(Andy Synn once again presents you with his take on three upcoming albums from the UK Metal underground – come for the awesome artwork, stay for the magnificent music)
One of the most depressing things to observe as a Metal writer is how, every year, it seems like there’s less and less room for nuance in the way we talk about new albums – everything is either “absolute garbage” or “absolutely perfect”, and this polarisation is then amplified by a media landscape which increasingly favours only the loudest, most obnoxious voices and harshest, most extreme viewpoints.
This issue is then exacerbated by the fact that, because there’s just so many different sites/zines out there now whose lack of ethics (or quality control) means they’ll basically throw a 10/10 at anything, it seems like some bands (and their fans) have been actively conditioned to expect fawning praise whenever they release something, and often react quite badly to even the mildest criticism.
The thing is… no band or album is perfect. There’s always room for improvement in everything, and it doesn’t do “the scene” any good when those who write about it are more interested in brown-nosing and boot-licking in order to burnish their own “brand” than they are actually offering up an honest opinion.
So let me be clear – while I fully recommend all these albums, each of which represents a slightly different facet of the fertile UK underground, I’m also going to be offering some constructive criticism where I see fit.
And, if you can’t accept that then, well, maybe this isn’t the site for you.
ANAKIM – THE ELYSIAN VOID
There are certain bands whose absence leaves a huge hole in the Metal world. Bands like Mithras, whose last release, On Strange Loops, was unequivocally one of the best albums of (at least) the last decade.
And while, in the years since then, a handful of acts have valiantly attempted to step into the band’s massive, empty shoes – the Metal scene, like nature, abhors a vacuum after all – Anakim are the first group in a long time who feel like they just might, one day, have what it takes to fill that gaping (elysian) void they left behind.
Don’t get me wrong, they’re not anywhere near the same level… yet… nor are they just a simple carbon-copy of their illustrious predecessors (they’re not quite as brutally blast-happy for one thing, and frequently err more towards the proggier side of the spectrum, especially when they allow terrifically talented bassist Anthony Ridout – possibly the album’s MVP – to really cut loose).
But just take a listen to songs like “Infinite Realities”, “Bearer of the Sacred Flame”, and the climactic title-track – pay close attention to the prominent, proggy lead work, the punishingly precise percussion, the twisted, technical riffage and aggressive, authoritative vocals – and tell me you don’t hear the similarities (and untapped potential)?
Heck, while you’re at it you might as well also go back and listen to their first album, Monuments to Departed Worlds, and note just how much the band have grown, both in terms of their technical talents and their songwriting skills, in just four years… and then consider how much more they might evolve and improve within the next four years. It’s an exciting thought, no?
Of course, there are a few caveats to all this gushing praise.
If you’ve heard the album already (and, if you haven’t, don’t worry, you won’t have long to wait) you’ll doubtless agree that songs like “Auguries of Virgin Soil” and “Veins of the Unlight” are absolutely killer cuts of chunky, hook-heavy, riff-driven Death Metal.
But it has to be said that, while I love Decapitated as much as the next man, both these tracks (and a couple of others, truth be told) owe so much to the work of Vogg and co. that at times they almost sound like undiscovered offcuts from the Carnival Is Forever sessions… which I suppose is both a compliment (I love that album) and a criticism (in that it feels like Anakim still have a little more work to do to define their sound).
But, you know, there’s still time for all that. And if it’s already this clear to me how much promise these guys have – above and beyond the impressive showing they’ve already put in – then logically it seems only fair to conclude that the sky really is the limit for what they might achieve going forwards.
CRAVEN IDOL – FORKED TONGUES
In what can often seem like an ever-more complex and convoluted world of genres, sub-genres, micro-genres, pico-genres, and so on, there’s still a great deal of pleasure to be had from a band confidently and competently pursuing a bombastic, back-to-basics, approach that doesn’t care about anything except celebrating the primal power of Metal at its most unrelenting and unpretentious.
Of course, more often than not, bands attempting to relive/recapture “the glory days” end up doing little more than tilting at windmills – what they’re looking for, this “golden age”, this perfect sound, doesn’t really exist, except in their own heads.
But some bands are able to go the extra mile, able to take this sound, the primordial, mythic idea of Metal that exists only within their collective unconscious, and make it real. And Craven Idol are one of these bands.
After one listen to the suitably spiteful “Venomous Rites” – four minutes of frantic, thrashy riffs, furious, fire-breathing vocals, and flurries of fearsome blastbeats – I was tempted to simply call Craven Idol the UK’s answer to Witchery and just call it a day.
But, while this is definitely high praise in my eyes, as the album went on I realised it was simply too flippant and reductive – there’s much more going on here than just straight-up Black-Thrash worship (though there’s no denying that this forms the foundation of the band’s sound) – and realised that while Forked Tongues may be an “old school” album in some ways, it’s never old-fashioned, never outmoded, and still capable of its fair share of surprises, especially as the album goes on.
Hell, even the simplest and most straightforward cuts – hello “Iron Age of Devastation” – still feel like the product of a band taking hold of their influences and dragging them, kicking and screaming, into the modern age, rather than an attempt to just blindly resurrect some sort of “retro” aesthetic.
And speaking of the band’s influences… while it’s clear that Forked Tongues takes a lot of inspiration from many of the usual suspects – Slayer and Sodom, Sarcofago and Satyricon, etc – there’s also a clear and present undercurrent of classic Heavy Metal majesty permeating the album, one whose presence is felt most prominently in the songwriting and the band’s focus on ensuring that every track is more than just a simple collection of riffs and rage… each one is singular, well-defined and well-written song, first and foremost.
This is most obvious during the fantastic final pairing of “Deify the Stormgod” and “The Gods Have Left Us For Dead”, who owe as much to Mercyful Fate and Master of Puppets, Bathory and Black Metal (the album, not the genre) – blending shamelessly bombastic riffs and fearlessly infectious hooks with dramatic, dynamic vocals and epic, ambitious song-structures – as they do anything from the more self-consciously “extreme” scene… and are all the better for it.
Sure there’ still some room for improvement – honestly I think they could go even bigger on some of the choruses without losing any of their integrity or intensity – but this is another huge step up the Heavy Metal mountain for Craven Idol, and you’d be a fool not to give it a listen.
UNDERDARK – OUR BODIES BURNED BRIGHT ON REENTRY
While I’ve had my eye on Underdark for some time now, watching them grow from relative unknowns to underground darlings, I’ve never fully bought into all the hype, mostly because their limited recorded output has never really captured the obvious potential underpinning their viscerally intense (if sometimes slightly sloppy) and vividly emotional live show.
But, because of that, I hope it carries even more weight than usual when I say just how pleased I am to see them finally delivering on so much of that nascent promise with their long-awaited debut album.
Of course, while opener “Qeres” gets things off to a strong start – the song’s moody and evocative intro eventually giving way to a seething torrent of rattling blasts and rippling melodic riffs which, if nothing else, demonstrates that the band’s blackened bona fides are nothing to be sniffed at – Our Bodies Burn Bright… is the sort of record which actually gets better as it goes on, peaking in the middle with the glorious, gloomy majesty of “Coyotes” and then holding at this level all the way until (almost) the end.
That’s not to downplay the effectiveness of the title-track, which is both a potent and poignant example of how much the group’s grasp of structure and dynamic has improved over the years, but “Coyotes” is really where all the band’s inspirations and influences, all the blood, sweat, and tears they’ve poured into this album, combine into something truly greater than the sum of their parts.
It’s not that Underdark are rewriting the rule book or shifting the paradigm by any means – they’re good, certainly, but not that good… not yet anyway – but they’ve definitely captured something here, a distinctive vibe, that recalls the very best of Agalloch and/or Woods of Ypres as seen and heard through the eyes and ears of a band hungry to make their own mark upon the world.
And if “Coyotes” is the album’s high point then it’s safe to say that “With Ashen Hands Around Our Throats” is only a step or two behind/below it, as while it may not attain quite the same majestic heights, the song’s added intensity and aggression (fuelled, it seems, by an undercurrent of vicious, Crust-Punk vitriol) carries the band into even darker (at times even doomier) territory.
Our Bodies… isn’t without its flaws of course. Some of the blastier sections get a little rote and repetitive, for example, and there’s the occasional moment – such as the awkwardly twinkly finale of otherwise killer closer “Skeleton Queen” – where it feels like perhaps not all the band were on quite the same page. And it’s a shame, considering the clear importance of the band’s message – vulnerability and strength, collectivism and compassion – that the vocals occasionally feel like they’re straining to keep up and/or keep time with the music, rendering many of the lyrics unintelligible/indecipherable.
But, even so, this album is the first time I feel like I’m really getting to know the real Underdark, and while not every track here burns as brightly as the others, the ones which shine brightest suggest a dazzling future awaits them, just as long as they can avoid burning up, or burning out, before they get there.