The Fierce and the Dead—Spooky Action (Bad Elephant)
I came to this British instrumental quartet by way of guitarist Matt Stevens, whose clever, loop-centric solo albums I got into last year. The Fierce and the Dead aren’t simply a showcase for Stevens; they sound like a proper band…they are a proper band, dammit. All four musicians hit it pretty hard. TFatD do their own thing within the prog-instrumental realm, exploiting a variety of dynamics and styles. Spooky Action kicks ass with a sly smile on its face. Sometimes they’re heavy and mathy; often they’re playful. Bits of King Crimson and Voivod (if I didn’t already know these guys are fans, Kevin Feazey’s bass tone would give it away) vie with Shadowy Men and Cuneiform stalwarts Forever Einstein to provide the crucial crunchy/catchy balance. There’s a post/alt/noise-rock streak running through it too. It’s an entertaining listen and one of the most immediately appealing albums I heard all year.
Teeth of the Sea—Master (Rocket)
Gorguts—Colored Sands (Season of Mist)
Speaking of Voivod, they weren’t the only legendary Quebec-based metal band to undergo renewal in 2013. Band leader Luc Lemay assembled an avant-death metal dream team for Gorguts’ first album in 12 years. On drums, John Longstreth of Origin. On guitar, Kevin Hufnagel of Dysrhythmia. And on bass, Hufnagel’s bandmate, Colin Marston. It takes a special breed to keep up with Lemay, and these guys are well up to the job. The production and mix show some nice touches, with Lemay’s vocals mixed way back and the drums sounding quite natural for a DM album. At over an hour in length, it does lose me a couple of times, but I’ve found that, given many months to absorb it all, the songs are well structured. Certain tracks, like “Le Toit du Monde” and “Ember’s Voice” do get stuck in my head. Brutal, disturbing and haunting, it delivered exactly what I’d hoped for—a masterclass in visionary death metal in a field that has become overrun with Gorguts disciples since their 1998 masterpiece Obscura.
Voivod—Target Earth (Century Media)
Voivod invented music, pretty much. I reference them probably more than any other band. Jarring rhythms and Piggy chords follow me everywhere I go. After two albums of material built from the tracks left behind by Piggy (RIP), Voivod return as a working band, featuring the original three members plus Daniel “Chewy” Mongrain on guitar. The results are, for the most part, glorious. Mongrain is immensely skilled, and his riffs, chord voicings and use of effects indicate that he’s clearly the man for the job. Away is there with his characteristic loose-limbed thrash beats—Abaddon by way of Bill Bruford. Blacky’s bass sound? Check. Snake, as always, excels at draping powerful, memorable melodies over a complex framework. But Target Earth is a complicated album, not just in the “difficult music” sense. It should have been my favourite album of the year. Instead I’m featuring in the middle of the pack. I’m not sure why. Some days I feel that it’s a couple tracks too long, and that certain songs, like “Kaleidos”, get bogged down in recycled, post-consumer Voivod motifs. On other occasions, I’ll have shuffle mode on and some previously dismissed Target Earth track will come on and completely redeem itself. Anyway, it’s good to have Voivod around still, and I hope with Chewy on board they’ll find new ways to be weird on the next album.
VHOL—s/t (Profound Lore)
VHOL is a Ludicra/YOB alliance, and it does not mess around. This debut album engages in sustained savagery at RSI-inducing tempos. I hear echoes of early Voivod in John Cobbett’s combustible and discordant guitar playing, not to mention the blower bass tone that is revealed on “Grace.” Vocalist Mike Scheidt’s always had a versatile voice, and here he alternates between a T. Warrior bark and his higher-register mode. He does an amazing job with such caustic material. When he launches into the first verse of “Insane with Faith” the urge to break stuff is strong. And he takes a soulful turn during a moody section of “Song Set to Wait Forever” that’s very impressive indeed. These longish songs (five to eight minutes) reach terminal velocity quite quickly; however, the plateaus of noise are dotted with moments of intrigue and excitement, like the smooth, Brian May-like lead breaks in “Plastic Shaman” or the phased drum roll that takes “Illuminate” over the top. It’s great being loud and fast, but I want personality above all, and VHOL certainly have it. Such well-developed material elevates them well above the black/crust mire and makes me hope that this album won’t be a one-shot deal.