About halfway through Inter Arma's new album Paradise Gallows sits a seven-minute slab of gloriously buzzy post-metal as high-minded and horizon-wide as anything the band has ever done. The song is called "The Summer Drones," and it's a significant zigzag, even for this Richmond, Virginia, quintet, which has built one of the most impressive catalogs in underground metal by zigging and zagging more than most.
Just in case it's unclear that Inter Arma is reaching deeper into its bag of tricks, vocalist Mike Paparo lets the cat out of the bag 50 seconds into "The Summer Drones" with something he has never, ever tried before: clean vocals. (For the non-metalheads, that means vocals that are sung instead of growled, howled, screamed or grunted.)
Paparo—who is also the vocalist in Richmond black metal nasties Bastard Sapling—is known for his intense performances, both recorded and live. He was not, up to this point, known for hitting actual notes. But as Inter Arma stretched and shaped into the band it became on Paradise Gallows, Paparo felt both the need and the desire to grow alongside drummer T.J. Childers, bassist Joe Kerkes and guitarists Steven Russell and Trey Dalton.
"Most people learn how to sing first. I didn't. I never sung in my life. I got into heavy metal when I was super young, and I didn't ever think I could sing, so I just started screaming all the time," Paparo says. "I actually had to unlearn (when) I decided that I needed to do something different on these songs."
To be clear, no one else in the band pushed Paparo to change his own approach. He did so himself, for a handful of reasons. For starters, the more expansive scope of the music called for it, and as a result he had to work up the confidence to do so. But for that matter, Paparo—an avowed fan of underground death metal, black metal and noise, has heard more than his share of barking beasts and howling goblins.
"When I'd listen to these songs, 'Summer Drones' in particular, I thought, 'Man, I can't just do typical heavy metal vocals over this,'" he says. "I wanted to color them a little differently, so I just realized I needed to start trying it out, and if it sucks, it sucks. The guys in the band will let me know.
"If I have to hear another sludge band with the same kind of (vocals) going on, I'm gonna lose my mind," he adds. "Also, our songs are long, and I'm not saying that's a bad thing, but I realized I need to vary things up, because if I do the same thing over all these songs, it's gonna be bad."
The result? Paradise Gallows is a masterful monstrosity of earth-moving riffs, skyscraping psych, pretty passages and just about any other kind of heavy sound you can imagine. Opening track "Nomini" blossoms from a quiet acoustic guitar piece into a tangle of twin electric guitars that seem to tower beyond the clouds. "An Archer in the Emptiness" stomps and rumbles like a giant tumbling down a mountainside as Paparo engages in some ferocious death growls that'll have listeners hanging on for dear life.
Later, three songs stretch past the 10-minute mark: "Primordial Wound" is the relentless sludgehammer of the bunch, riding one(ish) note into oblivion before devolving into goblin-speak. "Violent Constellations" finds Inter Arma straddling the line between black metal blast beats and High on Fire's stoner-chug, conjuring a level of intensity few other bands can even dream. The title track is the real stunner—a slow-burning build of beauty and brawn that features more of Paparo's clean vocals and showcases the band's commanding grip on dynamics.
The ambitious nature of the album and, indeed, the band itself presented a challenge to Paparo to keep up with his ever-evolving bandmates. Childers was the first to notice that Paparo recognized pitches and keys when something was out of tune. That encouraged him to further step outside of his comfort zone and push himself to try new approaches.
"I felt...like I needed to push myself or there isn't going to be much of a future here for me. They're so talented, if I stay stuck in my comfort zone, I'd be doing them a disservice," he says. "I needed to push myself, otherwise I'm just gonna be a merch guy."
Paradise Gallows closes with the resonant ìWhen the Earth Meets the Sky," a low-soaring psych-folk dirge that compares favorably to ìMarrow,î the final track on Oregon doom trio Yob's massive 2014 album Clearing the Path to Ascend.
Like that Yob song, "Earth" seems to point to an even brighter future for Inter Arma, and Paradise Gallows is taking the band to new heights.
"We sincerely hope that some cool things happen for us, but if they don't we're not gonna be disappointed," Paparo says. "We're gonna keep trudging on and keep writing music. We've been a band for 10 years now. We're all still happy playing this music and challenging ourselves, and we're gonna continue doing that regardless."
Inter Arma play July 24 at Soda Bar