THE GRIM PRINCESS – December In Rotation
WITHERFALL – A Prelude to Sorrow
2018, Century Media
Reduced to a state of quivering wreckitude after spending two weeks deep in the trenches with 1914‘s The Blind Leading the Blind (which subsequently made it to the top spot on my AOTY list), I needed someone to provide the sonic equivalent of a therapist’s couch for me to piece together all the emotions that I’d just had shot to pieces, and then feel the hell out of them again. Witherfall delivered such catharsis. Deceptively simple first single ‘Ode to Despair’ caught my eye, but I wasn’t thoroughly sold until I gave this, their second album after 2017’s Nocturnes and Requiems, my undivided attention – which it commanded from the off. Many words have been penned about the story behind this album – that it was composed and even named with their deceased former drummer Adam Paul Sagan at its epicentre (APS = A Prelude to Sorrow) and is one hell of an elegant monument to their grief – but you needn’t even know the backstory to appreciate how huge this album is. It ended up making #2 on my year-end list after 1914, in fact. Standout track – for me, at least – ‘We Are Nothing’ is eleven minutes long and nothing’s done it for me this past twelve months the way this song has. I’m sure it’s illegal to experience that much pleasure on public transport. The future’s looking bright for Witherfall’s binary mastermind. Joseph Michael seems set to work on new music with Sanctuary following a positive critical response to his stint as their vocalist on the band’s farewell tour following the loss of Warrel Dane, and the annoyingly young Jake Dreyer will no doubt continue as lead guitarist in Iced Earth. But I hope they continue to nurture Witherfall, now dear to many people’s hearts, though what a third, truly post-Sagan Witherfall album might look like is currently a mystery.
HELLEBORUS – The Carnal Sabbath
2016, Satanath Records
If you thought Akhenaten‘s Golden Serpent God dropped out of the sky in 2018, you’ll rejoice to discover that the brothers Houseman (from that Mecca of metal, Colorado) have a little black metal project named after the naughty toxic flower that gave a whole city of Greeks diarrhea in the 6th century BC. Putting that bit of trivia back in its box, the project’s aim is, they tell us, to ‘push[…] the exploration of traditional black metal into the uncharted territory of sensual duality and mysticism,‘ and they actually do a very good job, not that I claim to be an expert on sensual duality, or mysticism. Whilst not as brilliantly realised as what they’ve done recently as Akhenaten, The Carnal Sabbath makes promises that are fully delivered on Golden Serpent God, and for that reason it’s worth plunging into if you liked the sound of the latter. It may not have the middle eastern instrumentation, but it’s no less atmospheric for it (verging on psychedelic at times), and is absolutely rammed full of riffs. Soundscape-wise, I’m gonna confide that it calls to mind the planet of Na Pali in the classic 90s game Unreal: richly textured, dark, fertile, spiritual, and S. Wyatt Houseman’s vocals are definitely those of a demented reptilian Skaarj-like overlord. Helleborus have recently announced a new album for 2019, and given that pretty much everything these guys touch turns to gold, I reckon this’ll definitely be a poisonous bouquet worth taking to your bosom.
DØDSRITUAL – Under Sort Sol
2017, Black Market Metal
By contrast to the erotic/esoteric tones of Helleborus, Dødsritual is ‘misanthropic Luciferian black metal’ from Norway, so you’d expect it to be somewhat less… user-friendly. But truth be told, this has been one of my favourite albums since its release in 2017, and I’ve been searching for something as emotionally resonant since then without much success. We can’t really help what encloses us in its grip. Dødsritual are a two-man band comprising of lifelong friends Nevresch (guitars) and Undertrykker (drums, vocals), who previously recorded as Ravner, and then as Hat. The Dødsritual project is intended to be more experimental than their previous ventures, to be less focused on replicating the sound of the black metal of the 90s and instead about representing the “diversity in the damaged human mind,” with little regard for whether the end result fits into the old structures. It certainly represents the diversity in this damaged human’s mind, though I have to say it is also succinct and tight as fuck musically, and has everything you loved about the classics of early melodic black metal with an added progressive moment here and there. The standout for me has always been ‘Lost in the Remains,’ which makes me feel like I’m running in slow motion through a crumbling labyrinth. Dødsritual also released a short but sweet split with the Dutch black metal band Black Command in 2017, but I heard nothing from them in 2018. If any readers saw them live last year, or have any further news about what they’re up to, I’d be delighted to hear about it.
HORN – Retrograd EP
2018, Iron Bonehead Productions
Historically, I have eschewed a lot of EPs and demos, because I like to sink my teeth into good music and not have to let it go for at least 47 minutes. I’m realising the folly of this approach though, and one my new year’s metalutions is certainly to pay more attention to the short, stubby, and raw. As much as I shielded my eyes in 2018, I couldn’t ignore EP blinders from Master Boot Record, Night Crowned, Dream Tröll and Necropanther, among others. Prolific German pagan black metal largely-one-man band (and boy is Nerrath large) Horn was the first of the year to steal my heart. This is his first EP after seven full-lengths, and is a deconstructed approach to the pagan/folk metal sound, with two instrumentals serving to introduce their vicious BM counterparts, with the final two tracks melding both sounds into one, like some kind of eventual union of man with nature. It’s glorious. The sound is richer than ever before, with a cellist driving the final track ‘De Einder,’ which is practically folk-doom and features a cleaner, more melancholic vocal style for the usually booming or snarling Nerrath. It suits him. With a new release in the forge for 2019, I’m intrigued to find out whether he carries this new style into the project’s future releases.
RUDRA – Enemy of Duality
2016, Transcending Obscurity Asia
Vedic metal is well worth a deep dive, if you’re looking for a project in 2019 – though you don’t have to dive particularly deep to discover Singapore’s Rudra, who gave the genre its name and continue to dominate over 25 years into the game. They’re signed to Transcending Obscurity, but appear to have not yet done so: it’s criminal how little-known they are (you’ll have heard vocalist/bassist Kathir on Rotting Christ‘s Rituals, however). If you are looking for somewhere to start, their latest full-length, 2016’s Enemy of Duality, is a more than worthy introduction. Based on an early medieval exposition of the Mandukya Upanishad (a Hindu text – the Upanishads are often referred to as Vedanta), it is a raw fusion of black/death metal with traditional Indian folk influences. After a few interesting compilations in 2018, Rudra are now planning to release their ninth full-length later in the year, and as far as I’m concerned, Satan’s gone into retirement: the future of metal is with the descendants of bands like these guys.