So I was lucky enough to stumble into the local record store during an underground metal clearance sale, and you know I hit that something fierce. Specifically, I left with the following three CDs, all of which are well worth your time and attention:
Nile - "Those Whom The Gods Detest"
I'm a big fan of Nile, though I only had one of their CDs before now. Fact is, "Annihilation of the Wicked" was so fulfilling, and I've been listening to it for so long that I never felt a need to buy any of their other albums. But I broke down yesterday and picked this one up. For the uninitiated, Nile is a technical death metal band from Florida (cookie monster vocals, super-fast brutal riffs, blast beat drums) that is well known for their fascination with ancient Egypt. Their lyrics (surprisingly intelligible for tech-death music) tend to use some aspect of Egyptian history or religion as a jumping off point for some suitably grisly death metal song.
On "Those Whom The Gods Detest" Nile expands their use of traditional middle-eastern instrumentation and acoustic passages to great effect. Furthermore, they've begun branching out conceptually into Islam and Persia, with "atmospherics" to match the lyrics. The music is predictably great Nile. As far as I can gather one Nile CD is as good as the next, but there's just nobody else doing death metal this epic.
Alcest - "Ecailles de Lune"
Alcest is basically a one man project from France that marries atmospheric black metal with shoegaze music, of all things. It's a delicate combination of buzzing guitar drone, acoustic accompaniment, and clean, mellow vocals. Alcest's secret weapon is vocalist Neige's ability to let loose with some of the most effective black metal shrieks I've ever heard. What makes it special is that the shrieking (and buzz guitar) is buried rather low in the mix, so that the instruments surrounding it bring out some very complex emotions.
This is night music, the kind of thing that you put on in the late evening while you're winding down, light a few candles, and relax. "Ecailles de Lune" is a meditative, soothing listen that makes me feel nostalgic for a mythical past that never existed. Interestingly, I now read that Alcest's music is Neige's attempt to evoke his childhood memories of visiting a far off "fairy land". I'd say this qualifies as a success.
Cynic - "Traced in Air"
For many years, Cynic was a legend in progressive metal circles. Their 1993 album "Focus" was a visionary blend of technical death metal and jazz that turned those genres on their heads, just in time for the band to break up. Thankfully they reformed over a decade later and released a proper follow-up.
As with some of my favorite records by Tool, Protest the Hero, and King Crimson, "Traced in Air" is one of those platters that succeed at a very difficult task. There's a real trick to making progressive music that flows, and isn't just wanky and awkward. Cynic make this stuff sound natural, like it's just water off a duck's back for them.
It's brain expanding stuff, and compelling, though it definitely starts feeling "wandery" after a while. Yet at a surprisingly brief 35 minutes, "Traced in Air" never quite wears out its welcome. This CD is just long enough to give my brain a place to play, and the mystical album art makes it an even more fascinating trip.