November might as well be dubbed “the month that time forgot”. In the States, it at least has Thanksgiving in it, which gives it some kind of unique character. Elsewhere, that’s not even true and in many places, it’s just one more month. It suffers from coming right before December in more than one way. In the music industry, this is doubly true. You see, it’s not late enough in the year that it appeals to the mania of end of year list compilation or the fervor of shopping and commercialism. It ends up just…being there.
However, that “no man’s land” status also affords the clever musician a great opportunity; it’s a time that’s ripe for release if you can swing. Now, don’t get me wrong; most of the musicians listed below probably didn’t even think about this when setting a release date. The realities of production and running a band in the first place probably dictate their release schedule more than anything. But bands like The Ocean and other notables which released music this month can definitely be attributed with some planning and looking ahead to the quiet months of November as their time to drop an album.
Regardless of intent, the fact remains that people like us are already in end of year mode and that has an effect which isn’t often discussed; it leads to lots of musical discovery. As we start to look back on the year, we take a look at nooks that we have overlooked in the past few months. Suddenly, lists are dusted off, recommendations are checked out, and our ears go that much further in an effort to make sure that we didn’t miss anything. That can lead us to stumble onto new releases as often as we revisit “old” releases we’ve come to love over the year.
Put all of this together and it would be extremely silly to skip over November’s Editors’ Picks. There are some true gems in here, ranging from weird takes on death metal through moving post-metal albums, all the way to fantastic jazz fusion. Oh, and there’s also Claire! Claire is our guest staff member this month. She’s joined our ranks only recently (poor soul) but has already become an integral part of our team. Her submission this month is no different, showcasing her unique musical taste.
So, scroll down below and dig in! Lord knows there’s enough here to do. See you very, very soon for December; we have a ton of content lined up for you.
Chapel of Disease – And as We Have Seen the Storm, We Have Embraced the Eye (death doom, heavy metal)
This has truly been the year of pressing play on albums and exclaiming “OK, what the fuck?” It wasn’t even (usually) because of oddity; even names you hadn’t heard of before were releasing such good music at such quantity that it elicited that sort of response. Case in point: Chapel of Disease’s And So We Have Seen the Storm, We Have Embraced the Eye (henceforth referred to as Storm) and its off-kilter mix of black metal, death metal, and…traditional heavy metal. Yep, you read that right. This non-traditional (get it) mix of sounds is clear from the getgo; the vocals on opener “Void of Words” are pure death metal, thick and guttural. But the guitars, drums and bass start off with a blistering pace more akin to black metal.
But the guitar tones is all “wrong”; it’s twangy and bluesy to a degree you wouldn’t expect, reminding us of the excellent Glorior Belli. But Chapel of Disease take this influence one step further; “Void of Words” also has multiple ’70s and ’80s influenced guitar solos, galloping riffs, and an overall approach that smacks of heavy metal and its flamboyant antics. And it somehow all works? Somehow, through some alchemy of composition, Chapel of Disease manage to pull off not one track like this but an entire album, effortlessly melding genres that were never “meant” to be melded.
The result is an album which draws another one of those “what the fuck” moments; by the time its tones have their hooks sunk in you (and the sink in deep) you’ll be listening to little else for a few days, grabbing your head and murmuring to yourself. Or, at least, that’s what I did, to the concern of those around me. It’s just another testament to how truly excellent 2018 has been, both in big names and in lesser known ones. Even though Chapel of Disease aren’t exactly rookies (they’ve been making music together for a decade now) this album will hopefully earn them the place they deserve at the forefront of bands doing something interesting with metal. Very interesting.
Milanku – Monument du non – être & Mouvement du non – vivant (post-metal, shoegaze)
Monument du Non-être & Mouvement du Non-vivant, the 4th LP of Montréal-based post-metal /shoegaze group Milanku, is their most refined and definitive work yet. The band showed a distinct shift in sound on their 2015 release, De Fragments — they moved from somewhat meandering explorations to a pithier, hook-based structure that nevertheless relied a bit too heavily on atmosphere and towering production choices to provide impact. Monument du Non-être, however, represents a fine synthesis between Milanku’s earlier and later work, bolstered by wonderfully ethereal production; with the addition of a third guitarist, the band weave exquisite, colourful compositions whose ebbs and flows seem to have been calculated for maximum emotional effect.
What separates Milanku from other bands in the post- umbrella is no doubt their very specific aesthetic — its delicateness and urban themes are far-removed from tropes in metal, yet the band aren’t afraid to bring out crushing moments that bely Bohemian evocations (e.g. in the album artwork). Every moment of Monument du Non-être… feels close to disintegration, and the ambient effects, including synthesizer and piano, are haunting in their perceived distance. Songs often move at dirge-like paces, but they’re far from overly slow; the time is used such that each note is able to linger, fade gently. It seems paradoxical, then, that the more fragile a note is, the more (emotional) weight it carries — it’s perhaps because we are carried closer to loss. There’s a sense of deliberateness and precision in every action carried out; just the right amount of restraint here, just the right amount of forcefulness there.
Despite the seemingly fragile aura present during the build-ups and verses (used in a loose sense, as the songs do not follow tight structures), Milanku create incredibly explosive climaxes that both come out of nowhere and couldn’t fit better. The vocals are surprising in their textural contrast to the instrumentals — rough-hewn, tormented growls that make sparse appearances, all during the most cathartic moments of each song. When the critical moments of collapse are reached, a wave of distortion fills the soundscape, vocals entering the fray; some are followed by lengthy denouements that re-establish a more composed, melancholic air.
One might say that Monument du Non-être… is deceptively simple: despite its three guitars, its textures are minimalistic, airy, with carefully chosen embellishments; its lyrics, alluding to Guy Debord’s La société du spectacle, contain only three distinct verses, and speak plainly of the loss of reason. The world it creates, though, is quite singular; it is elegance and pain, beauty and devastation.
Monobody – Raytracing (jazz fusion, post-math rock)
Between the fact that I am currently in the middle of a move/am currently up to my eyeballs in boxes and cursing every purchase I’ve made in my life, as well as that I already wrote a lengthy and gushing review of this album a few weeks ago, I will keep this brief. Raytracing is my album of the year. And in a year that has left so many of us on staff absolutely drowning in a sea of incredible, genre-pushing or even defining albums, that truly means something. Monobody deserves this recognition not because they’re one of the first bands to truly combine the best and most technical parts of jazz fusion, math rock, post-rock, and beyond into a single package. But in my experience, I have not seen a single band do these things and stretch themselves so far technically and creatively while also creating a fully cohesive package that is incredibly immediate, groovy, and straight-up fun to listen to. I could go into more detail on that, but I’d just be repeating my review, so go read that.
What I can say separate from that though is that I had the privilege to see the band perform for my first time this week in Boston, and let me tell you, what you hear on record is what you get with this group all the time, full-stop. It’s so easy to take for granted just how difficult it is to perform the music this band writes, and even though they still make it look astonishingly easy in person, actually witnessing it provides a whole other level of appreciation for what they do. It got to the point where there was a moment of levity when guitarist Conor Mackey missed one lick while locked in with drummer Nnamdi Ogbonnaya towards the end of their set. Unless you knew every in and out of the song you likely wouldn’t have even noticed, but Mackey and the band had a momentary winking laugh while simply continuing as if nothing happened. It was almost a relief from the listener’s standpoint just to remember that this group is human and that there are very few people who could pull any of this off. But Monobody can and do, and to hear it or see it is something truly special that is worthy of highest acclaim.
Obliteration – Cenotaph Obscure (old school death metal)
Music, like most art, is cyclical. While innovation and progression have fueled its seemingly infinite history, there are only so many notes in a scale, and repetition is bound tightly to the artform’s creative roots. This is neither an inherently positive or detrimental thing, but simply a fact of music history. While revivalist movements, such as the pervasive infusion of 80s sounds and textures, have become something of a staple of modern popular music for a decade, the more extreme poles of the music world have experienced no less a pull toward tradition. Metal is not exempt. Black metal, traditional/heavy metal, doom metal, and countless other branches of the metal tree are by-and-large bound to songwriting templates steeped in traditional structures. Old school death metal, by its very name and as the principal topic of this diatribe, no less so. But in most every revivalist movement, there are a few different ways that bands can approach music creation. They can, firstly, ape and imitate as carbon copies of previous sounds (think Gruesome and their brazenly obvious Death-worship here). Or, in just as popular a move, they can take those previously established sounds and meld them with other musical movements to attempt to create something fresh out of tried-and-true formulas (insert many bands here). But a third and, in my mind, more rare category is a band that takes a traditional sound at face value theoretically and creates music that doesn’t just copy the sounds of yesterday, but instead inhabits the spirit and shape of their main musical influence so thoroughly that the music feels as if it was actually crafted during those formative years. This is music that has such a thorough understanding of its chosen musical space that its songs feel as if they don’t belong to the decade in which they were created. Not mimicry. Not mere influence. Full immersion. Obliteration fall squarely into this category of traditionalism, and with Cenotaph Obscure have concocted what is in my mind the best example of old school death metal in the modern era that I’ve heard in a very, very long time.
Hailing from Norway (not necessarily a haven historically for exceptional death metal), Obliteration are not without their historic touchstones. Mixing the spaciness of bands like Timeghoul and Demilich with the heavier, punchier sounds of early Death, Obliteration are most certainly not in the business of creating unprecedented music. But where bands like Father Befouled, Chthe’ilist, Dead Congregation, and a host of others in the old school revival dig into a particular aspect of the traditional death metal sound (aka “abject sonic F I L T H”), Obliteration focus on a different approach to their craft. Namely, balance. While filled to the brim with groove-laden songwriting (“Detestation Rite” and “Tumulus of Ancient Bones”), manic riff progressions (“Eldritch Summoning”), and atmospheric meanderings (“Orb”), none of these elements ever overpower the others. This is due in large part to a songwriting construct that equalizes the influence of the record’s disparate parts in a manner that makes them operate as a definitive whole and feel utterly intentional. The second aspect, which cannot be understated here, is the production. Holy lord, the production. Without hyperbole, this may be the most well-produced record within the OSDM revival to date. Complementing the record’s songwriting steadfast sense of equilibrium, each instrument present here works in perfect harmony with the others while never losing its distinctive punch. The drums and bass are perfectly audible and monstrous throughout, laying down a percussive foundation that the guitars rip, tear, and bludgeon their way through with uninterrupted intensity. The balance of sound here is extremely rare in this musical space, and Cenotaph Obscure will without question be a historical cornerstone of how to mix and produce death metal for maximum impact for decades to come.
But all of this mastery on the technical front only goes so far in creating a great, memorable record. That is achieved here with songs that feel utterly alive, bristling with a profane intensity that is as electrifying as you’ll hear this year. The militant stomp of the album’s title track, which eventually morphs into a blast-laden beast of a death metal rager, is as fun and varied as it is technically audacious. “Onto Damnation” and album closer “Charnel Plains” are no less enigmatic and thoroughly interesting, creating a record that, for all its wizardry, is never once boring. Finding a band that can give listeners both emotional and intellectual ecstasy is rare, and Obliteration are a rare band indeed.
Start-to-finish, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with Cenotaph Obscure. It’s the band’s best release (which is saying a lot given the quality of their catalog), and without question one of the finest examples of old school death metal that we’ve heard this decade. If you are a fan of this movement in any capacity, you do yourself a disservice by skipping this record. It’s a truly monumental experience.
The Ocean – Phanerozoic I: Palaeozoic (prog metal, post-metal)
Since their inception, The Ocean (Collective?) have consistently been one of the most fascinating creative forces in metal, making great strides in expanding the possibilities and sonic palette of extreme music, trailblazing the post-metal genre with thunderous riffs, avant-garde influences, and an appreciation for conceptual storytelling. No amount of superlatives thrown at The Ocean will ever be enough; records like their groundbreaking Precambrian (2007) and previous outing Pelagial (2013) are two of the greatest records in the pantheon of progressive metal despite having two drastically different personnel attached to each record, besides of course founding member and primary songwriter Robin Staps.
And yet again, following Pelagial, The Ocean were once again plagued with lineup woes, which would typically raise all sorts of red flags and be a legitimate cause for concern and skepticism among listeners of most touring acts. That, coupled with the premise of returning to complete the conceptual timeline between Precambrian and Heliocentric. After all, you want a band like this to look forward, not backward. By all means, Phanerozoic should have been a mess.
But somehow, miraculously, they’ve pulled it off. They’ve bridged the grimy sludge of Precambrian with the contemporary art-metal ambition heard across Pelagial and the -Centric records to create an album experience that is at once intellectually and emotionally engaging, truly exhilarating and captivating. Be it the contemplative pianos and triumphant horns of “Silurian: Age of Sea Scorpions” or the brooding and apocalyptic “Permian: The Great Dying,” the existential dread of nature’s eternal return and the devastation of the planet couldn’t have possibly had a better soundtrack.
Sigh – Heir to Despair (avant-garde metal, symphonic prog metal)
Sigh are a band that have always been dear to me. There’s something special about their brand of avant-garde metal that just makes them brilliant and without equal. The irreverence that’s relatively characteristic of the Japanese scene doesn’t encapsulate it fully. They’re theatrical and experimental yet familiar. Blending influences like surf, psychedelic, power metal and more, they’ve always had something interesting to say. Well, I think 2015’s Graveward was one of their weaker albums, so I had feared that after so many years, they might have lost “it”. Well, Heir to Despair is here to prove me wrong.
This is just classic Sigh, with everything that I’ve come to love about them. If one were to pick a previous album by them that’s most similar to this one, it would probably be In Somniphobia. The heavy psychedelic vibe, the middle-eastern-influenced guitars and percussion, it’s all here again. Yet it somehow avoids feeling like a retread. In Somniphobia was definitely the album where they went deepest down that particular rabbit hole, whereas here they bring back some of the more cheesy (in a good way) elements from Hangman’s Hymn back into play. All in all, this results in a Sigh album that will satisfy the expectations of longtime listeners and uphold their position as one of the best avant-garde bands out there.
I suppose part of this segment is to sell the album on people who maybe weren’t previously interested. With access to streaming being so easy these days, the only barriers to someone listening to a new artist are time and apathy. Sigh songs, regardless of their length, always move forward quite smoothly and are constantly entertaining, so they’re definitely worth one’s time. As for interest, well, if listening to Sigh doesn’t tickle one’s creative interest in any way, I’m not sure what can. They’re pretty much unlike anything else in metal, blending screaming, power metal singing, throat singing, retro and modern synths, sax, a lot of clean and distorted guitars, influences from all around the world and throughout history (including 70s horror movies, new age, classical, ragtime, and aforementioned ones like surf and middle eastern). And they somehow make it all consistent and not messy at all. Seriously. Just click on the video below.
Sunless Dawn – Timeweaver (prog metal, progressive death metal)
When we dive into an album from an unfamiliar band, our natural inclination is to determine the group’s core ethos. Admittedly, that process is hardly identical across all records and largely revolves around our own experience with the particular genre(s) at hand. But our enjoyment of art not only stems from tangible, immediate factors, but also a sense of understanding what a band is trying to accomplish and how the achievement of their goals unfolds over the course of the tracklist. In essence, being as invested in the band’s musical endeavors as we are in the quality of their compositions is the sign of a successful piece of music. And of course, disliking the journey and/or the destination is a good mark of a failed venture.
With all that aside, even people like us who consume an absurd amount of music sometimes find ourselves faced with a different type of listening experience; the road less traveled by, if you will. As I listened to Timeweaver over the past several weeks, I was reminded that neatly compartmentalizing music can sometimes be a futile task best left behind in favor of enjoying what’s unraveling the moment. Across its hour-long runtime, I became increasingly content with the fact that I had no idea where Sunless Dawn planned on taking me next, and that their approach to progressive death metal defied my preconceived “rules” of what the genre entails. It reminded me of my first several playthroughs of Opeth‘s Blackwater Park during my formative years with death metal, in the way that it continuously introduces fresh, invigorating ideas that both exemplify and leap above what’s always made prog death such an alluring genre for me.
Right out of the gate, Timeless Dawn blow the album wide open with into “Apeiron,” a grandiose symphonic track that gives listeners a taste of what the rest of the album has to offer: thundering, well-written death metal and well woven progressive elements. From there, “Aether” capitalizes on potent melodies and atmosphere to create an epic affair, complete with dazzling guitar leads trading off with stomping riffs and backed by radiant choral flourishes. After a similarly awing affair on “The Arbiter,” the three-part “Biomorph” suite kicks off with a gorgeous, textured instrumental on “Polarity Portrayed.” After “Collide Into Being” provides a more amped up version of these proceedings, “Between Meadow and Mire” accelerates the temp even further, as urgent choral vocals give way to raging blasts matched by speedy guitar work. It’s easily the most “death metal” track on the album to this point. That theme continues with “Grand Inquisitor,” which employs some ugly riffs and rolling double kicks amid the prog death storm and soaring melodic riffing. “Erindringens Evighed” brings in some folksy flourishes and staccato riffing, before the epic, 14-minute closer “Sovereign” takes an all-of-the-above approach for a truly explosive finale.
Years from now, those hearing secondhand that death metal reigned supreme in 2018 won’t fully grasp the full accuracy of that statement. Even so, where countless band have succeeded with the genre is their modern and downright phenomenal interpretation of the genre conventions we know and adore. Exceptions come to mind, of course, namely Imperial Triumphant‘s incredible Vile Luxury. Not only does Timeweaver deserve a place on this list, but it will also be putting up a spirited fight for the top spot among my favorite death metal (and overall metal) albums of the year. Fans of death metal and all things progressive should be fawning over one of the strongest prog death outings in recent memory.
Ulthar – Cosmovore (blackened death metal)
It’s hard to think of a more perfect name for Ulthar than the one they chose. A fictional town from H.P. Lovecraft’s expansive mythos of the Dream Cycle – a collection of short stories centered around his dark, beautifully psychedelic novella The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath – Ulthar at first seems to be somewhat of a quaint and vaguely pastoral place, one that serves as a respite for Randolph Carter before his long trek to Kadath to find the gods begins in earnest, but closer investigation and some additional knowledge reveals something much deeper and more surreal lurking just beyond the pale of our understanding. Ulthar, to be sure, never seems like a normal place, situated as it is within a dimension we can only access when dreaming, but what seems like shallow oddness at first gradually opens in our understanding into a churning abyss of strange circumstance, our only understanding of which comes from its outskirts.
This Californian three-piece lets their music take shape in the exact same way Lovecraft slowly unveils the truth about their namesake’s strange past and its connection to ancient gods. Somewhere, deep in their combination of gooey doom-inflected death metal stomp (think Incantation‘s fast parts and Autopsy‘s slow parts) and elastic black metal fervor, there’s a core that’s fundamentally different than what one typically finds in this sort of music; something far more alien and unknowable than the typical extreme metal blood-and-guts-and-Satan fare powers the vision of Cosmovore. Just like the name they took would suggest, the strange undercurrent to the album isn’t hard to miss at first. Ulthar constantly suggests an abyss, always teetering close to seeing it and unveiling the depths to their madness. I’ve seen them compared on the internet to Krallice for this tendency; even though the two bands sound vastly different, both have a marked sensibility that enables them to always catch on to when a listener would wise up to the patterns of their oddity and both respond to this by moving on to something that completely eschews whatever their audience might have been thinking. Unlike Krallice, though, who do this from a more pensive, meditative mindset, Ulthar keeps everything supremely grounded in the very real world of writing good-ass death metal riffs. Even throughout labyrinthine changes in structure, momentum is consistently preserved and tracks ebb and flow in aggressive, energetic movements. Cosmovore is strange, yes, but it also fucking rips. Big time.
Also worth noting is Ulthar’s impressive pedigree. On guitar is Shelby Lermo of Extremity and Vastum; on bass, Steve Peacock of Mastery; and drums are handled by Justin Ennis of Void Omnia and formerly Mutilation Rites. The beating hearts of all of these groups find some tether within Cosmovore‘s practiced cacophony, and it’s this connection to their other projects with different goals that ends up being one of Cosmovore‘s biggest boons. There is never a point across the 40-minute run time that you’re not listening to something falling in a recognizable metal tradition, no matter how strangely Ulthar constructs their songs. Even at their worst, Ulthar is still making appreciably sturdy death metal.
At the end of the day, if you’re going to walk away from this write-up with any sense of why Cosmovore is a necessary album among a panoply of good death metal from 2018, the bottom line is that they are extremely fucking talented songwriters. Ulthar understand on a tangible level the necessity of balancing weirdness with music that just plain kicks ass, and their debut outing is a masterclass in both. In an extremely crowded year for death metal, Ulthar stands with the tallest of them and only gets better the more you listen.
1914 – The Blind Leading the Blind (blackened death metal)
Metal bands often use history to frame their musical narratives, but few do it with the aplomb and conviction of 1914. Infusing their blackened death metal with the blood and horror of WWI, there are few better marriages of sound and topic than The Blind Leading the Blind. Quality music wrapped around a truly terrible portion of world history. Dive into the trenches and you won’t be disappointed.
Blade Killer – High Risk (heavy metal)
Sometimes, you just need heavy metal that goes fast and has plenty of shreds. If you’re in that mood, this one is for you. Blade Killer trade in the kind of Iron Maiden worship that for me, never gets old.
Peter Brötzmann & Heather Leigh – Sparrow Nights (free improv)
Following their excellent 2017 collab Sex Tape, legendary saxophonist Peter Brötzmann once again finds and unusual but ultimately brilliant bedfellow in pedal steel player Heather Leigh. This time around, the duo pull the reins on the free jazz and embrace atmosphere, mood and dark ambient tendencies in a more even musical marriage.
Dead Can Dance – Dionysus (neoclassical new age)
Music’s most famous new age duo is back with one of the best installments in their extensive discography. Pulling from a variety of folk traditions from around the world, Dead Can Dance add in multifaceted composition and aggressive vocals that will impress new and old fans alike.
Evoken – Hypnagogia (funeral doom)
This isn’t even the first album about the first World War listed here. Anyway, it’s Evoken, so you know what you’re getting into here: cascading tidal waves of sound that build into some of the heaviest dirges you’ll ever hear put to tape. It’s funeral doom time, baby, so crank it loud and get really fuckin’ sad.
Thomas Giles – Don’t Touch the Outside (prog rock)
Not nearly busy enough with that new Between the Buried and Me record from earlier this year, Tommy Rogers returns with a new Thomas Giles solo record that may nearly outdo Automata in terms of progressive creativity – forays into swing jazz notwithstanding of course. Where previous record Velcro_Kid never strayed too far from synthwave and retrowave sounds, Don’t Touch The Outside features a more varied, adventurous, and unpredictable nature that made Pulse and Modern Noise so great. It’s a shame that this record came and went with relatively little fanfare or publication, because it’s truly a gem in an otherwise busy year for prog. Don’t Touch The Outside is further evidence that Rogers is a formidable creative force not just in BTBAM, but in his own right.
Mentor – Cults, Crypts and Corpses (hardcore punk, sludge)
Sometimes, you just need super pissed off music that goes fasts and kicks your ass. If you’re in that mood, this one is for you. Mentor are all about playing aggressively, melding that with a thick timbre on their vocals that hints towards Clutch while going way harder than those hierophants of rock.
Toska – Fire By the Silos (instrumental prog metal, post-metal)
2018 has already been a killer year for instrumental metal, especially of the more progressive variety, and the UK’s Toska’s sophomore effort is a large part of that. Huge in scope and influence while remaining persistently groovy and gripping, it’s equal parts brawn and brain that bodes incredibly well for the group and the genre in general.