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Metal Underground: 10 bands keeping the scene alive

Carnation

While we all love the Metallicas and the Iron Maidens of this wonderful thing we call heavy metal, we cannot forget the importance of the metal underground. Sure, the arenas of the world will always buzz with the latest metal band to make a break for the big-time, bu it's within the dive bars and darkened rooms where heavy music in all its forms exists at a grassroots level. 

By no means mainstream and with absolute zero desire to be so, here we look at the bands keeping the underground metal scene alive and brimming with the creativity other genres can only dream of.

Khôrada

It’s rare that a band will deliver exactly what you’d expect and in doing so, still blow your mind. More often than not, it’s the sound of the exotic and unfamiliar that catches your senses unaware, arresting the mind and igniting the imagination. Formed by former members of Agalloch and Giant Squid, Khôrada have slipped loose of any expectations, conjuring something uniquely heavy, raw and deeply emotional.

In 2016, Agalloch founder John Haughm dissolved the band, eventually forming Pillorian. For the remaining three members – guitarist Don Anderson, bassist Jason Walton and drummer Aesop Dekker – parting ways was not an option. Jason explains, “Don, Aesop and I saw no reason to stop playing together after the Agalloch break-up. We were close friends, had played together for years and worked very well together. I think we’ve all made it painfully clear that the dissolution of Agalloch was not our wish, so we decided the same day that the band broke up that we would form something fresh and new.”

To pick up where Agalloch left off would have been the easy route but the guys united in a resolution to avoid something so obvious, regardless of how it might play among fans. “It would have been very easy for us three to get another guy who plays guitar and growls,” says Jason, “and make another extreme metal record. We could have attempted to slide effortlessly into that void that the death of Agalloch created. I mean, we had a built-in fanbase already, why wouldn’t we just continue down the same trail that Agalloch blazed for 20 years but with someone new? The answer is because that’s lazy and ultimately, that’s not art.”

They turned to their friend and former labelmate Aaron John ‘AJ’ Gregory as their new frontman. “We all had a lot of respect and admiration for AJ and it seemed like a logical choice for us,” says Jason. “AJ is a great guitarist, amazing lyricist and a wonderful songwriter. Most importantly, he is a man I respect and admire. That is why AJ was the perfect man to join us on this journey.”

Often when members of established bands form a new group, the music falls into some arbitrary space between the two bands but Khôrada sound like neither Agalloch nor AJ’s band, Giant Squid. In fact, their debut album, Salt, represents a wholesale genre migration. Rumbling waves of doom push and pull, building into surging crescendos that break over AJ’s wailing vocals and heart-rending lyrics. It’s safe to say that the dominant vestigial remnants of Agalloch lie not in the music but in the wild, visionary spirit that permeates each of the seven tracks. “We didn’t do what people wanted us to do. We didn’t write The Mantle again. We made music for ourselves.”

With an exhilarating new outlook and a debut album finding much love among fans and critics, Khôrada could be forgiven for speculating what the future might hold, but the guys are living squarely in the moment. “I could speculate,” Jason says, “but I don’t care to. At this point I am happy we’ve finished our debut and I am just enjoying that.” (JD)

Carnation

“I started listening to death metal at a fairly young age. I was always interested in how broad the genre can be,” begins Carnation (pictured) vocalist Simon Duson. “Death metal can be fast, slow, melodic, technical, aggressive… there are so many options available. We also try to experiment with these different ingredients and not stick to the same formula in every song. Changing up speeds keeps the album interesting and diverse.”

This reverence for the genre shines through in the Belgians’ sprawling debut full-length, Chapel Of Abhorrence, an exhilarating blast of filth that feels noticeably more powerful than their 2015 EP, Cemetery Of The Insane.

“Because this is our debut album, we felt that it was really important to take our time with the writing and recording process and not pressure ourselves with unnecessary deadlines,” says Simon. “The biggest difference between the EP and the album is the time investment. When we were working on the EP, we wanted to release something as quickly as possible to get out there and get Carnation off the ground. For Chapel Of Abhorrence, it was more important to go for the perfect take, even if it took us a lot longer to record it.”

Given how much attention the EP received – the band toured Japan and Brazil with Pestilence off the back of it – Carnation are poised to reach even greater heights once Chapel… hits shelves, and Simon can’t wait.

“Our live shows are without a doubt our strongest feature,” he beams. “We invest a lot of time and resources into our live set-up to keep changing it and improving it. Not only the sound has to be great, but visually it also must fit the music. It’s difficult to accomplish this as a relatively small band but it is also a lot more rewarding when we manage to pull it off. Creating the right atmosphere with lights and other visual effects simply takes the music up to another level… We invite you to come and experience it yourself!” (KW)

Tomb Mold

As death metal splinters into ever more disparate strands, Tomb Mold’s exhilarating harnessing of dense, old-school squall marks them out as one of the modern era’s most fervent purists. And yet, as guitarist Derrick Vella explains, the songs on the Canadians’ second album, Manor Of Infinite Forms, are primarily the result of instinct.

“For me personally, death metal has to be imaginative and it has to have spirit,” says guitarist Derrick Vella. “I’m not too picky about stuff sounding ‘old school’ or filthy, as much as I like those things. I just want to see a clear vision, an interesting aesthetic and good riffs. I try not to think too much about what I write… I just let it happen.”

Formed by Derrick and drummer/vocalist Max Klebanoff in 2015, Tomb Mold began as a conscious attempt to ape the scabrous brutality of early Finnish death, with a side order of mid-90s USDM worship thrown in for good measure. Despite those obvious influences, however, Manor Of Infinite Forms has a deliciously idiosyncratic feel to it, the band’s lyrical preoccupations, knack for warped surrealism and those grotesque, churning riffs setting them measurably apart from the scowling hordes.

“On the surface, this record deals with finding a passage to an ancient subterranean civilisation living inside the planet,” Derrick explains. “But the themes behind the record include loss, ascension, being torn apart from within, past-life hypnosis and hallucinations. The title refers to one’s mind and how it can be changed or manipulated.”

Speaking of change, Tomb Mold’s original ambitions were endearingly humble and low-key, but the band are swiftly getting used to the idea that death metal fans can spot the real, darkness-embracing deal when they hear it. “The original idea was to record a couple of demo tapes, sell ’em online and then pack it in!” Derrick notes. “But now we’ll tour more, make another record and hopefully cross the water to play in the UK, Europe and elsewhere, too. This has definitely exceeded expectations!” (DL)

Chubby Thunderous Bad Kush Masters

“We ran with ‘Bad Kush’ for a while, particularly as the guy at the rehearsal studio always quoted it back to us as ‘Bad Piss’. But we wanted something more wholesome, so we added some longer words to sound more impressive and measured.”

Such is drummer Mark Buckwell’s deadpan explanation for that hilariously bizarre name, flagging up Python-esque levels of absurdity brought to bear on the trio’s raucous blend of good-time stoner rawk and bad-time aggro-sludge. This ostentatious eccentricity is further confirmed by the sleeve of their debut LP (and its appetising title, Come & Chutney), depicting the bandmates in chunky jumpers and tights against the pastoral backdrop of the Devil’s Dyke, near Brighton.

“We wanted somewhere Cretaceously chalky that offered a good dogging spot overlooking beautiful rolling hills,” Mark explains. “It was damned cold during the shoot, but it was crucial for us to capture that raw emotion of folk enjoying their native countryside in tights, so the weather really helped! That’s what we try to achieve with our musical pieces, so there was no better place than the Dyke in winter.”

Clearly the band have a knack for pushing sartorial boundaries, attested by their queasy combination of tie-dye and corpsepaint. “It seemed like a good way of bringing people together, by showing them that it’s OK to enjoy burning churches while wearing a pair of hemp trousers,” explains Mark.

Chubby Thunderous Bad Kush Masters formed when Mark met bassist Will at “a little biker festival at a pub in Ware”. Having advertised for a guitarist, they found Owen, ex-frontman of south coast sludge-stoners Dopefight. “When we got together it sounded suitably crusty, so we stuck with it,” Mark affirms. “We all like music and kebabs, so I guess it was bound to happen.”

Passion for kebabs is a crucial unifying theme, alongside a hatred of Donald Trump; somehow these urges fused together in their uproarious protest song Döner Trump. “We’re all strong liberal socialist atheists and take the view that, to quote Viv [Savage, Spinal Tap], people should have a good time, all the time. Unfortunately, some people’s idea of a good time makes a real bad time for other people,” says Mark, delineating the band’s semi-serious standpoint. “We like kebabs and lots of our mates like kebabs, too, so we try to have a good time together. It really contrasts with some of the big figures in the world who, as far as I’ve seen, don’t ever seem to chow doner wraps but do keep making things worse for whole swathes of folk. Everyone is equal, no matter how much of a cunt they are.”

Asked to define the band’s lyrical outlook, Mark replies: “Ancient Celtic demons, totalitarian governments, inequality, bad drug experiences and eating doner with fellow humans… That pretty much sums up our message.” As to the future? “We’re hoping to open a kebab chain and use the proceeds to keep on chubbing wherever people will have us. We’ve had a lot of pleasure eating Rusholme kebabs, so a tour of Afghanistan would really be something…” (CC)

Amarok

It goes with the funeral doom territory, but in case you weren’t sure what kind of dynamics to expect from Amarok’s debut album, the fact that it comprises just four songs – the shortest clocking in at a relatively brisk 11 minutes – should leave you in no doubt. “We never set out to make our songs long,” explains co-vocalist and bassist Brandon Squyres. “We just prefer a slower tempo and it’s not uncommon to have some riffs that are a minute long. The type of music we’ve chosen to write lends itself to a slow build and requires an investment from the listener. We’re fully aware this isn’t for everyone.”

Still, fellow vocalist and guitarist Kenny Ruggles jokes about “one day creating a song under six minutes”. He continues, “That would be a huge feat for us. This being said, we once covered Weezer’s The World Has Turned And Left Me Here. It was challenging to keep it under 10 minutes with our glacial pace. [Weezer frontman] Rivers Cuomo had to be drenched in molasses by the time we were done with our take on it!”

The US band’s apocalyptic fusion of sludge and funeral doom was first crafted through one EP and three splits with fellow doomsters Enth, Pyramido and Hell respectively before committing Devoured to tape over the course of one intense week in Los Angeles with Sanford Parker, who’s described by Kenny as “the Dungeon Master”.

“It was a record of pain, suffering and misery,” he says, “but Sanford brought an added attitude to it. Devoured represents death but also rebirth. As a band, we’ve been through a lot of personal hardships in the midst of writing those songs, but you can always find a light in the darkness. It’s about perception. After all, cathartic and therapeutic hymns can be heard coming from the cosmic netherworlds.”

For Nathan, their second guitar player, the music is like meditation. “As a matter of fact,” he reveals, “we used Tibetan singing bowls in the same key as our six-string for the intro of the title track. Our music invites the listener to let go a lot. And headbang!” (OB)

BlackLab

“I really wanted to form a band that sounded like Black Sabbath,” begins BlackLab guitarist/vocalist Yuko Morino, which is a sentiment that has undoubtedly preceded the birth of many a fine band. “At first we were a three-piece and when the first drummer left the band I invited Chia [Shiraishi], who played with me in [female three-piece hardcore band] Depth, to join. When the bassist then left I decided to play guitar and bass myself rather than try to get anyone else to join BlackLab. Coincidentally I had an octave pedal, which was lucky, so it worked out in the end.”

‘Worked out’ is something of an understatement given the arresting din the duo create: a towering wall of blaring doom riffs, piercing wah pedal abuse and pounding rhythmic assault. The two-piece set-up isn’t without its own unique pros and cons, however.

“The benefits are that we have the perfect sound between the two of us and we don’t have to compromise with any other bandmembers on this. Rehearsal studio fees are cheaper, too,” says Yuko. “I think one of the main disadvantages is that the basslines can’t run freely and the sound can become a little thin when you get to the guitar solo, though I devised a method so that this doesn’t happen for us. All the tracks on [debut album] Under The Strawberry Moon were recorded by Chia and myself.”

The album has just been remixed by producer extraordinaire Wayne Adams [Vodun, Casual Nun etc], emphasising the duo’s thunderous fuzz to the a ludicrous degree. “I’m really happy and of course I’m really pleased with how the album turned out,” Yuko beams. “Our intention with the EP and the split was to put emphasis on loudness. The louder the better! With the album loudness was of course still very important but we also put more focus on the textures that made up the BlackLab sound as well. We wanted more of a traditional analogue feel to this record.” (KW)

Witchskull

Rising from the blackened elemental ooze from which all heavy emerges, Australia’s Witchskull return with a ferocious sophomore effort that has injected a bracing shot of adrenaline into the withering arteries of psychedelic metal. Formed in 2014, the Canberra three-piece released a revelatory, riff-driven debut in 2016 that delivered torrents of sturdy 70s proto-metal through a thoroughly modern prism. The follow-up, Coven’s Will, sees the band lean out their sound into a sharp, fist-pumping campaign of fearsome potency.

“We wanted to keep the same simple directness and to play everything in a very primal and groove-based way,” says vocalist and guitarist Marcus de Pasquale. “We like things to be a cross between the doominess of Sabbath and the swagger of Motörhead. Our motto is to play primal, feral grooves with plenty of mongrel in them.” Asked what else one might hear in the way of influences, Marcus replies, “Crow’s calls, heavy rain, the 93 current, the moon, reflections, instincts and dreams.”

It’s been said that the strongest psychedelic music appears in times of greatest social and political turmoil, such as the late 60s. Marcus agrees, explaining, “Art usually comes from an instinctual need to express something deep and that usually involves an inner struggle. I think we try to capture that inner angst and aggression and channel it through the music.”

From Witchskull’s lyrics to their album artwork to their very name, occult imagery occupies a prominent role in their cosmic manifesto. While some bands might rely on such tropes to promote an image, Marcus is a deeply committed spiritual seeker, drawing from years of occult studies to inform the band’s vision. “The first book on the occult that I got was a tarot book (The Book Of Thoth) when I was 12. At 13 I bought [Anton] LaVey’s books and around the age of 21 I started buying Golden Dawn books and Thelema, Crowley stuff. At 24 

I started going to Sydney to hang out with the O.T.O Oceania Lodge where I started yoga. I was heavily interested in Hermeticism until my early 30s, when I started to put more into music. Music is a high art form, having a strong spiritual awareness of sound. I love distortion and feedback and I see them as being strong forces in nature.”

Coven’s Will saw the band fly halfway across the globe to New York in order to capture the precise range of tones that the music required. “We went to an awesome studio in Brooklyn called Studio G, which had tons of amazing analogue gear including an old Neve desk from the BBC in England. It allowed us to get the warmth and depth to the sound that we were hoping for.”

We ask where Marcus sees the band 10 years from now and his answer speaks to his unwavering commitment to not just his art, but his bandmates. “I believe it’s our destiny to stay together until we die. I love both the guys in Witchskull like my brothers and I’m happy the way things are going. We can’t wait to get to Europe to play some shows.” (JD)

Ancient Lights

Fancy a trip? Ancient Lights certainly do. An extraordinary meeting of mantra-fuelled minds, this collaboration between Adam Richardson (11Paranoias/ex-Ramesses) and 5ive guitar guru Ben Carr was born as an idea when their old bands toured and jammed together in 2004. More than a decade later, and with drummer Tim Bertilsson installed as the last piece of the sonic puzzle, that idea has become a mind-spinning reality on Ancient Lights’ eponymous debut. 

“The immense combined sound of both bands fuelled the flame,” Adam recalls. “It just took 13 years to become ablaze. The clinching addition of Tim to our phantasmal band catalysed the dream into a plane of almost existence. That’s a sentiment that I think is audible on our LP. It’s a sound that at once came from nowhere and everywhere.”

A freewheeling, drone-driven ramble through dense, hallucinatory forests and sun-ravaged, cavernous mental plains, the music on Ancient Lights emerged from the trippy doom equivalent of so-called ‘automatic’ writing. 

“Even we are unsure how most of these explorations were generated,” he confesses. “We recorded six hours of music and grabbed a small amount of the ripe fruit. These inaugural songs are subconscious creations and are often surprising in outcome as well as in their effect upon the listener and ourselves.”

What Ancient Lights are peddling is not for the resolutely earthbound, but for those happy to tune in to their disorientating frequencies, presumably while baked beyond all recognition, the psychedelic potential is undeniable. For Adam, the songs conjure “an invented universe that is eternally evolving through mass experience and linked consciousness – an endlessly blooming yet crowded galaxy of black stars that will not shine on you and will remain occulted from view even though you can feel them pressing down on you all the time. 

“But I don’t want to influence what people see inside their minds,” he concludes. “I’d rather they all have their own trip and compare notes with others after their journey has ended.” (DL)

Secret Cutter

Having banked a self-titled debut album in 2014, Bethlehem, Pennsylvania trio Secret Cutter are honing their mongrel hybrid of sickly, treacle-thick sludge and white-hot grind into something approaching the sounds in their head.

“On our first seven-inch we put in a kind of grind blastbeat and I felt that was a good indicator of where our style should go,” says Evan Morey, whose concrete heavy guitar tone powers much of his band’s second album, Quantum Eraser. “The intention at first was to be a slower band; our drummer is really into more grindy stuff and Ekim was raised on early 90s Earache bands, but we don’t aim for any sort of sound, we just want to do what is impactful and forceful to us.”

The result is an album where intention and instinct have collided to exhilarating effect. Quantum Eraser is a slippery record to grasp, a foul beast to tame, slugging you with full force in the gut before blasting you between the eyes, its production, courtesy of Integrity and Obituary producer Brad Boatright, recalls the rattling, untamed sound of noise rock stalwarts Unsane or The Jesus Lizard. It’s disorientating in the most thrilling of ways. Evan surmises that the set-up of Secret Cutter, and their lack of bass, may hold the key to understanding their identity.

“Our trio is a little different. We don’t have a bass player, we can go out and experiment a little more,” he says. “The trio model for us was really from those bands who were only doing guitar, drums and vocal. Floor comes to mind, the mid-era stuff with no bass, and Pig Destroyer. Those bands were big influences on us.”

The album is distributed in the US by Deathwish Inc (and Holy Roar here in the UK), and Evan is quick to pay respect to the values of its founder “We are not signed to Deathwish,” he explains “but we are a DIY band with a DIY ethic, and we try to write and record like Kurt Ballou would. They’re an inspiration to us and our scene.” (SH)

Messa

Earlier this year, Italian coven Messa unveiled their new album, Feast For Water. A work of beautifully haunting and sophisticated, jazz-infused doomy decadence, it’s brimming with elegantly mesmerising vocal incantations, delicate Rhodes piano flourishes and moody, 70s fuzz-dirge – a style the band affectionately refers to as ‘Scarlet doom’. 

Channelling some heavy esoteric subject matter, Feast For Water is a concept album dealing with occult themes, in particular the symbolic and ritual features of the liquid element. “When we started composing this album,” vocalist Sara explains, “we imagined it as the subsequent part of our first record, Belfry. The concept of that album is the bell tower, and how it gathers people all together. The cover of Belfry features a half-submerged tower. The second part starts with a dive in the lake. It’s a journey that draws the person into the darkness of deep waters. Water is a symbolic element of pureness, simplicity. And it’s very important in rituals of any kind, especially for initiations. Water can bring life, and steal it.” 

Feast… showcases the band’s progression from heavy metal dirge towards more intricate and mature compositions. The catalyst for this shift, Sara explains, was the Rhodes piano bought by guitarist Alberto. “We decided to incorporate this instrument into the compositions, because we loved it. It allowed us to experiment and be more creative with our music. The choice of using Rhodes piano, together with the chord voicings, made everything sound more ‘jazzy’. Feast For Water is a more complex record, and we spent a lot of time in the rehearsal room to make it sound exactly how we wanted. Still, it was something spontaneous and natural. We just moved to a different territory, but we managed to retain our ‘heavier’ roots. When we feel the urge, we will start developing the third part of this path! We wouldn’t want our records to sound all the same. We love the prismatic nature of music” 

Messa’s quirky ‘Scarlet doom’ moniker and songtitles hint at the band’s cryptic subject matter and influence from the works of the notorious English occultist Aleister Crowley. “I went to Thelema Abbey [the site of Crowley ’s temple in Sicily] twice last year,” says Sara. “Actually, the lyrics to our song Leah were born after spending some hours inside that place. During the creation of the album I’ve been reading pieces like The Book Of Lies by Aleister Crowley, poetry by Yeats and Songs For The Witch Woman by Jack Parsons and Marjorie Cameron. These are just some examples. This record is just a result of all our personalities mixed together, all our interests, spirit and visions materialised into this kind of work. I think doing music is magical, somehow, but we don’t have a ‘manifesto’ so to say. Messa’s lyrics are very personal and are just a way I feel and see the things around me. It’s just my own perspective.” 

Perhaps as a result of the country’s dominant Catholic regime, Italy’s heavy metal scene seems to be defiantly linked to the occult. Bands like Death SS, Jacula, and Mortuary Drape all seem to have been very serious when combining their religious beliefs with music, creating a culture that Messa have clearly drawn inspiration from. “Being born and raised in a strict Catholic ambience is a perfect spark for destroying it,” Sara concludes. “Being forced to follow something you don’t believe in was more prevalent back in time. Those bands were fundamental for the Italian underground, I think, because they opened the doors for all that came next.” 

Words by: Joe Daly, Kez Whelan, Dom Lawson, Chris Chantler, Oliver Badin, Stephen Hill, Liam Yates