Midpoint. Half in, half out. Shadow. A divide. Balance. The semantic milieu surrounding stuff that’s divided 50/50 is incredibly rich; it opens some of the greatest cultural creations of all time (“Midway upon the journey of our life / I found myself within a forest dark” – Dante’s The Inferno) and fuels some of our deepest fantasies. Obviously, in this post-everything age, it behooves us to point out that this is merely a construct of our minds, hungry for the patterns that are the main quarry of its most important functions. But that doesn’t make it any less powerful; just because we give these constructs power instead of some higher power (like blind Lady Justice, in balance’s case), doesn’t make them any less powerful. On the contrary, it might just make even more momentous. After all, we are far more likely to be beholden to shackles of our creation than those imposed on us by outsiders. The will to revolt is silenced by the fact that, if we should rise up in revolt, it would be against ourselves.
Thus, we find ourselves willing supplicants before the feet of the mid-year list. It’s a time for housekeeping, for careful meditation on the music that’s come before and the inevitable act of “weeding out”. It’s interesting that one of the main ways to describe making choices and getting rid of some and not the other has to do with cleaning, right? For cleaning is, of course, not only an external action. It’s not even mostly an external action; cleaning is, first and foremost, an internal action. When we clean our homes, when we catalog our libraries, when we tell ourselves stories of our past, making order of what was mostly random chance, we are performing an inward action. We are making sense of ourselves. We are grappling with the inherent, overwhelming nature of our existence, made all the more overwhelming by the fact that, for us, it takes place in one of the most confusing and information redundant eras in humanity’s history.
Lastly, of course, this inward action never stays internal. What good is an orderly home if you can’t have guests over who will enjoy it with you? What good is a library catalog if others won’t fawn over it and your impeccable taste? What are the stories we make of our lives for but for being told to others? The self is inherently a social thing, something to be displayed and enjoyed in the company others. So too with music and, indeed, with this list. It has many purposes and, if we’ve sounded overly critical so far, most of them are for good purposes. It’s meant to not only display the blog’s taste and curation but also to help you navigate the incredible amount of music that’s being released thus far this year. Are these the only great albums to be released in 2018? Seeing as we whittled down a list of close to one hundred candidates to make this one, not even close.
But if you’re busy and you want to listen to the best of the best? Then this list is for you. On the way, you can also marvel at our superior tastes and compile your own lists (do share!) that display yours. This is the nature of human connection: we all weave our own stories, which have myriad protagonists and subject-matters, and then we tell them to each other and see what people think. So, without further ado, here is our story of 2018 so far; what do you think?
Rivers of Nihil – Where Owls Know My Name
We at Heavy Blog knew 2018 was going to be an incredible year for death metal back in 2017 when we received an advance copy of Rivers of Nihil’s new opus Where Owls Know My Name. It sort of set the tone for the year to come immediately, with its mysterious aura, technical veracity, and progressive tendencies. This realm of progressive and melodic atmospheric death metal (as opposed to the parallel murky atmospheric death championed by Gorguts and Portal) is a recent exploration for sure, with Fallujah making great strides all the way up to 2016’s Dreamless, but Where Owls Know My Name takes the genre of death metal to another level.
Owls has an immediacy unlike any other, engaging from the haunting clean guitars and mournful singing of “Cancer / Moonspeak” and the saxophone solos of “The Silent Life” to beyond, where playful Rush-inspired bounce of “Subtle Change” and industrial-tinged instrumental “Terrestria III” weave through a deeply profound metal record. The guitar work pulls its weight in form and fashion, as technically inclined as it is soulful and passionate. The tenfold-increase of clean vocals drop hooks where strategically expedient. But make no mistake, even past the dynamic melodic focus, progressive experimentation, and clean singing, Rivers of Nihil dig in their roots in the realm of death metal. “Old Nothing” runs on blastbeats and tremolo-picking, and “Death Is Real” goes hard in its steady reptilian groove and neckbreak soloing.
There’s no other record like Where Owls Know My Name out there in the world, and the unique blend of seemingly-disparate influences come together with proficiency and creativity in such a way that paints Owls as not only one of the year’s best, but a potential classic in progressive metal.
Alkaloid – Liquid Anatomy
I saved writing this bit for last because it’s hands down my favorite of the albums on this list and, if I’m being honest, of the year. Many excellent releases have graced my ears in the six months already gone from 2018 but none have moved me and excited me as much as Liquid Anatomy has. My only concern with how good it is is that people will start thinking that supergroups are a good thing and 99% of the time, they really aren’t. But this release further solidifies exactly why Alkaloid work where so many bands fail.
Building on the already great album that was The Malkuth Grimoire (I swear to god, I’ll finish my *prognotes of it soon), Alkaloid were able to address the main flaw of their first album. Synergy and consistency have been elevated, making sure that Liquid Anatomy flows and kicks in a way that just eluded the previous album. On this one, all parts of the band are working at peak efficiency. Muenzner, Tunker and Klausenitzer are an undeniable tour de force of riffs, leads and solos, creating one of the best guitar barrages of recent years. Just listen to the opening riff to “As Decreed By Laws Unwritten”; it’s impossible not to feel that tone reverberate in your stomach and move you to action. To this, Grossman is a powerful ally, filling the bottom end with his characteristic power and fully fleshed tone.
To seal the deal, one Morean joins the fray. He’s perhaps the member who has most stepped up his game from one release to the next, displaying an impressive range on this release. Both his gutturals and clean vocals fulfill their role, whichever one that might be as the story twists and turns, to an exceptional degree. And that’s perhaps where things come together into a whole: Liquid Anatomy is just an incredibly varied album, ducking and diving between progressive rock, chunky death metal and over the top technical death metal with a dexterity that’s rare to see these days. All hail the Cephalopods!
Sectioned – Annihilated
One would think that an album title like Annihilated would leave a given listener with little doubt as to the intensity of what they’re about to experience, and yet Edinburgh five-piece Sectioned are more than pleased to shatter even those expectations. A first listen through Mr. Valiani and co.’s debut (!) album under the Sectioned moniker is downright harrowing, the music maniacally jumping to and fro between shrill feedback to crushing riffs over a consistently chaotic drum section. Notably, Sectioned’s use of guitar feedback as a weapon here is not to be understated; rarely have I heard an album that makes such inventive uses of piercing, high-pitched sounds to accentuate the sheer weight of a given riff section. The latter half of “Synchronicity”, for instance, features maniacal drumming driving forward a glassy feedback-laced guitar lead before the tension explodes into a filthy, furious breakdown that leaves one’s hairs standing on end. It’s somehow terrifying and awe-inspiring all at once.
Of course, with an album this over-the-top throughout, it’s easy for the whole package to end up sounding fairly homogeneous. Sectioned, however, still manage to provide each track with its own wholly unique flair, starting off each song with a clearly stated musical idea before gleefully twisting and warping it à la Car Bomb all while inhuman vocals are shrieked away on top. Beyond that, the album as a whole is surprisingly well paced: songs such as “Eigengrau” and “Release” break up the pandemonium with a slower, more crushing approach — one that is no less punishing, mind you, but in a wholly different way that only adds to the experience. Add in some sonic experimentation with songs such as mathcore extravaganza “Portrait” and the sinister ambiance at the end of “Through the Trees”, and the deal is sealed. With Annihilated, we’re left with one of the most stunning and complete expressions of sheer unadulterated rage that’s been put to tape in 2018, bar none. That is until this same motley crew decimates our eardrums once over with their upcoming Frontierer album.
Ihsahn – Àmr
While he may have gotten his start with Norwegian black metal pioneers Emperor, Ihsahn has grown a lot since those early days of corpse paint and tremolo picking. While that older sound hasn’t been completely abandoned, Ihsahn has truly expanded his sound to become more of a black metal singer-songwriter. This is a distinctly ominous sounding black metal record, but there are also strong elements of progressive songwriting.
What should be appreciated even more is that Ihsahn does not limit himself at all. No matter how experimental or traditional, he incorporates anything that could potentially serve a song. The symphonic keys and synths only support his music. Anywhere else, the same sounds might sound like cheesy affectations, But in songs like “Marble Soul,” “Sámr,” and “Lend Me the Eyes of Millenia,” these synth parts emphasize the drama and help build up the songs. Ihsahn also has such a unique and wonderful guitar tone that can cut through any mix and bite into your ears. Special shout-out to Ihsahn for the completely serious and effective use of the theramin on “One Less Enemy.” No one thought it could ever truly be done, but somehow Ihsahn’s songwriting skills can use anything to help the music.
The best part of this album is just how focused it all sounds. While each song is pretty varied from the more symphonic ballads like “Where You Are Lost and I Belong” to the old school black metal of “Wake,” there is something unspoken on all these songs that hold them all together. It’s partially the ominous tone all of them carry combined with the high production values of modern prog records. There is a definite uniform style to the songwriting of each song emphasizing the drama and darkness of each track that works in its favor, too. Regardless of those exact characteristics that bind them together, the fact is that not many records ever truly bring all of this stuff together. Ihsahn has done what few others can, easily making this one of the best albums of the year.
Rolo Tomassi – Time Will Die and Love Will Bury It
It’s rare to see a band release arguably their best material 13 years into their career, especially in the heavier or -core subgenres, but that’s exactly what Rolo Tomassi have done with their latest Time Will Die and Love Will Bury It. While possibly their most ‘accessible’ release to date, that accessibility in no way sacrificed quality. Rolo have their roots strongly embedded in the British math=core scene and have seen an interesting evolution since. Straying from the more atonal, jarring riffing mixed with synth and piercing screams of their early work, they now allow many other genre territories such as alt-rock, post-rock and even blackgaze to seep into their sound in ways that don’t just feel like interludes. That’s not to say they have completely abandoned their mathcore sound, but it’s now given much more time to breathe and the contrast really allows those dissonant heavy breaks paired with vocalist Eva Spence’s slightly blackened-scream its space to shine.
Speaking of shining, this album really showcases Eva’s incredible talent as a lead vocalist. Known more for her emotional raspy screams, she’s allowed much more time to show off her clean singing on this album and it pays off. At one point her singing turns into an aggressive talk-shout that reminds me of Julie Christmas. The often ethereal nature of her vocals really fits with the very atmospheric vibe that this album radiates. You get a taste for this right off the get-go with a shimmering, instrumental post-rocky, aptly named intro track, “Towards Dawn”, that flows perfectly into the first single off the album, “Aftermath” – an incredibly catchy, very Deftones influenced track that may be their first with all clean vocals.
Their previous album, Grievances, marked perhaps the most drastic change in the direction and sound of their career, veering from eccentricity to a darker more depressive and consistent sound. That brooding darkness is somewhat alleviated on this album, by many calming keyboard/piano driven sections, but they certainly haven’t forgotten how to write incredibly bleak, ominous, blast-beat laden music. Oh, and some straight nasty, math-y riffs and breakdowns.
If you’re a fan of any wave of math-core, atmospheric rock, post-hardcore or post-metal, there should be something on this album that you’ll love. As a fan of all the above, this album is a near-perfect storm of everything I enjoy in music – from heartening light to foreboding darkness, tangled seamlessly together in a maze of visceral emotion.
YOB – Our Raw Heart
Forget the harrowing, near death experience. Forget the doom-titans-entering-their-unparalleled-third-stage storyline. Forget the hospital bed writing sessions and the very real uncertainty of Mike Scheidt being able to perform the songs with his band. None of these peripheral storylines — interesting, informative, integral to the record as they may be — should overshadow the most simple and fundamental truth: Our Raw Heart is an incredible album. Not to be callous or dismissive, but regardless of whether it was born out of the blood, sweat, and tears of unimaginable personal turmoil or produced in a sterile lab by cold artificial intelligence, Yob’s eighth album is one of the warmest, emotionally walloping, and tuneful doom records of the past decade, much less the current year.
In the interest of precision, I’ll focus on the standout opener “Ablaze.” Is this the greatest song of the year? It’s no hyperbole to be inclined to that conclusion. From the initial chord crash, the inviting tones, saturated yet punchy production, and thoughtfully yearning atmosphere set the tone for Our Raw Heart as a whole. It’s a rare feat for a doom song to both pummel and briskly churn simultaneously, but “Ablaze” gamely manages both. Travis Foster’s cymbal crashes resound as reliably as a metronome even as he inserts some well-timed fills to keep the blood pumping. But it’s the relentless, open chord strumming combined with Scheidt’s wide-eyed, howl-at-the-moon vocal delivery that vaults the song far beyond the many great doom tracks I’ve heard this year. While my brain may not be equipped to properly analyze the technical niceties that go into producing a chord progression this affecting, these goosebumps don’t lie. And when those goosebumps refuse to yield even upon the 50th or so time of hearing Scheidt wonder at “dreams of what we are sown in fields of stars,” there’s something truly special on display.
Impossible as it may seem, “Ablaze” is merely one highlight in an entire album full of highlights. Our Raw Heart capitalizes on the energy, tone, and wonder on display in “Ablaze” to explore the weightiest of themes (life, death, illness, the great beyond) with the sincerity and open-heartedness only Yob can achieve. We’ve known for some time that Yob is love. Our Raw Heart confirms just how powerful an alliance that is.
Tomb Mold – Manor of Infinite Forms
Tomb Mold is the musical equivalent of a no-holds-barred fight to the death between two chunks of rotten meat animated by evil wizards: punchy, visceral, energetic, weird as shit. That is to say, it looks exactly like the album’s cover art. Last year’s debut LP Primordial Malignity, while certainly a solid release in its own right, showed that these Toronto upstarts really had nowhere to go except up in the world of metal. Hidden amidst layers of punky slime and raw, old-school death metal-worshipping riffing, there was a deep and inexorably arcane pulse that hinted at a darker and weirder heart powering Tomb Mold than what one might suspect on first listen.
Clearly, in the months since Primordial Malignity, Tomb Mold have spent a significant amount of time unearthing this organ and giving it all it needs to grow and become the centerpiece of their music. Manor of Infinite Forms is simultaneously more immediately punchy and way stranger than anything committed to tape by the group thus far. (Before anyone calls me a poser for saying this, I know that both songs from the Cryptic Transmissions EP are on this album, but let me live, alright?) Weird, off-kilter grooves and melodies that sound like what Robert Vigna of Immolation might do if he wasn’t so committed to super-short guitar parts smash into riffs that smack of more traditional death metal influences, like Morbid Angel and Autopsy.
It’s a combination that I can really only describe as intoxicating: Tomb Mold know exactly when to switch from alien and uncomfortable to the outward explosion of energy that death metal, at its core, is about creating. Hearing tracks build tension ’til you’re on the edge of your seat and then release it all at once is something that is one of the most immensely satisfying things that metal – especially its more extreme varieties – can do, and it’s something that Tomb Mold fucking excels in. Out of all the stellar death metal this year, Manor of Infinite Forms is an undeniable highlight. Please, please, I am begging you, listen to motherfucking Tomb Mold.
Slugdge – Esoteric Malacology
This year has been a phenomenal year for death metal and its hybrids, and Lancashire’s Slugdge is leading the pack. The former duo of guitarists Matthew Moss and Kevin Pearson, now a quartet rounded out by bassist Moat Lowe and Alan Cassidy, released their new chapter in the expanding universe of Mollusca, the slug deity created by Moss and Pearson allegedly in response to sludge bands naming themselves after animals. However silly that might be, it has produced some extremely creative and fun records thus far in the band’s six years of existence, and Esoteric Malacology is no different.
Slugdge makes a uniquely interesting hybrid of sludge and blackened death metal. What comes out on the other side is a unique blend of highly technical and complex riffing that is completely drenched in those heavy-duty sludge tones. It can be very jazzy and fuzzy at the same time. One might think those two things would conflict and produce something unlistenable to even the most extreme of metal fans, but it’s actually a very rich and rewarding record that demands multiple playthroughs. What first really grips you are the intensely technical riffs from Moss and Pearson. “War Squids” is immediately aggressive in tone, seemingly more at home as the soundtrack to a massive battle than just through your own headphones as you go through your daily routine. Despite the raw attack of the song, the then-duo were able to weave clear lead melodies and chording through the opening barrage. In many other ways, this album breaks other similar molds.
One thing that binds a lot of the records on our thus far best of is that the artists on this list are forging their own paths with their own unique sound. In many ways, Slugdge is also on this path. If you use too many descriptors to encapsulate a sound, you know it’s unique. Slugdge is nothing if not unique. Sure, it’s blackened technical death sludge. But at a certain point, you think, “Yeah, this record sounds a lot like Slugdge.” If that was the goal, Esoteric Malacology crushed it out of the park.
The Armed – ONLY LOVE
Rawness in music is a sound that took me a long time to come to appreciate. I grew up with progressive rock and was thus raised on the crisp tone of Stratocasters and the clean vocals of the greats; when I first encountered hardcore, something in its harsh timbers just didn’t vibe with me. But a lot of water has gone under the bridge and the vicissitudes of life (sheltered as mine is) have come to make me appreciate expressions of rage and sadness through something dirty and abrasive.
Enter The Armed. I had no idea what to expect when I pressed play on their recent album, ONLY LOVE. I had heard their name on the blog several times but never dove too deep, relegating them to the annals of hardcore which I just didn’t enjoy. But even if I had paid attention, nothing could have prepared me for this; The Armed have performed a true metamorphosis on this release. The old sound isn’t gone but it has been transformed and injected by a pulsing core of electronic malice, harsh synths, feedback and noise corroding its edges into a truly new beast.
These new sounds interact with the hardcore of The Armed’s earlier career to create an album that’s pure emotion; every moment on ONLY LOVED sets out to convey anger, pain, fear, sadness and more in as a direct fashion as possible. The result is heavy, abrasive and overwhelming but also immediately touching. It will make you gasp for air as you drawn in its layers of volume. It will make you reach for help as it envelopes you in its layers of derision and nihilism. But it will also move you and invite you to dig deeper, into the many-fold forms of expression hiding just beneath the insanely chaotic surface. Deep breath now.
Sleep – The Sciences
A surprise 4/20 album drop from Sleep couldn’t have been a kinder gift to the glassy-eyed stoner metal community. Unannounced album drops have been the cool thing for megastars like Beyoncé, Kendrick Lamar, or Radiohead, but for the most part, metalheads have been missing out on the fun. Even without the “whoa, is this real?!” circumstances regarding the album’s release, The Sciences hits the high points so hard that months later it’s still like, “whoa… is this real?!” One would expect that there may be a little rust to knock off after about 20 years, but distance appears to have made the hearts grow fonder. The Sciences sounds inspired and invigorating, picking up where the group left off to push on into smoky new frontiers. There’s little doubt that tricks picked up from spending time with Om, High on Fire, and Neurosis have helped them strengthen their blend of Sabbathian spirituals. It’s truly without a misstep, proving that stoner metal’s finest have this shit down to a ahem science.
Where others might force it, Sleep just let their muses guide them. Capitalizing on feel-play that can only be reached by connecting on a “higher” plane, their slow-and-low mastery is ushered along by a well-balanced performance by skinsman Jason Roeder. His playing is like the tides, pummeling with a seismic power or smoothly lapping at the group’s electric foundation (melty “The Botanist” is a god-tier mellow mood closer). Al Cisneros’ consistently tasty work on the four string carries most of the weight (so many gnarly runs and solos). The word “groove” isn’t enough to capture exactly how hard the rhythm vibes on The Sciences; it’s simply without compare. Matt Pike’s playing at times out-Iommi’s Iommi himself, merging wicked riffing with dank cooldowns to Old Scratch’s approval. It’s a lush foundation, and they make it ever-engaging – Cisneros’ vocals sound like he’s a possessed medium for stoned alien communications (replete with some utterly fantastic weed-isms), Pike blasts off into unruly solos without notice, and Roeder’s judicious style underscores their energy at any given moment. It culminates into Sleep’s finest record, and an easy 2018 highlight.
Augury – Illusive Golden Age
Augury’s decade-later comeback is pretty aptly titled. There was a golden age of tech death in the early late 90s/2000s. It was a lot more underground than how the genre is these days, so one could say it’s illusive (it was actually elusive, but let me stretch the metaphor here, come on). And thus the Canadian masters are back, with the undisputed king of fretless bass Dominic Lapointe, the mastermind Patrick Loisel, and their partner-in-crime Mathieu Marcotte. The result is an album which taps back into the energies of that golden age but also keeps moving forward, true to the ethos that made the genre great in the first place: a commitment to being new, weird and overwhelming.
Augury have always been pushing the envelope, combining weird, Atheist-like experimentation, the ferocity of their peers in Cryptopsy and Neuraxis, and their neoclassical flavor into a bizarre, intriguing mix. They were way ahead of the curve in 2007 and 2009, and they’re still out there. Rarely do we see a band who were so underground yet seminal return with such confidence and still nail it like they never took time off. If the Canadian flavor of tech death, in the vein of Beyond Creation, First Fragment, Unhuman etc. is appealing to you, then it’s worth listening to the godfather of the genre show them how it’s done (obviously, Cryptopsy are the true godfather here, but again, let me have this one. Just stop reading this and go listen already).
Panopticon – The Scars of Man on the Once Nameless Wilderness I and II
Kentucky’s Panopticon have always weaved bandleader Austin Lunn’s personal anarchist politics and working-class background into folk-inspired black metal since 2007, but with The Scars of Man on The Once Nameless Wilderness I & II, the band also explore the theme of America’s disappearing wilderness areas, and the difficulty in finding silence in modern society.
The band’s first double album, the two hour work is divided into two halves, the first half of the album is black metal in the vein of Bathory and Windir, being a bit more traditional and abrasive than Panopticon’s usual style, while the second half is the band exploring their American folk music influences, being mostly acoustic and a sharp contrast to the first half. While the band’s previous work has had varying amounts of folk music influences in them, this is the first time Panopticon have fully explored the genre, and it works wonderfully, easily justifying the double album’s two hour runtime and providing an excellent contrast and reprieve from the harshness of the album’s first half.
That the band are so adept at both black metal and full-on folk music bodes well for Panopticon’s future creative output, especially since The Scars of Man might be their best work yet. If the band can blend these two similar yet disparate elements to an even greater degree on future albums, their best work may yet be ahead of them. Until then, The Scars of Man on The Once Nameless Wilderness is one of the first half of 2018’s very best releases, and well worth your time.
Soldat Hans – Es Taut
There are albums that grab you from the second they first start playing. Something about the message they’re radiating is just tuned perfectly towards your ears. You might not even know what it is exactly that’s connected so strongly with you; it could be a phrasing on the guitar, a drum hit, or a specific tone, or, sometimes, something that’s larger than the sum of its parts, a certain vibe that’s hard to pin down. I feel like all of the above are true when it comes to my experience with Es Taut. It is without a doubt the best “random” musically discovery for 2018 for me, an album which has had me hooked from the first time its initial chords rang out into the space of my room.
Soldat Hans have forged something truly magnificent and uniquely crushing on Es Taut. It’s almost like they took the inner working of doom metal, hollowed it out with a coring knife and stuffed a bunch of horns inside of it. They also slowed everything down just that bit more, creating a dream-like sensation of glacial fever, as if you’re burning in place, pinned to the ground by the crushing weight of a raging inferno. A lot of that comes from the vocals and how they interact with the rest of the instruments. While the band chip away at their molasses-like progressions, the vocals are drawing abrasive circles in the air with their screeches.
The end result of this concoction is an album which sounds like no other and broadcasts melancholy and despair in every direction. Somehow, however, it still manages to keep us onboard and engaged, something which many albums of the same type fail to do. Perhaps the secret lies in just how many different kinds of instruments take part in the construction of the music. Or maybe the secret lies in the way in which the reverberations of the chords (in a way which reminds us of Earth, as we’ve said before) are more than just aftershocks but interesting phrases to be examined separately from the chord itself. Feedback for Soldat Hans is more than just flair and styling, it’s a musical entity with its own pitch, timbre and mood. Dive deep into this thick exploration of deafening softness; there’s so much to discover beneath the surface.
Malady – Toinen Toista
Prog rock is an odd beast, isn’t it? From the Canterbury Scene to Zeuhl to nu-prog, there’s truly a shade and hue for every type of rock fan. It’s almost gotten to the point where “prog” as a standalone genre tag is virtually useless without some form of secondary descriptor. Yet, in some ways, it’s nice to be surprised by how an album finds its own niche under the prog umbrella. From the moment Eden recommend Malady‘s excellent Toinen Toista until the final notes of its epic 23-minute logo, the Finnish quintet took me on a wild journey through prog’s past, present and future, and I’m damn glad I decided to press play on a clear highlight from the genre this year.
Malady achieves a focused blend of early Santana and Pink Floyd‘s Animals across what’s really two EPs – a collection of four tracks clocking in at about 18-minutes and the aforementioned goliath closer bringing up the rear. The four opening tracks set the stage for “Nurja puoli” to shine, and the structure enhances the impact of the composition to an impressive degree. The band warms up the listener with Hammond chords, proggy licks and gorgeous flute arrangements before leveraging all of their strengths on an epic closer of Yes-like proportions.
A key element tying the record together is Babak Issabeigloo’s spellbinding vocals. As a native English speaker, I’m always fascinated by how much singing in other languages adds to the music I listen to from different countries. Not being able to understand the lyrics essentially makes foreign singing sound like a unique instrument all its own, something that’s particularly true with Issabeigloo’s singing on Toinen Toista. The way he weaves words with his smooth, warm tone only enhances the expansive portrait painted by the band. It’s the perfect accent to a prog album that’s not to be missed for fans of the genre, whatever shape and form they may prefer.
Mournful Congregation – The Incubus of Karma
Even within the indoctrinated metal community (whatever that means), funeral doom often has a tough go of it. Niche in the extreme, funeral doom’s belligerently slow pacing and spirit-breaking depressive tendencies can overwhelm even those ears generally predisposed toward the harsher elements of music. All the more reason to sit up and take notice, then, when a funeral doom album manages to break through into greater consciousness and make an impact on the greater metal landscape, not simply doom devotees. Like Bell Witch managed to do last year, Mournful Congregation have released just that type of record in 2018: an unapologetically heavy, gruelingly rewarding masterpiece that refuses to mix in bits of sugar to help the funeral doom go down. One shouldn’t be surprised that the long-running kings are still capable of excellence, but it’s still exhilarating to witness Mournful Congregation demonstrating, in 2018, why they are virtually peerless at what they do.
The Incubus of Karma is a towering and gorgeous achievement by a band whose entire discography is filled with genre-defining mission statements. Karma’s palate is both lush and unforgiving, haunting yet uplifting, filled with crushing weight but also soaring, brightly shimmering passages. The tracks are unhurried, deliberately composed, and concerned, first and foremost, with artistic impact. And what an impact they make. Over marathon song lengths, the sonic landscape shifts between hulking and muscular glacial doom to spiraling dual guitar passages that, incredibly, invoke power metal and melodic pop sensibilities. The juxtaposition of guttural vocals and spoken word passages to such lavish and surprisingly melodic musical backing may seem curious on paper, but the result is emotionally engaging throughout. Even the shorter (read: six minutes) interlude-of-sorts track packs a punch with classical acoustic guitar married with stunning, swirling electric leads. This one is a doozy, but that’s the point. Enjoy The Incubus of Karma at your own pace, it’s an incredible journey.
Mask of Judas – The Mesmerist
At this point, I’m not sure what level of irony we’re on. Is it cool to say djent is bad, is it cool to say saying djent is bad is bad, or is it cool to say djent is bad again? Regardless, I’ve never been a huge fan of the genre (despite being in a djent band and loving some bands within it). But there are always bands that that transcend the shackles of the genre instead of just being low effort trope-fests. Enter Mask of Judas. It’s not like they’re a new player, they’ve been around since the major wave of djent started. What makes them special, though? Well, for one thing, Sam Bell is an incredibly talented guitarist. Now, good guitar players are a dime a dozen, but what makes him stand out is his ability to combine the rhythm and technical flair with funk influences. His playing is just so groovy, and not just in the “syncopated open notes on a low string” way. That’s what makes them special.
But not that alone. Singer Jo Challen is the other key ingredient. She has a voice that can carry any band. She has lows lower than most vocalists in the genre, and she can sing over any weird chord progression or lick. Honestly, describing the well-oiled machine that is Mask of Judas sounds quite pedantic on paper, but they make some truly good music. Think Destrage’s chaotic bent, Aliases’s mellow-yet-wild techy djent sound, and shades of Alissa White-Gluz circa Agonist in the jazzy singing juxtaposed with full growls. Yeah. The Mesmerist is killer.
Of Feather and Bone – Bestial Hymns of Perversion
It was about time I took a crack at covering Bestial Hymns of Perversion. My death metal partners in crime have already had their say on one of the year’s best death metal releases, what with Jonathan’s full-on review and Simon’s blurb in Death’s Door for March. There’s isn’t a whole lot I can add, other than my resounding endorsement of everything Of Feather and Bone have to offer on their Profound Lore debut. The latest example of Denver’s exceptional metal scene comes in the form of a deathgrind trio whose singular goal is being as vicious as possible. From the album and track titles to the album cover to the music (of course), everything about Bestial Hymns of Perversion is a ruthless exercise in death metal excess, and it’s a rip-roaring good time from start to finish.
Blasts are at the center of what makes Bestial Hymns tick. PW is a goddamn machine on every track, pulling back to mid-pace when the riffs call for it but generally going apeshit on his kit. His speed offers an insane amount of propulsion for the album, with every track overflowing with energy and seismic rage. The rest of the band aren’t slouches, however; the dual-vocal attack of AS and DG and especially DG’s guitarwork are essential to cementing the album’s bludgeoning impact. If you take the caverncore trend and dial the tempo up to 11, you’ll have a pretty clear idea of what OFAB have to offer. It’s a record chock full of memorable moments from every instrument, and one death metal fans won’t soon forget.
Reformat – The Singularity
I’ve been a fan of instrumental post-rock for quite a long time, but it probably wasn’t until I heard the beautiful sci-fi synthesis of crunchy synths, glitchy electronics, and hard-edged guitar-driven post-rock in 65daysofstatic’s We Were Exploding Anyway that I found a sonic itch I needed scratched occasionally in electronic post-rock. More recently that need was fulfilled by the near-perfect Silent Earthling by Three Trapped Tigers. We can now add Reformat and their appropriately-titled album The Singularity to the list of bands excelling in this niche. Everything about this album is simply oozing with the kind of upbeat sci-fi atmosphere that makes this sort of music so much fun, from the opening synth tones of “Kosmos” to the kaleidoscopic frenzy of “System Terror,” “Broken Tongue,” and “Vectrex.” It’s the kind of music you imagine craving while exploring new worlds or a futuristic metropolis. It’s the sonic equivalent of wanderlust and unbridled curiosity.
Of course, atmosphere is not just what makes The Singularity stand out. It’s the injection of driving beats and grooves and soaring melodies from the more conventional rock instruments that really make the whole thing kick into overdrive. What separates it from so much other post-rock out there is the no-nonsense, compact approach they take to songwriting. Like their more mathy counterparts in And So I Watch You From Afar, the emphasis is on killer beats and instantly-memorable melodies with just enough time spent building and playing with permutations to keep a firm hold onto the listener’s attention throughout. And also like ASIWYFA and the masters of “big mood post-rock” (I literally just made this up and I claim full ownership of it) sleepmakeswaves, Reformat know exactly how to create the perfect mixture of wonder and overwhelming positivity and triumph in their sound, most notably on the few tracks they grace with ethereal background vocals like “Kosmos,” closer “Zeldan Skies,” and especially “Down/Strata,” which is basically just nearly 4 minutes of BIG MOOD. The Singularity is a gripping debut for this London trio, making them an absolute band to watch for years to come.
GoGo Penguin – A Humdrum Star
We are featuring two albums on this list that can be considered jazz – this and Kamasi Washington’s Heaven & Earth, which you can find further down – and I think you would be hard-pressed to find a much more disparate pair within the same umbrella genre to feature here. Where Washington’s work is, as his debut’s title indicated, epic in every sense of the word, the trio of GoGo Penguin play out, by necessity and choice, on a much smaller scale. Washington’s brand of late 60s era post-bop-heavy spiritual jazz that draws so heavily on peak jazz history with an eye both to the present and future is the perfect bait for jazz critics and fans who decry where much of modern jazz has gone in the past decade or two. By contrast, GoGo Penguin sound like a foreign object, one that certainly has most of the elements of jazz as we know it but still doesn’t quite seem of it. Their music is beautiful and precise machinery with a live, beating heart. It is that conflict and push-and-pull of the organic and spontaneous nature of jazz with labyrinthine compositions and knife’s edge technicality that makes the group’s music so confounding and alienating to some and so compelling to others.
Thankfully we share more of the latter group than the former here, so we can say confidently that the trio’s fourth album, A Humdrum Star, is one of the best albums put out so far this year. It would have been difficult to outdo the intoxicating brew of slick grooves, serene atmosphere, and head-spinning polyrhythmic interplay the band achieved on Man Made Object, and as I indicated in my original writeup of the album, they don’t always come out on top here, especially in some of the quieter and more pensive tracks on the front half. As soon as they let loose on “Strid” though, A Humdrum Star takes off and never looks back, tearing through incredible runs, rhythms, and progressions that can leave your jaw agape even as you nod along. How one could not feel an incredible amount of hype throughout the galloping and continuous build of tracks like “Reactor” is beyond me. It’s music that works well as background music, but as soon as you actually pay close attention to it and pick apart the individual pieces – Chris Illingworth’s tasteful melodies occasionally punctuated by a sudden flurry of wild energy, Rob Turner’s blindingly fast sticks and mathematical genius that opens up pockets as wide as the Grand Canyon, and Nick Blacka’s steady and expressive hand on the bass that often holds the entire thing together – you are likely to find yourself unable to pay attention to much else.
Portal – Ion
It’s sort of strange, actually, to gaze upon an album like ION: an album that completely defies the logic of what we typically think of as “music” at the same time as it operates on the most truly fundamental principles thereof. On all levels except the most immediate, Portal register here as a group of individuals creating music, albeit of a somewhat extreme variety, but when the sound actually hits you, it’s hard to feel as though what you’re hearing has anything in common with anything else ever made, ever. Even in comparison to other projects that share members, like Grave Upheaval (who also put out an amazing album this year) or Impetuous Ritual (who put out an amazing album last year), Portal is entirely its own beast. There’s a sort of quality that can’t exactly be unearthed or named that is so inextricable to their music – in part because of the impressive constancy of the guitar’s barrage, in part because of the vocal delivery that feels completely unchained from the instrumentation, in part because of the seeming randomness of the rhythm accompaniment – that makes Portal’s music feels as though it exists in our world, it certainly is not of it.
ION, though, is not just any other Portal album (as if anyone has ever said that about any Portal album). In a complete reversal of the trend from the downward path into a subterranean Chthonic chaos that’s defined previous releases by the anonymous Australian cult, ION builds sparkling electric superstructures that shimmer in an equally unsettling manner. A harsh, bright light is beamed directly onto the music – one it certainly reflects back outward – with guitar-work that doesn’t slink about in the darkness as much as skitter back and forth in an unpleasant and insectile fashion. The move from the murk, which culminated in the pitch-black rumblings of Vexovoid, to complete and total clarity helps reaffirm for listeners just exactly how much madness goes into Portal’s creative process.
The beauty of it all is that ION retains all of the qualities that make Portal such a compelling group: it’s impenetrable to an extreme, completely indifferent to the idea of an “audience,” but still has an arresting grasp on one’s conscious for its entire runtime. Even the arid dark ambience that makes up the majority of nine-minute closer “Olde Guarde” seizes the mind. Listening to Portal is like listening to a world that never stops moving, even for a moment, whether it’s upwards or downwards, building out or collapsing in on itself. It is, in a word, alive. ION is a strong, strong addition to their discography, and anyone curious as to what’s going on in metal’s outer limits could find no better band to start with than Portal.
Kamasi Washington – Heaven & Earth / The Choice
There’s a myriad of surprises to be found on the latest mega-album from saxophone and composer extraordinaire Kamasi Washington. From awing solos to new instrumentation to a slightly enhanced focus on composition versus Kamasi honking away, Heaven & Earth is chock full of everything that made The Epic an exceptional album with a great deal of added flair, ambition and flat-out brilliance. And then, of course, there’s the bonus album The Choice that was hidden in the physical packaging and just made it onto streaming services within the last week. Yet, the one thing that wasn’t remotely surprising about Heaven & Earth was the sheer scope and quality of the album’s concept, tracklist and execution. As soon as Kamasi announced his full-length follow-up to The Epic, the only question in my mind was just how good the album would end up being. In case you’re in a rush, here’s the gist: Heaven & Earth is fan-fucking-tastic.
I’ll try to keep this relatively brief and focus on the highlights, considering I have a limited amount of space to cover a two-and-a-half-hour album (which jumps to over three hours when you tack on The Choice). But believe me, there is an abundance of jaw-dropping moments on virtually every track; even the “average” songs are top-tier exhibitions in how t compose spiritual jazz. “Fists of Fury” blows the doors of the place right from the start, with a string chorus, powerful vocals and all the brash brass and wonky woodwinds you could ask for. It’s probably the most hardcore, gangster jazz track you’ll hear all year. The hits just keep on coming throughout the first disc (Earth), including an absolutely bonkers keyboard solo on “Can You Hear Him” and a straight-up free jazz freakout to open up “The Invincible Youth.” Disc two (Heaven) has perhaps the biggest risk of Kamasi’s career on “Vi Lua Vi Sol,” which prominently incorporates vocoded vocals that somehow integrate in seamlessly and elevate the beauty fo the track. Speaking of beauty, lead single “The Space Traveler’s Lullaby” is a celestial wonder that showcases Kamasi’s enormous talent as a composer and arranger.
And while it probably goes without saying, Kamasi is on fire on every track, lighting up the joint with subtle power and unrestrained bombast depending on what the mood calls for. It’s important to note that he takes a bit of a step back on some tracks to allow the overall compositions to shine and other soloists to own the spotlight. But that’s only to the album’s benefit and in no way detracts from when he himself takes over the track and lays down the law with nothing short of saxophone mastery.
Kamasi once again proves why he’s at the forefront of modern jazz and one of the most ambitious artists in the genre’s history. Those of us too young to follow the career of Sun Ra now have our own spiritual jazz visionary dropping future classic after future classic. We’ve covered Kamasi’s work countless times before, and you can be assured that this isn’t even close to the last piece you’ll read on Heaven & Earth from the jazz aficionados among us. For now, I’m thrilled to see the album earned a spot on our midyear top 25, and I’m confident that jazz addicts and tenderfoots alike will find something to adore on what is currently my favorite album of the year by a wide margin.
Hooded Menace – Ossuarium Silhouettes Unhallowed
Death-doom has a long and rich history. From its earliest incarnations through the visceral, violent early work of Incantation and dISEMBOWELMENT, death and doom metal have melded together in altogether powerful and effective ways for the last twenty-plus years. Few purveyors of this sound have had as much success as Hooded Menace, who mix these styles into a frothing cauldron of utterly vile grotesqueries that few bands active or historic can replicate. This reputation for creating hard-hitting, intricately composed and ably performed death-doom suffers nary a blemish in Ossuarium Silhouettes Unhallowed, which is not only one of the best albums the band have written, but is a masterclass of death-doom’s potential for greatness in 2018 and beyond.
Hooded Menace’s greatness as a band can be attributed to a great many things, chief among them being the all-consuming presence of Lasse Pyykko, whose songwriting ability and guitar work imbue the band with all the necessary menace their name demands. His work (especially in the rhythm department) throughout is fantastic, melding the gnarliest sounds of death and doom metal into a cohesive, fluctuating, oppressively heavy whole. “In Eerie Deliverance” in particular puts his multitudinous skills on full display, jumping from death metal chugs to extended doom passages and eventually some soaring melodic work that adds a dynamism to the track that is infectious and highly effective from a songwriting perspective. Speaking of effectiveness, new vocalist Harri Kuokkanen holds his own impeccably well, adding his deathly snarl with maximum impact throughout the record. Outside of the typically excellent performances by band personnel, the production on this record is also fantastic. The guitar tone is godly, especially during the majority of “Cathedral of Labyrinthine Darkness”, which may include a few of the heaviest passages in the band’s discography. “Charnel Reflections” and “Sorrows of the Moon” pull a similar amount of heft, with that fantastic guitar tone carrying each track to glorious heights. There isn’t a dud of a track on this record (with some perhaps knocking the band for the short, instrumental guitar-fest “Black Moss”, though I would not be among them), making Ossuarium Silhouettes Unhallowed perhaps the most complete and vital listening experience of the band’s career.
There’s no shortage of death-doom in 2018, but it will be incredibly difficult for any band melding these sounds to top what Hooded Menace have achieved here. This is an absolutely sensational record that is as full of good ideas as it is disgusting, utterly filthy riffs. From start to finish, it’s hard to find a better example of this style of metal in the past few years. A remarkable achievement from one of Finland’s premier metal acts.
Howling Sycamore – Self-Titled
Back when we reviewed Howling Sycamore’s inaugural release in January, a commenter on the review hilariously and succinctly likened the avant-garde nature of the album to being “Black Metal Dio with Saxophones”. Those three items are on the shortlist of things we like here at Heavy Blog. So naturally, some of us would be drawn to the album, despite the disparate elements contrasting in a challenging way. The album is challenging. The supergroup with Watchtower, Ephel Duath and Obscura alumni seemed adamant about performing the styles of music they became famous for, and using the independent ingredients in a “peanut-butter and pickles sandwich” sort of way.
A unique marriage of dissonant and bleak guitar lines, diverse progressive drum rhythms spaced out with furious blast beats and power metal wails built for strange, technical music. And if that isn’t enough, there are manic saxophones sprinkled throughout. On paper, it sounds like it wouldn’t work. Avant-garde black metal can come off as gimmicky and power metal vocals are far from popular in our circles. Saxophones have become a bit of a meme in regards to progressive metal as well. But you’d be wrong to dismiss this as the sum of its parts. The elements described culminate in a fresh and interesting way. The sound calls back to progressive-power metal like Therion and Arcturus, as well as neo-folk progressive metal titans like Leprous and ICS Vortex’s solo album.
Unique in its execution, Howling Sycamore manages to be a breath of fresh air amongst its contemporaries. You’ll probably know if this is your thing by now, but we still encourage you to check out this release that is unlike any other on this list.
Judas Priest – Firepower
Firepower quickly cemented itself as the best Judas Priest album since 1990’s Painkiller upon its release. However, while being the legendary metallers’ best record in almost thirty years is nothing to sneer at, there also wasn’t much to overcome in order to claim the title—with 2004’s Angel of Retribution arguably providing its only legitimate competition. What’s truly impressive is that, with the exception of Painkiller, Firepower is also the best Judas Priest album since the days of Screaming for Vengeance (1982) and British Steel (1980), and sits comfortably alongside their two 1978 offerings: Stained Class and Killing Machine/Hell Bent for Leather; as one of the best of the band’s secondary offerings.
The heavy metal founders, who are creeping up on the fifth decade of their career, sound utterly revitalised on this record. How much this refound vigour has to do with producer Andy Sneap is debatable, but it’s hard to deny that Firepower sounds significantly more powerful and more menacing than the Priest have put out in a long time. The record perfectly blends the band’s classic sensibilities with a powerful modern presentation, and there’s a real vivaciousness to the squeal and grind of the guitars that have been sorely missing from the last couple of releases. Rob Halford is also back at the top of his game. Whereas recent performances have perhaps begun to show his age; here he delivers a performance worthy of those a third of his years—revelling as much in his low-key, idiosyncratic turns of phrase (“pee-ling the skin from his FACE!!”) as he does in his trademark, high-octave (and high-octane) screeches and wails.
Unlike many of the other founders and forebears of the genre, Judas Priest have never shied away from their heavy metal lineage, and Firepower feels very much like a celebration—as much as an amalgamation—of everything they helped create. It’s not hard to draw a line between the brooding stomp of “Spectre” or “Children of the Sun” and what Metallica were doing in the ‘90s, before you remember that there wouldn’t have even been a Metallica in the first place if it hadn’t been for Judas Priest. Likewise, “Rising From Ruins” sounds like it wouldn’t be at all uncomfortable slipped somewhere into the later ranks of Arch Enemy’s discography, while the later sections of “Lightning Strike” and “Necromancer” go full-on ‘80s thrash.
What’s perhaps most impressive about Firepower, however, is that—at fourteen tracks and a touch (of evil) over fifty-eight minutes long—the album never feels dull or loses momentum. The band maintain the same, outstanding level of quality throughout, and it’s barely before you’re done processing one instantaneous, classic riff or epic vocal hook before another comes to take its place. The album is packed with wall-to-wall classics, that instantly earn their way into Priest’s upper pantheon and can readily go toe-to-toe with all but the absolute best of their output. As good as metal music has been, and continues to be, in 2018; you’re unlikely to find a more horn-raising record this year—let alone one that constitutes the eighteenth studio release from a band on the cusp of their fiftieth anniversary.
…Now if we could just get Andy Sneap working with Iron Maiden and/or Metallica (or anyone else really), that would be super.
Khemmis – Desolation
When listening to music with the intent to write about it, I find myself focusing most frequently on the technical aspects of whatever track or record I’m listening to. How delicious is the guitar tone? Are the riffs original or unique enough to warrant discussion? Do the vocals sound fresh? How did the band approach songwriting? What about the production and/or mixing? All of these are integral components of my approach to metal that I intend to review. But what often gets lost here is, quite frankly, the love and sheer enjoyment of the music. That moment when you lose yourself to the atmosphere, aesthetic, and melody of a song so deeply that other considerations become less essential. Khemmis is one of those bands that lead me away from the more cerebral aspects of the music that I typically focus on. This is mainly because I’m using my cranium for other things when spinning a Khemmis record, such as whipping it back and forth like a jackhammer while driving down the interstate. It’s music that conjures a visceral, joyful reaction that I cannot fully explain. Nor do I care to, lest I waste the magic. The band’s third offering, Desolation, is another ridiculously fun record that I have enjoyed listening to immensely. Additionally, it’s an intricately crafted record that affords the band an opportunity to expand and enrich their already fantastic sound. Such moments of equity between straight-up enjoyment and technical appreciation are rare, precious, and good. Just like Khemmis.
For those of you who are somehow unfamiliar with the mighty Khemmis, the band are known for creating a blend of doom and traditional heavy metal that results in a brilliant stew of soaring melody, guitar pyrotechnics, and memorable riffs. Sounds great (and IS great), right? Not so fast, sayeth the naysayers. Didn’t Pallbearer already do this with their excellent Heartless? Don’t Visigoth, Lunar Shadow, and Sumerlands already own the melody-heavy traditional heavy metal revival? I mean, to some extent yes. None of these statements are inherently untrue. Spirit Adrift currently pulls from the same deep well of sound that Khemmis swim in, and one could point to Thin Lizzy as an overwhelming and obvious historical influence on the band. There are comparisons galore when discussing Khemmis’ sound, and I quite honestly don’t think this is a bad thing at all. There are few, if any, bands that play this style of music with as much tenacity, technical skill, and outright joy as Khemmis, and that alone is worthy of celebration. Desolation is potentially the best example of their artistic mission yet, and is chock full of all the things that make the band distinguishable and great within this musical space.
Let’s start with opener “Bloodletting”, which kicks the album off with a riff that is as big an earworm as you’re likely to hear this year. Jumping after only a few seconds into the band’s signature harmonic dual guitar attack, performed with exceptional skill and flair by Ben Hutcherson and Phil Pendergast, Khemmis establishes its musical intent with force, welcome familiarity, and technical skill. But it’s once Pendergast’s vocals kick in that the most fundamental evolution of Khemmis’ sound comes into focus. His performance on this track is head and shoulders above anything else he has done with the band previously and is without question one of the consistent highlights of the record. The album’s second track “Isolation” is no less memorable, delivering another set of riffs destined to become Khemmis and genre classics. “Flesh to Unreal” includes some patient, pounding rhythm work by bassist Dan Beiers and drummer Zach Coleman, and closes with an acoustic tidbit that adds a nice bit of flair to the proceedings. “The Seer” is relentless, “Maw of Time” is one of the band’s heaviest tracks, and every note rings clear as a bell through the fuzz due to Dave Otero’s fantastic production choices. It’s a complete package of doom-laced heavy metal that is as much fun as you will have with a record this year.
With Desolation, Khemmis have perfected their craft. This is the best the band have sounded, and is in my estimation their most complete and enjoyable record. It may not be an entirely original entity or the harbinger of a new movement, but it sure as hell is premium doom and heavy metal executed with skill and precision. One of my favorite metal records of 2018, and one that I will be listening to for years to come.