I like the beats and I like the yelling: what’s doing in British and Irish metal today

Volume I

Recently I have become fascinated with how the internet has changed our interactions with music. Not only how technology is shaping consumption, but how it is shaping the music itself. With instant access to a vast pool of music worldwide, how will this shape regional sounds, artistic influence, musical communities? It is probably too soon to tell. But for now I would say that we’re a long way from replacing the thrill of the immediate. The thrill of attending local venues for local bands, and watching them grow first hand.

With that in mind, here’s a rundown of some artists I have come across playing on my doorstep (Yes! Literally! You silly goose).

Bongcauldron

As the name suggests, these leodiensian are for the fun of it. I first came across them supporting YOB and Pallbearer back in 2013. Five years on and they have finally put together a full length album; 2018’s ‘Binge’. Playing up to their own slackness, their Yorkshire credentials, and a straightforward approach to groovy stoner doom, this is music for the weekend. Whilst treading on very familiar territory stylistically, there is something infectious about the unapologetic debauchery of Bongcauldron.

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At times fast and aggressive, these odes to revelry often collapse into what is commonly called a ‘jam’, three musicians playing off each other in loving every second of it. This is performed (both on record and live) with a degree of energy sometimes lacking in stoner doom, which too often relies on ‘heavy’ guitar tone and drab aesthetic. Two things which are relatively easy, overdone, and tiresome. Completely losing control of the music is an underrated quality in stoner doom.

Output has been slow to come from these guys, but the lazy image works for them. And they play up to it. All-dayer line-ups across the land have been making space for Bongcauldron recently, so keep an ear on these ones.

A Forest of Stars

Another Yorkshire pedigree , quite simply the best thing doing in British metal at the moment. A Forest of Stars grew from shaky beginnings with their debut ‘The Corpse of Rebirth’ in 2008. Although constantly billed as psychedelic black metal this was really more of a depressive black metal affair. Maybe sporting more variety and dynamics than the depressive tagline suggests. Follow up ‘Opportunistic Thieves of Spring’ (2010) consolidated this style into an epic and dense work, ambitious for an artist of any age, let alone one only on their second release. But it is a grower, and with every listen a new pleasure is revealed.

With the release of ‘A Shadowplay for Yesterdays’ in 2012 the structure and style of their music shifted. With hindsight this proved to be their transition album. Halfway between the manic despair of their early work and hinting at fully formed psychedelic, progressive black metal. Track length was clipped for the most part. Instead of lumbering epics slowly and methodically unfolding ideas, the music shifts constantly from one idea to the next. This is more of a complex tapestry than a monolith. At first the style is jarring. But they have developed it flawlessly on 2012’s ‘Beware the Sword You Cannot See’ and last year’s ‘Grave Mounds and Grave Mistakes’. And it really does reward repeated listens, once one has grasped where each passage sits in context to the rest of the album. A Forest of Stars are resurrecting the art of long-form composition over the length of an LP and they are proving themselves masters at it.

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Live dates have been rare over the years, sticking to festival line-ups or the occasional joint headliner. But thankfully this is changing gradually as more people cotton on to this gem of British metal. Don’t be fooled by the Victoriana novelty, this is a group of exceptionally good musicians at the top of their game, who so far have not put a foot wrong when it comes to honing their craft.

Battalions

Hull’s Battalions have just released their third LP in as many years. Starting with ‘Nothing to Lose’ in 2016, through to ‘Moondburn’ in 2017, and ending with ‘Forever Marching Backwards’ in 2018. A glut of releases too early on in artist’s life is usually a sign of hubris, not creative impetus. But after listening to the material on each release it is clear Battalions are not lacking in ideas.

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Their well of groovy stoner/sludge riffs seems to be almost bottomless. Ok, they’re not exactly striking out into uncharted territory, but there is something refreshing about how aggressive the music of Battalions is whilst being irresistibly catchy. Every riff is an earworm. With last year’s effort the guitar tone has been cleaned up dramatically, to the point where it sounds almost mellow. At first this can seem jarring when combined with the harsh shrieking vocals, but one quickly adjusts to this. Currently gigging extensively across the UK, they are bound to show up in your back garden soon enough. Whilst they may be in danger of oversaturation in terms of their output, right now they are showing no signs of slowing down.

Tides of Sulfur

The name leaves little to the imagination, and yes, you would be right, Tides of Sulfur are two parts death metal one part sludge. Hailing from Cardiff, after an initial spark of activity that saw the release of LP ‘Extinction Curse’ (2016), new releases and lives dates have been slow in coming since. But late last year saw the beginnings of activity once more with release of the ‘Ypres’ EP, which hinted at an expansion of the bleak sound found on ‘Extinction Curse’.

EPs are often treated as a testing ground for artists. With less pressure to deliver they let their experimental side wander free for a time, allowing the focus group of dedicated fans to form the verdict. The verdict from travellers in the obscure back catalogues of metal was a resounding ‘yes, more of that please’ to this EP. In a musical landscape filled with artists of a similar aesthetic, Tides of Sulfur stand apart for combining chaos and abrasion with ambitious song structures filled with a variety of engaging ideas.

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If they can get on the road some more this year, maybe on the all-dayer circuit or supporting some of the bigger hitters, I am confident people will begin to pay attention to these Welsh death/sludge metallers. Further, if they can build on their sound, accentuate their distinctive qualities on subsequent releases, then we should be seeing their name crop up a lot more in the months to come.

Black Moth

Black Moth are fast becoming a household name in British doom metal circles. They hardly need an introduction here, but I’m going to do it anyway. Originally formed as The Bacchae, they began cutting their teeth on the Leeds garage rock scene back in the late 2000s. After changing their name to Black Moth, replacing keyboards with a second guitar, and adopting a more metallic approach to song writing, they released their debut LP ‘The Killing Jar’ in 2012. Debuts of this nature – released after a degree of stylistic shifts and shuffles in clientele – are often a summary of the artist’s career to date.

And that is exactly what we get with ‘The Killing Jar’. A mix of irresistibly catchy stoner riffs, longer expansive tracks that echo the likes of Electric Wizard, and their more chaotic garage roots, all are pushed through the blender of fatter production and a meatier guitar tone. Follow-up, 2014’s ‘Condemned to Hope’ saw them consolidate this multi-influence approach. The lead singles have punchier choruses, but are more accessible than ever. These are placed seamlessly side by side with the longer doom tracks that are at once heavy, ambitious, and laced with memorable riffs and vocal melodies.

And finally in 2018 we were given ‘Anatomical Venus’. It may have taken a while to surface but it was certainly worth the wait. Further shifts in line-up saw the sound move closer to metal than any previous release. And although this is their heaviest album yet, it is also their most diverse, and definitely their darkest. Honing their flare for ridiculously catchy heaviness, they have crafted an album that calls to mind everything from psychedelia to grunge to depressive doom metal and even pop punk, all the while working as a unified work of art in its own right.

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I’ve had the pleasure of watching Black Moth go from playing the back rooms of pubs to headlining national tours, to winning over festival crowds across the country. If you’re reading this from the UK metal scene you have probably already come across them. If for some reason you’ve managed to avoid them, and fancy a take on stoner doom that offers more than sheer monolithic noise, then I strongly advise you lend an ear.

Sometime the Wolf.

These guys took us by surprise. After hearing one song I immediately said to myself: this is Fields of the Nephilim mixed with Tool. Although their sound is that easy to describe it doesn’t come close to doing justice to the scale of it. These Preston based proggers have sprung from nowhere overnight it seems. They have already churned out one EP ‘Never Wake’ in 2017, and whilst the songs are near perfect, the production does not quite do justice to the size of STW’s sound when witnessed live. This is introspective prog metal that explores a range of moods and dynamics. And it’s the dynamics that really are key here. These musicians are masters of the crescendo, the finale, the overture.

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Intertwined with this are bright melodies, heavier riffs that almost touch on groove metal, and epic ballads. Although progressive metal is renowned for bloated song length, none of these tracks pass much beyond the six minute mark, never overstaying their welcome. When you’re onto something good, always leave the listener wanting more. It’s early days for these guys but they’re already making waves in the North. Let’s make 2019 their year.

Monolith Cult

Bradford’s Monolith Cult released their second LP last year, ‘The Gospel of Despair’. For these epic doom metallers this is a slicker, fatter, heavier beast than their previous offering ‘Run From the Light’. Slow and ponderous heavy metal riffs are complemented by a rhythm section that simply refuses to let the music rest, constantly driving the music forward; a rare quality in a style where boredom abounds. Not so with Monolith Cult. Clean vocals soar above the music, crooning lyrics that contemplate nihilism, addiction, and despair (clues in the album title mate).

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This style owes its dues to Candlemass first and foremost. And although it’s not everyone’s cup of tea – doom metal’s answer to power metal – it is undergoing an international renaissance in recent years. Crypt Sermon, Atlantean Kodex, and Magic Circle all come to mind. And Monolith Cult have found themselves at the forefront of Britain’s answer to the call.

Cryptic Shift

Brits are not really known for technical death metal, preferring to leave such pursuits to the Americans or those crazy Europeans. But Leeds’s own Cryptic Shift are bucking this trend. Nocturnus are often held up as the benchmark for sci-fi themed death metal. But I remember listening to ‘The Key’ (1990) and ‘Thresholds’ (1992) and just wishing they were better. Both fine albums in their way, but only ever able to point to so much unrealised potential.

Cryptic Shit have come to save the day. This is highly complex progressive death metal with a sci-fi aesthetic and lyrical themes; a kind of more aggressive Vektor. Although they have played every support slot that will have them, recorded work has been hard to come by (I hear a full length is in the offing however). But live they really are a treat for fans of highly technical metal. There is plenty of aggressive, hard hitting death metal to sink your teeth into, and certainly no clean vocals to woo more savoury listeners. But it is expertly knitted into highly complex, jazzy death metal, frantic guitar leads, and intricate bass work.

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What has impressed me most about Cryptic Shift however, is not their fidelity to musicianship, but their ability to utilise this to build tension and drama into this complex metal. Every riff has its place as part of a greater whole. They build their music with patience and logic, much like an architect. And ultimately it was the lack of unifying ideas in the works of Nocturnus (and so many others) that made their music so frustrating. A random collection of riffs bound together by nothing more than being played next to each other. Not so with these guys. Proudly keeping death metal’s tradition of high fidelity musicianship alive, here’s hoping Cryptic Shift’s debut album drops this year.

Khost

Ah Birmingham, a primordial soup for metal, birthing Black Sabbath, Judas Priest, Napalm Death, Godflesh, and many more, all foundational acts in their field. Now it sees the rise of the industrial noise duo known as Khost. Although Godflesh is synonymous with any industrial metal spawned in Brummie land, the truth is Khost have more in common with early Swans. The drum machine exists solely to offer a deathly slow, cavernous pulse. The metronome of the mega-machine. The space between beats is filled with droning guitars that work their way through a tapestry of painfully simple riffs, burning their way into the listener’s psyche with their dominance of the sound.

Deep guttural vocals occasionally make themselves known, functioning as additional sampling and layering to the noise as opposed to a lead instrument. Khost are barely a metal band, more akin to experimental, industrial noise, but the oppressive atmosphere and throbbing heaviness is something many metalheads will find appealing. They released their second LP ‘Governance’ in 2017, but as I always find with styles like this, it is often best enjoyed live.

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Celtachor

Dublin’s Celtachor caught me off guard somewhat. One night earlier in 2018 I opted for an evening of folk metal at Temple of Boom over catching Electric Wizard wannabes Witchsorrow, who were playing at the Brudenell Social Club. I was not disappointed. Celtachor are right on the border of silly. A combination of good old fashioned black metal and folk metal. They walk the border between ridiculous and sublime with ease. The music that results is…a word… that escapes me just now, sorry.

Vocalist Stephen Roche switches from a familiar black metal rasp to shouted word poetry over twee melodic music, reciting epic poems, myths, and legends. FUN…that’s the word, these guys are fun. Their latest LP ‘Fiannaíocht’ was released last year and it perfectly encapsulates this line between silly and genuinely entertaining music. Venturing back to earlier releases will reveal a more serious, darker beast, but this is somehow less engaging.

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When folk and metal get together the results are often silly. But when we point this out, us naysayers are dismissed as killjoys. The truth is we simply dared to demand more of music than simple fun. The fact is that a lot of music touting ‘fun’ as a credential is just shit, in the straightforward non-philosophical sense of the word. But Celtachor pack enough weighty ideas into their music that they amount to thoroughly engaging compositions in their own right, as well as being…fun.

That concludes Volume I. Below is an offering of some choice cuts from these artists. Volume II is already being written so keep your ears peeled and your minds closed.

2 thoughts on “I like the beats and I like the yelling: what’s doing in British and Irish metal today

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