Change is overrated. There’s this idea that if you look back at the recent [insert time period here] and you don’t see change in your life, you’re doing something wrong. This simple difference comparison is then labelled “growth” and, under the same logic as the capitalist market, is put on a pedestal as one of the main hallmarks of a life well lived. Or at least a period of time contributing towards a life well lived. Well, I’m here to tell you that’s bullshit; it’s alright to stay the same. Certainly there are areas of ourselves we should strive to improve but maintaining your life, your personality, the things you love about yourself, is just a big of a deal as working on the stuff that needs improvement. We are under constant pressure, from within and without, to make ourselves anew, to push ourselves harder, and, more often than not, these pressures are in service of a market which would make us more profitable, more “efficient”, more easy to digest. But what good is change if you’re not changing for something and isn’t the best thing to be changing for a measure of stability, satisfaction, and happiness in life? Why would you want to change those aspects of your life which bring you to those coveted emotions?
2019 was (another) incredibly good year for Heavy Blog but it wasn’t marked by change. Instead, we stayed our course and stood our ground as a mountain of amazing music crashed on top of us. Sure, we saw “growth” from a numbers stand point; that’s one possible marker for a good year. But, more importantly, this year we got to see our resilience as a group of people who write together handle one of the greatest years for metal ever. That’s no joke: there were reviews pouring in from everywhere, premieres to run, columns to write, and a monstrous best of the year list to aggregate. And we did it. It might have looked like business as usual from your end but, for me at least, it felt stressful and it now feels incredibly precious and powerful. More than anything, we managed to stick to our guns in making longform, quality content in the face of multiple vectors, pressures, and trends telling us we should do otherwise. As we have done for the past few years, we’ve chosen to write what we love instead of what might sell and, thanks in huge part to you, our great readers, we’ve been successful at it from the “objective” standpoint as well.
Which is not to say that we’re going to be resting on our laurel leaves. It’s a bit premature to reveal details just yet but we’re going to be changing up some things around here, mostly to make our lives a bit more saner and to focus on the content we actually feel is important, in a format that we feel will be better received and easier to read. We are planning on redoubling our efforts to move from the transient, the arbitrary, the immediate, and further into the realm of the interesting, the deep, the timeless. But that’s in the future and I don’t want to be too vague here or jump the gun on things that haven’t yet come to fruition.
So, in the spirit of not changing, I think I’ll take a page out of Eden – the 2018 Version (great guy) and spend the rest of this post focusing on some of the “musical moments” that most moved me in 2019. Rather than an attempt to encapsulate the year, or even an exercise in focusing on its “most important” moments, the idea with this kind of post is to focus on the personal meeting points between my taste, my emotional makeup this year, and the music which was released. This is not me “filling in the blanks” for our end of year list or shining a light on phenomena which I think were “important” (although some of the below definitely were). It’s more about giving you a peek into what moved me this year and what, when I look back in 2019, I might remember the most. You see, it’s not about how the year made me grow or change or even about some grand narrative trying to boil down the year into an easy to digest story. Instead, it’s “just” an attempt to reach out from within these words and communicate who I was with music this year and, perhaps, to introduce you to some music you might have missed.
No grand gestures. No growth. No incessant, hungry, futile attempts at being a prophet. Just you, me, and some great music. Let’s get started.
A Time For Courage At The Borderlands – The Very Good Not Bad Year of Black Metal
Black metal – you either love it or you hate it. Actually, that’s not true; black metal is incredibly complex and my relationship with it is complex as well. On one hand, it’s hard to ignore the devastating proliferation of heinous ideology that is not only rampant in the genre today but has been a part of its DNA from day one. On the other, it’s not a battle I want to cede to the fascist, as black metal has incredible potential for the oppressed, for the silenced, for the subaltern, a wide and powerful stage for them to speak from. What better medium to transmit the cry of the oppressed, their suffering, than a genre wholly dedicated to the dark sides of human nature? What are the darkest places inside of us, that we must excise through the catharsis of art among other methods, than those which make us bigots, filled with hatred? Black metal is perfectly poised to tackle these ideas and themes and so, I remain torn, scrutinizing any black metal band I post about, any artist in the genre whose music I decide to spread, so that I can amplify the voices within which deserve to be heard rather than those who would silence others. And I still get it wrong.
2019 was a great year for this struggle; it definitely felt like more people were standing up to join the fight for black metal. Where previous years were marked with a sort of dejection with black metal (although, of course, other voices always existed) and a desire to leave it be, 2019 saw a whole slew of amazing bands with explicitly anti-fascist ideologies release black metal in 2019. Two of the main ones, or at least the ones whose music I loved the most, were Ashbringer and Exulansis. For them, the vision of black metal that I painted above seemed clear and obvious; they use this music crying forth from the most taboo and extreme parts of our soul to speak about the pain and dejection that is modern, capitalist, life.
First and foremost, naturally, their music is amazing, devoid of its ideology. Ashbringer’s Absolution brought me the kind of grandiose-yet-intimate, massive-yet-personal black metal that I love, expertly weaving in their folk instruments and their expansive compositions into the mix. Exulansis’ Sequestered Sympathy is one of the saddest, most heart-wrenching albums I’ve heard in a while, deftly weaving doom and black metal into one evocative whole. Both albums make good on their black metal roots by exploiting and leaning into the epic bent that the genre has always been best at, painting gigantic landscapes, struggles, and personal upheavals and channeling them through furious, abrasive, and poignant music.
But, of course, separating their music from their ideology is nonsense; it is a key component in their identity. Ashbringer have a track that describes the utopia to which anti-fascism (and leftism in general) aspires to, a world where equality reigns and we have shrugged off the yoke of our cruel masters. Exulansis are a bit more subtle about it but, if you listen closely, their insistence of the role of the human in creation, of connection and empathy, is at the core of any good leftist ideology. From different directions, both releases show us that black metal can indeed focus on the actually radical instead of the superficially shocking and drive deep into the core of what’s wrong with our society rather than focusing on what makeup we wear or what clothes we don. Put together, alongside a few other (stellar) releases from this year, both albums showcase the untapped potential in black metal to be a force for good and the roads we might take towards tapping it.
Sunshine Command-line – Falling Back in Love with Synthwave
Synthwave is a troublesome genre since, like all retro genres, it is fueled by nostalgia and hype. One of the biggest musical stories of the decade, the initial explosion which made synthwave uber-popular (including among metalheads, a sub-phenomenon well worthy of research) is pretty much over and we are living in the “after days”. We live in days where Perturbator albums are sold-out, where synthwave releases hit us from left and right, where live acts like Carpenter Brut fill festival tents, where synthwave is all over movies and hit TV shows. We also live in days where synthwave has lost much of its shine, much of the uniqueness, deviance, and freshness (if such a term is even relevant to a genre looking back three decades ago) that sprung from “the Hotline Miami explosion”, much of what made it exciting and cutting edge. It often feels like the genre has been masticated to death, sub-par releases making up most of it, in true adherence to Sturgeon’s Law, surfing the mediums it is native to like Bandcamp or Spotify in droves, drowning us in mediocrity and volume.
In that context, 2019 felt like a breath of fresh air. So many incredible releases suddenly appeared in the fallow fields of synthwave that, for the first time in years, I found myself actively listening to the genre and seeking out new releases within it. I had pretty much settled to only listen to the albums which made it out of the noise of my friends’ listening lists, those albums that really stood out enough to reach my ears. But this year, I actively trawled Bandcamp tags and blogs, looking for my next synth-y hit. The first breeze of this storm, for me at least, came in the form of a release from an established act, namely Waveshaper‘s Artifact. Probably Waveshaper’s best album, it shirks off so many of the tired tropes of the genre. Instead of hollow crescendos or an over-reliance on tones, Artifact uses clever composition and an agile structure to bewilder, bedazzle, and enchant its listener into a realm of glistening code and futuristic possibilities.
But the good synthwave gospel was also sung by smaller, less well-known artists this year. Chief among them is Micronode, sporting one of my favorite album covers of the year. Micronode plays a more chiptune, hardcore kind of synthwave, tapping into the old-school technological core of the genre. Personal Computer is a hell of an album, filled with both “harsh” beats (just listen to those almost dungeon synth drums and lines on opener “LAN Party”) and dreamy, chiller beats to set any electronic fan’s heart at ease. More than anything, it’s an album that lets you get lost within it, painting its own uncompromising, wholly unique atmosphere and environment. In a genre that sees it fit to replicate a common aesthetic, perhaps in subservience to the machines which it adulates, such uniqueness is refreshing and it was present everywhere in synthwave this year.
Another theme that was prominent this year was the dreamy sort of urbanity you get when you meld synthwave with more ambient music on one side and more glitchy, chiptune influenced sounds on the other. Nowhere else was this better brought forth than on City Girl‘s double release, Somnolent Nova / Chroma Velocity. While the former was dreamy and enchanting, the latter was more upbeat and self-possessed. Both releases had an absolutely unique feel to them, building their own world from tone, texture, and mood. Now that winter is here, I find myself going back to both albums even more as they are the perfect soundtrack to walking through a city drenched with rain. Something about their warmness, their aloof-yet-connected feeling just speaks volumes, much louder than any massive synth wall or mighty bass. Like a lot of the synthwave I loved this year, these two albums obscure their core with a “chill” exterior, hiding much to love and pick apart beneath it.
I, for one, welcome our robot overlords and it was a joy to get lost, once again, for the first time in years, in the realm of the digitized machine.
Violence, A Worthy Truth – Reconnecting With Aggression
I’ve always had a deep connection to the violence and power at the root of metal. It’s probably what first drew me to the genre, as a teenager. Like many other men at that age, I had a ton of emotion that wasn’t seeing healthy release and, for me, anger was chief among them. I would yell constantly, even when I wasn’t annoyed, and I’d be hot-headed in general, unwilling to listen and empathize with the person in front of me. Metal was an instrumental part in learning to deal with that pent up anger and lead a more healthy, stable mental life. But, funnily enough, once that anger was more or less resolved, I found my taste for the more violent and straight-forward styles of metal to have waned. It’s not that I held off from them entirely; I listened to pretty pissed off albums over the years. But in 2019, I found myself reconnecting with that part of me and the ways in which metal channeled, stoked, and resolved it. Maybe it’s the continuing inaction in the face of climate change that’s making me angry. Maybe it’s looking around me and seeing so many of my friends still struggling to make a living. Maybe it’s just the amount of time that I’ve spent on Earth.
Whatever might have lead me to it, violent, aggressive, and expressive metal was all over my musical year. Chief among these explosive releases is Vitriol‘s To Bathe From the Throat of Cowardice. Back when I had heard their first EP a year or so ago, I coined the genre “death metal that makes you go aaaaahhhhhh” to describe their sound to my friends. That was a joke but, like all good jokes, it holds a kernel of truth. Vitriol don’t exactly make a sort of revolutionary music but god damn if they don’t make it sound more pissed off, in your face, and just plain pummeling than anyone else in the field today. When you’re at the end of a long day, when the world around you seems callous and cruel (which it is) and you just want metal that will unlock the molten core of rage bubbling up inside of you there is no more fitting key than this album. In riff, blast-beat, and scream Vitriol will help you unleash your anger like no other release in 2019.
Death metal might be mightily suited to help you channel aggression but it’s far from the only one to do so. Hell, you don’t even need to make music that’s super heavy in order to channel anger. One of the albums that most exemplified this in 2019 was my album of the year, Bent Knee‘s You Know What They Mean. The band have always had a core of anger bubbling in the background of their music (“If I could go back, one thing I would do / Try to unravel, cut down, and unscrew /The first double helix that links me to you” is still one of the best generational angst lyrics I’ve ever heard) but they’ve truly let it fly free on You Know What They Mean. From the hectic and blatant “Bone Rage” to the insistence of individual expression on “Catch Light”, the album is filled with a powerful, cleansing, and empowering kind of anger and passion. Its contrast with the more subtle and imaginative elements on the album is exactly what makes the release so powerful but there are days when I just want to scream along with Courtney Swain and turn over some piece of equipment or other while rocking out.
Last, but definitely not least, one simply cannot forgot Ithaca‘s nuclear The Language of Injury which brought us what is probably 2019’s best, most aggressive, most satisfying breakdown in the form of “Impulse Crush”‘s mighty ending. The album is chock full of blistering fury, channeling its brand of chaotic hardcore into a swirling mass of purple, black, and red displeasure at oneself, at one’s friends, at life, at society, at capitalism, and at the shit we put up with daily as an excuse for a proper way of living. I also got to see the band live this year and let me tell you: catch them live if you can. I’ve never felt more hair-tingling anger made palpable in my life and it was an experience I’ll never forget. And their set was only twenty minutes or so; imagine what a full one would do.
That’s it. 2019. Go live your life. Fuck growth. Fuck change. Fuck efficiency and productivity, fuck introspection unless you want it, unless looking inside if what’s good for you, for you and no one else. Go do the things which give you pleasure and make you happy; go perform the routines which make you feel sane in a world that is basically, irrevocably, insane. No matter how unmarketable or unprofitable they are. Fuck profit. You’re beautiful just the way you are; you’re good enough, you’re sufficient and beyond, you’re great. And if anyone gives you any shit about it, tell them Eden said so. That should sort them out.
See you in 2020.