Welcome, Hellions, to our last Death’s Door installment of the decade! Wipe your feet on the mat and pull up a bone throne. We’re about to embark on a journey through another fairly amazing year of music. Oh yeah, baby. Let’s go.
This year was, for myself at least, a fairly lackluster one for my favorite genre of music up until the summer. While there were some incredible releases sprinkled throughout the beginning of the year (Altarage, Venom Prison, and Cosmic Putrefaction to name but a few), I found myself both perplexed and deeply consternated as to the state of my beloved death metal in 2019, especially when compared to the past few years. Where were the titanic releases we were promised last year? Where did all the quality death metal go??? WHY AM I YELLING????? Truth be told, the problem didn’t rest with death metal’s dearth of engaging output, but simply my lack of adventurousness in searching for new music. Quality death metal had its bloody fingerprints all over the calendar, and I was just too closed-minded to see it. Shame on me, indeed.
When taking stock of the year in death metal, I’m hard pressed to declare 2019 anything other than a rousing, completely satisfying conclusion to a most fiery decade, including in its clawed clutches some of the most thoroughly captivating and skull-crushing releases in years. It’s a good time to be a death metal Stan, and 2019 delivered the goods in a multitude of ways. From the cosmic, to the grinding, to the brutal, to the doom-laden, to the ‘core-stricken and back again, 2019 presented one of the most diverse batteries of audio brutality to have crossed my ears this decade. We’ll dive into a chunk of our favorite releases and some trends within the genre we’ve observed from this most bounteous of years in a bit, but before we do, some hearty thanks are in order. Mainly, to you.
Writing about music is a hobby for us. We don’t get paid to do this, nor are there many perks outside of the copious amount of advanced promotional materials we receive. We do it because we love this music with all of our hearts, and that deep-seated infatuation is made all the sweeter by your presence. Thank you for reading this column. Thank you for sharing your thoughts, perspectives, and opinions/favorites with us. Scott and I could not be more grateful for your enthusiasm for the words we write, and want to acknowledge you and thank you for your continued support. As long as there are amazing people with open and adventurous minds consuming the greatest music on the planet, there will be idiots like us to write about it. Thank you for helping to make this community an integral part of our crazy lives. You are, indeed, the very best.
Now, onto the goods.
Death metal forever.
Death Metal Mainstream
For decades, death metal as a genre has prided itself on outsider status. Following the commercially viable glory days of Cannibal Corpse, Deicide, and Morbid Angel in the early- to mid-’90s, death metal took a deep plunge underground, festering and boiling in the metal abyss as a decade-and-a-half’s worth of unsung releases piled sky high in bargain bins across the globe. While the Dark Ages of death metal most certainly had its moments of stale despair, more than a few quality releases occasionally crept to the surface to make minimal waves in the larger music scene. But for the better part of the 2000s and early 2010s, death metal musicians have toiled and created some now-classic records while going largely unnoticed. The last several years have seen a dramatic shift in this trend, however, and no year this decade presents greater evidence of this than 2019. In nearly every way, it’s a good time to be a death metal fan.
Heralding back to the days of yore when death metal albums were spoken of during congressional hearings and blamed repeatedly for violent acts across the world, death metal is once again in the spotlight. But, perhaps for the first time, in a manner that focuses on its artistic viability as opposed to its scandalous content. Bands such as Nocturnus AD, Ossuarium, Tomb Mold, Cattle Decapitation, Full of Hell, and a host of others received glowing praise from mainstream, widely-read music publications. Which, to be quite honest, feels strange as a long-time death metal fan. After working in relative obscurity for significant amounts of time, the metal world’s best sonic sledgehammer is back with a vengeance, and victory is sweet. And yes, larger coverage of death metal by more popular publications is an unequivocal victory for the genre.
I’m fully aware that this is a highly debatable stance, but let’s put this surge in popularity in perspective. There are a few distinct reasons why I feel the spreading of the death metal gospel to a wider audience is a decidedly good thing, and the first is the most obvious: commercial viability. The math here is simple: anytime a musical genre sees resurgent interest from a more diverse audience, a host of talented artists decide to make that music. It’s a simple economic fact. Of course, those same numerical advantages could bring with them a load of imitators looking to cash in on a quick buck, but good death metal is quite difficult to write, perform, and record. Anytime a quality genre of music increases its commercial opportunity, and talented artists can find at least a semblance of financial stability in performing it, the consumers win. That’s us. So, rejoice!
More importantly, however, is the selection of records being chosen for coverage. In my estimation, the quality of death metal being covered by these publications has seen little dilution during the genre’s modest rise over the past few years. All of the above-mentioned bands write nasty, traditionally conscious, and challenging death metal that is as deserving of the classification as any of the genre’s forefathers were. Just look at Blood Incantation’s sophomore masterpiece Hidden History of the Human Race, which not only received a glowing review from none other than Pitchfork, but did so while presenting enough wildly trippy and fundamentally abrasive songwriting decisions to send most normies and indie kids screaming for the hills. These releases aren’t some watered down garbage built to cater to uninitiated listeners’ tastes; they’re slabs of pure, high-quality, uncompromising death metal that brings into focus all that is good, adventurous, and resonant with the genre. If that’s not awesome to you, get your fucking head checked.
On the grand scale of music coverage, death metal’s ascendence toward mainstream recognition is little more than a barely discernible blip on the radar. It’s awesome to see bands as fierce and traditionally minded as the above receiving much deserved recognition outside of the metal blogosphere, but their cultural impact is nowhere close to bands like Deafheaven or Tool, as frustrating as that may be. But that fact shouldn’t diminish the significance of 2019 on the international conversation surrounding modern death metal. As a deeply devoted fan of this music, it’s thrilling to see the music I love move out from the shadows and into some form of spotlight, however faint it may be. The death metal train shows no signs of slowing down, and it only seems poised to continue its rapid expansion. I cannot wait to see what the new decade brings. But regardless of that outcome, we’ll always have the 2010s to look back to as the second golden age of death metal. Long may it reign.
Demo-lition: The Return of the Underground’s Favorite Format
In part of my latest Kvlt Kolvmn segment on Icelandic black metal, I made an offhand comment that “we’re far removed from the days of tape trading.” Ironically, the whole premise of this piece is going to make an argument to the contrary (in a way). If you’ve followed death metal over the last few years (and if you’re reading this column, I assume you have), then you’ve likely noticed how much demos have skyrocketed in popularity and importance. Though the format has evolved significantly, demos are still a universally efficient means for bands to generate potentially lucrative buzz for their music.
Before I start rattling off band names, let me just say that there are too many quality examples from the list of demos I heard this year to include a truly exhaustive list. If you click on the death metal tab on Bandcamp, you’ll find page after page full of demos and EPs from bands of all sizes, some selling actual demo tapes and others just hoping to have their home studio recordings heard. My top personal favorites from this year include demos from Astriferous, Charnel Altar, Saprophage, Sedimentum, Total Isolation, and Undeath.
This isn’t even counting the insane amount of quality releases Maggot Stomp put out this year. Arriving seemingly out of nowhere in late 2018, the California label specializes in the type of caveman death metal that makes you want to…well, stomp some maggots. They’ve yet to add a subpar artist to their catalog, and their output from 2019 includes excellent releases from Abraded, Frozen Soul, Inoculation, Malignant Altar, Mortal Wound, Rotted, and more.
Beyond top tier curation, what’s refreshing about Maggot Stomp is how openly and fully they embrace their own specific death metal niche. Putting aside all the self-importance and quasi-cerebral philosophies that often plagues the genre (and metal in general), death metal at its core is a pretty goofy style of music. With all the cartoonish vocals and over-the-top instrumentation, it’s important to remember that death metal is just plain fun to listen to, something that Maggot Stomp emphasizes with everything they do.
Now we’ve arrived at the “why this is important” part of our lecture here today. My main point is actually pretty easy to summarize: demos can be a good gauge of what’s to come. If you haven’t looked yet, scroll down and check out our top albums of the year; I’ll wait. Now think back to some of your favorite demos and EPs from the last several years. Notice anything? Let me chime in. Do you remember Cessation of Life by Cerebral Rot? How about Surging Throng of Evil’s Might by Superstition? Sentient Pile of Amorphous Rot by Fetid?
The point should be clear: many of the hot demos of today could end up launching the careers of our next favorite death metal artists. Blood Incantation dropped several demos before catching fire with Starspawn, and Tomb Mold took a similar route before finally achieving stardom with Manor of Infinite Forms. In 2019, both these bands released two of the best and most celebrated death metal albums of the year. So while it might seem daunting to sift through the myriad of demos that flood Bandcamp on a daily basis, keep in mind that your next deep dive for a hidden gem might unearth a release from the next big thing in the genre.
Jonathan’s Top Records of 2019
25. Xoth – Interdimensional Invocation
24. An Isolated Mind – I’m Losing Myself
23. Gatecreeper – Deserted
22. Superstition – The Anatomy of Unholy Transformation
21. Fit For An Autopsy – The Sea of Tragic Beasts
20. Nile – Vile Nilotic Rites
19. The Drowning – The Radiant Dark
18. Disentomb – The Decaying Light
17. Eternal Storm – Come the Tide
16. Fuming Mouth – The Grand Descent
15. Fetid – Steeping Corporeal Mess
14. Hath – Of Rot and Ruin
13. Ceremony of Silence – Oútis
12. Altarage – The Approaching Roar
11. Weeping Sores – False Confession
10. Necropanther – The Doomed City
A world where death metal can’t be fun is a place where I don’t want to live. Thank our infernal underlords that we have Necropanther to make this world a very livable one. Everything about The Doomed City screams quality, but one of its most fundamentally unique and striking attributes is its absurd level of sustained enjoyability. I haven’t stopped listening to it since it first hit my ears, and any band that’s able to balance songwriting that’s intricate enough to stay interesting while never losing its sense of sheer fun is one for the ages. Necropanther are fast becoming one of the all-time greats.
9. Hideous Divinity – Simulacrum
Italy’s tech death mayhem-makers Hideous Divinity never struck me as particularly unique in their chosen field. It’s not that they weren’t talented and thoroughly enjoyable to listen to (they certainly are and were), but their music just never staked a claim on my year-end lists. Simulacrum changes all that. Not only is it the best record of the band’s career, but one of the more memorable and performatively extraordinary death metal records of the year. These tracks are both vicious (“Deleuzean Centuries”) and technically wondrous (“The Embalmer”), creating a brutal sonic world that’s infinitely enjoyable throughout. All hail the new titans of tech death.
Read More: Death’s Door
8. Teeth – The Curse of Entropy
A few months ago, I received a message from Scott claiming that Teeth had released an absolute banger, and if I knew what was good for me, I’d listen immediately. Knowing that Scott is a man of exquisite taste, I took his advice. I’m very glad I did. The Curse of Entropy is as assured a collection of grinding death metal as I’ve ever heard, mixing the feral nastiness of Our Place of Worship Is Silence with the unrelenting widescreen majesty of some of Full of Hell’s most recent work. It’s an utterly violent affair that won’t let your brain rest for a second, throwing out riff after grisly riff as if they grow on trees. As good a death-grind record as I’ve ever heard, and a collection that puts me forever in Scott’s debt (again).
7. Vitriol – To Bathe from the Throat of Cowardice
I wrote earlier this year that no one understands the core of the death metal aesthetic like Vitriol, and several months later I stand by that statement. To Bathe from the Throat of Cowardice is a revelation; a defining statement of malicious intent by a band that eats, drinks, and breathes the sonic spirit of death metal. “The Parting of a Neck” is a thoroughly disgusting display of the band’s prodigious talents, and one of my favorite death metal tracks of the year. There isn’t a single band on this list that bleeds greater pure death metal potential than Vitriol, and until they release their next opus, we’ll have their stunning debut to pulverize our minds into pink pulps again and again.
6. Devourment – Obscene Majesty
Brutal death metal and I have an on-again, off-again relationship. I suppose that’s just because Devourment don’t release new music every year. Obscene Majesty, their sixth full-length album and first since 2013, is one of the most definitive collection of brutal death metal I’ve heard. Ever, actually. This is utterly violent, slam-happy death that doesn’t loosen its death grip on your throat for 45-minutes, and is without question one of the most violent listening experiences I have ever had. That’s not even hyperbole, folks. Obscene Majesty is one of the best brutal death metal albums in a pure genre sense that I’ve heard in ages. It’s sheer insanity, and I love it with my whole heart. A masterpiece of the art form.
5. Abyssal – A Beacon in the Husk
Dissonant, unhinged death metal was in shorter supply to my ears in 2019 compared to previous years, but who needs more of it when we have Abyssal to keep the proverbial flame alive? A Beacon in the Husk was one of the more complex listens I undertook this year, and after dozens of journeys through its dark sonic corridors, I have become no less enamored with it. Following up a genre-defining work with another equally potent collection that builds on its predecessor’s qualities is no small feat, but Abyssal have done so here. A perplexing, maddening, utterly beguiling record that will stand long and proud on my dissonant death metal shelf.
4. Tomb Mold – Planetary Clairvoyance
There are only a few bands in the death metal world that have garnered more positive buzz than Tomb Mold, and rightfully so. Their first two records were fantastic examples of old school death metal done right, and were just progressive enough in structure to keep adventurous sorts like myself begging for more sonic exploration. My wish was granted in Planetary Clairvoyance, which is their best record by a country mile and also one of the most progressive records yet to be released in the OSDM revival. These songs bleed ambition, and they reach the lofty heights they aspire to on the regular. The band’s songwriting has never been stronger, and I cannot wait to see where they go next. A sheer delight from start to finish.
3. Unfathomable Ruination – Enraged & Unbound
Over the past several years, there’s been no more innovative and consistent name in the world of brutal death metal than Unfathomable Ruination. Not only do they have one of the best band names in the subgenre, but they make music to match. Enraged & Unbound is simply fantastic, mixing traditional and fundamentally violent brutal death metal with a progressive bent that is, in my mind, a herald of the next phase of growth in the subgenre. Unfathomable Ruination are as forward-thinking as a brutal death metal band can be, made all the more impressive by their unwaveringly perfect execution of the style. One of the best forward-thinking and progressive brutal death metal albums I’ve heard.
2. Wilderun – Veil of Imagination
Wilderun’s Veil of Imagination is a wondrous record. Full stop. Melding elements of folk, progressive, and death metal into an absolutely epic stew of influences that congeal into a sound that feels distinct yet traditional. It’s like Opeth on acid, blending beauty and brutality in such a unique and powerful sound. I cannot express strongly enough how deeply I enjoy this record, and in a less stellar year this would be a shoe-in for #1 on the year, but we have another incredible record taking that spot in 2019. Don’t let that diminish the magnitude of what Wilderun have accomplished here, which is nothing less than one of the most mesmerizing and truly exceptional progressive death metal releases we’ve seen in a very long time.
1. Blood Incantation – Hidden History of the Human Race
I mean, what’s left to say? It’s Blood Incantation, surprising to absolutely no one, delivering one of the most complex, fascinating, and expertly performed death metal albums of the decade. Hidden History of the Human Race is exquisitely intense, wildly imaginative, and everything I want a quality death metal album to be. If you somehow haven’t listened to this record yet…how? Also, if that’s the case, do so. Immediately. One of the most impressive examples of the genre in a decade.
Scott’s Top Records of 2019
25. Pissgrave – Posthumous Humiliation
24. Dawn of Nil – Culminating Ruins
23. Plaguebringer – Diabolos
22. Defacement – Deviant
21. Hate – Auric Gates of Veles
20. Witch Vomit – Buried Deep In a Bottomless Grave
19. Altarage – The Approaching Roar
18. Superstition – The Anatomy of Unholy Transformation
17. Abyssal – A Beacon In the Husk
16. Fetid – Steeping Corporeal Mess
15. Organectomy – Existential Disconnect
14. Cosmic Putrefaction – At the Threshold of the Greatest Chasm
13. Continuum – Designed Obsolescence
12. Disentomb – The Decaying Light
11. Foredoomed – Chaos and Beauty
10. Immortal Bird – Thrive On Neglect
It’s funny that, without coordination, Jonathan planned on including Immortal Bird in our 2019 black metal roundup for Kvlt Kolvmn, while I had it pegged as one of my favorite death metal releases of the year. The band straddle the line between the two genres seamlessly, with a little bit of sludge thrown into the mix for good measure. Whether you peg Thrive On Neglect more as a black or death metal record, it’s worthy of praise in both contexts, which speaks to the depth and quality of Immortal Bird’s sound. The album is nimble and biting, with an abundance of energy channeled into sucker punch riffs at a knockout pace.
9. Devourment – Obscene Majesty
It takes a lot for true blue brutal death metal to grab, and more importantly, retain my attention. The subgenre is often a bit too one-note and “style over substance” to have a long-term impact with me. So when Obscene Majesty blew me away as much as it did on first listen, I paid attention. Countless spins later, it’s one of my favorite death metal albums of the year, regardless of subgenre. Devourment have always been one of the top dogs in brutal death metal, and they’ve yet to release bad album. But whatever inspiration they took into the writing process for Obscene Majesty, it prompted them to tighten and invigorate their sound significantly. It’s still fast and brutal, but with just enough finesse to make the songwriting memorable.
8. Mylingar – Döda Själar
Who could have predicted that “cavernous death metal” would be a quasi-genre taken seriously in music circles? Maybe it won’t earn an official tag on Rate Your Music, but it’s a perfect descriptor for the kind of death metal Mylingar have mastered over their last few releases. This is dense, suffocating blackened murk that lands a stranglehold with its opening notes and doesn’t let the listener go during its entire runtime. Döda Själar might be the band’s finest offering yet, and it’s certainly one of the most oppressive, cavernous death metal releases of the year.
7. Ceremony of Silence – Oútis
In my original Death’s Door feature on Oútis, I described the album as a “blackened synthesis of Nile and Ulcerate with a faint hint of Portal thrown in the mix.” I’m pretty proud of that synopsis, as it should provide a clear portrait of the murky sound Ceremony of Silence have perfected. Adding atmosphere to airtight technicality isn’t new, but the way Ceremony of Silence achieves this blend is truly a sound all their own. Prepare for blast beats and dissonant tremolos swirling around you in impenetrable clouds of blackened death metal excellence.
6. Warforged – I: Voice
Of all the things worth celebrating about I: Voice, what’s perhaps most incredible is that this is Warforged‘s debut full-length. The amount of sonic detail on these tracks individually and collectively usually takes a few albums for bands to develop, yet here we are with a band operating at near peak performance right out of the gate. Everything you might love about progressive death metal is on display here, with the added bonus of emphasized heaviness. For all the forward-thinking ideas Warforged have to offer, they maintain pummeling heaviness on each track to remind the listeners that they’re still a death metal band at their core.
5. Teeth – The Curse of Entropy
There’s always a late-year gem that’s criminally overlooked simply because of the month it was released. If The Curse of Entropy came out in the summer or early fall, it would easily land among everyone’s top death metal albums of the year. Regardless, it’s earned a well-deserved spot in my top five, a place it solidified from the first time I pressed play on the album. Though they’re also incredible songwriters, what Teeth excel at most is pure, passionate execution. Anything a death metal could possibly want is on this album. Breakneck speed? Brutal riffs? Just the right amount of dissonance? Check, check, check. Every songs has at least one moment that inspires an immediate angry face and aggressive headbanging, and more often than not, you’ll find yourself in this pose throughout entire tracks.
4. Vitriol – To Bathe from the Throat of Cowardice
Have you ever labeled a contemporary band as an exact descendent of a genre predecessor, yet been totally comfortable with the comparison? In these instances, the distinction between plagiarism and reinvigorated emulation is slim, but incredibly rewarding when executed well. That’s exactly what we have with Vitriol, whom I label as “Hate Eternal 2.0″ with as much affection and admiration as possible. To Bathe from the Throat of Cowardice is the most intense, aggressive death metal album of the year precisely because Vitriol successfully update what Erik Rutan and Co. have done so well, presenting that late-’90s/early-’00s death metal sound with a modern, impeccably produced redux. By the time you finish, you’ll likely run out of nearby objects to smash to pieces as you stomp through a death metal-inspired rage.
3. Tomb Mold – Planetary Clairvoyance
As someone who remembers the giddy feeling I had when I first discovered Primordial Malignity, watching Tomb Mold‘s meteoric rise has been heartwarming (or at least as much as a death metal album can tug at your heart strings). The band’s album covers somewhat tell the story of the their evolution, morphing from a gritty, black-and-white delivery into a colorful, sophisticated presentation that even the Pitchfork crowd can get behind. What continues to set Tomb Mold apart is their ability to capture both the classic progressive and pure old school slants of ’90s death metal and deliver it in a way all their own. Planetary Clairvoyance is as fun and intriguing as Tomb Mold have always been, something they will maintain as their career progresses.
2. Wilderun – Veil of Imagination
Jonathan and I debated whether we should include Veil of Imagination in our Death’s Door roundup this year. To be clear, this had absolutely nothing to do with the album’s quality; it’s by far one of the best progressive (death) metal albums released this decade. Yet, as much as Wilderun can be placed within the “Opeth school of prog death,” their music is about so much more and reaches such greater heights. Folk and symphonic elements help Wilderun achieve a supremely majestic and (you guessed it) imaginative sound, an approach which hits all the soaring highs and bone-crushing lows that fans of prog death expect. It may not be a pure, by-the-book death metal record, but frankly, that’s what makes it such a resounding success.
1. Blood Incantation – Hidden History of the Human Race
When I try to find my album of the year in any given genre, I assess candidates based on three major criteria: the quality of the music (obviously), the longevity it might have in my rotation, and how likely it is to be considered an essential release from the genre at some point in the future. Blood Incantation absolutely nails each of these benchmarks on Hidden History of the Human Race, an album that sounded more like a future classic than any other death metal album I heard this year. The cosmic-obsessed quartet accomplishes more with four tracks and a roughly half-hour runtime than other bands merely attempt for with twice those parameters. It’s atmospheric and progressive one moment and crushing and blistering the next, played in exactly the right sequence with impeccable songwriting and execution. Put simply, it’s the greatest death metal album of the year.