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THE VOID, Vol 4: The Top 10 Metal Albums of 2014 + More

Also: Jon Hadusek names the Band, Rookie, Reunion, Fest, and Story of the Year.

The Void
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THE VOID is a column that aims to explore, expose, and champion the finest in metal and heavy music. Following the template of the old Norwegian webzines that people would host on Geocities long ago, this recurring feature will include interviews, essays, opinions, reviews, and occasional live coverage in the hopes of providing a snapshot of metal culture.

It was the year in which metal sought its own identity. The tropes of the past fell away. Heavy music moved about freely; it did not conform to old templates. There is a new guard, and these artists are just that: artists creating art. It’s no longer just beer, chicks, and Satan. Metal has become an extreme form of artistic expression worthy of being judged on its own terms and from a contemporary, postmodern perspective.

Just look at what mega-label Relapse is doing, signing heavy but decidedly non-metal acts like Nothing and breaking their own promise of never signing a black metal act with the addition of Amalie Bruun’s solo project, Myrkur, which I chose as my rookie of the year (my Q&A with Bruun follows on the next page). Other prominent labels such as Century Media, Southern Lord, and Deathwish have followed Relapse’s lead, expanding their rosters to include artists that align with the ethos of the label rather than a predefined sound.

As listeners and consumers, we’ve also become more open, valuing the emotion and mood of the music, and bands have reacted accordingly. On it’s latest record, The Serpent & the Sphere, Agalloch voyage into astral post-rock, which they’ve been hinting at since The Mantle; Mastodon went pop on Once More Round the Sun and made their best album in years; and Nergal of Behemoth embraced his inner demons and crafted a twisted masterpiece with The Satanist. Behemoth is considered a death metal band, but to call The Satanist a death metal record would be a sleight, because it goes so far beyond what that tag tells us. Same for Mastodon, Agalloch, and plenty of other acts to release albums in 2014. The boundaries have been smeared. It’s chaos, and it sounds wonderful.

Next Page: Rookie of the Year

Rookie of the Year

Myrkur

myrkur2 THE VOID, Vol 4: The Top 10 Metal Albums of 2014 + More

Photography by Rasmus Malmstrøm, Synne Sofi Bårdsdatter.

A mysterious one, Myrkur. One day in summer, out of nowhere, Relapse announced they’d signed this one-woman Danish black metal project. A single, “Nattens Barn”, accompanied the press release, and it sounded like Ulver had hooked up with Cocteau Twins. The track was later included on her debut EP, which quickly sold out of its first pressing.

The songstress was soon discovered to be Amalie Bruun. She is currently recording a full-length LP with Garm of Ulver (well played!) and a host of other prominent black metal musicians. She took the time to answer some questions via email concerning the record, her artistic process, musical heritage, and homeland of Denmark.

VOID: How and when did Myrkur originate? What was your initial muse for the project?

MYRKUR: In a way, I could say it started when I was a child and found a deep connection to traditional Scandinavian folk music. I played mostly piano and violin and of course sang. I particularly liked girls choir music and the singer Sissel Kjyrkjebø. I also liked metal as a little girl. (I have later met quite a few little girls that also for some reason like metal, so maybe there is a deeper reason for this.) At some point, I started to combine all these different styles of music, Nordic folk music, classical music, metal, choir singing, and that is what Myrkur has become.

V: What artists and/or albums have inspired and influenced the music you’ve written as Myrkur?

M: Nordic composers in general, but particularly Edvard Grieg, Tchaikovsky, Ulver, Enslaved, Mayhem, Dissection, Satyricon, traditional Scandinavian folk music, and even children’s songs.

V: There’s an insular, almost homemade quality to the recordings. Did you record the EP alone? Can you describe how you achieved such a distinct, chilling aesthetic?

M: Homemade is the right word, since I recorded it in my living room in the house I grew up in and still live in in Northern Denmark. I have a grand piano, an amp, a couple of guitars, and a microphone. I was not going for a particularly homemade sound. I was trying to make it sound good, but this was my only option to record inside my living room on this not so good equipment. I spend a lot of time on guitar sounds of course; I like them to sound frozen and evil and perhaps outer worldly.

Processed with VSCOcam with g3 presetV: Black metal artists, much like authors, seem to prefer specific working environments and processes that help them reach a heightened sense of spiritual clarity while composing material. Regarding your own songwriting process, do you work better in a certain creative setting?

M: Yes, this is why I have chosen to record my full-length album in Oslo. Well, also because this is where Ulver is based, who is producing the record, and all the musicians I wished to have on the album (Teloch of Mayhem, Øyvind of Nidingr, and many others). It is nice to wake up every morning and walk up the mountain to the studio in the freezing Norwegian air. My view at the moment is the actual place where Edvard Munch’s “Skriget” was painted. Norway is compatible with my heart: It is cold and pure and dark. I also like to write in my home in Nordsjælland, where I live by forest and water and no one bothers me. Many other places, people bother me and there are too many people, and it is annoying and loud with their conversations.

V: Where do you go, and what do you do when you are stuck and in need of an artistic spark?

M: If I felt this way, I would not try to write music. I am a quite torn person. I am interested in contrasts. I do not operate in grey areas in anything in my life. I never have. I feel both in a dream and a nightmare. Sometimes I do not wish to even pick up an instrument or even look at it. But, most of the time I write music. It is what I like to do, and also to be out in nature and feel connected to what has been lost and forgotten by many.

V: From where do you draw your lyrical motifs?

M: The Icelandic sagas of the Poetic Edda, from life and hatred and anger, from love of nature and what is pure, from things I cannot say in “real life,” but I am allowed to speak of through music.

V: Black metal has always been a nationalistic genre, prideful of heritage. How is your homeland of Denmark depicted in your music, if at all?

M: I see more Scandinavia as a whole, and that is my home. Of course, I was born in Denmark, but I am free and at home in Norway, Sweden, and Iceland. The viking countries, the origin of Norse mythology, mountains, pine forest, the Northern coast I grew up by, Troldeskoven by our summerhouse, the midnight sun in the summer or darkness almost all day during the winter. I realize I am one of few who still feels this way about my country, but I am proud of my country, and I do not wish to participate in drowning and crushing pagan Europe and its history. So, I write and sing about it and my love for it.

V: You’re working on a full-length LP with Garm from Ulver and other musicians from the black metal scene. How will this album compare to your EP?

M: I am currently recording it. Today we recorded Hardanger fiddle and other traditional Scandinavian string instruments with this incredible musician, Ola Henrik. And Håvard of Ulver recorded some acoustic folk guitars yesterday. I played everything myself on the EP, except for drums, so a big difference is of course that I have chosen to involve other musicians. This album will be nastier, prettier, cinematic, Nordic. It cannot truly be described or put into any genre. Kristoffer called it a weird hybrid today. Myrkur has grown into its own musical universe. But he also called it “Grieg porn,” so I don’t know, haha.

Next Page: Band of the Year

Band of the Year

BABYMETAL

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What if I said the most extreme metal band of 2014 is composed of three adolescent Japanese girls? It’s true: BABYMETAL is an upheaval, hot coffee to the face of metal machismo. Although Su-metal, Yuimetal, and Moametal have little creative input and BABYMETAL is a super-corporate, major label enterprise, this is appropriation of metal music, not exploitation, and a work of unprecedented originality. After dropping a series of singles since 2011 — all smash hits in Japan — the band released its first full-length this year and went on a massive world tour, selling out most dates. Dance pop and death metal seem an odd pair, but with strong hooks and just enough kitsch, BABYMETAL pull it off.

Next Page: Reunion of the Year

Reunion of the Year

Body Count

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I was fortunate enough to witness Body Count’s return to the stage last November when they reunited for Fun Fun Fun Fest in Austin. It was one of the best sets of the weekend, featuring a guest appearance from Geto Boys’ Bushwick Bill and the band’s updated cover of Suicidal Tendencies’ “Institutionalized”. Ice-T and Ernie C were having a great time running through the hits and teasing their latest album, Manslaughter.

“I might play a cop on TV,” Ice-T said, “but you know I ain’t got no love for them.”

Ice-T’s been preaching against police brutality and government oppression since his Original Gangster days, but his messages ring especially poignant in this very moment, and that is why Manslaughter is such an achievement. It’s the most culturally and sociologically aware of any major metal release this year and the best Body Count album since their debut.

Next Page: Story of the Year

Story of the Year

RIP ODERUS

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In the metal community, few were more beloved than GWAR’s Dave Brockie, aka Oderus Urungus. On March 23, 2014, Brockie, 50, died of a heroin overdose, and his passing was felt around the world. Brockie was a master satirist and made a career out of making people smile and scoff, whether it be through his songs, his frequent in-character appearances on ’90s television, his wonderfully NSFW bedtime stories, or his lively interviews. What some forget is that beneath all the costumes and gore, there was some legit social commentary at work. Brockie was never afraid to speak his mind on topics of religion, politics, censorship, and gender equality, often with an eloquence that surpassed what many expected from a guy wearing a giant detachable alien penis. Though GWAR was left without any founding members after his death, the band maintains — as it should and as Brockie would’ve wished it — with an awesome new frontwoman: Vulvatron.

Next Page: Best Festival

Best Festival

Maryland Death Fest

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Every year during the middle of May, Baltimore gets evil. The best underground metal bands in the world gather for Maryland Deathfest, and fans come in legions. Three-day passes sell out during pre-sale, and day passes are gone come spring. Makes sense when you have lineups featuring bands like Candlemass, At the Gates, and Inquisition. Heading into its 13th year; it’s the biggest festival of its kind in North America, by a long shot. Honestly, the lack of major extreme metal festivals on this continent is disheartening. The West Coast doesn’t even have a major metal festival. Somebody should get on that and follow Maryland Deathfest’s mold. Seriously, there’s big money to be made here.

Update: Turns out there is going be a major metal in California this year. Psycho California (previously the much smaller Psycho de Mayo fest) will be held on May 17-19 at The Observatory in Santa Ana. The lineup is ridiculous, and they haven’t even announced the headliners yet.

Next Page: Top 10 Albums of the Year

Top 10 Albums of the Year

10. Black Monolith — Black Monolith (All Black Recording Co.)

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Black Monolith is an unforgiving assault of black metal and d-beat crust from former Deafheaven touring guitarist Gary Bettencourt. Largely improvised in studio, Passenger never settles on a single sound, traversing styles from song to song. The harsh blastbeats of “Void” precede the hardcore licks of “Dead Hand”, both contrasting with the record’s blissful closing salvo, “Gold Watch” and Eris”.

9. The Skull — For Those Which Are Asleep (Tee Pee Records)

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The Skull is essentially the Chicago doom metal band Trouble, not including guitarist Rick Wartrell, who retained the Trouble moniker and is now proceeding to mar the band’s legacy with subpar output. For those unfamiliar, Trouble recorded a pair of albums with Rick Rubin in the early ’90s that stand as doom classics, of which For Those Which Are Asleep is a reincarnation. Vocalist Eric Wagner is in strong form; it doesn’t sound like his voice has aged at all.

8. Black Magic – Wizard’s Spell (High Roller)

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Norway’s Black Magic are a band stuck in the wrong era. Any fan of old-school metal will find something to appreciate on Wizard’s Spell because every song here sounds like it’s from 1985. “Rite of the Wizard” is Mercyful Fate worship; “Thunder” cops early Slayer; and “Night of Mayhem” recalls the filth coming out of the Brazilian thrash scene. The band has two vocalists, one clean and one a growler, and both are strong in their respective style. If you like this, check out drummer/vocalist Sadomancer’s other equally badass old-school metal band, Deathhammer.

7. Young and in the Way – YAITW (Deathwish)

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Ruthless, misanthropic, and raw, this music brings you down. In umbrella terms, this is black metal, though its ethos aligns more with the fuck-all crust attitude. For example, Young and In the Way forced an Asheville, NC, venue to close forever after spraying animal blood everywhere during their set. The venue doubled as a restaurant, so health code violations kicked in. As for the album, it varies from fast to really fast. The vocals make your throat itch just hearing them. Occasional synth interludes and detours into goth rock keep you on your toes.

6. The Well – Samsara (Riding Easy Records)

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The pride of Austin, The Well are a power trio that have found the sweet spot between psych and doom that Sabbath were looking for and half-achieved on Technical Ecstasy. Bassist and co-vocalist Lisa Alley drives the songs with her hooky playing. After listening to Samsara, I constantly find myself humming her basslines. There’s a mystical sexiness to the longer tracks here (“Mortal Bones”, “Eternal Well”), like they could’ve been lifted from the soundtrack to some debauched ’70s cult flick. For fans of bands like Uncle Acid & the Deadbeats, Orchid, and Pentagram.

5. Mastodon – Once More Round the Sun (Reprise)

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As mentioned in the intro of this article, Mastodon’s sixth LP is one of the best metal albums of the year and one of the best pop albums of 2014. Not since Torche’s Harmonicraft has there been such an effective duality of catchiness and riffage. Mastodon keep at their usual prog-y pace, moving through multi-movement pieces and delivering unforgettable choruses all the while. 2011’s The Hunter teased the pop Mastodon. Once More Round the Sun is the full realization.

4. Thou – Heathen (Howling Mine)

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When all seems hopeless, plop this one on the turntable. Doom comes no bleaker than Thou. Apocalyptic visions of an absurd reality. Cold reminders. Dismal dirges that grind on and on. Highlight “At the Foot of Mt. Driskill” is a good sampler, with its colossal buildup and symphony of minor scales.

3. Triptykon – Melana Chasmata

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Along with Celtic Frost’s Into the Pandemonium, this is one of the more interesting episodes in the endless saga that is Tom G. Warrior. It’s also the most human record he’s ever written. In interviews, he said the making of the album acted as a therapy for his suicidal thoughts. Musically, it’s a refined take on Triptykon’s debut, Eparistera Daimones, combining doom metal with the operatic, gothic tendencies of Type O Negative. Often tragic, always heavy.

2. Agalloch – The Serpent & the Sphere

agalloch THE VOID, Vol 4: The Top 10 Metal Albums of 2014 + More

The Thoreau of metal bands, Portland’s Agalloch look to the stars on The Serpent & the Sphere, letting their songs wander and roam. The arrangements here are astounding — a balance of acoustic folk and black metal that never tires, a contrast in tandem. Front to back, this feels like an astral journey, and rare is it that an album so placidly achieves its intended effect. “Dark Matter Gods” is my metal song of the year.

Next Page: Album of the Year

Album of the Year

Pallbearer – Foundations of Burden (Profound Lore)

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Photography by Summer Perlow

I knew I would cry when they played “Worlds Apart”. I told my friend, “I’m gonna cry when they play ‘Worlds Apart’.” She laughed. Who cries during a fucking doom metal song?

Whenever those minor chords kick in, I lose it.

Months ago, when I first started this metal column, I interviewed Pallbearer’s bassist and co-songwriter, Joe Rowland. Literally minutes before the interview, I was sent a promo of Foundations of Burden. I played “Worlds Apart”. Wept right there, with Joe Rowland’s phone number typed in, ready to dial.

“Without light, the dark encloses all.”

pallbearer121614perlowI heard those words and saw the past few months of my life, the chaos of my early-20s, my dying romances, the retreats to the bedroom and the comfortable confines of my solitude. A bubble where I could sit and listen to Pallbearer songs and cry. I saw it all with vivid clarity, and it was horrifying.

So, here I am, full circle, at the Riot Room in KC, present tense (Dec. 16), feet from Brett Campbell as he’s belting it out: “Without light, the dark encloses all.” Fuck you Pallbearer, opening with this song and making me be the guy who cries at the doom metal show. A squirmy impulse in my brain is telling me, “CRY CRY CRY, WEEP LIKE YOU WANT TO.” My friend is standing next to me, and I don’t want to look pathetic, so I hold it together. Headbang, headbang, that’ll keep me straight. I close my eyes, swept by catharsis…

When you go through certain events with a song, it takes on a new form in your consciousness. A song can invoke emotions once dormant, taking you back to a time and place. This can be good or bad. In my case, “Worlds Apart” is probably not a healthy song for me to listen to.

I’ve carried it through some shit. I would turn on my iPod and scroll to Foundations of Burden instinctively. There was a girl who liked me, but I couldn’t reciprocate, and it caused a rift but only because I couldn’t express my true feelings. And the whole time I had another girl in the back of my mind. A fantasy, two thousand miles away, this fake long-distance relationship, a girl alone and yearning, and me sitting in a Missouri town twiddling my thumbs and asking myself, “Does she still like me?” Who knows. Two girls suffering because I can’t stop hiding from my fears.

Meanwhile, my parents wonder what I’m doing with my life. Everybody is always asking about what I’m doing with my life. I’ve been writing songs. “A waste of time,” say Mom and Dad. The metal column? “A dead end. Do something substantial with your degree. Get a job with benefits.” Instead, I decide I need a vacation and go to San Francisco to see the girl in the back of my mind.

But when I get there, she is seeing someone else. He seems like an asshole. She complains about him a lot. I feel sick the whole time. The morning after I arrive, I wake up and go to the park near her apartment. I lie on a bench, stare into the sky, and listen to Foundations of Burden. I am jealous and angry. I usually bust out a little air guitar during the intro of “Foundations”, when those pinch harmonics kick in. I clench my fist this time.

Why have I come to this place? What am I doing with my life?

I sit up from the bench and see people walking cute dogs. This cheers me up.

The Pallbearer album is not like other doom metal. I don’t feel doom when I listen to it. Darkness, yes, but always followed by light. A sinister riff and then a soft melody. At the time, I thought Pallbearer was catalyzing my mental state, bringing me down. In actuality, it was the music that made me realize that I was the one bringing myself down. Self-infliction. I reconcile that life is hard and that it’s hard for everyone, not just me. I must accept the consequences of my mistakes, learn from them, and not sit in idleness and let depression fester at the emotional expense of people who care about me.

I would come to these realizations long after my episode on the bench in San Francisco. From the vantage of this new wisdom, I tell myself: “What I am doing with my life is living it!”

I hear “The Ghost I Used to Be”, and I feel justified in my beliefs. It hits me like a psalm.

“I searched throughout the void.”

“I chose this.”

Tears are only tears, and I won’t be afraid to cry them anymore.

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