Obscure Metal Roundup 15

Mountain Witch – Extinct Cults (Released 2020)

At the risk of bogging down these proceedings with boring meta nonsense, I’m pleased to report that writing these posts has forced me to listen to doom/stoner/sludge/etc. metal a lot more critically than I used to. I do my very best to avoid placing too much on genre and sub-genre categorizations. After all, genres are nothing more than mental constructs that cannot do more than impose some vague, vain semblance of order onto the chaos of all things. When it comes to metal, the subgenre classification is not the reality; only the music is.

Nevertheless, as I’ve gotten further into doom/stoner/sludge/etc., I’ve had several unfortunate lapses into ascribing far too much reality on these classifications. It pains me to say it, but I’d started to assume that these were exclusively the domains of drone-like, 8+ minute excursions into slow, gloriously punishing, beautifully repetitive blasts of riffs. There’s plenty of that out there, but that’s far from the sum total of whatever qualities these appellations are meant to capture.

All of this is to say that it is easy, and in many ways useful, to throw Mountain Witch onto the pile of bands you’d call “stoner metal” or something similar. But, there’s a lot more going on throughout the duration of Extinct Cults than stereotypical trappings. This is dry, crunchy, but also fuzzy metal that has also been injected with a massive does of progressive juice. Despite a sub-35 minute run time, and despite the fact that only one track crosses the 7 minute mark (and even then, only just barely), none of the songs in this collection remain static. Riffs are blasted forth for a while before typically abrupt and impressively seamless changes. Sometimes the main riffs come back, as on opening track Capping Day, but other times the songs go on completely new journeys without ever circling back to familiar ground, as on the compact epic Worship You.

About that 7 minute track; that’s the title track here, which serves as the album’s lynchpin and has the most to unpack. At first, I didn’t consider this to be any great shakes. Lots of metal songs start out with quiet and/or acoustic intros before segueing into large, slow riffing. It’s one of the oldest tricks in the book, really. But the gradual ramping up of this initial period is masterfully paced and paid off, climaxing with a fast break (well, fast for this style; no one is mistaking this for a thrash breakdown) before returning to original riff. It rules! I’d also like to give a special shout-out to album closer The Devil, Probably!, which manages to be both a giggle-high slasher movie marathon goof-off while also exiting on an oddly chipper-sounding note, closing the album on a question mark instead of a period. I always appreciate that.

In case my feelings weren’t already made clear enough, this album rules, and you should already be checking it out.

Standout Tracks: Back From the Grave; Extinct Cults; The Devil, Probably!

Firebreather – Under a Blood Moon (Released 2019)

If I’m trying to forward the argument that stoner metal is more than just a bunch of droning riffs stretched across vast track lengths, perhaps I would have been better served not featuring Under a Blood Moon in this space, what with it being a collection of droning riffs stretched across vast track lengths and all. On this album, the tempos are slow, the riffs strings of big, fat chords, the bass is so massive as to be all encompassing, and the drums hit with dry thuds that do their very best to make themselves heard, with partial success.

That is not to say that Firebreather are content to hang back for 8 minutes at a time, without variation. Indeed, Under a Blood Moon displays a band that is also confident and capable at incorporating change-ups, albeit in a way that is more organic. Consider second track Our Souls, They Burn, which does a fantastic job crafting verse and chorus riffs that contrast beautifully. The verse remains mired in the sludge, but then the chorus provides much-welcomed propulsion (hey, check it out – eighth notes!), and the whole business is capped off with a minutes-long, luxurious, and infectious outro.

Closed Gate follows a similar pattern early on, and also demonstrates the value of not being too repetitive; the snaking section that kicks in just shy of the 4-minute mark lasts just a bit, but ends early enough to leave me wanting more. This track also has one of the catchier, more melodic choruses with growled vocals you’re likely to hear this week, and the outro segues seamlessly into the next track, Firebreather, which itself is a showcase of neat transitions. (Sidebar: more metal bands need to have eponymous songs. Plenty do, I know, not enough, if you ask me. If it’s good enough for Metal Church, it’s good enough for everyone!)

As is befitting of this style, there are guitar solos here, but there isn’t much in the way of shredding. The riffs bring the pyrotechnics, while the solos tend to be relatively quick, blues-infused, and melodic. Also, as I mentioned above, the vocals are growled, without so much as a clean phrase in sight; this kind of metal can go either way.

Standout Tracks: Our Souls, They Burn; Closed Gate; Firebreather

Sabïre – Gates Ajar (Released 2018)

And now, for something completely different, I present Gates Ajar.

Given that the central question driving this post is an inquiry to the nature of subgenre as a categorization and the limits of said, Gates Ajar furthers this discourse by asking, “What does it mean to call a piece of music ‘hair metal’, exactly?” On first blush, this album certainly seems to tick a lot of the boxes that appellation brings to mind even though I sincerely doubt that’s the vibe Sabïre are going for, here. The speed of actual first song One for the Road and later track Black Widow alone would suggest a desire to rock slightly harder than the Dokkens and Slaughters and Poisons of this forsaken world. The band’s Metal Archives entry also explicitly states they self-identify as “Acid Metal”, which, uh…sure.

But I’ll be damned if this album doesn’t sound like it crawled straight out of 1986. This is due largely to the guitar sound. It replicates the thin, buzzy guitars endemic to the metal mainstream at this time, a production decision I’ve learned to tolerate, but have never really understood. (In case you’re not sure what I’m talking about here, think of what the guitars sound like on any given song from Def Leppard’s Hysteria; it’s that.) To my knowledge, it hasn’t been vindicated by history either, unlike gated drums, drum machines, analog synths, and most other formerly maligned 80’s sounds. It’s made even more baffling here because, like I said, I don’t think this crew is trying to be all that poppy. In addition to the speed-adjacent material I mentioned above, there’s also the multi-faceted Daemons Calling (and it’s, shall we say, extremely familiar sounding intro riff), and there’s nothing you’d dare consider calling a power ballad here.

I must apologize if all these hair metal comps come across as a diss. Yes, I did grow up during a time when the style was both an easy and acceptable target, and yes, this upbringing did make a distinct impression. But, as I’ve noted before, we live in more enlightened times when it comes to appraising old pop, and this has made the world a better place. Therefore, I must cast of the shackles of 90’s sarcasm and admit that hair metal, while not always my thing, gave us plenty of straight up bangers.

In this context, Gates Ajar is a mostly fun throwback album and, since it clocks in at under 30 minutes total, it doesn’t overstay its welcome. That said, I still thought the track list was front-loaded. After each of my listens, I’ve always been ready for this one to be done by the time it is. In order to end a positive note, I’d like to highlight Rise to the Top. It nails both its groove and hook, and exemplifies party metal at its finest. If I’m ever allowed to have people over to my house ever again, I might throw it on my playlist, just to see if anyone notices.

Standout Tracks: One for the Road; Rise to the Top; Slave to the Whip

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