All the things that made classic heavy metal so classic—the speed, flamboyant technique, and arena-sized grandeur that separated Iron Maiden and Judas Priest in the mid-1980s from Grand Funk Railroad and Deep Purple a decade before—are also responsible for metal's long critical and commercial decline in the 1990s and '00s. The pendulum of extremity that swung from hard rock to the peak where thrash bands like Metallica and Megadeth reigned at the turn of the 1990s kept right on swinging, into death metal, black metal, grindcore, and a seemingly endless taxonomy of genres, subgenres, and sub-subgenres; it's been a period of fertile creativity and exploration, but sales and visibility have plummeted in comparison to metal's commercial prime.
The pendulum seems to be swinging back to the middle, though. You can still find speed, chops, and downtuned pummeling in the metal section of your local record store, but more traditional styles from the 1970s and '80s are mounting a comeback of sorts. (Maybe it's not a pendulum swinging back—maybe it's just that the fragmenting of the music industry over the last decade means that whatever you're thinking of, somebody somewhere is doing it.) For whatever reasons, bands like Slough Feg, Dawnbringer, Cauldron, In Solitude, and the High Spirits are, in various ways, reclaiming the spirit of classic heavy metal without sacrificing a contemporary sensibility, and getting a lot of attention for doing it. These bands are nostalgic, maybe, but not exactly retro; they reflect a growing new metal underground that values hooks and classic songwriting over blastbeats and tremolo picking.
The Olympia, Wash., band Christian Mistress is a somewhat odd fit in this company. The group's new album, Possession, released by Relapse in February, is more proto-metal than metal proper—more 1979 than 1984. The five-piece band, led by the distinctive powerhouse vocalist Christine Davis, draws on the beefier side of classic rock (Deep Purple, Rainbow, Thin Lizzy) and the early metal pioneers Cirith Ungol and Manilla Road.
Possession is, unfortunately, a slighter and less-urgent reprise of Christian Mistress' 2010 debut full-length, Agony and Opium. The band's performance is refined on the new disc, but the songs lack the fuel-injected urgency of "Home in the Sun" and "Riding on the Edges," from Agony and Opium. The band seems a half-step slower than they were a couple of years ago—the only tempo on Possession is a lead-footed chug-a-lug—and Davis' witchy allure has been rounded off into something more blandly familiar.
The Oakland trio High on Fire isn't so much traditional metal as just metal—no prefix, no bullshit. On its sixth album, De Vermis Mysteriis (E1), the band further entrenches its position as the American version of Motörhead, not least because singer/guitarist Matt Pike sounds more than ever like Motörhead main man Lemmy Kilmister. (And also because the initial response to the new disc, like the response to every Motörhead album since Orgasmatron, has been, "It's great, but do I really need another High on Fire album?" Of course you do.)
De Vermis Mysteriis is a return to the excellent, head-busting barbarian form of the band's first three albums. Pike and company had lost some focus after 2005's Blessed Black Wings, expanding into more self-consciously epic and fantastical territory on Death Is This Communion (2007) and suffering from lackluster production on Snakes for the Divine (2010).
Pike's imagination runs into some wild places. Snakes for the Divine was loosely based on the ideas of notorious crackpot David Icke, who believes a race of reptilian aliens are in charge of a global conspiracy plot. For De Vermis Mysteriis, Pike has come up with his own fascinating—but equally crackpot—concept, about Jesus' dead-in-the-womb twin, who somehow becomes a time traveler after ingesting a mystical serum made out of the black lotus and can see forward and backward in time. Crackpot, but totally metal.
And enough to hold together the band's best album in a long while. The keys on De Vermis Mysteriis are Pike's rumbling songs, the energetic, anti-virtuoso performances of Pike, Kensel, and bassist Jeff Matz, and the grimy, heavy, but precise production of Kurt Ballou. It's not perfect—the long, slow groove of "King of Days," near the end of the album, plods on four minutes longer than it should, and the appropriately titled instrumental interlude "Interlude" feels pointless. But the dirty thrashing of the title track and "Spiritual Rights" and the astounding seven-minute slow-burn of "Madness of an Architect" put the band right where it should be.