As metal in the Internet Age continues to proliferate, 2017’s identity is in constant shift. Ideas about which genres mean what, the role of politics on music, the very fabric of the financial institutions which create the scene, all come into question as the barriers between fan, musician and business man collapse.
And yet, despite of what alarmists might say to the contrary, great music is still being made across a wide variety of genres, inside and outside of the metal strata. That’s why these mid year lists are important; they allow us to more carefully consider the lighthouse releases thus far released during the year and the trends which they signify. When making this list, we attempted to consider truly stand out albums, which have something interesting to say about their respective genres, the artists themselves and the interplay therein.
Thus, your mileage may vary. The idea of this list is not to be definitive or exhaustive. Indeed, such an effort would be inherently doomed to fail. Instead, this list attempts to present a facet into the trends running through our community as they manifest inside the Heavy Blog staff’s “collective taste”. As you read it, consider your own relationship to the insane amount of music and the ways in which you filter it. Perhaps we can offer our own alternative viewpoint.
Artificial Brain – Infrared Horizon
Despite the critical acclaim and small-circle buzz surrounding their debut album Labyrinth Constellation in 2014, it would appear that Artificial Brain have hit a breakthrough on the follow-up, Infrared Horizon. The group have managed to refine their concoction of raw old-school death metal and Gorguts-level modern weirdness to craft an album absurdly heavy and ridiculously catchy. Complex and bizarre riffing, it turns out, lend well to song-defining hooks when the writing is this cool.
One thing that makes Infrared Horizon so great is its dedication to the science fiction aesthetic. Guitarist Dan Gargiulo (also of Revocation) has a penchant for dirtying up chord progressions for an interesting atmosphere that lends itself well to cosmic horror that frontman Will Smith (also of Buckshot Facelift) weaves through his (granted, unintelligible) lyrical delivery. This is a band that realizes what they are and completely owns it. Infrared Horizon is so stupidly heavy and steeped in sci-fi without being afraid to lean into the excess, and is all the better for it through its seemingly effortless presentation and its sense of confidence. It’s a complete over-simplification and cops out of any deep critique, but Infrared Horizon is honestly just a really fun death metal record, and will be hard to top in this niche
Anathema – The Optimist
Writing about Anathema has become something of a second nature for me; when I’m not doing it directly on the blog, I speak about them on the podcast and when I’m not doing that, I’m recommending them to my friends. So, what is left to say here, at the onset of this list of ours? Nothing more than reiterating the fact that Anathema, beyond making great music, are a band to learn from. By observing them, we can learn a lot about growth, introspection and work ethics.
You see, The Optimist comes hot off the heels of two excellent albums, one of them arguably the band’s magnum opus, and yet still makes the effort to sound like something new. Injecting their sound with plenty of new influences, all of them drawn from classic patrons of the genre Anathema have found themselves playing after more than twenty years of operation, The Optimist presents an accessible yet interesting mutation of the Anathema sound. It has more punch and direct references while also featuring the roundabout electronics of Distant Satellites. It features lows and pits while still serving a worthy dish of the heights which made Weather Systems flourish.
All in all, it’s an accomplished album from an accomplished band who never seem to sate their hunger for more, moving along repeating circles that, nonetheless, take them to the same place. It’s a brilliant rock album with something for everyone that somehow skirts the lowest common denominator in favor of a statement. It’s bloody Anathema, alright?
Bestia Arcana – Holokauston
If there were a soundtrack to the apocalypse, Bestia Arcana’s Holokauston would be that soundtrack. It’s the sound of demons leaping from pits in the earth to wreak havoc on the horrified masses. Of dark priests whispering incantations and praises to the Lord of Darkness as his army lurches forward in a raucous display of power and might while the Son of the Morning himself holds his banner, emblazoned with a bright, blood-red sun. This is music straight from the pit, and what a glorious noise it makes. The sophomore album from Naas Alcameth’s “other” black metal project, Holokauston plumbs the depths of metaphysical terror to conjure what is without question one of the best black metal albums of 2017 thus far.
Borrowing from the musical and thematic playbooks of acts like Nightbringer, Akhlys, and Mayhem, Bestia Arcana creates a rich and diverse mixture of dense atmosphere and black metal brutality that drowns the listener in dread-inducing, tremolo-heavy guitar passages that encase an incredibly forceful and manic percussive performance. Opener “Hellmouth” displays this delicate balance between atmosphere and aggression well, with a relentless opening salvo that eventually twists and morphs itself into a wall of dirge-like sounds that conjure images of societal annihilation. Album highlight “Howling” ratchets up the atmospherics even further, ending with a roiling, billowing fog of sound that is in equal measure unsettling and beautiful. The amount of care, craft, and thought that went into this record is plainly evident. The vocal performance is epic, bombastic, and unhinged, while the instrumental performances are as tight as they could possibly be. This is a seasoned group of musicians perfecting their craft into a stunning work of art that deserves every ounce of the recognition it is getting.
If you only listen to a few black metal records this year, make sure that you do not skip this one. In the fundamentally saturated world that is black metal in 2017, few records have made as deep and lasting an impact as Holokauston. Bestia Arcana cannot honestly be considered a “side project” when its output is this strong. This is arguably Alcameth’s best work by his best musical incarnation, and we cannot wait for more.
Colin Steton – All This I Do For Glory
On paper, All This I Do For Glory is the more conventional of the two Colin Stetson albums appearing on this list. But when it comes to Stetson, there truly isn’t anything quite like his brand of saxophone wizardry, and his latest solo project only bolsters his reputation as a forward-thinking reed-smith. His first solo effort in four years arrived on the heels of two incredible albums—Never Were the Way She Was (2015), a collaboration with violinist and fellow Arcade Fire contributor Sarah Neufeld, and Sorrow (2016), a Stetson-ified arrangement of Henryk Mikołaj Górecki‘s acclaimed symphony—and a couple months before his genre-bending debut with Ex Eye (more on that later). Don’t take all of these side ventures as reason to worry Stetson’s lost focus of his sound; to the contrary, All This I Do For Glory is arguably the most realized rendition of his sound to date.
Part of what makes the album such a triumph is its succinct yet eclectic approach that places heavy emphasis on an intriguing undertone of Stetson’s playing. Fans and critics alike have often tied his percussive sax arpeggios to IDM, a comparison that’s more warranted then ever on tracks like 13-minute powerhouse “The Lure of the Mine.” The track acts as an exceptional closer due to both it’s epic scope and sound, coming across as if Stetson wrote a saxophone arrangement of a driving, aggressive Autechre track before adding on his signature vocalizations and sheets of sound. The opening title track takes a more subdued, Aphex Twin-esque approach to IDM, with a thumping, plodding soundscape unlike much else in his discography. Between these two bookends are epics galore, including the gorgeous modern classical stylings of “Spindrift” and the tribal, punk spirit of 3-minute banger “In the Clinches” (never thought I’d use “banger” to describe a sax-driven track, but I dare you to give it a listen and tell me that shit doesn’t slap).
All of this is admittedly a lot to absorb on first listen, especially if you’re new to Stetson’s sound. But the effort of multiple lessons will become effortless in time, and it won’t be long before the thirst for more Stetson becomes insatiable. And fortunately, his prolific-with-a-purpose track record proves that he’s going to continue crafting innovative albums, both for this year and beyond.
Dodecahedron – Kwintessens
Five years after their debut self-titled album, Dodecahedron have returned with a record that not only feels darker and more refined, but also weirder and more beautiful than their previous effort. Kwintessens is an album of constant shifts that keep the listener on the edge of their seat. The first half being evil, discordant black metal in the vein of the masters of the genre Deathspell Omega, while the latter half ventures into almost psychedelic blackgaze territory in the vein of Deafheaven. During all of this you may hear hints of progressive metal as well, with one part in particular coming through on the song “DODECAHEDRON: An Ill-Defined Air of Otherness.” 4:40-5:14 sounds like it was written by Physicist era Devin Townsend. There’s quite a bit of compositional variety on this record that makes it stand out from others in the avant garde black metal genre.
There are few thrills quite as grand as being constantly surprised by an album. If you’re looking for such an experience, Kwintessens is likely the album for you. You will be astounded by the contrast of harsh cacophony being followed up with a serene, ethereal beauty and vice versa. Neither element sounds out of place in the grand scheme of the music, either. Dodecahedron aren’t the first group, nor will they be the last, to play with dynamics and shifts to wow their audience. It does make this album well worth at least one listen, however. Ideally you’ll listen more than that though because it’s worth every minute spent in sonic confusion.
Do Make Say Think – Stubborn Persistent Illusions
Back with their first album in nearly a decade, the latest from the Toronto post-rock titans shows that they haven’t lost a step. This is as good as instrumental music gets. Furthermore, the band has returned with their best album yet, and one which is littered with ideas which sees them continue to push the genre forward rather than settle for what’s been done before countless times.
As far as post rock goes, there aren’t many acts out there who are better than Do Make Say Think. As someone whose first piece for this blog was more or less a giant love letter to Mogwai, I can honestly say these guys excite me just as much. It’s not just because they’re awesome, but like Scotland’s sons, they’ve continued to push the boundaries of what this genre can be since their inception. The expansive soundscapes and common dynamics which make post rock such an allure to fans is present and accounted for, but very few bands within the genre embrace the wider spectrum of musical as much as Do Make Say Think.
“Horripilation’’ is a standout track which exemplifies the band’s variation; featuring art rock and indie elements, it’s the type of song you could imagine on the soundtrack of a Frontier adventure movie This is a recurring motif throughout the album; like post rock in general, the album is very cinematic. However, it’s also very spirited at times, with tracks like “Bound’’ packing an upbeat punch at the beginning before entering bliss mode. Of course, the album’s highlight is opener “War On Torpor’’ which reintroduced the band after a timely hiatus with immediacy and reminds us of why we fell in love with them in the first place. Stubborn Persistent Illusions is one of the best post rock albums in recent memory, and Do Make Say Think are one of the best bands the genre has ever produced.
Eidola – To Speak, To Listen
We like Eidola here at Heavy Blog. Their last album Degeneraterra cracked the top 20 of Top 50 Albums of 2015 list, and given that the combined amount of music we all listen to hear, that’s pretty impressive. Needless to say there was a lot of expectation for this one and it more than surpassed them. In our review to To Speak, To Listen, Simon described it as “the real fucking deal.’’ That’s pretty much the perfect summation of this album.
One thing that brings about high expectations is awesome song titles, and Eidola are kings when it comes to those. “The Abstract of a Planet in Resolve’’ is first on the list here, and it lives up to its moniker, delivering some pretty wonderful erratic post-hardcore that’s both accessible and experimental. Once the album is underway, the quality never lets up; “Primitive Economics’’ is just pure show-offery in the best way possible, and it packs more ideas into a single track than most other albums as wholes will this year. That said, you could say the same about the entirety of the album; it fires on all cylinders during every single track.
There are plenty of harsh vocals on To Speak, To Listen, but Andrew Wells is a singer who will appeal to the earbuds of any music fan who appreciates a good voice. For all the wild and crazy elements the band incorporates, their melodies coupled with Wells’ vocals tie everything together nicely. Fans of experimental music will appreciate Eidola, but it’s surely only a matter of time before a wider audience falls for their charms. More people need to know about this band – they’re ridiculously fucking good.
Elder – Reflections of a Floating World
While there’s been a lot of incredible metal this year – that’s something this list should stand as a pretty obvious testament to – there hasn’t been a lot of incredible stoner metal. As far as doom metal goes, the other two albums on this list, Loss and Pallbearer, both stand as genre landmarks, but neither fits into the niche of stoner albums. The former is a crushing and sad blackened funeral doom album; the latter is a crushing and sad progressive trad doom album. So, yeah: a lot of sadness and some great tunes, but nothing to really crank up and just rock out to.
Enter Reflections of a Floating World, some of the thickest, gnarliest, stoner-est jams we’ve seen since, well, since Elder’s last album. For the as-yet-uninitiated, Elder plays a meandering, jam-heavy style of stoner metal that owes its lineage just as much to heavy psych and classic prog rock as much as other doped-out titans like Electric Wizard and Windhand, so while they’re certainly a stoner metal band, they don’t sound a whole lot like anything else out there. Molasses-thick riffs and fuzzed-out bass licks often involve numerous shifts in time signature and tempo, and they intermingle with long passages of quasi-ambient noodling and the drawn-out instrumental sections that characterize prog.
While Reflections doesn’t show the same level of change that happened between their last two releases, 2011’s Dead Roots Stirring and 2015’s Lore, it refines and twists the formula of Lore more than enough to be distinctly recognizable as its own beast. Adding another guitar player and a dedicated synthesizer/steel pedal player to the band has enabled mastermind and guitar wizard Nick DiSalvo to imagine even more lush and airy soundscapes than before, and the focus has moved from the omnipresent lead guitar of Lore to a more restrained, riff-heavy style that blends perfectly into the group’s existing modus operandi.
I could go on for a while, but by now, I’m sure you get the point: this record is as amazing a stoner metal release as they come. It’s intricate, unveiling itself over multiple listens, but instantly accessible as well; the riffs are supremely well-written and backed by amazing performances from every member of the band; everything is played with such conviction that it’s impossible to not have a blast when listening to this. If you listen to one stoner metal album this year, you should be legally required to make it this one.
Ex Eye – Ex Eye
Back in 2015, we included both Colin Stetson & Sarah Neufeld‘s Never Were the Way She Was and Tangled Thoughts of Leaving‘s Yield to Despair among our collective top 50 albums of the year. While these albums are incredibly dissimilar, my fellow editor Nick argued that Stetson’s style would fit incredibly well amid the expansive, brooding post-metal of a band like TToL. And while Nick may not have predicated the exact pairing, Ex Eye proves that his sonic assessment was absolutely spot-on. With a Stetson-fronted lineup rounded out by Greg Fox (Liturgy) on drums, Shahzad Ismaily (Secret Chiefs 3, Ceramic Dog) on synths and Toby Summerfield on guitar, the quartet’s unique synthesis of disparate elements pits together black metal and post metal with Stetson’s signature avant-garde minimalism. The result is an incredible debut which, while unfortunately short, is easily one of the most inventive and genuinely extraordinary metal albums from the first half of this year, a title it will likely retain through years end.
Pretentious Statement Alert – Ex Eye is truly an album that’s better experienced than described. Across four winding tracks, the quartet shifts so seamlessly between sounds while continuously building each overarching composition. “Xenolith; The Anvil” is one of the most succinct and enthralling statements of purpose I’ve heard in recent memory, with a massive build and release topped off by the soaring wail of Stetson’s sax. Things only accelerate from there, with the perfect sax/drum syncopation on “Opposition/Perihelion; The Coil” erupting into a full band assault; The subdued, moody atmosphere that unfurls it’s aura on “Anaitis Hymnal; The Arkose Disc”; and the roaring black metal-heavy finale of “Form Constant; The Grid.” What’s arguably most enticing about this combo are the quality’s Stetson and his bandmates bring out of one another. In many cases, the juxtaposition of a metal band behind Stetson’s sax arpeggios create a light-krautrock formula, which makes smooth dips on the surface of experimental rock and psychedelic tendencies that rest on the fringes of post metal.
As Nick said in his review, “Welcome to the metal world, Mr. Stetson. I hope you can stay a while.” I couldn’t echo that welcome more, as well as Nick’s desire for a much longer and even further fleshed out take one of the most fascinating sonic development’s in modern metal. But until then, Ex Eye is a more than ample statement of purpose that should whet the appetites of metal fans from all corners of the genre. The quartet has taken but a handful of loaves and fish and provided the masses with a feast.
Fit For An Autopsy – The Great Collapse
Fit For An Autopsy’s The Great Collapse is like the Coma of Souls of deathcore in more ways than one. On the surface, the two albums share many lyrical themes and execute them in the same direct fashion. Their worldviews are right in step: a hypocritical, unjust society hell-bent on screwing over the poor and the weak all with war and environmental issues as a backdrop to the gloom. These are outward records, not personal ones.
On a more macro level, though, Fit For An Autopsy in 2017, like Kreator in 1990, is at the top of their game while their genre as a whole is fading away. We’ve seen the humble beginnings, the mainstream boom, and now we’re seeing things fall apart. Deathcore is not dead quite yet but it is certainly endangered and needs serious help if it wants to survive.
Further paralleling Coma, Collapse isn’t a genre-bending record. It’s technical enough to be impressive but not enough to labeled “progressive”. It’s moody and melodic but never leaves its firmly metal sound world. It’s a gold standard, not an exception. The first two tracks on Collapse are centered around ridiculous breakdowns that yearn for a crowd to scream along with them. The record practically steams with anger like the line in “This city is a fucking prison” in “Hydra” or later in “Iron Moon” where Joe Badolato proclaims “I’d rather suffocate than breathe in what this bullshit life has offered me”. The record is slow and deliberate giving it a sludgy vibe like the hook in “Black Mammoth”. The album won’t surprise you but it will always make you want to listen again and again. It’ll make you remember why you love the clichés.
Fit For An Autopsy isn’t alone in making great deathcore today but neither was Kreator in 1990. In fact, it was a legendary year for thrash with other classics like Rust in Peace and By Inheritance but that burst in creativity didn’t last long. Soon, the genre went to sleep only to be woken up 15 years later by a short-lived revival movement. The same will happen for deathcore as it does for every other genre. Fit For An Autopsy doesn’t seem too worried, though. With The Great Collapse, they seem to welcome the end of the world.
“When the world is empty of souls, it will become so clean”
Forest Swords – Compassion
When I first heard Engravings back in 2013, it was inconceivable to me that the album in question was a debut. Fast-forward four years later, it’s now just as hard to believe that Compassion is Forest Swords’ sophomore effort.
There’s a number of reasons why Matthew Barnes’ music sounds as if he has way more mileage than he actually does, but at the core of it all seems to be a certain gravity that underlies all of his songs. As was the case with its predecessor, every track on Compassion feels monumental in a way that electronic music, and even a genre like metal rarely does. More interesting yet, Barnes manages to achieve this sense of grandeur while firmly following a less-is-more approach. Which is not to say that there’s a scarcity of ideas on here – on the contrary, tracks like ‘War It’ and ‘Exalter’ are packed to the brim with musical motifs that span a variety of different styles. They show that, although indebted to and influenced by club music, Barnes definitely isn’t willing to make any compromises in the songwriting process for the sake of functionality. Despite this, there’s rarely a moment where his production sounds oversaturated. Instead, he emphasizes the boom of each drum hit, the hiss and roar of each key, horn or string, and moves through the sections of a song without ever stacking too many of these sounds on top of each other. The result is an album that, apart from sounding larger than life, also feels decidedly organic – so much so that it can easily trick listeners into thinking that a lot of what they hear was recorded with live instruments when it was, in fact, programmed digitally.
On that note, there’s more than one way in which Compassion thrives on deceiving and toying with its audience. Namely, the album’s track titles and numerous vocal samples might lead one to assume an overt message is carried within. Yet for all its extensive usage of the human voice, the only time it is used to form intelligible words is a brief instance in ‘Panic’. Thankfully, we have now passed the age where electronic music had been considered inept at articulating thought or emotion – a change which the Forest Swords project had been contributing towards since its very beginning. As such, it’s clear that an album such as Compassion doesn’t need lyrics (though it might tease the prospect of them) to make a statement, one profound enough to make it perhaps the most expressive record of 2017 thus far.
Full of Hell – Trumpeting Ecstasy
Oh boy. This is definitely the heaviest release to have ever topped a Heavy Blog Top 25 So Far/Year End list. It’s somewhat surprising because of the range of tastes present in the staff group but, in the same breath, unsurprising because the staff here recognise a diamond in the rough when they see it. It’s not just us though. Trumpeting Ecstasy will prop up best of lists all over the place with this record because it is simply too dang good to miss. It’s terrifying, turbocharged and easily the most succinct release in their history.
With so many releases under their belt, a new full length was always going to met with trepidation from certain parties – Full of Hell exist somewhere between fandoms of noise, grind and violence so there is always unrest within these camps when a new project is announced. Trumpeting Ecstasy shocked only the uninitiated upon release, with fans of every era of the band exuberant in their praise for this destructive blast of beautifully constructed noise. It’s harsh and full of industrial sounds fit for projecting over Tetsuo: The Iron Man but at its core it is a balls out grinding death record. Were “Deluminate” and “Digital Prison” to be plucked from here and thrown into a split with Napalm Death, not an eyelid would be fluttered. Countering this, “Gnawed Flesh” and the gloriously nightmarish title track destroy any conception of what grind and noise should sound like; digital nightmares created with analogue experimentation. Full of Hell can grind and play powerful violence with the best of them but they still aim for more. Screw “Crawling Back To God”, fans will be crawling back to this record for years to come. Trumpeting Ecstasy is the new benchmark for extreme terror inducing metal/grind/everything.
At no point does Trumpeting Ecstasy feel like anything other than a Full of Hell record. For a band well versed in creating music geared at engineering discomfort, they’ve only gone and created one of the most satisfying extreme music releases of recent years. The gnashing and wailing of instruments, noise and screams has no business being so captivating but it is. In relation to the rest of the band’s discography, it’s probably the most straightforward too but this doesn’t hold it back from being utterly oppressive. In fact, it adds even more discomfort and malevolence than some of their noisier, more abstract work could. Trumpeting Ecstasy is what happens when you turn Full of Hell on, straight up to 10 without warming anything up. Things will break, shatter and overheat. And it’s all welcome. Our album of the year so far. It’s going to take something out of this world to top this.
Ingurgitating Oblivion – Vision Wallows in Symphonies of Light
This has been an amazing year for weird death metal. Among all of that, one release stands out even further. Ingurgitating Oblivion might not be a name immediately familiar to many, but a quick listen will surely make an impression. A quick listen, however, might be difficult, as Vision Wallows in Symphonies of Light is a 50-minute album consisting of just 4 tracks. Yeah, it’s one of those. And it’s great.
When a band makes avant-garde death metal, especially as weird and extreme as this, it’s very easy to go overboard. To wallow (heh) too much in the experimentation and quirks and forget about what makes a song work. This gets especially tricky when we’re talking about songs that can be over twenty minutes. There has to be a method to the madness. Hell, there’s no blueprint for making a song that long work, but clearly IO know what they’re doing here.
Nothing feels haphazard, everything seems carefully calculated. Pulling from a vast array of influences, be it old school death metal, Gorguts-esque weirdness, jazz, atmospheric black metal; the writing here is just sublime. Overwhelming experimentation and abrasion are the goal and end result, but the key is that nothing is sacrificed on the way. The listener is pulled in and not let go, despite not being welcome at all.
Vision Wallows in Symphonies of Light is an incredible sophomore release, and a unique masterpiece in a genre full of unique gems. It is the next level, the future and the ideal.
Loss – Horizonless
Doom metal in general is commonly considered to be an extremely “heavy” form of metal music. This description is definitely apt when discussing Loss and their incredible sophomore LP Horizonless. But the crushing riffs are only a small portion of what actually makes this band heavy. Consider the opening lines of the album’s opening track, “The Joy of All Who Sorrow”:
Edge out to punish myself / A witness to my own self-infliction / Despair, a numbing line / I beg to die in vain…
Sure, doom metal is heavy. But this… I mean, this is an entirely different level and type of heavy.
Loss hold to the same funereal musical aspects that have made bands like Mournful Congregation, Evoken, Bell Witch, and Shape of Despair such mainstays in the subgenre. The riffs are thick and oppressively heavy, the drums deep and deliberate, and the vocal delivery varying degrees of mournful and wretched. But Loss don’t just play basic variations on a doom-related theme, instead adding their own distinct style and flavor to the funeral doom template. Examples of this include the often tortured vocal delivery, which gives off a slight black metal vibe that creeps its way into tracks like “The Joy of All Who Sorrow” and “Naught”. Outside of the vocal arrangements, keys make a dramatic and welcome appearance during “The End Steps Forth”, while ominous and mostly instrumental tracks like “I.O.” or the spoken-word musings of “Moved Beyond Murder” bring in short asides that do not feel like mere filler for an album consisting of generally long tracks, but instead building blocks for an atmosphere that is incredibly dark and all-encompassing. Helming their own distinct style, Loss pull elements from masters past and present to create a vital and individual sound that is both elegiac and overpowering, creating a mixture of sounds and textures that feels unique to the band rather than simple retreads. The almost lush opening of the album’s third track “All Grows on Tears” is another great example of this, elevating their songcraft outside of standard funeral doom conventions and into a softer, more mournful dirge that is less intimidating than it is just incredibly heartbreaking.
Perhaps more so than any record I’ve heard this year, Horizonless is chock full of songs that bring copious amounts of sadness to the heart, as the music moves patiently through lyrical compositions detailing uncontrollable depression, grief, and verbal iterations of death and suicide. This is not a light listen by any stretch. The lyrics here are visceral and incredibly poetic descriptions of internal turmoil heading toward self-inflicted pain and demise. This amount of beautifully described suffering can be difficult to take in one sitting, but if you allow Horizonless to wash over you in its perpetual fog of doomy riffs and verbal sadness you will be witness to one of the most accomplished and revelatory albums doom metal has to offer so far this year. Listen to it. Get lost in it. It is well worth your time.
Mastodon – Emperor of Sand
It isn’t quite Crack the Skye levels of ear sex, but with Emperor of Sand, Mastodon unleashed a beast of a record that can be chalked up as another masterpiece in their impressive canon thus far. At this point, fans know what to expect from a Mastodon album more or less, but having evolved throughout the years to accentuate more of their prog and hard rock influences towards the forefront of their sonic palette, they’re not the same band of 15-years-ago when Remission was released. Their evolution hasn’t incorporated any radical stylistic changes, however, and Emperor of Sand marks the sound of a band who are comfortable with their identity, and a culmination and expansion of all the components they’ve plucked until now.
Following some personal tragedies within the band members’ personal life, Emperor of Sand is a return to their conceptual ethos; this time depicting a lost man’s journey through the desert only to die and be saved. The lyrics are as abstract as you’d expect from a Mastodon album, but it’s a deeply personal work which explores grief and salvation accompanied by musicianship that’s wild, triumphant and varied.
At Heavy Blog we’ve had some debates about Mastodon’s post-Crack the Skye output, and it’s been as divisive as you’d expect, given the attitude of the general consensus towards their latter releases. For all the praise they’ve received from fans and critics alike for The Hunter and Once More ‘Round the Sun, they also managed to lose a lot of listeners who followed them from the beginning. Emperor of Sand isn’t a return to the band’s roots by any means, but it’s easily their most focused and urgent-sounding record for awhile. While it might not win back every fan who longs for the early stuff, there is still plenty of chaotic noise and hard-edged moments to be found.
Speaking of roots, the track “Roots Remain’’ is arguably the best track they’ve ever recorded to date, blending hard rock with moments of serenity and a stadium-sized guitar solo that will make many a nipple hard – it’s mesmerising. On the other hand, “Clandestiny’’ sounds like it has been intercepted by aliens (in a good way), and “Jaguar God’’ is as perfect, proggy and psychedelic as you would expect from an album dealing with these themes and concepts. Of course, Scott Kelly from Neurosis is also present and it’d just be weird not hearing him on a Mastodon album at this point; but he could easily slot in as a permanent member if they wanted him to.
Emperor of Sand is an album about a loss that you might just get lost in when listening to it. The best concept albums take the listener on a journey, and with their seventh effort, Mastodon managed to achieve that feeling. Whether you just want to rock your balls off or peel away at its layers and get to its human base, there’s plenty to take away from Emperor of Sand which makes it worthy of being a regular fixture in your ears.
Necrot – Blood Offerings
Some people like their death metal technical. Others like it best when mixed with other genre ingredients such as black and doom metal, culminating in the best sort of musical cocktail. Others still prefer the, shall we say, more traditional elements inherent within certain strains of death metal. Necrot’s excellent debut Blood Offerings was created for this latter group of individuals. It is old school. It contains lots o’ the riffs. It is downright filthy. It will also gleefully rip your face directly from your head. In case all that word vomit is unclear, this record is several levels of fantastic.
For the uninitiated, Necrot peddle death metal in the vein of mid-career Bolt Thrower, sprinkled with bits of Incantation and a dash of Asphyx. This is death metal for those in love with the almighty riff. Extreme music for the champions of the chug. But this is no brutish, simplistic caveman metal. The riffs contained in these songs are to a fault fantastic, displaying a particularly astute knack for death metal songwriting which facilitates an unusually healthy balance between legibility and brutality. Album opener “The Blade” displays this emphasis on tone and clarity by immediately engulfing the listener in a feast of death metal riffs that transform from heavy to deadly in the span of about a minute without once losing their distinct audio clarity. Subsequent track “Rather Be Dead” adds to this dynamic by bringing in just a hint of melody to keep things from becoming too repetitious. This emphasis on balance continues throughout the album, as blasts and chugs vie for supremacy against intermittent doses of melody and some restrained but wonderfully composed solos that add more variety and flavor than one would expect from an unapologetically old school death metal record. While it may be relentlessly fast and heavy, it is very far from monotonous or boring.
Hats off to the production team of Greg Wilkinson and Brad Boatright for their impeccable work on Blood Offerings. This is one of the smoothest, clearest iterations of old school death metal that I have heard in a good while. Balance is the name of the game with Blood Offerings, and Necrot bring their A game with an impeccably produced, superbly written, and energetically performed record that is by nearly every conceivable metric one of the best death metal releases of the year. If you even remotely enjoy death metal, this is required listening.
Pallbearer – Heartless
Bands that get noticed when they’re small have a hard time. Their debut releases are invariably hyped, their sophomore releases tend to go up in flames and their third releases are complicated balances between moving forward and pleasing the fans of their original material. Somehow, Pallbearer have managed to shatter this formula and create a legacy from only three albums. Buoyed by the success of the early attention they receive, Pallbearer dug deep and pushed the envelope on Heartless, producing an album that not only exceeds their previous releases but also puts them into new context.
You see, Heartless looks back and sort of explains what the other two releases were all about and what Pallbearer are trying to make as artists. It is both more expansive and more focused at the same time, distilling the basic Pallbearer sound while adding more blatant influences and themes to it. It features the signature Pallbearer sound, doom-y 70’s metal with better production and variety, mingled with a more progressive and far flung flavor to it. This enables it to still scratch the itch you’d expect while opening up new levels of enjoyment you didn’t expect to get from a borderline funereal doom release.
Oh, and it also has “Dancing in Madness”, which features one of the sickest riffs of 2017, a pure groove fueled passage that reaches deep into your stomach and moves you like so many space parasites. Space parasites! Onwards with the list.
Planning for Burial – Below the House
Thom Wasluck is more of a singer-songwriter than a metal musician. He uses metal when the music needs him to and more so on some records than on others. His main project, Planning For Burial, has always had a clear vision and mood but every album has its own sound world. Wasluck is like a much more indie version of Devin Townsend: a skilled artist with many talents in many genres, always changing and evolving. His most recent full length album, Below The House, is a masterpiece of heavy music that deals with Wasluck’s view on his past and his struggles with alcoholism. The album combines black metal, doom metal, lo-fi, shoegaze, and post-rock all together into a heartbreaking and bleak vision of the world. This is not easy listening. It’s raw and overpowering. Wasluck channels the exact essence of his own personal mindset during this time in his life into sonic form. It’s a moment of artistic clarity matched by few other musicians in 2017.
Below The House, while being one of the band’s most potent releases to date, is also one of the band’s most accessible. This would be a great jumping on point for new listeners. Most songs are a reasonable length and never venture too far out of a pop structure. “Warmth of You” would sound at home on anyone’s post-punk playlist next to Joy Division or early The Cure. “Somewhere In The Evening” is really a standard doom metal track with lots of experimental aesthetic features tacked on. This is not an album for a specific group of well-education aficionados. While steeped in the avant-garde side of music, Planning For Burial is writing music here that will move anyone if they give it a chance. Each track bursts with emotion and honesty. A particular moment towards the end of the album perfectly illustrates this trait of the album: the midsection of “Dull Knife pt. II”. After lots of tender guitar playing and slow keyboard buildups, Wasluck starts chanting, “Call me back home”. Slowly, more voices join him. This crescendo doesn’t result in a cheesy climax but heightens the grief just a little bit above the rest of the album. The energy plateaus and finishes strong but the pain never resolves. Wasluck has truly made an album for the ages with Below The House.
Power Trip – Nightmare Logic
It makes sense that Power Trip have been released upon the world at this juncture in time. Every generation of metalhead has THAT band with the riffs but, up ‘til now, the current crop of flourishing heshers have made do with thrash revival acts that just flirt with the power of the riff. Power Trip are young enough to make this writer feel old yet with this year’s monstrous, maniacally catchy Nightmare Logic, these Texans have officially laid down the guidelines for making a devastating crossover record, full of riff power. The licks on this record make 80’s thrash and 90’s death look like blemishes on the history of metal.
Nightmare Logic is the perfect sequel to 2013’s Manifest Decimation. Everything is bigger, bolder and the band is even tighter when delivering the eight knockout blows of each track. It’s not a cut and paste job either, unlike several of the more notable crossover records of the last decade. Power Trip paint death splattered thrash hits as an artist would with brush and pallet. Other acts are butchers, using hook and cleaver and leaving with less than picturesque results. That doesn’t stop this record from hitting hard though. For all of its carefully structured moments, Nightmare Logic is full of the naked energy of a circle pit ready to spill out into the world beyond.
This is metal for the metalhead who wants to throwback and reminisce just as much as it is for the youngsters who are creating their first battle jacket. There’s genre worship but it is done in such a manner that it’s going to make people forget that bands like Exodus or Death existed (give it time). The air guitar potential on this record alone should merit it’s inclusion here. It’s so easy to get caught up trying to discover the most “visceral” or “groundbreaking” new music but fuck that, Nightmare Logic will bring back the headbang and the push pit. “Executioner’s Tax” is my new “Holy War..” for sure.
Sentient Ignition – Enthroned in Grey
With classical music and death metal being at opposite ends of spectrum aesthetically, neoclassical death metal seems like it shouldn’t work. Yet in 2004, Necrophagist thoroughly disproved that myth. In the years following that landmark, it seemed like Epitaph was the furthest that neoclassical metal could be taken. In the past few years, the genre has be revitalized with a new line-up of rich albums. Artists like Christian Münzner and Allegaeon are giving the genre a fresh sense of humanity, a feature often overshadowed by technical ability and brutality.
Sentient Ignition’s debut album Enthroned In Gray does well to solidify that trend. The album is absolutely everything progressive metal and neoclassical metal fans could want: flashy, complex, and melodic. However, the music goes deeper than that. The weaving compositions almost never rely on hooks or pop structures for continuity and reach for creative ways to awe listeners. The band understands how to build to emotional peaks at the proper pace and intensity. Every instrument, including the vocals, plays a vital role in getting the band to this level of creative clarity. The guitarists borrow sounds from every corner of metal. One second they are blasting along in thirds like a 2008 Obscura and the next they are chugging against the drum’s groove like a djent band. The solos are always in service of the song and never too wanky. This is no one-tone duo who has a few tricks they just repeat over and over. In addition, the rhythm section works together with the guitarists in a melodic way more like third and fourth guitars rather than just back up. The bassline is able to add some extra harmony here and the drummer is rarely ever just laying down a backbeat. Like a young Vektor or a 90’s boy band, this band is completely in-sync. To top it all off, the absolutely gut-wrenching vocal performance of Sev Erist adds even more pathos to this record. In line with his talented bandmates, this man is a real musician, not a one-trick pony. He screams, growls, wails, sings, and always does so in service of the emotional tone of the song. Enthroned in Gray will keep you coming back for multiple listens with its addicting complexity.
SikTh – The Future in Whose Eyes?
It goes without saying, but it still needs to be said: SikTh are legendary. The best part is that their legend continues to grow larger in scope as they have reunited and begun to bless us with new music. They started with their mini-LP Opacities, which was great, but a little safe for some fans tastes. Luckily, we have a brand new full-length from the band that brings a bit more variation to the table. While so many legends return to moans and groans, SikTh’s latest album The Future in Whose Eyes? shows us that the masters still have a trick or two up their sleeves.
While still containing hefty grooves, technically sound compositions and dramatic spoken word passages, the band have elevated their weirder elements on this album. Vocalist Mikee Goodman guides many of these tracks with his over-the-top screams and clean vocals, bouncing from track to track and giving the album as a whole a unique flavor. As far a song to listen to from this album, you can’t go wrong with the track Riddles of Humanity. It’s insanely over the top, frantic and vibrating endlessly with energy, yet also manages to combine TesseracT-esque atmospheric clean sections with new clean vocalist Joe Rosser (also from Pin’s other group Aliases) belting about “profiteers of misery” with these elements without missing a beat. The Future in Whose Eyes? is an album that sees the band elevating themselves not only to the top of their own game, but also to the forefront of progressive metal where they belong. This puts them alongside bands like Periphery, who wouldn’t be who they are today without SikTh. If only all bands returning were so glorious to witness and be a part of.
sleepmakeswaves – Made of Breath Only
There are few things more difficult for a band than producing an album immediately following their “breakthrough” album. For adventurous Aussie post-rockers sleepmakeswaves, their sophomore LP Love of Cartography represented a critical and popular breakthrough of mammoth proportions. Aside from being easily one of my personal favorite albums of 2014 – as well as many of us here at Heavy Blog, culminating in it being our #6 album of that year – it launched the band into a global phenomenon as they toured across Europe and North America, including a legendary Audiotree session. Cartography was a nearly flawless album and one of the most invigorating post-rock releases of the past decade and possibly more.
Given all of that, how in the world could the band possibly follow that and meet already sky-high expectations for their following LP? Well, for starters, they remembered who they were doing all of this for, the fans, and launched an immaculately-crafted and hugely successful crowdfunding campaign that allowed the band to produce and release the album fully independently. Then, the band just worked their asses off and produced another stellar record that does all of the things Cartography did well and continued it without repeating themselves.
The resulting record, Made of Breath Only, doesn’t break a ton of new ground for them in the same way that Cartography did, but it succeeds by just being everything a sleepmakeswaves album should be. Add in the fact that the production here is even richer and crisper than anything they’ve done before, and you’ve got another certified winner. For myself, it may not hit all of the same towering highs that tracks like “Emergent,” “Great Northern” and “The Stars Are Stigmata” reached, but “Worlds Away,” “The Edge of Everything,” and “Into the Arms of Ghosts” come awfully damn close. More importantly, Made of Breath Only is possibly even more consistently excellent than Cartography was, a rather impressive feat given that the album in question was already remarkably consistent. Breath is a flag planted into the icy tundras depicted throughout the album, staking sleepmakeswaves’ place well atop the field of current post-rock bands. May their reign be long and prosperous.
Ulver – The Assassination of Julius Caesar
How big was the Roman Empire? That question is almost too complicated to answer. First of all, what do we mean when we say “big”? Even if we use the most literal meaning of the word and ask what the Roman Empire’s size was, we can’t accurately answer and must drill even deeper: do we mean where the borders of its law, the limes of its authority, stopped? Do we mean where its armies could reach? Are we referring to the middle era of the Republic or to the height of the Imperial throne? How does one even measure the size of an empire so influential that it shaped both the memory and the actuality of human life in the “western” world forever? These questions and more all tear apart that supposedly simple question and remove science or history from being able to answer it. Thus, where rationale can not avail us, we must turn to art.
Art, you see, is less concerned with clear borders or delimitation. In fact, it thrives where uncertainty flourishes, giving us a wordless dictionary to help us understand, empathize, and connect with phenomena too nebulous for a direct approach. The artist (and this is no original thought, as reading any number of countless thinkers on aesthetics will show you) is more of a mediator than an explainer, someone who is able to speak both the odd un-language of art and the odd language of our daily lives. Ulver have always understood this. From their black metal roots, channeling the wild indifference of nature, and through their by-now countless transformations, they have served as a unique trumpet for the unintelligible and yet impossible to ignore intonations that flash ceaselessly across the skies of our culture.
The Assassination of Julius Caesar, Ulver’s latest effort which was released not too long ago, is a further exercise in this endeavor of cultural translation. In it, the artists attempt to grasp the multitude of associations, ideas, and concepts that the so-called “fall” of the Roman Empire contains for those of us here in the “west”. It is a subtle and often beguiling journey through these complex topographies of associations, all backed by nothing else than the best darkwave pop album we’ve heard in years. Ranging in influences from Depeche Mode, Joy Division, and The Cure, The Assassination of Julius Caesar is as musically intricate and rich as the themes it tries to convey. Thus, both our intellects and our emotions are rung through this sieve of cultural, social, and historical meaning and emerge on the other side, transformed.
Yazz Ahmed – La Saboteuse
Given the almost mischievous feeling that permeates the album’s runtime, it seems fitting that Yazz Ahmed’s sophomore record La Saboteuse more or less snuck its way into our sights here at Heavy Blog. Yet the ensuing consensus amongst our ranks was as swift as it was unanimous: La Saboteuse is far and away one of the absolute best jazz albums of 2017 thus far, and perhaps even of the last few years to boot.
While the Middle Eastern jazz that forms the bulk of La Saboteuse’s sound is already immaculately crafted all the same, it is Ahmed’s inventive structuring of the album, which features cleverly placed trumpet-heavy interludes breaking up the action, that only furthers the magic on display. The album therefore flows naturally from one segment to another, with the ebb and flow between the energy of tracks like “Al Emadi” and “Bloom” complemented beautifully by the subtle haziness of “Misophonia” and “Whirling”. La Saboteuse is left feeling like an extended journey through a vast desert landscape, the mood sometimes introspective, sometimes whimsical, but ultimately never not with something new on offer. Definitely not one to be missed for anyone with even a passing interest in jazz.
ZETA – ZETA
There is a certain point of contention that tends to rear it’s ugly head from time to time in the synthwave community and that is with a conflict over the use of vocals. While some feel they have no place in the genre, preferring a more “pure” and solely synth-focused sound, there are others who contend that vocals add to the music more than they take away. ZETA is one such act that stands tall amongst them as a prime example of what they can do, not only as a means to further showcase the overall potential of vocals in the genre but to also help legitimize them in the process.
Of course, with Daniel Tompkins of TesseracT fame on vocals this doesn’t come as too much of a surprise and with Paul Ortiz of Chimp Spanner, as well as Katie Jackson, lending their talents to the music it just further explains how the overall sound and composition to the eleven tracks on the album can be so tight. While the songs are most certainly influenced by the 1980’s, as synthwave tends to skew, ZETA goes a step beyond and accomplishes what so little acts in the genre can do: most of their songs sound like they’re actually from that decade. Perhaps it has a bit to do with their background, what with all three of them being based in the UK where New Wave music once began to take shape, but that seems like a gross oversimplification.
Rather the real evidence lies simply through listening as their knowledge of the genre not only resonates throughout but they’re clearly having fun in the process. It’s that kind of highly creative energy which becomes incredibly infectious, track by track, as each one brings a little something different to the table. While on the one hand you have your more upbeat and mellow synthpop tracks, there are also some impressively heavy guitar riffs on others bringing a more hard-edged darksynth mood, and in one song in particular there is even a little bit of rapping to be heard yet it doesn’t feel out of place at all. That said, there is certainly something on here for everyone, and that’s why it’s not only one of the best synthwave albums to come out so far this year but it’s also one of the best overall albums to come out so far this year as well.