Balothizer - Cretan Smash (Louvana)
Full disclosure: I'm cheating a bit. Balothizer's Cretan Smash was released back in November, but the album is such a gem that it deserves everyone's attention. Three factors make this one of my favorite (late) finds from 2020. First, the basis of the London-Greek band's music is in Cretan folk. Having originated on an island that exists at an intersection of worlds, both spiritually and geographically, the incredible, particular style combines an inherent avant-sense of structure with primordial, unrestrained energy. Look no further than the music of Psarantonis (alias Antonis Xylouris) and his son George Xylouris for proof.
Second, Cretan Smash's songs come into being not as bastardizations of the folk material but as genuine interpretations with metallic instrumentation. The six tracks are still proper folk songs in their core—especially the closing lament "Anathema"—just brought to life on waves of highly combustible layers of electric lutes, yearning violins, edgy guitars, pumping bass, double drum pedals, and hardcore-cum-folk shouts. At times proto-metal, at others pure punk, they sound as if Voivod joined Killing Joke in a delirious syrtaki.
Third and most important, Crete was one of the focal points of antifascist resistance in occupied Greece during World War II. This unassailable, defiant spirit is still alive today, and it radiates both through Balothizer's folk influences and their music. As essential as ever, this sentiment explodes from each note on the album, uniting the downtrodden, bringing together those separated by authoritarian discord, and cheering us on in the ongoing struggle. – Antonio Poscic
The Body - I’ve Seen All I Need to See (Thrill Jockey)
Throughout their musical endeavors, the Body have made it a point to create sounds so encompassing, so asphyxiating to have an almost psychophysical effect on the listener. Starting from a loose doom and sludge base, the duo of Lee Buford and Chip King gleefully turned all the dials to 11. Minimal pace, extreme noise applications, spacey sound effects, and heavy basslines have prevailed throughout the Body's prolific output. Numerous collaborations, demos and EPs, more than a handful of full-length records, and the Body are now returning with another devastating performance in I've Seen All I Need to See.
In their latest tour of the abyss, the Body return to a core perspective. Leaving behind the prominent electronic implementations of the past few years, Buford and King re-establish the overarching guitars, disfigured bass lines and destroyed drums as the focal point of their work. In particular, the percussion is stunning, not only due to the amount of distortion that the Body have pushed it through but also regarding the foundation it provides. Drawing an influence from the heavy hip-hop methodology, "Eschatological Imperative" and "The City Is Shelled" arrive in the most hard-hitting way possible.
On the other end, the feedback is merciless, seemingly bending time with its presence as in the daunting "A Pain of Knowing". Harrowing vocals rise from the distance, painful screams howling through the darkness as the sporadic percussion provides a more solid substance to the proceedings. The inclusion of spoken word parts in the likes "A Lament" augment the experience, proving a further edge to the already excruciating arsenal of the Body. The polemic pace of "They Are Coming", the minimal free form obliterations of "Path of Failure" and the glitch induced progression of "The Handle the Blade" further showcase the potency of the Body and rounds up their latest work in dim fashion.
What remains is this feeling that despite this constant pursuit for the extreme and unbearable, under tons of mechanized sounds and weaponized progressivism, there is a humane and almost endearing aspect to the latest work of Buford and King. Somehow this makes I've Seen All I Need to See that much more terrifying. – Spyros Stasis
Devotion - The Harrowing (Memento Mori)
Formed by veterans of the Spanish underground death metal scene, Devotion were bred and nurtured in the European extreme metal scene's glory. Emphasizing the groove and grandeur, the slow pace and utter weight that acts like Asphyx and Bolt Thrower advocated, Devotion unleashed their debut record Necrophiliac Cults in 2012. Unfortunately, due to not being the most prolific of bands, it would take nine years to return this mighty beast with the sophomore work The Harrowing.Once again, Devotion turn back the clock to the late '80s and early '90s. Digging up the stench propagated by Swedish visionaries during that time, Devotion open up with the brutal and dissonant "God Forlorn". The disfigured distorted guitars and the deep, guttural growls appear through the sickening groove, while the synthesizer flourishes add another dimension to this endeavor. And this is where Devotion really shine, as they can awaken the experimental aspect of death metal, be it through the glorious presentations of Morgoth or the conceptual prowess of Pestilence. Harrowing riffs in "The Mournful Beam" meet with the brutal death metal ethics of "Demon Sleep", while the eerie lead work of "Birth of Horror" awakens a nightmarish essence to complete this opus. – Spyros Stasis
Dipygus - Bushmeat (Memento Mori)
Along with Altered Dead and Devotion (reviewed by Spyros elsewhere in this column), Dipygus' Bushmeat completes Memento Mori's deadly triptych of death metal releases to start the year right, in a gruesome and dastardly way. Of the three records, the Californian quintet's sophomore release is definitely the filthiest. Founded on Autopsy's idea of death metal, yes, but sickened with doom, grind, and sludge infections.
For all its filthy heaviness—growls arise from a muddy abyss, riffs contort under layers of distortion, drum hits make concrete walls tremble—and perfectly rough production, the album is often surprisingly twisty. It undulates and meanders both in song structures and dynamic contrasts, which oscillate between suffocating and curiously airy sections. As if giving us a breath of fresh air once in a while to emphasize the prevailing, disgustingly exquisite rot. – Antonio Poscic
Divide and Dissolve - Gas Lit (Invada)
Taking it to extremes, doom metal can turn into an otherworldly and profound experience. The ceremonial investigations of extreme doom/death and the abstracted concepts of drone/doom are just a couple of instances of this mindset. Divide and Dissolve investigate this exact soundscape, an intersection where extreme distortion and glacial pace can awaken an almost spiritual experience. Having released a couple of intriguing records in Basic and Abomination, Divide and Dissolve return with their Invada debut, Gas Lit.
In many ways, Divide and Dissolve take a cue from the drone and post-rock/metal scene of the 2000s. The old-school doom forms are abstracted away, heavy riffs crushing over in "Prove It", the distortion out of control creating havoc with each note. Meanwhile, the relentless beating of "Denial" showcase a truly relentless aspect of this duo. Yet, Divide and Dissolve dig deeper, tapping into an experimental domain with the caustic "Far From Ideal", borrowing a punk induced angst and noise influenced perspective.
Still, there is more room for experimentation, and this is where Divide and Dissolve genuinely shine as the minimal investigations of "Mental Gymnastics" and its incredibly desolate sax performance lead into the emotive and grand "We Are Really Worried About You". It is not often that you find an act able to walk this thin line between heavy and beautiful music, but that is what Divide and Dissolve deliver with Gas Lit. – Spyros Stasis
Grabunhold - Heldentod (Iron Bonehead)
While I dearly appreciate all the wondrous directions in which black metal has evolved in the past few decades, coming back to the genre's roots feels like comfort food. Familiar and nostalgic, perhaps, but unmistakably pleasurable. And if there are many acts whose music still harks back to the first and second wave of black metal, there are but a few so accomplished in their intentions as Grabunhold. Founded in 2016, the Dortmund quartet's debut LP is a wonderful example of how simplicity in style and approach can yield excellent music if the material is crafted with thought, care, and just a bit of spice.
Woven around melancholy subjects and the darker shades of J.R.R. Tolkien's fantasy world, the music on Heldentod flows through sections of blazing, tremolo, and blast beat backed black metals akin to Dissection. It swerves into dusky meadows and folk mists as if Wardruna played black metal. It finally washes ashore in calm atmo black passages and their chilly textural melodies. – Antonio Poscic
Lice - WASTELAND: What Ails Our People Is Clear (Settled Law)
There are two aspects to the debut record by the Bristolian band Lice. On a purely musical level, WASTELAND is a post-punk tour de force that assembles, disassembles, and reassembles itself from scraps of found sounds, field recordings, the group's DIY instruments (inspired by Futurist Luigi Russolo's intonarumori), and vague, abstract noises on top of the usual rock instrumentation.
Mostly devoid of structure, WASTELAND is an album that feels as if it were floating, suspended between being and becoming, and that only temporarily possesses familiar post-punk forms. That is to say, for every shimmer of Wire, Minutemen, Psychic TV, or, more recently, Shame and IDLES, there's an accompanying dissolution into textures and whispers and slurred spoken word and concrete poetry turned to sound. While I'm a sucker for anything post-punk, this formula elevates Lice clearly above the rest of the crop, embodying a style that gives you something familiar to latch on to, only to take it away in the next moment. Strictly musically speaking, this is a triumph.
But there's another side to the album: its conceptual and literary makeup. The skeleton to which the music attaches itself—gluing flesh around bones, bringing tonus to dead words on paper—is constructed around criticism of prevailing cultural hegemonies in the West through a critique of vacuous satire. Its phenomenology is made material as a sort of manifesto-libretto, which traces transgressions similar to Futurists—who, let's not forget, had close ties with fascists. In this pamphlet and surreal story, whose fragments seep through the lyrics and music, the band denounce both left and right extremes, criticizing mob mentality and cancellations while seeking a "common ground" where one cannot exist.
While not without merit, this discourse is a slippery slope. Here, the narrative falls victim to the overly ambitious and slightly self-absorbed implementation that, ironically, cannot distinguish the nuances needed to understand that both sides are, indeed, not the same. Thus, the text's dialectics become ambiguous, opening avenues for interpretation and weaponized misinterpretation, throwing a shade over what is otherwise an excellent piece of art. – Antonio Poscic
Malakhim - Theion (Iron Bonehead)
Malakhim may be newcomers in the Swedish extreme metal scene, but their pedigree can be traced to some of their country's prestigious acts, like Naglfar and the Duskfall. Adhering to the traditions of the second black metal wave, Malakhim released their debut demo in 2017. Beneath the raw and uncompromising sound was an uncanny technical prowess that gave the 16-minute demo an exciting twist. Malakhim would carry on this tradition in their II EP, further expanding their vision towards melodicism and grandeur. Now, they establish their blistering perspective with their debut record Theion.
Malakhim, without a doubt, stand as disciples of the traditional black metal methodologies. Fierce riffs splatter through the soundscapes, harrowing vocals rise through the abyss, and the pressure they apply is always constant and unyielding. "Chalice of Ruin" showcases this chaotic side, graphically spiraling out of control through the dissonant haze, while "The Splendour of Stillborn Stars" sees this cacophonous attribute reach new heights. Yet, this is not where Malakhim stop. Traveling further back in time, "Hammer of Satan" and "Chalice of Ruin" awaken the schizoid spirit of proto-death metal legends Possessed and the early days of Slayer make an appearance.
Still, there is another gear that Malakhim can switch to at a moment's notice. In their darkest manifestation, it's their melodic essence that gives the eerie, majestic twist that Theion needs. The opener "There Is a Beacon" provides fantastic infernal imagery through its central theme, while the mid-pace control of "His Voiceless Whisper" masterfully drives that point home. Despite the initial impact of Malakhim suggesting a straightforward black metal onslaught, Theion proves that there are layers to this act and speaks volumes to their multifaceted nature. – Spyros Stasis
Molten - Dystopian Syndrome (Goathellmusic)
While fusing heavy and black metal has become somewhat of a fad in recent years (see: Rebel Wizard, Deathhammer, and Blackevil), Molten's mix of thrash and death with epic heavy metal is a rara avis. With their roots planted in the legendary thrash scene, the Bay Area quintet throw out the rule book and maneuver between these styles nimbly, alternately superimposing and clashing their elements.
Wrapped in a horror story that's more natural than supernatural—concerned with the dire reality of the world—the nine songs on Dystopian Syndrome move from heavy melodies underlined by harmonized twin-guitar attacks, Steve Harris-like plump bass lines, and swirling leads to bouts of supreme aggression wearing the face of d-beat and filthy death metal. On this journey from extreme to extreme, as inhuman growls turn into pained roars, they pass through progressive serpentines, spastic sections imbued with hardcore brevity, and even briefly entertain tremolo-driven atmospheres. And by retaining a sense of cohesion and purpose in the songwriting, they craft a debut LP that is as varied as it is well-rounded. – Antonio Poscic
Portrayal of Guilt - We Are Always Alone (Closed Casket Activities)
In recent years the hardcore scene is experiencing a fascinating upheaval. Propelled by extreme sound fanatics and pioneers, the genre's idioms are being further weaponized to maximum effect. The connection with powerviolence fuelled the success of Full of Hell, while noise applications and industrial concepts saw Street Sects bring to life their hellish soundscapes. Portrayal of Guilt are another act that, while standing on hardcore and punk ground, reach out further towards the extreme abyss. Having already released an excellent debut album in Let Pain Be Your Guide, an exquisite amalgamation of hardcore punk roots with extreme metal influences. They are now capitalizing with We Are Always Alone.
What Portrayal of Guilt succeed in is combining the punk and hardcore roots, the attitude, and dedication, firstly with a post-hardcore and screamo flavor. There is a constant aura of emotion and sentimentality stemming from these aspects of We Are Always Alone. The despairing second half of "My Immolation" showcases that side, masterfully evoking a melancholic overtone. The case is similar with a more off-kilter presentation in "It's Already Over", borrowing something from the twisted sense of angst that acts like Daughters have mastered. Still, the primary emotive color that rules this realm is anger and aggression, wrapped in layers of frustration.
Grindcore speed and a harrowing blackened aura highlight the opening track, "The Second". This quasi-black metal approach also lends an eerie aspect to We Are Always Alone, shining dimly in "Masochistic Oath", while heavy death metal grooves dictate the pace in "Anesthetized". We Are Always Alone sees Portrayal of Guilt take one further step in their extreme craftsmanship, this time approaching their sound with an even more aggressive outlook. – Spyros Stasis
Sagenland - Oale Groond (Heidens Hart)
The rise of Scandinavian black metal quickly saw several divergent sonic offsprings taking form. The raw quality of Darkthrone highlighted the genre in its purest form; the punk attitude of early Mayhem revealed the style's roots. Meanwhile, the majestic and technical perspective of Emperor pointed towards the possible future. Yet, there was always a romantic side in this mix, highlighted brightly through the folk explorations of early Ulver. It is the latter branch of black metal that the Netherlands' Sagenland are exploring. Having formed two decades ago, the duo from Twente released a single work in their split with Vargulf in 2005, and now 16 years later, they finally unveil their debut full-length Oale Groond.
Oale Groond feels in many ways like a record frozen in time. A work that was recorded in the mid-'90s, awakening the eerie essence and dark ambiance of the second black metal wave. "De jammerklachten van Singraven – eerste deel" sees the trademark, dissonant black metal touch come to rise, electrifying guitars meeting with pummeling drums to create a swirling effect. Aided by a production that preserves a lo-fi aesthetic, the duo transport the listener to snowy landscapes surrounded by dark forests.
It's within this setting that the music of Sagenland truly flourishes as they explore their folk roots. The clean instrumentation in "De jammerklachten van Singraven – tweede deel" sets the tone, while the pronounced bass line grants more weight to the procedure, making tracks like "Blandval'' and "In 't bos" arrive with that much more potency. But, it is the incorporation of acoustic instrumentation alongside the majestic black metal onslaught that takes Oale Groond over the top, as the monumental "'t Leste gedicht (Twentse earde)" showcase. – Spyros Stasis
Terminal Bliss - Brute Err/ata (Relapse)
Fear. Anguish. Anger. Exasperation. Dread. All of it generated by the broken and unjust system we live in then compressed into an unfiltered, roaring hardcore punk and grindcore scream. That's it. That's the album. – Antonio Poscic
Wardruna - Kvitravn (Music For Nations)
There has always been a deep connection between the Scandinavian black metal scene and the region's folk roots. Early works by pioneering acts like Ulver's Bergtatt and Enslaved's Vikingligr Veldi combined these two sides to significant effect, funneling the ambiance and heritage of folk music and Viking lore in the black metal spirit. Still, some ventured further, shedding away all of black metal's tradition to return to the point of origin. Einar Selvik became a member of the black metal scene under the Kvitravn moniker, famously playing drums for iconoclasts Gorgoroth. But, it would be his later project Wardruna that would define him.
Using traditional instrumentation to perform a complete return to the folk roots, Wardruna set off ambitiously with their Runaljold trilogy, following with 2018's Skald. Through a deep love and appreciation of their musical heritage, Wardruna built monuments through their work, creating a spiritual, war-like, ambitious, and all-encompassing sound. It is no surprise that their music broke boundaries and has been used in both TV series (Vikings) and video games (Assassin's Creed: Valhalla). And now, they return with their first record for mainstream label Columbia/Music For Nations with Kvitravn.
There are no surprises here from Selvik and company. The sound of Wardruna is set, and its core components will not be altered; they will only improve. The hectic and busy instrumentations of opener "Synkverv" open the gates to this magical realm, as an otherworldly flute leads the way through the ceremonial percussion. Vocals echo in the distance as if coming from frozen mountaintops, providing the work with its spiritual edge. It is then just one great song after the next, as the title track with its moving lyre leads into the mathematically precise rhythms of "Skugge" to reach one of the record's hits with "Gra".
That is also Wardruna's most intriguing ability, as they can produce songs that act like earworms, catchy and sweet, but they also complete long-form journeys through a universe of textures and sounds. The war-like anthem of "Fylgjutal" and the two final tracks, "Vindavlarljod" and "Andervaljod", display this ambitious take, methodically taking the listeners through a journey of a neo-pagan grandeur. Yet, it is the fact that everything has its place in Wardruna's world, everything has a purpose, and that gives Kvitravn an outstanding preciousness, making it their most accomplished work so far. – Spyros Stasis