The best metal from the Bay Area in 2021
Abstracter and Labored Breath from Sentient Ruin Laboratories, Celestial Blues by King Woman, XXI by Succumb, Home Wrecked by TORSO, plus a couple live ones
Is Oakland the current capital of metal music?
I’m not equipped to answer that, but the question has been posed to me by two people in the past week—one from here, one from New York, and both with much more metal cred than me. If I had to guess the world’s true metal capital, I’d likely pick a dark, snowy Scandinavian city—or maybe somewhere in Mongolia. But I don’t live in those places. I live here in the town, surrounded by luxury and squalor, sex and dissection, death and resistance. It’s a loud, aching, creaking, pissed off place, and so, what better place to concoct sludge, death, industrial, and doom?
Read on for the best metal from the Bay in 2021, or shuffle the playlist.
Abominion - Abstracter
“Man could not both know and succumb. Meantime huge smoking cities arose, innumerable. Green leaves shrank before the hot breath of furnaces. The fair face of Nature was deformed as with the ravages of some loathsome disease.”
Sentient Ruin Laboratories is one of the best record labels in the Bay Area right now. It is a metal music lover’s paradise. Or hellscape. Whatever floats your carcass. The fourth full-length from Oakland group Abstracter, paired with the above quote from Edgar Allan Poe, Abominion embodies the spirit of many of the label’s releases: Immense, inescapable torment and suffering have come to greet the human race like a long-expected guest, and it is we who have invited them.
Celestial Blues - King Woman
Released on storied label Relapse Records in the dead of summer, the second album by Oakland’s King Woman is massive, fiery, and full of doom. But it’s not the usual eerie industrial or crushing metal. Instead, it’s weirdly bluesy as advertised, reminiscent of something somewhere between 70s psych metal and 90s alt rock. Led by fallen angel Kristina Esfandiari, this music won’t destroy you; it will envelop you in ether.
Dyspnea - Labored Breath
As we all knew by some dismal day in March 2020, shortness of breath is one of the principal symptoms of COVID-19. Or to use the Latin medical term, dyspnea. How do you even say that aloud? I’ve tried a few times and nearly suffocated in the process. In case you want to hear a metal interpretation of humanity gasping for last breaths, here is the second of two releases on this list by Sentient Ruin Laboratories, featuring one-man Oakland band Labored Breath on his debut album Dyspnea. Sound, asphyxiated.
XXI - Succumb
Depicting a perfectly calm if not slightly unsettling night out drinking with a maenad, the cover art does not prepare you for the claustrophobia within. Perhaps the cover is just an introduction, while the music conveys what happens a few minutes (years) after that first sip. A relentlessly physical assault that pinions the mind into oblivion.
Home Wrecked - TORSO
This three-song EP is five minutes and four seconds long. Okay, so it’s definitely more hardcore punk than metal. So what? It wrecks.
A COUPLE LIVE ONES
Metallica - Metallica
I can’t not mention that Metallica released a remastered deluxe box set and 53-song covers album to celebrate the 30th anniversary of their self-titled, better known as the “Black Album.” Of course, since the 1991 album only had a dozen tracks, the covers album features a ridiculous number of repeats of “Enter Sandman” and “Nothing Else Matters.” The most interesting are the ones that actually sound different from the originals, so (despite my love for Miley, Elton John, and Yo-Yo Ma) I’m biased to the Latin renditions by Juanes, J Balvin, and Rodrigo y Gabriela.
But the best part of the whole box set may be the recording of Metallica’s performance on October 12, 1991, when the band made their second and last appearance at Day on the Green, a recurring concert series started in 1973 and presented by promoter Bill Graham at the Oakland Coliseum. Capturing the classic SF band on the edge of superstardom, the live set is a highly recommended peek into a defining moment for what was one of the last standing acts of the 1980s Bay Area thrash scene.
2019.09.09, The Fillmore, San Francisco, CA, USA - SUNN O)))
Six months before a virus shut down the world, the high priests of doom metal blessed a solemn crowd in San Francisco with a therapeutic sound bath. It was as much ceremony and spectacle as it was performance: Like artillery, fog machines blasted out smoke into the venue, and the band members performed in their characteristic black hooded robes, epically raising their fists and picks to the air before each strum. With the same ceremonial gusto, they would pass a bottle of wine one to the next, as guitars crunched and stomped out a dark, heavy, deafening drone.
But fans know it isn’t sheer volume that makes Sunn O))) so incredible. It’s tone. Precisely because so little “happens” in minimalist music, every detail matters. Timing—rhythm and duration. The occasional wail of feedback. The velocity of the strum. Even the split second scrape of fingers sliding down the frets. And, in the middle of the set, a haunting saxophonist soloing in a single cone of yellow light.