It’s hard to write these intros without spoiling other posts from our end of year content; after all, this intro is focused on 2018 and what it has been and that’s addressed in multiple upcoming posts as well. However, it still needs to be done and this post is, nominally at least, all about the music released in 2018 rather than a more “meta” or blog specific analysis of the year. Let me then open this intro then (not quite, but give me this one) by saying: holy shit 2018, what the hell?
After I wrote my summary of 2017, I had this inkling in the back of my mind that a lot of what I was writing would be completely disproved by the following year. I suspected this because 2017 had done the same to 2016 and because I had some idea of the releases that were already planned for release in 2018. I still wrote that post because I needed to say the things that I ended up saying and also because I had no idea just how much 2018 would prove me wrong. To summarize that long post, I talked about how 2017 saw less diversity in the number of genres that released truly excellent music, in what I dubbed “the narrowing of the way”.
And then, as I’ve already said, 2018 showed up and slapped me in my face. To be honest with you, we could probably spin our personal Top 50 lists (making the bottom 25 the top 25 and vice versa) and you wouldn’t notice; that’s how good this year was. There are downright classic albums in some of our personal “further listening” sections that just didn’t make it onto our main lists because they were crowded out by even better albums and the sheer amount of them. If I’m even more honest, it made the act of ranking albums this year even more ludicrous than it always is (pro tip: music can’t really be broken down into numbers like this).
But, rank it we did because the exercise has merit; it allows us to distill this veritable flood of amazing music into something more palatable and often leads to discovery. However, this year more than any other year, we ask you to remember that this list is meant as an entry point rather than a bottom line, a first step into blissful waters rather than a definitive line in the sand where you should stop and wonder at foreign waters.
There truly was no way for us to chart the ocean of fantastic music that was released this year; this list is simply the “X” which marks the spot of greatest treasure and we urge you, our brave explorer, to go past this rather crude marker. There is gold in these hills and, in 2018, you don’t really have to spend too much time thinking where to dig. Just put down your metaphorical spade anywhere and you’re bound to come up with something worth your time.
Thus, and without further mixed metaphors and ado, I present to you, Heavy Blog’s Top 25 of 2018!
25. Beyond Creation – Algorythm
Tech-Death has had many of its key players come out with albums this year. As fans and listeners, we looked on to the plethora of albums 2018 has unleashed upon us with hesitation. Surely one of our tech-death darlings would have a mis-step. When Beyond Creation released their single “The Inversion” earlier this year, many of us got the impression that the band was falling in line with their sound. Algorythm was poised to be the color-by-numbers release in a landmark year for the tech-death scene.
But when we finally got to hear the finished product, Beyond Creation showed us how unwavering the tech-death scene is. Even when resting on their laurels and playing it a bit safer than other bands, Beyond Creation have released a really great album. Algorythm doubles down on the atmosphere the band is known for, while giving songs with considerable run times even more room to develop and breathe. The result is less of technical death metal marvel and more of a tour-de-force of progressive death metal. While their contemporaries employ instrumental acrobatics with tactical precision, create the impossible and pull themselves up by their bootstraps to show they aren’t leaning on a particular auter, Beyond Creation give off a more organic vibe. It feels like Algorythm spent much of its inception being worked out in jam spaces.
Special attention should be given to newcomer Hugo Doyon-Karout who has burst into this band and fiercely stated that there’s more than a handful of capable tech death bassists. The entire band is impeccable but Hugo is given a lot of liberty on this album to put himself in the spotlight, a role which he excels at. There’s moments throughout the album where it approaches becoming the Hugo Doyon-Karout show but this only plays to the improvisational feel of the album which is to say, not to its detriment. This is aided by the fact that the production is perfect, the rest of the band just as audible as they need to be showing that even a sound as specific as theirs has plenty of room to be explored.
You could even go so far as to say it treads new ground in how technical death metal is approached. If this isn’t the first time a death metal band has displayed that it can also be a jam-band then it’s certainly the most successful. And even if that isn’t the case and everything was carefully laid out and tactically implemented, then manufacturing this level of cohesiveness is equally as impressive
24. Haken – Vector
Progressive metal is in this weird position where its weakness can lead a certain strength to manifest. The genre is embroiled in cliche and repetition but this means that, in the absence of any great shake-ups to the genre, the bands which stand out need to do it not by merit of gimmick or self-serving innovation but rather through a dynamic, vibrant, and “fresh” take on the music the fans already know and love.
All of which Haken have in droves. Moving from their more beleaguered debut trio, Haken broke through the crop of progressive metal bands with Affinity, which was a powerful and convincing exploration of what progressive metal can still do. Vector builds on this direction, bringing back many of the more “modern” tropes of progressive metal and melding them with the tones, structure, and execution which made Affinity so successful. It is perhaps a “safer” album than Affinity, containing
Its centerpiece track, “Veil”, is a perfect example of this. It showcases so many classic tropes of progressive metal, from the melodic vocal chorus over grand piano of its beginning, through the multitude of unisons and solos replete through out, to the epic culmination of all the disparate elements into an emotionally charged outro. It adheres to these tropes closely, executing them to perfection, instead of going off on wild tangents. This makes its more than twelve minute runtime pass by like a breeze, compact, momentum filled, and effective. Just like the rest of Vector.
23. Revocation – The Outer Ones
You’d think Boston death metal outfit Revocation may be running out of gas in the tank after having released six (!) full-lengths over the last decade — but it seems that the band is only just getting warmed up. Instead of resting on their laurels on their seventh outing, The Outer Ones has Revocation blasting right into space, bringing a cosmic horror angle to the band’s razor-sharp sound both lyrically and musically — not to mention plastered across the album’s magnificent cover art, which depicts a particularly gruesome bout of planet-phagia.
Where 2014’s Deathless cemented a shift away from the band’s original sound,
There’s nothing here that radically changes the game, but every aspect of the chaos locks into place exactly as it should, leaving every single moment of The Outer Ones a joy to experience.
While The Outer Ones admittedly doesn’t make any major moves into a new direction past the intrigue of its theme, it still maintains Revocation’s status as one of the most vital and hard-working bands of American death metal today. Contained within its depths is some of the most complete and essential death metal you’ll hear this year, going to show that Revocation’s momentum still has yet to show any signs of slowing.
22. Tomb Mold – Manor of Infinite Forms
2018 has been an amazing year for old school death metal, and few releases in the genre were as anticipated or as good as Tomb Mold’s Manor Of Infinite Forms. The Ontario band’s major label debut following a successful string of demos and EPs, Manor Of Infinite Forms is seven tracks of filthy, riffy, grinding death metal, done the old school way, and I’m pleased to say that more than lives up to the hype.
Over the course of forty-one minutes, Tomb Mold pack a bewildering array of caustic riffs, tempo changes and pounding blast-beats into an album that never manages to wear out its welcome, and sounds simultaneously old school and modern without weighing too heavily into either camp. For music like this, aural fatigue is a real problem, and if a band doesn’t change things up enough with interesting, dynamic songwriting, you can easily lose your listener amongst a sea of same-sounding riffs and machine gun drumming. Thankfully, Tomb Mold’s songwriting is interesting enough that each track has its own identity, usually anchored by one or two signature riffs (most easily demonstrated on Dark Souls-themed track “Abysswalker”) that the album never really runs together and each song is easy to tell apart from the last.
Tomb Mold had a lot of competition this year, but Manor Of Infinite Forms turned out to be one of the very best old school death metal albums of 2018. But, considering the strength of their EPs and demos, was there ever really any doubt? Don’t sleep on this album.
21. Respire – Dénouement
It’s no exaggeration to call Respire’s Dénouement one of the year’s biggest albums. Everything about it is huge. From the wide array of orchestral players and vocalists to the varied emotional altitudes it hits over the course of the record, it slugs far above its underground weight class, packing a punch that’s certainly enough to topple many post-rock Goliaths. Vast as they are deep, Respire span the extremes of post-rock, screamo, and black metal with an encouraging ease. They reach remarkably monumental peaks and craft freefalling crescendos without fatigue, maintaining a fervor that keeps emotions running high to and through their maximized climaxes.
Compositionally, their orchestral backbone is as careful and purposeful as one can imagine, dwindling down to the intricately and delicately sparse, somehow able to capture emotions with a purity that escapes most of their contemporaries. Crucial to this is how well-balanced they present the album’s eight tracks. They deftly shift their weight behind melodramatic, stripped-down strings or robust, moody brass arrangements as frequently as they embrace the blind, cacophonous fury of their plugged-in foundation. Instrumental breaks offer reprieve as they inspire, piercing through the dour with a genuine sense of hope that parallels the persevering lyricism.
So often does post-metal at large strive to achieve such scale and scope, yet it’s so rarely is it executed with the vigor and intent that Respire deliver with Dénouement. As impeccable and dense as the album gets, they manage to stay true to the allure and energy of their screamo roots, avoiding the post-everything highfalutin bullshit now feels more generic and toothless than it is impressive. What Respire offer is something authentic, vivid, painful, and healing. Sometimes, you need to get picked up by the scruff of your neck, and Dénouement is a shining example of how helpful that can be.
20. HOLY FAWN – Death Spells
Over the past few years we’ve seen a sharp increase in the presence of shoegaze, doom and post-rock around the world, and with this the rise of artists blending the stylistic elements of these genres in fresh and exciting ways. Without question, the focal point of this development has been radiating from – of all places – Arizona. HOLY FAWN’s debut record REALMS dropped fairly silently in 2015, and frankly it took other bands playing shows with them to really get the urban legend moving. If you’ve had your ear to the ground then you’ve no doubt borne witness to various members of West Coast bands losing their minds over what has numerous times been described as “the best live act currently working.” That’s lofty praise but it comes from a number of trustworthy sources. REALMS eventually began to gain some traction with listeners, then in September 2017 HOLY FAWN dropped the single “Arrows” and that’s when the anticipation really began to take off. “Arrows” was my favorite track of the year and built something of a frenzied anticipation within niche circles for the upcoming full-length.
That record, entitled DEATH SPELLS, was finally released in September of this year, and it became immediately evident that Holy Fawn is not only a force to be reckoned with but also a true musical innovator. The band’s description of their sound is “Indie, Acid, Mellow, Heavy, Animals, Nature, Dreams, The taste of moss, Bury yourself alive,” which in most hands would come off as pretty pretentious, but in this case it’s actually startlingly accurate. If there is one thing you can say about HOLY FAWN it’s that they sound like nothing else – their sound is ripe with intangibles and mystical qualities, and notable for their mastery of blending contradictory elements, soft-loud dynamics that range from mesmerizing ambience to crushing heaviness in the snap of a finger. They can be beautiful one second and ugly the next with no variance of impact. I’ve seen their music described as “the sounds that ghosts hear,” and that feels weirdly accurate, as DEATH SPELLS presents as a something of a soundtrack to the cracks in our reality between life and death.
From the thunderous fever dream of “Dark Stone” through the powerhouse one-two punch of singles “Arrows” and “Drag Me Into The Woods,” from the pulshing post-punk of “Yawning” to the disorientating fogginess of “Seer” or the mighty riffing of “Take Me With You,” there is nary a throwaway moment on this album. If the crossroads of shoegaze, doom and post-rock is a mighty new world primed to be explored, HOLY FAWN are the bravest and boldest of its explorers and the rightful first heirs to the throne of this intoxicating kingdom.
19. Infernal Coil – Within A World Forgotten
Death metal’s domination has been widely celebrated this year, and for good reason. Just a quick glance at this list will reveal how many exceptional releases came out of every corner of the genre this year. Perhaps no album came out swinging quite like Within a World Forgotten, a savage outing from Boise-based deathgrinders Infernal Coil. From the opening bombast of “Wounds Never Close,” the pure, unadulterated brutality on display is nothing short of dizzying and devastating until the final distorted note rings out. Even so, the album remains well-rounded in just the right places, adding to the innate strengths of one of the genre’s greatest albums of the year.
What aids Infernal Coil most is their gruesome, filthy approach to the genre. Though there’s nothing wrong with deathgrind’s typical blueprint, many bands from within the genre operate within a much cleaner framework. The speed and ferocity of grind is there, but it’s channeled through a more rigid death metal lens. Again, there’s nothing wrong with this approach, and countless bands pull it off well. But what few bands would be able to execute is what Infernal Coil accomplish with apparent ease. Maintaining the tight technicality of death metal and the vicious nature of grind is impressive in and of itself. But on top of that, the band maintain a dark, cavernous demeanor across every track. That pitch-black, engulfing atmosphere that defines the new wave of old-school death metal seamlessly defines the flurry of blasts and riffs, making for an intense experience that still retains the density and darkness death metal fans know and love.
As the album progresses, these influences become more pronounced on the album’s centerpiece, “49 Suns.” Bookended by devastating death metal is an extended passages of dark, swirling atmosphere, punctuated by acoustic guitar. It’s a distinct pillar posted within an album that consistently performs above genre expectations. And it’s tracks like this that will continue to separate Infernal Coil long into the future. Because this is the type of album serves as a launching pad for a band’s career. After developing a strong foundation, it’s clear that Within a World Forgotten is the shining statement that rightfully turns heads and tears out jugulars. Except, in this case, Infernal Coil accomplish far more than is expected of your typical breakout album. It’s a sign of even greater things to come, and personally, I can’t wait to see what twisted future sounds the band have up their sleeves.
18. Sleep – The Sciences
From the depths of a marijuana-induced coma arose Sleep. FINALLY after a 19-year hiatus do we get a follow up to the epic Dopesmoker and it’s hour long track. The Sciences not only brought back the sleeping giant but also showed that the band was capable of evolving in that time. After all, we basically got entire band careers in discographies from the off-shoot bands OM and High on Fire. However, both Al Cisneros and Matt Pike grew dramatically as musicians and songwriters in that time. On April 20th, 2018, we all finally saw the benefit of our investment in their music.
The album is incredible. With multiple 10-plus minute long songs, things were able to stay interesting. A lot of times with tracks of that length, there’s a lot of meandering being done by bands. Many times it’s simply repetition of some main riff for the sake of adding numbers to the time length, but that is absolutely not the case here. There’s always some new iteration in the repetition. There’s a number of excellent grooves created by Cisneros and drummer Jason Roeder. OM is definitely seeping over into Sleep in an extremely beneficial way. Likewise, Pike has clearly picked up a few new tricks over the years and it only adds to the atmosphere.
This album is still more than the sum of its parts. This album is thick and juicy in a lot of ways. There some excellent psychedelic grooves on here. These songs are just perfectly written in ways to take you on a journey through space and time. The music can be incredibly deep and contemplative or just pure rock fury with all the marijuana references you need in your life. Rarely do you get such a versatile record.
17. Between the Buried and Me – Automata I & II
Comfort in a creative field can be a dangerous game. When you’re seven albums into your career only more so. The last couple of years have seen a lot of growth in the popularity of progressive metal and maturity in the music itself, as a cursory look at the rest of this list might show. It remains more difficult every album cycle for a band to strike the balance between comfort and exploration, as the genre continues to grow and evolve. Ever since Colors, Between The Buried And Me have continually struck a balance between exploration and comfort that always brings fans back, because we as listeners always know that we can find comfort in BTBAM while taking a scenic route through some new territory.
Automata I & II continues the path they took on Coma Ecliptic and then
16. Sectioned – Annihilated
To release a truly compelling album of caustic, teeth-splintering fury is an achievement. But to do so twice, with two separate projects in the space of twelve months has to be the work of some demented force of nature. This is exactly what Scottish guitarist/Bond-villain-in-waiting Pedram Valiani has managed in 2018. One of my colleagues will be wrestling elsewhere in this list with
Of the two projects, Sectioned is marginally more straightforward, with perhaps more emphasis given to the ‘core’ than the ‘math’. Annihilated opens with a piercing squeal of feedback, just to make sure you’re paying attention, before piling headlong into its title track. It sets a frenetic, white-knuckle pace, which hardly relents for the duration of the album. Where the tempo does drop below Dillinger-speed, it is either to beat the listener mercilessly around the head with a
Sectioned is the product of Pedram’s long-standing partnership with vocalist Jamie Christ, and at times he attacks his performance with such ferocity that you have to wonder whether Pedram hasn’t simply set him on fire. It may have taken four years for Annihilated to emerge after they last released any material at all, but in that time Sectioned has been honed into a devastating melee weapon, perfect for either giving yourself an adrenaline surge as hefty as a syringe through the
15. Psycroptic – As The Kingdom Drowns
Psycroptic have been steadily honing their sound over the course of their career. Yet, while the record certainly sees them adding in some fresh elements—most notably the addition of operatic female vocals and mild symphonic elements to many of the record’s choruses—As the Kingdom Drowns feels like their least calculated record in some time. For their seventh outing, the Tasmanian tech-death titans are content to simply sit back and let rip—resulting in the most kinetically charged and immediate record of their career.
You Want riffs? This album’s got them. Psycroptic’s previous outing, 2015’s self-titled effort, saw the band branching out in a few different areas; dabbling in different vocal and tonal textures, while doubling down on the thrash aesthetic that had begun to creep into their sound throughout 2012’s The Inherited Repression. On As the Kingdom Drowns, the Tasmanians adhere to a strict philosophy. all of the riffs, all of the time. The thrash elements still play a big part in the record’s sound, which remains underpinned by the band’s modern, trademark groove, and there’s much of the album that comes off like Lamb of God played at (at least) double speed.
That’s the other thing about As the Kingdom Drowns: it’s frickin’ fast. The last couple of Psycroptic records have benefited from their brevity—in comparison to longer-lasting efforts like The Scepter of the Ancients (2003) or Ob(Servant) (2008). For all their technical ingenuity, the endless brutality of those records can get a touch overwhelming. Psycroptic have since proven themselves much more effective in shorter bursts, and As the Kingdom Drowns manages to shave another few minutes off the self-titled, making it the band’s shortest effort to date (clocking in at just shy of thirty-five minutes).
Rather than shortchanging the listener, however, the album manages to pack in an amount of material equivalent to an album twice its length, while ensuring that the quality never suffers from over-exposure. The result is one of 2018’s most exhilarating and replayable
14. Yob – Our Raw Heart
Everyone and their mother knows at this point about sludge metal Bodhisattva Mike Scheidt’s battle with acute diverticulitis at the tail end of 2016/beginning of 2017. For the somehow still uninitiated, here’s a link to the man himself describing both the illness and the recovery. If you’d rather just get through this list, here’s a short summary: horrible, intense stomach pain turned out to be a result of a literal hole in Scheidt’s large intestine; the surgery was painful and the ensuing recovery was an arduous, tumultuous, slow path.
Roughly a year and a half later, we get Our Raw Heart, a Yob record written throughout the still-churning wake of this part of the life of both Mike and the band writ large. To call Our Raw Heart’s release triumphant would be an understatement, this is the messianic return of one of slow metal’s best bands from the brink of falling apart. Its release is, in many ways, a cultural landmark for metal.
This makes Our Raw Heart a tough beast to dissect from a critical standpoint. Mostly because, to be completely honest with you, this isn’t exactly a phenomenal record by Yob’s established standard (although keep in mind that Yob’s standard is miles above pretty much any other band). It’s sturdy and dependably heavy, and Mike’s vocals have aged beautifully from the shrill battle-cry of his younger days into something that I’d describe as a raspy Johnny Cash by way of Iron Maiden’s Bruce Dickinson, but as far as their albums go, it doesn’t quite hit that transcendent, meditative heaviness that the band have reached on Atma, The Great Cessation, Clearing the Path to Ascend, or The Illusion of Motion. Our Raw Heart is also a strangely divided album. The monolithic, single-minded heaviness of “The Screen” and “In Reverie/Lungs Reach” clash with the lilting, technicolor chord progressions of “Ablaze”, the title track, and “Beauty In Falling Leaves,” and, pound for pound, the latter half is far more powerful and impactful. (Seriously, “Beauty” is one of the best tracks of the year, far and away.) Yob has always had that duality, but it feels both more present and less necessary than their other records. When Our Raw Heart soars, it’s fucking amazing, but it often feels as though it sticks too close to the ground for a little too long.
Don’t let me give you the wrong impression, though: Our Raw Heart is exactly what it should be. In my review of the album back in June, I brought up the Hegelian concept of Aufhebung, which is the idea of transcending what seem to be two diametrically opposed concepts towards a truth that goes beyond their contradiction. In the case of Yob, those two ideas are beauty and pain; Our Raw Heart sees that the truth must incorporate both of these ideas into one another, must find
13. Obscura – Diluvium
It’s hard for a band to come back from the loss of an extremely talented member with a recognizable sound. It’s undeniable that Tom “Fountainhead” Geldschläger was a key part of the sound on the 2016 Obscura album, Akroasis. After his departure, it was clear that the band had to change direction. Despite that, they still have some of the most talented musicians in the heavy scene, and while it’s no Akroasis, Diluvium still ended up being a great album. Going back to their older sound from around Cosmogenesis, this album is supposed to wrap up the four-part saga they’ve been building since. While it feels like a revisiting of previous sounds instead of a grand finale, the albums it’s drawing from are so great that “not too different from before” is actually a great recipe for an album.
At times playing like a “best of” of Obscura, the album has some fresh elements as well. New member Rafael Trujillo has a knack for writing atonal/whole-tone riffs in odd time signatures, and that’s a welcome addition to the sound. In the end, the German tech death giants yet again prove that they have a winning formula. Tracks like “Clandestine Stars” and “Convergence” are just the classic Obscura sound encapsulated. And then we have more experimental ideas like “Ethereal Skies” with a clearly Rafael-driven lead section that is mind-bendingly complex in rhythm. The title track blends that sound with a more traditional vibe for the band.
If you want it all in your death metal, the heavy, the technical, the weird, and just an overall really well rounded album, you can’t go wrong with Diluvium.
12. Slugdge – Esoteric Malacology
With Esoteric Malacology, Slugdge went from Lancashire’s best-kept, slug-themed, sludge metal secret to a true (still slug-themed) force within the world of progressive, technical death metal who simply cannot to be ignored. The duo of Matt Moss and Kev Peterson (also of Tower of Wankers) have always been a cut ahead of the usual parody-metal fare. However, the jump in quality between this fourth outing and the already-impressive Dim and Slimeridden Kingdoms (2015) is almost unfathomable.
Esoteric Malacology is perhaps the most eclectic of 2018’s progressive/tech-death masterpieces. The record’s eight offerings span a variety of styles—opening with the Opeth-tinged tech assault of “War Squids”, transitioning through more melodically-driven fare such as “Spectral Burrows” and “Putrid Fairytale”, before doubling down on the doomier, progressive elements for its final, elongated volley of “Salt Thrower” and “Limo Vincit Omnia”. As you can probably tell already, the band’s name game is, as always, on point. Along with the album title itself, track names like “
Of all the years in which to emerge from death metal’s filthy, dirt-stricken underground, 2018 has perhaps provided the stiffest competition since the genre first found its progressive and technical footing back in ’91. Yet, with this record, the spineless invertebrates in
11. Sumac – Love In Shadow
I’ve always appreciated Sumac’s elongated, immersive take on sludge. With the band’s pedigree, which includes Aaron Turner (ISIS, Old Man Gloom, Mamiffer), Nic Yacyshyn (Baptists and Erosion), and Brian Cool (Russian Circles), it would be fairly impossible for me not to. But I’ve never loved it. As an intellectual, quasi-emotional exercise, the supergroup’s first two records were protracted romps through experimental and heady heavy music that failed to resonate consistently with me. The band’s third full-length release, Love In Shadow, changed all that. A wild, improvisational romp through the tangled fields of love, this record contains the band’s most incredible instrumental and compositional work to date, while never losing its emotional and conceptual core. It’s relentlessly brilliant.
This brilliance is exemplified through the four tracks, at least in part, through sheer songwriting unpredictability. Whenever you expect a sequence of harrowing riffs to go one way, it goes entirely another, or sometimes seemingly nowhere at all. “The Task”, the records gargantuan opening salvo, is as winding and unexpected as anything the band have yet written. It’s 20+ minutes include enough unresolved tension to fill an art house theater, and that’s just how Sumac like it. Rather than constantly building toward an inevitable climax, the outbursts of ecstasy here are often small, intimate, or barely noticeable. This is a more measured and infinitely patient Sumac than we’ve seen before. But when the music does explode, it does so with reckless abandon. “Attis’ Blade” has one of the greatest opening moments of any track this year, presenting a musical sequence that is as propulsive as it is eventually elusive. It’s a highlight of the record, and a track that would be difficult for the band to top, though “Arcing Silver” and show-stopping finale “Ecstasy of Unbecoming” sure as hell try. There isn’t a dull moment on these four tracks, and at over an hour in length that’s a rare feat indeed.
Start-to-finish, it’s hard to find a record released this year that contains more brilliant ideas that are executed with equal tenacity. Love In Shadow never goes where you think it’s going, but has that distinct quality of instead taking you places you didn’t know you wanted to go. It’s a titan of a record by a band that has finally, and definitively, done far more than scratch the surface of their collective potential. A genre- and career-defining record that is without question one of the year’s very best.
10. Night Verses – From the Gallery of Sleep
As I wrote about at length in our recent Post Rock Post wrap-up, instrumental metal had a big year, and Night Verses’s From the Gallery of Sleep is a huge part of that. Many of us here had become so bored and jaded by the genre as a whole that we pretty haughtily dismissed early teasers from the band, deeming it to be yet another soulless technical exercise demonstrating flashy riffs and little else. Worse, having already found some success as a progressive post-hardcore group and forging ahead after parting with their vocalist, they appeared to be just the latest in the seemingly endless string of bands trying to ride the waves of instrumental djent and nu-prog.
But then the band released the three-song Copper Wasp EP, a proper teaser for the actual full-length, and we were quickly forced to eat our words. Those tracks, and From the Gallery of Sleep as a whole, represent a platonic ideal of sorts for the genre. It is deeply dense and brainy, a clear continuation of the tradition set forth by Animals as Leaders and many others before them. But that flash and technicality is simply a starting point, not the goal in itself. At the core of everything the band do is a mixture of deeply compelling grooves, thoughtful arrangement and interplay, and a masterful grasp of context, composition, and atmosphere.
The work of guitarist Nick DiPirro, bassist Reilly Herrera, and drummer Aric Improta is that of a powerhouse trio who are able to craft a sound far more massive in energy and scope than most groups with more members. At the height of the band’s sonic mania on tracks like “Copper Wasp,” “No. 0,” “Earthless,” and “Phoenix IV: Levitation,” hardly a millisecond is left empty without a slick riff, a catchy lead, a gut-punching hit, or a head-turning fill pattern. But it’s the moments and passages of more subdued finesse and mood where the band truly proves their staying power and creativity. If the past decade has proven anything, writing and playing “complicated” and “technical” music is pretty easy. Writing music that is all of those things plus hypnotizing, alluring, soothing, and immediately addictive is another. In From the Gallery of Sleep, Night Verses have found that beautiful instrumental alchemy and have only revealed just how shallow the rest of the field is in the process.
9. Imperial Triumphant – Vile Luxury
I’ve already written extensively about how much I admire what Imperial Triumphant put forth on Vile Luxury. From my initial glowing review to the mandatory selection for our monthly Editors’ Picks, there’s never been a moment since its release that Vile Luxury lost its spot as my favorite metal album of the year. Some albums have come close, including a number of releases on this list. But what those albums lacked that Vile Luxury has in spades is a feeling of lasting impact, at least to my ears. For me, what Imperial Triumphant have crafted here has all the signs of an album that will one day be mandatory listening for its genre, likely in the near future,
Of course, the beauty of Vile Luxury is that those genre accolades are spread across a number of styles. After all, the most complete genre tag for the album is somewhere in the realm of “avant-garde blackened death metal.” Though potentially a recipe for a convoluted experiment, Vile Luxury is instead an exercise in death metal excess elevated to the highest level possible. The band took an enormous jump from the off-kilter ideas on Abyssal Gods and brought together disparate elements to create a monolithic, stunning statement.
Just consider the instrumentation on Vile Luxury – how many other death metal albums adeptly employ the services of a brass quintet, pianist, chorus and eclectic guest vocals? Not only does these each have prominent appearances, they’re also integrated perfectly within dense, bizarre death metal wizardry. As difficult as it may have been to harness and control that level of darkness across these compositions, enhancing them with additional instrumentation is that much more impressive.
Again, I’ve already dissected every track and moment Vile Luxury this year, so I’ll make one final point to seal my take on a future metal classic. Imperial Triumphant have broken out onto the scene, bucking the “best-kept secret” tag to earn their place among the most celebrated modern metal acts. I genuinely believe Vile Luxury will become a shining, must-listen example of avant-garde metal at its finest, and I’m glad I’ll be able to say that I was there to witness its impact from the beginning.
8. Zeal & Ardor – Stranger Fruit
Swiss-American songwriter Manuel Gagneux made a splash in 2016 when his project Zeal & Ardor dropped its debut album Devil is Fine on Bandcamp. The record obtained immediate success through its novelty of bridging the disparate worlds of black metal and slave spirituals, being heralded by music publications far and wide. Zeal & Ardor’s hype in the post-Sunbather metal scene was building fast, and eventually spawned a more “official” re-release in 2017 that was eventually picked up on a few mainstream “Best Of” lists.
Gagneux struck while the iron was hot and the hype train still fully in motion and followed up the celebrated debut with the even more compelling Stranger Fruit this summer. The genre-bending now more realized from living in the band’s world for two years and fitting production with Kurt Ballou and Alan Douches attached to the project’s personnel bringing the sound to life. It also doesn’t hurt that the songwriting is just legitimately sharp, and each song is an absolute earworm.
There’s loads to unpack about the anachronistic juxtaposition of black metal and slave songs, gospel, and blues and the confrontational implications of the appropriation of these styles together, but you just get it, even if it seems like you shouldn’t. The dated musical references heard on Stranger Fruit ring not just with relevance, but with urgency. Stranger Fruit is one of those rare must-listens for any music fan regardless of genre, as its meaning and album experience speaks to anyone worthy of receiving it.
7. Frontierer – Unloved
Following Orange Mathematics, Frontierer took their exquisite brand of noise terror on the road, turning quaint venues into strobe-filled melting pots of digital sounds and analog distress. The follow up was always going to have to be heavier and groovier, and Unloved piles even more heavy, and way more groove onto the already terrifying pile of laser beam guitars and catastrophic, cascading editions of insane math metal. For anyone who has followed the act through their infancy into today, where the band are being featured on Rolling Stone’s metal lists (and just about every other end of year list too), the only thing more satisfying than pressing play on this record is the prospect of even more mayhem on the horizon.
For now, we’ve all made do with Unloved and the devastating groove and rhythm orientated beatings that the record offers. Running headlong into a tornado churning with heavy machinery and eighteen whammy pedals, Frontierer make the end of the world sound appealing. Every review of the record has employed larger-than-life comparisons to buildings collapsing, Skynet switching on, basically anything involving loud noises or man-made disasters. There are no disasters on this stellar sophomore offering, only chest-thumping anthems for the disaffected and detuned; everyone has their personal favourite from this record, yet I still can’t decide. Each of the pulverizing snapshots of insanity works a unique brand of magic, giving me anxiety when trying to pick a song to show the band to someone for the first time.
Unloved didn’t lose any of the signature chaos of Orange Mathematics, that’s for sure. Where it does deviate from that stunning debut is in a more focused shift towards creating a darker environment in the spaces between the seething metal. This gives the entire record an overbearing sense of dread and, in the more “serene” moments, Frontierer stop kicking the hornet’s nest of screeching strings and pounding percussion. Whether they’re using slower grooves, more jungle drum loops, even a rare “smooth” intro, the effect is spectacular. Unloved is another step towards this band achieving even more greatness as they march on towards new plans, new tours, and eventually, a new record. They’re gonna be bigger than The Beatles. And Jesus.
6. Rolo Tomassi – Time Will Die And Love Will Bury It
The music world finally seems to be waking up to the English mathcore genius of Rolo Tomassi. With their 5th full-length album Time Will Die and Love Will Bury It, Rolo has come a long way from their youthful spazzcore beginnings a decade ago to forge something that can truly be appreciated by fans across the entire hardcore/metal spectrum. The ability to produce such an accessible yet original album in this stage of their career is beautiful to witness. They now allow many other influences such as alt-rock, post-rock, blackgaze, and even pop to seep into their sound with ease and precision. While they haven’t completely abandoned their mathcore routes, it’s now given much more time to breathe. The dynamic nature of the album makes those dissonant heavy breaks paired with vocalist Eva Spence’s blackened scream that much more formidable.
If this isn’t quite Rolo’s coming out party, I really hope it’s Eva’s. Her talent as a lead vocalist is on full display and is easily one of my favourite vocal performances of the year. Known more for her emotional raspy screams, she’s given the opportunity to show off her clean singing much more prominently on this album and it pays off. At times it’s one of the closest performances I’ve heard to Julie Christmas, and I’m not sure if the rest of the band has listened to Julie and Cult of Luna’s masterful Mariner collaboration, but this album strikes many of those same chords – figuratively speaking. The ethereal nature of her vocals really melds with the atmosphere of the album, which is accentuated by subtle yet efficient piano use throughout.
If their previous album Grievances was their evolution into a more powerful darker form, TWDALWBI is that form finding
5. Daughters – You Won’t Get What You Want
You Won’t Get What You Want, the highly anticipated surprise return of noise rock wonders Daughters, is steeped in post-apocalyptic aesthetic: the slow, eerie burn of “City Song”; the foreboding tread of “Satan in the Wait” that evokes the imagery of ruins, specifically the destruction of something once luxurious. Industrial and post-punk influences temper the band’s previous style of breakneck grindcore; the unease here is gradually accumulating, suffocating, not unlike a settling layer of fallout.
It’s an unsettling mixture of sensuality, insanity, and disgust that ends up defining You Won’t Get What You Want. Take note of the moans and gasps of “City Song”, the disconcertingly smooth bassline grooves on “Less Sex”, or “Daughter” and its twisted lounge-music leanings. And then meet the shrill, metallic dissonance present on “The Flammable Man”, which threatens to explode in a blaze of shrapnel. “Guest House” is outright confrontational: “LET ME IN!” screams Alexis Marshall, and you’re not sure whether to to feel pity or fear for the madman at the door.
You Won’t Get What You Want is not nearly as short and sweet as Daughters’ previous releases, but it’s all the more intriguing for it; it doesn’t go for the jugular, but envelops on a grander scale, and in doing so creates a rich, beautifully devastated world.
4. Ihsahn – Àmr
Ihsahn has been pumping out insanely good albums for literal decades. At this point, his output can only be described as “insane”. Thus, almost obviously, Ihsahn is on our year end list. And in the top 5 no less. So what does this track record tell us? That Ihsahn is an extreme metal music genius turned progressive metal auter? Well, yes. That he’s an unending well of creativity, new musical ideas and peerless in his sounds? Sure. But does this mean that his reign of good albums may never end? That remains to be seen. What is the secret to this man’s success?
I’m sure no amount of analysis and articulation can reveal what’s really going on here beyond Ihsahn being an incredible artist. He’s not gaming some magic formula. He’s not aping a particular influence or emulating a melting pot of them. There’s certainly no shortage of great progressive, blackened metal with some electronic influences either. There’s no market that he’s monopolized. So what’s the secret sauce?
Beyond just being a great artist I think the answer is just hard work. What Ihsahn does is milk his own capabilities. He finds flavour and inspiration in the ground that he’s covered as an artist. He always finds an opportunity to experiment and grow, but I think that his music is his labour and less his craft. He can nuance a particular element of his music so carefully that two songs with the exact same elements can feel entirely different. It’s this attention to detail and this knowledge of his own capabilities and back catalogue that allows Ihsahn to shine. And it’s incredible to behold. Àmr in particular sees Ihsahn straying a bit from a more traditional guitar based song writing approach in favour of more vocals and electronics. And with his slight pivot and ceaseless approach on covering new/old ground, Àmr is another one for the books.
3. The Ocean – Phanerozoic I: Palaeozoic
It’s safe to say that only fools will attempt to prophesy the next The Ocean album when it finally comes around in 2020. With their latest release, the Berlin post-metal legends have shown that no one can quite peg them down; they are not chained by linear models of their career, instead able to dig back and jump forward at will, according to their mood and creative direction. As much as Phanerozoic I: Palaeozoic has been positioned as “filling in the blanks” between Precambrian and Pelagial, it’s also entirely its own thing, a sleek version of a past The Ocean sound that is more than welcome.
Many things come together to make Phanerozoic I: Palaeozoic so endearing and beguiling but perhaps the main thing is how hard it is to pin down. It features moody, drawn out passages (backed by one of the best synth tones I’ve ever heard) alongside aggressive, heavy-hitting bouts of fury. These aren’t arranged in any obvious way, unlike Pelagial’s steady decline, and yet they always seem to hit at just the right moment, swooping in to capitalize on the distinct mood created by the more ambient passages.
“Cambria II: Eternal Recurrence” is perhaps the best example of this, as the guitars crash of you near its middle passage, clearing the ground for its emotional and majestic outro. Unique balances such as this lend Phanerozoic I: Palaeozoic an inescapable air of mystique and draw, taking over my rotation for many a week and I still haven’t fully digested it. This means that, even as you parse the album more and more, it retains its punch and continues to be a tasking, rewarding, and fulfilling listen.
2. Alkaloid – Liquid Anatomy
Trepidation often surrounds the formation of a supergroup, and with good reason, but from the moment I heard of Alkaloid’s formation I just knew it was going to be great. The German technical and progressive death metal scene is wonderfully incestuous and almost everything its key players touch turns to gold, and yet 2015’s The Malkuth Grimoire still found a way to exceed expectations. Whether it was the progressive “Carbon Phrases”, the crushing “Cthulhu” or the epic “Dyson Sphere” suite, Alkaloid’s debut was an all-round winner. How do you follow that up? Do you decide to add new elements or explore a different direction? Do you double-down on one of your existing elements? Or do you try to replicate your success? Well, to an extent, Alkaloid decided to do all three on Liquid Anatomy to tremendous effect.
From the opening synth line of “Kernel Panic”, it’s clear that progressive rock influences are a new element that has been thrown into the cauldron. The tones are there from the offset and the riffs, structures and vocal melodies that follow only reinforce the fact. That they made this statement from the opening second of the record only emphasises its importance: not only are they introducing a new element, but they’re going to double-down on it immediately. By no means am I suggesting that this is a progressive rock record, but the genre’s influence is ever-present. It can be seen in the style of the clean vocals, the lovely interplay between bass and drums on the likes of “Azagthoth” and “In Turmoil’s Reach”, and the frequent call-backs to previous lyrics or melodies. Yet, crucially, the band don’t sacrifice anything from their debut. They’re more progressive than ever. They’re just as punishing, with the obligatory “Where the Slime Live” Morbid Angel homage in the brutal “As Decreed By Laws Unwritten”. And they push the conceptual dial to 11 to deliver one of the most epic concept albums of the year and another stunning entry into the increasingly popular intersection of science fiction and metal.
Musically, Liquid Anatomy is every part The Malkuth Grimoire’s equal. The riffs are memorable and the solos blistering. The drums are both pummelling and dextrous, whilst the bass holds it all together like glue. But vocally, lyrically and conceptually Liquid Anatomy raises the bar, and by some margin. The cleans unique timbre perfectly fits the record’s aesthetic, strengthening the concept immeasurably, whilst the lyrics are much more focused than on the debut. The result is an incredible album that demands your attention. And when Alkaloid demands, we mortals obey.
1. Rivers of Nihil – Where Owls Know My Name
We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again: liking a band from the get-go and following them for years is fun in its own special ways, but there’s nothing quite like watching a band grow before your eyes. What starts off as an interest (there’s something there, but it’s not quite there yet) grows for a while before it suddenly explodes into full bloom. The anticipation is well rewarded; in fact, it seems as if the longer you wait for it, the longer the gratification which follows upon fruition.
This accurately describes my relationship with Rivers of Nihil. The Conscious Seed of Light was a clever and exciting album but its production held it back in several ways. Then, Monarchy had a fuller and more accomplished sound but something about the composition was just off mark. And now, with the dreaded third album, a pitfall for many previous bands, Rivers of Nihil have at last arrived at the potential which had always been latent in their music; previous works were great, don’t get me wrong, but it felt like they lacked that final step into greatness.
This is a step which Where Owls Know My Name takes without hesitation; it is, beyond anything else, an incredibly brave album. It takes the formula for which Rivers of Nihil are known for, looks around it at the “new wave of progressive death metal” spearheaded by bands like Fallujah, and then melds the two with influences from psychedelic rock, larger than life production, and a furious and consistent dedication to progressive composition. The end result is an album that injects progressive death metal with as much life as the genre can take, bursting at the seams with verve and vitality.
I think “A Home” has everything you need in order to convince yourself or anyone not yet aboard the Rivers of Nihil train. Its main riff, which repeats in different iterations throughout the track, draws so much power from the subtle yet audible synths which back up the album’s opening. These two threads perfectly splay out into the more moody bridge, followed by the emotional first chorus, where the bass and vocals play a dance of their own, a dance articulated in emotion and strength. The rest of the album has many more moments such as these, beefing them up with saxophones, wacky interludes, and a momentum which just screams “forward, forward, forward!”