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The taste of metal: A sampling of heavy Oregrown bands

From YOB to Bewitcher, just in time for Bandcamp Friday.

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Hulder.
The Oregon metal creator known as Hulder.

Caveat lector: this list is NOT exhaustive, nor is it intended to be. If you don’t see your favorite underground doom collective, or your buddy’s grindcore band, or that sick duo you saw at an unlicensed house show last week–well, fuck you too. Quoth Tenacious D: “this is just a tribute.”

Heavy metal is one of those love-it-or-hate-it things, a strong flavor that you either can’t stand or can’t get enough of. Like horror movies, or Indian food, or smoky pu-erh–maybe it’s just not your cup of tea. And in the musical world there’s no shortage of these strong flavors: free jazz, crust punk, hip-hop, the motets of Carlo Gesualdo, the string quartets of Alfred Schnittke, the concertos of Sofia Gubaidulina, and so on. It’s another of those “genre” issues that Ursula K. Le Guin so eloquently pinned down:

Basically my attitude is that genre is A) an unpronounceable French word; B) a very useful descriptive tool; and C) a pernicious instrument of prejudice.

So what is it about metal that we like? Probably the same thing we like about horror movies, which the Elizabethans and Ancient Greeks simply called “tragedies” (surely you knew those were horror movies–watch Killing of a Sacred Deer sometime, or Titus Andronicus). We might follow Aristotle and call it catharsis: “through pity and fear it effects relief to these and similar emotions.” Or we could quote John Lydon: “anger is an energy!”

To continue the horror movie metaphor, we might consider metal’s myriad subgenres (death metal, doom metal, folk metal, thrash metal, speed metal, symphonic metal, Neue Deutsche Härte, French Metaphysical Satanic Black Metal, and so on) as analogues to various cinematic subgenres (cheapo slasher flicks, monster movies of all stripes, ghost stories of all shades, torture porn, Hitchcocky psychologial thrillers, over-the-top satire a la Craven, gorefest gialli a la Argento and Bava, zombified social commentary a la Romero, intellectual body horror a la Cronenberg, et alia).

So let us begin: here we present a non-exhaustive collection of full-length albums, all by Oregon metal bands, all available on Bandcamp, just in time for this month’s Fee Free First Friday.

YOB, Our Raw Heart

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Nevermind that caveat earlier: no list of Oregonian metal bands would be complete without YOB. Everyone wants to talk about The Diverticulitis Incident–justly, I suppose, since it’s pretty damn metal, and more especially because Our Raw Heart was largely composed in bed–but that’s a Finger Pointing at the Moon Folly. Because what really matters, as always, is the music itself. Whether you hear YOB’s music as falling into distinct phases (straight doom, doom-psych, etc.) or hear it as a continuum, this one marks the beginning of a new phase.

The main draw is the remarkable singing of bandleader Mike Scheidt. He can still growl and yowl with the best of them, while his actual singing has relentlessly matured as one of the finest, most criminally underappreciated voices in the entire industry: a rich, melancholy, yearning-through-despair croon that rips through the full-bodied instrumental pummeling like Beowulf confronting his myriad monsters.

We leave you with Scheidt’s own description of YOB’s sound, from a 2015 Heavy Blog is Heavy interview:

One last question: if someone doesn’t know about the style of music you guys play, whether you call it doom, sludge, whatever, what would be a handful of records that you might introduce someone to?

Mike: Well, it depends on if they know the genre or not. If they don’t know the genre, I’d say “well, you’ve heard of Black Sabbath. You’ve heard of King Crimson and Led Zeppelin. You’ve probably heard of Pink Floyd too. So you take all that, you make it more metal, and then you play it on 33 instead of 45.” That’s kind of getting in the ballpark. I wouldn’t say that we’re a progressive rock band, but we do have some of those elements, and King Crimson is definitely a big influence on us.

I would definitely say the spacier side of Pink Floyd, too.

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Yeah, the spaciness of Pink Floyd, but with the bludgeoning heaviness of Sabbath, only slower! But then make it more metal, infuse new age music into it, and somehow you’ve got us. Most people can kind of understand what I’m saying at that point. It’s not for everybody.

Wizard Rifle, Wizard Rifle

There’s something about Portland that encourages duos like this one: a crazy drummer and a pedal-laden guitarist, ideally both singing. The pedals let the guitarist act autonomously, while the absence of a groove-protecting bassist gives the drummer a great deal of both freedom and responsibility.

You can get a pretty good idea of the vibe from this 2020 show:

The true majesty of this sort of thing is best experienced live, of course, ideally in a sweaty little club like High Water Mark. But when a band like Wizard Rifle decides to lay down tracks for a studio album: watch out. This self-titled full-length grabs you by the scruff of your neck right out of the gate with the spooky-thrashy anthem “Rocket to Hell” and doesn’t let go until the final throbbing riffage of “V.”

Witch Mountain, Witch Mountain

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Technically speaking, this groovy-doomy quartet has existed since the ‘90s–but they didn’t properly exist until their resurrection with the addition in 2009 of singer Uta Plotkin and the release of 2011’s South of Salem. The band’s founding duo is a microcosmic who’s who of Portland heavy music–guitarist and engineer Rob Wrong, whose Wrong Way Recording offers solid solutions “for the working class musician”; drummer, promoter, and weird fiction author Nathan Carson–but as with YOB it’s the vocals that really make the band. When Plotkin left in 2014, the boys brought in another female singer, Kayla Dixon, and released this self-titled album. Dixon’s dynamic and stylistic range is incredible: spookily haunting, soulfully soul-crushing, demonically terrifying.

Vulnere, Igneous

We could never describe this nasty piece of local death metal better than Robert Ham:

Vulnere likes to add “unrelenting” as a modifier when describing its death metal sound. Not a terribly original idea, but this trio walks the walk like they talk the talk. The group’s first full-length does not let up for one moment of its nine heaving, grinding tunes. If you can catch your breath long enough, pay particular attention to the drumming of Cody Pulliam. His speed and fury drives each moment of this album like a cluster bomb. 

Usnea, Portals Into Infinity

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It’s no secret that certain sectors of metal took on the nerdy mantle formerly assigned to “prog rock”–the odd meters, the expanded song structures, the familiarity with strange harmonies, the obsession with science fiction. Compare old-school sci-fi like 2001 and Star Trek with later, grittier stuff like Blade Runner and Aliens: something like that happened with music around the same time. Consider “The Call of Ktulu” and Ride the Lightning as a whole.

Thematically speaking Usnea fits into that end of the metal world, with songs inspired by Gene Wolfe’s Shadow of the Torturer and Oregon’s own Ursula K. Le Guin (who took her own sharp turn to the gritty, as anyone who’s read Tehanu can attest). Musically speaking, it’s pure doom of the finest eye-plucking variety, like the bad mushroom trip that sends you to hell and brings you back wrung out, bloodied, and transmogrified into something stranger than you knew was possible.

The secret weapon on all three Usnea albums–besides the quartet’s own prowess as musicians and songsmiths–is the local sonic genius known only as “Fester,” whose mysterious engineering mastery gives the music’s atmospheric deliciousness a clarity that elevates it beyond mere metal into the frosty realms of High Art.

Red Fang, Arrows

Listen, this is a band who: a) people outside of Portland have heard of; b) have been profiled on OPB of all goddamn places. Solid, classic stoner metal in the tradition of the Olympian gods of Pacific Northwest sludge, aka Melvins.

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Hulder, Godslastering: Hymns of a Forlorn Peasantry

Not to be confused with either the Danish folk metal band or the mythical forest creature–although this music seems more appropriate to the latter. One woman accomplishes all of this, with the odd drummer serving Severin-like at her feet. Not for the faint of heart–it’s not quite the sonic equivalent of Midsommar, but might function as something of an occulted spiritual soundtrack (in the same sense that the twisted Comus classic First Utterance reveals the darker truths of the original Wicker Man). Try doing the Dark Side of the Wizard of Oz trick with it sometime and you’ll see what I mean.

Eight Bells, Legacy of Ruin

For the present author, this new Eight Bells album had giant shoes to fill: the previous line-up was probably my favorite live band of 2015-16, far outweighing Gaytheist and even the august Melvins, and the one album they recorded together (2016’s Landless) remains a personal favorite irrespective of genre or locale.

Legacy of Ruin fills those shoes nicely. The star remains guitarist/vocalist Melynda Jackson, whose trademark full-spectrum guitar work and Dealesque vocals have scaled new heights and plumbed new depths on this third full-length. But special mention must be made of new drummer Brian Burke, and especially his feet: the aggressive double bass drum work on this “soundtrack for the end of the world” kicks your ears in the guts with pure death metal delight.

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Burials, The Tide

We mentioned the mysterious Fester earlier, and now we return to a project that involves the madman’s gifts as guitarist as well as sound engineer. Longtime listeners may remember this band in their alter ego, Frozen Water Burials, who achieved a sort of local fame some time ago for their Halloween shows. This is a quartet that is capable of playing Slayer’s immortal Reign In Blood in its entirety, no mean feat.

When Burials are making their own music, the influence of metal gods like Slayer is evident enough, but it’s a bit closer to more overtly proggy stuff like Mastodon and Deathspell Omega and early Voivod. Make sure you’re comfortably seated and well-numbed before diving into the album’s second half, the titular three-part suite, twenty-four minutes of epic dissonant sludginess to leave your brain swept away like dust in the flood.

Blackwater Holylight, Silence/Motion

Again we must credit Mr. Ham, who profiled this quintet earlier in the year:

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In the press notes for her band Blackwater Holylight’s third album, singer/guitarist Allison Faris likens the group’s development to the preparation and first few miles of a road trip. The group’s 2018 self-titled debut was the settling in and buckling up, while follow up Veils of Winter, released the next year, was the ignition turn and mirror adjustments. For Blackwater Holylight’s 2021 album Silence/Motion, Faris says, “we have kicked into drive toward our destination.”

It’s a fine analogy but listening to how Blackwater Holylight has evolved over the past six years, it feels more fitting to say that their debut finds them in medias res — already on a journey following the familiar paths cut by previous sonic travelers like Black Sabbath and Coven.

With Silence/Motion, the quintet have taken control of the navigation and are heading down some fascinating off roads and detours. “Delusional” and “Every Corner,” the tunes that bookend the album, blend the blood red ooze of death metal with ’70s rock’s brown leather and denim, and “MDIII” emanates a shoegaze glow.

Bewitcher, Under the Witching Cross

The majority of the bands on this list–indeed, the majority of Oregon’s metal bands–exist in a four-fold space defined by the merging of Sleepy Sunn O)))y doom, Sabbathy riffage, a proggy-psychy mentality perhaps best compared to Floyd and Crimson, and a grim black metal ruefulness we might as well blame on Burzum. There’s definitely a distinctly Oregon sound, reflecting the green-and-grey character of the place and its spiritual vibes.

Bewitcher is a glaring exception to this trend: the sound is pure ‘80s vintage stunt-guitar-driven anthemic speed metal, complete with Satanic Panic theming and large helpings of devilish inspiration from the greats (Maiden, Megadeth, Metallica, Mercyful Fate). Their latest, Cursed be Thy Kingdom, is perfection–but it’s not on Bandcamp. So we recommend instead their 2019 full-length Under the Witching Cross, available for the enchanting price of $6.66.

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Music editor Matthew Neil Andrews is a composer, writer, and alchemist specializing in the intersection of The Weird and The Beautiful. An incorrigible wanderer who spent his teens climbing mountains and his twenties driving 18-wheelers around the country, Matthew can often be found taking his nightly dérive walks all over whichever Oregon city he happens to be in. He and his music can be reached at monogeite.bandcamp.com.

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