2013 Mid-Year Album Roundup: Metal

Tue Jul 16 2013

Round three of playing catch-up on a small amount of 2013 music.  Read on for reviews of new albums by Across Tundras, Cult Of Luna, The Fall Of Every Season, Fen, Intronaut, Nero Di Marte, October Tide and Portal.

Across Tundras, Electric Relics

This album is somewhat of a throwback to a simpler era of Across Tundras, when Tanner Olson's anthemic dirges didn't veer heroic or melodic or country, instead maintaining the tight balance between epic, pastoral and doom that originally set this project apart from all other known bands (and still does).  "Lately I've been pining for the gravel roads of my childhood", Olson sings on the opening track, a fitting encapsulation of his entire career perhaps, but also emblematic of an abandonment of any semblance of poetry on this album.  Tanner has never been a master of melody, but his gruff, half-spoken vocals are only marginally musical on this album, making for an overall darker experience than usual, but also a less engaging one than on 2011's career-highlight Sage.  The instrumentation is somewhat more intriguing than the words, although it's similarly oppressive; there's a despairing wind-down in "Den Of Poison Snakes" that will suck you right in, and the depressing/cautionary waltz "Solar Ark" features some of Tanner's most soulful but restrained guitar work yet.  But "Pining For Gravel Roads", "Driftless Caravan" and "Castaway" all recycle familiar Tanner six-string patterns and get that trademarked tempo-booster for added grandiosity.  Sure, these are essential elements of what sets Olson apart from the pack as a songwriter, but this is the first instance where it seems like almost all of his new ideas are very derivative of old ones.  The most original moments on the album are instrumental fragments "Kiln Of The First Flame" and "Seasick Serenade"; the former is a textural, delirious nightmare of mournful sound, and the latter is a relatively sprightly acoustic theme that you'll wish could've become a real song.  I'll happily look at Electric Relics as a transitional album, and hope that the few notable bits get developed more on the next Across Tundras record.

Cult Of Luna, Vertikal

I approached this album with the same attitude as I've ended up with regarding every previous Cult Of Luna album: bad.  Of all the post-metal Isis imitators, CoL has been the most blatant, the most prominent, and the most steadfast.  Carrying a torch dropped by the now-defunct game-changers doesn't hold any water with me, so it pains me to admit that I really fucking like this album.  It still makes me think of Isis about ten times per song on average, but not every second of every song.  That's progress.  For another thing, CoL's ambition has finally surpassed rote sludge/slow-hardcore territory, allowing for a gargantuan epic like "Vicarious Redemption" to develop from a patient ambient soundscape into a brazen metallic assault over the course of eighteen minutes, not one of them dull.  CoL has also found a way to incorporate tasteful electronic flourishes in a way that's not industrial and not gimmicky, merely adding texture and, yes, emotion to an already thick and potent brew of dynamic sound.  In this way, these Swedish bastards have done something I have to admit I would have rooted against if I ever thought it was possible for CoL of all bands to accomplish it.  They have succeeded at something that Isis attempted and totally failed to pull off.  Aw, craep.

The Fall Of Every Season, Amends

It's tempting to put this project in the progressive death metal basket, but the growls are really the only thing brutal about Amends.  At heart, it's more of a stoner/retro-doom record, with quieter moments that hearken back to everything from Sabbath to Slayer to Shining, although the most prominent influence has to be Opeth; Marius Strand, who is TFoES all by himself, does sound quite a bit like Mikael Åkerfeldt when he sings.  There's nothing overly technical going on in the music, but the thematic shifts, clean vocal harmonies and twisty-turny intertwining guitars evoke a very progressive feel without a trace of the genre's cheesy tendencies.  Maybe we drop the adjectives altogether and just call it metal, because through and through, it's the embodiment of all the characteristics we love about all the different types, and powerfully beautiful for the most part.  The slow section of "The Mammoth" does get a bit tedious, and the songs themselves don't leap out at you as modern classics (although "Aurelia" comes close, and the stirring lead guitar work at the peak of "Come, Waves" is pretty monumental), but each one is a stirring heart-wrencher in itself, leaving you with a palpable ache if you're inclined to feel such things.  With such a long gap between albums (debut From Below came out in 2007) it seems futile to hope for the grand masterwork that you can envision TFoES creating on the heels of Amends, but you could easily keep enjoying this one for a good six years to come.

Fen, Dustwalker

This is another band I've not been overly impressed with in the past; its 2009 debut The Malediction Fields seemed like a dull bandwagon-leap, and while 2011's Epoch was a definite improvement, it didn't stack up to the hordes of more interesting and powerful atmospheric black metal that was coming out at the time.  With Dustwalker, Fen seems to have said 'fuck it, let's just be a metal band', and hot damn, they made a great fucking metal album.  The opening track "Consequence" smacks of the old days until it builds up in the end with some subtle chugging, and then "Hands Of Dust" reveals the band's newfound songwriting potency, a patient and ultimately epic swath of sonorous desolation building to a frenzied roar of agony.  "Spectre" is essentially a post-rock ballad, and a gorgeous one; not complex at all, just sublimely constructed and crushing at its peak.  Listening to the other highlights, "Wolf Sun" and "Walking The Crowpath", the complementary heavy and soft elements are so confluent it makes me feel like Fen has evolved into a black metal Opeth, and maybe this is its Your Arms, My Hearse.  One can only hope.

Intronaut, Habitual Levitations

Someone had to come along and fill the void between Tool and Baroness, I suppose.  Although Intronaut weighs in a bit heavier than either of those bands, it does balance the meaty, bassy prog of commercial rock radio's erstwhile saviors (touring with Tool in early 2012 obviously had a profound effect) with the vocal harmonies and stylistic eclecticism of Georgia's most famous bus-crash survivors.  The approach is timely, and the band performs competently, even admirably at times.  The only thing that's missing is SONGS.  The songwriters of Intronaut haven't mastered the arts of dynamic development or blending styles together; in fact, they've gotten worse at it.  Years ago they were a scrappy, mathy and significantly heavier band, but they seemed inspired.  Now they've decided to pull a Baroness, mainstreaming their sound into something much more melodic and radio-friendly, except Baroness's Yellow & Green is full of amazing songs and Habitual Levitations has none.  Intronaut especially doesn't know how to end songs.  When the heavy guitars ambush the end of "The Welding", they're supposed to stun you but they just sound puzzlingly out of place.  The end sections of "Steps" (beginning with the vapid "The day is done/The day is won/Take us back to the night" part) and "Milk Leg" are musical Ambien.  "Eventual" is the only track where everything comes together and the music flows and crushes when it needs to; there are some solid riffs in "Killing Birds With Stones" and the end of "Sore Sight For Eyes", but these titles might give you some indication of how not-clever these guys are with words, and Sacha Dunable's voice simply doesn't have much character or evoke any passion.  There's nothing inherently wrong with developing into a more universally palatable rock band, but Intronaut seems to have lost its creative spark along with the rough-hewn riffs and guttural vocals.

Nero Di Marte, Nero Di Marte

Mathy, grinding hardcore got a major shot in the arm last year with the triumphant return of Converge, but nobody else does it quite that well, so cut Nero Di Marte a little slack; its style isn't as invigorating, eclectic or brutal, but this album is still one of the best albums of the past decade that could fall under the dreaded metalcore umbrella.  Plenty of squealing harmonics and a squall of vocal howls and growls pepper opening track "Convergence" (WHOOPS), and the track chugs its way through a contorted mixture of styles with relative naturalism.  The band showcases its softer side on "Time Dissolves", which is the closest thing to a ballad a typical fan of extreme music could possibly stomach; it's a gut-churning voyage all the same, and somehow the impressive drumming of Marco Bolognini doesn't take away from the somber mood.  The pensive and brutal sides of the band grapple back and forth with each other throughout the album, coming to a thrilling climax with the title track (whose central riff I'm going to assume is unwittingly borrowed from Phish's "The Happy Whip And Dung Song") and very satisfying denouement in "Drawn Back".  The only real weak spot is the cobbled-together final track, "Anoptikon", which serves to highlight the main weaknesses of the album as a whole: no great original riffs or unifying vision.  The performance is impressive and full of passion, and all the songs but one are engaging, but it's all kind of been done before.  Nevertheless, the dynamic between melody, atmosphere and raw aggression makes for a great gateway-metal opportunity; it never gets shockingly abrasive or offensive, but it's genuine and meaty to the bone.

October Tide, Tunnel Of No Light

If you're looking for epic riffage, Tunnel Of No Light is one of your best options so far in 2013.  The glacial chugs of "Our Constellation", "Caught In Silence" and "In Hopeless Pursuit" are sure to warm the heart of anyone who takes comfort in the banging of the head.  Yet as colossally heavy as this vintage death/doom is, it will appeal to the novice as well as the extremist.  It's not only one of my favorite metal releases of the year so far, it's one I'd encourage any curious fledgling metalhead to check out.  New vocalist Alexander Högbom's wicked growls should be relatively easy to decipher even for a casual listener, and October Tide's patient melodicism...okay, it's not pop music!  It's just supremely well-crafted songs, and as anguished and punishing as this music is, there are hooks and you can feel them.  This record is the natural progression of the tortured, cathartic outpourings of early Katatonia, and the Normann brothers remind us on this record just how essential their contributions were to the quintessential era of that band as well.  It's a wonderful sound.

Portal, Vexovoid

Portal is metal, basically because what else could you classify it as?  The demonic growls and ultra-guttural guitars are the domain of metal, but really Portal is in its own category, possibly sitting one step down from Blut Aus Nord's MoRT as a scathing ordeal of terrifying noise, except that MoRT evoked more of a panicked despair while Vexovoid is more of a malicious assault.  That said, it is probably the band's most accessible, song-oriented work yet.  And yes, it's absurd to describe anything Portal does as "accessible", but perhaps in 50 years fans of the most extreme extant music will look at this record as quaint; who can tell?  Everything's relative; I used to be scared of Led Zeppelin, after all.  I mean, there are discernible riffs on this album, beats you can follow along to, and if you really concentrate, words.  The point is that not just as a statement or album as a whole, but as songs, these work.  I can't call this a flat-out masterpiece, but to create comprehensible pieces of music within this unforgiving stylistic framework is a pretty massive achievement.  As a whole, the listening experience is a visceral thrill like none other, not quite as caustic as past albums but maybe more subversive because of it. 

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