;For years, the start of a new calendar has meant one thing for metal fans: an overwhelming barrage of releases from every imaginable subgenre of heavy music they hold dear. Maybe it's a way to make the heart of winter a little less (or more) gloomy. Or maybe it's just because independent labels are smart enough to know that they won't be competing against mainstream titles for the attention of buyers. Whatever the case, this year is no different, and the first few weeks of 2007 have shaped up to be a budget-buster for lovers of heavy metal, with nearly three dozen exceptional titles making their debut on record-store shelves. Here's a roundup of some of the highlights.


;Fractured fusions

;;Ever intent on tearing down the preconception that metal is a one-dimensional sonic beast, contemporary bands continue to weld a multitude of influences onto the sturdy tank of riffs and rhythms that define the genre. Exploring the more extreme edge are noise-influenced acts like Car Bomb (Centralia, Feb. 6, Relapse), the Network (This Is Your Pig's Portrait, Jan. 23, Black Market/Metal Blade) and Cassius (I Am Jim Jones, Jan. 23, Lifeforce), who spew out ear-splitting guitar squall in precise, polyrhythmic doses. These bands are relentless in their assault, and while their primal energy evokes raw hardcore, their technical influences ensure a clinical effectiveness that leaves nothing to chance.

;;Genre-twisting sounds like the industrial-tinged aggression of Ektomorf (Outcast, Jan. 23, Nuclear Blast), the melodic death-thrash of Fear My Thoughts (Vulcanus, Jan. 23, Century Media) and the Meshuggah-referencing brainiac brutality of Mnemic (Passenger, Feb. 6, Nuclear Blast) prove that metal is far from the stylistically closed-minded book that detractors often accuse it of being. While none of the releases venture too far from metal's sonic touchstones, each evinces a combination of subtlety, complexity and adventurousness that belies the loud-fast-heavy stereotype of metal. Yet not a one holds a candle to the sheer audacity of the End's third album (Elementary, Feb. 6, Relapse), which manages to expertly encapsulate almost every style referenced in the above two paragraphs. Hardcore aggression, on-a-dime changes, soaring melodicism, grinding riffs — Elementary puts them together in a way that's neither sloppy nor showy. If Dillinger Escape Plan feels like metal math class, the End is a thrashing version of a semester's worth of studying modern architecture.


;Basics made better

;;While there's nothing wrong with pushing metal's envelope, sometimes fans just want to hear their favorite genre interpreted accurately. Early 2007 doesn't fail there, with plenty of releases that do exactly what they're supposed to do. Fairyland (The Fall of an Empire, Jan. 16, Napalm) and Firewind (Allegiance, Jan. 23, Century Media) deliver symphonic power-metal discs chock-full of fist-raising, dual-guitar anthems.

;;Nahemah (The Second Philosophy, Jan. 30, Lifeforce) takes a somewhat forward-looking approach to grandiose goth-metal, with occasional flourishes of thrashy noise. But bands like the near-elegant Edenbridge (The Grand Design, Jan. 30, Napalm) and the super-melodic Tristania (Illumination, Jan. 30, SPV) keep close to the genre's lofty, epic-poetry expectations … in a good way. If you're looking for an orchestral-metal fix, though, you can't go wrong with the two-CD Gothic Kabbalah (Feb. 6, Nuclear Blast) by Swedish art-metallers Therion. With 15 tracks of baroque-like filigree, Kabbalah is absolutely unapologetic in its grand aspirations.

;;Conversely, the gorecore grossout of the County Medical Examiners (Olidous Operettas, Jan. 23, Relapse) is about as simple and visceral (literally) as it gets. A trio of black-metal releases from Moribund Records by Horna (Aania Yossa), Dodsferd (Fucking Your Creation) and Azrael (Act III: Self + Act IV: Goat) coming out Jan. 30 keep true to the simple, lo-fi grimness that is the opposite of the shining symphonic flourishes of "gothic metal."


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