ID Music 2021 Year in Review
Part III: Metal That is Not Metal vs. Actually Metal
The Inter-Dimensional Music 2021 Year in Review aired in three installments on WQRT Indianapolis, Marfa Public Radio, and LOOKOUT FM in Los Angeles. Find the setlist to Part III below. Not everything in the essay is in the mix, and vice-versa.
HOWEVER! The complete cycle is available in its entirety to newsletter readers – like you! thank you! – to download as a continuous three-hour mix (320kbps MP3).
Now that we’ve reached the Vernal Equinox, it’s time for the next to last installment in the surprisingly laborious Inter-Dimensional 2021 Year In Review. This was a confusing attempt at a non-hierarchical, circular diagram of the music I thought about the most in 2021, organized loosely according to a highly subjective reading of the yin and yang variations of both tempo and general vibe. Part I was a survey of yin tempos – stillness, slowness – as applied to uplifting and downpressing ambient and meditation music. Part II looked at a blend of all tempos and vibes of ecstatic dance and ambient jazz. And now we arrive at Part III: The frantic yang tempos and mostly downcast yin vibes of trve and false metals.
Content warning: There’s nothing too NSFW here, but we do acknowledge the existence of bodies, fluids, violence, and mental and physical trauma.
There are many reasons to avoid metal. At the most basic level, it’s physically challenging if heavy frequencies and loud volumes don’t affect your neurochemistry in a particular way. Make it past that barrier, and you’re faced with the ethical and spiritual dilemmas that arise from participating in a culture that is ostensibly rooted in the celebration of evil. This isn’t always the case, obviously, and even when it is that celebration can be transgressive, performative, malicious, cathartic, or liberatory. As someone – I think Diamanda Galas but I can’t find the quote – once said about devil worship, “to whom do you pray when the Christians are preparing to burn you at the stake?”
Metal hits my brain in a way that is often therapeutic. Certain kinds of metal and adjacent heavy musics have been helpful in times of depression and heartache, or when processing the physical and emotional trauma I witnessed during the years I worked as a 911 medic. Generally speaking, I don’t care much about deedly-deedly guitar chops, vikings, Satan, serial killers, or gore.
I usually don’t want to know the lyrics at all: I want to vibe with primal sounds from the place before thinking.
I like the metal that is about the suffering that connects us, and I do not like the metal that is a celebration of cruelty. As part of Inter-Dimensional Music, metal is the downward-facing yin variation on the uplift of ambient music: a frenzied howling and gnashing of teeth to counterbalance tranquil field recordings and purring synthesizer drones. Hopefully these ideas may be of interest, even if the sounds that inspired them aren’t your thing.
If you don’t enjoy the heavier and noisier parts of this long-running experiment in psychedelic community radio meditation, it could be an opportunity to practice finding equanimity in discomfort. As I tell people at the outset of IRL yin yoga sessions and “mindfulness installations,” there’s a difference between discomfort and pain. And you’re the best person to make that distinction.
2021 in Metal That is Not Metal
• Yin to Yang Tempos
• Sinking Yin Vibes + One Uplifting Yang Sidebar
After I’ve weeded out actively harmful metal made by actual IRL abusers an oppressors, I have emphatic yet mostly unimportant aesthetic opinions. Counterintuitively, I often have a hard time enjoying experiments with metal as performed by metal musicians. I respect and admire artists like Zeal & Ardor and Liturgy and I wish I liked their work more than I do, but it just doesn’t trigger the dopamine the way I need.
I wrote about Luke Stewart’s Works for Upright Bass and Amplifier Volume 2 in the previous installment of the ID Music 2021 Year in Review, but it’s an easy entry point to my favorite metal that is not metal. One of the pleasures that comes from the surveillance on sites like Bandcamp is that I get an email when people buy things after clicking on them in my library. It’s awesome to see somebody adding this difficult and transcendent/descendent meditative jazz to their collection of powerviolence demos.
It was through Stewart’s work with Irreversible Entanglements that I found Madam Data’s Gospel of the Devourer. Data refers to the project as a noise/black metal-adjacent suite, and the work descends to a strata of trve despair that is significantly deeper than many contributions to either school of heaviness. The squalling and intermittently rhythmic Gospel of the Devourer achieves a level of bleakness that is disorienting to the point of becoming psychedelic. As they write on madamdata.net, it’s “an ethnography of the vacuum, writ in spinal fluid and dark matter.”
Read continuously, the song titles become a violent sci-fi epic about the struggle for liberation – it’s dedicated to trans people everywhere with proceeds going to The Coalition for Black Trans Economic Liberation – embodied literally in the act of killing and eating God. The artist's website also includes short videos about the software and instruments they build, along with hypnotic skate videos. They offer content warnings throughout, which I’ll pass along here: graphic violence, genocide, fascist propaganda, and blood.
Kenyan noise/grindcore band Duma is the marquee metal act on Uganda’s Nyege Nyege Tapes label, but Nilotika Cultural Ensemble creates a kind of heaviness that is closer to the trance-inducing gnostic metal of Om. On the yin side, the long-running percussion ensemble is the foundation of the group Nihiloxica, where their acoustic percussion is combined with Bugandan techno to create an intense ancient-to-the-future hybrid. Such dark aesthetics are gracefully counterbalanced with this year’s Nyabinghi Resurrection album. An hour of righteous uplift, this work completes a yang variation on this ancient-to-the-future circle by connecting the spiritual traditions of Rastafari – specifically the Nyabinghi drumming practiced by Ras Michael and the Sons of Negus, among many others – with their East African roots. Nyabinghi Resurrection pairs remarkably well with another 2021 favorite – Wau Wau Collectif – if only in terms of the unfettered good riddim vibes.
Between these two poles we find Ejokawulida, Nilotika Cultural Ensemble’s debut EP for Nyege Nyege. It’s “a mesmeric sonic kingdom dominated by furious beats against dense and complex polyphonic textures.” It achieves this end to such a degree that that I’ve spent close to an hour shuffling through its eight minutes and 39 seconds on repeat thinking it’s a full album. Like the Al Cisneros band that isn’t Sleep, this is meditation through repetition, trance-inducing heaviness with rhythm and swing as channeled through acoustic percussion.
I like metal as played on percussion because I like head-nodding metal, metal that invites movement, and the rhythm section is what gives tangled conniptions of guitars and screams a form around which to skitter. DEAFKIDS were already developing new forms of heavily rhythmic metal on their 2016 and 2019 releases for the Neurot label, both wildly inventive and occasionally overwhelming collections of chaotic, free-flowing psychedelia.
“It sounded like a mash up of early '80s Discharge, late ‘80s Ministry, late '70s Throbbing Gristle and Ginger Baker with Fela Kuti, but all at the same time,” Neurot’s Steve Von Till told Louder in 2019. “As if they were all playing the same song in different rooms down a long corridor, which opened up into the jungles of Brazil with the sound of indigenous drums. Their songs sound like wandering up and down that corridor with the different aspects rising to the forefront and fading away as you go.”
DEAFKIDS began releasing a series of EPs as the COVID-19 pandemic raged at the end of 2020. The three volumes of Ritos do Colapso highlight the more pastoral moments that surface in between the heavier passages of their previous albums, as well as the noisy ambiance. Tablas (or tabla emulators of some kind) and other forms of hand percussion waver between methodical tempos and hyperactive freak-outs, a rhythmic versatility that brings to mind such disparate traditions as the aforementioned Nyabinghi styles along with Milford Graves, death metal drums like Malignant Altar (see below), and the trance-inducing dancefloor experiments of Azu Tiwaline. It’s some of my favorite music of the 21st Century so far.
And while we’re talking about percussion-forward metal that is not metal, we must also direct your attention to Kheth Astron. This collaboration between Kid Millions on drums (see also: Oneida) and Colin Marston on keyboards (see also: Krallice) defies easy description, so I’ll fall back on easy metaphors and say it’s free jazz meets dungeon synth, an unexpectedly wonderful answer to the question of “what if Mortiis and Milford Graves made a record and it was amazing?” Three more volumes of the project have followed, all worthy of further consideration if any of these keywords make sense to you.
2021 in Actually Metal
• Yang Tempos
• Diverse Variations on Yin Vibes
I like metal that lends itself to naturalistic metaphors rather than the typical violent hyperbole: Sounds that suggest saprophytic processes of a forest ecosystem, the turbulence of volcanic activity, or the infinite crush of black holes rather than more of the usual blasphemous sadism in the mortuary basement.
Extreme metal experimentalists Krallice (see also: Kheth Astron) delivered such astrophysical and geologic variations with their March 2021 album Demonic Wealth, and the January 2022 follow-up, Crystalline Exhaustion. The technical proficiency on Krallice albums ranges from “impressive” to “impressive and impenetrable,” but with these two full-lengths the initial chaos blurs into recognizable forms in a manner not unlike Magic Eye paintings.
This experimentation approaches the boundaries of what we can consider metal, but there’s a discernible enthusiasm for the basics of the form throughout their catalog, and especially in the many side projects that veer into baroque technical death metal territory. So the bells and horns that come cascading like occult gamelans from beneath the flurrying guitars of Demonic Wealth’s title track – or the dreamy guitar lines that sparkle and envelop the indiscernibly distorted vocals on “Resistant Strains” – feel like new discoveries endemic to the metal ecosystem, rather than invasive species.
Where Krallice have innovated themselves into forms that defy genre convention, Swedish band Dödsrit continues to hybridize tried-and-true hardcore and metal aesthetics into a near-perfect form of blackened crust. Crust was one of my first true loves as far as metal goes: When I heard crust legends Nausea in the early ‘90s I realized that a) there were metal bands beyond Metallica that b) shared my interest in leftist anarchist politics, and c) I really wanted to get dreadlocks1. Crust was as heavy as anything churned out by 20th century metal titans, but they had more low-end, more swing (as evidenced by their entertaining but not always successful detours into reggae) and they had a political heft that was significantly more intense than the corny sloganeering of “peace sells … but who’s buying?”2
Along with fellow Swedes Agrimonia, Dödsrit continues these traditions but updates them with the blinding-fast tempos and blurring guitar drones from the space where black metal starts to turn to blackgaze. They describe their sound as a “melancholic and soul-tearing cacophony,” but this is simultaneously music to bolster the spirt. Anthems like “Shallow Graves” are grotty kin to the soaring post-metal hymns of Godspeed You! Black Emperor: Filthy fists lowered like antennas to hell. It’s a yin outlook, but there are weary and cautious yang-facing reminders that the world doesn’t have to be this way. Or as they roar during the final moments of Mortal Coil, “maybe the depths will appreciate what I am worth.”
Black metal hasn’t done much for me over the last few years, with the notable exception of the Texas band Haunter, who have a new album due later this spring. Along with Haunter, the veteran New York black metal band Yellow Eyes embodies the cryptical inverted-bucolia that I crave. Their 2019 Rare Field Ceiling is a deeply weird album that creates a sort of haunted organicity through a combination of field recordings, queasy guitar drones, truly feral vocals and ritualistic rhythmic sensibilities. Ustalost is the solo project of Yellow Eyes vocalist/guitarist Will Skarstad, and their 2021 album continues further into the bush, and ultimately dissolves into VanderMeerian reveries of disassociation.
Where Yellow Eyes creates broad, majestic landscapes, Ustalost’s grotesque pastoralism is relayed from a singular perspective, offering a macroscopic view of the same hysterical reveries. Or as they describe it, it’s “a vision of grandiosity and endless beguiling depth, dragged dripping out of the bog with handfuls of fruit so overripe as to be nearly alcoholic.”
2021 was a good year for such arcane effervescence, from Ustalost’s bog-ripened varietals to the bioluminescent white noise of Nadja’s Luminous Rot. Nadja is remarkably consistent and also always different, a 72-album discography that embodies “repetition as a form of change” on micro and macro scales. This work “explores ideas of first contact,” taking inspiration from Stanislaw Lem, Liu Cixin, and mathematician Daina Taimina. This is relayed through an unsettling organic/silicon hybrid sound, something cold and alive, a gauze of mold digesting its way through fiber optic cables.
[massive bong rip]
I also value quality and consistency rather than innovation in death metal. In keeping with metaphors of organic decay, every rotting nurse log feeds the forest and requires no further upgrades. There is no ranking or rating, only distinctions of location, genus, and species. And I’m usually only interested in the most ripened fruit on the “cavernous” and “ritualistic” vines. With good drums.
Malignant Altar is from Houston, has links to outstanding Texas grindcore legends Insect Warfare and Hatred Surge, and Realms of Exquisite Morbidity sounds like that but slower and more exquisite. Plus good drums and a perfect balance of groove, chaos, and spooky bell sounds. They obviously like Finnish jazzy-technical-guttural death metal band Demilich. If that’s what you like, this is my favorite version of that from 2021. There’s a song about a Southeast Asian folkloric figure named Krasue, who appears as a floating head trailing her guts behind. Yikes!
Phrenelith is from Finland, and they do the same thing – cavernous and ritualistic vibes – but with a little more drone and a little less groove. It sounds to me like they enjoy the Greek death metal band Dead Congregation. The songs are about Greek mythology but it’s hard to tell much more than that. It’s wonderful if you like these things as much as I do.
And finally we arrive at the metal album that I was most fascinated by this year: Cerebral Rot’s Excretions of Mortality. While generally speaking I don’t care for gory death metal, Cerebral Rot’s consideration of the human body as an infectious and bloody wetlands landscape is a remarkable exception. There is a humid atmosphere to songs like “The Vile Yolk of Contagion,” they’re atmospheric in a gastric kind of way. Songs drone on and suddenly convulse into slow-and-low doom grooves, a deep funk in the most scatalogical sense of the word.
The final song – “Crowning the Disgustulent (Breed of Repugnance)” – achieves a kind of “pusgaze” beauty, bodily fluids magnified and celebrated to the point of abstraction, an ecstatic trance of flowing viscera. I decided that Karina Monzon’s cover art was too much for a general audience – though in a genre known for somber design styles the unhinged painting is most remarkable for its festive yellow and red color scheme – and so the image above is from the extremely sweaty 2019 Cerebral Rot/Fetid show at Junker’s Tavern in Cincinnati. The guy is about to growl “this next song is about turrrds!” into the mic.
Thanks as always for joining me on this slow, circuitous road to nowhere.
The ID Music 2021 Year in Review comes to a close with our influential ranking of 2021’s top sounds for slop-style DIY kitchen candling.
20220114 PROGRAM NOTES
Come breathe with us as we vibe through part three of our circular and non-hierarchical retrospective of 2021 sounds, ascending from the transitional zone where yin becomes yang and into the light.
With Đ.K, William Tyler in collaboration with both Marisa Anderson and Luke Schneider, Nilotika Drum Ensemble, Carlos Niño & Friends, and Marfa sangha kindred Kimazui Chinmoku. Language throughout from Stephen Mitchell's translation of the Tao Te Ching.
Plus the Central Indiana and/or Far West Texas and/or Los Angeles Metro Area premiere of soon-coming eco-jazz from comrade yogi The Modern Folk!
ID Music 20220114 setlist
artist - work
Kevin Richard Martin - Glisten
SHIVARASA - Field of Love
Arian Shafiee - Luscher Cascades (ft. Chuck Johnson)
William Tyler & Luke Schneider - The Witness Tree
Marisa Anderson/William Tyler - Haunted by Water
Wau Wau Collectif - Si Tu Savais Juste
Nilotika Drum Ensemble - Ejokawulida
Đ.K. - Clarity
Lone - ROYGBIV (BoC)
Carlos Niño & Friends - Essence (Laraaji)
the modern folk - Almasti
Kimazui Chinmoku - Daily Chant
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I never got dreadlocks and that is a good thing. As the hip-hop editor at the magazine I worked at in the late ‘90s used to say, “Peace to [unnamed Los Angeles jungle DJ who sampled Bad Brains], but never trust a white dread.”
A stoned guy’s head explodes,
Nadja takes second place in the category of “15+ minute long songs about unicorns of the COVID-19 era” which is dominated by Mary Lattimore’s perfect “A Unicorn Catches A Falling Star In Heaven.”