Listen here, people. Having a cat is a FULL-TIME JOB. Between taking care of him, plus my actual full-time job, plus everything else involved in being a functional adult, I’ve gotten moderately behind on my reviews. Like, really, really far behind. Like, at least four of the albums below deserve a full-length review, but if I keep putting off writing them until I have the time then they will never get written. Which is good news for you, because now you get to read a bunch of reviews in one fell swoop of albums that are likely to show up of many a “Best of” list at the end of 2018.
DevilDriver – Outlaws ‘til The End, Vol. 1
Much like Burn the Priest’s Legion: XX, DevilDriver’s collection of covers on Outlaws ‘til The End, Vol. 1 benefits from the unlikely scenario that much of their fanbase will be familiar with the source material. Maybe more than any other genre, there just isn’t a lot of crossover interest in metal and country (yes, even OUTLAW country, whatever the fuck that is). Personally, I was only familiar with two or three of the tracks that they chose to cover here, leaving the merit of the music in it’s own hands rather than it’s success as a cover. And you know what? In a country-less vacuum, they’re pretty damn good.
Calling in help from Randy Blythe (Lamb of God/Burn the Priest), Brock Lindow (36 Crazyfists), and many, many others, Outlaws ‘til The End, Vol. 1 is a wildly fun listen. I never would have thought beforehand, but the subject matter from these tracks lend themselves almost perfectly to a metal makeover (I’m assuming OUTLAW country tends to be a bit darker than the Garth Brooks and Tim McGraws of the world, as least if this album is any proof). It was mildly surprising to see frontman Dez Fafara take a backseat on most tracks to the many guest vocalists, but his voice adds a nice aggressive complement on most tracks, and the music is more than heavy enough for metalheads of most shapes and sizes. COUNTLESS bonus points awarded for covering Steve Earle’s classic, “Copperhead Road”, one of a small handful of country songs I’ll ever admit to enjoying.
“Country Heroes”, “Copperhead Road”
Immortal – Northern Chaos Gods
Every pre-and-re view that I’ve read on this album is built around the framework of Northern Chaos Gods being Immortal’s first album without former guitarist/vocalist Abbath, who left the band on less-than-great terms back in 2015. Luckily for me, I’ve never really listened to Immortal before, so the album was served to me on a nice, clean plate. And keeping with the analogy, Northern Chaos Gods is a goddamn filet mignon the size of your head served with a side of tacos level of awesome.
Black Metal (and more specifically, European black metal) tends to bore me, as no amount of evil lyrics, or demonic growls, or expertly applied corpse paint can make up for the fact that it tends to sound really, really repetitive. Somehow, someway, us Americans have found the way to put an interesting spin on black metal, be it Panopticon’s infusion of folk and country, Deafheaven’s mixture of light, melodic alternative rock (more on that next week), or Zeal and Ardor’s Black Keys-meets-Mayhem fusion of black metal and blues (see below!). But Immortal have made one of the most fun & energetic black metal albums I’ve ever heard from the other side of the pond in Northern Chaos God, with more than enough evil to satisfy the most TRVE KVLT among us, all while throwing out some of the most memorable riffs around.
Honestly, there isn’t a weak track among the eight on the record, starting with the thrashy, vicious title track and closing with ”Mighty Ravendark”, which thrust itself right into the mix for song of the year from the moment I hit play for the first time.
“Northern Chaos Gods”, “Called to Ice”, “Mighty Ravendark”
Khemmis – Desolation
Since I started electronically putting my metal thoughts down on paper 5 or 6 years ago, there are only 3 albums I can think of that I would call “perfect”. The Dillinger Escape Plan’s One of Us is the Killer, Bell Witch’s Mirror Reaper, and Khemmis’ Hunted, the critical darling of 2016 that thrust the band onto the worldwide metal map. Knowing that, I knew going in that there was no chance that the band’s 2018 follow-up Desolation could live up to the standard that Hunted set before it. And guess what? It doesn’t. But very few bands are able to put out a single record that reaches the level of awesomeness of Hunted, let alone two, so that shouldn’t stop you from appreciating Desolation for what it is: a fantastic fusion of doom and rock that shows that Khemmis is still willing to take musical risks even after the success of Hunted. Desolation shows a lot of creative growth from Khemmis, and being the 2nd-best record in their arsenal is a pretty impressive place to be.
At 6 songs and just over 30 minutes long, Desolation shows the band taking a more streamlined approach to their sound than Hunted, with lead single “Isolation” being the most radio-friendly track the band has released to date. And while that is typically metal code for “shitty”, I actually mean that as a compliment in this instance. “Isolation” shows Khemmis doing their best Iron Maiden impression, dropping the catchiest riff of their career over thunderous tribal drums and their trademark doom-laden croons. While it may not be the best song they’ve ever released, it is the most accessible, and stands a good chance to get the band further exposure with its ability to attract those outside of the doom-o-sphere.
Album closer “From Ruin”, while not as instantly addictive as “Isolation”, may prove to be the best track on the record, with its slow, lurching pace and dramatic vocals crafting one of the most intense experiences on Desolation. It’s the track that’s closest stylistically to those on Hunted, and with each subsequent listen it gets better and better. While “The Seer” may be my least favorite track from the band yet, 5 of the 6 songs on Desolation are some degree of magnificent, and for that reason Desolation, despite not living up to its predecessor, is still one of the finest achievements of 2018.
“Isolation”, “Flesh to Nothing”, “From Ruin”
The Night Flight Orchestra – Sometimes the World Ain’t Enough
If you aren’t familiar with the Night Flight Orchestra, the band features a bunch of heavy-hitters from the Swedish metal scene (including Soilwork frontman Bjorn Strid and Arch Enemy bassist Sharlee D’Angelo) doing their best Rush/YES impression. 2017’s Amber Galactic was my first exposure to the band, and my love of 70’s prog turned me onto their style instantly. While the concept may sound a little gimmicky, there was nothing gimmicky about Amber Galactic, which was 30 years late to being once of the best 70’s rock albums of all time.
On Sometimes the World Ain’t Enough, the band backs off the rock side of their sound a bit to further embrace the sound of the decade they’re trying to emmulate. The unfortunate side effect of this decision is that the album DOES sound gimmicky. The piano, and the sleaze, and the over-the-top love ballads are just too much to bear. Sure, it’s still a fun listen, but if I still bought physical copies of albums I would have worn out Amber Galactic last year from how many spins I gave it. About 3 listens in, I’m pretty sure I’ve had all of the fun I can with Sometimes the World Ain’t Enough. While “Paralyze” can stand up with any of the tracks off Amber Galactic, it may go down as the only memorable song from this album.
“This Time”, “Paralyzed”, “Can’t Be That Bad”
YOB – Our Raw Heart
I won’t sit here and pretend that I’m the world’s longest-running YOB fan. You, dear reader, deserve the truth. I’ve really only started listening to the band over the last couple of years as I’ve started to get more and more into doom, and in particular doom of the sprawling, epic variety. I can’t sit here and say that Our Raw Heart is the greatest YOB album ever, as I haven’t spent enough time with their older works to make that decision. What I can tell you is that THIS ALBUM IS FUCKING AMAZING AND GO LISTEN TO IT RIGHT FUCKING NOW AND WHAT ARE YOU WAITING FOR!?!??!?!?!?!?
If you are unfamiliar with the backstory, a lot of the inspiration for the record comes from the near-death experience and grueling recovery of frontman Mike Scheidt back in 2016 & 2017 thanks to a particularly miserable diagnosis of acute diverticulitis. It’s hard to grasp the emotional toll that such an event can take on a person, but goddamn if Scheidt doesn’t convey it better than I could imagine with his soulful and anguished screams on Our Raw Heart. Each and every track on this record is a journey full of pain, full of fear, and more often than not, full of hope. His growls (like on “The Screen” and “Original Face”) are some of the most powerful and most ferocious of the year. His singing (“Beauty in Falling Leaves” and the title track) and some of the most delicate and heartfelt of the year. The music on the record packs an unbelievable punch, and yet the band, in true YOB fashion, never rushes their sound to create something artificially heavy. The emotional weight of the music packs more than enough doom on its own.
YOB’s calling-card is the sprawling and exploratory nature of their sound, and that is when they’re at their finest. When I saw the band live in NYC last week (amazing doesn’t even begin to describe the show), my only complaint was that they didn’t play “Beauty in Falling Leaves”, far and away my favorite track from Our Raw Heart. Clocking in at an impressive 16:27, the track is a wandering exploration of everything that makes YOB wonderful. It may be the strongest metal track lyrically this year, and every facet of the music takes you on an ethereal journey through pain, joy, loss, and acceptance.
“Ablaze”, “Beauty in Falling Leaves”
Zeal & Ardor – Stranger Fruit
Black Metal likes to pat itself on the back for how evil and dark it thinks it is. Well a bunch of nerdy Norwegian teens talking about how much they hate god isn’t dark. Slavery? That was fucking DARK. Zeal & Ardor mastermind Manuel Gagneux mixes black metal, rock and blues into a fantastic goulash of soul all based on a foundation of American slave songs. That, just be definition, is SO MUCH MORE METAL than 90% of the music on the market today. However much you may think that franken-monster of sounds shouldn’t work, that’s how much it works. Stranger Fruit will have you tapping your toe at every turn and banging your head in between.
With the fuzzy, bluesy appeal of the Black Keys and a level of evil that you run-of-the-mill black metal band could only dream of achieving, Stranger Fruit is about as ambitious as a metal album can be. While the album deserves all the credit it gets for blending the sounds together, what it truly deserves credit for is just how good each style is on it’s own. I have no doubt that Zeal & Ardor would be just as successful a soul band as they would be a straight-forward black metal act. It’s their ability to excel in both worlds that allows them to cross back and forth so seamlessly in their music. Never before has black metal been so insanely dance-able.
“Servants”, “Row Row”, “Ship on Fire”, “We Can’t Be Found”