(Our friend Gonzo returns to NCS with another monthly round-up of recommended albums, this one focusing on releases during November.)
Well, here I go, slacking off again.
Truth be told, it’s been a busier than usual time in the life of this NCS contributor, with frequent travel and a day job that seems intent on demanding all my attention. It doesn’t help that that job is also in writing, so writing about a subject I’m more passionate about (heavy music, in case you’re new here) can be draining when it should be pleasurable.
There’s lots to look forward to in the coming months, though – Decibel Metal and Beer Fest, Denver starts this weekend (Dec 2-3) and I’ll be there for all of it, and Amon Amarth will be stomping into town a few days after that. And then, of course, there’s our favorite time of year here at NCS with Listmania.
So, my friends, this will be my final monthly roundup of 2022, but the releases I cover here are some of the best I’ve written about all year. Join me, won’t you?
Elder, Innate Passage
Full disclosure before we dig too far here: Elder’s previous album Omens was my top album of the miserable saga of unrelenting bullshit that was the year 2020. The album actually helped me grasp onto waning threads of mental health in a time where that wasn’t an especially easy thing to do. It wasn’t just music to me – Omens was an audial sanctuary. Almost three years later, I still listen to it all the way through pretty often.
That said, Innate Passage had its work cut out for it – even long before its release. It was an added bonus that I didn’t know the release date was so soon, so imagine my unfettered delight when leadoff track “Catastasis” popped up in a playlist last Friday.
“Catastasis” picks things up right where Omens left off. It immediately captures the same free-flowing heaviness, the same creative overdrive, and the same ethereal wonder that Elder conjured so well before. Right from the first listen, I lost track of time about halfway through the 10 minute run time of “Catastasis,” and it wasn’t until “Endless Return” kicked in that I checked where I was in the five-song journey I was venturing into. “Coalescence” takes us into a newfound psychedelic realm that you won’t want to leave once you arrive, and the slow build of “Merged in Dreams – Ne Plus Ultra” showcases the Massachusetts foursome at their absolute peak.
Spoiler alert: I’ll be writing my contributions to our annual Listmania in the next couple of weeks, and this won’t be the last time you see me rant about how utterly fucking joyous it is to listen to Elder do what they do best in Innate Passage.
I’m still kicking myself for sleeping on this band’s electric debut album Pagan Rhythms last year. By the time I actually heard it, I was already well into my Listmania work and didn’t have a chance to give it a proper listen.
I’m pleased to report that I won’t be making the same mistake with DEATHWESTERN.
Right out of the gate, this juggernaut of a follow-up comes storming out like all four horsemen riding out of Hell. There’s a brief acoustic bluegrass buildup with “Mojave Bloodlust,” and while listening to it, you can almost see the cowboy-hat-laden Vegas crew calmly take the stage, grinning, as they pick up their instruments. That’s the precise moment you start to wonder “am I going to die in this pit?”
Once the title track hits, the answer to that question would likely be a resounding “probably.” I’ve never seen Spiritworld live, but the absolutely devastating riffs found throughout DEATHWESTERN are making that a top priority for 2023. The songwriting is the same aggressive death/thrash formula that Power Trip (RIP) weaponized so effectively, with vocalist Stu Folsom sounding like what you’d hear if Jamey Jasta and Dwid Hellion were yelling at each other while gargling battery acid.
But the real highlight throughout DEATHWESTERN is the searingly intense fretwork from the axe duo of Randy Moore and Matt Schrum. The pair insert their devastating headbang fuel generously on each song, and they do it in ways few of their peers have done this year. The breakdown that punctuates the second half of “Committee of Buzzards,” for example, is downright lethal. Remember that feeling of “I might die in this pit” from earlier? If the 3:05 mark of “Buzzards” hits and you’re not thrashing around in a wild stupor in your living room, you might want to have your pulse checked.
DEATHWESTERN is a modern metal clinic. There’s not an ounce of unnecessary fat on it, and I can’t wait to see what the future brings for the boys in SpiritWorld.
The Interbeing, Icon of the Hopeless
Sometime in the early aughts, there was a particular subgenre of metalcore that emerged. Its formula was specific but fairly easily duplicated – razor-sharp syncopated riffs, harsh-to-clean vocals in verses and choruses, and an industrial backbone. I’ll point to the criminally underrated Threat Signal for the best and most memorable example, but there were many others – Sybreed, Synthetic Breed, Mnemic, and Raunchy also come to mind.
Denmark’s The Interbeing is a band that studied the same playbook as the aforementioned acts. The only difference? It’s 2022. It’d be easy to dismiss the industrial metalcore movement as a thing of the past, but the Danes have other ideas.
Icon of the Hopeless is the band’s third album and the first one I’ve heard from them. Their style isn’t a try-too-hard attempt at nostalgia or a gimmick-infused hack job – it’s a tastefully written and executed collection of 10 songs that harken back to the days of spikey dyed hair and genre bending. “Black Halo” is a groove-laden delight with a chorus that you’ll find humming to yourself in the shower, while the ominous “Synthetic Bloodline” builds and crashes around a mountain of angular riffage and time changes.
Album highlight “Depressor” leads off with a vicious guitar barrage that gets brought back throughout the song with precision timing. Some listeners might turn their noses up at the clean-sung chorus, but the vocals are always tastefully performed. The vocalist’s range is worth noting, as he shifts effortlessly from agonized howls to mechanized clean droning, which serves “Depressor” and the entire album very well. Icon of the Hopeless is a gem of a record.
With members who’ve spent time in bands such as Obscura, Alkaloid, and Eternity’s End, the musical pedigree of the entity known as Obsidious should already carry plenty of weight. And no matter what you’re expecting from this collective of heavy music gurus, you’re probably going to be wildly impressed.
Iconic channels the best of tech-death, prog, and thrash, throws it into a blender, and the finger that hits the “start” button might belong to the ghost of Sean Malone. (RIP, you irreplaceable god.) It’s a thoroughly satisfying plunge into some of the most creative minds in metal, and the DNA of the record amounts to something more than just a typical debut record.
“Under Black Skies” gets things kicked off in a vortex of frantic intensity; staccato riffs give way to unpredictable time changes and furious vocal eruptions. By the time you’re done with that ride, the mid-paced chug of “Sense of Lust” seems much more digestible by way of comparison. But that’s the theme of this record – no two songs sound that much alike, and no idea overstays its welcome. The insane lead that kicks off the title track is another great example, as it sounds like John Petrucci stepped in for a few seconds. (He didn’t, but the fretwork is that good.)
The level of focus amid the chaos is what truly makes Iconic live up to its namesake, though. It’s a frantic listen that demands your full attention. It’s tech-death that pushes the genre forward, and if the trend continues, Obsidious have a lot more skulls to crush and faces to melt.
Threshold, Dividing Lines
We haven’t heard a true full-length from the UK’s prog metal masters in Threshold since 2017’s Legends of the Shires. For my money, March of Progress was and still is the band’s finest moment, and a true genre-defining effort in progressive metal. Not many bands in this realm can touch that level of greatness, so of course my hopes were high with the release of Dividing Lines.
It’s not quite Progress, but I wasn’t expecting that. Dividing Lines does what Threshold do best – memorable songs, superior musicianship, incredible vocals, and hard-hitting grooves. The creative guitar work in “Hall of Echoes” hints at moments from the band’s past, with a soft-to-heavy cadence from verse to chorus. Any fan of the band knows they’ve seen their fair share of lineup changes over the years, with vocalist Glynn Morgan being their fourth. While Damian Wilson will probably always be my favorite, Morgan’s pipes are pretty fucking impressive regardless.
For a prog album, the songs err on the shorter side, with the exception of the spectacular “The Domino Effect.” The song sees the band channel moments of Queensryche and Dream Theater in their finest moments, and Morgan sounds incredible on every note. Keyboardist Richard West also adds beautiful layers of atmosphere right when the song calls for it. Much like Dark Tranquility’s Martin Brandstrom, West’s presence adds the X-factor on much of Lines. His work makes this record all the more memorable.
Like what you hear? Follow my best-of-2022 Spotify playlist to hear songs from all of the above albums and a shitload more: https://open.spotify.com/playlist/7zWqE685GVpuB5M3qRDvog?si=7388b5b9430342e5