Baroness leave sludge days behind, rock gloriously on incredible ‘Yellow & Green’

We metal fans are a judgmental bunch. We’re harsh, have gigantic expectations, and we are let down far too easily because we paint pictures in our minds of how things are supposed to be before whatever we’re imagining even surfaces. It’s kind of the fun of the genre, but it’s also one of the things that frustrates me the most.

But just because many of us jump to conclusions doesn’t mean we’re necessarily wrong. At least as far as it concerns being true to ourselves and our tastes. I’ve been there. I, like many a listener, waited with great anticipation for that new Morbid Angel album, and when “Illud Divinum Insanus” dropped, I was so disappointed that I wanted to disown any previous affection for them no matter how great they once were. A band more comparable to today’s discussion is Mastodon, who have completely lost my interest the past two records. I don’t damn them for changing and wanting to branch out; I just don’t think their music is nearly as good as it was when they were bludgeoning sludge warriors more than half a decade ago. I really tried to get with their new stuff, but I just can’t.

This brings us to Baroness, and I’m sure you’ve already read the umpteen million stories out there about how their new album “Yellow & Green” is a major departure and bears practically no resemblance to metal. That’s all pretty true. It’s a huge change, though I hesitate to say a radical one because you could hear strains of progression on “Blue Record” that seemed to hint they were heading in more of a traditional rock direction. And here we are. The 18-cut double record is the most varied, expansive of their career, and it’s the most unique-sounding album in Relapse’s entire catalog. That’s simply because most of their bands are beastly and heavy, and Baroness now decidedly are not. Whether you, as a listener, choose to embrace this new direction is up to you, but lack of metallic tendencies aside, don’t dismiss this based on decibel level. Doing so would be an error.

“Yellow & Green” was a shock to the system at first, despite having heard a couple of the tracks before getting the full-length promo stream. Having spent plenty of time with “Red Album” and “Blue Record,” I did have a knee-jerk response at first that this isn’t the style of music that made me love this band. Yet there was something about the songs that seemed to be hooking me anyway, and I’ve come to realize that’s because the material is really strong. These are really good songs, the best front-to-back compositions of their run, and the more time I’ve spent with this collection, the less I cared about how metal they are. More than anything, I want a record that’s well played, well written, and well executed, and I don’t know that Baroness could have done any better than they do here. This is a band that has morphed past their roots, and making them stay within genre confines would have stunted the growth of some really gifted musicians. So now I’m glad they went this route. I don’t have nearly enough great straight-up rock records, but now I have an exceptional one that’s occupying my time.

Lots have changed in Baroness’ world as well. For one, the dudes are a few years older, and time tends to mellow your rage. It’s not a bad thing to admit that, and doing so have helped the fellows — vocalist/guitarist/artist John Baizley, guitarist Peter Adams, drummer Alan Blickle, and new bassist Matt Maggioni (replacing Summer Welch) — progress and advance to the next stage in their careers. As noted, they had a lineup switch, and Baizley also moved from Savannah, Georgia, to Philadelphia. Things have been on the move, and their music reflects that. It’s a very human sounding, reflective collection as a result. It never sounds like this is an effort that’s put on to be more accessible or secure a larger record deal now that their contract with Relapse is up. This record would have sounded this way no matter what , at least that’s my guess.

There also is quite a difference between the “Yellow” and “Green” sides, so these really are like two separate albums joined together. “Yellow” sounds like a natural progression from “Blue,” with some might and grit you come to expect, but also with more melody, hooks, and approachability that could get them plum spots on rock radio playlists. If any of those people still pay attention. “Green” sounds like a progression from “Yellow,” with the songs stripped back even more, psychedelic atmospherics taking a major role, and more of an indie rock approach rising. On this portion, Baroness sound like a band that could open for Built to Spill or Wilco without those bands’ audiences feeling like they’ve been hit over the head. It’s quite a dynamic leap ahead for Baroness, even if it pisses off major metalheads with closed minds.

After a chiming little opening theme, “Yellow” kicks into high gear with “Take My Bones Away” and “March to the Sea,” the two tracks made most public by the band pre-release and two of the best songs they’ve ever written. Both will get stuck in your head for days on end, and again, if they could get radio play, they’d be two of the biggest hits of the summer. They both punch and chug along nicely, and Baizley sounds as confident as ever barking and crooning over top. “Little Things” is a scathing little psychedelic number, taking some hints from the 1960s, and Baizley solemnly offers, “They’ve taken everything, put us out to dry.” “Cocanium” has an ultra-trippy opening, but once the chorus rolls around and the song stretches its legs, things get more aggressive. “Back Where I Belong” is a damn solid serving of pure rock, with some of Baizley’s best vocal work, and it bleeds nicely into “Sea Lungs,” where some of their doomy, sludgy roots poke through. Closer “Eula” has moments of volcanic eruption and reflection, and it’s the longest track on the entire collection. The thing ends with a dizzying display of guitar work and some sizzling noise that lets “Yellow” burn away.

“Green Theme” opens up as a more bombastic cut than “Yellow Theme,” with some Brian May-style guitar phrasing and a more up-tempo journey, but it’s a red herring. “Board Up the House” is pretty damn poppy and doesn’t contain the typical Baroness edginess, but it’s a really strong song despite all of that. “Mtns. (the Crown & Anchor)” is sunburnt and static-filled, and it feels like a perfect song for an afternoon drive on a summer week day. “Foolsong” feels like ’70s-style singer-songwriter folk rock, with a nice psychedelic wash for good measure.

“Collapse” continues the slow-down, with Baizley singing, “We are all soured milk,” over a melody that’s pretty damn chill. “Psalms Alive” is the only song on here that hasn’t made a huge impression on me. It has the indie stylings and eventually crumbles into chaos, but it’s just OK. “Stretchmarker” is an acoustic number with guitars having a conversation and some Midwestern dreaming tossed into the mix. “The Line Between” is the heaviest song on this side of the record, with doomy chugging mixed with classic rock strumming that gives the track a neat feel. “If I Forget Thee, Lowcountry” is a quiet instrumental closer that ends the record with a heartful sigh and streaming tear. It’s about as non-Baroness a song as you’ll find. Well, until now.

I am fascinated to hear the reaction to “Yellow & Green.” So far fellow metal critics seem overjoyed with the collection, and I join with them in that sentiment. I ask you, the readers, to put aside any prejudice and consider these songs on their artistic merit. This is an incredible, career-defining statement, and while it steers sharply away from the sludgy, doomy past, there is what was in their hearts. It’s honest and real, and most importantly, the songs are fantastic. This is one hell of an accomplishment, perhaps their first step toward an organic stardom.

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Swedish doom throwbacks Witchcraft conjure old spirits on reissued catalog

We all come across things in our lives that become obsessions.  But how do we pay homage to those things and how do we choose to enjoy the items that add value to our lives? There are many ways, and it’s hard to argue any manner is wrong. That is unless your fixation is illegal. Then pretty much any way of enjoying it is wrong. Pretty sure I didn’t need to point that out.

Like, OK, you love photography. That means you can fill physical and digital albums with your work and show it to everyone you know, most likely annoying them. You don’t want to be that person. Or, you could become overtaken by a sports team and fill your game room with paraphernalia and souvenirs, likely ostracizing your significant other and preventing people from wanting to visit you during games. I don’t know why I chose to make this a negative. It’s just the way things go sometimes. Oh, hey, you could become obsessed with heavy metal and devote overflowing essays to the music you like.

Swedish band Witchcraft acknowledged their obsession with American doom rock legends Pentagram and singer-songwriter Roky Erickson by trying their hands at similarly styled music as a one-off tribute. Most of the music at the start was their own, some of it penned by Bobby Liebling on Pentagram records, all of it designed to tip their caps to their primary influences. Then things got out of control, in a really good way. It became a full-blown band, and now Witchcraft are one of the most well-respected vintage-style doom units going, and they have a heavily anticipated new release “Legend” scheduled later this year on Nuclear Blast. Maybe one day some young kids will be inspired by Witchcraft’s music and return the favor to them, continuing the circle well into the future. But that’s for the future.

Before “Legend” drops, we have a matter of Witchcraft business to get out of the way, namely the reissue of their first three albums by Metal Blade. These collections, as noted, are highly respected releases and, while sounding as if they were jettisoned to modern times via time warp, they also have a weird timelessness to them as well. And that the whole thing started primarily to honor their heroes, it’s incredible how great the band already sounds on their debut and how much they grow with subsequent efforts. It’s easy to hear this was no mere tribute band. And now they’re way more than just Pentagram disciples.

If you’re new to Witchcraft’s music or just need to get your collection in order, these reissues will be of much value to you. They haven’t been impossible to find before this (at least for me they haven’t), but Metal Blade always does a bang-up job with these missions, so you know grabbing these new versions will be worth your money. And for me, revisiting these albums has paved the way for a Witchcraft renassaince for me, and I plan to enjoy these songs over glasses of spirits on weekend evenings. They’re perfect for that.

Obviously we’ll begin with their 2004 self-titled debut, released by the stellar Rise Above. Actually, all three of these records were put out by that label, and they work closely with Metal Blade, so yeah. You see the union. Anyhow, this first record was recorded on vintage equipment, and damn it if the songs don’t totally reflect the ’60/’70s doom-folk era. The songs sound catchy and foreboding, dark and magical, and the band has a style and songwriting knack that makes them sound of that era, and not mere throwbacks. The band’s music is like a weird amalgamation of Pentagram, Black Sabbath and The Animals, and once you hear the words, “Witchcraft, take one,” at the start of this record, you know you’re in for a dark journey.

“The Snake” has a pure Sabbath influence, both musically and with Magnus Pelander’s vocals; their cover of “Please Don’t Forget Me,” penned by Liebling, is stunning and true; “What I Am” is like a fireside dirge; “No Angel or Demon” has a bit of Southern rock flavor, something that would return here and there on future releases; “It’s So Easy” is poppy and has a ’90s alt-rock feel; “You Bury Your Head” is a blues-based rocker that is the most aggressive piece on here; and closer “Her Sisters They Were Weak” weaves folk and tragic storytelling into things. It’s a stimulating close to an impressive debut.

The band’s second album “Firewood” followed a year later, and noticeable from the start is the change in production. Their songwriting and approach still boasted ’60s/’70s pride, but the songs didn’t have a dated, dusty feel to them like they did on their debut. It’s up to you if that’s a drawback, but it never bothered me any. In fact, their creative growth is what makes me most excited about this album. If there’s any complaint from me, it’s the album art. Really? That’s the best you could come up with?

The record gets off to a great start with a nice one-two punch of “Chylde of Fire” and “If Wishes Were Horses,” a strangely titled song, but one that has the band showing some serious fire, especially when Pelander howls, “We’re so easily controlled/Perhaps that’s what you want to be.” “Mr. Haze” is cool and jazzy, something that hinted to what was ahead on their next album; “Queen of Bees” is slow moving and slithery, bringing back the Sabbath spirit; “Merlin’s Daughter” is a cool instrumental that reminds me of Jethro Tull; and closer “Attention!/When the Screams Come” is a combo number of a Witchcraft original intersected by a Pentagram cover. The union of the two tracks is quite seamless, and it’s yet another tribute to Liebling.

“The Alchemist,” the band’s third and most recent record, landed in 2007 and got a bit more play in America due to its release by Candlelight domestically. In my opinion, it’s their strongest piece of work, as the songs get longer and more confident, the sense of adventure grows, and the band fires on all cylinders as artsist, making some of their most memorable songs to date. As much as I like all of Witchcraft’s work, this is the record of theirs I have listened to the most over the years and it is hand down my favorite.

The main guitar line to opener “Walk Between the Lines” has been burned into my brain ever since I got my original promo copy five years ago, and I also haven’t been able to shake “If Crimson Was Your Colour,” a track with punchy guitar riffs, trippy keyboard work, and some downright Danzig-like yelps from Pelander. It’s also quite noticeable how he grew as a frontman over the band’s years together. “Lena” is slinky and cool but also picks up on a dirty garage rock riff that keeps the edges rough; “Samaritan Burden” is a psychedelic jam that unfurls quite nicely; “Remembered” has its share of Southern and Midwestern rock in its DNA, which makes for a nice, sunburnt curveball, and the inclusion of some sax is quite fitting; and the closing epic title track is more than 11 minutes of pure doom sorcery, with Pelander not-so-subtly insisting, “I can blow your mind.” This album sure does.

Witchcraft are one of the modern bands doing right for roots of doom metal, and they continue to blaze the path started by their heroes. These three records are must-hear for any fan of the genre, and they’ll set the table nicely for whatever the band conjured on their fourth record later this year.

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The Howling Wind unleash devious strength, killer instinct on ‘Of Babalon’

I grew up a huge fan of professional wrestling, much to the chagrin of my parents and just about everyone around me that I bombarded with my passion, and it’s an obsession that certainly has died hard over the last decade as the product has turned to garbage. I guess it’s not totally dead. I did subject myself to it this past Monday. Less said the better.

Anyway, when I was a kid and would daydream about my ring-tested heroes, I’d often think about dynamic tag team combinations that could be put together to rule the world. Hulk Hogan and Andre the Giant! Ric Flair and Bret Hart! Kamala and Abdullah the fucking Butcher! If only these men could come together and become the incredible wrestling forces I knew they could be, they would dominate tag team wrestling and hold whatever titles they wanted for as long as they chose. No one clued my ass in to the fact it was all fake and how these things would never be, but a kid can dream.

That brings me to The Howling Wind, a formidable cross-country-connected black metal outfit that is herculean and unstoppable. If they could be compared to a tag team, it would have to be the mid-1980s, heel version of the Road Warriors. Scary, menacing, relentless killing machines that would tear your face off or flip you upside down onto your neck after a clothesline from the top rope. And while the Warriors were respected by audiences of a worked sport, the dudes who make up the Howling Wind — Ryan Lipynsky of the late, great Unearthly Trance and Tim Call of the mighty Aldebaran, among others — are very much for real. Their music is a dark, brooding monster that is out to slay and leave tangible bruises and real blood in their wake. They combine their intense skills to make for a devastating union that has proved its might over five years together.

We now mark the release of the Howling Wind’s third studio album, the impressively massive “Of Babalon.” It follows up the band’s last effort “Into the Cryosphere,” that dropped two years ago, and adds another element of concrete girth to the band’s already impressive collection of heaviness. It’s a record that’s instantly pleasing, one that doesn’t need time to set moods or atmospheres in your mind. Instead, it goes in for the kill, never looking behind to see if anything is following and never concerned that they might be doing irreparable damage to your psyche. From the start, you’re beaten. The metal is melodic, swirling, and storming, and Call’s drumming is precise and furious. He’s not just throwing a bunch of blasts and speed out there to do it. No, he has a plan, and it’s well executed.

Majesty and fire open the record on “The Seal Upon the Tomb,” a song with a surging guitar line, Lipynsky’s trademark scowling vocals, and a whole lot of darkness. “Beast of the Sea” is a fit, trim crusher, built with blistering guitar riff and a violent, criminal brutality. It’s the song that gets stuck in my head the easiest of this collection. “Graal” is a really savage cut, but there’s also a slight hint of approachability to it. Same goes for “Scaling the Walls,” a song that reminds me of Nachtmystium a few albums back (and on the one they’re about to release), and truth be told, it’s pretty damn catchy and fun. I feel weird typing that when recapping such a punishing record. But you need your peaks and valleys to keep things exciting, and this one is a nice injection of energy.

“The Mountain View” starts off fairly reflective, but you know that’s not going to last. Sure enough, a punk-emblazoned assault breaks out, guitar lines rise like the tide, and the whole thing gets washed out in a war-like assault. “Abominations and Filth” is a power ballad. OK, it obviously isn’t. It’s jerky with some rock-solid drumming, a bit of a pulled-back tempo, and eventually it blasts like a rocket into bleakness. “Chronozon” starts off with an off-kilter guitar line but eventually moves into a surgical guitar line, some chest-bruising double-kick drumming, and a sudden tempo shift toward the end that somehow makes the song heavier and thrashier. “Gateways” has a similar feel, with the addition of some buzzing guitar work, a bit of atmosphere, a repetitious exercise in riffing, and a gazey melt-away. Then there’s a record-capping surprise, that being their blood-curdling cover of Hellhammer’s “Horus/Aggressor,” that actually makes the piece seem more deadly and devious than the deranged original. That’s not easy to pull off.

These two might as well pack on some 10-inch spike shoulder pads, spider web face paint, and the fucking black metal tag team titles, because there aren’t many duos who make music this massive and heavy. Three albums in, these guys haven’t gasped a breath of disappointment, and they just keep getting better and more muscular. They’re dragging you into the dark for a severe beating, and there’s nothing you can do to get away.

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Chicago’s Jar’d Loose pull muck from the gutter, get nasty on ‘Goes to Purgatory’

Have you been out in this heat at all, my fellow Americans? Yikes. Not fun times at all. Going outside has been like breathing inside a boiling pot of soup for the last week, and just going out for the mail has been reason enough alone to take a shower. Maybe three showers. If you didn’t have air conditioning during this thing, my condolences go out to you.

The last week or so has made me feel nasty, gritty, sticky, unkempt. I didn’t want to go around people in public because I just felt like a ball of sweat and misery, not that I was alone in this way of thinking. It was shitty. You just felt scuzzy all over, like you have this film of filth coating you that you couldn’t remove no matter how hard you tried. It just became a part of who you were, and you lived with it.

It’s a little cooler now where I live (though still too warm to take the dog for a walk before sunset) but it’s far more comfortable today. That said, those days of hell bathing instantly came back to me when I was trying to put my thoughts together about the debut effort “Goes to Purgatory” from Jar’d Loose, a Chicago band that’s as filthy and muggy as they come. Their music sounds dirty, like you’d need a nice disinfectant bath when you are done with it, and the songs’ bad attitude and refusal to say anything nice about anything kind of made me feel a little dirty inside. All of that is a compliment, by the way, in case it did not sound like one. Dirty is good.

Jar’d Loose don’t really sound like many other metal bands touring the dark clubs, basements, VFW halls, and other assorted small venues in which these types of groups inhabit. In fact, calling them metal is a little out of focus, though there is some of that here. Comprised of members of assorted Chicago-based bands, most notably The Muzzler, the band notes influences such as Jesus Lizard, Helmet, Dwarves, and Entombed. Got to be totally honest here: I hear zero Entombed in their music. Not an ounce. The other three bands? Totally. Like, by a huge amount. I’ll throw a couple more bands out there: Kylesa, Faster Pussycat. Don’t log off after reading that last name. Maybe it’s just me, but I hear a huge sleaze glam influence, mostly with Eddie Gobbo’s vocals, that makes me think of better-get-an-STD-test hard rock that you can’t help but love if only just for the worry-about-our-decisions-later attitude. We’re not talking about songs about banging hookers, just so we’re clear.

Speaking of Gobbo, there’s a chance his vocals will annoy you if you’re not ready for them. They’re sneery and snotty, and they’d sound great in front of a gutter punk band. Well, I guess you could argue Jar’d Loose do that too. There also are elements of grunge and psychedelic wailing to what this band does, and their stuff may take a little adjustment. Nothing wrong with that. Something this unsanitary always is going to need time to fester. By the way, the other culprits crushing your hearing and resolve on this album are drummer Phil Hardman, guitarist Pete Adam Bialecki, and bassist Eva Bialecki. They’re formidable.

“Purgatory” kicks off with “Last Living Roach,” a crunchy, raspy rocker that appears to speak of the world’s most indestructible creature. Gross? Yeah. But you kind of have to respect them. “Rotten Tooth” has a raucous chorus that’ll stick in your head for days. It’s a smoldering, pissy song that has hooks that’ll infect. “Appendage” has a punchy start-stop riff built into it, while Gobbo shout-sings his diatribes. Side note: Gobbo is wearing an ECW shirt in the band’s promo. I wonder how he feels about the late-00s “resurrection” of said wrestling organization. I wonder if he thinks it was as shitty as I thought it was. Moving on …

“Busted” is a lot of fun and, in a way, it’s the angriest, heaviest song on this thing. I say “in a way” because I don’t really mean because of volume or speed. It just hits harder than the rest, with Gobbo shouting, “She’s never going to be the one you want/You’ll collect dust from all the shit she’s got built up.” No wondering or deep pontificating over what that means. “Hell’s Mother” has a lot of that filthy glam feel I mentioned earlier, and that takes you into pounder “Right Eyes,” where Gobbo insists, “No shame needs no forgiveness.” It gets kind of gross, too. “Go Down With You” is trippy and muddy; while closer “Coming Like a Nightmare” packs a conclusive fury and sounds ready to rip your face off, but listen closely. There’s a nice little melody buried underneath it all. How soothing.

Jar’d Loose probably won’t be everyone’s cup of tea. Or broken glass of bottom-shelf spirits. But it’s nice to get dirty once in a while, take a roll in the sludge, and not shower for three days. It’s how we’re bound to feel as this summer continues to heat up, but Jar’d Loose are way more fun than 103 degrees and no AC. In fact, my guess is they thrive in those conditions, like those godforsaken cockroaches.

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Turner, Lehtisalo revisit making debut Split Cranium album, discuss their future

A few months ago, a killer emerged. Its name is Split Cranium, and their debut album did, indeed, mash skulls. It was full of punk, hardcore, metal, even some unexpected Southern rock, and the collection is just a mangler.

The folks behind that band, you know well. Aaron Turner (ISIS, Old Man Gloom, Mamiffer) on vocals, electronics, guitars; Jussi Lehtisalo (Circle, Pharaoh Overlord, Steel Mammoth) on guitars; and his other Mammoth mates Jukka Kröger on drums, and Samae Koskinen on bass, didn’t all work in the same room together on these songs— Lehtisalo and his other Finnish mates worked on the songs, sent them to Turner to finish, and so on—but you wouldn’t know if from the kinetic and organic energy of these cuts. Simply put, it’s one of our favorite albums of the year so far, and we wanted to get a little more detail about this band, these songs, and their ideas. We also wanted to know if more was ahead from the band, so we talked with Turner and Lehtisalo about their experiences.

Turner’s and Lehtisalo’s answers are quite different in length, but that’s because of how the interviews were handled. We talked with Turner by phone and were able to go in and dissect stuff a little more, while Lehtisalo offered his input in an e-mail interview.  So Turner gives you the bigger story, and Lehtisalo pops in to add more color and insight from his perspective. Here’s what we learned.

Aaron Turner

Meat Mead Metal: I guess to start, let’s talk a bit about how Split Cranium came to be.

Aaron Turner: I guess there’s a long and a short of it. I guess the condensed version would be ISIS and Circle toured together. Jussi and I particularly hit it off and started talking about doing music together, and Split Cranium just happened to be the first thing that came up. I don’t know that this is what we both had in mind. Jussi just sort of recorded the music with Jukka on a whim, and Jussi didn’t feel comfortable doing vocals for it. He thought of me, called me up about it, and I said yes after hearing a couple tracks. The longer version of it would be that I guess there has been sort of a long-distance mutual appreciation between Jussi and I, and I think it just took us spending some time together on the road for things to evolve further and for us to develop a personal chemistry. So everything sort of came out of that, the Split Cranium record, Circle doing a record with Hydra Head, Pharaoh Overlord doing a release on Sige. I’m surprised it took this long for us to do something, but I’m just glad it happened at all.

Jussi Lehtisalo: I am very active with music. We do different kind of sessions with different people and we want to see what will happen. I started this project with the drummer Jukka Kröger and we recorded the music here in Finland. We didn´t have vocalist for it, so I wanted to ask Aaron.

MMM: How long are we talking from the idea to this taking place?

AT: I probably encountered Circle’s music about 10 years ago, maybe longer, and I liked it immediately. Maybe about 7-8 years ago we started talking about it, and nothing ever came of it. But like I said, it all kind of came together after spending some time on the road together. And it’s weird, because long-distance recording projects often render dubious results and sort of has a lack of personal connection that somehow stunts the music, and even though we did file trading to get the record together, the fact that we got to know each other beforehand added to the overall process.

JL: We work very fast. Composings and recordings will take a day or two.

MMM: Talk a bit more about the recording process.

AT: Well, Jussi and Jukka had been doing some recording together on some other projects, and they had time left over and ended up doing some speedy punk tracks. They got Samae to do some bass on them, and then Jussi sent me the rough mixes. I did all my vocals at home. Kurt (Ballou) did the mixes, we sent them back and forth and talked about them, talked about what we liked and disliked, finessed all the details, and that was that.

MMM: Aaron, did you do anything other than vocals?

AT: I did some guitar work. I did the intro to “Black Binding Plague,” like the noise thing. Then there are two tracks, the longer noisier tracks (“Blossoms From Boils,” “Retrace the Circle”), that I did the electronics for.

MMM: It would seem obvious you would release the record on Hydra Head, but did you consider putting it out anywhere else?

AT: Not really. We weren’t even thinking about who was putting it out.  When we were working on it originally, we did it and thought about what we were going to do with it afterward. Hydra Head wasn’t the first choice, or it wasn’t the immediate decision, partially because Hydra Head has such a busy release schedule. Throwing an unplanned release into the mix isn’t always viable. But after talking about what the other possibilities were, it just seemed like Hydra Head was the best idea. Plus, I knew if Hydra Head released it, I could have a little bit more say in packaging and could have some control over the production process.

JL: We were really happy that Hydra Head put it out. My Ektro Records was very into material too, but we choose the better label!

MMM: The one thing that I always really like about Hydra Head releases is all the add-on stuff, like the plates with the Big Business release. You guys did the one-eyed ski mask with this one. How did that come about?

AT: (laughs) Yeah, that was my idea. I’m not sure where that came from exactly. It just seemed like an appropriate thing to go with Split Cranium. I was talking about it at lunch one day with some of the other Hydra Head employees, and our friend J Bennett (well-traveled music scribe, guitarist for Ides of Gemini) mentioned we should do a one-eyed ski mask. It was already ridiculous enough, so I figured why not go with it.

MMM: Yeah, I wasn’t sure if it was supposed to be missing an eye or the eye was swollen.

AT: (laughs) I’ll leave that up to interpretation.

Jussi Lehtisalo

MMM: As far as the style of the music goes, obviously it’s more punk, a little looser. Was it cool to just kind of jam out on this one?

AT: Yeah, I know with the Circle guys, they think a lot about what they do, but there’s also a lot of spontaneity in what they do. The way I understand it, the record Jussi and Jukki had been working on was more contemplative. It was more abstract and sort of a minimal art rock record. I think by the time they got through that they felt like having at it doing something that was a lot more visceral. I think that’s sort of what gave birth to the sort of more fiery energy of the music. I had dabbled in heavier stuff with Old Man Gloom. Some of the other stuff has been on the slower side and developed over longer periods of time with a really meticulous process. I figured maybe I would give it a go and let the beast out. I have to say it was really liberating and it reminded me, without sounding really clichéd, of what I love about punk and hardcore.

JL: I think the music is still rock and roll, but maybe little bit faster than we have done before. I have been into punk and hardcore in late ’80s and now I am even more. I have always made music without any pressures.

MMM: Aaron, lyrically, what are these songs about?

AT: The lyrics were written physically for these songs. It’s hard to say how directly a song or riff will influence me, but it often affects the kind of lyrics I write. Instrumental music might have an atmosphere but it doesn’t have an explicitly implied meaning, at least for me when I listen to stuff. I guess I was just trying to think more of the energy of the overall thing and stuff I could write that could further fuel that. (laughs) I’ve dodged this bullet many times and have chosen not to talk about my lyrical content, and in a certain way maybe there are some aspects that should be talked about because it’s not just deeply personal stuff that pertains only to me. At the same time I don’t really feel all that comfortable talking about it, so maybe I’ll just leave that to other people to figure out. I will say it has a lot to do with personal struggle, and that’s one of the things that was really liberating to me about punk and hardcore. I think a lot of the lyrics for ISIS got really impersonal for a time, and maybe I was trying to be too intellectual or something. I lost my direct connection to what I was really writing about, so with this I was like, fuck it, I’m going to write about exactly what I’m going through right now, what I’m thinking about, what I’m dealing with, and not hold anything back.

MMM: Jussi, you chose to have Aaron handle the vocals rather than doing them yourself. Why?

JL: I love his attitude, voice, and point of view. This was a good starting point to make music together.

MMM: I really dig the song “Blossoms From Boils.” There’s that cool little Southern rock thing going on with it. Where did that come from?

JL: I am into Southern rock. I love Ozark Mountain Daredevils, Atlanta Rhythm Section, Grinderswitch, Molly Hatchet…and I love boogie stuff too. One of my favorite tracks is “Poor Moon” by Canned Heat.

AT: Yeah, we were just talking about Jussi and his adventurousness, and he seems pretty open to do just about anything. I think it would be really hard for him or me to do a record that was narrow in its scope. So I think there has to be moments where other things just came up and were sort of just dropped into the mix. When I first heard it, I was thinking that I had never sung anything over something that was remotely that rock-oriented, and I was not sure what to do. But at the same time, it wasn’t really that unexpected when I heard that song.

MMM: Another interesting track we talked about, the closer “Retracing the Circle.” It’s a much longer song, it’s more melodic, it even has some clean vocals. It’s a really powerful closer.

AT: It’s one of those songs where, the first time I heard it, I noticed there was this really long section in the middle where it’s the same thing over and over. And that’s one of the things I really like about Circle is the repetitive nature of their music. I knew I couldn’t take the same approach to that as I did to the other songs, like a relentless barrage of yelling. I felt I had to become a little more abstract. The idea of the electronics came to me because it’s something I always enjoyed doing in my own music, and the one thing I always liked about Circle’s music is there are those parts that sound like they kind of exist outside of the songs. I felt like a six-minute rock part of this song needed to be subverted somehow. So it was another one of those fun aspects of working on this record. An idea came to me and I kind of just ran with it.

JL: Hats off to Aaron. He got this song to (come) alive. It is an open closer for the record.

MMM: Do you see the Split Cranium album as a one-off, or do you plan to record again?

JL: We are going to continue it for sure, as soon as we have a chance to meet each other again!

AT: I certainly hope it’s not a one-off, and we’ve already talked about doing another record and even starting some of the recording this summer. We also talked about doing more of it in person this time around. I can’t say for sure yet whether that’ll actually happen, but I’m pretty sure this isn’t the end of Split Cranium. I’m also pretty sure we’ll end up doing live shows at some point. We may never get to the point where we can tour, but I can definitely see us doing a handful of shows here and there. I would really like to make that happen.

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OMG! ‘No’ catapults Old Man Gloom back to noisy, sludgy stomping grounds

Sometimes it’s worth waiting a really long time for things that end up being really good. Right? What’s better than that? Torturing yourself with anticipation, hoping the thing that’s potentially in your future ends up being worth all the frustration. And really, when you’re talking about music, it isn’t life or death, but it still means a lot.

I’ve had a good bit of experiencing waiting things out. I use a lot of sports comparisons on this site, but whatever. I remember when the Steelers won Super Bowl XL, the first NFL championship my hometown team captured in my adult life, and it was ridiculously incredible. After waiting all that time, it totally lived up to its awesomeness. Same also with the Pirates, who have their best record in 20 years. It’s sickeningly great, and I live in total fear the bottom’s about to drop out if it.

Maybe I didn’t fret like I did over the Steelers winning a Super Bowl, but I’ve been pretty excited to hear new stuff was coming from Old Man Gloom, the hardcore/metal/sludge/noise supergroup currently consisting of Aaron Turner (ISIS, Split Cranium, Mamiffer), Caleb Scofield (Cave In, Zozobra), Nate Newton (Converge, Doomriders), and Santos Montano (also Zozobra). They last reached us in 2004 with “Christmas,” and then everyone went on to their other bands to make some pretty heavy, important albums that would go on to define various aspects of extreme music and make their main projects unstoppable forces. Yet, OMG seemed to be lingering in the back of people’s minds. Eight years later and here we are, the band is back doing live shows, and a new record finally surfaced called “No.” Would you expect a more mysterious, complex title from these guys?

Naturally, people now will compare the work done by ISIS, Converge, Cave In, and the other bands in which these guys play to the new OMG music to determine if it holds up, and the answer is it does in a huge way. But why compare? The music doesn’t batter you philosophically, though it certainly does musically, and it’s one of those crushers you can put on and let devastate you without you having to consider world events or what life means if you don’t want to. These guys always are thinking big though, and their album title is as much a reaction to all the bullshit that floods our lives than anything, but you never feel beaten about the head and torso with their reactions.

Turner’s monstrous wolf growls make up a large portion of the vocals, though the rest of the guys pitch in a great deal as well. Musically, it’s like the sum of all of their other parts, just in case you never heard an OMG record before. The guitars are crunchy and meaty, dreamy and atmospheric in other parts, and the pockets of noise and ambiance help you breathe and the songs set up shop in your mind. The quaking is unmistakable, and it makes for a really satisfying, explosive listen.

The record begins mysteriously on “Grand Inversion,” a noisy intro cut that spits noise and feedback and eventually a ringing noise that sounds like a hearing test. That leads into the mammoth “Common Species,” a track that aims to split open your chest cavity with its heaviness, doomy vibes, and experimental haziness. “Regain/Rejoin” is fairly compact and has a nice melody, and “To Carry the Flame” is a flat-out bruiser that’ll help you get your ass kicked at a live OMG show. “The Forking Path” sounds like the second half of “Flame,” as it rises right out of it, and it’s blistering and weird at the same time.

“Shadowed Hand” kicks off the second half of the album, one that’s awash in strange passages, ambiance, and fields of noise, as the cuts are less straight-forward and demand more of your patience. Trust me, you’ll be rewarded. “Hand” takes a great deal of time to develop, as it sounds like a multi-part piece where things change and shift, and no parts of the song resemble each other. “Rats” opens with an unsettling hum before melting down into sludgy riffs, siren-like emissions, and throaty, violent vocals; “Crescent” is the oddball, as it has a Western feel, clean singing, and a bit of reflection; and 14-minute closer “Shuddering Earth” opens nakedly, with Turner growling over no music, before the full band kicks in, leads you through hellfire and brimstone, calms their approach, and eventually drowns everything in noise and shrieks. It’s a really effective epic that puts a gigantic exclamation point at the end of “No.”

So the long wait certainly was worth every moment, and while many people’s lives have changed significantly since we last heard from these guys (including the band members’), it’s nice to know some things can be relied upon no matter what. OMG are steady and true, and I can’t help but continually say yes to “No.”

By the way, we have way more on Turner and another one of his projects come Monday. Please make sure to return for this exciting piece that’s been a while in the making (pretty much because of me).

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Nile return with fire-breathing intensity, renewed focus on ‘At the Gate of Sethu’

Many people seem to mellow with age. It’s only natural that as you get older, the angst and fury that once burned in your heart would calm as more important matters take precedence. Or you just get tired and don’t feel like being a ball of rage anymore. Whatever’s to blame, there’s no big mystery why porch sitting becomes more popular with folks as they age.

And so it often goes with music. Bands mature and ease into their lives, embrace different styles of music, and as a result change things up a bit. Wait until you hear the new Baroness record. You’re in for a surprise. Even a band like Metallica, who have tried so hard to prove they can thrash again, just don’t have that organic energy. They grew out of it, or at least that’s what I always figured.

Then you get to Nile, the long-running, ancient Egypt-themed death metal band and their progressive, virtuosic brand of carnage. You typically know what to expect from one of their records, and while that’s never disappointing, there’s little mystery as to what they’re going to do. You’re going to get classic-style death metal with a few Middle Eastern musical flourishes, great guitar work, a whole lot of stuff to research, and that’s about it. Not a bad package, to be honest. But as far as listening to one of their albums and being totally surprised, not likely.

That held pretty true until their album “At the Gate of Sethu” arrived. This, the seventh full-length document from the South Carolina-based band, threw me for a loop right away because, holy shit, is this thing aggressive and heavy. Yeah, their previous work obviously was heavy, as death metal is wont to be, but this is many, many notches more explosive than anything they’ve done in some time. Slowing down? Calming with age? No way. If anything, they’ve got their venom glands restocked and have set out on a mission to poison the earth. This record also has stayed in my daily musical rotation, something I couldn’t say for their last two records “Ithyphallic” and “Those Whom the Gods Detest,” albums I liked just fine but that didn’t really push all my buttons. I haven’t enjoyed a Nile record this thoroughly since 2002’s “In Their Darkened Shrines,” and there’s a real sense that these guys have gone back and recaptured some of their youthful energy, as they sound reignited and reborn.

The band long has been fronted by Karl Sanders, guitar great and co-vocalist, who also is the spark for the band’s immersion in ancient Egyptian themes. Joining him as always is guitarist, co-vocalist Dallas Toler-Wade and drummer George Kollias, and new bassist Todd Ellis also has been thrown into the mix, and he even grabs some vocal duties. It’s all hands on deck for Nile, and they really hit on something with “Sethu” that helps this record reach greatness. In case you haven’t noticed, I am gushing over this album and everything it brings to the table.

Obviously the guitar work is phenomenal — it always is — but even that is stepped up more than ever. The leads are searing, the fast stuff is mind blowing, and even the insertion of well-times acoustic bits help the whole thing breathe. The vocals are just menacing as well, as each line is howled, growled, shrieked, or, in the case of the chorus of “The Fiends Who Come to Steal the Magick of the Deceased,” sung, like these guys are hungry dudes with something to prove.

There are many highlights on this album, and it has great momentum like each songs tries to top the one before, and usually succeeds. The 11-track album has a stunning start with “Enduring the Eternal Molestation of Flame,” an oddly named song with a ton of crunch, some sweeping tempo shifts, and excellent guitar work. “The Inevitable Degradation of Flesh” has furious drum blasts, a true dose of nastiness, and ominous lines such as, “All those who live will die, all those who die will rise.” “When My Wrath is Done” opens with majestically strummed sitar before igniting into a firestorm of destruction. It’s a perfectly constructed piece of carnage.

“Slaves of Xul” and “Ethno-Musicological Cannibalisms” are interludes that allow for breathers and also pace the second half, that peaks on “The Gods Who Light Up the Sky at the Gate of Sethu,” a nasty song that has a lot of classic Nile traits; “Natural Liberation,” a storming song that maintains the incredible intensity of the record; the sludgy, trudging machinations of “Tribunal of the Dead”; the classic metal and slide-guitar dressing of “Supreme Humanism of Megalomania” and closer “The Chaining of the Iniquitous” that opens with Middle Eastern woodwinds before delving into a final salvo that’s heavy, bruising, growly, and muddy. The horns that send it off? Purely Apocalyptic.

Nile really have nothing to prove to anyone. They’ve carved out an impressive career and slot as one of the modern era’s most important and respected death metal bands. They could have coasted and still pulled in tons of accolades. Instead, they reignited the flames and made a beast-like statement that Nile is not a machine that is to be taken lightly. “At the Gate of Sethu” is a fire-breather, one of the most punishing, uncompromising efforts in this band’s history, and one of their best albums ever.

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Death metal vets Master remain furious, cynical on 11th album ‘The New Elite’

If you don’t like music that’s occasionally irritated and pissy, might I suggest you stop listening to metal. This is the perfect medium for lashing out, finding a target and honing in for the kill, doing what one can to do as much psychological damage as humanly possible to its target. It’s part of what makes metal so damn cathartic, and if you’re too sensitive for that part of it, get out now.

Before he went off the deep end and sunk into the ocean, Dave Mustaine was always a fun guy to hear rip apart his victims, and early Megadeth material is as awesome to hear for its thrash goodness as it is for Mustaine’s diatribes. Withered always has done a fine job taking on societal woes and putting a vicious crunch behind their message. While his targets may be different, Leviathan’s Jef Whitehead always has been masterful blistering his own personal opposition, and you come out of his songs with no mystery what he plans to do to satisfy his wrath. These approaches may be dangerous to an extent, but the music should help you relate and adjust.

One of my favorite miserable bastards ever is Paul Speckmann, who has been fronting Master seemingly since the dawn of time and never is at a loss for words. Be it societal, religious, or political oppression, Speckmann always takes on his distaste with a clenched fist and deathly howl, and now 11 albums and nearly three decades into his career with this band, he’s hardly slowing down. The band’s latest album “The New Elite” follows 2010’s excellent “The Human Machine,” itself a pretty direct hit against the powers that be that he sees as ruling our every step. Speckmann refuses to have his wrists be put into chains and his motives questioned, and he’s absolutely blistering on this new record.

I imagine this is the point where we address that, “Hey, these guys have been around a long time, and isn’t it amazing they’re so furious,” thing. Look, Master never let up at all. Through their various trials and tribulations as a band, they’ve kept things pretty nasty. Maybe not every record has been a home run, but their intensity and anger never could be questioned. So if you merely want to judge “The New Elite” compared to other bands of their era, there’s pretty much no contest. But if you want to throw Master into the pool of young death metal artists who are trying to carry the genre, those kids mostly be eaten alive by the veterans. These guys remain that hungry and punishing.

While they don’t get nearly enough credit for this, Master is one of the original bands that helped develop the death metal template. Their sound remains grisly and rough around the edges, and there’s also some punk and thrash blended in just for good measure. Speckmann’s vocals are full of spite and protest, and his undeniable charisma as a frontman is part of what keeps him so refreshing to hear. The other part is his lyrical content, that never pulls punches or kicks and certainly would not be taken so kindly by government officials or clergy.

The same lineup that’s been recording as Master since 2004’s “The Spirit of the West” is back for “Elite,” that being Speckmann (vocals/bass), Zdenĕk Pradlovský (drums), and Alex “93” Nejezchleba. They sound as tight and hammering as ever, and on a production note, this record sounds as good as anything they’ve ever put out. They erupt with the menacing title track, that grabs you right out of the gate and drags you to “Rise Up and Fight,” a thrashy, throaty puncher with some sweet dual guitar work; grindy “Remove the Knife”; “Smile As You’re Told,” a cynical, pissed off look at how life’s great atrocities play out in our very living rooms, with Speckmann sneering, “Sit back and watch with your remote control!”

“Redirect the Evil” opens with a bit of a shuffle before exploding into a lightning fast assault, and that takes us into “Out of Control,” a song that laments the world’s dangerous power struggles and war mongering, with Speckmann warning, “There will be no one left alive.” “As Two Worlds Collide” and “Guide Yourself” get into thrashier territory, while “New Reforms” adds some mud and sludge into the pot; “Souls to Dissuade” opens with a thick bassline that bubbles over into a Prong-like assault and some beastly, catchy melodies; and closer “Twist of Fate” is a total storm, with relentless blast beats, some cool loopy lead guitar work, and Speckmann wrestling over the emotions of someone facing execution, knowing only death will silence his inner voices and turmoil. It’s a pretty heavy note on which to conclude the album.

Master’s always been a really reliable source for open-wound, angry death metal, and they’ve never buckled under the pressure to get glossier or more accessible. Their scars and warts are there in public display, their message is ominous and sobering, and their metallic assault is unforgiving. Let’s hope Master never change a bit, and knowing their history, it’s pretty certain they won’t.

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Binah’s ‘Hallucinating in Resurrecture’ mixes old-school death and weirdness

If our modern crop of metal bands do not slow down, I soon am going to have no more money left and will have to ignore all of my bills. Is that what everyone wants?

OK, so that’s a pretty ridiculous thing to say. First, I never could go broke buying all the new music I really want because I have some pretty stubborn tastes, and second, buying music isn’t all that expensive. But nonetheless, I have found myself investing my money in way more new bands lately, and that’s a sign that creativity is at an apex, and my attention span is at an all-time high. It’s a great problem to have. The fact I am paying this close of attention to anything is a miracle.

I now have another new band that’s gotten me excited, this time on the death metal side of things. U.K. trio Binah have a fairly unexciting name, but that doesn’t matter since their infernal, bizarre, and suffocating death metal is such a hellish blast to witness. From my first visit with their debut album “Hallucinating in Resurrecture,” I was captivated by their sound, as it’s uglier, meaner, and far more deadly that much of what other bands claiming to represent death metal pull off these days. With each subsequent listen, my excitement for this band bubbled to the surface, and they’re one of the freshest, more promising new groups I’ve heard this year.

Binah is comprised of Ilia R.G. (vocals, guitars, synth), Aort (guitar, bass, synth), and A. Carrier (drums), none of them newcomers to metal, and their music sounds more like the bands that helped birth this genre. You can hear some Entombed, Morbid Angel and Demigod, as well as hints of other bands such as Portal, Autopsy, and Hooded Menace, and yeah, while there are plenty of other bands going back in time to try to revive the genre’s roots, Binah don’t sound like they’re doing this as some sort of calculated cash-in. This shit is for real, and it’ll leave you in a pile of your own bones when it’s done picking away at your flesh. But on top of simply sounding legitimately influenced by the early days, they inject a sense of weirdness that’s fairly subtle but definitely is present.

The album has a really strange intro with “Into the Psychomanteum,” an instrumental that sounds like the lead-in to a magic show, but then things get ugly on “Morbid Obumbration,” a muddy, doomy, slowly delivered piece that lurches along. The growls are effective and vicious, and eventually the leads guitar work sets in with a fury, and pace kicks up a few notches. “A New Rotten Dawn” has some creepy synth work behind the chaos, and it folds in some excellent crunch and fiery growls, making it one of the most satisfying tracks on the album. “The Emissary” tears out of a doom-encrusted open, and its muddy make up eventually leads to some fast, aggressive playing that is just flooring. “Absorption Into the Unearthly” and “Dissolution” are pretty fast songs, with devastating drum work, and they’re more to the point than the other songs on here. The title track appears to pay some homage to Celtic Frost with its calculated and monstrous display of blackened death, and it maintains an utterly ominous feel through its 7:22 running time. “Crepuscular Transcendence” is the other epic cut at 7:16, and it’s heavy, sludgy, and crushing. It’s an example of how good these guys are at maintaining a sense of savagery and destruction over a longer piece and never running into monotony. They utterly kill the entire time.

I don’t know that Binah are going to become leaders of the underground death metal movement, but this debut album certainly seems to indicate they’re capable of serving in that role. “Hallucinating” is a rock-solid effort from a new band, and it deserves your attention if you’re into the wormiest, most gut-wrenching and uncompromising of death’s minions. Binah is off to a great start, and hopefully things just get deadlier from here on out.

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