Bloody Thundering Alehorns On Mountaintops – Traditional Heavy Metal Reaches New Heights

October 1, 2013 has a pretty remarkable group of albums scheduled for release.

bloody-thundering-alehornsArgus – Beyond The Martyrs (Cruz Del Sur)
Atlantean Codex – The White Goddess (Cruz Del Sur/20 Buck Spin)
Horisont – Time Warriors (Rise Above/Metal Blade)
In Solitude – Sister (Metal Blade)
Iron Man – South Of The Earth (Rise Above/Metal Blade)
Twilight Of The Gods – Fire On The Mountain (Season Of Myst)

It may be seem to be anything more special than a bunch of metal releases to a lot of people, but to a growing number of fans, it’s an exciting trend of increased popularity and label support for what had been the long-suffering traditional heavy metal. Since metal splintered into thrash, speed, black, death and a thousand other subgenres in the 80s, it’s been considered passe by many to listen to anything that didn’t identify with the newer subgenres. The nineties were lean times for most metal genres, and while the big guns like Black Sabbath, Judas Priest and Iron Maiden limped through the decade with difficult lineup changes, there weren’t a lot of new bands flourishing.

It turned out there were quite a few bands slogging it out in Europe, and a few in the U.S. in the underground. By 2003 some were calling it NRWOTHM (new retro wave of traditional heavy metal). As always, there’s contention over what to call the wave, movement or scene, and whether it ever existed or didn’t exist. Some bands associate with power metal, others classic metal, others epic battle metal, some as true metal, and most self-identify as plain heavy metal. Despite the conservative sounding tags, there’s still plenty of diversity, with most bands dipping into a variety of influences from hard rock, prog, doom, thrash and black metal. Lyrical themes tend to center on comics, epic fantasy, folk tales, Hell, history, insanity, magic, metal, murder, Norse & Celtic mythology, the occult, Satan, science fiction and war. No love songs, no whining about unhappy childhoods. There is no crying in metal.

However it can be argued that the basic elements can all be boiled down to the original metal bands. One of the longest running bands is Slough Feg, known from 1990 to 2005 as The Lord Weird Slough Feg. Still one of the very best bands of the scene, some of their passionate fans consider them the best metal band ever. I was pretty convinced of that when I first saw them at an Alehorn Of Power fest in Chicago. Bandleader Mike Scalzi has insisted the DNA of all genres can be found in Sabbath Bloody Sabbath, Denim And Leather and Killers. Others might insist that Dio, Manowar and Mercyful Fate are just as essential. A misconception among many fans are that just because some of these bands are underground, that they have encyclopedic knowledge of every obscure NWOBHM (new wave of British heavy metal) band and were influenced by Cirith Ungol, Jag Panzer and Manilla Road. While some spend time building huge collections, others form a band and write new music. When pressed, Scalzi has admitted to also being influenced by Queen, Black Flag, Saint Vitus, and Thin Lizzy, though he didn’t get deep into Lizzy until shortly before they recorded their self-titled debut in 1996.

Slough Feg - "Laser Enforcer" 7" (2013)While some would say metal never went away, and there was always a traditional metal scene, it barely existed in the U.S. It’s a credit to Slough Feg that they slogged through an entire decade playing shows to usually no more than thirty people. Scalzi noticed a change by 1999 in Europe with more kids wearing patches on their jackets, and gradually it started happening in the U.S. by 2004. He’s seen a growth in audiences ever since, to the point where they could start touring the country by 2007.  The audience has increased exponentially in Europe, with the success of Germany’s “Keep It True” festival, which started in 2003 as a key example. The change seems to have improved his mood. A decade ago he rarely had anything positive to say about the scene or the bands. He did not feel kinship with other bands at the time, calling Hammerfall “commercial, uninspired, talentless puke,” and even calling the recent output of his beloved Maiden as embarrassing. Lately he has expressed admiration for some of Slough Feg’s contemporaries like Solstice, Sacred Steel, Blind Guardian, Bible of the Devil, Skelator, Ironsword and Christian Mistress, and having Bobbi Wright from San Francisco cult band Brocas Helm contribute to The Animal Spirits (2010). 23 years after Slough Feg formed, they continue to be on an upward path, signing to Brian Slagel’s Metal Blade, who reissued their 2nd-4th albums in a box set earlier this year, and have a new Slough Feg album tentatively scheduled for December. They released a great 7″ single, “Laser Enforcer” in July.

Other bands that are getting an increasing amount of support from both reviews and end of year fan polls in the past few years are Dawnbringer, Christian Mistress, Atlantean Kodex, The Sword, Hammers Of Misfortune, Argus, In Solitude, Cauldron and Grand Magus. Others like Wolf, Twisted Tower Dire, Pharaoh, DoomSword, RAM, Sacred Steel, Sinister Realm, Holy Grail, White Wizzard and Dark Forest mostly have much more success in Europe.

Argus - Beyond The Martyrs (Cruz Del Sur, 2013)Argus – Beyond The Martyrs (Cruz Del Sur)
Hailing from the fertile metallic landscapes of Pennsylvania, Argus is releasing their third and best album on the Italian metal label that was founded in 2003, and was once the home of Slough Feg and other like minded bands. Unlike Argus’ first two consistently strong albums, doom is less of a factor on Beyond The Martyrs, emphasizing their twin guitar interplay, and mixing in the epic with the darkness. The band were named from a vision Eric Johnson had of Argus Panoptes, the mythological primordial giant with a hundred eyes. Several bands have taken up that name, but this is the one most worthy of it.

Atlantean Codex - The White Goddess (Cruz Del Sur/20 Buck Spin, 2013) Atlantean Codex – The White Goddess (Cruz Del Sur/20 Buck Spin)
Also on Cruz Del Sur, but released in the U.S. on 20 Buck Spin, the German Atlantean Codex goes for an over the top epic metal that was so convincing it immediately connected with a devoted audience in the U.S. On just the second album, the band seems to expect world domination, with the bold use of German Romantic painter Caspar David Friedrich’s Monk by the Sea for the cover art. The contents are similarly ambitious, hinted at by the roman numerals preceding the song titles and the album’s subtitle, A Grammar Of Poetic Myth. A graduate course in poetry and mythology (at least in the U.S., primary schools in Germany are obviously way ahead of us in that regard) may be needed to fully dig in. Alternatively, the album offers a concise introductory primer to such intellectual pursuits. While the band promised the new one to be darker and heavier than their debut, that may be true in the lyrics and themes, but the music sacrifices some weight for orchestral bombast. However, fans of Blind Guardian and Turisas will find much to love here.

Horisont - Time Warriors (Rise Above/Metal Blade, 2013)Horisont – Time Warriors (Rise Above/Metal Blade)
Most would not consider Sweden’s Horisont as metal, but like Witchcraft and Graveyard, they have strong roots in early proto-metal (Uriah Heep, Wishbone Ash, November, early Scorpions) along with lots of obscure heavy psych and familiar hard rock, good enough for the metal-oriented Metal Blade to deem worth signing. Emulating Graveyard’s brisk release schedule, their third album is out just a year after their last one, the great Second Assault (2012). On Time Warriors, I do hear more of a NWOBHM influence on some of the riffs, which lends it a heavier galloping energy than previous albums. I love how they pose for Time Warriors not in futuristic space suits, but their usual denim and leather. Because if they finally event a time machine, no one’s going to want to go further in the post-apocalyptic future. They’re gonna wanna go back to 1972, far enough to fix up our fuck-ups, and catch some awesome live rock shows.

In Solitude - Sister (Metal Blade, 2013)In Solitude – Sister (Metal Blade)
Swedish metallers In Solitude have made big changes since their self-titled debut in 2008, a solid but not stellar twin guitar tribute to NWOBHM and Mercyful Fate. The World. The Flesh. The Devil (2011) was an excellent step in the right direction, mastering their past inspirations while hinting towards a promising future, which has arrived with their third album Sister. They’ve evolved into a quite different sounding unit, leaving many of their Mercyful Fate references behind to creating their own dark, nearly gothic style. Those who were slightly disappointed by Ghost taking their Blue Oyster Cult-isms a bit too far might find that In Solitude have achieved just what they had hoped Ghost would — a mysterious and menacing piece of work that takes many close listens to get a handle of, and then gets under your skin like an alien parasite. Every song sounds quite different, while still tying together well as an album. There’s murky hints of The Cure and Sisters Of Mercy, Swans and who knows what else they’ve been listening to. Like Slough Feg, Hammers Of Misfortune, it’s a great example of how all ideas in traditional metal had not been spent in the 80s. This could be a really big album for them, reaching a more diverse audience than traditional metal usually does. It will be success well deserved.

Iron Man - South Of The Earth (Rise Above/Metal Blade, 2013)Iron Man – South Of The Earth (Rise Above/Metal Blade)
Man, if Saint Vitus are supposed to be criminally underappreciated, then Iron Man from Maryland is like the invisible man. Perhaps not the best choice naming themselves after the Black Sabbath song with one of the three best known metal riffs of all time, they did start out as a Sabbath cover band. It’s just that many might assume they never evolved into so much more, but they did pretty quickly after forming in 1988, with a trio of very strong albums starting with Black Night (Hellhound, 1993). Their traditional doom was not groundbreaking, but featured original songs and great performances. Through many lineup changes, Al Morris III re-emerged triumphantly with the aptly titled I Have Returned (Shadow Kingdom, 2009). Thanks to the growing audience for doom, both new and old, they were rewarded with a deal with Rise Above in the U.K. and Metal Blade in the U.S.  Producer/engineer Frank Marchand III helped Iron Man not so much modernize their sound on their 2009 comeback as run it through a meat grinder, making it sound much more appropriately rough and heavy. On South Of The Earth, Marchand is back and the heaviness seems to have increased tenfold, the bass drums sounding like colliding moons, courtesy of newcomer Jason “Mot” Waldmann. Dee Calhoun ably replaces Joe Donnelly on vocals. Unlike some of the draggier tempos of many recent doom albums, Iron Man rocks and swings. A totally essential album for doomsters, and an ideal entrypoint for newbies.

Twilight Of The Gods - Fire On The Mountain (Season Of Myst, 2013)Twilight Of The Gods – Fire On The Mountain (Season Of Myst)
Formed originally to perform a couple shows as a Bathory tribute band in 2010, Twilight Of The Gods is an international all-star lineup consisting of Alan Averill (Primordial) on vocals, Nick Barker (ex-Cradle Of Filth, ex-Dimmu Borgir, ex-Testament, ex-Exodus) on drums, guitarists Rune Eriksen (ex-Mayhem, Aura Noir) and Patrik Lindgren (Thyrfing), and Frode Glesnes (Einherjer) on bass. They ended up bonding even more over their mutual love of Iron Maiden, Dio, Accept and Manowar. It’s clear they tons of time and effort into these songs in order to sound not like a one-off tribute, but a real band. At their best moments, they actually kind of sound like Slough Feg. I wondered aloud on a discussion board if they had heard them without acknowledging it, but no one really cared. And to be fair it doesn’t matter when talented musicians crossing over from extreme metal genres to pay unironic homage to the classics. When the results are as good as Fire On The Mountain this is a welcome event. Now how about a world tour with Slough Feg, Argus and/or In Solitude that includes the U.S.?

Other key NRWOTHM releases that came out earlier this year include White Wizzard‘s The Devil’s Cut (Earache) in June. This U.K. band’s third album is a distinct improvement over their inconsistent Flying Tigers (2011, Earache), with some truly catchy, melodic songwriting. Holy Grail was formed by former members of White Wizzard, and released their sophomore album Ride The Void (Nuclear Blast) in January, featuring some energetic power metal along the lines of 3 Inches Of Blood. The Bloodshed Summoning (Cruz Del Sur) is Sacred Steel’s eighth album. If this German band’s other albums are as impressive as this piece of epic power metal, I’ll have to dig back all the way to their 1997 origins. Another band from Pennsylvania is Sinister Realm. After releasing two meat and potatoes trad metal albums in 2009 and 2011, their third album World Of Evil (Shadow Kingdom) is dependably similar in style, but like White Wizzard’s latest, offers some improved melodic songwriting that can get pretty damn sticky.

Listening to a playlist with these ten albums has been a total blast, not from the past, but completely in the present. Heavy metal has always valued wearing their influences on their sleeves, which may explain how immensely popular these styles remain at least throughout Europe. Geezers like Slough Feg and Iron Man are getting more respect and support than ever, while younger bands like Argus and In Solitude are evolving into some of the best bands around, and even musicians from successful extreme metal bands are getting together to pay homage to the metal gods in Twilight Of The Gods. So it looks hopeful that an increasing number of American metalheads will continue to get over themselves and realize this music is no more nostalgic than music from most all other genres. In the scheme of things, metal is still a fairly young music at 43 years old compared to rock ‘n’ roll which is now old enough to collect social security. Modern R&B often reference music that’s over 80 years old, Country goes back over 90 years, and Folk for multiple centuries. Hell, even EDM (electronic dance music) has roots going back to the 60s.  You don’t really hear about people claiming music based on orchestras, pianos or acoustic guitars are dead the same way someone is always proclaiming guitar-based rock and metal dead.

Soon to come are albums from Finnish occult rockers Seremonia, the fourth album from Norway’s doomy Sahg (though like Grand Magus, they’ve veered more towards a classic metal sound), yet another big Metal Blade release with the long awaited second album by Swedish occult doom outfit Noctum, and fingers crossed, Slough Feg‘s Metal Blade debut.

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