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I didn’t have any prior experience with New York metalcore outfit Skycamefalling coming into this month’s feature release submission but have seen their 2000 debut album receiving consistently high praise from critics & fans over many years now so have been meaning to investigate it at some point. “10.21” is a lengthy undertaking clocking in at just over 63 minutes in duration however it never feels arduous & that run time is slightly extended by one of those needless four & a half minute periods of silence at the end of the tracklisting which only ends up resulting in a one-minute fading reprise of the closing number.
Skycamefalling’s sound is extremely well defined for a band that was only conducting their very first full-length recording effort & they’ve achieved a beautiful balance of consistency & creativity here to tell you the truth. They represent something much more than your generic metalcore fodder, despite the vocals of Christopher Tzompanakis sitting very much within the confines of the subgenre specifications. Christopher’s gravel-throated screams remind me quite a bit of Converge front man Jacob Bannon actually however the instrumentation is just as likely to draw from external influences as that of Jacob’s band. Unlike some of Converge’s more highly celebrated material though, “10.21” doesn’t offer the most imposing, urgent or extreme variety of metalcore you’re ever likely to hear. In fact, it’s pretty unintimidating is many respects & has chosen a very different tool set with which to slice its prey.
The production job of Jim Winters is a real highlight & on first listen you’d be forgiven for thinking that this album had only just hit the shelves last week. The guitar & bass tones are both warm & thick & maintain a suitable amount of heaviness without ever really feeling particularly metal. Sleepcamefalling actually sit much closer to the hardcore punk side of the metalcore equation than the metal one & that tone is well suited to the hardcore environment. Some of the riffs have a clear alternative rock edge to them too which is further complimented by the guitar tone & this results in even the more rocky & generic & sections presenting themselves in a lively & enthusiastic way.
As strong as the heavier tracks may be though, the most entertaining element of Skycamefalling’s sound is their use of post-hardcore experimentation with the majority of my album highlights aligning themselves with the band’s more ambitious undertakings & casting aside the heavy guitars & screamed vocals altogether. The opening intro piece is a great example as it sounds uncannily like something that Radiohead might have done. I always find myself waiting (even begging) for Thom Yorke’s nasal vocals to slither their way out of my speakers & into my eager ear cavities & it’s almost disappointing when one of the better heavy tracks “With Paper Wings” finally savages your expectations at its completion. Then you’ve got a lovely two-minute clean guitar driven post-rock instrumental that breaks things up nicely a few tracks into the album & the wonderfully epic ten-minute title track with its relaxed tribal rhythm & slowly building acoustic guitar work. You’ll rarely find a better example of the post-hardcore sound & it’s these elements along with the undeniable consistency of the tracklsting that sees my score sitting at such an impressive level.
Overall, “10.21” is fairly easy on the ears for a metalcore record. There are relatively few signs of the abrasive approach that the majority of their contemporaries pride themselves on however there’s simply not a requirement for it here as Skycamefalling have a much broader palate of influences to draw upon & have an acute understanding of the tools at their disposal & the dynamics required to keep the listener genuinely engaged. Throw in a tracklisting that’s completely free of blemishes & you get yourself a damn entertaining metalcore record that won’t disappoint its target audience.
For fans of Converge, Norma Jean & Cave In.
I was originally attracted to Cirith Ungol's 1984 release by the random coincidence that the cover art was the same Michael Whelan painting as that of a paperback issue of Michael Moorcock's Elric novel The Bane of the Black Sword, a fantasy series of which I was a huge fan at the time (and must admit, still am to this day). Initially, I confess, I wasn't exactly sold on the Californians' brand of epic heavy metal, but as the years have passed they are a band I have become increasingly fond of, whose new releases I greet with some anticipation and whose earlier discography I have positively re-evaluated.
The reason for my original reticence, I'm sure you have guessed, was Tim Baker's high-pitched vocal delivery. In much the same way as King Diamond, Baker's vocals are a bit divisive. His pitch isn't as falsetto as King's as he does mitigate it by having a rough, rasping edge to his voice which is more obvious the lower he sings, but it is still a style that doesn't hold universal appeal. However, I have now become used to his vocal eccentricities and actually I appreciate the fact that they differentiate the band from the pack.
Anyway, Cirith Ungol play epic heavy metal that has it's roots in classic Sabbath and the NWOBHM. For some reason they are often associated with the traditional doom metal scene and while some of their tracks are kind of slow and the guitars are downtuned, I don't think that association really holds up to close scrutiny as this is most definitely first and foremost heavy metal. King of the Dead is the follow-up to 1981's Frost and Fire, itself only being released after the band had been in existence for a decade, and sounds very much like a band who know what they are about and are happy with their own identity. King of the Dead exudes confidence and a "this is us, fuck you if you don't like it" attitude that I wholeheartedly applaud. Although album opener Atom Smasher isn't the greatest introduction to the album, being one of the weaker tracks, there are some absolute killers on here that any fan of 1980's heavy metal should lap up - Master of the Pit, Cirith Ungol, the speedy Death of the Sun and best of the lot the title track, King of the Dead.
The riffs are titanic and the late Jerry Fogle cranks out some great solos. The rhythm section drives the tracks along and feature quite prominently, particularly Flint's bass which takes a lot of influence from the great Geezer Butler. The production is fine, although I certainly wouldn't call it pristine, it does add a certain character to the album. The only real bummer for me was the misguided inclusion of a metal interpretation of J.S. Bach's Toccata in Dm which sounds incredibly self-indulgent. Luckily they don't close the album on that note, but follow it with the mighty Cirith Ungol, an epic closing track that does the whole album preceding it justice.
Whilst not exactly an underground band, I feel Cirith Ungol don't always get the respect they deserve as part of the 1980's metal scene and King of the Dead should be required listening for anyone purporting to be a real fan of heavy metal.
I picked up Ordinance from a recommendation thread on another site, from a black metal fan who likes the simpler things in life. No progressive wankery here folks just straight up raging black metal with approx. zero fucks to give is the order of my newfound forum acquaintance. This penchant for no frills bm is certainly the main feature of these Finn’s sound as they rattle through seven tracks of consistent and authentic black metal exemplifying the primitive and grim nature of the genre superbly.
Except, there is more to In Purge… than initially meets the eye and you do not have to search that hard to find it. If you listen quite near to the surface, you will hear elements of traditional metal bubbling up through the depths of belligerent black metal that is the overwhelming impression the album initially gives. Gathering Wraiths is a perfect example of this, giving a rear-guard to the frontline assault of the more conventional black metal.
Throughout In Purge… you will hear Darkthrone (find me a modern bm record that does not seep this influence in at some point) but there are nods here to Immortal as well as a million other acts both historic and modern. The album is still a journey though, it just happens to be one that isn’t too big on rest breaks. It has the ethic of a black ‘n roll record without the ‘n roll part (although it does touch upon this sub-genre more than once). There is no attempt here to generate dense atmospheres, instead the album relies on nothing more than the dirty and formidable momentum of the music to create a level of cruelty almost organically.
As a fan who enjoys a bit of variety in their metal menu there is a lot to be said for a conventional black metal album that draws me into a physical purchase (CD arrived this past week) after just a couple of listens on the internet. I do not even think that the band are that unapologetic of their delivery, more that this style just comes so naturally to them there is an almost sub-conscious intolerance for any requirement to step out of this norm.
Straight up black metal for fans of black metal who like most black metal out there but occasionally just needs a palate cleanser to refresh the tastebuds with some kvlt bm.
When I finally returned to the metal scene back in 2009 after a decade immersing myself in electronic music, I was very keen to see what my beloved death metal genre had evolved into. The late 90’s had seen my interest gradually starting to wane as death metal’s reign at the top of the extreme metal bubble had gradually started to burst however this hadn’t eroded my passion for the classics in the slightest so my curiosity was still high & I progressed into a period of frantic binging. Amongst the litter of pretenders & copy-cats, I stumbled upon the brand new sophomore album from New Zealand three-piece Ulcerate & was fascinated as to how a band from such a small & relatively local country had seemingly created such a buzz in the underground scene so I went into my first listen with an open mind & few expectations.
The first listen of a record like “Everything Is Fire” can be very challenging, even for the most hardened death metal fanatic. It’s an extremely inaccessible release & requires a level of patience to fully grasp. The first thing that hits you is the sheer density of the sound you’re presented with & it’s hard to believe the sonic assault you’re experiencing has come for just the three dudes. In fact, I’d be very surprised if most fans didn’t find their first run through the album to simply wash over them with very little actually sticking as the listener struggles to find something familiar to grab on to & that was very much the case with me. It was only on subsequent listens that the individual tracks started to open up & I began to realise why I’d struggled so much with it on first listen.
You see, “Everything Is Fire” is an extremely complex record. The level of technical skill required to create this music is astonishing. In fact, it’s so ambitious from a compositional & structural point of view that it often becomes its own worst enemy with its weakest moments proving to simply have too much going on for the listener’s brain to take it all in. It’s almost like the band members had too many ideas & tried to stuff them all into the shortest possible period of time. On some occasions this can come across as sheer genius while at others it becomes overpowering & sees the whole structure of the song-writing starting to break down. Thankfully though, the atmosphere that’s created has a darkness & a vitality that ooze of an elite class artist & this was enough to see me holding the album in high regard & placing it on high rotation for several weeks as I valiantly attempted to understand what was being presented to me.
As I would later discover, Ulcerate had begun life as a fairly generic technical/brutal death metal band & despite finding their 2004 “The Coming Of Genocide” demo to be much closer to my musical roots, I also found it to be pretty boring overall. Things would start to take shape with their 2007 debut album “Of Fracture & Failure” which kept me engaged with a little more ambition thrown into their sound however the stop/start nature of the song-structures made it sound a touch messy so it didn’t hold all that much replay value for me. Things would change drastically in the two years that followed though as “Everything Is Fire” is a very different beast & is very much the release that represents Ulcerate's coming of age. This time the band had harnessed the dissonant & chaotic brand of tech death that Canadian legends Gorguts had created earlier in the 2000’s but had combined it with the dark atmosphere of Immolation & some wonderfully engaging post-sludge influences that sound similar to Neurosis. So it’s essentially a concoction of a few of my very favourite sounds, all thrown into a blender & presented in a classy & refreshing way. That’s not to say that it’s all a resounding success though as the tendency to descend into overly complex muck is still occasionally at play here however every track has enough musical genius to comfortably transcend those obstacles.
It’s worth mentioning that the highlight of any Ulcerate record is most certainly drummer Jamie Saint Merat & “Everything Is Fire” is no exception in that regard, despite him surpassing even these obscene levels of proficiency on subsequent releases Jamie's quite simply the most astoundingly talented drummer that I’ve ever witnessed in metal music & that includes all of the big names. In fact, when I saw Ulcerate live I found that I could happily have stood & stared at him playing completely solo for hours on end, such was the impression his incredible technique left on me. On this occasion, the clicky kick drum sound doesn’t do him any favours as it tends to highlight even the slightest blemish in a lightning-fast double kick run & that’s certainly not evident on subsequent releases however the sheer power & precision on display is mind-blowing. It’s really pretty easy to let Jamie’s performance overshadow the rest of the band but once you get comfortable with that element you’ll notice that the angular & twisting guitar work of Michael Hoggard is quite spectacular too & is further accentuated by an excellent tone that highlights every nuance whilst losing none of its menace. The use of more atmospheric post-metal sections is a master stroke &, despite all of the dazzling technical histrionics, I tend to find myself enjoying these parts as much as anything else on the album. In fact, it’s the two extreme ends of the Ulcerate sound that give me the most pleasure i.e. the sludgy, downtempo & wonderfully professional post-metal excursions & the more straight forward blasting parts. When they stick to those two extremes I find that everything comes together more consistently than it does when they’re trying to set new records for the amount of riffs they can cram into a few bars. Bassist Paul Kelland’s vocal performance reeks of Immolation’s Ross Dolan & tends to be pretty monotonous but that’s not such a bad thing within the context of Ulcerate’s sound as he provides some much needed consistency within all the chaos. This works better in the studio than it does live where he tends to sound a little samey.
To be honest, it took me years to fully grasp “Everything Is Fire” & for that reason I placed it behind each subsequent Ulcerate release which saw them further refining their sound to make it a more cohesive & generally palatable experience. I think that opening the album with the messiest & least impressive track in “Drown Within” probably wasn’t the wisest move either however spending some time apart has a tendency to see me going in with fresh ears & it’s resulted in me discovering the true genius in this album. It’s certainly not a perfect death metal record but there’s a wonderful consistency to the tracklisting & the overall class & ambition of the performances is a step up from 99% of their peers. What’s equally impressive is that the band have handled the production, engineering, mixing, mastering, artwork & layout entirely themselves so it’s a complete piece of art that’s the truest representation of what the band were trying to achieve. There’s definitely a case for saying that I really WANTED to love this record & perhaps that’s left me open to liking it more than I may otherwise have but I’m not sure that this matters in the grand scheme of things. Ulcerate may well have surpassed this supposed crowning achievement in their extremely solid back catalogue however this will always be an astoundingly dark & ambitious technical death metal release that will continue to bend my mind in unusual & uncomfortable ways for many years to come yet.
For fans of Gorguts, Baring Teeth & Artificial Brain.
I’ve come to accept that Thrash Metal is one of my weaker metal genres overall since very few modern, or even classic Thrash albums capture my attention for more than a few listens. However, it seems like when a band manages to pull in some other extreme metal influences like Death or Black Metal into the mix, it creates a bubbling, addictive concoction that I just can’t get enough of. Last year it was Witches Hammer with their 2020 debut Damnation Is My Salvation, containing a potent Death and Thrash Metal mixture with hints of Black Metal buried beneath, and this year Steel Bearing Hand offer up something that occupies a similar space while messing with the ratios just enough to create something just as robust. Slay In Hell is a ripping thrash record that comfortably stays in the classic thrash realm longer than any of its contemporaries considering its old-school production style and multitude of furious riffs, but is able to pivot incredibly hard into crushing Death and Death-Doom Metal sections without missing a single stride.
Considering this is only their sophomore album, Steel Bearing Hand show some serious mastery with pulling other extreme metal influences into a Thrash Metal base without anything sounding out of place. Every track save for a few Death Metal sections on “Tombspawn” and “Ensanguined” are absolutely unhinged, with the opening track “Command of the Infernal Exarch” even transitioning flawlessly into a Black Metal blast-beat section that comes out of nowhere and sounds absolutely nasty. The Death Metal influence Slay In Hell demonstrates comes in a variety of forms, from “Lich Gate’s” faster take on a chunkier guitar tone, to the opener of “Tombspawn” showcasing some brutal chugs, and the beginning of “Ensanguined” seeing the band experiment with some extended, atmospheric Death Doom sections before transitioning into the full throttle closer complete with an incredible solo and slow-burn ending. The secondary extreme metal influences don’t overshadow the thrash sections though, as “Per Tenebras Ad Lucem” and “’Til Death and Beyond” have some of my favorite riffs and choruses I’ve heard all year. I’m always a fan of riffs that evolve throughout the song and “Per Tenebras Ad Lucem” illustrates this perfectly with a full 3 and a half minutes being an extended instrumental section that plays around the main riff theme and continuously builds aggression, tension, and excitement through the solo section all the way to the end.
The overall songwriting on Slay In Hell is frankly superb. It’s always a challenge to nail down an overall sound when trying to juggle so many different elements, but Steel Bearing Hand manage to nail it on a track-by-track basis as well as across the album as a whole. The way the tracks increase in length and complexity as the album goes on is very neat and something that I haven’t seen all that often outside of Progressive Metal albums. The pacing between Thrash, Death, and Death-Doom sections makes it so nothing overstays its welcome and manages to keep the listener completely engaged with ever-changing riffs and vocal styles. Lead guitarist Wyatt Burton showcases some incredible range with his vocals, helping to complete each section as it shifts between all three aforementioned genres. He’s pushed into the back of the mix and reverbed to hell and back so he doesn’t exactly steal the show like some other thrash vocalists, but all of his different vocal styles go along with the frantic pacing of the album nicely. He’s able to drop into nice, guttural Death Metal growls when he needs to, but still have the angry, grating thrash vocals that occasionally dip into Black Metal territory here and there.
Slay In Hell has turned into an album that I can’t get enough of this year, and for good reason. Steel Bearing Hand blast straight through the gates of hell with unrelenting force and demonstrating incredible dexterity in fusing some of the best aspects of more extreme metal genres into an aggressively fun package. As Thrash Metal continues to evolve and pull in more and more dark aspects from the likes of Death and Black Metal, I feel that it’s easy to get overzealous and misconstrue how and why all of these genres can work together when well written. Slay In Hell aims high but doesn’t falter under the pressure of everything it wants to cram into its runtime, even when closing with a 12 and a half minute, Death-Doom laced ender. If this is how Thrash Metal with old-school production is going to evolve, then I’m all for it.