The year is dead, long live the year! As we stand at the beginning of 2018, looking forward to another 12 months of music, what is arrayed before us? Which narrative will this year give birth to? As I mentioned in my summary of 2017, being flexible with the stories we tell ourselves is extremely important for everyone but especially important for those who write. And so, maybe it’s best not to put a label on this January, a month filled with complexity (last year’s music is still very much around, great releases are out but one wonders if they’ll last until the time for AOTY lists comes around and it’s also so damn cold). Perhaps it would be best to wait a month or two before we start to unravel the story for this year’s musical output and direction?
And yet, of course, the fingers itch and that part of our brains that longs for pattern recognition has already started putting things into labels and boxes and flow charts. So what can we glean from what’s already out there? For one, it seems as if prog fusion is doing interesting things again. After years of mostly stale repetition from the Berklee crowd and its imitators (other than rare gems, like Native Construct), we now have two fantastic albums from the genre included in the list below and there’re are a few more which have potential to leave their mark on this year’s musical landscape. That hasn’t happened in a long time and it’s honestly exciting for fans of complex, yet human, technical, melodic music.
We also have the ongoing return to old school death metal and its intersections with all sorts of crazy stuff in the form of Mammoth Grinder, Arkona, Portal and Hooded Menace. While these bands are of course very different, they also all lean on a certain vintage death metal sound, a certain “dryness” of riffs and delivery. This should come as no surprise to fans of the genre, who started seeing signs of this return in 2016 and a certain uptick in it in 2017. Now, it appears as if more and more bands in this style are releasing music. Is this due to a fashion or simply the cycle of album releases which coincided to create several releases in the field by accident?
Is time really a flat circle or is True Detective just bullshit? Will Mighty Max finally find his way back home? Is metal good? Find out this season on Journalists Desperately Connecting Dots To Please Their Overreaching Narratives! Or, you know, just read the post below for some fantastic music that’s already been released in 2018.
Arkona – Khram (blackened death metal, folk black metal)
The fields of the influences of folk music on metal has been sown and plowed countless of times. It’s almost impossible to say anything on the subject that’s not a cliche, let alone make music which explores these influences in an interesting way (Bandcamp have recently made a somewhat interesting attempt at this https://daily.bandcamp.com/2018/01/09/folk-metal-list/). As is usually the case, however, hope comes from the periphery, where discourse is abandoned in favor of what works and innovation can often rise unstifled. Case in point: Arkona, a veteran and highly underrated band from Russia currently based in the Ukraine. These guys traffic in a sort of death metal wildly interspersed with black influences and, most importantly of all, original and refreshing takes on folk metal.
Throughout Khram, their release from this month, Arkona deftly weave not only the usual “folk guitar” passages but also flutes, traditional synths, their own mother tongue and Slavic folk tales. The result is an incredibly ambitious album which nonetheless lives up to everyone of its promises. Since the folk music and the metal parts of the album each come from the root of the band, neither of them feels contrived or made to match the other. Instead, each one does what is natural for it, together making up a whole that is authentic and pleasing to listen to. Combine this with a natural penchant for experimentation (just listen to the synth/bass combos on “Tseluya zhizn’” for a taste of that) and you have an album that infinitely unfolds under scrutiny.
That last point bears repeating; apart from any questions of originality and folk influences, Khram is just a magnificent metal album. The vocal combinations between the two singers, the amazing drum, the intelligent and interesting riffs, the penchant for the epic drawn from the black metal influences, the furious momentum of the death metal underpinnings, everything comes together to create what is perhaps this band’s best album to date. And that’s saying something, since they’ve released more than a few releases and have been around for years. As such, this is also one of death metal’s best releases in years, one which puts the rest of the scene to shame in its flawless execution and organic cohesion.
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Hago – Hago (prog fusion)
If there’s something I am always on the lookout for and seem to almost always come up short on, it’s great metal/jazz fusion. As evidenced by my writing on the album last year, I found Nova Collective’s offering to be a bit wanting, mostly because it felt too beholden to the classic jazz fusion influences it very clearly was drawing from. It’s rare that I stumble across an album and band that successfully blends bona fide progressive metal with equally legitimate jazz fusion and feels more than a retread of sounds and ideas that have been done many times before. So it was to my great pleasure and delight to come across the debut album from Boston’s Hago, who very clearly came out of Berklee but manage to avoid much of the tiresome preciousness that plagues many of the jazz-infused projects that seem spawn from there.
The band have a few major things going for them. First is the fact that it’s immediately clear that they have a more than solid grasp of what actually makes modern progressive metal interesting and fun to listen to rather than a navel-gazing chore. As you listen to heavier tracks like “Ezekiel 1.4” there is a very clear line the listener can immediately draw from the innovative 80s/90s progressive metal of Cynic, Atheist, and Dream Theater to the more djent-y influences of modern acts like Animals as Leaders and Pomegranate Tiger. The chugging patterns, the bass tone, and shifting time signatures are familiar and tropes unto themselves, but the context they’re in, surrounded by great riffs and melodies and enjoyable instrumental technicality and interplay, are what make it work well.
The second thing going for them is that the band pull in a diverse set of influences beyond the typical strands of metal and jazz and manage to fuse interesting parts of them in ways that feel genuine and not ham-fisted. Namely, Hago is rife with beautiful middle eastern influences, which perhaps shouldn’t be surprising given that the band appears to be almost entirely comprised of Israelis. This is most obvious on “Shdemati,” an absolutely gorgeous rearrangement of a song by Russian/Israeli composer Yedidia Admon, which embraces its traditional underpinnings and seamlessly introduces heavier elements and jazz reharmonizations that are a true joy to listen to. Beyond the middle eastern sounds though, there is plenty of cosmic sci-fi and retrofuturism throughout, particularly on “Ancient Secrets,” “Dawn of Machine,” and “Alpha Centauri,” at times calling to mind the heavy and glitchy work of The Algorithm.
The other thing this band does particularly well that I will highlight is perhaps the most obvious one for anyone who has followed my writing here, and it has to do with the saxophone. I have written quite a great deal on my feelings about the instrument and its use in metal over the years, and my most comprehensive post even spawned an even more awesome post from Jørgen Munkeby himself, but in essence I am incredibly pro-sax in metal but also very particular and opinionated on how the instrument should and should not be used in metal. So as if there wasn’t already enough going right for Hago, the fact that a sax player is a core member of the band and integrates himself so thoroughly and brilliantly throughout the music is the cherry on top of this delicious album. Given how deftly the group are at weaving so many different musical pieces into a coherent sound though it shouldn’t be a surprise.
Put all of these successful elements together and you have a mammoth album that is quite possibly my favorite example of metal/jazz fusion since Stimpy Lockjaw’s eponymous 2014 album and might even exceed it. All of which makes it an even greater shame that I almost nearly didn’t give this album a proper chance because of the band’s own description of their sound as “falafel djent.” Seriously guys, it’s not a good term and not at all accurate for what you’re doing. Absent that though, I cannot recommend this album enough to my fellow jazz-metalheads. It’s only January but I doubt there will be another album in this genre this year that is as immediately impressive and enjoyable.
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Hooded Menace – Ossuarium Silhouettes Unhallowed (death-doom)
Hooded Menace are nothing but consistent. During their decade of existence, they have churned out solid death-doom record after solid death-doom record, culminating in one of the most unimpeachable back catalogs in the subgenre. One wouldn’t necessarily expect a sonic sea change with a band so utterly consistent. In all honesty, there wouldn’t need to be. Hooded Menace knows the lane they occupy and are masters of their craft. Then comes Ossuarium Silhouettes Unhallowed, which adds significant new dynamics to the band’s overall sound, creating a record that feels very much like Hooded Menace, but with some sound-altering new elements. Should we throw our hands in the air in consternation, as one of our favorite bands has finally sold out? Nay, for this record is the best the band has yet produced on multiple levels, and a near-perfect example of how an established band can expand its sound while remaining true to its overarching aesthetic.
This time around, Hooded Menace infuse their normally methodical, overwhelmingly bleak and heavy sound with enough melody to rival the melodeath of a Horrified or Dark Tranquility record. These new textures hit the listener immediately in “Sempiternal Grotesqueries”, which includes this new emphasis on melodic songwriting throughout. But the infusion of melody into the band’s established sound does not diminish from their typical bone-crushing heaviness. If anything, it heightens it. “In Eerie Deliverance” (which also includes some haunting spoken word clean vocals) is a perfect example of the band’s maintenance of their traditional heaviness, with Lasse Pyykko and Teemu Hannonen’s guitars still bludgeoning and raging with all the fury of a thunderstorm in slow motion, while Otso Ukkonen’s drum work remains as varied and pounding as one would expect for a band that leans so heavily on doom metal elements. But this heaviness never takes away from the melodic passages contained within these songs, which ring out clearly and with essential emphasis in the songwriting. This masterful balancing of melodic and punishing is exemplified in all of its glory in album highlight “Cathedral of Labyrinthine Darkness”, which presents clearly the reason behind the band’s successful juxtaposition of styles: guitar tone. Let it be stated here and with great conviction that the tone of the instruments on this record is as perfect as one will find in a metal record, deftly balancing a tone that straddles abject heaviness with crystal clear melody without giving too much emphasis to either. It’s an absolute joy to listen to, and permeates the album with crisp, powerful guitar passages that are among the clearest and most mesmerizing of the band’s career. “Charnel Reflections” and finale “Black Moss” highlight even more dynamic choices, including sections of fantastic guitar solos and picked melodies, adding further richness to a record already stuffed with it.
Few and far between are the records showing a band building upon its signature sound with utter success. Ossuarium Silhouettes Unhallowed is one of them. It’s actually pretty hard to imagine Hooded Menace topping this record, but I cannot wait to see them try. This is without question the most compelling, diverse, and entertaining record the band has yet written, and will be extremely difficult to top in the death-doom department as the year progresses. A crowning achievement for the band and subgenre, and a record not to be missed by any fan of quality metal.
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Howling Sycamore – Howling Sycamore (experimental progressive metal)
“Supergroup” is a label that comes with a lot of baggage. In my experience, there’s three main types of supergroup. The one where a bunch of has-beens get together and make dad metal. The one where you have a bunch of super-talented people that, when put together, can’t write even two chords that sound good together. Finally, the one where a bunch of high-profile musicians combine their talents to make something amazing (yet oddly lacking). While Howling Sycamore may almost qualify for the last category, they should probably be considered separate from this paradigm. So rarely do you have a supergroup where musicians who have a strong cult following join to make music that is just weird. It’s hard to try to qualify the style of Howling Sycamore, but blackened power metal would be close. Or, more appropriately, powerened black metal. Combining the avant-garde sensibilities of Ephel Duath and Watchtower with the technicality of the latter and Hanness Grossman is just weird.
The end product might not immediately make sense to everyone. The melodies are weird, yet conventional somehow. The drumming is distincly in the style of Hannes’s technical work, but the production is like old-school avant-garde. And the singing, Jason Mcmaster’s voice is power metal gone weird. The band somehow skirt the line between familiar enough to be cheesy and bizarre enough to be “too much”, yet don’t fall into either trap. Instead, they’re consistently unsettling while being oddly listenable. The uncomfortable place the listening experience puts one in is exactly the reason why this album is so brilliant. I’ve went in circles trying to convey that feeling, but in the end it’s hard to put to words. Which is why you should go listen to Howling Sycamore right now. It’s the cleverest album of the month and while still being so fun to listen to.
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Portal – Ion (experimental death metal, technical death metal)
I love how over-the-top and ridiculous and completely impenetrable Ion is, but I also fucking hate how over-the-top and ridiculous and completely impenetrable Ion is. Portal is as slippery and insectile as death metal can possibly get here, emerging from the cavern they occupied on 2013’s Vexovoid (cue Plato’s Allegory of the Cave joke here) to deliver some of the most wacked-out, psychedelic, cutting-edge death metal ever put to tape. Where previous releases have been all murk and mire, filthy and existentially bleak, Ion is shining and resplendent in its idiosyncrasies, utilizing frenetic fretboard theatrics and crisp, clear production to deliver what might be the band’s most intense and hallucinogenic material to date.
It’s also short, which, make no mistake, is absolutely a virtue: only closer “Olde Guarde” runs over the 5-minute mark, and of its 9 minutes, the last 4 are a dark ambient outro. Including the bookending pieces of ambiance, Ion still only clocks in at an economical 37 minutes in length. The Australian quartet is focused far more on writing tight, crushing surges of experimental death metal than dragging out their atmosphere and making an ordeal of their music; this focus on being concise in their message helps Ion to maintain its immense weirdness and power, since by the time the audience has any grasp on the record’s contents, it’s been over for a good 10 minutes.
The matter-of-factness of Ion also helps to maintain what has always been Portal’s largest strength, which is that they are absolutely terrifying. Their past few releases have gotten progressively darker and more enraptured in a gloomy abyss, but Ion has a more industrially bleak feel to it. The group has a sort of je ne sais quois that can only be described as deeply unsettling; it’s most likely the sense of supreme other-ness to their music. On their previous albums, there was no way these guys weren’t channeling some sort of entity operating on levels far beyond our comprehension. On Ion, though, everything is uncomfortably human and alive, animated and electrified (no pun intended) by an overbearing industrial malaise. If you’re looking for something that will keep you on the edge of your seat and in a mode of complete tension for just under 40 minutes, Ion is absolutely the record for you.
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Jeff Snyder – Sunspots (experimental electronic, minimal synth)
Blanket genre detractors are truly the worst kind of music listeners. While I myself have openly discussed my general disinterest in genres like country and power metal, it’s completely different, and decidedly more ignorant, when someone writes of the entirety of one style of music based on pre-conceived (and often false) notions about the composition process. For no genre is this truer than with electronic music; we’ve all heard rockists bemoan the lack of guitars and claim that nearly any electronic track is merely a button push away from being composed and completed. It’s safe to say these people have never seen a DAW or synth in action, as anyone’s first encounter with the actual electronic music process has realized just how endless the possibilities are, and how challenging it is to narrow those possibilities into a worthwhile piece of art. It may be effortless to plunk away at some keys or click some presets from a drop-down menu, but that level of input hardly matches the quality derived from true, careful mastery of how electronics work.
When it comes to music that exemplifies this fact, albums like Sunspots are the first to come to mind. Armed with nothing but 1970s Buchla synthesizer, a self-made keyboard/sequencer and a fierce improvisational spirit, composer Jeff Snyder produces four 18-minute tracks that exude electronic music’s best qualities. Sunspots never wavers from Snyder’s exploratory, boundless vision, filling nearly an hour of music with four distinct movements within a complete narrative. Snyder’s improvisations fall somewhere between Autechre, Suicide and David Toop, embracing the ethos of electroacoustic composition and minimal synth performance while pursuing a unique goal all its own. Elements from the full gamut of electronic music’s repertoire are on full display as Snyder synthesizes sounds both singular and collective in nature. The album’s liberated, improvisational spirit remains consistent, but as each track unravels, Snyder intuitively weaves a thread that ties the proceedings together. It’s almost as if the listener is being exposed to an epic outlining the turmoil, tragedy and eventual triumph of machines in a digital world.
There’s an emotive language at play here, elevating an already impressive, rich musical tapestry to create poignant soundscapes of origins both man and machine. It takes a brilliant mind to guide improvisations of this caliber, and the fact this is Snyder’s solo debut only makes his accomplishments on Sunspots that much more impressive. This is a near-flawless testament to the power of electronic music, and proof of much finesse and innate creativity is required to craft albums worth placing in the genre’s pantheon of essential releases. Sunspots admittedly offers a challenging display of cerebral synthetic dexterity, and the roughly hour-long runtime might be a deterrent for some. But Synder’s poise and mastery of his instruments produce a truly engrossing listen from start to finish, and by the time the final track concludes, the only thought on listeners’ minds will be deep self-inquiry about what just transpired. This is electronic music to lose oneself in; a timeless ode to the power of effective sonic exploration.
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Aviations – The Light Years (prog fusion)
This album had so much going against it; it’s been in the making for five years and belongs to the prog fusion genre, a genre notorious for disappointment. And yet, it’s fucking amazing, all feel, unisons and technicality.
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Dawnwalker – Human Ruins (post-black metal)
Dawnwalker’s “soft green metal” sound is a beautiful take on atmospheric black metal, folk metal, and post-metal that takes the best elements of the three and throws them into a combination that’s focused more on laser-sharp songwriting and moments of transcendent beauty than long-winded pastoral meditations. Hypnotic, catchy, and triumphant.
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Hamferð – Támsins Likam (funeral doom)
As epic and gorgeous as doom gets, the Faroe Islands’ own Hamferð have here released a true gem of a record that should compete throughout the year with the best that doom has to offer. Soaring, operatic vocals battle with thunderous drums and notably restrained guitar work to create a sonic world where atmosphere reigns supreme. A breath of fresh air.
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Mammoth Grinder – Cosmic Crypt (crust punk, death ‘n’ roll)
What happens when members of Iron Reagan and Power Trip get together to make some music? Things get wild, nasty, and exceptionally heavy. Mammoth Grinder’s fourth full-length release may be their best, and a hardcore/death album not to be missed. If you like your metal with a side of whiplash from all that headbangin’, you’ve come to the right place.
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Noorvik – Noorvik (post-metal)
Cut from the same mold of aggressively driven instrumental post-metal as the likes of Toundra, this debut album from Germany’s Noorvik is setting a great pace for post-metal in 2018. Expect a more thorough write-up of this album to come soon.
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Phew – Voice Hardcore (a cappella, drone)
Of all the “genre oxymorons” I’ve discovered on over the years, “electronic a cappella” has to be the most confusing, both for how contradicotry and actually brilliant the results are. Phew samples and contorts her voice throughout the entire album to produce a haunting atmosphere of ethereal choruses and possessed vocals.
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Agrimonia – Awaken (post metal)
Feeding Fingers – Do Owe Harm (microtonal post-punk)
Nils Frahm – All Melody (ambient, modern classical)
Geomancer – Khatt Al-Raml (funeral doom)
Inquinamentum – 8342 (progressive black metal)
Thomas Johansson – Home Alone (free improvisation, solo trumpet)
Mt Telegraph – In Waves (indie folk, glitch)
The Octopod – Monoliths and Sepulchres (avant-garde jazz, experimental big band)
Andere Orte – Hudson (ambient)
Quoan – Fine Dining (avant-garde jazz, free jazz)
Josh Sinton – Krasa (free improvisation)
Tiny Moving Parts – Swell (pop-punk, math rock)
tUnE-yArDs – I Can Feel You Creep Into My Private Life (art pop, synthpop)
Weedpecker – III (progressive stoner metal)