R&B group Mamamoo for example released four EPs to piece together their overall concept for their Four Seasons, Four Colors conceptual project — a strategy that owes more to continually releasing material to prevent your audience from moving on to something else and also just keeping up with the competition from other artists releasing music. Well, it’s not a perfect comparison I’ll admit, because metal bands tend to be afforded years by fans to get their next record together, sometimes to their own detriment, with fanbases that are often unreasonably patient (see Wintersun and until recently, Therion). But there is something to be said about maintaining momentum even in the slower moving metal world, and when a global pandemic interrupts the gains you should have gotten after an incredible debut record, kyboshing touring plans (if there were any) and the possibility of playing showcase festival gigs, you risk having people forget about you. Dialith explained their strategy in a post on their Instagram as a way to keep them in people’s radars while not being out of the spotlight for the lengthier amount of time it would take to assemble an entire album together. Presumably, this means they can focus their work on two or three songs at a time, instead of hurrying themselves into a sophomore slump in an effort to just get something out. As they say, bands have their entire life to get the debut record written, and only months for that all important follow up. And with the lead off song “Ignite The Sky”, Dialith sound more sparkly than they ever did on Extinction Six, with keyboard runs that sound downright synth-pop oriented and offer a brighter, more dewy-eyed take on the band’s core sonic identity. Alasdair Wallace Mackie still lays down thicker, denser, heavier riffs than you’d expect a symphonic metal band to have, and Krista Sion is the perfect shade of icy in her delivery. The other two songs here, “Sweet As Wine” (don’t let the title fool you) and “Undertow” are closer to the darker, angrier tone we heard on the debut, with battering riffs and a rhythmic aggression that is still just, shocking (for lack of a better description) to hear from a symphonic metal band. We’re not going to be forgetting Dialith anytime soon.
Pharaoh – The Powers That Be:
This was another release where like At The Gates’ new record, I wanted to give it time to gel in my mind a bit, because my first listen was a little underwhelming. It didn’t help that I’ve been looking forward to this album for years and years now, the band’s last effort being the absolutely incredible Bury The Light way the heck back in 2012. And right off the bat lets just acknowledge that The Powers That Be was going to have a hard time living up to the expectations that album created, no matter when it was released. But that it took nine years to get a follow up doesn’t help matters for sure, creating a situation where opinions about the new record will be impacted by the amount of time it took to deliver it. And of course, this isn’t really a full time band either, with its members (most notably Chris Black of High Spirits and Dawnbringer) participating in other projects and doing other things (though as far as I can tell, Tim Aymar isn’t in any other bands right now, correct me if I’m wrong), but still, nine years is a hell of a long time to go between releases. My guess is it takes that long because there’s so much songwriting input from everyone in the band that maybe this time around it just resulted in a freak slowdown, but that’s pure speculation. There is a noticeably thrashier bent to the introductory title track though than I was expecting to hear, with the guitars being more technical than I’d ever noticed on a Pharaoh record before, and that kind of set the tone for the rest of the album on my first few listens I think. Through that filter, I think a lot of the melodies that are brimming under the surface of some of the songs midway through the album tend to get suppressed until you unlock them with future listens. Like “We Will Rise” has a really inspired Maiden-spiked guitar solo section midway through that I think I glossed over initially but now have come to really appreciate — and “Freedom” has a weird Helloween meets Pharaoh mashup vibe going on that I dismissed as clunky at first. It’s now one of the highlights of the record, it’s gang shouted “no, no!” vocals perfect for the old school, united against the world lyrical theme going on. I kept waiting for this album’s “The Spider’s Thread” to reveal itself, but the closest we got this outing is “When The World Was Mine”, which is a fine song as is but seems like it could have benefited from one or two more memorable melodies to firmly affix it in one’s memory. This is a good Pharaoh record, a worthy addition to their catalog, but not something that sounds like it earned those nine years in between… I guess I just wanted something that blew my mind the way the last one did. This could be a Pigeon problem.
Powerwolf – Call Of The Wild:
Powerwolf are back with another new album, although what differentiates this album from 2018’s The Sacrament Of Sin is something that only the most passionate fan could possibly detect, and I’d even have to contest that. For all the flack that their contemporaries in Sabaton receive for sounding samey throughout their career (and lately, that criticism is warranted on their post-pandemic drip-drip song rollout), at least Sabaton have made some significant album-wide shifts at times in their career. There was orchestral grandeur adorning Carolus Rex to match the splendor of those songs about the rise and fall of the Swedish king’s empire; and on the recent The Great War, the band often slowed down their attack at times, muddied up the rhythmic attack to mirror the sludge and trudge of World War I. Powerwolf have never, not to my memory anyway, attempted to coalesce the musical approach to an album into some kind of cohesive, narrative musical vision. It’s just another platter of songs ala Powerwolf mode, and you’re paying far closer attention than I if you can tell what song comes from what album. And truthfully, this wouldn’t be a problem if these songs were mostly hitting the target, but they’re not — when they do, as on the album highlight “Dancing With The Dead”, Powerwolf is as compelling as mainstream metal can possibly be, the stuff that ripples through crowds at European festivals and compels smiles and singalongs. That song’s chorus holds the answer, namely that Atilla Dorn’s vocal power really comes through when he has a vocal melody/lyric that allows him to be the ghoulish narrator that he was meant to be. With longer lines full of syllabic variation, his rich vocal tone, distinct in pronounciation and character is allowed to flourish, like a German Ozzy Osbourne being backed by Maiden-esque melodies that linger around like proper earworms. But when they get it wrong, as on the absolutely abysmal “Beast Of Gevaudan”, where the rhythmic structure is percussive, almost staccato-like, thus leaving Atilla with little to do but mirror it in his vocal delivery, which quickly becomes tiresome. It doesn’t help that the song has major Sabaton vibes, which is not a great sound profile for Powerwolf. They’ve fallen into this staccato trap quite often throughout their discography, and it just never, ever sounds good, and I wish someone would point out the difference between these two songs to them. That’s not to say a band shouldn’t have rhythmic variation within an album, because of course they should, but knowing one’s strengths and weaknesses is something that a band on album number, what, eight, should realize by now. Caught in the middle of these two extremes are the rest of the nine songs on the album, and none of them made enough of an impression on me (yet? maybe?) to warrant remarking on. Just meh.