Semantic Memory – 2018 in Review

As the years go by, the trepidation and sense of the sacred with which I approach these posts only increases. I’m not a believing person but there’s something about A Year that combines the intimate and the small with the incredibly big that triggers all my sacral instincts. “Sacral instincts” would be a great band name, incidentally. You’re welcome. So, when approaching this Year in Review post, I want to make things more personal by asking: here at the foot of the dying year, what can we say in our defense? What’s our excuse for another year that went by too fast, another 365 days spent helplessly trying to break the routines that make up our lives? What’s our apology for not noticing the incremental change that accrues to make up the course of our lives?

Well, we can start by saying that 2018 was actually a great year for music, thank you very much and there’s nothin to apologize for. We can start by pointing out that the promise of the recent years came to fruition during this year, as band after band either rose to its true potential, reinvented itself in exciting ways or burst unto the stage in full glory. There was a feeling as if the seeds that were sown by “the scene” as a whole, whatever the hell that even means, culminated in a furious outpouring of music, creativity, and collaboration as genres suddenly seemed to shed so much of what made them boring in favor of so much that made them exciting and fresh. We can say that it’s only natural that things seemed to speed by and that the small details of the day to day blurred into a dance too fast to follow.

But we’re not going to say any of that because, to be honest, 2018 was a humbling year, more than anything, in a very good way. When I wrote this post last year, I ventured to analyze some trends in the music scene; I talked about how 2017 was marked by a certain paucity of cross-genre excellence, with several, very specific vectors releasing amazing music and many more being dormant. I wasn’t wrong exactly; that was indeed the case for 2017. But I did extrapolate some Ideas from that about where we were heading and what this might mean for the “metal community” again, whatever that means. And boy, was I wrong. 2018 basically swept that narrative right off the table and smashed it into pieces, as our end of year lists should have shown you by now. Genres, sub-genres, micro-scenes; all of these released diverse and varied works, making the task of assembling those selfsame lists even more complicated than it usually is, displaying a vast, cross-pollinating excellence across all genres.

And you know what, that’s fine; being wrong is an important part of being alive. I’m not mad; it’s just changed my perspective on things. Being wrong is a great opportunity to be more accurate down the line, as it affords you a rare opportunity for change. So, I’ll try and grasp that change by its horns and go with it, offering a different format for this Year in Review post. Instead of trying to paint with an incredibly broad brush and get things wrong again, I’ll switch to a more refined stroke and go granular. This isn’t motivated by the fear of being wrong, necessarily. As I said, I’m humbled and thus I don’t care much about my ego or being “shamed”. But, in the wake of the excellent year for music that 2018 has been, I want to write something that’s truer to the way I experience a musical year and that’s through small, intimate moments.

Remember that feeling of the sacred? It’s that shivering sensation you get when you connect with music on an intimate level but can also see the future stretching out before you and knowing how much this music will change your every move, your perspective on life. I’d like to tell you about some of those moments I experienced this year and, in the process, introduce you to some of the music that most moved me this year. It might get a bit abstract; it might not be a linear “This Is What Happened” type of Year in Review. But I think it’ll be a much better way to give you a glimpse into my “excuses” for 2018, a window into the particular, intimate moments I had with music rather than grandiose, abstracted, and potentially very wrong analysis. At the end of the day, this kind of analysis will always miss the irreducible, indestructible, and wholly personal thing that is music, a semantic memory made up of a million tiny moments of joy, melancholy, introspection, and exploration. So let’s explore those moments instead, in order to try and, together, grasp what a fantastic year it has been.

Along the way, I’ll try and highlight some bands and albums that perhaps received less attention thus far during our end of year coverage. Not all of them will be mentioned here for the first time in the past few weeks, but I’ll try to make sure that most of them are. Let’s get going.

Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!

Perhaps the musical/emotional moment that most ruled my year was the all-encompassing feeling of being drowned by the music I was listening to. It’s one of the hardest emotions to “justify”; why the hell would we seek a sensation that feels like everything is falling upon you, a feeling of standing in the face of something so grand that it erases everything you hold dear and important? I think, for me at least, that feeling is a part of our lives anyway, as subjects of a modern existence which constantly reminds us that we’re small, insignificant, and meaningless in the long run of things. We need to cope with this feeling somehow and one of the ways we can do that is by intentionally exposing ourselves to it. What better medium is there for that than art? All great art should make us feel at least a bit timid and great music does that very well.

 

2018 was filled with bands, albums, and tracks which conjured up this feeling for me. Perhaps more than any other was Es Taut‘s “Story of the Flood”, a twenty seven minute epic which blends drone, post-rock, doom, and post-metal into one debilitating elixir of despair. I still remember the first time I heard those few initial chords of the track; I didn’t know what I was getting into, clicking on just another promo in my inbox. As the first sounds collapsed on top of me, I distinctly remember this inwards feeling of barriers letting go, of a tide-wall finally collapsing under the weight of waves it had been keeping in check for years. I let those icy waters wash all over me and felt the pain, anger, and sadness of living a modern existence take hold of me. It was a powerful moment, a cathartic reveling in negative emotions that helped me emerge from the other side slightly stronger. It was as if, by handling those emotions under my own terms, with the music alongside me, I had regained some agency over them.

The absolute masters of this kind of emotional amalgam also released an album this year. I’m talking about The Ocean of course, a band which has taken emotional metaphor to a new level of art, releasing album after album which deal with the darker spectrum of human emotionality. If I’m being honest, I knew I’d love this album before I had even heard one note but it wasn’t until I reached the middle of “Silurian: Age of Sea Scorpions” that I had any idea how much I’d love it. As the strings, piano, guitars, and vocals intermingled on those middle passages, I felt that unique feeling of the emotional crucible as my despair flared up, hot and angry. The entire album is a whirlwind of these emotions, perhaps mirroring 2018 as a whole which seemed, to me at least, to lean heavily on the expression of depression from a cleansing perspective, on the channeling of negative emotions into a fire which burns so hot that it leaves behind it not something cleaner but something forged, something more powerful for the burning.

Further ListeningWinterfylleth, “Latch to a Grave” // The Dark Third, “The Dreams of Lesser Men”

 

And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command

There is absolutely no way to look back at 2018, even under this weird format of a sort of “emotional review”, without mentioning death metal. Death metal, of all sorts, was everywhere this year. And, with it, there was also a very certain type of emotional gamut. Not one type of emotion, mind you; contrary to what the uninitiated might think, the more extreme sides of metal can communicate a wide spectrum of emotions. Certainly the feeling of nihilism and misanthropy that is often associated with death metal was present this year; bands like Tomb Mold and Infernal Coil delivered that kind of oppressive barrage that no other genre nails quite like this brand of death metal. But there was also a sort of awakening of various modes of death metal which resulted in the genre producing varied and nuanced works of music.

These works channeled the type of grandeur and precision, the sense of alien coldness of death metal, into a fantastic array of approaches. In the face of that array, I felt my heart open up to so many narratives, characters, and perspectives, always in the presence of the kind of awe which death metal instills in the willing listener. This was, perhaps, the best sign that first and foremost in death metal, progressive death metal ruled the year for me. The rush of listening to riffs from Alkaloid and Rivers of Nihil as the two bands swept their way through grandiose journeys, will accompany all my memories of 2018. The latter is perhaps slightly more exciting because I was finally able to “get into” Rivers of Nihil; their previous albums, as I’ve already written elsewhere, had always had something lacking for me. Here, Where Owls Know My Name was an instant hit from the first moment I played it, my heart rushing forward to meet the expansive, all encompassing approach to composition which the album utilized.

 

But wavering heights weren’t the only types of places which death metal took me on this year. The dirtier, grimier sounds of acts like the aforementioned Tomb Mold, also pervaded musical moments for me, eliciting the kind of sneer that only the most putrid of death metal riffs justifies. But the number one for me within this sub-genre came just last night, when I finally checked out Obliteration‘s Centoaph Obscure, a slab of death metal so powerfully presented that it blew me away. The drum production, composition, vocals, and guitars, all conspire to create an oppressive yet oddly decipherable experience that digs deep into the emotional core through which we gravitate towards death metal and its irreverent approach to life and human existence. Spinning this album last night was a transformative experience, as I was transfixed to the aural onslaught that was crashing down on me. Truly, it was an experience indicative of the kind of emotional impact that few other genres outside of death metal can truly illicit.

Further Listening: Chapel of Disease, “Song of the Gods” // Innumerable Forms, “Purity’s Demand

The lone and level sands stretch far away

The last emotional landscape which colored my 2018 was that expansive, sparse, and punishing desert of doom metal. As I listened to the outpouring of incredible music from this genre, held in the grips of its massive chords and never-ending feedback, I found myself contemplating the lonely, small place this music can put you in. What other genre communicates that feeling of being in the presence of something greater than yourself better than doom metal? Perhaps that’s why I’m so drawn to the music; it connects well with my propensity for those “sacral instincts”, the range of emotional responses that get triggered when we find ourselves abased before something truly massive but feel ourselves made larger for it. Maybe that means that doom metal is the genre that most defined my day to day life in 2018; it honestly wouldn’t be the first year where that would be the case.

While Ancestors‘s Suspended in Reflection, my album of the year, stands high and mighty over this genre in 2018, there are many other albums that deserve mention here. Specifically, Huata‘s Lux Initiatrix Terrae conveyed such a unique tone and ambience that its influence on my listening habits and its presence in my own retelling of 2018 is indelible. It’s an album that channels much more than just sheer size, communicated with a string of powerful tracks and so many different intimations and approaches to life, the cosmos, belief, fear, and more. Yob was the other pincer between which my heart was pierced, delivering yet another fantastic album in an already impossibly successful and prolific career. Our Raw Heart was just that, a band already laden with emotions diving deep into what made them and us tick on a personal level and stripping away all the layers that lay above, right down to the core. As such, it was the perfect instigator of the kind of “bleeding” that great doom metal inflicts on the listener, stirring the deepest parts of me to see what it could find.

Further Listening: Garganjua, “A Distant Shore” // Messa, “The Seer

Favour my solemn song

Finally, at the end of this post, I can’t not talk about how the year went for Heavy Blog itself. And the fact is, friends, that it went very well. In fact, at the time of writing this, we have surpassed not only 2017 but 2016 as well in terms of overall readers that visited the blog this year. More than that, if December continues as planned, we’re set to surpass 2015 as well. I can’t tell you how moving it is to write these words. Managing this blog has always been an exercise in damage control, as the blog format continued (and continues) to erode in the face of the new forces that make up whatever the internet is becoming (always becoming, never is). It’s always been a story of what we can do to hang on to the little we have and focus on the things we love, on getting quality content out there before the lights go off and this little piece of the web we call our own inevitably goes the way of so many other publications and gives up the ghost.

 

And now, growth. To be sure, it’s not massive growth; we’ll probably never go back to the sort of numbers we used to see when the blog was young because that audience doesn’t exist anymore. But we’re doing better and, at least for 2018, the trend seems to have reversed. Will this reversal be sustainable? Will the next year be even better? The truth is, we don’t really know and it doesn’t really matter; being able to experience this year, where more and more people saw, interacted, and read our content, was one of the biggest joys of my life. But you can bet your ass that we’re going to keep doing everything we can to maintain this trend and that, first and foremost, means delivering even more great content to you, the readers. Because, of course, none of this happens without you and your continued support.

There’s another group to whom we owe this success and it’s our wonderful staff. I’ll be honest with you, we’ve been running our staff group pretty much the same way for a few years now. It’s time that this changed. It’s time to ask ourselves what more we can do to make the lives and minds of those who give us so much of both better, healthier, saner, more prolific and expressive. And we hope you can ask those questions of yourselves as well, dear readers, maybe with our assistance; where are we going, as people? How will we meet what’s coming because, in case you missed it, a lot is coming and will always come. What are the moments we cherish as we move forward and weave a story out of our lives, lives which are everything but a coherent story, a million moments painted into one forced whole? What do we remember? What do we carry forward?

I know that, for me, so much of that will be music.

Comments

Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.