(Andy Synn’s five-part retrospective on the year in metal continues with his list of the “Critical Top 10”. Previous installments on the “Great”, the “Good”, and the “Disappointing” albums can be found here, here, and here.)
So there’s just two more lists left this week, and then I’m (almost, maybe, possibly, ok not really…) done rounding up this past year in metal.
To differentiate between the two, I’ve dubbed them (as in previous years), the “Personal Top 10” and the “Critical Top 10”, as I’ve taken a slightly different approach to compiling each one. The “Personal” list is, as you might have guessed, simply a list of my ten favourite albums of the year, which simply gives an insight into my own personal tastes and preferences, whereas the “Critical” list is where I’ve tried to be as impartial as possible, and really select albums which I think I could (semi)objectively justify as being the year’s best.
However, this year I’ve made the decision not to explicitly rank the “Critical Top 10” albums – partially because I was having enough trouble just slimming my initial list of candidates down to just 10 in the first place, and partly because I’ve decided to try and do things slightly differently this year – and instead I’ve tried to focus more on providing what I think is a cultural (and critical) snapshot of the year, selecting ten albums, from across the length and breadth of the metal spectrum, that I think embody the spirit and variety of the genre, as well as being amongst the best that 2014 has had to offer.
Think of it like a time-capsule of the year in metal, with me trying to select ten representatives that future generations will be able to look back on with a mixture of awe and incredulity.
Anyway, enough of my rambling. After the jump, my selections for ten of the best, most critically praised albums of 2014!
Actually, some honourable mentions first. If this were a top 15 list, then I’m pretty sure these would also have made the cut. Alas, the Top 10 system is a cruel mistress, and not everyone can be included. But I felt like I wanted to mention these albums at least in passing.
Agalloch – The Serpent & The Sphere
Truly epic in sound and scope, and in my opinion one of their finest albums to date.
Blut Aus Nord – Memoria Vetusta III: Saturnian Poetry
A near perfect example of Black Metal’s primal grandeur.
Cynic – Kindly Bent to Free Us
Seemingly forgotten by a lot of people, this really is a prog-lover’s delight.
Horizon Ablaze – Dødsverk
Apparently flying under a lot of people’s radars, this is one truly twisted slab of Black/Death Metal.
Thy Darkened Shade – Liber Lucifer I: Khem Sedjet
One of the most ambitious and audacious Black Metal albums I’ve heard in years.
So, with that out of the way, on to the real meat of this year’s “Critical Top 10”
Lord Mantis – Death Mask
When it comes to sheer emotional catharsis and intensity, few albums this year have had the ungodly impact of Death Mask. Brimming with all-too-human hatred and self-loathing, it’s as dense a concoction of emotional turmoil as I’ve ever had the (dis)pleasure of listening to. The riffs are gnarled and angular, dissonant, depraved… the vocals utterly wrenching and tormented… and the whole thing has an almost industrial, dehumanised edge to it, which only adds to the feeling of feverish desperation and utter desolation underpinning every single track. It’s just a horrifically compelling, ugly, and brutish affair. An absolute masterclass in pain.
Primordial – Where Greater Men Have Fallen
Of course when it comes to emotional catharsis, few bands have the same grasp of righteous fury and majesty as Primordial, and Where Greater Men have Fallen stands proudly amongst the band’s finest works. Heavier and more intense than I think any of us had expected, it moves from anthemic to contemplative to ferocious with sublime ease, with every member clearly performing at the top of their game. Not just that, but there’s a real sense of atmosphere and emotional weight to every song, whether they’re an instant classic (such as the title track, or “Babel’s Tower”), or a more slow-burning affair (such as the closing pair of “Born to Night” and “Wield Lightning to Split The Sun” – which grow upon you with patient power and profound confidence).
Beyond Creation – Earthborn Evolution
Technical Death Metal as played and composed by absolute masters of their craft, written and performed with a sense of boundless creativity and considered maturity, Earthborn Evolution manages the seemingly impossible task of outshining the Canadian quartet’s phenomenal debut, with a cavalcade of spiraling riffs, strafing drum beats, and some of the sexiest, slinkiest bass-lines around, all coming together into a monumental tour de force of extreme instrumentation, tasteful melody, and truly progressive composition. Of course, it helps that it’s both heavy as a very heavy thing to boot, and that the band have taken great care to write actual songs, rather than just show off their (undeniably enviable) talents.
Soreption – Engineering the Void
Something of a left-field choice in many ways, but one I think I’m fully justified in making, Soreption truly separated themselves from the pack with this album. Some other bands may be slightly faster, or slightly more technical (though not many, I’ll bet!), but few other bands do it with this level of mind-bending skill and punishing pneumatic precision. With their forward-thinking, cripplingly heavy, and instantly recognizable sound, Soreption stand head and shoulders above almost every one of their peers, dominating all comers with a scintillating mix of blinding skill, flesh-rending hooks, and sheer Death Metal extremity, all bound together in a hypnotic array of savagely unpredictable, utterly irresistible, furious fractal forms.
Downfall of Gaia – Aeon Unveils the Throne of Decay
A late addition to the list, but a welcome one, this takes the monolithic, glacial weight of post-Metal at its absolute heaviest and stretches its boundaries towards the breaking point, summoning moments of sludgy dissonance, gleaming melody, and bile-spitting blackened intensity, to craft an inexorable, slow-motion apocalypse of an album which shifts seamlessly between styles. Humongous, heaving riffs and flickering, entropic melodies swamp the listener beneath layers of crippling sound, where fluid currents of flowing harmony soothe the acid burns left by every raw, guttural eruption of scalding vocal venom. The maturity, the structuring, the pacing (varying from a crippling crawl to a blitzkrieg assault on the senses), and the truly remarkable drum work, all combine to make this a fascinatingly multi-faceted and endlessly rewarding musical experience.
The Great Old Ones – Tekeli-Li
One of my earliest selections, and one whose place on the list was never in doubt, Tekeli-Li is a true conceptual masterpiece, make no mistake, which builds and grows and swells with unholy life and necrotic vitality, bleeding and breeding horror from its very first note to its final, chilling crescendo. These French disciples of that which does not die have crafted something truly unforgettable here, something deeply disturbing and hauntingly evocative. The album’s crashing riffs, caustic vocals and maddeningly furious drums all meld together into something overwhelmingly bleak and predatory, ghostly, inchoate atmospherics dripping with fear and malevolence, every song a canvas of human flesh painted with ominous shades of tortured agony and terrible beauty.
Nero di Marte – Derivae
Ambitious, artistic, atmospheric, aggressive, abso-fucking-lutely phenomenal. These are a few words I’d use to describe Nero di Marte’s second album (though not all of them in polite company). The band’s sound bridges the gap between a number of disparate styles, whilst simultaneously stamping out their own utterly distinctive identity, taking the sheer power of Death Metal as its starting point but quickly diverging off the beaten path, exploring new forms of heaviness through texture and structure and atmosphere, blending layers of shimmering melody and seething dissonance, claustrophobic ambience and catastrophic disharmony, overpowering intensity and understated elegance, into an album of truly fantastic depth and nuance.
Noneuclid – Metatheosis
A brilliantly ambitious, purposefully challenging album, simultaneously packed with razor-sharp, thrashy hooks and bursting with ideas. Touches of Death Metal, hints of Doom, a dash of Black Metal, and a heavy dose of calculating, progressive intellect make Metatheosis one of the most striking albums I’ve listened to all year. It’s a series of knowingly, willfully complex and dazzlingly intricate compositions, each performed with mesmerizing flair and skill, that draws on influences from across the extreme metal landscape and welds them to a core of virulently infectious, progressive thrash-dynamism, resulting in a mutated, hybrid sound which twists and turns like some sort of biomechanical leviathan, every-pulse pounding hook and rapid-fire riff salvo perfectly primed and constructed for maximum lethality. It’s the sort of album that rewards the effort put into it by the listener tenfold, and seems to always be looking ten steps ahead of your expectations.
Cormorant – Earth Diver
The indefinable, indefatigable, inimitable Cormorant won their way onto this list with consummate ease this year, with Earth Diver being their finest hour thus far. An album clearly written without a care for the demands of anyone else, and with a conscious disregard for “how things are done”, it showcases their Black Metal roots more strongly than any of their previous releases, and yet, rather than be limited by this, uses it as a springboard to explore some truly glorious and majestic vistas of epic melody and mesmerizing vision. Yet it’s also amongst their most aggressive and fiery works, matching the band’s shameless progressive inclinations to a thrillingly visceral, thoroughly blackened core. Couple this to some of their strongest, most brilliantly memorable song-writing and you’re left with an album that hints at a future of seemingly limitless potential.
Behemoth – The Satanist
Potentially the most controversial selection on the list (although it really shouldn’t be), I truly think that The Satanist represents the year in metal at its most fearless and all-conquering. Yes, the band have been very successful as a result of this album, but for me it’s a success that comes in spite of itself. These guys really do mean what they do. Every riff, every lead, every storming blast beat… sounds vital and truly alive. It’s a damnably heavy album too – successful or otherwise – containing some truly phenomenal drum-work, utterly scything riffage, and beautifully slithering bass-lines, all topped off with a magnificent and multi-faceted vocal performance which seethes with real passion and vigour. For me it’s also one of the band’s true creative high points, with every song offering something distinctive, yet all contributing to a greater, grander, whole.
So there we have it. Ten albums which I think can truly be said to represent the absolute best that the year has to offer. I hope that, even if you disagree (which I’m sure many of you will), you still understand and appreciate my reasons for each selection.
I’ve never fully understood comments like this… I mean, I absolutely LOVE that Sinmara album… but this is a list of ten albums… I chose ten albums to represent the year. Sinmara, ultimately, wasn’t one of those ten.
So… “and Sinmara is great too, but I didn’t think it was a top 10 album”.
Great selection there – and a few that I still need to check out.
I can’t say I agree with Noneuclid though. I was fairly disappointed with that one and couldn’t get into it at all. Maybe that’s just me though.
Damn, that’s unfortunate. Only because I do always wish for other people to get what I get out of music. But, at the same time, tastes vary wildly and often quite drastically, and some albums people connect with and some they don’t.
I hope I at least made a compelling case for the album from my point of view anyway!
Nice to see Noneuclid – Metatheosis in there, with “Cult of One” as the choice cut
Oh wow, what a list of completely super-pretentious garbage. “absolute masterclass in pain” and “punishing pneumatic precision” oh sweet Lord, what IS all this??? Hilarious. I honestly tried, but 5 seconds per band was enough. I am lucky, I was born in 1970 and got to experience good stuff. I feel sorry for kids today. Bands should also stop bitching about illegal downloading, who in their right mind would pay for generic, mass-produced shit like that whole list? Metal is dead.
I was born in 1970 too, jackass, and I guarantee you that even though I haven’t heard of some of these bands nor have I listened to others on this list I have a much better appreciation for the quality of metal than what we listened to in the ’80’s or the 70’s for that matter. 5 seconds per song isn’t trying it’s trolling. Move along lest you and i joust with our walkers.
I love how he’s decided that these bands, most of whom are all exceedingly different from each other, all have a “generic, mass-produced” sound.
That’s just pure gold.
Also, I feel a new site-header might come out of this.
Are you going to go with “generic, mass-produced” or “completely super-pretentious garbage”? 🙂
And the winner is: “Completely Super-Pretentious Garbage”.
you’re pretty fucking dumb, old man.
Now, now. Let’s not descend to his level.
Oh shut up and stop acting like some old man yelling from his front porch. I dont generally agree with Andy’s taste in metal, but its his opinion and he’s welcome to it. There are still plenty of bands out there that play in that late 70’s early 80’s style and the fact that you cant find them dosnt mean “metal is dead”..it just shows how out of touch you are with the genre
Where are these negative characters popping up from?
Is NCS getting… >gulp< trolled?
They pop up now and again. I’m always surprised by it though, as their complaints seem to come from a complete misunderstanding of WHAT this site is all about.
After all, we clearly DON’T cover the type of metal this guy likes, and we are always rather… effusive… in our writing. Always have been, always will be.
So I just wonder at the mentality of someone who “likes” a page, or visits a site, with absolutely no concept of what it’s all actually about… then bitches about it!
Although I suppose we ARE the shame of the metal gods.
Not any more. We are now Completely Super-Pretentious Garbage, thanks to you.
Ooh! I like that one. 😛
I was born in the fucking 60s and I love all this stuff. Maybe it’s just you…?
I was born in the sixties as well. The EIGHTEEN sixties that is. And right now we are living in what I believe to be the golden age of metal.
I’m pretty sure this guy is genuinely trolling since this comment seems to be way over the top to be meant serious by anyone.
Anyhow, I’m still not digging Agalloch too much for for the rest this is a really nice list Andy 🙂 With one or two I actually haven’t heard yet. I’m curious about your more personal top 10 tomorrow!
I think its just a surprise, because as Andy said above, we generally dont get too many people like this showing up. its not Metalsucks after all (Thank the Allfather)
That is the ultimate end-goal though, right?
I’ll nuke this site from orbit before I let it happen
Oh god yes, it’s an OBVIOUS troll… I just love picking apart all the outlandish and generally ignorant claims it makes.
For one thing, I think only “The Satanist” has done really well commercially (and, again, that’s in spite of the fact that it’s actually a very well-rounded, and purposefully blasphemous, album… far from something written “for the kids”), and there’s a few here (particularly Lord Mantis and The Great Old Ones) that I can’t see as reaching the Black Veil Brides crowd, shall we say…?
Also, the assertion that they’re all “generic” and “mass-produced” displays a wilful ignorance about all the bands here – they’re all very different, covering a large cross-section of different styles and sounds, and not one of them sounds like anyone else but themselves.
Also, both Primordial and Noneuclid have a heck of a lot of old-school influence in them, they just aren’t beholden to it.
And the assertion that this music is all “for the kids”… that made me laugh. Clearly this guy has no conception of how this site works, what it does, and the audience we cater to!
I am actually currently listening to The Satanist. I basically just realized today what an amazing album it is, and I feel silly for not including it in my reader’s list. I listened to it once when it came out, and for whatever reason it just didn’t click with me. I decided to give it another spin today, and it blew me away.
I’m glad you came to apprecite it, as I really do think it’s a fantastic album.
It’s always good when things slowly sneak up on you as well. I have two friends who are absolute polar opposites when it comes to that – one of them is always keen to tell me when an album has been a slow-burner and how it’s grown into something that will last a long time, the other will completely dismiss an album on first listen and never give it another chance!
So awesome to see Tekeli-li up here. I found myself initially drawn to it simply because its Lovecraftian approach was evident from the onset. Although on divesting the time into it, I at first felt a bit let down. Having decided that Unaussprechlichen Kulten deserves the mantle for being the most twisted offering to those elder gods, I brushed off TGOO as not Lovecraftian enough. A few months later, after reading At The Mountains of Madness, it began to dawn on me that while UK might have the Thing on the Doorstep sound down, At The Mountains of Madness deserves a different sound… And The Great Old Ones did in fact nail that sound, 100,000%.
In fact, its one of the iciest black metal records of the year. So cold and frostbitten. And since then, it has risen in my minds ranks to be one of the best offerings in the genre this year. And even more importantly, to me, and probably any other metal/lovecraft fans, to be one of the very best sonic odes to that literary masters fine works.
The rest of this list is nice and tasty too. Cant wait to see how it stacks against tomorrows list.
I purposefully avoided the term “Lovecraftian” (it was in my first draft) this time around, just to try and get people to give it a chance without being drawn in purely by the Lovecraft connection.
But damn, it really does capture the feel perfectly, you can’t deny that!
Great to see TGOO on the list, I just got into that album and it CRUSHES. Also obligatory hats-off to my fellow Cormorant fan.
Uh, wtf? No Gorguts? This pencil-dicked, Peter Pan, plebeian motherfucker really has no clue, does he? Go back to Pitchfork, kid.
My list tomorrow is ALL Gorguts.
It fucking better.
That still won’t change your pencil-dick, Peter Pan.
At least mine still has lead in it, old man.
As a whole, I didn’t really like the new Agalloch for whatever reason. But Plateau of Ages is one of the best songs they’ve ever done. It’s fucking fantastic.
I’ll second this..I generally found that album to be a bit rehashed and uninspired
Boo! Hiss! etc
I’ll third the praise for Plateau of Ages (assuming it got a second). It has become one of my all-time Agalloch favorites.
A good list of stuff, both things I love and things I’ve never heard. Especially glad to see Soreption and TGOO since I think they deserve more recognition and fans. They both represent different parts of the spectrum but they what they got in common is tight songwriting and performance.
Great list. And for good reasons. I’m a little surprised that Nasheim hasn’t made it on any of the various ncs listings (at least on none that I’m aware of). Solens vemod was released last february; I suppose that makes it a long forgotten relic at this point.
Oh man, thanks for reminding me to try that one again. Its long and I kept getting distracted at work.
Havent remembered to go back to it.
Not to give away too much, but wait for my list to pop up
One of our earliest lists in the LISTMANIA series, though not written by any of our staff, includes Nasheim as well as many other remarkable albums I’d never listened to. It’s the list from Austin Lunn (Panopticon):
Unfortunately it’s another entry on my “Meant to listen to… didn’t listen to” List (which seems to be growing endlessly these days).
But I’ve heard nothing but good things, and it sounds like something I’d absolutely love.
Beyond Creation didn’t initially grip me (the new record, that is – love The Aura), but that sample song was pretty solid. Gonna have to give that record another chance.
Anyone know if the artist who did The Satanist cover is the same that did the new Nightbringer cover?
Different guy, Behemoth cover art was done by Denis Forkas..Nightbringer cover art was done by David Herrerias
And both artists are tremendous.
Soreption is so killer : )
Thy Darkened Shade is my favorite album this year so glad they got a mention in here somewhere. The Lord Mantis, Downfall of Gaia and Primordial albums are all great as well. I completely agree with you in putting all these albums on your critical list as well it makes a lot of sense.
Haven’t really heard the Soreption or Noneuclid albums though……
I really, really like Thy Darkened Shade too. It makes a few mis-steps, and is maybe a few songs too long, but that’s just because it’s SO ambitious. It really goes all out.
Definitely worth trying both Soreption and Noneuclid though. I’ve heard few albums so angular and heavy as that Soreption one, it really is punishing and full of “wtf? how did they even do that?” moments.
And the Noneuclid one is… difficult. Purposefully so. Yet also weirdly catchy. It’s very much in the Atheist/Coroner/Believer mold of strange and yet compelling. I’m still trying to parse out all the different elements and influences and work out how they made them all fit together.
Thanks for replying with this I’ll definitely give them both a listen!
Interesting list. Personally, I’d probably move Thy Darkened Shade to the actual top 10 as I’m loving the hell out of the album (in fact, along with Thantifaxath’s Sacred White Noise, it made me pay attention to black metal after a 5+ years hiatus; speaking of which, I’d cram Thantifaxath in there too).
It’s also nice to see Noneuclid making the list, though I’m still kinda ambiguous about the album (finding it somewhat hard to really immerse myself into it), and Soreption as well. There’s a few albums I didn’t listen to yet so I guess that’s homework for some time in the near future.
Anyway, this list actually makes me think of just how conventional my tastes might appear when talking about this year’s metal releases. I dug the hell out of half a dozen death metal releases that in no way break the mold (e.g. Beneath, Near Death Condition, Calm Hatchery, Pallor Mortis, Vader and Vanhelgd both in particular), along with some traditional/power and prog choices that don’t do that either. In fact, I’d probably pick Tibi et Igni as 2014 top album, but that’d be quite a personal choice.
Nothing wrong with that at all. I loved Tibi et Igni myself, even if it didn’t make either of my final two lists. And nothing wrong with appearing “conventional” either (heck, it’s only even slightly, vaguely, conventional in certain contexts… it’s not like you’re listening to Five Finger Death Punch or something similar).
I do think there’s a bit of unspoken pressure on a lot of lists to try and include the most obscure/cool albums you can, in some respects. a) so as to stand out from the plethora of other lists appearing at this time of year, and b) to try and live up to some idealised image of being “underground” (stemming from that whole “if it’s popular, I can’t like it anymore” thing that’s still pervasive). And I don’t say that as a criticism of anyone else, as it’s something I feel/perceive myself too.
Hence why I like doing my “Critical” and “Personal” lists, as they reflect different approaches. I am consciously trying NOT to just rehash the usual suspects with this list, and instead providing a wider overview of the sheer quality of the scene this year (though I have no interest in proving myself to be more “kvlt”, “tr00” or “hip” than anyone else with these lists… why would you even bother?) and picking out some albums that I honestly think might be BETTER, but not necessarily BIGGER, than others you might expect. Plus, I just think it’s a pretty good and honest assessment of how good the year in metal is/was/can be.
As a fan of Thy Darkened Shade, you might be interested in the year-end list I posted today by the man behind that band:
Yeah, but I don’t think he likes my list/s.