% interment in measured tones [death metal reviews] In the name of the father, of the son...from the parallelograms of heat muted to light I modulated into the darkened room smelling of stale bread and eroded grease odors. Above the thick skin of checkerboarded red and white tablecloth the face of my friend Ed caught the fractured triangle of reflection, closing his eye to a squint. "Barf christ," he scowled. "Hasn't been a great day." These were the days when we could view days individually, before they began to integrate into patterns, progressions, marriages, jobs, or various cycles of decay that we learned to dread our way through. Right then it was finding a place, staying, finding a job, moving on. "So what's new on your mind?" The flies clustered like broken petrified logs in a corner, odd angulars into a society. "Not that much. Some crisis at the radio station, transmitter melted or something under the force of our air conditioner, they finally fixed it. With the condition of most of that stuff I'm just glad nothing blew up on us. Almost got a ticket, but - I saw this in the cop's eye - he saw a black Mercedes pull an illegal U, and damn, I was off free and he was turning, a bulking steel shark, off down the street after him." "Lucky." My experiences had been less pleasantly resolved in recent memories of that area. Through the suffocating static smother of the store speakers a hard bluesrock tune came on under the enthusiastic voice of the female DJ, who had trouble pronouncing the phrase "coming in concert" over the sound. Ed looked up annoyedly at the speakers. The front of a woman ducked in front of us to put a couple glasses of ice tea on the table, and then, folding back the battered paper of her pad, asked us to give her orders to write down on green and white thick bond. Ed looked at me a bit quizzically. "Chile relleno," I said starkly. More silence for Ed to read the bareprinted words above his finger. "Two enchilada, dos equis," he said, folding the menus into her hands. In her absence of sudden: "So what's new on your end?" I separated the four-ply napkin by twisting a corner with some sweat from my thumb. "Um, not much. Sending in some reviews of the past three months or so in death metal." Took in some ice tea, remembering someone telling me that's it's good for the throat when you do the hoarse distorted shout most of the death vocalists prefer. Ed drank from his as well. "It hasn't been a bad few months, actually. The problem with death metal is the same thing that initially protected it: the extremity of it. When you listen to something where the guy is vomiting on the mike and the music is all extreme, disconnected, nihilistic, everywhere, you're initially pulling back somewhat. That's what most of the world did. But at the same time that began as a mark of death metal's exclusivity, that also became its primary point of recognition, leading to a generation of fans who went for anything that followed some rhythmic and vocal elements, namely percussive and low, respectively." Ed nodded. I didn't sense that he cared any more that day than normal about death metal, but he gets into it sometimes, and besides, I was rolling steady. Also, he had just taken a large mouthful of enchilada and couldn't protest. I love a captive audience. "For a while there, as a result, it was all the same goo, guys meeting those qualifications and adding some gimmick, whether name or appearance. It got pretty gross, and I was about to throw in the towel, but couldn't give up my show, couldn't give up Morbid Angel." Ed knows how much I like Morbid Angel myself and seems to enjoy it thoroughly when I play it in his presence, and has also been a supporter of my show from the beginning. "But two things happened: the fan base got huge, but also spread out the available resources, leaving the smaller labels that signed crap bands heading for financial consumption, and labels began getting choosier. The smarter edge of the fan base got much more careful about what they bought. For a while it looked good again, but soon more of the commercial element came in, with bands like Sepultura and Entombed selling out, and big bands like Cannibal Corpse making it big in the mainstream United States. The only thing that saves us from these people is that their music remains fairly insipid and unsatisfying. Too many fans are buying tons of music, really digging the aesthetic but unable to deal with the simplicity and uninventiveness of the music. A whole lot of them bailed the scene. But at the same time the older bands began to get acquainted with their instruments and starting putting out better metal. And the newer crew looks pretty good. Originally, death was concept music, of brutality and a heaviness nothing else could touch. The philosophy's expanded, and a lot of stuff has come in, but not much from the dangerous side of things, the so-called 'alternative' scene. When bands want to sell out they tell us how they're putting in some 'alternative' influences." I gulped ice tea with an expulsion of air. "But most of the stuff has just gotten more serious on the musical end, which is fine by me. For a while there, it was getting as bad as the punk bands: we play with more 'feel,' etc. I think there's feel in music, but I think that feel comes from the odd collusion of intellect and emotion in a discipline, like making music. It's rock, sure, but it's art too if it's serious. Varathron was the band that first impressed me. It's pure black metal, but the older kind, which is more musical and more like older heavy metal. It's harmonic in nature; they play chords and don't just stream notes at high speed. It still has the death vocals, and uses some modern metal elements, but at heart it's tonal rock, pretty basic but not simple at all. There's a lot of variation in riff structure and in song layout, as well as some interesting experimentation with harmonics, and an ability to harmonize riffs without them sounding cheesy (a lot of this black metal stuff makes me think of giant lumps of Swiss cheese descending on a block of fresh asphalt in a New York summer). This is one of the first black metal releases I've been really enthusiastic about. It's not Scandinavian at all, from Greece actually, but it's well-played, not messy, and comes across as having real thought and intent behind it. They don't try to be scary, but the cheesiness comes in the names: Necroabyssious, Wolfen, Mutilator, and Necroslaughter. Whatever. At least they kept it out of the music." I lifted my glass and got a brief wisp of sip of ice tea, and then felt ice cubes against my upper lip. I put the glass down. "Next thing that I thought was hot shit was Mortuary, from Mexico. Really unique stuff, really powerful and fast, an earlier style of speed metal. I don't think this is new, but I don't know. Got it from J.L. America as they folded into decay. There's an obvious Slayer influence in this stuff, but it doesn't sound like Slayer. Just sometimes a similar way of thinking about things, although the approach ends up different in the end. Playing is pretty competent for underground metal, and the album overall is great. Moves quickly, songs vary, quite a bit of musical experimentation. This is far from the norm and the second release from Mexico to impress me, the first being Cenotaph. Another band that blew me away was Doomstone. I played you Deceased, right? The drummer for that band, King Fowley, started up a side project called Doomstone that recorded this album about a year ago. It's called "Those Whom Satan Hath Joined" or something along those lines. Pretty pro-Satan overall, but I don't think it's serious, that is, it's mainly to have some fun with the lyrics. There's some serious bagging on the black metal people in the liner notes. Fowley's always been a nut, though. Deceased is great stuff that makes its way by being tight and musical, technically challenging while not forgetting the idea of the listener, of making cool music. Half of the problem with death metal comes in that label, technical. For one thing, it doesn't mean jack, since 'technical' means music lessons to most of these people, and since underground metal isn't known for musicality anyway. For another thing, the bands that are spend most of their time trying to prove that they are because they're so used to people considering them inferior players and because, un-amazing as they are, they're better than most of the crowd. A few stand out ahead, starting with Morbid Angel and Atheist, but stuff like Deceased really belongs in the same category, that is, being reasonably competent or better musicality without being braindead. Playing songs to make great songs and to make them artistically challenging, but not just to try to prove that in a pond full of nobodies you're the best- trained nobody. Almost as bad as glam metal in the late eighties, when the guitar solos started getting long. But Doomstone is 'technical,' if we have to use that term, getting most of its influences from older metal while bringing a new style of noise- and atonality-influenced music into the mezcla. The end result is great. You can't really sing along, but the songs move, each is distinctive, and the whole album doesn't have a bad track. There's a Grim Reaper cover on here, but I never knew that band anyway. A lot of goofy references to cheesy movies about the occult, including one tune called "Rosemary's Baby." I have no idea who the other band members are, but they all have stupid names like "Urinator of the Holy Graveyards." I like this one a lot but most people have no clue it exists. Some of the stuff from the Midwest just blows me away. I heard about their scene a year or two ago when stuff like Accidental Suicide, Morgue, and Afterlife was coming out, all of it pretty musically interesting and technically evolved. The new stuff takes this further, with more technical detail (nothing amazing, but impressive for underground) and power coming in, and more advanced song structures. Lyrics have gotten away from the once-dominant American ideal of proving something, whether anger or sickness, in the lyrics. They're demented in their own right, but with a self-aware humor that's refreshing. The main act leading this scene is Oppressor, whose demo I really liked when I received it about a year ago, for my show. The power of this music isn't whatever technical standards it hails to, but the ability to integrate disparate elements into a working and interesting format. There's heaviness in here to compare with the most extreme American acts, but there's also cool musical workings and internal structures that support themselves well, producing an aesthetic of complexity with a percussive speed grind that smears you against a wall if you catch it at volume. Gutted impress me as much but in an entirely different vector. The obvious technicality of Oppressor isn't here; this is a straight-up rock format with stuff well-encoded into it. This isn't even death metal, but speed metal with a death voice. The songs aren't as catchy as the more mainstream stuff, but they have a grasping appeal that's not so much easily understandable as reflective of coherent assembly. Some stuff makes your ear listen, but this stuff gets you involved and then takes you with it. There's heaviness to spare here, and some goofiness in the lyrics, with songs such as "Kickin' the Corpse" leaving me to laugh. But it's self-aware, and not stupid, so I have no complaints. This is one of my favorites of the year. Not from the midwest but from Florida come two of my other finds. Neither are that new, or new at all, in the case of Ripping Corpse, who are one of the few metal bands who could legitimately wear the label progressive - interesting musical ideas expanded interestingly, not necessarily as intricate in their song structure as most bands but exceptionally coherent, in that songs are completed works and not streams of riffs. Lead guitar is not often this well done; for pure musicality this is one of my favorite works. Resurrection have a similar approach, taking Florida metal and making it technically-challenging, rather than just adding technicalities. The songs work and are enjoyable on several levels, leaving the technical work to be assumed and not be the focus of the entire album. The only band even close to this is Monstrosity. Both of these albums, Ripping Corpse's "In the Forest of the Dreaming Dead" and Resurrection's "Embalmed Existence," are first-class death metal. The former is probably out of print, Kraze records being defunct in a serious manner. From Britain come Malediction, one of the few death metal bands to legitimately remind me of Morbid Angel, and not through aping, as their sound is far from the atonal masterpieces of Azagthoth. Malediction play intense, not necessarily super- technically powered, but well-assembled and intriguing death metal. The album I have is a live EP, "Chronicles of Dissension," which is exceptionally well-produced for a live album, with the only clues to it being live being the pauses before each song where a drunken British voice talks. The music is fast, but slows when strategically necessary; it has a voice that encompasses the song, and doesn't restrict itself to occasional exposure during a riff or a solo. There is a full-length album that I don't have, but if it's of the same caliber of this material, it should be incredible. This is the only British band that's really brought my respect since Carcass or Repulsion (not forgetting the classic gods Black Sabbath and Judas Priest, but gods of a previous era, although timeless in their musical vision). Sweden has for the last few generations of death metal bands lead with innovative and potent metal. Seance and Fleshcrawl have released the best albums in recent memory from that area, with the notable exception of Therion, who, although technically brilliant and musically exceptional are nowhere in the same league of heaviness: both of these bands deliver impact power and suffusing brutality. Seance produced a guttural, mechanical and distorted masterpiece in "Saltrubbed Eyes," in which they learned to drop the many dissonant riffs approach of their first album in favor of a cohesive approach to song structures which emphasizes bringing out what is put into the song, instead of stringing it in linearly. On their first release they reminded me of a Swedish Malevolent Creation, but here the sound is much more Seance's own. The final track, an instrumental, gets special mention. The primary work here is the guitar tracks, which are experimental for death metal, especially eurometal. There's a lot of work with shorter but more definite riffs, and some experimentation in the noise of the lead guitars, which seem competent although they often choose to be content with half-noise solos. Smearing notes and all of that work. The distortion on this album is grating to a maximum, a new height of abrasiveness in guitar. This is one of my current favorites from Sweden. Fleshcrawl have always impressed me, but "Impurity" outdoes itself. Where their first was slow this has achieved a balance, realizing an aptitude for tempos in different components of the songs. Song structures are spread out and varied, although they don't seek to emphasize these varieties but an overall impression. There is a track from Finnish gods Demigod (Slumber of Sullen Eyes, their one album, is one of my favorites from Scandinavia: heavy but harmonic stuff, a unique sound that builds itself from out of the songs, instead of carping songs to follow an aesthetic) covered on this album, but more innarestin' in the track which isn't a cover, Inevitable End, which seems to be right out of the book of Bolt Thrower, albeit speeded up. The remaining songs are heavy and satisfying, excepting an instrumental by Dan Swano of Edge of Sanity. You can't sing along but who needs to? this is the descending blade of heavy metal that's not afraid to be technically competent, compositionally intriguing, or image deficient - it's the hardline straight up with no gimmick, and consequently both of these albums seem to be overlooked in the United States. (Possibly in favor of Entombed's terrible "Wolverine Blues," which would be a travesty of the first order.)" Ed put down his empty glass, and flipped two fingers toward his palm to gesture for more. With it came our food. I dug in, heavily, starving and aggressive. Ed ate more carefully but with equal rapidity. Surprisingly, he wasn't intimidated by my spew about a genre he could care less about, but was sort of interested. Through the corner of a mouth: "So things are looking up except for the sellouts? I remember you ranting about that some time ago, that and Christian metal" (Christian metal being my favorite oxymoron to pick on, as metal is beyond Christianity and really should have nothing to do with it - not saying, however, as every Christian misinterprets this argument, that it needs to go running to Papa Satan - it just was founded and designed outside of Christianity and doesn't work with it) " - are there more of those?" I poked more chile relleno into my mouth. "Well," chewing, "I think more are coming, as it gets easier to throw a little Alice in Chains into your music. And that's the band they'll all ape, that or Helmet, maybe. Alice is easy because it's one of the heavier bands in the so-called 'alternative' range, and because with the complexity of that sound, a band can work a lot in without being seen as what they'd otherwise be: a metal band suddenly going heavy bluesrock on us. Plus, they share a lot of roots, Alice in Chains and death metal; those people heard Black Sabbath and Motorhead, too. Entombed tried the Alice in Chains thing with Wolverine, and it sucked, but it wasn't a bad shot for a first, from the eyes of the mainstream, who seem to buy suck music any chance they can get. It's a safe sound to assume. I haven't seen too much of that lately. But I've been staying far away. It's amazing how sometimes the most obscure stuff is the best. You'd think more people would catch on, but it doesn't seem so - take Obliveon as a case in point. If you can get past the dumb name, this is spectacular progressive death metal from Canada. For once the bass is used as a lead instrument in metal without becoming cheesy - it makes its presence felt, but without being either a leading pop element or an attachment for the sake of additional hooks. Integrated structurally, the bass-guitar interaction of this band is incredible, nailed to a precision drum track to make this a tight setup, with incredibly players lending to the tightness with the right-on instrumentation that any fan of speed metal would love. But this is death metal, albeit a very unique interpretation of the genre musically. It's not particularly heavy in the original sense, but cool - in the way that a jazz or progressive band would be. But it's heavy, and it's amazing, and not effete like "progressive metal" acts like Dream Theatre. It stays true to the core of metal. More obscurity in the form of Alastis, one of the few "doom metal" bands worthy of the title. There is real musicality to this, good tempo variation, impressive drumming and cool riffs to package a slowing majesty of falling darkness. Vocals are a subdued version of the death/black metal voice, and fit well into this music, which has elements of both the modern and the older styles of metal. Impressive at the least. With an entirely different sound but a musically impressive output is Demilich, who are Finns playing harmonically-intricate death metal; it reminds me of the sounds of a funk band without the annoying elements in the way Demilich slide and cycle through the castles of tones they build on "Nespithe." It's not musicianship showing off, either, but a unique look at metal with a real experimental eye to it. This is one of my favorite releases of this year. But the core of metal remains the heaviness, and the emphasis that places through its rhythm and timbre. Loudblast fulfill this with the musicality quotient that any lover of the above will enjoy. Heavy, with real death and speed metal elements demonstrating the band's superb songwriting. Not superb judgement: this album has a fourth track of some of the most annoying female vocals ever to hit vinyl. But the music is outstanding. Another harder to find but brilliant band is Goreaphobia, who despite the stupid name create impressive death metal, with intense variation and a preservation of well-conceptualized mood and vision pervading throughout all three tracks on this album, "Omen of Masochism" (one of the nicely cheap Relapse underground releases). The cover illustration is a bit annoying (half-clothed woman consorting with devil) but the music is phenomenal, and heavy, having a lot of the better elements of death and grindcore musically while remaining so. A good sense of energy to this as well. Stupidity has always been a part of metal, and the silliness continues. Demented Ted caught my ear despite misgivings about the stupid name; this is good stuff, solidly heavy and technically intricate, although not as progressive and experimental as it could be musically. That would be the greatest failing of this album, but it survives it as good speed/death metal. The greatest area of foolishness, while we're on the topic, would have to be black metal, and one of my current favorites, Sacramentum, is a proud member of that arena. Yet it's phenomenal music, with a good melodic sense (this is modern black metal in its stream of notes incarnation) and a more conventional than usual adherence to sound, although without being cliche or uninventive. Highly recommended to black metal fans. Actually," I said, wiping my upper lip on disposable napkin, "all of this stuff is, and I'd have trouble deciding what to leave behind, but that's just because this is what I've found after listening to tons and tons of this stuff. We're not out of the deep water yet. There's a lot of crappy metal out there, as there always will be. But I think a lot of the stuff I see coming up is great, especially as bands learn that learning instrumentalism doesn't mean they've sold out, or that they suck. The greatest underground today is in the growing category of progressive or near-progressive metal, as it's too out there for most of the mainstream death metal fans and too musically subversive to ignore." Ed wiped his mouth on a similar napkin. The sun had set and the air hung almost liquid in through the cold glass. The stillness of daysend and the fullness of our stomachs slowed our thoughts, but soon we paid, and left to wander between pedestrian and building alike, stretching our thoughts through the networks of modern life without particularly attaching to anything.