(NCS contributor Alain Mower — who needs to continue his “Womanowar” interview series in the New Year (hint, hint) — again provides us a year-end list of favorite 2014 releases.)
For the newcomers who were fortunate enough to not stumble upon my end-of-the-year list in 2013, I will be the first to tell you that – while predominantly metal – this is not a strictly ‘No Clean Singing’ metal year-end list, but a list of any and all albums that I thought were objectively the most enjoyable.
Also, as the masochists who visited my 2013 list and have made the questionable decision to return for this edition will inform you, my music tastes are a Rorschach spectrum of possibilities.
As you might imagine, the open-ended format coupled with scattershot musical tastes produces what Islander refers to as a “wonderfully eclectic list of favorite releases” – also known as the “Why didn’t we use protection?” child, of which I consider myself a proud member.
So yes, while “words are wind,” there are non-metal albums in this list and, unfortunately, “Gorguts” was not my favorite album of this year because I’m trying to be different and only appeal to hipsters. You have been forewarned.
40. Woman is the Earth – Depths [Init Records]
Atmospheric black metal has a home, and that home is… South Dakota? Depths” along with their brilliant 2011 album This Place That Contains My Spirit, could make a strong argument. With a sound that seems to resonate from the Rocky Mountains – no place more fittingly so than SD’s Black Hills – fans of WitTR or Ash Borer should look no further. At just over 24 minutes, I only wish it would last longer. Beautiful.
39. Hail Mary Mallon – Bestiary [Rhymesayers]
Aesop Rock and Rob Sonic have the kind of chemistry that creates a protein to cure cancer – if they ever stop having fun swapping references like 4th string criminal trading cards. A loosely linear story, Bestiary is watching a secret handshake between two of the genre’s best. Also, aside from being the most cleverly titled track of the year, the bass-pounding, tongue-in-cheek-biting “Whales” might also be my song of the year. Here’s to Sonic Rock: cheers.
38. Wreck and Reference – Want [The Flenser]
Samples, drums, and bottomless despair are the foundations for this Los Angeles experimental noise/drone duo. A poignant self-shot album cover is indicative of what is to be found inside: the consumption of poison as a luxury, striking metaphorical symbolism, and disjointed brilliance.
37. Hiss Tracts – Shortwave Nights [Constellation Records]
A collaborative project between David Bryant of Montreal’s infamous post-rock pioneers, Godspeed You! Black Emperor, and Kevin Doria of Olympia, Wash.’s experimental drone/ambient group, Growing. Showcasing the strengths of each, this collaboration leads to a blend of drone foundations and minimal, yet captivating, melody lines and evokes a “listening to a radio under your covers as the last light of civilization flickers out” feel.
36. Lord Mantis – Death Mask [Profound Lore]
Produced by one of the handful of predominantly Chicagoan sludge/noise bands making more noise than ears can process in the extreme metal forefront, Death Mask is march-driven and sounds like a call-and-response between serial killers and their victims. While Wrest of Leviathan’s perturbing artwork might have dominated underground news cycles, even the cover can’t hold a sacrificial candle to the self-deprecating, deranged sounds it contains. Uncomfortable at best.
35. Godflesh – A World Lit Only by Fire [Avalanche]
This is not an extension of Justin Broadrick’s post-rock project Jesu, or even late 90’s/millennium Us and Them or Hymns; no, this is the industrial hard-hitting, jadedly unbridled hate that is late 80’s/early 90’s Streetcleaner and Pure” If you ever find yourself wondering how early Godflesh would sound with modern recording techniques that more accurately capture the sonic beating that still to this day never fails to leave you bloodied and bruised, wonder no more.
34. Vindensång – Alpha [Independent]
Easily one of my most anticipated albums of the year, this follow-up to the ambient, atmosphere-driven masterpiece that was their debut Terminus… did not disappoint. How easy it is to lose yourself in this album and drift between this world and the next, only realizing you’ve reached a type of “watching waves crash over a deserted shore for hours” transcendence when the last triumphant tones fade away to leave you in a suddenly more present reality.
33. Conan – Blood Eagle [Napalm Records]
Few albums hit as hard this year as this Liverpool trio’s thick-stringed, stoner doom opus, Blood Eagle. This is an album so sonically pummeling, it’s difficult to find space for air; Conan have perfected their up-tempo stoner riff foundation to “drop the bottom out of everything” doom. Couple in the songwriting for this riff-heavy record and let me tell you, the result is barbaric in every way.
32. Timbre Timbre – Hot Dreams [Arts & Crafts]
A folk and blues album displaced from some vintage Spaghetti Western’s whisky-shooting, smoky-bar-cot-recovering, hauntingly macabre, Johnny Cash-esque storytelling from an era long past, Hot Dreams features the baritone voice of a much traveled, weary straight shooter. Classic folk is levied with heavy use of mellotron to create a seeping psychedelic, fever-dream feel.
31. Full of Hell – Full of Hell & Merzbow [Profound Lore]
Pair emerging East Coast hardcore/grind band Full of Hell with crippling industrial noise from Japanese pundit Merzbow, and you get this unsettling piece of nihilistic ugliness. The most poignant album Merzbow has worked on since Sun Baked Snow Cave with Boris, the album comes across as a call and response from a operation-room patient straddling the bridge between the transitory chaos of life, and the oppressive, drawn-out darkness that is the next life.
30. Alex Cobb – Marigold and Cable [Shelter Press]
One of the most organic ambient/drone listens I have ever come across. I was both surprised and not at all surprised to find that the entirety of this album was recorded live (guitar, no loops or synthesizers), with minimal overdubbing. Anyone who works with his Student of Decay label comments that Alex Cobb is a consummate perfectionist, and that certainly bleeds through this album.
29. Culted – Oblique to All Paths [Relapse]
The juxtaposition of huge, hook-laden sludge doom riffs with an “emerging from out of the haze” black metal vocal delivery is complemented by atmospheric sample passages and starkly discordant transitions to produce one of the biggest low-fi sounding records to ever exist.
28. Christina Vantzou – No. 2 [Kranky]
Skillfully orchestrated, minimal contemporary classical, reflective of what is showing up with more frequency in modern Ulver and even *gasp* Sunn O))) releases. Christina Vantzou navigates these waters with a 15-piece orchestra in a drawn-out, woeful fashion, allowing strings and oboes to punctuate the ambience with emotionally reflective melodies.
27. Epistasis – Light Through Dead Glass [Crucial Blast Records]
I’m strongly averse to EP’s on my year-end list, as artists experimenting with their sound without unjust expectations for future releases is important to me. But, as Ash Borer’s Bloodlands, Agalloch’s Faustian Echoes, and Bölzer’s Aura have shown, I’m not above being so blown away that I can’t help but feature an EP. This is an experimental coupling of, I want to say, Portal and Akercocke, but that still doesn’t feel like the right comparison for this avant-garde jazz-metal-meets-menacing-death-metal quintet.
26. Dirge – Hyperion [Division Records]
A sludgy post-metal release reminiscent of early Neurosis aggression with Isis atmosphere, Hyperion distinguishes itself through a range of vocal stylings, intricate details, and a pacing that uncompromisingly drags in the listener with both tempo and its demands for deliberate attention.
25. Artificial Brain – Labyrinth Constellation [Profound Lore]
If sci-fi-themed technical death metal that maintains complexity without sacrificing twisted, guttural brutality is what you asked Krampus for this holiday season, he continues to deliver. As seems to be the case with any record that is produced in Colin Marston‘s Thousand Caves studio, the unique, clean, minimal-effects sound circumnavigates many exhausted death metal aesthetics and helps the quality of the songwriting shine through.
24. Cloud Nothings – Here and Nowhere Else [Carpark Records]
While not as explorative of the punk and hardcore sounds that shadowed the indie rock in their 2012 album, Attack on Memory, Here and Nowhere Else still delivers the big choruses, emotional vocal deliveries, and exceptional songwriting that make this band such a breath of fresh air.
23. Pyrrhon – The Mother of Virtues [Relapse]
It’s been unfortunate to see this mangled death metal release overlooked on year-end lists, as too many music reviewers are friends with Pyrrhon vocalist/Stereogum contributor, Doug Moore. I, however, having never talked to the man, can only base my opinion on his band’s musical output and have come to the conclusion that he is a relentlessly progressive, caustically spitting, filthy inhuman being of a carcinogen with whom I would never want to acquaint myself. This album, however, is something I never want to unacquaint myself with: aural insanity.
22. Run the Jewels – Run the Jewels 2 [Mass Appeal]
This collaborative effort pairs the uncompromising, scatter-shotgun, straight-shooting of Atlanta’s Killer Mike with today’s unquestioned top hip-hop producer and left wing/left field lyricist El-P to devastating effect. Following in the debut self-titled’s footsteps, RTJ2 was released free to download, and is meant as a Mike Tyson punch to the face of major-label hip-hop music – or, as RTJ calls them, fuckboys. Listen, or risk having your poodle shot.
21. Thaw – Earth Ground [Instant Classic]
The use of dissonant guitar with face-cringing noise and vocal assaults layered throughout the space in this album gives a chaotic feel reminiscent of recent Deathspell Omega releases, but with more moments of space and resolution (for better or worse): contemplative and explorative. “Nergal, I’m really happy for you beating cancer and putting out the most relevant Behemoth album in over a decade, I’mma let you finish, but Thaw put out the best Polish black metal album this year.” – Yeezus
20. Falls of Rauros – Believe in No Coming Shore [Bindrune]
After their precursory split with Panopticon, it was a safe bet that this album would be special, but by mother earth, is it good. The use of fluid progressions through constantly shifting soundscapes is supported by a stripped-down effects usage that truly complements the sound and aesthetic. If the new Agalloch record caught you off guard and didn’t quite manage to fulfill that alluring folk-infused, sprawling post-black metal fix, look no further than this record.
19. Emptiness – Nothing But the Whole [Dark Descent]
This is one of a handful of albums this year (along with Death Mask, Hyperion, and Sacred White Noise) that fully undermines the saying “you can’t judge a book by its cover.” I bought this album because of the artwork, and I can assure you that the unsettling, neck-hair-raising, uniquely evil vibe from the image that slowly suffocates your senses is exactly what you find within. One of the most unique takes on black death I’ve ever come across, to strong effect.
18. Taurus – No/Thing [Devout Records]
An album I consider myself extremely fortunate to have stumbled upon. I saw the enthralling duo of Dark Castle’s Stevie Floyd and Purple Rhinestone Eagle’s Ashley Spungin open for Agalloch and was floored by the unusual meditative, yet sinister, sound that is mastered to beautiful and horrific results on No/Thing. The vocals, featuring guest appearances from both Billy Anderson and Wrest, alternate between cosmically ethereal and eye-twitchingly unnerving and highlight the indiscernible sound that is Taurus.
17. Torch Runner – Endless Nothing [Southern Lord]
Endless Nothing is anything but. While only clocking in at just over 22 minutes, I barely have enough stamina to make it through this album and hold myself together in one piece. This blackened hardcore trio is the Nails of this year: an unhealthy habit that’s addicting to a fault.
16. Anjou – Anjou [Kranky]
Ambience built on a drone foundation is not new, but the things this trio do to augment that mold in their debut album are staggering. Whether it’s the layering of drones giving way to punctuating, IDM noise melodies, encompassing synth lines, or the “holy snap, where did that cool ass percussion come from and how does it fit so well into something that should not have had space for it,” this album is a breath of fresh air. Literally, it’s breathing on manual.
15. Hexis – Abalam [Halo of Flies]
If the feeling of running full-speed headlong into a thick, dense wall were to be put to music – the adrenaline, the callous dismissal of personal safety, the freeing one’s self of the bonds of this world, the impact, the surprise, the pain – Abalam would be it. Yet another black-metal/hardcore blending – these Danes write music almost as nonstop as their touring schedule, and every bit as punishing.
14. Oozing Wound – Earth Suck [Thrill Jockey]
With high-energy, headbanging riffs that hit with hooks stiffer than Muhammad Ali, Earth Suck is the most fun album of the year. With tracks like “Hippie Speedball,” “Genuine Creeper,” and “Going Through the Motions ‘Til I Die,” this Chicago trio rips, and this album is a crossover slayer.
13. Indian – From All Purity [Relapse]
You don’t need me to tell you that it was a brilliant year for hard-hitting tunes out of Chicago, but shoot mans, it was such a good year. And what better way to cap it than with what might be the most compelling and extreme vocal performance I’ve ever heard in sludge metal – it’s eviscerating! – and, coupled with the doom tempos and suffocating noise, you get this refined approach to anguish.
12. Panopticon – Roads to the North [Bindrune Recordings]
The best one-man black metal project in the scene is raising the bar with every release. This is not the kind of superfluous exaggeration to which review writers are prone — I’m completely serious. Austin Lunn is on another level and he showcases it once again in Roads to the North. Just when you thought it couldn’t get any better, it has.
11. Swans – To Be Kind [Young God / Mute]
In as uncompromising an album as any, Michael Gira continues to push the boundaries of observation and music’s ability to capture the human condition. Though just as colossal in scope and approach, this is not a follow up to its predecessor, 2012’s masterpiece, The Seer. No, this is a much more difficult pill to swallow and I can’t promise you the cure to ignorance is worth the cure of awareness.
10. Giant Squid – Minoans [Translation Loss]
Since their inception, Giant Squid have been pushing the boundaries of conceptual storytelling through progressive, genre-warping metal music. This thalassic group plays tribute both to the majesty of the beauteous deep, as well as the furious might that can dwell just beneath the surface.
9. The Body – I Shall Die Here [Rvng International]
My EotY list for 2013 featured high-ranking releases from both the genre-defying extreme metal duo that is The Body, and overwhelming “thread between life and death”-centric electronic musician and producer Bobby Ktlic (a.k.a. The Haxan Cloak). Needless to say, this was easily one of my most anticipated releases of the year, and it still managed to surpass all expectations. From the opening blood-curdling scream, to the music videos I legitimately couldn’t make it through, this was the most unsettling album of the year in a year of exceptionally unsettling albums. It sees The Body continue to experiment with space and sound in ways only your nightmares can conceive of.
8. Fen – Carrion Skies [Code666 Records]
Fen’s 2009 debut, The Malediction Fields, is on my short list for best debut albums of all time, so I’ve kept my finger on the pulse of this band since. While it’s been a long road fraught with experimentation and evolution (a road, I must confess, I have enjoyed), I have definitely missed the more primally nihilistic beginnings that first brought me to Fen. But I lead this life of longing no longer. Carrion Skies is a continuation of the album that penned Fen next to Agalloch in the post-black metal cannon, tribalistic nature appreciation and all.
7. Svffer – Lies We Live [Halo of Flies]
German hardcore grind that truly puts both the power and violence in “my ears are bleeding, and I like it.” It’s incredible to see an album that is just as much standalone tracks, that each would appropriately augment the compilation revolution, as much as a full album with true vision and direction.
6. Coffinworm – IV.I.VIII [Profound Lore]
Indianapolis is known as a mixing pot of cultures and, in some maladjusted way, Coffinworm channels this identity through it black doom, death sludge sound. The most hateful album of the year, IV.I.VIII is built upon diversity: songwriting, tempos, styles, and extreme vocal deliveries. Nothing is forced, every piece flows from one into the next, yet each track has its own unique, unbending identity.
5. Holy Sons – The Fact Facer [Thrill Jockey]
Multi-instrumentalist extraordinaire Emil Amos – member of Grails, Om, Jandek, and Lilacs & Champagne – fronts this solo cassette-tape-tracking transcendent venture into lo-fi psychedelic folk bliss and is writing music at a level of prolific quality and quantity. It’s difficult to believe the man is not the prophet of some greater power.
4. Grouper – Ruins [Kranky]
Who could have ever predicted that stripping away some of the most iconic elements that make Liz Harris’ Grouper uniquely and incomparably Grouper would lead to one of the best albums she’s ever made? Stripped of the drown-in-reverb approach, has an album ever sounded so vulnerable, beautiful, and emotionally provoking? Even when she revisits her more traditional effect-laden sound, this album never loses its momentum, and forever captivates.
3. Thou – Heathen [Gilead Media]
Just when you start to fall into the false sense of comfort that Thou can’t possibly become any more dynamic, they hit you with titanic riffs and continue to pass off the most timeless logical appeals and arguments as lyrics, delivered by what can only be the usher of the end times.
2. Thantifaxath – Sacred White Noise [Dark Descent]
Thantifaxath employs an esoteric, math-rock approach to discordant black metal to inundate listeners with a morbid curiosity fueled by a fascination with the abomination. The vocal performances on the back half of this album are as emotionally fixating and heart-rending as anything I’ve ever heard.
1. Young Widows – Easy Pain [Temporary Residence]
This trio is some sort of noise rock, post-punk intersection of ugliness, power, adrenaline, and addiction. Nothing about this album is clean and, with a sound this all-encompassing, you could easily convince me this is some volume-fueled Swans side project. This is the type of album that you can’t help but get a noise ordinance violation every time you spin it – and yes, it’s worth it every time.