A song about the dehumanisation and exploitation of workers should probably sound a bit angry so the topic is in safe hands with Brummie grind gods Napalm Death. In recent years they’ve been making some of their best ever music and Smash A Single Digit from 2015’s Apex Predator – Easy Meat is a masterclass in furious extremity. It’s dissonant and explosive with a superbly thrashy climax and an intense, vital performance from vocalist Barney Greenway. Napalm Death have been making excoriating noise for decades now and show no signs of taking a break.
In 1989 the BBC documentary series Arena ran an hour-long episode called Heavy Metal. It was a huge deal for metal fans. Videotaped, rewatched repeatedly and quoted endlessly… “whooaa dugga dugga dugga!” There is a fantastic scene filmed in Nottingham’s Rock City nightclub where a circle of guys throw some unforgettable shapes to an amazingly hypnotic riff. Uncredited in the documentary, the source of this riff remained a mystery until years later when I heard the song Brain Death by Nuclear Assault.
Brain Death would be a pretty standard speed metal bash if it wasn’t for that riff kicking in at the 3.30min mark. There’s a quiet opening that builds up some nice dread and the chorus is instantly memorable but this song is all about the Nottingham Rock City mosh. A lot of bands might just play that kind of slower breakdown briefly before picking up the pace or launching into a guitar solo but Nuclear Assault ride it out for nearly 3 minutes, giving it that hypnotic intensity. And it gives you plenty of time to do some serious air guitar damage too. I love it and by the looks of the Nottingham Rock City footage, I’m not the only one. Whoaa dugga dugga dugga!
Following several poorly-received albums and the acrimonious ousting of frontman Geoff Tate, the rebooted Queensrÿche returned to the fan-pleasing style of their classic era with this eponymous 2013 album. The twin guitars, hefty bass, percussive drumming and the uncanny Tate-alike vocals of new member Todd La Torre all sound the part, bringing to mind albums like Rage For Order and Empire. But this is progressive metal in sound rather than form: straightforward verse/chorus songcraft with little of the state-of-the-art sophistication of old. No thought-provoking lyrics here either, unless “take a look around in the lost and found” strikes you as high-concept. But, as modern mainstream metal goes, it’s tight and focused with great hooks. The up-tempo Don’t Look Back and Fallout are especially potent and songs like A World Without and Open Road have plenty of heart. Queensrÿche played it too safe to count as a true return-to-form but it was good enough to return much needed credibility to the beleaguered band.
When Sweden’s Tribulation premiered their new single Lady Death in late 2017, it left me expecting a bland, streamlined follow-up album to 2015’s excellent The Children Of The Night. I shouldn’t have worried. Their follow-up Down Below is definitely streamlined but, far from being bland, it hones their horror metal to perfection: simplifying their music and making it more accessible without sacrificing depth. No mean feat.
There are a lot of comparisons to be drawn with other Swedish bands. The melodic horror and direct, memorable riffing is akin to Ghost but tracks like Nightbound and Cities From The Underworld use layers of sinister instrumentation and harmony to add a thick, nocturnal atmosphere of gothic horror. Johannes Andersson maintains his ghoulish, gargled vocals style too. A crucial move that stops things getting too slick, giving the album a gritty, filth that brings to mind In Solitude’s superb Sister. And on the centrepiece track Subterranea the band conjure the kind of evil magick that wouldn’t sound out of place on a Watain album.
I can’t blame anyone for trying to pick out a single but this is best experienced in its entirety. Tribulation juggles variety and consistency, accessibility and obscurity with accomplished ease. It’s a major statement from a band that has come a staggeringly long way in just four albums and Down Below will cast a long, haunting shadow over the metal scene of 2018.