Mutant Breakfast Primers: Modern War Fare

Calling war metal (WM) a problematic subgenre is something like reprimanding Cerberus for being a bad dog. Typically thought to originate from at least one of three scattered scenes in Australia, Canada, and Finland, the apocalyptic, bestial, and abyssally obscure amalgam of blackened death metal (DM) and deathened black metal (BM) has long reeked of prominent forebears’ sketchy ethnonationalist proclivities. Though apocryphal stories of isolated resistance do tell that members of Blasphemy beat up some Canadian war metallers who hurled a racial slur at bassist Caller of the Storms, it’s just hard to overlook how buddy-buddy many early scenesters were with skinhead creeps. Underappreciated Latin American forebears like Sarcófago and Mystifier provide proof of concept, that it has always been possible to cry havoc in blast beats and charcoal riffage without endorsing fascist strong-man bullshit, but their example hasn’t done anything to stop chuds from broadcasting their mouth-breathing, dog-whistling call to arms with WM’s bristling sound. It’s a travesty and embarrassingly familiar blight in the metal community.

Lovers of forward-looking war metal, both musically and politically speaking, we at Mutant Breakfast have kept our scopes locked on a developing practice of recycling the subgenre’s constitutive elements in more compositionally and conceptually rich reworkings of its grab-your-gasmask chaos. Ideally, we could report that this ‘modern war fare’ has matured in such a way as to be immediately and entirely distinguishable from all abhorrent parts of its past, but that’s simply not how the history of metal, art, or really anything has ever unfolded. For example, a lot of the subgenre’s late surge in momentum owes to the ineffable cool of Diocletian’s Gesundrian, whose mail-coated and mace-wielding violence appealed enough to the disillusioned, late Obama-era hipster to grace Pitchfork’s 2014 year-end list for metal—before one member revealed some hateful replacement-theory convictions in a zine interview (and things went even further downhill from there). Still, of more enduring concern, two of WM’s biggest buyers and distributors, Nuclear War Now! and Iron Bonehead, have willfully maintained and promoted ties with neo-nazi scum, offering only feeble protestations that their support represents no more than an exercise of free speech. While free-speech advocates ourselves, we don’t sully that right by using it as an excuse for bigotry—and for that reason avoid purchasing from either label. Unfortunately, extreme-metal talent has few places to go, and both outfits have entrenched themselves by offering money and reliable exposure to musicians across the political spectrum. Now, we have reached a point where many of these labels’ signees claim (with a degree of cognitive dissonance) to have disavowed metal’s love affair with the far right.

With regard to this first installment of modern WM essentials, chronologically ordered below, we thought particularly long and hard about whether and how to include Antediluvian’s The Divine Punishment, released on Nuclear War Now! Though members of the band played live with other early Canadian WM musicians, none are known themselves to have espoused any unsavory political views. What’s more, with production credits from the prodigal son of Brooklyn’s left-leaning scene, Colin Marston, the record might have stood as the triumph of revisionist WM, if purchasing it didn’t also mean subsidizing its label’s sketchy characters. If you know something about Antediluvian we don’t, please be sure to let us know, but in an effort to map the jagged landscape of today’s WM, omitting such an opus felt like a misrepresentation to our readers, whom we know and trust can listen introspectively to problematic records of influence without supporting the shady people behind them. (Such is our power, as savvy and critically aware participants in the underground.) With all that in mind, consider the unlinked entry at the bottom both a reluctant concession to the status quo and a tired missive to world-class purveyors of modern war fare. Please: stop working with labels that knowingly promote racist nonsense, if you want to move on from this story.

TeitanbloodDeath (Norma Evangelum Diaboli)

Also released in 2014, Teitanblood’s Death received less acclaim than Diocletian’s Gesundrian in both the underground metal scene and Pitchfork’s Insta-filtered snapshot of its fickle favouritisms. But the Spanish unit more than compensated for its relative lack in hype by foregoing WM’s militarism and anticipating where the subgenre would go once its campaign for shell-shock sensory deprivation grew tired: the forgotten depths of hell. The record’s opening barrage establishes in appropriately brutal terms that Teitanblood meet the modern war fare’s necessary condition of throwing the fuck down. Still, their genius and lasting contribution (equally evident on 2019’s The Baneful Choir) has been in tethering violent riffage to ominous atmospheres. Their music sounds like it’s coming from somewhere as foreboding as the beasts bellowing, pounding, and scratching inside—with the unintuitive effect of giving that racket more nuance and meaning. After all, if WM is an unholy marriage of death and black metal, Teitanblood are exemplars in that they extend this union into the two genres’ aesthetic philosophies, fusing copious gore and existential angst together as one. Like a blood-splattered retelling of Ingmar Bergman’s Seventh Seal, Death explores its titular concept as both a physically and spiritually horrific phenomenon. 

Teitanblood definitely borrow from Revenge’s grindy playbook to burn through this hefty record, but they puncture the mood – and the rush – by dropping eerie samples with devious timing. Look no further than “Sleeping Throats of the Antichrist” to experience these visceral contemplations in full force, when the polluted first-wave sound undergoes a decomposition more explosive and obscene than William the Bastard’s bulging corpse. Teitanblood’s adventurousness has never kept them from the seething well of vintage WM monsters like Beherit and Sadistik Exekution. Guitars scream in synthetic frustration and anger, until an ominous horde begins to chant while the Venomous demon-punk riffage collapses into seething noise. It is fitting that Death reverts to this maneuver in its final moments, when instead of the traditional grindhouse movie samples and deranged monologues, a funereal choral section concludes the action. In contrast to the unrelenting force that is the mainstay of the record, this closing segment feels gripping in its own solemn way – perfectly topping off the release that introduced Teitanblood as a serious project making serious (albeit satisfyingly brutal) music. Death, all told, is one of the first WM albums to incorporate a more ponderous blasphemy into the subgenre’s austere aggression.

-Mutant Trojan

Profane Order - Slave Morality (Sentient Ruin)

Profane Order waited three years after dropping their first demo to release the full-length debut Slave Morality, and like Iroh in his jail cell, they took on a training regimen that honed their focus as much as it added extra bulk. Led by Spectral Wound drummer Illusory, the Quebecois outfit came back wielding a swole WM sound with more strength, speed, and surgical cunning than their predecessors ever mustered. Indeed, Profane Order belong on the cutting edge even if you’d be hard-pressed to call them experimental, mostly thanks to their knack for recapitulating and modernizing the subgenre’s ancient literature (read: dodgy bootleg mp3s). The same way that Slave Morality’s cover art gives a little extra depth to WM’s traditional trichromatic palette and ham-fisted Satanism, its music essentially executes the Archgoat and Blasphemy gambit of unleashing DM power chords under the cover of BM’s dark sorcery—only this time wearing AK-47s and flashbangs, instead of long swords and morningstars. Slave Morality is definitely more precise than your average WM record, and the mix sounds like someone’s developed satellite control to pinpoint the downtuned guitars’ devastating payload. Whether in the thunderous fusillade of “Righteous Spawn (Of The Plague Child),” the groovier tank-tread rumble of “Antichrist Abomination,” or in the semiautomatic quintuplets of “Perverse Demoniac,” Profane Order shoehorn the ‘war’ back into ‘war metal.’ They may have traded in their goat-horn skull caps for advanced tactical helmets, but their commitment to the arms race anticipates the same grim fantasy of mutually assured destruction that has kept fans of WM coming back for years. Not only on Slave Morality, but on their subsequent state-of-the-art releases, Profane Order retool their sound as if they’re eager for that moment when overwhelming force must be overcome by wielding that same generational power

-Mutant Crisper

Black Curse - Endless Wound (Sepulchral Voice)

The best way to talk about Black Curse’s vital importance to WM is, somewhat paradoxically, to talk about their crossover appeal to more tender-eared metalheads. Though as unforgiving a record as any other on this list, Endless Wound makes the perfect red pill for anyone looking to contextualize the subgenre’s post-apocalyptic soundscape within metal’s decades-long quest for the extreme. Glowing reviews called the 2020 release a “classic” without comprehending how much the violent cacophony owed to the early-2010s Australian scene, but that’s no reason to discount Black Curse’s WM bona fides. Yes, more words were spent exalting the hype-as-all-hell supergroup, than contemplating why death- and doom-metal savants from Blood Incantation, Khemmis, Primitive Man, and Spectral Voice would put their magic rings together to summon such a grisly killing machine. Those in the know still recognized Endless Wound for the WM excursion that it was and have since rejoiced in no longer having to stomach the seediness of Witchrist to go full guerrilla. If anything, Black Curse have in achieving wider recognition done everyone the favor of melting and molding those warmongers’ spent bullets into something befitting metal’s statuary hall, alongside OG patron saints like Black Sabbath and Metallica

While WM is hardly known for its well-crafted full-lengths, Endless Wound has a shapely arc and memetic references that do recall the “classic” LPs like Master of Reality and Ride the Lightning. That may sound crazy, because it takes only one tar-gargling scream from Eli Wendler to reassure you that Black Curse are a far cry from your uncle’s metal band. But if you listen close, and particularly to Zach Coleman’s work behind the kit, you’ll hear Endless Wound’s subtle but discernible rootedness in arcane instantiations of extreme metal. Having cut his teeth with the more trad-leading Khemmis, Coleman weaponizes Bill Ward tom work with ‘burn it down’ menace (albeit without ever shying away from a blast-beat killing spree). “Lifeless Sanctum” is the tell, the way it rolls out downtuned and distended power-chord fuckery to the same march that overtakes Sabbath’s “Children of the Grave.” The beat is not uncommon in WM; nor are the two thronging church bells heralding the demonic jamboree on closer “Finality I Behold.” But Black Curse harness the old-school theatricality of these tropes with a wry art that glowers more ferociously than Metallica’s “For Whom The Bell Tolls” ever did. That final cut is my favorite, and the reason I lie awake at night, thinking to myself that it might not be a coincidence that Black Curse shares half its name with Black Sabbath, or that Endless Wound’s cover looks like a satanic surrealist tried painting Paranoid’s backwards, while dropping acid and thinking about Elizabeth Hurley in Bedazzled. Maybe, on some level, the band knew and wanted to memorialize that they had crafted the closest thing we have to a WM “classic.”

-Mutant Geccho

AltarageSuccumb (Season of Mist)

After mastering their own brand of cosmic horror WM on Endinghent and Nihl, Altarage’s anonymous Spaniards decided to go full meta with Succumb. WM is an inherently offensive genre to some degree, satisfying only to that rare breed of Pinhead masochist, craving new and eccentric ways to be eviscerated. Like an advanced form of water torture, Succumb turns this hunger in on itself by turning restraint – not just boiling asphalt – into a vector for pain. The songwriting on opener “Negative Arrival” sets a devilishly unpredictable precedent, denying listeners any opportunity to reap satisfaction from the rib-crushingly weighted blanket of dissonant brutalism, thanks to nasty jump-cuts and a foreboding dose of ambient. Altarage sidle from there into a mazy pace that tracks across the entire double LP. (Just try and figure out what’s going on in that transition from “Watcher Witness” to “Fair Warning”: we’ll wait.) They also display a Timeghoulish affinity for rendering Lovecraftian aesthetics in the lingua metallica, without giving in to the cartoonish spectacle of bands like Sulphur Aeon. Dry and ominous as a deep-space vacuum, Succumb flits between more textures than you’d think, the way it coheres in fuligin severity. “Magno Evento'' plays with Portal’s trademark nails-on-concrete sound, picked up the same year by dissonant marauders Our Place of Worship is Silence; “Maneuvers” and “Foregone” indulge ably in doomy mulch, when the blast-beat perfection isn’t front and center. In sequence, all these and many other transdimensional jump scares simulate a gradual, involuntary slip into total black-hole catatonia. Even the high-tension drone on the oft-maligned closer, “Devorador De Mundos” (“Devourer of Worlds”), leaves listeners feeling like they are meeting the gaze of a being beyond comprehension, flipping a middle finger at curmudgeonly critics with its monotonous acid bath of noise. You’d be hard pressed to find any other record in the scene with such utter contempt for its audience’s sense of enjoyment—no matter how twisted said enjoyment is. Here at Mutant Breakfast, we’ve grown to love these spiteful maneuvers in the dark.

-Mutant Trojan

Antediluvian - The Divine Punishment (Nuclear War Now!)

It really is a shame that Antediluvian chose the label they did, because The Divine Punishment is brimming with forward-thinking potential for WM, despite its sometimes archaic subject matter. There’s always been a subtle Old Testament revisionism to the band’s hallucinogenic mix of intergalactic blackened death and xeno-bestial war metal, as if the entire project is apocryphal proof that the biblical flood did not, in fact, cleanse the world of the abominations that purportedly prompted its sanction. The lyrics on The Divine Punishment are littered with references to traditional Judeo-Christian mythology, but the seraphs and prophets inhabiting these Sunday school stories are plucked out of their original context and forced to board the Event Horizon. It’s a lurid reimagining of ancient theology as sci-fi horror that’s further perverted by the translation of stellar phenomena into X-rated space-smut. Through the band’s cum-smeared lens, wormholes are not only interdimensional passageways to other worlds, but gaping orifices for galactic entities manifesting their power in obscene sex acts. The glittering, star-fanged maw that leers from the album’s cover perfectly captures this neotantric conception of the Void-made-flesh, as does the death yell that perforates “All Along the Sigils Deep.” It’s a yawp borne of a Cenobite ecstasy, a vocal yin-yang that is equal parts orgasmic rapture and safe-word mocking pain. 

Antediluvian explore a different duality in their aural battle-craft, exploiting the tension between WM’s traditionally primitive jingoism and the band’s penchant for cutting-edge music gadgetry. Armed to the teeth with guitar and bass FX rarely deployed in the extreme arts, the band stuffs The Divine Punishment’s involuted mix full of densely layered detail. Thankfully, this commitment to hi-fi psychedelia doesn’t abate the pornographic violence. This is modern war fare through and through, and these combat-hardened tracks are splashed with gore. As a result, The Divine Punishment is as filthy as it is heady, anchored by a demonic rancor chaining itself to rocks even as it reaches for the stars.  

-Mutant Crisper