There’s so much good metal. What else is there to do but write about it?
Mare Cognitum & Spectral Lore – Wanderers: Astrology of the Nine
We all knew Wanderers: Astrology of the Nine was going to be an event, or as close to an “event” as underground black metal can get. Portland, Oregon’s Mare Cognitum and Greece’s Spectral Lore have been building noteworthy discographies of cosmic black metal for nearly a decade now. Prior to Wanderers the pair released Sol in 2018. Sol bore the fingerprints of each project while breaking new ground for both. We haven’t heard much from either since and for good reason: Wanderers is overwhelming. Which, of course it is. This is a concept album about the nine planets in our solar system. It’s not overwhelming in the way Esoctrilihum, Skáphe, or any avant-garde black metal act is. Mare Cognitum and Spectral Lore aren’t looking to be impenetrable or knowingly complicated. If MC and SL break anyone’s brain, it’s only because of how eager they are to overload our senses with impossibly grand and Earth-moving black metal alchemy. To put it as simply as possible: It’s like if 2001: A Space Odyssey was just two hours of Jupiter & Beyond the Infinite.
We were given two singles in the lead up to Wanderers: Mare Cognitum’s “Mars (The Warrior)” and Spectral Lore’s “Earth (The Mother)”. “Mars” was all black metal chaos: Swarming guitars stabbing in an out from each angle in an act of violence on the entire black metal genre. “Earth” was the more subdued of the two. “Earth” takes it’s time building on layers of contemplative guitar heroics before the final stretch explodes in expansive psychedelia. Those two tracks would’ve been enough to propel MC and SL through the 2020 metal zeitgeist and somehow they don’t even begin to capture the scope of the whole album. In retrospect, “Mars” and “Earth” look somewhat contained. Tracks like “Jupiter (The Giant)” and “Uranus (The Fallen)” don’t want to end. And why should they? Each time you think MC or SL have hit the track’s peak, they’re onto another trip before you can fully process what you just heard.
It’s difficult to pick a standout when the entire tracklist functions as one massive highlight reel. If I have to pick one it’s the mammoth closer “Pluto (The Gatekeeper Part II – The Astral Bridge)”. It’s the moment where MC and SL’s orbits finally collide and produce black metal’s answer to Master of Puppets. I’ve been listening to Wanderers nearly everyday for over a month and I’m still overwhelmed by it. Really diving into Wanderers makes black metal feel small. It’s the same way really looking at stars in the night sky affirms your relative size in the grand scheme of it all. Those scrappy Norwegian basement dwelling youths were the first steps toward this post-Wanderers existence we’re inhabiting and yet, MC and SL feel world’s apart from Mayhem and Darkthrone. Even in the context of 2020, no one quite touches what the two have accomplished here. I have no idea what this will all lead to but I couldn’t be more excited for black metal to step further into that unknown.
Sweven – The Eternal Resonance
Morbus Chron was a pretty bigger deal. Sweven was an even bigger deal. The Swedish bands 2014 sophomore effort quickly became a touchstone of 2010s death metal. Prior to Sweven, plenty of death metal bands took inspiration from psychedelic music. Morbus Chron took things further by operating within their own kind of dream logic. There’s death metal by way of LSD and then there’s Dali with riffs. After reaching one of the finest artistic peaks of the decade, Morbus Chron made the smart move and disbanded. We can speculate where Morbus Chron would’ve ended up, but Sweven may provide the answer. Sweven is the power trio led by Morbus Chron’s vocalist Robert Andersson. It’s a bold move to name your new band after your prior band’s most beloved album. But there truly isn’t a better name. Like Morbus Chron, Sweven wants to take you places.
Calling Sweven old school death metal is an oversimplification. Sure, they play death metal in the “traditional” style, but the only things that are traditional about Sweven are the guitar tones and their clear affinity for Entombed. The Eternal Resonance is an uncommonly stirring death metal album full of elements that could bring a tear to your eye if caught at the right moment. “By Virtue of a Promise” is introduced through massive arena ready guitars that even carry a bit of Prince gravitas. Pianos and acoustic guitars are frequently utilized for goth atmospheres as opposed to the typical horror film soundtrack interludes. The album even feels confident and natural when Sweven incorporate new wave guitars and rhythms into their death metal excursions like at the midway point on “The Sole Importance”. It’s only April it’s hard to believe this year will produce another debut album as assured and fully formed as The Eternal Resonance.
Sadness – Alluring the distant eye
It’s understandable if you haven’t spent any time with Sadness. It’s easy to view the overcrowded field of one-man post black metal projects as little more than white-noise at this point. If you’re only going to keep an eye on just one one-man post black metal project, make sure it’s Sadness. The project first showed up on my radar last year with I Want to Be There and Circle of Veins. I Want to Be There was sun-drenched blackgaze that bore a passing resemblance to a lo-fi take on Deafheaven’s Sunbather. “I Want to Be With You” and “You Dance Like the June Sky” presented wistful black metal in the midst of a heatstroke. Circle of Veins was the more experimental of the two and often explored an intersection between post black metal and post punk. If nothing else, Sadness wasn’t a purist.
Sadness has already stuck to the relentless release schedule by dropping the atna EP in February and now Alluring the distant eye. Rather than rehashing shades of blackgaze or post punk, Sadness has taken queues from depressive-suicidal black metal. Much like the subgenre’s best practitioners, Sadness turns it into something life-affirming. Large swaths of Alluring the distant eye don’t register as metal until shrieked vocals ride along Mount Erie acoustics or Grouper ambience. When blast beats and tremolo picked guitars eventually show up on “Shallow streams and She”, they’re muted and numb as if they’re tip-toeing around the room trying not to get sucked into the atmosphere. On “Sky You Feel” Sadness proves they can rip just as hard as anyone else as droning synths unexpectedly break into numbing thrash metal ready to dissolve at a moment’s notice. The twenty-two minute “Cerulean” merges sky-gazing leads, head-bang-able riffing, and dour synths for some of the most gutting melancholy Sadness has achieved yet.
Old Man Gloom – Seminar IX: Darkness of Being
In these scary and uncertain times, it’s comforting to know we can still count on Old Man Gloom. With so many artists pushing back the release dates of their upcoming albums, the sludge metal stalwarts went ahead and released the follow-up to Seminar VIII: Light of Meaning, which is scheduled to arrive in May. Ya know, about a month and change after its followup’s release. This kind of thing isn’t new for Old Man Gloom. We last heard from the supergroup back in 2014 when they simultaneously released two separate albums both of which are titled The Ape of God. There was also a third unreleased album that was sent to critics months in advance as the promo. That album was also titled The Ape of God. If Death Grips did that, the music business would implode. Fortunately, Old Man Gloom’s personnel have built up enough goodwill to fuck with us every few years.
The band is made up of Aaron Turner (formerly Isis, Sumac), Nate Newton (Converge), Santos Montano (Zozobra), and Stephen Brodsky (Cave In, Mutoid Man, formerly Converge). Brodsky recently became Old Man Gloom’s bass player after Caleb Scofield’s untimely passing. Each of these guys has had a hand in shaping the modern undergrounds of metal and hardcore. With a roster like that, it’s reasonable to expect a lot. And you should expect a lot. Just like any other Old Man Gloom album, Seminar IX is a lot. The band primarily sticks to gnarly sludge and smoldering doom while allowing the tracklist to get as messy as it ought to be. Harsh noise, punishing drones, and bizarre song structures all make frequent appearances. The band even made room for their approximation of a country song with “Dead Rhymes”. In the current state of the world few things sound quite as good as the closing one-two punch of “In Your Name” and “Love is Bravery”. Both tracks find Old Man Gloom making a loud plea for community, love, and a brighter outlook. If any band is gonna get us through 2020, it’s Old Man Gloom. Strange times, indeed.