(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.