Our first round-up of 2019 takes on everything from innovative blackgaze to underwhelming doom.
Xibalba Itzaes – Ah Tza Xibalba Itzaes
Black metal has always taken inspiration from the place it is created in and that locale’s history, but whilst this normally brings to mind snow-swept blastbeats and frostbitten vocal rasps or (anti-)religion and Norse mythology, the likes of Japan’s Sigh and Hungary’s Tormentor were championing the subgenre outside of Scandinavian territories since back in the ’90s. Another prominent example are Mexico City’s Xibalba Itzaes, who take inspiration from K’iche’ Maya mythology and channel this into furious black metal boasting malicious riffs and throat-shredding vocals. With a style so powerful, fans were left disappointed when an extended period of inactivity followed 1994’s Ah Dzam Poop Ek and 1996’s split with Avzhia, so a reformation over ten years ago was sure to excite many. Now, after more than two decades, a compilation, a demo, an EP and a single, the follow-up full-length has finally arrived, with eight new tracks and four re-recorded from preceding releases.
The decades of anticipation certainly feed into the hasty tempo of the riffs, which rival any of their peers whilst boasting a pinpoint production that captures their raw, razor-sharp potency but is also fiendishly cohesive. Good thing, too, as although Ah Tza Xibalba Itzaes certainly entails the second-wave blasting fans will look for, it’s also a touch more contemporary in its composition. Though this is recognisable as a piece designed by the same hands (albeit with a different bassist) that crafted Ah Dzam Poop Ek, it is certainly not a simple nostalgia kick for the trio. The music here is more complex (compositionally if not necessarily musically), imbued with an evil aura as if it were recorded in the underworld from which the band take their name.
The sacred portals to the Mayan underworld are believed to be underground pools and rivers in southeastern Mexico, and this watery view of the afterlife can be heard on Ah Tza Xibalba Itzaes in lieu of the fiery hell the western world often envisages, with bass and percussion that, like the riffs, are audible but rugged as if waterlogged, and vocals that don’t so much echo as they do froth. ‘The Storm Of Giaia’ and ‘Ekab’ even fade out with the sound of running water. At its heart. this is pure black metal of the most sinister variety, but it’s much more than mere second-wave worship, and was well worth the prolonged wait.
Ah Tza Xibalba Itzaes is out now on Nuclear War Now Productions. Purchase here.
Words: George Parr
Burning Vow – Burning Vow
Concluding a monumental year of incredible releases on Holy Roar Records (Pijn, Rolo Tomassi, OHHMS, Boss Keloid, Slow Crush and Conjurer spring to mind) we have the debut release from Burning Vow. This doom outfit have a minimal online presence, with no Facebook page or live shows to speak of, and consist of members of Employed To Serve, Pariso and Group Of Man. As tasty as that may sound, it’s a shame to say Holy Roar have concluded the year on a bit of a dud…
Burning Vow sound painfully generic, with riffs that plod around but never amount to anything other than just sounding doomy. The guitar tones are at least fairly satisfying, but to say the lead vocals are an acquired taste would be putting it politely (the hoarse screams on ‘Walls Around Earth’ could have desperately done with another take). The press release likens this to the “melancholic valour of Pallbearer“, but that comparison is way off the mark. Neither that sense of epic majesty, nor the crushing emotional weight is remotely achieved here. Ultimately, Burning Vow sound more like a bunch of friends having a kick about in a recording studio than a fully-fledged band.
Burning Vow is out now on Holy Roar. Purchase here.
Words: Chris “Frenchie” French
Yerûšelem – The Sublime
Blut Aus Nord are, as an entity, a compelling one. The less terrifying cousin of Deathspell Omega, the serpentine, shadowy French group have produced some impressive works, and splintering away from their cyclonic black core is The Sublime, the debut record from Yerûšelem.
Openly referencing the half-machine writhe of Godflesh, Vindsval and W.D. Feld combine forces to manifest this faceless, metallic tunnel of a record. Single ‘Reverso’ is as solid a representation of the album as you’re going to get, with ghostly, overlapping voices, rail-mounted drums and guitars that circle rather than crush you. The quietest moments are the most intriguing, both ‘Sound Over Matter’ and closer ‘Textures Of Silence’ carrying a greater, more sorrowful burden than the rest of this slightly ‘90s sounding album. Fans of anything Justin Broadrick has put his touch to will get a lot out of this, particularly the likes of ‘Triiiunity’ and ‘Eternal’. The introverted landscape painted with repeated listens is not without its charms, so if you dig this, you’ll really dig it.
The Sublime is out February 8th on Debemur Morti Productions. Purchase here.
Words: John Tron Davidson
Fever 333 – Strength In Numb333rs
Starting a new heavy project so soon after the dissolution of one of the world’s finest (post-)hardcore outfits seems a bit like throwing away a Big Mac just to instead dine on a Big King, but through last year’s largely underwhelming Made An America EP, Jason Aalon Butler’s new project showed that they aren’t simply letlive. 2.0, even if their debut album shares some lyrical ground with 2016’s If I’m The Devil….
Sounding a bit like Zach de la Rocha crashing the Epitaph Records roster, Strength In Numb333rs channels Rage Against The Machine through a newfangled lens, with an onslaught of clean choruses that call to mind the likes of Linkin Park. Sure, rap-rock is here, but the band avoid Limp Bizkit territory by taking more direct excursions into straight-up hip-hop, driving home their rousing call to arms through a mix of rap, anthemic choruses and chaotic post-hardcore, where Butler’s frothing yells most thrive. The album spends its first half introducing and nigh-on perfecting this blend, whilst its second half is more ambitious, crackling with a funky energy that carries the band into their various experiments. With diversity comes the odd misstep, particularly on ‘INGLEWOOD/3’, which drifts abruptly from an impressive hip-hop flow into a saccharine ballad that sucks all momentum out of proceedings and struggles to recuperate in its closing moments. Also here, though, is ‘AM I HERE?’, a more touching execution of the stripped-back approach, and all seven especially impressive minutes of ‘OUT OF CONTROL/3’.
For many, Fever 333 will lack the bite needed to truly hammer home their hopeful message of an inclusive future, but there’s certainly some passion and creativity here that’s to be commended.
Strength In Num333rs is out now on Roadrunner. Purchase here.
Words: George Parr
Tuskar – The Tide, Beneath, The Wall
Tuskar have come out of nowhere, smashing the UK live circuit over the last year and signing with Riff Rock Records. The Tide, Beneath, The Wall is their second EP and it thoroughly captures the raw power and high energy of their storming live shows. Being only a duo, they manage to pack a lot of depth into what is essentially just drums, guitar and vocals. Tyler Hodges treats the drums like a lead instrument, delivering such a versatile performance, and the duo bounce off one another, with three songs running at around 20 minutes, feeling like it could all be one giant song. ‘The Tide’ opens with slow, churning, droney riffs and somehow builds its way up to blastbeats and frantic guitar playing. This is punctuated with reverb heavy caveman vocals reminiscent of Conan.
The ebbs and flows of this EP are what will keep the listeners on their toes. Whilst hooked firmly in the sludge metal realm, Tuskar have found an exciting way of playing with unpredictable tempo changes that will throw listeners off at any given opportunity. The band also play with such tight precision, bonding with a psychic connection. Tuskar are one to watch in 2019.
The Tide, Beneath, The Wall is out now on Riff Rock. Purchase here.
Words: Chris “Frenchie” French
Mo’ynoq – Dreaming In A Dead Language
The opening moments of Dreaming In A Dead Language brought about a sense of dread. Not because the music was summoning demons or beings from The Beyond, but because it was instead bringing to mind some unholy union of the graceful majesty of blackgaze with the unsettling, demonic nature of atonal black metal – Deafheaven Omega, if you will – with neither element coming off well. Yet as the album progressed, these worries proved to be unfounded. Instead, North Carolina’s Mo’ynoq have crafted an album that draws from an array of sources, is loaded with emotion, and succeeds far more often than those first minutes might lead you to expect.
In a scene that delights in sub-genres, Mo’ynoq’s music is an uncomfortable fit. Is it black metal? Undoubtedly. There are elements of orthodox black metal, blackgaze, and modern USBM here; yet nor is Dreaming In A Dead Language a solid fit for any sub-genre. But what it is, is a triumph of adventurous songwriting; of twisting familiar forms into disturbing, ugly shapes; of giving zero fucks for convention. Not all moments work as intended (such as that opening minute) but given the ambition on display, such missteps are easily forgiven. By turns moving, unsettling, and constantly restless, Dreaming In A Dead Language is a mightily impressive debut album.
Dreaming In A Dead Language is out now. Purchase here.
Words: Stuart Wain
Goblinsmoker – Toad King
It’s hard to be a doom fan, or a metal fan in general for that matter, without having a strong threshold for gimmicks and silliness. Even the most uber-serious amongst us can’t pretend they haven’t listened to a band dressed in bizarre outfits, adorned in freaky masks or boasting their own mythology. Stack the likes of Slugdge or even Sunn O))) (both brilliant bands that are silly in their own way) up against this two-piece devoted to “telling the story of the Toad King, the discontented ruler of the goblins and their forest home”, and they’re not even worth batting an eyelid at. Indeed, for a band whose first track kicks off with the lyrics “toad king, worship him”, Durham’s Goblinsmoker aren’t half bad.
Toad King is more stoner than doom, but blackened edges give it more than a whiff of sludge. This combination is not entirely unique to Goblinsmoker, but the band wield it with some skill, offering up gargantuan servings of prime fuzz-soaked riffs drenched in churning grooves so satisfyingly infectious that they’ll swirl around the inside of your head like the melting bodies of goblins that froth and bubble inside the cauldron-sized end of the Toad King’s pipe. Now there’s a sentence that’s never been said before. Enjoyable stuff. Plus, that artwork is next level.
Toad King is out now on Sludgelord. Purchase here.
Words: George Parr
Astrophobos – Malice Of Antiquity
One of the most exciting things about following any band is hearing them progress. Now four releases in (not counting the one-off Simulacrum), Sweden’s Astrophobos have had plenty of time to sort out their identity, and on Malice Of Antiquity they appear to have done just that. This is a shame, because it’s hard to imagine the rabid-sounding band who recorded Arcane Secrets or the absolutely superb Remnants Of Forgotten Horrors looked forward to a record as ineffectual as this. ‘Descending Shadows’ is flimsy shanty toss, and ‘The Wolves Between The Stars’ only serves to highlight how pampy the drums sound, but the biggest sticking point here is the vocals. Where the early records got the balance right, the pirate-ghost piffle on offer here comes across as a bit silly, demolishing any menace the band had previously crafted. Disappointing to the nth degree, this is a case study in how to destroy momentum, though anyone fancying a bit of Melechesh-ian/early Amon-Amarthising aggro should bypass this drivel and make a beeline for Astrophobos’ first three records.
Malice Of Antiquity is out now on Triumvirate Records. Purchase here.
Words: John Tron Davidson